What I Learned from Cult TV: Friendship is Magic

Me and Executive Princess

Cult TV show My Little Pony

This is about my My Little Pony epiphany. I have sighed my way through a lot of bad entertainment consumption with the Executive Princess, much of it day-glo and glittery. I think the bottom of the barrel might be Barbie’s Life in the Dream House but it could also apply to the endless package openings on YouTube where that woman with the grating voice goes into orgasmic raptures in that sing-song way over every product that she’s paid to drool over.

If you do not know her, be grateful.

So I expected no less of MLP, which originally kicked off in the 80s with a film promoting a toy line (the horror of that 80s animation! If you have seen that travesty, you know of what I speak: believe me, anything that Madeline Kahn cannot rescue is irredeemable). Sure, I had heard of Bronies and other cutesy appropriations as every pony knows, but considering the unearned fanaticism that makes some folks fawn over that saccharine Speilbergian horror, Goonies, I didn’t pay much attention. I figured it was another ‘I love it because I grew up with it’ phenomenon (I grew up with war pictures and Westerns: I do not generally love either). I really didn’t think MLP would be any different from, say, those interminable Strawberry Shortcake episodes (scarring, I assure you).

I certainly never expected to fight off tears watching MLP’s Rainbow Rocks.

Somehow a bunch of things collided in my head last summer while I first got immersed in Ponyville. I was also reading some Megan Abbott (Fever and then later The End of Everything) and also noticing stories like the Slenderman stabbing. They stirred up a lot of the best and worst of girlhood. There’s a darkness in it that no one much likes to admit; it can be a very claustrophobic world.

Girls lives are circumscribed by society. Much as we like to think we are free and liberal (all current evidence to the contrary), the truth remains that girls lives are tightly bound. At the far end of the spectrum, they’re literally locked away until handed over to a husband or some other patriarchal organisation; at the more lenient end, they’re hemmed in by social constructions that breed fear into their very skin. They’re both disparaged and protected. They don’t have a choice. So what happens?

Girls expand to fill the spaces allowed them.

It may be very little, it may be a little bit more. But it’s almost always less: less than they want, less than they need, leaving a permanent curvature to their psyches like bound feet. In countless ways they are encouraged to be girly: ‘you look so pretty!’ ‘isn’t she adorable?’ ‘just like a little lady.’

Yet ‘girly’ is usually a slur. I know, I’m still dealing with that one, being a former tomboy now step-monster to a quintessentially girly girl. Do you know how much glitter there is in this house? Everything seems to sparkle. It makes me feel like Lou Grant sometimes, because this girl: she’s got spunk and there is not enough pink in the world for her. She has lots of princess dresses and I don’t know how many Elsa dolls. She’s better at applying makeup and not even six. It’s not my thing: and she sighs at my mostly black clothes. She paints my nails. There’s a part of me that finds rebellion in that. Because girly gets sneers. What’s more derided in pop culture than girls and their selfies? Could it be because selfies allow girls to choose how they’re represented?

Me and Executive Princess

Because girls are never right: if they’re girly, they’re denying themselves—if they’re not girly, they’re denying everyone else (‘Can’t you wear a dress at least once in a while?’). I hear parents who claim they raise their boys and girls the same; I also hear them say things to the girls they would never say to the boys. That’s because I remember too well not being allowed to do things my brothers were allowed. Seldom said ‘because you’re a girl’ but I knew that was why.

Everything girly is tainted: pop stars, for example. Is there anyone more despised than the floppy-haired pop stars girls scream for? Cultural disdain for them is one of the few things seemingly everyone can get away with. Girls like those safe, sexless, moronic pop stars, you say. No, girls are allowed them. They channel all the passion that frightens their parents into cute and inoffensive stars. Look at all the audiences at Beatle concerts: the tears, the ecstatic expressions, the clenched fists and contorted bodies. Where else do girls get to show that? Read Abbott’s books: she’s great at revealing how girls’ desires terrify their parents — and often themselves.

One of the keys to surviving girlhood is friendship, but that’s problematic, too. Friendship when it’s manly is the stuff of Oscars and literary prizes: important. For girls it’s rivals and mean girls and frenemies, at least that’s what popular culture tells us. For girls friendship is both safety and danger. When Lauren Faust worked on MLP to demonstrate Friendship is Magic she delved into one of the most rich veins of human existence: the compressed world of girls’ power.

I’ll admit it: the MLP world is girly as girly can be: Twilight Sparkle, the solitary and bookish young royal, gets sent to Ponyville to understand the power of friendship. She hooks up with Flutter Shy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Apple Jack and Rarity to discover this strange thing just in time to deal with a real crisis—the return of Nightmare Moon! Okay, if you’re still with me, this is a lot more charming than the cutesy names indicate (which were chosen by marketers after all). The dialogue of the show is often clever and there’s loads of winking references and homages (especially in the music and the music is often really good).

The essence of MLP’s world is the elements of harmony: everyone is valued for their unique abilities. The 1984/Harrison Bergeron-esque episode ‘The Cutie Map’ makes this point well. The ponies go to the mysterious village and discover its chilling appropriation of the equality sign in an attempt to make everyone in the village the same. Blah blah blah libertarian blah: the more interesting aspect comes out when our heroines start bickering over how to deal with the situation. One of the villagers asks them with alarm if their friendship is ending. The ponies are surprised because they bicker all the time: they’re all so different after all. For the villagers, however, difference = danger.

The episode hits at the fear wrapped up in girls’ friendships: that tension between wanting to be safe and trusted versus the knowledge that they have power over someone and want to test it. Girls have power over so little. The nice thing about MLP is that they demonstrate all the ways that friendships can be stressed by these differences—the anger and the frustration—but they also show the rewards of bringing those differences together to celebrate their community. Not just each other: their community, their town Ponyville and all of Equestria. But it’s never easy.

You see, the thing I hadn’t anticipated was how dark MLP gets. One of the monsters they fight is a creature called Discord. His chief evil is turning all the friends against each other. Of course they need to come together to fight him and he’s vanquished by being turned into stone, yet the discord between the friends causes them a great deal of pain. Like Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings or Lord Tirek, antagonists are often removed or neutralized, but sometimes they’re brought back and rehabilitated. One of the foundational myths of Equestria is that Princess Luna is the restored Nightmare Moon. Even Discord’s magic is believed to have its uses. No one is doomed to being evil.

Rainbow Rocks

In the Equestria Girls narratives (where the ponies become girls in an alternate world no there’s no time to explain, just roll with it) this idea of reclaiming those who would abuse power is key. In the first EG film Sunset Shimmer tries to steal Equestrian magic for her own self-aggrandizement. The girls stop her selfish use of power with their collective cooperation, which Twilight Sparkle spends most of the story building because in this world, the friendships had soured. Despite the anger and hurt from misunderstandings,  that cooperation is something they all yearn for—and its power. Power for yourself alone is bad. There’s nothing wrong with competition (ask Rainbow Dash!) but when you think the world revolves around you, the girls will stop you.

Even more interesting is the follow-up Equestria Girls adventure, my fave Rainbow Rocks. You know I’m a sucker for a battle of the bands. The songs are seriously good pop songs. Part of the appeal of the story is that Sunset Shimmer spends most of the story being cold-shouldered for her past mistakes, even when she tries to help make things better. Twilight Sparkle insists on her being part of the gang, but the others find it difficult to get over her previous bad behaviour. Her outsider status allows her to see the clashes that begin to crack up their tight relationships, though of course no one wants to listen to her.

As their rivals, the magically powered Dazzlings, gain power—all for the glory of Adagio Dazzle (‘We Will Be Adored’)—the girls bicker bitterly with each other, trapped below the stage for the finale. Escaping by luck, they almost succeed in the supernatural fight, but the Dazzlings are too powerful what with their magic amulets. It’s only when the Equestria Girls realise they need to truly welcome Sunset Shimmer—not just tolerate her presence—that they have the power to stand up to the magical assault from the Dazzlings (also thanks to DJ Pon-3’s cool mobile DJ station–the unsung heroine!).

It may not sound like much, but it chokes me up every time. There’s just something about the exile being welcomed at last, the outsider invited in. Maybe all the scorned hope for understanding. We may only get it in fiction, yet it’s incredibly powerful.

I’m lucky: I have a secret cabal of powerful, creative, magical women in my corner (though literally around the world). It didn’t happen over night and there are always some bumps along the road. I know how important it is to tend that garden (she says mixing metaphors like assorted nuts). It’s essential to have that kind of support. We need to be there to call bullshit on those negative messages women all hear just because we’re female. There’s an incredible power in testifying, ‘No, it’s not just you’—that many of us have been in the same situation–especially when all the other voices of experience avalanche like candy from a piñata.

I’m hoping the that uphill battle is changing. While it’s a bit hard to believe as we inhale the last poisonous gasp of truly toxic misogyny, I’m hanging on for tomorrow. Largely because there’s this Executive Princess here. I want to see what she’s becoming. I’ve got a feeling it will be something amazing. When the generation of girls who bellow along with ‘Let It Go!’ come to power, we all better hang on to our hats.

I don’t care / what they’re going to say / let the storm rage on / the cold never bothered me anyway. [door slam]

Elsa slams door

Waxing Lyrical : Life after Law by Emma Heath

Life after Law: screenwriting festivals, writing competitions, and kaleidoscope tunnels

You know those Where I Write columns in writing magazines, in which authors are photographed in pastel-coloured sheds, or high-ceilinged rooms adorned with rows and rows of (inevitably highbrow) books? That was SO NOT ME back when I discovered Fox Spirit in 2012.

At the time, I was a bushy-tailed trainee at a corporate law firm, and I used to scribble away at my short story submissions on the train, hemmed in by zombified commuters. While the human equivalent of Droopy snored in my ear, I’d whisk myself off to the enchanted realms of space pirates, magicked kings, and shapeshifting baddies.

The problem was that Fox Spirit fantasy quickly became so much more enchanting than Corporate Law reality, and I’d find myself sneaking off to the firm’s canteen, or to a toilet cubicle, to continue writing. Then the partners would get grumpy (those millions don’t make themselves, after all) and I’d get told off.

For a while, I coped with a snatched twenty minutes here and stolen ten minutes there, but it soon became obvious – 30,000 words into a novel, and moving at 150 words a day – that I was grinding to a literary halt under the pressures of law. I was no longer bright eyed and bushy tailed; I was a cynical, grizzled old fox.

In 2014, I met up with an old university friend who’d started screenwriting. I was a prolific playwright at primary school, but for some irrational reason had always been daunted by it as an adult. But over drinks one night, Kath convinced me to give it a shot, and I quickly found that (a) with fewer words, I could more easily squeeze a screenplay into my spare moments, and (b) I FRICKING LOVED IT!

I got shortlisted for a couple of screenwriting competitions, and in 2015 I decided to figuratively dive in, and booked a ticket to the London Screenwriters’ Festival, a three-day festival full of talks, script surgeries, actors’ table reads, and – most excitingly – Pitchfest (where delegates get to pitch to agents and producers).


In the meantime, I had HAD ENOUGH of corporate law. I handed in my notice in July, and waved goodbye on 4th September (taking a dip in the office fountain on my way out). Part of me was thinking “What the bleeding heck am I doing?” but the flood of relief I experienced as I walked away from that stark beige building told me it was the right thing to do.

I started managing a tuition centre – I wasn’t yet ready to go it alone – and then in October headed to Regent’s Park for the LSF. Well, wow, did that blow away some cobwebs and drag out my own personal Wonder Woman (the unofficial LSF mascot)! I learnt things – including writing wisdom from Chris McQuarrie (of The Usual Suspects fame); I had a script MOT; I made new friends; I pitched, and managed to interest two producers in my work. I came away with goosebumps, and definitely ready to push things up a gear.

LSF runs Create50, which is a series of initiatives designed to get writers and filmmakers’ work published and produced. They run script projects (resulting in feature films) and short story projects (resulting in anthologies), and I entered both. The awesome thing about Create50 is that rather than just sending your work off and waiting for a “yay” or “nay”, you upload it to the website and then other writers get to feedback on your work, while you get the chance to submit two redrafts.

I got sucked into the Create50 matrix at the end of November, and was spat out in the New Year, having reviewed 130 other scripts, and made massive developments to my own. It was exhilarating, and educating, and I made a lot of new writer friends. I also got longlisted, which to be honest felt like simply an added bonus by the end.

I wanted to get MORE INVOLVED in this magical world of writing and writers. So I started doing volunteer work for Create50, helping draft some contracts (thank you, corporate law!) and then helping develop and launch the latest initiative, Singularity50, a short story project exploring the years leading up to, and the moment of, the Singularity.

POster vers 1 copy

And… last month I was taken on as a paid employee at London Screenwriters’ Festival! Now I get goosebumps most days, just going to work. I feel like I’m living in those enchanted realms I dreamt of on the train.

Why have I told you all this? Well, for one thing, to highlight how awesome Fox Spirit is at touching, and bringing to 252the surface, a part of you which has been neglected and buried by the System – or whatever you want to call that Very-Serious-and-Important-Adult-Society that shakes its head at pretend lightsaber fights and dancing in a wooded glade.

And also – and I’m focusing in particular on any of you scribbling away in a corner of a commuter train – to whisper into your ear and tell you to find the rabbit hole and bloody well throw yourself down it! There are kaleidoscope lights at the end of the tunnel, and it’s WONDERFUL.

Waxing Lyrical : Orange is the New Black by Ferdinand Page

(If you are interested in writing for Waxing Lyrical please contact adele@foxspirit.co.uk)


For every fiction writer, the book shares roughly the same gestation period of a newborn infant. On arrival, both share the same fate; however special, individual and unique, it gets a label stuck on it.

At the submission stage the infant book must be allocated an age range, readership and genre(s), rather like, to quote the magnificent Della in Raised By Wolves, “pushing an enraged otter into a jumpsuit.” When I drew up the first submission letter, I admit I’d pushed the idea of writing for the market around the plate, until my writer’s stomach rebelled, but the book was what it wanted to be by then, characters and plot repeatedly hijacked by a story which wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Unpacking the phrase I admit I’d pushed the idea of writing for the market in the interests of explanatory splainy, my first experience of writing commercially was on the fringes of a big concept. I got sucked in, like that time the Millenium Falcon got sucked into the pull of the Death Star, then spent a lot of time in start-up production companies in Soho or whatever space the leading commercial creative could cadge for meetings. Mostly it was in cafés where I found I was paying the bill. My bit of the project was to adjust the story to accommodate various amazeballs marketing opportunities. So Billy wasn’t dyslexic, he was a skateboarder; it was partly manga so the production company could play around with a very cool technique they were developing, but the sound therapy and dynamic yoga had to get in there somewhere. We were up to seven interlocking universes by the time I said I was losing my way a little amongst the high-concept stuff and I’d like to write my own book.

I still had Billy and he was dyslexic but everything else was completely different. Until the obvious market demands were removed, I didn’t realize the biggest force on writing in any genre, even bigger than the Death Star, is the story, an unstoppable, sucky, manipulative force breaking and re-making the outline and carefully constructed arcs of the first few drafts.

At some point the story has to be shoved, kicking and snarling, into the constraints of commercial publishing and marketing. Readers are as wide and diverse as people, but books go on shelves. Which shelf? You have to get slotty, or shelvish which is the same thing but looks like Lionel Bloom and has pointed ears. First you are brave and upfront in describing the book as written for, well anyone really, then you use the word crossover, then you realise you’ve gone over to the dark side and in a couple of sentences you’re going to stab Han Solo your own father between the second and third ribs. Didn’t you hate that bit? I hated that bit.

It gets worse. Having removed a few genre crossovers because anything that difficult to shelve isn’t going to get past the first submission (good plan) you find that the label your story goes under, the shelf allocation for your genre, isn’t fashionable.

Orange is the new black in your genre.

There is only one label left, the one they tie on the body in the morgue? No. Genre is always a matter of labelling, and the market in publishing is subject to fashions. As labels go, my speculative fiction is mainly urban fantasy. Some months ago an agent told me they were “not taking urban fantasy”, which another source informed me was, well – dead. But whatever the label, and still under that label, urban fantasy exists.

You can choose another label, my submission letter now refers to ‘contemporary fiction’, or invent your own, or push it as retro-pastiche.

But don’t try and hack the unfashionable genre out of the story. The story knows what it is and fashions in genre apart, it is what it is. Stick whatever label on it you need to, what gets the book published is the story.

Trust the story.

Waxing Lyrical : The Business of Writing by Haralambi Markov

If you are interested in taking part in the Waxing Lyrical series please contact adele@foxspirit.co.uk


So You’ve Sold Your Writing…

(What Happens Next & Other Conundrums)

No two careers are alike in our field though one thing remains constant – you get paid for the work you do, unless you agree to do it for exposure (in which case, I hope you know that most living things die from exposure). What I’m saying is that once you start selling, you’re going to transform into a business and a player in the Great Game of Finance, something I didn’t at all grasp when I sold my first story back in 2012 at the age of 23.

I’d grown up in a financially inept family that’s always in debt and without additional income outside my parents’ main employment. Prior to my first sale, I’ve held positions in the tourist industry and several offices – all situations where the employer paid benefits and taxed my income as an expense. I never had a reason to know how to interpret the intricate rituals at the National Revenue Agency in Bulgaria, so I was in for a rude awakening when I finally had a reason to interact with the NRA.

How do I declare income? What is expected of me after I send in the right paperwork? What are the deadline for filing taxes for the previous year and how the hell do I make sense out of the form? Bulgaria as it turns out has a rather archaic, convoluted system, which feels as if it’s made to confuse regular people and make sure accountants never go out of clients. Perhaps in your country the set-up is different. Either way you need to get a feel for the lay of the land as soon as you start submitting your work, because I’m pretty sure failure to declare income is a subject to fines.


As I transitioned from the nine-to-five office lifestyle to freelancing as a copywriter (not quite identical to fiction writing, but a useful parallel for writers who have enough projects going), I had to file even more paperwork to the point where I hired an accountant to file my invoices and interact with the NRA on my behalf. This has only resulted in additional expenses on my part as I’m in charge of paying benefits, accountant fees, income tax every trimester and once I file an overall annual income declaration, I may have additional fees to pay (don’t ask).

This is where budgeting comes in. Before, I relied on steady income and as long as I had cash in my wallet until paycheck, I thought I was doing fine. Now, I have to plan for my spending in advance, factor vital expenses and always secure a small financial cushion for unexpected ones. I wish I had been smart enough to budget at the start so I’d have something to save me during my first dry spell in my freelancing when no work came and rent was due.

Fiction writers experience this dip in income due to how irregular payments can be. I waited a year or so to receive a payment for a short story once. Novelists are used to receiving spaced out payments. I recommend these articles by Chuck Wendig and Kameron Hurley that go into greater detail on the subject of advances. You can never rely on a paycheck. Budgeting has helped me mimic the stability I once enjoyed at my office jobs. It’s a hard trick to pull off and I’m not as successful as I’d like to be, but those are the risks when you pursue a career in the arts.


International writers who target US markets will also come in contact with the W-8BEN form – a means to avoid double taxation, since short story payments are subject to a 30% flat tax in the US. Bulgaria mercifully has an Income Tax Treaty with the United States, so filling out the W-8BEN form saves me from this 30% rate and my income is only subject to Bulgarian tax rates.

Has your country signed such a treaty? Is the W-8BEN applicable in your case? How do you fill out this form (you’ll be thankful to know it comes with thorough instructions)? All great questions to answer before you get to sign your first contract, but even if you don’t, the good thing about our field is that people are helpful and patient. I wouldn’t learn as much without a published friends reading my first contracts to check, if they’re all right, and helping me make sense of forms.

Turning writing into a career with its financial obligations is a long-term process. However, those who learn early to look at their craft as a business, too, have a much easier time later on.




Waxing Lyrical : Not Working 9-5 by Theresa Derwin

Not 9-5 by Theresa Derwin

I’m not Dolly Parton (though I share some of her assets) yet I can still see the allure of working 9 ~ 5. But sometimes, it just isn’t possible.

I spent a good hour the other night chatting online to a fellow writer. As the chat progressed I discovered he has had a long term health condition since age nine, just as he discovered I’ve been ill for ten years and lost my job in 2011 because of the very utilitarian nature of the job. To cut a long story short, I suffer primarily from Fibromyalgia which manifests as exhaustion (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and muscular pain and spasms. The day job didn’t offer the right level of reasonable adjustments at that time to help me to stay in work. But things have changed since this. I adapted, made changes to my life style, discovered spoons (more on that later) and started submitting stories. Pretty soon I was getting acceptances and working in a way that felt write for me. And I’m not alone in this.
It’s not an unusual story. If I had a penny for every artist, writer or other creative with a health problem I’d be rich!

Which brings me to my next point. I had a form to fill in for official reasons recently. A form in which I would declare my weekly hours, rate of pay and employer.
Employer: Self/No one
Rate of pay: LMAO
Weekly hours: As many as I can manage between 4 – 8 per week, normally as vampires rise and other good little day folk go to bed.

So, why am I writing this?
Because ‘one size’ does not fit all.
What I’ve found in my time since becoming self employed is that there are a lot of folk like me. Creatives who work on the cusp of dawn, because they can only work when their strength allows them to. This is where spoon theory comes in, along with pacing and adaptations to my ‘workspace’ I.e. The sofa.
I’ll start with adaptions.
I learnt the hard way about three years ago, that with my condition I can’t sit at a standard desk and work 9 – 5.
I sleep odd hours, have restless nights and find it difficult using a laptop, because of the physical position and actually lifting it up. But there are ways and means.
I use an iPad. I’ve downloaded Word (basic version) and Evernote to my iPad to work on. I start a story or a blog/book review on Evernote. When the first draft is ready, I’ll email it to myself, copy it from my inbox using my finger and then insert to a brand new Word document saved to my ‘Cloud’. I have loads of fantastic friends in the community who support me, so I’ll generally forward that document to beta readers for proof Reading or editing.
When it come back, that’s when I worry about managing Tge edits, which I have to do on the laptop.
Occasionally a friend will tweak the edits for me. There are also other pieces of software such as Dragon Dictate that can help. Of course, I reckon I’d have problems teaching it to understand Brummie.
Then we get to the crux of the matter; spoons and pacing.
I’ve already mentioned my terrible sleeping patterns. This often means I’m awake between three and six am, which is when I write. At least, working for myself, I don’t have to ‘clock in’. But if I get excited an overdo it, I know about it the next day, I can tell you! So I pace myself using spoon theory.

Imagine you’re fit and well, work a day job and have six ‘spoons’ to last all day. One spoon is getting ready for work and travelling home. Three spoons are the 9 – 5 activities and it costs another spoon travelling home then cooking dinner for the family. You only have one spoon left to use that evening on household tasks, hobbies or family time.
Now, imagine you have a long term health condition or disability. Imagine further, that getting up and out of bed costs a spoon, because it takes more of your limited energy. Getting showered and dressed takes another spoon. That’s two spoons gone, four left, and you haven’t even started thinking about eating or travelling, let alone working. You get the idea, so far. What it means in real terms, is you most likely have to work weird hours and part time hours.
Next, you decide to go to a convention. It’s necessary for your creative work. Besides, you meet friends there, and it’s bloody good fun.
So, you have to get ready and travel. Three spoons are gone. Let’s say you’re staying over, so minimal spoons needed to get back to your hotel. That leaves you three spoons for the entire convention. That’s why you’ll often see me spending mornings attending panels listening but sitting, or taking actual part on a panel later in the day, when my energy levels have increased and I’ve ‘gathered’ more spoons.
And if you don’t see me at breakfast the next morning? It’s probably because I can’t get out of bed. The aftermath of a weekend con normally takes me four days to recover from. And I know I’m not the only one.


So, the odds are if there are writers or artists like me out there, they’ll never make a true living. But what they’ll get is so much more important;
Self esteem
Creative free will
A voice ‘out there’
The chance to try a job without the 9 – 5 mentality and prejudice
I’m proud of the £15.83 I’ve earned this year.
It’s mine.
My talents netted that value.
And you know what? If I keep fighting, if I keep plugging away. One day, it might be more.
Thought it’s not about the money.
It’s about pride,
Pride for a job well done.
So, if you see a blog or a post from an author or an artist, remember this; they are sharing their soul with you this day.
Remember to share yours back.

Waxing Lyrical : What if I told you… by Alec McQuay

Welcome to the waxing lyrical series in 2016. I did a small number of these posts last year and have decided to change things up this year. The series is now open to any creative (writers, artists, publishers, editors, musicians etc) who want to air their opinions on the creative industries, from any perspective. If you are interested in contributing please contact adele@foxspirit.co.uk for more information. The only real rule is no personal attacks, we don’t have to agree with you but we won’t support attacking a person or group of people. 

Without further ado, Alec McQuay with some thoughts on positivity and support in the new year.  It’s a bit sweary in places.


What if I told you… by Alec McQuay


Today, I’m going to have a little moan. Not about the gym, or at least not SPECIFICALLY about the gym, but on the subject of support.

It’s January at the time of writing this and the hills are alive with the sound of lives turning around, glass ceilings being smashed, goals being set and demons conquered and honestly, I think it’s brilliant. Even if a lot of the things people are promising themselves never come to fruition they’ve at least made that important first step of realising they’ve got a problem, or that there’s something in their lives that they want or something they wish to strive for. Say what you like about resolutions but pretty much everyone who achieves anything begins with that knowledge.

Now, that cheeky little meme up there. I find it funny, but it also irritates the living crap out of me, and not just because the lack of a question mark. Online and out in the wild I hear two things very often that tie into that poster for me. The first is that a person is unhappy with their health, fitness, weight or appearance and the other is that a person “has a book in them” or is struggling with their writing, getting published, getting a published book sold or whatever. That’s just my circle of friends and relations and your mileage will vary, but I’d bet good money against bad that we have something in our lives that people around us wish they could achieve. It might be signing up to the Open University, or learning to draw, learning a new language, getting a promotion, moving to a bigger house so they can finally have a baby, finally having two pennies to scratch their ass with…

There isn’t always anything you can do, but don’t hold other people back. It takes confidence to make a change in your life and that can be in short supply for some, for some people it’s never in anything but short supply, so when they finally do something the last thing they need is shit to make it harder. Especially from the people they call friends.

I’m not saying you have to take an interest in things that bore you senseless, but if you’ve got nothing constructive to add, would it kill you to just keep scrolling? If someone tells you they’ve finally managed to finish their manuscript, that’s not your moment to tell them you’ve always wanted to write a book but don’t have the time, or any one of the other bullshit excuses I’ve ever heard. Writing a book is hard for a lot of people and when they finally skid over the finish line, their radiator bursts, oil shoots into the air and all their wheels fall off, that’s their moment. It’s not yours. Back the fuck up a bit. You can have your turn later. Not now, Bernard.

Before you make some comment about “What if I told you you can go to the gym / dinner / on a date / get drunk / read a book / write a book / go to a movie / pass your degree / survive childbirth / teach your kid to ride a bike / complete Mortal Kombat without losing a single life (yeah right) / pass your driving test / learn Mandarin without telling Facebook about it,” try to remember that the people you put down today might well be the people you want support from in the future. Try to remember that what isn’t important to you might be the most important thing in another person’s life and that every now and then, all it takes is one last shitty, passive-aggressive, inconsiderate comment from someone to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down on them.

Chances are, there’s something you love that I would think was pretty stupid, but what do I know? I’m a 30 year old man who watches cartoons, plays with toy soldiers, thinks picking up heavy things is entertaining and emotionally fulfilling and writes stories in his spare (ha, “spare”) time. Try and be a bit supportive of people if you can, and if you can’t?

Jog the fuck on.



Waxing Lyrical : Reality is just the consensus anyway


I have talked about the importance of diversity in writing before, in detail, so I won’t go into that at length again today. I mention it only because it does relate to what I want to talk about today, which is how stories are given and received.

I often say you need to study English Literature while you are young. That’s because as you get older and maybe a little more jaded, you start to realise that writers are people. Worse, they are people with deadlines and insecurities and tea addictions and family problems and hospital appointments and crummy landlords and all the same crap we have. Actually it’s not a bad thing, in fact if writers weren’t real people they’d be way less interesting. There is something of a loss of mysticism though and that makes it harder to really believe that the placement of the cigarette in the mug instead of the ashtray meant something deep and symbolic about how the character felt about themselves and the state of their relationship and you know the economy or puppies or something,  (like your eng lit teacher would tell you) and you start to suspect the writer forgot they had put an ashtray within reach, but remembered the character hadn’t quite finished the coffee (because that happened loads when you were a student). My dear Mrs Chapman (my eng lit teacher) I am truly sorry, but it turns out that the vast majority of the time the curtains are simply blue.


This leads me on to the point that intersects neatly with why I love diversity. Everything we read goes through two key filters (putting aside agents, editors, proof readers, etc etc ). The first filter is that unique element of every story, the story teller. If you give a dozen people the same brief you get a dozen different stories (essentially this is how anthologies happen) because everyone has a different experience of life that they bring to their work. The more varied you want your reading experience to be, the more varied your writers should be. If your shelves are full of writer type a you are experiencing fiction through dozens/hundreds of very similar filters. Try something different. I promise it makes it much more interesting.

The second filter then is equally unique. The second filter is the reader. Which is interesting because it means not only do no two people write the same story the same way, but neither do any two people read the same story the same way. Not exactly. We all affect it through our experience the same way the writer affects it with theirs. However as a reader you will only truly experience your own reading, so you must look for your diversity in writers. I know, it’s a drum I keep banging, but that’s because it matters. And I’m right.

This throws up an interesting question. If the writer simply forgot about the ashtray, but the reader takes meaning from stubbing a cigarette out in the mug is the reader wrong? Can the curtains only ever be blue?

found on zazzle
found on zazzle

I’d suggest not. I think its ok to read more into it.  That if the reader finds it speaks to them in a different, deeper way then actually that’s great, they’ve got something they needed or wanted. I have never believed that stories need to have a deeper meaning. I have always held that stories are important for their own sake and the idea that a tale has to have a purpose, a message or moral is a disservice to the importance they play in our lives in the first place. I would never deny anyone the right to find more in a story though. I am quite sure I have.  It’s ok to take whatever you take from a story.

That the writer wasn’t cleverly concealing more meaning in an action or a choice in no way negates that the reader gets that from the story. I don’t generally ask ‘did you mean for your book to have this impact’ because it doesn’t matter. It had the impact whether it was intended or not.

So after all that do I have a point?

I think I do and I think it goes something like this.

The writer will write the story they want to write. That may not be the story the reader reads. That’s ok.

I’d also add, because it can never be said too much in my view, that stories matter because they are stories and really, they don’t need to be anything more.

Things I learned from Cult TV : Carol Borden

Project Runway

I used to watch American Chopper with my good friend alex. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s about a family owned and operated custom motorcycle shop. It became a huge media deal. You can’t stop in a New York State rest stop without finding a selection of Orange County Choppers shirts. Alex and I liked seeing the process involved in making bikes. We liked seeing people work together and solve problems. And when the show went batshit crazy with drama, we just stopped watching. I have rubbernecked as much as the next morally-compromised person, but it turns out that I am more interested in seeing the creative process than distressed or exhausted people acting out, let alone a family tear itself apart.

Early on in American Chopper, I noticed that bike designer Paulie Jr. kept building the same bike. He had no interest in building a bike that wasn’t one he liked. He complained about building an “uncool” Santa themed bike that would entertain kids in a local holiday parade. Though it’s possilble seeing how happy little kids could be made by the uncool caused his heart to grow two sizes that day because eve after building a few of his dream bikes, he started designing ones that took his clients’ desires and taste into account. And I was fascinated by Paulie Jr.’s evolution because some artists never get past building the same bike over and over. We can all plateau. After being driven away by the too painful interfamily drama of American Chopper, I picked up on Project Runway and I got some of the same satisfaction out of it that I did with American Chopper.  Every week, Project Runway reminds artists that you have to figure out how to do something your way and you have to know when to drop something that’s not working.


On Project Runway, designers compete to show a collection at New York Fashion Week as well as win  prizes that vary every year, but always include: a chunk of cash, make-up services from companies ranging from L’Oreal to Mary Kay and a sewing and embroidery studio. Model Heidi Klum gives the designers a challenge and then they have one or two days (most often one, lately) to create their design. The challenges include designing around a theme, making avante-garde clothes, creating their own fabric designs, or working with “unconventional materials.” The latter challenge is often the most fun, as designers work with materials they’ve gotten at the grocery store, a flower market, ripped from a car, or found at Coney Island, for example. The designs are judged by Heidi Klum, Marie Claire fashion director Nina García, and, in the early seasons, designer Michael Kors or, in more recent seasons, designer and cartoon tom cat Zac Posen. There’s also a weekly guest judge who might be another designer like Betsey Johnson, a costume designer like Bob Mackie, a tv star, a fashion blogger or an executive from whatever corporation sponsors the challenge. Each week, one designer wins and one designer is eliminated or “auf’d,” after Klum’s habit of saying “Auf Wiedersehen” to losing contestants.

Sure, there is ginned-up reality show drama, weird product placement (why keep that refrigerator in the shot?) and heavy-handed corporate sponsorship, but I watch for the process of creation, the struggle to make something within insane parameters and for Tim Gunn. Gunn is the designers’ mentor. As Parson’s New School of Design former chair of fashion, he is a man who understands himself as an educator first–which also leads to some charmingly awkward voice-overs and readings of scripted product placement.

I mention Parson’s, Marie Claire and corporate sponsors to give a sense of the variety of perspectives and some of the competing tensions in the show. Marketing and art. Experts and people who just like what they like. People who really know what they are talking about and, sometimes, people who really, really don’t. And these tensions encompass the tensions in fashion—and other commercial art pretty well. Sometimes it means gorgeous couture gowns and sometimes that means a tortured attempt to make a Samsung tv relevant in a sponsored challenge as Tim gunn awkwardly stands by a television reciting: “Your new challenge is intended to test your ability to push the boundaries of design, just as Samsung has done here with their new ultra-high-definition TV.”

But even during the most convoluted challenge, I still enjoy watching the designers decide what to create and how. Lessons I’ve learned the hard way are well-illustrated by the show and pithily summarized by Tim Gunn. “Make it work” is much more concise than what I generally think of as “working with what you have,” or “work with yourself or around yourself.” It might be a catchphrase now, but “make it work” summarizes a lot about creation.

In Project Runway‘s work room, I see designers struggle every week with knowing: when to abandon the ideal in favor of making something as good as it can be now; the difference between tenaciously trusting yourself and stubbornly refusing to see the fugly or sometimes far too revealing truth before you; knowing when to jettison something that’s not working, even when you love it; learning that constraints of time, materials, budget can be liberating. In any kind of creative project, it’s easy to get hung up on what something should be, blinding you to the difference between what you are trying to make and what you have made, and preventing you from following your creation to its best conclusion.


I hear the designers say things that I have thought or said about my own writing. It’s hard to recognize that what you want to accomplish and what you have accomplished are not necessarily the same. And clinging too strongly to either can ruin your work. I’m doing better with that, but I would like to be able to communicate more effectively to a variety of people when they ask for an opinion or an edit. Tim Gunn demonstrates an approach to art that, if not universal, is easily adapted, and there’s a lot to learn from how he talks to individuals to help them achieve their best work. Being able to say the right thing in a way that cuts through mental static, uncertainty, distress, even absolute certainty to help someone see what they have done and what it can be is tremendously difficult. I admire Tim Gunn’s ability to calibrate his responses and suggestions so that they are honest, clear and effective with each individual designer. He finds a way to communicate his concerns effectively to a variety of people about a variety of designs. And he’s so good at it that it’s more noticeable when he can’t find a way to help a designer because he almost always does.


On Project Runway, you can recognize the designers in trouble by the things they say. Almost anyone who says, “I’m going to stay true to my vision” is doomed. There are designers who have trapped themselves during a challenge because they can only imagine bad clothes that they don’t like. They usually say, “I don’t do red carpet gowns” or “I don’t do color.”  The designers who confuse design with good sewing skills remind of me of people who think good writing is mostly excellent spelling. And there are the extremely talented but defensive designers who have a hard time listening because they’ve always been the best in the room—or because they’ve been alone with their work for too long. Sometimes these same designers crumble after receiving criticism, losing faith in themselves. The more experienced designers either scrap the design and start over or try to make what they have work. And if they really do know their own vision, and their own strengths and weaknesses, they might decide to stay with their original design. And they might even win. The trick, as always, is knowing how to make it work.


Monday Methods : Kim Bannerman Continuum

Kim’s final Monday Methods post for us. 

Monday Methods – Continuum

At the beginning, there are only words. They don’t necessarily relate. Like a pile of excitable puppies, they fall all over each other, tumbling out and racing around with too much energy, not enough focus.


Adjectives aplenty! Adverbs gone wild! The craziest euphemisms you’ve ever seen!

Then, as the words progress, they start to fall into patterns. Fragments cohere and make sense. They start to move together, find their rhythm, and the words become sentences. There is no story yet, but there is motion. A pulse begins and the first signs of life flicker between the letters.

And then, at some point, the words and sentences begin to breath on their own. This moment of quickening isn’t a sudden revelation or a lightning strike, but more of a gentle recognition by the author that this are more than a mere clutch of words; ideas lurk below the surface. There is meaning. There is direction.

The sentences become rivers with strong currents, pulling the writer towards a conclusion. It may be a horrible ending, a boring ending, a sudden ending, an ‘it was all a dream’ ending, but it’s still an ending and that’s okay. With patience, stubbornness and perseverance, that first babble of random gibberish has travelled along a line to coalesce into a hero’s journey. The author might not be able to point to the exact moment that chaos became order, but it doesn’t matter. The first draft is complete.

Waxing Lyrical : The First Cut is the Deepest

We know it hurts, you’ve put love and time into this manuscript and now people are going to come along and start picking fault, before it even gets to the reading public! We feel your pain and we recommend a tub of ice cream, a weepy movie and that you suck it up cupcake, you need to put your book through this process before it goes into the cruel cruel world!

Ok let’s start by clearing this up. Beta readers, proof readers and editors are not the same things. Which is not to say the same people can’t be all of those at various points, but when you ask someone to review your manuscript you need to know what you are asking for and who you are asking.

'No, go ahead and critique my mss. I'm always ok ... after the initial reaction.'
‘No, go ahead and critique my mss. I’m always ok … after the initial reaction.’

Beta readers. These are often friends, hopefully ones not afraid to criticise you, or other writers doing a beta swap. The job of a beta reader is to come back with ‘so yeah were you going for a mash up of Noddy and Austen? Coz that’s what this feels like. Also Brad is a massive douche bag oooh and this bit makes no sense, did I miss it or is it a gaping plot hole?’ That’s all really. They are there for the every day reader, looking for things that throw them out of the story, or mess it up totally, the plot holes the inconsistent characters, the overall tone. They are not there to edit your writing, correct your grammar (if they have a good eye and pick up tense slips and typos bonus). They are there to feed back to you what your baby looks like to the rest of the world.


Editors are there to make you look better. A good editor will not only pick up on mistakes in spelling and grammar, plot holes and inconsistencies but they will guide you. You can expect notes telling you that your whole first chapter is exposition, you don’t need it, bin the lot. An editor will tell you that you’ve used the same phrase 638 times in 400 pages and that’s at least 600 times too many, you’ll get notes to move this paragraph and cut that one, rewrite a section entirely, drop Brad not only is he a douche but he serves no actual purpose, cut him out entirely. A good editor will tell you that the book will be even better if it’s 100 pages shorter and that if you are setting it in medieval England you can’t have people saying ‘whassup brominator’. A good editor won’t rewrite you, put things into their words or make any changes for you, but they will steer and discuss and help you make the book tighter and better before it goes into the world. Beta readers are the mirror held up to your baby, Editors will show you how to photoshop it before you submit it for the local cutest baby contest.


Proof readers on the other hand will just give your baby a thorough scrub and iron its best onesie. The job of a proofer is simple, but requires a sharp eye and patience. They find mistakes. Spelling mistakes, typos, they tell you when your two should be too or your their belongs there.  Proofers are the last line of defence against the fact that spellcheck doesn’t know you meant knackered not naked (seriously my brother wrote he was always nakerd and I was worried till someone pointed out the ‘r’)or that toad is a perfectly acceptable word, although toad works in the highway seem unlikely (I sent a lot of documents out with toad works in my time).

Be clear when you send your MS off. You can expect to pay a decent rate for a good line edit, likewise a decent proofer, it’s normal enough for beta reading to be trading favours or begged from friends. That does mean though that if they don’t work to your timetable or get back to you at all, or they take it upon themselves to rename your characters, I’m afraid that is what comes of trading favours sometimes. Shrug it off and use someone else next time.  If you are paying then you can expect the service you are paying for so be clear on what you want, find out the rates and see if this is someone you feel good about working with, if it’s up to you who edits your book (which it won’t be if you are with a publisher) then it’s a relationship, work out if this is someone you can work well with.

If you are issued with an editor, you may get lucky, you may not, but however frustrating you find them, be respectful, it’s a small industry. If it really isn’t workable talk to whoever is handling your book and see if they can switch you out to someone else, but be a grown up about it, you may hate the process but you need editing, you need proofing and it’s smart to get a beta if you can.

As an aside on beta readers. Don’t have too many, it’s tempting to get everyone you know who reads to go over the book but you’ll get so many opinions it can be overload. Ideally find two or three people who like the sort of fiction you are trying to write to read it and see if it hits the target audience.

So to summarise, you need beta readers when you finish your MS if you can get them. Then for heaven’s sake get it edited and proofed before you send it anywhere, to self pub or to query and agent. Give your baby its best chance. Give it a detached look over, clean it up, then wipe the snot off before you send it into the world. (Wow I’ve really squeezed everything I can from that analogy).

And check out #tentweetsabouteditors for some neat notes by @joannechocolat on the subject.