Two Basic Tips For When A Genre Won’t Work In Your Chosen Medium

Although this is an article about writing fiction, making art and making comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about videogames for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A while before I wrote this article, I ended up doing some random online research about survival horror videogames on handheld games consoles during the 1990s. Interestingly, this awesome genre turned out to be very difficult to transfer to older handheld consoles – with one of the best examples actually being a game that wasn’t officially released. Namely the unfinished late 1990s/early 2000s Game Boy Color version of “Resident Evil”.

Needless to say, all of this made me think about the annoying situation where your favourite genre only really works in another medium. Whether you’re a writer who loves heavy metal music, a comic-maker who loves FPS videogames etc.. it can be more than a little bit annoying.

So, I thought that I’d offer two basic tips about what to do if you find yourself in this incredibly annoying situation.

1) Look at what makes the genre “work”: If you can’t directly use an awesome genre in your chosen medium, then one way to get around this is simply to look at what underlying qualities, features and techniques make the genre in question “work”. Once you’ve made a list of these things, then it’s considerably easier to apply them to other mediums.

For example, the key features of classic heavy metal music include things like: fast pacing, melodramatic horror/fantasy imagery, an emphasis on courage, a lot of theatrical flair, gloomy high-contrast lighting (in concerts, music videos etc..), a slightly rebellious attitude, hedonism, cool-looking machinery (eg: motorbikes, scary robots etc..) etc…

As you can see, these are all qualities that could easily translate well into either prose fiction or art/comics without too much difficulty. So, even if you can’t include any actual heavy metal music in these things, you can still use all of the underlying features and techniques of the genre.

So, looking for underlying qualities/techniques is one of the best ways to use an awesome genre in another medium when you can’t do so directly.

2) Visual media: Simply put, it’s really easy to translate one visual medium to another. This is mostly because all visual media are, well, visual. So, learning how to study and analyse images (and having a bit of knowlege of artistic theory) means that there’s a lot easier to, say, make art that is inspired by things like films and videogames.

For example, many classic survival horror games and old 2D “point and click” adventure games will often use fixed ‘camera angles’ that are designed to look suspenseful. This will often be done by either placing dramatic-looking things in the close foreground and/or using camera angles that look like they are “lurking” somewhere or perching ominously above the player. As such, it’s easy to include elements of survival horror etc.. in artwork:

“Cyberpunk Ruins” By C. A. Brown

So, if you’re working in a visual medium, then learning how to study images (eg: how to look for things like perspective, colour schemes, lighting etc..) is an incredibly valuable thing if you want to translate some of your favourite genres into your medium of choice.

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Anway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Working Out What To Show The Audience – A Ramble

Well, the day before I wrote this article, I happened to see something fascinating that made me think about something which anyone who is telling a story, making a piece of art etc… has to grapple with. Namely the decision of what to show the audience.

Anyway, the thing that made me think about this topic were a few videos from a fascinating Youtube series called “Boundary Break” where, using various tools, someone manipulates the “camera” in videogames to show you what you normally wouldn’t see whilst playing the game. And it is fascinating.

This is mostly because, in order to save memory and processing power, videogames will often only display the absolute minimum needed to make everything look convincing. For example, if a game displays a fenced-off road or passageway, the only things behind it will be what the player can actually see through gaps in the fence. After all, the emphasis is on making sure that the game looks convincing, whilst also finding sneaky ways to show the minimum amount of detail possible.

And, well, the same thing is true in almost every other creative medium too.

For example, many studio-based film and television sets will only actually contain what appears on camera (eg: the classic example being a set in a sitcom where one wall is missing in order to allow the cameras to film what is happening). Films can also take this a step further by giving the illusion of a large set through background details whilst only actually showing a few smaller locations.

The classic example of this is the 1982 film “Blade Runner“. This is a sci-fi film set within a giant futuristic mega-city. Yet, if you look closely at the film itself, the only actual locations in it that are shown in any real level of detail are several interior locations and a few streets. But, thanks to things like distant background details (created via things like paintings, scale models etc..) etc.. the audience feels like they’re seeing a much larger setting than they actually are.

Likewise, many pieces of visual art (especially in things like comics) will often focus more heavily on adding detail to more prominent parts of the picture, with the background detail often being left slightly vague or impressionistic. There are several practical reasons for this, such as time reasons and the fact that (unless you’re making a very large piece of art) it can be difficult to cram lots of detail into small background areas.

The same is true for prose fiction too. After all, if you have to describe literally every detail of a story’s setting, character backstories etc… you will end up with a very long, very slow-paced and very boring story. As such, you have to be very selective about only describing the most important, evocative and/or interesting details in each scene of your story.

For example, if you’re writing a “film noir”-style scene set inside a detective’s office, you might describe a few key details like the light filtering through the blinds, a cigarette smouldering in an ashtray and a rusty old filing cabinet. This gives the audience a quick impression of the scene, whilst avoiding the slow-paced boredom that would come from describing literally every detail of the room.

So, yes, working out what not to show is actually quite an important part of making any creative work. And the best way to learn how to do this is simply to see the thing you’re creating from your audience’s perspective. In other words, you need to think about how your audience will see the things you create, what they will find interesting and, most importantly of all, what their attention will be drawn to.

Once you know what grabs your audience’s attention, then focus most of your time, effort, words etc… on that.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Writing: Creativity Via Limitations – A Ramble

Although I’d planned to write a different article for today, I saw something shortly before writing this article [Edit: Which was several months before I got a vaguely modern refurbished computer] which made me think about creativity and the limitations of the written word.

It was a trailer for an upcoming computer game (called “Cyberpunk 2077”), of all things. For a few seconds, I really wanted to play the game until I suddenly realised “The system requirements will be sky-high. It would melt my vintage computer if I even tried.” This then morphed into the forlorn thought “If this was a novel instead of a game, I could actually enjoy it“.

After all, in English at least, writers only have 26 letters that they can use. Pretty much everyone is trained to read from a young age. Books don’t really have system requirements. And, whilst this means that we can do things like read books from literally over a century ago, it also has a lot of limitations too. After all, there are only 26 letters to work with.

Yet, these limitations are one of the main things that makes prose fiction such a creative thing. After all, writers can’t rely on fancy new computer graphics or anything like that in order to impress their readers. They have 26 letters and a pre-made system of grammar to work with. As such, writers have to get creative in order to make something astonishing within these old limitations.

And this produces some truly spectacular results. For example, when I was watching the modern game trailer I mentioned earlier, one of my first thoughts was “Oooh! A cyberpunk city during the daytime. This reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash“. Now, for comparison, “Snow Crash” was published in 1992. On the other hand, the best computer game graphics from 1992 looked a bit like this:

This is a screenshot from “Alone In The Dark” (1992).

So, yes, novels have been using spectacular “graphics” for much longer than computer games have. Using just 26 letters.

This limitation has spurred writers to do things like find their own unique “style”, to think of interesting locations, to come up with brilliant characters, to tell new types of stories, to use things like grammar and chapter length to achieve particular effects (eg: short sentences and short chapters in a fast-paced thriller novel) etc….

In other words, it has forced writers to be creative. After all, every other writer will be using the same letters, words etc… so, what matters is how a writer uses them.

Interestingly, there is a little bit of a parallel with computer games here. After all, there’s a lot of nostalgia for games from the 1990s – and with good reason! Back then, computer technology was a lot more limited. So, like writers, game designers had to be creative within these limitations. Since they couldn’t rely on flashy photo-realistic graphics, they had to set their games apart from the crowd through the use of things like imagination, clever design, innovative ideas etc…

But, I digress. The point of all of this is that if you want to see a perfect example of how limitations can actually make people more creative, then pick up a book.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was interesting 🙂

Two Basic Things To Do When A Creative Project Fails

Well, I thought that I’d talk about failure today. This is mostly because I finished a failed creative project the day before I wrote the first draft of this article. It was my first attempt at writing a novella in quite some time and, although I completed it (it was about 15,600 words long) it wasn’t exactly the best thing I’ve ever written. I mean, there’s a good reason why I haven’t mentioned it in previous articles.

Yes, it started out well. Yes, I felt inspired at first. Basically, I tried to write something similar to the old second-hand 1970s/1980s horror novels (in particular, the sub-genre of monster-based novels inspired by James Herbert’s “The Rats”) that I used to read when I was younger and rediscovered when I got back into reading regularly a couple of months ago.

Since giant rats, evil scorpions, carnivorous beetles, giant evil crabs and monster slugs were already taken by actual ’70s/’80s horror authors and because I wanted to write a slight parody of the genre, I ended up choosing adorable badgers – albeit ones that have become immortal, and very hungry, thanks to a mutant version of the rabies virus.

Here’s a short extract from one of the more dramatic and well-written parts of the novella: ‘In an instant, Wilson saw everything. The cattle stalls were a disorderly mess of steaming offal and buzzing flies. In the eaves above, Jerry sat on a beam with a pitchfork in his arms and a look of abject terror on his face. A low chittering sound echoed through the air. Wilson spotted movement next to one of the beams. At first, Wilson thought it was a stray dog. But, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he noticed that it was a badger. Crimson foam frothed around the creature’s mouth as it stared up at Jerry and clawed at the beam.

However, large portions of the story really aren’t as good as this short extract. If I was reviewing the novella, I’d probably only give it two or three out of five. It was, in short, a failed project.

So, I thought that I’d give you a couple of basic tips for what to do when a creative project fails. And, yes, you’ve probably heard these before – but they’re well-known pieces of advice for a good reason.

1) Do a post-mortem: This one is fairly obvious, but it can be a bit of challenge if you’ve never really done anything like this. In essence, you need to take a step back and look at both what went wrong and why it went wrong. This might sound like a rather depressing thing to do, but it can teach you what to avoid in your next project. In other words, it reduces the chance of making the same or similar mistakes again.

In addition to teaching you general lessons, this also helps you to get to know yourself better. Because one of the best ways of finding out what your strengths and weaknesses are is to actually make something and then see what parts of it do and don’t work. Once you’ve found this out, you can play to your strengths and/or focus on your weaknesses in your next project.

For example, with my failed horror novella, some of the major flaws/lessons I found included:

– There were literally too many characters for a story of this length. Not only that, since I knew that all of the main characters were going to be eaten by badgers, I instinctively skimped on the characterisation since I’d find it too depressing to put too much emotional effort into developing a well-written character who was going to suffer such a tragic fate. So, the lessons here were to include fewer characters in my next project and to ensure that the characters have a good chance of surviving the story.

– A lack of pre-planning (resulting in somewhat uneven plotting) and the fact that I tried to write it relatively quickly (in about 18-19 days) meant that, whilst I was able to stay motivated, the writing would often get somewhat repetitive. I’d often re-use descriptions (eg: when describing the sounds the badgers made etc..) and many of the story’s dialogue segments would also sound incredibly repetitive too. The lesson here was to spend a while longer planning the story and to focus more on quality than quantity.

– The narrative voice throughout the story was incredibly uneven. Some chapters were supposed to be a parody of bad writing (which quickly turned into actual bad writing), some chapters sounded very “modern”, some chapters read like something from a thriller novel, some chapters had a more American-style narrative voice etc… A lot of this stemmed from the fact that I’d used third-person narration, and I’d had more practice with first-person narration in the past.

I could go on for quite a while…. But, working out what failed and why will help you to improve any future projects.

2) Remember that it happens to literally everyone: When a creative project fails, it can be easy to make the foolish mistake of thinking that you are a failure. That you’re not as good as the writers, artists etc… who inspired you to start your project. Well, I’ll let you into a secret. They’ve failed before, just like you have.

In fact, it is impossible to get really good at anything without failing. The only reason that the people who have inspired you seem like talented geniuses is because you haven’t seen their failed practice projects. They’ve failed just like you have. And, after they failed, they learnt from it and then tried to make another project. Eventually, they got better at writing, making art etc… because they refused to give up.

I mean, there’s a reason why – for example – pretty much every piece of writing advice out there will tell you not to publish your first novel (or first three novels or whatever). It usually takes quite a bit of writing practice before someone can produce a publishable novel. It’s not something that most people can get right on the first try. And, that’s ok. After all, you wouldn’t expect to be able to – say- play the guitar perfectly after picking up the instrument for the first time.

In other words, if you’ve tried to create something and failed horribly at it, then you’re doing exactly the same thing that the people you look up to have done in the past. In other words, you’re doing the right thing. At the very least, you’ve actually created something. Most people don’t get to this stage. So, consider your failure to be one of the steps on the road to greatness.

So, yes, failure happens to literally everyone. It is how you think about it and what you do afterwards that really matters.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Better Alternatives To Writing Fan Fiction

A week or two after I started writing daily short stories last February, I found myself tempted to write some fan fiction. Basically, I had started going through a phase of reading things like movie novelisations (and, yes, the recent book reviews have been written very far in advance) and, at the time of writing, there didn’t seem to be any novelisations of the “Silent Hill” videogames [EDIT: Whilst editing this article, I found that there are several Japanese-language novelisations and an English-language spin-off novel].

So, for a while, I actually thought about writing some fan fiction. Until I remembered that I didn’t write fan fiction. So, I had to think of alternatives. So, here’s an in-depth look at two better and more creative alternatives to writing fan fiction.

1) Be inspired (by multiple things): Ok, you’re a fan of something and you want to write something like it but you don’t want to write fan fiction. Great 🙂 This means that you can do something much better, you can take inspiration and then use this to tell an original story. But, how do you do this?

Start by looking at the basic, generic, underlying elements of the thing that has inspired you. These are general qualities that can be summed up in 1-3 words and which aren’t just found in the thing you’re getting inspired by (in other words, no highly-specific things like character names, location names etc..).

For example, the generic qualities of the old “Silent Hill” videogames would include: urban decay, implied paranormal horror, rust, gloom, vulnerability, grimy buildings, a foreboding atmosphere, psychological horror, mundane meets macabre etc…

When you’ve got your list of qualities, then try to tell a totally original story (featuring new characters, settings, background stuff etc..) that includes some of these generic qualities. You’ll end up with something that is evocative of the thing you’ve been inspired by, but also distinctly different, new and original. Because you’ve had to use your imagination, the story will also have a bit more of your own personal “style” too.

Of course, since you’ve got a list of generic qualities, then you’ll also be able to use it to find connections with other things – which you can also use for inspiration (via the same process) too. Basically, the more inspirations you have, the more original your story will be.

For example, after my initial thought about writing “Silent Hill” fan fiction, I decided to take inspiration instead. Whilst doing this, I realised that the list of qualities I was looking at were also shared by several other things such as the movie “Mimic“, the X-Files episode “Tooms” etc… I realised that all of these things were set in run-down urban parts of 1990s/early-mid 2000s America, they had a claustrophobic atmosphere and/or they often involved something lurking in the shadows.

I was then able to use these multiple inspirations in order to tell an original American-style horror story, set in 1997, about a haunted floor of an apartment block. Not only that, because I’d realised that claustrophobia was a major theme in this “type” of horror, I was also able to choose to use first-person narration and to set most of the story inside a lift/elevator carriage in order to add this quality to the story. This resulted in at least a mildly better (or at least less worse) story than if I’d tried to write some “Silent Hill” fan fiction instead.

Doing this kind of thing is better than writing fan fiction because it forces you to use your imagination a bit more, it means that your story will appeal to a wider audience (rather than just fans of one thing) and it also means that there are far fewer potential copyright issues with publishing your story too.

Although I’m not a copyright lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, this type of inspiration is actually encouraged by copyright law. This is because most copyright laws around the world deliberately don’t protect basic ideas, concepts, themes etc.. Instead, most copyright laws only protect highly-specific details (eg: specific character designs etc..). What this means is that, if you like something, then you have to do something new and original with the basic ideas behind that thing. In other words, you have to take inspiration and use your imagination, rather than just lazily borrowing.

2) Write an old-school British-style parody: Before about 2014 or so, there was no legal right to make parodies in Britain. What this meant is that if a comedy show on TV or a writer or whatever wanted to make a parody of something, then they had to be a little bit crafty about it.

In other words, they had to work out what they were going to ridicule (eg: the general qualities, ideas, themes etc.. behind something) and then come up with a new and original set of characters, locations etc… that evoked the thing they were parodying, and then use this to poke fun at the thing that they wanted to parody. Although this sounds like it would be really convoluted and result in worse parodies, the exact opposite is true.

What it meant was that things which originally started as parodies – such as the TV show “Red Dwarf” – are still going strong decades after they were first made. Because they had to stand on their own two feet, rather than rely on something else, they have a much wider appeal and a greater degree of longevity. Likewise, because they weren’t explicitly based on one other thing, they could also parody a much wider range of things too.

So, using this style of parody can result in much more interesting fan-based stories. For example, this short story of mine is clearly meant to be a parody of “Star Trek”. But because it includes original characters, original settings etc.. It also allowed me to write a much more general parody story about modern computer software, which will hopefully also amuse people who haven’t seen a single episode of “Star Trek”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Library Of The Imagination – A Ramble

A while before I wrote this article, I happened to read this online article which speaks in defence of binge-watching TV shows. But, one thing that the article didn’t mention was the value that binge-watching, binge-reading, binge-playing etc… all sorts of entertainment media has if you are a creative person.

Simply put, it results in less writer’s block/artist’s block and it also allows you to make better creative works too.

Ok, doing nothing but watching/reading/playing lots of stuff won’t instantly turn you into a good artist or writer. You actually have to practice your craft too (regularly, no less!). Likewise, you also need to learn a few other skills like how to take inspiration properly (eg: how to be inspired by something, without directly copying it). But, in combination with these things, spending a lot of time immersed in creative works can have all sorts of brilliant benefits.

Why? The best way to think about this is to think of your imagination is as a chaotic, disorganised library. The more things that you put into it, then the more chance there will be that – when you browse it – you’ll find an interesting mixture of things. Not only will this result in more unique creative works, but it will also mean that there are more things for you to be inspired by. Which means less writer’s block/artist’s block.

For example, here’s a preview of a digitally-edited painting of mine that will be posted here late this month:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 28th November.

The initial inspiration for this painting was the memories of watching old 1990s episodes of “Twin Peaks” evoked by watching the modern version of the series. This made me want to make a “cosy” painting, set in a wooden building during the 1980s/90s, with some surreal elements.

But, in addition to this, I also wanted to include gloomy tenebristic lighting (like in a Caravaggio painting, or an old heavy metal album/horror novel cover). I also wanted to give this gloomy lighting a slightly more futuristic cyberpunk-like look (inspired by films like “Blade Runner”), whilst also adding a few gothic elements (inspired by classic horror games like “Resident Evil”, “Silent Hill 3”, “Clive Barker’s Undying”, “Alone In The Dark”, “Realms Of The Haunting” etc..). And, of course, my use of colours was also partially inspired by these fan-made “Doom II” levels too.

The number of different inspirations for this painting is probably at least ten or more.

But, the bulk of these inspirations are things that I’ve discovered over the past few years. Back when I started making daily art in 2012, I obviously had less practice (and my art didn’t look as good as a result) but I also had fewer inspirations too. Not only that, I didn’t really know how to take inspiration properly too. As such, my imagination felt somewhat more limited then than it does today. Likewise, when I felt uninspired, it was much more of a panic than it is now.

So, spending time watching/reading/playing things that interest you, in combination with regular art and/or writing practice can work wonders for your imagination. It’s like adding more books to a reference library, adding more colours to a palette, planting more seeds in a garden or adding more music to a playlist. It gives you more things that you can take inspiration from in new and creative ways.

So, yes, binge-watching a TV show or binge-playing a game isn’t a “waste of time” if you’re a creative person. Well, except when it gets in the way of your art and/or writing practice, of course.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Enjoying “Boring” Films, TV Shows, Games etc..

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed over the past decade or two is that I’ve gradually become more interested in creative works that I would have considered “boring” when I was younger.

Whether it’s the deliberately slow pacing of modern films/TV shows like “Blade Runner 2049” and the 2017 “Twin Peaks” TV series (which I got on DVD as a Christmas present last year), whether it’s slower-paced games in the “point and click” genre etc… I’ve found that things I’d once have considered “boring” are much more interesting than they might initially seem.

But, how can you learn to enjoy creative works like this? Here are a few tips.

1) Work out why it is “boring”: Simply put, good “boring” creative works are slow-paced or uneventful for a good reason.

This is either because it gives the audience time to think about what is happening or because it gives the audience time to appreciate things like the atmosphere, visual elements, the characters etc..

A “boring” slow pace could also be there for the sake of emotional contrast, suspense or something like that. Kind of like how music sounds more dramatic because it also contains silence as well as noise.

Likewise, boredom can be used to add a sense of realism to a creative work. After all, everyday life is a boring, humdrum thing most of the time.

Artists, writers, directors, game developers etc… will sometimes include some of this boredom in order to show that their story is a more realistic (and immersive) one. Once you see it this way, then “boring” scenes can be a lot more understandable.

But, whatever the reason, there is probably a good reason for why a creative work is “boring”. If you can remember this, then you’ll enjoy these things more.

2) Read more: Although I don’t read nearly as much as I used to [Edit: No prizes for guessing what I rediscovered a week or so after preparing this article. Expect regular book reviews to start later this month], one of the things that changed my attitude towards “boring” creative works was reading a lot when I was a teenager.

But, why does reading matter? Simply put, reading gently gets you used to stories being told at a slightly slower pace.

Even the most fast-paced thriller novel still needs to take the time to introduce the characters and the premise. It’ll tell a more complex story than the average movie. It’ll be something that will demand that you spend 4-6 hours reading it. And, you’ll probably enjoy it. So, reading more (even in more fast-paced genres) is a great way to get used to slower-paced films, games etc…

3) Remember, it’s about the journey: One important thing to remember about “boring” creative works is that the most important part often isn’t the story, but everything else. I’m talking about things like the atmosphere, the narrative voice, the visual style, the underlying ideas etc…

In other words, these things are more about the journey than the destination.

A good cinematic example is probably the first “Blade Runner” film. The basic story of this film is just a simple detective thriller story. But that isn’t what makes it a brilliant film.

It’s a brilliant film because of the fact that it takes place in an intriguingly mysterious futuristic world which also looks stunningly beautiful too. It’s a brilliant film because of the fact that you notice something new about it every time you see it. It’s a brilliant film because of all of the thematic/philosophical/moral complexity hiding behind the simple story. I could go on for hours, but it’s a brilliant film because of everything other than the basic story.

In short, if you find a creative work to be “boring”, then try focusing on something other than the story. The story the creative work is telling might not be the main reason why it was made.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂