When To Wait For Inspiration (And When Not To) – A Ramble

Well, since I’m busy making this month’s webcomic mini series (which will be a stand-alone mini series that also follows on from the events of this mini series) at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk about when to wait for inspiration (and when not to).

But, first, here’s a preview of the first update from the new mini series which will start appearing here tonight:

Stay tuned for the full comic update this evening 🙂

Although I’ve written before about how waiting for inspiration can reduce your creativity, there are circumstances where it can come in handy.

The trick is to either set yourself a deadline and/or have some kind of backup plan for what to make if you don’t feel inspired. Basically, if you know that you are going to make something in the near future regardless of how inspired you feel, then waiting for inspiration can actually be useful.

The trick here is to see waiting for inspiration as a chance to improve something you’re already going to make rather than something that is absolutely necessary in order to create anything. In other words, getting a moment of inspiration before you start your next project should be a bonus rather than a requirement.

But, it is very important to set time limits to stop yourself waiting for months or years, instead of days or weeks. Plus, if you know that you are going to make something before a specific time, then this shifts your focus towards searching for ideas and being attentive for any moments of inspiration rather than the tedium of just waiting and waiting for a good idea to finally appear in your mind.

Likewise, having a backup plan (even a mediocre one) for your next comic, story etc… means that the stakes are slightly lower. It means that, even if inspiration doesn’t arrive, it isn’t the end of the world because you can still make something. This takes a lot of the pressure off of you and this can help to put you in a better frame of mind for having moments of creative inspiration.

To give you an example of all of this in practice, the webcomic mini series I’m making at the moment was something I’d initially dreaded making. I realised that I had to make a comic for this month, but I just didn’t have the enthusiasm or energy for it.

But, I knew that I was going to make one within the next few days (after all, I’d set myself an informal time limit). Then, that afternoon, I happened to see a parody of “Star Trek” on the internet. And, shrugging, I thought “A ‘Star Trek’ parody is as good an idea as any“. So, I started making a rough plan:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] This is an extract from the rough plan for a “Star Trek” parody comic I’d planned to make for the next instalment of my long-running occasional webcomic.

So, I started to plan out a six-page parody comic where my characters travel forward in time and get mistaken for the inhabitants of a desert planet by a visiting spaceship. But, the planet turns out to be the barren post-apocalyptic ruins of Earth in the distant future and Derek gets blamed for destroying the planet (after foolishly claiming to be the leader of it).

But, before he can be put on trial, he gets let off because one of the other characters mentions that they’re from the 21st century. The spaceship captain has a geeky obsession with the 21st century. So, the captain shows them his collection of 21st century artefacts but Roz and Rox end up looking at books/films that haven’t been released yet, causing a rift in the space-time continuum that….. Yeah, it wasn’t the best idea ever.

But, it was an idea. It now meant that I didn’t have to worry about not having an idea for a webcomic mini series. Still, since I had a few days, I decided to wait and see if a better idea would turn up. And, the next day, there was a power cut in the early evening. Needless to say, this seemed like a much more amusing source of inspiration for a comic. And, to my surprise, I’d planned and started the mini series the day afterwards.

So, the lesson here is that it’s ok to wait for inspiration if you also have a deadline and/or a backup idea (in case inspiration doesn’t appear). But don’t rely on waiting for inspiration if you don’t have either of these things.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Short Story: “Blank” By C.A.Brown

Note: This will be the last short story in the series. Stay tuned for a series retrospective tomorrow evening 🙂

The snow outside the window looked as pristine as the computer screen sitting in front of Phoebe. She let out a deep sigh and reached for the crumpled tube of biscuits on the edge of the desk. There were only three left. No, forget that, there were only two left.

Phoebe sighed again. She had to write something. Her publisher had said as much in their e-mail. But, putting words on the screen seemed almost as sacrilegious as leaving a trail of dark footsteps across the perfectly iced ground outside the window.

A smile crossed her face. Hadn’t there been an art gallery somewhere that had shown off canvases that were just covered with white paint? Hadn’t people paid millions for them?

Phoebe remembered a comedy book that one of her uncles had bought during the 1990s. It had been titled “Everything Politicians Know About Real People” and it consisted of two hundred empty pages.

For a second, she wondered whether she could get away with changing the title and adding a few extra pages. But, she remembered that her uncle’s old book had already been re-badged as a four hundred page tome called “Good Pop Music 2010-18: A Definitive Guide” that she’d seen on the internet a few nights ago.

Phoebe opened up her document folder and looked at the titles of her previous books. “Beneath Dark Spires”,”Post-Mortem” and “Spectral Signs“‘. She ate another biscuit. Why was this kind of horror fiction so popular these days? She ate the final biscuit. When did horror become so… sophisticated?

Of course, she knew that horror fiction had always been like this. Whether it was that copy of “Dracula” she’d never got round to finishing, or those hilariously formal Dennis Wheatley books that she’d found in a charity shop when she was a teenager, the natural state of horror fiction was one of sophistication. The horror fiction that she really loved had been an anomaly, a mutation, an aberration.

There wasn’t much history to go on, of course. But, when she was growing up, she would always see these books on market stalls, in charity shops and in the kind of second-hand bookshops where you can still smell the dust. They would have midnight black covers with wonderfully realistic paintings of skeletons, zombies and creatures. They read like music. Great crashing crescendos of blood and guts, counterpointed with gentle bucolic descriptions and functional dialogue between functional characters.

It took Phoebe a surprisingly long time to work out that if lots of these crumpled, dog-eared paperbacks were being sold second-hand, they must have been new once. Sure enough, on the internet, she had seen mention of a “horror boom” during the 1980s and 1990s. Apparently, lots of shiny new copies of these books used to festoon newsagents, motorway service station book racks and other quality literary venues.

It just wasn’t fair, dammit! By the time Phoebe had read enough of these books to want to write a horror novel of her own, the only new horror novels were sophisticated ghost stories, clinical police procedurals, gothic vampire stories and Stephen King. Lots of Stephen King. Well, at least some things remained the same.

So, with a heavy heart, she had written a tragic vampiric tale of lost love and eternal mourning. Then she’d written a clinical police procedural. Then a sophisticated ghost story. Everyone loved them. She’d even got good reviews from the critics in the broadsheet papers. She still felt guilty about that. Good horror, she thought, should disgust and appall pompous critics.

And now, with the three popular commercial genres used up, she found herself staring at a blank computer screen. Her eyes drifted to the perfect snow outside once again.

Then, without even thinking about it, her fingers flew across the keyboard “Crimson splashed the unholy altar. Gary’s agonised screams tore the sepulchral air. Above the splashing and screaming, the robed men kept chanting. Like an amateur production of Julius Caesar, they raised their dripping daggers in unison..

She stopped. She blinked. It was the best thing she’d written in three years. She kept writing. A smile crossed her face. She finished the prologue in less than an hour. Her computer pinged at her. Another e-mail from her publisher. With a heavy sigh, she started the first chapter: “In the pristine laboratory at New Scotland Yard, D.I. Stevenson carefully examined the body for forensic evidence..

The One Skill That Writing, Art etc.. Courses Don’t Always Teach Directly – A Ramble

Although this is an article about perhaps the most important skill that any artist or writer should have, I’m going to have to start by talking about old technology for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will become apparent later in the article.

A while before I wrote this article, I watched this wonderfully nostalgic Youtube video about indestructible old mobile phones.

Although I could easily get side-tracked and talk about how – in 2004/5- I once saw someone quite literally hurl a 3310 into a wall (it bounced off and the only damage was a slight crack to the screen covering). Or I could talk about how – back when I still liked mobile phones- I once owned what was once the most popular phone in the world (the 1100), and how it survived getting lost once and being used for over five years. But, that would be a distraction.

No, the reason, I mentioned old phones from the early-mid ’00s is because they had a reputation for durability, simplicity, reliablity and practicality. They were, like a lot of old technology, built to work and built to last.

I mean, a DVD doesn’t stop working when the internet slows down. Windows XP crashes extremely rarely compared to Windows 98 (and what I’ve seen of Windows 7 computers too!). My Playstation 2 seems to have died from disuse (the last time it worked was in 2011, but I bought it in early 2002!). My Game Boy Advance and original Game Boy still work though. My old MP3 players use easily-replacable batteries. The computer I wrote this article on is a low-end machine – even by the standards of 2006 (which was when I got it). Old technology isn’t fancy, but it was made to work and made to last!

This is something that has shaped my own philosophy towards technology… and creativity too.

Back before I used to practice art daily, I used to consider myself to be more of a writer (in fact, I actually studed creative writing). But, one skill that never seemed to be explicitly taught was how to deal with uninspired times. When I had weekly writing assignments, I used to spend hours or days frantically racking my brain for story ideas and, although I always eventually found one, my imagination didn’t always seem like the most reliable thing in the world.

But, now that I make art instead, I know that I’ll always make something – even on my most uninspired days. How did I learn this? Simple, I started practicing art daily and – a bit later – writing these daily articles. This tight schedule changed my attitude towards creativity, even after I’d built up a fairly decent “buffer” of things that I’d made in advance.

Gone are the days when I thought of coming up with creative ideas as nervously “waiting for inspiration” and now I see uninspiration as more of a puzzle to solve – but a puzzle that I know that I will always solve. These days, my overriding attitude is a confident “make something! Something is better than nothing!” or “I’m going to make something, I wonder what it will be?

Best of all, this constant daily practice has given me so many backup strategies to use when I can’t find an idea or the enthusiasm to make something. Whether it’s making still life paintings, looking for something to take inspiration from, remaking my old art, making studies of 19th century paintings, using a focused distration (eg: playing old computer games) that allows me to daydream etc… I’ve gained a vast toolbox of techniques to use whenever my imagination throws up an error message.

For example, the day before I wrote this article – I’d just woken up and realised that I was about to be behind on my art practice schedule. I had maybe an hour or two to make some art. When I started sketching, my imagination quickly failed me. I felt like making art was a chore. But, I still made some art! Yes, I eventually had to quite literally doodle randomly in my sketchbook and then scan it and try to turn it into art using an image editing program. But, I managed it! Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size picture will be posted here on the 10th April.

No matter how great you are at writing, drawing, painting etc… all of that skill means nothing if you don’t have a reliable way to keep creating. Even if you can only create crappy stuff when you aren’t feeling inspired, the fact that you’re still creating makes you better than a genius who gives up in frustration.

So, yes, the most important skill that any artist or writer can learn is how to make their imagination more reliable. Because, if you’re able to make something any time you want to, they you’re still in a better position than more “skilled” people who can’t do this.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Short Story: “A Playlist For Suburbia” By C. A. Brown

The only way to make suburbia interesting is with the right kind of music. For Steve, this was usually American punk music. When the furious guitars kicked in and the singer started whining sarcastically or blurting out elaborate descriptions, it somehow made suburbia ok. It magically turned boring Daily Mail middle England into something out of the kind of rebellious Hollywood comedies that he was always wanted to watch when he was younger.

Even the dreariest of playing fields and most forgettably ordinary rows of houses could be transformed into something from an edgy late-1990s comedy horror movie when he listened to the beginning of Bad Religion’s “Suffer” on his MP3 player. But, only the beginning. Somehow, the crashing, stabbing waves of angry guitars and the singer’s first frantic question made even the most leisurely of strolls feel like a dramatic tracking shot from some film he’d always wanted to watch when he was a teenager. For the ten seconds that it lasted, the world seemed more interesting than ever before.

Then, of course, there was Green Day’s “Tight Wad Hill”. Steve had never bothered to learn the lyrics to it, but it didn’t matter. Whenever he saw the old houses from the ’80s that were covered with faded white plastic and looked like something from a low-budget horror movie, he listened to this song. It had something to do with the singer’s slightly sarcastic, slightly slurred voice. Something to do with the cynical bitterness that drips from every word of the song. It made him feel like he was living in the beautifully run-down world of some corner of rural America, some horror novel town where strange things happen on an alarmingly regular basis.

And, for the brightest of cold summer Saturdays, there was always The Offspring. On those hellish days where everyone wears pastel clothes, where the air is polluted with the noise of twenty garden parties filled with crackly radios, the indecipherable shouting of noisy kids and the buzzing of lawnmowers, Steve listened to The Offspring. Not their edgier early stuff or even their mature modern stuff, but the really commercial stuff they put out in the late 1990s when, for a little while, they were mainstream.

The instant the first lines of “Pretty Fly” bounced through his headphones, he remembered when that song was playing on the crackly radios, he remembered when he was an annoyingly noisy kid and he remembered when pretending that the noises of distant lawnmowers were actually horror movie chainsaws felt like a really cool and edgy thing to do.

But, for grey weekdays, there was no choice other than No Use For A Name’s “Making Friends” album. If you actually listen to the lyrics, you’ll realise that they’re considerably less cheerful than the accompanying music. But, for a Monday when Steve had to trudge through the same suburban streets again, it gave him the gift of schadenfreude. At least, he thought, I’m living somewhere different to the nightmare world in the lyrics.

And then, for Sunday mornings, there was NOFX. When he went to the corner shop for snacks – and the rustling of Daily Mails and faint grumbles of queuing shoppers got too much, he’d listen to NOFX songs from the early-mid 2000s. They were the only punk band who were mercilessly sarcastic enough to make him smile. To make him feel just the slightest thrill of rebellion even when the topical satire in each song had long since passed it’s sell-by-date.

Then there was Blink 182’s “All The Small Things”. This was one of those songs Steve put on whenever a nearby car started broadcasting pop music through their open windows at top volume. “All The Small Things” was a whiny song, a commercial song and a generic love song of the worst kind. But, compared to the stuff on the radio these days, it was practically a work of art. Steve smiled. This was, of course, the only way to appreciate this song.

But, when Steve got home, he turned his MP3 player off and opened his laptop. A second later, the soothing tones of “One Foul Step From The Abyss” by Cradle Of Filth sailed gracefully through the air. He sat back and smiled. Punk music might be useful for getting through suburbia. But, he thought, to really relax, you need something else.

How To Deal With Writer’s Block And Artist’s Block Like A Pro – A Ramble

Although this is an article about dealing with writer’s block and artist’s block, I’m going to have to start by talking about several seemingly irrelevant topics like Hollywood, aviation, medicine and computers. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

I can’t remember exactly where I read this (it might have been on “TV Tropes”), but apparently Hollywood films deliberately make any depictions of air travel-based problems look worse than they actually are.

Apparently, rather than lots of scary alarms and general panic inside the cockpit if something goes wrong, real air crews just calmly read through a checklist and follow all sorts of pre-arranged procedures. A similar approach is apparently used in some hospitals to reduce the chances of mistakes during complex procedures.

This “checklist” approach reminded me of the evening before I wrote the first draft of this article, when – without any warning – my vintage computer malfunctioned. Whilst writing an e-mail, the music playing in the background suddenly stopped and the screen was covered with some kind of strange glitchy pattern. A few years ago, this would have probably sent me into an absolute panic.

But, instead, I calmly found myself going through a checklist in my mind. “Windows key?” No. “Ctrl, Alt , Del?“. No. “Reset button?“. No. “Turn it on and off again?“. Yes, but it’s loading slowly. “Get the Linux Live CD ready?“. No need, it’s loading properly. Crisis over. “Google the problem?” Something to do with the graphics card, but it’s never done it before, so it was probably a one-off. Problem over. I didn’t even need to turn my computer on and off at the mains, restore any data from a backup, open the case or talk to someone who knows more about computers or anything like that.

You’d be surprised at how having some kind of pre-made checklist can make problems seem a lot less scary or challenging.

The same thing is true for more leisurely things too. For example, if I’m playing a fairly challenging level of an old computer game, I’ll think of it like something from a game of chess. When someone plays chess, they think thorough every possible move before selecting the one that seems best. After all, most of the time, there’s still a way to win.

So, what does any of this have to do with writing, making art or making comics?

Simple. Feeling uninspired is no different to any of these problems. If you have a mental “checklist” of techniques you can use and you’re experienced enough to know that feeling uninspired is almost always a temporary problem, then it won’t become the terrifying problem that it can often be for less experienced writers, artists etc..

Although the exact details of your checklist will probably be somewhat unique, they can include things like returning to your favourite genres, making fan art/fan fiction, making something a bit more simplistic, looking for an inspiration, plundering your memories for creative inspiration, making still life paintings, writing character studies, deliberately making something crappy because it’s better than making nothing etc…

But, having a mental “checklist” of techniques and the knowledge that the problem you face is only temporary can get rid of most or all of the fear and confusion that often appears when you feel uninspired.

And, yes, if you write a blog about writing, making art etc… then “write blog articles about getting around uninspiration” is usually fairly near the top of the checklist when you can’t think of what to write about. Hence this article 🙂

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

Priming Yourself For Creativity (In Theory And Practice)

Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a quick look at one of the more basic preventative techniques that can be used to reduce the chances of writer’s block or artist’s block happening when you start writing or drawing. I’ll be using art-related examples in this article (since I tend to use this technique a lot more with art), but it can apply to writing too. I’ll also give you an example of how it works in practice too.

The technique itself is fairly simple and it’s basically a good version of the psychological technique of “Priming“. This is a rather sneaky trick used by illusionists, salespeople, advertisers etc.. and it revolves around how seeing, reading or hearing things can subtly influence a person’s subsequent thoughts.

So, before you start painting, think of something relevant to your project and/or something that you find cool. If you’re starting a new creative work then the “something cool” part is essential, since fascination is a major part of this technique.

Once you’ve found your subject matter, go online and do an image search for the subject in question. Don’t spend too long looking at any individual image (and read this article if you’re worried that doing this might lead to accidental plagiarism), but look at what they have in common with each other – in terms of things like colour schemes, perspective etc…. The goal here is to learn general information and to “prime” yourself.

So, look at lots of pictures until you start to feel “in the mood” for making original works of this type. Listen to any relevant music too if this helps. Although this method isn’t exactly foolproof at preventing uninspiration, it can work quite a bit of the time. Plus, it’s also something of a relaxing ritual than can help you to get into the mood for creativity too.

But, how does it work in practice? Well, the day before I wrote this article, I was getting ready to make one of my daily paintings for January. Although I already had a vague idea of what I wanted to paint since I’d been listening to a lot of heavy metal (well, slightly more than usual) the day before, I still needed to really get in the mood for it.

So, I started listening to this really cool music video I’d discovered the day before and I also looked at as many heavy metal album covers as I could.

Looking at these album covers reminded me of the main features of this art genre – namely the kind of gloomy lighting and bold colours I already use in most of my paintings, dramatic visual storytelling, elements from the horror genre (eg: skeletons, monsters etc..) etc…

So, with these general features in mind and an absolutely awesome heavy metal song playing in the background, I started my painting and…

…. It failed. The composition wasn’t quite right, the “scary monster” didn’t look that good and the whole picture just didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. I abandoned it halfway through making it. Here it is:

Yes, this technique doesn’t always work the first time. But…

But, despite this setback, my earlier “priming” meant that I was still in the mood for making heavy metal art. So, I still had the enthusiasm to try again. But, I realised that “monsters” was a complete non-starter. So, I remembered one of the other “cool” elements of this genre – the 1980s! So, I thought that I’d make a painting of a 1980s-style heavy metal guitarist.

Plus, since I was starting to run out of time, I also decided to introduce elements from another “cool” genre when drawing and painting the background. Since I’ve “primed” myself to make cyberpunk art more times than I can remember, it’s easy to get inspired when it comes to this type of art. And, after a while, I’d made a painting that I was quite proud of. Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 26th January.

So, yes, this technique doesn’t always work the first time, but it can certainly work!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How To Deal With Self-Critical Uninspiration – A Ramble

A while before I originally prepared this article, I’d tried and failed to write two other articles. I felt an overwhelming sense of “it’s not good enough” about creating things, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to write about things like writer’s block and artist’s block. In particular, about self-critical writer’s block/artist’s block.

This can happen when you either feel overwhelmed by the idea of “I should be creating things” or the idea of “everything I create seems to be terrible“. Typically, it tends to happen directly after both highly inspired projects and/or failed attempts at creative projects. But, it can also happen if you aren’t in a particularly great mood or are feeling overwhelmed in some way or another.

So, how do you deal with it?

Well, if you’ve been creating things for a while, then you’ll probably know that there’s a good chance that this is just a passing phase. Something annoying that happens to all creative people every now and then. Usually, the best way to deal with it is just to keep creating things – even if they’re “terrible” – until you start making good stuff again. After all, a “terrible” finished painting or story is always better than a “good” unfinished one.

But, there are lots of sneakier ways to get around it too. One obvious way is simply to look for another inspiration – yes, this depends on time and budget – but, if you can find something that absolutely knocks your socks off (eg: a film in your favourite genre that you haven’t seen before, an awesome indie game that leaves a lot to the imagination, an amazing webcomic that you’ve never heard of before etc.) then not only will this give you something to take inspiration from, but it will also fill you with the feeling of being in awe of a creative work.

If you aren’t careful, this feeling of awe can actually make your uninspiration worse. But, if you’re very careful about how you think about this, then you can turn it into a brilliant source of creative motivation here. The trick is, of course, NOT to think “This film/game/comic is brilliant, I’ll never be able to make something that good!“. Instead, try to think something like “How can I make something different that is as cool as the thing I just saw? I’ve got to try.

The difference is subtle, but one attitude will leave you feeling defeated before you even start and the other one will make you want to try creating something.

Another way to deal with creative self-criticism is simply to see it as part of the process. All of your favourite writers and artists weren’t born talented. They all had to learn, practice and make mistakes. They all went through phases where they felt that they couldn’t produce anything good. The fact that you are experiencing something like this means that you are taking art and/or writing seriously. If you weren’t, not feeling like you can make great things wouldn’t hurt at all.

So, when you find yourself in one of these moods, see it as a challenge. See it as something that all of the people you admire have had to deal with before (which means that you are on the right track). See it as a chance to work out all sorts of sneaky ways to get out of this mood.

And, yes, keeping a regular practice schedule will teach you a lot of these tricks. Whether it’s making “silly” private projects that you never show anyone, whether it’s remaking some of your old stuff, whether it’s making fan art/ writing fan fiction, whether it’s trying to create something in one of your favourite genres, whether it’s descriptive writing/still life painting etc.. there are loads of sneaky ways out of the mood that you’re in at the moment.

So, instead of feeling terrible about “not being able to create good stuff”, try looking for sneaky ways to get around this mood. Even if you don’t succeed at first, the shift in focus from feeling sorry for yourself to trying to figure out strange and unconventional ways around the problem will gradually help you to have a better frame of mind.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂