Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
Wild's End by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard, additional material by me, and Fiefdom are available. Out of Tune Vol 2 is out in May

Monday, 8 February 2016

A Night Out with the Girls

OK.. Well, to begin with there were only two of us, but this was a rare event for me.

It’s been a long time, a very long time since I did this, and how times have changed.

It’s not that I’m anti-social, but I don’t really do crowds and I don’t really do strangers, and I have virtually no smalltalk.

I do like people, though… I really like people. People don’t always like me. They often find me a bit odd and confusing. I think that’s to do with my interest, my engagement with almost any subject, and I think it’s to do with my almost total lack of filters. I’ve tried to do something about these things as I’ve got older, and I’ve succeeded to some small degree, but I can still be a little daunting to strangers… I daunt people; I know that I do, and I try very hard not to.

Anyway, I’m not exactly a social butterfly, and I don’t know a lot of people, so the whole big night out thing isn’t something I ever really do, and it’s not something I’ve done since I left university… not really.

I had my kids in my twenties and big chunks of my life have been pretty complicated, and then there’s the husband. It’s worth remembering that we both work alone, from home, so we don’t, as other people do, have colleagues, and we don’t have a work place, and we don’t meet people in the general course of our lives. Add to that the fact that we work a lot, and you’ll begin to get the picture that we’re veritable hermits. Even the people we actively count as friends we don’t actually see on a regular basis. 

Frankly, when it comes to being sociable, we’re pretty pathetic.

I do, however, have one or two women friends. I see them mostly intermittently, but I do enjoy their company when I get to spend time with them, even though it tends to be infrequently.

One of those friends is single, and her social life is massively compromised because her work takes her all over the World. She’s never still, rarely home, and never in one place for long enough to meet anyone. She lives out of a suitcase, except that she lives about a mile from me. Keen to do better socially, to do something regular and normal, she asked if I’d go for a drink with her on Friday night. Of course, I agreed.

My friend chose a pub restaurant in a local village. I’ve eaten lunch there a few times and it’s very civilised. I quite expected that we’d buy drinks, perhaps exchange a few words with other drinkers at the bar. Find somewhere to sit down, have a convivial evening and probably meet some new people.

The '80s when going out meant meeting people
What I didn’t expect was largish groups of very young people, traipsing from the bar to the outside space every half an hour for a smoke. What I didn’t expect was standing room only. What I didn’t expect was backs turned, closed groups and no one to pass the time with. What I didn’t expect was girls in leather skirts and thigh boots hanging on skinny boys’ conversations. What I didn’t expect was to be the oldest person in the place by a couple of decades, particularly as we’d deliberately gone out of town and to a very up-market area.

I’m married, and I’m content. I don't have a lot of friends or acquaintances, because my life isn’t set up for that, but I’m perfectly happy. On the other hand, if I wanted to make friends or meet people, I’d assumed that I’d be able to do it. I assumed that my friend was making a sensible move when she invited me to the pub with her on a Friday night.

We perched at the end of a fully occupied table on a couple of stools that we managed to commandeer, drank a glass of wine each and talked about the situation. This clearly wasn’t a good way to meet people, but we weren’t ready to give up. There was another pub on the other side of the village green, so we wandered across to it, bought another glass of wine each, and managed to get a table by the door.

The situation wasn’t very different at the new location. Most of the patrons were couples and groups. They’d come out together and were sticking together. There was no room in their lives for anyone new. Casual social interaction doesn’t happen in pubs on the weekend anymore, at least not these pubs.

I’m pretty easy going… That’s not actually true. I’m moderately socially anxious. I overcome that, though. I simply remind myself that no one’s very good at meeting new people, but the worst that can happen is a rejection, so I smile and I speak anyway. A simple hello isn’t the end of the World. In a more formal situation, I’m fairly confident about sticking out my hand and giving someone my name.

I’ve been in rooms with John Noble, Sir Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon and been the first to step up and smile with my hand sticking out while others have shied away from contact, simply because they didn’t have the confidence. I can be bold or at least friendly when I feel there’s no harm in making an approach. I don’t remember an occasion when I wasn’t met with warmth.

Drinkers in a local pub on a Friday night in Kent can pretty well freeze a person out. I don’t think it’s deliberate, exactly, there simply was no opportunity to speak to anyone. Everyone was ensconced in an established social group and there was no room for interlopers. Besides, there were no groups that it would have been appropriate to interact with.

The internet is a wonderful thing. I approve of it. I use it all the time, for everything. I’m exploiting it now to get my thoughts across to you.

I wonder, though, how much it has changed how we interact socially. 

My friend and I discussed how we might strategise her social life, and we had to come to the conclusion that she needed the internet. It seems to be how single people organise their lives now.

Over the years, I made friends and met boyfriends through my social groups, by going out and through work, when I had a place of work. I met my husband through my brother. I met one boyfriend in a laundrette for goodness sake. Does that ever happen any more?

I met one good friend because we were in the same art class and another because she’s the wife of one of the husband’s friends. I met another through my sister-in-law. I still have a couple of friends from university. One of my women friends is the sister of a man I met in a pub, because we both happened to be regulars on the same quiet night, and I’m friends with him too. I particularly like a woman I met at a mutual friend’s birthday party and another who’s the wife of a writer I met at a convention. Some of these connections take a little effort, of course, but they have to be worth it.

Tinder and Grinder take no effort at all, and they’re based on appearance. And then, of course, there’s FaceBook and the other social networks that keep kids attached to the people that they would otherwise naturally shed and move on from as they make their way through their lives. But maybe there are other things, too. Maybe there are better ways to meet people our age, people that share our interests and our ideologies. I hope so, because I have a friend who is in want of a more fulfilling social life.

I expect to take part of this journey with her. It’s going to be interesting, and, who knows, maybe I’ll find some interesting people along the way too, maybe I’ll make a friend or two, because I’d bet my life there are an awful lot of people out there who’d be more than willing to share more of their lives with people like them and like my friend.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

How to Buy a Desk

I’ve been putting my office together for over a year, now.

2015 was a bit strange. The office was all set at the end of ’14, but not decorated. I had planned to decorate, and then life with all its stuff and things took over, so it didn’t happen. It is about to happen.

I’ve bought paint… Twice. I’ve switched out a bed for a sofa-bed and I’ve had a stove fitted. All good things.

My desk is actually an old table. It’s round and two leaves of the top fold down if I don’t want to use the entire surface. It would comfortably seat four for a meal, if it was used for its conventional purpose, and six if the diners were close friends. It’s a good and attractive table. I like it, but I decided that it was a little too large for my purposes.

The husband has a slightly smaller, square table in his office that I’ve always rather liked. Furniture is community property in our house, and it’s not uncommon for it to be moved around from room to room for all kinds of reasons. So, I wandered into the office with a cup of tea on Sunday and asked the husband about the table. 

I’m not quite sure why I expected a two minute conversation, because it never happens that way. I’m not sure how long the conversation actually lasted, but I do know it involved a careful study of his room and quite a lot of measuring.

By the time we’d finished, the room had undergone a fairly radical redesign.

The husband had decided that he’d like to move some furniture and add a new piece, if I was to have the little table, and then came the big one… The husband had decided he was in want of a new desk.
The husband, elbows comfortably on the old desk

The current desk has been in operation for about fifteen years. It’s seen a lot of use, he’s spent a great many hours sitting at it… I’m not sure I could or would want to work out just how many. But the husband decided it was time for a change, and he had a pretty good idea what he wanted to replace the old desk with.

So, yesterday, we went table hunting.

As a writer, I’m peripatetic. I have a writing room, of sorts, an office, and I use it, but it’s a room where all kinds of things happen. I call it my office, because it’s used almost exclusively by me, but it isn’t exclusively my writing room and it certainly isn’t the only place that I write. This is less true of the husband.

The husband’s office isn’t the only place that he works. If he needs to do research, he might watch something or read anywhere in the house, he might take handwritten notes wherever he happens to be, and we can talk work in the car, on a train, in restaurants… you name it. The husband writes almost exclusively in his office, and almost exclusively at his desk. The chair he sits at and the table he writes at are pretty important to him.

Did I mention that the husband had a pretty good idea what he wanted to replace his desk with?

Did I mention that we’re also not actually talking about a desk?

What the husband actually wanted was a table, and he didn’t want new.

We don’t buy a great deal of new furniture. We live in an old house and we buy a lot of pre-owned stuff, especially when it comes to cupboards, cabinets and tables. I’m a sucker for old chairs, too, and I’m lucky enough to have a good upholsterer working locally.

So, the husband knew the size and shape of table he wanted, but he also wanted something old.

You can’t just walk into an office supplier and pick out what you want when that’s what you want.

You could, of course, check out eBay, but with furniture it’s nice to see it, and to touch it.

Let me make it clear that we’re not talking about antiques here. The husband needs a good, solid, strong piece of furniture that will take daily use. He needs to be able to stand electronics on it, piles of books and other research materials, some of which might impact on its surface, dozens of beverages in the average week, and, of course, desk breakfasts and lunches most days. He really didn’t want anything precious that he would be afraid to mark or dink. He also didn’t want anything that would buckle under the weight, wobble at the joints or be uncomfortable to sit at. EBay wasn’t going to cut it.

I expected we might find a table in six months, or that it might take a year. It didn’t matter, we’d find a table when we found a table.

We don’t take holidays, but we do try very  hard to take time off on the first Monday of the month. It doesn’t happen every month, but we try. Yesterday, Tuesday, after a long run without a break, the husband declared that we were going to begin desk shopping. There are several places local to us where we begin this kind of search. So, we jumped in the car and drove to the first location.

Inside Hendersons.
See more on their FaceBook page
The shop in Rochester hasn’t been open for long, probably about a year, but we were one of its first customers and we return regularly. We always come home from Hendersons with something, often something small, but always something. The couple that runs the place has a good eye and they buy well; they’re also lovely to deal with. I wandered into the shop first, as something in the window had caught the husband’s eye.

As I walked into the shop, something caught my eye, too, and I turned. Inside the shop, the window display had been arranged on a table. It was gorgeous.

“I’ve found it!” I said as the husband walked through the door.

The tape measure duly came out, a chair was pulled up to it, so that the husband could check the sitting position, and we oohed and aahed for ten minutes.

We couldn’t quite believe that we had found the husband’s new writing desk, so we asked the owner not to sell the table for an hour while we thought about it, and went for a cup of coffee.

We drank our coffee and talked about the table, and another piece of furniture that the husband liked for his office. I decided what I wanted to pay, because Hendersons are always comfortable doing a deal, and we returned to the shop to make our purchases.

I thought that replacing the husband’s desk after fifteen years, thousands of comics, dozens of novels, several computer games and a movie would probably prove challenging, that it might take six months or a year to accomplish. It took an hour on a Tuesday morning. Go figure.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Angouleme… and Those Awards

I was going to tackle the Oscars and the lack of inclusion of any but white nominees for the major awards… I don’t know why I didn’t get around to it, except that time moves on apace, and others attacked the topic with relish. I rather wish I had got some thoughts down, though.

I did write about the Hugos in 2014 when they were controversial for two reasons. A Twitter campaign by women caused the resignation of Jonathan Ross as presenter, and the inclusion of Vox Day as a nominee caused an uproar because of his unsavoury stances on race and gender.

The World Fantasy Awards also came under attack for using the effigy of HP Lovecraft as their award. The once beloved genre writer’s racism is currently coming under intense scrutiny. A new design for the award will be unveiled for 2016.

Public opinion and that of interest groups has become increasingly easy to hear, thanks to social media. The Twitterverse lights up brightly and instantly whenever a wrong is perceived to have been done. On the whole, I’m tempted to think that’s a good thing, particularly when the problem being highlighted is one of social injustice.

Last week saw the return of the annual Angouleme Comics Festival, it was the 43rd, and it included one of the best known and most respected Comics Awards in the World.

Nominations were announced some time ago, and that’s when the problems began. Of the original thirty nominees, none were women creators.

The Angouleme Awards are inclusive in so far as they cover all serial art, internationally. We’re not just talking about American comics of the type we’re all familiar with, and we’re including graphic novels and not just ephemeral monthlies. The French take their comics very seriously. Comics are not just passing entertainment.

Daniel Clowes, Joann Sfar and Riad Sattouf from a report in the Guardian
When the list of nominees was made public, several great creators decided to withdraw their names from it. They objected to the lack of representation of women. They wanted women creators that they knew well and admired to be included. They made a stand, and it was admirable. I applaud them.

Taking the Grand Prix, the lifetime achievement award as a benchmark, women have rarely been recognised in the Angouleme Awards. In 43 years, the Grand Prix has been won by only one woman, the French artist Florence Cestac.

When asked to comment on the lack of inclusion of women for this year's awards, a representative had this to say:

The concept of the grand prix is to reward an author for their whole oeuvre. When you look at the prize list, you can see the artists on it have a certain maturity and a certain age. Unfortunately, there are few women in the history of comics art. It’s a reality. If you go to the Louvre, you’ll equally find very few women artists.

It’s a bald statement, and, on the surface, an unpleasant one. It’s easy to say that the Grand Prix wasn’t the only prize on offer, and that there were, in fact, no women nominated in any of the other nine categories either.

The men who resigned their nominations pointed out that there are great women working in comics, and The Women in Comics Collective Against Sexism agreed, pointing at the inevitable glass ceiling as the barrier to their success.

And therein lies the problem.

The representative for the Awards made a bald statement and he was vilified for it, but wasn’t it the truth?

Women are writing and drawing great comics, now. They’re using the medium for their own ends, to write and draw the stories they want to put into the World, their stories. It’s a niche market in a  niche medium. The audience is small, and, for the most part it’s other women. Women creators in comics are very much on the fringes. They’ve found a place for themselves out of necessity, not from choice. They’ve done it because much of the mainstream closes its doors on them. The men who see these women’s work see it because they want to, because they’re interested in every avenue down which the medium can lead a creator. That’s why some of the most recognised creators in the World know these women creators and why they wanted to stand by them. It’s why the rest of us don’t recognise these women’s names and don’t know their work.

The women are not at fault, and the awards system is not entirely at fault… The exception is of course that Angouleme could decide to create an award or awards exclusively for women creators, celebrating their very particular contribution to the art and broadening and strengthening the audience for women creators and their work, by shining a spotlight on them. These awards might influence the industry and open more doors for women.

The industry is most at fault in all of this. In the west, the industry is most broadly represented by mainstream American comics, by superheroes, by the big two, by DC Comics and by Marvel. They still produce male-centric comics, largely written and drawn by men, edited and published by men, and aimed at men and boys. There are women creators writing and drawing for the big two, but when they manage to get a foot in the door, they invariably write and draw for women characters. They are shoved into corners, boxed, labeled and limited.

It is no coincidence that the Best Series Award at Angouleme went to G Willow Wilson for Ms Marvel vol 1. Wilson’s name was not on the original list. It was added in a second round of nominations when the hue and cry went up because there were no women on the list. She was an afterthought. Wilson has been much praised for her work on Ms Marvel. It doesn’t surprise anyone that a woman writer is writing a woman character… It certainly doesn’t surprise me. 

Wilson has worked hard on Ms Marvel, and it’s a pretty decent comic. I read a couple of issues, and I thought she was doing a good job. She’s a popular writer and has the awards to prove it. Giving an award to Ms Wilson was also a safe move, politically, and there are lots of reasons for that: She’s in mainstream comics so people already know her name; she’s won awards before so there’s no question that she’s deserving; and she hits all the political hot buttons, because she’s a woman writing a woman character, and she’s a muslim writing a young muslim character in an American comic book.

Is that cynical of me? Perhaps it is. The point is that, unlike male creators, women creators in mainstream comics must have an angle, a selling point, or why would anyone buy their books?

Gail Simone is one of the most famous names among women creators in mainstream comics. She’s best known for writing Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman and Lara Croft. She’s a woman writer, writing women characters, because that’s what girls do.

Both of these creators are proven writers. They've shown that they know what they're doing and they clearly love their work. I say let them spread their wings. Let's see what they can do when working with a full cast of characters, and not just the sectors that happen to bisect with their gender.

I’ve written one or two comic strips in my time as part of my output for various licenses. I wouldn’t call myself a comic book writer. From a creative point of view, it’s something I'd love to do more of. I’ve got ideas for comics written in my notebooks. There are one or two artists that I’d love to work with. I also know the mainstream comics industry, and as an industry it doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal for me. The older I get and the more I work in the industries that I work in the less appeal they hold for me. The fight doesn’t get any easier when you’re a woman working in male dominated industries, and I’ve always worked in them.

We shoe-horn ourselves in any way that we can. We compromise when we have to, we pick our battles and we lose the majority of them, we are patronised and talked over, our ideas are appropriated if they are heard at all, and when we have proved just how good we really are we are labeled and boxed and given a selling point, because we’re considered useless without those things.

We have different working lives from those of our male counterparts. Those problems are invisible to most men, and they’re not the fault of the convention organisers or of the awards committees. They run very deep, deeper than any but the women can see.

We talk about them all the time between ourselves, but when we try to talk about them to men there is such a chasm between us that there is little hope for understanding. So, we do what we can, and most of what we can do is find small slivers of space in hostile environments and we make little pockets of space on the fringes of those environments. We are outliers. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

There will be men reading this who will gainsay me. They’ll call me a failure, say I’m not good enough, and that if I was I could compete with any man in my field. There are men who will condemn this blog as the whining of a nobody, and those who will call me a nag or a feminazi.

I’ve heard it all before, and yet here I am again. It’s exhausting, but I can’t stop and I won’t stop, because I might not be the best in my field, but there are women creators out there who are the equals of their male counterparts, and if it’s useless for me to throw an elbow for myself, I can at least throw one for them.

I want women in all walks of life to have equal career opportunities with men, but I think that it’s particularly critical in the arts. Art reflects life, and life art. Art holds a mirror up to society, and all the time that women are only a small percentage of those contributing effectively to the arts, that reflection is incomplete or distorted. We do not see a true picture of ourselves when the picture is drawn almost exclusively by men. Life reflects art, the patriarchy is reinforced, and a vicious cycle is perpetuated.

Women have carved a separate niche, writing and illustrating comics outside of the mainstream that has been the preserve of men. They’re using the medium for their own ends and doing a great job of it, but ‘the industry’ still isn’t finding enough room for them. It’s wonderful that well-known men in comics, the artists that are lauded and praised see these women and recognise their talents. Artists are generally very good at being gender and race blind. If only that were true of the publishing industry. It’s a pity the women don't have a wider audience, a broader scope or a bigger window onto the World in which to display their wares. If they did, perhaps, they would earn some plaudits of their own. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

January and the Them/Us Divide

After a busy, stressful week, the husband mooted popping out for an early supper on Saturday evening. It seemed like a damned good idea to me.

Life and work, and stuff and things got rather drawn out, and when the dort arrived home early in the evening, we still weren’t ready to go out. On her way home, the dort had gone into town to pick up a few supplies and drop in on the restaurant where she used to work. She couldn’t believe how busy it all was.

We’re not terribly sociable people. We like to eat out, and we like company, but we don’t want to stand six deep at a bar or wait forty minutes for a table. We want to be able to hear ourselves think and each other talk in any and all situations. We do go out at the weekends, but we pick our time slots. We eat very late lunches or very early suppers, and we choose from the restaurants we’ve been patronising for years, where we can be confident that a table will be found for us at busy times.

Monday is our regular night out. We go to an almost empty bar, where we know the servers and they know us, and where the other patrons are invariably our friends and acquaintances, people who know we’ll be around and drop in for a chat and a drink. I sometimes wonder whether our go-to place on a Monday night isn’t entirely empty on the Mondays when we don’t venture out. I wonder whether virtually all bars and restaurants are all-but empty on Monday nights; I suspect they probably are.

The dort wondered how it could be that the town was so damned busy, late on a cold, wet Saturday afternoon in January.

It only took me a moment to realise why, and it’s about the divide; it’s about Them and Us.

When we think about Them and Us, we generally think about the pay divide. We think about the differences between the haves and the have-nots, and let’s not pretend there aren’t a great many more people in the have-not bracket than there are people who have. Them, I suppose are the 1%, and Us the 99%.

That’s not quite what I’m referring to, here, though. This is a little different.

I realised that the reason the town was busy on such a miserable Saturday, when, generally I would have expected it to be quiet, to be able to get that table at the restaurant very easily, was because it was the last Saturday of the month; It was the 30th of January, and that’s very important.

Most people still draw a monthly wage or salary. The last payday fell at or around Christmas, and was probably used up by the festivities and the credit card bills that paid for gifts and socialising when the festivities were over. Most people don’t have a lot of disposable cash in January. The next influx of money for most people, the next time wages dropped into bank accounts was probably the last Thursday in January. So, the first opportunity to go out for supper, or to shop for a treat was the last Saturday of the month. January is long and tough and penniless for a lot of us. The town was busy on Saturday, and the dort’s restaurant was busy, because people had just got their wages and were taking themselves out for a treat after a long month of frugality.

For Us, that’s Them.

We work for ourselves, and because we work for ourselves, we pay our taxes twice a year. The first instalment falls on the 31st of January. We don’t have a chunk of money land in our bank accounts at the end of January to alleviate the impoverishment of Christmas and give Us an opportunity to treat ourselves. We have a big chunk of money going out of our bank accounts to pay to the government for the privilege of having a working welfare system, among other things. I don’t begrudge it. There are times when I wish my vote counted for something, since I haven’t elected a government in a long time, but that’s the nature of democracy. If I had managed to elect a government, I’d probably be paying more tax than I do now… But that’s by the by.

Of course, we know we’re going to deplete our coffers on January 31st, because we’ve been working this way for a long time. So, on Saturday, if we’d decided to go out for supper, we could have done it… Thank goodness. Frankly, there have been years, in the past, when January really has been the cruellest month.

This, I suppose, is by way of a cautionary tale, because more and more people are working freelance or going into business for themselves. I applaud everyone who has the confidence to do it, because it takes confidence, and lots of it… And it takes hard work, too. The world is a competitive place, and with unpaid internships and creatives working for free for bylines and credit and to add to their portfolios, things have never looked bleaker.

There are people who begin to see returns on the investment of their talent and hard work, though, and there are people who begin to add to their incomes or start to make a living from working freelance or starting their own small businesses.

One of those people began a thread on one of the social networks the other day, and I happened to see it, which is why I decided to write this blog.

Said individual was in fear that her accountant would not have her accounts prepared in time for the tax man’s deadline, and that she would incur a fine for being late handing in her assessment. She added that she’d sent everything to the accountant the previous week.

The person’s friends were very sympathetic in the thread comments, and they were hugely disparaging of the accountant in question, recommending that she look around for a new one. 

I hope it works out for her, and that she avoids the penalty and can pay any tax she's liable for, but I take a rather different view from her friendly commenters.

A picture of us being writerly,
because if I put up a picture of our lovely accountant
he'd be horrified.
It is important to have the funds on hand to pay ones taxes, and to do that it’s important to know your tax liability. Generally, a financial year ends in April. This being the case, most freelancers and small businesses have eight months between their year end and their assessment deadline. Handing the accountant your receipts and invoices and any spreadsheets you might have cobbled together a week before that deadline seems like madness to me. If all of an accountant’s clients did the same thing, his workload would be unmanageable, he’d be in utter chaos, and what would he do for the rest of the year? You, the freelancer or small business owner would also have no warning of your tax liability and no time to prepare to make your tax payment.

Of course, in the beginning, when earnings are small, tax liability will be small, too, so this might seem unimportant. You want to become successful, though, don’t you? If a freelancer becomes successful, if a small business grows, that tax liability will grow with it.

I’m a creative person. Words are my thing. It’s tough enough being a writer, and I’m not an accountant. We can’t all be good at everything, so we have to put our trust in others and pay them to do the things that they’re good at and qualified to do.

I bloody love my accountant. I still regularly ask him stupid questions, and he still patiently answers them. He’s seen me through some tough times over the years. When I’ve run late with my accounts, he’s been patient and diligent, and my assessments have always been on time, because he’s gone above and beyond the call of duty to make sure of it.

If you’re new to freelancing or running a small business, take it seriously. Make sure you know what you earn and what you spend, and keep good records. Employ an accountant, and make her your best friend. But, for the love of the gods, don’t give her a box of bits a week before your assessment’s due and just expect everything to go swimmingly. She’s an accountant, not a miracle worker.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Collaborating with the Husband, and a Pat on the Back

It’s a funny thing, collaborating with the husband, and something I’m asked about often.

The husband has some status. He’s pretty well-known, even celebrated in some small corners of the publishing world. People know who he is. People should know who he is, because he’s damned good at what he does.

The husband has been responsible for hundreds, probably thousands of comics, and dozens of novels. I don’t know how many short stories he’s written, and now he’s making a name for himself in the games industry, too. He’s written audio dramas, and even a movie. His work has been optioned for film and tv. Dan’s version of the Guardians of the Galaxy was the basis of James Gunn’s blockbusting movie.

I’m one of the husband’s biggest fans, and there are lots of reasons for that, not the least of which is that I’m the one person who gets to watch him work.

He and I have very different processes and, separately, we produce very different types of work, but, from time to time, when we want to, for fun, and sometimes to keep the work rolling along, Dan and I collaborate. There have been a number of novels, and other things, too. Right now, we’re working on narrative for a big computer game, which I’m sure you’ll all get to hear about in due course.

Collaboration comes in many forms.

Much of my input has been incidental, small, simply part of our day to day lives. We talk and we share. He discusses ideas with me, and I give him my take on things. Of course I leak into his process. I might have given him a set-up, named a character, added a theme, offered a sub-plot, even given a political insight… It happens naturally. I’m simply one of his many resources. Is that collaboration? I don’t know, perhaps it is, in its broadest sense. Writers take inspiration from all over. I see no reason to take credit for another’s work when my contribution was half of a conversation, a thought process, being a sounding board.

Dan is successful, and it is partly due to his success that I am able to collaborate with him, it is partly due to his success that I am able to work, too. So, sometimes, we work together on projects for which I am also credited.

The things we do separately are different, and our processes are different. There are things that he can do brilliantly that I wouldn’t try for, and there are things that I love to do that he would never choose to attempt. When we come together, the things we produce are a third thing, something different from the things I produce on my own, and different again from the things that he makes, solo. That’s part of the wonder of it.

So we collaborate. If you want to know about the process, it goes something like this: We talk… We talk quite a lot about ideas, and from the talking we evolve a plot. All of this is done together.

The ideas thing is fine; we can both talk ideas until the cows come home. Plot, I struggle with more. I prefer not to plot, because I like what comes before in the writing to inform what comes afterwards. When I begin a solo project, I start with nothing more than a theme or a basic idea, and I allow it to grow in the writing. Sometimes the process moves me away from my original idea, sometimes not, but I enjoy the freedom. I like the mental process to be part of the writing process, for those two things to unfold together. The husband is used to doing a lot of the thinking first, and plotting quite extensively. This, of course, is a bi-product of the commissioning process. Publishers like to know what they’re getting. I speculate more and write for myself first to deliver a manuscript that I hope might one day sell.

Once we have a plot, I begin to write. Dan reads, comments and edits until he wants to take over or until I want him to, and we go back and forth. The more he likes what I’m doing, the longer I write. When the book is done, I do all the final edits. We are equals when it comes to the practicalities of the job. Sometimes, I do more of the day to day work; it just depends how the project happens to be running. There is no sense that it is an unequal partnership.

Dan carries all the weight in this writing relationship when it comes to status, and that’s true when it comes to reviews, too. I get a co-credit, of course, but reviews of our collaborations rarely include my name in the text. I’ve seen great reviews highlighting tracts of prose that I’ve written, but with the reviewer attaching the husband’s name. It doesn’t matter, just so long as the reviewer likes the product. It’s bound to happen. Why wouldn’t they see me as a make-weight? They know the husband can write; he has a track record. They don’t know me. They could put both our names in the text, but that would take time and effort, and they’ve all got limited word counts for their reviews. 

There’s no way for a reviewer to know who contributed what to a collaboration, so, if they use a name, they’re bound to pick the husband’s. So be it.

If I sound put out by this, I don’t mean to.
Wild's End: The Enemy Within #5

I say that, because this is all a preamble to a celebration of a comic book called Wild's End.

The first six part series of Wild's End ran last year. It was published by Boom! and written by Dan with art by the incomparable Ian Culbard. I love the comic. The elevator pitch for the first arc was War of the Worlds meets the Wind in the Willows, and I think it’s extraordinary. I was very glad that a lot of other people thought that it was extraordinary too, and, as a result, the series has been collected into a trade paperback Wild's End: First Light , and the second six part series, Wild's End: The Enemy Within was commissioned. The last episode will be out next month.

Each issue of the comic book has several additional pages at the end, which we call back-matter; others refer to this stuff as bonus material. Ian uses some of this space to draw beautiful maps of the countryside where the story takes place, and, in the beginning, Dan did some things with newspaper cuttings and whatnot. At some point, and I don't remember when, he came to me and asked if I’d help him out by filling these extra pages with stuff that interested me about the characters in this story and the situations they faced.

I loved Wild's End, and I loved what Dan and Ian were doing with the story. It was all there on the page, so I jumped at the chance to contribute.

Of the twelve issues of Wild's End that the guys have produced, I’ve written back matter for nine of them, three for the first series and all of the second series. Each month, I sit down to think about what I might do, I run a few ideas past the husband, and I get started. At no point has he told me what to do or interfered with my process. He’s let me run with it, and I’ve enjoyed every moment.

These are small jobs of work, less than a couple of thousand words long, and never more than an afternoon’s work, but they’ve given me immense pleasure.

Fawkes from Wild's End
Back matter isn’t new, it regularly appears in comic books in various forms. It is seldom commented on by reviewers. 

I was surprised and delighted when reviews of Wild's End began to include comments about the back matter that I’d written. I was thrilled when my name began to appear in those reviews. Then, something extraordinary happened,  and it was so extraordinary, and so trippy and it gave me such a huge confidence boost that I’m going to copy it here in all its glory. This review came out on my birthday, and it was written by Matt Carter for Project Nerd.

Wild’s End: Enemy Within #4 of 6 (Boom! Studios)
created by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard; written by Dan Abnett; illustrated and lettered by I.N.J. Culbard; additional material by Nik Abnett

While Dan Abnett’s plot is engaging, his characters endearingly compelling—little Alfie shines in this issue—and Culbard’s illustrative work is some of the best you’ll find anywhere, it’s Nik Abnett’s supplemental material that really ties this series together, making this issue quite a moving read.
Major Helena Upton’s letter to her father is a beautifully written demonstration of feminist defiance inspired by prisoner Susan Peardew’s antagonistic strength during her interrogation back in issue #2. In the letter, Upton identifies as a compassionate woman, daughter, soldier, and rebel—her life is a constant tightrope walk and she’s been suddenly inspired by this seemingly powerless, meek woman who “did not just stand up for the truth…she made a powerful, arrogant man cower before her.” It’s an insurmountable power that comes from a place of total conviction.
This book has been a team effort from the start, but my hat goes off to you for this issue, Mrs. Abnett—the writer and artist are certainly very talented and I love their work, but this one is all you.

I adore the husband, and I admire what he does and how he does it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I write too. I’m never going to be him, but, you know what? I have no ambition to be him; one of us per family is plenty. As a writer, I live somewhere in the depths of a long shadow, and I know that there are worse places to be, but when someone gets a torch and shines a light on me, it’s lovely to bask in that glow for a moment or two. 

The first review came out on my birthday and it was enough. Then, a month later there was a second review, and I got to bask all over again.

Wild’s End #5 of 6 (Boom! Studios)
created by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard; written by Dan Abnett; illustrated and lettered by I.N.J. Culbard; additional material by Nik Abnett

Another stellar issue from the Abnett’s and Mr. Culbard. As this series approaches its final issue, we’ve hit the third act in a highly entertaining, character-driven sci-fi/action story that has been a pleasure to read. The dialogue is peppered with dry, English humor—I’m pretty sure the intended accents of Coggles and Fawksie have only gotten more exaggerated as the story has gotten more intense—and the script has plenty of action, but it’s the on-page chemistry of the characters that really sells this book for me.
I haven’t had a minute to confirm it, but I suspect that there’s an underlying narrative to Nik Abnett’s backup material that will become clear in the final issue. When we all figure it out, we’re going to feel like a bunch of dummies for not getting it sooner. Contrasting with last month’s emotionally moving feminist creed from Major Helena Upton, Abnett gives us some perspective from the subject of Upton’s letter—Susan Peardew, who’s using her writing as a way to simply keep hanging on. It’s a heartbreaking vision of a character who was presented as the portrait of stoicism in last month’s backup, proving that how we are perceived is truly a matter of perspective. I wasn’t the only one who praised Mrs. Abnett’s work last month, and I doubt I’ll be alone in my appreciation this month. Great work, ma’am.

Ceej at Big Comic Page also liked my work. He reviewed issue five of Wilds End, and had this to say, among other good things:

One thing I haven’t touched upon much in my previous reviews is the wonderful ‘bonus material’ that Abnett includes with every issue.  Too busy gushing about the main story, I guess.  While the standard has been consistently high thus far with newspaper articles, diaries and the like, in this particular issue it works even better, taking the form of Susan Peardew’s journal as she seeks outside assistance along with Mr Minks.  With both characters absent from the main story here, this adds some much-needed additional flavor to the issue, allowing us to check in with two of our heroes without having to sacrifice or distract from the main narrative.  Terrific stuff.

I was particularly gratified when the husband left a comment, pointing out that I was actually responsible for the back matter, and agreeing that he and Ian thought it was wonderful, too.

Ceej responded:

Always a pleasure, Dan. I hadn’t realised that about the bonus material, but thanks for the heads up. Great work, Nik!

The second series of Wild's End is about to end, and all the writing is done. I hope the readers and reviewers like the final episode when it hits the racks in February. I shall miss writing the back matter… I already do, but I plan to take this experience forward with me. 

A lot of writers take a great deal of rejection throughout their careers, and I'm no exception to that rule. When I do something right it might be recognised without my name being associated with it, and that's OK, too. But, when they come, recognition and praise are great motivators; they’re no substitutes for hard work, but a little confidence boost never hurt anyone, and I need it as much as any writer does.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

A Thought on the Arts: Where Craft Meets Concept

I was given pause, yesterday. I was given pause and it made me think about the other two occasions in the past few days when I’ve been given pause.

On all three occasions the subject that gave me pause was creativity. They were small things, or at least, not so small in many ways, but the triggers seemed reasonably small in scope at the time. The problem is that all of these three smallish pauses are part of a bigger and more important thought-scape.

It’s something I feel the need to tackle, and yet it is full of contradictions and culs-de-sac… And I’m not even sure where to begin.

Perhaps I should begin at the beginning with the triggers.

Last week, an English undergraduate asked me whether she should consider taking a Masters degree in Creative Writing.
The sale of a Rothko at Sothebys for upwards of £45 million

A couple of days ago a very well known commercial artist who is famous for his SF book jackets talked in the social media about a Rothko that sold last May for upwards of £45 million.

Yesterday, I looked at some art by the twentieth century war artist and illustrator Evelyn Dunbar.

My answer to the student’s question was No… Then I thought about it. It’s more complicated than that, of course.

My response to the news about the Rothko was ‘I bloody love Rothko… and Auerbach and Hodgkin!’

My response to Evelyn Dunbar was that her sketches were energetic and dynamic and extraordinary, and that all of those things were lacking in her finished work.

Now, here’s where I contradict myself, again in three convenient points.

I become deeply frustrated by how poor some contemporary writing is. I wish that books were better written and better edited. I often feel the same way about tv and film scripts. I wish that grammar was taught in schools. I wish that writers had a better understanding of cadence and rhythm. I wish they knew how to develop themes and ideas. All of these things can be taught in English Language classes in school, but don’t seem to be anymore. And, besides none of that really matters because talent can’t be taught.

While art does not have to be figurative to be beautiful, Rothko, Auerbach and Hodgkin did learn conventional skills, and it was those skills that allowed them to make beautiful, accomplished art outside of the constraints of the figurative. It is ignorance to suggest that this form of art has no value, and I was appalled when commenters on the social media thread did just that.

Evelyn Dunbar clearly had talent, but being taught art, studying it, stifled her creativity, hindered her process and did not allow her to produce her best work… Or was that her personality? Did she choose to conform? And this is only my opinion, of course.

Already, I’m in a quandary.

Already, I find that I am contradicting myself.

It is not possible simply to be an artist of any kind, whether that is a writer, a painter or a musician. It is not enough to want to be an artist, one must practice one’s art. It is not enough to have an idea for a story, a song or a picture, one must have the skills to translate those ideas to the page, the stave or the canvas.

Practice is one thing, but learning blindly, alone is difficult. Instruction can be useful.

I know people who can play an instrument by ear, and can therefore compose by ear, but how sophisticated can a piece of music be that cannot be written down? It might be possible to compose a pop song, a verse and a chorus, and to be able to repeat it, but it can only be handed on to another person by repeating it to them, probably more than once.

There is no way to write a concerto, for example, and to hold all of that information in one’s head, to make subtle changes, to draft and redraft each movement, and to arrange it for an orchestra.

To be a serious composer, it must, surely, be important to learn to read music and to play an instrument to a high standard. To be a composer, surely one must have more than a natural ear, one must be trained.

Of course, it’s also possible to take a four year old child and to make it learn an instrument, to give it lessons and make it practice daily, perhaps for decades, and still not produce a talented composer.

Of course, there have been any number of very talented popular musicians who have been self-taught, and singers who've had no vocal coaching. Great music doesn't have to be classical music.

The same is probably true of the painter. Even a talented artist can only learn so much about materials by trial and error. Oils and watercolours are both highly technical mediums to work in, and without some instruction a painter might produce a beautiful painting that simply cannot endure, for example. On the other hand, some of the most beautiful art ever produced has endured for thousands of years, and who knows who painted the walls of the caves at Lascaux? Naive and primitive art does not rely on years of learning skills, but retains its value.

As an art student, my enduring frustration was that I could not realise my ideas because there was no one willing to teach me skills. Ideas, concepts were currency, and I had plenty of them, but I never had the satisfaction of seeing them fully realised, because I simply didn’t have the craft. No value was ever put on the craft.

I know artists with wonderful skills who can do no more than reproduce what is in front of them. They make decorative work devoid of thought or expression, and it seems dull to me.

There are, or at least there have been, schools of art, too. There have been times when there has been a trend, a right or current way to achieve something. We see it in various periods of art history. So, students during those periods conformed to those expectations, but what if their talents naturally lay in other areas? Would they tow the line, or must they rebel to achieve their ends? Would they even graduate art college if they failed to produce what was expected of them?

Writing is very particular among the arts because it simply extends a skill that is universal. We all communicate, we all use words all the time. We don’t all write, not even e-mails or texts, although a great many of us do. But all but a very few of us have the power of speech. We all have a vocabulary. Very nearly all of us learn to read and write, even if we do not read for pleasure. Very nearly all of us partake of some form of entertainment that involves communication, whether that’s the written word or the spoken word, whether it’s books, comics, poetry, radio, tv, movies… Words belong to all of us all of the time.

By comparison to the writing student, many art students have had very little real art training before they head off to art school.

We do not all learn music and we do not all learn art. We do all learn to read and write.

What we need, I think, in all of the arts, is a synthesis of skills and ideas. Neither, on its own, is satisfying for very long, and while ideas will always outlive craft, the best ideas will invariably be taken up by better practitioners in new ways and will always be exploited. Artists with the best ideas and with a compulsion will always, I hope, master the skills to produce outstanding art in any arena. They will always find inspiration from those who’ve gone before, and often from masters and mentors too.

The rest is about personality. Some will need encouragement and support, some will need solitude. Some will need order and routine, some will need spontaneity and chaos. Most, perhaps all, will need instruction. How much instruction and for how long will probably depend on the artist. Some might need tutoring their entire lives, others might prefer to rely on practice and on their own processes.