A Magpie With No Shame: Unpicking Creative Process

thieving-magpieMy Deputy Head Teacher would be dead proud of me for using the term “unpick”.  I think it’s her favourite word.  Ever.  “Let’s unpick this.”  A catch-phrase deserving of a t-shirt.  And as I sit here waiting for my agent to read and respond to the first draft of my second novel, I feel a real urge to unpick.

One of the first questions creative people are asked, when they produce something worth commenting on, is “where/how/why did you come up with that?”  The answer can be complex.  Sometimes I’m not really sure where/how/why I came up with that.  Sometimes I look at the words on the page and genuinely question if they are mine because I really don’t remember writing that bit.  Where/how/why did my creative process spit that up?

I vaguely remember at University reading Charles Bukowski (someone forced me to do it) and I think he likened his writing process to having a really good poo.  Either that, or he said something different and I said: “no it’s like having a really good poo.”  My recollections of the nineties are a bit hazy but I’m pretty sure whatever I said was genius.

One thing I do know about my creative process is that I am a magpie with no shame.  Someone dangles a bright, shiny idea and I grab it.  I often joke with my students, who worry hugely about someone stealing their ideas, that you should definitely steal each other’s ideas.  “Take ‘em,” I say.  “Make ‘em yours.  I myself have not had an original thought since 1985.”  Then I have to explain carefully about plagarism.

Law suits aside, I am a big fan of the magpie creative process.  In fact, I’m going to call it that: The Magpie Creative Process. If I ever get to name my own company or anything, it’s going to be Magpie.  Magpie Records.  Magpie Publishing.  Magpie Pictures.  Magpie Inc.  Or possibly even Magpie Ink.  It could be a publishing company, magazine and tattoo parlour.

So what is The Magpie Creative Process?  Is it safe?  How does it work?  Can I do it?  Can I use the name Magpie Ink?  The answer to all these questions is “Yes.”  Except, of course, for the last one.  Magpie Ink is mine.  Hands off, you thieving bastards.

The first rule of Magpie is definitely talk about Magpie.  I use ideas from the world around me all the time: people’s lives, people’s looks, people’s names.  Most are so heavily masked in make-believe that even the person I magpied (yes, it’s a verb now) would probably not recognise themselves.  But occasionally the resemblances have been so obvious that I felt permission should be granted first.  Truman Becket, a character in Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs, is the name of my friend’s son.  With a name like that how could it not end up in a plot?  I explained to her that I wanted to name my villain after him.  She said: “fine, as long as he doesn’t murder puppies in the book.”  No dead puppies.  Check.

One of my former students appears in both my books (Oliver Ford in A Circle of Lost Sisters and Seb Streeter in Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs) in a slightly diluted form.  He asked to die horribly if I used him.  I’m afraid I have not granted that particular request.  Yet.  (mwahaha)

My insistence on asking permission is less a legal issue than one of courtesy.  In real life Truman Becket is a cherubic five-year-old living in America.  My Becket is a mentally unstable nine-hundred-year-old Yorkshire monk.  Name and eye-colour is all they share.  No chance of libel or lawsuit really.  But she’s a friend.  It’s an unusual name.  Magpie values courtesy.

My next rule of Magpie is start with what’s close.  Or who’s close.  Some writers write what they know, I tend to write what other people know but do it in a way which makes them quite pleased I used their idea rather than really annoyed that I magpied their brain.

For both of my novels, my family started me off.  Lost Sisters was inspired by my daughter Freya’s obsession with wolves.  After I finished Lost Sisters, my husband Paul suggested I leave the werewolves for a while and try a ghost story.  In the manner of one blindly throwing a dart, I asked Freya: “How long has my ghost been dead?”  She replied instantly: “A hundred and thirty years.”  Right, late Victorian.  I can do that.

After rolling ideas around in my head for a few weeks, I shared them with yet more family.  I find it helps to get them drunk first.  My brother-in-law Rob came up with the name Burly-the-Wath because he bicycles past a town called Wath and he thought it was cool because it sounds a bit like Wrath.  (Like I said, get them drunk first.)  My father-in-law Mike deserves credit for creating most of the Truman Becket-Tom Street myth, though he claims he remembers none of it even after I showed him the notes I scribbled while he was talking.  Others I have magpied include my other brother-in-law who runs a forest burial trust, the librarian at my school who shared photographs of the nineteenth century library where she once worked and the dearly departed, never forgotten lady who gave me my first job at a bookstore and wore so many bracelets on her arms it was difficult to hear her if she gestured emphatically while speaking.

Never be afraid to ask questions.  This is a rule for life really, but it’s also at the core of Magpie.  Talk to people.  Tell them about an idea you have and listen to what they say.  Then use it.  Or not.  Magpies can reject that which is shiny if it doesn’t suit the nest.

Magpies are Green.  Not green in colour but Green environmentally.  Magpies Reduce, Reuse and (above all) Recycle.  The idea of a Norn-like magical trio of women connected to a school was one I originally had for Lost Sisters.  In every school three people always seem to know everything that goes on: the secretary, the librarian and the caretaker.  I loved the idea of making these three people the legendary all-seeing sisters.  But it didn’t quite fit the story.  That nest didn’t need them.  Rather than reject the idea, I re-used it for Dead Maiden’s where secretary, librarian and caretaker became Crone, Mother and Maiden of my witch coven.  Magpies know there’s always another nest.

Pride is for eagles, not for Magpies.  I know writers who never show their work to anyone.  Possibly this is out of fear.  I have shown my writing to people hundreds of times and each time felt like part of me was going to die.  I can’t watch but I can’t look away.  It’s a terrifying train wreck.  But I do it because other people make me a better writer.  At first I needed the reassurance that I was not wasting my time.  That I had something to say.  Now I want specifics.  Do you care about the characters?  Does the story make sense?  Are you scared?  Did you cry?  Do you believe that relationship?

The first thing I say to Beta Readers is: “I am not precious about my work and I am not too proud to accept criticism.”  To their credit, my youngest Beta Readers, who are also my students, rise happily to this challenge.  In fact, they’re bloody lucky I have a thick skin and can’t put them in detention on the grounds of harsh feedback.  Irritatingly, they can also be inconsistent.  Too much description.  Not enough description.  Love the action.  Too much action.  Needs a vampire.  Don’t you dare add vampires.

When presented with many sparkly things, clever magpies select only the right ones for the nest they’re building and saves the rest for another day.

Be your own Magpie.  Picking and choosing from my own life is probably my greatest resource as a writer.  This is not news.  Every writer does this.  It’s instinct.  Like swallowing your food after chewing.  Only, after writers chew through the events of our lives, we write it down.  Then we swallow.

When my husband said “ghost story” I remembered something that haunted my childhood.  In a town very near the one I grew up in was a high school surrounded by cornfields.  Across the road from the school was a graveyard.  A graveyard!  As if schools aren’t terrifying enough.  How could anyone concentrate in class when, at any moment, the dead could rise up across the road and invade the cafeteria?

As soon as I knew I wanted to write a ghost story, I thought of that school.  The history of St Beckets sprang up from the idea of a school across from a churchyard.

Patient magpies watch attentively, listen alertly and wait for the right moment to dive.  All artists are professional watchers.  Actors, painters, musicians, dancers, writers—we all watch.  We’re watching you right now.  Everyday.  It’s what we do.  And if we’re not watching we’re listening.  To every word you say.  To the way you say it.  To the look on your face.  We watch.  We Listen.  We take.  And we’re pretty darn shameless about it.

Magpies adapt.  By now you are probably sitting there thinking: “Aw, hell!  You’re not very clever or creative.  You just takes magpieother people’s stuff and makes it you own.  You’re no better than Shakespeare!”  Well, allow me to retort: umm…yeah, kinda.

I freely confess to being a shameless magpie with my creative process.  My mind swoops and soars overhead looking for glittery people, sparkly moments, shining images.  I listen out for golden words and silvery phrases.  I take what I need to build my nest.

But theft is not the magpie’s gift.  It is adaptation.  Magpies don’t dive into Tiffany’s and peck out something precious and valued.  We take things others leave behind.  Beautiful, horrible, painful, delightful, funny things which lie unnoticed or unused or deemed too inappropriate for public consumption.  We shamelessly take them and shape them into a world of our own.  We make magic from left-overs.

Making magic from left-overs.  That should be the catch phrase of Magpie Ink.  Deserves a t-shirt.


Investigating Teen Angst and the Success Criteria for a YA Fictional Hunk

Today marked the final morning of lessons for another school year.  While many teachers let their students play games or put on a DVD , I interrogated my classes in the name of literary research.  The theme: what questions do you regularly ask yourself?

According to the gathering of experts at this past weekend’s Harrogate Crime Writer’s Festival, a good book should start with an interesting question to explore.  This, apparently, is the first step in creating a novel.  My previous creative strategy was to think up some really cool characters, get readers to care about them, then hurl endless mud pies of trauma in their faces to see what happens.  But questions sound like the basis of something more substantial.  I can work with questions.

merenoWhat kind of questions though?  I mean, I know the sorts of questions I obsessed about when I was a teenager but that was almost thirty years ago.  Do today’s teenagers think about the same sorts of things?  Turns out, they do.

Where do I fit into the world?  What’s going to happen to me?  Who should I look like?  Am I good enough?  What do others think of me?  How do I measure up to other people?  Am I liked?  What do I have to do to get where I want to be in life?  Do all good things have to end?  Why don’t I just go kill myself?  Will I ever find anyone to like me?  Should I really do this thing that so and so wants me to do?  Will they like me if I don’t?  What right do these people have to tell me what to do anyway?  Does all this crap really mean anything?   

I found it rather comforting to learn that teenagers have not changed significantly since the eighties.  In fact, I suspect they have remained fairly consistent since their invention in the mid-twentieth century.  I found it less comforting when I learned that thirteen-year-old girls still feel the need to “act dumb” to entice boys.  Grim.

These same thirteen-year-old girls had very definite ideas about the kind of boy their stupidity should attract.  While there are no real surprises on this list, I did learn a new term or two.  Again, as an adult writer of YA fiction I found it interesting to realise that teens never change.

Success Criteria for a Fictional YA Romantic Hero

(as decided by the girls of 8H1D1)

1) Tall.  Tall?  Apparently yes.  This was unanimous.  Thirteen-year-old girls in the 21st century still like to “feel protected”.  So, you still got some work to do there, Buffy.

2) Funny.  That’s better.  This was also unanimous and is backed up by Caitlin Moran who firmly believes that “if, after fifty years of sitcoms on television, you have not learned at least a few good jokes then you are fairly useless as a bloke.”

frankie-cocozza-feat bw copy3) Nice hair.  Naturally I asked them to qualify what they meant by “nice hair”.  Very short, neat hair is not acceptable.  It should be wavy, a bit long and slightly floppy.  But only if that suits the boy.  These girls then proceeded to point out three boys in their class with long hair who were not suitable.

4) A bit naughty.  Smartly uniformed boys who never get told off in lessons, always turn in homework and open doors for their mums are absolutely off the menu.   One young lady described her dream boy as “rough and ready”.  Aside from the amount of time these boys spend standing outside the Head Teacher’s Office, a drool worthy hottie should push the boundaries of school uniform: black jeans instead of trousers, tie worn off to the side, blazer always bundled into a bag.

tumblr_m7jh31lsy51rzrh78o1_5005) Cheekbones.  This surprised me, as it seems like such a subtle detail of appearance for teenage girls to focus on.  They were in universal agreement however.  A nicely sculpted pair of cheekbones is essential.

6) Not too hairy.  This is a bit of a wasted criteria element because, as I pointed out to them, there is little danger of too much hairy on a teenage boy.

7) A good “V-line”.  A what?  Apparently the “V-Line” is a side-effect of a well-formed six-pack.  The handy visual aid to the right shows in vivid detail what the v-line points to.  Who knew thirteen-year-old girls were so saucy?


So now, thanks to my Breaktime Lads and the Ladies of 8H1D1 I have questions to consider for my latest novel and a blueprint for Lewis Breeze, my fanciable anti-hero.  In terms of Floretta Deliverance Hughes, I am left with three interesting questions to explore.  What happens when a girl who believes she’d be better off dead accidentally succeeds then returns to haunt the world she hated?  Another character Rosie Lightowler, knows exactly where life is taking her, but what happens when tragic circumstances force her to completely re-think her place in the world?  For Lewis Breeze, a boy who has made not giving a toss his entire persona, can he find meaning and purpose to his life?

All of these characters, in different ways, will ask: “Why don’t I just kill myself?”  Ultimately this question is about finding something to live for–someone or something to live for and fight for and die for.  Maybe the real question then is: “What would you die for?”  Or possibly even: “How do you know you’ve found something worth living for?”