Surrounding yourself with creativity

Recently, I found myself in a creative slump. I wasn’t motivated to write anything – the ideas for the novel I’m working on were still ticking over in my brain, but I wasn’t actually writing, and I hadn’t even considered writing a poem for months, other than those I had to write for my seminars, and they were turning out flat and lifeless. I lacked motivation, I lacked inspiration, I lacked drive.

And then I went to my local poetry night at the local pub.

It was like a switch was flipped; I got home and immediately wrote two (admittedly godawful) first drafts of poems, and I wrote two more today. Just being in a creative atmosphere made me want to write again. I got my drive back.

It’s worth noting as well that I think it was partially that I was so invested in writing this novel. Not that I don’t want to write it, but I think after being so focused on one thing – especially when it’s taking so long to write given my lack of free time – I needed a little break from it to allow some of the other ideas I’d had in the mean time to work their way out.

So if you’re feeling like you’re in a bit of a writing funk, all I’m saying is that it might be worth stepping back from what you’re working on, and surrounding yourself with people who inspire you with their creativity. Easier said than done sometimes, I know, but it just might be what you need.

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My favourite books: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 

As I haven’t been able to read many new releases recently owing to my rather extensive university reading lists, I thought I could start a series this week, talking about my favourite books, in both my experience with them and why I love them so much. So this week: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

The Night Circus is the book I say in response to the ‘What is your favourite book?’ question from anyone, and though there are many books I enjoyed and appreciate just as much as The Night Circus, so few people I know have read it that I can’t resist the possibility of telling someone about it so they may read and enjoy it too. 

I first read it as a loan from my uncle, who gave it to me as a book he’d read, mildly enjoyed, and thought I might like. I will admit, it took me a while to get into. When I boarded the plane for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2014, I was around 40 pages in. A day and a half into the holiday and I had finished it. I got swept up into the story, invested in every character, unsure of what was going to happen, that I could barely put it down. I have since forced many of my friends to read it, and I still live in hope that the production company that bought the rights will make the film someday.

The premise sounds strange when described, and it is so difficult to describe. There’s a circus that ‘appears without warning’, is only open at night, and disappears again. The Circus is in fact a stage for a duel between Marcus and Celia, both bound at birth to be engaged in a duel of magic until one of them wins. And every character within the Circus has a role to play.

One of the key reasons I love this book so much is its characters. You care about every single one, no matter how many are introduced as the story progresses. I think one of the reasons this is is Morgenstern’s masterful use of a non-chronological narrative – the story leaps forwards and backwards in time, with headings on each chapter to tell you where and when you are each time. Through this, you see the world of the circus introduced to the different characters, and see how they fit it in with the wider narrative.

The premise of the novel seemed so unique to me as well. The idea of young and old arguing as to whose way is better is obviously ages old, but the framing of the Night Circus, open only for a few days, arriving unannounced, was just so enticing. As a reader, you are like one of the many normal visitors to the circus who are described in a few vague chapters dotted throughout the novel. You walk around with the other people, admiring these things that you could never dream of appearing so vividly in front of your eyes as Morgenstern’s words come to life.

The ending of the book also worked really well – it did not feel forced, it was very satisfying, and it still left me in tears.

The Night Circus is almost as magical as its namesake circus is itself, and that’s why it remains firmly in my list of my favourite books.

I won Camp NaNoWriMo 2017! (sort of)

Before this July, I had never done Camp NaNoWriMo. I’d done NaNoWriMo, in November, twice, and won once. I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo this year because I thought the motivation of a concrete goal would be very helpful in my attempt to write the first draft of a novel over this summer – I’d found the same motivation helpful before, so why not now?

The thing I didn’t realise about Camp NaNoWriMo before starting that I absolutely loved is that you set your own goal. In my case, I set it to 30,000 words, and began. Then, once I got my work schedule through, and it got towards the end of the month, I decreased this to 15,000 words to keep me motivated. What happened when I did NaNoWriMo the year before last is that the month got away from me, and halfway through November, I only had 6,000 words, and no feeling that I would be able to achieve the 50,000 word goal, so I gave up. With an editable goal, this is not the case. The only issue with this is that as the month draws to a close, you might be tempted to edit your goal down to what you already have and call it a day. You’ve just got to have the self-discipline not to do that.

The key thing that I took away from this is clear: having a goal kept me motivated. Through writer’s block, through tiredness, through procrastination, through lows, and through sheer laziness, I had a goal to work towards, and so I did. And though I may not have a full novel, I have certainly worked out a lot about the world of it that I hadn’t already thought of through simply having to essentially live in it for a month. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone – at the price of free, it provides the motivation that anyone like me so desparately needs to get your butt into gear and write that novel that’s been sitting in your head all this time. And, if you’re like me, work out quite a few teething issues with your story along the way!

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: brilliant inside and out

I had heard about The Girl of Ink and Stars many times from many people before I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave – it was Children’s Book of the Month not once but twice at Waterstones, (later going on to win Children’s Book of the Year), was a Financial Times Book of the Year, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Award, and was shortlisted for both the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award. Not only that, but many people I trust for book recommendations and follow online, such as Carrie Hope Fletcher on YouTube, read it and recommended it. And I, as an aspiring young adult author, really wanted to read it.

Initially, many other books got in my way. Naturally, studying an English and Creative Writing degree, I had a lot of poems, novels, short stories, and plays to read for my course, and these obviously took precedence. Everytime I walked into my local Waterstones, there was a lovely display of copies of the book, in windows or on the tables, and I desparately wanted to pick up a copy, but just… didn’t.

But then I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She came to do a guest lecture at my university about writing “children’s” fiction was inspiring, especially for someone like me who sits working on my young adult novel whilst my friends work on amazing pieces that sit nicely under the label of ‘literary fiction’. She was incredibly lovely, no pretenses that the process was easy as she projected the word counts of her numerous drafts to show how the first draft was never the finished product, frank talk about the effect of mental illness on her writing process and how she battled through it, and information about the way things are done publishing-wise either side of the pond. She also discussed with us how ridiculous it is that some books are considered better than others due to their genre, a sentiment I very much share. Needless to say, The Girl of Ink and Stars jumped up my reading list, and I bought a copy almost immediately. And I am so glad I did.

The first thing that amazed me was the beauty of the whole book. The cover itself is gorgeous, but the pages themselves are where the true amazement lies. Each page is decorated like a map in keeping with the protagonist Isabella’s dreams and her father’s job as a cartographer. The result is that every page feels like a step on the journey that the characters undertake, mapping out the unknown of their island. I’ve never seen pages like it, and I urge you to pick up the book if only to see the pages.

The only potential issue with a gorgeous cover is that sometimes the contents don’t quite live up to their presentation.

This book definitely did not have that issue.

The story centres around the character of Isabella, who volunteers to guide a search for her friend after she gets lost in what the people of her village call ‘The Forgotten Territories’. More than eager to explore the island and chart it on a map, following in the footsteps of her father, a cartographer, she ventures in to the Forgotten Territories with the search party, and finds herself facing a lot more trouble than she initially expected.

The exposition of the story is slow and subtle, revealing a world that is not too dissimilar from our own – after all, Kiran Millwood Hargrave does say that the places in all of her novels are real places, but they obviously feature some slight embellishments. The relationships between the characters are great – I particularly enjoyed seeing the friendship between Isabella and Lupe, as a focus on friendship rather than romance is so refreshing to see. The mythic elements were really interesting, and tied well into the rest of the plot.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been a little longer. As it was, at just over 200 pages, I felt the world wasn’t explored to its full potential. I would love to have seen adventures spanning over the whole island in depth, as there are some villages displayed on the map that are barely visited, only for a page or two, and some that are not visited at all. The world of the book was so great, it just seemed a shame to leave it at what felt almost like the bare minimum exploration, especially when the protagonist talks about how much she wants to explore the entire island of Joya throughout the novel.

Overall,  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and adventure, and wants to read something refreshing.

The Transition by Luke Kennard: a reflection of issues of a highly possible near future

The first thing I noticed when picking up Luke Kennard’s debut novel the Transition was, as it so often is with any book, the cover. It certainly stands out – the blue cover with plain white writing and a weird circle would be expected more of a textbook than fiction.

The premise in itself is very interesting, which is always a good start. The novel is set in a near future, where there is a secret program that goes by the name of the Transition, aimed at people who have committed crimes in an attempt at reformation of character. In this program, you and your partner live with a couple older than you, who attempt to teach you their ways. Karl and his wife Genevieve are the couple who are subject to the Transition in the novel, after Karl is convicted of fraud and a tax infraction. The novel explores their experience through the Transition, the problems that they face, and the truths that Karl uncovers.

One very interesting thing about the book is that you are kept as in the dark as Karl. He discovers things that are somewhat fishy about the Transition, but his mentors, Janna and Stu, have responses to any and all of the queries he raises. It is up to you as a reader, as it is up to Karl, to believe whichever side you find most reasonable. The better side is more defined at the end, but the ambiguity throughout leads to uncertainty as to how the novel will end. Normally, I can predict the ending of any plot, and so I was a little wary to finish this book as any ending I could imagine was unsatisfying – if there’s one thing I hate, it’s an unsatisfying ending. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. It made perfect sense, and now I’ve read it, I can’t imagine it ending any other way.

Kennard also explores the issue of mental health very tactfully within the novel. However, it would have been nice to have Genevieve as not so much of a damsel in distress all the time, requiring Karl’s constant supervision (at least, in Karl’s opinion). Her success is depicted as a result of mania before depression, which is not unrealistic, but it would have been nice to see her have some further character development. I understand that her not having any development is representative of the cyclical nature of her mental health issues, but even the slightest development would be appreciated – something to show that she is a capable unique person in spite of her mental health issues. Regardless, the manner in which everyone treated Genevieve with relation to her mental health issues was the most truthful and good to see – the way Karl describes people ‘running for the hills’ when she takes a turn for the worst is not dissimilar to the way I have seen people act both in my own personal experience and in the experience of others. The treatment of mental health in the modern day is something that we seriously need to address, and Kennard certainly highlights that through this.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes being afraid for our future as the human race. Kennard’s switch from poetry to prose seems effortless, and I look forward to reading any future novels that he writes.