A message to my future (present) self regarding the removal of all my adult teeth.

<Note: on the 9th November 2023 I had surgery to remove all my remaining adult teeth and replace them with dentures. This was due to the pain and trauma I had experienced over a period of 18 months at the hands of a dentist who removed a tooth in such a way that I experienced nerve damage, and carried out treatment on others that left me in so much pain they also had to be removed. The dentist then moved away from New Zealand, leaving me with some hefty dental bills, many other dental issues to resolve, and PTSD. I was subsequently let down by four other dentists before I eventually managed to find an amazing one who did his absolute best to fix all my issues. Unfortunately, it was too late, and the decision was made for a full plate clearance. I could write volumes about everything that has happened in 2022/2023, but I think it best not to dwell on that, and to round off the experience with this short, cathartic letter to myself.>

Dearest T,

You’re going to worry about this. A lot. Even when you don’t realise that you are, the thoughts will be buzzing around your brain almost constantly in the weeks running up to the surgery. You find out the date around six weeks before it is due to happen, which feels both far too long to wait and hardly any time at all. You’re in a lot of pain, especially in teeth that have had some recent (traumatic… failed…) work done. The only way to fix them is to take them out. The dentist asks you if you want to do it before the others, but you can’t face it then. Somehow it feels easier to just keep taking the painkillers like you have been for months, and know that the end is coming. 

You have a lot of email conversations with ACC who tell you they can’t pay for all of the surgery, the sedation and the dentures. You start a Givealittle page. You are completely blown away by the kindness of friends and strangers who raise over $2000 dollars so you can pay for your new teeth.

You cry a lot. But that’s not new. You’ve been crying a lot for a long time now. Just a few more weeks to go.

On the day of the surgery you feel worn out, mostly from lack of sleep and stress. The dentist, his assistant, and the anaesthetist are all truly lovely. They do everything they can to put you at ease. You explain you are more worried about the sedation than the procedure. They tell you that’s normal and to relax as much as possible. The anaesthetist puts the cannula in your arm and a pulse monitor on your finger. She adds the sedation medication and you can feel it flowing in your arm; cold and slightly painful, but it doesn’t last. She says, “you might be feeling some effects now,” and you can’t remember if you reply or not as suddenly the time has jumped and you’re aware of the dentist doing his job, but you don’t care in the slightest. You feel calm and relaxed and in no pain, and almost as soon as you realise you are in no pain it is time to get up as the procedure is over. 

The anaesthetist hands you two paracetamol and you dribble water all down yourself trying to take them, as you have no control over your jaw. You can feel the new dentures pressing on your gums. They feel huge and you’re not sure you can close your mouth properly. It doesn’t hurt much, but it does throb. You can feel your pulse in your non-existent teeth. Dave, your husband, drives you home. You lie on the sofa, too wired to rest, still in some sort of dazed state. You see yourself for the first time in the bathroom mirror, and you’re shocked at how swollen your face is. You don’t look like you. The teeth seem too big. You worry that you’ve made a mistake.

Week 1 you take so many painkillers you don’t remember most of what happens. You also take so many selfies, trying to get used to how you now look. You lie in the bath and smile at the camera and wonder who this person is on the screen. Your family say they can hardly see any difference, but to you, your reflection is alien. 

You see the dentist the day after the surgery so he can see how things are going. He asks you if you’re happy with how things look, and you tell him, to be honest, no. But everything is healing nicely and the dentures fit really well, so you have to trust that things will settle and improve. That you won’t feel this way forever. You feel cautiously optimistic, and relieved that the worst is over, but you’re also high a lot of the time, and thinking about anything is too hard. 

Week 2, the pain is different. It’s not like what you’ve been through in the last 18 months. It’s pain from a wound that is healing. It feels like it has an end. The dentures rub sore spots and ulcers, which drive you to distraction. It is normal, and you knew to expect it, but it’s difficult to endure. The dentist takes some of the plastic away, grinding it with a tool. It helps, but it’s still tiring. You feel sad, mostly. Exhausted. You question your choices and decisions. It’s hard to know what to eat, how to sleep. You can’t bear to look at your healing mouth, but you can feel hard lumps with your tongue. The dentist says it’s bone coming through. You choose to leave it as the gums might grow over it, the other option being to have it removed, and you can’t face that right now.

You have a call with your boss as you’ve decided to leave your job. She makes a comment on how you look and speak differently and you just laugh it off, but the words hit deep and it bothers you. Codeine is your friend still; it helps you sleep, helps you cope, helps you not lose your mind. The crying starts again.

Week 3 the bone is still coming through the gum. The dentist says it will be more comfortable to remove it, you agree, but you’re not quite prepared for the process. He uses bone cutters to remove the spurs. You get through the appointment and then fall apart. You can’t seem to control your moods. As always, the dentist is lovely and completely understands. But you’re tired of crying and feeling so weak. You wish you were stronger, more capable. 

A good friend reminds you of how much you’ve been through and the kindness you need to show yourself. Crying is not a weakness, they tell you, it is an honest expression of how you’re feeling. How you’re processing everything that has happened. You remind yourself of how you got through the worst of this last year, by reframing the situation. The events that led up to this decision are the result of someone else’s actions and mistakes. You have to think of it like a car accident, and the injuries are not your fault. You cannot control what has happened, but you can control how you go forwards now. 

You cut your hair and put on some makeup. You mess about with the clothes in your wardrobe. You take more selfies, and they seem better this time. The swelling has almost gone down. You look more like how you remember yourself, just with better teeth than you’ve ever had in your life. 

Week 4 and things are easing. You take less painkillers, and your gums are almost healed. You have a routine of washing and wearing the dentures, and you use denture paste to relieve the sore spots. You make a big bowl of pasta with grated cheese and you eat it while watching a comedy program. It is only after you’ve finished you realise you have eaten for the first time in the past few weeks without your whole focus being on eating. It still feels wrong sometimes, the dentures make some movements of your mouth unnatural and they often feel cumbersome and strange, but you’re getting more used to how they fit, and how you need to use the muscles of your jaw. 

You smile more and laugh easier. You make a joke in the pharmacy when she can’t understand you, and it feels okay, a little daft but not sad. You sneeze one morning and the top ones almost fly across the kitchen. Two weeks ago this would have made you miserable, now you just have to laugh. Bone spurs work their way out the gums and you don’t feel as shocked as you used to. It feels like someone has turned the difficulty down. You’re not playing on ‘hard mode’ anymore.  

One month exactly from the surgery date. It’s hard. Really hard. You still have off-days where you’re frustrated and unsure, and the dentures cause pain and you’re tired. But you’re coping. You’re adjusting. You’re winning. You don’t regret the decision you made, even if you wish you hadn’t had to make it. 

An online friend posts a quote from The Lord of the Rings, and it hits you right in the heart.

Frodo says, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

You know very deeply how Frodo feels, but also understand Gandalf‘s response. You’ve been given more time than you thought you had. Time that is pain and trauma free. You thought at one point this would have no end, that you would have to endure the aftermath forever. You thought you would hate the dentist who did this to you always… and you will! But you will also learn to let that hatred go and live a good life. He’s not important to your story anymore. 

There is still a lot to overcome and get used to. Gum heals quickly, in a matter of weeks, bone takes many months. Your mind may take much longer still. But that’s okay. Just keep going. You’re doing so, so well, and I’m really proud of you.  

So, That Was 2021

Kia ora! Just popping by on the last day of the year to leave my final update of 2021 (and also so I can tick off one of last year’s goals, to make a blog post every month!)

I’ll keep it brief…

Very Good Writing-Related Things:

  • I released my second short story collection SEEDS in October to fabulous response and reviews
  • I won an Australian Horror Writers Association (AHWA) award for Best Nonfiction, for my essay on menstruation in horror and dark fiction
  • I was a AHWA finalist for another essay and for Best Collected Work (BLACK DOGS, BLACK TALES with co-editor Cassie Hart)
  • I was a finalist for a Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Fan Writing (also, menstruation in horror and dark fiction)
  • I had two books accepted into my local library catalogues, as well as my poetry chapbook BEACH GLASS & OLD BONES
  • Accepted stories, 4 – Accepted poems, 7 – Accepted essays, 8 (including on The Spinoff) – Features, interviews and other articles, 7
  • BLACK DOGS, BLACK TALES was mentioned in BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR Vol. 13 by Ellen Datlow.

Other Good Things:

  • I “levelled-up” in my day job and I am really enjoying it. It challenges me while also making me feel extremely proud of the help I am giving others.
  • My family have made our house and garden more how we want it, which has increased productivity *and* rest time.
  • I found more of my people and made some new, wonderful friends this year. Some of them I may never meet in person, but they have helped me through a lot. I also feel like I have strengthened some IRL friendships despite hiding myself away a lot due to COVID fears.
  • I have improved my writing and editing skills, and felt much more confident about dipping into other genres. I feel like I finally understand what I am good at and what I am *best* at.

My Resolutions for 2022:

  • I only really have one: keep writing!
  • Finally, a massive thank you to everyone who has supported me this year; those who saw me through my wobbles when I almost gave up writing, those who bought a book, left a review or otherwise told me how much my stories meant to them, those who leant me their skills and wisdom, and gave up their time to help me be the best I could be–I appreciate you all greatly.

    Here’s to 2022 and some brand new stories!

    Scatter My Ashes Over Water, Let My Soul Go Where the Ocean Roars.

    I’ve waited a while to post this, hopeful that it might find another home elsewhere. Alas, that is not to be, and perhaps the truth is it belongs right here, on my blog.

    I also want to acknowledge my privilege that as a tauiwi immigrant with a complex relationship with the country I was born in, I am a grateful guest in the beautiful country of Aotearoa, New Zealand, here only on my merits. While I feel at home here, it is not my land, nor will it ever be.

    This piece describes my very personal relationship with the ocean, the journeys I have made both physically and spiritually, and where I am in the world.

    There is a poster of a world map stuck with Blu-Tack in the entryway to the side of my front door. I put it there for my kids to marvel at. Mostly to make them realise just how far we have come, but also, perhaps, to instil in them the same passion and interest I have for cartography.  The very same version had been pinned to the wall in our old semi-detached in England. Back then, we stuck coloured stars on all the places where our friends and family lived overseas. A purple one, my favourite colour, placed over Wellington, “the Coolest Little Capital” of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Despite the longing I had harboured for many years, seeing the city for myself seemed so desperately far away. 

    The map in my hallway

    That map in England grew old. It was hung up for so long it got sun-bleached and torn at the edges. I’d been sad to remove it while packing to leave and I bought a replacement online on a whim. It travelled on a boat for almost three months rolled up in a cardboard tube before it reached its destination. A pristine, carbon copy of its predecessor; a stark reminder and a fresh start. 

    It is unusually quiet in our house this afternoon. I leave my laptop and head to the kitchen. The kids are in their bedroom playing Minecraft with their friends. My husband is still at work in the city. I’ve been working the best part of the day myself; planning, researching, trying to write. The words are being fickle and elusive today, no doubt I’ll delete more than I keep. 

    I pause on my way back to my desk, sipping from a mug of hot coffee. Most days, I forget the map is there, it feels part of the scenery now. No stars on this one, but a flurry of miniature Post-It notes from when the kids went through my old coin collection and identified where in the world they were all from. It’s funny, I did very much the same as a child. A numismatist since I was seven years old and received an errant French ten centime piece in my pocket money change. I was always less interested in the coins themselves and more where they had come from. Where they’d been. Who had held them? What of their lives?

    A dull orange light from the afternoon sun streaks through the glass panes by the front door. It dapples the hallway carpet and throws tiny starbursts on the map. I put a finger on the bottom of Te Ika-a-Māui, approximately where I know Pōneke to be. I imagine my nail tip is the prow of a boat, and I “sail” counterclockwise across the vast, cerulean expanse of Te Moana nui a Kiwa. I skirt the edge of South America’s Cape Horn—known by sailors as “The End of the World”—and swing upwards through the full length of the Atlantic Ocean. I bear right past Iceland and the Faroe Islands where the waters grow colder and murkier in tone, then down, down, and around into the North Sea. There, I land in Whitby. 

    There are a lot of good things about growing up in a small town where pretty much everyone knows who you are, and everyone knows everybody else. That sense of safety, community, and local identity wraps around you like a comfortable blanket. But if you don’t feel like you fit, grow tired or want more, that blanket grows smothering and heavy. Soon, you start to notice how tatty it is. The dropped stitches and frayed edges that bind you. Those same threads pull together like a net. A trap. And so, you begin to look in earnest for a way to get out. An escape from the past, and Past You. 

    Sometimes, the worst of it is not that smothering, drowning, feeling of confinement, but knowing that everyone you grew up with has already decided who and what you are, and all that you’re capable of. There is a box in that community with your name on it, and don’t you dare forget it.

    I was pulled and I was pushed, and I took a leap of faith. There were false starts and uncertainties, mistakes made along the way. But going back? That was never an option.  

    Me, age 9 at the outskirts of Whitby, UK.

    I am a water-baby. I’ve known that forever. As far back as I can remember, I have been drawn to the ocean. A wrenching, grasping, unignorable need to be near water. A quick Google tells me I am a thalassophile—a person who loves, and feels a strong attachment to, the ocean, sea, and other large bodies of water. The word derives from the Greek terms thalassa, meaning sea, and phile, a person who has a fondness for a specified thing. In Ancient Greek mythology, Thalassa was a goddess and primeval spirit of the sea. A thalassophile needs water like most people need air. They feel intimately linked to the ocean waves and are soothed by the sea breeze. They thrive when they are close to the water and suffer when they are not. 

    During my childhood the sea was always there, and I took it for granted in many ways. The village I grew up in, where I spent eighteen years of my life, was a scant two miles from the nearest beach. No distance at all to an adventurous child with a bicycle and a desire to escape. I spent many hours one summer in my early teens, tramping over the local fields with my neighbour’s rather portly dog in tow, walking to the coast and back. It was no longer overweight by the time autumn rolled around. 

    My adolescence was often spent hanging out on the beach with my friends; walking, chatting, jumping over the waves. Then later, older, but still not quite all of us legal, when we were turned out from the local pubs at last orders, we were made brave by too many vodka shots while our clothes reeked of cigarette smoke, and we dared each other to jump from the pier into ice-cold, grey, harbour water. 

    A statue of King Richard III outside Leicester Cathedral

    The older I got, the more I drifted away, leaving the sea behind me. University led me north up the coast and then west, inland surrounded by industry. My career kept me busy, no time to wander. I would visit my hometown as often as I could, but never as often as I would like. Until eventually, circumstances borne of new love and fresh starts, led me to Leicester, one of the oldest cities in England. The place where a council carpark marked the final resting place of the last Plantagenet, King Richard III of York. It was quite possibly the most landlocked place I could possibly be, and I felt it in my bones. Sometimes so strong it physically hurt. I grew sick, weak, and dreadfully unhappy. 

    When I needed comfort in my darkest times, I would lie on my bed with headphones on, a white noise app on my phone and the sound of the sea in my ears. I could close my eyes and fool myself for a moment I was where I wanted, no, needed to be. 

    My identity is linked to the sea. My Norse ancestors traversed the Northern oceans in longships to establish settlements in what was known as Streanæshealh, a place where Oswy, the Christian king of Northumberland founded the first abbey, guided by the abbess Hilda. Viking raiders destroyed the abbey in 876, with a new monastery founded in 1078. The Norse renamed the settlement to its current name, Whitby, from the Old Norse hvítr (white) and býr (village). Until the 18th century Whitby flourished primarily as a fishing village, when shipbuilding, whaling and the jet trade took over. It is a tourist town now, as the worlds needs have changed, with fishing providing only a fraction of its economy and employment. 

    For a tiny little town it has a lot to experience, in part thanks to its saturation in local myths and legends. The imposing, ruined gothic Whitby Abbey inspired Bram Stoker to write his vampire opus, ‘Dracula’. Saint Mary’s Church stands at the edge of the cliffs, 199 stone steps leading up to it. There is a memorial museum dedicated to Captain James Cook—explorer, navigator, cartographer. (I don’t like him much, but that’s another story.) A working steam train travels the moors and has featured in a number of Hollywood films. The Victorian museum is stuffed to the rafters with artifacts and curios from all around the world. One such highlight; a mummified, severed hand of a hanged man known as a Hand of Glory. Its fingertips were set alight and used by burglars to put their marks to sleep, and it terrified me to tears as a child. Along the cobbled streets of the Old Part of town and amongst the redstone buildings across the historic swing bridge, there are tea shops, fish ‘n’ chip shops and sweet shops galore! Whitby’s money is in people now, not in trade. 

    But it’s an old town for old people. It doesn’t offer much to the young. Or maybe I just haven’t thrown off that blanket of bad memories yet. I still feel the ties that bound me. I surprise myself sometimes, at how angry I feel, how small my life could have been.

    My great, great grandmother Amelia Peart in Whitby. Credit: Francis Frith Collection

    I don’t need to go back to the Vikings to know my family has always been tied to the sea. They were fishermen. Lobster catchers. Net makers and menders. Boat builders and lifeboat crews. A long line of individuals living their lives on, by and in the water, knowing nothing else than the sharp tang of salt in the freezing air, the chill of the damp in their bones. A few years ago I traced my paternal ancestry as far back and wide as I could go. Eglon, Leadley, Peart and Mead. All names in the branches of my tree. I found certificates stating their births and deaths. Census entries detailing their jobs. I even found a sepia photograph of my great, great grandmother perched on seaweed-straddled rocks, at the edge of Whitby beach. 

    One thing struck me like a slap to my cheek; not one of them ever left Whitby. Generation after generation laid down roots and stayed firmly in one spot. Despite living near a pathway to a million new places, a thousand chances for fresh ventures and grand exploration, they stayed put. 

    Unlike me. 

    I left the United Kingdom behind me four years and three months ago on the 27th of July 2017. I’ve not been back since. My decision drew a solid black line under the life I once had, and heralded the start of something new. My journey began well before then, of course, that need to strike out and find adventure, but in the late spring, early summer of 2016 my husband and I became aware that after many, many years of saving and planning, hoping and dreaming, we finally had the means to make some serious choices and changes to our life. One of those saw my husband resign from his job of fourteen years and strike out independently. 

    It wasn’t an easy choice. There was still so much fear to get over, worries about what could go wrong. You become indoctrinated to the working world, even when you hate it and can see so much wrong in it. Taking that chance to escape seems like a hoax, a joke, a ploy to trip you up and laugh at you as you fall. It took courage and determination to cut the threads and create his own business, and I cannot fault his passion or drive. Yet I knew he still wasn’t truly happy, and when an offer of part-time work came up, he was hesitant but couldn’t fully explain to me why. 

    He didn’t need to explain, I already knew that a part of him saw his freedom being removed from him again. The job was good, the hours and pay fantastic, but he needed to be free for a while. He needed to let go and see more of life before it swallowed him up. Hell, we both did.

    A chain of events beyond anyone’s control brought about situations and circumstances that none of us saw coming and never, ever dreamed would be possible. Some people say the universe works in strange ways, but I remain convinced it works in exactly the way it should. Serendipity or otherwise, opportunities pieced themselves together like sections of a jigsaw, pushing us along a path that we had sought to tread for many years but had lacked the means to follow. From a period of sadness and indecision, of frustration and resignation, a door was opened to us, and a means of following our dreams was presented.

    I’m not sure what possessed me that night, sitting on our bed, talking and swapping ideas, but I knew it was the right decision. I told him we should travel, that we should go where he had always wanted, to see New Zealand. Absolutely nothing was stopping us now, except the excuses we gave ourselves. I think I scared him, scared myself, showing that our dreams of well over ten years were possible, attainable. That which we had been saving for, for so long was now within our reach. 

    The last time I saw Whitby in person

    Do you ever feel sometimes that you have promised yourself you are working towards a goal, but deep down you aren’t fully sure if that goal will ever be reached? That’s what New Zealand felt like to us. Every time we had saved enough for the flights, something would happen that would demand the use of those savings. The car broke down. The washing machine blew up. All those myriad, stupid domestic problems that life throws at you and leaves you with little choice but to attack them head on and deal with the fallout. Knowing that we could finally do what we wanted, it was the strangest feeling.

    We all cried that night: myself, my husband, and our two kids, hugging each other tightly. We cried not out of sadness, but out of terrified anticipation and excitement.

    The decision was made, and yet we still dragged our feet at first. I’m not sure why, I suppose there was still a reticence there, an uncertainty. It would be the first time any of us had ever flown, and the flights were long-haul—almost thirty hours of travelling, all told. We were understandably nervous. I joked about it with well-travelled friends who were appalled that my first experience on a plane was to the other side of the world. “Go big or go home,” I would say, with a shrug, because in retrospect it felt crazy, somewhat unreal. I had to laugh otherwise I might crumble. 

    In the end, the journey, even though it was the first for us all, ended up being quite uneventful. Once through the process of customs, boarding and finding our seats, it was merely a matter of settling in for the long haul. We were seated in economy, in a row of four seats in the middle of the plane and we could have been locked in a tin-can simulation for all we knew. We saw nothing of the world as we crossed it as we were so far from the windows. It was… boring.

    Our five-week holiday after? Never boring in the slightest. What we did and what we saw is of little consequence now, but how we felt, that was the kicker. When it ended, when we had to go “home”, it felt like our hearts were being ripped from our chests and everything we loved taken from us. Because we knew right then that while a great many places can feel like home, only one of those places is where you truly live. And I knew for certain it wasn’t England.  

    That Christmas I gave my husband a present that I’d made him. A piece of paua shell I’d picked up from the beach at Moa Point, that I’d carved with a Dremel into a hei matau hook. I wasn’t as well-versed in the real meanings of things then, still stuck in tourist-like obliviousness. I didn’t always see the lines between appreciation and appropriation. The importance of symbols and intention. Despite all this, I made that pendant for him and infused it with much love. “For good luck and safe travel across water,” I told him. He knew exactly what it meant. 

    The view from the plane

    Seven months later, we were back on a plane. Serendipity intervened again, guided us with open palms. Little things that to write about now seem like they couldn’t possibly be real. Details seen only in wholesome, family movies, not things that actually occurred. They were real, of course. As real as that hand I could feel on my back, pushing me to take every step. Two days before leaving we sold our car. The dealer gave us cash that paid for the taxi that took us and our four cases to the airport. We almost missed the shuttlebus, but the driver let us ride for free. Once at the airport, we bought snacks in WHSmith, that amounted to the exact pennies in our pockets. Our seats this time were by the window, and we could see the land fall away as we rose. I watched the ocean spread out beneath us, a blanket of a thousand shades of blue.

    We landed in Wellington just before dawn, the sun barely grazing the horizon. My husband put his hand to the hollow of his neck and made a little noise of surprise.

    “What’s wrong?” I asked him, and he showed me his palm. His delicate paua pendant, had snapped neatly in two. 

    Our friends greeted us at the airport with a massive, hand-painted, rainbow-coloured sign. “Welcome home!” it said, and my stomach fluttered. Welcome home, indeed. 

    The sea I live beside now is not the sea I grew up with. I am displaced twelve thousand miles from the place I once called home. Despite this, I still feel the connection. The water is warm and clear here, stark contrast to the murky grey and forever cold North Sea. Water that I swam in until my skin turned blue and my teeth chattered so hard they might crumble in my mouth. Water I stayed in far too long and swallowed far too much, until I could barely find the energy to get back to shore, and on doing so, threw up bitter stomach-fuls of disgusting, briny liquid. Water, that as a child I was strangely jealous of for it could go anywhere it wanted. It was always moving. Never stuck in one place.

    The pendant I made out of paua shell for my husband

    As all water leads to the ocean, all oceans are connected in one way or another, their relationships like long-lost cousins, mutual links that lead them all into one. Any religion or mythology or magic aside, this is what I’ve always known and felt.  I’ll never let anyone tear me away from the waves again. When my time comes to leave this world forever, I want the sea to take me. Scatter my ashes over water, let my soul go where the ocean roars.

    Sometimes, while walking by the ocean, I gather wave-tumbled beach glass. Once sharp and cruel and dangerous, now smooth and made safe to touch. I feel like the sea does that to me; it takes off all my hard edges and gives me a more rounded view. The sea reminds me: you can be strong without needing defences. It’s okay to let yourself be tumbled in the waves. You won’t break, you’ll just change shape. Trust the journey. Lose yourself to the sea.

    Generation after generation of my family laid down roots and stayed firmly in one spot. They ignored what the ocean could offer them. 

    Unlike me. 

    The kids laugh loudly from the other end of the house, pulling me back to the present. My fingernail stays poised on the place I was born. The place I couldn’t wait to run away from. 

    I trace up, up around the North Sea, past the Faroe Islands and the bottom of Iceland. I swoop down the full length of the Atlantic Ocean, skirt Cape Horn into Te Moana nui a Kiwa. I go onwards to the bottom of Te Ika-a-Māui, and curl through Te Whanganui-a-Tara. I stop at the tiniest dot on the map, where I know Pōneke to be. Plenty of places feel like home. Only one of them is where you really, truly live. 

    I am a water baby. I’ve known that forever. How easy it can be to leave land behind, but the sea? No.

    That will always come with me.   

    Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Where I live now

    Life After Lockdown — A Year On

    I turned forty-one last year in the middle of lockdown, alert level 4, and it was one of the best birthdays I’d ever had. As a self-confessed introvert who hates parties and fuss, being forced to stay at home with close family, eating cake and watching my favourite movies, was pretty much a perfect day for me. My presents were mostly handmade or garden-grown, and I’m not big on “stuff” anyway. Sure, the pandemic brought a lot of anxiety, and there was no way of knowing how things might go, but strangely, my mental health felt pretty steady. I’d adapted, adjusted and remained optimistic. Twenty-three days later we’d dropped down to level 3. By mid-May we were in level 2. 

    This year, Aotearoa was in alert level 1 when I celebrated the day of my birth. And yes, despite being able to go into the city for ice-cream, unmasked and without social distancing, I felt so much more unsettled. Less cheerful and relaxed. And it’s taken me almost a week to process that and figure out the reasons why.

    Anyone reading this from anywhere else in the world will no doubt have some opinions about the following, and I want to acknowledge that I understand that I am deeply privileged to live in a country that has managed the risks so well. I am forever grateful to those in charge who made decisions that have allowed us such freedoms. Our strategy went hard and went early, and is now focused on elimination and exclusion. It is designed to prevent Covid 19 entering the wider community, and containing cases in managed isolation. It relies on the population of Aotearoa, the “team of five million” as it’s called, to maintain diligent track and trace records, to ensure good hygiene practices and to stay at home if they’re sick. Everyone plays a role in protecting the community. And it’s a system that, barring a few minor blips, works exceedingly well.

    So why am I still anxious? 

    An exclusion strategy is still mentally exhausting. Knowing that outside our borders is basically “Here Be Dragons!” is not a comfortable thought. I have residency here, which offers me some security, but I’ve not seen my family and friends in the U.K. since I moved here in July 2017. I honestly don’t know when that might change. If that will change. There are likely to be people living overseas I will never see again. I know how it feels when people in countries with an obscene number of cases and deaths, talk about their lost connections, being unable to be with family or say goodbye to loved ones who have passed.

    You can argue that I can hug and connect with the friends I’ve made over here, but it’s not the same, and if I have to explain how it’s not, you won’t understand anyway. I’ve written before about the (predominantly white) immigrant experience of becoming a triangle, and the deep displacement felt when removed from your birth lands, even if that was by choice. And it was my choice, of course, to come here. I always knew the risks. I suppose I just never considered how easily they could happen for real. 

    I’ve seen so much hatred directed at those living in Aotearoa, especially online via social media. Strangers literally waiting for us to fail, to celebrate when things finally go wrong. I’ve seen people here exhibit what I can only liken to some sort of survivors guilt, except most survivors don’t get to still talk to those who weren’t so lucky. I know how it feels, that strange need to apologise. For not failing. For not dying. For being able to enjoy a normal life. To that I can only say misery is not a competition; just because someone is suffering worse, does not make your suffering invalid. 

    When the first case was detected here on the 28th February, it still didn’t seem quite real. Our government put us into alert level 2 nine days before the first death. When lockdown began on the 21st March, it was met with much scepticism and disbelief. But when alert level 4 became the reality, when the streets and motorways fell almost silent and the city was a mere ghost of itself, the reality of what this unseen danger meant, hit many people hard. 

    In the beginning it felt akin to war. We were many of us genuinely scared of what the future might bring. Parents worried about keeping their children safe, if they would even have the kind of childhood they’d had. We cried often and at almost every piece of news. The words “emergency briefing” would strike us down in absolute terror, and indeed often still does! We formed bubbles, no more than our immediate families, and distanced ourselves while outside. We were forced into treating every stranger we met as a potential threat. That distrust stayed with many of us well after lockdown lifted, it felt wrong to be allowed to be so close to others again. 

    The world has gone through collective trauma, and yet humans, the resilient buggers that they are, have managed to somehow muddle their way through it. At the time of writing Google tells me that 2.9 million people have died worldwide, and that number is almost definitely lower than the truth. If I try to imagine that many faces, I fail almost straight away. I don’t believe anyone can. There are times when I don’t want to believe it myself. To accept the loss of so many.  

    As vaccination numbers continue to rise, there is good hope that case levels will fall. But with new strains developing in numerous countries, and ongoing resentment over restrictions and poor leadership, I cannot help but look at the rest of the world from behind closed fingers, wondering if it will ever be “safe”. 

    Every level change, every new development, every update from the Ministry of Health app Āwhina — which is truly marvellous, I must say — I feel an unwelcome, familiar jolt. A rumbling yawn in the pit of my stomach that makes my pulse run just a little bit quicker, and my brain start to question, “What now?”

    I know damn well why my birthday felt strange, why I couldn’t completely relax. That deep trauma, still lurking, unresolved, making me feel guilty about eating ice-cream under a gorgeous blue sky. Knowing that family and friends worldwide are still stuck in  limbo or can’t risk going out. That their lives are so much different to mine. And if I could, I would whisk them over here in a heartbeat. Ice-cream adventures for all! 

    With full credit to those who deserve it — Ashley Bloomfield and Siouxsie Wiles to name but two — we have been bloody lucky in Aotearoa; sometimes I wonder if some of the team of five million appreciate just how lucky. But good luck can’t hold forever, which is perhaps my biggest fear. 

    I remember quite clearly sitting on the beach at Castlepoint on the 27th of February 2020, looking out across the Pacific Ocean, and feeling quite suddenly, quite surely, that this was the Last Normal Day. I found a hagstone that day, by the cliffs, it’s been in my car ever since. I keep it as a good luck charm of sorts, a reminder of a Time Before. 

    And despite my anxieties and my tendency to overthink, I do honestly believe that those times will return for us all. That we will one day be able to see again those friends and family who we so dearly miss.  


    I am a bit of a magpie, I admit. I love hoarding shiny things. They’re not always shiny in the conventional sense, but they always hold a great deal of excitement and wonder for me. Planners and stickers and pretty new pens definitely fall into this category. As do LEGO mini-figures and things in the same colours as Paua shells. But by far the thing I hoard the most is notebooks.  

    I have been reading the wonderful new book by Tom Cox, coincidentally called NOTEBOOK, and it inspired me to have a dig through my own, rather haphazard collection, some I had even forgotten about owning. Tom’s book is a collection of thoughts and ideas from notebooks past and present. These do not form a necessarily linear narrative – random musings in notebooks rarely do – but they do shine a light into his personality. Like all of his nonfiction books, it reads like going for a ramble with a friend, exploring the nooks and crannies of the countryside, secret places most people never see.

    And so, in keeping with the theme, this a piece I wrote in a new notebook about writing in new notebooks…

    As many others have already said, writing in a new notebook feels like a strange parallel to your life. Do you want your entries to be perfect, your handwriting neat and all spellings correct? Or will you simply get into it, scribbling your thoughts randomly and excitedly as they come to you, without a care for how they spill out onto the page?

    The first page, of course, will always be the best; the cleanest and neatest, the one with the most promise. But as you continue and your arm gets tired, the angle of the paper more awkward or the ink in the pen begins to run out, you notice the changes. I suspect what worries us most sometimes is other people noticing the changes. Which rather begs the question, are we writing in notebooks for others to read or simply for ourselves? And if it is indeed the latter, what does it matter if our penmanship is not neat, or if our spellings are wrong, our sentences incomplete? We must write for ourselves, first and foremost. Write because we want to tell our story.

    I do not wait for the lovely thoughts or the most optimal circumstances, narrating some sanitised version of my life. I use my writing as a mirror to reflect and examine, and also to explore. I don’t like feeling scared of a new notebook, succumbing to the pressures of keeping them “nice”. I have far too many notebooks in my possession, most of them filled with thoughts and ideas, even those of the dull and mundane, because in life, nothing is truly dull and mundane. It is all part of a journey that may lead you to another adventure. Living IS the adventure.

    Being and loving and exploring and experiencing, all of that makes us, us. And yet, each and every one of us, no matter how great or important, can be reduced to two simple dates; our birthday and our death day. Everything we are, everything we become, condensed into the little hyphen that connects them. Our whole lives written only as a —

    The trouble is, you think you have time… Everyone thinks this. They look at their lives and they save things for best, or they hold off doing something until they are older or retire, and they fail to recognise or appreciate the time they have right here, right now. The time they have been given, not to put in a little box and save for later, but to use NOW.

    Our being here is powerful. Life is a complex, messy twist of events in which we are entwined. We can try to make sense of it, or we can celebrate it or we can allow it to simply push us along. We might even do all that and more. But we should endeavour never to become stagnant, or to squander our time. Don’t save something for a special occasion. Every day of your life is a special occasion.

    And so is true for new notebooks.

    So You Think You Want To Be A Writer?

    A dear friend of mine who has been writing since the 1980s once told me that there are no rules when it comes to writing. “A writer only writes for themselves and does their best to create the books they want to read.” 

    “Writing is not a social activity,” he said. “It’s solitary misery mostly, and there’s no way out. And there is no more pointless, nor better, way to spend a life.”

    I agree with him for the most part, especially in that there is nothing quite like the doing and creating, of bringing new worlds to life, but I also think, rather than rules, there are some helpful guidelines which can get you started and keep you on track.

    Here are ten (-ish) which have worked for me.

    Number 1. Understand that there are no shortcuts when it comes to writing.

    If you want to get something out there, you have to find the time to sit down and do the work. All of the very best writers, all the ones you love, are only so because they’ve put a lot of work in. It is incredibly rare to become an overnight success story. Prioritise your work and make time. 

    Number 2. Don’t wait. You don’t need to gain permission from anyone to write.

    If you’re doubting yourself because you worry that you don’t have the talent, that’s okay. Maybe you don’t yet. But if you have passion and enthusiasm, often that’s better. You can learn the craft, but first you have to put the effort in. See, Number 1.

    Number 3. The first draft is probably, maybe going to suck.

    Yes, really. In fact, it might even be the worst story you will ever write. *record scratch…* Wait a second, that’s wrong! In reality, first drafts rarely suck because they contain great ideas, they just need a bit of polishing. The first draft is you telling yourself the story. Once the bones are down you can work on rebuilding. Remember, it’s impossible to edit an empty page. 

    Number 4. There will always be better and worse writers than yourself. Always.

    You will get disheartened and maybe even jealous, but someone else’s achievements do not devalue yours. Celebrate all successes — yours and those of other writers — and don’t measure your own self worth by the opinions of others. If you want to improve, keep going. And take advantage of all the brilliant books and online classes available that can help you level-up your skills.

    Number 5. Critique can be painful, but also useful.

    Learn to listen to and learn from every piece of feedback you get, but don’t take criticism from someone you wouldn’t take advice from. Realise that your friends and family will probably not be honest with you and it is better to seek others’ opinions, especially those of your peers. Find your village and share your skills. Writing can be lonely but it doesn’t have to be. 

    Number 6. Set goals, stick to them, hold yourself accountable.

    Don’t wait for massive bursts of inspiration, just start. There will never be a “perfect” time to write. Show up, show up, show up. Eventually the muse will show up too. Find a routine (or anti-routine) that works for you. Some writers say to write daily for a set amount of time. Some write early the morning, others scribble furiously at night. Try on many hats and see what fits you. Writing prompts or flash fiction exercises can be excellent warm-ups. 

    Number 7. Write the story you want to read, even if you’re not sure that anyone else will want to read it.

    If it doesn’t excite you, it probably won’t excite others. Do what your heart tells you. Writing is an art and you are an artist. Paint pictures with your words. Write your damn story. 

    Number 8. Progress not perfection.

    Finish every piece of work you start, then let it go and allow other people to read it. Read it again with fresh eyes and new thoughts. A mediocre story now might become something truly marvellous a little way down the road. Every single word you write is progress and nothing is ever wasted. In fact, that leads me to…

    Number 8b. Hoard all your drafts and never delete anything.

    Keep a “Potentials” folder where you toss all your old chapters, lines, ideas, rough sketches. Sometimes things edited from one story can become the foundation of a new one.

    Number 9. Imposter Syndrome happens to everyone.

    Absolutely every writer at some stage has suffered from Imposter Syndrome, even those “big” authors who you know and love, who have sold millions of copies and been added to bestseller lists. It’s perfectly normal. A lot of the time when you might be feeling your most scared and unsure, that’s when you are doing some of your best work. 

    Number 10. Rejections can really hurt, but they also show you tried.

    If you decide to submit your work for publication, you must be prepared to receive more rejections than acceptances. Remember that selling stories relies just as much on luck as talent, and you cannot always know what an editor is looking for. It’s not personal, it’s just how it is. Keep writing, keep trying, don’t stop.

    THE WAR ON BLANK-PAGE TERROR: a personal approach to scriptwriting by Jamie Delano

    Introduction by Tabatha Wood

    It’s a warm but breezy September morning in 2015. I’m drinking a cup of sweet, black coffee and scrolling through my Facebook feed. I see the event advertisement purely by accident, but my interest is instantly piqued.

    BLAM! Writing for Comics. A talk by Jamie Delano, writer of HELLBLAZER and much, much more. 

    I know that name. I’ve read graphic novels written by them in my late teens thanks to a rocker/biker bloke who ran the only cool shop in my hometown. The talk is due at my local library later that day. I don’t want to miss this. I feel like, I can’t miss it.

    I message my husband and we agree that we’ll go. I sort out a babysitter for the kids. I contact the library and reserve two tickets. Then at 6pm I’m sitting, waiting, face-to-face with the man who wrote John Constantine. 

    His talk, the transcript of which I am thrilled to share with you here, was the catalyst for me returning to write fiction. In fact, I doubt you would even be reading this today had it not been for that chance find on social media and my last-minute decision to attend. It still surprises me when I think about it. Grateful to receive the kick I needed, now consumed by the urges of The Word. 

    His advice to me as an awkward fledgling writer, still too nervous to spread my wings and take flight,

    “It’s scary putting your ‘secret self’ out there – that bit never changes.  But it’s also bollocks to let that be a reason not to. Just write in the way that pleases you and let them pick the bones out.  Most will be in awe that you even tried.”

    I’ve been doing exactly that ever since. 

    Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a how-to about scriptwriting, but it’s also a unique and honest insight into what it means to be a writer and how it feels to put your heart and soul into the characters you create. 

    THE WAR ON BLANK-PAGE TERROR: a personal approach to scriptwriting by Jamie Delano

    So, let’s suppose, through the sly vector of soothing bedtime stories and poems, your mother cruelly and recklessly infected you with a pernicious virus called The Word almost before you could speak. Thus dooming you to a life of penury and angst. A prisoner of your own imagination, ill-equipped to deal with the mundane world. 

    It’s taken you 60 years to forgive her. And you’re still not sure you even have.

    You have spent your formative years reading books and comics. Watching movies. Absorbing the work of others. Sometimes you have enjoyed the experience, been fascinated and intrigued. Sometimes you have been left disappointed. Wanting something more.  

    But that early infection has been sustained. Made chronic. Likely fatal. And now the virus drives you to transmit the disease to others.

    Where to start? What vehicle will you employ to deliver your unique creative vision to the unwitting audience waiting breathless for your inspiration?

    You wrote a bunch of poems in your teens and early twenties. Took pleasure in the manipulation of words. The artful layering of meaning. Their musicality. The way they chime, seductively harmonic, or in dramatic discord.

    But every shy, introverted bookish youth writes poetry—doesn’t he? While scarcely anyone reads that self-indulgent nonsense.  

    Maybe a novel? Prose was always your first love. But, even after all these years, you still haven’t summoned the energy required to start it. A novel is a daunting prospect. Producing all those words takes time and application. A book is long. A serious undertaking. Have you really got that much to say?  

    What if you have but it’s just derivative drivel—an immature imitation of admired and older, wiser writers? A second-rate regurgitation of Ballard, Kerouac, Bill Burroughs…?

    You need to find your own voice and trust it.

    And anyway you’re busy. You’re still young. There is fun to be had. Drink to be drunk. Other altered states to explore. Political debate to engage in. Romantic tribulation to suffer. And rent to be paid.  

    Damn the rent. It forces you to derange yourself with boredom.  

    Endlessly ordering other peoples’ books on library shelves. Selling them in a dismal high-street chain store. Re-stocking grubby newsagents’ spinners with stacks of miserable Top Ten paperbacks lugged around the chilly east of England in a Sherpa van. Cutting up dead trees in a wood yard. Ferrying drunks and idiots around your hometown in your taxi.

    Time goes by. You haven’t written a word for years. And maybe you have a partner now.  Even a child or two. How the hell did that happen? Damnit—you were supposed to be a writer.

    Perhaps it’s too late now to be a contender. Maybe you’re doomed to remain a consumer. Reading. Watching. Listening. Feet up.  Smoke in hand. Observing the relentless growth of your children. And then dying. With everything left unsaid.

    Well, serve you right for being so bone-idle.

    And then, out of the blue, by some stroke of grace – luck, right place/right time, the kindness of a more diligent friend – opportunity presents. And you seize it. And the opportunity is in comics. Not the medium you imagined—or one, in truth, you know much about. But you’re grateful. And there’s a potential living in it.

    Or maybe you are the diligent one. With the energy and self-belief to make things happen.  

    You have pursued your dream and run it down. Seduced an editor with a glimpse of your wild creative passion—bedded a juicy commission. However it is that you got to this point, now it’s time to perform. Fulfil the rash promise of your proposal. Earn the right finally to call yourself a writer.

    You have to actually sit down at your keyboard and make up a story. Inspire an artist to bring it to life in pictures. And then it’s going to get printed and be preserved immutable forever. And strangers are going to read it.

    Oh shit.  




    All writers must confront that blank-page terror. Daily. Unless they’re soulless hacks content to shovel junk food. Feed undiscerning appetites with fast-fiction plotted by committee.  

    At least I assume they do. I speak only from my own experience.  

    I may be a deranged egoist manufacturing an illusory enemy—a towering obstacle to be overcome through vainglorious heroic effort.  

    I may be intellectually deficient—making hard work of a process more easily accomplished by those who have taken the trouble to learn the rules of fiction. Attend creative writing courses. Understand all that stuff about journeys, conflict, crisis, resolution…  

    Others will have to judge.

    But my approach to writing is subjective. A kind of act of faith. I have no technical formula to apply to produce a story. I have to rely on instinct. The ability to suspend authorial disbelief. To immerse myself in an interior ocean of possibility and follow the shimmering shoals of imaginary fish that swim there. Harpoon the most intriguing for preservation and presentation.    

    It’s a risky and stressful process. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s easy to screw it up. Some of those fish turn out to be ugly and misshapen when you get them to the surface. Or too ethereal to be described. And you find yourself disappointed. Stories rarely turn out entirely satisfactorily. There’s always some clumsiness that should have been smoothed. A point that could be better made. A basic copy error overlooked and preserved to irritate forever. That’s why writers keep on diving though. Hoping that next time we’ll get it right—come up with a handful of pearls.

    The Word is a desperate addiction that will inevitably leave you crazy. But it’s still way better than working for a living.

    But enough pompous angst. Let me try and distil my ramshackle creative process a little more in the hope that it might offer insight. Provide a useful perspective on your own personal experience.

    There are no rules.  

    I have experimented with many scripting styles. In the end it’s down to practise. Everyone evolves their own best way of working based on experience acquired through observation of the gap between the result desired and that achieved.    

    The goal is communication. Of ideas and of emotion. For the purpose of entertainment.  The tools are words and pictures—deployed in synergistic combination.

    I wrote my first comic-book script over thirty-five years ago. On a manual portable typewriter. With carbon paper and Tippex correction fluid.  

    And if you don’t know what those arcane objects are, I refer you to omniscient Google.

    Word-processing and the Internet have considerably streamlined the writing and editing process, but my basic approach has remained fairly consistent. With slight adaptations to suit the strengths of particular artistic collaborators. Because, while the writer may provide the inspiration, comics creation is essentially a collaborative process.

    But let’s wind back to 1986.  

    On the strength of a recommendation from Alan Moore and a few Captain Britain and Doctor Who issues, Karen Berger at DC comics was persuaded to gamble on trusting me to develop Moore’s popular British working-class magician, John Constantine, into a character who could support an ongoing monthly series.

    HELLBLAZER was to be a book in the horror genre. Moore had established a few basic parameters for the character, but his interior world was largely unexplored. It seemed natural for me to try and get inside his head – how easily one is led into peril – to take the reader with me to share Constantine’s perception of a disquieting world.

    I chose hunger as a theme for the opening story. A spiritual void made physical by a demonic manifestation. It kicks off with a dramatic demonstration of the effects of the supernatural possession on some eclectic New York ‘cannon fodder’. The remainder of the story sets out to explain and resolve that initial set-up in an intriguing and dramatic fashion. 

    Logically, to accomplish my desired end, I would have begun by sketching out the basic plot. Breaking the story down roughly into potential scenes. Thinking up some interesting characters for Constantine to interact with and advance the action to its conclusion.  Outlining the probable visual imagery and storytelling. Then filling in and embellishing that outline with dialogue supported by narrative captions.

    I say logically. Unfortunately it is rarely so straightforward.

    However neatly I may think I have plotted a story, it never survives first-engagement with the keyboard. t is only when I have launched the characters walking and talking that they start to reveal the true essence of the work—literally make it up as they go along. My role is to monitor, and ineffectually shepherd their interactions. To select which bits to visualise and report for dramatic purpose, distilling and intensifying actions and emotions into that strange thing called Story.  

    Invariably these characters, and I too, will be surprised by unforeseen events, distracted and led astray. Sometimes the original path will never be rediscovered. Nor the intended destination reached.

    And that’s the fun of it for me.  

    A real story is rarely tripped over lying by the side of the highway. A writer needs to be prepared to wander. To be led off in pursuit of red-herrings or wild geese along the byways of the imagination. It’s on those shady paths that the most potent charms are encountered and can be looted.  

    Of course abandoning the reassurance of map or well-trod plot is not relaxing. In fact it’s terrifying. Especially when there’s a deadline to be arrived at. But if you want a relaxed existence, forget about being a writer.


    So let’s assume that sooner or later, by one process or another – after much smoking, coffee drinking, and exasperated pacing about with muttered cursing – I have a selection of scenes comprising dialogue and narrative in a series of possible locations. Now it has to be refined to a condition that will inspire an artist to work his or her visual magic on it and turn it into a sequential story. 

    Because a script does not speak to the reader. There is an artist intervening who must first be entertained and intrigued. Their own imagination captured and co-opted. The script must suck them into the story – evoke not just individual images or set-piece dramatic sequences, but also impart mood, tone, emotion, truth. The interior worlds of the characters. The unwritten back-stories that shape them. 

    Art direction is creative writing in itself. Done well, it should imply a kind of ‘theme music’ that the artist can interpret graphically to imbue action with emotion. That doesn’t mean every panel description needs to be a polished essay, a precise algorithm designed solely to produce a particular image. A balance must be struck. But, if words are your thing – and it’s useful if they are – it’s good to take pleasure in their arrangement. Every sentence produced – even if only ever read by editor and artist – is an exercise of a writer’s chosen craft. And practise is the key to development of any skill.

    So the script is a tool – but one which has intrinsic beauty in its functionality. Like a fine brush, a well-wrought chisel, an elegant piece of software. A master musician may be able to scrape a workable tune from a crappy homemade violin… but give them a Stradivarius and hear the difference.

    In the early years of my career I would scribble stick-figure cartoon pages as an aid to visualising layout and imagery, before typing up panel descriptions. These days that process occurs inside my head.

    When I visualise a comic book scene, I tend to see it cinematically at first. I find it helpful to précis the scene’s action, mood and storytelling function in a brief initial paragraph – a bite-sized chunk for the artist to chew on while he savours the detail panel by panel. I am generally less concerned with calling for specific shots and camera-angles than I am with planting the emotional content of the sequence in the artist’s imagination.  

    The detailed, artful realisation of layout and storytelling is the artist’s main contribution to the creative process—and experience teaches that the best result is generally achieved by letting them deploy their talent with minimal inhibition.

    I may suggest how an individual shot might be working in my head, but I in no way expect that suggestion to be treated as graven in stone. I tend to think of the role of comic scriptwriter as equivalent to that of writer/director in a movie—with the artist as Director of Photography. Dialogue and narration will be attached shot by shot.  

    It is important that the rhythms of word and picture are sympathetic.  Syncopated. For comic book narration and dialogue – as with any form of word manipulation – rhythm is the key. There is not a lot of room for words in comics. So it is important that each of them is deployed for maximum effect.  

    Most of the work involved in scripting a comic is in the repeated editing of captions and word-balloons to intensify the prose. Trying to make fewer words say more—and give them subtext. Honing and polishing dialogue to an almost poetic intensity, while maintaining a conceit of naturalism. Economy – in both storytelling and narration – is a vital skill to acquire. There is never as much space as you anticipate there will be. However ‘lean and mean’ the intention, your story will invariably seek to expand beyond the available page-count.

    It is easy, starting out, to assume that the supply of words is endless… to be profligate in their use. I am certainly guilty of overwriting in some of my early scripts. But you pretty soon learn to be more sparing… to rein in that verbosity. To resist the desire to show off endlessly with flashy wordplay. To save a bit for later.

    There is always a way to say it more succinctly. More elegantly. I recommend spending the time to find it.

    Assuming editorial approval, the script then goes to the artist. In an ideal world, I then like to let the artist work up an interpretation of the script in pencil. Progress can then be reviewed and I can adjust any awkward dialogue to suit the visual music. Pick up on anything that has been missed.

    When everyone is happy, final inks can be completed and lettering applied. The lettering is very important. I like to have input on the placing of balloons and captions. A rhythm that seemed to work well in script may be disrupted by artistic innovation in the eventual visualisation. Now is the opportunity to adjust that.  

    A couple of words trimmed to balance a caption with a containing frame that turns out smaller than expected. A change of emphasis in dialogue to play off a character’s expression or body language.  A heavy word-balloon split and linked to a subsequent panel.  

    The final vital task is to copy edit.  I have never yet had a story that was lettered perfectly first time. Or even finally for that matter.  

    Remember, even if you’ve sweat blood for weeks to achieve the perfect script – and been paid for it, even spent the money – the job is not complete until word and image are combined on the page, and the book is at the printers. Until then, a script is just part of a work-in-progress. It can always be improved. It’s counter-productive to be too precious.

    Of course, perfection is an unrealisable goal. Especially if you’re working on a regular monthly series. You are constrained by the production process. There is always a final deadline exerting pressure. And so inevitable compromise.  

    But YOUR name is going on the cover of the book. And it’s going to be there forever. So it’s worth going that extra yard or two to minimise the potential for future embarrassment.  

    Believe me.

    And then – while you are sweating over the next script – the printed copy of the one completed will arrive. And will invariably reveal mistakes previously unnoticed—despite the best effort of all the combined fine minds concerned. Cue tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth. And other expressions of frustration with ‘bloody comics.’  

    So, simply, that’s pretty much all there is to it.

    There are a few useful tricks of the trade that can be picked up through studying the storytelling technique of different creators. But use them as aids to learning, not as blueprints. We’re all of us, inevitably, products of our influences, but it’s vital to develop your own distinct direction and explore it.

    Consider the balance of word and picture on a page. If you’re calling for a page heavy with small frames it helps to keep dialogue on it sparse. And then perhaps contrast it with a more narrative following page. An average of five panels per page is my rule of thumb. With maybe a 150 words on it.

    But there are no rules. 

    Some pages have more, others less. The layout serves the story. Scene changes can be eased by letting closing dialogue bleed on into a new scene’s establishing shot. Little semiotic tricks can add layers of meaning to copy. It is useful to bear in mind the book’s eventual pagination to take advantage of page-turn reveals or double-page spreads where these may be appropriate dramatic devices. But for me, the single element by which any story stands or falls is the strength and depth of the characters in it and the writer’s relationship with them.

    Even the most ludicrous and outlandish theme can be imbued with plausibility if the writer knows his character inside out, and can find that germ of simple human truth which rings sympathetic with the reader. It is never easy. Every single writing project begins with the need to confront that blank-page terror. To despoil that snow-white field with a tortured imprecision of reluctant words.

    Choose your own stimulant, meditative technique, magical incantation to summon the aid of literary demons to transport you into The Zone. But you still have to sit down alone in your cell and make it happen. The spur of deadline, or impending poverty, is useful. So also can be the intimidating knowledge that families other than your own may not eat unless you get some madness down on the page for their breadwinner to draw and get paid for.

    Bottom line, it’s sheer hard work and miserable endurance that will get you through. There is no substitute for tenacity and application. In the end you just have to walk it—one word after another until you reach The End.

    The only way to beat the terror is to engage it, bombard it with ideas and imagination.  

    Rattle the keyboard. Blurt sentences onto paper. Shuffle them repeatedly until they assume a pleasing order.  Recognise that order when you achieve it. Take fleeting pleasure in your accomplishment.

    And then start all over again.

    Writing is hell.  A disease that will devour your life. Good luck if you’ve caught it already.  You’ll need it. There’s not much more rewarding but it certainly isn’t easy. But then, as an old pal of mine has occasionally noted: You shouldn’t join if you can’t take a joke. 


    So, that said – and while comics provided me with a means of self-expression, and an adequate income for several decades – it occurred to me about ten years ago that I was fast approaching the age of sixty and if I didn’t soon get around to writing the novel I’d expected since my early teens I would, it might well quickly be too late. So I quietly slipped away from the comics world and got busy…

    Sitting around at home. Listening to pointless radio phone-ins. Giving up a lifetime smoking habit. Bodging overdue home improvements. Assiduously watching the infinitesimal growth of the cacti in my collection. Playing online poker. What I didn’t do for a number of dismal years was sit down at my keyboard and do any serious writing.

    That old blank-page terror again.

    Was I actually up to the job of writing a proper novel? A standalone story with no pictures? Serious literary types read novels, didn’t they? Pored over every word? And the world of book publishing was rarefied. Full of Oxbridge intellectuals. Erudite editors guarded by clever agents. I wasn’t really good enough to take them on, was I? And, anyway, I was too old to be a new boy.

    I carried on watching the cacti for another year.

    Eventually my family and friends got sick of me moping around and making excuses. Various  gun-like ultimatums were produced and held to my reluctant head. I was forced into my study and – after a couple more weeks of watching the cursor blink hypnotic on an empty wilderness of white – my fingers began tapping tentative at the keyboard.

    Several months later and I’d completed BOOK THIRTEEN. The story of an ageing writer struggling, for many years, to complete the final volume in his cult best-selling series of weird detective novels, featuring a lead character known as ‘Leepus’.

    80,000-odd words. I reckoned that counted as a novel. And – while it was inevitably imperfect – it wasn’t totally incoherent. I was actually quite pleased with it on the quiet. But not so pleased that I was prepared, or patient enough, to hawk it around publishers or agents. 

    For good or ill, however, the technology and online retail platforms now exist to allow anybody – as long as they fill enough pages with words – to, singlehanded,  write, produce, publish and bring to the cold, hard marketplace any kind of book they choose to.

    So that is route I took. Establishing my own imprint: LEPUS BOOKS. Editing, designing, learning the software and processes required to eventually bring BOOK THIRTEEN into satisfactory three-dimensional existence.

    Once Lepus Books existed, it seemed a little bit churlish to keep it to myself. So I invited a few pals with stuff to say but little chance of finding a commercial outlet for it, to let me employ my dubious experience in bringing their work to polished, publishing-ready condition on a cooperative, non-profit basis. Stick the Lepus Books logo on it. Get it out there and see who would read it.

    Meanwhile, liking the sound of the weird detective, Leepus, from BOOK THIRTEEN, I decided, if the Old Writer had run out of steam with his character, I would co-opt him for my own ends. Two Leepus books are completed and published so far. I will soon begin work on the third.

    Lepus Books currently comprises four authors with a tentative Northampton connection, with seven works between them. If you are moved to you can buy one direct from the Lepus Books website, or through the usual megacorp platforms.

    And so, to finish. The following is the introductory chapter to a work, loosely based around the course of the River Nene that will, hopefully, be illustrated by my annoyingly talented artist brother Richard James and published by Lepus Books.

    Under the Bridge

    Down the hill from the house- where once-upon-a-time long gone you creep before dawn from your bed, haul your old rods-and-tackle-burdened Raleigh from the garage, and then freewheel through the suburbs and the enclaved Domesday village to plumb the depths of the eerie mist that fills the river valley.  It’s the 21st Century now; and you are fifty years older, riding a Toyota 4×4.  And the roads have been re-routed.  Estates of ‘80s “overspill” named for the feudal farms they cover.  A roaring expressway crossed to unearth the vestigial country lane that finds you the old mill and the Boat Club.

    You pull up behind the flat-pack retail park – built while you aren’t watching, but screened by rustling lines of poplars you think you remember being planted – beside a ditch-bank screed with fly-tipped home improvement debris, and bags of dog shit hung on brambles.

    So you hide temptation under the seats, arm the dashcam and blink the locks on.  The old lane extant beyond a rattly galvanised gate that permits only pedestrian traffic.  Flanking willows and hawthorns- flagged with those scraps of wind-tattered plastic some quaint urban folklorist christens “witches’ knickers”.  A half-mile to the concrete section across the culvert that carries the flood drain into the millpond.  Pant-liner and tissue flotsam.  January floods once mask the way here and you veer into rushing peril, plunge breathless into the shit-brown torrent and go under- bike, tackle, corned beef sarnies, flask and all.  It takes most of your strength to recover your kit and transport; the remainder to plod back sodden up the endless hill to restorative porridge and maternal tutting.  The rest of the day spent reading Bradbury in an armchair by a three-bar fire and wishing you were fishing.

    The mill that once grinds here pre-dates you.  Never a trace of a building; just the race beneath the track, still seething into the millpond beyond the low wall of crumbling redbrick.  ‘Strictly No Fishing’ now, by order of the Boat Club.  Once there are perch for as long as your worms last.  And carp as big as submarines, lolling among the lily pads on peach-coloured summer mornings.  You tremble as you cast your crust to these leviathans.  Sigh with relief as they sneer and spurn it.

    The ghosts of two Polish brothers drifting too, now.  And a sly boy you can’t put a name to.  The brothers bored with perch; they leave their kit unattended to try their luck in the Chub Stream.  A tin-plate cigarette case glinting at the top of their canvas satchel with faded initials inked on it in an angular foreign script.  A prized possession.  The sly boy eyes it.  Dips it.  Flips it spiteful into the water.  Watches it glint through the murk as it slips to the bottom.  Sunken treasure.  Lost for ever.  Probably still down there.  The sly boy challenged and searched, of course, by the righteously outraged brothers.  No evidence.  Not proven.  A cold case half a century old now.

    You walk on past the Boat Club’s armoured gates, turn down the narrow path along the fenced-in Chub Stream.  Bushes here that you once push through; the far bank overhung with alder adorned with bright snagged-floats and traces: mis-cast offerings to the Chub God.

    The high steel guillotine of the lock-gate stark against the sky’s grey riot.  A chiffchaff shrill in a blackthorn restrained by plasticated chain-link.  Across the lock on the footbridge.  You stare over at the downstream concrete abutments; scabs of lichen mark the tideline on the dank boarding-steps cast in them.  The water clearer than it once is- a post-industrial bonus.  You look for the angle-iron spike that lurks forgotten beneath the surface, jutting unseen from the slimy bed.  The spike that rips open the diving youth’s rib cage.  His blood welling and coiling out dark in the silt-grey opacity of the water as it drowns him.  You wonder if this horrible scene is one that you really witness- or a folk memory made actual in the imagination, reinforced by periodic reviewing.  Whichever; in your mind’s eye it happens again now, and you shudder.  The shocked youths pale and staring.  And then one of them running and howling for someone in the Boat Club to “Ring for the fuckin’ ambulance fuckin’ now, mate!”  And two more in the water splashing and heaving.  The boy white on the steps and bleeding.  They’re saying he’s not fuckin’ breathing.  One’s crying.  One’s tugging his hair in fistfuls.  Another’s trying to light a ciggy with cupped hands damp and shaking.

    An ambulance, two-tone blaring.  Firemen with a rubber boat.  A stern plod in a pale blue Morris Minor. The stretcher eventually carried off- past the half-dressed honour guard of skinny lads straggled pale along the Chub Stream.  Dead boy under a damp scarlet blanket.  His draped face looks as if it’s melting.

    Names and addresses gruffly noted.  Witnesses dismissed to shiver home unspeaking.  Counsellors not even born yet.

    Accidental death, boys; now and then it happens.

    A ten-foot bund around the washlands, a reservoir dug to detain the surge when the river becomes unruly.  “Pity those poor devils down in the Hollow,” Old Doll says in history, looking out at the downpour with a fag on.  The town no longer prone to inundation; and the wildfowl have somewhere to swim round.  That has to be a good thing.

    But the Dead Man’s Arm is all but lost to hydrodynamic engineering.  The ancient oxbow where the pike lurk.  Where Wiggy bites the slimy head off that squirming eel.  Where .22 pellets from a hidden sniper drone past as you stagger tackle-laden to join the fishing gang- late and fair game for slaughter from ambush.

    Duck and cover behind the reeds in the oozy mud and sour wet cow shit.  Scrabble out your old Webley pistol.  A flash of pale flesh across the water.  Snap-shot deftly rapping carelessly exposed knuckles.  Fitz squealing and capering wildly.  Gang sniggering from sly concealment, mustering in the raw sleet-wind to observe the impressive bloom of bruising.  The casualty nursing his wound and sullen.  A Nelson lit and offered to take the sting off.

    Washlands now but where have the hare gone?  The sky without a cloud in.  The tracks of small mammals in the fields of ice-crisped snow so bright you have squint to see across them to the hedge-line where your snares are.  Books gleaned from the library- full of lore imparted by tweedy rural sages and grizzled poachers; these are the romances that lead you astray here.  Wire snares and vermin traps from the gun shop.  You want to be a cunning lad, to understand the creatures that run mysterious and free in the nighttime.  You want to catch and kill them.  Possess the Nature of them.  Collect them; still their restless motion in the name of knowing.  Like ragged butterflies pinned to cork.  The Park Museum’s vast glass case of shot stuffed birds, with their brittle beady eyes and threadbare ruffled feathers.  Dad’s prized box of raided eggs nestled safe in sheep’s wool.  You’re seven in the springtime woods and he’s teaching you how to prick them with a thorn and blow them.  The yolk bubbling slow and yellow.  Never any rabbits or hares in your snares though.  One less crime to atone for.

    Later, of course, you’re sensitised and counter-cultured.  Primitive urges suppressed and transferred.  Night fishing is the thing this year- spiced with dope and Luxembourg phasing in and out of distortion.  A Rizla on your line for a bobbin.  The sickly ochre of the town seeping down across the black water and into your bivvi.  You wish it’s a girl creeping in there with you.

    Now the girls have all been and gone, and you’re plodding a wet field poxed with sheep shit.  The sky in monochrome uproar.  Wind flinging hard rain at you.  This direction always forbidding; the old tannery not far off.  Two deep pits intervening- a private fishery now, but once they’re ringed by skeletal willows with scabby bark peeling from them.  An underfoot tangle of black rotting branches.  Sometimes you push through this dead zone, stare uneasy at the brimming ponds of crusted mustard foam.  And the rusty waste-pipe dribbling steamy.  The world here tainted and you back off wary.

    A cormorant diving today.  Cormorants: since when do they claim the hinterland?  And egrets?  Red kites?  Buzzards?  If you tell Dad you see these immigrants haunting the ‘60s edgelands, he tells you you’re “Talking daft, boy.  Now buck up and get the lawn raked before your dinner!”  Dead now, Dad- probably off stalking the rim of some draughty mire, clutching his bins and whistling mournful.  Pretty much like you are, but marginally less substantial.  All that adolescent warfare pointless.  We old men win in the end.

    And suddenly you’re restless.  Eager to get back to the future.  Grandkids waiting, kicking their heels before Nan’s Sunday dinner; adventuring virtual realities, mapping new dimensions.  It’s never the same as it once is.  Migrants trapped and tagged with GPS now, instead of killing-jars and shotguns; refugees- tracked, counted, harried from beneficent sanctuary to grudged reservation.  Wild hearts owned; arcane lives exposed and plundered, measured and displayed as lifeless data.  The flight of the bar-code godwit.

    Conservation: everything’s different but nothing changes; it just gets smaller.

    You stand and wait on the lock bridge, watch a diesely narrowboat stepping down.   A kingfisher oil-slick on the surface spiraling iridescent.  Prop wash thrashes it into extinction, wavelets smacking their lips against concrete.  You stay while it chugs off around the bend and its wake-chop settles.

    A tern twisting and dipping and coming up empty.  A coot high-stepping squeamish past a dead roach in the reeds floating bloated.  A hedgehopping woodpecker chuckling gleeful; you look up but fail to spot it.

    Damp cold seeping through your jacket.

    It all seems significant, but it isn’t.

    Just water under the bridge, mate.  Life oozing away down the river.

    Copyright © Jamie Delano 2016 – All rights reserved

    Originally published at http://lepusbooks.co.uk/short-prose-by-jamie-delano/

    Online Connections: On Going Viral

    I’ve been on Twitter on one way or another since November 2010. Like a lot of people, social media is a conflicting place for me. Sometimes it’s a fun and exciting playground where I can make connections and find new friends. Other times it can feel like a toxic sandbox overrun by spiteful trolls. I tend to stay in my little online bubble and don’t bother engaging with those who bring their negative energy to the platform.

    I don’t do follow-trains or like-for-likes, and I rarely add anyone who I don’t have similar interests, ideas or a real-life relationship with. I’m not “here to debate” and I block unsavoury users without pause. My DMs are definitely not open. I don’t even have a user icon which shows my real face. Living in New Zealand I’m a reasonably active participant in NZ Twitter — which really emphasises how almost everyone on the islands are only two degrees removed from each other — but I’m definitely not an “influencer.”

    On the morning of the 17th January I was actively considering deleting my account for a while. Not for any particularly bad reason, but I was aware that it was significantly reducing my productivity. I felt like I wasn’t quite getting the quality engagement that I wanted — the signal to noise ratio was way off. As an introvert who pays lot of attention to mental health issues, I was also aware that I had fallen back into old, bad habits that were contributing to my rising anxiety levels.

    But I also knew, like the Hobbit Samwise Gamgee, “There’s some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” I felt that I just needed to keep searching for it.

    Out of curiosity I composed and sent a tweet.

    “Please give me recommendations of amazing kick-ass women on Twitter to follow. Women who are strong & confident, who take absolutely zero shit and have powerful, thoughtful voices. I need more connections to Wild Women. Earth Mothers. Warriors.”

    Within half an hour the ball had begun rolling, with people tagging many influential women in the maker and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Mathematics) communities. Then New Zealand Twitter joined in, adding suggestions of mana wahine — strong Māori female figures. (Mana wahine is often understood to be a type of Māori feminism, although it is not as simple as that.) Writer Twitter was the next to add suggestions — mostly horror writers and poets, being the two “scenes” I am an active part of — with both well-established and beginner female writers being tagged. And so it went on.

    “Cool,” I thought, as I muted the replies to stop my mentions blowing up. “That got a lot more attention than I was expecting.”

    It was a gorgeous, sunny day. A friend of mine and their daughter were walking 59km in the name of kindness, and promoting their walk on Twitter with the hashtag #kindnessmatters. Pretty damn inspiring. I didn’t think I was up for walking 59km, but I could definitely manage 10km into the city. I guess acts of kindness and giving back were mingling together in my head that day. Somehow it felt important to add my own steps to their journey.

    I went out and forgot all about Twitter.

    Six hours later I checked my feed and almost spat out my coffee. My curious tweet, to which I had expected maybe a dozen or so replies, had gone viral. With over 600,000 impressions and 13,000 total engagements, the comments and likes had escalated monumentally. It would have been impossible to read through them all, but a skim read told me something incredibly important: there was zero negativity here.

    Every single comment was from someone using their words to lift up and celebrate the women that they considered strong and kick-ass. Women they admired or found inspiring in some way, who meant a lot to them or who had a positive impact on their lives. Some used the thread to celebrate their friends, or women that were close to them. Others added strangers and celebrities; politicians and party leaders. There were movie-stars, singers, writers and artists. Women who did important work for charity or gave back to their community in some way. There was a fabulous wide range of diversity and inclusion, with women of colour and from the LGBTQIA+ communities equally tagged and praised.

    It’s good, healthy & empowering to reject labels, especially those that others may try to put on you, as much as it is to find ones that feel right.

    Some women said that while they chose to reject the labels I’d used as they did not feel like they were appropriate, they appreciated the mention and acknowledgement. This in itself was a powerful affirmation and a reminder that it’s good, healthy & empowering to reject labels, especially those that others may try to put on you, as much as it is to find ones that feel right. Others embraced and claimed those labels and were delighted that other women thought of them in such a way. The level of positivity and mutual support was absolutely astounding. Apparently my tweet had tapped a nerve, or exposed a need which hadn’t otherwise been addressed. It spoke to women (and a few men too) and fostered a sense of online community and mutual recognition. Women were being seen for who they were and what they do, and showing other women the importance of that.

    Eventually, I killed the thread by protecting my tweets for 24 hours. By the next morning it had amassed over 700,000 impressions and 14,500 engagements. Sadly, but predictably, by this time a few trolls and bots had sneaked in. Not enough to even make a dent on the overall vibe of positivity, and their comments were more weird than abusive or unkind, but it was enough to make my uncomfortable introvert side say, “Time to stop now.”

    For me, saying “no” is essential self-care, and knowing when to walk away from something is as important as speaking out. It might seem strange but while I value being seen, I don’t necessarily want to be looked at.

    I am highly unlikely to ever be famous for anything I do, and I have to be completely honest, I’m totally happy with that. I found the intensity of attention rather unpleasant, despite it only being online attention and overwhelmingly positive at that. I always feel wary about sticking my head above the parapet, knowing that the mood online can turn sour quickly, and there are as many dark corners of the web as there are light. For me, saying “no” is essential self-care, and knowing when to walk away from something is as important as speaking out. It might seem strange but while I value being seen, I don’t necessarily want to be looked at.

    However, for this specific tweet to go viral seems amusingly “on brand” for me. The work I did last year facilitating Wild Women workshops with my Well Written group was aimed primarily at providing safe spaces for women to speak and write honestly and openly about themselves, and to foster connections with other women in areas that they felt they were missing. Finding your community, and deriving strength and encouragement from that, is something I feel incredibly passionate about, as well as sharing that sense of connection and providing spaces for those who need them.

    I’m incredibly happy to have found so many kind, supportive and kick-ass women via my tweet, and it’s great to know that others have found the same. Seeing so many strong women lift each other up was truly heartwarming, and I’ve decided I won’t be quitting Twitter any time soon. In fact my tweet has shown me that it could be extremely beneficial to expand my Wild Women work into more online places and, if possible, increase accessibility to supportive sessions for women.

    Until then, I will keep on searching for, and promoting, strong and confident women. All those doing good work and supporting each other. The Wild Women, the Earth Mothers and Warriors who have powerful, thoughtful voices and take absolutely zero shit.

    Header image credit: https://unsplash.com/@rpnickson

    Saying Goodbye and Looking Ahead

    As the festive season really begins and 2019 draws to a close, I wanted to make my last post of the year about goals and challenges.

    I’m not always very good at seeing the “bigger picture”, I usually tend to focus on what’s immediately ahead of me and what I need to do to tick off items from a short-term list with very little consideration of how they might fit into any kind of career plan. Which is rather ironic given that my librarian mind loves order, structure and clear organisation.

    Living with a chronic illness for many years made me wary about making plans. I had to learn to pace myself and steal time whenever I could. I wasn’t able to create a routine that enabled me to write every day or achieve a number of words each week, because I literally could not predict how I might feel from day to day, month to month. Even though I am in a considerably better position now, I still feel wary about making longer-term plans which I might be forced to abandon. I hope that in time I will improve with that and have far less fear about the future.

    What I have found useful this year has to set myself attainable short-term goals and ensure I completed them. A couple of useful mantras helped me here:

      Progress not perfection.
      Finished does not always mean complete.

    A very simple list in the notes app of my phone allowed me to keep track of submissions and other goals I wanted to attain. It gave me the satisfaction of seeing those items ticked off and made me feel like I was “winning”.

    Setting clear but attainable goals also ensured I held myself accountable, which was something I used to struggle with a great deal — especially if the imposter syndrome gremlins managed to persuade me that my work was not worthy in some way.

    My 2020 writing goals currently look something like this:

    • Write a new blog post every month.

    • Write and submit at least twelve new short stories to paying markets.

    • Write and submit two new short stories for charity anthologies.

    • Publish the charity anthology “Black Dogs, Black Tales” raising money for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.

    • Get nominated for something.

    • Submit a story to a predominately Australian/NZ anthology.

    • Finish my YA fantasy novella Elf Fires.

    • Finish planing and perhaps start to write my four-part SFF tree novella/novel.

    • Continue my Werewolf Cop series.

    • Send a finished MS to a traditional publisher.

    It seems a lot and yet also it doesn’t, at least not when spread out over a full year. I definitely did a lot in 2019 — more than I intended or anticipated — and I found myself more than a little burnt out at times, so I want to avoid that next year. Also, in the middle of the year is CoNZealand, which I will be attending and possibly participating on panels, which looks to be a phenomenal experience.

    One final point to make, which a friend of mine told me: even when you are not writing, or submitting, or publishing your work — you are still a writer. Your goals should galvanise and inspire you, not grind you down, nor make you feel like you have to keep running full-pelt on the writing treadmill. If you decide to take a break, or you feel like you are not as prolific as your friends or other writers, that’s okay. Your goals are personal milestones, and no-one else’s business. Don’t use others’ achievements as a yardstick to measure your own. Whatever else you do, do you.

    I wish all my readers a very happy holidays and a fabulous new year. Here’s to many more exciting new things.

    This Year’s Best Of Me

    I think it can be terribly easy to fall into the trap of feeling embarrassed or unsure about celebrating your achievements. For a long time I would laugh and say any wins on my scoreboard were a fluke, or a mistake. I would deflect the compliments and play down my hard work. I can’t even really explain why I did that.

    I am incredibly proud of doing what I am, and gaining a small amount of recognition for that. I am happy to blow my own horn and say, “You know what? This isn’t down to luck or some random accident. This is the product of me sitting my ass down and doing the work. It comes from believing in myself and being brave enough and confident enough to put my stories out there.” Rejections are the norm in the writing “game”, and it’s a bloody hard game to win.

    But someone has to win it. Why not you?

    I believe it is incredibly important, and emotionally healthy, to take the time to recognise and acknowledge your accomplishments. Even if those “wins” might seem small or insignificant to others, it is never about them. There will always be lesser and greater persons than yourself, it is your own goals that matter most. This year I’ve written about imposter syndrome and self-rejection and I’ve even written about why I write what I do, and through it all I keep reminding myself and my readers of one very important truth: you do not need anyone’s permission to write. Do it for you.

    I self-published my passion-project and debut collection of dark fiction – “Dark Winds Over Wellington” – in March of this year, and if I’m honest, I thought that would be pretty much all I did. I had no grand plans or long-term goals. I had no aspirations to begin writing for any other reason than because I enjoyed it, nor for any audience other than myself. It was an item to tick off my bucket list: “Publish some fiction before I hit 40.” When it actually started to sell, I was nervous. I beat myself up for not making it “better“. For potentially releasing it into the wild “too soon“. But perfection is like chasing the horizon, and at some point you have to let go and move on.

    Could it have been better? Of course it could. Just like almost every other writers’ first works could be improved in some way. I cut my teeth on it. It sold. Some people liked it. Some people didn’t. That’s okay. In fact, that felt bloody good.

    In August one of my stories was accepted into a charity anthology, Tricksters Treats 3, the 7 Deadly Sins.Sign Here” is a 700-word road-rage story written in response to the prompt of Wrath, and I’ll admit I didn’t have the slightest clue about what I was doing. I was absolutely thrilled (and more than a little bit stunned) that it was accepted, and it set me on an unexpected course. The Imposter Gremlin poked his head out of his cave and whispered scornfully… “It’s an anomaly. A fluke. You just got lucky…” Of course I had to prove them wrong.

    By late September I had managed to sell not just one, but two of my short stories to two different Australasian horror magazines. Midnight Echo accepted “Red-Eye,” a darkly poignant story which explores our lives as a journey, and things not being quite as they seem. “Butterfly,” another heart-wrenching, twisted tale of guilt and grief was accepted by Breach Magazine.

    Writing is not my job. I make bugger-all money from it, and that’s never my intention anyway. I do it because I love it. Because to not do it would leave me feeling incomplete and dissatisfied. There are stories inside me waiting to burst out. I enjoy the process of letting them free. Terry Pratchett once said that writing is the most fun you can have by yourself, and while that might elicit a mucky snigger from some, he was not wrong.

    Making art for art’s sake is what drives me. It’s why I’ll never have a submission strategy, or a meticulously updated spreadsheet of my accepted and rejected works. I’m too… spontaneous. It’s likely why I’ll never be rich or famous for my writing – I’m appallingly bad at the hustle. Perhaps I’m simply too much of a damn hippy at heart.

    Yet despite all that, in addition to the above, this year I have:

      Released numerous works of fiction on my blog. My favourites being, “In the Shadow of the Moon, I Saw You Smile,” a vaguely allegorical tale of a mother who turns to magic to soothe the pain of her child’s passing, and to help her make sense of the loss; and “An Ocean Of Stars” written for a special mother of a special friend of mine, also using magic to understand the place of things in the world.
      Interviewed one of my very favourite writers (who I am also incredibly proud to call my friend) Jamie Delano.
      Had my hope-after-destruction science-fiction poem “Future Imperfect” published by a writers group in Wellington…
      … and a 500-word queer romantic short, “Long Distance“, added to the zine produced by another group.
      Self-published “RISE“, a collection of my poems spanning over a period of five years as an ebook and released it online for free.
      Selected an international editorial team of twelve and started a callout for stories for “Black Dogs, Black Tales“, a charity anthology raising money and awareness for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand to be published by Things In The Well press in 2020.
      Interviewed a number of authors published by Things In The Well for their new feature, “Voices From The Well” (and created the Creatures for it too).
      Started a micro reviews (micrev) Twitter feed to write bite-size book reviews in fewer than 280 characters called Resting Book Face.
      Ran writing for wellness workshops for women in Wellington (that’s quite some alliteration!) with my friend and fellow writer Stella Peg Carruthers. These free workshops at the Toi Pōneke Arts Centre were extremely well-attended every session. They helped to foster some new positive writing relationships between the attendees and strengthen current ones, as well as inspiring a number of members to go further and start their own creative projects.
    I’m not done. I’m still cookie dough and I don’t believe I will be fully cooked for a long, long while yet. I’m still figuring out what I like to write and what inspires and energises me. I’m looking forwards to 2020 and I’m curious about what it will bring. There are multiple ideas percolating in my mind. They’re embryonic at the moment and not ready to come out yet, but with time I have hope that they’ll emerge into beautiful story butterflies.

    As always, I’ll write them for the love of it.

    Art for art’s sake. It drives me.

    (Image credit: own digital art “Evening in Owhiro Bay”.)