Handsome and clever


This is one of a few four-panel stories I drew as a response to book and movies I read/saw last month: Read and Seen February 2020. (Some of the others are going out on Patreon).

This one was suggested by Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, Fran Krause’s Deep Dark Fears and The Creeps, and Emma.



On making samplers (of various kinds)


Most of the samplers people see today are decorative recreations of old ones. But a lot of early samplers weren’t intended for home furnishings: they were a practical record of techniques and approaches, as well as proof of the maker’s ability to use them.


A textbook (of literary devices, of art techniques, of embroidery stitches) is handy, of course.

But a roll of linen (or a dedicated sketchbook, or a file of deliberate writing exercises) goes so much further. It is a handy guide, yes, but it’s also a method for processing information from elsewhere, for knowing what it looks like when you do it to your ability and taste, of measuring that ability over time, of knowing your materials, collecting the particular approaches that you like and vividly recalling the approaches that didn’t work for you.


Covering ground

And beyond that, it’s a way of training your hands, of finding out your voice, of keeping your hands busy in quiet moments, and — sometimes — of creating a pleasing object after all.


A variety of oceans

Thoughts/exercises for artists and writers

  • Consider how you approach exercises and activities. Could you collect them into an ongoing sampler of some kind? A running document of scraps or book of creative approaches that you’ve found particularly useful? A sketchbook dedicated just to collecting watercolour textures, or treatments of bark, or clouds, or (when the times allow), people? A roll of stitch samples? Could you start a long-term one, or keep a book for just a week?
  • It’s also a nice way to dip into something you’d like to learn or be better at. Is there another medium (digital or oil or lino) you’ve wanted to try, or another genre, or something you need to know about for writing research? Or just something new and soothing you’ve idly been interested in.
  • Consider when you can work on these things? Samplers often fit into the interstices of a day — a way to keep hands busy when talking or listening or watching, something that can be picked up between activities without any pressure of date or scale or being finished, a way to follow your curiousity.
  • Imagine you are illustrating or writing a scene in which your character meets (or is) a Person Who Makes Things: a blacksmith, perhaps, or a seamstress, or a fly-fisherman. Sketch a quick outline of the scene and setting (in words or pictures). Now consider the process by which that Person Who Makes Things learned and practises their trade: samplers? master-pieces? a little trophy-wall of examples? And what does that show about them — do they love or hate their trade, work on it for joy or duty, are their samples utilitarian or whimsical? Add a few of those details to the scene, and see what it does to the texture and character of the story.

Using nature’s abhorrence of vacuums against itself

Some days, of course, are just about creating shapes to be filled with things another time.


Borders that set a mood for later making. Folders to fill with text one day.


Outlines that aren’t a promise of anything, only a potential. Prepared pages just the size for something to be drawn (tomorrow).


Just playing with lines, that’s all we’re doing.


Just roughing out where edges might be, oh fickle muse. A purely mechanical activity. Nothing to see here. Nothing that counts. Move along.


We wouldn’t be so rash as to slip and accidentally put something in those spaces.


Not today.

Making little things

Grand plans have their place. But sometimes it is good to make little things.


Clockwork beetles (eventually became part of an illustration for Trudi Canavan)

They are beautiful. Their tininess is fascinating and they look incredibly complicated by virtue of being small, and all the natural textures come out to play in ways that are lost in a big piece. People will compliment you on your remarkable detail work which is a nice ego boost, although you know that the trick is this: the smaller a piece is, the more detail you can leave out.


Trying to get the textures of matchbox art (for Mermay)

They are completed so soon. You have made a thing! It is out in the world now, being. On busy days or hard days or stagnant days or days all stacked up on giant projects, they remind you that you can make a whole thing, that you can hold in your hand.


Out of desperation to have drawn a thing, any thing, that day.

Like a prettyish sort of little wilderness, you can lose yourself in a small project without fear of wandering too far. There are, after all, times when you can’t get away for long, and times when you need to stay close to home.


Learning control

They can be test-patches for larger ideas. There’s no pressure there. No commitment. You are just trying things out in the service of some larger beauty. A few verses to try out the style of a grander epic. A short story to feel out the edges of a world. A tiny print in the manner of a picture book you’d like to make. And maybe it will lead to grander things, or maybe you will decide this was enough. You have made a thing, after all, and it was not here before.


High waists are back in

Many little things, all set side by side, can add up to a collection, an exhibition, but that is not the point.


And why are we standing behind the watch? What does it mean?

You can pretend you are a clockmaker, or a spy hiding secret messages.


And then, when you are done (so quickly!), you can put the rest away and sit back for a little, or go for a walk, shining with having made a thing, one thing, today.

Book news: PW starred review for Flyaway!


Photo by Irene Gallo of Tor.com, cushion (and book) by me: Your Hands are Cold

Look! A Publisher’s Weekly review of Flyaway — and it’s got a star!


The full review is here, but the most important thing to note is in the first line.

I adored R. J. Yeatman and W. C. Sellar’s 1066 and All That when I was little. I’m still very fond of it and quote it far more than other people know it (Good Kings and Bad Things and vice versa and (from the Folio introduction) those are not the sort of burlars we want, and hit the Sheriff of Nottingham again!), but I’ve never forgotten one of the mock cover quotes on it:

`This slim volume…’ Bookworm

It’s been the first thing I think about whenever anyone talks about cover quotes, and now I have a “slim debut” of my very own.

So… dream big. You never know what might happen.

Making Things Manifest: Mock-ups and outlines

Because I’ve been teaching some classes on creativity lately, I’m getting preoccupied with the steps between having an IDEA™ and actually creating a thing that exists in the world.


So many problems get solved by doing. But more than this, I find ideas — like cats — tend to flow to fill the shape of the box that you give them. It’s not just limits and borders (which are so useful for letting ideas, like waves, pile up against). An idea fed into a four-panel comic takes its own story-rhythm. An accordion-folded strip of paper quickly concertinas a rough story into a full draft. And a full draft of anything is already something that can be usefully shown to other people.


This was a story for patrons

There’s also a cruising gear the mind shifts into. Making mock-ups can be a form of procrastination, of course, but also it’s a very useful anaesthetic. Sometimes you sit down to do a rough treatment of some personally-tailored ideas-cards you wish existed, and look up a considerable time later from a completed deck of 50.


These all also have the advantage of having taken on a tangible form outside my own head. Ideas and sketches and outlines alone don’t always have this. They rely on a degree of emotion and momentum and excitement in my mind, and if I revisit the notes later, I can’t always recapture that, or work out what it was. Or read my handwriting.

This works for prose, too. Once an idea achieve a certain gravitational pull, I sometimes use a template loosely based on Susan Dennard’s 1-page synopsis (for fiction) or a standard intro-3-points-conclusion numbered outline (for prose) to make sure all the necessary parts are roughly accounted for, or given placeholder options. Then I pin them in place in a form I can easily store indefinitely, and come back to and pick up again.

And occasionally (e.g. for the few comics I’ve done) I’ll write a quick “treatment”-description first, which covers the overall story, its feeling and mood and key visuals/words, but isn’t actually a draft, so doesn’t have to bear the weight of those particular anxieties.

Writing news: story to Strange Horizons


My quite short story “The Present Only Toucheth Thee” has been bought by Strange Horizons!

It will come out in a few months and I will definitely tell you about it again then. (What I can tell you now is that I had to include a caveat in the cover letters for this story that it’s not in faux-Elizabethan! The title is an allusion.)

This will be my first publication by Strange Horizons as a writer, and I’m thrilled. They’ve brought out some lovely pieces, and I recommend checking out their text and audio issues: Strange Horizons.