Showing posts with label Heather Dyer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Heather Dyer. Show all posts

Thursday, 22 October 2020

How Do You Nourish Your Soul? - Heather Dyer

Something to ponder as the nights draw in: how do you nourish your soul? 

I’ve been thinking ahead to possible lockdowns this winter, and wondering what I can do to keep my spirits up and stay inspired. I might re-read my favourite childhood books, take virtual gallery tours, buy a fire pit and start taking a flask on my walks. I’ve also just discovered Storygraph, which finds books for you, based on your preferences. 

Creatives talk about ‘filling the well’. Julia Cameron (in her book The Artists’ Way) tells us to take ourselves on an ‘Artist Date’ once a week. Some of these options aren't going to be available now, though: 

The Artist Date, an hour or longer weekly block of time spent on yourself and with yourself, doing something ‘festive’, is intended to engender release. Release, in turn, engenders inspiration. 

In Manhattan, a particularly magical Artists’ Date for me was a visit to the Compleat Traveler, a small, treasure-laden store on the corner of Thirty-fifth Street and Madison Avenue. Filled with everything from maps of Ireland, Polynesia, and the Isle of Wight to vintage books on Marco Polo and the Himalayas, it is a world where time and distance conspire and conjoin. 

Aquarium stores, museums, cathedrals, flea markets, or five-and-dimes… vintage films, lectures on the odd, the improbable, or merely interesting … musical performances by traveling Tibetan monks, a trip to a quiet, riverside spot – any of these can function as an Artist Date. 

An Artist date is about following your bliss – allowing yourself to be drawn to activities or places simply because you have an inner pull towards these things. You don’t need to think about the reason why you love looking at old maps, or knitting, or taking photos of industrial estates. You’re following your hunches and allowing your curiosity to lead you. 

However, I suspect there are certain things about a hobby or an interest that ‘answer’ a need in our unconscious. Nourishing our souls by ‘filling the well’ can inspire and inform our exploration in other, unrelated areas. 


This winter, we might have to do more solitary, indoor things to nourish our souls. I asked a group of students this question last week and their answers were: jigsaws, long walks, cold water swimming, films, tarot cards, scrabble, working with clay, painting, drawing… 

My neighbours have bought a hot tub! 

I also hope to get some work done. What about you? 

And on the topic of winter and creativity, here's an article I love by Jeanette Winterson, who explains why she ‘adores the night'.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Mind Map Your Story (or anything else) - Heather Dyer

Allowing your ideas to branch organically promotes divergent thinking; the mind thinks ‘wider’ that it might do if you were making a list or writing in a linear way. This can give rise to new and unexpected connections. 



There are all sorts of ways to use mind maps:
  • Taking notes in a lecture or from a weblog or podcast, or book
  • Exploring an event, process or a concept – for example, ‘moving house’, ‘sand dune erosion’, or ‘haiku’.
  • Structuring a piece of writing or coming up with ideas to write about. 
  • Performance. For example, if assessing a teacher, you could write down the areas for assessment beforehand – or the performance categories red, green and amber (for improvement) – before branching off each one according to your observations. 
  • Designing a presentation. You could even show the mind map as a PowerPoint slide, to introduce the presentation or sum up at the end.
  • Explore a character, chapter or storyline. 

How to do it?
  1. Write one central word (or better still, draw a single image representing it) in the middle of the page. Then branch out, writing one associated word along each branch.
  2. Draw a thick line for the first words that come off the central image, and thinner lines for more remote tributaries.
  3. Branch again and again; the only limit is the number of associations you can make.
  4. Tony Buzan recommends using colour, but I’ve never bothered.
  5. Importantly, allocate only one word to each branch – even if you want to write a phrase.
    For example, I recently drew a mind map to explore potential income streams. One of my branches was ‘school visits’. But breaking this into two words on two branches, allowed more connections to arise. As I drew a separate line for ‘school’, universities and home-schooling groups suddenly occurred to me. Then, as I drew the line for ‘visit’ I realized I could offer virtual visits as well as real visits.

Other ideas:
  • If your mind map is getting too crowded, one of the branches could start a separate mind map of its own, thereby drilling deeper and expanding further.
  • Mind mapping can be done as a way to collaborate. It can be useful to do individual mind maps first, collaborate to create a combined map, then separate again and reflect further.
  • Try prioritizing quantity over quality. Choose your central word or image, then write at least five words branching from it. Write another five from each of these five. Try another five, if you can. How far can you go?
  • When you’ve finished your mind map, try connecting random pairs of words and seeing if any new connections arise.



Heather Dyer teaches Writing for Children for the Open College of the Arts, and provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at [email protected] 

For further information, see Heather's blog at Writing for Children: Creative Inspiration for Children's Authors.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

How to Recession-Proof Your Creative Practice - Heather Dyer


This is an older post from The Creative Independent blog, and I hope they don't mind me posting an excerpt here. It seems relevant for those who might be using this time to think up new income streams – or rethink your entire creative practice.

From the longer article, ‘How to Recession-Proof Your Creative Practice’  is the following section on ‘serious play’. Creativity is about combining previously unconnected elements. If we combine our own previously unconnected interests/activities/habits, maybe we can come up with some new avenues for our creative practice?

White Jigsaw Puzzle Illustration

Serious Play

"Recessions begin with widespread pessimism and survival, and end with optimism and opportunity. As the recession ends, those who survive make plans to grow again. Apple is famous for developing new products during a recession and launching them just as it ends. The first iPod was launched in October 2001, just as an eight-month recession was coming to an end. To get to your own iPod idea, try this creative practice—Serious Play.

Learning by playing has its roots in the kindergarten, Montessori, and Waldorf children’s school movements of 19th-century Europe. But it was “Homo Ludens,” “Humans the Players,” by Johan Huizinga in 1938 that showed how important play is to generating culture. In play, you can change the rules of the game or even create a whole new game. Plus, you can change the playground, the space where you play.

Play is actually one of the most productive things you can do in a recession. My favorite game is called “match up.” Much, maybe most, innovation involves just two steps: Take an old product or business, and match it to a new technology. Amazon began when Bezos took book selling in stores and stuck it on the internet. Zuckerberg took physical photo sharing and poured it through the internet. Listening to music? Hook it up to the net. Transportation? Zip Car, Uber. Renting? Airbnb.

Of course, you don’t need technology to play. Eddie Huang took the traditional Taiwanese meat-filled gua boa, started filling it with Niman Ranch pork belly and Cherry Coca Cola, and named his restaurant Baohaus. I just had my first iced cardamom coffee float at Hampton Chutney in Amagansett. How did these ideas come about? Play.

Serious play is a method of designing the future. And that is how you should spend your time in recession: designing your future."

3x3 Rubik's Cube
Try writing 20 different habits/interests/practices dotted across a large piece of paper. For example: Blogs, writing, children, teaching, libraries, families, storytelling, reading, NHS ... etc. Then randomly connect these words in pairs, and try freewriting for five minutes on the relationship between them. Perhaps it will trigger a new approach, like 'reading stories online' or 'blogs for children' or 'writing about the NHS'.




Heather Dyer teaches Writing for Children for the Open College of the Arts, and provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at [email protected] 

For further information, see Heather's blog at Writing for Children: Creative Inspiration for Children's Authors.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Recalibrate - Heather Dyer

It’s just after dawn and I’m sitting in my easy chair in front of the patio doors. My dog is on my lap, and I’m cradling a cup of coffee. Outside, the sparrows are going about their business.  At this time of day, living out here, it's easy to believe that nothing has changed.
But of course, everything has changed. Offices are empty. Hospitals are chaotic. Flights have been grounded, and the pandas in Hong Kong are mating. And the projects I was so invested in two weeks ago feel irrelevant. But I still feel an urgency to write, to produce, to make something out of all of this….
Then, scrolling through my emails, I discover an article called, ‘Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure’.
Professor Aisha Ahmad has lived through several crises, and her reflections are wise, calm and kind. First, she says, establish your physical security and get your team in place. Then, she says, we must, ‘abandon the performative and embrace the authentic.’ She says we must focus on real internal change.
Yes! This is the creative process. We mustn’t try to keep treading along the previous tracks. We must stop and recognize new directions, new patterns. The world has shifted, so our thinking needs to shift.
On the other side of this shift, says Ahmad, ‘your wonderful, creative, resilient brain will be waiting for you. […] New ideas will emerge that would not have come to mind had you stayed in denial. Continue to embrace your mental shift. Have faith in the process. Support your team.’
Aisha Ahmad has written another article on Productivity and Happiness Under Sustained Disaster Conditionswhich follows on from the first.

Heather also blogs at https://thecreativestateofmind.wordpress.com/blog/  


Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary ConsultancyThe Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at [email protected]

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Zoom Chat for Writers on Saturday April 25th - Heather Dyer



If you're anything like me, in a few short weeks your writing and publishing plans have shifted focus.

What about you? Do the things you're working on two weeks ago no longer feel relevant? Have you suddenly started something new? Or is it difficult to concentrate at all? 

If you write for children, I'd like to invite you to a short Zoom chat at noon on Saturday 25th April. The (loose) focus of the chat will be: Taking Stock: writing in uncertain times. 

CONFESSION: I have an ulterior motive - as well as connecting with other writers, this is an opportunity for me to practice using Zoom. I'm doing my first Zoom writing workshop next month!

But this will be an informal, private chat - just an opportunity for a group of writers to share our thoughts and take stock. It's also an opportunity to meet new people, see how Zoom can be used to chat and teach online, and try a couple of very short divergent thinking exercises designed to generate new insights on your current work-in-progress (no sharing required). 


Close-up of Coffee Cup on Table

So, if you have time to join me, drop me a line by email. I'll then send you a link to download Zoom (it only takes a minute) and give you the password to join the meeting. Bring a cuppa, pen and paper, and an open mind. I'll accept the first eight people who contact me, and if more are interested I'll arrange a second meeting. I look forward to hearing from you - and thanks for helping me out! 

Heather ([email protected])



Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at [email protected] 

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

What's Your Story? - Heather Dyer

We’re hardwired to see stories in everything: a mishap, a relationship, a life. Even a recipe has a narrative arc that shows how one thing leads to another. The desired outcome of a story is always discovery and growth – if we understand how and why things happen, we can shape outcomes in the future.


In writing workshops, I use the archetypal story structure ‘The Hero’s Journey’ to help participants reflect on – and reshape – their essays and creative writing.

The Hero’s Journey is a universal story model outlined by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell collected myths from all over the world, identified common elements or stages, and then put them together in a ‘monomyth’. Typically, the hero receives a call to adventure, ventures forth to face challenges and temptations, and ultimately sacrifices something in order to receive the gift of insight, which they bring home to benefit the world.


The hero can of-course be male or female, and the model is flexible rather than prescriptive – but the beauty of the monomyth is that it provides a pattern for the process of growth and change.

The call to adventure:
What motivates your protagonist. What do they want? More importantly, WHY do they want it? What need are they seeking to meet; what problem are they trying to overcome?
Note: Often, a character has a mistaken belief: what they want isn’t what they need. Sometimes, they don’t get what they want and get what they need, instead.

The hero meets helpers and tricksters on the path:
How did your protagonist get here? Who or what has shaped them this far, or influenced their journey? Who or what will trip them up or influence them in future?

The hero faces the monster in the cave
What’s your protagonist’s greatest fear? What’s their weakness? What situation would force your character to face this fear head-on? What if their worst fear was realized – what then?
If their fear isn’t obvious, ask yourself what your character would love to see happen – then imagine the opposite.

Death and rebirth:
Your character needs to change and grow. This often means they need to let go of a limiting belief or relinquish something they’ve been pinning their hopes on. Do they have a mistaken belief or are they clinging onto something they need to let go of in order to proceed down a new route?

The Return. The hero brings new knowledge back to the world:
What’s the impact of your protagonist’s discovery or lesson? How will it change things? What will they do differently now? What will be the result?

Here's another suggestion... Apply these questions to yourself, as the protagonist of your own life. Do they reveal anything about your wants and needs, your false beliefs, or what you must let go of in order to grow?


Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at [email protected] 

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.




Sunday, 22 December 2019

Everything's Connected - Heather Dyer


This plotting exercise was inspired by Rory’s Story Cubes, a children’s story-generating game. No cubes necessary here, however. 

I've tried this on my own children's-book-in-progress, and also with PhD students working on their theses. There's no reason why you couldn't use it on any sort of project. 
  1. Quite quickly, write down 20 words associated with your project. Write them down in two adjacent columns of 10.
  2.  Now draw random lines linking pairs of words in each column.
  3. Freewrite (or make notes or just reflect) on the connections between the words.
Creativity is about making new connections between previously unconnected ideas. When I used this exercise in a workshop for PhD students, a dance student connected the words ‘dance’ and ‘movement’. She said that freewriting on the relationship between these words had, for the first time, made her really reflect on how they differed. ‘Dance’ is defined and shaped by convention, whereas ‘movement’ is more fluid.

You can modify this exercise by listing characters in a story in order to explore the relationships between them. You might be surprised by the connections that can arise between characters you previously didn't think had much to do with one another. 


Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary ConsultancyThe Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at [email protected]

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.

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Friday, 22 November 2019

Sustaining a Lifelong Creative Practice - Heather Dyer


Following a creative pursuit can sometimes be lonely and frustrating. Here are five books I’ve found particularly inspiring because they contain practical advice from other writers and artists who’ve ‘been there’:



David Whyte is a poet. Only indirectly about creativity, this book is about integrating our work, our relationships and inner selves in order to live a fulfilled and productive life. Writers often talk about finding 'balance' between day jobs, family and creativity - but Whyte's advice seems to be to knit them all together rather than think of them as separate. He includes nice examples pulled from authors’ lives.




Booth explores that small ‘pull’ that makes us want to make art in the first place, and shows us how to fan those flames. This book, ‘illuminates the artistry we all practice, and it enables us to reclaim the fun and satisfaction that is already happening unnoticed right under our noses’.




Creative Quest by Questlove

This book might best be described as a riff on retaining your creativity throughout your career. Questlove is a musician. One of the things he says is that, as emerging creatives, we are hungry to be influenced by others, but as we solidify our practice we become more concerned with influencing others. Stay open to being influenced, is his advice. I also like his description of what collaboration should look like: “Collaboration isn’t about what’s there so much as what’s not there. It’s the jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing and a pile of bright pieces nearby.”




This is an accessible how-to-sustain-your-practice guide for emerging creatives. The book is described as helping the reader ‘search memory for inspiration, understand his or her individual artistic profile, explore possible futures, design a daily process and build a structure of support.’ In the past I’ve drawn from this book for exercises for an 8-week ‘Developing Your Creativity’ course.   




Chase Jarvis is a photographer who now runs a successful online learning portal. The book includes a lot of advice about how to find your 'tribe', network virtually and in person, and market your work. 

What all these books endorse is listening to that early intuitive pull, exploring by doing, drawing inspiration from living, creating a regular practice (however short) and staying open to flow by letting go of expectations and setting out anew, each day, into uncharted territory. If you have your own recommendations, I'd love to hear them.


Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary ConsultancyThe Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at [email protected]

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.




Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Bird by Bird - Heather Dyer


In my last post, I enthused about how much easier it is to write at a writer’s retreat. And I stand by this. But now I’m going to argue that, sometimes, it’s more productive to write in short time slots, fitting your writing in around more pressing tasks.

There are good reasons for this:

1. We may not have the luxury of being able to write all day, every day
Unless we are supported by someone else, or independently wealthy, there will be the day job or other freelance work to do. And unless we have staff, there may be children to care for, dogs to walk, meals to cook and homes to clean. If we don’t grab the hour after the children have gone to bed, or half an hour in the morning before everyone else wakes up – or our lunch break, or the commute – we could end up waiting for ever to ‘find time’ to achieve our creative goals.


2. Little and often can feel more manageable
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about a school project (on birds) that her brother had delayed doing until the weekend before it was due. Their father sat the boy down and said, ‘Bird by bird, son. Bird by bird.’ And, bird by bird, he managed to get it done.

A long project like a book can feel overwhelming. But by focusing on the next small chunk of work, it’s surprising how much can be achieved before you know it.


3. You can gestate ideas between bouts of writing
Often, I suddenly realize what could happen next in a scene when I’ve just shut my laptop and am doing the dishes. Likewise, I frequently think of something I ought to have said the moment I’ve pressed ‘send’ on an email. There’s something about letting go that allows the mind to wander and allows new insights to arise. Working in short stretches can allow this to happen.

One way to take advantage of this is to note down which scene or section you want to work on the following day, to prime unconscious to work on it in the meantime. Hemingway famously stopped in the middle of a scene (or even a sentence). Apparently, when he knew what was coming next, it made it easier to return to work the following day. But I suspect it also allowed his unconscious to ‘work’ on the scene in the meantime.


4. Life inspires art
Writers need to live as well as write, because inspiration comes from living. It's surprising how life and creative output cross-pollinate each other.  When we have a project on the go, things we see, hear, read, experience - it's all grist for the mill, and can trigger ideas or solutions.

5. Creativity is like a muscle - use it or lose it
I've heard it said that writing is like going to the gym. Little and often is the best way to keep the creative muscle active. And our ability to be creative isn't just restricted to our 'creative' projects, either. The intuitive, exploratory, open mindset that creativity requires is indispensable in life, as well.

6. Writing for long periods, just because we can, can be counterproductive
Particularly in the early stages of a project, pushing ahead can force its growth unnaturally. Sometimes, working in short stretches over a longer duration allows a storyline to develop more slowly and organically - and reach its full potential.

Maybe it depends on the writer, or maybe on the stage of a particular project. Sometimes, having the opportunity to dive in and push full steam ahead without distractions can be wonderful. At other times, adding to your work in short stints can be even more effective.



Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at [email protected] 

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.



Sunday, 22 September 2019

Writing Retreats - Heather Dyer

Hawthornden Castle

I’ve applied for a grant to buy time to write. This might sound odd, since I’m a freelancer and already spend most of my time writing. But writing at home isn’t the same as writing at a dedicated writing retreat.

A writing retreat is the most effective way I can think of for converting money into creative output. I once spent five days at retreat at Ty Newydd, and wrote 10,000 words. At another retreat I conceived a whole new structure and voice for a long-term project.

Ty Newydd

Still, spending six days at somewhere like Retreats for You would normally be beyond my reach. I suppose I could try and manufacture a retreat at home. I could turn off my phone and router, send the dog to kennels, tell everyone I’ve gone on holiday, take down my calendar and hide all reminders of my freelance work, prepare all my meals in advance. But it wouldn’t be the same. I’d still be thinking about the cleaning or the laundry or getting up to sign for a delivery.
Retreats for You

So, I Google writing retreats like others might Google luxury holidays or houses. I lust after their empty rooms, furnished with just a single bed, chair, desk and view. I love reading about the healthy local food they serve, the picnic baskets they leave outside your door at lunchtime. I imagine myself walking in the grounds lost in thought, or sitting on veranda with my notebook on my lap. It feels like a luxury to be able to do nothing but think and work as hard as I can.

But it’s not just the extra time a retreat gives you – it’s the extra headspace. In filling out the application, I reflected on why exactly retreats are so productive. Here are the reasons I gave:
  1. Not having to prepare food or do any other routine tasks allows me to function on autopilot. Because I don’t have to drag myself back to the real world to think about what I’m going to make for dinner, or do the dishes, or walk the dog, I can remain preoccupied by my work 24/7. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing I do before going to bed. I can wander about lost in thought, and make notes at the dinner table.
  2. This uninterrupted focus deepens my immersion in the material, which allows unconscious connections to rise to the surface and results in new insights.
  3. Shutting down all other mental ‘bandwidths’ relieves stress, and this also helps create an expansive, creative mindset. Until I’m on retreat, I don't realize how much ‘noise’ is going on inside my head, keeping me distracted.
  4. I set out-of-office/voicemail messages as though I’m on vacation, which helps me feel detached, and sustain an inward focus. Immediately, it’s as though the real world and my real life have been whisked away, and all I’m left with is the material I brought to work on.
  5. Knowing that time on retreat is limited makes me feel justified – and obliged – to give my creative work priority. Usually, the opposite is true. Even though writing is always my priority, there are a million smaller, less important things that are more urgent. So they take precedence. Working on ‘my own stuff’ begins to feel like a guilty pleasure. Every moment on retreat is precious, because here you are a writer above all else.
  6. Being around other writers is motivating and inspiring – both chatting with them and just knowing they’re behind the walls, also working. There’s a lovely kind of understanding that happens, where you can go about lost in thought, and everyone understands. Or, there are people to talk to about writing who really understand.
  7. The progress made during a retreat generates momentum that continues for months afterwards, so it’s easier to continue building on this progress in smaller chunks of time.
But you don't have to be a writer to have a working retreat. You could have a workation, at a centre dedicated to working stays, set up with superfast wifi, social areas and restaurants. With the rise in people working remotely, more and more people are working on the move. I’ve heard of other people attending spiritual or religious retreats to work, too, in the peace and quiet.

Have you been to any retreats you’d recommend? Has anyone made retreating-at-home work for them?


Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides editorial and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. For feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at [email protected]

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.



Saturday, 16 December 2017

Consulting Oracles - Heather Dyer


Oblique Strategies™ are the famous set of cards produced by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975. These cards were designed to be used as thought-provoking prompts that could suggest a course of action or assist in creative situations. They can be used to solve plot problems with novels, solve personal problems, or just inject some creativity into tasks or decision-making. If this feels a bit like consulting an oracle, it is. But the oracle here lies not outside us, but within. The oblique prompts are a means of consulting it.

'The Crystal Ball' by John William Waterhouse

Each card contains a prompt which can be used to achieve a new insight. Examples include:

Use an old idea.
State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
Only one element of each kind.
What would your closest friend do?
What to increase? What to reduce?
Are there sections? Consider transitions.
Try faking it!
Honor thy error as a hidden intention.
Ask your body.
Work at a different speed.
Use unqualified people.
Not building a wall but making a brick.
If given a choice, do both.

The term ‘oblique’ refers to the way we approach our problems from behind – or from the side. We are sneaking up on them, catching them unawares so that any inklings we might have as to their solutions don’t fade away under the neon intensity of our direct attention.

The intelligence of our unconscious communicates in scenes and symbols. Approached directly, these scenes and symbols will only dissolve, or vanish like one of those Magic Eye stereograms hidden in abstract designs.


But by introducing our problem to our unconscious obliquely, we allow the two to meet - but not head-on. They say that when you want to introduce a second dog to your household, you should bring the two dogs together for the first time on neutral territory, as though meeting by chance while out for a wander one day. This is how a problem and your unconscious intelligence should meet - as though by happenstance they have intercepted on a street corner and from that point on, are inseparable.

Freewriting is another way to approach an idea in oblique ways. Freewriting is simply writing before we have time to think about what we’re going to say. It allows the images in the unconscious to rise to our pens before our bossy monologue of our conscious intentions. So, freewriting is a way to discover what we don’t yet know about a subject. By that, I don’t mean that we write to find out how little we know; we write to allow what we didn’t know we knew, to rise up into our consciousness through our pens.

With this in mind, take a problematic scene or situation in your story – or your life - and approach the problem obliquely by freewriting for three or four minutes on the following prompts:

  • What do you see that's new in the situation? What do you see now that you’ve never noticed before? Keep searching for novelty. 
  • If this situation/problem was a dessert (or a building, or a story, etc.) what would it be? Write a paragraph explaining why. Is there anything it needs?
  • What if the elements in this situation were characters in a play? What would they say? Write a few lines of dialogue.
  • Freewrite on what the solution is not. 
  • Do you have a favourite hobby or interest? What principles does it adhere to? How might these principles be applied to the current situation or problem? 
  • Is this the wrong question? Sit with your eyes closed for several minutes, paying attention to your breathing. At intervals, ask gently: “What do I want to know?” See what arises. 
  • Freewrite on what you want the solution to be. Might your underlying desires be limiting in any way? 
  • What if you changed one aspect of this situation/problem? What if you changed the colour? The material? The method? The place? What can be made larger? Smaller? Divided? Rearranged? 
  • Draw the problem. What does the drawing say about the situation? What does it say about you? 
  • Draw a circle around this situation. What’s outside the circle? 
  • Write a paragraph describing the situation from a different perspective. How does it look from outside? From above? From the point of view of an object, or a forgotten voice?
  • What do you remain curious about? Write a paragraph exploring it.
  • What if you fail? What then? Where would you go next? How might what comes next relate to the initial situation? 

I suspect that, for a lot of people, the value of the ‘divination’ properties of oblique strategy cards, newspaper horoscopes, tarot cards or even the I Ching, lies in the way that when we ‘read’ these oracles we are approaching whatever question or problem we have on our minds (or in our unconscious) obliquely. I met a writer last week who has even published a book of short stories called Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, each inspired by one of the 64 hexegrams of the I Ching.


The way we interpret these 'omens' might say more about the hidden cravings and aversions in our  psyches than it does the stars. But the insights revealed may have arisen from an equally wise and all-knowing source. The more spiritual among us might even say, ‘the same source’.

If anyone tries any of the above prompts I'd love to hear about it. Did it reveal an answer that your unconscious already knew? Did it make you see your question in a new light?



Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow










Thursday, 16 November 2017

A Sign of the Times: Artificial Intelligence in Children’s Books - Heather Dyer

Last week, after an oral examination that marked the end of a 4-year life-consuming PhD in creative writing, I watched the entire 7 series of the sitcom Cold Feet.

One thing I found charming about the early episodes is the way they’ve dated. In series one, only the character playing the financial advisor owned a mobile phone. A character with a cutting-edge job in ‘computers’ sat in front of his huge, boxy PC exploring the first-ever chat rooms. Because using the Internet meant tying up his landline, his friends could never get in touch. Plots relied on characters not being able to call one another’s mobiles and having to across the city to save them just in time.

This brought home the writer’s dilemma of being up-to-date when writing children’s fiction. Characters in realistic fiction need to reflect reality. However, technology changes so quickly that very soon it becomes dated, making your story sound old-fashioned. The same goes for language. Expressions like, “Super!” or “Sick!” date quickly. What to do?

Avoiding up-to-the minute phrases, brand names and specific games or programs will prevent readers from pinpointing the time or place too specifically. I suppose the thing is to find a balance between being ‘current’ and being ‘fashionable’.

But what do you do when you’re writing a time travel adventure, as I am, now? What will things be like in future?

Artificial Intelligence
When I started researching future technology, I soon found myself reading about artificial intelligence (AI). What I read blew the lid off my world – and not just the world of my book, either.

I had never understood what people meant when they said they feared that AI would take over the world. Even if computers did acquire organic intelligence, I thought, surely all we have to do is pull the plug? At the end of the day, we control the power source, don’t we?

Then I read about Neuralink (Elon Musk’s brand of brain-machine-interface (BMI)), and realized I had been getting it all wrong. Artificial intelligence isn’t necessarily about computers becoming cleverer than us - it’s about us becoming cleverer because our own brains will be modified via computer technology. The separation between computers and us (or between our devices, and our organic selves) will no longer exist. We will truly become part-human, part-machine. We will be the artificial intelligence.

I must confess that I’m no expert in either neuroscience or computer technology. However, Tim Urban of the ‘Wait But Why’ blog was commissioned by Elon Musk to explain it – and he does a great job. Here’s my understanding, in a nutshell:

BMIs like Nerualink will insert a thin layer of silk between the brain and the skull. The size of our skulls is what limits the growth of our brains – but this layer of silk will increase the surface area upon which neurones can grow. This massively increase our intelligence. And before you say, “I’m not having my skull opened up!” think about what life will be like if everyone around you has an implant, and are so much more intelligent than you, that they’ll see you as some sort of pet.

But that’s not all. This ‘web’ in the brain can be wirelessly connected to other people’s webs. So, someone can send an image they’re seeing to someone else on the other side of the world. (Apparently this can already be done.) Not only that, you can download an entire whole-body experience from someone else – in real time or retrospectively. The possibilities for less-abled people – and for porn – are just the tip of the iceberg.
©Skydeas
Of-course, the potential for hacking into this web of thought-experience is horrifying. I’ve heard that we’ll share so much mental activity that it will be difficult to know which thoughts and feelings are originating from ourselves and which are coming from outside. This threatens to blur the edges of our whole identity.

But aren’t we already manipulated by the media? BMIs give us the opportunity not just to download knowledge but experience. Imagine being able to know how someone else experiences something? Imagine being able to empathise with others because you – quite literally – know exactly how they feel?

Despite the inevitable misuse, I predict a situation where our ability to understand each other – and therefore empathise with each other – will increase exponentially. And does it matter if the edges of our own ‘identity’ blurs? Might it be a huge relief? Isn’t the ‘egoic self’ – the mental construction that we’re discrete entities completely separate from everything outside of us – the source of all conflict? Eastern philosophy has always claimed what quantum physics can now demonstrate in a very material way: we are ‘all one’. And with BMIs, we’ll realize it.

Actually, I think I’d better revisit my book. This may have implications for my plot…