Thursday 5 December 2019

Learning from the other arts - Alex English

I'm a sucker for writing books and like many other ABBA bloggers (Rowena springs to mind!) I have shelves full of guides. Recently, I've tried looking further afield to other art forms to see what I can learn and whether I can apply it to writing. Here's what I've found:

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash


There are multitudes of screenwriting books that many novelists use already. Screenwriters are by necessity very strong on structure due to the huge budgets and fixed time-constraints of the screen. In this sense, a screenplay is very similar to a picture book. You can't overrun an episode of EastEnders by ten minutes any more than you can stretch out a picture book story to 17 spreads.

Key takeaways: read about screenwriting if you want to get your head around plot and structure

Recommended reads: Story by Robert McKee, Into the Woods by John Yorke, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (just to get you started, there are many, many more).

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash


I somehow stumbled upon reading Pat Pattison's songwriting tips, and I've found them very helpful for writing rhyming picture books. While poetry books often focus on blank verse, songwriting looks more closely at rhyme and rhythm, which is just what's needed for a picture book. I've never really learned how to write in rhyme, and most picture book writing guides don't cover it thoroughly.

Key takeaways: Chapter 4 has a guide to building a 'worksheet' – in brief a sort of brainstorm-on-paper of ideas and rhymes associated with the themes of the song you are writing. I tend to write my story in prose before turning it into rhyme, and now I'm going to try including a rhyme worksheet as a middle step in my process.

Recommended reads: Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison

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I recently took a cartooning course with Neil Kerber, which has been great fun to practise with the kids. Drawing was supposed to be a hobby, but it's actually proved incredibly handy to be able to sketch characters and props for my work in progress. It also saves hours searching around Pinterest for that elusive image in my head.

Key takeaways: Keep it loose. Draw and see what comes out. It doesn't have to be perfect. Have fun!

Recommended reads: Comics: Easy as ABC! by Ivan Brunetti

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash


I know nothing about dance, but I recently read The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, an acclaimed choreographer. She talks about her creative process, how she researches a dance piece (fascinating!) and how she actively develops her career. She talks about the importance of teaching/mentoring others to solidify your own knowledge. What would you teach yourself six months ago?

Key takeaways: There's a lot in this book, but I love the way Tharp uses a big box to gather her project material. I've started keeping a dedicated notebook for each project (previously I had a trillion notebooks with notes from different things scattered throughout), but a file box might work even better to collate random scraps of information and objects related to a book.

Recommended reads: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp   

Photo by Mika Korhonen on Unsplash

Fashion design

On a whim, I borrowed a book about fashion design research and found it a surprisingly enlightening read. Nobody really tells you how to get ideas for a novel, but fashion designers at college have to document a proper research process and show how their ideas came about.

Key takeaways: "Fashion doesn't come from fashion" (i.e. don't take your inspiration from the catwalk). Books don't (just) come from books either. It's easy to feel you have to keep completely up-to-date with reading every new book release, but as long as you have a feel for what a current book is, it can be more useful to look more widely and take creative inspiration from elsewhere, art galleries, museums and maybe even real life!

Recommended reads: Fashion Design Research by Ezinma Mbonu

How about you? Have you ever taken inspiration for your creative process from another art form?

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.


Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting, Alex!

Moira Butterfield said...

I think you might enjoy the Radio 4 series 'Only Artists'. Two artists from different genres compare their processes, I found it very inspiring this year.

Alex English said...

Ooh, thank you Moira! I will look it up. Sounds right up my street.
Thank you, Sue!