Lost Stories

A few weeks ago now, I was in York. I had the chance to revisit people and places I have long missed; one of them was the splendid Minster. It is one of those places that has been special to people down through the centuries, and I always feel as though such spaces have an aura to them, the weight of all that accumulated meaning, that you can feel as soon as you enter. When you walk around, all those long-gone people tread silently with you.

And of course, there’s much to see. One thing that caught my eye in particular this visit was this little grave-marker below.

DSC_0445As you can see, it has been there a very long while itself, there on the floor in the east end of the great cathedral, and centuries of feet have worn it away so that I, at least, couldn’t quite make out all the details of the sad little story it has to tell.

I’m sure that somewhere (perhaps no further away than a guide book in the gift shop, or the recesses of my memory) are the details behind the little stone, but standing there this summer I wasn’t able to put the story back together. We can wonder, of course, imagine the parts that aren’t readable, fill in the reasons why this baby was laid to rest where they were, in that spot where light from the great East Window sometimes falls.

However we imagine, though, the original story was largely lost to me that day. I’ve written before about how some of the stories we like to tell change over time, as we add and subtract and rewrite to suit our tastes. We also lose stories, the ones that aren’t told and gradually fade into tantalizing fragments of tales. I encounter these sometimes doing research or playfully following rabbit-holes on the internet – I’ll run into a name, with the only information available being that they were ‘a figure in such and such mythology’. Sometimes there’s a little more: they were a king, a hero, a goddess. Perhaps. Nothing more of their stories, the stories of these people, real and imagined, who would have once loomed so large, remains. They are diminished down to a single line in a book or webpage, and many more have vanished entirely.

It’s sad to think of our lost stories, and I think it’s important to remember that this is something that can happen. We need to tell the stories we think are good and important, both by passing on the ones we’ve heard or read and liked, and creating new ones. To read and remember a story is good, but you keep it alive by passing it on to another set of eyes.

We live in a world now where there are, it seems, endless tales being told about every subject imaginable and from every point of view. It is so very easy for any one story to get lost forever. Make sure to tell the stories you love; help keep them above the flood of time a little longer.

Thanks for reading.

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Plan?

Revisions are underway for the first draft of Heretic Blood, which I hope will become my third novel. I had one set of notes from an Eager Volunteer already, and have done one editing pass/rewrite based on those, and I’m waiting a bit for others to come in. I will do my own revision as well at some stage but I’m giving myself a little distance from the the thing before I do. Given the mistakes I missed in composing the first draft, I think this is for the best.

While Heretic Blood is on temporary pause, I’ve started the groundwork for what will be the next WIP. Unusually for me, I’ve spent reasonable chunk of time planning without really beginning to write. (Ok, yes, fine, I’ve already written the first and last paragraphs, leaving only all that tricky stuff in between to do.) With the other books, I largely just started writing the bits of the story I had clear in my mind, and worked out how it was all going to fit together, and what the other bits needed to be, as I went along.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m approaching it differently this time. Partly it’s because the story (as I imagine it now) will have a more complex structure than the ones I’ve written before, with flashbacks interwoven with the main narrative. I feel like I need to figure out what all of those are going to be before I start my work.

And that’s really the key thing – I feel like I need to spend some time planning this one. I can’t clearly say why, but it has been very clear to me that I need to hammer some stuff out before I’m ready to write. Perhaps this is because the WIP is a story I began once before, and ditched – I need to understand what I’m changing, and what I’m keeping, and get it relatively straight in my head before I start writing.

The reason I mention it is that, whatever the reason may be why I feel like I need to plan this time before I write, it serves as a really good example of how there is no One True Way to writing a story. I’m doing this one very differently than the last time. I can’t say for sure that it’s going to work equally well (for me), but there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to try it and see. Maybe it’ll be fantastic and I’ll plan from now on. Maybe it somehow is particular to this idea and I’ll never plan again.

The point is you gotta try and see what works for your process. Stuff that works, keep doing. Stuff that doesn’t help you, don’t worry about.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for reading.

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And We’re Back

Last week, for the first time in a very long while, I missed a blog entry. There were reasons.

You may recall from the previous one that I was away on a trip overseas, and last Tuesday was the day I was travelling home. In theory it was all supposed to work perfectly – I would get home in the evening with enough time to sit and write something for this. I even had a good idea of what I would write about.

Didn’t go according to plan. Due to a huge flight delay, my trip home ended up taking just under 23 hours, door to door, and I didn’t arrive home until the early hours of Wednesday. Not a great way to end what had otherwise been a splendid trip, but (as I have reminded myself several times) if my problem is that there were problems with my international travel, I’m really doing pretty well overall.

However, the blog didn’t get written. One might argue – with some fairness – that I should have had lots of time to write something while I was waiting around in the airport, but I was a) jealously conserving my battery power so that I could monitor what was going on and communicate with people; creating a tiny illusion of control or agency in a situation in which I could really do nothing at all. I was also b) grumpy, increasingly tired, and running on bad airport food and thus not in a mood to write anything at all.

So the blog didn’t get written, but what I wanted to do today was not present a bunch of excuses (or at least, not only that) but to use this as yet another example of how sometimes, no matter what our intentions are and what plan we have, the world intervenes on us and things do not get done as we hoped they would. Probably well-meaning writing advice often insists on writing every day, or writing set amounts or at given rates. Sometimes this is very useful advice, but sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes, life is not on your side, and you’ve just gotta let things wash over you, and when it’s done you get back up and you get ’em the next time. A plan is good. Recognizing that sometimes the plan needs to bend, and that that doesn’t mean you’ve failed, is better. Ideas like ‘write every day’ or completion schedules are useful to us only insofar as they help us be productive. If they become a thing that adds to stress or becomes a way for us to beat ourselves up, then they’ve stopped serving any good purpose, and it’s perfectly okay to let them go. It doesn’t mean you quit. It doesn’t mean you failed. It doesn’t mean your work is any less legitimate than anyone else’s. It just means that man, sometimes you have a day, or two, or several.

You get back at it. Writing the blog is something I enjoy and doing it every week is a way to make sure that I don’t find that three months have passed without me doing any entries. However, it wasn’t the end of the planet that I didn’t get an entry done last Tuesday, and doesn’t mean anything other than that it was a really bad day. I’m back at it with this, and back working on revisions for Heretic Blood and planning the new WIP. The work is always there when you’re ready to get back to it.

So, starting a new streak of ‘every Tuesday’s today, and as always, I thank you for reading.

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Wandering Thoughts

Shortish one today, as I am on a trip to Scotland and York, part for vacation and part for a school anniversary. It’s been tremendous so far, and I spent a good part of yesterday with a very dear friend from when I did my M.A. in England. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long while (oceans are inconvenient) but it felt perfectly, wonderfully comfortable to be talking and wandering around together again.

Over the next few days, I hope to have several such reunions, and it’s gotten me to thinking about the pure chance of meeting the people who end up becoming key players in our lives. I might very well not have gone to York at all, and then never would have met many people who became very dear to me. I still might not have met the friend I visited with yesterday if I hadn’t gone along for a particular walking tour of the city.

Presumably had I made other decisions, I would have met other people. Would they have become as dear to me as the ones that I did meet? Why do we find people in the world who fit with us so delightfully, but then end up an ocean away? These are strange thoughts to be pondering over while wandering the streets of a lovely, very old, old, city, but in part I blame the jet lag.

Some of this I also blame on Guy Kay, who I’ve been reading a lot of lately, and who includes some meditations on the role that chance plays in the people who become important parts of our lives, and those who do not, and even those who end up somewhat half-way; people who you meet, and know that under other circumstances they might have become a central figure in your life, but will not.

I don’t have any great conclusion or particular wisdom coming out of all this. I’ve just been thinking about the tricks of fate that have put certain people in my lives, and I’m very grateful for the group of precious friends that I have, and that I have been able to share at least some of my journeys with them. May we all walk together at least a little more.

Thanks for reading.

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(Not actually) Finished

I’m pleased to have as my topic for this week’s blog that I finished a complete draft of Heretic Blood today. I’ve been working away at it, at varying rates and to varying degrees of success, for what feels like a very long time. There have been numerous challenges (many moaned about here on the blog) and I think this book may well be the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.

It changed, or at least my impression of what it needed to be changed, at least twice as I was writing, requiring some extensive rejigging of things both already done and yet to be created. There are also some challenging things in it (that I’m not entirely ready to spoil just yet) that go beyond what I’ve tried to grapple with in my fiction before. In the end I have something that (even reasonably deep in the Statler and Waldorf process) I think is reasonably good and should only get better as I begin the next phase of the job, editing and revising.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that I wrote this book just as I pleased. I picked the words I wanted to pick, wrote each sentence the way I wanted it, and gave more or less zero thought to any of the rules of writing that you’ll encounter on any typical cruise around the internet. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure there really are rules, or at least (as one writer put it on Twitter recently) not in the sense that there are rules for how to assemble an engine. There are, of course, principles that will work somewhat more often than they won’t, and approaches that have succeeded for a great many writers. When it comes down to it, though, what you’re left with is you, the page, and getting words on it. You have to do what works for you, and you’ve got to make it your story. That’s what I think I’ve done with Heretic Blood, which may or may not be an unreadable mess, but it’s my unreadable mess, and I like that.

Editing will probably demand a lot of this changes, and that’s good. My hope is that I’m starting from a place that has a strong voice and tells a story the way I would like it told. I’m sure it won’t be for everyone; with luck it will resonate with some audience, of whatever size. I really do look forward to hearing what my Eager Volunteers think of it, and then hopefully what more of you think of it when and if the book gets to you.

I hadn’t expected to finish today. I knew I was reasonably close, but then this morning I was working on rewriting a scene, took a look to see how much more work there was to do it total, and realized that I could just do all of it today. I changed the plan for my afternoon a little bit, pushed on, and got it finished. It was somewhat like that feeling towards the end of a race when you see the finish line and realize you can sprint to the end. Just: wow, yes, we can get this done!

I made a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks. I think a lot of it was having a stretch of days to devote to writing, and really focus on it, to kind of get my legs under me. I hate to continue the running analogy, but there are things I don’t properly realize until I’m doing them. When I’m running, I need to be able to feel the right stride for me to use – the one that feels slower-paced, but with bigger strides that digest the kilometers, not the quicker, shorter one that burns my cardio and ends up a more frantic, slower movement. It really is similar with my writing; I need that block of days to feel myself settle into a good steady rhythm, and then the pages fill themselves.

I think I hit that over the past week, in particular, and now this job (or a phase of it, anyway) is done. I need to carry this momentum on to another project, and I have a couple of ideas.

Finishing is a lovely feeling.

Now to start something new.

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The Americans

A little while ago I did a list of my favourite TV series of all time, which was clearly a project of mammoth significance. And now it needs to be revised. The reason is that one of the rules I set for myself was that I needed to have seen the whole run of the series, because there are all too many shows that started out great and then Lost-ified themselves.

Last week, The Americans aired its last episode, I will miss it greatly, and it probably deserves a spot in that top 5. I’m going to write about it a little more today. Obviously there are spoilers below, and if that bothers you, I would suggest not reading further, because you should really give The Americans a shot. You’ll be in for a treat.

The concept of the show was a reasonably interesting one – deep-cover KGB agents in 1980s America – and that was what got me to originally give it a go. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, probably hoping for something that would at least be a decent action-y drama. That’s not what I got. What I got is what I think is one of the best written TV shows I have ever watched.

One of the great strengths of the show was that the writers were pretty good at doing things you didn’t expect. They would foreshadow things that never happened, and refused to follow what people will say are basic storytelling conventions. This past season, Elizabeth was issued a cyanide suicide pill to prevent her being captured alive. I read a lot of speculation of whether she would take it, or someone else would, or it would be used to kill someone, or as evidence of her KGB work – there had to be something, because ‘Chekov’s Gun’, after all. The cyanide pill ended up getting dumped in a hole in the woods, unused, as the Jennings’ fled America. It’s just one example of how you could never really know for sure where the show was going to take you. That was a lot of fun.

The thing that impressed me the most, though, was that where a lot of stories these days present an array of characters who are all basically unlikeable, The Americans did the reverse. Philip and Elizabeth do lots of horrific things in service of the KGB, and yet they’re still very easy to like. It would also have been very easy to make the FBI agents chasing them (essentially, the show’s antagonists) into some kind of vile caricatures of government agents, but that’s not the case. Stan Beeman is another genuinely easy to like character who, despite some of the fairly awful things he does at times as well, we also want to see end up all right.

Watching the finale was suspenseful in a bunch of ways, but the largest way for me was that the Jennings’ subterfuge is finally collapsing, Stan is closing in, and I wanted, somehow for both the Jennings and Stan to be ok when it all shook out, some kind of obviously impossible quantum state where the Jennings both were and were not captured, I guess. As it turns out, instead of getting both those things, the audience more or less gets neither. Every beat of the final hits super hard because you care, very much about all the imaginary people you’re watching it happen to. That’s what this show did really well.

The story of Philip Jennings was amazing to watch. From Season 1, he was clearly far less ideologically-committed to the espionage work he and his wife were asked to do, but keeps doing it because she is his wife and he needs to support her. It all grinds him down as the seasons wind on, through one of my favourite scenes (mentioned earlier in this blog) where he tells an asset simply “I feel like shit all the time”, because this is one of the very few people in the world he can afford to be somewhat genuine with. He goes on with it, still primarily because the idea of not supporting his wife is unbearable, until he simply can’t any longer. Philip tries to quit. Finally, he is drawn back in one more time, again because he knows Elizabeth is probably dead if he doesn’t, and it crushes him. The end of their mission in America would surely have been some kind of relief, if it wasn’t that it also meant the end of the pleasant life he had wanted so badly for himself and his family. In the end, everything Philip was trying to accomplish, and all the horrible shit he did trying to do it, ends up being for nothing at all. It was brutal to watch. It was great. That was just one character. We could run down the whole cast and get basically the same impact for nearly all of them.

I think the fact that the characters were so well done is the main reason why I liked the whole arc of the show, and its really very bleak ending, despite my preference for a positive ending, these days. Look, a happy ending wouldn’t have fit very well with the overall themes of the show, which often painted the Cold War in great swathes of grey, but I have haven’t enjoyed many a bleak story, even though the darkness may have made sense. The difference is that in this one, I was interested enough in the people to want to see where their dark paths led them.

In terms of authenticity, the writers and showrunners for The Americans got a lot right. They reproduced 1980s places with fantastic detail; the final episode gave us an entire McDonalds set that reminded me of car trips as a kid. They got Russian-speakers to do the Russian dialogue, leaving scenes between Russian characters subtitled rather than doing them in cheesy accents. I have also read commentary from more than one intelligence professional saying that The Americans got much of the tradecraft for their spies more or less correct. That was fun to know, but these details aren’t really why I loved the show. Ultimately, the show was great because of the characters, and how well and believably they were all rendered, and how very much the show made you want to follow them around and see what happened to them.

I continue to believe that this is what will always separate a good story from a truly great one. They’re all about people in the end, just as The Americans was, when you boiled it right down to the core, just really about people. I loved every bit of the journey as a fan, I think I learned a lot as a writer, and I will miss the show very much.

Thanks for reading.

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Boba Fett

There’s a lot of Star Wars content coming out these days. Here’s a little more.

No, I haven’t been to see Solo (continuing my tradition of taking an extremely long time to see movies), but it did open just recently, and then at about the same time we got the announcement that a Boba Fett movie is in the works.

Somewhere, 16-year old me is god damned delighted. There’s history here – I was among the very many Star Wars fans who latched on to Boba Fett in the first trilogy of films. I used Boba Fett as my alias in games and online whenever possible, I had a Boba Fett mug on my desk for years, along with a little model Slave One.

Boba Fett was cool, and in part it’s because the character has a great, distinctive visual design (although much copied since then) and mostly he just stands around looking dangerous. Han Solo is clearly terrified of him. Darth Vader, of all people, treats him with something approaching respect. Beyond that, he’s a menacing, rad-looking mystery, except for the part where he suffers a jarringly slapstick demise in Jedi, and even that was okay because the writers for the Dark Empire comic (I’m pretty sure) wrote him a more typically badass escape from a grisly fate in the Sarlaac Pit.

And that was where the trouble started, really. Ever since then, we’ve had more and more bits and pieces added to Boba Fett’s story, first in comics, and then in the prequel trilogy, and various associated books. To me, everything they’ve added to the character past the original trilogy has made it worse, to the point where I really don’t particularly want a Boba Fett movie at all, anymore. Somewhere, 16 year old me wants to fight.

Some of this may be personal taste, but I think also the character has lost a lot of his appeal by having more and more of those tantalizing blanks filled in. Sometimes it is more compelling to go ‘who is this guy? What’s their deal?’ than to have the answer handed to you. I think part of why that is is the fun of feeling your own imagination engage and working on your own answers to the question. Some of it is that our brains love a mystery, or a puzzle, and usually those are a lot less fun once you have the answer in hand.

For me at least, that’s what happened with Boba Fett. I found almost all of the added detail we got about the character fairly boring, and most of the answers we got made him into a lesser figure rather than a more interesting one. Having been given what I thought I wanted, I like the character so very much less. This may all have been inevitable. If you’ve created a character and your audience is clearly into them and eager for more about them, it’s an extremely attractive idea to go ahead and write more of their story. I felt that a bit with one of my own characters from King in Darkness, although the money factor is obviously much different.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s important to remember that there’s some risk along with the reward, and that in creating more, you may in fact end up diminishing what you had before. It was better before. I think I was right, in the end, not to make Professor Marchale a more prominent character than he was in my books; people seem to dig the scenes he’s in, they want to read more (which is good), but it might wear thin or get tired if those scenes increased in length or number. I think it would have been better if we had gotten a lot less about Boba Fett, and I really don’t think we need any more.

It’s not a character that I’m curious about any longer, I’m not excited to see him in action (somewhere, 16 year old me is very sad) and I think there’s a good argument to be made that we’ve got more than enough stories about gritty shades-of-grey violent dudes already, and it’s difficult to see how a Boba Fett movie could be anything else. I don’t really need to be asked to sympathize with another guy who ends up doing bad things in reaction to the tough hand he’s been dealt. Show me more people who rise above that shit.

I also worry, just a little, that the Star Wars universe is going to become heavily overfished, with too many movies about too many second-rate characters that will ultimately dilute the appeal of the whole. There are, I’m sure, good stories waiting to be told (I think the case for a ‘Leia’ movie is pretty strong, and you could make a pretty awesome Lando movie), but we don’t need to know the untold origin of every B-list character, and ultimately I don’t think we need a Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time. It was rough waiting for new Star Wars, but I think often we appreciate the things we don’t get very much of that tiny bit more.

Obviously all of this comes back to the most basic of principles: tell good stories. Easier said than done, sure, and I’m equally sure that everyone at least sets out with the intention to tell a good story, but it’s important (I think) to really think over whether or not the story you’re planning to tell is going to be awesome, and if it’s not, maybe wait until you can figure out a way to get it there. In my own work, I had an idea for a fantasy novel that I thought was ok but not, like, amazing, so I put it aside and did the project that is (slowly) becoming Heretic Blood. By now, I think I know how to make that fantasy story awesome, so it’s next on my list. Make sure the stories are good stories, and not just something that’s done for the sake of doing it. We owe our audiences and our characters better than that.

It’s clear that the hunger for more Star Wars stories is there, but although it may be a faint hope in a situation where the money is also clearly there, I hope the people making the decisions are considering that it’s not only important to tell stories, but to tell good stories, and that sometimes the untold story can be just as compelling.

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We are coming up on a provincial election here in Ontario, and it looks as though it will be an extremely close one. There’s also an extremely clear choice to be made, and though I don’t typically write about politics here, in this case I’m going to.

I’ll start by acknowledging that my own politics are, uh, not conservative. Even so, although I will almost always disagree with it, I think a conservative viewpoint is an important part of our political conversations and landscape. Even though I basically always wish they wouldn’t do so, I can generally understand why rational people might go out and vote for a conservative politician.

However, I don’t think there’s any argument to be made for voting for Doug Ford. There’s a long list of reasons why but perhaps the most important is that a party running on fiscal responsibility still hasn’t said how they will pay for their promises. They’re promising tax cuts and rebates and cheap beer and not saying where the money will come from for any of it.

This is leaving aside their stated policies that are anti-environment, socially regressive and favour wealthy corporations. We’ve also seen this playbook before, not all that long ago, when Mike Harris was premier, and it was a disaster. Ford seems worse, because they’re not telling us what we’d be giving up in return for the things they say they’d ‘deliver’. I imagine we wouldn’t care for the answer.

There are legitimate reasons to criticize the current Liberal government, and they’ve been in power a very long time. It’s not a surprise that a lot of people want change. I also understand if you’re a conservative and can’t bring yourself to vote NDP. I would ask, though, that everyone think very carefully about whether or not they honestly want to see the province run by Doug Ford in particular for the next four years, and cast their vote accordingly. Spoil that thing if you have to, but please don’t vote for Doug Ford, who gives every sign of being a perilously bad candidate for premier.

It also looks like voter turnout is going to be important, particularly for the progressives. You should always vote, but especially in a tight election, one that is a choice between very different alternatives, there’s no excuse not to.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. I appreciate your reading it.

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Pentecost

I was a bit thin on something to write about for this week, and then I was rescued by the calendar. This past Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost. Among the other reasons it is important in the Christian religious calendar, Pentecost was also the day on which (according to Thomas Malory’s version of the stories, anyway) King Arthur required all his knights to attend his court and renew their oaths.

(It’s interesting, or at least sidebar-worthy interesting, that it’s Malory who seems to have put this in. We’ll get back to it.)

Arthur’s knights all swore to do no outrages or cruelties, to give mercy to those that asked it of them, to serve the weak, and to support no causes that they knew to be wrong for any worldly gain. Even all these hundreds of years later, it’s still not such a bad standard to set for ourselves. There’s a reason this story has lasted for as long as it has.

Of course, if you know the stories, you also know that basically none of Arthur’s knights (excepting Galahad, who is No Fun), not even Arthur himself, live up to this standard. Many times when I teach about the concept of chivalry and codes thereof, one of the ideas the students enjoy kicking around is to what extent anyone ever did. And we’re probably right to be fairly sceptical.

Now, does this mean that Arthur and his knights are a bunch of hypocrites and the whole thing is hollow? I don’t think so, necessarily, and this is why I think it’s interesting that the Pentecost feast seems to have appeared in Thomas Malory’s version of the story. Malory wrote during the 15th century, a time when knights in England were behaving in anything but a chivalrous fashion, and Malory himself spent a great deal of time in prison. It’s not easy to unpick exactly what he was genuinely guilty of, but it’s clear that he got himself into a great deal of trouble.

This has led people to wonder why Malory was (evidently) such a big fan of the idealized King Arthur. One explanation, which I like (and I shamefully cannot recall who it is that I’m ripping off here) is that Malory was perfectly aware that he and his peers were not behaving as knights were meant to, or at least could, and worked out his version of the tales to suggest a higher standard and perhaps inspire the knights of his day to better themselves.

Ah, but the Arthurian knights don’t succeed themselves, so how does it work? It (potentially) works because Malory knew that probably no-one could live up to the high standards of the Pentecost Oath or other ideals of chivalry. But it was still a good thing to try. Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain and the rest are praiseworthy characters, despite their failures and flaws, because no matter what else is true about them it is also true that they try so very hard to achieve something wonderful. They fall short. We’ll probably always fall short of our ideal standards. It doesn’t mean that the standards aren’t worthwhile, and it doesn’t mean that trying is laughable or worthless.

Trying, as hard as we can, to be as good as we can be, which is what the Pentecost Oath really is when you boil it down, is tremendously praiseworthy, even though we’ll have our stumbles and missteps along the way. We can try to be kind, to help those who need it, and to use our abilities to do good things in the world. Sometimes we’ll fail. We keep trying, because we live in a better world when we do. I’m persuaded that’s what Thomas Malory was trying to encourage with his version of the Arthur stories, and I think encouraging the world to be a little bit better is one of the great things that our stories can do for us, and we don’t have to wait for Pentecost.

One last thing on the Arthurian Pentecost Feast. I also like that Arthur wouldn’t sit down to eat until he had ‘heard or seen of a great marvel’. So the Pentecost feast was also a time for stories, the telling of ones that had finished and the beginning of new ones, as knights dashed off on quests inspired by the ‘strange adventures’ that came before the King on that day.

A day when people declared that they would try to do better, and a day for the telling of stories.

Not so bad.

Thanks for reading.

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On the Other Writers

Over the past week there was quite a Fuss, on Twitter especially, about a particular writer who has tried to trademark the use of a very common word in book titles. (I’m not going to name them or refer to things more specifically than that because I feel they’ve had more than enough free publicity already.) When called on it, they defended themselves as looking out for their interests and as ‘raising the game’ for publishing.

These are the kind of things that one does if one regards other writers as competition.

I do not, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is expressed really well in something Ilana Myer has one of her characters say in Last Song Before Night. One poet is afraid that he will be overshadowed by the work and abilities of his friend, and the reply that his friend wishes he had been able to give is ‘There is no shadow, and we are all one in what we do’. That’s how I generally feel about other writers. I think it’s really cool to read what other people are able to do with their ideas and their words. I find it inspirational when I read something really well done, to try to find a way to reach a similar level. We all just do what we’re capable of doing, it is unlike anyone else’s art, and the world is better for it.

I like (I guess for obvious reasons) the idea that the writers’ craft gets rewarded, so I am always pleased to see when an artist gets some manner of reward for their work. It especially helps if it happens to be one I know, or have particular affection for their work, but seeing a writer have success in their career is downright encouraging. The good stuff is out there, and that’s always a good reminder to have.

That sort of brings me to my second reason for not seeing other writers as competition. I think there’s a genuinely practical reason (as contrasted to the rather wooly stuff above) not to do so. The success of other writers can, I think, only help me. If people read cool stories, presumably they’ll want to read more, and if they look around for their next thing, perhaps they’ll hit on mine. That’s even more likely if the story they read is something like the sort of stuff I write – so yes, other fantasy writers in particular are not my competition. If they write awesome stuff, that brings more readers to the genre and that does nothing but help me.

Moreover, if their books sell well, presumably out there will be editors and agents and publishers who will see that and think ‘hot damn, we’d better find some more fantasy books’, and that makes my chances of getting my next thing in print better. Far from wanting less other writers, and less other fantasy writers, I want more, and I want them to do well.

In any case, my position in the market is, uh, fairly marginal, but those are my thoughts on the issue, and what I have for you here this week. Thank you for reading.

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White Tears

I just finished reading White Tears by Hari Kunzru, and I Have Thoughts. I’m going to try to keep this as spoiler-free as I possibly can, but if you haven’t read the book yet a) you probably should and b) proceed with some caution, I guess. This isn’t going to be a review, exactly (I don’t really do reviews here, although maybe I should start?) but I will start off by saying that I enjoyed the book very much. It was recommended to me by a friend, and upon hearing that the plot is based around a mysterious blues song, I definitely had to check it out.

Without giving too much away (which I think is important), I think it’s safe to say that whatever I expected the book to be, it was most definitely not that. There are at least two major places where the story takes pretty massive left turns from where you thought it was headed, and ends up being something quite completely different than the sort of story it seemed like it was going to be at the outset.

Now, I really enjoyed that. I liked those moments where I was sitting reading, looked at what had just happened, and had to go: ‘wait, WHAT?’. It was very fun to have a story completely get the drop on me not once, but a couple times, like that. However, this is also a risky thing for a writer to do. You don’t have to dig very hard to find reviews of White Tears where readers found it annoying or upsetting to have the rug pulled out from under them.

White Tears also (and this is as close as I’m going to get to a specific spoiler) heads into territory where the reliability of the narrator gets very questionable. It’s not at all clear that they’re describing what is happening accurately, or that they even really know what’s going on. Again, I enjoyed that, but I do sometimes find the unreliable narrator a bit of a cheap trick to pull a fast one on the reader, especially if the unreliability is itself a surprise. It can be kind of a sucker punch and I don’t think it always works well.

So White Tears did at least a couple of things that were fairly risky in telling its story, and although I enjoyed them, I can also understand why some people would not. It’s interesting to think about these kinds of things from the perspective of a writer: taking your story in unexpected directions may excite some of your readers, but may alienate others. On the other hand, a story that takes no risks is in a different sort of danger, that of being too predictable. That sucker punch can be hard to take for a reader, but it can just as bad to see every single thing coming.

It’s possible to argue that a writer should just write the story they want to write, exactly as they choose, and whoever’s gonna like it will, whoever doesn’t like it, won’t, and so be it. Write the thing and let the chips fall where they may. It’s also possible to approach things from the point of view that you need to use enough unexpected elements in a story to keep your reader guessing at least a little, but not so many that they end up being confused or alienated.

I guess in writing Heretic Blood (at least this first draft), I am closer to the former perspective. I’m writing it almost exactly the way I want it to be, and then we’ll see if anyone likes it. It is liberating, in a lot of ways, but also a little scary, because I really have no idea if anyone is going to like it. (I have had positive feedback from Eager Volunteers so far, but they also haven’t seen the whole story yet)

The thing is, though, that no matter what calculations you make in crafting a story, no matter what kind of balancing act you do in what goes in and what doesn’t, you can’t honestly know whether anyone will like it until it’s out there and people have a chance to read it. That’s the scariest moment of writing, for me anyway, when you send your work out into the world and wait to see what people make of it.

I think, increasingly, that if I’m gonna screw up I’d rather do it writing something that is what I truly want to write rather than screwing up chasing someone else’s idea of what a story should be, so that’s where I am with Heretic Blood and that’s how I expect I’ll proceed with whatever comes next. We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, do give White Tears a shot. I think you’ll enjoy the ride.

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I will be at Ottawa Comic-Con this Saturday, hanging out at the Renaissance Press table all day! You can come and get your copy of The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures, or indeed nearly anything else signed and say hello, if you would like. Renaissance has a lot of new titles out this spring as well so definitely worth coming to check out their wares.

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