Can of Ants

This week I want to write a little about what I felt was a really skillful piece of storytelling on the TV series Mindhunter. Some of this is a little spoiler-y so if you haven’t watched it yet, I’ll suggest you go do so (it’s really well done, although not SFF) and then maybe read this afterwards. Or maybe you don’t care about spoilers. Onwards.

Mindhunter is loosely based on the real story of the growth of ‘profiling’ as a tool the FBI used (uses?) to try to catch serial killers. One of the characters is Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychologist who gets recruited to help the two FBI agents who are the primary focus of the show, in their work. At the beginning of this relationship, you can tell she’s quite excited. She’s expecting to do work of serious scientific and academic merit, to be working with colleagues who respect her, they get an unexpectedly huge budget. She moves close to Quantico and it even seems that in her new building, there’s a stray cat that lives near her laundry room that she can charm with cans of tuna. Everything looks more or less perfect.

It all comes apart. The other agents refuse to use her methodology, and quickly change from coveting her approval to dismissing her opinions. The director starts making her do his dirty work in riding herd on the behaviour of the FBI agents. Beyond that, the actual work they’re doing seems to her to lack validity and to frequently be unethical. And then in the end, instead of a new adorable kitty friend, she ends up with a tuna can full of disgusting ants. I haven’t explained this as well as I might have (summarizing is hard) but the main point is that none of this is addressed directly.

Dr. Carr never says ‘man, this isn’t what I thought I was getting in for’. Her conversations with the FBI agents get less collegial, more curt, and more argumentative, but she never actually says ‘hey you guys are treating me like junk’. (Arguably, maybe she *should*, but that’s like a whole separate thing) And overall her optimism about the new life she things she’s getting is nicely represented by a few scenes with an off-screen cat, some cans of tuna, and some ants. You get it, but it’s never really explicit on the screen. You just come to understand that this is what’s going on. It’s really good.

Broadly I guess this falls under the umbrella of ‘show, don’t tell’, perhaps the most cliched of writing advice. Like many things pertaining to writing I think this is situationally valid. Dongwon Song put it really well on Twitter one time, basically saying that you’re a storyteller, and that if you ‘told’ rather than ‘showed’ something and readers didn’t like it the real problem is that you didn’t tell it very well – not entertainingly enough or with enough impact.

What I think is especially good about the thread from Mindhunter isn’t so much that it was show-don’t-tell but that it was done with such a precise touch. They gave you just enough to pick up on what the character was going through and really get it, but not so much that it was clumsy or overwhelmed other parts of the story. I think in general good writing is about finding that balance a lot of the time; giving your reader enough to know your characters, visualize your scenes, and follow your plot, without giving them so much that it becomes confusing, dull, or hard to follow.

I think Mindhunter did that really well, not only with the Wendy Carr character but with all the various threads of the story they wanted to tell. I should also say that none of this would work without the performances of the actors, and Anna Torv was, I thought, very good in this role. I really enjoyed her work on Fringe and it was nice to see her again. She’s very good at conveying understated details in her performances, I think. There’s a scene late in Mindhunter where she’s riding down in an elevator and doesn’t actually say anything but you can just feel the anger boiling off her.

Now, because a lot of what they did in the show was fairly understated and especially because there wasn’t a lot of repetition, you did have to pay close attention to what was happening or you’d miss important stuff. A lot of my favorite writers are that way as well – John Le Carre and William Gibson both get so much out of all their words that you really need to focus on the writing or you won’t really get what they’re trying to convey.

There’s no conclusion to all this except to say that as much as I enjoyed the plot and the performances in Mindhunter, I also did enjoy it on an entirely separate area of admiring the artistry of the writing. Sometimes, for me, that’s just as entertaining as the plot itself. Anyway, those are my thoughts for this week. Thanks for reading.

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Thoughts for a Cooling November

This past weekend I was sick and so I spent a lot of time lying down and thinking, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. One of the comforts whenever I’m sick is that one or both of my cats usually spends most of the day with me. It’s always good to have a warm presence when I’m not feeling well.

For whatever reason this time it really came across very clearly that one of them is getting old. He can make the jump up onto the bed if he must, but it’s also clearly not something he wants to do. Usually he’ll wait around for me to give him a lift. I remember a leap he used to make, from the floor up to the arm of my oversized armchair, that he doesn’t attempt at all any longer. He’s getting on in years.

So am I. I get sick in ways I didn’t use to when I was younger, I get injured more easily and it takes longer for me to heal. I trained this spring for a 10k and honestly thought that I hit a new PB, but then when I pulled up my race history (because of course there’s a website that tracks all these things), in fact there was this other, faster time from 8 years ago that I’m not sure I can imagine getting back to now. Father Time, as they say, is undefeated.

So, in recent weeks I have, for whatever reason, really had the understanding that I am, on the balance of probability, closer to the day of my death than the day of my birth, sloshing around among the Mind Gears and lubricating them in unusual directions.¬† It’s a touch sobering, if also more than a bit of a clich√©, I guess.

The cat, I hasten to point out, is far from finished being a cat. He still wrassles with his brother and explores the yard and savages his corduroy mouse. He still has most of his usual cat duties to attend to, he just attends to them a little more sedately than he used to, and with rather more naps. I suppose I try to be similar – I know I’m getting older but I don’t especially mind (which is probably just as well), it’s just a thing that I have increasing amounts of evidence is happening. I still have things to do and things I want to do, my writing foremost among those, now.

I’ve worked hard in academia and on being a teacher, and in a lot of ways I’ve done rather well. I’ve studied overseas and delved in centuries-old archives. I’ve taught at universities and helped some students start their own scholarly careers. I’ve enjoyed it all, and still do. I also think (as I consider the passing years) that I may have gone about as far with it as I’m likely to, which is its own kind of somewhat-sobering realization. Again it’s not bad, I enjoy teaching and interacting with my students, but it is another increasingly apparent Thing.

Writing, on the other hand, is something where I feel I can really stretch myself and I’ve been excited with how much I have been able to learn and grow in that field over the past 4 years or so. I have a lot of work to do, but I feel like if academia turned out to be a leap that was slightly out of my reach, this might perhaps be one that I can eventually make successfully. I’m certainly enjoying trying.

It’s November, and here in Ottawa it has finally really started to get cold. We’ve had several frosts and I should probably think about using my winter coat instead of my jacket. Without realizing it at the time, I’ve almost certainly taken my last outdoor run of the season, and I need to get the winter tires on the car. Time rolls on. That’s going to be my excuse for the perhaps gloomy rambly tone of all the above. I think I’ll put a stop to it here.

I should do some writing, and pet the cat.

——

On a completely different tack, I see that Amazon has just decided to throw a bunch of money at a new series based on Lord of the Rings. In a lot of ways providers like Netflix and Amazon have been great for SFF ‘television’ (if that’s really what to call it at this point). I’m don’t know enough about the industry to completely understand why, but it’s clear that amazing new programming like Stranger Things and American Gods is increasingly finding a home in these types of places rather than on conventional TV. If nothing else, it’s wonderful for both fans and creators of fantastic stories to have another potential home for their work.

I really can’t say I understand the decision to do another LOTR thing though. There’s so many excellent fantasy (and SF, and horror) stories that have never been adapted at all that would be really fresh material for audiences to enjoy. I get that anything based on Tolkien is (theoretically) an easy sell, but I also wonder how much his fans are really dying for more when his most popular stuff has had still-pretty-recent and highly acclaimed movies done of it. There’s also the point that Tolkien’s work isn’t exactly starved for exposure, while there’s a lot of excellent writers out there who could both use and deserve a boost.

I mean I know there’s a lot of meat on the bone with Tolkien, and I do understand the marketing thing, and I’m sure it’s way way easier to get a million-dollar budget for a fantasy epic when you can throw that name on it rather than someone the execs have never heard of. I’m sure that in the end I’ll check it out and I hope it’s really good. We can always use more good fantasy. I guess I just think that Amazon might have been able to look a little farther afield and still produced an awesome epic fantasy series, if that’s what they wanted to do.

November. Melancholy and grumpy. I’ll have something in the way of tonal shift for you next week. Thanks for reading.

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Stranger Things 2

I have finished watching the second season of Stranger Things, and so I am once again proud to be nearly the last sentient creature inhabiting the planet to bring forth my thoughts on a thing. This is probably going to be more than a little spoiler-y, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe go finish and then come back and read this week’s blog in a bit. Because I do recommend that you see it.

I think second seasons, and second parts in general, are difficult. One of the strengths of the first season of Stranger Things was that it was super tightly focused on basically two ideas: 1) Will Byers is missing and 2) Elle has escaped. Everything else that happened was connected to one, or both, of those things, and it made for a story that basically didn’t have any dead weight to it. There were lots of other reasons why the series was good, but that certainly helped it. I imagine that in part, it was written that way because the Duffer Brothers didn’t know if they would get any more seasons than that one, so they made a story that was nicely self-contained within the limits of what they knew they had to work with.

You can’t do that as easily with a second season, because the cast of characters you introduced now all need to be developed if they’re going to continue to be interesting (and I suspect there’s a certain amount of keeping the actors happy with their roles here too). So you have to broaden the scope of the story you’re going to tell and include a lot more threads. Probably knowing that they have several seasons to work with, the Duffers now also feel that they can spend more time setting up long-term things that won’t immediately pay off but get us ready for what we’ll see in the years to come.

All of which is basically to say that while I enjoyed this season a lot, it did feel a lot more uneven than the first one. There were parts of it that dragged for me, and parts of it that I didn’t really understand what they were for. (I’m not at all sure what the purpose of Billy’s character was. He set up a little bit of misdirection early on with dialogue that suggested that there was something odd about his situation with Max, but that didn’t go anywhere. Maybe they need him down the line.) The overall story that was told was good, but it had some weak points where Season 1 was very nearly seamless in its quality.

Still, I already want to see Season 3. I’m interested in the story that’s being told about Hawkins and this group of kids. I thought Season 2 veered more into horror territory than the first one; certainly the body count was a lot higher, we had a lot more gore, and a lot of frankly dark moments like Will’s brutal suffering under the control of the Mind Flayer. I’m not sure how much of this was a conscious tonal shift – the situation is getting worse – or how much of it can be attributed to the temptation to constantly up the ante in second parts: gotta be bigger, louder, more crowded.

From the quality of the writing to this point, I trust that the Duffers have a solid plan for where they’re taking this story and I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold. Presumably we can’t have another 2-3 seasons of Will being the victim of the threat from the Upside Down, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with him as a more active character going forward. Elle’s growing powers present a substantial writing challenge as well – how to create a threat that she can’t just immediately fix, and how to write a story

In a lot of ways you could argue that Stranger Things to this point has been Elle’s story: she’s the one with the cool powers, she ultimately defeats our baddie in both seasons, and most of the key relationships revolve around her. This is more than fine – she’s a compelling protagonist. (You could argue that it has also been Will’s story, but he’s been necessarily so much more passive that it doesn’t really work. People are trying to save Will, or help Will, and the story has been about that, but it isn’t about what Will does, not yet anyway) If it stays that way, then most of our other characters will necessarily have to remain more peripheral; Elle is basically a superhero and (this is one of the strengths of the show, in my opinion) everyone else is intensely ordinary. If the focus stays on her, Mike and Hopper and the rest are going to be Elle’s backup. That’s maybe the obvious way to go, to me. Shifting the story off of her would be tricky, and it’s hard to immediately think of what challenge you could create that wouldn’t have Elle as its best solution.

I guess we’ll see. I’m very much looking forward to finding out.

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Your Monster

“Hello Father,” Alex said. “What are you going to do about your monster?”

Adam Godwinson squinted up at the solid deck of grey clouds that covered the sky that morning and tried to think about how to answer such a question. He reflected that he should have become used to fielding odd queries from Alex Sloan over the years, first as a curious-minded child at Adam’s parish of St. Michael’s, and then on through the years as they both left the church, following different paths but connected by shared friends and, Adam hoped, still-shared affections.

Despite all the years, Adam had never gotten entirely used to the strange twists and turns that Alex’s mind could sometimes take, and the unusual things that might lead him to say. Long-ago doctors had indicated that some of this was the result of the mental disorder Alex experienced, but even before the doctors and the pills, Alex’s imagination had always been vivid, intense, and strange. Perhaps the two were related, and perhaps they weren’t.

None of this helped Adam understand the question before him. “Good morning, Mr. Sloan,” he replied gravely. “I wasn’t expecting a visit, but it’s good to see you. Would you like to come in?” Perhaps this would, if nothing else, be a chance to persuade Alex into a proper meal. He had never responded well to any kind of supervised care or group living situations, and inevitably drifted back into Ottawa’s streets and parks, making his own restless way in the world.

“No,” Alex responded shortly. “It’s not important. But what are you going to do about your monster?”

Adam sighed. Sometimes it was possible to deflect Alex away from the ideas he seized on, or created. Sometimes it wasn’t. “I don’t know what you mean, Alex,” he said gently. “I don’t have a monster.”

Alex’s head rocked back, almost as if he had been struck. For one painfully slow moment, Adam thought he would simply turn and go, and scrabbled for some way to keep him from leaving.

“Of course you do,” Alex replied instead. “Everyone knows.”

“Do they?”, Adam said. “Well, they haven’t told me. Why don’t you come in and tell me all about it? Then we’ll decide what to do.” Perhaps this would turn out to be one of Alex’s stories, which tended to be long, intricately-woven with fine details, and very hard to understand.

Many times, when Adam had been a young priest, presented with the fruits of Alex’s creativity, he had been able to muster no better response than ‘Good for you, Alex. Good for you.’ As praise he had always felt it was rather hollow, but Alex had a particular sensitivity to counterfeit cheer and approval, so Adam never offered more than he could feel genuine about. Good for you. I appreciate the effort, even if I do not understand the results.

“There’s no time, Father,” Alex said, making one quick shake of his head. “I know where it is now. We have to go. You have to do something.”

Adam sighed again, suppressed an upwelling of impatience with an effort. He had planned a peaceful morning of coffee and crosswords, and then perhaps a walk in the fragile warmth of an autumn day. Instead there was this. And yet a friend was friend, Alex was evidently in earnest, and it was also true that his curious intuitions had sometimes turned out to see things more clearly than anyone.

“Just let me fetch my keys, then.”

A few minutes later they were making their way, at Alex’s brisk pace, through the heart of the city’s downtown. Adam tried to fish for information as they walked.

“What is this monster, anyway?”

“You know, Father,” Alex replied impatiently.

“How did you hear about it?”

“Everyone knows, Father. Everyone knows you have a monster,” this said in the way most people would observe that it was cold out in January, or that the traffic would be bad in rush hour. Adam tried to make sense of it. Had Alex been talking to some of the other young people from his old parish? He couldn’t imagine anything that they might have said that would have created this idea of a monster in Alex’s mind. It might perhaps be some spiteful bit of rumour spawned by Matilda Damory, or another member of the Sunrise Foundation whose ire Adam had earned, but it seemed a singularly useless thing to have done.

“I’m afraid I still don’t understand,” Adam said finally.

“You’ll see,” Alex predicted. He was, Adam considered, unusually reserved. Usually Alex bubbled over with frothy torrents of words, and the challenge was drawing some shape out of the great mass of expression. Today his attention seemed to be mostly elsewhere, and conversation with Adam seemed a distraction that he was trying to avoid.

They had made their way down the path by the Rideau Canal locks and the Bytown Museum, and along the gentle curves of the pathway by the river, behind Parliament Hill. It had formerly been one of Adam’s favourite walks in the city; since the events of a few years ago he had far more mixed feelings about the place and went there only seldom.

“Where are we going, Alex?”, he asked. “I would have come for a walk by the river, if you had asked.

“No, Father,” Alex insisted. “Your monster is here.”

Finally they reached a little tributary of path that curled out and around the gold sun and stone slab of the Royal Canadian Navy Monument, and then under the Portage Bridge. And it was there, from a patch of dark and gloomy concrete, that Adam heard a soft skittering sound that he had trusted and believed he would never encounter again.

It sounded like the rustle of leaves over hard ground, or perhaps fingernails trailed playfully over a table top. But there was neither wind nor leaves, only stillness, and shadow, and although Adam tried very hard to insist that it was not happening, he could see now that the shadow moved, or that something black as the worst part of the night moved within it.

“The Piece of Shadows,” he said. “But it can’t be.”

Alex was silent beside him.

The Piece of Shadows had been, as far as Adam had understood it, a swatch of living darkness, conjured into the world somehow by Matilda Damory, as a weapon to set against her enemies. Its slightest touch withered and killed, and Adam and his friends had only barely escaped the thing. He had believed the thing had been destroyed, swept into nothingness, or back into it, by a fortunately passing set of headlights. And yet here again the darkness rustled, and Adam knew what it was, although he wanted very much to deny it.

“How is it here?”, he asked. “How did you find it?” As far as he had understood, the Piece of Shadows had been Damory’s creation, did not and could not exist in this world without her will behind it.

“They told me where it was,” Alex replied quietly. “I had to ask, but they told me.”

“How is it here?”, Adam asked again. Had Damory created another, called another into being? Had someone else learned whatever bizarre rite or skill or formula was necessary to draw these things into, or out of, the darkness? Was this the unfolding of some new or renewed machination that would have to be uncovered, understood, and undermined?

“Father,” Alex said firmly, “it’s yours.”

“Alex,” Adam shot back, “you know it isn’t. I’m not the one who makes these things. I don’t even know how.”

“Maybe,” Alex said, “but this one is yours. You know it is, everyone knows it is.”

There was at least enough light in the day to keep the thing restricted to a fairly small shadowed area under the bridge, Adam considered. As far as he had been able to learn, light was fatal to the things, which were therefore free to move and strike only at night or in dark places. And yet it was surely far too dangerous to simply leave it here. The path was not an especially busy one, but the consequences for any passer by that did come this way today were all too likely to be fatal.

Adam stepped a touch closer to the border between daylight and shadow, turning Alex’s words over in his mind. The gentle skittering responded. From what he could see in the gloom, this Piece of Shadows was considerably smaller than the last one he had seen. That one had been large enough to envelop several people at once, this one was a scrap of darkness only a few feet across.

Or was it, some part of his mind suggested, not a different Piece at all, but all that was left of the first one? What if Damory’s tool had only been damaged by the light, with this remnant left to lurk reduced in shadows, cut free of its purpose? As soon as the idea formed, Adam knew that it was true, apprehended it on some undefined and unspoken level.

“Alex,” he said softly, “we have to get rid of it.” Perhaps if he brought a powerful flashlight, or the flares from his road safety kit, it could be destroyed. But would the thing still be here after the time it would take to fetch these things, and return? Was it sufficiently trapped by the day, or would it melt away somehow? It had evidently survived a long time already. Even if it was no longer directed to kill by Matilda Damory, it was still a lethal threat, an utterly unanticipated accident waiting to happen.

“Yes, you do,” Alex agreed.

“You keep saying that it’s mine,” Adam replied. “You know that it isn’t.”

“No, Father,” Alex replied, sounding more than a little impatient. “I know that it is.”

What did he mean? Adam’s experiences told him it was probably important, Alex’s insights had been in the past, but how could he believe the Piece of Shadows somehow belonged to him? Adam had been attacked by it, had thought he had destroyed it, turned Damory’s nihilism against her circle of followers and tore it into scraps. He had not created this, did not control it, and did not truly even understand it.

And yet, was it not true that every since, in moment when he had felt alone, or sad, or doubted himself, had he not seen, in his mind at least, the Piece of Shadows? Whenever he had wondered whether he knew what he was doing, or if there was any right thing to do, had he not heard the skittering and felt the patch of dark creeping up on him, or through him? This dreadful thing had prowled the background of every bleak moment and flickered through every grim thought that Adam had lived in the years since their encounter. Perhaps that meant, or created, some manner of connection. Perhaps it had made the monster his.

“What do I do?”, Adam asked.

Alex was silent beside him.

Connections can be made, sometimes without us noticing them. They can also be broken, and at times that is for the best, and perhaps that was the answer. “It’s all right,” Adam said to the darkness. “You can go, now. I’m going to let go of you. I’m letting you go.”

Nothing and no-one spoke. The skittering died away, and Adam did not see the Piece of Shadows in that place any longer.

Alex crouched down beside him, looked over at Adam with a lopsided and somewhat brittle smile, and then for the first time in many years, threw his arms around Adam in a tight embrace. “Good for you, Father. Good for you.”

That night, after Alex had eaten some supper and gone off on his path into the darkness, Adam had looked out into the darkness and seen nothing but the night, and heard nothing but leaves in the wind. He left the kitchen, walked down the short hallway to his bedroom, and smiled as a tiny patch of shadow unfolded itself and followed him. He sat on the bed, opened his book to read, and a black shape jumped up into his lap, curled into a little pool of midnight, and commenced to purr loudly.

“There,” Adam said, “you little monster.”

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Libraries

Since I don’t really know what to write about this week, I’m going to take inspiration from Lesley Donaldson (whose blog on the same panel is here) and spin out some of my thoughts from a Can*Con panel a couple weeks ago on books in stories. This is something I have thought about a fair bit in my history research, and I’ve continued to do so as part of a course I teach about the history of the book at Algonquin College.

I want to think a little about libraries.

As writers or readers, libraries are some of our favourite places. They’re the place we go to find stories! I certainly encountered a lot of authors I would come to be a fan of and stories that I would love at the public library in the town where I grew up. I think I worked my way through just about every book they had under ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’.

The library as we think of it today is (among other things) a place we go to access things. The library is where the stories are, it’s where the information is, where learning and study happen and also (as libraries have embraced their role as providers of internet connectivity) a place where we can make connections to the world. Within certain fairly broad limitations, anyone can use it. It’s a space fundamentally about access.

But the library or the archive doesn’t have to be a space like that, and hasn’t always been. On the Can*Con panel I touched on the idea of the library – a space where a bunch of books are stored – as a containment system for knowledge. It can be, and historically sometimes was, a space where access was restricted. Only certain people allowed past the doors, to look at the books, and gradations of clearance within that. The idea here that knowledge might be dangerous, used for the wrong purposes, or that something read by the unprepared or improperly trained mind might cause harm.

The library thought of this way is not a space about access, or at least not in the same way. It’s about controlling access, and making sure that only the ‘right’ people get in touch with certain kinds of book. When I’ve travelled around as an academic, one of the comforts has generally been that I can walk into a library most anywhere and find what I’m looking for, because they’re designed to make that task easy, with classification schemes that are well-understood and tools to help you in your search.

We look at libraries that are not that way – that have no finding aids, and used their own private systems of classification and organization – and wonder what was going on. It would have been exceedingly difficult for an outsider to go into such a place and find what they were looking for, especially unaided. But that’s part of the idea, and part of the containment system. It’s not a place for strangers, it’s a place for those who are known to have been properly trained and vetted and prepared to encounter all the things that might be on the shelf. If you can’t find the book, you’re not ready to read it.

That kind of sounds like a line from a bad movie, but this kind of thinking about information, as something with potential dangers that needs to be contained and controlled, underpins a lot of our ideas about books in fantastic literature and the way they show up in our stories. Those dangerous grimoires that can scour the sanity from your mind, possess your soul, or corrupt your spirit are all these old philosophies about information taken literally.

All of this somewhat inevitably sounds negative to the modern mind, given our positive view on knowledge (more is always better) and learning (always good!), so the libraries of the past often seem ‘worse’. I’m not convinced that’s true, and perhaps I can add yet another perspective on information that I didn’t get to in the panel that might help a little.

You can also think of a library – that place where all the books are – as a place that preserves knowledge, as a lifeboat for information. We’re not used to thinking of our information as fragile; most books that we’re interested in have hundreds or thousands or millions of copies, and most of what we care about even a little bit also exists digitally in potentially as many ‘copies’ as we need it to. The idea of a story we used to have, or something we used to know, being ‘lost’ is hard for us to get our minds around. As a student first getting to grips with archival research, I struggled a bit with the idea that no, there wasn’t another copy or another version that I could check. What was there was there, and that’s all there was.

Libraries in the past were, at times, literally the place where the disappearance of books and knowlege were prevented. This was part of their reason for being; for example, it was part of the reason why keeping a library and copying books was seen as a suitable task for a medieval monastery. The preservation of knowledge was a good end in itself. Producing new copies of a book to increase the chances of it surviving for the future was a worthy purpose.

If this is your mission, the library isn’t necessarily about being easy to access or how many people you can get in the door. The primary mission is for the collection to survive. This is a slightly more comprehensible point of view when you remember that books used to be made by hand, a labour of months just for the text, each a unique physical object created from scratch almost certainly by a series of artists and craftsmen. The frustration of copyists that had to return their exemplar before their were finished is still (to me) palpable on their not-quite-finished pages.

Again, these books that were precious objects are the foundations of the books in many of our stories, I think. The idea of the book as the initiator of a quest, as something to be treasured or fought over or prized or stolen all comes from periods when all of those things would have been true. The copy of a book in a library might be the only copy of that text in all the world. It’s almost impossible to put a value on such a thing.

Libraries of the past were these places of preservation, they were knowledge containment systems, and they were too places where this information could be accessed, albeit in a far less public fashion than we would expect. Most were some kind of compromise with all of these functions, and perhaps modern libraries are as well. The constant across the ages seems to me to be the recognition that the place where all the books are is a place of considerable power. How we approach that power and how we feel about it varies, but it always seems to be there.

There isn’t an ‘and therefore’ for this, just a bunch of thoughts out loud, or on the page, as the case may be. I’ll try to have something a little more directed for you next week.

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Can*Con 2017

Can*Con is over for another year and we are all getting some rest. (for ‘rest’, read ‘back at our “real” jobs’) Notwithstanding a few minor crises, the weekend went really well and it was truly very gratifying to hear from so many people that they had a good time at the con and enjoyed what we had to offer on the program. I was personally very proud of some of the panels we put together, and it was wonderful to hear that people liked them and to see that so many of them went well.

I think the whole Can*Con team is doing a fantastic job not just running an entertaining, compelling SFF convention for readers and writers, but also reflecting the diversity of the fans and creators of the stories we love in the people we have as guests and the programming we do. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I think every year gets a bit better and it meant a lot to hear people say they were happy with what we had for them this time.

I always come away from Can*Con excited about writing and about my writing in general; it’s very affirming to be surrounded by people who thing that fantastic stories are important and valuable, and that writing is important and valuable. What I need to do now is make sure that I convert that excitement into words on the page/screen, but it’s an invaluable boost right at a time when I feel like I’ve cleared a major obstacle on the current WIP.

The only other thing I want to say is of a more personal nature. I think a lot of times we can feel like we’ve got roughly a billion connections to people through all our technology, and perhaps naturally, since they light up and/or make our devices make noise, they demand a lot of attention, and it’s hard to tell which are the connections that matter. I was reminded this weekend that the people who even at a moment when they’re super tired and have their own things they should be focusing their last reserves of energy on, will take some time to sit down with you and help you get your ship righted and feeling better about yourself, those are the connections that matter. Those are the people who are really ‘with’ you in a sense that has some significance, and those are the connections where our energy should go rather than some other stuff that isn’t anything.

Some people did that for me this weekend and I am truly very grateful. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day.

Thank you to everyone who came out to Can*Con and made the weekend a great success. It was great to spend time with everyone that I got to spend time with, and for those that I didn’t cross paths with, my apologies and we’ll do a better job of it next year. We’re already kind of excited about 2018. You should join us if you can.

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Busting Through

Another short one today, I fear – I am a little pressed for time as (among other things) we get geared up for Can*Con this coming weekend. It has been a lot of work (and I didn’t even do most of it!) but we’re very excited about the con this year and I’m personally very proud of what we’ve put together for our guests this year. I’m really looking forward to it (although I’m gonna be exhausted for Monday) and I will hopefully remember enough of it to write something reasonably coherent about it all afterwards.

For now, though, the main thing I achieved in the past week was finally breaking through the logjam on the WIP. Basically the problem was that I got to a point where I realized there needed to be some pretty major rewrites or at least reworks of even the incomplete first draft that I had done so far. To make the plot work I had to move some things around, create some entirely new material and then figure out where to add it in.

This is more or less the kind of thing you always have to do when working on a story, especially when hammering together the first draft, but the scale of this particular rework was pretty daunting, and the first couple of times I sat down to try to do it (way back in August) I couldn’t figure out how to make it work and ended up just sort of walking away. This happened a couple times, and I would come back to try to write some other parts of the story, but always had the ‘yeah, but you need to do that rewrite’ hanging over me and it never went very well.

I started to think about other stuff that I could write instead. New projects always seem fresh and exciting and it’s often tempting to switch. I got to thinking that maybe this whole project was flawed at its core and that I should just junk it. William Gibson said that the process of writing is, in part, overcoming your revulsion for your own work, and mine got pretty palpable over the past few weeks.

So, basically nothing got written through September, which got me to feeling that the work was Not Going Well, which is kind of discouraging in itself. I tried very hard to remind myself that this happened with Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and it got written, and it really happened with King in Darkness, which I basically did give up on until a friend talked me out of it. So I think this just is a part of the process, or at least my process, and as much as it’s not fun it’s a stage that I need to drag the whole mess through.

This past weekend I had part of an afternoon to myself, and so I told a couple of people that I was going to Solve The Problem (thus committing myself), sat down, and figured out how to make it work. In terms of actual number of words written, it wasn’t a lot for several hours work, but in terms of things moved around and plot restructured it was a successful major surgery. I now know (I’m pretty sure) where all the major pieces need to go and I feel like I can press on creating without the cloud of ‘this is fundamentally a mess’ hanging over me.

So that was a good weekend’s work. I mostly write this as a reminder to Future Me when I’m working on whatever the project after this will be that for whatever reason, this is a stage I seem to go through, and that probably the sooner I just grimly push through the apparently insurmountable issue, the better. Possibly some of you reading have similar issues and maybe this will be helpful. I think it’s very easy to get negative about ourselves and our work, and it’s good to remember that the whole thing doesn’t have to flow in an unending effortless torrent of smoothness. Sometimes it’s a struggle, and that doesn’t mean anything other than that writing is hard.

I am reminded of something someone told me about running once (sorry) – if running half-marathons was easy, everyone would do it. It’s not, it’s hard.

If writing novels was easy, everyone would do it.

The important unspoken part of that is that even though it’s hard, we can still do it.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. See you after Can*Con.

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Straight into Darkness

Yesterday, Tom Petty died. The frantic media rushed out with the news, then walked it back, and now finally confirmed it. I am tremendously sad at the loss of this artist whose work I have loved.

I’m not the right person to speak to his place in musical history, but in my own story his part looms large. With The Tragically Hip, his tunes were the ones I played most often all through university and have continued to listen to right up to the present day. I think I like him for many of the same reasons I like the blues – most of his songs are about things we all have experience with. Feeling like an outsider. Being let down by people you care about. The world being a place that keeps pushing you around. Petty’s lyrics are clever and fun to listen to, his music strikes me as more down to earth than anything else, and he has been among my musical companions through a lot of good and bad times.

Music has, at times, a special ability to make good times feel better and bad times not feel so bad, and Tom Petty has done that for me time and time again. Thanks for the tunes, Mr. Petty.

——

Even as the artists we love sometimes leave us, there are always new ones out there to discover. I have recently started reading The Bone Mother by David Demchuk, and although I’ve hardly cracked the thing I’m already very impressed by the quality of the writing, his skill with creating mood and conveying a sense of a time and place. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this book and need to stop myself sitting up stupidly late reading it.

Demchuk’s writing is also, undeniably, horror. From time to time I stray into thinking that what I write could be considered horror, too. Then, I will read the work of a real artist of the genre (among which I feel perfectly safe including Demchuk, already) and be reminded, that no, it really isn’t. ‘Supernatural thriller’ is a pretty fair label for my books, perhaps even ‘urban fantasy’, but they’re not horror. I hope they’re entertaining, and I hope perhaps there are some scares in there, but the stories are not horror stories.

What do you need for a horror story? It’s hard for me to really put my finger on it. In some ways, it is one of those ‘you know it when you see it’, or read it, moments. You will never have any doubt when you are reading a horror story, or watching one, or in one. It goes beyond just being frightening (because fantasy and SF can both cause fear, without being horrifying), and it doesn’t necessarily involve gore or violence. (Some good horror does, lots of stories splash blood everywhere without being the least bit horrifying.)

It’s very hard (for me, anyway), to define usefully. One thing that I think good horror has is a disturbing quality. There’s something about the characters, the situation, the resolution in a horror story that is pervasively unsettling. It challenges your comfortable assumptions about people and the world. It makes you question things that you wouldn’t ordinarily question. There are, of course, almost inevitably monsters, but the monsters may not be the real problem; it’s what the monsters reveal about ourselves and the worlds that we have built.

I think good horror makes us look at places that we’d prefer not to. That’s why it’s unsettling so much of the time; a good part of your being is telling you to look away, and you’re resisting that. Horror fiction makes you think about things you ordinarily wouldn’t.

Now, the scares are there, too. Part of the joy of horror stories is the joy of the roller coaster: the feeling of danger while knowing, ultimately, that you’re safe. The ride will end. You can close the book.

Where I think really good horror hits hard, though, is that it takes you to places, and makes you think about things, that don’t entirely go away when the book is closed. It’s made you at least reconsider some things that you would have preferred to consider immutable. It’s made your mind wander down a couple of dark and twisty paths that you would have preferred not to tread.

I’m not sure that I’ll never write a horror story, but reading The Bone Mother reminds me that no, I haven’t done it yet. I do love reading them, though.

——

Of course, the real horror story is what happened in Las Vegas on October 1st. I have, I think, nothing at all to say except that the violence is awful and the loss of life overwhelmingly sad. I don’t think I will ever understand the ‘thing’ America has with guns, and as an outsider it’s not a debate I can usefully be part of. There are lots of points of view that I disagree with, but I can at still understand where they’re coming from, and thus have some idea how to start to engage with them. In this case, though, I see people posting on friends’ social media that ‘you’ll never take our guns, and God help you if you try’ and I just don’t understand it at all. I think gun violence in the United States can never really be solved as long as that mode of thinking stays so vital to so many people, but I also just feel, as I always do, that we have to stop killing each other.

——-

S.M. Carriere wrote a lovely review of The King in Darkness. You can read it here.

We’re under two weeks away from Can*Con! I’m so excited about this and looking forward to what I think will be a fantastic weekend for readers and writers of SFF. Details and registration here.

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Word on the Street 2017

I’m late writing this and I don’t expect it’s going to be a really long one, either: I had a busy weekend and then right back into teaching Monday. However, it was a good kind of busy, because for the second year I was at the Word on the Street literary festival in Toronto.

Word on the Street is a really cool open air literary festival that mixes big name writers with the lesser lights like myself, which gives it a very cool mix of attendees and makes it a great opportunity for both writers and readers to broaden their horizons some.

This year it was also roughly a thousand degrees. In Ontario we’ve (somewhat perversely) been getting our hottest weather of the summer and in Toronto it was a scorcher. Even being down by the lake didn’t really help. It was just really, really hot.

Thinking about it now I’m super impressed at the number of people who still came out to walk around and look at books. Thank you to everyone who visited the Renaissance Press booth and visited some slightly heat-delirious writers.

Also thinking about it now, although for most of the day I sort of gave in to the heat and just sat in the tent and baked, the best part of the afternoon was when I made myself get up and go walk around myself. I said hi to the folks at ChiZine, bumped into a couple of other friends, among which the force of nature Jay Odjick. I sucked up some of the generally excited, enthusiastic energy of people and came back to the Renaissance booth feeling way better.

There’s a little mini-lesson in that which I need to try to remember: sometimes it’s better, even when you don’t feel like it, to get up and do something, anything, rather than just sit there and suffer. Sometimes it feels a lot better to be taking some kind of action.

A couple people asked how the new book is going and expressed some interest in seeing it when it’s done, so that gets me (hopefully) re-energized to bust through on the rewrites and get the first pass of the MS done. So that would be another nice bonus from Word on the Street.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week; I’ll try to have something a little more substantial next Tuesday.

—–

Word on the Street is over but Can*Con approaches! Can*Con is the SFF writers and readers con that I help organize in Ottawa. It runs from October 13 to 15 and if I do say so myself I think we have an amazing lineup of guests and really exciting programming for you this year. There’s still time to get registered and have a great weekend of the fiction you love; details and registration here.

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Busted Up

This past weekend, I ran my half-marathon for the season. (Sorry, this is going to be another running-related post) Almost as soon as I got up in the morning I didn’t feel great about it. I’ve been having some IT band troubles the last couple weeks, and I felt kind of generally off in that way you sometimes do, just that today wasn’t a day when I was going to be at my peak.

By itself I think that’s kind of a good thing to keep in mind. As much as we’d like to think that we always perform to the best of our abilities, it’s not always the case. Some days are just a bit off, and mentally, physically, or both, we’re not quite where we could be on a usual day. That doesn’t mean we can’t still achieve things, but I think sometimes you have to recognize that it’s just not a great day and cut yourself a little slack for that.

On top of this, though, it was also one of the hottest days of the year in Ottawa. We haven’t had a very warm summer at all, so I hadn’t really done much training in heat this time around, and the race day conditions were far from optimal. So the race did not go great. I did the first quarter at roughly my planned pace, and after that I became that guy who gets busted up by the conditions.

I finished far, far slower than I had intended to, which in some ways is a disappointment. I can’t really look at my timing intervals from the race and feel a lot of pride. But I am proud of myself in one way, because busted up though I was, I finished the race. It didn’t go how I thought it would, but I didn’t quit and I got to the finish line in the end. Honestly, I’m very nearly as proud of that as I am of my PB for the half, because I know it would have been infinitely easier to quit partway through, and I really wanted to more than a couple of times, but I stuck it out and got it done.

Sometimes that’s an achievement we really should take pride in. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and we struggle more than we’d thought, and there end up being a lot more bumps in the road than we anticipated. But if you stick through that, and get whatever it is you’re trying to do finished regardless, I think that’s just as admirable as those times when you hit every deadline, every phase of your schedule, and sail through in peak performance. Not giving up when things go south is hard. Pushing through adversity is something everyone has to do and we should probably admire that as much as we do the occasions when things come of flawlessly.

I’m trying to remind myself of this as I continue to work on the WIP, which has also gotten a little busted up. Part of it is just the time crunch of the school semester starting up, and having to figure out how to fence off some writing time in my suddenly much more packed schedule. I’ve also realized that the book needs some reasonably major surgery already, though, and its both a little daunting and a little discouraging to have to try to get the rewrites done, even though I know the book will be better for it.

So, I rather doubt I’ll hit my (already revised) goal of having a complete first draft by year’s end.

But that’s ok. I’m not making the progress that I would have liked to have, but I know I’ll finish it in the end. Even looking back on these blogs, I’m reminded that there was a point similar to this in in the writing of Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and there was an even bigger space of time where I had sort of given up on King in Darkness entirely.

It’s ok to get a bit busted up. It happens, I suspect, to nearly everybody. It’s neither useful nor appropriate to get too negative about things not going entirely according to plan. Replan, regroup, recommit, and when the task is finished in the end, it is all the more remarkable for the added, unexpected hurdles that were overcome.

This, at least, is what I’m telling myself as I start to figure out how to get the rewriting done on the current WIP. As always, This is Not Advice, but I thank you for reading.

——

I also just wanted to quickly remind everyone that I will be back at the Word on the Street festival in Toronto this upcoming weekend. Last year was a great experience and I’m looking forward to spending the day at the Renaissance Press booth once again. If you’re in the Toronto area, it would be a delight to see you.

Details about the festival are here.

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