John Le Carré

When I started writing this blog one of the first things I did was talk about some of the writers I particularly admire or who I think have influenced me in my own writing. I haven’t done that in a while, but as I have just started reading The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s autobiography, I thought I would do it again.

I admire Le Carré’s work for a couple of reasons. One is that his stories are just really good stories. Most of what he writes are contemporary spy stories, and no doubt due in part to his background as an intelligence officer, Le Carré writes them very well. I guess obviously I’m not in a position to comment on how accurate or realistic the books are, but they are to me thoroughly convincing and plausible portrayal of how the secret world is likely to work. Le Carré’s perspective on this contrasts very strongly with the many more romantic versions we are given, most famously in the James Bond stories.

When I was younger I read a lot of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, due at least in part to a massive compendium volume of them being for sale at a church garage sale, a sale at which ‘fill a bag of books for a buck’ was advertised. It probably says nothing good about me that I spent a couple of extra dollars on a massive hockey bag, packed it with books (including the Fleming) and argued that there had been no limits placed on what constituted a ‘bag’. I left with my haul, my mother’s chagrin and, no doubt, my fate in the afterlife thoroughly imperilled.

Anyway I read the Bond stories and with the flashy spectacle of the movies it is easy to forget that Fleming’s books are actually pretty solid. There are a lot of problems; they are also racist, or at least portray a very racist society, and although there are reasons for Bond’s serial misogyny, it doesn’t really change the fact that women get an extremely raw deal both from the stories’ hero and their creator. Especially from a modern point of view, Bond is difficult to actually like, and I sometimes wonder how much we’re supposed to.

Nevertheless, they are well-crafted thriller tales and teenage me read them and enjoyed them and parts of them still stick with me. There is a part of Doctor No where a badly injured Bond is trying to climb up the inside of an air shaft (best not to think about why) and is trying not to think about how far it is, just focusing on each tiny step along the way. ‘Take the silver inches one by one, and conquer them’, is how Bond envisions his task, and from time to time when I am faced with some seemingly insurmountable and endless challenge, whether mental or physical, I will say that to myself as I try to get at it.

That’s pretty good. Overall, I mention all this because Fleming’s famous spy is I guess an idealized version of the British intelligence officer, larger than life and impressively heroic. Bond is smooth and cool and deadly. By contrast, most of Le Carré’s spies are not. His most famous creation, George Smiley, is short and pudgy and socially clumsy. It’s interesting – to me, anyway, that both Fleming and Le Carré had real world experience in the world of intelligence, yet portray it so differently. I’m not sure if that speaks to their backgrounds (Fleming from a wealthy family, Le Carré from a much more troubled one), their experiences with the espionage trade, or simply their aims as authors.

On the whole, though, I suspect Le Carré’s version of espionage, ‘delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom’ is rather nearer to the truth than Fleming’s, and his flawed characters rather more like most of the spymasters of the real world. Smiley is not a lethal weapon one-on-one, struggles with his personal relationships, but his mind is a machine of tremendous precision, and he is particularly acute at discerning people’s weaknesses and how to make use of them. Smiley is not really a hero in the conventional sense, I don’t think – he does his duty and does it well, but we don’t get a great sense of idealism out of him. We see his moral and ethical struggles through many of the books, eventually ending with his determination to do what is required to defeat his opposite number on the Soviet side; whether the personal cost that Smiley paid for all this is worth it or not is left for the reader to determine. A great deal of espionage in Le Carré’s books is at best uncomfortable, and often downright unpleasant manipulations of people who may or may not deserve their fates, in the interests of powerful men and nations who may or may not deserve their defeats, and their victories.

Le Carré’s fictional worlds are less clearly divided into the good and the bad than many other spy stories, and in many of them basically decent people (like George Smiley) end up doing inarguably ghastly things to achieve their aims, leaving both them and the audience wondering if it was worth it. To me, although the secret war of Le Carré’s agents and assets comes across as fairly thoroughly awful, making it difficult to really identify with any of the factions at work, his characters are intensely human, and it is extremely easy to identify with them, and to feel their triumphs, their struggles, and their failures.

Rather than monolithically heroic and villainous sides, Le Carré gives us a rather more murky picture where fighting the struggle in the shadows exacts a massive price on everyone who participates, and I wonder if that’s one of the points he is trying to make. It seems to me one of the consistent themes of Le Carré’s stories that he appears suspicious and cynical of large and powerful organizations and institutions (of whatever kind – his Constant Gardener takes a justifiably harsh view of drug companies) but he’s immensely sympathetic towards individual people, and the dilemmas they often find themselves in. That’s a point of view that I find myself increasingly identifying with.

So, I guess obviously, I like John Le Carre’s stories quite a lot. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful novel, and The Night Manager is another particular favourite, as is The Secret Pilgrim. In addition to just (?) enjoying the books, though, I also deeply admire Le Carré as a writer. He is a fantastically skilled craftsman with words, choosing each one with what seems to be unerring precision and creating prose that conveys intense feelings of mood and emotion. Because of this, I don’t find him an easy read by any standard; because each word means so much I find I have to pay very close attention to Le Carré as I read, and so late at night when I’m growing tired and my focus is slipping, I can’t quite keep up with him. Le Carré conveys important information in what seem to be fleeting phrases and word choices, so if you miss a ‘little thing’, you’ve missed a lot. It’s interesting (I think) that that attention to precise detail is also one of the skills that are most essential to his fictional spies.

I don’t really think of this as a flaw. Not all writing needs to be an easy, relaxed read, any more than everything we eat needs to taste the same. Le Carré’s stuff demands effort, demands your entire engagement (or at least it does from me), but if you’re able to give it you are richly rewarded. I suppose there is, for a writer, some sort of practical limit here – if you make your writing too difficult to engage with and appreciate, there will be too few readers willing to rise to the challenge. There is, perhaps, some ideal balance of artistry with words and ease of access for the reader, some perfect mastery of story there to be achieved.

In my view, John Le Carré is very close to it.

—–
Literally as I wrote this, I got a news alert that Roger Moore, probably most famous for his portrayal of James Bond, has died. Due to my age, Moore was the actor that I first knew as Bond, and I think his A View to a Kill was likely the first Bond movie that I watched in its entirety. As I’ve just written, I have a lot of problems with James Bond these days, but the Moore-era Bond with the Union Jack parachute and all the rest of it was undeniably fun and Mr. Moore’s performance gave me stories that I enjoyed.

For that I will always be grateful.

——-
We also draw very close to the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, which runs June 3-4 and will feature many fantastic discussions on how we create and consume fiction, as well as a chance to meet writers and people who love books. I will be there for the second time, and I’m looking forward to it very much. My publishers, Renaissance Press, will also be there with their growing range of titles, so you can get yourself a copy of The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures if you don’t have one, and I will be at the table at various times through the weekend if you would like to say hi or have me scrawl something in your book.

Limestone was a great weekend last year, and I’m really looking forward to it again. Hope to see many of you there. Details here.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

On Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been hesitant to write about this topic because, first, there’s been a great deal written about it already, much of it by wiser heads than me and in general, on any topic the world does not tend to need more white dude opinions, and second, I think it’s important to mostly hear the voices of people from cultures that are being appropriated on this issue. And yet, I am a writer and one who writes about things I imagine, so this seems like an subject I can’t easily avoid, and I have also seen people whose opinions I usually respect thoroughly not getting the problems here, and maybe if I can help a tiny little bit.

I trust I don’t really need to explain the concept of cultural appropriation itself; it seems hardly possible to spend any time at all thinking about the creative world without having run into the discussion. The issue really burst into flames in Canada last week when Write magazine published an editorial calling (not very seriously) for an ‘Appropriation Prize’ and declaring (much more seriously) that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist (or isn’t a problem) and that writers should write about whatever different cultures they choose and imagine the perspectives of as many different kinds of people as possible. A lot of people (unsurprisingly) got upset, a small(ish) number of white industry insiders made edgy comments in favour of the idea of an Appropriation Prize, and as I write this today the guy who wrote the editorial and at least one of the edgy commenters have resigned from their jobs.

Hopefully what the whole episode of the Write editorial will be is an opportunity for everyone to hear the voices of people from cultures that are exploited via appropriation, listen to their perspectives and their concerns, and do better as we all go forward. Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of that going on, although it is striking to hear a common theme from many of these speakers: sadness that this is still an issue that we are grappling with, rather than a problem that had been solved long ago.

This is also an issue that I have been asked about. I (currently) write fantasy, so basically making up the points of view and perspectives of people who are not like me is more or less baked into the job. So, isn’t that a problem if I’m against cultural appropriation? The first answer (which I hope is obvious) is that there’s a big difference between making up an entirely fake culture and adopting the perspective of a real one lived by real people. There is rather more tricky territory with creating a culture based upon a real-world one, or imaginary cultures that appear to (intentionally or not) mirror the relationships between groups in our real society. The more fantastic and imaginary you make something, probably the less you need to worry about the problem of appropriation, but this is not the issue that most people have a problem with. Of course fiction writers make things up. That’s not a problem.

However, of course, in the case of the stuff I’ve had published, things weren’t quite that easy. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures are set in our world, or something very close to it. My cast of characters includes people who aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t straight, so aren’t I engaging in appropriation? It’s not a completely unfair question, and it’s one that I’ve asked myself a bunch of times as I’ve been sitting down to write.

The answer (I think) is that diversity in writing is important both in terms of the kind of characters that get written and who does the writing. So yes, if I’m going to write (and I am), it’s important for me to value the existence of people from a variety of backgrounds, and if I’m going to do that I need to do it as respectfully and well as I can. It is one of the most challenging parts of writing for me but I also feel it’s one of the most vital ones – while it might arguably be easier to exclude characters with experiences that don’t match my own a) it would be boring b) it wouldn’t be a very good portrayal of the world we really live in and c) imagining that different groups in society aren’t there is a harmful thing to do. So it’s essential that I continue to write characters from a whole bunch of different backgrounds in our society.

A key part of doing that, though, is to listen to the people from those backgrounds when they talk about something I wrote, or things other artists created, and how they were portrayed (or not portrayed) in those pieces. What was good. What was wrong. What was hurtful. Then I need to to better the next time. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that an author like me should never include people who aren’t like me in my stories (and I sure hope not!) but that when I write those different people, I try to be mindful of the differences between their experiences and mine, value those differences and portray them as well as I can. When I learn that there are things that I need to do better, I acknowledge that, try to learn more, and try to keep improving.

It’s also important that I’m not going to pretend to be of those other cultures. I can tell a story with a First Nations person in it, but I’m not going to claim that culture as my own, or to say that I am telling the story of First Nations people. Which is a fine distinction, but an important one. There was another controversy recently with a white painter who says she was inspired by the art of First Nations people and started producing art in that style. First Nations people objected, strenuously, and other people objected just as strenuously that artists should be free to express themselves.

Isn’t it ok? Can’t we be inspired by whatever we’re inspired by, as artists? Isn’t copying (or modelling) the behaviour of others pretty deep in our genes? In an ideal world where all cultures were on an equal footing and we could ignore centuries of interaction between them, I guess the answer to those questions might be ‘yes’, but they’re not and we can’t and so the answer is no.

It is deeply not ok for a white person to decide that the art and stories and culture of a people that we, as a society, spent at least the past 150 years trying to eradicate is kind of fun and cool and to claim it for our own and try to make money off it. Doing so is a continuation of the plundering of the colonial era that got us to this deeply problematic place where we are today. What about when a non-white artist uses something from (say) European culture? Isn’t that the same problem? Again, no, of course it’s not – European culture has never been in danger of being eradicated by another one. It’s never been under threat. And, it’s never been a problem for European artists (as a group) to get the attention their work deserves.

The other part of this problem and why it’s not ok for white artists to identify with whatever they identify with and start telling the stories or using the art of other cultures is that it is still so hard for people from these different cultures to get their voices heard and to get their stories told. The demographic breakdown for fiction authors getting published is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. It is orders of magnitude harder for other voices to get heard.

It is, therefore, an incredible problem for white people to swoop in and start trying to tell those stories themselves. It’s super hard to get these stories in front of an audience to begin with, so to have the opportunity to tell them taken away from a person who’s actually from that culture and used by a person who is privileged in society anyway is really problematic, and (I am sure) incredibly frustrating and hurtful. People should be able to tell their own stories, because it’s theirs and they know it and know what it means and why its important. They have had their stories told for them, and stories told about them, for far too long already. They deserve a chance to be heard in their own right.

In sum, then, the problem with cultural appropriation is that it is people from a dominant culture taking advantage of and exploiting others in a variety of ways, and perpetuating their dominance of the market by sucking up the opportunities to be heard that might (and should) otherwise go to people from a more diverse backgrounds. So, I guess in some ideal situation where it wasn’t a problem for artists of different races and genders and cultures to get their voices heard, and where all the cultures of the world were on a level playing field where some hadn’t been historically oppressed and repressed and weren’t in danger of being lost, maybe cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a problem. In case it isn’t clear, that’s not where we are. It is, therefore, a big problem on a lot of levels.

Even so, it should surely just be basic human decency to listen when our fellow human beings speak up about something we did and say ‘hey, when you use that part of our culture in the way you just did, we find it disrespectful and hurtful, could you stop?’ to put aside our arrogance and self entitlement and give what has to be the only conceivable answer in my view: ‘I’m sorry, and of course I will’.

I’ve read a lot of people who seem to treat the entire issue of cultural appropriation as an intellectual exercise, as a sterile problem to pick over in an ethics or philosophy classroom. The problem with treating it that way is that there are real people in real pain involved. Those of us who occupy privileged positions in society need to, at last, stop justifying and start listening.

Tagged , , , ,

Blade Runner

I had a whole other idea (well, 50% of another idea) for today and then we got a new trailer for the new Blade Runner movie. (I believe this is the second one we’ve seen, but this one is ‘official’, for whatever that may mean) I Have Thoughts, so I figured I’d write about them today.

I should start by saying that Blade Runner is one of my all-time favourite movies. This is probably not a huge surprise, given its close affinity to William Gibson’s Sprawl books, which I was deeply in love with by the time I first saw Blade Runner. (There are, of course, a surprising number of cuts of the movie that people argue stridently for and against. I tend to like the Director’s Cut one, although even the one with the voice overs that most people hate has a few saving graces. I love Deckard’s final line of ‘I didn’t know how long we had together. Who does?’. Exactly.)

Anyway, I think the movie entertaining on a surface level as a future noir-ish detective/action story, I find the quality of the acting fantastic, and the whole movie looks and sounds amazing. I’ve bought the Blade Runner soundtrack at least three different times now. There are a great many really memorable scenes (‘No, four! Two, two, four! With noodles.’ and ‘I just do eyes’) and if the pacing is a little slow by modern standards, I think it fits the overall theme of the piece. To me, it all continues to hold up quite well, even this many years later, although you need to handwave a few dates, one way or another.

Once you start digging into it, Blade Runner does have a lot of meat on the bone, too. It gets you thinking about humanity (is there, in the end, any significant distinction between a human being and an artificial creation made to perfectly mimic a human being? And if there isn’t, what does that make a guy like our hero Rick Deckard?) and mortality (is it better or worse to know precisely when your life will end? The replicants find it deeply disturbing to know that their lives have a set end date – but don’t we all, anyway? Maybe it’s that their lives are set to be so short?)

You can spend a lot of time thinking about the events of the movie from the perspective of all these different characters, trying to determine who is aware of what and how they feel about it all, and then trying to figure out how you feel about it all. I love that the movie gives you a great deal to chew over, and I enjoy thinking this stuff through every time I watch it.

Ok, so the trailer. There’s not a great deal in it, to be honest (which recalls earlier discussion over the content, or lack thereof, in the Last Jedi trailer). The visual style is promising, the soundtrack suitably Vangelis-y. And yet, I am deeply suspicious of the whole thing and kind of wish it would, somehow, abort mission. Why is that? I got reasons.

In general, I like the story from the first film so well that I think it doesn’t need a sequel. I wish, overall, that the movie industry (and the fiction industry in general) were better at leaving stories that do not need to be continued alone and not doing ‘another chapter’ just because we really liked the first one. Some stories cry out to be continued. Some are very satisfactorily complete in and of themselves and should be left by themselves. I thought (even though it isn’t at all on the same level as Blade Runner) that this was true of The Matrix, for example, and I think Blade Runner probably shouldn’t have been continued.

Accepting that we are getting a sequel, I’m still not sure how promising this trailer really is, except on a superficial level that it does indeed look and sound like it’s in the world of the first film. However, it also seems crashingly unsubtle. One of the ideas from the first movie is that you have these replicants, artificial life forms who are very nearly indistinguishable from humans, used to do humanity’s dirty work in forging its colonial space empire. They are our soldiers and our labour force. They have pre-determined levels of intelligence and physical attributes, and artificially constrained lifespans that grant them only a few years of existence, and that in service. Pris Stratton is a fully sentient being brought into existence solely to be a sex toy. That’s all disturbing enough, and then add to it that if these beings ever do anything other than what they’re ordered to do, a special unit of the police will hunt them down and summarily execute them. (By the way, Bryant’s ‘You know the score, pal! If you’re not a cop, you’re little people!’ just seems like it will unfortunately fit forever, doesn’t it?) The scene where a desperately fleeing, unarmed Zhora is shot in the back by Deckard is one of the more blatant points in which the movie makes you think about what it is that Deckard is really doing and whether it is in any way good, or even acceptable.

Blade Runner leaves that whole issue of replicants basically being a race of disposable human slaves as an uneasy undercurrent to the explicit events of the plot. None of the characters really get into it, but you can’t help but notice it and think about it, and at least some of the characters are struggling with it as well. (Deckard starts out calling Rachel ‘it’ but by the end of the movie he’s decided he’s in love with her) Basically I feel like the movie gives the audience credit that they will think about this issue without being explicitly prompted on it. (By the way, the Deckard line I said I liked earlier? I mean, I do like it, but the sentiment is covered, if not quite as directly, by Gaff’s parting shot anyway. It’s less explicit, but the idea is there.)

The new trailer does not do that. It beats you over the head with dialogue about it right out of the gate. I really feel that sometimes a softly, softly approach to conveying a message works better than screaming it and it appears that this new movie is gonna scream everything. Further to this: the original movie just sort of hints at the creepiness of people being assembled in labs with scenes like the visit to the scientist with his jar full of eyes, the new one has to give you a replicant (a nubile female replicant, natch) slithering naked out of of some sort of cocoon all covered in slime to make its point. I really feel like Blade Runner is a very carefully painted piece of art. This new film seems (from this very limited taste) as though it may be closer to the time the Mythbusters tried to paint a room with explosives.

I especially do not like the suggestion of a ‘war’ between humans and replicants (although this may be no more than a piece of dialogue). Blade Runner isn’t Terminator. We’ve got plenty of movies that have tackled an armed uprising of humanity’s creations. Part of what makes Blade Runner unique and makes it work is that the scale is intensely human. It also fits with the movie’s overall message that Roy Batty and his renegade Nexus replicants are probably not any real threat to society, or much of anyone outside of their creator, and even then only because he’s so entirely unsympathetic to their plight. They’re just people (really) trying to survive, and yet for this their death is mandated. I don’t think that would work nearly as well if Batty was trying to overthrow the whole despotic regime.

Some specifics, I guess.

Harrison Ford being back as Deckard is an interesting decision on a couple of levels. One is, of course, that it appears to answer one of the unspoken questions of the first film: ‘Is Deckard a replicant?’ I think I said in an earlier blog that I accept the answer from the evidence of the first film appears to be ‘yes’, or at least there’s a compelling case, but the easy conclusion to draw from an aged Deckard still being around in 2049 is that the answer is ‘no’. I prefer that answer, anyway, because of what it means for the last moments of Roy Batty’s life – he saves Deckard, a human, and a human sent to kill him, because as his life reaches its mandated end, he sees every other life as overwhelmingly precious.

One point that I wish I had thought of myself, but didn’t – I picked up on this from N.K. Jemisin’s Twitter here – is that everyone in the trailer is white. That’s not a great look. Blade Runner wasn’t fantastic in terms of a diverse cast, although it had Edward James Olmos and at least a few Asian characters. (Although, again, some problems with their portrayal) In this trailer, even the giant hologram lady from the advertising appears to have been swapped out for a Caucasian. N.K. Jemisin is right to call this movie out for its (apparently!) white-washed future, which we should be doing better than by now, and it’s especially distressing in a movie that is going to deal with the question of an oppressed race of beings. You really shouldn’t have this conversation any more while simultaneously erasing most of the races of humanity from the picture.

On a repeat viewing, and perhaps because I’m feeling negative about the project, a lot of the visuals seem to be sort of clunky rehashes of what we saw in the first film. It had giant hologram ads, we got giant hologram ads. (The giant Atari ad is interesting, and I guess is supposed to suggest a solution to the timeframe issue by putting this in an alternate timeline to our own) It had giant monolithic corporate HQs, we got giant monolithic corporate HQs. I suppose if things looked really different I’d be complaining about the movie not looking like Blade Runner, but somehow I feel like this movie is gonna look and sound like the first movie without understanding anything about what made it good and end up as a much louder story that says a lot less. I would very much like to be wrong.

Anyway, that’s a lot of fairly rambly stuff about Blade Runner. I am, as I said, deeply suspicious about the new movie and, on the whole, wish they weren’t making it. The trailer didn’t do much to allay those suspicions and gave me some fresh new ones, but I guess we’ll see. The good part is that even if it is terrible, Blade Runner will still be there as it is, and I can cheerfully ignore the sequel.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week.

Tagged , ,

RPG

We are, if you can believe it, going to take this blog into even dorkier territory this week. A little while ago I started RPG-ing again. Role-playing games are a hobby I enjoyed a lot in high school and university, but in more recent years there hasn’t been time to do it. I tried playing over internet forums but it really wasn’t at all the same and I had sort of assumed my RPG days were over.

However, some friends of mine suggested giving it a shot again (we’re using voice chat, which removes a lot of obstacles) and so I am once again running a game of Star Wars: The Role-playing Game. The specific game doesn’t really matter so much; the experience has been an interesting one from a writing perspective.

As the game master (or whatever a particular game labels the role I have), it’s my job to create the scenarios the other players will encounter, populate the game world with interesting characters, and give them compelling enemies to fight against and (hopefully) overcome. There’s more to it than that, but I guess obviously this all sounds a lot like writing fiction, and it is, in a lot of ways.

However, as I was also reminded (I feel like much-younger me would have known this) that there are some big differences as well. For our first scenario I created a whole bunch of stuff that, to me, would have been an interesting, reasonably suspenseful story to start out the new game. I made up characters and created detailed backgrounds and motivations for them all. I carefully thought out the right sequence of events for the scenario’s plot and what the hooks for the next story would be.

And then we played. And (as any experienced GMs will of course already be expecting) the players went off in entirely different direction skirting most of what I had plotted out. Most of those characters never got met, and the bulk of the plotline got (actually fairly skilfully) avoided. I thought the game went fine, but I had to make up a fair bit on the fly (an essential GMing skill at the best of times) and a lot of material i had prepped went unused. (By the way, to my players who may be reading this, please don’t take this as a complaint – I’m just thinking things through.)

You can avoid this – RPG players call it ‘railroading’ and you can write things such that the players have to go in the direction you want them to. (i.e., you set things up so the game runs ‘on rails’ with no real ability for the players to steer where they might want to go) Especially for newer players it’s sometimes the thing to do, and some players are fine with being told where to head next, but my experience has been that more experienced players tend to chafe against it pretty quickly. The whole attraction of an RPG is that you get to explore an imaginary world of wide-open possibility. Hey, what’s that? Let’s go check out over there.

So to some degree this is unavoidable, especially if you have creative players (which are the kind you want). What this is reminding me is that writing as a game-master is a very different jam than writing as a fiction author, despite those superficial similarities, primarily because I’m not the only person telling the story. Because I can’t necessarily predict what the players are going to do, improvisation is always going to be a part of it, but just as obviously I can’t prepare nothing … somewhere there’s a sweet spot of preparing enough material to be able to have the session go smoothly without working up a bunch of stuff that never gets used to find again.

(And, honestly, a lot of stuff that doesn’t get used when I expect it do can be scavenged for parts later anyway)

I like to hope that what I’ve learned as a fiction writer does help me in creating compelling elements for the RPG, but I also feel like this whole experience gives me some useful stuff to think about and take back to fiction writing. Although I do get to tell the whole story there, there’s also still a balance to be struck in terms of how much background and fleshing out everything needs for the story to be convincing and interesting. Fictional worlds need to seem plausible and fully-realized, but that (in my opinion) should also be an illusion; you can waste a lot of time on ‘world building’ that serves no purpose to the story and, in some examples of writing I’ve seen, actually gets in its way. Write the story first, decide if you actually need a detailed political history of the kingdom later.

I know that part of why I have always liked role-playing games is the storytelling element. I love to tell stories and that’s essentially what the games are about, whether you’re a player or the game-master. What I’m re-learning again the last while is that it is a very different kind of storytelling than I get to do when I’m writing my own fiction, and while the lack of control is something that requires adjustment, it’s also really cool because the group is working together to tell the story rather than it being the creation of any one person. I also think that while I’m probably a much better writer than I was when I was last running an RPG, that doesn’t necessarily or immediately translate to being a better game-master.

I’m not really sure that’s something you get in any other setting than a role-playing game group, where creative people collaborate in real time on a story that can (depending on the group, and the game) go on for years. I think what I’m actually re-learning as a game-master is that it isn’t my story at all. My job is to help the players tell the story of their characters, the imaginary people they’ve created and are sending out on adventures. It’s very cool and it is a role I enjoy very much, I’ve just got to get good at it again.

That’s all very much just me thinking out loud about things, but it’s what I’ve got for you this week.

Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , , , ,

Artists for Artists

What I’ve got for you this week is a story I found quite disheartening in a lot of ways. I was whiling away/wasting a little time on Twitter and I came across a news report of a mural of Michelle Obama that had been installed in Chicago. It turned out that the mural (and I’m not going to name the artist here because I don’t want to push any more traffic his way), which had been crowd-funded, had also been plagiarised, copied exactly from a work done by a young artist named Gelila Lila Mesfin, with no attempt at attribution or giving credit for her work. (This is a pretty good news story covering the issue)

Social media exploded (which I guess is good), the plagiarist reacted fairly badly, but last we heard the two were in some sort of negotiations over the thing, which I hope ends up with Ms. Mesfin getting both full credit for the work as well as some money. We shall see.

I found the whole thing depressing, as I said, because it was such a blatant theft and I would really have liked to believe that someone who thought of themselves as an artist would do that to another artist. I mean, I know how much of my energy and how much of myself goes into anything that I write, and I assume the same is true for the work done by other artists. As a result, I can’t imagine stealing that, or pretending that it was mine. I know how hard it is. I wouldn’t be able to take something that someone else had poured so much into and say that I had done it.

I also like to think that my writing, whatever else may be good or bad about it, is mine, and that’s important. Even leaving aside the issue of ripping off someone else’s work, I wouldn’t ever be able to say that a piece of writing done by something else was mine, because it isn’t. I would take genuinely zero satisfaction in putting out a piece of work that I hadn’t created, because no matter how much people liked it, it wouldn’t matter, because I didn’t do it.

Finally, it seems to me the whole point of being an artist (of whatever sort) is that you create. Again, whether you like what I write or you don’t, I wrote that. I made something that wasn’t there before. That’s very much the whole point of saying that I’m a writer. It would be a frankly bizarre sort of act to be claiming to be a creator when I wasn’t. I can’t imagine what the point of it all could possibly be.

I feel like all of this should be thoroughly straight-forward and obvious, but then something like this mess over the weekend happens and it makes me doubt. I think artists have more than enough challenges to deal with in society without sticking the knife into each other by stealing work. I would like to think that artists should understand better than anyone else how difficult it is to make your way in a creative field, and not sabotage a colleague’s efforts by ripping them off.

Artists need to be on each other’s side, boost each other’s work, and be each other’s support system. Artists should be the best allies other artists have. I would like to think that’s automatic, but clearly it isn’t necessarily the case. Let’s all try to do as well as we can.

Thanks for reading.

——

It’s a little bit more than a month until the 2017 Limestone Genre Expo! I attended for the first time last year and will be back again this year. Renaissance Press will be there as well, which means you will be able to buy either of my books, if you like, and I will be at the table frequently so you can come and say hi if that seems like the sort of thing you might enjoy. I will also be participating in some of the panel discussions again, and I’m already looking forward to all of it. Limestone is a growing convention for basically any time of writer or lover of writing, and I would love to see you there. Details here..

Tagged , , , , ,

Landmarks

I got outside for my first long run this week.

It was a lovely day and it was great to be outside rather than on the treadmill, but something was missing.

When I run on routes I use several times I look for landmarks. I don’t want to be looking at my watch all the time, because then I obsess over time, but I like to have something that gives me a sense of how far I’ve gone and how much longer I have to do. This year, one of my landmarks is gone.

For as long as I’ve been running here there has been a distinctively shaped tree by the pathway with a sign that called it ‘The Dream Tree’. It was a white elm. I noticed it because of the shape and then of course the name appealed to me a lot and gave me something to think about on my runs. Anyway the Dream Tree became one of my landmarks, and this year it is gone. This isn’t a huge surprise since it had obviously been sick the past couple of years (in fact I wrote a terrible poem about it on here once) and I guess sometime in the fall they cut it down. (Which is sad on a few levels)

It was surprisingly disorienting. I have been used to it being there for a long time, to planning my runs around it and using the sight of it in the distance as a guide to how far I was from home. I was, as I say, surprised by how much it threw me to be out and not find it there. Both on the way out and on the way home I had a genuine sense of disbelief that this part of the landscape was really gone.

However, I also figured out something else that I can use as a landmark, and if it’s a sign rather than a tree it will still work, and I’m sure after another run or two it will feel as natural as the other way did, even if it’s never quite the Dream Tree.

The reason I mention all this is that it occurred to me that these kind of things happen to us in life from time to time: we lose our landmarks. A job that we had done for a long time changes, or is taken away. A friendship we had relied on ends, or alters forever. A part of our routine is changed for reasons outside of our control. I felt that last year when I was injured and couldn’t run, and had to come up with different ways to burn off my stress and get my mind to running.

Which is kind of my point I guess: Losing a literal landmark is temporarily disorienting, we soon adjust and come up with something else that will work, even if it won’t be the same, and it’s the same with these other things that are sort of the landmarks in our lives. We lose a friend, or a job, or something else precious, and it seems as though things can’t possibly continue, but we’re pretty resilient and we come up with something, or a number of things, to fill the space and take up the weight, and on we go.

I will miss the Dream Tree though.

——

In non-running news, of course you’re probably aware that we’ve seen the first poster and trailer for the next Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. They’re interesting studies, I think. (If you haven’t seen the trailer, it’s here.) Neither reveals very much.

The poster is kind of cool because Rey is doing the the typical fantasy hero pose, which is neat to see a female character getting to do. There’s not a lot else going on though, aside from an angry-looking Luke and Kylo Ren. The overall sense is that Luke is not going to be the unproblematic solution to everyone’s problems that the characters and audience may have assumed him to be.  The poster builds on the sense of menace and threat the filmmakers have been trying to stoke ever since they rolled out the Star Wars logo in red a few months back.

The trailer doesn’t have a great deal going on it either that you can really sink your teeth into. Rey is obviously training her Force abilities, Exciting Space Battles happen, and Poe Dameron gets another X-Wing blown up. The main thing that seems to have attracted attention is Luke line ‘It is time for the Jedi to end’.  (There are lots of other images in the background but it’s hard to say anything about them other than ‘yes, that is probably Captain Phasma.  Huh.’)

Now context is obviously important, so we don’t know why Luke is saying that, and I even read some suggestions that Mark Hamill had recorded that line specifically for the trailer, so it may not be in the movie at all. But it is interesting; they seem to be pushing the idea that Luke Skywalker may be pretty done with this whole Jedi idea and have very different ideas about how to approach stuff than the last time we saw him.  That’s probably more interesting than Luke just showing up, swatting down another couple Sith, and making everything fine again, and it also fits better with the middle movie of a trilogy, where in general Things Get Worse.

Of course you can read a *lot* into that one line, and figure that the movie is going to blow up the whole Sith/Jedi binary and give us a whole new philosophy of the Force. Or, you could figure that it’s a red herring that will ultimately mean nothing at all – movie trailers of course being famous for this kind of thing. I’m basically not ready to draw any strong conclusions from the tiny fragments the trailer showed us. (I kind of hope they *don’t* blow up the binary and introduce some kind of superior middle path, because one of the things I’ve always liked about how Star Wars presents the Force is that it is astonishingly powerful, but power has a price, one way or another. Either it requires tremendous discipline, or it tears you to shreds. Writing this brings up a potential scenario where Luke has fallen to the Dark Side off on his island and is a Sith hermit. That might be fun.)

This brought up another point that people were discussing after the trailer dropped: is a good trailer one that has *lots* of information in it, or one that tells you very little and leaves you wanting more? Watching the Last Jedi trailer doesn’t really leave you any the wiser about what happens in the movie aside from ‘it is a Star Wars movie’. That could mean that it’s a bad trailer that doesn’t inform the audience. Or, it could be exactly the right kind of trailer – it tells you what you’re going to get (more Star Wars) without giving away anything of significance about what happens in the movie.

I tend to hate spoilers, so I’m actually quite content to go into any book or movie fresh and discover everything as I go along. However, I can see the other side of the argument. Personally, I think the people who made the Last Jedi trailer knew exactly what they were doing and put out just enough to whet the appetite for the legions of Star Wars fans, refresh the hype machine for another few weeks, and keep everyone dying to have the new movie come out, or even just for the next little drizzle of information that they’ll give us.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

Next week I won’t do a running analogy.

Tagged , , , ,

Dialogue

I have recently been struggling a bit with the current WIP (which, yes, still lacks much in the way of a title), to the extent that I described myself as ‘mired’ to a friend the other day. After some thought – along with certain other things – I decided to go back to one of the things that had gotten me excited to write a story set in Victorian London to begin with: the TV Series Ripper Street. I admit to approaching Ripper Street a bit dubiously, and I’m not sure that it’s an immortal achievement, but I do like a lot about it.

One of the things I like very much is the dialogue. The writers for the show have a very clever turn of phrase and obviously love their words. Basically all of the characters speak in these very elaborate, eloquent, complex sentences which I enjoy very much. (My love of a long twisty sentence is something any of my editors or Eager Volunteers can attest to) Now, I also doubt very much that real Victorians spoke this way, and doubt even more that the residents of impoverished Whitechapel spoke this way, but Ripper Street’s heavily embroidered dialogue nevertheless somehow, for some reason, works (at least for me), both because I enjoy the word craft and also because it somehow conveys a sense of the different mannerisms and etiquette of the late 19th century. Or so I reason, because even though it probably doesn’t make any sense, I still sit there thinking ‘this is awesome’ rather than ‘well, this is probably overdone’.

It’s a similar situation to another show I loved a while ago, the rather-more-famous Deadwood, which also put amazingly ornate dialogue in the mouths of characters who would certainly not have spoken that way. It worked, both because it was a joy to listen to and (I think) because the eloquence was a contrast to the gritty, brutal setting of the frontier town and the gritty, brutal people who inhabited it.

Anyway in the short term, watching Ripper Street worked pretty well and I’ve been back plugging away at the WIP. I also tackled a scene that I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make work for what feels like roughly forever. I’m not sure it’s exactly good, but it is written and I can move on from it. (This kind of loops back to earlier blogs in that I need to remember that not every scene needs to be the best scene I’ve ever written. Sometimes, there just needs to be a god damned scene.)

In the somewhat longer term, this all got me thinking about dialogue and how it works. It isn’t, of course, quite as simple as fancy dialogue always being better. There are plenty of times when ‘less is more’, and another of my favourite TV shows frequently serves up great examples of that. The Americans is, I think, genuinely one of the best shows on television and one of my favourites of all time, and they really know how to write over there.

One of my favourite moments was from Season 3. Philip, deep cover KGB agent resident in the U.S., spent most of that season doing increasingly awful things (which, if you’ve seen the show you will remember, and if you haven’t, I’m not going to tell you about because you should go watch it) and eventually, he’s talking to one of his assets and breaks off in the middle of trying to justify everything they’ve been doing. All he says is “I feel like shit all the time”, and you absolutely understand the amount of pain he’s in, and the toll everything is taking on him. Similarly, last episode (minor spoiler here, but whatever) Philip and his wife Elizabeth discover they killed someone who was completely innocent; Philip is once again devastated (Keri Russel’s Elizabeth has thicker skin about these things, apparently) and Elizabeth offers to leave him out of future missions that may require killing. Philip replies with “No, no. It’s us. It’s us.” Again, you completely understand that even though he hates what he’s doing, he can’t contemplate making his wife do it by herself.

Now, a lot of the effectiveness of both those scenes (and, a lot of what works on The Americans, and indeed any TV show or film) has to do with the delivery and performance from the actor. Matthew Rhys sells both those scenes tremendously. However, he’s working with what he’s been given and somehow that extremely minimal dialogue conveys a tremendous amount, in context.

So in trying to think about this in terms of ‘what makes good dialogue’, I’m not immediately left with anything too useful. Sometimes, arguably over-written dialogue is great. Sometimes, extremely minimalist dialogue is great. I suppose one might argue that context is, as usual, king in all this: some settings and characters call for one, and some for the other. Probably in some or even many cases, you don’t want to be on either extreme, but something in the middle.

The thing is that I imagine it depends very much on the author in question, as well. Some authors know how to write in the style for Deadwood. Others know how to make less words say more. I would guess that trying to do one when you’re really good at the other doesn’t produce good results.

Unfortunately what I think I’m coming away with, having spent the last couple of days thinking about dialogue, basically comes down to two things. One, that having excellent dialogue can absolutely make a piece of writing just as much as bad stuff can kill it. Two, there probably isn’t

And isn’t that insightful.

It has given me something to consider as I continue work on the WIP; I need to choose my characters’ words, and the style of those words, very carefully indeed. Since I do tend towards long, complicated sentences, I’m probably likely to stray more towards the Ripper Street end of things, but it’s valuable to remember that in some circumstances, a very few properly chosen words can say a ton.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Vimy

It is one hundred years since the battle of Vimy Ridge, much celebrated here in Canada. Today in particular there will be commemorations and a great deal said and written about it all. Since I studied history, teach it, and write about it from time to time, I feel as though I should have something to say as well, although it’s a more difficult question for me than it appears to be for some.

I think there are a lot of valid questions to be asked about the reasons why the First World War was fought, and about Canada’s involvement in it in particular. The loss of life was such that the numbers sometimes fail to make an impression; they’re just too big to make sense. Vimy Ridge was a typically bloody engagement; the assaulting forces lost 3,598 soldiers killed and 7,004 more wounded, in three days fighting. Bloodshed on that scale demands an answer: was it necessary, was the cause just and right, and I think it is a very difficult answer to give. If we look for a ‘just war’ it is hard to make World War One fit that mould, but Canada was asked to fight, and Canadians were asked to fight, and so they went and fought as they were asked to do. By all accounts they did it well.

Vimy was the first battle where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a formation. As a result it is labelled by some the time when Canada ‘became a nation’, although this seems to me deeply problematic, not least for its dismissal of the thousands of years worth of people who lived in this place we call home up until that point. Significant politically and militarily the battle may perhaps have been, but there was surely a nation, and nations, here before that. The military, and military history, has often been an interest of mine, but still I am uncomfortable with the idea that our nation, or any nation, is defined by its battles. I like to think that Canada has different roots than that. In any case there was already a Canada that the men who ended up on Vimy Ridge felt strongly enough about to go off to war, so I wonder whether they would have agreed that there was no nation until after that battle.

However that all may be, the battle has been much mythologized in Canada, and like most myths a healthy dose of fiction is added to the story. Vimy becomes, it seems, more glorious the further we get away from the bloody quagmired truth of the battlefield which far too many would never leave. However we may embroider the events of those days, the military historians tell us that the Canadian success was part of an overall strategy that failed, that the 10,000 lives and more shattered taking the ridge did not lead to a stunning breakthrough, and the war ground remorselessly on. Does that make the courage and sacrifice of the men who went and fought the slightest bit less? I feel it does not, and yet in taking the battle and making it part of our national myth I suppose we insist upon more gilded version.

The main thing I am left with regarding Vimy, and World War One in general, is that these young men went where their country asked them to go and went into the worst kind of peril as a result of that. They did the job they were asked to do and, in the case of Vimy Ridge, did it successfully and well. We can, then and more recently, question the motives of the men who asked those things of them, but not, I think, the response. They made that choice for many reasons, as soldiers I suppose always do, and even if I wonder whether they needed to go and fight, when their country asked something of them their answer was ‘yes’ and that is an answer I will always honour deeply.

It seems to me important for leaders today to remember that there are men and women who, when their country asks them to do something, will go and give their heart’s blood trying to do it. If the cause be just, then both the decision and the results may be a thing that we can look upon and know that it was necessary and right. Even if we cannot take satisfaction in it, exactly, we can know that it was important and that our young people did what needed to be done. But our leaders must not ask these things of them lightly because if history is any guide, when the country asks those young people to go into danger on its behalf there will always be a courageous number who will answer ‘yes’ and we cannot take that answer unless we are absolutely certain of its dire necessity. It is too tragic to contemplate that sacrifice if it is not absolutely unavoidable.

One hundred years ago, young Canadians made their assault on Vimy Ridge. They fought well, they did what was asked of them, and all too many spilled their blood because of it.

We shall remember them.

Tagged , , ,

Relative

I had a curious moment last week, and thus a topic for this week’s blog. It was at a planning meeting for Can-Con 2017 (which, quick aside, if you haven’t already made your plans to attend, you definitely should. We’re going to have amazing stuff for you this fall, and our guests are fantastic) and the person who organizes one of our city’s writing groups said that I was one of their success stories.

Wait, what?

In recent months I have gotten to thinking that my writing hasn’t yet amounted to very much.  My friend who just signed a lucrative book deal, now there’s a success story. Another of my writer friends has newspapers wanting to do stories on her latest release. Yet another guy I know is blowing up all over the media with his latest project. When I had been thinking of ‘success stories’, those were the people that I thought of. (And, just to be clear, they are all immensely talented artists who have earned every drop of that success and I could not be happier for them)  Nothing I have done seems as though it is in the same league as that.  Thus, not a success.

And yet. I should also remember that I have two books published. There are plenty of people out there who work very hard every day chasing that dream that I am sometimes in danger of dismissing. When Renaissance agreed to put King in Darkness into print, I said it was the fulfillment of a life’s ambition, and it was. Then they did it again. What I mean is that if my point of view shifts slightly, what I’ve done with my writing changes from ‘ugh not really going that well honestly’ to ‘wow, there are really some Achievements Unlocked here’.

I don’t say this to humble-brag (honestly) but to try to remind myself that ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are not really the binary absolute standards they may appear to be or that we often think of them being. There’s a lot of space for point of view and perspective that allow those two ideas to bleed into each other, and it’s all too easy for someone like me, who tends to be one of my own worst critics, to push everything I do into the latter category, even though there are perhaps lots of people who wouldn’t put them there.

These sort of reminders are all around me, when I pay attention. At the gym where I work out, I frequently can’t help but compare the amount of weight I can lift with what other people are doing, and think ‘wow, I’m pathetically way off that’. At the same time, though, not that long ago I was talking to one of the people who lifts those alarming large amounts of weight; they asked how long a run I had just done and I said it was ‘just’ 5k. (This made sense to me because I’m training for a longer distance and from that point of view 5k is not very much) They replied that they’ve never done more than 3.

Just like with my writing, this is important for me to remember. Lots of people will never run 5k. (Perhaps even more have absolutely no ambition to do so, but never mind) Even for people who are athletic or who take up running, that may well be the longest distance they ever think of doing. I am currently aiming for a longer distance, and 5k is, from that perspective, part of a training plan rather than a goal. Neither of those things is better or worse than the other, they’re just different people with different objectives and different strengths and at different points in their process or entirely different processes.

So as with writing, how to evaluate the things we’re capable of depends very much on point of view. Perhaps in a few years it will be me with a nice payday from a book deal. Perhaps it won’t, and if I was determined to look at it that way that might be a disappointment, but one the other hand I will always have two novels in publication and that is a goal some people, including me from 10 years ago, dream of. What might be a disappointing performance for one person or in one circumstance might be an absolutely exceptional one in a different context. I think if we’re being fair, there probably really aren’t any absolute standards for things at all. I think, and try to keep reminding myself, that it isn’t a very good idea to measure what I can do against the standards of other people. No matter how well I do, there will always be someone who can do way better. There’s always something I can point to and convince myself that I don’t measure up and am not doing well. I shouldn’t do that, because there’s certainly lots of people who would trade places with me in a second. I am, in many ways, incredibly fortunate. What I should be is grateful for that, and perhaps allow myself a bit of satisfaction in what I am capable of rather than kicking myself for what I can’t do.

None of this means that I shouldn’t continue to push myself to write more, and Write Better. I should continue to work to run further and faster. However, the part I need to keep reminding myself about is that the reason to do more and better is the challenge of improving myself, testing the limits of my own abilities (which are not the same as the limits of anyone else’s) and seeing what I am ultimately capable of. In the end, the race is only with ourselves.

Thanks for reading.

(I know you are overjoyed that the running analogies are back)

Tagged , , , , ,

I Got Nothing

Ok, so it finally happened. I have no idea what to write for this week’s blog entry. Nothing particularly struck me in things I read or watched on TV in the past few days, I didn’t see any details of the world that hit a strange chord, and I don’t really have any significant news to report.

I don’t have a running analogy.

Writing hasn’t been going great but I don’t have a special part of the struggle that I want to try and dissect.

There’s no episode from my past that I want to ruminate on.

Seven days have gone by since I last threw up a post on here, and a new idea has failed to come chundering out from the Mind-Gears.

But you know, that’s ok. I think a lot of the time I feel a lot of pressure to always be doing certain things. Gotta write X amount. Gotta make a schedule. Need to be in certain places by certain times, certain numbers of times a week. Clocks to punch, boxes to tick, quotas to hit. Got to Get It Done.

And look, all of those things are probably good and useful. I really do think that I do better with most things in my life when I make habits out of them and follow routines. (Thus, doing this blog even when I don’t have an actual topic: because I post something every week and experience tells me breaking routines can be risky) However, as much as it’s useful and important to impose structure on life a lot of the time, to set goals and deadlines and things for ourselves, it’s also ok to just not do it some of the time.

I’m not saying to never do these things. I’m not even saying to usually not do these things. I do think, having kind of kicked myself over not measuring up to various standards from time to time, that it is ok do give myself a pass once in a while. Sometimes, things just Happen or Do Not Happen and what we meant to do or planned to do or thought on some level we should do just doesn’t come together. You can scream about failure not being an option but sometimes, man, that’s just not the case. Sometimes the things we can’t control and the things we can control just don’t shimmy together in that way that allows us to Do A Thing.

I mean, I don’t really know why I don’t have a solid topic for this week. I have long wondered at how my brain works, and why it spits out the ideas it does, when it does, and I guess this is another data point to chart about Not Having A Blog Idea for the longest time yet. I’m not aware that I did anything differently than most other weeks. Maybe whatever obscure formula of thought and experience that usually fires out Ideas has been slightly off lately. Maybe I’ll figure that out, although I doubt it. But it’s ok. For whatever this blog is worth, most weeks I come up with something to write about and I get it out there. This one time it didn’t happen, and it’s ok, and life goes on. It’s genuinely good to have expectations of ourselves, and good for other people to have expectations of us, and good to meet those expectations. It’s also fine, and maybe good some of the time, to not meet those expectations and realize that that’s just being a person.

Cliche as it is to say, no-one is perfect. If we recognize and accept that in ourselves maybe it becomes a little easier to accept it in other people on those days when they just can’t quite Get It Done.

So that’s what I’ve got this week. Thanks for reading. I trust next week, I may even have a topic for you.

Tagged , ,