Monthly Archives: April 2015

Descriptors

Last week it was pointed out to me (not in an unkind way) that there isn’t a lot of physical description of the characters in my writing. This is undeniably true, and although I don’t actively sit there thinking ‘Descriptions: THERE SHALL BE NONE’ as I write, I know I don’t put a lot of it in. Somewhat unusually for me, though, this time I have a clear idea as to why that is.

Part of it is that I think sometimes writers give a bit too much away when they introduce a character and there’s a solid paragraph of physical description. It’s like hanging a sign around the character’s neck ‘THIS ONE IS IMPORTANT’. It’s a lot more fun, for me anyway, to not have a clear sense of who is and isn’t going to be Important to the story from the first moment they appear. Instead, just like in real life you have to wait for them to act to see if they’re going to deliver one line and exit your stage left, never to be seen again, or become a lead element of the story for the next month.

That’s really a secondary issue though, and a lot of authors are skilled enough to not drop the description on you all at once, but weave it in gradually as encounters with that character progress. Which is where I run into my other problem.

The main reason that I don’t heavily describe characters is that, as a reader, I tend not to like being given detailed descriptions – so I guess I’m writing for myself as usual. To explain, I form pictures in my head of what I think characters are like fairly quickly. Sometimes it’s then a little jarring to have the author give a detail that clashes with my imagined image – to be told that a character I had imagined as blond has dark hair, for example. Sometimes it’s a little worse than that; I remember watching the Lord of the Rings animated film for the first time, getting to the first scene with Aragorn and thinking ‘that is not what Aragorn looks like’ (based on the image I had in my head from the books) and it was like an itch I couldn’t scratch for the rest of the movie.

I’m not entirely clear on where all the details my imagination uses to create these pictures comes from, if it isn’t from words on the page – and often it is not. There’s some kind of intuitive process that I don’t really want to think about very much happening where I decide, subconsciously, what a given character looks like. Somewhat unfortunately for me, a lot of the time when I get a little more detail from the actual creator of that character, my subconscious intuitive process doesn’t match up with their imaginations and I’m left feeling somewhat dissatisfied about the whole thing. I mean, I had such a clear picture of this person in my mind, but the actual author of the piece can’t be wrong about what their character looks like, can they?

This veers dangerously close to Death of the Author again.

So anyway, I do know perfectly well what all my characters look like, but admittedly a lot of that detail isn’t in my writing. Details that I think are absolutely vital get in there – if a character wears glasses, and that’s going to be relevant later on, for example – but I leave a lot of it out, partly because I find it difficult including it in a way that doesn’t seem clumsy to me, but also because I like the idea of the reader creating their own pictures of what all these people look like, to them. For most of them, whether they’re tall or short or the colour of their hair doesn’t really matter, and I since I enjoy having my own mental images of the characters I read about, I also enjoy the idea of the reader being able to do the same.

I’m not 100% sure that this isn’t a terrible idea, but it’s pretty consistent across my writing. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

I know that was also fairly introspective again. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Writing continues to be a bit of a challenge at the moment.  I have some junk that is distracting me and need to remember that getting some writing done will make me feel better.

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RUN RUN RUN

I didn’t have a good idea about what to write about this week, so I decided to share a story with you instead of whatever it is I usually do.  I’m not sure what you’ll make of it but we’re going to call it ~*~*WEB EXCLUSIVE CONTENT~*~*, ok?

I feel as though I should stress that although I am a runner, this is absolutely not how I feel about running.  I love it, most of the time.  I do a lot of my initial composition of the things I write while I’m out on runs, and it helps me work through a lot of stress and things on my mind.

I did have one day a few years ago, though, where the run wasn’t going very well and I thought about quitting, and I got quite self-critical about it.  That created the idea that led to this story, which has sloshed around in my imagination ever since.  I’m not sure there’s quite enough to it to make more out of it than I did here, but perhaps you’ll enjoy it.

This is a fairly rough draft, so I’ll be especially interested to know what you think.

———

I have been running for around seven years now, I guess. I haven’t really taken the time to figure it out with precision. I can tell you that I have been Serious about my running for exactly 5 years, 8 months and six days. You’ll understand the distinction in a minute.

I run at least once a week, usually more. I have done races ranging from ‘fun runs’ up to a marathon, last fall. Whatever race is next, though, I do its distance many times over beforehand. I run in the rain, even though it’s miserable. I really hate running in the cold, but I still do it, year ’round. Whenever I take a vacation, I have to find somewhere to get my runs in. It’s a complete non-starter if I can’t.

Of course people ask why I run, especially if they see me coming in soaking wet after finishing a run when the skies opened up, or shivering my way out the door in January. I usually make something up, mumble something about a runner’s high or it helping me think or worrying about my cholesterol. I never give them the real answer.

I am going to give it to you, today.

***

The real, honest to God reason that I started running was just to do with a vague idea of being ‘out of shape’. For a long time I had an equally vague idea that I was ‘in shape’, because I walked most places that I went rather than driving or taking a bus. Then I got invited to a game of pick-up basketball and discovered that no, in fact, I was in absolutely horrendous, embarrassingly bad condition. I’m not old, and so I felt very strongly that Something Must Be Done. But I hate gyms, I’m not really good at most sports, and so I decided on running.

I could do it myself. I could do it whenever there was time. I could do it basically anywhere. Compared to a lot of fitness activities, it would cost me very little.

Cost me very little.

I had no idea.

***

I did not enjoy my first few runs. It was difficult, more difficult than I expected. My ankles and knees and hips and lungs all hurt and I mostly got discouraged about how short a distance I could cover before starting to get tired. I not only thought about quitting, in fact on one particularly unpleasant day – scorching hot, incredibly humid, the sort of day that sucks the energy out of you just for breathing – I decided that I was going to quit. Running was awful. I hated it. I wasn’t even going to finish this circuit around the park in my neighbourhood. I was going to stop, I was going to buy a lemonade from the guy with the little beverage cart by the fountain, and I was going to walk home.

That was the first time. I heard, incredibly clearly, a voice that I knew was inside my head. The sound of the voice was like a piece of spoiled food accidentally bitten into: vile, penetrative, and impossible to get rid of. Whatever it belonged to hated me, hated the park, the guy selling the lemonade, all of it. This is what it said. I will never forget.

If you stop now, before you get back to your house, two people will die.

I ignored it, or tried to. My brain had done strange things to me when it was exhausted before, making me see things, or not see things. This was just another, and obviously silly. I stopped running, started walking like a normal person, and although I skipped the lemonade, I started walking home.

You think I’m lying, but I will always be honest with you. And if you don’t start running again, NOW, two people will die before you can get back to your house.

I had reached the corner of my street when a car driving past swerved to miss a squirrel in the road, and drove straight into a lamp post instead. The teenage driver had only got his license recently, and had been speeding. As a result, both he and his passenger died on impact.

I was out running again the next day.

***

The voice was with me, as it always is, now.

I told you. You had a chance, but you wanted to quit. Today you’re going to run further than you’ve ever run before, or someone in your family will get cancer.

I didn’t call its bluff a second time. That afternoon, for the first time, I ran five kilometers. I spent the evening icing my knees and bandaging my feet and listening to a loathsome little laugh, rasping like a knife being sharpened, somewhere in my mind.

As the summer went on the distances got longer, the runs more frequent. The voice threatened me with death and disaster every time I thought of stopping. I swear I never tried to shirk its demands again, although once I slipped. I didn’t mean it.

I was running along the river, where it gets very hilly. There is one particularly long hill that the people in my running group (I had started going to one of these, to help keep up with the voice’s growing demands) called Suicide, referring to the wisdom of running up it. Of course, I ran up it all the time. That day I had already done 10 kilometers before the voice directed me there. I got most of the way up, legs screaming and lungs feeling as though they were being squeezed by talons, and I started to waver.

IF YOU STOP NOW THERE WILL BE SOMEONE DEAD BY THE TIME YOU GET TO THE TOP

I didn’t mean to stop. I stepped on a flattened coffee cup and was too surprised and tired to keep my balance as the cardboard slipped out from under my foot. I fell, painfully, on one knee, got myself together and staggered up to the top of Suicide. There is a crosswalk, there, leading to the museum. The light always seems to take a very long time to change; no-one knows why. A young man in a suit had gotten impatient waiting and stepped out into the street, checking a text message as he did so. The driver of a bottled water truck had no chance to stop in time.

Your fault, your fault, your fault

There was a kind of repugnant delight in the voice, then. I think it enjoys making me do what it wants, it likes it when I am hurt and still have to keep running, but I knew that day that it likes it more when I fail. Whatever the voice belongs to delights in suffering and, somehow, it gets to cause more when I don’t do as it asks.

That fall I did my first half-marathon. It was a bright, sunny day with lots of happy onlookers with funny signs and music playing at most of the refreshment stations. Most of the runners in the finish area were proud of themselves, proud to have finished their first half or to have made the time they wanted or to have recovered from the illness their doctors said would kill them.

I was only relieved that the voice wouldn’t be able to cause the jetliner crash it had described to me in loving detail, all through the long summer.

***

Gradually it has continued to increase the distance I run, and how often. I did the marathon and people congratulated me for doing something off ‘the bucket list’. I congratulated myself, a little, for preventing a gas explosion under an apartment building. Some of the people in my running group got to talking about what was next, and one mentioned an ultra-marathon.

A horrible little chuckle slithered through my mind.

I knew then that it would never let me stop.

Stop? Stop? You’re the most fun I’ve had in ages, of course you mustn’t stop

So I run, at least once a week, no matter what the weather is or how blistered my feet may be and even when the doctor ordered me off the roads for at least six weeks to rest my IT band. It was explained to me that if I did that, an outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria would kill one patient every day at the children’s hospital, until I started running again. So I ran all that time, every stride feeling like a knife in my knee, and tried to feel good about it.

Eventually it stopped hurting.

***

So now you know why I run. There are only two alternatives, one that I can’t live with, and the other – as hard as these past years have been, I am not ready for that. So I run. And I run. And I run. And I suppose the honest thing to do, the next time someone asks why, would be to tell the truth.

I can’t stop.

I can’t.

————

Also, ****COVER REVEAL**** — I am very excited to share the (very nearly) final version of the cover for The King in Darkness with you.  Renaissance has been working very hard on the design and I think it has come out very well.

cover with outline

Also also, I now I have a Facebook page as well, if you’d like to follow me there.  I’ll post updates on all my writerly activities there and try to pile on other interesting content for you.  It is kind of a work in progress and your ideas are more than welcome.

Come on over to https://www.facebook.com/EvanMayWriter !

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Getting to Know Them

So: non-goose entry this week I promise.

I am starting to get comments back from the Eager Volunteers on the first chunk of this summer’s project, and one of them sort of stuck out to me. “I can tell you’re still getting to know these characters.” This an example of why my Eager Volunteers are second to none, because that was 100% on the money. I’m not sure I had ever thought about it in exactly that way before, but still, on the money.

I’m still in the opening stages of this project, and so yes, I am still getting to know the characters. Even though there is still editting to be done on The King in Darkness before it comes out, I know all those characters very well, now. I know lots of things about them that will never make it into the story, or (I feel pretty sure) into the further tales I have planned for them. (Already teasing the sequels, ayup) I know their favorite foods, I know their private frustrations, I know how they would vote and I know what they would do in basically any situation now. Alarming as it may look written out, they’re very real people to me at this point, or at least fully-realized.

However, this is a whole new cast of characters and my Eager Volunteer is right, I don’t know them as well yet. I’m still trying to nail down their unique voices and keep them consistent. I have to stop and think about how each of them is likely to react in a situation I’m about to stick them in. Will they be steady as a rock, or flip out? Will they make jokes, or look for a place to hide? Whatever they feel, are they likely to express it or try to hide it? Until all this stuff gets nailed down, things tend to be a bit erratic, and I’m sure not very easy to read. The thing is that I tend to get them nailed down by writing a bunch of stuff and seeing what the characters do. Getting to know them, in other words.

I imagine some authors get these things all worked out before they start writing anything. My characters sort of introduce themselves to me as we go along; I start out basically knowing what the character is about and then the meat gets put on the bones as we take each other through different parts of the story. Having determined one thing about a character often guides me into the next thing. For example, if I’ve figured out that a character has a problem with authority figures, then when it comes time to write a scene where they witness a crime, and the police arrive, I already know that character is probably not going to dash right up to the cop and tell everything they know. They’re probably going to try to get the heck out of there. That scene almost writes itself, based on what I already know about the character. And, if they’re really that suspicious of police (we have decided), maybe they’re more likely to sympathise with the criminal than anything – to look for a reason why they did what they did, rather than condemning the action. That leads me to something maybe I didn’t know about the character before.

It’s probably a very sloppy way to write that necessitates a lot of going back and patching over things to fit later decisions about the character, and I’m sure it is probably frustrating for people reading the manuscript at this stage. I guess I’m always impatient to start writing when I have a story that is exciting me. Probably the Statler and Waldorf thing is a factor as well – I want to start writing before I start convincing myself that the idea is no good. Perhaps that’s a different kind of efficiency, even if I do rework and rewrite maybe more than I would if I did more pre-planning.

Sometimes, letting the characters introduce themselves like this causes me additional problems. The project I’m working on right now is an example of that. I already know that my main character is absolutely not going to want to do what is about to be asked of him. Even in these early stages, with the personality I’ve established for him, there is absolutely no chance that he would freely choose to do the things that he’s going to need to do for the rest of the book. Trying to find a way out of it seems much more likely.

But of course were he to do that, I don’t have a story, or at least not the story that I set out to write. I like to let my characters do their own thing to an extent, but not quite that much of an extent. So the problem (or, more accurately, one of the problems) that I’m trying to unknot right now is how to get him to do these things anyway. (I’m painfully aware that the Reluctant Protagonist is by no means a new thing, by the way, and I am approximately the 1 billionth author to think through this process.)

I don’t immediately have the answer, but I expect it will come. I may cheat by going ahead and writing some scenes with him in the thick of things and letting the character at that later stage explain to me how he got there. I am a big proponent of writing out of order, doing the stuff you feel ready to do and filling in the other bits later. A lot of times what seems like a tough part of the story to write gets greatly simplified by having the later portions already there, in my experience. (It does make things rather more frustrating for Eager Volunteers, though) However I fix it, at the moment, this is a bit of a tough part of the story.

So why not change his character? I mean, I could. Especially at this early stage, it would be relatively easy to tweak him a bit and change him into the sort of guy who would seize the challenge with both hands. It would certainly make my job easier and might work better, narratively.

However, again even at this very early stage, that seems like a kind of betrayal. I don’t know him real well yet, but this is a character with a personality and (for want of a better way of putting it) a way that he is, and changing that just to make my life easier doesn’t seem quite right. For one thing it is kind of admitting a little defeat as a writer – can’t write myself out of this corner – and it does also seem, to me, to be using brute force on a character who was kind enough to emerge out of my imagination and take part in a story I want to tell.

It’s probably very easy to get way too far up my own nether regions with this kind of thing, perhaps I have already. I honestly do know that these characters are not actual real people and that ultimately I am doing all the creating, even though the process may not feel that way all the time. (That may be one of those signs of mental illness that a thing went around on Twitter about a while back. Oh well, not to worry, right?) I’m not really sure what it says about me as a writer or my process of writing that I work through this stuff, but it was interesting to me to think about and so I thought I’d share it.

It all works out in the end, I think, and I do hope that the reality that these characters end up having to me comes across in the finished product. I will look forward to hearing what you all think about that (along with lots of other things) later this year.

Whoa that got long. Enough blog. Time to nail some stuff down.

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Geese and Things

So I have finally gotten a chance to start reading Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning short story collection (and what a treat) and in his Introduction he kicks around the idea of whether or not fiction should be ‘safe’ – whether we should be able to read stories without taking any risk that we will be frightened, upset, or disturbed by what we encounter in them. This is a pretty interesting question and also dovetails so nicely with what I wrote last week about the anti ‘my story made a swear’ app that for a minute I thought about writing this week’s blog entry about it.

Then I remembered Writing Crisis #2 (see previous entry if you’re interested) and that Doing the Same Thing as Neil Gaiman does not end well.

So I won’t do that, but will suggest you go read the Introduction to Trigger Warning, and while you’re at it you may as well read the rest of it too.

——

I did think about that question and another book I finished recently, Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With the Devil. If you’re not familiar with it, it describes General Dallaire’s experiences as the commander of the UN mission to Rwanda that was originally tasked with facilitating the implementatin of the Arusha peace agreement and ended up bearing witness to an unspeakable genocide.

This was not an enjoyable read, in any conventional sense of the word. A lot of it was deeply distressing and frustrating and enraging to read, in part because of how saturated the work is with Dallaire’s own pain about what happened in Rwanda. So this was not a ‘safe’ book to consume. I am very glad I read it, though, because I think the issues Dallaire raises about the global community’s collective failure in Rwanda, and the fundamental mistakes in the world’s approach to the crisis in Rwanda, deserve to be heard and are clearly (it seems to me) immediately relevant to problems we grapple with today.

I think it’s an important book, even if it isn’t a safe one. Sometimes it’s fun to read something that isn’t very safe (think Neil Gaiman’s stories), and sometimes it may be good for you. Sometimes the unsafe has something to tell you. Obviously safety is a good thing, but I don’t think it can be the only thing we ever look for. So read something unsafe, I think.

I don’t have much else to say about it, though, so that’s not really going to make a blog entry either.

——-

So still flailing about for something to write about this week, that is kind of uniquely mine, I latched on to something I said on Twitter. About geese.

What? No really.

It is the time of year here when the Canada Geese are doing their big spring migration northwards, so the skies over my house are periodically, but consistently, filled with these immense formations of birds, on their way to various destinations. From time to time you will glance at the sky, and see something there that seems impossibly huge, to be up there, and it is moving and what can this be, and then you will realize that it is not one Big Thing, but just That Many birds, travelling together. If you step outside you can hear them calling to each other as make their pilgrimage; to me it is a pleasant wilderness kind of sound in the middle of my urban world, although obviously your taste may vary.

There has always been something about this that has stirred something in me. When I was small(er), I would run outside the house when the geese were going over, just to hear the sound of it. The birds are quite large (if you haven’t seen them) and they travel in real armadas of the air (which is not at all the right term) and the sight and sound of them rushing overhead, twangs something deep inside me with a sense of Going Somewhere. Time to go, let’s go together. It’s very compelling. If I could fly I’m sure I would have followed along, and ended up in some marshy spot or other, deeply disappointed.

At times it is even reassuring – sometimes there will be only a scattered few geese, perhaps broken off from one of the really big squadrons of birds, still travelling on. It especially strikes me when it is getting dark, and these three or four birds are still going, and still calling to each other. It’s ok. I’m still here, you’re still there. We’ll get there.

(There’s a comparison to be made here, maybe, between this and social media, which I am not up to this morning)

I don’t know how they choose which ‘there’ to head for, how they choose who goes where in their great ragged Vs, or even really how they know and agree that it is Time to Go. I do know that there are great untold adventures in these journeys, stories that we will never know, and just guess at as we watch the sky.

Whatever you were expecting when you came to read the blog today, I bet it wasn’t that. My apologies.

——-

I feel like I should say something about the Hugo Awards ruckus, since I am arguably ‘in the field’ (albeit in the brambly, fence-posty periphery part of it) although I also know I don’t have much standing therein. I am also not deeply familiar with the process whereby the Hugo Awards happen, nor the recent history that has (apparently) brought us to the controversy around this year’s nominations.

So perhaps best to say nothing.

However, to say nothing seems cowardly at best and at worst might appear to endorse a particularly hateful agenda, so I decided in the end not to do that.

All I’m going to say, in the end, is that I firmly believe that the people who oppose diversity in writing, in characters in fiction, and in the world in general, are on the wrong side of history. I suspect that in the roots of their souls they know this, and that is why they lash out in the ways with which many people are familiar. This doesn’t excuse it; no-one should receive death threats for writing a story while being a woman, or having a particular sexual orientation, or belonging to a particular ethnic or cultural group. Trying to silence these voices is flat out wrong and it diminishes us as a people. However, I believe that love really is stronger than hate, that this old world keeps changing, and that history will eventually tell the story of the triumph of diversity.

And yet, if my years as a history student have taught me anything, it is that history is nothing but the actions of people. It is, really, just what people do. So what to do. I don’t have any ideas about what could or should change about the Hugos or the industry or anything along those lines. But, what to do as people who love amazing stories – read works by all kinds of different and diverse authors. When you find ones you like, tell people about them. Give someone the gift of a wonderful story, which is to me one of the best gifts you can ever receive. Give an audience to writers who deserve one and help them find a bigger one. That’s how we, as fans of speculative fiction, can best foster a plurality of voices in the field. To me that might be more important than who wins an award, anyway.

Peux ce que veux. Allons-y.

Anyway, that’s it. I know this week’s entry is a bit of a mess. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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