Monthly Archives: August 2015

Creating Bad Things

I guess I haven’t written anything about my writing process in a while. Last week was an interesting one, writing wise, so I’m going to talk about an issue that came out of that today. The issue is this: late last week I started work on a part of the book I’m working on that has easily the most unpleasant character I have ever written in it. That’s not to say the ‘most evil’ villain or anything like that, this character is unpleasant in a very different way.

The character is unambiguously, explicitly racist. One thing I found right away is that just writing their dialogue feels terrible. I feel kind of dirty and ashamed that this kind of stuff is coming out of me. I write a little and then need to go pet the cat for a while. I know they aren’t my beliefs or judgements, not exactly. I don’t believe these things. But they are mine on some level, aren’t they? I mean the words didn’t get on the page by themselves. I put them there. So I can’t pretend they aren’t my creation. I wrote this stuff. The voice isn’t mine, it’s one that I created for a person who doesn’t exist in a series of events that didn’t happen. And yet, and yet … it all came out of my imagination. On some level, again, I don’t like that it’s possible for me to do that.

There are bigger issues as well. I have read quite a lot of good opinions on the inclusion of racism in fiction, and basically the thrust of most of these has been that something that hurtful shouldn’t and mustn’t be included gratuitously. You shouldn’t make a character racist just as a way of making it clear that this is a Bad Person or to get your reader to dislike them. It isn’t like deciding to make a character swear a lot, or have a short temper, or even just be violent. There’s so much baggage and real potential to inflict pain on real people in racist ideas. There are lots of other ways to indicate who the antagonist is and to make a character unlikeable without bringing in language ideas that can really hurt and disturb people.

It’s much the same argument as using rape in storytelling – if done simply to shock or to make it clear who the Bad Guys are, it’s cheap and hurtful. If you’re going to use it at all, it needs to be done thoughtfully and for reasons that are essential to the story you’re trying to tell. This, in turn, is connected to the wider phenomenon of ‘Women in Refrigerators’ (that I don’t imagine I need to reiterate here, but if you need to read a thing about it, this thing is pretty good.) pertaining to violence against women in fiction and how it can be, to say the least, problematic.

Essentially, if, as a writer, if you’re using any of these things (and I’m not going to try to put them on any kind of continuum to figure out which is ‘worse’) simply as a way to flag up who a Bad Person is in your story, or to shock your reader, or purely to provide motivation for another character, you probably need to do better. There’s lots of ways to do all those things that don’t perpetuate harmful ideas and ideologies. It’s not to say you can’t ever have any of these things in a story. They just need to be there in a thoughtful way and for a solid reason that goes beyond ‘my villain does villainous things’.

So, in light of all the above, I’ve had a good long Think about whether this character actually needs to be racist. I think, in terms of the story I’m trying to set up, they actually do. I can’t think of a way of changing things around that would still leave me with the same story, and I think and hope the story is a good one. I’ll reevaluate as I write and see if I still feel like this content is necessary. I hope that what I end up with will justify my decision. Obviously this is something I will be paying close attention to once the work is ready for Eager Volunteers.

As a result, I’m keeping the character as-is for now, and proceeding with caution. I don’t like writing them, and on some level I don’t like having created them. Most of my characters, I’m really quite pleased to have them running around in my imagination. Even the villains – villains are usually fun to write and most of the ones I’ve written are ones that I’m pleased to have created; I hope people will enjoy reading about them and I have a kind of backhanded affection for their malevolent ways. This character, although I need them for the story, I’m not really happy to have in my little pantheon of imaginary people.

I guess sometimes that’s the down side of getting to create and populate our own little worlds, as writers. Sometimes we have to create genuinely bad things and then accept that the badness came out of us. I’m less sure whether that happens as much to other types of artists.

We’re in danger of veering off into idle speculation (even more idle than usual) now so perhaps I’ll end here. As ever, I welcome your thoughts.

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Other Writers

I love writers. I suppose this might be obvious, but on the other hand it may be worth emphasizing. I put a graphic up on my Facebook page yesterday about not seeing other writers as competition, and I’ve seen a good few of those kind of things kicking around lately (which is good). I really do see writers in general as being on the same side as I am. They are inspiration and encouragement to do better and, of course, a steady source of great, fun, astounding art. I thought I’d write a little about that today – it was either that or more about fire, and I’m sure no-one wants that.

On the one hand, it is kind of easy to see why someone might see other writers as their competition, rather than being part of a team. Especially in our hyper-connected age, you see a lot of writers posting news in various places about getting an agent or getting a book deal and it is perhaps natural to think ‘well goddamn, that’s one less opportunity for me’. It’s probably fairly easy to think this way because (in part) that’s how capitalism trains us to think. Everyone in the same business as you is a competitor.  Every opportunity another writer got is one you can’t get anymore.

That isn’t how I see it. For one thing, I love to read and so I want there to be a steady stream of awesome books coming out. In addition, though, having other writers getting published can only help me. If someone else gets an urban fantasy (or whatever) book printed, and someone reads it and likes it, hopefully they’re then looking around for their next great read and maybe they’ll look at my stuff next. Anything that gets people reading is something that, potentially, might add another person to my potential audience. That’s great. Other writers are my allies (whether they know it or not) in getting people reading, looking for the next book they want to pick up, and that perhaps being mine.

(Slightly tangentially, I follow Daniel José Older on Twitter and he had an interesting point about seeing news from other writers on the intertron all the time – it can be discouraging because you see all these other people scoring agents and getting published, and if you haven’t, it’s easy to think ‘well shoot, what’s wrong with me?’ The thing to remember (he pointed out) is that people only post the good news. You don’t generally see people post up that they got a query rejected or that they got a bad review on something they have out. Every writer has the same struggles of finding an audience and facing doubt and all the rest of it, even if what we see on social media makes it look like a string of unbroken successes for everyone else out there. It’s not easy, but we should probably try to see all that as encouragement – all these other people did it, there’s no reason why we can’t as well.)

Selfishly, I learn a lot from other writers, too. I read things and go ‘wow! sooo cool’ and then think about why I liked it so much, and try to figure out how to adapt and adopt things into my own work. I learned a lot about how to create memorable characters by reading those Bernard Cornwell books I wrote about a while back. I think I learn something from everything I read. So obviously, I want lots of stuff to read so I can keep improving as a writer.

Of course, there’s an even more important reason to be on the side of writers. It’s easy to get sucked into the mercenary part of writing (and to be quite honest, if my book makes some money that would be great and if it ever got to the point where I could support myself by writing that would be fantastic) but that’s not really why I write, or what I think writing is for. I write because I have stories I want to tell, things I want to express, and crafting with words makes me happy. Obviously I hope that someone will read what I create and enjoy it, or take something away from it. But I wrote for years prior to even thinking about getting anything published. Writing is about making an expression of something from your guts. Every writer has something from inside that they want to share. You can’t help putting a lot of your heart and soul into what you write (I believe) and every writer is very brave for putting themselves out there, and every person who gets the opportunity to bring their stories to an audience is a good thing.

As artists we should happy when another person gets to share what they have inside them with us. We should be excited to see what it is, enjoy it, try to learn from it. I feel profoundly lucky to be able to have one of my stories reach a wide audience (how wide, I guess we’ll see) in a little while.

In the meantime, more voices, please!

Anyway that’s it for this week. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Back Home

And we’re back.

I spent a lovely few days in the north(ish) part of Ontario and it did (as usual) kind of recharge the batteries. I got to see family I hadn’t for a long while, which is always good. I got to walk through my storehouse of memories, visiting places I have long history with. I got my bow on. I listened to partridge in the leaves, met my uncle’s pig, and heard the wind in the poplars. A raven had something it really wanted me to hear, although I don’t know what it was. Sorry, raven.

I built campfires. I have forgotten nearly everything the Boy Scouts tried to teach me, but fire-building seems to have stuck. I find being out in the countryside peaceful overall, but there’s something especially soothing, to me, about building a fire. You go through the process of gathering the wood and kindling you’ll need, setting it up right, and then gradually feeding the small flames you start with, until you have a nice crackly-snappy woodsmokey blaze. Nothing too big. Just something that can make you feel warm, if you need to. You can look for answers in the flames, or cook your lunch over them if you wanted to. For once I am not going to wonder why this relaxes me. I’m just glad I had the chance to do it.

I should probably get a place with a fireplace.

I spent that my time away not fretting about whatever problems I have at the moment. That was good too. The problems are still there, but being able to take a step back is good. There are things that aren’t going so hot, just at the moment. On the other hand, writing is going pretty well, so I’m going to try to focus my energy there. The ideas are coming and writing makes me happy. I can’t do just that, but getting behind something that is working well makes sense to me.

Sometimes I just need that time out, that break in the pattern, to make a decision. Maybe the quiet helps.

As much as I like getting out of the city and spending time in the wilderness(y) parts of the world, I’m not sure I could live there all the time. Sometimes the idea of moving to a cabin in the woods and refusing to see anyone sounds very appealing. I suspect the allure would rub off, after a while. But I’m very glad to have the opportunity to go and experience the change, or the contrast, for a while.  Then, it’s always good to come home, surround myself with books and cats and get back to it, refreshed or recharged or whatever we’ll call it.

I still don’t know what that raven was trying to say.

Gonna go try to find out.

Write write write.

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Summer Time Flies

Out running this past week I noticed that some of the leaves have started to turn and that the apples are getting ripe on some of the trees. Holy boats, where did summer go already? I realize that ‘wow where did the time go’ is a fairly banal observation but it really is amazing to think that we’ve already blazed through spring, summer is basically toast and fall is rapidly approaching.

As per usual (as you will, by this point, have noticed, if you are a regular reader of this blog) this got me thinking that a) I’m off on a brief vacation this week and b) about how rapidly the calendar pages can flip over, when you’re not watching. I wonder if this phenomenon is yet another artifact of becoming an Old Dude; I remember getting bored as hell during summer when I was a kid and wondering exactly how long the thing was. Not so much now. Anyway, whatever the reason (although a changing perception of time as we age sounds kind of quantum-entangly, doesn’t it?) for this perception, it’s here now.

As is usual, there are loads of things that I assumed there would be tons of time for this summer that will probably not get done, or at least not done to the degree that I hoped. I have an alarmingly short amount of time remaining to finish getting ready for my marathon in September. I’ve written a lot, but not as much as I had planned to. At least The King in Darkness stayed on schedule.

I’m not sure if everyone is this way or if I am particularly prone to having an optimistic idea of how much will get done in certain amounts of time and then having it not work out that way, but it has been going on for a while. I remember when I was in Grade 2 and ignoring an entire year’s worth of math instruction (thank the briefly-fashionable ‘pod’ system of education) in order to write stories, I was usually the main character (because of course) and almost invariably aged 21 while in command of the Earth Defence Forces or whatever else it happened to be. Because, and I remember thinking through this process, once you got past that you were getting close to dead.

I was a little unclear on how I was going to get to Earth Defence Commander by age 21, but never mind. I also remember shocking my friends once by writing a story in which I actually died and Earth Defence had to carry on without me. Naturally, I came back in the sequel. (Bear in mind that most of these stories were about 3 pages long so it was not a long wait) I was also some sort of motorcycle champion involving giant ramps and rings of fire and a constructor of time machines to go visit the dinosaurs. I’m not clear on whether that technology was available to Earth Defence Command.

Anyway, the point is that I suspect that if I asked Grade 2 me to evaluate where I am in life compared to the imagined generalship of the world’s military forces, Grade 2 me would probably say something like “THAT’S IT?!?!?” fairly loudly. I suppose it’s fairly standard to wonder about what might have been, and what with it having been a reasonably tough year, I suppose I may have been doing that more than usual. It’s kind of a drag to think that I might be a disappointment to Grade 2 me.

I don’t know. I’ve tried to do the best I can with the decisions I’ve made getting to where I am. Some of them have worked out pretty well. Others I would go back and do over (I think?), which I guess is natural enough. Some seemed solid at the time, and it’s hard to imagine doing things differently than I did, even if the long-term shake-out hasn’t been fantastic. I may not have gotten to run Earth Defence Command, but I haven’t starved to death in a ditch either.

I guess one of the fun parts of being a writer is that you can arrange things for your characters to make the right decisions, or at least the interesting ones, so that the story goes where you need it to, the plot unfurls the way you need it to, and the right person ends up running Earth Defence Command. I have, however, had times when writing and I know what a character needs to do in terms of the plot but, in terms of the established character, there’s just no way that they would. Or at least, not without some rejigging of things to make whatever decisions a thing that that character would choose to do. (I’m pretty sure I wrote about this a while back) Sometimes we can’t get the fictional world worked out exactly according to our wishes any more than we can get the real one that way.

Wow, that went to a fairly melancholy place. I guess maybe I need this vacation to the wilderness, huh? Once I’m back I believe it isn’t too long until I will have some promotional activity for The King in Darkness to tell you about, which will be a) exciting and b) will hopefully give my mind-gears something more productive to grind over.

Meanwhile, I guess I’ll turn over Earth Defence Command to my deputy and get the heck out of here.

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Running Poem #4

Another run, another poem.  This is becoming a thing for some reason.

——–

The slanting light of dawn

Gives even me a long shadow

Looming over pond and slope

A temporary, apparent, giant.

To the baby rabbit with a mouthful of clover

I am high-voltage danger;

To the tiny path-crossing turtle

We are all titans.

This vast and ancient world

can make us all feel tiny.

But

wait

For the light

to

slant

just

right

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