Monthly Archives: September 2015

Pitch Better

This has been an exciting summer for baseball in Canada; the Blue Jays, Canada’s only MLB team, are good again and headed to the playoffs for the first time in a very long while. To get there, they made some huge in season trades to add they players they need to match up with the league’s leading powers. One of those players is starting pitcher David Price, who turns out to be an interesting guy in a few different ways.

One thing that I learned about him is that above his locker he apparently has a little sign that says “If you don’t like it, Pitch Better”. I gather this is something he uses to motivate himself; don’t like getting pulled out of the game? Pitch better. Don’t like getting bumped down in the rotation? Pitch better. And so on. (Of course, David Price is also really good and so it’s rare that he actually needs to Pitch Better, but let it pass)

I like it because it places responsibility for success entirely in one’s own hands. Sure there are always outside forces – in Price’s case, what the manager thinks, the other pitchers on his team, the batters he faces – but these things can all be overcome or change if you just Pitch Better. “Just”. Not necessarily easy, but under one’s control.

I have been thinking, lately, of adopting Price’s motto for myself. ‘If you don’t like it, Write Better’. I am very fortunate, and grateful, to have a publisher for The King in Darkness who have been amazing to work with and are as excited about the book as I am. On the other hand, I never did get an agent interested in the work. I’ve had some short stories out without success. When I look around, I’m not as productive as lots of other authors out there. I could bemoan all the various reasons why this might be the case.

Or I could Write Better.

Look, I know there are big and important barriers in the way of lots of writers out there; writers from minority backgrounds in particular have had, and continue to have, real problems getting their work taken seriously by publishers and by readers. Telling them to write better in the face of their problems would be insensitive at best and probably quite offensive.

On the other hand, I am fortunate in not having those societal barriers in my way. If I don’t like the way things are going, I probably really do just need to Write Better. It has been a kind of tough year in a number of ways (although, the book coming out is emphatically not one of them!) and it’s more than a little empowering to try to remind myself that it’s within my control to get things going a little better.

Write better.

Run better.

And so on.

I am not one of those who believes that sports are an essential part of culture and society; most of the time they’re a flavour of entertainment that lots of people enjoy. At the same time, though, there are times when (whether we ideally should or not) we can draw inspiration from the things we see athletes do on the field and how they conduct themselves. I’ve written before about something P.K. Subban said giving me a nudge to get the book finished. It’s not hard to be inspired by someone like Clara Hughes. And although I haven’t actually written my version of David Price’s motto above my laptop screen yet, but I think I might.

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If you haven’t seen it yet, Jean-François Plouffe and Mélodie Lévesque at Renaissance Press made a fantastic trailer for The King in Darkness which you can check out here, please share it around!

Also, one last reminder that Renaissance will be at the Ottawa Geek Market and Capital Gaming Expo this weekend! There will be an puzzle room by Escape House, a Lego play area (!!!) and all sorts of other amazing stuff to do. I will also be at the Renaissance booth Sunday if you’d like to get a copy of The King in Darkness and say hello while you do. I’m looking forward to it!

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(I have just now realized the potential bad pun with ‘Pitch Better’ and trying to sell things to publishers/agents.  I do apologize. 😛

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Malory and my marathon

So this last weekend was not a very good weekend. I guess regular readers may have gleaned through the summer that I was doing a lot of running – in fact I was training for a marathon. This past weekend was the marathon, and I didn’t finish. It was the first time I have ever failed to complete a race that I started.

I guess I have some excuses. In the days prior to the race I got a sinus bug and spent several days totally inactive; I was still coughing and congested on race day. The night of the race I didn’t rest as I well as I would have liked. Partway through my IT band injury recurred and I knew I couldn’t do it; there was still at least 2 hours of running ahead of me and I knew it was impossible.

It made me think of Sir Thomas Malory.

No, wait, this will (may?) make sense in a moment. Sir Thomas Malory, if you don’t know him, is among other things the editor or compiler of Le Morte d’Arthur, the late medieval version of the King Arthur stories that most modern audiences are most likely to be familiar with. (The history of the Arthur tales is a long and complicated one that we are not getting into) Malory’s version of the story tends to de-emphasize the magical elements in the tales and play up those of chivalric honour.

It’s a little curious because Malory himself seems to have had a fairly checkered history; he was accused of being a bandit, a kidnapper, and a rapist, and although some or all of the charges against him may have been fabricated by political enemies, he certainly wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while in prison, waiting and hoping for a pardon. He also wrote during a chaotic and fairly unchivalric piece of English history; right smack in the middle of the Wars of the Roses, in which Malory also fought.

It’s a bit of a puzzle to find a tale extolling knightly virtues of upholding the law, respect for weakness, mercy and piety in such a setting and from such a man. Or is it? One interpretation that I read a long time ago (so long ago that to my immense regret I can’t recall whose ideas I am ripping off today) is that Malory knew perfectly well that he didn’t live up to the ideals of the Arthur stories, and nor did many/most of his contemporaries, but that it would be good, and praiseworthy, to try.

In other words, it’s good to try to be the ideal knight, to set that standard for yourself. You may not be able to do it because you’re not actually Galahad, who has among his many advantages that of being a fictional character. (Also, is Galahad any fun? He is not.) You may make mis-steps from time to time, do things you shouldn’t and have your failures. In that, Malory’s story tells us, among other things you are no different from Gawain and Lancelot and Arthur, who all try and fail to reach that chivalric ideal.

But they try, they commit themselves to something laudable and the attempt itself is praiseworthy. It is good to try to reach a goal, even if you don’t. It is good to demand things of ourselves, and push ourselves, and we can still be amazing characters even if we don’t quite get to the goal we were reaching for. Malory, this scholar argued, wanted his fellow English knights (and himself!) to try to be truly chivalric knights, even if they couldn’t actually do it all the time.

And here we get (finally) to the connection to my marathon. I trained very hard through the summer. I had some setbacks on race day, and I gave it all that I had on the day, and it was not enough. I’m trying very hard to listen to what I think is the lesson Malory wanted his 15th century buddies to take away from his Arthur stories. The effort is good in itself.

This, I think, applies to writers as well, thus the connection to this blog (beyond it being mine, of course). You may set writing goals for yourself that you don’t exactly reach. It’s ok. You may push yourself in various ways as an artist that and not be exactly able to achieve the result you were after. It’s all right. You’re writing, you’re trying, you’re getting better as an artist and as a person.

Our profoundly success-based and profit-based society wants to teach us to believe that anything short of total success is entirely worthless. I try very hard, perhaps especially so over the last few days, to remind myself that this isn’t really the case. There is merit in the attempt, in trying to better ourselves and overcome the challenges in our way. Sometimes we’ll succeed, sometimes we may fall short. We’re better for the trying, either way.

I’ll try to do better the next time.

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After that happy note, a bunch of announcements!

I have gotten things sorted out on Goodreads so that if you want to leave a rating or review of The King in Darkness, you can do that there.  I look forward to hearing what people think of the book, and there are a variety of ways we can interact there if you want.

We also have another Renaissance Press event coming up from October 3-4 at the Ottawa Geek Market and Capital Gaming Expo.  Renaissance will be there all weekend with their full range of titles, and I will be there on Sunday (the 4th) if you want to say hello.

Also (!!!) the date is set for the Official Launch of the King in Darkness, on Sunday, October 25th.  It’s going to be a huge event at which Renaissance will launch not one but 4 titles, and will also feature the launch of yet another great book by local author S.M. Carrière, with readings by all the authors (including me) and food and prizes and all manner of amazing stuff.  I will post up more details closer to the date, but we are all very excited to have this event coming together.  I’ll be very excited to see you there.

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Subtext

Right now I’m reading a book by Bruce Sterling called The Caryatids. As usual it is especially interesting for the wealth of unique ideas Sterling has about the types and uses of technology that we might have in the near future, and how that might affect the way people live. For me, that’s one of Sterling’s biggest strengths as a writer; he seems to have an inexhaustible store of really ingenious ideas about where human society might be in the near future. A lot of them are quite plausible. Often, that’s alarming.

The particular idea that helped spawn today’s blog comes from the beginning of the book, where one of the main characters belongs to a sort of eco-collective, in which (among many other things) everyone is constantly having their brains scanned, and the results of this are available to everyone else in the collective. As a result, everyone who belongs to the community can see, 24/7 if they want to, the real emotional state of any (and I guess every) other member. If they’re sad, it shows up on the scan. If they’re happy, it shows on the scan. If they’re in love, it shows on the scan.

To say it’s an interesting idea underpitches it by a lot. The implications of living like that are of course immense. Right away, such a community would be a far more honest place to live than anything we currently experience; in fact it’s hard to imagine how you could be anything other than honest under those circumstances. Any time you said one thing, but were thinking or feeling another, everyone would be able to tell anyway. A society without deception and lies probably sounds pretty good.

But if you think a little more, it becomes a lot more complicated, in a hurry. There’s lots of times we don’t say exactly what we’re thinking, or hide what we’re feeling, for reasons that are often pretty legitimate. When you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. If you’re dealing with a useless bureaucrat, but you’re still hoping they might be able to help you in the end. Those times when someone is annoying you, but you know you’re being unreasonable, and it isn’t their fault. We’re not always in control of our emotions, and they can go places we don’t want them to. Most of the time we kind of get that under control and do what we need to do. But what if everyone could tell, and (inevitably, it seems to me) reacted to your ‘gut reactions’?

There would be no subtext in such a society. It would be very different, and at times, very uncomfortable. I can legitimately believe that some people would choose to use technology in such a way, and I can also understand seeing it as horrifying. Some people dislike subtext in life, and don’t handle it very well. Other people depend on it.

That was very much in my mind when I was having a writing talk with a friend over the weekend, and we got to talking about subtext in fiction, and how much of it is a good thing. Some writers are awfully good at having their characters say and do things, but making it clear that there are layers of meaning underneath that, hinting at things that aren’t actually on the page. With other writers, you just get what you get.

At the same time, some readers are better at picking up on subtexts in writing than others. Some people’s reading minds will instantly dig down into prose and try to mine it for those hidden layers of meaning. Others will stay on the surface, and these readers may get frustrated by what seems to them to be very sparse writing and content. Some readers like a puzzle to solve – figuring out what a character may really mean – and others want things laid out for them. I suspect most people want different experiences at different times, depending on their mood and expectations from a piece.

I guess this got me to thinking about my own writing; I’m not sure how good I am at it, but there is an intention that there’s a certain amount of subtext there. Hopefully not so much that the meaning is opaque, but hopefully enough to introduce a little subtlety in the work. Personally, I find writing where literally everything is laid out for you to be a bit of a blunt instrument and usually wish the author would let me figure some things out on my own. I do recognize that’s a personal taste than lots of people don’t share, though. Writers have a tough call, I think, as to which level of taste to try to appeal to. Probably lots of writers don’t even think about it – they just write what they write – but I guess it’s a consideration that will always affect how many people may like a piece of work.

This brings up another question that I continue to kick around. To what extent, when you sit down to write, should you just do what you do and let it appeal to whoever it appeals to, and to what extent should you try to set things up to appeal to as many people as possible? Is it a good idea to try to find that Ideal Subtext Level to please as many readers as you can, in (sort of, I guess) the same way a band would mess around with the sound mix to sound good to as much of the audience as possible? Should you do the same with amounts of dialogue, use of metaphor, and even something like pacing? Some people love a fast paced story. Others really enjoy a plot that gradually plays itself out. Is there some kind of Three Bears-like best solution for all these issues that we should be in search of, as artists?

There’s a reasonable amount of no doubt well meaning people out there who say yes, and it isn’t hard to find those who say no, as well. I’m far from sure that I have the right answer to this, and I continue to think about it. I do know that most of the time, when I have tried to change my voice in my writing, it has come off sounding awfully fake and generally bad and I’ve abandoned it fairly quickly. When I try to do other than what comes naturally, it always rings hollow and has a crappy stink on it, to me. So I think my readers, patient souls that they must be, just kind of get what they get. I don’t pretend that’s the Right answer; it may be that I should be trying harder to accommodate as wide an audience as possible.

But, all subtext aside, that’s not what I’m doing right now. We’ll see how it goes from here. That’s also probably more than enough of a meander out of me for today. Thanks for reading.

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I had a great time at the CON craft fair last weekend at my first Renaissance Press event; I met some awesome people, talked about books and stuff, and drank arguably too much coffee. It was so fun that I’m very glad that it isn’t too long a wait until the next one – Renaissance will be at the Ottawa Geek Market and Capital Gaming Expo on October 3rd and 4th.

The Renaissance table will be there all weekend, with the full range of their titles available (including mine!). I will be hanging out there all day Sunday (the 4th) if you want to come and say hi. The whole event looks like it will be amazing so if you are into things in the SFF/gaming constellation you should definitely check it out. I’m already looking forward to it.

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Completion

So in the unlikely event that you managed to miss all the hooting and hollering I did last week – The King in Darkness was released last Thursday and is available now. (Details here if you would like them) This was the completion (sort of) of a long process that stretches back about 4 years, when I first started writing the story, through finding a publisher and now to the book being ready for people to read. (Of course this starts a whole new, and quite unfamiliar process of promoting it, but I’m cheerfully ignoring that as I write today) It feels pretty good.

Part of why it does is that I have seen this thing through to completion, which I had never done before with a fiction project of this length. That, in turn, got me to thinking about how I have done with the other projects I’ve had on the go since. Kind of a mixed bag, alas.

I started the spring/summer with the intent to work on another novel. The plan/hope was to have another completed draft done by fall. I started out under that banner, wrote a good bit of it but it isn’t finished. I got distracted partway along by the ideas for another novel project, and pretty much switched over to that by the summer’s end; I have written a good chunk of it as well, but again, not finished. I have, I think by any standard, done a lot of work, but I don’t have A Work to show at the end of it.

This is always one of my problems as a writer. If you have been reading the blog for a while you’ll remember that I get progressively more critical of my ideas as time passes, and I have always tended to get diverted by a cool new idea (which I am not critical of, yet). I suppose I’m fortunate in having a relatively steady percolation of ideas that I get excited about, but I know that if I am going to do this Writing Thing seriously at all, I have to get things finished. Writing whatever as the mood takes me is fine from an artistic sense, but not so much from a professional sense.

The King in Darkness got done by putting all other projects aside and really forcing myself to work on nothing but it until it was finished. I think I’d better go back to what has worked in the past. So, new plan – one which I will hopefully stick to – is to continue with the second novel idea, in part because it’s the one I’m currently most excited about and that the mind gears are currently threshing up ideas for. Also, in practical terms, it is the sequel to The King in Darkness, and perhaps continuing that story is the easier road to follow for a few reasons.

We’ll see how it goes. I am going to give myself at least a brief space of time to enjoy the feeling of completion of a process, and then really try to refocus on starting some new ones.  I’m not sure to what extent reading this may have been useful or interesting for other writers, but thinking through it and writing it down has been helpful to me, so I thank you for your indulgence.

I’ll try to do better the next time.

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RELEASE

I am extremely excited today to be able to announce that my debut novel, The King in Darkness, is out at last!  (And ahead of schedule, no less!)  I’m very grateful to my publishers at Renaissance Press for working so hard to get the book ready for you to read and super excited to be able to share it with you at last.

You can buy it immediately on Amazon in both Kindle and classic dead tree format, and you should be able to order it into your local bookstore as well.  (You may need the ISBN, which is on the Amazon page)  The very best way to get it, though, is to come out to a Renaissance Press event and buy it directly – not only will you get the lowest possible price, but I’ll also get to say hi, which I would very much enjoy.

This brings me to announcement #2 – Renaissance Press will be at the next Creative Ottawa Nerds Craft Fair coming up on Saturday, September 12th, and I will be there from noon onwards if you’d like to get a copy of my book, any of Renaissance’s other great titles, and explore really cool SF/Fantasy-themed products from a wide range of creative people.  Admission is 5 bucks or 2 cans of food to go to the Ottawa Food Bank.  I hope to see you there!

I really can’t wait for you all to read The King in Darkness.  I hope you’ll enjoy it and I look forward to hearing what you think of it in the days ahead.  Thank you to everyone (and there have been a lot of you) who have supported me in getting to this point; I owe you a debt that I can’t really ever repay.

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Fog

This morning a thick fog descended on Ottawa. (Fans of politics might say this is its natural state anyway, but let’s not be cynical. Or not very.) It was enough for there to be warnings on the radio about visibility, and of course, traffic accidents. Beyond interfering with the morning commute, though, fog is such a frequent image in fiction that some would call it a cliché. I thought I’d write about that a little today.

I guess the reason why authors, especially of stories meant to frighten or cause suspense, like fog is (obviously) that it hides things. It can conceal a murderer or a hideous monster, and (as we see in Ottawa again today) it makes travel difficult or dangerous. You can’t see where you’re going, and may have to stop, or risk getting lost.

The idea of travellers getting lost in fog and thereby ending up stranded in some perilous situation gets used all the time. One of my favourite Doctor Who serials, Horror of Fang Rock, even has the TARDIS fall prey to this, landing the Doctor at an isolated lighthouse and (naturally) in the path of an alien threat. Anyone can get lost in the fog!  Obviously this works fairly well for an author in creating a contained setting where you can restrict the characters who are involved (other people can’t show up because of the fog) and provides an answer to the question of ‘well why don’t these people leave/call for help?’ Can’t. Cut off by the fog.

Beyond serving a writer’s purposes pretty well, there is something evocative (almost typed ‘atmospheric’, ho ho ho) about fog. I’m sure at this point some of why we find fog creepy is that it is such a staple of horror movies and Halloween imagery; it is shorthand for ‘this is a spooky place’ that most everyone in a Western audience, anyway, would recognize. But how did it end up that way? Why does fog creep us out?

I think it goes back to concealing things. We’re a very visual species. When we can’t see what’s out there, it’s bothersome. Landmarks and landscapes you’ve passed a thousand times become uncertain places. What is that thing down the street? It looks like it has arms and a head and oh it’s just the bush that’s been there as long as I’ve lived here. Given uncertain input, our brain tries to fill in the blanks, and find a pattern – sometimes it jumps to alarming conclusions. I’m not sure if that’s some primal instinct to identify threats in time to Run Away – better to run when not necessary than wait and get eaten – but it’s far from unusual to have your brain ‘play tricks’ on you in the dark, or in the fog.

If you’ve been out in thick fog, you know that it messes with your hearing as well; your brain is struggling to interpret perfectly ordinary sounds because you don’t have the visual cues to go with them. Creepy. So this works in creating a setting where people are on edge, and also helps get your reader or audience on edge a bit – they know what it is like to be in the situation. (To what extent this is now undermined by how threadbare fog as a device has become is a tangent I am not going to go down, today)

There’s probably something going on with when fog happens, as well – night or early morning. When it’s dark, which doesn’t help with the visibility thing. When you’re not very alert. When, perhaps, you’re not supposed to be out. When, perhaps, dangerous things are out instead. Things that like the fog, and the dark.

In the end I think it’s really about control. As much as we are a visual species, we also like to feel in control of our situation, to know what is going on, to be able to do as we wish, and to be able to see what is coming. Fog takes all those things away. Most people find it quite disturbing to not know how a situation is going to develop, to feel like they can’t influence it or affect it, or to be helpless to act. That’s what fog can do. Maybe it’s even worse, in our hyper-connected age, to have something that takes some of our connectivity away, even slightly.

As I write this, the sun is breaking through and presumably normality will shortly resume. That’s one of the other things about fog, or at least the fogs that appear in my part of the world. If you just wait until mid-morning or so, the sun always wins and they go away. May all our fogs lift so easily.

That’s more than enough of me pondering at you. I know I have teased you about this before (master of suspense, me) but I do think I shall have something interesting to announce later in the week.

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