Monthly Archives: February 2016

Two Artists

In the past week (and indeed on one particular day) the literary world lost two huge talents: Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.

I wrote a bit about Harper Lee a few months ago now, upon the release of her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. (Which I still haven’t read. Sigh.) I don’t want to go over all the same ground again, although I did read that plans for a Broadway adaptation of Mockingbird will now proceed, despite Lee being steadfastly opposed to the idea her whole life. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the decision to publish Watchman (and I doubt we will ever really know, now), this seems like astonishingly bad taste.

I have no doubt a Broadway Mockingbird will sell tickets and make people rich(er), but I wish the will of the woman who wrote the book would still be respected. If she didn’t want her book adapted in that manner, leave it at that. There are writers who would leap at the chance to have their stories brought to Broadway. Go do one of those.

In any case, Lee was remarkable for a variety of reasons, among which was her impact and standing in the literary world as a writer who had – until quite recently – only ever published one book. It’s hard to think of another author in quite the same position. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most famous novels in English, most would say deservedly so. It has been taught in English literature classes for generations, now, and although there’s been some controversy from time to time, few people argue with its presence on the syllabus.

It’s astonishing to think of writing a book that good and then never writing, or at least publishing, anything else. (Remember, our best information is that Watchman, despite when it is set, was written prior to Mockingbird) Harper Lee is well-known for being a reclusive person and uncomfortable with her fame, so perhaps that’s why. Perhaps she never had another story she thought needed telling in quite the same way. Maybe, with the immense impact of Mockingbird, she was understandably a bit daunted at the prospect of coming up with something that would measure up to it. (From my own extremely limited experience as a writer, I can tell you that having people say they enjoyed a book is of course wonderful, but does add a little extra pressure to writing the follow up – I don’t want to let them down)

I wonder what would have happened if Lee had published several more novels. It’s unlikely (I guess) that they could all have been as good as Mockingbird (although you never know); how would she have been regarded then? Would her standing have been diminished by producing additional work of a slightly lesser quality? Is part of her appeal that (again, until very recently) that she gave us one fantastic piece of literature, and then nothing more? It’s hard to know. I suspect that Mockingbird would have had much the same impact regardless of what followed it (and I don’t expect it to be really diminished by the appearance of Watchman) and so all that would have happened was that her fans would have had more of her work to enjoy. It’s sad that that will never happen, now, but there can be few writers who have touched as many lives as Harper Lee.

I trust that will continue. And I will read Watchman, eventually.

Umberto Eco is probably not as well-known as Lee, in part because we (probably) didn’t read him in high school. On the other hand he wrote a great deal more, and I regret that I haven’t read more of his work. (More things to put on my pile of ‘things that must be read’, which always gets bigger) Reading reactions to his death, though, you can see that this is a writer who touched people on a very deep level, and reading his own ideas about the craft of writing, you can easily tell that this was a person who deeply loved the written word.

I’m not sure it’s possible to study medieval history without having read The Name of the Rose, which is probably (?) his most famous work. Some scholars will quibble with pieces of the novel’s portrayal of medieval life, certainly not everyone likes the book in the same way (or at all, to be fair to some student who find it on their required reading list) but few people really debate the importance of that portrayal and its usefulness in starting a conversation about medieval society. Personally, I found it a rich and compelling piece of entertainment as well. It is a book that uses a fine story to make you think, and although not every book necessarily needs to do that, the ones that do tend to stick with you for a long while.

If that was all Eco had written, I think by most standards he would have done all right. Of course Eco wrote a great deal more, both fiction and non-fiction, and for people who know all of his work very well, Name of the Rose isn’t (I gather) always their favourite or considered his best work. I haven’t read enough of his stuff to be able to say, although I can say that everything I have read from him has always seemed incredibly perceptive of what people are like and impressively thoughtful. Eco understood the impact the written word could have and knew how to use his tools to reach his audience on a level not many writers get anywhere close to. I tend to use the word ‘artist’ for writers in general; I think Eco is one who very clearly deserves it.

So, not incidentally, does Harper Lee.

I love what Eco wrote about his discomfort with the label of ‘intellectual’. He said (I paraphrase, obviously) that the label was often misused – used to denote academics and scholars nearly exclusively. However, a professor who has been giving the same lectures for 40 years (and we probably all had at least one of those) without thinking about their content isn’t really doing any work with their mind. A craftsman, though, who comes up with a new way of solving a problem of construction or creation, certainly is, and that’s what Eco thought an intellectual really was: someone who does work with their mind, bringing forth new ideas.

It’s a great point and it makes many things into ‘intellectual’ pursuits; I suppose it flatters me slightly in that writing fiction has a case for the label. Overall, though, it’s a wonderfully anti-elitist way of rethinking a term that we tend to use in fairly static fashion, and it makes the idea of being an intellectual sound rather more attractive than its usual connotations of a distant ivory tower. If we accept Eco’s definition, then we can all be intellectuals, regardless of formal education or whatever our job is. We should certainly try.

With ideas like this, it’s not hard to understand the grief at the loss of Umberto Eco to the world. Whether he liked the intellectual label or not, it’s clear that his mind was a very bright light and it is sad that it has now gone out.

One of the great things about writing, though, and one way in which writers are very fortunate, is that their ideas are still with us, and will be as long as the written word endures. We can regret that there won’t be any new work from these amazing artists (although I see that Eco’s publisher is moving up the release of what will be his final book), but we still have what they already gave us.

It’s a comfort.

Go be intellectuals.

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Year One

It was a year (plus a few days ago) that I got the news that Renaissance Press was interested in publishing The King in Darkness. It’s somewhat amazing that so much time has already passed. I’ve learned a great deal in those 365 days and I thought I’d write a little about that on the blog today.

I learned to appreciate professional editors a great deal. The manuscript had been read through by several friends whose opinions I value, went through a local writers’ circle, and of course I had been through it many, many times. I really expected the editors to find very little.

Then the first editor sent me 30 pages of notes. (Not, to be clear, notes on 30 pages, but a word document, 30 pages long, consisting of nothing but corrections and suggested changes.) I sat and looked at that for a while, and then got to work. I try not to give out very much advice here, since I’m quite a new author, but if anyone is reading this and thinking of getting their own work published, make sure you secure the services of a professional editor. You’ll get your money’s worth.

(I should point out that the next editor, and the next, also sent me substantial notes to work on.)

I really felt like that process was the beginning of becoming something roughly resembling a professional writer. It’s one thing to write down the strange ideas I have running around in my head and share them with friends and family; it’s quite another to try to make them into a product that might appeal to anybody. It wasn’t always easy – sometimes the best decision for the text meant changing something I like – but it was a great educational process.

I think I’ve learned a fair amount about social media – my Twitter following has increased substantially, I have a Facebook page and I’m getting to grips with Goodreads and Instagram, slowly – but one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not entirely sure how much practical good it does. I enjoy interacting with people and I hope some of what I do is interesting or entertaining, but from a shamelessly mercenary perspective, I’m not sure how much of the time I invested in it turned into people reading my book who otherwise wouldn’t have. Maybe it made a big difference. Maybe it didn’t. I’m not sure how one tells. Fortunately, messing around on the internet is great fun so I’m likely to keep doing it anyway.

The most fun new thing from the past year has been getting to go to several conventions and interact with the public. This was something I had (again) really never done before and for a naturally shy person it took some adjustment. However, once I got used to it, I really enjoyed myself. I got to meet people with immense passion for SFF books, movies and TV and spend some time sharing those interests. I got to be a part of panel discussions that really made me feel like A Writer. The costumes were amazing.

All of this basically to say that the past year has been a tremendously fun ride. I’m already looking forward to what’s coming up in the months ahead. The big one, of course, should getting to share Bonhomme Sept-Heures with all of you. Renaissance has some exciting plans that I’m very excited to be a part of.

Thank you for your part in it all for reading the blog – I hope you’ll stick around a while yet.

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Jules Verne and the Stress Volcano

I’ve got a few different things for you today.

First up – yesterday was Jules Verne’s birthday. You’ll have heard of him. Verne’s wrote in French (of course) but he is (I am told) the second most translated author after Shakespeare, so plenty of readers in English and other languages have experienced his work. There aren’t many writers who have created stories as enduring as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or Around the World in 80 Days.

Verne is sometimes (and apparently was during his life) praised for being a predictor of the future, and future science in particular. I learned yesterday, and found it very interesting, that he apparently wasn’t very comfortable with the label, protesting that he never intended to predict anything, never claimed to be a scientist, and was mostly writing about things of interest in his present, albeit using fantastic means to do so.

I guess I found that striking because SF writers continue to get called ‘prophets’ and discussed in terms of their work predicting the future of science or society, or not. Sometimes older works of SF will be criticised for failing to accurately predict how things would develop. One of my very favorite authors, William Gibson, often gets written (and spoken) about along these lines; for his books having accurately predicted technological advances or societal changes to come.

A couple years ago now I heard Gibson talk about this very issue and he said the same thing that Verne did – it’s never been his intention to predict the future. His most famous book, Neuromancer, wasn’t meant to be about the future at all; it is about the 1980s, viewed through a fantastic lens. Obviously two is a pretty small sample, but the parallel is pretty neat.

I’m not sure why we (as readers) seem to want SF to be a prediction of the future, and are sometimes disappointed when it isn’t, especially since it seems as though that’s not often the intent of the author. I guess to some extent if you write a book set in times yet to come, it isn’t a great surprise if people want to check your work, as it were – but why do we seem to start with the expectation that something fantastic should also end up being true to real life?

I know there are some writers who do (and have) deliberately tried to predict the future with their writing. I’m not really convinced that that is what most SF writers are trying to do though – I think in general they’re trying to tell a cool story. It’s of course an interesting question as to why one might choose the future as a way to express the story you’re trying to tell, but that’s a long discussion and one I’m not sure I even have an answer for.

I find I’m happiest as a reader when I just enjoy the vision an author is presenting and take the imaginary world on its own terms, rather than fact-checking it as we go along. If it’s a good story, I’m in for the duration. I think when you’ve created characters like Captain Nemo, still popular 150 years after they were created, and ideas like the balloon race around the world (even though not that much of Around the World actually takes place in the balloons), that have endured similarly you’ve done pretty darn well along those lines.

(I know much of that is my personal taste)

In any case, a happy (slightly late) birthday to Jules Verne – I hope his stories continue to delight readers for many generations more.

———-

I also learned yesterday, via Ken Liu’s Twitter, about an app that is meant to help writers’ productivity (I guess). It works like this – you punch in a length of time that you want to write for, and the app puts you into a fullscreen writing mode. If you exit before the time you set, anything you wrote is erased. If you stop writing for more than five seconds, everything you’ve written to that point is deleted.

This sounds more like a torture method than something that will help a writer to me. My immediate reaction (also on Twitter) was that it would turn my head into a stress volcano. I guess there may be a very specific type of person who would find this sort of thing useful to their process, but I’m guessing it’s a small number.

The app, by the way, costs $14.99 and that’s my main concern with it – this seems like a pretty expensive gimmick that will be marketed telling writers that it will help them work, and then probably won’t. I’ve been amazed at the amount of very expensive stuff that is advertised to people who want to write telling them that they need this app or expensive online training session or writing retreat or whatever else if they’re going to succeed in their goals, and most of it seems like chaff to me.

I guess as long as there are lots of people who want to be writers, there will be people trying to make money off that desire, just as with a million other things. I don’t really like to think of people getting scammed with things that probably won’t do much but empty their bank accounts when one of the glorious things about writing is that you can just do it. Sit down at the computer or with pen and paper and write stuff. Show it to people and ask what they think. That’s how you get better as far as I can see.

Now, making money at being a writer is (as I continue to learn) not easy, but I don’t really think a $15 app that will make your eyes explode with stress is really going to help with that either. There’s lots of good advice out there, almost all of it free, on how to market your work if that’s what you want to do.

It’s probably not entirely fair, but I feel as though as soon as someone starts asking for money, you should at least consider running very fast in the other direction.

——

Ok, so process. I’m going to talk a little about mine. If you read the blog regularly you’ll know that I’ve been working on the sequel to The King in Darkness, and may even remember some optimistic forecasts about it being done for the end of November and such. As I said last week, it isn’t exactly done.

(It’s not done)

I’m trying not to kick myself too hard about this – I think it may still be possible to have the book out by fall, if all goes well – but as much as I hesitate to give any advice (I’m not sure I know what I’m doing well enough to do that) I thought it might be helpful to talk about a particular thing that I realized had happened the other day.

Without getting into too many intricacies of a book you haven’t read yet, a while ago I was working on the thing and realized there was a pretty big yawning hole in the middle of things that I wasn’t sure how to fill. At all. So I thought about it for a while, didn’t have an answer, and so I put the work aside. Sometimes this is a good thing to do because you can come back when you do have an idea and are less discouraged.

The problem is that I kept it put aside for a good long while. I did other things – I wrote on some other projects, I cleaned the house, I went to the gym. All arguably worthwhile things, but now I hadn’t worked on the manuscript in long enough that not having worked on it was A Thing and the project had acquired a kind of inertia, sitting there unworked-upon.

All of which to say that over the last week or so I made myself start chipping away at the problem again (having been startled by January turning into February), and I now know how to fill the hole in the middle of the thing, and feel pretty optimistic about getting the book finished relatively quickly.

I’m not sure what perverse part of my brain (and perhaps, other people’s brains) makes me decide that the best way to deal with a problem that I’m not sure how to solve is to put it away and leave it unsolved. I suppose it relieves the stress of not having a solution, but it doesn’t (ever) move one towards solving the problem.

I know it works much better if I keep trying to do at least small amounts of work on something that I’m finding difficult (with writing or otherwise) than putting it aside completely. I keep trying to remind myself of that, and perhaps writing this will help imprint the concept on the sludge of my mind. Maybe it will be useful to other writers.

Keep plugging at it. Your work is good. Don’t put it away just because you’re struggling now.

The book, by the way, will be called Bonhomme Sept-Heures. I really am looking forward to sharing it with you.

Once I finish writing it.

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Return of the X-Files

Just a couple weeks ago I wrote about my affection for the old X-Files series, as I’ve been rewatching them on Netflix and in anticipation of the new miniseries, which has now aired its first two episodes (as I write this – by the time it’s posted #3 will have shown as well). I also did a little reaction thing to (finally) seeing the new Star Wars film, so I thought I would do the same for the return of X-Files this week.

On the whole, I liked the first two episodes very much. I have seen a lot of criticism for the first one for being heavy on the monologues and for unreeling an immense convolution of plot, and some of that is probably fair. On the other hand, from the first scene where we got Scully’s ‘oh this is bullshit’ expression back again, the X-Files had returned and it was, for me, like having some old friends visit for a little while.

These kind of things are always a little risky; I mentioned a while ago about how much I had looked forward to a new Star Wars, only to have Phantom Menace appear. It could not have been such a heavy disappointment if I hadn’t wanted it to be good so very much. It’s kind of like a favourite musician on a comeback tour or an athlete trying to come out of retirement; you have great memories of them, you want them to do well and to give you some more magic, and yet you can’t help but be a little worried the whole time about it not being quite the same.

I think X-Files has – so far – done about as well as they could have in giving fans More X-Files, which is probably all they intend to do. I don’t expect any bold new direction for the series at this stage of the game. It was probably a bit of a gamble to plop the tangled coils of the show’s Alien Conspiracy plotline down right out of the gate, but the intricate strands of the schemes that enmesh Mulder and Scully has really always been part of what you sign up for when you watch the series. You either dig it or you don’t, and most of the time I find the scope and scale of the plots our agents find themselves up against joyfully fantastic, and as I said in my previous blog on this, that they match themselves up against these apparently titanic opponents is part of why I love these characters.

We did get classic Mulder and Scully back, too – Duchovny still has the boyish enthusiasm for the wild ideas Mulder wants to believe in that comes bubbling out from an understandably weathered demeanour. Gillian Anderson’s performance is everything I could have wanted; Scully the sceptic is still there, but you can also see the affection and concern she has for her butterfly-chasing partner that she’s been through so much with. Mitch Pileggi has somehow gotten younger.

After only two hours (ish) of TV the new X-Files has already given us stealth UFOs, amphibious babies, Cancer Man, telekinesis and suicide by letter opener. Again, it’s not anything that breaks the mold for the show, but it certainly uses the original mold to cast some new stories that sit pretty comfortably on the shelf next to the old ones.

Along with the delightfully gonzo stuff that X-Files has always, at it’s best, dished out, we also got some moments of perhaps surprising poignancy. In the first new episode, there was a wonderful spot where we watched Scully slide into a sort of resigned despair as she realizes that Mulder is, once again, flipped over into True Believer mode and isn’t seeing anything other than what he wants to.

One final thing that struck me that did seem to me different from the original series experience also came in the first episode where Mulder is unspooling the grand conspiracy as he sees it, and suddenly there were right wing standbys like the FEMA camps thrown in there as well. I half expected him to say the government was coming for everyone’s guns.

Conspiracy as an idea is in an interesting place these days; with the revelations about NSA monitoring (along with their various accomplices) people are more apt than ever to believe that there really are things being done by their government that they’re not aware of and might not approve of. I know people in Canada are far more suspicious of government than I ever remember them being in the past. So it may be that a show like X-Files has to go pretty far to come up with a conspiracy that sounds like it goes beyond what a lot of the audience might suspect is going on in real life. It also seems to me that this vein of explicitly right-wing conspiracy is something that has grown a great deal in the years that X-Files was away. It’ll be interesting to see what the writers do with that, as one of the assumptions about the motivations of the people behind the scenes seems to have changed.

I also realize now that I may have quite a bit to write about this, so I’m gonna leave it for its own entry.

Overall, I couldn’t be more pleased to have X-Files back, at least for a brief while. I’m not sure how long they can continue to make the old formula work, but it’s been fun spending time with these old friends for at least this short visit.

——-

A while back I wrote about George R. R. Martin’s delay in finishing his latest book (I hope reasonably sympathetically) and now I appear to have had my own Martin moment sneak up on me. I had hoped/planned to have the sequel to King in Darkness done by the end of November or beginning of December, and now here we are at the start of February and it still isn’t quite finished.

There’s been some disruption from holidays and other Real Life issues going on and I think that’s the problem more than anything else. I still feel quite positive about the book (which, if you remember my Statler-and-Waldorf issue, is good news) and the feedback from my Eager Volunteers has been encouraging as well. I just need to ruthlessly rope off some time in which to Sit And Write and get this thing knocked out.

So, I’m not quite prepared to call this a Writing Crisis, but flipping the calendar over was a bit sobering. Gonna get to work.

—–

Bit of a short entry this week, for which I apologize to those of you who prefer something more long form. I’m a bit under the weather and also should probably go Write A Thing.

I’ll try to do better the next time.

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