Monthly Archives: April 2016

Evan vs. My Brain

This entry is going to be a bit of a ‘me thinking out loud’ one (moreso than usual) so consider yourself fairly warned. However there’s at least some chance this might be useful to other writery types, and so here we go.

With the situation surrounding Bonhomme Sept-Heures relatively static (waiting for additional feedback from Eager Volunteers), I’ve started work on a new project. Or, at least, I’m trying to. The problem is this. My plan was to start working on the idea I wrote about 20,000 words for last summer before setting it aside to do Bonhomme Sept-Heures. I think it’s a good concept, and I think it’s also a reasonably unconventional one, which may help in getting representation for it and a place to publish it.

However, my brain keeps throwing up ideas for this other concept that I’ve had rattling around my brain for about the past 4 years. I do like the concept, but it’s a fantasy story that doesn’t have quite as much of a unique hook to it as the other one does – it’s sort of my take on an Arthurian story. I think it could be a good story, if and when I do write it, but it’s arguably not as marketable and the concept is a bit more pedestrian.

And yet, that’s still the one that ideas keep churning up from the depths of wherever as I go for a run or do a workout at the gym or relax at the end of the day. So I have a bit of a dilemma: should I write the story that I’m having ideas for right now, but will probably be harder to do anything with, or risk losing whatever inspiration it is that’s driving those ideas and try to stay focused on the project that I’m not firing up ideas for quite so readily, but is probably going to be easier to find a home for.

It is of course slightly annoying and bemusing that my imagination works this way – although I can do things to make it more likely that good ideas will flow, I can’t really control when it happens, and sometimes, I can’t really even control what ideas show up. I get what I get, and then decide what to do with it. Some of it gets written up immediately, some of it gets put aside (although I have learned, after losing far too many ideas to my awful memory, to Write Shit Down), and some of it gets discarded. It’s very rare that the idea flow is really under my control, though; even when I was writing King in Darkness and pretty excited about it, I kept getting ideas for the book that eventually became Bonhomme Sept-Heures and books that would follow on after it, and had to take little timeouts to take care of those.

This is, obviously, the kind of the thing that artists have been complaining about since the beginning of time, so I know, and comfort myself to some degree, that there isn’t anything unique about my situation. It is fascinating to me the way the creative process works, apparently mostly uncoupled from conscious direction a lot of the time. Our brains are weird and wonderful things and although it can be frustrating from time to time, I kind of like that I don’t always completely understand what’s going on with mine.

Now, though, I gotta sit that thing down and have a discussion about which goddamn book we’re going to write next.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Blake’s 7

Late last week, we got the news that Gareth Thomas, who played Roj Blake on the BBC series Blake’s 7, had died. I never met Mr. Thomas, and nor have I seen a great many interviews with him, so I can’t say very much about the man himself, which is my loss. I did watch Blake’s 7, a good bit after it had originally aired I guess, among some of the stuff my local PBS channel would show on weekend afternoons. I don’t think I ever saw any of the episodes more than once, and I’m fairly certain I haven’t seen them all. I’ve still never forgotten it.

Blake’s 7 was a very different sort of show than most of its time, and I think you can see its fingerprints all over many SFF series that came after it. Very basically, the show is set in a time when the galaxy is controlled by a tyrannical human empire, and tells the story of a small group of escaped convicts who set out to overthrow it. So far, nothing exactly off the charts, especially when you consider that it’s essentially Robin Hood in space, with the super fast starship Liberator serving as the Sherwood Forest-y refuge that is always there for the rebels, assuming they can reach it.

Or so it seems. The concept of Blake’s 7 may not sound especially unusual, but boy did they do very different stuff with it, almost right out of the gate. Rather unlike most other SFF shows (and, I guess, shows of other genres) on at the time (think: Star Trek and Doctor Who and the original Battlestar Galactica) where the main characters are all friends and resolutely on each others’ side, the crew of the Liberator are certainly not. Gareth Thomas’ Blake and the other (arguably) main character, Kerr Avon (a treasure of a creation, even if Younger Me was eventually disappointed that everyone had not, in fact, been saying ‘Evan’) don’t even really like each other. They argue, they disagree in terms of what is moral and what is practical, and generally give the impression that they aren’t so much a team as they are stuck with each other. I remember watching the first episode, and waiting for all this to smooth out in some kind of Moment that would create the band of happy comrades that would carry the series onward. It didn’t happen. It never happens. This was amazing.

The show continues to not follow the rules as it goes along. It deals with a lot of morally very grey decisions, and once you’ve watched for a while you never really feel secure in anything, because of the decisions the writers were prepared to have happen. Our heroes screw up.  Fairly early on, one of the Seven gets killed. This was entirely unanticipated by Young Me – Bones never gets killed! Even, like, Chekov always gets back to the Enterprise safe. Doctor Who occasionally killed off companions, but usually they got a relatively pleasant exit, and the Doctor himself always has the regeneration get-out-of-death card in his hand. But Gan, the big good-hearted strong guy (there’s that Robin Hood parallel again) just died and there was no SFF magic to undo it and bring him back.

Little did I know what the rest of that series had in store, because by the end of it Blake and another of the Seven go missing and Avon takes control of the Liberator. Again, I was waiting for this to get undone and the status quo restored as most shows would do. Nope. Jenna, the other crew member, is (I believe) never seen again. Blake doesn’t return until the series finale, which I’ll get to in a minute. The Liberator ends up getting destroyed. I mean, can you imagine? Yes, the remains of the Seven do get another ship to tool around in, but on (again) Star Trek if the Enterprise blows up or something happens to the captain (any of them) you know that this is getting undone or fixed relatively quickly. The reveal of Picard as Locutus of Borg was a cool moment, but we were watching Star Trek and you know that shit is getting fixed. Blake’s 7 never gave you that certainty that a comforting status quo would continue on.

And then, there’s that ending. I suppose spoilers are a fairly silly thing to worry about for a ~30 year old show, but I really don’t want to say everything about it in case there’s a chance that you haven’t seen Blake’s 7 and decide you’d like to. (I’m also not very good at summarizing) I will just say that while conventions might lead you to expect that the evil Federation (yeah, they called it that) would be overthrown at the end, that’s not the resolution that you get. Instead you get Kerr Avon in a hail of bullets (well, laser blasts) and fade to black. It probably makes sense as an ending for the story of a insurgent rebellion against a superpower, but I remember sitting there, watching the credits with the gunfire sounds running over them instead of the show theme, and thinking that PBS must have had it wrong and this couldn’t possibly be the last episode. They didn’t. It was. Holy crap.

I’ve written a bunch of times here about how, these days, I like a happy ending, and that’s true. But I think I’ve also said that you can write bleak, difficult stories and do them well and have them work well for readers or viewers, and even though the mood of Blake’s 7 isn’t the kind of story I would write these days, I think it is a great example of grimness done right. Tough things happen to the characters, but you never get the sense that it’s gratuitous, it’s a consequence of the very full-contact game they happen to be playing. The characters are wonderfully complex and flawed and not all lovable Good Guys, but they also all give you a reason to like them on some level and to care about what happens to them. You eventually realize that selfish, scheming, untrusting Avon on some level talks a good game about not giving a damn about anyone other than himself but that the truth is more nuanced than that, underneath. These are not typically heroic characters, not even Gareth Thomas’ Blake, but the writers remembered to make them people that we still want to follow around as see what happens to them.

I should say one other thing about Blake’s 7 while I’m talking about it, although this entry is getting pretty darned long. The BBC, at this time, was making exciting shows like this, and Doctor Who, with budgets of about a buck ninety five an episode, and admittedly they sometimes look it, in terms of the sets and special effects. Alien worlds often come down to ‘this set of corridors’ or ‘shot outdoors in a quarry again’. Costumes and props and sets get reused and recycled between episodes and even between shows – the helmets that Blake’s 7’s Federation jackbooted thugs wear showed up on a later episode of Doctor Who, for example.

I was recently watching an old episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor and Sarah Jane are wandering through the TARDIS, and the walls are very clearly rather hastily painted wood. There’s no way they’re anything else. You can see the brush strokes in the grey paint. Another episode from not too much later in the series has a character infected with a horrible alien space disease, and when this is revealed he turns around to show off an arm wrapped in green-dyed bubble wrap. You recognize it right away. This is the key moment where either you can be a fan of shows like this, or you can’t.

Now some people can’t handle this; they see the shoestring effects and either can’t stop laughing (which is not an entirely unjustifiable reaction) or dismiss the shows as garbage (which I would argue is). It never bothered me, and I’m not entirely sure why. I mean, yes, I didn’t have the modern CGI and amazing effects that even network TV shows get to compare it to, at that point, but even so, bubble wrap is still bubble wrap, and it never bothered me. There was the dramatic music sting, the reaction of the other characters, and this guy acting his pants off that something awful was happening to him, and I just followed along.

I think that this is because SFF stories are always asking you to use your imagination. It’s part of the deal, isn’t it? No matter how well they dress it up, the writers and actors are still asking you to believe that they’re on an alien planet when they’re in a forest in BC, that the prop in their hands is an arcane relic, and that the guy in a weird suit is an unimaginable horror. You either buy that, and get into the story, or you don’t. Sometimes it seems to me creators of movies and TV and books forget this, and worry too much about the effects and the world building when they don’t have a good story, or good characters, yet.

I think that when the writing is good, the characters and plot are compelling, you can get your viewers or readers to buy in to whatever strange and fantastic concepts you’re trying to sell them on, and if the writing is no good, it won’t work, detailed description or amazing effects notwithstanding. I think this connects back to what I was talking about with the idea of how much world building you need – I will not be thinking ‘Gosh, I’m not sure I believe the economic base of this society is sustainable’ if you’ve given me a great story. I will not be thinking ‘well, I don’t think you could build a device that would do that’ if the device was built by an awesome character using their device to do something rad. Just like I wasn’t thinking ‘dang, that’s just bubble wrap’ during that episode of Doctor Who. The story was good, I was in, and I was fine with the narrative that the poor guy had a terrible space disease. Let’s go.

Even more tenuously, I wonder if this goes back to playing games with your friends as little kids. No-one really had a ray gun, we either had something plastic or a piece of wood that you painted up. We had cardboard box spaceships, maybe with some foil on there. The back yard was an alien planet. The HQ of Earth Defence Command was the garage, or the tool shed, and no-one said that it looked fake because we were busy imagining. I think shows that are done well in terms of writing and the actors’ performances get us Busy Imagining again and then the effects almost don’t matter so much. I mean, if you had bubble wrap on your arm in your back yard space games, you totally had a space disease.

So, to wrap things up for this week, I want to thank Gareth Thomas and everyone who was involved in Blake’s 7 for giving me a great show that changed a lot of my expectations about how TV shows and fiction might work, and certainly had my imagination running full speed. You had me Busy Imagining, and I’m not sure that’s something I can ever say ‘thank you’ enough for.

Now I should probably get Busy Writing, which of course also involves being Busy Imagining.

I gotta have something happen in a quarry.

Thanks for reading.

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Spooky Action at a Distance

More feedback continues to come in for Bonhomme Sept-Heures and I’m incredibly grateful to the Eager Volunteers for that – having people willing to read my stuff and help me make it better is a tremendous resource and I’m very fortunate to have them on my side. There’s a lot to think about as always, but some comments in particular kind of stick out.

One Volunteer said that there were a couple of scenes that creeped them out. This reminded me of hearing that a friend of the family read King in Darkness and it gave them nightmares. I know the proper response to this would probably be to say ‘oh I’m sorry’, but somewhere deep inside I always do a little fist pump and thing ‘yesssssss’.

I don’t think this means I’m a sociopath.

What I think it is is that it’s satisfying to know that something I wrote caused a real reaction in someone. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures inhabit a space that’s close to the borders of horror, if they’re not actually inside, so it is a kind of success if people who read them find them scary or disturbing. It’s also neat to know that something I wrote is capable of having an effect on someone who reads it.

I think this is one of the satisfactions of writing, and probably art, in general – you get to express something from inside yourself and have an impact on other people with that. Being able to reach out and touch a reader – wherever they may be – through the words I put together is powerful, in a way, and its also very cool. It’s a kind of connection being formed between my imagination and the imagination of the reader and when I hear that that worked effectively it’s very cool. If I can lead you into creating a scene in your mind well enough that it becomes scary or creepy, that’s pretty fun and it’s cool to think that you and I were, at least for a little, on the same mental wavelength.

I’ve had people tell me that they found something I wrote inspirational, or that it made them laugh, and that feels amazing too. I suppose everyone likes validation, and the it’s extremely validating as a writer to hear that what you wrote had an effect on your reader, even if it’s something as simple as ‘hey, I really enjoyed reading that’. In a lot of ways I don’t think there’s a greater compliment than someone saying they read what I wrote and that it entertained or amused them for a while.

So I don’t think I just like making it hard for people to sleep at night.

Thanks for reading, this blog and other things I write.

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I had a good time at Ottawa Geek Market this past weekend – it was lovely to meet new people and to have some of you who read King in Darkness come by to tell me what you thought of it! There are lots more Renaissance Press events to come through the spring, summer and fall and I’m excited to both return to some venues we did last year and hit up some new ones.

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Rogue One Trailer

The trailer for the new Star Wars movie Rogue One is out, and I gather it has caused a lot of fuss, both the happy clamour of excited fans and (apparently) the gnashing of teeth by people who are (for very stupid reasons that I’m not getting into here) Very Upset by what they’ve seen. There’s probably a lot of indifferent people in the middle of those extremes as well.

Since I was roughly the last sapient being known to science to give my thoughts on The Force Awakens, I thought I would do a snap reaction to the Rogue One trailer. I may or may not be procrastinating doing something else. Hush.

What I think is this – there’s not a lot of meat on the bones but it looks pretty cool. I mean there’s AT-ATs and stormtroopers getting beaten up with a stick (does that armour, in fact, protect them from anything at all?) and Mon Mothma and what looks to be a good heaping helping of Star Wars action. Which should be fun, although as Phantom Menace taught me, best not to get too excited yet. Heck, there have been plenty of bad movies with good looking trailers.

The main thing that I feel like I can say something more meaningful about is our main character, Jyn Erso. She seems like she’s going to be pretty interesting. They’re at least sowing the seeds that she may be a less than lily-white character who may not be perfectly idealistically aligned with the Rebellion and is closer to being an actual criminal.

Obviously this sets up a fairly standard SFF (and, well, other genres too) redemption story arc for the character with A Troubled Past, and if I was placing any bets that would be where my money would go. On the other hand, it would be potentially interesting to have the main character of Rogue One be genuinely a difficult person with some shady parts to their past and personality.

For one thing, her line ‘This is a rebellion, isn’t it?’ from the trailer works well with this; if you were really running a shoestring revolt against an overwhelming power, you wouldn’t really get to pick and choose who all the people you’d need to work with would be. You’d probably end up having to make some difficult choices and difficult alliances if you wanted to accomplish your overall goal, and maybe end up wondering exactly how far you could go in that direction without ending up badly compromised. That might be intriguing territory for a Star Wars movie to look at, and it would be easier to do with one that doesn’t have all our thoroughly heroic heroes in it.

Because look, most of the Star Wars heroes and heroines are more or less thoroughly good people (and don’t give me any crap about Han Solo, I’m not even sure he gets ‘redeemed’ as much as stops pretending that he’s not a huge softie) and it would be interesting to have one who might honestly not be. Maybe Jyn Erso is thoroughly competent, very good at what she’s asked to do, but also kind of an unprincipled jerk. (Again, no, that’s not Han Solo.) That would be a neat, and unique, addition to the Star Wars pantheon.

This all sits a bit uneasily with my feeling that one of the things I like about Star Wars is that you have Good vs. Evil and not a lot of the shades of grey stuff that is immensely popular at the moment. (Look if you’re waiting for me to adopt entirely consistent positions on things, you’re gonna be waiting a while) I think there’s room to still do that and still tell a story that would still be Star Wars – Good vs. Evil. I think it is worthwhile recognizing that in the pursuit of good goals, sometimes things happen that are less than good. I think it’s definitely worth recognizing that even people who do very good things are unlikely to be perfect. Even if we decide, ‘yes, this is a good person’ in the end, there are probably some parts of them that are less than ideal. Except Galahad, and Galahad is no fun.

Now again, I don’t think that’s actually what we’re gonna get and what will happen is we’ll get a movie about Jyn who comes from a rough background and doesn’t trust anyone and looks out only for herself learning to be a part of a team and commit to a cause that’s larger than she is in that fairly standard Becoming a Hero way, and that will probably be a perfectly entertaining movie. It would just be a little more interesting, to me, if we got a character who (say) doesn’t like the Empire, but also doesn’t really like this whole Republic thing either, because governments in general can’t be trusted or just rip you off, but she’ll work with the Rebels for now because they’re helping her blow up Imperial stuff.

Anyway. Those are my quick-draw thoughts. December seems a long way off, although I’m sure we’ll get lots more teasers tossed our way before then.

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Loose Ends

I have started to get some very useful feedback from the Eager Volunteers about Bonhomme Sept-Heures as I work on getting it ready to share with you. I also had an interesting question; without spoiling anything, one of my readers asked about a detail in one of the scenes (I think it’s safe to say that it’s a crack in the ceiling) and asked what the significance of it was.

I told him the truth – it’s one of those things I put in my stories that I want the reader to interpret for themselves. Maybe it symbolizes something. Maybe it’s a plot point. Maybe it’s just a crack in the ceiling. Whenever I write, I like to leave things in the story that a reader can look at and decide for themselves what they mean, if they mean anything at all. Some people would call these loose ends, I guess, and I know some would argue that everything should get an explanation. I guess I like the idea of that explanation coming from the reader, rather than me, at least some of the time.

I think maybe this goes back to my English lit background; I spent years getting trained to interpret parts of stories and figure out what they mean, and it’s become something I enjoy. Really, historical analysis is often much the same deal – you have a small piece of evidence, and have to determine what it may signify, or if it may mean nothing at all beyond being an interesting factoid. So I imagine putting these interpret-able bits in my stories is me (once again) being a selfish writer and doing things that I would enjoy reading.

I think it’s also true that many people enjoy having a puzzle to solve, and salting in a few bits and pieces that readers can have a think over and try to decide how they fit in hopefully adds a bit of extra added amusement value to the story. Hopefully.

In thinking about that answer, I also thought about whether I always enjoy it, as a reader, when there are pieces of a story that aren’t entirely explained and left to me to figure out. Generally I think that I do, although there’s a difference between leaving parts of your story for the reader to interpret and just having unfinished parts of your plot or setting.

I think it’s entirely reasonable to not answer absolutely every question about a fictional world. Your characters probably don’t know the answers themselves, and may not care, and so leaving some information out may actually enhance the feeling of viewing things from a particular character’s viewpoint. I think some stories do get sidetracked into world-building at the expense of the story; if your reader doesn’t really need to know all the details of a fictional economy (for example), it may be better to get to telling them the story instead. If it’s not relevant to the plot, I don’t always think I need to know exactly how the political system of the Kingdom of X came to be.

On the other hand, I know there are people who lap this stuff up, so I think this is another case where there’s risks you take as an author – how much of this material do I put in, and how much of a potential audience will I appeal to, or alienate, by that decision. I guess you can either strive for some perfect middle road, or just do what I suspect I do, write whatever I was going to write anyway, and hope that someone likes it.

This is straying fairly far off from the idea of leaving little nuggets in the story for readers to interpret for themselves, though, so perhaps I’ll call it here. I’d love to hear what you think (as readers or writers) about having stories contain things that the reader is meant to answer for themselves.

Thanks for reading.

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This weekend is Ottawa’s spring Geek Market, and Renaissance Press will be there! I will be at the booth Friday evening and through the day Saturday, if you want to come and say hello. There’s quite a good deal where you and a friend can get in for $5 Friday night, leaving you loads of money to spend on books.

I’m mostly kidding.

More seriously I am very excited to be getting back out doing some events, and there are plenty more coming up this summer that I’ll tell you about as details firm up.

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