Monthly Archives: October 2016

Momentum

I have hit what I feel to be a key moment in the new WIP, and that it has generated some critical kind of creative momentum. It is now spontaneously generating ideas, or at least that’s how it seems to me. What I mean is that even when I’m not sitting down for Writing Time and deliberately focusing on the book, scenes and scraps of dialogue will pop into my head. I think of it as my imaginary people demanding to have their story told. Both of the novels that I’ve written to completion had stages where they went this way, when the ideas started coming whether I wanted them or not.

I am not in the least complaining. Having the ideas behind the work (if not always the actual writing down of the ideas) coming easily is a wonderful way to feel, especially in contrast to the times when I can’t seem to drag a sentence out of me. This means that even with a relatively full schedule these days, I am making significant progress with a story that I’m genuinely excited about. It is, perhaps, just a tiny bit frustrating when I get a great idea for how to do a scene when I’m meant to be writing a lecture, or a nice exchange of dialogue pops into my head right when I need to be going to sleep.

This phenomenon is interesting at the same time as it is frustrating – although I think of these unsolicited, unprompted ideas being the story writing itself, or the characters telling me their story, obviously it is all coming from me and there aren’t really any other minds or entities at work, but it really doesn’t feel that way when, as I said above, something about a character pops into my head while I’m trying to concentrate on something else.

No doubt a psychologist or someone who understands the physical processes of the brain would know exactly what’s going on here. I doubt I’m the only one who experiences moments like this, when the brain starts firing up thoughts and conclusions on a topic other than whatever we were intending to be focused on at the moment. Certainly I know it happens to me involving things other than writing – thinking about things that I would really prefer to forget, or put aside, that I not only haven’t chosen to focus on but would absolutely choose not to focus on, if I could. Those last can be especially frustrating, particularly when you remember the times when you couldn’t get ideas on something you were interested in. It seems like your brain is being contrary – no, you can’t have what you want, but here’s a bunch of stuff you definitely don’t want.

I don’t really understand why thinking works this way, at times, but ultimately even though I find it frustrating at times, in the end I don’t mind. For one thing, I would never want to do anything that might disrupt my ability to create new ideas to write about, so if it has to be an erratic and nebulous process, I can live with that. If I’m honest, I also kind of enjoy the thought of my characters telling me about themselves and explaining their stories to me, so even if rationally I know that it’s just me talking to myself, I’ll happily pretend to believe in the illusion instead.

I’m not sure how to assess the times when some of these revelations are (or at least seem) genuinely surprising to me – I honestly do have ‘oh, I didn’t know that would happen’ moments thinking through plots and scenes, or ‘wow, ok, I hadn’t realized that about them’ realizations about some of my characters. It does make it seem like there’s a part of my mind operating outside my supervision, which is both fun and slightly disturbing. Again, I know there’s a rational explanation in there somewhere, but I doubt knowing it would really affect the experience, and those revelations can be very exciting, so I think I’ll keep them.

Anyway. However things are happening, at the moment they’re flowing well and I feel like I can have a complete or complete-ish draft of the next book by the springtime, and perhaps spend the summer trying to find a home for it. I know there will be tougher stages ahead so I’m trying to just enjoy the ride for now.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week – thanks for reading.

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As much as I’m excited about my new project, this Saturday is the launch for Bonhomme Sept-Heures! If you’re in the Ottawa area it would be great to see you at the huge event Renaissance Press is doing for my book and seven other local artists. Details here.

If you can’t make it to the launch, watch this space for details on how else you can get your hands on a copy. I’m really looking forward to sharing this one with you.

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Point of No Return

This is a little bit more of a reading issue than a writing issue for this week but I have writing questions about it as well, and anyway what the heck. There are no rules here.

Over the last week I’ve been enjoying a fantastic book by a friend of mine (it’s Daughter of the Wolf by Victoria Whitworth, and you should check it out) and I reached a point in the story where I knew I had to read through to the end. That meant staying up a little later than I planned, but it didn’t matter. The story had gone past some kind of tipping point where the idea of stopping was now unacceptable and I had to see how things were going to work out. Sometimes there is nothing you can do.

This doesn’t happen with every book I read. There have been plenty of stories that I have read, even ones that I enjoyed very much, where I didn’t experience this feeling of momentum or narrative gravity where going on to the end was inevitable. To be clear, I almost always finish a book once I start it, and I feel guilty on the rare occasions when I don’t. However, that doesn’t mean that I always get that feeling of ‘I must finish this story immediately’.

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in the books where this does happen to trigger the feeling off. Most well-crafted stories have a narrative that builds towards an exciting or engaging climax and jack up the tension or stakes as they go along, so on some level you want to know what happens. A story that doesn’t do that doesn’t really work very well. So I would just say that this ‘tipping point’ I experience is just the sign of a good story, except, again – there are lots of stories that I’ve enjoyed very much overall where it didn’t happen. Like, I don’t remember it happening with Lord of the Rings, for example.

I guess there may be some arcane literary alchemy of suspense, plot, and character that generates the tipping point for me, and it likely includes something from my end of things as well. Probably my own mood and energy level are involved somehow – although again, in this most recent example it was late (for me) and my intention was (as it always is in the evening) to read a little to help me wind down and let the day go and get ready for sleep, as I’ve done for as long as I can remember. Instead I urgently needed to finish this story.

I’m not complaining – it was a great story with a good ending. I just wish I understood how it worked, both out of curiosity as a reader and also as a writer, because if I knew the trick I would love to be able to ensure that my stories all had such ‘tipping points’ where the reader is drawn irresistibly along for the rest of the ride. It’s a very fun feeling as a reader, and I guess obviously I’d like it if it was there in what I write as well.

Of course I suspect that there is no actual formula, and that it probably varies from reader to reader, and that probably some readers never experience the feeling at all. I think it’s a shame for those who never do, only because it is honestly quite exhilarating to have a story take you in its grasp and take you where it wants you to go, for a while.

I suppose it’s also better that it doesn’t always happen, because then starting a new book, I never know when, or if, I’ll hit the tipping point.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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After hitting Send

At the end of last week, I sent out the first significant piece of the new WIP to my Eager Volunteers to get some early feedback. And then started waiting.

I should make very clear that I totally expected to – among other things, it was a holiday weekend here in Canada, so the Volunteers had better things to do, I sent them a fairly sizable chunk of stuff to get through, and it’s extraordinarily generous of these wonderful people to give me their time to help make my writing better to begin with. I appreciate the heck out of it and it takes however long it takes.

However, that period from when I hit ‘Send’ until I first hear back is always a bit difficult. Time passes, for all the understandable reasons I just finished going through, and I start to wonder what the readers have thought of it. Because, as we’ve discussed, I am just a wee bit prone to self-criticize, and left alone to imagine what people may be thinking about what they’re reading, I tend to start to fill in a bunch of negative stuff. At this point I’m still quite excited about the project, but as soon as I submit even a part of my work for someone’s consideration, I do start to imagine just a bit too much about what the potential reaction is going to be.

I guess this may have gotten slightly worse after shopping King in Darkness to agents while I was trying to get it published – I sent it (or, at least, a pitch of it) out to a people and waited to hear if they liked it enough to work with it. I may have refreshed my Inbox a ridiculous number of times. In all those cases, when I heard back, it was in the negative. Some of them were encouraging negatives, but still, no-one wanted to say yes. Even prepared for it, that was difficult. I mean, you know this is how it works, everyone gets rejections, but they still sting a bit, or they did me, anyway. When I pitched the book to publishers at Can*Con, there was that moment between when I finished talking before anyone said anything where I sat and thought ‘That was awful, and they’re going to tell me to leave now’. Fortunately, one of those publishers decided they did want the book, but I’ll never forget that moment.

This even sort of happens with the writing circle I take part in – every session I read a little bit of what I’m working on, and when I finish there’s those few seconds before anyone says anything. Those seconds are, apparently, where all my doubts live. Oh god they hated it. They can’t believe I wrote that and they’re not sure how to say it.

It’s a wonderful gift, sharing my writing with people, it really is, and I don’t want to create the impression otherwise. I love to write and writing is so much better when people read it and tell me what they think. I imagine that’s true for most artists – there’s satisfaction in creation, but then also in sharing what you did with an audience. However, at the same time, it makes you vulnerable, because you put so much of yourself into your creation that you know it’s going to sting a bit if the audience – in my case, the readers – don’t appreciate it or think it’s good. And the thing is, of course people are entitled to react however they react and like what they like. I don’t hold any ill will towards the agents who passed on my book – they didn’t think they could do anything with it, and said so. But as with a lot of things, there is a difference between what you know and what you feel, at times. I would obviously love it if everyone who ever read my writing thought it was the best stuff ever. It will never happen. I suppose trying to get there is one motivation to keep working on my craft.

At least in some of these cases I do get to hear what the readers think of my work. There are really a lot of people, now, who have read King in Darkness that I have never heard from and I have no idea if they loved my book, or hated it. I hope they felt like it was at least worth their time to read it. I know for most of them I’ll never know what they thought, but when I think about that it’s at least a little frustrating. Was it good? Did you hate it?

Of course there’s no way to improve as a writer or grow as an author without sharing my work, and I don’t think I would want to anyway. It’s just that time after I hit ‘Send’, when my doubts can be particularly loud. So I’m always very grateful when i do get feedback, whether it’s the detailed, insightful stuff I get from my Eager Volunteers, or just ‘it was cool’. I appreciate that more the more I do this.

So if you’ve ever taken the time to let me know what you thought of something I wrote, if you wrote a review or rated King in Darkness on Goodreads or Amazon or where ever, thank you. And, you know, if you have a chance to let any artist whose work you’ve appreciated know, I imagine they’d be just as grateful.

[In the interests of full disclosure, the first of the Eager Volunteers sent me a response and it was, as usual, extremely helpful. They’re awesome.]

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Annie Pootoogook

I wrote a few weeks ago on the death of Abdirahman Abdi and how the reaction to his death from the police and the mayor was disturbing, disappointing, and wrong. I note, in passing, that in the time that has gone by we are still no closer to receiving any satisfactory answers about what happened that day, or holding anyone to account. Equally disturbingly, another death in Ottawa in recent days has shown that this was far from an isolated incident or a unique problem.

A few weeks ago now, the body of an Inuit woman named Annie Pootoogook was found in the Rideau River. She was an accomplished artist, had lived a difficult life, and at first it seemed her death was a sad accident. Then, the police announced that they were investigating her death as ‘suspicious’. Then things got worse.

A police officer used his private Facebook account to make a series of hateful and undeniably racist comments, dismissing Annie Pootoogook’s death as not worth investigating because First Nations people have short life spans and are happy to be substance abusers. I wish I could say it was astonishing to see such comments from a law enforcement officer, but it really isn’t. The surprising part was to see them made quite so publicly and blatantly, instead of being cloaked in double speak and careful wording. Understandably, as the comments became widely known, people were outraged.

Then things got worse. Police Chief Charles Bordeleau went on the radio to respond to the comments, and the upset they had caused, and refused to even apologize. He refused to call them racist; the furthest he would go was ‘inappropriate’ and to say that they were being ‘perceived as racist’. He suggested that this officer’s publicly expressed racism was no different than the biases every person inevitably has, and touted the training his department receives in this regard. Bordeleau said he saw no need to suspend the officer and that the comments did not ‘meet the threshold’ for dismissing the officer. He said, despite these public comments, that he saw no evidence of racist officers under his command. One wonders what further evidence he could possibly require.

It was a masterwork of the non-apology apology and is simply not good enough. People often seem to wonder why some do not have confidence and trust in the police. When an officer who makes public racist comments is not even suspended, and the police do not even make an unqualified apology, it shouldn’t be hard to understand. It is also, sadly, not hard to understand why there is such a horrifying pile of cases of missing and murdered First Nations women sitting unsolved when attitudes such as this exist in law enforcement. Here is a woman who died under suspicious circumstances, and police dismiss it as not worth their time.

It absolutely has to be worth their time, if they’re to be worthy of the respect and trust they ask of us. I have seen community activists who work with Bordeleau say that ‘his heart is in the right place’ and I trust that that is true. It is not enough. Bordeleau, the Ottawa police, and I would argue civic authorities in Ottawa in general, need to take an honest look at how and why they do things (which is not easy), lay aside the probably-understandable impulse to protect their own houses, and make real changes. If relations between government, law enforcement, and the community are going to change, now is not the time to carefully protect this officer instead of really confronting what his views represent. It’s time to prioritize people over the institution.

The plight of First Nations communities is Canada’s national shame. It is a stain on our history and on our society that we can never truly make up for, and I’m not sure we’ve really even started in any meaningful way. Incidents such as this show how very far we still have to go, despite the bold comments and promises our relatively new Liberal government has made. We need things to be done, and some of it must involve hard decisions and decisive action. For this and for other reasons we cannot continue to condone and tolerate racism and bigotry among the people who are supposed to be our protectors and the enforcers of our laws. Glowing rhetoric is not enough. Mealy-mouthed half-apologies won’t cut it. Things have to actually be done differently, real changes have to happen. In this specific instance of law enforcement, people will have to be fired and systematic reform and reconciliation will have to happen to fix it.

We all deserve better than the attitudes once again on display from police in Ottawa. Annie Pootoogook certainly deserves better.

That’s it for this week. I hope I’ll be back to writing about writing next time, but this is the kind of thing I promised myself I wouldn’t be quiet about any longer.

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