Monthly Archives: November 2016

Another Character Moment

This is going to be a little bit of a process entry again, so, uh, consider yourself forewarned.

I’ve been getting a reasonable amount of work done on the WIP (not anything so mundane as coming up with a title, though, heh) and thinking about it a lot and I find myself in interesting territory again. I’ve written before about how, as I write about characters, a lot of times I feel as though they’re telling me about themselves as I create. Obviously this is an inversion of what’s actually happening, but – again, as I’ve said before – I feel as though these imaginary people are coming to me rather that me creating them. Perhaps when I call them into existence, I don’t know everything about them, or at least it feels like it.

My latest example is the protagonist of the current WIP, Easter Pinkerton. She’s a spy in 1880s England who is about to get into more trouble than she would have believed possible. When I first started writing the story, I wrote a scene where Pinkerton (I learned fairly early on that she’s not fond of people using her first name) kills a traitor, and in the process uncovers part of the mystery she’ll chase for the rest of the book. In that scene she’s disguised as a man, and originally I did that because a) it struck me as probable that a female spy would find it convenient to dress as a man at least some of the time, b) it seemed to me that it made this specific mission easier for her, c) it makes for a nice swerve at the end of the scene (which I have now spoiled, aheheh) and d) I am a massive Sherlock Holmes dork and so of course I couldn’t resist putting a little of Irene Adler in her.

So there it was and I think the scene works ok, and I hadn’t given much more thought to Pinkerton’s use of male clothing than that. Then I wrote some more, and wrote some more, and finally created the scene where she returns home after a full day of cloak-and-daggery. And the very first thing she did was change into mens’ clothing again. I wrote that bit through what felt like a reflex, I genuinely felt ‘well of course she does this’ without having any wider ideas about it than that. I wrote it and I knew it was true and felt like Pinkerton had told me something about herself. This part of the creative process fascinates me more the more I think about it (although again, no doubt there are psychologists somewhere going ‘yes, all very straightforward’) and why you’ll never convince me that there isn’t something at least a little beyond biological/electrochemical machinery going on in there somewhere.

Of course now I’ve had some time to think about it, and of course there are all kinds of wider issues connected to it. Wearing mens’ clothing would have been a much more deeply transgressive thing for a Victorian woman to do than it is today (and obviously there’s still lots of issues around it today), so why does Pinkerton do it? It’s not just to be comfortable, or at least, not physically comfortable. She’s at home, she can be herself, and this is what she chooses to do. Pinkerton told me something about her identity in that scene that I now know I have to do right by the rest of the book.

I went back over what I had written that precedes that scene, and I don’t think I need to change anything to reflect my new understanding of Easter Pinkerton, but it has changed a bunch of things that will come afterwards. On the whole, if I can do it right, I think it will make the book richer and I like the character even more now. (I mean, I like each and every one of my imaginary people, even the awful ones, but probably inevitably I have my favorites, and Pinkerton is rapidly becoming one.)

That ‘if I can do it right’ looms rather large for me as I attempt to continue writing, though. Easter has a part to her identity that is not my experience, and so I feel extremely cautious about proceeding. Appropriation is a real issue for many people, and even well-meaning misportrayals can be upsetting and hurtful. It would be easier, in some ways, to just Not Do This part of the story, and make Pinkerton back into a character whose cross-dressing is purely pragmatic, but I wouldn’t like it, and I wouldn’t feel I was doing right by the character. I would feel like I was silencing something in a potentially hurtful way, even if no-one would ever have known about it but me.

I really don’t want to sound ‘oh pity me’ here – this is a challenge but I like it. It is somewhat like being out for a run and coming the the bottom of a big hill. This is going to be difficult, but on some level difficult is why we’re out there. Writing something that’s going to be difficult (for me) is a good thing for me to do. It will (however it works out) make me a better writer and make me think about a whole ton of things I wouldn’t have otherwise. If I do really well, perhaps no-one who reads the finished product and hasn’t also read this blog will know that Pinkerton was a hard character for me to write – they’ll just enjoy her story. I could presumably write a bunch of perfectly acceptable stories with characters who won’t push me the way I think Pinkerton is going to, but among other things, then I wouldn’t have the feeling of being at the top of the hill, and knowing you’ve done it, where you feel (just for a moment) invincible.

So Pinkerton is going to exist (in whatever form the story ends up existing in) as she ‘really’ is, or how she has started to explain herself to be. I’m going to do my best with it. I’m also waiting to see if she has more to reveal to me. I have a feeling there’s more that she’ll tell me about when the time is right. I don’t typically write romance, because I don’t feel I’m very good at it, but I also have the nagging feeling that Pinkerton isn’t going to let me off that easily. She and I will perhaps have to negotiate.

These imaginary people are a treasure, and a responsibility. I genuinely want to do right by them (in my admittedly-odd way of viewing them) but I want to do right by whoever it is that reads the story in the future. Ideally I’d like it if there’s something in my characters that might speak to them, that they might identify with, or at least that they’ll feel that my imaginary friends are worth spending some of their time with.

That was all very introspective, even by the standards of this here blog here, so thanks for your patience. I’ll go see if Pinkerton wants to talk about anything and let you know how it goes.

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Time Spins On

We had our first real snowstorm here last night and through into today. In general I really do like the changes of the seasons and how they each feel different from the last. When I lived in England, although I loved it, I did miss a winter that felt like winter and a summer that felt like summer. Without the change of season I think things could very easily start to feel all much of a muchness.

The change of season is also, of course, a reminder of time passing, and that got me to thinking. (Which is not exactly a hard thing to do, as you will know if you read this blog very much) Somehow it is not just November, but the end of November, and (cliche though it may be) I find myself wondering where the year went, again. I can’t help but look back and wonder if I could, or should, have done more with it.

I mean, I think I did all right. I finished writing a book and got it published. I shared my stories with some people who hadn’t read them before. I met some amazing, delightful people. I got to teach again. I read some truly amazing tales that I will treasure forever. Heck there are a lot of different artists who I experienced for the first time, or who I ran into new work from, that I feel deeply lucky about that. I started off on a new project that I’m very excited about and will probably have a title for one of these days. I got plugged into some new opportunities that seem as though they might be really exciting.

Can’t help but wonder if there was more I should have been doing, though, and limiting this only to thinking of ‘as a writer’ things (because otherwise it gets Too Big in a hurry). Should I have gotten some more stuff written? Maybe some short stories. Could I have figured out better ways to promote my work to get more eyeballs on it? Were those times when I was tired or shy or both and couldn’t quite hack shaking a few more hands or introducing myself to some more people opportunities that I’ll never get back? Did I write the wrong stuff? I know I missed some chances – how much will those haunt me?

One of the great things about the internet is that you can see how many wonderful, amazing voices there are out there, how many outstanding writers writing outstanding stuff and it is exciting and uplifting and (for a reader especially) tantalizing. It is also a little scary at times because there are so many writers, and of course on some selfish level I do really want people to read my stories, and I wonder if I am doing anything near enough to give that the best chance of happening. The crowd of artists is wonderful, but being lost in the crush, perhaps not so much.

I try to take a deep breath, look at the snow, and give myself a break. First of all, it really is wonderful that there are SO MANY stories out there for those of us who love to read them. I wish I had unlimited time so I could read every single one. As for myself, I’ve done what I can. It’s probably not according to an ideal plan, but I did what I could based on what I had time for (it being, alas, not unlimited), what I had energy for (that not being unlimited either) and what I felt like was the right thing to do at the time. In terms of writing, I don’t know any way to do it other than to write what I’m excited about, and if that’s not the perfect thing in terms of marketability, so be it. I remind myself that I mostly write because it makes me happy, and so I may as well do that.

Hopefully some other people will enjoy it too.

I recently saw a series of tweets from Daniel Jose Older, a writer who seems to be a pretty wise individual, saying that writers (and artists) have to allow themselves to fail. Every project isn’t going to work out, everything can’t be the best thing you ever did. It’s ok. It’s like how I had to learn from my coach that even if you work really hard in training, not every race can be a personal best. Nobody does that. You do the best you can, and it goes how it goes. You write what you have in your soul to create and see what comes of it. Better to spend your energy working on the next thing than picking over the bones of what you might have done differently. If it wasn’t great, there’s probably a lesson you can use next time. Or at least, you Tried a Thing and now you know how that thing ends up.

There is probably always going to be more that could perhaps have gotten done in a particular year. There’s probably always going to be those moments that could have been handled better. There’s probably always going to be ‘what if’s. Part of that comes from (again) having a good imagination, being able to see all those alternative ways things could have broken. Part of it, I am sure, is just being a person.

Time spins on.

We do what we can.

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Although I can’t attend (Real Life being what it is), Renaissance Press will be at the Creative Ottawa Nerds Holiday Craft Fair this Saturday, from 10-5. Admission is $5 or 2 cans of food, in support of the Ottawa Food Bank. This is a great cause to support, you can get a copy of Bonhomme Sept-Heures if you want to, and I do incidentally love that the church is named after Julian of Norwich. Details here.

In an amazing act of bilocation, Renaissance will also be at the Ottawa ComicCon Holiday Edition, out at the EY Centre. Admission there is free, and you can pick up all the amazing stuff from Renaissance as well as a lot of other awesome vendors. Details here.

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Time For Art

Ok, so, rough week last week. I mean, relatively speaking I am more than fine, but I would be lying if I said that the past several days didn’t shake me, and I’m not likely to be in any particular difficulty or danger any time soon. I know there are lots of people that are. From my own little point of view, I have seen lots of artists, some that I know and some that I don’t, say that they don’t know how to keep creating when they are faced with such discouragement, hostility, and disillusionment. Again, it is relatively easy for me to say this, given my situation, but I know that I am certainly not going to stop writing. If anything, I’m extra determined to keep creating. I hope if any other writers are reading this, you all will too.

I will keep writing because, among other things, this is something that cannot be taken from me. Elections can go bad, jobs can go bad, friendships can end, whatever – I will still be able to write. I will still have imaginary worlds to create and stories to tell. I think they’re interesting and entertaining and hopefully fun to visit and maybe in some small way significant, but at a minimum they are significant to me, and the one thing the world will absolutely not take from me is my ability to create and tell stories and to write. If you take this laptop away (and I mean, it’s a luxury) I will write on paper like I used to. If you take the paper away I will tell the stories in my head like I already do anyway. This is mine. You can’t have it.

I assume it’s similar for other sorts of artists. I can’t draw and I certainly can’t sing or play an instrument, but it strikes me that if you are one of those kinds of artists, you’ve got the same freedom. You can always create. The only thing that can ever stop you is you, so don’t stop.

I think it’s important not to, in part because (and here I’m generalizing what’s true for me to artists overall) creating is a vital part of who we are and we are healthier, better people when we express that gift. I know I always feel better when I’ve written something, because part of me is (on whatever level you want to put it) intended to write and so the whole organism feels good when some writing gets done. To stop doing art is to be a bird that stops flying.

I also think, slightly trite though this sentiment may be, that it is in times of crisis that we (as a society) need art the most. We need things that amaze and astound and delight us when things look bleak. We need things that challenge us when there seems to be only one way things can go. And we need a wide, rich, wonderful diversity of voices and stories especially in times when we’re being threatened by bigotry and discrimination. They want us, me, you, to shut up. Artists have to say no.

A lot of artists are sad or frightened or in pain right now. Take that and make something out of it.

Melodramatic an idea as it may be, there might be someone waiting to hear what you have to say. Something you write may be able to inspire or encourage a person out there who needed to hear it, or even just amuse or entertain them for a brief space of time when they needed a break from the world.

Artists can be part of the voice that speaks up against things that are wrong, can advocate for the causes we know to be right, and take a message to people that otherwise might not hear it. It’s who we are, it’s what we do, and it’s a powerful gift as well as a responsibility.

Out here, a lot of things hurt. Pick up what you can and create.

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Leonard Cohen

Tonight, at the end of a week that has already been a pretty rough ride, we got the news that Leonard Cohen has died.  For a lot of us this is another blow, although I’m trying not to be too sad as I write this tonight.

Cohen lived, I think by any standard, an incredible life and from an interview he gave not long ago it sounded like he was at peace with nearing the end of it. He sounded to me like a person looking back at work well done, and I hope that’s true. I also like, and admire, that he kept producing his art right up until the end. Although a lot of his work was melancholy in tone (to say the least), my impression (not having met him, of course) is that the art was essential to him and a joy to him and I’m glad he never stopped doing it.

I’m not in any way qualified to comment on Cohen as a musician, but the man had a gift with words. He wrote lyrics, or poetry, or both, that stick with you and appealed to such a wide range of people. Other artists love them and want to make them their own. His audience has been massive, and it’s bigger than is frequently recognized. It’s kind of similar to Shakespeare – even if they don’t necessarily realize it, just about everyone knows a Leonard Cohen song, or part of one.  It’s hard to do much better than that.

As a writer, I am deeply awed by his skill with words and his ability to reach into you with language and yank a reaction out of your heart and soul. If I ever write something that is one tenth as good as a Leonard Cohen lyric, I will have done about as well as I could ever hope to do.

As a fan, I’m glad we had him with us as long as we did and that his art will live on.

It’s a great loss that there won’t be any more of it, but he leaves us a great treasure of words.

Thank you, Mr. Cohen.

Rest well.

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Aftermath

I don’t put very much political content up here because I know that is not what most of the people who come to read this thing are here for.  This is an exception.

The other day I was watching an old Doctor Who episode, ‘Horror of Fang Rock’, which is my favorite, in part because my favorite companion, Leela is such a tremendous badass in it.  There’s a point where things are going badly where she says ‘The creature has got into the lighthouse.  Now we must fight for our lives.’

I thought of that this morning.

I see a lot of ‘you’re worrrying too much’ and ‘oh well’ posted around already and I wish I could feel that way. I have friends in the U.S. who have to worry because their rights are about to come under attack. If you think it won’t happen you didn’t pay very much attention to what the man and his supporters have been saying.  If you’re black, or Muslim, or LGBTQ, or a woman in America, if you’re an immigrant, your new leader made a bunch of promises to do awful things to you, and your country told him to go ahead.

This isn’t just ‘Oh Bush won instead of Gore’ or even ‘Well Harper instead of Ignatieff’, where the government is going to make a bunch of decisions you won’t like but life will be more or less the same.  If the new president does even half the things he said he would do America will not be the same.  I know politicians make promises and don’t keep them all the time.  Most of the time, the promises are not like this.  He has promised deportation forces and punishment for abortions and things I thought I would never hear any serious political candidate say.  For a historian, the parallels are as obvious as they are chilling and I hope I will be as wrong about them as all the pollsters were in the run up to last night.

I find it genuinely scary, and I don’t have to live there.  If you’re horrified like I am, though, now is not the time to give up on the things we believe are true.  There are people who are really in danger and we need to help them however we can.  We need to push twice as hard for the causes we think are right and be as unapologetic about it as this guy who was backed by the KKK just was.  I still believe what Jack Layton said, that love is stronger than hate, but love has to be strong to win.  Hate evidently is.

As much as I can, I’m gonna be there for people who are scared and don’t feel safe under this new reality that has dropped on them.  I don’t know how much help I can be, but I’m gonna try.  If you’re upset about America’s new president, please try to do the same.  People really are going to need it.

I’m profoundly grateful to live in Canada, with the awareness that we’re far from immune from the hate. If we really like our (relatively) progressive society, “It is time for us to fight”.

I’m in.

(For the little bit it’s worth, Leela’s ‘Finished! I did it.’ after the monster is killed is a scene I am also trying to keep in mind this morning)
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Directions

I don’t have any Big Ideas for this week’s entry, so I suppose I’ll just start off with an update (which was, after all, the original purpose of this thing) – work continues on the new WIP (which I am not being intentionally cryptic about, I just don’t have a title I love for it yet) and it’s going all right. The story is starting to unspool itself, which is cool, although it’s also true that it keeps veering off in some unanticipated directions.

By this I mean that as I start to write certain scenes, I’m deciding that they don’t work quite the way I thought they would, and so I change them around. Scenes that I hadn’t originally considered are shouldering their way in. The order that events are going to happen in keeps getting reshuffled because of both these things. Because (as I’ve discussed) I tend to write things out of order, there are some scenes that I quite like that I’m no longer sure how I’m going to get to, now. I don’t want them to end up becoming lost little spare parts of story, but I also don’t want to force them in if they don’t work anymore. (I can probably repurpose them for something else)

This links back to my topic from a few entries back, because some of this doesn’t feel like it’s entirely under my control. As I’ve said, I don’t always understand exactly where the ideas come from, even though I know it’s ultimately all ‘from me’. So it can feel as though the story I’m telling is a little bit out of control as well, and I’m writing furiously trying to keep up with these new directions it’s deciding to go in. It’s exciting most of the time, and a little frustrating some of the time as well, when I thought I had a really solid idea of how the plot was going to unfold and then I have to reassess the whole thing once I actually get to writing.

Although I will be a little disappointed to have to put aside some of the material I thought I’d use in this story, and I’m still working hard trying to figure out how to keep some of it, I’d rather make the changes than not. The reason the story is going in a different direction than I thought is that I have new ideas that I’m excited about. It doesn’t seem like it can possibly be the right call to ignore those in favour of something I scrawled on the back of a postcard two months or so ago. I know I write better when I’m writing about things that I’m enthusiastic about, so the best thing is to accept the differences and follow the path these decisions are opening up.

In some ways, writing a story is like anything else, I find – you have a plan for how things are going to go, and then due to all sorts of factors, some under your control and some not, things probably don’t work out exactly how you planned, and it’s often better to go with it rather than trying too hard to force things to be the way you originally envisioned. Everything is constantly being shaped and reshaped by decisions we all make, and a lot of times we can’t see all the consequences of something we decide, and most times we can’t take it back once we make one. We all adapt and rewrite as we see how things unfold.

I guess along those lines, I will say (for what it’s worth) that if you happen to be reading this in the United States on the day it goes up, you’ve got a pretty big decision in front of you. I’m sure you’ve had more than enough of people telling you which way to go (and if you’ve read much of this blog, you probably know what I think about it) so I’m just going to say that I really hope you’ll be an active part of that decision, and go and vote. It’s easy to be cynical about the process, but you don’t get asked what you think very often. Now’s your chance to take part in deciding, and I think you’ll regret not doing it.

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

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I did a little reno on parts of the blog. There is now a list of some Links that I think you might enjoy.

I will shamelessly remind you that my second novel, Bonhomme Sept-Heures, is now available. The glitch where you couldn’t get the paperback edition from Amazon.ca has been resolved, so you should be able to get it in whatever manifestation would bring you the most enjoyment. If you’d like to try before you buy, there’s now an excerpt from the story added on to the Books section. Enjoy.

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Bonhomme Sept-Heures

Last weekend, I launched another one.

Saturday night was the official coming-out party for my new novel, Bonhomme Sept-Heures. My publishers put on a wonderful launch party with several other local artists in downtown Ottawa, there was an amazing turnout, and the evening was fantastic. People listened to me read a selection from the book, some of them decided they wanted my story and took it home with them.

Some very keen people have even already finished it, and told me how they liked it. There’s no better feeling, as a writer, to have someone say that they would like to sit down with a story you wrote. It really doesn’t matter, to me, whether they say it directly, or just through the implication of taking my book home with them. It is a wonderful validation to have created something, and have someone say ‘yes please’. I imagine that’s true for every artist.

There is also that vulnerability that I talked about a couple weeks back – where people may read it, and decide they don’t like it, but right now I’m not feeling too much of that. I’m mostly just excited to have the story out where people can read it (which is really what stories are for) and give it a home in their imaginations. I’m sure I will hear some criticisms – which I am mostly glad to get, since it means someone read my story and thought about it – but for now I’m just enjoying it leaving the nest.

The launch itself was a splendid experience, too, of course. Again it was great to be in a room full of writers and readers and to feed off all that excitement for stories and enjoy the craft of other artists. We obviously can’t always be surrounded by people who agree with our passions, but it’s certainly a treat and a reward when it’s possible to grab it. I’m very grateful for all of these times.

Finally, I feel like this all reinforces the creative process on the next project. Even though what I’m working on now is a different set of characters and quite a different sort of story than my first two books feature, having this reminder of the payoff for getting it done and getting it out to an audience is fantastic incentive. I already can’t wait for my next story to be ready for people to read. It’s going to take a while.

Next week I will probably have something a bit more thoughtful for you. This week I’m watching Bonhomme Sept-Heures take flight. Thanks for reading.

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(Thanks to Rohit Saxena for the photo)

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I’d be delighted if you wanted to give Bonhomme Sept-Heures a try yourself. I made the story the best I could and I’d love to know what you think of it. You can order the book from Amazon (as well as several other major online retailers), you can buy it direct from the Renaissance Press website here, and you can ask for your favourite local bookstore to order it in for you. It will (of course) also be available at any of the events Renaissance Press attends from this point onwards, and I’ll keep you updated about those as they come up.

There’s one minor wrinkle at the moment as the paperback edition isn’t available on Amazon.ca – it is on all the other versions of Amazon, but because of how Amazon handles the different versions of itself there’s a delay with the Canadian one. It will be available there shortly and I’ll update you when it is.

I greatly appreciate everyone who spends some of their reading time on my stories. I hope you’ll like Bonhomme Sept-Heures and I really do look forward to hearing what you thought about it.

You can now also read an excerpt from the story under the ‘Books’ tab here.

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