Monthly Archives: February 2017

Bill Paxton

On the weekend, Bill Paxton died. I never met him and don’t know much about him as a person but he was in a lot of things I took pleasure from and I always enjoyed his performances. He got eaten by xenomorphs in Aliens, wiped out by a Predator in Predator 2, and terminated in The Terminator. He was in Tombstone and Twister and both of those were stories I liked a lot, and of course he did a lot more work than that. By all accounts he was a lovely human being and he’ll be missed for a lot of different reasons.

I’m not sure, then, that it says anything good about me that my first reaction upon seeing the news of his passing was to think of his line as Private Hudson in Aliens: ‘Oh, that’s just fucking great. Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?’ Then again apparently he had a sense of humour so maybe he would have laughed.

While I liked a lot of the characters he portrayed, in some ways Hudson is the one I think of most (maybe because I’ve seen Aliens a few too many times) and almost everyone who has watched any SF at all at least knows the ‘Game over man, game over’ meltdown. In some ways he seems to be a very straightforward character, but (as usual) I’ve Gotten To Thinking about him over the years and there’s some issues attached to Hudson after all.

When you see the movie the first time, almost everyone reacts to Hudson and his tearful collapse the same way: he’s a coward, he’s all talk and can’t back it up, he’s almost the stereotypical ‘bully’ character who’s supposed to collapse in the face of adversity. We admire Ripley and Hicks for keeping their shit together (and Ripley is a character who does deserve all the praise written for her) and it seems pretty clear, going forward, who’s really a hero, and who’s pretending.

When you think about it a little more, though, things get a touch more complicated. Yes, Hudson has a big messy meltdown. But it’s not in the moment of danger. When the Aliens are actually attacking, Hudson gets down to business. Every time. He doesn’t actually run away or freeze, he fights. When he’s given a non-combat task to do, he gets it done. His bad moment(s) are those in-between moments when there’s nothing to do but think about the predicament he’s in. One sympathises, and in the end, he goes down screaming defiance at a threat he probably can’t even really wrap his mind around and takes a lot of chitinous horrors with him.

Again, those ‘weak’ moments (as we might view them)are always in pauses in the action, and there’s honestly pretty good reasons for him. By the time of the ‘Game Over’ scene, he’s just seen most of his friends and squadmates devoured by aliens, his sergeant is dead, his lieutenant is clearly good for nothing at all (now there’s someone who does freeze when the chips are down) and the vehicle they were counting on to get them off this deathtrap of a planet has just crashed in flames. Not only is Hudson’s reaction not really exceptionally bad, it’s really completely understandable.

It’s just not, perhaps, what we expect from a ‘hero’, especially in the action-y genre that Aliens inhabits.

This reminds me, in turn, of an ongoing debate I have with one of my Eager Volunteers. (Which, I want to make clear, I completely appreciate.) A lot of times he questions the reactions of my protagonist in bad situations and basically asks ‘hey, shouldn’t this guy be at least a bit afraid?’. It’s a good point, because most people, put in those kinds of situations, would probably be more than a little afraid and probably would freak out something along the lines of Private Hudson.

So, sometimes I punch up the reaction, but sometimes I reason that fictional heroes are allowed to be more than a little exceptional and don’t punch it up very much. Because we expect our heroes to be that way, fearless, at least a lot of the time, even if we know that most people would be afraid and would show their fear in that kind of situation, and certainly that we would, put in some kind of perilous jam.

We believe this to the point that a character displaying a perfectly human reaction to unimaginable terror becomes a joke because of it. Some of this, I’m sure, is that we want our fictional heroes to be more than ordinary, in all kinds of ways. It’s troublesome and discouraging when our fears keep us from doing the things that we need to do or want to do, and so it’s nice to at least imagine times when that absolutely does not happen.

I guess thinking about Private Hudson makes me think that at least sometimes, that’s also a little unfair. It may set a bar for ‘heroic’ behaviour that’s so high that no real person can possibly reach it, and it may also, if we let it, rob us of what I think are actually the much more compelling moments, when we see a person who is afraid and does what they have to anyway because nothing else will serve. That’s among the many reasons why I think Ripley is such a good character; she never goes to pieces like Hudson, but she’s clearly terrified a lot of the time in Alien and Aliens and she still gets stuff handled. And I think Hudson, in the end, is arguably just as heroic, because he does go to pieces but pulls it back together and gets back in the fight.

Maybe it’s a question of degrees. Perhaps there’s some kind of ideal balance out there between ‘shows genuine emotional reactions’ and ‘behaves heroically’ out there for me to chase.

Maybe it’s a question of unfair expectations.

But, perhaps at least in part in salute to Private Hudson, who I would put on my squad any time, and Bill Paxton, who brought the character to life along with all the others we enjoyed, I’ll let my imaginary heroes show a little more of their very human fears of the horrible places I make them go.

The story will probably be better, and it’ll make that one Eager Volunteer happy.

Thanks for reading.


Remember that I am still donating all my royalties from sales of either The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures to the Canadian Council for Refugees up until March 3rd.  You can help people in desperate trouble and reward yourself with a story I think you’ll like at the same time.

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In Praise of Readers

Late last week I sent out another (by which I really mean ‘the second’) chunk of the current WIP to some Eager Volunteers to see what they thought. I’ve been finding the writing hard going of late and I hoped this might help.

It did.

The Volunteers emailed back almost right away, one having read the piece while plagued by insomnia (which is a decision that’s possible to read in a couple ways, but never mind) and sent back their usual thoughtful response, which included some useful criticism, some questions, and some compliments.

On some level the praise is most obviously useful to me in my current situation. Everyone likes a pat on the head and having someone whose opinion I respect say that they’re enjoying what I’m working on will probably always feel good. So that’s a nice shot of positivity to encourage me to keep working away. It also helps to hear that someone wants to learn more about a particular character, or to know what’s going to happen; I guess obviously a writer is always hoping to generate interest and it’s both pleasing and a relief to know that in at least a couple of cases, I’m setting the hook okay.

The criticism is very nearly as useful, though, because concrete areas where the story needs work are better than a sense of generalized unease where I know there are things that aren’t right but not exactly what they are, much less how to fix them. It’s always easier to have something like a bullet list (har) of things that need to be taken care of than a vague idea that Stuff needs to be Fixed. Having people where there’s a strong enough trust that they tell me what they really think, and they know that I really do want to know what they really think, and not just get a pat on the head, is (as I am discovering) both rare and incredibly valuable.

The questions never cease to fascinate me, because the things readers are intrigued by and want to know more about seem always to include things that I never anticipated. I wrote a while ago about how a character in The King in Darkness that I didn’t think anyone would have any particular interest in ended up getting a scene added to the final draft to finish their story, because readers kept asking about it. So it already is with this piece, and what it mostly does is make me happy that what I’m writing can be interpreted and understood in a variety of ways (because if a reader understood it exactly the same way as I do, writing it, they wouldn’t have some of these questions), which is something I always enjoy when I’m reading and very much want to create when I’m writing. It also gives me ideas for things to do next, which is also very valuable.

All of which to say that the responses I get from my Eager Volunteers is a treasure to me as a writer, and makes my task in creating the story so much easier and the final project immeasurably better. I have had a good number of genuinely well-meaning people offer to take on the task and had it not work out (which I completely understand – if nothing else, it’s not easy to devote some of one’s precious store of free time to reading something they may not even like), so that makes the people who are willing to put in the time struggling through a rough-hewn story and then also take the time to share their responses and reactions to it with me a very special breed.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank them once again, because I appreciate what they do more than I can say. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day. Thank you very much indeed.

I am also aware that I owe a similar debt to each and every one of my readers, without whom my stories would be silent words on the page and none of my characters, who I love very much, would ever have a chance to live. If you’ve read one of my stories, and thereby given some of my made-up people a home in your imagination, at least for a while, I thank you as well.

It is, of course, a truism that without readers there are really no writers in a meaningful sense, but sometimes it’s the obviously true facts that need to be acknowledged. I’m grateful to everyone who has ever taken the time to read one of my stories; I can think of few better compliments for a writer than ‘I would like to spend some time with your imagination’. I am especially grateful to the readers who let me know what they thought about what they read. A lot of it makes me better, and all of it helps me want to write more. Without writers, people have nothing to read, and without readers, it would be the next thing to impossible to call oneself a writer.

So once again, I thank my readers.

Now to try to do some more of my half of the bargain.

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Hawkeye

In my continuing quest to prove that I have my finger firmly on the pulse of five years ago, I thought that this week I’d write about a comic series I really enjoyed: Matt Fraction and (mostly) David Aja’s run on Hawkeye. Hawkeye had never been one of my favourite superheroes growing up (among other things, his classic costume is pretty goofy) but I heard a lot of very good things about this series and so when it started coming out in trade paperbacks I picked it up.

I’m really glad I did. Although the title is Hawkeye, it’s really about two characters, Clint Barton (classic Hawkeye of the formerly-goofy costumer) and Kate Bishop, who (in a classically comic-booky situation) picked up the Hawkeye identity when everyone thought Clint was dead. One of the things I liked about it right away is that the book isn’t about Hawkeye and his sidekick. They’re both Hawkeye. They both have their moments of brilliance and moments of disaster. It works really well. After reading Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye, now Clint and Kate are two of my favourite superheroes, to the point that I kind of don’t want to read more of the series in case it’s not as good. That’s the good part about reading comics late and selectively – I can just pretend the series didn’t continue if I want to.

Most of the time the stories are reasonably light-hearted street-level superhero-y action, although it’s probably fair to say they get a little grittier as they go along, which ends up hitting harder than a lot of straight-up grim stuff does because it kind of crept up on you from behind a fun facade, if that makes sense. Even in the early issues, though, every so often a little bit of seriousness peeks through, as when Clint wonders what it says about him that every time he goes into a room he starts looking around for things he could use as a weapon. Fraction really emphasizes the idea that while Clint is a really good archer (although Kate is probably better, or at least will be), that’s just one of the very many ways he knows how to inflict damage.

The usual backstory is that this is something Clint learned from a mentor during his time with the circus (really) but Fraction starts it off much earlier, when Clint and his brother Barney were still living with their parents, and in particular their abusive father. After one especially bad night, Barney gives his little brother some advice. “Make everything something to hit with. Then we outlast him.”

Which is a pretty bleak thing for a kid to be saying to his little brother, but when I was re-reading the books lately, that one line really resonated with me. I seem to be thinking (and writing a lot of these blogs) a lot about perseverance, these days, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I’m struggling to write. Maybe it’s because my workload these days feels a little heavy. Maybe there’s some other reason.

Anyway, even though I don’t get in actual fights, the idea behind Barney’s advice seems solid. Whatever the battle is, even if it doesn’t necessarily seem like you’ve got the weapons you want or need, you keep trying with whatever you’ve got. With my writing problems, even if the words aren’t gushing out of me, if I get a couple sentences out that’s at least moving the ball forward a little. It’s not following any ideal plans for how to write a novel, but as long as it’s moving the word count upwards, even slightly, it’s something. I can keep reading things that inspire me. I can keep at least outlining out the stuff that I’m having difficulty turning into prose on the page, so that when I’m ready to pound out the text I’ll know right where to go. I can send out some of the stuff I have done to the Eager Volunteers so that their feedback can give me some ideas for how to proceed. Every day, I can find some way to continue working on this project and refusing to quit on it until it’s done. Keep fighting, and outlast whatever the problem is.

Barney Barton’s other piece of advice on fighting (offered in the same issue, and also to small children, which is slightly distressing, although he goes on to explain that anyone can get into a fight but that doing good is difficult) is that sometimes the winner of a fight is the person who is willing to get hurt the longest. I guess I feel that way about a great many challenges in life, these days. Sometimes you just have to stand in there, say absolutely no I will not quit, and keep plugging away with whatever tools and assets you can find, whatever you can lay your hands on and make into something to hit with. Keep at it long enough and eventually you’ll find a way through, or around, or maybe under, the problem you’ve got in front of you.

It even occurs to me, as I write this, that this isn’t the worst philosophy to keep in mind given certain, uh, current events. A lot of people have an enormous battle in front of them that looks pretty difficult to win, and if you look at it quickly it may seem like we don’t have any weapons. But the battle is everywhere, and so are the tools we can use to fight it. Everything we do, every choice we make, can be part of continuing the struggle and continuing the resistance. The things we buy, or don’t buy. The voices we listen to. The people we choose to help. We can make everything within our grasp something to hit out at the enemy with. It won’t all be super effective. But it probably all adds up, and if nothing else it shows that we aren’t down yet. We’re still fighting.

Make everything something to hit with.

Then we outlast him.

Thanks for reading.

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In case you missed me ballyhooing this earlier, I did an interview for Black Gate Magazine with Brandon Crilly. If you’d like to read even more of me jabbering on about stuff I write, you can check it out here. Black Gate publishes a lot of great fantasy-related content so you really should be reading them anyway.

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No Middle Ages

This is a topic I’ve been saving up for a week when I didn’t have a good idea to write about – and this is one of those weeks. Here we go.

You may (or may very well not!) know that I have a degree in medieval history. As a result, when a lot of people find out that I write fiction, they assume that I therefore write either historical fiction or classic fantasy (by which I mean fantasy set in some imagined society that takes medieval European society as its foundation, with castles and knights and so on). As of yet, I do not – both of my books are what I guess we could call contemporary fantasy, or fantasies set in some close analog of the modern world, rather than some version of the past societies that I study and love. My current project is set in the past, but not in the medieval past, or any version of it; this story takes place in an imaginary version of the 19th century (there is a whole question to be asked about how good an idea this is that I am cheerfully ignoring for now). I can’t argue with the idea that this seems to playing against what you might assume to be my strengths. Very often, people then ask why. I usually just say, “It’s complicated.”

This is the longer answer.

I want to make clear from the outset that I love to read both historical fiction and classic fantasy. Some of my favourite books are from those genres and some of my favourite authors work in them. There are reasons why these are enduring and popular forms of story with audiences spanning impressive distances of time and space. And yet, I’ve never seriously tried to write either kind.

I think there are two main reasons, and they kind of flow into each other. One is that I know, from talking to writers who do write historical fiction, how very hard it is to do well. An immense amount of work goes into figuring out the right vocabulary to put in the mouths of your characters, the appropriate technology to have available, the right sort of names to give them and populating the setting with the buildings, foods, animals, instruments, and a thousand other things that meet the demands of the story but also fit with the time being described. As an example, I did once try a short piece set in the Middle Ages, and ran into problems with what to call the hired muscle. Can’t use ‘thug’ (19th century). Can’t use ‘goon’ (20th century). Even ‘bully’ appears to be 16th century and thus too late. As I check now, I see I used ‘ruffian’, which also seems to be too late, although maybe I thought its Latin etymology let me get away with it.

And that’s one word. What would the food be like? Animals and their associated equipment are devilishly complicated. Ask any medieval historian about inns and prepare for a difficult answer.

So it’s very hard to do right, and I would be keenly aware, as a scholar of the past, of a need to do it right, and any mistakes (like ‘ruffian’) would bother me. I would also be concerned that people would read the thing, expecting all the pieces, large and small, to be just right, and be most displeased when they weren’t. I don’t exactly expect a thesis examination panel response to a history-based story that I might write, but I don’t exactly not expect one either. Now, it’s true that writing fantasy rather than historical fiction somewhat exempts you from all these problems – if you want your pseudo-medieval society to have had potatoes, it can just have potatoes – but I would still feel the need to portray a society that was credible based on what I know about the real past, which would be very nearly as hard.

So, part of why I don’t do it is that although it seems like it should be easy, I feel instead that there’s a great deal of pressure (most of it internally-generated) in writing about the medieval world (or something resembling the medieval world) that I don’t currently feel like tackling, or at least not until I have an idea that’s so exciting that I can’t avoid it. It’s true that I probably have more to build on than many other writers might, but I guess what I’m saying is that that also makes me aware of a great many more pitfalls that I worry about how to avoid.

However, there’s more to the problem.

Because I think I could, if I put in the spadework, produce stories set in the past, or something like it, that would be a reasonable approximation of what we think it was really like. The other trouble is that I’m not sure it’s what people really want to read. I think sometimes we (and I include myself in this) prefer our imaginary version of things to reality. It can be ever so much more fun that way, perhaps also more uplifting or comforting. I guess, on some level, I worry that if I wrote a story that closely represented medieval society the way I understand it, people would read it and think something like ‘well that’s just not very cool’.

I’m not really sure why I think that, because I think the real Middle Ages were amazingly cool, and I don’t think it was necessarily an awful grim joyless time to be alive, and I think when I teach courses on the subject I communicate that reasonably well. But stories are not lectures (or at least, I don’t think they should be), and my guess is that people may prefer the imagined past to the real one. As an example I’ve used here before: yes, it would probably be possible to write the story of the ‘real’ King Arthur, of whatever historical personage inspired some or all of the legend, but I don’t think people would like it very much because it wouldn’t have Lancelot and it wouldn’t have the quest for the Grail and so many other parts of the story that we love today. We don’t want the real story, we want the imaginary one. Which is wonderful, but then I think that if I’m not going to write something rooted in reality, then there’s no real advantage to me writing a medieval story at all, and I may as well just write another of the contemporary-rooted ones that I have rattling around my rickety brain.

(Yes, this all sits more than a little uneasily with my previously-expressed love for historical fiction and the fact that I know it is very popular. I know you can do this really well. I have never pretended that all my thoughts fit together terribly well and won’t start now. I suppose in the end what I doubt is my ability to do it really well.)

All this may just mean that I don’t have the right ideas yet, and when I do I will sit down to write about the Middle Ages, or my imagined version of them, with confidence and energy. It may be that I will never do it. I honestly don’t know, except that when I think about all the stories that I would currently like to get to writing at some time in the not too distant future, there still isn’t a medieval, or medieval-ish, one among them.

Just as honestly, I think that’s fine. There are, after all, so many people already doing it well. As ever, this is Not Advice, but I think the best thing most artists can do is do whatever work excites them and inspires them, rather than worrying about what makes sense for them to do or what they of course should be doing. Or such are the thoughts that I use to comfort myself, anyway.

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


In case you missed the announcements on social media, Can-Con, Ottawa’s Speculative Arts and Literature conference, has booked its dates for 2017.  As part of the programming team I’m already getting excited.  The con will run from October 13-15 and returns to the Sheraton Hotel in the city’s downtown.  Details and registration here.

Also in case you missed it: I will be donating all of my royalties from sales of The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures to the Canadian Council for Refugees from now until March 3rd.  It’s a modest gesture, but it’s something that I can do to help people who truly need the world to be just a little kind to them.  If you’d like to help people looking for safety and reward yourself with a story I think you’ll enjoy at the same time, I would be very grateful.

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The Strangers’ Case

There is much in the news and elsewhere currently about refugees and how we should respond to them and treat them.  If you follow me on social media (or if you know me) you probably know where I stand already, but I’ve decided it’s important to take action as well as say nice things.

So here is a thing that I can do.

For the next month (actually up until March 3rd) I am donating all of my royalties from sales of Bonhomme Sept-Heures and The King in Darkness to the Canadian Council for Refugees.

You can support people who are in desperate need of help and somewhere safe to go and also reward yourself with a story I think and hope you’ll enjoy at the same time.

I would be delighted if you would join me in offering a welcoming hand to some people who could not need it more, and a kinder response than they are getting from many quarters currently.

edit to add:  You might remember I did this last year for Fort McMurray relief and I was really pleased by the response.  I hope we’ll do as well again.

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