Monthly Archives: April 2017

Artists for Artists

What I’ve got for you this week is a story I found quite disheartening in a lot of ways. I was whiling away/wasting a little time on Twitter and I came across a news report of a mural of Michelle Obama that had been installed in Chicago. It turned out that the mural (and I’m not going to name the artist here because I don’t want to push any more traffic his way), which had been crowd-funded, had also been plagiarised, copied exactly from a work done by a young artist named Gelila Lila Mesfin, with no attempt at attribution or giving credit for her work. (This is a pretty good news story covering the issue)

Social media exploded (which I guess is good), the plagiarist reacted fairly badly, but last we heard the two were in some sort of negotiations over the thing, which I hope ends up with Ms. Mesfin getting both full credit for the work as well as some money. We shall see.

I found the whole thing depressing, as I said, because it was such a blatant theft and I would really have liked to believe that someone who thought of themselves as an artist would do that to another artist. I mean, I know how much of my energy and how much of myself goes into anything that I write, and I assume the same is true for the work done by other artists. As a result, I can’t imagine stealing that, or pretending that it was mine. I know how hard it is. I wouldn’t be able to take something that someone else had poured so much into and say that I had done it.

I also like to think that my writing, whatever else may be good or bad about it, is mine, and that’s important. Even leaving aside the issue of ripping off someone else’s work, I wouldn’t ever be able to say that a piece of writing done by something else was mine, because it isn’t. I would take genuinely zero satisfaction in putting out a piece of work that I hadn’t created, because no matter how much people liked it, it wouldn’t matter, because I didn’t do it.

Finally, it seems to me the whole point of being an artist (of whatever sort) is that you create. Again, whether you like what I write or you don’t, I wrote that. I made something that wasn’t there before. That’s very much the whole point of saying that I’m a writer. It would be a frankly bizarre sort of act to be claiming to be a creator when I wasn’t. I can’t imagine what the point of it all could possibly be.

I feel like all of this should be thoroughly straight-forward and obvious, but then something like this mess over the weekend happens and it makes me doubt. I think artists have more than enough challenges to deal with in society without sticking the knife into each other by stealing work. I would like to think that artists should understand better than anyone else how difficult it is to make your way in a creative field, and not sabotage a colleague’s efforts by ripping them off.

Artists need to be on each other’s side, boost each other’s work, and be each other’s support system. Artists should be the best allies other artists have. I would like to think that’s automatic, but clearly it isn’t necessarily the case. Let’s all try to do as well as we can.

Thanks for reading.

——

It’s a little bit more than a month until the 2017 Limestone Genre Expo! I attended for the first time last year and will be back again this year. Renaissance Press will be there as well, which means you will be able to buy either of my books, if you like, and I will be at the table frequently so you can come and say hi if that seems like the sort of thing you might enjoy. I will also be participating in some of the panel discussions again, and I’m already looking forward to all of it. Limestone is a growing convention for basically any time of writer or lover of writing, and I would love to see you there. Details here..

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Landmarks

I got outside for my first long run this week.

It was a lovely day and it was great to be outside rather than on the treadmill, but something was missing.

When I run on routes I use several times I look for landmarks. I don’t want to be looking at my watch all the time, because then I obsess over time, but I like to have something that gives me a sense of how far I’ve gone and how much longer I have to do. This year, one of my landmarks is gone.

For as long as I’ve been running here there has been a distinctively shaped tree by the pathway with a sign that called it ‘The Dream Tree’. It was a white elm. I noticed it because of the shape and then of course the name appealed to me a lot and gave me something to think about on my runs. Anyway the Dream Tree became one of my landmarks, and this year it is gone. This isn’t a huge surprise since it had obviously been sick the past couple of years (in fact I wrote a terrible poem about it on here once) and I guess sometime in the fall they cut it down. (Which is sad on a few levels)

It was surprisingly disorienting. I have been used to it being there for a long time, to planning my runs around it and using the sight of it in the distance as a guide to how far I was from home. I was, as I say, surprised by how much it threw me to be out and not find it there. Both on the way out and on the way home I had a genuine sense of disbelief that this part of the landscape was really gone.

However, I also figured out something else that I can use as a landmark, and if it’s a sign rather than a tree it will still work, and I’m sure after another run or two it will feel as natural as the other way did, even if it’s never quite the Dream Tree.

The reason I mention all this is that it occurred to me that these kind of things happen to us in life from time to time: we lose our landmarks. A job that we had done for a long time changes, or is taken away. A friendship we had relied on ends, or alters forever. A part of our routine is changed for reasons outside of our control. I felt that last year when I was injured and couldn’t run, and had to come up with different ways to burn off my stress and get my mind to running.

Which is kind of my point I guess: Losing a literal landmark is temporarily disorienting, we soon adjust and come up with something else that will work, even if it won’t be the same, and it’s the same with these other things that are sort of the landmarks in our lives. We lose a friend, or a job, or something else precious, and it seems as though things can’t possibly continue, but we’re pretty resilient and we come up with something, or a number of things, to fill the space and take up the weight, and on we go.

I will miss the Dream Tree though.

——

In non-running news, of course you’re probably aware that we’ve seen the first poster and trailer for the next Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. They’re interesting studies, I think. (If you haven’t seen the trailer, it’s here.) Neither reveals very much.

The poster is kind of cool because Rey is doing the the typical fantasy hero pose, which is neat to see a female character getting to do. There’s not a lot else going on though, aside from an angry-looking Luke and Kylo Ren. The overall sense is that Luke is not going to be the unproblematic solution to everyone’s problems that the characters and audience may have assumed him to be.  The poster builds on the sense of menace and threat the filmmakers have been trying to stoke ever since they rolled out the Star Wars logo in red a few months back.

The trailer doesn’t have a great deal going on it either that you can really sink your teeth into. Rey is obviously training her Force abilities, Exciting Space Battles happen, and Poe Dameron gets another X-Wing blown up. The main thing that seems to have attracted attention is Luke line ‘It is time for the Jedi to end’.  (There are lots of other images in the background but it’s hard to say anything about them other than ‘yes, that is probably Captain Phasma.  Huh.’)

Now context is obviously important, so we don’t know why Luke is saying that, and I even read some suggestions that Mark Hamill had recorded that line specifically for the trailer, so it may not be in the movie at all. But it is interesting; they seem to be pushing the idea that Luke Skywalker may be pretty done with this whole Jedi idea and have very different ideas about how to approach stuff than the last time we saw him.  That’s probably more interesting than Luke just showing up, swatting down another couple Sith, and making everything fine again, and it also fits better with the middle movie of a trilogy, where in general Things Get Worse.

Of course you can read a *lot* into that one line, and figure that the movie is going to blow up the whole Sith/Jedi binary and give us a whole new philosophy of the Force. Or, you could figure that it’s a red herring that will ultimately mean nothing at all – movie trailers of course being famous for this kind of thing. I’m basically not ready to draw any strong conclusions from the tiny fragments the trailer showed us. (I kind of hope they *don’t* blow up the binary and introduce some kind of superior middle path, because one of the things I’ve always liked about how Star Wars presents the Force is that it is astonishingly powerful, but power has a price, one way or another. Either it requires tremendous discipline, or it tears you to shreds. Writing this brings up a potential scenario where Luke has fallen to the Dark Side off on his island and is a Sith hermit. That might be fun.)

This brought up another point that people were discussing after the trailer dropped: is a good trailer one that has *lots* of information in it, or one that tells you very little and leaves you wanting more? Watching the Last Jedi trailer doesn’t really leave you any the wiser about what happens in the movie aside from ‘it is a Star Wars movie’. That could mean that it’s a bad trailer that doesn’t inform the audience. Or, it could be exactly the right kind of trailer – it tells you what you’re going to get (more Star Wars) without giving away anything of significance about what happens in the movie.

I tend to hate spoilers, so I’m actually quite content to go into any book or movie fresh and discover everything as I go along. However, I can see the other side of the argument. Personally, I think the people who made the Last Jedi trailer knew exactly what they were doing and put out just enough to whet the appetite for the legions of Star Wars fans, refresh the hype machine for another few weeks, and keep everyone dying to have the new movie come out, or even just for the next little drizzle of information that they’ll give us.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

Next week I won’t do a running analogy.

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Dialogue

I have recently been struggling a bit with the current WIP (which, yes, still lacks much in the way of a title), to the extent that I described myself as ‘mired’ to a friend the other day. After some thought – along with certain other things – I decided to go back to one of the things that had gotten me excited to write a story set in Victorian London to begin with: the TV Series Ripper Street. I admit to approaching Ripper Street a bit dubiously, and I’m not sure that it’s an immortal achievement, but I do like a lot about it.

One of the things I like very much is the dialogue. The writers for the show have a very clever turn of phrase and obviously love their words. Basically all of the characters speak in these very elaborate, eloquent, complex sentences which I enjoy very much. (My love of a long twisty sentence is something any of my editors or Eager Volunteers can attest to) Now, I also doubt very much that real Victorians spoke this way, and doubt even more that the residents of impoverished Whitechapel spoke this way, but Ripper Street’s heavily embroidered dialogue nevertheless somehow, for some reason, works (at least for me), both because I enjoy the word craft and also because it somehow conveys a sense of the different mannerisms and etiquette of the late 19th century. Or so I reason, because even though it probably doesn’t make any sense, I still sit there thinking ‘this is awesome’ rather than ‘well, this is probably overdone’.

It’s a similar situation to another show I loved a while ago, the rather-more-famous Deadwood, which also put amazingly ornate dialogue in the mouths of characters who would certainly not have spoken that way. It worked, both because it was a joy to listen to and (I think) because the eloquence was a contrast to the gritty, brutal setting of the frontier town and the gritty, brutal people who inhabited it.

Anyway in the short term, watching Ripper Street worked pretty well and I’ve been back plugging away at the WIP. I also tackled a scene that I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make work for what feels like roughly forever. I’m not sure it’s exactly good, but it is written and I can move on from it. (This kind of loops back to earlier blogs in that I need to remember that not every scene needs to be the best scene I’ve ever written. Sometimes, there just needs to be a god damned scene.)

In the somewhat longer term, this all got me thinking about dialogue and how it works. It isn’t, of course, quite as simple as fancy dialogue always being better. There are plenty of times when ‘less is more’, and another of my favourite TV shows frequently serves up great examples of that. The Americans is, I think, genuinely one of the best shows on television and one of my favourites of all time, and they really know how to write over there.

One of my favourite moments was from Season 3. Philip, deep cover KGB agent resident in the U.S., spent most of that season doing increasingly awful things (which, if you’ve seen the show you will remember, and if you haven’t, I’m not going to tell you about because you should go watch it) and eventually, he’s talking to one of his assets and breaks off in the middle of trying to justify everything they’ve been doing. All he says is “I feel like shit all the time”, and you absolutely understand the amount of pain he’s in, and the toll everything is taking on him. Similarly, last episode (minor spoiler here, but whatever) Philip and his wife Elizabeth discover they killed someone who was completely innocent; Philip is once again devastated (Keri Russel’s Elizabeth has thicker skin about these things, apparently) and Elizabeth offers to leave him out of future missions that may require killing. Philip replies with “No, no. It’s us. It’s us.” Again, you completely understand that even though he hates what he’s doing, he can’t contemplate making his wife do it by herself.

Now, a lot of the effectiveness of both those scenes (and, a lot of what works on The Americans, and indeed any TV show or film) has to do with the delivery and performance from the actor. Matthew Rhys sells both those scenes tremendously. However, he’s working with what he’s been given and somehow that extremely minimal dialogue conveys a tremendous amount, in context.

So in trying to think about this in terms of ‘what makes good dialogue’, I’m not immediately left with anything too useful. Sometimes, arguably over-written dialogue is great. Sometimes, extremely minimalist dialogue is great. I suppose one might argue that context is, as usual, king in all this: some settings and characters call for one, and some for the other. Probably in some or even many cases, you don’t want to be on either extreme, but something in the middle.

The thing is that I imagine it depends very much on the author in question, as well. Some authors know how to write in the style for Deadwood. Others know how to make less words say more. I would guess that trying to do one when you’re really good at the other doesn’t produce good results.

Unfortunately what I think I’m coming away with, having spent the last couple of days thinking about dialogue, basically comes down to two things. One, that having excellent dialogue can absolutely make a piece of writing just as much as bad stuff can kill it. Two, there probably isn’t

And isn’t that insightful.

It has given me something to consider as I continue work on the WIP; I need to choose my characters’ words, and the style of those words, very carefully indeed. Since I do tend towards long, complicated sentences, I’m probably likely to stray more towards the Ripper Street end of things, but it’s valuable to remember that in some circumstances, a very few properly chosen words can say a ton.

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

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Vimy

It is one hundred years since the battle of Vimy Ridge, much celebrated here in Canada. Today in particular there will be commemorations and a great deal said and written about it all. Since I studied history, teach it, and write about it from time to time, I feel as though I should have something to say as well, although it’s a more difficult question for me than it appears to be for some.

I think there are a lot of valid questions to be asked about the reasons why the First World War was fought, and about Canada’s involvement in it in particular. The loss of life was such that the numbers sometimes fail to make an impression; they’re just too big to make sense. Vimy Ridge was a typically bloody engagement; the assaulting forces lost 3,598 soldiers killed and 7,004 more wounded, in three days fighting. Bloodshed on that scale demands an answer: was it necessary, was the cause just and right, and I think it is a very difficult answer to give. If we look for a ‘just war’ it is hard to make World War One fit that mould, but Canada was asked to fight, and Canadians were asked to fight, and so they went and fought as they were asked to do. By all accounts they did it well.

Vimy was the first battle where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a formation. As a result it is labelled by some the time when Canada ‘became a nation’, although this seems to me deeply problematic, not least for its dismissal of the thousands of years worth of people who lived in this place we call home up until that point. Significant politically and militarily the battle may perhaps have been, but there was surely a nation, and nations, here before that. The military, and military history, has often been an interest of mine, but still I am uncomfortable with the idea that our nation, or any nation, is defined by its battles. I like to think that Canada has different roots than that. In any case there was already a Canada that the men who ended up on Vimy Ridge felt strongly enough about to go off to war, so I wonder whether they would have agreed that there was no nation until after that battle.

However that all may be, the battle has been much mythologized in Canada, and like most myths a healthy dose of fiction is added to the story. Vimy becomes, it seems, more glorious the further we get away from the bloody quagmired truth of the battlefield which far too many would never leave. However we may embroider the events of those days, the military historians tell us that the Canadian success was part of an overall strategy that failed, that the 10,000 lives and more shattered taking the ridge did not lead to a stunning breakthrough, and the war ground remorselessly on. Does that make the courage and sacrifice of the men who went and fought the slightest bit less? I feel it does not, and yet in taking the battle and making it part of our national myth I suppose we insist upon more gilded version.

The main thing I am left with regarding Vimy, and World War One in general, is that these young men went where their country asked them to go and went into the worst kind of peril as a result of that. They did the job they were asked to do and, in the case of Vimy Ridge, did it successfully and well. We can, then and more recently, question the motives of the men who asked those things of them, but not, I think, the response. They made that choice for many reasons, as soldiers I suppose always do, and even if I wonder whether they needed to go and fight, when their country asked something of them their answer was ‘yes’ and that is an answer I will always honour deeply.

It seems to me important for leaders today to remember that there are men and women who, when their country asks them to do something, will go and give their heart’s blood trying to do it. If the cause be just, then both the decision and the results may be a thing that we can look upon and know that it was necessary and right. Even if we cannot take satisfaction in it, exactly, we can know that it was important and that our young people did what needed to be done. But our leaders must not ask these things of them lightly because if history is any guide, when the country asks those young people to go into danger on its behalf there will always be a courageous number who will answer ‘yes’ and we cannot take that answer unless we are absolutely certain of its dire necessity. It is too tragic to contemplate that sacrifice if it is not absolutely unavoidable.

One hundred years ago, young Canadians made their assault on Vimy Ridge. They fought well, they did what was asked of them, and all too many spilled their blood because of it.

We shall remember them.

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Relative

I had a curious moment last week, and thus a topic for this week’s blog. It was at a planning meeting for Can-Con 2017 (which, quick aside, if you haven’t already made your plans to attend, you definitely should. We’re going to have amazing stuff for you this fall, and our guests are fantastic) and the person who organizes one of our city’s writing groups said that I was one of their success stories.

Wait, what?

In recent months I have gotten to thinking that my writing hasn’t yet amounted to very much.  My friend who just signed a lucrative book deal, now there’s a success story. Another of my writer friends has newspapers wanting to do stories on her latest release. Yet another guy I know is blowing up all over the media with his latest project. When I had been thinking of ‘success stories’, those were the people that I thought of. (And, just to be clear, they are all immensely talented artists who have earned every drop of that success and I could not be happier for them)  Nothing I have done seems as though it is in the same league as that.  Thus, not a success.

And yet. I should also remember that I have two books published. There are plenty of people out there who work very hard every day chasing that dream that I am sometimes in danger of dismissing. When Renaissance agreed to put King in Darkness into print, I said it was the fulfillment of a life’s ambition, and it was. Then they did it again. What I mean is that if my point of view shifts slightly, what I’ve done with my writing changes from ‘ugh not really going that well honestly’ to ‘wow, there are really some Achievements Unlocked here’.

I don’t say this to humble-brag (honestly) but to try to remind myself that ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are not really the binary absolute standards they may appear to be or that we often think of them being. There’s a lot of space for point of view and perspective that allow those two ideas to bleed into each other, and it’s all too easy for someone like me, who tends to be one of my own worst critics, to push everything I do into the latter category, even though there are perhaps lots of people who wouldn’t put them there.

These sort of reminders are all around me, when I pay attention. At the gym where I work out, I frequently can’t help but compare the amount of weight I can lift with what other people are doing, and think ‘wow, I’m pathetically way off that’. At the same time, though, not that long ago I was talking to one of the people who lifts those alarming large amounts of weight; they asked how long a run I had just done and I said it was ‘just’ 5k. (This made sense to me because I’m training for a longer distance and from that point of view 5k is not very much) They replied that they’ve never done more than 3.

Just like with my writing, this is important for me to remember. Lots of people will never run 5k. (Perhaps even more have absolutely no ambition to do so, but never mind) Even for people who are athletic or who take up running, that may well be the longest distance they ever think of doing. I am currently aiming for a longer distance, and 5k is, from that perspective, part of a training plan rather than a goal. Neither of those things is better or worse than the other, they’re just different people with different objectives and different strengths and at different points in their process or entirely different processes.

So as with writing, how to evaluate the things we’re capable of depends very much on point of view. Perhaps in a few years it will be me with a nice payday from a book deal. Perhaps it won’t, and if I was determined to look at it that way that might be a disappointment, but one the other hand I will always have two novels in publication and that is a goal some people, including me from 10 years ago, dream of. What might be a disappointing performance for one person or in one circumstance might be an absolutely exceptional one in a different context. I think if we’re being fair, there probably really aren’t any absolute standards for things at all. I think, and try to keep reminding myself, that it isn’t a very good idea to measure what I can do against the standards of other people. No matter how well I do, there will always be someone who can do way better. There’s always something I can point to and convince myself that I don’t measure up and am not doing well. I shouldn’t do that, because there’s certainly lots of people who would trade places with me in a second. I am, in many ways, incredibly fortunate. What I should be is grateful for that, and perhaps allow myself a bit of satisfaction in what I am capable of rather than kicking myself for what I can’t do.

None of this means that I shouldn’t continue to push myself to write more, and Write Better. I should continue to work to run further and faster. However, the part I need to keep reminding myself about is that the reason to do more and better is the challenge of improving myself, testing the limits of my own abilities (which are not the same as the limits of anyone else’s) and seeing what I am ultimately capable of. In the end, the race is only with ourselves.

Thanks for reading.

(I know you are overjoyed that the running analogies are back)

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