Monthly Archives: March 2018

Blank Pages

It’s been a(nother) busy week amid midterm season, but I’m still moving the WIP forward, at least somewhat. I was struggling to come up with a topic for this week’s blog, but then yesterday I was listening to a podcast I enjoy (My Favorite Murder) and one of the hosts (Karen Kilgariff) talked about her experience writing (in this case for television) – that you’ve got a blank page, and you’re just flat out making something up, and you’ve got to believe that people will like it.

That struck me as perhaps the best description of the difficulty of writing that I have heard. It’s certainly true for writing fiction. You’re pulling something out of nothing, and aside from your own satisfaction in messing with words, the only thing you’ve got keeping you going is a belief that there is someone out there who wants to hear this story, so you should keep writing it. I’ve started many projects where that belief collapsed before I finished it, and I couldn’t write them any more.

The intimidation factor of the blank page is no great revelation to anyone who has ever sat down to write. I think we all feel it, to varying degrees, from time to time. I suppose it gets a little better once you’ve written a few things that people have read and have said they liked – I’m slightly more confident in my writing with the two novels published – but the question never goes away, entirely. Is this thing any good? And, of course, it is probably human nature that our failures and rejections (I had a short story turned down recently) weigh a bit heavier in our psychic balances than the successes.

There are two things that I, at least, try to come back to when the blank page is doing its number on me. One is that there is also an astonishing, wonderful freedom in just being able to flat out make stuff up, to make up whatever the heck you want and bring it into being. That’s the special treat of creative writing. The other thing, that Ms. Kilgariff mentioned herself, is the shot of joy you get when someone takes in what you wrote and you know they liked it. And there’s only one way to get there: gotta keep filling in those blank pages.

Nothing particularly ground-breaking there, but it’s what is on my rather fatigued mind this week. It is most resolutely not advice. I shall try to have something a little more daring for you next week, but in the meantime thanks for reading.

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Trash Crow

So this morning is garbage day on my street, the trash is out at the curb, and an enormous crow (I’m like 80% sure it wasn’t actually a raven but I’m a little hazy on the crow/raven distinction) flapped down out of the sky and perched in a tree. It surveyed the scene, briefly. Fluttered down to the garbage.

First trash crow of the spring. Not exactly as lovely a picture as a robin, but here we are.

This was all happening right as I was pulling all my chaos together to get out the door to go to work, and so I found myself out in the driveway right as Trash Crow was getting to work itself. I put my stuff in the car, and then decided I should get rid of the crow.

It was, I knew, a supremely futile gesture at the best of times – it would likely be back roughly 30 seconds after I left, but there are duties we are taught in life and at some point, younger me was taught that you shoo away the trash crows. On y va.

However, this crow was not to be shooed. I walked right up to the thing. I really think I could have reached down and picked it up. (Yes, it probably would have pecked my eyes out) The Trash Crow just fixed me with its corvid gaze, briefly, and then went back to worrying at the garbage.

I suppose if I was really strong in my purpose I would have done some shouting, some hand-clapping, maybe gone to the hominid playbook and brandished a stick. But I didn’t.

We should not anthropomorphize, I know, yet it was very hard not to read in that look from the Trash Crow a message of – ‘Yeah, what do you want? I’m pecking into this garbage, man. I guess you don’t want me to or something, and deal with that however, but I’m gonna get back to this trash.’ Which it did. Peck peck peck.

I left the Trash Crow to their business.

Sometimes, I think we could all stand to be just a little more like Trash Crow, in fact. Doing the things we need to do, the things that are in our nature, unapologetically. Sometimes they may be things that are not especially fun (do crows enjoy ripping into the garbage, or is it a grim search for scraps of sustenance?), but they’ve gotta be done so just do them. There are things we must do, and the judgment of the Driveway People is irrelevant.

I’m not saying we should be like Trash Crow all the time.

Maybe just some of the time, though.

Bon apetit, Trash Crow.

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Infinite Wars

This entry is not about the Infinity War trailer, although it is kind of caused by it. I’m pretty sure.

The more direct cause is a friend of mine complaining/observing on the internet that there are a great many movies about war. I guess the immediate reaction to that might be that of course there are, because wars are exciting (whether it’s a good kind of excitement or not depends on the reader/viewer) and people like to make exciting stories. It is also, of course, a weathered old chestnut that there is no story without a conflict, and a war is in a lot ways conflict writ large.

So it makes sense that there are a lot of war stories. Humanity has also, it is undeniably true, fought a great many wars, and many of those make for dramatic and exciting stories, either told as-is or used as fodder for embellishments, reweavings, and reimaginings. So again, it makes sense that there are a lot of war stories.

Particular to movies like Infinity War, superhero stories seem particularly to depend on violent conflict, good guys vs bad guys, and superhero stories are notably popular right now (although I reckon the wave is close to cresting, if it hasn’t already), so again – lots of violent stories to be told. At first glance, there isn’t much of a tale to be told about Tony Stark in a board meeting – at least, not compared to the whiz-bang-kaboom of the heroes fighting. So it makes sense, the stories that get told.

And yet.

There are of course many kinds of stories that do not include any kind of war or violence, that people find engrossing and thrilling and enjoy a great deal. There are whole genres of entertainment devoted to stories that, although they have conflict, don’t have any kind of fight. I suppose they tend not to get promoted quite as loudly as the warlike ones, which probably suits the subject matter.

This all seems relatively straightforward, and yet I don’t really think my friend was wrong in his complaint, because when you look at the particular genre of fiction that write and tend to consume the most – fantastic fiction – it does tend to skew very heavily towards stories that centre around violent conflict, in some form.

Not every story, of course, and the conflict is there to greater and lesser degrees in different stories, but it is a rare SFF story that doesn’t have a bomb go off at some point, or at least an assassin lurking in the shadows. We tend to tell fairly bloody stories, much of the time. Again, this is at least in part because conflict, violent conflict, is exciting. This has all been true for a very long time.

What I got to thinking was a very interesting question from all this, though, was whether or not there are equally exciting SFF stories to be told that are about peace rather than war. About solving problems, one would suppose, but solutions that do not involve shooting anything, hitting anything with a sword, or blowing anything up. It seems as though the answer very much should be yes – doesn’t it?

I’m sure I’m far from the first to think about this, I don’t have any good answers as to what such a story would look like, yet, and I feel ever-so-slightly hypocritical to be mulling this over at the same time as I’m finishing (he said hopefully) my tale of a rather lethal Victorian spy. But I think it’s an interesting question, I think it’s potentially an important question, as we consider what kind of stories we want to add to this intensely violent world we live in, and I’m going to keep working on it in the weeks ahead.

Maybe I can make that one friend stop complaining.

(I hope it goes without saying that if you have favourite non-violent SFF tales, shoot ’em my way. I would love to add to my mountainous ‘to read’ pile.)

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Group Perspective

Last week I was (and I apologize) running at the gym (it being still too winter-y for me to run outside here, yet) and I was thinking about all the people I talk to there, many of whom are runners, many of whom casually do times that are far better than what I’m capable of.

It leads me to think, sometimes, that I’m not a very strong runner. In the same way, as I’ve done more writing, I’ve built up a little community of writer friends, and we often share news about how writing is going. I’ll often see posts on social media about how someone has written 4,000 words today, and someone else has written 3,000, and think about the 1,000 words I got written and think: ‘man, I’m not good at this.’

But – and this is the part I need to remember – if I speak to someone outside those communities, the entire picture changes. I talked to someone last week and they asked about my writing and I said that I had written about 1,000 words that day. They looked at me as though I was a lunatic. Probably most people I know will never run a 10k at all, let alone worry about their time.

I don’t (I swear) point any of this out to make myself look rad (which never works) but because it was a useful reminder to how we can easily lose perspective on our own capabilities. I think it’s quite common for people to find themselves socializing and forming communities with people of similar interests, and once you are (say) hanging around with a bunch of athletic people, the ‘normal’ standard of performance tends to shift and it’s easy to lose sight of how things look outside of that group.

Our communities of peers and friends are incredibly valuable and we should cherish them, I think that’s clear. However, it’s probably also important to remember that we are in our specialized little communities, and that changes how we see ourselves and our capabilities. All of us have something that we’re better than usual at, often much much much better than usual.

There’s nothing wrong at all with taking a moment to remember that and appreciate it.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Something non-running for you next week. Thanks for reading.

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Roger Bannister

On Saturday, Roger Bannister passed away. I took note of this, in reasonably large measure, because (as long-suffering readers of the blog will know) I am a runner and he was one of the big names, the first to run the mile in under 4 minutes. (The historian in me feels compelled to relate that yes, there are accounts of it being done earlier, but – and I am not an expert, and relying on others’ judgment here – these do not seem to be generally regarded as credible.) For a time, this was a feat of athletics that was regarded as physically impossible, similar to the way that some argue that the marathon cannot be done in under 2 hours. When Bannister did it – although his record stood for an astonishingly short time – it was celebrated as a massive achievement.

On an extremely selfish level, although the 4 minute mile is no longer regarded as that big a deal (it’s now basically the standard if you’re a serious middle distance runner), it is one of those moments when it was really possible to get a sense of the difference between elite athletes and hobbyists like myself. When I was in probably my very best shape ever, I worked very hard to do a mile in under eight minutes. To think about being twice as fast over the same distance is mind-stretching.

However that may be, I suppose it’s not a huge surprise that Bannister himself never believed the sub 4:00 mile was impossible, and apparently there were many who told him it could be done. He set the goal for himself, worked towards it, and eventually did it.

Bannister’s story is an important landmark in athletics, and I suppose in human achievement, but I also like to think about it sometimes in a wider sense. The sub 4:00 mile was supposed to be impossible, but he went and did it anyway. Perhaps just as impressive, he reached his goal while really only being an athlete part time, devoting a lot of his energy to his medical training.

Anyway, I am trying to keep this in mind lately, when a great many things seem to be impossible. Great, seemingly unreachable, goals can be reached, even amidst a sea of other challenges, if we stay on the track.

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

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