Monthly Archives: June 2018

Wandering Thoughts

Shortish one today, as I am on a trip to Scotland and York, part for vacation and part for a school anniversary. It’s been tremendous so far, and I spent a good part of yesterday with a very dear friend from when I did my M.A. in England. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long while (oceans are inconvenient) but it felt perfectly, wonderfully comfortable to be talking and wandering around together again.

Over the next few days, I hope to have several such reunions, and it’s gotten me to thinking about the pure chance of meeting the people who end up becoming key players in our lives. I might very well not have gone to York at all, and then never would have met many people who became very dear to me. I still might not have met the friend I visited with yesterday if I hadn’t gone along for a particular walking tour of the city.

Presumably had I made other decisions, I would have met other people. Would they have become as dear to me as the ones that I did meet? Why do we find people in the world who fit with us so delightfully, but then end up an ocean away? These are strange thoughts to be pondering over while wandering the streets of a lovely, very old, old, city, but in part I blame the jet lag.

Some of this I also blame on Guy Kay, who I’ve been reading a lot of lately, and who includes some meditations on the role that chance plays in the people who become important parts of our lives, and those who do not, and even those who end up somewhat half-way; people who you meet, and know that under other circumstances they might have become a central figure in your life, but will not.

I don’t have any great conclusion or particular wisdom coming out of all this. I’ve just been thinking about the tricks of fate that have put certain people in my lives, and I’m very grateful for the group of precious friends that I have, and that I have been able to share at least some of my journeys with them. May we all walk together at least a little more.

Thanks for reading.

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(Not actually) Finished

I’m pleased to have as my topic for this week’s blog that I finished a complete draft of Heretic Blood today. I’ve been working away at it, at varying rates and to varying degrees of success, for what feels like a very long time. There have been numerous challenges (many moaned about here on the blog) and I think this book may well be the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.

It changed, or at least my impression of what it needed to be changed, at least twice as I was writing, requiring some extensive rejigging of things both already done and yet to be created. There are also some challenging things in it (that I’m not entirely ready to spoil just yet) that go beyond what I’ve tried to grapple with in my fiction before. In the end I have something that (even reasonably deep in the Statler and Waldorf process) I think is reasonably good and should only get better as I begin the next phase of the job, editing and revising.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that I wrote this book just as I pleased. I picked the words I wanted to pick, wrote each sentence the way I wanted it, and gave more or less zero thought to any of the rules of writing that you’ll encounter on any typical cruise around the internet. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure there really are rules, or at least (as one writer put it on Twitter recently) not in the sense that there are rules for how to assemble an engine. There are, of course, principles that will work somewhat more often than they won’t, and approaches that have succeeded for a great many writers. When it comes down to it, though, what you’re left with is you, the page, and getting words on it. You have to do what works for you, and you’ve got to make it your story. That’s what I think I’ve done with Heretic Blood, which may or may not be an unreadable mess, but it’s my unreadable mess, and I like that.

Editing will probably demand a lot of this changes, and that’s good. My hope is that I’m starting from a place that has a strong voice and tells a story the way I would like it told. I’m sure it won’t be for everyone; with luck it will resonate with some audience, of whatever size. I really do look forward to hearing what my Eager Volunteers think of it, and then hopefully what more of you think of it when and if the book gets to you.

I hadn’t expected to finish today. I knew I was reasonably close, but then this morning I was working on rewriting a scene, took a look to see how much more work there was to do it total, and realized that I could just do all of it today. I changed the plan for my afternoon a little bit, pushed on, and got it finished. It was somewhat like that feeling towards the end of a race when you see the finish line and realize you can sprint to the end. Just: wow, yes, we can get this done!

I made a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks. I think a lot of it was having a stretch of days to devote to writing, and really focus on it, to kind of get my legs under me. I hate to continue the running analogy, but there are things I don’t properly realize until I’m doing them. When I’m running, I need to be able to feel the right stride for me to use – the one that feels slower-paced, but with bigger strides that digest the kilometers, not the quicker, shorter one that burns my cardio and ends up a more frantic, slower movement. It really is similar with my writing; I need that block of days to feel myself settle into a good steady rhythm, and then the pages fill themselves.

I think I hit that over the past week, in particular, and now this job (or a phase of it, anyway) is done. I need to carry this momentum on to another project, and I have a couple of ideas.

Finishing is a lovely feeling.

Now to start something new.

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The Americans

A little while ago I did a list of my favourite TV series of all time, which was clearly a project of mammoth significance. And now it needs to be revised. The reason is that one of the rules I set for myself was that I needed to have seen the whole run of the series, because there are all too many shows that started out great and then Lost-ified themselves.

Last week, The Americans aired its last episode, I will miss it greatly, and it probably deserves a spot in that top 5. I’m going to write about it a little more today. Obviously there are spoilers below, and if that bothers you, I would suggest not reading further, because you should really give The Americans a shot. You’ll be in for a treat.

The concept of the show was a reasonably interesting one – deep-cover KGB agents in 1980s America – and that was what got me to originally give it a go. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, probably hoping for something that would at least be a decent action-y drama. That’s not what I got. What I got is what I think is one of the best written TV shows I have ever watched.

One of the great strengths of the show was that the writers were pretty good at doing things you didn’t expect. They would foreshadow things that never happened, and refused to follow what people will say are basic storytelling conventions. This past season, Elizabeth was issued a cyanide suicide pill to prevent her being captured alive. I read a lot of speculation of whether she would take it, or someone else would, or it would be used to kill someone, or as evidence of her KGB work – there had to be something, because ‘Chekov’s Gun’, after all. The cyanide pill ended up getting dumped in a hole in the woods, unused, as the Jennings’ fled America. It’s just one example of how you could never really know for sure where the show was going to take you. That was a lot of fun.

The thing that impressed me the most, though, was that where a lot of stories these days present an array of characters who are all basically unlikeable, The Americans did the reverse. Philip and Elizabeth do lots of horrific things in service of the KGB, and yet they’re still very easy to like. It would also have been very easy to make the FBI agents chasing them (essentially, the show’s antagonists) into some kind of vile caricatures of government agents, but that’s not the case. Stan Beeman is another genuinely easy to like character who, despite some of the fairly awful things he does at times as well, we also want to see end up all right.

Watching the finale was suspenseful in a bunch of ways, but the largest way for me was that the Jennings’ subterfuge is finally collapsing, Stan is closing in, and I wanted, somehow for both the Jennings and Stan to be ok when it all shook out, some kind of obviously impossible quantum state where the Jennings both were and were not captured, I guess. As it turns out, instead of getting both those things, the audience more or less gets neither. Every beat of the final hits super hard because you care, very much about all the imaginary people you’re watching it happen to. That’s what this show did really well.

The story of Philip Jennings was amazing to watch. From Season 1, he was clearly far less ideologically-committed to the espionage work he and his wife were asked to do, but keeps doing it because she is his wife and he needs to support her. It all grinds him down as the seasons wind on, through one of my favourite scenes (mentioned earlier in this blog) where he tells an asset simply “I feel like shit all the time”, because this is one of the very few people in the world he can afford to be somewhat genuine with. He goes on with it, still primarily because the idea of not supporting his wife is unbearable, until he simply can’t any longer. Philip tries to quit. Finally, he is drawn back in one more time, again because he knows Elizabeth is probably dead if he doesn’t, and it crushes him. The end of their mission in America would surely have been some kind of relief, if it wasn’t that it also meant the end of the pleasant life he had wanted so badly for himself and his family. In the end, everything Philip was trying to accomplish, and all the horrible shit he did trying to do it, ends up being for nothing at all. It was brutal to watch. It was great. That was just one character. We could run down the whole cast and get basically the same impact for nearly all of them.

I think the fact that the characters were so well done is the main reason why I liked the whole arc of the show, and its really very bleak ending, despite my preference for a positive ending, these days. Look, a happy ending wouldn’t have fit very well with the overall themes of the show, which often painted the Cold War in great swathes of grey, but I have haven’t enjoyed many a bleak story, even though the darkness may have made sense. The difference is that in this one, I was interested enough in the people to want to see where their dark paths led them.

In terms of authenticity, the writers and showrunners for The Americans got a lot right. They reproduced 1980s places with fantastic detail; the final episode gave us an entire McDonalds set that reminded me of car trips as a kid. They got Russian-speakers to do the Russian dialogue, leaving scenes between Russian characters subtitled rather than doing them in cheesy accents. I have also read commentary from more than one intelligence professional saying that The Americans got much of the tradecraft for their spies more or less correct. That was fun to know, but these details aren’t really why I loved the show. Ultimately, the show was great because of the characters, and how well and believably they were all rendered, and how very much the show made you want to follow them around and see what happened to them.

I continue to believe that this is what will always separate a good story from a truly great one. They’re all about people in the end, just as The Americans was, when you boiled it right down to the core, just really about people. I loved every bit of the journey as a fan, I think I learned a lot as a writer, and I will miss the show very much.

Thanks for reading.

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