Category Archives: Thoughts and Musings

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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Boba Fett

There’s a lot of Star Wars content coming out these days. Here’s a little more.

No, I haven’t been to see Solo (continuing my tradition of taking an extremely long time to see movies), but it did open just recently, and then at about the same time we got the announcement that a Boba Fett movie is in the works.

Somewhere, 16-year old me is god damned delighted. There’s history here – I was among the very many Star Wars fans who latched on to Boba Fett in the first trilogy of films. I used Boba Fett as my alias in games and online whenever possible, I had a Boba Fett mug on my desk for years, along with a little model Slave One.

Boba Fett was cool, and in part it’s because the character has a great, distinctive visual design (although much copied since then) and mostly he just stands around looking dangerous. Han Solo is clearly terrified of him. Darth Vader, of all people, treats him with something approaching respect. Beyond that, he’s a menacing, rad-looking mystery, except for the part where he suffers a jarringly slapstick demise in Jedi, and even that was okay because the writers for the Dark Empire comic (I’m pretty sure) wrote him a more typically badass escape from a grisly fate in the Sarlaac Pit.

And that was where the trouble started, really. Ever since then, we’ve had more and more bits and pieces added to Boba Fett’s story, first in comics, and then in the prequel trilogy, and various associated books. To me, everything they’ve added to the character past the original trilogy has made it worse, to the point where I really don’t particularly want a Boba Fett movie at all, anymore. Somewhere, 16 year old me wants to fight.

Some of this may be personal taste, but I think also the character has lost a lot of his appeal by having more and more of those tantalizing blanks filled in. Sometimes it is more compelling to go ‘who is this guy? What’s their deal?’ than to have the answer handed to you. I think part of why that is is the fun of feeling your own imagination engage and working on your own answers to the question. Some of it is that our brains love a mystery, or a puzzle, and usually those are a lot less fun once you have the answer in hand.

For me at least, that’s what happened with Boba Fett. I found almost all of the added detail we got about the character fairly boring, and most of the answers we got made him into a lesser figure rather than a more interesting one. Having been given what I thought I wanted, I like the character so very much less. This may all have been inevitable. If you’ve created a character and your audience is clearly into them and eager for more about them, it’s an extremely attractive idea to go ahead and write more of their story. I felt that a bit with one of my own characters from King in Darkness, although the money factor is obviously much different.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s important to remember that there’s some risk along with the reward, and that in creating more, you may in fact end up diminishing what you had before. It was better before. I think I was right, in the end, not to make Professor Marchale a more prominent character than he was in my books; people seem to dig the scenes he’s in, they want to read more (which is good), but it might wear thin or get tired if those scenes increased in length or number. I think it would have been better if we had gotten a lot less about Boba Fett, and I really don’t think we need any more.

It’s not a character that I’m curious about any longer, I’m not excited to see him in action (somewhere, 16 year old me is very sad) and I think there’s a good argument to be made that we’ve got more than enough stories about gritty shades-of-grey violent dudes already, and it’s difficult to see how a Boba Fett movie could be anything else. I don’t really need to be asked to sympathize with another guy who ends up doing bad things in reaction to the tough hand he’s been dealt. Show me more people who rise above that shit.

I also worry, just a little, that the Star Wars universe is going to become heavily overfished, with too many movies about too many second-rate characters that will ultimately dilute the appeal of the whole. There are, I’m sure, good stories waiting to be told (I think the case for a ‘Leia’ movie is pretty strong, and you could make a pretty awesome Lando movie), but we don’t need to know the untold origin of every B-list character, and ultimately I don’t think we need a Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time. It was rough waiting for new Star Wars, but I think often we appreciate the things we don’t get very much of that tiny bit more.

Obviously all of this comes back to the most basic of principles: tell good stories. Easier said than done, sure, and I’m equally sure that everyone at least sets out with the intention to tell a good story, but it’s important (I think) to really think over whether or not the story you’re planning to tell is going to be awesome, and if it’s not, maybe wait until you can figure out a way to get it there. In my own work, I had an idea for a fantasy novel that I thought was ok but not, like, amazing, so I put it aside and did the project that is (slowly) becoming Heretic Blood. By now, I think I know how to make that fantasy story awesome, so it’s next on my list. Make sure the stories are good stories, and not just something that’s done for the sake of doing it. We owe our audiences and our characters better than that.

It’s clear that the hunger for more Star Wars stories is there, but although it may be a faint hope in a situation where the money is also clearly there, I hope the people making the decisions are considering that it’s not only important to tell stories, but to tell good stories, and that sometimes the untold story can be just as compelling.

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We are coming up on a provincial election here in Ontario, and it looks as though it will be an extremely close one. There’s also an extremely clear choice to be made, and though I don’t typically write about politics here, in this case I’m going to.

I’ll start by acknowledging that my own politics are, uh, not conservative. Even so, although I will almost always disagree with it, I think a conservative viewpoint is an important part of our political conversations and landscape. Even though I basically always wish they wouldn’t do so, I can generally understand why rational people might go out and vote for a conservative politician.

However, I don’t think there’s any argument to be made for voting for Doug Ford. There’s a long list of reasons why but perhaps the most important is that a party running on fiscal responsibility still hasn’t said how they will pay for their promises. They’re promising tax cuts and rebates and cheap beer and not saying where the money will come from for any of it.

This is leaving aside their stated policies that are anti-environment, socially regressive and favour wealthy corporations. We’ve also seen this playbook before, not all that long ago, when Mike Harris was premier, and it was a disaster. Ford seems worse, because they’re not telling us what we’d be giving up in return for the things they say they’d ‘deliver’. I imagine we wouldn’t care for the answer.

There are legitimate reasons to criticize the current Liberal government, and they’ve been in power a very long time. It’s not a surprise that a lot of people want change. I also understand if you’re a conservative and can’t bring yourself to vote NDP. I would ask, though, that everyone think very carefully about whether or not they honestly want to see the province run by Doug Ford in particular for the next four years, and cast their vote accordingly. Spoil that thing if you have to, but please don’t vote for Doug Ford, who gives every sign of being a perilously bad candidate for premier.

It also looks like voter turnout is going to be important, particularly for the progressives. You should always vote, but especially in a tight election, one that is a choice between very different alternatives, there’s no excuse not to.

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

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Pentecost

I was a bit thin on something to write about for this week, and then I was rescued by the calendar. This past Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost. Among the other reasons it is important in the Christian religious calendar, Pentecost was also the day on which (according to Thomas Malory’s version of the stories, anyway) King Arthur required all his knights to attend his court and renew their oaths.

(It’s interesting, or at least sidebar-worthy interesting, that it’s Malory who seems to have put this in. We’ll get back to it.)

Arthur’s knights all swore to do no outrages or cruelties, to give mercy to those that asked it of them, to serve the weak, and to support no causes that they knew to be wrong for any worldly gain. Even all these hundreds of years later, it’s still not such a bad standard to set for ourselves. There’s a reason this story has lasted for as long as it has.

Of course, if you know the stories, you also know that basically none of Arthur’s knights (excepting Galahad, who is No Fun), not even Arthur himself, live up to this standard. Many times when I teach about the concept of chivalry and codes thereof, one of the ideas the students enjoy kicking around is to what extent anyone ever did. And we’re probably right to be fairly sceptical.

Now, does this mean that Arthur and his knights are a bunch of hypocrites and the whole thing is hollow? I don’t think so, necessarily, and this is why I think it’s interesting that the Pentecost feast seems to have appeared in Thomas Malory’s version of the story. Malory wrote during the 15th century, a time when knights in England were behaving in anything but a chivalrous fashion, and Malory himself spent a great deal of time in prison. It’s not easy to unpick exactly what he was genuinely guilty of, but it’s clear that he got himself into a great deal of trouble.

This has led people to wonder why Malory was (evidently) such a big fan of the idealized King Arthur. One explanation, which I like (and I shamefully cannot recall who it is that I’m ripping off here) is that Malory was perfectly aware that he and his peers were not behaving as knights were meant to, or at least could, and worked out his version of the tales to suggest a higher standard and perhaps inspire the knights of his day to better themselves.

Ah, but the Arthurian knights don’t succeed themselves, so how does it work? It (potentially) works because Malory knew that probably no-one could live up to the high standards of the Pentecost Oath or other ideals of chivalry. But it was still a good thing to try. Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain and the rest are praiseworthy characters, despite their failures and flaws, because no matter what else is true about them it is also true that they try so very hard to achieve something wonderful. They fall short. We’ll probably always fall short of our ideal standards. It doesn’t mean that the standards aren’t worthwhile, and it doesn’t mean that trying is laughable or worthless.

Trying, as hard as we can, to be as good as we can be, which is what the Pentecost Oath really is when you boil it down, is tremendously praiseworthy, even though we’ll have our stumbles and missteps along the way. We can try to be kind, to help those who need it, and to use our abilities to do good things in the world. Sometimes we’ll fail. We keep trying, because we live in a better world when we do. I’m persuaded that’s what Thomas Malory was trying to encourage with his version of the Arthur stories, and I think encouraging the world to be a little bit better is one of the great things that our stories can do for us, and we don’t have to wait for Pentecost.

One last thing on the Arthurian Pentecost Feast. I also like that Arthur wouldn’t sit down to eat until he had ‘heard or seen of a great marvel’. So the Pentecost feast was also a time for stories, the telling of ones that had finished and the beginning of new ones, as knights dashed off on quests inspired by the ‘strange adventures’ that came before the King on that day.

A day when people declared that they would try to do better, and a day for the telling of stories.

Not so bad.

Thanks for reading.

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On the Other Writers

Over the past week there was quite a Fuss, on Twitter especially, about a particular writer who has tried to trademark the use of a very common word in book titles. (I’m not going to name them or refer to things more specifically than that because I feel they’ve had more than enough free publicity already.) When called on it, they defended themselves as looking out for their interests and as ‘raising the game’ for publishing.

These are the kind of things that one does if one regards other writers as competition.

I do not, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is expressed really well in something Ilana Myer has one of her characters say in Last Song Before Night. One poet is afraid that he will be overshadowed by the work and abilities of his friend, and the reply that his friend wishes he had been able to give is ‘There is no shadow, and we are all one in what we do’. That’s how I generally feel about other writers. I think it’s really cool to read what other people are able to do with their ideas and their words. I find it inspirational when I read something really well done, to try to find a way to reach a similar level. We all just do what we’re capable of doing, it is unlike anyone else’s art, and the world is better for it.

I like (I guess for obvious reasons) the idea that the writers’ craft gets rewarded, so I am always pleased to see when an artist gets some manner of reward for their work. It especially helps if it happens to be one I know, or have particular affection for their work, but seeing a writer have success in their career is downright encouraging. The good stuff is out there, and that’s always a good reminder to have.

That sort of brings me to my second reason for not seeing other writers as competition. I think there’s a genuinely practical reason (as contrasted to the rather wooly stuff above) not to do so. The success of other writers can, I think, only help me. If people read cool stories, presumably they’ll want to read more, and if they look around for their next thing, perhaps they’ll hit on mine. That’s even more likely if the story they read is something like the sort of stuff I write – so yes, other fantasy writers in particular are not my competition. If they write awesome stuff, that brings more readers to the genre and that does nothing but help me.

Moreover, if their books sell well, presumably out there will be editors and agents and publishers who will see that and think ‘hot damn, we’d better find some more fantasy books’, and that makes my chances of getting my next thing in print better. Far from wanting less other writers, and less other fantasy writers, I want more, and I want them to do well.

In any case, my position in the market is, uh, fairly marginal, but those are my thoughts on the issue, and what I have for you here this week. Thank you for reading.

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White Tears

I just finished reading White Tears by Hari Kunzru, and I Have Thoughts. I’m going to try to keep this as spoiler-free as I possibly can, but if you haven’t read the book yet a) you probably should and b) proceed with some caution, I guess. This isn’t going to be a review, exactly (I don’t really do reviews here, although maybe I should start?) but I will start off by saying that I enjoyed the book very much. It was recommended to me by a friend, and upon hearing that the plot is based around a mysterious blues song, I definitely had to check it out.

Without giving too much away (which I think is important), I think it’s safe to say that whatever I expected the book to be, it was most definitely not that. There are at least two major places where the story takes pretty massive left turns from where you thought it was headed, and ends up being something quite completely different than the sort of story it seemed like it was going to be at the outset.

Now, I really enjoyed that. I liked those moments where I was sitting reading, looked at what had just happened, and had to go: ‘wait, WHAT?’. It was very fun to have a story completely get the drop on me not once, but a couple times, like that. However, this is also a risky thing for a writer to do. You don’t have to dig very hard to find reviews of White Tears where readers found it annoying or upsetting to have the rug pulled out from under them.

White Tears also (and this is as close as I’m going to get to a specific spoiler) heads into territory where the reliability of the narrator gets very questionable. It’s not at all clear that they’re describing what is happening accurately, or that they even really know what’s going on. Again, I enjoyed that, but I do sometimes find the unreliable narrator a bit of a cheap trick to pull a fast one on the reader, especially if the unreliability is itself a surprise. It can be kind of a sucker punch and I don’t think it always works well.

So White Tears did at least a couple of things that were fairly risky in telling its story, and although I enjoyed them, I can also understand why some people would not. It’s interesting to think about these kinds of things from the perspective of a writer: taking your story in unexpected directions may excite some of your readers, but may alienate others. On the other hand, a story that takes no risks is in a different sort of danger, that of being too predictable. That sucker punch can be hard to take for a reader, but it can just as bad to see every single thing coming.

It’s possible to argue that a writer should just write the story they want to write, exactly as they choose, and whoever’s gonna like it will, whoever doesn’t like it, won’t, and so be it. Write the thing and let the chips fall where they may. It’s also possible to approach things from the point of view that you need to use enough unexpected elements in a story to keep your reader guessing at least a little, but not so many that they end up being confused or alienated.

I guess in writing Heretic Blood (at least this first draft), I am closer to the former perspective. I’m writing it almost exactly the way I want it to be, and then we’ll see if anyone likes it. It is liberating, in a lot of ways, but also a little scary, because I really have no idea if anyone is going to like it. (I have had positive feedback from Eager Volunteers so far, but they also haven’t seen the whole story yet)

The thing is, though, that no matter what calculations you make in crafting a story, no matter what kind of balancing act you do in what goes in and what doesn’t, you can’t honestly know whether anyone will like it until it’s out there and people have a chance to read it. That’s the scariest moment of writing, for me anyway, when you send your work out into the world and wait to see what people make of it.

I think, increasingly, that if I’m gonna screw up I’d rather do it writing something that is what I truly want to write rather than screwing up chasing someone else’s idea of what a story should be, so that’s where I am with Heretic Blood and that’s how I expect I’ll proceed with whatever comes next. We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, do give White Tears a shot. I think you’ll enjoy the ride.

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I will be at Ottawa Comic-Con this Saturday, hanging out at the Renaissance Press table all day! You can come and get your copy of The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures, or indeed nearly anything else signed and say hello, if you would like. Renaissance has a lot of new titles out this spring as well so definitely worth coming to check out their wares.

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The Wire

In my bid to keep the finger of this blog firmly on the pulse of about 15 years ago, I recently finally started watching The Wire. (Quiet, you.) The writing is, as very widely reported, very good, and (insofar as I am qualified to judge these things) the performances by the actors are excellent. It is also (as no doubt very nearly all of you will be aware) extremely bleak and not easy to watch.

And yet, I’m really entertained, and very much enjoying it, and this despite the decreasing enthusiasm for ‘shades of grey’ stories that I have mentioned here on more than one occasion. In general, right now I like a story that has some kind of positive resolution, and I tend to like there to be unambiguously ‘good’ characters. The Wire – although I am only one season in – is very clearly not going to provide either of those things. And yet, I’m liking it.

This has gotten me to thinking about why, and in a larger sense, what can make shades of grey stories work, when they do. Part of it, I think, is that even if you’re going to make all your characters various shades of terrible, you still need to make at least some of them individuals that your audience is going to want to spend some time with.

I think The Wire has that. But honestly, I think the larger factor is just that the whole thing is supremely well made. I am consistently, thoroughly impressed with the quality and craft of the writing. The dialogue is consistently entertaining and plausible – sounding enough like things people would actually say – and the plot lines are clever. There are more subtle touches, too, that leave me very impressed. One example: at one point there’s a young kid who had been involved in selling drugs who gets taken out to his grandparents’ house in the country as a kind of protective custody so he can later provide testimony the police need to make their case.

When he arrives, he gets out of the car, and asks what all the noise is. The cop with him has to think about it for a second before replying: ‘crickets’. And that’s the scene. It communicates perfectly how out of his element this kid is and foreshadows that this is not an environment or a situation he’s going to settle into. You could convey those things with a lot longer dialogue or with a bunch more ‘fish out of water’ scenes, but the writers here figured out how to do a lot with a little, and then had the confidence to leave it at that and trust that their audience gets it.

So the story they’re telling is really dark, most if not all of the characters are some degree of terrible people, and just as Season 1 did not have a positive resolution, I feel confident we won’t get one at any point along the way. And yet, despite the fact this is nearly the exact opposite of the kind of story I’m inclined to look for these days, I’ve still entirely bought into this one. Because it is so very well done.

What I think we end up with is yet more proof that you can tell almost any kind of story and get your audience to buy into it and really dig it. You’ve just got to tell it well. There’s a lot of advice for writers out there about which stories are done to death and which genres are dead and even which formats are simply not workable. I gotta say, at this point I don’t buy it. I think people will read just about any story, if that story is told well enough.

When I was first getting The King in Darkness ready to come out, there were many words of wisdom about how dead the novella was. Then some really well done SFF novellas came out, and now novellas are fine again.

It is both a wonderful thing and a horrifying thing that ultimately there is no magic formula for the story that everyone will love, other than: a really well told one. I am increasingly convinced that you can spend as much time as you want chasing the hot genre and the stories on wish lists and none of it matters unless you tell that story really well, and if you can do that, you can find an audience for the story you wanted to tell anyway.

It is both liberating and terrifying, because ultimately, you just gotta write.

Which reminds me that I should indeed be doing that thing.

Thank you for reading.

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The Negative Review

So, as I mentioned on Twitter, if you’re looking for a good way to maintain momentum while trying to finish a novel, it turns out that reading negative reviews of your previous work is a pretty bad idea. I did this to myself recently, and on some level deserve it, because I was procrastinating doing something else. Around the same time, an author friend of mine was wondering on Facebook about when you should listen to someone’s critique of your work, and when you should say ‘no, the way I’ve done it is right, even if they don’t like it.’ So I’ve been thinking about critique and criticism, the last couple days.

There’s no denying that it stings, a little, when someone says your stuff is bad or that there’s a part of it that they don’t like. Ideally, everyone who read my stories would love them, and it’s always going to be at least a little bit of a drag to have someone say that this thing you created, that has so much of yourself in it, didn’t work for them. I think that’s also where the impulse to get defensive over criticism comes from – essentially, we’d like to convince everyone that no, they really did like our work after all.

Obviously that’s not a useful response, and I basically agree with Neil Gaiman that it’s best never to respond to one’s critics. In part because you can tear yourself to pieces in fruitless arguments, and also because people are entitled to their response and their opinion.

This is one of the hard things: not everyone is going to like what you wrote, not ever. Name any book, movie, TV show, no matter how critically acclaimed and beloved, and if we spent a little time digging around we’d easily find some people who don’t like it for various reasons. Just the same as nearly any book, movie, or TV show you care to name is someone’s favourite. People like different things, they often do so for intensely personal and intrinsic reasons, and you can’t change it. I can acknowledge that the objective quality of Breaking Bad appears to have been very high, but I just didn’t like it. (I could explain why, but it’s not important) So, part of being an artist and putting your work out there is that some people won’t like it. They’re neither right nor wrong, except in the sense that they like what they like and your stuff was not it, this time.

So you have to learn not to listen, a little, or (especially in person) to listen politely, and then to let it roll off. It’s ok to disagree about what works or doesn’t work in something as subjective as art, and sometimes a writer and reader are just not suited for each other. You move on. A big part of it, I think, is developing confidence in your work and in yourself as a writer, that yes, you’re good at this, and yes, your stuff is good, having that belief in what you created and how you wanted to write it. Not everyone will like it, but that doesn’t make what you did wrong. It’s good the way you did it, and more importantly, it’s the way you want it to be, and that’s important. Developing that confidence is hard. I’m still very much ‘work in progress’ on that one.

The even harder thing, though, is that sometimes you do want to listen, at least a little. You have to try to be honest enough about your own work (even as you’re confident in its quality) to be open to the idea that there are flaws in it that maybe someone else saw better than you were able to, and that there are ways you could either do that particular piece better or to do the next one better. Because it’s good, and you know that, but it’s not perfect. With some assistance, it can be improved.

That kind of usefully critical opinion is invaluable, which is why readers who will look at your stuff and tell you the truth about it in a useful way are such a precious resource. It is why I am so grateful to the Eager Volunteers who have helped me with my writing. I know they’ve found problems where I thought there weren’t any and my writing has been better because of it. I imagine I got to the point where I have things published because of it. So yes, sometimes you do need to listen.

Which brings us to the very hardest part, which is distinguishing between those times. Knowing when to let a particular opinion slide away and when to pick it up and try to work with it. I think some of that is knowing and trusting where the opinion comes from, and some of it is probably just another of those things we continually have to work on, as artists. I’m not really great at it, yet, which is part of why I can read a negative review and get a bit dragged by it, for a while, although I’m at least at the point where I can talk myself out of it relatively quickly.

Anyway, this is all dangerously close to advice, but honestly this is mostly me talking myself through this thought process again. Which I guess is what a blog is for. Thank you, as ever, for reading.

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The Trouble with Alex

There’s been a bit of a fracas the last couple of days relating to The Simpsons TV show, the character of Apu and how the showrunners decided to respond to criticism of the character. I’m not really going to weigh in on that specific issue because I think others have done so with more insight than I could and because the perspective of Another White Dude is approximately the last thing anyone needs.

I do want to write just a little about my own (much smaller-scale) experience with receiving criticism on a character I wrote. The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures include a character named Alex Sloan who is mentally ill. Alex is one of my favourite characters from the books, he’s quite central to the plot, and so I really wanted to write him well.

I did some research and I did the best job I could, and I felt pretty proud of how Alex appeared. Then King in Darkness got picked up by my publisher and in the first round of edits one of the (many, many, many) requests for revision was reworking Alex. The editor told me that a lot of the language that I used was the kind that promoted negative stereotypes of people who struggled with mental illness, and that it needed to be fixed.

My first impulse was to write a long response explaining that it wasn’t my intention to cause any harm and that I was not intending to be in any way disrespectful in writing Alex the way I had, that I had loads of affection for the character, and that I had chosen the wording that I did for particular reasons that I thought made sense. Perhaps fortunately, I never sent that response.

Because the thing is, none of that matters, not really. My editor never said that I had been deliberately setting out to cause harm, and honestly my intent didn’t matter – if the language was bad and would hurt people, that’s what it would do, even if I was perfectly well-intentioned. All the rest of the stuff that I had originally thought to write was equally irrelevant; whatever I meant to do, the effect was a depiction that was likely to cause harm and pain to some of the people who would read the story.

So I rewrote Alex as best I could, according to the feedback I’d been given. I thanked my editor for pointing out where I had gone wrong, because they had truly done me a great service by catching my mistakes before they got to a wider audience. I said I was sorry that my initial effort hadn’t been better. The book went out and I am now like Alex’s character just that little bit more, because I feel like it’s one more people can hopefully enjoy.

It is, I think, natural to want to go on the defensive when we get criticism of our work, and maybe especially if someone points out a way that our work might be hurtful. Because we don’t mean to be hurtful, that’s not what we set out to do, and again I think it’s natural to want people to understand that and to want to believe that somehow whatever we did is ok as long as our intentions were good.

The thing is that the intention isn’t really important, and I think like 99% of the time people making criticisms are at least willing to credit that the intentions behind a problematic piece of work might have been perfectly fine. But that’s not the important part. The important part is that your fellow human beings are telling you that something is hurtful to them, and the only non-sociopathic response is to apologize and try to do better.

It’s ok to make a mistake. What’s not ok is to refuse to admit that you did, and to refuse to correct it.

Thanks for reading.

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The Wave

It’s finally somewhat approaching spring here (although as I write this, snow is falling outside, again) and so I got in my first outdoor run of the season on the weekend. (Yes, friends, another running blog. I know you’re delighted.) It’s much more enjoyable than indoors on the treadmill, of course. There’s much more to look at – I’m fortunate here in Ottawa to get to run through mostly very beautiful surroundings, there’s wildlife to enjoy – and the terrain is naturally varied. It’s also just outside, with the fresh air and the breeze. And, as I was reminded this weekend, there is also what I call The Wave.

It’s a little thing that runners do when we pass in opposite directions on the pathway. Nothing big. Just a little wave to the other person. No-one ever told me to do it or talked to me about it – I just noticed, when I was out running, that most of the other runners I met would do a little wave. So I started doing it as well. You don’t do The Wave to cyclists, and not to people walking. It’s just for runners.

I get a nice little kick out of it, every time. It’s a little bit encouragement – good job, out here – and a little bit acknowledgement, understanding that we are both meeting basically the same challenge, even if we’re going at different paces or over different distances. We’re all on the road. To me it always feels like a little understanding that only another runner, who also gets up early and out on the road, or spends part of a holiday weekend putting in the miles, can really provide. Someone who doesn’t think you’re crazy to be out there, or if they do, at least understands this particular species of crazy.

I think it works somewhat the same for writers, although obviously we never pass each other in the same way. But we tell each other about our WIPs and our word counts and there’s an reinforcement from the ‘well done’s or what have you that comes from a fellow messer-around with words that is especially valuable because it comes from someone who knows the same challenge of sitting down on the days when the words don’t want to come or you’re already tired or would really just have liked to sleep in but – gotta write.

I have found few things more helpful to me trying to grow as an artist than having a community of writers who both challenge me to do better but can also, essentially, give me The Wave. For that I’m very grateful.

And thank you for reading.

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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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