Category Archives: Writing

Plan?

Revisions are underway for the first draft of Heretic Blood, which I hope will become my third novel. I had one set of notes from an Eager Volunteer already, and have done one editing pass/rewrite based on those, and I’m waiting a bit for others to come in. I will do my own revision as well at some stage but I’m giving myself a little distance from the the thing before I do. Given the mistakes I missed in composing the first draft, I think this is for the best.

While Heretic Blood is on temporary pause, I’ve started the groundwork for what will be the next WIP. Unusually for me, I’ve spent reasonable chunk of time planning without really beginning to write. (Ok, yes, fine, I’ve already written the first and last paragraphs, leaving only all that tricky stuff in between to do.) With the other books, I largely just started writing the bits of the story I had clear in my mind, and worked out how it was all going to fit together, and what the other bits needed to be, as I went along.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m approaching it differently this time. Partly it’s because the story (as I imagine it now) will have a more complex structure than the ones I’ve written before, with flashbacks interwoven with the main narrative. I feel like I need to figure out what all of those are going to be before I start my work.

And that’s really the key thing – I feel like I need to spend some time planning this one. I can’t clearly say why, but it has been very clear to me that I need to hammer some stuff out before I’m ready to write. Perhaps this is because the WIP is a story I began once before, and ditched – I need to understand what I’m changing, and what I’m keeping, and get it relatively straight in my head before I start writing.

The reason I mention it is that, whatever the reason may be why I feel like I need to plan this time before I write, it serves as a really good example of how there is no One True Way to writing a story. I’m doing this one very differently than the last time. I can’t say for sure that it’s going to work equally well (for me), but there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to try it and see. Maybe it’ll be fantastic and I’ll plan from now on. Maybe it somehow is particular to this idea and I’ll never plan again.

The point is you gotta try and see what works for your process. Stuff that works, keep doing. Stuff that doesn’t help you, don’t worry about.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for reading.

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And We’re Back

Last week, for the first time in a very long while, I missed a blog entry. There were reasons.

You may recall from the previous one that I was away on a trip overseas, and last Tuesday was the day I was travelling home. In theory it was all supposed to work perfectly – I would get home in the evening with enough time to sit and write something for this. I even had a good idea of what I would write about.

Didn’t go according to plan. Due to a huge flight delay, my trip home ended up taking just under 23 hours, door to door, and I didn’t arrive home until the early hours of Wednesday. Not a great way to end what had otherwise been a splendid trip, but (as I have reminded myself several times) if my problem is that there were problems with my international travel, I’m really doing pretty well overall.

However, the blog didn’t get written. One might argue – with some fairness – that I should have had lots of time to write something while I was waiting around in the airport, but I was a) jealously conserving my battery power so that I could monitor what was going on and communicate with people; creating a tiny illusion of control or agency in a situation in which I could really do nothing at all. I was also b) grumpy, increasingly tired, and running on bad airport food and thus not in a mood to write anything at all.

So the blog didn’t get written, but what I wanted to do today was not present a bunch of excuses (or at least, not only that) but to use this as yet another example of how sometimes, no matter what our intentions are and what plan we have, the world intervenes on us and things do not get done as we hoped they would. Probably well-meaning writing advice often insists on writing every day, or writing set amounts or at given rates. Sometimes this is very useful advice, but sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes, life is not on your side, and you’ve just gotta let things wash over you, and when it’s done you get back up and you get ’em the next time. A plan is good. Recognizing that sometimes the plan needs to bend, and that that doesn’t mean you’ve failed, is better. Ideas like ‘write every day’ or completion schedules are useful to us only insofar as they help us be productive. If they become a thing that adds to stress or becomes a way for us to beat ourselves up, then they’ve stopped serving any good purpose, and it’s perfectly okay to let them go. It doesn’t mean you quit. It doesn’t mean you failed. It doesn’t mean your work is any less legitimate than anyone else’s. It just means that man, sometimes you have a day, or two, or several.

You get back at it. Writing the blog is something I enjoy and doing it every week is a way to make sure that I don’t find that three months have passed without me doing any entries. However, it wasn’t the end of the planet that I didn’t get an entry done last Tuesday, and doesn’t mean anything other than that it was a really bad day. I’m back at it with this, and back working on revisions for Heretic Blood and planning the new WIP. The work is always there when you’re ready to get back to it.

So, starting a new streak of ‘every Tuesday’s today, and as always, I thank you 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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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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Just an Update

It’s just going to be a very brief update this week – I’m a little sick, and a little fried from grading, and a little lacking in a clever idea.

I’m nearly 80,000 words into the WIP, which I am resolutely going to try to only call Heretic Blood henceforth, because it really is very nearly finished. I’m fairly certain. Most of what I’m doing now is assembling all the various out-of-order bits into the proper sequence and plastering over transitions. Of course every time I do that it adds about another 1,000 words, but I don’t believe I have too many major components to write from scratch.

Sometimes, though, in putting things together I’ll discover that there needs to be another scene (rather than just a line or two) that gets from one to the other, and so ‘cut and paste’ turns into ‘write furiously’. As a result, I can’t be absolutely positive how much more there is to do, aside from ‘not all that much, probably’. When I write it out this way, the process sounds insane. It may well be. However, it’s also how I wrote the two novels that I actually got finished, so I’m not terribly inclined to tinker.

I have a little bit of a deadline, because (without giving too much away) the agent who will be attending Can*Con as Agent Guest of Honour this fall might – based on their wish list – be interested in the manuscript. But of course, that means it has to be done.

That got me to thinking that originally the plan was to have this thing ready to pitch at last year’s Can*Con, which fell off the rails when that Agent Guest of Honour turned out to be one who would not rep this kind of book. So I am, arguably, about a year behind schedule with getting this book finished. Which, compared to the productivity of some writers I know, is a little bit of a downer.

On the other hand, leaving aside Real Life considerations, this has been a very challenging book for me to write. The main character is quite unlike any that I’ve written so far, and the focus of the story has shifted dramatically as I’ve been working on it. I think I’m trying to do more with this than I have with my previous books, and so I’m trying to take it easy on myself over how long it’s taken.

In any case, I think it’s in the home stretch now. I look forward to being able to share it with you.

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