Category Archives: Writing

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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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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Infinite Wars

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I can make that one friend stop complaining.

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

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Group Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Insomnia

This week, I’ve been battling insomnia. (Why yes, it has been kind of a tough month, since you ask.) It’s a profoundly frustrating experience. Sleep is something my body absolutely requires, but periodically, for no reason that I’ve ever been able to discern, it decides … not to do it.

I have no conscious control over falling asleep, and I guess obviously I’m also not making the conscious decision not to sleep. In fact, I’d dearly like to. And yet, this very important part of how my brain works insists on doing its own thing.

It is much like creating art, as I think I’ve noted before. There are times when, even though I have a nice big chunk of a day when I could sit down and write, I have a project to work on and a comfortable setting to work in, the words just don’t want to come. Then there will be others when, abruptly, even though it’s late at night or I really just have a few minutes before I have to dash off somewhere, that I will suddenly have a joyous avalanche of words.

I have tried to learn to accept it, and it’s something I continue to try to get better at accepting. Some days will be good. Some days less good. I trust it all balances out in the end.

It’s both frustrating and more than a little fascinating that there are these parts of my being that – as far as I can tell – are completely outside my ability to control and manage. We tend to pride ourselves on our intelligence and our ability to manipulate and control our environment, to use our reason to choose our responses. And yet sometimes, none of that really matters because there’s still parts of our brains operating on another level, what I can’t help but think of as an older level.

At times – like this week, when I’m struggling to get through the things that I need to get done on very little sleep – it’s a bit of an uneasy relationship. Just as with my creative processes, I suppose I trust that eventually whatever part of my ancient brain controls my sleep and I will reach a truce, and everything will balance out again.

That’s all I have for you this week. Pleasant dreams.

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Fog and Rain

It was a rainy, misty, foggy day here today and that feels pretty appropriate for writing this blog entry as I have no idea what to write about. That, in turn, is in keeping with how writing has been going the last while for me – it has been a struggle. This book is now, I feel quite certain, the most difficult thing I have ever written. Some of that is because I know I’m challenging myself in what I’m trying to pull off with it, some of it is just … things not coming easily.

I know my energy is very divided between trying to write fiction and trying to do a good job at the day job and trying to make sure I do other things beyond those two. It’s still easy to get down when the time goes by and the words won’t come.

Yesterday I did reach a bit of a milestone in that I believe I have written all the major scenes for the book I’m working on, and now “all” that needs to be done is to shuffle them into the right order and patch over all the transitions. Experience tells me that’s a fair piece of work to go, but it’s still good to have all the main pieces blocked out.

So I have been making progress, it’s just that every time I sit down to write, even when I know exactly what it is I want to do, it has been really very difficult. Every word I’ve written has been a struggle, and I’ve only hit those stretches where things start to really flow and come easily for very brief times.

I’m not writing this to complain or to fish for encouragement. The reason I decided to write about this today (barring, of course, the lack of another good idea) is that a lot of times when I look around on social media I see posts from writers about how they wrote 4,000 words this morning or just finished the third editing pass on their book and meanwhile I’ve just written and deleted the same sentence for the eighth time.

It often seems, I think, and we are often told, that creation is effortless and easy, and so it’s easy to feel discouraged in those moments when it’s not. Must be doing something wrong. Must not be a real writer. The thing is, that as far as I can tell, everyone has these times when creation is, in fact, super hard. It’s just as important (although less fun) to be forthright about that as it is to talk about the times when things are going very well. Difficulty is part of the process. It’s neither a surprise nor a sign that something has gone wrong, near as I can see.

The thing that I am trying very hard to teach myself is that the most important thing is not to abandon the project at times like this, but keep plugging away, scratch out 113 words in an afternoon if that’s the best you can do, and eventually, things ease up.

This is all dangerously close to advice, so I’ll stop for this week. I trust I’ll have something a touch more engaging for you next time. Thanks for reading.

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Walls, and Doubts

Yesterday (I was told), we hit the point where the same number of days had passed since the Berlin Wall came down as the entire time that it was in place. This was a neat little stat, and of course it made me feel old (well, “feel”), but it also (surprise?) got me thinking.

I am the right age that I grew up with the Berlin Wall in place. It was a fixture, if a distant one, of the world as I understood it. There was West Germany and there was East Germany. They were on all the globes and maps and where-ever else. Every 4 years there would be an Olympics and my male relatives would grumble about the East German team.

This was the world as it was.

Then (as I try imperfectly to cast my mind back), events started to happen that I didn’t really understand (being primarily an Idiot Teen at that point) which – it was suggested – meant that all of this was about to change.

I remember that I didn’t really believe it. Of course the Germanys wouldn’t really reunify. Of course the wall would stay there. Nations were immovable concepts and they didn’t get rearranged. (Sidebar: I have no doubt (but am currently too lazy to go look it up) that several, perhaps many, nations appeared, disappeared, or were renamed prior to this, during my lifetime. That these things did not make nearly the impression on my mind that the Germany thing did says something about the media, something about me, and something about the West-centred world of which I am indisputably a part. I struggle to take a broader view now as much as I can, but this was my perspective as an Idiot Teen.) Presumably just as people talked about Quebec separation, and then it didn’t happen (also one of my experiences), this would be a lot of talk that in the end, didn’t happen.

And then it did.

I can’t pretend that I had, at that time (or even really now) a deep enough understanding of the experience in East and West Europe to appreciate the impact of the events I watched unfold on the news. But I remember being truly amazed that it really was happening.

I think it’s a useful perspective. There are parts of our world that we think are absolutely fixed and absolutely immovable and that no force could ever alter them. In some cases, that may even be true. In others, they may be Berlin Walls: it may not be easy or painless to remove them or change them, but it can be done with sufficient effort. And how will we know until we try?

I’m still working on that WIP I’ve been blogging about for what seems like a very long time. It’s now become perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever written, with the possible exception of the PhD thesis. I think that’s because it is in some ways the most ambitious project I’ve done in writing fiction, and I’ve hit several stages (I’m kind of in one now) where I’m not persuaded it’s actually that good and the Urge to Abandon is strong.

But, I don’t think that’s the right move for my development as a writer (and some of the Eager Volunteers have been very enthusiastic about it) and so I am pressing on against my own doubts. Some days I wonder if I can do it, finish this story and finish it in a way that people will want to read. This week I am trying to tell myself it is a Berlin Wall.

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I have (of course? surprisingly?) seen the trailer for Solo, the Han Solo prequel that is the next ‘Star Wars Movie that is emphatically not an episode of Star Wars‘. I don’t have a lot to say about it. Han is one of my favourite characters from the movies, and I’m about equal parts looking forward to seeing more of his story and hoping that they don’t screw it up. Of course, there’s the added complication of seeing the part played by someone other than Harrison Ford, and seeing someone other than Billy Dee Williams as Lando.

However, I read (and then, as I do, promptly forgot the author of) what I thought was a good article about how the (over) analysis of things like movie trailers has become a fairly poisonous part of the fan community of a lot of SFF. The trailers are dissected and analysed and theorized over to such an extent that the eventual film almost cannot possibly meet the created expectations.

Also, what we saw in the Rogue One trailer was almost entirely gone by the time the movie hit theatres, and the Last Jedi trailers managed to hide almost everything of actual significance about the movie we saw. I know I’ll see Solo when it comes out, and some of the stuff in the trailer looks neat. That’s as far as I go on this one.

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RPG (again)

Short one this week, I fear. Busy with start of term, but also the start of that D&D campaign I mentioned a while back. That, and a discussion on Twitter about whether or not playing RPGs is good for your writing, got me to thinking.

Again.

I wrote a blog a while back about how being the Game Master of a campaign reminded me how writing for an RPG is very different from the process of writing a piece of prose. Getting ready to be a player in this game has made me think about how that’s yet another different kind of creative process.

Superficially, it seems like it should be similar. You’re creating a character, hopefully an interesting one that will be fun for you to experience the game world through and for the other players to have as part of the team. But right away, that’s where the big difference comes in.

When I create a character for one of my stories, I create the star of the story (along with various others) and the whole fictional world that I’m showing you revolves around that person. The story is, more or less, about solving their problems or exploring their characteristics or understanding of the world or what have you.

However, in the game, my character is no more or less important than any of the others. They need to be a useful part of an ensemble, and in most well-run games I’ve been in, everyone gets their turn in the spotlight, but no one character is the star of the show. So, in writing a backstory for this guy, I immediately had several ideas that I would really enjoy exploring – but odds are we never will, because this story is not that character’s story, or not only their story. The story of the game is going to be what this character creates with all the other ones, going forward.

Now it’s true that in thinking about how my character in an RPG should react to situations and behave, they would think that they’re the centre of their own universe, just as we all more or less do. Absolutely a well thought-out character has goals they want to accomplish and drives. The thing is, though, that as the player/writer, I also have to be aware that those things are all less important than the whole group having fun, and telling a good story collectively that everyone (including the DM) can enjoy.

Tricky.

But fun.

We had a sort of intro session on the weekend and I was reminded about one of my weaknesses as a player – I am not real quick on the draw with a good line. If I was writing the scene, I could come up with just the right thing for my character to say. But during a live game session, when I don’t have time to think, and try a few different phrasings and see what works best, I don’t do nearly so well. I guess that’s why I’m a writer and not an actor.

Somewhat tangentially, this also makes me very impressed with how well the people on Critical Role do playing their D&D game live on the internet. The quality of the dialogue all of them come up with shooting from the hip is really something to see.

All of this is to say that creating a fictional person and collaborating in creating a fictional world in this way has some overlap with what I do when I’m writing my own stuff, but it stretches me in very different directions at the same time. I think that’s a good thing, overall – it’s like doing a different set of exercises at the gym, strengthening different muscles and building different kinds of fitness. Also sometimes you ache in the morning.

Thanks for reading.

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