Category Archives: Writing

Perfect/Imperfect

I’ve been thinking about heroes, or I guess more properly about protagonists, the last while. I confess that a lot of the reason why is connected to The Last Jedi and the reaction to it, still. (I fired off my overall feelings about the movie a few blogs back.) A lot of the more thoughtful criticism I’ve seen of the movie (there’s a lot of it that I have no trouble dismissing out of hand) centres around Luke Skywalker, and the argument that his portrayal in Last Jedi is either inconsistent with the character we saw in the original trilogy or even a ‘betrayal’ of the character.

Mostly this is because either (depending how you look at it) Last Jedi shows us a side of Luke we haven’t seen before, or introduces a significant change to the character from the last time we saw him. Original Trilogy Luke is good at everything, and with a couple of notable exceptions, he doesn’t screw up. And even when he does screw up, it works out for the best in the end. Even when Ben and Yoda are convinced he’s wrong about Vader, nope, it turns out that Luke was right in the end. He always comes through, and he’s always up to the challenge.

There’s no question that things are different in Last Jedi. Luke has made at least one big mistake that he doesn’t know how to fix, and made a series of decisions that look, at least, pretty questionable. (Now, I think this all hangs together perfectly well, narratively, but I’m not going to dig into that seriously now, except to say that I think the basic issue is the difference between Original Trilogy Luke who Does Things and after-Original Trilogy Luke who now has to be a teacher, which is not the same at all) So, if what you need or want is for Luke to continue to be a flawless hero, then yeah, the film is not going to give you what you’re after.

Now, my reaction was that I like Luke Skywalker better as a character after getting these new parts added to his character, precisely because it makes him (more) imperfect. However, this whole issue got me to thinking about whether, on the whole, we prefer our heroes to be perfect, or not. If you look around SFF (and other kinds of fiction, really) you’ll find a lot of popular examples both ways.

In general, I like my heroes to be a little less than perfect, and I think I always have. I never really liked Superman, growing up, because he really had no downsides. (I’ve come around a bit on him in more recent years, but he’s never going to be a favourite) Easily the least interesting of the characters at Camelot is Galahad – literally the perfect knight, also indisputably the least fun of the lot of them. Give me a dozen Gawain or Palomides stories, hold the Galahad please.

I think any character that has some flaws and some things they aren’t good at and some parts of their life they struggle with is easier to identify with and easier to root for. I also think they’re a little more dramatic, because you never know exactly how the balance between positives and negatives is going to shake out. (Or at least, we can convince ourself that we don’t know long enough to enjoy the story)

On the other hand, there is something reassuring about the flawless hero. They can’t ever let you down, they can’t ever disappoint you. Whatever you need them to be, that’s what they are. It’s a lovely idea to think of having someone like that on your side. I suspect that’s a lot of the appeal of Superman, for example, and perhaps part of what people liked about flawless Luke Skywalker.

I’m not sure there’s really a right or a wrong answer here, and which sort of protagonist is appropriate probably depends a great deal on the kind of story that you’re trying to tell. I also suspect that, as usual, the thing that may really be problematic for people is change – when a character that we thought was one way is revealed to be a little different. Personally I don’t have an issue with that, as a fan or a writer, as long as the change is handled with some sensitivity and we’re given a strong reason for it, but I can understand where the unhappiness might come from.

Something worth thinking about with my own imaginary people, probably. Thanks for your time.

I’ll try to ease up on the Star Wars blogs for a while.

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Fireplace

I’ve kind of revised my life goals downwards as I’ve gotten older. When I was in Grade One I predicted being in charge of Earth Defense Command by age 21. By about 17 or so I thought I would be a world-renowned journalist. Turned out I took to journalism like a duck to lava. These days, my aim is to one day own a house with a wood-burning fireplace.

These things happen.

I’ve just gotten back from a weekend at a cabin in the Laurentians where I spent a good bit of the time burning about a cord of wood in the fireplace. It was pretty awesome. Aside from making the place warm, I find the whole experience of a wood fire very peaceful. The light from the flames, the sounds from the hearth, the smell of woodsmoke – I find it all very soothing. There’s something satisfyingly basic about it, as well – making a fire is part of how humans have been making a place ours for a very long time. Maintaining the fire feels like taking on a genuinely ancient task. That feeling of timelessness is sort of heightened by the cycle of watching the fire burn down at night, and then starting the next morning’s new one with the embers of the old.

I also enjoy the whole process of building and maintaining a fire. I was surprised, a few summers ago, to discover that my father has only the vaguest idea of how to do this. A lot of his fire-building technique involves ‘soak log with gas’ and ‘light repeatedly’. This is not very effective. I’m not sure where I learned how to get a fire going properly and keep it crackling away all day long but there’s a bit of a thing to it. How exactly I learned this is a little unclear, given that I obviously didn’t get it from Dad. I guess we’ll blame the Boy Scouts.

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You have to plan things out a bit before you start – your fire needs some structure before you’re ready to light it, with kindling and small pieces of wood. Once that’s going, you can think about adding bigger chunks of wood. If you try to start with the enormous logs, the whole thing dies before you get going, and if you try and add too much too fast you’ll kill it similarly. Once burning, the fire requires attention – you gotta keep adjusting things so that there’s a flow of air and adding more wood. If you don’t keep working at it, before long it will die down and go out. Once you get things burning properly, it’s easier to keep the fire lit than let it go out, and start again. A nice hot fire will quickly get its teeth into whatever new fuel you add in, but a mostly dead one takes time to build back up again. However, if your fire does go out, if you dig around in the ash a little bit, you’ll be surprised how long you can find embers still glowing down in there. So you’re not beginning entirely from scratch. Be patient, and start again.

That was, I swear, not a big pile of writing advice.

Thanks for reading.

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Gifts

I write this amid a bunch of holiday-related runnings around so this will be another short ‘un. I suspect I’ll write rather more next week.

It’s the Christmas season, so of course there is a lot of focus on gifts, given and received. I have been fortunate enough to receive more than my fair share, this year and through my life. Hopefully I’ve given a few of value in return.

Among the very best gifts I have ever gotten is writing, wherever it came from. I don’t mean that in the sense of ‘I am good at it’, I mean that in terms of what writing does for me. It is indescribably cool (although I do keep trying) to create stories of people and things and places. I am delighted to share a great many of my stories with people, but I have stories that will never be told to anyone.

For a few years I had my own imaginary football league filled with teams and players, each with their own tales that will always be just for me. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been privileged to share two big pieces of my imagination with the whole world.  Very different in many ways, but the essential process is the same.  Creating stories makes some crystal thing deep inside me hum in just the right fashion; there is no substitute and nothing I would substitute for it. There is no feeling quite like writing my imaginary people into being, and then of course there is no pleasure quite like having someone read a thing I wrote and say that they’re glad they did.

Thank you all for reading something of mine. I’ll be so very pleased if you continue.

——–

Just (literally) finished watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special and the exit of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. I suspect I may have a lot of thoughts about it all eventually, but on the whole it was a different kind of exit for a different iteration of the Doctor. I look forward to the next telling of the tale.

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Characters, Still

Yet again I struggled to know what to write for this week’s blog. The last while I have been tired and ill and feeling generally uninspired. I don’t write this fishing for sympathy, but more as a reminder for myself that these things happen. Everyone goes through down periods where they’re not their best and don’t accomplish all that they might like to. Some people are just better at concealing that shit than others.

However that may be – what I decided to write a little about was that I created a new character this week. I always have a lot of fun doing that, and this time it is a little different because this one is for a role-playing game. I wrote a bit a while back about the Star Wars game I’ve been running, and that’s still going. Now, one of my friends is starting up a D&D game and I get to be a player (something I haven’t done in a long long while) this time, so instead of creating the whole setting, I get to concentrate on one imaginary person.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, although the process of making an RPG character is a little different than my usual writing process, because my natural impulse is to start making this new person the star of the story. However, with an RPG, they really won’t be. My character won’t be any more (or less) important than any of the other players’ imaginary people, so what I have to do is create more of a supporting cast member – someone who can fit easily in with a bunch of other narratives and the overall tale our DM has for us.

I think it’s going ok.

Of course I’ve written some bits and pieces of story to go along with this character – because, honestly, what else would I do? – and this also got me thinking about all the characters I’ve created in and for unfinished stories that float around the nooks and crannies of my hard drive, their worlds partially created and their tales only somewhat told. I am just odd enough to feel a little bad about these stranded creations of mine, and also to wonder what it must be like to live in a partly-written world.

There’s probably a story in that, as well, and if Neil Gaiman hasn’t already done it, maybe I’ll write it one of these days.

——

There was a bit of a kerfuffle on Writing Twitter yesterday when an almost-certainly-well-meaning literary agent offered up a fairly broad brush piece of Writing Advice that drew a digital hailstorm of criticism. I was going to write about that a little, but I don’t really have anything to say that I haven’t already – I don’t put a lot of stock in Writing Advice, and certainly not in there being one or more Rules that are the path to Good Writing.

Good writing is, fortunately or unfortunately, something that isn’t about what rules you did or didn’t follow, it’s about whether or not you can write your ideas down and make it work. Different things will work for different people, and for different applications. Ultimately, the wonderful and terrifying truth is that you just gotta write well, and there’s no magic trick and no step-by-step for that.

That’s it for this week. Next week I hope to be a bit more out of my doldrums.

(But Brandon, these entries are getting shorter, huh?)

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Characters

I really didn’t know what I was going to write for this week either (I blame end of term occupying most of my mind these days) but then it occurred to me that I was reading a book where there was not a lot going on in terms of plot, but I was still really enjoying it, and wondered why. Surely this should be disappointing, or at least boring. But it wasn’t (and isn’t) – the book is an absolute pleasure to read. The reason: the characters are wonderful, and even though not that much is happening event-wise, it is just such a joy watching them interact that I don’t mind even a little.

(I’m not sure if I should say what book this is, and I’m pretty sure I won’t. Suffice it to say that despite what I said above, at about 3/4 of the way through it is a wonderful story from one of my very favourite writers, who is about a thousand times better than me both in terms of success and ability. I’m not looking down on the work in any way, just thinking about where its strengths are.)

As I think about it some more, that maybe isn’t the biggest surprise. At a writers’ event a few weeks ago, I got asked about the most important part of the stories I write, and my answer was that when you strip everything else away from my stuff, they are all stories about people. I like to write about people and the things they do, and basically I like to read stories that are, fundamentally, about people and their interactions as well.

In the same way, the kind of fiction that doesn’t work as well for me tends to be not as character-based. Some ‘hard’ science fiction, for example, is basically about technology, or a scientific idea, and the characters are almost peripheral to exploring those things. Sometimes the characters seem to be there just to dialog out pieces of exposition and describe things at each other, rather than speaking and reacting like real human beings. When I think about stories (which again I think I won’t name) that I liked when I was younger but haven’t liked as much on a reread more recently, a lot of times it’s because the characters are shallow and artificial-seeming.

(Now I know a lot of hard SF fans will vigorously dispute the above, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean all hard SF is like this. Just some of it, that I have read. A lot of this is also personal taste, because I know people who couldn’t really care less about the characterizations as long as the concept and the plot is cool.)

I’m not sure if this means I’m exactly very good at writing characters. I think they’re important, and I would sure like to be good at creating them. For the kind of stories I like to read, you need it to be about people before it’s about anything else. So they need to be fully thought out characters who react and speak like real people do, and they need to have concerns and motivations that are the sorts of things that real people are really motivated by.

Which is what the author of this book I’m reading has gotten very, very, right.

Something I’m going to keep in mind, anyway.


Fresh off last week’s post, and clearly lacking any ideas of his own, my friend Brandon Crilly has written up his own Top 5 TV shows list.  It is obviously misconceived, but you should find your way to his blog anyway.  It is here.

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Can of Ants

This week I want to write a little about what I felt was a really skillful piece of storytelling on the TV series Mindhunter. Some of this is a little spoiler-y so if you haven’t watched it yet, I’ll suggest you go do so (it’s really well done, although not SFF) and then maybe read this afterwards. Or maybe you don’t care about spoilers. Onwards.

Mindhunter is loosely based on the real story of the growth of ‘profiling’ as a tool the FBI used (uses?) to try to catch serial killers. One of the characters is Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychologist who gets recruited to help the two FBI agents who are the primary focus of the show, in their work. At the beginning of this relationship, you can tell she’s quite excited. She’s expecting to do work of serious scientific and academic merit, to be working with colleagues who respect her, they get an unexpectedly huge budget. She moves close to Quantico and it even seems that in her new building, there’s a stray cat that lives near her laundry room that she can charm with cans of tuna. Everything looks more or less perfect.

It all comes apart. The other agents refuse to use her methodology, and quickly change from coveting her approval to dismissing her opinions. The director starts making her do his dirty work in riding herd on the behaviour of the FBI agents. Beyond that, the actual work they’re doing seems to her to lack validity and to frequently be unethical. And then in the end, instead of a new adorable kitty friend, she ends up with a tuna can full of disgusting ants. I haven’t explained this as well as I might have (summarizing is hard) but the main point is that none of this is addressed directly.

Dr. Carr never says ‘man, this isn’t what I thought I was getting in for’. Her conversations with the FBI agents get less collegial, more curt, and more argumentative, but she never actually says ‘hey you guys are treating me like junk’. (Arguably, maybe she *should*, but that’s like a whole separate thing) And overall her optimism about the new life she things she’s getting is nicely represented by a few scenes with an off-screen cat, some cans of tuna, and some ants. You get it, but it’s never really explicit on the screen. You just come to understand that this is what’s going on. It’s really good.

Broadly I guess this falls under the umbrella of ‘show, don’t tell’, perhaps the most cliched of writing advice. Like many things pertaining to writing I think this is situationally valid. Dongwon Song put it really well on Twitter one time, basically saying that you’re a storyteller, and that if you ‘told’ rather than ‘showed’ something and readers didn’t like it the real problem is that you didn’t tell it very well – not entertainingly enough or with enough impact.

What I think is especially good about the thread from Mindhunter isn’t so much that it was show-don’t-tell but that it was done with such a precise touch. They gave you just enough to pick up on what the character was going through and really get it, but not so much that it was clumsy or overwhelmed other parts of the story. I think in general good writing is about finding that balance a lot of the time; giving your reader enough to know your characters, visualize your scenes, and follow your plot, without giving them so much that it becomes confusing, dull, or hard to follow.

I think Mindhunter did that really well, not only with the Wendy Carr character but with all the various threads of the story they wanted to tell. I should also say that none of this would work without the performances of the actors, and Anna Torv was, I thought, very good in this role. I really enjoyed her work on Fringe and it was nice to see her again. She’s very good at conveying understated details in her performances, I think. There’s a scene late in Mindhunter where she’s riding down in an elevator and doesn’t actually say anything but you can just feel the anger boiling off her.

Now, because a lot of what they did in the show was fairly understated and especially because there wasn’t a lot of repetition, you did have to pay close attention to what was happening or you’d miss important stuff. A lot of my favorite writers are that way as well – John Le Carre and William Gibson both get so much out of all their words that you really need to focus on the writing or you won’t really get what they’re trying to convey.

There’s no conclusion to all this except to say that as much as I enjoyed the plot and the performances in Mindhunter, I also did enjoy it on an entirely separate area of admiring the artistry of the writing. Sometimes, for me, that’s just as entertaining as the plot itself. Anyway, those are my thoughts for this week. Thanks for reading.

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Your Monster

“Hello Father,” Alex said. “What are you going to do about your monster?”

Adam Godwinson squinted up at the solid deck of grey clouds that covered the sky that morning and tried to think about how to answer such a question. He reflected that he should have become used to fielding odd queries from Alex Sloan over the years, first as a curious-minded child at Adam’s parish of St. Michael’s, and then on through the years as they both left the church, following different paths but connected by shared friends and, Adam hoped, still-shared affections.

Despite all the years, Adam had never gotten entirely used to the strange twists and turns that Alex’s mind could sometimes take, and the unusual things that might lead him to say. Long-ago doctors had indicated that some of this was the result of the mental disorder Alex experienced, but even before the doctors and the pills, Alex’s imagination had always been vivid, intense, and strange. Perhaps the two were related, and perhaps they weren’t.

None of this helped Adam understand the question before him. “Good morning, Mr. Sloan,” he replied gravely. “I wasn’t expecting a visit, but it’s good to see you. Would you like to come in?” Perhaps this would, if nothing else, be a chance to persuade Alex into a proper meal. He had never responded well to any kind of supervised care or group living situations, and inevitably drifted back into Ottawa’s streets and parks, making his own restless way in the world.

“No,” Alex responded shortly. “It’s not important. But what are you going to do about your monster?”

Adam sighed. Sometimes it was possible to deflect Alex away from the ideas he seized on, or created. Sometimes it wasn’t. “I don’t know what you mean, Alex,” he said gently. “I don’t have a monster.”

Alex’s head rocked back, almost as if he had been struck. For one painfully slow moment, Adam thought he would simply turn and go, and scrabbled for some way to keep him from leaving.

“Of course you do,” Alex replied instead. “Everyone knows.”

“Do they?”, Adam said. “Well, they haven’t told me. Why don’t you come in and tell me all about it? Then we’ll decide what to do.” Perhaps this would turn out to be one of Alex’s stories, which tended to be long, intricately-woven with fine details, and very hard to understand.

Many times, when Adam had been a young priest, presented with the fruits of Alex’s creativity, he had been able to muster no better response than ‘Good for you, Alex. Good for you.’ As praise he had always felt it was rather hollow, but Alex had a particular sensitivity to counterfeit cheer and approval, so Adam never offered more than he could feel genuine about. Good for you. I appreciate the effort, even if I do not understand the results.

“There’s no time, Father,” Alex said, making one quick shake of his head. “I know where it is now. We have to go. You have to do something.”

Adam sighed again, suppressed an upwelling of impatience with an effort. He had planned a peaceful morning of coffee and crosswords, and then perhaps a walk in the fragile warmth of an autumn day. Instead there was this. And yet a friend was friend, Alex was evidently in earnest, and it was also true that his curious intuitions had sometimes turned out to see things more clearly than anyone.

“Just let me fetch my keys, then.”

A few minutes later they were making their way, at Alex’s brisk pace, through the heart of the city’s downtown. Adam tried to fish for information as they walked.

“What is this monster, anyway?”

“You know, Father,” Alex replied impatiently.

“How did you hear about it?”

“Everyone knows, Father. Everyone knows you have a monster,” this said in the way most people would observe that it was cold out in January, or that the traffic would be bad in rush hour. Adam tried to make sense of it. Had Alex been talking to some of the other young people from his old parish? He couldn’t imagine anything that they might have said that would have created this idea of a monster in Alex’s mind. It might perhaps be some spiteful bit of rumour spawned by Matilda Damory, or another member of the Sunrise Foundation whose ire Adam had earned, but it seemed a singularly useless thing to have done.

“I’m afraid I still don’t understand,” Adam said finally.

“You’ll see,” Alex predicted. He was, Adam considered, unusually reserved. Usually Alex bubbled over with frothy torrents of words, and the challenge was drawing some shape out of the great mass of expression. Today his attention seemed to be mostly elsewhere, and conversation with Adam seemed a distraction that he was trying to avoid.

They had made their way down the path by the Rideau Canal locks and the Bytown Museum, and along the gentle curves of the pathway by the river, behind Parliament Hill. It had formerly been one of Adam’s favourite walks in the city; since the events of a few years ago he had far more mixed feelings about the place and went there only seldom.

“Where are we going, Alex?”, he asked. “I would have come for a walk by the river, if you had asked.

“No, Father,” Alex insisted. “Your monster is here.”

Finally they reached a little tributary of path that curled out and around the gold sun and stone slab of the Royal Canadian Navy Monument, and then under the Portage Bridge. And it was there, from a patch of dark and gloomy concrete, that Adam heard a soft skittering sound that he had trusted and believed he would never encounter again.

It sounded like the rustle of leaves over hard ground, or perhaps fingernails trailed playfully over a table top. But there was neither wind nor leaves, only stillness, and shadow, and although Adam tried very hard to insist that it was not happening, he could see now that the shadow moved, or that something black as the worst part of the night moved within it.

“The Piece of Shadows,” he said. “But it can’t be.”

Alex was silent beside him.

The Piece of Shadows had been, as far as Adam had understood it, a swatch of living darkness, conjured into the world somehow by Matilda Damory, as a weapon to set against her enemies. Its slightest touch withered and killed, and Adam and his friends had only barely escaped the thing. He had believed the thing had been destroyed, swept into nothingness, or back into it, by a fortunately passing set of headlights. And yet here again the darkness rustled, and Adam knew what it was, although he wanted very much to deny it.

“How is it here?”, he asked. “How did you find it?” As far as he had understood, the Piece of Shadows had been Damory’s creation, did not and could not exist in this world without her will behind it.

“They told me where it was,” Alex replied quietly. “I had to ask, but they told me.”

“How is it here?”, Adam asked again. Had Damory created another, called another into being? Had someone else learned whatever bizarre rite or skill or formula was necessary to draw these things into, or out of, the darkness? Was this the unfolding of some new or renewed machination that would have to be uncovered, understood, and undermined?

“Father,” Alex said firmly, “it’s yours.”

“Alex,” Adam shot back, “you know it isn’t. I’m not the one who makes these things. I don’t even know how.”

“Maybe,” Alex said, “but this one is yours. You know it is, everyone knows it is.”

There was at least enough light in the day to keep the thing restricted to a fairly small shadowed area under the bridge, Adam considered. As far as he had been able to learn, light was fatal to the things, which were therefore free to move and strike only at night or in dark places. And yet it was surely far too dangerous to simply leave it here. The path was not an especially busy one, but the consequences for any passer by that did come this way today were all too likely to be fatal.

Adam stepped a touch closer to the border between daylight and shadow, turning Alex’s words over in his mind. The gentle skittering responded. From what he could see in the gloom, this Piece of Shadows was considerably smaller than the last one he had seen. That one had been large enough to envelop several people at once, this one was a scrap of darkness only a few feet across.

Or was it, some part of his mind suggested, not a different Piece at all, but all that was left of the first one? What if Damory’s tool had only been damaged by the light, with this remnant left to lurk reduced in shadows, cut free of its purpose? As soon as the idea formed, Adam knew that it was true, apprehended it on some undefined and unspoken level.

“Alex,” he said softly, “we have to get rid of it.” Perhaps if he brought a powerful flashlight, or the flares from his road safety kit, it could be destroyed. But would the thing still be here after the time it would take to fetch these things, and return? Was it sufficiently trapped by the day, or would it melt away somehow? It had evidently survived a long time already. Even if it was no longer directed to kill by Matilda Damory, it was still a lethal threat, an utterly unanticipated accident waiting to happen.

“Yes, you do,” Alex agreed.

“You keep saying that it’s mine,” Adam replied. “You know that it isn’t.”

“No, Father,” Alex replied, sounding more than a little impatient. “I know that it is.”

What did he mean? Adam’s experiences told him it was probably important, Alex’s insights had been in the past, but how could he believe the Piece of Shadows somehow belonged to him? Adam had been attacked by it, had thought he had destroyed it, turned Damory’s nihilism against her circle of followers and tore it into scraps. He had not created this, did not control it, and did not truly even understand it.

And yet, was it not true that every since, in moment when he had felt alone, or sad, or doubted himself, had he not seen, in his mind at least, the Piece of Shadows? Whenever he had wondered whether he knew what he was doing, or if there was any right thing to do, had he not heard the skittering and felt the patch of dark creeping up on him, or through him? This dreadful thing had prowled the background of every bleak moment and flickered through every grim thought that Adam had lived in the years since their encounter. Perhaps that meant, or created, some manner of connection. Perhaps it had made the monster his.

“What do I do?”, Adam asked.

Alex was silent beside him.

Connections can be made, sometimes without us noticing them. They can also be broken, and at times that is for the best, and perhaps that was the answer. “It’s all right,” Adam said to the darkness. “You can go, now. I’m going to let go of you. I’m letting you go.”

Nothing and no-one spoke. The skittering died away, and Adam did not see the Piece of Shadows in that place any longer.

Alex crouched down beside him, looked over at Adam with a lopsided and somewhat brittle smile, and then for the first time in many years, threw his arms around Adam in a tight embrace. “Good for you, Father. Good for you.”

That night, after Alex had eaten some supper and gone off on his path into the darkness, Adam had looked out into the darkness and seen nothing but the night, and heard nothing but leaves in the wind. He left the kitchen, walked down the short hallway to his bedroom, and smiled as a tiny patch of shadow unfolded itself and followed him. He sat on the bed, opened his book to read, and a black shape jumped up into his lap, curled into a little pool of midnight, and commenced to purr loudly.

“There,” Adam said, “you little monster.”

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Can*Con 2017

Can*Con is over for another year and we are all getting some rest. (for ‘rest’, read ‘back at our “real” jobs’) Notwithstanding a few minor crises, the weekend went really well and it was truly very gratifying to hear from so many people that they had a good time at the con and enjoyed what we had to offer on the program. I was personally very proud of some of the panels we put together, and it was wonderful to hear that people liked them and to see that so many of them went well.

I think the whole Can*Con team is doing a fantastic job not just running an entertaining, compelling SFF convention for readers and writers, but also reflecting the diversity of the fans and creators of the stories we love in the people we have as guests and the programming we do. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I think every year gets a bit better and it meant a lot to hear people say they were happy with what we had for them this time.

I always come away from Can*Con excited about writing and about my writing in general; it’s very affirming to be surrounded by people who thing that fantastic stories are important and valuable, and that writing is important and valuable. What I need to do now is make sure that I convert that excitement into words on the page/screen, but it’s an invaluable boost right at a time when I feel like I’ve cleared a major obstacle on the current WIP.

The only other thing I want to say is of a more personal nature. I think a lot of times we can feel like we’ve got roughly a billion connections to people through all our technology, and perhaps naturally, since they light up and/or make our devices make noise, they demand a lot of attention, and it’s hard to tell which are the connections that matter. I was reminded this weekend that the people who even at a moment when they’re super tired and have their own things they should be focusing their last reserves of energy on, will take some time to sit down with you and help you get your ship righted and feeling better about yourself, those are the connections that matter. Those are the people who are really ‘with’ you in a sense that has some significance, and those are the connections where our energy should go rather than some other stuff that isn’t anything.

Some people did that for me this weekend and I am truly very grateful. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day.

Thank you to everyone who came out to Can*Con and made the weekend a great success. It was great to spend time with everyone that I got to spend time with, and for those that I didn’t cross paths with, my apologies and we’ll do a better job of it next year. We’re already kind of excited about 2018. You should join us if you can.

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Busting Through

Another short one today, I fear – I am a little pressed for time as (among other things) we get geared up for Can*Con this coming weekend. It has been a lot of work (and I didn’t even do most of it!) but we’re very excited about the con this year and I’m personally very proud of what we’ve put together for our guests this year. I’m really looking forward to it (although I’m gonna be exhausted for Monday) and I will hopefully remember enough of it to write something reasonably coherent about it all afterwards.

For now, though, the main thing I achieved in the past week was finally breaking through the logjam on the WIP. Basically the problem was that I got to a point where I realized there needed to be some pretty major rewrites or at least reworks of even the incomplete first draft that I had done so far. To make the plot work I had to move some things around, create some entirely new material and then figure out where to add it in.

This is more or less the kind of thing you always have to do when working on a story, especially when hammering together the first draft, but the scale of this particular rework was pretty daunting, and the first couple of times I sat down to try to do it (way back in August) I couldn’t figure out how to make it work and ended up just sort of walking away. This happened a couple times, and I would come back to try to write some other parts of the story, but always had the ‘yeah, but you need to do that rewrite’ hanging over me and it never went very well.

I started to think about other stuff that I could write instead. New projects always seem fresh and exciting and it’s often tempting to switch. I got to thinking that maybe this whole project was flawed at its core and that I should just junk it. William Gibson said that the process of writing is, in part, overcoming your revulsion for your own work, and mine got pretty palpable over the past few weeks.

So, basically nothing got written through September, which got me to feeling that the work was Not Going Well, which is kind of discouraging in itself. I tried very hard to remind myself that this happened with Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and it got written, and it really happened with King in Darkness, which I basically did give up on until a friend talked me out of it. So I think this just is a part of the process, or at least my process, and as much as it’s not fun it’s a stage that I need to drag the whole mess through.

This past weekend I had part of an afternoon to myself, and so I told a couple of people that I was going to Solve The Problem (thus committing myself), sat down, and figured out how to make it work. In terms of actual number of words written, it wasn’t a lot for several hours work, but in terms of things moved around and plot restructured it was a successful major surgery. I now know (I’m pretty sure) where all the major pieces need to go and I feel like I can press on creating without the cloud of ‘this is fundamentally a mess’ hanging over me.

So that was a good weekend’s work. I mostly write this as a reminder to Future Me when I’m working on whatever the project after this will be that for whatever reason, this is a stage I seem to go through, and that probably the sooner I just grimly push through the apparently insurmountable issue, the better. Possibly some of you reading have similar issues and maybe this will be helpful. I think it’s very easy to get negative about ourselves and our work, and it’s good to remember that the whole thing doesn’t have to flow in an unending effortless torrent of smoothness. Sometimes it’s a struggle, and that doesn’t mean anything other than that writing is hard.

I am reminded of something someone told me about running once (sorry) – if running half-marathons was easy, everyone would do it. It’s not, it’s hard.

If writing novels was easy, everyone would do it.

The important unspoken part of that is that even though it’s hard, we can still do it.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. See you after Can*Con.

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Straight into Darkness

Yesterday, Tom Petty died. The frantic media rushed out with the news, then walked it back, and now finally confirmed it. I am tremendously sad at the loss of this artist whose work I have loved.

I’m not the right person to speak to his place in musical history, but in my own story his part looms large. With The Tragically Hip, his tunes were the ones I played most often all through university and have continued to listen to right up to the present day. I think I like him for many of the same reasons I like the blues – most of his songs are about things we all have experience with. Feeling like an outsider. Being let down by people you care about. The world being a place that keeps pushing you around. Petty’s lyrics are clever and fun to listen to, his music strikes me as more down to earth than anything else, and he has been among my musical companions through a lot of good and bad times.

Music has, at times, a special ability to make good times feel better and bad times not feel so bad, and Tom Petty has done that for me time and time again. Thanks for the tunes, Mr. Petty.

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Even as the artists we love sometimes leave us, there are always new ones out there to discover. I have recently started reading The Bone Mother by David Demchuk, and although I’ve hardly cracked the thing I’m already very impressed by the quality of the writing, his skill with creating mood and conveying a sense of a time and place. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this book and need to stop myself sitting up stupidly late reading it.

Demchuk’s writing is also, undeniably, horror. From time to time I stray into thinking that what I write could be considered horror, too. Then, I will read the work of a real artist of the genre (among which I feel perfectly safe including Demchuk, already) and be reminded, that no, it really isn’t. ‘Supernatural thriller’ is a pretty fair label for my books, perhaps even ‘urban fantasy’, but they’re not horror. I hope they’re entertaining, and I hope perhaps there are some scares in there, but the stories are not horror stories.

What do you need for a horror story? It’s hard for me to really put my finger on it. In some ways, it is one of those ‘you know it when you see it’, or read it, moments. You will never have any doubt when you are reading a horror story, or watching one, or in one. It goes beyond just being frightening (because fantasy and SF can both cause fear, without being horrifying), and it doesn’t necessarily involve gore or violence. (Some good horror does, lots of stories splash blood everywhere without being the least bit horrifying.)

It’s very hard (for me, anyway), to define usefully. One thing that I think good horror has is a disturbing quality. There’s something about the characters, the situation, the resolution in a horror story that is pervasively unsettling. It challenges your comfortable assumptions about people and the world. It makes you question things that you wouldn’t ordinarily question. There are, of course, almost inevitably monsters, but the monsters may not be the real problem; it’s what the monsters reveal about ourselves and the worlds that we have built.

I think good horror makes us look at places that we’d prefer not to. That’s why it’s unsettling so much of the time; a good part of your being is telling you to look away, and you’re resisting that. Horror fiction makes you think about things you ordinarily wouldn’t.

Now, the scares are there, too. Part of the joy of horror stories is the joy of the roller coaster: the feeling of danger while knowing, ultimately, that you’re safe. The ride will end. You can close the book.

Where I think really good horror hits hard, though, is that it takes you to places, and makes you think about things, that don’t entirely go away when the book is closed. It’s made you at least reconsider some things that you would have preferred to consider immutable. It’s made your mind wander down a couple of dark and twisty paths that you would have preferred not to tread.

I’m not sure that I’ll never write a horror story, but reading The Bone Mother reminds me that no, I haven’t done it yet. I do love reading them, though.

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Of course, the real horror story is what happened in Las Vegas on October 1st. I have, I think, nothing at all to say except that the violence is awful and the loss of life overwhelmingly sad. I don’t think I will ever understand the ‘thing’ America has with guns, and as an outsider it’s not a debate I can usefully be part of. There are lots of points of view that I disagree with, but I can at still understand where they’re coming from, and thus have some idea how to start to engage with them. In this case, though, I see people posting on friends’ social media that ‘you’ll never take our guns, and God help you if you try’ and I just don’t understand it at all. I think gun violence in the United States can never really be solved as long as that mode of thinking stays so vital to so many people, but I also just feel, as I always do, that we have to stop killing each other.

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S.M. Carriere wrote a lovely review of The King in Darkness. You can read it here.

We’re under two weeks away from Can*Con! I’m so excited about this and looking forward to what I think will be a fantastic weekend for readers and writers of SFF. Details and registration here.

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