Category Archives: Writing

John Le Carré

When I started writing this blog one of the first things I did was talk about some of the writers I particularly admire or who I think have influenced me in my own writing. I haven’t done that in a while, but as I have just started reading The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s autobiography, I thought I would do it again.

I admire Le Carré’s work for a couple of reasons. One is that his stories are just really good stories. Most of what he writes are contemporary spy stories, and no doubt due in part to his background as an intelligence officer, Le Carré writes them very well. I guess obviously I’m not in a position to comment on how accurate or realistic the books are, but they are to me thoroughly convincing and plausible portrayal of how the secret world is likely to work. Le Carré’s perspective on this contrasts very strongly with the many more romantic versions we are given, most famously in the James Bond stories.

When I was younger I read a lot of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, due at least in part to a massive compendium volume of them being for sale at a church garage sale, a sale at which ‘fill a bag of books for a buck’ was advertised. It probably says nothing good about me that I spent a couple of extra dollars on a massive hockey bag, packed it with books (including the Fleming) and argued that there had been no limits placed on what constituted a ‘bag’. I left with my haul, my mother’s chagrin and, no doubt, my fate in the afterlife thoroughly imperilled.

Anyway I read the Bond stories and with the flashy spectacle of the movies it is easy to forget that Fleming’s books are actually pretty solid. There are a lot of problems; they are also racist, or at least portray a very racist society, and although there are reasons for Bond’s serial misogyny, it doesn’t really change the fact that women get an extremely raw deal both from the stories’ hero and their creator. Especially from a modern point of view, Bond is difficult to actually like, and I sometimes wonder how much we’re supposed to.

Nevertheless, they are well-crafted thriller tales and teenage me read them and enjoyed them and parts of them still stick with me. There is a part of Doctor No where a badly injured Bond is trying to climb up the inside of an air shaft (best not to think about why) and is trying not to think about how far it is, just focusing on each tiny step along the way. ‘Take the silver inches one by one, and conquer them’, is how Bond envisions his task, and from time to time when I am faced with some seemingly insurmountable and endless challenge, whether mental or physical, I will say that to myself as I try to get at it.

That’s pretty good. Overall, I mention all this because Fleming’s famous spy is I guess an idealized version of the British intelligence officer, larger than life and impressively heroic. Bond is smooth and cool and deadly. By contrast, most of Le Carré’s spies are not. His most famous creation, George Smiley, is short and pudgy and socially clumsy. It’s interesting – to me, anyway, that both Fleming and Le Carré had real world experience in the world of intelligence, yet portray it so differently. I’m not sure if that speaks to their backgrounds (Fleming from a wealthy family, Le Carré from a much more troubled one), their experiences with the espionage trade, or simply their aims as authors.

On the whole, though, I suspect Le Carré’s version of espionage, ‘delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom’ is rather nearer to the truth than Fleming’s, and his flawed characters rather more like most of the spymasters of the real world. Smiley is not a lethal weapon one-on-one, struggles with his personal relationships, but his mind is a machine of tremendous precision, and he is particularly acute at discerning people’s weaknesses and how to make use of them. Smiley is not really a hero in the conventional sense, I don’t think – he does his duty and does it well, but we don’t get a great sense of idealism out of him. We see his moral and ethical struggles through many of the books, eventually ending with his determination to do what is required to defeat his opposite number on the Soviet side; whether the personal cost that Smiley paid for all this is worth it or not is left for the reader to determine. A great deal of espionage in Le Carré’s books is at best uncomfortable, and often downright unpleasant manipulations of people who may or may not deserve their fates, in the interests of powerful men and nations who may or may not deserve their defeats, and their victories.

Le Carré’s fictional worlds are less clearly divided into the good and the bad than many other spy stories, and in many of them basically decent people (like George Smiley) end up doing inarguably ghastly things to achieve their aims, leaving both them and the audience wondering if it was worth it. To me, although the secret war of Le Carré’s agents and assets comes across as fairly thoroughly awful, making it difficult to really identify with any of the factions at work, his characters are intensely human, and it is extremely easy to identify with them, and to feel their triumphs, their struggles, and their failures.

Rather than monolithically heroic and villainous sides, Le Carré gives us a rather more murky picture where fighting the struggle in the shadows exacts a massive price on everyone who participates, and I wonder if that’s one of the points he is trying to make. It seems to me one of the consistent themes of Le Carré’s stories that he appears suspicious and cynical of large and powerful organizations and institutions (of whatever kind – his Constant Gardener takes a justifiably harsh view of drug companies) but he’s immensely sympathetic towards individual people, and the dilemmas they often find themselves in. That’s a point of view that I find myself increasingly identifying with.

So, I guess obviously, I like John Le Carre’s stories quite a lot. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful novel, and The Night Manager is another particular favourite, as is The Secret Pilgrim. In addition to just (?) enjoying the books, though, I also deeply admire Le Carré as a writer. He is a fantastically skilled craftsman with words, choosing each one with what seems to be unerring precision and creating prose that conveys intense feelings of mood and emotion. Because of this, I don’t find him an easy read by any standard; because each word means so much I find I have to pay very close attention to Le Carré as I read, and so late at night when I’m growing tired and my focus is slipping, I can’t quite keep up with him. Le Carré conveys important information in what seem to be fleeting phrases and word choices, so if you miss a ‘little thing’, you’ve missed a lot. It’s interesting (I think) that that attention to precise detail is also one of the skills that are most essential to his fictional spies.

I don’t really think of this as a flaw. Not all writing needs to be an easy, relaxed read, any more than everything we eat needs to taste the same. Le Carré’s stuff demands effort, demands your entire engagement (or at least it does from me), but if you’re able to give it you are richly rewarded. I suppose there is, for a writer, some sort of practical limit here – if you make your writing too difficult to engage with and appreciate, there will be too few readers willing to rise to the challenge. There is, perhaps, some ideal balance of artistry with words and ease of access for the reader, some perfect mastery of story there to be achieved.

In my view, John Le Carré is very close to it.

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Literally as I wrote this, I got a news alert that Roger Moore, probably most famous for his portrayal of James Bond, has died. Due to my age, Moore was the actor that I first knew as Bond, and I think his A View to a Kill was likely the first Bond movie that I watched in its entirety. As I’ve just written, I have a lot of problems with James Bond these days, but the Moore-era Bond with the Union Jack parachute and all the rest of it was undeniably fun and Mr. Moore’s performance gave me stories that I enjoyed.

For that I will always be grateful.

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We also draw very close to the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, which runs June 3-4 and will feature many fantastic discussions on how we create and consume fiction, as well as a chance to meet writers and people who love books. I will be there for the second time, and I’m looking forward to it very much. My publishers, Renaissance Press, will also be there with their growing range of titles, so you can get yourself a copy of The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures if you don’t have one, and I will be at the table at various times through the weekend if you would like to say hi or have me scrawl something in your book.

Limestone was a great weekend last year, and I’m really looking forward to it again. Hope to see many of you there. Details here.

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On Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been hesitant to write about this topic because, first, there’s been a great deal written about it already, much of it by wiser heads than me and in general, on any topic the world does not tend to need more white dude opinions, and second, I think it’s important to mostly hear the voices of people from cultures that are being appropriated on this issue. And yet, I am a writer and one who writes about things I imagine, so this seems like an subject I can’t easily avoid, and I have also seen people whose opinions I usually respect thoroughly not getting the problems here, and maybe if I can help a tiny little bit.

I trust I don’t really need to explain the concept of cultural appropriation itself; it seems hardly possible to spend any time at all thinking about the creative world without having run into the discussion. The issue really burst into flames in Canada last week when Write magazine published an editorial calling (not very seriously) for an ‘Appropriation Prize’ and declaring (much more seriously) that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist (or isn’t a problem) and that writers should write about whatever different cultures they choose and imagine the perspectives of as many different kinds of people as possible. A lot of people (unsurprisingly) got upset, a small(ish) number of white industry insiders made edgy comments in favour of the idea of an Appropriation Prize, and as I write this today the guy who wrote the editorial and at least one of the edgy commenters have resigned from their jobs.

Hopefully what the whole episode of the Write editorial will be is an opportunity for everyone to hear the voices of people from cultures that are exploited via appropriation, listen to their perspectives and their concerns, and do better as we all go forward. Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of that going on, although it is striking to hear a common theme from many of these speakers: sadness that this is still an issue that we are grappling with, rather than a problem that had been solved long ago.

This is also an issue that I have been asked about. I (currently) write fantasy, so basically making up the points of view and perspectives of people who are not like me is more or less baked into the job. So, isn’t that a problem if I’m against cultural appropriation? The first answer (which I hope is obvious) is that there’s a big difference between making up an entirely fake culture and adopting the perspective of a real one lived by real people. There is rather more tricky territory with creating a culture based upon a real-world one, or imaginary cultures that appear to (intentionally or not) mirror the relationships between groups in our real society. The more fantastic and imaginary you make something, probably the less you need to worry about the problem of appropriation, but this is not the issue that most people have a problem with. Of course fiction writers make things up. That’s not a problem.

However, of course, in the case of the stuff I’ve had published, things weren’t quite that easy. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures are set in our world, or something very close to it. My cast of characters includes people who aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t straight, so aren’t I engaging in appropriation? It’s not a completely unfair question, and it’s one that I’ve asked myself a bunch of times as I’ve been sitting down to write.

The answer (I think) is that diversity in writing is important both in terms of the kind of characters that get written and who does the writing. So yes, if I’m going to write (and I am), it’s important for me to value the existence of people from a variety of backgrounds, and if I’m going to do that I need to do it as respectfully and well as I can. It is one of the most challenging parts of writing for me but I also feel it’s one of the most vital ones – while it might arguably be easier to exclude characters with experiences that don’t match my own a) it would be boring b) it wouldn’t be a very good portrayal of the world we really live in and c) imagining that different groups in society aren’t there is a harmful thing to do. So it’s essential that I continue to write characters from a whole bunch of different backgrounds in our society.

A key part of doing that, though, is to listen to the people from those backgrounds when they talk about something I wrote, or things other artists created, and how they were portrayed (or not portrayed) in those pieces. What was good. What was wrong. What was hurtful. Then I need to to better the next time. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that an author like me should never include people who aren’t like me in my stories (and I sure hope not!) but that when I write those different people, I try to be mindful of the differences between their experiences and mine, value those differences and portray them as well as I can. When I learn that there are things that I need to do better, I acknowledge that, try to learn more, and try to keep improving.

It’s also important that I’m not going to pretend to be of those other cultures. I can tell a story with a First Nations person in it, but I’m not going to claim that culture as my own, or to say that I am telling the story of First Nations people. Which is a fine distinction, but an important one. There was another controversy recently with a white painter who says she was inspired by the art of First Nations people and started producing art in that style. First Nations people objected, strenuously, and other people objected just as strenuously that artists should be free to express themselves.

Isn’t it ok? Can’t we be inspired by whatever we’re inspired by, as artists? Isn’t copying (or modelling) the behaviour of others pretty deep in our genes? In an ideal world where all cultures were on an equal footing and we could ignore centuries of interaction between them, I guess the answer to those questions might be ‘yes’, but they’re not and we can’t and so the answer is no.

It is deeply not ok for a white person to decide that the art and stories and culture of a people that we, as a society, spent at least the past 150 years trying to eradicate is kind of fun and cool and to claim it for our own and try to make money off it. Doing so is a continuation of the plundering of the colonial era that got us to this deeply problematic place where we are today. What about when a non-white artist uses something from (say) European culture? Isn’t that the same problem? Again, no, of course it’s not – European culture has never been in danger of being eradicated by another one. It’s never been under threat. And, it’s never been a problem for European artists (as a group) to get the attention their work deserves.

The other part of this problem and why it’s not ok for white artists to identify with whatever they identify with and start telling the stories or using the art of other cultures is that it is still so hard for people from these different cultures to get their voices heard and to get their stories told. The demographic breakdown for fiction authors getting published is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. It is orders of magnitude harder for other voices to get heard.

It is, therefore, an incredible problem for white people to swoop in and start trying to tell those stories themselves. It’s super hard to get these stories in front of an audience to begin with, so to have the opportunity to tell them taken away from a person who’s actually from that culture and used by a person who is privileged in society anyway is really problematic, and (I am sure) incredibly frustrating and hurtful. People should be able to tell their own stories, because it’s theirs and they know it and know what it means and why its important. They have had their stories told for them, and stories told about them, for far too long already. They deserve a chance to be heard in their own right.

In sum, then, the problem with cultural appropriation is that it is people from a dominant culture taking advantage of and exploiting others in a variety of ways, and perpetuating their dominance of the market by sucking up the opportunities to be heard that might (and should) otherwise go to people from a more diverse backgrounds. So, I guess in some ideal situation where it wasn’t a problem for artists of different races and genders and cultures to get their voices heard, and where all the cultures of the world were on a level playing field where some hadn’t been historically oppressed and repressed and weren’t in danger of being lost, maybe cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a problem. In case it isn’t clear, that’s not where we are. It is, therefore, a big problem on a lot of levels.

Even so, it should surely just be basic human decency to listen when our fellow human beings speak up about something we did and say ‘hey, when you use that part of our culture in the way you just did, we find it disrespectful and hurtful, could you stop?’ to put aside our arrogance and self entitlement and give what has to be the only conceivable answer in my view: ‘I’m sorry, and of course I will’.

I’ve read a lot of people who seem to treat the entire issue of cultural appropriation as an intellectual exercise, as a sterile problem to pick over in an ethics or philosophy classroom. The problem with treating it that way is that there are real people in real pain involved. Those of us who occupy privileged positions in society need to, at last, stop justifying and start listening.

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RPG

We are, if you can believe it, going to take this blog into even dorkier territory this week. A little while ago I started RPG-ing again. Role-playing games are a hobby I enjoyed a lot in high school and university, but in more recent years there hasn’t been time to do it. I tried playing over internet forums but it really wasn’t at all the same and I had sort of assumed my RPG days were over.

However, some friends of mine suggested giving it a shot again (we’re using voice chat, which removes a lot of obstacles) and so I am once again running a game of Star Wars: The Role-playing Game. The specific game doesn’t really matter so much; the experience has been an interesting one from a writing perspective.

As the game master (or whatever a particular game labels the role I have), it’s my job to create the scenarios the other players will encounter, populate the game world with interesting characters, and give them compelling enemies to fight against and (hopefully) overcome. There’s more to it than that, but I guess obviously this all sounds a lot like writing fiction, and it is, in a lot of ways.

However, as I was also reminded (I feel like much-younger me would have known this) that there are some big differences as well. For our first scenario I created a whole bunch of stuff that, to me, would have been an interesting, reasonably suspenseful story to start out the new game. I made up characters and created detailed backgrounds and motivations for them all. I carefully thought out the right sequence of events for the scenario’s plot and what the hooks for the next story would be.

And then we played. And (as any experienced GMs will of course already be expecting) the players went off in entirely different direction skirting most of what I had plotted out. Most of those characters never got met, and the bulk of the plotline got (actually fairly skilfully) avoided. I thought the game went fine, but I had to make up a fair bit on the fly (an essential GMing skill at the best of times) and a lot of material i had prepped went unused. (By the way, to my players who may be reading this, please don’t take this as a complaint – I’m just thinking things through.)

You can avoid this – RPG players call it ‘railroading’ and you can write things such that the players have to go in the direction you want them to. (i.e., you set things up so the game runs ‘on rails’ with no real ability for the players to steer where they might want to go) Especially for newer players it’s sometimes the thing to do, and some players are fine with being told where to head next, but my experience has been that more experienced players tend to chafe against it pretty quickly. The whole attraction of an RPG is that you get to explore an imaginary world of wide-open possibility. Hey, what’s that? Let’s go check out over there.

So to some degree this is unavoidable, especially if you have creative players (which are the kind you want). What this is reminding me is that writing as a game-master is a very different jam than writing as a fiction author, despite those superficial similarities, primarily because I’m not the only person telling the story. Because I can’t necessarily predict what the players are going to do, improvisation is always going to be a part of it, but just as obviously I can’t prepare nothing … somewhere there’s a sweet spot of preparing enough material to be able to have the session go smoothly without working up a bunch of stuff that never gets used to find again.

(And, honestly, a lot of stuff that doesn’t get used when I expect it do can be scavenged for parts later anyway)

I like to hope that what I’ve learned as a fiction writer does help me in creating compelling elements for the RPG, but I also feel like this whole experience gives me some useful stuff to think about and take back to fiction writing. Although I do get to tell the whole story there, there’s also still a balance to be struck in terms of how much background and fleshing out everything needs for the story to be convincing and interesting. Fictional worlds need to seem plausible and fully-realized, but that (in my opinion) should also be an illusion; you can waste a lot of time on ‘world building’ that serves no purpose to the story and, in some examples of writing I’ve seen, actually gets in its way. Write the story first, decide if you actually need a detailed political history of the kingdom later.

I know that part of why I have always liked role-playing games is the storytelling element. I love to tell stories and that’s essentially what the games are about, whether you’re a player or the game-master. What I’m re-learning again the last while is that it is a very different kind of storytelling than I get to do when I’m writing my own fiction, and while the lack of control is something that requires adjustment, it’s also really cool because the group is working together to tell the story rather than it being the creation of any one person. I also think that while I’m probably a much better writer than I was when I was last running an RPG, that doesn’t necessarily or immediately translate to being a better game-master.

I’m not really sure that’s something you get in any other setting than a role-playing game group, where creative people collaborate in real time on a story that can (depending on the group, and the game) go on for years. I think what I’m actually re-learning as a game-master is that it isn’t my story at all. My job is to help the players tell the story of their characters, the imaginary people they’ve created and are sending out on adventures. It’s very cool and it is a role I enjoy very much, I’ve just got to get good at it again.

That’s all very much just me thinking out loud about things, but it’s what I’ve got for you this week.

Thanks for reading.

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Artists for Artists

What I’ve got for you this week is a story I found quite disheartening in a lot of ways. I was whiling away/wasting a little time on Twitter and I came across a news report of a mural of Michelle Obama that had been installed in Chicago. It turned out that the mural (and I’m not going to name the artist here because I don’t want to push any more traffic his way), which had been crowd-funded, had also been plagiarised, copied exactly from a work done by a young artist named Gelila Lila Mesfin, with no attempt at attribution or giving credit for her work. (This is a pretty good news story covering the issue)

Social media exploded (which I guess is good), the plagiarist reacted fairly badly, but last we heard the two were in some sort of negotiations over the thing, which I hope ends up with Ms. Mesfin getting both full credit for the work as well as some money. We shall see.

I found the whole thing depressing, as I said, because it was such a blatant theft and I would really have liked to believe that someone who thought of themselves as an artist would do that to another artist. I mean, I know how much of my energy and how much of myself goes into anything that I write, and I assume the same is true for the work done by other artists. As a result, I can’t imagine stealing that, or pretending that it was mine. I know how hard it is. I wouldn’t be able to take something that someone else had poured so much into and say that I had done it.

I also like to think that my writing, whatever else may be good or bad about it, is mine, and that’s important. Even leaving aside the issue of ripping off someone else’s work, I wouldn’t ever be able to say that a piece of writing done by something else was mine, because it isn’t. I would take genuinely zero satisfaction in putting out a piece of work that I hadn’t created, because no matter how much people liked it, it wouldn’t matter, because I didn’t do it.

Finally, it seems to me the whole point of being an artist (of whatever sort) is that you create. Again, whether you like what I write or you don’t, I wrote that. I made something that wasn’t there before. That’s very much the whole point of saying that I’m a writer. It would be a frankly bizarre sort of act to be claiming to be a creator when I wasn’t. I can’t imagine what the point of it all could possibly be.

I feel like all of this should be thoroughly straight-forward and obvious, but then something like this mess over the weekend happens and it makes me doubt. I think artists have more than enough challenges to deal with in society without sticking the knife into each other by stealing work. I would like to think that artists should understand better than anyone else how difficult it is to make your way in a creative field, and not sabotage a colleague’s efforts by ripping them off.

Artists need to be on each other’s side, boost each other’s work, and be each other’s support system. Artists should be the best allies other artists have. I would like to think that’s automatic, but clearly it isn’t necessarily the case. Let’s all try to do as well as we can.

Thanks for reading.

——

It’s a little bit more than a month until the 2017 Limestone Genre Expo! I attended for the first time last year and will be back again this year. Renaissance Press will be there as well, which means you will be able to buy either of my books, if you like, and I will be at the table frequently so you can come and say hi if that seems like the sort of thing you might enjoy. I will also be participating in some of the panel discussions again, and I’m already looking forward to all of it. Limestone is a growing convention for basically any time of writer or lover of writing, and I would love to see you there. Details here..

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Dialogue

I have recently been struggling a bit with the current WIP (which, yes, still lacks much in the way of a title), to the extent that I described myself as ‘mired’ to a friend the other day. After some thought – along with certain other things – I decided to go back to one of the things that had gotten me excited to write a story set in Victorian London to begin with: the TV Series Ripper Street. I admit to approaching Ripper Street a bit dubiously, and I’m not sure that it’s an immortal achievement, but I do like a lot about it.

One of the things I like very much is the dialogue. The writers for the show have a very clever turn of phrase and obviously love their words. Basically all of the characters speak in these very elaborate, eloquent, complex sentences which I enjoy very much. (My love of a long twisty sentence is something any of my editors or Eager Volunteers can attest to) Now, I also doubt very much that real Victorians spoke this way, and doubt even more that the residents of impoverished Whitechapel spoke this way, but Ripper Street’s heavily embroidered dialogue nevertheless somehow, for some reason, works (at least for me), both because I enjoy the word craft and also because it somehow conveys a sense of the different mannerisms and etiquette of the late 19th century. Or so I reason, because even though it probably doesn’t make any sense, I still sit there thinking ‘this is awesome’ rather than ‘well, this is probably overdone’.

It’s a similar situation to another show I loved a while ago, the rather-more-famous Deadwood, which also put amazingly ornate dialogue in the mouths of characters who would certainly not have spoken that way. It worked, both because it was a joy to listen to and (I think) because the eloquence was a contrast to the gritty, brutal setting of the frontier town and the gritty, brutal people who inhabited it.

Anyway in the short term, watching Ripper Street worked pretty well and I’ve been back plugging away at the WIP. I also tackled a scene that I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make work for what feels like roughly forever. I’m not sure it’s exactly good, but it is written and I can move on from it. (This kind of loops back to earlier blogs in that I need to remember that not every scene needs to be the best scene I’ve ever written. Sometimes, there just needs to be a god damned scene.)

In the somewhat longer term, this all got me thinking about dialogue and how it works. It isn’t, of course, quite as simple as fancy dialogue always being better. There are plenty of times when ‘less is more’, and another of my favourite TV shows frequently serves up great examples of that. The Americans is, I think, genuinely one of the best shows on television and one of my favourites of all time, and they really know how to write over there.

One of my favourite moments was from Season 3. Philip, deep cover KGB agent resident in the U.S., spent most of that season doing increasingly awful things (which, if you’ve seen the show you will remember, and if you haven’t, I’m not going to tell you about because you should go watch it) and eventually, he’s talking to one of his assets and breaks off in the middle of trying to justify everything they’ve been doing. All he says is “I feel like shit all the time”, and you absolutely understand the amount of pain he’s in, and the toll everything is taking on him. Similarly, last episode (minor spoiler here, but whatever) Philip and his wife Elizabeth discover they killed someone who was completely innocent; Philip is once again devastated (Keri Russel’s Elizabeth has thicker skin about these things, apparently) and Elizabeth offers to leave him out of future missions that may require killing. Philip replies with “No, no. It’s us. It’s us.” Again, you completely understand that even though he hates what he’s doing, he can’t contemplate making his wife do it by herself.

Now, a lot of the effectiveness of both those scenes (and, a lot of what works on The Americans, and indeed any TV show or film) has to do with the delivery and performance from the actor. Matthew Rhys sells both those scenes tremendously. However, he’s working with what he’s been given and somehow that extremely minimal dialogue conveys a tremendous amount, in context.

So in trying to think about this in terms of ‘what makes good dialogue’, I’m not immediately left with anything too useful. Sometimes, arguably over-written dialogue is great. Sometimes, extremely minimalist dialogue is great. I suppose one might argue that context is, as usual, king in all this: some settings and characters call for one, and some for the other. Probably in some or even many cases, you don’t want to be on either extreme, but something in the middle.

The thing is that I imagine it depends very much on the author in question, as well. Some authors know how to write in the style for Deadwood. Others know how to make less words say more. I would guess that trying to do one when you’re really good at the other doesn’t produce good results.

Unfortunately what I think I’m coming away with, having spent the last couple of days thinking about dialogue, basically comes down to two things. One, that having excellent dialogue can absolutely make a piece of writing just as much as bad stuff can kill it. Two, there probably isn’t

And isn’t that insightful.

It has given me something to consider as I continue work on the WIP; I need to choose my characters’ words, and the style of those words, very carefully indeed. Since I do tend towards long, complicated sentences, I’m probably likely to stray more towards the Ripper Street end of things, but it’s valuable to remember that in some circumstances, a very few properly chosen words can say a ton.

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

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Relative

I had a curious moment last week, and thus a topic for this week’s blog. It was at a planning meeting for Can-Con 2017 (which, quick aside, if you haven’t already made your plans to attend, you definitely should. We’re going to have amazing stuff for you this fall, and our guests are fantastic) and the person who organizes one of our city’s writing groups said that I was one of their success stories.

Wait, what?

In recent months I have gotten to thinking that my writing hasn’t yet amounted to very much.  My friend who just signed a lucrative book deal, now there’s a success story. Another of my writer friends has newspapers wanting to do stories on her latest release. Yet another guy I know is blowing up all over the media with his latest project. When I had been thinking of ‘success stories’, those were the people that I thought of. (And, just to be clear, they are all immensely talented artists who have earned every drop of that success and I could not be happier for them)  Nothing I have done seems as though it is in the same league as that.  Thus, not a success.

And yet. I should also remember that I have two books published. There are plenty of people out there who work very hard every day chasing that dream that I am sometimes in danger of dismissing. When Renaissance agreed to put King in Darkness into print, I said it was the fulfillment of a life’s ambition, and it was. Then they did it again. What I mean is that if my point of view shifts slightly, what I’ve done with my writing changes from ‘ugh not really going that well honestly’ to ‘wow, there are really some Achievements Unlocked here’.

I don’t say this to humble-brag (honestly) but to try to remind myself that ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are not really the binary absolute standards they may appear to be or that we often think of them being. There’s a lot of space for point of view and perspective that allow those two ideas to bleed into each other, and it’s all too easy for someone like me, who tends to be one of my own worst critics, to push everything I do into the latter category, even though there are perhaps lots of people who wouldn’t put them there.

These sort of reminders are all around me, when I pay attention. At the gym where I work out, I frequently can’t help but compare the amount of weight I can lift with what other people are doing, and think ‘wow, I’m pathetically way off that’. At the same time, though, not that long ago I was talking to one of the people who lifts those alarming large amounts of weight; they asked how long a run I had just done and I said it was ‘just’ 5k. (This made sense to me because I’m training for a longer distance and from that point of view 5k is not very much) They replied that they’ve never done more than 3.

Just like with my writing, this is important for me to remember. Lots of people will never run 5k. (Perhaps even more have absolutely no ambition to do so, but never mind) Even for people who are athletic or who take up running, that may well be the longest distance they ever think of doing. I am currently aiming for a longer distance, and 5k is, from that perspective, part of a training plan rather than a goal. Neither of those things is better or worse than the other, they’re just different people with different objectives and different strengths and at different points in their process or entirely different processes.

So as with writing, how to evaluate the things we’re capable of depends very much on point of view. Perhaps in a few years it will be me with a nice payday from a book deal. Perhaps it won’t, and if I was determined to look at it that way that might be a disappointment, but one the other hand I will always have two novels in publication and that is a goal some people, including me from 10 years ago, dream of. What might be a disappointing performance for one person or in one circumstance might be an absolutely exceptional one in a different context. I think if we’re being fair, there probably really aren’t any absolute standards for things at all. I think, and try to keep reminding myself, that it isn’t a very good idea to measure what I can do against the standards of other people. No matter how well I do, there will always be someone who can do way better. There’s always something I can point to and convince myself that I don’t measure up and am not doing well. I shouldn’t do that, because there’s certainly lots of people who would trade places with me in a second. I am, in many ways, incredibly fortunate. What I should be is grateful for that, and perhaps allow myself a bit of satisfaction in what I am capable of rather than kicking myself for what I can’t do.

None of this means that I shouldn’t continue to push myself to write more, and Write Better. I should continue to work to run further and faster. However, the part I need to keep reminding myself about is that the reason to do more and better is the challenge of improving myself, testing the limits of my own abilities (which are not the same as the limits of anyone else’s) and seeing what I am ultimately capable of. In the end, the race is only with ourselves.

Thanks for reading.

(I know you are overjoyed that the running analogies are back)

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Theory of Villains

I have a theory about villains. It’s not exactly my theory in the sense of something I invented; I either read it or heard it somewhere (and my rapidly-aging brain has genuinely forgotten where) and instantly felt that it was true. So I did what (I am told) all good writers do and stole it. To whoever I stole it from, both thank you and my apologies.

In any case, the Theory of Villains is basically this. A compelling villain, the kind you remember and the kind that really works as a character, is one that believes they are completely justified in everything they do. They don’t think of themselves as doing anything bad at all. If you sat them down and talked to them, they would explain with complete sincerity that everyone else has it wrong, and that they are in fact the good guy. Now, this isn’t true of all or even necessarily most fictional villains, but when I think of the ones that I have really liked as characters, that I have enjoyed reading about (even while rooting against them) and really believed as creations, it is almost always true.

Lex Luthor thinks Superman is an alien menace.  Tom Zarek from the BSG reboot was a wonderful example of the Theory – he’s always, always got apparently selfless, altruistic motives for everything he does.  Heck, some of the time the show’s protagonists even believe him.  One of Jim Butcher’s better villain creations was the faerie lady Aurora, who is willing to dump the world into endless winter – to bring an end to millennia of Summer vs Winter war and all the suffering this has caused.

Another writer friend of mine pointed out that this is basically the inverse of her Theory of Heroes, which is essentially that everyone thinks that they’re the hero of the story. Nobody thinks of themselves as a side character in someone else’s story; the story is about them and (among other things) therefore their needs are likely to be paramount, their goals the most significant ones. I think this is a) broadly true and also b) important for thinking about how to write believable characters, because even if, as writers, we do decide who the Main Character is and who the Minor Characters are, those Minor Characters probably wouldn’t or shouldn’t agree, if we could ask them. They’re the star of their own story, and that’s how they would see their (pretend) world and interpret what goes on in it. It makes things more complicated for writing them, but I think it does also lead to characters that readers will believe.

Back to the villains, though. It’s easy (easy-ish) to write a character that just Does Bad Stuff and cackles maniacally and have your hero try to Do Something About it, but I’m not really going to buy it as a reader unless there’s a reason why. Why does this person (or whatever) want to kill a bunch of people, or blow something up, or whatever dastardly plot they have in mind? The characters that I tend to remember long after the story is over are the ones who would not only have a reason, but would also explain that what they were doing wasn’t dastardly at all. It had, needed to be done.

I recently came across a good example of this being (in my view) violated on a TV show that I ordinarily think is pretty good – basically we have our bad guy and he has a huge spaceship and it’s name the Malevolence. Which is a nicely menacing name, except that no-one actually names their ships that. No-one really (I argue) sits there and thinks ‘I am an intensely Evil Person and thus this Evil Name for my stuff is appropriate’. They think, instead, that they’re doing the right thing, perhaps via ‘tough love’ or ‘harsh medicine’, or perhaps they’re the only person with the courage to realize what the problems are and do what is necessary. They give their ship a name like Justifier or Conviction or something.

I’m writing about this this week because recent events gave me some pause about the Theory of Villains. I was confronted with people who genuinely made the argument that it was ok to stop funding food for the elderly, the sick, and underprivileged children, on the grounds that there was nothing in it for them and that they weren’t seeing enough of a return. As though a ‘return’ beyond ‘feeding hungry people’ should be necessary. If I read that in a book I’d think ‘no dude, that’s a bit over the top and you need to dial this back a bit if I’m going to believe it’.

And yet here we are. And then another friend of mine pointed out that the people who make these kind of decisions genuinely think the poor are in poverty because of their own wastefulness and failures and deserve punishment, and so the Theory of Villains got another unwelcome bit of supporting evidence.

There really is a way to make nearly any vile character into one who believes that they’re the hero. While it’s unfortunate (to put it lightly) that we’ve got these real life examples to contend with, as a writer I keep the Theory of Villains in mind whenever I’m creating one of my imaginary bad people. I’ve always tried to make my antagonists the kind of people who would vehemently argue that they’re not villains at all, and I think it’s turned out ok.

This is all perilously close to Advice.

Thanks for reading.

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The Vigil

The only idea I had for a blog this week was a pretty hacky entry on how I see similarities between writing and making stew (I made a big ol’ pot of stew last week) and that was both extremely uninspired and also dangerously close to advice. Instead, I present the following, which is an expansion of my reaction to a picture one of my friends shared on Facebook. Yes, I went with the cat picture idea instead. I hope you’ll like it better than the stew thing.

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In our village there is a church, old and stone, worn and weathered in a fashion that lends it an aura of imperishability. When the church was first built, no-one is certain; people from the schools have come, sketched, measured, studied, and disagreed. But it has been here a very long time. You cannot find a description of the village without it.

In the church lives a cat with long, thick, grey hair. The cat belongs to nobody, although it sleeps in the rectory on cold nights, prowls the churchyard, and sits by the lych-gate each Sunday. Each day at noon it climbs to the roof, and out onto the back of a particular old gargoyle, spotted with lichen and smoothed by time. There the cat sits, and watches the horizon, all afternoon.

It watches in every season.

It watches in all weathers.

The cat’s watch has never failed.

The cat seems as though it has always sat on its perch on the church-roof, and the church looks as though it has always been here to serve as the cat’s watch-place, and perhaps both things are true. What the cat watches for, no-one can say. No-one can remember, exactly, when the cat came and took up its vigil. I cannot recall a time before the cat’s watch began, nor can any of my friends. The cat has watched a long time.

Of course we discuss this, in the village, from time to time. All cats like to climb high, and look out across their kingdoms, this is well known. But most cats do not go to the very same spot at the very same time each day, and most cats do not gaze out into the distance quite so long. Most of us have our memories of cats: marvellous, cherished, and gone, but no-one has a story to match this one.

So we talk, and imagine, and create our own reasons, sometimes believing they are true but never truly feeling we understand. It is a puzzlement joined by each person who visits the village, for there is not a great deal to see, and in time every visitor comes to the church, and sees its sentry. What the cat watches for, no-one can say, but every person who comes to our church-yard, and sees the small grey cat on his lofty perch always ends by agreeing that they are somehow glad the cat is there, and glad it keeps its vigil.

The sun is high in the sky, clear and bright today, and it is nearly noon. I stand outside my house and know that the cat will soon be watching. I look out to the horizon and wonder what it watches for. Does it look to see that something is there, or perhaps to be sure that something does not approach? I wonder, if I had the answer to that question, would I be comforted or afraid? I wonder what will happen on the day when the cat looks out and sees a difference in its world. The cat, apparently, knows to watch. Does it also know what must be done next?

Will we be shown, or told, or is that secret, and the vigil, for only a cat to know?

A vague uncertainty squirms in my guts now, and I walk to the corner, where I can look down the street, and see the church-roof.

The cat watches still.

(Thank you to my friend Victoria for sending me the picture that led to me writing whatever this is. I wrote this pretty much straight through so it is, I am sure, more than a little rough. If you have any comments, as always I’d love to hear them.)

(The church in the picture is in Knightshayes, Devon. I’ve never been but if I ever visit I hope the cat will still be there. If you own the picture and would like credit, or me to take it down, please let me know.)

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Bill Paxton

On the weekend, Bill Paxton died. I never met him and don’t know much about him as a person but he was in a lot of things I took pleasure from and I always enjoyed his performances. He got eaten by xenomorphs in Aliens, wiped out by a Predator in Predator 2, and terminated in The Terminator. He was in Tombstone and Twister and both of those were stories I liked a lot, and of course he did a lot more work than that. By all accounts he was a lovely human being and he’ll be missed for a lot of different reasons.

I’m not sure, then, that it says anything good about me that my first reaction upon seeing the news of his passing was to think of his line as Private Hudson in Aliens: ‘Oh, that’s just fucking great. Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?’ Then again apparently he had a sense of humour so maybe he would have laughed.

While I liked a lot of the characters he portrayed, in some ways Hudson is the one I think of most (maybe because I’ve seen Aliens a few too many times) and almost everyone who has watched any SF at all at least knows the ‘Game over man, game over’ meltdown. In some ways he seems to be a very straightforward character, but (as usual) I’ve Gotten To Thinking about him over the years and there’s some issues attached to Hudson after all.

When you see the movie the first time, almost everyone reacts to Hudson and his tearful collapse the same way: he’s a coward, he’s all talk and can’t back it up, he’s almost the stereotypical ‘bully’ character who’s supposed to collapse in the face of adversity. We admire Ripley and Hicks for keeping their shit together (and Ripley is a character who does deserve all the praise written for her) and it seems pretty clear, going forward, who’s really a hero, and who’s pretending.

When you think about it a little more, though, things get a touch more complicated. Yes, Hudson has a big messy meltdown. But it’s not in the moment of danger. When the Aliens are actually attacking, Hudson gets down to business. Every time. He doesn’t actually run away or freeze, he fights. When he’s given a non-combat task to do, he gets it done. His bad moment(s) are those in-between moments when there’s nothing to do but think about the predicament he’s in. One sympathises, and in the end, he goes down screaming defiance at a threat he probably can’t even really wrap his mind around and takes a lot of chitinous horrors with him.

Again, those ‘weak’ moments (as we might view them)are always in pauses in the action, and there’s honestly pretty good reasons for him. By the time of the ‘Game Over’ scene, he’s just seen most of his friends and squadmates devoured by aliens, his sergeant is dead, his lieutenant is clearly good for nothing at all (now there’s someone who does freeze when the chips are down) and the vehicle they were counting on to get them off this deathtrap of a planet has just crashed in flames. Not only is Hudson’s reaction not really exceptionally bad, it’s really completely understandable.

It’s just not, perhaps, what we expect from a ‘hero’, especially in the action-y genre that Aliens inhabits.

This reminds me, in turn, of an ongoing debate I have with one of my Eager Volunteers. (Which, I want to make clear, I completely appreciate.) A lot of times he questions the reactions of my protagonist in bad situations and basically asks ‘hey, shouldn’t this guy be at least a bit afraid?’. It’s a good point, because most people, put in those kinds of situations, would probably be more than a little afraid and probably would freak out something along the lines of Private Hudson.

So, sometimes I punch up the reaction, but sometimes I reason that fictional heroes are allowed to be more than a little exceptional and don’t punch it up very much. Because we expect our heroes to be that way, fearless, at least a lot of the time, even if we know that most people would be afraid and would show their fear in that kind of situation, and certainly that we would, put in some kind of perilous jam.

We believe this to the point that a character displaying a perfectly human reaction to unimaginable terror becomes a joke because of it. Some of this, I’m sure, is that we want our fictional heroes to be more than ordinary, in all kinds of ways. It’s troublesome and discouraging when our fears keep us from doing the things that we need to do or want to do, and so it’s nice to at least imagine times when that absolutely does not happen.

I guess thinking about Private Hudson makes me think that at least sometimes, that’s also a little unfair. It may set a bar for ‘heroic’ behaviour that’s so high that no real person can possibly reach it, and it may also, if we let it, rob us of what I think are actually the much more compelling moments, when we see a person who is afraid and does what they have to anyway because nothing else will serve. That’s among the many reasons why I think Ripley is such a good character; she never goes to pieces like Hudson, but she’s clearly terrified a lot of the time in Alien and Aliens and she still gets stuff handled. And I think Hudson, in the end, is arguably just as heroic, because he does go to pieces but pulls it back together and gets back in the fight.

Maybe it’s a question of degrees. Perhaps there’s some kind of ideal balance out there between ‘shows genuine emotional reactions’ and ‘behaves heroically’ out there for me to chase.

Maybe it’s a question of unfair expectations.

But, perhaps at least in part in salute to Private Hudson, who I would put on my squad any time, and Bill Paxton, who brought the character to life along with all the others we enjoyed, I’ll let my imaginary heroes show a little more of their very human fears of the horrible places I make them go.

The story will probably be better, and it’ll make that one Eager Volunteer happy.

Thanks for reading.


Remember that I am still donating all my royalties from sales of either The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures to the Canadian Council for Refugees up until March 3rd.  You can help people in desperate trouble and reward yourself with a story I think you’ll like at the same time.

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In Praise of Readers

Late last week I sent out another (by which I really mean ‘the second’) chunk of the current WIP to some Eager Volunteers to see what they thought. I’ve been finding the writing hard going of late and I hoped this might help.

It did.

The Volunteers emailed back almost right away, one having read the piece while plagued by insomnia (which is a decision that’s possible to read in a couple ways, but never mind) and sent back their usual thoughtful response, which included some useful criticism, some questions, and some compliments.

On some level the praise is most obviously useful to me in my current situation. Everyone likes a pat on the head and having someone whose opinion I respect say that they’re enjoying what I’m working on will probably always feel good. So that’s a nice shot of positivity to encourage me to keep working away. It also helps to hear that someone wants to learn more about a particular character, or to know what’s going to happen; I guess obviously a writer is always hoping to generate interest and it’s both pleasing and a relief to know that in at least a couple of cases, I’m setting the hook okay.

The criticism is very nearly as useful, though, because concrete areas where the story needs work are better than a sense of generalized unease where I know there are things that aren’t right but not exactly what they are, much less how to fix them. It’s always easier to have something like a bullet list (har) of things that need to be taken care of than a vague idea that Stuff needs to be Fixed. Having people where there’s a strong enough trust that they tell me what they really think, and they know that I really do want to know what they really think, and not just get a pat on the head, is (as I am discovering) both rare and incredibly valuable.

The questions never cease to fascinate me, because the things readers are intrigued by and want to know more about seem always to include things that I never anticipated. I wrote a while ago about how a character in The King in Darkness that I didn’t think anyone would have any particular interest in ended up getting a scene added to the final draft to finish their story, because readers kept asking about it. So it already is with this piece, and what it mostly does is make me happy that what I’m writing can be interpreted and understood in a variety of ways (because if a reader understood it exactly the same way as I do, writing it, they wouldn’t have some of these questions), which is something I always enjoy when I’m reading and very much want to create when I’m writing. It also gives me ideas for things to do next, which is also very valuable.

All of which to say that the responses I get from my Eager Volunteers is a treasure to me as a writer, and makes my task in creating the story so much easier and the final project immeasurably better. I have had a good number of genuinely well-meaning people offer to take on the task and had it not work out (which I completely understand – if nothing else, it’s not easy to devote some of one’s precious store of free time to reading something they may not even like), so that makes the people who are willing to put in the time struggling through a rough-hewn story and then also take the time to share their responses and reactions to it with me a very special breed.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank them once again, because I appreciate what they do more than I can say. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day. Thank you very much indeed.

I am also aware that I owe a similar debt to each and every one of my readers, without whom my stories would be silent words on the page and none of my characters, who I love very much, would ever have a chance to live. If you’ve read one of my stories, and thereby given some of my made-up people a home in your imagination, at least for a while, I thank you as well.

It is, of course, a truism that without readers there are really no writers in a meaningful sense, but sometimes it’s the obviously true facts that need to be acknowledged. I’m grateful to everyone who has ever taken the time to read one of my stories; I can think of few better compliments for a writer than ‘I would like to spend some time with your imagination’. I am especially grateful to the readers who let me know what they thought about what they read. A lot of it makes me better, and all of it helps me want to write more. Without writers, people have nothing to read, and without readers, it would be the next thing to impossible to call oneself a writer.

So once again, I thank my readers.

Now to try to do some more of my half of the bargain.

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