Landmarks

I got outside for my first long run this week.

It was a lovely day and it was great to be outside rather than on the treadmill, but something was missing.

When I run on routes I use several times I look for landmarks. I don’t want to be looking at my watch all the time, because then I obsess over time, but I like to have something that gives me a sense of how far I’ve gone and how much longer I have to do. This year, one of my landmarks is gone.

For as long as I’ve been running here there has been a distinctively shaped tree by the pathway with a sign that called it ‘The Dream Tree’. It was a white elm. I noticed it because of the shape and then of course the name appealed to me a lot and gave me something to think about on my runs. Anyway the Dream Tree became one of my landmarks, and this year it is gone. This isn’t a huge surprise since it had obviously been sick the past couple of years (in fact I wrote a terrible poem about it on here once) and I guess sometime in the fall they cut it down. (Which is sad on a few levels)

It was surprisingly disorienting. I have been used to it being there for a long time, to planning my runs around it and using the sight of it in the distance as a guide to how far I was from home. I was, as I say, surprised by how much it threw me to be out and not find it there. Both on the way out and on the way home I had a genuine sense of disbelief that this part of the landscape was really gone.

However, I also figured out something else that I can use as a landmark, and if it’s a sign rather than a tree it will still work, and I’m sure after another run or two it will feel as natural as the other way did, even if it’s never quite the Dream Tree.

The reason I mention all this is that it occurred to me that these kind of things happen to us in life from time to time: we lose our landmarks. A job that we had done for a long time changes, or is taken away. A friendship we had relied on ends, or alters forever. A part of our routine is changed for reasons outside of our control. I felt that last year when I was injured and couldn’t run, and had to come up with different ways to burn off my stress and get my mind to running.

Which is kind of my point I guess: Losing a literal landmark is temporarily disorienting, we soon adjust and come up with something else that will work, even if it won’t be the same, and it’s the same with these other things that are sort of the landmarks in our lives. We lose a friend, or a job, or something else precious, and it seems as though things can’t possibly continue, but we’re pretty resilient and we come up with something, or a number of things, to fill the space and take up the weight, and on we go.

I will miss the Dream Tree though.

——

In non-running news, of course you’re probably aware that we’ve seen the first poster and trailer for the next Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. They’re interesting studies, I think. (If you haven’t seen the trailer, it’s here.) Neither reveals very much.

The poster is kind of cool because Rey is doing the the typical fantasy hero pose, which is neat to see a female character getting to do. There’s not a lot else going on though, aside from an angry-looking Luke and Kylo Ren. The overall sense is that Luke is not going to be the unproblematic solution to everyone’s problems that the characters and audience may have assumed him to be.  The poster builds on the sense of menace and threat the filmmakers have been trying to stoke ever since they rolled out the Star Wars logo in red a few months back.

The trailer doesn’t have a great deal going on it either that you can really sink your teeth into. Rey is obviously training her Force abilities, Exciting Space Battles happen, and Poe Dameron gets another X-Wing blown up. The main thing that seems to have attracted attention is Luke line ‘It is time for the Jedi to end’.  (There are lots of other images in the background but it’s hard to say anything about them other than ‘yes, that is probably Captain Phasma.  Huh.’)

Now context is obviously important, so we don’t know why Luke is saying that, and I even read some suggestions that Mark Hamill had recorded that line specifically for the trailer, so it may not be in the movie at all. But it is interesting; they seem to be pushing the idea that Luke Skywalker may be pretty done with this whole Jedi idea and have very different ideas about how to approach stuff than the last time we saw him.  That’s probably more interesting than Luke just showing up, swatting down another couple Sith, and making everything fine again, and it also fits better with the middle movie of a trilogy, where in general Things Get Worse.

Of course you can read a *lot* into that one line, and figure that the movie is going to blow up the whole Sith/Jedi binary and give us a whole new philosophy of the Force. Or, you could figure that it’s a red herring that will ultimately mean nothing at all – movie trailers of course being famous for this kind of thing. I’m basically not ready to draw any strong conclusions from the tiny fragments the trailer showed us. (I kind of hope they *don’t* blow up the binary and introduce some kind of superior middle path, because one of the things I’ve always liked about how Star Wars presents the Force is that it is astonishingly powerful, but power has a price, one way or another. Either it requires tremendous discipline, or it tears you to shreds. Writing this brings up a potential scenario where Luke has fallen to the Dark Side off on his island and is a Sith hermit. That might be fun.)

This brought up another point that people were discussing after the trailer dropped: is a good trailer one that has *lots* of information in it, or one that tells you very little and leaves you wanting more? Watching the Last Jedi trailer doesn’t really leave you any the wiser about what happens in the movie aside from ‘it is a Star Wars movie’. That could mean that it’s a bad trailer that doesn’t inform the audience. Or, it could be exactly the right kind of trailer – it tells you what you’re going to get (more Star Wars) without giving away anything of significance about what happens in the movie.

I tend to hate spoilers, so I’m actually quite content to go into any book or movie fresh and discover everything as I go along. However, I can see the other side of the argument. Personally, I think the people who made the Last Jedi trailer knew exactly what they were doing and put out just enough to whet the appetite for the legions of Star Wars fans, refresh the hype machine for another few weeks, and keep everyone dying to have the new movie come out, or even just for the next little drizzle of information that they’ll give us.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

Next week I won’t do a running analogy.

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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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Vimy

It is one hundred years since the battle of Vimy Ridge, much celebrated here in Canada. Today in particular there will be commemorations and a great deal said and written about it all. Since I studied history, teach it, and write about it from time to time, I feel as though I should have something to say as well, although it’s a more difficult question for me than it appears to be for some.

I think there are a lot of valid questions to be asked about the reasons why the First World War was fought, and about Canada’s involvement in it in particular. The loss of life was such that the numbers sometimes fail to make an impression; they’re just too big to make sense. Vimy Ridge was a typically bloody engagement; the assaulting forces lost 3,598 soldiers killed and 7,004 more wounded, in three days fighting. Bloodshed on that scale demands an answer: was it necessary, was the cause just and right, and I think it is a very difficult answer to give. If we look for a ‘just war’ it is hard to make World War One fit that mould, but Canada was asked to fight, and Canadians were asked to fight, and so they went and fought as they were asked to do. By all accounts they did it well.

Vimy was the first battle where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a formation. As a result it is labelled by some the time when Canada ‘became a nation’, although this seems to me deeply problematic, not least for its dismissal of the thousands of years worth of people who lived in this place we call home up until that point. Significant politically and militarily the battle may perhaps have been, but there was surely a nation, and nations, here before that. The military, and military history, has often been an interest of mine, but still I am uncomfortable with the idea that our nation, or any nation, is defined by its battles. I like to think that Canada has different roots than that. In any case there was already a Canada that the men who ended up on Vimy Ridge felt strongly enough about to go off to war, so I wonder whether they would have agreed that there was no nation until after that battle.

However that all may be, the battle has been much mythologized in Canada, and like most myths a healthy dose of fiction is added to the story. Vimy becomes, it seems, more glorious the further we get away from the bloody quagmired truth of the battlefield which far too many would never leave. However we may embroider the events of those days, the military historians tell us that the Canadian success was part of an overall strategy that failed, that the 10,000 lives and more shattered taking the ridge did not lead to a stunning breakthrough, and the war ground remorselessly on. Does that make the courage and sacrifice of the men who went and fought the slightest bit less? I feel it does not, and yet in taking the battle and making it part of our national myth I suppose we insist upon more gilded version.

The main thing I am left with regarding Vimy, and World War One in general, is that these young men went where their country asked them to go and went into the worst kind of peril as a result of that. They did the job they were asked to do and, in the case of Vimy Ridge, did it successfully and well. We can, then and more recently, question the motives of the men who asked those things of them, but not, I think, the response. They made that choice for many reasons, as soldiers I suppose always do, and even if I wonder whether they needed to go and fight, when their country asked something of them their answer was ‘yes’ and that is an answer I will always honour deeply.

It seems to me important for leaders today to remember that there are men and women who, when their country asks them to do something, will go and give their heart’s blood trying to do it. If the cause be just, then both the decision and the results may be a thing that we can look upon and know that it was necessary and right. Even if we cannot take satisfaction in it, exactly, we can know that it was important and that our young people did what needed to be done. But our leaders must not ask these things of them lightly because if history is any guide, when the country asks those young people to go into danger on its behalf there will always be a courageous number who will answer ‘yes’ and we cannot take that answer unless we are absolutely certain of its dire necessity. It is too tragic to contemplate that sacrifice if it is not absolutely unavoidable.

One hundred years ago, young Canadians made their assault on Vimy Ridge. They fought well, they did what was asked of them, and all too many spilled their blood because of it.

We shall remember them.

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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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I Got Nothing

Ok, so it finally happened. I have no idea what to write for this week’s blog entry. Nothing particularly struck me in things I read or watched on TV in the past few days, I didn’t see any details of the world that hit a strange chord, and I don’t really have any significant news to report.

I don’t have a running analogy.

Writing hasn’t been going great but I don’t have a special part of the struggle that I want to try and dissect.

There’s no episode from my past that I want to ruminate on.

Seven days have gone by since I last threw up a post on here, and a new idea has failed to come chundering out from the Mind-Gears.

But you know, that’s ok. I think a lot of the time I feel a lot of pressure to always be doing certain things. Gotta write X amount. Gotta make a schedule. Need to be in certain places by certain times, certain numbers of times a week. Clocks to punch, boxes to tick, quotas to hit. Got to Get It Done.

And look, all of those things are probably good and useful. I really do think that I do better with most things in my life when I make habits out of them and follow routines. (Thus, doing this blog even when I don’t have an actual topic: because I post something every week and experience tells me breaking routines can be risky) However, as much as it’s useful and important to impose structure on life a lot of the time, to set goals and deadlines and things for ourselves, it’s also ok to just not do it some of the time.

I’m not saying to never do these things. I’m not even saying to usually not do these things. I do think, having kind of kicked myself over not measuring up to various standards from time to time, that it is ok do give myself a pass once in a while. Sometimes, things just Happen or Do Not Happen and what we meant to do or planned to do or thought on some level we should do just doesn’t come together. You can scream about failure not being an option but sometimes, man, that’s just not the case. Sometimes the things we can’t control and the things we can control just don’t shimmy together in that way that allows us to Do A Thing.

I mean, I don’t really know why I don’t have a solid topic for this week. I have long wondered at how my brain works, and why it spits out the ideas it does, when it does, and I guess this is another data point to chart about Not Having A Blog Idea for the longest time yet. I’m not aware that I did anything differently than most other weeks. Maybe whatever obscure formula of thought and experience that usually fires out Ideas has been slightly off lately. Maybe I’ll figure that out, although I doubt it. But it’s ok. For whatever this blog is worth, most weeks I come up with something to write about and I get it out there. This one time it didn’t happen, and it’s ok, and life goes on. It’s genuinely good to have expectations of ourselves, and good for other people to have expectations of us, and good to meet those expectations. It’s also fine, and maybe good some of the time, to not meet those expectations and realize that that’s just being a person.

Cliche as it is to say, no-one is perfect. If we recognize and accept that in ourselves maybe it becomes a little easier to accept it in other people on those days when they just can’t quite Get It Done.

So that’s what I’ve got this week. Thanks for reading. I trust next week, I may even have a topic for you.

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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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Gotham

Last night I was watching the most recent episode of Gotham. If you don’t know the show, the basic pitch is ‘Gotham City before Batman’ which is a bit of a curious idea (although we do seem to love a prequel, these days) but since I am (you will no doubt be aware) a sucker for superhero stuff, I started watching. I will be honest and say I don’t love the show, but there are some interesting things about it.

One of the things that intrigued me during its first season was the very visible and thorough change of tack the show went through. For the first few episodes, we were given something trying to be a gritty cop drama with a few hints of the weirdness that would later plague the city. We had Detective James Gordon trying to deal with IA cops, we had organized crime, we had Donal Logue doing a fantastic Harvey Bullock. It was thoroughly unremarkable.

Then the show pivoted quite swiftly, embracing the over-the-top nature of the Batman setting, so that by now we have the Joker and the Penguin, we’ve had Mr. Freeze and Hugo Strange, we have the Riddler in all but name, and we’ve basically had Clayface. Det. Gordon’s fiance Barbara has turned from an entirely cliche, auxiliary and disposable character into a lunatic crimelord. I am honestly not sure how well any of these characters, and this super-villain plagued Gotham really work without Batman. I’ll get back to that.

It’s possible all this was planned from the outset, but with the way characters that were introduced just abruptly stopped appearing, and plotlines vanished into the aether, it doesn’t feel that way. It seemed to me very much like the creators of a show realizing that Idea #1 wasn’t working and hastily changing course to Idea #2 that, whatever else you can say about it, is definitely not boring. (It doesn’t always make sense, but it’s not boring) If that’s the case, it worked out for them because it got the show renewed and they’re on Season 3 now.

Anyway, it was interesting to me to watch the rewriting and reworking happen. It seems to me that this may be one of the advantages of a serialized piece of work; you can gauge the reaction of your audience and rejig things to give them more of what they want, or less of what they don’t like. When I write a whole book (“when”, he says optimistically) I don’t know whether people like what I’m doing or not until they see the whole thing, or at least not most of the people. This is one more reason to be grateful to the Eager Volunteers, who haven’t seen a rewrite on the scale of Gotham yet but may one day, I guess.

So that’s the first thing.

The second gets back to the idea of Gotham, full of its villains, without Batman, and whether that works. (And by this, I mean ‘works for me’, but it’s my blog after all) I don’t think that it does, terribly well, because you end up with this tornado of increasingly violent awfulness without the figure who can, on some level, deal with it all, and without the symbol of hope that suggests that all of this mess can be overcome. That’s a big part of why I don’t love Gotham; what we’ve seen so far has been really bleak, if a sort of darkly entertaining bleak.

But then this last episode, for the first time we saw young Bruce Wayne (played by David Mazouz, who is absolutely believable in the role) stand up to the proto-Joker, and in a couple scenes, start to be the Batman. (Gotham writers having never in their lives heard of subtlety, of course they threw a music sting suggesting the Hans Zimmer Batman theme all over these moments.) They were just moments, but they were there, and for those brief spaces of time Gotham, and Gotham, had its hero.

Despite not loving the show, those moments still got me. Naturally (well, for me), I immediately Got To Thinking about why. Part of it is fairly straightforward: Batman is one of my favourite comic characters* and so whenever the story (and it’s really almost any story) starts to meander in the direction where Batman is about to appear, I’m going to like it. However, it’s not just that. It’s also that the hero, at least briefly, arrived. It was probably more effective because the hero is a character I like, but just the idea that out of mayhem and death a figure was going to appear to Fix Things is one that I know I like, and I think (if you look at stories that have been popular over the years) it’s one that we like in general.

I do slightly wonder why, although on some level wondering why a story has a good guy may seem a little stupid. But, we really seem to like these characters who can show up in the nick of time and rescue us when we’re in danger, to round up all the bad guys, and to fix what has been broken. Part of it is, undeniably, good storytelling. But why does it appeal to us, especially when most people’s experience with the real world tells them this is not a thing that actually happens? Problems do get solved, but it’s almost always by ordinary people taking ordinary actions.

And yet we like the thoroughly unrealistic alternative. We like made-up stories in general, so no doubt part of this is just enjoying imaginary things as we always do. I wonder, though, if part of it is some sense that we have (or, at a minimum, that I have) that there should be such figures, who can arrive when they’re needed and save us, save us from ourselves if need be. Who know what needs to be done and can just appear and do it.

(This was, as I try desperately to avoid a long tangent, one of my favourite bits of the pilot for Person of Interest, a show you may recall I liked a lot. The main action-y character, Reese, gets hooked into this crazy plan to use a super-intelligent AI to stop crimes before they happen more or less entirely through the promise of being able to show up in time. The chance to be that hero that we all think really should exist, even as we know they don’t. Reese (who starts the series a seriously broken person) has felt the frustration of the absence of that hero and it’s more or less what sells him on signing up for a project run by a crazy rich guy living in an abandoned library. (Seriously. Go watch Person of Interest))

Stories like Batman stories, most superhero stories, many of the movies we like, and (maybe, now) Gotham, satisfy that feeling, at least briefly. They give us the hero that we feel, on some instinctive level, should be out there.

It is both a sad reality, but also a liberating one, that this isn’t true. We solve our own problems.

Thanks for reading.

*-there are legitimate criticisms about the character and the ideas underpinning it that I acknowledge, especially the ‘Batman is a rich guy beating up poor people’ one. It is not a great look. I guess I deflect it by focusing on the fact that Batman doesn’t really spend that much time fighting ordinary criminals, he’s pretty much 24/7 on the supervillain beat now. I also think there’s a lot genuinely good and inspirational about the character that I’m not ready to throw in the trash. It’s problematic, though, and I’m not done thinking about it. Maybe you get a blog on that down the road. (Attach your ‘please, no’ comments below)

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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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