The Trouble with Alex

There’s been a bit of a fracas the last couple of days relating to The Simpsons TV show, the character of Apu and how the showrunners decided to respond to criticism of the character. I’m not really going to weigh in on that specific issue because I think others have done so with more insight than I could and because the perspective of Another White Dude is approximately the last thing anyone needs.

I do want to write just a little about my own (much smaller-scale) experience with receiving criticism on a character I wrote. The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures include a character named Alex Sloan who is mentally ill. Alex is one of my favourite characters from the books, he’s quite central to the plot, and so I really wanted to write him well.

I did some research and I did the best job I could, and I felt pretty proud of how Alex appeared. Then King in Darkness got picked up by my publisher and in the first round of edits one of the (many, many, many) requests for revision was reworking Alex. The editor told me that a lot of the language that I used was the kind that promoted negative stereotypes of people who struggled with mental illness, and that it needed to be fixed.

My first impulse was to write a long response explaining that it wasn’t my intention to cause any harm and that I was not intending to be in any way disrespectful in writing Alex the way I had, that I had loads of affection for the character, and that I had chosen the wording that I did for particular reasons that I thought made sense. Perhaps fortunately, I never sent that response.

Because the thing is, none of that matters, not really. My editor never said that I had been deliberately setting out to cause harm, and honestly my intent didn’t matter – if the language was bad and would hurt people, that’s what it would do, even if I was perfectly well-intentioned. All the rest of the stuff that I had originally thought to write was equally irrelevant; whatever I meant to do, the effect was a depiction that was likely to cause harm and pain to some of the people who would read the story.

So I rewrote Alex as best I could, according to the feedback I’d been given. I thanked my editor for pointing out where I had gone wrong, because they had truly done me a great service by catching my mistakes before they got to a wider audience. I said I was sorry that my initial effort hadn’t been better. The book went out and I am now like Alex’s character just that little bit more, because I feel like it’s one more people can hopefully enjoy.

It is, I think, natural to want to go on the defensive when we get criticism of our work, and maybe especially if someone points out a way that our work might be hurtful. Because we don’t mean to be hurtful, that’s not what we set out to do, and again I think it’s natural to want people to understand that and to want to believe that somehow whatever we did is ok as long as our intentions were good.

The thing is that the intention isn’t really important, and I think like 99% of the time people making criticisms are at least willing to credit that the intentions behind a problematic piece of work might have been perfectly fine. But that’s not the important part. The important part is that your fellow human beings are telling you that something is hurtful to them, and the only non-sociopathic response is to apologize and try to do better.

It’s ok to make a mistake. What’s not ok is to refuse to admit that you did, and to refuse to correct it.

Thanks for reading.

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The Wave

It’s finally somewhat approaching spring here (although as I write this, snow is falling outside, again) and so I got in my first outdoor run of the season on the weekend. (Yes, friends, another running blog. I know you’re delighted.) It’s much more enjoyable than indoors on the treadmill, of course. There’s much more to look at – I’m fortunate here in Ottawa to get to run through mostly very beautiful surroundings, there’s wildlife to enjoy – and the terrain is naturally varied. It’s also just outside, with the fresh air and the breeze. And, as I was reminded this weekend, there is also what I call The Wave.

It’s a little thing that runners do when we pass in opposite directions on the pathway. Nothing big. Just a little wave to the other person. No-one ever told me to do it or talked to me about it – I just noticed, when I was out running, that most of the other runners I met would do a little wave. So I started doing it as well. You don’t do The Wave to cyclists, and not to people walking. It’s just for runners.

I get a nice little kick out of it, every time. It’s a little bit encouragement – good job, out here – and a little bit acknowledgement, understanding that we are both meeting basically the same challenge, even if we’re going at different paces or over different distances. We’re all on the road. To me it always feels like a little understanding that only another runner, who also gets up early and out on the road, or spends part of a holiday weekend putting in the miles, can really provide. Someone who doesn’t think you’re crazy to be out there, or if they do, at least understands this particular species of crazy.

I think it works somewhat the same for writers, although obviously we never pass each other in the same way. But we tell each other about our WIPs and our word counts and there’s an reinforcement from the ‘well done’s or what have you that comes from a fellow messer-around with words that is especially valuable because it comes from someone who knows the same challenge of sitting down on the days when the words don’t want to come or you’re already tired or would really just have liked to sleep in but – gotta write.

I have found few things more helpful to me trying to grow as an artist than having a community of writers who both challenge me to do better but can also, essentially, give me The Wave. For that I’m very grateful.

And thank you for reading.

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Blank Pages

It’s been a(nother) busy week amid midterm season, but I’m still moving the WIP forward, at least somewhat. I was struggling to come up with a topic for this week’s blog, but then yesterday I was listening to a podcast I enjoy (My Favorite Murder) and one of the hosts (Karen Kilgariff) talked about her experience writing (in this case for television) – that you’ve got a blank page, and you’re just flat out making something up, and you’ve got to believe that people will like it.

That struck me as perhaps the best description of the difficulty of writing that I have heard. It’s certainly true for writing fiction. You’re pulling something out of nothing, and aside from your own satisfaction in messing with words, the only thing you’ve got keeping you going is a belief that there is someone out there who wants to hear this story, so you should keep writing it. I’ve started many projects where that belief collapsed before I finished it, and I couldn’t write them any more.

The intimidation factor of the blank page is no great revelation to anyone who has ever sat down to write. I think we all feel it, to varying degrees, from time to time. I suppose it gets a little better once you’ve written a few things that people have read and have said they liked – I’m slightly more confident in my writing with the two novels published – but the question never goes away, entirely. Is this thing any good? And, of course, it is probably human nature that our failures and rejections (I had a short story turned down recently) weigh a bit heavier in our psychic balances than the successes.

There are two things that I, at least, try to come back to when the blank page is doing its number on me. One is that there is also an astonishing, wonderful freedom in just being able to flat out make stuff up, to make up whatever the heck you want and bring it into being. That’s the special treat of creative writing. The other thing, that Ms. Kilgariff mentioned herself, is the shot of joy you get when someone takes in what you wrote and you know they liked it. And there’s only one way to get there: gotta keep filling in those blank pages.

Nothing particularly ground-breaking there, but it’s what is on my rather fatigued mind this week. It is most resolutely not advice. I shall try to have something a little more daring for you next week, but in the meantime thanks for reading.

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Trash Crow

So this morning is garbage day on my street, the trash is out at the curb, and an enormous crow (I’m like 80% sure it wasn’t actually a raven but I’m a little hazy on the crow/raven distinction) flapped down out of the sky and perched in a tree. It surveyed the scene, briefly. Fluttered down to the garbage.

First trash crow of the spring. Not exactly as lovely a picture as a robin, but here we are.

This was all happening right as I was pulling all my chaos together to get out the door to go to work, and so I found myself out in the driveway right as Trash Crow was getting to work itself. I put my stuff in the car, and then decided I should get rid of the crow.

It was, I knew, a supremely futile gesture at the best of times – it would likely be back roughly 30 seconds after I left, but there are duties we are taught in life and at some point, younger me was taught that you shoo away the trash crows. On y va.

However, this crow was not to be shooed. I walked right up to the thing. I really think I could have reached down and picked it up. (Yes, it probably would have pecked my eyes out) The Trash Crow just fixed me with its corvid gaze, briefly, and then went back to worrying at the garbage.

I suppose if I was really strong in my purpose I would have done some shouting, some hand-clapping, maybe gone to the hominid playbook and brandished a stick. But I didn’t.

We should not anthropomorphize, I know, yet it was very hard not to read in that look from the Trash Crow a message of – ‘Yeah, what do you want? I’m pecking into this garbage, man. I guess you don’t want me to or something, and deal with that however, but I’m gonna get back to this trash.’ Which it did. Peck peck peck.

I left the Trash Crow to their business.

Sometimes, I think we could all stand to be just a little more like Trash Crow, in fact. Doing the things we need to do, the things that are in our nature, unapologetically. Sometimes they may be things that are not especially fun (do crows enjoy ripping into the garbage, or is it a grim search for scraps of sustenance?), but they’ve gotta be done so just do them. There are things we must do, and the judgment of the Driveway People is irrelevant.

I’m not saying we should be like Trash Crow all the time.

Maybe just some of the time, though.

Bon apetit, Trash Crow.

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Infinite Wars

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I can make that one friend stop complaining.

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

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Group Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roger Bannister

On Saturday, Roger Bannister passed away. I took note of this, in reasonably large measure, because (as long-suffering readers of the blog will know) I am a runner and he was one of the big names, the first to run the mile in under 4 minutes. (The historian in me feels compelled to relate that yes, there are accounts of it being done earlier, but – and I am not an expert, and relying on others’ judgment here – these do not seem to be generally regarded as credible.) For a time, this was a feat of athletics that was regarded as physically impossible, similar to the way that some argue that the marathon cannot be done in under 2 hours. When Bannister did it – although his record stood for an astonishingly short time – it was celebrated as a massive achievement.

On an extremely selfish level, although the 4 minute mile is no longer regarded as that big a deal (it’s now basically the standard if you’re a serious middle distance runner), it is one of those moments when it was really possible to get a sense of the difference between elite athletes and hobbyists like myself. When I was in probably my very best shape ever, I worked very hard to do a mile in under eight minutes. To think about being twice as fast over the same distance is mind-stretching.

However that may be, I suppose it’s not a huge surprise that Bannister himself never believed the sub 4:00 mile was impossible, and apparently there were many who told him it could be done. He set the goal for himself, worked towards it, and eventually did it.

Bannister’s story is an important landmark in athletics, and I suppose in human achievement, but I also like to think about it sometimes in a wider sense. The sub 4:00 mile was supposed to be impossible, but he went and did it anyway. Perhaps just as impressive, he reached his goal while really only being an athlete part time, devoting a lot of his energy to his medical training.

Anyway, I am trying to keep this in mind lately, when a great many things seem to be impossible. Great, seemingly unreachable, goals can be reached, even amidst a sea of other challenges, if we stay on the track.

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

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Insomnia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fog and Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Right Time

The other day on Twitter there was (I swear) an interesting conversation about coming to stories at the right or the wrong time. Guy Kay (an author I like a lot) was ‘speaking’ without someone about a book they had read, which this person thought they would have liked when they were younger, but didn’t actually enjoy now. Kay remarked something along the lines that they had come to the story at the wrong time in their life.

That’s an interesting way of thinking about our relationship with stories. I am a great re-reader of tales, I tend to come back to favourites again and again (for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog) and it’s a rare book in my collection that has been read only once. So on the whole, I continue to enjoy the stories that I used to like, although now that I think of it, I have experienced many of them differently as I’ve gotten (so very much) older.

A case in point that had been on my mind recently anyway – not a book, but a TV series, the 80s vintage BBC series Robin of Sherwood. If you haven’t seen it, it’s, well, a very 1980s take on the classic Robin Hood tale. It ran on that same PBS channel that got me hooked on Doctor Who, and it is, I’m pretty sure, the reason why I ultimately got into medieval history.

(As a sidebar, Robin of Sherwood is interesting to me as a good example of how we can see characters and stories like Robin Hood re-invented for each generation. This version of Robin (when the series starts, anyway) is not a disgraced earl, or the yeoman of the medieval tales, but a peasant hero, a commoner perhaps ideally suited for a modern audience. Unlike the thoroughly Christian Robin of the original stories, this one has an alliance with pagan spirituality, suiting the 1980s generally and Christianity’s receding power overall. And (I believe) this is the first time that Robin’s Merry Men includes a Muslim character – again suiting a modern sensibility that our heroes should be racially inclusive. Similarly, this show’s Marian soon ends up shooting longbows and swinging swords with everyone else.)

I watched the show in my early teens, I liked it quite a lot, and so when at I was at university and it was time to pick elective courses, I picked a medieval history course. The rest, due to a professor who took an interest in me, is history. It’s been an interesting and somewhat uneven road, but I wouldn’t change it. Through those studies, I have gotten deeper into the medieval world than Teenage Me, watching PBS, would ever have believed, and met people who I will treasure for the rest of my days.

I still have, on my laptop, the whole run of the series. I watch parts of it from time to time. Looking at it now, from the perspective of a historian, even one with sort of a glancing familiarity with the Robin Hood stories and a rather better one of medieval England – the show gets a lot wrong. In terms of giving much of an accurate sense of the 12th century, it’s … really not great.

I don’t want to dissect it, but I do wonder how I would have felt about it if I could somehow come to it fresh, without all the history the stories and I have together. Judging from the reaction my PhD supervisor had when I made her watch part of it, my guess is: rather different.

Perhaps that’s a shame, and would be an example of not being able to relax and enjoy something for what it is. Perhaps the thing is that I came to Robin of Sherwood at the right time, and now I get to keep it as a story that I love – because I still do, even though it has its problems. (John Rhys-Davies’ King Richard is still maybe my favourite)

I wonder, too, how I would feel about some of the stories that I know I loved when I was younger, if I were to read them again. I’ve seen the Prydian chronicles mentioned here and there of late, and that’s a series that I read in high school and liked a lot at the time. I’ve never come back to them, unusually for me. I wonder how I’d feel. Perhaps that was the right time for them, and that time has passed. (At some point, I’m going to have to find out)

Sometimes even a part of a story can have quite an effect at just the right part of your life. Whatever else happens with the series, I will always be grateful to Jim Butcher and his Dresden Files for just one exchange where his hero tells a sceptic: “I don’t need you to believe me.” For whatever reason, that relatively minor exchange really resonated with me, at that point someone who was really easily drawn into pouring energy into endless efforts to win debates or convince people of particular points of view. That isn’t what that exchange was about in the book, but I use it every so often to remind myself that it doesn’t matter if there are people out there who think I’m wrong on a subject or an issue. It’s fine. I don’t need them to believe me. That has, genuinely, been the source of a great deal of peace.

Anyway, this is all quite disconnected and rambly, now, but I think it’s remarkable how much power a story like Robin of Sherwood can exert over your life, if you come to it at the right moment.

Thanks for reading, and do keep reading. Those stories are out there.

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