Tag Archives: Advice

FINISH IT

I try not to put too much on here that might be construed as Advice, primarily because I don’t really think I am in any away accomplished enough to be telling other artists how to do their thing. On the other hand, as you may have seen on Twitter, I recently finished writing Bonhomme Sept-Heures, the sequel to King in Darkness, and I thought I’d write a little about that process briefly today. I think it’s useful for me to get my thoughts about it down and perhaps someone will read them and find them useful.

As you may recall from previous entries, I got more than a little behind schedule writing this thing. Originally I had hoped to have a full draft by the end of November, and for a while it looked like that was going to happen. Then Life Intervened, and ‘hey, this is going to work’ turned into ‘there’s no way this is going to work’. That derailed me, or if I was already derailed, pushed the locomotive further into the mire. I knew I wasn’t going to hit my goal and that was demoralizing and demotivating.

I think setting goals and targets is a good idea. It gives you something tangible to push for and to work towards, and a way to measure your progress. Many people do well under pressure (and many more believe they do, but that’s a different conversation) and working under a little gentle pressure can sometimes be beneficial. I do it all the time and usually it works out ok.

There is a danger to it, though, because if you set a target you can’t hope to hit (as I did, in retrospect, thinking I could write Bonhomme in a month) then all you do is risk feeling like you’ve failed or let yourself down. As it happened, I probably did less writing on the book than I would have in late November and early December than I would have without the stupid goal making me feel like I’d messed up, when I really hadn’t – I’d done what was possible for me to do, and that should have been ok.

So setting targets can be a good thing, but I think they need to be realistic targets, and you have to realize what they’re for – good goals are there to motivate you and help your process; if what they’re doing instead is making you feel down on yourself and putting you under stress then they’re counterproductive, and you should feel fine about adjusting them or setting them aside.

Ok, so after that the Christmas holidays interrupted much more work getting done – which happens – and then we got to January, and I had a new problem. By now, I had formed the idea that the book was Not Going Well in my mind, and so I didn’t want to work on it (because it wasn’t going well) and sort of avoided thinking about it (because it wasn’t going well). There was other stuff going on too, but in general I had in my mind that the book was A Problem and the easy thing to do was to do something else.

I suspect I’m not the only person who does this; it’s very tempting to put difficult things and problems we don’t know how to solve aside and move on to things we feel more comfortable with. Sometimes those are even productive things (I did a lot of laundry, man) but it doesn’t get those problems solved. The book was not magically writing itself on the hard drive at night.

Finally I realized it was February, my publishers were doing acquisitions in March and so the book sort of Needed To Be Done (for reasons discussed last time). I made myself get back at it, and discovered (no surprise, in retrospect) that the book did not have as many problems as I thought, and got it done. It began with breaking “Finish It” into smaller tasks (fix the scene where <x happens>) and starting to check those off. I have often found that a useful approach. After I dragged myself through a couple of those, the momentum came back and the last parts of finishing the manuscript went quite quickly.

I think it’s natural to try to avoid things we know are going to be difficult and that we’re not entirely sure how to do, but I also know that when I do that I can start to generate those negative feelings again (haven’t written anything on the book today, have you? No you haven’t. Hack.) and so the best thing, really, is just to do something. Make a little progress, because then you’ve done at least that little bit, and for me anyway, most things tend to build momentum as I work on them.

So the book got written, although it (obviously) isn’t finished yet – I’m already getting comments back from the Eager Volunteers and doing some rewriting, although in general the feedback has been very kind – and I’m proud of that, and pleased with the story it tells, now that it has a beginning, middle and an end. Hopefully the people who read it will like it too.

Maybe some of this will be useful to people who read it; mostly I’m going to keep this around for when I start to have some difficulty with the next project, whichever one that turns out to be.

I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.

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As you also may have seen on Twitter, I am very excited to be able to confirm that I will be attending the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston this summer! Limestone is a fairly young convention and although many of the writers they have lined up are SFF types, they celebrate all kinds of genre fiction so there will be lots for fans of mystery and romance books as well. Details about the panels and workshops are still firming up but the lineup of talent who will be there looks really cool and I’m very glad to be a part of it. Renaissance Press will be there all weekend and I’m already looking forward to meeting some new people and hanging around book lovers for a couple of days.

I’ll let you know more about it as the date approaches, along with other stuff that I’m also excited about in the months ahead.

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Action That Day

Good morning. I’m going to do something I don’t usually do on the blog today and talk a little bit about politics. I know people don’t come here for political discussion, and I have no intention of turning this into a place for political wrangling, but bear with me this one time, especially if you live in Canada. We’re just under two weeks out from the federal election on October 19th. I’m going to make use of whatever size of soapbox this blog gives me today to encourage you in the strongest terms possible to get out and vote.

I’m not going to tell you who to vote for; if you know me, you probably already know who I think you should vote for, and if you don’t know me, I don’t imagine you care who I think you should vote for. In any case, I think you should figure this out for yourself. I am going to tell you to vote, though.

Lots of people argue that it doesn’t matter if they vote or not. This is incredibly untrue. In the 2011 election, over 9 million Canadians didn’t vote. That meant that the current government won a majority government – letting them essentially do whatever they wanted for the next 4 years – with the support of less than 25% of eligible voters. Whether you’re happy with what they did or not, the numbers paint a fairly clear picture; there is a tremendous difference waiting to be made by people who did not vote in the last election. They could change the picture completely.

Sure, millions of other people will vote and your single vote doesn’t look like much in that context. That’s what democracy is, though, and every result in the election is nothing more than the adding up of all those single votes. You may argue you don’t have much power on election day, but you have exactly the same amount of power every other voter has. A glance at history shows that ordinary people voting brought in such mammoth changes as women’s suffrage, the minimum wage, health care, laws protecting the environment, and on and on the list goes. Elections have transformed our society, perhaps not always as quickly as we might prefer, but the changes are undeniable.

Some people will say that they don’t vote because politics doesn’t affect them. It’s very clear that this is not true either. The government decides many things that affect us every day; how much tax you’ll pay, what benefits may or may not be there when you need them, what rules businesses have to play by, what the rules of our society are going to be. To make even a somewhat meaningful list would have me writing the rest of the day. In fact, I guarantee that whatever issue is closest to your heart is affected to some degree by the decisions the government makes. This election is your chance to weigh in.

A lot of people will then say they don’t vote because the parties are all the same. This is demonstrably not the case; if you spend even a little bit of time looking at their positions on various issues, you’ll see very different points of view. Now, that’s not to say that there will necessarily be a party promoting the point of view you like the best, and perhaps it’s even less likely that you’ll find a party that you agree with on every issue. That can be frustrating and disheartening. I think it’s still important, if you have even one issue that you care about and think is important, to do a little research and find the option that you like the best, or (in the worst-case scenario) the alternative you dislike the least. You may rest assured that lots of other people will be making a choice, and if you don’t vote, those issues you think are important will be decided by opinions that don’t include yours.

One of the interesting things that I came to understand about young people from my teaching experience is that young Canadians care passionately about many issues: the environment, equal rights, and ethics in the economy being prominent among these. At the same time, they’re not interested in politics and tend not to think that voting is the right way to promote the agendas they believe in. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a terrible miscalculation. Absolutely there are other forms of activism, many of which did not really exist back in the Precambrian Era of my youth. Many of them can be effective. However, that doesn’t seem to me to be any reason to abdicate another way to have your voice heard, by choosing a party that most closely aligns with your beliefs and casting your ballot in their support.

You can go further and engage with politicians and ask them to support the ideas you believe in, but even if you don’t go that far, your vote is a chance to push Canada’s government (which does decide a great many things) in the direction you’d like it to go. Many people say that politicians don’t listen or speak to youth; although there is a lot being talked about in this election that seems to me directly relevant to younger Canadians, if you feel ignored, one way to get their attention is to show that young people are going to get out and vote. Even if you adopt the most cynical interpretation of politicians possible – that they’re ultimately self-serving and interested only in their own power – if you demonstrate that you’re key to obtaining or maintaining that power, they’re likely to help you out.

There is of course also the argument that there are people around the world who are willing to die for the right to do something that many Canadians can’t be bothered with. It sounds a bit overwrought and dramatic, but it is actually true. It doesn’t seem like a significant amount of power to us, and arguably it isn’t, except when you don’t have even that. We do have some opportunity to hold our government accountable and influence the direction it will take. It was an immense struggle to obtain that right, and I don’t believe we should take it lightly.

I suppose my most basic reason why I think people should vote is this: You don’t get asked what you think about all the issues that affect us and our nation and our place in the world very often. Most of the time, especially when we have a majority government in power, the mechanisms of government grind away, relatively heedless of voices from outside the great sausage factory of legislative authority. However you evaluate this one time when you do get asked, it seems to me a terrible shame to throw it away.

Please vote in your next election, wherever you are. Here in Canada, it’s quite soon. All the indications are that this is a pretty significant one. Don’t lose your chance to be one of the opinions that gets heard.

(If you haven’t yet received your voting card from Elections Canada in the mail, now is the time to go to the Elections Canada office nearest you and make sure you are registered to vote!)

——

Ok, no more politics for a while, I promise.

I ha a great time at the Ottawa Geek Market on the weekend and, as a result, am looking forward to upcoming events even more! I will be at the Can-Con SFF convention at the end of the month (details to come) and at Ottawa Pop Expo in November (details … also to come). And, of course, we’re now getting very close to the official launch party for The King in Darkness and four other great titles by local authors – details here if you missed them before.

Also, The King in Darkness is now available (in both e-book and paperback editions) direct from Renaissance Press for a lower price than you’ll get on Amazon right here. If you buy the book this way, you can still leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads to help boost signal about the book if you would like, and it’s much appreciated!

Amid all that, I am (I swear) finding time to write and I’m about halfway done the manuscript for what I hope will become the sequel to The King in Darkness. Much work to do.

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Out of Order

Last week I had a talk with a friend about writing that I decided to expand into this blog entry. I think I’ve written a bit on some of this before but maybe not in very much detail. I’m a bit hesitant to give advice on writing because I’m far from a master of the craft but I feel all right sharing what has worked for me. Perhaps it will work for someone else as well.

As I know I have said at least a few times on here, I am a big proponent of writing things out of order, basically no matter what it is you happen to be writing. I see no particular need to start at the beginning and write through to the end and in fact, a lot of the time I think that’s detrimental. Start with the bit you’re excited to write, right now, and work from there.

For one thing, I find beginnings immensely hard. You don’t have to do very much research into ‘how to write’ to find lots of people expounding on the importance of your opening line and first few paragraphs (no matter what it is you’re writing, again) and that can be a lot of pressure right out of the gate. You can sit there trying to come up with something that is ‘just right’ for a very long time. Lots of writers have also commented on the intimidation of the blank page, so I think the important thing is to get something down. Break that inertia and get moving.

So I tend to write whatever parts of the piece I feel ready to write or excited about, and then fill in the holes later. I think I wrote the ending of The King in Darkness before I wrote anything else. I think this is, in general, the best way to get started with whatever it is you’re trying to write: if there’s a scene you know just what to do with, or an anecdote that you want to tell, or whatever it is, write that bit immediately. You can figure out how to get there, and where to go from there, afterwards.

Even if you just end up writing a piece of a story (or poem, or whatever else) that you don’t know what to do with, that ain’t bad. First of all, you wrote something, which is always good. I feel that every bit of writing you do makes you better at it. Second, even if you don’t know what to do with it now, you can tuck it away for now and perhaps discover a home for it down the road. For now, you got something down on paper, broke the inertia of not knowing how to get started, and gave yourself a chance to stretch those writing muscles a bit.

Now, not everyone will agree with this. There are many proponents of planning everything carefully before you start to write and writing in order from beginning to end. I know I horrified at least one faculty member when I was doing my PhD by mentioning that I was writing chapters of the thesis before doing the Introduction. They just couldn’t understand how it was possible to do it. I guess, internally, I had a vague idea of what would be in my Introduction, just as a I have a vague idea of what will go at the beginning of every story I start writing, but I wasn’t ready to write it yet, so I went ahead with a part that I was fired up about. They really looked alarmed when I said I would probably write the Introduction last.

Which I did.

In general I think the only way you make progress at writing and get better at it is to just do it. Get some words down on the page, whatever words are ready to come. Don’t kill yourself over the parts that aren’t flowing yet; you can do that later. But write. Write what you’re excited about and passionate about and what you think is cool. Have people whose opinions you respect read it and tell you what they think. That’s how you’ll get better at it. One of the wonderful things about writing in this electronic era is that you can always change it later. There’s (almost) no cost to going ahead and trying out what’s in your head. It may be great. It may need some work. It may end up being adaptable to some other purpose later. There’s one really good way to find out. Write it.

Writing out of order may not work at all for some people and so I don’t pretend to have found The Answer to writing. It does work for me. If you’re feeling intimidated with starting a project or struggling to know how and where to begin, though, perhaps give beginning anywhere a try. Just start. It gets rolling from there.

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I was saddened this weekend to see that the actor Nigel Terry had passed away. As I said on my Facebook page, I loved his Prince John in The Lion in Winter, an absolute delight of a movie that you absolutely should not watch the remake of. However, it was his King Arthur in Excalibur that I particularly have affection for; it is my favourite Arthurian film and one I never seem to get tired of watching.

Some of that is Nicol Williamson’s Merlin, which was a fantastic performance, but I truly do love the whole movie. The first time I watched it, in my teens, I didn’t quite – I thought it was a bit daft and silly in parts, although I liked it overall. However, what happened was that the more I learned about the Arthur stories, the more I liked it and the more I think Excalibur is about the perfect movie representation of them.

Of course it’s not the slightest bit ‘realistic’. Lancelot rides around in chrome armour, the sets are generally insane and there is a great deal of yelling. But, of course again, that’s exactly what the Arthur stories are like! They’re full of crazy things happening and over the top situations and absolute lunacy happening every thirty seconds. That’s why they’re wonderful.

No, of course knights (we’ll come back to this!) ‘in the time of King Arthur’ (whenever that was) would not have dressed anything like they do in the film – but in the stories they are armed and armoured and behave like 12th century knights, which is also completely mad, but no-one cared. I am completely convinced that medieval audiences were perfectly aware that people in the 9th century didn’t act or dress like they did, but it was an awesome story that (to them) also taught important lessons and so they didn’t worry about it.

That’s essentially what I think we need to do with the Arthur tales as well. The idea of telling the ‘real’ story or a ‘realistic’ take on Arthur is, to me, completely wrong-headed. It’s not what we want. I haven’t researched the question extensively, but from the reading I have done it seems relatively likely that there is, somewhere, a kernel of truth at the core of the Arthur stories. If you could somehow sift down through all of it, there probably was, at some time, a real leader in war who inspired the tales that have been rewritten and expanded and revised ever since, down through the centuries. Maybe it would even be a warlord from 9th century Britain, although maybe not entirely, if the Celtic mythological connections hold water.

The thing is that even if we found this figure, it wouldn’t be what we’re looking for, not really. There wouldn’t be ‘knights’ in the sense we think of them – that’s at least 200 years away. There wouldn’t be Lancelot, who was a 12th century addition. There would be no Grail quest, which also came in during the 12th century renaissance. It simply wouldn’t be the story we love, although as a historian I don’t doubt it would be interesting in its own right.

But the Arthur stories as most of us today love them are gloriously anachronistic, full of absolutely bonkers events like cannibal giants and blows that lay waste to huge swaths of countryside and invisible knights. It’s not realistic. Not even a little. But it’s wonderful. Just enjoy it.

That’s what they did when they made Excalibur; they just embraced the wonderful craziness of the Arthur stories and threw it up on the screen. It doesn’t actually have a cannibal giant or an invisible knight but it has Excalibur cleaving through steel and shapeshifting and Patrick Stewart screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s glorious. Nigel Terry did a great job as a (I feel) slightly baffled King Arthur and the whole thing works perfectly to me. I love the film for not caring in the slightest about what is realistic, but caring what made a spectacular tale. So thank you, Mr. Terry, for your contribution in bringing that to life.

May all our tales be just as amazing and spectacular.

—–

Meanwhile personally I am breaking the ice on my new project by taking my own advice from the start of this entry and writing the bits of it that I’m ready to write and not flailing away at the part I’m finding difficult. This means I have made some progress, but doesn’t get me any closer to the next piece being ready for Eager Volunteers. Hopefully it’ll be worth it in the end.

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The Pitch

Ok first of all, let me be clear about what this entry is not – this is not an entry about how to pitch a manuscript or write a query letter. The reason it isn’t is that I am not the least bit qualified to give advice along those lines. I think I would need to have more than one success under my belt in that regard before I felt prepared to suggest that I really knew what I was doing. I guess the one thing worth noting is that if you are trying to pitch a book to an agent or publisher, even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you still only need it to work once to get where you want to be. So, even not knowing what you’re doing, have a bash at it – you don’t need your pitch to work on everyone, you only need it to work once.

Damn. That was advice. Changing course.

What I really wanted to write about today was a piece of advice given to me about pitching that got me thinking about stories in a way that I hadn’t before, or at least I don’t think I had. I went to a panel session on ‘How to Pitch your Manuscript’ and one of the people on the panel was a guy from Bundoran Press, whose name I have utterly, shamefully, forgotten. Nevertheless what he said stuck with me – he said that a good pitch needs to say what the book is about, and (crucially) that that is not the same as the plot.

I had to give that one a think for a second. But (of course you will have instantly recognized) he’s right. The plot is all the events that happen in a story, but those things, added all together, isn’t what the story is about. I imagine my former English teachers being deeply dismayed that I had somehow failed to take this very fundamental point onboard (or, equally possible, that I had done so and then lost it in the overfilled ship’s hold of my mind) until this exceptionally late date.

However, here we are. One of my very favourite books, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, has plot about AIs and drugs and Rastafarian space communes and chicks with razor blade fingernails, but that’s not what it’s about. Mostly the book is about humanity, and how it is lost and regained. Wolf Hall is not about the machinations of Tudor politics, primarily. It is about power. My own book is not about all the pretend things (that I hope you will soon get to discover) that happen through the course of the novel. It is ultimately about adversity, and whether we despair or persevere in the face of it.

Up until I got that nugget of advice, my attempts at a pitch or query had been uniformly terrible, because I was trying to summarize a lengthy plot in a paragraph or 2 minute talk. It doesn’t work, or at least I can’t make it work. Once I stopped doing that and started telling people what my story was about, I had something that at least made a kind of sense.

In a grander scheme, the separation between plot and what a story is about is an interesting point of view to keep in mind. The project I’m writing now does have a plot, but I’ve already figured out that it is about our responsibility for the things we create. Figuring that out has already helped me determine things that need to be in the plot, or really shouldn’t be. I’m not saying a writer should ruthlessly strip everything out of a story that doesn’t fit its central theme – I enjoy some little side trips and meanderings – but there’s a clarity from knowing the overall flavour you want your creation to have, an opportunity to keep giving it a little more seasoning in that direction, or not throw in stuff that will clash.

Anyway, this is probably all quite elementary and I imagine a lot of ‘Yes, AND?’ going through the minds of readers. I’ll try to do better the next time. I am very grateful for the advice I got, though. I think it helped me find a home for my story, and I think it is continuing to help me write a little better.

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Give to me your advises

Ok, here’s something I haven’t done before, but I figure at least a few of you are reading this thing and if you have any thoughts on this issue I would appreciate them.

As I write this thing, I have a bit of an issue:  There’s a character who was originally conceived to be fairly minor, and in fact I have almost written all the scenes in which he was scheduled to appear.  The ‘problem’, if that’s what it is, is this: first of all the character is fun to write, and second, at least one of the Eager Volunteers has so far indicated that he is (thus far) their favorite.

Should I rework the thing to give this character a bigger role?  The main risk I see there (aside from having to rework the plot to accommodate it of course) is that he may not continue to be as appealing – for me or readers – in larger doses.  Possibly I should just file him away for later use in other places.

Anyway it’s a nice problem to have, I guess, and writing another of his scenes got me through the two days I complained about last time, so that was a good deal.

Anyway, if you have any thoughts or experience to share, I would be grateful.

 

Word Count: 27,565

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