Tag Archives: Creativity

On Cultural Appropriation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

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Sherlock

Last week I mentioned the BBC TV series Sherlock in amongst all my ramblings, and as I’ve mentioned Holmes several times prior to this I thought maybe I would write a little bit about them both today. Depending where you are in the Sherlock series, there may be some spoilers – as I write this I have just watched ‘The Final Problem’, which ended the most recent series. I suppose I’ve also been thinking of Holmes more than usual in the last little while because my latest WIP is set in Victorian London and so I guess obviously has a lot of connections to these stories that I’ve loved.

As I think I’ve said here before, I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a very long time. It began one summer when we were visiting my grandparents’ farm and, true to form, I ran out of things to read because I read everything I had brought too quickly. My grandmother lent me a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that I guess she had gotten from a book club she belonged to, and I read it the rest of that visit by the light of an oil lamp. It was a pretty good way to be introduced to Conan Doyle’s stories.

I loved them (I guess obviously) and read her copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes as well, and then went on to devour all the rest of the tales. I have a very battered collection of all the Conan Doyle stories that has travelled with me from place to place everywhere I have lived, and I read them through again fairly regularly (remember, I love to re-read). It’s safe to say that Holmes is one of my favorite characters, as I think I’ve said more than once before.

Part of this is because so many of the stories really do just work very well, narratively: they’re exciting and surprising and have genuine moments of horror and humour. So they are just good stories, even if (as I think I’ve mentioned before) they don’t all stand up so well when you really start picking away at them. I think also, although I wouldn’t have realized it at the time, Holmes was another character likely to resonate with me: more than a little strange, not really very good at relating to the society around him (I’m reasonably suspicious how much of his ‘disinterest’ in people is an act), probably spends more time thinking than he really should. However odd he is, Holmes is also always passionately (no really) devoted to the idea of doing the right thing and helping people who need to be helped. He’s prepared to go to prison for that, he’s prepared to die for that. So whatever else he may be, Conan Doyle’s detective is a probably implausibly heroic creation, and I think that’s part of why I like him, too, as I get older and less fond of ‘shades of grey’.

So much for the original. The Sherlock TV series was one I approached with a little bit of trepidation – the idea of a modernized Holmes seemed like something that could very easily be done wrong (I didn’t get past the first episode of the American Elementary series) but I heard good things and so I gave it a try. I liked the first series very much, and I think the writers for it did about as good a job as it would be possible to do of updating Holmes for this new century. I loved the little animations of clues flying around the screen showing Holmes’ deductive mind at work, in particular.

The show has continued, I think, to be generally good since then, although not always of exactly even quality, and I think it has gradually gotten less and less like the Conan Doyle stories as they’ve gone along, until ‘The Final Problem’, which just aired, really only has a very tenuous connection to the original source material at all. I will need to mull it over a bit more, but I think that even considered in isolation, the episode had some very real problems and it may be time to leave this version of the characters. Perhaps the writers have another surprise, although I think the fixation on surprises may be part of the problem.

No doubt some people would suggest this is the reaction of a Holmes purist, and a lot has been written about how fans of Conan Doyle can’t come to grips with the new version. I like to think that’s not true in my case. I think many of the changes made to the characters and settings were actually quite clever and appropriate (I love their version of Irene Adler), and if Cumberbatch’s Holmes is more extreme in basically all forms of his behaviour than Conan Doyle’s character, I think that’s probably necessary. I actually thought the same with Robert Downey Jr.’s movie version of the character; I think for a modern audience to get the impact of how socially inappropriate and transgressive Holmes’ actions in the stories were, the writers need to turn up the volume on them a fair bit. The handshakes he ignores, barbs he conceals in polite phrasing, and of course his general lifestyle, would have been a lot more shocking to a Victorian audience that we necessarily appreciate today, and so both newer version of the character got their eccentricities turned up a few notches. I think that works very well.

It must be an interesting challenge for a writer – not one I have yet taken on – to pick up a character that isn’t yours and try to write new stories for them. It might seem obvious that the right thing to do is to make no changes and follow the original author as closely as possible, but I think imitation is never as good as the original, and I suspect most artists kind of chafe under restrictions that keep them from expressing themselves. So the question presumably becomes how far one can alter a character and make them one’s one before you’ve changed things enough that you also lose the appeal and attraction of the original character, which is surely a big part of the reason for doing a new take on Holmes or another established fictional creation.

I haven’t tried it yet, as I say, but I suspect it’s a very difficult balance to strike. For what it’s worth I think the Sherlock series has, on the whole, done remarkably well in coming up with a version of Holmes and Watson and their cases that’s something that has features that are entirely its own but is still recognizable as being drawn from the original material. I think perhaps in the last couple series they’ve gotten a bit too focused on more and more shocking revelations, and it is somewhat hard to see where they go from here. I can’t think of another unexpected bombshell they could throw in that wouldn’t be either a letdown from what’s gone before or seem (even more?) ludicrous that what they’ve just finished doing.

I hope I’m wrong and that they’ll yet surprise me. I would love some more Holmes stories, but if this series has run its race, I think they did very well.

And the originals are always there, in a little apartment on Baker Street, waiting for me to come visit again. One day I’ll get another oil lamp and do it properly.

Thanks for reading.

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The Year Ahead

It’s going to be a bit of a short entry this week – I’m a bit under the weather and also gearing up for the start of winter term teaching, so I’m not entirely sure what to do with this entry. It’s also the time of year when lots of places are doing 2016 retrospectives, but I think I already spend more than enough time chewing over the past. There were things that made me very happy and others that were very difficult and I think it’s best to leave it there.

In part, I think it’s good to do that because my energy needs to be on the time ahead. I also don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore; I think sometimes those turn into a way to set ourselves up for disappointment in the same way that the ‘you must write every day or you’re not a real writer’ mantra can end up sabotaging writers. It is a new year and a chance to do things differently, but it’s also easy to set ourselves up for disappointment by Resolving to do things that aren’t possible, or at least not realistic.

As an example, when I first started distance running (yes, another running analogy, sorry) I knew I wanted to try it and headed out on a run with the idea that I was going to run for about an hour and see where it went from there. (I know, I know) I made for I think ten minutes. I felt awful. I hadn’t even come close to what I set out to do. Now, in truth what I had done was set a goal that was in no way realistic (and didn’t at that point even know what a realistic goal would be) and so not achieving it didn’t mean anything other than I needed to set better goals, and it was good that I had made a start Actually Running rather than thinking about starting running. However, in that moment my goal (ill conceived as it was) was something to feel bad about, and I think a lot of probably well-intentioned Resolutions to make huge changes in our lives just end up being sticks to beat ourselves with in the end.

I’m not saying everyone who does New Year’s Resolutions is unrealistic or doomed to failure, but I don’t think the practice is an especially helpful one (for me, at minimum) and so I don’t make them. I do have a very general idea of what I want to do with the year ahead, though.

First and foremost is to finish writing Easter Pinkerton’s story, my current WIP (that still needs a proper title). I’ve run into a little bit of sand on it the past while due to the end of fall term and the holidays, and I need to get back at it. I think I can still achieve my aim of having a complete draft by springtime, spend the summer editing, and then perhaps be able to start looking for a home for the book in the fall.

I am going to see if I can successfully multi-task my writing projects a bit in the months ahead, though, which is something I haven’t really done to this point. I tend to work on one project exclusively, laying other work aside until one piece of writing is done. This makes it (relatively) easy to keep a solid momentum behind whatever I’m working on, and, to the extend that I can really control these things, keep my creative energy directed where I want it. However, I realize this probably makes me less productive than I might otherwise be – can’t write this other thing because Not Done with thing #1 – and I’m going to have to try changing it this year. I have some new opportunities (which I can’t give details on, yet) that are very exciting but also won’t wait while I write the new book. So I shall have to discover if Easter can play well with other imaginary people.

I suppose that’s the biggest thing that I want to accomplish with the year ahead. I’ve just started to get my feet a tiny bit wet with building a network as a writer and to start to take my craft something approaching seriously, rather than as a hobby. I’ve already made what I think are some potentially important steps, and I want to continue the process in the months ahead. A lot of this involves doing things that are contrary to my nature (like going up and introducing myself to strangers, oh dear) but as I increasingly come to think of myself as a writer who teaches to pay the bills rather than a teacher who happens to write, this is something I’m going to need to do. It may be that writing will never be a bigger part of my life than it is right now, but I’d like to see if it can be.

That’s going to involve all sorts of work, some of which I probably don’t even know about yet, but it’s a project that, in some ways, I have been wanting to do since I was in the second grade and not doing my math lessons so I could write more stories. So we’re gonna see. I’m not setting myself any particular goal here because I don’t even really know what’s possible to achieve. However, to make another running analogy, this is perhaps like when I first started to get into distance running. I got out on the road and gave it a go. The rest of it – what I could do, what specific goals I might have in terms of distance and time, the tools I was going to need – all of that flowed from getting out on the road.

So that’s as much of a 2017 resolution as you’ll see from me. I will be out on the road, and I hope yours is smooth and takes you to glorious places.

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The Monk and Me

Over the weekend a Twitter account I follow (@melibus1, which is a good follow if you like medieval things) sent around a picture of the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child. Now, I love medieval art, I think it is amazing in all its creativity and strangeness and the wild variance in styles that you will see. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I felt that this one had some, ah, entertaining aspects. Here it is:

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(Bodelian MS Canon Ital. 230, f. 53v., via @melibus1 on Twitter)

So I posted it on Facebook and some of my friends and I made some jokes about it, and about Nigel Farage (really) and there it probably would have lain, gathering digital dust, except of course I Got To Thinking.

I got to thinking about whoever the artist was who drew this picture, centuries ago. I don’t know the background of the manuscript it’s from (and am steadfastly resisting feeding my Procrastination Beast by researching it) but I assume it to be a monk or a nun. Something in the neighbourhood of 700 years ago, this person sat down and drew this little picture, and now here I am, looking at it in a way they wouldn’t have been able to imagine.

This is part of why I always get a little thrill looking at documents from the past. You are, in some way, making a connection to a real person who created that very thing before you, all those lifetimes ago. Medieval people very often did write (and create, in general) with a sense of ‘for the future’ in mind, so I often like to think those distant authors and artists would be pleased to know that people were still looking at what they created. But it’s hard to know exactly what they’d think, if you could explain the idea of someone looking at their work centuries later, and for purposes they would (probably) never have considered. Scholarly projects. Curiosity. Sheer entertainment.

In this case, would this monk (or nun!) be upset that we were laughing about it? I mean, the first reason I thought it was funny was that this is one of the very many examples of an artist who drew or painted a baby nursing that had, clearly, only a fairly vague idea of the female anatomy. (Which is why I think ‘monk’ is a much safer bet than ‘nun’, incidentally) So, why do this scene? Maybe they were told to do it by whoever ran the scriptorium and even though they didn’t really want to, they did their best with it anyway. Maybe (and I haven’t seen the rest of the page, so I don’t know) it’s appropriate to the written content, and so they gritted their teeth and did what they could. Or perhaps they really, truly, wanted to do this scene and made it as well as they were able.

Yes, by this point I was feeling slightly guilty about chuckling over the work of someone who has been dead for hundreds of years. But then I thought a little more and asked myself if someone made an offer to me, and said that in 700 years someone would be reading something that I’d written, but that they’d make some jokes about it, would I take it?

I’m pretty sure I would. In fact, I know I would. I love the idea of someone reading my stuff and getting a moment of entertainment or pleasure or amusement out of it, even if it’s not how I intended. (“To the SQ Mobile!” will be one of my favourite editor’s comments forever) That’s thinking about right now, but if I knew for sure that people would read something I wrote long after I was gone, that would be a thought I would enjoy very much, almost no matter what their reaction was. (Obviously, I’d prefer it if they didn’t think it was crap) That’s the closest I can imagine ever getting to living into that distant future.

So that Italian monk (pretty sure Italian, from how the manuscript is catalogued, but who knows?) did pretty well for themselves, really.

This also got me thinking about art (of whatever kind) that isn’t necessarily fantastic. And – quick sidebar here – I say that fully acknowledging the difficulty of writing, let alone drawing, with medieval tools, and not knowing the size of this picture (it is probably pretty small, judging from the text around it), and that therefore I absolutely could not do better. However, it did end up a little goofy.

I think there’s something deeply cool, in its own way, about people who have the desire in them to create art and go ahead and do it, even if what they produce is pretty flawed. (And I say that fully aware that there are or will be people who look at what I produce and would describe it as ‘pretty flawed’) But they just do it, because they want to create and that satisfies something in them and the rest of it be damned. I think that’s incredibly admirable and bold and awesome.

So by now, I’m really liking this monk, who set out to make this scene, did it as well as they could, and put it out there for an audience to look at. They did it probably not knowing exactly how big that audience would be, but even if this was a book intended to stay in the monastery, they would have known that their picture would at least be looked at by perhaps generations of their brothers (or sisters) and they put it out there anyway.

I also think this goes back to something I wrote a few entries back, Daniel Jose Older’s observation that artists need to take the pressure off themselves that everything has to be great and that everything they try has to work. You need to allow yourself the possibility of something that doesn’t work out so great, but the process of trying teaches you something or the attempt ticks off a box for you or even, maybe, you just end up with a final product that is ‘good’ rather than ‘world-shatteringly fantastic’ and you know, that’s pretty rad.

Perhaps this monk just tried drawing the BVM nursing her baby, it didn’t come out exactly great, but he figured out how to do it better on the next page. And, in the end, in sitting there in that distant, long-ago scriptorium, that person succeeded in creating a thing that we looked at on the weekend and that brought a few moments of pleasure into our lives. I like to think that would have pleased them.

Although I doubt I will ever know what the real story was behind the creation of that little picture, I think that I will be a better artist if I can remember to channel a little of the spirit of that medieval person.

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

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Another Character Moment

This is going to be a little bit of a process entry again, so, uh, consider yourself forewarned.

I’ve been getting a reasonable amount of work done on the WIP (not anything so mundane as coming up with a title, though, heh) and thinking about it a lot and I find myself in interesting territory again. I’ve written before about how, as I write about characters, a lot of times I feel as though they’re telling me about themselves as I create. Obviously this is an inversion of what’s actually happening, but – again, as I’ve said before – I feel as though these imaginary people are coming to me rather that me creating them. Perhaps when I call them into existence, I don’t know everything about them, or at least it feels like it.

My latest example is the protagonist of the current WIP, Easter Pinkerton. She’s a spy in 1880s England who is about to get into more trouble than she would have believed possible. When I first started writing the story, I wrote a scene where Pinkerton (I learned fairly early on that she’s not fond of people using her first name) kills a traitor, and in the process uncovers part of the mystery she’ll chase for the rest of the book. In that scene she’s disguised as a man, and originally I did that because a) it struck me as probable that a female spy would find it convenient to dress as a man at least some of the time, b) it seemed to me that it made this specific mission easier for her, c) it makes for a nice swerve at the end of the scene (which I have now spoiled, aheheh) and d) I am a massive Sherlock Holmes dork and so of course I couldn’t resist putting a little of Irene Adler in her.

So there it was and I think the scene works ok, and I hadn’t given much more thought to Pinkerton’s use of male clothing than that. Then I wrote some more, and wrote some more, and finally created the scene where she returns home after a full day of cloak-and-daggery. And the very first thing she did was change into mens’ clothing again. I wrote that bit through what felt like a reflex, I genuinely felt ‘well of course she does this’ without having any wider ideas about it than that. I wrote it and I knew it was true and felt like Pinkerton had told me something about herself. This part of the creative process fascinates me more the more I think about it (although again, no doubt there are psychologists somewhere going ‘yes, all very straightforward’) and why you’ll never convince me that there isn’t something at least a little beyond biological/electrochemical machinery going on in there somewhere.

Of course now I’ve had some time to think about it, and of course there are all kinds of wider issues connected to it. Wearing mens’ clothing would have been a much more deeply transgressive thing for a Victorian woman to do than it is today (and obviously there’s still lots of issues around it today), so why does Pinkerton do it? It’s not just to be comfortable, or at least, not physically comfortable. She’s at home, she can be herself, and this is what she chooses to do. Pinkerton told me something about her identity in that scene that I now know I have to do right by the rest of the book.

I went back over what I had written that precedes that scene, and I don’t think I need to change anything to reflect my new understanding of Easter Pinkerton, but it has changed a bunch of things that will come afterwards. On the whole, if I can do it right, I think it will make the book richer and I like the character even more now. (I mean, I like each and every one of my imaginary people, even the awful ones, but probably inevitably I have my favorites, and Pinkerton is rapidly becoming one.)

That ‘if I can do it right’ looms rather large for me as I attempt to continue writing, though. Easter has a part to her identity that is not my experience, and so I feel extremely cautious about proceeding. Appropriation is a real issue for many people, and even well-meaning misportrayals can be upsetting and hurtful. It would be easier, in some ways, to just Not Do This part of the story, and make Pinkerton back into a character whose cross-dressing is purely pragmatic, but I wouldn’t like it, and I wouldn’t feel I was doing right by the character. I would feel like I was silencing something in a potentially hurtful way, even if no-one would ever have known about it but me.

I really don’t want to sound ‘oh pity me’ here – this is a challenge but I like it. It is somewhat like being out for a run and coming the the bottom of a big hill. This is going to be difficult, but on some level difficult is why we’re out there. Writing something that’s going to be difficult (for me) is a good thing for me to do. It will (however it works out) make me a better writer and make me think about a whole ton of things I wouldn’t have otherwise. If I do really well, perhaps no-one who reads the finished product and hasn’t also read this blog will know that Pinkerton was a hard character for me to write – they’ll just enjoy her story. I could presumably write a bunch of perfectly acceptable stories with characters who won’t push me the way I think Pinkerton is going to, but among other things, then I wouldn’t have the feeling of being at the top of the hill, and knowing you’ve done it, where you feel (just for a moment) invincible.

So Pinkerton is going to exist (in whatever form the story ends up existing in) as she ‘really’ is, or how she has started to explain herself to be. I’m going to do my best with it. I’m also waiting to see if she has more to reveal to me. I have a feeling there’s more that she’ll tell me about when the time is right. I don’t typically write romance, because I don’t feel I’m very good at it, but I also have the nagging feeling that Pinkerton isn’t going to let me off that easily. She and I will perhaps have to negotiate.

These imaginary people are a treasure, and a responsibility. I genuinely want to do right by them (in my admittedly-odd way of viewing them) but I want to do right by whoever it is that reads the story in the future. Ideally I’d like it if there’s something in my characters that might speak to them, that they might identify with, or at least that they’ll feel that my imaginary friends are worth spending some of their time with.

That was all very introspective, even by the standards of this here blog here, so thanks for your patience. I’ll go see if Pinkerton wants to talk about anything and let you know how it goes.

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Time Spins On

We had our first real snowstorm here last night and through into today. In general I really do like the changes of the seasons and how they each feel different from the last. When I lived in England, although I loved it, I did miss a winter that felt like winter and a summer that felt like summer. Without the change of season I think things could very easily start to feel all much of a muchness.

The change of season is also, of course, a reminder of time passing, and that got me to thinking. (Which is not exactly a hard thing to do, as you will know if you read this blog very much) Somehow it is not just November, but the end of November, and (cliche though it may be) I find myself wondering where the year went, again. I can’t help but look back and wonder if I could, or should, have done more with it.

I mean, I think I did all right. I finished writing a book and got it published. I shared my stories with some people who hadn’t read them before. I met some amazing, delightful people. I got to teach again. I read some truly amazing tales that I will treasure forever. Heck there are a lot of different artists who I experienced for the first time, or who I ran into new work from, that I feel deeply lucky about that. I started off on a new project that I’m very excited about and will probably have a title for one of these days. I got plugged into some new opportunities that seem as though they might be really exciting.

Can’t help but wonder if there was more I should have been doing, though, and limiting this only to thinking of ‘as a writer’ things (because otherwise it gets Too Big in a hurry). Should I have gotten some more stuff written? Maybe some short stories. Could I have figured out better ways to promote my work to get more eyeballs on it? Were those times when I was tired or shy or both and couldn’t quite hack shaking a few more hands or introducing myself to some more people opportunities that I’ll never get back? Did I write the wrong stuff? I know I missed some chances – how much will those haunt me?

One of the great things about the internet is that you can see how many wonderful, amazing voices there are out there, how many outstanding writers writing outstanding stuff and it is exciting and uplifting and (for a reader especially) tantalizing. It is also a little scary at times because there are so many writers, and of course on some selfish level I do really want people to read my stories, and I wonder if I am doing anything near enough to give that the best chance of happening. The crowd of artists is wonderful, but being lost in the crush, perhaps not so much.

I try to take a deep breath, look at the snow, and give myself a break. First of all, it really is wonderful that there are SO MANY stories out there for those of us who love to read them. I wish I had unlimited time so I could read every single one. As for myself, I’ve done what I can. It’s probably not according to an ideal plan, but I did what I could based on what I had time for (it being, alas, not unlimited), what I had energy for (that not being unlimited either) and what I felt like was the right thing to do at the time. In terms of writing, I don’t know any way to do it other than to write what I’m excited about, and if that’s not the perfect thing in terms of marketability, so be it. I remind myself that I mostly write because it makes me happy, and so I may as well do that.

Hopefully some other people will enjoy it too.

I recently saw a series of tweets from Daniel Jose Older, a writer who seems to be a pretty wise individual, saying that writers (and artists) have to allow themselves to fail. Every project isn’t going to work out, everything can’t be the best thing you ever did. It’s ok. It’s like how I had to learn from my coach that even if you work really hard in training, not every race can be a personal best. Nobody does that. You do the best you can, and it goes how it goes. You write what you have in your soul to create and see what comes of it. Better to spend your energy working on the next thing than picking over the bones of what you might have done differently. If it wasn’t great, there’s probably a lesson you can use next time. Or at least, you Tried a Thing and now you know how that thing ends up.

There is probably always going to be more that could perhaps have gotten done in a particular year. There’s probably always going to be those moments that could have been handled better. There’s probably always going to be ‘what if’s. Part of that comes from (again) having a good imagination, being able to see all those alternative ways things could have broken. Part of it, I am sure, is just being a person.

Time spins on.

We do what we can.

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Although I can’t attend (Real Life being what it is), Renaissance Press will be at the Creative Ottawa Nerds Holiday Craft Fair this Saturday, from 10-5. Admission is $5 or 2 cans of food, in support of the Ottawa Food Bank. This is a great cause to support, you can get a copy of Bonhomme Sept-Heures if you want to, and I do incidentally love that the church is named after Julian of Norwich. Details here.

In an amazing act of bilocation, Renaissance will also be at the Ottawa ComicCon Holiday Edition, out at the EY Centre. Admission there is free, and you can pick up all the amazing stuff from Renaissance as well as a lot of other awesome vendors. Details here.

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Time For Art

Ok, so, rough week last week. I mean, relatively speaking I am more than fine, but I would be lying if I said that the past several days didn’t shake me, and I’m not likely to be in any particular difficulty or danger any time soon. I know there are lots of people that are. From my own little point of view, I have seen lots of artists, some that I know and some that I don’t, say that they don’t know how to keep creating when they are faced with such discouragement, hostility, and disillusionment. Again, it is relatively easy for me to say this, given my situation, but I know that I am certainly not going to stop writing. If anything, I’m extra determined to keep creating. I hope if any other writers are reading this, you all will too.

I will keep writing because, among other things, this is something that cannot be taken from me. Elections can go bad, jobs can go bad, friendships can end, whatever – I will still be able to write. I will still have imaginary worlds to create and stories to tell. I think they’re interesting and entertaining and hopefully fun to visit and maybe in some small way significant, but at a minimum they are significant to me, and the one thing the world will absolutely not take from me is my ability to create and tell stories and to write. If you take this laptop away (and I mean, it’s a luxury) I will write on paper like I used to. If you take the paper away I will tell the stories in my head like I already do anyway. This is mine. You can’t have it.

I assume it’s similar for other sorts of artists. I can’t draw and I certainly can’t sing or play an instrument, but it strikes me that if you are one of those kinds of artists, you’ve got the same freedom. You can always create. The only thing that can ever stop you is you, so don’t stop.

I think it’s important not to, in part because (and here I’m generalizing what’s true for me to artists overall) creating is a vital part of who we are and we are healthier, better people when we express that gift. I know I always feel better when I’ve written something, because part of me is (on whatever level you want to put it) intended to write and so the whole organism feels good when some writing gets done. To stop doing art is to be a bird that stops flying.

I also think, slightly trite though this sentiment may be, that it is in times of crisis that we (as a society) need art the most. We need things that amaze and astound and delight us when things look bleak. We need things that challenge us when there seems to be only one way things can go. And we need a wide, rich, wonderful diversity of voices and stories especially in times when we’re being threatened by bigotry and discrimination. They want us, me, you, to shut up. Artists have to say no.

A lot of artists are sad or frightened or in pain right now. Take that and make something out of it.

Melodramatic an idea as it may be, there might be someone waiting to hear what you have to say. Something you write may be able to inspire or encourage a person out there who needed to hear it, or even just amuse or entertain them for a brief space of time when they needed a break from the world.

Artists can be part of the voice that speaks up against things that are wrong, can advocate for the causes we know to be right, and take a message to people that otherwise might not hear it. It’s who we are, it’s what we do, and it’s a powerful gift as well as a responsibility.

Out here, a lot of things hurt. Pick up what you can and create.

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Directions

I don’t have any Big Ideas for this week’s entry, so I suppose I’ll just start off with an update (which was, after all, the original purpose of this thing) – work continues on the new WIP (which I am not being intentionally cryptic about, I just don’t have a title I love for it yet) and it’s going all right. The story is starting to unspool itself, which is cool, although it’s also true that it keeps veering off in some unanticipated directions.

By this I mean that as I start to write certain scenes, I’m deciding that they don’t work quite the way I thought they would, and so I change them around. Scenes that I hadn’t originally considered are shouldering their way in. The order that events are going to happen in keeps getting reshuffled because of both these things. Because (as I’ve discussed) I tend to write things out of order, there are some scenes that I quite like that I’m no longer sure how I’m going to get to, now. I don’t want them to end up becoming lost little spare parts of story, but I also don’t want to force them in if they don’t work anymore. (I can probably repurpose them for something else)

This links back to my topic from a few entries back, because some of this doesn’t feel like it’s entirely under my control. As I’ve said, I don’t always understand exactly where the ideas come from, even though I know it’s ultimately all ‘from me’. So it can feel as though the story I’m telling is a little bit out of control as well, and I’m writing furiously trying to keep up with these new directions it’s deciding to go in. It’s exciting most of the time, and a little frustrating some of the time as well, when I thought I had a really solid idea of how the plot was going to unfold and then I have to reassess the whole thing once I actually get to writing.

Although I will be a little disappointed to have to put aside some of the material I thought I’d use in this story, and I’m still working hard trying to figure out how to keep some of it, I’d rather make the changes than not. The reason the story is going in a different direction than I thought is that I have new ideas that I’m excited about. It doesn’t seem like it can possibly be the right call to ignore those in favour of something I scrawled on the back of a postcard two months or so ago. I know I write better when I’m writing about things that I’m enthusiastic about, so the best thing is to accept the differences and follow the path these decisions are opening up.

In some ways, writing a story is like anything else, I find – you have a plan for how things are going to go, and then due to all sorts of factors, some under your control and some not, things probably don’t work out exactly how you planned, and it’s often better to go with it rather than trying too hard to force things to be the way you originally envisioned. Everything is constantly being shaped and reshaped by decisions we all make, and a lot of times we can’t see all the consequences of something we decide, and most times we can’t take it back once we make one. We all adapt and rewrite as we see how things unfold.

I guess along those lines, I will say (for what it’s worth) that if you happen to be reading this in the United States on the day it goes up, you’ve got a pretty big decision in front of you. I’m sure you’ve had more than enough of people telling you which way to go (and if you’ve read much of this blog, you probably know what I think about it) so I’m just going to say that I really hope you’ll be an active part of that decision, and go and vote. It’s easy to be cynical about the process, but you don’t get asked what you think very often. Now’s your chance to take part in deciding, and I think you’ll regret not doing it.

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

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I did a little reno on parts of the blog. There is now a list of some Links that I think you might enjoy.

I will shamelessly remind you that my second novel, Bonhomme Sept-Heures, is now available. The glitch where you couldn’t get the paperback edition from Amazon.ca has been resolved, so you should be able to get it in whatever manifestation would bring you the most enjoyment. If you’d like to try before you buy, there’s now an excerpt from the story added on to the Books section. Enjoy.

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Bonhomme Sept-Heures

Last weekend, I launched another one.

Saturday night was the official coming-out party for my new novel, Bonhomme Sept-Heures. My publishers put on a wonderful launch party with several other local artists in downtown Ottawa, there was an amazing turnout, and the evening was fantastic. People listened to me read a selection from the book, some of them decided they wanted my story and took it home with them.

Some very keen people have even already finished it, and told me how they liked it. There’s no better feeling, as a writer, to have someone say that they would like to sit down with a story you wrote. It really doesn’t matter, to me, whether they say it directly, or just through the implication of taking my book home with them. It is a wonderful validation to have created something, and have someone say ‘yes please’. I imagine that’s true for every artist.

There is also that vulnerability that I talked about a couple weeks back – where people may read it, and decide they don’t like it, but right now I’m not feeling too much of that. I’m mostly just excited to have the story out where people can read it (which is really what stories are for) and give it a home in their imaginations. I’m sure I will hear some criticisms – which I am mostly glad to get, since it means someone read my story and thought about it – but for now I’m just enjoying it leaving the nest.

The launch itself was a splendid experience, too, of course. Again it was great to be in a room full of writers and readers and to feed off all that excitement for stories and enjoy the craft of other artists. We obviously can’t always be surrounded by people who agree with our passions, but it’s certainly a treat and a reward when it’s possible to grab it. I’m very grateful for all of these times.

Finally, I feel like this all reinforces the creative process on the next project. Even though what I’m working on now is a different set of characters and quite a different sort of story than my first two books feature, having this reminder of the payoff for getting it done and getting it out to an audience is fantastic incentive. I already can’t wait for my next story to be ready for people to read. It’s going to take a while.

Next week I will probably have something a bit more thoughtful for you. This week I’m watching Bonhomme Sept-Heures take flight. Thanks for reading.

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(Thanks to Rohit Saxena for the photo)

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I’d be delighted if you wanted to give Bonhomme Sept-Heures a try yourself. I made the story the best I could and I’d love to know what you think of it. You can order the book from Amazon (as well as several other major online retailers), you can buy it direct from the Renaissance Press website here, and you can ask for your favourite local bookstore to order it in for you. It will (of course) also be available at any of the events Renaissance Press attends from this point onwards, and I’ll keep you updated about those as they come up.

There’s one minor wrinkle at the moment as the paperback edition isn’t available on Amazon.ca – it is on all the other versions of Amazon, but because of how Amazon handles the different versions of itself there’s a delay with the Canadian one. It will be available there shortly and I’ll update you when it is.

I greatly appreciate everyone who spends some of their reading time on my stories. I hope you’ll like Bonhomme Sept-Heures and I really do look forward to hearing what you thought about it.

You can now also read an excerpt from the story under the ‘Books’ tab here.

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