Tag Archives: Creativity

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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RPG (again)

Short one this week, I fear. Busy with start of term, but also the start of that D&D campaign I mentioned a while back. That, and a discussion on Twitter about whether or not playing RPGs is good for your writing, got me to thinking.

Again.

I wrote a blog a while back about how being the Game Master of a campaign reminded me how writing for an RPG is very different from the process of writing a piece of prose. Getting ready to be a player in this game has made me think about how that’s yet another different kind of creative process.

Superficially, it seems like it should be similar. You’re creating a character, hopefully an interesting one that will be fun for you to experience the game world through and for the other players to have as part of the team. But right away, that’s where the big difference comes in.

When I create a character for one of my stories, I create the star of the story (along with various others) and the whole fictional world that I’m showing you revolves around that person. The story is, more or less, about solving their problems or exploring their characteristics or understanding of the world or what have you.

However, in the game, my character is no more or less important than any of the others. They need to be a useful part of an ensemble, and in most well-run games I’ve been in, everyone gets their turn in the spotlight, but no one character is the star of the show. So, in writing a backstory for this guy, I immediately had several ideas that I would really enjoy exploring – but odds are we never will, because this story is not that character’s story, or not only their story. The story of the game is going to be what this character creates with all the other ones, going forward.

Now it’s true that in thinking about how my character in an RPG should react to situations and behave, they would think that they’re the centre of their own universe, just as we all more or less do. Absolutely a well thought-out character has goals they want to accomplish and drives. The thing is, though, that as the player/writer, I also have to be aware that those things are all less important than the whole group having fun, and telling a good story collectively that everyone (including the DM) can enjoy.

Tricky.

But fun.

We had a sort of intro session on the weekend and I was reminded about one of my weaknesses as a player – I am not real quick on the draw with a good line. If I was writing the scene, I could come up with just the right thing for my character to say. But during a live game session, when I don’t have time to think, and try a few different phrasings and see what works best, I don’t do nearly so well. I guess that’s why I’m a writer and not an actor.

Somewhat tangentially, this also makes me very impressed with how well the people on Critical Role do playing their D&D game live on the internet. The quality of the dialogue all of them come up with shooting from the hip is really something to see.

All of this is to say that creating a fictional person and collaborating in creating a fictional world in this way has some overlap with what I do when I’m writing my own stuff, but it stretches me in very different directions at the same time. I think that’s a good thing, overall – it’s like doing a different set of exercises at the gym, strengthening different muscles and building different kinds of fitness. Also sometimes you ache in the morning.

Thanks for reading.

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Characters, Still

Yet again I struggled to know what to write for this week’s blog. The last while I have been tired and ill and feeling generally uninspired. I don’t write this fishing for sympathy, but more as a reminder for myself that these things happen. Everyone goes through down periods where they’re not their best and don’t accomplish all that they might like to. Some people are just better at concealing that shit than others.

However that may be – what I decided to write a little about was that I created a new character this week. I always have a lot of fun doing that, and this time it is a little different because this one is for a role-playing game. I wrote a bit a while back about the Star Wars game I’ve been running, and that’s still going. Now, one of my friends is starting up a D&D game and I get to be a player (something I haven’t done in a long long while) this time, so instead of creating the whole setting, I get to concentrate on one imaginary person.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, although the process of making an RPG character is a little different than my usual writing process, because my natural impulse is to start making this new person the star of the story. However, with an RPG, they really won’t be. My character won’t be any more (or less) important than any of the other players’ imaginary people, so what I have to do is create more of a supporting cast member – someone who can fit easily in with a bunch of other narratives and the overall tale our DM has for us.

I think it’s going ok.

Of course I’ve written some bits and pieces of story to go along with this character – because, honestly, what else would I do? – and this also got me thinking about all the characters I’ve created in and for unfinished stories that float around the nooks and crannies of my hard drive, their worlds partially created and their tales only somewhat told. I am just odd enough to feel a little bad about these stranded creations of mine, and also to wonder what it must be like to live in a partly-written world.

There’s probably a story in that, as well, and if Neil Gaiman hasn’t already done it, maybe I’ll write it one of these days.

——

There was a bit of a kerfuffle on Writing Twitter yesterday when an almost-certainly-well-meaning literary agent offered up a fairly broad brush piece of Writing Advice that drew a digital hailstorm of criticism. I was going to write about that a little, but I don’t really have anything to say that I haven’t already – I don’t put a lot of stock in Writing Advice, and certainly not in there being one or more Rules that are the path to Good Writing.

Good writing is, fortunately or unfortunately, something that isn’t about what rules you did or didn’t follow, it’s about whether or not you can write your ideas down and make it work. Different things will work for different people, and for different applications. Ultimately, the wonderful and terrifying truth is that you just gotta write well, and there’s no magic trick and no step-by-step for that.

That’s it for this week. Next week I hope to be a bit more out of my doldrums.

(But Brandon, these entries are getting shorter, huh?)

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Busted Up

This past weekend, I ran my half-marathon for the season. (Sorry, this is going to be another running-related post) Almost as soon as I got up in the morning I didn’t feel great about it. I’ve been having some IT band troubles the last couple weeks, and I felt kind of generally off in that way you sometimes do, just that today wasn’t a day when I was going to be at my peak.

By itself I think that’s kind of a good thing to keep in mind. As much as we’d like to think that we always perform to the best of our abilities, it’s not always the case. Some days are just a bit off, and mentally, physically, or both, we’re not quite where we could be on a usual day. That doesn’t mean we can’t still achieve things, but I think sometimes you have to recognize that it’s just not a great day and cut yourself a little slack for that.

On top of this, though, it was also one of the hottest days of the year in Ottawa. We haven’t had a very warm summer at all, so I hadn’t really done much training in heat this time around, and the race day conditions were far from optimal. So the race did not go great. I did the first quarter at roughly my planned pace, and after that I became that guy who gets busted up by the conditions.

I finished far, far slower than I had intended to, which in some ways is a disappointment. I can’t really look at my timing intervals from the race and feel a lot of pride. But I am proud of myself in one way, because busted up though I was, I finished the race. It didn’t go how I thought it would, but I didn’t quit and I got to the finish line in the end. Honestly, I’m very nearly as proud of that as I am of my PB for the half, because I know it would have been infinitely easier to quit partway through, and I really wanted to more than a couple of times, but I stuck it out and got it done.

Sometimes that’s an achievement we really should take pride in. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and we struggle more than we’d thought, and there end up being a lot more bumps in the road than we anticipated. But if you stick through that, and get whatever it is you’re trying to do finished regardless, I think that’s just as admirable as those times when you hit every deadline, every phase of your schedule, and sail through in peak performance. Not giving up when things go south is hard. Pushing through adversity is something everyone has to do and we should probably admire that as much as we do the occasions when things come of flawlessly.

I’m trying to remind myself of this as I continue to work on the WIP, which has also gotten a little busted up. Part of it is just the time crunch of the school semester starting up, and having to figure out how to fence off some writing time in my suddenly much more packed schedule. I’ve also realized that the book needs some reasonably major surgery already, though, and its both a little daunting and a little discouraging to have to try to get the rewrites done, even though I know the book will be better for it.

So, I rather doubt I’ll hit my (already revised) goal of having a complete first draft by year’s end.

But that’s ok. I’m not making the progress that I would have liked to have, but I know I’ll finish it in the end. Even looking back on these blogs, I’m reminded that there was a point similar to this in in the writing of Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and there was an even bigger space of time where I had sort of given up on King in Darkness entirely.

It’s ok to get a bit busted up. It happens, I suspect, to nearly everybody. It’s neither useful nor appropriate to get too negative about things not going entirely according to plan. Replan, regroup, recommit, and when the task is finished in the end, it is all the more remarkable for the added, unexpected hurdles that were overcome.

This, at least, is what I’m telling myself as I start to figure out how to get the rewriting done on the current WIP. As always, This is Not Advice, but I thank you for reading.

——

I also just wanted to quickly remind everyone that I will be back at the Word on the Street festival in Toronto this upcoming weekend. Last year was a great experience and I’m looking forward to spending the day at the Renaissance Press booth once again. If you’re in the Toronto area, it would be a delight to see you.

Details about the festival are here.

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Fill the Space

Last week, one of my dear friends and fellow historians sent around a link to a column by David Perry, about how without us always noticing it, medieval history has frequently been appropriated by white supremacists as part of their world view. It’s a really good piece, and you can read it here.  (Here is a great bibliography of further reading along similar lines, if you would like.)

I’m not going to try to expand on Perry’s thoughts about history (because I don’t really think that I can) but his column did get me to thinking about the imaginary worlds we create. I often read comments to the effect of ‘Leave the politics out of your writing, I just want a good story’ directed at authors. Is it a fair criticism? Should artists provide politically-neutral entertainment for our audiences? Or do we instead have an obligation to use our platform (of whatever size it may be) to promote the values and causes we think are important?

I actually want to hit pause on the question of whether it would be desirable to write fiction that was free of political messages, and consider whether it’s even possible. I don’t think that it is. Certainly everything that I write has a large part of me in it, which includes the values I hold dear and all the assumptions and biases that are a part of me. When I create my heroes and villains, I doubt I could avoid putting my own consideration of what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are into the mix. Whatever kind of imaginary world I’m creating will always be at least partly refracted through the prism of how I see the world around me: what I like, what I don’t like, what pleases me and what bothers me.

So I think that even if I tried to write a story that was entirely apolitical, I would probably fail. My ideas are in there, in the weave of every tale I spin, and I don’t think it could be any other way.

Even if it were possible to write a story that was somehow free, or even apparently free, of ideology, it would almost certainly be a dangerous idea. Our imaginary worlds can be the blank space that gets filled with dangerous, harmful messages just as easily as the worlds of the past can be. An imagined past, present, or future that carries no expressions of tolerance, diversity, and equality all too easily becomes an expression against those ideas. Perry mentions how we already know this happens with tales like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, at times. I think the argument that it is the writer’s duty to counteract the use of art to spread hate is as strong as the one placing that duty upon the historian, and the teacher.

Some people suggest that artists have a special obligation to be political in this particular moment in which we find ourselves, to boost the ideas we cherish against what seems to be an increasingly negative tide. I’m not sure whether that’s true or it isn’t, but I think the idea of the writer as apolitical is a false one, unachievable and undesirable. In the end, we must write what we believe. Anything else will ring false, and we do a disservice to our values if we try to silence them. I trust my audience can consider my ideas for themselves, and take them or leave them as they choose.

Finally, to my teaching, at least briefly. From when I started teaching I tried very hard to deliberately leave my politics and my beliefs out of it. For one thing, I didn’t (and don’t) believe that what I think about any particular issue is of any particular interest or import, but it was more than that. I wanted my students to reach their own conclusions, and I felt that I was there to teach history, not to teach them what to think about history. Recently, and at least in part because of other historians like Perry, I’m reconsidering. Probably my politics were already there, just as they are in my writing, in what I chose to put in my lectures and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what examples from the past to bring into the light. Somewhat amusingly to me as I write this, that was more or less the point of my PhD dissertation – that history is never neutral. I’ll never insist that my students agree with anything that I suggest to them, but I do think it’s probably my job to make sure they hear a particular side of the story.

That blank space unto which harmful views can be projected isn’t desirable in the classroom any more than it is in the world of fiction, and it’s space that will be filled if we don’t put something there.

We may as well make sure that space is occupied by something marvelous rather than something ghastly.

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

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On Cultural Appropriation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

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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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