Tag Archives: Get to Work

Me vs. The Speckled Band

As part of working (slowly) on the Easter Pinkerton project I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I have been re-reading some Sherlock Holmes stories (a thing I tend to do anyway) and a night or two ago I got to ‘The Speckled Band’. I am told that Conan Doyle considered it the best of his Holmes tales, and while I don’t agree with this (something Sir Arthur and I can no doubt debate when I reach the great Writers’ Hereafter) it is a good un.

There is an issue, though. (This next bit is arguably spoiler-y but I think the Holmes stories are old enough that I don’t care) At the climax of the story, Holmes discovers that the murder weapon in this particular case is a swamp adder, ‘the deadliest snake in India’, as our hero describes it, that has climbed down a bell-rope into the bed of its victims. Which is pretty cool.

The problem is that there isn’t actually a snake called a ‘swamp adder’ in India or any place else, nor indeed a snake that looks all that much like the one Conan Doyle describes. Herpetologists and Holmes fans have wrestled with this problem and come up with a few snakey options for what the creature might actually be, but there’s a larger issue yet. Apparently snakes can’t climb ropes. (I didn’t know that either!) Thus, the whole premise of Conan Doyle’s story is impossible. Despite this, ‘Speckled Band’ was his favorite (I assume he didn’t know it was impossible) and despite the problems with the made-up snake and the made-up snake behaviour (the snake is also trained to respond to a whistle, which is also a problem because snakes are, apparently, deaf) people have been reading ‘Speckled Band’ for over a century, and it is routinely mentioned as a favourite.

Presumably at least some of that is the readership not knowing about swamp adders and snakes, and thus not knowing where Conan Doyle has gone wrong. However, I still enjoy it very much even knowing the issues with it, because Conan Doyle was right and it is a very good story. The central mystery is good, we get some opportunities for Holmes to show his deductive brilliance, as well as the somewhat rarer example of Holmes being (temporarily) mistaken. The atmosphere and tension of the climactic scene is very well done. In other words, the thing works, if you can put aside or cheerfully ignore all the snake-related issues.

This gets me to wondering (probably in part because I’m writing a story that will be set in the Victorian period, a period I am not expert on) whether we get too hung up on factual precision, getting every fact and word exactly correct, when we create. The example of ‘Speckled Band’, along with very many others, suggests that if you’ve got a good story, your audience will follow you, even if there are cases where you have an, ah, elastic relationship with the truth.

If you have a good story, I wonder if it might not be better to just write the thing and worry less about the facts. I know an overriding concern with accuracy can kill creativity. I think I wrote here a long while ago about a story of mine I wrote for a creative writing class with an opening scene that I set in Vladivostok, purely because it sounded like a suitably William Gibson-y place to stick a cyberpunk-ish story. My teacher pointed out (probably accurately!) that Vladivostok looked nothing like that. The story, which was meant to be the first piece of a novel, never recovered and I hardly did a thing to it or with it after that, because I couldn’t let the Vladivostok thing go. In this case, I don’t think the world lost a great story (I’ve written elsewhere about why my phase of trying to write cyberpunk was irredeemably bad) but the point I’m thinking about at the moment is that from a creative point of view, it probably would have been better to cheerfully ignore the whole issue with Vladivostok and just write the story. If it was a good story (it was not a good story), most readers would have cheerfully ignored it right along with me and enjoyed the narrative they were being given.

There is probably a minimum standard here somewhere, some tipping point past which even a well-written story gets dumped down from ‘enjoyable’ and ‘entertaining’ into ‘unbelievable, and in a bad way’. Some things do (to judge from internet reactions) seem to get particular subsets of readers particularly energized – getting facts wrong with guns seems as though it will get a reasonably large number of people excited, and computer-y people routinely point out all the problems with any kind of scene involving the internet and hacking. I freely confess to being scolded for ‘ruining’ the Clive Owen King Arthur movie by objecting to its problems with the truth throughout the film. (I still maintain that movie was pretty much self-ruining, though) If you get certain parts of your story wrong, people will notice, and it may bother them enough that they either give up on your story, or switch focus to finding all the other mistakes you’ve made, and then (often) pointing them out, a task which the internet certainly assists.

Part of this is (I think) that we love to point out our own knowledge. Part of this, though, is that places where a story strays from the factually possible is kind of a challenge to the reader: how ‘in’ are you, with this story? Are you bought in enough to stay with me through this, er, creative interpretation of the truth? You can, I think, only challenge your audience in this way so many times, or to a certain degree of severity, before the answer becomes: ‘nah, I’m out’.

I’m not sure if this is some precise calculation that a writer needs to constantly make, or (as I suspect) that this is one of those intuitive processes where you have to decide how essential certain facts may be to your story and to what extent they can – or in some cases must – be fudged in favour of your story. I am sure that in the end, if you have a good story, you probably have an audience that will follow it despite any factual blips that may be in there. If you have an immaculately researched, factually unassailable piece of work that isn’t a good story, all the research doesn’t matter because people won’t want to read it. I guess the more I think about this issue, and how to budget my time and energy as I work on this current project, the more I think I need to spend it on creating rather than on graduate-level research into the Victorians. I gotta have a good story before I need anything else. If I have one, I think my readers will forgive me for any swamp adders.

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

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Head Up

So despite my repeated assurances that this is not going to become Evan’s Running Blog, in the interests of Having Something To Write this week – you know I really did have a kind of interesting train of thought while out for my run the other day.

Going through the difficult part of the run, (basically every run that I do has a difficult part) I had to do the usual thing of talking myself out of several bad behaviours that start to happen when I start to get tired. I have to remind myself not to put my head down – this compresses the lungs and partly closes the throat, so it makes breathing more difficult. I have to remind myself not to shorten my stride, which results in needing to make more steps to cover ground and therefore burns more energy than my normal form would. I have to remind myself to relax my shoulders, so that I’m not wasting energy by tensing the muscles there; same deal with unclenching my jaw.

I have long found it curious, and a little frustrating, that the body’s instincts (or, at least, my body’s instincts, although this seems to be common) are, in a moment of difficulty, to do things that are not only unhelpful, but actually counterproductive. It would seem (in my extraordinarily poor understanding of evolution) that it would make more sense if the natural tendency was to instinctively adopt behaviours that are more efficient, rather than less, as exertion increases, and therefore do better at what the body is currently trying to do. Instead, without thinking about it, my body switches to a bunch of things that only make what I’m trying to do more difficult to accomplish. The only conclusion I’ve ever reached when I think about this is that the instinctive part of my body has decided that the best thing to do would be to stop running, and so it’s ‘trying’ to do things that will make that happen.

However that may be, its frustrating to feel that I’m ‘naturally’ reaching for things that are making what I’m trying to do harder and working against my own interests (finishing my run as soon and as easily as possible) in the moment. It also occurred to me that running isn’t the only time this happens. I know it happens with writing, sometimes.

When a writing project is going well, I can’t get enough of it and am basically constantly looking for excuses to write a little more of it. When it stops going well, unfortunately my natural instinct is to leave it aside for a while, which is exactly the wrong thing to do because whatever it is will never get better, and never get finished, if I don’t work on it. I even do this with particular parts of a work; if there’s a scene or piece of dialogue that I can’t figure out how to make work, I will (as I think I’ve written before) skip over it (sometimes leaving myself a helpful note like FIX THIS LATER or THIS IS TERRIBLE) and write something else for a while, which certainly relieves the short-term frustation of not being able to make that particular bit work, but doesn’t fix the actual problem. The only way it gets fixed is to sit and try some different approaches and write some bloody stuff down and eventually figure out a way to come up with something that reads approximately ok.

Just as when I’m running, it seems inevitable that these things will happen, and what I mostly have to do is remind myself (again) not to follow my counterproductive, contrary-to-my-actual-interests instincts, and do the things that currently feel difficult, but will get me where I need to go in the end. Open that document. Go to that scene, erase my despairing little note, and jigger around with words until it does work. Much the same as getting my head up and lengthening my stride again, even though this feels like something I desperately don’t want to do, it’s the only thing that get what I want done, done.

It also occurs to me that there is perhaps a parallel to recent political events here, regarding the appeal of figures like Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage, where in times of difficulty we may find ourselves attracted to ‘solutions’ that are not actually in our best interests, and end up doing things that won’t actually improve the situation we’re in, and may make it worse, just as my bad running behaviours do. I know you probably don’t come here for politics, though, and so I think I’ll take this no further this morning.

I will also say that I read a fascinating article a long time ago (long enough that I can’t find it this morning to link it for you) that suggested that human beings had once depended on running distances as a hunting strategy. The reasoning was that humans, without tools and weapons, were not strong enough to defeat many animals in a straight fight, nor swift enough to catch many in a short pursuit, and so what they would have had to do was make a long pursuit over a significant distance in order to bring their prey down more or less through sheer bloody exhaustion. So running, despite the behaviours I complain about above, is part of our instinctive core after all. I have no idea if that theory holds the slightest bit of water, but as a runner I kind of like it, and I also like the idea that, despite a tendency to sometimes do counterproductive and negative things in times of crisis, our better selves are still down there as well, even if we sometimes have to remind ourselves about them.

Head up. Have a great week.

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Apt 613 did a very kind review of The King in Darkness, for which I am very grateful. You can read it here.

The Limestone Genre Expo has released its final schedule, which I am even on! Check it out here, and its not too late to make plans to attend if you’d like a weekend of great reader-y writer-y fun in Kingston. I’m really looking forward to it and looking forward to meeting some new people there.

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Refocus

So I’m hoping this will be a big week for me. Over the last month or so, I’ve been working two jobs (which is good in some ways) but, as I’ve complained about previously, it got very difficult to find time for writing in there and I’ve honestly not done much of anything. In a probably-not-unrelated story, I have also gotten derailed in getting in to the gym and doing my weight training.

The two situations seem to me to have a lot of similarities. Both activities (writing and working out) are objectively good things to do, and both of them make me feel good when I do them. Both require a certain amount of time, and a minimum level of energy (or I guess a maximum level of fatigue) to start or there’s no point in doing them. Both are things that I am trying to make a long term commitment to and have as a continuous part of my life.

So there’s been a bit of a blip, or two blips, depending how connected whether both these interruptions are part of the same problem. I think they are; my work schedule really ballooned up in a way I wasn’t prepared for and I didn’t adapt to it very well. I’m trying not to kick myself about it too hard. These things happen to most people and while I wish I’d written 30,000 words in the past month there’s no point expending energy ripping myself up about it now. I did what I probably needed to do to handle the work situation and what’s important now is what I do going forward.

One of the jobs is ending this week (which, as ever, is both good and bad) and so this is an opportunity to refocus on what is important and get back into good habits. I’ve set up an appointment with my trainer to change up my program a little and get a fresh start. I’m going to get back at the project I wrote a bit of last summer before deciding it was a better idea to do Bonhomme Sept-Heures. The ideas have been slow in coming and I think the first thing to do is to re-read what I wrote and remind myself why I thought it was a cool story to begin with. I think I can do 10,000 words by the end of the month and I’m setting that as a kind of provisional goal. The main thing is to start writing again.

In both cases, just refocus on what needs to be done, and get back to doing it. It’s both as easy as it sounds and (of course) far more difficult, but a lot of things are that way.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. I think that while we should try to have good habits all the time and be consistent in doing the things that are important to us and for us, we’ve also got to recognize that we’re probably going to fumble the ball from time to time, and be basically ok with that. It happens. Pick it up and refocus.

That’s my job this week. Good luck with yours.

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We’re about a month out from the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston! I’m very excited to be attending for the first time this year, participating in some of the discussions and meeting people who love writing and reading about fantastic things. Renaissance Press is coming and I will be hanging out at their table at least some of the time, and enjoying what should be a great weekend of soaking up awesome literature the entire time.

You should come too! Check out the website and register here.

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Gardening

This past weekend was a long weekend in Canada and between the weather cooperating and a bloc of available time, I finally had the chance to do my spring gardening. I swear this is not going to become Evan’s Hobby Blog, but with writing at kind of a standstill the past while (not permanently, but I’m still struggling to find a time to write that’s going to work) I thought I’d share some reflections on digging in the dirt today.

Wait, where are you going?

For those of you who stayed, I have always enjoyed messing around with plants. My Mum gave me a little corner of her garden when I was quite little (I believe I successfully grew carrots) and whenever I have had a place with a little space to grow a plant or two, I have. When I spent a year in England for my MA I got a little cactus for my dorm room; this turned out to be a rather fraught relationship as I had a singular talent for knocking the poor thing off the windowsill and it retaliated by leaving evil little spines imbedded in my flesh. The cactus stayed behind when I returned to Canada and I hope it found someone to take care of it.

Most of the times plants and I get along pretty well though. Some years I have done vegetables, some, (like this one) the garden is mostly flowers. Both have their charms. You can’t do much better than a vegetable fresh from your own garden, and having a little oasis of colour to step outside and enjoy is a wonderful antidote to stress. So I enjoy the results of gardening.

I also enjoy the process. I like digging in the earth and getting my hands dirty, planting seeds or little plantlings, and then the day-to-day care of tending to the garden – watering, getting rid of weeds, picking off the dead blossoms, and so on. Obviously lots of people have written about the meditative qualities of gardening and I’m not going to try to do better than them. I do also think that the practicality and tangibility of working in the garden is part of the attraction for me. Most of us probably have some problems in our lives that we’re not sure how to solve, if they even can be solved, or that we struggle to make progress with. Gardening has a very nice immediacy to it; you can spend some time pulling weeds and very clearly have Done A Thing, and step back and look at what you just accomplished. Really the whole garden works that way; you can see the results of your efforts very clearly and without wondering ‘well, is all the work I’m doing really making a difference?’ In the garden, it clearly is.

There is (I guess obviously) some connection to writing, or at least I think there is. It is very satisfactory, in I think a similar way, to spend time writing and then look at all the words on the page and realize that you’ve created A Thing, something that people may even enjoy in a somewhat similar way as they may enjoy looking at your garden. I suppose writing takes the process a little further in that when we write, we create something wholly unique and new out of ourselves, whereas the snapdragons in my garden are basically the same snapdragons you’d see anywhere.

I wouldn’t say I’m much of an artist at gardening (although some people certainly are), but it’s something I enjoy and that I think improves my mental health and that I like to think nourishes the parts of my makeup that also help me to write things. So perhaps working in the garden will help me get past this writing standstill.

I have an ancient geranium that is now in its 15th year. It has been through four moves and, perhaps more difficult for the plant, many winters. Winters are hard because the geranium has to move indoors, and I’ve never had a place that has windows that face the right direction to give full sun through the day. As a result the geranium dies back each winter, waiting for spring so it can go back out in the sun and start to grow again.

I mention the geranium because I’m trying to take it as an example for my writing, at the moment. Sometimes it isn’t a very good season for creativity, and productivity dies back. I think that’s ok, and for most people probably inevitable. I also think for most artistic people, as soon as conditions are better, the art will come back, just like the geranium always gets green and leafy and flowery as soon as it can go back outside in the springtime. Right now my writing is kind of in ‘winter geranium’ mode, but I’m sure ‘spring’ can’t be far away.

For now I’m going to water my garden before the day gets too warm, enjoy the flowers, and trust that my writing will have some new growth as well before long.

Thanks for reading.

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My friend Su Sokol is doing a reading from her novel Cycling to Asylum in Ottawa on Sunday, May 29th. It will be at Perfect Books on Elgin St. and gets started at 2:30 pm. The event is free (yay!) and Su will do a brief Q&A afterwards. This is a great chance to come out and meet an exciting Canadian author in a lovely venue and if you’re a fan of SFF you should come on down.

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Evan vs. Time

Last week I wrote about struggling to get my brain to decide which idea we’re going to work on through the summer. I, uh, haven’t really settled that one yet because of another issue. I have recently started a new job (which is good) but adding it to my schedule along with the other job and things like getting to the gym and other necessaries of life has meant that it’s been difficult over the past while to find time to get writing done on anything at all.

This is all basically all fine and I certainly have nothing to complain about, not really, but I do need to determine where I can rope off some parts of my days to devote to creating new work. Part of the problem is that I am a person who tends to like routines. I like to be able to move through a regular, predictable schedule and know in my mind that ‘it is now time to do X, and then after lunch, do Y’. I also know it’s not particularly realistic to expect life to be that way forever, when one of my established routines gets flipped over, I run around with my head on fire for a while trying to figure out where to put all the pieces again. During that time I’m not super productive.

It takes me a while to see the gaps in my schedule and then figure out what to stick in them, whether a particular chunk of time is going to make sense for going for a run or writing some junk or petting the cat. Because the whole thing is a bit stressful for me it’s very easy to give myself more ‘petting the cat’ time than is really necessary rather than fill time with something challenging. I need to consistently remind myself that although writing sure does take energy, it is a net positive in terms of my mental state and energy level, because of how good it feels to get a piece of it done and to have created something I think is pretty good.

(I scribbled off the skeleton of a little scene in between things yesterday, and I think it works pretty well, and that made me head off to work with a smile.)

Another part of the difficulty with just grabbing a spare hour here or there and getting some writing in is that it often seems to take a while for me to get into writing ‘mode’. I’ve written about this before. When I first sit down to write, I will often spend a significant chunk of time writing a few words, erasing them, writing a sentence, fretting about it, checking Twitter for a second, then coming back and erasing the sentence. Then, and I never know exactly when this is going to happen, there is an almost audible ‘thunk’ inside my brain as the mind-gears shift over into their creative writing configuration and I can start to produce something useful. I have never figured out what the trigger is, and if I ever do I will get immensely more productive. As it stands, it means that ‘just sit down and write for a half hour’ doesn’t always work out as well in practice as it does in theory, because I may spend most of that half hour waiting on the mind-gears.

Going back to the ‘routine’ issue, it does seem that if I have established a certain time as ‘writing time’, the mind-gears do their clunk more quickly. I rather doubt that this is anything particular about my brain and the way it works (although I’m the first to admit that it is a very odd little brain) and that somewhere out there is a very nice person who works in psychology or something screaming ‘OF COURSE’ at their screen.  I also know that finding time for art is something every creative person struggles with, and there’s nothing special happening with me, but this is, after all, my blog and so I guess I’m gonna write about me.

This entry is really just me fumbling through figuring out what works and doesn’t work for having me be a productive writer, as I continue to try to do that more consistently and more seriously than I have in the past. It’s useful for me to articulate all this in writing, as it usually is for me with whatever ideas I’m wrestling with currently, so you get this blog entry today. Maybe it was interesting or useful on some level. I hope so.

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Down here below the line I have something rather more exciting for you – I can now confirm that I will be at Ottawa ComicCon later this month! Renaissance Press will have a table there through the whole weekend, which sounds like it will a super rad couple of days of SFF-y indulgence. I will be at the table on Sunday if you would like to say hi and get a copy of King in Darkness direct from my grubby wee paws. I’d love it if you did.

I also want to thank all of you who came to CAPE in Cornwall a couple weekends back; my spies tell me that a good number of you took my book home with you or had nice things to say about it and I’m very grateful for both. I hope to be able to make the trip down next summer.

As ever, thanks for reading.

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Evan vs. My Brain

This entry is going to be a bit of a ‘me thinking out loud’ one (moreso than usual) so consider yourself fairly warned. However there’s at least some chance this might be useful to other writery types, and so here we go.

With the situation surrounding Bonhomme Sept-Heures relatively static (waiting for additional feedback from Eager Volunteers), I’ve started work on a new project. Or, at least, I’m trying to. The problem is this. My plan was to start working on the idea I wrote about 20,000 words for last summer before setting it aside to do Bonhomme Sept-Heures. I think it’s a good concept, and I think it’s also a reasonably unconventional one, which may help in getting representation for it and a place to publish it.

However, my brain keeps throwing up ideas for this other concept that I’ve had rattling around my brain for about the past 4 years. I do like the concept, but it’s a fantasy story that doesn’t have quite as much of a unique hook to it as the other one does – it’s sort of my take on an Arthurian story. I think it could be a good story, if and when I do write it, but it’s arguably not as marketable and the concept is a bit more pedestrian.

And yet, that’s still the one that ideas keep churning up from the depths of wherever as I go for a run or do a workout at the gym or relax at the end of the day. So I have a bit of a dilemma: should I write the story that I’m having ideas for right now, but will probably be harder to do anything with, or risk losing whatever inspiration it is that’s driving those ideas and try to stay focused on the project that I’m not firing up ideas for quite so readily, but is probably going to be easier to find a home for.

It is of course slightly annoying and bemusing that my imagination works this way – although I can do things to make it more likely that good ideas will flow, I can’t really control when it happens, and sometimes, I can’t really even control what ideas show up. I get what I get, and then decide what to do with it. Some of it gets written up immediately, some of it gets put aside (although I have learned, after losing far too many ideas to my awful memory, to Write Shit Down), and some of it gets discarded. It’s very rare that the idea flow is really under my control, though; even when I was writing King in Darkness and pretty excited about it, I kept getting ideas for the book that eventually became Bonhomme Sept-Heures and books that would follow on after it, and had to take little timeouts to take care of those.

This is, obviously, the kind of the thing that artists have been complaining about since the beginning of time, so I know, and comfort myself to some degree, that there isn’t anything unique about my situation. It is fascinating to me the way the creative process works, apparently mostly uncoupled from conscious direction a lot of the time. Our brains are weird and wonderful things and although it can be frustrating from time to time, I kind of like that I don’t always completely understand what’s going on with mine.

Now, though, I gotta sit that thing down and have a discussion about which goddamn book we’re going to write next.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Promises, Promises

This is going to be a short one this week. There’s a good reason – I went and promised my publisher that I would have Bonhomme Sept-Heures done by the end of the week and I gotta maximize the time I can devote to it to be sure and make that deadline.

I suppose it probably doesn’t really matter – they would probably take it a few days late – but it does to me. Douglas Adams has that famous quote about loving the whooshing noise deadlines make when they go by, but I always wonder at what point in his career he wrote or said that. If you’re an established name whose product people actively want, then yeah, you can do things like that. I’m pretty far from that, and I know that if I don’t produce some new work, the publisher and the people who read King in Darkness will move on.

That’s not really my biggest concern, though. I’ve said several times on this blog (and elsewhere) that I don’t miss deadlines. I never missed an academic deadline, and I’ve never missed a professional one either. I consider hitting my deadlines part of being a professional, in whatever field, and showing that I’m taking things seriously. So it matters to me to make this one, too. I may never make a living from my fiction writing, but however big a part of my life it eventually becomes, I have decided that I want to be serious about it.

I also just don’t like going back on my word. I try not to make too many firm promises because things can always change around in ways you don’t expect and sometimes even what seems like the safest prediction in the world doesn’t work out the way you thought it would. You can all too easily end up not being able to follow through on something you figured would be super easy, and it might not really be your fault at all. But, if I give a solid promise, for reasons I’m not sure I can articulate, I absolutely hate to have to back up on that.

So, gotta hit this deadline. Longer blog entry next week.

For now, I’ll just tell you a little about the new book. It picks up after King in Darkness (which, of course, you’ve read. Right? RIGHT?!?) and returns to Adam Godwinson, faced by (of course, probably) another threat that he wouldn’t have expected. I think it takes things in a reasonably unexpected direction overall, and I hope people will like that. I’m also excited that this book is tied to specifically Canadian spookiness (the titular Bonhomme Sept-Heures), which I think is relatively unique and fun.

I think that if you liked King in Darkness you’ll like this new one as well, and I think it may stand on it’s own ok even if you haven’t read the first book. (But of course, you will read the first book, won’t you?) Now I need to go finish writing it so I can share it with you before too much longer. I’m very excited to do that.

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By way of briefly updating what I’ll be doing in the months to come, plans are still firming up, but not to the point where I can say anything for certain yet. It does look like there will be some really exciting events that I will be taking part in though, and if everything comes together I’ll be roaming out beyond the Ottawa area for the first time. I’m looking forward to meeting some new people and taking part in stuff I haven’t before. As I said a couple weeks back, getting to do some conventions and signings and things has been an unexpected joy and I’m really excited to do some more in the months ahead.

I’ll give you details as they solidify.

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Jules Verne and the Stress Volcano

I’ve got a few different things for you today.

First up – yesterday was Jules Verne’s birthday. You’ll have heard of him. Verne’s wrote in French (of course) but he is (I am told) the second most translated author after Shakespeare, so plenty of readers in English and other languages have experienced his work. There aren’t many writers who have created stories as enduring as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or Around the World in 80 Days.

Verne is sometimes (and apparently was during his life) praised for being a predictor of the future, and future science in particular. I learned yesterday, and found it very interesting, that he apparently wasn’t very comfortable with the label, protesting that he never intended to predict anything, never claimed to be a scientist, and was mostly writing about things of interest in his present, albeit using fantastic means to do so.

I guess I found that striking because SF writers continue to get called ‘prophets’ and discussed in terms of their work predicting the future of science or society, or not. Sometimes older works of SF will be criticised for failing to accurately predict how things would develop. One of my very favorite authors, William Gibson, often gets written (and spoken) about along these lines; for his books having accurately predicted technological advances or societal changes to come.

A couple years ago now I heard Gibson talk about this very issue and he said the same thing that Verne did – it’s never been his intention to predict the future. His most famous book, Neuromancer, wasn’t meant to be about the future at all; it is about the 1980s, viewed through a fantastic lens. Obviously two is a pretty small sample, but the parallel is pretty neat.

I’m not sure why we (as readers) seem to want SF to be a prediction of the future, and are sometimes disappointed when it isn’t, especially since it seems as though that’s not often the intent of the author. I guess to some extent if you write a book set in times yet to come, it isn’t a great surprise if people want to check your work, as it were – but why do we seem to start with the expectation that something fantastic should also end up being true to real life?

I know there are some writers who do (and have) deliberately tried to predict the future with their writing. I’m not really convinced that that is what most SF writers are trying to do though – I think in general they’re trying to tell a cool story. It’s of course an interesting question as to why one might choose the future as a way to express the story you’re trying to tell, but that’s a long discussion and one I’m not sure I even have an answer for.

I find I’m happiest as a reader when I just enjoy the vision an author is presenting and take the imaginary world on its own terms, rather than fact-checking it as we go along. If it’s a good story, I’m in for the duration. I think when you’ve created characters like Captain Nemo, still popular 150 years after they were created, and ideas like the balloon race around the world (even though not that much of Around the World actually takes place in the balloons), that have endured similarly you’ve done pretty darn well along those lines.

(I know much of that is my personal taste)

In any case, a happy (slightly late) birthday to Jules Verne – I hope his stories continue to delight readers for many generations more.

———-

I also learned yesterday, via Ken Liu’s Twitter, about an app that is meant to help writers’ productivity (I guess). It works like this – you punch in a length of time that you want to write for, and the app puts you into a fullscreen writing mode. If you exit before the time you set, anything you wrote is erased. If you stop writing for more than five seconds, everything you’ve written to that point is deleted.

This sounds more like a torture method than something that will help a writer to me. My immediate reaction (also on Twitter) was that it would turn my head into a stress volcano. I guess there may be a very specific type of person who would find this sort of thing useful to their process, but I’m guessing it’s a small number.

The app, by the way, costs $14.99 and that’s my main concern with it – this seems like a pretty expensive gimmick that will be marketed telling writers that it will help them work, and then probably won’t. I’ve been amazed at the amount of very expensive stuff that is advertised to people who want to write telling them that they need this app or expensive online training session or writing retreat or whatever else if they’re going to succeed in their goals, and most of it seems like chaff to me.

I guess as long as there are lots of people who want to be writers, there will be people trying to make money off that desire, just as with a million other things. I don’t really like to think of people getting scammed with things that probably won’t do much but empty their bank accounts when one of the glorious things about writing is that you can just do it. Sit down at the computer or with pen and paper and write stuff. Show it to people and ask what they think. That’s how you get better as far as I can see.

Now, making money at being a writer is (as I continue to learn) not easy, but I don’t really think a $15 app that will make your eyes explode with stress is really going to help with that either. There’s lots of good advice out there, almost all of it free, on how to market your work if that’s what you want to do.

It’s probably not entirely fair, but I feel as though as soon as someone starts asking for money, you should at least consider running very fast in the other direction.

——

Ok, so process. I’m going to talk a little about mine. If you read the blog regularly you’ll know that I’ve been working on the sequel to The King in Darkness, and may even remember some optimistic forecasts about it being done for the end of November and such. As I said last week, it isn’t exactly done.

(It’s not done)

I’m trying not to kick myself too hard about this – I think it may still be possible to have the book out by fall, if all goes well – but as much as I hesitate to give any advice (I’m not sure I know what I’m doing well enough to do that) I thought it might be helpful to talk about a particular thing that I realized had happened the other day.

Without getting into too many intricacies of a book you haven’t read yet, a while ago I was working on the thing and realized there was a pretty big yawning hole in the middle of things that I wasn’t sure how to fill. At all. So I thought about it for a while, didn’t have an answer, and so I put the work aside. Sometimes this is a good thing to do because you can come back when you do have an idea and are less discouraged.

The problem is that I kept it put aside for a good long while. I did other things – I wrote on some other projects, I cleaned the house, I went to the gym. All arguably worthwhile things, but now I hadn’t worked on the manuscript in long enough that not having worked on it was A Thing and the project had acquired a kind of inertia, sitting there unworked-upon.

All of which to say that over the last week or so I made myself start chipping away at the problem again (having been startled by January turning into February), and I now know how to fill the hole in the middle of the thing, and feel pretty optimistic about getting the book finished relatively quickly.

I’m not sure what perverse part of my brain (and perhaps, other people’s brains) makes me decide that the best way to deal with a problem that I’m not sure how to solve is to put it away and leave it unsolved. I suppose it relieves the stress of not having a solution, but it doesn’t (ever) move one towards solving the problem.

I know it works much better if I keep trying to do at least small amounts of work on something that I’m finding difficult (with writing or otherwise) than putting it aside completely. I keep trying to remind myself of that, and perhaps writing this will help imprint the concept on the sludge of my mind. Maybe it will be useful to other writers.

Keep plugging at it. Your work is good. Don’t put it away just because you’re struggling now.

The book, by the way, will be called Bonhomme Sept-Heures. I really am looking forward to sharing it with you.

Once I finish writing it.

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Return of the X-Files

Just a couple weeks ago I wrote about my affection for the old X-Files series, as I’ve been rewatching them on Netflix and in anticipation of the new miniseries, which has now aired its first two episodes (as I write this – by the time it’s posted #3 will have shown as well). I also did a little reaction thing to (finally) seeing the new Star Wars film, so I thought I would do the same for the return of X-Files this week.

On the whole, I liked the first two episodes very much. I have seen a lot of criticism for the first one for being heavy on the monologues and for unreeling an immense convolution of plot, and some of that is probably fair. On the other hand, from the first scene where we got Scully’s ‘oh this is bullshit’ expression back again, the X-Files had returned and it was, for me, like having some old friends visit for a little while.

These kind of things are always a little risky; I mentioned a while ago about how much I had looked forward to a new Star Wars, only to have Phantom Menace appear. It could not have been such a heavy disappointment if I hadn’t wanted it to be good so very much. It’s kind of like a favourite musician on a comeback tour or an athlete trying to come out of retirement; you have great memories of them, you want them to do well and to give you some more magic, and yet you can’t help but be a little worried the whole time about it not being quite the same.

I think X-Files has – so far – done about as well as they could have in giving fans More X-Files, which is probably all they intend to do. I don’t expect any bold new direction for the series at this stage of the game. It was probably a bit of a gamble to plop the tangled coils of the show’s Alien Conspiracy plotline down right out of the gate, but the intricate strands of the schemes that enmesh Mulder and Scully has really always been part of what you sign up for when you watch the series. You either dig it or you don’t, and most of the time I find the scope and scale of the plots our agents find themselves up against joyfully fantastic, and as I said in my previous blog on this, that they match themselves up against these apparently titanic opponents is part of why I love these characters.

We did get classic Mulder and Scully back, too – Duchovny still has the boyish enthusiasm for the wild ideas Mulder wants to believe in that comes bubbling out from an understandably weathered demeanour. Gillian Anderson’s performance is everything I could have wanted; Scully the sceptic is still there, but you can also see the affection and concern she has for her butterfly-chasing partner that she’s been through so much with. Mitch Pileggi has somehow gotten younger.

After only two hours (ish) of TV the new X-Files has already given us stealth UFOs, amphibious babies, Cancer Man, telekinesis and suicide by letter opener. Again, it’s not anything that breaks the mold for the show, but it certainly uses the original mold to cast some new stories that sit pretty comfortably on the shelf next to the old ones.

Along with the delightfully gonzo stuff that X-Files has always, at it’s best, dished out, we also got some moments of perhaps surprising poignancy. In the first new episode, there was a wonderful spot where we watched Scully slide into a sort of resigned despair as she realizes that Mulder is, once again, flipped over into True Believer mode and isn’t seeing anything other than what he wants to.

One final thing that struck me that did seem to me different from the original series experience also came in the first episode where Mulder is unspooling the grand conspiracy as he sees it, and suddenly there were right wing standbys like the FEMA camps thrown in there as well. I half expected him to say the government was coming for everyone’s guns.

Conspiracy as an idea is in an interesting place these days; with the revelations about NSA monitoring (along with their various accomplices) people are more apt than ever to believe that there really are things being done by their government that they’re not aware of and might not approve of. I know people in Canada are far more suspicious of government than I ever remember them being in the past. So it may be that a show like X-Files has to go pretty far to come up with a conspiracy that sounds like it goes beyond what a lot of the audience might suspect is going on in real life. It also seems to me that this vein of explicitly right-wing conspiracy is something that has grown a great deal in the years that X-Files was away. It’ll be interesting to see what the writers do with that, as one of the assumptions about the motivations of the people behind the scenes seems to have changed.

I also realize now that I may have quite a bit to write about this, so I’m gonna leave it for its own entry.

Overall, I couldn’t be more pleased to have X-Files back, at least for a brief while. I’m not sure how long they can continue to make the old formula work, but it’s been fun spending time with these old friends for at least this short visit.

——-

A while back I wrote about George R. R. Martin’s delay in finishing his latest book (I hope reasonably sympathetically) and now I appear to have had my own Martin moment sneak up on me. I had hoped/planned to have the sequel to King in Darkness done by the end of November or beginning of December, and now here we are at the start of February and it still isn’t quite finished.

There’s been some disruption from holidays and other Real Life issues going on and I think that’s the problem more than anything else. I still feel quite positive about the book (which, if you remember my Statler-and-Waldorf issue, is good news) and the feedback from my Eager Volunteers has been encouraging as well. I just need to ruthlessly rope off some time in which to Sit And Write and get this thing knocked out.

So, I’m not quite prepared to call this a Writing Crisis, but flipping the calendar over was a bit sobering. Gonna get to work.

—–

Bit of a short entry this week, for which I apologize to those of you who prefer something more long form. I’m a bit under the weather and also should probably go Write A Thing.

I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Delays and Missed Deadlines

I had a rather goofy idea for this week’s blog, but (perhaps fortunately for you!) George R. R. Martin wrote a blog entry about how the latest volume of his Song of Ice and Fire series will not come out before the next season of the Game of Thrones TV series, resulting in the TV series passing the books, to the consternation of at least some. (If you haven’t read the post, it is here and worth a read, if only as a demonstration of how difficult writing can be, even on a very successful writer, at least some of the time) Due to the fame and popularity of the series, there’s been a lot of reaction to it all over the internet. Some has been very positive, some extremely critical, and of course lots in between.

As usual this has Gotten Me Thinking, and although I’m very young in my craft as a (theoretically) professional writer, I thought I would use this week’s entry to sort through some of those thoughts today.

Most of the criticism has centred around the idea of being a professional meaning writing constantly, steadily, and producing work at a consistent rate, presumably also making deadlines. One author who I admire a lot was recently quoted saying that if you only write when you’re inspired, you’ll never make a novelist. (In fairness he also wrote, a few years back, a fairly passionate defense of authors, and George R. R. Martin in particular, to write at their own pace, which sort of demonstrates the complexity of the issues) That’s very much in the vein of a lot of advice for writers (from various sources) that says you must write every day, you must produce X amount of work in Y amount of time, and if you don’t you’re Not Taking It Serious and will never succeed.

To a degree, I sympathise with this. When I wrote King in Darkness, I did it as a self-imposed challenge to write 1,000 words a day, every day, and the book got done in a hurry. I wrote a blog entry a while back about deadlines and how, in my academic life, I took pride in never having missed one. You have a set amount of time to get the work done in, and so you see it done. You put aside other stuff to make sure it happens. You keep at the task until it’s completed, because it’s important.

On the other hand (and you knew this was coming), that’s academic writing and not fiction writing. I really do believe that you want to work at writing like you work at almost anything else; you need to exercise your writing muscles on a regular basis and that that’s how you get better as a writer, by Writing Stuff and doing it often. It has (as above) worked for me. At the same time, there are days when (for whatever arcane reason), it just isn’t working, every word has to be dug out of you like a splinter and the whole thing just sucks.

I had a professor in university who told me that when you write effortlessly, it’s because you’re interested in what you’re writing about. When you’re fighting it the whole way, it’s because you’re not. I think he may be right, regarding academic writing, but I’m less convinced that it’s true about fiction writing. In part that’s because from day to day the difficulty level of writing for the same project changes a lot. I don’t think I’m any more or less interested in the work on certain days. I wish I knew why some days I struggle to get anything done, but it absolutely happens.

When I was sticking strictly to my quota system I would, on those days, stay grimly parked in front of the computer until I had written exactly 1,000 words, and then erase nearly all of them the next day because they read about like they’d felt when I wrote them. According to some, that is all Part Of The Process and it’s what you do when you’re Doing Work as a writer. I guess I’m not entirely convinced that that is true – was it really valuable time spent painfully dragging out a bunch of stuff I knew I wasn’t going to keep? Might it not have been better to recognize that today is not a writing day, go do Other Stuff, and come back and write when it was working better?

I mean, I don’t know the science (or if there even is any science) behind the reason why some days creative writing (and, I suspect, most forms of art) go really well and others don’t. Heck, it may not even be that way for everyone. However, it clearly does work that way for lots of people, of which I am one. You might argue that I, and others like me, are just Not Taking It Serious, but I have started to sympathise more with the people who say (Daniel Jose Older being the one who I remember doing it most recently) that setting ironclad quotas for yourself and demanding that you must meet them is a recipe for building negativity about your writing and, as a result, ending up reducing your productivity rather than helping it.

I think they might be right. A friend of mine got very upset with themselves this past November when it became clear (due mostly to life pressures) that they weren’t going to be able to get their NaNoWriMo writing done on schedule. My immediate reaction was that the only value in something like that is if it helps your process, if it is only serving to make you feel bad rather than helping you write, then screw it. Take a break. Realize that it isn’t a good time for you to be writing, deal with other stuff, and come back at it when it feels good and you have the energy to put your best stuff on the page.  Quotas and rules and deadlines are good if they help you produce your work; if they’re discouraging you and making you doubt yourself and adding stress (which makes it harder to work!) then they’re the last thing you need.

Obviously you have to be careful with that, at least if you want to write seriously and not just have it as a hobby. You can’t just endlessly give yourself days off because you don’t feel perfectly poised to write, or you will never ever get things done. Also, some days when I haven’t felt great about writing, once I sat myself down and started giving it a go, my brain will drop into gear with an almost audible thunk and all of a sudden it’s going great.

Maybe the answer (for me, at least) is to try to write every day but be prepared to step away if it’s clearly not happening. I’m not real convinced that writing just to write and then throwing away whatever I produced is really making me better.

I also think this is probably one of those things people need to work up to. If you’re planning on making writing your profession, you probably do need to get in the swing of producing work at least reasonably regularly, for a host of reasons (maintaining an audience being one that immediately leaps to mind) On the other hand, you don’t start a training program for a marathon by immediately running 41 kilometers. You start with something achievable and gradually build from there. Especially for people just getting started in writing, you probably need to build those writing muscles and habits in much the same way.

I guess I’m increasingly sceptical about all the people (mostly on the internet) who have Rules about how you must Do Things to be a writer, with failure guaranteed if you don’t. Increasingly, I don’t think there are rules for such a strange ephemeral creative process (more like guidelines?) and that you have to figure out what works for you. I’m very gradually doing that.

And look, I have no idea what George R. R. Martin’s particular situation is. I don’t know whether the missed deadlines for his latest book were the result of a busy schedule, laziness, fatigue, creative struggles, whatever. (I would hazard a guess that he’d love to have the book done, though.) I’m not writing this in defense of Martin (although I would think that his fans should probably make peace with the fact that for whatever reason, at this point in his career he writes at a relatively slow pace) who I suspect can look after himself anyway. I do think that there’s some value in thinking about the pressure we put on ourselves as writers and whether all of it is really valuable.

I am beginning to think (and I cannot stress enough that this is not an Expert Opinion) that the answer is finding the right balance between giving myself (and yourself) some structure, but not such an onerous one that it crushes you. The tricky part (I guess) is being honest with yourself about when you can probably push yourself a little more and when no, you really need a break. (Another thing I think I may be better at after spending time in the gym with someone who knows what they’re doing) I suppose ‘moderation’ isn’t a very exciting answer, and ‘find what works for you’ doesn’t make for a very retweetable Tweet or pithy column, but I’m starting to think it’s right anyway.

That’s more than enough of me thinking at you for a week. I appreciate your time in reading it.

——-

Just because I wrote a whole bunch of stuff about deadlines and process I thought I would briefly update the King in Darkness sequel – I got kind of enveloped in holiday season things and not a lot got done through the tail end of December. There isn’t a great deal more to do on the first draft, though, and I think I should still be ok to have it completed for the publishers perusal in the spring.

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