Tag Archives: Process

Dialogue

I have recently been struggling a bit with the current WIP (which, yes, still lacks much in the way of a title), to the extent that I described myself as ‘mired’ to a friend the other day. After some thought – along with certain other things – I decided to go back to one of the things that had gotten me excited to write a story set in Victorian London to begin with: the TV Series Ripper Street. I admit to approaching Ripper Street a bit dubiously, and I’m not sure that it’s an immortal achievement, but I do like a lot about it.

One of the things I like very much is the dialogue. The writers for the show have a very clever turn of phrase and obviously love their words. Basically all of the characters speak in these very elaborate, eloquent, complex sentences which I enjoy very much. (My love of a long twisty sentence is something any of my editors or Eager Volunteers can attest to) Now, I also doubt very much that real Victorians spoke this way, and doubt even more that the residents of impoverished Whitechapel spoke this way, but Ripper Street’s heavily embroidered dialogue nevertheless somehow, for some reason, works (at least for me), both because I enjoy the word craft and also because it somehow conveys a sense of the different mannerisms and etiquette of the late 19th century. Or so I reason, because even though it probably doesn’t make any sense, I still sit there thinking ‘this is awesome’ rather than ‘well, this is probably overdone’.

It’s a similar situation to another show I loved a while ago, the rather-more-famous Deadwood, which also put amazingly ornate dialogue in the mouths of characters who would certainly not have spoken that way. It worked, both because it was a joy to listen to and (I think) because the eloquence was a contrast to the gritty, brutal setting of the frontier town and the gritty, brutal people who inhabited it.

Anyway in the short term, watching Ripper Street worked pretty well and I’ve been back plugging away at the WIP. I also tackled a scene that I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make work for what feels like roughly forever. I’m not sure it’s exactly good, but it is written and I can move on from it. (This kind of loops back to earlier blogs in that I need to remember that not every scene needs to be the best scene I’ve ever written. Sometimes, there just needs to be a god damned scene.)

In the somewhat longer term, this all got me thinking about dialogue and how it works. It isn’t, of course, quite as simple as fancy dialogue always being better. There are plenty of times when ‘less is more’, and another of my favourite TV shows frequently serves up great examples of that. The Americans is, I think, genuinely one of the best shows on television and one of my favourites of all time, and they really know how to write over there.

One of my favourite moments was from Season 3. Philip, deep cover KGB agent resident in the U.S., spent most of that season doing increasingly awful things (which, if you’ve seen the show you will remember, and if you haven’t, I’m not going to tell you about because you should go watch it) and eventually, he’s talking to one of his assets and breaks off in the middle of trying to justify everything they’ve been doing. All he says is “I feel like shit all the time”, and you absolutely understand the amount of pain he’s in, and the toll everything is taking on him. Similarly, last episode (minor spoiler here, but whatever) Philip and his wife Elizabeth discover they killed someone who was completely innocent; Philip is once again devastated (Keri Russel’s Elizabeth has thicker skin about these things, apparently) and Elizabeth offers to leave him out of future missions that may require killing. Philip replies with “No, no. It’s us. It’s us.” Again, you completely understand that even though he hates what he’s doing, he can’t contemplate making his wife do it by herself.

Now, a lot of the effectiveness of both those scenes (and, a lot of what works on The Americans, and indeed any TV show or film) has to do with the delivery and performance from the actor. Matthew Rhys sells both those scenes tremendously. However, he’s working with what he’s been given and somehow that extremely minimal dialogue conveys a tremendous amount, in context.

So in trying to think about this in terms of ‘what makes good dialogue’, I’m not immediately left with anything too useful. Sometimes, arguably over-written dialogue is great. Sometimes, extremely minimalist dialogue is great. I suppose one might argue that context is, as usual, king in all this: some settings and characters call for one, and some for the other. Probably in some or even many cases, you don’t want to be on either extreme, but something in the middle.

The thing is that I imagine it depends very much on the author in question, as well. Some authors know how to write in the style for Deadwood. Others know how to make less words say more. I would guess that trying to do one when you’re really good at the other doesn’t produce good results.

Unfortunately what I think I’m coming away with, having spent the last couple of days thinking about dialogue, basically comes down to two things. One, that having excellent dialogue can absolutely make a piece of writing just as much as bad stuff can kill it. Two, there probably isn’t

And isn’t that insightful.

It has given me something to consider as I continue work on the WIP; I need to choose my characters’ words, and the style of those words, very carefully indeed. Since I do tend towards long, complicated sentences, I’m probably likely to stray more towards the Ripper Street end of things, but it’s valuable to remember that in some circumstances, a very few properly chosen words can say a ton.

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

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Another Character Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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Momentum

I have hit what I feel to be a key moment in the new WIP, and that it has generated some critical kind of creative momentum. It is now spontaneously generating ideas, or at least that’s how it seems to me. What I mean is that even when I’m not sitting down for Writing Time and deliberately focusing on the book, scenes and scraps of dialogue will pop into my head. I think of it as my imaginary people demanding to have their story told. Both of the novels that I’ve written to completion had stages where they went this way, when the ideas started coming whether I wanted them or not.

I am not in the least complaining. Having the ideas behind the work (if not always the actual writing down of the ideas) coming easily is a wonderful way to feel, especially in contrast to the times when I can’t seem to drag a sentence out of me. This means that even with a relatively full schedule these days, I am making significant progress with a story that I’m genuinely excited about. It is, perhaps, just a tiny bit frustrating when I get a great idea for how to do a scene when I’m meant to be writing a lecture, or a nice exchange of dialogue pops into my head right when I need to be going to sleep.

This phenomenon is interesting at the same time as it is frustrating – although I think of these unsolicited, unprompted ideas being the story writing itself, or the characters telling me their story, obviously it is all coming from me and there aren’t really any other minds or entities at work, but it really doesn’t feel that way when, as I said above, something about a character pops into my head while I’m trying to concentrate on something else.

No doubt a psychologist or someone who understands the physical processes of the brain would know exactly what’s going on here. I doubt I’m the only one who experiences moments like this, when the brain starts firing up thoughts and conclusions on a topic other than whatever we were intending to be focused on at the moment. Certainly I know it happens to me involving things other than writing – thinking about things that I would really prefer to forget, or put aside, that I not only haven’t chosen to focus on but would absolutely choose not to focus on, if I could. Those last can be especially frustrating, particularly when you remember the times when you couldn’t get ideas on something you were interested in. It seems like your brain is being contrary – no, you can’t have what you want, but here’s a bunch of stuff you definitely don’t want.

I don’t really understand why thinking works this way, at times, but ultimately even though I find it frustrating at times, in the end I don’t mind. For one thing, I would never want to do anything that might disrupt my ability to create new ideas to write about, so if it has to be an erratic and nebulous process, I can live with that. If I’m honest, I also kind of enjoy the thought of my characters telling me about themselves and explaining their stories to me, so even if rationally I know that it’s just me talking to myself, I’ll happily pretend to believe in the illusion instead.

I’m not sure how to assess the times when some of these revelations are (or at least seem) genuinely surprising to me – I honestly do have ‘oh, I didn’t know that would happen’ moments thinking through plots and scenes, or ‘wow, ok, I hadn’t realized that about them’ realizations about some of my characters. It does make it seem like there’s a part of my mind operating outside my supervision, which is both fun and slightly disturbing. Again, I know there’s a rational explanation in there somewhere, but I doubt knowing it would really affect the experience, and those revelations can be very exciting, so I think I’ll keep them.

Anyway. However things are happening, at the moment they’re flowing well and I feel like I can have a complete or complete-ish draft of the next book by the springtime, and perhaps spend the summer trying to find a home for it. I know there will be tougher stages ahead so I’m trying to just enjoy the ride for now.

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

————

As much as I’m excited about my new project, this Saturday is the launch for Bonhomme Sept-Heures! If you’re in the Ottawa area it would be great to see you at the huge event Renaissance Press is doing for my book and seven other local artists. Details here.

If you can’t make it to the launch, watch this space for details on how else you can get your hands on a copy. I’m really looking forward to sharing this one with you.

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Driving with the top down

As I’m continuing to write the new WIP, at the moment I’m having a great deal of fun. In part this because I’m mostly at the stage of the project where I think it is A Fantastic Idea and Statler and Waldorf haven’t weighed in too much yet, partly it’s been because I’ve had wonderfully encouraging feedback from its very limited audience so far, but in large part there is another reason. Some characters are just fun to take out for a spin.

If you read the blog regularly (first of all: my sympathies), this is still the project with Easter Pinkerton, Victorian-era spy as its protagonist. I’m greatly enjoying writing Easter at the moment because she’s very unlike the lead character of King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and the other project that got stuck in the mud summer before last. In all of those cases my lead tends to be thoughtful, arguably intellectual, but certainly not hard cases or much good at physical confrontation.

Easter is clever, I hope, but she’s also dangerous and that’s a very fun change for me. Easter responds very differently to crisis and to her enemies and it is (I imagine) like driving a different kind of car for a while, one that handles differently and has more power and acceleration. It’s not necessarily better (I am still very fond of Adam Godwinson) but the different experience is exciting.

This is one of the joys of writing, of course. One of the cliches about being an author is that you get to live a great many lives, vicariously, through your characters. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but you certainly get to play with a lot of different bits and pieces of the range of human experience without, you know, actually having to do them. You can write someone who is not the least bit afraid of perilous situations and get at least a sense of what that might be like, as one who generally tends to run for cover. You can create a character who speaks their mind no matter the consequences, and sort of know what that is like, even if you really tend to be shy. Of course it’s all pretend, and all you really know is what you imagine those things to be like, but these are still rewarding explorations to go on, and one of the pleasures of being a writer.

Some characters are just fun to write, as well, and I hope that Easter will continue to be one of those. I guess by this I mean their personalities are such that its entertaining to think of what they might say or do next and fun to put it down on the page. Another character from King in Darkness, Dr. Todd Marchale, turned out to be a great joy to write because he’s such a sarcastic grump and coming up with his next grumble never fails to amuse. Fortunately readers seem to have liked him too. I’m enjoying writing Easter in a somewhat similar way, too – hopefully in time her audience will like her just as much.

It is one of the great pleasures of indulging ones imagination and writing to take the time to come up with all the bits and pieces of background for characters that we like and craft every facet of their personality. At least for me, a great many of those details will never make it into the story – I think I’ve said before that I don’t particularly like it when stories bury me in reams of backstory, most of which has no real impact on the tale at hand – but still come up with them. I was delighted to discover that George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max franchise, has detailed backgrounds for just about every character that appeared in Fury Road, even though you don’t get even a hint of most of them. It sounds very familiar.

There are times when characters are not fun to write, of course. I talked about this a bit in the process of writing Bonhomme Sept-Heures – some characters are genuinely unpleasant to ‘be around’ and so the task of writing them down is (for me, anyway) also unpleasant. In a narrative sense it needs to be done, because I need that character and the story requires them to be a certain way, but that doesn’t mean I have to like doing it.

I suppose it’s a tiny tiny downside to writing fiction with some darker elements to it; from time to time I have to slither around in dark parts of the human psyche to create the made-up people I need to give the story the villains to go with the heroes. The temptation is to do it quickly and get it over with, but I have always thought that a good villain needs depth just as much as a hero does (perhaps more, because we’re more likely to ‘naturally’ grasp the hero’s motivation) and so it’s not an experience I can rush through.

I guess I hope I do justice to all my imaginary people, in the end. It isn’t their fault if the story requires them to be awful and I hope I treat them with somewhat the same care as I do the character who are fun to create. It’s also a kind of comfort that I know they aren’t real and are safely in my imagination where they can’t really do any lasting harm.

Now I think I’m going to go see what Easter wants to do for a while.

—–

It’s just a few days until Word on the Street in Toronto! If you don’t know, Word on the Street is a fabulous open-air literary festival and this year, Renaissance Press will be there for the first time. I’m very excited to be able to make the trip down and to hang out at the Renaissance table all day; we’ll be in the Fringe Beat section if you’re looking for us on your map. If you’re in the area I don’t think there’s any way you’ll be disappointed if you come down, soak up all the wonderful reader-y and writer-y stuff going on, and pick up some awesome stuff to read. I’d love it if you came and said hi at the table.

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Cinematics

Several things to throw at you today!

First, I recently joined a local writers’ group and it has already been fantastic in motivating me to keep working on the current WIP (so I have something to bring to circle) and our conversations have been really interesting as well. For anyone trying to improve as a writer, I strongly recommend seeking out a group to work with. As is often the case, the internet is probably your friend here, and I really think it will help your writing.

In any case, the group I have joined had some really useful feedback on my current project and one of the conversations we had also got me thinking about something I thought I’d write about on the blog today.  We were talking about what does and doesn’t work as an opener to a piece, and a lot of the discussion kept returning to the framework of ‘if this was a movie, then…’.  I think because film (under which umbrella I am sticking movies, TV, and whatever the label is for things ‘broadcast’ through places like Netflix) must be the context we experience most of our stories through, we tend to use it as a default to think about stories in other contexts.  I also think it very likely affects us as artists working in other mediums.

I hadn’t really articulated it before but I do frequently think of scenes in my writing in terms of how they would work if filmed – or at least, as much as I am capable of doing so with absolutely no background in film at all. I don’t really know anything about how to set up a shot or what the terminology is or even why film directors do things the way they do; I’ve just seen end products that I’ve thought were very cool and they’ve influenced me in terms of what I like to create and given me a sort of framework for how I imagine the story I’m creating might unfold.

So, in my mind, the prologue bit of the WIP would be one long scene, then there would be a credit sequence (because of course), and then fade in to the opening of Chapter One. We’ve been debating whether the prologue needs to stay or not, and one of the reasons I think it does is that I like that idea of a pre-credits scene to sort of whet the audience’s appetite and let them know what kind of show they’re in for.

In fairness, I also think it introduces my main character in a kind of cool way and hits some of the main beats about her without a big wodge of exposition, while also bringing in the setting and hinting at the main plot line a bit. So, I think it does have genuine merit from a literary point of view, but I’d be lying if I said the film scene justification wasn’t in there too.

I imagine somewhere lurking around in there is the thought that it would be awfully cool to see something of mine filmed at some point in the future, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. Film gives its own particular framework to stories, and the cuts from shot to shot can really regulate the mood and tension of the piece (he said from a more or less uniformed standpoint). A director or a film studies person could dig into this much better than I can, but suffice to say that I like to try to do some of that with my written stuff, too. This is also the reason for a lot of scene breaks in early versions of my manuscripts that sometimes baffle and/or annoy my readers and editors – the reason they’re there is because it’s where I imagine that there would be a cut to a new shot. Or a commercial break. (Seriously)

It is kind of paradoxical, though, because (as I’ve written about here before) I don’t really tend to put huge amounts of careful visual description into my writing. I like to let the reader fill in a lot of the scene from their own imagination based on the parameters I give them. So, even though I know exactly how every scene in the book looks in my mind, I’m not sure it’s useful to give all of that detail to the reader, especially as I don’t find reading reams of description a particular pleasure myself.

So, a lot of the ‘works like a film’ part ends up being an internal process for me and I’m really not sure how much it comes across in the finished work. I can see it, but I know that it’s supposed to be there. I guess I’m not sure if it actually makes what I write work better or even differently, but it is part of the engine of creation that ends up with words on the page, so (perhaps due to inherent laziness, superstition, contentment with the results, or some blend of the above) I just kind of roll with it.

Again, none of this is advice (because I don’t write advice) but perhaps some of that will be interesting to any of you who are working on your own writing. I do think it’s sometimes useful to reflect about my process as an artist and think about what works, what maybe doesn’t work so well, and at least recognize my strengths and vulnerabilities as a writer so that I can play to the former and try to compensate for the latter.

Thanks for being a sounding board.

——

By way of updates: The final set of edits on Bonhomme Sept-Heures were completed late last week and I am currently going through the proofs before the book is sent to print. I could not be more excited that the book is this close to coming out – should be ready to come your way by October!

This weekend is also Can*Con here in Ottawa, and as a member of the programming team I’m both fired up and very proud about the weekend we’ve put together for you. It is not too late to register and come out for what should be a great 2 1/2 days of workshops and discussions about SFF, horror, and comics writing, and some awesome opportunities to meet people who are both established and up-and-comers in the field. There are spots left in all of the workshops Friday afternoon, and even though online registration for many of the sessions is now closed, you will be able to sign up at the registration desk, so there’s still time to get in on everything! Check out the program here, and if you want to listen to my friend Brandon Crilly and I talk about Can*Con and why we think you should come, you can listen to a radio interview we did about it last Thursday right here. I’m really looking forward to it and you should definitely come.

Finally, but far from least important: I got confirmation this week that Renaissance Press will be at the Word on the Street festival in Toronto this year, and I will be able to attend! I’m thrilled to be able to bring my work to such a massive event and looking forward to being a part of things throughout one of the biggest days in literature in Canada. Renaissance Press will have a table in the Fringe Beat section, and I will be there throughout the day. I’m very excited to get to meet some new people, so come say hello!

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On Barb, and Hugh

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you will have seen me gush about the Netflix series Stranger Things, which is one of my favourite things on TV (or whatever we’re calling it when stuff ‘airs’ on Netflix) in a very long while. Stranger Things is a wonderful, creative piece of SFF and I hope there’s more in its vein to come. If you poke around on social media you’ll see lots of people having passionate reactions to the show and its characters, and there’s one in particular that has stuck out at me and that I wanted to write about today.

[[ IMPORTANT NOTE: The rest of this entry contains spoilers for some parts of Stranger Things, so if you are the sort of person who is bothered by spoilers as well as not having seen the show yet, stop reading now and I’ll see you next week, or after you’ve watched the series. By the way, if you read this blog and you haven’t seen Stranger Things yet, I heartily recommend going and doing so. It’s very good. ]]

And we’re back.

Fans of the show have reacted very strongly to the performances of Winona Ryder (who I thought was very good), David Harbour (who I also thought was great), and both the character of Eleven and the actor who portrays her, Millie Bobbie Brown (who is amazing). None of that surprises me, but there is also a reasonably vocal discussion centring around a character that does surprise me a little: Nancy’s friend Barb.

Barb is pulled into the Upside Down by the monster towards the end of episode 2, and unlike Will Byers is unable to survive long enough to get rescued (she’s somewhat disadvantaged by starting off in an Upside Down echo of an empty pool), apparently dying in episode 3 with her fate confirmed by Eleven in episode 7. Although Nancy is deeply worried about her friend, we don’t see the same reaction to Barb’s disappearance as there was for Will Byers, and I think this is part of what has led to people being upset or unsatisfied with how the story treats her.

(It is true that there is some narrative justification for this; the Shadowy Government Lab fabricates a story that Barb has run away rather than mysteriously disappeared as Will did, with only Nancy and Hopper being aware of the truth for most of the series. It is still probably a fair point that we don’t then see a lot of concern about Barb having ‘run away’, although it’s also fair to say the relatively tight schedule the show is on didn’t leave it a lot of room to show this.)

In any case if you poke around online you’ll find a lot of affection for Barb’s character, as well as dissatisfaction (some perhaps tongue in cheek) with her story, that we didn’t get more of it, and that she doesn’t get the (relatively) happy ending that Will Byers did. Part of what’s going on is that the Duffer Brothers created a character that was interesting and engaging enough that a lot of their audience bought in to her during episodes 1 and 2, so that they wanted more of her story and perhaps a different ending to it. From a writer’s perspective, getting the audience hooked into a character who is going to be a victim is exactly what you want – you want that loss or death to hit home and not get shrugged off. The dissatisfaction, though, isn’t what you want, and the two things are shades-of-meaning apart.

I had a slightly similar experience with my own writing, during the editing process for King in Darkness. There’s one character, Hugh, who I called into being solely for one specific scene. (Yeah, I’m restricting the spoilers of my own story. It’s my blog and I’ll be inconsistent if I want to.) You meet him slightly earlier to establish that he exists, then he does his scene and (I thought) he disappears unproblematically from the stage thereafter. I didn’t, to be honest, expect that anyone would get particularly interested in or attached to Hugh (sorry, imaginary person) and that he’d basically vanish into Stage Left, his purpose served, and no-one would mind one way or the other. (really sorry, imaginary person)

Didn’t work out that way. All of the editors for King in Darkness gave me notes to the effect of ‘need closure about Hugh’, ‘what happens to Hugh?’, ‘we need to see how things work out with Hugh’. Basically as soon as more than one editor calls for something, I figure it Must Be Done, and so I wrote a new scene that ties up Hugh’s part of the story a little more completely for the final draft of the book. I think it made the story better in the end and I feel like I have now done better by one of my imaginary people.

The more important part of the process, though, was realizing that people might latch on to characters that I didn’t expect them to, and didn’t intend them to. I’m still not sure exactly what it was that made people want to know how things worked out for Hugh in King in Darkness (I kind of wish I did, so that I could sprinkle that magic on future imaginary people) but obviously there was just enough there to get the people who read the manuscript to get bought into him, and his story, enough to want there to be more of it than I originally planned to give.

I suspect (and of course, it’s just a guess) that this is what has happened with Barb in Stranger Things. She’s not written as a major character, she appears to have been created as a way to get Nancy actively engaged in trying to solve the mystery of what is going on in Hawkins, and probably also to indicate to the audience in an impactful way that the monster that took Will is an ongoing threat. Lots of stories, horror stories and others, have these ‘victim’ characters in them that serve this kind of narrative purpose, as well as providing a moment of terror or pity when they meet their doom.

However, Barb’s fate, and the reaction of the world of Stranger Things to it, does touch on wider issues of female characters in fiction, and in SF/horror in particular, where they have all to often simply been used as recipients of violence and/or motivators for male characters. I believe I’ve touched on the Women in Refrigerators issue before, and people have made the argument that Barb fits into this pattern as well (despite not being a superhero, although the concept has I think been broadened to think about how female characters get treated in SFF in general). Looking at things from a plot perspective, the main thing Barb’s character does is to be a second (well, third) victim for the monster and thus provide Nancy (who is a main character) her motivation to get involved in trying to figure out what is happening in town, thus hooking her into the main stream of events leading up to the climax.  This does tick some problematic boxes, ‘female character as victim/motivator’ in particular.

It’s also true that Barb is not used to motivate a male character – in fact part of the issue people have with what happened to Barb is that some of our male characters don’t seem to particularly react to what happens to her. Her disappearance is a motivating factor for another female character, one who does not settle into a passive role and becomes an active part of driving the plot forward. I would argue that’s an important distinction. (I also think that although Hopper doesn’t really seem to react much to what happens to Barb, he’s already pretty fully engaged in trying to figure out what’s going on in Hawkins by the point, and Will’s disappearance probably has more personal impact for him because Will is closer in age to his deceased daughter) I don’t think the intention of pointing out the Women in Refrigerators issue was to say, either, that you can’t ever have a female character who is a victim in a story, just that it can be a lazy plot device and that it seemed to happen to female characters in comics disproportionately. For what it’s worth I think Barb’s role in the plot is both important and handled with relative care (we don’t see a lot of fallout from her disappearance, but it’s more than Benny gets!). I think, overall, Stranger Things presented some really strong and interesting female characters and so, overall, I think the Duffers deserve far more praise than criticism here.

I also wonder if, since Barb is not one of the ‘cool kids,’ and appears to fit kind of awkwardly into her social world, that since SFF tends to attract a reasonable proportion of the socially awkward, shy and introverted to its audience (definitely include me in that number), that audience saw ‘themselves’ in her a little bit, and that’s part of why her fate has attracted as much discussion as it has. Barb is kind of like many of us in the audience, so we want to root for her a bit and are extra disappointed when things end badly for her. Which gets us back to the idea of the audience getting attached to characters you maybe didn’t expect them to, as a writer. In the end, to me, it’s a really cool feeling when someone reads my stuff and feels a connection to it. One of my favourite things in the time that King in Darkness has been out has been hearing from people who read it and dug one or more of the characters; sometimes ones I expected people to like and sometimes ones I didn’t.

I think it’s a great gift as a writer to have your characters end up having an impact on people and mattering to them; it’s very hard to think of a better compliment from a reader. (Aside, perhaps, from ‘please write more’) I hope that’s how the Duffer Brothers are taking the reaction to Barb in Stranger Things. They created a whole cast of characters that their audience really bought into, and left many of them wanting a little more about one of them. I hope they continue to give us the same rich selection of imaginary people in their next project.

And perhaps I’ll write a little more of Hugh’s story one day.

Thanks for reading.

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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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The Strange Course of Ideas

This is going to be one of those ‘process’ entries that may or may not be of any particular interest, but I do get people asking from time to time where my ideas come from. A lot of times I just go with ‘my crazy brain’ as a response, but over the last week there was a fairly self-contained example of how the ol’ mind-gears work and I thought I would share it today.

To somewhat set the stage, I had just finished the first round of edits for Bonhomme Sept-Heures and fired the manuscript back to the publishers for the second go-round. My plan was to revisit the project I had started writing last summer and then put aside because I got kind of stuck and had more ideas for Bonhomme Sept-Heures. So much for the plan.

Instead a dear friend of mine posted on Facebook that they had driven through a town with a name that they loved: ‘Easter Meikle Pinkerton’. (A town, by the way, that I have since been unable to find out very much at all about, but never mind) For whatever reason I latched on to that and wrote back a hilarious (not really) observation that this sounded like the love interest in an obscure Victorian spy novel. Another friend commented that I was now obliged to write said novel.

And there the trouble began.

I started thinking about Victorian spies and the first thing I decided was that Easter Meikle Pinkerton should be the protagonist rather than the love interest, because a) it’s too awesome a name to not be the main character b) the ‘Pinkerton – not of the agency’ line only works from the lead and c) a female spy in the 1800s is a pretty interesting character. Also kind of d) I haven’t written a female lead in a very, very long time, and not in anything that I have shared widely, so that’s attractive right there.

Now, I make hilarious (not really) comments like that all the time and most of them don’t go any further than amusing me and perhaps exasperating others, so we now reach the part of the process that I honestly don’t understand. Where a lot of ideas and musings and concepts just kind of flicker and vanish, certain ones set the mind-gears humming away, without (honest) me thinking about it, and then gradually more Stuff that goes with the idea starts getting thrown up from whatever strange subconscious alchemical part of my brain does these things to where I can notice them.

So it was with Easter Pinkerton. I started having ideas about what the general plot of the story could be and in general I like it. I know where Easter lives, I know she dresses as a man sometimes (sometimes out of necessity), has little patience for those who aren’t as quick-witted as she is (which is nearly everyone) and has a Welsh butler (whose name I need to nail down) whose main role in life is to smooth over the social upset she causes. Like most fictional spies she can kill you with a knife (and various other ways) but she’s rather unlike most fictional spies in that she builds model wooden ships. (There’s a reason) I know who our villains are and have a broad sense of how the story will play out. I need to start making a plot diagram to help me keep things straight, and I especially need to come up with Easter’s background. I’m trying to decide how many Holmes references to put in there.

I wrote a very rough teaser/prologue thing and sent it off to some friends to see what they made of it. They were foolish enough to say encouraging things and so now of course I have more ideas coming. I am at that point where I know the mind-gears are fully engaged because (among other things) I’m thinking through scenes as I’m running. (Sorry, reset the ‘days since Evan made a running reference’ sign to zero)

So I guess that other project is getting put off for a while again, even though I do like the idea and (because my brain is crazy) do feel guilty about those characters having to wait, again, while I write another story. On the other hand I think I need to jump on this idea that has me excited right now and get as much of it done as I can. I’m even taking the advice of (yet) another friend to write the bulk of this story now, while I’m enthusiastic about it, and do repairs and edits based on research (which will have to be done) afterwards. This goes against my instincts of How to Do Things, but one of the things that helped the other project run into the sand was realizing how much research needed to be done to get it right, and thus my mind wandered off to other things, so this may work out better. We’ll see.

So there you go. The idea for this one, which I hope I will be able to share with you at some point, came from a fairly offhand comment in the most mundane of places, and for whatever reason engaged the mechanisms of my strange little mind to the point that a story has started to form. I wish I could predict what will set that process off, but I can’t. Perhaps that will come in time, and perhaps not.

Perhaps you enjoyed reading that. I hope so.

—–

This weekend I am excited to be at the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston along with a whole passel of accomplished authors like Jay Odjick and Tanya Huff, talking about reading and writer related things for a few days. I’m going to be participating in a couple of panel discussions on Sunday afternoon and will be around the whole weekend, including spending some time at the Renaissance Press table, where you will be able to get a copy of King in Darkness and say hello if you’d like to.

Online registration is still available and you should definitely come if you can!

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Edits and Drafts

If you look around for writing advice (which this is not) you will immediately find a great many quotes, some ascribed to writers I admire, saying that the first draft of anything you write is garbage and should be thrown away almost entirely. People will tell you this (as far as I can tell) about any kind of writing; certainly I got told it about academic writing just as I frequently see it said about fiction. It always fuels my Impostor Syndrome a little because I do not do that, and have never done that.

I’m not claiming that I write things perfect the first time – far from it! I do quite a bit of rewriting and throwing away of bits and pieces and part of the reason I’m writing about this today is that I’m presently doing revisions of Bonhomme Sept-Heures to hopefully have it ready before too much longer. But I have never done what so many authors apparently do and trash nearly all of a completed work, rewriting it nearly completely, or thrown the entirety of a paper away to redo from the ground up. (Secretly, I wonder if anyone actually does this.) I have never felt that a first draft of mine was utter rubbish (remember, it takes me a while to work up to that); usually I feel there are bits that are pretty good and bits that aren’t and I try to get to work on those.

I also know that before I actually write something down, most times I have gone over the scene in my head multiple times (sometimes, frustratingly, forgetting a ‘perfect’ line of dialogue) and I don’t really write something (whether sentence, paragraph, or longer bit) straight through. I write a bit, erase some, write some more, go back and throw something in the middle of a bit I already wrote, and then go back and start working on the ‘end’ again. I think I did the previous sentence in three little burst rather than one smooth writing ‘motion’, and this one took me two. Of course this is greatly facilitated by word-processing software and if I was trying to write by hand or on a typewriter I would probably have long had to choose between changing methods or the abyss of despair. However that may be, this leaves me feeling that what I might call a ‘first’ draft has really been heavily rewritten already, but I assume most writers do this, so it probably doesn’t count.

This has always left me with a vague suspicion that I am Doing Something Wrong, but on the other hand the results have been ok so I have kept on with it. Along with the Impostor Syndrome, what this also fuels is my sense that there probably isn’t an absolute Right and Wrong way to write, or indeed any creative process. I think it’s easy to feel like what works for you must be the absolute right way – because it works – so most of the advice out there is probably well meaning enough, but I continue to think that you’ve basically just gotta try some stuff and figure out what works for you.

If I’m in two minds about the whole first draft thing, it may be because editing sets off two different feelings in me overall. One is shock/horror – I am always amazed at the terrible crimes against plot and language that have slipped past me. Which makes me very grateful for my Eager Volunteers and editors. The other, fortunately, is satisfaction. It’s nice to re-read something I wrote and maybe haven’t looked at in a while and come away with the feeling that it works all right. It helps with the Impostor Syndrome.

I suppose it also makes me think that we very rarely get things exactly right the first time, that we often need to give things a little work and a few go-overs to get them right, and that there’s nothing the matter with getting some help as you do that. Here I begin to veer perilously close to Advice, though, so I’m going to call it for this week.

Thanks for reading.

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