Tag Archives: Ruminations

The Breaks

I feel as though I moan a lot on here, so I thought this time I would acknowledge some good fortune.

I’ve mentioned several times that I help with the programming side of Can*Con, our local SFF readers’ and writers’ convention here in Ottawa. It is great fun, it is a lot of work a lot of the time, and it’s a tremendous opportunity to meet other writers and professionals in the field. I also find it a significant responsibility: we’re choosing which discussions get to happen and who gets the biggest platform in them, which is a not insignificant series of decisions in a world and a field where there are lots of voices struggling to be heard. I take it seriously and on the whole I enjoy it very much.

Working for Can*Con has also had a bunch of knock-on benefits. I have been welcomed into a wonderful community of writers and fans of speculative fiction, many of whom have become friends who mean a lot to me. I think I have already become a better writer because of it, and I have contacts that I don’t know that I would have ever made otherwise. So this is all great.

None of it would have happened if I hadn’t been invited to join the team, and I’m still more than a little hazy as to exactly why that happened. I attended Can*Con to pitch King in Darkness, had a good time, and although I don’t remember ever having a recruitment type of conversation, the following winter I got ‘drafted’. It has worked out pretty nice, and I can only look at it as a quite sizeable chunk of good luck.

I’ve heard it said by lots of people that a big part of success is just showing up; just being in the right place to get opportunities. I guess I did that by attending that first Can*Con and getting tapped to be part of the team going forward, so to some extent it’s true. I showed up, I went to the thing and made it possible that I would get selected. A lot of times, staying home is sure as shit a lot easier. So show up to places, is my advice.

At the same time, I still really can’t say that it was anything other than pure good luck that things worked out as they have. Everyone works very hard and most success flows from that, I think, but sometimes you do just get a break, and in my opinion you don’t apologize for it, you take the good luck because of all those times when you did everything you possibly could have done and things just didn’t settle out your way.

But I’m very grateful for getting the opportunity to work for Can*Con, and everything that has come out of it, and so I would like to publicly thank Derek Kunsken for taking what certainly seems as though it was a complete flier on me. It has certainly worked out for me, and I hope it continues to work out from the con’s point of view as well.

That’s it for this week, except to say that you should come join us this fall; we’re still putting the full program together but there’s already lots that I’m very excited about. Check out the Can*Con website here.

Advertisements
Tagged , , ,

Lost Stories

A few weeks ago now, I was in York. I had the chance to revisit people and places I have long missed; one of them was the splendid Minster. It is one of those places that has been special to people down through the centuries, and I always feel as though such spaces have an aura to them, the weight of all that accumulated meaning, that you can feel as soon as you enter. When you walk around, all those long-gone people tread silently with you.

And of course, there’s much to see. One thing that caught my eye in particular this visit was this little grave-marker below.

DSC_0445As you can see, it has been there a very long while itself, there on the floor in the east end of the great cathedral, and centuries of feet have worn it away so that I, at least, couldn’t quite make out all the details of the sad little story it has to tell.

I’m sure that somewhere (perhaps no further away than a guide book in the gift shop, or the recesses of my memory) are the details behind the little stone, but standing there this summer I wasn’t able to put the story back together. We can wonder, of course, imagine the parts that aren’t readable, fill in the reasons why this baby was laid to rest where they were, in that spot where light from the great East Window sometimes falls.

However we imagine, though, the original story was largely lost to me that day. I’ve written before about how some of the stories we like to tell change over time, as we add and subtract and rewrite to suit our tastes. We also lose stories, the ones that aren’t told and gradually fade into tantalizing fragments of tales. I encounter these sometimes doing research or playfully following rabbit-holes on the internet – I’ll run into a name, with the only information available being that they were ‘a figure in such and such mythology’. Sometimes there’s a little more: they were a king, a hero, a goddess. Perhaps. Nothing more of their stories, the stories of these people, real and imagined, who would have once loomed so large, remains. They are diminished down to a single line in a book or webpage, and many more have vanished entirely.

It’s sad to think of our lost stories, and I think it’s important to remember that this is something that can happen. We need to tell the stories we think are good and important, both by passing on the ones we’ve heard or read and liked, and creating new ones. To read and remember a story is good, but you keep it alive by passing it on to another set of eyes.

We live in a world now where there are, it seems, endless tales being told about every subject imaginable and from every point of view. It is so very easy for any one story to get lost forever. Make sure to tell the stories you love; help keep them above the flood of time a little longer.

Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , , ,

Wandering Thoughts

Shortish one today, as I am on a trip to Scotland and York, part for vacation and part for a school anniversary. It’s been tremendous so far, and I spent a good part of yesterday with a very dear friend from when I did my M.A. in England. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long while (oceans are inconvenient) but it felt perfectly, wonderfully comfortable to be talking and wandering around together again.

Over the next few days, I hope to have several such reunions, and it’s gotten me to thinking about the pure chance of meeting the people who end up becoming key players in our lives. I might very well not have gone to York at all, and then never would have met many people who became very dear to me. I still might not have met the friend I visited with yesterday if I hadn’t gone along for a particular walking tour of the city.

Presumably had I made other decisions, I would have met other people. Would they have become as dear to me as the ones that I did meet? Why do we find people in the world who fit with us so delightfully, but then end up an ocean away? These are strange thoughts to be pondering over while wandering the streets of a lovely, very old, old, city, but in part I blame the jet lag.

Some of this I also blame on Guy Kay, who I’ve been reading a lot of lately, and who includes some meditations on the role that chance plays in the people who become important parts of our lives, and those who do not, and even those who end up somewhat half-way; people who you meet, and know that under other circumstances they might have become a central figure in your life, but will not.

I don’t have any great conclusion or particular wisdom coming out of all this. I’ve just been thinking about the tricks of fate that have put certain people in my lives, and I’m very grateful for the group of precious friends that I have, and that I have been able to share at least some of my journeys with them. May we all walk together at least a little more.

Thanks for reading.

Tagged , ,

On the Other Writers

Over the past week there was quite a Fuss, on Twitter especially, about a particular writer who has tried to trademark the use of a very common word in book titles. (I’m not going to name them or refer to things more specifically than that because I feel they’ve had more than enough free publicity already.) When called on it, they defended themselves as looking out for their interests and as ‘raising the game’ for publishing.

These are the kind of things that one does if one regards other writers as competition.

I do not, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is expressed really well in something Ilana Myer has one of her characters say in Last Song Before Night. One poet is afraid that he will be overshadowed by the work and abilities of his friend, and the reply that his friend wishes he had been able to give is ‘There is no shadow, and we are all one in what we do’. That’s how I generally feel about other writers. I think it’s really cool to read what other people are able to do with their ideas and their words. I find it inspirational when I read something really well done, to try to find a way to reach a similar level. We all just do what we’re capable of doing, it is unlike anyone else’s art, and the world is better for it.

I like (I guess for obvious reasons) the idea that the writers’ craft gets rewarded, so I am always pleased to see when an artist gets some manner of reward for their work. It especially helps if it happens to be one I know, or have particular affection for their work, but seeing a writer have success in their career is downright encouraging. The good stuff is out there, and that’s always a good reminder to have.

That sort of brings me to my second reason for not seeing other writers as competition. I think there’s a genuinely practical reason (as contrasted to the rather wooly stuff above) not to do so. The success of other writers can, I think, only help me. If people read cool stories, presumably they’ll want to read more, and if they look around for their next thing, perhaps they’ll hit on mine. That’s even more likely if the story they read is something like the sort of stuff I write – so yes, other fantasy writers in particular are not my competition. If they write awesome stuff, that brings more readers to the genre and that does nothing but help me.

Moreover, if their books sell well, presumably out there will be editors and agents and publishers who will see that and think ‘hot damn, we’d better find some more fantasy books’, and that makes my chances of getting my next thing in print better. Far from wanting less other writers, and less other fantasy writers, I want more, and I want them to do well.

In any case, my position in the market is, uh, fairly marginal, but those are my thoughts on the issue, and what I have for you here this week. Thank you for reading.

Tagged , , , , ,

Trash Crow

So this morning is garbage day on my street, the trash is out at the curb, and an enormous crow (I’m like 80% sure it wasn’t actually a raven but I’m a little hazy on the crow/raven distinction) flapped down out of the sky and perched in a tree. It surveyed the scene, briefly. Fluttered down to the garbage.

First trash crow of the spring. Not exactly as lovely a picture as a robin, but here we are.

This was all happening right as I was pulling all my chaos together to get out the door to go to work, and so I found myself out in the driveway right as Trash Crow was getting to work itself. I put my stuff in the car, and then decided I should get rid of the crow.

It was, I knew, a supremely futile gesture at the best of times – it would likely be back roughly 30 seconds after I left, but there are duties we are taught in life and at some point, younger me was taught that you shoo away the trash crows. On y va.

However, this crow was not to be shooed. I walked right up to the thing. I really think I could have reached down and picked it up. (Yes, it probably would have pecked my eyes out) The Trash Crow just fixed me with its corvid gaze, briefly, and then went back to worrying at the garbage.

I suppose if I was really strong in my purpose I would have done some shouting, some hand-clapping, maybe gone to the hominid playbook and brandished a stick. But I didn’t.

We should not anthropomorphize, I know, yet it was very hard not to read in that look from the Trash Crow a message of – ‘Yeah, what do you want? I’m pecking into this garbage, man. I guess you don’t want me to or something, and deal with that however, but I’m gonna get back to this trash.’ Which it did. Peck peck peck.

I left the Trash Crow to their business.

Sometimes, I think we could all stand to be just a little more like Trash Crow, in fact. Doing the things we need to do, the things that are in our nature, unapologetically. Sometimes they may be things that are not especially fun (do crows enjoy ripping into the garbage, or is it a grim search for scraps of sustenance?), but they’ve gotta be done so just do them. There are things we must do, and the judgment of the Driveway People is irrelevant.

I’m not saying we should be like Trash Crow all the time.

Maybe just some of the time, though.

Bon apetit, Trash Crow.

Tagged , , ,

Roger Bannister

On Saturday, Roger Bannister passed away. I took note of this, in reasonably large measure, because (as long-suffering readers of the blog will know) I am a runner and he was one of the big names, the first to run the mile in under 4 minutes. (The historian in me feels compelled to relate that yes, there are accounts of it being done earlier, but – and I am not an expert, and relying on others’ judgment here – these do not seem to be generally regarded as credible.) For a time, this was a feat of athletics that was regarded as physically impossible, similar to the way that some argue that the marathon cannot be done in under 2 hours. When Bannister did it – although his record stood for an astonishingly short time – it was celebrated as a massive achievement.

On an extremely selfish level, although the 4 minute mile is no longer regarded as that big a deal (it’s now basically the standard if you’re a serious middle distance runner), it is one of those moments when it was really possible to get a sense of the difference between elite athletes and hobbyists like myself. When I was in probably my very best shape ever, I worked very hard to do a mile in under eight minutes. To think about being twice as fast over the same distance is mind-stretching.

However that may be, I suppose it’s not a huge surprise that Bannister himself never believed the sub 4:00 mile was impossible, and apparently there were many who told him it could be done. He set the goal for himself, worked towards it, and eventually did it.

Bannister’s story is an important landmark in athletics, and I suppose in human achievement, but I also like to think about it sometimes in a wider sense. The sub 4:00 mile was supposed to be impossible, but he went and did it anyway. Perhaps just as impressive, he reached his goal while really only being an athlete part time, devoting a lot of his energy to his medical training.

Anyway, I am trying to keep this in mind lately, when a great many things seem to be impossible. Great, seemingly unreachable, goals can be reached, even amidst a sea of other challenges, if we stay on the track.

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

Tagged , ,

Insomnia

This week, I’ve been battling insomnia. (Why yes, it has been kind of a tough month, since you ask.) It’s a profoundly frustrating experience. Sleep is something my body absolutely requires, but periodically, for no reason that I’ve ever been able to discern, it decides … not to do it.

I have no conscious control over falling asleep, and I guess obviously I’m also not making the conscious decision not to sleep. In fact, I’d dearly like to. And yet, this very important part of how my brain works insists on doing its own thing.

It is much like creating art, as I think I’ve noted before. There are times when, even though I have a nice big chunk of a day when I could sit down and write, I have a project to work on and a comfortable setting to work in, the words just don’t want to come. Then there will be others when, abruptly, even though it’s late at night or I really just have a few minutes before I have to dash off somewhere, that I will suddenly have a joyous avalanche of words.

I have tried to learn to accept it, and it’s something I continue to try to get better at accepting. Some days will be good. Some days less good. I trust it all balances out in the end.

It’s both frustrating and more than a little fascinating that there are these parts of my being that – as far as I can tell – are completely outside my ability to control and manage. We tend to pride ourselves on our intelligence and our ability to manipulate and control our environment, to use our reason to choose our responses. And yet sometimes, none of that really matters because there’s still parts of our brains operating on another level, what I can’t help but think of as an older level.

At times – like this week, when I’m struggling to get through the things that I need to get done on very little sleep – it’s a bit of an uneasy relationship. Just as with my creative processes, I suppose I trust that eventually whatever part of my ancient brain controls my sleep and I will reach a truce, and everything will balance out again.

That’s all I have for you this week. Pleasant dreams.

Tagged , ,

The Right Time

The other day on Twitter there was (I swear) an interesting conversation about coming to stories at the right or the wrong time. Guy Kay (an author I like a lot) was ‘speaking’ without someone about a book they had read, which this person thought they would have liked when they were younger, but didn’t actually enjoy now. Kay remarked something along the lines that they had come to the story at the wrong time in their life.

That’s an interesting way of thinking about our relationship with stories. I am a great re-reader of tales, I tend to come back to favourites again and again (for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog) and it’s a rare book in my collection that has been read only once. So on the whole, I continue to enjoy the stories that I used to like, although now that I think of it, I have experienced many of them differently as I’ve gotten (so very much) older.

A case in point that had been on my mind recently anyway – not a book, but a TV series, the 80s vintage BBC series Robin of Sherwood. If you haven’t seen it, it’s, well, a very 1980s take on the classic Robin Hood tale. It ran on that same PBS channel that got me hooked on Doctor Who, and it is, I’m pretty sure, the reason why I ultimately got into medieval history.

(As a sidebar, Robin of Sherwood is interesting to me as a good example of how we can see characters and stories like Robin Hood re-invented for each generation. This version of Robin (when the series starts, anyway) is not a disgraced earl, or the yeoman of the medieval tales, but a peasant hero, a commoner perhaps ideally suited for a modern audience. Unlike the thoroughly Christian Robin of the original stories, this one has an alliance with pagan spirituality, suiting the 1980s generally and Christianity’s receding power overall. And (I believe) this is the first time that Robin’s Merry Men includes a Muslim character – again suiting a modern sensibility that our heroes should be racially inclusive. Similarly, this show’s Marian soon ends up shooting longbows and swinging swords with everyone else.)

I watched the show in my early teens, I liked it quite a lot, and so when at I was at university and it was time to pick elective courses, I picked a medieval history course. The rest, due to a professor who took an interest in me, is history. It’s been an interesting and somewhat uneven road, but I wouldn’t change it. Through those studies, I have gotten deeper into the medieval world than Teenage Me, watching PBS, would ever have believed, and met people who I will treasure for the rest of my days.

I still have, on my laptop, the whole run of the series. I watch parts of it from time to time. Looking at it now, from the perspective of a historian, even one with sort of a glancing familiarity with the Robin Hood stories and a rather better one of medieval England – the show gets a lot wrong. In terms of giving much of an accurate sense of the 12th century, it’s … really not great.

I don’t want to dissect it, but I do wonder how I would have felt about it if I could somehow come to it fresh, without all the history the stories and I have together. Judging from the reaction my PhD supervisor had when I made her watch part of it, my guess is: rather different.

Perhaps that’s a shame, and would be an example of not being able to relax and enjoy something for what it is. Perhaps the thing is that I came to Robin of Sherwood at the right time, and now I get to keep it as a story that I love – because I still do, even though it has its problems. (John Rhys-Davies’ King Richard is still maybe my favourite)

I wonder, too, how I would feel about some of the stories that I know I loved when I was younger, if I were to read them again. I’ve seen the Prydian chronicles mentioned here and there of late, and that’s a series that I read in high school and liked a lot at the time. I’ve never come back to them, unusually for me. I wonder how I’d feel. Perhaps that was the right time for them, and that time has passed. (At some point, I’m going to have to find out)

Sometimes even a part of a story can have quite an effect at just the right part of your life. Whatever else happens with the series, I will always be grateful to Jim Butcher and his Dresden Files for just one exchange where his hero tells a sceptic: “I don’t need you to believe me.” For whatever reason, that relatively minor exchange really resonated with me, at that point someone who was really easily drawn into pouring energy into endless efforts to win debates or convince people of particular points of view. That isn’t what that exchange was about in the book, but I use it every so often to remind myself that it doesn’t matter if there are people out there who think I’m wrong on a subject or an issue. It’s fine. I don’t need them to believe me. That has, genuinely, been the source of a great deal of peace.

Anyway, this is all quite disconnected and rambly, now, but I think it’s remarkable how much power a story like Robin of Sherwood can exert over your life, if you come to it at the right moment.

Thanks for reading, and do keep reading. Those stories are out there.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Walls, and Doubts

Yesterday (I was told), we hit the point where the same number of days had passed since the Berlin Wall came down as the entire time that it was in place. This was a neat little stat, and of course it made me feel old (well, “feel”), but it also (surprise?) got me thinking.

I am the right age that I grew up with the Berlin Wall in place. It was a fixture, if a distant one, of the world as I understood it. There was West Germany and there was East Germany. They were on all the globes and maps and where-ever else. Every 4 years there would be an Olympics and my male relatives would grumble about the East German team.

This was the world as it was.

Then (as I try imperfectly to cast my mind back), events started to happen that I didn’t really understand (being primarily an Idiot Teen at that point) which – it was suggested – meant that all of this was about to change.

I remember that I didn’t really believe it. Of course the Germanys wouldn’t really reunify. Of course the wall would stay there. Nations were immovable concepts and they didn’t get rearranged. (Sidebar: I have no doubt (but am currently too lazy to go look it up) that several, perhaps many, nations appeared, disappeared, or were renamed prior to this, during my lifetime. That these things did not make nearly the impression on my mind that the Germany thing did says something about the media, something about me, and something about the West-centred world of which I am indisputably a part. I struggle to take a broader view now as much as I can, but this was my perspective as an Idiot Teen.) Presumably just as people talked about Quebec separation, and then it didn’t happen (also one of my experiences), this would be a lot of talk that in the end, didn’t happen.

And then it did.

I can’t pretend that I had, at that time (or even really now) a deep enough understanding of the experience in East and West Europe to appreciate the impact of the events I watched unfold on the news. But I remember being truly amazed that it really was happening.

I think it’s a useful perspective. There are parts of our world that we think are absolutely fixed and absolutely immovable and that no force could ever alter them. In some cases, that may even be true. In others, they may be Berlin Walls: it may not be easy or painless to remove them or change them, but it can be done with sufficient effort. And how will we know until we try?

I’m still working on that WIP I’ve been blogging about for what seems like a very long time. It’s now become perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever written, with the possible exception of the PhD thesis. I think that’s because it is in some ways the most ambitious project I’ve done in writing fiction, and I’ve hit several stages (I’m kind of in one now) where I’m not persuaded it’s actually that good and the Urge to Abandon is strong.

But, I don’t think that’s the right move for my development as a writer (and some of the Eager Volunteers have been very enthusiastic about it) and so I am pressing on against my own doubts. Some days I wonder if I can do it, finish this story and finish it in a way that people will want to read. This week I am trying to tell myself it is a Berlin Wall.

——

I have (of course? surprisingly?) seen the trailer for Solo, the Han Solo prequel that is the next ‘Star Wars Movie that is emphatically not an episode of Star Wars‘. I don’t have a lot to say about it. Han is one of my favourite characters from the movies, and I’m about equal parts looking forward to seeing more of his story and hoping that they don’t screw it up. Of course, there’s the added complication of seeing the part played by someone other than Harrison Ford, and seeing someone other than Billy Dee Williams as Lando.

However, I read (and then, as I do, promptly forgot the author of) what I thought was a good article about how the (over) analysis of things like movie trailers has become a fairly poisonous part of the fan community of a lot of SFF. The trailers are dissected and analysed and theorized over to such an extent that the eventual film almost cannot possibly meet the created expectations.

Also, what we saw in the Rogue One trailer was almost entirely gone by the time the movie hit theatres, and the Last Jedi trailers managed to hide almost everything of actual significance about the movie we saw. I know I’ll see Solo when it comes out, and some of the stuff in the trailer looks neat. That’s as far as I go on this one.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Perfect/Imperfect

I’ve been thinking about heroes, or I guess more properly about protagonists, the last while. I confess that a lot of the reason why is connected to The Last Jedi and the reaction to it, still. (I fired off my overall feelings about the movie a few blogs back.) A lot of the more thoughtful criticism I’ve seen of the movie (there’s a lot of it that I have no trouble dismissing out of hand) centres around Luke Skywalker, and the argument that his portrayal in Last Jedi is either inconsistent with the character we saw in the original trilogy or even a ‘betrayal’ of the character.

Mostly this is because either (depending how you look at it) Last Jedi shows us a side of Luke we haven’t seen before, or introduces a significant change to the character from the last time we saw him. Original Trilogy Luke is good at everything, and with a couple of notable exceptions, he doesn’t screw up. And even when he does screw up, it works out for the best in the end. Even when Ben and Yoda are convinced he’s wrong about Vader, nope, it turns out that Luke was right in the end. He always comes through, and he’s always up to the challenge.

There’s no question that things are different in Last Jedi. Luke has made at least one big mistake that he doesn’t know how to fix, and made a series of decisions that look, at least, pretty questionable. (Now, I think this all hangs together perfectly well, narratively, but I’m not going to dig into that seriously now, except to say that I think the basic issue is the difference between Original Trilogy Luke who Does Things and after-Original Trilogy Luke who now has to be a teacher, which is not the same at all) So, if what you need or want is for Luke to continue to be a flawless hero, then yeah, the film is not going to give you what you’re after.

Now, my reaction was that I like Luke Skywalker better as a character after getting these new parts added to his character, precisely because it makes him (more) imperfect. However, this whole issue got me to thinking about whether, on the whole, we prefer our heroes to be perfect, or not. If you look around SFF (and other kinds of fiction, really) you’ll find a lot of popular examples both ways.

In general, I like my heroes to be a little less than perfect, and I think I always have. I never really liked Superman, growing up, because he really had no downsides. (I’ve come around a bit on him in more recent years, but he’s never going to be a favourite) Easily the least interesting of the characters at Camelot is Galahad – literally the perfect knight, also indisputably the least fun of the lot of them. Give me a dozen Gawain or Palomides stories, hold the Galahad please.

I think any character that has some flaws and some things they aren’t good at and some parts of their life they struggle with is easier to identify with and easier to root for. I also think they’re a little more dramatic, because you never know exactly how the balance between positives and negatives is going to shake out. (Or at least, we can convince ourself that we don’t know long enough to enjoy the story)

On the other hand, there is something reassuring about the flawless hero. They can’t ever let you down, they can’t ever disappoint you. Whatever you need them to be, that’s what they are. It’s a lovely idea to think of having someone like that on your side. I suspect that’s a lot of the appeal of Superman, for example, and perhaps part of what people liked about flawless Luke Skywalker.

I’m not sure there’s really a right or a wrong answer here, and which sort of protagonist is appropriate probably depends a great deal on the kind of story that you’re trying to tell. I also suspect that, as usual, the thing that may really be problematic for people is change – when a character that we thought was one way is revealed to be a little different. Personally I don’t have an issue with that, as a fan or a writer, as long as the change is handled with some sensitivity and we’re given a strong reason for it, but I can understand where the unhappiness might come from.

Something worth thinking about with my own imaginary people, probably. Thanks for your time.

I’ll try to ease up on the Star Wars blogs for a while.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,