Tag Archives: This is Not Advice

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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Theory of Villains

I have a theory about villains. It’s not exactly my theory in the sense of something I invented; I either read it or heard it somewhere (and my rapidly-aging brain has genuinely forgotten where) and instantly felt that it was true. So I did what (I am told) all good writers do and stole it. To whoever I stole it from, both thank you and my apologies.

In any case, the Theory of Villains is basically this. A compelling villain, the kind you remember and the kind that really works as a character, is one that believes they are completely justified in everything they do. They don’t think of themselves as doing anything bad at all. If you sat them down and talked to them, they would explain with complete sincerity that everyone else has it wrong, and that they are in fact the good guy. Now, this isn’t true of all or even necessarily most fictional villains, but when I think of the ones that I have really liked as characters, that I have enjoyed reading about (even while rooting against them) and really believed as creations, it is almost always true.

Lex Luthor thinks Superman is an alien menace.  Tom Zarek from the BSG reboot was a wonderful example of the Theory – he’s always, always got apparently selfless, altruistic motives for everything he does.  Heck, some of the time the show’s protagonists even believe him.  One of Jim Butcher’s better villain creations was the faerie lady Aurora, who is willing to dump the world into endless winter – to bring an end to millennia of Summer vs Winter war and all the suffering this has caused.

Another writer friend of mine pointed out that this is basically the inverse of her Theory of Heroes, which is essentially that everyone thinks that they’re the hero of the story. Nobody thinks of themselves as a side character in someone else’s story; the story is about them and (among other things) therefore their needs are likely to be paramount, their goals the most significant ones. I think this is a) broadly true and also b) important for thinking about how to write believable characters, because even if, as writers, we do decide who the Main Character is and who the Minor Characters are, those Minor Characters probably wouldn’t or shouldn’t agree, if we could ask them. They’re the star of their own story, and that’s how they would see their (pretend) world and interpret what goes on in it. It makes things more complicated for writing them, but I think it does also lead to characters that readers will believe.

Back to the villains, though. It’s easy (easy-ish) to write a character that just Does Bad Stuff and cackles maniacally and have your hero try to Do Something About it, but I’m not really going to buy it as a reader unless there’s a reason why. Why does this person (or whatever) want to kill a bunch of people, or blow something up, or whatever dastardly plot they have in mind? The characters that I tend to remember long after the story is over are the ones who would not only have a reason, but would also explain that what they were doing wasn’t dastardly at all. It had, needed to be done.

I recently came across a good example of this being (in my view) violated on a TV show that I ordinarily think is pretty good – basically we have our bad guy and he has a huge spaceship and it’s name the Malevolence. Which is a nicely menacing name, except that no-one actually names their ships that. No-one really (I argue) sits there and thinks ‘I am an intensely Evil Person and thus this Evil Name for my stuff is appropriate’. They think, instead, that they’re doing the right thing, perhaps via ‘tough love’ or ‘harsh medicine’, or perhaps they’re the only person with the courage to realize what the problems are and do what is necessary. They give their ship a name like Justifier or Conviction or something.

I’m writing about this this week because recent events gave me some pause about the Theory of Villains. I was confronted with people who genuinely made the argument that it was ok to stop funding food for the elderly, the sick, and underprivileged children, on the grounds that there was nothing in it for them and that they weren’t seeing enough of a return. As though a ‘return’ beyond ‘feeding hungry people’ should be necessary. If I read that in a book I’d think ‘no dude, that’s a bit over the top and you need to dial this back a bit if I’m going to believe it’.

And yet here we are. And then another friend of mine pointed out that the people who make these kind of decisions genuinely think the poor are in poverty because of their own wastefulness and failures and deserve punishment, and so the Theory of Villains got another unwelcome bit of supporting evidence.

There really is a way to make nearly any vile character into one who believes that they’re the hero. While it’s unfortunate (to put it lightly) that we’ve got these real life examples to contend with, as a writer I keep the Theory of Villains in mind whenever I’m creating one of my imaginary bad people. I’ve always tried to make my antagonists the kind of people who would vehemently argue that they’re not villains at all, and I think it’s turned out ok.

This is all perilously close to Advice.

Thanks for reading.

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Hawkeye

In my continuing quest to prove that I have my finger firmly on the pulse of five years ago, I thought that this week I’d write about a comic series I really enjoyed: Matt Fraction and (mostly) David Aja’s run on Hawkeye. Hawkeye had never been one of my favourite superheroes growing up (among other things, his classic costume is pretty goofy) but I heard a lot of very good things about this series and so when it started coming out in trade paperbacks I picked it up.

I’m really glad I did. Although the title is Hawkeye, it’s really about two characters, Clint Barton (classic Hawkeye of the formerly-goofy costumer) and Kate Bishop, who (in a classically comic-booky situation) picked up the Hawkeye identity when everyone thought Clint was dead. One of the things I liked about it right away is that the book isn’t about Hawkeye and his sidekick. They’re both Hawkeye. They both have their moments of brilliance and moments of disaster. It works really well. After reading Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye, now Clint and Kate are two of my favourite superheroes, to the point that I kind of don’t want to read more of the series in case it’s not as good. That’s the good part about reading comics late and selectively – I can just pretend the series didn’t continue if I want to.

Most of the time the stories are reasonably light-hearted street-level superhero-y action, although it’s probably fair to say they get a little grittier as they go along, which ends up hitting harder than a lot of straight-up grim stuff does because it kind of crept up on you from behind a fun facade, if that makes sense. Even in the early issues, though, every so often a little bit of seriousness peeks through, as when Clint wonders what it says about him that every time he goes into a room he starts looking around for things he could use as a weapon. Fraction really emphasizes the idea that while Clint is a really good archer (although Kate is probably better, or at least will be), that’s just one of the very many ways he knows how to inflict damage.

The usual backstory is that this is something Clint learned from a mentor during his time with the circus (really) but Fraction starts it off much earlier, when Clint and his brother Barney were still living with their parents, and in particular their abusive father. After one especially bad night, Barney gives his little brother some advice. “Make everything something to hit with. Then we outlast him.”

Which is a pretty bleak thing for a kid to be saying to his little brother, but when I was re-reading the books lately, that one line really resonated with me. I seem to be thinking (and writing a lot of these blogs) a lot about perseverance, these days, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I’m struggling to write. Maybe it’s because my workload these days feels a little heavy. Maybe there’s some other reason.

Anyway, even though I don’t get in actual fights, the idea behind Barney’s advice seems solid. Whatever the battle is, even if it doesn’t necessarily seem like you’ve got the weapons you want or need, you keep trying with whatever you’ve got. With my writing problems, even if the words aren’t gushing out of me, if I get a couple sentences out that’s at least moving the ball forward a little. It’s not following any ideal plans for how to write a novel, but as long as it’s moving the word count upwards, even slightly, it’s something. I can keep reading things that inspire me. I can keep at least outlining out the stuff that I’m having difficulty turning into prose on the page, so that when I’m ready to pound out the text I’ll know right where to go. I can send out some of the stuff I have done to the Eager Volunteers so that their feedback can give me some ideas for how to proceed. Every day, I can find some way to continue working on this project and refusing to quit on it until it’s done. Keep fighting, and outlast whatever the problem is.

Barney Barton’s other piece of advice on fighting (offered in the same issue, and also to small children, which is slightly distressing, although he goes on to explain that anyone can get into a fight but that doing good is difficult) is that sometimes the winner of a fight is the person who is willing to get hurt the longest. I guess I feel that way about a great many challenges in life, these days. Sometimes you just have to stand in there, say absolutely no I will not quit, and keep plugging away with whatever tools and assets you can find, whatever you can lay your hands on and make into something to hit with. Keep at it long enough and eventually you’ll find a way through, or around, or maybe under, the problem you’ve got in front of you.

It even occurs to me, as I write this, that this isn’t the worst philosophy to keep in mind given certain, uh, current events. A lot of people have an enormous battle in front of them that looks pretty difficult to win, and if you look at it quickly it may seem like we don’t have any weapons. But the battle is everywhere, and so are the tools we can use to fight it. Everything we do, every choice we make, can be part of continuing the struggle and continuing the resistance. The things we buy, or don’t buy. The voices we listen to. The people we choose to help. We can make everything within our grasp something to hit out at the enemy with. It won’t all be super effective. But it probably all adds up, and if nothing else it shows that we aren’t down yet. We’re still fighting.

Make everything something to hit with.

Then we outlast him.

Thanks for reading.

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In case you missed me ballyhooing this earlier, I did an interview for Black Gate Magazine with Brandon Crilly. If you’d like to read even more of me jabbering on about stuff I write, you can check it out here. Black Gate publishes a lot of great fantasy-related content so you really should be reading them anyway.

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No Middle Ages

This is a topic I’ve been saving up for a week when I didn’t have a good idea to write about – and this is one of those weeks. Here we go.

You may (or may very well not!) know that I have a degree in medieval history. As a result, when a lot of people find out that I write fiction, they assume that I therefore write either historical fiction or classic fantasy (by which I mean fantasy set in some imagined society that takes medieval European society as its foundation, with castles and knights and so on). As of yet, I do not – both of my books are what I guess we could call contemporary fantasy, or fantasies set in some close analog of the modern world, rather than some version of the past societies that I study and love. My current project is set in the past, but not in the medieval past, or any version of it; this story takes place in an imaginary version of the 19th century (there is a whole question to be asked about how good an idea this is that I am cheerfully ignoring for now). I can’t argue with the idea that this seems to playing against what you might assume to be my strengths. Very often, people then ask why. I usually just say, “It’s complicated.”

This is the longer answer.

I want to make clear from the outset that I love to read both historical fiction and classic fantasy. Some of my favourite books are from those genres and some of my favourite authors work in them. There are reasons why these are enduring and popular forms of story with audiences spanning impressive distances of time and space. And yet, I’ve never seriously tried to write either kind.

I think there are two main reasons, and they kind of flow into each other. One is that I know, from talking to writers who do write historical fiction, how very hard it is to do well. An immense amount of work goes into figuring out the right vocabulary to put in the mouths of your characters, the appropriate technology to have available, the right sort of names to give them and populating the setting with the buildings, foods, animals, instruments, and a thousand other things that meet the demands of the story but also fit with the time being described. As an example, I did once try a short piece set in the Middle Ages, and ran into problems with what to call the hired muscle. Can’t use ‘thug’ (19th century). Can’t use ‘goon’ (20th century). Even ‘bully’ appears to be 16th century and thus too late. As I check now, I see I used ‘ruffian’, which also seems to be too late, although maybe I thought its Latin etymology let me get away with it.

And that’s one word. What would the food be like? Animals and their associated equipment are devilishly complicated. Ask any medieval historian about inns and prepare for a difficult answer.

So it’s very hard to do right, and I would be keenly aware, as a scholar of the past, of a need to do it right, and any mistakes (like ‘ruffian’) would bother me. I would also be concerned that people would read the thing, expecting all the pieces, large and small, to be just right, and be most displeased when they weren’t. I don’t exactly expect a thesis examination panel response to a history-based story that I might write, but I don’t exactly not expect one either. Now, it’s true that writing fantasy rather than historical fiction somewhat exempts you from all these problems – if you want your pseudo-medieval society to have had potatoes, it can just have potatoes – but I would still feel the need to portray a society that was credible based on what I know about the real past, which would be very nearly as hard.

So, part of why I don’t do it is that although it seems like it should be easy, I feel instead that there’s a great deal of pressure (most of it internally-generated) in writing about the medieval world (or something resembling the medieval world) that I don’t currently feel like tackling, or at least not until I have an idea that’s so exciting that I can’t avoid it. It’s true that I probably have more to build on than many other writers might, but I guess what I’m saying is that that also makes me aware of a great many more pitfalls that I worry about how to avoid.

However, there’s more to the problem.

Because I think I could, if I put in the spadework, produce stories set in the past, or something like it, that would be a reasonable approximation of what we think it was really like. The other trouble is that I’m not sure it’s what people really want to read. I think sometimes we (and I include myself in this) prefer our imaginary version of things to reality. It can be ever so much more fun that way, perhaps also more uplifting or comforting. I guess, on some level, I worry that if I wrote a story that closely represented medieval society the way I understand it, people would read it and think something like ‘well that’s just not very cool’.

I’m not really sure why I think that, because I think the real Middle Ages were amazingly cool, and I don’t think it was necessarily an awful grim joyless time to be alive, and I think when I teach courses on the subject I communicate that reasonably well. But stories are not lectures (or at least, I don’t think they should be), and my guess is that people may prefer the imagined past to the real one. As an example I’ve used here before: yes, it would probably be possible to write the story of the ‘real’ King Arthur, of whatever historical personage inspired some or all of the legend, but I don’t think people would like it very much because it wouldn’t have Lancelot and it wouldn’t have the quest for the Grail and so many other parts of the story that we love today. We don’t want the real story, we want the imaginary one. Which is wonderful, but then I think that if I’m not going to write something rooted in reality, then there’s no real advantage to me writing a medieval story at all, and I may as well just write another of the contemporary-rooted ones that I have rattling around my rickety brain.

(Yes, this all sits more than a little uneasily with my previously-expressed love for historical fiction and the fact that I know it is very popular. I know you can do this really well. I have never pretended that all my thoughts fit together terribly well and won’t start now. I suppose in the end what I doubt is my ability to do it really well.)

All this may just mean that I don’t have the right ideas yet, and when I do I will sit down to write about the Middle Ages, or my imagined version of them, with confidence and energy. It may be that I will never do it. I honestly don’t know, except that when I think about all the stories that I would currently like to get to writing at some time in the not too distant future, there still isn’t a medieval, or medieval-ish, one among them.

Just as honestly, I think that’s fine. There are, after all, so many people already doing it well. As ever, this is Not Advice, but I think the best thing most artists can do is do whatever work excites them and inspires them, rather than worrying about what makes sense for them to do or what they of course should be doing. Or such are the thoughts that I use to comfort myself, anyway.

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


In case you missed the announcements on social media, Can-Con, Ottawa’s Speculative Arts and Literature conference, has booked its dates for 2017.  As part of the programming team I’m already getting excited.  The con will run from October 13-15 and returns to the Sheraton Hotel in the city’s downtown.  Details and registration here.

Also in case you missed it: I will be donating all of my royalties from sales of The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures to the Canadian Council for Refugees from now until March 3rd.  It’s a modest gesture, but it’s something that I can do to help people who truly need the world to be just a little kind to them.  If you’d like to help people looking for safety and reward yourself with a story I think you’ll enjoy at the same time, I would be very grateful.

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The Year Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slightly Off

A few days ago one of my friends from the UK posted a picture on Facebook of a dinner they ate as part of an evening out – it was fries and a hot dog. (Hang in with me for a second here, I swear this is going someplace) What with this being a British hot dog, I was reminded of my own experience with those when I went to school in York for a year.

It was my first full day in England, I was still heavily jet-lagged and hadn’t eaten anything that didn’t come from an airport or a vending machine in at least 24 hours. I hadn’t been to anything to do with school yet, but I thought it was a good idea to go and explore the city. When I did, I came across a man selling hot dogs from a cart in the city centre. I was feeling pretty disoriented and dazed and confused and thought a hot dog would be a nice familiar set of sensations and so I bought one.

Boy was it not. It turns out that hot dogs in England are, for some reason, both longer and skinnier than the standard issue wiener here. The bun (at least on this occasion) more strongly resembled a thick slice of bread. The mustard was not the blazing yellow ooze we usually deploy here, but a (probably superior) product involving actual mustard seeds and a more reasonable hue. The whole thing left me feeling more disoriented and alienated than ever.

I had anticipated something I knew very well and had well-established expectations about. What I got was something that almost, but not quite, met those expectations, but was different in a number of really very subtle ways. I think this is often more disturbing and harder for us to handle than if something is a completely new experience. There’s probably some explanation here from psychology about how our brains work and look for patterns or anticipate input and then get upset when these things are undermined. I don’t really know, but I have found it generally true that things feel most alien when they are almost, but not quite, what I expect them to be. Even allowing for the jet lag, that hot dog in York was one of the most alien things I have ever eaten, because I thought I knew what I was getting and then got something that wasn’t quite it.

I didn’t directly take this hot dog experience (I mean really) and use it to inform my writing, but I think the same general principle holds true for writing horror and creepy fiction. I think we’re more disturbed by situations that seem as though they’re familiar, what we expect, and what we know, but are then just slightly off. A monster in some fantastic realm that is nothing like our own is likely to be impressive, and exciting, and we can agree it sounds pretty dangerous. But a monster that shows up on your street, or one that seems to be just like the person next to you on the bus, until it makes its move, is far more likely to really bother us. The world that conforms to our expectations of what is possible and what can occur until the moment that it isn’t quite right is scarier than one that is completely alien.

We like to think we know what the world around us is like. Experiences that suggest that that isn’t actually the case are the ones that, I think, really get to us. If you have the right (or wrong, I suppose) kind of brain these experiences are all around you. When you go for a walk in the park, and find a single shoe by the path, you know (or you’re pretty sure you know) that it was just lost or discarded. A far more unlikely explanation is that the shoe is all that’s left of the victim of some predatory creature that now lives in the woods here. And now the park feels very different.

I guess that’s what I have tried to do with The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures – to make the monsters of the stories part of a hopefully familiar world around us. I think they’re more likely to bother you (in the enjoyable sense!!) that way. A lot of times people ask what the difference between fantasy and horror is, and I think part of the answer is that horror is supposed to unsettle you on some level, and I think we’re most easily unsettled by what hits close to home, and to find ourselves in a world that is almost – but not quite – what we think it is.

In any case, this entry is rather dangerously like advice (but it is not advice), but I thought I’d share the train of thought my friend’s no doubt alarmingly British hot dog triggered off. Thanks for reading.

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By chance, today’s blog falls on the anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique shootings in which 14 women were killed by a man who was filled with hatred. I promised long ago not to let December 6th pass without taking a moment to remember. As should we all – bad things happen when we forget to oppose them. I think we’re rightly pretty proud of our society in Canada, but there is still so much work to do. There are still far too many women who are victims of violence and discrimination. We owe it to them all to do so much better. We can.

Fourteen Not Forgotten:

Geneviève Bergeron

Hélène Colgan

Nathalie Croteau

Barbara Daigneault

Anne-Marie Edward

Maud Haviernick

Maryse Laganière

Maryse Leclair

Anne-Marie Lemay

Sonia Pelletier

Michèle Richard

Annie St-Arneault

Annie Turcotte

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

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If you’re in Ottawa, you can now pick up a copy of Bonhomme Sept-Heures at the Heart Tea Heart tea shop at Merivale Mall. It’s a fantastic way to do it because they’ll even suggest which one of their amazing teas will go best with your read, and you could grab other titles from Renaissance Press and S.M. Carriere while you’re there! Give them a visit, in person and/or on the intertron here.

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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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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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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.

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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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