Tag Archives: Writing

Missy

I have been enjoying this latest season of Doctor Who quite a bit. I think they’ve finally given Peter Capaldi a good run of solidly-written episodes to really show off his take on the character, his companion Bill has been very well done, and as a fan of the classic series I’ve enjoyed the return of some of the classic antagonists.

(We’re going to get into spoilery territory here, if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who. Proceed on your own advice)

I’ve also been enjoying the storyline with Missy, and her (apparent) desire for atonement for their past crimes and (apparent) desire to be a better person now. I said on Twitter a couple week ago that I would very much like this apparent desire for redemption to be real, and although the latest episode (ending with Missy standing, apparently thoroughly content, next to her past incarnation and Bill who has been horribly converted into a Cyberman) makes it all look very doubtful. I still want it to be true, though.

In part this is because Michelle Gomez has, I think, given a really compelling performance throughout the storyline. I should take a moment to say that after a wee bit of initial scepticism I have adored her in the role overall. Gomez channels just enough of past Masters (she gets a certain facial expression that Anthony Ainley used to use exactly right) to remind you that this is the same character, but has till carved out something entirely unique with her casual contempt for the people around her and almost bored attitude towards death. It has, then, been interesting to see her playing this character apparently regretting all this villainy, and she’s sold it very, very well. The scene where she asks the Doctor if they can now be friends again was really touching, and for a moment at least you really believed Missy wants, very badly, to have her oldest (and probably only) friend back again. You can tell that the Doctor wants to believe her as much as I do in the audience, although he doesn’t quite trust it, and the audience knows that he is probably right.

I have always kind of been a sucker for villain-redemption stories in general, though. Done well, they can provide an entirely new life for a character; in this case, a redeemed (or at least kind-of-redeemed) Master would be an intriguing character to have around. In the X-Men comics I read growing up, Magneto became (to me) much more interesting once he moved from being a villain to (sometimes reluctant) ally.   Walter Skinner was a much better character once he was, somewhat exasperatedly, on Mulder and Scully’s side than when he was trying to shut them down.  Missy (or some version of the Master, as this is apparently Michelle Gomez’ last season in the role) as a similar figure for the Doctor would be interesting territory for writers to explore, I think.

Done well, the story of a villain’s redemption is immensely satisfying. To cherry-pick a really easy example, the eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi is a wonderful ending to the original Star Wars trilogy. Even the film’s most iconic villain can be brought back to the good side in the end. I think, personally, this is part of why I like villain-redemption stories; I think I probably would like to believe that even the very worst people can eventually be persuaded that they’ve been wrong and convinced to change their ways. I don’t think I’m alone in this; one of the most beloved Christmas stories is basically this happening to Ebenezer Scrooge.

However, there are problems. On Doctor Who, we know, if we know anything, that an appearance by the Master (Missy incarnation or not) isn’t an appearance by the Master until it ends with them cackling like a maniac and revealing their diabolical plot. This is, along with some kind of disguise, one of the essential elements of a Master story, and we’ve already had the disguise.

This is part of the wider problem with redeeming villains in general. For a writer, if you turn your villain away from being a baddie, you get one compelling story out of it, but if you’re continuing to write in that world, you’ve now deprived yourself of an engaging villain, and you’ve already got a hero. Missy the antagonist, the weaver of plots and architect of horrible schemes, is far more useful to the writer than a reformed ally is ever likely to be. This, I think, is why a lot of redemption stories in comics and ongoing series tend to be temporary: however good the reformation story was, in the end the character works better as a villain, and so back they go to the other side of the chess board.

I am reminded, as well, of one of the more ‘meta’ parts of Neil Gaiman’s 1602 comic, where an alternate-universe version of Reed Richards is musing on whether Ben Grimm can ever be cured of being the Thing. Reed concludes that they live in a universe of stories (very Gaiman there) and that this unfortunately means that any cure could only be temporary, because Ben is a much better story as the Thing. Likewise, Missy is probably a better story, or makes for better stories, as a villain, and so I’m fairly confident that she’ll end up there sooner rather than later.

There’s yet another problem with redeeming villains. There is a point at which it is reasonable to question whether or not they deserve to be redeemed, whether or not they can reasonably be forgiven, and whether we can ever see them as anything but monsters. In the case of Missy, this is a character who has done evil things on an immense scale. Never mind the sheer number of beings they’ve killed, either personally or through things they’ve done, this is a person who destroyed a significant chunk of the universe through one of their anti-Doctor schemes in Logopolis. Can you ever really say to such a person, ‘well, it’s ok, we’re all good?’

I kind of touched on this a while ago in the blog regarding the controversy over Marvel’s ‘Captain America as secret Nazi’ plotline. There are some things, I think, that your characters don’t get to come back from, or at least, that your audience isn’t required to accept villains coming back from. In my view, secret Nazi Cap is one of those. Michelle Gomez’ winning performance aside, it may be reasonable enough to say that the Master is another. And yet, Darth Vader, the brutal, terrorizing, torturing, arch-villain of Star Wars, for some reason I’m all right with. It is, for me, a difficult equation to try to balance. I’d like the villains to be redeemed in the end, but as an audience it’s probably not always possible to accept and as a writer you may be pushing your luck with what you’re asking of your readers.

I guess we ask ourselves this about real world people all the time. Can people who have committed terrible acts ever be forgiven for them? Are they condemned forever? I suppose in some ways it would be comforting to think that no matter what mis-steps we make, that we can always be forgiven if we’re truly sorry for what we’ve done (thus the selling point of at least one major religion), but can we practically believe it? Is society required to actually do it?

Now, Doctor Who hasn’t come out and explicitly addressed any of this territory, and nor did Star Wars, not really, but I think one final reason why villain-redemption stories are compelling is that, done well, they make you think of all these issues. Part of the power of fiction is to thrust these conundrums upon us and ask us to wrestle with them, and the question of Missy, whether she genuinely wants to atone or is just waiting to drop her latest bomb on the Doctor, and whether her atonement could ever be enough for us, are interesting puzzles for an audience to pick at.

I don’t really have answers for the sticky questions above. Except perhaps that yes, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed for everything he did as Darth Vader, but he gives his life to earn it.

—–

I also saw Wonder Woman. It was, I thought, a really good movie, for a variety of reasons. However, I’m not going to write blog post on it. After I got home from the film I made a Facebook post about how I had liked it and a very intelligent friend of mine posted back: “What did you like about it?” This took me me back to long-ago conversations when I was doing my MA. This friend is, I have to emphasize here, a thoroughly wonderful person and an amazing companion for both serious and light-hearted times, but every so often the conversation would wander around to scholarship, and sometimes even my research, and then they would ask something like ‘what did you think about it?’ or ‘and what did you conclude?’

In that moment I was (as I guess one is) intensely aware that this person is much cleverer than me and far more well read and that I mostly didn’t want to say something that was ignorant, ill-conceived, stupid, or all of the above. I also lack(ed) the conversational artistry to extract myself from such situations with clever nothingness. In my memory, I usually said something thick and waited for oblivion to come. (I should say, too, that I know my friend was either trying to be helpful, taking an interest, or both. I knew it then. I still never did well under those suddenly serious eyes.  Squirm squirm.)

All of which to say that there has already been a good deal written about why Wonder Woman is a good and probably important movie by people who have a better perspective on it than me and articulate the arguments better than I will. It’s not terribly important that the world has my perspective on Wonder Woman, beyond that I think it’s good and that you should go see it, and I don’t want to say anything ignorant, ill-conceived, or stupid.

I did answer my friend’s post though. I hope they didn’t think I was very thick.

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Grab Bag

As the title suggests, this is going to be a bit of a grab-bag of thoughts I’ve had while getting back to work on the current WIP. (Which still lacks an actual title. Hmm.) I was going to follow on from writing a bit about the TV adaptation of American Gods last week by writing about the TV Handmaid’s Tale this week, but I’m not the best person to talk about it and I’m not sure that I have anything especially noteworthy to say at this point anyway. Except I guess that if you haven’t been watching it, you should a) brace yourself and b) go watch it, because it’s quite well done.

I am, as summer reluctantly comes to my part of the world, trying to get back at working on my current project somewhat systematically, with the aim (still?) being to have a complete first draft done by the fall. Part of what I’m trying to figure out is how I can make writing a scheduled part of my routine. I do much better with a lot of stuff when I have a plan to always do it at X time on whatever days of the week than when I just try to figure out when it gets done on the fly. This isn’t just the case for writing, it’s how I get myself to the gym and get my running done and a lot of other stuff. If I leave the time for things vague, they live in an eternal ‘later’, never getting actually taken care of. If I have in my mind that I do this (say) every morning starting at 9, then something takes place.

I don’t at all suggest that this is some iron rule for how to Be an Effective Writer, because that would be advice, and mostly I think everyone needs to figure out their own methods and process that works for them anyway. Some people probably do need to write every day, some people work well with specific word targets per week, some people need to Go To A Place and Work There. Despite (although also in some part because of) all the earnestly written declarations on how to Do Authoring, I think there’s no universal formula and you just gotta figure out what leads to you getting words on the page and then unapologetically do that. Of course that’s not an easy thing to figure out, but neither is trying to contort yourself to fit someone else’s process. I think I have a ‘morning writing’ thing going on now and we’ll see how that works.

Part of what caused me some difficulty recently (along with all kinds of Real Life stuff, and then also just being very tired) was the disappearance of a deadline. I’ve mentioned before that I work very well when I have a deadline (I do not miss deadlines) and that part of the adjustment from being a student to being basically employed by me post-education is not having deadlines imposed on me. Again, that eternal ‘not now, but soon’ becomes very attractive. I’m getting better at working without deadlines but if I’m being honest what I also do is seize on things that I can use as a deadline to restore that familiar motivation.

For this WIP, I had decided that I wanted to have it ready to pitch to the agent Guest of Honour that will be coming to this year’s Can*Con SFF conference in Ottawa, which seemed a solid idea. (Brief aside – I am on the programming team for Can*Con, we’ve got some very exciting stuff planned for this October, and you should definitely come if you can. All the details are not ready to release yet, but you can check out a lot about us here.) Unfortunately, I did the required research and found that she doesn’t rep the kind of thing that I’m working on. Which is of course fine, and of course she’s still an amazing Guest of Honour for Can*Con to have, but her usefulness to me as a deadline suddenly dematerialized, and not a lot got written for a while.

I really need to break myself of this deadline habit.

As I’m writing at the moment, I’m also reading, of course, and right now I’m reading the John Le Carré autobiography I mentioned a while back, and re-reading some William Gibson. They are, I guess obviously, very different writers, but to me they are also similar in that I deeply admire the way they craft with words. They’re both (to me) quite demanding writers, in that their writing requires your attention. Both can get a lot out of a little, conveying things of tremendous importance with a perfectly-chosen word or two, so you really can’t miss anything.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a long time, you’ll remember that there was a time when I tried, very hard, to write like William Gibson, and that it didn’t go very well. I don’t do that any more, but I find reading both him and Le Carré inspirational in the sense of reminding me what is possible to do with words when you put them together right, and to try to push myself to achieve something at least somewhat similar. This isn’t to say that other styles of writing can’t also be effective, can’t also be fun to read, and can’t also be artistic. But I guess the arguably subtler or more intricate mode of operation twangs something inside me just that little bit more, and is the style that I would be most content if I could produce something like. I’m not sure that I’m anywhere in that quadrant of the galaxy, but (all my wittering about struggles with the WIP notwithstanding) I am enjoying the effort.

One of the decisions I made in writing this current WIP was to write it just as I wanted to, to just really let myself use exactly the words I wanted to. I was going to thoroughly ignore the questions of ‘is this the right voice?’ and ‘what kind of audience does this appeal to’? I was just going to write something that pleased me, do it as well as I could, and then see what people thought of it. The basic idea is/was kind of crazy anyway, so if it ended up something that appealed to no-one else but me it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world. Fortunately for me, what I’ve heard back from the Eager Volunteers and my writers’ circle has so far been very kind and very encouraging, which of course makes me more confident to go on doing things this way. Again, I’m not suggesting this is always the right way to do things, but at the moment it’s having good results for me.

Anyway. I’ve got a little over 30,000 words (much of it non-sequential, of course) written, and if I can get down to this over the summer I should be able to finish my story in time for the autumn. Then I will begin a whole new set of challenges, but that’s something to worry about another day. That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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American Gods (kind of)

This is one of those weeks when I had an idea for what I was going to write about, had written a good chunk of the blog in my head at least, and then just before it was time to actually do the thing, something happened that required a change. To explain – I had decided last week to write about the TV adaptation of American Gods, a novel by Neil Gaiman that I enjoyed tremendously. Partly that was because we were 5 (now 6) episodes in which seemed a fair body of work to start to talk about the series on, but mostly because there was some controversy surrounding the opening of episode 5.

To explain (further), Episode 5 opens with a segment depicting a tribe that has just crossed the Bering Land Bridge*, entered North America, and what happens to them. It’s striking, but a lot of criticism emerged about the show’s portrayal of First Nations people, the decision to use CGI characters rather than employing First Nations actors, and the (apparent) lack of consultation with First Nations people in creating the segment. I happen to agree that a lot of this is problematic, and so that’s what I was going to write about today.

However. Late on the weekend I read a reminder that people in positions of privilege (such as myself) shouldn’t speak on behalf of those from marginalized groups. We should allow them to speak for themselves, and listen. So I’m not going to write what I was going to, although I will suggest you seek out some of the critiques of Episode 5 of American Gods and read them. They’re important, especially for writers, to think about. We all want to create something cool, but we need to be very thoughtful and cautious about how we do that, always.

I will say that I think it’s unfortunate that the show made this misstep, because overall I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how American Gods has gone. I tend to be sceptical about TV or movie adaptations of favourite books, because I know it will bother me if I feel like they haven’t been done well. The movie version of Johnny Mnemonic was horrifically bad, but it was even worse for me because I had read and loved William Gibson’s short story. (And then even worse beyond that because I had persuaded friends to go to the film based on my enthusiasm for the source material)

Overall American Gods has done well, I think, in portraying Gaiman’s story. Some parts have been basically straight depictions of parts of the book, some places have diverged a little from the original, and then there have been entirely new parts and changes in direction. I’m both a little glad to see that – because it makes me feel as though I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen – and a little worried – because the book was very good and so it’s maybe natural to suspect that any changes will be for the worse.

So far, though, although I haven’t loved all the new things, the overall experience has been fun to watch. Ian McShane is an excellent Mr. Wednesday, Ricky Lovett is good as Shadow Moon, and Gillian Anderson has been an absolute delight as Media. Gaiman’s strange, sprawling story cannot be easy to adapt to television and so far this is a good effort, even if the showrunners need to be a little more careful with some of what they’re doing.

——-

Somewhat along the same lines, I spent the weekend at a writing convention. I personally enjoyed myself; I took part in really interesting panel discussions, met and renewed acquaintances with wonderful and talented people, and generally got to spend two days feeling like a writer. Which was nice.

However, at the same time that was going on, some other people had a far more negative experience, coming from a panel (which I wasn’t at) that was meant to talk about the portrayal of disabled people in genre fiction. It didn’t go well, and people I know left very upset. Again, it’s better if they speak for themselves, so you can read about one person’s experience here.

I wanted to mention it here, though, because it reminded me that as important as it is to include people from marginalized groups in our fiction and our discussions about fiction, it is absolutely crucial to do it thoughtfully and carefully and well. When it’s done wrong, it causes genuine pain and anger, and that’s obviously unacceptable.

The impulse to include people from all sorts of backgrounds and parts of society is absolutely a good one, but it is only step one of the process. The further steps require a lot of listening to those people, and a lot of letting them speak and take the lead. A lot of the time it can feel like people in privileged spots (like me!) need to be the ones taking action, but I’m increasingly learning that what we need to do is get out of the way and let others Do The Things. They’ll probably ask if they want help.

Anyway, this didn’t turn out to be the blog that I thought I was going to write this week, but it’s what I’ve got for you. Thanks for reading.

* – If nothing else, this controversy around American Gods introduced me to another, wider controversy regarding the Bering Land Bridge and how it is used to talk about human arrival in the Americas, which is both interesting and important to know about.

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John Le Carré

When I started writing this blog one of the first things I did was talk about some of the writers I particularly admire or who I think have influenced me in my own writing. I haven’t done that in a while, but as I have just started reading The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s autobiography, I thought I would do it again.

I admire Le Carré’s work for a couple of reasons. One is that his stories are just really good stories. Most of what he writes are contemporary spy stories, and no doubt due in part to his background as an intelligence officer, Le Carré writes them very well. I guess obviously I’m not in a position to comment on how accurate or realistic the books are, but they are to me thoroughly convincing and plausible portrayal of how the secret world is likely to work. Le Carré’s perspective on this contrasts very strongly with the many more romantic versions we are given, most famously in the James Bond stories.

When I was younger I read a lot of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, due at least in part to a massive compendium volume of them being for sale at a church garage sale, a sale at which ‘fill a bag of books for a buck’ was advertised. It probably says nothing good about me that I spent a couple of extra dollars on a massive hockey bag, packed it with books (including the Fleming) and argued that there had been no limits placed on what constituted a ‘bag’. I left with my haul, my mother’s chagrin and, no doubt, my fate in the afterlife thoroughly imperilled.

Anyway I read the Bond stories and with the flashy spectacle of the movies it is easy to forget that Fleming’s books are actually pretty solid. There are a lot of problems; they are also racist, or at least portray a very racist society, and although there are reasons for Bond’s serial misogyny, it doesn’t really change the fact that women get an extremely raw deal both from the stories’ hero and their creator. Especially from a modern point of view, Bond is difficult to actually like, and I sometimes wonder how much we’re supposed to.

Nevertheless, they are well-crafted thriller tales and teenage me read them and enjoyed them and parts of them still stick with me. There is a part of Doctor No where a badly injured Bond is trying to climb up the inside of an air shaft (best not to think about why) and is trying not to think about how far it is, just focusing on each tiny step along the way. ‘Take the silver inches one by one, and conquer them’, is how Bond envisions his task, and from time to time when I am faced with some seemingly insurmountable and endless challenge, whether mental or physical, I will say that to myself as I try to get at it.

That’s pretty good. Overall, I mention all this because Fleming’s famous spy is I guess an idealized version of the British intelligence officer, larger than life and impressively heroic. Bond is smooth and cool and deadly. By contrast, most of Le Carré’s spies are not. His most famous creation, George Smiley, is short and pudgy and socially clumsy. It’s interesting – to me, anyway, that both Fleming and Le Carré had real world experience in the world of intelligence, yet portray it so differently. I’m not sure if that speaks to their backgrounds (Fleming from a wealthy family, Le Carré from a much more troubled one), their experiences with the espionage trade, or simply their aims as authors.

On the whole, though, I suspect Le Carré’s version of espionage, ‘delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom’ is rather nearer to the truth than Fleming’s, and his flawed characters rather more like most of the spymasters of the real world. Smiley is not a lethal weapon one-on-one, struggles with his personal relationships, but his mind is a machine of tremendous precision, and he is particularly acute at discerning people’s weaknesses and how to make use of them. Smiley is not really a hero in the conventional sense, I don’t think – he does his duty and does it well, but we don’t get a great sense of idealism out of him. We see his moral and ethical struggles through many of the books, eventually ending with his determination to do what is required to defeat his opposite number on the Soviet side; whether the personal cost that Smiley paid for all this is worth it or not is left for the reader to determine. A great deal of espionage in Le Carré’s books is at best uncomfortable, and often downright unpleasant manipulations of people who may or may not deserve their fates, in the interests of powerful men and nations who may or may not deserve their defeats, and their victories.

Le Carré’s fictional worlds are less clearly divided into the good and the bad than many other spy stories, and in many of them basically decent people (like George Smiley) end up doing inarguably ghastly things to achieve their aims, leaving both them and the audience wondering if it was worth it. To me, although the secret war of Le Carré’s agents and assets comes across as fairly thoroughly awful, making it difficult to really identify with any of the factions at work, his characters are intensely human, and it is extremely easy to identify with them, and to feel their triumphs, their struggles, and their failures.

Rather than monolithically heroic and villainous sides, Le Carré gives us a rather more murky picture where fighting the struggle in the shadows exacts a massive price on everyone who participates, and I wonder if that’s one of the points he is trying to make. It seems to me one of the consistent themes of Le Carré’s stories that he appears suspicious and cynical of large and powerful organizations and institutions (of whatever kind – his Constant Gardener takes a justifiably harsh view of drug companies) but he’s immensely sympathetic towards individual people, and the dilemmas they often find themselves in. That’s a point of view that I find myself increasingly identifying with.

So, I guess obviously, I like John Le Carre’s stories quite a lot. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful novel, and The Night Manager is another particular favourite, as is The Secret Pilgrim. In addition to just (?) enjoying the books, though, I also deeply admire Le Carré as a writer. He is a fantastically skilled craftsman with words, choosing each one with what seems to be unerring precision and creating prose that conveys intense feelings of mood and emotion. Because of this, I don’t find him an easy read by any standard; because each word means so much I find I have to pay very close attention to Le Carré as I read, and so late at night when I’m growing tired and my focus is slipping, I can’t quite keep up with him. Le Carré conveys important information in what seem to be fleeting phrases and word choices, so if you miss a ‘little thing’, you’ve missed a lot. It’s interesting (I think) that that attention to precise detail is also one of the skills that are most essential to his fictional spies.

I don’t really think of this as a flaw. Not all writing needs to be an easy, relaxed read, any more than everything we eat needs to taste the same. Le Carré’s stuff demands effort, demands your entire engagement (or at least it does from me), but if you’re able to give it you are richly rewarded. I suppose there is, for a writer, some sort of practical limit here – if you make your writing too difficult to engage with and appreciate, there will be too few readers willing to rise to the challenge. There is, perhaps, some ideal balance of artistry with words and ease of access for the reader, some perfect mastery of story there to be achieved.

In my view, John Le Carré is very close to it.

—–
Literally as I wrote this, I got a news alert that Roger Moore, probably most famous for his portrayal of James Bond, has died. Due to my age, Moore was the actor that I first knew as Bond, and I think his A View to a Kill was likely the first Bond movie that I watched in its entirety. As I’ve just written, I have a lot of problems with James Bond these days, but the Moore-era Bond with the Union Jack parachute and all the rest of it was undeniably fun and Mr. Moore’s performance gave me stories that I enjoyed.

For that I will always be grateful.

——-
We also draw very close to the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, which runs June 3-4 and will feature many fantastic discussions on how we create and consume fiction, as well as a chance to meet writers and people who love books. I will be there for the second time, and I’m looking forward to it very much. My publishers, Renaissance Press, will also be there with their growing range of titles, so you can get yourself a copy of The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures if you don’t have one, and I will be at the table at various times through the weekend if you would like to say hi or have me scrawl something in your book.

Limestone was a great weekend last year, and I’m really looking forward to it again. Hope to see many of you there. Details here.

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On Cultural Appropriation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

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Artists for Artists

What I’ve got for you this week is a story I found quite disheartening in a lot of ways. I was whiling away/wasting a little time on Twitter and I came across a news report of a mural of Michelle Obama that had been installed in Chicago. It turned out that the mural (and I’m not going to name the artist here because I don’t want to push any more traffic his way), which had been crowd-funded, had also been plagiarised, copied exactly from a work done by a young artist named Gelila Lila Mesfin, with no attempt at attribution or giving credit for her work. (This is a pretty good news story covering the issue)

Social media exploded (which I guess is good), the plagiarist reacted fairly badly, but last we heard the two were in some sort of negotiations over the thing, which I hope ends up with Ms. Mesfin getting both full credit for the work as well as some money. We shall see.

I found the whole thing depressing, as I said, because it was such a blatant theft and I would really have liked to believe that someone who thought of themselves as an artist would do that to another artist. I mean, I know how much of my energy and how much of myself goes into anything that I write, and I assume the same is true for the work done by other artists. As a result, I can’t imagine stealing that, or pretending that it was mine. I know how hard it is. I wouldn’t be able to take something that someone else had poured so much into and say that I had done it.

I also like to think that my writing, whatever else may be good or bad about it, is mine, and that’s important. Even leaving aside the issue of ripping off someone else’s work, I wouldn’t ever be able to say that a piece of writing done by something else was mine, because it isn’t. I would take genuinely zero satisfaction in putting out a piece of work that I hadn’t created, because no matter how much people liked it, it wouldn’t matter, because I didn’t do it.

Finally, it seems to me the whole point of being an artist (of whatever sort) is that you create. Again, whether you like what I write or you don’t, I wrote that. I made something that wasn’t there before. That’s very much the whole point of saying that I’m a writer. It would be a frankly bizarre sort of act to be claiming to be a creator when I wasn’t. I can’t imagine what the point of it all could possibly be.

I feel like all of this should be thoroughly straight-forward and obvious, but then something like this mess over the weekend happens and it makes me doubt. I think artists have more than enough challenges to deal with in society without sticking the knife into each other by stealing work. I would like to think that artists should understand better than anyone else how difficult it is to make your way in a creative field, and not sabotage a colleague’s efforts by ripping them off.

Artists need to be on each other’s side, boost each other’s work, and be each other’s support system. Artists should be the best allies other artists have. I would like to think that’s automatic, but clearly it isn’t necessarily the case. Let’s all try to do as well as we can.

Thanks for reading.

——

It’s a little bit more than a month until the 2017 Limestone Genre Expo! I attended for the first time last year and will be back again this year. Renaissance Press will be there as well, which means you will be able to buy either of my books, if you like, and I will be at the table frequently so you can come and say hi if that seems like the sort of thing you might enjoy. I will also be participating in some of the panel discussions again, and I’m already looking forward to all of it. Limestone is a growing convention for basically any time of writer or lover of writing, and I would love to see you there. Details here..

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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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The Vigil

The only idea I had for a blog this week was a pretty hacky entry on how I see similarities between writing and making stew (I made a big ol’ pot of stew last week) and that was both extremely uninspired and also dangerously close to advice. Instead, I present the following, which is an expansion of my reaction to a picture one of my friends shared on Facebook. Yes, I went with the cat picture idea instead. I hope you’ll like it better than the stew thing.

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In our village there is a church, old and stone, worn and weathered in a fashion that lends it an aura of imperishability. When the church was first built, no-one is certain; people from the schools have come, sketched, measured, studied, and disagreed. But it has been here a very long time. You cannot find a description of the village without it.

In the church lives a cat with long, thick, grey hair. The cat belongs to nobody, although it sleeps in the rectory on cold nights, prowls the churchyard, and sits by the lych-gate each Sunday. Each day at noon it climbs to the roof, and out onto the back of a particular old gargoyle, spotted with lichen and smoothed by time. There the cat sits, and watches the horizon, all afternoon.

It watches in every season.

It watches in all weathers.

The cat’s watch has never failed.

The cat seems as though it has always sat on its perch on the church-roof, and the church looks as though it has always been here to serve as the cat’s watch-place, and perhaps both things are true. What the cat watches for, no-one can say. No-one can remember, exactly, when the cat came and took up its vigil. I cannot recall a time before the cat’s watch began, nor can any of my friends. The cat has watched a long time.

Of course we discuss this, in the village, from time to time. All cats like to climb high, and look out across their kingdoms, this is well known. But most cats do not go to the very same spot at the very same time each day, and most cats do not gaze out into the distance quite so long. Most of us have our memories of cats: marvellous, cherished, and gone, but no-one has a story to match this one.

So we talk, and imagine, and create our own reasons, sometimes believing they are true but never truly feeling we understand. It is a puzzlement joined by each person who visits the village, for there is not a great deal to see, and in time every visitor comes to the church, and sees its sentry. What the cat watches for, no-one can say, but every person who comes to our church-yard, and sees the small grey cat on his lofty perch always ends by agreeing that they are somehow glad the cat is there, and glad it keeps its vigil.

The sun is high in the sky, clear and bright today, and it is nearly noon. I stand outside my house and know that the cat will soon be watching. I look out to the horizon and wonder what it watches for. Does it look to see that something is there, or perhaps to be sure that something does not approach? I wonder, if I had the answer to that question, would I be comforted or afraid? I wonder what will happen on the day when the cat looks out and sees a difference in its world. The cat, apparently, knows to watch. Does it also know what must be done next?

Will we be shown, or told, or is that secret, and the vigil, for only a cat to know?

A vague uncertainty squirms in my guts now, and I walk to the corner, where I can look down the street, and see the church-roof.

The cat watches still.

(Thank you to my friend Victoria for sending me the picture that led to me writing whatever this is. I wrote this pretty much straight through so it is, I am sure, more than a little rough. If you have any comments, as always I’d love to hear them.)

(The church in the picture is in Knightshayes, Devon. I’ve never been but if I ever visit I hope the cat will still be there. If you own the picture and would like credit, or me to take it down, please let me know.)

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