On the Nature of Slumps

I’ve been a posting a fair bit of awesome writing news the last little while, so it might surprise you that amid all of that the last month I really wasn’t feeling it creatively. All of January I was getting solid words done on draft 1.5 of Three Coins, mostly thanks to my weekly check-ins with KT Bryski – if you can find someone to regularly report to as a writer, it works wonders, FYI – and forcing myself to write 800 words minimum every weeknight, on the advice of another writer friend of mine. But more often than not (with the exception of the last couple of days), it was a slog getting those words done; I felt like my regular energy and excitement weren’t there, even seeing the fruits of my labor in a variety of ways.

Maybe it’s partly because of semester turnover at work, which is always a bit draining. Maybe it’s because I caught up to where I stopped in Three Coins before going back for early rewrites, so I’m drafting entirely new content, and that’s a little scary. Maybe it’s because of the hundred other things I have buzzing around in my head, courtesy of the universe tossing things in our path. Maybe it was one of those little burnout periods every creative goes through. Whether or not there’s a definite explanation doesn’t really matter, since either way I’ve had to suck it up and deal with it.

One really interesting thing lately is that I’ve hardly been watching any new television or movies. Usually I’m following a few shoes at once, mixing up what I’m watching when, but for a while I haven’t felt the desire to get into anything new (except Critical Role and The X-Files). So I’ve been rewatching my old favorites, like Human TargetFringe and Castle, almost as though I needed a guaranteed jolt of what I love about storytelling. Ironically Castle helped the most in the last couple of weeks, by reminding me about the kind of writer I want to be. Not the cocky, stupidly rich side of Richard Castle (which is obviously unrealistic) but the side that gets excited about the strange, has a wealth of knowledge from book research, and understands that acting like a kid isn’t a bad thing, since it lets your brain relax.

The other thing that’s been helping me lately is listening or watching live music from some of my favorite artists – the ones who are clearly having a good time performing, even after decades of shows. There’s something magical about watching Eric Clapton at age 70 busting out “Cocaine” or “I Shot the Sheriff,” or the Killers at the Royal Albert Hall, or Elton John and his band live in Hyde Park. You can tell that they’re having an absolute blast, and that’s inspiring as a creative person. Better yet, seeing the way they feed off the audience’s excitement (and vice versa) helps get my own creative energy pumping. Because at the end of the day that’s why I tell stories – not because I’m looking for adoration, but because I want to give people something they enjoy.

Tonight, that little jolt of energy comes from a source that might surprise people who don’t know me very well: Sir Tom Jones. While I grew up on classic rock courtesy of my parents, from my grandparents I developed an appreciation for legends like Elvis Presley and Tom Jones. I’ve always loved the latter’s music, and I keep an eye out for new clips from The Voice UK, so I can see him in action. Watching the clip below from this weekend’s episode is actually what got me to sit down and write this post (and when I’m 77, I hope I’m half as active as Tom):

My point? Everyone has slumps, and I think it’s important to talk about them, and what works when you’re in them. And even in a slump, keep writing. Otherwise, to quote the Eagles (another favorite of mine), you’ll be “worrying ’bout this wasted time.”

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The Power of a Single Dungeons and Dragons Encounter

What is this? Two posts in a single week? From the guy who can barely manage to post once a week on this thing? Hell yeah. This is what happens when I have a lot on my mind and working on actual writing doesn’t help.

So I have a Pathfinder campaign that I play in, and last night we had a slightly nerve-wracking combat against an undead druid and his minions masquerading as paladins. Why was it nerve-wracking? Because he threw down in a pavilion crowded with civilians that he promptly started killing with impunity, while we tried to get to him to shut him down. Yes, these are not real people, but just markers on a table. But I’m a writer, so I can see the scene in front of me as our DM describes it. And my character is basically a Harry Dresden look-alike, so each round of combat came down to me asking, “How do I get between these guys and the civilians without getting myself killed?” And with the knowledge that if my character got killed defending innocent NPCs, he’d be okay with that. I get invested in D&D, so situations like this actually evoke an emotional response in me.

We won the fight without too much loss of innocent life (and none of the party dying) and I was able to relax. And then as we’re wrapping up the DM turns to me and says he forgot something. I had missed the last session, and he says that during my character’s downtime, he started having nightmares where he sees himself committing violent crimes and feeling nothing. Sort of like sociopathic criminal activity. And the most recent nightmare involved my character torturing the woman he loves (who happens to be a fire nymph he summoned once, and rescued from being imprisoned and tortured by demons – D&D is like a soap opera sometimes). No clue as to what’s causing these nightmares.

And to be honest, that thing stuck with me. My character is a good guy. He makes mistakes sometimes, usually risking himself stupidly and not thinking things through, but it comes from a place of altruism. He doesn’t hurt people unnecessarily. And there’s enough going on in the campaign that the idea of him being compelled to go dark and hurt the people he cares about is actually a danger, so now I’m legitimately worried that he’s going to become dangerous to the people around him or something, and I have to wait until our next session to figure out what to do with it.

That, my friends, is the power of proper storytelling, and one of the reasons why I love Pathfinder or D&D. Played with the right people, you can have some properly emotional and vivid experiences, like reading a great book or watching a captivating film. The fact that you can act on that world with a freedom a video game doesn’t often allow just makes it all the more compelling. (And in my case, legitimately terrifying.)

If you play D&D or something similar, I’m sure you understand. If you don’t, you probably think I’m nuts.

Either way, I need to figure out what’s wrong with my character, and make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone he cares about.

Artsy People Are All the Same

My mom is fond of saying that “artsy people are all a little off,” and really she isn’t wrong. Admittedly I used to think about writers as having our own particular brand of crazy, but lately I’ve been watching a lot of shows where people in other creative disciplines sit around and talk shop, and I’ve realized that essentially we’re all the same.

I don’t mean formal interviews, which I often find a little dry and scripted (except Craig Ferguson, who I try to borrow from for my own interviews). What’s been appealing to me lately are informal, relaxed conversations where a bunch of actors or writers or whatever sit around and talk shop, pretty much ignoring the cameras around them. Think Dinner for Five that Jon Favreau did a while back, or Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, though lately I’ve been watching Variety’s Actors on Actors and reruns of The Green Room with Paul Provenza (which totally needs to be revived somewhere, like on Netflix).

I’m a big fan of these kinds of conversations, particularly when I get the chance to sit down like that with folks in my industry, whether it’s going out for dinner or sitting around the bar at a con. Those situations are often not only hilarious, but I always walk away either with something to think about or just feeling lighter for having been around “my people.”

We’ve done things at Can*Con here in Ottawa that try to take that energy and throw it on a stage, by pairing two authors who we know are good friends and just letting them just. Similar to the shows I mentioned above, what comes out of it is a really natural, relaxed and honest conversation that I think can teach a lot more than a formal panel or interview. If people are relaxed they share more, and talking with their peers they share even more. And what I’ve realized particularly with the ones I’ve watched recently is that there are some universal truths that span all creative types, whether it’s writers, actors, comedians, or some other group. Here’s what I’ve distilled it down to:

  • Process is Process: What’s really interesting is that the creatives I’ve been watching all describe their process as something very fluid that probably doesn’t make sense to anyone else, even peers in their field. Process shifts between projects and tends to be very personal, and it takes a creative person to understand it. If you show a layperson the scribbled notes you’ve got hanging from clotheslines across your office as you outline, they’re gonna give you a weird look, but a visual artist will probably nod and understand.
  • The Best Creative People Are Neurotic and Self-Deprecating: If The Green Room showed me anything, it’s that comedians are the worst for this – but really, we all are. It’s still a little mystifying to me listening to Nicole Kidman or Jimmy Carr or Stephen King call themselves hacks or that they’re certain their next project is going to bomb, even though every successful writer I’ve met says the same thing at some point, and I think it every day. Impostor syndrome runs deep in us all, and while that’s heartening in a way, it’s also really fucking depressing. I don’t think as creative people we should be arrogant, but can we at least get a break from our anxieties? Yeesh.
  • Collaboration is King: In Actors on Actors, Gary Oldman talks about working closely with the artist who designed his makeup and prosthetics to play Winston Churchill, and the way he describes their collaboration sounded so much like a writer and editor, or writer and agent, etc. While we can feel isolated, bouncing ideas off other people and collaborating in some form can be just as important as sitting around a table with your fellow creatives, to gain those other perspectives and fold them into your craft. I didn’t realize the extent to which actors or comedians do this, too, and that’s really cool.

The reason why this is on my mind, I think, is that I’ve realized I’m at a point in my career where guidebooks and talks that are specifically about process aren’t useful for me anymore. I know my process, ad while I might pick up the occasional trick to add to it or try out, I’m not figuring this out from scratch anymore. What I think is more useful for me is to see other creatives’ mindsets on a variety of topics; I want to listen to them talk about how they’ve dealt with specific problems, or describe the background to projects I’m familiar with, and absorb their attitudes to see if there’s anything there I can work with. And when you sit accomplished creatives together, they’re going to ask each other questions an interviewer might not think of, and answer with details they might not reveal to someone who isn’t a colleague.

Honestly, the shows I’ve described have been amazing for my headspace lately as I’m working on my current novel draft. What we need is a version of The Green Room where a bunch of writers sit around and chat. Maybe with a host. Let me stew on this, and if someone wants to take that on, you have my support.

 

Up Next – ConFusion!

I’m really gonna try to get into a better habit of writing one post a week. You believe me, right? Fool! Teacher holidays are over now, so we’ll see if I can pull it off. Or if you poor people reading this will once again realize that several weeks have gone by without my whimsy and honest recounting of what it means to be a writer.

After my post last week, and the moments from 2017 I’ve been tweeting about the past few days, I’m looking ahead to 2018. There’s already a bunch of excitement on the horizon, beginning with my first trip out to ConFusion in Detroit from January 19-21. I’ve heard amazing things about this con from various people, and I’m crazy excited about my schedule. Here’s where you can find me (besides in the bar, probably):

Saturday: 11-11:30 am – Black Gate Interviews Jim Butcher

  • Brandon Crilly of Black Gate Magazine sits down for a 30 minute interview with SubPress Guest Jim Butcher.
Saturday: 2-3 pm – Any Sufficiently Detailed Magic System is Indistinguishable from Magic
  • The influence of tabletop roleplaying games is widely felt in fantasy. Many stories make a ‘science’ out of their magic that reflects the carefully-balanced rules of a tabletop sourcebook. What are the trade-offs between creating magic systems with strict rules and leaving magic as a mysterious and unknown force? How do we balance the sense of wonder and magic against the desire to give readers a stable hook from which to suspend their disbelief? What makes a well-defined magic system work in a story,  and when are we showing the reader too much of the machinery behind the curtain? Brandon Crilly, Charlie Jane Anders, David Anthony Durham, Kate Elliott, Shweta Adhyam, Jim Butcher
5 pm – Autograph Session
  • Come meet your favorite authors, artists and musicians and have them sign things! (Please limit your signing requests to 3 items per person.)
Sunday: 1 – 2 pm – Hopepunk in the Age Of Resistance
  • Author Alexandra Rowland defines hopepunk as the opposite of grimdark: “Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism,  being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion. Hopepunk says that genuinely and sincerely caring about something, anything, requires bravery and strength.” What are the stories that inspire us to reject cynicism and fight for the good in this broken world. Brandon Crilly, Izzy Wasserstein, Michael J. DeLuca, Nisi Shawl, Stacey Filak
So the first item on there is pretty amazing on its own, but I’m really looking forward to all of my programming and the amazing people I’ll get to chat with. I don’t usually offer myself for panels at other cons – I think this is the first time I’ll be on a panel in the U.S., actually, so that’s pretty cool in and of itself. Events like these are my way of regenerating while still keeping my handsome looks, so I’m hoping to get a ton of writing done after I get back.
If you’ll be at ConFusion, give me a shout!
***
In case you missed it, Daily Science Fiction recently published my short story “Moments,” which is a time-travel piece with a literary twist. If you’re interested, you can scope it out here: http://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/time-travel/brandon-crilly/moments

“Whoa, 2017 is Over Already?” + “Good Gods, It’s Really Only Been a Year???”

I remember having dinner with a friend of mine around the end of May, and explaining to him a bunch of ridiculous bullshit in my professional life that had sucked some of the energy out of me. At the end of my rant I blinked at him and said something like, “Shit, that all happened this month … and it’s still May.” Or something similar that probably included more cursing. The rest of the year gradually went a lot better overall, but I feel like 2017 was one of those years jam-packed with a lot of stuff, not just for me but for the world at large, too, and not all of it good. For a lot of people this was probably a terrible year (sorry, most Americans) but it was also a year filled with a lot of change and a lot of hope, which is never a bad thing. I genuinely believe that it takes dramatic events and a little pain for drastic changes to happen for humanity, so while there’s a lot that sucks right now, I’m confident things will get better.

Like I said, this year was busy. When I look back on everything in just my life, I’m amazed that it all fit into 365 days. And though I normally shrug off success and self-deprecate a lot, people have been encouraging me to knock that off. So with another new year waving at me from around the corner, here are the writerly accomplishments I’m proud of and grateful for from 2017:

  • 5 short stories published in a mixture of magazines and anthologies, with two more stories sold that will appear sometime in 2018
  • Another Honorable Mention from Writers of the Future, for my short story “Synchronicity and Sonata”
  • A bunch of additional short stories written and a new novel in progress, all of which I feel is stronger and better constructed than any of my previous work
  • Continuing my review and interview column on Black Gate, and actually receiving some recognition for it on occasion
  • Helping to organize the most successful Can*Con to date with an amazing team of friends, which allowed me to meet and work with a ton of new people from the writing community
  • Becoming a member of SFWA and attending my first ever Nebulas Conference
  • New projects lined up for 2018 that will stretch my writing muscles, which may or may not include a short comic and some RPG stuff (shh…)

Me with Marie Bilodeau (left) and Evan May (right) – huge players in keeping my sanity at Can*Con

Nebulas Conference night with Derek Künsken

What I think is really important is the combined experiences that have taught me a lot about my style, where I’m at as a writer, and where I need to go. If anything, I’ve learned to sit back and evaluate things carefully, whether it’s a line of dialogue or an idea for a story or an opportunity in life (not necessarily to do with writing). And I realized that while it’s good to be busy, it’s really easy to become too busy, and that’s when you have to give things up. I started off this year as a part-time college professor, an assistant editorial director for a fledgling publishing company, a writer, a programming co-ordinator for Can*Con, and on top of all of that a full-time high school teacher. Yes, I know that’s insane, and I’ve learned from my mistakes.

On that note, this year wound down with me finally attaining a permanent position with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, which still feels a little surreal to me even though I’ve been “contract” for two months. If you don’t know much about the Ontario teaching market, it’s tough, and going into my sixth year as a teacher I was starting to lose hope that I’d ever become permanent. But this is a lesson that while your career may hit some roadblocks, if you work hard and do right you’ll land where you want to be. To quote Richard Castle, “One day you will look back and realize that every experience you’ve ever had, every seeming mistake or blind alley was actually a straight line to who you were meant to be.”

Yes, I coached a championship team. Don’t look so surprised.

Graduation ceremony at Merivale HS

Most importantly, this year was filled with a lot of laughs and a lot of time spent with good people. I made new friends, and deepened my relationships with people already in my life. I tried to be there for people when it counted. I taught some of the most brilliant students I’ve ever encountered, and got to watch a bunch of them graduate and set off on new adventures. It sounds cliche, but it’s family and friends that make life valuable, and help you get past any pain or horror or bullshit that crosses your path. I spend a lot of time on social media sending shout-outs to the people I admire and respect and depend on, because it’s easy to take people and things for granted if you’re not careful.

But I don’t want to get too prosaic or wistful. This blog is supposed to be rambling and honest and occasionally heavy with cursing, so why should an end-of-year post be any different? [I almost inserted a bad word in there, but certain people who shall remain nameless (*cough* Derek *cough*) would be disappointed.]

Okay, maybe one more thing. At times like this I usually think about one of my favorite lines from science fiction, in this case from a character we also said goodbye to just last week. It’s become of my many mantras, and whatever your feelings about 2017, maybe it can be useful for you, too:

“Things end, that’s all. Everything ends, and it’s always sad. But everything begins again, too, and that’s always happy. Be happy. I’ll look after everything else.” — The Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi

“Aha!”, Revisited

So today I’m a little exhausted because I was up late last night playing D&D (yes, I’m a party animal) and a little sore because I finally went back to the gym. And it’s the last week of school before the holidays, which is always batcrap insane and everyone is tired and grumpy and wants it to be over. But screw all of that, because I did a ton of writing over the weekend that I feel good about.

Ever since I brainstormed my current novel WIP on the Archivos Podcast, I’ve been making my way slowly through a heavy draft 2 rewrite, and keeping in mind one of the final pieces of advice I got while recording: take it slow. It’s tough to keep that in mind when I get on a roll writing a scene, and sometimes I miss moments where I could drop hints about character arcs and foreshadow elements of my world and don’t notice them until I go back to edit. This weekend I reached what I think is the end of Act One (I don’t really structure novels that way, but keep the format in mind) and started making my way painstakingly to the end of the chapter. That careful progression let me realize the perfect moment for my main character, street performer Mavrin Leed, to have a brief but crucial realization about the way the world works, and how that enforces the idea that he made a huge mistake in his youth. And the way that he goes about pondering his realization I’m really proud of, and I don’t think I would have come up with it if I hadn’t paced myself.

This entire novel has been an exercise in learning new things about my process. I’ve been incorporating new elements of discovery writing into my drafting, with admittedly mixed results. I’ve started charting character arcs on big sheets of paper and scribbling more notes by hand, and keeping track of references I make so I remember to bring them up again later. There’s a lot of history between my characters, and so I actually have a note called “Open Threads” where I mention where and when I allude to some past event or element of the world’s magic (which is sort of mysterious) and then check it off once I answer that question. That way I won’t leave my reader hanging unless I intend to.

It’s been a fascinating process, and I’m having a blast with this novel. The extra time I have available during the break is going to let me get ahead quite a bit (I hope) so expect a lot more excited commentary from yours truly, as I hopefully hit a lot more “aha” moments. Or hit a wall and start beating my head against it. That might happen.

Top Five Shows of All Time, in Direct Response to Another Writer

I was going to talk about something else this week, but my friend and partner-in-programming-crime Evan May called me out on Twitter by blaming me for his most recent post, where he ranked his Top Five television shows of all time after a conversation we had over dinner. So now obviously I have to discuss the same thing, to absolve myself of any guilt, even though this is all because that lazy fucker didn’t have a better idea for a blog post.

(Disclaimer: Just in case anyone reading this doesn’t know Evan or myself, we’re legitimately friends and often poke at each other online. Don’t be concerned.)

(Evan, I’ve had a brilliant idea … we should totally stage some sort of Internet feud. Maybe it could start with a mock fight at ChiSeries next week? I don’t see anything going wrong with this idea.)

So Evan listed some phenomenal shows in his Top Five, a couple of which I’m going to repeat here. I will accept his caveat that I have to select an entire show, and not just specific seasons … which is why, even though I’m pretty sure I’ve dressed up like The Doctor three or four times this year, Doctor Who isn’t on my Top Five (unlike Evan). I’ve only watched from Tennant’s years onward, and I wasn’t a huge fan of some of Matt Smith’s run; if I could pick just Tennant and Capaldi, it might be my number one, but alas.

Essentially what I look for are shows that a) suck me in so completely that my writer brain shuts off and b) have a wealth of amazing characters and relationships that make me care so much that I shout at my television and get a sick feeling in my stomach when I think something horrible is going to happen onscreen. So with that in mind, in no particular order, here are my Top Five shows of all time…

Battlestar Galactica (2004)

When I was talking with Evan, we went over so many characters whose arcs and relationships amazed us throughout this entire series. Baltar. Adama and Roslin. Colonel Tigh. Athena. The list goes on. And I’m with Evan – I thought the show’s conclusion was incredible. But I’m also a fan of the final season of Lost, so maybe I’m just nuts.

Fringe

I’ve discussed on this blog before that the relationship between Peter and Walter Bishop on this show is one of my favorite sources of inspiration when I’m in a writing slump. There’s something truly magical about how broken every character is in this show, and how over the course of five seasons they fill in each other’s gaps, but at the same time are still capable of letting each other down and forgiving each other for those missteps. And in a show that’s primarily about weird science and alternate dimensions and typical J.J. Abrams twistiness, accomplishing that depth of character work and balancing it with mystery and action is something you really don’t see from a lot of shows.

Critical Role

You might have noticed that nowhere above did I say “TV shows,” specifically because one of my favorite shows of all time is an Internet series on Geek and Sundry, where a bunch of voice actors in California play Dungeons & Dragons. This was a show started because the group had been playing their campaign for years, and someone had the bright idea to put it on Twitch. The result has been a cult phenomenon that I’m totally sucked into, partly because I love D&D, but mainly because the cast goes above and beyond to make their characters comes to life, and Matt Mercer (the show’s DM) is one of the greatest storytellers I have ever seen.

Firefly

Yes, I’m one of those people. I will rewatch the portion of this story that Joss Whedon was able to show at the drop of a hat, and pine that we didn’t get to see more of what was in store for these characters. This show, with its balance of darkness and humor, its sense of adventure, and its compelling world and characters, gave me the jolt of inspiration I needed when I was first envisioning myself as a writer. When I’m feeling a little under-creative in my character development, I watch Firefly.

 

Lost

Suck it, haters – this show was awesome from start to finish. I loved it for similar reasons to why I loved Fringe, particularly the final season. You have an extended cast of people who only have a connection to each other because of shared trauma – people who often don’t get along, and probably never would have if that plane hadn’t crashed – but that experience brings them together in the most amazing of ways, with some of the most heart-wrenching and heart-warming moments I’ve ever seen. You tell me you didn’t cheer during the moment below (if you watched the whole show) and I’ll tell you you’re dead inside.

And that’s it. Top Five lists are totally subjective, but that’s mine. The key is what gives you your inspiration to create. For me, it’s incredible characters going through real danger, and emotional moments that leave me shaking. What about you?