“So How Did You Spend Your Summer?”

It dawned on me sometime in the past week that I haven’t been present for the first day of school in a traditional high school in three years. Last year I taught in an alternate program for two months before getting my permanent contract at my current school, and the year before that I didn’t start work until I picked up a position mid-September. Starting back as a permanent teacher for the first time is strange enough after six years in this profession, but having to rethink the beginning of a new year is another animal on top of that.

And good gods is it tiring.

I’m not complaining, though! I’m lucky to be teaching full-time on a permanent contract, so I’ll take the fatigue and sore throat and long hours gladly if it means I can throw away the anxiety of being a temp (which we call “LTO”). Plus I get to rejoin a department I’ve really come to enjoy working with, since we’re all a little odd and dysfunctional. Working with “normal” people is boring.

But odd and dysfunctional as my colleagues and I are, discussing what we got up to over the summer threw me a little. Everyone else talks about day trips with kids, catching up on house renovations or books they wanted to read or whatnot, or extended vacations to somewhere exotic. And when they ask me I can compare with attending Readercon in Boston and then Toronto Fan Expo at the end of August, and relaxing after teaching summer school – but then I throw in, “Oh, and I finished my latest novel and sent that off” and people’s jaws drop. My gut response is always, “hold your praise for when the book sells” or something like that, and I can tell they don’t understand that attitude, because good gods, man, you wrote a book!

I get it, though; to a lot of people, finishing a novel is a big deal because they don’t think they could ever do it. From my perspective, I’m prouder of writing a novel I think is good enough to find an agent and publisher, and one that taught me things I can apply to my next project (incidentally, a comic script and a new short story). When a friend of mine at work said he and his band worked out a bunch of new songs over the summer, that impressed me. When someone introduces themselves as a microbiologist or a policy analyst for the Canadian government, I’m genuinely intrigued because I know can’t do either of those things. So maybe my colleagues wowing over me finishing a novel shouldn’t surprise me.

All of this is to say that it’s a transition to get back to the “real world,” so to speak, where most of the people I see in the week aren’t fellow creators. I have to get used to being more careful with my evenings and weekends, to make sure that a) I set aside time for writing and b) I don’t try to push myself to get too much done, to avoid cognitive burnout. I have to remember that sooner or later my new students are going to realize their teacher has a social media presence, so I should curse a little less here and on fucking Twitter. (Oops.) And no, none of this is a complaint, since I’m lucky to have a job I enjoy that gives me the stability to spend my free time writing. This is just yet another honest ramble about the real life of being a writer.

Because like I said above: good gods, it can be tiring 🙂

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Feed the Bird

I almost called this post “feed the snake” – I’m not even sure why that’s the first thing that came to mind, but some neo-Freudian could probably explain it to me in ways I won’t even hint at here, since I have students who read this blog (why, poor children, oh why).

“Feed the bird,” however, I picked up from Castle, and it’s basically equivalent to a fist bump. Nathan Fillion adopted it specifically because it isn’t a fist bump, the reasons for which are pretty cool. I like to use it to celebrate when someone says or does something really extraordinary, like if a friend tells me, “Guess what, I sold a story to [insert big market here]”  and I want to give them props.

This weekend, I’m engaging in a little self-feeding of the bird (okay, that also sounds bad) because I’ve been reminded more and more lately that constantly working on projects and jumping right from one thing to the next can be really dangerous. Why am I indulging in giving myself props? Because I spent most of the last month and a half revising my novel WIP Three Coins of Silver, and as of yesterday morning, that fucker is DONE. Or at least done to the point that I’m confident sending it out to agents and publishers and seeing what happens.

Anyone writers reading this know that finishing any novel draft is pretty huge, mainly in that a novel takes a lot of mental energy. Three Coins has taken the better part of a year and a half to finish, balanced with other projects. For someone who’s a bit of a workaholic like me, the immediate temptation is to dive into the next project almost right away (once I decide what that will be).

But it’s way more important to take a breath, as I’m being reminded of more and more on social media and in conversations with my friends in the industry. So yesterday afternoon I took a couple hours and finished reading Redemption’s Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky (which is amazing, by the way) puttered a bit and then spent the night watching a movie. This morning I got up, made breakfast and watched the recent Times Talk interview with Stephen Colbert, which I highly recommend because I’m a huge fan of conversations with any creative people, and I think Colbert is brilliant. Around noon I’ll be keeping tabs on the monthly #SolarpunkChat on Twitter, but that’s not really work since one of my favorite pastimes is conversation, and after that I’ll be doing more reading/watching/playing of games or some such. All of the above feeds the bird in different ways, besides being a reward for accomplishing something: I get ideas and encouragement from everything I digest these days, but losing myself in a book or a movie or an interview lets my brain come down from that non-stop movement I seem to get into when I’m working on a big project.

Am I going to work on something new tomorrow morning? Probably. But for now, I’m feeding that bird.

Source: Castle Fandom Wiki

Dude, Where Have You Been?

Once again, it’s been a while since I updated anything here. I’m definitely not dead (though my students joke I’m a vampire) but I also haven’t been gallivanting across the cosmos on crazy adventures (we also joke I’m a Time Lord). What I have been doing is working on a bunch of different projects, some of them professional and some of them pure fun, which means I’ve had to parcel my time very carefully. One of the key lessons for any creative person is to maintain a careful balance, and in this case let things like regular blogging go, instead of killing yourself trying to work on everything. This time last year I was teaching full days and in the evenings as a college professor, plus serving at a publishing house and helping plan for Can*Con, and was honestly a little miserable because of being too busy, so I think I’m doing better 😉

However, it also means I haven’t been announcing things here like I have on Twitter, so here’s a round-up of some recent news, what I’m up to, and what you might see from me in the future.

Recent Publications & Events

Last month my short story “Rainclouds” was published in the debut issue of Electric Athenaeum, as part of their series For Future Generations. The story centers on an unconventional family struggling to survive on a colony world where it almost never rains. You can read it for free here. I also had a blast taking part in a Twitter chat with some of the other Athenaeum contributors recently, discussing scientific innovation and fiction. Check out the hashtag #eaSFFchat for the questions posed by moderator Trip Galey and our responses.

Speaking of Twitter chats, I also co-hosted a separate one with Michael de Luca of Reckoning Magazine, discussing solarpunk and climate change and how writers promote things like optimism and kinship. The plan is for this to be a monthly event on Twitter, and I highly encourage you to check it out. I’ll make it to as many as I can!

You also might have seen me posting on Twitter or Instagram about a project I’m working on for Jay Odjick’s Outsider anthology. I’m calling it a comic, but the layout is a teacher’s personal records during the end of the world, while he tries to maintain normalcy for his students (and himself). It’s tentatively titled Anecdotal Notes, and will be included alongside other “snapshots of the apocalypse” when The Outsider is released. Stay tuned for news on that!

What I’m Up to Now

My current novel WIP, tentatively titled Three Coins of Silver, is partway through draft 3. I’m applying some major revisions for this draft, after which it’ll be stylistic edits and polishing. The plan is to revise a chapter a night until I’m done with the major stuff. So that’ll be my main focus for the next while. Expect some tweets and whatnot if and when I start pulling my hair out.

I’m also back as programming director for Can*Con this year (with the stalwart and entirely corporeal Evan May). We’re putting together the draft list of panels right now, and looking for panelists and programming suggestions between now and June/July. We’re also announcing our Guests of Honor and Special Guests! Check out more here: http://can-con.org/

And in case you haven’t seen the tweets, one of the greatest things I’m doing these days has nothing to do with my career, and everything to do with storytelling for fun: a D&D campaign with a bunch of writers. We’re playing in the Tal’dorei setting created by Matthew Mercer, and I have to say that it’s the most fun I’ve had with an RPG to date. My writer friends are brilliant, and the way they run their characters always keeps me guessing and is making for some excellent storytelling. Keep an eye on Twitter for the #WritersinTaldorei hashtag as we tweet about some of what’s going on!

Coming Up!

Besides Can*Con, you’ll be able to find me at two other cons over the next while. Limestone Genre Expo is really soon (May 26 and 27), featuring a number of excellent genre authors at the Waterfront Holiday Inn in Kingston, Ontario. I’ll be there on the 26th on two panels, discussing Young Adult fiction and Travel Stories. Then in July I’ll be hitting Readercon for the first time. Hope to see you there!

I’ve also got a couple more short stories coming out sometime this year. First should be a reprint of “Teachable Moments” (involving a disaster in near-future New York City) in Digital Science Fiction, followed later by “Decoys” (an homage to Men in Black, with a twist) in Hyperion and Theia. Stay tuned for more info!

And that’s pretty much it, except for super secret or still-cooking items. But I’ll try to do my best to post here more frequently. Rambling is good for the soul, especially the busier you are.

Until then, happy writing!

How the Fans Apparently Ruined Sherlock for Martin Freeman

Amid my procrastination this week, I stumbled upon various articles discussing a recent Telegraph interview with Martin Freeman where he briefly discussed whether there will ever be a fifth season of Sherlock.  The point of the interview was probably to discuss Black Panther (highest-grossing superhero movie ever, by the way, which is pretty awesome) but every headline I’ve seen focuses on Freeman’s comments about Sherlock, and the fact that he’s enjoyed playing John Watson less and less. Why? Freeman came out and clearly said it was because of the fans, some of whom are so intense in their passion for the show that they put too much pressure on the cast and writers to produce better and better content.

I broke one of my cardinal Internet rules and checked out the comments on a few of the sites who published this story, and sure enough there were a bunch of people either proclaiming that it’s Sherlock‘s declining quality that must have made the show less fun (because they know Freeman better, apparently) or that Freeman should suck it up because he’s a highly-paid actor whose job is to entertain us. Dance, monkey, dance.

Sorry, folks, but I’m with Freeman on this. One of the great parts of social media is you can share your praise or gratitude with actors, musicians, writers, etc – but the downside is that anyone who wants to shit on a project or the people behind it has an easy outlet, too. And people don’t understand or maybe don’t care that the film or TV industry is a business like any other, involving people who are working to collect a paycheck. The difference is that teachers or life guards or plumbers don’t have the masses hounding them across the Internet. Does acting have a lot of perks? Absolutely. But it’s also a busy and demanding job that I can imagine gets pretty tiring when you add the demands of the public to the mix.

I don’t buy this idea that the fans should be able to demand things of the creative people they follow – and yet, people do it all the time. For famous writers, it seems to be just as bad, particularly if they’re not producing new content at a pace that fans approve of. One of the first blog posts I ever wrote here was about giving George R.R. Martin a break instead of demanding that he pick up the pace on finishing A Song of Ice and Fire. And that pressure put on writers hasn’t gone away. I get notified about comments on my Jim Butcher interview at ConFusion, and sure enough people were quick to complain that they’re still waiting for the next Dresden Files novel (My favorite comment was: “First question should have been, ‘are you ever going to publish Peace Talks’? 2nd, ‘when?'” First of all, since Butcher isn’t self-pubbed, it’s Roc publishing it, not him. Second of all, of course Peace Talks is going to come out, you fucker.) My favorite response to this sort of pressure, though, comes from Pat Rothfuss, a master of cleverly speaking one’s mind and putting haters in their place. In  a recent talk at a con, he explicitly asked the audience to not ask him about the next Kingkiller book, and told them straight up that if anyone would benefit from it being finished, it would be him – because then people would get off his back.

As much as I truly want to be a successful novelist and see a line of my books on shelves at Indigo, or attend big cons and actually have fans, there’s a side to being that big that actually scares me. And I feel bad for celebrity actors or writers who feel too much pressure from their fans. If an individual backs away from a project because of the fans, that’s wrong on several levels. Creative work is often fun, but it’s still work. If you admire someone’s work and want to see more of it, leave them the hell alone and let them do it.

Why I Write Science Fiction & Fantasy

Before March Break I gave a talk to a Careers class at work about what being a writer is all about. My caveat right away was that every writer works a little differently, and that aside from the fact that every writer is a little nuts and most need to balance writing work with a paying day job, any piece of advice a writer might give needs to be taken with a grain of salt, since there are no absolutes. Pretty sure I lost 3/4 of my audience at that moment, since these students hadn’t been deprogrammed out of the “there is one answer and the teacher will give it” belief system.

However, a student who knew me put her hand up partway through and asked, “So why do you focus on sci-fi and fantasy, and not literary?” (I had explained that I got my start writing literary short fiction). The true, if canned answer is: “because it’s way more fun.” But these are my students, and I like to give them more truth when I can, so I explained in more detail the real reason I write SFF: because it lets me exorcise my demons, fears and worries without actually focusing on them. I could write a story, I said, about divorce or struggling with debt or the challenges my family has faced and set it in the here and now, but if I do that it becomes a little too real. If I write a story involving one of those things but set 300 years in the future or with a boggart as the main character, it allows more of a remove, where I can slip in little bits of things I understand, but more for flavor than as a direct focus.

I was thinking about that more this week while I finished the draft of Three Coins of Silver (my current novel WIP). As the last few chapters came together, I could see more of myself reflected in some of the characters’ behaviors. My lead protagonist, Mavrin Leed, is a scholar turned street performer who’s about fifty years old, looking closely at retirement, flails in the face of danger and was originally a researcher studying the many facets of his world’s deity. Obviously that’s not me. But there were moments in writing Mavrin where his regrets, the pain he feels, and his awkward moments with other characters felt familiar. The same is true of Eyasu (the overly-formal, stubborn warrior-priest) grappling with his anxiety of the future and Deyeri (the retired soldier) who feels guilty about people she’s failed or disappointed. In her case, those people are dead soldiers under her command, but exploring guilt and loss shouldn’t be strange to anyone. And so by touching on these things without dwelling too deeply, I get a little catharsis – and fun – all at once.

Or at least that’s how I explained it to my students. And while I’m sure most of them zoned out at some point during my talk, hopefully the more creative ones took away a useful lesson: that even if you’re writing about made-up characters (who may or may not be boggarts) your writing should offer a little healing, as well as being fun.

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.”

“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