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.

 

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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?

 

 

 

Brandon Discovers Discovery Writing – Episode II

So part of my post-Can*Con, post World Fantasy Convention plan is to significantly amp up my productivity on my current novel project, which I started in the summer and which fell by the wayside a bit due to the new school year (and then a new, permanent teaching position) and the need to focus on some other projects. Between several doses of extra encouragement during those two conventions, an excellent brainstorming session on Archivos Podcast, and agreeing to a weekly productivity check-in with fellow writer KT Bryski (check out her work, by the way – it’s awesome) I’ve been writing pages upon pages of development notes for draft 2, and getting much more excited about this novel, tentatively titled Three Coins of Silver.

You might recall that back in the summer I posted that I was going to try my hand at discovery writing Three Coins (if you actually pay enough attention to this blog that you do remember that, I’ll be impressed enough to gladly Tuckerize you somewhere in this novel). Part of my roadblock over the last couple of months, I think, was that I was moving too quickly with that process; churning out 3000 words in a sitting is great, but if your plot is going off the rails and you don’t realize it, those 3000 words don’t do you much good. One of the pieces of advice I got during the Archivos Podcast, from Cerece Rennie Murphy, was to “take it slow” due to how much I have going on in this novel. And the more notes I make for draft 2, the more I realize how slow I need to take things so that everything comes together the way I want.

So discovery writing isn’t off the table, but odds are my process for draft 2 is going to be a hybrid. The amount of notes I’m making is going to naturally lend itself to a bit of outlining, but filling in the details within that outline will occur as I’m writing. And making the changes to draft 2 (and subsequent drafts) is going to be much easier because of my previous discovery writing, in which I purposefully left gaps in my worldbuilding so I could focus on my characters. Though I’m changing some fundamentals about their backstories and relationships to each other, their individual voices and mannerisms will be the same, and those came about as I got to know them in draft 1.

So while I won’t be 100% discovery writing for the remainder of this project (cuz frankly that would be a little nuts) I’ll still be playing around and building things as I go. Thing of it like a best of both worlds scenario. The most important thing is that I’m excited – because that, fellow writers, is the key ingredient in the best writing. And I’ll keep updating you here, in the hopes that it inspires writing of your own!

On the Nature of Change

It’s difficult sometimes to cope with change. When something dramatic happens, whether it’s good or bad, there’s a reevaluation that needs to happen as you adjust to a world that’s ever so slightly different (at least) than the world you lived in before. It’s the nature of the unexpected, and while a change that leaves you angry or sad is often more difficult to recover from, a change that’s mostly happy or exciting also demands recovery, since in both cases certain doors that you thought would remain open are suddenly closed. My friend Marie refers to it as a “blow to the subconscious,” and all of the emotion that accompanies that blow is part of your subconscious processing The Way The World Is Now, so you can move forward within it.

As a writer, I think dealing with change is actually more difficult, because as storytellers many of us can see more potential paths than others can. Not only that, we can envision what a particular moment or a particular life path might look like with vivid detail. I think we’ll often get the image wrong (or maybe that’s just me) but the predictive nature of our minds can at least help to prepare us for something that otherwise would catch us completely off-guard. But this is a blessing and a curse, since our ability to envision these paths makes them even more real to us, and so when one of those doors is closed the loss can be even more profound. That particular story will never be written, and in many ways there’s nothing more shocking or damaging for a writer than that.

But by the same token, writing helps us through these moments. A dynamic and exciting change in our lives exposes us to new people and new experiences that can feed our writing. And when we’re faced with change that leaves us with a tightness in our chest or a tremor in our hands, that can feed our writing, too – not just by feeding the emotional core of our writing, but by reviving the stories that we once saw for ourselves and giving them to our characters. There’s a catharsis in that, whether it’s releasing the nervousness that comes with a new job or the sorrow that comes with a loss. Whether it’s discovery writing a new story, or simply voicing your thoughts via a blog post. When your world – not the larger world we see in the news, but your personal world – is shifting so dramatically around you, sitting down and putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper can seem like the most daunting task. But getting past that mental roadblock to jot down just a few words makes the next few easier, and can help your subconscious as it recovers from whatever blows it has received.

There’s an ethereal nature to the world, I think; things are always changing, and that can be difficult to grapple with. But if as writers we can envision dozens of possible paths, that means that we can see the various options we have for solidity and comfort and happiness, and that helps the subconscious, too. And piece by piece, word by word, you can find your grounding again, and prepare yourself for whatever the next change will be. Positive or negative, there’s no guarantee it won’t be difficult – but we’re all strong enough to get through it.