Reading for Work

One of the things I hated in university were the readings for my courses (go figure) because I found that the more I was forced to read (not that I read everything I was told to) the less energy I had to read for fun. University almost killed my love of reading, but once I graduated and didn’t have to read for work anymore, I was able to get it back. Because of that, though, I’ve struggled with the idea of reading for work as a writer – basically reading a novel or short story I’m not enjoying to analyze it for my own writing. Since there’s so much out there to read and the recommendations keep rolling in, I’m much more likely these days to put a book down if I’m not engaged by the fourth chapter or so, even if it’s a book other writers have said I should study for things like pacing, tone, etc.

However, the novel I started reading the other day (I won’t say which one in this case) is the first one where I’m finding myself reading with my writer brain on but still enjoying the story. In this case, the writer’s style of prose doesn’t really appeal to me – I find there’s more description than there needs to be, and the paragraphing loses some of the intensity in moments where I’d incorporate one-sentence paragraphs and less words – but  I’m attached enough to the character and the mystery in the novel that I’ve stuck with it. So as I’m reading, I’m not sitting on the edge of my seat like with Jim Butcher or Tanya Huff, but instead I’m thinking to myself, That’s a good use of pacing or Okay, I like that sequence of dialogue, how would I do that? And then I’ll skim certain sections, but take note of why I’m not engaged with those parts.

This is a mindset I haven’t been able to achieve before, which maybe means I’m growing as a writer? We’ll see if I’m able to read another novel in the same way. Apparently character is key for me; I put down A Crown for Cold Silver a couple weeks ago because I didn’t like any of the characters, even though the writing itself was pretty strong. As long as I can still pick up an author I love and not slip into my writer brain, I’ll consider this entire process a win. It’s bad enough that I can’t enjoy most movies anymore – if the same thing happens to novels, that’ll be time to put me in the ground.

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Shameless plug time! I’ve mentioned here a few times that I blog for Black Gate, where I post bi-weekly reviews of SFF novels and short fiction and the occasional interview with a fellow author. My latest review of Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes is up now, as well as my Top Ten Novels from what I read in 2016. If you enjoy this blog and think our reading interests might be in common, check out my reviews and feel free to comment.

So What’s the Next Thing?

I’ve heard of writers who make a point of completing manuscripts by hand because seeing a physical, completed work makes it easier for them to see exactly what their time has gone into. Basically finishing a draft on a computer, renaming it “done” or something and then sending it off to magazines or editors doesn’t have the same sort of effect because it’s just on a screen. I write exclusively on a computer (though I brainstorm and outline by hand sometimes) and so I get that feeling once in a while, which is sometimes reinforced by the Excel doc I keep that outlines my current projects and what I could work on next (the list is vast). It’s like a hydra; I knock off one idea and there are ten more to take its place – which I’m not complaining about, don’t worry

Every accomplishment, though, helps me overcome this feeling and remind me that what I do actually leads to tangible results. In the past couple weeks, that came in the form of selling a new short story (details on that once the TOC is released) and, to my amazement, finding out that one of my Black Gate posts was the most read post for January. Anytime I get news like that, I do a little dance (usually in my mind), blast a little celebratory music (usually Meat Loaf) and, if the news is really big, reward myself with something else. But then inevitably the question that blossoms in my mind is the same one that crops up when I finish a project: “Okay, so what’s the next thing?”

Basically, my mind never stops working. Every accomplishment reinforces the fact that I’m not just pissing in the wind when it comes to my writing, but I don’t give myself a lot of time to sit back on my laurels; I take the energy of any accomplishment and put that back into my writing. Sure, I sold a story, but now I need to sell the next one. Sure, I got some attention online for something I wrote, but now I need to figure out how to do that again. My inner psychologist sometimes needles me that this kind of mindset is maybe unhealthy – that taking a break once in a while and basking in one’s accomplishments is good for the soul – but I tend to ignore that little bastard and start writing up notes for another project. I feel like it’s too easy to become complacent, especially with how difficult it is to break in as a new writer, and so I think there’s a part of me that’s actually afraid to take too long of a break, especially after a moment of success. I’ll add that to the list of things to ask a therapist about when I have benefits and can afford that sort of conversation.

This week, though, I’m jumping back into editing a space opera I drafted over the summer, which needs a ton of work (expect more than a few posts about that in the coming months). The energy and drive that fills that question “what’s next” is crucial for a project like that, as I figure out everything it needs for draft two, and eventually drafts three, four, and as many more as required. And with that drives comes the most important thing: the sheer love of the craft. There is little I enjoy more than pounding out a new piece of fiction, getting to know new characters and working with them as I finish a narrative. The love of what I do feeds that energy, which in turn feeds my drive and feeds that love of writing, in probably the best cycle imaginable save for the sort of cycle of love and affection that comes from being with your perfect partner. Because that question of “what’s next” is simultaneously an affirmation and a challenge, to prove that you deserve whatever accolades you’ve gotten and you can achieve even more.

So … what’s the next thing for you, fellow writer?

Watching Movies

So I was sick as a dog for most of this long weekend, which was a colossal pain since it meant cancelling a bunch of plans and not getting anything done except what was absolutely necessary – or what I could cram into today now that I’m feeling better.

What being sick did allow me to do was sit on my couch and watch a ton of movies, which I haven’t done in an incredibly long time, so I’ll take that as my silver lining. I’m pretty sure that between late Thursday night and Saturday I watched Jurassic ParkJurassic WorldArmageddonDie Hard 2Live Free or Die HardThe CoreIndependence Day, The EqualizerThe Dark Knight, and Hancock … with possibly one or two more that I’m forgetting. I don’t normally watch that many movies in a three-month period these days, but when you’re hacking up a lung and feel like death, movies are useful. Especially good movies. I’m not sure how The Core slipped in there.

I’ve seen most of these movies a bunch of times already. It’s interesting, though, that even in my sickened state I noticed things that I had somehow missed before. In Jurassic Park, for example, it never dawned on me that the moment when Hammond steps out of the helicopter with Grant and the others onto Isla Nublar, all proud and jubilant, is exactly paralleled (camera angle and all) at the end of the film, when he and the other survivors escape the park via helicopter, after a moment of Hammond looking lost and sorrowful. I don’t know how I missed that, but it’s a great example of visual character work. And in Die Hard 2, there’s a momentary exchange with some of the terrorists really early in the film about a “personnel change” that seems innocuous, but actually foreshadows something that happens almost at the end of the film, when it’s revealed that the army unit dispatched against the terrorists is actually in league with them – except for one soldier, who was rotated in last minute and gets executed for his trouble. It’s the kind of thing you’d only notice having already seen the film before.

I love things like that in stories: the subtleties, the slow reveal of things in a world. A character mentions something about their past, or responds negatively to something seemingly innocuous, like a painting, but you don’t reveal the significance of it until much later. In my story published in Keystone Chronicles, “Coding Haven,” I start by establishing that a tree my characters are focused on is a simulation, but only reveal later that the entire world around them is a simulation. And that’s just an early twist. Not that I’m an expert in figuring out author voice, especially my own, but I think that might be one of the staples of my best writing: the slow reveal, in terms of setting, plot and character. Not just because it’s intriguing, but because it’s fun to write.

Or at least I think that’s something common to my work. It’ll be up to some ambitious scholar to go through my published works and decode them. Any volunteers? 😀

The Perks of Being Meat Loaf

I’m a huge Meat Loaf fan. When I’m writing I usually listen to the same selection of music for a particular project – my novel Convoy was Guns n Roses, and I wrote my first TEGG story to Hollywood Vampires – but if I’m working on something other than word creation/editing and need general background music, it’s probably Meat Loaf. Say what you will about the guy’s voice today – he’s almost 70, so cut him some slack – but he’s a friggin legend, still sounds awesome and gives it his all, and his music is brilliant if you’re a fan of classic rock.

His concerts are fun to listen to or watch, and I go back to them sometimes if I need a little energy boost. I was at the Meat Loaf concert here in Ottawa in June, and the energy in the amphitheater was electric – you get a taste of that watching the video. The thing that has always astounded me are the clips where he’s playing one of his all-time classics, like “Bat Out of Hell” or “Paradise,” and you see and hear the incredible reaction from the audience. There are a couple moments from more recent concerts where Meat Loaf just stands there, awash in the energy from his fans, and watching it I think to myself, “Damn, that must be something incredible to feel.”

I get a tiny microcosm of that sometimes: when I see former students in the halls beaming just from bumping into me, and the rare occasion when someone says, “Hey I read your story (or this blog) and I loved it!” The kind of adoration that a legend like Meat Loaf receives is something I’ll probably never achieve – not just because rock stars and writers are very different, but also because I’m not shooting for it. I’d rather have something a bit different. My analogue to what Meat Loaf gets is what I hope for down the road in my career: attending conferences and seeing fellow writers I’ve been working alongside for decades, people who I’ve forged a connection with based on mutual respect of each other’s work and similar sensibilities. We’ll share a drink or meal over the weekend and chat about what we’re all up to before going to some event, and then message each other on threads to remind ourselves that writing isn’t actually an isolating profession. I like to think I’m at the start of that, now that I’ve gotten around to a few cons, but the benefit to being a known face (and known for being good people) is to enter a conference and know you’re with friends and peers, accepted the way a rock star like Meat Loaf feels accepted by an amphitheater full of fans. Sitting here musing and listening to Bat Out of Hell, I think I’ll take my end goal over what Meat Loaf gets at his concerts.

Not that I would say no to being him for a day. Just to get a taste.

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Speaking of cons – Can*Con registration is now open! I’m on the programming team again this year, which means I know who are Guests of Honor will be 🙂 Stay tuned for details on Twitter (@CanConSF) or on our website: http://can-con.org/cc/

The Art of Collaboration

I started off today looking at my various to-do lists and wondering what the hell I should tackle, to make a dent in the suddenly dozens-or-so little tasks that are mostly unrelated but all need to be done. It’s one of those mind-spin moments where you almost feel like tackling nothing, because the gods know by the end of the day there will still be a ton of stuff on that list that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow, the next day, or Sometime That Might Never Happen.

Naturally, I got some things done anyway.

Part of this mind-spin came from the best of sources. Yesterday I spent the bulk of my day writing with two of my Can*Con and TEGG pals, Derek Kunsken and Nicole Lavigne. I went in with a clear plan of what I was going to accomplish with the 8 hours or so we had settled on, which was going to be a combination of TEGG writing/editing, editing a new short story of my own IP, preparing some reviews for Black Gate, and (time-permitting) do a little Can*Con prep. Instead, the three of us started our days focused on TEGG, and then never stopped.  There are a couple larger projects that we all have a hand in and we ended up throwing ideas back and forth, sketching out maps and then dividing up tasks, coming back together to spitball ideas, and then writing and combining our contributions on Dropbox. The end result was a ton of words written and edited, as well as the bunch of little things added to my to-do list (and theirs, to be fair). And while I can’t say much about those words, they have something to do with this from a couple weeks back:

Though I ended up not tackling 2/3 of the things I had planned that morning, we remarked afterwards that collaborating the way we did allowed us to get way more done than we would have alone. If we needed to spitball something or check that what we were doing fit the larger world we were writing in, we just asked instead of sending an email and waiting for a response. Ideas that we thought were cool became even cooler as we brainstormed over Derek’s kitchen table. If you’ve ever listened to TV writers discuss the dynamic of a writer’s room, that’s pretty much what we accomplished – and damn was it fun. More importantly, though, we did some solid creating that will shine when these projects are released.

The key now is to keep up that momentum, since I find myself working with multiple deadlines for the first time in my writing career. At the moment, that means dinner, followed by more tea, followed by some work, followed by sleep. Probably.

Hey, Kids, Learning is Fun!

Tis the end of the semester for my students, which means that they’re mostly exhausted, nervous about exams and summatives, and ready for it all to be over (though they’re not tired of me yet, for some reason – even my Careers class). Naturally, the obvious topic of discussion for this week is how learning is fun!

In all seriousness, I’ve been doing a fair bit of research these past few weeks into things that I know nothing about, to help with some writing projects. For a long time I’ve subscribed to the Rothfuss method of just making shit up (SF makes that easy sometimes) and between getting a sour taste for research from university and how much learning I have to do for teaching, it’s rare that I feel like watching more than a TED Talk. Recently, though, I cracked open my history textbooks from Queen’s for the first time in forever to look into branches of Catholicism in Ethiopia (which I vaguely remembered from a course I took in undergrad), and the act of researching for something fun was actually incredible. I followed it up a couple weeks ago by perusing some more texts for information about Red River, Rupert’s Land, and other topics from Canadian history, and had the same sort of blast.

I’ve also been looking into biology for a different project, designing creatures for some TEGG work I’m doing with some collaborators here in Ottawa. Did you know that there are species of jellyfish that not only have chromatophores (which is the proper term for cells that can change color and camouflage) but can shift their osmoregulation (another term I learned recently) to survive in freshwater or saltwater? That went into a new beastie. Courtesy of one Derek Kunsken, I also learned that reptiles have something called a cloaca. Look it up. You’ll be amazed! Or disgusted.

Sorry if I have a childish ramble this week, but I’ve seriously been having a lot of fun. You might read this and think, “Dude, research should be a given” but a lot of writers find ways around researching (like making shit up) or don’t bother. And that’s a fine practice, but I think I’ve been missing out by not researching more. My brain only has so much creative capacity for ideas, but reading about crocodile habitats or the detailed history of Wild Bill Hickok or who attended the Great Exhibition in 1851 will lead to ideas that I never would’ve dreamed up otherwise. That’s not to say that every project demands research, but a writer shouldn’t shy from it.

So if you’re a student reading this, exhausted by the bullshit that teachers like me heap upon you (though I think I’m better than most), have heart! One day you’ll be able to research only what you want. I just hope the love of learning survives that long. Gods know I had to dredge mine up from somewhere deep.

 

TV Adaptations

A while back, John O’Neill from Black Gate pointed me to a list of all the TV and movie adaptations currently in production that are based on spec fic novels. Calling the list “extensive” doesn’t really do it justice – there are a ton of potential projects described there, in various states of completion. A number of titles jumped out at me immediately as I skimmed through, including Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, the Narnia continuation with The Silver Chair, and the recent optioning of Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles.

I know people get really excited (or really fearful) when a big TV option a la Game of Thrones is announced. I’ve realized that, while I might see an announcement and think, “Oh, that might be cool” I will almost never scope out a TV series based off a book I’ve read, particularly if I really enjoyed that book. For example, I read Leviathan Wakes around the time the first season of The Expanse came out, and I have yet to feel compelled to see the show. I watched the first season of the The Strain and decided I preferred del Toro and Hogan’s trilogy. What I’ve found is that if I’m familiar with a story, I don’t get the thrill some people do at witnessing a scene that’s exactly how they read it. I’ve already visualized that scene, so I don’t need to see it done for me in film.

The same works in reverse, apparently. I watched the first three seasons or so of Game of Thrones, and have never felt the need to pick up Martin’s novels because I already know what’s going to happen. The same with The Walking Dead (though admittedly I’m not a big comics reader anyway). If I had seen the original movie Westworld, I don’t know if I’d have enjoyed the HBO series’ first season as much. (Sidebar: holy fuck that’s a good show)

I think my issue is that when I’m exploring fiction I need something new. I don’t need to be told the same story multiple ways. If I’ve watched the show and someone says the book is better, I shrug. That’s nice, but I’ve already had my experience with that world, and there’s a ton of new stuff out there to read and watch anyway. So while a TV version of Kingkiller or The Passage sounds interesting, odds are I’ll never see it. Anyone else have this same issue, or am I alone and crazy (again)?