Friday, October 30, 2015

Slow life writing

This is around the time of year when we all start with our NaNoWriMo posts. This is also the first year that I didn't even consider doing NaNoWriMo. I usually at least have a fleeting moment of maybe I should—nahhhhhh. The glib reason is that I've already drafted 50,000 fast, wrong words and then decided to throw them out this year.

Seriously, though, it has taken me a few years to come to understand I don't write well when I aim to write fast. I do believe that NaNoWriMo is an excellent opportunity to build the habit and create the discipline of writing every day. Word goals, specifically a consistent word goal, is how I keep the momentum going. It's less about the word count than it is the reminder to be writing, to be pushing the story forward. (This does not, at any point, become a post about how I changed my mind and will be doing NaNoWriMo this year.)

I don't do NaNoWriMo for other reasons, including that I find 50,000 words to be an awkward length. (That's a little over half a story worth of words.) There may be a year that I choose to participate just for the challenge of writing something that is that length. But it won't be 2015.

I've been working on something this year, that I tweet about occasionally and I talk about to people, but I've not really blogged it. Possibly because I've been busy putting words into it instead of writing words about it. Also, it's a bit difficult to refer to as it needs a new title, because the current one is connected to when I planned to do something overly complicated with the structure that I'm not doing anymore. (Past Me got too much sleep in late 2014 and then had this great idea about trying to write a David Mitchell book. No. We're not doing that.)

Usually I refer to it as the damn magpie book. It's new but not, as I completed a rough draft in January of 2014. But I had left it to gather dust for most of last year, because I'd spent far too much time with it. To be honest, I was certain I hated it. We have a long history of fighting each other to get the job done.

Earlier this year, I had the great idea to draft something new and come back to revising. So I stuffed the magpie draft in a folder on my harddrive, and I (gleefully) moved on. I wrote more than 50,000 words of something else. Something fun. But I stalled out. Because I was writing fast and thin and I could see the story going to pieces. I had these characters and this vague plot and a reaction to a few things, but I didn't have what made the story mine. Why was I writing it?

I don't think that stories should only be about our viewpoints and our experience, but I do think there needs to be something that connects the writer and the story. Because the writer is the first reader. Before feedback and revisions and everything else, you've got to be invested enough to finish that first draft. And I suffered through years of falling out of love with an idea but sticking to it so I could get something finished. I wasn't about to do it again.

When I decided to have a go at applying for writing grants in June, I pulled the magpie thing out and started working on making it suck less readable. (The grant I applied for is specifically targeted at works in progress and offers funding to complete them.) I cringed my way through it. It wasn't a bad story; it just wasn't the story I wanted to tell. It had been written too slow—too much time between its starts and stops—so that it was equally thin as something written too fast.

I tried revising, got 30,000 or 40,000 words in—it had topped out around 90,000—and realized revising wasn't going to do it. I had to rewrite it into something I could love enough to do what it takes to make stories good.

My new challenge was could I make the western—such an American genre—into something Canadian, but more importantly... could I make it feminist? It was a bargain story, but could I make it about the danger of transactional relationships in a way that wasn't heavy-handed? Could I write a revenge tale that was kind? And most importantly, how could I make it so magic spilled out the sides of it even if doing magic wasn't the focus of the story?

I stopped when I was doing job interviews or reading and reviewing... but I kept at writing it. I pulled the story apart, examined it with the same critical gaze I use for other people's stories, and put it back together better. I listened when people spoke of representation and the problems with historical assumptions and felt grateful I was at a stage where I could easily make those changes. I fed it songs. So many songs. (Seriously, there is a place reserved in the acknowledgements for the person who unintentionally half-built this story's playlist.)

And the story's getting there. It is well on its way to being something. I've got work left to do, but I know I'll have it finished and readable before the end of the year. That's really all I wanted.

But if you are deciding whether or not to do NaNoWriMo, I would tell you that producing an arbitrary amount of words by a certain date won't make you a better writer. It may make you a faster writer. Few of us are fortunate enough to improve by accident rather than intent.

But if you want to do NaNoWriMo to put yourself in a position to have to make writing decisions faster and have the support of a community of people who are sharing that experience, then it's a good place and probably something you'll enjoy. Like everything, you get out of it what you put in.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: October

It is a strange thing, job-hunting. Because you have to let yourself believe during the hiring process that this could be your job. You have to let that possibility in and grow it with each successful step forward. And each time it doesn't happen, each time reality diverges and this timeline we live in isn't the one where you get that job, you have to mourn the loss of the possibility.

That is not always an easy thing to do. But it is a thing I have to keep doing, even if it doesn't get easier. Because the goal is to get a new job, and not getting one isn't an alternative. It helps to know other people in this position; we're all doing our best to find something stable. When we discuss this, everyone agrees that the only thing to do is to keep going. Disappointment hurts, and when things are difficult it hurts more. But it still doesn't hurt like it did a year ago.

I had a job lined up earlier this month. Well, I was dead certain that I did. I cleared reference checks. I was the best candidate they had interviewed (they told me so.) And I wanted the job. It was the kind of challenge that channelled traits I have in healthy ways so I could thrive. Three weeks after the reference checks I was still waiting to hear next steps, so I called the company to get an update... and found out they couldn't hire me. They couldn't hire for the position until the end of their fiscal year—which is the end of March.

That possibility of not having to worry about income and paying rent and being on a salary when the end of my current lease comes up mid next year vanished. The little knot of dread in my stomach returned, tied up in the possibility that I might be in over my head. Then people showed up. They said I'm sorry. They said that sucks. They asked what do you need? And I remembered I have a small army, and the reason I stopped thinking about leaving this city is because I spent this year growing my in-person support network instead.

See, the company told me you didn't do anything wrong. I thought of course, I didn't. And it's difficult to know that—to know this is just something that happened that wasn't in my favour. Because things happen. It doesn't make it easier to accept. It doesn't make the disappointment hurt less. But things happen. So I let it hurt for a day or two, and then I got back to work looking and applying for jobs. Because I need full-time work.

I didn't get the literary grants that I applied for in June, either. Last year—or even six months ago—that would have been devastating. Now it was a moment of disappointment followed by another afternoon of putting words on the page. Continuing to do the thing I was doing anyway and would keep doing anyway. It would have be amazing if someone had paid me to do it, but that no wasn't going to be the thing to stop me. (I am old enough, and have been at this long enough, to recognize the only things that ever stop me from writing are me and exhaustion.)

When my family had a farm, I remember growing up with an understanding of how much of its success was beyond anyone's control. Wet summers. Early frosts. Fields flooded out, or the snow came too soon, and people lost entire crops. The precariousness of grain farming is part of why my family stopped doing it. But I learned that when it was nothing you had done or could have prevented, you did what you needed to prepare the ground for the winter. You looked at your options. Then in the spring, you went out and you planted more seeds. And you grew those possibilities all over again.

This might be why I've always been super goal-orientated. I was raised to set a goal and work towards accomplishing it. Then set another one and work towards that. To go out into the world looking for what I expect to find. And I realize this is a privilege in its own right, because not everyone has that support to fall back on. Occasionally, I do battle with the thought that accepting help is too easy. I could always be doing more, you see. I could always be trying harder.

That's why I applied for the writing grants, even though I had already decided what I wanted was full-time work. Because it was an option, and how much I needed it didn't affect my chances of getting it. The only thing I could ever guarantee would be to never get one because I didn't try.

190 people applied for the June Works In Progress grant, and 20 people got one. They're not stupendous odds, but they're not impossible ones, either. I've beat out more candidates than that for job interviews these past few months. Also, all of this job hunting has taught me that I have options. More options than I ever had when I restricted the paying work I wanted to do to a job in publishing or writing fiction.

I have a certain amount of privilege that allows me more choices about how I'm going to get to where I want to be. But I still have to get there. As does everyone else. We don't all necessarily want to travel the same route. Living life is a lot like writing in that everyone has a process and it's individualized. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for someone else, and may not even be what they want to work.

This is not revolutionary news. It's not an epiphany. It's mostly a peptalk for me, a reminder that I may need again later, that getting up and putting one foot in front of the other is still only way to get anywhere. Because somedays that feels harder than others, and somedays I still need to hear it.

If this happens to be a day that you also need to hear it, there's a shorthand among some friends of mine for this: Do the work. Prep the fields. Plant the possibilities. Let them grow.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

My complicated relationship with The Flash

I have a complicated relationship with CW's The Flash. You see, I watched most of its first season with dedication because it appeared to be doing something interesting. Ha, surprise, turns out it wasn't doing that thing—it was doing something far less interesting. It left me wondering why I felt the way I did in that previous post but stopped feeling that way when the show went in a different direction. I'm good at recognizing when someone is telling a story that's not the one I would and respecting the story they want to tell.

But The Flash didn't go in a different direction so much as it fell apart after I stopped trying to fill in its gaps. Thus what our complicated relationship really is: I try to make The Flash make sense and it can't decide if it wants to make sense. That would be a great deal easier to accept and move on if it would commit to being nonsensical. Instead it lurches and stumbles, because all its gears are mismatched, but it thinks it's not broken.

I don't know why I'm writing another blog post about a broken show. Maybe it's the curse of recognizing something's potential and wondering why it stubbornly refuses to use it. Yes, it's probably that.

To be fair, the writers were surprised by the show's success and were caught unprepared. (From the articles/interviews I've read, there was a solid plot for about thirteen episodes and then they had to scramble when the full season was greenlit.) This is not to suggest that you can't pants your way through a narrative, but you have to set aside more time to revise and tidy up something when you don't know what you're going to do next. You end up with pacing issues and inconsistencies—and television is a lot less forgiving because when you get to the season finale, you can't go back and fix things. The other episodes have already aired.

Some characters, like Eddie, benefitted from the extra opportunity to shine. Others, like Joe, seemed to spin themselves in circles. (Seriously, Joe becomes worse at due process and respecting other people's agency.) There were moments when the show did things that were interesting or responsive—but they always came across as tagged on. It viewed like a rush job—like the cameras needed to roll—instead of a season that served a greater story arc.

Up to the reveal of Harrison Wells as Eobard Thawne, alternate fan theories about his identity scanned. They better explained visual consistencies happening on the show. (The fan theories were also more interesting.) After the reveal, the plot got sloppy—fast. The question of why does he look like Harrison Wells was answered with technology that appeared on Fringe. Then the writers wrote themselves into a corner with a paradox by erasing a character from existence who was the driving force of the backstory plot. But then... he's not gone because Cavanagh is a series regular for season two?

It's time travel! Parallel Worlds! Alternate Timelines! And none of those easy answers address how someone can be erased from existence without having any impact on the world/plot/characters. It's not a matter of do the producers have an answer—it's never been that, because they've always come up with one—it's a matter of their answers continually don't make sense when I think about them. In our social media dominated world of TV viewing, where the shows are discussed at length between episodes, asking the viewer to Not Think About It isn't a sustainable approach.

The Flash could really benefit from doing the deep-think about where it's going more than a season at a time, and the problematic underpinnings of its narrative. The show is bad with how it writes anyone who isn't a hetro-male. (It's not great with class or race or gender.) It's bad with respecting the agency of anyone who isn't the protagonist. (Its attempt in the season two premiere to give Iris more agency negated Barry's agency.) It's bad with understanding how consequences work. (You can't erase someone out of existence and have them still exist.) It's super bad at understanding why these problems persist.

They persist because season one of The Flash tells the viewers things to appease their concerns then fails to follow through with real change. Example? When the show told us Iris was upset about being lied to so it could tick that box and go back to everything being all right between her and the rest of Team Flash by the end of the episode. Could this patchjob approach to character development get addressed and resolved in season two? Sure, but it means spending season two fixing season one, instead of the forward motion that the show wants to pursue. (There was a speech with a toast and Team Flash made a pact. It was that kind of sweetly optomistic The Flash gets when it really hits its stride.)

So why did I keep watching? Because Tom Cavanagh played two different characters (three if you want to count the brief feature of actual Harrison Wells in one episode) with more apparent ease than most of the CW can play one. (The exception being Rose McIver on iZombie, who is amazing.) Harrison Wells was consistently the best part of The Flash, because he was the only character with any semblance of depth. Watching Cavanagh, you could believe Wells had an internal life; he was off doing things—probably crimes—when he wasn't on screen.

Here was the genesis of that comic book relationship of the archnemesis, the antagonist who respects the protagonist (even admires him a little) and pushes him to grow and become better. An antagonist who has a different approach and perspective, but the viewer can recognize legitimate motivations to all of the character's actions. That was neat. It was a thing worth tuning in for. It was a welcome alternative to watching a show where moral complexity means you like to eat people as part of your grimdark aesthetic. (I do not demonize Hannibal. That show stared into the abyss long enough to demonize itself.)

The problem was The Flash couldn't decide if Wells/Thawne was an exercise in empathy—someone with a character arc—or just a Bad Guy tricking the Good Guy. One episode would get the complex morality right—like when we saw Wells somehow complete the process that made Barry become the Flash—and then the next episode would undo it. The season finale undid it within the same episode.

Why would Wells/Thawne want Barry dead after telling us repeatedly that Wells/Thawne's goal was to get home? Why go out of his way to kill someone he no longer hated and felt a sense of paternal pride for? I know the easy answer is because Wells/Thawne only views the world through the lens of whether or not others and their actions benefit him. So he says whatever he needs to because he's soooooo evil. But that's not internally consistent behaviour with the character arc the show kept trying to insist he had.

Then we get season two's premiere. A video message from Wells delivers a confession to the murder of Barry's mother. It's the most emotionally impactful minute of the episode. (Maybe just for me.) I'd love to interpret this as some gift of kindness—the swell of sentimental music implies the show knows Barry's third dad loves him best. (Victor Garber is more like Barry's benevolent science uncle.) This won't make you happy, Wells says, but I'm going to give you what you want.

I don't even know what to do with that, because it's the same problem as the season finale. It's easier to torment Barry by not giving him what he wants, by forever keeping that out of his reach. It requires no effort from Wells to do so. It would be the crueler thing to do. But Wells makes the makes the effort. He even warns Barry it won't help in the long run. "I'm not the thing you hate," Wells says. "We were never enemies."

How even—but no, there was textual—WHUT. Ok. Ok. There's a video message from someone who was erased from existence? Was he taken from another timeline and we'll find out there were two of him lurking around the corners of season one—one smirking Bad Wells/Thawne and one helpful Good Wells/Thawne? Are we, the viewer, experiencing a shift to a new timeline that Barry fell into post-Singularity that is identical except for Wells/Thawne not being erased from existence? Are these character inconsistencies deliberate to indicate a bigger plot— oh, for fuck's sake this is beyond ridiculous.

Do you see? Because The Flash season one is the TV equivalent of publishing a messy first draft, it creates an additional frustration of never knowing which of its internal inconstancies it will decide were intentional. Manifesting something in season two that fixes season one is still bad writing. It's still a lack of consequences. If nothing sticks, nothing happens. It can always un-happen should it turn out to be an unpopular decision.

This is why I feel like I have to tap out of watching The Flash. It's not that it turned out to be a bad show—it might've always been one—but that I'm not a viewer who can just Not Think About It. I do think about it—and trying to make sense of it eats up time. It's an exercise in futility. I could be putting that thought into something that is going to give back.

So here's what we're going to, The Flash. I'm going to give you two more episodes to make a decision about what you're doing and commit to doing it. If this isn't back on track—and not just showing the potential that it might one day find its way—by episode three of season two, you go on that list with Doctor Who and Arrow of things I had to stop watching because I grew out of them.

Friday, October 02, 2015

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

In A Thousand Nights, E.K. Johnston builds a historical desert kingdom of sand and magic as she reimagines the framework for the A Thousand And One Nights folktale collection. Readers may be familiar with Scheherazade and how she outsmarted the tyrannical Shahryar by telling him stories; she left each story unfinished so that he would have to allow her to live to the next night so he could hear its ending. In many adaptations of A Thousand And One Nights Scheherazade's tales are often what get the glory. In A Thousand Nights, we know from the opening line that this is a story well-aware of the danger of being a woman under a blood-thirsty king's rule.

Like Shahryar, Lo-Melkhiin has had many wives. When he uses one up, he kills her and takes another. Some women last a night. Some a week. No one makes it more than a month. When A Thousand Nights opens, he's already killed three hundred women.

Against this backdrop, Johnston tells the tale of a young spinner—of thread and stories—who loves her sister enough to take her place as Lo-Melkhiin's bride. From the impactful opening line to the last page, this unnamed narrator's lyrical voice weaves a spell over the reader. By carefully selecting the right details and words, Johnston enables us to feel the danger/wonder of this kingdom—be it during a flash flood or a dictator's rooftop star-viewing party. The desert is a dangerous place, her narrator tells us, but there is also much life to be found there.

That perspective is the key to A Thousand Nights. This is less the story of how a brave young queen wins over a tyrannical king than the story of how women come together and draw on each other's strength. Ladies have each other's backs in this book, and it changes their world. There is a love story in A Thousand Nights; there is also a story about how much the sisters love each other, and a healthy, functional poly family. There is no shortage of love, but I wouldn't call this a romance.

We hear from various sources within the story that Lo-Melkhiin was once a good, kind prince. This changes when a supernatural force hungry for magic and power possesses him. Potentially this could create a reading that goes oh, his mental illness is to blame. However, it's less about mental illness and more about a toxic belief that people are disposable. What I appreciate is how A Thousand Nights holds him accountable—it addresses how he became complacent in these acts. His complacency motivated the demon within him to keep escalating things, to keep trying to get a reaction.

Complacency—from people, from the world—in violence against women is what allows the arrangement to be put in place that sacrifices daughters and sisters to keep the kingdom safe. Lo-Melkhiin does all these things and the men of his kingdom don't ask him to stop killing. They ask that the victims be evenly distributed among the camps. Even if reading the possession as mental illness, the book doesn't use it as an excuse. It's something that the kingdom is refusing to address, half out of fear and half out of how it doesn't directly affect them.

The catalyst for change in A Thousand Nights is its narrator and her perspective. She asks for what she needs, she listens to what other people need, and she respects their agency. The book consistently presents that being kind is an active choice; one that courageous people want to make. It suggests attitudes can be changed without resorting to violent measures or domination.

To help reinforce this, Johnston adds the concept of the small-god—a form of ancestor-worship practiced by the characters. It allows the book to explore the power of support, and the responsibility that comes with having power given to one. While Johnston explored this theme to some degree earlier this year in Prairie FireA Thousand Nights takes the use of world as metaphor a step further. She is obviously an author growing her craft, which promises more great stories to come.

This story, A Thousand Nights, is about the power of consent—and about how not respecting it is what makes people into monsters. It is full of superb world-building, women looking out for each other, and the occasional wisdom learned from goats. If any of those things sound interesting, then this tale is one you'll want to hear.

A Thousand Nights is available from Disney-Hyperion at your local bookstore, Indigo.caAmazon.ca, and Kobo. Thanks to HGB Canada and Ardo Omar for the opportunity to read this as ARC.