DIY: Vision vs Reality

I have a confession to make. My current novel is woefully neglected and I’ve been trying to map out a path forward for some days, weeks, months now. This not to say there hasn’t been ANY progress, but the progress has been glacial. I’ve solved a few critical plot points and even did some much needed outlining. New words on the other hand have been slowed to a trickle.

I can stand here and make excuses till the proverbial cows come home, but it ain’t going to cut it. I’ve been writing long enough to know that the only sure fire cure for finishing a piece is sitting down and writing. So why then haven’t I done just that?

(For the record what follows are not excuses per se, but rather analysis of my mental state. Just so we’re clear…)

I had a lightbulb moment sometime last year when I realized that procrastination wasn’t a sign that someone is lazy, undisciplined or lacking in motivation. Procrastination can be as simple as an in ability to make a decision and move forward. While my current situation doesn’t feel like full blown procastination, it does have its roots in my inability to move forward.

Earlier this year my wife had some time between contracts and decided that it was the perfect time to give our kitchen a makeover. Not having a lot of money we decided the best course of action was to paint our 35+ year old cupboards and replace the hardware. She had seen examples online of people’s similar makeovers and was taken by how well they turned out. In a heady rush of optimism we bought all the supplies, consulted the various home hardware gurus (who are so willing to tell you they did the same job themselves and how easy it was). Then we waited. And waited. Next thing we knew my wife had got a call back for another contract and the project went on the backburner. It wasn’t until that contract finished did we sit down and discuss our lack of progress.

As it turns out I was deferring to her to start the project. My excuse for not encouraging her was that I couldn’t see her vision of how she wanted to transform it. Her excuse that was she was afraid to start the project because it was daunting and that once she started there was no turning back. For better or worse the cabinets would be forever changed. In the end it worked out and while there was a steep learning curve and many delays due to other commitments, but it got done and was worth it in the end.

Pardon my inelegant metaphor, but writing is a lot like a DIY home renovation. You see other people doing it, your motivated to do it yourself. The process looks challenging, but the end result looks so satisfying. Then you commit and you feel overwhelmed, like you don’t have the skills or the tools to pull it off and that you should have just hired professionals. Except in writing, unless you’re having someone ghost write your memoir, there are no hiring professionals to do it for you. It’s DIY by definition.

So where does that leave me on my current novel? I have the vision of what shape I want this project to take, so no excuses there. I may think I don’t have the tools I need to get the job done, but until I try and find out that I am lacking something, I won’t know. It comes down to that underlying fear of FAILURE. Of messing it up, so royally that you end up questioning your command of the English language. I know that’s an irrational fear. I know its a fear driven by not having successfully completed a project of this magnitude before.

This project has its roots in an idea I started in 2011 for NaNoWriMo. I didn’t start working on it seriously until last year, but even then its been fits and starts. At my age, I can’t afford to be wasting time spinning my wheels on projects. I need to be completing projects and moving on. I get that this will be my FIRST novel and whether it survives revision or ends up in the trunk remains to be seen, but regardless I need to move it forward.

So this is me working it out in my own head and putting it out there in the world that I need to make this happen. I need to commit to the process and dive in and not come up for air until its done. Whether it matches my vision or not, I need to get to the end before I can judge the outcome.

Wish me luck and don’t be afraid to ask me how’s the novel coming. See you on the other side.

Toronto the Good

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Toronto Thunderstorm – by John R. Southern

I grew up in a Northern Ontario town that felt smaller than its population of 75,000 would have you believe. The fact that Toronto was a 7+ hours car ride in one direction and Thunder Bay 7+ hours in the other direction IN GOOD WEATHER made it feel more isolated than it was. When I got the opportunity to move to Toronto to attend university when I was 19, I jumped at it. In my naive thinking of the time I figured it was a great opportunity to experience life in the big city for 4 years while I got my degree before I moved home to start my life as an adult. (Okay you can stop laughing now, no seriously.)

Well probably after my first year of living in Canada’s biggest metropolis I realized that I had no intention of ever going ‘home’ again to live. I spent the next 19 years living in a variety of different neighbourhoods – a basement apartment in Etobicoke,  the student ghetto in the Annex, an apartment in Don Mills, a high-rise bachelor apartment at Yonge & Eglington, an apartment in the Annex (just outside the student ghetto this time), a basement apartment off of the Danforth, an apartment in North York, and finally in my last year and a half in the GTA to a townhouse in Mississauga. Toronto and its neighbourhoods slowly seeped into my DNA (figuratively, not literally although that would be a cool SF premise right there.) In short it became my adopted home town.

Oddly enough the way these things work, I didn’t really feel like I was “from” Toronto until I moved back to Northern Ontario for work in 2006 (albiet one town over from my birthplace). I guess there’s some truth in the old adage that you don’t know what you have until its gone.  Toronto had served as a backdrop in several of my short stories that I wrote while living there, but it never became a character in any of my stories until now.

In my current WIP (translation for non-writers: Work in Progress) I’m trying to distil my memories of Toronto into the story. Writing about a specific place has its unique challenges. On the one hand you’re describing a place that has to ring true to people that live there, but on the other hand you’re trying to describe a place in a way that people that have never been there (and may never experience the city first hand) can relate without sounding like a travelogue. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, my novel is about two characters travelling between alternate universes, so not only does my Toronto need be “real” it also has to be unreal in very unique and distinct ways.

Toronto’s history has been shaped by it’s weather, geography, politics, art, and above all else the people that have called the city home over the past 200+ years. In the late 1880s Mayor William Howland coined the term “Toronto the Good” in an effort to campaign to clean up the less savoury aspects of the city and paint the town with his own Victorian morality. While much of Howland’s reforms have been forgotten, the nickname stuck with Toronto for a long time in a derisive way, describing the city’s its uptight nature. My challenge now is trying to imagine the Toronto the good, the bad, and the ugly as it were and make them come alive on the page in a way that serves the story.

 

W is for Writing Groups

a-to-z-letters-w Writing can be very isolating and solitary experience, so its no surprise that writers tend to seek out kindred spirits. I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in a number of writing groups over the years. Each group has taught me so much about myself and about my writing.

Writing groups have given me opportunities to learn from other writers with different view points and writing experience, as well as sharing my own. Having other people you trust to critique your work and bounce ideas off is crucial. Writing groups can be a source of support, motivation, inspiration and at times, even frustration. Writing groups are tenuous beasts threatened by pressures of work and family commitments, personality clashes, and geography, but when the work they are a sight to behold.

I have met life long friends through writing groups and long after the groups have dissolved I still keep in contact with people from some of my previous critique groups. The core of my current group has been together for more than 4 years now, which is a testament to the strength of the relationships we have forged. Like any relationship, communication is key and we’ve had to recalibrate our wants and needs as time and projects have progressed.

If I could give one piece of advice to writers starting out would be to reach out to other writers and open yourself up to sharing your work and receiving feedback. It’s scary and they don’t call it critiquing for nothing. You’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear about that piece that you thought was PERFECT. You’re probably going to feel like you don’t know anything after someone with more experience points out everything that’s wrong with your work from grammar to viewpoint and everything in between, but trust me when I say its all worth it. All the writers that I have met along the way have been patient, giving of themselves and their time, and you want to know a secret – they WANT YOU TO SUCCEED. They want you to grow as a writer, they want you to write that kick ass story that will make them wish they had thought of it.

I remember when I took my first baby steps on the path to becoming a writer, I asked a friend who I knew was a writer to take a look at something and give me their feedback. The writer asked me if I was ready for this and I said I was, but in truth that first critique was an eye opener in more ways than one. I realized that a) I had a long way to go on the path to becoming published b) that I had to be open to receiving the honest feedback that they were offering. I don’t regret asking for that critique and that sort of feedback made me eventually join my first critique/writing group which would start me down the road to where I am today.

I want to thank every one who has ever taken time to read one of my stories and give me feedback whether it was part of one of these groups as a one-on-one favour. I may not always act on your advice, but I will ALWAYS take it to heart with all the consideration that it was given.

L is for Language

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For millions of years mankind lived just like animals

Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination

We learned to talk.

~ Stephen Hawking (Intro to Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking).

At the beginning of the A to Z Blog Challenge I drew up a quick list of prompts to help trigger ideas for entries. Most of my first 11 entries I could remember what the prompt was without looking at the list, but today I was stumped. I took a look at the list and was a bit surprised to see I had pencilled in Language. Disclaimer: I am suffering through a head cold right now, so this might help explain why my memory is a bit fuzzy or why when I first looked at the word, I was all like what ever will I write about? As a uniliginual English speaking North American, I can hardly claim to know anything about foreign languages. But the the fog lifted a bit and I realized I wrote the word down because words and ultimately language is my life blood.

Language has the power free us or imprison us, it can unit or divide, it can inspire hope or instil fear. Words, and especially spoken language is a power tool. From movie quotes – “I’ll be back!” – to political sound bites – “Yes we can!” language has a way of imprinting on us. Becoming triggers for feelings, emotions, place holders for a memory. A friendly voice long distance over Skype or down an old fashioned phone line can brighten our day.

Language and words are power and adaptive. A word can have many meanings depending on their context and can change with time. A word that is in common use today could die out in the next 20 years or continue to be used 1,000 years from now.

As a writer, I naturally love the written form and nothing thrills me more than be able to take words and communicate to someone else thoughts, ideas, and images that I had in my mind when I put the words on paper. As long as there has been language in the world there have been story tellers, and as long as there have been written form of language there have been writers.

 

K is for Kismet

a-to-z-letters-kDefinition: Kismet – n. fate; destiny

I first discovered the word kismet when I was an adolescent in Grade 8 just bordering on the teen-age stage of “I know everything”. My grade 8 teacher was one of those teachers that comes along once in a lifetime if you are lucky. The kind that doesn’t pretend that you’re just kids, that treats you like the budding adults you are and despite the fact that he probably did know better than us in almost every situation, never once said it. On our grade 8 graduation trip we went to a rustic summer camp for a weekend a few hours away by bus. On that trip our teacher mentioned that we should keep an eye open for the word KISMET. He asked us what we thought it meant. I don’t think any of us had a clue.

On the way to the camp we passed a small abandoned boat, beached on the shore. Written on the back was it’s name – KISMET. He explained the meaning of the word and related some urban legend about the origins of the word that involved Horatio Nelson’s death and Captain Thomas Hardy (see: Kiss Me Hardy). I never forgot that word, my teacher or his unique methods of imparting knowledge that stay with you some 30+ years later.

The Greek Fates

The Greek Fates

I have always had a problem believing in fate. To me believing that we are fated to something implies that somehow we have no freewill. That word implies no matter what we do our fate is sealed. In Greek mythology the Fates were three figures that were responsible for weaving the fabric of everyone’s lives and even the gods themselves couldn’t interfere with their decisions. When the fates cut your thread, you ceased to exist.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s - Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s – Cat’s Cradle

Now, even though I don’t believe in fate, I do believe that things happen for a reason and that universe moves in mysterious ways. I know that sounds all mystic mumbo-jumbo, but hear me out.  Kurt Vonnegut in his brilliant satirical novel Cat’s Cradle (go and read it if you haven’t) explores a religion called Bokonism as part of the book. One of the concepts of bokonism is the karass – a group of people working together, often unknowingly, to do God’s will. While I may not subscribe to a religious deity manipulating things behind the scenes, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that people come into your life for a specific reason and that somehow your destinies are intertwined.

In the novel I am currently working on there are two characters who’s destinies are intertwined in this way. When they are apart the universe is out of harmony and their lives suffer, its only when they are together do things work in their favour. The fact that exist in different universes to start makes things even more interesting

Was it kismet that my Grade 8 teacher came into my life and planted these seeds in my head? Probably not, but I still think about him nearly every day.

J is for Journey

a-to-z-letters-j Like many things in this life, writing is a journey. Very few of us knock a home run out of the park the first time you sit down to write. Let’s face it, if it were that easy to do it would be boring. The challenge lies in mastering your craft and plugging away at it until you are actually good at. Once you’re good at it the challenge becomes repeating that success.

If you scratch the surface of most people that are called over-night successes, what you would really find is someone (obviously with some talent) who has paid their dues put their time in and plugged away at their craft. They say that it takes in the neighbourhood of a million words that need to flow from your brain to your fingertips in writing before you get any good at it. There was a book out a few years ago called Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell which proposed that in addition to luck and other environmental factors that when they looked at successful people across all categories they found that it took around 10,000 hours of ‘practice’ before you master something. I’ll save you the math – that’s the equivalent of 20 hours of work a week for almost 10 years. From Bill Gates to the Beatles, they found that those driven and talented people didn’t really hit their stride until they had those 10,000 hours under their belt.

I’ve been on a writing journey ever since I penned my first piece of fiction in elementary school on some foolscap paper, unfortunately for me I spent a lot of the first half of my life going in circles and not knowing which way to turn. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I began to wake up to my writing life and make a concentrated effort to develop it, seeking out other like-minded writers along the way. I have to admit even then it was a lot of it was baby-steps, trial and error, but all in all essential steps along the path. While I have the 10 years under my belt, I am still working on the 10,000 hours and the million words. Standing here on the crest of middle-age I can look behind me and see the path that has lead me to where I am today. Looking forward I can see I still have a way to go to reach my goals.

Thanks for being a part of this journey.

G is for Genre

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G is for Genre

When people ask me what type of stories I write, I eagerly tell them speculative fiction. The most common reaction is a blank stare and a repeat of the question “So what type of stories do you write?”.

It’s an age old dilemma that writers continue to struggle with when trying to promote their stories to the reading public. It’s only human nature that people want easily classifiable boxes to be able to judge their expectations against. A fan of mystery novels wants to be able to go to a section in the library or book store and know that the type of book they are picking up is more or less what they consider to be “mystery” . The problem is that any genre label like Mystery, or Science Fiction, or Fantasy are not  homogeneous categories, there are very different shades within each genre.

Complicating matters is the perceived “Genre Ghetto” which is perpetuated by authors, critics, and readers alike. The mere phrase genre ghetto implies that there is a superior, more respected genre and that all other are less serious and somehow inferior. I am looking at you Literary Fiction. There is a false assumption that all writers aspire to write mainstream fiction or literary fiction. Yes, we want to reach the largest audience possible if this is what you mean by mainstream fiction, but on the other hand, I have no illusions that I need the “respect” of the literary establishment to validate my work, or that of other authors I admire and respect in the field. I do find it sad when the literary and book selling establishment “liberate” on of my fellow genre writers from the “ghetto and shelve them along mainstream authors in the literary fiction as happened to Philip K. Dick in the early 2000s when movies based on his work became successful. Dick finally found himself shelved along side Dickens, and Dickinson and a little place holder in the SF section letting long time fans like myself know that he had now “passed on” to the mainstream section.

This is just one of the reasons I prefer the label Speculative Fiction. You can google a half dozen definitions of speculative fiction, but I will give you my own – Any story that is set in a contemporary or historical recognizable society that contains some speculative element that is different from the reality around us. It may or may not contain interplanetary travel, it may or may not contain shape-shifting creatures, it may or may not involve time travel, it may or may not contain technology that is not yet invented, but it will contain something that does not exist in our current world, whether it be a peaceful planet living in harmony or one over run by a plague of zombies, there is always a speculative element.

“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut Jr. writing in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons

Authors like Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. have long went on record stating that they definitively did not write science fiction. You could almost hear them shuddering at the  mere mention of it. It’s not that I think they didn’t believe they were writing fictional stories with science or speculative elements, I think they shuddered at being labelled as such because of the mainstream literary critics held (still hold) such a disdain for the genre.

To me using the phrase speculative fiction is not an attempt to distance myself from my fellow writers that write space opera, urban fantasy, horror, steam punk, hard sf, or any other flavours of fiction that I love to read and write, but rather to embrace all those titles under one tent and attempt to level the playing field between traditional Literary Fiction and Speculative Fiction.

There is so much great story telling out there in speculative fiction right now that it’s a shame that those people in the world that love unusual, moving stories, with real human drama and imaginative, thought provoking plots would pass on it, just because of some perceived bias. If you’re unfamiliar with genre, than ask around any book seller, fan or librarian in the know would happily point you in the direction of some of the best the world has to offer.

Post Script: While googling for a direct quote on science fiction genre  that I recalled seeing once upon a time from Margaret Atwood,  I came across a more recent excerpt froma book she wrote in 2011 called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination that talks about her avoidance of the label and some of the controversy surrounding it – http://io9.com/5847421/if-it-is-realistic-or-plausible-then-it-is-not-science-fiction

Pat of my series of the A to Z Blog Challenge for 2013

Why do we say it?

E is for Etymology

E is for Etymology

As a writer and someone who actively uses words as my building blocks, I am always fascinated by the origin of words. Today on the A to Z Blog Challenge I take a quick look at my love of Etymology – the study of words and their history and origins.

Discovering at an early age that words had origins and sometimes their own secret history was unlocking a whole new layer of language for me. It was the equivalent of being given a decoder ring or some X-Ray specs that allowed me to see things normal people didn’t notice.

Learning that words like sabotage may have derived from 15th century workers using their wooden shoes, known as sabots, to damage industrial looms introduced me to a mini-history lesson in the making.

It also opened my eyes to how culture and time periods shape words and how phrases and expressions can enter the common usage. It always amazes me the number of nautical expressions that have entered the common usage – from expressions like “the bitter end” to “three sheets to the wind” .

I love gathering books on words origins, phrases, and also even place names.

Here’s some great titles I have in my library on the subject::

 

Do Androids Dream of Philip K. Dick

D is for Dick

I could have easily done a post for the letter D on Johnny Depp, but since I am already doing a year long tribute to Depp on my blog, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about another big “D” in my life – Philip K. Dick.

For those of you who may have never heard the name before, Philip K. Dick or PKD for short, was a prolific SF writer that got his start writing short stories in the 1950s, but was soon writing and publishing novels at a furious pace. I believe its 121 short stories and 44 novels in the span of about 30 years. The fact that PKD was writing while on amphetamines for a large part of his career may help explain it. Dick died in 1982 at the age of 53 from a stroke just a few months before the film Blade Runner, based on his novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, was released in theatres. Since the time of his death his estate has kept pretty tight control on the rights of his stories and have made more than 11 films based on PKDs visions.

 

Posing with my 31 year old beat up copy of Blade Runner in paperback.

Posing with my beat up 31 year old Blade Runner paperback.

I discovered PKD almost by accident having seen Blade Runner as an impressionable teen and decided to buy the “novelization” of the movie. Back in the day “novelizations” of film was one of the ways a lot of people relieved their movie going experience. Essentially reading a fleshed out version of the movie script, penned by some author for hire. Fortunately for millions of SF fans around the world, Dick’s estate insisted that the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? be released in its entirety as the novelization of the movie, under the title Blade Runner. So kids like me picking it up a copy were blown away to find a much richer novel than ever made it to screen. In fact the book came with a disclaimer/warning.

Publisher’s Note: In 1968, Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a brilliant sf novel that became the source of the motion picture Blade Runner. though the novel’s characters and backgrounds differ in some respects from those in the film, readers who enjoy the latter will discover an added dimension on encountering the original work. Del Rey Books is pleased to return the novel to print.

“Differ in some respects” has to be the understatement of the decade in this case. Entire characters and sub-plots were eliminated between the novel and the movie and while I can see why the director / screenwriters might decide to streamline the novel for the screen, the novel shed an entire different light on the characters and the story.

Dick was fascinated with the question “What is Real?”. Many of his stories are metaphysical and philosophical attempt to explore the issue of what is real and what does it mean to be human. The androids of Blade Runner, the ersatz pets in the novel are all manifestations of this. Dick’s stories are often told from the point-of-view of a working class joe, who’s up against an uncaring universe and often being held down by a big government or a religious establishment. Dick often coined new words like kipple – meaning the physical and emotional detritus commonly found in the homes and lives of his characters. As well he was ‘inventing’ tech in his novels that would often seem prescient. Dick featured homeopapes, a sort of ebook precursor, for people to “download” news stories as well as the conapt which is a hybrid condo and apartment.

ubik-cover

Eye_in_the_Sky_coverWhile I was blown away by the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it’s not even my favourite Philip K. Dick book. By far UBIK has to be my favourite, followed closely by Eye in the Sky. Both books feature Dick’s classic dark humour and struggle against futility. In UBIK characters are not sure whether they are alive and the rest of the world is dead or vice versa. They are running out of time to discover the truth when things start rolling back to their previous forms and time seems to be reverting to earlier times as well. In Eye in the Sky a group of 8 people are transported out of their conciousness into a shared reality where different characters have control over the “world” they live in. Dark and humorous, in places I find Dick’s work can wear you down if you read too many books in one sitting.

Since his death, PKD’s popularity has continued to rise, largely based on the mainstream success of his movies and just that a broader audience is now discovering his work now.

A list of films adapted  from PKDs work

  •  Blade Runner (1982)
  • Total Recall (1990)
  • Screamers (1995)
  • Minority Report (2002)
  • Imposter (2003)
  • Paycheck (1965)
  • A Scanner Darkly (2005)
  • Next (2007)
  • The Adjustment Bureau (2011)