All posts by SelimPensFiction

Tragedy Strikes Ottawa

Downtown Ottawa puts on quite a show at Christmas time. At night, the city is lit by thousands of multicoloured lights, particularly on Parliament Hill. Once upon a time you could drive right up from Wellington onto the hill along the crescent-shaped lane to get an up close look. Not any more, not since a guy drove his vehicle right up the steps of the Centre Block, nearly crashing right through the doors.

yogaPedestrians, however, are still welcome. If you’re in town at noon hour on a fine Wednesday, you’ll witness a unique sight as hundreds of enthusiasts lay down their mats and practice yoga. As fine an example as any of Canada’s open, tolerant, and peaceful society.

But the peace was shattered last Wednesday when a soldier standing on ceremonial guard duty in front of the Canadian War Memorial was shot in the back. Minutes later, the same gunman stormed the Canadian Parliament buildings. At the entrance he struggled with a guard. After shooting the guard in the foot he gained entry to the Center Block building and the Hall of Honour. Soon thereafter he was killed in a firefight with security personnel.

The slain soldier, Nathan Cirillo, was a reservist. He was a 24 year old single father to a five year old boy. This was indeed a day of tragedy. It was also a day of heroism. Immediately upon his getting shot, a group of civilians rushed to Cirillo’s aid, attempting to staunch the bleeding, keep him breathing, and keep his heart beating. One spoke to him as they administered first aid, telling him that he was loved, he was brave, he was so loved.

The guy who took down the shooter wasn’t your typical action hero movie star. At least, not going by appearance. Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, a man in his late 50’s, strikes you more as the fatherly type. But on this day he was definitely a hero and was just in time. When the gunman was brought down, he was within easy reach of members of all the political parties, including the Prime Minister. Thing is, after a day like that, Vickers resumed his duties in the House of Commons the following day looking like nothing extraordinary had happened. Just another day at the office.

Another, quieter act of heroism occurred on Cape Breton Island, where a 15 year old girl donned her cadet’s uniform and stood guard for hours in the pouring rain in front of the local war memorial in order to honour Nathan Cirillo.

The events of the day brought Ottawa to a standstill. Government buildings and buildings within the downtown core were locked down for most of the day. Among the thousands of people affected were my wife and son, and yes, it was nerve wracking. At the time, no one knew how many shooters were on the loose. People were advised to stay off the streets and away from windows.

Today, Cirillo is being buried in his home town of Hamilton. As we pay our respects, we consider the events that led to his death. It’s sobering to think how the actions of one individual can create such tragedy and bring a city to a standstill. It’s still debatable the extent to which the shooter’s actions were the result of “radicalization” versus mental illness. But perhaps motives matter less than the question of what do we do now? After an unprecedented act of violence against the seat of government, it has to be tempting to over-react, to give authorities more power in order to try to prevent such events from happening again. But care must be taken that in doing so we don’t sacrifice the very freedoms that we’re trying to protect, that people like Nathan Cirillo died to protect.

We must all remain vigilant. Not only against acts of terror, but against the gradual erosion of our precious freedoms. Life is about balance. Finding the right balance is hard, but it’s something we must all strive towards.

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He’s Dead, Jim

The thing that most shocks people out of their skulls when they read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the abandon with which he kills off major characters. Characters so major that you’ve assumed all along that the series is about them.

Ask any writer, and I think they’ll tell you that their characters become a kind of family. After all, you come to know them so well that you hear their voices in your head. So killing them is not something done lightly. The question is, why kill off major characters at all?

One reason might be to reflect the times in which the characters live. If you read Charles Dickens, you’ll find it entirely possible in some books to lose count of the number of deaths. But consider: in the 1800’s, one in five children were dead by age five, and those who survived childhood could expect to be dead by forty. Death in those times was very much a part of life.

serenityAnother reason is what I call the Joss Whedon effect. Fans of the TV series Firefly were, to put it mildly, shocked that two major characters were killed in the follow-up movie, Serenity. The reason for this, as Joss Whedon explained in the movie commentary, was to place some doubt in the minds of the audience as to whether or not the remaining characters would survive. After all, in most stories, no matter how harrowing the action, the major characters generally pull through. The only real question is, how will they pull through? By killing two characters, Whedon shook us out of our complacency and really made us wonder not just how, but if our beloved characters would survive.

This line of thinking was prompted by a comment I received regarding one of my fanfic stories. “Western Castle” is an alternate universe version of Castle set in the wild west. In that story, I killed off one of the major characters. Why? Partly to achieve the Joss Whedon effect, so that the reader would wonder who would survive, and partly to resolve a minor plotting problem that would arise later on if the character didn’t die. The comment I received was to the effect that killing that character was painful to that reader. For a writer, that’s a nice compliment, tempered by the fact that I didn’t create the character in the first place, but still.

Regarding the death of major characters, the worst thing you can do is what is so commonly done in comic books: bringing supposedly dead characters back to life. This, of course, completely obliterates any drama around death. Rather, the reader will likely yawn and ask herself how long this time before the character comes back.

In The Avengers, Joss Whedon did it again, killing off a major character to better motivate the remaining heroes to come together. Painful, but forgivable. Less forgivable was bringing that character back to life in the TV series, Agents of Shield. From now on, any death in any Marvel Universe movie will be greeted by yawns, not tears.

If you use death, make it matter. Use the death to achieve a plot goal or to shake up readers’ expectations. And keep your characters dead once they’re dead. After all, you can only toy with your readers so long before they decide they don’t want to play any more.

Confessions of a Serial Writer

While writing the latest installment of my serialized FanFiction novelette, a crossover of Firefly and Castle, it seemed a good time to ruminate on serial writing in general.

By all accounts, it was Charles Dickens who popularized the notion of serial writing. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published in monthly installments from April 1936 to November 1937. Installments of most of his other novels were also published monthly; some were published weekly.

At the time, it was advantageous to publish serially for economic reasons. Books were expensive; by breaking a novel into installments, readers could effectively amortize the cost over time. Dicken’s experiment was a success as Pickwick proved wildly popular, and numerous other Victorian authors followed suit.

Times change, and although paperbacks seem expensive these days, they provide good value; at roughly the same price as a movie ticket, they provide many more hours of entertainment.

So, if pickwickmoney is no longer a factor (and there are readily accessible public libraries if it is), are there other reasons to serialize a story? Here’s one: to get early feedback from readers before the entire story is cast in concrete. Suppose, for example, a given supporting character excites a lot of comments. You might be inclined to expand that character’s role in later installments. In the case of Pickwick, Dickens did just that after the introduction of Sam Weller. In the case of non-commercial fiction, you can simply abandon the project if it appears to be a dud. Life is too short, and there are too many stories to be told.

We are already used to many forms of serial media. Television shows may have season-long (or longer) story arcs. It may take two, three, or more movies (pick your franchise) to tell a complete story. Then consider the numerous online comic strips with long story arcs. For example, followers of the Writing Excuses podcast will be familiar with Schlock Mercenary. With all that in mind, a serialized novel doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. And after all, people are busy; a serialized novel can seem more palatable in that it provides smaller chunks that are easier to digest.

Serialized commercial novels are relatively rare these days, but they’re not dead. The latest novel in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe, The Human Division, was published in weekly installments in ebook form. The complete novel was later published in book form along with original material that was not previously published. Naturally, Scalzi’s ebook readers weren’t pleased that the novel contained new material. Would they have to pay all over again for the book? It turns out not. The two “new” chapters were made available online. In fact, one of them had been available online for some time.

In the non-commercial world of FanFiction, I would guess that most stories are published in installments of a few hundred words or more. FanFic authors have day jobs. Or day classes, depending. Still, writing FanFiction in installments has its pluses and minuses. Among the pluses, as discussed earlier, is the possibility of early feedback. If you lack confidence in your writing, early, positive reviews can be very encouraging. You also get a sense of accomplishment as you see the posted chapters pile up. At fanfiction.net, you can receive an email each time a new chapter is posted, making it easy for readers to follow the story.

Another plus, this one specific to fanfiction.net, is that every time you add a new chapter, your story bubbles up to the top of the list. So really, it is a very effective way to attract new readers that may not have noticed an earlier chapter.

On the down side, serialized stories may be less effective if you’re a slow writer. That’s me. When I’m writing a story in installments, I’ve aimed for roughly a chapter a week in the past. This time around, it seems to be taking a couple of weeks. Hopefully my readers won’t forget what’s come before. In Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth biography of Charles Dickens, he recounts a scene in which Dickens, while in a bookshop, hears someone enquire of the shopkeeper whether the next installment of Dicken’s novel is available yet. Dickens gulped. He hadn’t started writing it. So, while your story is in progress, you do feel some pressure to release your installments on schedule.

Another danger of serial writing is the potential need to summon Captain Jack Harkness to retcon your readers if you discover a hole that can only be filled by adding or changing material in an earlier chapter. This hasn’t happened to me, at least not yet. You can reduce this risk by outlining before you start, but you can’t eliminate it.

As with many other things, serial writing is a tool. You can either experiment with it, or keep it safely tucked away just in case. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to forever neglect the shiny tools in my toolbox.

Coincidence? I think not!

When I was a kid, it was a real treat to go to Coles in Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto and scour the shelves for Edgar Rice Burroughs. I devoured his books. The Barsoom series, the Venus series, Tarzan, of course, and all those thin, miscellaneous adventures stories. Back in those days, books didn’t tend to be as thick as they are today, and you could find books that were on the order of 120 pages. I prefer smaller books, stories distilled to their essence.

F-234Much has been written about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Most acknowledge his gift for creating characters and situations that appealed to the inner Indiana Jones in every boy. One thing he’s criticized for, though, is his over-reliance on coincidence as a plot device. Fair enough. There’s a reason stories of that ilk from Borrough’s era are referred to as ‘pulps’.

Imagine my surprise, then, on re-reading Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, to discover that coincidence is used as a major plot device. A MAJOR plot device. As I read the book, I attempted to keep track of the number of significant coincidences. I lost count.

Let’s just step back for a moment. Dickens is considered in some circles to be the finest writer of English language novels. He’s certainly my favourite. Not only did he create classic characters, he was a champion for social justice. For example, his portrayal of the abusive Yorkshire schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers, was sufficiently spot-on that multiple lawsuits ensued from schoolmasters claiming they were the inspiration for the character. Odd, when you think about it, that people would actually step forward and claim that they were the basis for one of the most despised characters in fiction. At any rate, by coincidence or not, that breed of abusive boarding school soon began to disappear.

In other books, Dickens weaves a huge web of plot and character and theme that somehow all come together into a unified whole. I suppose plot wasn’t something he had a knack for in his first handful of books. Here is Nicholas Nickleby, our favourite protagonist, wandering aimlessly about London, only to walk into the very coffee room in the very hotel where his nemesis is speaking of Nicholas’ sister in an untoward manner. Here is poor Smike, the ill begotten friend of Nicholas, walking home, when who should see him on a street corner but Wackford Squeers. Smike is taken. Nicholas rings Squeers on his mobile and says, “I will track you down. And I will kill you.” Wait, sorry, I’m getting my stories mixed up. But you get the idea.

Does it make it better to admit your use of coincidence with a wink?

‘That Mr Frank and Mr Nickleby should have met last night,’ said Tim Linkinwater, getting slowly off his stool, and looking around the counting-house with his back planted against the desk, as was his custom when he had anything very particular to say: ‘that those two young men should have met last night in that manner is, I say, a coincidence, a remarkable coincidence. Why, I don’t believe now,’ added Tim, taking off his spectacles and smiling as with gentle pride, ‘that there’s such a place in all the world for coincidences as London is!’

I don’t think so.

All of this isn’t to say that coincidence has no place in plotting. One of my favourite movies uses a big, whopping coincidence to set up the key conflict, and it works beautifully:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

How you use coincidence to advance your plot is ultimately a matter of taste and style. My suggestion is that coincidence is a spice best used sparingly.

Martian Summer

Binge watching became a thing when DVD releases of full TV seasons appeared. Got a free weekend? With 22 episodes to watch at about 45 minutes per, that’s about 16 hours. Eight hours a day. Easy peasy. Watching episodes back-to-back really does let you sink into the situations and characters, and it’s a particular boon if there’s a complex backstory that you need to keep straight as the season progresses.

I think our first such binge (not actually over a weekend, but maybe spread over a month) was season one of Heroes, a show dripping with brilliance and originality. Too bad it completely lost its way after that classic first season.

Fast forward to the present: The summer of Veronica Mars. Having only vaguely heard of the TV show, my curiosity was piqued when the Blu-ray of the 2014 movie generated a lot of great reviews. I purchased the pilot episode from iTunes and was hooked. Then I discovered that all three seasons were on Netflix Canada. Score.

Veronica MarsVeronica Mars is the daughter of Keith Mars, a private investigator and former sheriff of the fictional town of Neptune, located somewhere between L.A. and the Mexican border. Veronica, a 17-year old high school student, is no slouch in the detecting department herself. In the setup for season one, her boyfriend dumped her, she was ostracized at school, raped, and then her best friend was killed. But by whom? Sounds pretty dark, doesn’t it? But this a show that is alternately dark and humorous, with three-dimensional characters, great drama, and layer upon layer of mystery. The ensemble cast is nearly perfect, in particular, Kristen Bell as Veronica, Enrico Colantoni as Keith Mars, Jason Dohring as the troubled and always in trouble Logan Echolls, and Francis Capra, the motorbike gang leader with a soul.

Creator and writer Rob Thomas, with his ability to handle an ensemble cast and provide high-quality stories with a mix of humour and drama, was starting to make me think he could give Joss Whedon a run for his money. And oddly enough, just as that thought occurred to me, who should make a cameo in one of the season two episodes but Joss Whedon? Maybe Joss was checking out the competition.

Looking for a writer for the Avengers post-Whedon? Rob Thomas gets my vote. Meanwhile, you could do a lot worse than check out this great show. My wife and I are nearly finished season two. Once we finish that and blast through season three, I’m quite looking forward to the movie. And then, well, it’ll be time to get into series-canceled-before-its-time mode (*cough* Firefly *cough*) and pine for the day when they might make Veronica Mars 2.

Homeward Bound

Who says you can’t go home again? Of course you can.

As proof, I present a recent reunion for our School of Computing. Our gang met there in the ’80’s. You remember that decade. Synth-pop, hair dryers, shoulder pads, Ghostbusters, Flashdance, The Big Chill. I’m about the only one I know who still thinks women’s shoulder pads look pretty cool.

Kingston_University_TownWe were graduate students in what was then a small department. We had offices. Offices! We shared them, four to an office. It was heaven. A terminal room down the hall provided a few of us at a time with access to the considerable computing power of a VAX 780 running BSD UNIX. We were living on the cutting edge.

We worked hard. Well, pretty hard. Most of the time. Our courses were intense and we only survived by helping each other. Teamwork in the face of adversity. It brought us that much closer together. Fridays were hockey in the winter and softball in the summer, followed by a few beers and some crazy dancing at the Grad Club, that tiny, multi-floored, dimly lit home away from home. Bill and Georgette, we loved you as you took us under the boardwalk.

Close friendships were forged in those days. Some of us even found spouses within the group. In some cases, despite getting off on not quite the right foot. When I found my office that September, I couldn’t help but notice it was blessed with a terminal. We didn’t have to go down the hall like all those plebes in my class. My wife came to my attention when she unceremoniously stole that terminal. She mumbled some thin excuse about it belonging to her lab. I was quite put out. Things got better.

Many of our group made it back for the reunion. Some of us live an easy two-hour drive away. One guy had an eight-hour drive. Another flew hundreds of miles. So yes, to some extent we’ve gone our separate ways. But you know what? When we were all together, back where it all started, the atmosphere was electric, and we picked right up where we left off. The nearly thirty years since we graduated melted away like a Dairy Queen ice cream left in the sun on a hot summer’s day.

With one exception. We finished the reunion weekend with a baseball game. After about five innings, us old timers were near to begging for mercy and we called it. And boy, those legs were stiff on Monday morning. A sign of aging? Maybe. But in our defence I’d point out that we stayed up past midnight. Two nights in a row!

There’s been adversity, of course, in the intervening years. For instance, many of us have had children. Even worse, some have had some real health scares, and have shown tremendous courage forging through them. It makes the rest of us all the more appreciative that we’re all still here.

Want to know the definition of a good friend? Here you go: Even if you haven’t seen them for weeks, months, years, or even decades, when you do see them, you pick right up where you left off and it feels like no time whatsoever has gone by, except that somehow you have more stories to tell each other.

Good friends, good times.

Potpourri

As I’ve been offline for a while, a bunch of random thoughts have bubbled to the surface. So, onward.

Give Godzilla a miss, or at least wait for it to show up on Netflix. You’ll thank me.

The next 50 years of Doctor Who start in August. While it was probably wise to have a hiatus after the madness of last year, still, one does go through withdrawal after a while.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is well worth seeing. (Minor spoilers ahead.) It strives valiantly to tidy up a number of messy plot threads from the other X-Men movies and succeeds for the most part. It features an unbelievably strong cast, some of whom are limited to little more than cameos. Most importantly, it wipes the travesty that was X-Men 3 off the map.

I’m starting to wonder: Is it any less work to world build for a short story than a novel? I suspect not. Developing the backstory for my original fantasy story, an urban fantasy but with elements of classic mythology, has been a fascinating experience.

Next up on my fanfic list is a sequel to the Firefly/Castle crossover, “A Firefly in the Castle”. This one will be called “Castle Serenity”. And yes, this time Castle and Beckett travel to the future.

I recently spent a night in Philadelphia due to a missed connection. A few people expressed disbelief that I neglected to take full advantage of the layover by not sampling a Philly cheesesteak. Will correct that next time.

The same junket that stranded me in Philadelphia also netted an opportunity to meet Mary Robinette Kowal in San Diego at a book signing. It was quite a treat as I believe she’s the first professional author that I’ve met. And not only does she write very well, she has a rich, multifaceted voice that’s a joy to listen to. It’s a voice that serves her well in her other profession as puppeteer. She also reads audio books.

On the topic of books, I find myself going back to re-read old favourites, mixing them in between new publications. The current old book may take a while, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. Not just because it’s long, but because I read Dickens very slowly, savouring each beautiful phrase. Ah, to write like that…