All posts by SelimPensFiction

And Now for Something Completely Different

I’ve talked about fanfiction in previous posts, and to date that constitutes the bulk of my writing. However, I have started to write original stories. One of them is making the rounds of publishers, gathering quite the collection of rejection slips. And so it begins…

I’ve dabbled in story telling before. In fact, I just stumbled upon something I wrote back in 2001 in which a little girl learns the secret her family has passed on for generations. I thought it would be fun to clean it up and post it here, but as it turns out, there was little I wanted to change.

So, here it is, Where the Dragons Sleep. Hope you enjoy it.

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Romancing the (Heart of) Stone

Would someone please tell me what it is about romance novels? I mean, what is it about them that makes people actually want to read them?

My latest Castle fanfic is another light-hearted stab at the genre. There’s a lot of romance in the Castle group on fanfiction.net. Stuff like,

“Oh, Castle!”

“Beckett!”

“Oh, Castle, I…”

“I know. Oh, Beckett, I know.”

Researching the genre a bit, I purchased a popular Harlequin Blaze novel, Thrill Me by Leslie Kelly. I was pleasantly surprised by the opening chapter. In fact, I was hooked by the first three sentences:

Sophie Winchester was skilled at only two things. She could type 120 words per minute without a single error.

And she was damn good at committing murder.

Like I said, hooked.

romanceIt turns out Sophie only commits murder on paper. As Richard Castle says, a lot more lucrative, a lot less prison.

She lives in a town called Derryville, a nod to Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, where Very Bad Things happen. And keep happening. Nice touch!

But all good things come to an end, and we get down to it. The romance part. At the sight of the new sheriff in town, Sophie finds herself weak and dizzy, unable to stand without his assistance, unable to take her hands off him after gripping his oh so manly shoulders for support.

You get the idea.

And people like this stuff? Admittedly, I don’t read a huge amount of romance, but this type of behaviour on the part of the female protagonist doesn’t seem unusual. What happened to the concern one hears about the lack of strong, female characters in movies and TV shows? Are romance authors trying to harken back to an earlier age, in which females waited for their Prince Charming to make them weak at the knees and fluttery in the eyes? If so, what age would that be? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I would point out, was published in the late 18th Century. I don’t see the women in that novel behaving like silly, limp dolls. Well, except for Lydia, of course.

How about a couple of strong characters with a complex relationship, buffeted by forces outside of their control, having to make life-changing decisions where no matter what they choose, someone gets hurt? Or is that sort of thing not considered a “romance” novel, but just a plain non-genre novel?

Ah well. In the end, it’s easy to poke fun at the romance genre, but at least its got people reading, and that’s always a good thing.

Don’t Be That Guy

As has been noted elsewhere, there’s something about the Internet and its inherent anonymity that brings out abusive behaviour in too many people.

Treat others as you would like to be treated isn’t a particularly profound principle. You can derive it very simply if you accept that a world in which you are treated well is better than one in which you are not. Let’s leave that derivation as an exercise for the reader, shall we?

Sadly, there are so many examples of abusive behaviour online that one can only highlight a few. Relentless bullying of teens, to the point of driving the victim to suicide, is all too well known. Twitter personalities such as John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton are frequent targets. Writer Mary Robinette Kowal was famously the subject of abuse from a fellow writer not long ago. And of course, there’s the recent GamerGate debacle which targeted women in the gaming community with vociferous, hateful abuse.

Oddly enough, writers of fanfiction are also subject to their share of abuse. This is particularly puzzling. After all, people write fanfiction because (a) they love the subject matter, and (b) they love to write. They (we) certainly don’t do it for the money. And for this they receive abuse? Really?

It seems that when you put yourself and your work out there, some of the more misguided amongst us take it as an invitation to hurl abuse. Why is that? Are they trying to make up for their own inadequacies? Does it make them feel good about themselves? Odd if it does, because words frequently associated with these individuals include “troll” and “coward”. Not qualities one would normally aspire to, or so you’d think.

It’s entirely possible to disagree with someone in a respectful way. It’s quite alright to provide a writer with negative feedback if it’s done in a constructive way. (“It might improve the story if you deleted scenes C and E.”) But abuse? There’s no place for it at all, under any circumstances, for any reason.

Do you really want to be that guy?

The Horror (or, The Good Lie Movie Review)

Have you been classically conditioned? I have.

In Psychology, classical conditioning refers to the repeated pairing of one thing with another. You’ve heard of Pavlov and his dogs? He’s the guy that taught his dogs to associate a bell with food. After a while, the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell. Kind of like I do at the sound of the dinner bell.

Another way I’ve been classically conditioned involves Reese Witherspoon. When a movie in which she’s cast starts up, I’ve learned to run away screaming. In my mind, she’s become associated with that most dreaded movie genre, the romantic comedy. Oh, the horror…

That’s not completely fair, of course. She did give an amazing performance as June Carter in 2005’s Walk the Line.

I’m pleased to report that my previous conditioning was completely shattered by the recent move, The Good Lie. It hasn’t exactly set the box office on fire, and that’s a shame, because it’s very good.

In what way is it good? From a social justice point of view, it shines the light on the human tragedy in Sudan, the horrors the victims faced, and they lengths they’ve gone to survive. The acting was top notch all around, and the script was clever and to the point. The movie covers themes such as survival, family bonds, sacrifice for the greater good, and it also has many funny moments.

This one is well worth looking out for. A small gem that shouldn’t be overlooked.

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.

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.