Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Kind Words Make a Good Day

I'll be honest. I'm a bit sick of promoting my book. I know it's important, and I'm thrilled with the reviews so far, but sometimes it becomes a bit much and I start to think I'm becoming narcissistic, if not an egomaniac. Even looking at my Facebook feed makes me grimace. Yet another post about The Last Angel? Really?

Unfortunately, that's part of the deal for anyone who owns their own business. Forget that I'm an artist. If you don't promote your work, who will? The notion that you can "stand on your own" and "just let people find you" is nonsense. The truth is, you have to push. You can do it with class and humility, but you still have to push. Fortunately, most people seem to understand this, and if your work is good enough, they'll even applaud you for bringing it to their attention.

It's still uncomfortable though. 

That said, the reviews for The Last Angel have been very encouraging, and today was one of those days when an author is very encouraged. First, I found this new review on Goodreads:
"Full disclosure: Stephen is a best friend. Also: I'm a discriminating reader and read widely across genres: from Sanderson to Atwood to non-fiction to theological tomes. The Last Angel was quite unlike anything I've ever read - and I loved it. 

Frankly, I'm not used to reading "page-turners;" that's what The Last Angel is. I'm not used to encountering deep, contemporary theological questions about the nature of God in a novel; that's what The Last Angel does. I'm not used to loving a world so much that I wished the book weren't over and can't wait for the next one; again: The Last Angel. 

The writing style is fast-paced, but doesn't sacrifice on richness: you get the sense that this is a deep world and the characters have a thick backstory. Something happened decades ago that shaped the setting and moulded the people, and you just want to find out everything you can about it. Steve does not disappoint: he slowly time-releases this information exactly when it suits the plot and gives the reader a jolt of surprise.

From Tommy and Kallie, to the Nephilim and even (unexpectedly) the Ganath and supporting characters, everyone is important and unique - no character feels "tropey," but rather imbued with their own emotions and motivations. This serves the action well, as we're never quite sure what to expect - but when the characters act, it's because they're being true to the selves that we're discovering as readers methodically throughout the story. 

'Loved the author's iconoclastic questions about God. You get a sense of his wrestling with traditional pat answers about God - and it's fun that he puts those struggles in the mouths of authoritative "angelic" characters such as the Nephilim and the Ganath. These are not trivial pop-neo-athiest or evangelical stereotypes. The creatures in this book have the same questions we do about God in a world like ours, but they know just a little more about "Father" by proximity. And what they say about him makes sense.

In short: I ripped through this book, reading it whenever I had spare time - even just a few pages at a time if the minutes allowed. I didn't want to leave the world - and can't wait to get back to it in Book II. This is a fast-moving, action-packed, theology-filled thrill. I haven't had so much fun reading a novel in years. "




Yesterday, a friend of mine posted a picture of the book with this message: 
"Look what came in the mail today!! A friend of mine has published his very first novel, and let me tell you it's goooooood. SO excited to have a copy! If you enjoy reading, pop over to Amazon and grab a copy for yourself, you won't be disappointed!! Available in print or e-novel, just specify which you prefer once you click the link below ��"

Two more people posted pictures of the book as well, and it was all, well, it was very humbling. And it made my day. 

As I go through this process for the first time, it's amazing that I've never realized how important it was to share my love for a particular piece of art and what a difference it made for the artist.

Amazon and Goodreads make a work more accessible by the number of reviews that a work receives. That's it. It doesn't even matter if those reviews are negative. When a book causes people to comment, the algorithm finds the work more easily. 


That, of course, mirrors our society. When a Kardashian, with the intellectual vigor of an astute five-year-old,  can pull down great ratings, we begin to see what drives modern commerce. 

I'm not dismissing my society or snubbing my nose at it, but what I am saying is that if you do find an artist you like, take a couple of minutes to promote them. Write a review. Rate their work. Send them an email. All of this sounds, in some ways, quite ridiculous, because for all that we can comment on the internet about things we like and don't like, the disconnect between artists and those who enjoy their work have never been higher.

But today a few people took the time to tell me, and their peers, how much they enjoyed my book. It not only made my day, but inspired me. So if you find an artist whose work you like, let them know. Let your friends and family know. And for goodness sake, if you're looking for reading material, pick up a copy of The Last Angel. You won't regret it. 



Sunday, February 07, 2016

Hitler Liked Dogs; Creating Nuanced Characters

If you've been following the American presidential election at all, you might have noticed a pattern in the political process, a pattern that has always been there, but has sharpened in the last twenty years. Politicians -- and their campaigns -- no longer debate issues, they demonize their opposition. And this isn't simply between parties, it happens within the party itself.

Look at the Democratic battle. If you like Bernie Sanders, Hillary is a lying scumbag and the worst possible option for president. If you're a Republican, your competitors are "losers." And this is not the fault of the politicians. I repeat, it is not their fault. If they don't do this, if they do not go "full negative," it is very difficult to win. (Everyone would suggest that Obama is the exception, but in 2008 during the primaries, his camp vilified Clinton.)

It is unfortunate that the electorate finds this negativity so compelling, but it does. Here in Canada, our new PM, Justin Trudeau, had only been in office for a few days before the Conservatives started taking shots at him. Days. Not years or even months. Days.

The Importance of Nuanced Characters

This is also true in fiction. There are still many writers, particularly those who write genre fiction as I do, who insist on having "evil" characters and "good" characters. It's one thing to find this extremism in politics, it's another to find it in a novel. It suggests that the writer either doesn't understand human nature or has a very narrow view of the world, neither of which is helpful for producing stories that not only make us think, but give us a better understanding of human nature.

The purpose of any story is to help us understand ourselves and our world and our place in it. It isn't simply to provide entertainment. If the only goal is entertainment, then the story will be simple, and not in a good way. (Think about all those empty blockbusters that we see during the summer, the ones with great special effects and laced with a story we forget as soon as we walk out of the theater.)

That's not to say that every character needs to be an anti-hero, either. Generally, you want your protagonist to be likable, but you also want to be able to identify with that character. That means flaws.

The flip side to that means your antagonist must have moments of likability. Or in the very least, you must provide some understanding of why said character is acting in such a manner. Most novelists do well enough presenting flawed heroes. The same is not true for their "villains."

I cannot tell you how many books I've edited where my first message to the authour is to create more nuance in their characters. At first, this sounds like a daunting task, but it's really not. All that's needed is more thought about what the character is like. Some authours use a sheet listing characteristics, some create a bio or resume, others do an entire family background. Whatever works. In my case, I try to emphasize at least one point of honour for every villain (I don't love that term, but you know what I mean) in at least two scenes in each novel.

Hitler Liked Dogs

For example, if I was writing about Hitler, who was indeed a vile human, I would have a scene with him caring for his dogs. The reason we do this isn't to make Hitler look good, but to emphasize his humanity. What we're looking for is the contrast, not between good characters and evil characters, but the contrast of good and evil within the character.

This develops nuance. It also makes your story more unpredictable. If I know that character A always acts a certain way, the story becomes predictable. And boring.

Ultimately  the reader is looking for is someone they can identify with, someone who reminds them of themselves. When a critic says that the characters "leap off the page," this is what they're referring to.

I don't think our politics are going to change any time soon. But it is possible for the electorate, for us, to do a better job communicating with those who see the world differently. We writers need to do a better job of this as well. Not only to create better stories, but to help our readers see the depth in the world and in people that the twenty-four hours news cycle will never show us.

Listen, we live in an age of memes and six second vines and 140 character opinion pieces. As writers, we need to do a better job pulling people out of the cycle of false dichotomies. It's true that some people are more helpful than others and others are are more selfish. But we're all human.

And there is nothing simple about being human.




Monday, February 01, 2016

Selling Out to Sell Books.

Am I too harsh in my public criticisms? Am I turning away potential readers because I insist on being so aggressive about certain issues on social media?

I've been wrestling with these questions for the past month or so, ever since The Last Angel was published. Writing is a business, and it takes a lot of work to build up a readership apart from writing great stories. For all the ease and availability of finding a book, it has become increasingly difficult to find readers. Turning off a potential reader to make a point about certain "hot" issues is risky.

In the past, I never even considered the consequences of such things. I didn't care if I lost a "friend" or "follower" over something I'd written. As a writer and observer of human nature, there were certain inequalities too upsetting NOT to comment on. (Like anything to do with animal rights/factory farming and social justice)

Unfortunately, when I did comment on these issues, subtlety was, err, not my strong suit. I can be abrasive when I believe our society or certain individuals are whiffing on a topic that revolves around kindness. I'm particularly aggressive when it comes to apathy. It's one thing to not be in a position to help (though I do think we can all help in small ways), it's something else entirely when people just don't give a shit.

And yet, am I really going to change anyone's mind? On Facebook? On Twitter? Probably not. So why say anything in the first place? And for heaven's sake, why be so damn obtuse about it? If it doesn't matter, then focus on the good things and sell a few more books. Don't be so political, and that way more people can enjoy your stories. You'll have less aggravation as well.

Sigh. (This is why you do not want to get inside a writer's head.)

I wrote about this a little while ago, although I attacked it from a different angle. Artists are NOT politicians. However, we sometimes have to be a little political, especially when you have a temperament like mine, to ensure that we don't anger people before they've even seen our work.

Or do we?

As proud as I am of THE LAST ANGEL, and as excited as I am for the release of three more books this year, I certainly haven't "made it." Not by a long shot. I'm still a starving artist. Still struggling to pay the rent. And yet, as much as those questions haunt me, there is one question that haunts me more.

Twenty years from now, when I look over my career, what will my legacy be? I can tell you that it won't be about the number of books I sell. (Though I would like to sell a lot, obviously.) I think, on that day, I will ask myself if I pushed for better in society. I will wonder if my stories were not simply entertaining, but if they asked the moral questions that all art should ask. I will think back to this time right now, when my future as a writer was very much in doubt, when I had no idea if I'd sell a hundred books or a hundred thousand of them, and ask myself whether I was more worried about myself, or this world I inhabit.

And if I can't say that my stories reflected my heart about issues like poverty, racism and bigotry, if I can't say that I strove to correct social wrongs with passionate tales of courage and redemption, and if I can't say that my works were nothing more than entertainment, then I will know that I have failed.

I do not want to be a failure.

That isn't to say that I do not hope to make a good living, of course i do, and it's not to say that perhaps I could tone down some of my comments on social media, if not the message. But I will not sell out to sell books.

THE MODEL 

I've written about this before, but the first positive portrayal of a gay man was a secondary character from one of Robert B. Parker's books. A tough, wise, funny cop. To that point in my life, all I'd heard about the LGBT community was that they were a bunch of perverts. I'm not exaggerating, and if some of you grew up in a small, conservative town like mine, you may have experienced the same thing.

That was the start of a journey for me. Along the way, that enriched worldview, or at least, that wider worldview, has been expanded to race and gender.

Books like Twillight and Fifty Shades sell millions of copies, all while giving women and girls terrible role models. Role models that suggest they need to "surrender" to men and that they aren't worth as much. Perhaps these books are popular because women Identify with those characters. Perhaps they are popular because they speak to the patriarchal worldview that still grips most of the world.

But I find it destructive. As a youth worker for nearly twenty years, these are not the models that I want young girls, sisters and daughters and nieces, looking up to.

That will not happen in my stories.

Will I lose readers?

Maybe.

Probably.

But I won't consider that failure.

Starting your own business, whatever it is, inevitably means compromise. But where? In this case, selling out to sell books is something I will work hard not to do, even if the questions still plague me from time to time.

Parker showed me that one could be successful novelist, tell thrilling action stories that people loved, and still make a point to change the world, even in a small way, by staying true to his principles. And in the end, that the goal for all of us, isn't it?
















Friday, January 29, 2016

The Oscars' Boycott: Agree or Disagree?

As many of you are aware, Spike Lee and the Smiths, Will and Jada, have opted to boycott the Oscars this year. For the second year in a row, no people of colour were nominated for a major award. There has been a great deal of chatter about this by both film makers and film critics, some of it quite thoughtful. As a novelist, however, my perspective on the situation is much different.

Novels and films are completely different art forms. This may sound obvious, but how often have you heard someone say "the book was better than the movie?" (That always drives me crazy) Writing a screenplay is nothing like writing a novel, and the only thing that ties the two together is story. The structure, however, and what the respective art forms can do, have little in common. If I were to suggest that a painting and a sculpture were the same art form, sculptors and painters would look at me like I'm nuts. And they'd be right to.

That said, most of the lead characters in my books are minorities. This was a conscious decision. If you follow this blog, than you know how I feel about social justice and equal rights and the responsibility of the artistic community, particularly writers, to not only see the imbalances of our society, but in some way to address those inequalities in our work. The easiest way to do this is to create minority characters and let them tell their story. Even if, as in my case, their story is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world.


WHY I AGREE WITH THE BOYCOTT


Spike Lee has been a significant film maker for a long time, even if his work has been somewhat uneven the past fifteen years or so. And I don't think he's boycotting the Oscars as a publicity stunt. He's been in the inside and has seen what goes on behind the camera. And, as the black producer Effie Brown pointed out on Project Greenlight this year, the problem is not limited to what happens onscreen, but what happens off screen as well. Hollywood is still largely run by old white men. And they are not going to be harbingers of change, not in a society where they hold most of the power. And though it has changed somewhat the past decade or so, the Oscars remain a very "white" event. (The average age of academy voters is 62. Nearly all of them are white.) 

In a time when we have candidates running for president who are clearly xenophobic and 
racist, as well as movements like #BlackLivesMatter stemming from decades of systemic racism, it is imperative that the artistic community gets it right. And for better or worse, Hollywood represents the most powerful artistic group in the world. They need to be leading the way. (And having a talented actress like Charlotte Rampling talk about "reverse racism" is so beyond idiotic that I refuse to call her an artist any more. Artists must be the soul of a moral society. I don't care how well you can act, if you're a bigot, you're not an artist.)

So in that, I agree with Lee, and his boycott.


WHY I DISAGREE WITH THE BOYCOTT

I've always liked Will Smith. He's a charismatic actor that has starred in a number of great movies. (Or great "bad" movies, like Bad Boys) But he's never shown himself to be an activist in any way, unless he's campaigning for the lead role in a Tarantino movie. Unlike Lee, they haven't earned the benefit of the doubt. The Smiths own a powerful production company. If they want more black actors represented at the Oscars, start making films that give them better roles.Or support films like Selma with their stardom and maybe some of their own cash. (They are uber-rich)

The Academy has proven that it will reward films by and starring people of colour. 12 Years a Slave was voted Best Picture just three years ago. I didn't see one this year. (I don't see as many films as critics, so again, take it for what it is, one novelist's opinion) I thought Michael B. Jordan was excellent in Creed, but it sounds like the producers didn't mount the proper campaign for him.

That's right, a campaign. To win an Oscar requires the proper schmoozing and marketing to all the right people, and if that campaign is poorly timed or executed, films will be left out. Insiders believe that this is what happened to Selma last year.

The other issue here, of course, is that representing minorities isn't just about people of colour. What about Asians? What about better roles for women, considering how many movies are made that still can't pass the Bechdel test? (Hell, I'll bet most Academy members don't even know what it is.) And yes, I know that women get equal representation at the ceremony, but that doesn't mean they're getting equal representation on the screen or behind the camera. (I see you, Jurassic World.)

The fact is, so long as the Academy is made up of a bunch of old white guys, and producers need to run political campaigns to get their films noticed, this is going to happen. And boycotting the ceremony does nothing to change that, particularly for those who have worked their entire life for this kind of recognition. (I'm thinking in particular about the parts of the ceremony that aren't televised. the awards for short films and documentaries, etc...)

Frankly, I think the Smiths are being hypocritical. Instead of boycotting, why not show up and talk about what needs to change. This can be done in a positive way. They're both stars. And don't just talk about the dearth of black nominations, but talk about equality. Talk about social justice and the importance of the artistic community getting it right. Talk about the need for better developed female characters and better roles for Indigenous people.

Even better, become active in the community. Do what Magic Johnson has done. Or Common. Follow in their footsteps and set the ground ablaze with what needs to be done.

If the Smiths really want to be activists, do something first. Let us see some of your riches go to projects that create change. Until then, your boycott is self-serving nonsense.