Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Greatest Home Run (redux)

Authour's Note: As we enter the dog days of winter, millions of sports fans across North America start to look towards spring. Towards the summer. Towards a new season of baseball. With that in mind, here is an updated version of my account regarding the greatest game, and the greatest home run, hit by a Blue Jay in over twenty years. Pitchers and catchers report!

(Originally published October 14, 2015)

Remember when M. Night Shyamalan was making movies where you couldn't guess the ending. Films that caused you to hit rewind and say "ahh" because the ending seemed to emerge out of nowhere? Tonight’s deciding game between the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays was like that.

The internet is littered with reports on what happened, so surely you know by now. You know about the crazy Russell Martin throwing error that led to a Texas 3-2 lead in the top of the 7th. You know about the three consecutive errors in the bottom of the inning by a Texas team that had masked its defensive deficiencies for the past four games. And you certainly know about one of the biggest home runs in Blue Jays history, the mammoth three run shot by Bautista that brought the crowd to a living roar, so loud it seemed as if the stadium itself were about to separate from its concrete foundation.

For many fans, younger ones especially, it was the greatest moment of their life. I’m old enough to remember Joe Carter's home run to win the World Series in '93, but back then the Blue Jays had been great for a decade. They’d won the previous year. It was awesome, but it was expected.

This? This was not. This was discovering that Bruce Willis was a ghost in Sixth Sense.

It was startling. Unexpected. And gut wrenching in emotion.

Nothing, after so many years of Blue Jays’ mediocrity, could prepare you for such a moment.

I had tears in my eyes for the last two innings. I wasn’t the only one.

Sports is a form of theatre, though it is often masked in macho idiocy and overstated clichés. And when you're a fan, you put up with the nonsense, the same stilted dialogue, the same banal jock-talk, always hoping for that one moment that changes everything. That moment that lifts you out of your seat. That moment that causes your stomach to wrench with joy.

Tonight, we not only watched Bautista hit the home run heard around Canada, we then watched the youngest player in baseball strike out four of the last five Rangers, including a swinging strike on his last pitch to complete it.

It was more than a game. It was a story told for the ages and one that will be replayed as much for generations to come. No, it wasn't the World Series. But in a city starved for winners, this Blue Jays victory will go down in history as one of the best games this city has ever seen.

Not even Shyamalan in his prime could have written this piece.

No. It was much better than that.

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.


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?



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?