Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Behind the Scenes: City of Slaves

Less than a week from now, I'll be releasing CITY OF SLAVES, the second novel in my Desolate Kingdom series. And yes, I'm pretty excited about it. I get a number of questions from people regarding all kinds of things when it comes to being a novelist entails, and while I tried to answer a number of those questions on my FAQ page, I thought I'd take you behind the scenes a bit for this particular novel and talk about how it came together and the particular challenges of writing this story.

For those of you who have read THE LAST ANGEL, you already know that this world is set 100 years after a series of nuclear Storms have all but wiped out humanity, creating a desolate wasteland. With the Storms have come winged creatures called Ganath. They have hounded and terrorized the few humans left on the planet. And along the western coast of what was the United States, only one great city remains.

I don't want to reveal any spoilers for those who have yet to read the first novel, suffice to say that the sequel focuses on a secondary character, Lieutenant Cale "Sendz" Edsen, a powerful but troubled soldier.

Origin of the Story

For the second book in the series, I wanted to do two things. I wanted to darken the tone/ explore a few different issues, and I wanted to focus on characters other than Tommy and Kallie, the stars of the first book. From the moment I met Cale in Book One, (yes, this will sound artsy) I wanted to dig deeper into who he was. He is the only straight white male featured in the entire series, but his back story was complex. And sad. How did I write the story to present his challenges while staying within the confines of the genre, which meant a lot of action and set at my typical lightning pace? That was the question.

As I have mentioned in my FAQ, I write the first draft at hyper speed. Two to three thousand words a day for forty days. I do not outline. I rip the story from my imagination and hold on for the ride. It is both exhausting and exhilarating. I am always relieved when the first draft is finished. For CITY OF SLAVES, however, the first draft needed a LOT of work, and the copy you'll see when it hits the shelves went through an additional twelve drafts, which is a lot for a novel that is only 65, 000 words long.

Sensitivity in Fantasy?

Fantasy is a genre that prides itself on power and strength, but part of what allows me to enjoy my work to such a great extent is by flipping that notion and empowering those we would consider 'weak.' This is harder than it sounds. Creating female characters that are equal to men, or minorities who are leads, forces me to write with my left hand. I've never been a woman. I've never been a minority. So for all I am empathetic of the things they have to deal with, I have never dealt with those things myself.

In the case of CITY OF SLAVES, more than anything else, including the structure of the book, the real difficulty was the sensitive subject matter. How did I portray the tragedy of Cale's past and his inner turmoil without being insensitive myself? (Yes, I'm being a bit obtuse here, but I don't want to spoil anything) This required delicate handling, and it still wouldn't have worked without two of my female beta-readers and my editor to walk me through some particularly hard scenes.

Why Another Tone?

I heard a number of great things/ reviews from people about THE LAST ANGEL. And the logical question would be: why change it? Simple. Different characters create different tones. Just as in real life. While I wanted to write a book with a different flavor to it, that was only possible because of Cale's nature. He was the one who determined it. Besides, having different sets of main characters within the same world appealed to me. (And don't worry, Tommy and Kallie will be back for book three, WINTER, due out September 2nd.)

What Did I Learn Writing COS?

The biggest takeaway from this book was just how important my beta-readers were, particularly my female beta-readers. They caught things that quite frankly, I should have noticed. In the end, they changed the dynamic of the book completely. Any woman, any feminist, can read COS and identify with the female characters. I've said repeatedly how important it is for me to create worlds and stories that people from every gender, race, and sexuality can identify with, particularly in the all too often "whitey white" worlds of fantasy.

I'm really excited about the final version of it, and I can't wait to hear back from all of you. Thanks for your support and encouragement. Remember, it'll be here in less than week!! (April 6th)


Monday, March 28, 2016

Sick Not Weak: My Walk With Depression

I glanced up at the gray morning sky from my usual spot on the porch. Rain echoed off our metal overhang. A robin bounced across my front lawn, alternately glaring at me and digging her beak into the wet grass. I normally enjoyed the rain – I usually considered it ideal writing weather – but today I could have used some sun. It had been a long weekend. A hard weekend. Perhaps the toughest one I’d ever gone through, and I was still worn out.

            The past year and a half had been something of a nightmare for me. My depression had flared up in a way I could have never imagined. It had cost me my job, and from there, things had become progressively worse. I broke out in hives for months. I couldn’t get my hands to stop shaking when I was in public. I pulled away from everyone, including those I loved the most. Some days I could not get out of bed. It was like my world had become suddenly bleached with gray, as if the sun and life and hope had been sucked out of my existence. Though I’d dealt with depression for two decades, it had never been this bad. A friend of mine, who also dealt with mental health issues, told me that I needed to get a handle on it or I would lose everything. I did not know how to do that.

            And through it all, I stayed quiet. On my (many) Facebook posts and blogs and tweets, I rarely, if ever, mentioned it. I didn’t want to bring others down, and frankly, I wasn’t proud of my situation. I’d felt the stigma of depression for most of my life, heard the whispers that mental health sufferers weren’t working hard enough. That they just needed to let it go. That they weren’t religious enough or weren’t praying hard enough. I had tried, but I couldn’t get there. Despite tears and soul crushing effort, I couldn’t reach the sun. Every day it seemed to rain, even when there were no clouds. And without a job, medication was out of the question. So was counseling. I did not know what to do.

            I could feel people slipping away from me, people I loved, friends and family. I wanted to tell them that I was trying. That I still loved them. That I wasn’t ignoring them and that I could feel their presence at all times. I just couldn’t touch them.  

            And still I remained silent. 

            Perhaps it was my pride. Or perhaps it was this notion that I would wake up one morning and everything would be okay again. Or that I would step out onto the porch and the sun would be shining again.

            It didn’t happen.

            This past weekend was the most difficult weekend of my life because I was finally confronted with the consequences of not doing anything. Of not talking about my pain. Of not taking actions to manage my depression in a more healthy manner. And while it was painful, it was also a relief. I had been guilty of the worst course of action for a mental health sufferer. I’d buried my head in the sand and tried to fix things on my own. I’d refused to look in the mirror and admit the truth. So I did. And this is what I saw:

            Your name is Stephen Burns. You are 43 years old. You suffer from depression. You have hurt people close to you because you refuse to face, to truly face, the issues you wrestle with every day. If you don’t do something, you’ll lose everything. You are sick, not weak.

            As you can imagine, it was not an easy image to process. My habit for dealing with my inner torment had always been to bury it. Close down. Disengage. (And occasionally lash out in anger on Facebook) I had often heard thoughts telling me that my depression wasn’t real, that it wasn’t a real sickness, and that if I was a stronger person I could handle it.

            Some days I was able to reject those lies. Too often I believed them.

            Faced with the prospect of my world collapsing, I confronted my sickness. And (in what I don’t think was a coincidence) I found a website, a community, at SickNotWeak. Started by TSN personality Michael Landsberg, himself a depression sufferer, the site was a wonderment to me. I found stories there, written by other sufferers. I found a place to go when the sun dipped behind the clouds. I found a community of people willing to do something, for themselves and others, to help bring light back into their life.

            This past year I’d published my first novel, The Last Angel. Though I’d waited a lifetime to achieve that, and though the reviews were positive, it didn’t help the way I’d thought it would. My personal achievement seemed to have no impact on my mental health. Despite the plethora of kind words and encouraging reviews, most days I would wake up and hear different voices. Ones telling me that I still hadn’t sold many books. That I was still a failure. That I’d always be a failure. I cringed at the internal criticism and sank into myself. Sank into my pain and torment. I thought I had lost control of my life. I had begun to think it would never change.

            That too, was a lie.

            This past Saturday I devised some new strategies (which I will delve into later this week), some of which I’d gleamed from SickNotWeak, to help me deal with my depression. And yesterday, for the first day in a long time, I felt like I was in control of my life again.

Writing this essay was one of those strategies, but again, I hesitated. It had only been a few days. What difference did a few days make? I hadn’t accomplished anything. This time, however, I was able to ignore the lie.

This essay was never meant to be a testimony of accomplishment, but a challenge to be open about who I was and what I suffered from. And perhaps let others know that I felt their pain. That I suffered with them. That they weren’t alone.

I was tired of running. Tired of hiding. It was time to do something.

The robin fluttered off into the large maple on our lawn, and I watched her settle there, her orange chest thrust forward bobbing confidently on the tiny branch. I shook my head. Mental health issues were more prevalent in our society than people imagined. And so many of us who suffered from it on a daily basis were afraid to talk about it. Afraid because we worried what people would think or that we’d bring others down or that we were only using it as an excuse.

I’d learned my lesson the hard way. I couldn’t do it alone. I couldn’t conquer it without help. And while honesty was important, it wasn’t enough. I needed to act.

I stood, resting my laptop on my chair. It continued to rain, the wind gusting against the branches, the grass brown and mottled. Spring hadn’t arrived. Not yet. But as I glanced up at the gray skies, I spotted a ray of sunlight hidden behind the clouds. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: If you suffer from mental health issues, there are numerous places where you can get help. I highly recommend SickNotWeak. And if you want to contact me, just go to my contact page and you can find me. I'll be happy to get back to you. 

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

A Novelist's Take... Politics, Trump and the Presidential Race (Part I)

My apologies for not posting these past three weeks. CITY OF SLAVES is about to be released (April 6th) and I've been working diligently to ensure that everything goes smoothly. The writing side is one thing, but I'm a rookie when it comes to publishing. So thank you for your patience.

Over the next two weeks, I'll be posting a few blogs regarding current headlines. The easiest way to do this is the form of an interview with questions people have asked me on social media or questions that I would ask some of my favourite novelists. (My next blog will deal with current events in the sports world)

Q) Before I ask you about your view of the current political climate in the United States, you insisted on suggesting that you're answering these questions as a novelist. Why?

A) Because I've come to realize that my work influences my view, enough that it needs to be understood, if not clearly stated. Artists, as a rule, view the world through a different lens. They are humanity's great observers, if only because their work only matters when they're commenting on what they see. As a novelist, which is a very long art form, my view tends towards depth. And what it means in greater context. That doesn't mean I don't react when a presidential candidate like Trump makes a penis joke -- everyone reacts to that -- but it doesn't narrow the distance between what I see and how I perceive the election.

Q) You've stated your political tendencies, or at least suggested them, in the past. You have described yourself as a progressive. Does this hinder your ability to comment on what's happening in the Republican Party right now?

A) Well, I'm a Canadian first, so my commentary means little in the way of voting. As to a progressive commenting on the GOP, which have become a party of extremists, with perhaps the exceptions of people like (gulp) Jeb Bush and John Kasich, it is not only viable, but necessary.

Look, I understand the appeal of Donald Trump. He's outrageous, funny, and completely unpredictable. There's a reason he was a reality TV star. But he's also a misogynist, racist xenophobe. The comments he's made regarding Muslims and illegal immigrants are completely unacceptable and downright coarse. He has lowered the level of discourse. Worse, there are examples of schools and children, perhaps after listening to their parents glowingly talk about him, using him as a reason to bully other students with minority backgrounds.

If anything, this IS a progressive issue. Suggesting that a female reporter was "on her period" as a reason for his reactions during a debate are unconscionable. Ten years ago, such a comment would have been decried by both parties. It feels like we are taking a step backwards. And so yes, commentary by progressives is necessary.

Q) We have heard that from other progressives. But how does being a novelist alter your opinion? Or does it?

A) I write fantasy, which is basically like writing historical fiction on steroids. Most fantasists, myself included, use alternative worlds to comment on what is wrong in our society what we can do to change it. (While entertaining the reader, of course)

Everyone has seen the memes comparing Trump to Hitler, which sound outlandish until you start to dig. But as a novelist, the wide view goes much deeper. History is not linear. Progression of equality and civil rights do not move up a ladder. There are plenty of examples in history of countries and civilizations moving backwards.

Two thousand years ago it was acceptable for Egyptian women to initiate a divorce with their husband. They were also allowed to own land. During that same time, the Romans allowed no woman to speak with any influence outside the household. As we know, the Romans conquered Egypt. Their patriarchal view of society was the staple of European life for more than seventeen hundred years. And it was only until the last century that once again women were allowed to vote and hold land and not be subject to their husband or father.

Q) That seems like quite a stretch for this year's election. No one is advocating that women lose their ability to vote.

A) Again, a novelist takes a long view. Simply to have a presidential candidate suggest a woman's period as a reason for her supposed incompetence is significant. Rights are only rights because people fought for them, but they can be lost just as easily.

Look at Egypt now. With the movement towards Islamic fundamentalism in the early part of the 20th Century, those same people, who two thousand years ago offered a society that valued equality, was forced to undergo riots and recorded insults from Egyptian men telling them to "get back into the kitchen."

One step down the ladder is a big step, because it's harder to go up then down.

Q) Why are American politics so important to a Canadian novelist?

A) In Canada, like every other G-8 country, we offer free health care. This would seem to be a basic right. In the US, it isn't. And whether we like it or not, Americans dominate the media due to their size and influence. The US also happens to be our biggest trading partner and our best friend. About 70% of Canada's population lives with five hundred miles of the American border, and their economy drastically impacts our own.

More than that, however, is the possibility that such a culture presents. Let's say Bernie Sanders miraculously won the presidency. Republicans like to suggest he's a "radical," but his message is essentially a proposition to run the country the way Canada and other G-8 countries like Sweden and Norway operate. Countries that focus on equality and lowering income disparity. That would be important for any progressive! And what a platform he'd have to spread that to the rest of the world!

Now consider if someone like Trump, or Cruz, are elected. Their extreme conservatism would set the docket for equality back light years. Both believe in the Military Industrial Complex that has trapped the American economy for years and neither would be interested in setting equality, whether its between classes or gender or race or sexuality, as a top priority.

Q) I would ask you about Canadian politics, but you seem more invested in the presidential election. Is that true?

A) Yes. For now. I like to take a wait-and-see approach to our current governing party. Conservatives love to slam Prime Minister Trudeau, but lets check back in a year and see what he's done or what he's failed to do.

Q) Do you have a prediction for who wins the presidential election?

A) I think Clinton will win. Sanders is going to damage her, but he'll also push her left, which is a good thing. Trump is going to win the Republican nod, and I just think there are too many Americans who are too scared to elect him. His unpredictability is amusing, but it wouldn't be amusing as a leader. I do think the race will be closer than people think, however. Clinton is a polarizing figure. I would love to see Sanders win, but I don't see that happening.