30 October 2012

Guest Post, Interview, and Two Halloween Vids

Just in case you have no interest in reading about my soundtrack building habits, look! I've got a NaNoWriMo spotlight interview up at The Kelworth Files, and look! A partially personally revealing article about a local haunted ruin over at World Weaver Press.

In case I'm too full of Halloween candy writerly prowess to post tomorrow, happy Halloween, everybody. This year's been a great one for Halloween videos. If you haven't seen it yet, Joss Whedon made this election-themed treat:

And my favourite: BenDeLeCreme and friends parody Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend" while cramming more horror references into three minutes than I would have thought possible. (Uh. Don't click play unless you're prepared for sheer awesomeness and an extended human centipede reference? Also if you're a horror movie loathing homophobe you might have problems with this, but whatever.)


Discovery via Soundtrack

It's November, so yet another opportunity to take a crack at writing a long form manuscript while sharing that experience with others. I am an unabashed fan of NaNoWriMo. While I am aware of why writing a massive chunk of a book in a short time span might not work for some, it works well for me. Even when I'm not NaNo-ing I tend to write in intense bursts followed by a period of catatonia (and what better month to be in a coma than December, right?).

This year I've been spending a little more time than usual planning my November novel. In past years I've typically thought about planning, then ended up doing a last minute very sketchy and excitement-fueled outline of sorts. Recently, though, I've decided to start spending a bit more time on the front end of my long form projects. I don't want another experience like the time-travel-story-turned-future-utopia-which-is-really-an-extreme-dystopia manuscript that I finished this summer. (Basically, the time travel portion of the novel did not work and will be trashed, though the dystopian back half might be something I can use.)

In the name of figuring out the planning side of things a little bit better, I'm taking Lani Diane Rich's excellent NaNo Pre-Game Class, via Storywonk. (I asked for it for my birthday. Hoorah for clutter-free gifts!). (By the way, if you're a writer and you're not listening to Storywonk Sunday, you are missing out. It is a wonderful way to spend a bit of time every week thinking about narrative and getting stoked about being a writer. Looks like there will be a Storywonk NaNoWriMo daily podcast too, which should be loads of fun.)

Anyhoo, as part of the class, one of the things I've been working on is a soundtrack for my book. The idea here is that, in picking songs that match the tone or speak to the characters or evoke any aspect of what you want to do, you're exploring your project without necessarily committing anything to paper. At least, that's what I've gotten out of it. For me, putting a soundtrack together has been almost like going into worldbuilding via intuition instead of logic. Plus, it is just plain fun.

This book is going to be dark. One of the ideas I'm playing with is a world in which technological progress stopped sometime in the early twentieth century because people learned to harness magic as a power source. I wanted an early twentieth-century aesthetic with some elements of contemporary culture. The story is set in a school for magicians, but this is no Harry Potter world of wonder. My central idea is that the dominant form of magic is wholly evil, based on the idea of taking essential energies from others, especially those most vulnerable.

Because I can think of nothing more diabolical than taking from other people, my soundtrack includes a whole lot of classical music that's downright Halloweeny ("Night on Bald Mountain", anybody?). I'm most proud, though, of the blues and pop content, especially the way it opens, with Bessie Smith's "Devil's Gonna Get You."

I'm pretty happy with the way it ends, too, with Daniel Johnston's "Devil Town." I've got the recorded version of this song from Welcome to My World on my soundtrack, but I found this live version on YouTube. If you're not familiar with Daniel Johnston, some context might help. Or, if you like, just watch and enjoy:

21 October 2012

Pedophiles I Have Known, or, A Novel Inspiration

Years ago I had the good fortune to meet a lovely woman who was a Sinophile and middle school principle. She loved travel and mainland China so much, she had arranged an annual trip for grade school teachers to join. The general idea was that teachers went over together, split up into small groups and were sent to different locations throughout Jiangsu province to run programs for Chinese teachers of English. It was an opportunity to share pedagogy with those teachers, and also to give them the opportunity of working directly with native English speakers. While I didn't and don't have teacher training, I was about to start my Master's degree at that time. The group leader knew me personaly and was kind enough to ask me if I wanted to go along.

The trip was incredible. I got the chance to talk politics and literature and daily life and philosophy with a whole bunch of people I would never have otherwise met. The city I was in, Suzhou, was lovely, a silk and pearl centre with a network of canals running through it. I thought it was beautiful.

Via Wikipedia, from - China Travel Guide

We were a small group of four: the group leader, whom I'll call Diane; Mitchell, a young teacher; me; and then Doug, a guy who'd joined the group under somewhat weird circumstances. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent; I have no interest in protecting Doug.) Doug was a teacher with a background in teaching abroad. The connection between Doug and Diane was ephemeral: Doug's mother lived near Diane's school, and had persuaded Diane to take Doug with her.

From the word go, Doug struck me as off kilter. He had a certain combination of personality traits guaranteed to rub me the wrong way. He was deliberately messy in the way he put himself together, often wearing jeans and a jean shirt with a red necktie: hoser casual. He acted at times like a humble misfit, and at others with a grandiosity that shocked and dismayed the people he chose as his audience. The day he lectured to our whole class - something we each had a turn at - he behaved like a condescending assclown while schooling the group on Canadian history. I remember him saying, "I'm talking about Confederation. CONFEDERATION," as if it was the single most important word in the world.

There were other threads in his behaviour, too. He spoke of the women we taught with a touch of crassness. We spotted a western businessman out with a Chinese escort. Doug lingered on one detail of this clearly arranged date: "She's so small, so small." Even the fauna weren't immune to his sexual commentary. Upon finding an exhausted beetle on the sidewalk, he remarked, "It's probably been out having sex all night."

I didn't like Doug at all, but when there's only four of your in your little group, you tend to end up chatting often. We talked personal histories, experiences, things that led us to the world of education. I was the odd woman out, being the only person who hadn't had teacher training, but Doug distinguished himself by returning again and again to the same topic: the time he spent teaching at Upper Canada College, one of the creepiest and most revered private schools for boys in Canada, and his reasons for leaving that post. Many times over the course of the month I spent in his proximity, he brought up the ideological differences that he claimed were responsible for his resignation. It all came down to Louis Riel, he said. He wanted to teach the history of the 1885 North-West Rebellion in his own way, opposed to the views of his esteemed colleagues.

It sounded dramatic enough. He claimed he was working on a Riel book that was going to blow Canadian history wide open. He was the hero of his own piece, a pseudo Dead Poets Society style Robin Williams figure leading his young charges into the fray of independent thinking. He was, if you believed his version of things, positively quixotic.

The story stank.

The first thing that smelled fishy was Doug himself. He wasn't self-sacrificing and heroic. He was self-aggrandizing and annoying. He snuck off late at night from our hotel. He remarked on the prostitutes waiting for tourists on the street corner.

Then there was the way he kept circling back to his story of wrongful treatment. It didn't seem like the sort of thing you would need to tell a group of strangers over and over. Something in him was picking at that memory like a scab. I didn't need to know why in order to recognize the pattern.

To say I didn't get along with him would be an understatement. It was too easy to antagonize him by asking him polite questions about his cover story: "I don't understand. What was the nature of your differences?" "I don't understand. Why would they ask you to leave?" He would splutter and turn red and spout venom. It was ugly.

After the course was over, the larger group of teachers reconvened in Beijing for a week of touring. Doug was part of the tour group but he soon slinked away, and, from what I understand, secured another teaching job that would keep him in China for a number of months, imposing himself on unsuspecting people who needed the cheapest of his assets, his native tongue.

It wasn't until sometime later that the scandal hit the newspapers here in Canada: one by one, eighteen former UCC students came forward to accuse Doug Brown of sexual abuse. He was found guilty of nine charges of indecent assault in 2004.

The experience of being close to greasy evil caused me to think about the nature of institutions like UCC.  While such places are often singled out as massively influential through their ability to produce political and business leaders, they also have histories of harbouring predators and seem structured to inure their charges to the effects of abuse. I've been reading James FitzGerald's excellent book Old Boys: The Powerful Legacy of Upper Canada College, which collects the memories of former UCC students in interviews without external commentary from FitzGerald, to chilling effect.

I'm really interested in tracing the effects of power such as that exercised by schools like UCC. As I'm planning the next book, which I intend to write in November, I'm thinking through the connections between institutionalized vampirism and the people who run our government and financial organizations.

When I had that experience in China, I guess I wasn't really processing it. I felt that something was off with Doug, but I couldn't think it through. Since then, I've made a more systematic study of evil, particularly the human being as parasite and predator. I think I'm ready to translate this experience into fiction. Being as I am a speculative writer, I'm thinking something inspired by the Scholomance, evil schools for wizards, magic as necromancy, and a world that's only a shade off of ours.

Lest the title of this post be thought inaccurate, I have known more than one pedophile, though as far as I know they weren't as involved in systemic abuses. One was a distant relative; the other was my shrink. That, however, is a story for another time.

05 October 2012

Working for Vacation

So I've been away for a while. You might have noticed. I took a break from the city to go to my absolute favourite place in the entire world.

Yup, there is a wee cottage tucked in there. I've waxed poetic about this place before, but it is the best. There is no hydro. If you want electricity, you must use an elaborate system involving a gas generator and a car battery. There is little chance of ending up online for hours, much less on the phone or in any other remote interpersonal exchange. Heat is courtesy of a wood stove. Cooking and refrigeration run on propane. It's like living in a park.

Normally, I spend all of my time at the cottage outside. I sit by the lake and read, or I troop around in the woods, or I take off for hours to practice tai chi and qigong in the woods. This year, however, three factors combined to change my usual pattern:

It was darn cold.
It rained about as often as it did anything else.
When I arrived at the cottage, I was on the downhill slope of a novel I'd been working on since August.

I thought I was going to have to wrestle with myself to keep writing once we were up there and that "on vacation" feeling sunk in, but the weather really sealed the deal. It was just as easy to slip another log onto the fire and hunker down inside as it was to head out. The view from the kitchen table is gorgeous. Dave is a late sleeper when he's on vacation, so short of getting the dog and cat their breakfasts and setting a pot of coffee up to percolate, each morning, I had hours to myself to write.

I'm happy to say I wrote a little over 20k in 7 days, and completed the first draft. Yup, it's a mess, but those final 20k words are pretty solid. More importantly, it's done.

I've taken the last week or so to let my brain dribble out my ears. I'm setting October goals now and staring down the last quarter of 2012 to figure out what's left to do. There's NaNoWriMo's main event, of course, among other things, and that daily writing habit I'll be getting back to very shortly. I'm usually energized by the fall, so I am really anticipating good things in the next few months.

How is your fall shaping up, my friends? What plans and schemes are you hatching?