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I’m a wizard in search of magic, an astronaut in need of space, and a hopeless enthusiast of frivolity. I’ve shot things with giant lasers, worn an astronaut costume for over 100 days to try and get into space, and made my own soap. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, I write science fiction and fantasy in the Canadian prairies.
Recently Matthew Rettino, one of my former Odyssey classmates, interviewed me for his Archaeologies of the Weird blog. He asked some very interesting questions, and it was great to talk to him and dig a bit deeper into my process, inspirations and beliefs about my story in “E is for Evil.”
Check out the interview here:
Recently I was struggling with a story where there was a deep mystery for the protagonist to uncover as the story went on. As I got feedback from readers, I realized the problem was that the mystery was so opaque that readers didn’t have enough information to have any hope of anticipating what was to come. I wanted the story to be both mysterious and suspenseful, but without any insight into the future, suspense was out of the question. While the question of how to balance the right amount of mystery against the number of facts the reader knows is somewhat subjective, there was a middle ground I needed to achieve.
I realized, after a lot of elaborate rituals, rune-crafting and keyboard slamming, that my problem could be solved through point of view.
The point of view in my story was close third person omniscient. This meant that I couldn’t really describe things that were outside of my main character’s point of view. Obviously, if they knew what was going to happen to them, they wouldn’t go along with the events of the story, so I needed to pull the camera out a bit. I shifted the point of view a bit further out so that I wasn’t locked into the protagonist’s perspective. This allowed me to seed information in that the main character wouldn’t (and couldn’t) know.
This subtle change made a big difference to the story. Instead of events happening mysteriously and somewhat randomly, the reader was let in on a bit of the secret. This sprinkling of information gave readers enough that they could buy into the story. They could start trying to puzzle out what might happen, which let them invest in it. They could then start worrying about it, and lo and behold, I would have both the mystery and suspense I was after.
Putting the right amount in is referred to as leaving out the egg, something first done by the great Betty Crocker. It amounts to giving enough, but not everything. If I’d shifted the perspective so far out that the narrator could now describe everything, the situation would be too neat and tidy, and there be no story to tell. Leaving out the egg is kind of like the way IKEA sells furniture. They give you everything you need, including the instructions, but you have to build it yourself. What IKEA discovered, and what applies to storytelling and many other areas, is that when people had to invest something of themselves into what they’re building, they develop a stronger affinity for their furniture. We cherish what we build.
The same goes for a story. If I can have a reader invest while they’re reading a story, then they’ll ultimately get more enjoyment out of it, even if it is a little wobbly and the cupboards are about to fall off.
There are other ways I could’ve handled this problem. I could’ve maybe had a sage character who teases information that would then build suspense. I could’ve had a legend holding some of the information with questionable reliability. The character could’ve gotten hints in a dream. Some of these tropey choices are better than others, while others are better if you’ve eaten black mold and need to induce vomiting. I hope you can see why I went with the decision I did, but there are probably ways of justifying and maybe doing the other options tastefully.
That’s one mystery solved.
Now, as far as the greater mystery of why stories can share so many commonalities yet be so difficult and unique to wrangle into shape, that will have to wait for a lengthy session of rune-carving into IKEA particle board. So many wonderful things to learn, and not enough dark rituals to host.
Full disclosure: News Flash posts are satirical news parodies and not meant to be taken as truth.
Edmonton Police are cracking down on locals reportedly sneaking across a decommissioned train track. The 15-foot gap, a dangerous unused-but-clean train track that allows residents significantly more convenient access to needed amenities nearby, is considered private property and trespassers can be fined up to $25,000.
“Even though this train track isn’t in use and has in fact been promised to the city for transformation into a pedestrian crossing, it’s a really big threat to the safety of all Edmontonians,” said Officer Stickrear. “People can get quite hurt in the 15-foot distance between the fences. Much more than they could by speeding, running red lights or stop signs. As such, the fine for trespassing on this small parcel of completely unused land has to be suitably high to deter people from crossing. Much, much higher than those other minor safety issues. I mean, they might trip and break a dozen eggs during their grocery trip. Or, heaven forbid, smash a watermelon.”
Officer Stickrear spent several days this week parked in his vehicle near the abandoned train tracks, warning and threatening trespassers to ensure they were suitably protected from the threat.
“So many people have stopped to thank me,” he said. “They’re grateful their tax dollars are being used for this focused effort, rather than wasteful and pointless efforts to curb thefts, break-ins, vandalism and other crimes in the area.”
One local, who was recently given a fine of $25,000 and had to sell her residence to pay it, expressed her gratitude to Officer Stickrear. “Who knows what could have happened to me there,” she said. “I mean, the opening is totally clear aside from the railway tracks. Anyone or anything could have snuck up on me while I walked day-dreaming carrying my groceries through that space. I’m so glad he saved me from that danger. Now that I’m moving into a new cheaper neighbourhood to rent, I won’t have to worry about the abandoned train track anymore. But I feel better knowing Officer Stickrear and other dedicated officers are paying this matter the heavy attention it deserves.”
Others have expressed their gratitude that totally unused private property slated for transition into public space is being enforced to such a heavy degree. “People need to respect corporations a lot more,” said another resident. “The fact that the space is not used in any way whatsoever, and that it’s been planned for conversion into public space, is all the more reason for us to not use it. People need to stop being so lazy, and spend the extra half an hour walking around it carrying watermelons.”
“I don’t see why people use this space,” said another resident. “I mean, I’m not buying watermelons, and if I need to buy groceries, it’s much better for me to drive to Costco than to walk to my local grocer anyway.”
City officials have announced their annual local hero awards, and Officer Stickrear is expected to carry home the gold medal, the highest honour, for his leadership on the safety of the train track.
“You don’t need to give me a gold medal to tell me how important this work is compared to everything else,” he said. “I’m just doing my job.”
Officer Stickrear declined to comment on the correlation of month-end ticket quotas within the force, and the efforts made to police the train track.
I’ll be on a panel at Pure Spec this weekend with the insightful and entertaining S.G. Wong and Rhonda Parrish. It’s called “Author Incognito” and is all about what it’s like to write with a pen name.
Having had my pen name for a relatively short period, there are a few things I’ve learned that might help you on your own cattle-cart ride through the ether.
When I switched to my pen name, I migrated my website and had to systematically remove mentions of my previous publications under a different name. I didn’t do this because I was ashamed of what I’d published. Not at all. I did it because I wanted to create a separate identity from my original one, and if I maintained all those ties, it would defeat the purpose of a pen name for me.
Authors have differing opinions in this regard. I might change my mind on this later, but for now this is where I sit.
An important requirement for me was to maintain different author and professional personas. In order to keep employment options open as a teacher, I had to minimize my online presence as much as possible (again, there are examples of author-teachers who ignore this, but I take a ‘prepare for the worst’ approach). This directly conflicted with the requirements of being an author: being accessible online, having a visible platform, and being a multi-national award-winning flame juggler.
This is what the pen name does for me: it allows me to keep these spheres separate, and make this cognitive dissonance possible. For the outside world, teacher-me barely has an online presence, while author-me will hopefully be part of a blooming utopian community of interested readers, creators, and acrobats.
I’m not going to lie. It was hard to “say goodbye” to my previous publications by removing their presence from the website. It felt like, in many ways, those words hadn’t mattered. In those moments, I try to remind myself that they did, they have, and they will. I try to reframe the situation as an opportunity to start fresh with many years (decade(s)?) of experience under my belt.
The other issue is whether or not I can be happy not seeing my real name on the page when a work is published. Can my ego, delicate after continuous rejection, handle not getting credit when I finally pass the gatekeepers? For me, that was why the creation of the pen-name had to contain so much of me. I entertained the notion of a random name, but nothing really felt a part of me, even when I’d try to roll the names around in my head for several days. In the end, I had to choose something that was an amalgam of things I identified with.
Part of this creation involved getting feedback from others. People I trust and respect told me it was important for my author name to be easy to spell, pronounce and remember. There is definitely some cultural bias in that suggestion, but I can see its merits nonetheless. In the end, I opted for the name you see before you. I believe that it meets my need to see myself on the page, though it is and always will be a little different from seeing my real name there.
Before anyone asks, no, my name was not at all intended to be reminiscent of Joe Haldeman. Although I did love The Forever War.
That’s my take on pen names, for now. Now get back to cultivating the circus of your own split-personality lives.