This is the blog post I’ve been waiting years to write. There’s no need to guess why, I suppose, especially when it’s in the title above.

I’m a published author.

Drive In Tales, a new online magazine edited by Alex Soderstrom, is publishing my story “The Whitehawk Agency” in two parts over two issues. The first was released today in the Summer 2015 issue. Click here to start reading!


Project Bluebook


I love notebooks. I love having all my thoughts and sketches and jottings about a project in one place, and the sense of focus that brings when I sit down and open one to work in it.

Focus has been a wonderful gift these last couple months. In June I was feeling bottlenecked: too many story ideas vied for my attention and I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to work on. Exactly what happened next is something I can’t quite remember. I suppose some synapses fired off and crashed into others. The next thing I know, I’ve decided that one of my projects would make a great novel to work on and shop around as my first serious effort at publication — and can also be connected to one of my other projects over here, and that this third project could also be a kind of sequel.

The ideas merged, not into a series exactly, but more like different aspects of a shared universe. At least I can’t find a better way to describe it without spoilers. And I’m playing this one close to the chest for now so don’t expect to hear what it’s all about.

The main novel, the hub around which everything else revolves, is being worked on in a blue notebook. Hence the “public” title of Project Bluebook (the actual working title is also something you shouldn’t expect to hear for awhile). There might be a joking reference to the US government program that studied UFOs, but I can tell you I’m not writing about little green men…I think.

It might sound like it would lead to the same problem: multiple projects, multiple notebooks, and the dissipation of energy. But in fact my enthusiasm hasn’t waned a bit since I started two months ago. I’ve been steadily writing, making notes, experimenting in these pages. Moving between stories and notebooks doesn’t seem like a weakness anymore, but a strength.

Focus has been a wonderful gift. So has diversity. In the space where they overlap, my creativity seems to be thriving.


I have a strange form of writer’s block.

Most people imagine writer’s block as staring at a blank page not knowing what words to put down. That’s not my problem. My problem is that I have about ten different pages in front of me, all of them half-full of words, and I don’t know which one to keep filling.

Coming up with “ideas” isn’t my problem (what exactly are these “ideas” people keep asking writers about?). It’s not very hard to have “ideas” for a premise and work out where it could go. Even working things out isn’t my problem. My problem is that I have ten notebooks, one for each premise, ready to be filled with the working out and the words and the ideas, and I don’t know which one to focus my time and energy on.

It’s like there’s a ten-lane highway and each lane is jammed with cars. There’s a tunnel up ahead and the highway’s about to condense into five lanes. It’s not writer’s block. It’s a bottleneck.

Ultimately, it leads to the same thing: not writing. Even when I think that maybe the cars should start merging – blend that idea into this premise and fold that character into this narrative – there’s resistance. They don’t want to merge. They want to be first through the tunnel.

I’m tired of not writing. But I’m even more tired of not being published. I want to write something that actually gets out there. I want to write a novel.

The only question is…which one?


WonderbookI thought I was done writing lengthy book reviews. Small, one-paragraph capsule opinions were going to replace full-blown analyses. But I recently read a book that I want more people to know about, and that means a longer review.

Writing manuals aren’t things I read much of. Maybe it shows in my writing. But I’ve always chafed at the idea that there are hard and fast rules to this craft. We often talk about it as if it’s carpentry or architecture, jobs where math and formulae are essential to building structures with foundations that hold together.  Surely writing, being an art, needs to play a little looser with the rules, pushing boundaries when that’s what’s needed to make a story work. Most manuals are aimed at making the creative process regimented, direct, and clear-cut, when the hard truth is that it’s rarely any of those things. Fortunately, I stumbled across a writing manual that may be the best one I’ve ever read.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Creating Imaginative Fiction sounds at first like it’s going to be the kind of thing I dread, and far too focused on a single genre to be of any general help. Neither is the case. Instead of laying down laws VanderMeer dispenses well-informed advice. He asks you to try something out in your writing and if it doesn’t work there are five other options to fall back on.

Most guides to writing begin with teaching mechanics, but VanderMeer opts to set the reader off with an entire chapter on inspiration; how important it is to play imaginatively, no matter what kind of fiction you’re writing. Throughout the book he uses examples from Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, and Joyce Carol Oates to demonstrate that even though the cover art features a whale with a city on its back, the art of writing good fiction isn’t limited by the marketing tool of genre.

No writing manual has as much artwork in it, either, something VanderMeer points out in the introduction. Clever diagrams and metaphors for techniques abound, especially in the chapter on plot, where I finally found new ways to map out the structure of a story beyond the Freytag pyramid. Which of course opens up new avenues to think about how a story should be told. My favourite aspect to VanderMeer’s teaching style, though, is that he’s clearly poured his imagination into this book. The metaphors he uses to conceptualize techniques and ideas stick long after you’re done reading. My favourite is the recurring motif of the story as a living creature, with various systems and parts all working together in a complicated biosystem – dialogue interacting with setting interacting with point of view to keep an organism alive and functioning.

Small prompts and challenges are scattered throughout the book, and an appendix has longer exercises to put you and your imagination through your paces. I need to carve out some time and work on them. It’s safe for me to say that no book about writing has given me more inspiration or gotten me more excited to put pen to paper. It reminds me why I wanted to start doing it in the first place, and that’s just what I needed right now.

Another round of capsule reviews, covering the two months since my last post.


Trigger WarningTrigger Warning: Short Fictions And Disturbances, Neil Gaiman

It’s safe to say that this was my most anticipated read of the year. It’s been quite awhile since Gaiman published a short story collection; his last, Fragile Things, is one of my favourite books. This collection inevitably doesn’t quite live up to my excitement, but it’s still excellent. And surprisingly varied in both subject matter and form. “Orange” is written entirely as a girl’s answers to an official questionnaire; “The Sleeper And The Spindle” wonderfully meshes fairy tales; and “Nothing O’Clock” is a Doctor Who story. But what they all have in common is that they are all at least a little bit disturbing. A wintery collection of wintery tales and poems. Fantastic.


The Singing BowlThe Singing Bowl, Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is a motorcycle rider, a songwriter, an academic, and all sorts of things you don’t expect an Anglican priest to be — but he is also that. I first heard of him last May when I took a course on theology and the arts. His villanelle “On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier” remains the highlight of this collection, but they’re all clearly well-considered and carefully put together.



House of SunsHouse of Suns, Alastair Reynolds

I’m known as a science fiction nut, but strangely I don’t read a lot of science fiction. One author I do like, though, is Alastair Reynolds. He never gets bogged down in explaining physics and instead does his best to tell a good story. This, like most of his novels, has an enormous scale even for a space opera. But the most interesting thing is how Reynolds uses point of view; each of the first-person narrators is a clone (“shatterling”) of Abigail Gentian, who herself narrates at the beginning of each part division. It’s the tension between viewpoints that are both separate and the same that gets me. The technique works beautifully. Though the plot does slow down a bit in the middle, everything else about the novel is amazing.


Masters of AtlantisMasters of Atlantis, Charles Portis

Charles Portis has only written five novels. No more are known to be forthcoming. I have read four. But this and the more famous True Grit (adapted twice into film) are, I confess, the only ones I’ve liked. The plot is leisurely, but the characters are interesting even when they’re not likeable. Actually a true plot is hard to find. The novel basically just charts the rise and fall of a distinctly unsinister secret society. There isn’t much of a dramatic climax; if anything it feels like the story (along with the people) grows old and retires to spend its days staring at the sunset. But along the way there are quite a few laughs to be had and the writing was good, making the read worth it.


Convenient MythsConvenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, And The World That Never Was, Iain Provan

Provan, a Biblical scholar and professor at Regent College, was writing a book when he realized the opening chapters needed to be longer than the book could accommodate. The result was that they split off and became their own volume. Provan’s thesis is that our society has been influenced by two false myths about the past. One is of an era called the “axial age”, when large parts of human thought and religion supposedly evolved; the other idealizes an even more distant past when humans supposedly lived in deeper communion with nature and more peacefully than now. Provan argues that both of these myths aren’t supported by empirical evidence about past cultures, and that harm is done when we seek to advance good intentions on the back of falsehoods. His discussion of the “axial age” necessarily involves some abstractions and I found it a little hard to follow certain points. But his chapters on “dark green religion” were much more concrete. I’m looking forward to reading his follow-up, Seriously Dangerous Religion.


A Book of One's OwnA Book of One’s Own: People And Their Diaries, Thomas Mallon

A survey of diaries and the people who kept them, famous and otherwise. Why do people keep them? What do they write about? Do they truly teach us about the diarist or are they only apologia? Mallon explores these and other questions as he reads and comments on diaries from all walks of life and times. The book was written in the 80s, so no mention is made of blogs or online journals. But I’ve always been more interested in the paper kind anyway, and reading this has me thinking about why I keep my diary and what exactly I put in it.

One of the things I’d like to do this year is put a little more life back into my blog. To help me accomplish this, I’m introducing a new dynamic to my book reviews. Every month I’ll post some of the highlights from last month’s books, along with notes from my reading journal. Here are January’s notable reads.


The Legend of Sigurd And GudrúnThe Legend of Sigurd And Gudrún, J.R.R. Tolkien

Sometime before he wrote The Hobbit, Tolkien composed two epic poems, or Lays, based on Norse mythology. The Lays were written in modern English but use an Old Norse alliterative meter. Tolkien is actually one of my favourite poets, and now it seems he was a master of verse in every form. The sentences look small and choppy on the page, but flow smoothly. I appreciated Christopher Tolkien’s introduction to set the two Lays in the context of the original mythology, but some of his commentary was pretty dry so I skimmed through it. A pronunciation guide for the names would have been nice.


The Complete Making of Indiana JonesThe Complete Making of Indiana Jones, J.W. Rinzler

I’m a big geek of the filmmaking arts and love behind-the-scenes accounts from my favourite movies. So I’m sorry to say that this volume doesn’t quite satisfy, especially after the author’s splendid books on the original Stars Wars trilogy. The main mistake of this one is trying to cram all four Indy films into one volume instead of giving each movie its own. It starts strong with four whole chapters on Raiders of The Lost Ark, but gradually covers less and less detail with each sequel, until Kingdom of The Crystal Skull feels more like a press release with fewer on-set stories and anecdotes. The end result is that the book doesn’t feel complete or definitive despite the title. What’s here is good, but there could have been more.


22824The Star Wars, J.W. Rinzler (Art by Mike Mayhew)

A fascinating comic book rendering of George Lucas’ rough draft screenplay for his sci-fi epic — but it is very rough. The plot is a bit overstuffed and the dialogue somewhat stiff. The characterization is also kind of cheesy (when it’s there at all). But that’s not why this comic was made. This is Star Wars as it first emerged, and makes for a cool read when you consider it from the right perspective. It’s a glimpse into Lucas’ creative process and so much is in place already; character archetypes, settings, plot elements, themes. Some of the concepts wouldn’t find their final form until the prequel trilogy. It just needed a nudge or two. That’s what rough drafts are for.


TemplarTemplar, Jordan Mechner (Art by LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland)

Legends and supernatural conspiracies surround the Knights Templar in popular imagination today, but this comic is couched in real history. A rollicking adventure set during the heresy trial of the entire Templar order, when the king of France conspired to bring down the heroes of the Crusades. But an unlikely band of mavericks cook up a conspiracy of their own: to steal the famous Templar treasure hoard. Tension abounds not only in the heist story, but also in the political intrigue of the inquisition. Plenty of lighter moments throughout, but there’s a hero to genuinely care about and root for, and even very poignant moments which I won’t spoil. If there was a weak spot it was the lack of exploration into the motives behind the antagonists. The main villain isn’t given the chance to reveal his point of view and what drives him until fairly late, although it’s less conventional than your typical moustache-twirling speech. Teasing hints of characters’ backstories make me long for prequels or spinoffs (given what happens in the plot, a direct sequel is unlikely and probably wouldn’t be interesting). One of my favourite quotes is a joke from a monk: “I’ve spent my entire life around every kind of Christian there is: ordained, consecrated, cloistered. Each one holier than the next. And out of all of them, the converted ones are the most insufferable.”


I’m already reading some great books in February so I’ll be compiling those capsule reviews in a few weeks.

The Best Beginnings

Beginnings are crucial in stories. They don’t just convey information; they prepare us for what’s going to be important in the tale that follows. Stories are best when they focus on characters, so it follows that the best beginnings focus on them too. Some people think a story needs to start off in high gear and get right to the plot, but I disagree. A plot is nothing without well-defined and rounded characters. The best beginnings introduce us to them and get us to be their friend before anything serious can happen.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of my favourite opening sequences of all time…

Raiders of The Lost Ark

It’s 1936 and we’re deep in the South American jungle. A small band of ragged men cut their way through the overgrowth as strange bird calls and animal noises echo all around them. Leading the way is a mysterious figure in a distinctive fedora. The others look nervous, even frightened. A poisoned dart indicates the nearby presence of hostile tribesmen; the guy in the hat is barely phased and walks on.

He stops by a river to examine the torn fragments of a map. Behind him one of his companions silently takes out a gun. Before we can even blink, the man lunges out with a bullwhip and sends the gun into the water. The would-be traitor flees into the jungle and this mysterious hero finally steps out of the shadows to reveal a face covered in stubble, lined with strength and cleverness and guile. It’s the face of a perfect action star. This is Indiana Jones.

Now there are only two of them. Jones and his remaining companion enter a cave, from which we’re told nobody has ever come out alive. Their torches barely make a dent in the darkness. The hero calmly brushes poisonous tarantulas off his friend’s back. He cleverly spots a trap of giant spikes and another of deadly projectiles. Does nothing scare him? Does nothing get past him? He’s an unstoppable badass.

The Idol

And finally they reach their goal: an ancient statue of solid gold, a treasure worth millions. Indiana Jones carefully examines the pedestal it sits on. Knowing the weight triggers a dead man’s switch for another lethal trap, he’s come prepared with a sandbag. So he’s tough, good-looking, and he’s got brains. He pours out a measure of sand to get it accurate. Then the moment of truth — gently now, easy does it — there. The pedestal doesn’t move and he has what he came for. He allows himself a well-earned smile.

Which is when Raiders of The Lost Ark becomes a classic.

As the hero turns away, we learn that the sandbag was too heavy after all. The cavern starts to crumble and rocks are falling. Subtle ingenuity is tossed aside in favour of plain running. When they come to a chasm, his companion swings across first. “Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip,” he says, and this supposedly perfect action star does the most perfectly stupid thing imaginable: he trusts the guy. Sure enough, he’s forced to jump and struggles with a vine to pull himself to safety. He barely makes it through a closing stone door, though he does manage to recover the idol that his not-so-lucky companion dropped. Panic, floundering, and “uh oh” expressions all play across Jones’ face this whole time, but he’s not out of the woods yet. His last lucky escape is just managing to dodge the Famous Rolling Boulder.

Finally emerging into daylight again, he only runs into more trouble. The tribesmen are waiting, all pointing their spears at him, led by his old rival Dr. Rene Belloq. “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away,” he gloats and Indiana Jones is forced to hand over the precious idol. Then we find out he doesn’t speak the native language; another thing he can’t do well. Beaten down and his tough guy image thoroughly stripped away, about the only thing Jones can do is run. He barely gets on his getaway plane to safety. And then the coup de grâce: “There’s a big snake in the plane!…I hate snakes!”

The pilot adds insult to injury: “Aw, c’mon, show a little backbone willya?”


The genius of this opening sequence is not that it provides excitement, suspense, and thrills (though it does that quite well); it’s that virtually nothing in the sequence actually matters to the main plot of the movie. It exists solely to introduce us to Indiana Jones himself. This goes against every bit of perceived wisdom in film writing. Screenwriting classes and books teach you to start the plot with the opening frame. Raiders of The Lost Ark doesn’t begin its story until almost 15 minutes in.

Then there’s how it seamlessly pulls the rug out from under us. We fully expect Indiana Jones to be the sort of idealized action hero that the genre demands, who never gets anything wrong and isn’t afraid of anything. And for awhile we’re tricked into believing that’s what he is. Then the switch is pulled, everything goes south, and we discover that our ideal hero is all too human.

But, strangely, instead of being disappointed we’ve found ourselves completely sympathetic to him. Idealized heroes are all well and good, but they don’t necessarily make the most endearing characters. They’re above the audience, too perfect and too pure to ever be relatable. Indiana Jones isn’t like those other guys. As adventurous as his life gets he’s always down to earth. He’s got a great sense of humour, he’s loyal to his friends, but more importantly he sometimes falls flat on his face. After all, the entire 12-minute sequence is dedicated to showing how he fails to get what we wants. Which of course makes his later victories all the sweeter.

It just goes to show you that at the end of the day you can have a killer plot, clever dialogue, and all the adrenaline in the world…but none of it matters if you can’t get anyone to like your main characters. Get us on their side and we’ll stick with them through anything.


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