The Usual Excuses


As an editor, there are a few constants in my life.

One is that when I point out that a manuscript’s structure is flawed, and that in order to fix it, some basic elements might need to be altered, the writer fights me like they are the Russians defending Stalingrad in 1942.

(When I’m the writer, of course, these editorial “suggestions” make me feel like a Spartan at Thermopylae, 480 BC…)

It’s too damned hard. That’s what the reasoned and detailed responses come down to, in the end.


And that’s what all the current, real-world resistance to inclusivity and simple human decency come down to, as well.


It’s too hard to stop making racist and sexist jokes.

It’s too hard to learn new names and pronouns.

It’s too hard to examine our internal and learned-in-childhood biases.

It’s too hard to work for justice and joy.

Too hard.


But if a writer wants a book that people will enjoy reading, and will recommend to friends – a novel that satisfies, that sings to the reader – those changes will be worth it, and deep down, the writer knows it.

A good writer will evaluate the critique, and make the effort, as much as they are able.

A good writer knows that “hard” does not equal “impossible”.

If you want to write a good book, then the hard changes must be made. The work will obviously be worth it.


And a good person will look at those current, real-world issues, and see the same equation and the same result.

If you want a good world, then hard changes must be made. The work will be worth it.


Five Months of Legal Weed


In October 2018, the Canadian government legalized marijuana.

It’s a limited legalization: we are supposed* to buy it from licensed dispensaries, locally or on line, each household is limited to growing no more than four plants each, and each community and municipality got to add by-laws about where we can smoke it (basically, most communities used the model for cigarette smoking and drinking alcohol), and where licensed grow-ops and retail outlets can be located.

In the months leading up to The Day, and especially (for some unfathomable reason) the night before the legislation went live, some people were predicting doom and destruction and the re-run of Sodom and Gemorrah – with attendant rises in car crashes and violence and other, unspecified crimes.

It’s nearly six months on, and the silence has been deafening.

There was one (ONE!) report on the first day of the new world when a driver was caught smoking a joint while driving. That was in Winnipeg.

Closer to home, the only news I could find was that Camrose County tried to prevent a grow-op from opening by claiming it didn’t fall under the agricultural regulations, but last week, the courts told them “Nuh-uh – it’s the same as any other market-garden-type enterprise” and ruled that it could go ahead.

We still have no dispensaries here in town, and those who need to have to drive a whole 20 minutes to Wetaskiwin for instant weed purchases. City Council is losing money, because we have a number of empty storefronts that could be filled not only by those retail places (and probably some inventive snack-and-go shops next door to them, because Nature abhors a vacuum) in terms of business taxes and money staying in the community.

The police, not needing to worry about people carrying around small quantities of reefer, are spending more time dealing with drug problems regarding meth and heroin, and going after car thieves and mediating domestic altercations.

The rest of us are carrying on pretty much as always, except a lot more people stand around at the end of their back gardens after a long day at work, having a couple of tokes after supper.

Armageddon did not come.

The sky did not fall.

I, myself, smoked a joint on the day it became legal, just on a matter of principle. Since then, I’ve been too busy writing short stories for anthologies I was invited to participate in, and also learning to knit.


*In point of fact, a country-wide shortage after the first day, coupled with reports that the legal weed is generally of low quality, has led to people returning to their normal suppliers. The police seem, for the most part, to be studiously ignoring this.


I love those people who “abstain from politics”, don’t you?


They’re so virtuous. So above the fray. So holy.

They aren’t going to sully their social media with anything that might offend anyone.

Instead, they keep on, like Pollyanna, pretending all’s right with the world, right up until the day that they themselves are affected by some decision they refused to inform themselves about.

The dam breaks.

They howl. They weep. They beg for assistance.

Strangely, the people who do offer help, or at least empathy and support, are not their fellow Madame Panglosses, who immediately unfollow or unfriend, but the very people they have chastised for “bringing politics into everything”.

People who try to insulate themselves from the reality (which is that politics affects you, whether you choose to discuss it or not) are not trying for peaceful co-existence or for civil discourse.

They are trying to do one of two things: to please everyone out of pure self-interest and the devil take the hindmost, or they are cowards and know that their own beliefs are both wrong and offensive.

You can tell the first kind because they lecture people who sail even slightly close to definitive statements stronger than “Can’t we all just get along?” with homilies about Christian virtues or regurgitated Zen paraphrases. They tend to claim that “we don’t know the whole story” when something really egregious, something that really cannot be ignored, emerges. Their mating cry might well be “That’s just your opinion.”

The other ones reveal themselves through cartoons and/or shared memes that are obviously offensive, and then, at the first sign of opposition, retreating into “Can’t anyone take a joke anymore?”, or by trying to pretend that they’re approaching things with a rational, logical, objective stance, and you are just a) emotional, or b) a “socialist”.

I don’t unfollow or unfriend people on social media very often.

But these guys?

History is littered with them.

I don’t need to fuel their vanity. And neither do you.


One trope that we all agree on…



There’s been a lot (I mean really: A LOT!) of discussion about being more diverse in our settings and characters when writing fantasy novels.

And the most recent and recurring one lately, -the one that critics are most likely to put at the top of the “List of Things that Need to Stop” – is the “Medieval European setting” one.

Now, I admit freely, I am an offender here.

I am.

In my defense, not only am I a white person with an ancestry from Northern Europe, but I spent literally nearly four decades studying/researching daily life in Iron Age and Early Medieval European cultures.

They say “Write what you know” – and that is what I know. I know Celts, and pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings. I know what they probably ate, what they probably wore, how their legal systems worked, and how textiles could function as an economic currency and a unit of prestige. I know how their villages and towns and family units were organized and I know about their power structures and the effects that those had on day-to-day life. I even have a couple of pieces of paper from institutions of higher learning to back this up.

So I used that, and I continue to use that – with huge modifications – but it is a trope, and it’s a trope that is like comfort food: it’s reassuring and familiar, and so my readers fall in with it without much work on their part.

There is a problem with this trope, though, and it is two-fold, and that’s where the trouble really begins.

First off, I agree that many, many writers, myself included, are middle-class white folks, and we are all too well-represented in fantasy. We need to not only change ourselves but learn to aggressively make space for others in this field. We’ve had it too easy for far too long, and as the dominant social force, we have a responsibility to open the doors – to read and support less (socio-politically) powerful voices.

You can disagree – you can say that you, personally have no such duty to others – but if you do, you are revealing something about yourself that is, to say the least, a bit unpleasant.

Selfish, and ungenerous, and more than a little bit racist. Also: not willing to learn new stuff.

You cannot be a member of an occupying force and not take responsibility for the effects of that occupation. The last 1000 years is a goddam monument to the problems that can arise when people decide to abdicate or deny that responsibility.

That’s Part One of the problem.

But there is another side of this, and that one goes not to your worth as a human being, but to your credibility as a writer.

We gravitate to the “medieval European” model because modern fantasy literature has a couple of giants (Tolkien and Lewis, mainly) who are our guiding stars.

We ate them up as children/young adults.

We wanted more – and then, as writers, we think that the way to get more is to write it ourselves.

But most of us do it *badly*.

By badly, I don’t mean that the writing itself is bad: the words might be nicely arranged, evoke the reactions they are meant to, and be beloved by everyone who reads them.

I mean that in terms of reflecting a realistic or believable “medieval Europe” we get it wrong – so wrong that we essentially caricature our own past.

Look: history is not an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord to pick from. You cannot just play around with the bits you like, and call that “world-building”. That’s how you get readers unable to suspend disbelief: if the foundations are weak or contradictory, the edifice will not stand.


And that’s where the two parts of the problem collide.

Because if we take on board the first problem and attempt to become more diverse, while remaining mired in the second problem, where we just randomly grab onto the six or eight stereotypical bits of scenery/characteristics we are aware of via the media, we will do an enormous disservice to the concept of inclusivity and diversity, and perpetuate the inherent problems.

And while we’re doing that, we’re also doing some other things that are equally heinous: we are continuing to silence and exclude other perspectives and voices AND we’re writing really crappy fantasy.

Not what any of us should be proud of.


Let’s talk about poverty. And food.

This week, I got into a discussion with friends about poverty and food choices.


Mostly, it was civil and reasoned, but, as so often happens, there was that one (white, middle-class, never been unemployed) person who started in on “shitty food choices that make people overweight and unhealthy”.

And there I was, white and middle-class (and revoltingly over-educated, to boot) watching as people floundered around, trying to refute this without knowing quite how because most of them (white, middle-class and rarely unemployed) have not ever been realio-trulio poor.

But I have been.

In my early 20s, I wound up poor and homeless, on-the-streets and sleeping rough homeless, for about six months. Never mind why. It can happen to anyone, and this is getting truer all the time.

When I came back to live in Canada, I was in my fifties, and there was a recession on, and I couldn’t find work. I wound up on welfare.

Don’t let anyone tell you someone on welfare is living some kind of high life on the taxpayer dime.

Do you know what a single person without a disability gets as welfare in Calgary?

They get $590/month, and eight trips to the Food Bank each calendar year.

That’s it. Less than $600 to pay rent and buy food, in Calgary, where the rent on a one-bedroom apartment averages out at over $1200/month.

So, even supposing you could find a two-bedroom basement suite for $1,000/month and could share it with another person, you are left with about $90 each month to cover everything else in your life.

If you are job-hunting, you can, of course, use the EI office computers. That’s a great thing, and the public library has internet access, too. So you will be able to apply for lots of things.

But you will still need a phone. To get a job, prospective employers need to get in touch and set up an interview. A phone is a basic necessity, and that’s going to be, at the very cheapest, around $30 every month.

So now you have $60 a month left. That has to cover things like bus fares if you do land a job interview, on top of your share of the bills every month, and those four months where you don’t even get a chit to go to the Food Bank on.

Buy in bulk, say the people who have never gone hungry for longer than two days in a row, and then only when on some new fad diet.

Well, the math is tricky. Bulk costs money up front: it doesn’t matter if a 10lb bag of rice is a great deal and will last a month, if the cost of that bag represents a third of your total food budget for that month.

Humans NEED calories. It’s impossible to survive for long at around 800 calories a day – that’s when actual malnutrition will start being a factor. Stay at that rate for too long, and you will die.

A 3lb bag of potatoes at Superstore is $3.97. One baked potato (no toppings) gives you 200 calories. If that bag has to last all month, then one potato might be more than you can give yourself every day.

A bag of carrots costs $2.98. One cooked carrot equals 80 calories, give or take. There are about 16 carrots per bag. So you need two bags, in order to eat one carrot every day. That’s about $6/month. For carrots.

Other vegetables tend to be more expensive, but come with smaller caloric pay-offs. A cup of steamed broccoli rings in at 31 calories.

A 900 gram (2lbs) bag of brown rice at Superstore is $2.24. One cup of cooked brown rice gives you around 210 calories.

But humans also need protein and fat, bigtime. Sure – we need vitamins and minerals to survive in *good* health – but those by themselves, won’t allow you to survive at all.

And if you’re homeless, you cannot even bake that potato or boil that carrot, which will cut your caloric intake in half.

Why do poor people wind up eating badly?

Because junk food is cheap. A Sausage McMuffin is $1.69 – and it has the calories and protein to make you cheaply reach almost halfway to the minimum daily requirement.

A bag of no-name potato chips ($1.18 for 200 grams) fills the belly AND the calorie need at way less the cost per pound than fresh produce does. A Big Mac Meal Deal($4.60) quells the hunger better and cheaper than a plate full of steamed broccoli ($2.97 for a pre-bound “bunch”) can, and for longer.

Do the math. It has become cheaper to eat over-processed, sugar-laden crap, because poor people are powerless: all their energy is spent trying to survive until tomorrow. They’re the very definition of a “captive audience”.

I know there are those of you who will not believe me.

All I can say is that I hope you never have to find out for yourself in real life, just how classist, discriminatory, and skewed against us all the food industry has become.


Do you believe?

Do you believe in yourself? In your work?


Do you believe in the power of your words? In anyone’s words?


In an FB group about screenwriting, I wound up in an argument about this, and I was shocked to discover that some writers apparently don’t think what they do is meaningful.

They don’t believe that anything they or anyone else writes can have an influence on any of the people who read/watch a movie, or that their work can in any way create change (for better or for worse) in their culture.

A sizable number of screenwriters argued that violence against women, as seen in movies and television, does not in any way contribute to rape culture.

Nope. It can’t. They cited studies that showed no link between violent video games and violent behavior. They were passionate in their defense of writing rapes as “motive” AND as comedic scenes.

No one, they said, would take those seriously. And they said that the rapists were always the “bad guys” and no nice man (99 per cent of the male population is, according to them, “nice”) would ever wish to emulate that kind of thing.



But there are two problems with this attitude.

One is that it completely devalues the very thing that they do – the thing that they say defines them, the thing that adds validity to their lives. The thing that they claim is their passion in life – apparently, it’s just a frivolous endeavor that has no real meaning and adds nothing to the discourse.

The other is, of course, that it pretty much claims that not only is advertising a waste of money (Quick, someone tell all those Fortune 500 companies! They could save BILLIONS! Literally!) but that 99 per cent of the population is completely immune to any form of propaganda.

Every totalitarian regime in the 20th century starts with a purge of intellectuals: artists, writers, dancers, actors – basically, anyone they thought might communicate a different viewpoint has almost immediately been incarcerated and/or executed.

Every totalitarian regime has replaced those freer expressions with a state-run media that inculcates their values, their prejudices, their fears into the population.

It works. They know it works. The words and images you are exposed to change your thoughts, your values, your principles.

And any writer, or artist, or performer who believes otherwise should go find another line of work, because if you think all you produce is useless fluff, that’s all you ever will produce.


The world’s got enough of that.



Update, August 9, 2018: In fact, the idea that violent media of any or all types does not increase violent behavior and attitudes in real life is false. Apparently, some of what you read in the news magazines isn’t true!

“In fact, violent videogames have an even more powerful influence than violent television and movies, whose detrimental effects have been documented for decades. ”


Don’t Look Back



Last week, on a sunny and uncharacteristically warm day in the booming metropolis of Camrose, Alberta (hah! Population of 18K…) I was walking through the Superstore parking lot, when a woman about my age suddenly started her car and began backing out of the stall, and damned near ran me over.

She hadn’t looked – the time between turning the ignition and starting to move could only have been three seconds, and that’s being generous.

I caught a glimpse of her shocked and angry face, as she finally saw me, and then…it happened.

She gunned her car and peeled out of there like every demon of hell was in pursuit.

I wasn’t surprised.

People do this at Superstore all the time: they back out of parking spots as if they were the only mobile beings on the entire planet.

And they frequently do as this woman did, when they encounter, mid-back-out, a live human also occupying the world.

They scream away in a fury, as if to put as much possible distance between themselves and their driving faux pas as they can. To get away from their own actions. To pretend, if they can, by this distance, that they did not do this, that it never happened at all.

And there, I think, lies the problem of the modern western world. We have gotten very good at shedding the past. We’re experts at negation, at burial, at denial.

And the people that are the very best at this are people my age.

We raged at the “system” and hated “the man” when we were young – but not one in twenty of us will admit that we’ve betrayed that better vision of the world.

We’ve just collectively pretended it never happened. That we never rebelled. Never put a foot wrong. Never were the ones who wanted to change things.

That woman in the parking lot?

She’s a metaphor for an entire generation.