The Classic Epic Fantasy Conundrum

So, I love recommending books to people, as you might guess from the multiple blog posts doing just that. I love books, after all, and I want to share that with people. Sometimes that’s books I love, as I did on Twitter yesterday, and sometimes it’s just trying to find the right book for the person asking.

I want to talk about a specific case of the latter which has been vexing me recently. For my sins, I frequent r/Fantasy on Reddit, which is a surprisingly great place to talk about books, largely because the Reddit algorithm helps sift the more interesting topics to the top. Or, the most popular – and popularity is the gist here.

In any community recommending books, popular books will have a much higher probability of being recommended. Some of that is because they are well-liked (they are popular for a reason), and the rest is simply due to the numbers. If the readers then go away and read the most popular recommendations, this creates even more advocates for those books, and the cycle keeps perpetuating. Which is great for those books, authors, and the readers who love them.

For me, who has found great books a bit off the beaten track, I’d like to see a bit more variety in the recommendations. Not just because it might better suit my taste, but because other readers might be in the same situation, waiting for those perfect books for them that they just aren’t hearing about. And also for those authors who have written brilliant books that nobody has heard of.

Now, to let the other shoe drop, a lot of these authors are women, and I hope we can all agree that women authors should have just as much chance of success as their male counterparts, if they’ve written comparable (or better) books. But it still seems that the recommendations are skewed male, as are the “Best of…” lists, the “Greatest Ever” lists, and so on. Even when women authors from previous decades sold just as many millions of copies as the men, they seem to fade from collective memory a lot quicker – at least, judging by the written evidence of lists and recommendation threads.

I don’t really want to get into why this might happen, I just want to break the cycle, and bring these great books back. (And no, we’re not considering the hypothesis that men just write better books.)

One of the common “asks” on Reddit and elsewhere is for classic Epic Fantasy, the “like Lord of the Rings” sort where brave bands battle great evils, often featuring a farmboy and a wizard, or something similar. The usual response(s) often run the gamut of:

  • Terry Brooks – Shannara
  • David Eddings – The Belgariad
  • Raymond E Feist – The Riftwar Cycle
  • Tad Williams Osten Ard
  • Stephen Donaldson (less so) – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
  • Robert Jordan – The Wheel of Time

I’m not including the more modern equivalents, like Brandon Sanderson and George RR Martin, because even they have started to breakdown the tropes of Epic Fantasy and the whole landscape has changed. You can still get some straightforward “classic”-style Epic Fantasy in the indie market, but I’m just looking at those from the 70s, 80s and, to a lesser extent, 90s that really fit that classic pattern.

Which may be part of the problem, because that stereotypical style may always just have been the above handful of Big Books, and not a lot more. Or, if there were, they might have faded from memory for good reasons. But these certainly remain, and in a big way too. Fondly remembered by those who read them at an impressionable age, perhaps. Hugely popular in their time because they are good stories, with memorable characters, and leaving a well-earned legacy behind. I’m not disputing that, necessarily. I just wonder what else was out there – and I can’t help noticing a certain similarity between them beyond the farmboys and wizards…

So I went on Twitter and asked, and got a tonne of responses. I’ll try to transpose the list here (with links) when I have more time. For now, here’s the thread:

One thing I did notice about all the great recommendations, almost all of whom were women (I did ask), was that very few of them were playing the format as completely straight as the above list. These were books you could call more challenging, perhaps, or more interesting. They play with tropes others are just presenting, with format, with style, with focus. Is that why they aren’t more popular, or is that just why they don’t spring to mind when somebody asks for more of the same? Do we need to be braver in our recommendations? I’ll certainly try even harder now.

The List:

  • Sarah Ash
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Jacqueline Carey
  • CJ Cerryh
  • Louise Cooper
  • Kate Elliott
  • CS Friedman – Coldfire Trilogy
  • Robin Hobb
  • Diana Wynne Jones
  • JV Jones
  • Jennifer Fallon
  • Maggie Furey
  • Katherine Kerr – Deverry
  • Mercedes Lackey
  • Tanith Lee
  • Holly Lisle
  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Fiona McIntosh
  • Juliet E McKenna
  • Patricia McKillip
  • Robin McKinley
  • Andre Norton
  • Melanie Rawn
  • Michelle Sagara
  • Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
  • Sheri S Tepper
  • Chelsea Quin Yarbro
  • Jane Yolen
  • Evangeline Walton
  • Margaret Weis (& Tracy Hickman)
  • Janny Wurts
Advertisements

Another Year Done Gone

So, I’ve been really quiet around here, and that’s unlikely to change, but I thought I’d just prove I’m still alive and still reading (if not writing so much). Last year I managed to read a pretty good number of books, most of which were outstanding, and many of which I’ve been waiting to get to for a long time. That TBR is finally getting shorter – at least in terms of authors I’ve wanted to cross off my list.  Others were recent debuts and releases, some of which I actually got to read before they came out! Overall, it’s a been a great year for reading, and so I thought I’d share some highlights.

Without further ado, I’ll ado this in the laziest way possible:

Hope you could follow that. I’m mostly on Twitter and FB these days, so come find me there if you want to talk books!

Being a Writer, Reconsidered

So, a long time ago now, when I was new-born to the heady idea of becoming an author, I wrote a guest blog on a now-defunct self-publishing website. I had enthusiastically gathered advice from near and far, and figured I had enough wisdom to share it back. Among other things, it contained this:

Act like a pro even if you aren’t one.

For me, this means making sure you give the process the time it deserves, as if it were a second job (which, effectively, it is). This means things like setting writing targets by the day or week, and sticking to them. It means working on your blog, twitter, website, etc so that you seem like a real writer rather than an ‘aspiring’ one. Watch how the pros do it, read the advice, and try to live the writing life, because if you want to be a writer, that’s what it takes. Most writers don’t get to do it full time (at least, not on their own books), so don’t wait for your ‘big break’ to give you the free time to write–do it now. Unless you are incredible lucky, you aren’t going to strike gold with your first submission of your first book, or sell a million copies of your self-pub masterpiece overnight with no promotion. (Unless, of course, you story is the autobiography of the secret love-child of David Beckham and Lady Di).

In the past year, I’ve come to realise that was perhaps not the best approach. While I did get a lot of writing done (two and a bit entirely new books, and several editing passes), I hadn’t achieved my goal of becoming a published author (either self or trad, I couldn’t pick). Most of the reasons for that fall on my own insecure shoulders, though I did eventually begin to query one of the books I’d “finished”. However, I’d also reached a point of complete burnout.

Now, that burnout and subsequent depression may have had more than a little to the dumpster-fire raging around us in the wider world, but my plan of “living the writing life” before I was actually seeing any return from it did not help. I’m not sure why I thought I could go on burning the candle at both ends, neglecting almost all other aspects of life – work, family, health – in the meantime. I fought for every hour I could (just like they tell you to) and raged or pouted when I couldn’t get it (not gonna lie), but then found myself staring at the screen without the energy to produce. Or staring at the ceiling, numb.

Would this have been different if I’d self-published, and had a few sales? I don’t know. If I’d queried more persistently and hooked an agent? Maybe. I’m not confident either was ever particularly likely. That’s not (just) self-deprecation, that’s simply knowing the odds. Chasing the almost-impossible dream too hard can crush your soul pretty quickly – though that’s not to say you should give up.

Not writing was even worse than writing, and for a while the only thing that helped was the immersive distraction of a video game or two. Replacing one addiction with another isn’t really self-care, though, and it doesn’t help repair the damage done to the rest of your life. I tried to take a social media break as well, but I wasn’t very good at it, and I’m not sure I needed a break so much as a re-configuring.

Skyrim1

Staring into the abyss, or, you can’t stay in Skyrim forever.

So, what did help?

  • Reading, even though it was hard for a while, difficult to stop reading as a writer and remember how to simply enjoy good books.
  • Remembering that social media should be about friendships, not about performance. I have met a lot of great people on-line, and I found I just had to interact with them in the right ways. This can be tricky when a lot of them are writers and talking about writing all the time, but the great thing about social media is you can curate your feeds. This is absolutely necessary for mental health, so don’t feel bad about cutting out the posts and posters that are making you feel inadequate. Find your happy place (or, at least, a happier one) if you can.
  • Recovering some of the things that you did before you devoted all your time to the word-mines. Even housework made me feel better, knowing that things weren’t being neglected any longer. Listen to music – actively listen, not just for background noise. Spend time with family and friends. Go out for the day, guilt-free. Do fuck-all for an afternoon and don’t feel you’ve wasted the time. Let go of the guilt.
  • Rediscover, if possible, why you wanted to write in the first place. It probably wasn’t because you wanted to publish a book as soon as possible. For me, I had some stories to tell, and I think the more I tried to think about making them publishable, the farther they strayed from that. Instead of the stories I wanted to tell, they became the stories I thought people would want to read, and I fell out of love with them – and with writing.

I’m sure there were other things in here – a key ingredient being time – but eventually I had the urge to write again. I also went to a convention and met some of those great friends I’d made, and some authors that I admired, and remembered that they were just all normal* people, too, with real lives and partners and families and jobs. They loved writing, and books, but also other things, and for a lot of that weekend we didn’t talk about writing or even books at all.

And that was great.

So, while writing (and reading, which I can’t really separate from it) remains the all-consuming passion of my life right now (there have been others), it’s not my whole life. I am still working on my stories, still planning to write new things, but I’m not pushing it, not pursuing it to the exclusion of all else.

It turns out it’s okay to write when the inspiration takes you after all.

Until you actually get those deadlines, of course.

 

* OK, maybe not RJ.

The Sound of Silence

So, it’s been extremely quiet on here for a while, and that could mean any number of things:

  • I’ve got fed up with blogging that nobody reads
  • I’ve found better outputs for my writing energy (like, you know, an actual book)
  • I’ve found worse outputs for my writing energy (like, you know, Reddit)
  • I’ve been too busy reading and working to post
  • I’ve hardly been reading or working, so there’s nothing to post about
  • I’ve been kidnapped by aliens and have only just returned
  • I’ve found it hard to blog about fantasy books when the world is falling to pieces
  • I’ve considered giving up completely but didn’t want to announce it officially
  • I’ve had to get “real life” in some sort of order, rather than “wasting time” on here
  • I’ve run out of interesting things to say or Hidden Gems to review

Many of these things are at least partially true. At least one is definitely false.

Taming the TBR

So, things have been a little quiet lately. I don’t want to get into why, but I thought it worth talking about one of the things that I’ve come to realise lately: the massive TBR is both a blessing and a curse, and I needed to get it under control.

For those that don’t know, TBR is shorthand for “To Be Read [Pile]”, and can either be a real stack or virtual list – or, probably, both – of books waiting for you to read them. For myself and other readers whose intentions outpace their actual reading, these TBRs can stretch to hundreds of books, and usually grow over time as books are added at a faster rate than they are read (easily done, for most of us).

Social media certainly doesn’t help, with suggestions around every virtual corner, or announcements by authors you have read or keep meaning to read of their shiny new books, all of which sound so good. Then there’s Goodreads, which makes it so easy just to add books to an infinite “To Read” list with just one click. Compounding this is the ebook; with it’s one-click ordering and frequent 99p sales, the number of books you own can skyrocket, let alone all those you want to read but haven’t bought yet.

pile-of-books

But, you say, how could this be a bad thing? Books are great! The more the merrier!

When you love books this much, it can be comforting to have a huge TBR pile. You are stockpiling books for a rainy day, each full of potential enjoyment and escape, or challenging ideas and mind-expanding information. I certainly know people who are jealous of my reading list, since they read so fast (and rather narrowly, to boot) that they regularly run out of books (the horror!).

But for me, reading books became an obsession in reducing the pile, and finishing books – instead of being a pleasure at both concluding one great story and getting to start another – meant confronting that massive TBR pile (real, electronic, virtual). It all turned into another source of stress and anxiety, not escape and enjoyment.

So, I was probably doing it wrong, and needed a change. But how did we get to here?

Several things contributed to my growing TBR, the first of which I’ve already mentioned: social media. Not only had I immersed myself in (fantasy) bookish Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Goodreads, and Reddit (not Instagram, sorry), but it was as more than just a fan, as well. I started down the social media rabbit hole more as a prospective author, which led me into contact of hundreds of other authors (both published and aspiring). This means that quite apart from getting recommendations of great books, I was getting asked to read books for friends and contacts as favours, sometimes even generously given free copies. Knowing how important exposure, buzz, and reviews are to any author, I felt guilty when I simply couldn’t keep up.

The other side of trying to be a writer, was that I felt the need to read certain books out of more than pure enjoyment. I wanted to stretch myself, learn different styles of storytelling, experience different perspectives – none of which are bad reasons to read, but when you start to treat your leisure activity more like work, it inevitably becomes a chore rather than a joy (I’ve always been bad at assigned reading). That’s not to say I haven’t really enjoyed a lot of the books I “assigned myself”. I have some new favourite authors, in fact. But as the TBR grew ever higher, I started to resent this self-imposed “work”.

So, step one has obviously been to scale back a bit, reset, and try to rediscover my love of reading with the books I’ve been looking forward to the most. I’ve also had a small clear-out of the TBR, getting rid of a number of books I would only probably have read if I won the lottery and moved to a desert island. Parting with books is never easy, and I probably should have cleared twice as many (or more!), but it’s a start.

The second step has been to choose the books I really, really want to read most, just for pure enjoyment, and put those to the top of the list. Even if, in this case, it was two books I didn’t even own yet, and they would be leap-frogging hundreds of others waiting patiently for years, in some cases. Oh well, books keep!

I’m still not out of the woods, however, because I’ve found it’s not that easy to read for enjoyment anymore, even when I want to. When you spend years learning about the writing craft, analysing what you value most in stories, reading endless advice of what to do and what not to do, it’s hard to read a book and not notice a hundred little things here and there.

Of course, if the book is really good, it will be easier, but even in really good books, you can find flaws if you want to. And some part of my brain clearly wants to, a green-eyed little critic that says, “How come he gets away with this ridiculous error and still gets published?” or “How come nobody sees through how derivative this character or that plotline are?” But you realise that you’ve been in too deep, you know too much, that 99% of readers aren’t going to even notice, let alone care. You start to worry that you’ve ruined books for yourself forever, but of course, these things just take time – and a few good books!

Who knows, I may one day even be able to write again?

For what it’s worth: on controversy and harassment

So, we’re here again, still fighting a phony war between people who live in the real world, respect each other, have hope for the future, consider the impact of their words and actions, and generally want to make a positive contribution; and…some dickheads.

It’s a particularly pernicious war, in that every battle seems inconclusive, every engagement results in stalemate and entrenchment, and any breakthrough seems to be met with an even bigger backlash. It’s hard to see if anyone is winning, only the casualties, and therefore it can be hard to see the point. But it’s not about winning, it’s about progress. It’s not about defeating the “enemy”, it’s about securing the future we want to see (and as much of the present as we can get, as well).

This is not a war being fought just in genre circles, by any means, but it’s no surprise that it has a particularly strong resonance within a community concerned with literature that is, and has always been, about the human condition, whether in an imagined past, present, or future. These are not just “stories” – no stories are – and anyone who claims such a nonsense is being willfully ignorant.

Willful ignorance is indeed a large part of the problem. Lessons are out there to be learned, but people are refusing to listen. Or, they are choosing to listen to dickheads who are enabling their ignorance – and, in the worst cases, weaponising it.

It’s bad enough to see this in the wider world, but all the more astounding that it can happen within the community that, apparently, grew up reading the same “stories” about heroes and villains, about good and evil, about dystopias and utopias, about potential and pitfalls…and somehow miss the messages that are there, for me, in black and white.

So, why not just feel pity and move on?

Well, we all know why, unfortunately. These are not mere academic debates or teacup storms in online fora. The issues at play here have real-world consequences for people, not just in the mental fatigue of waking up in the trenches every day, but in the ability to have a viable career in a genre they love and contribute wonderfully to, or simply to live their life as they deserve to, free of fear and harassment.

Some of us wake up with only the barest knowledge the war is going on. Sure, you might hear the echo of artillery from over the horizon, or have to duck into a bomb shelter now and then, but life goes on much as normal (though, admittedly, normal is never normal these days). We can check the dispatches if we want, but nobody is lobbing grenades our way. It’s a nice position to be in, and certainly nobody should feel obligated to enlist if they haven’t the spoons for the fight, but neither can we leave the fighting to those who have no choice but to be on the front lines.

I wish I could abandon the war metaphor. I wish I could see this another way. Neither do I want this to become a real war. I don’t wish for the destruction of my enemy, I just wish he’d go away, contemplate his actions, perhaps look around him at the ground he’s fighting for, and realise that it’s not the idyllic fatherland that he thinks it is.

Books

Look, I’ve tried not to go into specifics, but here are a few points:

  • Diversity is not a zero-sum game, nor an assault on white men.
  • Racism and sexism are about power, and therefore there is no “reverse”.
  • Nobody* is trying to ban your problematic faves; there are no sacred cows.
  • “No platforming” is not censorship.
  • Women, POC, LBGTQ+ authors exist in SFF, and write awesome books. (Fans, too.)
  • “Political correctness” is not the quashing of debate, it means the debate is over; people don’t have to listen to your shitty opinions because they have thoroughly examined and rejected them already; it’s now on you to do the same.
  • Privilege is a thing, and if you can’t grasp that, it’s probably because you’re up to your neck in it. It’s also not your “fault”, unless you refuse to acknowledge it.
  • The world should be a safe space, and creating pockets of safety is no bad thing.
  • Harassment, of any kind, is never acceptable. This includes “trolling”.

Apparently there are people out there who do not understand these things, but the good news is that it’s never been easier to educate oneself. I’ve tried to help in the education offensive – if not for the people in the debate, then for those around it – but it amounts to repeating the same self-evident truths over and over again, and at the end of the day, it’s not my responsibility (nor anyone else’s) to show anyone the error of their ways.

Seems clear to me that, while the war is worth fighting, the individual battles may not be. If people want to remain willfully ignorant, they can do so outside the community, until they learn. I know a lot of people have got here faster than me, but there we are.

(Maybe SFF has some answers. When trenches cease to work, you can always build a huge fucking wall. Or, if you want to be sure, there’s always the Ripley option…)

Right, this has gone on too long already.

 

* OK, some people are trying to ban things, but a lot fewer people than generally get accused of it. Don’t believe anything you read in the Daily Mail.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

So, it’s nearing the end of 2017 – thank the gods! While I can’t really complain on a personal level, and we’ll leave the rest out of this blog, I don’t feel like I’ve made much tangible progress. Nothing has really changed from the start of 2017 until the end, and though that makes me more fortunate than many, a whole year gone by tends to feel like a missed opportunity. However, it might not be a bleak as all that.

What I did accomplish this year:

As you may know, I have had three books in progress for some while (Works-In-Progress 1, 2, and 3). This turned out to be the year I finally made some decisions on them all, and that’s something. For WIP1, it means admitting that, as much as I love it, it may not ever be a book that appeals to the masses as much as it does to me. It’s the first serious book I wrote, it’s the book I always wanted to read, and it’s taught me a lot about writing and editing – but it’s not perhaps the platform on which to launch a career.

The flipside is that WIP2 or 3 might be. Both were written more quickly, more smoothly, and both ended up just about on the mark I intended to hit. That’s not to say I didn’t revise them a good bit (this year, in fact), but they both seemed to work and didn’t appear to require any major changes. So, reader, I submitted them. (I know, you’re not supposed to submit two things at once, but I had reasons and opportunity.)

Considering where I was a few months back, that’s huge progress. We’ll see in the new year (see below) if that bears any fruit. I know better than to hold out more than a minuscule amount of hope, but at least I’ve started a process that could get me where I’ve dreamed of.

Other than that, I’ve read forty or so books, which is a good dent in the TBR mountain (though it’s probably grown almost as fast as I’ve reduced it). Most of those books have been really really good (check this blog, or Goodreads), and many of them I’ve been waiting to read for a while. Having such a big TBR means you start to get choosy, and now that I know my taste (plus the fact that I’m not reading 100s of books like some others I know), I rarely read a book I don’t really enjoy.

Of course, I’ve also been reading for the #SPFBO, so I  have read parts of a bunch of books that I didn’t really enjoy that much. But, I also found some books that I thoroughly enjoyed and would otherwise probably never have read. I whole-heartedly recommend you check them out. This competition has also lead to my first writing in a while published elsewhere than my blog, and though a couple reviews on Fantasy Faction isn’t much, it’s something.

Oh, that reminds me, I also did my first bit of flash fiction and entered it in the Battle of the Bards contest. Didn’t do too badly, either – I almost came third! Even though I can’t say I spent a lot of time on it – how much time can you take on flash fiction? – and a lot of it was down to having the right idea at the right time (and a ready character from WIP3), it did give me a little boost. I did submit another short piece somewhere once (maybe this year?) but that got the standard rejection. As it’s a bridge all writers have to cross, I count that as progress, too.

Books

Which brings us too next year:

Obviously, the first thing to mention is the possibility (however slim) of good news in the relatively near future. If so, that changes everything, but if not (more likely), then I’ll continue to submit the WIPs I reckon are finished. Unless there is specific feedback, I won’t look to do much more work on them, because I do reckon that leads to diminishing returns. There’s only so much you can do to a story if it’s not what people want.

Which means I should probably write something new. I really should have done this sooner, but I’ve been revising for years. WIP3 was drafted in 2015 and stuck in a drawer until late this year. WIP2 was written early the year before, marked up later that year, then stuck in a drawer without further revision until this year as well. The reason for this, real-life excuses besides, is that WIP1 was still taking up a lot of my writing time (or tinkering time, as it was). So, you can see that putting that away for a while is actually pretty significant, and having the other two done and out the door means I finally have a clear desk.

So, what to write?

Well, I have two ideas, both of which I had sketched some ideas for in the midst of all those revisions, but neither of which I set aside enough headspace and time to actually write more than a few taster paragraphs (I don’t really outline, if you hadn’t noticed – whether I should or not is another question). One is in the same world as WIPs 1, 2, and 3, and is the first that’s actually more-or-less a sequel. It has a different type of protagonist, a different type of plot, but generally continues the aesthetic and themes of the “series” (non-linear as it is) so far.

The other story idea features a new world and a new style, and is more “high concept” than the others. I’m sorta hoping that means it will be more commercial (in a good way, and not that I know yet whether my others have failed). It seems to make more sense to write this one first, because even though the other could well stand on its own, it’s probably better to diversify rather than keep piling irons into the one sputtering fire. (Is that a mixed metaphor? Oh well, you get it.) The only problem is, I don’t know if I can write it – but there’s only one way to find out!

Other than the attempt to write one if not two books, I’ll keep reading as much as I can. It’s been really refreshing to make a point of reading, rather than excuses why I can’t. I have the final round of SPFBO to look forward to (that could be ten books right there, depending how we split it up), and in addition to my towering TBR, there are a few excellent books coming out next year that I’ll have to catch up with.

And, of course, a few more blog posts now and then.

Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year!