Political Problems

No, this isn’t going to be about the Real World, as much as I’d love to rant about it. Then again, it actually is, in a way. What I really want to tackle, hopefully in brief, is why we get so worked up about politics in our fantasy,  and – more often – why we don’t.

I think everyone is aware of the first part – outrage, puppies, SJWs, diversity, awards agendas, sexism and racism, and the rest. For one, I’m glad these battles are being fought, both in wider society and in fantasy literature. I know fantasy is supposed to be escapist, but that doesn’t mean it should be devoid of responsibility. Those trying to maintain fantasy as a safe space (ha, see what I did there?) to escape from so-called political correctness really need to take a long look in the mirror. (Science fiction has always been overtly political, so they have even fewer legs to stand on there.)

I do wonder, however, if we don’t hold up enough of a mirror to the fantasy we write. Fantasy, almost by definition, is a very conservative genre. It almost always involves some sort of gaze into the past (or, at least, environments resembling our past), often without too much criticism. Hereditary monarchy is a Good Thing as long as the right people are in charge. Some people are better than others by accident of birth and/or innate ability. Whole races of creature or peoples are irredeemably evil just because of who/what they are. Religion is bad except where it’s the True Faith in the right gods. War, murder, rape, banditry, feudalism, slavery, and other horrible and violent things are a matter of course.

Is this really the sort of world we want to escape to?

BooksOf course, there are plenty of works that approach many of these issues critically, and some which either tackle them head-on or leave them out entirely. However, there are many more which just accept them, in part or in whole, without comment or criticism. In a lot of cases, even propagating some of the common tropes seems problematic enough. This can be excused somewhat if the intention is to set out some sort of dystopia – post-apocalyptic or grimdark are both very popular, and are clearly no-ones idea of an ideal. And I’m not saying fantasy should just ignore these gritty, real-world issues that accurately reflect human nature, warts and all.

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Yep, conservative.

However, there are a large number of fantasy works that present a lot of these outdated tropes, beliefs, and prejudices as if they are indeed components of some long-lost utopia. The Good King as rightful ruler, worshiping the right gods (not the evil ones), keeping the simple folk and dependent women safe from the Others on the borders with the help of violent, entitled elites (and the occasional murderer-of-the-right-people). I can see why this is an attractive escapist fantasy for some people…it just isn’t one that I like the sound of in the Real World.

So why am I accepting of it in my books?

I suppose you can argue that these tropes are the in the very genes of fantasy, and to shrug them off would render the genre label unrecognisable and somewhat meaningless. After all, what would be the point of a fantasy without long-lost kings, noble warriors, princesses to be rescued, evil adversaries to slay, castles and dungeons and brothels and back-alleys to explore, and all the rest?

Ok, some would argue you could leave all that out and write a damn good fantasy, and there are certainly some tropes I’m tired of and more than a little uneasy about. But I’m not going to argue for some Whitehouse-style cleansing of our genre tropes, because I think fantasy would be a sadder place without (most of) them. However, if we are to accept that every choice we make in our books is in some way political, it’s worth examining them critically and making sure they are the sort of statements we are happy to back up.

 

Summer Holiday: Morrowind

So, I didn’t take an actual summer holiday this year, and at the time everybody was taking theirs around me at the real-world job, all I would have really wanted was a few weeks off to sit in my writing chair and finish my latest draft of the everlasting WIP. (This is all I ever want, most of the time.) Still, I managed to just about do that anyway, and in any case it has gone off to the latest round of Beta Readers, so I figured I should take a break.

Breaks are tricky for writers, especially those for whom it’s not a real, let-alone full-time job. You always end up feeling guilty, even though the only person you are beholden to at this stage is yourself. Perversely, I think that if I had editors, agents, or readers giving me set deadlines and work packages, then I would be able to take time off with less guilt. In that case, I would, at least, know what was expected and when it was due, rather than the current system of trying to do everything all the time just to get it done as soon as possible.

Of course, every writing knows that without external input, done is an illusion. That’s why sending something to beta readers provides some blessed respite (though also, much anxiety). No point making more changes while you are waiting for feedback on the previous version. And I do find that every 6-8 months I need to step back from the coal face and do something entirely different for a while – in most cases, that seems to be gaming.

Gaming and writing certainly have an interesting relationship. I know a lot of writers who are also gamers, and I think imaginative types are attracted to games. They provide a similar escape to books, in that you can go live somewhere else for a while. In the case of games, this other place is very much shaped around you, rather than some other author’s character(s). You (well, your digital surrogate) get to be the centre of the story, and you shape how you approach the game.

Of course, games can be a huge time-sink, which a writer can ill afford. They do, I think, keep your creative, storytelling brain ticking over a bit, though the tasks are much more reactive than in writing. This is why they can be such a good mental break, for those times when your brain really won’t spit words on the page (or at least, not decent ones). And, for a fantasy or science-fiction author, the plethora of titles in these genres can help explore the ideas and worlds that you want to write about.

Role-playing games obviously have the most scope for writers, especially the more open-ended variety you get these days. Yes, sometimes you are playing as a defined hero, with a storyline on rails you can’t deviate from, so that customisation amounts to a few weapon or party choices. Other games are so open-ended you can get lost in them, especially if you have a few compulsive personality traits (gotta catch ’em all!) and access to exhaustive internet guides.

Which brings us to Elder Scrolls, my personal favourite series. Everybody knows Skyrim is awesome, a lot of people enjoyed Oblivion (despite it’s one fatal flaw), but for me, Morrowind was the first place I got really lost in. It was exactly what I’d always wanted in a game, even if I didn’t realise this at first. I thought wanted a game where I could play as a dwarf, for starters, preferably in Middle Earth. It soon won me over, however, with its truly alien setting, its almost endless customisation, its huge open world.

When I did get games where I could play as a dwarf, I found them very much wanting in comparison. Some of that was down to the gameplay – the Elder Scrolls system of not having XP like D&D, but gaining ability in skills you specifically use, is magic (if occasionally frustrating). Some of it was down to the open world, and perhaps more specifically the way they entice you to undertake the storylines rather than force you. And, in the end, a lot of it was down to the world, which is nothing like the Middle Earth I thought I wanted.

And what a world! Despite a somewhat similarly eclectic approach, it puts the Forgotten Realms (where I’d spent a lot of game time) to shame. I even prefer it to the Middle Earth interpretations I’ve visited, and this made me realise that interpretation is the problem. Forgotten Realms appropriates a lot of its hodge-podge, and I’ve never found it really compelling. Tolkien didn’t write enough to make an open-world game out of (or, apparently, a feature film), so people adapting him have to make changes that, most of the time, don’t work for me either. Even the later Elder Scrolls games had too much of the familiar in them, straying dangerously close to the generic fantasy world of everyone’s nightmares (well, mine anyway).

Which is why, after all these years, I’ve chosen to take a few weeks’ holiday in Morrowind again.

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Finally got a screenshot (complete with mudcrab and scamp!)

The Wheel Turns: Beta Readers, Again

So, I finally finished the latest round of tinkering with my long-standing work-in-progress, The Winter Warrior. This is the book that I intended to publish several years ago, have done a ‘final edit’ on more times than I can count, have written two other books in the meantime, and keep having new ideas about on an almost daily basis. Hence calling it ‘tinkering’ rather than ‘editing’ at this point, as if I know I’ll never finish it. However, there is cause for optimism.

First, I have sent it out to some lovely beta readers. I have done this before, several times, and it’s been productive but also frustrating. Some of the frustration is that you just want them to tell you that it’s the best book ever and it should be published immediately, as-is, which they are never going to do. The more reasonable frustration is the fact that every reader is going to read your book differently, and therefore you never know how useful their reaction is going to be.

I got some comments last time that we really helpful and made me think pretty hard about some aspects of the story. In the end, I didn’t go with all the suggestions or address all of the comments, but I did make some pretty big changes. I also put it down for a while, then came back and did a re-appraisal that ended up scrapping the whole beginning of the book in favour of (another) new opening. Most of this was my own reaction, but I did have some of that beta reader critique in the back of my mind.

Now that I’ve sent it out to new readers, unaware of the previous opening, I’ll be especially interested to hear if it works. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure where I’ll go!

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The other cause for optimism is that I’ve set myself a deadline, coincidental with an external event (which means I can’t arbitrarily change it) – but I’m not telling when (which means I still can). What I do with the book at that deadline depends, again, on the beta readers. I’m still torn between the various routes to publication, and I may even have to consider the nuclear option of just setting it down – maybe for good – and finally getting to work on these other stories that need editing.

Seriously, one thing they don’t tell you about writing is that writing is the easy part, and the quickest part. At least, that’s what it’s been for me. After all this editing, I long for the opportunity to just write a book again. With three whole books written but still not finished, I don’t know when that will be. I have to start getting things out the door just for closure, or pretty soon I’m going to have ten unpublished novels lying around and nothing to show for it.

For now, it’s just me and the beta readers.

Musings, Part 3: Diminishing Returns

Okay, so there’s big gap between my last post and this. Lots has been happening in the real world (i.e. politics) that made all this seem insignificant, and so I retreated into my writing life. This was good for my productivity, both writing and reading, though I did spend too much time on Reddit when the urge to discuss all the things took hold.

Now I have a few ideas again, and some news to build up to (perhaps), I’ll try to resurrect this once more. There’s been a bit of random traffic ’round here recently, so it’s a shame they had nothing new to read (or maybe not?). Anyway, as I always like to challenge conventional wisdom, largely because I seem to have unconventional predilections, this next subject seemed a good idea at the time…

In this last whimsical screed, I ponder the diminishing returns of series writing. Possibly with diminishing returns of my own…

Apparently, and unsurprisingly, many more people read a book one than a book two, and the sales keep declining with each volume (though probably not as dramatically). Sure, if you can hook readers into a long series, you’ve got guaranteed fans and sales for as long as you can make it last, but you also close yourself off to new readers. By writing short series or standalones, surely you have multiple entry points for that big first-book spike, while still having the chance of recruiting fans of your writing who want to pick up another book.

The difference is, instead of one book doing all of the recruitment work, you have several, widening your net. Of course, the compulsion to read another of your books may not be as great, and many fantasy fans prefer and expect traditional series, so you may miss out on those. Still, Book One in a series is usually the first one written, and maybe not your best. Why waste your improving skill on book four, five or six when only those already sold on your writing will read them?

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Entry- and exit-point?

Assuming your first book, whether series or not, sells X copies because you make it shiny and attractive. X people read it and half like it (enough to keep reading, anyway), half don’t (maybe more?). When Book Two comes out, you then have X/2 sales, maximum. But, with a new standalone, you have X/2 fans of your writing, PLUS however many new people you can attract to a new story about different things that may interest them more. This seems better to me, in a back-of-the-envelope way.

What I may be not accounting for is the boost for Book One when each subsequent book comes out, as people are reminded that you are for real (because, hey, you have a series out there!), and convinced to start your saga. And the drop off between Book Two and Book Three is probably much smaller, if you don’t screw it up. Endings can divide audiences, but at that point, at least they’ve bought the book.

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The lesser-spotted standalone.

Still, it seems a compelling argument to me, though I’m obviously a voice in the wilderness here. Long series with a single entry point might close off their potential audience, but they do reward their loyal fans. Fantasy fans are used to this, too, so you may be disappointing the series-addicts by not following the traditional model. The prevailing self-publishing models are often heavily series-centric, dangling the free first book out there hoping to hook readers for the long haul. I do wonder what the conversion rate really is, and what you do if you are an indie who doesn’t write series?

Obviously, a lot of it depends on the author and what they like to write. Some authors out there spend whole careers on a single world, usually writing several series that tie together into one long chronology, leading to endless fan debates about where to start. Others finish one series and jump into something completely different – often another sub-genre or genre. A precious few never write two books about the same characters and locations.

Me, I love standalones and rarely finish series, though I’m also partial to worlds explored from different perspectives in sequels, as long as each one stands on its own. So, unsurprisingly, that’s what I’m currently working on

Musings, Part 2: Spike the Canon!

In this second musing, I’ll ramble somewhat coherently about reading old books and cannon. (This is somewhat related to Part One, which was a discussion of influences.)

Award season made me realise two things. First, I’m never up-to-date enough with my reading to have much opinion on the long- or short-lists. I’ve got books from the previous hundred years to get to before I can think of this year or even last! I don’t want to give those books up just to stay on the pulse, and anyway there are too many new books out every year to even dream of keeping up with. Moreover, I like books that stand the test of time, books that not only give you a window on a different fantasy world, but on the different real world in which they were written. (See, already letting my personal taste cloud things!)

The other thing awards bring up is the concept of “best” and the implicit development of a recommended “canon”, as if either can be objective. Sure, there’s a minimum standard of quality most of us would agree on – grammar, structure, spelling, consistency – but even then some readers won’t care, and any attempt to agree criteria above that minimum will not even approach consensus. Just look at the puppies nonsense, or read recommendation threads on internet forums. No matter how many opinions are on one side or the other, your own is the only one that really matters in the end.

BooksOn the other hand, I feel quite strongly about the books I’ve really liked (as most of us do), and will fight for their reputation. I also often read “major” works of the genre more out of obligation and curiosity than personal taste. And yes, some of this has been out of a desire to complete a sort of “canon” of central, important works so that I could feel like a true fantasy fan (whatever that means), or, at least, a knowledgeable one (again, a personal motivation). The more I’ve read, however, the more I’ve accepted that there is no single canon of fantasy literature, and nor should there be.

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Very popular, but essential?

I think it’s good for fans to read some popular or influential works that may not immediately appeal to them. This allows them to feel included in discussion, share touchstones across differing perspectives, and be exposed to things they might not otherwise read. And of course I still especially recommend those older books that laid the groundwork for modern fantasy, and which are often neglected. I also think it’s important for writers to read widely, as I’ve discussed time and again. But I’m not going to call any particular book “essential” anymore, not even Lord of the Rings.

I also try to refrain from un-recommending books these days. In the past, I may have got a bee in my bonnet about a particular “terrible” book and wanted the world to know it should never have been published. Now I’ve seen examples of how every book can make an impact on the right reader, and also appreciate just how difficult it is to write a whole book. I may still give a negative review, but I’ll try to frame it in less objective terms at least. After all, good and bad are relative, reading is personal, and taste is subjective.

At the end of the day, read as much as you can, don’t limit yourself, but don’t feel obligated to read any particular thing. As much as I’ve believe in the benefit of perspective, and love reading the classics myself, all I really want is for people to be aware of relevant books so they can make their mind up. No required reading, just a huge list of recommendations.

Musings, Part One: Influences and Illusions

So, I haven’t blogged in a while, but a few things came to mind recently and I’ve finally found time to post them. I think I’ll spread them out over a few days, though!

First, escaping your influences, including perceived influences, as well as allusions, references and “Easter eggs”. (No, it’s not a typo in the title!)

I’ve written before about it, but I spend quite a lot of time thinking about how books I’m reading, and writing, fit in with both books that have come before, and also events in our actual history. All writers get inspiration from what they read (both fiction and non), and the skill comes in turning all that inspiration into something new and exciting. Depending on the reader, the effectiveness of the results can vary wildly.

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I thought I wanted another Hobbit… but I was wrong.

I’ve put down or not even picked up books where I feel I’ve already read it because the influences are too blatant. Obviously, I am being somewhat unfair, because it’s not plagiarism and I haven’t actually read it before. However, if I’ve read a really good book featuring certain elements, I’m wary about reading how another writer does a very similar-sounding thing. (This may relate to my taste for variety in reading, YMMV.) Likewise, if I’m very familiar with the history of events, I’m less likely to enjoy a heavily influenced retelling, including historical fantasy (heck, including a lot of historical fiction!) – the original history is often fantastic or thrilling enough.

On the other hand, accusations of influence can be just as frustrating when they are mis-attributed. I see it happen quite often where people lack sufficient perspective, and I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself from time to time. In fact, I know some writers who have effectively repeated the past because they haven’t read the originals. Falsely accused, perhaps, but I’m not sure ignorance should be a defense! Still, I’ve certainly had to make changes in my writing when I can either see my own influences too clearly, or can see that others will perceive influences even when that may not be the case.

For example, anyone who puts a wall on the border between their fantasy land and the wilderness will now inevitably be compared to, or accused of copying, George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. Never mind that Hadrian built the original almost two millennia ago, and many authors have used the same trope since – it now belongs to GRRM. I read another book recently (Riddle-master of Hed, I think) where people “take the black”, but wouldn’t be able to get away with using the phrase now. And if you so much as feature medieval familial politics, your influence is plain to all – despite hundreds of years of actual medieval history (including the Wars of the Roses which inspired Game of Thrones in the first place).Credit: English Heritage

But then, I get equally annoyed when people don’t see the debt that newer series pay to the ones that came before. Everybody raves about Malazan Book of the Fallen, and rightly so, but that soul-trapping sword Dragnipur is just a modern Stormbringer, and the mercenaries with the colourful names first worked for the Black Company. I’m not annoyed that these things are in the books, just that what’s come before doesn’t get enough credit (from fans, I mean – Erikson has publicly credited Cook’s influence, at least).

To that end, I do really love an obvious nod to the past, though I can’t think of that many good examples of off the top of my head just now. More specific than an re-used or inverted trope, these references, allusions, or Easter Eggs are homages from a younger writer to those that have come before. They’re also a tip of the author’s hat to the well-read reader, a message that shares their love of the genre’s past with others who know what they’re talking about.  I’ve certainly entertained the idea of putting them in my own writing, but I’m not sure what you can get away with. When does a knowing nod turn into a copyright infringement?18667112

A good example that I’m pretty sure is intentional, is the character Wydrin in Jen William’s excellent Copper Cat Trilogy. Her nickname, which names the series, seems a pretty clear nod to Fritz Leiber’s classic S&S character, the Grey Mouser. The whole colour-plus-animal thing may seem pretty simplistic, but when you realise the Copper Cat has a partner who is very much a modern-day Fafhrd (if a bit more conscientious), I’m pretty certain it’s not a coincidence. And I love it.

That’s the way I like my fantasy: new ideas in conversation with the past – if possible, both the history of the genre and the history of the world. It suits my reading taste, and hopefully it’s the way my writing comes across. We’ll see.

 

What is Good?

I have discovered that a major problem when writing books is how to know if they are good. Strangely, it’s not a problem with reading – I know when a book I read is good or not. However, I find it hard to break down why I know that, and even harder to apply it to my own writing. Part of that is the difficulty in objectively assessing something that you put on the page yourself, but is still mostly in your mind. The other part, however, is the definition of “good” itself.

What is good writing? Ask a bunch of people, get a bunch of different answers (ahem, Hugo awards, cough cough), including:

  • Good story. Compelling, recognisable, yet with a twist. Emotionally engaging yet not melodramatic.
  • Good setting and world-building. Original yet not too confusing.
  • Good characters. Likeable yet flawed. Heroic but vulnerable. Unique but not controversial.
  • Good prose. Again, what that means has many different answers!
  • Good plot (distinct from story). Full of twists and turns, heart-stopping moments but without any cheap tricks.

Which of these requirements is most important, and the degree to which any particular book satisfies them, will depend on the reader. Some want adventure and action, some want characters they can fall in love with, some want lyrical prose, some want to escape to and explore a certain type of world…some, I’m sure, want it all!

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For me, I’d say that setting and set-up draw me in (i.e. what’s happening, to whom, in what larger context, including the type of world), the execution of the plot drives me onward, compelling characters keep me interested, and good prose is icing on the cake (but also, icing in the cake, to stretch the metaphor). That’s how it seems to work when I’m reading, anyway – I end up liking (or disliking) books for all these reasons, and more.

In my favourite books, what seems to end up staying with me is some blend of all of them rather than individual aspects. I’m not sure if it’s a cop-out or a profound truth, but what I’m looking for is a book where exciting things happen to interesting people in a wonderfully-rendered world. I rarely say, “I loved that book because of So-and-so” and it’s hard to recall all the twists and turns of a plot (easier to remember if it had them, of course). Instead, I recall moments of wonder and awe, and retain a sense of the overall vibrancy of the creation.

You may be able to tell that I’m not much for screen-shot-2014-09-07-at-3-05-36-pmdeconstructing or examining details, and I worry that will be detrimental. I do think about character arcs and whatnot, but I haven’t a lot of appetite for reading about the mechanics of writing. In order to construct a good book, I should probably analyse how books I consider “good” are put together…

The Breakdown

Perhaps I can attempt to break it down a bit further, examine the benefits and risks of each against my own tastes, strengths and weaknesses to see what “good” might mean for me.

Primarily, I think I love fantasy for its worldbuilding, whether that is a clever analogue of Earth history or something completely different. I like that world-building to impact the story, so that the tale is not one that could have happened in our  world (or at least, not the same way). I think I’m a bit more particular in this respect than other readers, having found some popular series did not do enough for me in that respect. I like a certain richness and thoughtfulness, but I like it vague and slowly revealed, not spelled out in info dumps. I’m not sure I can pull it off myself (well, maybe the vague part).

On the other end of the scale is character. Now, of course, I have to reach a minimum level of respect and/or likeability to read about any character for very long – but I can tolerate a lot if cool things are happening to them. I prefer competent, straightforward types who get on with things without too much drama – but nobody too perfect or goody-goody, of course. I like a reluctant hero, but a hero nonetheless – no farmboys, no “chosen ones”.

Otherwise I just want a set of eyes through which to see the world, and a fun supporting cast, too (I always used to identify with minor characters – more empty space to project into!). I reckon my writing reflects this, so don’t expect to fall in love with my protagonists, you might not ever know them well enough.

Plot-wise, I like a good mystery, and I like it tightly-woven rather than sprawling. Some twists and turns are good, but too many make me motion-sick. I also like an adventure – a classic journey helps reveal the world after all – but I’m equally at home reading something a little more claustrophobic. I stick with the former when writing, so far, but I have to make sure I don’t conflate moving the characters around a map with moving the plot forward.

Though it’s hardly make-or-break, after a certain level of competence, I do like good prose. What that means depends on the work, but a bit of style and flair can make the difference between good book and a great one. Dialogue is a sub-set of prose that comes in for particular praise, but again it very much depends on the style of book. I can read anything from classics to Joe Abercrombie, and while I’m not sure my own voice has fully formed yet, I have had compliments on my prose, which is something.

Finally, I hear a lot of people say “as long as they story is good, I’ll read anything” but I can’t see a way to separate that from the rest. I suppose it’s similar to what I’ve said regarding my penchant for world-building and sense of adventure, but a story in itself seems bereft of all the details that make it interesting. There are only so many stories, after all, and they’ve all been told before. Obviously, I’m not that confident – or bothered – about this aspect because it just doesn’t make sense to me.

Nope, still no clearer.

So, at the end of the day I reckon I can just about write a book that I would like to read (no surprise there). However, I’m not sure I can write a book that follows certain rules or fits a certain mold. If that’s what it takes to write a “good” book, then odds are I’m not quite there yet. I’m still not sure how to attempt to judge whether my books are good, and it remains to be seen whether they are “good” enough for anyone else.

I suppose the only option is to ask them.