discussions

22Jun

Author Recycling

I’m coming to the end of a series, thinking about some new projects, and casting my mind back to unpublished (and never will be published) works.

I was mulling over connections between my books to make sure I don’t repeat myself, when a common theme hit me. Well, not so much a theme, but it was something I do subconsciously: that is to write characters that hide something behind another secret or character trait.

For example, one idea I had in my current series was to hide the character Brynd’s homosexuality behind something else – in his case, it was him being an albino. I wanted readers to focus on his ultra-pale skin, so I could then drop the h-bomb that was hiding in plain view.

It was something I’d actually resuscitated from a never-to-be-published work, where in that case there was the initial secret of the character having wings (totally New Weird), and that character was hiding another secret behind those wings. It only struck me as interesting because, designing a post-Red Sun project, I realised yet again I was trying to apply the same effect (I won’t say what this time). I also spotted that some of my character ideas share concerns or vaguely related issues.

Are some ideas unescapable – because, ultimately, a writer is trapped within the limits of his or her own imagination or subconscious? It really is the sort if thing you only notice after a few books are under your belt, or becomes quite noticeable if you’re looking to develop something new. How many other authors recycle their ideas? Probably quite a few.

I know some writers rehash the same book over and over again. And let’s face it, the first few of David Gemmell’s Drenai books don’t exactly stray from a template (I made the mistake of reading a few of them in one block). But I’m talking more in terms of broader themes, issues that leak into work after work. Those little niggles that sneak in, or become obsessions. I can only think of a couple or writers off the top of my head: Don DeLillo was fascinated by mass media and crowds; Hemingway was interested in emasculation, death, women etc. Perhaps it’s what defines an author, this crystallisation of ideas over a lifetime.

Anyway, just another musing really. I wasn’t actually going anywhere with this blog post – another common theme…

7Jun

Gender & Historical Fiction & Marketing

There’s been a lot of talk about sexism in genre recently. There have been those who were very wise and those who opened up a can of worms. It put the subject of the gender divide firmly in my mind, so I thought I’d mention something about historical fiction and how it’s marketed. I was in Waterstone’s the other day, looking for some historical novels, and was staggered at the gender binary with regards to cover art. You could split the genre in two broad cover categories.

First up, the epic tale book. Written by a man. About a manly war, perhaps. So manly, we’ll pop a super tough man on the cover, so you know he’s a real man. (Sometimes with a weapon, too, just in case you didn’t get the idea.) For example:

Of course, I exaggerate – but I was surprised (and this is me, a former bookseller) at just how many historical novels shared this war-pr0n style. On the other hand, there is the the other type of historical novel, the more feminine side of the genre, shall we say, replete with woman in period costume on the cover:

Again, repeat and fade, alter the dress and pose and setting, perhaps, but you get the idea. For the vast majority of faced-out books in the store, and for the historical fiction display that I looked at for a good while, this was the case. The displays really do enforce the binary.

These are extreme examples, but it leads to questions about gender binary in book marketing. Publishing is a business, of course, and a lot of money is pushed about – these cover art decisions are taken solely to sell as many copies as possible, so publishers will stick to this comfortable approach (though they occasionally don’t).

How much of such marketing actually contributes to the problem of gender divides in the readership? Part of the whole SF and sexism debate was contemplating the issues at a broad level – which is more likely to be affected by things like cover art than a blogosphere that regularly debates issues. So, is what’s happening in the historical genre some kind of book-cover segregation, women through the pink door, men through the blue, and how much does that stop each gender crossing over? (And apologies for sticking to the genre binary here in the first place, people.) I do think that if a male reader, for example, becomes conscious of the way the books are marketed, he will be more likely to read a book by a female author even if it had the most garish period-costume-fetish of a front cover. Readers are in control once they’re more aware of such things.

Anyway, all just random thoughts that came from book browsing. What outsiders would say about the SFF genre?

27May

Questions of Aesthetics in Fantasy

A positive question, this one – as in, this doesn’t have negative connotations. It’s a purely neutral fascination, something that’s been on my mind for a while.

Why are the aesthetics of most secondary world fantasy novels quasi-medieval?

Why that approximate period more than any other? Sure there are Roman-tinged fantasies, those with Viking flavours and whatnot, but even those are rarities in the modern genre. I’m sure it’s not even particularly a conscious thing, but it just so happens that many – if not most – secondary world fantasy novels are set in a quasi-medieval Europe, something vaguely reminiscent of the Middle Ages, in terms of technology, culture, architecture, even in terms of political arrangements.

Again, this is neutral – I’m not being derogatory about it, though some bad examples are often referred to as cod-medieval (the term can be used dismissively). I’m even curious about writing in such a period setting myself at some point. But just step across to any fantasy section in a bookstore, and look at the types of aesthetics available – nearly all epic fantasies will be set in a more primitive society based around a pseudo Middle Age period, at one end or the other.

There are some broad, sweeping answers to this, none of which quite satisfy me:

1. It’s all Tolkien’s fault.

2. It’s all George R.R. Martin’s fault.

3. Fantasy is pastoral, romantic – a symptom of yearning to escape from complex technological times.

4. We’re preoccupied with history, with re-imagining the past; an opposite, in some ways, of science fiction, that imagines the future.

5. We’ve all got a castle/power/wizard fetish. We dream of surroundings and opportunities that are way beyond quotidian life, because most of us will never be able to afford such luxuries/status/power. It is a yearning for capital.

6. Magic doesn’t seem as impressive when modern technology has an equal wow factor (or, iPads are better than spells).

7. Publishers won’t publish anything else, goddammit, so let’s blame them. It’s a conspiracy.

8. Something to do with swords and Freud.

I wonder about all of these points since, as a writer, I’m looking to exploit the reason people are interested in various forms of literature, and I like to look for ways to have my fun with it. But I can’t really find a satisfactory answer to why a good chunk of the genre is made up of a Middle Age Dreamland.

21May

Relevant Fantasy

One of the questions I’ve been thinking about recently is how fantasy literature – or, strictly speaking secondary world fantasy novels – can be relevant to people. Much of this came about from seeing some of the fine coverage from the British Library Science Fiction exhibition, where there has been much discussion of the history of the genre and what that strand of literature aims or does not aim to do. Fascinating stuff, in and of itself. And there was a lot of talk of relevance. I know there’s a lot of talk of relevance to what or to whom, but to keep things simple, I’m speaking in terms of a cultural value outside of escapism – that there is additional commentary, there are more things to be deciphered, pored over, above and beyond the base layer of a good yarn.

Being a fantasy writer, I questioned the value and relevance of fantasy literature today. It’s something, as a writer, I want to always keep in mind. Sure, write a good story – absolutely nothing wrong with that whatsoever; I value the non-cerebral literature just as much as the heavy stuff – but from a creative perspective I get bored of writing for long periods if I’m not playing with certain concepts or themes, even though they might go unnoticed by the reader.

I see a couple of ways fantasy literature can be directly relevant. One is, like many great works of SF, to take a load of current concepts and write about them with exotics – H.G. Wells, Jonathan Swift and Imperialism etc. That’s the approach I sometimes prefer to take – most explicitly in The Book of Transformations, for example, when I was getting frustrated at the media’s portrayal of anarchism and what it meant. This examination of current concepts is actually a useful tool for a writer to deal with the stuff in their heads, and to get a subtle message across without being over-the-top about things.

Then there is symbolism, the Gene Wolfe approach, to layer stories with so much meaning and so many symbols, that you can spend most of your life trying blissfully to discover them. It’s the sort of thing that is, for example, linked to religious or mythological imagery, speaking of other great works and offering a reinvention or different interpretation. (I don’t find I have as much time to explore this as much as I’d like to.) Then there is a work that is intensely character-focussed, an effort to write a deeply moving and conflicted character that can stir something in people (though is this more in the hands of the reader than the author?).

So, what else? How can secondary world fantasies become more significant, culturally speaking? (And don’t say when it sells a bucket-load or gets its own TV series!) Or do you think these things are outside of our control?

8May

The Book of Transformations & Transgenderism

I don’t really like talking too much about the books on the blog, especially when it comes to explaining thoughts behind the writing; but if there’s one subject that I do want to discuss in terms of the forthcoming The Book of Transformations, it’s the character Lan – a transwoman (her biology does not meet up with her identified gender). First up, the blurb:

A new and corrupt Emperor seeks to rebuild the ancient structures of Villjamur to give the people of the city hope in the face of great upheaval and an oppressing ice age. But when a stranger called Shalev arrives, empowering a militant underground movement, crime and terror becomes rampant. The Inquisition is always one step behind, and military resources are spread thinly across the Empire. So Emperor Urtica calls upon cultists to help construct a group to eliminate those involved with the uprising, and calm the populace. But there’s more to The Villjamur Knights than just phenomenal skills and abilities – each have a secret that, if exposed, could destroy everything they represent. Investigator Fulcrom of the Villjamur Inquisition is given the unenviable task of managing the Knights, but his own skills are tested when a mysterious priest, who has travelled from beyond the fringes of the Empire, seeks his help. The priest’s existence threatens the church, and his quest promises to unweave the fabric of the world. And in a distant corner of the Empire, the enigmatic cultist Dartun Súr steps back into this world, having witnessed horrors beyond his imagination. Broken, altered, he and the remnants of his cultist order are heading back to Villjamur. And all eyes turn to the Sanctuary City, for Villjamur’s ancient legends are about to be shattered . . .

Though The Book of Transformations is the third in the series, again – like City of Ruin – I hope it can be read and enjoyed in isolation. Its focus is primarily back in the city of Villjamur, and on two characters: Fulcrom, who was a minor character in Nights of Villjamur , and Lan, who is someone new to the overall story arc.

Lan is a transwoman. This is shown right from the start.

Writing the character of a transwoman is dangerous territory for most writers, let alone a straight male, and particularly one who is not an expert on the subject. It could go dangerously wrong.

Researching this area was enlightening to say the least. The complexities of gender and sexuality were so layered and subtle that I was, quite frankly, staggered. The more issues I researched, the darker the world looked, too: from religion to legality, through feminism and sexism, to being one of the most discriminated-against sections of society, the paths and concerns of transgender folk are pretty much the most difficult anyone can follow in a civilised world.

For those of you new to such ideas, I really recommend reading Cheryl Morgan’s post on Gender 101. (Go there and you’ll see what I mean about the complexities of it all.)

At first I thought I could do something arty and clever; then I thought that’s probably the last thing the community needs. No, if I was going to write Lan’s story, I had to make her sympathetic and – well – normal of course. Lan should receive precisely the same treatment as any other character, though obviously not from other characters within the novel, because that wouldn’t really be realistic (whatever realism is in fantasy anyway). If I can make readers empathise and feel for her, when they may otherwise have found her character a point of humour or hatred (much like with Brynd), I will consider it a decent job done. I figure if no one at all makes the effort to write such characters, and attempts to write them in the right manner, then not much will change in popular culture. (Every little helps, right?)

So, Lan makes the journey from circus entertainer (a not uncommon path for transgender folk in the past, I understand) via a chance meeting with a cultist, so that she can complete her transformation towards being a female (as much as is possible). This happens very early on. What happens after that is that her abilities to withstand cultist magic/science are known – and she becomes useful to the Emperor, and absorbed into an elite unit of individuals with special abilities and powers. Her transformation is one of many within the book.

Cheryl actually helped me with a few pointers on issues relating to gender, for which I’m very grateful, so she has hopefully steered me from too much trouble… I’m bound to have made some mistakes, or perhaps been accidentally insensitive in places, but they are absolutely my mistakes an no one else’s. But I wanted to say I learnt a lot about the trans community during writing this book. I can think of no other faction of society that has received so much prejudice, both intentional and casual. This poor treatment is everywhere in culture, too (and this doesn’t even cover the horrific murders).

I started to notice it in conversations I overheard, the way transsexuals were made fun of, the way that they were targets. “Looks like a tranny!” or even terms to suggest freakishness. If you replaced ‘transsexual’ with even ‘homosexual’, most people would immediately see their error, and probably be horrified that liberal folk could say such things. Yet these slips seem breathtakingly ingrained in our culture.

So there we go; that’s just a little insight into this book. It seemed important to say something about it. Oh, and if anyone wants to know why I wanted to write about a transwoman in the first place, I’d give the same answer as to any other character: because they’re interesting, because there is a story to tell and, as a writer, I might learn something along the way.

 

3May

Hit Me With Your Crime Author Suggestions

I’m summoning the power of the internet – or rather you lot – to help me. I’m looking to plunge deep into the crime genre soon. I’ve read a decent-ish amount – Henning Mankell, David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, C.J. Sansom, early noir etc – and I’ve enjoyed those very much. But I want to expand my horizons a lot more. I’m also specifically interested in stories written in interesting locations, be that back in time or an unusual setting. Also, crime novels by Black or Asian authors would be useful. Historical crime recommendations a bonus. Classics of the genre are welcome.

I’m also after variation – intricate plotting, police procedurals, thrillers, exposés on impoverished parts of the world, just as long as they’re interesting. If you can jot down a line or two as to why you think I should read them, that’s all the better. Obviously I’m not going to get through all of them, and I’m a slow enough reader as it is, but consider this pub talk – and you’re the rambling old dude telling me what I should be doing with my time.

So, hit me with your suggestions.

26Apr

Literary Links

Damien Walter opens up a debate in the Guardian concerning military SF:

Military SF, for all its flaws, points at the gaping divide growing wider each day in western culture. On the one side, it seems, are the Guardian reading liberals, for whom war is good for nothing, and nothing more than a failure of understanding and communication between peoples. On the other are military SF loving conservatives, who believe that the enemy is out there, is evil, and can be defeated by heroes carrying very big, very expensive weapons. One of us is living a fiction.

I’m sure there’s something interesting to be said about all the military blood-pr0n that seems to saturate many epic fantasy novels, too, but that’s not something I’ve thought a lot about. Some do it well, some do it badly, and I believe there are probably all the same neo-con and liberal tendencies in fantasy fiction, too.

Adam Roberts, never one to shy away from poking a pointy stick at the Hugos, has a very interesting reflection on one of the primary issues with some awards:

The problem is its unlikeliness, in terms of statistical probability. Think objectively and ask ourselves: what are the odds that the greatest literary, critical, and visual artists of our generation also just happen to be a bunch of our friends? Of course, it’s possible; but how probable is it? Naturally, and on the other hand: think how flattering it would be to our self-esteem if we happened to be friends with all the greatest literary, critical, and visual artists of our generation! Wouldn’t that be cool? Or should I say, isn’t that cool? Excellent!

The cliquey nature of conventions and the genre is nothing new to those of us who have attended them, as readers, editors or writers; here the wider implications of such a tight-knit community are laid bare by Roberts and will most probably kick off a storm. Stay tuned to those comments.

In industry-wide news, a Russian billionaire is in the line to buy Waterstone’s, the UK’s biggest book chain, which is a headline that somehow promise to make book signings so much more controversial and exciting, if it wasn’t for the worrying state of the high street.

21Apr

Links – because I’m ill

A mild bug has knocked me out for a day or two, so I’ve decided to send you elsewhere today. I’m too poorly (sympathy please) to think of anything vaguely intelligent. Here, then, are places of stimulation.

First you must visit Pornokitsch and join in with their discussion on blogging and crowds and all sorts of other goodness.

Are we diverse? Yes. (Within being a “genre book blogging community”.)

Are we decentralized? Yes. (Also, hierarchial, factional and a little bit predatory.)

Do we have the means of producing a collective verdict? No.

Are we independent? No. (From external influences? Yes. From internal ones? No.)

The result? At best, genre bloggers, as a collective, form a community of average intelligence. As an assemblage, we’re needy, greedy, argumentative and prone to snap decisions. Our collective economy rewards speed and volume over consideration and compromise.

Daniel Abraham gives his opinion on the New York times and Slate reception to A Game of Thrones:

It’s not really fair to pick on Bellafante and Patterson. Reviewers are still writers trying to pay their bills on a deadline, and with the unenviable assignment of making their opinions seem more important than their reader’s. It’s a hard job, and they deserve respect for their efforts. But the work they do cuts both ways: these judgments say as much about the New York Times and Slate as they do about HBO and George RR Martin.

Historical novelist says Sara Sheridan talks about how literary snobbery can be divisive within the writing community:

Until recently the industry including the media ‘revered’ literary writers. In fact, in publicity material from twenty years ago the book trade seems almost embarrassed about its mass market successes. With the advent of the Net Book Agreement (which allows books to be sold at discount prices) and Nielsen Book Scan (which gives accurate, actual sales figures on a weekly basis) there have been aftershocks throughout the literary community that have rocked that attitude.

It turns out that for years the industry hadn’t really known how few books literary authors were selling (or at least not until months and months after the book had been launched). Recently advances have plummeted for all writers but the literary community has taken a larger hit (in the light of the new sales information the only way to justify spending big bucks is if a book is assured big sales).

In effect the industry has called a halt to taking the money it makes from commercial writers and pumping it into underwriting their more literary cousins (while sneering at the mass market in the process).

There, that should keep you going for a while.

17Mar

Fantasy, Truth-telling, Escapism

An interesting debate in the Guardian on questioning whether or not fantasy can tell the truth, but it’s the notions of escapism that repeatedly crop up in such debates:

There is nothing wrong with escaping reality now and again. Like a well brewed ale, or a good malt whisky, a finely crafted escapist fantasy can be a thing of joy and beauty. But while the occasional tipple can be a good thing, most of us recognise that a bottle of Jameson’s a night is unhealthy for body, mind and soul.

An unfiltered diet of escapist fantasy blockbusters can be similarly unhealthy. As master anti-fantasist M John Harrison expresses it in his essay The Profession of Science Fiction while discussing the appeal of fantasy to young children terrified by adult life, “Many fantasy and SF readers are living out a prolonged childhood in which they retain that terror and erect – in collusion with professional writers who themselves often began as teenage daydreamers – powerful defences against it.”

And in the comments, the rather dated line (in internet years): “I think it’s undignified to read for the purposes of escape.”

There’s a whiff of the teenage rebel about these sentiments and, I’ll confess, when I was a much younger wannabe (unpublished) writer, for a few months I was all Hell Yeah and Fuck You to the Establishment (the Establishment being escapist fiction/commercial publishing). Then I came to realise that I’ve never quite understood the argument that reading for escape is undignified. And, as one of the comments states:

My natural reaction is to say, “I think it’s undignified to have sex in a bouncy castle, but it’s fun and I’m not going to stop just because you disapprove, sir.”

In the same way I’ll watch “Singin’ in the Rain” when I feel like it, and to hell with anyone who thinks that’s unhealthy and I should be spending my time watching Citizen Kane.

Indeed.

Here are a couple of issues I have with the dismissal of escapism. Firstly I would question: well, what exactly are readers escaping from, an Objectively existing external world? (The Objectivist undertones concern me.) Secondly I’d want to know, why would one do anything at all if it isn’t to escape/deviate from a given path in order to discover something else? So I would say that to read ‘to better oneself’ (the often opposing argument to escapism) is still actually reading for escapist pleasure, albeit a different pleasure and a different form of escapism (from oneself?).

Perhaps people might simply mean that reading for escapism means that it’s bad to switch off. It’s unhealthy for the mind, it’s lazy, or something like that. Without wanting to create a straw man of an argument, I remember reading someone on a blog or a message board years ago saying that they were serving on the front line in a war-zone, and reading for pleasure was all that helped them get to sleep at night. Perhaps, from the comfort of our own bedrooms, we can preach about the negatives of escapism – while we’ve currently nothing in our lives from which to escape. Escapism as a form of liberation seems highly dignified in some circumstances.

As far as fantasy is concerned, these aren’t the truths we’re looking for.

11Mar

Planning Arrangements

As I’m getting through to the end of an epic fantasy series, I’ve found the way I’ve planned my novels has changed massively over the years. My general approach to planning is way different to way it used to be. So I wanted to talk about telling your story. Whether, as a writer, you think about the bricks and mortar, the scaffolding, the engineers, the builders with their copies of The Sun stuffed down the front of the van windscreen, or whether you’re happy to wing it. That sort of thing.

When I worked in editorial positions, I always noted the sheer varieties of ways people went about their planning. The important thing to remember is that it’s whatever works for you, not what some idiot on the internet says, least of all me.

The Wanderer

I used to be a story traveller. I had a few loose story ideas in mind, but I mostly wanted to go exploring. It was fun. I had a bunch of characters or a setting as a starting point, and tended to work outwards from there. It’s not a bad route: you get to know your characters well, you get to explore a world through their eyes. Everything feels very, very natural, and you can capture a lot of nuances of human interaction because you’re not trying to fit round things through a square shaped hole to make your plot move forwards.

The downside is you can wander off anywhere, kind of forgetting that plot unless you knew instinctively where the characters should be heading. Wandering is good if you’ve a strong sense of place and you want to explore that. It’s useful for that travelogue element of SFF, of discovering places. It puts your imagination in centre stage (though you better have a good one). It’s possibly even useful for some cool character interaction. But I wouldn’t want to write an intricate crime novel this way, and nor is it useful for making calculated story structures.

The Architect

These are the types of writers who need to plan the plot out in immense detail before they’d even go near the actual writing. I’m talking about a far extreme on this writing spectrum. Some folk want to know not just the beginning, middle and end, chapter by chapter, but every little detail in the middle. That’s cool, of course. You can do a heck of a lot of clever stuff this way. You can not only tick off the kind of structure you want (three acts or more?) but you can make intricate things happen, or see plot issues before you get stuck writing them. You can research the hell out of a concept and nail, for example, a classy piece of period detail. Some say it’s a great way of preventing writer’s block, too, because you know absolutely what you’re going to write about.

Personally, committing fully to this approach takes away a lot of the fun. I like the element of discovery through characters’ eyes, which can then impact the plot, and what if I want to tweak the plot half way through, if things don’t feel right? What’s more, I can’t even get a feel for things until I begin putting prose on paper. Perhaps things can seem a little forced – as if characters are simply jumping through hoops and not acting like human beings at all. It’s not the case all the time, of course, but this is the internet and it was made for sweeping generalisations.

The lighthouse seeker

You’re the kind of kid that sits somewhere in between. You need those markers to aim towards, perhaps the general story acts you have in mind. You can go for runs or a long walk and dwell on nudging things in certain directions; that creative freedom is there. But you can’t be doing with the rigid planning. In fact, rigid planning is just so 1980s, and makes you feel like you’re wearing Spandex. You know instinctively, however, if your story does not hit those certain points at the right time, you’re going to be royally screwed. You story will collapse quicker than a tower of cards.

I used to be like you too, for one book, then Trying To End A Fantasy Series happened to me.

The fluidly fluid approach

Now this is how I’m currently finding my planning efforts. I’ve got in-depth character sketches. I’ve got my worldbuilding all done. I’ve got a series to end, a fairly rigid plot in mind but I need the fluidity of being able to shift things around. To make pieces fit. To make characters resolve their personal plot-lines, to clean up four books of a sprawling mess of ideas. There’s a whole fuck-ton of juggling that’s going on right now, and I still want to maintain that individual novel essence, rather than this book end up being a linear coda to what I’ve done before. No clean-cut approach to planning will work. I need to respect the novel.

I guess in the days before Scrivener this could easily have been arranged with a bunch of Post-It notes and scrapbook scribblings, but on screen, in that wonderful programme, everything is much easier to control. I can move back and forth between a plot or sub-plot, and my writing, which then informs the plot, which then informs the writing, and so on. With Scrivener, I’m totally on top of everything. The idea of sitting down and planning a beginning, middle and end seems laughable right now – I’m picking up ends from two other books. Likewise, if I just went into this blindly, I’d be a moron. Having simple checkpoints doesn’t seem to be enough either, and a world without writing software fills me with fear. Who knows how this will end?

It’s important to say that there’s a whole load of other stuff to keep in mind. You’ve got the worldbuilding (real or secondary), the style to choose (first person or third?), the characters to make real and give lives to, but I’m not going to harp on about those parts right now.

Like you lot, I find the process fascinating, because it shows much about the mind of a writer as it does explain their end results. So, how do you go about planning yours? Are you anally retentive or a free Bohemian spirit who eats writing rules for breakfast?