Genre Yearnings & Interview

I was chatting with a friend the other day about crime fiction and the differences with it and fantasy fiction. Soon I began to wonder if fantasy is really a genre at all. (For today, let’s just leave out the whole ‘marketing categories’ and ‘genres aren’t a useful term to assign individual books’ debates.)

In crime fiction, there are mechanisms. The law is broken. There is a crime. Someone has to solve it and the wide variety in the genre comes from the different settings, political backdrop and the detective at the centre. Morality is questioned. The genre – on the whole – has some clear, definite frameworks in place; playing with that framework is where an author’s skill separates the cheaper fiction from true literary masterpieces, and manipulation of the narrative can have a truly powerful effect on the reader. The genre category informs the literature, to some extent.

Fantasy, however, is more a descriptive term – a vague aesthetic. It doesn’t tend to obey logic, and in essence should not obey convention – there is inherently an unlimited potential and yet readers tend to become obsessed by aesthetics and tropes to sculpt a kind of mechanism that isn’t explicitly there.

There’s a yearning to make genre happen out of thin air.

Perhaps there’s an emotional framework here? Maybe that’s why fandom is so strong. I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud.

Finally, there’s an interview with me in today’s Mail & Guardian (South African newspaper), in which I talk about creating fantasy cities as well as the latest two releases:

As for cities appealing to SFF fans and writers, it has to be because they’re the perfect way to represent another world. Cities are where people, commerce, social trends, the arts, government, all meet in one vast, sprawling, horrible and beautiful place…

Read the rest here.


The Creative Restraints Of A Fantasy Series

I’ve pretty much finished a rough draft of the final book in the Legends of the Red Sun series. I’ve got most of it done on Scrivener, and this is the point where I move everything to a Word document and start polishing, smoothing over cracks and so on. To say I’m relieved to be at this stage is an understatement, because writing this book has made me realise quite a few things about writing a long epic fantasy series.

1. It’s a marathon. You think finishing one novel is tough, tying up lots of novels, plot-threads, and personal character stories, and retaining continuity for years of your life is energy-draining work to say the least. The more complex you try to make your novels (i.e. sophisticated or subtle sub-plots, themes, references and so on) the more this bites you on the arse for the finale.

2. Creatively, writing the last book in the series sucks. I’ve tried for each of the first three novels to create self-contained stories, with new plots and characters. That approach gives me a huge amount of creative freedom, which is severely lacking in a novel that has to bring everything together. It’s a challenge to do so because you’re picking up old plots and are heading towards a resolution that was planned (in theory) ages ago, so much of what you create is pre-destined. That kills a lot of the creative spark.

3. I’ve discovered I have a new respect for those who write mammoth series, even Robert Jordan who seemed to relinquish control of his books. Sure there’s no excuse for many pages discussing the stitching dresses, but that goes to show what a toll it can take on the writer’s perception of time and detail.

4. This loss of control is why novels are often late. There are laws of motion working on plots. Things that were set into action ages ago suddenly crop up again, or need resolving. Much like life, things become more complex and tangled, and representing this when you have multiple points of view means that you have to write about things you didn’t intend to cover. You have to remember names, places and character traits you created years ago – a quick fact-check on Google won’t cut the mustard. You have to manage airtime in a totally different way. For the first novels, you didn’t have to do this as much.

5. The last books in a series are nearly always read by fewer people than the first book in a series, which really doesn’t help with motivation. You’re writing to a different, more hardcore crowd.

All of these combined factors can mean that it isn’t quite as much fun to write. All books are tough to create, sure, but when writing stops being as much fun, it becomes work. Essentially, as a writer, you’re bound by your own series. You’ve one hand tied behind your back. You’re hamstrung. You’re whatever simile or metaphor you can think of. What starts off as a neat expansion of a few ideas soon grows into an uncontrollable beast at times, and your job becomes not so much about telling that story as it is about controlling the beast and putting it back in its cage.

None of this is to say I haven’t put my heart into the project – quite the opposite. You start to feel extra love for it. But if you’re new writer trying to unleash a fantasy series upon the world, be careful what you wish for…


Interview & Review

There’s an interview with me over at Fantasy Faction, in which I rant about all sorts of genre and writing-related things, from the New Weird to writing about minorities:

Let’s put it this way: a mid-40s, straight white male with an average job and income, who does normal things, is not particularly interesting to write about.

Writing is about challenging yourself, about exploring people and places that fascinate you. Otherwise it’s just so dull. Another chosen-one fisher boy becomes king? Boring.

So I choose people who are going to be interesting to write about: it just so happens that minorities lead fascinating and often challenging lives.

Thanks to Leo for the great questions. It’s particularly nice writing answers as I come to the end of the series, since it gives me a nice opportunity to look back with a little more clarity, and then start drawing the line under it.

Also, that Locus review from a week or so ago has now made it online, so you can read that here.


Literary Links

Recently I’ve been engrossed in the news so much that I feel I’ve neglected blogging duties. Sometimes writing about important an issues seems rather irrelevant in the short term. But, on the topic of the riots, I remembered that the Guardian last year blogged their top ten literary riots:

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

“Enter a company of mutinous Citizens with staves, clubs, and other weapons”. Coriolanus opens with the plebs rioting because of lack of food. Menenius disarms them with some choice rhetoric, before Coriolanus stokes them up again with his eloquent insults. “He that depends / Upon your favors swims with fins of lead / And hews down oaks with rushes.”

A book that seems one of great interest to me is being published by VersoBooks – it’s an anthology of climate change short stories, called I’m With The Bears, written by top writers:

World-class novelists envision the terrors of impending climate change.

The size and severity of the global climate crisis is such that even the most committed environmentalists can drift into a state of denial. The award-winning writers collected here have made it their task to shake off this nagging disbelief, bringing the incomprehensible within our grasp and shaping an emotional response to mankind’s unwitting creation of a tough new planet. From T. C. Boyle’s account of early eco-activists, to Nathaniel Rich’s comic fantasy about a marine biologist haunted by his youth, and David Mitchell’s vision of a near future where oil sells for $800 a barrel—these ten provocative, occasionally chilling, sometimes satirical stories bring a human reality to disasters of inhuman proportions.

Finally, for the ladies out there, have you ever considered making a dress out of your old books?


On the Price of Publishing

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that considers the real price of a book, and there are some paragraphs I wanted to share:

…it turns out that “publishers only spend $3.50 to print and distribute a hardback”. (Let’s say it’s £3 in Britain.) So when, this autumn, you go into your local bookshop and spend £30 on that gorgeous copy of Claire Tomalin’s long-awaited Dickens biography, you really are just putting a large amount of profit into the hands of her publisher, with some knocked off for the retailer. Right?

Well, yes and no. If you think of books primarily as physical objects, then off course they’ll seem a rip-off, because printing and distributing them is cheap. But as Levine points out, what you’re really paying for when you buy a book is something different. You are buying the “text itself”. And why is that so expensive? Because the publisher will, in many cases, have paid the author a considerable sum for the right to sell it. And because that same publisher will also (if they’re any good) have ploughed considerable further resources into editing and marketing it.

In other words, publishing is a business that incurs high fixed costs. And it’s this, to return to my initial question, that accounts for the high price of (indeed the very existence of) hardbacks. The publisher needs to maximise revenues in order to defray its outlay. Some people are prepared to pay top dollar to have the premium product – a hardcover copy that comes out, crucially, months before other versions. So it makes sense for the publisher to offer it to them.

I remember being on a panel with Dan Abnett and Al Reynolds at Alt Fiction, in which we covered the culture of digital publishing, and discussed how there was a kind of an intellectual void on what your money actually pays for when you buy a book. All of us were very worried about the impact of piracy, too, in being part of a culture that encourages the attitude that people should get a book for nothing (and once they do, they become reluctant to buy books, which is a vicious circle in itself).

Anyway, it’s worth reading that article – there are a few things I don’t fully agree with, but it’s certainly hitting the right notes. It ends on an worrying point:

It’s still early days in the ebook story, and no doubt there’ll be many disputes and disruptions along these lines in the future. But here’s a final thought for now. Was it wise to allow a situation in which a single company – Amazon – became market leader in terms of both a digital product (the ebook) and the hardware through which it’s delivered?


Good Author Blogs

As ever, interesting things were mooted on Twitter last night.

My favourite author blogs tend to be ones that rarely talk about the author’s books. I find ones that do the opposite really tedious.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

The above, from James Long, caught my eye and sparked a few nice thoughts. I totally agree with what he said after that, too, which basically stressed the point that he’s far more interested in what authors think. I don’t see the point of telling people how many words you’ve written (unless you’re George RR Martin and you can see villagers gathering with pitchforks outside your window).

Updating on your daily word count isn’t going to interest many people; neither is continually publicising your works. Sure, it’s ultimately a tool to sell books and folks will be keen on finding out a little of what’s going on with your novels, but I’m not so sure that constantly banging on about yourself these days is going to interest readers in the long run. With all the competition for attention from new writers discovering the benefits of being online (and it’s far tougher these days), I think it’s personality that makes the difference. It’s a tough balance.

Rather than waffle more about the art of author blogs (generally, it’s not that difficult these days: be varied, be interesting, be regular, don’t have dodgy web design), I’d point out a few very distinct examples of author blogs that I enjoy reading.

1. Chuck Wendig – always hilarious, consistent (even in the randomness), and all on a superbly designed site. Whenever there’s an update from him, you can be sure it’s going to entertain. He gives plenty of advice, too, and – most importantly – doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has fun.

2. Jonathan Carroll – the original online writer’s notebook. Wonderful stuff, observations on human life, or a scrapbook of poems or links, it’s always going to be something to make you sit back and reflect. This is the true, arty end of blogging, and I really do make time when a post appears in my RSS feed.

3. Punkadiddle – Adam Roberts’ hotbed of reviews, mainly of genre stuff. Note: he’s a thorough reviewer, and gives some of the best quality and interesting write-ups you’ll see online. Not every new author could probably get away with tearing into certain books, but Adam doesn’t seem to mind the rough stuff.

Some other good blogs include: editor Cheryl Morgan (a fascinating range of topics); Sam Sykes (you’re always going to reflect, chuckle, or worry for his sanity); Jay Kristoff (relative newcomer to the scene, but a great blogger); and there area whole load more on my RSS feed, but these are the ones that particularly come to mind.

All of them do exactly what I, personally, like: they offer varied debate, show me things I don’t know, entertain, or help make me think differently about certain issues.

And isn’t that what writers are meant to do anyway?


Author Returns

Sometimes I return to an author whose work I’ve tried before, but didn’t finish. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s for a particular reason, and I’m very conscious that I will return to such an author.

In the case of Iain Sinclair, it’s his spectacular prose, his eye for psychogeography, and his bizarre portraits of people. I tried reading Downriver, last year on holiday, and loved it, but couldn’t finish it. I got about half-way through. It was too rich for me, during a period where I had switched off my brain.

But Iain Sinclair remains one of the best writers I’ve come across, in any genre; his mastery of language is incredible. You can see the connections with writers such as Miéville and M. John Harrison, all of whom possess shared characteristics in the way they deal with the urban environment, stressing the madness and alienation of our British cities.

I knew I would return to Sinclair, but it was only when I saw an awful Amazon review that I decided to pick up White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, perhaps in defiance of some pillock who clearly did not get what Sinclair was about.

I then concluded something about my own fiction reading habits, which I’ve forgotten of late: I don’t often give a damn for what’s going on plot-wise. I think I’ll proudly admit that more often than not, I do not care for a romping, thumping beat to a novel (though occasionally I do). I do care about the way something is put together, very much, and that is what Sinclair does very well.

So I’ll give him a second go; and I don’t even mind if I can’t finish this novel, because I’m already enjoying flicking through and reading the sublime sentences, and I know even a scattering of these phrases will serve me well.


Newspaper Ordered To Pay Damages For Book Review

As reported in the Guardian, an author has won a court case for a book review that was ‘”spiteful” and contained serious factual errors.

Telegraph Media Group, the publisher of the Daily Telegraph, has been ordered to pay £65,000 in damages after losing a high court case for libel and malicious falsehood over a Lynn Barber book review.

Ruling in the high court in London on Tuesday, Mr Justice Tugendhat said a 2008 review of Dr Sarah Thornton’s book, Seven Days in the Art World, by the Telegraph columnist was “spiteful” and contained serious factual errors.

A spokeswoman for the Telegraph Media Group said it was “dismayed” by the judgment and vowed to appeal.

Thornton’s claim for libel and malicious falsehood related to two paragraphs of the review, published by the Telegraph in November 2008.

Now that sets a strange precedent, and it raises interesting questions. Where does someone’s opinion end, and deliberate malicious behaviour begin? If such malice results in lost sales, should the financial costs be recovered? (If so, I hardly think £65,000 equates with those lost sales!)

Of course, I can’t help but imagine some ridiculous future in which those publishers with greater resources possess the powers to threaten those with a bad opinion. You already see this kind of thing with Tory MPs in the UK against those who make ‘untrue inferences ‘ against them. (Then again, authors aren’t as rich as Tory MPs…)


SF vs The Man Booker

I’ve written a piece on SF and the Man Booker prize over at We Love This Book, a new-ish site run by the folks at Bookseller magazine. Reckon it should stir up a few thoughts, especially as I’ve made some suggestions over what SFF novels should have been up for the award.

Tomorrow sees the release of the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction, and, forgive me for jumping the gun, but I wanted to explore why science fiction and fantasy books rarely get the gold.

In fact, I wanted to start by exploring why sf and fantasy books are not included on the longlists at all, but I quickly realised what nonsense that was – sf and fantasy books have been nominated: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is about cloning, David Mitchell’s books often include elements of what many would call genre, Margaret Atwood is the reluctant fundamentalist when it comes to science fiction, Salman Rushdie’s magical realist tales are occasionally more fantastical than many fantasy novels.

However, despite a huge literary heritage of sf and fantasy books in the UK, very rarely do clearly marked “genre” titles make the longlists, let alone win. Some argue that there is, as sf writer Adam Roberts put it: “[a] literary apartheid keeping genre science fiction away from the respectable literary establishment” but I think the reasons are simpler than this.

Read the rest. My suggestions for the awards were more based on the spirit of some of the best genre offered at the time.