Tag: fantasy


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…


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.


The Art of Marek Okon

I was reminded of Marek’s work on Twitter recently. I first saw his portfolio in my publishing days (Solaris, Black Library), and was always impressed by his range of subjects and styles. I loved this top picture, and had it as my desktop for a while, because it just seemed evocative and had a striking perspective. I think he still does a lot of cover art for publishers, as well as concepts for games companies. Check out his website if you like the art.


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?


The Art Of Steve Jung

Another post where I scour the internet to find some of the most interesting SF and Fantasy art for your viewing pleasure. This time is artist Steve Jung, who has a more textured, layered and painterly style than some of the others I’ve linked to in the past – and gives good battle scene, too. As usual, the image links take you to the artist’s site.


The Art Of Jamie Jones

Hours spent trawling the internet can produce good things – I found Jamie Jones’ website last night. There are some very strongly portrayed characters here, a lovely use of light, and the dude gives good monster. He also does a lot of concept work, which seems to put bread on the table for a lot of artists these days. Each of the pictures links to his portfolio.


Writing Battles

Two things about writing battles. First, I am by no means an expert on this matter – I am not a soldier, I have not fought in wars. Secondly, wars are not pleasant. That said, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve found useful having written a couple of fantasy battles.

Wars are fought all the time, in various parts of the world, and for a whole host of reasons that I won’t go into here; but it makes sense that if you’re writing some kind of realistic secondary world saga, there will be blood spilled in your world. There will probably come a point where you’re required to write about some kind of battle, or that one will need to be be referenced in your novel. Whether or not you’re looking to create something from scratch or that riffs on historic events, I’d say that writing battles requires a lot of preparation beforehand.

I’ve got a couple under my belt, but are a few things I’ve learned from those – things I know I should think about when writing any future battle (keeping in mind all the other stuff you have to do with writing a novel):

1) Research – more than ever, I’d say it’s important to study real events if writing battles for realism is what you’re after. Read up on your history, read eyewitness accounts of battles. For the most minute detail, the internet is your friend. Build up a picture of what it’s actually like.

2) Tactics – you probably don’t have to be a military historian or a genius table-top gamer to have some useful tactics in hand for writing fantasy battles. Do a bit of research and get the basics lined up. Most battles don’t just happen spontaneously (skirmishes may, of course). From there you can work out a few formations etc. You probably don’t even have to spend that much detail writing about them, but it might be useful for you to know the progress of the battle yourself, since you might be able to riff on it for the plot.

3) Resources – how are people doing to eat? Are people going to fight with new weapons? Where is the money coming from to pay for soldiers and swords? Will arms dealers make a profit? (The answer to that is: always.) Will these events alter the plot or character threads in any way?

4) Read the fiction – get a flavour for writers who know how to write these things and have earned themselves a good reputation. From Steven Erikson, Paul Kearney, that man Abercrombie, all the way through to mainstream writers such as Bernard Cornwell, there’s a lot you can learn from those who have done this many times over.

5) What’s happening on the home front? Or, what message is the government giving its own people? Does this message differ in any way from the reality, or is it an excuse to control people or resources?

For me, when it came to writing the actual fighting itself, I tried to keep a few things in mind:

1) The person on the ground cannot possibly see any grand tactical vision. It’s probably going to be messy, loud and confusing from the front. They’re not going to hear something said ten feet away, they’re probably only going to know their immediate surroundings with a few simple orders in mind.

2) It probably isn’t going to be glorified either. This is not a shiny propaganda poster. It’s going to be full of gore, which will make people cringe and despair.

3) Seeing said gore is probably going to hurt the characters mentally. Just read a few news articles on soldiers coping with the trauma and you’d get the picture. Your characters aren’t going to skip away happily afterwards and have a party.

4) Things won’t be the same after the battle – if it’s in a city, that city will be wrecked. If it’s on a battlefield, even, then the wider political picture of your world will change. A battle probably should just happen and everyone packs away their toys and goes home.

5) Don’t enjoy it. This is not something you should really feel good about writing, since you might end up glorifying something that’s horrendous. Don’t fall into the trap of war porn.

There’s a lot more of refining, tweaking, research etc – as ever, there is always more you can do. If I had the opportunity, I would have loved to have spoken to someone who’s fought on the frontline, to get a pure unfiltered view of the unreported nastinesses.

Oh, one final thing – if a POV character dies, then stop writing the paragraph and start a new one from a different perspective (unless he or she is a sentient zombie).


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.


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.