A couple of days ago, through Twitter, I found out about the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Now, I already have more to get done in April than I have time for. I have short stories to edit, manuscripts to comment on and a book to prepare for submission. I have a house to overhaul in readiness for my impending parenthood. I have my actual day job to fit in somewhere. And for that reason, I did what any sensible writer would do.
I jumped right in.
The idea is that this month, I write a short blog post every day: one for each letter of the alphabet. Because there aren't 30 letters, the other Sundays in April are free – except that Sunday is when I put up my usual longer articles, and I don't want to disappoint my regular audience (the dog can be quite demanding). So brace yourselves, my friends. I'm going to be with you, to a greater or lesser extent, every single day in April. Yep, that's right: 30 whole days. Please restrain your excitement.
As you've probably noticed, I happen to begin with A, and so I was going to call this first post after myself. (Self-centred, I know, but since I've also called this whole website after myself it's a little late to worry about that now.) But then it struck me that Anonymous would be a far better title. Because that's what no author wants to be these days, yet when I started on my literary path it's exactly what I intended.
It's the same dilemma we all face when confronted with this newfangled interweb malarkey. How much of myself do I reveal? What's private and what's public? I'd already decided that as a writer I'd use a variation of my name that gave away as little as possible, mainly in the belief that some male readers might be put off by an obviously female name, and vice versa. (As it turns out, that doesn't seem to be much of an issue any more, but I thought it was sensible at the time.) In addition, I had a stupid kind of pride that meant I didn't want my writing life to be connected with my personal or work life until I became a 'success'. I imagined dropping in on a group of acquaintances one day and happening to mention, oh so casually, that my first book was due out in the autumn. So when I started online as a writer, I didn't post a photo of myself or anything personal at all. I didn't encourage my family and friends to come and support me; most of them still don't even know I have a blog or a website or a Twitter account. I was determined to go it alone.
Now, I'm beginning to wonder if that was a mistake.
Because the thing is, the writer and their work are bound more tightly together now than they ever have been. Readers find out about new books through what the authors post on Twitter and Facebook. They can feed back instantly on what they liked and didn't like. They want to know who a writer is, not just what s/he does. And in fact, there's no longer really a separation between author and audience: all writers are readers, and many readers are writers. As the politicians are so fond of saying, we're all in this together. By making myself anonymous, I'm detaching myself from a new and collaborative way of doing things, just because I'm afraid to let anyone I know in the 'real world' see me fail. And that's just silly.
Admittedly, I'm not ready to bring all the parts of my life together yet. I don't want to try and sell myself with a glamorised photo, or use my family to boost my Twitter numbers. But I do want to get to know people and let them get to know me. For that reason, my plan for the month is to reveal something new about myself every day. Make myself a little less anonymous by sharing some of my personal fears, dreams and opinions. Stick around, and you might even get to find out what A.F.E. stands for …
But probably not.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
It's not too late to join in the A to Z Challenge! You have until Monday night to sign up, so if you want some encouragement to write every day then why not give it a try?
Today is the last Sunday in March, which means we’re about a quarter of the way through the year already. (Tries to restrain sense of overwhelming panic that wells up at that realisation.) So I thought it would be appropriate to look back over the past three months and see how my plan to write every day has been going.
In short, it’s not going great.
The observant among you may have noticed that the number of days showing on my little homepage counter is slightly fewer than the number of days that have passed so far in 2012. There have been a couple of days when for various reasons – some more valid than others – I haven’t managed to write a word. And with a baby due to arrive in the family soon, I have no doubt there’ll be more of those to come. That’s OK. It’s the spirit of the thing that matters, not following it to the absolute letter.
Still, you may be thinking, missing a total of three days in three months is pretty good. I must have got a lot done in that time, right?
Well, no. And that’s the point of this blog post. To highlight some of the bad habits I’ve fallen into, so that maybe you can avoid them. (Don’t say I never do anything for you.)
First of all, giving myself the goal of writing every day has allowed me to fall into the trap of thinking that if I write something every day, however little, I’m succeeding. So as soon as I’ve written a few sentences, a switch will be triggered in my mind that tells me I’ve done what I need to do. After that, if I’m not careful, it’s very easy to give in to the demands of some other claim on my time (even if that claim is something wholly unimportant, like – just to pick an example at random – singing along to cheesy love songs on the radio).
Added to that, more often than not, there won’t be time for more than those few sentences. Because I tend to put it off. I come home after work and I’m tired, so I take a rest (usually in the form of Big Bang Theory and some chocolate). I eat my evening meal. I get sucked into watching a film with my partner or debating the relative merits of white versus cream tiles in the bathroom (we’re very good at spending hours getting all the information we need to make a decision, not so good at actually making it). Before I know it, it’s 10:30 and I’m falling asleep. At which point, I’ll just about manage to scribble a paragraph of some degree of coherence before it’s time for bed. And the next day, I’ll get up and do it all again.
Weekends bring a bit more time. But even then, I’m way too easily distracted – mostly, it has to be said, by books. I’ll take a break from writing to have a snack, decide I need to read something while I’m eating, and three hours later I’ll still be reading. This happens even with books I’ve read before. (I probably shouldn’t keep a bookcase of fantasy favourites in my spare-room-stroke-office.) The annoying thing about that is there are plenty of things I could be reading that would be more useful – other writers’ works in progress that I’ve volunteered to give feedback on, or even my own stuff that needs editing. But it’s just not the same. Reading critically requires an entirely different brain from the one I use for reading as a distraction. The secret would be not to pick up the book in the first place, but somehow I just can’t help myself.
As a result of all this, yes, I’ve been writing (almost) every day. But the amount I’ve actually got done hasn’t improved significantly on last year.
I know the solution to all these problems would be to have more self-discipline. I ought to come home from work and hit the computer for an hour before I do anything else. I ought to get up first thing on a Saturday and get a chapter written before breakfast. I really have nothing and no-one to blame but myself. Yet I’m sure you know how it is. Having a full-time job and trying to be a writer is essentially like having two full-time jobs; sometimes a person just needs to relax and stop concentrating for a while. It’s an excuse, yes, but it’s not a totally invalid one.
Still, I haven’t given up. I will try to do better. But if anyone has any suggestions as to how, I’d love to hear them.
"Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It's not just a question of how-to, you see; it's also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing."
– Stephen King, On Writing
All of us, at one time or another, have probably sat through the same English class. You know: the one where the teacher got you to write a paragraph describing an everyday object in new and unusual ways. The one where the difference between similes and metaphors was hammered out as laboriously as your homework on a Sunday afternoon.* The one where you had to come up with better synonyms for overused adverbs like 'quickly' and 'loudly'. (No-one told you that in ten years' time you would come to look upon all adverbs as a thing of evil.) At the end of the lesson, you left with a head full of purple prose and the vague feeling that you'd never be able to look at a cloud again without seeing sky-sheep grazing on an endless field of cornflowers, but you'd also absorbed one key message.
Description is Important.
What you probably didn't learn at school – or at least, I certainly didn't – was when and where to use these new-found skills in a piece of fiction. Personally, back then I was under the impression that the right thing to do was start a chapter with a nice long description to set the scene, before launching into the action. And indeed, I can remember reading plenty of books at the time that followed that kind of structure. If the description was too long then I'd skim it (being more interested in plot than beautiful words in those days), but nevertheless I thought it was the convention. Write the opening description, write the following action, then stitch the two together.
Whether that was true or not (and I think it becomes more so as you look further and further back in time), things have now changed. The move away from third-person omniscient and towards third-person limited – the tendency to stick to one character's viewpoint for the course of at least an entire scene, rather than hopping from person to person – means that this kind of description is usually no longer appropriate. The omniscient narrators of the past would describe a scene from their own perspective and with authorial asides to the reader; they had no problem intruding upon their own narrative. Today's writers, with close POV as their mantra, don't have that option. It feels artificial for a character to stand around describing the landscape for several paragraphs before getting on with whatever they're doing. Description has to be integrated into the character's other experiences and perceptions – and it has to be specific to that character.
Of course, this doesn't mean being able to write good descriptions is no longer important. In fact, it means the exact opposite. Authors can no longer indulge themselves in two pages of clever wordsmithery about exactly how dark and stormy the night was. Rather than being separated from the characters, description becomes part of them. In a close third-person or first-person novel, good description is both brief and idiosyncratic. It gives the reader a mental picture of what's being described, but it also reveals something about the character whose viewpoint it's written from. And that's actually a lot harder than the kind of description we learned at school.
These days, we can no longer treat description as being distinct from a character's thoughts, dialogue or actions. When writing close POV, all these things stem from the character herself. Anything that's described is described for a reason: because it's what was important or noticeable to that character at the time. Someone who's in a strange place will observe all kinds of details, particularly those that differ from his previous experience. Someone who's afraid for her life will focus on what might have an impact on her chances of survival. Someone who's deeply upset may very well be more caught up in himself to the exclusion of the world around him. And so on. As for comparisons, take this: there was a metallic scraping sound, like a sword being drawn from its sheath. All well and good, you may say … unless the POV is that of the archetypal farmboy who's never seen (or heard) a sword in his life. In that case, even if you know it's a sword, he'd be much more likely to compare it to a chinking bridle or a piece of machinery.
In short, to all questions of description – what makes a good description? how frequently should I add them to my writing? how do I know if my descriptions are too florid or too sparse? – there is now a single answer: it depends whose viewpoint you're writing from. Know your characters inside out, and everything else will follow.
* See what I did there?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Take a short descriptive scene that's written from one character's point of view, and try writing it from the POV of another participant in that scene. How do the descriptions vary? Do the two people notice different things, or the same thing in different ways? Are the descriptions appropriate to their personalities and previous experiences?
Remember when you discovered your favourite books for the first time? The ones you loved so much you've read them five or six times more since; the ones that were so real to you, you almost believed they were true?
Me too. Brilliant, isn't it? There's nothing quite like that feeling of being totally caught up in another world, to the exclusion of the one around you. That sense of knowing the characters, of caring about them, of desperately wanting things to go right for them. You can't beat lifting your head from a book and realising it's two o'clock in the morning and your eyes are sore with reading so much, yet it doesn't matter because the story has temporarily become more important than anything else in your life. I had that with Lord of the Rings when I was 9. I had it with The Wheel of Time when I was 16. I even had it with Kushiel's Legacy when I was 23.
Funny, though – it's rare for me to feel that way about a book any more. Or about anything else, for that matter. These days, I find it almost impossible to lose myself in a story. I can read it and appreciate it, even be gripped by it to a certain extent, but I can always put it down when it's time for bed. There's always a part of me that remains detached from the unfolding events, no matter how dramatic they are.
In short, my friends, I have lost my sense of wonder.
Some of it, I'm sorry to say, is probably an inevitable function of age. When I was a teen I had an almost limitless capacity to immerse myself in things that interested me. Maybe I had fresher eyes; maybe I had better powers of concentration; maybe I wasn't afflicted by that awful sense of time passing that seems to have crept up on me as an adult. (Now, I spend more than a couple of hours with a book and a little voice inside my mind starts yelling that I should be doing something else.) Whatever the reason, I consumed fantasy literature voraciously and uncritically. More than that – I lived it. I can't do that any more.
Another part of it is surely the job I do. I'm an editor. It's my job to notice the niggles, flaws and holes in other people's writing. And as I've become a better editor, I've become a worse reader – because it's very difficult to switch off the critical part of the brain and just go with the flow. I suppose it's like becoming a wine connoisseur: once you know how to identify good-quality wine, you'll never again be able to enjoy the £5.99 bottle of red you used to pick up from the supermarket. It's the same for most writers. Once you learn how to be critical of your own writing, you soon find yourself applying the same analysis to other people's – even if you don't want to.
Yet perhaps there's still more to it than that. When I started out as a writer, many moons ago, I lacked technical ability and a knowledge of the industry and pretty much everything else I needed to succeed. But I did have one thing going for me: I believed in concepts like heroism and bravery and honour. I had a sense of the importance and grandeur of fantasy. I found real meaning in it. Since then I've become more cynical, and it seems fantasy has too. Yet while I appreciate the grit and the ambiguity, the anti-heroes and the playing with tropes, I feel as though I've lost something along the way. The sense of wonder has gone, to be replaced by something more knowing and concomitantly less pure.
To enjoy fantasy in its truest form, you have to take it seriously. And sometimes I worry that with our collective deconstruction of the genre, we're losing the ability to do that. If you don't believe in acts of selfless courage or breathtaking heroism – if all your protagonists are morally grey – then you may achieve realism, but you'll lose sight of the true heart of fantasy. Because at heart, fantasy is the struggle between light and darkness that's in all of us. And when we see the light win in fiction, we can be inspired to believe that's possible in real life too.
Do you agree that the ability to lose yourself in literature diminishes with age/writing experience? What books have you read recently that rekindled your sense of wonder?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Are there times when you become heartily sick of your main project? If so, rather than stop writing altogether, why not try something completely different? This one was sent to me by @mlhroberts a few weeks ago: How to Start a Twitter Novel. If you decide to give it a go then please let me know!
I'd better start with a proviso: I'm not one of those people who thinks films and books are essentially the same thing and therefore require exactly the same set of skills to write. I'm well aware that the two media have different abilities, conventions and limitations. All the same, there are useful lessons that writers can learn from the movies – and here are some of them.
1. Show, don't tell
Yes, I know it's the most basic 'rule' we as writers have. Yes, I know it can sometimes be usefully broken. But if you're struggling with the concept of showing rather than telling, it might be helpful to think about film as a medium. Because 'show, don't tell' is precisely what a film does.
How do we know a character in a film is angry? By how he looks, what he says and what he does. How do we learn what someone's personality is like? By seeing her in a series of situations and getting to know how she reacts. You'll never hear a character who's experiencing a strong emotion yell 'I'm so angry!' or sob 'I'm so unhappy!' And (most of the time) you'll never see a character turn to the camera and tell you who they are, what they like doing and what's their greatest flaw. So if you want to show rather than tell, imagine your character in a movie. If they wouldn't naturally say a particular line out loud in that context, don't write it as part of their POV.
Incidentally, writers can go one better than filmmakers here – because we can describe a character's situations and reactions using all the senses, not just hearing and sight. Get it right, and your scene can be even richer and more immersive than it would be on film.
2. Cut the backstory
A two-hour film leaves no room for lengthy setup or exposition. Most of the time, the audience is thrown into the action and expected to work it out as they go along. This is particularly relevant to sci-fi and fantasy authors, who often feel as though they need to explain everything to their readers up front. In that sense, filmmakers tend to give their audience more credit than writers do. People don't want or need all the details of how a world works before they even get into the first scene. They can figure it out for themselves.
3. What you don't say can convey more than what you do
A good actor can make one speaking glance worth a whole paragraph of dialogue. Likewise, a good writer can say in a single sentence what someone else might have taken a whole paragraph to get across. Guess which one has more impact?
In a way, this is another example of 'give your readers more credit'. People are very good at picking up the subtleties and reading the subtext. And anything has more impact when it's used sparingly than when it's scattered all over the place like confetti.
4. Don't let the special effects drive the narrative
I'm sure we can all think of films that are stuffed full of special effects but have little in the way of plot, realistic characters or emotional heart. There are plenty of ways that this comes up in writing, too. Strings of gratuitous action/sex scenes with little to hold them together, for example. Or details of a fantasy world crammed in for the sake of it rather than because they're relevant to the characters at that moment. Even clever structural devices or a love of flamboyant language can become 'special effects' if they're allowed to take precedence over the story itself. Whether you're dealing with a book or a film, it's the characters' journey that the audience will remember in the end.
5. No-one will notice the deleted scenes
We've probably all been there: agonising for hours about cutting a particular scene from a book. We know it needs to go, for reasons of length or structure or plot. But we're convinced that everyone who reads the book will get to that point and see the gaping hole where the scene used to be.
If you ever find yourself in that situation, just think of a DVD. You've watched the film itself, and now you turn to the extras and start watching the deleted scenes. Did you notice their absence while you were watching the film? Can you even remember where half of them should fit? Probably not – because what you saw was the finished product. You weren't aware that the deleted scenes ever existed, and so you didn't miss them. That's what editing is all about.
That's it from me, but I'm sure there are other lessons that writers can learn from the movies (and indeed vice versa). Please feel free to add them in the comments section!
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Take a scene from your book and imagine it's going to be filmed. Now describe the scene: what happens on camera, what the characters say, details of the setting. Make sure you restrict yourself to only what the audience will experience – in other words, any explanatory or inferential text is out.
When you've finished, read back through the scene. What's it like? Is there anything in it you can use?
As some of you know, I'm an editor as well as a writer. Getting the right words in the right order is how I make my living. Which is why I get the tiniest bit annoyed when I hear aspiring authors say things like this: "I'm not too bothered about my spelling/punctuation/grammar [delete as applicable]. I know it's not very good, but a proofreader can sort it out."
Great. I'm glad you want to give a fellow professional some work. But at the same time, speaking as a writer … really? You're happy to let someone else decide what your words mean?
Spelling, punctuation and grammar are like the stage directions in a play. Without them, the actors all face forward and speak their lines without any shade of inflection or meaning. If you want to convey exactly what you had in mind when you wrote your words, you have to get these basic things right. It isn't a matter of being pedantic for the sake of it. It's a matter of being pedantic in order to make sure your meaning is understood.
In a similar vein, I've noticed a tendency for people to dismiss errors in their work as 'typos'. Fine, if they genuinely have made one or two spelling errors here and there. Even if you get five different people to read through your work, there's bound to be at least one mistake you and they all overlook. But consistent misspellings or misuse of apostrophes? They're not typos. They're tools being wielded incorrectly. If you met a carpenter who referred to his constant failure to craft a tight-fitting joint as a 'slip', or a plumber who described her recurring inability to fix a leak as a 'minor error', you'd assume they were incompetent. So why is it OK for a writer not to possess the full set of basic skills they need for their own particular trade?
I'm not saying that people shouldn't make mistakes, nor that they should be born knowing everything. Both are impossible. But what I do object to is an attitude that says I don't need to learn any of this stuff, because it's not important. Some people seem to think that an ability to write well is a natural talent and, as such, they don't have to work for it. Yet in taking that approach, they're confusing aptitude and technique. A professional in any craft needs both. You can be born with an amazing ear for music, but unless you learn how to play the piano you'll never be a concert pianist. You can have the potential to be the world's greatest athlete, but that won't get you anywhere without training. And you can have an innate ability to tell a story, but unless you learn how to tell it no-one will ever take you seriously.
I'm aware we're not aided by the world around us. The modern user relies on a spellchecker to point out mistakes and assumes that the computer rather than the human brain knows best. I've complained before about how the auto-correct feature on the iPod (among others) constantly changes its to it's, whether or not it's appropriate – a perfect way to teach an entire generation of people how to use an apostrophe incorrectly. And I'm often amazed by the basic grammatical errors appearing in promotional literature from the biggest and most respected of companies. But we are writers. We, of all people, should be standing up in defence of the conventions that allow us to convey our meaning clearly and accurately.
Yes, we need creativity. Yes, we need brilliant characterisation and a gripping plot and sparkling dialogue. Yet for our own sake, we also need to know how to spell properly and how to punctuate a sentence. If we let these things go then the subtle differences that it's possible to convey by using, say, a semicolon instead of a colon will also be lost. And as George Orwell knew very well, if a language loses its capacity to express particular nuances and shades of meaning then it won't be long before our ability even to think them begins to deteriorate as well.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Since I've got my editor's hat on this week, this is a tip about editing.
As we all know, writing the words is only half the battle. Editing them is just as important and can often take far longer. In the past I've tended to write a book, then spend the next period of time concentrating solely on editing it. But in fact that's probably a bad idea, for two reasons.
First, focusing on editing means you're no longer maintaining the creative flow that sustained you while you were writing. I'm not saying editing isn't a creative task – because it is – but it's a different kind of creativity. If you spend months editing a book, and nothing else, then when it comes to writing the next one you'll have a hard job getting going again.
Second, you learn things while you're editing. You learn what works and what doesn't, how to phrase things in a tighter way, which words you overuse. If you start writing your next book while you're still editing the last one, those lessons will be fresh in your mind and you can apply them – which means the next time you reach the editing stage, your task will be shorter.
So, in short, I'd suggest that even when you're ready to edit a project, you don't stop trying to write every day. Instead, maintain momentum by writing short fiction or experimental scenes or another book at the same time. Both your writing and your editing will benefit from it.
My defence of fantasy last week stirred up a lot of interest, leaving me feeling like an obscure band who have suddenly achieved a hit and are wondering how on earth they can top it. After all, there's unlikely to be anything that fantasy readers and writers agree with more than Fantasy is a Good Thing. So what would my theoretical band do in such a situation? Well, I suspect they'd obey the three main rules of the follow-up single: start with a catchy hook, build to an exciting finale, and – most importantly – make sure there's a half-naked woman in the music video.
Yep, you guessed it: I'm going to talk about sex.*
But first – it being February, the season of valentines and, er, other heart-shaped things – I'm going to talk about romance. Most fantasy novels these days (and I'm referring to mainstream fantasy rather than fantasy romance, which is a genre of its own) seem to have some kind of love story in them. I have no particular objection to that: relationships are a significant part of what it means to be human, after all, and that's what fantasy is all about. Yet at the same time, there are a couple of things that frustrate me about romance in fantasy.
There's nothing worse than feeling as though a romance has been tacked on because the author thought they ought to include one ('readers like love stories'). If I as a reader can't see how the two people in question ever came to be together – because they're completely incompatible, or because they go straight from hating each other to falling into bed together – then my belief in the novel as a whole is completely shattered. It often amazes me how much effort an author puts into every little detail of their world, only to fail to convince in this most fundamental of areas. Your average reader won't know whether it's realistic that a warrior should carry two swords and a throwing axe, or that a city's sewage system is based on bacteria. They will know if a relationship feels forced or unrealistic. As I always say: get the people right, and the rest will follow.
The best romances are the ones where you're longing for the characters to get together, without it feeling as inevitable as a sob story on a reality TV show. Where the romance plays a key role in character development, in that the parties involved have to change and grow in order for their relationship to come to fruition. Most of us know that real-life love stories are rarely as simple as 'their eyes met across a crowded room'. They require time and patience and compromise. For me, there are too many romances out there in which the woman apparently wants the man for reasons as superficial as looks or unusual talents or that good old standby, his alpha male status. In which the man wants the woman for some so-called special 'quality' about her that's nothing to do with her personality whatsoever (yes, Twilight, I'm talking about you). Can we please have relationships that, while by all means involving mutual attraction and a bit of sparky argument, also involve things like shared values and a sense of humour and the gradual development of trust? Thank you.
Now. I promised sex, and here it is – because while romance is a fantasy staple by now, sex is still a contentious issue. For some reason we're perfectly happy reading about people hacking each other to pieces, but as soon as they take their clothes off we come over all prudish about it. Personally, I'm not one to write in great detail about sex – at least, not in any mechanical detail – because that kind of thing seems better left to erotica. But then, nor would I write in great detail about blood and gore and intestines spilling out all over the place. I'm generally of the opinion that imagination is far more effective than graphic description when it comes to both sex and violence. Whether you agree with me or not, the point is that I'm consistent. But if one is going to write about these things at all, I fail to see why people finding joy or solace or simple carnal pleasure in each other is more offensive than people trying to murder each other with a variety of bladed instruments.
If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably psychological. Most of us are taught as we're growing up that sex is something to be discussed only in private. Something to be embarrassed about. A teenager wouldn't be at all disconcerted by his parents walking in while he was watching a violent film, but make that an explicit sex scene and there's a world of shame right there. We're used to killing people in a variety of interesting ways through the computer games we play – we're surrounded by images of weaponry on movie posters and book covers – and as a result we end up being much more offended by graphic sex than graphic violence, when arguably it should be the other way round.
Of course, there may be another reason why the ratio of sex to violence in fantasy is so low: authors are afraid of making their readers cringe. Because, after all, it's very easy to write a bad sex scene. Enjoy!
* The title was a bit of a giveaway in that respect.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
It's a short one this week: don't give up. As I know from trying to keep a diary when I was younger, this is the time of year when initial enthusiasm for new projects begins to fade. But stick with it, and soon you'll break through that invisible barrier to find a place where writing every day has become second nature to you … at least, that's what I'm hoping!
There are certain sweeping statements that people who don't like fantasy seem to make over and over again. I can only conclude that either these people have never read any fantasy, or their experience of the genre starts and ends with Lord of the Rings. What follows is my attempt to bust some of the common myths.
1. Fantasy is for children.
If, by this sweeping claim, you mean fantasy is a form of juvenile wish-fulfilment then I would respectfully point you to the many hardships, moral dilemmas and deep-rooted personal questions that fantasy characters typically have to face. Anyone who actually wants to live inside a fantasy novel must really enjoy confronting their worst fears. No, there are far worse offenders around when it comes to unrealistic daydreaming (cheap romance, anyone?).
If you mean fantasy can recapture some of the wonder, excitement and sense of adventure that we only have when we're children, whilst at the same time confronting the fundamental questions that most 'adult' fiction seems to shy away from, then yes. Fantasy is for children – or at least, anyone who was once a child.
2. Is that why it's so easy to write?
I have no idea whether fantasy is easier to write than any other genre. It's certainly no easier to write well.
This misconception may come from the fact that there are an awful lot of would-be fantasy authors around – more, perhaps, than the market can take. But concluding this means fantasy is easy to write is like using the existence of the X Factor to prove that it's easy to be a musician.
3. Well, ok, but it's not really literature, is it?
No, for a certain narrow definition of literature. But nor is crime, thriller, historical fiction, chick-lit or anything else that can be categorised by genre. So it's not like fantasy really loses out on that score.
For a more sensible definition of literature, yes, fantasy can be as beautifully and cleverly written as anything else. But like any other genre, there are literary fantasises and commercial fantasies; language-focused narratives and action-focused narratives. Exactly where a book falls between these poles is up to the individual author, not some mysterious set of genre guidelines.
4. I'm just not into elves and orcs and stuff.
Great! Nor are many (most?) fantasy authors.
The wonderful thing about fantasy is its breadth and depth. Sure, there are Tolkien clones out there, but there are also numerous unique and fascinating worlds just waiting to be discovered. One of them is sure to suit your taste, whether you like your magic flashy, gut-wrenching or non-existent.
Fantasy may have been heavily influenced by Tolkien, but it didn't end there. Nor, if you're interested, did music end with the Beatles.
5. But it isn't real.
It's as real as love. It's as real as courage, despair, freedom, hope and friendship.
If you answered 'but those things aren't real either' then I suggest you go and read a book about dry rot or something equally tangible, and leave fiction to those of us who still believe in life.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
'Lock the doors, stop the clocks, switch off the internet' – @HMGoodchild
The interweb is a wonderful thing. But it's also a distraction and a massive time-waster.
If possible, I really would recommend writing on a computer without an internet connection, or even (if you like things old school) a notebook. The non-electronic kind. And if, like me, you have a partner with an iDevice then ask him/her to hide it somewhere you'll never, ever find it.
Of course, this doesn't apply to genuine research. But just so you know, spending hours on TV Tropes isn't research. Especially if you're not writing anything down.
There are all kinds of writing 'rules' washing around the interweb: most of them, it has to be said, ignored by virtually every published book I've ever read. Don't write in first person present, for instance – not sure if it's coincidence, but all the books I've enjoyed recently have been written in that very tense. Or don't use the verb 'to feel' (as in, to use a generic example, 'I felt a nervous flutter in my stomach' as opposed to 'Nerves fluttered in my stomach'). Or even our old friend don't use adverbs. Every successful writer I know ignores that one – sometimes.
Of course, it's the sometimes that matters. The point is, like all rules, these should come with a caveat: unless it's for a good enough reason. In any craft, the novice breaks the rules because he doesn't realise the difference; as he begins to learn, he absorbs those rules and sticks rigidly to them, believing them to be absolutes. Yet as he grows still further in confidence and knowledge, he learns where the rules can be bent and where they can be broken. He learns that the 'absolutes' are really a set of guidelines. And thus the difference between the amateur and the professional is that the amateur follows the rules because, well, them's the rules. The professional follows them because she knows why they work – and when they don't.
This is all really interesting stuff, and bound up also with the wider question of style (because, after all, no-one can have style if all they do is follow the rules. That's just painting by numbers). But it's not what I set out to talk about. No, I came here to wave the flag for another much-maligned and misunderstood friend of mine: the prologue.
The rule there is simply don't use a prologue. And indeed, I've heard all kinds of bizarre statements about the poor persecuted prologue. No agent will touch a novel that starts with a prologue, it seems. If you have a prologue then you should consider making it your first chapter or cutting it completely. Some people don't even bother to read them and skip straight on to Chapter 1. Clearly no-one in their right mind would include one in their book.
Well, setting aside the fact that I simply cannot understand someone not reading a prologue – which, after all, is part of the writer's vision and put there for a reason – it seems to me there's an awful lot of confusion here. Certainly there are plenty of ways to write a prologue badly (the info-dump prologue, in which a fantasy writer pours out all the supposedly vital facts about the history of their world in a dry regurgitation of invented knowledge, springs to mind). But then, there are plenty of ways to write a book badly. Generalising about prologues is like generalising about books. Each one should be taken on its own merits.
If a book has a prologue then it's safe to assume the writer chose to put it there. As such, it shouldn't be treated by the reader any differently from a first chapter (though no doubt the writer has chosen it as a literary device because it fulfils a different structural purpose). Come across a book with a prologue you hate, and chances are you won't like the book. But come across a prologue you love, that intrigues you and makes you want to read more – well, then, it's done its job. It's the exception that proves the rule. Because, like all those other rules, don't use a prologue should be followed by except if it works.
How to make it work is another matter entirely, and one I don't claim to be an expert on, so I'll simply end by listing a few of the benefits that a prologue can bring to a book, if it's done well. It can add depth and richness, bringing a context or a viewpoint that wouldn't have been available from the main narrative. It can widen the book's sense of history by touching on another time and place. It can tease the reader with hints of what is to come, or give insights that are only fully realised once the book has been read. It can grab the reader by the throat and drag them kicking and screaming into the main body of the story.
Remind me again why you wouldn't want one in your novel?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
You know that scene you just can't bring yourself to write? The one that sits there like a big black hole in your manuscript, except instead of sucking you in it repels you every time you get near it? Well, this week is a perfect time to make yourself tackle it.
To do that, you need to work out why you're so reluctant to write the darn thing in the first place. If it's because it's boring to write then you should seriously think about cutting it, or changing it, because chances are it'll be boring to read as well. If it's because the words just won't flow then maybe you need to do more research (it's hard to write convincingly about something you know nothing about). Or maybe you're trying to force your characters into uncharacteristic behaviour for the sake of the plot and they won't cooperate – that's always a bad idea and you're probably better off listening to them. If you're struggling because the scene is too emotional and you find it painful to write, you just have to go with it. Pick a time when it doesn't matter if you end up bawling like a baby and immerse yourself in the very thing you're afraid of. Your readers will feel what you feel, and the scene will be all the better for it.
Looking back over the long and glorious history of my blog (i.e. the past four months), I realised that I haven't talked much about fantasy writing specifically. As a fantasy writer myself, that seems a little remiss of me. And since there's one aspect of writing that's more relevant to fantasy (and its hi-tech cousin, sci-fi) than any other genre, I thought that would be the best place to start.
For those of you who don't know, worldbuilding is simply the process of creating and filling in the details of the world that a book's characters inhabit. In most genres that's fairly simple, because the world in question is our own. In some genres – horror, for instance – it requires the addition of an extra layer that isn't part of our everyday reality (werewolves or vampires or whatever it happens to be). And in fantasy, it's the foundation of the entire novel.
So let's go back to basics. What is the most important thing to bear in mind when creating a fantasy world? What is the number one consideration? What, in fact, is the first rule of worldbuilding?
Well, for a start, it isn't You do not talk about worldbuilding. Otherwise this would be a pretty short discussion. Nor, contrary to what some seem to think, is it You load up your world with all the coolest weapons and monsters you can think of, chuck in an impossibly muscular hero and see what happens. And it certainly isn't You take the plot and dialogue patterns of LOTR, add a couple of swearwords to make it gritty and label it 'The next big epic everyone's talking about!!'. No, if I had to pick one rule, one principle to follow when creating a fantasy world, it would be this:
Everything has to be logical.
Though that may seem like a second-rate Spock quotation, it's actually very important. If a world has internal consistency then it's possible to believe anything that's written about it – and belief, above all things, is what writers want to instill in their readers (if only for the duration of the book). If you were reading a thriller and suddenly, for no obvious reason, the gun floated out of the villain's hand, allowing the heroine to knock him out, you'd feel pretty cheated. It would break the laws of physics, of causality, of probability: all laws that we know exist and operate in the world around us. Of course, most of the time this isn't even an issue, because thriller writers don't have to think about the laws of the world they're writing in; they grew up with them, and so the logic comes naturally. But when you add a layer of worldbuilding to the narrative, that's when it can all start to go wrong.
I say that, but the problem seems to be far less common in sci-fi than in fantasy. Sci-fi writers have to be rigorous, because the things they invent have to be plausible technologies. OK, no-one reading a sci-fi novel today is ever going to know whether the author's vision of 2312 was correct, but it has to at least be possible based on what we know now. Most sci-fi writers are aware of that, and they put a lot of effort into making their systems coherent and consistent. So why in the name of Arthur C. Clarke do so many fantasy writers lose all sense of logic as soon as they pick up their quills?
I've heard people say they don't like fantasy because 'it's unrealistic' or 'anything can happen'. But the point is, it shouldn't. When you're building a fantasy world, every single detail has profound consequences. Decide your system of magic requires fresh-laid eggs to work, and you can't suddenly change your mind when the hero finds himself in a desperate situation with not a chicken in sight. And because you're inventing the world from scratch, the issue goes even deeper. OK, so you've got a city in the middle of the barren desert plains; that's fine, but you'd better have a damn good answer to the question of why they didn't build it a few miles to the south where there's a handy water supply, or a few miles to the north where it would have been elevated above the surrounding terrain. And no, before you ask, because it's cooler that way is not a valid reason.
So, if I had to give one piece of advice to the fledgling writer about to take their first steps down the worldbuilding path, it would be this: please, please think everything through first. Yes, you can be as inventive and as creative as you like; yes, you can have mile-high cities and magic based on rainbows; but above all things, your world must have its own logic – and stick to it.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Choose an aspect of your world (if it's a standard fantasy trope, so much the better). For instance, say swords are the main weapon. Now ask yourself a series of questions. Is steel common? Is it cheap? Who can afford it? Who produces it? If there's magic in your world, why don't people use that as a weapon instead? How come gunpowder hasn't been discovered yet? Do people walk around armed as a matter of course? What effect does that have on the level of crime? And so on. Once you've finished, you'll have solidified the logic behind that area of your narrative, and maybe created some useful social/historical/economic background to draw on as well.