A couple of weeks ago, I was tagged by fellow fantasy author Kate Jack to take part in the WIP Blog Hop. So after thoroughly gorging myself on last week’s Chocolate Bar Challenge, I’ve taken up this new opportunity with alacrity! No chocolate in this one, I’m afraid, but you will get to find out a little bit more about my writing … oh, OK, and I’ll open a box of truffles at the end.
First, a word about Kate: she is a wonderful writer of young adult fantasy, a never-failing supporter of other authors and one of the founding members of the Alliance of Worldbuilders. You can find out much more about her and her excellent books at kateannejack.wordpress.com. Please do pay her a visit!
So, now to the challenge. The idea is to answer seven questions about my current work in progress, but I’m going to cheat a little bit. My actual current WIP is the first sequel to Darkhaven, but talking about it would reveal a fair bit about Darkhaven itself – which I really don’t want to do, seeing as it hasn’t even been released yet! So instead, I’m going to talk about Darkhaven. I think we can count it as a WIP right up to its publication date, right? ;-)
The Chocolate Bar Challenge is a blog tour in which participants choose up to eight of their favourite books and then pick the perfect chocolate to go with each of them. And if there's one thing I like more than reading, or eating chocolate, it's eating chocolate whilst reading. There's nothing better than settling down for an evening with a good book and a box of Maltesers.
I was tagged to join the tour by the lovely Megan Denby, author of the historical romance thriller A Thistle in the Mist. Megan is a Canadian author with Scottish roots who enjoys dragonboating, watching hockey and spending time with her wife and six children. You can find out more about her on her website and read about her own fabulous book/chocolate combos in her original blog post.
And now, before I tag a couple more authors to join in the fun, here are my own choices. It was really hard to pick my favourite books, but I decided to restrict myself to fantasy fiction and that made it a little bit easier ... just a bit ...
What with Baby Smith's cold and his corresponding rejection of anything sleep-related, I haven't got a great deal of writing done recently; but I have, at least, managed a little bit of editing.
Here's the scene from Dawn Rising where Oriana is about to be married to the man who killed her mother. My difficulty with Oriana is that I'm always afraid people will read her as weak or passive. She isn't: she's badly hurt, out of options and being controlled by someone with far more power and cruelty than she possesses. Sometimes, strength can be as simple as refusing to let our tears fall. (Sometimes it can be as simple as letting them fall, but that's another story.) Anyway, I'd welcome your comments and/or criticism.
Earlier I was humming 'Mother Knows Best' from the Disney animated film Tangled (er, as you do) when it occurred to me that Rapunzel is pretty unique among Disney characters for having not one but two mothers. OK, so one of them is actually a passive-aggressive manipulator who stole Rapunzel to keep herself young, but it can't be said that Rapunzel lacks a mother figure in her life. Yet in general, being the mother of a Disney hero/heroine reduces your chances of actually being alive at the start of the movie to almost zero. Stepmother? You're safe, particularly if you can summon up an evil laugh. But mother? You'd be better off living in Midsomer.*
This got me thinking about my own characters - and yes, once again, they're a fairly motherless lot. Dawn Rising? The mothers of all five protagonists are either dead or unwillingly separated from their offspring. Darkhaven? Two dead mothers, one who abandoned her children, and the rest ... absent. Even in my YA project Arcana, the narrator's mother is dead and she has a stepmother (affectionately known as E.S., short for ... I'm sure you can figure it out). Yet fathers are much more prominent. True, some of them are dead, too, but many are present in their children's lives, influencing them for better or for worse.
And, of course, it's not just me. Look at some of the most popular books of the past decade or so. Harry Potter? The death of Harry's parents, but particularly his mother (who died for his sake), shapes the entire narrative. Twilight? The story starts with Bella leaving her mother to live with her father. The Hunger Games? Katniss has had to take on the role of mother to Prim because their own mother can no longer cope. The Da Vinci Code? Arguably the entire book is about a mother who has supposedly been excised from history ... yeah, I'm probably taking it a step too far with that one. Be that as it may, in the rest of the novels I've just mentioned, the mother's main influence comes from not being there any more.
So where have all the mothers gone? Why is the missing mother such an engrained fantasy trope?
Well, let me say straight away that there are exceptions. Pixar's film Brave was interesting because, at heart, it was the story of a mother and daughter mending their relationship. And A Song of Ice and Fire is notable for featuring several alive** and actively participating mothers; the maternal instinct is shown to be a strong and potentially dangerous force that has wide-reaching consequences. But the point is, these are exceptions. People comment on them, which means they're unusual. They only throw into sharper relief that gaping void where all the other mothers should be.
My feeling is that the trope is so pervasive because, on a fundamental psychological level, we can't conceive of anything more frightening than losing our mothers. Bad and abusive mothers notwithstanding, some key equation is built into our DNA that tells us Mother = Safety. And as we all know, a safe character is a boring character. Remove someone's mother, and you're removing an emotional comfort blanket. A missing mother - whether dead or simply not there - is fictional shorthand for all kinds of things, from forced self-reliance to a search for identity, but probably the core one is vulnerability. Whether it's as external as not having someone there to advise the character when they're making a stupid decision, or as internal as emotional self-sabotage, No Mother = Danger. Which is why, although I'd love to see some really strong mother-child relationships in fantasy fiction, I suspect there are plenty more motherless characters to come. After all, if you have that strong a relationship with your living, present, available-for-tea-and-sympathy mother then you can cope with anything life throws at you. And where's the fun in that?
Of course, for those of you (like me) who are mothers yourselves, this comes with an additional layer of scary - for two reasons. One, you are someone's safety. You are what stands as protector between your children and the world; you are what has to step aside, in the end, to let them grow up, whilst remaining the ever-present fallback. That's probably the biggest responsibility anyone can have. And two ... two, if you find yourself between the pages of a fantasy novel, chances are the author is going to kill you off to give your children a background of rich emotional trauma. Sorry. Don't say I didn't warn you.
* For those unfamiliar with Midsomer Murders, it's a UK detective series set in a quiet rural county in which every week, almost without fail, someone is murdered. Basically, if you live in Midsomer then, sooner or later, you're going to die a horrible and blackly comical death.
** At least to start with.
Cast of characters: Cigam, an enigmatic and bearded wizard. Edragne, a feisty warrior woman. Rieh, a farm boy with a crown-shaped birthmark on his left buttock.* And me.
The company is currently camping in an eerie forest with the sound of wolf howls in the not-so-distance. Cigam is looking enigmatic behind his beard. Edragne and Rieh are engaging in the kind of playfully insulting banter that's a prelude to them sleeping together. I'm hugging my knees and trying not to think about snakes.
Dammit. Now I'm thinking about snakes.
Cigam: We must reach E'calpecin ere break of dawn, else Redael will be slain and Drolkrad triumph.
Rieh: Do we have time for a brief stop by a moonlit pool that has a strangely arousing effect on all who behold it? Only Edragne and I -
Cigam: If you must.
Me: <startled yelp>
Edragne (drawing her sword): What is it? Do you sense the foul minions of Drolkrad approaching?
Me (sheepishly): Something brushed my cheek. I think it was a moth. Can we turn the fire down a bit?
Rieh: The bird-with-outlandish-name-that-happens-to-look-and-taste-a-lot-like-chicken is ready.
Cigam: Thank you, my friend.
(They both tuck enthusiastically into legs.)
Me: Um ... is there a vegetarian option?
(Blank stares all round.)
Me: Something that isn't made out of meat?
Edragne (doubtfully): You could try the bones.
Me: Never mind.
Rieh: You know, as well as my birthmark I also have this sword with sparkly bits that goes zing when I draw it. D'you think that means anything?
Edragne: It means you fight like a little girl, and also that I'll definitely sleep with you when we reach that magic pool.
Rieh: Mum said the sword was my father's. But come to think of it, that's weird, because he was a goat too. (He sees everyone staring.) What? I was raised by goats. That's perfectly normal, isn't it?
Cigam: All will be revealed in good time. Even the gazelle cannot outrun winter.
Me: <stifled scream>
Edragne (drawing her sword again): What is it? Have you foreseen our doom?
Me (shaking an arm frantically): Get it off me! Get it off me!
Edragne: Is it an omen of dire significance?
(I point wordlessly to the small spider clinging to my elbow.)
Edragne (brushing it off): That's nothing. There are spiders in here the size of your head.
Me (shuddering): Seriously? Then what the hell are we doing here?
Cigam: 'Tis the fastest way to E'calpecin. The coastal path, which is entirely danger-free and includes some beautiful vistas, would have taken half an hour longer.
Rieh: But we're still going to have time to visit that pool, right? Only Edragne and I -
Cigam: Yes, my friend. Even the platypus must sing when it rains.
Me: I'm sorry. Did you say platypus? What does that mean?
(Cigam rearranges his beard into a more enigmatic configuration and doesn't reply.)
Rieh: You know what I just noticed? Drolkrad is Dark Lord backwards.**
Cigam: Even a weed does not grow without order. (He looks pointedly at me.) In other words, there is no such thing as coincidence.
Me (in a mutter): Yeah, but there is such a thing as a lazy author ... (Another, bigger spider runs over my foot.) Oh, that's just mean.
To be continued ...
* So I'm told. I didn't peek, honest.
** Having written this scene, I'm now 95% sure that most of the fantasy names in existence were created using this method.
I haven't done one of these in a while, so here's a never-before-seen extract from Dawn Rising. Woo hoo!
In this scene, Luthian is about to take the final step on his path to becoming a mage. (You may find it useful to know that the people of Endarion are each born with a unique birthstone at their throat; it is the removal of the birthstone that allows someone to access the power in blood, both theirs and others'.)
As always, if you have any thoughts (positive or negative) then hit me in the comments section.
There are certain things which, added to the blurb on the back of a book, instantly make that book seem twice as awesome to its intended audience.
For a small boy, it's dinosaurs. Or maybe pirates. (I was particularly amused by an ad in the back of one of Baby Smith's books for Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, a title that reads as if someone grabbed everything boys like off the Shelf of Ideas and mixed it up in a big bowl.*)
For a romance reader, it appears to be a man with a dark past. (Slightly off-white pasts don't cut it in the romance world; you wouldn't get far as a romantic hero if the worst secret you're concealing in the agonised depths of your soul is that you once nearly ran over a squirrel.)
For a sports fan, it's … *tries and fails to dig up any knowledge of sport whatsoever* … er, something to do with balls?
And for fantasy lovers, it has to be dragons.
Which is why you may find it a little odd that one of my works-in-progress used to have dragons in it, and I decided to take them out. If every fantasy tale is that much better with an added pinch of dragon, why deliberately make my novel less awesome? I mean, next thing you know I'll be taking out all the swordfights and making people duel with wooden spoons instead (for health and safety reasons, obviously).
The truth is, you're right. I could have kept my dragons, and they would indeed have been awesome. But I was swayed by that most dreaded of all forces when it comes to writing: Other People's Opinions. I'd read too many blogs and articles and critical reviews that said people were fed up with dragons. Dragons are such a cliché. If I see one more dragon in a fantasy novel I'll scream. Do something more original. And so my beloved dragons got the chop.**
Which was my mistake.
Because the fact is, People With Opinions are sometimes out of step with the opinion of the people. After all, if you went by everything that's written online, you'd deduce that the whole world hated Twilight – when actually, it's a small but vociferous minority. What critics and full-time reviewers and other writers feel about any given aspect of a book isn't necessarily what most readers feel. So, straight-up battle between good and evil? Still popular (Harry Potter, anyone?). Vast epic in which the end of the book is by no means the end of the story? Still popular (A Song of Ice and Fire isn't exactly failing). And dragons? Yep, still popular.
Trying to chase critical opinion is a futile exercise. You'll always be behind the cutting edge (no doubt soon the opinion-makers will be moaning about the prevalence of gritty violence in fantasy, just when everyone's decided that's the only possible way to get noticed), and you won't necessarily be giving your audience what they want anyway. The most important thing is to do what works for your own book, whether it's considered a cliché or not. If the story is good enough then nothing else matters.
So, maybe I'll reinstate my dragons and maybe I won't. But if I don't, it won't be because fantasy is so over dragons. Because if there's one thing I realise now, it's that – no matter what a few people would have us believe – fantasy will never be over dragons, any more than small boys will ever stop loving dinosaurs and pirates.
Hmm. Pirate dragons. Now there's an idea.
* I bet the sequel is Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs: Mission to Outer Space. Or possibly Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs: Football Robot Mayhem.
** Obviously not literally. If I were in a film about dragonslayers, I'd be the one who got sent ahead as an edible decoy.
As some of you may be aware, when I'm not reading or writing or talking about fantasy literature, or editing, or trying to convince Baby Smith that throwing things on the floor for me to pick up isn't the Best Game Ever — when I'm not doing any of that, I'm also a mathematician. And this was going to be a serious post about how maths and fantasy may seem poles apart, but in fact share a requirement for rigorous underlying logic and an understanding of how changing one variable affects another … or something like that. Because along the way, it turned into something altogether sillier.
It turned into this.
Still being short on time to catch up with my reading, I thought it would be a good idea to dedicate a few Recommended Reads posts to different spec-fic authors whose work I enjoy. After all, recommendation doesn't have to be about books that are new (or new to me); introducing new readers to an old favourite is a sheer delight, whilst on their part there's the excitement of discovering an established author whose back catalogue is ready to explore. In that spirit, my first chosen author – Diana Wynne Jones – was a prolific and brilliant fantasy writer who sadly died in 2011, leaving behind her so many wonderful books that it's hard to know where to start.
Wynne Jones wrote mainly for children, who she claimed didn't need things spelling out for them nearly as much as adults do. That probably explains why her books are so re-readable. If some children's literature is like a frozen puddle, shiny yet superficial, then Wynne Jones's books are icebergs: full, rich and deep. I grew up with them, and I continued to buy and read new ones as they were written – into my adulthood, and right up until she died. Not many authors have gained my whole-hearted loyalty in that way, and I think that speaks volumes for her ability as a writer to surprise and delight children and adults alike.
Some authors are essentially one-trick ponies. They have a single key idea, which becomes a series in which every episode follows the same basic formula. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily – but what I always loved about Wynne Jones's books was that I never knew what I was going to get. She must have been brimming with thousands of ideas. Over the course of her life she wrote a series of related but standalone books (the Chrestomanci sequence), some of which had almost nothing in common except the reappearance of the titular character; a completely unconnected quartet (Dalemark); another trio linked by a different central character (Howl); and about 20 more one-off novels – all for children. She also wrote a handful of books for older readers, equally clever and equally surprising, and all imbued with both a great love and a gentle mockery of fantasy and its trappings. Oh, and in addition to all that, her Tough Guide to Fantasyland should be required reading for any fantasy writers who want to avoid the many pitfalls of cliché.
By now, I'm hoping that those of you unfamiliar with Diana Wynne Jones are already racing off to your nearest bookstore. But just in case you're not sold yet, here's a little more information about my favourite five of her works. (And let me tell you, it wasn't an easy choice.)
1. Howl's Moving Castle. My childhood favourite. This may partly be because I was a little bit in love with Howl (which, according to a Wynne Jones interview I saw once, is fairly common; for a self-obsessed, dishonest, responsibility-shy coward, Howl seems to be remarkably appealing to girls of a certain age). The protagonist of the story is Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three daughters who is convinced she'll never have any adventures (since everyone knows that if three siblings seek their fortune, it's the youngest who'll succeed). She's resigned to working in her family's shop her whole life, until she is turned into an old lady by the Witch of the Waste and makes her way to the moving castle of the notorious Wizard Howl. Even as an adult, I find this book a delight: its playing with tropes, its presentation of our own familiar world as a strange place from which strange magics can emerge, the moving castle itself … oh, OK, and I'm still a little bit in love with Howl. (Incidentally, the Miyazaki film based on the book is also a favourite of mine, although it's a completely different beast from the book.)
2. Fire and Hemlock. My adult favourite (though technically another children's book). I find it hard to put into words how much I adore this novel. I first read it as a child, and didn't really understand everything that was going on, but I was left with the lingering impression that there was more to understand. Books like that can go one of two ways: one, and sadly more frequently, they don't stand up to repeated reading, and the meaning you once sensed in them turns out to be nothing more than hand-wavy vagueness on the part of the author; or two, they grow as you grow, gradually revealing the layers you always knew were there but didn't have the understanding for. Fire and Hemlock is very much in the second, more unusual category. I've read it many times; each time, I figure out something I didn't twig before, and each time, I become a little more in awe of the sparky intelligence that put it all together. The book is essentially a reworking of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, but it's also about books and love and the power of imagination and – well, just read it.
3. Dark Lord of Derkholm. Oh, how I wavered between this and Deep Secret, another more adult-oriented novel. Deep Secret is more of a classic fantasy in which magic users secretly live alongside ordinary people, and everyday things (in this case the rhyme 'How many miles to Babylon?') have hidden meanings. Add parallel worlds (which Wynne Jones is very keen on), great characters and an affectionate sendup of fantasy fans – among other things – and you get a little of its flavour. But in the end, I had to go with Dark Lord of Derkholm, which manages simultaneously to play with all the hoary old fantasy clichés and be a proper fantasy story in its own right. (The problem with satirical fantasy, I often find, is that it forgets to replace the tropes it's holding up for ridicule with anything, so it ends up being a series of set pieces rather than a coherent story in its own right. DLoD impressively manages to avoid that problem.) The book is set in a world to which 'tourists' from our world come expecting the Full Fantasy Experience: a magical quest peopled with stock characters, culminating in the expected battle with the Dark Lord. But all this takes a very real toll on the inhabitants of that world, and so they seek a way to end the tours for good.
4. Charmed Life. This was the first Chrestomanci novel to be written, though not the earliest in the chronology. Still, if you've never read any of the Chrestomanci books before then this is the best place to start. The premise of the books is that in a set of parallel worlds (of which one is our own, and one is similar but with magic users), most people have a double in each world. But occasionally, a person is born without any of those alternate versions in other worlds, meaning that he or she has several lives and is a powerful magic user. 'Chrestomanci' is actually the title given to the most powerful of them all, a nine-lifed enchanter whose job it is to oversee magic in the related worlds and ensure it isn't misused. I'd recommend any of the Chrestomanci novels – they're all great fun and well plotted – but Charmed Life is the perfect introduction.
5. The Dalemark Quartet. I'm cheating a bit here, but the thing about these four books – unlike any of Wynne Jones's other work – is that you really need to read them all to get the full effect. The first three are set in the same world at different times and places; the fourth links the disparate storylines together. So although you can read Cart and Cwidder or The Spellcoats or Drowned Ammet as individual works, and enjoy them, my view is that the experience is made much richer by rounding them off with The Crown of Dalemark – which is my favourite of the four, but also the one that depends most on prior knowledge of the others. So for that reason, I recommend you read them all. I'm not even going to attempt to describe what they're about. You'll just have to trust me on this :-)
So there you have it: my potted guide to Diana Wynne Jones. If you've never read her books before, do read one and let me know what you think. If you're already a fan, I'd love to know which is your favourite!
I've recently been nominated for two awards. Yay me! The first is the Very Inspiring Blogger Award, for which I was nominated by not one but two wonderful writers and fellow fantasy lovers, Tricia Drammeh and Lindsey J Parsons.
The second is a brand-new and super-shiny award, the Flight of Fantasy Award. This one is specially for fantasy writers, and was created by another amazing writer and all-round lovely person, Sophie E Tallis.
Both these awards ask me to list a certain number of things about myself. So, rather than cheat and let some of the points stand for both, I present to you The Ultimate Super-List of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About A.F.E. Smith … And A Little Bit More Besides.