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!
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.
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.
Hi guys, and many thanks for your kind wishes last week. I’m pleased to report that I have now defeated the evil cold virus and am ready to set out once more on my journey through the fierce and unforgiving lands of Fantasy. And what better way to do it than on horseback? Never mind that I’ve only ridden a horse once in my life, and that was when I was about twelve. I mean, how hard can it be? You just stick a saddle on it and away you go, right? After all, everyone else is doing it.
See, the horse is to fantasy what the gondola is to Venice or the hoverboard is to Back to the Future II: the only real way to get around. Visit a fantasy world at random and you have at least a 95 percent chance of encountering a horse. Which may seem odd, given how inventive worldbuilders can be in other areas: magic systems, for instance, or social hierarchies, or any creatures that are dangerous rather than functional. The number of variations I’ve seen on your basic dragon could fill an encyclopaedia. Yet a horse is always a horse. Why?
One reason is probably the bicycle effect. Writers tend to treat horses rather like bicycles: they’re a convenient device to get a character from A to B, but other than that they’re not relevant to the plot.* You wouldn’t stop in the middle of a children’s book to explain exactly what kind of bike Jimmy is using to get away from the local bully; likewise, you wouldn’t stop in the middle of a fantasy to describe the horse Jimi is using to flee from the giant fire-breathing lizard. In short, there’s no point in wasting invention on something that’s essentially part of the scenery.** Readers aren’t interested in how the hero gets around. They’re more interested in the peril that’s bearing down on him as we speak.
A second and more fundamental reason is that there are two schools of thought when it comes to naming things in fantasy. One says, ‘Ohmigosh it’s all unfamiliar and exciting and mystical, so I’d better call everything by some obscure-sounding name to make sure my readers know this is, like, another world. A horse? No! Call it a mynnor. And check out these awesome calatznis I’m wearing.’ To which the other replies, ‘We all know it’s a horse, OK? It looks like a horse. It behaves like a horse. It certainly smells like a horse. So stop making up random combinations on your keyboard.’ And in most cases, it’s the pragmatic side that wins.
See, if we really are dealing with another world – that is, it’s completely separate from our own, without being an alternative history or involving inter-world travel – then its inhabitants clearly aren’t going to speak English or Russian or Hindi. Everything we read on the page has essentially been translated from another language anyway. So why call a horse a mynnor if a tree is still a tree? Because in fact, if you think about it logically, a fantasy horse isn’t really a horse at all. How can it be? Nothing in such a fantasy world can possibly be related genetically to anything we have here.
Basically ‘horse’ is just a shorthand, a way of referring to the animal that fills the horse-shaped gap in that particular world. And unless the author has a worthwhile and valid reason for giving it scales and six legs – which is going to necessitate a whole rethink of the evolutionary system in that world and throws up other problems as a result, like why the other ‘mammals’ don’t have six legs too if that’s such a smart survival move – it’s going to be pretty darn similar to our horses.
For me, that’s a good enough reason to call a horse a horse.
* That is, of course, apart from all those horse-loving plains-dwelling societies that seem to proliferate in a certain type of fantasy. But let’s not even go there.
** This is probably also why fantasy characters eat so much stew.
(clears throat, which turns into a small coughing fit)
Sorry. Yeah. Hi. Well, we've been meeting here for several weeks now, and so far we've learned that (1) I'm a terrible procrastinator with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, (2) you guys don't talk much and (3) the tentacles may all be in my head. At least, the dog is the only other person who seems to be able to see them.
Since I'm not feeling up to much today, I'll keep this one – ah – ah – (holds finger up in mute plea for audience patience, before turning away and doubling over)
Short. I'll keep this one short.
Have you ever noticed – and I make this observation with no bitterness at all, mind you – how the protagonists of fantasy fiction almost never seem to catch the common cold? Maimed, stabbed, blinded, hacked and gouged, I grant you, but not once do they have to suffer the special humiliation of a red nose, blocked sinuses and a cough that could cut through a plank of wood. One can only assume that most fantasy worlds have, for whatever reason, failed to evolve a highly adaptable and easily transmittable virus of the kind we are so familiar with ourselves. Really, it's pretty darn lucky that none of the people who have ever found a way through from our world to another had a cold at the time. Think of the havoc that could have been wreaked on the unsuspecting immune systems of the indigenous populations.
Of course, there is another possibility, which is that authors hate making their characters appear undignified. Life-threatening injuries are fine. A few scars or missing limbs just show off how noble and heroic a character is. But there's nothing very noble or heroic about walking around with half a Kleenex stuffed up each nostril.* Because, let's face it, authors want readers to find their characters attractive – not necessarily in a would-love-to-sleep-with-them way (though that always helps), but certainly in a they're-so-goddamn-awesome way. And a cold, my friends, is the very opposite of awesome. A cold is where writerly dedication to making a character 'real' takes a little detour.**
(blows nose defiantly with a sound like a honking goose)
And that's it. In the words of Bilbo Baggins, a notable exception to the no-colds rule, 'thag you very buch' for coming. Please help yourselves to Lemsip and Vicks VapoRub on your way out.
* Believe me.
** This detour also handily avoids questions such as sewage arrangements, the personal hygiene levels of people who have been on the road for days, and the whole issue of toothbrushes in a faux-medieval society. Some things, we just don't want to know about.
Welcome back, everyone. It’s good to see some new faces in the crowd. Well, it’s good to see any faces at all, really, given that my budget won’t run to cake two weeks in a row. But do help yourselves to biscuits. They’re only a little bit stale.
So, on to today’s speech. I want to talk to you about prophecy – specifically, whether it has a place in fantasy any more.
Though real-world prophecies have about the same level of accuracy as sticking a pin in a calendar blindfolded and identifying the resulting date as the End that is Nigh, humans as a species seem to have an unquenchable thirst for foretelling. We believe in prophecy. We believe in horoscopes, Tarot cards, runes and tealeaves. In short, we’re pretty darn gullible. We like to think that God/Fate/ the Universe has a plan for us. No, not just a plan. A Plan. We’re desperate for our lives to have meaning, to have structure. To have significance.
And significance is something that fantasy excels at.
In the classic good-vs-evil scenario of many a fantasy tome, everything that everyone does has meaning. Our heroes are fighting for the world, for the triumph of right over wrong. There can’t be anything more important than that. And prophecy – well, that’s just a way of ratcheting things up another notch. Not only is Mr Chosen One battling to defeat evil, it was foretold that he would do so. That’s a double whammy of significance. And as a result, there’s no other genre that can make people feel so much as though there really is a Plan.
Of course, fantasy has changed over the years. The prophecy trope has been visited and revisited, subverted and played for comedy and tragedy alike. Many fantasy authors have left black and white behind and moved into shades of grey; many have used the genre to give us worlds that are brutal, cruel and muddled. Worlds where the difference between right and wrong isn’t clear-cut. Worlds, in fact, much more like reality.
Yet despite that, prophecy has an enduring hold on that part of us that still believes in the Plan. We accept without question the idea that some person or event could be foretold, that the workings of Fate are so inevitable that certain things have to happen – and this in the face of all evidence to the contrary from our own experience. In the heart of every fantasy reader is a little spark of longing for a world where what we do and say actually matters. And for that reason, I suspect prophecy is here to stay.
In fact, I predict it.
Incidentally, I notice that last week’s blog entry was somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with the three comments it received. I’m just sorry the dog didn’t comment as well – I’m sure he would have had worthwhile things to say. Still, in case I’ve somehow developed the power to make my own words come true, I would like to give a warm welcome to the representatives from the publishing industry who are with us today. It’s lovely to see you all. Please submit your offers for consideration and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
* Yes, I used a quote from a T’Pau song as my title. So shoot me.
Testing ... testing ... one two, one two ...
*clears throat nervously*
Hello. Can you hear me at the back? Hello? Sorry – let me just try this switch – hello? Ah, that's better. I must say it's great to see so many people here today. Six of you ... that's much more than I expected ... and a dog as well. Marvellous. Thank you ever so much for coming.
So, welcome to my blog. I know, just what the world needs: another blog. There are only a few billion of them out there already. But I hope you'll stick around all the same. You might enjoy yourself. And if not, you can always content yourself with pointing and laughing.
I'll be here around the same time every Sunday, so feel free to drop by. Topics will range from writing to books to fantasy in general to, well, writing. Sorry? What was that? You thought this was the Awesome Origami blog? No, I'm afraid you want next door. Great. Thanks.
Right. Where was I? Oh, yes ... this is a blog about writing. More specifically, writing fantasy, since that's what I'm most interested in myself. But as this is the first toe I have dipped into the murky waters of public wordsmithery, I can't promise not to deviate off topic in the future. In short: anything could happen, and probably will. Still, we're fantasy fans, right? We like a bit of adventure. So don't be alarmed if those big blue tentacles start coming through the walls again. Oh, and ignore the one-eyed man in the corner. His face always looks like that; I'm almost quite sure he's not trying to decide how to kill you.
Great. So, that's it from me until next week. Thanks for coming, all five – er – three of you. Plus dog. Please help yourselves to free cake on your way out.