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>Has Fantasy been Overworked?

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I came across this article by Guy Gavriel Kay, where he asks why write fantasies based on real historical events? Then he goes on to argue that the fantasy genre gives the writer more freedom to explore themes because it is a created world.

I had to smile because this is the core of my Masters Thesis. I believe that fantasy is ideally suited to tackle the big issues because in a created world you remove the loaded nouns like Black or Jew and replace them with invented nouns, freeing the reader to identify with a character, he or she might not have identified with in a contemporary novel.

As a writer I set out to entertain, but I find themes recurring in my books. In ‘The Last T’En’ trilogy the two lead characters were from different races and they had to overcome their distrust of each other.

In Terry Pratchett’s books he entertains us by pointing out the absurdity of our world. He could have written contemporary political satires, but he chose to use the fantasy medium.

I get a real thrill when I discover a writer doing something interesting with the fantasy genre.

>Why me, Lord?

>I’m busy putting together a story proposal with a possible co-author. Now Chris is fine writer in his own right and if we didn’t share viewpoints and do things in a very similar way, I would never consider it… but it still exposes a lot of differences in the way we work. The principal one is that I insist on knowing WHY. What authors do is to put their characters in harm’s way. We’re just like that. Trust us with your children! We then work out ways — often bizarre, exciting and dangerous, and usually daft –of getting them out of those situations. I, it appears, am a little unusual in that I like to know why the character got into the situation, why he chose that way of getting out (which in turn leads to a whole lot more whys) and of course why the situation exists in the first place. And of course there is another huge ‘why’: why should the reader care? And bluntly if you can’t answer that question, maybe you need to work on it before you try to sell the book. In this case Chris had posited an interesting heroine and her brothers going off into the chasms… for wealth. Well I’m pretty sure lots of bankers did nice things to the banking system and our future for the same reason. Funnily, I can’t say I find them my aspirational heroes. But as soon as I know the character lost his father at 10 and grew up in poverty and ‘needs’ to succeed to deal with their insecurity — I’m more sympathetic, especially when the story explores that aspect of his character and how he deals with the flaws it has created in him.

So don’t just tell me. Tell me why. I want the motivation. I do not want co-incidence. I want a train of logic. Then your story WILL suspend my disbelief and swallow me.

>We come in peace: shoot to kill

>I have spent my life as a career research scientist with some modest degree of success. Science research is creative but hardnosed. Speculation is absolutely forbidden. Every statement must be backed by a reference or evidence, preferably with P values. A question that I keep being asked is why, out of all possible choices for subject matter that could be described as SF&F, do I write magical fantasies? Surely my heart should be with hard-core science fiction.

The problem is that I know too much about the natural world. I find it difficult to write about things that are virtually true or, to put it another way, wrong. This is not a problem that afflicts engineers or physical scientists. The starship Enterprise travels faster than light by ‘bending’ space with a ‘warp drive’. Fine. It is so far outside of physics that it means nothing and challenges nothing. I have a story that is being published in April that uses mediums to ‘fly’ starships to the stars, a concept that is no more real or unreal than a warp-drive.

However, Romulans and Klingons are a nonsense. They are not just humans with plastic bits on but they also behave like one-dimensional humans.

Years ago when I was a teenager (many, many years ago,) I read a fascinating and superbly written story about an intelligent animal shaped like a wheel. The hook was that it had evolved on a bay’s shoreline that had complex currents that rolled the beast around – so it had to move to live. Great idea, but it’s biological nonsense and that bothers me. Such an organism could never evolve.

However, once you use a magic-fantasy setting then anything is possible. The supernatural, by definition, does not have to conform to natural science. The only limitation is the writer’s imagination and his skill in persuading a reader to suspend belief.

>Space Availabel

>For the last few months I’ve been unable to type “available” correctly on the first try. Usually an extra “l” sneaks in there, so I get “availalble” or some other variation. Why is this happening?

A quick web search yielded no answers, only lots of complaints about typos in published work. Yeah, those bug me too. But these persistent typos in my own work bug me even more. I’m a competent typist. Overall, I don’t make a lot of errors. But “availalbel” gets me every time.

I’m also having trouble with “chips.” It comes out “chiops” a lot. This could be a slip of the fingers on the keyboard, “i” and “o” and “p” being adjacent. Or it could be emotional. This error occurs when I’m playing poker online (for free, for free – I don’t play for money!) and I get mad at another player and type “take his chiops” in my note on that player. So, haste, and emotion on that one.

But that doesn’t apply to “availabel.” I’m not mad or anything when I type that. It just always comes out wrong. Could there be a deep subconscious aversion to the word? Does my failure to communicate “abvailalbel” indicate a feeling of stress, of pressure, that I have too much on my plate and so can’t be availbel to others?

It’s not just in typing business/email stuff, either. Even when I’m writing, which usually engages a completely different part of my brain (one that can’t spell worth beans, and substitutes homonyms for the simplest words), I still can’t type “availake.”

I’m out of ideas. At the end of my rope. I can’t even use auto-correct because it’s never the same twice.

Maybe I’m trying too hard. Maybe I need to get help. That’s it! Someone to proof my stuff for me, and fix all these pesky typos. It’ll relieve my stress and provide meaningful employment for someone in these hard times. All I have to do is write up a “help wanted” ad.

“Position availabkle…”

>Naming the muse

>At a delightful school last week, three of us authors heard (twice, no less) the classic question from a middle-schooler: Where do you get your ideas? We’ve all heard this one a thousand times, of course. The Enlightenment poets pursued their muse with ceremonies and rituals. We writers of today trick ourselves by going to coffee shops, attending retreats, stimulating our brains with caffeine or conventions.

Kate Elliot has written a very nice little post on the topic on SFNovelists: http://www.sfnovelists.com/2009/02/18/creativity/ She nails it pretty well, and raises a good point about tracking the idea process with a brain scan. In fact, brain scans on creative people look different from those on noncreative people. Classical musicians’ brains operate differently from, for example, engineers’ brains.

There’s a great old opera joke about why tenor brains are so expensive. It’s something about how they’ve never been used, so they’re worth more. (Sorry all you tenors. Just substitute “coloratura soprano” if it bothers you.) Seriously, though, I often wonder if it’s the brain at all that serves up ideas. It feels more mysterious than that, even mystical. And I wouldn’t hesitate to light a candle at midnight under a full moon if it would tempt my muse to pour forth her riches.

>Dread Pirate Prologue

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As with books in the first person, I’ve heard again and again and again that you should not have a prologue. Prologues, they say, bore the reader and stop him or her reading.
As someone who has done a lot of slush reading, I have one thing to say to that. Thp. Oh, even more than that, I shall say THP.
What bores a reader is a boring opening. Whether that’s your prologue or your first chapter, if you haven’t engaged the reader by page two or, depending on how busy the reader is, paragraph two, you’ve lost the reader.
This said, clearly the best way to start a story is to dive into the story, head first. There are however reasons for prologues. I have a book for instance, in which I have a prologue to indicate the story contains sex. Why? Because the sex is one of the main plotlines, and it doesn’t start till chapter seven, when it would hit the reader like a mallet to the head. Likewise, in my Shakespeare books, I started with a prologue that gave the idea there was something going on in the fairy realm, before Will comes home and finds his wife missing. In the Shifter’s series for Baen – Draw One In the Dark and Gentleman Takes A Chance – there’s a prologue first to indicate that what seems to be a rather mundane situation between a young man and woman in the first chapter is really much more than that, and that they are at danger.
For this type of reasons – to lend a sense of urgency and immediacy to the plot, or to create a sense of something that’s ahead but won’t hit for a while, or even to set the tone of the book – if your first chapter won’t do try a prologue. However, if you can do without. In DarkShip Thieves, just delivered to Baen, I have Athena do her thing. What passes for a prologue is her musing that she never wanted to go to space. First paragraph. And then she wakes up in peril.
It is very important that you at no time start a novel with a prologue that tells you about the kingdom for the last three thousand years. Naming names. And dates. And expecting the reader to remember them. Also very important – unless your name is Terry Pratchett – never, ever ever start with the creation of the universe.
The most important thing is to make sure you signal with your opening what type of book it’s going to be. If you start a leisurely historical with a fast sequence in a computer room, people are going to be confused. (Not saying this might not be perfectly legitimate, only that this might be one of the those prologue needed cases, to signal the nature of the novel.)
So, the rules are Don’t be Boring & DO Start as You Mean to Go On. And the prologue or no prologue will take care of itself.
Next week – I thought I’d be able to fit it in today, but I think it will work best in parts – I’ll take openings of novels by my fledgelings (all of whom are publishable, even in their most off the cuff efforts and sometimes brilliant beyond my expectations). Openings I believe work, of course, and – exerting mentor privilege explain why they, in my opinion, draw the reader in.

>Point of View/ View Point

>Sarah’s post on VP got me thinking.

I read an awesome chapter on VP in Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft’. She wrote the one scene from several different points of view and I don’t mean simply first person, third person and omniscient. I came away feeling I had really grasped the nuances of VP.

I thoroughly enjoyed George RR Martin’s Fire and Ice, even though there were so many narrative threads that the story spread out like a carpet and the momentum slowed down to a crawl. As I remember, he kept it simple sticking to third person POV for each short chapter.

Completely different, but also enjoyable, was Jim Butcher’s ‘Storm Front’, written from the first person VP of a wizard detective.

There was one fantasy book I read which used a mix of first person narrative and third person. All scenes from one certain character’s VP were told in first person. Looking back, I could not see why the author had done this. Why not use two third person VPs or two first person VPs? Neither of these would have worried me. But why use intimate first person VP with one narrative and deep third person with the other?

Currently I’m writing my King Rolen’s Kin fantasies for Solaris. I’ve deliberately kept it simple with only three narrative VPs, and no change of VP within a scene. But I like to embed assumptions in the narrative while in a particular POV, so that only later the reader realises that the character has misinterpreted something.

I suspect all writers are frustrated actors, immersing themselves in a character, then filtering events in their invented world through that character.

Cheers, R.

>I think I’m alive now…

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Apologies for chaos of last week… it’s another example of what I was going to talk about… not just real life intervening (which is this trying thing that happens to all authors. tch. Shouldn’t be allowed.) It was the intersection between life, observation, empathy and experience — and the inner world of the writer. Now there is no ‘right’ point here. In some of us the inner world is so complex and rich anyway that we can come up with Heathcliffe. In others… well, if we haven’t been there… we can’t write it. Of course in some way everything is derivative, shaped by experience or something we’ve read or overheard, or even — bizarre possibility — been told or taught. That doesn’t make it any less original. Everything is derived from sub-atomic particles, and probably the same primal energy some-once. It’s how they combine that makes things new. Anyway… my inner world might be complicated but my writing comes from the intersection with that and the outer world – and observaion of it and empathy with the people in it. I know a selection of writers… and I can usually tell a lot about them by their writing and oddly the other way around. Having ‘met’ Sarah Hoyt (on e-mail) I knew exactly what her writing was going to be like before I read it. I’d never read anything by Rowena before I met her either – and yet I could hear her voice in her writing. The observation of detail in the behaviour of others, intelligent and insightful comes out in the way they write characters. As I liked the people, I knew I’d like the books.

So… I’ve had a full, fraught two weeks. Let’s see, a robbery, getting stuck in a mud-hole, a cop trying a shake-down, a midnight call to say “don’t worry, your son James is fine, on his way back from hospital.”, wild seas, climbing, the delightful frustrations of beaurocracy, a crashed computer…

It’ll all come together, along with the people and inner world in a strange book sometime.
See you there.

>Sunday snippet: An Interview with Jane Lindskold

>Jane Lindskold is the author/co-author of over twenty novels, including the bestselling Wolf fantasy series.

Q: You’ve just launched a new fantasy series, “Breaking the Wall.” What are the ups and downs of starting fresh?

A: Ups. The fun of playing around with new ideas, new characters, and of possibly having a chance to interest a few new readers. In Thirteen Orphans, the first of the “Breaking the Wall” books, I met some people I’m really enjoying spending time with.

Downs. There are readers who mark a writer as doing one thing only. (Hey, I’ve been guilty of that, too, with authors I like). They may not try a new project. To many I’m the woman who writes wolves, and they may not be interested in anything else. That’s scary for someone like me who has a whole lot of varied interests.

Q: When did you first feel like a “real” writer? And when did you first feel you were being treated like a “real” writer?

A: I still don’t.

But I don’t feel in bad company. Roger Zelazny told me he kept wondering when he’d feel like a “real writer.”

Q: What led you to writing fantasy?

A: Speculative fiction in general is the way my brain works. I enjoy having a larger, more twisted universe to deal with than the “real” one.

I have only a hobby-level knowledge of science. However, I have a very considerable amount of knowledge of myth and folklore — and I have the tools to learn more when I feel I don’t know enough. Therefore, I tend to write more fantasy, but I jump at any chance to write SF. I recently wrote a novella for David Weber’s “Honorverse,” partly because I love Weber, but partly because I was a chance to do spaceships and all with someone skilled to back up my tech.

However, I have written straight mystery and historical as well, although these have tended to be short stories.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors to read?

A: Gosh. I have a list on my website, because this is always a hard one for me to answer. Tim Powers. Charles DeLint. Patricia McKillip. Terry Pratchett. Tamora Pierce. Roger Zelazny.

Outside of SF/F… I love classic mysteries: Agatha Christie. Dorothy Sayer. Josephine Tey. John Maddox Roberts.

There are also authors who have one book I adore. Fred Saberhagen’s Mask of the Sun is a good example of this.

There are non-fiction authors I also gravitate towards. For example, I’ll read anything Christopher Hibbert (the historian) has done because of his way of approaching his subject matter.

Q: Do you have a favorite book, one you have read many times?

A: Not a favorite, but, yes, there are ones I re-read. I’m currently re-reading Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster of Hed series. I’ll re-read Terry Pratchett when I’m down, not because he’s funny, but because he is wise.

Q: What’s been the biggest change in your writing life in the last year?

A: Well, I’m between contracts for the first time in a while, but I’ve been assured that won’t last. Still, it’s unsettling. On the other hand, not having a contract to immediately address has given me a chance to write some things that have been “hanging fire,” and that’s been very nice.

Q: Where would you like your career to be in five years?

A: Beyond the obvious? Like still able to make a living?

I really don’t know. I try to focus on the book I am writing, not on the future because there are too many variables in the future beyond my control. I mean, two years ago, I had new series coming out, a comic in the works, and movie nibbles.

Now I have a new series coming out, and fighting to survive in a dying economy. The comic deal has evaporated. And no current movie nibbles.

But I do have the three books I’ve written since to anticipate, and the pleasure of writing them to remember. That’s worth a lot.

Q: What’s next after the “Breaking the Wall” series?

A: I don’t know. I’ve written a YA on-spec called Assembling the Lion that I’m really excited about.

Q: What writing-related events do you most look forward to?

A: Getting up and having a story buzzing in my brain, and being excited to get it down on paper… That’s the best of all. Next is when I have a new project, and I hand it to Jim (my husband) and for the next week or so we discuss it while he reads it. That first sharing of my story is very exciting.

Thank you, Jane, for spending a bit of time with us. For more about Jane and her writing, visit janelindskold.com.

>Have you heard the one about the Priest who….

>I have been reading quite a few conspiracy thrillers of late and have noted that the Roman Catholic Church has become the perfect conspiracy-novel ‘bad guys’. When I say RC Church, I really mean the Vatican and its more sinister offshoots.

Now as an Englishmen, I am expected to be rather suspicious of Rome; after all, the Vatican has made serious attempts to exterminate us in the past. Indeed, there is much sword waving over Islamic terrorists but for most of my adult life it has been good Catholic boys who have tried to kill me. The Church has only just stopped praying for the conversion of England, probably because after five hundred years they have finally accepted that we are a lost cause.

However, I am somewhat bemused by Rome as the supreme conspirators and have mused over why this should be so. One reason is that the Vatican is old, the oldest continually active religious-political institution in the western world. The throne of England is the second oldest but is a bad choice for conspiracy theorists, with the exception of David Icke who thinks that Her Britannic Majesty is a giant alien Illuminati lizard from the constellation Draco bent on ruling the world or a certain London shopkeeper who thinks His Royal Highness Prince Philip runs relative-killing black ops units for MI5. As for the good old Church of England, well…. let us just say that no one believes that it could organise itself long enough to come up with a decent conspiracy.

The Vatican has a long history of interfering in politics and, because it was based in southern Europe, where gangsters, politicians, terrorists, businessman and priests tend to overlap to the point of being indistinguishable, some of that politics has been very exciting indeed. Look up the strange affair of Roberto Calvi, Chairman of Banco Ambrosiano of Milan, who was known as God’s Banker because of his Vatican links. Calvi was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London in what looked like a ritualistic Masonic execution supposedly ordered by the Mafia on behalf of the powerful P2 Masonic Lodge. London’s Metropolitan Police Force – the best police force money can buy – rather bizarrely ruled that Calvi committed suicide.

As southern Europe has been somewhat northernised by the European Union, power in the Vatican has slipped eastwards to popes from places like Poland and East Germany. This further separates the Vatican from western culture. For example, no one in the Vatican seems to have anticipated that the appointment of an anti-Semitic bishop, who believes in the Protocols of Zion but not in the Holocaust, might be an issue.

The Vatican is authoritarian, demanding obedience because it is still politically based on a medieval political structure. It is also secretive, another essential requirement for a good conspiracy bad guy. The Vatican’s odder offshoots, such as good old Opus Dei, with its neo-fascist roots, add more grist to the conspiracy theorists’ mill.

So the poor old Roman Catholic Church finds itself the number one choice for any conspiracy novel whose plot needs an all purpose group of sinister manipulators. The CIA must be so relieved.