Monday, 13 October 2014

Why didn't you...

Someone tweeted me a few days back with a list of complaints about Prince of Fools. He wasn't happy with my choices. 'Why?' he wanted to know. Specifically:

"Why though? Wouldn't it be more fun if the Viking was a coward or the story never left one tense location?"

Well... I suggested that he write that book.



Now it may seem foolish to suggest to someone that their book, occupied as it is by a journey of over a thousand miles across a variety of kingdoms and terrains, might benefit from never leaving the location it started in... in the case of Prince of Fools you might as well ask: "Wouldn't it be better if this book was a completely different book." ... presumably expecting a civil and well explored reply in the space of 140 characters. However, I have been asked more mild versions of the why question about every book I have published.

Often these 'whys' are asked in a manner that indicates the questioner has a very firm idea of the (my) writing process in their head. I must have sat down with a ruler and set square and designed each element of my tale, weighing up the choices, wondering what message they'd send and what world view they're promoting...



The truth is that I write the story as it comes to me - there is no world, no plot, no character other than the one I start with ... until my fingers move across the keyboard and then with a flurry of key presses, there they are. Asking me why the story does X or Y feels, on this end of the question, as meaningless as asking my why I dreamed of an eagle over a forest last night rather than a crocodile in a swamp.

There are other answers to the whys but they're not the real answer. The real answer is 'that's the way it came off the end of my fingers'.

One why asked quite often in certain circles is "why set your story in a medieval-esque world with all the power structures of that time (which I will proceed to hotly debate in any case)? why not set your story in a utopia where all all treated equally?"

On further questioning it turns out that everyone one doesn't have to be treated equally, just that the divisions shouldn't be along lines of gender or race - a Swiftian mockery of such prejudice is preferred where our hero is persecuted for being a big-endian. The thing is ... that was powerful satirical insight into the nature of othering ... back in 1726 ... I don't feel the need for it to be repeated in every book in the intervening 288 years.



Another true, but less immediate, answer is more technical and runs like this:

when you're writing you have to decide, or have an instinct for, where the focus of your story lies. The reader only has so much attention, dilute it too much and your story will fail to grasp their interest. There's a reason why fantasy stories are "so conservative".

The 'why didn't you' person says - it's a whole new world and yet you bog yourself down with the trappings of this one...

Yeah, there's a reason for that. Why am I so "conservative" that I measure people's heights in feet and their age in years? I could say, "Sam walked into the room. We all stared. At seven fuuts tall he stood head and shoulders below everyone else. He looked more like a three hundred and fifty yurg old."

The answer there is pretty obvious. Almost every fantasy writer will give you traditional measures of length and time because they don't want to dilute your attention - they don't want to force you to learn whole new measurement schemes that add nothing but confusion.



The same holds true for all the rest. The writer needs the reader's imagination to do the heavy lifting - the don't want to spend four pages detailing a zoob fruit when they could just describe the apple in three words and let your experience fill in the blanks. When the writer does employ differences they make sure they earn their keep, having meaning and worth for the story.

The medieval-esque setting (like the Eastern setting, the cold north with bearded axemen, the hot south with arab-esque inhabitants) is part of the landscape of the reader's imagination - there to be taken advantage of, saving 400 pages and a fuck-load of confusion.

Would it be 'clever'  to have the north an arid desert and the south a freezing glue-jungle with wooopa worms and flug-birds? Well, no, not particularly. Sure if that's the focus of your story, but otherwise ... you risk overload.

The focus of my stories tend to be characters. I want the reader focused on the character - what's important to them, what threatens them, what they need. If Jorg lived on a ring-world with six suns and a complex religion requiring devotations be made to three separate gods during the course of the day, and by the way it's a matriarchy with a symbiotic race of aliens that arrived two hundred years ago etc etc... it would just have made it harder to tell the story I wanted to tell.

So, yes, if you want the focus to be on how clever and imaginative you are ... weird me out. If you want the focus to be on your plans for utopia or your critique of modern society, play those games. But if you're going to criticise fantasy as conservative or me for drawing on the architecture of existing fantasy to furnish my pages with stuff for my characters to play with ... then you've very much missed the point of what most authors are trying to do.

Why didn't I play the rather heavy handed gender-politics games that excite a certain rather vocal section of the blog-o-sphere?

Because those are not the games that excite me.



Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Liar's Key - early rough for the US/UK cover.



Here's Jason Chan's rough for the cover of The Liar's Key (pre-order the UK version here).

In uniting the two cover styles for Prince of Fools into a single cover for The Liar's Key Jason has had to balance between the tastes of two different publishers/markets and make some interesting compromises.

The UK market (or publishers) are not keen on showing the protagonist's face - wanting the reader to be free to imagine their own version. So in the Liar's Key cover Jalan's sword will cast a heavy line of shadow (not seen here) across his eyes, a mask if you like, offering some ambiguity. And, while the artist has obviously retained the Beckham hair-cut from Chris McGrath's US Prince of Fools cover, he has perhaps given Jalan a little more dramatic flair/swagger more reminiscent of the UK Fools cover.




I did suggest a slightly pompous Prince Jal, or for Jal to be clearly edging away from the action but neither publisher believes their customers are ready for an epic fantasy cover to figure a non-heroic 'hero' so that didn't get realised. However, if you _know_ Jal then I think Jason Chan's final effort (to be revealed) leaves a little room to reinterpret the scene.

In any event - I think it's a fine cover and the Jason's undeniable talent has paid off yet again.


Monday, 22 September 2014

Grimdark Magazine, issue 1



I still make no claims to know what GRIMDARK is but Adrian Collins has boldly launched a magazine dedicated to the stuff and having been variously praised for / accused of writing grimdark myself it seemed churlish to refuse an invite to take part.

In the first edition there's fiction from myself, fellow David Gemmell Legend Award shortlister Adrian Tchaikovsky, Antaloy Belilovsky, Mike Gelprin, Gerri Leen, and Nicholas Wisseman. Plus Joe Abercombie and Graham McNeill interviews!

I'd love to tell you more about my own contribution, a Broken Empire tale titled Bad Seed, but anything I say about it is potentially spoilery. Suffice it to say that it relates to the coming together of Jorg's brotherhood.



Issue 1 is out in 9 days! (October 1st)
Register/Pre-order at the site now and get entered for prizes!

Check it all out on social media



Friday, 19 September 2014

Tyrion - the murderer we love to love!

(contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones / A Storm of Swords)




Tyrion Lannister wins all the 'most popular character' polls for Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire. Pretty much everyone loves Tyrion. They love him because of the charisma of the actor who plays him on TV - they love him because of the wit and charisma and empathy of the character as portrayed in the book.

I've spent a lot of time on fantasy forums etc and never once seen any criticism levelled at the character.

On the other hand I've seen enough criticism of my character, Jorg Ancrath, to fill a Super Bowl stadium.

(Jorg - by Kimberly Kincaid)

... and rightly so. Jorg does terrible things. Within the first 2 chapters of Prince of Thorns 13 year old Jorg distracts a rebellious gang member by steering him toward a spot of rape and murder, and (according to a short paragraph remembering the off-scene incident) Jorg, raised for the past 4 years in a band of killers and thieves, is party to the whole incident.

This isn't an accident, any more than Jorg's subsequent murderous endeavors are - I deliberately emulate the exercise that Anthony Burgess pulled off in A Clockwork Orange 50+ years ago. I have a young, charming, intelligent protagonist do awful deeds and see where the pieces fall, both in terms of the reader and the story. Do age and circumstance muddy the waters of responsibility? How long do we carry the stain of crimes committed at an early age? If that character also has many likeable qualities does it confuse our feelings about them? I never sought to give an answer, just to provoke questions. I try to dance Jorg around that knife-edge and different readers fall on different sides of it.

So, Tyrion:



Few people seem to remark on this but our Tyrion murders a teenage woman. Why? Because he finds her in his father's bed - a place where had she refused to go she would likely have met an unpleasant end. He's angry about who she is having sex with. It's a sexually motivated murder (*).

But we love him? He's our favorite character?

In the TV series they made Shae pick up a knife and try to stab Tyrion - I guess they realised that the book version paints our man rather darkly. But in the book all she does is try to placate his anger with an endearment and he strangles her.

We give Tyrion a pass.

My point here is not that Jorg deserves the same pass - he certainly doesn't - if people did that then a large part of the point of my trilogy would fizzle away.

My point isn't even that GRRM successful exploits the Alex-effect from A Clockwork Orange.

My point is just .... what? Really? Nobody saw that? Nobody cares?

... how come?



(*) yes, Shae testified against him in his trial - but
a) that was a show trial, the result was never in doubt
b) what choice did she have - what would Cersei and/or Tywin have done if she refused
c) Tyrion took her on as a prostitute - what part of 'paying for affection' didn't he understand?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

No, I won't do your yardwork just because you asked me to.

So, when people ask me to read their writing (sometimes within moments of admitting they haven't read mine) I generally cut and paste this pre-prepared statement. I get asked a startling number of times in the average month and it got tedious typing out versions of the same thing.

I could of course just type 'no', but (for reasons that are actually quite hard to pin down) that would put people's backs up.

**********

One of the least pleasant things about being an author is having to say 'no' daily to people who want me to read their work. Even that, or at least saying it gently, takes up more time than I have spare.

In addition to the NO TIME thing, I'm advised not to read unpublished work - if I happen to be writing a book about killer robot ducks and with my agreement you send me your robot ducks that are killers novella ... then all of a sudden my work's down the toilet because you've got a potential claim that I just ripped your duck-related genius from the page.

Add to this the fact that if I do put in the time and effort (often for a complete stranger) the simple truth is that 99% of people just aren't ready for criticism and 25% of those 99% will get angry about it. Having no way of knowing what the situation is with any given person and having no interest in making random enemies, I would do what most people do in that situation and say "it's great" ... which is no help to either of us.

**********

Let's examine what's happening here though:

I'm being asked to read a book, some chapters, a sample and ? Well, you can bet a significant pile of cash that if I said 'yes' and came back three weeks later saying, 'I read it.', the conversation would not end there.

There would be three main reasons the person would want to know what I thought:

i) The pleasure of sharing and of receiving compliments.
ii) The desire to put a semi-well known author's seal of approval on the front of their book.
iii) The desire to get some feedback that will help improve the work/writing.

Those three are not necessarily in order of likelihood, and many people will blur all three of them into one.

Either way, I'm being asked for my time. Quite a big chunk of time if you want even a relatively small portion of a book read with care. An enormous chunk of time if you want a book-sized piece of writing read with sufficient care to give constructive feedback.

It's a bit like seeing that someone is making their living as a gardener and asking them to come and either (i) admire your garden (ii) admire and recommend your garden (iii) do a whole bunch of yard work for you.

A number of authors offer editorial services as a sideline. Saladin Ahmed is one such. He charges $200 per 10,000 words for a thorough critique. That would be $2000 for an average debut fantasy novel. That's a very reasonable price.

So make no mistake when someone I've never spoken to before starts messaging me on Facebook and within 5 or 6 strikes of the return button says 'I know I'm being cheeky but could I ask you to...' the fact is they're being more than cheeky - in many cases they're flat out asking for $50 or $100 or more of my time (and that's not valuing my time at a particularly high hourly rate!).

I'm not writing this blog to embarrass or shame the people who hit me up to read their stuff. It's incredibly hard to get noticed and very easy to type the request into a window. I'm writing to try and share how it feels from the other side of the equation, and to defuse some of the lingering resentment I sometimes sense (imagine) after the conclusion of these exchanges.

Yes it's always nice that someone values my opinion but it seems as though they've forgotten to value my time too.









Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Video Challenge!



So I have this kickstarter to build a Death Star...

You can see the preview HERE

just scroll down to see the pitch and the backer levels along the right side.

The thing just needs a video before I submit it. Only ... I can't do videos. I don't have that thing you need, what do you call it... confidence.

So what I need is some heroic individual to don the cowl for me.

Here's the script/directions:

Opens on cowled figure head down. 

*props*

Soccer ball Death Star mock up will be in place over left shoulder (hang a ball on a string, add circular patch for the area where the super-laser is) (can pan out to it if feeling ambitious)

Egg and bowl below shot.

*script*

Greetings fellow Earthicans. I am Emperor Palpable, and like you I share the dream that one day our proud peoples will cower together under the dominion of a glorious fully armed and operational Death Star.

Our high-tech simulations (gesture to suspended soccer ball), backed up by US Government research, indicate that the project will take eighty-five thousand trillion dollars to fund. I truly believe that with the goodwill of bad people everywhere we can reach our target goal within thirty days.

Let us do away with the politics of appeasement. The era of Trekking through the stars is at an end. Let us show these alien scum Star Wars! Let our new First Contact directive be *lifts up hand, crushes egg* ... modified. *drips away into bowl, out of shot*

Join me, minions, in this glorious endeavour and together we shall conquer the galaxy *muhahahaha*


************


I'll give it a few days and if more than one entry comes in, select the best with help from my readers.

No prizes other than the honour of being Emperor Palpable. Also, if the Death Star gets funded, you can have the equatorial regions.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Liar's Key cover contest!

Competition now closed.

You can vote HERE for the best entries.
HERE for the worst entries.
And HERE for the best entries done with Paint.

I will be using the results of these polls to help me decide on the winners in each category. I won't wholly rely on them as I recognise that people can recruit friends and family to skew the tallies.


Winners!
(click for full-size)

Best Cover:

Winner (by Pen Astridge)


Runner up (by Joy)


Best cover done using Paint

Winner (by Pen Astridge)

Runner up (by Arne)


Worst cover

Winner (by Charlie)

Runner up (by Dimitar)

Entries!
(click on smaller ones for more detail)


#28 Syl




#27 Bryan






#25 Alicia





#24 Aymie




#23 Chris



#22 Johann (Paint)



#21 Malin (Paint)




#20 Dusty (Paint)




#19 Simon




#18 Miguel





#17 Robin




#15 Corn



#14 Angela





#12 Tony




#11 Roger



#10 Pascal (Paint)




 #8 Bev



 #7 Malin



#6 Tony (Paint)





#4 Dan Brown (Paint, but not as we know it!)



#3 Alice (Paint)



#2 Paul (Paint)


#1 Lachlan (smart phone!)



********************************

So first things first... PRIZES!

I'll firm up what they'll be soon but expect T-shirts and mugs bearing designs not wholly dissimilar to those shown below (the work of Pen Astridge with Jason Chan's original art). Also signed books, Prince of Fools of course, with promises of early copies of The Liar's Key.

 

















The real thing modelled by a rather less impressive specimen ... ...but, hey! Kittens!


So, how to get the loot:

Design a cover for Book 2 of The Red Queen's War: The Liar's Key.

There will be 3 categories.

i) Covers drawn using Microsoft Paint, the notoriously limited art program that comes free on pretty much every PC. It should be on the 'start' button of your computer under 'accessories' but it's also available online (no downloading required). MS Paint is like the etch-a-sketch of PC drawing utilities - if you can do anything good with it you're a total genius (note - no importing art, it has to be drawn in Paint)

If you can do anything like as well as this artist picturing Jorg then you've done better than I could! (in fact I doubt this is from MS Paint as it would have had to have been coloured in by hand).



ii) The worst cover you can do: Note, to win this you really have to look like you were trying to make a good one. Terrible covers often contain great art in really bad combinations. A random scribble is a bad cover but probably won't win when it comes to the voting.

iii) The best cover you can do.

If you turn out to be a seven-fold genius and produce something of Jason Chan quality I will certainly pass your details on to my publishers!

Note: Non-Paint entries will automatically be entered into both categories ii) & iii), so you get two bites at the cherry!

Here's a spoof cover by Pen Astridge borrowing from a photo of my kittens, Jal and Snorri.



You can mail entries to me at empire_of_thorns@yahoo.co.uk

I'll give a week's warning before closing the contest.