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.


  1. Excellent post. They also don't excite a lot fantasy readers either. I'm tired of being told that European centered, Medieval fantasy is old and trite and I should not like it. I like it, bring on the court intrigue, that's what I want to read and based on the popularity of ASOiF and GoT that's what the majority of readers like also.

  2. Love this article. Sums up exactly how I feel about the topic and people's complaints about why an author didn't "do this" or "do that", or why they didn't write Message Fiction and critique socio-political messages. Sure, you'll get a lot of SJWs re-tweeting you and you'll be discussed on some "blog" but you know what? Art is not a democracy. You do what you want, what you feel like doing, end of story.
    And I hate those games, and I trust that you do as well.

  3. Love this article. Sums up exactly how I feel about the topic and people's complaints about why an author didn't "do this" or "do that", or why they didn't write Message Fiction and critique socio-political messages. Sure, you'll get a lot of SJWs re-tweeting you and you'll be discussed on some "blog" but you know what? Art is not a democracy. You do what you want, what you feel like doing, end of story.
    And I hate those games, and I trust that you do as well.

  4. I want more diverse settings, characters and milieus in fantasy--but a writer has to want to write that sort of thing. I'd hardly want to read a silk road fantasy of yours, Mark, if you don't want to write it yourself in the first place.

    I want to read what excites you. And for all of your conservatism in this post, you DO unleash interesting things in your world and novels, for all that its appears to be conservative on the surface.

    1. Funny thing ... you _have_ read a silk road fantasy of mine. ;)

  5. You need to force me to want to force you to write things I need to be forced to read. Where would the fun be otherwise?

  6. Great post Mark. I trust you as the creator of this fantasy to lead me on your merry chase and I will meekly follow. Okay not meekly, sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes with a smile on my face but always intrigued enough to turn the next page. Frankly I think authors have to have the thickest skin in the universe to give birth to something that some will comment on it's beauty and some right to your face will say, wow what an ugly thing!!

  7. Hi,
    I actually listened to this book (audio book) Loved it! Great listen, had me laughing, excited and very interested.
    I'ts different....I liked that. Same with your last series. I think that, if I didn't like it, I would stop reading it not read it and complain about it. Might seem a little simplistic but...........

  8. Finally got the book, the opening line is incredible. "I've always found hitting a man from behind to be the best way to go about things" Love it ! It's going to be another fantastic ride, thanks so much.

  9. It strikes me that when these people reach out to you directly like this, trying to get you to write your books to accommodate certain preferences, that the starting point for that sort of request or criticism is some sort of basic appreciation of your writing and storytelling.

  10. They think they could have done it better, if only they'd happened to think of it first, which of course they would have if you hadn't pipped them to the post. One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given, which I try to adhere to, was "When someone is talking to you about your work they have to be aware that they're only one sentence away from being told to fuck off".

  11. I read (or tried to read) a book like that once. In his effort to convey the "alienness" of the world in which his story takes place, the author created a world that is so needlessly complex while adding nothing to the story. I just end up so bogged down in made up words and unpronounceable names, that it made it difficult to follow the story or care about the characters. So I gave up on it and read Prince of Fools instead. Best decision I ever made =)