Sunday, 27 September 2015

Fantasy: What's new?

Modern fantasy has increasingly taken the war between good and evil away from elves and orcs, staging it instead within an individual's skull.

I am often asked by bloggers to offer words of 'wisdom' on the direction in which fantasy is heading. I refuse the question, like a horse before a ten-foot fence. I'm not a student of the genre - I read too few books to have a decent sample of what's going on. I'm not even sure that fantasy is heading in any discernible direction. It's more like a forest fire, advancing on many fronts, accelerating along some avenues only to burn out, sparks flying ahead to start new infernos in separate areas.

Any claim in this area can immediately be shot down with a barrage of counter-examples. The success of one type of fantasy doesn't mean that another is not still being written, not still being read.

However, my statement at the head of this piece seems to me to be broadly true. There seems to me to be an increasingly sophisticated approach to the ever-present goodies vs baddies theme. That certainly doesn't mean that you can't find books that did exactly this twenty or fifty years ago, or that you can't find a popular book published last month that pits the golden hero against the born-bad race. But on the other hand, it seems to me with my limited perspective to be one of the few generalizations you can make about the direction that the genre has been headed in and may well continue to head in. A generalization sharing the weaknesses inherent in generalizations (he generalized).

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

My Shameful Secret...

I raised a family of book-wolves.

I have been trying harder with special editions!

Sunday, 20 September 2015


I'm a number-watcher, I admit it. And last night I got my 100,000th book rating on Goodreads. There was no phone call from the president, no medal awarded ... not even a special cake. But I'm in the 100K club!

Milestones are, if not an excuse for cake and medals, then an excuse to reflect.

I became a full-time writer a few months ago, not by choice, but it was a jump I had been building up courage to take, so being pushed wasn't too terrible a thing.

I never had any ambition to be an author. It wasn't a childhood dream of mine. Even when I sent the Prince of Thorns manuscript to a handful of literary agents several years after writing it I wasn't thinking in terms of becoming an author. It was just what you did with a manuscript once you'd written it and enough friends had pushed you hard enough in that direction.

I have always been a reader of fantasy though. As a reader I honestly never thought about the authors - they were just connecting names on the front of books. I wasn't part of any fandom, and when the internet rolled around it never occurred to me to seek out fellow genre fans.

I did, however, take the stories themselves very much to heart. Many of the character and places I read about are part of the landscape of my imagination. Which really means that decades down the line they are part of who I am.

That 100,000 ratings means that 100s of 1000s of readers have read my work. And of them a good number have really enjoyed it. And of those, some core number will have read one of the books at just the right time in their lives when the character or situation can strike some deep chord with them, and for those people I might actually have written a book that becomes part of who they are. My books might be for them what my heroes of fantasy's books are for me.

And that's pretty amazing.

I find myself in an unexpected and privileged place, and every now and then it's good to pause, look around me, and realize it. One hundred thousand ratings is, if nothing else, a good excuse to do just that.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A little ideas shop in Bognor Regis

If you google "where do you get your ideas from" you'll find hundreds of pieces by writers telling the world that ideas are the easy part. The top hit is from Neil Gaiman and the title to this blog post comes from his piece.

So I'm not being original here, but since I typed all this out today in reply to someone with an idea but no writing experience I thought I'd make double use of it. Today's inquiry did add "ha ha" after the suggestion that perhaps I write the book and they simply collect royalties for supplying the idea - but I've certainly had straight-faced proposals for going 50/50 before. The other party would give me the idea, I would write the book, they would collect half of any profit.

The difficult thing about writing a book is writing it. Using the language in a way that makes the images and emotions in your head appear in someone else's. Sentence by sentence it's difficult and requires a natural talent honed by a *lot* of practice. Chapter by chapter it's difficult, requiring the plot and pacing to keep the reader with you. You have to grow people on the page, people who are not only realistic enough to suspend belief but fascinating enough to stop the reader wandering off to watch sport, play video games, put on a movie, or spend the day Facebooking or watching cats on youtube.

None of that's easy. When someone comes to a writer with an idea, offering to go halvsies or thinking they've broken the back of the job and now just need to finish off by getting the words down (as people often do) it's a bit like going up to a sculptor and saying 'I've got an idea for a statue, it's an angel spreading its wings, but the clever bit..' and assuming that the job of cutting the form from the stone and making the description into something concrete is just a formality (or at most, half the effort). It's almost like going to NASA with a suggestion of which planet / star / asteroid they should visit and considering that to be a substantial contribution to the resulting voyage. Ideas are like that, they're like destinations. There's a galaxy of them twinkling in the darkness. Pointing at one is easy. Building the rocket and getting there in one piece is hard.

The only advice I have - and it's rarely welcome because it involves a huge amount of hard work and guarantees no success - is that if you've never written before, you need to start. There are cases of people sitting down and writing a good book just like that, but there are also cases of people being born with two heads. It's overwhelmingly likely that you would need to write, solicit feedback, write more, write again, and keep doing it until you got good enough for people to demand your work rather than suffer it. Short stories are a great medium to improve your writing in as they don't require months or years of effort on the writer's part and only require minutes rather than days from the reader. I found it important to see the impact of my efforts so I knew what worked. So I joined online critique groups and shared short stories. I did that for for a little bit, wrote a bad book, did it for several more years, wrote an OK book, did it for a couple more, and wrote Prince of Thorns. And before writing my first short story I had been writing in various other forms for decades.

Essentially it's a labour of love. If you don't love writing - just for its own end - then you're probably better off doing something you do love.

Monday, 7 September 2015

On writing women.

I write fantasy because I love fantasy.

I like literary fiction but I don't write it.

One reason is that I'm not sure I'm equal to the task of putting characters convincingly into modern life. They say that writers are great observers of people, and that's how they bring you the world through the eyes of a young girl, a teenage boy, a twenty-something socialite and professional working woman in an advertising agency in London, a fifty-something council-worker in a failing marriage in Birmingham, etc etc. How do young women in offices chat to each other? What conversations do old men in nursing homes share? It has to feel authentic because these are things many readers may have experience of, or at least an impression/opinion on.

I'm more of a great imaginer of people than a great observer. That makes me better suited to fantasy where the opportunities for a reader to think 'that's not right' are fewer and further between. I feel I can portray people and I can project them into unconventional settings in ways in which the reader is prepared to accept.

Which brings me to the latest book I've written. Red Sister. It's the first book I've written from a female point-of-view. If you discount Katherine's journal entries in King of Thorns and Chella's brief chapters in Emperor of Thorns, then it's the first female point-of-view character I've written. By which I mean (for the non-writer) a character whose eyes we view the world through, not merely a female character seen in a book.

Red Sister is a story delivered entirely (99%) through the eyes of a girl, and much of her time is spent at a convent surrounded, naturally enough, by other novices and nuns.

I normally only have one beta reader, but for Red Sister I've asked several people to read it. Most of them happened to be women. I'd asked them for feedback about whether they enjoyed the book - what worked, what didn't. But today (for the purposes of this blog) I asked those readers whether they thought the scenes with the main character and her friends were convincingly written?

They said, yes.

So then I asked - because I had made no conscious effort to make the characters female - whether it was the writing or the setting that had made that portrayal successful? I asked, if I changed every she to a he, every convent to monastery, every abbess to abbot ... would it now ring false? Would my boy characters now seem 'girly'?

There was some talk about girls and women being 'more about relationships' and 'interpreting more levels in a conversation' but at the end of the answer was 'no' - if I swapped everything around my convincing girls would be convincing boys.

And that fits with how I wrote the characters. I don't know if there are fundamental gender differences or how to portray them if there are. So I tried to write convincing people - put them in a setting, and had them react appropriately to it and the situations arising. I basically ignored gender and wrote people.

One of the beta readers answering my queries mentioned Robert Jordan - who I have not read - and said she thought he wrote women poorly (though in good books presumably as she seemed to have read a lot of them). She felt he was always conscious when writing women that he was writing women and dug into his collection of "female traits" to let us know what we were dealing with. She noted that his simpering young novice and centuries old powerful witch were essentially the same, both the stereotypical female portrayal of a previous generation - over emotional, weeping over imagined slights. I wondered if I might have a similar problem but in the opposite direction - that my young novice and seasoned woman in authority might both be the no-nonsense unflappable confident type we expect the latter to be. She thought I did manage to differentiate though.

It's not (I hope) that I'm writing women as 'men with breasts' - more that I'm writing characters / people, and both genders can be thought of as 'people with [add gender specific organ]'. 

In any event. The TL:DR version is - I don't know how to write women, so I write people instead. The person's role and situation may depend on their gender (depending on the society they're in) but the person themself is just a human and that's all I try to depict.

Related post of mine from over a year ago: Men without tits.

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Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Red Queen's War moves overseas!

Here are the French covers for Prince of Fools and The Liar's Key. Great pictures.

It seems Jal has had a haircut between volumes!

Anyone suggesting that this is simply David Beckham on a luck dragon should prepare for a lawsuit!

Let's not forget the Latvian Prince of Fools cover!

(no that's NOT Chesney Hawkes!)

The Liar's Key comes to France with Bragelonne in November, the same month that Prince of Fools comes to Brazil with Darkside.

And in Hungary Fumax have given us: