We’re always told that if we want to write well, we should read widely and voraciously, and I totally agree with that—if you haven’t absorbed the rhythms of good prose and are unfamiliar with the conventions of your genre, the chances of you producing something awesome are greatly reduced (though not impossible). I certainly devoured books when I was younger and had more free time on my hands, but since I got published I find myself juggling two careers (author and web developer) and having to carve out reading time whenever I can find the headspace. Because it’s not just time that I require in order to enjoy a book nowadays; I find it very hard to focus on other people’s stories when I’m working on a draft because my own is constantly clamouring for attention.
Still, I love reading and I do want to keep up with what my peers are doing in fantasy, so I read as much as I can during lulls in my writing schedule. This summer has been a good time in that respect: the final revised version of The Prince of Lies was handed over in May, and though I was working on developing a new project, I was content to let that simmer in the background during the week and only give it my focus at weekends. Hence I’ve been catching up with a bunch of books that have been sitting in my TBR queue for a while (about 5 years in the case of Red Seas Under Red Skies!). Read more
There’s been a lot of debate in genre circles recently about diversity in fantasy – hell, I was on a panel about this very topic at AltFiction last year. It’s a very broad field, however, so I want to focus on one area that’s been on my mind for a while. Note that I’m writing this article from the perspective of a white Westerner; I’m very much in favour of a diversity of voices in SFF, but by definition that’s not an issue I can address in my own fiction.
Epic fantasy gets a lot of stick for being conservative in its worldbuilding: of cleaving to white, Western, European-inspired settings. And there’s a lot of truth in that. OK, so it’s hardly surprising, given that the acknowledged grandfather of the genre was a professor of medieval languages at Oxford University. But there’s a lot more to the world—and to human experience—than the culture of one small corner of it during a brief historical period. Read more
No, not like that – eww! I mean with your book, dammit…
Since I’m working on a new project at the moment, that’s got me 1) reading a lot more, because for once I actually have time to spare to find out what my peers have been up to, and 2) thinking about what I enjoy in a fantasy novel. About why I love some books and hate (or at least feel ‘meh’ about) others. Why I prefer books with male protagonists. And it all comes down to one thing: falling in love.
I want a protagonist who’s witty and charming (Locke Lamora). Or snarky and clever (Sand dan Glokta). Or who defies prejudice despite the horrible consequences (Ringil Eskiath). Give me that, and I’ll put up with most other flaws or bugbears* in a novel. Because I’m there to spend time with the hero. Read more
Yesterday I finished the final draft of The Prince of Lies – yay! – which inevitably left me feeling more than a little punch-drunk, like I’d been hit round the head with a 135,000-word manuscript…So I goofed around on Twitter a bit, and whilst chatting about book lengths and genre I realised that fantasy really needs a new name for a rather common sub-genre.
OK, before we get going, yes I know that sub-genres are artificial and that you shouldn’t try to shoehorn your work into one of them, but once you have a book – or three – written, and you start to look at what market you’re going to be aiming at, it can be helpful to have a label so that everyone knows what you’re talking about. Except – are they really talking about the same thing?
The discussion that sparked this was about the ideal length for a debut epic fantasy, which varies from agent to agent, but certainly somewhere in the 100-150k ballpark as a rule. For other kinds of fantasy, as well as SF, the suggested length is more like 90-120k.
The thing is, what do agents mean by “epic fantasy”? I suspect that for some in the business it’s a synonym for secondary world fantasy, or indeed anything that isn’t very clearly either steampunk or urban fantasy. Because it’s like Tolkien and George R R Martin, right? And in one respect they’re right – all non-contemporary fantasy has broadly the same audience, and it’s distinct from (though it may sometimes overlap with) urban fantasy/paranormal romance.
The thing is, a lot of the secondary-world fantasy that I read isn’t what I’d call epic. There are no continent-spanning wars or treks through sweeping landscapes, no wide-eyed young heroes venturing out of their comfy hobbit-holes and being swept along on An Adventure. Typically they’re based in one city (just like urban fantasy), with a cast of characters who are far from innocent: thieves, spies, assassins and the like. You know, those Hooded Men who’ve been gracing the covers of our favourite books for the past decade…
(As an aside, if you google “hooded man” images, the cover art for The Alchemist of Souls comes up quite high in the results. Which is ironic, since there’s not a hood in sight!)
This sub-genre used to be known as swords’n'sorcery, and it was typified by Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. Lots of swashbuckling swordplay, but also lots of monsters and evil wizards and the like. The thing is, modern-day S&S is typically quite low in magic and often the characters are all human, so the label doesn’t really fit any more. Nor does the newer label “grimdark” really help, as it’s a tone, not a subgenre as such. Both GRRM and Joe Abercrombie have been described as writing grimdark, but their books are also epic fantasy.
I raised this on Twitter, suggesting “cloak’n'dagger” as an alternative. I got some great (not always serious) alternative suggestions:
The Streets of Darkness
Hooded Figure Fantasy
Poignards’n'privies (very apt in my case!)
Alchemical romance (by analogy with Wells’ “scientific romance”)
What do you think? Do we need a new label for non-epic, non-contemporary fantasy?
My name is Anne Lyle and I’m a stationery addict. There, I’ve said it. I have more notebooks, pens and other impedimenta of writing than is strictly necessary. A lot more. I discovered just how much more when I was between drafts recently…
I’d handed in the first draft of The Prince of Lies to my editor and was taking a few days off to decompress. I didn’t want to get too engrossed in a new project, as I knew I’d have to dive back into revisions pretty soon, so I decided to tidy the drawers of my desk and bureau, which had descended into chaos over the previous few months. So, I emptied them out, put all my “work-in-progress” notebooks, index cards and so on into my desk drawer, and all my unused notebooks into the top drawer of my bureau. The latter filled the entire drawer.
Now admittedly it isn’t a big drawer, and I also store spare loose-leaf pads and unopened packs of index cards in there, but still…! I have numerous Moleskines in different colours, sizes and paper types, including two specifically for use with EverNote and two special editions (Lego and Star Wars); a bunch of LiveScribe notebooks, also in several sizes, for use with my Echo smartpen; and a few other miscellaneous notebooks from Paperchase, WHS, Rymans etc. I even have a gorgeous leather-bound journal that I bought in Florence, which I will probably never use because it’s far too beautiful to sully with my scribblings…
And then there’s my “archive” drawer of used notebooks. I have had obsessions with different brands before Moleskine; for a while it was Bur-O-Class Aurora exercise books, in which I wrote my earliest longhand drafts, then more recently it was the Europa Major spiral-bound reporter’s notebook, with 300 pages between richly-coloured cardboard covers, in which I brainstormed the plots and characters for my Night’s Masque trilogy.
Rationally, I know I do not need all these notebooks, because I do a lot of my work electronically. And yet I’m addicted to the damned things! When I was in California in February, I bought two Moleskines in a bookstore solely because they were in colours (green and purple) seldom seen in UK shops.
It’s a common foible of writers, judging by my friends’ reactions, and I think it comes down to a combination of traits:
1. A love of books and paper. There’s something very sensuous and satisfying about a high-quality notebook: the handsome cover, the way your pen glides across the thick creamy surface of the paper, the snap of the elastic fastener, the slither of the silky placeholder ribbon… You just can’t get these pleasures from an app, no matter how cool it might be in other ways.
2. Romanticism. We imagine the great authors of the 19th and 20th centuries scribbling golden prose into their pocket notebooks, and we think that if only we could do the same, our books would be just as wonderful.
3. The OCD impulses of the typical writer. Allied to the above, we believe that if we have just the right notebook, fresh and crisp and virginal, we too can be brilliant. We start a notebook with dewy-eyed optimism, which often devolves into despair at our terrible handwriting, multiple crossings-out and rambling prose. So, we abandon it for a fresh notebook. Once the habit becomes entrenched, we make sure we always have a good supply of shiny new ones to hand, because the next one is going to be perfect…
I think, though, that the seeds were sown in school. All those separate exercise books for each subject, often with a different colour per subject as well. And—this being a provincial girls’ grammar school with pretensions of grandeur—we had to write our homework in fountain pen (biros were for “rough” only). That kind of thing is liable to make a girl just a little obsessive!
How about you? Do you have a weakness for a particular brand or style of notebook? Or do you eschew paper for a purely digital writing experience?
It’s been an utterly amazing year Chez Lyle, with not one but two novels published – and people actually buying them all over the world, from Canada to the United Arab Emirates and probably beyond. The response has been tremendous, with The Alchemist of Souls appearing on at least a couple of Best of 2012 lists (that I know of), and of course being a debut it’s up for the usual award nominations. Not that I have any pretensions of being an award-winning author; I’d rather sell heaps of books to satisfied readers
I’ve also made lots of new friends in the SFF community, been to a big US convention for the first time, met some megastar authors who were previously just names on my bookshelves, and generally had a fantastic time. I can’t recommend the convention circuit strongly enough to any SFF writer who wants to break into commercial publishing. Even if you don’t get a chance to pitch to an agent or editor, the friendships you make with other writers will be hugely important in seeing you through the highs and lows of the publication process. Our books aren’t the “competing products” that Amazon likes to claim – we’re all in this together.
2013 is set to be a somewhat quieter year for me, as I have only one book out (The Prince of Lies, the final volume in the Night’s Masque trilogy). I have another project underway, but it’s still at the very early stages of development, so even if I were to sell it this year, there’s very little chance of it appearing before late 2014 at best – sorry! This is the downside of selling your first completed novel – you are constantly running to keep up with your publisher’s release schedule, because you don’t have anything else under your hat. In that respect I envy writers like Michael J Sullivan who had a complete trilogy to offer when he got his book deal. Indeed, the only reason I’ve been able to commit to a book every 8-10 months is that it’s a trilogy with the same setting, lead characters and overarching conflict, so I’ve had plenty of time to at least think about where I was taking it, even if I didn’t write all three books in advance. The new project is going to be totally different in setting and characters, so it’ll take me a while to get all my ducks in a row – I’d rather make you guys wait, and have a much better book as a result.
On the plus side, once The Prince of Lies is handed in I’ll have more time for reading, which has had to take a back seat this year. There have been so many good books out and I want to read at least some of them! Last year I discovered several new favourite authors, so I have their latest offerings to keep up with, as well as the books I didn’t get to for lack of time. In fact I’m somewhat surprised that, according to Goodreads, I managed to read 16 books last year! I think this year I’ll try for 24, since that’s the exact length of my current TBR list…
Here’s wishing you all have as good a 2013 as my 2012!
As a fantasy author, I’m often called upon to write combat scenes for my books. Sometimes they’re a simple tussle using whatever weapons come to hand (like Ned’s main fight scene in The Alchemist of Souls) but given that my protagonist Mal usually goes around wearing a rapier and matching dagger, there are inevitably a number of sword-fights in the Night’s Masque books.
On the one hand I find them pretty easy (and a lot of fun) to write—I’ve seen an awful lot of swashbuckling movies over the years, and of course I do armchair research as well—but on the other, I have pretty much zero first-hand experience. Plus, writing is a pretty sedentary occupation unless you get one of those fancy treadmill desks, so I’m in need of exercise. Which I hate. I thus realised I could kill two birds with one thrust, so to speak, if I took up fencing.
I prevaricated for a while, telling myself that modern sport fencing is nothing like real sword-fighting (which is true), but once my first book came out I started to feel in need of new challenges. I also discovered there was a fencing club based at a high school barely a mile and a half from my house, so I really had no excuse not to go. I therefore signed up for the beginner’s course at Cambridge Fencing Club.
The autumn term started at the end of September; in fact the first lesson was on the Thursday evening before I went down to Brighton for FantasyCon. I was a bit worried I’d be horribly stiff at the convention, so my husband showed me some exercises that would help stretch my leg muscles and build core body strength. As a result, I was only a little footsore after the first class, since we only did footwork. In subsequent lessons we learned how and where to hit our opponent, and a bit of parrying. The instructor likes to focus on the basics in the beginners’ class and leave more complex techniques to the intermediate class.
The beginners’ class is over now, and whilst it was fun, it has also confirmed my suspicions that it’s not for me. Partly it’s the modern sport: the protective clothing is hot and uncomfortable, and I find the highly stylised nature of it (compared to realistic fighting styles) somewhat frustrating. Partly it’s because I’m unsurprisingly not terribly good at it, having started so late in life, and I don’t enjoy activities I’m not good at (this is why I hated PE at school). Mostly, though, I’m not in sufficient physical condition, and it’s very tough on the right arm, which already gets a hammering from computer use and longhand writing.
It was a painful decision to give up; writing has taught me how to persevere in the face of obstacles, and I really did want to enjoy it, but I have to face up to my limitations. It’s been a valuable learning experience, and at least I can now cross another topic off my bucket list. So, I’m regretfully going to have to bail before I do myself a mischief and have to dictate my next novel!
I tried to slither out of this at first, but then I woke one morning at 5am and couldn’t get back to sleep, but couldn’t get into the writing groove either, so I thought I might as well give it a go! The Next Big Thing is a blog post chain for writers. You talk about your work-in-progress (or in my case, about-to-be-published novel) and then tag five other writers to carry the torch forward. It’s been going a while, so practically every writer on the planet has already done it – soon we’ll have to start linking back to existing posts and it’ll go all Ouroboros on us…
1) What is the working title of your next book?
The Merchant of Dreams. That’s the official title, btw
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
It’s a sequel to my debut The Alchemist of Souls, so it picks up where that book left off. Also, I’d always wanted to set a novel in Venice, so I just needed to work out how to get my characters there!
3) What genre does your book fall under?
Historical/alternate history fantasy.
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Hmm, I’ve debated this one a lot, but eventually I came down in favour of Aidan Turner (Being Human, The Hobbit) to play Mal, especially after seeing photos of him as Kili (below). He has the right mix of charm, intensity and darkness to play my swashbuckling hero and his mentally unstable identical twin brother.
I’ve also cast a number of other actors in my head: Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Captain America) as Ned Faulkner; Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Caribbean) as Robert, Prince of Wales; and Bradley James (Merlin) as his younger brother Prince Arthur. And whilst it would require a significant makeup job, I totally envisage Seth Green (Buffy, Austin Powers) as Ambassador Kiiren
The character I have most trouble with is Coby Hendricks, my girl-disguised-as-a-boy; someone suggested Olivia Thirby (Juno, Dredd) but it would depend if she could do the accent!
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn’s dream about a skrayling shipwreck proves a reality, it sets him on a path to the beautiful, treacherous city of Venice – and a conflict of loyalties that will place him and his friends in greater danger than ever.
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It’s represented by John Berlyne of Zeno Literary Agency, and published by Angry Robot Books. It will be out in ebook, audiobook and US paperback on 18 December 2012, and UK paperback on 3 January 2013.
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I did the very first draft for NaNoWriMo, back in 2007, so technically, only a month. However I had to completely rewrite it from scratch; not only was it far too short at only 50k, but the previous book had changed substantially in revisions so the plot no longer fitted. The new draft took about eleven months, although I had to take time out to edit and promote the first book so it wasn’t a non-stop process. Actual hands-on writing time was probably nearer seven months.
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The closest ones I can think of are Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series and Mark Chadbourn’s Swords of Albion. Like the former, several of the main characters are gay or bisexual, and like the latter it revolves around the Elizabethan secret service.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The city of Venice – I absolutely love it! It’s hardly changed in the last four hundred years, which makes it perfect for any writer of historical fiction, realistic or fantastical.
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s probably one of the few Elizabethan fantasies that doesn’t feature either fairies or William Shakespeare (though the Bard does have a couple of cameos in the third book of the trilogy). My “magical beings” are a race of non-humans called skraylings who evolved in the New World at around the same time that humans appeared in Africa. They now live alongside the Native Americans, acting as go-betweens and traders, and since Columbus showed up and the Spanish started hassling them, have allied themselves with the English in an attempt to keep the Europeans out of the Americas.
Right, that’s my bit done – time to pass the torch to my victims, ahem, writer buddies:
I first met Adrian at EasterCon 2011, I think – he’s a great guy, and like so many people I met that year he now has a book deal! His first fantasy novel, The Four Realms, is due out from Anarchy Press in late December.
Jennifer is another convention buddy, this time introduced to me by fellow Angry Robot author Adam Christopher. Her fantasy novella The Copper Promise has been self-published on Amazon, and I know she has plans for more stories in that world!
Jacey was a fellow panellist at EasterCon 2012, where she impressed me with her witty rejoinders! Like me she writes swashbuckling alternate history fantasy, but Regency instead of Elizabethan – really looking forward to that one!
You’re supposed to link to five others, but this meme’s almost played out and I didn’t have time to hunt down any more. Bite me!
At WorldCon last week I attended a panel where one of the participants, Catherine Lundoff, announced she had just written a book called Silver Moon about a woman who becomes a werewolf when she goes through menopause. Several audience members reacted with “ooh, I’d love to read that!”, but I was not one of them. Don’t get me wrong; on an intellectual level, I appreciate that women, and especially older women, are too seldom the protagonists in SFF and that this is A Bad Thing, and yet…the premise didn’t exactly set me on fire. I much prefer books with male protagonists, or a mix of male and female. And of course that got me wondering why.
At first I thought it was because some readers prefer their protagonists to be much like themselves, whereas others (presumably including myself) prefer those who are different, in order to experience lives they can never have. That’s a big part of it, I think—escaping into a life that’s far more interesting than the real world—but there are plenty of strong, active female characters around these days, especially in contemporary fantasy. And yet they still don’t interest me as much as the men.
It’s well known that girls are more open to reading about male characters than vice versa, but what does that say about one individual’s preferences? Do I prefer reading about men because that’s what society has inculcated in me? Or because I don’t identify—and never have—with (stereo)typical female behaviour and hence my self-image is somewhat gender-neutral? Or maybe it’s something else entirely…
Back in April I was on a panel at AltFiction on the hoary old topic of diversity in fantasy, and made a quip about “the female gaze” as an explanation of why I enjoy writing (and reading) about male protagonists. More recently, Foz Meadows has written a very insightful article for the Huffington Post titled “Sex, Desire and Fan Fiction”, pointing out that a high percentage of fan fiction is written by and for women to cater to female readers’ appetite for erotic entertainment in the context of a relationship, in contrast with pornography for men, which isolates sex from relationships.
Reflecting on these points in relation to the issue of female protagonists made me realise that, regardless of whether there is any romance in a book, I want to fall in love with the protagonist—and for me that perforce requires a male character, preferably on the young side. (But not a teenager *shudders*) This habit is so ingrained in me that I can even fall in love with someone like Sand dan Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, because despite his many flaws he’s intelligent and funny and heartbreakingly tragic. Yes, he’s also described as physically repulsive, but then so was Severus Snape—and who was cast in that role? Alan Rickman of the oh-so-sexy voice, guaranteed to make all the adult women in the audience swoon. The great thing about books is that you get to supply your own visuals.
So, I can only issue an apology to my sisters, and a heartfelt wish that you get all the female protagonists you want to read about. Me, I’m going to stick with writing about hot men
Finally, going back to the title of this post, am I the only one old enough to remember this short-lived 80s TV show about a special agent who goes undercover as a male model? Warning: 80s big hair alert!
The Bechdel Test is a well-known yardstick used by writers and critics to assess the feminist credentials of a narrative. Taking its name from an episode in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the basic principle is that in order to pass the test, there must be at least one scene in which two women talk about a topic other than men.
Some people define it very strictly, in that the conversation shouldn’t mention male characters at all, but this is (IMHO) an impractically tight definition that excludes a lot of films, TV and books with positive portrayals of women. Taken to extremes, it means that a scene where two female cops discuss their strategy for taking down a male criminal doesn’t count, whereas one where they talk about shoes means a pass (and one could even say that the latter is far less feminist* for being focused on sexual attractiveness, not professional competence). Personally, I prefer a more liberal interpretation: the conversation doesn’t have to avoid all mention of men and relationships, but they should be incidental to the topic rather than the topic itself. For example, if two women talk about their favourite books, should the scene fail just because they don’t restrict the conversation to female authors? Personally I’d say no, not unless the conversation turns to which of the male writers is more attractive!
At any rate, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot whilst writing my Night’s Masque series, because gender plays an important role in the story. But do my books pass?
I chose to write a novel set in the Elizabethan period for many reasons—the plays and poetry, the gorgeous costumes, and the extraordinary parallels with our own times, for a start—but in doing so I’ve saddled myself with the decidedly un-PC attitudes of the times as well. Elizabethan society was pretty well segregated along social lines, in that a respectable woman had few opportunities to socialise with men outside her own family and her husband’s social circle.
I was therefore faced with a choice between an all-male core cast or trying to fit a female character into the story without totally violating Elizabethan mores. I decided to attempt the latter, not because I felt obliged to include a token female but because I wanted a diversity of point-of-view characters for my own satisfaction as a writer. The character who eventually became Coby started out as a respectable young widow, but as I wrote and revised the early chapters I found it increasingly difficult to believe in her as someone who would run around Southwark with a bunch of, frankly, disreputable young men. So, I decided she was an orphan who had disguised herself as a boy to get a proper job (i.e. anything but prostitution).
All well and good—and nicely Shakespearean!—but as a result, in all of Coby’s scenes with women they are acting on their belief that she’s a boy, at which point I guess the Bechdel test goes out of the window! On those grounds, The Alchemist of Souls is a big Fail. And honestly, I don’t care. The only way to make it pass would have been to write a completely different book.
In The Merchant of Dreams, which has just gone off to my editor, Coby gets to spend some time in female guise at last, and the book just about squeaks a pass as a result. She doesn’t have many conversations with women, and the ones she does have are often limited by language barriers, but as the revisions went on I found myself coming up with more and more opportunities to introduce female characters for her to interact with. It wasn’t a conscious decision; looking back, I think it’s simply that Coby now has a much wider range of options than any other character in the book because she can present as either male or female, and in this historical milieu that opens up more storytelling possibilities than confining myself to one sex.
I’m therefore interested to see how things will work out in the final volume, The Prince of Lies. Whilst I do my best to create an outline for a book before I start writing, it tends to be a rough sketch rather than a blueprint, and new ideas occur to me right up to the last draft. What happens next for Coby is still up in the air, and my focus is on staying true to her story, wherever that might take me. For me, respecting your characters means letting their story arcs develop at the right pace and in a direction that’s believable, not imposing arbitrary rules.
* For a sharply satirical look at the extremes of feminism, I strongly recommend Is This Feminist? (thanks to Emma Jane Davies for alerting me to this hilarious Tumblr blog)