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New fantasy series: follow-along

I recently went back to the forums of Holly Lisle’s online Novel Writing School, where I was somewhat abashed to discover I’m somewhat of a poster girl for the courses (well, I did get a three-book deal out of the manuscript I put through How to Revise Your Novel!). When I mentioned I was using the How to Think Sideways writing course materials to help me with the new series I was planning, one of the moderators thought that students would find it interesting to hear what I was doing. However I don’t just use Holly’s materials, and I thought it might be confusing to students on the course if I talked about my own methods on the official forum. So, if you’re here via a link from the HtTS forums (and even if you’re not), welcome! Read more

Epic fantasy? What does that even mean?

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.

Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk
Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk

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!)
  • Mock-Tudorpunk
  • Grime’n'punishment
  • Alchemical romance (by analogy with Wells’ “scientific romance”)

What do you think? Do we need a new label for non-epic, non-contemporary fantasy?

Eastercon programme

I now have my programme for EightSquared, the 64th Eastercon, so I hope I’ll see some of you at the following events:

Friday, 7pm: Genre Get-Together – Fantasy (seems to be a big informal signing event)

Friday, 9pm: Panel – Underground London

Sunday, 2pm: Panel – The Changing Portrayal of Gender and Sexuality in SF & Fantasy

Monday, 11am: Panel – Selling Space

I have no idea what I’m going to say on that last one, as I know little about the space industry – I think I got involved because I do know a bit about “big science and the commercial sector” :)

You can see the whole schedule online at 8squared2013.sched.org (there’s also a web app you can use on an iPhone, Android or Blackberry).

BristolCon 2012

Last Saturday saw the return of BristolCon, the small but perfectly formed SF convention based in the city of the same name. It was my second year of attending, and though it’s a long way to go for a one-day convention, it’s well worth a visit. The programming is always excellent, managing to avoid the usual tired topics that get recycled every year at the larger conventions in favour of such delights as “Toilets in Outer Space – practicalities for a fantastic world” and “Women in Sensible Armour”. I attended the latter, which of course started off with general ridiculing of chain-mail bikinis but soon diverged into related topics such as women in the military and women passing as men. Of course it covered some of the same ground as many panels on gender, but the specificity of the title gave the panel a focus and direction that it might otherwise not have taken.

My own schedule was fairly modest: a place in the mass signing tables, a panel and a reading. A couple of girls from Fantasy Faction turned up with copies of The Alchemist of Souls for me to sign, which was gratifying, and I think Forbidden Planet sold all but one of the copies they’d brought with them. The panel, on “The Evolution and Future of Steampunk” was lively, to say the least, but the very dapper Philip Reeve did a splendid job of keeping us all in order. After the panel I read from The Merchant of Dreams; just a small excerpt from the end of Chapter 5, since it was only a ten-minute slot. Nevertheless it was well-attended, and I hope has whetted a few more appetites for the next book.

I was also interviewed by Mary Milton for ShoutOut Bristol – that will appear on one of their shows soon. I was a bit nervous, so hopefully Mary has been able to edit out all my hesitations and ramblings!

At the end of the day there was a short ceremony to thank the guests of honour, at which Gareth Powell was given the best GoH gift ever: a stuffed toy monkey in a flight suit., aka Ack-Ack Macaque. As Gareth’s fans will know, this is the eponymous character from his new book, due out in January next year (the same day as the UK paperback of The Merchant of Dreams, as it happens).

By Saturday night I was really tired and therefore decided to go to bed a little earlier than I normally do at conventions; an unwise decision as it turns out. I had just got into bed and started to feel sleepy when I was woken by the fire alarm! I pulled on jeans and a warm top over my nightie and headed to the stairs… Fortunately it was a warm dry night and we didn’t have to stand outside too long (it was a false alarm caused by a lift malfunction), and it gave me an opportunity to finally corner Marc Gascoigne for a chat about cover designs for The Prince of Lies :)

BristolCon 2013 is scheduled for October 26th, i.e. the weekend before World Fantasy. I shall be at both, of course, so I hope to see you there!

Romance in fantasy

Maybe it’s a cliché to write a romance-themed blog post for Valentine’s Day, but the celebration is rife with clichés so I thought, why not?

In medieval and Renaissance times, a romance was not a love story but “a long fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events, usually set in a distant time or place” (freedictionary.com). Sounds awfully like the modern-day definition of the fantasy genre, doesn’t it? However when it comes to the modern definition of romance, you tend to find readers divided on the subject.

On the one hand you have the “girl cooties” school of fantasy, inspired by the work of Tolkien, who spent most of his life in the male-dominated circles of the early twentieth century English education system. Such books seem designed to appeal to the adolescent male, with female characters who are at best an idealised Other, and at worst a collection of sexist stereotypes. This is a gross generalisation of course, and there have been lots of fantasy novels with strong female characters, but there are nonetheless still plenty of readers who dislike any hint of romance sullying their heroes’ testosterone-soaked adventures.

In the opposite corner you have the new kid on the block, paranormal romance, which seems designed to appeal mainly to female readers. Owing more to the Gothic novels of the early nineteenth century, these are love stories first and foremost, with the fantasy elements typically providing the obstacles between the lovers. I suspect that part of their rise in popularity, as with m/m romance, lies in the fact that modern Western couples face few obstacles in their relationships compared to previous generations. “(S)he’s a vampire/werewolf/angel/zombie” has replaced “our parents would never allow it” as the star-crossed lovers’ angst du jour.

But what of the middle ground? What are the fantasy novels that fall between these extremes, and where do you draw the line? This question occurred to me after reading Ten Ruby Trick by my friend Julia Knight. For the most part this is a fun swashbuckling adventure, like the old movies I used to watch on Sunday afternoons. Sure, there’s a romance between the hero, Van Gast, and the tricksy pirate captain Josie, but the love scenes are fairly infrequent and not terribly steamy.

In many respects, therefore, it’s not that dissimilar from my own novel The Alchemist of Souls – and yet Ten Ruby Trick is published by Carina, an ebook imprint of Harlequin, whereas I’m published by SFF imprint Angry Robot. So what makes Julia’s book romance and mine not? I pondered this for a while and realised it was all down to the characters’ motivation. In Ten Ruby Trick, both Van Gast and his enemy Holden are motivated by their love for Josie; if it wasn’t for their feelings, there would be no plot. In The Alchemist of Souls, the romance is confined to a subplot. Take it away, and you would still be left with Mal’s main storyline, which has nothing to do with romance (though it is ultimately concerned with love, loyalty and responsibility). It’s a subtle distinction, but one that makes all the difference in how the book is marketed.

What about you? Do you like romance in your fantasy, fantasy in your romance, or do you prefer the two genres to stay separate?

Sisters – doing it for ourselves

There’s been a lot of debate recently following an online survey asking readers for their “must read” SF list, the issue being that less that 10% of the suggested books were by women. Why, it was asked, the overwhelming bias?

Various explanations – and solutions – to this woeful state of affairs were put forward. Many pointed out that there is no lack of women working in the genre. From the writers themselves, through the often female-dominated corridors of the publishing industry, to the many women readers, we are everywhere. The problem is not absence but invisibility. Women’s writing is, by and large, being published, but apparently not reviewed, reprinted or talked about.

To me it all seems to come down to the same issue. Women are brought up to be mild-mannered and self-effacing. Girls do less well in mixed schools because their male classmates hog the teachers’ attention. Women have a cliched reputation for being talkative, but scientific observation has proved time and time again that in a mixed group, men do more of the talking and are far more likely to dominate the conversation. This is the real obstacle we are facing as women SFF writers – not active sexism or bias, but something entrenched deep in our culture, a potent mix of nature and nurture that drowns the female voice everywhere. Even we women are guilty of buying into this silencing, every time we worry that by standing up for women we are sticking our heads above the parapet and asking to be labeled as harridans or, perish the thought, feminists.

Lauren Beukes at the Arthur C Clarke awards. Photo courtesy SFX magazine
Lauren Beukes at the Arthur C Clarke awards. Photo courtesy SFX magazine

The fact that women’s voices can make themselves heard, without any apparent fuss, is proved by one writer currently in the limelight. Last month Lauren Beukes won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award for her novel “Zoo City”. Now I haven’t read it yet, though a copy is sitting on my iPad waiting patiently, but I have a feeling that what attracted the nominations was not simply the quality of the book but the visibility of the author. Beukes is a South African journalist, a career that certainly isn’t for shrinking violets, so it’s hardly surprising that she is outgoing and fearless in the face of male domination of her genre. However she goes about it with such canny charm: stuffed toys based on elements from her books accompany on her public appearances, simultaneously disarming and attracting everyone she meets. She talks to everyone, and soon has them eating out of the palm of her hand.

Of course not everyone can follow her example – we’re not all that brave and extroverted. But it does show that, as the old saying goes, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. If there’s going to be any positive discrimination going on, it needs to be just that: positive. No whining, no apologies for making a fuss; simply tell the world about all the damned good SF and fantasy that just happens to be written by women.

Postscript: on checking my own blog, I have realised to my shame that, of the six books I have reviewed, only one is by a woman. Part of that is because I have been researching the competition, and my corner of the genre is dominated by men. Currently on my TBR pile are Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard and Romanitas by Sophia McDougall. However I would very much like to find more women writers to review, so if you know of anything suitable, please give your suggestions in the comments! I’m looking for recently* published fantasy with a strong historical flavour, either real-world or secondary-world – but preferably no dragons, which bore the pants off me :)

* I have read – and loved – The Curse of Chalion, and will probably review it some time, but it’s several years old and I’d like to focus on new works.

Romance and geekdom

There’s been a teeny debate online this week between two people I met at EasterCon: Gavin Pugh of Gav Reads, and Sophia McDougall. The discussion centred on slash fiction and whether it was right to (homo)sexualise fictional characters in fan fiction. I won’t go into that here–you can read the respective blogs if you’re interested–but it got me thinking about the impetus behind slash, and ‘shipping in general. In other words, geeks vs romance.

Romantic/erotic fan fiction is largely written by women for women, and seems to me to be a response to the lack of female-oriented storylines in early SF, particularly on TV. Yes, Kirk could often be found snogging the female alien-of-the-week in Star Trek, but as with most episodic TV, everything had to be reset to zero by the end of each story, so there was little space to develop a believable romance. Besides, maybe you didn’t dig Kirk, in which case you’d be lucky if the writers threw you a bone once per season with a story about Spock’s pon farr or a few scenes in which Sulu takes his shirt off. The response of female fans was to write their own stories. This still begs the question, why?

It’s not as though the world is lacking in romantic fiction. Indeed, it’s the bestselling genre by far, outstripping crime, thrillers, SF&F, etc put together. So it’s not like female geeks lack reading material. Or do they? Until recently, the romance genre was largely confined to contemporary, mainstream settings, with sidelines into popular historical eras such as the Regency period. These have limited appeal to the average geek girl, who wants her fiction to have aliens or faery folk in it, not doctors or shipping magnates (at least, not unless they’re xenobiologists or spaceship magnates!).

By the end of the twentieth century, things were starting to change. More and more women were writing SF&F, and romantic, even erotic, storylines were creeping into the genre. Mostly this was confined to new subgenres of fantasy, particularly urban fantasy (predictably enough – vampires have been a metaphor for sex since Bram Stoker’s day), although a few venturesome authors like Catherine Asaro dared to write romances firmly within the SF genre.

And yet, romance is still looked down on within SF&F. My publishers, Angry Robot, had a lot of fun on April 1st by pretending they were going to start up a romance imprint. A few people were taken in by this, perhaps because AR are an innovative publishers with a wicked sense of humour, so the bogus titles listed didn’t seem that far-fetched, at least not at first glance. But there’s a serious side to this story, in that romance still has “girl-cooties” and male SF readers in particular don’t want it in their books.

Myself, I fall in the middle of this spectrum. I enjoy a good romance as much as the next girl (The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee is one of my favourite books and makes me cry every time I read it), and when developing story ideas I find myself drawn to romantic plots and subplots almost against my will. At the same time it’s not the main thing I look for in a book, so I have sympathy with the guys.

To be honest, I reckon there’s more than enough room for both readerships in our genre. Room for the whole spectrum, from romance-free hard SF to steamy love stories that just happens to be set in a fantasy world. The important thing is that the cover copy and artwork don’t mislead readers into thinking they are getting one thing then giving them something completely different. The cover of my book is going to feature my hero with his sword out* for a good reason…

Caveat emptor. Here Be Romance. Or not, as the case may be.

 

* No, hush! Stop that giggling at the back!

 

Book One of…: the enduring power of trilogies

Ever since George Allen & Unwin decided to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes, the trilogy has ruled the fantasy genre to the point of becoming a cliché. Admittedly fantasy didn’t invent the trilogy–it goes back at least as far as the Victorian three-volume novel–but it certainly picked it up and ran with it. So why has the form persisted for so long?

Part of it is the Western obsession with the number three, particularly in relation to story structure. From The Three Little Pigs via the three caskets in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to the structure of many jokes (An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…), the three-step story forms a pattern we all know and take for granted. Setup. Complication. Resolution. The three-act structure of Aristotle, now enshrined in scriptwriting dogma.

Is it something the publishers are doing? After all, we read so much about author X getting a three-book deal. Well, yes, publishers like to pin a writer down with multi-book deals, because a lot of work goes into establishing that author’s brand through jacket design and so on, and if the first book turns out to be a massive hit they don’t want their star to be lured away by another publisher with deeper pockets. But multi-book deals are the norm in most genres, regardless of whether the books themselves are standalones (as is usually the case in mainstream, romance, etc) or part of an open-ended series (a favourite in crime/mystery, ever since the days of Sherlock Holmes).

So if it’s not the publishers per se, who is driving the desire for trilogies? My feeling is that it’s the readers. Publishers want to buy what sells, because they’re in business to make money – and what sells most reliably is trilogies. Or tetralogies. Short, finite series.

Part of it is setting. A great fantasy story depends, more than anything else, on great world-building. And building a whole world takes a lot of the writer’s investment of time. Why throw all that hard work away and start again from scratch? And yet… Terry Pratchett has built his career on a single setting, the Discworld, without ever writing what could be called a trilogy in the usual sense. Every Discworld book is pretty much a standalone, even though it may be a sequel to one earlier in the series or at least feature some of the same characters.

However Pratchett’s books are small-scale, focusing on individuals and usually satirising one specific topic, be that football, the early days of cinema, or whatever. The true home of the trilogy is epic fantasy. And perhaps now we approach the crux of the matter. Epic fantasy is, thanks to Tolkien and his imitators, the most high-profile sub-genre of fantasy. Generally set in a secondary (i.e. invented) world, it uses a broad canvas to tell sweeping tales of adventure involving multiple cultures and/or sentient species. Even for a writer who doesn’t waffle or get sidetracked by his huge cast of characters, it takes a lot of words to describe such a story. Usually at least 250,000 of them and often a lot more. And it’s at this point that publishers balk at the page count and want to publish the story in three volumes.

The trilogy has become such a staple of the genre that it’s the go-to structure even for writers like me who prefer each book to have a self-contained plot. I have a manuscript on submission and have been explicitly asked “how a second and possibly a third book in this series might pan out”, so I have to at least consider making it a trilogy. I have no problem with that – the novel deliberately leaves some plot threads open because the background conflict is way too big to resolve in one book – but I do cringe ever so slightly at the thought of “Book One of (insert pretentious series title here)” appearing on the cover.

So, how do you as a fantasy reader, or writer, feel about trilogies? Love ‘em? hate ‘em? Classic or cliché?

Fantasy Noir – a genre for the new millennium?

It’s traditional to begin the New Year with a retrospective post about the previous one, but I thought – why stop there? Why not look back on the whole decade? So, here are my thoughts on what I see as the big fantasy trend of the new millennium.

Over the past ten years, a new sub-genre of fantasy has been gaining ground. Fantasy noir has been aptly described by SF&F website io9 as “magical cities in decay”, a phrase that sums up the combination of urban grime and sleazy glamour perfectly. From Scott Lynch’s Venice-alike Camorre, with its ancient, alien glass bridges over stinking, all-too-mundane canals, to an Elizabethan London haunted by implacable mind-raping fae in Mark Chadbourn’s new series The Swords of Albion, fantasy noir has brought a realistic and deliciously nasty flavour to a genre many outsiders see as a realm of idealised escapism.

Maybe it’s not an entirely new sub-genre – there were fantasy novels set in run-down imaginary cities before now (e.g. the sublime In Viriconium by M John Harrison) but, I think, never so many of them as in the noughties. So what is it that has made noir so popular with editors and readers alike?

One possibility is that modern readers just don’t click with the rural landscapes that dominate much of fantasy. We live in an increasingly technological world, and whilst some may long for the good old days of villages dotted across a wilderness, others may simply find such worlds irrelevant or even “sappy”. Also, describing a wild landscape well takes a lot of writing skill and more importantly, familiarity with the subject. As writers we are always being told “write about what you know” – and what most people know is cities.

Or perhaps it’s simply that, more than half a century after Tolkien, we have just had enough of mountains, forests and castles, of quests, noble knights and dark lords. Yes, there are readers aplenty who still flock to epic fantasy, as the continued success of Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson and George R R Martin prove. But for the rest of us, we seek new wonders, new ways to explore the fantastic. And when it comes to TV, we don’t just watch Buffy and Supernatural; we watch CSI, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood and all the other genres.

To my mind, that’s a defining element of fantasy noir. It’s not just about the rundown cities or the magic, but the introduction of tropes from other genres. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a heist caper; The Sword of Albion is a James-Bond-esque spy thriller. Noir is practically defined by its “mashup” nature, and that’s what our magpie culture loves. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Why the hell not?

Is genre dead, or at least dying? If it is, fantasy noir is right there in the vanguard. And I for one will be cheering it on and throwing flowers in its path. Vive la revolution!