The more I write, the more opprobrium I feel for categorical definitions of fiction, notably “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” I like to think I practice both, and that most readers read both. Crazier still –– lunacy, truly –– I suffer the apparent delusion that often the two categories cannot be separated, except by book vendors aiming to simplify or streamline the shopping experience.
Not long ago, I delved back into Joyce Carol Oates’s introduction to a delicious anthology, Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, and I came across this passage:
However plot-ridden, fantastical or absurd, populated by whatever pseudo-characters, genre fiction is always resolved, while literary fiction makes no such promises; there is no contract between reader and writer for, in theory at least, each work of literary fiction is original, and, in essence, “about” its own language; anything can happen, or, upon occasion, nothing.
Now –– and I say this as a long-time and self-avowed fan of your work, Ms. Oates –– them’s fightin’ words.
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A few weeks ago, my colleague Jon Sprunk gave us a marvelous post on the weapons of fantasy. Like Jon, the weapons were very much what attracted me to fantasy in the first place. But I loved swords and sword fighting before I ever picked up my first fantasy novel (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which, by the way, the tradition of named weapons is followed with Peter’s sword Rhindon).
I’m not sure what got Jon started off, but what attracted me to sword fighting, and prepared me for the fight scenes in my favourite genre, were movie sword fights, beginning particularly with those in Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
It was from this last movie that I also gained my life-long love of archery, and the great archer Howard Hill, who did all the trick shots for Flynn, including the iconic splitting of the arrow.
Flynn did do all his own fencing in the films, but unlike his frequent opponent and co-star, Basil Rathbone, he didn’t take it up as a sport.
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Lynn Shepherd’s latest novel The Solitary House, set in the gas-lit world of London in 1850, features a pair of detectives – one of whom appears to be suffering from early stage Alzheimer’s – in the employ of a powerful financier with a dark past. It sounds fascinating, actually, exactly the kind of book I’d be interested in reading.
Of course, that was before she took a swipe at the world’s most popular fantasy writer in an ill-conceived and mean-spirited article last week at The Huffington Post, “If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It.”
I didn’t much mind Rowling when she was Pottering about. I’ve never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can’t comment on whether the books were good, bad or indifferent. I did think it a shame that adults were reading them… But The Casual Vacancy changed all that… That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere… what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath?
And then there was the whole Cuckoo’s Calling saga… The book dominated crime lists, and crime reviews in newspapers, and crime sections in bookshops, making it even more difficult than it already was for other books — just as well-written, and just as well-received — to get a look in. Rowling has no need of either the shelf space or the column inches, but other writers desperately do.
Now Rowling’s legions of fans are venting their anger at Shepherd in a cascade of 1-star reviews at Amazon,com, which are quickly overwhelming legitimate reviews of the book. As of this morning, there are 59; here are just a few snippets from the more entertaining examples.
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Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic Fantasy and SF, and something that’s come up a couple of times in the comments is the idea of a “precursor” civilization. On the one hand, we’ve more or less agreed that the existence of one doesn’t automatically mean that the present story is post-apocalyptic. On the other hand, unless we’re writing about Neanderthals, we’re pretty much always dealing with a pre-existing civilization, aren’t we?
In SF, the precursor society is easy to figure out. It’s us. SF is the fiction of change, and the social/scientific/technological world that it changes from is the one the writer/reader is living in. There seem to be two basic approaches to this concept, one in which the story is set in the near future, and one in which today’s society lies somewhere in the distant past.
With the exception of people like Isaac Asimov, and works like his Foundation Trilogy, most of the early SF writers were using the near future premise. Heinlein’s The Door into Summer, for example, written in the 1950′s, was set in the 1970′s. The movie Blade Runner is set in 2017.
I know. As SF fans have been saying for years, “Where’s my flying car?” This gives you a hint as to why the near future premise isn’t used much anymore. The future got here a lot faster, and in many ways differently, than anticipated. We might have microwave ovens, but we’re not colonizing the moons of Jupiter.
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When I first dreamed up my odd-couple pair of Renner & Quist, one of the many goals I had in mind was to write their stories specifically and consciously as adventures. This was not perhaps the most sensible decision, given a literary market polarized between nominally realistic “grown-up” fare and the highly fantastical tomes aimed at teens. (I shall not deign to even mention Romance; call me biased, go ahead. I can take it.) Nor did my conception of Renner & Quist allow for them to don armor, wield swords, or inhabit some far-flung or alternate world. No, these two, Reverend Renner being a Unitarian Universalist minister and Dale Quist a former P.I. and ex-linebacker, required a contemporary setting; to emplace them elsewhere would be to guarantee that any stories woven around them would be untruthful.
This is not to say that I’m against high fantasy; quite the opposite. I’m here, aren’t I? For further proof, take a gander at my Black Gate trilogy concerning Gemen the Antiques Dealer.
But not all ideas trend that direction and with Renner & Quist, I knew I had nearer waters to chart. Now that their second novella, Sleeping Bear, is out in the world, and with their first proper novel, Check-Out Time, very much in the production pipeline, it seems high time to explore what remains, in the 21st century, of that cracking good term, “adventure.”
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Last week, I was talking about apocalyptic novels – both Fantasy and SF – that I have on my shelves, and once again I got some very interesting and stimulating commentary. There are quite a few recommendations in those comments – along with some great ideas – so I’d advise you to have a look.
I was a bit chagrined when one of the commenters mentioned Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley (1969) as an example of post-apocalyptic SF. Like the other books I cited, this one is on my shelves, and as a big fan of his, I don’t know how I missed it. I’m going to talk about it, and about another of Zelazny’s novels, This Immortal (1965/66), but first, a little clarification.
One of the things we got into in the comments was exactly what we meant by “apocalypse” and “post-apocalyptic.” Now, as someone who not that long ago had a little rant about definitions, I probably should have been clearer about what I meant by those particular terms. Not that there was any name-calling or hair-pulling in last week’s comments. Just that I should have been more careful to follow my own advice.
Here’s my take on it: The existence of a precursor society is insufficient to make a story post-apocalyptic. An apocalyptic event brings about the “end of the world as we know it.” It should happen abruptly, not slowly over the course of time, as with the fall of the Roman Empire, or the disappearance of the civilization of the Caids in my own Dhulyn and Parno Novels. The new, post-apocalyptic society should be starting, effectively, from scratch. Maybe they’ve retained some “stuff” from the previous civilization, even some of the political or social ideas, but their world has changed in a way that can’t be changed back. The apocalyptic event can be natural or man-made – and I’d include magically created events in the latter category.
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…a chance to follow in the footsteps of my heroes Ronald Welch…
“Would you like to be paid to write Historical Adventure set in the Wars of the Roses?”
“Well I really wanted to write a literary novel set in the Wiemar Republic about Great War veterans coming to terms with their fractured lives, but: Yes.”
That’s roughly the Skype conversation I had a year ago, except I just made up the bit about the literary novel.
This was a chance to follow in the footsteps of my heroes Ronald Welch and Harold Lamb. It was difficult to say yes without sounding unprofessional (by swearing and whooping, e.g.).
I’m supposed to say something like: This ushered in a crazy year etc etc.
It wasn’t like that.
You just can’t write fiction day in day out if your life is Hollywood-crazy, perhaps with a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl jogging your arm. Almost all the professional writers I know have tranquil home lives and sane routines balancing work and social life.
Nor can you actually have much output if you lead a cinematic creative life, staggering to your keyboard after a booze-fueled night of carousing, then spending long hours angsting about your imagery.
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Of the many excellences in Marshal Versus the Assassins, M. Harold Page’s story of a real historical crusader trying to avert a crusade, the most remarkable is Page’s rendering of physical combat. There are so many reasons this stand-alone adventure in the Foreworld Saga could be subtitled Don’t Try This at Home.
Since you’re here reading Black Gate, odds are you’re a fight scene connoisseur. You’ll have read some classic set-pieces, and some classic blunders. You may even have read this post, which discusses the biggest pitfall most writers face when they set out to learn how to write a fight scene: the counterintuitive way a blow-by-blow approach to even the most exciting events can turn tedious. Writers who overcome that problem generally do it by intertwining the physical blow-by-blow fight choreography with the things fiction can render and film can’t — most of them aspects of the viewpoint character’s inner life.
What Page does more and better than any other fantasy writer I know is intertwine the viewpoint character’s complete sensory experience during combat. As a practitioner and historian of Europe’s lost martial arts traditions, Page knows in muscle memory how each weapon his crusader characters use feels in the hand, in the heft, and in the mailed body it strikes. All of us who write fantasy that includes fight scenes try to convey this kind of sensory vividness and immediacy. The difference in results between a writer who’s relying on research or imagination and a writer who has dedicated years to mastering the things his characters have mastered is immediately apparent.
I was about to say the difference was apparent on the page, but for much of the time I spent reading the fight scenes, I wasn’t really paying attention to the existence of a page. It would be more accurate to say the difference is apparent in the reader’s mirror neurons.
I love reading a book that I couldn’t have written, one that displays writerly chops totally different from mine. Of course, the thing Page makes look easy that I struggle with as a writer is not the only virtue of this book.
For instance, there’s the delightful blank spot in history that Page imagines his way into.
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Over at SF Signal, Andrea Johnson has put together one of the more interesting round-robin interviews I’ve read in a some time. As part of their Mind Meld series, she asked eight well known fantasy authors — including Martha Wells, Melanie Rawn, Sam Sykes, and Robin Hobb — to answer the question “What’s Wrong with Epic Fantasy?”
Many of the answers are both fascinating and insightful. Martha critiques the current trend towards multiple viewpoint characters (“A perfectly valid style, but… when it’s done wrong, it’s tedious”), Marc Alpin comments on the necessity to switch gears between books (“Some readers, especially those who wanted more of book one, freak out and think they’ve been cheated”), and Patrick Tomlinson discusses inevitable book bloat (“The longer an author writes inside a world, the longer the books tend to become.”) But it was Megan Lindholm, aka Robin Hobb, who I thought had the most salient comment, pointing out that the rise of independent publishers has also unleashed a host of amateur marketeers, whose newbie mistakes have left us with countless books that are misrepresenting themselves on the shelves:
I’m going to commit heresy here. I think that old time publishers are actually better at targeting the audience and showing readers the books they want than our current climate of ‘Everyone quick, promote a book you like’ is. Authors see their own books differently from how their publishers see them, and some of the author promotions I’ve seen led me to expect one sort of book and then [they] delivered another… I think that some (not all) of the people who are hired to create the book trailers don’t really know much about marketing… They make terrific trailers, and I get so excited to read the book, I buy it, and then think, ‘Well, this is a pretty good book, but it’s not at all what I thought it was going to be…’
To find a book that you really want to read, I recommend going to a bookstore (a big building sometimes made out of brick and mortar where they sell books made out of paper), and talk to the book seller (a person who knows all about what she or he is selling)… If you do not have a bookseller who can do this, then I am very sorry for you. Try your librarian.
Read the complete article here.
Last week I was talking about travelling, and the journey, in Fantasy, and SF. I noted that since most Fantasy uses a pre-industrial setting, journeys are generally undertaken on foot, via horses, or by (sailing) ship. However, there’s another aspect of pre-industrial living I’d like to address.
We recently had a bit of an ice storm in my area which left a lot of people without power for several days – I say a bit of one because I lived through such a storm about 15 years ago which left quite a few more people without power for several weeks. I learned many things about living without electricity which possibly have no bearing on writing fantasy novels. For example: the Amish likely didn’t notice; it stops being an adventure after the third day; it’s considerably easier to deal with if you live in the country, in a house that predates the use of electricity; people always want to borrow our Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalogue after any prolonged power failure.
And I learned and several things which do.
For one thing, the lack of electricity or other reliable power sources has an impact on where people live, and therefore where you can set your story. You may have noticed that there aren’t a huge number of stories set in the winter, or that even northern barbarians don’t hang around their homelands very much. Bad weather of any kind is generally used as a plot device, but severe conditions take too long to deal with and use up too much story-telling time – unless, as I say, “always winter but never Christmas” is actually a point in the story.
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