Original Settings

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Last week John O’Neill sent a response to a writer who’d wanted some more detail about why his story had been rejected, and John, as you’ll see below, answered in more detail. We thought this might be interesting to Black Gate readers and writers and perhaps help further explain what we mean when we ask for more original world building, etc. Take it away John!

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I appreciate your interest. I’m always happy to elaborate.

You ask:

>What constitutes an original plot, setting and character?

This is the kind of question that begs a lengthy answer. I don’t really have time for that, so I’m going to take a shortcut and get right to the point: what I really mean is I’m looking for interesting plots, settings, and characters.

Being original is a huge step towards being interesting. Let’s take your opening scene, for example: a young man in a barbarian village is helping his father create a sword. Suddenly a group of men ride into the village with weapons drawn.

This isn’t very interesting. First, because I already know that those men are there to pillage the village and gather slaves. I also know that the boy’s noble father will die a heroic, but inevitable, death. I also know the boy will fight valiantly and be defeated, but not killed. And all that came to pass in your story, over the course of about 15 pages.

How do I know all that? Because I’ve read that plot, with that setting and those characters, more than once. More than a few times, actually.

Is it an unpardonable sin to re-use a recognizable setting in heroic fantasy? Probably not. It’s the same with familiar characters archetypes — the evil sorcerer, the noble barbarian — and even classic plots.  But each time you use a familiar element, your story gets less interesting. 

You did add some fresh elements — I was quite taken with your villains, and your intriguingly well-thought out approach to magic, for example. But when the first 15 pages of your tale presents a plot, setting, and characters I’ve seen before… it’s not for us, not matter how well written it is, or how fresh the villains are.

I hope that’s been helpful. Let me know if you have any additional questions.

Warm regards,

— John

The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part I: The Averoigne Chronicles

Sunday, May 27th, 2007 | Posted by Web Master

Clark Ashton Smith ranks as one of the most uniquely talented fantasists of the twentieth century, having penned a bewildering array of bizarre, erotic, thrillingly imaginative stories for the legendary 1930s-era pulp Weird Tales. In this first of a series, Black Gate‘s Ryan Harvey introduces you a haunted medieval French forest teeming with monks and vampires, lovers and succubi, knights and gargoyles. It’s Smith’s lasciviously lush and monstrously macabre woodland known as Averoigne.


David Smith

Thursday, May 24th, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

I’d been planning to reprint some excerpts from an interview I conducted with David Smith last year, then realized we had another interview with David Smith in the Black Gate web queue… and then I bumped into David Smith at the Windy City Pulp and Paperback convention!

Below you’ll find some excerpts from my interview with David related to the writing of fantasy adventure fiction, most particularly sword-and-sorcery. For the complete interview, visit here. And for the more recent interview, visit the Black Gate web site.

In case you don’t know David Smith, I stole this quick introduction from our very own web page, courtesy of Black Gate web guru Leo Grin:

During the fantasy boom of the 1970s and ’80s, the work of a young Chicagoan named David C. Smith consistently kept sword-and-sorcery readers enthralled with tales that heralded back to the pulp S&S adventures of old.

So now you know. David’s a talented writer and has some gifted insight into the craft. Even if sword-and-sorcery isn’t your cuppa tea I think you’ll find his answers of interest.

In other news, I’m still working my way through submissions and sending out responses. Ditto for John. In about a week we’ll have to step away from that and put finishing touches on issue 11 so it can go to press on time.

Interview with David Smith

What do you think is the appeal of sword-and-sorcery?

It’s pagan. And no matter how sophisticated we think we are or how much inside our heads we are, we know that that is the truth of the world. A lot of sophists and intellectuals and otherwise very bright people operate on the premise that we’re basically rational and sane. We aren’t. We’re animals, we’re pack animals. We are somewhat domesticated and we are well-trained, but we are animals. I think that the best sword-and-sorcery fiction takes us on a walk along that thin line, hints at this truth, is frank about this truth, and lets us exercise our imagination in the face of this truth.

Just as important, though, and perhaps more important, is the existential awareness in sword-and-sorcery fiction. I call it looking into the abyss. It’s more than just facing our mortality; it’s a visceral reaction to ultimate meaninglessness. It’s not just that we’ll die one day; it’s the fact that we really don’t matter, and that we have no ultimate control over anything. There is always that shadow nearby. And that’s what the monster is, or the abyss, or the flying apes or whatever. The best sword-and-sorcery fiction recognizes this aspect in the genre and deals with it in some fashion. It’s no accident that this genre came out of the same alchemy that gave us H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction, and Clark Ashton Smith’s. I think that they were responding to the zeitgeist, the sense of purposelessness that existed after World War I. This uncertainty and ambivalence about life was pervasive in the 1920s. It was what Sartre would call existentialism. Lovecraft answered this dilemma, responded to this by expressing it as gothic science fiction horror, this awareness of our insignificance. Robert Howard’s characters threw themselves against it with all of their might and went down fighting. Clark Ashton Smith’s stories are the most sublime because they exhibit the wit and insight and irony of cultivated black humor. He was an extremely good writer, as well, the best of the bunch.

Also, if you’re going to write this stuff, it can’t hurt to have an emotional or behavioral disorder or to have a cranky streak or a bit of murder in your heart. Even if you just take it out on flies and bugs, the ability to be an s.o.b. once in a while is probably an advantage.

What do you say to the charges leveled against sword-and-sorcery? Particularly that it is sexist and that the genre is played out?

A lot of sword-and-sorcery is sexist. Or at least it was. Most of the books written in the sword-and-sorcery boom of the late ’60s and early ’70s were written by postwar guys. It had its root in men’s fiction of the postwar era. And after the success of The Sword and the Sorcerer and Conan the Barbarian, there was a tidal wave of so-called sword-and-sorcery movies written by really bad scriptwriters — bad even by Hollywood standards — that emphasized beefcake and cheesecake. But a lot of sword-and-sorcery fiction is pagan, earthy, natural, sexy in this way. It’s blue collar. It’s the Heartland. It has a blue collar appeal. This makes me wonder whether the charges of sexism actually have their roots in classism, in class bias. We actually have advanced slightly in the past 30 years or so, you know. We’ve just come through a generation of raising awareness about gender, and we’ve had a lot of debate about social issues, and we’re better off for it. So by this time, I think the criticism is about class or taste more than anything else.

The other thing is that these stories, like all genre stories, quickly can become reduced to a formula, to a ritual, the same thing told the same way over and over. It’s hard to find worth in expression that offers so little originality. Reading these stories and writing them — is that going to be ritualistic behavior each time? Or are we going to try to gain a sense of wonder or insight? Are we going to feel the keenness of life? Turn characters this way and that, turn the plot every which way, come out with something satisfying, something honest, not hollow? Can you tell that story and create a sense of vindication, or of vitality, or of insight, or accomplishment? Sword-and-sorcery can do that. Any kind of story can do that. Can we do it well, and frequently? That’s the question for sword-and-sorcery: Is there anything in it to be taken seriously?

If sword-and-sorcery remains only fanboy stuff, then it deserves to be marginalized. If it can adapt and be used imaginatively in ways other genre fiction has done, then it will become or remain a worthwhile genre. Detective and mystery fiction did this. Westerns did it. Science fiction did. Even horror. Is sword-and-sorcery a satisfactory genre in its own right or is it some sort of subgenre of fantasy? Well, hardboiled is a subgenre of mystery. Romance has its own subgenres. Labels, labels, labels.

Sword-and-sorcery has been treated as a subgenre of fantasy because when Howard was reprinted in the ’60s and ’70s, it was at the same time that Tolkien was reprinted. But sword-and-sorcery is men’s adventure fiction. Morgan Holmes and others have discussed this. It’s Westerns. It’s hard-boiled fiction. It’s noir. But Tolkien created this quasi-Middle Ages with Middle Earth, and Howard had a made-up map, too, so these two writers and their creations were conflated by publishers. And Howard had some stories with castles in them, and we were hit over the head endlessly by pictures of castles and gnomes and sunsets painted by the Brothers Hildebrandt, and it was all basically Victorian kitsch.

If you go back and look at what Howard started with — because sword-and-sorcery fiction starts with him — you find that it wasn’t centrally about making up funny names and building worlds. It was about experience on an elemental level, and he explored that through these quasi-historical stories of his. Patrice Louinet and Rusty Burke have pointed out that Howard was really writing historical adventures with the Conan stories. He preferred to write history, but the research can be daunting and he needed to keep turning out copy, so he answered the drive that way. And he created something original. This material was fresh and immediate in its time, and the other writers of his generation who came after Howard, some of them, continued to develop the genre. Now, there was a lot of hokey, shallow imitation, too, because once you develop something novel, people are going to pick up on the literal elements of it and package it and market it to the nondiscriminating. But we also were graced with stories by Fritz Leiber, for example. And when the second wave of sword-and-sorcery occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, we had a new generation of writers who took the concept and ran with it. Karl Wagner did acid gothic fantasy or whatever he called it. Charles Saunders created Imaro. Jessica Salmonson did woman samurai stories. Dick Tierney and I probably veered closest to being back in the 1930s and writing material that was “Hyborian” or whatever you want to call it. And there are writers nobody mentions anymore or who almost got into the game before everything changed. Ted Rypel wrote a big series about Gonji, a samurai warrior who finds adventure in medieval Europe. Those books sold like crazy. How come no one talks about Gonji anymore? David Madison had some good stories in Space & Time at the same time that Charles Saunders and I were being published there. Joe Bonadonna placed a few stories but just missed selling a big epic he was writing. The timing was off.

Anyhow, even if we can develop sword-and-sorcery into a new direction and write it well, it will never be regarded as wholly legitimate by intellectuals and academics because those people tend to be snobbish, and the element of physicality annoys them. You know, it really is about sitting around the campfire and looking up at the stars and wondering what is over the horizon. It might be a castle, it might be a monster, it might be any kind of adventure. As far back as we can go in human history, the evidence is overwhelming that human beings always were on the move. That’s a big part of this genre. That and the dark, whatever’s out there just beyond the light of the campfire. I think that this is where the existential element comes in. This is where Lovecraft and Howard are joined at the hip. It’s amusing that some of the Lovecraft fans have to hold their noses when they discuss Howard. That sure isn’t the way Lovecraft himself thought about Howard. But it goes back to intellectuals and academics being inside their heads too much. You know, their guy never sweats. Lovecraft never sweats, but Howard is out there in the Texas sun every day, isn’t he? Lovecraft is a scholar; he’s inside at his desk. Robert Howard is out there shooting rattlesnakes or riding his horse or something, being vital. And the rest of us who write this fiction are out there with him, too. But there is a long tradition to this disdain. It’s the city mouse and the country mouse. Anything physical or having to do with the outdoors is boys’ adventure fiction, or in some other way it doesn’t qualify for serious thought. You know, for ten thousand years, we sat around the campfire telling stories about killing animals and boasting about physical contests and fighting the elements, and I honestly think that we would like to put that behind us. We have gotten comfortable and material, and it is brain power that has gotten us here. The brainworkers have created the modern world, not the physical laborers. I think this bias runs deep in the modern Western psyche.

Something else to keep in mind is that sword-and-sorcery does not grow specifically from the American experience the way Westerns and hardboiled detective fiction do. Sword-and-sorcery is about swords instead of guns. That limits its appeal right there. There are plenty of fans of edged weapons, to be sure, but when you think about America, you think about firearms.

Anyhow, to write good sword-and-sorcery, you need to write good stories, and that’s not easy. Give us characters and dialogue of interest. Show us how the characters grow and change. Show us who they are. Have them look into a deep hole — and have the hole look back at them. That’s what sword-and-sorcery needs. Come up with plots that grow out of people, not props. Throw in some interesting reverses and twists created by characters. Get past this Manichaeanism, this good-versus-evil bullshit. It’s not how the world works. Tell stories about grown-ups, people in desperate situations. That’s sword-and-sorcery.

Sword-and-sorcery virtually disappeared at just about the same time you and Charles Saunders and Richard Tierney and Lyon and Offutt all disappeared — and, of course, Karl Edward Wagner passed away. Sword-and-sorcery has been all but comatose for a long time. What do you think led to this? Why do you think the most promising writers of ’70s and ’80s sword-and-sorcery had either to walk away from the genre or walk away from writing altogether?

There’s a common denominator to all of the writers you mention. I’m not sure who Lyon is, and I can’t speak for Andy Offutt, but the rest of us have several things in common. First, we came out of the pulp tradition, and in many ways we represent the end of the line of pulp fiction as it had flourished from the 1920s through the 1970s. Second, most of us came out of the fanzines, the amateur publications of the 1970s, which is where the pulp tradition was kept alive. Third, those of us who came out of the fanzines achieved professional status but weren’t able actually to build careers because the machinery wasn’t in place for that. But the machinery was never meant to accommodate masculine adventure fantasy fiction, anyhow.

Fantasy fiction in the ’80s and ’90s became domesticated so that it could be regulated by publishers to serve as a corporate profit center. This was a marketing decision. Steering fantasy in this direction grew out of the popularity of the Tolkien pastiches. It also was an expression of the women’s movement. Publishers used the model of Tolkien fantasies, like The Sword of Shanarra, and promoted this sort of domesticated fantasy. It’s about packaging a product, creating a brand, and selling people the same thing consistently. You’re selling a ritual, you’re selling conditioning. The editors and publishers were very successful at this rebranding, your unicorns and elves and dragons and paperback covers with attractive young people walking with staves in the deep forest.

Sword-and-sorcery fiction was dropped in favor of this more lucrative demographic. The marketers of fantasy fiction redefined the genre to optimize mass-market sales, but it left a bunch of us out in the cold. We were the schmucks who were just gearing up to write some really interesting masculine fantasy, and we wound up hanging out there with nowhere to go. Can you imagine if Farnsworth Wright had decided in 1933 that suddenly he wasn’t going to publish any more of a certain kind of story? What if John Campbell had made a sharp turn in the 1940s and decided that he didn’t want to publish any more of some kinds of stories? What if Harlan Ellison had said, Well, I want stories for Dangerous Visions, but not those kinds of stories, or these kinds of stories?

Other kinds of masculine fiction, such as sci-fi war stories, still were published. But for individual reasons, those of us who wrote sword-and-sorcery fiction stopped producing it. Karl Wagner’s output diminished. DAW let it be known that they were no longer interested in publishing any more Imaro stories. I got tired of not having my career advance and dropped out. Dick Tierney returned to the small, private publishers. I’m not sure what happened to Andy. He and I corresponded for a while, and I know he sincerely championed Oron. I wonder whether he ever paid a price for that in the sci-fi and fantasy community!

But there was never a cohesive sense in the marketplace of sword-and-sorcery fiction. No one publisher took it upon himself or herself to champion certain writers or to promote this genre. In retrospect, it looks neat and tidy, but that was not the case at all. It was catch-as-catch-can. Sword-and-sorcery was more viable when we were all publishing in the fanzines. But the only authors who appeared in the digests, for example, were Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Avram Davidson. I don’t think any of us broke into Fantastic. I’m not sure any of us even tried. We went to the paperbacks. And someone would buy a book here or some books there, but it was taking advantage of the interest in the Howard stories and it played off the comics and movies. We did have a viable genre of sword-and-sorcery movies there for a while, and they were terrible. A few of them are dumb fun, but as we know, most of them aren’t even stupid fun, they’re just bad. So the few authors who were writing serious, dark, energetic sword-and-sorcery moved on or stopped. There was still S&S Lite. You had some anthologies of stories. But it had all taken on this quasi-Tolkienesque feel.

If you want to create a viable genre out of this, you have to get enough writers and editors and publishers and readers together to create a dynamic, to get it to the point where it is self-sustaining. I’m not sure that that can be done. It’s such a specific kind of story with a unique appeal, and I’m not sure that enough people are sufficiently entertained or interested or intellectually motivated to explore that possibility. You need enough people involved so that you have some creative tension going on, competition and cooperation at the same time, a movement.

An Interview with David C. Smith

Sunday, May 20th, 2007 | Posted by Web Master

During the fantasy boom of the 1970s and ’80s, the work of a young Chicagoan named David C. Smith consistently kept Sword-and-Sorcery readers enthralled with tales that heralded back to the pulp S&S adventures of old. Now after many years away from the field, he sits down with Black Gate to discuss that storied publishing age and his career as one of the genre’s shining lights.


Thoughts on Writing

Saturday, May 19th, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

On Showing Rather than Telling

I was planning to post on a writing topic today, and I see here that Eric Knight’s got another great one on Showing/Telling. It’s definitely worth your time to read. Then you should think about it. Then you should read it again.

On Learning Writing Lessons the Hard Way

I’ve been working on a novel for several years now. I knew it had some issues, and sent the most recent draft out to some loyal friends and colleagues for some fresh perspectives. They found more issues than I anticipated, and some of them left me shaking my head at my own processes. Had I really made THOSE mistakes? Indeed, I had.

So as I launch into the next revision I’ve been trying to figure out how I can avoid these same painful mistakes so that it doesn’t take me three MORE years to finish. I have other books to write, after all. 

I think I pretty much have point 1 licked, but then I’ve had that mentally posted to my head for 10 years and really do try to remind myself of it whenever I sit down to write. As for the rest: I realize that all writers have different strengths and weaknesses, so a lot of this may not apply to you. It’s a list I wrote for me, and the issues I’m dealing with in my novel-in-progress at this time. I’ll post it here in the hope someone else can find my hard lessons instructive. I hope that I have the wisdom to do so myself! 

1. Know what every character in the scene wants before you start writing.

2. Your longer works need DETAILED outlining. Always. You can work out plot problems, motivation, etc. in a rich outline so you don’t waste time writing, and rewriting, and rewriting just to get the structure right. As you’ve been doing… Have you noticed how painful that is yet?

3. If you have to start inventing scenes for a POV character you probably don’t NEED that POV character… refer to point 2, because if you’d outlined properly before writing you’d probably have noticed you had nothing for that POV character to do later on.

4. Remember how you’re supposed to give your story a clear through line? Really? Then write that way. The character HAS to have a driving goal that both she and the reader know. And it should be one that can be easily summarized: Indy’s looking for the headpiece to the staff of Ra so he can find the Ark of the Covenant.

5. Don’t coast. When revising, what was once the best scene in the earlier draft may not hold up any more. Look at it critically.

6. If you find a flaw and try to excuse it through character dialogue just so you can leave some scenes the way they are… you’re going to regret it. You need to look at that flaw from another angle. It will probably entail changing some scenes, threads, character arcs, or other painful things. Suck it up and make the changes.

7. Sometimes it is more important to spend all of a day’s writing time contemplating the story than worrying about how many words you get down – remembering this will help you overcome point 6. Quality, not quantity. You do NOT work best to set word counts. Remember that.

8. Remember those episodes of The Next Generation you hated because it felt like they would have a moment of character interaction that had NOTHING to do with the rest of the story? It drove you nuts that it wasn’t interwoven with the plot. NEVER do that. If you feel like the reader needs to know something about the character, don’t jam it in, just keep it in mind and it should come out, eventually, if your characters are well-envisioned. Refer again to point 2.

9. It’s great that you know what happened during the entire boring scene, but you can summarize it. More likely you’re doing number 8, though, which seems to be your new secret weakness, and means that the scene doesn’t need to be summarized so much as completely freakin’ REMOVED.

10. You tend to think that once you understand something that you’ve learned it. By this time you should know better. Continue to refer to this list, because if you’d really learned all this stuff you wouldn’t have had to write this list in the first place.

Pulps and Submissions

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Windy City Pulp and Paperback Con

kigorTwo weekends ago I headed up to the Windy City Pulp and Paperback convention and spent some time with John O’Neill, John Hocking, Eric Knight, and Morgan Holmes. It was a pleasure to see them again, and to meet in person a number of folks I’ve only ever corresponded with, not to mention chat with David Smith and Steve Haffner and a number of people I only bump into at the con.

The chief draw of the con for me is the companionship among like-minded people; the ancient magazines and paperbacks (hardbacks too, although I’ve never purchased any) are really just an excuse. That said, I did walk away with a number of minor treasures, amongst them some Ki-Gor tales from Jungle Stories.

I was introduced to the glories of Jungle Stories just a few years back courtesy of first Andy Beau and then some enthusiastic further recommendations from Hocking and Morgan. Ki-Gor was written by a house author, meaning that his exploits were written by any number of authors but all credited to the imaginary John Peter Drummond.

As a result you can probably anticipate, correctly, that the Ki-Gor stories are a mixed bag. The worst of them are the most vile pulp writing you can imagine. But the best of them are written in a frenzy of glorious purple prose. Hocking has described these good ones as sounding a lot like they are Tarzan stories as written by Robert E. Howard or Mickey Spillane, and I’ve found that description apt. Of the thirty or so I’ve read now a little over a dozen are pulp gems. By gems I mean they’re outrageous adventure romps turned up to 11, with great action scenes, monsters, menaces, voodoo queens, dinosaurs, walking zombies — all the stuff you expect to find when you first hear of pulps and rarely encounter — for in reality the majority of pulps are pretty banal and not nearly as exciting as their covers

After we dug through the stacks of treasures, many of those I mention above retreated to the Black Gate inner sanctum high above downtown Chicago. There we relaxed in leather chairs, surrounded by wall-to-wall bookcases stuffed with rare volumes, collections of Planet Stories, Astounding, Weird Tales, If, and other legendary magazines, naturally interspersed with busts of Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, and other legends (Steven Silver and Eric Knight had to bow out, alas, as they had tickets for the opening night of Damn Spot! the new Shakespeare musical.)

Submission Updates

The last two weeks involved two long trips up north, and I’ve fallen behind with reading subs as a result. I resumed reading a few days ago and am into middle-to-late 2006. John and I are both working through the accumulated subs for the next few weeks before we turn all attention to getting issue 11 out the door.


The first review of Black Gate 10 came in, courtesy of Sherwood Smith at Tangent.

And in case you haven’t yet noticed, the updates at the Black Gate web site are now going up one a week, courtesy of the talented and efficient Leo Grin. This last week we uploaded a review of Imaro and The Children of Hurin. Stay tuned for many more articles and interviews.


Black Gate Fiction Reviews

Sunday, May 13th, 2007 | Posted by Web Master

Two of the most exciting Sword-and-Sorcery volumes to be released in recent memory are on the agenda this week. Both feature the work of longstanding masters in the field, and both feature some material that has been published before. So what makes these new volumes different? Enter our review sanctum sanctorum with Ryan Harvey and Howard Andrew Jones to find out.


Getting Started In Online Adventure

Sunday, May 6th, 2007 | Posted by Web Master

If you’re a pen-and-paper RPGer who has never explored the wonders of online gaming, take a short trip into the eye of that storm with Black Gate‘s Mac Denier. Mac reviews the massively multiplayer online extravaganza Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, and gives you a taste of what to expect when your gaming universe goes digital.


More on Writing

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Sage Advice

Eric Knight has another great writing post this week; you can find it here. If you’re not familiar with Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, take a look at his example and become so, and if you are familiar, it’s definitely worth a revisit.

Black Gate Update

I hope everyone is enjoying their Black Gate 10s. What, you don’t have one? Go remedy that! If you want to chat about it, use a link to the right and visit the newsgroup.Responses to some of the submissions I’ve forwarded to John have started going out as he sorts through a horde of treasures. I’ve started into the August-October slush, and am almost through readying the gaming and book review material for issue 11. John has long since readied the fiction for the issue and I believe all the art is in. In short, stay tuned.

I will be meeting jolly John O’Neill, the mighty John Hocking, the aforementioned Knightly Eric and hopefully a few others at the Windy City Pulp and Paperback con this coming weekend; we will convene in the Black Gate rooftop headquarters, high over downtown Chicago.

As far as Black Gate presence at other cons this year the only one I know we’ll both be attending for sure is the World Fantasy Con. I MAY be going to Archon this year in St. Louis, but the summer schedule is pretty full right now already. I need to decide soon, as I hear hotels are already full up anywhere close to the con.



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