I have a couple of unpopular fantasy-fiction-reading views.
1) I’m kind of over A Song of Ice and Fire. A Dance With Dragons has been sitting on my shelf – and on my to-read list – since September 2011. My husband’s read it. I haven’t. And every time I look at it I go, “…eh. But is anything actually going to get done?” (To be brutally honest, I’m sort of viewing the television series as the polished edit of his increasingly rambling first draft.)
2) I prefer single-volume fantasy. Related to the first point? Very probably. I might, I admit, be getting burned out on having to wait ages to find out what happens next, only to have to wait again. But also, my appreciation for a tight, concise, hard punch of a story is increasing all the time. (Also then I don’t have to worry about getting all the same bindings/sizes/covers to line up on my shelf…)
That said, here are three series I’m really intellectually invested in right now:
Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin
Next to read: The Tyrant’s Law (#3). World fantasy in the character-politics-heavy magic-chicanery-light mode of George Martin. After the strength-to-strength magnificent tapestry woven in the first two books, I have no hesitation putting this series top of my list. Those strengths? Genuinely intricate and wide-ranging politics, making banking and finance integral and fascinating, and amazing characters who are each and every one believable, developing and sympathetic. And then setting those characters at cross purposes.
Max Gladstone‘s Craft Sequence
Next to read: Two Serpents Rise (#2). World fantasy of highly developed societal systems; urban fantasy of the most wild kind. It’s been over a month since I read the first of these (Three Parts Dead) but I’m still utterly giddy about it, assisted by the buzz around Two Serpents, and the amazing draft cover for the next book, Full Fathom Five. There’s so much enjoyable, intellectual, inclusive and innovative about these books that I just genuinely can’t stop raving about them. (Of course, putting this on the list might be considered cheating, as the books seem to be more stand-alone novels in a shared world. But GIDDY. ABOUT. IT. So there.)
Daniel Polansky‘s Low Town series
Next to read: She Who Waits (#3). Holy grimy fantasy noir, Batman. Part of what has me so excited for the third book of this series is that, for me, there was such an improvement in book 2 (Tomorrow the Killing) over book 1 (Straight Razor Cure, where I come from). Don’t get me wrong, Cure was zippy and rich and full of grit, but Killing was magnificent, layered and complex and just oozing the regret that gets you nowhere. So I’m eager as anything to see what the third book – tantalisingly named after the world’s oft-referenced goddess of death – brings to play.
My workspace seemed particularly indicative of current trends tonight, so I thought I’d preserve it for posterity.
A: Scrivener. Actual writing project thing! With words!
B: The Google Doc and accompanying chat window of my writing circle. We have been instituting a virtual writing circle (to go with our monthly workshopping meetings) whereby we show up at an agreed time twice a week, register what we hope to get done, and then sit in together in cyberspace and do it. The benefits of this are manifold, and I will expound upon them another time.
C: Zizou. “Helping”.
D: Zizou controlling device, for when she’s not even pretending to “help”.
(Yes, actually, the screen on this thing is enormous.)
When we had watched precisely one episode of the American remake of House of Cards, I was already somewhat frowny over various deviations from the UK original, especially in the area of Mrs U. This prompted me to have a serious think about what it is that makes me love her so much in her original form.
Mrs Urquhart – our scheming protagonist’s better half – gets very little on-screen time in the original House of Cards. Then again, the original miniseries is only four hours long, so there’s very little time to play with. She puts a stamp on the whole shape of things much bigger than her physical presence within it, however, that makes her a vitally important character (and even more so in the sequels).
The story itself is about Francis Urquhart, and his descent into darkness to receive “justice” for what should have been his at the outset of the story. It’s a tale of scheming and compulsion and violence and adultery. Mrs Urquhart is not involved; she steps aside, she goes to the country, she smiles and pats Francis on the cheek and goes upstairs. But heavy in all his actions is her imprimatur upon this path. She approves. And that permits him. (Even the adultery. Especially the adultery. It is a strong if subtle implication that Elizabeth nudges him to “making sure” of his new media pet. And in the second series, she explicitly sets him up with a new toy. I contrasted this starkly with Mrs Underwood, in the US version, taking Frank’s arm possessively. Elizabeth would never. She might raise an amused and fond eyebrow, and that would be all the discussion necessary. Her leash on Francis is indestructible and invisible, and her confidence is bombproof.)
There are strong and conscious shades of Lady Macbeth to her, and that’s a character I’ve always liked a great deal, a woman whose steel and firm grip surpasses the man through whom she has to work. That man is pushed to greater (if more terrible) things than he might have ever achieved alone. And he knows it. That’s part of the leash; Francis wouldn’t dream of losing Elizabeth, because she makes him everything that is worthy of her. If he doesn’t have her, he is a lesser man.
This becomes even more obvious in the sequels (To Play the King and The Final Cut), as Francis starts to crumble and Elizabeth gets more screentime, every moment displaying the steel skeleton of this immaculate British flower. She changes international policy with an artless womanly aside. She plans without flinching.
And she loves Francis. Perhaps that’s my favourite part of her. This perfect woman loves an imperfect man, and she loves him wholly, ruthlessly and without it being a weakness.
Nothing puts the writing game in perspective like reading the GoodReads progress updates for a book I love. A book I think is plotted with ruthless, ineluctable pacing (“Gee, this is slow and boring”) or a book I think is instantly arresting and seats you immediately in the world (“I have no idea what is happening”) or a book I think has a magnificent cast of fantastically enthralling characters (“I don’t like anyone in this book and I don’t care”).
No matter what you do, someone’s always going to dislike it. However universal your tropes, they’re not going to work for someone. However much you sweat over the phrasing of a sentence, it’s going to confuse someone. And whatever you call your character, someone’s going to think it’s stupid, or it reminds them of an ex they hate.
Vladimir Nabokov said: “I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.”
All you can really do is write the most amazing book for you, and hope that there are enough other people out there who like the things you do to make it worthwhile. Because if you try to write something that will appeal to “everyone”, you’re going to fail anyway.
I like to remind myself of that when my fits of self-indulgent delight tip over into, “Oh god, no one else is ever going to like this.”
Maybe they will.
Great advice on the terror of starting out on a new anything from Stephen Deas in his first type-along NaNoWriMo post (among other things!).
I have terrible trouble with starting. Not with starting a new project, usually; part of the low-flying seagull of inspiration is usually a beginning, or maybe it’s that I don’t start writing actual narrative until I feel that I have to, compulsive planner that I am. But starting a new chapter or section of the story? I can stare at that for weeks – both physically at the empty screen, and figuratively as I stare out the train window and just past people’s ears in social situations.
The standard breakdown of the period between writing-group deadlines for me can be summarised as:
- two days of strict and careful planning of story points to be covered in the next chapter (or two, if I’m ambitious)
- five to twenty days of trying to figure out where to start
- a week of scraping words together, only to find the place where I should have started
- two days of fluent writing to complete the chapter, usually the two days before pieces are due for writing-group.
So advice about kicking myself into starting is invaluable, even if it turns out later I started in the wrong spot. (Chances are, I would have done that anyway.) And Stephen Deas’s gem –
“So here’s a trick for getting started if you’re struggling: pillage.”
– has just kicked me off perfectly on my next chapter.
And I’m not even struggling with the plagiarist guilts, because I pillaged from myself. I have an advantage here, inasmuch as in the thing I’m working on, I’m telling three stories in parallel, so I can reach over to chapter 7 of another POV and pilfer the first paragraph. Or, actually, once I got my edit on, the first line. OK fine, the first five words and a general rhythm.
But it worked. Words on the damn page. UNDERWAY. (And there are still SIX days before writing-group deadline, so nyah. >.>)
Rachel Aaron made an excellent post about Story Velcro – the art of “unputdownable” writing through careful and tight layering of hooks.
Let me just say – very few writers write as well about writing (…say that after the third martini) as Rachel Aaron. She has keen observation and scientific rigour and she applies it to the business of writing ruthlessly. There is a lot to learn from her blog! So I’m sure that she is absolutely 100% right about how to make your writing “unputdownable”.
Here’s my sticking point: I’m not sure I like “unputdownable” books.
That sounds ridiculous, and of course it is: I, like everyone else, want a book with heaps of layered interests, with a fascinating world and intriguing characters having enthralling relationships as they pursue outrageous goals. I want there to be heaps in the story to chew on, and for it to be an endless buffet of delights.
But (to continue my food metaphor!) I need time to digest. I need to pause, and reflect, and make connections and considerations and extrapolations in my head. I need to do this to be satisfied with a book. I do not stay up all night reading. I generally don’t even read for hours at a stretch at any time. If I can do that, if the book just slips that easily into my mind, I generally find at the end that it slips right out again. It’s like chocolate; sure, you keep reaching back to the block for one more square, it’s easy and compelling to eat, but once you’ve eaten the whole thing in one sitting, you don’t really feel great about it.
With a truly magnificent book – the sort of book I am going to tell everyone to read – I can find myself stretching out the reading. Using parts of my “reading time” to just hug the book to me and think about it. I ration it out to myself like… well, like the finest and richest chocolate. It’s not about finding out what happens next as quickly as possibly; the experience of reading the book, of unwrapping each new tidbit of delight, is part of the magnificence.
So possibly what I’m ruminating about here is not “story velcro”, but an over-focus on pace. And I think my ongoing food metaphor is going to serve me well here: if you’re writing fast food then maybe pace is king, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. I duck in for a quick McBurger sometimes myself.
But I don’t tell my friends about it (unless it’s really bad). I do tell them about that long, luxurious, eight-course degustation with matching wines and attentive but never harrying service.
Something to think about.
All posts earlier than this have been imported from my Dreamwidth journal. Vagaries of importation processes may occur! Keep your hands and arms inside reality.
So here's an interesting sidenote to start with: My work internet blocks absolutely no websites or web apps except LiveJournal. Baffling as this lone exception is, it's also tremendously annoying, since the only time I have to journal and comment-respond is in five-minute gaps between work things, and then I can't respond to LJ comments. I have been going, “Oh, well, I'll get them when I'm at home, then!” but at-home computer time is writing or games (in the midst of a Wesnoth revival pending the release of Neverwinter) and I always forget. I don't want to turn off LJ commenting, because I love hearing from you guys however and whenever, but bear this in mind.
Back to point!
Encountered today: 8 Reasons Authors Don't Complete Their Manuscripts.
More than a few of these hit me where I live – and especially there were a couple to which I nodded sagely: I would not have finished Boralos if I had not overcome them. Others I find myself wrestling with right now.
We moved into our house (“to the country”, Mr Dee calls it, mostly because there is now grass instead of road and pavement, the sound of lawnmowers on the weekend, actual pets; ignoring the fact that we are still in zone 1) nearly two years ago now. When we first sat down with the designers to start planning the house, some two years before that, the first thing they asked me was, “What's the one thing you want? Why are you building this house?”
I said, “Because we've had to stop buying books because there's no room. I want bookshelves. I want a whole room of bookshelves.”
(They looked at me like I was a really strange person. I get that a lot.)
The next problem? Bookends. I cannot believe how difficult they are to find, and suddenly we need ten of the damn things…
One of the most marvellous things about travelling – to my mind – is finding out the details of how life is lived differently in other places by other people. I find the really little things absolutely fascinating. How chairs are arranged at outdoor cafes in Europe. That in America the standard electronic account is cheque, not savings. The ridiculous way Russians queue (…they basically don't, to my English-derived sensibilities).