Do Stories Matter?

This blog post contains spoilers for the Captain America comics, and Game of Thrones (sort-of).

I’m having a busy year. I’ve finished the final draft of one book and the first draft of another. Today, I reached the 25,000 word mark on my latest work-in-progress, The Only Thing That Never Burns In Hell. It’s the story of a young woman who, desperate for a job and unable to find one anywhere else, ends up accepting a role as the Librarian of Hell. It’s a bit of a departure from my usual stuff – less epic fantasy, more urban fantasy, laced with satire and dark humour, and it’s been fun to write so far.

Writing stories can be fun, but it can also be frustrating, and I’m sometimes nagged by the question: does what I’m doing actually matter? Obviously, I enjoy it – but will it ever matter to anybody else? Well, I hope so. And, looking around the parts of the internet I frequent, I see that stories obviously matter a lot, to a lot of people.
The Marvel character Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, has had focus on him lately. After the release of the film Captain America: Civil War, there’s been a Twitter campaign to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend (I have to confess I had a moment of confusion at that hashtag, until I remembered that apparently some people still think Steve and Bucky are Just Really Good Friends).

Marvel’s response to this was not to give Captain America a boyfriend, but to make him a Nazi. Yep, you read that right. The latest issue of the Captain America comic outs him as a member of Hydra – the fictional uber-Nazi evil cult he’s been fighting since the 1940s.

Some people are quite upset about this, and I can see why. Captain America, after all, is the brainchild of two Jewish creators and was punching Hitler in the face long before Pearl Harbor. Making him into a Nazi for some cheap shock-value publicity is therefore… insensitive. For many people, he’s not just a super-hero, he’s a hero they can identify with, and making him evil feels like a personal betrayal.

The very first Captain America comic, published in December 1940 - a year before the US entered WW2.

The very first Captain America comic, published in December 1940 – a year before the US entered WW2.

On a more positive note, and delving into the world of fantasy fiction, we’ve this week seen one of George RR Martin’s key reveals from A Song of Ice and Fire adapted onto television before the book has come out. Unlike the ‘shock’ twist described above, this plot development is both devastating and fully convincing within the story’s context. If you want to make a Game of Thrones fan cry, just sneak up behind them and yell ‘Hold the door!’

Stories can be incredibly powerful. They might not be real, but the emotions they rouse – whether rage, sorrow, joy, terror, or anything else – certainly are. As I weave my own tales, I can dream of one day rousing a fraction of these passions.

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The Wrong Words

Writing stuff is easy, except for one thing: choosing which words to use. And I think fantasy authors have it doubly difficult in this regard. We’re describing our own worlds, which are often completely unlike the real world: they’ve got different cultures, a different history, they’ve got magic and mythical beasts. But in order to describe these worlds, we’re restricted to Earth-languages (well, ok, you can always make up your own languages like Tolkien did, but then you’ve still got to translate back into English or else nobody will understand your books). And a problem many fantasy writers encounter is this one: all words, in any language, have a history behind them. There are the original word-roots, and then there are the extra layers of meaning and nuance they accumulate through repeated use in a specific cultural context. Uproot these words, put them in a different context, and they can end up sounding weird.

Here’s an example for you: while reading a scene of airships attacking a city in the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky, I was struck by his use of the word ‘zeppelin’ to describe these machines. Now, to me, this word sticks out from a fantasy context in a way the more neutral ‘airship’ doesn’t. It’s too historically specific, too German, too World War I, too Stairway to Heaven. Using it in a world where neither Jimmy Page nor Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin ever lived just feels, well, wrong.

But it can be difficult to avoid such terms. In my first book, The Heartland of the Winter, I spent ages agonising over my use of the phrase ‘Adam’s Apple’ – since Adam and Eve were never a thing in my world, surely I should call it something else? But ‘laryngeal prominence’ would surely cause puzzlement, while any circumlocution along the lines of ‘male throat lump’ just sounds strange and calls more attention to itself. I considered cutting out the reference entirely, before eventually deciding to leave it in and hope nobody would mind. More recently, in The Silvergreen Sea, I struggled with ‘hell-bent’ when the culture doesn’t believe in ‘hell’ as such, and ‘stalemate’ when they don’t play chess.

What’s to be done? Well, generally in fantasy we assume there’s some kind of Translation Convention in place – the characters are talking their own language, and everything has been translated into idiomatic English for the reader’s convenience. This is all very well but can still sometimes be a bit jarring when you get people casually referring to things that don’t actually exist in their world.

One clever thing you can do is use things like idioms and swear words as part of your world-building: think of the way George RR Martin has his characters say things like ‘Seven Hells!’ and ‘The Others take it!’ Since many real-life curse words are religious in origin, this can be an excellent way to clue your reader in to how your fantasy religion works. You can also use language to hint at cultural taboos and/or preoccupations. In modern English we have a lot of terms with a nautical origin – ‘change tack’, ‘three sheets to the wind’, ‘loose cannon’ etc. In a fantasy society where they never had the Royal Navy but do have the Royal Dragon Corps you might find them using different terms – like ‘change wing stroke’, ‘three tails to the wind’, or ‘loose fire-breather’ for example.

Language can be barrier to successful world-building, and it can also be a tool. Either way, it’s something that fantasy authors have to think about in a way mundane-world writers don’t have to. As with so many things about writing fantasy, it adds to both the challenge, and the enjoyment.

Death, where is thy sting?

I’m posting this slightly ahead of schedule as I have Friday designated as a shopping day to acquire a new writers’ wardrobe. Wearing pyjamas and onesies to write is comfortable, but not great if I want to go to the corner shop or take a stroll through the park, and I have it on good authority that the best combination of comfort and style for the modern lady writer is the dress-over-leggings-lifehack. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Before we get stuck in, please note that this blog entry contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Harry Potter series, and A Song of Ice and Fire.

I’m currently wrestling with the plot of my novel The Silvergreen Sea, in particular trying to work out how to depict death and the afterlife. As ever, the freedom of the fantasy genre can be both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, you can invent your own version of an afterlife, ghosts, resurrection, revenants, whatever you feel like. But if you make it too easy to come back, or to communicate with the dead, then you can blunt the impact of character deaths and end up ruining your own story.

I saw a good example of this when relaxing with a movie (a writer is never entirely off duty…). On Monday night, I brought myself fully up to date with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was pretty good, although not quite what I was expecting: it’s less a comic-book superhero movie, more a paranoid spy thriller which wouldn’t feel out of place in the Bourne series.

But one very comic-book thing about the film is its flippant approach to death. Hundreds of nameless and apparently bloodless soldiers are killed in a ‘gun goes bang bad guy goes down’ fashion. The only death treated as if it’s of any significance is that of Nick Fury (played by Samuel L Jackson), who bleeds a bit, and even gets a tombstone engraved with a quotation from Ezekiel 25:17. But then he pops up again, apparently fine, despite being pretty comprehensively shot up by the eponymous Winter Soldier. And, frankly, I felt disappointed.

The Winter Soldier in one of his more friendly moods

The Winter Soldier in one of his more friendly moods

Why? Did I hate the character? Not at all. I just felt cheated that the film tried to have both cake and death, yanking on our emotions by killing him off, but still keeping him alive for the sequel. This isn’t an isolated incident. Superhero comics are so notorious for doing this that ‘comic book death’ has its own Wikipedia page, which notes that apparently the only permanent deaths in comics are Bucky and Uncle Ben. Except that the Winter Soldier turns out to be a somehow-still-alive Bucky (the Captain’s WWII buddy). So I guess it’s just Uncle Ben.

Comic books aren’t the only medium to pull this trick, of course: George RR Martin, for all his bloodiness, has resurrected or fake-killed so many characters that it’s no surprise most fans are dubious that, despite being thoroughly stabbed in A Dance With Dragons, Jon Snow is actually dead, or at any rate will stay dead.

In my view, it’s a thoroughly problematic trope: it cheapens death within the story, and it’s unkind on bereaved readers who could share characters’ grief and gain catharsis through it, but don’t have access to a handy resurrection spell. One of the most affecting parts of the Harry Potter series, imho, comes at the end of The Order of the Phoenix when Harry realises that, whatever he does, he can’t bring Sirius back, or talk to him ‘beyond the veil’. That’s something that resonates with an audience. As an author, you need get your readers in the gut, and putting some death in your tale is an excellent way to reach some of the most powerful human feelings – but not if you pull its sting with your fantasy shenanigans.

This then, is the question I’m currently trying to resolve: in my setting, the (non-hellish) afterlife is definitely real, so how do I keep the sting in death? Tricky. But it turns out that The Winter Soldier, as well as showing the problem, shows the solution. We see glimpses of how Bucky is brainwashed into a ruthless killing machine; and it doesn’t look pleasant.* It’s the same solution Martin used for Theon Greyjoy, and what JK Rowling did to Neville Longbottom’s parents.

It’s quite a simple solution, really: if killing a character isn’t quite going to do the job, just subject them to a fate worse than death. Problem solved. So that’s my way forward as an author: as soon as I’ve bought a couple of new frocks, it’s time to think up some horrific fates-worse-than-death and then inflict them on my imaginary friends. What a great job.

*I’ve also been reading an excellent if rather harrowing fan fiction which imagines the process in detail: http://archiveofourown.org/works/1815529/chapters/3897427 (trigger warnings for violence, rape, torture, attempted suicide, mental illness, brainwashing, everything really).

A Roundup of Randomness

It’s been quite a tiring couple of weeks. After almost 5 months of severe back pain, my activities largely restricted to walking round the park, drinking cups of tea, and watching old music videos and Game of Thrones teasers on YouTube, last Monday I finally went back to work. The pain hasn’t gone, but it’s sufficiently under control to start a phased return to the office, trying to remember what on earth I’m supposed to be doing (something to do with overhaul of jet engines, I think). I’ve been doing just two hours a day so far, but it’s astonishing how drained I feel afterwards. Still, this week was much better than last week, so it’s progress, and I was genuinely touched by how happy all my colleagues are to see me back. So, in the absence of more significant inspiration, I figure it’s time for a quick roundup of my latest thoughts and deeds.

1) Game of Thrones season 4 has started. This is, quite literally, the most exciting thing to happen to me in the last six months. My favourite bit – apart from Arya and The Hound, obvs – is the opening credits: although I have to confess that my heart sank just a little bit when Meereen showed up, I do love the way they’ve made The Dreadfort look like meat tenderisers. The Dreadfort, for those who don’t have the same encyclopaedic knowledge of Westeros as me, is the seat of Roose Bolton, who isn’t a terribly nice guy, even by GoT’s bloodthirsty standards. Incidentally, he looks just like Vladimir Putin.

2) I’ve been listening to a lot of Team Rock Radio lately, a station which promises no adverts, although it does spend a lot of time telling you all about what’s in the latest issue of Classic Rock Magazine. Clearly an underhand marketing tactic which won’t work on me. So in the latest issue, I’ve been reading all about KISS. God, they’re rubbish. But I salute their stroke of genius in adopting that crazy face-paint look back in the 70s, thus ensuring that: a) nobody would find out how ugly they all were; b) nobody would recognise them off-stage; c) they could replace band members without anyone noticing; and d) in forty years’ time, when their pretty-boy rivals’ faces had all melted, they would still look exactly the same.

3) Last Christmas I decided that my 2013 reading challenge would be ‘In Search of Lost Time’. I managed about half of it, so I’ve decided it’s actually a 2013 and 2014 reading challenge, and I’m currently working my way – slowly – through volume 4, ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’. I’ve also baked some madeleines, which I think counts as further progress.

4) On Monday evening I jointly led a session at my writing group, Derby Scribes, on the topic of submissions to agencies, magazines, and anthologies. At one point the discussion turned to font choices, and it struck me that you can always tell a true writer by how impassioned they are on the topic of serifs vs sans, Courier vs Times New Roman, or Verdana vs Calibri. We even had a couple of people sticking up for that most reviled of all fonts, Comic Sans. FWIW, my personal font of choice is Palatino Linotype.

5) My friend Tamsin has roped me into doing a 10k walk, starting at 10pm, to raise money for Treetops Hospice. It’s called the Moonlight Walk, but it’s actually scheduled for the night of the new moon, so clearly we need all the help we can get. Our team is called The Tea Ladies, and if we make our donations target, I’ll do the walk wearing my English breakfast tea cosy on my head. http://www.justgiving.com/the-tea-ladies/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=fundraisingpage&utm_content=the-tea-ladies&utm_campaign=pfp-share

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I will wear this on my head if you donate enough money to our cause

 

Foreshadowing

Should you foreshadow, or should the ninja space whale come as a surprise?

I am currently editing (or, rather, re-editing) the revised version of my novel, The Heartland of the Winter (having managed to piece back together the work I lost in last week’s Tea-on-Laptop Disaster). One of the things I am trying to decide is how much foreshadowing to do. Some readers have suggested I should do more; some have said it’s fine as it is. Ultimately, of course, I need to go with my own judgement, although being so close to the work can make it difficult. Part of the problem is that the tale changed in the telling: for the better, but this does mean the earlier parts of the book were written with a slightly different climactic scene in mind.

Ideally, what you want as a writer is that the reader will be initially surprised by the twists and turns of your plot, but will then say ‘of course, it had to be that way!’. It’s a delicate balancing act: give away too much early on and it’ll be predictable, give away too little and your revelations will come out of nowhere, leaving the reader feeling cheated. If your character uses a get-out-of-jail-free card, you need to show them picking it up earlier on – but not too obviously.

As well as the general issues around foreshadowing, there are some issues which are peculiar to the fantasy genre. One is that you’re not restricted to real-world rules. Which is part of fantasy’s appeal, but can also be its downfall if you resolve your plot by just making up new bits of magic on the fly. A hallmark of well-written fantasy is that the author creates a world which has its own internal logic, so that any magical or otherwise fantastic solutions to the characters’ problems feel consistent with what has gone before. IMHO, Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey get it right; Naomi Novik does not. Since the fantastic elements in my story are quite downplayed, my current issue is more around character motivations, but I expect this is something I’ll have to deal with in future books. Assuming I get around to writing any.

The fact that fantasy books often come in series is the source of another potential issue, namely that you need to start foreshadowing stuff which will happen not just later in the same book, but in a subsequent volume. As the gap between set-up and pay-off widens, readers may completely forget about something that happened two books and five years ago. Or you may have the opposite problem: that the fans have guessed everything in vol.3 by the time vol.2 comes out. The internet makes it very easy for fans to put their heads together and figure out what you’re up to. The author is then left with the options of either carrying on as planned, only it won’t be much of a surprise any more, or making it up as they go along. The 7th Harry Potter book suffered from this: fans had already figured out who R.A.B. was and the identity of the final Horcrux, so JKR threw in some previously-unheard of stuff about Deathly Hallows which left many feeling a bit cheated. A Song of Ice and Fire may well be headed the same way. But hey, I think this falls into the category of ‘problems I would love to have’. And then the ninja space whale killed them all. The End.

The Trouble with Targaryens

This blog post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So my novel writing hasn’t quite been proceeding at the pace I would ideally like, and HBO is to blame. I am currently in a froth of excitement about Game of Thrones season 3, and have been spending a lot of precious time in re-watching the first two series on DVD to bring myself back up to speed with events – since it boasts a plot of such Byzantine complexity that even someone who has already read the books (twice) can struggle to keep up with who everyone is and what they are all doing. I have been enjoying the show more second time around, perhaps because I had forgotten a lot of the details of the books, so I am less bothered about things like the precise identity of all the members of the Kingsguard. It has some flaws, admittedly – the most distracting one being the large amount of ‘sexposition’, leaving Ros the pros the best-informed woman in Westeros. But overall it is very well scripted, acted and filmed. And I love the credit sequence showing the locations as little clockwork machines.

Many fans reckon they are actually aunt and nephew. But hey, don't they look hot together?

Many fans reckon they are actually aunt and nephew. But hey, don’t they look hot together?

But, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I have to admit that the best thing about the television show is the prospect that it might plausibly catch up with the fantasy book series on which it is based. A Song of Ice and Fire has been going for about two decades now and shows no signs of ending any time soon. Author George R. R. Martin (nothing to do with The Beatles) has claimed there will be seven books in total, of which he’s currently writing the sixth, but since he previously claimed it would be a trilogy, and then revised that to a pentalogy before settling on the heptalogy, I’m not entirely convinced that it won’t end up as a dodecalogy. Given his age and corpulence, there has been a lot of fear in geekdom that he will ‘pull a Robert Jordan’ and expire before the book series is finished. Quite a few fans are worried that they will never find out who ends up ruling the Seven Kingdoms, and if Jon Snow really is the bastard son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. Leaving aside the question of how pressing a concern this really is, the good news is that if HBO re-commission the show enough times, sooner or later the screenwriters will have to come up with an ending: whether it’s based on the books, based on Martin’s notes, or made up out of whole cloth.

Not only will they have to finish it off, I’m also hoping that they may speed things up a bit. The gaps between books in the real world have lengthened exponentially even as in-universe time has slowed to the pace of a dead snail. Martin seems to have great difficulty in ever tying off any of his myriad plot strands, preferring instead to just keep on weaving in new ones, until it feels like he won’t be happy until he has told the whole life story of every single person in his imaginary world. At this rate, it is going to take approximately forever for the ice zombies to reach King’s Landing, and even longer for Daenerys to show up, zap them with her dragons, then marry her own long-lost nephews*. With any luck, impatient viewers and executives will dictate a snappier pace for television. Okay, so the events of the third book, A Storm of Swords, are being told across two seasons of the show, rather than the one-season-per-book format used up to now. But if you’ve read it, you’ll know that most of the best characters get killed at various weddings. Then nothing very much happens in the fourth and fifth books, so really, the show could probably just cut straight from Joffrey’s death-rattle to the zombie-toasting (via a bit of sexposition) and everyone would be happy.

For all I complain about the tedious pacing of Martin’s more recent books, there’s no denying that he has created a compelling world, and that every aspiring fantasy writer today has to consider his legacy and influence, in the same way that a previous generation looked to J.R.R. Tolkien (note to self: need to incorporate double-R initials in pen name). I just hope we get to find out how it ends, one way or another.

*well that’s my prediction, anyway