Fantastic Fiction?

I’ve finished the first draft of my new novel, tentatively entitled In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea (I have developed a thing for titles being in iambic pentameter) and I’m currently letting it ferment for a week or so while I get on with some long-neglected real-life tasks. It’s another fantasy novel, and I thought I’d reflect a little on my choice of genre.

Fantasy fiction has become increasingly popular and mainstream in recent years, but it still suffers from a certain lack of understanding in the wider world. For every person who reacts with enthusiasm when I tell them I write fantasy, there are at least two people whose reactions are a bit more… puzzled. Some people assume that fantasy always involves erotic content, while others assume it’s always for children. One guy (I don’t know if he was joking or not) said ‘Fantasy – what, like Mills and Boon?’.

Um, no.

Besides being a frequently misunderstood genre, fantasy also gets unfairly maligned by literary snobs who consider it ‘trashy’ or ‘silly’. I’ve seen some fantasy fans respond to such criticisms by carping that all literary novels are tedious exercises in self-indulgent wish-fulfilment by middle-aged English professors with inappropriate sexual urges who write books about middle-aged English professors who have affairs with their students. Personally, I’ve never read a book like that, but I have read a lot of fabulously well-written and emotionally engaging fantasy books, so if anyone wants to have an argument about the respective merits of fantasy and litfic, I’d suggest sharing recommended reading lists first.

As for the criticism that fantasy is not good because it’s not ‘real’… well, neither is any other work of fiction. Any given novel is about imaginary people doing imaginary things, so why not stretch your imagination a bit further and have them doing awesome things like riding dragons, instead of boring things like drinking cups of tea on rainy afternoons? Why should the mundane be considered superior to the fantastic?

The fact is, I love reading fantasy, and I love writing fantasy, and so I’m sticking with it for at least the time being. I love the freedom it offers to create magical worlds where anything can happen, and the sense of wonder and excitement it can generate when done well. Sure, not everyone ‘gets’ it, but then there’s no such thing as a book that will please all readers, and the first person I need to please is myself. And then hope enough other people will like it too…

5 Reasons Why Books Are Better Than Movies

At the writing club I run in Derby, we attempt to have discussions about literature. Sadly, these often slide – via such exchanges as ‘Who’s read The Hunger Games?’ ‘Well I’ve seen the movie’ – into discussions about movies.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love movies. I watch them quite often. They only take about two hours to get through and they do have that social/communal experience thing going for them which books nearly always lack. But I’m a novelist, not a screenwriter, and so I now humbly present to you 5 reasons Why Books Are Better Than Movies:

1) Unlimited budget. Books never have shots of run-down parts of Vancouver pretending to be more exciting locations. They never have cheesy CGI or obvious stock-footage inserts or men running round in unconvincing gorilla suits. In a book you can have whatever you want: magic floating cities, flocks of dragons, impossible geometries. In the land of literature, the accountants hold no sway.

2) Actors never ruin books. Ever watched a film and been less-than-impressed by one or more of the performances? Or found a transition between two actors playing the same character at different ages jarring? Or enjoyed the film but for the fact it’s got your least-favourite actor in it *cough* fat-face DiCaprio *cough*. It never happens in books, my friend. When you read a book, all the characters’ performances are always perfect.

3) Vagueness. Huh? Why is vagueness good? Well, because while films have to shove everything up on screen in a boringly literal way, books can leave things to your imagination, for horrifying and/or comedic effect. The monster can be so unspeakably terrifying any attempt to describe it leaves people gibberingly insane. The main character’s outfit can be so outrageous that it makes people faint with shock to even hear it described. Plus there are all the joys of the unreliable narrator.

4) Books go anywhere. Admittedly, the advance of technology is making this one less and less of a clear advantage, but still, you can read a book just about anywhere: in the bath (that one’s my personal favourite), up a mountain, in the park, on a crowded subway train. Thanks to audio books, you can even read them while doing yoga or household tasks. Or whatever you fancy. Ever tried watching a film while doing yoga? I don’t recommend it.

5) Books can get you right inside a character’s head. They can show you someone’s thoughts and feelings, their hopes and fears, all in intimate detail. The only way a film can get inside someone’s head is with clumsy devices like the voiceover. Or, depending on the type of film, a buzzsaw.

The Fantasy of Greater Britain

Or, a fantasy writer’s view of the referendum.

This Thursday is the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, and frankly, I’m worried about it.
I’m worried that my country’s future is going to be thrown into at best uncertainty and at worst utter chaos by a Leave vote.

The Remain campaign seems to have most of the facts on its side – the certainties of trade agreements and science funding and freedom of travel and workers’ regulations and all that stuff. It has the support of major political parties and most public figures for whom I have any respect.

But the Leave campaign has something intangible – something whose power I can’t deny. A fantasy. Now I spend pretty much my whole life either weaving fantasies of my own or losing myself in those created by others, so I know how powerful fantasies are, how they tug at the emotions and pull on the power of dreams. To a certain extent, fantasies are necessary – we all want a dream to chase, an ideal to aspire to.

Fantasies become dangerous when they turn into a substitute for rationality. And that’s what this referendum campaign feels like – when it doesn’t feel like a lot of low-grade squabbling with a big dollop of racism. A fantasy of Greater Britain, an idea of us as a shining isle, splendid in our isolation, with a God-given right to rule the waves. A concept that Brits should be able to live and work and boss people around wherever in the world they like, but that we should be able to stop foreigners coming here. A dream of the sun never setting. The idea that, split apart from the rest of the continent, we’d somehow recapture our rightful place at the head table of world politics.

Oh, it’s an attractive fantasy, there’s no doubt about that. All the best fantasies are. What avid fantasy reader doesn’t dream of going to Hogwarts, of visiting Middle Earth or Narnia? Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear more than a tangential relationship with reality. We don’t have an empire any more. We’re not the Big Bad Boss of the world. We’re a modern, multi-cultural nation, deeply intertwined with the other nations of Europe (and elsewhere) in myriad ways – culturally, legally, politically, financially. Attempts to extricate ourselves from these bonds would be drawn out and painful, and what would be left at the end of it? A country magically transformed into a greater version of its former self? It doesn’t seem likely to me. It seems far more likely that such a process would only leave us diminished in search of a dream.

Fantasies are great. I can hardly claim otherwise. But not when they intrude into reality and consume common sense.

New New Year’s Resolutions

Back in January, I laid out my New Year’s Resolutions for 2016. We’re now nearly half-way through the year, so I thought it was time to re-visit those resolutions and do a progress report.

My first resolution was to finally finish my novel The Silvergreen Sea. Status: Confident green tick. It’s all done and out on submission as I write these words.
Second resolution, to finish the rough draft of my new novel The Tide of Fire. Status: Slightly more wobbly tick, probably in blue ink. It’s done – albeit only to a given value of ‘done’. It’s still nowhere near ready to be sent out on submission and I’m putting it aside for now, to be re-visited later.
Third resolution, to read at least 50 books. Status: Firm tick. I have successfully consumed 50 books in various forms – 29 paperbacks, 11 audio books, 5 hardbacks, 4 electronic books, and a graphic novel.

All my resolutions are already done, and it’s not even the end of June. I’ve officially won at New Year’s Resolutions. So what comes next – shall I just put my feet up and watch Netflix for the next six months? It’s certainly tempting – the new season of Orange is the New Black has just come out, so that’ll keep me occupied for a few days at least.

Some of my reading material for the second half of the year

Some of my reading material for the second half of the year

But after that, perhaps it’s time for some New New Year’s Resolutions. 2016 Part Two, if you will. What’s up next? Well, I’ve started writing a new book, The Only Thing That Never Burns In Hell, so I want to finish that in rough draft. I also want to read 50 more books, to get me up to a nice round hundred for the year. And as part of that I’ve got a mini-resolution, to read all the books which have been nominated for the British Fantasy Society’s Best Fantasy Novel and Best Horror Novel Awards, before they’re given out in September at the convention in Scarborough. I’ve made a start on the winning novels from last year as well – Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge, and No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill. The only problem is that they’re both kind of freaking me out. Oh well, New Year’s Resolutions can’t be too easy, can they?

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.

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.

#writer problems

Being a full-time writer, working from home, is essentially awesome. You can get up whenever you want, wear whatever clothes (or lack thereof) you want, have as much random clutter on your desk as you want, listen to whatever obnoxious music you want at sufficient volume to drown out the screams of the neighbours’ baby.
There are a few things you have to be careful about, of course, like resisting the temptations of excessive tea and Netflix consumption. And a few problems unique to the writer:

  • Googling strange things like ‘how to cut someone’s throat’ and hope nobody is monitoring your search history. ‘It’s for a book, honestly Inspector.’
  • Veering wildly (and frequently) between thinking your writing is a masterpiece and thinking it’s a load of garbage.
  • Answering the door at 11am in your pyjamas and dressing gown and feeling a little bit guilty about it. Not guilty enough to actually get dressed any earlier, mind.
  • Losing track of what day it is.
  • The never-ending fight with the many-headed beast that is procrastination, the inner Hydra which is every writer’s nemesis.
  • Spending the day lost inside your own inner world and then struggling to remember that your characters don’t actually exist and you now have to re-adjust to interacting with real humans. Although admittedly real humans are often more tractable than your creations.
  • The sheer unpredictability of editing – finding some chapters need hardly any work and can be dispensed with in a single day, while others are a complete mess, need extensive re-writes, and take an entire week of hair-pulling frustration to get right.
  • The difficulty of explaining to anyone who isn’t a writer how writing works. Particularly, in my case, trying to explain to people why my characters aren’t doing what they’re told and how long it took me to coax them to go to the location where the rest of the plot is waiting to happen. Just ‘cause they’re made up, doesn’t mean they’re not stubborn SOBs.
  • Getting carried away with writing and forgetting to do basic household tasks.
  • Making lots of cups of tea and then forgetting about them.
    Speaking of… oh crap, another cup of tea gone stone cold. Back later…