‘But editing,’ she hissed.

Last month I reported I’d finished the first draft of my new novel, working title In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, and was letting it ferment for a week or so before cracking on with editing it.

I’m now stuck well into the editing process, trying to get it finished before my baby bump grows so big I can’t reach my keyboard. Ideally, I’ll have it finished by the end of June, and then give myself six months of maternity leave. Of course, things don’t always go quite to plan, so come September I might be trying to type re-writes with one hand while holding a screaming baby in the other.

One thing I’ve noticed when I discuss editing is that not everyone has a very firm grasp of what it involves – many people assume it’s simply a hunt-and-destroy for typos. That’s actually proofreading, a separate process which comes later.

So if editing isn’t looking for typos, what is it then? Well, the way I think of it is as a three-part process, each part of which involves making a pass over the manuscript and examining it in a greater or lesser level of detail.

The first pass is to check for basic consistency, pacing, and structure. Are there any plot holes? Do the characters’ motivations make sense? Does it have a ‘saggy middle’ where the story meanders around without much direction? Are there too many sub-plots? Or, as I’ve found this time round, are we spending too long with one character’s point-of-view and neglecting what’s happening to the protagonist? It’s at this stage that you might decide to make big changes like changing the order of the chapters or cutting out a big chunk of text.

The second pass is what I think of as the continuity-error search. In the movies, continuity errors are things like a character’s outfit mysteriously changing when they walk through a door, or objects on a table disappearing between shots. With books, you don’t have to worry about every tiny detail in quite the same way – but you do need to make sure that, if you’ve described a character as finding a knife in one scene, you don’t then have a later scene where the knife has gone missing without any explanation.

The third pass is the line edit – this is when you get really down-and-dirty with the details of your word choices, and tinker with your sentences to make them flow better. It’s here that you discover things like an over-excessive use of the word ‘but’ (but I need to use it every other sentence! It’s such a useful word!) or that you’ve described characters as ‘hissing’ lines of dialogue which contain no sibilants. You’re smoothing out the edges of the sculpture, if you want to think of it that way. And yes, if you spot any typos, by all means correct them.

I don’t expect all writers to agree with my three-pass editing structure – in fact, I’m sure each writer will have their own personal approach, and that’s as it should be. But (that word again!) every book is going to need structural and language checks at some point if it’s going to make sense and read well. And of course, once you’ve done all that, then you hand it over to your agent/editor/beta reader to see what they think, and keep your fingers crossed they don’t find too many serious problems…

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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…

Crazy Crazy Golf

Today, caught out in the rain at the Quad cinema in Derby, I played a round of crazy golf with a difference. It was indoors for starters – inside the art gallery space at the back of the cinema. And each hole was designed as an interactive work of art, enabling you to putt your ball around the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, into the mouth of a kneeling man (who then pooped it out again) or through a maze of walls and barbed wire representing an armed border crossing. It was a diverting enough way to spend half an hour on a rainy afternoon, but the intention wasn’t just to be fun, but to make you think about the issues each hole presented – about police brutality, the environmental impact of cruise ships, and so forth.

The problem I found was that the accompanying labels for each hole were just a little bit too didactic, a little bit too telling me what to think rather than just telling me to think. Do football games between African and European teams represent the nexus of colonial exploitation and post-colonial struggle? Well, maybe, but while I’m nudging my golf ball around a mushroom-cloud shaped heap of miniature footballs covered in batik fabric, perhaps I’d prefer to make up my own mind about the symbolism.

Not your usual view from the tee

Not your usual view from the tee

I’ve argued before on this blog that all constructed narratives, even supposedly escapist fantasy novels, are inherently political. Visual art arguably has the prerogative to be apolitical if it wants to, to be pretty pictures and nothing more, and yet I’ve frequently found that, as today, art galleries are keen to spoon-feed us the Political Messages behind their displays, usually some variant on post-Marxism. Now I’m an incorrigible old leftie but I find these messages irritating, and I doubt anyone with differing views is going to be persuaded. Books with a similar lack of subtlety – the one I’ve read most recently being Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a piece of right-wing militaristic propaganda thinly disguised as science fiction – leave me similarly unimpressed.

Better, I think, simply to present a compelling story, or an interesting piece of art, and let people explore it in their own ways and come to their own conclusions. The problem with this approach, of course, is that they might come to the wrong conclusions. They might decide that, for example, your supposedly anti-war film actually makes war look really awesome, and where’s the nearest recruiting station? (Director François Truffaut famously observed that it’s impossible to make a truly anti-war film.)

Well, maybe they will get hold of the wrong end of the proverbial. But that’s the risk you take when you put your art into the world. Death of the author and all that – just because you’re the creator, you don’t get to decide what your work means. And, if my reaction today is in any way typical, if you try to tell people what to think about it, they’ll just get annoyed.

Still, the crazy golf was fun.

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.

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.

The Plotting of Perils and the Perils of Plotting

Swanwick Writers’ Summer School is an annual week long residential course for writers of all kinds, featuring workshops, speakers, various other events, and large quantities of pie. I’ve been there several times and it’s how I met my agent. This year, for the first time, I graduated from pupil to teacher, and delivered an hour-long session on how to plot fantasy novels. It seemed to go pretty well – my timing was spot-on, nobody fell asleep, and some of the attendees came up with really good ideas. I celebrated with a cup of tea and some more pie.

Now you lucky people get to enjoy a condensed version of my session. Here we go:

The Plotting of Perils and the Perils of Plotting

The great thing about writing fantasy is that you can do whatever you like – dragons! Goblins! Wizards! Elves! Magic! Did I mention dragons?!

The problem with writing fantasy is that, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. The existence of things like magic in your setting shouldn’t be an excuse to let basic story logic and decent characterisation slide. Sadly, some fantasy books fall back on lazy cliches and ‘A Wizard Did It’ style explanations for plot discrepancies. Here are a few examples:

*spoiler warnings for the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, the Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb, and the Black Magician by Trudi Canavan. All of which are recommended texts.*

The Dark Lord

A primal force of evil who lives in a dark tower and wants to take over the world because he’s evil. Usually has magical, evil powers like necromancy and likes to dress in black spiky outfits. Sauron from Lord of the Rings is the classic example. While evil plans to take over the world are cool and all, maybe ‘for the evulz’ isn’t the strongest or most believable motivation.

An excellent example of a subversion is the Lord Ruler in the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. These books explore the idea ‘what if the Dark Lord won?’ The first book starts in a world which has essentially become Mordor after a thousand years under the thumb of the immortal and despotic Lord Ruler. Then, after he’s defeated, we understand why he did what he did – and the characters have to then deal with the same problems he faced.

The Magician

A powerful wizard – usually with a long beard, pointy hat, and a magic staff – who aids the protagonist, dispenses wisdom, and controls things from behind the scenes. Gandalf, Dumbledore etc. Very convenient for the author to explain bits of backstory and get the main characters out of scrapes. A bit too convenient.

Akkarin from the Black Magician trilogy by Trudi Canavan is a subversion of both the Magician and the Dark Lord. The High Lord of the magician’s guild, supposedly a great and wise magician, he’s revealed to be using dark powers

– and then revealed to be doing so for very good reasons. He also becomes the love interest and tragic hero. This trilogy in general shows the elder magicians as being just as faction-riven and human as anyone else – and they are very much not in control all the time.

Plot Coupons

These are the magic whatsits that must be collected and/or destroyed by the protagonists to defeat the Dark Lord. A handy way to set characters off on a quest to find them in various locations – but arguably lazy storytelling. The Horcruxes from Harry Potter are an example, while The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper is full of them.

Did I mention dragons?

Dragon Eggs

The protagonist finds, or is given a dragon’s egg. Which duly hatches into a dragon which imprints on the main character – who then becomes a badass Dragon Rider. Might seem very specific – but this trope crops up more often than you might think, with Game of Thrones the most prominent recent example. The whole idea is subverted/deconstructed to hell and back by Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, in which it turns out that the objects humans had thought were logs – and have been cutting up and making into ships – are actually the cocoons of the now-extinct dragons. When one dragon is born alive, she’s not very happy.

The challenge I set for my eager pupils was to think of ways to avoid, subvert, twist, deconstruct, or otherwise play around with these overused tropes. And they did well at it, with some cool ideas in just the few who read out at the end of the ten-minute writing segments. I’m hoping one day I’ll pick up a fantasy novel and see myself credited in the acknowledgements as providing inspiration.

I’m calling that a roaring success. More pie!