Piracy and Heresy 

Several people I know recently shared this article about ebook piracy. The basic argument, as made by fantasy writer Maggie Stiefvater, is that you shouldn’t pirate books because it jeapardises authors’ livelihoods and hence ability to keep writing. She makes the point that her own Raven Cycle of novels nearly came to a premature end because of piracy affecting sales.

The argument boils down to this: if you like something, you should pay for it, so you can get more of it.

Now as an aspiring author I’m hardly going to argue in favour of piracy. I am, however, going to commit heresy. Because I don’t actually find this argument that persuasive.

Why not? For two reasons. Firstly, because the stuff-for-free genie is already out of the bottle. There is now so much writing available online for free – even without pirated ebooks, there is loads of fanfic, and loads of self-published writers who’d rather give away their writing than keep it in a desk drawer – that many readers have simply become used to getting stuff they like without having to pay for it. And secondly, because paying for an author’s books doesn’t always mean you get more of them.

Look at fantasy writers George RR Martin, Scott Lynch, and Patrick Rothfuss, and litfic writer Hilary Mantel. What they all have in common is that they’re currently disappointing their fans by failing to produce the promised next instalments in their respective book series. I don’t want to throw these authors under the proverbial bus – I’m sure there are good reasons for the delays – but the fact remains that paying money for books is not a guarantee that the author will write another one.

Here comes the heresy (brace yourself!). If writing really is a business and not a hobby, then shouldn’t writers be obliged to fulfill their end of the bargain? And if for some reason they can’t do it themselves, shouldn’t they subcontract to get the work done on time?

What!? Subcontract the creation of a novel!? How can I suggest such a thing? Well, it seems to work for James Patterson. And yes, I know many people are sniffy about the quality of his thrillers, but he keeps his readers happy. And his publishers. And his bank manager.

Collaborative works don’t have to be low-quality. One of my favourite books I’ve read this year, The Medusa Chronicles, is a collaboration between Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, based on a novella by Arthur C. Clarke. And let’s not forget that Brandon Sanderson finished off the Wheel of Time book series after original author Robert Jordan failed to complete it before he died. I’m sure Wheel of Time fans are happier with that outcome than with being left hanging. Co-writing books with more established authors can be a way for young unknown writers to learn their craft and build a reputation, as well as for the established writers to expand their own brand. (Yes, I said brand. I can feel the shudders). Collaboration is so common in the world of TV and film script-writing that it’s amazing it’s not more prevalent in the world of books. And fanfic is now so widely accepted I’m expecting to see more and more of it published under licence.

I know, I know, this is all highly heretical. But let’s be honest, authors and publishers need to do something to combat the threat of piracy, and unlike musicians, they can’t really rely on live tours to make ends meet. Whether the future holds more collaboration and licensed fanfic, more Kickstarter-and-Patreon funded books, fewer writers making any money at all, or all of the above, the times they are a-changin’.

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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.

Dreams of Adaptation

After a few weeks off sick, I’m now getting stuck back in to writing my novel The Silvergreen Sea, trying to unpick a plot knot I’ve been tangled in for a while. It’s going… ok, I guess? Having lost all my previous momentum, it’s now taking a while for me to build up my steam again, and of course the downside of being self-employed is I have to provide all my own motivation.

A good source of motivation/pointless indulgence is always daydreams about eventual success: buying a brand new Alfa Romeo, reading letters from adoring fans, that kind of thing. One dream popular with many writers is of course the idea of your book being turned into a film or TV show. This particular fantasy, shiny with Hollywood glamour, is especially brilliant because it’s got so many different facets. You can imagine which actors you’d cast, how your favourite scenes will play out on the big screen, what outfit you’d wear to the Oscars.

What I’m going to say next definitely comes under the heading of problems-I-would-love-to-have, or even problems-I-daydream-about-having (a special kind of fantasy). The impression I get from reading about some writers’ experience of adaptation is that the book-into-movie dream might become an example of Be Careful What You Wish For. While a few hyper-successful writers are exceptions – witness EL James’ notorious meddling with the production of the Fifty Shades of Grey film – most writers have to accept that when they sell their soul – er sorry I meant film rights – they surrender creative control, and the resulting adaptation might end up more travesty than triumph.

A recent example of this would be World War Z. The original book by Max Brooks is part horror, part scabrous political satire, told as a series of loosely-connected short stories set in the aftermath of a worldwide zombie apocalypse. The unusual narrative structure meant it was always going to be difficult to turn into a movie, but at least the film-makers had plenty of juicy material to work with. I mean, the book has lots of different stories, any one of which, with a bit of fleshing out, would have made a pretty good film in its own right. But after years of wrangling with the script, what eventually arrived in the cinemas bore almost no resemblance to any part of Brooks’ book and was, let’s be honest, Not Very Good. I’d give it at best 7/10, and I love both zombie films and Brad Pitt’s pretty pretty face. For anyone less keen on the undead and/or the delectable Mr Pitt, it’s more of a 4/10 movie.
And that’s just the way it goes. For every hugely successful and widely praised TV adaptation like Game of Thrones, there’s at least one Dresden Files – a TV show which mucked around with Jim Butcher’s books, got cancelled after only one season, and sank without trace. Not to mention the countless adaptations which never even make it that far. As a writer, you’ve just got to take the money and run, and hope the film-makers’ decision to re-imagine your elderly, disease-ridden protagonist who lives on a council estate in Wolverhampton as a 19-year-old supermodel who lives in Malibu doesn’t turn out too disastrously.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep writing, and keep dreaming that one day I’ll get to complain at length to anyone who’ll listen about how that multi-million dollar movie series completely trashed the purity of my vision no matter how many Oscars it might win and yes that is a new Alfa Romeo on my driveway but anyway the point is they should never have cast Leonardo diCaprio…

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!

A Puppet All the Same

I’ve been thinking about politics a fair amount lately, for some reason, although I usually find it better for my rage levels to ignore the existence of any such thing. Fantasy authors, after all, have the luxury of spending our time in imaginary worlds, where we can completely forget about such sordid real-life concerns as politics.
Right?
Er, as it turns out, wrong.
Speculative fiction doesn’t have anything half so glamorous as its own Oscars, but the only thing which comes even remotely close is the Hugo Awards. Recently, a group of people calling themselves the Sad Puppies (no, really) decided the Hugos have become too leftie-liberal and did some – well, it’s technically within the rules so it’s not actually cheating, let’s go with manipulation – to ensure that the nominations for this year’s awards are dominated by their favourites. I don’t have the space here to go into this issue in detail – I’ve put a couple of links at the bottom if you’re interested in reading further – but suffice to say that it’s turned into the usual internet shitstorm, with George RR Martin, no less, weighing in to declare the Hugos ‘broken’.

What really got me thinking was the idea that SF used to be – or should be – the realm of ‘swashbuckling fun’ as opposed to works espousing a political ideology. Now, whenever I hear people saying this kind of thing, that Skunk Anansie song starts playing in my head (at top volume):
Yes it’s fucking political
Everything’s POLITICAAAALLLL!!!
[screaming guitars]
And you know what, teenage memories of the moshpit notwithstanding, I think the punk rockers have a point. Everything’s political. Including fantasy fiction.

Pah, surely not? How can a story about elves and goblins and dragons and magic wotsits have any relevance to real-world politics? Well, you can’t tell a story – any story – without making some judgement calls. Calls about who gets to be the hero, and who’s the villain. Calls about what you celebrate in the story, and what you punish. What do your characters put first – family? Duty? Self-interest? How do they solve their problems – peacefully? Violently? Working together, or alone? These judgment calls are all, ultimately, expressing views about how humans should behave, and how society should be ordered. Political. [bass riff] Does this mean everything’s a simplistic polemic? Of course not – not if you write well, with complex characters and interesting, nuanced conflicts. Good stories aren’t clunkingly obvious messages – they’re engaging, they make you think, and they don’t make it too easy to draw glib conclusions. But everything has, ultimately, its underlying value system.

And fantasy fiction doesn’t get away with playing the whole ‘escape from reality’ card. Oh no. In fact, I’d say in some ways it’s even more inescapably political than real-world fiction. When your story is set in real life, most of the world-building has already been done for you – the political system, the cultural norms, etc. When your story is set in a world of your own making, you have to make all those decisions yourself. Is this land a monarchy, a democracy, a theocracy? Is there a police force and a justice system, or do citizens have to protect themselves? Is there slavery? What are the gender roles and how fluid are they? Is your place in society determined by your own efforts, or purely by your birth? What’s the legal and cultural status of variant sexualities? How are mentally or physically disabled people treated? All these and more are questions that you need to answer when you construct your fantasy tale – and if you don’t answer them explicitly, readers can – and will – draw their own conclusions. Sometimes, it’s the details you haven’t thought about which can be the most telling. What are we to make, for example, of a fantasy world featuring bestial green-skinned orcs, snooty blonde elves, crafty gold-loving dwarves, and not a single human who isn’t white? Did you forget non-white people exist? Oh wait, it’s because it’s based on mediaeval Europe and apparently they didn’t have black people back then. But they did have dragons, wizards, and chainmail bikinis. Hmmm.

Ah, stop being such a leftie-liberal-media studies 101-male-tears-drinking-killjoy! Well, I’m sorry, but there just ain’t no getting away from politics, no matter how hard you shove your head in that big heap of dragon’s gold. You can use the ‘fantasy default settings’ if you like – the whole feudal-Europe-with-magic-setup – but don’t try to kid yourself that there isn’t anything political about that setup. Those default settings came from somewhere, they reflect certain values, and if you blindly accept them, then you blindly promote those same values.
I’ll leave you with a bit more Skunk Anansie:
Negative are all your views
So you can prop up your fake cool
A puppet all the same
Political
[screaming guitars]

Brad R Torgersen’s blog explaining the rationale behind the ‘Sad Puppies’: https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/why-sad-puppies-3-is-going-to-destroy-science-fiction/
This article has a pretty good summary of the situation: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121554/2015-hugo-awards-and-history-science-fiction-culture-wars

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).