Fandom or Fan Dumb?

First up, Happy New Year everyone! May 2018 make all your dreams come true. Except for the weird naked ones. (Unless you want them to…)

Second up, in February I’m teaching my first courses since I became a mama. I’ll be teaching folks at Quad in Derby how to write SF, horror, and fantasy, and how to create fantastic plots and characters. Tell your friends!

Third up, I’d like to share with y’all a few thoughts I’ve had lately about the topic of fandom. There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years about fan entitlement, and fans’ attempts to change things they don’t like. The latest iteration of this is the petition by some Star Wars fans to try and get The Last Jedi movie excommunicated from the canon of the Star Wars universe because they didn’t like what the film did with Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, many Harry Potter fans were vocally annoyed about the failure of Magic in North America to address crucial aspects of American history, and – more recently – about the continued presence of Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts franchise.

These attempts to change things about beloved franchises can sometimes seem misguided – the originator of the Star Wars petition has now backtracked on the idea. But they show the depth of passion people feel about their favourite things, and if that’s sometimes uncomfortable for the creator, so be it.

Independently of all this, I was recently involved in a discussion on the Fantasy Faction Facebook group on the topic of fanfiction. Some people were pro, some anti, but what struck me most was the number of people who said something like ‘fanfic is fine so long as you don’t make the characters gay. If I wanted Character X to be gay, I’d have written him like that in the first place’. Which, well, anyone who knows anything about fanfic will tell you that making the characters gay is frequently the entire point of the exercise (see my own previous comments on the topic). And also, I feel these authors are deluded if they think they can control what fans do with their characters.

Once a book, or a movie, or whatever, is out in the world, then you as the creator to some extent lose control of it. We have copyright laws which mean people can’t just rip it off, but you can’t really predict or govern fans’ reactions. They might love it, they might hate it so much they start a petition to have it wiped from the face of the earth, they might decide it’s great but would be that *little* bit better if Harry ended up with Draco instead.
Various authors have tried in the past to exert a greater measure of control over their works’ reception, probably most famously Anne Rice, who has expended a great deal of effort trying to put a stop to fanfic of her Vampire Chronicles series (incidentally, there are currently 757 VC fanworks on Archive of Our Own, most of them gay). She also responded to poor reviews of one her books by posting a long rant on Amazon. Needless to say, this didn’t endear her to many.

My take on all this is simple: I would love it if people felt passionately about something I’d written. Maybe I wouldn’t agree with the direction of their passion, but hey, it’s their passion. Creators can start the fire – they can’t stop it spreading.

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Nostalgia – it’s the same as it ever was

Hello! So it turns out that my little bundle of joy, due on 12th August, was impatient to enter the world, and arrived nearly two weeks ahead of schedule, on 31st July. He’s now five weeks old and I’m gradually adjusting to life as a mummy – ie learning how to do everything one-handed and getting by on far less sleep than before.

One question I’ve been asked by several people is: what books, films etc am I intending to foist upon my offspring? Surely, as a writer and avid consumer of media in various formats I have plans to indoctrinate him?  The answer I give is a surprise to many: I’m not actually planning to force-feed him my favourites. My intention is to try and let him discover his own favourites.Why? Well, because I’m not a big believer in nostalgia. Or rather, I’m a big believer in nostalgia the same way I’m a big believer in religion: I have observed its power to make people irrational. People like my father-in-law, who refuses to believe any good music was recorded after about 1974. I can’t agree with him there – I mean, I love Pink Floyd and the Beatles too, but I think later decades have much to offer as well. And let’s be honest, not every musician from the 60s was that great… Engelbert Humperdinck anyone? The Archies?

The world of science fiction and fantasy is far from immune to the nostalgia trap. A case in point: the best-selling book (and soon to be a movie) Ready Player One. Someone at my book club warned me off it, on the basis that I was too young to appreciate all the references to 80s geek culture. Heedless of the warning, I tried listening to the audio book (read by – who else? – Wil Wheaton) anyway. And guess what – it really didn’t do it for me. The litany of stuff from the 80s just left me cold, and let’s be honest, while some of that stuff has stood the test of time, other of it now feels dated and creaky (and no, I’m not going to start a pointless debate by specifying which stuff).

Here’s the thing about nostalgia: it warps your perceptions, making you think that the stuff from your own childhood and teenage years is the Greatest Stuff Ever when really it’s just what happened to influence you at a critical time in your own development. I don’t claim to be immune to it myself – so far as I’m concerned, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is and always will be the greatest TV show of all time. But that’s because it resonated with me as a teenage girl in the late 1990s. Bizarre time travel and sex-change accidents aside, my son is never going to be a teenage girl in the late 1990s, and so it’s unrealistic to expect him to appreciate Buffy in the same way I do. He’d probably just think the special effects are lame. And I can claim no video game can ever top Final Fantasy VII (oh those many hours spent getting a golden chocobo…) but the graphics won’t impress anyone these days.

The truth is, nostalgia is just the same as it ever was. Everyone has a special place in their heart for the things they discovered at a young age, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that doesn’t mean those things are inherently better than more modern things. I hope I can remember that, and not mind when my son rejects Harry Potter in favour of a newer book series, and maybe even enjoy the new book series he introduces me to.

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.

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!

Hot Stuff

I’m currently revising the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea. One of the elements I’m trying to develop further is the romantic attraction between my heroine and her – let’s go with prospective boyfriend, needless to say the course of true love runs no smoother for them than for any other fictional couple.

In revising their scenes together, I’ve found it difficult to imply attraction without implying physical attractiveness. And this means I’ve run right up against an issue which has been bugging me in a low-key way for a while now. Namely, as an author, should you make your main characters hot? I couldn’t find any scholarly research on the topic, and I suspect it varies accordingly to the genre, but certainly in my personal experience there are many more books with good-looking protagonists than with plain ones. I find this kind of annoying, especially if not only the protagonist and the love interest(s) are hotties, but the supporting cast as well. The worst example in my own recollection is Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman: a book in which every single character is gorgeous, even the alcoholic who lives in a shack. But there are plenty of other instances – Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles spring to mind, or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (vampires are obviously particularly guilty of excessive beauty, although you’d have thought the whole mirror thing would cause issues for personal grooming).

What’s the problem with all this literary hotness? Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, not that many people in real life actually look like movie stars. That’s why the few who do get to be movie stars, and the rest of us get to be project managers or supermarket shelf-stackers or unemployed writers or something equally unglamorous. But books – even fantasy books set in medieval societies without cosmetic dentistry or hair salons – are overflowing with luscious auburn locks, sparkling green eyes and perfectly sculpted cheekbones. It can send my suspension of disbelief crashing to the floor. The only thing worse than making characters pretty is making them ‘not pretty’, as satirised mercilessly by Max Beerbohm back in 1911: ‘Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been’.

Not only is it unrealistic to populate your book with babes, there’s also something rather problematic about the way so many authors focus in on the stories of the handsome, neglecting that ugly people have feelings too. I remember vividly a line from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth: ‘She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed comic in a person with a freckled nose* and red eyelids … but poor Grace’s limitations gave them a more concentrated inner life’. And yet the book isn’t about Grace, but the lovely Lily. Is it more poignant to see the [spoilers] downfall and death of a young beauty than that of a young minger? Perhaps. We read, after all, to escape from reality, so if we’re going to imagine ourselves into the role of tragic heroine, we’d probably prefer it if she had perfect skin and sleek hair and thighs which never rub together.

The other side of this coin is that the reader generally wants to fancy the love interest, which is what I’m trying to (subtly) make happen at the moment. I’m also trying not to be too obvious, to maintain some uncertainty, not have the heroine go ‘phwoar’ early on and give the game away. Get her – and, by extension, the reader – to love him for his engaging personality and all that. But still imply that he’s kind of a dish. The book I’ve just finished, The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, does a great job of establishing an attraction between two rather plain characters, although Hobb still describes at least half her male characters as ‘handsome’. And I have to confess I’ve called my heroine ‘pretty’ a couple of times, albeit in dialogue rather than narrative voice.

So I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that, unrealistic, shallow and vaguely problematic or not, readers want hotties and that’s all there is to it. Even if you try to make characters plain, many readers will just imagine them as hot anyway – a phenomenon known by tvtropes.org as Draco in Leather Pants. So you may as well bow to the inevitable. And if the book is ever successful enough to be made into a film – well, then they’ll all end up looking like movie stars in any case.

*as someone with a freckled nose myself, I object to Ms Wharton’s implication here and will counter it with a link to a Buzzfeed article about hot guys with freckles http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliegerstein/freckle-face-yes-please#.vmd91x3Mz . You’re welcome.

Older than the NES

I have a small confession to make: I’ve been feeling a bit old lately. Why? My hair is still proudly 100% natural dark brown and I don’t have gout. No, it’s a few other things that have me feeling geriatric. For one thing, I’ve recently started working at Clarks (incidentally, it’s amazing how many people have bunions) and I discovered that most of my co-workers are aged 16-21 – I asked one guy where was the best place to park and he replied ‘don’t ask me, I’ve only just turned 17, I haven’t started driving lessons yet’. Yikes. For another thing, I saw a post on Tumblr (admittedly a website notorious as a playground for angsty and/or hormonal teenagers) which said ‘reblog if you’re older than the Nintendo Gamecube’.

The Nintendo Gamecube was released in 2001. Yep, I’m older than that. I’m also older than the N64. And I’m older than the SNES. Heck, I’m older than the bloody NES. This makes me, in Tumblr terms, roughly equivalent to the ancient Egyptians. Gah.

Oh well, I thought, perhaps I should spend less time on silly young person’s interwebnetsites and more time on my writing – a much more suitable occupation for an aging matron such as myself. Then I discovered how old Brandon Sanderson is. Brandon Sanderson, for those unfamiliar with his work, is a frighteningly prolific American fantasy writer. His books include the Mistborn series, one of my personal favourites. He was also selected by Robert Jordan’s widow to conclude the Wheel of Time series. He’s 39.

39! That’s not that much older than me! I’d have guessed from his extensive bibliography that he was at least 20 years older. Bloody hell. This discovery pitched me into a pit of despair – how could I ever hope to catch up with someone like that? I’ve written all of one-and-a-half books and a handful of short stories, and I’ve not had anything published outside unpaid stuff on the net. I might as well give up now.

My husband attempted to bring me out of this pit by using annoying tactics such as logic and rationality, eg by pointing out that Brandon Sanderson’s age is of no relevance whatsoever to my writing career and that there are plenty of other writers who haven’t got going until later in life. His example of the latter, however, JK Rowling, was ill-chosen, since by the time she was my age she’d already published the first two Harry Potter books. And so I remained in the pit for about 24 hours, until I looked at the author bio section in the back of my copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I was delighted to find out that the author, Susanna Clarke, is now 55, that she didn’t publish her first book until she was 44, and that it remains her only full-length novel. Yes! This is the kind of slow start and lack of prolificity I can adopt as my target to beat. And if I fail that target, there’s always Mary Wesley, who was first published in her 70s. Feeling better now.

If I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit that this is all a bit silly. It doesn’t really matter how old other fantasy writers are or how many books they have unleashed on the world – and even if it does matter, I can’t do anything about it. What matters is that I get on with my writing to the best of my ability. There’s always an urge to check out the competition – but the real challenge is to wrestle the ideas in my head onto paper. And, I can remind myself, one-and-a-half books at the age of 33 is much better going than all those untold thousands of would-be authors who’ve never managed to finish a thing.

Warning: May Contain Spoilers

Update from my shopping trip a fortnight ago: you’ll be pleased to hear it was a success. I now have a new teapot and several attractive-yet-practical new frocks to complement my existing writers’ wardrobe of pyjamas, thermal underwear, fingerless gloves, and a fleecy onesie. Give me the right clothes, a Dropbox folder, and a cup of tea, and I’m unstoppable.

So this post is slightly behind schedule as it was my birthday on Friday so I decided I deserved a day off. Some people might say that, as a self-employed author, I have every day off: but those people don’t appreciate how much work goes into this blog. Also it’s my birthday, and my blog, so I can do whatever I want. And today I want to talk about spoilers.
You may remember my last post – all about death – https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/death-where-is-thy-sting/ started with a ‘contains spoilers’ disclaimer, including on the list of spoiled books the Harry Potter series. I had a moment of hesitation about including it, since the precise book in question, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, came out more than 12 years ago, so you’d have thought everyone who was bothered about it would have got round to reading it by now.
Except that, if you hadn’t read the books the first time around, and you’d just started the series, you might not be very happy to have advance news of a major character’s dramatic death unexpectedly plonked in your lap. Better safe than sorry, I figured. Now, not everyone has the same sensitivity to spoilers – some people don’t seem to mind them too much, others peek at the last page of the book before they even get started. But I’ve always found them annoying – I still angrily remember someone spoiling the end of Watership Down – and they can be difficult to avoid. Even if you deliberately stay away from the obvious sources – like fan fiction or discussion forums – you can still come a cropper. Never mind friends with big mouths, how about book reviewers? How about blurb writers? How about cover artists? The copies I read of both Dune and Ender’s Game featured cover art which spoiled the surprises therein, and good luck with reading a paperback book without even glancing at the cover. I’ve also learned never to read either the introduction or the back of any classic novel, since the publishers seem to assume you’re a lazy A-level student and that you couldn’t possibly want to read a hundred-plus-year-old book for pleasure.
I always try, therefore, to slather on the spoiler warnings, especially on the internet where you have no idea who might stumble across your words, and not to spoil anything for anyone – but where should you draw the line? Should you try not to let slip that Romeo & Juliet end up dead? (oops) Surely, as with copyright, there has to be a limit somewhere. But should all out-of-copyright works be fair game, or do you figure that at least someone might not know Elizabeth Bennet ends up marrying Mr Darcy? Oops, sorry, guess I just spoiled Pride & Prejudice there. Does it matter? Surely everyone’s seen the TV version with Colin Firth swimming in the lake? Actually, maybe not – the people who’ve just started their degrees in English Literature this year were not even born when that first aired on the BBC in 1995.
And that, I think, is the point we need to bear in mind, the point the Wordsworth Classics editions forget – that what we might think of as established, as known, as already-read, as canon, will always be fresh to someone. There will constantly be new generations of young readers who want to discover literature for themselves, whether that’s Jane Austen or JK Rowling. And we should all, I think, do our best not to spoil it for them. Don’t forget, a boy who was the same age as Harry Potter when the first book came out in 1997 is now old enough to be reading the book aloud at bedtime to his own children. I hope he doesn’t give anything away.