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.

My 2016 Reading Challenge

As mentioned a fortnight ago, (https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/guess-whos-back/) I have a resolution to read at least 50 books this year. The impetus behind this resolution is partly business and partly pleasure. As a writer, I want to see what my contemporaries are doing, and to learn more about the craft in general. As a civilian, I want to rediscover the joy of being swept into a different world. A good book is totally immersive and brain-stimulating in a way nothing else is: words on a page translated into pictures of the imagination.

I’ve established some rough rules of engagement. I’m being strictly quantitative in some respects: I’m reading at least one per week, setting aside time each day to read, and setting a daily target of pages to get through. And I’m recording each book in a spreadsheet as I finish it. In some other respects, I’m being more laissez faire. Books of all types and formats count: novels, non-fiction, comic books, audio books, fan fiction. And I’m trying to be as diverse as possible in my reads, on every axis: old books and new, classics and trash, books in every genre by authors of every background. I’m encouraging friends to recommend and/or lend me books of any kind, so that I can experience the full rich variety of literature. It’s easy to get sucked into reading the same type of thing all the time, and while as a fantasy author I clearly need to keep up with the genre, I don’t always want to be reading trilogies about dragons.

My to-read shelf as of today. Nothing better than the glorious sight of colourful paperbacks waiting to be cracked open and devoured.

My to-read shelf as of today. No more glorious sight to than an array of colourful paperbacks waiting to be cracked open and devoured.

Right now I’m listening to the audio book of War and Peace, and reading a paperback called Heat Stroke: Weather Warden book 2, which was a gift from a friend. One is a monument of European literature about Napoleon’s army getting inconveniently in the way of some Russian aristocrats’ love lives. The other is a book about a weather-controlling genie who wears lime-green stilettos. I started reading it, thought ‘what a load of rubbish’ and immediately read 100 pages. Each is enjoyable in its own way, and every book teaches you something – about writing, about reading, about human nature, or about the Battle of Borodino.

It’s going well so far, both quantitatively (4 weeks in, 6 books down) and qualitatively – I’ve read a classic mystery (The Moonstone), a comic book about a women’s prison in space (Bitch Planet), a novel based on a comedy-horror podcast (Welcome to Night Vale), and some recent works of fantasy and horror. I’ll keep you updated as the year progresses…

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.