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.

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2014 Roundup

So, here we are, my last blog post of 2014. And what a year it’s been. At the start of the year, I was still suffering such terrible back problems I could barely sit at my computer for long enough to write a blog post. Now, I’ve managed to churn out 65,000 words (and counting) on my new work-in-progress fantasy novel, The Silvergreen Sea. Then, I was on extended sick leave from my job at Rolls-Royce. Now, I’ve quit the day job to devote myself to writing full-time. Then, I could barely get beyond a walking radius of my house, and gainful employment was a distant dream. Now, I’ve managed extended trips as far as visiting relatives on the South Coast, and day trips to London. I’ve also taken a temporary Christmas job selling books at Waterstone’s. Which is great when I get to hand-sell books by authors I enjoy, like Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, or Ben Aaronovitch: and less great when I have to deal with customers who say things like ‘I’m looking for a book – I can’t remember the title, or the author, but it’s got a red cover.’ But overall, I love being able to spend lots of time surrounded by thousands of books, and it keeps me out of trouble. Mostly.

Money is a lot tighter now; only this morning I’ve had to turn down a posh Christmas dinner – something I would have said ‘yes’ to unthinkingly two years ago – because I simply can’t afford to go. But then, one year ago, I would have had to turn it down because I simply couldn’t have sat down for long enough for eat a seven-course meal. I know which situation I’d rather be in. And, let’s be honest, if I check my privilege, I know I’m still better-off financially than the majority of my fellow citizens, so I’ve really got nothing to complain about there.

It hasn’t been all good, of course. Efforts by me and my agent to find a publisher for either my first novel or the in-development second one have met with disappointment thus far. But hey, maybe 2015 will be the year that we crack it. And I’ve now got enough time available to write my books, so if the first one doesn’t make it, maybe the second one will, or the third, or even the fourth. One thing I’m certainly very, very rich in is ideas. So I’ll raise a glass of what a friend of mine refers to as ‘aggravated wine’ to the festive season and the end of another transformational year.

A Leap of Faith

You may remember previous mentions on this blog of developments which were taking their time to develop. Well, they’re finally finished (I nearly put an elaborate analogy here about photographs, chemical baths, and dark rooms until it occurred to me that nobody under the age of 25 would know what I was talking about). No, I haven’t got that 3-book deal, but I am taking a bold step towards becoming a proper writer – yes, I’m giving up the day job.

Why now? After all, I don’t yet have a publisher, nor any sort of income stream from writing, so I’m taking a leap of faith, hoping that things will work out so I’ll be able to write all day and still pay the bills. Well, there’s nothing like an extended period of sickness to give you a new perspective and make you re-evaluate your priorities. When you can barely move, being able to afford a ski holiday suddenly seems a whole lot less important. So when, shortly after getting back to work, my employer announced a programme of voluntary redundancy, something clicked. Maybe, I thought, it’s finally time to make a real proper go of this writing thing, and that severance payment will provide a crash mat.

And so, by this time next week, I’ll have left my career in project management behind, and devoted myself to my hobby instead. Right now, I’m about 1/3 excited, 1/3 terrified, and 1/3 still in denial. I’m ecstatic at the thought of not having to get up early in the morning, of being able to spend as much time as I like doing what I love, of being able to wear my pyjamas until 4pm if I want to, of being able to tell people ‘I’m a writer’ and for it to actually be true… but then, if publication remains elusive, perhaps ‘writer’ will be a less accurate description than ‘unemployed person’ or, seeing as we’ll be living off my husband’s salary, ‘housewife’.

It might not work out. I might never become a ‘proper’ writer with books in the shops and royalties in my bank account. But I figure it’s worth a try. I’m allowing myself a couple of years to give it my best shot (health permitting) – even if I get nowhere near publication, I should be able to write one, two, or even three books in half the space of time The Heartland of the Winter took, so I’ll have something to (I hope!) be proud of. And, in the somewhat morbid words of one my former colleagues when I told him about my decision, ‘You should do what you want to do. After all, you’re a long time staring at the wood.’

At the crossroads

It’s been almost a year since I secured a literary agent, taking an important step on the road to publication, and I now find myself in an interesting situation. My first novel, The Heartland of the Winter, a coming-of-age tale set in a fantasy land with a harsh climate, has been doing the rounds since last July. It has attracted some positive comment, but sadly the publishing contract and cheque for that five-figure advance seem to have got lost in the post. Oh well. So it looks like I’ll need to write another book before those royalties start rolling in. This writing gig is starting to seem a lot like hard work.

What should my second novel be? When Heartland went off on submission, I had to decide what to do: get cracking immediately on the sequel and give myself a headstart on that trilogy, or try the ‘and now for something completely different’ approach. Of course, if the first book doesn’t sell, nobody’ll want the second, so rather than risk doing work on a project that would then end up on the scrapheap, I went for the latter option and started writing Forever 27 – a tale of sex and death and drugs and magic and rock n’ roll, inspired by the 27 Club of prematurely deceased musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. But then there were some problems with the plot, and by the time I’d ironed all those out, I was struck down with ill health, unable to write any significant amount, and the project ran out of steam. So the short answer to the question ‘what are you working on at the moment?’ is ‘nothing’. Now my health is in the process of recovery, and I’m faced with another decision: do I pick up Forever 27 again, or would one of my other ideas be a better bet?

 

Well, I think I’d quite like to finish writing Forever 27, but then there are also other considerations. I wrote The Heartland of the Winter – quite consciously and deliberately – without any concern for the eventual market whatsoever, and I’ve written here previously about the joys of being unpublished https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/the-joys-of-being-unpublished/. But now I’m at the stage where I’m thinking I would actually really quite like to experience the joys of being published, for a change. So, the short answer to the question, ‘what do you want to write?’ is ‘whatever is most likely to get me that 3-book deal’. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Nobody wants to work speculatively for a year, however much passion you have for the project. But if you try to write something purely for the marketplace, your lack of genuine enthusiasm will probably show through in the finished product, and you could well be left with something that won’t sell and which you didn’t even enjoy writing.

 

The good news is that there’s no shortage of ideas, of possible books I want to write – some I’m keener on than others, of course, but then, concentrating on one project doesn’t mean you can’t have something else on the back burner. So my latest work has been to collate my hopelessly disorganised mass of ideas into a semi-coherent list, ranging in level of detail from ‘I have a six-page outline, 3 chapters in first draft, a character list, loads of background, and a bunch of stuff I wrote in a sleep-deprived haze for NaNoWriMo 2011’ to ‘well, I had this nightmare…’ And now I’m awaiting a steer on which one to pick. I don’t yet know whether that steer will come from my agent, a publisher, my own feelings, or possibly a roll of the dice, but in any case, I’m hoping to get going within the next month or so.

A daisy chain of writers!

I have been asked by my friend and fellow writer-cum-blogger Helen Ellwood to participate in a blog chain, in which I have to answer four questions and then send those questions to someone else, thus linking both forwards and backwards to other writers.

Helen writes fantasy and also non-fiction adventure about her own improbably exciting life. She has a three-in-one blog about writing, living with disability, and arts and crafts, which can be found here: http://helenellwood.blogspot.co.uk/

And here are the questions, with my answers:

 
What am I working on?
At the moment, not a great deal, since my back pain is preventing me from doing much actual writing. My second novel, ‘Forever 27’, has been progressing in fits and starts, and I am hoping to get stuck into it in earnest soon. I am billing it as ‘a tale of sex and death and drugs and magic and rock and roll’. Inspired by the ’27 Club’ of musicians who have died at that age (eg Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison), it tells the story of a journalist with magical powers and her stormy relationship with a rock star who’s convinced he’s doomed to join the club.
 
How does my work differ from others?
An interesting question. My first novel, ‘The Heartland of the Winter’, currently out on submission with publishers, is a fantasy novel, but one with a story driven by human characters rather than dragons. In it, I explore the impact of a harsh climate on society, and how a young individual copes with being introduced to that society.  It’s an imagined world, but I’ve kept the fantastic elements – ie magic – to a minimum. I wanted to create characters the reader could relate to, and push them to the extreme, without giving them any magical get-out-of-jail-free cards. So I think it’s different from other fantasy books because, while the main characters’ situation has supernatural causes, they don’t themselves have any powers or resources which wouldn’t be available to the reader.
‘Forever 27’ is more of a magic realist work, set in the real world (or at least a version of it!). It’s not whimsical, but it certainly has its share of the macabre. Since it’s a work-in-progress, I don’t yet feel quite confident to say exactly what will set it apart, but I can say that at least part of what I’m trying to do is to explore what makes people creative, and how creativity can be used, burned out or even stolen.
 
Why do I write what I write?
 I was initially drawn to fantasy because I enjoy reading it, and because I like having my own little world in my head where I can make up whatever stuff I like to torment imaginary people. If that sounds rather like a kind of mental illness, well that’s probably about right.
I was drawn to write something about the 27 Club firstly because of my love of their music (you can blame my Hendrix-fanatic father for that), and also because I think there’s something very interesting about the way some creative people burn out young and others manage to keep going and going – just look at The Rolling Stones. Founder Brian Jones loses it half way through the 60s, drowns in his swimming pool (at 27), while Mick and Keef just carry on rolling into the 2010s.
 
How does my writing process work?
I’m not sure I’m organised, or experienced enough to have anything that can really be called a ‘writing process’. I just bash it out and hope for the best.
 
Link to next writer in the chain to follow soon!

 

 

 

 

It’s nearly the end of another year, and time for a few reflections before I have to start panicking about hosting Christmas next week (Can I possibly cope with making bread sauce? Especially when bread never lasts for long enough in our house to actually go stale? Will 12 bottles of wine be enough? For four of us for two days? When one of us doesn’t really drink? Maybe I should go and get more?).
Well, if 2012 was a transformation, and a vintage year, 2013 can perhaps be best described as ‘mixed’. In the winter, I moved to a four day week at the day job. In the spring, I lost my beloved Nan. In the summer, I finished one book, The Heartland of the Winter, secured an agent, and started another book, Forever 27. And in the autumn, I strained my back so badly that I’ve been essentially out of action for seven weeks and counting. Out of my creative writing and my husband’s rock climbing, who’d have thought my hobby would turn out to be the more dangerous?
Overall, I’m not sure I’m going to be looking back at 2013 with great fondness, but it hasn’t been a total annus horribilis. The last couple of months have been painful and a bit surreal at times, but it’s at least been a chance to rest and reconsider, and I’m trying to take away a few lessons. Bittersweet lessons about the important things in life, about the need to be patient and enjoy things for what they are, as they come. And harder lessons about the need to make choices, to prioritise the things which are really necessary, work hard at what matters, and accept that sometimes, you have to let go. To quote the Rolling Stones: no you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. This can perhaps be summarised by my reaction to my injury: at first I wanted to just let it get better by itself, without actually doing anything to help it. Then I tried throwing money at the problem: massages, chiropractor, private yoga tuition. But then all these people I was paying to make me better told me that, in this instance, I have to heal myself. Exercise, posture, breathing technique, not overdoing it, all that stuff. Boring, maybe, but necessary.

And so another year will shortly begin. What does 2014 hold in store? A publishing deal is too much to expect, but not too much to hope for. Completion of my second novel, Forever 27, should be within my power. And also, perhaps, some refocusing, a bit more yoga and a bit less time slumped over a hot computer.

I’ll leave you with some half-baked homilies, fresh from the same oven I used to bake the loaf of success in a previous blog post. If you have to do something, do it with a smile. If you don’t have to do something, don’t feel bad about not doing it. All things in moderation, including moderation. Enjoy the good things, and remember, you don’t need to leave room for dessert, because you have a separate stomach for that.
Anyway, a merry Christmas to all, and a happy and productive 2014.

One year on…

It’s now been over a year since I started this blog, and I thought it was worth taking a few minutes to reflect. In that time, I’ve finished one book (again), started another, entered some competitions with mixed levels of success, got an agent, and moved to a four-day working week. I’ve managed to keep to my self-imposed deadlines, writing blog posts on a variety of topics including cricket, music, trolls, the hidden gems of London, historical fiction, and how to write humorous poetry. Checking my stats, I see that I’ve had more than 2,000 views from people in countries including Canada, Israel, Malaysia and Kazakhstan. A number of different search terms have brought people to the blog, including ‘Giles Coren is a drunk’ ‘blah blah blah simple diagram’ ‘where to buy feuerzangenbowle’ ‘xkcd bubble bath’ and ‘Alastair Cook sexy and hot’, but by the far the most popular is ‘triple facepalm’. Not entirely sure what to make of all this, but hey, it’s feeling like some kind of success.

For my writing, it’s been a vintage year: I’ve improved my productivity and made some genuine progress towards publication, although there’s still a long way to go before I crack the Amazon Top Ten. This time next week I’ll be at the World Fantasy Convention down in Brighton, where I’m hoping to catch up with my agent, meet some interesting people and get some inspiration. Then I’ve got a whole week booked off to spend writing, coinciding with the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, where aspiring novelists try to complete 50,000 words in November). I’m not sure yet whether I’ll spend it working on my new book, Forever 27, re-working my first book, The Heartland of the Winter, working up some short story ideas, or perhaps just taking stock and thinking about what direction I want to take next.

I’ve always found one of the best ways to get in some quality thinking time is to wander around a local park or woodland. As well as being an aid to rumination, you can sometimes stumble across cool things – like a fine crop of toadstools. As a fantasy writer, I thoroughly approve of toadstools (Amanita Muscaria if you want to get technical) although I was amused to discover last year that some of my friends were under the impression that they were mythical. I can assure you that they are not – and here’s the photographic evidence. And with these pictures, my friends, I’ll leave you, until next time. TTFN.ImageImage