Writing Thrilling Fantasy part 1

We’re going to dig into writing craft a little bit today and talk about writing thrilling stories. Because I’m a fantasy writer I’ll stick to writing thrilling fantasy but these tips could work in other genres. I don’t know, try it out.

Here’s the thing about thrilling – it’s a separate quality from good. That’s not to say that thrilling and good can’t exist together – they most certainly can and I’ll try to use examples that are also both thrilling and good in this post. But it’s worth noting that Dan Brown is an occasional master of thrilling despite being generally received as a bad author.

What makes a story thrilling

Largely thrilling stories are ones where the stakes are escalated quickly and kept high throughout. Furthermore they use bits of literary trickery to drive people through the story and keep them turning pages.

These tricks include the use of frequent hooks and the use of cliffhangers. They often function by (on the good end) providing small payouts while piling more tension into the story leading to the ultimate payout at the end or, on the bad end, by denying the reader any resolution, increasing tension by piling in new problems without dealing with the existing ones.

Setting the Stakes

Yesterday I talked about Pacific Rim and its masterful use of stakes to increase tension. However an action blockbuster movie has a lot of other tools available to create a thrilling atmosphere that an author just doesn’t have. (We can’t use sound editing to produce a boom and our explosions have to be made of orderly rows of print.)

So this makes the setting of stakes, both large and small scale, all the more important to an exciting book.

Dead Beat, the seventh book in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series isn’t a perfect novel but it’s basically a masterwork of setting stakes and as a result it’s one of the most thrilling novels I’ve ever read. I went through it in a single sitting (as I do with plenty of these guilty pleasures.)

What’s more, the stakes are set early on. They include:

  • Dresden has to protect a friend from a blackmail attempt even though doing so means giving an evil monster access to power.
  • He has to save the city of Chicago from a spell that will kill most of the people in the city. (He eventually learns that the end result of this spell would allow somebody to become a dark god – generally a bad thing for the world.)
  • He has to protect a likeable helper from the attentions of a necromancer.
  • He has to take on a veritable gang of powerful wizards without calling for much of his usual help.

These varying stakes run the gamut from the personal (protecting friends) to the wide scale (stopping evil necromancer murder god rituals). And they’re thrown at Dresden fast. By the end of chapter 2 he’s already perfectly aware of what’s at risk for his friend. A few chapters later he’s protecting the coroner from zombies too… and these aren’t long chapters (more on that later). The various antagonists are all introduced well before the end of the first third of the novel – which isn’t that easy considering that this book has no less than seven antagonists of varying significance (possibly eight depending on whether you count the demon coin).

The tension ramps up in Dead Beat incredibly fast. By the end we’ve seen Dresden escape certain death by the skin of his teeth on several occasions. We’ve seen him have pressure to succeed piled onto his shoulders by his allies, his enemies who aren’t on-side with the local necromancers, the local Mafia kingpin, and just about every other character in the story not actively trying to murder him. We’ve seen his meagre list of allies dwindle down until any hope of odds levelling goes out the windows.

By the time the words zombie tyrannosaur are mentioned we’re willing to buy not only that something that patently ridiculous is necessary but also that it has been earned.

And, having consented to allow this silliness past the walls of suspended disbelief it’s a quick roll downhill to the climax from there. The story to the point prior to reanimated dinosaurs builds pressure so effectively that we couldn’t possibly NOT see it through by that point. I’ve never successfully set the book down from that point onward over the course of several reads.

Keep it punchy

This is a matter of prose styling and this one goes back to Hemmingway. Because you know what’s another really thrilling little book? The Old Man and the Sea.

Part of the reason why is because of Hemmingway’s legendary succinctness. At around 27,000 words it’s not a lengthy tome. And it doesn’t need to be because Hemmingway uses stunning economy of language.

He could feel he was inside the current now and he could see the lights of the beach colonies along the shore. He knew where he was now and it was nothing to get home.

Brevity is the friend of language, whether it is a shorter book, economical language or the use of short chapters. And short chapter lengths are one of those literary tricks that can be used to increase how thrilling a book feels. Each chapter shares certain qualities with a story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end to it. There is action rising throughout mounting in a moment of highest tension before easing off a bit (though not all the way, never all the way unless it’s the very last chapter).

By shortening chapters you can create a bit of a rollercoaster, revving up the tension, easing off momentarily and then diving right back in again. These little peaks and valleys give hints of the climax to come and keep the reader ever so slightly uncertain.

Of course this can frustrate readers so it’s important to not run on forever. I know this is running against the grain in fantasy since the current paradigm of fantasy stories is that it’s the one genre in which we can let our word counts bloat to proportions of Wheel of Time excess.

As much as I love a few of the bloated fantasy epics I have to say that, at the end of the day, this is a bit of sloppyness that we just happen to allow within our genre. That doesn’t make it best-practice.

Tomorrow we’ll pick up this discussion with a talk about hooks, doors behind doors and the dangers of aiming for a thrilling novel.

Pacific Rim – a case study in Storytelling and Genre Action

If you haven’t seen Pacific Rim you should go now. Seriously. Leave this blog, close your computer and go watch a midnight show somewhere right now.

I’m going to try and avoid too spoilery spoilers in this article but I can’t guarantee that this will be entirely spoiler free so if you still haven’t seen the movie and intend to let this be your last warning. Stop reading, go see Pacific Rim, then spoilers won’t be a problem.

Let’s get this out of the way, Movie Bob referred to Pacific Rim as the best summer blockbuster since Independence Day. He pointed out that the use of that particular film was deliberate on his part because there was a lot of the spirit of Independence Day in Pacific Rim.

He’s not wrong. But I’d go so far as to say that Pacific Rim is the movie that Independence Day wished it was.

I say this because both movies were built around very similar premises. Monsters come to Earth, want to move in. Humanity is on the ropes and has to band together and, by becoming the exemplars of all that is good and noble about the human spirit, kick the monsters firmly in the junk.

It’s not a complex formula. But here’s where Pacific rim improved on Independence Day:

  • It’s truly international – Independence Day was always burdened by a certain level of Rah Rah, United States leads the world baggage. From the third-act speech that references the titular American holiday to the specific heroics of American soldiers, American scientists and the American president it’s all about the story of America, as the exemplars of Humanity’s higher calling, beating back the tide of evil. In Pacific Rim this idea is gone. Among the team who run the robot program you have Americans, Japanese people, Brits, Chinese people, Australians and Russians. The action in the film is divided between Alaska and Hong Kong (with brief trips to Japan and Australia) and it’s made clear throughout that the Jaeger program is a truly international effort. This is not showing crashed flying saucers in the jungle at the end. This is truly demonstrating that humans overcome national prejudices in the face of adversity (putting the Russians, Americans, Chinese and Japanese all on a team together was a particularly deft use of this idea considering their history.
  • The monsters are truly alien. There are hints of similar stuff regarding the way Aliens think and the way the Kaiju brains work but where the older movie used it as a minor plot point, Kaiju cognition is an integral part of the plot in Pacific Rim.
  • We care about the characters sincerely. Again, Independence Day did this decently by giving the protagonists people they cared about, families and loved ones. But Pacific Rim, partially through the use of “Jaeger tech” but certainly not entirely through that device, puts the loves and rivalries, the bonds between the characters front-and-centre.
  • The third-act speech in Pacific Rim was a million times better.

So what does it have to do with books?

I write action oriented stories. I one time told a good friend of mine that I couldn’t help it, I like stories about heroes. Always have, always will. Pacific Rim was an exemplar of the hero story and I think that it provides a few valuable lessons for telling exciting action oriented genre well.

The archetypical awesome secondary character

Here’s a few:

  • Using archetypical characters doesn’t absolve us of the need to develop them. The characters in Pacific Rim are archetypical. They are Stoic Russians, Brash Young Bucks, Wounded Warriors (oh, so many Wounded Warriors), Mad Scientists (such wonderful mad scientists), Ron Pearlmans (Ron Perlman is an archetype, right?). But they still grow, change, they have big things that they want (to save the world) and little things (to prove to a friend that they were right) too. They may be painted with bold strokes but they’re not left with bare canvas showing. Archetypical characters have a big place in action stories because we can immediately pin a whole set of story expectations to them and then get running with the action. But we have to remember that they still have to be characters first, archetypes second.
  • Never forget to dawdle when things get awesome. There are moments during the set pieces (the first bit with the sword comes to mind) where the frenetic pace of the monster vs. robot fisticuffs slows down enough to let the audience savour the awesome. They’re usually a beat or two long.
  • A good relationship isn’t a love story… except when it is… and then it can’t be just a love story.
  • Don’t fail the sexy lamp test.
  • It’s ok to have a father figure afraid to let his hero child step out of the nest but it’s not ok for him to be an idiot about it… (Man of Steel, I’m looking at you). As a more general rule, don’t let your protagonists be idiots. Don’t let them succeed only because the monsters are even dumber. Make us root for their ingenuity.
  • Peril is good but it has to be genuine. If you know everybody is going to be A-OK it’s not real peril.
  • Hold back a good laugh for when you need to cut the tension.

I could go on this way. But what it comes down to is that people will forgive a high concept with a script that edges toward silly a bit too often if its impeccably paced, if we are invited to know the characters, if we are given reason to care for the characters and if they are subsequently put into danger.

It’s not enough for us to want them to save the earth. We have to want them to save themselves.

J.K. Rowling, Success and Benchmarks

Q: How do you get a 507,000% increase in book sales overnight.

A: Be outed as J.K. Rowling.

The truth is that the whole situation with Rowling being revealed as the author behind the pseudonym Robert Galbraith has been blowing my mind the whole week. And I’m not alone. Sylvia Moreno Garcia (who is an awesome author, you should go out and buy her books) recently wrote a really interesting little piece about success in the writing profession.

And she’s totally right – when everybody thought that the book had been written by some random veteran, despite highly favorable reviews and despite being in a popular genre, she sold somewhere beween 500 and 1,500 copies.

In the UK, the second largest English language book market in the world.

Of course, once it was revealed that this, by all accounts good, mystery novel was written by one of the most famous authors in the world it sold a lot more copies.

Now one thing I’d like to do is, as a marketer, salute Rowling’s marketing prowess somewhat. Because what really hurt her first post-potter novel, the Casual Vacancy, was mostly that it wasn’t Harry Potter.

It got reviews, by people hoping for and expecting Potter saying that it presented “a numbing understanding of the difficulty of turning a dozen or so people’s tales into a story with genuine emotional resonance.”

Ouch.

These sorts of reviews probably hurt her sales. So she avoided that problem this time around by not letting anybody know, when reviewing, that the book was hers at all!

Then, after the reviews are in and favourable, Rowling is able to confirm she is in fact Galbraith and get the sort of sales an author with her profile can expect. It was a very clever marketing strategy, albeit one that depended upon being J.K. Rowling to begin with.

Most people won’t ever achieve her level of fame.

I joke about the day that my “young-adult kung-fu rebellion in dystopian Canada” novel makes me Bill Gates rich but, let’s be honest, I’m not in this game for the money. In fact authors who have careers in writing and who are just in it for the money are rare to the point of essential nonexistence.

You’re probably less likely striking it rich as a writer than you are as a musician. So if your benchmark for basic success is to strike it rich you’re probably never going to get there.

In order to be successful in a career it’s important to set performance goals. If you wanted to, for instance, be a web designer, you might set goals like:

  1. Learn basic HTML this year
  2. Design a website over the course of a month
  3. Produce blog content each day for a year
  4. Learn best practices in website design by taking a month-long online course
  5. Get a job where working with the website is part of your duties within three months
  6. Demonstrate facility working with the website over the course of employment
  7. Use that experience to push toward a job where that was the primary responsibility over the course of a year
  8. and so on…

Notice that these goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-targeted. Whereas the goal of “becoming a millionaire author like J.K. Rowling” is neither particularly realistic or time-targeted, and probably isn’t achievable either.

So we set the goals we can meet.

These goals might look like this:

  1. Write and sell some magazine articles because it seems like fun.
  2. Write 50,000 words in that November thing.
  3. Write a complete novel draft in a quarter.
  4. Write another novel that somebody might actually want to read over a year.
  5. Revise that novel and do rewrites over the course of a year.
  6. Take trilogy that came out of rewrites, shove it under a bed, and start again by writing short stories for a quarter to sharpen skills.
  7. Get feedback on short stories and improve writing accordingly, practicing daily for another quarter.
  8. Start yet another novel and finish a draft within two months.
  9. Edit novel over two more months to produce workable second draft.
  10. Form a workshopping group and workshop novel for a year.
  11. Start submitting workshopped novel and secure a first novel contract within a year.
  12. Sign first publishing contract.
  13. Get book to print and actually make money, any money, from fiction!!!
  14. Start from 8 and repeat until you have enough royalties coming in to make writing your own full-time job.

(Items 1-12 are actually the benchmarks I set for myself and subsequently passed. 13 and 14 are my current objectives.)

Notice that’s a hell of a lot of work for very little money. That’s because, as I said before, I’m not really in it for the money. I’ve had enough various day jobs (website designer, marketer, sales person, English teacher) that I know I can do some sort of work-work to make paying-bills money.

If, sometime in the future, I can abandon the day job and be a full-time author that’s the ultimate picture of success for me. And then I’ll worry about setting sales targets and such to make myself into a big name author or about getting the movie deal or whatever.

But that’s just what success looks like for me. With something as personal as art, any type of art, there are as many ways to succeed as there are people creating. What does success look like for you?

Why I’m not joining SFWA

I’ll be honest – there’s a certain prestige to author organizations like SFWA. In the end, the decision not to pursue a membership was a difficult one largely for this reason. There are all kinds of awesome people involved with SFWA and, as somebody just starting out in his publishing career, there is a part of me that might like the feeling of metaphorically leveling up by joining a professional organization.

That there are a lot of amazing people in this organization was another reason I might have wanted to join. These are people who I like, respect and feel honoured to know. And I’ve no problem with them being in SFWA. That’s not what this blog is about; this is not a call for them to leave. This is not a boycott.

That being said, I’m not going to do it. And I have some good reasons, only a few of which are related to the issue you probably all suspect is weighing on me.

So why won’t I do it?

Well there are a few things.

I don’t exactly write sci-fi

I looked at SFWA’s member lists and I saw a lot of people who are SCIENCE fiction writers. Even Scalzi is pretty hard sci-fi most of the time. My debut novel may be set in the future but it’s about as conventionally sci-fi as an episode of Adventure Time.

So I don’t know what SFWA would make of it. Would a science fiction organization be able to effectively market a fantasy story set on a version of future Earth? Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that I feel capable of marketing my story. I have a grasp of its idiosyncrasies and I trust my editor to have the same.

I’m not sure that adding another cook to the marketing and promotions broth would actually help matters, especially not when clarity and consistency of message are such important elements of marketing.

I can already talk to the awesome people in SFWA

Pretty much every author these days has a blog, a facebook page, a twitter account or some combination of all three. And authors all know each other. As a fan with a decent understanding and comfort with social media I was able to connect with many of the people who are becoming my peers. I’m socially comfortable enough to approach Names at conventions and this gave me the opportunity to get to know some of these people personally.

So having access to SFWA private fora doesn’t really feel like that much of a perk. I can understand, back before social media, that the professional networking aspect of professional organizations mattered.

But between that technological change and the extent to which fandom and the writing community blend into each other I just don’t see the value add in this anymore.

I live in Canada

So perks like the emergency medical fund don’t apply to me – although the Canadian designed health insurance scheme of the Writer’s Union of Canada is a substantial value add and I’ve not discounted applying to join THAT group.

And, of course, there is that big controversy

This is, honestly, not the biggest issue for me. Especially since much of the dissent against the blatant sexism from certain SFWA members has come from other members. However the truth is that, as it currently stands, I’d not want the SFWA bulletin. I would be concerned at the risk that my member dues were providing some sort of benefit to people like Theodore Beale.

So, although the controversy that has engulfed SFWA this summer is not the core factor in my decision not to join the organization, it certainly played a role in my thinking.

There is certainly room in the world for an organized writer’s union advocating for improved quality of markets, providing collective services to authors. However when most of your value add is as a social networking organization you’ve got to compete with sites that allow for a much greater customization of experience.

I’d love to see SFWA evolve to be more about advocacy and collective organizing. I’d love to see SFWA clear away some of the Old Boy’s Club nonsense, which I suspect is at the heart of the sexist diatribes and accusations of Stalinist Thought Police behaviour. But if the value of SFWA is the membership I already can access the more awesome members of the organization through other channels without having to ever encounter the less awesome ones.

Heck, I can follow the “PC Fascists of SFWA” on twitter and then block the person who compiled the list in the first place so that I never have to see a single one of his tweets.

Five authors you should read who aren’t straight white men

There’s a big discrimination problem right now. The problem exists both in the general public and in fandom / literary circles. Need an example? Look at these stories from the last week.

  • In the news:

    • George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager who he followed, confronted and ultimately shot to death. He used stand your ground laws as the basis of a defence that focused on trying to vilify his victim.
    • Marissa Alexander, in the same state and supposedly subject to the same laws as George Zimmerman fired a warning shot at her abusive husband. Nobody was killed. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. She was denied access to stand your ground laws.
    • Conservative politicians in Texas made it all but impossible to get an abortion in the state.
    • One-time darling of the Canadian environmentalist community, David Suzuki made the statement that “Canada is full.” In response I provide this map: Canada map population
  • In the publishing world:

    • Orson Scott Card asks for tolerance from the gay community after groups in fandom call for a boycott on the grounds that Card is a member of anti-gay organizations and spends a lot of his profit fighting to deny gay people their rights.
    • Twitter trolls create the @SFWAFascists account in order to make passive-aggressive swipes at a small group of progressive authors who took a stand against sexism in SFWA publications. (To be fair, the internet replied with a lot of awesome as most of the authors labled “Fascist” were promptly inundated with new followers interested in them.
    • Some critic attacked Scott Lynch’s work by suggesting his POC single mother pirate character Zamira Drakasha pushed the limits of believability because she was a woman, not white. Never mind that there were plenty of women in historical piracy, some of them decidedly not white.

It’s pretty obvious that something isn’t right here when this is one week. Things have to be done to fix these sorts of toxic problems.

But this is a book blog. So let’s talk about books. Today I’m providing a list of authors who aren’t white, straight men. One way that we can fight against discrimination is to listen to voices of people who have been othered. Frankly, and I say this as a frequent ally, one of the best things we can do is listen, really listen.

Books are an exceptional medium for coming to an understanding of other peoples experiences. We are able to inhabit the thoughts and feelings of the characters created by these authors and, in doing so, perhaps learn just a little bit about how it feels to be discriminated against, marginalized or silenced. With that understanding maybe it’ll be that much easier for us to help to change things, make them better.

With that in mind, read these authors:

1. Saladin Ahmed

Ahmed almost made my lists  twice this week already because Throne of the Crescent Moon is an amazing book. I was so lucky to get to read it – I’d wandered into a bookstore and went up to the sci-fi and fantasy area receptionist. I told him I wanted to read a secondary world fantasy not set in a European setting (was feeling a bit worn out by GoT to be honest) and he pointed me to this.

Seriously, read it! Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is one of the kindest and most truly good protagonists I have ever encountered. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a book about the triumph of compassion and love over cruelty. This is a book that will make you want to be a better person.

I hope that Ahmed has a long career after this. I will certainly buy his books. (Bonus points – Ahmed is one of the authors on the SFWA fascists list, and anybody on that list probably deserves a read.)

2. Samuel R. Delany

He wrote Dhalgren. Let me repeat this: this man is the genius who wrote that book that veteran SF nerds use to terrify newcomers to genre. He’s a literary mastermind to rival James Joyce.

He’s won four nebula awards and two hugo awards. He is the director of the graduate creative writing program at Temple university. If you’ve been reading Speculative Fiction for a long time the chances are that you have read Delany. If you haven’t read him yet fix that. Fix that now!

3. All the authors in the Dragon and the Stars anthology

Cheating a little bit again, but this short story anthology deserves mention. Edited by Eric Choi and Derwin Mak, The Dragon and the Stars is an anthology of authors who are members of the Chinese diaspora. This little book is one of the most interesting short story anthologies in my collection and I do love it very much.

The first story in the collection, Tony Pi‘s The Character of the Hound is my personal favourite but there isn’t a bad story in this entire book.

4. Madeline Ashby

It takes a particularly deft touch to take a story that is fundamentally derived from Asimov’s three laws of robotics and create from it a parable of gender inequality and slavery. It takes an even defter hand to do so in a way that makes an exciting and refreshing adventure novel. Madeline Ashby accomplishes this easily with vN.

There’s a reason that her second novel, iD is the very next book that I will be buying myself.

5. Michael Rowe

Rowe wrote the best vampire novel since Salem’s Lot at the very least, possibly the best vampire novel since Dracula when he wrote Enter Night. Like all really good horror what sets Enter Night apart from its peers is the quality of characterization of its protagonists.

One of the key protagonists is the openly gay son of the local matriarch. After a traumatic forced stint in a mental institution, part of a misguided attempt to “cure” him, he left his distant northern town for the bright lights of Toronto. But when his brother dies he’s forced to return home to help protect his sister in law and her daughter from the cruelty of his mother.

Also there are vampires.

If you like stories where the vampires don’t sparkle and where the fundamental humanity of the protagonists and their relationships creates enough compassion for us to care about their fates this is the horror story for you.

Help to make things better

Buying and reading these books, on its own, won’t make things better. Still its important to confront the fact that discrimination exists. Furthermore discrimination exists within our community.

By supporting authors who represent disparate voices from the dominant one of straight white men, by sharing them and encouraging other people to read them, we can start to break down that discrimination within our community.

Speculative Fiction is supposed to be a place of acceptance; there is a myth in fandom that we’re a bunch of outcasts and misfits. I think that myth isn’t really that true, certainly not anymore. Being a nerd is not exactly a stigmatizing thing in the age of the internet. But still, if we can create the community of acceptance, NOT tolerance but real, open and welcoming acceptance of diversity that is part of our origin story perhaps we can use the expanded influence that genre has on popular culture to help shape the greater culture.

Buying and reading these books won’t end discrimination, but at least it’s somewhere to start.

Five Fantasy novels you should have already read (but probably haven’t)

There’s a lot of good fantasy novels out there. It doesn’t help that fantasy authors are frequently among the most prolific writers in genre, churning out a book a year or more for decades.

When you find a fantasy author you like it’s all too easy just to stick with them. These books are ones you might not have heard of. But each of them is a brilliant work – what’s more, they represent some of the more unusual and challenging stories in fantasy.

1.  The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet

Ever meet a book that can break your heart? This is one of them. My immediate response to the story is that it reminded me, in the telling, of Le Guin. There was a similar ephemeral quality to the prose.

However this story of prophecy, murder and betrayal is much darker than Le Guin’s books. In Nola, Sweet has created a beautifully realized protagonist, one whose vibrancy radiates throughout the story. And because Nola shines so brightly you feel the pain of her tragedies ever more sharply.

This book is not an easy book. It is however achingly beautiful and if you haven’t read it you should now.

2. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Fair warning: this one is a little difficult to track down.

It’s not available as an e-book nor was it available in print in any bookstores I could find. Ultimately I had to order the book online and then waited two agonizing weeks while Canada Post promptly lost it.

But it was worth the wait. Barry Hughart deftly accomplishes something which all too few fantasy authors attempt. He creates a fantasy story set in a world that is not based on mediaeval Europe and succeeds.

Basing his world loosely on Tang dynasty China, Hughart manages to weave together Chinese folk stories and a strong historical understanding of the first Chinese imperial renaissance without allowing the details to overwhelm his work.

I loved Under Heaven and River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay and I don’t want this to sound like an indictment of either of these books, but Hughart employs a defter touch with his use of myth and history. He’s comfortable and confident enough with the historical material he uses to throw caution blithely to the wind.

This willingness to take risks allows him to create a romping adventure in which a dissolute and possibly immortal scholar (he claims not to be but he’s far older than any reasonable person ever could be) and an innocent peasant take on the roles of Holmes and Watson, solving an ancient mystery while engaging in daring do such as a steampunk helicopter escape from a giant invisible spider.

With inveterate scholasticism and bizarre flights of fantasy it’s unsurprising that Bridge of Birds won several awards when it was originally published. And yet, the publishers had trouble marketing the book and Hughart eventually withdrew from writing after only three novels.

3. Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell

I’ve got a soft spot for a coming of age story and this one is a doozy.

A bitter-sweet story about class and privilege, fear of the other, sex and death, Wild Girls is not an ordinary YA novel. I was lucky enough to have a chance to hear Atwell reading from Wild Girls. I say lucky because I might not have ever picked the book up if I hadn’t.

But I’m glad I did. This is the way urban fantasy is best done – with a light touch to the spectacle and a heavy dollop of characterization. Wild Girls is a true pleasure to read. If you haven’t read it yet I strongly suggest you read it right now.

4. Three Kingdoms / The Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong

Ok, this one is stretching the definition of fantasy a bit in that it’s a historical novel written in Ming Dynasty China. It is, in fact, one of the earliest true novels ever written anywhere and more people should read it for that reason alone. Happily a very good translation was published by Beijing Foreign Language Press. It may be difficult to find but I would suggest perseverance.

Why do I call Three Kingdoms a fantasy novel? The truth is that it entirely pre-dates such a thing as genre distinctions. That being said, the fusion of myth and history, the inclusion of the deification of Guan Yu and the lasting influence that this book had on the fantasy stories of Asia all point towards a novel which is closer to fantasy than any other modern genre. The novel can ultimately be summed up by the author’s thesis:

“The Empire, long divided, must unite: long united, must divide.”

It chooses as its protagonists not the ultimately victorious Cao Cao (who makes for one of the most exceptional villains in the history of literature) but rather the oath garden brothers Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu. By choosing to frame history through the lens of the most legendary figures (and also the least successful figures), the Three Kingdoms became a bit of a subversive story.

That element of subversion has led to it becoming one of the most frequently cited stories within Asia, spawning countless movies, video games, television shows and literary works.

5. Above by Leah Bobet

Returning to the present day, Above is another Young Adult entry on this list. This unapologetically Torontonian story (you can even see the CN Tower front-and center on the cover) plays out similarly to some of the works of Neil Gaiman as it tracks the slightly magical outcasts who live in the catacombs beneath the city.

Above brings sensitivity, strength and a strong political consciousness / conscience to the genre. Bobet understands how to infuse a Young Adult novel with her passion and her ethics without ever becoming bombastic or heavy-handed.

Furthermore her protagonists, a boy with the features of a lion and an artist’s soul, a wounded girl who is also a bee, a man whose touch is electric and several more are well realized, beautiful, flawed, monstrous and heroic. If you don’t already own a copy of this book you should buy it right now.

Why Do We Love to Hate on “Bad” Authors?

I was reading a scathing review of Dan Brown’s latest thriller with a small level of impish glee. Yes, I thought, he’s getting eviscerated for his shoddy research, bizarre word choice and cookie cutter plots.

But then, as I closed the tab, a little voice in the back of my head asked, “But why do you care?”

And that’s a fair question, why did I care. I’ve never met Mr. Brown and he may very well be a nice person. I know little of him besides his work and I hadn’t read him that much. After all, it didn’t take me long to realize his stories were not for me.

But the truth is that we do love to hate on bad fiction and the authors therein. I’m certainly not alone in this regard. So why is that?

Is it Jealousy?

This is one of the first things often trotted out by the defenders of bad stories.

I think Dan Brown is brilliant and there are too many jealous haters

This is a sentiment echoed across many comments sections, facebook pages and goodreads lists. You can swap out Dan Brown for Stephanie Meyer, E.L. James, the Situation or any other person who might be deemed undeserving of their book deal.

But really, is it?

The truth is that most people aren’t writing a book. Most people don’t want to write a book, even most readers, so why would they be jealous of a person who wanted to write a book and then proceeded to do so?

Now you might respond that book critics are writers themselves and thus are probably much more likely to want to write books than the average person on the street. If you posit book critics as the source of the hate for bad writers (not necessarily true) you could suggest that critics might be jealous.

But the thing is that the talents it takes to publish are transferable. Even when it’s difficult to shift from one medium to another it is do-able with work, perseverance and talent. Most people who care enough to become book critics have those qualities. They have what it takes to successfully get book deals and they regularly do.

So, no, critics aren’t jealous of successful authors. Frequently critics are successful authors.

But what about all those wannabes who want to get published and never do? Aren’t they jealous of Brown & co.?

Perhaps some of them are to some extent. Let’s reflect on this. I’ll use myself as a handy example since I only VERY recently went from wannabe occasional magazine writer guy to guy who has a book deal.

Looking back at my reaction to Brown or to Meyer it’s never been about jealousy. Brown doesn’t write in my genre. He’s not taking “my spot”. Besides which, it’s not like we lack for presses in this world. If you love small presses, and I do love small presses, there have been few times as exciting as we live in now for the sheer diversity of options available.

So, yeah, not jealous.

But I do love a trainwreck.

So is it because it’s funny?

When you consider Sparkledamerung or Gilbert Gottfried reading 50 Shades it’s fully possible that a lot of people hate on “bad” fiction for the LOLs.

And certainly there is lots of humour to be had with the inventive ways that people riff on awful stories.

Ultimately it’s like Sharknado

Yes, it all comes down to a tornado made of sharks. Well, no. But I recall how much fun people seemed to be having on twitter last night watching Sharknado and tweeting out all the really awful bits.

This was a movie that was deliberately written to be awful and to sell.

And therein lies a secret. We don’t always get enjoyment only out of “good” art. Ancient Rome is responsible both for Virgil and for dick jokes scrawled on the walls of Pompeii.

Popular culture isn’t necessarily refined and sometimes our pleasures are guilty. I read part of 50 Shades – it was horrible. And yet I found myself laughing at it. I was in a good mood.

Now mind, I did put it back down again, I felt no urge to read the whole cumbersome trilogy but it didn’t hurt me to have read it. I didn’t lose any sanity points.

I think we read bad fiction for the same reason we read good fiction – because we like it. And just as good fiction produces cultural ephemera around it in the form of fan art, forum posts and good reviews, so does bad fiction.

So, yes, I laughed to see Brown skewered. But considering that I just devoted 800 words to talking mostly about his new book it looks like he probably won because I did.

As a bonus here’s Gilbert Gottfried reading 50 shades!

 

Top Five Books That Should Have Been Adapted Instead of Ender’s Game

It’s sort of awesome that fantasy and sci-fi adaptations have become the hot properties in Hollywood. Even though I rarely read comic books I am a huge fan of superhero movies, space adventures and time travel flicks.

Considering that, and considering how significant Ender’s Game is within the canon of speculative fiction it’s not entirely surprising that there is an adaptation. However it’s still unfortunate. I am continuing to encourage people to donate to War Child rather than going to see Ender’s Game but I’d also like to propose five classic Sci-Fi and fantasy books that need an adaptation more than Ender’s Game.

5. Foundation (Foundation’s Edge / Foundation and Earth or Second Foundation)

Ok, so I’m already cheating a bit with this one since it’s actually three books. To be fair they’re all part of one overarching story. Foundation is a hard one to film. I suspect part of the reason that producers have shied away from Asimov’s epic vision of a far-future galactic empire has been the trouble structuring a suitable narrative through line.

Certainly the first two books of the Foundation series resist a cinematic treatment. Foundation itself is effectively a short story collection. The second half of Foundation and Empire could make for a compelling story but the rise of the Mule might be difficult to make into compelling and tense cinema.

Introducing him already in power and hunting for the dangerous and mysterious group that might make for a slightly stronger story.

Although arguably a weaker story than Second Foundation the Foundation’s Edge / Foundation and Earth duology might make for better film. It has a hollywood friendly protagonist and adventure elements that might let its extended warning regarding the danger of false utopias and exploration of the difficulty of deciding between individualism and collective good into an exciting film.

4. A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea classic coverYes, there is an “adaptation” of A Wizard of Earthsea. Well, kind of… Le Guin has effectively disowned the miniseries after she was cut out of the creative process for it. Furthermore much of the thematic complexity of the original work was lost by mashing a hodgepodge of elements from A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan together effectively at random.

And then there was the whitewashing…

There are two fantasy series that defined my love of the genre when I was barely old enough to read. Tolkien’s work and Le Guin’s. I recall the first time I ever read a book in a single sitting was the first time I picked up the Tombs of Atuan and could not put it down.

I would love very much to see a Wizard of Earthsea film that actually considers Le Guin’s vision of the world both chromatically and thematically.

3. Neuromancer

JUST MAKE IT ALREADY!

2. Snow Crash

This is another entry both in the “cyberpunky” category and in the just make it already category. Snowcrash has been in a state of partial production since before the dawn of time and there are rumours that it has entered a casting phase as recently as 2012.

Still it would be nice to see a sci-fi novel with an honest-to-goodness sense of humour become a film. A lot of our adventure movies have become grim affairs. The Zach Snyder / Christopher Nolan “gritty reboot” syndrome is the tip of this iceberg only but it’s certainly worth noting that about the only films coming out of Hollywood that managed to successfully balance spectacle, drama and action in the last two years were Avengers and the Hobbit. That’s a pretty slim success rate considering how many movies have come out in that time.

1. Just about anything by Guy Gavriel Kay

There’s no two ways about it. This man writes beautiful books. I’d personally love to see Under Heaven published. It’s my favourite of his novels. But that being said, just about any Kay novel would make for an exceptional and beautiful fantasy film.

His lyrical stories that seamlessly blend fantasy and history into secondary worlds that feel like our own are chock full of fascinating characters, beautiful settings and interesting plots.

Beyond that though there is a depth to Kay’s writing that could elevate an adaptation of one of his books, well executed, above just another fantasy adventure and into a work of cinematic art.

Of course there are so many other deserving stories just begging for adaptation. Share your favourites in the comments.

Apple E-Book Antitrust Ruling

The big publishing news from today is the ruling against Apple, who were have found to have violated antitrust rules by colluding with the big five to raise e-book prices.

In short form, and as un-judgementally as possible, Apple made a deal to transition from a store-set pricing model to an agency pricing model, which means that the publisher would set the price of the e-books. They also included a “most favoured nation” clause in their contracts with Apple guaranteeing that Apple would be able to sell books for the same price the books were available in any store. The publishers then approached Amazon and threatened to withdraw their books from the Amazon store if Amazon didn’t also raise e-book prices.

You can read a more complete analysis of the ruling here.

I am of two minds on this.On one hand, it’s all too easy to vilify Apple. Steve Jobs was not a nice person and quotes like:

I can live with this, as long as they move Amazon to the agent model (meaning the publishers, and not retailers such as Amazon, could set prices) too for new releases for the first year. If they don’t, I’m not sure we can be competitive.

certainly point toward a level of collusion between Apple and the big five. Setting up a price consortium consisting of a favoured retailer and the five companies responsible for producing the vast majority of the content within an industry is a pretty clear example of anti-trust.

On the other hand, much ink has been spilled regarding Amazon’s possibly predatory pricing and the impact it has had on the industry.

So really, who are the good guys here? The people driving the price of e-books up or the people driving the perceived value of books down? It’s a difficult issue. On one hand, as a reader I like to buy cheap books. I like to have a large selection of books. I like buying books to be convenient. At two books a week, even a small mark-up in book prices will have a negative impact on my pocket book. 

However as a writer I understand the amount of time and effort that goes into producing a book. <hyperbole>I put two years of my life into something, I’d like to think it’s worth more than $0.99. </hyperbole> Agency pricing models prevent Amazon from using loss-leaders to drive business out of competitors funnels and into their own. These could ultimately end up being anti-monopolistic practises.

As I said before, I’m undecided. I am not entirely comfortable with Amazon or with Apple. I’m not entirely certain that either company has the best interests of readers or of authors in their hearts. Instead I think we see two companies known for aggressive and monopolistic practises using the courts to try and get one up on each other.

And Amazon appears to have won this round.

Since I honestly don’t know what to think about all this I’d be interested to hear your opinion. Leave a comment and let me know whether the ruling against Apple ultimately help or harms readers, writers and publishing.