Abercrombie, Martin and Magic-Light Fantasy

I’m going to put this up here now, I might include spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire in this post. Stop reading now if that bothers you. There will be spoilers in the very next paragraph.

The last book came out two years ago and so I’m not going to care if you are still watching season three and don’t want to know, for instance, that Jon Snow was stabbed in the back by his brothers and might be dead. After all, come on, if you haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire yet why are you reading the blog of some minor fantasy author?

There might be spoilers for other books, also published more than a year ago, but you probably won’t care, because there’s no HBO tv show about them yet.

I’m going to also say, straight up, that there should be more TV shows based on magic-light fantasy series. After all, they do them in China all the freaking time and although sometimes terrible there’s also some really entertaining television that comes out of the genre.

The blog Wuxia Edge is a great resource for those television series and you should totally read them.

What is Wuxia

I’m going to be jumping back and forth a bit between authors like George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie on one side and authors like Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng on the other. That’s because there is a large precedent for fantasy with a lot of the characteristics that Martin really pioneered in English in the 1990s going back to the early 1900s in China. This is a genre I’m particularly fond of and it is just as influential to my writing as the other newer fantasy authors I’ll be mentioning.

In fact, the Black Trillium is effectively a wuxia story so, yeah, influence.

But outside of a small fandom the word hasn’t spread into North American consciousness beyond the possibility of a suspicion that it involves kung fu in some way. (BTW: don’t get me started that they changed the name of the film linked above to “Dragon” for the NA release. So damn lazy.

In shortest form, Wuxia is a modern genre of Chinese historical fantasy. Specifically it is a genre which grew out of the tradition of stories of youxia, knights-errant, who collectively formed an underworld of bandits and heroes whose conflicts frequently reflected the political struggles of dynastic China.

Wuxia is fantastical within very limited constraints. There is a template of abilities that youxia could access that could easily be seen as supernatural. These included:

  1. Qinggong – “Lightness Skill” was a subset of abilities that allowed the characters in wuxia to make incredible leaps, to move with exceptional speed and to fly.
  2. Neigong – “Internal energy” was a process through which characters could heal themselves or others through the manipulation of energy. They could also enhance their own strength, resilience and the potency of their other abilities by practicing neigong techniques.
  3. Extreme martial skill – This included strength and finesse that crosses the line into supernatural levels, the use of patently bizarre fighting techniques and the ability to wield cumbersome, unlikely or improvised weapons.
  4. Magical weapons – These generally had three characteristics: increased resistance to damage, unnatural sharpness and the ability to enhance the strength of the wielder. They are often coveted.

And that was it. With a few notable exceptions there weren’t other magical elements to the stories, nor were these elements presented as being unnatural. The characters were exceptional but any individual could achieve at least  some measure of their ability through diligence, hard work and sufficient luck.

These magical elements and the societal fantasy elements of the underworld of heroes and villains is what separates Wuxia from straight-up historical fiction. It’s not much. The world of Wuxia is nearly our own. However creating a fantastical element gave Wuxia authors the license to interrogate their own history, their myths and their ideals in a way that would strain the bounds of suspension of disbelief in a less fantastical historical thriller.

By introducing a fantasy element, the authors of Wuxia stories gave themselves freedom to push their social and moral implications of their stories into uncomfortable territory.

This included:

  • Frequently questioning the parental analogy for teachers and leaders which was a hallmark of Confucianism.
  • Questioning the virtue of political and religious leaders.
  • Questioning the nature of patriotism vis a vis the state.
  • Challenging the divide between law and justice.

This is not an exhaustive list.

And this brings us to the magic-light fantasy novels of the post-GRRM English scene.

Before Game of Thrones

Prior to Game of Thrones the majority of commercially available fantasy was a tired retread of Lord of the Rings. (Ok, I’m going to stop right there and make sure to point at the words commercially available I know just as well as you that there were plenty of people like Barry Hughart, Christopher Priest and Ursula K. Le Guin writing innovative and unusual fantasy that was nothing at all like Tolkien between the end of the 1960s and the mid 1990s – but  most of them weren’t widely read and certainly weren’t widely read outside of fandom; that was still the domain of Eddings, Brooks, Anthony, etc.).

There was also a moderately broad view, stoked in part by Tolkien’s loud protestations against allegory in fantasy that fantasy fiction should be escapist adventure fiction rather than trying to comment on deeper matters.

And the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire changed that with the swing of a headsman’s blade. It was evident this wasn’t escapism. What’s more, it really seemed that Martin was trying to tell us something.

This idea – that fantasy didn’t have to equal simple escapism – took off and now we have a much richer genre as the deeper fantasy reaches broader audiences.

Enter Joe Abercrombie.

Questioning the Nature of Heroism

The Heroes is Abercrombie’s second most recent book and it blew my mind. The six-hundred page tradeback abandons any hint of magic (the “wizard” in the book uses politics, threats and three cannons), it abandons an epic scale, confining action to a single valley and it uses a medieval battle as an opportunity to interrogate the idea of heroism.

In the story it presents us with:

  • A boy headed to war for the first time with dreams of being a hero
  • An ancient corporal who survived many previous engagements and who has a terrible reputation
  • An old war leader, weary of the fighting and aching from age and misuse
  • A young princeling with a reputation for loose talk and cowardice
  • A disgraced sword master who wants to die
  • The politically ambitious daughter of the commander of the army
  • A collection of vain and useless generals and lords

And the story invites us to look at the unvarnished actions of these various protagonists as they fight and die over the course of three days and ask whether any of them are heroic.

Is the death-obsessed master a hero for being undefeated in the field of battle when, inside, he’s a bitter and miserable shell of a man?

Is the boy who hides in a closet and kills another boy on his own side one day a hero for saving the man standing next to him on the next?

Is the woman who recovers sixty prisoners and carries a plea for peace a hero when her own friend is dragged off by a brute to a life of slavery and abuse and she does nothing to stop it?

And beyond inviting us to ask what constitutes a hero the story is willing to ask whether heroism is something to aspire to in the first place. Why, in fact, would anybody want to be a hero?

Don’t get in your own way

Magic is fun. I wouldn’t be a fantasy author if I didn’t like putting some in my stories. But here’s where I’m going to make the pitch for toned-back magic. For reasons that should be obvious, Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing have been circulating a lot this week. The best takeaway from them is, in my view, that a writer should not “distract the reader from the story.”

Fantasy frees us to talk about big concepts. It gives license to our audience to suspend disbelief about the little things enough for us to test concepts that might not fit otherwise. It does this, in part, by requiring us to suspend our disbelief about big things like how physics works.

That’s a pretty big risk. Good fantasy is always a gamble.

Antagonists and Villains

Ouyang Feng from the Legend of the Condor Heroes is a pretty obvious villain – his nickname is the Western Poison – but even so it’s his believable motivations and fundamental humanity that make him more than a caricature.

When I was writing The Black Trillium one of the things that I had the most fun with was turning my primary antagonist into a perspective character. It also really shows as I edit the book and look at him compared to the other two key antagonists, who didn’t have the same level of agency and find their motivations are more opaque. (Don’t worry, I’m fixing that.)

Then I started reading The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie and realized it’d be difficult to decide who the antagonists of the story were since he puts protagonists into positions where you just know they’ll end up on opposite sides of the central conflict. There is a certain inflexibility to a heroic story. Even if you try to avoid the more cliche’d elements of the heroic journey, a hero is still a character who the audience must be invited to root for.

Even if the character is Jeff Lindsay’s delightful Dexter Morgan, a psycopathic murderer, he’s still given qualities (charm, humour, and a code that injects a hint of the righteous) that give the audience license to hope he wins.

This is not true of our antagonists and it affords us much greater freedom.

Bad as I want to be

More often than not an antagonist is a bad guy. This isn’t always the case. Sgt. Doakes is very much an antagonist in both the second season of the Dexter TV series and the second Dexter novel. Even so, he’s probably, actually, the good guy – a cop who has a legitimate suspicion that he acts upon justifiably.

And yet his narrative purpose is to present a challenge to the protagonist: in this case a threat who he isn’t supposed to kill. Because Dexter is successfully established as the hero of his deranged stories Doakes becomes an antagonist.

On the other hand, in Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong (incomplete fan translation at the link goes by the alternate title of Legend of the Eagle Shooting Hero) , the Ouyang family, Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke are every inch the duplicitous, vile counterpoints to the hero’s blundering virtuousness. Ke, the younger Ouyang, is a rival for the affections of Huang Rong and a notorious womanizer to boot. Feng meanwhile mentors Ke in viciousness. The master poisoner is one of the most feared killers around and his motivations revolve around mentoring Ke and enhancing his power relative to his own rivals.

These people are bad people. But notice, both Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke want things, they have motivations beyond just being challenges for Guo Jing and Huang Rong to overcome. Likewise Sgt. Doakes wants things too. Successful antagonists are, first and foremost, characters and must be treated as such.

Nobody is the villain in his own story

This is the one thing that bothers me about Voldemort, Sauron, (eurgh) Darken Rahl and their “dark-lord” ilk. Nobody sets out to be the villain. It should always be possible to rewrite the story from the perspective of the antagonist and have it remain logically consistent.

In the case of Doakes you could create a crime drama about how he comes to suspect that a forensics expert in the force is harboring a terrible secret. You could describe his growing unease when the arrival of Doctor Danko forces him to work together with a man he rightly suspects of being a deranged menace.

If you were writing a story with Ouang Ke as the hero it’d probably read a lot like a book about martial arts written by the Situation. (Note: I do not endorse reading books written by the Situation.) That might not be a morally welcoming story – the younger Ouyang is a first-class creep and a would-be rapist. But it would still be logically consistent. He wants something: Huang Rong who is a worthy catch as a wife, intelligent, skillful and beautiful, and the heir to a wealthy and powerful man. He has an obstacle to overcome: Huang Rong’s idiot boyfriend and his beggar buddy.

To this extent antagonist and protagonist become mirrors of each other. There must be balance between them developmentally and thematically for the story to work.

This is what I like about Abercrombie – he’s internalized this idea to the point where it’s hard to tell just who the protagonists and antagonists are in a shifting tapestry of morally ambiguous conflict and widely distributed protagonists.

When antagonists are reduced to opaque sources of evil they lose that agency. Sauron is nothing but a shadow looming over the world and, as a result, the real antagonistic clout of the Lord of the Rings comes from Gollum, Saruman, Wormtongue and Denethor. If you remove those four characters from The Lord of the Rings the entire story falls flat and, I’d propose, that the notoriously slow start of the trilogy has more to do with the absence of a clear motivated antagonist than it does with Tolkien’s predisposition to counting every leaf on every tree.

The agony of the moment before you edit

I just got my edits back from my publisher. Actually I got them a few days ago but my email idiotically mistook one of the most important emails I’ve ever got as spam. Yeah, gonna be fixing my spam settings I think. Anyway after she contacted me again to check I got the file I found it in the spam folder. I’ll be opening up the file and starting  to work on her suggestions tonight. This is my first round of major professional edits on a book.

Wish me luck!

Marketing Categories: The Genre Question

I read an article from Quill and Quire today that talked about a new marketing category that has evolved – new adult fiction. It described how an author had trouble selling her book because it featured a protagonist in her 20s.

The article said that this presented trouble for publishers because YA conventionally deals with high-school age protagonists, while adult fiction generally features protagonists who have reached full adult maturity.

It made these works difficult to categorise… until somebody came up with a name for it.

My first novel is a coming of age story featuring protagonists who have recently entered adulthood. The arc of the protagonists is one which centres around the assumption of adult responsibility: finding a path, choosing sides in political conflict, learning to be a leader, to make priorities, building stable relationships.

I’d been calling it a young adult novel when I described it because, well because once you’ve written a book, marketing categories matter.

They matter because they will affect the metadata that goes along with the book. That metadata will in turn influence E-Marketplace recommendations and will determine where a book shows up when browsing.

They matter because book stores and libraries care about marketing categories. They matter because society, in general, implies certain assumptions about a book based on its category.

And that’s where things get difficult. Because the assumption might not be a correct one. Let’s take, for example, the division between Science Fiction and fantasy. Where would we place a book like Ecko Rising? The book starts off in a pretty standard near future / cyberpunkish vein, with a protagonist, augmented with cybernetics, fighting against the ruling corporate elite of a dystopian England.

And then the novel curves into left field as the character is suddenly and without explanation dropped into a fantasy setting with centaurs, wizards, warriors and a teleporting tavern.

The tension between the sci-fi protagonist’s expectations and the fantasy world he inhabits becomes a key element of the story. But what is it? Is it sci-fi or is it fantasy? This actually matters because science fiction and fantasy have distinct tropes and if a reader expects one set of tropes and suddenly gets another they may not be pleasantly surprised.

Now in this example, the subversion of expectations is handled elegantly by Ware, who allows the protagonist to voice the science fiction expectations only to find himself by turns frustrated and enthused by the differences between the expected world and the one he is in.

Of course some stories don’t have to actually pull a bait and switch to meander over genre lines. Look at any comic book: Power-armour clad scientists duking it out with gods carrying magic weapons; aliens and wizards collaborating; time travellers and mutants and mystical prophecies all jumbled together. There’s some very interesting and fertile ground for stories in the spaces between genres.

But how to sell them?

That’s been a perennial problem for comics, which have struggled against the idea that they are somehow “lower” artistically than other stories basically forever.

In the end, I think Quill and Quire gets it right. Authors will generally, eventually, find a home for good work. In time, no matter how hard it is to sell, somebody will probably at least give it a shot. If they do, and if they sell successfully, hey, voila a new marketing category is born.

And then everybody will be complaining about how many awful steampunk zombie mashup retellings of classic novels they keep seeing in their bookstores, no matter how bold the initial concept of something so bizarre might be.

So, I guess, I’d say this – write your story and write it well. Never, while writing, consider the marketing category. You can pigeonhole your book after you’ve finished it.

Because you will have to think about it. And that’s when it’s time to assemble your elevator pitch. But in the meantime don’t sweat it.

Poll: Should I do the 3-day novel contest?

I recently found out that I hadn’t (yet again) missed the 3-day novel contest. For those who aren’t familiar with this contest, it’s a $50 entry fee and then you write a novel, at least 100 manuscript pages in length entirely over the labour day weekend.

I’ve read one novel which was a product of the contest and quite liked it. But in general I’m just not sure whether to participate this year.

Registration ends on August 30.

So I have a few choices. I could pay the $50 and register. I could do the challenge but not formally enter the contest or I could just stick to my current writing tasks.

I’m really divided, so here’s where I’m asking for help.

Do you have a past experience with the 3-day novel contest? Have you participated before or do you know somebody who does? Would you recommend it for somebody who has previously completed several novel length works (including one which is in the pipeline to come out in 2014) or is it more for the NaNoWriMo crowd?

Help me out, participate in the poll and leave a comment telling me your thoughts on this contest.

No, EBooks aren’t dying

Earlier this week, Rough Type posted this chart and the lit parts of the internet went up into the perennial debate over e vs paper.

And certainly it’s a pretty doomish looking chart. You see a peek of 252% growth in Q1 2010 and then you see that growth drop to 5% by Q1 2013. That is a precipitous decline.

But does it matter?

Here’s the thing, ebooks are a new technology. E-ink readers didn’t even exist prior to 2006. The Kindle wasn’t released in the USA (let alone late-adopting countries like Canada until 2007). And, of course, iPad came in 2010.

When a new technology (for that matter, when a new product at all) comes to market there are waves of purchasers. First we get early adopters who buy the product when its first being introduced. Then, as word gets around about the product it will go through a period of rapid growth. And then, after a while, the majority of the people who are going to get onboard with the product have done so.

This is the mature phase of a product lifecycle and it is perfectly normal. It was going to happen eventually. Basically what it means is that the existing readers who were going to adopt ebooks have done so. It doesn’t mean that they are buying fewer ebooks, just not more.

Eventually the product will decline, but a very rapid adoption doesn’t necessarily imply a rapid decline from maturity. Industrial printing, the key technology for mass-market print books, kicked off in the 1800s and was reaching maturity less than two decades after it really got going and, by worst case scenario, print books didn’t reach the decline phase of the market cycle until… well… about 2011, when the Borders bankruptcy shook the entire book industry.

That was nearly two centuries of maturity following two decades of growth.

So perhaps we can start worrying about ebooks in a few decades, when accelerating technological change produces a medium for mass market stories as transformative as ebooks were.

Until then, don’t sweat the fact that the ebook market has matured. It was going to happen eventually.

Short Story Market Workshop

Back on Sunday I went to a workshop on the short story market hosted by Michael Matheson. Matheson is a short story author and is also one of the editors at Apex Magazine, an online magazine for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

The workshop took place in the basement of Bakka Phoenix books, Toronto’s #1 destination for genre literature and a hub of the local speculative fiction scene. Included with the cost of admission was a copy of Masked Mosaic (which I would have been buying otherwise, so natch!) and a coupon for 10% off books in the store valid only for that day.

I’ll get into the workshop in greater detail for a moment but I just want to pause and mention this is a bookstore doing the right things. Bakka Phoenix provided both a reason to draw readers into the store (workshop) and then an incentive to purchase books (10% off coupon valid only that day). 

Would the book I bought cost less on Amazon? Actually no, once you factor in shipping. But notwithstanding that, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was primed to buy a book. 

Becoming a place for readers to gather, for writers to learn, for authors to be discovered: this is what bookstores can do. And in the process they sell books and stay in business. 

Now, onto the workshop.

One of the key topics of discussion was the division between token markets, semi-pro markets and pro markets. Michael went over nomenclature, discussed what to expect from each and provided examples of some good markets to submit to within the semi-pro and pro categories. 

We discussed the peril of markets that offer exposure in lieu of payment and we went over how to decide what markets you should submit to.

From there Michael segued into the qualities of a good short story editor and provided a local example in the form of Leah Bobet, the publisher of Ideomancer. (So authors who are looking for a good market with a good editor might want to check out Ideomancer’s submission guidelines.)

Which is another thing we talked about, the importance of reading submission guidelines and following them. After all, the process of finding the right market goes beyond just finding a good market and a good editor to work with. It’s even more important to find a market appropriate for your story and to present yourself professionally. And even so that doesn’t guarantee you a sale.

Michael went into the mysterious art of rejectomancy and talked about the life cycle of short story publications, including how that cycle can affect the saleability of a story. 

We went from that discussion into a discussion on some things to avoid, both in the form of markets that may exhibit problems, why these problems happen, what to look out for in a contract (remember to always ask for non-exclusive anthology rights), and then how to write a cover letter.

We wrapped up with a chat about writing bios and some questions about how to know when you’re ready to start submitting. Then we all bought books and retired to the pub.

All in all it was a great time and well worth the price of admission. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for other workshops at Bakka Phoenix.

I think I’ve chosen a side in the Amazon / Apple conflict

It looks like Amazon is getting into a bit of a price war with Overstock. And it looks like this could be very bad for authors and publishers, both in the short-term an as part of a larger trend.

A little while ago I weighed in on the Apple / Amazon model over agency pricing and the ruling that this was a price-fixing deal. At that time I said that I wasn’t sure which side I came down upon with the whole thing.

But if we’re going to be seeing more of this without agency pricing perhaps I do know which side I’m on. I am still unconvinced that agency pricing is that good for small presses or anybody other than Apple and the Big Five. But with that being said, with things like this happening this soon after the court ruling in Amazon’s favour I am beginning to think that, perhaps, Apple and the consortium with the Big Five is the lesser of two evils.

Still very interested to hear other opinions on this. I’m less divided now, but not undivided.

Thanks to Raw Dog Screaming Press for providing the link to the original article.