Archive for the 'Metafantasy' Category


when it all comes back around

First off, my official website and blog are live! Yay! More Rachel than you could ever want, but hey, there’s free chapters of my books, so there’s compensation!

In the meanwhile, when I’m not wasting time making the links on my blog the right shade of orange, I’m slogging through novel 4. I’ve posted about middles before, but seriously, it’s the worst part of any novel for me. In the beginning everything is shiny. I always know how my novels start! And at the end, you’ve got climax fever and everything’s exploding, plenty of action to drive you along. But the middle is where you’ve got all those pesky details to nail down between point A and point Awesome-it’s-the-end. I’ve never really been a details person, and so middles are where I flounder. Lately, however, I’ve realized what I think may be a fundamental truth about series writing that’s making things easier. It goes like this: though I’m on book 4 of 5, there are several things I still don’t know about the series. I have some ideas about how things will go, but I don’t have scene by scene breakdowns or anything. Still, I’m not worried. You see, all though my books, through the 4 middles I’ve now written, I’ve been dropping threads for myself. Mentioning little things about the world that may have had no real bearing on the story that was happening right then, but they added flavor and, as I get closer and closer to the point where I have to tie everything together, they provide much needed spots for the knots to go.

To give an example, my husband watches a lot of Stargate SG1. Like, a lot a lot, I think he’s on season 11. One of the things he’s constantly raving to me about the show is how it will use things from waaay back, like season 1, as major plot points for later. When he first told me this, I was so impressed. What amazing foresight those writers had! Dropping hints so early about things that become important later! It’s genius! But, now that I’m managing the book equivalent of a five season show, I am slightly less dazzled, because I’m doing the same thing. See, I didn’t know I was going to be writing five books, and I’m pretty sure the SG1 writer team didn’t know they were going to be making 11 seasons of the show. I will bet cash money they didn’t sit around in the writing room in season 1 saying “Ok, be sure to lay out all these hints for season 6, 9, 10, and 12” any more than I looked at my draft for book 1 thinking “Ok, I’ve got to put down all these clues for book 4…” No, I was thinking (and I’m pretty sure the Stargate team was as well) “I will make this story interesting my world deep by throwing in all this cool shit!” And low and behold, when more story was requested, that cool shit, all the interesting asides and chance comments on the world, then became vital future plot points.

Once I realized this about my own fiction and Stargate, I started seeing it everywhere. That’s because it works both for the writer and the audience. People, especially fiction readers, loooove finding patterns. They love it when something mentioned in book 1 becomes the key plot turn in book 4. As a reader, it makes you feel smart, special, like you and the author are in on some awesome secret. Everyone likes feeling special. Even better, they remember that awesome thing you mentioned in book 1 as soon as it becomes important in book 3 and feel very clever for doing so, but they don’t remember the 5 other cool hints you dropped around the one you used. It’s like the opposite of the Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech. People remember the good bits, and the ones that never really took are interred with your bones.

From an ego standpoint, I would like to think that some alligator brain in the bottom of my subconscious had everything planned from the beginning. Maybe it did, but so far as my conscious mind is concerned, I’ve always tended to treat my novels like soup pots. Anything that could possibly make the soup better without ruining the flavor goes in. It is often sheer serendipity that later, when I’m stuck in a middle with no idea how I’m going to jump this plot hole, I look back and there’s my answer, danging from the loose ends of book 2. Sometimes you just have to throw it all in and see what sticks.

So, do you ever notice/participate in this phenomenon?

PS: Has anyone else encountered this monstrosity? (har har useewhutididthere) Seriously, though, you tell me. Is this a victory for the popularity of urban fantasy or the embarrassing, corporate cash-out tail end? I am both strangely attracted and utterly repelled.


Fantasy 2035

A few days ago I was on a panel at the Center for Fiction here in NYC on “The Evolution of SF/F”. The panel didn’t go wholly as described — among other things, Musharraf Ali Farooq wasn’t able to make it, and was replaced by fellow Orbit author Jeff Somers. Also, we spent rather less time on SF/F’s evolution, which as I see it encompasses present and future, and rather more time on SF/F’s past, partly as a result of one panelist’s (paraphrased) assertion that the SF/F of today lacks vision in comparison with SF/F of the past. Not surprisingly, we spent awhile dissecting that statement — in a friendly way, of course. Made for a good panel.

That said, I was kind of left wanting for discussion about the future of the genre, so I decided to do a little of that here.

Except it’s a big topic to cover, the future of an entire literary genre. Where does one begin? I could talk about the big movements of today — e.g., steampunk, slipstream, interstitialism — and make guesses as to where they’re going. I could talk about the hot up-and-coming authors of today and try and predict their careers. I could talk about the market, and what’s moving it now, and whether those financial factors will continue to have relevance. But frankly, I could do an entire blog post about any one of those topics, and who’s got time for that? I’ve got a book to write. And more importantly, lots of other people are already talking about all these things.

So I decided to focus on something different: the readership. What do I think the readership of fantasy will be like in, say, 25 years? Rounding up a bit since we’re almost at the end of 2009, that would be the year 2035.

Let me preface this by saying that it’s all going to be speculation. I have no access to marketing or sales data, beyond the small amount that gets released to the general public (example). I have the same awareness of subgenre sales trends that most of you do, which is to say mostly anecdotal and probably overgeneralized. I also have no access to demographic data beyond what’s available to laypeople in this field — which ain’t much, let me tell you. A few of the major magazines for the industry do polls or surveys of their subscribership, but these are controversial and focused on the mags’ readership, which means they all have a significant selection bias problem.

Moreover, it’s become increasingly clear to me that no one really has any clue what SF/F’s current readership looks like, let alone its future. In the latter days of the now-infamous RaceFail discussion in the SF/F blogosphere a few months back, a non-scientific roll call of people of color in SFdom put the lie to the common perception that the field’s readership is almost exclusively white, with PoC being as rare and exceptional as unicorns. In the first three or so days of the roll call, nearly a thousand people spoke up to say that they were PoC SF/F fans — note that this is just from within the limited population of LiveJournal — and many of them also mentioned parents, siblings, significant others, and so on, who were too. That’s a lot of unicorns. And in the older “Slushbomb” conversation (about gender bias) that took place a few years back, it gradually became clear that the dismal submission numbers from women writers that many magazines received were basically proportional to how many women were published by same — in other words, magazines that published more women got more submissions from women. Suggesting, of course, that there are plenty of women writers out there (and defying the common assumption that women don’t write SF), but they’re selective about where they send their work; they don’t waste time sending to markets seen as female-unfriendly (or less-friendly).

What all this reveals, IMO, is that we have no frakking clue what the SF/F readership really looks like. Specific to fantasy, I’ve heard lots of assumptions made — frex that fantasy’s readership is mostly white women, mostly members of the “knowledge class” or at least college educated, mostly middle- or upper-class, mostly lapsed Christians or into alternative religions like Wicca, and so on. But in reality? Those assumptions are probably about as spot-on as a Magic Eight Ball.

So here’s my theory. I think that half a century of SF/F film, television, gaming, and other media has created an SF/F consumership (note: not readership) that’s probably a representative subset of the population as a whole. (For the sake of clarity, let’s say the North American population, though these days SF/F media is global and I think its consumership is, too.) Maybe less so in fantasy, because fantasy as a genre has been less well-served by non-book media; beyond the occasional blockbuster like Lord of the Rings or gaming hit like World of Warcraft, we haven’t had as many hits to lure mainstreamers into the book-reading niche of the genre. (And unlike science fiction or horror, the hits in fantasy media haven’t ranged as widely over the breadth of the genre. Most fantasy hits focus on one subset of fantasy, IMO: secondary-world medieval-European sword and sorcery.) Regardless, I think that consumership is large and strong and diverse — probably at parity or close to on gender, and close to representative on race, class, and so on.

Those people aren’t all reading, note. A significant proportion of them don’t read, period, and that number is declining throughout US society as people’s time and attention-spans are consumed by flashier media and interaction. Still, a goodly number of them are reading, and of the ones who are, I think the book-producing end of the fantasy genre is doing a better and better job of capturing them. So here’s what I think we’ll see in the future of the fantasy readership:

  • Lots of young people. The phenomenal growth of the YA genre suggests that lots of young people are readers, and as those readers grow up they will no doubt look for their happy places in adult genres, and at that point fantasy will benefit mightily. Just think about how many kids and teens have now grown up on Harry Potter and the Twilight saga. They’re coming for the adult market soon, and their tastes are going to dominate the field for quite some time. We’d better be ready.
  • Gender parity. I suspect that while the fantasy readership used to be mostly male — especially in the days when quest doorstoppers and sword and sorcery formed the heart of the genre — it’s already reached parity, or swung over to being mostly female, if only by virtue of the fact that women spend the majority of dollars on books in the US. Also, the genre has made several efforts to court women readers, like the rise of the new Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance subgenres, and more female-centered fantasies. That said, I’m seeing whiffs of a corresponding effort to pull boys back into genre reading (and back into reading, period). Nothing citable at this point, just a sense that with the success of stuff like The Dangerous Book for Boys and steampunk and other genre fiction that targets boys and girls equally, we’ll see the pendulum swing back to the center.
  • The end of medieval European milieu dominance, thank God. I think this may already be happening; outside of a few blockbuster authors who are well-established, or who have passed the torch (and franchise dollars) to younger authors, I’m not seeing nearly as many fantasies in thinly-veiled Dark Ages settings as I did growing up in the Seventies and Eighties. And again, let’s look back at what kids are reading. Their fantasy tastes are decidedly non-traditional; among the bestsellers I’m seeing lots of modern settings and lots of cultures — like all those manga set in Japan. I suspect that the typical medieval European fantasy is headed the way of the sword and sorcery genre — not dead, but not dominant either — with only a few trope-breaking or subversive examples of same reaching prominence in the future. At least, that’s my hope. (Can you tell I’m a little sick of mediEuro fantasy?)
  • Correspondingly, I think we’ll see more interest in international fantasy, either from Western authors dipping into non-Western mythologies/cultures or actually written by people outside of the English-language sphere. We’re already seeing burgeoning SF/F literary movements in other countries — China most notably, but also in countries like India and Nigeria. And more of what’s already out there is getting translated for the English-speaking market. This is a good thing, because most of the fastest-growing economies in the world — whose citizenry will be buying and writing more books — are not English-speaking, so we’re going to miss out on a lot if more of it doesn’t get translated.
  • And now a note of doom and gloom, for which I fully expect to get an earful from you guys. =) I suspect Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance are not long for this world in their current incarnation. These kinds of trendy surges never last — mostly because once publishers start cranking out books to take advantage of the trend, the trend ends up expanding beyond its market and being glutted with substandard books, at which point readers get annoyed and go elsewhere. I don’t think the subject matter of UF and PR is going away; women are here to stay in the fantasy genre, and they want strong female characters, action-filled plots, and steamy romance. But the by-now-stock UF cover with its close-up on tattooed or bare female body parts, and the by-now-stock PR plot with a supernatural creature getting hot and heavy with a human woman, and so on — these are formulas, and formulas don’t last. Women like variety, too. That said, I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon. Sales don’t seem to be flagging, and publishers are still buying them left and right. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
  • Correspondingly, I think we’re going to see more interest in formula-breaking fantasy. I don’t mean just genre-bending stuff like interstitial or slipstream; I think we’re going to start seeing subversions of all the popular formulas soon. That’s something else that seems to characterize the readership coming out of YA — they like familiarity with a twist. I’d be stupid to try and predict what’s going to come of this — in my wildest fancies, I never imagined sparkling vampires, frex — but it’s definitely coming. The readership of 2035, the Millennials of today, are easily bored and not just change-friendly, they’re change-demanding. Again, those of us in the production end of the field had better get ready.

So there’s my predictions. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to chime in with your own!

(Oh — and side-note: for those who’d like to read chapter 1 of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, it’s up on my website.)


It’s never “just a story”.

Another quantum post! As you read this, I’m on a 9-hour trek across the country to World Fantasy Con. If you’ll be there or in the San Jose area, I’ll be reading from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on Saturday at 3 p.m. Come listen and say hello!

Two things I’ve seen this week triggered today’s post. The first was this news article, about a young woman recently found wandering and amnesiac here in New York city. She’d forgotten her name, how she got here, or what had happened to her. What she could remember, however, were lines from a fantasy novel by Robin Hobb. Now, the important and tragic part of this story is that this young woman has probably been through some major physical or psychological (or both) trauma; I don’t want to gloss over that. She’s been identified, and is hopefully now being treated. But the part that caught my attention, given my professions — not just fantasy writer, but psychologist — was that she remembered the Hobb book. She also remembered that she herself is a fantasy writer, working on a novel; she can apparently remember what her story is about, too. So hold those thoughts for a minute.

The other thing that triggered today’s post was seeing a video featuring Nigerian author (and MacArthur “Genius” Grant award winner) Chimamanda Adichie, in which she talks about the dangers of a single story. Watch it for yourself:

My favorite part is the anecdote she starts about about the 10:55 mark:

“I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho, and it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.”

Adichie says it herself: stories matter. Not only because too few stories can create stereotypes or incomplete understandings of the world, but also because all stories lodge in our minds so powerfully, influencing our thinking at such a deep and often subconscious level, that even when our identities are stripped away, the stories remain. In fact, there are psychological theories which posit that human consciousness is nothing but stories — that aside from our most simplistic instincts, all of our ability to reason consists of chains of interlinking narratives, from the simplest to the most complex, that we form and associate in order to understand the world.

I think of things like this whenever I hear people dismiss fantasy, and fiction in general (but especially genre fiction), as “just a story.” This seems to happen frequently in any serious conversation which attempts to deconstruct the stories we tell — like in this conversation that’s taking place in the romance end of the genresphere, about race and cultural appropriation. A number of respondents in the comment thread seem upset at being asked to think about real-world issues because they just want a story to enjoy — by which they seem to mean the same kinds of stories they’ve always read, however singular and incomplete those are. But how much more enjoyable might those stories be if they were made more complete? How many fresh, complex, new stories might appear if there were more tellers, different tellers, and if the old incomplete stories were retired instead of rehashed?

Think about it: if the world’s six billion people knew of Americans only through that Bret Easton Ellis novel, what would they think of us? What if the world only expected Ellis-ish stories from American authors, and refused to publish anything different on the assumption that stories about non-murderous Americans were somehow “inauthentic”? What if the authors of other nations, when they deigned to include Americans in their fiction, only wrote of Americans as narcissistic serial killers? What if the readers in those other nations got upset whenever Americans asked for more and varied representations of themselves? And worse, what if the governments of other nations started building their policies around such stories, requiring that all Americans be frisked and held for psychiatric observation on entering the country?

Would American Psycho be “just a story” then? Could any story written by or about Americans be “just a story”, in that climate?

So I don’t buy the idea that what we’re doing, as writers and as readers, is “just a story”. The stories I write have a powerful impact on the consciousness of every person who reads them, whether I intend to have that effect or not. The stories I read have a powerful impact on my own consciousness — and subconsciousness, whether I’m aware of that impact or not. It seems disingenuous at best, irresponsible at worst, to pretend that neither of these facts are true.

Here’s an idea: just imagine yourself as that young amnesiac woman. Ask yourself: what stories would be foremost in your mind, helping to shape your remaining identity? Because there would be some stories left in you. There always are.


Describing Characters of Color, pt. 2

This is something I was going to do on my own blog, as a followup to an earlier post on ways to describe characters of color in fiction. But since a) I was coming up short on something to write about for this week’s Magic District post, and b) this is International Blog Against Racism Week* (IBARW), I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.

I’m a Harry Potter fan, if you haven’t guessed it by now from my repeated references. I’m such a fan that initially I only wanted the British versions of the books, so the first one I read was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I did this because I found it suspect that the publisher had changed the name for the US release to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, completely ignoring the alchemical history that the original title evoked. If they were going to change something like that, I reasoned, who knew what else they would change?

So when I later got the US version and compared the two, I wasn’t surprised to see that a number of words and lines had been changed. Most of these changes were minor, for example clarifying Britishisms that USians might not have picked up on, like using the word “sweater” in place of “jumper”, since in the US a jumper is a kind of girl’s dress. But in several places I noticed a more curious difference. For example, at one point the character Dean Thomas is explicitly stated to be black in the US version — a line which doesn’t even exist in the UK version.

Now, note: Dean is described in the UK version in ways that strongly suggest his race, but it’s subtly done. His dredlocks are mentioned repeatedly, as is his love of a particular soccer (sorry, football) team which is known in the UK for having a lot of black players and fans. There are other clues. But somewhere along the way, some US editor for Rowling’s book decided that US kids just wouldn’t pick up on the clues, and decided to add that line to make it clear. Continue reading ‘Describing Characters of Color, pt. 2’


Ideas Between the Lines

Went to see “Twelfth Night” last night, as part of New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park theater productions. It was wonderful — Anne Hathaway did a phenomenal job as Viola/Cesario, the music was beautiful, and the whole production was side-splittingly hilarious. Considering that I had to get in line at 5 a.m. that morning to get tickets, and then didn’t get home ’til 2 a.m. after the play that night, the production was very much worth the lost sleep.

That said, though… as I watched the play, I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and their relationships — both the ones depicted and the ones that weren’t. What were Sebastian and Antonio up to all that time they were together after his rescue? Why did Duke Orsino take so quickly to the idea of Viola as a lover — even while she still looked enough like Sebastian to pass? Was Lady Olivia really fooled by Viola’s crossdressing, or was she genuinely interested in Viola as a boyish-looking woman? And poor Malvolio; what would’ve happened if Olivia had wanted him, given their differences in station?

Yeah, that’s right: I’ve got a hankering for Shakespeare fanfic.

Uh-oh; I’ve invoked the dreaded f-word. I’ve been a reader and writer of fanfiction for many years now, though most of mine was done waaaaay back in the 20th century, in fandoms that most Westerners have never heard of (Japanese anime, manga, and video games). I’m aware of the controversies regarding fanfiction in the English-language pro-writer sphere; a lot of professional authors regard fanfic as a threat to their copyrights, trademarks, etc., and have been quite vocal in denouncing it. And yeah, I’ve heard the cautionary tales, which are frequently raised whenever the f-word debate rolls around. Legal troubles are a legitimate danger — but then, there’s always danger of something like that in our litigious society. I could get sued for the way I spell a character’s name; it’s not likely to get very far in court, but I’d still be out a few grand in lawyers’ fees. No way to avoid that, so I’m not going to spend all my time looking over my shoulder.

My views on fanfic are pretty much in line with those of the OTW; I think derivative works of a certain nature — a fannish nature — are fair use. And more than that, I think they’re beneficial. If readers write fanfic based on my work, that means they’ll probably read my work. If they get it from a library or a bookstore, that means more money for me. And sure, they might get it by borrowing a book from a friend, buying it used, or downloading an illegal copy from somewhere, none of which nets me any income. But for every person who does that to write their fanfic, there will be others who are inspired — possibly by that fanfic, or simply by the existence of a fandom — to go and buy my book. It’s free publicity that will last long beyond any marketing push by my publisher, or the most successful self promotion I might do. It could help keep my book in print longer. It could make me a bestseller, or at least keep me out of the midlist death-spiral. I won’t ever read those fanfics (can’t avoid lawsuits, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to paste a target on my forehead) but I do hope readers write material based on my work. Frankly, I’d be flattered.

Because my own experience with fanfiction is that it grows out of particularly vivid characterization, worldbuilding, and/or plot development by the canonical author. The canon isn’t always Shakespearean in quality — frequently the exact opposite — but there’s still something compelling enough about the source material that it leaves readers hungering for more. Dreaming about it. Babbling to friends about what they would do if they lived in that world, or met those characters, or ended up in a situation like my plot. And yeah, the really compelling stuff isn’t always in the canon overtly, but instead appears as subtext — reading between the lines, so to speak. The stuff that’s hinted-at but not there. There’s no guarantee that any fan interpreting this subtext will come up with the same explanations for it that the original author would; their interpretation might actually annoy the hell out of the author. But that’s OK. Because the fan wonders, and cares enough to speculate, and thinks deeply enough about the material to come up with a plausible answer to that speculation.

The egogasm I would get from knowing readers are that caught up in my stuff would probably make me explode.

Unfortunately, I won’t find out whether my novel is compelling enough to inspire fanfic for quite a few months. In the meantime, I’m going to need to keep busy. So, uh, anybody got any good Shakespeare ‘fic recs? Send privately if you’re embarrassed. I won’t tell!


How Much Magic is Too Much/Not Enough?

Wow — book launches, weddings, babies; my fellow Magic Districtians have been up to so much cool stuff lately! (Congrats to all!) My own recent projects are pretty minor by comparison, but I guess I’ll talk about them anyway.

I experimented with voice acting recently, doing a reading for the fantasy fiction audio ‘zine PodCastle. I read the excellent story of fantasy writer Alaya Dawn Johnson, called “Shard of Glass”, which first debuted in Strange Horizons; check it out. Doing the reading was a lot of fun, although apparently the sound quality is a little iffy and my voice is too slow/soft. (Sorry ’bout that. My first time.)
Continue reading ‘How Much Magic is Too Much/Not Enough?’


Optimistic… Fantasy?

I’ve been hearing a lot of calls lately for optimistic, upbeat science fiction. There are at least two anthologies coming soon that want it, and apparently there was a minor fracas in the blogosphere recently over one author’s calls for an “ethical” stand against negativity. (Is negativity unethical? But I digress.)

I have to admit that I haven’t felt much of an urge to heed these calls for a number of reasons, but probably the biggest among them is that I just don’t get it. I don’t feel like I’m drowning under a swiftly-rising tide of vitriol and nihilism; really, I’m feeling more hopeful about the SF/F/H fiction genre lately than I have in a long time. In fact I had to think hard to remember the last “downbeat” novel I read (Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man), and I’m not sure I could really consider it downbeat, because however ugly it got in the middle (and boy did it; PTSD-inducing tragedies happened to everybody in that book) I knew that by the end, good things would happen. (And they did, quite satisfyingly.) Not necessarily happily-ever-after, note; fantasy novels have no problem killing off major characters or invoking a bit o’ the old Armageddon. That said, there is a certain tendency in fantasy novels to “put the world to rights”* once the MacGuffin of Power is back on the Pedestal of Safety, and the Stoic Heroine has successfully landed a Stoic Hero in bed, if not at the altar. This happens even in dark fantasy, though with a bit of role reversal or moral relativism thrown in — the Dark Lord turns out to be a good guy with bad PR (e.g., Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology), or gets redeemed in the end (e.g., C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy), et cetera. It happens so consistently that I literally can’t remember ever seeing a true “rocks fall, everybody dies” ending in fantasy.

Which got me thinking: maybe 50% of what I read these days is fantasy. Could that be why I feel no desperate craving for optimism?

Maybe all these optimism-craving sciencefictionistas should just up their fantasy intake a bit, and then they’d feel better.

* There’s probably a lit-critty term for this, but hey — I majored in Psych, not English.


The Magic of Perspective

So my forthcoming trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its two sequels, is epic fantasy. Each book is first person, written from a single character’s perspective (different for each book).

I’ve read a lot of “on writing” books and forums and been involved in a lot of writing groups and workshops, and a consistent theme that I hear in these places — usually from less-experienced writers, but sometimes from the masters — is that first person is somehow problematic for a fantasy novel, particularly an epic fantasy. What people seem to think, variously, is that a) editors hate first person because it doesn’t sell as well, or b) readers hate it because they need more than one character to care about, or c) it’s too hard to unveil the plot through a single perspective, or d) it interferes with worldbuilding. Or any number of other complaints, all of which boil down to: First Person Is Hard.

I have to say, I don’t really get all this angst about first person. Sure, first person is challenging, but I think that’s because it’s unusual. It’s true that most genre novels (especially high fantasies) are written in third person.* Also, AFAICT most beginning writers start out writing third person in creative writing classes and such. Third person becomes the default mode of thinking — so of course we find first person disquieting, especially the first few times we encounter it; we don’t have as much experience with it. The solution to this problem, IMO, is not to declare first person problematic, but to get some first person practice. Go out and read some first-person epics. Write some short stories in that perspective. Then not only does it become clear that first person is no harder than third person — or second person for that matter — but the writer can then learn to appreciate the ways that first person can enhance a story.

Because let’s be honest here — first person isn’t hard, but it is different. You really can’t tell the same kind of story with it that you can with third person. And that’s fine. I think part of the problem many writers (and readers) have with first person is that they expect it to be the same as a third person story, except with a bit more “I” and “we” and “me”. When this doesn’t work, they get frustrated. And instead of doing the logical thing — changing the story to fit the perspective — they try to force the perspective to tell the story they want. Yeah, that default third person story that’s in their heads. This is the writerly equivalent of trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It’s illogical to get mad at the peg or the hole; the real problem is the idiot trying to make them fit together.

OK, this is getting too abstract for my tastes, so let’s consider an example.

I’ve mentioned here before that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a rewrite of a book I wrote ten years ago. That book was called The Sky God’s Lover. SkyGod had the same setting as 100K, the same core plot, the same characters. IMO it was decently-written — not as good as 100K, but that’s not surprising; I was a much less-experienced writer at the time. There was a lot more flab. Still, I think SkyGod was good enough for publication — so good that when I decided to rewrite it, I didn’t really think it was “broken.” I just had the vague sense that the story needed to be told in a different way. So I opted for a total paradigm shift, and started messing with various elements just to see what would happen. I changed the protagonist from male to female, thinking that was pretty radical. But it was changing the PoV, I found, that triggered the most profound transformation in the story.

See, SkyGod was third person, with various scenes and chapters related from different characters’ perspectives. Much of the story’s tension came from following the protagonist, an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, as he moved from point A to point B to point C and collected plot coupons along the way. Typical monomythic epic fantasy, in other words. When I decided to redo it in first person, and solely from one character’s perspective, I couldn’t unveil information the way I’d done before. A first person story needs more emotional tension to work, or the narrative gets boring; I couldn’t have the supporting characters just give away the story. The protagonist was going to have to work harder for those coupons — bargaining for some, stealing others, and even then it needed to be clear that some of the supporting characters just weren’t going to give that information up for anything. The protagonist would then have to deduce whatever information those characters were withholding through other means.

There’s a word for this kind of plot strucuture: mystery. So in changing from third person to first person, I ended up changing the story from a “hero’s journey” to a sort of fantasy “locked-room mystery.” Yet this was nowhere near as drastic a change as it sounds. The story really is the same. It’s just told in a different way.

(Did it work? Well, 100K sold, while SkyGod didn’t. Beyond that, you guys will have to tell me whether 100K succeeds as first-person epic fantasy when you read it. Just seven months to go! ::sigh::)

So here’s the bottom line: first person, second person, third — it doesn’t matter which one you choose. What matters is whether the perspective fits the story. If not, and you end up in a square peg/round hole situation, try changing the peg. Or the hole.

* Most, but not all. Notable exceptions include Storm Constantine’s genderbending Wraeththu trilogy and Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy.



So, I’m writing a trilogy.

Trilogies are a big thing in modern epic fantasy, and I totally get why — from a commercial standpoint, they’re a perfect vehicle for hooking and holding an audience long enough to milk maximum profit for a publisher. For me as a new author, a trilogy is ideal for building my “brand”; over the course of three books I’ll have enough time to show the range of my skill, show my publisher I’m reliable, and hopefully acquire a devoted readership that will follow me to my next book. But never mind all that commercial crap. Since the epic of Gilgamesh and surely before, humankind has always enjoyed big, slow-building stories with a clearly-defined arc. There’s just something intrinsically satisfying about a story arc that keeps you waiting awhile, pent-breathed and tortured by exquisite anticipation, before delivering a finish that makes you want to cry for joy and release — and sorrow that it has to end. This is why even in our fast-paced, short-attention-spanned, micro-blogged society, epics still have a place, and real power.

That said, “epic” does not necessarily equal “gargantuan.” I was telling folks at Wiscon about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms this past weekend, and on two separate occasions I got looks of astonishment when I mentioned that it was about 120,000 words long. “Wow, no wonder it took you only a year to write!” was one person’s response. (At which I wondered, Only a year?) Apparently my epic fantasy is a baby by epic fantasy standards… but I suspect this may be reflective of a trend, or rather a reaction against a trend. The old “doorstopper” fantasy novel — so called because it’s big enough to rival the phone book, shore up the foundation of a house, maybe serve as a space elevator with a bit of carbon nanotube reinforcement in the binding — seems to be out of fashion, save for those few established fantasy writers who built their careers on such books (and their successors). My contract specifies that the books in my trilogy should be between 125,000 and 150,000 words, and other newbie fantasy writers I’ve talked to have gotten the same from their publishers. I don’t know whether this is a sign of the times (paper is expensive) or maybe newbie status coupled with practicality (doorstoppers aren’t very durable in mass market format — the spines break easily — but readers aren’t likely to buy expensive hardcovers from new authors), but it’s definitely a change. Fortunately, it’s a change that really works for me.

There are two kinds of serial fantasies, as far as I can tell — the ones which continuously follow the adventures of a given character(s), and the ones that follow a specific event or situation. I’ll call them Character-Focused and Situational, just for convenience’s sake. Some serials are a little of both, but still generally more one than the other; for example, I would say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and its prequel, The Hobbit) is Situational, because the binding thread in all four books is the One Ring. The ringbearers change in practically every book — Bilbo in the prequel and book 1, Frodo in books 1 and 2, Sam for a chunk of book 3 — but the situation remains the same: get the Ring to Mount Doom. I’ll contrast this with Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner books, which I would say are Character-Focused. All four (the fifth is forthcoming) books focus on the exploits of Seregil, Alec, and their eclectic cast of friends and enemies. Whether they’re dealing with a situation (in books 1 and 2, there’s a LotR-ish quest to destroy an evil magical object) or not, the characters we know and love are always there.

Like many Character-Focused fantasies, Flewelling’s books aren’t a trilogy — she emphatically says so in the author’s preface of one of the books — and so the series can, if she so chooses, continue indefinitely. (I hope she does; I like Seregil and Alec!) This doesn’t work as well with Situational fantasies, though; an author can’t keep the MacGuffin of Power from reaching The Place of Significance forever, or readers get annoyed.

The Inheritance Trilogy, which starts with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is a Situational trilogy. In theory this is more dangerous for my career, because I’m changing characters in every book and thus may lose readers who got attached to the people in the previous book. But I can’t help it; I prefer Situational fantasies, both to write and to read. I want to know that all the characters I’m meeting are working together, even unconsciously, towards some overarching goal. I do like it when subplots are wrapped up along the way — cliffhangers infuriate me — but in this case it’s the world that fascinates me, from cosmology to politics, and no single character or set of characters is going to carry me through all that satisfactorily.

So it’s a risk. I feel this very keenly as I start book 3, and am making some narrative and setting choices that please me as a writer, but may not please all my readers. But all I can hope is that my writing is strong enough to imbue each new set of characters with enough specialness to win over new and established readers, and to make some of those readers care about the overarching plot too. I’ll guess we’ll find out eventually.


Objectification in fantasy

[Author note: this is a quantum blog post! Not only am I posting this here on a fine Thursday morning, I’m also flying across the country to Wiscon! I’m going to be involved in a number of panels and events at the con, so if you’re going to be there too, come say hi.]

So let’s talk about something that continually bugs me in fantasy: objectification.
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