Getting the final volume of The Aldabreshin Compass out in ebook has set me thinking about the challenges for a writer when it comes to concluding a series. Since I’m always interested to know what other authors think about a topic that’s got my attention, and noticing her current epic fantasy story is now reaching its own conclusion, I invited Gail Z Martin to share her thoughts on this particular topic. As you’ll see from reading this piece, that was an email very well worth me sending.
When the End Comes
By Gail Z. Martin
Saying goodbye is hard, especially to the people who have been living in your head.
Ending a series is bittersweet, because it brings a story arc to a conclusion, but it often means that those characters who have been in your thoughts every day for years, maybe decades, won’t be hanging out with you anymore.
So how do you wrap up a series in a satisfactory way, and in today’s digital publishing world, is goodbye ever really forever?
I’ve put a bow on two series now: The original Chronicles of the Necromancer/Fallen Kings Cycle series that runs from The Summoner to The Dread, and the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga series that ranges from Ice Forged to Shadow and Flame. I’m happy with the outcome in both cases, but it’s always sad to reach the end of the journey.
As a reader, I still feel sad thinking about series that ended the adventures of characters I’d come to love, like the Harry Potter series or the Last Herald Mage series. The series came to a planned conclusion, but it was still sad nonetheless that we wouldn’t be going on new journeys together. Having those experiences helps me make my own decisions as an author to give readers the best wrap-up possible and leave the characters at a good stopping point.
For the record, I think the whole debate about ‘happy endings’ is bull. A book’s ending is an arbitrary point chosen by the author. In the real world, we all have good days and bad days. If we are telling a story and chose to end the write-up on the character’s wedding day or the birth of a child or a big business success, that would be a ‘happy ending’ but it doesn’t ensure that tomorrow the character wouldn’t be hit by a bus, which had the story continued would make it a ‘tragic’ ending. That’s why I don’t think happy endings in and of themselves, properly led up to and reasonably executed are unrealistic. It’s an arbitrary decision of when we stop rolling the film on our character’s lives and let them go their way unobserved. I don’t buy into the idea of tragedy being more real or honest than happiness, or that a tragic ending is more legitimately literary than giving your characters the chance to go out on a good day.
So here’s what I think matters when it comes to wrapping up a series or a multi-book story arc:
1. Wrap up the loose ends. Make sure you’ve got all the characters accounted for, the plot bunnies caged, and the stray threads tucked in neatly. Don’t leave us wondering ‘whatever happened to …”
2. Give us closure. It may turn out that fate and free will are illusions and everything is mere random chance, but if it does, human minds will still be driven to assign meaning and context. So whatever journey or quest your characters have taken, make sure that by the end, we know what it all meant and what comes from it. Leave us with a sense of purpose.
3. Glimpse the future. None of us knows what tomorrow brings, but that doesn’t stop us from making plans. So have your protagonist face the future with the intent to move forward, and let us know what that looks like.
4. Provide emotional satisfaction. If you’ve made us care and cry and laugh and bleed for this character, then the least you can do is give us the emotional satisfaction of knowing how the character feels when it’s all over, and perhaps how the other key characters feel as well.
Now for the second part—do we ever have to really reach the end? Thanks to ebooks and the advances in self publishing, it’s possible for authors to continue to create new adventures in series long after the books are out of print or a series has officially ended. After all, authors can make a profit off self-pub sales levels that are far below what a traditional publisher considers viable. Readers love to get additional canon stories. And of course, there are also a growing number of book series that have been reanimated by new writers (Dune, for example) after the original author dies.
I truly think that series extension via ebook is going to continue to grow. There’s a lot of upside, and very little downside. I’ve written three novellas in my Ascendant Kingdoms world that fill in part of the six-year time gap that occurs early in Ice Forged, and I have another three in mind for later this year. (The three stories currently available are Arctic Prison, Cold Fury and Ice Bound, and the coming-soon collection of all three is The King’s Convicts.) They’re every bit as much ‘canon’ as the books, but they’re extra stories that flesh out characters and set up later events.
Likewise, my Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures are prequels to The Summoner, adding up eventually to three serialized novels of backstory for a very popular character. So far, there are 18 short stories and there will be three more novellas by the end of the year. And in the case of the Jonmarc stories, the original publisher asked to do a collection of the first ten short stories plus an exclusive eleventh and bring out the collection in print and ebook (The Shadowed Path, coming in June 2016). That’s a win for me, for readers and for the publisher, because it keeps existing fans happy while potentially bringing in new fans, and it helps me keep a light on for the characters until I get to write the other six books in the series that are bouncing around in my brain.
So there you have it—goodbye doesn’t have to be forever. Every series ending is the beginning of a new series extension. Virtual immortality, for our virtual characters. Seems like a win-win-win to me!
About the Author
Gail Z. Martin is the author of Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); The Shadowed Path (Solaris Books) and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin.
She is also author of Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen); The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities. Gail writes three ebook series: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures and The Blaine McFadden Adventures. The Storm and Fury Adventures, steampunk stories set in the Iron & Blood world, are co-authored with Larry N. Martin.
Her work has appeared in over 25 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Unexpected Journeys, Heroes, Space, Contact Light, With Great Power, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Cinched: Imagination Unbound, Realms of Imagination, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens, Gaslight and Grimm, and Alternate Sherlocks.
Find her at www.AscendantKingdoms.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com, on Goodreads and free excerpts on Wattpad
You’ll recall how much I enjoyed reading Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. (If you missed my review, click here) So I’m extremely pleased to host this illuminating and thoughtful post reflecting on that story’s origins and her experiences as a newly published writer.
My year of saying no
In 2015 I became super obsessed with the BBC miniseries Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This wasn’t terribly surprising – I love the book and have reread it several times, and the series had everything I like: men and women in pretty period outfits, magic, humour, and even a touch of the numinous. It wasn’t a perfect adaptation, but an adaptation that’s sort of almost there but not quite is perfect for inducing fannish obsessiveness.
What was new and surprising was that, for the first time, I started identifying with Jonathan Strange. Jonathan Strange is nothing like me. He’s a fictional rich white dude who would be dead now if he was ever alive. I’m a real middle-class Chinese Malaysian woman who’s only spent time in 1800s England in her imagination. He’s the Second Greatest Magician of the Age. I’m a lawyer who moonlights as a moderately obscure fantasy writer.
I’m also fundamentally not as much of a douche (I love the character, but it’s gotta be said). I take no credit for this. It is because I was socialised as a woman and was therefore taught things like listening skills and how to feel guilty for taking up space in the world.
But there was one big thing I had in common with Jonathan Strange. We had both figured out what we’d been put on earth to do, and we were doing it. The vocations we had each chosen were potentially of great value and importance to society as a whole — magic in Jonathan Strange’s case; writing in mine — but we were mainly doing it for selfish reasons rather than to benefit anyone else. Nevertheless our work felt like a great and serious charge, and what this charge required of us was a determined selfishness.
In 2015 my first novel came out. It was a bit like getting married: it meant that something that had been private suddenly became very public, and people treated me differently about something I’d been working away quietly at for years. And it also meant that people started wanting stuff from me. They wanted me to answer questions, write blog posts, submit to anthologies, show up to events, blurb books, critique manuscripts ….
It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of “no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.
I had to learn to say no. Which was hard, because women aren’t encouraged to say no, and they especially aren’t encouraged to refuse to help other people. We’re supposed to be nurturing. Fortunately, I am pretty bad at being nurturing, but even so I struggled.
A lot of the requests I get are for nice things, things that support diversity in SFF and publishing, which is something I both care about and benefit from. How could I refuse when it was for such a good cause?
But I realised that if I was not ferociously protective of my time — if I didn’t play that role of The Rude Genius — I would soon find it sucked up in mostly uncompensated labour, in things that weren’t writing my own stories.
I don’t, in fact, have a room of my own. I have a sofa and an inbox full of requests for publishing advice that the querier could Google for themselves. So I’m learning to patrol the boundaries of the uncluttered space I need for writing — and for living, because I don’t owe anyone time and attention even if I’m not rushing to meet a deadline.
I’m still not as good at saying no as I should be, but I’ve already been accused of being grand for the appalling crime of not answering emails. I wonder whether the same accusation would be lobbed at me if I was a white man. We expect men, especially white men, to be rude geniuses. But it seems we feel entitled to the time and energy of women, especially Asian women.
You’ll point out I’m not a genius, which is true, but then I’m also not that rude. I say yes far more often than I say no. There’s still that fear, whenever I turn something down, that I should make the most of any attention I’m getting now, because people will stop asking eventually.
But you know what? I have never, not once, regretted saying no. And even if people stop asking and go away, it’s not like they’ll take the stories with them. Writing is mine – and it would be foolish to let a general sense of obligation to the world at large chip away at it. Jonathan Strange would definitely say something sardonic about that.
For those of you unfamiliar with Simon’s work, his website is here – and for a chance to meet him, along with Tricia Sullivan, author of Occupy Me, they’re both signing at Forbidden Planet, Shaftsbury Avenue, London on 20th February, 1-2pm. Simon will also be a guest at the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on 23rd February.
One of the things that particularly interests me about Down Station is the fact that it’s a portal fantasy. So I invited Simon to share some thoughts on that particular topic.
In defence of Narnia and other portals Simon Morden
I recently discovered that Narnia* is a real place. Quite how that fact has eluded me for my entire adult life is a complete mystery, but I have a sudden hankering to go there and make an in-depth investigation of their wardrobes.
Because you would, wouldn’t you? Or did you grow out of that urge? The ghost of the Susan argument rears its ugly head: wanting to escape this world, with its social and economic obligations and constraints, is something that a child would do, kicking against the goads of adulthood. When a person knows their place in society and accepts it, they no longer need such escapist diversions.
Lewis, however, was speaking of a more fundamental truth even as he got it hamfistedly intertwined with 1950s social mores. Rather than agreeing that wanting to escape to another place is a mere childish notion, to be discarded as we embrace a more mature understanding of our own world, he was proposing that it’s us – the grown ups – who are the ones who lose out.
The belief that our world lies side by side with others wasn’t invented by Lewis. It goes far back, beyond recorded history. In my native islands, the Celts believed the Otherworld was connected to us at certain times of year and in certain sacred places. People could cross over, usually by invitation rather than trickery, and sometimes even return. With the coming of Christianity, these became the ‘thin places’, where Heaven and Earth pressed together, but the result was always the same: those who came back were forever changed, either by their experience of the Other, or of the Divine.
Throughout history – and prehistory – the point of these stories was that the intrepid travellers to other worlds were never escaping: they were questing. They went for a reason – either to gain something which could be used in our world, be it wisdom, a skill, or an artefact, or to give something to that other world, to save it from evil or break a curse. That we’ve turned – some might say corrupted – an important facet of our mythology into a genre that adults shouldn’t consciously entertain is problematic, to say the least.
At its worst, yes, Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything is crap) applies. A portal fantasy can be all those things their critics say it is: cliche-ridden wish-fulfilment in which nothing is at stake. Perhaps, after a while, these overwhelm the market and the whole genre goes out of fashion. Certainly, anecdotally, portal fantasies have been a tough sell for years. There were always exceptions: May’s Pliocene Saga and Pullman’s His Dark Materials being perhaps the most notable. But here we are, like buses, with two coming along at once, my Down Station and Seanan Mcguire’s Every Heart a Doorway. We’re probably at the cutting edge of a new wave, and editors across the land will hate us in six months’ time for unleashing a torrent of portals across their desks. For now, though, they represent something different to the usual fare.
I would like to think I’ve done something new with my own portal(s). Featuring non-standard protagonists is a start, being chased across the threshold is another, and the world of Down itself owes more to Tarkovsky’s Solaris than it does Narnia. But I’ve done something old, too, as old as time itself. Down is a place of challenge – there are secrets to be uncovered, battles to win, knowledge to be retrieved, and two worlds to save – and change, both mental and physical. The three questions that recur in Babylon 5 – Who are you? What do you want? Do you have anything worth living for? – are circumvented by Down, because it already knows the answers, even if you’re in denial.
At its best, portal fantasy offers us a narrative metaphor for seismic shifts in our cognitive landscape. Because our image is clearly reflected in the mirror, it can help us better decide if we like what we see. If we cross over to the Otherworld, we come back different people, if we come back at all. The portal is not a way out, but the way in.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m very much enjoying Jacey Bedford’s Psi-Tech novels, namely Empire of Dust and Crossways, which are thoroughly good space-opera ticking all the boxes that first made me love SF while also thoroughly satisfying to me as a contemporary reader. So I was both startled and intrigued to learn that her new book, Winterwood, is a historical fantasy, set around 1800, with pirates and spies and mysterious otherworldly creatures all entangling Rossalinde Sumner in their machinations. You won’t be surprised to learn I invited Jacey to tell us all about that, and she has generously obliged.
SF or F? Trying to work out the differences and similarities.
With Winterwood, the first book of the Rowankind Series, on the brink of publication, Juliet asked me to write about transitioning between writing science fiction and fantasy. I sat down to think about it, but the more I worked on the differences between the two, the more similarities I came up with.
For starters, from the outside it does look as if I made a switch in genres, but it’s not quite the way it looks from the inside. My first two books to be published. Empire of Dust (2014) and Crossways (2015), are science fiction/space opera, but it’s a quirk of the publishing industry that they came out first. Winterwood, my historical fantasy, was actually the first book I sold to DAW, back in 2013, but it was part of a three book deal. DAW’s publishing schedule was such that there was a gap in the science fiction schedule before the fantasy one, so Empire of Dust ended up being published first. The order of writing, however, was Empire, Winterwood, and Crossways.
Confused? I don’t blame you.
Let me backtrack. The road to publication is often slow and tortuous. Many of us who eventually make it have a drawer full of completed books before getting the magic offer from a publisher. These aren’t necessarily bad books or rejected ones, but ones that have not been on the right editor’s desk at the right time. The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is often, simply, that the unpublished one gave up too soon. I started writing my first novel in the 1990s without any hope of finding a publisher, and with no knowledge of how to go about it, even if I’d been brave enough to try. That, however, was all about to change – mostly because of the internet. Once I got online in the mid 90s I connected with real writers via a usenet newsgroup called misc.writing, and learned all the basics about manuscript format and submission processes. (And yes, I’m still in touch with some of those very generous writers two decades later.) While all this was going on I finished a couple of novels and made my first short story sale.
The two early novels, at first glance, were second world fantasies, but the deeper I got into them the more I realised that they were actually set on a lost colony world. There are places where science fiction and fantasy cross over to such a degree that it’s hard to see where the boundary is. My lost colony world had telepathy but no magic. So thinking about it logically, how did that colony come to be lost? What put telepathic humans on to a planet and then kept them there, isolated from, and ignorant of, their origins?
That was the question that I started writing Empire of Dust to answer (though it may take all three Psi-Tech books to do it). Because the story involved planets, colonies and space-travel, I was suddenly writing science fiction. I don’t write hard, ideas-based SF. I’ve always been far more interested in how my characters’ minds work than what drives their rocketships, though I’ll always try to make the science sound plausible if I can.
Characterisation – that’s always the crux of the matter for me. Take interesting characters and put them into difficult situations and see what they do. It doesn’t actually matter whether they are in the past or the future, or even on a secondary world, what matters is that the characters grow and develop via the story to overcome problems and reach a satisfactory conclusion. Well, OK, the setting matters, but it’s not always the first thing that hits me. The setting and the detailed worldbuilding grows around the characters and weaves through the story, adding context and interest, and sometimes becoming a character in its own right.
So Empire of Dust, in a much earlier form, was finished in the late 90s and then began the rounds of publishers’ slushpiles. Remember what I said about persistence? Well, I’m dogged, but not always very pushy. Empire sat on one editor’s desk at a major publishing house for three years after the editor in question had said: ‘The first couple of chapters look interesting. I’ll read it after Worldcon.’ It took me three years to figure out I should withdraw it and send it somewhere else. Then the next publishing house it went to took another fifteen months. Those kind of timescales can eat up a decade very quickly. (I know one author who took to sending her languishing submissions a birthday cake after a year.)
In the meantime I kept on writing. It just so happened that the next three books were fantasies unrelated to each other: a retelling of the Tam Lin story aimed at a YA audience; a fairly racy fantasy set in a world not dissimilar to the Baltic countries in the mid 1600s, and a children’s novel about magic and ponies (not magic ponies). Why fantasy? I think I instinctively wanted to widen the scope of what I was doing to take in a wide variety of settings, however it was still mainly dictated by the characters.
If story and character are a universal constant, surely the difference between writing science fiction and fantasy is all down to worldbuilding. Right? Uh, well, maybe…. Science fiction can (to a certain extent) be fuelled by handwavium based on the accumulated reader-knowledge of how SF works. SF readers have an idea of how physics can be bent without being completely broken, whether you’re talking about the physics of Star Trek (warp-drives, photon torpedoes), or the hard SF of Andy Weir’s The Martian (which I love, by the way). When you write fantasy, you don’t have Einstein to fall back on. You have to work out how your fantasy world works from the ground up. If there’s magic, the magic system has to be logical and not contradictory (unless you build in a reason for the contradictions). If it’s set on a secondary world you might have strange creatures, races other than human, or even gods who act upon the world or the characters. Though, come to think of it, aliens, strange flora and fauna, and even ineffable beings are obviously common to science fiction as well. And when I said fantasy doesn’t have Einstein to fall back on, it does have the accumulated folklore of several millennia to point the way.
I think I’ve just talked myself round in a circle. So far, so similar.
So I started my next project, Winterwood, around 2008. By this time Empire of Dust had had three near misses with major publishers, but was still doing the rounds.
Winterwood almost wrote itself. I had the first scene very firmly in my mind – the deathbed scene – a bitter confrontation between Ross and her estranged mother. I wrote it to find out more about the characters and their situation. Ross hasn’t seen her mother for close to seven years since she eloped with Will Tremayne, but now her mother is dying. About halfway through the scene Ross’ mother asks (about Will): ‘Is he with you?’ Ross replies: ‘He’s always with me,’ and then follows it up with a thought in her internal narrative: That wasn’t a lie. Will showed up at the most unlikely times, sometimes as nothing more than a whisper on the wind. That was an Ah-ha! moment. I realised that Will was a ghost. Ross was already a young widow. That led me deeper into the story and gave me another character, Will’s ghost – a jealous spirit, not quite his former self, but Ross is clinging to him because he’s all she has left. That sets the scene nicely for when another man finally enters Ross’ life, but the romance is only part of the story. Ross inherits a half-brother she didn’t know about, and task she doesn’t want – an enormous task with huge consequences. There are a lot of choices to be made, and no easy way to tell which are the right ones. Ross has friends and enemies, some magical and some human, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell them apart. Even her friends might get her killed.
When that first scene came into my head, it could have been set in any place, any time. Parents and their children have been disagreeing and falling out for as long as there have been parents and children and, I’m sure, until we decide to bring up all our offspring in anonymous nurseries, it will continue well into the future. Ross took shape as I wrote, and I realised it was set in the past, or a version of it. In her first incarnation Ross was a pirate rather than a privateer, but I wasn’t sure what historical period to set the book in. The golden age of piracy was really in the 1600s, but I wanted to set this slightly later, so I decided that 1800 was a good time to play with. It’s a fascinating period in history with the Napoleonic Wars about to kick off in earnest, Mad King George on the British throne, the industrial revolution, the question of slavery and abolition, and the Age of Enlightenment. Of course I added a few twists, like magic, the rowankind and a big bad villain, who is actually the hero of his own story, though that doesn’t make him any less dangerous to Ross.
Historical fantasy is yet another subset of F & SF. If you’re writing in a specific historical period, you can make changes to incorporate your fantasy elements, adding magic for instance, or tweak one historical, point, but then you have to make sure that there’s enough solid historical background to make the rest of it feel authentic. You’re not necessarily looking for truth, but you are hoping for verisimilitude. I’m an amateur historian, not an academic one, but I did a lot of research: reading, museums, studying old maps and contemporary photos. I have several pinterest boards devoted to visual research, costume (male and female), ships, transport and everyday objects. Whenever I find something interesting I pin it for later consideration.
So where did we leave the publishing story? Oh, that’s right, Empire of Dust was doing the rounds of publishers’ slushpiles. While that was happening I submitted Winterwood to DAW and after about three months got that phone call that every unpublished author wants. Sheila Gilbert said: ‘I’d like to buy your book.’ One thing turned into another and before long I had a three book deal. As I said earlier, Sheila decided that Empire of Dust would be the first book out, even though it had been Winterwood that had initially grabbed her attention. Then she ordered a sequel to Empire, which was the book that became Crossways. If you want me to talk about writing a book to order, sometime, that would be another post altogether. Suffice it to say that Crossways came out in August 2015 and allowed me to take the stories of Cara and Ben to another level and move the setting from the colony planet to a huge, and vastly complex, space station, beautifully illustrated on the book’s cover by Stephan Martiniere.
Getting a book from writer to store shelf is a multi layered process. There’s the writing and then the edit – which usually means some rewriting with additions. The once the final story has been accepted as finished it goes through copy-editing where clunky prose and spelling mistakes are smoothed over, and in my case, my British English is translated into American. Once the copy edits have been done then next part that I’m involved in is the page proofing, the final check after the book has been put into its finished form. This is the last chance to catch typos and brainos, but there’s no real opportunity to make big changes.
During the various editing processes there are gaps while your editor reads and considers, or the copy editor does his or her thing, so you tend to be working on other stuff while you’re waiting. The beginning of one book overlaps the editing process on the previous one and will in turn be at the editing and copy-editing stage when you’re just beginning to write the book after that. So, you see, it’s not like you have the luxury of working on one book at a time. The whole process is plaited together, fantasy and science fiction running alongside each other.
Winterwood comes out on Tuesday 2nd February. I’m currently writing Silverwolf, its sequel, which is due out late 2016 or early 2017. After that I’m contracted to write a third Psi-Tech novel (the aforementioned Nimbus), so it’s back to another space opera to follow on from Empire of Dust and Crossways. After that I’d like to write a third Rowankind novel. I already have ideas and there will be a few loose ends at the conclusion of Silverwolf, though, don’t worry, I never leave books on cliffhangers.
So the transition between science fiction and fantasy is not neatly delineated. It’s all mushed up together in both my writing timeline and in my brain. On the whole I just write stories set in different worlds. Some of them happen to have rocket ships, and others have magic, but all of them have characters who have adventures, relationships, and make choices, good and bad. I’m happy hopping between the future and the past, and I’m super-happy that my publisher has given me the opportunity to be an author who writes both SF and F.
P.S I’ve just finished reading Winterwood and can recommend it as highly as the Psi-Tech Novels.
Tricia Sullivan has a new book out this week, Occupy Me, and I think it’s fair to say her award-winning, idea-driven SF is worlds away from my own style of epic fantasy fiction. And yet, as is the case with a good many writers whose work is nothing like mine, we have a good few things in common; the foundation for our friendship and mutual respect. One of those things is a background in tabletop and computer gaming and Tricia’s written a fascinating article examining the relationships between that style of world building and truly creative writing.
Once you’ve read it, I’ll be very surprised indeed if you’re not prompted to find out more about Tricia and her work – if you’re not already familiar with her books!
Whenever somebody says ‘worldbuilding’ I think of Gary Gygax straight away. I think of polyhedral dice, graph paper maps for dungeons, hex paper maps for outdoors. I think of the languages I tried to invent and all that other good, ooky stuff.
I was a first-generation D&D player. My brother bought it in a box in 1979. I was in fifth grade, same year I read Dragonsinger, and I remember being genuinely scared by the giant spiders and ghouls in the sample dungeon. There were hardly any modules back then, so if you gamed you really had no choice but to make it all up yourself. D&D was a great enabler of storytellers. Its codification, numeration and classification of every damn thing both encouraged worldbuilding—by providing scaffolding—and also inhibited it—because D&D turned reality into a Lego set.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m very fond of Lego, but you have to admit the results are always pretty…well…square. D&D was square like that, too. I hated how designing anything in it was the equivalent of filling out 40,000 pages of requisition forms, ticking boxes all the way.
When you are building worlds, sometimes you want Lego, but other times you want Play-doh. Sometimes you want to be able to bend it and squish it. In the pre-digital era it used to be possible to express things without having to first establish the rules and the codes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that D&D was coming in at the same time as Apple and Atari—it was more flexible than writing code, but at heart the game was all about the rules. And taken to the limit, the rules of the world can become more important than the thing you are trying to do.
Fictional worldbuilding is like that, too. You want the story to take flight in the reader’s imagination, but you never want the reader to see the billions of robots running around behind the scenes pulling leavers and heaving things into position. You’ve got to convince the reader they are immersed. How do you do that? I reckon you have to play with what people already know about the world—but of course, most of us don’t know very much! It’s interesting to me that one of the least conventional writers I can think of, Diana Wynne Jones, nevertheless authored ‘The Rough Guide to Fantasyland’ as a plea for at least a little rigour. To work well, fantasy has to stand on the shoulders of reality.
But what does rigour even mean, these days? Culturally, we have a certain D&D-based shorthand when it comes to kingdoms, quests, character classes and expectations—all mainstreamed thanks to video games. These archetypes are pretty distorted and some of them are tired as hell, but whether the shorthand is played straight or torqued in some way, it’s pretty much embedded in the DNA of SFF across all the platforms that now deliver SFF content.
The shorthand can be a great facilitator. As a writer, it’s not hard to use a prefab world and tweak it a little for your own purposes. It doesn’t take a big deviation in initial conditions from the world as we know it to a world that seems strange and new. Once you open up the toolbox (of environment, economic systems, biological structure, culture, history, yadda yadda yadda) you have endless permutations at your disposal to experiment with ‘what if’ and to run simulations—alternative worlds to our own, if you will. This is the primary function of imaginative play. It is also very hard work.
But causal extrapolation isn’t the end game, at least not for me. In fact, it’s often a trap, a dead end, an unwinnable situation. No, the end game is imagination. The end game is magic.
Real magic—if I can indulge in the oxymoron—isn’t systemized. It’s outside our understanding, by definition. It comes out of flashes of insight, surprise, transformation. To make those kind of fireworks go off in someone’s mind is a very tricky business, and I’d argue that to make it happen as a writer, you need total control and this includes knowing when to lose control. When to let go of the wheel. A world you’ve built becomes its own organism, has its own mind, and to give it lift-off there’s a point where you throw out the rules, throw out what you think you know, and let the thing take you where it needs to go.
Gaming doesn’t teach this, and as far as I know it’s not in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but I’ll bet artists know what I’m talking about because they build worlds, too—that’s what art is. Even as it’s using rules, art is a protest against the rules.
If you really want to fly, then just for a moment, get meta. Don’t accept the limitations you’re given. Reprogram the fucking computer that your world is running on. Beat the Kobiyashi Maru.
The dice and the graph paper will still be there when you come down.”
As is so often the way, a few things cropping up in rapid succession got me thinking. One was interviewing Brandon Sanderson at Fantasycon last month, when (among many other things) we talked about the way you need to wait until a story idea is ready to be written.
This was already in my mind after turning up the original proposal I sent to my then agent and editor, outlining the Aldabreshin Compass sequence. Or rather, not outlining nearly as much of it as I vaguely recalled.
And then of course, Sean Williams had written that very interesting guest blog post here on things he’s learned, taking the long view as he looks at his writing career thus far, for lessons to apply to his work yet to come.
So you can read my experience and conclusions on learning to let the seeds of a story ripen in full over on Sean’s blog.
Meantime, I’m aiming to get my Alien Artefacts short story written just as soon as I can carve out some time from VATMOSS stuff. Not to mention the ongoing ebook project.
As well as getting out and about talking about things elsewhere on the Net, I’m inviting other authors to share their thoughts here to entertain you. This week, Sean Williams has obliged with a particularly interesting piece taking the long view of the writer’s life.
A funny thing happened on the way to finishing my first novel.
I realized that writing is hard.
Every writer has that epiphany. It’s important because without it we’re doomed never to improve. If writing a first novel seemed easy to you, then you’re either a flat-out genius or you weren’t paying attention. Hint: there are precious few people in the former category.
Saying that writing is hard is not to say that it can’t also be fun. It can also be all-consuming, therapeutic, any number of other things. But it’s tricky getting the words in the right order. Imagine lining up 80,000 dominoes so they’ll fall exactly the right way. (If you’d done that in the 70s, that would’ve earned you a world record.) Why should it be any different with words? Not to mention the fact that words come in all different shapes and sizes, and fall in so many different ways . . .
The good news is that, as with everything, you get better with practice. I learned this by writing a second novel, and a third. I sold my fifth, and I kept writing. By book ten or so I began to suspect that I had grasped the basic premise of the novel as a thing one spins out of nothing, as opposed to something one buys in a bookstore, fully formed. My books were being picked up by publishers, and they were even occasionally winning awards and appearing on bestseller lists. Practice was demonstrably making better.
And then, around book twenty, another funny thing happened.
It came upon me suddenly that, when writing, I wasn’t really thinking about stuff that had caused me great concern back when I was new. Sentence structure, dialogue, metaphors . . . all that stuff seemed to have vanished from my conscious process, leaving me feeling as though I was mechanically stringing words in a line. It didn’t feel hard anymore.
Fearing self-delusion (and the collapse of my career) I immediately stopped to read the ms over from the beginning, braced for the terrible news that I would have to find something else to do with the rest of my life. Interpretive dance, perhaps.
What I saw on the page amazed me.
Sentences were shaped, dialogue was natural, metaphors were not just present but effective . . . Where had all this come from? If I hadn’t written it, who had?
The answer is obvious in retrospect. My subconscious, honed by more than a decade of producing publishable material, was beavering away even when it felt as though the words were pouring forth without effort. Writerly chores had become instincts that I barely needed to think about anymore.
I had grown a writer-brain inside my ordinary brain. To get it working all I needed to do was give it a nudge like a clockwork toy and let it wobble across the page.
Having a writer-brain felt like a levelling-up gift from my former self. It was as though I’d finished an apprenticeship. Or built a supercharged motor. Now I could get into the driver’s seat and peel out.
It was around then that I started experimenting in new ways, doing things like having characters speak solely in the lyrics of British electro pioneer Gary Numan or trying to create my own religion Writing is supposed to be hard, I figured. Playing it safe is the art-killer.
And while this is absolutely true, I don’t think it’s true in the way I thought it was back then. Because another funny thing happened just recently, this time around my forty-third novel . . . something I’m still coming to terms with.
Aside: Let me just say that writing careers are like the words they’re made of, in that each is unique. There are lots of different trajectories across the creative landscape. I like to write lots of different kinds of things and I like to write quickly. It’s possible I would’ve written better if I’d written more slowly, but it’s equally possible I would’ve gotten bored and pursued that dance career. You’re not going to tell me that I’m a failure for churning out so many books just like I’m not going to tell you that you’re a failure for having fewer. Or more. Or whatever. You measure your successes and failures your way. You’re on your own journey. We’re waving as we go by, checking out each other’s scars.
I say this because, whether you’re a career writer who’s written forty books or four, you might one day go through a year like the one I’ve just had, where I sincerely felt as though I’d forgotten how to write novels. Not short stories, film scripts, or poems (I was never particularly good at the last). Just novels. And it wasn’t that I had suddenly lost the ability to string a sentence together or any of those basic skills. The writing-brain was still there. I had simply forgotten how to maintain it.
To go back to the car metaphor, it was as though I’d built a Lamborghini from scratch, but then done nothing but drive it around. I hadn’t tuned it. I hadn’t changed the oil or the tyres. I had relied on my subconscious to do the work without realizing that it was getting tired and I was getting lazy.
And eventually, after one lap too many, the engine light came on, a puff of black smoke coughed out the exhaust pipe, and everything juddered to a halt.
There’s nothing as startling as running headlong into a glass wall. It took me months to work up the courage to try again. In the meantime, I read a bunch of wonderful books and experimented with new forms, which might be the equivalent of getting back under the hood and replacing the spark plugs (I don’t know that much about cars, to be honest). I began to pay closer attention to what I was doing, and noting where mental shortcuts were causing problems I wasn’t seeing, because if the process of creation is subconscious, then sometimes our critical engagement with those creations is out of our conscious control. Which is bad. We can’t fix what we don’t understand.
Me and my writer-brain, I realized, we’re like an old married couple. We grew apart. That’s what happens when you take each other for granted. Every relationship requires nurturing, even your relationship with your art, and I forgot that, to my detriment.
When my writing-brain started up again, I found it to be just as capable as before . . . but different, which I guess is inevitable after a year of fallow time and introspection. In that frustrating time, I learned a lot about myself, about the kind of stories I like and the stories I want to tell.
Writing is hard. It takes effort and concentration. There’s no right way to do anything, only the way that works right now–which may never have worked before and might not ever work again.
But that’s not a disincentive. Not at all. Because if funny things didn’t keep happening to me along the way, my writing career might start looking a lot like work . . .
Sean’s new book, Hollow Girl is the conclusion to the Twinmaker trilogy, hailed as “mind-boggling” (Locus), “a philosophical marathon” (Kirkus), and “a gripping sci-fi story of friendship, identity + accidentally destroying the universe” (Amie Kaufman).
And just look at that cover art! (Click to see it full size)
Since I’m going to be madly busy this next week with VATstuff, I’m extremely grateful to Laura Anne Gilman for offering to entertain and intrigue you all with these insights into her new book, Silver on the Road which is already attracting enthusiastic reviews.
For those of you yet to discover and enjoy her work, check out Laura Anne’s website. Not only is she a talented and inventive author, her background in publishing means she also talks a great deal of good sense about all aspects of the book trade.
So, without further ado, over to Laura Anne!
After the Writing, the Classification (and the Understanding)
A few years ago, I might have been the last person you expected to write a Western. The genre wasn’t one I particularly favored, despite having personal experience with horses, guns, and sleeping outdoors. Or perhaps because of all that, who knows? But Westerns as a genre didn’t draw me in. And Weird West? I’d read it, liked it, but most of the tropes left me cold.
But…. There’s a reason we never say “never.”
In 2011, I wrote a story called “Crossroads,” followed the next year by “The Devil’s Jack.” They were strange little stories, in a vaguely historical, vaguely high prairie setting. But I quickly realized that the next story – originally called “A Town Named Flood,” wanted to expand into a novel – a novel set in a mostly-recognizable west-of-the-Mississippi North America, circa 1801.
“I’m writing a Western?” I asked my agent, somewhat bemused.
“Nope. You’re writing an American fantasy,” he responded. “Like American Gods, only … not.”
I backed away quickly from the comparison to American Gods, because, well, who the hell needs that kind of pressure? But his comment made me think. SILVER ON THE ROAD is set in the American west, yes. And there are horses, and guns, and conflict between native residents and immigrants, and all the tropes that we recognize as “Western.”
And magic, so that by default tips it into the “Weird West” category.
So… I was writing a Western?
Yes … and no. For most of us, the “Old West” calls up images of cowboys and sixguns, of stagecoaches and saloon girls, gold prospectors and cattle ranchers. But those images come from 1820 and later. In 1801… well, I’ll spare you the historical neepery, but the territory west of the Mississippi didn’t look anything like that.
But the Western story isn’t only that. It’s the story of our histories, our cultures, and our myths… and I use the plural of those words intentionally. Because America’s history isn’t simply the United States – it’s Canada and Mexico as well, started long before the first European immigrants landed on the eastern (or southern) shores, and our shared identity is not simple one, the pot only half melted together, and half clumped together stubbornly, parts overbaked and the others still painfully raw.
SILVER ON THE ROAD is a fantasy of that North America. Not the quest of empires, or the clash of armies, but the movement of people, and the ever-shifting thing we call a frontier, where one person’s home becomes another person’s hope – and conflict. About dividers and demarcations – and the human urge, and need, to cross over them.
And a Western – and yes, Weird West, invoking and involving the tropes of the restless frontier, and twisting it – was, for me, the only way to tell this particular story.
So it looks like my agent and I were both right.
It’s time for something fun. So here’s my guest post for Lawrence M Schoen’s blog, specifically his ‘Eating Authors’ series.
In which I recall an Easter Sunday lunch in France when I was around nine years old, visiting a family whose European ties and history were so very different to anything I’d ever encountered in 1970s UK.
Here’s something new for a new year – the first guest post on my blog. I found it a fascinating read, leaving me thoughtful about my own work as well as casting new light on the other books I’ve read which Kameron references here. By the way, if Kameron’s own ‘God’s War’ (out in the UK this week from Del Rey UK) isn’t already on your radar as a book to look out for, I recommend you follow up the links at the end of this post.
Building Enigmatic Gods in Fictional Worlds
My grandmother was a war bride, a young French Catholic woman who married an American G.I. He threatened to divorce her if their fourth child wasn’t a boy. He already had three girls, and four was just too much to bear.
He told her this while they were wheeling her into the delivery room.
My grandfather was full of ominous contradictions.
Until I was twelve years old, my grandmother watched after me and my siblings while my parents worked. My parents were too exhausted for church and didn’t care much for leisurely Bible reading, so much of my exposure to the conception of God and organized religion was framed by my grandmother’s Catholicism. I cut my teeth on bloody books labeled “Children’s Bible Stories” and was often admonished to take care of my “modesty” instead of flinging off my towel after a bath and dancing naked around the house. My memories of church are mainly of me sitting in the pews working on my coloring books, and standing up and sitting down as directed by my grandmother.
But my grandmother believed fervently and passionately in God. My grandfather dutifully sent the church $100 a month, even if it meant their family of seven sometimes went hungry. My dad and aunts and uncles seemed to be mostly motivated in their beliefs by fear – what was God thinking about them? What did he have planned? God was an unknowable being to be respected, worshipped, loved, and feared.
Belief may never have taken hold of me, but twelve years growing up in the same house as my grandfather taught me fear. It taught me caution. It taught me to step softly around great hulking powers with unknowable motives. It gave me a better understanding of my aunts’ and uncle’s love and fear of God, and how God and his unknowable motives could so thoroughly suffuse one’s life.
My grandfather was, at best, verbally and physically abusive. He worked as a nighttime security guard at a bank, so he’d sleep during the day. All us kids were warned in hushed tones “not to wake grandpa.” Sneaking past his bedroom door on our way to play down in the basement was like sneaking past a bear’s den. I’m not exaggerating when I say this – one afternoon we congregated too long outside his door at the basement door opposite his, arguing about who was going to carry some toy downstairs, and my grandfather burst out of the bedroom, enraged at being woken by our arguing. He threw my cousin down the basement stairs, and grabbed me by the hair and slammed my head into the wall. My grandmother’s response to my grandfather’s outbursts was to throw her own fit of rage, throwing dishes in the kitchen and swearing at my grandfather in French.
Needless to say, it took me many years to figure out how to have disagreements with a loved one that didn’t involve screaming, cursing and throwing things.
My grandfather was, of course, also a father and husband doing the best he could with the bad hand he’d been dealt. When I was older, I learned that much of his job during his tour of Europe in World War II was hauling and burying the bodies of thousands of people killed by the Germans in concentration camps. He grew up during the depression, and when we’d complain about not getting some cereal flavor we wanted, he would rail on about how his family once found a hurt pigeon on the beach, and instead of nurturing it back to health, had eaten it because they were starving.
What made my grandfather my grandfather was a wholly alien experience to me. He became an unpredictable monster – vacillating between affable old man teaching me to plant and nurture seedlings to reeling, rage-filled behemoth set on destroying everything he’d built.
It was my unpredictable, unknowable grandfather that became my mapped-on stand-in for God in some of the old Bible stories I’d read. Only an angry, alien all-knowing, all-seeing being would tell you to kill your own child to prove your love, then say, “Ha ha just kidding.” The contradictions, the freeing people from slavery and then forgetting about them for 40 years – all felt like the actions of a being with inhuman motives.
It’s no wonder I became fascinated with the idea of creating fantastic religions that embraced the alien motivations of an unknowable God.
We tend to personify a lot of gods, so Zeus and Vishnu and the Abrahamic God have love and anger and rage like people. They are often driven by human-like emotions, sometimes propelled by narcissism (worship me above others; worship me instead of the others).
But in setting the actual stories of these gods next to their actions, I couldn’t help but think they looked far less human than we wanted to believe. In my own reading of the fantastic, and in the religions I built, I was drawn to this idea of humans creating religions around beings we truly did not understand; beings driven by some experience or logic or existence so alien to ours that they would be forever unknowable.
Those were the fantastic deities that interested me. Much of our history has us creating mythologies to make sense of things we don’t understand – shouldn’t our fantasy societies do the same?
Tim Akers executes this idea very well in his book Heart of Veridon, where the old gods, the “Celestes” appear to be a race of figures forever caught in stasis. Temples are built around them, yet no one knows where they came from or what they are:
“There are five Celestes, or were the last time I checked. Used to be six, but the Watchman flickered and disappeared, twenty years ago. I barely remember that, my mother crying in a closet, my father drawing heavy curtains across the dining room window and burning secret, heavy candles that smelled like hot sand. My parents followed the old ways, at least in private…
The Dome of the Singer [one of the Celestes] was, at first, a practical matter. She sang, loudly. Or she used to. When I stepped into the cool dark interior of the Dome, all I heard were feet scuffing on stones and the low moan of drafts circulating through the drafty heights. She was silent, and I felt a chill….
She hovered in the air at the center of the opening in the floor, surrounded by an iron railing. Her skin was pale against her bulbous, crimson roes. Her clothes were dark red and shiny, retaining form almost like a chitinous shell. Her eyes were closed. Her lips and the tips of her fingers were blood red and smooth. Light poured off her skin like mist on the river in winter. I had forgotten how beautiful she was, hidden away in this drafty stone building. How had we forgotten this, how had the city gone on to other gods?”
I also see a number of fantasy novels fall into the “singular religion” trap, where everyone believes in the same gods then follows one or the other. This not only erases a lot of potential depth to the world, but eliminates an incredible amount of potential tension. Look at tension and conflicts between those of different faiths across the world (many of which are built on very similar tenets), and throughout history. How do those tensions play out in a fantastic setting?
Akers creates two major religions in this novel, both with very different ways of viewing life, neatly shown in prose via the protagonists’ story of a near-death experience:
“The Celestes teach nothing of an afterlife. Not like the Algorithm, with its infinite pattern, its eternal calculations and the intricacies of their metronomic prophecies. Their lives are a soulless pattern, and their deaths are as well. The holy Wrights of the Algorithm teach of an afterlife of clockwork, the hidden engines of the world swept back to reveal the calculation at the middle, the equation that is God.
I hold to old gods. Imagine my disappointment, then, when the darkness that took me after the Glory of Day shattered against the cold water of the river Reine lingered only for a while. Light came, and noise. I opened my eyes to a world of pattern, of engine. The world of the Algorithm.”
The prophets of such extraordinary religions also make for fascinating stories, as they remake their society’s conception of God (or gods), and their relationship with this higher power, in response to changing times.
Octavia Butler’s Lauren Olamina becomes the interpreter/reimagineer of the abstract, all-powerful or alien being that so many simply call “God.” In her two books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Butler tells the story of an ordinary girl who becomes the prophet of a new religion based around acceptance of change – God is Change. She calls it Earthseed. Butler’s books follow Olamina’s compelling journey from ordinary girl navigating the violence and uncertainty of an apocalyptic world to prophet leading the rebirth of a more vital civilization, which takes a more science fictional approach to religion-building. It shows the importance of how human religions are created, led and sustained by very human people; just people, facing impossible odds, trying to frame events around the existence of a higher power, a greater pattern or purpose. Religions are, at their core, about people trying to come to grips with uncertainty.
Olamina’s religion reimagines people’s relationship with such a higher power:
“God is Change, and in the end, God does prevail. But we have something to say about the whens and the whys of that end.”
“There’s comfort in realizing that everyone and everything yields to God. There’s power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, shaped by anyone at all.”
In Olamina’s reimagined relationship with God, people are given the power to focus, divert, and shape God’s will. They are not simply pushed along by it. They are not submissive to His will.
Aside from the “one religion” trap, another thing I see many writers fall into when creating fantasy religions is to forget that people actually believe in their gods, and belief in those gods suffuses every part of their daily life. Just as my grandfather’s tempestuous emotions often ruled my days as a child – shaping and changing events based on his moods – God or the gods should play a similarly tangible role in characters’ lives.
As Akers’s hero draws on his beliefs to interpret the events after his near-death, characters will interpret the events of the world according to their own belief systems, and use those beliefs to guide their own behavior.
Saladin Ahmed does a wonderful job incorporating the beliefs of his characters into everyday life for both individuals and communities in his book, Throne of the Crescent Moon, an Arabian Nights-flavored sword and sorcery novel about an aging ghul hunter and his apprentice.
Whereas less attentive writers might have their characters only call on or remember the existence of God or gods for oaths and epithets, Ahmed ensures that the presence of God – and the absolute faith in His existence – suffuses his characters’ lives, from greetings to blessings to prayer to magic. God is never absent.
Fantastic worlds, for me, are richer when they acknowledge that the all-powerful beings that shape their characters lives – whether literal or figurative – are, for many of their protagonists and the societies they live in – as real and tangible and unknowable as our own families, our own histories, our collective pasts.
Those who lean toward the “rational” science fiction end of the spectrum must remember that it’s been shown that our yearning for belief is hard-wired into our genetic makeup. We yearn to believe in something greater and grander than ourselves – whether that’s a common purpose or a higher power. The vast majority of humanity strives to create narrative from random. People who are able to create larger narratives – those who see patterns or larger meaning in this randomness – are more likely to outlive those who don’t.
This is why fictional fantastic societies who’ve survived against all odds, or future people who’ve conquered a galaxy, will be far more believable if they’ve organized themselves around some greater purpose. We are more sated, more powerful, more focused, when driven by a belief in something outside of ourselves.
Whether your god kindly teaches your people to nurture seedlings, flings them down the stairs unexpectedly, or engages randomly in such acts, their presence should be felt, acknowledged, and mythologized. Organized religions help us come to grips with the larger world. These beliefs have a lot to say about how your characters and societies make sense of themselves, their worlds, and the ones they love.
So consider their creation carefully, and fully.
ABOUT Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.