On Reading Tolkien

So I said I wanted to blog more, and Twitter has, this week, given me an opportunity.

If you’re a part of writing Twitter, and specifically of fantasy writing Twitter, you’ve likely seen the Tolkien-centric turmoil. It started when Chuck Wendig Said A Thing. In response to a prompt about unpopular epic fantasy opinions, Wendig said that Tolkien is not the end-all and the be-all of epic fantasy fiction. He then said some other things, which some readers took to be criticisms of Tolkien in particular when they were not, necessarily, and the whole thing spiraled from there. Some of those spirals were actually fairly erudite discussions of literary canon, who gets included in it, who decides what gets included in it, how we can disrupt the norms of who gets included in it, and so forth. Some of those spirals were… less erudite, as we might expect. And in the way of Twitter battles, it’s all wandered a great deal off-course from the initial discussion.

I’ve resisted commentary on Twitter because, honestly, I didn’t have enough of a dog in the fight. But then I started seeing one line of comment that I sort of bumped on, and I decided to blog rather than tweet about it because Twitter is not a great platform for nuanced discussion. The tenor of this line of commentary was, “I don’t owe Tolkien anything”. And that… Enh. Whether or not you like Tolkien, whether or not you’ve even read Tolkien, if you’re reading and writing fantasy in the English language, you owe something to Tolkien, at least indirectly.

The analogy that sprang to my mind was that Chaucer. Tolkien : fantasy fiction :: Chaucer : English language and literature.

Whether or not you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, if you’re speaking and reading in English today, you owe something to them. They had lasting influence and the helped in shaping the English language as we know it today. Part of that was sheer dumb luck, writing in the right place at the right time. Around 1400, English was still really fractured. For example, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both written in Middle English. The Canterbury Tales is hard, but not impossible, to read without a translation.

A knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And thereto hadde he riden (no man ferre)
As wel in cristendom as hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthinesse.

That’s recognizable as English, even if it’s quite clearly not the English we speak today. It’s not even the English of Shakespeare, two centuries later. But it’s English.

Now check out a sample of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at the same time, but in Northern England:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez

That is… not the same language. We call them both Middle English, but you can tell at a glance that they are not the same. The northern dialect in the 14th century was still much closer to Old English and its Nordic influences.

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Because The Canterbury Tales was written in London-English, it was written in the English which eventually “won”. London-English came to dominate because, a few decades later, London was where the printing presses were — and printing presses helped to begin the process of standardization of the language into what we know today. So Chaucer benefited from that — and he influenced it, since his work was proliferated in that dialect and influenced future works. He was also part of a trend towards vernacularization in English literature. He may not have been the first writer in Middle English to write in that fashion, but he was the most popular. And so, he became a tentpole of English literature.

Now, do you need to have read The Canterbury Tales in order to speak English or to tell stories in it? Of course not. But if you want to study how English language and literature came to be as they are today, it would be difficult to avoid engaging with the work. If that’s your goal, should you only study Chaucer? Of course not! Chaucer isn’t the end-all and the be-all of late medieval literature, let alone the whole of English literature. Even just looking at his era, many scholars credit the Chancery Courts with having a greater influence on the standardization of language that moved England towards its Early Modern form. Chaucer is not the sole definition of English language or literature, but a number of factors combined to make him an outsized influence on both.

And I feel similarly about Tolkien in the context of the fantasy genre. You don’t need to have read Tolkien to be a fan of fantasy fiction, to enjoy it, even to write it. But if you want to understand how the genre developed and came to be as it is today, it would be foolish to ignore him. And it would be equally foolish to study only Tolkien and to assume that he alone defines the genre.

There’s a lot to criticize in Tolkien, particularly where issues of race and gender are concerned. There’s also a lot to enjoy, if you’re the right sort of reader in the right frame of mind. I feel very fondly towards the books now, but I didn’t always, and I still can’t just pick them up to re-read in any sort of mood. I couldn’t get through them at all until after I’d seen the movies, a sin for which I’m sure many gatekeepers would be delighted to flagellate me. I’m someone who loves to luxuriate in detailed world-building, so my problem isn’t the pace or the digressions, but rather that I find the writing itself sometimes dense and stilted. And the lack of women is and always has been a big problem for me. But there’s still a lot in Tolkien that I appreciate. After the 2016 election, for example, I had basically lost all faith in humanity, and I couldn’t get through reading anything. Until I decided to pick The Fellowship of the Ring back up. In that moment, that was what I wanted: simple morality where good eventually triumphs, and I was happy to lose myself in the Middle Earth when the myriad complexities of the world I lived in felt overwhelmingly cruel. But I’m far more likely to revisit the stories by way of the movies than the books, because I find them more accessible and emotionally moving.

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I’m firmly of the opinion that Tolkien could never get published today. He’d be told his pacing is uneven, his story starts far too slowly, he spends too much time on world-building, he introduces too many characters in the first chapter and we never hear from many of them ever again. He couldn’t get published today. But if he hadn’t been published in the mid-20th century, a lot of other books never would have been, either — for better or for worse. I don’t know what the fantasy genre would look like if there had never been Tolkien. We’d likely still be facing the same issues of race and gender, because, considering the era, whoever stepped into the void he left would likely also be a white male. It might have taken the genre more time to achieve the popularity it currently enjoys and the faint measure of respect it’s still striving for in many literary circles. It might not have. Swords and sorcery might still have been the dominant form for decades, or maybe it would’ve been something else. I don’t know. No one can know. Because Tolkien was, and he shaped the genre.

We don’t owe him all, any more than modern English owes all it is to Chaucer. And maybe what we owe him is equal parts honor and a kick in the pants, for both the good and the ill in his work. But suggesting we owe him nothing strikes me as either incredibly naive or willfully childish. Even if you’ve never read him, doubtless some of the authors you do read were influenced by him. They may have been influenced in the negative, driven specifically to do something different, not to replicate his form and format, but that’s still an influence. And there’s no extricating Tolkien’s popularity from the development of the publishing industry’s fantasy wing. The publishing world we work in, whether or not we’ve read Tolkien ourselves, was partially shaped by Tolkien and his legacy.

Should you read Tolkien? I don’t know. What do you hope to get out of it? If you’re looking for a good tale, it may or may not suit your fancy. If you’re looking for detailed and well-researched world-building, you’ll get a lot of that (if in a narrow northern-and-western-European scope — Tolkien was a truly remarkable scholar of what he studied, but it certainly had its limits). If you’re looking to learn the history of the genre and how it developed, then yeah, you probably ought to have at least some familiarity with such a major tentpole. But you don’t have to know that history or have a desire to learn it just because you want to read or write in the genre. It’s a subset of what there is to enjoy, a dish on the menu. It doesn’t make a meal, and it’s not the only thing the restaurant serves.

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And that winds me around to the idea of literary canon and what one “must” read.

“Must” is a silly word. The books you “must” read to be a fan of a genre, or to create within it, are the books which speak to your soul, the ones that resonate with you.

Enjoying a thing need not be the same as studying it, and studying the thing itself is not the same as studying its history. I’m a historian, so I know that influences my viewpoint. It’s why the Chaucer analogy leapt to my brain. It’s not the place everyone stands, nor the place everyone should. It does, though, lead me to the following consideration:

If we’re looking at fantasy from a scholarly viewpoint, perhaps we ought to consider that the genre is large enough and has been around long enough to need more than one intro course, as it were. A survey of fantasy literature and a history of fantasy in the English language would have different syllabi, and maybe you’d only find Tolkien in the latter. And that’s fine. It’s not like he’s suffering for exposure. Nor are many of the other authors you’d likely find in such a course — Lewis, Le Guin, Brooks, Jordan, Pratchett, Gaiman, Martin — though some of the longer-ago forbears, like William Morris and Lord Dunsany, would be little-remembered outside of it. The purpose of such a course would not be to say that every work studied in it deserved to be a tentpole of the genre, but rather to acknowledge that they have become sofor a variety of reasons, and to examine the effect that each had on shaping the genre as we now know it. Whether or not you think Tolkien merits his outsized importance, he has long had it, and a scholarly course on the history of fantasy literature would have to address that — in part to understand why and how the “established canon” has so long excluded certain voices, and what needs to be done to remedy that in the future. Understanding how the past failed the present can help the present choose how to shape the future.

But a survey course in fantasy literature? Now, that ought to be different, more diverse, less focused on the history of the genre and more concerned with giving students a taste of everything the genre is and can be. It should look at alternate influences, and it should look at subgenres, and it should look at those works which have grand merits on their own yet did not spawn a legacy of imitations in the way that the tentpoles did. If I were to devise such a survey course, I’m sure my syllabus would look a little different from that of anyone else who might do so — and if I were teaching a real course, with real students, I’d be adjusting it a bit every semester, to take new works into account, and to try and provide representation for the cultural makeup of the class.

And all of that would be different from the books that were my “musts” — the books I have read which brought me to the place I am now. My tentpoles of the genre, which have shaped my reading and writing. Like a history course, it might have gaps and omissions — things I ought to have read, things I wish I’d read earlier than I had, things that slipped by me. It might have things I read and which shaped me which didn’t deserve that influence, or which were important at the time but which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone else now. That list is going to be different for everyone. Certainly there are things I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy, that were high-quality but didn’t resonate with me, that have had a huge influence on others. But the wonderful thing is, it need never be a finished list. As readers, we can always keep doing better, reading more broadly, exposing ourselves to new influences.

So when it comes to the idea of Tolkien and fantasy canon and all of that, what I really come down to, I guess, is this: Build your own canon. Figure out why you like the things you do — what calls to you, what resonates? Map your own personal history within and without the genre, and know how it has affected you. That’s what matters most.

Come Away: Some thoughts upon FROM UNSEEN FIRE’s release

Take my hand.

Trust me. I will not let you trip or lead you astray.

I know this path. I found it in the wilderness; I marked its stones and notched its trees.

Take my hand, and let me take you on a journey.

The road will wind and twist, and you may not be able to see around the curves. You may lose sight of the street we came from; you may not be sure what we walk towards. But take my hand, and look at the trees and the dappled sunlight. Hear the birdsong and the secrets whispered in the wind. Catch the scent of green life. Let your skin tingle. Step away from the world and out of yourself, or with yourself, or whatever you most need.

Take my hand, and take your time.

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This is how it feels, putting a book out into the world. From Unseen Fire hits shelves today, and I’m asking readers to go along with me, and I know what sort of a journey I’m asking of them. It’s not the simplest, smoothest path. It requires some investment, and it begs some faith. By some measures, it’s a lot to ask.

My favorite books have always been those which ask this of a reader. The ones that lead me off the garden path and into the deeper woods. Books to savor, books to live in, books that release both their secrets and their hold on the reader’s heart more slowly.

American Gods. Kushiel’s Dart. The Name of the Wind. In the Night Garden. A Game of Thrones. Sandman. The Bear and the Nightingale. Daughter of the Forest. Watership Down. The Lord of the Rings.

Books that take the reader on a journey. And now it’s my turn, to tempt you off the path and into the wilds, to duck beneath the hanging branches, to slip between the hedges, to beckon you along with me, to some unknown adventure.

Will you take my hand, and walk with me a while?

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The Mages of Aven: An Ongoing Series

So remember back when I made a list of all 300+ mages in Aven but managed to refrain from naming them all?

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Yeah, well, that’s over.

Not all at once, though! I’m launching a new series on Patreon. 100 words at a time, I’m going to explore those mages. I’ve always loved the drabble format, and I’ve long used it to help me explore new characters and new worlds. In this case, I’m using it to flesh out the world of Aven, and to juice me up for working on Book Two!

I’ve shared the first five of those drabbles on Patreon, available for free to everyone! Subsequent entries in the series will be available to all patrons at the $3/month level and above.

None of these are characters in From Unseen Fire or the rest of the Aven Cycle — though their lives might be touched by those figures. These are the people of Aven, high and low, whom the gods have blessed with some degree of magical talent. Some may have quite a lot of power. Some may have very little. Some may use their talents well, and some may not. Some are allowed to live peaceful, productive lives; some are ensnared by power and politics.

I want to give you a glimpse at all of them, a window into this world — a few hundred windows, really! Short character studies that will, I hope, broaden the idea of what Aven is.

I’m throwing wide the gates. Come on in!

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Read the first five for free on Patreon — and pledge just $3/month to have the rest delivered to you on a weekly basis!

“New friends and stranger companies”: My #Sirens16 Adventure

It’s taken me a few days to process the Sirens Conference. For those that don’t know, Sirens is a small conference focused entirely on women (and non-binary folk and queer culture) in fantasy and science fiction. Basically, it’s a sanctuary for the marginalized in this genre. The attendance is overwhelmingly female/non-binary — I think I counted three or four dudes there, and they were, awesomely, there to listen and learn and connect, not to mansplain or talk over or patronize. This year’s theme was Love and Relationships. I had wanted to attend last year but couldn’t make it, and I was delighted to be able to this year. It was an absolutely amazing experience, start to finish.

20161021_001801000_iosThe whole conference is such a celebration. Of women, of magic, of writing, of fantasy. The conversations were scintillating. From a roundtable on how our anxieties can either cripple or motivate us to a workshop on herbal magic to a panel on the role of love in fantasy novels to a keynote on imaginary friends and how writers never really outgrow them, every session I attended was just delightful and led to great discussion. Over the coming weeks, I expect I’ll be churning out quite a few posts based on those conversations. The chance to discuss writing-related matters that are so very important to me with others who are there, in the trenches, wrestling with their manuscripts and figuring out how to promote themselves and how to engage in the world’s wider conversations, was just so valuable. It’s an opportunity I rarely get outside the virtual confines of Twitter.

There was also a delightful yet natural emphasis on diversity, particularly racial, sexual, gender, and neurodivergent. I’ve been consciously trying to expand my reading along these lines, and I came home armed with a reading list that should certainly see me through 2017! Someone on the conference hashtag noted that a panel discussion about representations of love did not include a single straight white person on it. Every panel I attended was itself diverse, not because it was about diversity, but because the conference promotes the natural diversity of our world.

What made it so special, though? Was the feeling of community. It took me no time at all to feel right at home. Everyone I encountered was eager to say hello. At the opening reception, I got waved over to join a table simply because “You looked like the new kid in the cafeteria” — but by the next afternoon, I immediately had a new friend to sit with in any room I entered. These women are incredible: brilliant, funny, warm, snarky, sharp, and so talented. And I encountered no snobbery or stratification based on publication status — readers and bloggers entered conversations with fanficcers, casual writers, aspiring authors, and published authors alike. Everyone’s opinion got to be a thread in a gorgeous tapestry.

Best of all, I felt seen and heard. The whole experience was so wonderfully validating. Everyone there wanted to share with each other — share stories, share experience, share a plate of chips and salsa, share in a rousing rendition of Hamilton‘s “The Battle of Yorktown” at the end of the Ball of Enchantment. For a few days, I could be utterly myself, without artifice, and that was not only accepted, but cheered. It was a feeling I didn’t know had been missing until it was suddenly there.

I am so, so delighted that I can now consider myself a Siren. What a brilliant group to have connected with. I’ve got a reading list a mile long, and half of it consists of books and short stories written by new friends. And next year, I sure hope my fellow Sirens will be able to see A Flame Arises on this shelf:

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Attention to Detail, or, Cass is an obsessive freak

So I’m almost done with this round of revisions. I’m at the point where I’m doing the penultimate read-through, which will hopefully make sure I catch any continuity errors created by my changes thus far and that I fill in any major omissions from the points raised by the editorial letter. Then the final read-through before sending things back to Sarah will be on hard copy, which is the best way for me to catch the tiny typo-like things. (Or places where I “pull a Cass” — leaving a sentence unfinished because I got distracted partway through writing it).

This round has involved a lot of filling in the edges of my worldbuilding. Sarah had a lot of questions about the world of Aven, about the political and religious systems, the economy, social classes, etc. The social history, really, the demographics and dynamics at play. These are things that I have swirling about in my head when I’m writing, but I hadn’t really pinned them down in specifics yet — because I hadn’t had to in the same way I’d had to be specific about, say, geography. It’s the sort of stuff I love — and the sort of stuff I actually sort of fear writing down, because too much of it can turn an otherwise sensible chapter into an encyclopedia entry. (I say this as someone who read the encyclopedia for fun as a child, so it doesn’t always occur to me that other people might not find that sort of chapter interesting. It’s something I have to check myself on — or be checked on by others).

But sometimes I just plain need that encyclopedia entry, at least for my own head. In order to find the places where I can drop a casual reference, hint at a larger world, I need to take it out of the blurry background noise of my brain and shape it into something concrete. And frequently, I find I need to do that sort of brainstorming by hand.

Thing is, once I get started, it’s a little hard to stop. Sometimes, that means I end up with notebooks stuffed with lists and diagrams. Sometimes, it means I end up with a 13X300 spreadsheet detailing every single magically-gifted citizen of a fictional incarnation of the city of Rome.

Just, y’know. Hypothetically.

So, as a quick update and a teaser, I thought I’d share what a few of those world-building documents have looked like over the past couple of weeks. Plus, a chance for y’all to see just how bad my handwriting is.

Where World-Building Starts

Kate Elliott is writing an excellent series of World-Building Wednesdays, and today’s post, The Flowering of an Image, focuses on the germination of a world — what kernel it is that turns into a place in which stories can live.

Elliott says that her world-building most often begins with an image which then spurs the characters and the story. The two things then grow together, the world informing the characters and plot as much as the characters and plot define the world. That symbiosis is something I discover in my own writing as well. Something I decide about the world will trigger an event, and some need the characters have will make me flesh out a bit of the world.

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Tintagel Island, Cornwall (2006) – Which I visited on account of it being the place where King Arthur’s story started, according to legend

Sometimes, though, I can fall a bit into a world-building pit. It’s not so much in the need to outline or write out an encyclopedia — though in some cases I’d happily do so — but I end up exploring the world by letting characters wander through it. Interesting to me, but not something that really advances the narrative. Part of editing is finding ways to inject the details of the world into the action. I do keep lists, though, of important facts. For Aven it’s been a lot of geographical concerns — what do different provinces produce, what sort of people live on which of the Seven Hills, and so forth — and a lot about the magic. I also have some historical notes about where my AU diverges from the reality of Roman history.

For me, though, the story tends to begin not with an image, but with a statement — sometimes of narrative, but far more often, of dialogue or introspection. An image will often follow, but I tend to hear a character’s voice before I clearly see them or the world around them. The words they want to use, the cadence, the rhetoric, those are the things that start to spin a character for me.

So, I thought it might be fun to trawl through a few of my projects — both those still in-progress, those set aside and perhaps to be revived someday — and see if I could find and identify those starting phrases. Wonderfully, I managed to unearth a document of scraps that I started back in 2009. Some of those scraps turned into larger stories. Some have been finished, and some haven’t — and one of them is on is way to publication! But it provided me with some good examples of what seeds I start with:

  • “Oh, you are such a poor liar. You haven’t the talent for it, so you may as well not try. Come now.” She pouted, quite prettily. “I’m your sister. Who can you tell, if not me?”
  • “I could no more leave this city than leave you, Mari,” he said. “To do one would be to do the other, and to do either…” He shook his head. “Unthinkable.”
  • “How many times did you fling yourself into danger without a second goddamn thought?”
  • “He does love me,” she commented, more to herself than to Kara.
    “In his way,” Kara supplied.
    “Not even that,” Arhena said, twisting a few golden strands around her finger. “I think he really does. He’s just… not one to show it in the usual fashion.”
  • “That girl’s kept her heart locked up a good long while now. I think it might finally be ready for some fresh air.”
  • “And you, Highness, are the daughter of a desert witch masquerading as a princess. But I’ve never held that against you.”
  • It wasn’t, after all, a nice thing to hear about yourself, to know that you’d gone from a well-mannered, perfectly-coiffed debutante to being little better than a mad dog in want of a leash.
  • ‘That’s the trouble with putting down roots,’ she thought. Her fingers itched as she stepped over towards where the mare was tethered and unwound the reins from the fence. ‘They do make it harder to fly…’

I’m realizing, looking at all of those, how many of them are moments of great passion — so many of my stories, no matter the genre, do feature a romance between two strong, stubborn people — or how many of them are the lead heroine wrestling with herself in some way.

There are worse places, I think, to start a story.

“What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn.”

I told one of my best friends earlier today, I feel like we’ve lost an Elder. He agreed.

It doesn’t much matter what “we” I’m talking about there. We, writers. We, readers. We, lovers of fantasy. We, admirers of satire. We, thinking observers of this mad world we inhabit. We, humans, who feel and dream and want.

Sir TerrySir Terry Pratchett wasn’t just a superb novelist and an incisive satirist — He was a writer-philosopher who shaped an incredible part of my worldview. His passing was not unexpected, given his long struggle, but it’s still heartbreaking. And, as Neil Gaiman noted in the last thing he wrote about his friend, back last fall, it’s also enraging. It makes you want to scream against the essential unfairness of the universe.

But, of course, he had a lot to say about precisely that.

Pratchett’s books can speak to nearly everyone — everyone willing to open up a bit and listen, I think, and they tend to eviscerate precisely the sort of people who won’t — and, like all great works, I think you get something slightly different out of them depending on who you come to them as. Personally, I come to them as an educated woman (hence a lot of affinity for Susan: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on”) and as a pagan (it should come as absolutely no surprise that the Witches of Lancre are my favorite sub-series). A pagan, moreover, who’s cobbled her faith together out of the scraps of a dozen others, her own inclinations, and the works of modern philosophers like Terry Pratchett.

The thing is, when you tell people that you’ve constructed part of your faith out of fantasy novels, they do tend to react like you’re a bit daft. I think this is foolish for two reasons. The first is that “fantasy novel” is often just a matter of where you’re standing, and (setting aside entirely the once-prominent faiths that we now dismiss as mythology, which we categorize as a subset of, yes, fantasy) a large chunk of the world now bases its beliefs on a book that contains, among other things, prophecies, angels, demi-gods, chimaeras, magic staves, necromancy, and a dragon. So. Y’know. Judge not.

The other is that it’s just silly to dismiss brilliant thought simply because of the cover it’s wrapped in or the shelf it sits on. The mirror that Pratchett held up to our nature might have been thieved from a funhouse, but that just gave him more license to show us ourselves writ large: our triumphs and our failures, our absurdities and our poignancy. I challenge anyone to read Hogfather without finding themselves deeply considering what it is to be human, what fundamental element of our imaginative capacity separates us from other beasts. I challenge anyone to read Witches Abroad without thinking about self-determination and the importance, and the dangers, of writing your own story. And by all means, try to get through Small Gods without questioning everything you’ve been taught about religion in general.

Pratchett was Shakespearean in many ways, but, as someone pointed out earlier today, one of them was you can express cosmic truths, you can fillet open the heart of humanity and lay bare its secrets, and still be hilariously funny at the same time.

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He said so much and so well about belief, about imagination, about the magic we make in our own heads, about the power of words. Of course those words seeped into my own philosophy, my own ideas on faith and what makes life as a human worth living.

On Twitter this morning, Connor remarked that nearly everyone he knows has not just a favorite Pratchett book, but a favorite Pratchett character — more than a favorite, a near-avatar, someone who resonated with them in a special way, someone they saw themselves in, glories and flaws together. I told him that if I grow into one-tenth of someone who’s midway between Esme and Gytha, I’ll have done well.

But if I grow into a writer with one-tenth the incisiveness, one-tenth the felicity of expression, one-tenth the soul of Terry Pratchett — if I can somehow touch the tiniest fraction of the people he’s reached and will continue to reach through his brilliant words — well, that would be more than I feel fair to ask for in this lifetime.

Thank you, Sir. May you find the peace of your choosing on the other side of those black sands.

The Paleontology of Plotting

As I jubilantly expressed on twitter last night, I’ve found a plot!

Finding a plot is rarely, I think, like tripping over an unconsidered trifle or discovering a lost item during a ramble through the woods. It’s more like paleontology. You know there’s something under there — at least you’re pinning a lot of hope and faith and hard work on it — but there’s no guarantee that it’ll turn out to be worth finding, or that it’ll be unique, or that it’ll be something anyone else wants to look at.

paleontology_dynamic_lead_slideFirst you dig deep, just to make sure you’re in the right place. I’ve tried starting a few different projects since finishing my last round of Aven edits, and none of the others have gotten past this stage. Sometimes you just plain realize that you’re digging in the wrong spot. That can be frustrating, but I think it’s an important awareness to have. Better to let go of something that isn’t working early, shift your location, and try again, rather than spending valuable hours of your life just moving dirt around. When I back off of a project, it doesn’t go away entirely. I just put a pin in it, hoping — intending — to return later. Aven started life in 2007 as something completely different. I never wrote more than about 10k on it, though, before I realized it wasn’t coming together at all. In 2011, I started over from scratch — and that’s the project that’s carried me through several Nanos. I tried again, and that time I struck true.

So, once you know there is something there worth unearthing, you chip away until you can see the shape of the thing. Is it the thing you thought it was? Or a slightly different species of story? Is it contorted oddly in some place? Is it tangled up with something else? Do you have as much as you thought, or are there bits missing? For me, a lot of this happens in the process of writing itself. I am, in Nano terminology, a pantser, not a plotter. I discover so much while actively writing. It’s not the framework that suits everyone, but it’s wonderful to me — it helps make sure that when I sit down to work, I’m always excited for it.

Then, finally — and this might not happen until later editing phases — you get out the tiny brushes, and you clear off every last bit of debris. Get rid of everything unnecessary so that your final project really gleams, bright and brilliant. This might take a damn long time, and it requires a lot of close focus — but the reward isn’t just a cohesive and impressive whole. You might also learn something new about individual moments, just by spending so much time honing them. I often don’t even write an outline until this point, especially now that Scrivener makes it so simple to keep notes on what happens when — but once I’ve got the shape of a thing generally patterned out, then the outline can be useful to spot gaps or places where some scenes might need to be shifted around — to line up the vertebrae, if you’ll allow me to keep extending this metaphor. (I really love dinosaurs, so it comes easily).

Last night, I jammed a shovel into the earth, and I came up with the first sign that, yes, there is something worth uncovering here.

This is doubly exciting because it doesn’t happen to me a lot. I am, in defiance of Aristotle, a writer who puts Character first. All my stories start with character — as did this one. Perhaps it’s because I am, in some ways, too much a historian. I tend to see people, and the conflict I like best comes out of them crashing into each other. Which is great in my head, but doesn’t always involve the sort of fast pace or high-stakes-drama that the genres I write in require. Fantasy wants the strong beginning, middle, and end that history rarely has — since it, y’know, goes on indefinitely in either direction. It needs, if not an explicit quest, something quest-like, something that drives the characters beyond the bounds of their normal life. So as I was moodling around this new project, I started to feel a familiar pinch of concern: Yes, Morris, you’ve got some interesting personalities milling around an intriguing setting. Some of them like each other and some of them don’t. But what are they going to do?

But, this time, in finding character, I found a new system of magic. And in finding that system of magic, I found the Exciting Incident — the first shape of an object I can start chipping away at — a cataclysmic change, really, for my main characters, something that disrupts their paradigm and forces them to construct a new one, against the ticking clock of threats from without and within.

And that, I think, shall be the challenge that drives the book.

It also gave me a working title, which is super-helpful, since naming things gives them power. So at least for now, this WIP will be called The Seventh Star.

Mind you, I’ve got a what, but I don’t yet know a lot of the how. I have some characters that I don’t know how they fit into the plot (and they might not ever — Aven had its share of discarded characters who were great in my head but never made it to a page anyone else saw). I still have a lot of tinkering to do when it comes to working out the magical system. I need to do some research about a particular kind of warfare and city defense. I’m not quite sure what the end game’s going to look like. But that’s okay. I’ll find out.

So enough nattering to you all about it. I’m off to spend a weekend digging!

History in Fantasy

I read a pair of fun Tumblr articles today from The Writing Cafe: “Your Fantasy Story Is Bothering Me, Pt 1 and Pt 2“. Apart from being a good giggle, it reminded me of a personal thesis I have: that a good fantasy writer ought, too, to be a good historian. I think this is true even if you’re writing second world fantasy, not earth-based AUs, because what a solid grounding in history gets you is an awareness of how worlds work.

7263041032_31c992469e_zYou get perspective. No country exists in isolation. Recently I’ve been reading A History of the World in 100 Objects, which really drives that point home. The earliest human civilizations engaged in trade. During the supposed “Dark Ages”, buried hoards in England had jewels from Sri Lanka. So think not just about where your characters live, but who their national neighbors are. What goods do they import and export? Who are they in competition with and who are their allies? (This topic can intersect a lot with making sure your fantasy world is diverse, too). Is your story’s focus nation relatively isolated? Then there needs to be a reason, and it needs to be feasible. Consider how Japan has periodically closed its ports. It’s easier for a country to isolate if it’s an island — but even so, the severance is rarely complete. The rest of the world doesn’t stop existing just because one nation stops participating in trade (a pet peeve of mine when it comes to a lot of dystopian fiction). And there need to be repercussions. What goods is your society without, if it can’t import them? What does it have a surplus of? How does the lack of new influence affect the culture? Who in your society is in favor of isolation and which citizens agitate for reopening the borders?

Then there’s politics and government. I went to a fascinating presentation at a convention once about how different kinds of societies give rise to different kinds of governing structures. You don’t get complexly structured bureaucracies in small civilizations; you get them when you have a lot of people spread out over large distances. And then, to manage that sort of sprawl, you have to have good roads and a solid system for transferring messages — traits shared by Achaemenid Persia, imperial Rome, Han and Tang China, and the Yuan Mongols. Higher literacy rates tend to lead to more democratic tendencies — or at least to more people agitating for them. Is power centralized or de-centralized? Are there gender disparities in who can hold power? Economic restrictions? Is military control tied directly into political control or is it a separate system? A lot of fantasy, with its medieval-western-Europe focus, tends to reflect an agricultural-based feudal society, but there are so many other options.

KangnidoMapReligion’s another big aspect of world-building that can be augmented by knowing your history. Faith doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere — it’s a product of topography, agriculture, climate. Your landlocked city probably isn’t going to revere a god of the oceans — not without really good reason, at least. Maybe the city was taken over by a different, sea-based culture somehow? Or maybe the city hasn’t always been landlocked? Did the geography change for natural or magical reasons? Do the people feel their god abandoned them? That’s a whole story right there. You can also think about how new religions grow, absorb, and replace the faiths that come before them. People don’t give up their beliefs readily, and even in violent, imposed conquest, certain traits will still carry over — look at how many pagan traditions from across Europe got re-envisioned in Christianity. The speed with which a religion grows has a lot of history-based influences as well: Think of the differences between early Christianity and early Islam. Christianity began as a religion of the disenfranchised, and poor folk, traditionally, don’t have a lot of mobility, so it took a few centuries before it got enough traction to become the dominant force in the land. Islam, however, gets its start with folk who had money (Muhammed being of the merchant class and married to the crazy-successful and seriously awesome Khadijah), and people who have money have access to that most convenient of conversion tools: armies. And, while Christianity got its start when the Roman empire was strong and ascendant, Islam started when the Byzantines and Sassanids were pretty weak. So Islam expands with unprecedented speed. How many religions are in the world of your story? How did they grow? Which are dominant? Which are old and which are new?

I could go on like this forever, because everything has history behind it. Every object you touch every day is just a recent point in a chain of events — and that’s true for every object your characters touch, too. It’s true for what they eat, how their houses are decorated, how they dress, how they talk, and what they talk about. That’s not to say that you need to give explicit descriptions of the historical context for everything, of course. You’re writing a story, not an encyclopedia. (A mantra I occasionally have to repeat to myself, with how much I love world-building). You do need, though, to be aware. If your characters are wearing silk clothing in a land without silkworms or have ivory jewelry in a land without elephants, some reader is going to wonder why.

So go forth and read, friends! Or listen! As I’ve posted before, there are some great history podcasts, and even when they nominally focus on, say, Rome or England, so much information about other nations always gets pulled in as well, thanks to the glorious interconnections of our world. Or look at some maps. Just exploring can be a great way to get ideas or to enhance what you’ve already constructed.