Tag Archives: Abercrombie

Genrecon Australia 2012

Last weekend I went to the inaugural Australian Genrecon and I have to say WOW! What an excellent decision that was. Yay me!

Of course the real congratulations should go to the likes of Peter M BallMeg Vann, and the ninja team from Queensland Writers’ Centre. What a magnificent event they organised and managed!

This was my first ever convention, and I have to admit I had no real idea what to expect (or what I was doing). I read a few tips. Chuck Wendig’s were pretty helpful. A lot of common sense of course but a good guide nonetheless. (He was also quoted in a panel by P M Newton: ‘Plot is Soylent Green’)

The other massive help was Twitter. I was flying basically solo… I knew a couple of people from online interactions, but only one person I’d met face-to-face. So when I walked in to the opening function on Friday night it was a massive relief to start recognising some twitter handles on name tags.

One face I did recognise was International guest of honour Joe Abercrombie. He was surrounded, and congenial and charming and gracious and relaxed and just a wonderful international guest. Full credit to him.

I managed to spark up a chat with Ginger Clark, about whom I knew enough from twitter to give me some icebreakers. We discussed zoos and Australian fauna and Sandy and suddenly the crushing weight of Curtis Brown NY was lifted a little. She’s really a nice person and I had a lot less fear for my Sunday pitch.

The adults only panel was excellent. Good natured and great fun. I worried that I had made a fool of myself in a discussion of the C-bomb, but everyone was great. I’d never considered the difficulty romance writers had choosing between descriptions which were either twee or coarse.

Afterwards I met some great Romance writers who were kind enough to explain to me some of the subtleties of their craft and how careers are forged from one’s writing. Thanks to Denise RossettiNikki LoganAnna Campbell and Alexis (sorry Alexis – I forgot your surname).

I’m on the right, with idiot grin!

Saturday morning was a great highlight. I was running a little late, stopped in for a quick toast and a take-away coffee with the intent of sneaking into a 9am seminar moments late, but Joe was alone at a table, enjoying a pretty good approximation of a full English brekky… what’s a fanboy to do?

Joe was great. We chatted like old pals for nearly an hour. Talked black pudding, Lancaster accents, kids, nappies, travel, Australiana, First Law, Red Country, westerns, my fledgling attempts at a career, Batman as vigilante and Superman as fascist. I got a photo in which I’m grinning like an idiot child on Christmas day.

That an author of his stature should be so welcoming and open, and for him to show such interest in what I was writing, was magnificent and I am so grateful!

The panels were universally excellent. Special mention goes to: Kim Wilkins and her impressive (to me especially) use of Old English; Crime author P M Newton for being so erudite and articulate in the face of Joe Abercrombie’s wise-cracking; Peter Ball and Alex Adsett for their insights into writing as a career; Ginger Clark for her excellent presentation on what an agent does (and how);  the Saturday night Snark from ‘Smart Bitch’ Sarah (Platypus of Doom, Gay Tarot Reading Vampire Were-Roos, Mr Darcy’s horrible secret…); the conversation with Joe Abercrombie (of course).

Thanks also to Peta Freestone and Amie Kaufman for helping me hone my pitch, and to Lindy Cameron of Clan Destine press for her encouraging feedback.

Thanks to everyone who made the weekend so wonderful (especially my wife, who looked after our two boys solo all weekend! How did I get so lucky to have such support?).

It ended with a successful pitch (with a caveat for length) to Ginger Clark and an invitation to submit pages. Could not have hoped for anything more!


A Gordian Knot

Today I finished a short story that I started maybe two years ago and which I’ve been wrestling with on-and-off occasionally ever since. I had reached a sticking point, and I feel I may have solved the problem today.

When I write a short story it often starts with a character, or a scene. I have plenty of scratchings and notes of this sort which may never become short stories of their own. Some of them might be chiseled and shaped, or molded into new things and added to or inserted within another project or a different story.   Many of them remain as notes or scenes or character descriptions for characters who will never be given a story. Hopefully I’ll come back to some occasionally and expand on them.

This short story started out with two characters, young boys, our protagonist and his only friend. As I wrote it I reached a point where the two characters were, I feel, well developed and the relationship between them was well-defined with a few nuances. The lesser characters with whom they interacted were shallow, as is often required in a short story where an economy of words is essential, but I was overall happy with the characterisation.

The setting was part of the world I created for my novel “Exile”, so it was well developed. If anything it was perhaps over-developed for the needs of the short story. As with “The Green Monkeys” and “A Choice of Kings”, also set in this fictional world (“The Green Monkeys” also set in ‘Talamh’), there was a challenge in leaving out some of the irrelevant detail I had developed. This is sometimes a problem for Fantasy writers and authors. Once someone has created a highly-detailed alternative world there is a compulsion to tell your readership all about it. In detail. Too much detail. George RR Martin has spoken of how important it is to use only the details of the setting that are relevant to the plot, and invented only a few words of Valyrian or Dothraki (only those that the text required to demonstrate how the languages were different and foreign). Joe Abercrombie has spoken of his distaste for maps and his novels always reference their setting with a deliberately lack of specificity. Tolkein on the other hand created a meticulous history and several languages for Middle Earth. In truth the stories of Middle Earth, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” were by-products. Tolkein was a professional philologist and his central concern was to develop languages, from these he created Middle Earth so that people could speak his languages; the narratives that resulted were never his intended goal, and while in many instances the detail of Tolkein’s setting is what set him apart and spawned his legion imitators really few people complained when the film adaptation cut whole chapters of Tom Bombadil out. It didn’t detract from the narrative at all.

The plot I also had mapped out. I don’t usually map a plot too early in my process. As I said the story will start as a scene or a character, I’ll build on that, hopefully develop a conflict and some complications and at that point sit down to map them out. In this instance I had an initiating circumstance, a conflict, rising complications, a conclusion, and a resolution. I knew what would happen, how each event would lead to the next, and how the story would end.

In short I had everything I needed: characters, setting, plot. And yet one scene was holding me up. I knew what needed to happen in the scene. I knew who was involved. I knew where in the narrative the scene belonged. I knew what brought the characters together at that point. I knew where they had to go after that scene… I just couldn’t write it. I tried. Several times. It always sounded naff. Not terrible. Kinda ‘passable’ but just… not good enough.

It was frustrating.

So today I took a different path. No more chiseling at the edges, no more gentle molding, no more sanding back or polishing, no more pulling at threads hoping the knot would unravel. I took the sword to it. I cut it right back, made the dialogue do a lot more of the heavy lifting, took out some unnecessary details and…

And I think it’s worked. Maybe I wake up in the morning and post a retraction. Maybe it was horrible and needs to be re-written, but for the first time I am confident that at least structurally it’s right. The drafting and revising process isn’t finished, but it’s close, and the story actually looks like a story now. There’s not a great big chunk missing out of the middle like there had been.

It’s called “To the Iron Hills”, and it’ll be between 7,500 and 8,000 words complete. I’ll post a couple of thousand words as an excerpt here soon, but I’m keeping most of this one up my sleeve for now and I’ll definitely be submitting it to some publication markets when it’s ready. I reckon this one’s a good one.


Ups and a down

So I’ll go in reverse alphabetical order and deal with the good news first.

The blog seems to be going pretty well. Today was my third best day since the big opening day of the blog in terms of views. I’ve got more than ten followers through wordpress (thanks guys!) a couple of followers via e-mail (thanks guys!) and nearly 30 followers on Facebook (thanks to you guys too!). If you aren’t following yet it’s easy. Just look to the right-hand side of your screen and use either e-mail or Facebook to stay up-to-date with my posts!

Not bad for the first week.

Even more importantly than the stats the blogosphere has exposed me to lots of other people doing lots of cool stuff and to helpful resources and opportunities I wouldn’t have found otherwise. It’s also been really inspiring me to write, and I suppose that’s the most important function it can serve. If I feel there’s an audience for what I’m writing then it’s more than just me bashing a keyboard, it becomes a more shared experience of creating something, and I think that’s been really energising. A week ago I hadn’t even conceived the novel project I’m working on, but now I’ve got a plan and characters and some major plot points and I’m drafting.

Which brings me to my second ‘up’.

Despite all the distractions of life and the competing commitments that have needed juggling I wrote over 1,000 words today on my untitled project and have a total of over 5,000 words. That’s a complete prologue and chapter one and a start on chapter two (in draft stages). I’ll keep posting some excerpts in the drafting section as I go, as I did with the prologue and with chapter 1.

And now the bad news…

I’d put a query in with a Literary Agent here in Australia whose website suggested they were open for submissions and accepted Fantasy manuscripts. The list of Australian Literary Agents who fit that description is quite small, so I was hopeful of at least being able to send them some of my writing.

Not to be. They’re “not looking at manuscripts such as the one I describe”. It was a basic form letter (e-mail) rejection but they sent me a link to a list of Literary Agents. It was the same site I’d used to find them but at least they’re being a little helpful.

Anyway rejection is always bad news, but it also means my search for an agent is now a little more focussed. Not too many more can reject me here in Australia, and it may mean I need to find one overseas, but in the age of the internet that shouldn’t be an insurmountable hurdle. New York and London are as near to me a Sydney for all intents and purposes.

So I leave today feeling energised, with a little more written than I had this morning, with a little more clarity of focus, and with determination to keep working at it.

I read an interview with Joe Abercrombie wherein he said his First Law trilogy was rejected several times and kicked around failed submissions for almost a year… and his First Law trilogy is excellent, so I’ve got a few months and a few more rejections and revisions up my sleeve yet.


Characters

So I’ve put up the second character profile for my new project. She’s obviously markedly different from the protagonist of the piece, but then narrative is conflict I suppose.

Now in both these cases the character profiles are quite extensive. As these will be the two main characters so there’s a fair bit of extra work put into giving them a back-story and motivations that will make sense of their decisions and actions in the plot.

So I figured I talk a little today about what I think makes a good character in a narrative. There’s plenty of web resources covering this topic, but here’s my 2 cents:

Make them flawed.

Think of all the most popular characters in fiction and you won’t have to think for long to find their flaws. There’s whole blogs to be filled with the flaws of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, Leer and Shakespeare’s creations, so too the Greek tragedies, but let’s, for the sake of brevity, confine our discussion to the last couple of decades. Humbert Humbert was a pedophile, Leopold Bloom couldn’t keep his thoughts in order, Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict (and almost certainly insufferable company), Yossarian was insane (but not insane enough), Randle McMurphy was too sane, Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, Kurtz was a megalomaniac and a murderer, Winston Smith was old and weak and pathetic, Atticus Finch… well there’s always an exception.

Seriously though it’s the flaws that we as readers want to see. Even in non-realistic narratives. Superman gets a lot more interesting if there’s kryptonite about. Batman is the best superhero character because he is the most flawed. Harry Potter is flawed because (spoiler alert) he has part of Voldemort’s soul in him. We watch Star Wars because of Darth Vader (who’s evil) and Han Solo (who’s a ‘rogue’). I doubt the films would have been so popular if they were all about Luke going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

George Martin understands this better than most. So too do Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan. Tolkein probably didn’t.

Allow readers to relate to them

Characters aren’t really people. Although you want them to be realistic you need some room for the reader to wriggle in and make themself part of the narrative. This is where Luke Skywalker comes in, and Frodo, and Charles Marlowe, and Harry Potter in the first few books (we only find out about his flaw after several increasingly large volumes), and so many others.

I wasn’t raised by my uncle and aunt on tatooine, but I know what it’s like to have too many chores and to wish my life could mean something more than just working on the family farm. I’ve never had a magic ring but I know what it’s like to feel over-burdened and crushed by responsibility. I’ve never been to Africa but I know what it’s like to be in a strange place where the cultural rules you know don’t count for much and you’re trapped on a journey to a task you don’t really want to do. I’ve never been to Hogwarts but a new school and I’m an outcast… I could go on.

The best example of this rule (but possibly the worst example of every other rule) is Bella from Twilight. Now I’m basing this on the films because I’ve seen two of those but  haven’t read any of the books. Bella is a shell. She’s utterly empty and devoid of any personality, will or individuality. This makes her the perfect vessel for the reader. You can pick up Twilight and start reading and in your imagination you’re imagining yourself having to choose between the perfect (but dead) Edward and the perfect (but not Edward) Jacob. *swoon*

Give them a purpose of their own

Not just their purpose for your story, but a purpose to their own being. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, but it has to make sense to them. There’s still a pantomime thrill in having a character do something you, the reader, know is dumb. If it seems to them that it’s the best thing to do but the reader knows something they don’t then no worries. Of course if they’re basing their action or decision on something we know but the character doesn’t you have a problem.

When we do something we vary rarely (Plato and Aristotle would argue basically never) do it for its own sake. We always have some other goal, or end, in mind. I don’t go to the gym because I have a really massive desire to pick up iron and put it back down where I found it. I don’t go for a run because of the run itself. I do these things because I believe that if I do I will be fitter and healthier. I want to be fitter and healthier because I believe it will bring me a happier, longer life. I want a long life because I want to spend more time with my family and see my boys grow up. I want to be there when they grow up so I can help them to be good people and live good lives (whatever that means).

My point is that characters will have these long-term motivations too. As a writer you need to balance the short-term and the long term motivations and create a pattern of actions which make sense. Of course there’s room to create a capricious or unpredictable character, but even they will want to achieve something in the end.

Make them grow

Maybe growth is a loaded term, but make them change at least. Maybe not every character, and maybe not a lot, but over the course of your story someone or someones need to change.

There’s examples in Harry Potter and Star Wars again (think of Luke Skywalker, or Harry himslef, or better yet the many changes of Snape, or the vast change in Neville). In the Game of Thrones (spoiler alert) Robert bemoans his own transformation from warrior hero to fat alcoholic, Arya goes from nobleman’s daughter to a criminal boy (even if it is a disguise).  Think of the reversal in Macbeth – initially he’s unsure and tending to loyalty even if it is through guilt, she’s egging him on, taunting him for his weakness. By the final act Macbeth is mad with bloodlust and Lady Macbeth overcome with guilt. This is what we wanted to see. How do people change? How are they affected by what’s happening to them, by the things they do or which are done to them?

Now there are exceptions. Call it ‘The Simpsons’ phenomenon (though it’s been around a lot longer than that). Bart will always be an underachiever. Homer will never learn. Lisa will always wear those pearls. But The Simpsons and the like are narrative McDonalds: we know it’s not really good for us but it’s comfortable, familiar, you know what you’re going to get from it.

Narrative force is in change, and it takes both character and plot development (more on that later) to make it happen.


What Fantasy Fiction means (to me)

So I’ve posted a couple of short stories which I have tagged as fantasy. They are stories I submitted to spec-fic ezines as ‘fantasy’ pieces, but I think the term requires a little investigation.

Inevitably this discussion will have to deal with “the ghetto of genre”, but I like to think this is less an issue now than in the recent past. Where once, no so long ago, genre-fiction was something enjoyed by niche readerships it seems now that broad audiences are more accepting of genre-fiction. This manifests in two ways.

Firstly works of genre-fiction are more successful and reach larger audiences. The obvious examples here are “Harry Potter” (Magic Fantasy), “Twilight” (Supernatural Romance Fantasy) and “Hunger Games” (Post-Apolcolyptic Sci-Fi). “Game of Thrones” (Epic Fantasy*) could be added to that in terms of the NY Best-sellers list, and the Showcase adaptation is broadening the exposure still further.

Historically it has been harder for Fantasy to reach such audiences. “The Lord of the Rings” is of course the prototype of the popular Fantasy story, but its readership always carried something of a social stigma, until the success of the Peter Jackson adaptations opened its appeal to a new generation audience.

The enduring appeal of comic-book super-heroism is successful Fantasy, but until recently ‘comics’ were considered childish at best and geek at worst, perhaps (despite the Pulitzer won by “Maus” and the Hugo by “Watchmen”) they still are.

Further back we have the success of “Star Trek” (Soft Sci-Fi) and of course “Star Wars” (Sci-Fi / Fantasy), again with accompanying social stigma being recently reduced, in the first case by the grittier JJ Abrams re-boot and the latter by the prequels.

There was of course a time before genre so defined a text, so we have the canonical status of the speculative fantasies of traditional story-telling; Grimm’s tales for instance, “Gulliver’s Travels”, “Wonderland” the Gothic fantasies of Poe, the incipient Science-Fiction of Mary Shelley and R.L. Stevenson, whereas the weird fantasies of Lovecraft and Kafka, and the Golden Age Sci-Fi of Asimov, Clarke, P.K. Dick and Heinlein have achieved comparable respect only within their ‘ghetto’.

Secondly we see the breaking down of genre barriers so that genres are combined, created, morphed, mangled and ignored by authors. China Mieville famously called Tolkein “The wen on the arse of Fantasy literature” (though he has tempered that rage a little more recently) before going on to define the genres of “New Weird” and “Urban Fantasy”.  He wasn’t the only one to criticise Tolkein’s influence on Fantasy (and the influences of other conservative writers – Lewis springs immediately to mind). Perhaps as a result of shaking off the ‘stultifying influence’ of “Rings” (and others), contemporary authors are exploring the limits of what ‘Fantasy’ can encompass (or challenging the value of genres all-together).

Seth Grahame Smith has found a new use for classic literature. Diana Gabaldon uses the Sci-Fi trope of time-travel to create a bare-chested  Romance set against a Low Fantasy milieu.  Neil Gaiman brings myth to the strip-malls and freeways of the American road-trip.  Richard K Morgan creates Noir Sci-fi and an Epic Fantasy (which may actually be a Sci-Fi) complete with magical swords, non-human races, magic… and protaganists who are by turns gay, drug-abusing, sociopathic and decidedly anti-heroic. Joe Abercrombie drags his ‘heroes’ through a formulaic Quest Fantasy… torturing them and any other character that takes his interest along the way and finally depositing them in the most unexpected places.

How then do we define ‘fantasy’?

Tzvetan Todorov identified two modes of story-telling within ‘the fantastic’: ‘the marvellous’, and ‘the uncanny’.

He first defines ‘the fantastic’ as “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” He differentiates ‘the marvellous’ from ‘the uncanny’ by how they explain this event.

In ‘the uncanny’ the events can be explained within the laws of nature, perhaps through some fault of the character (or the reader) in understanding them.

In ‘the marvellous’ the events cannot be explained within the laws of physics, and are therefore accepted (b the character and presumably the readers) as supernatural.

I would like to think that my Fantasy writing avoids both the uncanny and the marvelous, or is perhaps different things to different readers.  As a writer I would like to keep my reader in that state of hesitation, in Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, for as long as the inevitable winnowing of narrative progress allows.

And so what does all this mean for me, the aspiring writer with a love of Fantasy Fiction?

I think it means what I want it to mean. I think it means freedom. Genre is not the ghetto it once was, or was once feared to be… Fantasy is a rich landscape in which I’m free to explore and perhaps even claim my own little plot of land, and to build upon it whatever structure I like.