A Warrior Bold

June 12th, 2012

My writer buddy Saladin Ahmed, author of a great story in BCS and a cool debut fantasy novel, has posted an original swords & sorcery story at his blog.

It also has a tip jar.  Saladin’s been having a rough stretch lately; if you enjoy the story, consider leaving a donation for his time.

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Escapism and Epic Fantasy’s Mean Streak

June 5th, 2012

On the heels of my post about escapism in F/SF and what works for me, Elizabeth Bear had an essay about it in Clarkesworld.

Filtering her cheeky epistolary voice, she seems to be lamenting the paucity of playfulness and fun in current speculative fiction.  Replaced, as she notes, by the moral complexity of layered character motivations. But she suggests that that move to darker fiction may have gone too far.

In my shallow survey of post-George R.R. Martin epic fantasy novels, I’ve seen that very thing. Through the mid-90s, epic fantasy protagonists on the whole had monochromatic motivations and battled singularly eeevil villains.  A Song of Ice and Fire brought characters with multifaceted motivations (which incidentally obviated the need for a villain because complex characters will, quite justifiably, do plenty of villainy to each other).

Like Bear posits about spec-fic in general, I’ve seen epic fantasy take that villainy or ‘meanness’, as she calls it, and pile it on, with seemingly no care for balance or reason. She laments the loss of positive endings. I more lament that the preponderance of villainy has given me John Gardner’s disPollyanna Syndrome, which she mentions: the expectation that every outcome will be the worst possible one.

It’s not that I want happy endings; I want to feel the chance of a happy ending. Or an unresolved ending. I want to feel the same uncertainty in a fictional situation that I feel in real life. I want to feel the characters fighting to control their destiny, and failing if they are going to fail but also succeeding, if that’s the perfect conclusion to that story.

This dark or brutal or ‘mean’ trend in current epic fantasy has sold tons of books and launched dozens of novelists’ careers, so plenty of readers are getting escapism from it. But I prefer the ones that are multifaceted.  I knew already that I find escapism in complex characters, but this makes me realize that I also find it in complex situations and nuanced outcomes.

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Reader Guesses, Coloring Our Expectations

May 18th, 2012

Marie Brennan, author of a series of historical-fantasy novels and a bunch of short stories, including multiple ones in my magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, had a really neat post on the SFWA website a few weeks ago about audience expectations and reactions in terms of theories or guesses about plot twists or revelations.

She talks about how those reader guesses can change over the course of experiencing a work; how the author or the plot sometimes does meet the theory or otherwise react to it, and how we writers when reading may experience that more acutely than most audience members.

I really like her concept of “third-order (plot) answers”:

A lot of mysteries have an obvious culprit, and then a character who is, if you know your narrative conventions, the obvious alternative to the obvious culprit. I like mysteries that go one step further.

That’s what I try to do in my plots too.  My story “Of Casting Pits and Caustic Salts” (published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly) had several plots twists.  An older story of mine didn’t seem to have been very good at hiding who the culprit was, so with “Salts,” I tried especially hard to offer multiple culprits for each event of unknown cause.

Not so much an obvious culprit and an obvious alternate, as Brennan explains, but two or even more possible culprits. And multiple possible reasons why those culprits might have done that thing. “Salts” is a spy story, so the twists were important.  And to me, because character is always the key, the characters’ possible motivations for perhaps having done those twist events were even more important.

So I think the idea of reader expectations and theorizing of culprits is very important for us writers to consider as we craft the story. We want the reader to enjoy the read–I’m with Brennan in that the best plot twists are the ones you see coming half a second before the reveal. We need to make those twists engaging beforehand, yet still surprising once they happen.

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A Writing Tip, from Building Model Tanks

May 4th, 2012

I built model tanks when I was a kid.  I had a How-To book of neat tips, including one that was actually about artistic intentions.

The German tanks in WWII had numbers on the turret.  The numbers were usually painted at the assembly plant using a stencil, but sometimes the crews painted them by hand in the field, which of course had a crude look.

My How-To book said, if you want your model tank to look like one that had the numbers hand-painted by the crew, don’t try to paint the numbers by hand yourself.  Because it won’t look intentional.  It won’t look like you deliberately wanted to have crude-looking numbers; it’ll look like you lost the sheet of stickers that came with your model and tried to fake it by painting the numbers on.

Instead, my book said, use the stickers and paint some tiny drips of paint on top of them. It won’t look exactly like the real thing, but it will show what your intentions are–numbers that weren’t done with a stencil. And in that context, it’ll look right.

Tank Numbers

The audience for your art–whether model Jagdpanther or short fiction–gets some of their context for interpreting the art from their perceptions of your intentions. They will assume standard intentions for normal things, like that a knight embarking on a quest must be seeking some goal.  But for non-standard things, they may not see your intentions. So they may not feel that context, and they may not be able to tell whether an oddity is intentional or a mistake.

I see this in stories I read for BCS.  Sometimes there are incidents of odd punctuation or strange verb tenses, or passages of odd voice.  If there’s no context for why the writer is doing that, it can seem like they had no reason, or that they’re not doing it intentionally at all; that it’s sloppy writing or a typo.

But if they do have a reason, the prose needs to indicate that. Not necessarily what the reason is; just that there is one. To “telegraph” to the reader that yes, there is method to my madness; this odd thing is intentional, not a typo.

So the reader doesn’t get jarred by the oddity, or bumped out of the story as they wonder whether it is intentional or just sloppy.  So they immediately know that it is deliberate, and they can get back to normal readerly things, like pondering what the oddity means within the rest of the story. Back to reading.

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