Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Kings & Queens in Fantasy

It appears I wrote this months ago, and neglected to post it.


Of course I like to see kings and queens in stories. I grew up reading about King Arthur and his knights, the Pevensie children in Narnia, and Bartholomew of Didd. As a child I knew that a monarch could be very good or very bad, and have overwhelming influence over the lives of subjects—this fit with my childhood understanding of authority. Justice played an important role. A bad king or queen must be shamed (as in Bartholomew and the Oobleck), or defeated (Narnia), while good monarchs must undergo trials and maintain strength of character (Arthur, Aragorn). Looking back now with more experience, that looks like propaganda—or nostalgia for a world that never existed. Normally one aspiring to autocracy sets out to kill the other contenders (as does Jorg in the Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence), and justice is decided by the winner.

                And there always remains the question: what next? So the most capable guy (or girl) has gained the throne. What about twenty years later, when that person’s heir is a maniac, or simply incompetent? I explored that question in The Emperor’s Knife. Young when their father died, and scarred by the aftermath of his death, neither Beyon nor Sarmin is ready to rule. 

Much of history shows autocracy to be unpopular, typically leading to the formation of parliaments or other bodies designed to share power with the throne. Perhaps such a body would have preserved Cerana from Emperor Beyon’s greatest flaws. 

In fact democracy plays a strong role in history—so why don’t more fantasy novels feature legislators (one thing I liked about the recent Star Wars movies)? Perhaps that seems a bit boring, or too close to how we live now—not second world-y enough. Maybe it’s just too complicated to write about a few dozen ministers instead of one king or queen. 

But then power in itself is a theme, and it’s compelling to study those who grasp it, especially when done by the likes of George R. R. Martin or Gene Wolfe.

It brings us back to the question of why readers enjoy fantasy.  Some like to read about historical combat or complicated magic systems. Some like the challenges faced by characters in the genre—betrayal, grief, trauma, self-doubt. Few people say they are interested in fantasy governments, and when faced with an issue in which the reader has no interest, simplicity is best.

But why did I explore autocracy? To remind myself that we got it right—that democracy works best? History has already provided that answer. Maybe I, too, suffer from a strange nostalgia for a non-existent past. Living under the control of a powerful monarch, with limited choices, sounds a lot like childhood. There’s a certain comfort to having decisions made for you—but it’s the sort of comfort one must put aside. The coming-of-age nature of many fantasy stories might lend itself to worlds with absolute rulers—where to bypass or overcome the ruler/parent is to come into one’s own—to grow up. There’s a satisfying mythological feel to that.        
So why is fantasy full of kings and queens? All of the above answers are possible given the author and the story in question. Still, it’s always interesting to read a fantasy book with a different setup. For example, Miserere by Teresa Frohock shows us a world (or Woerld) ruled by religious councils, while Courtney Schafer writes about  a city under the control of mages in The Whitefire Crossing. Personally I think it would be interesting to use elements from the governments of 15th-century Florence or Venice (likely, someone already has).  So fantasy authors are not stuck with kings and queens—it’s just a habit, and not an awful one.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Coffee Makers and Why Reviews Are Important

Like many authors I suspect I spend a little too much time wondering why some people don’t like my story. I’ll get five people who loved it and one who didn’t, and I’ll focus on the one – not just out of hurt pride but also curiosity. How can one reviewer say the characters are their favorite part of a story, and another reviewer say they were cardboard cut-outs? It’s confusing, but at the same time, every reviewer is correct. I can’t argue their enjoyment of a book, or lack thereof, is mistaken. They felt what they felt. It’s their own subjective experience which nobody can gainsay.

What brings this to my mind? Well, I’ve been shopping for an automatic drip coffee maker for months. It has taken me this long to make my decision because a $100 coffee maker is, by necessity, something I’ll have to live with for a long time. So while my current coffee maker - finally undone by the city’s hard water - was leaking all over the counter top, I googled and read review after review. 

For us caffeine addicts, the coffee experience is so personal and intense that a betrayal of our hopes is disastrous. Too hot! Not hot enough! I had to wait too long for my morning cup! Drinkers lash out in their frustration. For every five good comments on a coffee maker, there is at least one that swears it is the worst on the market. We want the coffee we are expecting to have, at just the right boldness and temperature. The problem is we’re all expecting a different cup of coffee. 

Sometimes reviews tell you more about people than about the product. Five people complain about the loud steam or the heat of a brew, until one man rates the maker five stars and writes,  “Let me explain to some of you how a coffee maker works . . .” – it’s all WAI (working as intended) – features, not bugs. Some complain about overflow issues; other posters insinuate they don’t know how to operate a coffee maker. For each person with a complaint, there is someone else who will say, “If you don’t like this as much as I do, there is something wrong with you.”

Ultimately I purchased the same brand of coffee maker I already had.

So why did I read the reviews? Because though it’s impossible I wanted to be sure – that first taste of coffee in the morning is important to me too. Because it’s a form of sharing with these coffee drinkers who have posted their opinions in the hopes of helping others. My community of fellow addicts. And one thing the reviews can do is reveal trends. Though we might not be looking for the same cup of coffee, if seven out of ten people say the coffee took a long time to brew, maybe I should think about that feature and decide how important it is to me.

If you’re wondering if I spend a lot of time reading book reviews as well as coffee maker reviews – yes I do. Along with most people who purchase books, I tend to look for the same authors again and again. We know we like their writing. We know what to expect. We trust them – like Cuisinart over a newer, unknown brand. But I read reviews in the hopes of adding to my roster of guaranteed good reads. I notice some reviewers will focus on the magic systems, while others like the worldbuilding or characters. Some prefer non-stop action while others do not. As with the coffee makers, the trick is sorting out what’s important to me while I’m reading.

So the question arises, how does a newer author break in, become the Mr. Coffee or the Krupps of fantasy? Right now it seems I’m with the French-press crowd, the people who take a few extra steps, and I’m happy about that. But the unfortunate fact of publishing is that those who do not sell really well, might not sell at all next time. Publishers, like readers, want to be sure when they opt for a book.

Last week when I was looking for books for my children, I defaulted to the “Amazon top 100.” Then I realized what I was doing. That’s hardly taking a few extra steps. I didn’t see a lot of writers I like to read on that list. So what did I do? I went to Ranting Dragon. I went to Staffer’s Musings. I ferreted out some good stuff. And unlike my coffee-making experience, it was all new stuff.

I’ve come out of it with an even more positive attitude towards reviews, even the negative ones. If someone hated my book because there’s “too much sex” (really, at least one person said that), another person might think, “I love sex! I’ll pick that one up!” (and be disappointed). But seriously, in this community of readers and writers, in which many of us are both, reviews are a way of sharing our love for the written word, for secondary worlds, and for everything else that goes with SFF. Even with the contradictions from review to review, the attention paid to things we might not care about, and the people who say, “if you don’t agree, there is something wrong with you,” reviews still work. They help us sort out what’s important to us in a book – and we might be surprised to learn what we’re looking for, whether it’s the same old thing as before or something completely new. I’m all for that.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Next Big Thing - The Tower Broken

So the Next Big Thing is a chain blog. One of us answers ten questions then 'tags' five more authors to do the same one week later. I was tagged by Elspeth Cooper. I haven't tagged anybody yet. I plan to put a lot more effort into that very soon.

OK so here are the ten questions!

1) What is the working title of your next book?

The working title is The Tower Broken, Book Three of the Tower and Knife trilogy.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

For this particular book, the ideas flow naturally from the first two. But the idea for the first book, The Emperor’s Knife, came from a reading of history. A prince of the Ottoman empire had been locked away for many years and brought out again when his heir-less brother passed away. He had been driven mad by his isolation, and eventually was murdered by his courtiers. Sarmin’s story is a bit different.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It’s fantasy. Some call it “historical fantasy” which I consider to be an oxymoron – if it’s fantasy, it’s not historical. And while my society has some surface-y similarities to the Ottoman empire, it is not really based on any historical society or period. I would call it “adult fantasy,” but I think that implies something I do not intend . . .

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s not something I’ve really thought about. Most of the people in the story are multiracial so that’s a requirement. Also, Sarmin is supposed to look thin and sickly, while Mesema is supposed to look smarter than she does pretty. I don’t think movie casting would really do them right.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

For the third book, the synopsis would be: “Cerana faces down its historical enemy while a greater threat creeps through the desert towards the capitol city of Nooria.”

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am represented by Ian Drury of Sheil Land Associates (London). The book will be published by Jo Fletcher Books in London and Night Shade Books in San Francisco.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The first book took about six years. The second, a little less than one year. This one, a lot less than one year.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It has been compared to Sanderson, but I don’t agree with that. For people in terrible and desperate circumstances who want to do the right thing, I would compare it to Durham’s Acacia trilogy (though I found the first one so heartbreaking I haven’t continued on to book 2 yet). Mine is not as sweeping and epic as his, but I think the royal family and the tragic events compare.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Competition. Mark Lawrence and I started sending emails back and forth, trying to outwrite each other. After a few days it was clear that characters and a story were emerging.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

It’s a fantasy in a non-Western setting with strong characters and a massive, world-ending threat. I’ve put as much richness and excitement into it as I could manage. I hope people enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Some News and an Invitation

First blog post in a while! I have some news to share, the first of which being that Knife Sworn is officially available. While The Emperor’s Knife dealt with the intense, overpowering desires of the characters  – whether for power, love, or human contact – the second book in the Tower & Knife series carries a theme of isolation and loss. Those who had been part of the Many feel lost and alone in a harsh world, and each person Helmar left behind in the palace pursues a lonely quest for safety.

One note: it appears B&N and Amazon are a bit slow getting the eBook up and available in the US. In the meantime it is available from Baen. Only $6, much cheaper than the hardback!

Second bit of news: This Friday at 9pm EST/8pm CST I will be participating in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Fantasy Reddit. The last time I was on Reddit was for the Debut Authorpalooza (organized by Justin Landon at Staffer’s Musings). I was there with Teresa Frohock, Mark Lawrence, Courtney Schafer, Kameron Hurley, Bradley Beaulieu, Doug Hulick, Anne Lyle, Stina Leicht, and Elspeth Cooper! It was huge and intimidating and great fun. This time it’s me alone, but I’ll try to be entertaining. Please feel free to go there on Friday and ask a question (though the AMA is in the evening, it should be open for questions during the day).

After that I’m participating in Next Big Thing, an author’s round robin. Each of us answers ten questions on our blog and tags five other authors. My ten answers will appear November 28th. The author who tagged me – Elspeth Cooper – will be answering her questions on November 21st. I will be reminding everyone!

That’s it for now! Hopefully I will see some of you on Friday.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On Writing under a Pseudonym

That 'Mazarkis Williams' is not actually my name has been on my mind a bit since Worldcon. Many people asked me - some angry, some just curious - why I write under a pseudonym. Well it wasn't my choice, but it was necessary. The story is long and weird, and even when face to face I can't tell all of it, so I hedge. My agent once said, "Let me be the bad guy." But when I am standing in front of someone I like and they really want to know, I can't say, "ask my agent." Instead I apologize and bluster.

What's worse is that letting anyone in on the secret is putting them, in turn, on the spot. They don't know who they can and cannot tell. They end up having to hedge themselves. Having been raised in the polite midwest by a British person, I am doubly hesitant to create awkward situations. It makes me feel terrible.

Overall the pseudonym has not worked for me personally. Anyone who is considering a pseudonym and a mysterious identity should know that it makes it difficult to associate with other authors, who are the people who drive up when your shoes are worn out and you are stumbling along the side of the metaphorical road. It makes it impossible to network, and to market your book outside of the internet. On top of that you must be comfortable with a certain level of deceit, which I am not.

But do I regret it? Well that would mean I regretted being published. No, the pseudonym is what I have - it's part of the deal, part of Tower & Knife itself. I can live with it for one more year, when, Jo Fletcher promises, everything will be revealed. See you then. For real.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Chicon Days 4 & 5

Sunday was difficult for me. I would rather have spent the day wrapped up in my hotel bed sparing the world from myself, or myself from the world - either one - than continue with the Con. I dragged myself around anyway, though I was not of much use. What a surprise when I learned at dinner that my mood was not unusual. Each of us sitting there holding pizza was relieved to hear that others experience that same brief, but intense, depression at conferences.

But let's get one with the good stuff.

I attended a reading by Rachel Swirsky. On the internet you can't tell how funny and charming she is. She rocked the room with her story and I'm glad I went. I'm sad that I did not introduce myself because of my aforementioned mental state.

Later I went to a panel on religion in SF literature. Let me say here that Teresa Frohock, in case you don't know, is really, really smart. I enjoyed all of her panels. This particular one discussed how to make religions believable in stories and a concrete part of the world you have created. We were reminded that faith is part of a practitioner's daily life, part of their psyche, and that if you don't capture that, it can be a bit thin.

I didn't attend the Hugos, choosing instead to put on my pajamas and watch the Ustream which, ouch, got shut down. "Watched" the rest of the award ceremony on twitter. Even as such a remove I felt part of something. I began to realize that the long, storied tradition of SF and Fantasy is bigger than one conference or one generation of writers. It was inspiring.

I got to look at and fondle some great books. Look out for Tainted City, Courtney Schafer's sequel to The Whitefire Crossing; E. J. Swift's Osiris; Betsy Dornbusch's Exile (forthcoming); Spin the Sky by Katy Stauber; and Bradley Beaulieu's second in The Lays of Anuskaya, The Straits of Galahesh. And then of course all the other great books by the other fantastic writers of Night Shade Books (Martha Wells, Kameron Hurley, Jeff Salyards, etc. etc. there is no end to it! BUY BOOKS!).

Tomorrow: on living under a psuedonym.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Chicon Day 3

Saturday started out early with a panel on men writing female characters and ended late at night with Anne Lyle and a discussion about gender and sexuality. It really seems to be the theme of the con for me.

Much of what happened yesterday already seems like a blur, but here are some highlights. I got to meet Carol Berg a second time. There was a great panel on character building. I found out the red line was under construction but nevertheless got to the north side for a fantastic dinner with a friend, who just happens to teach writing.

The con has been great for studying the elements of a novel in ways that help writers think about our own process and our own assumptions. Eventually, working all of this out will bring about stronger, better work. I refer to worldbuilding, plotting, characters, the presentation of gender and sexuality, and pacing. To any writer who is trying to decide whether to attend a con, I recommend it - even if you are shy like myself,

More thoughts tomorrow.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Chicon Day 2

Started my second day full-steam by going to three panels in a row. My advice to other newbies is to avoid doing this. You need time, after a good panel, to process, and anyway the seats are uncomfortable. Don't sit still in them for four and half hours as I did. This morning, I turned around and ran out of a panel, even though it had Carol Berg in it, for that very reason.

The first panel I attended on was gender in SF literature, and all other panels that day seemed to echo all that I had heard at 9 am (even the one I attended this morning, "Men Writing Women," addressed some of the same issues).

The thing is that you can't talk about gender without addressing the society that constructs the gender. Cultures set up the expectations, the restrictions, and the consequences for deviation. When worldbuilding it is important to take this into account. I came away from the panel with a list of authors that address gender successfully (will post it later, if I can read my own handwriting).

So when we talk about "feminine" traits and "masculine" traits we are, in some ways, talking more about our culture than we are about the character or the individual. Among sensible authors the consensus seems to be that writing successfully means writing about human beings and not necessarily their genders. This also applies to 'strong female characters': human first, gender second.

After panel fatigue came setup for the Night Shade Party, or rather, waiting around to begin the setup for the Night Shade Party (housekeeping had to come and fiddle with things before we could begin). In the end I didn't help at all - it seems most of the work fell to Bradley Beaulieu (sorry!). Had dinner with Teresa Frohock and E.J. Swift (Osiris), got dressed and returned for the bug-eating party (eat a bug, get a free book), which was a great success. I finally met Jeremy Lassen who was wearing a most impressive bright orange suit, and many others, too numerous and show-offy to list.

All in all it was a great day. Today there will be fewer panels and more drinking, I expect.

Friday, August 31, 2012

My First Day at Chicon

Getting to the Hotel

Having lived in Chicago I didn't think much about taking the train and finding my own way to the hotel, but I quickly realized lugging a bag full of books across seven city blocks was not the best idea I ever had. I arrived at the Hyatt sunburned and sweating and stood in lines for some time. Teresa Frohock of Miserere fame arrived and together we went over an overwhelming amount of program information while the hotel went from full to packed. At last room keys became available and there was somewhere to hide from the crowds.

After a few hours my memories of walking under the hot sun faded to pleasant and I decided to do it again, taking a turn around the city looking for Treasure Island (a grocery store), and some vaguely healthy snacks. I dragged T. Frohock along with me, and luckily she loves walking circles in cities and has an amiable nature, because "I know about where it is" is a far cry from "I can take you right to it."

If you haven't met Teresa Frohock this is what you might not know: she is wicked smart and hilariously funny.


Courtney Schafer (The Whitefire Crossing) arrived with her brother Matt and friend Karen and I'm glad to have met all of them. Courtney is like a tiny ball of intense energy. Now I understand why she is in charge of things. Naturally the conversation turned to writing and the publishing biz. We talked about editing a book to its bones, working with schedules, and character-driven versus plot-driven stories.

While standing around in the hotel entrance (not very politely, I realize in retrospect), we were approached by Anne Lyle (The Alchemist of Souls) who is not in the least bit shy and will be doing 10,000 panels from what I can tell. From there we progressed to some actual seats and then, in an unexpected bit of luck, Courtney introduced us to Carol Berg who is a warm and engaging person. She talked to us about her own first Worldcon while I stood there like a teenager, not sure what to do with my hands. I mean, it was Carol Berg! I have every one of her books and you should, too.

We ended in the bar talking about biscuits versus cookies and bills versus checks. Anne sang the praises of Scrivener, and it sounds as if I will be an adherent before long myself. Then it was time to return to my little room, which is not quite a peaceful room (any time anybody in the hotel turns on the water, it sounds as if someone is screaming).

Now day 2 begins, and it's time to hit some panels. Hopefully I'll have some intelligent thoughts to post tomorrow morning.