Why write a fantasy? And do we really need another?

Since this site is not even live yet, I thought I’d get warmed up by asking myself the most important question one should be asking oneself as a writer:  Why do this? Does this world really need one more epic fantasy?

It’s a valid question that has two answers (since, after all, there are actually two questions up there).  So the first answer, in a sense, is required, which is: “Because I feel compelled to write it.” But it does beg the second question. Let’s face it: just because I feel ‘compelled’ to write it doesn’t mean anyone is going to feel ‘compelled’ to read it.

Before we go there, however, let’s unpack that first question and answer for a bit.

There are lots of reasons–many of them (tempted to use the word ‘bad’ but instead will go with) insufficient for writing.  At this stage of the game, the pre-published stage, the ‘insufficient’ reasons proliferate among my people — the great horde of as-yet-unpublished-would-be-writers — a little more than among those that actually see publication.  As a former editor and publisher for several major publishers I have played the not-very-fun role of ‘weeder outer’ of a number of would-be writers.  That was in the higher ed business, where things are manifestly different than they are in trade publishing, but let’s go with a couple that I heard there quite a lot and then I might hazard their trade publishing corollaries.

“I’ve taught for a really long time, saw lots of students, and now that I’m about ready to retire, I finally have the time to write a (text) book.”  Sadly, the authors in the textbook world who are most in demand are almost never those who have the actual time to write a text book.  The most successful text book authors are usually those folks who, chased down mercilessly by editors in the field, would finally relent, and then make time to write the text book.  Sadly, despite all the many, wonderful retired teachers who have given their lives to educating thousands of students, retirement is not the time to start your book.  (I’m starting mine now and worry frequently about being ‘of a certain age’.)  There are tons of reason for this, but they mostly come down to the fact that a text book author needs to be a current and active member of the academic (and teaching) community for which they are writing (at the very least when the first few editions are published).

In the trade world, the insufficiencies can begin with reasons such as “I want to be a writer” or “I really want to write” or “I love to write” or “I love to read and think I’d be a great writer.”  I had my first ideas for characters that will show up in this book a very long time ago.  An embarrassingly long time ago.  I won’t even admit to myself how long they’ve been around, so forget it if you think I’m going to admit it here (even if no one is reading this yet).  But the point is this:  as long as this project has been ‘in the drawer,’ I keep coming back to it.  I can’t stop myself from coming back to it.  I feel compelled to write this story about these characters.  I think that compulsion really is a necessary component of being a writer.

Early map

  • An early version of a map I created for my world (lacks date, I refuse to hazard a guess)

Writing a novel can be the most glorious chore you will ever undertake.  But usually it’s just a chore.  It can be mind-numbing, soul-consuming, and life-devouring in the frustration it inspires.  Epic fantasy has its own particular charms in that you have to build a new and believable world which your characters inhabit.  This task of ‘world-building’ can become so addicting, all-consuming, and brain-addling that writers refer to ‘world-building disease’ as a common malady among those who attempt this genre.  While one might suggest that having the disease might be a necessary pre-requisite for the job, I would point out that the main thing which defines it as a ‘disease’ is the fact that the process of building the world becomes so all-encompassing that one never gets around to finishing (or writing) the book. Technically, I suppose one could say I had this disease for years.  The good thing is that I spent those years jotting notes, making sketches, building my world, occasionally gaming in it, and very sporadically writing about it, so that when I finally decided to leave academic publishing it was there waiting for me to use for the stories and characters that I now feel compelled to write about.

Working map

  • The current, working version of the map of my world, even this one has been tweaked constantly over years

So this brings me to the second question: Does the world really need another epic fantasy?

In answer to this, I would say that any vital genre needs to take seriously the effort of innovating and reinventing itself. This is true whether you are talking about poetry, fiction, drama, film, television or any significant body of art to which we typically affix the word ‘genre.’  Now, some might argue that I’m conflating genre with medium in the examples above, so let’s go specifically to the example of fantasy fiction.  Blogger Chuck Wendig took a nice sideswipe at some of the conventions in Fantasy with a list of ’25 Things you Should Know’.  (It’s a very entertaining read, you can find it here).   Even though he never actually says these words, I would kind of boil all 25 of his tips down to something like “Go big or go home–but if you are gonna write yet another fantasy with a dragon in it–well goddamn it, you better have a pretty fucking compelling reason for us to be reading about dragons. Again.”   And I would have to say he’s right about this.

  • Full disclosure: there are going to be dragons in my story (eventually).  I think the reason for them being there is pretty compelling.  Hopefully the book(s) see publication and my readers will also say: yeah, ok, that was Pretty Fucking Awesome (ie. sufficiently compelling).
    • Note: Wendig would say PFA is not, in itself, sufficient to warrant inclusion in a fantasy novel, but I would say if you ARE gonna put dragons in your book, they better scream PFA, because if not, they really REALLY shouldn’t be there.

So why DOES the world need another epic fantasy?  This is a pretty important question actually, because for a while there, it was beginning to look like the genre had worn itself out.  We can all thank George R.R. Martin and his producers at HBO for collectively resuscitating this genre and it goes back to what I said a couple paragraphs ago, that genres need to innovate and reinvent themselves.  With Robert Jordan’s massive Wheel of Time series, one can almost contend that the epic fantasy as imagined by most writers of the seventies, eighties and nineties had reached its apex, and that fantasy was ready to Move On.  Agents everywhere were all scrambling for urban fantasies.  Swords were ok, but they were more interested in leather-clad vampires wielding them (preferably female) than yet another small-town kid just wanting to grow up so that he might Save The World.

The most recent edition of the Writer’s Market I purchased (in print format) was from 2011, in it the agencies were very clear that they were less interested in this:

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and more interested in this:

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George R.R. Martin reinvigorated the epic genre because he’s a fucking great writer who is not afraid to take risks. But let’s face it–HBO helped resuscitate the genre because they also took a massive risk by deciding that if you took all the fanboys (and girls) who watched all the Tolkien movies (and all their extended editions, and all their appendices) and added them to all the fanchicks (and guys) who fell all over themselves for the Tudors you might actually have a potentially huge audience. A really, really huge audience.  But the success of the show stems largely from the fact that it is NOT Tolkien thankyouverymuch.  Martin really did innovate, really did reinvent this genre that so very badly needed some reinvention.

So how did he do it?

In contradistinction to Mr Wendig, who took 25 items to list as the do’s and dont’s of fantasy fiction, the famously voluminous Mr Martin managed to keep his tip list to a top ten.  I will neither recount them all here nor distill them unceremoniously down to one, but I will say that his list gives some insights to the ways in which he was able to breathe new life into the genre.  Ok, I lied, I really am going to narrow it down to one, because really it’s just the one that I want to focus on here and which is a major preoccupation for me and for my work, which is to avoid the cliches of fantasy.  I feel you can boil this down to one for Martin in this instance, because for him avoiding the cliches have so much to do with three of his other points (creating grey characters, believable POV characters, and using POV characters to broaden the scope).

Many rightly focus on Martin’s propensity for killing off major characters, but let’s face it, he was not the first to do this though certainly he does so with more gusto than most.  Let’s not forget that Tolkien offed no less than two major characters in his first LOTR volume with Gandalf (whom he later resurrected) and Boromir (who he didn’t).  HBO has turned this into the makings of water-cooler speculation and a sort of death-watch toward the end of each season as all those who haven’t read the books begin to wonder who is going to fall next.

This certainly gives the books a kind of narrative momentum and real suspense since he apparently can and will kill anyone, or perhaps everyone, especially if that ‘one’ is apparently ‘good’ or a character for whom you are rooting.  In fact, instead of calling the whole series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ he probably could have just cut to the chase and called it ‘The Death of the Starks’ and we would have understood from the beginning that we were in a sense reading a Shakespearean Tragedy and not a Shakespearean History.   But it’s exactly this dissonance that keeps the tension alive, and the disbelief that he really is going to kill (or cripple) pretty much every Stark there is; a painful prospect since it is the Stark family with which he began the whole epic and to whom we as readers (or viewers) continue to feel most loyal.

  • In the name of levity please enjoy the following:
    • Sing to the tune of “Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover” (chorus)

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 12.48.50 AM   They just took off your head, Ned

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Guess we can’t chat, Cat

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I know you can’t stand Bran

But at least you still live …

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Shut your big gob Robb,

Your wedding’s a chop shop!

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Poor Jon got the shiv gift,

I wish he still lived …

Ultimately, even Martin’s propensity for killing off his heroes relates heavily to his underlying commitment to taking a wrecking ball to the cliches of fantasy.  Notice, however, that his aim is set squarely on the cliches–not the tropes–of fantasy.  Although it doesn’t appear often, magic does make its way into the books, as do–eventually–dragons.  Martin is a master of utilizing these tropes to sever their attachment to attending cliches: the princess will not need saving from a dragon thank you, she is the Mother of Dragons.  In fact, our sweet Daenerys comes from a family of dragon-riding kings and queens, and these folks weren’t riding them to save the world, but to subjugate it.  Robb Stark makes the seemingly noble choice to marry for love rather than for duty, for which he and most of his family pay a swift and heavy price.

Epic fantasy glories in asking big questions and using a big stage to do it.  One could very easily say that a question like “What constitutes ‘Good’ in a world where our most cherished values are continually under threat?” is something that both Martin and Tolkien address with wonderful results–even though their answers, and the level of certainty around those answers is very, very different in each case.  Tolkien waxed rhapsodic about a rural England which he saw very much endangered, and placed at the center of his epic a country squire and his gardener who together saved the world with persistence, brotherly love, and a fortunately timed bite from doomed Gollum who gambols off the edge of a precipice into a lava flow.  Meanwhile, Martin has abolished gigantic, seemingly omnipotent Dark Lords in favor of the customary evils which we have seen throughout history and continue to see playing out on the world stage–opportunism, brutality, political expedience, religious hypocrisy, religious extremism–take your pick.  This brand of evil seems somewhat more resilient to the efforts of contrasting mores such as nobility, loyalty, and honesty than Sauron who could be vaporized in a flash along with the ring in which all of his power had been bound up.  Martin seems to question the very efficacy of those mores in a world that is completely overtaken with war and the competing interests of the Powerful.  So he is still addressing the question (or related ones), but by recasting the answer in terms of doubt and uncertainty, and recasting the tropes in hugely satisfying and inventive ways, he has done what the very best epic fantasists do–fully realized a compelling world, populated with characters we care about, grappling with big questions in ‘small,’ that is to say immediate and personal, ways.

And as for me?

Well, obviously I can only hope to be a fraction as successful, but hopefully readers will see some fresh approaches in The Hidden Histories.

Personally, I always thought the Bad Guys had the baddest-ass architects in the known universe.  As opposed to being petulant about it and trying to take all their stuff and give it to my ‘good guys,’ I just decided to tell the majority of the story from their point of view.

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I mean come on — Who wouldn’t want to live there?

Totally badass.

I also reject wholeheartedly this notion of breeding baddies full-grown and ugly.  I think they should be perfectly charming looking little rascals who get to grow up in this PFA setting and get a thorough dose of whatever stuff it is that the Bad Guys are packaging and selling to their recruits.  Of course it’s a truism that the bad guys don’t think they’re doing bad when they’re doing it–they think they’re in the right.  My question is: will you?

That’s all I will get into for now.  The questions are really nowhere near as fun to explore without the context of character, setting and plot.  And those are all still in the works!  I figure I’ll keep posting other tidbits as I go.  I will try to make sure they’re not quite as long as this first posting.