Step One

I had been writing fantasy and science fiction for years before it finally dawned on me that if I was really serious about it I really ought to understand its roots. This was some time in my late 20s, right before the birth of my first child. For many years I threw myself into an exploration of great or influential (occasionally both) and frequently obscure fantasy fiction from the mothers and fathers of fantasy. I dove deep, and by the time I came up for air I had learned an awful lot. I do recommend understanding the ground on which we stand so that writers can better understand how to move forward.

However, I recently realized that while I was reading all that old stuff– some of which was cool, a little of which I loved so much I moved it to my favorites list, and a lot of which was turgid or simply not my cuppa — I was NOT reading a whole generation of literature that had a tremendous influence on a lot of my peers writing today. For instance, I missed out on the whole Robert Jordan thing. By the time I was through with my scholarly investigations, word was out that Jordan had begun to stretch those middle volumes, so I never dipped in.It might be that I would have gotten hooked enough that I’d be frantically reading the Sanderson/Jordan volumes like many of the rest of you.

Me, I still like books that feel like a movie in length. However, I don’t think that’s what the fantasy book buying public wants these days. They want a book that feels like a miniseries. You have only to look at the bestselling adult fantasy series to see this. Almost all of them are weighty tomes. Now that I’m looking at the evidence it’s incredibly obvious. It was made even more obvious to me at Worldcon 2012, when I was manning the Black Gate booth. A woman dropped by to look at the thick, gorgeous editions of the magazine, each featuring a colorful and striking cover.

“What’s this?” She asked, obviously attracted by the heft and professional look of the mag. When I told her that it was a collection of short stories she immediately sat it down. “I only like big fantasy novels that I can really lose myself in,” she said, then thanked me and walked off. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard something like that, but it was the first time it really stuck with me.

If I am to make a career of this whole thing, I need to find a way to provide what the audience wants while at the same time pleasing my own storytelling muse (if I’m not enjoying what I’m writing, I have a hard time believing it can be any good). Step one has been reading a lot of the most popular fantasy series so I can see how true masters of their craft can spin long yarns. I’ve been taking a lot of notes…



17 Comments on “Step One

  1. I’m curious which series you’ve been reading and which you’ve liked…

    • I started late last year when I finally read Red Seas Under Red Skies, the sequel to Lynch’s wonderful Lies of Locke Lamora. Of the big fantasy names Lynch is probably my favorite. I find his pacing and plotting and character arcs marvelous.

      I quite enjoyed Peter Brett’s first two novels, haven’t yet read the third, and was very impressed with Patrick Rothfuss’ first and haven’t tried the second. Then I’ve read several books by Michael Sullivan, Joe Abercrombie, and George RR Martin, and I’m about half way through the first Brandon Sanderson novel I’ve ever cracked open. So far I’ve liked all these quite well; I’ve agreed with some criticisms of the works, and disagreed with others.

      As far as more detailed reactions, I’m in a weird spot discussing them in much depth because at this point I’m at least spoken with all of these guys (only briefly in passing in Sanderson’s case), and am on friendly terms with others. I no longer feel comfortable doing the same sorts of public critiques and reviews I used to do for Black Gate years back.

      • Thank you. Sounds like you have the making of another post in the future, I’m reading N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology at the moment which is very good. Compared to some of the others, they are remarkably lean and trim at around 400 pages each.

  2. Howard, I agree with you on your point about knowing what the reading public wants and giving it to them in order to be successful. On the other hand, please allow me to respectfully play devil’s advocate.

    I think there is a “fat fantasy fatigue” that is growing in at least some segments of the reading public. I like books that aren’t going to take up a sizable chunk of my time. Maybe I’m a little attention deficit, or maybe my memory is starting to go with age, but by the time the next book comes out (often years later) in some of these series, I’ve forgotten much of what happened in the previous book. Or who half these people are. (Names have always given me trouble.) I don’t usually have the time or desire go back and reread a doorstopper of a book so I can keep up with what is going on in the sequel. That’s why I’ve read so few of the big thick fantasies in the last decade.

    This is especially true when I have time constraints like I do with my teaching load this semester. I’m about 6 weeks behind where I should be in my reading and reviewing. I prefer the novels I can finish in one or two evenings, and I especially love short stories. So please don’t quit writing at the shorter lengths. Not all readers are turned off by them.

    And as for enjoying what you write, maybe you could have several plotlines that in themselves would work as independent novels but tie into the larger story arc. You could bounce back and forth between them or write them one at a time or whatever brings you the most enjoyment, then tie them together in one or two chapters at the end. This approach could result in a thicker novel readers could lose themselves in. If your name was on it, I’d read it even if it was nearly 1,000 pages.

    • Keith, I’m in the same spot as you are with my skepticism about big fat fantasy. I would still rather sit down with a shorter novel or even a short story collection, and I’m not sure if I got that way because I grew up reading Amber and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the tales of Khlit the Cossack, or because I have limited spare time as a father of two children. I don’t understand, in today’s busy environment, why short story markets and shorter novels aren’t flourishing.

      They’re not, though. I’ve watched sadly (from the sidelines, as my time with Black Gate is minimal these days) as Black Gate magazine and other short story markets had to close up their print divisions. People just aren”t buying the magazines. And Big Fat Fantasy novels are still killing in the market place.

      That said, I have a hard time imagining trying to turn myself into a Jordan doorstop writer. Lynch and Abercrombie write longer novels than mine, though, and have wonderful pacing. I have been giving a lot of thought about how they go about that.

      I love your suggestion of wrapping multiple plotlines, and am sincerely thankful for your kinds words! Not every one of my books is going to be about Dabir and Asim, but I think that I am likely always to be writing about heroes.

      • Lynch and Abercrombie are probably two of my favorites right now at longer lengths. Just wish I had more time to dive into them. Paul S. Kemp is another whose work I’ve discovered and enjoy.

        I wonder if the short fiction market hasn’t shifted from print to electronic. I hate (hatehatehate) that Black Gate isn’t a print publication any more. OTOH, there seems to be more electronic markets popping up lately for short fiction of all varieties. Resnick just launched one over the weekend. And from what I understand, the short novel and novella forms are doing well in electronic format if for no other reason than the authors can get more titles out quicker.

        • I didn’t hear that about Resnick — thanks for the info.

          And I have heard about short novels and novellas doing okay. I wonder how well known I have to be before that can work for me? There is some stuff I’d love to try, given a little more spare time.

  3. Howard, I’m with Keith on this one. I’m loving Game of Thrones, but I also really, really like quick, adventurous, fun, exciting fantasy… it’s probably my favorite thing about Desert of Souls and Bones of the Old Ones. You don’t need a glossary, family tree, atlas or some sort of conversion table to tell what’s going on.

    While I like Game of Thrones, I have had to, on occasion, stop reading to pull out the iphone and consult the wiki to figure who the hell was being talked about, or talking, etc. etc.

    There’s a lot of phone book fantasy, but I come to you for the Indiana Jones fantasy!


    • Thanks, Mick. I appreciate that! It may be that I’ll be writing both — although I’m not sure I’ll quite go to phone book fantasy sizes. I think I’d be too slow for that. Whatever size I go to, I don’t ever want to be accused of padding or slow pacing.

  4. I much prefer the classic under-200-page DAW fantasy books to most of today’s interminable doorstoppers. I set myself the task of reading Tad William’s “Memory, Thorn and Sorrow” trilogy. Decent enough books, but for every great character or plot element it felt like there was another hundred pages of dross to slog through. I feel like too many of the phone book fantasy novels aren’t worlds to lose yourself in but padding to make it look like you’re getting something profound and important for you dollars. I hope Keith’s right and there is some sort of doorstopper fatigue setting in.

    • Hi Fletcher — thanks for dropping by! I haven’t tried that particular series yet, but I have heard that criticism of large fantasy novels before. It kept me from trying a lot of these recent and influential books for a long, long time.

      I’m just not sure about the fatigue. I wish there was more interest in the market place for shorter novels, but the big sales numbers are primarily with the really big novels.

      Which of those long ones have you read that you did NOT feel were padded?

      • All sorts of philosophical issues aside, I like R Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series. Steve Erikson’s Malazan has been great but I needed a break after five books.

        • I have not yet tried Bakker, and I haven’t given Erikson’s work a fair shake. I have several over on the shelf…

      • Well, here’s the trend I’ve been noticing.
        The first novel is exciting, with a great premise and exciting new world and fascinating new characters, and it’s great.
        The second novel is more of the same, and it’s exciting to see the heroes you’ve come to care for in the first novel get into new, interesting situations.
        Third novel: ditto, but some of the secondary characters introduced start blurring together, and get confused with other secondary characters from Vol. 1.
        Fourth novel, you start to think “gee, I bet the lead character does X” and then lead character does X. And that character that was funny and witty in book one? You start to get sick of their shit by book four, and kind of hope something awful befalls them.
        And then you start book five, and it’s a slog, and you keep thinking “good god, who are all these other people I keep reading about? I just wanted to read about X, Y and Z (all of whom were introduced in novels 1 or 2), AND you realize that there’s three more novels, but you’ve already invested so much time and effort, that it’d be a waste of all that not to see how 6, 7 and 8 go…

  5. Two teenage girls overheard in the fantasy section of a big chain bookstore, as they debate wether to grab a copy of Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword or not…
    Girl 1: “What genre do you like?”
    Girl 2: “Thick books.”

    I grew up with short stories collections and 1980s paperback novels – DelRey, Bantam, DAW – when 300 pages was “a fat book”.
    And geting older, I find stories more interesting to read, and trickier to write.
    You can’t get sloppy, writing short fiction.

    • “Thick books.”

      I love that answer. It IS possible to write thick books and have pacing that doesn’t go flat. Lynch and Abercrombie pull it off beautifully. They keep things interesting, and while they’re surely descriptive, you never see them slowing things down just to make things a wee bit longer.

      I also like this “I find stories more interesting to read, and trickier to write.” I have to say that the more I write, the more I realize how tricky it really is to write well, which makes me even more in awe of the writers I really admire.

      One of the things I am absolutely dying to write is a closely interconnected series of short stories in a secondary world, each one building upon the next. But there’s no market for that kind of thing in print anymore. Anthologies and short story collections sell badly, if at all. The current generations don’t seem to dig Lankhmar or Conan or (even more obscure) the Steppes of Harold Lamb’s Cossack saga. I don’t think they’ve heard of them. So if I DO ever get the time to get this saga down I’ll probably do it as sets of short stories sold in e-versions.

      • I would buy that set of stories since I really like that format. I’ve got plans for a couple of such series, and while I’m trying some of the markets, I’ll probably do the e-book thing with most of them.

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