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Epic fantasy

My agent recently commented that sales of adult fantasy have really fallen off, except for epic fantasy. (She was talking about sales of manuscripts to publishers, not books to readers.)

Then an author I was talking to at Archon said that although Caitlin (my agent) had turned him down as a client, she’d given him some advice that really helped him — she said that in order to count as epic fantasy, a story has to have multiple viewpoints. This was Mark Tiedemann, btw, and he recently landed THE AGENT, ie, Donald Maass. Congrats to Mark! That is a huge big deal and I bet the two manuscripts he has with that agent will get plenty of attention from publishers even if they aren’t epic fantasies.

But about epic fantasy and that multiple viewpoint idea.

Obviously there’s more to it than that. Like, epic fantasy novels are long, and have warfare and political maneuvering in them; we expect magic; we expect swords to be the weapons of choice though maybe guns are used around the edges a bit. Also, don’t you expect epic fantasy to have a high fantasy tone? An epic may be gritty, but it is never going to be light or humorous and it isn’t going to be sword-and-sorcery either, right?

And at fantasy-fiction.com, an essay suggests that the word “epic” isn’t a random choice, either:

The word “epic” suggests a certain weight, a significance to the work that raises the stakes of the drama, that gives the tale it tells distinctive power and gravitas.

. . . Further, in all of the traditional epics, the narrative of events takes place on what historians call “a world historical scale.” This means that deeds of the main actors, the struggles and journeys that the epics recount, have an effect on the very nature of the world. They permanently change history. For better or worse, something is different at the end.

And the author of this essay (Chloe Smith) then goes on to declare that it’s a story’s depth, rather than its breadth, that makes it an epic; and that epics don’t have to be super-long doorstops.

Well. That’s a very good essay and you should certainly follow the link and read the whole thing, but as far as I’m concerned, I kind of do expect epic fantasies to be really, really long. Not necessarily George RR Martin long, but long. And how about the multiple points of view?

I think that’s true — basically true — usually true — to be most precise, I think it is commercially true at this time that epic fantasy MUST have multiple points of view if you want it to sell to publishers because otherwise they won’t agree it’s epic fantasy — but I also think Marie Brennan (author of MIDNIGHT NEVER COME) offers a really useful take on how multiple POV has been handled in epic fantasy recently versus how it used to be handled and I think she totally hits the nail on the head. Her post made me sit up and go: Yeah, that’s IT.

I think it is harder to become invested in a story when the narrative jumps too quickly from one pov to another; I think George RR Martin does make it easier to follow the narrative from one character to the next than many other recent epic fantasies; that has been a problem for me in reading recent epic fantasies. Even though, like Marie Brennan, I can’t really talk because I also have multiple viewpoint characters even though I’m not writing epic fantasy as such.

I just finished the first two books of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet — A SHADOW IN SUMMER, A BETRAYAL IN WINTER — and frankly I’m epicked out for the moment. Even though I liked both books and they grew on me more and more as I went on and I liked the characters better at the end than I had at the beginning and I really did come to care about Otah and the rest. EVEN THOUGH that is all true, I feel no immediate urge to buy the other two books or to read THE DRAGON’S PATH, which I have downstairs on my TBR pile at this very moment and which I was sort of excited to get to until I suddenly found I had met my quota for epics for the month.

No.

I’m going to go read a nice YA by Patricia Wrede (ACROSS THE GREAT BARRIER). And it’s going to have one close pov and I’m going to read the whole thing in a couple of hours and I know I will enjoy it because hey! Patricia Wrede, right?

And if I ever do tackle an epic of my own? I think I will re-read that essay by Brennan first. In fact, I will probably print it out and tack it to the wall above my laptop. Because I can tell you now, I will almost certainly be aiming to do the multiple pov thing more in the old style than in the new.

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What she said –

Agent Rachelle Gardner says:

“I could be wrong, but I believe we’re moving into an era in which high quality, intensive pre-publication editing is going to be harder and harder to come by.”

I don’t think there’s much chance she’ll be eating those words!

Gardner argues that it matters:

Readers . . . may not be able to identify why they’re not compelled by a book. . . . . BUT. They know when a book is good enough to not only finish but recommend to their friends.

Of course I totally agree! Vehemently, even! But I’m not necessarily the archetype for American readers or anything like that, because I’m pretty sure I’m way more turned off by poor writing quality than most readers.

From time to time you see a discussion about which matters more: pure storytelling or quality of the writing.

And most commenters declare that storytelling is primary and good writing is icing on the cake. And I sort of agree, in only in a yes-but-not-really kind of way.

I’d argue that without a certain level of writing quality, the story itself just cannot be well told. At least, not in written form.

Just what that certain level is . . . that’s a different question, of course! Higher than many self-published books (probably), lower than Twilight . . . in there somewhere.

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Coming up with ideas —

Of course you hear from time to time about prospective writers being nervous that somebody — an agent or editor or whoever — will try to steal their ideas. Or the other way around: somebody wants to sell you his great idea and then all you have to do is write the book! I actually got this offer for the first time a little while ago. (I didn’t actually laugh, but I admit to rolling my eyes.)

Ideas are thick on the ground! For me, they are in particular scattered abundantly through the pages of every book I pick up, even the books that won’t necessarily make my Top Ten List for the year. I thought it might be interesting to show how you can lift ideas from wherever and stir them briskly together to create neat ideas of your own, so here goes!

This weekend, I read THE TIN PRINCESS by Philip Pullman. To be honest, I found the ending disappointing — though not quite as disappointing as an “And then she woke up” ending. (Those are the WORST.) Not that I want to put anybody off the story if they like Pullman and were thinking of looking this one up or something. The story has a lot of good things about it and it’s not like it ends up with all the main characters in a heap of bodies or anything.

But check out this particular bit of description, my favorite passage in the book:

“In the oldest parts [of the city] there weren’t even any streets: The buildings were all jumbled together. According to one tale, the houses would give themselves a shake overnight and turn up somewhere quite different in the morning. According to another, the mists from the river played tricks with the appearance of things: they dissolved statues, altered house names, etched new designs into doorposts and window frames.”

Now, in Pullman’s story, none of that is literally true. But what a great idea! Houses and maybe streets that shift from place to place, and maybe rain instead of mist to dissolve landmarks and etch new designs on houses and other buildings . . . it’s a GREAT idea. For a setting, of course. Now, how about a character to put in this city of shifting buildings and dissolving landmarks?

I also just finished Michelle West’s HUNTER’S OATH and HUNTER’S DEATH. Not my favorite stories ever, but good, and I particularly loved the way the first book started, with a child thief being deliberately lured into trying to steal from the wrong man. Then there’s this great scene of pursuit through the city, with the man using dogs only a step removed from the Hounds of the Wild Hunt to track the thief. I really liked that! All this tension and action and yet the reader, if not the protagonist, knows all the time that the hunter is maybe a bit high-handed but not evil or anything. So it’s exciting without being scary, right?

Okay, a child thief isn’t exactly a new idea, but I’ve always liked thief characters, so why not go for it? Let’s drop a child thief into our shifting city, maybe a girl instead of a boy, and have her snagged by a mysterious but powerful person for reasons of his own. (Or maybe her own?) And let’s not use dogs. Maybe hawks? Wouldn’t that be neat? Oh! Maybe little bitty miniature dragons? Not cute charming ones like Anne McCaffrey’s fire lizards, but scary little things, all sharp talons and black knife-edged scales and gleaming slit-pupilled eyes.

What kind of woman might have little dragons for familiars or pets or companions or whatever? A wizard or mage? Maybe the priestess of some god? Maybe the servant of a BIG dragon somewhere? That could go in all kinds of directions depending on what we want the BIG dragon to be like.

What can we do to make our child thief interesting and engaging? Don’t want her getting lost in the crowd of child thieves, right?

Actually, if it were me, given this idea for the setting and the opening scene, I’d just start writing and see what happens and what kind of voice and background emerge for my thief protagonist. The world would develop around this initial setting and around the protagonist and the secondary but important woman with the little dragons — and then the plot would start to suggest itself. I mean, you probably shouldn’t have a shifting city unless the “shifting” quality of the city is going to actually be important to the plot; ditto with the BIG dragon, even if, in this first scene, it is only glimpsed in your head and not on the page. And if child thieves exist in the city, that tells you something about the society right there, doesn’t it?

And there you go! See how easy that was? If I didn’t have other ideas for what I want to work on next, this would be a perfectly viable candidate. For that matter, maybe I’ll actually come back to it some time. And if somebody else “steals” it first? That’s okay, too! Lots of other ideas out there!

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The Princess Curse

Is a book I wish I’d written!

Here, look:

Okay, full disclosure: I know the author.

But!

What I did not know when I ordered her novel, which just came out (at last!), is that it’s a Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling and a Beauty and the Beast retelling (to a lesser extent, though). I wish I’d thought of that! If she’d asked me to name my two favorite fairy tales, well, there they are. (Really. My favorite version prior to this was Robin McKinley’s short retelling in The Door in the Hedge.)

Plus the Eastern European setting, with Vlad Tepes in the background? How cool is that, right? And I happen to know that Merrie really did her research on Eastern European dragons when she was writing this book, too. I must admit, I don’t remember how to pronounce “zmeu”, even though she pronounced it for me several times.

I didn’t know anything about THE PRINCESS CURSE when I ordered it, except I’d seen the cover. And I knew that Merrie had written this hilarious short story, which is the only other thing of hers I’d ever read and has a line in it that I would love to steal. The one about “having six more beautiful dark eyes” — seriously, go read the story.

Well, THE PRINCESS CURSE was even better than I’d expected — I really want to quote bits, but it would be a shame if I gave away all the best lines. Plus there are a lot of great lines so it would take too long. I did laugh at the “It is a curse of shoes and naps” which everyone is quoting, but there were lots of great bits.

By a startling coincidence, Thea over at The Book Smugglers posted her review just a day before I read this one myself! She does REAL reviews, not like me, so — go read that, and what she said.

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So true —

Janet Reid says —

Describing a character only in terms of race and sexuality: sexy Latina; hot black; frigid bitch (this one was a Labrador retriever I’m guessing)

If you think that’s an enticing way to describe a character, any character, you’re querying the wrong agent.

Ha ha ha ha ha! Okay, maybe the lab reference doesn’t strike everybody else as all that funny, but I definitely smiled.

Also! This exact detail is one that I totally see when I am occasionally coaxed or browbeaten into or otherwise wind up reading some aspiring writer’s first effort at writing a novel. I’ll have to remember to ask: Wait, is this beautiful blond with the dark eyes a labrador retriever?

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Like changing from formal dress into old patched jeans —

After carefully and attentively and critically reading the World Fantasy Award nominees? Reading the two most recent Sookie Stackhouse books was just so comfortable.

Good stories, good storytelling, familiar characters, plenty of action . . . just what I was in the mood for. Except doesn’t Charlaine Harris ever plan to let a romantic relationship really work out for Sookie?

If you had to pick one of her romantic partners or potential romantic partners to be The One, which would it be? Personally . . . I wouldn’t mind if she really did get together permanently with Sam.

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Recent reading

So, I’ve now read five of the six World Fantasy Award nominees. I don’t get to vote, btw; I just get to listen to the panel of judges announce the winner and explain why they picked it. But I like to read the nominees anyway so I can be either outraged or pleased. Maybe I’ll go ahead and get the other one, too, just to have read the complete set.

Two components: Is it great? Is it innovative? Is it “important”, whatever that means? That’s one. And, Do I personally like it? That’s two. Kinda hard to separate the two, but I’ll try. Working from bottom to top:

1) Zoo City . . . not really my cup of tea. It’s a noir-ish cyperpunk-ish near future thing. I didn’t really care about the characters and the author didn’t linger on the aspects of the world that interested me most. I’d have kinda liked a different story set in that world, like about the initial appearance of the “animaled” and more about the link between crime and spirit animals and way more about the “Undertow”. But I did like the way the story worked itself out and I honestly did like the ending very much. Plus, no question, the writing is good and the world is really weird and interesting. I don’t read enough SF these days to be really get why this book stood out for readers, though. For me, not one I’ll ever re-read.

2) The Silent Land . . . I liked this a lot. I do like a horror element sometimes, especially when it’s creepy and suggestive rather than gory and splatter-punk-ish. But . . . I honestly did think it was too obvious what was going on and for me, figuring it out too early did interfere with the creepiness and suspense.

3) Redemption in Indigo . . . again, I liked this. I like the fairy tale / folk tale thing, plus I like a story with a redemption theme. I appreciated the skill with which this story was told, but for me it wasn’t too absorbing, I think because of the distance imposed by the omniscient narrator.

4) Under Heaven . . . I loved this! I loved the language, the style, the beautiful evocative Chinese setting, the characters — especially the female characters. Wonderful book! But I really, honestly do think the book should have been expanded into two books rather than cramming all that stuff into the epilogue. So for me, the pick of the bunch is —

5) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which is probably the best book I’ve read this year. Wonderful style, great characters, absorbing story; yes, okay, you do know sort of what’s coming at the end but seeing how it happens is still gripping. Loved it! Sequel’s just as good! I personally thought it was so good it went right off the top of the scale. Obviously, it’s got my vote. Now just waiting to see what the judges think . . .

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Character development

Oh, hey, look, an entry from Patricia Wrede about character development! (Found the link over at Nathan’s blog.)

I’m a big Wrede fan. Just got another one of her books — it’s on my TBR pile.

If she’d said all this stuff about how she does detailed character sketches before she writes and notes down details about their backstories etc etc . . . I wouldn’t have believed her, I guess.

But no! She’s all like:

I still do most of my characterization by instinct – that is, I don’t get this analytical when I’m actually writing a scene. As I said, for me, it’s more like method acting – trying to be the character for an instant or two, long enough to figure out what to describe.

Which is what we’d expect, right?

And she’s totally right that she has a knack for dialogue and that can carry a lot of the characterization . . . Amberglas in THE SEVEN TOWERS? That was some of the funniest, most effective dialogue EVER and instantly hooked me on Wrede. I haven’t missed one of her books since.

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Here’s a nice little simile

That I noticed on Barbara Hambly’s livejournal.

“As far as I’m concerned, the most important part of the books is how it ends: like a dragon landing on the point of a pencil. It’s got to be right. The whole book is about the ending – and the beginning. It’s what defines the story: how does it start, and where does it end?”

Don’t you love that? Like a dragon landing on the point of a pencil. What an image!

That’s especially apropos because, as you may remember, I specifically mentioned just the other day how much I liked the ending lines from Hambly’s most recent Benjamen January novel, THE SHIRT OFF HIS BACK.

Other great ending?

My vote for best ever is the ending line from Patricia McKillip’s THE BOOK OF ATRIX WOLFE.

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Recent Reading

So, just finished the most recent Barbara Hambly mysteries:

Dead and Buried
and

The Shirt Off His Back

And they were both excellent! These are part of the Benjamen January series, of course, which is set in the 1800s and is my favorite mystery series ever.

Both of these had exactly the same minor flaw: lots of characters that were, in the beginning, hard to keep track of. Eventually you remember who’s who and after that it’s fine.

The former of these two focuses more on Hannibal Sefton and we finally learn something about his past life, so that was interesting. I guess it was starting to feel strange that we didn’t know anything about him, come to think of it. I won’t say the ‘revelation’ at the end came as a shock; it’s hard to imagine any reader being surprised by it, but I didn’t feel that that was a problem. In fact, I sort of thought it added depth to the events of the story to strongly suspect the truth about . . . well, don’t want to give it away; read the book.

Biggest surprise / Biggest disappointment: Augustus Myerling makes an appearance, but there’s NO REFERENCE to his secret (revealed in the first book of the series — A FREE MAN OF COLOR). I was surprised Hambly resisted the urge to add at least an aside to clue the reader in about Myerling! I’ve always liked Augustus Myerling and would have loved to see him get more screen time in this book. In particular, when Ben had to go cross country and Hannibal couldn’t go with him, why not ask Myerling? I’d have liked to see HIM deal with those guys who gave Ben so much trouble on the journey.

Oh, well.

The latter book focuses more on Abishag Shaw and we learn more about HIS past life, against a background of fur trapping and Indians and obsessive vengeance-seeking bad guys. Some unexpected plot twists ensue. I really liked the last line of the book (don’t flip ahead; as always that line will lose its impact unless it comes as it’s supposed to: at the end).

So glad this series is still going strong. My vote for the next book: I want to see the underground railroad stuff become important, and I would particularly appreciate more than a cameo for Myerling. But I get that there are so many neat characters in this series by now that it’s hard to give ’em all the time they deserve.

Before I take another book of the TBR pile, gotta go re-read bits of A FREE MAN OF COLOR.

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