Mar 20

Realmgolds is Published

Realmgolds, the first Gryphon Clerks novel, is now available in the Kindle Store.

Linda Dean, who reviewed it before publication, had this to say:

Realmgolds is one of those books that is an unexpected pleasure... The first chapter leaves you with a puzzled, intrigued sense of interest. These characters draw you in with their personable natures...

This first book of the Gryphon Clerks is a delightful peek into a new world by Mike Reeves-McMillan. I'll be waiting for the next book. Don't miss this!

I'm going to be approaching a lot more people for reviews in the next few weeks, and I hope their verdicts will be similar.

I've already done an interview for a book website (not out yet, so I can't link to it) that's made me think, once again, about the advantages of indie publishing, and how fortunate we are to be living in these times. One of the questions was about how long it took me from start to finish to publish the book. It was sixteen months, including a couple of months working with my editor, Kathleen Dale.

The total cost of publishing Realmgolds was in the region of $1000 (New Zealand dollars; less in USD). That covered getting a professional editor to work with me on development, and having the cover created (to my specifications). Now, I was fortunate to work with the cover illustrator before he became popular - he's put his prices up now, and even so they're very cheap for how good he is - but even so, that's a reasonable figure to have in mind. A thousand dollars. I paid more than that for a sea kayak and some associated gear. If you're just scraping by, finding a thousand dollars is a big ask, but if you're in a well-paid job it's not an enormous amount of money for something you care about.

So working with two other people, on a budget that's barely four figures, in a timeframe of less than a year and a half, I've published a novel.

Bear in mind that if you're going the traditional publishing path, it can easily take that long (or longer) to find an agent. And then that long (or longer) to find a publisher. And then that long (or longer) for the publisher to actually publish the book. And with all their staff, and all that delay, at least one traditional publisher (coughHarperCollinscough) still manages to produce poorly-edited books with crappy covers. For which their authors receive a small proportion of the cover price, not the 70-odd percent that I'll be getting. And they don't get to influence the cover design.

The price we pay for this wonderful new world, of course, is that a lot of crap gets published. Any yahoo can slap the unedited first draft of their NaNoWriMo "novel" up on Amazon without spending a cent: free word processor, free stock photos, free photomanipulation software, no upfront costs to publish. When there's no filter, you get all kinds of crud coming through the pipe.

We have met the filter, though, and they are us.

As well as being a writer, I'm also a reviewer. I review indie books. So do lots of other people, and I'll be approaching many of them and asking them to review mine. These are genuine reviewers, as I am, who don't accept any inducement apart from, possibly, a free book in exchange for their reviews. (I buy most of mine, in fact.)

Yes, there are "review farms" that will give you a five-star review for a price. Yes, you can "sock puppet" reviews under a fake name and say how wonderful a work of genius your own book is, and what crap your competitors' books are. In the end, though, people who do that get found out, one way or another. They get found out by, among others, honest reviewers who call it like they see it.

If you're a regular reviewer and would like to review Realmgolds, leave a comment. That'll give me your email address, and I'll send you a free copy (and no other inducement), and you can say whatever you think about it. I don't hold back from saying publicly, under my own name, what I think about other people's books. I expect no less from people who review mine.

(That link again: Realmgolds in the Kindle store.)

Jan 06

On Writing Strong Protagonists

I grew up in a family with a lot of strong women: my mother, my grandmother, and my two sisters. Perhaps inevitably, I married a strong woman too. I often work with strong women, and get on very well with them. I have a number of women friends whose strength impresses me every time I talk to them. I'll talk about what I mean by "strong" in a minute.

I've recently completed the fourth, and second-to-last, draft of Realmgolds, as the first Gryphon Clerks novel is now known. Most of what I did in that draft involved incorporating beta feedback, and the biggest changes had to do with strengthening the protagonist.

Determined (that's his name) is a bookish young man who wanted to be an historian, but ended up in a position to make history instead. In my earlier drafts, he leaned a lot on Victory, his female counterpart. She made the decisions and solved the problems.

My betas didn't like it. Now, I should point out that the beta who particularly didn't like it is another strong woman, a self-described Jewish mother, so this isn't about unevolved males reading it and saying "The dude needs to not listen to the girl so much, that's weak." Not at all. This is about who the protagonist is.

The word "protagonist" means "someone who struggles for something". If you have a main character who's mostly observing the action, who's yielding to other people to make the decisions, or who's relying on someone else to solve the problems, that's not a protagonist in the true sense of the word.

Unfortunately, that's a type of main character I often see in genre fiction. Actually, what I commonly see is this: the "protagonist" is a young woman who says "I'm strong and independent, I can make my own decisions", makes incredibly poor decisions that get her in trouble, and has to be rescued by a man.

I see that most often in urban fantasy, but urban-fantasy tropes are appearing more and more in steampunk and secondary-world fantasy these days too. Including, unfortunately, that one.

Sorry, but that's not what I think of when I say "strong woman". Or "good story", either. The protagonist needs to solve their own problems, at least once they get past the early part of the book where they're mainly reacting to what's thrown at them. To refer to Dan Wells' seven-point structure, the "midpoint" is where the protagonist makes a decision that they need to do something active to solve the problems, and in my mind, that so-called midpoint needs to come within the first 30% of the book if it's to keep my interest in the character. Even before the midpoint, when they're reacting, they have to be trying to do something. Even if it's only "stay alive".

They don't have to succeed at what they're trying to do all the time, of course - that's what a try-fail cycle is all about. But the point of a try-fail cycle is that it's a cycle. They keep trying, even when they fail. This makes them a protagonist. They're trying to solve the problem.

I've messed up a couple of short stories by having a viewpoint character who isn't the protagonist, so when my beta reader pointed out the issue, I jumped on it. It turned out not to be that hard to rewrite the scenes so that Determined, who's very intelligent, was the one solving the problems.

My worry was that, in making Determined a more active character, I would take away from Victory. She's a very powerful and capable woman, respected, if not necessarily liked, even by her opponents. I tell the reader this early on through the mouth of a minor character. I was concerned that she would be one of those awful woman who the author tells us are strong, but who don't do anything to show it. I didn't want to be guilty of strong-woman tokenism.

I needn't have worried, as I discovered when I did my complete read-through on a printout. As soon as Victory walked, elegantly and confidently, into a scene and started ordering people around just by looking at them, my concerns evaporated.

I read a quote from Joss Whedon recently to the effect that strong men are those who are comfortable around strong women. I like that. It makes my protagonist Determined a very strong man, because he can respect Victory without wanting to take away her power, and at the same time call her out when she becomes imperious and high-handed.

So when will the book be out? Currently, I'm waiting for my cover guy, who's heavily booked because he's good. I'm also talking with a heavily-booked editor about whether I should work with her or someone else. So the answer at the moment seems to be "March-ish". I'll keep you posted.

Oct 17

Decisions to Make, Things to Learn

So I got an answer back from the small-press publisher where I'd submitted The Gryphon Clerks.

They called it well-written, with many merits, a fresh and engaging premise and a unique and engaging setting, but they felt the story and the characters were buried under too much setting explanation. Which is probably a fair call, and not too distant from the feedback I had from my betas.

I'd already decided that the book I've nearly finished would now be the "first" book (it takes place at the same time as The Gryphon Clerks, but in different locations with mostly different characters). I feel it's a much stronger book, with a clearer plot. Most of it was written after I started outlining, for one thing.

It's shorter, too. (I'm going to have to push to reach 60,000 words, which is considered the lower end of novel length by a lot of people, whereas TGC is a little over 80K.) Originally, it was all part of the same book, but I realized I was trying to tell two stories at once and separated them, like a surgeon separating conjoined twins.

If I end up self-publishing, which is on the table, I'd like to try what Lindsay Buroker has been doing and eventually make the first book in the series a free sample, so I needed a stronger book than The Gryphon Clerks is (as it stands), and preferably a short one, to be that first book.

Why is self-publishing on the table? Well, not because I've had one rejection from one publisher. Truth is, I've been rethinking the advantages of small-press publication since the Ridan Publishing fiasco burst. Short version, if you haven't been following: seems this small, husband-and-wife-owned press stopped communicating with its authors, and then stopped paying them, and then stopped shipping books that people had bought from them. Or so it is alleged. Before this, they were considered one of the better small presses, too, so I'm understandably more hesitant now about going with a small press. There was a strong dose of relief mixed in with the disappointment at being turned down.

I do have a couple of other small-press publishers I could try, but I'm going to hold off for now. Here's the current plan:

  1. Finish drafting Realmgold (the new "first" book). I've only got a couple more chapters in my outline, and I have some time off from work, so all going well this should happen by the end of the week or thereabouts.
  2. Go over it with a bit of coarse sandpaper and then ship it out to some beta readers (you can volunteer in the comments or on Google+).
  3. While awaiting feedback, either work on an outline for the next book, currently called Agents of Victory, or go back over TGC and see if I can dig the story out from under the setting after all.
  4. Revise in line with feedback.
  5. Decide what I do next: self-publish (which would involve hiring a development editor and a cover artist, something I have the money to do) or submit to another small press.
I could, potentially, have two books ready to go by the beginning of the year, and another well underway. Successful self-publishers all seem to have one thing in common (it's about the only thing people can agree on about self-publishing success): they have a series. If I can get the first couple of books out quickly, and the third not too long afterwards, there's a chance to build some momentum.
When I say "quickly", I don't mean to imply sacrificing quality. I'm not going to shove out something half-done. I still feel that I'm learning the craft of writing whole works of fiction, although I'm a better-than-average writer of sentences. Let's see how good I can get at character, plot and setting.
Aug 26

Beta Feedback

Well, I've had feedback from my wonderful beta readers. One hasn't finished yet (just got a new job, so I let him off), but the other two have, and the feedback is consistent.

Consistent not only with each other, but also with my own suspicions about what didn't work and what could be stronger. Although they did relieve my concerns about a couple of things, such as whether I'd been descriptive enough.

All three of them (and my other reader who gave feedback on an early partial draft) disliked the parentheses. Having almost eliminated semicolons from my writing, I think parentheses may be next. They all felt the parenthetical explanations of background facts broke the flow, and I need to find a better way of communicating the worldbuilding aspects of the story.

I'm gearing up now for a major rewrite. I've not done this with my previous books, but they were less ambitious and not surrounded by dozens of other stories begging to be told. I need to streamline the story, focussing on Berry as the main character and viewpoint character. If Berry didn't know about it directly or from someone who was there, it doesn't go in this book.

It may well go in another book, though, or stand on its own as a short story. I don't regret writing the backstories of so many characters. I think it was a good exercise, and they won't be lost - except for one.

Tranquil the statistician defied my attempts to make him interesting, and he's going to be cut altogether. I'm going to have a smaller, more focussed group of characters with a clearer purpose and better-thought-through character arcs. Some of the characters will drop into the background, while others will take on new significance. Originally, I thought this would be an ensemble-cast book, but it really is Berry's story.

Most of this is subtraction, but there will be addition as well. I want to spend a bit more time on the three secondary characters (Rain the ex-gang enforcer, Breeze the werewolf and Vigilant the spiritually-inclined lawyer), and I've come up with a major change to one relatively minor character which gives her more depth and sets up for one of the other books. Here's a hint: when you have a character who's already kind of a badass, how can you make her even more so? Answer: take away her legs.

It'll be a lot of work, but I think I'll come out of it with a very marketable book. My betas think the same.

Aug 15

First draft finished! What’s next?

Well, I finally got my first draft done on The Gryphon Clerks.

I started writing at the beginning of November last year, so that's eight and a half months - not bad. The manuscript is at 108,000 words, but that doesn't count the more than 30,000 words I've chopped out and put into two other projects.

One of them doesn't have a title yet. It's all the political stuff that's going on during the story of The Gryphon Clerks. I wanted to keep the focus on the clerks, and particularly Berry, and that whole secondary plot wasn't really interacting much with the main story, so I pulled it out as a separate book. It's 28,000 words, so that's a good start on a novel in its own right.

The other story that I've hived off from the main one is called Agents of Victory at the moment. I realized near the end of the first draft that I had this secondary character who, again, wasn't interacting with Berry at all, and so probably didn't belong in the book. She's Grace, the niece of the Countygold Patience, and she's involved in a sting on a crooked charity fundraiser which goes so well that she achieves her ambition of being admitted to the Realmgold's Agents.

The Realmgold's Agents are kind of an FBI-style organization who, under Realmgold Victory's predecessor, were instruments of state oppression. But Victory has purged the psychos and stormtroopers, staffed the Agents with Gryphon Clerks, and made them into an elite force who work to bring down organized crime and corruption. This sets them against the wealthy and powerful, with Victory's full backing (it's part of her program of social reform).

Rain, the former street fighter, is going to join the very aristocratic (and very smart) Grace, and they'll be an odd-couple partnership going undercover as fluffy, flighty mistress and incompetent maid. I think it could be a lot of fun.

I've also been writing some short stories in the world of the Gryphon Clerks, a couple of which I've submitted for publication (haven't heard back on either of them yet). One is a 5000-worder set on a skyfrigate, which I hope will form part of an eventual novel. I'm planning to have a plot point in the political-maneuverings novel where a skyfrigate is sent off to get more mercenaries from a free city to the south which specializes in providing them, and does a bit of a tour of the southern countries in the process. That book, if it eventuates, will probably be called Unconquerable, after the ship.

I've also written a 6000-word short story for a competition called "Gnome Day", based off a single moment in a minor scene in The Gryphon Clerks. Since there were (if I recall right) over 1700 entries received for that competition and only six will get published, I'm not holding my breath, but you never know.

If it isn't selected, I'll submit it elsewhere. It's a standalone, although I've also done another 3,400-word story also set around the events surrounding Gnome Day (when Victory frees the gnomes). I suppose I could do a few more and have my own little theme anthology.

So that's about 154,000 words, by my count, in the world of the Gryphon Clerks. I have a couple more ideas, too, including an actual sequel (not just exploring the same time period from different viewpoints) called Underground Railroad. The dwarves, reacting to Victory's emancipation of the gnomes, build underground tunnels between their holds and take their trade under the mountains to the south, so that they can continue their slaveholding ways. Victory's response is to build airships to trade the products of free gnomes with the same southern realms. I have one character already, Amethyst, a dwarf woman who poses as a gnome in order to be able to leave the dwarf hold (which is forbidden to dwarf women normally), and works with the gnome underground to get enslaved gnomes to freedom.

Before all this, though, I need to get feedback from my beta readers to tell me if I'm totally missing the boat with The Gryphon Clerks. I'm sure the book has issues, I'm just not certain what they are yet. Hopefully my lovely beta readers will tell me.

If you want to join the beta readers, there are places available - just comment here. I'll need feedback within a month, so that I can start looking for a publisher. Thanks!

Jun 18

Progress Update

I passed the milestone of 100,000 words for The Gryphon Clerks on the weekend.

That doesn't count several spinoff short stories that I'm writing and submitting to various places, to practice my writing skills (and get my name out there, and develop some interesting bits of the world and the story that aren't central enough to go in the novel).

I haven't mentioned this here on the blog, but my thinking at the moment is that this is one big book rather than several smaller ones. That's subject to revision, of course, like everything else. It neatly solves the title question, though. One thick book, The Gryphon Clerks.

I've reached a difficult point, in terms of motivation. About a third of the way through I did an outline, which I'm now working to. It has its plusses and minuses. On the plus side, it's relatively easy to think of what to write about, because I already thought about that. I just have to sit down and do it.

On the downside, that isn't as much fun as just wandering about discovering things.

Also, I'm now in the part of the book with a lot of conflict, and I don't really like writing conflict that much. I'm very soft-hearted towards my characters, to the detriment of my writing. A character who I like quite a lot is about to go through some tough times, and even though it's going to lead to good things for him, and I know that, he doesn't know it and I hate to do that to him (and to other people who aren't going to be as fortunate).

Another plus of the outline, though, is that when I'm stuck on one bit I can write another bit instead.

I do feel like I'm kind of ploughing through at the moment, not knowing if it's any good, sometimes resorting to "rich outlining" (my term for telling the story rather than showing it - I'll go back later and replace the bare narrative of events with dialogue and action). I estimate that I'll probably hit about 150K by the time I've got through the whole outline and expanded it up.

That's long for a novel, though I'm told that Patrick Rothfuss's novels are about 400K (they don't seem like it, they're so involving). I may need to trim some stuff that doesn't contribute to the main story. (It can potentially become short stories, of course, or a novella occurring parallel to the main novel.) Maybe even combine a couple of characters, because so far some of them haven't done very much, though again they can have their own stories off to the side later on.

After I get through the whole outline, and expand my "rich outlines" into proper storytelling, comes revision. I think of this as the process of getting from the "pig draft" to the "goat draft": it still stinks, but it's not as ugly.

Somewhere either before or after the goat draft stage, I want to submit it to a small press I have my eye on. They ask for the first 15,000 words as a sample, which (I worked out) goes up to the end of Berry's story, before anyone else tells their backstory. I'm already reasonably happy with that, so it may go out while a lot of the rest of the book is still in pig draft, or even before I finish expanding the rich outlines.

I suppose I could even do it now. I don't think I will, though. Events later on will affect the characterization of Victory, who's one of the first two characters we meet, and I want to loop back round and sow the seeds of continuity back in those early chapters once the end is written.

Plus I'm nervous about submitting, of course.

Apr 19

Review Swap

OK, fellow writers, let's talk about swapping reviews.

I write a lot of reviews on both Goodreads and Amazon. I read a lot (I'll talk about what I read in a minute), and I used to be a book editor years ago. I also have a couple of books up in the Kindle Store that could do with more reviews.

So my proposal, O Fellow Writer, is that we review each other's books.

There are terms and conditions, of course, and they are these:

  1. If one of us isn't really interested in what the other one writes, then no deal. See below for what I read and write.
  2. We each have a month to read the other's book and write a review.
  3. When we've each informed the other that we've written the review, we both publish on Amazon and Goodreads.
  4. It doesn't have to be a positive review, and neither one of us gets to see the other's review before publication.
  5. It does have to be substantial, and if one of us doesn't like the other's book we will say why (it may be someone else's favourite thing ever).
  6. If your book is poorly proofread, poorly punctuated or full of Inigo Montoya moments ("You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means"), I will call you on it. Remember, I was a professional editor for a large publishing house.
  7. I'll do my best to read charitably and find things I like to mention, and so will you.
  8. We'll both disclose in our reviews that we did the swap.

What I read

I read mostly fantasy, urban and rural. But I'm not into:

  • "dark" fantasy
  • retread epics in which the Chosen One quests after the lost McGuffin of Whozis (while empires clash) in order to defeat the Dark Lord, and it's basically a phone book - long, boring and full of names
  • super-gritty urban fantasy, or erotica with a thin urban fantasy veneer (some contextual sex or violence is fine).

I much prefer werewolves to vampires, and I have a strong aversion to long descriptions of cruelty.

I do not zomb.

I read some SF if it's about how technology affects people (individually or collectively) rather than being all cold and hard (with the people being there mainly to point at the tech).

Post-apocalyptic anything is a turn-off for me, and so is putting the apocalypse in partway through. I've abandoned two series which I was, up until then, enjoying when the nuclear bombs went off.

Space opera is absolutely fine and dandy, and I will happily accept genre tropes in place of actual science if you don't push it too hard. 

I love superhero novels.

Lately, I've been reading more and more steampunk, too. What I've noticed is that some steampunk authors (I name no names here, but read my Goodreads reviews) think that a 1930s-style pulp plot, a veneer of Victoriana, and liberal use of the words "brass", "steam", "crystals", "airships" and "punch cards" make a good steampunk novel. They do not.

What I write

My work in progress, which I'm not soliciting reviews for yet, is a steampunkish secondary-world fantasy with a sci-fi skeleton. It's about heroic civil servants.

I have two (fiction) books up on Amazon at the moment. City of Masks is a nonmagical fantasy - it's in a secondary world, but the spec-fic aspect is sociological, not magical or technological. It's told in the form of diary entries, with a "period language" feel, though it's not the language of any actual historical period. Here's the teaser:

In the city-state of Bonvidaeo, by custom and law everyone must wear a mask and act in character with it, or face civil, social and religious penalties.

Gregorius Bass is sent to Bonvidaeo as the Envoy of Calaria, mainly to get him out from underfoot. Masked as the Innocent Man, and in the company of his radical young Bonvidaoan servant, Bass stumbles into mystery, intrigue, heresy and murder.

(Imagine if G.K. Chesterton and Alexandre Dumas adapted Pepys' diary into a serial killer mystery set in a mad version of Shakespeare's Italy. With wasps.)

Gu is an SF novella set on Earth in an unspecified part of the 21st century, but probably at least 30 years from now. It's told in the second person, in the form of a documentary. (Yes, I do like to experiment, why do you ask?)

Teaser:

Gu is the last industrial product, the substance that can be anything - programmable matter for the masses. Fifteen years after its launch, follow documentary filmmaker Susan Halwaz as she interviews the creators, users and opponents of Gu about how it's changed society.

A Charles Stross-esque novella of future technology and its discontents.  

How to proceed

If, having read all that, you want to participate in the review swap, get in touch with me and we can swap ebooks. Either leave a comment (which will give me your email address), contact me on Google+, or just email masks at csidemedia.com.

Excelsior!

Feb 09

Finished my second draft

I've just completed my second draft. By including the first bit of a subplot that will get a lot more airtime in volume 2, I've managed to just edge over 50,000 words. Hey, I write short. No epic fantasy phonebooks here.

I'm putting the invitation out now for beta readers. My first lot of betas have been very quiet, and I'm not sure why. The only one who's got back to me didn't like the first draft, but he had some constructive suggestions about why he didn't like it, which I've tried to follow in Draft 2.

The clerks' stories are now expanded and contain more showing and less telling, more dialog and description and less narrative. I think that's a definite improvement, and one I can take into Vol 2.

Volume 2

I've started the second book (before I went back and revised the first one thanks to my friend's feedback), and I have a list of things that can go wrong for the characters. The trick will be spacing them out, or as Jim Butcher puts it, setting up all the dominoes and then knocking them over. My besetting sin as a writer is to solve my characters' problems for them instead of letting them struggle and triumph over their challenges.

More and more characters keep turning up. After 22 pages I have seven or eight new ones who are likely to recur, plus three minor ones who may or may not get speaking roles. In addition to the 10 major characters and their hangers-on, introduced in the first book. That may be a little out of hand.

It is very much an ensemble cast, though, even if Berry is the viewpoint character most of the time.

I know I don't have many subscribers here yet, but I'll say this anyway: Comment if you want to be a beta reader. But only if you're going to read it and get back to me quickly!

Jan 06

Map of Koskant, Progress, and Title Ideas

I spent a bit of time yesterday and this morning fixing up this map that I created a few years ago, back when the background to the Gryphon Clerks was going to be a game setting. (I built in so many story hooks that I finally couldn't resist telling the actual story. Besides, writing a game is hard, takes a lot of testing that I don't have time for, and brings you a lot less reward per hour spent unless it's really popular.)

Map of Koskant

In case you're wondering, I used AutoRealm to make it. I'd forgotten how annoying AutoRealm can be (those jungle bits have hundreds of trees in them, and it slowly redraws them every time you move the viewport - which may be partly my using AutoRealm wrong, of course). You have to switch off all the toolbars - one at a time - to make the jpg export capture what you want it to capture. And it hasn't been updated since 2006, and doesn't work on my Mac (I had to dig out the old Windows machine, which makes it even slower). But it does make good-looking maps, eventually.

I moved the railways and the River Koslin (which used to let out much further north), added the Tussocklands and the Gulf islands, labelled the provinces and added and named their capitals, added the trail from Snakebridge to Gulfport and named Snakebridge and the Dragonpeaks, but otherwise this is pretty much how the map has looked all along. (The little coppery moons, if you're wondering, indicate that the feared Copper Elves infest the forests and jungles.)

I'm about to send the characters to the Beasthead Country for what may turn out to be Book 2.

Progress and titles

I'm at 46,000 words in the current draft, and by the time I fill in some odds and ends I should be comfortably over 50,000. My thinking at the moment is that that will be Book 1 of a trilogy (yes, I know), and Act I in the continuing stooory of the Gryphon Clerks.

I have a nice ending in mind, but haven't decided on a title. My candidates at the moment are "Stories" and "Introductions". So the whole trilogy is The Gryphon Clerks, and the first book is The Gryphon Clerks: Stories (or Introductions). Has kind of a Fables title feel to it, and I love Fables (the Bill Willingham graphic novel series, that is, though I also love fables-the-phenomenon).

So the trilogy could be titled Introductions, Challenges and Resolutions, which is kind of hanging a lampshade on the three-act structure, or I could start with Stories (or maybe Origins?). Still mulling that one over. If you have an opinion, leave me a comment!

Dec 12

What I’m not doing with the Gryphon Clerks (and why)

The thing about a well-established genre like fantasy is that it has certain conventions that everyone just assumes.

This is both a trap and an opportunity. A trap, if you go in unthinkingly and just do things because that's how they've been done by hundreds of other authors before you, in which case you are contributing to a perception of the genre as derivative and unoriginal. Contributing to making that perception accurate, in fact.

It's an opportunity, on the other hand, if you take those now-classic riffs and give them a whole chunk of funk.

Here are a few of those assumptions, overused ideas and conventions, and how I plan to subvert them, twist them and otherwise funkify them.

The hero is the big guy on the horse with the sword

We can trace this one, if we want to, back to the invasions by mounted barbarians that swept from east to west across the European plains, and the fact that history is written by the victors.

In my setting, the big guy on the horse with the sword is solving the wrong problem. The hero is the one who's making tough choices that benefit other people as his or her own cost, and doing so through working together with other people of goodwill. Hence the tagline about heroic civil servants.

Actually, the hero is the sassy kick-ass girl these days

Big guys on horses are increasingly giving way to smart young women with attitude. Unfortunately, they are still, generally, solving the same kind of problems in the same way (beat people up until they stop opposing you), only with better banter and wearing better shoes.

I actually think women are capable of solving problems more creatively than that. Men, too.

OK, The unlikely hero is the little guy from an ordinary background who saves the world

The thing about the way most fantasy heroes save the world is that it's intensely protective of the status quo. We mostly have Tolkien to thank for this, though any genre that looks back in time for its models and then idealises them is going to be inherently conservative. The traditional fantasy hero is reluctantly drawn into vast events when his small, comfortable world is threatened.

My little folks (who are, for the most part, only figuratively little, and do not have hairy feet - or light fingers) don't react to threats so much as they have an ideal of a better world and believe they can help to create it. I'd say that they're progressives, except that a particular political agenda which isn't always my agenda is associated with that word.

But surely There must be a chosen one to combat the Dark Lord?

The whole Chosen One/Dark Lord plot has been so done to death I won't even read a book that signals it in the blurb. GET A NEW PLOT, PEOPLE!

No Chosen One. No Dark Lord. Some of my villains don't even kick puppies, they just have a different agenda from the heroes and are sometimes less ethical about what they'll do to advance it.

It's not actually necessary for a villain to wear black and twirl his moustaches while tying a girl down in the path of an oncoming train. You can be a bit more subtle in your depiction of opposition. This isn't American political television.

Ahem. So, um, elves - they're all noble and emo, right?

Why? Just because Tolkien's were?

Read some of the original source material about the elves. They're vicious bastards, and they think humans are scum. They'd enslave them if they could. So yes, they are "noble" if by "noble" you mean "like the actual medieval nobility".

So, in my setting, they had an empire that was a bit like the Roman Empire and a bit like the British Empire and, in places, a bit like the Third Reich. And humans managed to get out from under them by a process that I may or may not get around to explaining fully, but they still have a lot of culture and religion derived from the Elves. The human nobility, whose ancestors were mostly house-servants and who took over the mansions when the Elves saw the writing on the wall and bailed out, still worship the Elves' star-gods, for example. High culture is conducted in Elvish, or at least in the Elvish script.

Oh, and the Elves were bioengineers. They made gryphons and flying horses and werewolves and kelpies and beast-headed people and medicine cows that are milked for pharmaceuticals. They made humans stronger and healthier and capable of using magic. All their stuff looks - and probably is - grown rather than built. In contrast to the dwarves.

Dwarves? Little hairy guys with axes and helmets?

Little industrialists with ledgers and scale balances. Technologists and businesspeople. They coin all the money, since everyone trusts their contracts and the purity of their alloys, even if they don't like the money-grubbing little buggers. Anything made out of metal is made in a dwarf-owned workshop - usually by gnomes, who are a dwarf underclass and your basic exploited industrial workforce.

A dwarf won't fight when he can trade. He doesn't carry an axe - he has people for that sort of thing.

Trolls, right? Or goblins or something?

Nope. No "evil races" or "lesser races" or "degenerate races". We're not in the 1930s. There are people, and other kinds of people.

At least tell me there's a quest

Oh, Harry Potter and the Far Too Many Plot Tokens? No.

Oh, there are magical gizmos and so forth, and they're useful and amusing, but no McGuffin. You don't need one if you have a real reason for people to take action, like, I don't know, redemption, or revenge, or protecting your people, or proving to yourself that you're not that guy, or any of the dozen reasons that real people have for the things we do.

Realism? You're writing a realistic novel?

No, no, no. I find realistic fiction boring, because the sets are so predictable. Give me a flying ship powered by magically-generated steam and a levitation spell any day.

So it's steampunk?

Well, there's the aforementioned steam, plus at least one set of brass goggles, and probably magical artificial intelligences/computers. The female ruler's name is Victory, too. But she's not even slightly Victorian, and the dialogue is mostly normal contemporary language. I did "period" in my last novel, and I think I pulled it off, but it's a lot easier to write the way I talk.

I will say this: Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from mad science.

Bioengineering, antigravity, computers - why not just stage it as sci-fi?

I have a funny relationship with the science fiction and fantasy genres. See, I have a little scientific training, and that's my worldview, for the most part, but I find a lot of contemporary science fiction bleak, alienated and hopeless. Fantasy is a lot warmer and more human, and it's more about human values and ideals, which is what I'm most interested in. But I can't stop thinking like a scientist, so it's hard to just say "a wizard did it" and move on.

Hence this strange collision of retrofuture-sci-fi-inspired technologies in period steampunk dress, powered by magic.

Genres are there to make it easier to lay out a bookshop, after all. They shouldn't become boundaries of the imagination.