Sep 15

How to End a Story

I've been thinking lately about how to end stories, not only because I'm finishing up the first Gryphon Clerks novel and I'm unhappy with how I ended it, but because I've read some stories recently that don't finish. They just stop.

I won't name the anthology I'm thinking of, but I've read partway through it and story after story just stops. It's like I'm getting the first acts of these stories without the middle and the end. The characters and situation are introduced, there's an inciting incident which hits on something important enough to the characters that they want to do something or change something, and then... scene. I actually said aloud when I got to the end of one of them, "Is that it?"

Story after story. By different people. It's like the anthology call said, "Stories must stop abruptly," or the editor cut off the last two acts to see if anyone would notice.

Anyway, that got me thinking about what does and doesn't work as an ending to a story. (By "work" of course I mean "work for me", but I think that, for a change, I may not be atypical in what I like here.)

Here are five ways to end a story. They're not mutually exclusive, or exhaustive.

1. The situation is resolved

A classic story structure is (simplified): Act 1, we meet the characters, learn the situation, something changes that destabilizes the situation and makes the characters want to take action. Act 2, the characters strive for their goal against opposition. Act 3, the characters achieve whatever their goal was that arose from the inciting incident back in Act 1. The Ring is thrown into Mount Doom, the princess is rescued, the dragon is slain, the rightful king is restored, the traveller comes home, the real Seymour Skinner is sent away from Springfield and we never refer to this again.

It's usually a restoration of the status quo, more or less, except that the characters have (hopefully) grown through the experience. It's a conservative story structure: something disturbed the way things should be, now everything is, more or less, back to normal. But it also has its progressive aspect, if only on the micro level of the characters, who have moved from "unable to make a difference" to "able to make a difference".

2. The characters' relationships have changed

This is the classic romance plot, of course, and Pride and Prejudice is the exemplar. They start out hating one another or thinking they can't be together, and at the end, inevitably, they marry and live happily ever after.

It doesn't have to be a romance plot, though. I wrote a story recently in which an airship captain from a humble background starts out distinctly unimpressed with an aristocratic young pup who's been foisted on her and ends up thinking he might make a decent officer. It doesn't have to be about winning love. It can be winning friendship, respect, fealty, alliance.

I like stories in which relationships change for the better, but of course you can write the other sort, too, if that's what you're into.

3. We discover something

This is the mystery-story plot. At the end, we find out that the butler dunnit. But in the meantime we've discovered all kinds of other things, such as that Lady Celia drinks, and Lord Bertie is having an affair, and the housemaid's brother just got out of prison. (Why anyone would ever invite a detective to a house party is beyond me. Not only will someone, more likely several people, inevitably get horribly murdered - because when a famous detective is right there is the ideal time to murder someone - but everyone's nasty secrets will be exposed to everyone else, and nobody will ever be able to trust anyone again, except for the ingenue and the decent chap who end up together, hooray.)

Mysteries, though, are not the only "we discover something" stories. Characters discover things about themselves: that they're not like their father, that they are like their father, that they do have magic, that not having magic isn't important. (More about "not important" below.)

The twist ending (The Statue of Liberty is buried in the sand on the Planet of the Apes!) is another "we discover something" ending. An important feature of "we discover something" is that it can reflect back across the whole of the story and cast a new light on everything that happened before we discovered the something, which is one reason that it's such a good ending.

4. Something new has come into being

This is an underrated and underexplored kind of ending, in my view. Often, the conservative ending, the restoration of the status quo, involves the destruction of whatever arose to threaten "the way things should be". I'd like to see more stories about building and creating things. After all, for most of us - certainly for me, as someone who's done project work of one kind or another for over 20 years - that's how we experience life.

The relationship story has a bit of this. There's a new relationship, a new family, a new alliance or whatever at the end. But I'd like to see more stories where the characters build something together and the ending is where they celebrate that, against the odds, it's built. Fantasy is full of wonderful ancient artifacts and immense architectural wonders built by long-gone civilizations, many of which are destroyed in the course of the stories. How about the stories in which those amazing things are made in the first place?

5. It doesn't matter any more

One overlooked form of personal growth is the kind where you're able to say, along with Melody Beattie's famous book Codependent No More: "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter!"

While that can be an utterance of despair, it can also be an expression of hope. The person who decides they can let go of their hurt and anger and not take revenge has grown. The young wizard who can say "No, Professor, I don't need to follow your crazy agenda any more. This war is over, as it should have been when you were my age" (not an actual quote from any book) - this young wizard has grown.

If the character can look back on the inciting incident which started all the trouble and say "I made a big deal out of that, but it's really not that important," I think that can be a wonderful ending. I recently read the pulpy but enjoyable Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw, in which the viewpoint character decides at the end, "I don't want to be a hero. I want to be a protagonist." While it's not a great book, that's a great ending.

Debora Geary's Witches On Parole trilogy is, at its heart, about this realignment of priorities. And one of the things about the "it doesn't matter any more" ending is this: the realization that your original priorities don't matter is followed by the realization of what does matter.

It's not about external circumstances being exactly as you would wish them, but about being true to yourself and those around you.

So, what kinds of endings work for you? How do you like to finish your stories?

Jul 09

How to Review a Book You Didn’t Love

I'm both a writer and a reviewer. I read a lot, and I'm opinionated, and that's the basic formula for a reviewer. Most of my reviews are on Goodreads, but I also review on Amazon.

There are some pitfalls to wearing both hats. The writing community, especially the indie writing community, is very connected, and there's some expectation (even if it's only in my head) that I'll review my friends' stuff positively.

I don't always do that. I say what I think. So far I haven't hit anyone like the guy described in this post on Making Light, who responded to a negative review from another author by trashing her book in revenge. (Pro tip: don't do that.) The people I choose to hang out with are sensible adult human beings and they will take a less-than-raving review in their stride. But I try to make it easier for them (and for authors I don't know) by following a few important principles.

Actually, of course, reviews are not primarily for the authors' consumption. They're for other readers. I know I appreciate reading a review that warns me about the weaknesses of a book, so that I can assess whether they are likely to spoil my enjoyment or not, and alerts me to its strengths, so that I can decide whether that's a thing I like or not. And this is why I write reviews the way I do.

Here are the principles I try to follow. They're a work in process and I don't guarantee that every review I've written, or even every review I've written recently, follows them perfectly. But this is what I'm trying for.

(This post, incidentally, was partly triggered by Lindsay Buroker's Tips for Dealing with Bad Book Reviews. One of the commentators suggested that someone should do a post on “Tips for Writing Reviews Where the Books Weren’t Totally Awesome”. Challenge accepted.)

1. Objectivity: Say specifically what you saw on the page

I get no value from a review that says "this is a badly-written book" or "this is my favourite author" or "I loved this so much" or "I hated every page", any more than I get value from reviews that copy and paste the publisher's synopsis at the beginning. I want to know what I will see on the page that is, potentially, good or bad.

I was a book editor for a while (nearly 20 years ago now, but I still have the mindset), so I will often highlight the author's competence with punctuation, or use of words that don't mean what they think they mean. Some people don't care about this at all (since they don't know or follow the rules themselves). The fact that the author gets these things wrong won't interfere with their enjoyment of the book. But if you do care, it will interfere with that enjoyment, and I for one would appreciate knowing that about a book in advance.

It's also, unlike most other feedback, useful to the author, since it may help to motivate them to get a better editor next time (or get one at all).

I also talk about anachronisms in books with historical settings, for much the same reason.

2. Subjectivity: Acknowledge that tastes differ

Sometimes, what I hate about a book may be someone else's favourite thing. So I phrase my opinions as opinions. I talk about what the author did (objectivity) and how I feel about it (subjectivity).

For example, I recently reviewed a book that had no antagonist and very little of what could be traditionally called "conflict" or "action". People sat around and ate ice cream together a lot. Many, many readers would hate this, but (because of some other aspects of the book, which I also mentioned) I liked it.

There are also things that annoy me that don't annoy other people. I'm fussy about names, for example. I like the non-fantasy parts of fantasy worlds to work like the real world, so having a full moon and a new moon in the sky at the same time is a big black mark. If this kind of thing is what I didn't like about the book, again, I say so (rather than a vague "the worldbuilding is sloppy"), and usually mention that it may be a thing that only bothers me, so that if someone else doesn't care they can discount my rating.

3. It's not about the author

I try (again, I may not always succeed) to avoid making the review about the author's competence, let alone their personal qualities. "I don't see X on the page" is a much more emotionally neutral statement than "the author is no good at doing X" or "this is a lazy, bad author" (though I've been guilty of saying something not too different from that last one).

"I didn't enjoy it because Y" doesn't need to become "I hate this author and his little dog too".

4. Allow for the possibility of improvement

Just as I rarely give five stars, I rarely give one star. To me, five stars means "it would be difficult or impossible to improve this book", and I rarely think that. And one star, in my personal rating system, means "this is a complete waste of time with no redeeming qualities and I don't even see any potential in this author", and that's even more rare. I always try to talk about things that worked, and if I finished the book there must have been something that worked. (Sometimes I don't finish the book because, for me, not enough is working.)

I recently reviewed a second book in a series, and took pains to point out the ways in which it was an improvement over the first, even though I still felt it had significant flaws.

5. Say something fresh

Again, this is something I do that other people may not. Some reviewers read other reviews of the book before writing theirs, and enter into a kind of dialogue with them, disagreeing or agreeing. I don't do that, in part so that my review will be a fresh perspective specific to me.

If I'm writing for other readers, rather than just to relieve my feelings, that will best be served if I say something that other people aren't saying, with specific reference to what's on the page, acknowledging my personal taste and avoiding attacks on the author.

In my opinion.

Jun 28

Telling Extra, Ordinary Stories

There's an advantage I didn't anticipate to writing a fantasy novel without a Chosen One.

I mean, obviously it means that I'm not telling the same old tired story that's already been done to death. I knew that. What I didn't anticipate was that if nobody is the Chosen One, then anybody's story can be interesting.

Can be interesting in itself, even if it's tangential to the main story. Even if it's completely unrelated.

For example, I'm currently polishing a short story for a competition. It's about the young man in the last paragraph of this excerpt from the novel.

Yes, the one with no name and no lines. He nods his head and looks keen, and that's his whole appearance. (I decided that Keen was his name, when I went to write more about him.)

He's one small step up from a face in the crowd, and yet I wrote a 6000-word short story about the next 26 years of his life. One of my beta readers commented that it could easily be expanded and still remain interesting.

As it happens, I was listening to the latest Galley Table podcast from Flying Island Press this morning, in which the crew interview Nathan Lowell. Nathan is the champion of what some people have called "blue-collar spec fic", about people who aren't rulers or commanders just going about their daily lives and heroically doing what they have to do in order to get by. I've been very inspired by him and what he does. I'm not sure that the idea of a novel about heroic civil servants would have made it into my consciousness if I hadn't listened to his work (thanks to

The truth is, while the Chosen One story appeals to something in us that longs to be taken out of our everyday lives and be heroes and have adventures, because unbeknown to us we're significant, the reality is that we can be heroes in the way we live our everyday lives. Because we actually are significant already.

Jun 13

How to Succeed at Steampunk Without Really Trying

So, the market for urban fantasy is looking pretty saturated - hard to break into. And you've been eyeing up this steampunk thing, but it looks like it might involve work. Fear not! Steampunk is selling, and as a former employee of a large publisher I can exclusively reveal that large publishers don't give a fat rat's for quality, because they make their money on quantity.

And, having read a bunch of the results of this policy, I can now impart to you the never-fail, paint-by-numbers formula by which you, you lazy, talentless hack, can also get a publishing contract (and a legion of diehard fans in funny costumes).

  1. Setting. In practice you can probably set steampunk anywhere from the Renaissance to about World War II, but its heartland is the Victorian era. Even if you're setting your story in a secondary fantasy world, you should stick in some kind of Victorian reference.
    You might think that this will involve research, even if it's only spending a few minutes browsing Wikipedia. Don't worry. Whatever vague impression you have of the Victorian era is fine. Most of your audience won't know any more than you, and they will defend you against any nitpicker who does (or has spent a few minutes browsing Wikipedia) by chorusing, "It's only fiction! Get over yourself!"
  2. Set dressing. Steampunk is all about the set dressing. No, really, if you get this right you can screw everything else up completely. Memorize these words: Brass. Steam. Gears. Airship. Goggles. Clockwork. Punched cards. Corset. Automaton. Use several of them on every page, and you're golden.
    Of these, you would think "steam" was the most important, but actually it's "brass". Brass is shiny, and distracts your readers from the fact that you're a crappy writer. Make everything you can out of brass.
    Don't worry in the least about whether making that thing out of brass (or powering it with steam, or clockwork, or using punched cards with it) makes any sense whatsoever.
  3. Characters. You can just order these from stock. You'll want a square-jawed hero, probably, a plucky gel (that's important), a mad scientist or two, some minions, you know the drill.
    Your villain should be so villainously villainous that he hardly has time to plot, between kicking dogs, killing incompetent henchmen and innocent bystanders, and twirling his moustache. He should always seem like he's on the point of tying a girl to some railway tracks while saying, "Aha! My proud beauty!"
    Give your main character something they're afraid of, or that they dislike intensely, that makes no difference to their actual behaviour in situations where they encounter it. This establishes their iron will and their unshakeable badassness, and your fans will praise this as "deep characterization".
    Be hard on your characters, by the way. There should be a high body count of nameless mooks and bystanders. Beat your main characters up, have them tied up and imprisoned as frequently as possible. Remember: steampunk fans like to dress up in corsets. I trust I don't have to draw you a picture.
  4. Language. Your characters don't have to talk like a 19th-century newspaper, but some fans will expect it. Don't worry if you don't write this terribly well, nobody expects you to. And it helps to hide the plot holes if your fans are spending all their brainpower on parsing your sentences.
    Speaking of which:
  5. Plot. You do need one, but any pulp plot from the 1930s will do. Some guy wrote a book with all of the pulp plots in, but I can't be bothered to Google for it, so I'm guessing nor can you. Just watch any of the Indiana Jones movies (doesn't matter which, the plot's much the same) and steal that one.
    Lots of travelling about in different vehicles (but call them "conveyances") and getting in fights is absolutely essential.

Follow those five simple steps, and steampunk success is yours (or your money back). You can write any old crap, as long as you stick to the formula, and you don't even need to spell or punctuate correctly.


Victoria had an automaton,
Its clockwork was of brass.
And everywhere her airship steamed
The villain kicked her arse.

May 23

Emotional Impact Without Exploding Planets

This post arises from a few things I've read or seen recently that have got me thinking about how emotional impact in stories is often done badly, or at least very coarsely. It's kind of like the difference between being a fry cook and being a chef.

For example, there's the Alderaan Ploy.

Rocks fall, everybody dies, nobody cares

Early on in Star Wars: A New Hope, as I'm sure you remember, Darth Vader blows up the entire planet Alderaan and its population of millions, simply to show Princess Leia that he's a hardass and doesn't make empty threats. (Of course, he then has no further leverage against her and she's less likely to cooperate with him than ever, but we're not talking about that.)

What is the emotional impact, for the audience, of the blowing up of Alderaan? To put it another way, what was George Lucas setting out to achieve in this scene (because every scene should achieve something), and did he in fact achieve it?

Well, he establishes that Darth Vader is a really evil, evil, really evil person. Which we'd kind of picked up from the costume and the music, actually, George.

And I suppose he establishes that Princess Leia is incredibly loyal and determined and doesn't bow to threats.

But what he doesn't achieve, in my view, is much emotional impact.

You'd think that blowing up a planet would be as much impact as you could possibly have. But no.

See, we don't know anyone from Alderaan, except Leia, and we just met her. And apart from briefly registering "You fiend!", she doesn't seem that emotionally impacted herself by the death of everyone she knows and the destruction of the place she grew up. Millions of people, we are told, died, but they don't have names. They don't have faces. They don't, therefore, have impact.

Child sponsorship organisations are onto this. They don't just recite statistics in their TV ads. They show us a face. They give us a name. They tell us a story that gets us to relate to the child as a child, not as one of a large number of nameless, faceless people we're being told are having tough times somewhere we've never seen and can't imagine.

Bonus points for showing the child's mother, because here is someone who is emotionally impacted by the child's plight, and in seeing that, we share it. It's how we're wired. People who are close to us or who are like us in some way, or who we feel we know, even just because we know their name and have seen their face, gain more empathy from us, and if we see them having emotion we share that emotion. It's just the way the human brain works.

I recently read E.E. "Doc" Smith's Triplanetary, the lead-up to his Lensman series. (Links in this post are not affiliate links, they're to my reviews on Goodreads, by the way.) It's Alderaan ploy all the way around. No actual complete planets are blown up, but large bits of them are. Pittsburgh is destroyed by aliens. The entire human fleet, almost, is annihilated. Millions of aliens are also killed. But as far as I recall, none of the named characters come to harm. Everyone who dies is nameless and faceless, and the characters have such stiff upper lips it's a wonder they can pronounce the letter "P", so despite the vast scale of the destruction I didn't find myself caring.

Nobody that the author had made matter died (again, as far as I can recall), and those who did have names and faces took all the tragedy so well that we didn't get a second-hand emotional impact off them either.

The spy who didn't care about me much, and vice versa

Thrillers in the James Bond mould usually achieve their emotional impact through the Alderaan Ploy. There are lots of big explosions. But I recently read a technothriller, Deep State by Walter John Williams, which started out referencing Bond and then proceeded to systematically subvert him.

See, Bond is a cynical character (especially in the books). He doesn't get close to people, except in a physical sense, of course. In Bond, sex means little, violence means little, and death means little. But in Deep State, the main character, Dagmar, is suffering PTSD from the events in the previous book, This Is Not a Game, because she does care. She's lost people close to her, friends and lovers, and she's terrified of it happening again because it was awful, she felt a real sense of loss - and so do we. And so when people die in Deep State, people who have names and faces, it means something - to Dagmar, and to us. It has impact. And when she takes a lover, it has impact, because we know that means something to her too.

This is why I love Jim Butcher and Lois McMaster Bujold, too. Their main characters care about things, care deeply, and are able to be deeply hurt - and hurting them deeply is exactly what the authors do (as a deliberate policy, in both cases - they've both talked explicitly about it).

But they don't do it by blowing up planets. Bujold is able to give me more emotional impact out of a failed dinner party (which is also completely hilarious) than most authors can achieve by wiping out an entire sentient species. Sure, people die in their books, too, but it always matters. It matters deeply. It affects the people left behind. They feel the loss, like you or I would, like a friend I worked with whose son died in a car crash did. It has emotional impact that resonates for years.

So, are you setting out to be a literary fry cook, or a chef? You can establish the evil evilness of your evil villainous villain by having him murder a few people, or a lot of people, out of hand, sure. You can make people go "Wow!" by giving them big explosions.

But if you want real emotional impact, show me a character being human and vulnerable and caring about something, and then take that thing away. I'll feel the loss, even as I see the character doing the same.

Mar 23

Why Characters in Books are Idiots

Have you ever read a book in which, if the characters had not all been incredibly stupid, the situation would have been resolved in five pages instead of 300?

That's the result of overdoing a legitimate literary technique, dating back at least to Greek tragedy, in which the plot arises out of the characters' flaws.

It's commonly used in sitcoms, too. Consider Seinfeld, Friends or Frasier, three popular and long-running sitcoms which I happen to have watched a lot. In the typical episode, if the characters had acted like adults, told the truth, kept their promises, made sensible choices and communicated clearly, there would have been no story.

Why do we watch these things? Is it because we see our own flaws exaggerated and learn better from the antics of the idiots? Is it so we can feel superior, because at least we're smarter than that?

Maybe both, maybe something else. In any event, it's not the only way to tell a story. It's a popular way, but it's not the only way.

At least, I hope it's not. I'm telling a story now about a group of elite Gryphon Clerks, trained to communicate well and to respond to unexpected situations creatively, chosen because they have been through experiences where they've demonstrated strength of character. A lot of the time, they're simply not going to make the stupid choice.

But that, in turn, makes it hard to generate interesting plot. Plot arises when characters make choices under conditions of challenge. And some of the time, they need to lose.

It's the Superman dilemma. How do you make Superman interesting? Any interesting Superman story has to be about how he uses his strength of character and his intelligence to overcome a situation that tests him at his points of vulnerability. Kryptonite, obviously (which was invented as a plot device exactly because it's hard to write an interesting story about a hero who can easily beat all comers), but also Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and the rest of them.

In other words, one answer to "How do you write an interesting story about someone with godlike powers?" is "take away the powers and see what's left". Another is "locate his vulnerability outside himself, in his relationships".

And then there's "fit opposition". If your hero is ridiculously awesome, put up a ridiculously awesome villain, like Doomsday, against him. Now you have two guys fighting, but they're fighting with ridiculous awesomeness. Plus, once again, defeat is on the table, so the conflict means something.

And then there's the technique, used more often in writing Batman than Superman, of exposing the flaw that is at the extreme end of his strengths (obsessiveness being dedication taken to its ultimate).

Or you can take the "with great power comes great angst" approach, the Spider-Man solution.

So, applying that to my problem (and it is a problem), how do I write an interesting story about mature, sensible people who make good decisions?

Firstly, I could look for the flaws or vulnerabilities they have, and hit those vulnerable spots as hard as I can, so they get an opportunity to show their strength of character in overcoming challenges.

It's easy to come up with key flaws for each one, too. Patience, the aristocrat, hero-worships Victory and automatically trusts people in her own class. Berry wants to belong. Rain is afraid that she really is the violent sociopath she once pretended to be.

That's the basis for my "things that can go wrong" list. What if Patience discovers that her friend, the charming aristocrat Confident, is using her charity to launder criminal funds? What if another shaman challenges Berry and implies that she's not a real shaman? What if Rain has to defend herself in a desperate situation and kills someone?

Problem is, I ran that middle scenario and Berry acted like an adult and basically won a shaman-off hands down, making the other shaman look foolish. And it doesn't work any other way in my head. That's who she is, that's what she'd do.

So maybe I need to work the "vulnerability through relationships" angle. Berry's vulnerability is Rain, and when Rain is attacked, Berry stops being quite so adult.

Then there's the "fit opposition". I'm bringing in a kind of Nazi party, the political face of the Human Purity bigots, and for them to be any kind of decent opposition at all, they have to have been severely underestimated. Even by Victory, who has the best strategic intelligence (in both senses) of anyone.

I'm thinking the dwarves caved way too easily on the emancipation of the gnomes, too. They're big industrialists. They're bankers. They're used to having power, and they're not going to give it up easily.

I need more villains onstage. And they need to be smart villains, whose villainy consists in the fact that they are out to enhance their own interests at the expense of others (whereas the Gryphon Clerks are out to enhance others' interests at, if necessary, their own expense). But they need to be otherwise equally matched.

Mar 14

On Steampunk

I've been reading a bit of steampunk lately, and so far I'm only middling impressed. I'm sure there's great stuff out there, but I haven't found much of it yet. I've mostly found the ones that are by hack writers who think that putting in plenty of brass, steam, mechanical computers, crystals and clockwork (even when it makes no sense), plus somehow referencing the Victorian era, is all you need to do.

Which is kind of like the writers of the Halle Berry Catwoman movie thinking that putting Halle Berry in a leather catsuit was as much effort as they needed to make.

Anyway, since The Gryphon Clerks is at least a little bit steampunk, it got me thinking about that elusive subject, genre definition, and what appeals to me, specifically, about a steampunk setting. And I decided that it's a particular aspect of the Victorian era that isn't (apparently) the one that a lot of writers first think of.

Different people have different associations with the word "Victorian".

For some, it's all about the class struggle, and you can do good things with that (Brand Gamblin does, in The Hidden Institute, which is neo-Victorian - like The Diamond Age, another of my favourites.)

For many others, the first association is "uptight, old-fashioned, prudish and hypocritical", which is certainly a perspective. Not an entirely accurate perspective, or one that interests me much, but a perspective.

Some pick up on the "adventure, discovery, colonialism" vibe, which somehow has a wormhole in it leading to 1930s-style pulp plots.

But to me, one of the most interesting things about the Victorian era was not its conservatism, not its injustices, not even its colonialism, but its pursuit of scientific knowledge, technological progress and human rights.

Part of that I attribute to the fact that I'm a New Zealander. New Zealand was colonised starting in the 1820s, and the Treaty of Waitangi, its founding document as a nation, was signed in 1840, not quite three years after Victoria's accession. So the early history of the country and the city that I live in is Victorian. To me, then, the Victorian era is one of building and development and new things never seen before.

Besides which, we New Zealanders have the proud claim to have been the first to grant women the vote, in 1893. At the end of the 19th century we were the social laboratory of the world.

Back in England, meanwhile, Charles Dickens was only one of the most prominent people campaigning for the betterment of the poor and increased social justice in the still relatively new conditions of an industrial society.

So that's why The Gryphon Clerks involves freeing the gnomes from their industrialist dwarf oppressors and promoting education for the lower classes. That's why I've included the tribal society of the beastheads getting the opportunity to participate in wider civilization (duly informed by postcolonialism, since, in a sense, that wider society is itself postcolonial, or at least post-Elvish-Empire).

That's also why, to me, the most interesting thing about the new magical technologies is how they affect society (though that's always the most interesting thing about technologies for me). They're not just gizmos for the sake of atmosphere.

What's more, the Victorian themes that interest me are very much relevant today. There are still workers struggling under industrialist oppression, they're just in China rather than Manchester. Education is still an issue, as it probably always will be. For that matter, a hundred and twenty years after women got the vote they're still not equally paid or equally represented in positions of power. (I work around that, in a way, in The Gryphon Clerks by positing that the Elvish Empire had already achieved gender equality centuries before, and the humans have inherited that cultural attitude - but in dwarf and gnome culture there are still very strongly defined gender roles. Meaning it can be an issue to explore or not, depending.)

I'm no Dickens, and I don't want to be all preachy (or "relevant", which means "irrelevant in another five years"). But I want to write books that are intelligent as well as entertaining, and that means paying some attention not only to the headlines, but to the human universals behind them.

Mar 13

The Burning Eye of Tolkien

So, yet another list of favourite books has come out topped by The Lord of the Rings. (This one from NPR.) It got me wondering: Why?

Now, I read the trilogy at least eight times, in the paperback single-volume edition that my grandmother gave me sometime in my early teens or thereabouts. (I will say I haven't had the urge to read it lately.) I love the movies, too, with the inevitable few carps. And yet...

LOTR has significant flaws. The overly-massive backstory (which Tolkien's son is still publishing in umpteen volumes) is probably not one of them, but it doesn't make it an easy book to pick up and immediately understand. The prose is... old-fashioned, at best, exactly the kind of thing you'd expect from an Oxford don who'd been in World War I.

There's Tom Bombadil, rightly cut from the movies (I don't think I've heard anyone express anything other than relief at that decision), and the songs, likewise. The story is slow to get moving. There are only three female characters to speak of, only one actually does things (Eowyn), and she does things by disguising herself as a man.

The politics belong to the 1930s, when an educated person could say "lesser races" with a straight face (not that Tolkien uses the phrase, as far as I remember, but he doesn't need to - it's implied clearly enough). I could go on.

So why is this consistently the most beloved book, getting onto list after list - and not only on the lists, but usually at the top?

Let's speculate.

It could be its iconic status as what you might call a "genre fount". Epic fantasy owes its genesis to LOTR, after all - though I suspect that epic fantasy is, otherwise, a minority taste, so it can't just be that. I would have expected its pulpy sword-and-sorcery predecessors to have more status, if that was so. Of course, sword-and-sorcery is a genre with multiple defining books, whereas LOTR founded epic fantasy all by itself.

It could be its nobility and high-mindedness. I'm actually serious. Sword-and-sorcery is down and dirty, urban (mostly) and gritty. It's not aspirational literature. Epic fantasy gives us a myth of striving to preserve what is left of our noble origins in a degenerate age, which is, after all, an appealing theme, even if it's also an elitist and reactionary one. It also romanticises rural life, feudalism and chivalry, and as westerners we're suckers for that, apparently.

It could be, of course, that Tolkien, a philologist who loved the Kalevala and the Elder Edda and Beowulf and all those other obscure classics that only get read by students these days, was getting his mythopoea first-hand rather than, like his imitators, second-hand and diluted. I suspect that the feel of mythic power in LOTR is a big factor in its popularity, and a factor that's a lot harder to reproduce than the externals of epic fantasy which we're all so tired of. (Clash of great nations, quest, Chosen One, Dark Lord, McGuffin, mixed group of companions, swords and horses, nobility, mysterious old wizard, twilight of the elves/gods/empire, yadda yadda yadda.)

(For anyone wanting to write better epic fantasy, by the way, I'd suggest reading the obscure, wonderful Well at the World's End by the multi-talented William Morris. The link is to the free text at Project Gutenberg. Both Tolkien and Lewis knew and loved it, which is why I read it, and I'm glad I did.)

Perhaps, having attained the status of a "classic" because of its freshness when originally published, its mythic depth and its many imitators, LOTR continues to be cited out of reflex when people think "great fiction" or "great F & SF". Maybe it's one of those "I fell in love with the genre through this book when I was young" things. I don't know.

What I do know is that I want to bring down the burning eye of Tolkien by casting the quest-epic into Mount Doom, because even though he does it so well, many other people do it so, so badly. This happens in every genre, of course, particularly ones that start selling well. Publishers will shove out any old dreck in a popular genre once a breakout hit has made it popular, while overlooking, in general, the next breakout hit because "it's not what's selling currently". So goes the world. Need I say more than "vampire"?

Feb 15

The Why of Names

One of the things about good worldbuilding is that at each point, you need to stop yourself and think, like an observational comedian, "why do we do things that way? What's that about?" But unlike an observational comedian, you also need to find out the answer - to become aware of your cultural and historical roots, and think about how things could have been different.

Which leads me to a Pet Peeve about poorly-thought-through fantasy settings.

You're reading away, and the religious background of the setting is, of course, paganism-lite (because of Gary Gygax, probably, though I suppose he got it from Robert E. Howard or someone). That's just what unthinking genre-fantasy authors do, it's the default. 

Judaism and Christianity have never existed in the setting. And here's a character, and what's her name?


I mean, think for just a moment.

Bad Fantasy Name Syndrome

Approach number 2 to naming fantasy characters, if you don't just use familiar Western names without any regard to their origins, is to make them up.

Most people are not good at this.

I read a series once which, though enjoyable overall, had a number of flaws. One of them was that the hero's girlfriend, his horse, and his brother (or maybe it was his sword) had very similar names to each other, and it was hard to keep them straight.

And then there are names full of apostrophes. Now, some people really have names with apostrophes in them, mostly Pacific Islanders. The apostrophe has an actual function, which is to separate repeated vowels and make it clear that they are repeated, with a little pause between, not just allowed to become one long vowel.

An apostrophe can also indicate a glottal stop, as in the Cockney dialect. Glo'al stop, Guvnor? It's an actual sound, although a subtle one.

And then there's the Bad Fantasy Naming use of apostrophes, which is usually just as decoration and serves no purpose whatsoever, except as a warning to the discerning reader.

Naming the Gryphon Clerks

So when I came to write the Gryphon Clerks, I needed a sensible naming schema that didn't just give me Bill, George and Tl'ca'varuna, possibly in the same family.

Here's what I did.

There are two main religions in the Gryphon Clerks setting (in real life, there are often two or more religions in a geographical location, but this is a lot less common in fantasy). The Asterists are, mostly, more upper- and middle-class and follow the rather abstract star religion of the old Elvish Empire. (It's a very mild Tolkien joke.) The Earthists are, generally, commoners, and kind of paganish in a way that is slightly more accurate to historical paganism in our world than the usual genre-fantasy polytheism.

They have different naming schemes, but both of them are based on words from ordinary language. They're not made-up combinations of sounds - I do that a bit with some place-names, but I'm no Tolkien, I don't want to spend half my life making up a bunch of languages before I can start telling stories.

The Earthists are named after natural phenomena and objects - Brook, Breeze, Leaf, Rain, Berry, Bird. (They're never named after specific plants or animals, though, because those names are reserved for shamans who have got those plants or animals as totems through an ordeal.) Their clan names describe where their clan worships - Sandybeach, Lichenrock, Ashgrove. Men and women can have the same names.

Asterist women are named after desirable abstract qualities: Victory, Patience, Prudence, Kindness. Asterist men have similar names, but where women's names are nouns, men's names are adjectives (I made this decision partway through when I noticed that I'd generally followed that practice): Vigilant, Determined, Honest, Faithful, Magnanimous.

The other distinction in Asterist names is between members of the Silver and Gold classes - that is, the middle class and the ruling class. Silvers typically have names of affiliation (they aren't really surnames in our sense) taken from their trade or occupation or that of their recent ancestors: Farmer, Carter, Carpenter, Miller.

Golds take their names from their family's estate. Tranquil of High Spur, for example, is a member of the family that owns the High Spur estate. The head of the family gets to drop the "of", and if you're ruler of a territory you can, if you choose, call yourself after the territory when you're being official.

And if you're Copper class and an Asterist, for example a servant, you might take a name like "Hope at Merrybourne" to indicate that you belong to the Merrybourne estate, but not as a member of the family.

I won't go into dwarf and gnome naming except to say that a dwarf gets his or her parents' names and a birth number until craft graduation and then takes a name related to the craft - usually a tool, material or technique - and gnomes are called by names related to their family's function in a similar way. Hence Mr Bucket, whose family are cleaners.

The main point is not the details of how all this works, but to point out that I spent some time thinking about how names would work. My goals were:

  • Keep the lack of realism restricted to the fantasy elements. My feeling is that when you're writing fantasy, all the mundane stuff should be reasonably believable and the suspension of disbelief should only be required for the magic parts.
  • Make the names easy to spell and remember, for my sake as much as anybody's.
  • Communicate something about the characters by their names, rather than just using them as arbitrary labels.

I think I've achieved that.

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.