A Brief Interlude

To be honest, I’m not sure I have a lot to say at the moment.

I haven’t been doing a lot of media consumption at the moment, so while I’d love to sink my teeth into something in the near future (and you’ll probably get inflicted with it), I haven’t had much time to do more than nibble. I seem to have found the magical six-ended candle to burn, and well, it hasn’t left a lot of time for blogging.

 

So in the meantime while I buy myself an extra week to get a decent blog post written by Friday, let me pose a question to you that’s been weighing on me for a while.

 

Whether it’s writing, or another narrative or creative pursuit that you personally spend your free time on, what’s the next step for you?

Not the next project, not the next step towards monetising your passion or otherwise getting it out into the world.

We’re all climbing our creative-skill mountain, and wherever you are on that mountain, there’s a next ledge just nearby. What’s your next ledge? Is it learning pacing, learning how to describe scenes, learning not to use a certain expression so much? Or is it something like refining your pre-writing technique so that you worldbuild faster, or taking a step towards carving out a regular time in your day to practice your skill?

What’s the next thing that’s going to get you to the top of the mountain?

 

And for another installation of unnecessary academia, well … watch this space.

The Next Clichés

Genres change. It’s one of my favourite things about them.

It’s a fascinating process. A new thing comes along, people like it, it gets popular, everyone does it, everyone gets bored of it, then variations pop up until either someone takes one and runs with it or the whole thing dies away and we start on the next thing.

Sometimes the capstone is obvious. Modernism (though a movement, not a genre), for one – it was pretty much over when Joyce released Finnegan’s Wake. There was just no making a text more Modernist than that, and there’s really no way to parody Modernism that doesn’t itself become Modernist, so that was it. We were done.

Genres are different. I talked recently about horror, and how it has faded into the background, and how I’d like to bring it back. But what was the turning point? What made horror into such an underground thing? Can we measure the decline in the horror genre in units of Saw sequels? What about marking the point when we stopped making original cyberpunk?

I keep an eye on the fantasy genre, especially in recent years, and it’s interesting watching the sea change. I already watched a few sea changes in Young Adult fiction – by definition, Young Adult readers have a very short ‘lifespan’. It’s not like adult fiction where you can expect one batch of readers to keep reading for thirty-plus years with tastes refining and branching rather than completely upheaving; when you write for a young adult audience, you expect to keep your audience for an official figure of five years (14 to 19), and let’s say a more practical figure of ten years (14 to 24). Now, the difference between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old in terms of how they think about books and reading is a whole lot bigger than the difference between a 34-year-old and a 38-year-old. Four years’ experience at 14 and 18 is a much larger percentage of that person’s overall level of experience, after all. There are also more stigma associated with reading a book “for 14-year-olds” at age 18 than reading a book “for 25-year-olds” at thirty, particularly in the case of students who read books at school where classmates can see them. As a result, changes move quite fast in YA – I remember Harry Potter being very suddenly usurped by Twilight, and then Twilight being equally suddenly usurped by The Hunger Games over the space of the last decade.

Adult fantasy, on the other hand? I’m still making farm-boy-and-magic-sword jokes, and that subgenre hasn’t been a supergiant since the 80s.

Books in that genre are still kicking around. I mean, the Wheel of Time series wasn’t completed until just recently. But the big doorstopper bricks of fantasy novels in pseudo-medieval societies with Destined Chosen Ones and such have sort of fallen by the wayside. They got stale – we were happy to keep reading the series we were invested in until they ended, but we didn’t want to read any new stuff in that vein. Nowadays, it seems like every second book I see on the bookshelves at stores is either a fairytale retelling/reimagining or a book about a Thieves’ or Assassin’s guild, or just a plain old Thief or Assassin against the Mean Old World.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m quite enjoying several books in those veins at the moment and intend to continue to do so as long as we keep producing books in that genre that I enjoy.

But it kind of hits home that soon, I won’t have the fallback of the farm boy to make my point about cliché fantasy. One day I’ll be in a room full of people and I’ll make a reference to farm-boy-with-a-sword stories, and I’ll be met with blank stares. Those people may not even be as much younger than me as I expect.

I mean, I mostly learned that phrase from hearing people who read fantasy before me talking about it. I read the first book of the Wheel of Time series for the first time after the last one had been published, specifically to have a frame of reference for the farm-boy-with-a-sword fantasy clichés. I’d read Sword of Truth before it, but years ago. For the record, I vowed never to do so again, but that didn’t stop me from going and finding the Wheel of Time to see what all the fuss was about. I did read Eragon at the right age to enjoy it, but unfortunately its sequel didn’t fare as well.

For a long time, the farm boy has been the touchstone, kind of a cultural phenomenon in fantasy. One day, I’ll say that and people will think I’m referencing Star Wars. And then they won’t remember that Star Wars started with a farm boy at all.

I wonder what the next touchstone will be? Maybe one day I’ll be referencing Thieves’ Guild fantasy, or that one type of fantasy that’s trying to pretend it’s a fable but is actually several orders of magnitude longer than any fable by definition. We’ll have to come up with a catchier touchstone than that, though.

This is short because I don’t have many more thoughts on the topic. Just … what will the next generation think of when they hear ‘cliché fantasy’?

Questions Without Answers, and Hurling Books At Walls

Disclaimer: I have a particular taste in books.  Just like everyone else.  Things that make me throw a book at the wall – the furniture, out a window, from a moving train – others won’t mind about.  Some things that I love may make another person reach for the flamethrowers.  So, keep that in mind.

 

A problem I expect a lot of writers, new and experienced, have issue with is how to end a book.  At least, judging by the conversations I’ve seen or taken part in.  But quite honestly – how does one end a book?  It is quite simple, really.  You need to provide closure, and tie up all the loose ends.  But things shouldn’t be too neat – so leave a couple of things open to interpretation or the imagination.  Make sure it’s not anything to do with the character arcs – the readers will be left hanging, and that’s unsatisfying.  Or the plot – all plot threads have to be tied up, or it’ll feel like there’s something missing.

Well … if you take the plot and characters out of the equation, what do you leave hanging?  Questions of setting?  Well, sure – as long as it’s not something vital to the plot.  But if you’re not writing secondary world fantasy, that can be difficult to pull off, unless you’re talking about fictional groups of people in the novel, or the motivations of particular groups, and then aren’t we back onto characters?  And that’s where it all gets tangled up again.

And this is even before you get into all the subtleties and issues of “Well, this was never explained in Book X and people still love it!”
I swear that phrase is the bane of my life when I’m trying to figure out my theories on writing.

Let’s start with the really obvious stuff.  Don’t leave something vital to the plot unexplained.  This means your characters have to have motives, particularly the ones involved in the book’s central conflict.  Any setting issues (like how magic works) should be explained if they affect the plot (what spells a hero can and cannot do, to continue the example).  Plot-relevant technology gets explained.  That sort of thing.

For everything else, here’s the question I usually ask: Is this a leading question?
By that, I mean does leaving that question unanswered set off a chain of questions?  Say you don’t know about the origins of a certain Evil Cult (to take an obvious example).  Is that just a thing that fans can argue over?  Or does it leave an obvious question open about how that cult relates to the main villain of the piece?  That is, does not knowing the origin leave part of their motivation unexplained?
If you don’t know how a particular magic spell works, does that lead to questions as to how the whole system works – particularly of the kind that begin with the phrase “But why doesn’t he just”?  Or is it just a piece of trivia?

If a question opens up a whole bevy of other questions, ones about the fundamental logic of the narrative or the setting, then you probably need to answer it.

Here’s where it gets interesting – once you’ve gotten past “necessary to understand the plot” and “necessary to not break suspension of disbelief”, everything else comes down to personal opinion.  There’s definitely an art to leaving things unsaid.  People have created wonderful worlds that people love to play in and write fanfic about and play RPGs of, based entirely on things that weren’t said in the original books or movies.  It’s the fan-dance of literature.  Reveal this, cover that.  Open up the possibility of something deeper, and the fans dive in, but show them an abyss where knowledge should be and it eats at them.  Sometimes, it’s better to give half an answer than either a full answer or no answer at all.

As usual, though, it’s all about personal preference, and learning by doing.

And the standard call for input – What are your thoughts on the subject?  What unanswered questions really drive you up the wall, and what ones make you want to write fanfic, or reread the book for scraps of clues?  What have you discovered in your own writing?