2012-01-31

A Place Where Tales Are Told

The always-lovable Chuck Wendig shared a most useful seize-the-New-Year’s-Day-kind-of-thing on his blog at the beginning of the month. I was rereading it again a little while back and was struck by #6 (“Stop Waiting”), because “waiting” has always been my own biggest problem as far as creative endeavors go. Like most people, i think about stuff i want to work on to a degree that inevitably eats up the time i should be spending working on stuff, and the list of books i know i want to write is getting dangerously long as compared to my probable lifespan. However, even beyond that, i’m one of those people who occasionally needs to kick himself in the ass even once i’m ready and committed to starting something. Because as i learned long, long ago, the period before you start something is the last time you can safely not worry about failing at that particular thing.

Thus, i want to announce a thing that i’ve been seriously thinking about doing ever since i entertained my first notions of self-publishing a little over a year ago, and which i’ve dreamed of doing since long before that, and which has been waiting all that long while for me to figure out what to do about it.

I love all kinds of fantasy and SF. However, heroic/epic fantasy (from J.R.R. Tolkien to C.S. Lewis, from George R.R. Martin to R.A. Salvatore, from Robert E. Howard to people without initials) will always have a unique place in my reader’s heart. Epic and heroic fantasy, for me, straddles the perfect line of defining worlds different enough from ours that they can accommodate the wildest extents of storytelling imagination, but similar enough to ours that we can easily see ourselves in the characters inhabiting those worlds. Not to say that all good fantasy and SF doesn’t do that, but epic fantasy for whatever reason has always seemed a kind of Jungian tabula rasa onto which story can be almost effortlessly inscribed. (For me, at least, this is the reason that Dungeons & Dragons has always been the most popular RPG, and that the most successful contemporary MMORPGs share a similar epic-fantasy pedigree. However, your mileage may vary in that regard.)

At this point in time, fantasy and speculative fiction are better represented in popular culture than at probably any point in contemporary cultural history. F&SF not only sit front and center in any discussion of popular fiction, films, and TV; they drive the “next big thing” trends at the highest levels of those media. From Twilight to Trylle on the real and virtual bookshelves, from Batman to The Avengers on-screen, from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones going both ways, we have slowly and thankfully lost the apologetic sense with which F&SF once hung its head and shamefully said, “This is a great genre story.” Rather, the readers who embrace the genres now say, “This is a great story,” and that’s all that matters.

However, this immersive popularity has the inevitable and unavoidable downside of “diluting” (for lack of a better word) the “fantasy brand” (for lack of a better phrase). When fantasy is everywhere, the concept of genre disappears quickly into a sea of subgenres, and then subsubgenres, all of them dedicated to making sure that your paranormal urban fantasy and my magical-realist arcanepunk don’t accidentally cross the streams or anything. And that’s all well and good — except that as fantasy takes over the world of literature one subgenre at a time, the iconic place at the center of the genre once occupied by epic and heroic fantasy faces more competition to be taken seriously than ever before.

I say taken seriously because i think epic and heroic fantasy should be taken seriously. I love sword-and-sorcery. I love action-adventure. I love a magical-medievalesque yarn that’s only and sincerely about white-knuckle excitement and nothing else. But it’s always been my belief that heroic and epic fantasy can and should be literature at every opportunity, and that the foundations of heroic fantasy offer a dramatic palette that’s perfect for stories built around what Faulkner famously and perfectly called “The human heart in conflict with itself.”

As such, i want to create an anthology specifically dedicated to serious, literary heroic and epic fiction. I want to create a vehicle through which writers can drive the heroic fantasy genre to the absolute limits of dramatic storytelling. I want to do this in a way that takes full advantage of the new world of publishing to redefine the paradigm of the anthology magazine.

(No, nothing overly ambitious there.)

Now, i know and understand that there are plenty of great periodical fantasy anthologies out there. Some (like Black Gate) even focus on epic/heroic fantasy. However, even as venerable institutions like Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction tentatively embrace the present by offering e-subscriptions through Amazon, they still essentially remain a product of the way things used to be. I want to produce a periodical anthology that embraces the way things are going to be — an ebook-only magazine with up-front pro rates plus full profit-sharing for the writers and artists involved in each issue. I want it to showcase both the best established talent and the freshest voices entering the genre. I want it to especially and specifically be a vehicle for stories that push the envelope of what heroic and epic fantasy can do. I want it to be a venue for works to which the only response can be, “This is a great story.”

For reasons that some of you will understand, i want it to be called
— a name that (for me, at least) hearkens to a place out of time, deep in mind, where stories of loss and sacrifice, of honor and betrayal, of love and vengeance, of heroism and villainy are told by firelight in the company of friends.

The reason i'm rambling on here is because i know that actually going public with this is one surefire way to get me to stop waiting to open the Green Griffon’s doors, and to actually start pushing this project to fruition. Because at my advanced state of middle age, the dexterity needed to actually kick myself in the ass is sadly long gone.

More details to come. Anyone who feels like dropping in before then, leave a message with Dave behind the bar.

2012-01-30

"Read, Every Day, Something No One Else is Reading…"

“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.”

— Christopher Morley

2012-01-24

“Fuck, Fuck, Fuck and Maybe Even Fuck.”

Appendix S: The Goblin Corps

I finished Ari Marmell’s The Goblin Corps months ago, but have been hemming and hawing ever since then about whether i wanted to drop something like a review on an unsuspecting internet. The reason i was hemming and hawing is that Ari and i have crossed professional paths on more than one occasion, most “Hell, yeah, i wrote that!” recently in 2010’s Tomb of Horrors super-adventure for Wizards of the Coast. As such, and because i’m a writer and thus suffer from rampant feelings of self-loathing and personal inadequacy, i worry about whether my really liking this book will be seen as some kind of shill job for a friend, despite the fact that Ari and i have never actually even met.

But after said hemming and hawing, i’ve decided to adopt the forthright attitude of any of the characters in The Goblin Corps and say… well, you’ve seen the quotation titling this post; you can probably figure it out.

The Goblin Corps is a dark, dirty, messy, foul-tempered, unruly, and below-the-belt junk shot of a novel — and one of the freshest books i read last year, for all the points cited above. It’s the story of an unlikely group of unlikelier anti-heroes — all members of the monstrous goblin races of the dark land of Kirol Syrreth. Morthûl is the Charnel King who rules that land — an undead-and-loving-it dark lord who keeps one part of his fiendish gaze on world domination, another on the efforts of the Allied Kingdoms to destroy him, and yet another on the mysterious plots of his ambitious and vivacious (in the literal sense) queen. Cræosh is an embittered orc put in charge of a Demon Squad — a war-band of goblins in the service of Morthûl, and who are inexplicably the most inept-seeming group of warriors ever tasked with taking care of the dark lord’s business.

That business is uniformly foul, running the gamut from retrieving lost relics of magic to infiltrating a human city on a mission of kidnapping and assassination (a mission featuring an escape plan whose reading makes a most effective appetite suppressant; you’ll know it when you get there). At the center of things, Cræosh is an antihero with a really bad attitude. Think Elric of Melniboné as played by Denis Leary in Rescue Me. And though the amoral antihero isn’t a new concept for fantasy fiction, Ari Marmell cruises past the Moorcock Avenue off-ramp at high speed to push The Goblin Corps beyond dramatic nihilism and into stomach-churning, violently dark comedy. (At a couple of points, when the Demon Squad find themselves dealing with the court of the duplicitous Queen Anne, Marmell manages to write a stomach-churning, violently dark comedy of manners, which is an interesting feat.)

As i much as i was pretty sure that i would enjoy The Goblin Corps, i was pleasantly knocked out by Ari’s ability to do something that i’m not sure i could have pulled off in the same milieu — solidly empathetic characters. The deft touch displayed in the handling of his uniformly self-centered, self-serving, and objectively unlikable cast ultimately makes the book. Given a narrative that announces its intention from the get-go to avoid any kind of center of morality, engaging the reader becomes a matter of creating a substitute center of ethics — a character story rich enough that even as we see the characters’ actions and respond with a shuddering “You have got to be freaking kidding me…” over and over again, the depth of the story creates the connection to character on which every great novel is built.

In the end, the book wasn’t without minor quibbles for me (chief among them some of the details of the ending, which i won’t get into for their massive “spoiler alert” potential). As well, as with a lot of fantasy novels, the story of The Goblin Corps is two parts narrative and one part setup for more narrative to come. However, despite crafting an awesomely cliffhanger ending, Ari manages to tie the variously important narrative threads of the book together nicely before all is said and done.

This is not a book for those who feel compelled to skip the icky bits in Game of Thrones, or who are put off by profanity (because the novel contains an awful fucking lot of it). But likewise, prospective readers shouldn’t be put off by The Goblin Corps’ dark tone, because the story that tone wraps is funny, exhilarating, and frantically memorable in equal measure.

2012-01-23

A Writer’s Guide to Surviving the Internet

A guest post this morning at Ty Johnston’s blog:

A Writer’s Guide to Surviving the Internet

I got my first high-speed internet access when I upgraded from dial-up (ask your parents) back in about 1994. And while I’d love to be able to say that I immediately noticed a huge upturn in my productivity as a result of instant access to resources, references, and current events, the reality is that I wasn’t keeping track of my productivity because I was spending every waking hour on Yahoo (ask your parents), deoxy.org, and the Internet Movie Database.

The World Wide Web is both a blessing and a curse for the working writer. It offers up a wealth of resources for research, inspiration, and communication — but at the same time, the critical mass of those resources constantly eclipses the number of free hours in which we can take advantage of them. In years gone by, you’d have to be a specifically serious type of academic wonk to do so much writing research that you never had time to actually do any writing. These days, you can accidentally click on a link to tvtropes.org or start checking out the comments at the Passive Voice blog, and the next thing you know, your family hasn’t seen you in so long that they’ve had you declared legally dead.

Presented here are a few tips that have served me well at the times when I’ve felt my internet habit getting the upper hand on my writing habit. Some are technical, sort of; some are philosophical. All reflect the fact that for better or worse, the internet has changed the way we function as writers, and that understanding the best and worst parts of those changes is the only way to make sure our writing doesn’t suffer as a result…

Check out the entire piece at Ty’s site.

2012-01-19

"In the Network’s Mind There Are No Limits"

“In the province of connected minds, what the network believes to be true either is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the network’s mind there are no limits.”

— John C. Lilly

2012-01-14

"If I Had Not Existed"

“If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.”

— William Faulkner

2012-01-11

Writer, Writer, Everywhere

With the caveat that i do disagree with Dean Wesley Smith from time to time (particularly about the hows, whys, and wherefores of rewriting), you should go read his blog from last week. I’ll wait for you.

All done? Thanks.

I’ve already seen the first salvos of internet flak being thrown Smith’s way over this post, which some see as condescending, and some see as Smith saying that his way is the only way to be a successful professional writer, et al. However, i think people who are coming away from the post with those things in mind are missing the larger point, which is something Smith has said time and time again and which remains as true now as the first time:

Writers need to write, because writing is the only way to be a writer.

Writing is the only way to figure out what you want to write and how you want to write it. Writing is best possible marketing tool for your writing. Writing is the only way that your writing gets better.

Here’s some context for why i’m firmly onside with Smith’s sense that focusing on the writing is the best way of moving forward in this new world of publishing.

It was October of 2010, give or take, when i decided that i was going to self-publish my fiction. For me, at the time, this was a pretty huge deal. I’ve been a professional writer (in the most important sense of getting paid for it) since 1992, when i nailed my first development and option money for my very first screenplay. Since then, i’ve worked a small number of “real” jobs, mostly in publishing, but have focused my life and work almost exclusively on screenwriting, story editing and script consulting, copy- and technical editing, and freelance RPG editing and design. My last “real job” was in 2000 (layout editor at the Vancouver Sun daily paper). All the time since then, i’ve been able to make a living with my words. I’m good at it, and i get paid pretty well for it, and both those things have long suggested to me that i should be able to write and sell my fiction in additional to all the other things i do.

Except guess what? I couldn’t.

The closest i came to getting a fiction title on the shelves the old-fashioned way was in 2007, when a novel i wrote under contract to Wizards of the Coast became a victim of the cancellation of the newly reminted Ravenloft fiction line. That was annoying, but as i did with every other annoyance getting in the way of my adding “fiction author” to my CV — every short story i got back from magazines, every rejection from an agent or publisher for the novels i had written and was continuing to work on — i just kind of shrugged and plowed onward and accepted that this was the way things work.

Except something happened in the few years between that Ravenloft novel and October of 2010.

I started to second-guess my fiction writing. I started to slow down in the writing i was doing. I started to stall, and at the time, i couldn’t figure out why.

I’m working right now on finishing a novel called We Can Be Heroes, which has been languishing half-finished for more than two years since the last time i worked on it. And a big part of the reason i let that book slip was that even as i was working on it — as much as i knew and understood that it was it a good story told well — my previous experience in trying to get my fiction career off the ground told me that even when i finally finished it, there was no way in hell this book was ever going to sell. It’s a novel about gamers — strike one. It’s told in a cloyingly self-aware, semi-autobiographical first-person-but-with-occasional-film-style-narrative-direction voice — strike two. It’s ostensibly a speculative fiction/action piece — insofar as it involves future tech and a couple of kick-ass air-to-surface chases between hunter-killer attack choppers and an intelligent tank — but the deeper story is a sensitive philosophical coming-of-age piece. Strike three, low and inside. Back to the bench, thanks for playing.

A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales is a book that i’m so immensely proud of and happy with. But though i didn’t realize it at the time, i spent three long years pissing around with its various bits in the most half-enthused manner for exactly the same reason. Everyone who knows anything about publishing knows that single-author short-fiction anthologies don’t sell. Try this yourself: Get an agent. Get a publisher. Get an editor at that publishing house. Then announce that you want to publish a fantasy book consisting of five short stories, a novella, and a short novel. Given the state of the publishing industry, all those folks could probably do with the laugh.

I decided in about October 2010 that i was ready to self-publish. In April of 2011, i hit the switch. The first book i published was a romantic/humorous novella that i put out under a pseudonym (Gary Scott) — One Size Fits All. It was a book that i wrote in the most part-time fashion imaginable over the space of a month, adapting it from a screenplay — a pilot script for a comedy anthology series that got some interest years back but never went anywhere. I published it first simply as a test case — something i could use to check out Amazon KDP and Smashwords, put both systems through their paces, deal with the learning curve and any problems, et al. That was in April.

Last year, between April and December, i published ten titles — One Size Fits All, plus a novel (Clearwater Dawn), an original anthology (A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales), two shorts from PfDK published as promo singles (“A Space Between” and “Stories”), and five individual shorts that will eventually find their way into two new anthologies (“The Moonsign Scar”, “The Twilight Child”, “Shadow to Shadow”, “Daeralf’s Rune”, and “The Voice”).

Now, the thing to understand is that with the exception of Clearwater Dawn (finished in 2004) and “The Moonsign Scar” (written a few years ago), none of that was true backlist — stories sitting around just waiting to be thrown out onto Amazon or wherever. “Shadow to Shadow” and “The Voice” were existing shorts, but both were rewritten from the ground up. “Daeralf’s Rune” and “The Twilight Child” are brand new. Only half of the stories that make up A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales were finished a year ago; the eponymous short novel that anchors the book was outlined but hadn’t even been started yet — because prior to deciding that i was self-publishing PfDK, all my understanding of the wisdom of the publishing industry told me that a deconstructionist epic-fantasy written from the first-person POV of a character losing his mind was never going to sell.

For a lot of years now, my desire to have my fiction read has been shaping my ability to write fiction freely. And now that that’s over and done with, there’s nothing stopping me from doing the writing that i want to do. This, to me, is what Dean Wesley Smith is talking about when he talks about the difference between writers — those who write the stories they want to write, honing their craft and art through experience — and authors, writing only what they believe they’re allowed to write, at the pace that they feel the market sets for them.

For a long, long time, in the context of the world of fiction, i wanted to be an author more than anything. Reading Smith, i realize that without realizing it, i’ve become a writer instead. And i, for one, am never going back.

2012-01-09

The Game

What follows is the sum total of everything i think and will make public comment on regarding the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons:

“Swords & sorcery best describes what this game is all about, for those are the two key fantasy ingredients. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a fantasy game of role playing which relies upon the imagination of participants, for it is certainly make-believe, yet it is so interesting, so challenging, so mind-unleashing that it comes near reality.

“As a role player, you become Falstaff the fighter. You know how strong, intelligent, wise, healthy, dexterous and, relatively speaking, how commanding a personality you have. Details as to your appearance, your body proportions, and your history can be produced by you or the Dungeon
Master. You act out the game as this character, staying within your ‘god-given abilities’, and as molded by your philosophical and moral ethics (called alignment). You interact with your fellow role players, not as Jim and Bob and Mary who work at the office together, but as Falstaff the fighter, Angore the cleric, and Filmar, the mistress of magic! The Dungeon Master will act the parts of ‘everyone else’, and will present to you a variety of new characters to talk with, drink with, gamble with, adventure with, and often fight with! Each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by — and you will acquire gold, magic items, and great renown as you become Falstaff the Invincible!

“This game lets all of your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character’s life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!”

— Gary Gygax, AD&D Players Handbook

2012-01-06

Free Fiction — The Voice

The desolate settlement known only as the Fastness is home to ten thousand Human refugees fleeing the slave camps of the Ilvani — a place of despair and shadow; of the last stand of Human sorcery and a secret that threatens the very nature of magic itself. Arda and Silla have made their lives here, struggling to survive within the darkness of a world gone mad. But when the voice of that darkness calls them, neither will emerge unscathed…

Click on the cover to read this short story at the Insane Angel Studios site.

2012-01-04

“Come To It Any Way But Lightly”

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair — the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

— Stephen King