End of a Draft — and About Time Too

A few days ago, I wrote the final words in the first draft of the novel I’ve been writing for — well, a long time. Far too long. But finishing a draft is still special, even when it should have happened years ago, so it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate.

This is a sequel to At An Uncertain Hour, with the working (very working) title of The Empire of Nandesh. Looking back at my files, I find I started it just slightly over nine years ago. At that stage, I had plenty of time to write, but shortly after I began my self-employment as a copywriter.

And that’s the problem, of course. I’m writing all day, and it takes a lot to encourage me to write more when I knock off in the evening. Lately, I’ve been doing pretty well if I’ve managed a thousand words a week. Sometimes the count has been zero.

Nevertheless, I’ve kept going with this novel, inching towards the end, and I’m finally there. And, of course, like most first drafts, there are masses of things wrong with it. At some point, I’m going to have to pull the whole thing to pieces and rewrite it.

But not yet.

What’s It About?

When I began and started posting the chapters, as I wrote them, on Fantasy-writers.org, I came up with a blurb — the kind of thing that might go on the back cover. In fact, although it needs a bit of tweaking, it’s not impossible that’s precisely what it may eventually be used for:

  • Tollanis (aka the Traveller) feels uncharacteristically dubious about helping to fight against the evil sorcerer-king Nandesh, and he’s not too sure about his ally Kargor, either.
  • Nandesh, in among his plans to conquer the world, seems to have a personal grudge against Tollanis, although the two men have never met.
  • Fandis, Nandesh’s lover and bitterest enemy, dreams of the day she can kill him, even while she spurs his ambition higher.
  • And, perhaps scariest of all, Tollanis’s ward Lanza is a seriously frustrated teenager.

A few things need changing, particularly in the description of Fandis, but that essentially describes the starting positions. Nandesh is really the consequence of a decision the Traveller made at the end of At An Uncertain Hour, while Lanza and Fandis are almost complete mirror-images in their relationships to Tollanis and Nandesh, respectively. Other major characters include Kargor (as mentioned), who’ll become even more important in subsequent novels, and the young king Dranaliel, who’s learning to become a king and an adult at the same time.

The current frontrunner for the actual title is Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth. This is a quote from King Lear — in full, “How sharper than a serpent’s tongue it is to have a thankless child.” And essentially the novel is all about dysfunctional parent-child relationships. Some literally parent-child, some surrogate, some extremely twistedly so, and the dysfunction ranges from lies and secrets to abuse and murder.

But I don’t want to give too much away.

What Next?

As I’ve mentioned, this novel will require major surgery in the second draft. The individual story arcs need considerably more work done on them. The four POV characters (all 1st person) aren’t as well developed as they might be. Nandesh, for example, isn’t yet very convincing as a psychopath, and one (very pleasant) preparation I’ll be doing for the revision will be to reread Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory to get the true psychopath feeling.

There are other things. Like At An Uncertain Hour, this novel involves extensive multiple timelines, and the tie-ups between periods don’t quite work, while I’ve skated too much over some aspects of the “present”. And, like all my first drafts, it’s far too short on sensory description.

But I won’t be starting with that right away. I have a number of shorter pieces clamouring to be written, ranging from short stories to novellas, and I’ll be devoting myself to those for a while.

Then I’ll need to decide whether to come straight back to this novel or push ahead with some stage of another. The current position is that this book’s sequel The Tryst Flame (yes, I wrote them out of order) is finished and done, apart perhaps from a couple of tweaks. The next two sequels, Children of Ice and Dreams of Fire and Snow, exist in rough form but, like this one, need a lot of work, while there are three more novels required to complete the octology — and the next one introduces a major new figure.

So I have plenty to occupy myself over the coming years. I just hope I can find ways to speed up a bit, otherwise I’ll need to live to well over a hundred to get everything finished.

The End of the Matter — Iain (M) Banks

I recently finished Matter by Iain M. Banks. Nothing unusual in that — I’d read plenty of his books, with or without the M. In fact, that’s the point. I’d read all the rest. Although nowhere near the last chronologically, this was the last one left I hadn’t read.

It Started With a Signature

I started reading Iain Banks in the mid-90s, after buying Whit at a signing I’d found myself in by pure chance. It was, unfortunately, the only time I met him, meaning I couldn’t ask him anything about his books, something I’d have loved to do later. I did make a joke about the book in its bag looking like a box of chocolates, and consequently got a book signed by Iain “Cadbury’s Selection” Banks.

After that, I read his works extensively — at first mainly the mainstream novels, and later the science fiction works as well. Or, to put it another way, the books by Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. According to a TV interview I saw, the M stood for Menzies (pronounced Mingies, to rhyme with thingies) and he’d always used the initial. However, his publisher persuaded him to drop it, so that when they insisted he had to use a different name for his SF books, he sarcastically suggested Iain M. Banks. Which they accepted.

He had a big impact on me. When I was writing my novel At An Uncertain Hour, its non-linear structure, interweaving different time periods, was largely based on what I’d learnt from how Banks used the same technique, especially in The Crow Road.

Banks quickly became one of my two favourite living authors, alongside the equally awesome Mary Gentle. A status which, unfortunately, ended in 2013.

My Last Banks

At that point, I still had a couple more books to read, including Matter, which for some reason I had in a huge doorstop of a hardback, a fact that probably influenced why it was still unread. However, for reasons I didn’t initially understand, I continued not to read it. I suspect, though, it was subconsciously that I didn’t want to have no more Iain Banks books to look forward to.

That wasn’t a good enough reason, though, and I’ve now completed my collection. Like much of his science fiction, it involves a far-future civilisation called the Culture, an example of his tendency to take traditional dystopias and twist them so that they’re not scary. Whit, for example, involves a cult which, though rather silly, is actually quite benevolent.

The Culture is a society that’s run by machines — but it all works beautifully. A post-scarcity anarchy, it offers both its organic and technological citizens the freedom to follow their desires, without the need to work for a living. What many of the more powerful AIs choose to do is keep all the systems running. It’s as simple as that.

In fact, many of the most interesting characters are AIs, especially the ships. Culture ships have strong and often quirky personalities, which is reflected in the ridiculous names they give themselves. Among the ships that feature in Matter are “Now We Try it My Way” and “You’ll Clean That Up Before You Leave”.

As in many of the Culture books, most of the action takes place away from the Culture — it’s a utopia, so not much fun as far as exciting stories go. In this case, the action centres on a Shellworld (a hollow, artificial planet consisting of concentric levels of habitats, down to the core). Focused mainly on levels 8 and 9, which is inhabited by a society with a roughly late-Victorian level of technology, the action starts with the assassination of the king.

The story thereafter follows his three children — Ferbin, the son who witnessed the assassination and has fled seeking help; Oramen, the younger son made puppet king by the assassin; and the daughter Djan Seriy, who’s grown up in the Culture and returns with all its high-tech to sort things out.

These are roughly human, but we’re also presented with a splendid array of decidedly non-human intelligent species, including one best described as like stinking, mouldy carpets. But the intrigues down in the Shellworld aren’t quite as minor as they might seem, and the book ends with a climax that shakes the galaxy.

The single most powerful impression I’m always left with from most Iain Banks books, and especially the Culture novels, is simply how much fun he seems to have had writing them. Matter is no exception. Every page explodes with ideas that range from unbelievably cool to delightfully absurd, and it’s a joy to read, from the light-hearted moments to the shock of violence and mayhem as the story proceeds.

So now I’ve no more Iain Banks books to read for the first time — but, of course, many are long overdue for a reread. I’m sure I’ll find plenty more in them next time around.

Gavrilo Princip and Jenkins’ Ear — How Wars Really Begin

A large proportion of fantasy novels involve warfare, and the reasons for those wars starting depend largely on the genre — but they’re usually quite straightforward.

If it’s traditional high fantasy, there’s a war because some Evil Overlord wants to conquer and oppress the world, usually for no very clear reason, and the opposing side is steadfastly determined to resist. If it’s grimdark, on the other hand, the purpose of war is simply because everyone wants power, or even just an excuse to kill and loot.

Now, none of those reasons are totally implausible. Wars are sometimes fought defensively against pure aggression, while power and bloodlust are certainly often motives. But, in reality, the causes of wars are much more complex and multi-layered — and the reasons why people think they’re going to war aren’t always the actual reasons.

Helen of Troy and the Hellespont

One of the first known fictional wars in human literature was described by Homer, nearly three thousand years ago, as having been the Greeks and the Trojans. Now, stories of the Trojan War may well have had their source in a real war in the late Bronze Age, but what Homer described was essentially fictional. And it was started by the abduction of a woman.

Three thousand years of literary critics and historians have found this implausible — no-one would have gone to war over a woman. The real cause (assuming there actually was a war at all) must, they say, have been a dispute over control of the trade routes through the Hellespont (now called the Dardanelles) which gave access to the lucrative markets of the Black Sea. Troy was situated on the Hellespont, thus controlling access, and the Greeks wanted to take it from them.

Now, the Hellespont theory is almost certainly true (assuming there was a war), but that doesn’t actually rule out the abduction of Helen as a cause. Trade is all very well, but it’s not going to inspire your soldiers to go and fight a war far from home for ten years.

On the other hand: the vicious barbarians carried off my wife — not just “a women”, after all, but the Queen of Sparta. If they’re willing to sink that low, will your wife be next? Or your daughter? Who’s going to come and make sure they never get the chance?

Now, that’s what inspires people to make sacrifices and go to war.

Crusading and Ears

The same pattern occurs time and again through history. The Crusades, for instance, were again as much about securing trade routes as about religious zeal, but it was the mobilisation of Christendom by a succession of Popes that sent generations of kings, barons, knights and commoners to the Holy Land. Well, that and the promise of total pardon by God for whatever you did on crusade, however heinous — which explains why the crusaders behaved so appallingly.

Perhaps the most bizarrely named war in history was fought between Britain and Spain from 1739 to 1748. Known in Britain as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, it was fought primarily over competing trade interests in the Caribbean, as well as similar competition in colonising North America.

As far as the 18th century “man in the street” was concerned, however, it was actually fought because, several years earlier, the Spanish had cut off the ear of a captured British sea-captain called Robert Jenkins. The government, and more especially the South Sea Company, deliberately played up the incident to fan resentment against the Spanish — and got the war they wanted.

Gavrilo Princip and Railway Timetables

The claim that a war couldn’t have been caused by the abduction of one woman seems unconvincing in an age when a world war was caused by the assassination of one man. On 28th June 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot dead Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the cause of independence and unity for the Southern Slavs under the leadership of Serbia.

Although there was no evidence that Serbia had been behind the assassination, Austria held them responsible and declared war. Russia then declared war in support of Serbia and Germany in support of Austria — making the bizarre opening move of invading Belgium, which resulted in the UK declaring war in support of Belgium.

The reality was that the Great Powers of Europe had been preparing for war for many years. The essential issues were, as usual, competition for resources and for influence on the world stage. Attempts to reach agreement, such as the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 which carved up Africa (without actually consulting any Africans, naturally), had run out, and everyone was ready for war.

So why invade Belgium? Well, as the historian AJP Taylor has pointed out, the state-of-the-art way of mobilising troops at the time was by rail, and that meant mobilisation could only take place via pre-planned infrastructure. The German plan for war, which they’d presumed would be against France, involved coming through Belgium, so that was their move, dragging Britain, France and ultimately the US into what had been a central European war.

Wars Start in Complex Ways

Hopefully, the few examples I’ve given will illustrate the complexity that can exist in the causes of wars. The underlying reasons are usually economic, although issues like religion, national pride and the desire for Lebensraum may play a part. But there’s also bound to be a cause for public consumption — something enough to fire up ordinary people and make them willing to go off and fight a war they probably won’t personally benefit from.

So, if you’re creating a war in a fantasy novel, should you imitate history? Well, I certainly wouldn’t recommend creating anything as bizarre and complex as the First World War — no-one would believe it was plausible. And you certainly might not want to subject your readers to a long treatise on local economics.

There’s nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned war between good and evil in a fantasy novel. I enjoy reading them — and I’ve even written a few myself.

On the other hand, your war might feel a little more realistic if you drop a few hints about what else might lie behind it. After all, even Dark Lords intent on extinguishing all light from the world must need food and resources to rule their empires.

The Dark Is Rising — a Retrospective Review

I recently revisited a children’s fantasy series I first read in the 1970s — Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence. I loved it in the 70s, but what would it be like now?

Fortunately, aside from a few elements that felt a little old fashioned, it held up well. It’s a rather odd series, though. Although such terms weren’t in use back then (at least, not in the UK), it seems to vary between what would now be regarded as middle grade and young adult, and from traditional adventure to surrealism, with some books sharing very few characters in common.

And it all works beautifully.

Susan Cooper was born in 1935 and is, at time of writing, still alive. After attending Oxford University, where she became the first woman to edit the university magazine Cherwell, she worked as a journalist (Ian Fleming was her boss at one stage) before moving to the US in 1963 to marry an American academic. Cooper’s literary output is extremely varied, spanning adult and children’s fiction, children’s picture books, biography, drama and screenplays. She’s been given or nominated for many awards, including a nomination for the high-status international Hans Christian Andersson Award.

The first book in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, was published in 1965. Written initially for a contest in honour of E. Nesbit (though never entered for it), it’s a fairly conventional children’s adventure with a few magical elements, Three children, siblings Simon, Jane and Barney, are on holiday in Cornwall with their “Great Uncle” Merry (the relationship is entirely honorary). Just as in innumerable Enid Blyton tales, they become involved in a race with the “bad guys” to find a very special treasure.

The difference here is that the treasure is the Holy Grail, a few people on both sides have magical powers, and the context is an ongoing war between the Light and the Dark.

The ending of Over Sea, Under Stone implied a sequel at least, but it wasn’t until 1973 that the second book was published, and may not have been what Cooper originally had in mind. The defining book from which the series takes its name, The Dark Is Rising has a different setting and an almost entirely different set of characters. Not to mention an extremely different tone.

This tells of Will Stanton, a member of a very large family (it’s revealed that he’s the seventh son of a seventh son) who discovers on his eleventh birthday that he’s actually the last-born of the Old Ones, ancient magical guardians of the Light, who must be ready when the Dark comes rising. Where Simon, Jane and Barney are barely aware of the magic around them, Will dives deep into its heart. While learning his role as an Old One, he must search for six objects of power that can drive back the Dark. And he finds that the moral choices aren’t always easy, with the Light sometimes acting questionably towards individuals in order to defend the world.

The first two books in the series have only one real link: Merry, who appears in the second book as Merriman and is gradually revealed through the series to be Merlin. The third book, however, brings all the characters together.

In Greenwitch, the Grail has been stolen, so Merriman takes Simon, Jane and Barney back to Cornwall to search for it. He also brings Will with him, who as far as they know is just some random kid they have to keep their secret from.

Much of the siblings’ quest has a similar tone to the first book, while Merriman and Will are searching the magical world, including a hazardous trip to the deep ocean. However, the heart of the story is the relationship Jane develops with the Greenwitch, an ancient ritual idol that’s actually conscious. In the end, it’s Jane’s kindness to the Greenwitch that saves the day.

The fourth book, The Grey King, changes direction again. Sent to the west coast of Wales to recuperate from a serious illness (engineered by the Old Ones, his supposed allies), Will meets a strange, magical boy called Bran, who proves to have a very unusual origin — and to be crucial in defeating the Dark. The events that play out in the Dyfi Valley have almost the air of a Greek tragedy. As Will, Bran and Bran’s dog Cafall (with eyes that can see the wind) search for the golden harp that will wake the six sleepers, powerful warriors of the Light, the passions and jealousies that go back to Bran’s origins play out to their conclusion.

The final book, Silver on the Tree, is also partly set in the same location, but this one is distinctly weirder. Everyone is together for the final confrontation with the Dark, with Simon, Jane and Barney being drawn more thoroughly into the magical world.

The strangest part of the book comes where Will and Bran journey into the Lost Land, a country that was long ago overwhelmed by the sea, to regain the crystal sword of Light, with which Bran can defeat the Dark. The Lost Land proves to be a strange place, often more surreal than magical, and this unearthly spirit carries on into the climactic section.

So what makes The Dark Is Rising series special? Well, the depth of blending of Arthurian legend, Celtic mythology and epic fantasy was less common at the time than it is now, and Susan Cooper handles it beautifully. The magic is vividly lived in as we learn it along with Will. The characters are good, too — even Simon, Jane and Barney, who could have been somewhat clichéd, come over convincingly. And the children are faced with complex moral issues which, again, were less common then than now.

Most of all, though, I think it’s Cooper’s powers of description and sense of place that really makes this series special. Of the three main locations, two (the Thames Valley in Buckinghamshire and the Dyfi Valley in Wales) were places she’d lived in, and they’re vividly present in the writing.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she was writing about her homeland from abroad. Above and beneath the fantasy, these books are a love song to the landscapes she’d grown up with. These are intensely visual books.

Yes, the series is a little old fashioned. In general, the children represent the comfortable middle-class privilege usual in older children’s fiction, although Cooper does occasionally try to move beyond that. The narrative also has a bit more head-hopping than would be normal today.

The climax of the series has been criticised, too, with the final confrontation strangely static, and its aftermath perhaps a bit of a cop-out — all neatly put away, instead of any anticipation of the children growing and learning from what they’ve been through.

Even so, the five books of The Dark Is Rising have been a joy to revisit, and would be well worth new readers trying out. Whether you’re a child, or an adult who understands that great books have no upper age limit.

What Can I Call This World?

Like many fantasy writers, I have a world I come back to over and over again. It has plenty of space for stories, after all, what with seven continents and thousands of years of history. And it’s name is… the Traveller’s World.

Not very inspiring, really. It just refers to the fact that the most recurring character I write about in it is called the Traveller. No fancy, evocative name, as so many fantasy worlds have.

Or do they?

There’s actually absolutely no reason why most fantasy worlds should have a name — other than the convenience of referring to them. And “the Traveller’s World” fits that requirement.

Who Calls It That?

From time to time, on fantasy writing forums, someone will introduce an idea with “My world is called X or Y.” And my first reaction is always “Who calls it that?”

That’s not a frivolous question.. Think about our own world. We call it Earth — or do we? If we were speaking French, we’d called it Terre, an entirely different name. Multiply that by the dozens of major languages spoken on Earth (or Terre), let alone the thousands of languages overall, and the difficulty of pinning down a single name becomes apparent.

One solution, especially used in science fiction, has been to use the Latin Terra, on the assumption that Latin is the “universal language”. That’s a very Eurocentric view, though. Latin isn’t the universal language in Asia or Africa, or among the indigenous peoples of Australia or the Americas. Nor even in eastern Europe.

No, there’s no common name for our planet, and the same would be true of any world that’s anything like it. A world that consists of more than a handful of countries, where everyone inexplicably speaks the same language.

But Don’t All Worlds Have a Name?

People who insist that fantasy worlds should have a name usually start with the big ones — Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros. None of which is actually the name of a world. Narnia and Westeros are both kingdoms, while Middle Earth is a continent.

Some worlds do have a name. For example, Fritz Leiber used the name Nehwon (“nowhen” backwards) for the world of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Leiber, though, was writing in omniscient, and Nehwon is what he tells us the world is called. As far as I remember (though I may be wrong) none of his characters actually refer to their world by that name.

There are other exceptions, but not many. Many of the “world names” are, like the first three I mentioned, merely a convenient way of referring to the worlds the stories take place in.

Why Should a World Have a Name?

In her first book, the SF novel Rocannon’s World, the wonderful Ursula Le Guin makes a reference to “planets without names, called by their people simply The World…”

This applies to worlds as much as to planets, if not more so. The point is that you only give a place a name if you need to contrast it with other places. Long ago, a primitive tribe living in the centre of Asia wouldn’t have needed to know their territory was part of a continent, and so wouldn’t have had a name for that continent.

The same is true of a planet whose people can’t conceive of anywhere else. The name we use for ours originally just mean the ground, as opposed to the sky — it’s only since we’ve began to think of ourselves as a planet among others that we’ve started using the name in a planetary sense.

As for worlds that are separated from us by more than space, why would they need a name? A world’s name is only likely to evolve if its inhabitants become aware of others, whether that’s the mortal and faery worlds or locations elsewhere in the multiverse. Even if you never made the journey between the worlds, knowing would be enough to change your view — just like that primitive tribe when they became aware of peoples further away than their own continent.

Tolkien’s naming system illustrates this perfectly. The events of most of his stories take place on the continent of Middle Earth, whose inhabitants know (if only hazily) that there are others. However, he does have a more general name — Arda, which refers to the Earth as a whole. But, crucially, this is only ever used from the perspective of the Valar, who know the wider universe. None of Arda’s inhabitants, even the Elves, have any use for the name.

So what’s the point of giving a name to a fantasy world? Usually, just one: marketing. People need to be able to refer to the location, but this doesn’t need to be a practical name. Andre Norton, for instance, set many novels in the Witch World, but that was never meant to be anything more than a phrase to stick on the books.

Like… the Traveller’s World, for instance.

Which World Is Your Story Set In? — reposted

This article was originally posted on my old blog in 2015. It felt it was well worth reposting, and I hope you’ll agree.

People who don’t like fantasy often base their objections on the claim that they prefer to read books or watch films set in the real world. For these people, the dichotomy is obvious. Fantasy is set in an invented secondary world, which obviously makes it trivial and irrelevant, whereas good fiction (that is, whatever they happen to like) is set in the real world, which automatically makes it superior and relevant.

Leaving aside the fact that many of the books, films and TV shows ostensibly set in the “real world” are neither superior nor particularly relevant (the James Bond stories are nominally real-world stories, for heaven’s sake), this attitude shows a fundamental lack of understanding about the nature of fiction — not to mention the nature of reality.

My contention is that every story ever written is actually set in an invented secondary world, and fantasy (as well as some SF) is the label given to those that are upfront about it. It doesn’t matter how uncompromisingly gritty a slice of social realism a story might be, it’s set in a fictional reality, not an objective reality.

Consider two authors both writing stories about a maverick cop who rides roughshod over the rules and procedures. In one, he might be the hero who nails the bad guys that would get away if he played by the book. In the other, he might end up destroying innocent lives the rules were there to protect.

This isn’t just a matter of attitude. Depending on their views or agendas (often, but not always, the same thing), each author will create realities in which their take on the story is objectively true. The first will quite genuinely be a world in which bleeding-heart liberals are letting the crooks get away to prey on their victims. The second will just as genuinely be in a world where the rule of law is the only thing separating the good guys from the bad.

Of course, a reader who entirely agrees with one or the other point of view will interpret that fictional reality as objectively true, but another will see the opposite as being true. The point is that the difference isn’t between the attitudes of the characters within the story, but lies in the author’s primary worldbuilding. This is analogous to the way Tolkien writes about a world in which morality has the force of a law of nature and can affect the outcome of events just as surely gravity or the weather. The differences can be a lot more subtle, though.

Soap operas* are generally presented as ultra-realistic slice-of-life drama, but actually they tend to take place in an odd half-reality. Besides obvious anomalies like location (EastEnders, for instance, is set in a rearranged version of London) there are usually odd social habits that are unlike anything you’d actually find, simply to facilitate the dramatic necessities. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but it’s not the real world.

Most of all, perhaps, the fictional reality of a story will be determined by selecting what to put in and what to leave out. The complete reality of our society contains everything from cosy village life to inner-city gang warfare, but the reality in which a story takes place rarely includes all this. The author will select what’s relevant to go into the story, and the rest won’t exist.

This kind of selection, like the two ways our maverick cop can go, largely reflects the author’s views and/or agenda. The fictional reality of a story isn’t the world as it objectively is, but the world as the author wants it to be — not necessarily wants as a good thing, but wants in order to make a point. It’s set in a custom-made world, just as a fantasy story is, but masquerading as the real world.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Fantasy is often accused of portraying unreality, but it doesn’t pretend otherwise, concentrating instead on using that unreality to shine a light on the world around us.

The more the fictional reality looks like our own world, though, the harder it is to make that distinction. I recall an argument I had once with a work colleague — I can’t remember the exact topic, but I think it may have been about the precise effects of particular illegal drugs. What I do remember, though, is that the killer argument presented by this otherwise intelligent person was “Of course it’s like that. Didn’t you see EastEnders last week?” To which I gently explained that it had been that way in EastEnders because that was how some author had written it, not because it was necessarily true.

Fictional reality isn’t restricted to fiction. Each of us sees the world in a slightly different way from anyone else, selecting what we admit and what we don’t, explaining events according to our own assumptions and interpretations of reality. Most of the conflicts in the world are due to the fact that we do this unconsciously and assume our own fictional reality, whether individual or broadly shared, is objectively true.

If we could learn to understand how fiction works, critique it not in absolute terms but in terms of its unique fictional reality — its own secondary world — maybe we’d be better at understanding our own and others’ unique inner worlds.

And what place better to learn how to do that than fantasy?

* The term soap opera is used with different meanings in different parts of the world. I’m using it in the usual UK sense of a continuous series (ie no breaks or seasons) about some kind of community that takes place in real time, so that, for instance, the characters are preparing for Christmas or anticipating the Cup Final at the same time the viewers are.

You’re Starting to Drabble

It’s probably fair to say that my natural instinct is to write long stories. I might start with good intentions of keeping it to a story of four or five thousand words, but next time I look it’s into five figures.

Some years ago, though, I disciplined myself to start writing flash stories — that is, stories of less than a thousand words. Once I was focused on that, it turned out to be surprisingly straightforward. All a matter of paring down the story to the single sequence of events that forms its heart, rather than trying to expand into all its corners. I’ve now had a dozen of them published, besides several more just over the limit.

But that’s not the limit of cutting down length. Recently, I’ve started writing drabble. A growing market, these are stories of exactly a hundred words each — short even by the standards of flash.

This arose out of a couple of challenges on Fantasy Writers.org, to write and submit drabbles to two separate anthologies — with the result that both are packed with FWO members.

The first is a horror anthology about funfairs (carnivals in American) called Festival of Fear.. I don’t write a great deal of horror (even though my first published story was in that genre), but I channelled my phobias (often the best way to write horror) and produced Serpent’s Maw, a brief tale of a gruesome ride.

The second anthology, Rise and Fall, is about the beginnings and endings of civilisations. I submitted three pieces to this and was gratified that all three were accepted. The City at the End of the World is a SF fable of the decay of everything in the universe; Foundation of Empire (yes, the title was a deliberate nod at Asimov) describes the foundation of a new world eerily echoing the origins of Rome; while The God of Time is a poetic vignette of the entire history of a civilisation encapsulated in its god’s eyes.

Both are available on Amazon, as Kindles and physical books, and are packed with stories that shouldn’t challenge anyone’s attention span.

And perhaps that’s ultimately what’s behind the prevalence of both flash and drabble today. It doesn’t take long to read them. You can fit a complete story (or several complete drabbles) into a short bus or train ride, or into a work break.

And drabbles aren’t even the shortest form. Microfiction is a story that can fit into a tweet — and there’s always Hemingway’s challenge that you can write a valid story in six words. One off the top of my head: “She was his everything. He’s lost.”

I certainly haven’t been “cured” of writing longer stories. There are plots that need scope and space and a grand scale, whether their natural length turns out to be short story, novella or novel. But writing flashes, drabbles or even shorter can be a great discipline, forcing me to identify and understand the stripped-down heart of the story and to make every word count — a worthwhile exercise even for writing novels.

And there are plenty of drabble markets out there, so maybe I’ll be trying my hand at a few more this year. Watch this space.

Hanuut’s Stand

I don’t normally post material here that’s still available elsewhere, but I felt this was a special case. It can be found in the anthology The Tale Trove, but I’m posting it today for Ukraine.

            The city of Naamid burnt around Hanuut as he stormed the guard-post with his fellow-rebels. Soldiers of the Demon Queen held the broken gateway, ferocious at bay.

            Hanuut didn’t underestimate them. He’d served unwillingly in their ranks, hating the tyranny but seeing no way out. Like so many others, he’d taken his chance at last to join the rising as the liberating army of the Free Alliance approached the city’s gate. He knew from his own training that these were formidable fighters.

            His comrades were falling before the swords that defended the gate, but there was another way in. Sheathing the old, notched sword he’d grabbed before deserting, Hanuut reached up for a handhold on the rough stone wall and began to climb.

            He was two storeys up when a warning shout from below cut through the din. He just had time to look up before a lump of masonry half his size came tumbling down on him, sweeping him off the wall. The impact on the ground knocked all the breath from him; but it seemed an infinitely long time before the stone crashed onto his leg. Searing pain filled him, and…

            “They’re coming!”

            The shout jerked Hanuut from the nightmare of that terrible night — was it really only two nights ago? He hauled himself into a sitting position, cursing the pain the movement sent through his half-healed stump, all they’d saved of his shattered leg. The makeshift hospital where they’d brought him — a half-burnt inn, from the look of it — was crowded with the injured and dying on pallets and heavy with the stench of death.

            He’d no doubt who they were, and he saw at a glance that no-one here was capable of resisting them. Of the fighting-men, few were even conscious, let alone able to lift a weapon.

            The wise-women who tended the sick, along with their younger apprentices, cowered in terror at what was coming. Hanuut found himself wishing, despite everything he’d never questioned, that the women here in Naamid were like those in Ario-ne to the north, who fought alongside the men. These untrained women might have the courage to die shielding the sick and the children with their bodies, but that was all they could do. They’d die and achieve nothing.

            “How close are they?” Hanuut demanded. Until today, the roar of his voice would have filled the room, but now his hoarse wheeze made him wince in pain at the effort.

            A child stared at him with huge dark eyes. “They’re coming up the street, sir.” Her voice was soft with terror. “Are we going to be sacrificed to the Queen?”

            “Not if I can help it,” snapped Hanuut, though it was unlikely the remnants of the Imperial forces had anything that formal in mind. Looking at the little girl, he shuddered at visions of her fate.

            He hesitated an instant, protesting silently that a man with one leg couldn’t be expected to fight. That wasn’t the point, though. Even if he tried to hide, it would do no good. He’d be cut down, in his bed or out of it. That was really the only choice to make.

            “Find my sword,” he told the child. “It’s probably somewhere near the bed.” She goggled at him. “Now would be a good time,” he added, making an effort to be gentle with her.

            As the girl scurried to search, Hanuut summoned the effort to raise his voice. “Someone get me up and strap me to the doorpost.” Met by uncomprehending stares, he launched into a string of curses that brought shocked looks to the healers’ faces, though one or two of the wide-eyed children seemed to be memorising the phrases he used.

            “You can’t,” protested one of the healers, an old woman with a crumpled face. “You’ve lost a lot of blood, and the wound hasn’t healed. You’ll…”

            “I’ll die standing instead of lying down,” he snapped. “Want to argue till they come. Now, get me up, or so help me, I’ll take a sword to you myself.”

            There was a shocked exchange of glances, then two of the younger women came and hauled him up on either side, half helping and half carrying him to the door, where others waited with bandages. They wound the strips round the shattered doorframe — the door itself had clearly been splintered down in the fighting — and about his chest and waist, securing him in place, before retreating into the room. The child handed him the battered, notched sword, her face grave and scared.

            Hanuut peered around the doorframe into what was left of the street. The building opposite — a petty merchant’s establishment, by the look of it — was on fire, and several neighbouring structures were charred remains. The smoke-heavy air fixed islands of screams and yells amid an ocean of eerie silence. Two dozen paces away, a group lurched towards him, the rabble into which the proudest army might descend. Hanuut’s last hope — that these were rebels, or the liberating forces — vanished at the sight of the Demon Queen’s red flower emblazoning their torn surcoats.

            The leader stopped two sword-lengths away, and the surprise on his brutish, scarred face — a mahogany face, lighter than the people of Naamid — gave way quickly to mockery. “What do we have here?” he demanded. “They’re giving us target practice now?”

            An ugly laugh spread through the group. They knew — it must be true, Hanuut thought — that they’d be dead by sunset. The imperial garrison’s last footholds were being overwhelmed, and there was no escaping the vengeance of the people they’d oppressed. They were as good as dead, but they were going out on a tide of blood and rape. They had nothing to lose — but nor did he, really, Hanuut reflected, as he felt the aching emptiness where his right leg used to be.

            “You’re not getting past me,” he snarled, hoping his certainty could make it so.

            “Oh no?” The man lunged at Hanuut, bloodshot eyes glaring with the lust to kill. In the heartbeat he had, Hanuut smelt the stench of drink on his breath and knew it gave him the advantage. Flicking the blade aside, he plunged his sword-point into the enemy’s exposed breast, pushing it deep and then yanking it out with the suck of blood.

            Another, the drunkest of the group, rushed at Hanuut yelling furiously, sword raised high. An easy target as it was, paying no attention to defence, the man stumbled onto the blood-soaked blade of his own accord.

            After that, the survivors took more care. Doomed they might be, but they wanted to enjoy their orgy of slaughter for as long as possible, and they approached Hanuut with caution. Like most soldiers, they had little skill with the sword — in battle, a clumsy blow could kill you just as surely as a subtle thrust — but they didn’t need it.

            They tried to surround him, but the doorway prevented it. Hanuut, his head swimming with pain from his stump, tried to concentrate on countering each swipe or thrust and managed to get in a couple of wounding ripostes, but he was slowing down.

            A searing agony cut through his guts, and he looked down stupidly at the blade he’d missed sticking out of his belly. As a mist rose in his eyes, another sword sliced deep into his shoulder. Hanuut sagged against the bindings. This was the end.

            The yells of triumph turned to screams. His eyes cleared enough to see men striking at his attackers, and Hanuut recognised, with a lurch of relief, the insignia of the Alliance.

            Then everything dissolved around him, and there was only a tunnel of light ahead of Hanuut.

It’s About Time

Most secondary-world fantasy writers love creating a whole world (or at least a significant part of one) for their characters to play in. They create geography, cultures, races, religions, politics… the list goes on. But there’s one thing most of them seem less thorough about — time.

Now, that might seem an odd statement, considering how rich many fantasy worlds are in history. But that’s the point. Whether it’s the memory of Bran the Builder or the ancient triumph of the Dragon, these periods are only ever seen from the perspective of a “present” — as history.

Authors might write stories about this history. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, for example, includes a book called Tales of Earthsea, made up of short stories set long before Ged’s time (her “present”). However, these are told very much as “tales of old times”, rather than being immediate, as are the main stories in the series.

There are exceptions, and in general SF is better at this than fantasy. Both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, for instance, have shown themselves willing to move around in their universes’ histories. Most fantasy works that do the same, though, are still looking at the time factor from some kind of (at least relatively) fixed points.

For instance, both Tolkien and Howard were writing about fictional prehistories of our world and could therefore treat different periods essentially as a historical novelist would. Tolkien, in any case, was supposedly translating ancient works about the War of the Jewels and the War of the Ring.

The Chronicles of Narnia certainly cover a large amount of history, since they go from the creation in The Magician’s Nephew to the end of the world in The Last Battle. In this case, though, it’s all being seen from a relatively fixed point (a lifetime) in our world.[1] The same is true of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, where millennia of the Land are seen within a few years of Covenant’s lifetime.

A fantasy world that has time built into it is different. It’s like the contrast between a two-dimensional picture, where the distance is always the distance and nothing exists in front of the foreground, and a 3D virtual tour, where you can wander around and see points from each others’ perspectives.

My first real moment of enlightenment in this respect was when I read Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane series. An excellent but often overlooked sword-and-sorcery series, it tells the wanderings of the immortal main character (essentially the biblical Cain) through an antediluvian world. Each story is set in a different kingdom or civilisation, with locations of other stories sometimes mentioned as ancient history.

This inspired me to do something similar with an immortal of my own, the Traveller, who at this point had only appeared as a secondary character in one context. I realised that, like Wagner, I could tell tales of the Traveller’s wanderings where the setting of one story might be crumbled to dust in the next.

In time, I took that further, and now I have stories set in every period of my world, from its stone age to its computer age — and even the odd glimpse into an age even we’d find futuristic. There’s no artificial “present” — why should there be? My world isn’t in any way synced with our own, so no time period has more relevance than any other. Each story is set in its own present, with references back to characters who are now legends and foreshadowings of what’s to come.

Is that a unique approach? I’ve no idea. I haven’t read any other author approaching their world that way, but then I’m really only familiar with a small selection of recent fantasy. Any recommendations would be very welcome.

But I’d love to see more fantasy authors shake off the shackles of a false present and make time more fluid in their worlds. After all, as Einstein would tell us, it’s all relative.

[1] Yes, the “fixed point” is several decades (from the childhood to old age of Polly and Digory), just as Earthsea’s “present” is Ged’s whole lifetime. In historical terms, though, a lifetime can be seen as a fixed point.

Juvenile Delinquents Against the Future — Dweller in the Crack

Just over a year ago, my novella Dweller in the Crack was published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing — but I didn’t have a blog at the time, so I didn’t note the occasion. So here’s everything you always wanted to know about the book (didn’t you?).

Dweller in the Crack is the fourth published story about Karaghr and Failiu — Kari and Fai to their friends. They’d describe themselves as wandering teenage sorcerers, lovers and outlaws. Others might describe them as a couple of homeless juvenile delinquents who know a few spells and fake the rest. The truth is probably somewhere between the two.

Kari and Fai’s stories are set in the same world as many of my other stories, including At An Uncertain Hour and Eltava: A Sword for All Ages. In fact, the Traveller, who figures in both books, makes a cameo appearance in the first of the stories, while Kari, in a somewhat different later life, will appear in several other novels, including the one I’m currently writing.

The first three stories were published by various markets between 2009 and 2011. In Steal Away, they inadvertently saved the day and were given the resources to leave the city of Errish, where they were living in what can only be described as a squat. In Rainy Season, they tried to fix the climate for a community of islanders and only made things worse. While in The Temple of Taak-Resh, they actually managed to summon a demon — though a reasonably benevolent one.

For some reason, I didn’t write more about Kari and Fai for a few years, but a while ago I wrote a much longer story, Dweller in the Crack. Without giving away too many spoilers, this story involves a missing city, a child-goddess, time-travel, a nightmare future, a crack in reality, and a threat to the whole world and maybe more. And, in the end, Kari and Fai find that perhaps they really are the great sorcerers they claim to be.

I love writing about Kari and Fai because they’re neither heroes (even flawed ones) or villains (even with redeeming features). They’re something far more awesome and terrifying — teenagers. Absurd, romantic, passionate, chaotic, wildly in love with new experiences (and with one another), and always just on the edge of creating mayhem. Always with the best of intentions. Well, usually.

I have three more story ideas for Kari and Fai, and I just have to get around to the minor detail of actually writing them. And I’m sure there’ll be more.

Some years ago, I described Kari and Fai (with apologies to Johnny Mercer) as “two drifters off to see the world”. I still think that sums them up better than anything, and I’m going to enjoy following them as they see more of the world. And maybe blow up odd bits of it.