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Another year over, and a new one begun

So, the obligatory New Year blog post…

Snuggled up between Helen Lowe and Scott Lynch in Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue!
Snuggled up between Helen Lowe and Scott Lynch in Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue!

It’s been an utterly amazing year Chez Lyle, with not one but two novels published – and people actually buying them all over the world, from Canada to the United Arab Emirates and probably beyond. The response has been tremendous, with The Alchemist of Souls appearing on at least a couple of Best of 2012 lists (that I know of), and of course being a debut it’s up for the usual award nominations. Not that I have any pretensions of being an award-winning author; I’d rather sell heaps of books to satisfied readers :)

I’ve also made lots of new friends in the SFF community, been to a big US convention for the first time, met some megastar authors who were previously just names on my bookshelves, and generally had a fantastic time. I can’t recommend the convention circuit strongly enough to any SFF writer who wants to break into commercial publishing. Even if you don’t get a chance to pitch to an agent or editor, the friendships you make with other writers will be hugely important in seeing you through the highs and lows of the publication process. Our books aren’t the “competing products” that Amazon likes to claim – we’re all in this together.

2013 is set to be a somewhat quieter year for me, as I have only one book out (The Prince of Lies, the final volume in the Night’s Masque trilogy). I have another project underway, but it’s still at the very early stages of development, so even if I were to sell it this year, there’s very little chance of it appearing before late 2014 at best – sorry! This is the downside of selling your first completed novel – you are constantly running to keep up with your publisher’s release schedule, because you don’t have anything else under your hat. In that respect I envy writers like Michael J Sullivan who had a complete trilogy to offer when he got his book deal. Indeed, the only reason I’ve been able to commit to a book every 8-10 months is that it’s a trilogy with the same setting, lead characters and overarching conflict, so I’ve had plenty of time to at least think about where I was taking it, even if I didn’t write all three books in advance. The new project is going to be totally different in setting and characters, so it’ll take me a while to get all my ducks in a row – I’d rather make you guys wait, and have a much better book as a result.

On the plus side, once The Prince of Lies is handed in I’ll have more time for reading, which has had to take a back seat this year. There have been so many good books out and I want to read at least some of them! Last year I discovered several new favourite authors, so I have their latest offerings to keep up with, as well as the books I didn’t get to for lack of time. In fact I’m somewhat surprised that, according to Goodreads, I managed to read 16 books last year! I think this year I’ll try for 24, since that’s the exact length of my current TBR list…

Here’s wishing you all have as good a 2013 as my 2012! :)

Woman in sensible armour

As a fantasy author, I’m often called upon to write combat scenes for my books. Sometimes they’re a simple tussle using whatever weapons come to hand (like Ned’s main fight scene in The Alchemist of Souls) but given that my protagonist Mal usually goes around wearing a rapier and matching dagger, there are inevitably a number of sword-fights in the Night’s Masque books.

On the one hand I find them pretty easy (and a lot of fun) to write—I’ve seen an awful lot of swashbuckling movies over the years, and of course I do armchair research as well—but on the other, I have pretty much zero first-hand experience. Plus, writing is a pretty sedentary occupation unless you get one of those fancy treadmill desks, so I’m in need of exercise. Which I hate. I thus realised I could kill two birds with one thrust, so to speak, if I took up fencing.

I prevaricated for a while, telling myself that modern sport fencing is nothing like real sword-fighting (which is true), but once my first book came out I started to feel in need of new challenges. I also discovered there was a fencing club based at a high school barely a mile and a half from my house, so I really had no excuse not to go. I therefore signed up for the beginner’s course at Cambridge Fencing Club.

The autumn term started at the end of September; in fact the first lesson was on the Thursday evening before I went down to Brighton for FantasyCon. I was a bit worried I’d be horribly stiff at the convention, so my husband showed me some exercises that would help stretch my leg muscles and build core body strength. As a result, I was only a little footsore after the first class, since we only did footwork. In subsequent lessons we learned how and where to hit our opponent, and a bit of parrying. The instructor likes to focus on the basics in the beginners’ class and leave more complex techniques to the intermediate class.

The beginners’ class is over now, and whilst it was fun, it has also confirmed my suspicions that it’s not for me. Partly it’s the modern sport: the protective clothing is hot and uncomfortable, and I find the highly stylised nature of it (compared to realistic fighting styles) somewhat frustrating. Partly it’s because I’m unsurprisingly not terribly good at it, having started so late in life, and I don’t enjoy activities I’m not good at (this is why I hated PE at school). Mostly, though, I’m not in sufficient physical condition, and it’s very tough on the right arm, which already gets a hammering from computer use and longhand writing.

It was a painful decision to give up; writing has taught me how to persevere in the face of obstacles, and I really did want to enjoy it, but I have to face up to my limitations. It’s been a valuable learning experience, and at least I can now cross another topic off my bucket list. So, I’m regretfully going to have to bail before I do myself a mischief and have to dictate my next novel!

 

The Next Big Thing

I tried to slither out of this at first, but then I woke one morning at 5am and couldn’t get back to sleep, but couldn’t get into the writing groove either, so I thought I might as well give it a go! The Next Big Thing is a blog post chain for writers. You talk about your work-in-progress (or in my case, about-to-be-published novel) and then tag five other writers to carry the torch forward. It’s been going a while, so practically every writer on the planet has already done it – soon we’ll have to start linking back to existing posts and it’ll go all Ouroboros on us…

1) What is the working title of your next book?

The Merchant of Dreams. That’s the official title, btw :)

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s a sequel to my debut The Alchemist of Souls, so it picks up where that book left off. Also, I’d always wanted to set a novel in Venice, so I just needed to work out how to get my characters there!

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Historical/alternate history fantasy.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmm, I’ve debated this one a lot, but eventually I came down in favour of Aidan Turner (Being Human, The Hobbit) to play Mal, especially after seeing photos of him as Kili (below). He has the right mix of charm, intensity and darkness to play my swashbuckling hero and his mentally unstable identical twin brother.

I’ve also cast a number of other actors in my head: Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Captain America) as Ned Faulkner; Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Caribbean) as Robert, Prince of Wales; and Bradley James (Merlin) as his younger brother Prince Arthur. And whilst it would require a significant makeup job, I totally envisage Seth Green (Buffy, Austin Powers) as Ambassador Kiiren :)

Aidan Turner (as Kili in “The Hobbit”)
Aidan Turner (as Kili in “The Hobbit”)

The character I have most trouble with is Coby Hendricks, my girl-disguised-as-a-boy; someone suggested Olivia Thirby (Juno, Dredd) but it would depend if she could do the accent!

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn’s dream about a skrayling shipwreck proves a reality, it sets him on a path to the beautiful, treacherous city of Venice – and a conflict of loyalties that will place him and his friends in greater danger than ever.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s represented by John Berlyne of Zeno Literary Agency, and published by Angry Robot Books. It will be out in ebook, audiobook and US paperback on 18 December 2012, and UK paperback on 3 January 2013.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I did the very first draft for NaNoWriMo, back in 2007, so technically, only a month. However I had to completely rewrite it from scratch; not only was it far too short at only 50k, but the previous book had changed substantially in revisions so the plot no longer fitted. The new draft took about eleven months, although I had to take time out to edit and promote the first book so it wasn’t a non-stop process. Actual hands-on writing time was probably nearer seven months.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The closest ones I can think of are Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series and Mark Chadbourn’s Swords of Albion. Like the former, several of the main characters are gay or bisexual, and like the latter it revolves around the Elizabethan secret service.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The city of Venice – I absolutely love it! It’s hardly changed in the last four hundred years, which makes it perfect for any writer of historical fiction, realistic or fantastical.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s probably one of the few Elizabethan fantasies that doesn’t feature either fairies or William Shakespeare (though the Bard does have a couple of cameos in the third book of the trilogy). My “magical beings” are a race of non-humans called skraylings who evolved in the New World at around the same time that humans appeared in Africa. They now live alongside the Native Americans, acting as go-betweens and traders, and since Columbus showed up and the Spanish started hassling them, have allied themselves with the English in an attempt to keep the Europeans out of the Americas.


Right, that’s my bit done – time to pass the torch to my victims, ahem, writer buddies:

Adrian Faulkner

I first met Adrian at EasterCon 2011, I think – he’s a great guy, and like so many people I met that year he now has a book deal! His first fantasy novel, The Four Realms, is due out from Anarchy Press in late December.

Jennifer Williams

Jennifer is another convention buddy, this time introduced to me by fellow Angry Robot author Adam Christopher. Her fantasy novella The Copper Promise has been self-published on Amazon, and I know she has plans for more stories in that world!

Jacey Bedford

Jacey was a fellow panellist at EasterCon 2012, where she impressed me with her witty rejoinders! Like me she writes swashbuckling alternate history fantasy, but Regency instead of Elizabethan – really looking forward to that one!

You’re supposed to link to five others, but this meme’s almost played out and I didn’t have time to hunt down any more. Bite me!

I need a hero: feminism, escapism and the female gaze

At WorldCon last week I attended a panel where one of the participants, Catherine Lundoff, announced she had just written a book called Silver Moon about a woman who becomes a werewolf when she goes through menopause. Several audience members reacted with “ooh, I’d love to read that!”, but I was not one of them. Don’t get me wrong; on an intellectual level, I appreciate that women, and especially older women, are too seldom the protagonists in SFF and that this is A Bad Thing, and yet…the premise didn’t exactly set me on fire. I much prefer books with male protagonists, or a mix of male and female. And of course that got me wondering why.

Adonis, by Bertel Thorvaldsen (Wikimedia Commons)
Adonis, by Bertel Thorvaldsen (Wikimedia Commons)

At first I thought it was because some readers prefer their protagonists to be much like themselves, whereas others (presumably including myself) prefer those who are different, in order to experience lives they can never have. That’s a big part of it, I think—escaping into a life that’s far more interesting than the real world—but there are plenty of strong, active female characters around these days, especially in contemporary fantasy. And yet they still don’t interest me as much as the men.

It’s well known that girls are more open to reading about male characters than vice versa, but what does that say about one individual’s preferences? Do I prefer reading about men because that’s what society has inculcated in me? Or because I don’t identify—and never have—with (stereo)typical female behaviour and hence my self-image is somewhat gender-neutral? Or maybe it’s something else entirely…

Back in April I was on a panel at AltFiction on the hoary old topic of diversity in fantasy, and made a quip about “the female gaze” as an explanation of why I enjoy writing (and reading) about male protagonists. More recently, Foz Meadows has written a very insightful article for the Huffington Post titled “Sex, Desire and Fan Fiction”, pointing out that a high percentage of fan fiction is written by and for women to cater to female readers’ appetite for erotic entertainment in the context of a relationship, in contrast with pornography for men, which isolates sex from relationships.

Reflecting on these points in relation to the issue of female protagonists made me realise that, regardless of whether there is any romance in a book, I want to fall in love with the protagonist—and for me that perforce requires a male character, preferably on the young side. (But not a teenager *shudders*) This habit is so ingrained in me that I can even fall in love with someone like Sand dan Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, because despite his many flaws he’s intelligent and funny and heartbreakingly tragic. Yes, he’s also described as physically repulsive, but then so was Severus Snape—and who was cast in that role? Alan Rickman of the oh-so-sexy voice, guaranteed to make all the adult women in the audience swoon. The great thing about books is that you get to supply your own visuals.

So, I can only issue an apology to my sisters, and a heartfelt wish that you get all the female protagonists you want to read about. Me, I’m going to stick with writing about hot men 😉

Finally, going back to the title of this post, am I the only one old enough to remember this short-lived 80s TV show about a special agent who goes undercover as a male model? Warning: 80s big hair alert!

 

 

 

Failing the Bechdel Test gracefully

“Two women” by Hokusai
“Two women” by Hokusai

The Bechdel Test is a well-known yardstick used by writers and critics to assess the feminist credentials of a narrative. Taking its name from an episode in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the basic principle is that in order to pass the test, there must be at least one scene in which two women talk about a topic other than men.

Some people define it very strictly, in that the conversation shouldn’t mention male characters at all, but this is (IMHO) an impractically tight definition that excludes a lot of films, TV and books with positive portrayals of women. Taken to extremes, it means that a scene where two female cops discuss their strategy for taking down a male criminal doesn’t count, whereas one where they talk about shoes means a pass (and one could even say that the latter is far less feminist* for being focused on sexual attractiveness, not professional competence). Personally, I prefer a more liberal interpretation: the conversation doesn’t have to avoid all mention of men and relationships, but they should be incidental to the topic rather than the topic itself. For example, if two women talk about their favourite books, should the scene fail just because they don’t restrict the conversation to female authors? Personally I’d say no, not unless the conversation turns to which of the male writers is more attractive!

At any rate,  it’s something I’ve thought about a lot whilst writing my Night’s Masque series, because gender plays an important role in the story. But do my books pass?

I chose to write a novel set in the Elizabethan period for many reasons—the plays and poetry, the gorgeous costumes, and the extraordinary parallels with our own times, for a start—but in doing so I’ve saddled myself with the decidedly un-PC attitudes of the times as well. Elizabethan society was pretty well segregated along social lines, in that a respectable woman had few opportunities to socialise with men outside her own family and her husband’s social circle.

I was therefore faced with a choice between an all-male core cast or trying to fit a female character into the story without totally violating Elizabethan mores. I decided to attempt the latter, not because I felt obliged to include a token female but because I wanted a diversity of point-of-view characters for my own satisfaction as a writer. The character who eventually became Coby started out as a respectable young widow, but as I wrote and revised the early chapters I found it increasingly difficult to believe in her as someone who would run around Southwark with a bunch of, frankly, disreputable young men. So, I decided she was an orphan who had disguised herself as a boy to get a proper job (i.e. anything but prostitution).

All well and good—and nicely Shakespearean!—but as a result, in all of Coby’s scenes with women they are acting on their belief that she’s a boy, at which point I guess the Bechdel test goes out of the window! On those grounds, The Alchemist of Souls is a big Fail. And honestly, I don’t care. The only way to make it pass would have been to write a completely different book.

In The Merchant of Dreams, which has just gone off to my editor, Coby gets to spend some time in female guise at last, and the book just about squeaks a pass as a result. She doesn’t have many conversations with women, and the ones she does have are often limited by language barriers, but as the revisions went on I found myself coming up with more and more opportunities to introduce female characters for her to interact with. It wasn’t a conscious decision; looking back, I think it’s simply that Coby now has a much wider range of options than any other character in the book because she can present as either male or female, and in this historical milieu that opens up more storytelling possibilities than confining myself to one sex.

I’m therefore interested to see how things will work out in the final volume, The Prince of Lies. Whilst I do my best to create an outline for a book before I start writing, it tends to be a rough sketch rather than a blueprint, and new ideas occur to me right up to the last draft. What happens next for Coby is still up in the air, and my focus is on staying true to her story, wherever that might take me. For me, respecting your characters means letting their story arcs develop at the right pace and in a direction that’s believable, not imposing arbitrary rules.

 

* For a sharply satirical look at the extremes of feminism, I strongly recommend Is This Feminist? (thanks to Emma Jane Davies for alerting me to this hilarious Tumblr blog)

Lyle’s Three Laws of Magic

Yesterday I came across an article about creating a magic system for your novel, and on impulse tweeted to say that I disliked the phrase “magic system” when applied to written fiction. This sparked a lively debate, and afterwards I thought it would be fun to codify my conclusions in a set of rules.

OK, they’re not so much rules, more what you’d call…guidelines :)

1. Magic cannot be all-powerful

"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath
"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath

I think most writers (and readers) understand this one. If magic can do anything, there’s no narrative tension, because there’s no problem it cannot solve. There must be at least some hard limits on what it can do. Popular limits include: only some people can perform magic; they have specific talents and can only do certain types of magic; powerful magic comes with a high cost. Many fantasy worlds combine all three, but it doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as it stops magic from being a “get out of gaol free” card.

You don’t have to define down to the last detail what magic can do, but you really, really need to know what it can’t do.

2. Magic that’s too logical becomes science

This is a more controversial one, and the point that provoked the Twitter discussion. As someone pointed out, this is the inverse of Clarke’s Law, i.e. “any sufficiently advanced magic system is indistinguishable from technology”.

I know there are some readers who love the Brandon Sanderson approach, i.e. highly detailed rules of magic, but to me all that does is make magic an extension of the science of your universe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m often tempted to create a fantasy setting that, like Discworld, is literally how pre-modern people believed their universe to be – but I think you as a writer need to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.

More to the point, as I said on Twitter, the reader shouldn’t be able to hear the rattle of a ghostly D20 or envisage a “magic points gauge” falling. Don’t make your magic so mundane and mechanistic that it reads like a poorly written RPG novelisation!

3. Magic should tend towards entropy

What I mean by this is that, whilst your character may think of magic as a tool that can get him out of trouble, you as the writer should be thinking of ways to use it to get him into trouble :)

A lot of fantasy worlds do this in a very simplistic way, by making magic illegal, which is fine if that fits your setting. It can also be used for comic effect, e.g. the archetypal inept apprentice who tries to light a candle but instead makes it explode! However it can also be done more subtly, by setting up unintended consequences. That thunderstorm spell over the battlefield might break the ranks of the enemy, but the resultant rain could easily cause the nearby river to flood and wash away the bridge the characters were relying on to get to the castle in time to stop the usurping prince from slaughtering the rest of the royal family.

You can also have magic be just plain unreliable. The reason that so many humans throughout history have believed in the reality of magic is the same reason that gambling is addictive: it works just often enough, and with sufficiently gratifying results, that our optimistic brains overlook all the failures. You don’t want to go too far with this, though. If your magic randomly fails at a crucial moment, it can feel as clunky as a story in which the hero’s mobile phone batteries go flat just when he needs to make that vital call. At the risk of contradicting rule 2, failure needs to be logical or at least plausible, rather than completely random.

 

So, there you have it – my three laws of magic for fantasy writers. Go ahead and break them if you want to, though – after all, it’s your universe!

Why I read reviews

The other day a question came up on Twitter: what value do you get out of reading reviews? I’d been thinking of writing about this topic anyway, so I thought it was time to put my thoughts in writing…

A lot of writers refuse to read reviews of their own books, on the grounds that if they read the good ones, they are honour-bound to read the bad ones, and they find the latter too painful. I can understand that attitude, and if that’s how you roll, you have my sympathy. Writing is hard enough, without getting stressed out about the things you can’t control—like reader reaction.

So why read reviews at all? Clearly you have to have a thick skin (or be a masochist), but I think they can be useful if you approach them in the right way. For me, it’s a kind of market research. We’re constantly being told that, as 21st century writers, we need to be aware of our audience—our market, to put it in even more commercial terms. But who is that market?

Some writers have an instinctive feel for it, like Jack Sheffield, who spoke at the Winchester Writers’ Conference a few years ago. He uses his experiences as a headteacher to write novels set in a fictional primary school in the 1970s, and he targets readers in their 40s who were at school in that period. Nostalgia, pure and simple. Maybe I’m just not commercially minded enough, but I don’t have a clear demographic in mind for my books. I simply write books of the kind that I would enjoy reading, and hope to appeal to the fans of authors whose books I enjoy: Lynn Flewelling, Tim Powers and so on. Hence, reading reviews by book bloggers and other fantasy fans helps me to find out who is reading my books and what they enjoy about them.

I should also point out that for these purposes I focus on the positive reviews and ignore the negative ones. Not because I’m looking for an ego-boost, but because if someone doesn’t connect with my books, they are by definition not my target audience. Of course if the majority of your readers are dissatisfied, you have some serious work to do, but if the critics are in the minority, you’ll just be shooting yourself in the foot by trying to please them.

Most importantly, it’s not about individual opinions so much as trends. The more reviews you read, the more you realise how idiosyncratic an individual’s response to a book is. One person may love Character A and find Character B annoying, another feels the exact opposite. Some reviewers say they find The Alchemist of Souls slow-paced, others that they couldn’t put it down. They can’t all be “right”, in the sense of providing objective criticism! So, I’m looking for a consensus, of the “this was a great book apart from…” variety. For example, I have to admit that the “slow” comment crops up quite a bit, so I have to at least consider whether I can up the pace a little in the next book without throwing away its other virtues.

I’m also on the lookout for comments of the “I love X and would like to see more” variety, where X is something I enjoy writing, and particularly where no-one else singles out X as something they hate. That’s a no-brainer for the writer, really. Sometimes you’re just too close to the writing to see what needs bringing out, so this kind of feedback is invaluable. Yes, a good editor may also provide this kind of feedback, but editors are individuals too and they can sometimes overlook the elements that really click with the audience.

One last word on negative reviews: never, EVER respond. It doesn’t matter how justified your complaint—baring your ego in public is not pretty, and will not win you any respect. If an Amazon review is offensive or totally irrelevant, you can ask Amazon to delete it, but for the love of God do not comment in person, or ask your friends to comment on your behalf. You chose to put your writing out into the world, and the reader is entitled to their opinion, however wrong-headed.

The only thing that really gets under my skin is when a reader accuses me of factual inaccuracy—and is wrong. I try not to over-explain everything in my novels, with the result that some readers will miss connections and go with their gut reaction. Still, I bite my tongue and hope that other potential readers seeing these reviews will also know that the reviewer is wrong. I know for sure that a comment from me will only hurt my case. If the topic is big enough, though, I might blog about it (as I did about homosexuality in Elizabeth England); that way I can have my say without attacking individuals.

What it comes down is that whatever you write, not everyone is going to “get” it—and you’re going to have to live with that. Either you stay away from reviews altogether, or you discipline yourself to take the rough with the smooth and learn from it, like with the rest of life. Your choice. Just choose wisely…

Romance in fantasy

Maybe it’s a cliché to write a romance-themed blog post for Valentine’s Day, but the celebration is rife with clichés so I thought, why not?

In medieval and Renaissance times, a romance was not a love story but “a long fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events, usually set in a distant time or place” (freedictionary.com). Sounds awfully like the modern-day definition of the fantasy genre, doesn’t it? However when it comes to the modern definition of romance, you tend to find readers divided on the subject.

On the one hand you have the “girl cooties” school of fantasy, inspired by the work of Tolkien, who spent most of his life in the male-dominated circles of the early twentieth century English education system. Such books seem designed to appeal to the adolescent male, with female characters who are at best an idealised Other, and at worst a collection of sexist stereotypes. This is a gross generalisation of course, and there have been lots of fantasy novels with strong female characters, but there are nonetheless still plenty of readers who dislike any hint of romance sullying their heroes’ testosterone-soaked adventures.

In the opposite corner you have the new kid on the block, paranormal romance, which seems designed to appeal mainly to female readers. Owing more to the Gothic novels of the early nineteenth century, these are love stories first and foremost, with the fantasy elements typically providing the obstacles between the lovers. I suspect that part of their rise in popularity, as with m/m romance, lies in the fact that modern Western couples face few obstacles in their relationships compared to previous generations. “(S)he’s a vampire/werewolf/angel/zombie” has replaced “our parents would never allow it” as the star-crossed lovers’ angst du jour.

But what of the middle ground? What are the fantasy novels that fall between these extremes, and where do you draw the line? This question occurred to me after reading Ten Ruby Trick by my friend Julia Knight. For the most part this is a fun swashbuckling adventure, like the old movies I used to watch on Sunday afternoons. Sure, there’s a romance between the hero, Van Gast, and the tricksy pirate captain Josie, but the love scenes are fairly infrequent and not terribly steamy.

In many respects, therefore, it’s not that dissimilar from my own novel The Alchemist of Souls – and yet Ten Ruby Trick is published by Carina, an ebook imprint of Harlequin, whereas I’m published by SFF imprint Angry Robot. So what makes Julia’s book romance and mine not? I pondered this for a while and realised it was all down to the characters’ motivation. In Ten Ruby Trick, both Van Gast and his enemy Holden are motivated by their love for Josie; if it wasn’t for their feelings, there would be no plot. In The Alchemist of Souls, the romance is confined to a subplot. Take it away, and you would still be left with Mal’s main storyline, which has nothing to do with romance (though it is ultimately concerned with love, loyalty and responsibility). It’s a subtle distinction, but one that makes all the difference in how the book is marketed.

What about you? Do you like romance in your fantasy, fantasy in your romance, or do you prefer the two genres to stay separate?

Looking forward, looking back: 2011/12

One of the advantages of a long-running blog (or a diary, for that matter) is that you get to look back on previous years’ New Year resolutions and laugh – or cry.

Now, this main blog of mine has only been going for about fifteen months, but my writing journal goes way, way back to the summer of 2005, so I have quite a few resolutions to look back on. For the first few years, my only – and perpetual – goal was to finish a novel and get it submitted, but in 2010 I finally achieved that – yay! – and was able to move on. I still post minor progress reports to my writing journal, but I’ve decided that my annual goals are hopefully interesting enough to the wider world to make it onto this main blog now.

So, what did I aim for in 2010? Obviously I achieved my lifetime ambition of getting picked up by a publisher, but as Dean Wesley Smith says in his recent post, that’s not a goal, it’s a dream. Goals should be something within your control, otherwise you’ll be overly discouraged by failure. My real goal was to write a sequel as good as the first book (the one that had already attracted the interest of Angry Robot) – something that is surely within my control. The question is, have I achieved it?

Right now that’s hard to say. I’m still working on the second draft of The Merchant of Dreams, and I’m pretty pleased with it so far. The plot is sufficiently intricate, I think; there’s even more swashbuckling action than in The Alchemist of Souls; and once more I’m putting my characters through the emotional as well as the physical wringer. The proof of this pudding, though, will be in the reading, so I’ll just have to wait to find out what my editor and beta-readers think.

As for 2012, my goal is pretty much the same as last year, funnily enough. I have one further book under contract, and I’d like to tie up this trilogy with a climax worthy of its predecessors. After that it’ll be time to think about my next writing project in earnest, but I don’t have any solid goals related to that right now. Maybe next year!

What about you? Do you set goals – and have you achieved any of them?

Travelling hopefully: the pleasure of reading

The other day I was reading The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie, and after I put it down (to get off the bus and walk home!) I reflected on why I was enjoying it so much. Part of it, of course, was the wonderful writing and great characters, but then I realised that a significant part was simply the pleasure of not knowing what happens next.

As an author under contract, I spend a lot of time revising my work, re-reading it, editing it some more, checking other people’s copyedits and proofing…in short, I soon know my book inside out, and though I still love it, it is no longer capable of surprising me. And sometimes I want surprises.

On the one hand, recent research suggests that knowing the ending doesn’t spoil enjoyment of a story. And yes, I’ll happily re-read a favourite book (e.g. Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett), even though I know the story practically by heart. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in revisiting old friends, of picking up nuances that you missed on first reading in the rush to find out What Happens Next.

And yet, and yet…There’s a special thrill to discovery, of watching the story unfold. Will it all work out in the end, or collapse into tragedy? Will it enthrall, or puzzle, or (hopefully not!) merely bore? Reading a new book, I can understand the thrill experienced by agents and editors – will this be the Next Big Thing that I fall in love with? Or just another also-ran?

I went through a stage of not reading much fiction because I was too focused on my own work, but since starting a regular blog at the beginning of this year – and needing material to populate it! – I’ve begun reading a lot more. And boy am I glad. What started out as a purely practical endeavour, i.e. to catch up with the best of my genre, has become a true pleasure. It reminds me that I became a writer because I love reading, and I love reading because I love the stories (other) people tell.

Just don’t spoil it for me, OK? I want to enjoy the journey, just this once…