Sunday, May 31, 2009

Is fantasy inherently violent?

An fascinating topic posted on the HarperCollins Voyager website last year was (and I apologise for not taking down the username of the person who posed it:) Is Fantasy Inherently Violent?
It’s an intricate topic, particularly in the wake of Harry Potter. Many young readers have become interested in fantasy since JK Rowling’s boy wizard swept the globe but, as a parent myself, there are many fantasy books I don’t want my children reading until they are older. Even the later Potter books are, for me, too dark and violent for the 10-12 year-old children some thought the series was aimed at.
Some of the responses to this question claimed that fantasy is not necessarily violent and it is up to the individual writer. Certainly there have been several sub-genres of fantasy, which seem to nudge almost into the Mills & Boon territory, that are without violence.
But, looking back at its history, I have to say there is something inherently violent in fantasy.
Look at the early giants of the genre: Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Robert Howard, JRR Tolkien - all violent.
Even the likes of CS Lewis has plenty of battles and deaths in the Narnia books (although not nearly as many as in the Narnia films).
Later writers, such as David Gemmell, Raymond E Feist, Terry Brooks, David Eddings - even Terry Pratchett - have plenty of violence in their pages.
Fantasy is often referred to, sometimes insultingly, as ``swords and sorcery’’. But the key phrase there is the sword - any society where people use swords and axes to solve problems is going to be inherently violent. Just open an ancient history textbook to see what humans have done to each other through the ages!
I suppose I am particularly sensitive to this topic, as my books are violent.
I think of them as M-rated - parental guidance advised for under-15s.
I make no apologies for the graphic representation of the violence. A battle was a vicious, nasty place to be and telling children that it’s easy - and fun - to kill and kill again is not what I want to write.
Nothing annoys me more than to read a book where the hero slaughters his way through a pack of opponents and then blithely continues, completely unaffected and spotlessly clean as well.
The Lord Of The Ring films, despite their brilliance, were a little guilty of that. After slicing and dicing about 50 orcs, the characters still looked immaculate!
Apart from a desire to realistically portray what goes on, there is a serious plot need for the violence.
The main male character, Martil, is a warrior who’s sick of war. He’s seen too much, been forced to do too much and he’s haunted by it. To understand why Martil is like this, I wanted to take the reader into the middle of battle, in the pain and blood and violence. To understand him better, the reader needs to gain some understanding of what he has seen and experienced.
I like to compare it to a French film called A Very Long Engagement, which was both praised and criticised for showing some of the most graphic World War I battle scenes in cinematic history. I am ashamed to admit I have not read the book this film was based on - but no doubt its discussion of war was similarly brutal. As Manech, the hero, was sentenced to death for cowardice in the trenches, you needed to see why he was driven to that. You needed to see how a brave, patriotic man could be driven to desperate measures, could even lose his mind.
So The Dark Warrior is violent - and there are more battles to come, none of them romanticised.
Part of that is due to the inherent violence I feel lurks within fantasy, part to understand the characters and part to show readers that there is nothing glamorous about killing another human.
If that upsets some readers, then so be it.

Fantasy and maps

HarperCollins has a wonderful website for fantasy fans, though its Voyager label. The Purple Zone, as it is known, has all the news on fantasy in Australia as well as plenty of spirited discussion. When I have time, which is not often lately, I like to look at what is being discussed and even contribute a little, under my username ``seagulls’’.
That name, incidentally, has nothing to do with hot chips, it is the nickname of my old hometown soccer team, Brighton and Hove Albion. They play in league one (the old division three) now but, when I was at primary school, played in the old first division and took on Manchester United in the final of the FA Cup in 1983.
Anyway, one of the topics I put up was fantasy maps. At the time, I was being asked to do a map - and was a little unsure about it.
After all, there is something of a cliché about fantasy maps. Comedian Ian McFadyen (ex-Comedy Company) puts it best in a very funny web article called How To Write A Fantasy Novel (look for it). As he points out, not only are there often jungles next to snow-covered mountains but all these worlds are roughly square - the size of a paperback’s page!
It seems to hover unpleasantly close to Dungeons And Dragons, where the map was essential to the experience. Not that I have anything against D&D, given I played it as a teenager in the 1980s but, equally, it is not where I want my writing to go now.
The question is, does a fantasy novel need a map? After all, this is a work of the imagination so, surely, the reader can picture what is going on, and where?
Thinking back to the fantasy I read, the likes of David Gemmell and Terry Pratchett did not have maps for most of their books - although some crept in by the end. And the earlier writers, such as Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber did not include maps.
Of course, JRR Tolkien did so - and probably inspired a thousand bad maps by doing so.
This was haunting me - for my artistic abilities are limited in the same way that bricks don’t swim too well.
But many of the Voyager online community felt a map was vital to the book, that it helped with understanding the world that has been created by the writer.
So that got me thinking. Has the tradition for maps with fantasy books meant that readers now expect a map, and are disappointed when one does not accompany the novel?
Or is the map just a natural fit for fantasy writing?
Personally, I blame Tolkien. I think fantasy got along fine without maps before Middle Earth turned up, created in more detail than just about anything else I can think of (and I’m happy to be proved wrong on that).
Now maps are synonymous with fantasy.
I’m afraid I doubt my writing will become known for its intricately-formed worlds, created and explained in great detail. Anyway, I’d rather concentrate on characters and plot, offer the readers a world they can reasonably picture and leave it at that.
But I have created a map, with its flaws, for these books. Hopefully it adds something and readers don’t look too closely at my dodgy drawing skills, although cleaned up in a wonderful job by a HarperCollins artist!
But what do you think? Is the map now an essential part of fantasy?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Publishing process

I have worked in newspapers since I left school, usually weekly or bi-weekly publications and now I am with a Sunday newspaper, so I am used to a relatively short deadline for publishing. But in the world of books, the pace is much, much slower.
The Wounded Guardian (although it was called The Dark Warrior then) has been a work in process for about four yeas.
Usually what happens is you send a section of your manuscript to an agent - usually about four chapters and a summary. If they like this taste, they will ask for the entire book. Now, from what I have been told, only about five per cent of submitted manuscripts get this far. Most get sent back with a polite letter. Mine picked up several of these! Of the five out of a hundred who get the chance to submit their entire manuscript, the bar is raised much, much higher. Now the agency is looking at whether they want to represent you.
Many things go into this process - the quality of the writing, the plot, the characters, who it is aimed at, the genre it sits inside, the state of the market, the other writers they already represent. Of the five out of every 100 that get this far, perhaps one gets an offer. Sometimes less! My agent told me she would be delighted to know one out of every 100 manuscripts she reads would become a book!
Anyway, one agency, Cameron Cresswell, was interested in The Wounded Guardian and wanted to read it all. This was back in the day when you had to print everything out and, one ream of paper and an expensive ink cartridge later, I had the manuscript sent away.
Much nervous waiting followed, then she rang to say it had all got messed up and, as I had not numbered the pages, could I send it again?
Another ream of paper and ink cartridge later and I was back to chewing my nails.
On my birthday, in 2005, she rang to tell me it was very promising but there was too much work to be done on it for her to take it on - especially as she was about to go on maternity leave.
Obviously I was gutted but managed to ask her what sort of work needed to be done. Usually you get nothing like this from an agent. Perhaps the fact I had sent it to her twice, or perhaps my birthday helped. Whatever the reason, she told me how my main character, Martil, was very well developed - but everyone else suffered against him, because they weren’t developed enough.
After I got over the kick in the guts, I realised what a gift I had been given, and furiously re-wrote the book, changing the whole focus.
That was a huge break for me.
So many would-be writers don’t get proper feedback on their work - and by that I don’t mean someone saying they loved it. It has to be constructive criticism, pointing out the flaws - for there will be flaws. Far better to find out what they are than have them seen - and not commented on - by an agent who will conclude your manuscript is too flawed and needs too much work to take further.
Once again it was ready to send, and once again I was back at square one, looking for an agent.
As anyone who has tried to get a book published knows, there are few enough Australian agents - and even fewer taking fantasy submissions.
As I was ringing to see if any were interested, and not having much luck, one suggested I ring Stephanie Smith at HarperCollins direct, as I worked for The Sunday Telegraph. Normally I would say, I don’t want to abuse my position, I want to achieve things by myself. But at this point I was going to take any help I could get, so I rang. She was happy to take a few chapters … and the next stage in the process began.
I had fondly imagined that, with the extra advice I had received, the book was now up to the required standard.
Not quite!
Stephanie gave me more valuable feedback and wanted things rewritten, then for me to submit it again.
Obviously I was delighted at that and her advice was excellent, so more rewriting followed.
For more than a year - from about May 2005 to July 2006 - we went back and forth, with me working in new ideas and improving the book each time. Finally it was ready - but about 40,000 words too long!
So out came the chainsaw, followed by the axe and finally the scalpel as I sliced 40,000 words to get it down to the 180,000-word target.
At long last it was ready to go to what they call the Acquisition Committee. As I understand it, this is where all the section heads sit down with the big boss and put up the manuscripts they think should be published.
The Wounded Guardian went to its first meeting in August 2006 - and received neither a yes or no, just a maybe.
So I sweated bullets for another month, biting my nails down to the stumps, until one Tuesday in September, when my mobile phone was about out of battery. I had just plugged it in to recharge when it rang.
It was Stephanie, to tell me my book had been approved for publication!
It was one of the best days of my life and well worth all the effort it had taken to get it that far!
Of course, if I had found an agent, then I would have signed an agreement with them and then they would have pitched my book to one or more publishers. I went through the back door of this process but it was still a long journey!
After I had my offer from HarperCollins - and it was an amazing sight, seeing your name on that sheet of paper under the HarperCollins logo! - I went back to the agent who had given me such good advice, Siobhan Hannan from Cameron Cresswell.
There were two reasons for this - first, I had been advised that if I was serious about writing, I should get an agent. The second reason was more like karma, I suppose.
Would my book have been good enough to attract Stephanie’s interest if I had not had that advice from Siobhan? Would I have wasted that chance, the opportunity that has led to a three-book publishing contract? I don’t know - but I do know it helped my book and helped me as a writer.
Anyway, your first step in being signed up is an offer memo, which outlines the broad terms of the agreement - publishing dates, print runs and your advance and payment
Once you have signed that, then you get the full contract, with all the details of everything.
It looked daunting, so I was glad to have an agent at that stage, who could go through it - although as she said, it was an extremely fair contract anyway and there was hardly anything she could see worth changing.
After all that excitement had died down, not very much happened.
I was busy writing book two but the most exciting thing that happened was the need to change the book titles I had originally chosen The Dark Warrior and The Golden Queen as the titles for books one and two - only to discover those were already taken.
Coming up with new titles isn’t easy. Not only is there the creative process but you have to keep checking through that no one else has already picked them!
Finally I came up with The Wounded Guardian and The Risen Queen, with The Radiant Child as the third.
Meanwhile I finished off book two and still nothing much had happened with book one (which had a publishing timetable of October 2009 back then).
Then things began to happen!
First came the cover, with an Australian artist called Les Petersen working on that.
Then everything moved forward - from October to July 2009, with the other books also coming forward, to January 2010 and July 2010 respectively.
Then the book went to the copy editor, Abigail Nathan, who did an excellent job of spotting flaws within the book.
A thorough rewrite later and it went out to proof-readers.
At this point, HarperCollins also printed up review copies (full of little mistakes but very exciting to hold it in print!).
After the proof-readers, I spent an hour on the phone with Stephanie, going through corrections.
Then it was time for a final read by me, then a final proof-read - then off to the printers!
Probably the biggest thing I learned was to keep rewriting - and to find people who can offer you constructive advice that points out the flaws in your work. Because there will be flaws!
It is a long road … but well worth travelling!

Monday, May 11, 2009

What's in a name?

The book was to be called The Dark Warrior, a name that really appealed to me. I love double meanings and the hidden meanings in ``dark’’ just summed up the book, I felt.
Unfortunately I was too late!
Someone else had already nabbed the name and I needed to change it - and fast.
To add insult to injury, my title for the second book, The Golden Queen, had also been taken.
Luckily my title for the third book, The Radiant Child, was still free but I had to come up with some new titles - and fast.
After thinking about the book as The Dark Warrior for so long, to change titles seemed unfair - as well as difficult. But I had to put it into perspective. It’s a problem many would-be authors would like to have - change your title so our book gets published.
I racked my brain for weeks trying to come up with something good. Obviously the three titles had to relate to each other, as well as to my original idea of the first book title relating to the warrior, Martil, the second to the Queen, Merren and the third to the child, Karia.
And the first title was the most important. I might have the world’s greatest title for book three, but if the first in the series was only bought by six friends and the crazy lady down the road who lives with 27 cats, it’s not going to do much good!
I had to have a word as evocative as ``dark’’. That was my problem.
Guardian, with its dual implications of a protector and also as the legal protector of a child, ticked all the boxes.
Wounded, with its meanings of someone hurt in spirit, as well as body, struck me as being the way to go.
I tried Wounds Of A Guardian but it went on too long and didn’t jump out. Wounded Guardian sounded good but I really wanted the `The’ in the title to nail it down to the one character.
Book two gave me even more trouble. I knew it had to have Queen in it but how to describe her in a way both accurate and interesting?
Lots of work with the thesaurus gave me The Risen Queen.
Now, looking at it, I like them better than The Dark Warrior.
And if the title gets just one person to pick up the book, then it has done its job!