Announcement, General Writing, Poetry

Just Released: The Raven Ballads

As of September 23, 2021, I am releasing as a free download Raven Ballads, a collection of fantasy poems mentioned in my recently completed novel The Bone Ransom. In a perfect world, the poems would be given in full in the novel, but it is over eighty years since Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, and modern audiences no longer tolerate that. Some readers even go so far as to say that they never read poetry, which causes problems for writers who want to use poems and songs as part of their world-building. I have compromised by including only snippets, most under six lines and all under twelve. However, having written a snippet, I always find myself compelled to write the complete poem, which explains this collection.

Perhaps, though, I lie. I say I wrote Raven Ballads, but the truth is that my main character Talson Ravenpiper wrote — or, at least, at the start of the novel, he is collecting the material for a book of the same name. Talson’s Raven Ballads are about his family, and he hid his when he had to flee a series of unfortunate events. By contrast, my Raven Ballad carries a wider variety of songs and poems, only some of which are about the upstart Ravenpipers. So maybe I am a plagiarist, or at least an imitator, and Talson should be given the writer’s credit, as he insists in the small hours of the night. He’s quite persistent, in his polite way.

It’s all very confusing, but since no one will make one silver pence from the publication, perhaps I shouldn’t worry.

I hope to see The Bone Ransom published soon, and in a couple of years the rest of its trilogy. Meanwhile, for those who wonder how I (or maybe Talson) has spent the last few years, or for those who want a foretaste of the novel, you can download my Raven Ballads from:

Uncategorized

Making Monsters of Men: Confronting Fantasy’s Relationship With Violence

In a Reddit thread from 2015 a poster posed a question: “Is fantasy too violent?” Acclaimed author Mark Lawrence replied “I don’t understand the question. Is the sky too blue?” As a genre, fantasy often goes hand in hand with violence. Unlike the characters who inhabit contemporary fictions, the monarchs, warriors, assassins, thieves and wizards who populate the pages of fantasy rarely are given leave to enjoy quiet lives. While interpersonal dramas may take place in fantasy books, the main conflicts are often bloody.


This, some say, is a mere reflection of our world. Fantasy generally reflects conflicts on a global scale rather than a personal one, and global conflicts are often resolved through war (of course they are often enough also resolved through diplomacy). Certainly modern fantasy, widely regarded as having come of age with the publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, published in 1954 but written largely during the turbulent years of WWII, generally reflects a certain kind of noble conflict. Perhaps, at that point in time, when specter of fascism loomed heavy in the collective conscious, it was important for war to have meaning. What could be more meaningful than the ultimate battle pitting good against evil?


But if fantasy was born out of this need, it was also born in a time when all too many, both civilians and soldiers alike, knew the true consequences of war. Drafts were common. Most people were only one or two degrees away from a personal war loss, and many much loser than that. Too many peoples’ lives were, for a time, lived and spent in violent ways. Perhaps at that time reminding people that war and violent conflict could inflict moral injury would be like reminding a chef that a sharp knife could draw blood.


Moral injury is a familiar term to people with post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) as well as specialists in its treatment. The US Department of Veteran Affairs calls moral injury the “distressing psychological, behavioral, social, and sometimes spiritual aftermath” that occurs when individuals “perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Wars in particular, by their very nature, often lead to moral injury. People who are placed in positions in which they have direct power of life and death over others, and who have to exercise that power in ways which violate the moral code that we each carry within us, are those most vulnerable to moral injury.


Fantasy rarely handles this aspect of the genre on any sort of deep and ongoing level. Recently, there has been some attempt on the part of some books to show the consequences of war, to show characters with post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), but often the reasons for why characters suffer from war is surface level. That war is wrong, we understand. One of the most basic taboos of all human societies is the proscription against killing other human beings. In general, the less justification we find for a killing, the more distressing it is to us on a mental and emotional level. That is, killing in self-defense can be traumatizing, but killing civilians who have not done us any harm often causes much greater moral injury.

There is a reason that fantasy often features very justifiable wars, more World War 2 than the Vietnam War. The enemy is often nameless and evil. Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy has foreign enemy, the “Red Ships” that use some kind of magic to transform villagers into mindless violent husks, and George R.R. Martin’s great threat in A Song of Ice and Fire is an army of the undead who would like nothing more than to destroy every living thing. These are enemies that can be killed with little thought to the moral consequences because these killings are essentially acts of self defense. Killing them is done to preserve a way of life, sometimes to preserve life itself. Much like the parents of Baby Boomers in the 1950s who pursued almost aggressively normal lives, the heroes who defeat the army of undead or the Red Ships, the wicked king or the evil sorcerer, will be rewarded with a return to domestic life, all things set right once again.


In the past few decades, in Anglophone literature these end-of-the-world good versus evil struggles have fallen somewhat out of fashion, mirroring real life, in which wars are less a battle to save the world and more a battle for the control of resources, or, from the other side, a nation’s right to autonomy. The rights and wrongs of these wars may seem murky, particularly to a soldier fighting on the side of the aggressor. David Wood’s book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars examines specifically wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young recruits, told they were going overseas to liberate oppressed people, to hand out rations or build schools, quickly realized that they were expected to kill. Not only that, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a shocking number of deaths (one Brown university report estimates that close to half a million people have been killed in the combined post-911 wars in the Middle East). Soldiers often felt betrayed by their commanders and country, and felt that they themselves betrayed their own sense of morality. As John Tirman, the author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, states, the high civilian cost of war “challenges their strongly held self-perception that their country is a force for good in the world.”


Fantasy rarely allows warriors to question why they are fighting. Honor and duty are and love of king and country are often cited as reasons for fighting but research into modern wars tells us that this often is simply not enough. George R.R. Martin uses the petty conflicts between human kingdoms and the prices paid by civilians as a way of highlighting the significant of the true threat. War is almost universally considered a necessary evil, even when the conflict is a territorial one rather than an existential one.


Fantasy also often holds the leadership— the monarchs, Lords, Princes— aloof from war. Often they are uncaring, seeing their soldiers as no more than pawns, and sometimes they imagine themselves as uniquely capable of seeing the consequences of war. Sometimes this is done to underline a point about class, or to make the ruling class seem more heartless. We know now though that being distant from the actual fighting of a war does not make one immune to trauma. Drone pilot operators have been reported to have higher rates of suicide than troops on the ground, despite the fact that they are physically quite different from the business of killing.


A common fantasy assumption is that beyond the wars themselves there is a noble way to kill and a dishonorable way to kill. Even assassins can be noble if they only kill enemies of their king, most of whom are naturally very wicked (in reality, assassins must be entirely morally bankrupt or else suffer grievous moral injuries). Likewise there is a noble way to fight in a war and a dishonorable way to fight in a war. Noble leaders charge into battle with their men. Noble men don’t cower in fear. Noble men give their enemies clean deaths. Noble soldiers never run away. It is hard to imagine many fantasy protagonists transported into Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam war battlefields in The Things They Carried, to fight along boys who cried for their mothers and prayed to god and only hoped not to die.


One of the great moments in Megan Whelan Turner’s Return of the Thief (which I will expand upon a length next week) involves a conversation between the King and Queen of the country of Attolia, Eugenides and Irene, who are in the midst of a bloody war in which they are greatly outnumber against an imperialist force. Irene asks her husband what troubles him, and he admits that he had thought it wrong to sit back and watch his men die, which is why he had insisted on fighting on the front lines. Now, though, he says, “I am not so sure. From above, I can see men on both sides, trapped in a war over which they have no control. On the field, I care about nothing but striking down anyone who strikes at me.” Here, Eugenides admits that leadership, removed though it is, makes him keenly aware of the costs. Irene then, corrects him gently when he seems to assign a moral value to this, turning himself into more of a monster when he is fighting than when he is observing. She says, “Your morality up on the hillside is an illusion, no more real than the freedom you imagine you have from it in battle. All wars make men monsters. All wars and all men.”


Irene’s words seem a death knell for the idea of a righteous war. The world has changed in the past 70 years, and so has the fantasy genre. Perhaps it is time fantasy re-evalute the relationship that it has with war and violence. For one, we need to confront the idea of moral injury. It is not enough to simply show that a fantasy character has nightmares about war, or that a character regrets killing innocents, the writer must confront the very premise upon which these stories are built, and ask ourselves, and have our characters ask us, as writers, are these wars necessary? Will our characters bear the costs of violence and cruelty? And if these wars and violent acts are not strictly necessary, our narratives must convey that participating in them comes at a great and lasting cost, one that is borne not just by innocent civilians, but by every person who breaks their own moral code by inflicting death and suffering unto others.

General Writing

Lessons in Pacing

As I make my final revision before I query, one of the last aspects of writing that I am learning is pacing.

I long ago learned the trick of varying sentence length to increase tension. I’ve learned, too, such tricks of spacing dialog at regular intervals in a scene to increase or decrease readers’ attention, and half a dozen other tricks besides. However, I never learned how to pace an entire book until I had a nearly complete manuscript.

Like many writers, in my first draft or two, I had no idea of how long my finished manscript might be. I originally planned on a single book. However, two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I realized that the complete story would need to be divided into two books at a minimum. At the same point in the second draft, I realized that I would need a trilogy – something I swore that I would never write. I could persist in one or two books, but the story would be rushed and poorly told.

However, I didn’t worry much about the pacing until I accepted that I was doing a trilogy. Deciding where to end the first book, I found a natural climax almost immediately. However, in the first two drafts, the climax took a chapter. It was not that important, although I had always felt that the next chapter was a new start. To serve as a climax, the chapter had to be expanded to two or three. So, right away, I had to find a way to draw out the action and keep it interesting.

That was just the start of the change in pace. With the climax’s increased importance, I had to change the pace throughout. If the story were to rise to an exciting climax, I had to replot to have more encounters between the protagonists and the antagonists. That meant three new chapters, and heavy revision of several more. Mindful of the fact that Dracula works largely because the titular character has limited appearances, I also wanted to find ways to limit my antagonists’ appearances.

These changes had a ripple effect, throwing off the pace of the romance between my two main characters. Their personal story also needed to be re-paced, interwoven reasonably seamlessly around the main conflict. I was especially proud when one of the new chapters managed to advance both the main conflict and the romance sub-plot at the same time.

As I write, I am wrapping up the first book. However, already, I can see the ripple of changes continuing, and meeting other currents of revision. Most notably, the name of the second book means that events that originally started towards the end of the second book now occupy the whole of the second, and that another sub-plot has become much more important. As I turn my attention to the second book, I expect still more ripples, some scenes gaining importance and others becoming less important, rearranged, or even deleted altogether.

In the middle of this process, I have also learned that the distinction I once had between outlining and discovery writing has changed. As I think about pace, I have to outline far more than I did in my first drafts. Yet, at the same time, while revision of the whole means that I have to define my goals more clearly that in early drafts, I still need to allow room for innovation as I write. The distinction has far less meaning than I once imagined – both outlining and discovery, I have learned, are necessary to my way of working.
I doubt I would have learned any of these things except for refining my story. For that reason alone, I am glad that I persisted.

General Writing, Marketing, Reviews and Analysis

How I Learned to Love Series

Shamefacedly, I have to admit: I’m now writing a trilogy. And to make matters worse, I feel pretty good about it.

It wasn’t always that way. For much of my life, I’ve looked down on trilogies. Tolkien may have needed to divide The Lord of the Rings into three books in order to be published, but that was something imposed on him, not something he planned. Those who have come after him usually don’t have the same excuse. As a result, trilogies have come to mean one book’s worth of material stretched over three, with a sagging second book that should be hurried over as quickly as possible to get to the better stuff. To me, trilogies were a sign of flabby writing and imagination.

As for series — well, I’d say don’t get me started, but I’m already on the backstretch. While I’ve read series, too often they seemed to me to be shameless catering to readers’ demands for more of the same. Nothing a serious writer (sniff!) would consider. Something always died in me when I heard aspiring writers cheerfully planning a twelve book series. “Why are you planning to be a hack?” I always wanted to ask.

Weighed down by these prejudices, when I became serious about writing fantasy, I resolved to only write single books. The trouble was, my current work in progress kept bolting and trying to become a duology. No, a trilogy. No, a series. Two-thirds of the way through and worried about length, I finally admitted the obvious: there were three sharply defined arcs in the tales, and I would have a far better chance of publication if I placed them in separate, shorter volumes.

I take comfort in the fact that in the marketplace, if not necessarily the canon, I am following in the footsteps of Tolkien. The only difference is that I am doing so before being asked. These days, that’s the likeliest way of getting agents or publishers to even consider me.

More importantly, I have to admit that a trilogy or a series does not condemn me to literary mediocrity. Plenty of respectable writers do series. Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, has kept her Miles Vorkosigan saga fresh for over twenty books. She does so by making each book independent of the others except for the same background and many of the characters. Mostly, they center on her hero Miles at a different stage in his life. More recently, though, the series have centered on Miles’ cousin, mother, and wife. And throughout, books have borrowed from genres ranging from space opera to mysteries and romantic comedies. Similarly, her forays into fantasy like the Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and her Penric novellas share little more than their background. With tactics like these, Bujold manages to keep the individual books in her series fresh. They benefit from the shared background, but stand on their own.

More recently, I have come across Daniel Abraham’s five volume series, The Dagger and the Coin. According to my former attitudes, this work should be twice-damned, because it is not only a series, but one with multiple points of views — a choice many writers have followed down the path to disaster. However, Abraham manages to pull off these challenging choices, largely because of his unusual characters. Ensnared by genre tropes, how many other writers would make one character a young girl learning the intricacies of banking, of all things? Or an utterly conventional noble woman forced to struggle for her family’s and country’s survival? Or a villain who is a lonely introvert out to revenge himself for bullying, who cares for his young ward? Each of his leads is so strongly motivated that arc could be a novel in itself, and the fact that most books in the series have a minimal resolution hardly matters. Like Tolkien, the books are really one novel, and kept me too busy hurrying on to the next one to exercise my prejudices.

As I should have known, the problem was never with series in themselves. It was with mediocre writers, mindlessly following conventions. If there are any limitations to trilogies or series, strong writing and originality can overcome them.

So, yeah, I’m writing a trilogy. Want to make something of it?

General Writing

What Writers Can’t Learn from Dungeons and Dragons

“If you’ve played a character, you are ten steps further towards being a writer than anyone else. You’ve made a character, you have a backstory, and you’ve engaged in narrative, just playing a character in a game. If you’ve DMed, you’re like thirty steps farther towards being a writer of a novel or a story; you’re an active storyteller.”
-Patrick Rothfuss

Like many writers, I went through a period of Dungeon Mastering. For almost two years, I spent every Friday evening masterminding a story for half a dozen friends, setting up a backdrop against which they could play out their fantasies and work through their real-life relationships with each other. Not surprisingly, when I started to write, I began with some of the characters and maps I produced for gaming. Some of that material survives to this day, mutated out of recognition from its origins.

But did Dungeons and Dragons and its ilk make me a better writer? Or give me transferable practice? Unlike countless of writers like Patrick Rothfuss, I would have to say it didn’t. The differences between gaming and writing are simply too great for one to influence the other.

Yeah, both games and fiction involve storytelling. However, like movies or graphic novels, they are different media for storytelling. Each media has its own advantages and restrictions, and moving from one to the other is a form of translation, in which some things are lost and some things are gained. Writing and gaming are no different.

To start with, D&D is an oral form of storytelling. As you might expect, oral stories are geared to the speed at which human ears can comprehend. This speed is much slower than when reading. To remain comprehensible, oral stories develop more slowly than written ones. Typically, too, they involve a lot of repetition. In Homer, that repetition consists largely of metrical phrases like “rosy-fingered dawn” or “Achilles, fleet of foot,” and patterns of action, while in D&D, it takes the form of meta-actions like rolling for initiative and damage done. In fact, being free-form, D&D has a lot of repetition that has no place on the page. Unlike in writing, there is no room for pacing, or a departure from chronological order.

Moreover, D&D is group storytelling, whereas a writer is generally on their own. A gaming session has more in common with improv theater than writing. DMs are closer to a writer than the other players, yet even they provide no more than a framework for the others to develop. That framework must provide space for the other players to improvise, and for the effect of chance. A skilled DM may try to take alternative storylines into account, but more than one has had to cancel the rest of the session or work on the fly when characters do something unforeseen. Writing, in comparison, has so little room for randomness or alternative storylines that examples are hard to find. I have heard that Phillip K. Dick used the I Ching to develop the story of The Man in the High Castle, but, if he did, no sign is visible on the page.

Still another important difference is that gaming requires much more material than the average piece of fiction. For a once a week session, DMs generally have to spend several hours a week in preparation — and I know more than one student whose DMing placed them on academic probation. To lighten the burden, DMs have endless sources of reference material, but often the result is a lack of originality. What matters is an entertaining session, not originality. By contrast, while clichés abound in fiction, too, to many readers’ apparent satisfaction, originality is prized, no matter how small.

However, the main difference is that D&D tends more to story, and writing to plot. Except with the most thoughtful DMs, D&D tends to be episodic. A main quest may exist, but the point is to stage an engaging session. Only rarely is a session complete in itself, with self-contained goals that advance the main quest while being complete in itself, like the best of TV series. More often, a session consists of events that are linked only by chronological order and that contain a large amount of randomness.

By contrast, with rare exceptions like Jack Kerourac’s On the Road, fiction is plotted. The first event causes the second, beginning a chain of cause and effect that only ends in the climax and resolution. This structure is extremely artificial, and less true to life than a gaming session, but is too well-established to be often challenged.

Really, I can barely begin to list all the writing skills you won’t learn by gaming: flashbacks, internal monologues, elegant prose, and much more besides. About all that gaming and fiction have in common is a love of the fantastic. Other elements of their storytelling do not translate. In fact, to assume any closer connection is an easy way to get lost when writing. I sometimes wonder how many of the beginning writers on Internet forums who are always asking for help with plotting are gamers who feel lost developing stories on their own, who feel lost telling stories by themselves. In the end, no matter how much they squirm, writers must rely on themselves. If they want inspiration to learn from, they are far more likely to learn from other books than from games — or from other forms of storytelling.

World Building

The Stories in the Map

Ever since Tolkien, maps have been a tradition of fantasy. Too often, though, they are an after-thought, like a bibliography cobbled together at the last minute and attached to a student essay. They neglect basic geography, like the mountains that conveniently meet at right-angles to seal Mordor off from the rest of Middle-Earth. They ignore economics, plunking cities down in the middle of nowhere. Often, they ignore the history and the migrations of people across the land. The results are not only implausible, but a missed opportunity to generate stories ideas.

For example, the map for my novel attempt is of the northern part of a continent. I wanted the northern part to be largely sealed off the rest, so I added some Himalaya-like mountains, with a single connecting pass. The pass stirred memories of the Khyber Pass (even though it’s not in the Himalayas), through which armies and caravans have passed for centuries. It made sense that, at the northern end of the pass, a major city should emerge as a staging area for those heading south. To add to the importance of the city, I placed it on a river that barges could sail. I also realized that, because of the trade, who controlled the pass would be a political issue.

Although I had developed an entire map, my story came to center on the pass and the struggle over it. What methods, I wondered, would various factions choose to control the pass and the trade that passed through it? In answering that question, I developed not only my plot, but, eventually, discovered the title of the novel — all because I had taken time to ponder the geography of the place, and how it affected the local economies. Before I knew it, the story was beginning in that city at the north end of the pass.

That was a long way from where I had placed the capital city for the country. So, since mass communication hadn’t been invented yet, that city must be the capital for a semi-independence province. But how had it got that way? How had the province remained a province, rather than becoming an independent country? Given the state of roads in the past, there must be whole seasons when the place was cut off from the capital, especially since, being hard against those mountains, the place just had to be a temperate rain forest where rain and snow were a given. Thanks to the geography, back story and an important plot element started taking shape.

Oh, and one more thing: a rain forest suggests that the river beside the city would have salmon-runs. Cultures that grew up along the river would have a rich food supply. Feeding the population would be easy, so just like First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, the cultures could emphasize the arts. Even their everyday utensils and clothes would be heavily decorated. They would not have European style agriculture, because the unaltered land provided generously, although hunting and foraging rights might be fiercely defended. This situation would not be well-understood by incoming farmers, and the result would be cultural clashes.

Migrations Across the Map

As I developed my map, I kept thinking of the historical atlases that fascinated me as a boy. A given region could change dramatically over the centuries, as populations entered or passed through it. A map, I realized, should reflect these migrations. In the United Kingdom, you can tell where the Vikings settled by names that end in “by” or “thorpe,” and where the Anglo Saxons settled by names that end in “burh” (“burg) or “wick” (“wich”). So shouldn’t a fantasy map have the same cultural traces? However, before I could add to those cultural layers, I had to invent the cultures that had passed through, and figure out when and where they had been on the map.

I decided that many of the traces of the original inhabitants would have been over-written by later migrations. However, the original inhabitants were still around, although sadly diminished, so pockets on the map still displayed their place names. It seemed useful, then, to have a character who was one of those original inhabitants.

Other influences on my place-names came from a nomadic culture with Frankish-inspired names. You can trace their path from the settlements they left in their wake, now long ago incorporated into the dominant culture. Some of the nomad’s personal names remain in use, as well the use of coinage based on cattle.

Yet by far the largest influence — and most recent — was the slow, eastward settlement of the province. In the western part of the country, names sound roughly Anglo-Saxon. In the middle of the province, names sound more Middle English. Originally, I thought the eastern-most settlements would be Modern English, and many are. However, since I wanted a sudden mass settlement that would conflict with the cultures already present, I decided on a situation similar to the settlement of the North American west. But what would cause such a settlement? In our history, land and gold provided the impetus, but, in my fantasy world, I decided, the ancestor of my main character had announced that any serfs who made it to the province would become free citizens and given a grant of land. Naturally, there was a rush to take up the offer, resulting in place names like Wain and Walk or Bonder’s Run that reflected those tumultuous times. Naturally, too, the older parts of the country were not enthusiastic about the departure of productive citizens. My main character’s ancestor might have filled the vacant country side, but it would have left resentments that lingered still, and needed to be part of the story as well. At the same time, the arriving serfs would have helped displace the original cultures. Just like the Welsh did with the arrival of the Romans, the original cultures were pushed up into the mountains, which told me who was fighting for control of trade.

The map as back story

By the time I was done, where the maps ended, and where the back story or plot begun was hard to see. I had developed them all at the same time. Even the street names when I drew the map of the city at the north end of the pass were influenced by the history of the region and the ideas going into my outline.

Consequently, my map became more than a pretty piece of front matter or a reference for readers who wanted to trace the journey of the characters. Instead, my map had become central to my storytelling. Of course, few readers would have the knowledge to appreciate how my map developed. But that doesn’t matter. Spending time on the map helped me. In fact, I believe that it it continues to help me to tell a richer story, as well as a more realistic one.