Diversity, fantasy, Fiction, General Writing, World Building

The New Sword and Sorcery

As a teen, I read every Sword and Sorcery novel I could find. Even then, I knew much of it was poorly written. Worse, Robert E. Howard and many others could be downright racist. Yet I retain a sneaking affection for the adventure and magic of the best of the genre, particularly for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. However, when I sat down to write my own fiction, it took several years before I realized that I was trying to write S&S for adults of the modern era. Recently, I’ve taken to calling what I was doing New Sword and Sorcery as I queried my novel The Bone Ransom.

My affection has a long history, some of it embarrassing. I would just as soon forget how as a teen I struggled to write the first act of a verse play called The Lion At Bay that stole the plot of Conan the Conqueror. The same goes for many of the role-playing games I organized as a young adult, whose source books borrowed the racism and sexism of the pulps without question.

However, I remain proud of Witches of the Mind, my Master’s thesis on Fritz Leiber. It was inspired in part by Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. From the start, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had irony and wit that most S&S lacked. More importantly,Leiber’s social views evolved with the times, and in its final form showed the two heroes growing into responsible middle age and settling down with two feminist women in a culture inspired early Iceland. To this day, there is no question in my mind that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is the most literate S&S ever written, and proof that the genre can be more than it usually is. And it was only by being inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that I ever finished The Bone Ransom. When I tried to write classic S&S, I never got past the first few chapters.

So what do I mean by the New Sword and Sorcery? Basically, I mean a purging of outdated social outlooks. To start with, the stock figure of the stoic barbarian has to go. As a character, the barbarian is an uneasy mixture of Rousseau’s Noble Savage and obsolete sociological models, with all the racism those sources imply. Allegedly primitive cultures are much more complex than S&S depict. They may be illiterate, but they have a wealth of oral culture. Often, they have rich cultures in which art is part of everyday life, and elaborate ceremonies and dances. Historically, they tend to meet technological cultures as a group, not as individuals, and often manage to preserve their cultures and become enriched by trade. Simply by eliminating the stereotype of the barbarian, writers gain access to a wealth of untold stories and plot points.

The same is true of the standard female characters. Usually, in S&S, they are either pliant slave girls or strong women who come to a bad end. Either way, they are usually viewed as the prize for success — never as permanent partners or fellow parents. Such depictions may be fine for boys new to puberty, but are as limited and as repetitive as they are misogynist. Complex women characters add an adult complexity, especially if matrilineal societies are depicted, in which property and status come through the female line, and the male parental figures are uncles.

But perhaps the most restrictive aspect of classic Sword and Sorcery is that the story lines are usually power fantasies. The barbarian hero shows the decadence of other cultures by becoming a king. At best, an obscure farm-hand becomes the Chosen One. In either case, the hero gives nothing back, and takes only for themselves.These stories have their source in the nationalism and imperialism of the early 20th century. They do not even begin to touch on the post-colonialism of the last seventy years: of the struggle of colonies for independence and their generally troubled relationships with the colonizers. The stories that classic S&S tell have become irrelevant and obsolete.

Yet despite everything, adventure stories have their lasting appeal. George Orwell said that there is no reason that there could not be socialist adventure stories that featured activists fighting and outwitting the police. In the same way, there is no reason Sword and Sorcery could not feature realistic oral cultures and realistic women, and depict modern politics. So, presented for your consideration: New Sword and Sorcery.

Anybody with me?

Characters, fantasy, Fiction, General Writing

Roleplaying Norms That Don’t Translate Into Fiction

New writers are often inspired by roleplaying. Probably, only film and anime inspire more — with fiction, sadly, a distant fourth. At first, that seems to make sense. After all, aren’t both games and fiction a form of storytelling? Yes, but they are different forms of storytelling. In fact, there are at least seven ways in which storytelling in games differs from storytelling in fiction:

Gaming is communal

Roleplaying tells stories that are outlined by DMs, fleshed out by players’ choices and interaction, and often determined by the dice. The responsibility is shared around. Fiction, by contrast, is entirely the responsibility of the writer. Nor is it generally a matter of chance. It’s far more work — and all up to you, which is why online forums often have posts in which the writer tries to get others to do the work for them.

Gaming largely ignores diversity

Despite recent changes, gaming still tends towards a racial perspective: elves are agile and clever, orcs are stupid and evil, and dwarves combative and good with their hands. Especially in Young Adult books, such stereotyping is apt to get you flayed alive on Twitter today. Just as importantly, such casting usually makes for derivative and uninspiring fiction. What was acceptable in Tolkien is obsolete today.

Gaming is episodic

A roleplaying game can run for months, or even years. While the best games have an overall goal, and even several arcs, all games tend to be episodic, with one session often having minimal connection to others. Some fiction is like that, too; it’s call picaresque. More often, though, fiction is plotted: the first event causes the second, and the second the third, and so on until only one possibility remains at the climax. If you use games as a model, you are likely to lose direction and flounder because of what, in fiction, is a lack of structure.

Gaming does not consider point of view

On the one hand, a gaming session is developed by the players. Even the DM doesn’t always know what all the characters are thinking. A skilled DM might make some information known only to selected players, but, more often, all characters know what the others know. On the other hand, a fiction writer needs to decide on the point of view? Limited or deep third person? First person? Omniscient narrator? All these choices present challenges that gaming does not

Gaming emphasizes action

In most games, character points are based on action — if not killing, then figuring out traps and puzzles. Inner thoughts and dialog are only part of the socializing that is part of a gaming session. But focus on action in fiction, and the result is as mesmerizing as a choreograph diagram. Whether it’s fighting or sex, thoughts and reactions make the scene more readable in fiction.

Gaming focuses on a limited number of characteristics

Because games focus on action, their character development focuses on talents and skills. Anything further will be provided –if at all — by the player using the character. Some players may commission a sketch of their favorite character, but all the things that make fictional characters enjoyable, from background and appearance to how they move and talk, is rarely considered and is unimportant if it is.

Gaming develops characters separately from plot

When you roleplay, your characters are developed before the story begins. In fact, most characters can be dropped into any scenario. In comparison, characters are developed alongside the plot. The plot of Hamlet, for example, depends on a main character who thinks before he acts. Put Othello into the lead, and the play would be over before the end of act one; once he talks to the ghost, Othello would immediately rush off to kill his uncle. Conversely drop Hamlet into Othello, and no one would be murdered, because Hamlet investigates thoroughly before he acts. For this reason, the character sheets that are often suggested for fiction writers are largely useless. They simply provide the illusion of progress.

Two Forms of Storytelling

None of this is to disparage games. Rather, it is to point out that what works in roleplaying is likely to fail in fiction. If games inspire you to tell stories, perhaps you should consider writing roleplaying scenarios. But if you decide to write fiction, carrying the assumptions of games on to a novel or short story is one of the worst things you can do. Instead, read as widely as possible, and learn the conventions of your new form of storytelling.

fantasy, Uncategorized

Why Sword and Sorcery Is Obsolete

As a pre-teen, I devoured sword and sorcery. Even then, I could see most of it was mediocre at best. The sole exception was Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, which was rarely about hack and slash, and first made me aware that fantasy could be humorous and ironic.Leiber, at least, stilll holds up today (In fact, I wrote and published a Master’s thesis on his career). But unfortunately, Leiber was never typical S & S. So when I recently came across a magazine whose goal is to revive S & S, I had to wonder why anyone would want to. The conventions of S & S date both badly and embarrassing.

The most obvious convention is the portrayal of women. In vintage S & S, women are accessories. They kneel at the hero’s feet and gaze lustfully up at his face in a way that leaves no doubt who is the dom and who is the sub in the relation. Often they are manacled. At the end of the story, they tumble into bed with the hero, only to mysteriously disappear before the start of the next adventure. Personally, I suspect the hero sold them for drinking money. Yes, you can point to C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry or Joanna Russ’ Alyx, but they are exceptions, and you can’t easily find them to point out. Vintage S & S is toxic masculinity, soaked with the outlook of a boy who has just discovered puberty, but is still a little nervous about girls and probably doesn’t know any

Less obviously, S & S is still enmired in a concept of other cultures that was dead and rotting before the twentieth century. This concept is seen in the typical barbarian hero — a simple, but honest Noble Savage who is always pitted against the corruption of civilization. S & S rarely stops to consider that such a character never existed, and is essentially racist. A true member of a culture that S & S labels “barbarian” may be unable to read, but is likely to have tens of thousands of lines of poetic wisdom stored in their heads. Probably, too, they can rattle off complicated family relationships and social obligations. They may have no agriculture because they live in a rich environment where you would have to be stupid to starve. Or perhaps their agriculture is centered on practices like clam farms or the rights to a defined hunting ground that the so-called civilized eye misses because it doesn’t expect them. They may even have breathtaking arts. In any event, they are not ill-bred half-wits like Conan. And far from despising or being over-awed by technologically advanced cultures, they will gladly trade with them and cheerily borrow anything that might enrich their daily lives. Barbarians are a stale fictional conceit that has been kept alive only by roleplaying games. In real life, there are only humans with different cultures.

Most of the time, Sword and Sorcery has one basic plot. And it’s not the Hero’s Journey, the story of how a character matures and becomes useful to their society. Instead, the story is a power fantasy, a tale of how brawn and pigheadedness win out over wits and knowledge, traits that are often personified by evil wizards. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, puerile — the outlook of a naive teenage boy who feels overwhelmed by looming adulthood and longs to imagine himself superior to it. There’s a reason Sword and Sorcery has become unpopular in recent decades: shackled with such conventions, it is nearly impossible to write a story in the genre that is meaningful in today’s world. The genre deserves to stay buried — or, better yet, cremated, and the ashes scattered to the winds where they can never be reassembled.

General Writing

How to Coin Fantasy Names

Take a look at a writer’s names, and you can predict how well they write. Are the names dull and strewn with unusual letters? Shamelessly borrowed, like Mycenae and Illyria? Or have they become an end in themselves with no relationship to the back story? The fact is, coining names is a minor art in itself, and, like all aspects of storytelling, takes practice to do well.

You can choose from lists of names in a modern setting. No one expects originality with realism, and lists of popular names are available online for many countries and eras. Digging into the original meaning of names, though, is likely wasted effort, that will be only appreciated by one in ten thousand readers. Avoid, too, the lists of fantasy names online — they’re fine for gaming, but why risk using the same name as half a dozen other writers? Besides, the lists are rarely fine examples of the craft of naming. I remember one that was so impoverished that it suggested Brassica — the Latin word for cabbages — as suitable for dryads. I can only imagined an exceptionally dowdy dryad with that name.

Similarly, be wary of adopting typos, mashed-together keystrokes, drawn Scrabble tiles, or any of the other half-seriously suggested methods for randomly coining names. The problem with such tactics
is precisely that they are random, and languages are not. If you do discover a usable name at random, it will be an accident.

All true languages have a consistency about them. English, for example, makes infrequent use of Q, X, and Z, while northern Germanic languages often use “sk.” Every language will also have its own distribution of diphthongs like “str” or “th.” And don’t forget diacriticals — English may make little use of accents, but a modern word processor gives access to a complete list of characters, at least for western European languages. Just be sure that you know how to use them. An apostrophe, for example, in English means letters are left out (yes, even when used as a possessive; originally, the possessive ending in English was “es,” but today we omit the “e.”). But when other languages are written with Latin characters, an apostrophe can indicate a glottal stop, so be sure you don’t just throw one in without knowing what sound you are indicating. You’ll only look ignorant.

To be believable, fantasy languages should have their own patterns. If you are a linguist, you can invent your own patterns; there will always be favored sounds, and sounds that are rarely used in any language. For the rest of us, a quick and dirty way to create the appearance of patterns is to choose half a dozen words from a real language, and rearrange their syllables to suit yourself. In this way, you can quickly create psedo-French, pseudo-Malaysian, or any other pseudo-language of your choice. If you want to be more elaborate, use two or more languages to draw your random syllables from.

Alternatively, you might try a poetic approach like Lord Dunsany and E. R. R. Eddison did, manipulating sounds n the hopes of creating the impression you want. For instance, to my ear, “Jolgoth” with its sonorous vowels suggests a hulking, Conan-like character.In the same way, I borrowed Haulteclare, the name of the sword carried by Charlemagne’s fictional paladin Olivier for the vaguely French name of Alteclare. Then, naturally, I named Alteclare’s captal Tolivier, just as an Easter egg. To provide other names, I borrowed syllables from Old French.

Once you have names ready, you can add to their plausibility by the way you distribute them. The names of people and places often reflect the movements of people, so that in England you can tell where the invading Vikings settled down by the place names. In the same way, you can cluster place names to create a sense of history, and name characters from each cluster in a pattern. In my own case, the most western names are derived from the syllables of Frankish and Old English. Further east, the inspiration for names is Middle English, and in the utmost east, the names sound like those of the American West, reflecting a mass pattern of settlement.

Whatever method you use to coin names, be prepared for a high failure rate. Even though I’ve been coining names for years, I still reject four or five coinings for everyone that goes into a dictionary of names. Moreover, dozens of names that go into my dictionaries will never be actually used. I will only ever chose a few, but I can be sure that I only use the best of the best. The result, I firmly believe, is greater realism, and the satisfaction of practicing the art of names properly.

Uncategorized, World Building

Axing Questions

When fantasy writers think of axes as a weapon, they usually assume that a fighting axe is much the same as an axe for cutting wood. They assume that a fighting axe is heavy, clumsy, and is used for chopping strokes. It is a weapon for the working class, like a scythe and billing hook, with none of the glamour of a sword. However, thanks to an article on Quora and the opinion of some historical re-enacters, I recently discovered that none of these assumptions are true.

Admittedly, re-enacters report that an axe in unskilled hands is not much of a weapon. To wield an axe well requires strength and practice. But the same can be said of a sword. To use a sword requires more than thrusting the point towards your opponent, and to use an axe require more than chopping with all your strength. The only difference is that a novice sword-user might survive reasonably well in a shield-wall, while a novice axe-user is apt to leave themselves exposed and end up wounded or killed.

The most effective axe for combat is usually called a Dane axe. “Dane” in this case is a generic name for all Norse, who were as likely to use this weapon as a sword. A Dane axe was usually a one-handed weapon, with a wooden shaft about a meter long, and weighing about 1.5 kilograms, depending on the user. These are also the average dimensions of a sword, although longer, two-handed Dane axes also existed. The blade was an uneven crescent, with the top horn longer, and the bottom horn more of a hook. Many people assume that a Dane axe would be top-heavy in order to deliver a crushing blow, but the technical descriptions all emphasize the lightness of the blade, as well as its thinness, which could be as little as 2 millimeters of high grade steel. In other words, a Dane axe is balanced, just like a sword. When I think, that is only sensible. A blade-heavy axe might deliver a stronger chop, but would be harder to pull back, and would expose the user longer. Much better to be satisfied with less force and increase your chances of survival.

More importantly, this construction indicates that a Dane axe was not used just for chopping, or even primarily for that purpose. In fact, the design was much versatile. Besides chopping, the user of a Dane axe could thrust with the upper horn, transforming the axe into a short spear and allowing the user to inflict damage at a bit of a distance, especially if the axe was two-handed. In addition, the lower horn could be used to hook a blade or shield, allowing the wielder to block, or else thrust the enemy’s weapons aside, then to attack with the upper horn. The Dane axe actually offers multiple attacks in one, just as a sword’s tip or edge does. Once that is understood, it becomes obvious that a Dane axe was not a clumsy weapon, but one that required considerable skill.

The construction also refutes the idea that a Dane axe was a peasant’s weapon. The thinness of the blade and its shape suggests that the Dane axe required a skilled smith to make. It was not a farming implement that could be carried by a poor man marching off to war. Moreover, it was carried by the elite housecarls of Anglo-Saxon England, as well as by the Varangian Guards that protected the Byzantine Emperor. Later versions of the Dane axe were considered a knightly weapon, just as a sword was, and are known to have used at times by both Kings Stephen and Richard I. As well, during the Viking era, Dane axes with elaborate silver inlays were made, likely for ceremonial purposes. The common argument that swords were the weapons of the nobility simply does not hold up.

Besides, although a first-rate sword, in which various metals were twisted and folded over each other, took time to make and could be fabulously expensive, not all swords were so elaborate. Probably the majority of swords in the Dark and Medieval Ages were cheaper works, produced by local smiths. There is also evidence for swords cut in one piece, like the average kitchen knife, a form of mass-production probably inspired by the suppliers to the Roman legions.

If swords have more prestige than battle-axes in the modern imagination, the reason is probably that ceremonial swords were worn in Europe by nobility and army officers long after they were obsolete. In fact, they are still worn today. Nor have axes been favored in romance and fiction. There is no battle axe equivalent to The Three Musketeers or The Princess Bride. And along with romance of swords has come a denigration of the battle axe — as well as a deep-seated ignorance of how versatile they could actually be.

Fiction, Plotting

The Disciplined Imagination (And Why You Need One)

Anton Chekhov famously remarked that if a pistol is hanging on the wall in the first act of a play, by the time the curtain falls, it should be used. The remark advises an economy of storytelling that helps to create a sense of unity and to avoid confusing the audience with irrelevancies. Unfortunately many new writers fail to follow this sound advice, for no better reason that “it’s cool” or “it’s fantasy, so anything goes.” But in doing so, they often miss details that might enrich their stories.

For instance, in a soon to be released novel, one writer decided to throw dinosaurs into the story. Despite a reasonably advanced level of technology, they have characters being pulled about in carriages by velociraptors. In tweets, the author says they made this decision so they could have sweeping outsized staircases and have them easily navigated. The trouble is, the decision seems incompatible with the level of technology. Nor are velociraptors large enough for the stated purpose of climbing steep staircases. More importantly, no attempt is made to consider how having vicious predators on the streets might shape the culture. Worse still, neither the velociraptors nor the steep staircases play any role whatsoever in the plot — although, having started on that downhill slope, the author accelerates their descent by adding the even less purposeful dire wolfs as draft animals as well. No attempt to consider these details is made, and the only result is a meaningless and clumsy distraction.

Early on in writing my first novel, I made the same mistake repeatedly. In my case, I added atmospheric references and never stopped to consider how they might be used in the plot. For instance, my main character’s last name was Ravenpiper. It’s Gothicly evocative, at least to my ear, and I was proud of it. I even gave the family a rhyme that made a riddle of the family name. It took a while for me to realize that the origin of the name could become a major plot element, and help me tell a more interesting story (which I won’t tell, because spoilers). Since the story is all about family, especially the Ravenpipers, I found that making the surname part of the story gave a richer, more unified story.

Similarly, I imagined a mountain pass that is a nexus of gateways to other worlds. Paths can take travelers to other worlds, and can change their direction and destination. At times, the inhabitants of other worlds follow the paths to the mountain pass. Originally, it was a poetic effect — a spooky one, I hoped. Then it occurred to me that people who kept track of the changing paths might earn a living guiding merchants safely over the mountain. Then, with more thought, I decided that families would claim the right to certain paths, and jealously control the safe ones. Eventually, this background influenced the story. At one point, for example, the main characters enter one of the otherworldly paths to escape pursuit, and find themselves in a world of ghosts and forest spirits. What was originally a line tossed off for atmosphere grew to shape major elements of the story.

In both cases, my disciplined extrapolations meant I no longer had to strain for plot development. As a plot should, it began to unfold in light of what had been planted before. I soon understood what elements I wanted in the story, and, conversely what did not and what — sometimes regretfully, I had to omit, and perhaps leave for another story. I concluded that inspiration is not enough. In the end, I learned that even the most inspiring idea was only as good as its development.

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?