Actually, not in the mood for SF. Funny how that goes. Picked up a thriller by a writer I'd normally read, and I'm not in the mood for that, either.

See, I'm rewriting and polishing something, which means I care about the language, the taste and rhythm, while a book that's strong on stortytelling but without style somehow trips me up. Luckily, the last book I read was Don Winslow's The Gentlemen's Hour, which scores on all counts, and Amazon should be bringing me another of his books tomorrow. At times like this in the past, I've re-read James Lee Burke books, or the more recent le Carrés.

Interesting how storytelling and poetic language are orthogonal to each other, as we computer types like to say. Interesting also how writing novels affects what you read. Walter Jon Williams has said that he reads hardly any fiction, never mind other people's SF.

Oh, well. What I've been having difficulty reading lately is fantasy. It's all personal taste, and nothing objective. I started a book by a well-regarded writer, got to the part about how magic works in that world, shook my head and put the thing down. I'm not sure whether it's the use of magic or its particular manifestation, but I'm finding it all rather silly. Or is it my angst about the Enlightenment being reversed under a tidal wave of rampant superstition? And it's the second fantasy I've put aside recently.

It's not as if Harry Potter readers think magic is really real; and if they ask JKR, she'll tell them it isn't. Plus, I wrote Paradox and its two sequels knowing full well how much I was pulling fantasy tropes into hard SF.

The latest fantasy books I really enjoyed were those of Scott Lynch and good old Joe Applecrumble, so I know the genre's OK.

So here's a question: is it possible to write fantasy without magic?

Or maybe... here's a secret... this is what's bugging me. I've been told by professionals in the field over the past five years or so that I could make loadsamoney by writing fantasy, and every time I mull over the notion, I go... No. Don't think so.

(OK, I know Bone Song and Black Blood-aka-Dark Blood are called dark fantasy in the US. But renowned bookseller Alan Beatts, of San Francisco's Borderlands Books, once said that Bone Song disproves the urban fantasy tropes: if vampires or equivalents were real, cities would be like Tristopolis, not the ones in urban fantasies. And the setting is really an alternate Earth due to history's taking a different tack several billion years ago - the clue is at the beginning of the second book, inside the Police Commissioner's office.)

Speaking of taste, I confess to never being a fan of Philip K. Dick or Jack Kerouac. More broadly, I realize that books written by people out of their heads on booze or drugs have never worked for me. (Not a pre-judgement: I learned about the people after reading their work.) I read the opposite in the excellent words of either Nanny Ogg or Granny Weatherwax in one of Sir Terry's books, expressing the notion that people who build castles in the air need to have their feet on the ground.

I have read Snuff, and liked it loads.

Well, enough of that. All I need to revitalize my mood is a sandwich and a cup of coffee. [There. Done. It worked.] Tonight's training will be a run, body-weight exercises and weights. Had a good sesh in the dojo last night, and hopefully another one tomorrow.

Keep on truckin'...


Anonymous -dsr- said...

David Friedman's novel Harald is a fantasy without magic. Baen published it.

January 25, 2012 at 9:50 PM  
Blogger John Meaney said...

Excellent... I'll check it out. I thought it should be possible.

January 26, 2012 at 4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe you just wrote: " storytelling and poetic language are orthogonal to each other,..". They are absolutely not. Hard to do, yes, and when done "correctly" enhances the story-telling in spades... if you're trying to write in poetic language - feel the rhythm (like your exercises), roll with sounds, glide through words... it really does work!

January 26, 2012 at 5:11 PM  
Blogger John Meaney said...

Hi, Rosie

I'll examine (and optionally amend) the orthogonality metaphor (and it is a metaphor) because I'm sure we like the same books... Understand that orthogonality implies independent factors, not opposing factors. But I assume your point is that when you get both right, they reinforce each other (which is where my metaphor breaks down) - and I agree with you.

Without casting aspersions too much, no one will ever praise Robert Ludlum or Dan Brown for poetic writing, but without compelling imagery and narrative momentum no one would care what happens next, and they wouldn't have such a huge readership.

That's what I was referring to in terms of orthogonality (literally meaning at right angles, of course, as in two axes of a graph). They score highly along one axis, not so much on the other.

Flip that around to (some) literary novels where nothing much happens, but the language is beautiful, and we have the converse situation.

I suspect you and I prefer books that score highly along both axes. Jon Courtenay Grimwood and James Lee Burke are proof that fine language and compelling storytelling can co-exist in genre writing, while John Irving and Barbara Kingsolver prove you can have both in literary writing. (That doesn't make storytelling and good language non-orthogonal, in the sense I've used the term.)

So you might think of it as grabbing one of those axes and bending it at the origin, rotating it until it's next to the other, and binding them together...

...because that is what I aim to achieve with my writing.

January 27, 2012 at 3:40 PM  
Blogger John Meaney said...

I should add that my third draft is always a complete rewrite - starting from the first word, creating the whole novel again - in order to craft sentences with rhythm and subtle flavour. And my final exercise is to read the printed manuscript aloud, marking as I go, to make absolutely sure it's right...

January 27, 2012 at 3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello John, Thanks for the reply... I was already on your wavelength regarding orthogonal meaning independent - some of my bedtime reading has been degree level maths books, but ssshh, don't tell my friends as they think I'm enough of a nutcase as it is!

Agreed that a novel requires narrative drive and vivid scenes. Poetry is a very nice to have as it is very good at leaving an echo in the mind (think rhyming words and what they do to people - there are other aspects I hasten to add). It means the novel has more chance of being remembered long after the person has finished reading it. The ancients knew a thing or two about this side of things in story telling.

When it comes to novel writing, I won't say I break good practice, just the novel I'm currently writing requires sort of piecemeal approach because of its structure. However, individual sections have (as much as any SF writing can) followed a fairly normal developmental approach. Only two chapters to go until first draft complete... and then the editing and cutting down some of "the poetical elements" as they currently slow the pace down.

Best of luck in your writing...

January 29, 2012 at 7:30 PM  
Blogger John Meaney said...

And best of luck in yours!

January 30, 2012 at 2:08 PM  

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