yesyesyesYESYESYEOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhh no …

An exact reenactment of my latest adventure in Revising My Novel. Fun times.

Honestly though it’s actually going great. The frustrating parts are just your run-of-the-mill ‘I wish this was better’ stuff, and the good parts make me look forward to the next set of revisions. Stuff actually starts happening at one point, even. I hear stories do that occasionally.

I don’t know sometimes if it’s the amount of YA that I’ve been reading lately or what, but it’s almost like I’ve forgotten what a well-crafted story reads like, and specifically what tight, crisp pacing reads like. I’m so used to the indulgences of the author, side-tracking and digressions all throughout the course of a book, that maybe I’ve built up a tolerance for it without realising it. It’s not a tolerance I want to have. Maybe it’s just a tolerance to my own writing, considering that I’ve been working with more or less the same manuscript for a full year now.

And I am a little less frustrated with my lack of speed. I mean I really don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, so stop-starting and stalling is probably totally reasonable for me to be experiencing as I teach myself the ropes by climbing them, without supervision. Just some YouTube tutorials and an article I read on Buzzfeed.

I wonder how long it’ll take for that joke to become dated …

But I am now convinced that these character-arc maps were the right idea, because they’re getting me to ask questions of the fundamental structure of this story and see things I hadn’t seen before simply as a result of the zoomed-in nature of this exercise. I’m reading the continuity all wrong for the story as a whole, but that narrow focus on each character’s arc really highlights where the continuity falls apart and the pacing screeches to a halt.

With this particular character’s arc I’m looking at currently, I only noticed that the pacing had screeched to a halt because it began, and then abruptly died back down, and then I realised that everything up to that point had felt pretty flat. Well, not everything, but you get the picture. Not only did it die back down, but the point at which it picked up and started to feel like it was finally going somewhere was like two-thirds of the way through the arc. It’s also pointed out to me that one of the huge fundamental changes I thought I’d made to this particular arc didn’t actually take root like I thought it had, and it suffers from what is essentially the exact same issue as it did before the revision. Which is good to know. And while shoddy continuity due to my lazily splicing together new and old writing is certainly a factor there, because of the pacing and placing of events in this arc even good continuity editing wouldn’t help it. And this is not something I may have noticed if I’d just been reading the manuscript normally, and had the rest of the story to camouflage this and other glaring flaws.

It’s also my solution – without realising it until now – for getting a new perspective on my work so that it doesn’t feel stale, which is one of the classic pitfalls aspiring writers are told to be prepared for because there’s really very little you can do to avoid it. So, for future reference: one way to keep things feeling fresh is to change the focus of your reading, when you go back over your own work. Character-maps are a pretty fantastic solution, because not only do they force you to see your story in a very different light but it also draws attention to details specific to each arc that you might otherwise miss when reading the story as a whole.

I’m also liking the new ideas I’m coming up with, stirred up by the energy going into this work: solutions to issues that change fundamental things about the story that might actually be fantastic ideas, and for now that’s all they need to be – fantastic ideas. I’m enjoying how generative this process is proving to be, letting my imagination run away a bit, and knowing that none of this has to stick. Not to shoot these ideas down prematurely, though. It may well turn out that I’ve given myself a panacea. Only time will tell. For now, I’m just going to enjoy the spontaneity. It’s kind of like writer fireworks. You don’t even need a permit for them.

The one actual regret that I have is not going back and looking over the notes I spent so much time making the last time I read over this thing, only a month or so ago. They were good notes, and I will make sure to go look them over after these maps are all drawn up. And I’ll probably re-read the manuscript from start to finish while I’m at it, just to be thorough, and for a second impression post-cartography. I’m looking forward to the results, seeing what all of this experimental focus-shifting does to my perspective on the story as a whole.

So basically it’s going well, despite the title of this post. It’s going very well. I think I can live with that.

Too much

There comes a point, “they” say, when you just have to call it. It’s not ‘finished’, it’s not ‘perfect’, but when the only way to get to the end is to decide that it’s arrived yourself – it’s a lot of responsibility to take on.

I’m feeling that responsibility right now, and lamenting how long it’s taken me to get quite honestly not very far with this novel. Because time does matter. It’s been two years of my life, give or take a few weeks, since I decided that I’d try writing this story about things I felt very unsure of my ability to write with respect and insight, and what took me two years to accomplish could have easily taken one, or even less, if I knew what I was doing.

I don’t know what I’m doing, is what I’m saying, and at this point it’s really grating on me.

These character-arc maps seemed like a good idea at the time, and I’ve learnt to roll with what seems like a good idea at the time because it’s better than nothing, and you can always learn from your mistakes. It’s just that, as much as it seemed like a good idea at the time, it feels like procrastination right now, and I don’t know what it is that I’m meant to have learnt from this mistake. Of course it’s also taken me longer than it could to get these character-arc maps done, and that’s certainly part of why I feel so uninspired about following through with it. I feel like giving up, and the frustrating part is that I honestly think the only reason I feel that way in the first place is because I haven’t tried hard enough to get it done to begin with, and the lack of progress is what’s dampening my spirits, a lack of progress that I have full control over. I’ve got nothing to peg this on but my own lack of commitment.

Writing is work. I talked a bit about how discipline isn’t what I should be striving for, just getting work done. Maybe that was a post I drafted and didn’t publish. Whatever; I did talk about that, even if only to myself, and I think it’s just that I need to reframe what I think ‘discipline’ is to begin with.

But more than that, I need to get this fucking revision done.

Perhaps these character-arc maps are a total waste of time, but perhaps if I’d gotten through them as quickly as I know I could it wouldn’t feel that way. I learnt the value of speed while doing the first round of revisions, and I know that if I can keep it up it all feels magical and amazing and basically gives me a sense of instant gratification, even though it’s only instant in the relative sense. But whatever works, right? Right. And speed does work.

I’ve got another 6 hours until midnight, which I’m going to call my cut-off point. I don’t function very well after midnight, old geezer that I am at age 26. I can get this map done by then. I don’t feel like I’m gaining anything by doing it, but this will be the test to see if that’s true. Speed is the key here.

And if it isn’t helpful, then I’ll find out quickly, and save time by moving on to the next idea which will, hopefully, work. It’s win-win.

And no, the irony of my taking time out of doing revision to blog about how much time I’ve spent avoiding doing revision is not lost on me, but I need to clear my head. And I still don’t feel clear.

All the more reason to get back to work – venting didn’t do the trick, so maybe speed will.

Only one way to find out.

Film to book

I think I’ve broken the curse of this goddamn song.

I spoke a while ago about how I spent a day or two casting actors I like as characters in Tallulah, as is the wont of a great many people. I tend to think of my stories in visual terms, so while I’m writing them as books, it is in many ways only because I can’t make them into movies, because money.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend (also a writer) about this, and once I started telling her about how the casting of actors as my characters ended up leading me to alter my ideas of the characters in small but very notable ways, I also started remembering what they used to be like.

And I also remembered how much I like the characters they used to be.

And then today, while running through the largest character-arc next to Tallulah’s in order to map it out, I ran into a scene that I love, as much for what it could be as for what it actually is, and it’s a scene that only makes sense with the ‘book version’ of my characters.

And it all came flooding back: how these characters felt about and interacted with the world and each other, their attitudes and values and beliefs, their blind-spots, their passions, their faults and virtues – all as I’d thought of them before casting actors in their roles.

It’s only for a few of the characters, really, and in some cases it actually just strengthened my idea of who they already were, but the main characters were quite seriously altered. So today I’ve decided to ‘revert’, to strip away the movie version of these characters – who are good characters, but not the ones I wrote this book for – and get back in touch with this story for what it is: a book.

I’ve wanted to get better at thinking of my books as books, rather than substitutes for the movies I can’t make, for a long time, and now seems as good a time as any to get started.

There’s less time in a movie, and that results in characters being written a certain way for telling certain stories, and when I think of actors playing roles, even if it’s a role for a book, that style of characterisation inevitably seeps in.

I’ve got a book, which means I’ve got time. Or, rather, space. There’s more space in a book.

It’s time to get re-acquainted with it.

Progress? What’s that?

GARGH.

I need another wall-planner, it seems. Having a wall-planner actually seems to keep me on the straight and narrow. I need some other kind of measurement now though, seeing as I’m no longer working with a word-count, and that makes it difficult because I don’t know what measurement to use anymore. ‘Did revision’ is kind of … broad.

I guess this is when I break out the deadlines again.

I generally hate deadlines, but they do work. I think that’s part of why I hate them.

I had the idea that I’d get these character-arc maps done by the end of last week, and I got one done. It was very helpful (actually not being sarcastic, it was very helpful), but it’s so much work, and it’s so repetitive, and having the narrow focus of one character’s arc out of the network of character arcs that comprise my story skews the focus – the way events play out might not make sense if the story’s just about X character’s interactions with Tallulah, but then again the story’s not just about X character’s interactions with Tallulah, and it can be a little difficult keeping myself from being hypnotised by the elaborate illusion I’ve crafted for myself.

That’s not really the main difficulty of this exercise though; and the repetition of reading over things multiple times isn’t all bad – it gets me to see the same chapter in different ways, because I’m focusing on different aspects each time I read through, and that is interesting. The main difficulty is in keeping my notes concise, because I am very used to picking things apart – deconstruction and all that; it is a useful skill, and especially with editing, but it’s hard to switch it off. I’ve somewhat managed to compensate by making notes as I go, and as always, always take notes when you write, but it’s still a slog, and of course ends up taking longer than it would if I could just focus on doing one thing at a time.

It’s venting, really. I see something, hate it because it’s bad, and then have to articulate said hatred or I’ll just be thinking about it bitterly for the next however long.

No. That’s not really why. I do it because I’m afraid that I’ll forget it later on and it might actually be helpful. Which is, like, legit. First impressions aren’t always wrong.

In any case I’m going to do as much as I can with this second character-arc mapping – it’s the biggest one by far – and then finish reading the second Sweep omnibus so I can return it to its owner tomorrow. I’m sort of on the edge with this series; I liked it initially because I like Morgan, I like the Wicca stuff and I liked the fact that Cal was not just your typical YA paranormal romance bad boy love-interest, he was also framed by the narrative – in very subtle ways – as actually being bad. I appreciated this, but now it’s getting to the point where it feels like maybe it was all just wishful thinking on my behalf and he’s never going to get called up on it because it’s actually not wrong within the logic of the story and just ugh I don’t know what to think. I’m trying not to worry about it but I just really need this, after so many Edwards and Jaces and apparently even my beloved Peeta, which doesn’t add up for me, although I was easily enamoured with him enough to not notice …

I need to see one of these controlling, manipulative jackasses to get their karmic comeuppance. I need to believe that some YA authors are aware that the way male leads are often written in these narratives serves to normalise toxic, abusive behaviour from men towards women and that they’ll do something about it. I need that.

Regardless, I certainly like Morgan enough to keep reading, and I’m currently hoping she and Bree will find a way to make up. And I don’t believe that Bree was lying about her and Cal sleeping together. That might just be me being vindictive but whatever I HATE CAL I WANT HIM TO DIE if he does turn out to be as awful in the story’s eyes as he is in mine then I’ll actually really like him as a character. We’ll see.

NO SPOILERS.

And as for that deadline …

The 2nd of March. I will have finished all character-arc maps, read the manuscript a second time and have come up with an outline for the second revision by the 2nd of March.

I also have this idea to start waking up at like 7am every morning and going for a walk to start off the day before coming back to write for a few hours to prepare myself for a routine I can get into while studying and BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAA oh my god I should go back to writing comedy.

2nd of March. Let’s do this.

Jigsaw paint

I finally managed to finish one of my character-arc-mapping projects. ONE. One of SIX.

Hence I have also banned myself from facebook and Tumblr until March 1st at least, and by then hopefully I will have found other ways to occupy my time that don’t feel so One Ring-ish. Such as writing – specifically, trying to improve my writing.

I haven’t really made the goal of improving my writing a priority for some time; part of that has to do with university eating up a good four years of my life, and working on this novel for the past two years has also been part of that. I have noticed that I’ve gotten better at writing through the process of writing said novel though, so that’s cool.

There is something about specifically setting yourself the task of actually getting better at doing something, though, that I miss. I read half of this long-ass article about how being a talented English student results in writer’s block because you’re so used to ‘coasting’ on your natural talent that you’re afraid of really testing yourself and finding that you actually ‘don’t have what it takes’, and while I have a lot of problems with this framing of the issue, it certainly reminded me of how it felt to actually want to be better at writing, and making a conscious effort to consider my own prose and push how far I could go with it.

It could also be that I’ve just gotten better at getting better at writing, where I’m not stressed about it and can just let the words come out without really worrying about it – I mean it’s not entirely true, but it’s far truer than it was before I got used to drafting. I’m still not used to drafting, really, but it’s getting there. And the idea that putting something out is better than putting nothing out is a very useful attitude to have, and attitude is just another skill, which means that, with application, you can get better at it.

I do think, though, that a lot of writing advice is based around one way of doing things, which is a way I’ve found very useful but at the same time recognise as something that won’t work for everyone, and that is the way that drafting works. You write ‘anything’, just to get something out there, and then spend your time and energy refining it in stages – the allegory I’d use is painting a fence: it requires multiple coats before the whole job is done.

The other way of doing things that I’m used to is to edit as you go, sort of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together; you find that certain pieces don’t fit where you thought they did and have to adjust them on the fly, rather than assembling the whole puzzle, seeing all the wrongly-placed pieces and then going back and correcting every mistake.

I am not really comfortable with either of these. The ‘paint a fence’ method is the one I’ve been using with Tallulah, but it gets really easy to lose a grip on specifics and become overwhelmed by the big picture, to the point where continuing to forge ahead starts to seem like an insurmountable challenge and testament to your cerebral ineptitude. Which is not fair to think of yourself; it’s just a pitfall of the method, and the one that’s kept me from going as fast as I’d like with this book.

The ‘jigsaw’ method has the weakness of taking a really long time to get anything done, to the point where you can get stuck on one chapter, passage, plot-point or whatever and then flip a table in frustration, leaving the tea-stained ruins to be submerged in the sands of time. It’s the opposite problem to the paint method, basically: it’s easy to get snagged on the little things when you’re so intent on ‘getting it right’ the first time through.

In practice, I end up doing a bit of both, with an emphasis on the paint method. Obviously sometimes you just have to start over because you’ve dug yourself into a bottomless pit of narrative despair, but in those cases I’ll save a draft copy of the version of the chapter I’m about to ditch just in case it proves useful in the future (which has happened already, and I’m only one revision in). But this is such a necessity that I don’t really know if this counts as a hybrid method; if you literally just wrote whatever came to mind, stream-of-consciousness style, I imagine there would be a fair few plot-holes you’d have to deal with overlooking when you could easily just tidy them up along the way.

On the other hand, sometimes what seems like a plothole at the time, especially if you have some sort of outline of events in mind, can turn out to be, on reflection, actually an integral part of the plan that you had. This is a consequence of being ‘in the zone’, caught up in the specific thing you’re writing and losing sight of the bigger picture, as well as essentially replicating retrograde amnesia: you can easily forget your own plot-points, so that’s another reason to take notes as you go, and always make backups – never delete anything.

And that happens regardless of whether you’re working with paint or puzzles, unless you’re only ever going to write synopses (and hell, it even happens then).

I had a point, I know I did … see? It happened right there. Proof of my irrefutable truthiness.

*ahem* when it comes to trying to improve your craft, the paint method is still good, as being able to look back over your whole, completed manuscript is invaluable feedback as to where improvements are needed, but it lacks the immediacy of the jigsaw method, and the reward-centre of our brain really only responds to immediate stimulus. It’s why it can get really disheartening to spend two years on a book and only have one draft and a revision to show for it. But it’s also why I felt so rewarded when I read it over this last time, because it had been so close to the point where I’d written it that I felt the feedback, even though I actually waited about a month before reading it after completing it. Fast work leads to a quicker reward with the paint method, and while some immediacy is nice, you will still get that rush of gratification so long as you make reasonable progress.

And, again, you get to see your writing in action. I remember reading the manuscript I wrote before Tallulah, the story I’ll probably be working on after I finish Tallulah, and recognising how my writing evolved over the course of the writing process – it did take me about a year to complete (and clocked in at over 180k words by the end), and I saw myself improving. With Tallulah, the revised manuscript is really clunky in a lot of places where my old writing juxtaposes with the new voice I ended up adopting, with varying results. And the other thing is consistency; I realise that I just said that within one draft I went through three different writing styles, but imagine how much more pronounced that would have been if I’d done it via the jigsaw method. In terms of getting a feel for your voice, it’s not that the jigsaw method won’t give you that feedback – it’ll just be delivered to you differently.

I’m certainly not suggesting that if you use the jigsaw method you never go back and re-read what you wrote, and for that reason alone I would advocate the paint method over it, but that still doesn’t quite solve the issue of how to find a decent middle-ground. I guess for me it’d be combining the paint method with having a solid plan – not a fully fleshed-out one, just something solid and clear enough to work with. And that’s essentially what I worked with while writing Tallulah. Particulars changed as I wrote and dipped in and out of stream-of-consciousness enthusiasm for passing whims, but the overarching plot remained the same.

It’s just that planning itself may require edits, if you’re a stickler for twists and turns like myself, and especially anything involving magic or science – magic because you have to think up the rules and then stick to them, and science because you can’t make it up (unless it’s sci-fi, in which case you just have to decide how much criticism you are happy to endure in response to your actions). And then we get into the muddy territory of drafting your plan, which is supposed to help you get started, not hold you back, and we get into the situation I’m still in with Realm of the Myth, my overblown fantasy epic that’s consumed almost half of my life, was picking up momentum and showing promise at the start of this year and has since stagnated again. But oh no, precious, oh not! I will finish it. I will make it work. Even if I end up breaking it in the process.

It makes sense, shut up.

And just thinking of that story again – it tells me just how comfortable I’ve gotten with the paint method, for all that I hate how long it takes, how delayed the gratification. It does actually suit me, and it helps me to feel like I’m making progress, so long as I stick to it. Which, yes, is easier said than done when the gratification is so delayed, and when I just don’t want to continue for the sake of the process when I feel like I’ve messed something up …

And then I remember my own damn advice and just save a copy of the chapter I’m about to discard and everything is fine. Sigh.

It suits me because it gets me out of the never-ending spiral of ‘no I can’t start yet until I’ve done X’, because X is not the priority. For the process, not me. If I were doing things ‘my way’ I’d be fretting over X forever, and that’s the jigsaw method to me. So this has been a pretty useless attempt to try and find a comfortable middle-ground. But I will keep trying.

For now, I think tonight I’m actually going to try to get to bed before 4am, and spend my pre-sleep time reading rather than staring at a computer screen. These Wonder Woman comics aren’t going to read themselves …

Keep on keepin’ on

I wrote that synopsis of an alternative version of Tallulah and I’m glad I did, and surprise surprise, I prefer my manuscript.

It’s actually better. There’s a few gaping holes, but it’s closer to the story I want to tell than the thing I spent most of yesterday writing, and the thing I spent most of yesterday writing wasn’t bad. It just strays really far away from what I’m interested in at a few crucial junctures, and while there’s some cool character stuff early on it’s also very simplistic, and I’m not here to be simple. Plus it devolves into yet more action about two-thirds of the way through and anyway the point is that it was something I needed to do, and I did it, and I’ll actually probably go back and polish it up to make it work better because there is some stuff there that I could develop and put to good use.

So the moral of the story is: drop what you’re doing and indulge when the mood strikes you, even if it means deviating from The Plan. You’ll come back to your Plan with even more clarity of purpose, and that can only ever be a good thing.

And having said that: I’ve screwed up my Plan and need to go back and do it over again.

Thank Huginn and Muninn it’s the weekend.

It’s also the first day of the seventeen I’ve got left before semester starts, so I really need to …

Actually, no, I don’t need to motor. I just need to keep going. I managed to keep going last semester, and this semester I have an entire day free every week, so I’ll be fine.

I spent too much time criticising my manuscript instead of recording the events that happened, and that was the entire point to begin with: mapping character-arcs. Yes, there’s plenty to criticise. Plenty. Some of this stuff is so ridiculous I’m amazed it’s part of the same story; and this is new stuff, too. This was a really good idea, because isolating specific character interactions and charting their progress really highlights how many issues there are with characterisation and continuity – not to mention the points in the book where characters are just kind of forgotten about.

The synopsis I wrote certainly kept track of all the characters better and incorporated them into the story more, and that part of it was incredibly helpful to me. It also altered one of the core aspects of the plot and … I think it works okay? I’d need time to adjust to it but it opens up a lot of neat possibilities as well as closing a lot of glaring flaws. Essentially that synopsis was a response to all of the plot-holes and the lack of ‘tightness’ that the current manuscript contains, but for what it could be I really do prefer what I’ve written to what I could hypothetically write.

I guess those lemons came in handy after all …

A lemon to pick

When life gives you lemons, and more to the point when those lemons come from a lemon tree that you specifically planted in order to acquire said lemons, remember that you got what you wanted at the time and that that’s okay, even if you don’t actually have any use for lemons at the present moment. Or perhaps you only had the option to plant a lemon tree and you decided that, in the decision between lemons or nothing, lemons were probably the way to go. Who knows what you’d be able to do with them once you had them? Compared to nothing, which is guaranteed to give you yet more nothing to work with at a later date. Lemons, in this circumstance – probably the better option.

It doesn’t change the fact that the lemons you are now presented with and charged with finding a use for fit none of your current needs nor desires, and while that doesn’t mean you should write lemons off altogether just because they’re not showcasing their full utility now, it also doesn’t mean you have to lock yourself in to lemons. You could go and buy some oranges, for instance, or even kiwifruit. Yes, all of that effort spent planting and watering and checking the weather and monitoring for pests may feel wasted right this minute, but it was a labour of loving intentions, and nothing can take that away.

Try to find some solace in that as you curse the lemon-gods, the evolutionary process that led to the realisation of lemons to have even been an option for you to take however many seasons ago, because if lemons never existed, you would have been spared the option to begin with. Yes, obviously some other citrus fruit would have ultimately stood in for lemons as the source of your present wrath because this is all a matter of symbolism to begin with, but right now in the midst of your ire it’s far more satisfying to take things as literally as possible, in order to better envision all the ways you might exercise your bitterness upon these hapless lemons laying at your feet, mocking you with the perfection of their lemonitudinalness, and utter lack of being anything other than what they are, which is useless, useless, useless goddamn motherfucking lemons.

WHY ISN’T MY BOOK GOOD YET

I’ve spent most of today doing what I call ‘going insane’, which is not actually going insane; it’s procrastinating by doing work I wasn’t planning on doing in lieu of the work I was planning on doing because I’m tired of waiting for my story to be the story I want it to be. Said work is taking the form of a synopsis of what I currently feel is a better, superior, all-around just plain correct version of my novel, which has only had one revision, and it’s taken me over two years to get to that point and that makes me incredibly frustrated just now, actually.

I like this synopsis, a lot. I like it because it feels like a more cohesive story that includes lots of elements and ideas that aren’t in my current manuscript, or which are not developed as much as I’d like. I’m writing it not really because I believe my manuscript is unsalvageable, because I know full well that it’s actually pretty great for only having had one revision and is a perfectly fine foundation for a story, but because I just want it to be better, and I want it to be better right the fuck now.

So this synopsis I’m writing is all the things I feel my manuscript currently isn’t, all the necessary missing parts that scream to me, at this specific juncture in time, as being the only things keeping my story from working the way it should work. Don’t get me wrong; I know this is just frustration talking. I’ve had the exact same feelings before and I’ve written other synopses before, and they’ve felt exactly right as well, and they were completely different to this one. I know, objectively, that what I’m writing is not ‘correct’, any more than my current manuscript is ‘incorrect’; it’s just what I want right now.

But goddammit, it is what I want right now, and if I’ve learnt anything about writing it’s that you can do far worse than to indulge your inner 3-year-old’s perfectionist tantrums – because if they’re there in your system, then they’re there, and it’s up to you to take responsibility for them. Let yourself get tired out. Let yourself splurge. Like any act of spontaneous creativity, you’re even bound to come up with a few great ideas in the process, even if you look back on them later and they don’t work for this story.

That’s not the point. The point is not to fix. The point is to do exactly what you want, to get it right when everything’s so wrong, to do what you know is the best thing, toss conventional wisdom to the wind and just go way off the deep end, lose control, all that stuff. Because that stuff is only good for building habits. It doesn’t help you stay sane. It doesn’t help you vent your frustration. And sometimes you’re frustrated because you know you can do better, and you just have to go and do it, and commit to it, decide that yes, this is the new plan, this is what shall begin work starting tomorrow. You must get over your predisposition to call yourself a flake with non-existent impulse-control, stop telling yourself that ‘real writers’ would never explode like this and lose the plot because they’d be happy with what they’ve got because they play the long game – you need to stop all of that administrative bullshit and just piss off into the great blue yonder, because it’s better than what you’ve got right now, and you know best.

Because of course you’ll come back. Of course you’ll feel better having vented your spleen and return with a fresh perspective now that the haze of vitriolic regret has been blown out of your system like oxygen out of a crack in a spaceship’s hull, and realise that, actually, what you’ve got to work with is a lot better than you gave it credit for. But you also don’t think about that right now, don’t remind yourself of how practical and smart you will be after you go and ‘be silly’ for a while, because then it won’t work. Because if you do, you’re treating this thing you actually need to do, for the sake of your writing, as a joke, and that’s treating yourself as a joke, and you can’t, cannot make good art by thinking you’re a joke.

So that rational, nervously laughing voice telling you to remind yourself that no, of course you’re not actually giving up on all of this hard work you’ve done, this is just a result of pent-up frustration and will pass once you work it out of your system – that voice is your worst enemy right now. Because while that’s all true, it’s not helpful. You know you’re not actually going to destroy all your progress up to this point, because you’re not actually insane; there’s no need to tell yourself that. Right now what you need to do is let yourself decide that, yeah, actually, you will flip a table as you tug back the end of your rope out from under it, and bugger off somewhere else to start over with a clean slate.

So you won’t come back, remember? You know better than to come back. You’ve got this great new idea that will solve all your problems that isn’t silly; why would you ever go back to the shitty, malfunctioning, time-thieving mistake you’ve been slaving over for two years with no results? You wouldn’t. Because that would be the silly thing to do.

You’ve gotta commit to allowing yourself to be right.

Because you are right. This is art. It’s your art. You are the only one who can be right about it. So go be right about it.

Go give those ruddy lemons what for.

The Killing Moon

I used to have this habit during my teen years of reading books really quickly, to the point where it’d feel like I hadn’t really taken anything in. Once I made myself slow down I started to enjoy reading a lot more and connect with the story. But upon reading The Killing Moon I found that the deliberate pace I’d grown accustomed to setting for myself was making it almost impossible to get through the damn thing. So I broke my rule, started reading quicker, and suddenly the book became about ten times more appealing.

It was then that I recalled that much of what I read during my teen years was Epic and High Fantasy, and I have to think that some aspects of the genre – specifically how it’s written – is maybe what led me to adopting fast-reading in the first place: it’s drier than the Taklamakan Desert. This doesn’t go for all Fantasy books (and from here on out when I say ‘Fantasy’ the ‘High/Epic’ part is implied), but it’s the only genre where I find this particular trend towards really removed prose.

Which is to say: removed from the characters. You get to know what they’re feeling and thinking, but it’s all through telling. On top of that the character types tend to be very repetitive. These are age-old criticisms of the genre, granted, but it just really hit me while reading this book that there was a reason I started shunning Fantasy books and began leaning more towards its Urban, Contemporary and Magical Realism counterparts.

And that’s not to say that The Killing Moon is a bad book. It’s not. The world-building is interesting and original, and the writing style really drew me into that aspect of the story. It’s just that it’s a style that caters to descriptions of the world Jemisin has built, the politics and history and other aspects of the setting, far better than the characters who inhabit it, and this is a problem that I feel has more to do with the Fantasy genre than anything particular about Jemisin’s writing, because this is hardly the first time I’ve seen it (and while I have issues with the writing in this book, it’s also one of the least-annoying instances of it I’ve come across).

Basically I can sum it up like this: I know what but not how the characters are feeling, and as I’m somebody who prioritises characters and pacing above pretty much anything else, this really put me off.

Also it takes 104 pages for the story to start.

Let’s start there, shall we?

  • At the very beginning (which happens to be 1/4 of the way through the book)

This seems to be something that Fantasy does very ‘well’, though I wouldn’t say it’s healthy practice: taking too damn long to get to the point.

I tried reading The Wheel of Time when I was about 16, and it took about 150 pages just for the main characters to get out of the town where our orphan farmboy of destiny grew up. In that time we learnt that magic is gendered (and sexist), there are things called Trollocs that may as well be Orcs, and that this story is just a rehash of Lord of the Rings. If there are any Wheel of Time fans reading this, feel free to set me straight, but I’m still not reading 14 freaking books just to see what all the fuss is about.

And once they did get out of town, it was to the Generic Inn in a Slightly Bigger Town where they met some person I knew I was supposed to care about but after 150 pages of still waiting for something to happen, the book had not exactly won me over to its cause. The Fellowship of the Ring had more forward momentum than this book.

The first eight chapters of Killing Moon are all just a preamble to the Inciting Incident, and only once we reach the end of Chapter 8 on page 104 do things finally start to pick up. What are the first 103 pages taken up with?

I can’t even remember.

In terms of plot: Sunandi, my favourite character of the three leads (and in general), is an ambassador who’s trying to spy on the Prince of Gujaareh and find out if he intends to go to war with her nation of Kisua. He is, or the huge amount of ships he’s building says he is.

Ehiru, a Gatherer, which is basically a Jedi except that instead of the Force and light sabers they use dream-magic (I’ll cover this in more detail later because the Gatherers are the coolest thing about this book, and they’re pretty damn cool), botches a Gathering (collecting a ‘tithebearer”s soul to replenish his and the Hetawa’s reserves of magic – the Hetawa is basically the Jedi Council and the religious centre of Gujaareen society) so that his target’s soul is lost in eternal torment, and in the last moments before his death said target tells Ehiru that the Hetawa is ‘using’ him, which he, being a good Gatherer and utterly blind in his faith that the Hetawa could never do anything morally quesitonable, does not respond to well, and that’s part of why he botches the Gathering.

Sunandi gets shown a bunch of corpses in a tomb by this general she’d pals with and they all have the same mask of torment that Ehiru’s victim had, and we start hearing about Reapers – Gatherers who have gone bad, collecting Dreamblood to sate their own hunger and at random rather than who and when the Hetawa tells them. They’re meant to just be a legend, and since this is Fantasy I’m sure that’s all it is.

Yep.

Meanwhile Ehiru’s apprentice, Nijiri, perhaps the most boring character I’ve read in a book since the apprentice character in Quicksilver Rising (who is far worse), goes through his final trial thingy and we get to learn about how the Hetawa is all about ‘purging corruption’, and how because he’s a servant-caste he’s used to bottling things up to avoid conflict, which is what allows corruption to breed. But he gets to pass his test anyway because reasons. He ‘meant well’ by covering up the fact that he’d been solicited by one of the older priests and yeah, that’s totally understandable if he’s afraid for his safety, but it’s made pretty clear that he isn’t – not only that but he suspects that this teacher may also have been abusing his power with other apprentices, up until Nijiri threatens to (but doesn’t) out him and considers the matter closed. The Hetawa, however, accepts nothing less than absolute transparency so as to not just avoid but eliminate corruption – and yet, somehow, Nijiri still passes. The point is that we get some lore, and this is the scene I talked about in this post, and in answer to the question I posed to myself back then: yes, the book does actually deal with the moral implications about determining whether somebody is corrupt or not.

And then Ehiru, full of doubt over his botched Gathering, is commissioned to Gather Sunandi because she’s corrupt (an affliction of the soul), and so he goes off to do that with Nijiri, who needs to learn how to be a Gatherer. Surprise surprise, she has things to say that make Ehiru doubt his orders, so he gives her an ‘abeyance’ until he can determine the truth of her statements, and this is when things finally start moving.

Oh, also we find out that the Reaper is in fact real, because we get a chapter where the Prince uses it to kill the general dude who showed Sunandi the corpses.

So that was roughly five decent-sized paragrpahs of backstory, and that’s all that happens, and it takes 103 pages to get through. Somehow. It could have been done in 30.

Mostly it’s because there’s a lot of dwelling on world-building aspects, establishing the cultural norms of Gujaareh and the role of the Gatherers and Hetawa, the relationship between the Hetawa and the Sunset Throne (the Prince – yes Prince not King there’s a reason for it), the way magic works …

And that’s the thing about Fantasy: there’s this trend where the world-building and scene-setting is just as much of a ‘character’ as the actual characters, and takes precedence over the plot. That’s what made Perdido Street Station an 8-month slog for me. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with world-building or dwelling on fictional politics, cultures and history, and I assume that this is part of the appeal of the genre – you get to consider a hypothetical, alternative set of cultural norms and history, not to mention the existence of magic and the supernatural, and for many people that’s probably just as important to the story as characters, pacing and plot are to me. But for me there’s just no point in understanding the world that’s been built unless it serves to tell a story about characters that I am compelled to care about, rather than having the characters just feel like rats brought in to run around in the complex maze the writer made up to entertain themselves, or ‘keep the punters happy’, included only as a concession to the fact that people enjoy reading about other people. This book is certainly not that bad – that award goes to something like Perdido Street Station – and there are some great character moments in this story, but it still reminds me of books that seem like they would rather there be no characters at all.

I like characters, is what I’m saying, and I’ve said it many times before. It would seem that Fantasy does not share my predilection.

Because otherwise it wouldn’t take 103 pages for the freaking story to begin.

By ‘story’, I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, I mean ‘the story of the characters’, which is the only type of story I care about, and that’s my main issue with the book. And when we do finally get to the characters …

  • Three’s incredibly predictable company

In terms of the dynamic between the three, it’s pretty standard fare – painfully so in some cases. There’s mistrust, they get over it, and we’re done. Taken on their own the characters are usually more interesting than their interactions together, excepting Nijiri, who is only interesting when he has other characters to bounce off. Sunandi and Ehiru have good chemistry, for lack of a better word in reference to a relationship between imaginary people, but that doesn’t change the fact that their relationship is based on a very common clash-of-perspectives antagonism, which is only made worse by the fact that we, the reader, know the truth behind all of it and that they’re both just uninformed, which leads to them seeming stupider than they actually are.

And not to harp on about this, but the writing doesn’t help them any; the best way I can sum it up is to say that it breaks the ‘show don’t tell’ rule, and while I’ve already talked about how I think that ‘rule’ is taken too literally sometimes, particularly with writing, there is certainly enough truth to it that you can tell when the balance is off. There’s a lot of ‘he felt’ and ‘he was’ kinda statements here, and while it’s informative it’s also quite impersonal. I assume that you’d get used to this sort of thing after reading enough Fantasy, but it’s not something I want to get used to.

Yet for all that, I still like the characters. Some more than others, true, but for each of them there’s at least a couple of moments where what they were going through really resonated with me.

I like Sunandi the most, but of the three she gets the least face-time. Nijiri is just this agonizing mixture of frustrating naivete and run-of-the-mill teenage blandness (except for the bit where he’s crushing on Ehiru, more on that later). And while Ehiru is much cooler if you read his bits aloud while doing a Keith David impression, he seems more like a beleaguered 16-year-old than a seasoned warrior of god (or goddess in this case). His moral turmoil, while understandable, is very … sophmoric (my new favourite word). It could just be the way it’s written, and to be fair he’s a repressed religious zealot; it makes sense that he’d be emotionally green. But it’s the same ‘voice’ for all the characters as well, which adds to the sense of dryness in the writing, and in the two male leads particularly.

I think Sunandi is my favourite character simply because she’s not a religious fundamentalist, and comes across as much more pragmatic and resilient. She also has to be one of the best female characters in a Fantasy book I’ve ever read – that’s not saying much, I grant you, but she’d be a good character in any genre. She’s not a love-interest or sex-interest, even if her introductory chapters involves her getting very friendly with the Prince of the Sunset; she’s ambitious; she’s cunning; she’s vindictive and she’s absolutely autonomous – she’s just compelling. My only complaint is that she doesn’t have anything to do in the third act of the novel; her plot is all about political espionage and once that’s taken care of it’s up to the boys to go take down the Big Bad, because they have magic. I’m not saying she needed to be a magic-user or a warrior or anything, just that I was disappointed that my favourite character’s character-arc essentially ends once the Third Act gong rings – and while I’m making note of fantasy tropes, this does tend to happen more to female characters.

Also she learns about seeing past her cultural prejudices and stuff, so she has some decent character-development too. I wish she’d been the main character.

Then there’s Ehiru, and he’s sort of the halfway character for me, less appealing than Sunandi but less bland than Nijiri. Don’t get me wrong, he’s got a nice character-arc and is a bit of a twist on the Mentor formula, which gets a very nice, resonant wrap-up by the end, although it’s over far too quickly. The twist comes in the form of his knowing manipulation of his apprentice’s feelings for him, and his tormented conscience. Whereas Gandalf is all-pure and just a little grouchy, and Dumbledore is, other than his Machiavellian schemeing, as gentle and removed-from-the-action as any typical mentor, Ehiru is not just in the action but falling to the Dark Side all throughout the story, struggling to maintain his honour and sense of right, which plays very well into the archetypal mentor/apprentice dynamic where, inevitably, the apprentice must inherit their mentor’s responsibilities by surpassing them.

For all this, though, Ehiru comes across as much ‘greener’ than he could be, and it might just be the way it’s written – but this is a book. How it’s written is pretty important. All throughout the book his main conflict is un-learning his blind faith in the purity of the Hetawa, and it just comes across as very naive. It could just be genre-savviness on my part talking; this is not an original premise by any means to begin with, and there’s no twist in this instance of it. It’s a good premise, but Ehiru’s journey from blindness to clarity is very by-the-numbers, and if it wasn’t for the lore of the Gatherers and the Hetawa I wouldn’t have been nearly as invested as I was, and I would have liked to have been more invested.

But I do like Ehiru. It’s just that he’s so shocked to even consider that the Hetawa, wielders of pretty much absolute power in his nation, could possibly be using that power for not-so-pure intentions. Although the one good thing about him being simultaneously naive and intuitive is that it’s an example of how people can be very smart about certain things, and far less so with others. It could have been done better, but it’s still okay.

And then Nijiri.

The final act of the story sees him finally coming into his own and actually being remotely compelling as a character, and the resolution of his apprenticeship to Ehiru was well-done enough that I ended up liking him, right at the end of the story. And then it’s over, and we don’t get to spend any time with the new-and-improved Nijiri.

The only interesting thing about him is the fact that he’s got the hots for Ehiru, and it’s a very tragic and toxic affection. Ehiru took him in to be an apprentice after Gathering Nijiri’s mother, for whom Nijiri sent a commission so that she could die peacefully, as she was very sick. The homoeroticism is totally fine, and really quite refreshing for a fantasy narrative, and it’s fine that Nijiri feels this way about Ehiru. It’s complicated and messy and all-consuming; he basically worships Ehiru, and it’s sweet and sad.

The only problematic bit may just have been an issue of phrasing intersecting with my filthy mind, but in the flashback detailing his and Ehiru’s meeting, told from Ehiru’s POV, we see that Ehiru decides to take Nijiri in because he’d always kind of wanted a son, and then ‘stroked his back’.

And I mean, like – yeah, that is just my filthy mind. He said ‘son’, not ‘underage sex-slave’, and I don’t think Ehiru would ever be into that sort of thing; but at the same time he’s being very familiar with a kid he just met, whether that kid is in need of comforting or not. Then again, repressed super-priest …

Other than his all-encompassing love for Ehiru and how it informs his motivation, Nijiri is even more narrow-mindedly dogmatic than his mentor and just … boring. I can’t say that I hate him or anything, but I found myself dreading any chapter from his POV unless it had some antagonistic interaction between him and Sunandi in it just because he’s not very interesting.

Another issue is that he gets the POV honour of the final chapter where the Big Bad is taken down, and it’s simultaneously epic and anticlimactic. Ehiru is the one who kills him, but it’s done while Nijiri is unconscious, and once he wakes up he just Gathers Ehiru and becomes a Gatherer and that’s that, roll epilogue.

Speaking of Gathering …

  • From my point of view

There is a lot of similarity between the Gatherers and the Jedi, but I’m talking Prequel Trilogy Jedi, not Alec Guinness Jedi. They both have a tabboo on becoming too emotional about stuff that is pretty eye-roll-worthy, but only in the Prequel Trilogy did it become particularly dehumanizing.

The Hetawa is the Church, for lack of a better comparison, and they worship Hananja, the Goddess of Dreams. Souls go to the afterlife when you dream, and by severing the tether between soul and body, Gatherers are able to collect Dreamblood, the magical energy that they use. They also bring it back to the Hetawa so that it can be put to multiple other uses, like healing the sick, and getting people high – something Ehiru doesn’t find out until near the end.

And also, Gathering a person’s dreamblood kills them.

This is the main tension between Sunandi and Ehiru to begin with, never mind the fact that he was sent to Gather her: she sees it as sanctioned murder, whereas Ehiru sees it as an act of compassion and worship. There is a very rigid code of ethics surrounding the act of Gathering and the role of Gatherer, and it’s very Jedi-esque – there are various tests that Gatherers must face, periodically, and one of them involves going without dreamblood for an extended period of time. Near the end they will be presented with a person who is willing to be Gathered, but if the Gatherer collects their dreamblood they will fail their test, because Gathering must not be done for selfish purposes.

And if you do, you become a Reaper.

Reapers are Gatherers who take dreamblood without the Hetawa’s say-so, but it also has to do with intent – if you take it to sustain yourself, then it corrupts your soul and drives you insane. However it also means that you can reap unlimited amounts of dreamblood, and as we see at the end of the book where Ehiru becomes a Reaper himself, you also get what amounts to unlimited power, as he had the potential to simultaneously kill 20,000 people from a long distance. In contrast, Gatherers are lucky if they can hold the dreamblood of 2 or 3 people at once without going nuts, which is why they have to go back and share it with the Sharers at the Hetawa (as well as Rules).

This is why Ehiru’s botched Gathering is such a source of shame for him, and why he’s so reluctant to even entertain the idea that the Hetawa may have ulterior motives for sending Gatherers to collect dreamblood from designated ‘tithebearers’ – Gujaareh has a law wherein anybody, at any time, may be marked as a tithebearer in order to keep the city supplied with Dreamblood; this is the price you pay for living in a city that prides itself on being ‘corruption-free’, and it is the most prosperous nation of the ones we’re told about. If he’s just being sent to kill people, though, then it’s murder, and it just so happens that Sunandi was marked for purely political purposes.

And there’s another thing, and this is the part that I really like: Gatherers need dreamblood. Normally a person creates dream-essence stuff by themselves, but becoming a Gatherer puts a stop to that, and if you go for too long without it you will go mad and, I think, die. So while there are all of these codes of morality around Gathering, the fact of the matter is that Gatherers need to collect dreamblood in order to survive, and in that sense Sunandi is right about it being little more than sanctioned murder.

This is all very cool stuff, and ‘narcomancy’ – sleep-magic – is also cool, if seen far less in the story. Reapers grow much more sensitive to dream-essence, but also more susceptible to narcomancy, which is an interesting twist that I rather like, and yet also don’t. If they’re so easy to defeat – even Nijiri can toss some narcomancy around – then the only reason people don’t know about it is because the compulsory Ancient Scrolls of Lost Wisdom were all thought to be, well, lost, and it’s just a bit thin. But it works well enough, simply because the Reapers only really become a force that needs to be dealt with up-close during the climax of the book.

So I like this aspect of the world-building, not to mention the fact that literally every main character is black. The area that this story takes place in is a fictional equivalent of Egypt and Africa, and the whole mythology behind Hananja and the Gatherers is very cool. Where I found the writing tedious and simplistic with the characters, it works really well with fleshing out the setting, in a similar way to how China Mieville’s purple prose worked a lot better in his entire chapters devoted solely to describing New Crobuzon and his world-building than it did in the chapters dealing with his characters. (Also the one character I actually liked in Perdido Street Station turned out to be a rapist, so thanks for that, Mieville.)

The only issue here is that, again, I just don’t care about world-building if it has nothing to do with the characters, and a lot of the time it feels like they’re fighting for space rather than sharing it.

Which is a shame, because the world-building stuff is cool, and the characters, if not original per se, definitely have their moments, and if there was just a little more synergy between them in the writing, this could easily have been a new favourite of mine.

As it stands, I don’t regret buying this book, but I’m also pretty much convinced that Fantasy is a genre I won’t be revisiting anytime soon.

Which is a shame, because there is a lot about this book that I like, in isolation.

  • I don’t think we’re in faux-medieval Europe anymore

Sunandi, Ehiru and Nijiri are all black.

I think everyone is black, actually. Everyone who’s important anyway.

I definitely appreciate this.

Sunandi is, as I said before, neither a love nor sex-interest to either of the main dudes, or in fact anybody. Her escapades with the Prince in her introductory chapter are something she does for pragmatism, and she’s always in charge of her sexuality – and it’s not brought up very often. The ‘gender card’ is only played like three times in the entire book, and it’s very much in passing. Her main concern is exposing the Prince’s plans to her homeland, as opposed to trying to find a long-lost husband or child, and she’s allowed to be a whole person without once wishing that she could just settle down and discover the joys of child-rearing. And while I wish she’d gotten more to do, what she does get to do feels important and central to the plot. All of these things are good.

The erotic and romantic element between Ehiru and Nijiri, while it did make me feel uncomfortable in places, I mostly really liked. I understood Nijiri’s infatuation with Ehiru, and the very lopsided and depending-h0w-you-look-at-it toxicity of their relationship felt believable, if not ideal, and plays into the whole priesthood thing as well (and yes, the priests of the Hetawa are celibate). But the thing I really appreciated was the fact that, when it is brought up that Nijiri wants to jump Ehiru’s bones (said conversation taking place between Sunandi and Ehiru while Nijiri is asleep), it’s not a big deal. Sexuality in general in this book is not a big deal, nor is it fetishised or turned into some kind of ‘one with nature’ bullshit, which sometimes happens in speculative fiction, especially if you head into the realms of polyamory and bisexuality.

I love the lore of the Gatherers. Reapers just feel a little too ridiculous to take seriously in a literal sense, but in symbolic terms they’re a very good Shadow. But the morality of Gathering and how it ties into the magic system is fantastic, and it’s something I’d love to have been explored more. I compare the Gatherers to the Jedi, but honestly I feel they’re more interesting than their Force-using counterparts – they have a somewhat healthier relationship with emotions, and hey, it’s hard to go past dream-magic – and it’s also very hard to do well.

N.K. Jemisin does it well. I still have no idea what the various dream-essences are really used for, just that they all do different things, and I don’t think that being a bit clearer on that point would have killed the mystery of the magic system. But it made me want to know more about it, and even got me fantasising about using it myself, and to me that’s the sign of an awesome magic system.

I love the faux-Egyptian/African setting, even though most of what happens in it is very similar to what happens in faux-medieval European settings; I could vividly see the streets of Gujaareh bathed in the light of the four-banded Dreaming Moon at night, which I always imagined was multi-coloured light for whatever reason. I like the sense of scale, history and the mingling of cultures.

And while I have gripes with them, I do like the characters, if only in retrospect. Sunandi is still my favourite, but Ehiru is cool, if frustratingly naive (it does add to the tragedy of his story so I’ll give it a pass, in principle if not actual enjoyment), and Nijiri has some good moments. The Prince is pretty standard villain fare, but I definitely bought how charismatic and self-assured he was. And the Reaper was scary, and it was awesome when Ehiru turned into one, and led to a very powerful conclusion to his story.

I’ve given this book a lot of crap, but there are things that I like about it, and they’re things that Fantasy as a genre really needs to do more of. If for no other reason than that, I do think I would recommend this book. I did have to speed-read just to avoid losing patience with it, which I don’t think is a good sign, but if you’re more accustomed to Fantasy writing than I am (or are willing to read quickly), and you don’t mind waiting 104 pages for anything to happen, absolutely give this a look.

  • Closing thoughts

There’s a lot of quite standard Fantasy stuff in this book, which was interesting with such a non-Fantasy cast, at least in terms of ethnic allegories. But there’s a scene with the Prince (who is evil, and also Ehiru’s brother) showing off his army to his permanently-in-the-dark lackey and said lackey is all like ‘this dude is cray-cray‘ that almost exactly mirrors the scene from The Two Towers where Wormtongue weeps as he looks out over the Uruk-Hai army that Saruman has gathered and realises that Saruman is literally that committed to his genocidal goals; there’s the big reveal where the Reaper everybody’s panicking about turns out to be Ehiru’s long-lost mentor (who Nijiri defeats, and it is one of the few times in the book where I was actually rooting for Nijiri rather than wishing for his swift death), the escaping from the city by taking up with a band of minstrels, the sneaking back into the city, being discovered by the city guard and then being taken to the very place they were trying to sneak into, the Lost Scrolls of the Dark Arts that have now been Found Again, the power-hungry Emperor (Prince) who wants to become immortal and take over the world (for peace, of course) …

And it’s fun. This is the stuff that I like about Fantasy, the familiar tropes that work because they synergise well and don’t need much more than compelling characters to make them work, and while I do have issues with the characters, they do work well with the tropes they’re given to work with.

I take away a lot of points for eight chapters of buildup before any payoff, and I like my characters shown rather than told at all times because I want to feel like they’re people rather than a collection of data. I also think the chapters where we get to see what the bad guys are up to end up undermining the effectiveness of the relationship between the three main characters. But for all that, this book makes a lot of progressive strides for the Fantasy genre that I sincerely hope catch on.

In short: the issues that I have with this book are not because of the writer; they’re because of the genre. The only reason I liked this book as much as I did is because Jemisin provides a unique and engaging setting wedded well with some familiar Fantasy tropes, an awesome magic system, and her writing, while definitely not my style, is very good for what it is. So while I wish it had been better, The Killing Moon is still one of the best Fantasy books I’ve ever read. Make of that what you will.

The Next Big Thing

I feel it only right that I talk about this, because it’s honest. I want to be the author of the Next Big Thing.

(Foreword: the Next Big Thing is actually more of a kind of story rather than a kind of product in my mind; there are certain stories that just check these items off the list and feel like the Next Big Thing, even if they’re not. Being a bestselling book is not about completing a checklist – I mean the Oxford Dictionary probably sells pretty damn well. It’s almost like the Next Big Thing is a sort of meta-genre in and of itself, and that’s what intrigues me about it.)

And it’s like – what is that Next Big Thing? It’s whatever it is, and that’s the catch – what was it, exactly, that made Harry Potter take off the way it did? All I’ve heard is ‘word of mouth’. But that doesn’t explain why people felt so strongly about these books that the bothered to tell other people about it to begin with.

I feel that it’s probably due to the two things that everybody loves about Harry Potter: the characters and Hogwarts. The characters are interesting, and what’s really quite unique to the series is the way in which their relationships are central to the plot, which is always a murder-mystery-style adventure. And all of this adventure, intrigue and suspense is set against the backdrop of a community, taking the elitism of magic and – kind of – making it egalitarian. Obviously this doesn’t extend to everyone, as Muggles are left out in the cold and even within Hogwarts there’s an ‘us vs them’ mentality of everyone vs Slytherin, but for anybody who matters you’ve got your best friends and role-models all doing the same awesome magical stuff that you do, and the overtone of exclusion allows it to retain that ‘special’ status while still being inclusive where it matters – that is, when it’s your friends and your role-models and your adventures that get to be special.

And that’s what I think made it take off the way that it did. I feel that if it had just been kids at a boarding school who solve mysteries together it wouldn’t have been as well-received, and if Harry, Voldemort and Dumbledore had been the only magic-users in the story it would have likewise kept it down. Taking magic, something special unique and incredibly exclusive and democratising it (albeit in an Athenian sense), is what I think tipped the series over the edge, rising on the strong foundation of compelling characters and intriguing plotting.

Twilight and The Hunger Games I’m far less sure about, but my intuition (read: skimming the Goodreads forums and then extrapolating) is that the huge success came from the films. The ‘normal’ success of the books is probably just because they’re interesting, on paper, in a broad sense: Twilight takes vampires and makes them romantic leads in a contemporary setting – with teenagers – and The Hunger Games takes gladiatorial contest and puts it on reality TV in a dystopian future – with teenagers. But they didn’t have anything near the groundswell or ‘grassroots’ momentum that HP enjoyed prior to the films being made.

And as a result, they’re not the blockbuster book series that Harry Potter is. Again, all my assumptions here. The thing is that the ‘democratic magic’ aspect of HP acted as a sort of ‘gateway’ for all the other strengths of the stories to shine through – the mystery, the suspense, the intrigue, the guessing. Much as I like The Hunger Games, there’s much less of that element of making the reader actually work while they’re reading. Which is fine. Not every story has to be a murder-mystery. Part of what I like about The Hunger Games is the fact that it’s almost the opposite; instead of mystery we get drama, and it works really well with the reality tv angle and the social/political commentary of the series. It’s done very well.

I feel, though, that the reason it’s not as big as HP is simply the fact that HP already existed when THG came on the scene, as did Twilight. If we’re going to analyse what makes Twlight successful …

Romance.

Romance sells. This is pretty common knowledge. And vampires have been cultural currency for ages.

In fact Twilight came hot on the heels of two other notable franchises that took vampires and romanced them up to 11: the Anne Rice books and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The only difference here is that the romance aspect was made absolutely central, rather than investigating the existential crises that come with being a vampire, or ass-kicking. And of course both of those series are very successful as well, so it’s clear that vampires have selling power.

But really, the thing that I think put Twilight over the top – and actually something that, in a very abstract way, I appreciate about the series – is how it took the issue of not just romance but sexuality and made it accessible to teenagers. Up until Twilight, narratives of teenage sexuality all came with a whole lot of moralising and ‘a very special episode’ kind of connotations, and then Bedward came along and made hormonal psychosis absolutely normal – and romantic. Rather than abstinence – ironically, Twilight is about abstinence – and a denial of sexual feelings and expression, this series allowed for the feelings and yearnings to take centre-stage while at the same time maintaining a polemic of virginal purity. It took a narrative of indulgent romance, something normally reserved for adults, and made it accessible for young adults.

Plus vampires.

The reason I so intensely dislike the series is because of the way it handles consequences: there aren’t any. The abusive relationship between Edward and Bella is legitimised because it’s ‘romantic’, and the same deal goes for Jacob; any inappropriate behaviour is explained away with ‘but … but … FEELINGS!’, which makes it okay for Edward to stalk Bella, up to and including sneaking into her bedroom at night to watch her sleep for months, because he like-likes her, makes it okay for Jacob to blackmail Bella into making out with him just before he goes off to fight evil vampires and possibly die, because he just can’t help how he feels, makes it okay that Bella never gets a say in what happens in her relationship with Edward because she looooves him. This would all be fine if it were followed up with real-world consequences, like showing the abuse for what it is rather than making it seem desirable. It is a fantasy that doesn’t even try to be real, except in how it deals with feelings – not the people who experience them, just the feelings themselves.

In terms of the Next Big Thing, though – making it into a formula?

I got nothing.

Well okay I got one thing, let’s try it out:

They’re all original in some way. HP took magic, normally reserved for super special snowflakes, and gave it to the masses (but only the worthy masses). Twilight took sexualised romance, normally reserved for adults, and gave it to teenagers. The Hunger Games took the basic premise of The Running Man (itself playing on the age-old concept of gladiatorial contest) and made it about a teenage girl.

In each case, something with a tremendous amount of cultural capital is taken and turned on its head. You may not think that just changing the gender of the lead protagonist or the target demographic of the audience is much of a big deal, but if that’s the case then why wasn’t it more common before Bella and Katniss came on the scene?

And of course the issue of target demographic is another one; as the music industry discovered very quickly, teenagers are a lucrative market, and remain so to this day. Well, teenagers and kids, and now ‘young adults’. Anybody with access to a disposable income.

And people who don’t have, like, jobs, actually have time to read and listen to music and go to the movies and whatnot, so that’s who you market to. I doubt that any of these books would have been as successful if they weren’t targeted at young people, and not only that but they wouldn’t have been as original. You can say that Hogwarts rips off Unseen University from Discworld all you like, but the fact of the matter is that Discworld is not, most definitely not, for kids, and it’s even more most definitely not wish-fulfillment. It’s about comedy and social commentary, a self-reflexive, fourth-wall-nudging parody, and it’s fantastic, but that also makes it more difficult to immerse yourself in it, and that is the other thing that these three series have in common: allowing the reader to totally immerse themselves in the world of the story.

So in short: take a widely-known cultural concept, such as wizards, gladiators or romance, and change something fundamental about that concept, such as exclusivity, gender or age; make it immersive (keep the self-reflexivity to a minimum); and if at all possible, get it optioned for a movie adaptation.

Of course the problem, then, is making sure that you do it in a different way. I mean Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a pretty successful series, but the similarities to Harry Potter are unmistakable, even to somebody like me who’s never read the books or even seen the movies. There’s certainly money to be made in derivative works, and that’s fine, but it’s not enough to put you over the edge into Next Big Thing territory, just More Of The Last Big Thing. And again, that’s fine, but it’s not going to shake things up.

And even if you do manage that – is anybody going to notice?

For all I know, the Next Big Thing that conforms to my own list of requisites already exists, is out there somewhere in the world, and it’s just that nobody noticed. It very nearly happened with Harry Potter, as many fans of the books know; she took it to almost 30 publishers before finally getting a publishing deal. And the issue is that publishers want a safe bet, and to find a safe bet they’ll look at what’s sold well in the past. At least this is what I gather from snippets I’ve heard about marketing and stuff over the past couple of years. So even if you do come up with the Next Big Thing, you may find it hard to gain traction if it doesn’t align with the Last Big Thing.

And thus we enter the territory of self-publishing and whatnot and I curl up into a ball of paralysing anxiety. I should get out some books or something.

Honestly this whole blog post has given me great misgivings about my own book ideas because they don’t fit into this idea of the Next Big Thing, and if it’s not the Next Big Thing then what’s even the point?

Well …

Wanting to tell the story anyway?

There’s this lovely book I think I’ve briefly mentioned before called The Changeling Sea, and it is one of the best-written books I’ve ever come across. It’s a simple story that probably wouldn’t take more than 2 hours to read with a beautiful economy of language that only makes the prose even more gorgeous, and it’s nothing new. It’s not a New York Times bestseller or anything, and it’s not really original in terms of its premise or setting or plot. But it’s wonderful. It was a story worth telling, and the only thing keeping me from buying it is the fact that it’s not available from The Book Depository.

I still want to write the Next Big Thing, don’t get me wrong. But I’m fine with it never happening, so long as I get to tell the stories that I want to tell and have some kind of audience. I really do want to tell stories and have other people read them, but hanging out for Harry Potter-level success is just not practical – nor is it fulfilling.

And in any case – this is only my idea of what makes a Next Big Thing. I could be totally wrong. I don’t think I am, and it’d be fun to try and ‘play the system’ and do something like Naked Came the Stranger, and in fact I think I have a book that might work according to my own list of criteria, but it’s about popular opinion, and writing just to gain the endorsement of the masses seems quite …

I mean it’s fine, really. But I wouldn’t want that to be the only thing motivating me to write.

Tallulah is not a story that even remotely fits the Next Big Thing criteria as I’ve laid it out. But it’s still a story that I really want to tell, which is why I’ve spent the last two years doing that (and it’s looking like it’s going to consume the better part of a third before it’s done). If all I get out of it are a bunch of rejection letters, well, there’s always self-publishing, there’s always shopping it around at writer’s festivals or whatever – there’s options, is what I’m saying. And of course I can just put it up online for people to read for free. Not that this is necessarily a strong career decision, but at the end of the day I want people to read it and I want to know their reactions to it. And that’s enough reason to tell any story.

And having said all of that, it’s time to get back to revising, and probably spending inordinate amounts of time on crafting my very own Next Big Thing, because I have horrible impulse control.

Hey, at least it’s honest, right?

 

STOP LET ME THINK

I’m getting anxious, which is because I’ve realised, for the billionth time, that I actually feel better about doing the manual labour that is Writing if I start first thing in the … well, if I get it going before I get bogged down in doing Other Things, namely scrolling through my Tumblr feed and sidetracking myself with all of those articles and opinions and political inflammations and …

My point is that I AM GOING TO DO THIS THING TODAY it’s Sunday and there’s never been a better time to get to work because at lest it’s not MONDAY.

And this thing I saw on Tumblr yesterday, a snarky comment from a book review/critique blog I really rather like even though it makes me feel insecure about my own writing (so what else is new), really got me thinking, and in the way that I think I need to think.

I think.

Which was that I need to ‘take a step back’ and ‘see the bigger picture’.

And by that I mean that it may actually have been a bad idea to not ask anybody to read my current manuscript for feedback purposes.

The comment that set me of regarded a book that apparently started off really interesting and morally grey but then resolved with the introduction of and a final battle with a Big Bad that cheapened the story. I haven’t read the book so I have no idea if that’s what I’d also say about it, but I’m panicking because – and this is a spoiler, but what the hell I need to vent – there’s also a final battle with a Big Bad in Tallulah, as it stands.

It’s never quite sat right with me. The tone and intention of this story has shifted quite drastically since its inception, even though, ostensibly, the same themes are being focused on, namely themes of trust, loss, regret and love. It’s just that a lot of the supernatural stuff got really literal when, originally, it was much more allegorical. And because of that shift, certain material considerations had to be … uh … considered.

Yes.

Such as: well I can’t tell you because that’s a serious spoiler, but let’s use an allegory, since I’m so fond of them (really I am).

A Wizard of Earthsea is one of my favourite books. It is horrifically sexist, most definitely a product of its time (and genre), and that is an incredible shame because, as an allegory for self-acceptance and coming to own yourself, it is fantastic. Also the world-building and stuff is really cool.

But it’s cool because it’s allegorical. For instance: what if you’re born mute? Can you still do magic? Or if you’re deaf and have trouble pronouncing the true names of things? Forgetting for a moment that, at least in mainstream fantasy, these kinds of considerations just aren’t, well, considered (which I feel is really slack and exclusionary), it’s not the point. The point is that all of the elements in AWOE have symbolic meaning and it’s not about how literal or believable or thorough it all is, beyond the scope of the narrative. So long as it tells the story, it flies, even if it means having huge gaping holes in it.

It’s kind of like with Superman. At first he was just really strong and could fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes because he was there to defend the innocent, and that was it. Sure there was ‘science’ to back it all up, because science is awesome, but the powers suited the story, and certain questions just weren’t asked. I mean to this day I’m not entirely sure why it is that, when Superman is capable of increasing his mass through super-speed to the point where he can punch with the force of I don’t even know how many supernovas, the sheer amount of energy that he has stored at any given time does not result in weird electromagnetic activity or distortion of gravity around him. And the thing is that, while I’m absolutely certain somebody has a theory for why, perhaps even the writers (who keep changing) – it’s not important to the story. It’s true that once you start setting down rules certain people are going to interrogate them for loopholes, but that doesn’t change the fact that certain questions don’t need to be answered for the purposes of a story.

And that was how I planned Tallulah originally. Selkie mythology is interesting to me, not least because I don’t know that much about it other than stories that were not told by a culture obsessed with gamification, and that’s part of the appeal. I was prepared to take the criticism of ‘well if they’d just done X then Y would never have happened, your story fails’, however justified, and more or less just completely ignore it because that wouldn’t be the point.

Skip forward a few months into writing the first draft and I went right back to the rule-making and system-employing that I feel so at home with, and it’s affected the story in huge ways, tying me up in plotholes and ‘necessities’, and they’re necessities of ‘the rules’ rather than the story. Obviously my dream is to have it so that I can tell my allegorical story while having the rules still make sense and not having feral rule-lawyers swarming over each other to try and get in the first bite, but at the same time I’m an advocate of suspension of disbelief. It’s why Neil Gaiman is my favourite writer: he makes it very clear that the story you’re reading is a story, not a simulation of an alternate reality. It may feel realistic, it may feel true-to-life, but it is always a story, and will play out by the rules of narrative logic, not science. He basically preemptively dismisses criticisms of the ‘rules’ in his stories, because they’re not important – except for how they help to tell the story. That is the only reason the rules are there, and to say that they ‘fail’ at any application beyond the narrative is like saying that fish are bad at climbing trees. A shrewd observation, but redundant.

So now I’m thinking of my Big Bad Showdown and various other elements of this story that are more or less contingent on these ‘rules’ that I’ve set up, and that’s all tangled up in my own personal baggage that has not been quite dislodged from the narrative – rather than having been cut out it’s just gotten more tangled-up in the net of the plot that I’ve started drawing tighter, and at some point, if I don’t get it out, it’s going to give and make a mess all over everything. ‘Baggage’ being stand-ins for personal experiences that don’t actually make any sense at all to this story as well as my Darlings that I have yet to kill.

If I think of the Big Picture – if I listen to this story’s voice – I see how much clutter there is. I feel the exhaustion of trying to make it all belong, when some of it clearly doesn’t. I know that because the story that tells me it’s there to be told doesn’t have any of that stuff in it. And it’s a story that’s quite different to the one I’ve currently got down in writing.

I’m really anxious right now, so I think it’s actually the best time to get reading, to make these character-arc maps, even though right now it feels like so much of them are little more than clutter. That ‘voice’ may just be me hearing things because I’m becoming slightly unhinged in my anxiety over my obligation to tell this story ‘properly’, which is an attitude that I don’t think is helping me at all, because ‘properly’ is whatever I make it, and whenever I make it. It changes depending on when I try to answer the question. One more reason to work with what you’ve got rather than what you could have, even if what you got is not what you want or what feels right. At least it’s constant.

So this might be a day not just of running into brick walls but flipping tables at them also. It’s a gorgeous day outside and I’m not going to do anything with it until these character-arcs are down.

There is one thing that I have now that I didn’t have yesterday, though, which is that ‘voice’. By-product of my neuroticism or not, it’s not the first time that voice has sounded, and it’s not the first time I’ve come to the exact same conclusion of what it is that I should be focusing on in this story. It’s always been the same answer, whether I came to it through nerves or sound narrative reasoning. So I will trust it once again, because I think it’s leading me back in the original direction, only now I can bring all of these new ideas with me.

After I vet them, of course. And this was what I was missing yesterday, what felt off: a lack of focus. Why was I looking at those character-arcs? It was too vague. I’ve got it now, in concise wording: how does each character’s role in the story contribute and relate back to the central conflict, the premise of the plot? And that premise is very simple. It’s a character relationship, because everything in this story is a character relationship. And it’s one that may need rewriting.

If it tells a better story, then I’ll rewrite the shit out of it.

Until then – it’s reading time.