Why Money Matters in Fantasy

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One evening, I fell asleep. The next morning, I didn’t wake up.

Well, that’s not quite true. Obviously, I woke up eventually. Just–not by natural means. I woke up with a syringe in my arm and four strangers looking down at me.

The syringe was full of glucagon, and the strangers were EMTs. They saved my life. They were at my house because my boyfriend called 911 when I wouldn’t wake up to his usual morning poking and prodding. I’m a Type I diabetic, and I was having what the fancy folks up on the hill call a hypoglycemic episode: my blood sugar was in the teens (normal range 80-120), and my body had, in an effort to keep me alive, shut down most of its higher functions.

This is, obviously, a serious thing. Four EMTs sort of serious. If a hypoglycemic episode continues long enough unchecked, it can result in brain damage or death. And the worst part was, I had no idea why it happened. I hadn’t been drinking or eating anything unusual the night before. I had taken the right amount of insulin at the proper time. So, when the nice people who just saved my life asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, I said yes.

Now here’s the part I’m not proud of. Saying yes only happened after I thought about it for a few minutes.

You see, I was pretty broke at the time. And my first thought wasn’t about saving my own life, or making sure that this never happened again. My first thought wasn’t Definitely Not Dave’s peace of mind. It wasn’t even that we were short at work, and my boss would need me (I think I was off that day, actually).

No. My first thought, ignoble though it may be, was:

I can’t afford this.

That’s right. I could have died, and my first thought was about money.

It was horrifying to realize. Just as horrifying: should the zombiepocalypse happen, the first thing I’d probably do is go rob a pharmacy of all its insulin. I’m not an evil person, and I certainly don’t think crime is the proper solution to anything. But when you suddenly need a decade’s supply of an expensive medication or you die, crime starts looking much more viable. You don’t have the money to live, otherwise, and your insurance certainly doesn’t cover extra vials in the event of flesh-eating manbeasts.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Because I want to talk about money in your story. Especially your fantasy story. You see, all those years your parents told you money didn’t matter were cruel, cruel lies.

Money does matter. Money matters more than anything.

It’s one of those unpleasant truths we realize early on in adulthood. Somewhere in your mid-twenties, at the latest, you stop being able to get away with the shit you got away with earlier. You’re no longer young and inexperienced. You’re no longer going to school. You’re no longer living with your parents, paying nominal rent whenever you can afford it and sneaking Mom’s Triscuits out of the pantry when you want a snack. When you get your first three hundred dollar heating bill, you realize why Dad always guarded the thermostat like a national treasure. When you get your first two hundred dollar water bill, you realize why Mom always shed a solitary tear every time you washed your soccer uniform and just your soccer uniform.

Now, my dear, starts a long, grey adulthood. Enjoy plugging all your appliances into the same surge protector so you can unplug them easily when you leave the apartment. Enjoy taking baths and not showers because of the four dollar difference on your water bill. Enjoy not washing your jeans until they stand up without you. Enjoy never visiting your friends in the country because it costs ten bucks in gas just to get there and get back.

Unless you’ve led a very privileged life, some of these things sound familiar to you. Deprivation and conservation are the story of being a grown-up, for most people. You’ll make more money and get out of it, eventually–hopefully. But when you don’t have a lot of cash, your own poverty rules everything you do.

Which is part of why it surprises me–even shocks me–that people in fantasy world never seem to be poor. Even when the author says they’re poor, money just kind of materializes. Stuff just kind of materializes. And the possessions these supposed ‘poor’ people have: well. They don’t always match up to the poverty described.

Consider, for instance, a family of subsistence farmers in a medievalesqe village within a make-believe Arctic Circle. These people obviously have a hard life, and most of it is probably lived in several feet of snow. So, two things they probably won’t be doing, that your silly ass might try to make them do:

1) Living in wooden houses, and
2) Owning horses. 

At first, a wooden shack and a Shetland pony seem pretty in keeping with what we know of a classic Anglo fantasy-type world. But if it’s really cold, you need to think about such things twice before you do them. If they live in wooden houses, where the hell are these trees coming from? Not a lot of timber, within the Arctic Circle. (You might want to, likewise, consider what they’re making fires and tools from. Hint: it’s probably not wood.)

And the horse? What are they feeding this thing? A big animal like that is expensive to keep up and would be difficult to keep warm in a frosty climate. You could trade the horse in for oxen or reindeer, but you’ve still got the upkeep problem. These subsistence farmers more than likely run that plow by themselves, and, for that matter, probably can’t do too much crop-growing anyway. Breaking up the almost permanently frozen ground would be a toughie. Their diet is probably heavily meat based, and they probably have all the health problems you’d expect from that (or would they? Many Inuit cultures didn’t.).

I think the place where we get confused is the idea of value versus actual paper/metal money. Just because a society doesn’t have a lot of gold pieces floating around doesn’t mean things have no value: a cow, for instance, might be worth three gold coins, but in a tiny village on the outskirts of the world, the likelihood of someone having those coins is low. They might, however, have two goats, or thirty yards of fabric, or a winter’s supply of firewood. Therefore, the value of a cow is a little mutable, but oh buddy, it is still value.

So please, when you’re writing a fantasy world, do consider your monetary system. Consider what things are worth and why. Consider that our cow, plenty valuable in green pastureland, might actually be less valuable in a desert or the Arctic, where no one has the necessary resources to use said cow for its true value. And consider that a young person starting out in the world is going to actually need money, and will probably make some decisions based on funding (or lack thereof).

Fantasy has this tradition of treating the mercenary as a figure of questionable moral fiber. But sometimes, my friends, to go on the quest, you need to raise money to buy the horse. And then, once you’ve bought the horse, you need some money put aside for feed, and a good saddle, and a horse blanket, and stable fees. Your peasant-turned-princess doesn’t just need a gown to go to the ball, if she wants to blend in: she needs a footman, and a carriage, and etiquette lessons, and dancing lessons, and a hairstylist, just to name a few.

Money is the blood in the veins of your fantasy world, just as it is in this world. There’s no escaping it, and you shouldn’t try. If your character is of a lower class, you can’t simply forgo the realities of living in that class. People do things solely for money all the time. (Be honest with yourself, boo boo. Why do you go to work every morning?)

Adventures are expensive. If nothing else, you wind up using a ton of vacation days.

(A note: for a great example of how to use money in a fantasy story, check out The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, if you haven’t already. There is, to be honest, a lot I don’t like about Rothfuss’s writing, but this is one thing he gets spot on. And, in spite of having to think about money constantly, Kvothe has plenty of fun adventures. The way he learns to get around his own poverty is, in fact, one of the chief character-building themes in the novel.)

Why You Should Write Short Stories

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Hey, guys. Sorry this post is so late, but it’s been a busy morning. I made it. That has to count for something.
Anyway.

It’s been a busy morning because I’ve been finishing up and editing a story for an AU anthology (and waiting fifteen minutes for a damned cup of coffee, but that’s irrelevant). Doing it got me to thinking about something I hear from a lot of writers:

A lot of us–a damned big-shame lot of us–never write short stories. Or: we try to write short stories, and they turn into novels.

Why is this such a shame? Because short stories are like the Adderol to your novel’s cocaine. (Insert some less offensive metaphor here, if you can think of one that’s still apt). Finishing a short story might not give you quite the buzz finishing a novel does, but it’s still damned fun, and it’s a good deal less involved. You can crank out a five thousand word short story in a day, if you feel like it. You can crank out two, if you have nothing else to do.

And writing within a word limit can teach you a loo-oooot about plot pacing.

Think of a short story as a novel without all the fluff. You need a complete story–a complete plot, rounded characters, a believable setting–but you need it in a fairly small amount of words. You need, my dears, to learn the art of economy to make it work. You need to make your action–and your other stuff–fit the size of your undertaking.

So here’s some stuff to think about, as you write:

1) Choose an idea that fits your word limit.
If it’s one hundred word flash fiction, the action can be something as simple as dropping a flower. If it’s five thousand words, we want to know why the flower was dropped, what happens before and after, why the flower is significant, and all the action that descends from this flowerful droppage. If it’s more than five thousand words, we want more action. Honestly: we probably want more action if it’s over five HUNDRED words.

But there needs to be action. There needs to be plot. There needs to be character. And it needs to fit the size of your story.

If you pick a plot that’s too simple for your word limit, your story’s going to be fluffy and dull. If you pick one that’s too complicated, it’s going to be confusing (and, therefore, dull). Character-based though much of my writing is, even I have to acknowledge the importance of plot as infrastructure–if you don’t frame your dwelling soundly, no matter how pretty it is, it’s going to fall down.

2) Keep within your word limit.
We’ve all done it: you started out to write a 10,000 word story, and you wound up writing a 500,000 word trilogy. Whoops! Tee hee! Aren’t you an adorable little overachiever? Doesn’t that just prove you’re soooo totally committed to your cause?

No. It just proves you can’t write a short story.

For those of us who tend to literary effusiveness, the short story is a tool, and one of some worth. It teaches us to trim, to cut, to cinch in our literary verbosity. It teaches us not to use three words (like I did in that previous sentence–natch!) when one will do. I started a novel, once, with some stunning (to me, at least,) visual imagery and a plot that moved like treacle. It took me owing something to a publication on VERY short notice for me to look at that half-finished novel and realize: all that time, it had been a short story. It didn’t have enough of a plot to work as a novel. So: I relieved it of its pretense and rewrote it as it was meant to be. And it was much better.

Valuable lessons learned.

3) What’s important?
This is a subset of item two, really, but it’s worth mentioning in a separate context. To keep within your word limit, you’re going to have to think pretty hard about what’s important in your story and what isn’t. Short stories will teach you how to kill your darlings, and they’ll teach you how necessary that sometimes is.

In a work of fiction under 10,000 words, the main question you need to be asking yourself is:

Does this scene do two things?

Does it show your main character’s bravery and get the toothpaste in the picture for that cavity-fighting scene that happens later on? Does it provide a crucial amount of the mother’s backstory while casually reinforcing how hard it is to find a good dentist in town?

If it doesn’t accomplish at least two purposes, you could probably use those limited words a little better. People say every scene needs to mean something in the course of your story, and yeah, that’s true. Otherwise, you just rewrote Tropic of Cancer. In a short story, however, take that advice and double it: now everything needs to have two purposes, and you need to be a literary Macguyver.

4) Experiment!
The other great thing about short stories, kids: you’ve got a LOT less editing to do when you’re finished. It’s easier to stay in control of a shorter story. There’s less time, as it happens, for your faults as a writer to boil to the surface. You can think about the bare-bones mechanics of the story a little less, simply because there are less of them.

Therefore: short stories are a great place to experiment. Been debating an attempt at second person present for a while? Write a short. Just kind of curious how a story written from the POV of a dying star would look? Dabble all you like. Want to write a circular tale where the end and beginning lines are both the onomatopoeaic sound of an elephant’s ear wax dribbling down a concrete wall? I reckon that sound is sshlrrp. Have fun. If you find something you like, you can craft a heavier plot and novelize later.

5) Learn to accept defeat.
I know, nobody likes to see that one. But there are times–a LOT of times–where the thing you’ve been trying so hard to save just isn’t going to work. You’ve tried to patch it up so many times it’s more deus ex-type patch than story. There’s a plot hole that’s too big, a character inconsistency that’s too prominent. And in these cases, you have two choices: either put the thing down, ostensibly to give it a rest but really probably never to pick it up again, or start over.

I’ve had to start a TON of short stories over, and while it’s never pleasant, let me say this: it gives you the experience to recognize when this needs to happen with a novel, and it gives you the courage to LET it happen. Not everything’s a keeper. Everyone has a literary slush pile. Don’t be ashamed, but likewise: don’t be afraid of the work. If you really feel like there’s something in there that could be saved if you just start over, start over.

Wow. That’s probably going to be my next blog: When to Quit. It’s an important thing and it never gets talked about.
At any rate, love.

EFR

What Makes Writing Great?

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Writing: Hard Work Isn’t Everything

Well, it’s a good question.

I’m not talking about proficient writing. Proficient writing can be accomplished easily–well-defined characters, a working plot, scenery described as much as it needs to be, a satisfying denouement. Good spelling and grammar. That’s all you need, for proficient writing.

But here’s the thing: there’s some strange and magical element that makes writing good.

I just read Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It was a good book. It’s won and almost won a ton of prizes, so I know other people agree with me. It was…well, to put it mildly, it was heartrending.

Ishiguro never goes to great length to describe scenery. His characters, also, are never fully ‘described’, in the traditional sense. Though it’s technically sci-fi–the sort of book people in horn-rimmed glasses like to call ‘speculative fiction’–the world in which the characters move is never laid down clearly, either. The plot, which isn’t much of a plot, exists pretty much solely to offer a slow dramatic reveal (which I can’t reveal to you, because it would ruin the story).

There’s nothing special about Ishiguro’s prose. The tale is told simply and personally in first person, largely through flashbacks (which is, according to a lot of writing gurus, a big no-no). His language is almost childish.

None of what I just said sounds very good. And yet–and yet. This is a great book. And I’m not the only person who thinks so.

In the indie writing world, there are a lot of folks who’ll tell you (and, if you let them, try to sell you) the ‘secrets’ to good writing. I’d argue that, from what I’ve seen, there’s a good deal more money in ‘helping indie authors’ than there is in actually being an indie author. And most of the advice I’ve seen (but will never, by God, buy) focuses on the things I mentioned in paragraph two–well-defined characters, descriptive milieu, rock-solid plot, etc.

Those things are good things, and they’re important. But they aren’t the whole game.

To write well–to write a good book–there is a little bit of magic involved. That’s something nobody wants to hear, but hell, that’s how it is. In America, a supposed meritocracy, we’re afraid of magic–we’re afraid of things we can’t necessarily control ourselves, that we can’t achieve through hard work and stubbornness. The American Dream tells us we don’t have to be especially talented, or smart, or pretty, or lucky, to succeed. It tells us we just need to work hard, and good things will come to us–a very unique sort of intellectual laziness.

If you want my opinion, this is why there’re so many goddamn murders in this country. You can work hard and succeed to some extend just on that, sure. But hard work will never make you a geniusit’ll only make you better. This is true for writing, just the same as anything. The ‘hard work’ comes in from the fact that you’ll only ever know what to leave in and what to take out if you write a hell of a goddamn lot, and ignore all the ‘How To Write A Great Novel In 100 Days’ type pamphlets.

Good writing–truly good–comes from instinct, I suppose. It comes from knowing when to say ‘answered’ and when to say’ replied’. It comes from taking risks, when risks are justified.

It comes from failing, occasionally. Never Let Me Go, which seems like a simple enough story on the surface, would’ve been complicated as hell to write. Mr. Ishiguro plays with suspense and dramatic reveal like some mothers play with a two month old baby. And his simple, golden-days reminiscent prose is perfectly calculated against the horrors deep within the story. It’s the sort of story that took a master to write.

And those of us who aren’t masters are going to fail, many, many times, before we write something like that. As I’m sure Mr. Ishiguro did. And most of us aren’t masters, will never be masters.

But you’ve got to try, right?

You’ve got to take risks. You’ve got to try. To learn anything, you’ve got to sometimes get away from well-defined this and that, and speak with silence rather than words.

The hard truth about good writing is, simply, that no one can tell you how to do it. There are no secrets that can be revealed in a 40,000 word pamphlet, for only $1.99.

I could talk, at great length, about all the elements that came together to make Mr. Ishiguro’s novel. I could talk about how they play together, which element evokes which feelings. I could tell you, more or less, how the book works.

But could I tell you what makes this book great? No.

So take a small dose of humility. Accept that none of us–no, not even Stephen King (given the uneven quality of his work, I’d say especially Stephen King)–understand precisely what makes writing good. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about composition and format, point of view and allusion. We can get PhDs in it, spend a bunch of time paying back our student loans, and still not really understand it.

So let’s step away from some of the common criticisms I see around here, and focus on whether or not a story works. Just because something’s F/SF doesn’t mean the world has to be described down to the last mudfish in the castle moat. Just because something is written as ‘literary fiction’ (more on this term and how I hate it later) doesn’t mean you need showy prose. A mystery doesn’t always need a complicated plot.

Ignore the ‘proficient writing’ formula. Ignore it. Ignore everything, in fact, except for how well something works for you.

(And I know the comment someone is going to make to this. I can hear it, in my head, right now: ‘well, you have to play by the rules before you break them’. I couldn’t agree less. Sorry. Do you need to know the rules? Yes. You sure do. But if you feel that a story needs to be written in second person present tense, goddamn you if you write it any other way. You’re just churning out crap, and derivative crap, at that. You’re operating, like an animal Darwin forgot, against your own instincts, for the sake of perceived safety. Have some balls. Accept failure and make it constructive.)

We can’t define good writing, but we can try to do it ourselves. And, in the end, if we try enough–if we’re bold enough–we might just get there. If nothing else, we will’ve made a hell of an attempt.

What’s Up With Me III

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What’s Up With Me, III

It’s time for another all-encompassing ‘what I’m doing’ sort of post.

Obviously, the answer right now is typing.

Anyway.

I have new and exciting crap to tell you about my own crap, which you hopefully read. While I know this post will leave you with a spring in your step and the tender refrains of love music by lute echoing in your ears, please, try and contain your joy until I’m done typing. Really. I hate it when dreams soar prematurely.

1) The King’s Might
My Aurian and Jin unrelated novel, The King’s Might, will be out 7/21/15. Will you like it? I bet you will. It’s more serious than A&J, and far grimmer, which people seem to like, for some reason I don’t completely understand. It’s also about princes, which people also seem to like.

Oh, and one other thing. It’s going to be free.

Yes, you read that right. PERMANENTLY FREE OH SWEET BABY JESUS LOVEJOY JUMBLEBUBBLES. So even if you don’t like it, you haven’t lost a fucking thing, honey. (There will be a post in not too long about my decision to do this, and why I’d do such a silly thing. It’ll be edumacational.)

2) Bonemaker
I wrote another novelette. Sorry, I can’t seem to stop doing it for some reason. It’s about Morda the Bonemaker, and his time as a child in the Joyous Wood. I’m still trying to decide what to do with it, but hell, it’s there. I have this vague plan where I do a few of them–I had a great idea for one about the making of the Sundering Sword–and maybe do a little compilation bookthing. But I don’t know. Just in the throwing-stuff-around phase on this one.

3) Dehydrator.
I haven’t talked about this enough yet. You know what’s surprisingly delicious? Cucumber chips. Put a little salt and vinegar on those bad boys, a light dusting of chili powder, let ’em dehydrate for fifty years or however long it takes where you are. SO TASTY.
Anyway. Lemme try this again.

3) Aurian and Jin.
I’m going to start running free sales on the ol’ A&J through Amazon once more. The first one of these, for one day only, is this weekend: Saturday, June 28th, 2015. I’m hoping to get a few more reviews in time for Little Bird’s release this September, so, you know, buy my stuff and whatnot. (The Antidote will not be free. Because, come on, it’s ninety-nine cents. If you’re that bad off and you want to read it anyway, contact me and I’ll damn well buy it for you.)

4) What the hell should I do next?
I’m going to stick a poll in this post to ask YOU, buddy. Because I’ve got like twenty thousand things going right now, and, while I’ll probably finish at least half of them, I’m curious as to which ones you guys want me to finish FIRST. I like to feel important and liked. Or, well. Important, at least.

And I like to do things for you guys. And about the only thing I’m good at other than writing is baking, which doesn’t transfer to the internets too well. So, tell me what to write and I’ll do it.

A note: all of these projects now have at least 10,000 words on ’em, which is about where something has to be for me to be fairly sure I’m going to finish it.

1) Things That Go Bump In The Night
2) Night Shift
3) Balancer
4) Hesperides
5) The Apple and the Tree

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Novels

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Writing: What’s Up With Me, II

Sorry I’ve been all quiet on the western front, you guys. I’ve been spending this week trying to figure out my taxes, and um. I’ll put it this way, when you’re used to reaching for the 1040EZ automatically, it’s a lot to figure out. My brain goes numb automatically when anyone mentions taxes. It’s more boring than four hour bus rides with (gasp!) NO WIFI. I get ESPECIALLY ADD about taxes.

That’s right. More ADD than usual.

Be frightened.

Anyway, I thought I’d take a little bit of our usual chummy-chum bloggy-blog time to update you on the State of Stories over here, with definite dates and chewy chunks of expectation for all to digest. I’ve gotten a whole lot of writing done here recently–as mentioned here, I kind of accidentally wrote a novelette–and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you folks in the ragged remains of this calendar year.

First, the definitive dating list:

THE ANTIDOTE (Aurian and Jin novelette)–4/30/15. About 17K, not a long read but probably good for an hour or two if you miss A&J that much. There’s poison, obviously, and a drunk procession, and pregnant Jin, and a mob with bad spelling. It’ll either be free or .99, depending. Part of me wants to use this story, which slid out easier than a greased turd, as a freebie for marketing purposes–it can be read rather independently of A&J. Part of me likes to get paid for work I do. So I don’t know.

THE KING’S MIGHT (A Novel of Averdan)–6/21/15. About 55K. This started out as a novella and became a short novel, accidentally, because when Emily edits Emily adds in like a motherfucker. It is NOT, I repeat, NOT, an Aurian and Jin story. It’s something entirely different, but you’ll like it, I promise. Features Pratchettesque footnotes, a warrior’s comb, curious dissection, and king-type people. Will be priced at a very affordable .99, to suck you bastards into my web of lies.

LITTLE BIRD (The Sundering Trilogy, Book II)–9/27/15. And here, at last, is A&J Book II. It’s running at about 80K right now, but I’ve still got to button up my editing, so I reserve the right to change that figure as I see fit. Features more of the glory that was the Coven of the Ursine Shattermath, Jin and Aurian having a teenager, and that teenager doing what you’d expect Aurian and Jin’s teenager to do, which is mostly stupid shit. There’s also a male Woman King, phosphorescent witchery, cannibalism (or, erm, very fresh blood puddings in flesh-covered casings) and prophecies. Yes, there are prophecies. Don’t hate me yet, they’re fun prophecies, delivered by a homeless guy with a bad fucking attitude. Will be 2.99, as always. So forgo a cup of coffee one week in September so you can buy my book. Or: forgo two cups of coffee, so you can buy my book and a spare pair of underpants, because it is so awesome you will shit yourself.

Right now, my mother is reading this, and she is appalled by my language. Hi, Mom! Love you!

Anyway, there you go. State of the Union. What to expect. A warning shot.

Cheers,
EFR