Guy Gavriel Kay on A Writer’s Life

Every Wednesday I post a link to someone else’s thoughts on a topic of interest to writers, as well as a bit of commentary.

If you hang around me long enough and the conversation turns to fantasy, chances are I’ll start spouting the praises of Guy Gavriel Kay at some point. His duology The Sarantine Mosaic was a revelation to me, and he’s one of a handful of authors whose books I can truly lose myself in—where my admiration of craft and enjoyment of story blend perfectly.

Recently, he gave a 50-minute lecture for the Writer’s Trust of Canada on the topic of “A Writer’s Life.”

Listen here

The first three minutes are biographical. Kay’s lecture starts at 3:24.

It’s worth a listen, particularly in the context of this blog and others that touch on how to write. He starts off by talking about the importance of reading someone’s work rather than listening to what they have to say about how they create it, and he comes to the conclusion that “How I have written, or how anyone has, does not tell someone” at the beginning of the career what they need to do.

As someone who edits for a living, I might seem disinclined to agree with him, but I think he makes an important point. There’s a difference between seeking feedback on your writing, which will help you improve it, and seeking (or offering) THE ONE TRUE PATH TO GREATNESS, which so many people do. Your strengths and your weaknesses, along with your opportunities and obstacles, will come together to guide your development and create your process. So read a little about how to write. You’ll find good and useful ideas. But more than that, read authors you want to write like and do your best to learn from their work.

That’s only about the first 20 minutes of the lecture. Kay goes on to talk about the “creative arrogance” inherent in the act of sharing writing and the fear that comes married to it, and from there, he charts the power of fiction writers in shaping the perception of history. He charges that this power comes with responsibility and urges awareness of “the power that accrues” to books that are intended primarily as entertainment, because if they’re good at what they do, they’re the books that most people read.

So like I said, lots to chew on there. I hope you get a chance to listen to the lecture, and I hope it’s a profitable 50 minutes for you.

The Building Blocks of Fantasy – History

This is the first of several weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of writing a great fantasy novel. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your writing and find ways to improve it. Enjoy.

Fantasy may be born in the imagination, but it doesn’t come from nothing. No group of people, including the characters in a book, emerges without connections to those who came before them. There’s an endless string of chickens and eggs reaching back into the mists of prehistory and beyond. And if you fail to create a world in which those chains are apparent, your fantasy suffers.

I often think about where a fantasy novel gets its credit with readers from—how an author gets the story to feel real. Every time a reader picks up a fantasy story, its author asks them to swallow a whole package of statements that conflict with the world as they know it: Dragons are real. Elves and dwarves are real. Magic exists. Gods and goddesses walk the earth among mortals.

To make that package palatable, the author has to establish some credit with readers, even people out-and-out looking for that package. There are lots of ways to do that, but history is one of the most powerful.

We live in a world steeped in history. If you grew up in the United States, like me, you grew up inundated with stories about Jamestown, the American Revolution, the Civil War, Manifest Destiny, etc.—all the way on up through the Civil Rights Movement and the AIDS Crisis. On top of that, odds are you got some kind of religious history. Genesis and Exodus. The New Testament. Other books in other religions I should know more about. You also grew up surrounded by the detritus of that history. Monuments. Parks. Graffiti. Arguments. Stereotypes. Prejudices.

For most of us, I think, history fades into the background of our lives until some event forces it into our consciousness for a little while. But it’s always there, subtly informing the way we see ourselves, the people around us, and the world in general. Maybe most importantly, most of us receive history fairly uncritically. The first story we’re told about something sticks and becomes truth until something else dislodges it. We end up stuffed full of received historical narratives, and anything that fits into them feels true, because it plays to what we think we know about the world.

So people are used to looking for history, and they’re used to swallowing it more or less unquestioned. As an author looking to get a reader to believe in an imaginary world, that provides you with an incredibly powerful tool. A little dose of history—most often not dead history in the form of an encyclopedia extract or ten pages of backstory but living history in the form of a monument, a ruin, a prejudice, a fight, or a conversation that directly impacts a major character—helps breathe life into a world. Beyond that, a story that loosely shadows a widespread historical narrative feels true to the reader as well. It’s immediately plausible, because the reader has heard of something sort of like it once before. A pastoral green land (England/The Shire) is threatened by a shadow from the southeast (Germany/Mordor). An emperor (Caesar/Palpatine) usurps power from a senate (Rome/The Old Republic).

In the end, that means two things for the writer of a fantasy novel: you must read history, and you must write history. Read it to understand how people think about it and talk about it—to grasp the shapes of the stories we tell and how they might appear in your fiction. Write it because without it, your stories won’t feel whole. Where your characters are coming from matters as much as what they’re heading to.

Catch the next post in the series here.

Writing Tips from the Reading – Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Every week, I’m going to post some thoughts about what I’m reading—what I see working in a traditionally published book and what I see as problematic. Hopefully, it will give you a chance to learn a few things, both about what I see as an editor and about what to look for when you’re evaluating your work. I’ll stick to books that are by big-name authors, popular, and selling well—books I don’t think I can hurt when I talk about what I see as their flaws.

And lest you get the wrong idea: this isn’t what an edit letter from me looks like. But it’s similar to my notes as I read through a manuscript, and in that I hope you’ll find it instructive.

This week I’m reading Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s the second in his Southern Reach trilogy. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book, and I’m enjoying this one as well.

What’s working:

– The horror elements. VanderMeer has incredible skill at being creepy when he wants to be. Authority doesn’t feature nearly as much Lovecraftian horror as Annihilation (the first book) did, but when he turns it on, it’s wonderful.

– The characters. The characters are deep. Deep, deep, deep and incredibly well realized. They have long, complex backstories that interact in interesting ways, impact who they are in the moment of the story, and have a direct influence on the plot.

– The high concept. Area X appeals to a whole cluster of primordial fears—that of the unknown, that of the superior, that of malevolent nature—and the second book expands on the first well by showing us what might happen to a bureaucracy created to deal with a threat like it.

What isn’t working:

– Moving in and out of the book. This book might be short enough to read in one sitting, if you read fast and have a big chunk of uninterrupted time. But I suspect for most people it’s going to take a least a few sessions. Every time I come back to the book, it takes me several pages to get back into the rhythm. VanderMeer uses a very jerky style, full of sentence fragments, for stylistic purposes. I’m not sure he’s wrong to do so, but it makes picking the book up and continuing to read more difficult than it could be.

– The environmentalist undertone. It’s taken me several days to figure out why the environmentalist undertone is bothering me. It’s not political; it’s technical. Area X functions as a fear and tension factory. It terrifies the characters, and through them it terrifies the reader. The suggestion that perhaps whatever created Area X is responding to human-caused pollution damages that fear and the tension it creates. Area X is, in some ways, the monster in a monster story. And if the reader finds a way to escape fearing the monster (“Just don’t pollute, kids, and Area X won’t come get you.”), it hurts the monster story.

– The magic. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’m going to be vague about this. There’s a real-life psychological principle that has a major impact on the story. It functions like magic—it moves the characters around and provides them with a tool with which they can affect each other in ways beyond those available to your everyday human being. It featured heavily in the plot of Annihilation as well, and it’s beginning to feel overused to me. The book would be a bit more rewarding if its plot twists didn’t so often feature the same magic used the same way.

Those are my thoughts for the week. Pretty fine-grained criticism, but that’s going to be the norm in this series of posts. Books don’t get to the point of being published and popular because they have huge, glaring flaws—they get there because they’re doing what they set out to. But there’s also almost always something left to reconsider from a technical standpoint, even in a well-crafted novel.