Post from March, 2013

Without Whom

Sunday, 24. March 2013 17:29

This week I’m going to talk about my favorite genre and non-genre writers, and their influence, for good or ill, upon me and my writing. These are the writers, in other words, without whom I would not be the ink-stained wretch who stands before you today. Let us take them in the order in which I discovered them, shall we?

Fritz Leiber – Believable Heroes and Lyrical Mischief

Scouring my local used bookstore for more fantasy after I had devoured the Lord of the Rings, my twelve-year-old self discovered a book called Swords and Deviltry. In it I found a pair of heroes who were not martyrs to hopeless quests, who did not have great destinies, and who thought as often with their privates as often as they did with their heads. I was seduced, utterly.

As much as I liked the epic story and noble emotions of the Lord of the Rings, the mixture of the fantastic and the mundane that I found in Fritz Leiber’s work felt true to me like Tolkien’s never did. Fafhrd and Grey Mouser were people I knew, no different than the dreamers and big talkers I hung out with, the “get rich quick” pals you had to bail out after every failed scheme. These were people whose motivations and emotions I understood. If I met Aragorn in the Prancing Pony we’d be out of things to talk about in five minutes. I’d be bullshitting with Fafhrd and Grey Mouser in the Silver Eel all night.

At the same time, these two regular guys lived in a fantastic world of swords, sorcerers, towers, demons, jewels, skulls, and dangerous, delicious women – all the pulpy fantasy trappings that my perpetually adolescent heart craves. It was the best of both worlds, and described with the delirious, dizzying prose poetry of a man drunk on words. No other writer I have read has put pictures of his places and people in my mind with such wit and painterly grace.

Because of Leiber, my heroes are more human than iconic, and my prose sometimes a little tipsy.

P.G. Wodehouse – Comic Complications and a Limited Palette

You would think that the kid who wanted more blood and sex and believable heroes wouldn’t have much interest in a world where even couples rarely kiss, where a cartoon knock on the head is as violent as it gets, and the characters are more comic archetype than real people, but I did.

Blame it on Monty Python. Those guys turned me into an Anglophile, and while searching for more British humor, I found Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, and fell in love. P.G. Wodehouse was every bit a fantasy writer. His world of butlers, country houses, gentlemen’s clubs, conniving aunts, terrifying fiancés, and useless young men in spats never really existed. All the elements might have had basis in real life, but his stylization and distillation of them was as imagined as Lewis’s Narnia, and as proscribed and artificial as the set of a sitcom – and served the same purpose.

Using only a short list of stock characters and locations, Wodehouse managed to spin thousands of farce plots and comic situations, and always came up with fresh and funny ways to pay them off. Add to that a flair for comic banter and a light touch with the foibles of human nature and his books become jewels of minimalist comic genius.

Wodehouse taught me that tried and true tropes – in his case upper-class twits and trysts, in my case lower class swords and sorcerers – are not the walls of a prison, but instead a set of infinitely reusable building blocks, with which you can build any kind of story you want.

Raphael Sabatini – High Adventure and Clockwork Plotting

To my mind, Raphael Sabatini is the exact middle of the tree that has as its roots Alexander Dumas, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and as its branches everything from regency romance to espionage thrillers to Indiana Jones to, yes, sword and sorcery. Sabatini was not a literary novelist like Scott or Stevenson, nor a pulp writer like Robert E. Howard or Johnston McCulley – the guy who wrote Zorro. He was a popular novelist who wrote middle-brow books for middle-brow people, but he did it with such skill and style that I return to his books again and again, both for pleasure and for lessons in craft.

Sabatini’s genius was in honing the sprawling genre of historical fiction down to the highly stylized and much more focused genre of the swashbuckler. A historical novel is about history, and uses the characters to personalize a place, time and set of events. A swashbuckler is about nothing except the hero, and uses history only as a colorful backdrop to highlight his story. For example, Scaramouche isn’t about the French revolution, it’s about Scaramouche. The revolution is just a convenient machine for making things difficult for him.

Like Wodehouse, Sabatini used a small set of tropes – sword play, moonlight chases, divided lovers, daring rescues, hairsbreadth escapes – to tell an infinite number of stories, and he used them with such precision and pace that the novels hold you from the beginning in that most delicious tension of knowing that a happy ending must be coming (since they’re all that kind of novel) yet finding yourself unable to see how it will be accomplished until, impossibly, on the very last page, all is finally resolved.

Because of Sabatini, my stories are about their heroes first, plot second, and everything else after. He also taught me that it as important in storymaking as it is in songwriting to end with a resolving chord.

George MacDonald Fraser – Low Adventure and Exposed Hypocrisy

George MacDonald Fraser is Raphael Sabatini turned on his head. His Flashman novels are cut from the same hero-centric historical mold, and feature the same set of swashbuckling tropes, but instead of a stalwart, square-jawed hero, they star an utter bastard of an anti-hero who would kill his own grandmother to escape the desperate situations he finds himself in.

Fraser grew up reading and loving Sabatini and other adventure writers, but a cynical world view and a dirty mind wouldn’t allow him to play it straight, and so Flashman was born – a cad, coward, and soldier of the British Empire, who runs, shitting himself in fear, though every major military disaster of the Victorian Age.

But it isn’t all scatological shenanigans. Fraser takes pains to point out in every book that, as bad as Flashman is, his oh-so-noble superiors are often worse, and that a fellow who stabs another fellow in the back isn’t even in the same league as a fellow who sends entire brigades of lancers to their deaths out of laziness or stupidity. It is this that won me to Flashman for life. The moral outrage hidden in the villains’ tale, the highlighting of the crimes of the powerful against the weak, the belief that the lowly soldier often has more honor than the guy with the tassel on his hat.

From Fraser I learned that skullduggery can be fun, and that poking the rich and powerful and corrupt with sharp sticks is my life’s work.

Yes, I call it Sabrepunk for a reason.

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Nerd Bull Session #1046

Sunday, 10. March 2013 1:33

D – God, that movie sucked!

K – Seriously! How does the same boring Australian get cast in both Avatar and Clash of the Titans? He’s the least interesting person in both movies! They should have made Mads Mikkelson Perseus. That would have rocked!

N – I liked the Kraken.

K – Yeah, Long, you would. Man, what a turd! Are there any fantasy or sci-fi movies that are better than the books they’re based on? Any at all?

D – Hmmmmmm. Good one.

N – Wait. So, do I have to have read the book too?

K – Well, duh. How are you gonna compare if you haven’t?

N – Yeesh. That’s gonna narrow it down some. Let me think.

D – Blade Runner? Two Thousand One?

K – Have you actually read either of those?

D – Well, no, but…

K – What did we just say?

N – Okay, I got one. I saw the first Harry Potter and read the first book. But, uh, didn’t care for either of them enough to continue. Hmmm.

D – Dune! No, never mind. That was terrible. Man. This is harder than it looks.

N – I know! Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!

K – What? Come on, dude. Pick a grown-up movie.

N – I’m serious. It’s a great movie. I don’t know if it’s better than the book, but it’s as good. It stands on its own, and, yeah, I would say it’s a grown-up movie. There’s a lot of social satire in there – Mike TV and all that – that would go right over kids’ heads. Plus there’s that whole layer of creepy psychedelia laid on top of it all. That tunnel scene is still scarier than most horror movies.

K – Okay, fine. Now pick an adult movie.

N – But, but they’re all terrible. There isn’t a single– Oh wait! A Clockwork Orange. That was great.

D – And you read the book? Really?

N – I did. In high school. I don’t honestly remember that much about it. It was good, though, I remember that – a nasty little satire of British values, with a lot of linguistic candy thrown in just for fun. The movie, though, it just fucks with you. You’re going along, blown away by the look of it and kinda horrified by the violence, then you end up rooting for the bad guy, this complete psychopath, because the authorities are worse. It’s amazing. Completely makes you question yourself and your values.

K – Alright. I’ll give you that one. Clockwork Orange was brilliant. No argument. Anything else?

D – Wait. Hang on a second. Let’s turn it around. If all movies based on fantasy and sci-fi novels are shit–

N – Most movies.

D – Okay, if most movies based on fantasy and sci-fi novels are shit, then what genre novels would you like to see made into movies?

K – And have them turned into shit? No thanks.

D – No no. Best case scenario. Best screenwriter. Best director. Best. Cast. Ever. What books?

N – Easy. I’ve got three, right off the top of my head.

K – Of course you do. Let me guess, Long. These are books you, personally, want to make into movies. I bet you already have scripts written and everything.

N – I do not. Well, treatments, yes. Scripts, no. Whaddaya want from a screenwriter?

D – Okay okay, let’s hear ’em.

N – Right. Well, the first one’s pretty obvious, at least if you know me. I’ve always wanted to do a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser movie. Or a series, maybe. I’ve never understood why nobody’s ever done it. They’re perfect for movies. An easier fit than most fantasy.

D – Why? Aside from them being your favorites.

N – Well, look. You got Conan, right. He’s the silent, brooding type. You gotta bring in a lot of extra characters just so there’s some dialog now and then. And he’s a little too super for my taste. Nobody’s tougher than Conan, which kinda kills the tension. Then you’ve got Elric. He’s broody too. Worse. And when he does talk, it’s all serious and shit. Hollywood can’t do serious fantasy. It ends up sounding like bad Shakespeare. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser on the other hand, they’re more like average guys. They’re a fantasy buddy movie waiting to happen. It would be like Lethal Weapon with swords.

B – You say that like it’d be a good thing.

N – It would if I wrote it. Lots of fights and snappy repartee, desperate situations, evil priests, big monsters, sexy swordswomen, skulls, towers, jewels. How could it go wrong?

K – This is Hollywood, remember. They’d find a way. What’s number two?

Okay, this one’s pretty obscure. It’s called House of Stairs, by William Sleator. It’s about these five orphan kids who are put into a kind of a Skinner Box labyrinth with no food or–

K – Wait a minute. Kids? Is this another YA? What is it with you and kids books? Did you stop reading when you were twelve?

N – Uh, I’m sorry, how many times have you seen the Captain America movie? Anyway, there’s a machine in the middle of the labyrinth, right? And when the lights on the machine start flashing food and water comes out. At least it does at first. After a while, the machine only give out food after they’ve done something, like dance, or do a trick, or fight each other. Some of the kids will do anything to get the food, but two of them rebel. They… well, it’s all about individualism versus conformity, and it really hit me hard when I was a kid. My image of myself as an outsider, all that punk rock pride I used to have. A lot of it comes from this book, and in this day and age, a movie about that kind of stuff could really–

D – Oh my god, he’s preaching! Next! Next!

N – Aw, fuck you guys. It would be good. Okay, okay. Next. You know who Tim Powers is? Or is he over your reading level? The Stress of Her Regard? The Anubis Gates?

K – You mean the guy who wrote the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie?

N – That’s all you know him from? That’s just sad. He’s, like, the best writer on the planet. Anyway, I’ve always wanted to see his book Last Call as a movie. That’s the one about the guy who loses his soul in a poker game and finds out he’s a pawn in a big game of supernatural power politics that’s all wrapped up in tarot cards and who gets to be the Year King of the West. Great characters, a great story, and a kind of noir fantasy that you almost never see on screen. You want grown-up fantasy with real people and real emotions? Call somebody famous and get ’em to make that movie.

D – You call somebody. You’re the Hollywood screenwriter.

N – Yeah, I wrote Guyver Two. That and four bucks will get you a cappuccino in this town. Aw, forget it. Change the subject. What are we watching next?

K – Uh, let’s see. Oh, this is gonna be epic. We got Solomon Kane, or the new Conan movie. Your pick.

N – Aw, dude. You’re killing me!

Category:Movies, Reading, Writing | Comments (1) | Author:

Dragon or Spaceship

Sunday, 3. March 2013 14:40

I have been neglecting this blog for too long, so, starting this week, I’ll be posting a new blog post every Sunday. Woo!

(Full disclosure – these posts all originally appeared on Night Shade Books’ Night Bazaar Blog, but I don’t think too many people saw them there, so I’m taking the liberty of republishing them here.)

Right. Here’s the first one. Enjoy!


I once worked part time in a friend’s bookstore, and one day she gave me a box of used books she’d just purchased and told me to shelve them while she went to lunch. No problem, I said, but when I looked through the box, I found myself in a quandary. They were all paranormal-ish, with covers full of brooding, half-shadowed guys and tough chicks with swords and knowing looks, but I wasn’t quite sure where to shelve them.

Well, I didn’t want to be a pest and call the boss while she was eating, so I took the initiative and tried to decide for myself. Did they go in fantasy, because they all featured werewolves and vampires and travels to magical lands? Or did they go in Romance, because they featured strong love stories?

In the end I picked a completely arbitrary, but I thought pretty safe, indicator and used it as my guide. If the books had men’s abs on the cover they went into Romance. If they didn’t, they went into Fantasy. Boom. I was done in five minutes.


JaneCarverofWaar_CoverHaving sold Jane Carver of Waar to Night Shade Books, my agent asked me what else I had lying around that he could read. I sent him a novel I’d written a few years back about an ex-cop who is asked by the ghost of his dead ex-partner to solve her murder. He read it in a weekend and wrote back to tell me he loved it, it was a really great story, but… he wasn’t sure how to sell it.

Why? It wasn’t scary enough to be Horror. It wasn’t romantic enough to be Romance. It didn’t have vampires or werewolves or a kick-ass female paranormal investigator, so even though it was an urban fantasy, it didn’t fit this year’s definition of Urban Fantasy. And it wasn’t straight enough to be Crime Fiction.

Yeah. He’s still working on it.


So, there you go. I’ve been on the bookseller’s side, and I’ve been on the writer’s side, and I sympathize with both.

The bookseller just wants to know where the book goes. Defining what category a book fits into is vital to sales. She can’t sell a mystery if she hides it in the fantasy section, and she can’t just lump everything into general fiction. It would all be a mish-mosh and nobody would be able to find what they wanted at a glance.

The writer just wants to be true to his muse and tell the story he has in his head – at least he does if he’s the naïve kind of writer I was back when I wrote that novel – and he doesn’t worry about what category of story it is until after he’s written it. (Which drives his agent crazy.)

Of course an older, wiser writer is aware of this problem, and begins to tailor his stories to the market. If someone says to him, “I’ll take a look at anything you got as long as I can put a dragon or a space ship on the cover,” he goes home and comes up with a story that fits the bill.

But that’s kinda sad, isn’t it? That kinda guarantees that we will all work in a very safe, homogenous genre. It doesn’t allow for wider, wilder flights of fantasy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with writing inside the lines. I’ve been writing gaming tie-in fiction for the past six years. Have laptop. Will travel. That’s me. I’m the last guy to say that one must be true to one’s art, and that commerce has no part in deciding what to write next. I’d sure as hell rather write to measure than spend eight hours a day in a cubicle farm so I can maintain my high ideals.

But sometimes even a hack like myself comes up with a story that doesn’t fit one of the preset genre pigeon holes. Sometimes he has an idea for a fantasy with no magic in it. Sometimes he wants to write a science-fiction story that features a pair of star-crossed lovers. Sometimes he comes up with an idea that defies the standard “It’s X meets Y meets Z” pitch. And sometimes he can’t ignore it. Labels be damned, he has to write it.

What I’m saying is, that once he’s written it, there should be a way for publishers to accommodate it, and for marketing departments to sell it.

And maybe, now that we live in the future and all, there is.


Cross-genre fiction’s problem with brick and mortar stores is sections – the Romance section, the Mystery section, the Fantasy section. On-line booksellers, aping their predecessors, have adopted this model too, with sub-menus that read just like the section headers in a store.

But there are other ways of discovering books on those pages as well. There is the “customers who bought this book also bought…” list. There is the list of tags or keywords that can be used to describe the book. There are links to author pages. There are store-hosted forums where buyers can discuss books of all genres. And away from booksellers’ sites, there are all the social media hubs, blogs, message boards, fan forums and youtube channels where readers can share book recommendations.

All of these are ways to alert potential readers to books they might not find if they only searched through the genres they’re familiar with. They are the word-of-mouth and hand-selling of the digital age.

A well-tagged book, with keywords highlighting all its potential hooks – two-fisted heroines for example – might lure someone from romance to mystery, from fantasy to historical, from science fiction to thriller, or from any genre to a book that has elements of one or two, yet fits none. A word in the right forum or a review from the right blogger can get people talking about the story of the book – or the heroine – rather than its category, and maybe make it something people will cross borders to read.

And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To make potential readers aware of the stories we tell. That’s what I think this new #tag model of categorizing will do for the genre-breakers among us. It’s not as neat and tidy a system as shelves and sections, it’s harder work for publisher and author, and it’s kinda amorphous and intimidating to people used to the old way, but I think it just might save us. I think it just might be the thing that makes a book’s story more of a selling point than the dragon or space ship on the cover.

Category:Jane Carver, Life, Reading, Warhammer, Writing | Comment (0) | Author: