Just out this weekend, my story “Lord of the Cul-de-Sac” can be found in this month’s Galaxy’s Edge. It’s a charming, light-hearted tale of a dragon moving to suburbia and the collapse of the housing markets in 2008. You can read it here. It’s free online, but you can also order it (and the rest of the issue) in dead-tree format by going here and following the links beneath the cover art.
Galaxy’s Edge is a great venue and I’m very proud that my work has made it there, sharing a table of contents with the likes of George RR Martin, no less (!). Go read the whole issue – good stuff!
In other publishing news, I’ve got at least three stories coming out in the next few months (well, at least one, but as many as three – the other two aren’t exactly upfront about their publishing schedules, shall we say), so stay tuned.
Also, a reminder that NO GOOD DEED, Book 2 in the Saga of the Redeemed, is coming out on June 21st! Pre-order your copy today (available everywhere fine e-books are sold)!
My semester is wrapping up and I’m starting to gear myself towards what my summer writing project will be. It’s a bit up in the air (currently talking with an agent about best career moves – exciting stuff, but I can’t really say more yet), but there are good odds I’ll be looking to dig into Book 3 of the Saga of the Redeemed and possibly plan on having a solid draft finished by the end of August. Either that, or giving the Saga a rest for a bit and working on a new stand-alone or maybe series. Hard to say at this point, as I’m at something of a crossroads in my career. My contract with Harper Voyager is complete with the delivery of NO GOOD DEED, but I don’t feel the series is finished – it’ll take two more books, I think. However, the series, while selling modestly well, isn’t selling anywhere near enough and isn’t getting enough attention to necessarily warrant 2 more years of my time to completing, as much as I love it. If there are better options, I might be better off taking them and circling back to this series later on.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, go and check out the May 2016 issue of Galaxy’s Edge!
A few months ago I started a short story. It went like this:
Once upon a time, a dragon got a good deal on a modified, split-level
ranch with aluminum siding and a big yard—2.9% APR for a 15 year fixed, no
points, no closing costs. His credit was mighty indeed.
It went a little further than that (by a few pages) until I had a bunch of gossipy neighbors playing poker on the other side of the cul de sac. That’s as far as it got.
There are a lot of jokes inherent in this premise. I think it could make a fun story. Maybe.
If only it would go somewhere.
A friend of mine asked me once why it took so long to write a novel. He wasn’t being facetious – he was honestly curious. “If I were you,” he said, “I’d just write all day long for a couple months and have it finished.” He wanted to know why I didn’t do that; if that was what I wanted to do (write novels), why not put the pedal to the metal and just grind them out.
The idea has merit. Indeed, most writing advice you’ll find involves some variation of ‘write every day’. Not all of us, though, are Isaac Asimov. Even when I do write everyday (and I do whenever I can), much of what I write just doesn’t go anywhere. I have, at last count, six short stories that I’ve started but not finished. It isn’t because I don’t want to, but rather because I don’t have them figured out yet. It’s uncharted territory, as of yet. If I blunder onwards, without notion or care of where I’m going, the story is going to wind up in the trunk – I’m going to have to rewrite the whole damned thing, anyway. Why go through the motions when I can trace this stuff out in my head beforehand? Short Stories are great like that – you can fit them all inside your brain at the same time and weigh each and every paragraph against its neighbors. I can, anyway.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing process, lately, and how it varies when I’m writing short stories as compared to writing novels. When I write a novel, I’m a machine – I churn out pages at a solid rate, week-by-week, month-by-month, until the first draft is in the can. Then I go back and do it again. And again. It’s a sculpting process – chipping away pieces of stone here, chinks of rock there, smoothing and polishing, until the David is revealed from the block of marble that encased it.
Short fiction is a different animal, though. You can’t blunt-force your way through a short story (I can’t, at least). For me, they come out mostly fully-formed. I write it and there it is. I do edit, of course, and I change endings, delete characters, etc. Most of that, though, is less like sculpting and more like smoothing the icing on a cake. Once the cake is baked, it’s baked – you can’t fix it except to start all over again. So, what I do instead is I dump my ingredients out on the counter (dragon, suburban house, cul de sac, etc.) and let them sit there. I stare at them. Sometimes I have the ingredients to five or six metaphorical cakes sitting there at the same time. Occasionally I see new things I can bake from the morass and, in a twinkling, I’ve got a cake I never expected. It isn’t, though, a matter of sweat and blood. Not really. It’s like catching fireflies – not about the running, but about a certain kind of bloodless patience, waiting for the moment to strike where BAM – the story becomes clear.
It’s worked for me thus far. Is it the right way to do it? Hell if I know. I’m not sure I want to know. Perhaps some questions are better left unanswered.
Dragons, Giants, Hydra, Titans, the Kraken: all monsters of superhuman size and strength, and all popular foes in much of specfic literature, and frequent guest stars in role playing and video games. When done well, facing these incredible beasties is some of the coolest, most exciting moments of the story. When done poorly, they suddenly don’t make a whole lot of sense.
One of my favorite scenes like this is an oldie but a goodie and, thanks to my daughter, I see it a lot. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty reaches its climax as Prince Phillip finds himself facing the evil Maleficent in the form of a giant black dragon. Immediately both Phillip and the viewing audience realize he is out of his depth. The dragon has no fear of his puny sword, his enchanted shield is barely sufficient protection, and his triumphant ride to his sleeping love becomes a desperate retreat through burning thorns and up jagged cliffs. Driven to the edge of a precipice, deprived of his shield, almost losing his balance, Phillip, but for some timely sorcerous intervention, is pretty well doomed. Now, while there are some holes in the battle (like ‘how does his horse survive’ and ‘how does he avoid going over the cliff with the dead dragon’?), generally it captures exactly what a battle with such a massive opponent ought to look like: it’s tense, terrifying, and you really don’t see how Phillip is going to get out of it until the fairies show up. There are other stories that do the giant monster battle pretty well, too (Luke Vs Rancor in Jedi is pretty decent; Sam Vs Shelob in Return of the King is pretty fabulous, etc.), and all of them follow a few basic rules of engagement:
- Monsters Don’t Fight Like People: You don’t stand toe-to-toe with the beastie and swing your sword like it’s an orc. Honestly, unless you’re really lucky, your sword is almost worthless, your armor isn’t really that useful, and most of your martial arts training isn’t going to help very much (Legolas excepted).
- Monsters Chew the Scenery: If you think you can have a fight with a twenty foot giant and not destroy a lot of property, you need to have your head examined. If you’re in a house, even money says its coming down.
- Monsters Can Move: You know how we are able to move around, turn, jump, run, and all that stuff? Monsters can do that, too. Sometimes they can do it even better than we can. Unless you’re a Jedi, don’t bet on running between its legs.
With these rules in place, it becomes rapidly obvious that, in order to defeat the beast, the hero or heroes will need to think outside the box. This isn’t a case of simply ‘hit it with your sword until it dies’ (a flaw in logic I’ve examined before); the toe-to-toe engagement is unwise. The heroes need to run around, hide, use their small size to their advantage, strike the weak points, and so on.
Too often, in video games and RPGs especially, the battle with the giant monster becomes more of a case of surrounding it and plinking away until it falls down. Never mind that most of your weapons are only hitting its shins and never mind that it can just as easily step on you to kill you as anything else and there is no way you can impede its movement. Not only is this unimaginative, it’s also dull. These conflicts can and should be among the most memorable and terrifying of the story; they should be set pieces, major plot events, and they should be given the time and attention they deserve. Recognize that if your hero faces a dragon on an open field, there are few plausible ways they ought to survive outside of technological or magical power enhancing their normal human capabilities. Like any good fight scene, you need to plot out how this can go down so that you build tension without violating reason. Heroes that face such enemies without forethought or who are surprised should find themselves in retreat or defeated, as a hero who summarily slays a dragon without much thought or substantial effort means both the dragon and the hero aren’t being used to their full potential. It begs the question ‘why use a dragon at all?’
To provide a counter-example to the one I mentioned above, do you folks remember the movie Willow? Ah, who am I kidding, of course you do! Anyway, the two-headed monster that shows up in the Tir Asleen battle is a great example of extremely lame monster-fighting. Now, granted, many of the problems are related to the fact that the film’s budget was only so large and they didn’t have CGI to make this thing really move, but still we have a whole battle in the middle of the movie with a giant monster that doesn’t really move, doesn’t really destroy anything, and that is killed just by stabbing it in the head. I mean, it’s sort of scary, but it doesn’t really steal the scene at all. In fact, a lot of the battle keeps going on while this whole giant monster is sitting there, eating Nokmar soldiers. Now, while I do approve of the idea of sticking a monster in the middle of an unrelated battle, this one doesn’t really do much more than act as scenery. The soldiers just kind of surround it, it sits there, and we patiently wait for Mad Martigan to kill it. It’s a fun scene, yes, but it’s nothing compared to the Cave Troll in Fellowship or the first time Paul faces a sandworm in Dune. This monster isn’t working to its full potential.
In the end, all I’m really saying here is that the massive monsters of mythology ought to be given their proper due when facing our heroes. There is just too much potential there to be wasted.
The dragon is pretty much the grand poobah of mythical monsters. Nothing else gets as much press, nothing commands as much respect, and nothing quite measures up to a 50-ton winged lizard that can breathe fire. They’ve been the classic fantasy villain ever since Beowulf went toe-to-toe with one in the 7th century or so. No hero throws around as much clout as one who says he hunted and killed a dragon. There is a pretty good reason for that, too: it would be practically impossible for your standard medieval hero to do so.
For starters, lets leave out all discussions of magic for the moment. As soon as we throw magic in the mix, anything is possible, so there’s little point in discussing it. If you like, we can say the dragon’s magic cancels out the hero’s magic and leave it at that. What we’re looking at here is whether and how a person with access to the standard armory of the pan-medieval fantasy world could kill a dragon.
The Dragon’s Defenses
Okay, so let’s size up the opposition. Dragons are reputed to have the following capabilities:
- Massive Size: Dragons are usually said to be 20 feet long or longer, putting them on par with dinosaurs or whales–10 tons at the low end, maybe even 100 at the high end.
- Armored Scales: Dragon scales are thick, flame resistant, cover the majority of the body, and are hard to get through. Some places they are described as ‘hard as steel’, though we can presume this is a bit of an exaggeration.
- Flight: Dragons have wings and can fly. This is a major advantage, obviously.
- Intelligence: Dragons are fairly smart. In some cases they are shown to be as smart as people, while in others they are simply very cunning predators of standard animalian intelligence.
- Fire Breath: Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the dragon is its capacity to breathe fire. Any attempt to slay a dragon needs to take into account some way to survive a blast of flaming breath (which, we can presume, operates more like acid or napalm than simple fire, as those are more plausible explanations).
- Teeth, Claws, etc.: To top all that off, the dragon still has the standard array of deadly claws, fangs, horns, and so on that should be sufficient to pulp anybody who messes with it, anyway.
Given this, no sane individual (or team of individuals) would go after a dragon. Just give it the virgins, already, and move on with your lives. Points 4 and 5 alone are sufficient to guarantee that any idiot wanting to kill a dragon will be dead long before he’s finished challenging it in the name of St. George. They don’t make stuff in the middle ages that can take a soaking in napalm and let the user walk away. Nevertheless, if the dragon needs killing, folks are going to try anyway. Let’s consider their weapons.
Don’t be an idiot. Even provided you do make it past the flaming breath and it happens to stay on the ground and you don’t get crushed by giant claws or gobbled up by a giant fang-rimmed mouth, you’ve still got the scales to get through. Even if you do that, what makes you think the sword will actually kill it? If it’s a sufficiently huge dragon (like, Brontosaurus sized) it’s going to take you a long, long time to hack it to death with a sword. It would be like trying to kill a person with a dessert fork–you could do it, sure, but the person pretty much has to be tied up and you need plenty of time and/or a keen grasp of human anatomy. Try hunting a dragon with a sword and kiss your butt goodbye.
Better, certainly. The weapon is larger and longer, meaning you have a chance of puncturing something vital with a
strike. This is how they kill whales, after all, and so it’s not entirely without merit. It can still fly away, though, and can still melt you with fire, and it’s still armored in a way that whales aren’t. Furthermore, the way they actually managed to kill the whale with the lance was to harpoon it, exhaust it, then move in and kill it. Given flaming breath, flight, and all that, it seems unlikely you could pull this off with a dragon. If you were to do it, you’d need a big team of people (like a series of whaleboats, except on the ground) working in coordination and you’d need a dragon to be no smarter than your average whale. As a lone dragonslayer? Forget it.
Let me put it this way: Bard got stupidly lucky with Smaug. Skilled hunters do use bows to hunt large game like Cape Buffalo, but a Cape Buffalo is tiny compared to a dragon. Furthermore, such hunters today are using modern bows and modern arrows that maximize the kinetic energy needed to kill (read this article for more on the physics of hunting large game with bows). Granted the bow keeps the dragon from being able to fly away as easily, bypasses some of the dangers from flaming breath and the teeth/claws, but it is going to have a hell of a time penetrating the dragon’s hide by enough to wound it in any mortal capacity. You’d need dozens and dozens of skilled archers with the most powerful bows and sophisticated arrows in the world, and even then they’ve got fair odds of being roasted.
Essentially, the lone dragonslayer thing is extremely unlikely to the point of being implausible without the use of the idiot ball in some way. You’d need a team of dedicated professionals using things like siege engines, laying traps, and, most importantly, using dirty tricks. Poison its water supply, collapse its cave on top of itself, or, of course, some kind of magic. Beyond that, you are fresh out of luck.
Now, much of modern fantasy lore is well aware of this. George RR Martin points some of this stuff out in A Song of Ice and Fire, and, in one of my personal favorites, Barbra Hambly explores just how impossible a task this is in her 1985 novel Dragonsbane (which I recommend, though I haven’t read it since high school and my memory of it may make it seem better than it is). It should be noted, even, that Beowulf himself died in his struggle with the dragon (though he killed it with a dagger) and had help from his friend, Wiglaf. In any event, I feel it is important to give dragons their due when trying to take them down–the frontal assault isn’t going to work, guys, and you’re going to need help.