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World Fantasy 2015, the Recap

I had the great fortune this past weekend to attend the 2015 World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY. Here is a brief recap of my experiences there.

Friday

I drove out on Friday and arrived at about two in the afternoon. I checked in and got a massive bag of paperback books (seriously, there was a small library in there – I think the Kindle is going to go on a bit of a hiatus). As I knew approximately zero people, I wandered about for a bit.

Okay, I wandered around all day.

Going to conventions alone is a tough thing to do, especially if you’ve never gone to that particular convention before. While I’m not exactly shy, I don’t want to be that weirdo who creeps his way into other people’s conversations, so I walked around looking for somebody I recognized – my editor, somebody I’d met before, etc. It didn’t happen.

So, for lack of anything better to do, I bought a couple books on the Sellers Floor (a copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora in paperback for Scott Lynch to sign, a Game of Thrones Coloring Book for grown-ups, and one other novel – I wanted to find a paperback of a Max Gladstone book, too, but couldn’t find one). Then I went to a panel on Politics and Economics in Fantasy Worlds wherein the panelists discussed how important it was to consider such things when building a world (and admitted that most good fantasy authors do, to some extent).

Next up was a reading by Max Gladstone from a forthcoming work (not part of the Craft Sequence – wholly new!) which sounded really cool. I introduced myself to him afterwards, mentioning how we’re practically neighbors. I’m pretty sure that weirded him out. Go me.

Then I went to a panel on the surrealist scifi artwork of Richard Powers, which was really very interesting but I do not have time to go into here. Anyway, it solidified my belief in the strong ties between the Modernist movement of the early 20th century and the science fiction and fantasy genres (something to explore at greater length in a different post, I think).

Lastly, I went to the signing hall that night to get Scott Lynch to sign his book for me, which he did. Then I wandered around and around and around, wondering if I was going to spend the entire weekend not talking to another human being, when, lo and behold, Sarah Beth Durst, a YA/Middle Grade author I’d met in NYC recently, flagged me down. I hung out with her for the rest of the night, pretty much, since she’d been coming for a while and knew all kinds of people. I got introduced around. I met Katherine Addison, ran into Scott Lynch again, and really hit it off with fantasy author SC Butler. We stayed up way past our bedtime telling each other stories, which was fun.

My first day goal – meet new people – was a success!

Saturday

Saturday, I went to a ton of panels. An absolute ton.

This is basically what I did all day.

This is basically what I did all day.

What were they on? Hmm…

  • The Quest (and whether it has become passé). The conclusion was that it actually couldn’t become so, since it’s so ingrained in us. The line of the panel was Leah Bobet, who said “Not every quest needs to be David Eddings’ ‘go to each country on the map, find a friend, and slay the giant monster with the glowing blue thing.'”
  • Anthropology and Archaeology and how it can influence Fantasy writers. It was interesting, but no real zingers.
  • Faerie Courts and Fairy Courts and portrayals of the Fey in Fantasy literature. Much was made of moving away from Victorian Tinker-bell types and getting back to terrifying hobgoblins like Red Cap.
  • Violence and the Epic: how to portray violence in Epic Fantasy, why to do it, and when does it become gratuitous. Very interesting discussion. Glen Cook was on the panel and said less than a hundred words, but those he did say were doozies. Line of the panel (and probably the convention) was by him:

We live in a society where we think it’s really really bad to hurt people, but other places and times they’d throw a guy on the fire because it was fun to watch him scream.

Yikes.

I also listened to Scott Lynch read from The Thorn of Emberlain, which was freaking amazing and I can’t wait to read the whole thing.

That night I wandered around the art show for a while. The fantasy artists on display were crazy good. No pictures were allowed to be taken in the gallery (they’re trying to sell the artwork, you see), but take my word for it – jaw-dropping stuff. A lot of airships and steampunky stuff, for some reason. I loved one called “War Griffon” which showed a griffon decked out like a WWI fighter plane with a flying ace holding his reigns – goggles, cap, scarf, the whole thing. Very cool.

While there, I ran into Sarah again, and again I met a lot of other people by dint of my knowing her. Wandered from party to party for a while, then turned in late.

Sunday

Sunday morning I went to two panels. First was “Genre Tropes That Deserve to Die,” which was mostly hilarious and offered numerous injunctions against having fantasy characters eat stew while on the road (it takes way too long to cook. Frodo and Sam would have never made it out of the Shire if they had to spend a day making stew every time they were hungry). It was pointed out, though, that all tropes can be done well. It just gets harder for some to work once they’ve been overused.

The second panel, and my favorite of the convention, was on weapons beyond the sword and how can be used in the fantasy genre. Very cool stuff, very interesting. Turned out there was an actual bladesmith in the audience who contributed to the panel a great deal. I stayed afterwards to talk with Ian Cameron Esselmont (who let me babble on about Alandar and The Saga of the Redeemed for a bit) as well as Chuck Gannon and the aforementioned bladesmith (whose name sadly escapes me at the moment). Very, very interesting talk.

Finally, then, there was the banquet. I got a seat at the Harper Collins table between my editor, Kelly O’Connor, and author Rio Youers. The table mostly talked about baseball. The awards were fun – all the winners seemed surprised, and pretty much nobody had a speech prepared. There was a real sense of community in the room, which was nice – these were all friends, all who knew one another, all who supported each other. It was a really pleasant atmosphere, and I know I’ll come back. I want to become a real part of this community, not just somebody on the periphery. Goals to shoot for.

But, with that said, the convention is over now. Back to work, both real and fanciful.

Congratulations to all the winners! I’ll be back next year!

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Playing Another Tune…

Stumbled across a review of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies the other day, written by none other than Patrick Rothfuss. In it, he attests:

…in a first book (or movie for that matter) everything has the benefit of being shiny and new. Every revelation is fresh and exciting. Every character is a mystery unfurling.

That’s not the case in a second book. In a second book, you still have that problem. PLUS you have the problem that some of your readers read the first book two days ago, and some of them read it two years ago. Some of them haven’t read it at *all.*

On top of that, a lot of people want nothing more than for you to write your first book over again… because that’s what they know and love. But you *can’t* do that, because you only get one beginning.

When you write the second book in a series, the honeymoon is over. Now you’re in a whole different type of relationship. And love is harder to maintain than infatuation.

That’s why, in my opinion, shifting gears from first book to second book is THE most difficult part of being a new writer.

Crap...I think Kvothe's gotta spend a year learning kung fu. Hmmm...

Crap…I think Kvothe’s gotta spend a year learning kung fu. Hmmm…

I found this review particularly interesting in light of the fact it involves two of my current favorite fantasy authors, both of whom wrote second books that I didn’t like as much as the first. Of the two, I would even argue that Rothfuss’s second book was the more disappointing of the two in the context of the series. I did not think either book was actively bad, mind you – they are both great reads, if not as tightly paced as their first offerings – but they don’t gleam as brightly as the initial outlay. Of course, to again quite Rothfuss’s review, “But you won’t find me bitching, because the only thing I could say was something along the lines of, “O! Woe is me! I was expecting pure untrammeled brilliance and all I got was mere shining excellence! Also, they didn’t have any loganberry cream cheese at the café this morning, so I had to have blueberry instead! Alas! I shall now weep and write poetry in my journal!”

The point Rothfuss makes, though, still stands regardless of Red Seas, Red Skies‘s relative quality and is really worth considering. Since most of your average aspiring fantasy or science fiction authors are looking to write a series, some notion of how that is going to work out is important to realize. So how do you do it well? How do you top yourself?

I’m not Rothfuss or Lynch – pretty far from it, really – and I’m not really here to offer a critique on their work. I don’t have any good answers on how to write a second book because I haven’t successfully done it yet. I’m in the process of writing two separate sequels to two separate novels, and one is going pretty well while the other is something of a disaster at the moment. The only thing I can say that is helping me in one and hurting me in the other is this: know what the series is about.

At some point in writing Red Seas, Lynch had to ask himself ‘what role does this book play in the series as a whole?’ Now, given that he hasn’t finished his series yet, one can only guess at what the answer is/will be. For Lynch, it involved pirates. Pirates, to some extent, fit thematically with some of the larger forces at play in Lynch – issues of freedom, rebellion against authority, and sneering at the rule of law – but it departed from the operative action and mood of the original book. That becomes disconcerting for some readers, not as much for others. Likewise Rothfuss has Kvothe wander off up north to learn swordsmanship and combat. Very much in keeping with the building legend of Kvothe, but it served as a major tangent from the motivating storylines of the book thus far (Denna, the University, Ambrose, the Chandarain, etc.) even if we did get some goodies in the end. Was it worth the slow down in the plot?

I don’t have the answers, as I said. I suspect that Rothfuss is very much correct about the difficulties of continuing a series, if for no other reason than (1) he’s done it and (2) the statement ‘the sequel is always worse’ is so commonly understood to be true, it is practically a truism. All I know is that I need to find a way to tell a new story at the same time as advancing an old one, and that’s a pretty unique balancing act. Maybe someday you folks will have the luxury of judging my success or failure in the endeavor.

Of course, in order to do that, I need to get the first one published first.

The Poetry of Profanity

I’m midway through Scott Lynch’s Republic of Thieves, and the more I read, the more I grow to appreciate Lynch’s command of vulgarity. For those of you who haven’t read any Lynch, his Gentlemen Bastards series is, for my money, one of the if not the best fantasy published in the past ten years or so. It is, essentially, the Sting/Ocean’s Eleven, but set in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Mediterranean world during the Italian Renaissance. Good stuff.

As his many of Lynch’s characters are thieves, con-men, and inveterate criminals of the lowest sort, they swear a lot. But as these are so often very clever thieves, con-men, and inveterate criminals, they swear artfully. The words ‘fuck,’ ‘shit,’ and ‘asshole’ are masterfully crafted into some of the more colorful and amusing metaphors I’ve encountered. My recent favorite is this phrase, spoken of a boorish, arrogant, stupid ass of man who has ruined the lives of numerous people:

I wouldn’t shit on his head to give him shade from the sun.

Just bask in the layers of that metaphor, would you? Let it wash over you. I’m telling you, for all its vulgarity, it’s beautiful. When I initially read The Lies of Locke Lamora (the first book in Lynch’s series), I felt as though the profanity was a bit overpowering. He was overplaying the card, I felt, and going from clever and edgy to merely crass. Now, though, either Lynch is growing on me or he has mellowed and tempered his f-bombs into something more than simply shocking. They are evocative epithets, laced with emotion, that give the reader a front-row seat to the seething tempers of Jean and the outrageous frustrations of Locke, as well as all the other raw moments of all the other colorful characters inhabiting Lynch’s dirty world of crime and skullduggery.

Pictured: the patron saint of profanity

Pictured: the patron saint of profanity

There is something to be said for swearing. The proper curse at the proper moment is the naval broadside of the spoken word. It has power and depth and feeling. If used cleverly, the word ‘fuck’ can paint pictures lesser words would have to work very hard to match. In Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, the poet Martin Silenus delivers his part of the narrative with a profanity-laced tirade against the world. The first lines read:

First came the Word; then came the fucking word processor; then came the fucking thought processor; then came the death of literature. And so it goes.

There’s a rhythm there – a poetry, if you will – I find important to the timbre of Silenus’s voice. There’s a kind of electricity in it, and not because I’m ‘shocked’ by bawdy language – I’m from Boston, so trust me when I say I’m used to it. Rather it is because the word ‘fuck’ and its weaker cousins is a word that does not hide any of its meaning. It is bare and raw; it cannot be misunderstood.

Now, am I saying that science fiction or fantasy stories/novels don’t swear enough? Well, sort of. I do feel that the genre, as a whole, is needlessly bowdlerized to be ‘suitable for children’, even though so much of the genre is not intended for the tender ears of true children, but rather for the teenagers and adults that make up the majority of the audience. If you don’t think those folks are acquainted with a  few swears, then I have some shocking news for you.

Of course, profanity just for the purpose of being profane isn’t a good idea – there is no call to be offensive needlessly. Profanity needs to serve an artistic purpose, as absurd as that sounds. Also, there will always be people who will jump all over you for even the mildest transgressions (I’ve been scolded for saying ‘goddamn’ before, which I find pretty hilarious, honestly). Of course, folks whose ears are that tender are going to be offended by a wide swathe of things and trying to please them is like trying to get that guy who only likes cheese pizza to try a slice of sausage and pepper – it’s a waste of your time and, ultimately, it’s their loss.

In the end, cutting out a whole segment of language that is used and used often by lots and lots of people is sort of like tying one hand behind your back. I say learn to use the hand, get it to work for you, and there is some real magic that can happen there.