Almost, but not quite, sensible. Approaching, but never meeting, sane.
So many pieces that don’t fit. Words, names, places, people, gods, colors, music. A world on the edge
of things, a Grand Central Station of the cosmos. A quiet shore where many lost things wash up and begin again.
What brings them there? What keeps them there?
The Lost named it, when they stepped from their silver ships. In the old tongue, it means “to steal”. As if the world itself was a bandit, reaching into the pockets of more respectable universes and grabbing everything that jingles, everything that shines. Aufero piles up its treasure, little caring for organization or thrift. Rubies bang against pennies, coarse granite against opal.
History wanders, and logic gets lost. Civilizations rise by whim, and the unlikely and strange gad about in the common streets as if protected by royal decree.
Dinosaurs moan about philosophy, while living skeletons make a proper Old Fashioned at the bar. Swaggering bravos, kings and titans of industry all plot and battle in the streets of a city where it is always night, for no particular reason at all. A patient prince of Hell lays waste to all who oppose him, cheating the laws of the universe with deadpan glee. Minotaurs play chess. Gnomes sing the blues. Friendship is real, and love is real and death is real — side by side with a thousand quiet absurdities and the hallowed mundane.
George Washington wearing a clown nose.
Do you want to go?
[Just some navel-gazing about my main story-world.]
Descabellado in the Old Tongue. Misbegotten, wild, by-blow, wrong side of the sheets. Bastard.
Mean son-of-a-bitch Desert, is what it should be called.
They don’t worry about it much, down in the soft South. The fine cities, and the Emperor’s mines and the dons and their ladies sipping at spider-tea under the shade of a white umbrella.
I worry. I worry plenty.
My wagons and my goats, out in the mess. Wind and sand, chewing away at your skin, gumming up the wheels, howling in the night so a man can’t get a decent sleep. They pay’s good when I roll into a town, but I’ve come close to dying of thirst more times than I care to remember. Anything goes wrong out in the Bastard, anything at all and all they’ll find is your shiny white bones.
I’m a fair tailor, a better cook, and a sharp-nosed merchant. I buy cheap and sell dear, and the common folk know better than to complain about the prices. They know what it takes to bring my tiny wagon across the sands, know the gold I pay to my caravan guards to keep the critters and savages and damn trail-spooks off of me.
One day, I’ll have enough money to retire. Buy me a nice little shop in Toledo and sell coffee and biscuits and spend every morning and evening sweeping my front stoop. Not a speck of sand, and clean white cloth on every table – the inside of the shop will always be cool. Cool stone and some nice green plants.
Not like out here in the Bastard.
Shit, I don’t even know why I’m writing all this. Won’t feed the cat or wake the Titan, like my old man used to say.
Fills the time, I suppose. Better than praying, or remembering. Not as good as drinking, but I’m out of whiskey until I make it to Briar in three days time. Ink I got, whiskey I don’t.
Listen to that sand howl, like a mad creature in the wind. Ha. Time to go to bed, that almost sounded poetical.
— Day, — Year
The Bastard Sands
[A little flavor text for my nascent tabletop campaign, Titan’s Wake. ]
The young boy sat, uncomfortable and gangly in the high-backed wooden chair.
“Are you comfortable?” the red-haired man continued, his eyes and quill busy on a pair of scrolls on his desk. The young boy sat opposite in one of the two fine chairs kept for receiving guests.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good – good.” Key said, finishing a line on the left-hand scrolled and looked up. He furrowed his brows and tried to collect his ink-tossed thoughts. ” I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
“Lucas, sir. Lucas Grahd.”
“Of Pice? Your family has an estate there?” the red-haired scribe took note of the gryphon emblem on the young boy’s collar – faded, but fine material.
“Yes, my lord.”
“And you’ve come here about your mother?” Key said. “Lionshead Fever –very sad. You have my condolences, of course.” His quill went scratch, adding another line to his letter to the Regent. The paving recently completed outside his office was simply atrocious, and he was determined to have it re-cobbled before the end of the summer.
“Very kind, my lord. That was the subject of my visit today. I believe I may have found a cure.”
…It would honor me greatly if you could send a magistrate to inspect the quality of the work yourself, My Lady. It is simply beyond accepting — I’ve seen untutored yeoman do better with rough bricks and river-mortar…
Key’s quill kept scratching, until the silence in the room finally reached him. He looked up at the young boy sitting in his chair, and blinked.
The boy stared at him, but repeated himself.
Key tapped his forefinger on the desk, fresh ink stained – leaving a whorl of his fingerprints on the margin of his letter. The scribe cursed, and quickly reached for a cloth to daub it away.
“Sir, did you hear me? I’ve found a cure for Lionshead fever. My mother has been bedridden for weeks, and the other doctors gave up days ago. I threw myself into our family library and read every medical text and herbal tome that we own. I’m convinced I’ve found a forgotten remedy, passed down from the Sarmadi. Some of the ingredients are exotic, but the process for creating it is exceedingly simple. I consulted many of our family’s friends and business associates, and you have the final ingredient that I need.” The boy leaned forward, the words flung out with desperation.
Key tucked the quill behind his ear, ignoring the ink that dribbled down his cheek. He pinched his nose, and inclined his head to the ceiling for a moment.
“Young man..Lucas? I am sorry. I did not realize that your mother still…lingered. It makes what I’m about to say very difficult indeed.”
The boy slammed his hand on the edge of the desk. “I know the gallowgrass is very expensive, and I know that you have it. Please spare me the sales pitch. I have brought more than sufficient funds to cover any reasonable price. My family has fallen on hard times, but not so hard that we cannot afford—”
The boy looked up in surprise. The red-haired scribe has walked from around the desk to sit in the chair next to him. His hand was clenched on the edge of the desk, knuckles white.
“I am sorry that you did not have my full attention at the first. Forgive me. Your age made me think you were here on a simple errand, or perhaps a scholarly project for your tutor. I can see that you are a young man of uncommon intelligence, so I will speak plain.”
The boy said nothing, but nodded quickly with a polite acceptance.
“You say your mother has been suffering for weeks. Did none of the doctors who administered to your mother explain the path that Lionshead takes through the body?” Key said.
“Ah. Lionshead Fever is a fairly rare malady, that attacks the upper respiratory system – the lungs and nasal passages. It is not particularly contagious, generally only being contracted through direct exposure to infected tissue. I assume your mother spent some time travelling right before her symptoms appeared?”
“Yes.” Lucas said.
“As I thought. Most people afflicted die in the first two to three days. Their lungs fill with blood and they quite simply drown in their own water. The followers of the deity Nasirah believe it is divine justice, only the wicked, the betrayer, the infidel are cursed with this disease. They would stamp their fierce god’s symbol into the foreheads of the sick – a mark of their fate, and also an effective way to prevent further spread of the contagion. A lion, stamped on the head, do you see?”
“I’ve read all this at great length, my lord. I don’t see how –”
“Those that do not die immediately…” Key continued, his voice level, as if the boy had not interrupted.”….can linger for many days, even for weeks on end. But the damage to the lungs is permanent.”
The word hung in the air.
Key laid an ink-stained hand on the young boy’s shoulder. “You have shown great skill and intelligence in your research, you have shown great ingenuity and determination in tracking me down. I am the only person for hundreds of miles that has the gallowgrass, and I would gladly give it to you to save your mother. She could ask for no greater gift or more pure expression of your love for her. But, the Nameless be kind, it has fallen to me to tell you these truths. You are too late. Any cure would need to be given in the first few days of the infection to preserve any undamaged tissue. It has been weeks. Your mother is dead, in minutes or hours.”
The young boy stood up, and shook Key’s hand with empty poise. “I thank you for your time, my lord.”
“I wish I had more to give to you …and to your mother.” the scribe said sadly.
The boy left, and Key sat for a while in the second high-backed guest chair. He knew he would not finish his cobblestone letter this night, nor would he for many nights to come.
“More time.” he said to the empty room.
[Story on Demand for N.E. White – follow the link for their blog and the clicking thereof.]
“Ah, Haskeer.” his uncle said softly, almost inaudible amongst the jubilant cries of the people of Pice. “Still the same young squire, underneath it all. Fearless and valiant when steel and death are at play, but unsure when words are the weapons.”
Sir Barnabus held up his shield, a perfectly detailed rose worked in silver, the petals seeming to breathe and drip with dew. ” You see this shield, nephew? I have borne it for nearly forty years. In that time I’ve fought many battles – this shield has kept me safe against many dangers. This sword? ”
The golden blade sang out, ringing like a church bell.
“Many an evil creature has met it’s end at the taste of Valor.” Haskeer could read the familiar word etched into the crossguard of the blade. ” But all that I’ve seen and done, all the enemies I’ve faced in my long years on the road – this sword and shield have been at my side. They are a testament to my great deeds.”
Barnabus put the sword away, and tucked the shield back over his shoulder.
“My sword has slain a fraction of the evil that you can claim, my shield has protected a pittance compared to the lives that you and your companions have saved this day. The story is on every lip in city – you united the brawling factions of Pice, you gave them hope when they had none. Every man that lives to see the end of this war will tell the tale of Sir Haskeer the Spider-Bane. Some of the Library Scholars have already taken to calling you Maegnas , a High Elf Word. How many times did I tell you the tale of Bilbo and his sword, Sting when you were a boy? You are stepping into legend itself, boy.”
[Yeah, The Hobbit is a book/tale in Aufero — deal with it!]
Barnabus took Haskeer’s head in his hands, and for the first time the paladin realized that his uncle had to reach up to do so. His uncle had always seemed so large, so powerful — but now he saw that his uncle was a full six inches shorter than he.
“On this day, they can deny you nothing — the Savior of Pice! But more than that…it doesn’t matter what they want to hear. It matters more what they need to hear, what must be done. You must lead them to the proper path. It is not a leader’s place to soothe and cajole, but to command. Especially when time is so precious. You are not their king, you should listen to their words and desires and find the best solution for all. But I don’t want you walking in there, hat in hand. You are Sir Haskeer, Knight of the Rose ..but more than that you are my beloved nephew. You have paid the iron price for your life, and proven your worth a thousand times over. Your heart knows the way to victory, speak with your companions and lay your battle plan …then show the Lyceum the way.”
Those are the two driving forces, theinspirado of a grand bulk of the genre. Either the writer has a really neat system of magic, combat or dragon-sex and they hammer a plot and some characters into a framework to hold it — OR the writer has a really neat world, or character, or setting for dragon-sex and they hammer a plot and some less interesting characters into a framework to hold it.
I’m not really complaining that these forces exist. [Especially about the dragon-sex.] I’ve invested a massive amount of geek-hours into consuming as much of this content as I can, and I never plan to stop. My complaint derives from the endless mimicry, and the bone-certain belief that these two masters are the only ones that the genre can serve.
That is not the case, more on that shortly. But first, a primer.
In general, there are two types of fantasy authors. Nerds and Dungeon Masters.
Nerds love their shining rules, and Dungeon Masters love their precious backstory.
So when you are reading a fantasy novel and realize you’ve just spent two pages reading about how Flame-aligned Slaughter Wizards cannot use their Flambe attack when Ice-aligned Tempest Mages have spent a fortnight attuning their Ava-crystals to the Fourteenth Ley Line —- then the author is a Nerd.
Uh, thanks Mr. Sanderson.
And when you finish a blistering passage on the Archduke Sargasso and the five-year conflict he endured developing the Draconian Congress, including the Riddle-Game played in the jaws of Tyrinel the Inferno, Red Dragon Lord – with exacting minutes provided, including three water breaks and a complete rundown of the Inaugural Dylithic Council’s attire, facial hair and a five stanza limerick sung by Jargon the Time-Sworder — ALL of this read by the protagonist on a discarded scroll in the waiting room of his dentist’s office. Then, my friend, your author is a Dungeon Master.
Both of these ideas sound pretty awesome, and both of the authors above are titanium-plated awesome. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, and in a skilled scribe’s meaty grip each style can keep you patently enthralled. I’ve spent more than a few minutes thinking about everyday applications of Allomancy from Sanderson’s Mistborn series — and you better believe I’m far more concerned about the fate of the Iron Throne of Westeros than the outcome of the 2012 Presidential Race.
This isn’t about what those authors have already written. It’s about the fantasy that hasn’t been written yet.
The fantasy that you and I are writing. The new fantasy, which is also old fantasy — as opposed to the middle fantasy that we’re currently sitting in. The new/old fantasy where we basically don’t give a shit.
What am I talking about?
I have chosen this term because:
a) It sounds cool.
b) Fuck you, that’s why.
Are there rules? Yes, of course. But they are to be like a kindly sour-smelling uncle. You send them a card on their birthday, a sincere hug at Christmas — but you’re not inviting them over when it’s time to party.
Is there backstory? As long as there is linear time there shall be Stuff That Happened Before. But we shouldn’t drag it with us like those creepy dudes wearing their high school letter jacket to English 101. Leave that shit behind.
And world building? Of course, building your own little bolt-hole from reality is the bleedin’ point. But why do we need to reinvent the wheel every time? Tolkien did it and generations of fantasy writers have been doing their best to ape him ever since. Too many fantasy writers think like Carl Sagan:” If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”.
How about we just have apple pie? You know, the apple pie that is at the store and we’ve all had it and we all know what it is?
Swordpunk is all about just eating the fucking pie.
I think the fear that fantasy writers have is that if they don’t reinvent the wheel, they won’t be taken seriously. Like Tad Williams is going to roll up and revoke their Fantasy License. [I’m imagining him in a lime green golf cart and wearing a jaunty scarf. Are you imagining it that way? Just me? Okay.]
The worlds are there. The tropes are there. It’s all in how you use them. I think there can be more power in connecting to the old stories, then running down the street and trying to start up your own Disneyland. “Oh, no — this ain’t Mickey Mouse, this is my own character Mouselord McQueen. He’s totally different.”
I don’t want to waste energy convincing you that my world is more clever or more original or ‘waaaaaay fucking different” [WFD] from any other fantasy author’s world. That’s a fool’s errand, and honestly more than a little outside of my skillset.
When I have a hero step forth and raise his sword, I don’t want to try to sell you on how he’s different than the inumerable sword-slingers in the genre. I want you to think of them. I want you to think of Sturm Bright-blade, Simon Mooncalf, Logen the Bloody-Nine, Brienne of Tarth, Lancelot, Garet Jax, Neville Longbottom, Reepicheep, Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter and Conan the Barbarian,
himself. I want you to think of them all. I want to connect to that resonance, that legacy of character.
Is it getting a little Joseph Campbell-y in here?
Beyond that, fantasy needs to be more of a wackadoo fever dream. I want more Fritz Lieber and Michael Moorcock – more Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, more Elric of Melnibone. Beautiful little offshoots of the genre, grand and strange, bizarre and gleefully weird.
That’s what I’m trying to do at least, with Spell/Sword, my first novel. And if I can keep going, I’ll keep trying.
My book has rules. My book has backstory. [Shit, you better bring some Post-It Notes, dog.] I’m a Nerd and a Dungeon Master, just like all of you.
But thinking about these things, and giving them a silly name made me feel free. It made me feel empowered, it made me write the book I wanted to write — not the one that I thought would ever sell.
I hope it makes you feel the same.
1. Eating the pie is more fun than making the pie.
2. No one cares about about your character’s grandfather.
3. Only trot out the Rules on special occasions.
4. Don’t let anyone tell you how to make your art. Make it. Make it scream and bleed, make it shine and shatter. Be true to the moment, to the beauty of it — and make no excuses for putting it on the page.
5. There should always be more minotaurs. Preferable riding on cherry-red mopeds.
And if Brandon Sanderson wants to start an internet feud, he can GET IN LINE.
Thanks for reading my ramblings. This is what happens when I’m not editing.
But I was editing, black and white photo soldier guy, who I hope is not some sort of war criminal! I can see that ceremonial dagger on your belt, and I’m sure you’d like to dispense some pre-Internet justice, but hear me out.
In between normal life errata and work neccesity, my creative-time has been in short supply. Lodestar has taken a turn for the awesome as we rocket towards the conclusion – and I’m determined to deliver on the storytelling and gameplay promise of the campaign and not leave my players disappointed when it wraps up in September. On top of that I’m running a short side-game for some neophyte nerds in the neighborhood, plus planning for my Top Secret Next Campaign. Compounded with time rolling in the floor with the new puppy, and other general puttering about – I’ve been swamped.
I finished the rough draft of Spell/Sword back in April, then put it away for as long as possible before diving into editing. I made it a full four weeks, which was torturous indeed.
True editing began in May, here was my process:
1. Print out the draft, and read through it. Making only absolutely necessary notes in the margins.
3. Read through it again, making nit-picky grammar notes.
4. Take all of the comments/edits from the paper version and add them to my Google Doc. “No argument” edits were implemented immediately. [Grammar fixes, word choice, spelling mistakes, erotic centaurs scene] More complicated edits requiring more thought or massive chapter-spanning revision entered as Comments onto the G-Doc.
5. Man, there’s a lot of these Comments. [63 total, only 17 of which were related to petticoat description. ALWAYS NEED MORE DESCRIPTION OF THE COURTLY LADY DRESSES]
6. Worked in fits and starts on the larger edits. The easy ones first, picking at the edges — then finally dived into the more serious ones in June.
7. Anxiety Quicksand. Edits seem to be making book worse. Every thing I read seems to be terrible, even if not explicitly marked for revision. I hate the book, and spend a lot of time polishing a terrible, shiny thought. Writing this draft was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done — a goal in my life that I never imagined I would accomplish. To have made it this far is nothing short of miraculous — but the book still might not be any good. Effort does not equal excellence in writing, or any art. I might have a completely unusable draft, rotten to the core. I might have written a book and still not have a book.
8. Kept editing.
9. Started to lose the feeling of forward momentum, so I engaged the Saving Grace of Art. A deadline. Contacted my Alpha Readers, and let them know that I would be printing the draft the first of July to send them copies for review. I embrace that deadline, and editing redoubles in ferocity.
10. I like the book a little better. Well, let’s be serious — I love the book, but understand that I have lost any objectivity. I’ve read it too many times, I’m way too close. I finish up major edits, with the salve that I’m going to go through this whole process again once my Alphas have a crack at it. Only they can tell me whether or not my child is a Goofus or a Gallant.
11. I have one last brainstorm for my editing before releasing it to the Alphas. I read the entire draft out loud in one sitting. I catch innumerable grammar, tense, spelling, and logic errors in the process. Best thing I’ve done, next time around I’m planning on doing this much, much earlier. I also record me reading it [TECHNOLOGY!] for further review.
12. I like the book.
13. I send the draft to be printed for Alpha Readers. I feel a sense of pride that my closest friends and advisors will soon know how fucking clever I am.
14. I listen to the recording, and immediately catch a dozen glaring syntax and logic problems.
15. Cry a little bit. But you know, in a badass way, like Chow Yun Fat in The Killer.
I know I’m not unique in my process, or in my reactions — I know my colleagues and associates are sick of my talking about these things like I invented Author Malaise. But, you’re my blog and this is my first time up this thorny path — so get prepared for some serious whining and navel-gazing.
Also, some ruminations on various literary and genre concepts. I’ve been struggling to put my novel in context with others in the genre, and I’ve had some thoughts. SOME THOUGHTS, I SAY.
I’m also thinking about pulling my old weekend STORY ON DEMAND out of mothballs, now that I have a little more brainspace to spare.