The Hyrkanian Dating Scene

I imagine my blog sounds a little like your friend who has just found a new girlfriend or boyfriend right now.  All going on and on about how great it is to find someone that understands you, how awesome it is to be getting someone touching your butt when you want it.  In my case, of course, I’ve spent the last month going on about my rekindled love affair with comics.

Fuck if I’m going to stop now, though.  Let’s talk about Gail Simone’s new Red Sonja.

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The first arc of her new series, Queen of Plagues, has just wrapped up and is available here.  Having followed this series since it started, I was an immense fan from the get-go.  Red Sonja is a favorite heroine of mine: someone who makes absolutely no apologies for anything she does, someone who routinely forces the world to play by her rules, someone who faces a hard world and carves her own little piece of it out with a broadsword and a bad attitude.

All of this and more is on full display in Simone’s run.  Aided in no small part by the amazing artwork of Walter Geovani, there’s something hugely charismatic about the way she writes Sonja’s complete unwillingness to bend to a world that demands she does.  In all things does Red Sonja make her own rules: in fighting, in hunting, in copious, copious drinking…

And in sex.

That’s right.  It’s another blog post about sex.  I understand you might feel put off by this reveal.  Beyond just tricking you into thinking I was going to spend the whole time talking about Red Sonja, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about sex in fantasy fiction and a pervasive aversion to it by readers.  In fact, I seem to do it all the time, lately.  You could be forgiven for getting exasperated, throwing up your hands and saying “I don’t want to talk about this!”

But because you might have that reaction (and because the subject interests me greatly), I feel that we do need to keep talking about it.

And it’s not like I’m going to stop talking about Red Sonja now.  Because, actually, it’s in the most recent issue (#8) featuring a beastmaster and an awkward midnight courtship that a thought hit me that sparked this whole train of thought that led to this blog post.

I had read Red Sonja before.  She’s seen a lot of iterations.  And I liked the comics well enough.  How could I not?  “Angry woman in small clothes kills dudes with swords” constitutes maybe a quarter of the stuff I write.  But something about them always failed to connect with me.  Sonja seemed very…mythic, but not necessarily in the good way.  She was very distant and hard to relate to.  I guess that was the point.  Sonja has always been about being untouchable.

Simone did a lot of new things to change that and make Sonja more approachable.  And I want to emphasize that it was a lot of things (backstory, character interactions, alcoholism) that did that, so that you don’t get the impression that it was solely one thing that made Simone’s Sonja click with me.  But a big part of making that connection was a simple fact.

Red Sonja had a sex life.

Not in the sitcommy sense.  Sonja had desires.  Sonja had whims.  Sonja had agency.  Sonja got lonely.  Sonja got rejected.  Sonja got angry.

And I remembered how many times I’ve had those same feelings.  And it occurred to me that sexual identity is a much, much bigger part of a person than we probably even realized.

Sex scenes in fantasy get a bad rep.  “It’s too fetishistic!” people cry out.  “It’s too embarrassing!” people moan.  But above all else, whenever I have this conversation on twitter, the most common complaint is this.

“It adds nothing!

And you know?  Technically, they are correct.  A sex scene adds nothing.

Because the sexual aspect is already there.

It’s ingrained in humanity.  It’s part of who we are.  It informs a lot of our decisions (for better or worse), it drives a lot of our thinking (often for worse).  And when we choose to ignore that aspect, we are not so much declining to add gratuity as we are leaving a gaping void where something should be.  And that kind of thing resonates with a reader more than we might care to admit.

“Ugh,” you might groan, “you’re just campaigning for more smut!”

Sure.  I like smut.

But that’s not the whole reason I’m speaking about this.  Inextricable to our inability to acknowledge the sexual aspect of a character seems to be the inability to acknowledge that sexuality is a vast and multifaceted thing.  I think (whether due to prejudices or past experiences), whenever someone thinks of “sex in fantasy,” someone thinks of some super gross fetish scene with lots of phallic imagery and synonyms for “dong” and “vag.”

It doesn’t always have to be.  Sex is a weird thing (hence why I’m always kind of amused when people complain that sex scenes are embarrassing; of course they are, sex is an intimate, vulnerable act.  It’s bound to be weird) and, just as combat scenes are different depending on whose point of view it’s in, anything of a romantic nature will have different priorities based on the character.

Not everyone is a master of the Thousand Palms.  A lot of things go into the moments leading up to it.  Awkward propositions, frustrated rejections, sulking in a corner, saying things you didn’t mean to; these are things that all could happen and, when they do, they will happen different for each character.  Even people who identify as asexual have a struggle figuring out their own sexual identity and where they fit in with society (a good example of this is the character of Fiona from Michael Lee Lunsford’s Supernormal Step).

“Well, I agree,” some people might say, “sex scenes done well–

And I’m going to stop you right there.  That’s such a noncriticism as to be totally worthless.  Of course, people enjoy a sex scene done well.  People enjoy anything done well, because it’s done well.  But what’s “well” for some is not well for all.  We need to accept that dealing with sexuality of characters is going to be done in the author’s voice, whether you like it or not.

I guess what I’m saying is that this is something about a character that needs to be acknowledge.  I’m not saying that every book needs to have a sex scene on every page or even one.  I’m saying it’s super weird that a lot of authors choose not to even acknowledge that this might be something people think about.

We’ve made a lot of strides in fantasy so far.  Orcs can be good.  Elves can be evil.  People are flawed.  Fantasy has embraced this idea.  We’ve not only come to expect that our heroes not be perfect, we demand it to the point that our hero can be an utter fucking bastard and still get cheers.

It strikes me as just incredibly weird that we can scoff at the idea of a hero showing a totally altruistic act, yet somehow still be perfectly okay pretending that people are not thinking about sex all the time.

Seize When Firm

I’m getting older.

And my brain is becoming less elastic.  I’m slowly becoming closed to new ideas, slowly becoming unable to process new information, slowly becoming unable to learn new things.  Eventually, my brain will harden entirely and I will be completely closed-off from an ever-changing world.  I will come to hate and fear youth, I will still be typing on Word docs when the rest of publishing is downloading streaming information directly into their brains, I will loathe people who do things differently than me and insist my way is best and I will be a great member of SFWA.

But for now, I am still pretty young (immortal, even, if my profile is any indication), and that means I am trying to learn new things.

So now I’m writing comics.

I’ve already raved about Rat Queensbut the truth is I’ve started becoming more and more interested in the art.  I’ve been intimidated from Marvel and DC since I was a kid, but I’m finding real gems in the smaller publishers.  Gems like Jim Zub’s Skullkickers or Gail Simone’s Red Sonja.  But whereas when I was a kid, I’d be concerned mostly about swords and metal bikinis, I’m finding myself looking deeper, at the nuts and bolts…and the metal bikinis, but still.

Suddenly, I’m interested in panel layout: how does one learn to think in panels?  How does one act creatively in such an enclosed space?  What needs to be told?  What needs to be said?  How do you make the minimal amount of information look as amazing as it possibly can?

Suddenly, I’m interested in dialogue: how do you make it happen without monologues?  How can you flex your character with such tiny space?  How can you communicate in 90% witty banter?

Suddenly, I’m interested in motion: how do you convey people moving without drowning in panels?  What are the critical parts of an action sequence that absolutely, positively must be shown?  How do you make it look as cool as possible?

With these questions in mind, I started writing something.

And found that it is fucking hard.

I use too many panels.  My dialogue is too lengthy.  I’m not conveying motion well.  I can’t capture dramatic essence in a single shot.  I’m too used to having too much room to do whatever I want.  I’m not used to having to focus my prose to a sniper point and pulling the trigger.

I’ve taken three drafts of the first six pages of my script.  Each time I show them to my friend, who knows comics much better than I do, she points out some crucial flaw that I’ve overlooked.  So I go back; I tweak, I cut, I maim.  Then I come back with something neater, cleaner and tighter than I did before.

And I have new flaws.

To take a gander at it, I am pretty bad at writing comics.  I’ve been venting my frustrations daily on twitter and to anyone who will listen.  It got to the point where I thought it’d be more effective to write down a blog post about it.  So here it is.

Writing comics is hard.  Maybe the hardest creative endeavor I’ve ever done.

And that’s actually really, really, really fucking good.

It occurs to me that people are probably going through with novels what I am going through with comics: the frustration, the ire, the way you can force and force and try and try and study and study and things just don’t.  Get.  Easier.  It occurs to me that there are people who probably stare at the words they’ve written and think to themselves that it’s bound to have flaws, so why bother.  It occurs to me that there are people out there who are probably thinking of giving up.

And it’s for them that I want to say the following.

If it’s hard, you’re doing it right.

I’ve said that on every panel of every convention I’ve ever been at where the subject of how to write has even been hinted at.  Writing is hard work.  It has to be hard work.

People love talking about the business side of writing (because, as most writers have the business sense of a dumb baby, it is new and mysterious to us), but this is still a goddamn art.  We are still making art, not “product.”  We are still creating, not “producing.”  We are still pouring joy, hate, fear, love into something and shoving it out into peoples’ faces, not going down a checklist.

Because it’s a creative endeavor, the only way you’re going to get better at it is by failing.  And because it’s a creative endeavor, the only way to fail is by spending a lot of time and energy on something and then figuring out that it won’t work.  That’s just the nature of the art.  We have to build something up and then hurl cannonballs at it and see how long it takes to fall down.

But each time you build it back up, it’s a little sturdier.  Each time you make it fall down, the places in which the structure gives out are more apparent.  Each time it collapses, there’s more of it left for you to work with.

The only way to make it work and not feel hopeless about it is to see the truth in failure.

It’s a sham of an artist that flinches from failure because it’s impossible to grow without studying the ashes of what you just burnt down.  How did it fail?  What sentences wavered?  What parts of the character were too meaningless?  Where did it become sterile?  Where did you flinch?

Even this blog post is a failure on my behalf.  The advice I’m giving here is both so specific and so general that it won’t make sense to anyone else.  You’ll find our own way to look at things and your own way to figure out how to make it work.  You’ll figure out how your rhythm and your schedule works.  You might even come to refer to your book as product and start decrying about how my advice doesn’t conform to your situation, ergo my entire point is flawed.

At which point, your pedantry will overwhelm me and I will likely punch you.

So, if you want, you can take this as advice about whether or not writing is for you.  If you want, you can tear this blog post apart and see what parts work for you and what parts do not.  If you want, you can ignore it entirely and go read something someone else wrote.

In the end, maybe this whole blog post was, like any creative endeavor, for the artist first and the audience second.

Because it just doesn’t seem real to me unless I write it down.

Women Who Stab Things

I love Rat Queens.

That’s not the line I wanted to open with for this particular blog post.

wanted to tell you I was going to come to here to tell you what an important comic Rat Queens, written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and drawn by Johnny Rocwell, was.  I wanted to illustrate in no uncertain terms just how many daring leaps this story has taken and just how important that is to the growth of fantasy as a genre.  I wanted to tell you all about how this was a comic that so thoroughly rejects the baggage of fantasy tropes while so vigorously embracing their delight that it simply demands to be read.

I wanted to tell you this in a very studious, academic manner that lent itself to thoroughly serious discussion.

As you can guess, I failed at that.

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Rat Queens is awesome.  Simply, unabashedly, vigorously, humanly, tenderly, bad-assingly awesome.

A glimpse at its story should be easy enough to tell why I like it so much.  An adventuring party of an Elf Wizard, a Dwarf Warrior, a Human Cleric and a Smidgen (Halfling) Rogue have to deal with the troubles of being adventurers.  Said troubles include living large off of ill-gotten gains, causing fistfights, having sex with orcs and being general nuisances to society, oft-looked-down-upon by the authorities and probably loathed by one or more supernatural powers.

The characters are so amazingly vivid.  Hannah is a Wizard dealing with living up to the legacy of her parents and her people, Violet is a Dwarf who has rejected her society outright, Dee is a Cleric who doubts that the god she gets her powers from even exists and Betty is just so goddamn tender and good-natured it hurts.

They fight orcs.  They love orcs.  They fight assassins.  They drink a lot.  They fight wars.  They have complex relationships.  And every issue comes with a drink recipe at the end.

I can’t talk about what an important comic this is in a studiously distant fashion.  It’s too fucking good for that.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about what an important comic Rat Queens is in three easy steps.

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1. It Features Women

This comic’s main protagonists are all female.  This is kind of the most simple and the most complex thing about Rat Queens.

On the one hand, it’s pretty simple.  I’ve ranted before how I have a hard time believing any fantasy story that doesn’t feature women in a major role; it simply doesn’t reflect my reality and I find it dreadfully boring.  The fact that we have four major protagonists and each of them is a woman is great.  The world feels more authentic to me because we’re not pretending women wouldn’t be as greedy, conniving, violent or short-tempered as dudes in the same position.

And yet…it’s so very complex because the fact that they’re women is both the biggest deal and not a big deal at all.  The characters are never doubted based on their gender.  They are never rebelling against a gender stereotype.  There is never a point of them being so exceptional because they’re women.  They’re defying everything about fantasy tropes, but they’re doing it just by virtue of existing.  They love, they fight, they bicker, they form relationships and break them, they get drunk, they loot shit, they burn things alive, they murder giant troll women in badass battles while arrows fall like rain around them because that’s what they do.

Rat Queens proves that you don’t need some trauma or rape story to explain why a woman can be strong.  Some women just are.

2. It’s Influenced, but Not by Tolkien

I mean, insofar as it’s not a story that is intently mindful of the authors who have come before it.  It’s not a comic that is very concerned with considering what literary devices will be subverted, whether or not it pays homage to what came before, or how this reflects upon the edifices erected by Tolkien and Howard.  This is a comic that, like its protagonists, is concerned chiefly with itself and what it’s doing.

But the influences are pretty important because this is a comic that’s influenced by things that it’s very taboo (in the fantasy story world, anyway) to be influenced by: Dungeons and Dragons, youth culture, glorified self-destructive behavior and…well…humanity.  There are no cold-blooded paragons of virtue, no sinister shadows who do wicked things just because, no poignant reflections upon the state of the world.  There are people who are doing what people who had access to a lot of wealth and power like adventurers would really do, there are people who display what young people under the weight of prophecy and cultural stigma really do, there are people who reject what’s come before and deal with it.

And that brings me to number three.

3. It Was Made For Me

And you, too, I think, if you’ve ever read a book review where the reviewer praises the author for “paying homage/respect/tribute” to the books that have come before and wanted to vomit.

I can only really comment from a genre literature standpoint, but Rat Queens does so much of what I’ve desperately wanted to do and embodies so many things that I think are artistically virtuous that I can’t help but like it.  Rejection is seen as something beautiful here.  Striking it out on your own is commendable.  Making mistakes and having problems is seen as an inherent part of being a person.  Giving the finger to what other people want you to do is a necessary part of life and planting your feet, taking a shot and saying “tonight, I will have sex with an orc” is among the very highest honors you can do.

It is a fantasy story that wholly embraces youth and vigor and it’s just so goddamn great.  Betty is awesome.  More of that, please.

You can find Rat Queens in any comic store, but I get it off of Comixology.  Their first volume, Sass and Sorceryis out now.  Get it.

Tucson Festival of Books 2014

Hey, gang!

If you are in or around Tucson this weekend, why not come check out the Tucson Festival of Books?

It’s a great show with a lot to offer.  Also, I will be there with some weird guys.  Like Kevin Hearne, Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth Bear and some Brian…Brandon….Sand…Sandyson…Sandersomething.

Anyway, here’s my schedule.  Come check me out out!

Saturday March 15th 10am

Building a Mythology

Sam Sykes, Jennifer Roberson, McKiernan, Yvonne Navarro, Brandon Sanderson

 

Saturday March 15th 1pm

Author Banter Hour:

Sam Sykes, Elizabeth Bear, Jonathan Maberry, Kevin Hearne, Weston Ochse, Kim Stanley Robinson

 

Sunday March 16th 1pm

Book signing at the Poisoned Pen Booth

 

Sunday March 16th 4pm

Drop Kick your Cliches

Elizabeth Bear, Jonathan Maberry, Sam Sykes, Jeff Mariotte, Isaac Marion

If you happen not to be able to see me there, you can always pick up my signed books at the Poisoned Pen booth (or at their very lovely store)!

Also, if you aren’t there, I will beat you with a stick.

See you soon!

 

Teeth on Leg, Forever Chewing

I have sat here, staring at a cursor blinking on a white screen, for some time now.

I have done this because I am absolutely terrified of making this blog post.

If you’re part of the SFF community, I guess you know what it’s about.  If you don’t, I guess you can read a summary here.

I don’t know an incredible amount about Jonathan Ross.  I’ve seen him on episodes of certain British panel shows I sometimes like to watch.  He seems funny.  If people have problems with his humor, that’s also fine.  I can see how they would and I don’t think their concerns should be discarded or dismissed.  His presence or lack thereof at the Hugo awards does not really affect me.

The fallout surrounding this event does, though.

I have never been to a Hugo awards ceremony.  I’m sure it’s nice and I’m glad that it means so much to a lot of people.  But I’m also aware of what I choose to write and where I choose to stand in the population of genre, so I long ago wrote off any chance of a Hugo being a possibility in my future.  I chose not to let the Hugo affect me.  That’s a choice I made.

And I’m mostly happy with that choice, if not 100%.  John Scalzi and Mary Robinette Kowal are people I consider dear friends in whom I have placed a great amount of trust and care for their thoughts.  The Hugo is important to them and it’s sad to think that I won’t be able to connect with them on that particular subject.  But on stuff like the time John wiped Doritos cheese on my sleeve or Mary looked at me scrutinizingly and expressed wonder as to how I get away with being as obnoxious as I do, we connect.

Connections are very important to me.

And that’s why this fallout bothered me.

It started as a disagreement, of that I’m sure.  But I’m not sure where it stopped being a disagreement and started being uncomfortable.  I hesitate to say it was outright nasty, but there was more vitriol and anger and rage about it than I had ever seen in a typical SFF kerfuffle.  There’s a lot of talk about one side being hypersensitive or one side being callous and I don’t agree with that.  I think it was more that the Hugos were apparently so important that they were worth being really vicious to other people over.

And I don’t at all understand that.

I don’t get the Hugos.  A lot of people have claimed they don’t want the Hugos to feel hostile and alien to them, and they shouldn’t have to feel that way.  But the Hugos have always felt hostile and alien to me.  It was like visiting a war memorial with a veteran: I can understand the significance, but the emotional connection isn’t there on the same level it is for someone who’s seen it.

This isn’t a call for people to enlighten me.  This isn’t a declaration that no one should care about the Hugos.  This isn’t a call to action at all.  It’s just me making a statement.  I don’t get the Hugos.  That’s fine.

Or it was fine.

Vitriol, in general, does not unnerve me.  I’m a child of the internet; I’ve been called names, told to kill myself, received death threats, and so forth.  The only thing that really unnerves me is when I don’t understand it.  And that’s why this vitriol was difficult for me to see.  On some level, I just don’t understand the SFF community, the people whose company I enjoy and whose friendships mean an immense amount.

Or so I thought.

It really came to me as I was writing this.  Or rather, as I was thinking about how scared I was of writing this.  And rest assured, as a dude who feels on the outside of this, I feel pretty scared right now.

I’m scared that older authors who I disagree with will use a lengthy history of influence to damage my career.

I’m scared of being called problematic or privileged or phobic.

I’m scared that people will react to my fear one of the two ways they know how and have a good chuckle at this, my meltdown.

I’m scared that people will react to my fear the other way they know how and avoid it entirely and I’ll be left here, pouring emotional honesty into a black hole.

But I had to write it.  Because things don’t seem real to me unless I write them down.

And in writing it down did I realize that I’m not the outside.  I think I understand it.  Because as I sit here and think about all the ways I could be hurt in writing this, I sit here and think about all the ways in which I could hurt someone back to keep them from doing so.

And I wonder if that’s what we’re doing.

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that my childhood had its difficulties.  Not the same difficulties as other children, but I had issues where I was bullied, where I was hurt, where I was afraid.  As most primates learn, my perception of social order came about as a means of understanding that I could express dominance by hurting other people first and thus preventing myself from being hurt.

I wonder if we’re just hurting each other because we’re afraid of being hurt.  I wonder if we’re trying to assert dominance over each other for fear of being edged out or silenced or made irrelevant.  I wonder if we’re speaking out because we’re afraid of everything and afraid of each other.  A friend of mine who I was talking over this with said it was going to be awkward at cons from now on, with a lot of authors feeling weird about each other.  Maybe that’s the case.

Or maybe I still just don’t get it.  I’m fine with that, too.

If it is, I don’t think I want to get it.  When I was that kid just coming out of being bullied, I was not very pleasant.  I hurt people all the time.  One of the greatest parts of becoming a writer was becoming self-assured enough that I didn’t have to hurt people.  I could make connections that felt good to make.  I didn’t have to sever connections out of fear or pain.

I’m not saying that SFF is doomed or inherently flawed.  These are discussions that clearly need to be made.  But I find that so often it’s becoming a situation of “us” and “them.”  I don’t want to be an us or a them, I just want to be me.

I want to write what I enjoy.  I want to make friends, regardless of age or genre.  If I hurt them or make them angry, I want to make it right without having to write them off.  I want to make connections and I want to keep them.  And I want to write this blog post.

Because this has been gnawing at me for a while now.  And it wasn’t real until I wrote it down.

So, maybe there are aspects of SFF that are always going to be alien to me.  That’s fine.  Maybe this is just me trying to pre-empt my own fear by running away from it.  That’s fine, too.  I appreciate the Hugos’ value for what it does to friends, but I don’t think I can bring myself to get this invested in it.

Love,

Sam

A Nutshot Most Tasteful

You ever read Zen Pencils?

It’s one of the more peculiar webcomics out there, ostensibly being a series of cartoons formed around inspirational quotes.  It’s something of a series of illustrated affirmations, most of them pertaining to the work of a creative, be they illustrator, writer or craftsman.  Given that the aim seems to be encourage people to perform their art with as much passion as possible, I’m mostly in favor of it.

Mostly.

Lately, it seems to have gone on a bit of a tear about the nature of online criticism, conflating it with outright hatred.  I appreciate the author’s candor, but I can’t say I agree with it at all.

In general, I really dislike discussing the “spiritual” side of writing.  You know, the kind of talks where we all sit around a coffee shop, chuckling about how “arduous the journey of a thousand steps that begins once you put verse to page” is, or “how we must tap into our darker sides to really bring out the light in our prose,” or “please, for the love of God, someone punch me in the fucking face so I’ll get to fucking work already.”

I love talking about writing.  I hate talking about being a writer.

I view it as chiefly unproductive and I think this latest strip from Zen Pencils summarizes why: it’s way too easy to romanticize persecution.

And why wouldn’t it be?  It’s the essence of a good story, why we root for the underdog.  But I think, in this case, it’s turning the act of criticism into something inherently negative, something that brings the mood down, fosters hostility and generally creates an atmosphere of hatred.  It can do this, sure, in the same way that a charity can adopt hateful positions; anyone hateful enough can turn anything into a tool of hatred.  But to dismiss all criticism would be as weird as dismissing all charity.

And I wouldn’t be commenting on this if I didn’t see it prevalent in so many young writers.  I feel, too often, that young artists, upon being criticized, begin as mildly discouraged or frustrated and then go flying headlong into an internet hugbox where all criticism is bad and no one can hurt them again.  Part of this is due to the rise of caustic critics as a popular form of entertainment, but I think a lot of it is also due to the fact that no one really tells people how to handle criticism aside from “suck it up.”

As I do occasionally discuss writing technique on this blog, I thought it’d be handy to offer some tips on how to handle criticism for burgeoning young writers to get the most out of it.  So, without further ado, let’s begin…

1. Accept That Criticism Is Good

Ultimately, the only way you’re ever going to find out how fast you can go is by crashing a few times.  In this, criticism is where you’re going to get hurt.

And it will hurt.

Accept that you’re going to feel frustrated, discouraged, maybe even a little depressed when someone tells you that you didn’t do something well.  This is both normal and good; if you’re irritated, then you know you can do better and if you’re depressed, then you know the art meant something to you.  It’s fine to feel this way, but it’s not fine to dwell on it.

Trust me, as a guy who received many negative reviews, that it gets easier to move on from them.  They can still sucker punch you from time to time, but overall, you find yourself learning their rhythm and identifying what you can use out of them.

And that is what you should be focusing on.  Like a half-starving buzzard over a bloated heap of roadkill, your aim should be to completely skeletonize a critique, feasting on the tasty, rotting innards of what you can improve on and ignoring the brittle, marrow-less bones of critical hyperbole or parts where you just disagree.

Be open-minded in your view of criticism.  Be thorough in your review of a critique.  Be careful about what you choose to take from it.  Be unafraid to disagree with it.

2. Identify Who The Critique Is For

Not all critiques are for you, the writer.  It’d be nice if they were, but they are not.  Critics generally set out to do what they want to do for a reason and it’s not always how to improve your craft.  But generally, there are three sorts of critiques.

-Reviews for the Reader: These are the vast majority of blogs and reviews out there.  The reviewer’s goal is to generally inform other potential readers or an established audience.  They tend to have larger audiences and focus on general themes of the book, going off of their own feelings and instincts.

These are worth paying attention to.  If you find that the thoughts they bring up are echoed by many, then it’s something you might want to consider.

A good example (in my opinion) of this kind of blog is The Book Smugglers.

-Reviews for the Reviewer: These tend to be sites where people come to see the review, rather than what’s being reviewed.  The reviewer’s goal is generally to put on an entertaining performance art.  The audiences can be large, but are also pretty loyal to their reviewers.

At the risk of sounding elitist, I find there’s not a lot here to for a writer.  The aim is to entertain, not to inform or discuss, so it’s usually done with the benefit of the author being the furthest thing from their mind.  That’s not to say you can’t get something from it, but that’s generally just incidental.

A good example (in my opinion) of this kind of style is The Nostalgia Critic.

-Reviews for the Writer: These tend to be sites where the work has a more in-depth review, dissected and discussed at length.  The reviewer’s goal is generally to identify what works and what doesn’t work in great detail.  The audiences might be smaller, but they tend to be more involved.

These are the ones you should pay attention to.  They are often the harshest, but also the most insightful.

A good example (in my opinion of this kind of style is Staffer’s Book Review.

3. Listening is Harmless

I think, in general, it pays to listen to most criticism.  Note, though, that I make a huge distinction between “listening” and “incorporating” or even “considering.”  Just because someone makes a critique doesn’t mean you have to do what it says, nor even that you have to consider doing what it says.  In fact, a number of critiques are completely contrary to what you might be trying to do.

There are plenty of critiques that will criticize a book for not being what they wished it had been.  Someone might have wanted more romance where there clearly wasn’t going to be any (this happens).  Someone might have wanted your direct artistic choices to have not occurred (this happens a lot).  Someone might want to read the newest Brandon Sanderson and have found your book and start sighing that it wasn’t Brandon Sanderson (this happens all the time).

Making the choice as to what criticism to listen to and what to incorporate and what to ignore will also become easier as time goes on, like anything else in writing.  My general rule of thumb is that criticism that I’ll listen to is criticism that’s already occurred to me (and maybe the critic put it in words that had thus far eluded me) and criticism I’ll ignore is criticism that basically takes umbrage at the book being something other than what the reviewer wanted.  No offense to them, but I can’t really use that.

This, I think, is where Zen Pencils is coming from.  The hatred can be hard to ignore, but I find it gets easier once you look at it in utilitarian concepts.  It’s not doing anything for you, so why would you listen to it?

Anyway, I hope this helps burgeoning writers.

If it doesn’t, you can tell me why.

But I probably won’t listen.

Winter is Coming in a Moderately-Priced Package

I allow myself few nerdrages.

The reasons are myriad: I don’t feel I’d have much to add to the “raving wildly at the camera and/or blog” reviews-as-performance-art that are so in chic, I don’t think it’s entirely becoming to channel your geekish enthusiasm into a frothing, spittle-laden fury, but chiefly, I don’t think pedantry is a particularly useful form of criticism.  And I don’t think I’ve ever seen nerdrage that didn’t revolve around pedantry.

I rarely weigh in on the subject of cover art of books for the same reason: it rarely tends to be constructive and more often devolves into a furious flaunting of pedantry.  At least, as far as genre book covers go.

In case you hadn’t figured it out, this blog post is going to be super pedantic.

The internet is absolutely choked with complaints about how genre book covers are “embarrassing,” “juvenile,” “adolescent” or any number of adjectives that adequately sum up the statement “I’m an ardent fan of fantasy, just so long as no one knows it.”  My own covers have not been immune to this criticism.  How could they not?  They feature a guy with a big-ass sword.

Except this one, which features a gal with a big-ass sword.  And a bunch of purple-skinned monsters.  And a giant dragonman.

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That’s the French cover to The Skybound Sea by Marc Simonetti and I still think it’s badass.  But that’s besides the point.

Proclamations like this don’t really bother me.  I’m 6’4″, have an amazing jawline and do what I love for a living.  You couldn’t possibly make me feel bad for doing something I enjoy.  Thus, I don’t really get emotionally invested in cover art.  I enjoy what I enjoy and I don’t presume to tell others what they should or should not like.

I’m certainly not doing that now, even though I’m going to make a statement here.

Harper Voyager UK (who I’m sure is staffed with very lovely people who put out fine quality books, many of which are done by people I respect and admire), has just released a recover for George R.R. Martin’s obscure, little-known fantasy series you probably haven’t heard of, A Song of Ice and Fire.

And, well…

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…yeah.

My first impression is that they look very much like they were designed to appeal to a very mainstream crowd.  My second impression is that they look a little like travel guides.  My third impression is that they look a little like they might actually be a bit like a very safe romantic novel.

But my overall impression is that they don’t look a lot like fantasy novels.

Which is the part that kind of galls me.

I was extremely reluctant to make this blog post, partly because I’m not fond of speaking out against publishers (though I think this hardly counts as that), but mostly because I’m still coming to terms with my inner and outer geek.  And I’m still very much not comfortable with getting into the aforementioned pedantry and yet-to-be-mentioned tribalism that goes hand-in-hand with a nerdrage.

But damn it, Mainstream World, these books were ours first.

I’m not about to go calling George R.R. Martin a fake geek (no one would believe me) or launch into a tirade about how Harper Voyager UK has betrayed geeks as though we were all some gang from The Warriors that you either swore allegiance to or waged war against.  It’s just…I kind of hoped this would go differently.

When Game of Thrones came out on HBO, I was pretty happy.  My friends, who were not geeks, had always been reluctant to get into the same kind of stuff I enjoyed.  But watching the show was a lot like polishing the jewel in the crown of nerdery for them.  It made them enthusiastic and I thought that’d carry across the world.  I thought we’d all be like “see, guys?  Fantasy isn’t for weirdos.  Or it is, but you can be weird and still be cool!  It’s cool to be enthusiastic about this!  It’s cool to enjoy this!  We have loads more stuff like this over here!  Come check it out!”

I’ve always said we in genre should not give as much of a shit what mainstream literature thinks of us.  I not only stand by that, I hold up Game of Thrones as proof.  This was for us.  It was a great story that happened to be fantasy.  It was written well, it was awesome, it was compelling and it was just something we enjoyed without having to prove to anyone else about it.  It was fantasy that could attract people who were not typically into fantasy and who might find that they maybe liked it.

These covers just seem like they’re trying to erase the notion that these books might be fantasy novels.  They’re like turning the fantasy switch low so as not to spook people, rather than flying their flag high and letting people come enjoy it.

I get why Harper Voyager did it.  They’re clearly not hurting for sales and they’re trying to corner the market that’s still avoiding the books based on them being fantasy novels in general.  That’s fine.  Game of Thrones’ word of mouth power is so huge that it could change its covers to an image of George R.R. Martin strangling a man with one hand and beating him with a trout with the words “THIS IS A METAPHOR FOR FINNISH-RUSSIAN RELATIONS” and it’d still sell like mad.

And I’m not trying to paint this as a conflict of the beleaguered geek elite beset by impure outsiders.  I think it’s awesome when people read fantasy and enjoy it for the same reason I’m thrilled when a fellow fantasy author does well: there’s no such thing as a reader that reads only one book and it’s tremendous when reading one scratches an itch that someone never knew they had.

I just kind of hoped that it would be non-fantasy fans realizing that fantasy was cool and you could accept it as it was, rather than…well, this.

But I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe I’m totally overreacting and these are great covers and, despite my best efforts, this is just another pointless nerdrage.  You tell me.

But all in all, I think I’m just a little bummed and felt like moping in public.

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Now, while I’m not entirely fond of Valentine’s Day myself, we do have a big of a tradition on the blog where eager young lovers write in Kataria and Denaos seeking romantic advice.  Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was unable to get this going this year.

But, as I had no particular desire to let my readers go without, I had a couple of cards made with the help of artist Dan Jones.  Please, feel fit to send them to your fondest friends and enemies.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Men Without Fear

I didn’t like Thor 2.

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That took a lot of courage to say.  Fandom is a strange thing and there are few fandoms stranger than Marvel.  A slight against the Thor franchise is a slight against Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba and (if you’re feeling saucy) Anthony Hopkins.  When I first said I didn’t like this movie on twitter, I was lambasted.  Peter V. Brett said my soul was dead (incidentally, he’s correct, but for different reasons).

But I still didn’t like Thor 2.  I thought it was dumb.  A lot of people who liked it seemed to agree with me on that, but went in, anyway.

And I was content to leave it that way until I was browsing Netflix while I was editing The City Stained Red one night, looking for something to play as background while I worked.  I stumbled upon Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, as it had been sitting in my recommended list like a ripe pimple waiting to be popped and figured “what the hell.”

I put it on.

And I didn’t get any editing.

Because I loved it.

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And when you are a creative type (or maybe when you’re just me), loving something has dire implications.  Because you can never just love something, you have to know why you loved it.  You have to know what worked and what didn’t so you can steal what worked and reject what didn’t.  You spend a lot of time dwelling on a movie that had a lengthy shot of a witch’s butt and sometimes, you ask yourself difficult questions.

Such as why I liked this unapologetically dumb movie and didn’t like an equally dumb movie that all my friends liked.  People like Doug Walker have touched upon this subject before, but I had to suss it out for myself before I was ready to make this blog post.  And I think I stumbled upon the answer just a few nights ago.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters does not take itself entirely seriously.  Thor 2 does.

Now, I might just be speaking for myself here (since a lot of my friends clearly did not take Thor 2 seriously), but when a movie asks me to buy its premise, I’m in, and I read the tone of the movie from that premise.

The children from a cautionary tale about strangers survived and are fighting witches with a variety of awesome toys.  The fact that they are telling me this basically means that we are in for something strange and humorous.  To that end, all the silliness of the script is charming and the plot holes are excusable.  Hansel has diabetes and keeps track of it with a clockwork syringe?  Of course he does.  Gretel fights witches in tight pants with a gatling crossbow?  Naturally.  Everyone in post-gunpowder Germany has American or British accents?  Why not.

Because, at the end of the day, I’m watching a movie in which Gemma Arterton is shooting witches with a gatling crossbow while Jeremy Renner is suplexing witches into hay carts and it’s fun as shit.

Thor 2, though, asks me to buy into the premise that Asgardians have problems.  Real, emotional problems of separation, abandonment, treachery.  It’s set against a backdrop of action and adventure, but the premise is serious.  Thor is having trouble, Loki is having trouble, Jane Foster is having trouble.  This is a serious piece with some serious messages.  And that means that the plot holes are harder to overlook, the inconsistencies are more difficult to swallow and the offensive pieces are a little more offensive.

I mean, I can’t be the only that noticed that Jane Foster was actually turned into a briefcase, right?  Something more or less extraneous to the plot, but used to carry the thing that was important to the plot.  I can’t be the only one that noticed the Asian character was written out of the movie in the first three minutes?  I can’t be the only one that noticed Idris Elba stabbed a spaceship to death?

Were this a movie that took itself less seriously, these might not be so noticeable.  That latter bit might actually be fun.  But there was so little humor, so little joy, so much seriousness that these just took me right out.  I did like Loki in the film (which seems not entirely groundbreaking), but I think only because his levity was such a reprieve from the choking overtones.

It might have escaped your notice that this crucial moral debate only came up while I was editing.  Digesting stories of all kinds is crucial to a writer because it helps us understand our own stories better.  And this was a debate I found that reflected pretty hotly on mine.

I don’t take my work or even my genre entirely seriously.

I mean, of course I don’t.  I wrote a book in which a smelly, dirty woman killed a wizard with a jar of urine.  I like doing that.

I like impractical clothing, I like silly banter, I like pee jokes, I like hare-brained schemes.

That caused me some concern.

We’ve discussed how not taking oneself too seriously can excuse certain problems.  But does it preclude them?  If Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters were to change gears and try to tell me something serious, would I listen?  Can a story be light and dark in equal measure?

Can stupidity be an artistic choice and not just an excuse?

I’d like to hope so.  Because I also wrote a book in which someone deals with a crippling despair that comes with saying goodbye to loved ones.  All of the loved ones.

Given that this is an argument that revolves around examples in the media, it seemed befitting that I turn to more media to solve it.  Or rather, it seemed befitting that, as I was talking to my friend Carl about this, he pointed out an example in the media where it worked perfectly.  One of my favorite stories of all time, in fact.

NICKELODEON AVATAR ANIME

Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I still, and probably forever will, hold this show up as one of the greatest shows of all time and one of the best stories ever told.  It was epic, it was sprawling, it blew my mind.

And it was undeniably stupid at points.

There were pro-wrestlers who threw rocks at each other.  There were greasy hicks in the middle of a swamp that made windboats out of magic.  There were six-legged bison that flew through the sky and an army that was defeated by kids with hang-gliders and a gigantic, horrible drill so big as to be implausible, let alone impractical.

And yet, it was undeniably serious.

There were characters consumed with shame and self-doubt.  There were budding romances that were the most important things in the world to these people.  There was war, death, carnage.  Every failure hurt and every betrayal stung.  Sometimes, things looked so dark it was hard to believe that we’d ever get out of it, let alone believe that just last week we were in a cave that we could only find the way out of via the power of true love and magic badgers.

And I think that’s where Avatar’s strength lay.

And I think that’s what makes levity and even the occasional stupidity more valuable than any bleakness.

The two impact each other.  A bit of comedy gives readers space to breathe and is almost welcome after they’ve been drowning in drama.  Tragedy hits harder when the times have been good up until it strikes.  The bleaker and darker things get, the more wild the triumph is.  The live action movie of this was bad for so many reasons, but one of the big ones was that it forgot that this movie, at its heart, was energetic, wild and carefree enough to be stupid from time to time.

And speaking of movies I didn’t like, there was one aspect of Thor 2 I truly loved.

SPOILER ALERT.

When tragedy has been visited upon the Asgardians, a tragedy that strikes Loki more than anyone, Thor goes down to console him.  Loki appears totally unfazed, smiling and laughing until Thor tells him to cut the crap.  Loki cringes and his illusion falls away, revealing that, in his cell, he’s been an absolute wreck: taking out his anger on everything around him.

This, I think, only worked because Loki, up until this point, had seemed untouchable.  And I think it only worked because he was finally forced to take things seriously.  And I think it only worked with Loki because Thor, up until this point, had been taking everything seriously, so this didn’t seem to affect him as much.

I detest the word “balance” because it’s such a cop-out in conflict because obviously balance is ideal and extremes of anything are bad (hence why they’re called extremes).  So maybe this blog post was more for my sake than for yours, giving me the opportunity to put this to words for me and working it out for myself.  But if you managed to take anything from it, let it be that it doesn’t pay to take yourself too seriously.

Or let it be that Avatar: The Last Airbender is a fucking rad show and you should watch the hell out of it.

Whatever.

Unfortunate Modesty

Trigger Warning: This blog post discusses rape briefly.

To give you an idea of my relationship with the concept of maturity: I spent most of last weekend arguing with Peter V. Brett over the definitive function of a magical system as cast by a mysterious order of proctomancers known as Butt Wizards.

If that’s not clear enough, I mean to say I’m pretty fond of silly stuff.  I don’t really buy into a lot of the traditional ideas of maturity as put forth by society today.  I mean, if I did, I’d have to acknowledge fantasy and the writing thereof as a silly, frivolous endeavor and I’d likely be out of a job.

Perhaps, though, it’s inevitable that, as you get older, your priorities start changing.

Case in point.

I’m working on A Mortal Tally, the next book in the series Bring Down Heaven (more on this soon).  Granted, my definition of “work” is also fairly untraditional, in that I’ve spent the last three nights sitting on a scene, trying to figure out how to make it perfect.  This isn’t unusual for me, I used to do this all the time when I was working on The Aeons’ Gate trilogy, trying to figure out how just to make things happen in just the right way to make the audience enraptured.

The difference being is that back then I was working on combat scenes.  Nowadays, the scenes that cause me trepidation are ones of emotional intimacy, such as sex.

The sound you just heard was a thousand readers rolling their eyes at once with such velocity as to give Harrison Ford a flashback to Raiders.

That’s to be expected, of course.  Sex has traditionally had a bad reputation amongst fantasy readers.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s one of the reasons I’m more interested in pursuing it, if that’s the next thing to be explored amongst a genre that has largely come to terms with excessive violence and bastardry.  It’s a dialogue that interests me lately because I think we’ve been going about it the wrong way.

There are dozens of arguments against it, of course.

“It’s always written embarrassingly,” for example.

When you get down to it, sex is embarrassing.  It’s a moment of extreme emotional vulnerability (usually, anyway), where both characters are at their rawest.  It’s an awkward, gangly mess of limbs and exchange of fluids and grunts and everything you say is stupid but it doesn’t matter because hormones.  I inwardly groan whenever anyone complains about Joe Abercrombie’s sex scenes being embarrassing because he’s writing about broken people trying to feel normal; it’s supposed to be embarrassing.

“It’s never written in an appealing manner” is another.

I think it’d be more accurate to say that it’s not written in a manner that appeals to the reader.  Like anything else, from character to plot, sex scenes have a voice.  It’s interesting that readers can agree with everything about a book up to a scene of emotional intimacy and then have a wildly different opinion.  Did the voice of the scene change?  Or does a reader’s perception just change that much?

“I’m okay with it if it’s written well.”

…you don’t say.

“It’s totally unnecessary,” though, is the big one.

And, interestingly, this is one that’s given me a lot of thought.  Because for a very long time, I haven’t exactly been able to refute this.

Sex is frequently titillating, enticing, visually-arresting.  In a lot of ways, it’s gratuitous by nature, since it’s something (presumably) a lot of us aren’t doing every second of waking life.  Ironically, I think because of the special intimacy we attach to the act, it becomes something not often looked at in our genre and thus, seems gratuitous when we do.

For awhile, I was content to believe this.

The arguments that it didn’t add anything to the character, that it didn’t enhance the plot, that it didn’t start a conflict seemed to add up to me.  The idea that it could only be there for gratuitousness was one that I felt compelled to admit had a degree of weight to it.  This didn’t bother me overmuch–after all, I was fine with admitting that a lot of my combat scenes were gratuitous, as well–but there was still something about the argument that didn’t sit entirely well with me.

And it wasn’t until I was talking with my friend Jessica that it hit me.

I was ranting about a book I was reading that I had just put down because of a rape scene.  It’s not that I was offended by the inclusion of the scene.  Rather, I was looking ahead, deducing that, from this author’s writing style, I was about see another instance of Rape As Shorthand.

You know what I mean.  You’ve probably read it yourself.  A female character needs to be strong, but how do we make her strong?  We can’t just have her strong.  Better throw in some rape to excuse it.

As a note to writers: we should stop doing this.

So, I put the book down, as I had no real interest in seeing this trip rehashed and I went to rant to Jessica.  She started wondering why, amongst all traumas, it was only rape that ever made a female character strong.  Like, losing your parents and being abducted was never enough.  Rape needed to be thrown in as the icing on Awful Cake.

It struck me as wildly gratuitous, but I was forced to admit that a lot of the sex scenes I wrote about were also gratuitous.

And that’s when she corrected me.

I should preface that I do not presume to speak of the effects this has on a person’s life, having never undergone it myself.  I am only trying to discuss what I see being utilized in fiction time and again.

To paraphrase Jessica:

“Rape is just there.  It’s in the story and there’s not a lot of ways to interpret it.  Whereas consensual sex is the beginning of something more, a lot of emotions coming out and making themselves known.  Fear, lust, desire, sometimes even hate.  Things don’t get less complicated after you introduce those.”

And that’s when it hit me.

We had been thinking about sex entirely wrong.  I had been thinking about sex entirely wrong.

You look at media today, traditional storytelling, it seems like sex is often the reward.  Once the beast is slain and the couples unite, we get a sex scene.  Once you do the right amount of side quests in Dragon Age, you get to have sex with Morrigan by the fire.  Once everything is said and done, it’s all down to the sex.

I think I bought into this, too.

Which seems stupid, since I’ve been an ardent defender of romance in the genre by saying it’s as much a source of conflict as any dark lord.  Sex is like that, an escalation of conflict, a raising of the stakes, peeling one layer of emotion off to get to something raw and bleeding underneath, something that makes everything more difficult in the story to come.

And suddenly, everything made sense.

“What about casual sex?” you might ask.

I can only really talk about what I’m doing here, but I honestly think that, because of the intimacy we attach to the act, every bit of sex has some meaning to it.  There are novels out there that try to dissociate this meaning, but I think it’s inevitable that readers will attach emotion, even if the author doesn’t.

“Nonsense, I’ve read tons of stories and never felt emotional attachment,” you might say.

That’s also fine.  I might argue that you haven’t found a scene yet that resonates with you on the kind of emotional level that I’d like my scenes to resonate with, but I’m hardly in the business of dictating how people should experience a book.

“I’m still not convinced and still don’t like reading sex,” you might say.

Sure.  One of my dear friends, who is an avid reader of my books, is also not particularly fond of the scenes.  She asks me to tell her where they are so she can skip them.  I don’t take offense.  They’re not for her.  Since she’s a great friend of mine, I tell her and she enjoys the rest of the book just fine and I’m glad to have helped her out with that.

“Well, I don’t think I’ll read you,” you might say.

And that’s also okay.

In the end, this is only something I can do.  It’s a discussion that interests me.  In the future, maybe I’ll get bored of it and want to talk about the impact of feasting scenes on the reader’s psyche or something.  But for right now, this subject is one I find fascinating as an emotional study and I’m interested in writing more about it.

Hopefully, you’ll enjoy reading it, when the time comes.

Who is Sam?

Sam Sykes is the author of The Aeons’ Gate trilogy, a vast and sprawling story of adventure, demons, madness and carnage.  Suspected by many to be at least tangentially related to most causes of human suffering, Sam Sykes is also a force to be reckoned with beyond literature.

At 25, Sykes is one of the younger authors to have arrived on the stage of literary fantasy.  Tome of the Undergates and Black Halo are currently published in nine countries.  He currently resides in the United States and is probably watching you read this right now.

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