Charlie's Diary

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Mon, 21 Feb 2005

Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series

I've just returned the page proofs of the paperback edition of 'The Family Trade', due out in May in the US, and my thoughts turn to the history of the book: why and how it got written, and how things have turned out. For some reason this doesn't seem to be a topic novelists discuss much in public, so I thought I'd jot down some notes here.

The story begins in late 2001. I'd had a breakthrough year; in addition to being nominated for one of the major awards in the SF field for the first time, I'd acquired a literary agent who successfully sold my first two SF novels to Ace. I was working like a dog, trying to write at least one and a half novels a year on top of a workload of freelance computer journalism -- in early 2000, when the bottom dropped out of the dot-com boom, events had caught me between stools and I ended up writing two magazine columns and numerous features every month to make ends meet. Writing books looked like a less stressful way out (at least you get to measure your cash flow in months rather than weeks), and I'd sold two, so why not try to sell some more?

Note for the uninitiated: a literary agent is the jobbing novelist's white knight. Your agent takes a cut (typically 15%) of your earnings. But if you don't earn, you don't get paid, and neither do they, so their job is to figure out how to get you as much money as possible. As a recent survey shows, agented novels get significantly higher advances, on average, than unagented ; like an accountant, a good agent should earn you a lot more money than they cost. So when talking business (as opposed to art), your agent is the first person you turn to -- they'll shoot down unsalable ideas before you waste six months pursuing them, and provide helpful advice on how to make your good ideas sell better. (But note the qualification about talking business, as opposed to art.)

When I raised the idea of writing some more books with my agent, her first comment was, "you realize that 'Singularity Sky' probably won't be in print for two to three years? And 'Iron Sunrise' won't be out for a year after that? Ace have a backlog, and they've also got an option on your next SF novel. On the other hand, if you really want to write for a living, can you do something that isn't specifically SF, so we can sell without breach of contract? Like, say, a big fat fantasy series?"

This made me stop and think hard. The thing is, I've read a lot of extruded fantasy product in my time -- and I don't much like it. Fantasy and Science Fiction are co-marketed in most bookstores, but this conceals the fact that they're actually radically different genres in outlook. Loosely speaking, if Science Fiction is often a literature of disruption (in which change is, if not good, at least embraced), Fantasy is frequently a literature of consolation: a warm feather-bed of social conservativism disguised as nostalgic escapism, a longing for feudal certainties. While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Fantasy, the marketing mechanism applied to it tends to promote those aspects of it that I really don't like: the hordes of marching sub-Tolkien clones. (I'm with China Mieville on this.) And besides, Robert Jordan is still alive and selling.

Rule 1: Don't steal from living authors, their ecological niche in the publishing jungle is already occupied. (Alternatively: nobody needs another Robert Jordan.)

If I was going to write extruded fantasy product, I'd have to write it from the point of view of the young lad growing up with poor but honest folks somewhere in middle earth who discovers that he's, er, destined to grow up to be the Dark Lord, overthrow the established order, and start a revolution.

I said as much to my agent and she sighed (inasmuch as one can sigh in email) and said "don't do that, the readers will hate you." Readers who hate authors do not buy their books. I kind of realized I could see her point, and shelved the idea. Score one for commercial pressure over art.

Idea number two: I've been interested in alternate history as a sub-field of SF for a while. There are a couple of ways of writing alternate history; you can do it straight (as an historical novel set in a history that never happened) or if you bend the rules enough to allow for a visitor from our own world to get a tourist visa to the universe next door, you can use it as a tool to poke at our conceptions of how our own world operates.

One fly in the ointment is that AH fiction is often marketed as SF. But I happened to recall a precedent for doing it in fantasy -- noted SF/fantasy author Roger Zelanzy's masterwork, the Chronicles of Amber, all ten books of it, featured a family of rather paranormal protagonists who could walk between worlds. The Amber books sold like bandits, but since Zelanzy's untimely death in 1995 the ecological niche has been empty.

Rule 2: Steal from the best. There's no point stealing from the worst.

Why not take the basic premise (a family of folks who can walk between worlds) and strip off all the superstructures Zelazny added to the mix? Reboot it in the context of a coherent alternate history set-up and see where it goes. Maybe even (being mischievous) add the "child of poor but honest folks who grows up to be the [thematic] dark lord" sub-plot to anchor it more firmly in the marketing soil of the contemporary extruded fantasy series while laying the groundwork for a later refutation of the key thesis of consolatory return? I could get to have my cake (a long fantasy series) and eat it (the intellectual challenge of doing something new).

Rule 3: If you steal an entire outfit from one writer's wardrobe, people will mock you for being imitative. So steal from at least two, and mix thoroughly.

The mere theme of a bunch of relatives who can walk between time lines does not a novel make. You've given them the means, but not the motive or method. Luckily it's not virgin territory; other writers have been here before, and it's always worth looking at the prior art. In the SF field one author in particular stands out -- H. Beam Piper. Dead since 1964, his books are nevertheless still in print: a sure sign that he had something to set him apart from the majority of writers (who go out of print for good within two years of their demise). Among his most enduring works are a handful of stories and a short novel ('Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen') about the Paratime Police -- an agency established by an imperialist time line that ruthlessly exploits the resources of its neighbours. While I really didn't like his key ideological assumptions, I really did like his technique. So, in accordance with Rule 3, I decided to use Piper as my other wellspring.

Now, here's an important point: I was planning a series. Conventional publishing wisdom is that you can only publish one book a year in a given genre -- if you publish more, you risk cannibalizing your own sales (unless you have an avid fan base). So if I was going to get to grips with this project, I was going to be in it for the long haul. How long is long? Well, I didn't particularly want to limit it to a trilogy -- what I'd decided to look from the attic of ideas was a background and a basic premise, not a story, and I had some big ideas to explore. It would take at least four big, fat books to get to grips with it.

The first book: thesis. We're introduced to the world-walking folks, get to see why they engage in this activity (which, on the face of it, is personally risky). It's probably the oldest reason of all -- economics. They do it to get rich.

This series is going to be sold as fantasy, so a mediaevalist or at least very non-contemporary setting is pretty much mandatory. This has Implications. If the family of world-walkers come from a society that's backward and primitive by our standards, that puts a whole new spin on the premise. Usually, in this sub-genre, visitors from other time lines have Advanced Super Science mojo, which invites unwelcome plot non-sequiteurs. In contrast, making them primitive is (as far as I know) a first.

For our protagonist, I can use the "child of poor-but-honest folks coopted into the aristocracy" cliche, only, like, inverted, so that being coopted into the aristocracy is bad. They find it stifling and unpleasant -- a big clash of cultures. They rebel. (Hey, I'm back to the disruptive protagonist theme again!) But a poor-but-honest character from a society dominated by aristocratic time-line traders is going to be at a marked handicap. How about making them a long-lost by-blow who's grown up in our world, and gets sucked in against their will? And who's pre-wired with a curious urge to look in dark corners? A journalist, say. Who starts digging places they shouldn't, is forced to go on the run, and then has to desperately struggle to build a secure power base for themselves before the assassins close in ...

And that's how 'The Family Trade' gets the first inkling of a plot skeleton. I scoped it at around 200,000 words, or 600 pages.

The second book: antithesis. The first book sets loose a whole flock of pigeons. Pigeons shit everywhere, get eaten by hawks, and lay eggs: they have side-effects. Somewhere down the line, the consequences of our protagonist's arrival are going to start making themselves known. They're from a relatively advanced culture and they've been dropped into a relatively backward -- but not politically unsophisticated -- one; shades of the old time-travel classic Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp. Meanwhile certain other sub-themes (that fell out of the first novel outline) suggested themselves, which I'm not going to go into here. Truth and consequences: I scoped out 'The Clan Corporate' at around 250,000 words, or 750 pages.

There were two more books in the original series pitch I prepared and sent to my agent. I figured I had enough loose ends to tie myself up in enjoyably for five years -- but no longer. I'd already been through sequel hell in writing 'Iron Sunrise', and figured out that no series should outlive the author's interest:

Rule 4: When choosing the themes to pilfer, only pick ones that you, personally, find interesting -- if you pick something boring you'll only have yourself to blame if it's successful and you end up chained to the desk to write more of it for the next decade.

Anyway, I sent the pitch to my agent, and she said, "huh, I think I can do something with this. Want to write the first book?"

So I did. The first draft ran to 155,000 words, was written in a twelve-week frenzy, and had an ending that sucked mud through a straw. My usual test readers told me this, so I re-wrote it and the manuscript bloated to 190,000 words. I'd run out of energy at the end of the first draft. The second worked. It's still the longest book I've ever written.

During the writing of the book a whole bunch of extra ideas occured to me. It acquired a lot more texture and complexity, and the series outline mutated in line with it. This is a good thing. I may have spent the first 90% of this essay writing a frank endorsement for deriving all your ideas from your predecessors, but it's one thing to steal the floor plan and another thing entirely to steal the wallpaper:

Rule 5: However much you're stealing, make sure it doesn't look stolen. Genre publishing is a beauty show, and originality wins prizes (but not too much originality).

All writers are periodically asked "where do you get your ideas?" Our dirty little secret is that ideas are cheap. You've got ideas. Your pet cat has probably got ideas. You can find ideas in the back-catalog of authors who died forty years ago, or you can go sit in a cave for forty days and nights and bring back ideas. Or you can slavishly ape Roger Zelazny's technique. What matters isn't the ideas, but what you do with them. I managed to take a grab-bag of ideas pioneered by other writers, and by inverting a couple of assumptions and hybridizing a handful of unrelated strains I came up with something new that, as far as I know, hasn't been done before.

My agent took the book and sold it to Tor. Where David Hartwell gave it a thorough editorial working over (in the course of which it swelled to just under 200,000 words). Then the dread words came down from on high: "can you split this into two volumes?" This is my sole apology to those readers who are annoyed at the abrupt ending of 'The Family Trade' -- it's the first half of the original book, splitting them so that the series would run in 300-page chunks (rather than 600-750 page doorsteps) wasn't my idea (in fact, I protested it), but in the final analysis I can only tell my publisher where to get off if I'm willing to get off (and go find another publisher -- after acquiring a reputation for being "difficult to work with"). I appreciate the reasoning behind the decision, and indeed if I'd been working with the publishers before I wrote the book it would have fitted the form factor they wanted -- but that's not how the business works, and these are the breaks. At least the second half of the story will be in the shops in roughly twelve weeks' time.

That original four-book outline now maps out to four story arcs spread across eight to twelve books (assuming Tor want to buy them all). And I'm staring a decade-long project in the face, which just goes to reinforce Rule 4.

In the meantime, it turned out that my agent was wrong about Ace sitting on 'Singularity Sky'. It ended up coming out six months ahead of original expectations, leaving me scrambling to keep up. And the price of cynicism is a to-do list measured in years. Because the final sting in the tail of the series pitch is this: if you have a better idea for a series a year down the line, you won't be able to start it until you've finished the first one. So here's hoping that this one is a success ...

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 13:40 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Missile Gap
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The Jennifer Morgue
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The Clan Corporate
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The Hidden Family
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The Atrocity Archives
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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
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July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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