Writing War in Fantasy: High Stakes vs. Logistics

In writing the sequel to Last Song Before Night, I’ve been contemplating the challenge of writing about lands at war, which is a theme in the next two books. Most epic fantasies are about sweeping and, well, epic battles. This is also true of many of the books I loved growing up. Now that I’m venturing into that territory myself, it’s occurred to me that there are two very different approaches to writing about war in fantasy, based on two essential elements: the high stakes of war, and the logistics.

I’ll give the most basic examples to make my case. Tolkien’s Return of the King is focused on the high stakes of war. Maybe he talks about supply lines and army locations, but I certainly don’t remember because it’s not a central interest for him. He certainly doesn’t talk about taxes, as George R. R. Martin has pointed out. There is talk of strategies, but this is in a manner similar to the Bible which also includes narratives of battle strategies–it’s done in a way that dovetails so seamlessly with the storytelling that you are not going to learn much technical information about battles from reading it. That information is beside the point.

If these logistics are not central to Tolkien’s interest, then what is? To me it seems clear that a religious perspective made the conflict between good and evil of central concern to Tolkien. In the end he is far more interested in the moral defection of Denethor and the internal rot of Saruman–and conversely, the blindingly white resurgence of Gandalf as Mithrandir–than he is in questions of food supply.

That’s one end of the spectrum. At the opposite end is K.J. Parker’s Fencer Trilogy, in which logistics is everything. The only evil is within the heart of the protagonist Bardas Loredan and his brother, Gorgas. Everything else can be coldly boiled down to the machine of war and how it interconnects with the equally impersonal machine of politics.

Most fantasy novels fall within this spectrum, being neither as consumed by conflicts of the soul as Tolkien, nor as preoccupied with logistics as Parker. And nowadays fantasy readers are savvy; they want their battles realistic or not at all.

For my forthcoming novel, I’ve been doing loads of research in order to be as realistic as possible–and to get ideas, too. There is often nothing so inspiring as a bizarre factoid from history, or even just an unexpected one. At the same time, I’m aware that my inclination is toward the Tolkien end of the spectrum–ultimately what I care most about is the larger contours of the conflict and how it shapes or destroys the hearts of people. The task, then, is to pull that off while simultaneously making sure technical-minded readers are happy.

It’s an unseemly amount of work. Good thing I’m excited about this story and where it’s going.

Announcing: New Column at Tor.com, Locus Recommended Reading List, and Other Stuff

  • I’ve started a monthly column at Tor.com, The Great Classic Fantasy Reread! (Yes, I chose the name, why?) First up is The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. Spoiler: I love this book.
  • Last Song Before Night made the Locus Recommended Reading List under First Novels! I’m truly honored: Locus is an essential SF/F institution. Being on the list is not only an honor, it also means the book is included in the Locus Poll, where readers have the option to nominate it for the Locus Award. If you enjoyed Last Song Before Night and think it deserves a nomination, the Locus Poll is here. The book is listed in the category of First Novels.
  •  Fantasy Book Critic lists Last Song Before Night as a Top Read of 2015! (Under debuts.)
  • I’ve made Brooklyn! That is, author and poet Nancy Hightower interviewed me on the Brooklyn Rail. We talked of many things including poetry, the costs of being a writer, and the dark side of art.

When Fairy Tales Backfire

I’ve been thinking lately about how the way we present ourselves and our work can have enormous consequences for the way it is received. This has always been something I’ve had to think about–when interviewing for jobs, introducing myself at conferences–but it’s become all the more compelling now that I have a novel out.

My upbringing, in tandem with inborn personality traits, resulted in a habit of self-deprecation. Maybe it’s because it was instilled in me in religious classes that humility is a praiseworthy character trait and bragging is bad; or maybe it’s because when women speak up, the rewards are few, whereas there might be short-term rewards for self-deprecation–people might be nice and reach out to help you, for example. But the long-term effects, as I’ve been learning, are deeply damaging, and the reason is simple. When you put yourself down, people believe you.

This runs contrary to an unconscious fantasy that I’ve had, that has only recently become conscious. That fantasy is of people seeing through the self-deprecation to the person underneath. I’ve been trying to understand where such an illusion came from, and I think it might have roots in a fairy tale. Now, I am a huge proponent of fairy tales and they inspire my writing. But just as stories can illuminate, they can also create a smokescreen of destructive fantasies. (Last Song Before Night is, at least in part, about just this idea.) And I think Cinderella has worked like that on me. Cinderella is in rags, but a prince sees through to her value. Her worth shines through the grime. The idea that you can present someone with a facade of rags and they will still see through to your true worth is a powerful one.

But of course, if I’d known I was processing the story that way, I would have turned it around, examined it, and found the obvious problem with my interpretation. Cinderella doesn’t enchant the prince until she’s decked out in a ballgown that is not only fabulous, it is actually magic. If anything, it is a fairy tale that underscores the value of presenting oneself to one’s fullest advantage. But we can’t always control how a story is processed in the psyche, not until we become aware of its effect on us.

I’m probably never going to be someone who is great at trumpeting my accomplishments. That in itself is a self-deprecating remark, but it’s hard to see a lifelong impediment melting away in a flash of self-awareness! But I’ll keep reminding myself: If you wear rags, that’s what people see. If you array yourself in a fabulous ballgown–well, some will be resentful, but that’s a risk of moving through the world. The best part of putting on the ballgown is that its cut and color are your choice. You’re not waiting for someone else to discover you–you’ve already made that discovery for yourself.

KGB Fantastic Fiction Reading!

Wednesday, January 20th signifies another of many firsts for me: My first reading at KGB! The bar has a venerable (or at least widely-known) tradition for literary reading series, and the Fantastic Fiction series hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matthew Kressel is a staple of the New York science fiction and fantasy scene. I’ll be reading together with the very accomplished and brilliant Delia Sherman, an honor in itself.

Another first: I plan to read from the novel-in-progress, the sequel to Last Song Before Night. Though it is very much in progress, after years of work I am starting to feel as if it is coming together.

Someday I may talk about the grim battle that went into the first year of shaping this book, and how our health is something for which we–and especially women–must be vigilant and proactive advocates in the medical system, but really…that is all too grim to talk about now and perhaps ever. Suffice to say that the book is starting to feel like a real book, drawing me to it late at night just to re-read and edit passages again, keeping me awake in bed plotting out new ideas, and that’s pretty much the most marvelous state of mind for a writer that I know of. I’m excited to share a little piece of it on Wednesday for the first time.

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“There’s a sequel? But isn’t it a standalone?” Yes, and yes!

The book has been out more than a month, the blog and book tours at an end. It’s probably past time for me to deal with a question that keeps resurfacing–and understandably so!

It’s confusing for people when I say I’m working on a sequel to Last Song Before Night. It’s a standalone novel, and from the beginning was intended as such. It’s for this reason that the ending was so difficult to write; I needed to wrap up every detail, every character’s fate. As far as I knew at the time, I would never be revisiting this world or these characters again.

I started looking for a literary agent when I finished the book in 2011, a process that would end up taking years. Meanwhile I wanted to get on with my next book. A trip to southern Spain, specifically to Seville and Cordoba, fired my imagination, and ideas began to flow. It was around this time, as I scribbled the plot elements of what would be the second book, that I realized I could bring these ideas to the world and (surviving) characters of Last Song Before Night. A chance to further explore the art and magic in Eivar and beyond, and to deepen the characters, offered tremendous story possibilities. Much has surprised me along the way so far, and I look forward to sharing it with readers.

So yes, there is to be a sequel. Last Song Before Night is a standalone novel. Both these things are true.

News: Amazon Top Pick, World Fantasy Convention, and a Tor party!

So I was minding my own business one day when my editor pinged me with this link. Amazon has listed Last Song Before Night as a pick for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of October, along with Margaret Atwood, Brandon Sanderson, Jim Butcher and other stellar authors. I am okay with this!

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Next week I will be at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs. I feel as if I got a bit of the lay of the land in our last trip. It is a charming, picturesque place with excellent restaurants and bars–and best of all, Northshire Books. Tor will be holding an event there on Wednesday, November 4th to celebrate its 35th anniversary with many authors. I can’t think of a better spot for such an event than Northshire, which is a beautiful space and was so hospitable on our New England tour. I will be there, signing books.

My World Fantasy Convention schedule is as follows:

  • Friday at 11am I’ll be participating in a panel: “Scale in Epic Fantasy: Tensions Between the Epic and the Intimate” alongside Joshua Palmatier, Suzy McKee Charnas, Glen Cooke, and Chris Gerwell.
  • I’ll be reading on Saturday at 3pm.

Come find me!

WFC will mark the last phase of my book tour, which began with guest appearances on various blogs, went on to an actual in-person tour of New England, and will culminate in a return to Saratoga. After this will follow a retreat back into the second book, which must get done!

Fall Flights of Fantasy Tour!

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So the Fall Flights of Fantasy Tour in which Seth Dickinson, Fran Wilde, and I conquered New England  ahem, toured various bookstores in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, upstate New York, and Vermont (in precisely that order) was in the past week. It began with a bang in Wellesley Books, where the turnout was huge and incredibly supportive and I signed a copy of Last Song Before Night for Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch, which…!

Fran, Seth, and I took turns reading random passages from each other’s books, which seemed as good an icebreaker as any–for the audience and between us. By the end of the tour we were all about promoting Last Song of the Traitorous Updraft or whatever.

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Along the way we connected with friends and made new ones. Something about being on the road is conducive to meeting and appreciating new people. And with so many events I had plenty of opportunity to practice my dreaded social skills, something of which I’ve written about at Chuck Wendig’s blog (though New England weather precluded the appearance of the fabled Red Dress of Visibility).

In Portland, one of the highlights was hanging out with the amazing Catherynne Valente, who introduced us to local gems. A bar with its own homemade chocolate cake with dulce de leche frosting wins a thumbs-up from me! Points for having an entrance that looks secret, as to a speakeasy. (Pictured, darkly.) Cat is now touring to promote her new novel, Radiance, which I look forward to reading.12112194_10156126903985006_7142793707076262105_n

A book tour is kind of a crazy thing, where if you are not in the process of traveling, you are on public display. And weird, stressful things can happen, like a fire alarm that evacuates the hotel into the autumn cold at 4am. A great deal of the experience of a group book tour can hinge on the dynamic of the group. I am so grateful that I got to travel with two excellent people (as well as authors) whom I like even more after hanging with them for days and nights at a time. I am grateful for all that I learned from them and for the support they showed me. Thank you Fran, Seth, and of course the staff at Tor!

Photos credit: Fran Wilde

New York Comic Con, Hogwarts Houses, and Lies About “Last Song Before Night”!

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New York Comic Con was a great time, as John Scalzi put us (Fran Wilde, Seth Dickinson, Lawrence Schoen, and me) through our paces in the “Tor: The Next Generation” panel–and sorted us into Hogwarts houses! Unsurprisingly, Seth Dickinson, author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, was sorted into Slytherin.

And here is Seth, firing on all Slytherin cylinders as he tells lies on Tor.com about Last Song Before Night! Someone stop him!

More seriously (a statement I feel compelled to make, as a Gryffindor) a writer can usually only hope for such perceptive readings of their work.

Here is how Seth’s essay begins:

“Stories about truth begin with a lie.

Let me tell you a lie: Last Song Before Night is an epic fantasy about a band of young poets on a quest to uncover an ancient secret and save the world from absolute evil.

The archvillain of Last Song is a censor (and he could be nothing else). His trade is the mutilation of truth. I like to think he’d appreciate this lie I’ve told you, just there. It’s a very good lie, because Last Song is about all those things, they’re in the story, it’s true!

But that is not the true shape of Last Song Before Night.”

More: Seth Dickinson on Ilana C. Myer’s Last Song Before Night

Where to Find Me in October

As October begins and the leaves change, Tor will be sending me and authors Fran Wilde and Seth Dickinson on the road to bookstores throughout New England. It’s like they planned it. I hope to sample local apple cider and apple cider doughnuts at every stop.

But first up is New York Comic Con where I’ll be, once again, thrown on the merry-go-round of a game with John Scalzi in the company of my fellow debutees. I will also be signing books!

Here is the complete breakdown of the tour schedule:

New York Comic Con – Thursday, October 8th

Tor: The Next Generation!

1:30 PM – 2:30 PM, Rm 1A18

Signing:

2:45pm  Bookstore, Hall 1-B

Tor Books celebrates 35 years of publishing quality SFF by some of the biggest names in genre today! But even Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson were once unknowns. Meet 2015’s new authors and see what makes them tick in a game of “Would You Rather” with host John Scalzi (The End of All Things) and featuring: Ilana C. Myer (Last Song Before Night), Seth Dickinson (The Traitor Baru Cormorant), Lawrence M. Schoen (Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard) and Fran Wilde (Updraft).

Friday, October 9th

In-booth signing

12 PM – 1PM, Tor Booth 2223

Fall Flights of Fantasy Tour! With Fran Wilde and Seth Dickinson

Tuesday, October 13, 7:00p.m.
Wellesley Books
Wellesley, MA

Wednesday, October 14, 5:00p.m.
Books a Million
South Portland, ME

Thursday, October 15, 6:30p.m.
Toadstool Bookshop
Milford, NH

 Saturday, October 17, 7:00p.m.
Northshire
Saratoga Springs, NY

Sunday, October 18, 4:00p.m.
Northshire
Manchester, VT

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On a different note, the Red Room book launch party with Seth Dickinson and the Forest Hills Barnes & Noble event were each a success. Both were well-attended and warm, the perfect way to send a book out into the world.