British actor and director Christopher Selbie has a go at Steel, Blood & Fire in the run-up to a full audio version!
A Mouth Full of Grit: Writing Grimdark Sci-Fi and Fantasy
By C.T. Phipps
Fantasy has a bad reputation with casual readers, in part because literature snobs have an issue with it (I know, I work in academia) and because a lot of people just don't understand the genre. Their experience with it was the Hobbit and Narnia when they were younger or Disney films. The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice of Ice and Fire along with their adaptations in the past two decades have done a lot to change that but the reputation of it as a somewhat childish genre lingers.
Interestingly, this attitude persists in fantasy fandom as well with some of them believing the genre has been polluted with far too many Tolkien-clones that lack the original novels complexity and depth. Indeed, part of why A Song of Ice and Fire was so well-received was that it was a darker and edgier take on the genre with not only realistic consequences to events but showing just how horrible the usually idealized Middle Ages could be.
I, myself, am a fan of writing grimdark and work which pushes the envelope of traditional fantasy rules. My sci-fi novel, AGENT G: INFILTRATOR, was created with the premise of, "What would a novel be like from the perspective of the corporate samurai bad guys who work for the megacorporations?" I thought of my space opera LUCIFER'S STAR as following up the equivalent to Return of the Jedi but lacking a heroic Rebel Alliance to replace it but a far more cynical "realistic" revolution. Finally, WRAITH KNIGHT stars a Dark Lord and tells the story of how someone might become one with the greatest of intentions.
I'm not quite as gritty as some authors but I thought I would share my advice for those who want to try to be a bit darker and edgier with their writing. Here's ten tips which I've found useful when creating my stories.
1. Flaws make the protagonist
The first piece of advice I have for any writer when creating their protagonists is DON'T try to make them likable as that's actually counterproductive in many places. Flaws make protagonists more interesting and things like bad attitudes, greed, old grudges, and more are what generate reader interest. "The Good Guy" is the most absolute boring kind of character you can create. Indeed, some of the best novels have been thoroughly awful people who are, nevertheless, interesting.
2. Bad decisions have consequences
Bad decisions happen all the time in books as heroes are expected to violate common sense. They go back for the man left behind, they try to rescue the princess, and go into battle against forces which heavily outnumber them. Which is why you should have these bad ideas...fail miserably. Not all the time but enough that it makes the setting work better. Like the hero bravely turning around to face the attacking horde then getting knocked out and all of his men slaughtered.
3. Good doesn't mean right
Similarly to the above, it's a good idea to have the most moral characters challenged in their actions. Say Prince Such and Such receives a bunch of refugees from outside of his kingdom which he fights the nobility for the protection of. Make it so this leads to other consequences like overcrowding or, if you don't want to make him the bad guy, a massive riot from the racist citizens which leads to purges. Decent actions can be hard and there's no guarantee they'll work out.
4. Happy endings or not
Happy endings are something which aren't terrible to have but it's also good to make things not quite as neat as they could be. Tolkien knew this when he had Frodo unable to cope with normal society and need to go to the Blessed Realm (which is a metaphor for premature death if I ever heard one). But yes, maybe the orcs are still around and will cause trouble for years to come. Maybe it turns out the girl who the hero has been pining for the entire time doesn't like him, is married to someone else, or is gay. Maybe the bad guys weren't entirely defeated but one got away scott free in the end. It makes things a bit more bittersweet and (again) interesting.
5. People are complicated
It's important to make sure you layer your cast with multiple dimensions. Bad people should have good qualities, even if they're monstrous terrorists who love killing, maybe they have a fondness for fine art as well as a love of children. Maybe the king who is kind, compassionate, and a decent ruler is an unrepentant misogynist or considers the peasants to be people who must obey him by divine right. Throwing in these complications makes the reader uneasy for getting a handle on them--which means they pay more attention.
6. Violence is not fun (except when it is)
Violence is inherently exciting but making it heroic is often a cheat for the reader and there should be opportunities to make it more visceral as well as upsetting. Having awkward like a mook running away, only for the hero to instinctively shoot them in the back or the smell which accompanies the disembowelment of another person with a sword is good. It makes the violence have punch rather than be a sanitized affair. In the original Star Wars there was a lot of blood leaking out of the guy who lost his arm in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Then there's the chaos and brutality of a large scale battle, which might end up in war crimes depending on the time period. These details can make battle and its aftermath more engaging prospect for readers.
7. Society sucks
To make a gritty sci-fi or fantasy novel you should definitely make a world where there's lots of casual corruption as well as injustice. These should be features which the heroes can't actively engage with. Everyone expects it from the evil Empire but if the world just has no easy answers then it's a place which will feel real to most of us. The petty evils of bureaucracy, indifference, and so on should be everywhere even during the worst of struggles.
8. Kill your darlings
Characters have to die in gritty works. If you can develop them before they die, so much the better. It helps to make individuals who are likable, on the protagonist's side, and who suffer a grizzly fate for their goodness. It also makes sure even if you're not going to kill or maim your protagonists that the audience isn't sure about any of their supporting cast. When developing a story, set aside some characters to be slaughtered like lambs on the altar of good storytelling.
9. The Smell of the Streets
The streets should always smell in gritty fiction. They should have the taste of asphalt, desperation, and sadness. You should always make sure to assault all of the senses of your reader when writing as that will make things stronger.
Hopefully, these tips will help you write a grittier, darker, and better story.
You can learn more about C.T. Phipps at:
Some writers may find the task of world-building daunting. But if you were lucky enough to grow up like Sherman Alexie, George R. R. Martin, even or Stephen Colbert (or me), your deep and lengthy experience with Dungeons and Dragons makes the process feel like donning a favorite pair of old jeans. You are already aware, for instance, that magic must have a cost. You understand that occupied cities and territories have governments. You know that money makes the world go ‘round. In short, you’ve been dealing with the minutiae of world-building – other people’s and your own – for so long that’s it’s become almost second nature.
But what if you never played Dungeons and Dragons?
Well, that means you were one of those kids. You know, the ones with actual lives, with friends, with things to do! We D & D fans generally named our orcs and kobolds after you. But let’s suppose that now you’ve seen the light. You never played D & D, but you regret your shortsightedness and would now like advice on how to proceed with this world-building business.
That’ll be 25 gold pieces.
I’m not kidding.
Okay, I am kidding, but it’ll cost you 250 experience points.
Fine; I’ll help you.
Consider the world you live in. It’s a poorly held secret the George R. R. Martin did so when creating his Song of Ice and Fire. The whole “Game of Thrones” universe is famously modelled upon the War of the Roses, between the Yorks/Starks and Lancasters/Lannisters. This was his skeleton, his framework. From there, for example, Dorne is Spain. Meereen is Cleveland. Kidding. I think. But if, as I said, you do consider the world we live in, you’ll see a veritable checklist of questions to be answered. Questions like: Is there religion? If so, who or what is worshipped and what does this look like? Why does it happen and what, if anything, do the faithful receive in return? If there is religion, are there also non-believers? How are they viewed and/or treated? What does the calendar look like? How many seasons are there? If you have more than one moon, what are tides like? Are there nights of multiple full moons? What is the light quality like on those occasions? I mentioned money earlier. What passes for currency in your world?
Literally everything you encounter in our world can have its fantasy analog, you see? Here, do this exercise:
We have buses, they have…
We have McDonald’s, they have…
We have WWII, they have…
We have Exxon, they have…
We have crack, they have…
We have Cuervo Gold, they have…
We have coffee, they have…
We have Motel 6, they have…
We have football, they have…
We have Westboro Baptist Church, they have…
We have the Red Cross, they have…
We have ATMs, they have…
We have Disneyworld, they have…
We have tornado alley, they have…
Make a game out of it. Play it with your kids. Or your neighbor’s kids. Just don’t offer them candy. But do play it. Answer all the questions you can, and then let your mind loose in your new world. Have at it like a Weight Watcher in a Krispy Kreme!
You will love what you discover.
And now we go 180 degrees from Ulff to fantasy author Molly Ringle. Talk about contrast!
A few weeks ago I posted about a topic I was pondering: namely, the more I read of currently popular fantasy, the more I see a huge focus on weaponry and fighting and the protagonists being (or becoming) martial arts geniuses. I stick with these books if, as in The Hunger Games, they're written really well and the plot and characters are compelling. But I've got to admit that violence and weaponry and action scenes are not my favorite things. They're never the parts I re-read for pleasure (that would be the love declarations, or some particularly amusing exchanges or incidents, or passages of beautiful writing describing something magical). I don't particularly like writing fighting-and-weapons scenes either, though sometimes I have to, given the way I've set things up. So lately I’ve been musing about how to set up a fantasy book so I can spend as little time as possible in violent weapon-related scenes and still create a really good read.
I think this is what appeals to me about the Harry Potter world, and stories like Howl's Moving Castle: we get a lot of time to hang out in the magic world and enjoy it, and when there's fighting, it's almost solely with spells and with using one's brain. When Hermione actually uses her fist to hit Draco, it's all the more startling and satisfying because of the usually non-violent mood.
I should add that surely a lot of the issue is that I personally am no good at weaponry or martial arts. I took fencing one time in college and was the absolute worst in the class at it. I lately have learned a little bit of tai chi, which I guess technically is a martial art, but the movements go so slow that I wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone with it unless I accidentally poked them in the eye while sweeping my arms about.
Still, I understand the benefits of including mortal peril in a story. Practically every novel needs to have it in the climax at least, and all of my books do, though it rarely involves wielding a weapon. In my paranormal/fantasy stories, it usually comes down to creative use of magic, sometimes to defeat the thugs who brought conventional weapons. Wishful thinking, I know.
But it’s worth mentioning that one of my favorite book (and movie) series of all time, and one of the fandoms that has sucked me in the deepest, is The Lord of the Rings, which is hardly free of swords, arrows, axes, and epic battles. So why do I adore it despite the lavish attention to gleaming armor? Well, for one thing, Tolkien writes really beautifully. But for another, as in the above-mentioned case of Harry Potter, we get quite a lot of non-battle time in which the characters are wandering wonderstruck (or fear-struck) through amazing settings, and having endearing conversations, and we as readers get to soak up the atmosphere and just hang out in Rivendell or Moria or the wastes of Mordor.
Also, some of the most important feats in Tolkien aren’t pulled off by armies, but by very non-martial hobbits. We have not only Frodo and Sam creeping their way up Mount Doom to destroy the Ring, but Bilbo too, back in the day, sneaking around to outsmart Smaug and Gollum. And then—ah ha—it is once again all the more powerful when our peaceful Samwise picks up Sting and manages to drive off the scariest and biggest spider ever with it. It’s equally powerful when Merry and Pippin volunteer as soldiers, a role that puts them completely out of their depth and makes us fear instantly for their survival. So having characters not be in their element in fight situations can result in some of their most memorable scenes.
The flip side applies too: it’s intriguing when a competent fighter is put into a situation where fighting won’t help. (Lord of the Rings uses this too. Sure, those tough Haradrim and Corsairs can bash their way through anything, but can they bash an army of ghosts? Nope. Ha.) In short, the scholarly Tolkien knew that while it’s fabulously useful to have brute force and weaponry on your side, it’s equally important to be smart, humble, creative, and/or caring, even if you’re hopeless with a sword.
My latest book, The Goblins of Bellwater, has a setup in which there’s not much use trying to fight the goblins, who are immortal shape-shifters. The only way to defeat them is magic, via specific and bizarre rules set by other fae. “They better give you one hell of a magic sword to take with you,” says one of my characters to another. And she answers, much as I myself might, “I’m hoping it’s more like a magic shovel. I don’t know how to use a sword.”
May your adventures be fruitful, whether your strengths lie in the blade or the book, or somewhere in between!
Molly's latest is out today, The Goblins of Bellwater!
Grimdark: Realism in Fantasy Fiction
Recently I was interviewed by Charles Phipps, a fellow author, who asked me, among other questions, about the "grimdark phenomenon."
Grimdark is speculative fiction with an edge. For some that edge pokes out from the neck of an impaled person, a la Vlad Tepez's quaint hobby, as seen through the close up lens of a technicolor x-ray camera; for others, including yours truly, it is more the absence of the shining heroic stuff far too many commercial fantasy novels (and scifi) have been accused of, think Star Wars only that instead of robot limbs flying from a lightsaber attack it's actually more humanoid torsos and such. You know, not the glossed over crap that far too many PG 13 movies and such annoy the world-weary watcher.
In a different conversation the question was asked if we all saw grimdark as "just realistic fantasy." A term that might seem an oxymoron, but if inspected closely reveals the school of thought behind it. Some folks insisted that, to use the above impalement analogy, one had to see every square inch of intestine being perforated by less than pleasant characters. Vlad Tepez actually had a goal in mind when he impaled people, he didn't just do it for fun. Yet this specific definition requires the protagonists (a term only fitting in the sense that they work against someone, the antagonist, and not to be confused with the stereotypical 'hero') to have an alternate view on morality. Which would be okay, if that "alternate view" did not wholly consist of utterly vile behavior like, you know, killing children and raping women, usually before, during, and after every meal.
Granted, our 21st century sense of morality is still tainted by the notions of archaic religions which were and still are quite happy to vilify and persecute and even kill those whom they perceive as heretic. Humanist thoughts may have a place in speculative fiction, in fact they should have their place; after all, Conan of Cimmeria frees slaves. And many a fantasy story has the noble king, the noble knight, the benevolent woods witch, and wholesome, family friendly warfare in which blood rarely flows and people has as many gender identifying properties as Barbie and Ken. And the same bathroom needs.
The fallacy, in my opinion, of "there are no heroes" is that "everyone is a villain." It's the same fallacy as "without light there's only darkness." Ask a blind person what darkness is. There cannot be darkness without light. Maybe it is too philosophical a topic for many, but the point is: how can anyone be a bad guy when there are no good guys? If everyone is a villain, then everyone, by the same measure, is also a hero.
I've tried reading books with everyone a villain, aside from the all too boring torture-porn-esque bloodshed, the people being portrayed have no redeeming features. They kill and murder and rape their ways through the story, utterly contrary to the Fellowship of the Ring, but just as boring. (How many times can one read that some character gutted a foe and said foe's guts hit the floor? How many times can one read that the item they carry is EVIL? Same difference.) To compare the omniscient narrator in Tolkien's epic to a contemporary slaughter-fest is unfair, stylistically Lord of the Rings is of its time, and narration-wise there may not be as many differences, but since an author, at any time, needs to be put themselves into a character's frame of mind, such an immersion into a psychopath's thoughts is nigh impossible for anyone of sound mind – thus the near omniscient narrator who can eschew the more intimate details going in. If, however, an author uses his writings as masturbatory fantasies, as a "How I'd do it" kind of thing, worry. The latter is something I don't want to consider, at all, and from the looks of it neither do the splatter-grimdark authors.
Why? Because to understand a monster you need to become the monster, at least on a deeper emotional level. That readers, or viewers, find such stuff enjoyable is beyond me, but even there you won't find that many people who will say "Oh, I want to be like Hannibal Lecter or Jigsaw!"
Violence for its own sake is nothing to be proud of or to be interested in… unless you are a psychopath or sociopath. Rape is nothing to be proud of or to be interested in, other than wanting to use extreme violence on the rapists… okay, violence directed at bastards is something I can get behind, but there is a difference: the target of such violence! According to the "everyone is a villain" school of thought, a rape victim is also a villain, thus, in logical conclusion, "deserving" of the rape, same goes for whatever random killing-spree victim number fifteen. Since everyone is a villain, killing anyone is okay. In this type of scenario even child rape is okay. (Throwing up yet?) And therein lies the fallacy, dare I say idiocy of the "everyone is a villain" school of thought.
Rape is an act of domination as much as it is a sexual act. If two consenting people have intercourse, there can be no rape. If the society considers 14 the age of maturity, and some asshole pushes himself on a woman who clearly says "No!" you have rape. There is no scenario in which this is okay. Fuck the "differing moralities" argument some use in defense of grimdark. If an author wants to portray a society that says rape is okay, turning anyone person of that society into a viewpoint character should not be to glorify that society or person. "But he likes his dog" is not a valid argument either.
The danger inherent to the "differing sets of morality" argument is that it can be used to glorify such aspects, encourage people to live out their fantasies. It can also reveal the author's twisted personality. Furthermore, think on this: rape of Jews was perfectly okay in Nazi Germany.
Twisted and dark can mean a lot of things, but if "everyone is a villain," it gets far too easy to say "the victim deserved it." And frankly, I am not okay with that.
I'm not saying everybody is a hero either. Sometimes, if you want to get things done, you need to get your hands dirty. Dirty Harry, Martin Riggs, Blade, none of them are heroes, but neither are they villains. Yes, they are anti-heroes, they are protagonists, and yes, they have a different code of ethics, but not of morality. If that were so, Harry Callahan would shoot the woman holding her baby while the crook is taking her as hostage.
Neither am I saying that protagonists have to be all virtuous. A goody two shoes character with no flaws is as boring as a serial killer, from a character development point of view.
Grimdark should, in my opinion, fall in the middle.
The good vs. evil trope is old, I'd guess as old as monotheism. Why am I saying monotheism? Because in the plurality of a polytheistic society, evil was indeed a matter of perspective. If a god was everything, he was both good and evil, so in order to make the god more important and glorious adversaries needed to be the opposite.
But in the end, it was a person's actions that made a person. Was Odysseus a hero? Only to the Greeks, the people of Troy he was the enemy that brought down their city. But he was definitely not a good guy. Good guys are boring, evil guys are boring, and in our world, the real world, most people fall in between both sides.
In Lord of the Rings it was Boromir I could identify with the most. He wanted to use the "evil weapon" to defend his people. In a world where good and evil are so clearly defined, there is no middle ground. Not really. Sure, in the worlds of D&D we have neutral as a third element, but that neutrality gets put to the test in certain situations…
"Rape is good"
"Rape is bad"
"I don't care"
In some instances there is absolutely no middle ground! In such cases it is either right (I rescue the rape victim) or wrong (I rape the victim, and not doing anything is basically the same thing). The hero's path is always good, the villains path always evil, in a world where there is identifiable good and evil.
In Grimdark, like our real life world, there is no good and evil. Just right and wrong.
Sometimes the lines get blurred. Most of the times, with the exception of such things like rape and genocide. I intentionally left out cannibalism for one simple reason: Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, an instance where cannibalism is definitely not wrong. After all, they didn't kill folks to eat them, they ate the already deceased.
In fantasy the trend was, for the longest time, good clean PG-13 fun. People may die, but it's never violent. Ask any victim of war, it's never family friendly, otherwise we would not have any refugees but mega sales for whatever snack-food these people consume as they observe the battles on their sofas. Combat is bloody, and definitely not nice! Reality has the annoying habit to ignore diverse ratings boards. Pesky reality. Unlike the movies, and many family friendly fantasy novels, living wasn't nice and easy as a farmer's child, or as a soldier in the front lines. History is full of battles were warriors had to wade through entrails and blood and feces, that is nothing spectacular, to them, or to anyone who has been in a war zone, so these people are bound to not be as traumatized as a non-combatant caught in the middle. (Then again, being caught in the middle of two clashing medieval armies usually meant one turned into minced meat.) But even the "civilians" had more experience with blood and guts than us 21st century folk. Nowadays we buy our meat at the supermarket, neatly packed, pre-cut, ready to be cooked. How many of us can say that we have taken part in the butchering of a pig or piglet or cow or calf? How many of us see butchers doing their work with blood being swept onto the street in front of their shops? Not all of us are hunters, most of us have never shot a gun at anything other than some sort of non-living target, or seen blood from more than a paper cut. Some of us have had broken limbs, or worse.
But frankly, seeing a broken leg with the fractured bone ends sticking out and the victim screaming suffices to drive home the fact that we are fragile creatures. How many of us have ever truly considered how the meat for our steaks is gathered? How many want to?
Grimdark is a reaction to the glossed over stories of shining heroes in shining armors whose swords never rust or get bloody and who still win the day. Who knows, maybe even those heroes' shit shines? We cannot identify with heroes. Sure, we would like to be Luke Skywalker, or Samwise Gamgee, or any number of archetypical folks, but fact is: more often than not it is not the bad guys that die! We're far too jaded, far too bombarded by the shit that goes on in the places of power to still buy into the delusion that the good guys win and the bad guys lose. We learn that before Pearl Harbor, American oil companies did smashing business with both sides of the Second World War. That normal people do not matter to the folks we elected into power. That most bosses don't give a flying fuck about their employees' wellbeing and will fire people just to see their stock prices rise.
If bad guys were the ones to die, we would not have such "leaders."
We know all this. Which is why we have more and more trouble, the more we know, to accept the heroes of yore. The guy who rescues a potential rape victim is just a guy, a hero to the victim certainly, but a lawbreaker to the officials because he also broke the rapist's jaw and nose. In fiction, such a character might be the protagonist, and he might not only break a few bones but the rapist's spine for good measure, because he has seen firsthand how rape victims wither. Hells, he might even kill the rapist. Not only that, but he might get away with it as well. – Not the actions of a "good" guy, but certainly the actions of a guy.
We don't need heroes, we sure as fuck don't need more psychopaths and sociopaths, but we need people, flawed and broken, who despite all that do what needs to be done. That to me is grimdark. That to me is realism in fantasy.
(Allan, here. To learn more about Ulff, go to: www.amazon.com/Ulff-Lehmann/e/B01M3NGFOL/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1
I'm planning to bring on some guest bloggers shortly to expand the dialogue and include other indie writers. In part, it's because I like these folks. In part, it's because I want to learn more myself. And in part it's because if I'm blogging, I'm not working on my books. I'm really looking forward to reading their stuff, and I hope you'll check it out!
If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve done a number of interviews about my books, myself, and my writing process – whatever that may be! One of the questions I get over and over and have even attempted to answer on occasion is, “What advice do you have for new authors?” The subject is so large that I vacillate between flippancy and despondency. Sometimes, as I’ve hinted, I don’t even try to respond. But it’s been four years since the release of Steel, Blood & Fire, and I do have a few thoughts.
First, if you’re an indie author in the first five or ten years of your career (as I am), put everything you make off the sales of your books back into your books, into advertising, critical reviews, better and better book covers. Using any of this so-called “profit” at this early stage is like expecting your newborn to chop the winter’s firewood. Your book/s will need all the money it/they can get, and then some.
Second, the internet used to be called the “World Wide Web.” Make your presence on the internet a web. Put your name and the name of your book in every location you possibly can, and, if possible, link it with similar works by more well-known authors. Put your name and novel(s) on LinkedIn, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Google+, Ello, Niume, Pinterest (I could go on) … Make it easy for Google to find references to you. And register with Google. Get your own website, too. Join blogs and forums.
Third, don’t turn up your nose at Facebook. It’s given me the best bang for the buck over the past four years. And explore/join its many author and genre-related groups. You’ll make some friends, get some great – free! – advice and learn about your competition.
Speaking of which, fourth, join a competition. Don’t be shy. If you can write, it’ll show. If you can’t, you’ll learn. If you’re going to put your book out there for people to buy, you should have some confidence in it. Enter that contest! The worst thing that can happen is you’ll get bounced and everyone will forget you ever entered. But if you win…
Fifth, of course you must read other writers in your chosen genre. Learn from their choices. Think about what works and what doesn’t. But also read unrelated books. Find out what makes any sort of book readable or unreadable.
Sixth, be friendly with and supportive of other writers. I mentioned competition and competitions above, and I fully subscribe to what I’ve written. At the same time, I don’t believe I’m in specific competition with any particular writer or group of writers. My mission is to become the best me, to tell my best stories, in the best way I can. If I can do that, I do believe success will follow…eventually.
Seven, be patient. I have read that is it an author’s body of work and not a single work that sells. Understand that. Realize that you must have several books out there before you become recognized – unless your first book is a phenomenon, like Ready Player One. But even that sets a daunting precedent. Look at the guy’s second book and its reviews, and you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes, early success can set the bar too high.
Eight, be yourself. Some of my early reviews sound too author-y, as if I felt I had to prove I was legitimate. Screw that! Be yourself! Be your wonderful, weird, quirky self. I’ve been doing that more and more of late, and, if nothing else, it’s fun for me!
Best of luck, and feel free to email me with questions!
One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes is “Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.” Just like everyone can manage the local baseball team better than the man who’s currently doing it, everyone can quarterback the local football team, everyone can govern the city better than the mayor, etc., etc., etc. Or, as President Trump recently said, “Who knew healthcare is so complicated?” What has all this to do with anything? Well, essentially, I think one-star reviews are utter BS.
Not that I’m afraid of criticism, mind you. After 34 years’ experience as a professional actor, 25 years as a middle school teacher and nine as a stand-up comedian, I’ve become pretty thick-skinned. But I think people are too quick to give a novel one star. Call me crazy, but now that I know what goes into creating one, I’d reserve those single-star ratings for works of epic failure, works of dreck so loathsome or lazy that no other score is possible. And, to me, such works are nearly mythological in nature: I may have seen one or two over the years, but I can’t recall the circumstances or anything else about the books.
If you don’t like a novel, consider the possibility that it’s simply not to your taste, not “your thing,” your cup of tea. That doesn’t mean it won’t be wildly popular with others. Why spoil their party? If the book seems somewhat less-than-average, okay, give it a two. If it’s average, a three. One star reviews are excessively harsh and, from what I’ve read in various forums, can be seen as punitive, which is the last approach one should take with a young or novice writer. You want them to get better? ENCOURAGE, don’t discourage. Be generous and offer suggestions as to what might make the next effort better.
Anyone can criticize. Support creation.
One of the complaints I read most often about Grimdark concerns the use or overuse of profanity. Tolkien’s characters never swear, after all. Why should Martin’s or Abercrombie’s (or mine)?
Well, for one thing, a world without profanity is the very definition of fantasy – and not the good kind, but the syrupy sweet, black-and-white kind. Grimdark posits a world or worlds in which our “heroes” are morally ambiguous. To the Grimdark reader, this feels more authentic and is more reflective of the world in which we live.
Go ahead, google “Percentage of people who use profanity.” You’ll see it’s well upwards of sixty percent and, in some estimations, even as high as seventy-five (for men). Transitioning from a world in which we hear a fair amount of profanity into a world or worlds in which it never occurs can be too much to ask. But what about unicorns, you say. There are unicorns in fantasy but not in the real world (spoiler alert), and yet we have no trouble accepting that. I would argue there has to be some realism in our fantasy, or it becomes unrelatable. Adjusting the language seems the obvious place to start. Also, the judicious use of profanity allows us to make the coarse characters coarser and the refined characters more refined. Also, profanity is natural.
While scholars argue about its exact age, textual evidence tells us that the “f-word” is hundreds of years old. Hundreds. We’ve been using it for so very long that it’s become a part of the fabric of who we are on some level. Trying to pretend it isn’t part of our language limits our language, makes us, ironically, less expressive than we are.
I used to dislike David Mamet’s earlier plays for their excessive use of swearing. As I got older, I came to see how swearing can define a character. Watch Glengarry Glen Ross and see how Al Pacino uses profanity to seduce, whereas for Ed Harris, it becomes the primal scream of someone who lacks the tools to say more. Profanity also offers a way for a rough man to fit in with other rough men. And there aren’t many successful fantasies in which the protagonists are fops.
In the end, the profanity in Grimdark simply offers us an additional choice. Like the myriad ways in which coffee can be enjoyed, you can now take your fantasy without or without profanity. How is this a bad thing?
Well, if it works for Joe Abercrombie, I might as well give it a whirl, too.
Here’s my progress report on Book Four, the penultimate book, of Immortal Treachery. I’ve just passed the hundred-thousand word mark, which means I’m on schedule for a Christmastime release (it should hit my beta readers by late October or early November). This book follows the Emperor Mendis Staurachia as he invades Vykers’ homeland from across the sea. His empire has endured for generations and possesses the largest, best-trained army the world has ever seen.
Meanwhile, we learn a great deal more about Vykers’ origins, Alheria’s schemes, and Long Pete’s role in all of this. Book Four introduces a few new characters, while a couple of overworked characters get a little vay-cay, as they say in Nespharia. Not to worry, though, everyone who matters is back for Book Five’s grand finale.
I should also mention that I’ve changed the title from The Ruined God to The Abject God, so as not to be confused with Kate Atkinson’s popular novel, A God in Ruins. You’ll never believe the title for Book Five!
Anyway, thank you for your patience and support. You are the best!
Too many ideas, not enough time!