Real numbers: The truth about self-publishing

By Scott Bury

Last January, Digital Book World reported that nearly 80 percent of self-published authors and more than half of traditionally published authors earn less than $1,000 a year from their efforts.

That report has generated a lot of debate. Some very honest and brave independent authors have put their own statistics up against this argument:

Hugh Howey — arguably the most successful indie author these days — and another, anonymous indie author compiled statistical research and put the lie to the DBW claim. They point out that the DBW report is so broad as to be useless — it includes books of all types, and does not include ebooks sold by Amazon, the biggest book retailer in the world.

Howey and his unnamed partner dug deep and found that e-books account for 86 percent of all genre fiction, and that  independent authors outsell the Big 5 commercial publishers combined in genre fiction.  There’s a lot of analysis in the report, and I recommend you read it.

Toby Neal, bestselling author of the Lei Crime series and paranormal fantasy Island Fire, candidly revealed her own sales, revenues and cost figures on her books. While Toby treats the writing as an art, she approaches publishing as a business. She invested $12,000 in editing, design, production and marketing of her first book, Blood Orchids, and netted over $100,000. She still makes money on that book, and views all her nine books (with one more coming in March).
Independent author Jami Gold blogged about two more analytical reports that took apart the DBW claim about most independent authors making under $1,000. Jami’s original post was reblogged by book consultant Kristen Lamb. It turns out that professional independent authors, those who use professional editors and designers, market their books as a business and continue to publish several titles, make considerably more money.

 

About 50% of respondents make more than $10K when they have 4-7 self-published books available, and 20% make more than $50K. At 12-20 books available, over 50% of respondents are making 50K or more, and 30% are over $100K.

In short, independent writers who treat writing as a business or profession, rather than as just a hobby or game, can make a comfortable living at it.

What’s a professional writer?

Being professional means:

  • publishing regularly, developing a catalog of titles
  • using a professional editor – someone with background experience in the publishing industry
  • using a professional cover designer
  • marketing and promoting strategically and using professional services appropriately.

Getting into the category will cost money, but not as much as the 90% of book sales a commercial publisher takes, and certainly not as much as forking out thousands to a vanity publisher or something like one of those “become a published author” scams. And it won’t cost as much as you give up by not doing these things.

I have to admit, I’m remiss on one dimension: the regularity of my publishing my own books. It’s been a year since I published my last novel, Army of Worn Soles, and it’s going to be at least three more months before the next title is ready for publication.

It’s so refreshing, indeed inspiring, to get this honest number-crunching from some people who are making a profession from being independent authors, and showing us all there is a business model and a path that work.

Want to find more indie fantasy authors who are working the dream? In addition to those mentioned above, check out:

And many more that I just don’t have time or space to list here, and many I haven’t had the chance to read, yet. But keep coming back to the blog for reviews and interviews with independent authors.

Pic-ScottBuryScott Bury is a journalist, editor and writer living in Ottawa. His articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

Visit his bio page on Guild of Dreams.

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Snowed in and Snowed under

Snapshot_20140802_2by Chantal Boudreau

This year, the weather has brought me ample fodder for story concepts. Be it imagined scenarios of the aftermath of a bus crash during an April snowstorm or co-workers sharing ideas of snow monsters taking over the world when winter never goes away (not someone who writes stories herself,) the massive snowfalls we have endured here in late winter/early spring seemed to have inspired some unpleasant icy fantasies.

But that’s the thing about fiction – genre fiction in particular. The stories are found in the unusual, not in the norm. You’ll rarely see a “day in the life of…” kind of tale when exploring the speculative unless it’s presented in such a way to highlight the differences between our mundane existence and the strange alien planet, or the magical fantasy realm or the dystopian future society. Everyday life doesn’t tend to make for an exceptionally interesting story unless there is something exceptionally interesting about the protagonist(s)’s everyday life. Even in literary fiction, characters tend to have their eccentricities and are moving toward some point of self-discovery or self-destruction not just adhering to the status quo.

The entertainment value of a fictional story comes from events that wouldn’t typically happen. They might be used by the author for some sort of social commentary or moral point, something not likely to happen as the result of a protagonist sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs. Whether a character’s involvement is proactive or reactive, the story results from challenges, accidents, ambitions or extremes – something beyond the average.

I’ve been subject to the extraordinary for years, accused of being a weirdness magnet and of knowing everybody everywhere on more than one occasion (because I always seem to bump into acquaintances in the strangest of places.) I think that’s why, unlike some writers, I don’t cringe when people ask “where do your ideas come from?” I’ll gladly tell them. My life has always run so far outside of the norm, even when I’m trying to be just your average old boring accountant/mom, that I can’t escape new story ideas. I see them in my family, my friends, my co-workers, my environment, my goals, my fears and my trials and tribulations. Sometimes they even show up in the floors, doors or walls. With all this plot material building up in my head, if I didn’t write the occasional story, it might just explode.

So despite my unhappy mutterings about the record-breaking snowfall we’ve had this year, it’s really not all that bad. It’s just another one of those unusual experiences I can file away to break out when I need fictional inspiration – as the urge strikes me.

Something to keep me busy the next time I end up snowed in or snowed under.

Celestrial triple-play

 

 

By Scott BuryMoon-2yq73kbrcl45nwdwuk0t8q

Today, March 20, 2015 is a rare day in celestial events. It combines the spring equinox, a “supermoon” and a solar eclipse in northern Europe—a total eclipse in some areas.

The confluence of these three events opens up vast possibilities for the fantasy writer.

When I was writing my first novel, The Bones of the Earth, I created a character who was special in many ways. First, Javor is autistic. (And no, it had nothing to do with being vaccinated—it’s set in the sixth century CE, long before vaccinations.) For magical associations, I decided to make him the seventh son of his family. I also thought it would be cool to have him born on the summer solstice.

Then I decided to open the story on Javor’s sixteenth birthday, the day that he would become a man in his culture. I also decided to begin the tale with a full-moon fertility ritual.

Why? Because the sun and the moon are powerful, central figures in almost every mythology. They’re powerful symbols and give rise to so many tropes, ideas and possibilities for stories.

FULLMOON-MUFFINTOPMOMMY-204x300Many fantastic animals are associated with the sun and moon. Griffons are often seen as solar symbols; werewolves, of course, link to the moon. And there are many, many more.

The sun and moon imbue scenes with portent. A sun-drenched plain, glistening after a rain, or a wind-swept coastline intermittently lit by a full moon obscured by low, scudding clouds. They evoke completely different modes and prepare readers for different kinds of stories.

And think of the power when the full moon and the brightest sun are together in the sky. How could I resist that?

It wasn’t easy

But how do you get the solstice sun and the full moon together? I had to figure out when a full moon happened the night before the summer solstice in central Europe. Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to recur all that often. Not even every 28 years, because both events drift in the calendar from year to year. Add to that the fact that, to go back to the sixth century, the Dark Age, meant going back to when history recorded according to the Julian calendar. That threw some doubt into the calculation of the date. But I had to start somewhere.

I found an online lunar calculator, which I cannot find now. And according to that, the closest the full moon came to the summer solstice was the year 593 CE, when Maurice was the Roman Emperor in Constantinople.

A new opportunity today

Through history, solar eclipses have been feared even more than comets as omens of doom. The ancient Greeks said it meant the gods were angry.

Of course, solar eclipses can only happen during a new moon, when the moon is not visible from the earth. Today is a new moon that coincides with the closest approach of the moon to the earth, called perigee-syzygy, or more popularly, Supermoon. Today, the moon is a mere 357,000 kilometres away.

Unfortunately, as it’s a new moon, rather than a full moon, the Supermoon won’t be visible to us. But it’s still pretty cool.

And it’s the equinox, when the length of the day equals that of the night. Even today, it signals the beginning of spring, of new life after the dead of winter. Many cultures and mythologies place mother-earth celebrations on or near the equinox. There are traditional celebrations for Astarte, Isis, Cybele and the Virgin Mary. And of course, the Christians will celebrate Easter soon. Many writers have pointed out the similarity of the Easter myth with older myths about the sacrifice of a god or demi-god, who returns to life in the spring.

eostre

Many Christian traditions around Easter derive directly from the northern European myth of Eostre, including rebirth of a sacrificed god and rabbits laying eggs.

Putting these three elements together should be an irresistible temptation for a fantasy writer. Combine angry gods, rebirth of a sacrificed child of a god and virgin human, and increased lunar power. It’s a heady mix.

So, here is a chance for readers and writers to get together and suggest a new myth, a taking-off point for a fantasy story. I’ll start with this:

Some celestial gods of something are angry with a group of humans, who have been consorting with a demon of the underworld (who may or may not be evil). This causes the eclipse as a sign that they are about to unleash some kind of vengeance on humanity.

However, as it’s the equinox, the power of the earth-bound gods is waxing, and a god or demon once punished by the celestial gods is about to come back to life.

What happens next? Readers, that’s up to you. Leave a comment below that brings the story one step forward. The next reader should write the next step. We can keep this going as long as we have fun with it.

And for an extra incentive, I’ll give the first five commenters who add to the story a free copy of my fantasy novel, The Bones of the Earth.

Let’s see where this takes us.

Scott BuScottry is the author of fantasy tales Initiation Rites, The Bones of the Earth and Dark Clouds. His non-fantasy titles include One Shade of Red and Army of Worn Soles.

Visit his:

  • blog, Written Words
  • website

And follow him on Twitter @ScottTheWriter

 

Do Wizards Have Sick Days?

by Chantal Boudreau

16862_375871140031_2570479_nSuffering from a cold myself at the moment, I find myself reflecting on how illness is one of those factors of realism a reader might hope to see in fantasy fiction. Fantasy is often based on medieval culture where illness was abundant thanks to less than sanitary living conditions and limited medical care. Poverty meant crowded living quarters where the malnourished and overworked couldn’t avoid ill family members. Livestyle led to epidemic plagues and a lower average life expectancy.

Granted, characters in the typical fantasy tale aren’t necessarily the type of person exposed to these conditions. Royalty, or heroic figures from noble stock would be less likely to succumb to illness than the ordinary peasant, but including illness in a story allows a writer to explore realistic aspects from a more fantastical angle. How would illness be treated in a realm where magic is available, for example? Would it impact the lives of rogues, warriors and wizards in a significant way?

One of my favourite science fiction novels involves a time traveller who ventures into the days of the bubonic plague, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I consider this book a part of the inspiration behind the magic plague I introduced in my Masters and Renegades series. The ailment only afflicts those who wield magic and is the central theme of my second book in the series, Casualties of War. Not only does this illness make the practicing of magic dangerous, but it serves as the source for biological warfare – another way of applying real-world concepts to fantasy stories.

If you look at the type of illnesses that tormented soldiers in the trenches during real wars, you might expect similar obstacles for fantasy warriors entering massive battles. Trench foot, caused by standing in mud and water for long periods of time, parasites (trench fever was caused by body lice,) dysentary and shell shock were all real problems, but how often to they occur in fantasy fiction? Not all characters, like my dark elf, Urwick, have the mindset to tolerate combat. It’s refreshing to see such things realistically depicted in the fantasy we read.

Consider the weather conditions that questing characters would have to face while treking through wilderness. Getting drenched might make a less physically hardy wizard or rogue more susceptible to the flu or the common cold – perhaps even pneumonia, but how often does a wizard actually fumble a spell because of sneezing or congestion? It might actually add an element of comedy relief to a tense situation.

An illness need not land a character on the brink of death to add flavour to your story but it could be a welcome touch of realism. I definitely think it would be something nice to see, now and then.

And maybe then somebody could actually offer up the answer as to whether or not wizards get sick days…

The Multi-Verse

by Joshua Johnson

Recently, I started work on a second series set on the world of Zaria. It follows a new set of characters and a new plot.

One of the aspects of fantasy worldbuilding that I’ve never really had a chance to explore (for one reason or another) is the concept of multiple storylines built out of from a common base.

Many of my favorite authors have done this in one degree or another, and I’ve always been interested in doing it. So I’ve started.

I’ve found it very interesting to begin planning multiple novels or series using common worldbuilding, without having them directly related. This approach has many benefits but many drawbacks.

I’ve found it convenient that I can use a lot of the same basic world information (length of the year, seasons, geography) when I’m plotting out the new series. I also have a lot of basic information about the nations of Zaria that I’ve been able to expand.

On the other hand, trying to manage multiple storylines has proven to be a challenge. While the new story doesn’t happen directly parallel with my existing story, there’s enough information that I’ve had to adjust the planning several times. I think that the biggest challenge has been managing multiple timelines and deciding where along the technology timeline each story is going to be and why.

So what authors have you read that have used a common worldbuilding base to write multiple stories that do or don’t intertwine? What do you think makes these kinds of worlds better or worse than linear or consecutive storylines within a series?

Fairy Tales and Fantasy Revisited

Earlier this week, Jane Rosenberg LaForge wrote a provocative guest post on what she sees as key differences between fantasy and fairy tales. My first reaction to her argument was a bit of umbrage: my monsters are humans who behave monstrously too! Nevertheless, her essay prompted me to ponder the boundaries between fantasy and fairy tales and whether the “human monster” really does represent a key difference.

RapunzTowerIn the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, Donald Haase states that the difference between fantasy and fairy tale is belief—fairy tale–tellers do not ask readers to believe the story actually happened, while fantasy authors want readers to suspend disbelief and, at least for the duration of the story, accept the tale as real. Fairy tale authors explicitly inform readers that the narrative events are impossible. In addition, most fairy tales were crafted to impart ethical and moral lessons and the tellers of these tales, whether they deliver the story orally or in print, usually strive to preserve the original form with only minimal modifications to fit the storyteller’s or editor’s time and society. Conversely, fantasies are original creations of the author. They might contain allegory or demonstrate ideals, but they aren’t meant to be remade or retold without attribution, nor do they always advocate a particular moral position.

Haase never says that fairy tales always have human antagonists, as Jane suggests, but I think she’s (mostly) right on this. A quick perusal of the table of contents of my copy of The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, reveals title after title where the villain is a person. Even where they are animals or monsters—the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” or the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”—these creatures represent human attributes (lust and greed, respectively), and certainly the majority of antagonists in the most famous of fairy tales (“Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel”) are humans who behave very, very badly.

Of course, fantasy is rife with human villains too. For every Smaug, there’s a Cersei. The wicked shadow who pursues Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea turns out to be (spoiler!) Ged himself. The presence of human antagonists in these works doesn’t make them fairy tales, but it does speak to the influence fairy tales have over the work of fantasy authors. Fairy tales are among the first stories we’re told as children, and their narrative elements naturally seep into our work as adult authors.

the_snow_queen_s_second_kiss_by_silence_in_november-d6yivcgThe first two books in The Woern Chronicles tell a story about a girl with long hair she treasures, who is imprisoned in a tower by a powerful person who keeps her enthralled. The man who helps the young woman break free of her captor’s influence is blinded, and later the young woman wanders lost in a wilderness, far from the father of the child growing within her. Those elements of “Rapunzel”—and a healthy dose of “Rumpelstiltskin” (a farmer’s daughter promises to give up her child in exchange for a throne)—crept into Blade of Amber and A Wizard’s Lot without conscious intention. After all, I created Victoria the Blade to break from traditional fantasy and fairy tale gender stereotypes. She may be held captive by Lornk in the beginning of the series, but she’s no damsel in distress who passively waits for rescue. On the contrary, Vic is the hero (not the heroine), and she does most of the rescuing in the novels. In the next pair of Woern Chronicles novels, I deliberately use the storyline of “The Snow Queen” (a vengeful woman infects the heart of a boy with indifference, and a girl’s love and loyalty may be the only thing that can save him), but whether the retelling will be more recognizable than “Rapunzel” in Blade and Wizard remains to be seen.

I suppose I’m more interested in the similarities than the differences between fairy tales and fantasy. First, fairy tales contain good stories. I love straightforward retellings such as The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale and Fairest and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, and An Untamed State, the literary retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” Jane described, is now on my to-read list. Second, they offer a template for storytelling and characterization that has strongly informed my work. Most of all, they provide a frame with which to view literature and the world.

eec1db10808be84e2901e46760195bdbA.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. For more information on her work, visit her website, read her blog, follow her on Twitter, or like her Facebook page.

Interview with Author Martin Bolton

by Autumn M. Birt

For my first post in 2015 for the Guild, I decided to let someone else do most of the talking! I know, it is a bit of a cop out, but I’ve known Martin through Twitter and noticed he had a book being released this week and well… I thought you should meet him too! So I’m happy to introduce Martin Bolton, author of The Best Weapon and more!


 

Introduce yourself and tell us a little about your writing and books.

 

I was born in Cornwall in 1979 and, after eleven years in London, now live in Bristol. I’ve always enjoyed writing but didn’t do anything seriously until I met David Pilling (co-writer of The Best Weapon) in 2007. I wrote one short story and then we immediately started working on The Best Weapon together. We’ve since written a sequel called The Path of Sorrow and we’re now working on a third epic fantasy, as yet untitled.

I love fantasy/speculative fiction, but I also write short stories in various genres for The 900 Club, a group of four writers who each post a short story on the 900 Club blog on a monthly basis.

You have a re-release that came out yesterday entitled the Best Weapon. I LOVE the Nietzsche quote you use on your website for it: “The best weapon against an enemy is another enemy” (I could so use that for my new series Friends of my Enemy! lol). Tell us a little about the story and what inspired it?

The Best Weapon_eb-pb

 

My own personal inspiration for The Best Weapon was how people learn to cope with conflicting emotions and personalities, vices and virtues, and how they grow and mature dealing with them.  I think everyone is multifaceted: a dark side, a funny side, a compassionate side, an angry side etc. I wanted to explore how we manage the negative ones and try to nurture the positive ones.

Fantasy is a good way to do this because you can embellish the negative and make it manifest itself in ways it doesn’t in reality (unless you believe it does), such as demonic parentage or supernatural powers. Equally, the positive can manifest as celestial beings or nature itself. Ultimately, we all have to “battle our demons”. For me, The Best Weapon is about that, and a lot more besides.

The Nietzsche quote seemed to fit so naturally with the story, and it is punchy, so it was an easy decision to use it. I love it when a story, especially an epic fantasy, uses a quote from a real-life historic figure, hopefully it helps with the suspension of disbelief.

 

It sounds like you are working on a sequel to it. How is that going and could you tell us a little about it?

 

The sequel was initially released by Musa Publishing as a serial called Sorrow. It was actually written as a single novel, and we have restored it to its original state ready for release later this year with the title The Path of Sorrow. It is the story of a child whose entire tribe is violently wiped out, leaving only him alive. The child is named Sorrow after a prophecy. He is reputed to possess great power, as his nomadic tribe were descended from the very first people, and those who wish to seize control in The World Apparent will stop at nothing to acquire him.

You co-wrote the Best Weapon with David Pilling. I can’t imagine working on a story with someone. It sounds great and a challenge. How did you make it work?

 

I get asked this a lot, and the answer is we worked together with surprising ease. Initially, we weren’t sure how it was going to work, and this influenced our thought process when we came up with the story for The Best Weapon. We decided to write a story with two main characters who don’t actually meet until very near the end of the book. I suppose this was our way of putting off having to deal with it!

Looking back, we needn’t have worried, because we each created so many different characters and cultures to go along with our main protagonists that the book is not just a story about two people. It is a story of many different beings, some human, some gods, some demons, and some from other dimensions altogether, each striving to survive in their own way.

David and I have very similar tastes in literature, music, humour and beer, we also have similar influences when it comes to writing. We found that our styles fit together pretty seamlessly, as more than one reviewer has pointed out. We’ve since written another fantasy novel and are half way through a third, with a fourth planned, and we don’t even think about how it works any more, it just does.

Why did you choose to write in the fantasy genre? Are there any others you’d like to write in?

 

Fantasy has always inspired me, ever since I watched Arnold Schwarzenegger play Conan the Barbarian when I was a snotty little oik. Something about being able to play out any story you like, without the constraints of reality, in a world of your own creation is irresistible. There is no better genre to write.

I do, however, write a lot of short stories. For the past two years, all of my short stories have been written for The 900 Club: a group of four writers who each post a nine hundred word short story on a blog every month. I do like to try out other genres, and a short story is a nice way to dabble without having to commit a lot of time to something. I tend to play about with genres though, so not a lot of my stuff fits well into one, it often ends up getting a bit surreal, and sometimes downright nonsensical and ridiculous.

At some point, I will write something longer in another genre, but it will be a twisted, harrowing, unholy mockery of it and I will probably be arrested soon after. And rightly so, I should never have been shaved down and taught the rudiments of reading and writing.

See? I can’t help it. I’m ill.

Who are some of authors who’ve inspired you?

 

At the moment I am influenced by Bernard Cornwell,  Robert E Howard, Rafael Sabatini, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Joe Abercrombie and Charles Bukowski. I think I have taken inspiration from every author I’ve read whether it is style and technique, or just how NOT to do something (the authors I’ve mentioned don’t fall into the latter category).

My inspirations change as I discover new literature. The aforementioned authors, however, remain in mind constantly when I write as I have been inspired so strongly by specific elements of their work. Cornwell for his characters. Howard for his vision and originality. Sabatini for his story telling and sense of adventure. Lovecraft and Poe for their imagination and ability to build atmosphere and describe a scene. Abercrombie for his slick, gritty style and dark sense of humour. Bukowski for… I just don’t know where to begin with Bukowski and, more importantly, I don’t know where it would end.

What are your favorite and least favorite things about writing?

 

My favourite thing is the freedom to express myself. Like all creative things, for me, it is therapy, it is anger management.

I often read things like “writing/reading takes you into new worlds” or “discover new worlds” etc. Well, I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I don’t really relate to that. I am already in another world, and it is chaos. It is violent and noisy and painful and it stinks. I’m not talking about reality (that’s a bit clichéd), I mean what goes on in my head is like that. I’m not discovering new worlds or escaping into them. I’m escaping FROM them, mastering them by trapping the bastards on a page. That’s my favourite thing.

My least favourite thing is that writing makes my arse, my back and my eyes hurt. And sometimes my brain.

Do you get writer’s block? How do you deal with it and find new inspiration?

 

I do half the time, but not serious writer’s block that lasts days or weeks. My main problem is my tiny attention span. I’ll write two hundred words and then spend an hour thinking about cake. I find wine or beer helps me concentrate, it gets me more emotionally charged and single minded, so I can plough on, heedless of anything else going on around me. The right music helps as well – something atmospheric that goes on for ages and ages is ideal.

I also find that if I sit down and find my mind blank, simply reading the last few thousands words I wrote will warm the brain up a bit and get me going. I haven’t found writer’s block a huge problem though, the main problem is finding the time to write since I still have a day job.

What is your favorite non-writing related thing to do? There is more to author’s than novels (supposedly!).

 

I do a bit of artwork, for the same reasons outlined under question 7. You can see that on my blog or at boltanart.blogspot.com. I like ink or pencil best, my favourite thing to do is dot drawings because it requires hours of painstaking concentration and I find it a bit like meditation.

I also play football, which hurts. I might have to stop at some point as my knees have been ground to a fine paste and my ankles are held in place mainly by prayer.

Anything else you’d like to share?

 

You haven’t seen me. Right?

 

You can find Martin on his WebsiteBlogTwitterFacebookThe 900 Club

 

Thanks so much for the interview, Martin. And best of luck with your re-release of the Best Weapon!

Spies everywhere

I hate it when someone steals my idea.

20150215-132230.jpg

I thought it happened again when I first saw a coming attraction trailer for the new movie Seventh Son, with Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes and Julianne Moore. It looked very similar to my first book, The Bones of the Earth, which I published in 2011.

I should be used to this. Back in 1980, when I was young and probably just as foolish as I am today, I decided to try running as a sport. I would run in the evenings in my neighbourhood, and realized that it was really quite boring. I thought how nice it would be to be able to listen to music while I ran.

I considered my Sony hand-held tape recorder, the one that was supposed to be used to record university lectures. I never actually used it for that, but did play music cassette tapes. The sound quality was … tolerable, and it was better than having no music at all.

Now, this tape recorder-player was designed to be held in one hand, but it was still pretty bulky for running. Heavy, too. I looked it over and realized that the speaker accounted for much of its bulk. “If it just had an earphone instead, it would be a lot more portable,” I remember thinking. “No—headphones! Stereo headphones! That would be awesome.”

Six months later, Sony released the Walkman.

20150215-133913.jpg

My first fantasy novel, The Bones of the Earth, in many ways follows the classic high fantasy quest genre. It’s set at a time before guns and gunpowder, when horses were the main means of travel, when civilization was still a tenuous bet and when magical beasts roamed the earth. It has a number of element that fantasy readers will find familiar: a wise old man, a young boy with a unique destiny, a damsel in distress and lots of monsters, witches, vampires and dragons.

In writing it, I determined to break as many of the tropes and conventions of the fantasy genre as I could. For starters, it’s not set in a made-up world, but in a real time and place, and some of the events in the story actually took place in history. But that’s a subject for another post. Suffice it to say, it’s not a conventional quest story, and the characters are not like those you’ll find in other quest stories.
But the main character, Javor, is the seventh son of a seventh son. In fact, I had recently decided to title the third volume of the planned trilogy (I have the outline already) Seventh Son.

Then Universal Studios brought out Seventh Son.

20150215-154819.jpg

And it features a wise old man and a boy with a unique destiny, who has to fight monsters, dragons and witches.

Damn.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I don’t know whether I ever will, but a little research showed that the movie is based on Joseph Delaney’s 2004 novel, The Spook’s Apprentice. There are other similarities, such as the main villain being a centuries-old, powerful woman. But there are also a lot of differences, enough to allay my misgivings.

I guess that the author of The Spook’s Apprentice and I were both tapping into the same energy and some of the same ancient mythologies. And let’s face it, the trope of the ancient master passing on his knowledge to a talented apprentice crosses many genre boundaries.

If All Were Equal

fisherby Chantal Boudreau
When someone mentions female characters in fantasy, some stereotypes come to mind. There is the damsel in distress, the plucky princess, the matronly queen or the bawdy tavern wench, just for a few examples. These seem to show up everywhere, unfortunate tropes who sometimes serve as sidekicks and who often give the male hero extra purpose to their cause, but don’t have much purpose in their own right.
Then there’s the flip-side – the “strong female” character: the man-hating amazon, the stoic and noble female warrior who is an exception to the norm, the experienced sorceress or priestess who often proves self-sacrificing. While they may have a prominent role in the story, they tend to be loners and atypical of the women in that particular fantasy culture. Most of the women in the story other than that one outstanding character fall into the traditional medieval female roles: the maids, the gentlewomen, the housewife mother with multiple offspring, perhaps an assistant to some professional or the healer/midwife.
What I enjoy more, but rarely see, is a fantasy society that is counter-culture, where men and women share roles with unbiased equality – where it’s the norm rather than the exception. Considering this is not something we’ve managed to achieve even in our own modern society, it would be nice to find more of that in the fabricated worlds of fiction. There, such a societal scope is an option for its creator rather than what we’re forced to live with in the real world. Why not break with tradition?
How does a writer apply this concept effectively? Lately, I’ve been watching the television show “The 100” that does a fantastic job of this. While it is post-apocalyptic/dystopian science fiction with YA elements rather than fantasy, it is a great example of gender-bias free storytelling. Just as a list of the female characters who aren’t what you would normally find in the average speculative fiction tale, you have the leaders of three of the factions who are female (the leader of the rebellious 100, the leader of the techno-savvy “Sky-People” and the leader of the tribal “Grounders”.) The head of security for the Grounders is a fierce and unyielding warrior woman who is now mentoring one of the 100 women in warrior-training as well. The head of engineering for the Sky People is a woman and their female leader is also a medical doctor. Even the more demure female characters (residing with the Mountain Men) have their moments of bravery.

The leaders make tough decisions too, and sometimes fail, but pick themselves up and move on, coming up with new strategies. At one point, one of these women chooses to kill a man who was once her romantic interest rather than see him tortured before execution as part of a punishment from their allies (he did murder innocents because of a misunderstanding and a mental break – and he was in the wrong.) She doesn’t fall apart after the fact, even though it was a painful and tragic decision for her. You just don’t see that in the average tale that presents women as predominantly soft and emotional. A typical female character would never be able to spare a loved one from torture by killing him, specifically because of their romantic relationship (“I can’t kill him – I love him.”)

Better yet, in “The 100” nobody questions these characters’ competency because they are female. Real people who have experienced life as both man and woman say that for the most part what they’ve found in our society is men are assumed competent until they are proven otherwise whereas women have to prove they are competent before being accepted as such. This unfair set of gender-biased assumptions often carries over into fiction. I’d like to see that change (as I’d like to see it change in the real world.)

I’ve made an effort to use men and women equally in responsible positions in my fantasy stories. The head of a major mercenary guild is a woman, Magic University is headed up by both men and women at various times, the head of the Renegade resistance in Feltrey is a woman, the Jadorans and Templars of Oron are equally men and women, assassins and soldiers as well as wizards. One of my heroes is a middle-aged female retired schoolteacher. A character’s competency has no basis in gender, age or social status. Everyone has their strengths and potential and are recognized for what they bring to the table.

In my fantasy fiction, I choose to not have a woman’s competency challenged just because of her gender. I hope to see this become commonplace in the fantasy I read, maybe inspiring more change in our own society in future.

Why Hallowe’en? Because we love to see fear in the mirror

By Scott Bury

Image courtesy Things Gunjan Draws http://thingsgunjandraws.blogspot.com

Ebola. Communism. Totalitarianism. Pandemic. Climate change. Terrorism. Jihad.

Judging from hyperbole in social media, we are out-and-out terrified of these things. As evidence of the level of fear, one person seriously advocated carpet-bombing ebola-stricken areas in Africa as a response to contain the epidemic, because he saw it in a movie.

The job we have chosen as writers of fantasy and speculative fiction is to reflect our audience’s fears back to them in symbolic way. Perhaps this is a way to help deal with them, but mostly, it’s because through fantasy, we can take some joy from our fears as well as, well, fear. It’s like riding a roller-coaster: it’s fun because it scares us, but we’re really safe.

A long, grisly, nasty yet honourable tradition

This is what fantasy writers have always done: writing stories about mythical, legendary and magical symbols and themes, stories that give us another way to look at what’s really bothering us. It has a long history in a technological era:

  • Godzilla, the monster awakened by atomic radiation and that could breathe out “atomic fire,” reflected our fears of nuclear war and radiation.
  • Zombies, like those in World War Z, Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead reflect our fear of incurable, virulent and especially contagious pandemics, made even more horrifying and destructive by their ability to instantly render their victims as vessels of further transmission.
  • The Hills Have Eyes, Drag Me to Hell, Saw and other recent horror films and books play on our fears of surveillance, mortgage foreclosure, and of course, the old standby, the Other—people not of our tribe, and therefore a threat.
  • Dracula, the Un-Dead, the progenitor of nearly all the vampire books since, plays on several fears. First is the fear of contagion—Bram Stoker’s heroes thought Lucy’s affliction was a blood disease, after all – but also the fear of being infected with something that will change your nature (becoming a vampire). There is also the fear of the Other, the foreigner, the intruder who by his very nature is dangerous. But mostly, Dracula was a sublimation of the greatest fear of the Victorian era: sex.

Yes, I am saying that sucking up blood was the only way that a Victorian era writer would portray sexual lust without getting banned or arrested. Don’t believe me? The vampire was ultimately defeated by a woman’s sexual attractiveness. Oh, sure, Dracula said he was only interested in her blood. But he was lured to his doom by a beautiful young woman, who invited the vampire into her bedroom and made him stay all night long. Now tell me Stoker was not writing about sex.

Still holding onto that argument? Watch Francis Ford Coppola’s film based on the book and try to sustain it.

Today, writing about fear of pandemic is just too easy. Vampires or zombies with ebola-like symptoms is just too obvious—which means there is already a really bad book or movie, or both, based on exactly that idea in development right now.

But what about Jihad? Terrorism? What sorts of fantasy tropes symbolize those without being overly literal? Now there’s a challenge for this capable gang to take on.

The biggest fear, though, that I can see is the fear of change. Any new idea still evokes howls from predictable corners. How would fantasy writers deal with that? What about fantasy readers? What suggestions or challenges do you have for your favourite writers?

Leave your suggestions in the Comments.

 

Scott Bury is a journalist, editor and writer living in Ottawa. His books include the historical fantasy The Bones of the Earth, the erotic romance One Shade of Red and the historical memoir, Army of Worn Soles.

He has I written articles for newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia, including Macworld, the Ottawa Citizen, the Financial Post, Marketing, Canadian Printer, Applied Arts, PEM, Workplace, Advanced Manufacturing and others.

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