I have been searching, searching I say, for the right book to accompany my November writing marathon. I like to read while I write; don’t know why, but it always fuels me in the right direction. I think I’ve mentioned that I’d tried my hand at a series of “mainstream” fantasy books the last few months, trying to read what’s selling and get an idea of the market. All well and good, but the result has been far from positive on my end. I’ve been frustrated, uninspired, and unable to finish a damned single one of them.

Thankfully, after a trip to the local book megastore, I came back with Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear. I’ve been meaning to catch up on her, and after two foiled attempts to find Joe Abercrombie (they had the second in the series, and the third, but not the first) or anything by Emma Bull, I found Ms. Bear’s collection and said, “OH yeah! I’ve been meaning to get to this forever.”

Being a mom doesn’t give you a lot of time to read, sure. And maybe that’s why I’m super picky these days. But falling into Elizabeth Bear’s writing is like… well, having read nothing but her short stories I don’t think I knew what I was prepared for. Dark and delight, and on some of my favorite subjects. Her slant on Arthuriana is particularly thrilling for me, obsessed as I am with it.

I’m only a few chapters in, but happily hooked… it’s just such a great feeling to find the RIGHT book.

398px-ferc-fish_ladderThis NaNoWriMo experience has been… well, intriguing, to say the least. If anything it’s teaching me to write more habitually. That’s kind of expected though, you know?

What’s got me lately are the unexpected turns the book takes. I haven’t had so much time to sit and type, to plan to plot, and that’s sort of the idea, I guess. So it’s writing in the dark even more intensely than usual. It’s sitting in a pitch black room and waiting, and then, when something stirs, chasing it down, putting a light to it, and describing what I see.

Last night was… intriguing. I made up for my deficit on Saturday (my husband’s leaving town for a week, so I’m forgiven!) by quite some, and am just below the 15K mark.

But let me tell you, half of what happened last night… um. I don’t honestly even know where to start. Everything just took such a different turn, such a curious turn. And it’s nothing that had to do with setting, which is steampunkified Boston, or the research I was doing in to the shape and formation of the town itself in the 1880s.

Well, apparently I have something of a villain. And she’s my heroine, as well. And… yeah, I’m as confused as you. I’m going to stop now. Hopefully this all makes more sense in the end.

Meet my inner dragon.

Who is this odd, scaly, greedy bastard, you ask? Well, he’s the one who eats my confidence, whispers doubt, slurps up my best ideas, and then spits them out, cackling.

In spite of having been working at this writing thing for the better half of my life, my dragon has grown at a rather unbalanced rate. When I was at my youngest, he was smallest not just in actual size and shape but in percentage. In fact, at some point, I’m quite sure that he was an egg. I don’t think I even was capable of hearing him for a while.

Now, the dragon has grown considerably. Not only is he larger than he used to be, he’s larger in proportion to me. At least seventeen feet tall, not including the tail. He’s invited friends of all sort of sundry occupations, including a hobgoblin who has a penchant for listening to really crappy show tunes, and amassed an amazing collection of self-doubt, ridicule, and second-guessing, upon which he sits, drinking out of a golden goblet, every now and again peering down his long, warty nose, and saying to me in as sarcastic mode as he can possibly manage, “You’re writing what?”

The dragon loves to read, and especially the scathing reviews in the Times and New Yorker. He adores Howard Bloom, for reasons I can’t rightly understand, and likes to hold up each piece of writing I create, turn the paper around, singe the edges for good measure, and then laugh hysterically, plumes of smoke rising from his nostrils, and lava tears falling from his golden green eyes.

He has a name, but I don’t know what it is. Even if I saw the name, I wouldn’t know it. That’s the trick with dragons. Until you know their names, until you can call them out, you are powerless against them.

The dragon lives right next-cave to my muse, Aelfric. And since Aelfric is a bard, and plays soft music on a lute, or guitar, or other stringed instrument, much of his inspiration gets drowned out. Aelfric has filed at least thirty complaints with me, and is beginning to be a little aloof. “I can’t work in these conditions, you know,” he said to me yesterday. “I’m thinking of packing up shop and moving to the coast or something.”

So, I suppose that my first attempt will be to walk into the den myself, and see if perhaps, without pretense, I can convince the dragon to have tea with me. I’m currently enjoying some delightful green tea with pomegranate that I imagine would suit his fancy as well.

You see, this tea idea is not simply because I’m a coward (though, I suspect, I am a bit of that, too). I’d like to first try and make peace with him; he’s simply gotten out of hand. There was one point where his presence was just a reminder, a careful whisper that helped me see more clearly, helped me avoid the cliche, the hackneyed, the over-used. But now, nothing gets past him. He’ll sleep for a day or two, sure, and Aelfric and I will dally along, content in story, character, and the magic of words and music. But then he wakes up, grumpier than ever and–I should add–hungrier than ever, and chases us right out of the cave. Occasionally it’ll take Aelfric a good week to come back, the dragon rattles him so.

And then if the tea doesn’t work, then I must contemplate the way of St. George. Only I worry about the consequences. How does one get rid of a dragon, anyway? Especially if it has truly become part of the landscape?

I had a very successful writing/editing weekend, in spite of the cold. I finished two chapters, which is more than I’ve done in weeks, and brought the story right around to the middle, to last third of the plot. This is very exciting for me, to say the least!

Unexpectedly, though, I also scared myself. It’s a strange sensation, having written something that actually creeps you out (not the first time it’s happened during this tale, but the most pronounced instance so far, I think). I’m currently rewriting the Sylvan DeLoire chapters in the book, taking a slightly different angle on his character and his purpose. And I exposed a side last night that is so much darker than I thought initially.

No, murder ought not be taken lightly. And (well, duh) it’s a dark, dangerous deal. In the original version, the murder happens only in a flashback, and that distance makes it less of consequence. Things get watered down in memory, what you recall can change and take new shape. Not to mention I don’t think I could ever call Sylvan DeLoire a reliable POV. But this take on the murder is so much closer, so much more ruthless. I don’t think I anticipated that. Funny how that works.

Still, as I brought the chapter to an end I couldn’t help but shiver a little. I’d lost myself in the situation completely, and standing back from it… well, it’s good to stand back, to put the light on, and take a sip of wine.

This election has had me thinking a lot about feminism. We didn’t just have an almost woman candidate for Presidency, but now we have a VP nominee as well (though, I can’t say they are a thing alike). When it comes down to it, they both wear skirts and power suits, though reportedly one is much more fashion conscious.

Okay, that’s not exactly what I’m writing about. No, I’m writing about something that really has nothing to do with the political sphere, other than it’s on the subject of women. But not women politicians–rather, women writers.

I’m blessed beyond belief to be a woman and a writer in this century. I think about the difficulties that women writers who came before me had to cope with, including and not limited to horrifying sexism, inadequate education, and social restrictions. That’s not to mention that many women writers had to work their crafts in the dark, having no one to look up to or reach out to for support.

But now I live in a networked world, where other writers are just a click away. There are dozens of women writers that I look up to, that have shaped the way I write and create worlds. I never felt, growing up, that my dream of writing was any less attainable because of my gender. And, thankfully, my supportive parents always instilled a belief that, if I worked hard enough at something, eventually I could do whatever I wanted.

Though it’s not to say it still isn’t difficult. I am often told, “just write a romance novel!” or “write as a guy, you’ll get published”. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, I’m in a genre heavily populated by men. There’s no chance in Hades I’ll move from this place, but it doesn’t mean it’s any easier. Sure, I know there are women writers in SF/F out there, but a quick glance at most anthologies and best sellers in the genre will show you that men still make up the bulk of the market. And though there’s been plenty of argument on either side of the fence, women still read a great deal of SF/F.

I think the crux of the argument is that there’s a tension between traditional/popular SF/F and feminism. Though I don’t think I can be called a feminist in the truest sense, I’ll never parade my characters around in chain mail bras. But it’s unfortunate that it’s what sells the books. As much as I’m enjoying playing 4th Ed. D&D I cringe whenever I see the drawings of female characters. I mean, really, do the Dragonborn have boobs? They’re frigging lizards.

Unfortunately I don’t think the popularity of that sort of writing will wane. People pick up the scantily clad ladies for the same reason they pick up romance novels–sex sells, end stop. While I’ve nothing wrong with a good shagging scene every now and again, it’s got to be there to mean something, to me. You cheapen writing by using too much sex. I’m sure there are people who will argue with me, but that’s just my stance.

So what’s to do? I think we, as women writers, ought to raise the bar even higher. Maybe that’s not fair for us, but here’s my thinking: if we write as expected, it doesn’t do anything, doesn’t prove anything. It only reiterates what people already think of as “female fantasy writing”. And it’s not to say to write like a man, either. Write from your heart, write from your being. Write what matters to you, be it the epitome of feminist fantasy or not. Whatever it is, just write! There are some amazing women writers out there right now doing exactly what I’m talking about, people like Cherie Priest and Elizabeth Bear, who do jaw-droppingly incredible work. The work is just… wow.

What I’m saying is that we, as women writers, ought not back down. We need to be confident, strong, and assertive. More than anything we need to believe in ourselves. That’s probably the thing I see most often, in women of all walks of life in this society. We don’t think we’re good enough. But we are. We’re more than good enough… with the right drive, and the right vision, we’re positively magical.

When I started this blog, I had finished The Aldersgate. The idea was that I’d post the edited chapters, one at a time, and podcast them. Seems like a pretty straight-forward plan, right? The name made sense, the format and structure made sense.

It’s all fine and good, but I realize I painted myself into a funny little corner. As editing has progressed I realized my little novel isn’t so little, nor uncomplicated. The more I edit, the more I discover; the more I discover, the more I change; the more I change, the more the book looks less and less like the first version and more like something new entirely.

And since my pace isn’t anywhere near as fast as I thought it’d be, this blog has become, ultimately, a writer’s blog about a host of subjects, from the process of writing, to trends in steampunk writing and culture, to music and history, to fantasy writing and science fiction.

Ultimately I realize I made a blog for a book, when I should have made a blog for myself as a writer. I suppose in a way it’s comfortable to hide behind something, like a book–but eventually personality wins out. So I’m contemplating renaming the site (not the address, as that’s impossible) and rethinking my approach a little more. The Aldersgate is a well-intended endeavor and, I keep telling myself any, a worthy one. But the more I edit and rewrite, the more I want to challenge myself and get it right. It’s a big story–a huge story, the largest and most ambitious I’ve ever tried to tell. And I don’t want to risk the telling by taking shortcuts.

So, suffice it to say, this blog jumped the gun a bit. Although, in my defense, when I sat down to serialize the novel I really did think it was 90% there. I just found out it was really closer to, oh, 20%. I’ve never been good at math.

To all the readers and friends I’ve made in the last few months, thank you. I’m rapidly approaching 10,000 views (?!?) and am ever amazed and inspired by the people I’ve come to know through this blog. Expect lots more from me as the months pass into the next year, and prepare yourself for new adventures!

KnightsTM

KnightsTM

From what I’ve been reading, people certainly feel as if there’s something amiss with what epic fantasy being published today. Either there isn’t enough of it, it’s dead (or not), it’s dying (or not), or it’s just lacking a je ne sais quoi. Certainly, I feel that perhaps it isn’t as pervasive as it once was, and has, in some cases, become either complete cliche or entirely inaccessible.

Paul Jessup linked to an article from IRoSF this morning on a somewhat unrelated subject, but indicated that sf/f makes up a little over 17% of the market, over $700 million. But if you think about that number, and what it includes, that’s quite a width and breadth.

In the 60s, when fantasy was “new”, fantasy as a genre had yet to be branded. There were no tie-ins yet, no movies, or light-up mugs. Most of the conversation then was fantasy writing and its connection to the myths and legends of bygone eras, more fodder for medievalists than the media.

And now, almost fifty years later, we’re in a very different world. Everyone understands, or so they think, what fantasy writing is. It’s swords, sorcery, sorcerors… usually included in the mix are some brawny dudes, scantily clad lasses, and sidekicks with clever quips. Right?

Well not exactly, of course. Those of us who write and read the genre know that it’s a great deal more complicated than that, and that real epic fantasy doesn’t just rewrite (because that’s important) but it challenges our ideas and preconceptions, too.

What I see in the market that is slightly disturbing to me is the adherence to brands in fantasy literature. This happens in SF too, and to a similar degree–but I don’t think it’s bled into the mainstream as much. There seems to be a great deal of new, exciting, unusual work being done in SF, but seemingly less in fantasy writing.

So, there are approximately 10 million subscribers to WoW (if every WoW subscriber bought one fantasy novel a year, even in paperback, that’d account for nearly the entire statistic above). You’d imagine they’re the perfect folks to get into epic fantasy–clearly they have a thing for armor, quests, etc, ad nauseam. But are they buying new epic fantasy, too? Or are they sticking with more familiar territory, like WoW novels, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, that sort of thing? Do the markets coincide much? I know they do, on some level, because I’ve met plenty of intelligent WoWers. But is it a wide enough trend to make a difference? Has fantasy in general become so mainstream that it’s too hard to do seriously any longer?

I just wonder if people are more likely to pick up something familiar, something branded, because it’s comfortable. It won’t challenge, it won’t discomfit, it will just be entertaining. And there isn’t anything wrong with that, if that’s the case, but it does shed some light into an increasingly complex genre.

So, as writers of fantasy, then, do we write what the readers want to read, or do we challenge them? Do we put success higher up in our priorities than telling the stories we feel are most important?

I’m not really sure, when it comes to it. I want to see more epic fantasy that pushes the envelope, that gets everyone talking… just not sure where it’ll come from, or when, or how. Maybe I already missed it? Maybe the Golden Age is passed, and we have to work harder to make the next age as impressive.