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October 22, 2003

On writing genre fantasy
Posted by Teresa at 10:09 AM * 147 comments

Instead of taking the subway home last night, Patrick and I walked south through Manhattan, taking the air and running a couple of small errands. At one point I found myself looking into a shop window where a big video monitor was running sample scenes from some kind of fantasy adventure computer game.

The players were represented as a couple of interestingly individuated warriors who appeared to be either attacking or trying to sneak into a fortified structure. The building was nicely detailed as well, and looked like a logical piece of real-world construction, only zippier and with more fantasy elements. I believe there may have been a monster involved in it somewhere. The motion was good. The space and lighting and perspective looked acceptably realistic.

When I got home, I spent some little time looking at computer game ads and reviews. I still couldn’t figure out what I’d been seen in that window. There are a lot of good fantasy/magic/quest games out there.

If you’re writing novels, it’s not enough to arbitrarily have standard genre fantasy characters running around loose in standard genre fantasy settings, questing for the magic rose-quartz dingleberry while they try to defeat the Dark Lord who’s trying to take over the world. If that’s all your audience wants, they can get it elsewhere.

And computer games aren’t their only source. If all your readers want is the usual matter and appurtenance of genre fantasy, they can also find that stuff in more thoughtful, complex, and inventive fantasy novels. That’s what they like best anyway.

Writing nothing, or a version of nothing that’s enacted on the same sets and uses the same props and costumes that everyone else is using, is a losing proposition.

Comments on On writing genre fantasy:
#1 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 10:43 AM:

Good advice, Teresa.

Speaking of fantasy authors... where's Glen Cook's new series? [flail]

#2 ::: Greg Morrow ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 11:47 AM:

Or R.A. MacAvoy's?

90% of all new fantasy novels are crud. My life is too short to wade through the soulless, deliberately commercial and undistinguishable drek produced by Robert Jordan or "David Farland".

Unfortunately, brick-shaped fantasy tomes are what sell. Because 90% of the audience are let's-be-generous-and-say uncritical.

Fortunately the market is big, probably bigger than it has ever been, and there is at least some room for quirky, creative writers who aren't writing the same warmed-over Tolkien.

Not that I have a strong opinion or anything.

#3 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 11:52 AM:

While, back in the day, I was primarily on the F of the F/SF divide, I now find myself reading almost exclusively SF. (Titchy bits of genre-classification aside) Why?

The state of the art in interactive fantasy storytelling and technology has, in my opinion, surpassed the ordinary and average in written fantasy. When strongly recommended, I will, of course, pick up an author or book, but on the whole, I much prefer recent efforts in fantasy Console RPGS to most recent efforts in the fantasy field (in the overwhelmingly huge subgenre you reference, books feel stale, and games are starting to get there, but remarkable work is still being done).

Oddly, there is little competition with books on the SF front: I find few SF based CRPGs to be all that enjoyable (FF8 was more SF flavored than usual even for the SF flavored FF series, and is widely considered the weakest of recent efforts; Xenogears/Xenosaga are not my taste; and Star Ocean is difficult to classify (falling into that F/SF trope of "space traveller finds world with magic" (.* Warlock .* being the most common example)).

Now. With a few more details I could probably play name-the-game.

#4 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 12:54 PM:

Glen Cook has various ongoing writing projects. However, assuming you mean his next series for Tor, he's turned in the first book and I'm reading it.

I don't know what's up with R. A. MacAvoy. I'd certainly be interested to know. We knew her a little bit before she'd published any books; she wrote some outstanding articles for our fanzines Telos and Izzard. None of her novels were published by Tor, and I seem to recall it's been a long time since there was a new one.

As it happens, I don't think Robert Jordan's novels are "soulless," nor do I think it says anything terrible to suppose that they might be "deliberately commercial." Much enduringly good literature has been "deliberately commercial." But I don't think either Teresa or I want to encourage a long discussion of whether this or that Tor author is a lousy writer or operating from bad motives. This is not a categorical prohibition of critical remarks about works published by Tor; just a reminder that this is a subject on which both of us would prefer the discussion remain particularly courteous. Keeping it free of personal insults and motive-mongering is a good idea, too.

I will say that the extent to which "brick-shaped fantasy tomes are what sell" is hugely exaggerated. A few fantasy authors sell very long books in impressive quantities. This has led many other moderately successful fantasy authors to conclude that if they write at greater length, their work will sell in enormous quantities too. This generally proves to be a self-destructive mistake.

#5 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 01:01 PM:

Umf. Yes, you can compare the best storytelling
in the computer-game world with the the "ordinary
and average" in written fantasy, and games come
out on top. You could also compare the best of
the written genre with the average videogame, and
guess what?

The nice thing about today's SF/fantasy market is
this: there's so much out there that I never have
to read a mediocre book. There are many fewer
great games being published.

(Of course I'm not perfectly successful at *avoiding*
mediocre books -- nobody is.)

#6 ::: cheem ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 01:11 PM:

A lack of good science fiction RPGS? Like Fallout, Fallout 2, Knights of the Old Republic (highly recommended, even if you're not a Star Wars fan) and... and... someone help me out!

Oh, and I'm not so sure about the assertion that it's not enough to conform to standard fanatasy tropes in fantasy novels. After all, AD&D books still sell remarkably well, R.A. Salvatore, Weis and Hickman built a career around standard fanatasy; their more adventurous attempts sold nowhere near as well as their Dungeons & Dragons stuff.

People like their fantasy to consist of obtaining the shiny dongle and/or defeating the big foozle. Look at how well Diablo 2 did compared to Planescape: Torment on the RPG side. How many more people have read the Dragonlance trilogy as opposed to the Earthsea trilogy?

#7 ::: Christina Schulman ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 01:12 PM:

Greg said:
Unfortunately, brick-shaped fantasy tomes are what sell. Because 90% of the audience are let's-be-generous-and-say uncritical.

As much as I like to make fun of people who buy their fantasy by the pound, I don't think that's an entirely fair characterization. I think it's more that they know what they like, and what they like is as similar as possible to the last 10 things they read.

There is some terrific new fantasy being published, although some of it is appearing in the YA section instead of SF. Garth Nix's Sabriel/Lirael books are lovely and intricate and scary; his new Keys to the Kingdom series isn't as good, but shows promise. Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books are weird and literate and funny; the third book is much too precious, but I remain optimistic. I'm halfway through Kage Baker's first fantasy novel, _The Anvil of the World_, which is decidedly non-brick-like; it's got her usual sardonic narration, and reminds me of early Jack Vance more than anything else. Martha Wells has never written anything that wasn't wonderful and original. The India-flavored _The Wheel of the Infinite_ is probably my favorite, but her new WWI-tech-meets-sword-and-sorcery series is also great.

There are new books from Robin McKinley and Steven Brust, both brilliant. I'm also really enjoying Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion novels, although that has more to do with her characterization and dialogue than it does with the rather generic fantasy setting.

And somehow people like Michael Swanwick and Jim Morrow and Gene Wolfe and Jeff VanderMeer and the rest of the what-the-hell-does-slipstream-mean crowd never seem to come into discussions of the Death of Fantasy, but they're all about messing with your expectations.

So, anyway. There's lots of good fantasy coming out; it helps to pay attention to Locus Online and other review sites.

And avoid anything with a Darrell K. Sweet cover.

#8 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 01:23 PM:

"Slipstream", as far as I can tell, means either "genre literature written by people who have read Gravity's Rainbow" or "genre literature that I am praising in order to convince people that I have read Gravity's Rainbow", depending on the usage.*

Thanks for the Anvil of the World recommendation.

* Disclaimer: I have read Gravity's Rainbow.

#9 ::: Christina Schulman ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 01:35 PM:

I participated in a couple of marathon read-alouds of Gravity's Rainbow in college, which allows me to act pretentious without actually having finished the book. Plus, I got a few really weird t-shirts out of it.

I think Infinite Jest has supplanted Gravity's Rainbow as the benchmark for literary intimidation. I love DFW's essays, but IJ just sits unread on my bookcase, looking baleful and causing the shelf to dip slightly in the middle.

#10 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 01:37 PM:

I suspect in the comparison of fantasy CRPGs and fantasy books, the reason CRPGs may come across as more lively is simply because the "reader" must take a more active role. (Which is why they're not called readers, but players, I'd imagine.) Plus there's the minor fact that there's both animation and music and sometimes spoken dialogue.

This is not to say I have not found games with really compelling storylines. I adore the Final Fantasy series and the .hack series, for instance. And Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross remain my favorite games to date. But if you tried to novelize those stories, they'd lose something, IMO.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I'm not sure you can really compare the two.

In any event, just in terms of cookie-cutter fantasy: many of the books are actually quite good, and if I hadn't already read eleventy-seven of the same story, I'd probably enjoy some of the ones I now find myself avoiding. I actually outright stopped reading all fantasy novels for a while because I was so sick of Repressed and Unlikely Hero Rises Above Origins to Defeat Timeless and Shallow Evil with Magic McGuffin, Everyone Lives Happily Ever After.

(Magic McGuffin would make a great name for a band.)

Then I discovered urban fantasy, and lo! I realized not all fantasy is built the same! And it refreshed my spirit and my heart and...

Well, no, it really just made me realize that I could avoid that little sub-genre repeatoplot and still enjoy the genre as a whole.

Naturally, therefore, I plan on writing a very traditional fantasy book for NaNoWriMo. But I assure you all now, there will be no magic rose-quartz dingleberry.

(Magic Rose-Quartz Dingleberry would be an excellent name for a band.)

#11 ::: catie murphy ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 01:43 PM:

A few fantasy authors sell very long books in impressive quantities. This has led many other moderately successful fantasy authors to conclude that if they write at greater length, their work will sell in enormous quantities too. This generally proves to be a self-destructive mistake.

I do wish people would figure that out. :) (It happens to go for movies, too: *longer* is not necessarily *better*.) Longer is't necessarily *bad*, either, but I was at a conference last year listening to an aspiring author talking about her 150K word fantasy novel, and how she was confident the length would be a selling point since it worked for Robert Jordan (I forebore to mention that the Wheel of Time books are a far cry from Jordan's first books) and how she thought it might even end up 200K, and I kept thinking of a talk that Douglas Adams gave up here in Alaska some years ago, in which he said:

"The books people are writing today, they're too long. You get a little bit of plot, and then pages and pages of Creative Writing. They teach classes in how to do this. They should teach classes in how to stop!"

As somebody with a degree in creative writing (which he did, indeed, say with capital letters), I had one of those moments that Teresa did during the play with the bit about copy-editing. It was all I could do to not yell, "YEAH!" and pump my fist in the air. :)

As with BSD up there, I'm finding myself more likely to read sf than f these days; a while ago my husband picked up the first book in a fantasy trilogy, read the back, handed it to me, and I read it and said, "I know what happens already, I don't want to buy this," and he said, "It's new! How can you know?" So I told him what I extrapolated the story as being from the back cover of the first novel, and he picked up the next two and read the back covers of them, and I'd nailed every point salient enough to put on a blurb. That doesn't happen to me so much with science fiction.

(Of course, the flip side of that is yesterday I read Debra Doyle and James MacDonald's KNIGHT'S WYRD, and I was dead certain by page 47 that I knew exactly what was going to happen. I finished the book anyway and turned out to be completely wrong. That'll teach me. :))

#12 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 01:54 PM:

IIRC it was Andre Norton who first did an explicit game (Quag?) based novel with explicit dice rolls - always wondered if there was author control of the die fall or not?

#13 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 02:13 PM:

"justin" is obviously a joke -- "I no were Elmo livesw"?!?!? But I don't get it. Not in this context.

#14 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 02:24 PM:

To continue several lines here:

I've gotta disagree about Nix, finding that his new series actually got me to read his older one -- MR. MONDAY had the same kind of weird invention that attracted me to Jasper Fforde, and I was very pleased to actually get to the Abhorsen trilogy afterwards, but it didn't seem as off-the-wall. And I seem to be almost alone in thinking that George RR Martin was much more inventive, and exciting, in FEVRE DREAM and THE ARMAGEDDON RAG than he is in the new series (which is quite wonderful -- I just like what was amazingly outside the boundaries in the earlier books better, personally). And some of the most inventive storytellers in modern fantasy don't sell all that well -- Peter Dickinson, a personal fave, is still approaching a breakout book but hasn't gotten there, in part (perhaps) because it's often hard to tell his books are fantasy, or mystery, or for children, or whatever. This is a man who has mastered the art of giving each book a specific voice (and when he's got a series character, the voice changes with each book in comprehensible and fascinating ways [as in Westlake's five-volume "Tucker Coe" series, one of Westlake's best]). I couldn't find what was wonderful in Dickinson until I read a book in which he managed _two_ viewpoints superbly (KING AND JOKER); after that, I've devoured everything of his I can find.

Agreed that longer is not necessarily better -- has anyone else here noticed that they've brought FANCIES AND GOODNIGHTS by Collier out in a new trade paperback edition? He was one of the great short-short story writers (with Fredric Brown and a very few others).

I think Lewis Carroll did an earlier game-based novel (THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS) though the game was determinate; and Philip K. Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE was plotted using the I CHING, hardly a game but at least as randomizing as a roll of the dice. Outside the genre, Luke Rheinhart's THE DICE MAN falls (IIRC) before the Norton, after the Dick (I haven't actually checked) and is well worth looking at for those interested in such gaming. (Catie, if Quag is in the title it's QUAG KEEP, published by DAW 1979; THE DICE MAN is 1971, MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is 1962, and LOOKING GLASS is 1872. All right, so I looked -- the joys of multiple windows....) Debating whether THE DICE MAN is an explicitly game based novel is worth at least several hours of _pilpul_.

Cheers,
Tom Whitmore
Bookseller for too long now...

#15 ::: Paul ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 02:44 PM:

Speaking of games and novels, you can't forget Brunner's SQUARES OF THE CITY, where the character actions are all based on a famous chess match.

And Sturgeon's Law does apply to fantasy just like anything else, but there is good stuff out there. I just finally got to read Curse of Chalion by Bujold, and liked it as much as I like the Vorkosigan novels. On the other hand, I picked up some novel imported from Australia (not Sara Douglass, someone else) and it was basic fantasy dreck.

And as far as SF computer games--Halo is where it's at. It's even got a tiny Niven-style Ringworld as the setting.

#16 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 02:56 PM:

Oh, yeah, SF computer games? Now that I think of it, .hack is also SF as well as fantasy. No, really. It does this game-within-a-game thing; the storyline is about a computer virus and network problem, but the setting is a MMORPG. I just tossed it into 'fantasy' because you spend so much time in the MMORPG...

And there's also Parasite Eve. (And Parasite Eve 2, but I didn't like that one as much.) Which is... well, it's survival SF horror. :)

#17 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 03:08 PM:

Ooh! Martha Wells' new one is out? Amazon, here I come...

#18 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 03:19 PM:

Anne, can't you try an independent bookseller whose market plan isn't just "kill them all, let God sort out his own"? There are a lot of them that have been referenced here, and a great many of them are cheaper than Amazon.... and don't involve spending anywhere near as much on publicity, which means your money will go farther with them.

One note pony,
Tom

#19 ::: Edward Liu ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 03:34 PM:

Howdy,

I'm not sure if the comments are meant for books or for video games or both. I'm going to skew more towards video games, though, so if you're here for books feel free to skip down.

There was a Steampunk CRPG called "Arcanum: Of Magick and Steamworks Obscura" made by the same guys who did the first 2 Fallout games. You could opt the path of Magick or the path of Mechanics, which had major effects on the gameplay. Unfortunately, it never got ported to the Mac (sales tanked on the PC), so odds are I'm never going to get to it. From what I heard, though, it had a pretty good storyline.

I still think Planescape: Torment was easily the best written game I've ever played, and one of the finer works of fantasy fiction I've ever read. There's a website out there which took the (copious amounts of) text from one of the game paths and strung it together to make a "novelization." Came out to more than 200K, and it worked beautifully.

I recall reading that Orson Scott Card was working on a video game for the PS2. Unfortunately, I can't remember the company or the title of the game. I'd lay odds it'll be well written, if nothing else.

John Carmack (writer of the Doom & Quake games) has been quoted as saying plots in video games are like plots in porn movies: you expect them to be there, but they're not the point of the exercise. I might suggest that he thinks this because he's been re-writing the same game for nearly 10 years, now, but that wouldn't be nice. Instead, I'll suggest that I need enough plot to make me feel like my time is worthwhile. I think games like Diablo 2 and Neverwinter Nights (which are both pretty standard fantasty plot coupon questing stuff) manage to provide just enough plot to motivate you to the ever-increasing monster bashing.

A good video game plot can also make sub-standard technology more palatable. No One Lives Forever is a pretty good example of that.

-- Ed

#20 ::: Justine ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 03:43 PM:

Sturgeon's law is the obvious (and accurate) response to comments on the overall crapness of the fantasy genre, but it's not really that helpful. Why is it that only certain genres cop the crapness accusation? Why is it so often fantasy or romance? I've read many fine examples of both genres. (Though of course many excellent romances are not published as romance eg Sarah Waters books). Is it simply that we have to have hierarchies? And for sf to be good fantasy must be bad and vise versa?

Justine

#21 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 03:56 PM:

Tom: I have yet to find an independent bookseller that can anything like match Amazon's prices (aside from SFBC, which is its own kettle of wax). I also have yet to find an independent bookstore with the convenience and full-featuredness of Amazon's website. The closest I can come is sending long emails with title, author, and ISBN to Alice Bentley and having her mail it to me in maybe a month or so, if she doesn't forget and everything comes in fine. Which is moral, but incredibly inconvenient, and I usually forget to do it.

As far as in-person bookstores go, (a) I never manage to get anywhere to go to them, mostly, and (b) they rarely have anything on the shelf that I want to buy, and if I'm just having them order it, it's more convenient to have them mail it to me, as (a) means it'll probably be over a month before I get back to pick it up, if I ever remember. Amazon has HUGE selection, buy-it--right-now instant gratification, usually free shipping, decent to great prices, and an interface that doesn't piss me off.

I would be glad to be proven wrong; please provide URLs of independent sellers that might fit my needs as well as Amazon does.

Though sometimes I deliberately order obscure stuff through Amazon just to convince them someone DOES buy it.

#22 ::: --kip ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 03:59 PM:

It's been noted that superhero comics face a similar problem: if all you're going to give them is gee-whiz sensawunda capecapades, well, action flicks and video games have much more raw gee and whiz than comics can ever provide. --Play to the strengths of your medium, your idiom, and your genre--but also be aware of how they're working together, and what the other folks are up to in their sandboxes.

I think hard SF (as currently constituted) might work better in prose than other media because the fan of hard SF is looking for rigor--for speculative games played with panache against an unforgiving, draconian set of rules drawn from The World as We Know It (with maybe one hedgehog allowed, depending)--and this rigor is best communicated through prose. A lot of the gee-whiz sensawunda happens on scales it's difficult to perceive on a human storytelling level, or to communicate visually. And without the grounding exposition that prose can more easily provide, the significance of this statistic or that reaction can be easy for the average audience member to miss.

It's the same for hard SF in RPGs: the harder the science, the less popular and more marginalized they are: Traveller hangs on through sheer momentum and a GURPS license; Traveller 2300 is late and sadly lamented; the Transhuman Space line seems to be selling well for the moment, but a perennial complaint is finding enough other people who want to game with these shiny new books. Meanwhile, fantasy gaming--whether medieval hack-n-slash or urban paranoia or space opera--is doing well enough. (To perpetuate but one of a number of ugly distinctions.) --Genre expectations are looser, more forgiving, and based on stuff that's closer to the common experience than (say) calculating burn rates, or knowing the best way to DOS the evil multinational's server farm. Free verse, instead of a sestina. It's easier for a disparate group of players to find common ground in the broad, stereotypical fields of various fantasy genres; it can be quite frustrating for everyone to attempt to satisfy the rigors of hard science, when all you want is beer'n'pretzels socializing.

Which isn't to say it's impossible to do hard SF in TV or movies or RPGs. Just harder. You have to know the rules of science as well as the rules of (whatever other) genre storytelling you're messing with, and how to game them, and you have to build a lot more of the iceberg underwater than you would with space opera or police procedural, if that makes sense, and take a lot more care with the exposition. And it also isn't to say that there's some Platonic utility to which each combination of medium and genre can be put: that would be essentialist, and thus silly. But here and now, people who want escapist power fantasies are going to get more bang from video games than comic books or fantasy novels, and people who want royalist soap opera politics on a scale that still allows Great People to affect the course of nations will snap up the latest brick in their favorite never-ending epic, and people who want hard SF rigor are more likely to find more of what they want in novels than TV shows or movies. --And on any given day, of course, the same person could be any one of these, or more.

Anybody know what's up with the miniseries adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books?

#23 ::: Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 04:03 PM:

Tom: I buy stuff from places I want to see existing into the future. Amazon is very much such a place for me.

Sturgeon's Law: I think Andrew Plotkin has the right perspective on that -- it doesn't matter if 90% of stuff is crap if 10% is more than I can read anyway, and I'm pretty decent at finding that 10%.

#24 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 04:13 PM:

Just for scorekeeping, and considering an adjacent thread, notice Poul Anderson's take on the Immortal Game published in Fantasy and Science Fiction a long time ago. As Wilmar Shiras (? IIRC) noted in her neglected In Hiding, Through the Looking Glass doesn't play out on the board - the Immortal Game does just fine by the nature of the play that made it the Immortal Game (although in a booked up world it would take author control to achieve the actual game result.)

#25 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 04:16 PM:

Fallout I/II : Played the first, was not impressed.
KOTOR: No XBox.

Although I just remembered a truly excellent SF game, one that is getting a sequel soon (supposedly): Half-Life. COMPLETELY on rails, but with a good story you get to take part in, so the lack of true narrative participation is OK.

I would posit a limitation of Sturgeon's Law: While 90% is the most common case, there is a distinct proportional linkage between the absolute size of the set and the proportion that is crap. This seems, at the moment, to be working slightly more in favor of commercially released PC/C - RPGs as opposed to printed fantasy literature.

#26 ::: Kim ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 04:38 PM:

Can I just attach this entire thread to one of my classmate's submissions for our short story class? It's got all the bells and baubles, but it's still just nothing and I'm having a hard time finding a nice way to say so. I'm about the only fan of genre-fiction in our class and everybody is oohing and aahing over it but I'm just bored.

#27 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 04:56 PM:

Tina - good to see I'm not the only NaNoer haunting these parts. (I'm maestro23 on the boards over there.)

There's actually been a lot of discussion among the folks planning to write some variation on f/sf in November (which looks at a glance like a solid majority of participants) about genre cliches and what to do about them. My take is that there's a fine line between "cliche" and "archetypal theme." I don't care, as a reader, how cliched the idea is if it's got a fresh voice and isn't trying to be a carbon copy of the last book I read. "Small-town lad fulfills destiny, makes good" is an idea so deeply ingrained in our collective imagination that I think we need to keep telling stories about it. Robert Jordan, f'rinstance, uses that as the springboard to do a reverse-engineered reading of all myth and folklore by way of soap-opera high fantasy Nibelungenleid, and it's a perfectly fine take - it's just not one to everyone's tastes. But start culling your reading for any trace of cliche and you'll strip your bookshelves bare. Hate plot-coupon stories? Don't bother with Mieville's The Scar - but you'll lose a damn fine read that way. "Wainscot" stories make you roll your eyes? See above, but for Little, Big. And so on.

It's all been done already. So what? As a music fan, I don't seek out new CDs only if it's something I'm sure I've never heard before. I want to hear a new artist's take on the kind of thing I like, done well. If I'm surprised along the way, that's great, but not required.

The most common failing of geeks is the failure to recognize that a preference is not the same thing as a virtue. Be kind about other people's tastes. Give me a fanboy's enthusiasm and sense of awed wonder over jaded cynicism any day.

(And re: band names - I was planning on something like Tower At Charm or High One's Harper for my future non-solo career, but "Dan Layman-Kennedy and his Magic Rose-Quartz Dingleberry" may be too good to pass up.)

#28 ::: Greg Morrow ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 05:15 PM:

I rather consciously invoked Sturgeon's law, of course, to lead into what I intended as my point, that, fortunately, there's enough good stuff in the other 10% to keep my book queue full.

If I erred, it was in failing to express my support for the relativity of qualitative opinions. There are, evidently, lots of people I don't understand at all who like to read the same fantasy novel over and over with different titles.

I sympathize; I read superhero comics in order to experience again the too-rare thrill of "Suddenly, they appear. A soldier with a voice that could command a god--'Get those fires out! We don't want a gas main going up'--and does. Suddenly it's raining so hard it hurts."

Heck, I've even read all of the Nero Wolfe books more than once. I practice reiterative reading, too.

So everybody's entitled to their opinion. And in my crowd, it may be de rigeur to add "and yours is wrong", but that jocularity isn't necessarily evident in cold print.

Anyway. Hey, how about that Robert Sawyer Hugo win? I'm beginning to work my way through his backlist; Calculating God hit just about all of my sweet spots.

#29 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 05:20 PM:

I like Sawyer OK (what I've read), but he strikes me as lightweight, not only because he makes scientific mistakes even when he's swearing he's not, but because the latter bits of the ones I've read boil down to 'and this happens because I say it happens, and I'm writing the book.' Which isn't to say I don't like it! :-> *What* I like, though, is that he's good at writing 'ordinary people encountering fucked-up circumstances.' I adore the mystery and courtroom-drama bits of Illegal Alien, for example, for the same reasons I liked Forever Knight: it's not an alien novel, or at least not lots of it. It's a murder novel about an alien. In the same way, ForKni was a cop show that happened to have a vampire protagonist, not a vampire show (primarily).

I just like that sort of trope. And almost anything anthropological, or with genuinely DIFFERENT aliens/societies, will get me to read it at least once.

#30 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 05:35 PM:

Eloise: Have you tried Powell’s?

#31 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 05:36 PM:

Dan: I'm QAChyk@NaNo, but you won't see many posts from me there. Too much to keep up with.

I agree there's not really much you can do to make the bare bones original; it's pretty much all done before. But...

(Warning: tortured analogy ahead)

The type of book I'm thinking of is a plain, no-frills McDonald's hamburger. It's the same flat piece of meat on the same kinda boring bun with a dollop of the same ketchup, a scattering of pseudo-onions, and a little pickle slice.

But there's all sorts of hamburgers out there. You can put them on different breads: sesame buns, poppyseed buns, onion rolls, flat slices of white bread, dutch crunch rolls, whatever you like. The burger itself can be small or large, oval, round, or square; it can be seasoned or just slightly salted, have bread crumbs and egg and onion in it or be plain. And that's just the meat and bread.

Then you have tomatoes, and onions (raw or grilled; red or yellow or sweet Vidalia), and pickles, and lettuce, and mustard, and mayo, and barbecue sauce, and ranch dressing, and oh, do you want cheese? What kind?

Mmm. Burgers.

I don't like all of these choices but I will almost always try the bizarro burger rather than the familiar plain burger. BBQ Ranch Bacon Roquefort Plum Tomato Grilled Vidalia on Rye Burger at least sounds more interesting, even if it turns out to be a culinary nightmare.

But the problem is, both writers and readers keep returning to the plain old McDonald's burger. And the more writers who do it, the more readers who throw up their hands and say "Enough! I'm going to start eating chicken!"

(Where the chicken would, I guess, be science fiction.)

(End tortured analogy.)

So, no, I'm not expecting everything to be 100% New, Shiny, and Original, but I'd like some more variation, some unexpected bits, some Provolone instead of Cheddar.

(Mmm. Provolone.)

I believe the novel I have planned will qualify as a good solid burger patty on an onion roll with tomatoes, mayo, ketchup, onions, and very sharp cheddar cheese. Not terribly unusual, but more interesting than a McDonald's plain burger.

(Really end tortured analogy.)

Hopefully that puts me in the column of contributing to the solution.

#32 ::: David Bilek ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 05:53 PM:

David (Moles)-

I've tried Powell's, and they don't even come close to matching Amazon's prices.

I'd also be interested in some examples of independent bookstores that do so... 99% of my new purchases (of books, of course) in the last 5 years have been via amazon.com or amazon.co.uk and that will continue as long as I save 25-33% over the same purchases elsewhere.

#33 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 06:16 PM:

A general note: I keep forgetting that the rest of you don't read slush. In my head, I was comparing good fantasy/adventure games with the high end of the slush pile -- the stuff that's technically publishable, but doesn't inspire editors with a burning desire to publish it.

Greg, Robert Jordan couldn't write those books if he wasn't sincere about them. Neither they nor their author are soulless. They're commercial to the extent that he's trying to write the kind of books he loves, in hopes that his readers will love them too. And no way are they indistinguishable from David Farland's work.

The audience for epic fantasy isn't uncritical. It knows what it wants. I take it it's a safe bet to say that your tastes don't match. They like certain vitamins and minerals they find in Jordan, Goodkind, Martin, Williams, etc., and in their quest for those things are willing to read a great many pages. But believe me, they don't automatically like books with lots and lots of pages. Many writers have come to grief over that error, and more will undoubtedly follow.

In the meantime, sales are holding steady. There's always room for quirky, creative writers who write books people want to read.

Andrew Plotkin: Just so. I can see why someone might start a mediocre book, but I can't see why they'd finish it. Life is short. There are other books to read.

Carrot, since you asked: good dialogue doesn't duplicate real speech. It's an artificial creation that reads on the page like the conversation we "hear" in our heads after our brains have highlighted the important or interesting bits, and edited out the noise, error, repetition, and irrelevancies.

Have you ever looked at something interesting, tried to take a picture of it, and discovered afterward that the interesting part occupies a small spot in the middle of a large dull background? The size of that object in your subjective field of vision vs. its size in your camera's field of vision is the difference between dialogue and real-world speech.

Christina, Garth Nix (via Jon Singer) and Jasper fForde (via Lucy Huntzinger) have been my two favorite new writers this year. Nix is great at making you feel the full magnitude of the tasks his characters are set, and the peril to the world if they fail. fForde does things that shouldn't even be possible, like not having his entire twee illogical too-clever-by-half structure fall to pieces in his hands. I haven't seen the third book; sorry to hear it's less successful. The first two were a romp. Also, I loved the back cover copy.

Catie, spot on. The two classes of people who appear to have figured that out about long books are (1.) readers; and (2.) bookstore chains. It isn't hard. A quick thought experiment will do it: "Look, it's a cinderblock-sized novel by someone I've never heard of, priced at $27.95!" At that point, what does your heart tell you?

Doyle and Macdonald's books have been known to make certain experienced old pros yell "Aaaaaaaaaaargh! They faked me out!"

Christopher, I make "Justin" as a jerk pretending to be a dweeb. He has been summarily dealt with.

Justine, if you ever come up with an answer to that one, please let me know.

#34 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 06:32 PM:

I think Sturgeon's Law is the sort of thing you get in a culture where you correct people to be polite, and otherwise not.

There are times people want a reliable, comfortable, consistent book. There is a real art in giving that to them.

#35 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 06:42 PM:

By me anybody who has read all the Goldsboro (? spelling) Nero Wolfe stories more than once has too much time - for my money an existence proof for all the elements and none of the mix.

I can remember when Powell's wasn't even the best bookstore on the block - wonder what ever happened to O'Gara's - granted there are family permutations in Powell's and I don't know anyplace with better prices and better service than Amazon but not Amazon. On the other hand I know Little Bookshop of Horrors in Arvada and Science Fiction and Mystery in Atlanta deserve more support than they may sometimes have.

#36 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 06:48 PM:

How many more people have read the Dragonlance trilogy as opposed to the Earthsea trilogy?

That's an interesting question. Especially given the latter has been in print roughly twice as long, has major, librarian- and bookstore-friendly awards, and has a constantly renewing audience. I'd be surprised if the numbers aren't in the same ballpark.

---L.

#37 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 07:53 PM:

I was going to stop by Barnes & Noble on the way home, but now I have this urge to get a really good hamburger instead.

#38 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 07:57 PM:

Sorry! My bad!

#39 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 08:01 PM:

Dragonlance vs. Earthsea? What Larry said. Earthsea has friends. Dragonlance absent is Dragonlance dead.

Kim, what's your classmate writing?

#40 ::: Alec Austin ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 08:24 PM:

I actually wrote an essay on the literary side of this problem last year on Strange Horizons; it gets a bit pedantic and rather judgmental in bits, but as a reader/critic I can only reference books that made it past the slush pile-- sorry, Theresa.

What interests me about comparing games (both paper-and-pencil and computer RPGs) and fantasy novels, however, are the levels of interaction between them. China Mieville, for instance, has mentioned that his obsession with quirky monsters and imagined races came at least partially from reading books like D&D monster manuals, which leads me to suspect that gaming has had a substantial influence on the fantasy genre in less obvious way than perpetuating Tolkien ripoffs and establishing the names of writers like Ed Greenwood and R.A. Salvatore in the minds of the public.

I'd be interested to see how other ideas and influences from gaming bleed back into written fantasy as time goes on, though I must admit that the idea of how much Final-Fantasy influenced slush there will probably be in years to come fills me with dread. (Assuming, of course, it hasn't started already; not being an editor, I wouldn't know.)

#41 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 08:53 PM:

As a gamer, it's been fun for me to keep track of fantasy authors with gaming pasts...

There's Ray Feist, most obviously. G.R.R. Martin has talked of GURPS, though I'm not sure if he ever actually played with it, or just studied it. China Mieville springs to mind, and I know that Matthew Woodring Stover used to play CHAMPIONS!, the super-hero roleplaying game for people who like things complex but don't have the time to get a four-year degree in STAR FLEET BATTLES. ;)

I don't write Final Fantasy fan-fic, but the Super Nintendo versions of FFII and FFIII were a huge influence on me when I was 14-17. They had things I'd never seen before in a video game-- cinematic openings and interludes, huge soap-operatic story arcs, character death and aging, and the idea of magic and high technology blending together to form a single craft/science. This was the first time I'd ever run into that trope... blew my widdle bitty mind, it did!

Those gaming experiences are mixed in with all the reading I was doing at that point (discovering Brin, Asimov, Herbert, Haldeman, etc.) into the great hodge-podge that was my "Golden Age." I know that the MagiTech sensibilities of the FF games still evoke the feeling of pure teenage sense-of-wonder for me, and inform the style of what I write.

In fact, it suddenly occurs to me that a major character in my novel-in-progress shares a name with a Final Fantasy III character! Holy sneaking influences, Batman...

#42 ::: ben ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 08:59 PM:

"Individuated"?

I know, I know. But my brain tripped all over it.

::scratches head::

I'm done being a dork now. Apologies. (Yes, really.)

#43 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 09:05 PM:

Christina wrote: Garth Nix's Sabriel/Lirael books are lovely and intricate and scary; his new Keys to the Kingdom series isn't as good, but shows promise.

While I fell in love with the world, magic system, and characters in Sabriel when I first read it three years ago, I have to say that I was disappointed by some of the characters in the other two books in that series, Lirael and Abhorsen. The world remained as richly and fully drawn as ever, and many of the characters--Mogget, for example--gained a wonderful depth. Many of his male characters, though, seemed to me rather like clones of each other. Touchstone had an excuse, having been trapped where he was for nigh-on 200 years, to be confused and constantly complaining. But--especially in Lirael--the other male characters seemed like rehashes of Touchstone for no particular reason.
That's not to say they're not excellent books--I love them, was horrendously upset at missing the Nix panel at Worldcon a few years ago, and admire their author, who once took the time to write me a long email. And I still want to open up an inn called "The Three Lemons".

But I don't think they're as good as Mister Monday. Here, he's created a world and magic system just as interesting as that found in the Sabriel books, but I feel that the characters we've met so far in that series already seem less like cyphers of a type and more like real people.

A side nots, for those of you who are interested: there's a fiendishly hard little game involving necromancer's bells over at the website for the UK edition of Sabriel. You'll need Flash to play it, though.

#44 ::: Rachael HD ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 09:50 PM:

I agree with many of the comments in this thread, and it all brings me back to a thread from some time ago about the names of genre. I never felt that I articulated my point then, and still don't know if I can, but here goes:

I feel that all readers lose when there is too much attention paid to accepting or rejecting genre labels. I like to be able to find books that have a certain feel to them, a certain world-view, if you will. To that end I am frustrated by writers and critics (and book sellers?) who declare that certain works are not fantasy / sf / horror etc. because they are "too good" or "literary." Like certain “literary” writers insistence that their work isn't SF because it's based on solid scientific research... shocking to all of the SF writers I know who had no idea you could do actual RESEARCH to help write your books (tone of shock, shock I tell you.) I am also frustrated that it took me so long to discover that certain "literary" writers were really writing fantasy, but no one had told me and I have missed out on their wonderful books for so long.

On the other hand, I do want to read new books, not the same books. I don't mind reading books with the same familiar tropes, as long as some aspect is fresh and new. Good books are good books, if someone writes a richly textured, complex and vivid, high fantasy saga with elves and dwarves and strange little creatures with hairy toes, that tells a fresh new story in a wonderful way I will be the first in line to buy a copy; but it seems like often when I buy fantasy these days I am disappointed by the same old story, with the same old scenery.

On the third hand (unique anatomy, runs in my family,) I lose patience with the many wonderful writers who are trying to craft a third way. This is horribly ungrateful of me. I think I find some of the name-games... distasteful? Affected? I want them to keep writing their wonderful non-cliche9d cross genre work, but I want the old genre names to embrace that writing, I want to expand our beloved genre to include more, not stand around quibbling about categories. Somewhere months ago I read a rant saying something like: "all of these new writers with their new fangled ideas should go get their own genre, they don't belong here," which I find ridiculous, but I also find the secessionist manifestos silly.

Sorry for the long inarticulate ramble. I really don't have my thoughts on this nailed down. I should probably put in the disclaimer that my husband and most of my writer friends are in the secessionist manifesto crowd, so no one go tattle on me on the writer boards. (My husband also points out that I am a fine one to talk as my visual art is firmly in the style of the secessionist manifesto-ists. ) I also noticed that there is a Rachel posting here lately, so I added the HD.

#45 ::: Justine ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 10:02 PM:

As is evident from everyone's comments, what constitutes the golden 10% and the chunderous 90% of Sturgeon's law sure does vary (as do the percentages). It's not just a matter of taste. There are so many different methods for assessing goodness. Right now I'm struggling to like baseball because I keep trying to make it fit a cricket model. It's only letting go of my knowledge of cricket that's allowing me to begin enjoying it--just in time for the last few games of the season. Thank God basketball's nothing like cricket.

Teresa--I was so sure you'd have the answer to that question . . .

Justine

#46 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 10:07 PM:

So far as games go, Diablo 2 is almost entirely lacking in story. Yet there's enough plot that players who enjoy the game, either playing alone or with others, are, many of them, compelled to flesh that structure out into stories of their own, incorporating happenings from that day's gaming. Telling stories of one's games, reading stories of other player's games (as opposed to straightforward accounts of strategies) then becomes as important a part of the whole game experience as that of actually playing it.

#47 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 10:40 PM:

Greg Costikyan's October 11 blog entry (sorry, him bad man not use permalinks) talks about a few important aspects of "writing" for games as opposed to writing in a non-interactive format, and links to more of the (interesting) same. A bit tangential to the main topic, but possibly of local interest in this thread. Plow right over me if I'm screwing things up.

#48 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 11:07 PM:

Amazon is going to exist whether I buy from them or not, just like W*l-M*rt. I wouldn't go either place to buy a book, with the possible exception of Amazon convenience for drop-shipping a gift.

If you want to save money on a book, buy used. The discounts are deeper than Amazon, and it helps break the cycle of "Shiny. New. Must buy now" which drives the consumer culture.

Really, there are so many good books in the world. For a long time, I bought strictly from junk stores and garage sales, both for music and reading, and was generally quite satisfied.

Tom,

I'll admit to paying the local chain (whatever it is--I think it's a Border's, but I'm not sure, and doesn't that say it all?) an occasional visit. I occasionally need a technical book or a reference, and I did get The Sky So Big And Black for my wife's birthday (note the careful phrasing), and The Wind and the newest and most recently re-released Jayhawks CDs.

Oh, and breastfeeding books. When your wife needs a breastfeeding book right now, well, she needs it right now. I'd've bought those at a W*l-M*rt, if need had been, or a crack house.

(I try to buy CDs directly from the artist whenever possible.)

That's maybe six books and three CDs out of mumble hundred bought in the last year or so.

I don't know that the independent new book store is going to make it--I know I don't get into the ones here in Atlanta as often as I should--but I believe the independent used book store (with a small shelf of new) is here to stay. Still, as few new books as I buy, I should be buying them somewhere unforgettable, not at some pseudonymous chain.

clark,

Thanks for the reminder about Science Fiction and Mystery here in Atlanta. I think I'll pay them a visit this week. (The wife makes it there quite a bit, but then, she reads both genres avidly.)

Justine,

There's a thought rattling around in my mind in answer to your question. It's got something to do with how closely genre readers and publishers hew to the genre's conventions. Westerns published as westerns are expected to fit pretty tightly; Cormac McCarthy may write but doesn't publish "westerns". Was Graham Greene's The Human Factor a novel with spies or an entertainment?

Or maybe it's how porous the boundaries of a genre are, or perhaps it's how porous they are perceived to be. If that's so, is the porosity cause or effect?

(By the way, can 'if need be' conjugate as 'if need had been'? More to the point, should it?)

And now I return me to my billable hours, which should already be in progress.

#49 ::: Kim ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 11:23 PM:

To-Do List: (1) Mine this thread for more books to add to my reading list (2) Win the lottery (3) Quit my day job (4) Do nothing but read for the next five or ten years.

My fellow student's story is exactly what you described - standard genre fantasy characters running around loose in standard genre fantasy settings, questing for the magic rose-quartz dingleberry while they try to defeat the Dark Lord who92s trying to take over the world. One of the only twists is that they aren't questing for the magic rose-quartz dingleberry - he plays keep-away with it instead. I feel like he's trying to condense too much into a short story - there are too many characters with too many difficult-to-pronounce names and too much going on for a short story. It seems like he's trying overly hard to be Tolkein-esque, and I wish he'd look for a few interesting bits to focus on and just tell us those bits in his own voice in a short story instead. I was happy to see someone submitting genre fiction to the class, but I've ended up feeling jaded - and I'm not even a great writer or that well-read. Maybe part of me is just jealous that he actually wrote the kind of story I only read and wish I could write well.

Thanks Alec Austin for posting the link to your essay, I'm going to print that out too - as much for myself as for my classmate.

#50 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 11:24 PM:

Tom: What Eloise (and others) said. I'm well aware of the virtues of independent bookstores--in fact I used to spend more than I could afford at Adventures in Crime and Space, which folded the very summer I got a real job, o the frustration.

If there were an indie bookstore in this benighted place, I'd support it, even if it meant paying more. I do buy all my comics at the local comic shop, never from B&N or Amazon. But as things stand, Amazon is the best place in town--my other choices being a dinky little B&N that's half doodads, and a B.Walden's at the mall.

However, if you can give me some URLs with which you've had good results, I'll happily try them out.

#51 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 11:40 PM:

Quoth Tina:
Hopefully that puts me in the column of contributing to the solution.

Well, sure, I have the same hopes. Though I do gothy urban fantasy rather than High Epic for the most part. (But I'm not free of cliches there by any means - the "wainscot" backdrop, eldritch monsters, smartass magicians-in-big-coats. I only trust that it becomes new because of being seen through my eyes and through the particular filter of my obsessions.)

Actually, there it is - I'm surprised nobody's yet referenced Steven Brust's Cool Stuff Theory of Literature. Authors write stories about the things they think are cool; readers who find the saame things to be cool respond well to their work. It only ever gets a little more complicated than that. The truth is that I can talk a good game about books, using words like "literate" and "challenging" and "poetic," but when it comes right down to it I love Riddle-Master because I think shape-changers and immortal wizards are unbearably cool. And if I also see McKillip's source material come through and appreciate that, it's because I think Celtic myths and Norse sagas are also cool. So there you have it.

I like the hamburger model; I appreciate what you mean about looking for variation in dressing, even if what I want is essentially good old meat and carbs. I think most popular fantasy authors have succeeded pretty well in producing interesting variants on the hamburger. Robert Jordan is not George Martin is not David Drake is not David Eddings, page count notwithstanding. The structure may be the same basic thing, but none of them are exactly McDonalds. (Not to disparage literary fast food, which also serves a fine purpose.)

Re: the connection between gaming and writing: I can speak only as an amateur author here, but I can tell you that the creative impulse for both, for me, springs from the same odd place. It's all about the Cool Stuff. I know what China Mieville means about the imagination being fired by books of RPG monsters. I look forward to seeing what the next generation of fantasists come up with, who have Exalted and Nobilis and Unknown Armies to be inspired by...

#52 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 11:44 PM:

On influences from computer gaming moving into written fantasy:

My impression is that there's not much of that. The games I see are
using settings and styles straight out of TV, movies, and anime.
Particularly anime -- not surprising, considering how much game
development *and* game audience is in Japan. "Final Fantasy" is a
prime example.

Obviously those shows and movies influence written SF *also*, but it's
hard to point at an element and say "There -- that's obviously from
computer gaming." The characteristic aspects of a videogame that
*aren't* purely visual are... the interactivity. Which can't be done
at all in a book.

I mean, what's *distinctive* about the Final Fantasy game series? The
games have storylines, which (not to be blunt) are not very memorable.
It has great art, but the style is classic costume-fetish anime, not
that original; and art isn't going to be an influence on written SF
anyhow. What does FF have of its own account? A particular style of
turn-based combat. That's what you spend most of your time doing.
(Plus associated RPG mechanics -- spells, experience points, etc.) The
combat model has evolved through the series; features have been
swapped in and out; it's been imitated by other titles; etc. But how
is that going to influence a book? "You can hear dice rolling" is an
*insult* in the written SF world. (A valid insult, IMHO.)

(And to butt in on another stray thread: I agree that _Lirael_/
_Abhorsen_ don't work as well as _Sabriel_. I still prefer _Sabriel_
to _Mister Monday_, though. _MM_ has gobs and gobs of style, also fun;
but Sabriel's voice and story have more solidity. We shall see how the
rest of the "Keys" series plays out.)

#53 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 12:02 AM:

Wonder if it says something about series - it seems to take more than a single novel - that many can have their names attached to games but the games don't seem to live. From Starship Troopers (ok that's a short novel) which became a collector's item game in part for the extra detail it brought to the book to the in work Hammer's Slammer handpainted resin cast miniatures which will presumably follow traditional sand table column line and square rules modified appropriately - or the rules would work for the Romans versus tribes/small kingdoms Mr. Drake mines so successfully for his plots. That is the world but not the character of the stories carry over to the game - likely the game pure is like a tale told by the Stratemyer syndicate to which the reader imputes his own notion of characterization handpainted on cardboard.

#54 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 12:14 AM:

Kim: He's trying to raise up an entire fantasy universe in a short story? There are only two ways to do that. One is to be really, really good. The other is to use the received background.

Some of the things I rant about when I'm reading slush:

(1.) Why do Dark Lords only ever want to take over the world? Why don't they ever want to appear on the cover of Vogue, or bag all the Munros in record time, or convert everyone in the world to Lutheranism?

(2.) Why is it always a Dark Lord? Why isn't it an evil syndicate or axis or cabal? And while we're at it, why do Dark Lords never have enough staffers to administer a large operation?

(3.) Why, in worlds that have a long tradition of working magic, a low level of technology, and little or no organized religion or codified theology, does everyone hate and fear magical powers, and persecute people who develop them? Most especially, why do peasants who have no other source of medical or dental care go out of their way to persecute and alienate their witchy-but-kind village healers?

(4.) Why do people who find out they're heir to great temporal and thaumaturgical power never say "Oh, goody!" And why is their artificially prolonged reluctance to do this obvious thing always referred to as "accepting their destiny" -- especially in causal universes in which destiny is not otherwise a recognized force?

(5.) How can illiterate characters living in an illiterate culture have non-phonetic and orthographically outre names?

(6.) How much does this author think his mommy is paying me to read and remember these thickets of superfluous nomenclature, when I haven't yet seen enough of the plot and characters to care who they are or what's going to become of them?

I'd better quit now ...

#55 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 12:27 AM:

Let me throw in a kind word for the Good Old Days when paperbacks routinely ran 160 pages. Long enough for development of plot and character, short enough that one could settle into a comfy chair and read the entire story in one evening.

(Lest I be accused of deplorable consistency, I have enjoyed a goodly number of SHOGUNesque doorstop books. But I really prefer a story to be included, and concluded, within one set of covers.)

#56 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 01:30 AM:

(4.) Why do people who find out they're heir to great temporal and thaumaturgical power never say "Oh, goody!"

I've wondered that from time to time. "You can levitate! You can heal gaping wounds! You can set fire to your annoying cousin just by squinting! Where's the downside, fer pity's sake?"

#57 ::: Jon h ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 01:44 AM:

Tina writes: "But I assure you all now, there will be no magic rose-quartz dingleberry. "

But... but...

If there's no magic rose-quartz dingleberry, you can't have an embossed foil shiny magic rose-quartz dingleberry on the cover!

#58 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 02:03 AM:

In re 2):

For the same reason so many open source "advocates" are, in the words of an over-the-top-but-not-without-merit article that got Slashdotted this week, walking HR disasters waiting to happen.

Or am I being cynical?

#59 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 02:18 AM:

I'll second Scott's recommendation of Costikyan's site. His discussions of fantasy games, and how they can avoid their own cliches, is interesting.

#60 ::: cheem ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 03:24 AM:

I'm sure we must be talking about different things. Everybody I knew throughout highschool (this was the early-mid 90s) had read Dragonlance. Not only that, but everyone they knew and everyone those folks knew had read the Dragonlance trilogy. I'm talking about Weis and Hickman's original works. They were pretty good books for kids, although a bit, well, unsatisfying now.

You saw folks reading Dragonlance in the canteens, during sports events. Dragonlance even was common comfort reading material in the barracks.

OTOH, nobody had read the Earthsea trilogy. And, even if I thought it was a great read, no one could remotely relate to it. I mean, they sure wouldn't have read it if I hadn't lent it to them and they sure didn't want to reread, nevermind go out and purchase it (as if it was available at that time). It too is a kids' trilogy, but in terms of depth, quality of writing and sheer general greatness goes far beyond Dragonlance.

And which is more readily available and sells better? The Dragonlance trilogy is virtually being given the Lord of the Rings treatment. Hard or softback omnibus volumes, with or without authors' annotations. Individually bound volumes and beautifully illustrated gift sets. On the other hand, the Earthsea trilogy is usually found here and there in bits and pieces. And finding a set with consistent bindings? Not even on Amazon. If the sales quantity of the two series is comparable, well, it's only because one has been out longer than the other. And it won't stay that way for long.

#61 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 07:31 AM:

This thread brings two things to mind:

1. I remember playing D&D and AD&D pretty much when they first became commercially available. And one of the most important things I remember from playing them is that they had lists of the books which influenced the games' creation (Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, JRR Tolkien, etc.). And thanks to the authors for their inspiration.

I was psyched (to use the term of the day) to find those lists, because it added Good Stuff to my reading list. (Most of it really was.)

2. When LotR:FotR came out a couple of years ago, there were at least several reviews of the movie which started 'This movie is just like any other epic fantasy you've ever seen.' Made me wonder whether the reviewers had ever read the books, or noticed that they basically WERE the mold from which the other movies (or books, if they'd ever read any books, these being movie reviewers) had been cast.

I don't care what trimmings you put on my burger. I just want it to taste good, thanks ;-)

#62 ::: janeyolen ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 08:20 AM:

Madly taking notes so my NEXT fantasy trilogy can answer all these questions.

Jane

PS I was just a World Fantasy judge and you guys don't know the HALF of the problem! I can't even give away all the doorstops I received and I am constitutionally incapable of throwing a book into the trash barrel.

#63 ::: Rebecca ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 08:37 AM:

On the topic of independent sources for new and used books, my I humbly submit my former employer, the Harvard Bookstore, in Boston?

On the other topics, I read both Dragonlance and Earthsea in high school, where I was pretty much the only one who read either.

On the thread as a whole, as a wannabe author I am taking notes. :-) I have found the Tough Guide to Fantasyland both amusing and useful as well.

#64 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 08:53 AM:

Tried to post some connections last night, but my ability to create links is less than perfect. Some simple suggestions: www.abebooks.com is a consortium of independents, each of which may well have books much cheaper than Amazon (and if you're looking for something out of print, many will have it cheaper). The next level up is www.bookfinder.com, which searches a large batch of independent bookseller websites but loses out when a site is busy.

My experience with Amazon is that it's not cheaper when you add in shipping. Looking only at the base price is a simple thing, and misleading. And a lot of it depends on what you're trying to order. Current bestsellers -- Amazon is likely to be good. Quirky books you've never heard of -- Amazon is likely to be bad. Good SF and Fantasy referrals may be found at www.alexlit.com. Get out there and play!

I can see the desire to have good booksellers online. I don't see the reason to have Amazon, who are losing money _much_ faster than any independent, who are diluting their supposed reason for existence every time one turns around, and who are dedicated to Market Share above all else. And that includes finding their customers real deals.

Cheers,
Tom

#65 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 09:08 AM:

Obligatory full disclaimer: I write fantasy -- and I'm posting here because I'm in sixth draft hell (the "eating yesterday's cold vomit" remix) on a fantasy novel I'm going to hand in to an editor at Tor next week, and right now I'd rather muck out the cat's litter tray by hand than actually work, which is why I'm here now. (I have yet to experience anything much worse than a sixth draft. Yes, I've led a very sheltered life.)

Theresa hit the nail on the head, as usual, first time round: the problem is lack of differentiation. Like lots of other people who try to write fantasy, I spent too much of my teen-age years playing D&D. If you've been there, you can smell the reek of those half-digested cliches as they rise off the pages. It's a rank stench that tends to overpower the more subtle aroma of original thought. Best used very sparingly -- or not at all.

Meanwhile, by way of offering free advice to any members of the peanut gallery who fancy their chances at writing a first fantasy novel (not including Jane Yolen, who has probably forgotten more about the process than I ever learned):

You will not get to be the next Robert Jordan by slavishly imitating the Wheel of Time, because Robert Jordan is alive and still selling the real thing. However, you might get to be the next big thing by writing something original (if you're also good, and a bit lucky on the side as well). It's hit-and-miss as techniques go, but at least you won't bore the pants off the poor editors like Theresa who have to filter the slushpile. And not boring the slushpile readers is, well, a necessary prerequisite to a successful career.

(Phew, I feel better. Back to work, now ...)

#66 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 09:11 AM:

Way, way back at the beginning of this thread, BSD wrote:

While, back in the day, I was primarily on the F of the F/SF divide, I now find myself reading almost exclusively SF. (Titchy bits of genre-classification aside) Why?

"Well," I said to myself," this would be a good time to comment about my own trajectory, in the opposite direction." I noticed some years back that as I went deeper into graduate school in physics, I read less and less science fiction (and hard SF in particular), and more and more fantasy and mainstream literature. These days, it's somewhat rare for straight SF to hold my interest (I've been stuck partway into Kiln People for months).

But meetings and colloquia and baseball and I Love the 80's Strikes Back intervened, and now the post in question is sixty-odd posts back in the thread, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the moment may have passed...

Damn my pop-culture addiction, anyway.

#67 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 09:23 AM:

If you want to save money on a book, buy used. The discounts are deeper than Amazon, and it helps break the cycle of "Shiny. New. Must buy now" which drives the consumer culture.

Dear God, I wish I could. The closest there is to a viable internet-interface used bookstore is bookfinder.com, though, and it has neither communal billing, communal shipping, nor anything like proper wishlist or shopping cart implementation. I still use it sometimes, for things I can't get new, but when I end up paying over $6 for a $1 used book, I've saved myself nothing (esp. if the reason for the price-upping is that I ordered six books and they came from SIX SEPARATE STORES who all charged me shipping).

Powell's is kind of nice, but (a) their selection sucks, compared to Amazon and some other places, and (b) their used selection really sucks. I stopped shopping at my local physical Powell's when the SF section consisted entirely of three categories: books I already own, books I don't want to read, and books I sold them.

Honestly, I whore Amazon for their wishlist functionality, using it to take notes to myself about just about everything I've heard of that's interesting, but the ease-of-use and utter low prices are seductive as all hell. I know I *ought* to support locals, buy used, etc, etc, but DAMN it's expensive and inconvenient. :-/

#68 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 09:28 AM:

The downside of that tactic Charlie, or so it seems to me, is the uncomfortable realization that all the things that people are saying in a thread like this about fantasy doorstops might still apply to what you wrote.

To the people who have read Jordan, and Dragonlance, and gods know what, and then, prodded by the movies, Lord of the Rings, LOTR is cliched. That's not fair, that's not a just literary judgement, but it is by Thor the real reaction of the reader. Pick something strange enough to be novel to the majority of readers and there's a reason it's novel to the majority of readers, and this isn't typically because one is a person of unique skill and brilliance.

I usually think that line is too fine to see, and if I feel like writing something that reads like Dumas and Snorri had offspring, well, at least I will have had fun with it. The rest of the time I feel like the whole exercise is pointless, since who would ever like this stuff?

#69 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 09:38 AM:

I had the experience of being one of two speculative writers in a college fiction studio, too, and the other one was rehashing not just gaming fiction but a very specific trilogy I had read. The rest of the class was praising his creativity for making elves not always be nicey-nice. Which my classmate at least could recognize was not particularly creative, but...sigh. (Also, one guy who didn't read speculative stuff in general had read Asimov, Clarke, Eddings, and Brooks in junior high and had determined that "the older guys" wrote quite different stuff from "the younger guys" and tried to tell me that my classmate's poured-on adjectives were just "the new style." Yarg.)

(1.) Why do Dark Lords only ever want to take over the world? Why don't they ever want to appear on the cover of Vogue, or bag all the Munros in record time, or convert everyone in the world to Lutheranism?

Teresa, I personally know a Dark Lord who wants to convert everyone in the world to her flavor of Lutheranism, and I think you really, truly will like the cliches better than her. (She's a female Dark Lord. She's very much not a Dark Lady.)

(2.) Why is it always a Dark Lord? Why isn't it an evil syndicate or axis or cabal? And while we're at it, why do Dark Lords never have enough staffers to administer a large operation?

My husband the Distributed Systems Geek claims that this is because if they had a distributed system, they would by definition no longer be the bad guys.

I think it's also a lot harder to figure out how to get rid of a sinister cabal than to assassinate one Dark Lord or pull the demon from his/her soul or whatever. You'd think this would open the sequel possibilities (I think I'm going to write a short story called "Killing Dark Lords One Through N," if only to amuse myself), but a lot of people only deal with superlatives in series, not in parallel. The One True Love can die and be replaced; the Dark Lord can have an evil successor when finished but not until then.

#70 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 11:17 AM:

Graydon: as I observed at the time, you need to be more than original -- you need to be good, and a bit lucky on the side. But I refuse to concede that the phase-space of interesting stories has been explored so comprehensively that there is nothing interesting to tell that isn't derivative in some way.

That rat-bastard Heinlein with his "there are only three basic stories" has got a lot to answer for ...

(Hint: include smileys to taste when parsing the above sentence.)

#71 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 11:32 AM:

I write. My boyfriend makes video games. (He has worked for such companies as Ionstorm, Ritual, Blizzard, and Scion--an offshoot of Epic--and he has friends at Id.) I get to hang out in the offices of the company where he works currently, and I hear and see a lot of the process that goes into making the video games. When I tell him about writing, there's some places where our creative processes mesh really well, and some places where they don't.

Apparently stories in video games, as noted by John Carmack, generally aren't the major point of the exercise. If you will recall the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-Books....the plots there are kinda like what you get with even the best video games. In other words, as soon as you introduce choice into the equation, the story's chances of remaining the same as what the author or programmer intended are pretty slim. That's why even in best selling games like Diablo, Doom, Unreal, Quake, Halo, Zelda, and hell, even the recent Knights of the Old Republic, story's tend to be fairly simplistic and they rotate around a few main branches which tend to progress linearly. (Even Zelda's Ocarina of Time, while allowing for a certain open-endedness about the way you approached tasks, still involved completing a certain number of tasks in a certain order.)

Then there's gameplay. I tell Lee that I HAVE to put my characters through hell and give them believable challenges. Game creators have to do that too, but they have to make the game PLAYABLE. If you give the character/player seemingly impossible challenges, and they honestly feel that they can't do them, they stop playing the game. If they can't navigate the arcane but cool-looking interface, they give up. If they get beaten down time after time, they cease playing. (Whereas readers read to the end of the book because they themselves DON'T have to figure it out and actually fight the Dark Lord, but they have all the fun of watching the characters do the impossible.) A good video game with a wide audience generally has good gameplay emphasized over good story. The player advances not too easily but not too slowly, gets rewarded often but not hugely, and the controls are fairly easy to pick up and remember from gaming session to gaming session.

Most video games audiences are also limited by possession of technology and ability/aptitude and therefore are generally a lot smaller than, say, the general film or book audiences. They are united by technology. From there, you find the video game consumer branching off by genre. (Not the other way round usually. A person really into fantasy novels isn't going to run out and buy a fantasy video game unless they have a game system already. Also a lot depends on individual taste: do you like first person shooters, adventure, RPG, puzzle games, etc?) Whereas if they see the book, they may buy it because it doesn't require peripherals to consume and enjoy. If it was all story, you might as well just have a film or a book, because the lure in video games is accomplishing the task, getting rewarded for doing so, and actively figuring out what happens next instead of being along for the ride. (You can kinda do that in books and film when you try and predict where the story goes, but you yourself aren't part of the story.) When you finally do get that video game loaded up, every second you are watching story happen is a second you aren't playing. And the less story you have concretely in the game, the more story you can make up in your head as you interact with the game environment. Oddly enough, for me as a writer, I've found some games entirely without an overarching story line to be more interesting. Civilization for example, which never fails to inspire ideas. I send my little soldiers off to another country to capture a city, and while they're moving around on the grid, I'm actually giving little names and histories for each legion. Yet, there is no overarching storyline for Civ.

These are just some random observations about why the presence of story seems so understated or archetypical in games. Diablo 2 was cited, but Diablo 2 is not successful because of the story but because of the game play and its subsequent rewards system.

#72 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 11:47 AM:

If you give the character/player seemingly impossible challenges, and they honestly feel that they can't do them, they stop playing the game.

At a concom meeting recently, my conchair commiserated about his early experiences playing Zork (I think it was Zork. I feel sure someone here will remind me if it's not). It took him three real-life months to get past the 'show the bird to the dragon, bird eats dragon' puzzle. In the very next room is ANOTHER dragon. Punch-drunk and more than a little despairing, he types 'attack dragon'. It asks if he just wants to use his hands. He did. The game tells him brightly that he valiantly attacks the dragon with his bare hands and kills it, wham bam all done.

He performed what I like to think is a variant of Dorothy Parker's 'flinging the book into a wall with great force' - he punched his Commodore 64 so hard it left a permanent dent in the metal case. And didn't play Zork again for several weeks (or until he could think about it without getting pissed off).

#73 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 12:39 PM:

Short shameful confession: I'm slightly nervous about possibly meeting Garth Nix at WFC, in fear that I might blurt out that I have a cat named Mogget.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a useful compendeum of what to avoid in your fantasy novel (at least until you reach the level of a Jones or a Yolen and know exactly what you're doing).

---L.

#74 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 12:50 PM:

Teresa wrote:

Why do Dark Lords only ever want to take over the world? Why don't they ever want to appear on the cover of Vogue, or bag all the Munros in record time, or convert everyone in the world to Lutheranism?

I watched some friends of mine playing out the "climactic end" of their long-running D&D game a few years ago. The band of heroes had just confronted the Dark Lord and everyone was "talking shit" before the swords and spells started flashing.

NOBLE HERO: We're here to prevent you from destroying the world!

DARK LORD: Why would I want to destroy the world, you twit? I keep all of my stuff there.

Miltonian it ain't; nonetheless, there's a whole class on Dark Lord Creation 101 crammed into that statement.

Andrew Plotkin wrote:

Obviously those shows and movies influence written SF *also*, but it's hard to point at an element and say "There -- that's obviously from computer gaming." The characteristic aspects of a videogame that *aren't* purely visual are... the interactivity. Which can't be done at all in a book.

If you ever want to illustrate this point directly to someone, you could hand them a copy of Ray Feist's Betrayal at Krondor, the novelization of the CRPG from the early 90s. I say this openly because Feist is one of my old favorites and I cherish all of his work with this one major exception-- BaK is a perfect demonstration of why a straightforward translation of CRPG plotlines to a prose book is a big fat transparent mistake.

"Ah, [important character]! I see you desire [important plot device!] Yes, indeed, I do have it... but if you want it, you must first go and fetch [lesser plot device] for me!"

And then again.

And then again.

And yet again.

Repeating that situation five, six, ten, fifteen thousand times is par for the course in a CRPG. In a novel, it's just damn silly, and if you've ever played a single CRPG, picking up on that structure as a reader will kill your suspension of disbelief faster than an anvil to the skull.


#75 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 12:51 PM:

Tom, when I was living in Concord, NH, I had easy access to an excellent independent bookstore, Gibson's Books. The content of the sf/fantasy section shifted dramatically while I was living and working there. They would get anything I wanted, and they got things I didn't ask for, in the expectation that I was the only customer they had who would want them. What they cost "extra" in not having discounts, they made up for in service, service, service.

But I no longer either live or work anywhere convenient to Gibson's; it's a long drive. They'd be happy to mail me stuff, but then I'd be paying full price AND shipping. Boston is rich in bookstores, but I can no longer walk down the street and go into a good independent bookstore--or even a bad one. The independents aren't near where I work, or near where I live. Anyplace I can get to on my lunch hour, it's all chains, and it's all full price, and service is often good, but it's impersonal.

Amazon is impersonal, too, but it's got (usually) large discounts, and it's trivially easy for a serious bookbuyer to get free shipping. It means I get my books in a week rather than a couple of days, but that's no so bad. And it's not like dealing with a host of unknown persons scattered all over the country, who have varying standards for how efficiently they actually process charges and ship packages.

As for getting quirky, unusual titles--Amazon is in fact very good for this, as long as the book is currently published and you already know that you want it. Amazon is lousy for serendipity, which I suspect is what you meant, but it's a great source for the uncommon book somebody recommended to you.

A few years ago, a Borders opened up in Concord, and Gibson's fans worried about what would happen. What happened is that they lost the teenage date crowd, which found the Starbucks at Border's more convenient than the only-three-tables, barely-standing-room Bread & Chocolate that Gibson's has the internal connection to. Bookbuyers, including teenage bookbuyers, continued to shop at Gibson's, because the service and attention is so much better. You really can't beat being met practically at the door with a book you didn't know yet that you wanted.:)

But Amazon has its virtues, and when my practical choices are one of several large chains, or online ordering, I see no reason favor the brick & mortar chains over online shopping when I know what I want, and no reason to favor online stores that will charge me more over online stores that will charge me less.

#76 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 01:00 PM:

Amazon is lousy for serendipity, said Lis Carey.

Huh. I've been slogging through AlexLit out of a sense of duty, rating a bunch of stuff, but let me tell you, I've gotten far more useful recommendations out of Amazon (with less pain in the rating system, though I like Alexlit's system's greater flexibility, and the adjectives chosen for the levels are priceless). Amazon also knows about more than 1600 books I've rated as to my opinion thereunto appertaining (gaaah! I'm stuck in a maze of twisty little passive phrases, all alike), which gives them a better depth-of-field for helping me find stuff I want. Easily half of what I've read in the last two years was recommended by Amazon, and quite well, too.

Amazon also has cover art, and in many cases now the back of the book, for the proper browsing experience. And they're touting a brand new 'search complete text in every book we carry!' feature, but I'm not sure how useful it'll be.

#77 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 01:16 PM:

Historical nitpick: that was Adventure, not Zork. (And one of the
dragons was a snake.)

How this is not a nitpick: Adventure was the *first* adventure game --
it's not eponymous by accident -- and the creators were inventing the
form as they went. They swung wildly back and forth across the
boundaries, because they were laying *down* the boundaries.

That "...with your bare hands?" scene would be regarded as bad design
today. It would have been bad design just few years after Adventure
appeared, really. It didn't take long for the idea to solidify that
the game world should behave *like* a world: consistently and
comprehensibly. And even though the essence of adventure/puzzle games
is seeing the solution outside the box, there are box walls that are
conventionally impermeable.

(Or rather, they can only become permeable if the author supplies
generous inclueing. Analogy from the written-fiction world: Jasper
Fforde. He launches an all-out assault on the inviolable conventions
of printed prose. (Footnoterphones, oy.) But he sets them up so that
you can follow him. If he threw in a footnoterphone once, on page 217,
with no explanation, you'd fling the book.)

From another comment: "In other words, as soon as you introduce choice
into the equation, the story's chances of remaining the same as what
the author or programmer intended are pretty slim. [...] story's tend
to be fairly simplistic and they rotate around a few main branches
which tend to progress linearly."

That's a common canard which I don't believe, for a couple of reasons.

If "linearly" means "forced to follow the author's planned storyline",
then all novels are completely linear. You can define it that way, but
then linearity is clearly not a flaw in a story; nor does it equate to
"simplistic".

The trick -- and I think game designers *do* understand this, even if
it isn't verbalized -- is that there are many layers of choice in a
game. Control over the overall storyline is *not* the same as control
over individual actions. And there can be intermediate layers as well:
choice of tactics, control over path of character development.

At each level, the designer has to think about how much control to
give the player. But this is not a "more is better" situation, not in
the slightest. An aspect of the game will succeed if the entire range
of choice *available* is meaningful to the player.

This may mean, for a particular layer, no choice at all. (High level:
you sit and watch a cut scene, without any way of influencing the
dialogue. Low level: you push the triangle button to carjack a nearby
car, without any need to manually fiddle the ignition wires. These are
both *successful* game elements.)

(The author could have provided dialogue choices in the cut scene, or
a little hotwire-the-car dexterity game in the carjacking scene. Those
could work too. But they'd have to be balanced against the whole rest
of the game. The point is, the author is not providing *meaningless*
choice to the player. If all the dialogue choices lead to the same
scene outcome, the player will notice, and be annoyed. If the
dexterity game is unchallenging, and there are no consequences for
failure, then it becomes a repetitive and mindless obstacle, and the
player will again be annoyed.)

#78 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 01:27 PM:

On parallel dark lords:

The unreleased-in-America, available in-english-only-as-a-rom Seiken Densetsu 3 (theoretical US title: Secret of Mana 2) does this.

Through the first half of the game, there are three distinct and competing evil overlords (Dragon Emperor, Masked Mage, Dark Prince: internally distinct, not terribly unique). At the mid point of the game, the servants of two are offed by the servants of one, and the remaining one becomes the villain to go off and beat. Which one prevails depends upon who you have selected as your main character: as a result, there are three entirely distinct stories, six distinct-but-similar stories, and 30 recognizably different stories.

#79 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 01:58 PM:

Teresa wrote:
(3.) Why, in worlds that have a long tradition of working magic, a low level of technology, and little or no organized religion or codified theology, does everyone hate and fear magical powers, and persecute people who develop them? Most especially, why do peasants who have no other source of medical or dental care go out of their way to persecute and alienate their witchy-but-kind village healers?

My solution to this problem is that every single person in my fantasy world, bar none, has some sort of magic ability, strength and type strictly by (slightly weighted) random chance.

I belong to the "if you can write a perl script to determine it, it's in" school of worldbuilding.

Graydon wrote:
The downside of that tactic Charlie, or so it seems to me, is the uncomfortable realization that all the things that people are saying in a thread like this about fantasy doorstops might still apply to what you wrote.

I suspect, honestly, that being aware of the cliche9s and the pitfalls is really all one needs to at least mitigate them, if not avoid them entirely. Of course, I'm speaking as one unpublished, so, er, what do I know?

#80 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 03:05 PM:

(The author could have provided dialogue choices in the cut scene, or
a little hotwire-the-car dexterity game in the carjacking scene. Those
could work too. But they'd have to be balanced against the whole rest
of the game. The point is, the author is not providing *meaningless*
choice to the player. If all the dialogue choices lead to the same
scene outcome, the player will notice, and be annoyed. If the
dexterity game is unchallenging, and there are no consequences for
failure, then it becomes a repetitive and mindless obstacle, and the
player will again be annoyed.)

Andrew: I think you made some good points and I agree with much of what you've just said. (I think you may have clarified some of the nebulous points I was trying to get at.)

#81 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 03:13 PM:

Damn, how'd you know that I was almost through with "The Curse of the Magyk Rose-quartz Dingleberry" Now I guess I'll have to write something else.

I love video games, although since my son was born I can't play them without a marital crisis. And I love fantasy books, but I don't read them for the same reasons that I game. A good video game diddles my brain in a repetitious escapist trance until I drool. It's like a temporary lobotomy to shut my brain up for a while. A good book does almost the opposite, it starts exciting synaptic firestorm that makes me think of all the different things that being alive can mean.

I think that often the difference between an original work and a crappy work is ambition. Is the author trying to entertain me with some cute stuff, or is the author trying to change the way I see the world and entertain me? The latter seems to get me going, the former gets tiring.

Video games are more like geek crack, books are something else. Comfort food sometime, other times a real workout.

#82 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 03:46 PM:

How to be a Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More! is an excellent companion volume to Jones' already-mentioned The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

#83 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 05:25 PM:

It seems to me that a story avoiding Teresa's (1.) and (2.) likely falls into the "Illuminatus" genre.

And (5.) doesn't bother me because no fantasy novel I've ever seen has had weirder names than a proper representation of the real language Kwakiu'tl requires.

Isn't there a wishlist feature for Movable Type? I'm not totally un-fond of Amazon, but OTOH I don't feel like not owning my data on my server. And I like long-out-of-print books; not Amazon's strength. (My library replaces most of what is Amazon's strength, come to think of it - by the time I have read a shiny new book from the libe & decided that it is a keeper, it's probably available cheaper from abebooks &c and I don't need fast shipping. )

#84 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 05:30 PM:

Hrm. Well, the problem with trying to hack Movable Type to be my wishlist is (a) I don't have anywhere to run it at the moment, (b) it would require a looooooot of typing to port the data, and to input new data, and (c) I'd need someone Technical to handhold me all the way through it, as learning new 'how to make this software fold itself into origami' skills don't come nearly as easily to me as most Technical people think they would.

I'd hit the library more if there were a branch I could get to when it was open on anything but Wednesdays (taking into account that I don't leave the house on weekends, mostly, and that I get off work at 5 downtown, and travel time must needs be factored in). The branch I can get to after work on Wednesdays has, uhm, not so great of a selection, and every time I've tried 'ordering' (having them get it from another branch) a book through them, they never call me back and I never remember to go ask.

#85 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 08:03 PM:

Sean Bosker:
> Video games are more like geek crack, books are something else.
> Comfort food sometime, other times a real workout.

Naturally, I dream of computer games that can set your brain
on fire as well as any book.

But the commercial game industry (like the movie industry) is set up
to weigh heavily against it. Too many people, too much money involved
in the creation of a work.

#86 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 11:02 PM:

wrt The Tough Guide to Fantasyland et al: see Barbara Ninde Byfield's The Glass Harmonica: A Lexicon of the Fantastical. It's a gentler but not entirely straight catalog (Advisors, Alchemists, Alligators and Crocodiles, Almanacs, ..., Heralds (who make even a picnic a Formal Occasion), ..., Werewolves, Witches and Warlocks, Wizards) of items in ]traditional[ stories. Published in 1967, when she had little contemporary work to snicker at. Now in paper as The Book of Weird. (Perhaps not as bad as changing Murder at the War to Knightfall, but YMMV.)

I expect there's someone else reading this who has some inkling of an idea what reading slush is like; I ran the NESFA Short Story Contest (which means I read up to 80 pieces) twice a long time ago, as did Davey more recently (and both of us have been first-pass readers, which is a lot less painful) -- though neither of us read even a tittle of what Mike Ford did. OTOH, slush novels may be worse; how many would-be writers (i.e., not writers who just haven't sold yet) think they need the cliches to give shape to their boat anchors? For a really snarky comment on such writers, see Conquest's story in one of the Spectrum anthologies -- in the midst of an isolation experiment, one of the subjects is creating leaden prose about characters anagrammized from the subjects and telling herself how original she is....

wrt Earthsea versus Dragonlance: I wonder how many younger (or recently-younger) readers can enjoy a story with a sense of pace? (Insert your favorite rants about overstimulation, instant gratification, growing up too soon, requiring "relevance", demanding that stories not be too alien to readers, etc.; I'm not close enough to any such to judge the truth of such claims.) Do books that don't require the reader to stretch find more favor with readers who travel in packs (vs the solitude many of us grew up in)?

#87 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 11:16 PM:

Eloise - point taken abt. Movable Type (or any other platform) not being a zero-effort solution, even with a 'plug-in'.

I just glanced at the MT-plugin pages, and the three book-related plugins I saw were all Amazon-based. This annoys me because the printed world extends far beyond the ISBN-possessing universe in which Amazon is potent, but it's not like the OCLC is public either, although at least it's nonprofit and many of its members are public.

OTOH, your poor library! In either sense, that is. My city library has its catalogue online, in a bearable format. Anyone with a library card can request a book from any Web terminal, e.g. the dedicated ones in the library, and it *will* be sent to the branch specified, and they send you an email when it gets there and will hold it for a week. (And most, maybe all, the branches are open till 8pm at least one night a week.) There are some things that worry me about the Seattle public library, but I should remember that they do do many things well.

#88 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 12:52 AM:

CHip - I read Dragonlance as a teenager and recall it being something my friends also enjoyed. I went on to read Earthsea in my twenties (and found it both delightful and challenging - those are deceptively slim books), along with Riddle-Master, Thomas Covenant, Jurgen, Vlad Taltos, the Black Company, the Farseer trilogy, the Book of the New Sun.... Nowadays, my Dragonlance boxed set is collecting dust in an attic somewhere, and most of the others have retained their honored and permanent status on my shelves. They're the ones that become viral reading among anyone I can get interested in them. (How many of those are books with a sense of pace I leave for you to decide. Likewise to determine whether my example illustrates or gives the lie to any of the rants you suggest.)

Does 29 count as recently-young? I'm never sure. :)

(I still can't finish frickin' Silverlock, though. I have a nagging suspicion that Sandman is the new Silverlock, in the sense of addressing the same ideas but much more relevant and accessible now. As before, make of that what you will.)

#89 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 01:11 AM:

No, no, no! The new Silverlock is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! Sandman is more like the new James Branch Cabell....

And one of my fondest memories of Iguanacon is getting to meet John Myers Myers and have him sign a pair of books for me, including a first of Silverlock, still one of my faves and the best fricking narrative hook opening line I've ever seen ("If I had cared to live, I would have died.").

Cheers,
Tom

#90 ::: Darius Bacon ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 03:33 AM:

Moving your wishlist off Amazon needn't take a lot of typing, because a program could do it. My own program that I wrote for a friend no longer works, since they've changed the HTML on their wishlist pages, but if anyone wants to update it, it's short and it's here. Or let me know you want to use it and I'll get around to the fixes sooner.

(Probably the right way to do this nowadays is with the Amazon API, though.)

#91 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 05:00 AM:

Andrew will get fed up of me saying this -- but you should listen to him, because one of his games messed with my head as comprehensively as any book ever has.

And this is, indeed, rare in games, for all sorts of reasons to do with the way that the industry has developed. Short version: there used to be lots of small games. Some gamers (mostly teenage boys who do little else) demand big showy games. Reviews of games focus on graphics, so even non-immersion games where the graphics are irrelevant get 'marked down' for not having showy graphics. (I'm thinking of the dancing mat games here). Unfortunately, big showy games are in a death spiral; the development overhead gets bigger and bigger, whereas the market is now fairly static. So publishers respond by trying to find safer and safer big showy games. Really convincing, spin your brain, game plots aren't ever safe.

The book publishing model, where publishers take a punt on all sorts of things that don't look safe, and some of them pay off, doesn't work if you have massive development costs for each game.

Of course, there are lots of other sorts of gamers, and, around the fringes, games are being developed for them too. But the other problem with very plotty games is that they tend to take a long time to play. So I believe that Planescape: Torment is supposed to be a cracking game with a terrific plot, and I own a copy. I've played, oh, about 1% of it or so. It seems to want to be played in large chunks of time (say 3-4 hours at a stretch) that I don't feel I have any more. It's not that I don't ever game for that long at a stretch; it's that I never start off intending to.

#92 ::: Danny Yee ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 07:00 AM:

For maybe five years in the mid 80s I read pretty much all the science fiction and fantasy that was published - someone at my local library was keen on the genres, and they got in everything. But I've been reading less and less ever since then and these days I probably only read half a dozen books in the two genres a year. That's partly because my reading tastes have broadened, but also because the bookshops seem to be full of boring genre fantasy... is it my imagination, or is there proportionately much less science fiction being published now?

And once you lose touch - with who's publishing what, and what's great and what's not - it's hard to get back into it. Which is one of the reasons I enjoy Making Light - it offers a chance to sit in on the discussions between authors and editors and readers.

#93 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 08:36 AM:

Quoth Tom:
No, no, no! The new Silverlock is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! Sandman is more like the new James Branch Cabell....

I meant the comparison in the sense that they're both stories about stories, and the impact and relevance thereof. (Though I do think Neil Gaiman does Cabell better than Cabell - the same interesting twists on plots and themes, without the self-consciousness and genteel misogyny.)

#94 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 09:25 AM:

Moving your wishlist off Amazon needn't take a lot of typing, because a program could do it.

Uh huh. And how do you tell the program to change pages? Because there are over 800 items on my wishlist. Which is over 40 pages of their messed up interface. :->

I do kind of enjoy leaving out-of-print stuff on my Amazon wishlist, to be a sort of datapoint that people do still want those things.

I never thought of using the Chicago Public Library website to get books, for some reason. Probably 'cause the web presence was tiny the last time I was serious about librarying (about six years ago). You would THINK that a major metropolitan area like Chicago would have a main branch open past 5:30 on weeknights, wouldn't you? Well, you'd be wrong. Grmph. ... I take that back. Apparently they're open till 7 except on Fridays now. Hmm. I'll have to get back in the habit. Though my in-pile at home is big enough it may be hard to convince my husband that I need to borrow books I *don't* own. :->

#95 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 12:21 PM:

Short shameful confession here: I hardly read any high fantasy. I found "Lord of the Rings" to be a chore. I've read Tad Williams's "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn," and thought it was all right. I probably would not have gotten through it if Tad was not a friend. I have read quite a few of Katharine Kerr's Deverry novels, but not all of them -- again, if she were not a friend, I probably would not have read them.

I hope this doesn't get back to either Kit or Tad, but if it does get back to them, I hope this part does too: my dislike of epic fantasy is not about them, or about the genre, it's about me. There's nothing wrong with epic fantasy. There's nothing wrong with epic fantasy fans. But there's something about the genre that just sets my teeth on edge.

I think this is tied up with my own self-image, as an American Jew of Eastern European ancestry. Up until the 1890s or so, my ancestors were Jews who lived in little farming villages in Poland and Lithuania, which put them at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. My ancestors were the equivalent of blacks in the Deep South in the 19th Century. My great-grandfather returned to Poland after living a few years in America; he was lynched by either his neighbors or the up-and-coming Nazis (family history is unsure).

But here in America, we're respectable. We're mostly white-collar professionals who live in the suburbs, my father retired after a long and distinguished accounting career, my uncle was an inspector on the New York police department.

This family history is stuff that I was steeped in for my whole childhood. It is part of who I am; the knowledge that whatever success and status I have in life, it is because I am fortunate enough to live in a society where hard work and wit are more important than aristocratic lineage.

I wonder how much of this is just me. How many epic fantasy fans are WASPS, and how many of them are from the ranks of yer huddled masses, yearning to be free? How many children of Vietnamese or Hmeng refugees, or Cuban boat people, read epic fantasy?

Another thing that turns me off about epic fantasy is the repetitiveness: they all got elves 'n dwarves 'n guys on horses running around whacking each other with swords and big sticks. It all looks the same to me. Also, fantasy fans seem to LIKE plot-coupon stories, whereas when I read the novels, I want to say, "ENOUGH already! We did this in Chapters One through Twenty-Three! Can we move on to something new?!"

Again, this is not a problem with the epic fantasy, or with the fans. This is about me. And repetitiveness isn't a turn-off for me in ALL genres. I just bought the latest Spenser novel, by Robert B. Parker, even though Parker's basically been writing the same novel over and over again for the past 10-15 books. I buy the talking books versions, and listen to them when I walk for exercise.

(The reason I have the disposable income to buy talking books, which are mildly expensive, is because I live in America. Oh, I expect I'd also do all right if I lived in Western Europe, and the Spousal Overunit and I have occasionally talked about wouldn't it be nice to chuck it all and go live in London for a few years -- but if I lived in the ancestral homeland in Poland or Lithuania, I wouldn't be visiting Border's every Saturday. I'd be, like, whoops, here come the neighbors and watch out they've got flaming torches and rope! I don't think they're comin' to borrow the lawn mower!)

By the way, I'm not doctrinaire about this, I'm inconsistent. I have read, and enjoy, George R.R. Martin's current series. I find great chunks of it to be slow going, but the good parts make up for it. My favorite character is Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf prince. I think much of my enjoyment of the series is because the good guys who are aristocrats are brought down low, and have to make it on their wits and hard work. One of the girl heroines of the book goes undercover as a member of the lower classes, and finds herself working as a kitchen scullion.

#96 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 12:29 PM:

A disclaimer and two follow-up statements to the previous post:

- Disclaimer: I'm not saying that fantasy fans are closet anti-American aristocrats. Our affinities to escapism are more complicated than that; just because a person may read epic fantasy and identify with the aristocrats doesn't mean he has a desire to go out and oppress the neighbors. Many heterosexual men enjoy homosexual pornography, that doesn't make them homosexuals, though. (Why do you think that so much het porn focuses on penises and ejaculation, anyway?)

-- Statement #1: Forgot to say: I'm bookmarking this thread for good games. I've hardly played any computer games, for the same reason that people worried about being alcoholics don't drink. I ALREADY spend so much time staring at computer and TV screens that I'm afraid if I get hooked on computer games, I'll just fall in entirely and be one of those guys who lives in a studio apartment with no furniture but a chair and table for the PC.

-- Statement #2: That wasn't a very short confession after all, was it?

#97 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 12:49 PM:

Dan -- it's pretty obvious that one of the main reasons LoEG is fun is the joy of finding what obscure literary reference is happening (Moore seems to be mostly holding himself to Victorian literature, which is a large and fertile field) -- this is why I say it's more like Silverlock, a book whose _raison d'etre_ is to cram in huge amounts of unexpected references while telling a cracking yarn. Make no mistake -- I think both Silverlock and LoEG are extraordinary and wonderful inventions!

And Neil is more like Cabell because the references are _lagniappe_ -- the story functions very well without one knowing the specific referent. Cabell included lots of references, but they were more often silly than integral. Neil's references don't tend to be silly; but they're almost always something that gives an extra measure to a fully-realized and important story that (gawd, here comes pretension!) helps illuminate some aspect of the human condition in its own right.

There are levels on which I think Myers and Cabell are both a lot more cynical than Gaiman. And I think they are generally having more fun, but that's just a personal guess. Neil, I still remember something you said from the time we first met, and try to live up to it (quasi-quote -- "hey, they're all people, and they're doing the best they can and you ought to honor that"). Gaiman's secondary characters are almost always people -- neither Myers' nor Cabell's are with the same frequency. YMMV.

Mitch, fascinating, and I'll need to let it sink in. We have a fair number of ethnic customers at Other Change of Hobbit; I'll buy this as tendency rather than rule. Much more thought necessary. Thanks for being the occasion of thought.

Cheers,
Tom

#98 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 12:55 PM:

"Robert Jordan couldn't write those books if he wasn't sincere about them. Neither they nor their author are soulless. They're commercial to the extent that he's trying to write the kind of books he loves, in hopes that his readers will love them too. "

does this mean that you think all books are written sincerely? I doubt that myself. Le Guin had something on this in Languages of The Night in which she wonders what the percentage is of bad sci fi that is written with the hack ethic, of turning out crap with no respect for the readership, she did think it was a number substantially above 0.

Verily, shouldst anyone try to force a Robert Jordan book upon Grignr, Grignr will give unto him his steely blade.

#99 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 01:35 PM:

Bryan: certainly you can tell the difference between a book written by an author who is sincerely interested in their subject matter and one by an author who doesn't give a shit. (Funnily enough, ordinary readers can tell the difference too.) To be good at something you really need to be a bit enthusiastic about it; authors who write without sincerity probably aren't putting as much time or effort into their product as authors who are seriously concerned with it.

But by the same token, it's possible to get enthusiastic about something trite; there's no law of nature that says writers have to be deeply insightful or intelligent. Thus, it's possible for a book to be written by an enthusiastic and energetic author who is in complete control of the language ... and for it still to be absolute rubbish.

#100 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 01:53 PM:

The rest of you know more about this subject than I do, but I can't imagine that much sf and fantasy is written with cynical contempt for the subject matter and audience. There are easier ways to make a living. The writer must, on some level, be enjoying what he's doing and think the work is worthwhile.

I think society would be a better place if we could eliminate the popular distinction between art and commerce. Most of us here are either themselves artists, and hang out with artists, and know that successful artists must also be businesspeople; but the public doesn't realize that.

Isaac Asimov said, in one of his autobiographies, that he wrote his last novels for the money, even though he didn't care for the work. He seems to be proud of this, which is odd, because that's actually a big insult, when a fan says of a writer's latest work -- maybe the biggest insult you can make against a writer's professional skills -- "He only wrote that for the money." But Asimov wasn't ashamed to say that he wrote his last novels only for the money, he was virtually BRAGGING about it. He knew he was getting older, and he wanted to increase the financial legacy he was providing for his family. That's why he was writing those novels for the money -- even though he felt his true calling was as a science popularizer -- he believed it was his responsibility to provide for his family after he was dead.

You know what? If somebody offered me a couple of millions of dollars to do a year of shlocky hackwork, I'd be agreeing to that offer so fucking fast it'd be a violation of Einstein's prohibition of simultaneity. I'd grab the contract out of the guy's hands and sign IMMEDIATELY, before the fool wised up and changed his mind. I mean, make a million or a couple of million dollars doing a year's work, indoors, sitting down, with no heavy lifting, moderate hours, and it's perfectly legal and moral and the guy who buys the book will be a satisfied customer when I'm done? Where do I get in on this racket?

#101 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:00 PM:

I realize the last paragraph of the previous post appears to contradict the first paragraph, but what the heck, let it stand.

I think that when a writer accepts a lucrative contract for Book #11 of a series of novels, and he knows that he said everything worth saying in Books #1-4, that writer is still going to put his best effort into Book #11.

Great actors like Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine will often take every role offered to them, for the money or just to keep working, but you can still see them making SOME effort to do good work. Even in Jaws IV (slogan: "And You Thought Jaws 3-D Was As Low As We Could Get"), Michael Caine is turning in a good performance. Even Sylvester Stallone, who made one great movie, four good movies, and a whole lot of shlock, seems to be putting his best effort into the shlock.

#102 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:03 PM:

And Neil is more like Cabell because the references are _lagniappe_ -- the story functions very well without one knowing the specific referent.

That's a good point. And, to really up the ante to the self-referential, his Cabell references are a great example. I read, f'rex, "The Hunt" and the Breschau scene in Season of Mists before I'd read Jurgen, and the bells that went off afterwards didn't make me feel dumb about not knowing them before.

And whereas it's possible to read LoEG as a good old adventure story even if you don't have the footnotes, as it were, your appreciation of what Moore's doing is improved vastly if you do.

What a delightfully geeky discussion this is. Thank you.

#103 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:25 PM:

Alan Moore is also, it seems to me, a past master of doing comic books where the author packs the visuals chock-full of neat little references. Either he encourages the artists in it or he picks artists who do it naturally. :-> League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has many frames/pages that profusely reward extended study (spot the cat with the tiny lilliputian horse in its mouth like a mouse!). More recently, Smax is much the same sort of thing. Issue # has a Trogdor the Burninator reference, for goodness sake!

#104 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:42 PM:

I suspect for Asimov and I am rather sure for some others that there is a tendency to not fight the market's valuation. I would hardly describe any one of the many writers who currently tend toward books rather than magazine pieces despite a proven talent for and enjoyment of short pieces as potboiling hacks who ought to be doing short stories any more than I would describe one of Campbell's or H.L. Gold's favored magazine contributors as potboiling hacks who ought to be doing novels.

It does annoy me personally that some folks are doing longer works, particularly in collaborations, when I personally enjoy their shorter fiction more but as noted in at least some cases I have it from the author's mouth that if the writing is to be for money it will be a novel length.

I do rather suspect the future of gaming, as perhaps the future of movies [same market - DVD's from WalMart really] will be independent productions where ad hoc teams of gamers/fans will band together to produce a game/movie. Perhaps and perhaps only short run, for major studio rework and distribution.

Closer to the original topic I am reminded of the frame for Pratt's Blue Star - why doesn't magic totally dominate any population where there is an inherited evolutionary line?

#105 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:45 PM:

I lead a sheltered life but I can't immediately think of any game based filk that matters much whereas the songs of Silverlock spring immediately to mind. Guess I'm just aging out of it - any pointers?

#106 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:53 PM:

Ben Newman is writing some damn good stuff lately. He's even written four songs that I adore, whose source material bores me to tears (the Metroid series of video games, A Deepness in the Sky, a A Fire Upon the Deep, Tombs of Atuan).

#107 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:55 PM:

A lot of this discussion proved interesting. I agree with many of the comments, but feel that it might be of interest to others to know that sometimes a writer writes a long manuscript solely because the writer has the ideas and wants to see where those lead and not because the greater length is what some other author sold successfully. Doesn't make it easier to market to publishers, but sometimes you have to go with what intrigued you.

#108 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 04:24 PM:

Eloise - The Chicago Public Library also has a pretty decent selection of DVDs. It was pretty good when I left 18 months ago. It's probably better now. Only downside is they charge $1 each.

The video section is on the ground floor, off the hallway that leads to Congress, on the left.

#109 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 04:29 PM:

I've never tried getting movies out of the library, but I knew it could be done.

Apparently though their website is totally lobotomized, and does nothing more than give you a GUI interface for their electronic catalog. It lists what branch has how many copies of what, and whether they're out at that moment, but I can't seem to find any functionality at all to get them to reserve them, or to communicate with them at all. Le sigh.

#110 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 05:06 PM:

Dave, you always have to go with what intrigues you, unless you're doing work-for-hire technical nonfiction. Authors pretty infallibly do so. And if they want to write a book the size of a doorstop, who am I to stop them? It's their book.

What we have here is a paging-and-pricing problem, rather than an aesthetic judgement. The more copies of a book you print, the cheaper each copy will be; and that's a curve, not a ramp. Books with a lot of pages are necessarily more expensive than books with a modest number of pages.

If you have a newbie author, your most optimistic projection of his or her sales is in the upper-single-digit thousands, and the work in question is 140,000 words long, what the math will tell you (and the production and sales people will tell you if you ignore the math) is that this book has to have a high cover price.

Bookstores, faced with the prospect of a cinderblock-sized novel (they do take up a lot of shelf space), with a high cover price, by an unknown author, may be forgiven for making a pessimistic estimate of its sales potential, and doing a lowball initial order.

At that point, the book isn't just a first novel by an unknown, and it's not just expensive; it's also hard to find. The prognosis is bad. Holy men and next of kin are summoned. The book is asked how it feels about being an organ donor. It's not a happy outcome.

#111 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 05:44 PM:

* Tina falls over laughing at Teresa's last paragraph.

More seriously, what I take from that is that it might be worthwhile, if one had written a first Novel of Unusual Size that one should quite probably hold onto it and do up a second, less robust novel to market first.

I can add that to my list of "advice gleaned from professional's weblogs". Someday I may put up a page with a list. Or possibly just pointers...

#112 ::: catie murphy ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 06:24 PM:

A Novel of Unusual Size. *laugh*

Teresa, is upper-single-digit thousands the traditional most optimistic projection of sales for a newbie author?

*returns to snickering* 'Holy men and next of kin are summoned.' *laugh* This has been a great discussion to follow. :)

Oh, Mitch: I don't think I know anybody who's reading the Martin books whose favorite character *isn't* Tyrion. Evidently I know a lot of people who are real suckers for tragically flawed characters. :)

#113 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 07:20 PM:

Eloise - perhaps there's a more useful Illinois-wide interface which, bizarrely, might allow reservations to be made.

There are multiple databases in Connecticut, where I live now, and I know one of them (I think at the New Haven library) allows searches of all libraries and you can make online Inter-library loan requests. I used this interface to request a bunch of books from the West Haven library, for delivery through my library in Cheshire.

If you find a similar system, perhaps you could try an ILL request where the book comes from your own library. (Sort of an Intra-Library loan).

#114 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 07:29 PM:

Catie - In what way would you describe Tyrion Lannister as "tragically flawed"? I wouldn't call his deformity a tragic flaw. I'd say, rather that it's his blind loyalty to the women he loves, especially that young prostitute (I've already forgotten her name -- it was pretty obvious that she was going to betray him but good and boy did she ever.)

One of my favorite lines in that series of novels is in the scene where the pretty princess is weeping because she's been forced to marry the deformed dwarf Tyrion -- she had wanted to marry a handsome man, or a kind man, or even a giant like the Hound who would at least be able to protect her. Her confidante responds that Tyrion is the strongest giant in the world -- which he is, he's ten times smarter than anyone else, even his father, except for when it comes to the women he loves and, to a lesser extent, his own appearance.

Another character who's becoming a favorite of mine is Jamie Lannister. He reminds me of Spike on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," back when Spike was evil, and later when Spike had gotten the chip and had it a while but hadn't yet decided whether to be evil or good. Spike had (and has) a sod-off, no-apologies attitude toward the world.

There's a lot of "I, Claudius" in that series -- and I guess, from that, we can make some guesses on how Tyrion Lannister will end up.

#115 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 07:43 PM:

Teresa,

About the economics of the short book:

When is a novel too short to be viable? Does this vary by genre? How different is this for original publication in hardcover, trade paper, and mass market?

#116 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 07:48 PM:

Oooh, yes, I second adamsj's question. I've seen paperback books as short as 275ish pages in the mystery genre, and 250 or so in YA, but rarely under 300 in, say, fantasy or SF, so I presume the short end of what's considered worth novel price is 250-300 pp, but these are all paperback. Would hardcover be different?

(Assuming 250 words per page, and therefore, 62,000 to 75,000 words, I presume therefore that the usual low-limit of 60k words I see for what constitutes a novel is also reasonable?)

#117 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 08:32 PM:

Tina, might it be that the higher minimum novel size in fantasy and SF is because they have a more viable magazine market? In other words, if you write something of borderline length in genres with little magazine presence, it's worth trying to massage it into a novel, but if you can sell it to a magazine without having to massage it, that would reduce the number of "short novels" that get published. Note that I have no real-world factual knowledge to back up this hypothesis!

#118 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 09:30 PM:

Alan Moore is also, it seems to me, a past master of
doing comic books where the author packs the visuals
chock-full of neat little references. Either he
encourages the artists in it or he picks artists who
do it naturally.

Alan's scripts are exceptionally detailed and precise in their descriptions of the art. (I am not suggesting that he is unique in doing this, or that the artists are without credit, but if there's a particular detail in one of Alan's panels, it's a near-certainty it was described in his script.)

Just nodding in.

#119 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 11:27 PM:

Closer to the original topic I am reminded of the frame for Pratt's Blue Star - why doesn't magic totally dominate any population where there is an inherited evolutionary line?

Well, the portrayed society was what I'd call patriarchal (Pratt probably thought it was normal), which meant that a power that could only be held by women would be working against the mass of society (especially since it was a ]"masculine"[ power -- IIRC the young ]witch[ commands in a couple of places but never heals). Pratt also makes clear that the complementary power of truth-telling is also unstabilizing. (At one point an older carrier of a blue star tells the lead there's something about the carriers that is recognizable; they may not be hagridden, but they probably have sleepless nights wondering whether they made the right choices on which truths to speak and which to withhold -- and they don't have the training of, say, the kenekito-madual in Brunner's The Long Result.) Pratt didn't make clear whether power was transferred from mother to daughter by defloration, or just withdrawn from a power pool; the former would be a major discouragement to have children....

#120 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2003, 01:05 AM:

I was, and continue to be, traumatized with great delight by the little visuals in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I always knew my love of and deep reading in the genre of Victorian Children's Literature would come back to get me. I just can't get over what he did to poor Jemima Puiddle-Duck.

#121 ::: Danny Yee ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2003, 07:24 PM:

"Robert Jordan couldn't write those books if he wasn't sincere about them."

I'll accept that has to be true for the first books in a series, but surely in at least some cases authors must keep on writing (or finishing) series that they've lost their personal engagement with, simply because a) the fans want them and b) it's a guaranteed sell?

#122 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2003, 08:55 PM:

". . . surely in some cases authors must keep on writing (or finishing) series that they've lost their personal engagement with . . ."

Two obvious problems here:
No, authors "must" not do anything. If you meant to say "surely there have been cases in which," then you are probably correct; I suspect most of us here have read Barry Malzberg's "Corridors." But there's no inevitability about it.
More importantly, no one is entitled to make such a judgement about a writer (and this is judging the writer, not the books) without some direct evidence, preferably from the writer in question. A perception of decline in the books' quality does not count as such evidence. Peake was not blowing the readers off when he wrote TITUS ALONE, though I have heard that claimed.

I readily admit that I am too close to this topic (hell, I'm inside it) to be particularly objective (the main reason I haven't been posting here), but I am still able to tell a statement of verifiable fact from an innuendo.

#123 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2003, 07:06 AM:

"What we have here is a paging-and-pricing problem, rather than an aesthetic judgement. The more copies of a book you print, the cheaper each copy will be; and that's a curve, not a ramp. Books with a lot of pages are necessarily more expensive than books with a modest number of pages. "

isn't there a number of pages beneath which a book becomes less likely to be purchased? And can this number of pages be related to genre?

#124 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2003, 03:36 PM:

Sounds like this discussion about book length might be worth creating a new topic to contain. I am certainly interested in learning more about what those in the publishing industry face even though it won't curtail me from my current epic.

(Thankfully, I've had enough sense to break it into manageable [publishable] lengths even though it refuses to end just yet.)

#125 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 04:08 AM:

I've a couple of data points to offer:

Years ago, as an asst. sysop on the Compuserve sf forums I was hearing lots of stuff about this Robert Jordan fella. So I read some. I loathed it. I asked the people in the forums why they liked it. And so help me Hannah, some of the answers were that you got more for your money. I followed up and was told unequivocally, by more than one person, that given a choice between a 200 page book and a 600 page book at the same price, they'd always go for the bigger one. No, really. They said that.

Still several years ago, but somewhat closer to today in time I was on the committee for the Mythopoeic Fantasy award. The long list had over 30 books and none of them were under 400 pages. One was that epic ASH by Mary Gentle. About 1200 pages I think. Over drinks in a bar at some con or other I was recounting this and wailed, "Doesn't anyone write 200 page novels anymore?" And a certain tnh replied, "No, because no one will buy them."

MKK

#126 ::: janeyolen ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 06:48 AM:

Certainly I will read short novels. I adore the short form. And after having been a World Fantasy Judge this year, I have to tell you I now absolutely PREFER short novels.

What we need is not authors who write short novels necessarily, but editors who will perform slash and burn on said novels when they are turned in.

Show me a fat novel and I will show you a novel that needed editing.

Jane

#127 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 09:56 AM:

Do people really think that way? That longer is better? Jeesh! I'm so busy that I'm having trouble find time even to read short stories. I love shorter books, and have a back log of books I have not yet read because they are a trilogy or huge, and I just don't have that much time.

I noticed that some books that have been reprinted are fatter than the older versions of the books. It seems like the margins and fonts have been bumped to make it look like you're getting more for your money. What a rip-off!

My grandmother hates this trend, because with her arthritis, big books are hard to hold and read. I don't like it because big books don't easily fit into your pocket so you can take them to the doctor or dentist or any place you know you will have to wait and be bored without a book to read.

Boo hiss for the big books only trend.

#128 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 10:44 AM:

I'll cop to having bought a "more for my money" book once. But the mitigating circumstances were that I was in France, almost out of money, and in dire need of an airplane book. So I bought the fattest Proust they had, on the theory that it would either last forever or put me to sleep, both of which were desirable outcomes.

#129 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 11:42 AM:

See, this is the thing: if reading is something you have to set aside time to do, you might have less of a tendency to prefer long books to short ones. If you read in time that would otherwise be wasted, you might prefer long books, other things being equal. No, they never are, but between two books you know nothing about but title, blurb, and length...they might be equal in terms of choice between them.

This leads me to wonder if the East Coast/West Coast (and Midwest) difference in commuting styles affects this...here in the East a lot of us (esp. in NYC area) commute by public transportation, which requires attention to the wallet/pocketbook, to whether This Is Your Stop, and that's it. That's not enough to occupy the mind, IME. Therefore, reading, and reading a lot.

In the West people drive a lot more. If you read while driving you should be arrested.

Is there, I wonder, a correlation between location/commuting mode and preferences in novels? I certainly know that since my commute went from ~an hour by two trains to ~15 minutes on foot, I read much less. One of the few downsides of a short commute; I now look for bits of time to spend reading. So far, it hasn't affected my book choices AFAICT.

#130 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 11:53 AM:

Jane,

I really like your work, and admire the economy of your writing, but I'm hard-pressed to agree that Anna Karenina or Sometimes A Great Notion needed editing.

Did you mean genre fiction? Or fiction generally?

All,

The problem with big huge stories, and to a lesser extent, continuity-oriented series, is that one lemon can ruin the whole effort. Case in point: In my opinion, the Childe Cycle would be better if Gordon Dickson had skipped writing The Chantry Guild. The Final Encyclopedia makes a satisfying conclusion, and Young Bleys and Other are wonderful backstory/retelling.

(I think Young Bleys may be my favorite of all the Childe Cycle books--that, or Soldier, Ask Not. Talk about a Dangerous Vision--making fundamentalists into sympathetic characters!)

I think Dickson wrote himself into a corner with The Chantry Guild--how to come to a satisfying, credible conclusion after all that?--and that may be why we got those two wonderful Bleys Ahrens books, and maybe he'd've pulled it off with Childe, but I don't see how (and I'd love to be proven wrong by posthumous publication of Childe.)

P. S. Anyone who wrote the convoluted sentence above has little room to criticize other writers.

#131 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 12:37 PM:

All due respect to Ms. Yolen, I can't go along with the "in every fat book there's a thin book trying to get out" theory.

I like big, sprawling novels. I've never been in the middle of a fat book I was really enjoying and thought that it needed to have its excess trimmed. I'm not convinced that excess is always bad.

Mind you, I like thin, well-crafted novels too. I'd probably pay $5.99 for a 24-page stapled pamphlet if it had Patricia McKillip's name on it. (Or, let's face it, a Mike Mignola Lovecraft monster on the cover, because I'm that kind of sucker. But anyway.)

The trend in seeing brevity in novels and prose as being preferable to length is a literary fashion - not a measure of any kind of real quality. Somehow I think we'd like to believe that somewhere in the mid-twentieth century, we biffed ourselves in the foreheads and said, "Oh my god, I just realized - long books and florid prose suck! What we we thinking all those centuries?" A lot of self-appointed authorities on "good writing" act as if this was the case, certainly. I don't buy it, though. It happens to be what's currently in style - neither inherently good nor bad.

Lean narratives and lean writing can be powerful and effective. It's just not the One True Way. There's something to be said for immersing yourself in a story that's going to take up more than a few days of your life. (It's sort of the difference between crossing the country by airplane or by car - one will get you from point A to point B in a brief and possibly exhilarating manner. The other takes a lot more planning and free time, but you get to see a lot more of the territory, and hopefully appreciate the process of the journey itself.)

#132 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 01:19 PM:

Xopher:

I don't have time to read long books right now because my husband and I both work full time while going to school part time, and if I pick up a long book I have trouble putting it down and either 1) don't get my homework done or 2) don't get enough sleep because I stay up way past my bedtime reading the book (or both). And even when I'm not in school I read non-fiction books during the week and save fiction for the weekend when I don't have to get up early.

As far as your commute theory, I like both long and short books when not in school, and I live less than a five minute drive from work/school (although I walk when the weather is not horrible.) Not sure how that fits into your commute theory, but I thought I'd offer it up.

#133 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 01:33 PM:

Thanks, Michelle. I'm hoping lots of these nice folks will tell me their prefs and where they live/how they commute. Not that that would be scientific either; it's just interesting.

#134 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 04:18 PM:

Xopher -- it's not just the commute. I have never been a regular commuter-by-public; my job was crosstown (Boston is very radial), or outside serious service, or within reach by bicycle. And I'm certainly doing less now than I used to -- just one chorus, less fannish involvement, no change ringing or folkdancing. But somehow I just have less time than I used to....

I never looked for the best ]bargain[ (as described by MKK); when I was that cheap I had the time to hit the library (across from my primary chorus's rehearsal space) and Glen Cook dealt in used books (6 feet for <$100!). But I've never been fond of fat fantasy (or fat SF, which is less common) -- possibly because I will keep scanning (resenting every page) if I'm bored instead of just tossing the book, and possibly because I used to read books at one sitting (now the eyes complain if I try it).

(And there are people like my wife, who can't read in a moving vehicle; I could plotz thinking about the amount of reading time she had before she went freelance....)

#135 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2003, 04:00 PM:

Fascinating discussion, but it hits several notes I have to comment on:

A) "All fat books have a thin book trying to get out"

One word: Tigana.
Not enough? Shogun.

In the ideal world, each story is only and exactly as long as it needs to be. This isn't the ideal world. I've seen SHORT novels that were hideously bloated. I've seen short stories that were hideously *compacted*. True that in general, there's a tendancy towards bloat *right now*, this decade and maybe the last one. But it's wrong to say, even as a generalization, that in the ideal world, thick books and long series' would no longer exist.

B) "How many more people have read the Dragonlance trilogy as opposed to the Earthsea trilogy?"

Maybe this isn't the question. Maybe the question is, "Who is their reader?" Millions of 14 year olds buy boy-band albums. How many fourteen year olds bought early to mid-years Clannad (Back when they were pure trad. Celtic, and into the jazz fusion experiments)? Millions of 14 year olds read Dragonlance. I'm not 14, and when I was, I was a spike in the music demographic. I never did like boy bands.

Is boy band music inherently bad? Tempting to say yes, isn't it? But my *mother* (Lover of Mozart, Pavarotti and Johnny Cash) bought one boy band album, from a group she thought was a cut above the mold. The music just knows its typical listenership. The initial two Dragonlance trilogies at least had the sense that the authors were having fun - even though the writing was not up to snuff. Readers hooked onto that fun even as, in my case anyhow, I wondered about the logical and cultural gaps (What's so inherently good about blonde-ness that the pure-blood princess of a quasi-Native American tribe is marked as a messiah by being blonde?)

Now, of course, I prefer the Earthsea trilogies (both of them) by miles and yards. I favour thought and evolution in my stories, and prosaic beauty, and things that linger on the tongue over gawky writting, broad-stroked character conceits, and instant gratification fluff, gone in a breath. But, I'm (Sigh...) an adult now.

C) I hate this equation, which I've seen used in whole or in part by various writers on this board:

Fantasy = Imaginary World Fantasy = High (Tolkienesque - not a pejorative, just a descriptor) Fantasy = Long long Quest story = Insincere writing

Not the last part, not the second last part, but *All* parts of this equation are incorrect. I could give you a full chart of exceptions, with a bare minimum of two to three names per category that I have read. And I'm by no means as well read as many here. In fact, I suspect that for every writer you can find who supports the rule that fantasy follows this formula, you can find three exceptions.

Of course, sales figures for some given authors skew the bookshelves, but a good eye can still find them.

So, of course, do reader expectations skew things. One of the single most annoying comments I ever witnessed in a critique session; "He has a gun? Why does he have a gun? Isn't this a fantasy?" Yes... set around the start of the industrial revolution.

Yet these same people asked for the fantasy writers to do something different...

#136 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2003, 05:19 PM:

I forget the name of the fantasy novel that a friend of mine described as "The Horned God versus the Mafia. Poor Mafia!"

Good guys saved from bad guys by miracle. In this case, the bad guy being stomped to death by an Irish Elk that appears in Ontario. Needless to say, this is no ordinary Irish Elk.

Haven't had that much fun in a long time.

#137 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2003, 05:42 PM:

Greenmantle. Charles De Lint.

#138 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2003, 06:49 PM:

Lenora Rose: But my *mother* (Lover of Mozart, Pavarotti and Johnny Cash) bought one boy band album....

Remember, Mozart was once the boy-band-equivalent of his day.

#139 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2003, 06:53 PM:

Since there are a few Gravity's Rainbow mentions on this thread, I wonder if anyone else besides me has come up with the theory that Gravity's Rainbow actually takes place not in World War II Europe but on Middle Earth. I have found that there are many common features between Gravity's Rainbow and LOTR including:

-people who live in holes in the ground (the Herero, hobbits)
-people who are good at metalcrafting and fighting in tunnels and sing strange songs (Major Marvy &co., the dwarfs)
-use of psychics to predict or influence the outcome of war (that mysterious house in London, the mirror of Galadriel)
-Tentacled beast used by the bad guys as guardian of their boundaries (Grischa the Octopus, the Watcher-of-the-Waters)
-Smuggling of pipe-weed tolerated by wartime government

If that wasn't enough, the authorized source of Lord of The Rings merchandise is lotrshop.com.
Lotrshop is an anagram of Slothrop!

Plot parallels between LOTR and Vineland are left as an exercise for the reader.

#140 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2003, 12:22 AM:

Chip wrote: (And there are people like my wife, who can't read in a moving vehicle; I could plotz thinking about the amount of reading time she had before she went freelance....)

I read a lot less now when I commute from college to home, or on a trip--I used to be able to read quite happily in the car or any moving vehicle when I was about 10. I first read Lord of the Rings in the car on a four-day trek to Florida. However, I can't read for five minutes now in a car without getting queasy or headachy. So goes life.

#141 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2003, 12:53 PM:

Lenora: Right! Thanks. There's even a filk about it. I don't know why my brain blanked that out.

Alan: Mozart was the first rock star (unless stylistic considerations make you grant Liszt that title), but to call him the equivalent of a boyband is a little extreme. Boybands, like most pop phenoms today, are triumphs of form over substance, and charm (dubious though it may be) over talent. Say what you will about Mozart, but if you disparage his TALENT you join the ranks of flat-earthers and suchlike.

I'm sure that's not what you meant.

#142 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2003, 04:43 PM:

"Is boy band music inherently bad? Tempting to say yes, isn't it? But my *mother* (Lover of Mozart, Pavarotti and Johnny Cash) bought one boy band album, from a group she thought was a cut above the mold."

I just bought some Michael Moorcock cause he has (or is that used to have) a bushy beard, I guess no one can deny he's got quality eh.


perhaps the boy band format functions as a strange attractor for crap. I'm pretty sure heroic fantasy, and Moorcock, does.

#143 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2003, 05:02 PM:

After two tries, I have concluded that it is impossible for me to comment politely on Moorcock. Why I think this in itself is interesting enough to bear commenting on I leave to your imagination, though it does give an insight into my opinion of Moorcock.

#144 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2003, 04:22 PM:

Charlie Stross said:

Bryan: certainly you can tell the difference between a book written by an author who is sincerely interested in their subject matter and one by an author who doesn't give a shit.

While it is sometimes possible to detect a story which was written by someone who doesn't give a shit, it is not something that can be done reliably. Absent a direct statement from the author in question, it's probably more sensible to assume that every author cares about her work and writes what she writes by choice.

Passion does not equal excellence, and the lack of excellence is most certainly not evidence of lack of passion.

#145 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2003, 04:29 PM:

Mike Ford said:

Alan [Moore]'s scripts are exceptionally detailed and precise in their descriptions of the art. (I am not suggesting that he is unique in doing this, or that the artists are without credit, but if there's a particular detail in one of Alan's panels, it's a near-certainty it was described in his script.)

There are odd and wonderful exceptions to this. For instance, the Grateful Dead album cover which features prominently in Watchmen #5 was put in there by Dave Gibbons. Moore had not specified that particular album; I believe he just wrote "a Grateful Dead poster". Gibbons discovered that the cover of Aoxomoxoa displayed mirror-reflective bilateral symmetry, which made it fit the issue perfectly.

I believe that Gibbons also suggested setting the climax of issue 9 in Mars's smiley-face crater, which fits the series perfectly, as well.

But in general, yes, Moore specifies terrifying amounts of detail in his scripts. All of the stuff with the sugar cubes was definitely in the scripts--Moore commented on that in an interview at the time. Without ever seeing the scripts, I'd be willing to bet that Moore specified what was on each button on Archie's control panel in issue 7.

#146 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2003, 07:21 PM:

By specifying so much, Moore sets the bar higher for the intelligent and interesting artists he works with. They get to know what will fit with, and enhance, what he's trying to do. It's like (dare I say it?) any good volunteer job -- if the final outcome is pointed to well, individuals will contribute to it in an amazing manner and produce really effective Art. If the final outcome is not well-specified, they'll each try to contribute and the outcome will look pretty darn muddy because each of them is contributing to a different vision. Which makes for bad art of one sort (another sort of bad art is one where the end is inherently repulsive, see many political groups of the past and current century who manage to specify the end pretty well but damage a whole lot of the people in the middle).

Cheers,
Tom

#147 ::: ME ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2003, 03:02 PM:

I like pizza.

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