Lesson (sort-of) Learned

Well, seven years after I wrote a scene in which a young monk is whipped while trying to paint a thrush, I can finally say it: The Emperor’s Blades is out on the shelves. Oddly, the money-laden dump truck driven by attractive fans has not yet arrived in the driveway, but maybe that happens tomorrow.

I’m a slow learner, but even for slow learners seven years is enough time to pick up a few lessons. Here’s what I’ve got:

1. It is never a good idea to drink five cups of coffee before noon.

2. That scene you spent a week and a half on, the one you thought was going to be the psychological pivot for an entire act? Yeah, it’s crap. Cut it.

3. When you find a brilliant beta reader, marry her. It’s the only way to ensure she’ll see the project through to the end.

4. Back up your fucking hard drive. Back up your fucking hard drive, you idiot. Back up your fucking hard drive.

5. If you dress zombies up with a fancy new name, they are still just zombies. Cut ‘em.

6. One beer might help the creative process. One.    O. N. E.    1.

7. You think you write clean prose? Prose that will leave the copyeditor with little to do? Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha.

8. When you start cursing and poking at the screen, it’s time to get up and go for a run.

9. If you’re still worked up about whatever wasn’t working when the run is over, the run is not over. Go do the other loop.

10. Tweeting is not writing.

11. Facebooking is not writing.

12. Google+ing is not writing.

13. Blogging is sort of writing, but you’re not gonna get a book out of it.

14. That whole plot line with the Urghul girl as a point of view character? The one that’s a hundred thousand words long? Yeah. Cut it.

15. If you make eye contact with the dogs, they might stop chasing you. Or they might not.

16. Always listen to your agent. She is smarter than you. She is more experienced than you. Without your agent you would be like a baby deer wandering around inside the lion cage at the zoo. Except you are not cute like a baby deer.

17. Your friends, for reasons known only to them, actually believe you can pull this off.

18. Your baby is probably screaming because you’re not writing fast enough.

19. Remember when you didn’t know what an editor did? No? That’s because now that you’ve realized your editor does everything, the thought of putting out a book without him is inconceivable.

20. Stop typing and make a sandwich already. A healthy human can go thirty days without eating, but it doesn’t make for very good prose.

21. Just because you wrote eight thousand words in one day doesn’t mean you’re allowed to keep any of them.

22. Stop trying to come up with titles. Just stop. Stop.

23. The book has your name on it, but without your wife’s help at literally every step of the process, it would just be a pile of scribbled-on pages like Russell Crowe’s crazy papers in A Beautiful Mind.

24. Even if the book is a steaming turd, it doesn’t matter. You have wonderful friends and wonderful family, people who don’t really want to handle a steaming turd, but will do so if necessary and keep loving you at the same time.

25. That scene with the monk? The first one you wrote seven years ago? Yeah. It’s crap. Cut it.

Birches or Bastards; The Dilemma of the Fantasy Mapmaker

I have a map problem. To illustrate: when my wife and I were in the process of buying our house, she spent a lot of time looking at and mulling over such petty inessentials as the boiler and the roof. For some reason she seemed concerned about whether or not the windows were double-glazed, and boy was she ever curious about the foundation. What was I doing? I had a map, a forty-year-old surveyor’s map of the property, that used as boundary markers things like “large cherry tree” and “granite outcrop.” While my wife was exploring such trivialities as the whether not the thousand gallon propane tank was rusted through, or how much of the siding was rotted, I was doing the important work way the hell out in the woods, hunting down the gnarled birch that marked the southeast corner of the plot.

“Do you actually need to see the birch tree?” she asked patiently.

“Do you need to see the roof?” I shot back.

It seemed like a reasonable argument in the heat of the moment.

I’ve since mapped a big chunk of the forest, charting out the trails and streams, beaver dams and swamps. Of course, the firewood doesn’t always get stacked, and I’m pretty sure there’s something I was supposed to do with the septic system in July, but that’s the price you pay if you’re determined to find out where the old stone wall finally ends.

Maps purport to be objective. “Here,” they claim, “is the mountain. Here is the lake.” This alleged objectivity is as beguiling as it is false. You’re pretty much hosed just for trying to represent a three-dimensional surface in two dimensions, and then there are all the other choices. What to include? What to leave off? Birches? Beaches? Bird Habitats? Bars? Bingo Halls? Bulldozer Repair Centers? Bastards?

Of course, the details you include depend on the map’s purpose – you need one map to invade Belgium, another if you’re just there to enjoy the beer – and our purposes are dizzyingly varied. There are plenty of maps of Nevada, but they don’t all show the missile silos. For just a taste of the baffling range, check out Frank Jacobs’s blog on strange and wonderful maps. (I’m particularly fond on the post on zombie maps).

But then, even if you know what the hell you want out of your map, the land and the things on it are constantly changing. The road we live on is delightful in summer, but vaguely suicidal in mud season. I have a map of Mongolia that marks the “major highways” in red. They look, from the map, like eight-lane interstates. I have been on them. They are dirt tracks, and they move every year, because today’s dirt track is next year’s stream. Those confident red lines are impressionistic, at best.

So, a) What good are maps, and b) What in the hell does all of this have to do with fantasy?

Well, I just saw the map to my novel, The Emperor’s Blades, a gorgeous piece of work by Isaac Stewart, and I pretty much fell off my chair. This is it, right here.

The Annurian Empire and Beyond

The Annurian Empire and Beyond


Even better, you can read a really cool account of how he made it, an account that reminded me just why I love these creations.

It’s because maps are fantasy.

They are a second world that we invent to lay over our own world, a hope, a fear, a fiction, an approximation, always a distortion, but at their best, a revealing distortion, one that shows us important truths through the deliberate twisting of reality. And, like any fantasy, they are stories, stories of the land they purport to represent, of the people who live on and use that land, and even of the map-maker herself, the one who decides to put in the beavers but leave out the diners. Finally, they are an invitation. The error and bias ineluctably woven into them whispers to us to go out – into the woods or the city, onto the ocean or below it – to check, to see for ourselves.

And by the way – I still haven’t found that fucking birch tree.

The Lounging and the Bon-bons

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I haven’t posted recently. I can hear you all muttering, “He’s lounging in the November Vermont sun eating bon-bons.” Well, I am. But I’ve also been writing articles about fantasy — they’ve just been ending up in other places. For those of you who are curious, here’s a recap:

The Problem with Prophecy: On the role of prophecy and the troubles it presents. Ruminations on the irritating oracle at Delphi, the book of Revelation, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Also, a raging discussion in the comments section.

Depicting the Divine in Epic Fantasy: Gods are all over the place in fantasy, but it’s tricky to do them well. I take a look at a few different approaches here, with discussion of ass trumpets and brain eaters along the way.

Asymmetrical Ass-Kicking: On real life heroism and what it can teach us about the writing of fantasy. If you don’t know the name Miyamoto Musashi, you don’t know about one of the most bad-ass real-life people ever to wield a sword (or two). Myke Cole was generous enough to post this over on his blog, which is filled with great content. If you head over there, it’s well worth spending some time looking around.

Finally and most exciting, the first seven chapters of The Emperor’s Blades are now up for your reading pleasure. You can check them out on tor.com, here. Feel free to let me know what you think, either on this blog, or in the comments below the chapters themselves. If you like what you find, please consider pre-ordering the book here. It’s cheaper than waiting for the publication date, and it helps me out a lot!

As always, thanks so much for reading, chatting, and generally loving fantasy. Now, back to my bon-bons.