The Bottom of the Iceberg

Mark Lawrence recently wrote a blog post for Bookworm Blues on worldbuilding in fantasy, an aspect of writing fantasy that I think he’s quite good at.  He uses the metaphor of the iceberg to discuss the topic, referring to the wealth of backstory, culture, and history that goes into creating the worlds of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.  Both of these authors are well known for having created reams of information about their respective worlds, most of which never sees the light of day in their actual novels (or doesn’t until, whether due to death or superstardom or both, this content becomes desired and profitable).  But Lawrence takes a step further, asking the question of whether the bottom of the iceberg actually needs to exist, or whether it’s enough that it seems to exist:

But … is the rest of the iceberg there? Does it need to be?

Perhaps GRRM takes 5 years to write his books because for each of them there’s an unseen bulk of background material, floating there in the depths. Maybe one day there will be a ‘Game of Thrones’ Silmarillion. Or perhaps there’s just a scaffold, a skeletal support propping up the edifice, just as when you step behind the stage sets for the TV series there’s a mess of struts, plywood, paint tins, and four Irish workmen sitting down to a pot of tea.

The important question is really – does it matter if the rest of the iceberg’s down there? I would suggest the answer is ‘no’. We want to feel as if it’s there, but if the writer has the skill to give the impression of all that hidden detail … it’s fine with me if it’s not really there.

Mr. Lawrence is particularly adept at this type of world-building: giving the reader the impression of depth and history and backstory, without actually having to start by writing that all down.

It’s all a question of process, really.  Maybe you’re a writer for whom it’s helpful and inspiring to draw up genealogies and write world history, or maybe you’re one who, like Mr. Lawrence, sits down and starts writing.  I fall somewhere in between, myself.  I have copious notes about my worlds, but they’re not terribly organized.  I don’t know the specific backstory of every character I write about, or their family histories or power levels or the origin of every minor artifact.  As Mr. Martin has been quoted as saying, when I need that information, I’ll make it up.

What about you?  What’s your worldbuilding process like?  How much of it do you know beforehand?  Does the bottom of your iceberg exist yet?

The Eberan Whiskey Sling

IMG_0368Arven Mallick runs The Fourth Tribe, the nicest dive in the Warrens, making it the nicest dive in Oridos.  If you’re a friend, and you ask nicely, he just might make you his signature cocktail: the Eberan Whiskey Sling.

Consulting detective Irik Thijis, the protagonist of my serial fantasy novel The Doktor’s Spyglass, swears by them, when Arven’s nice enough to give him one on the house.  Eberan whiskey’s hard to come by, you know.

I promised my Wattpad readers the recipe, and today I deliver.  Thijis asks Arven at one point, and Arven told him, but we can be fairly certain, knowing Mr. Mallick, that he didn’t give away all of his secrets so easily.  The exact recipe may remain forever a mystery, but if you’ve been to the Tribe, and you’ve got a well-stocked bar, you can still make a passable representation of what has been called “the drink that wars are made on.”

The recipe is as follows.

Eberan Whiskey Sling (as made by Arven Mallick)

Fill a shaker with ice.  Add one measure of Eberan whiskey, half a measure of sweet vermouth, at least six dashes cherry bitters, and a dash of simple syrup.  Shake vigorously.  Strain into a short glass, then remove the strainer and add in some of the ice.  Garnish with an Oridosi blood cherry, crushing it against the side of the glass with the back of a spoon.

As it’s unlikely that you have immediate access to Eberan whiskey, feel free to substitute your favorite rye or, if you must, bourbon.  Blood cherries are close to extinct, even in Oridos, but in a pinch a Bing cherry will do just fine.

Arven thunked a large drink down in front of him.

“So what’s this?” Thijis asked, bending his neck to look through the thick glass. It was a dark red color, and there was something floating in it.

“Eberan whiskey sling,” said Arven, using his faithful rag to wipe a wet ring out from under the tumbler he’d mixed it in.

“Eberan whiskey? Not sure I’ve got the crowns for liquid gold today, innkeeper.” Real Eberan whiskey was either hundreds of years old, pre-Fulkawer, or smuggled in fast sloops down the northern coast, by pirates who risked their lives to trade with the remaining Eberai tribes. Either way, it was damned expensive.

“It’s on the house. It’s an experiment. And you look like you’re having a hard day. Plus, I’m bored.”

Thijis sipped it. The muscles in his face had been tighter than he’d known, and they relaxed as one with the first sip.

“This is good,” he said. Arven snorted and walked to the end of the bar to arrange bottles. Thijis took another drink, rolling the liquid around on his tongue. It was sharp and sweet and dry all at the same time.

This is the last thing you need. Gebbing wants you gone, fast. You fucked up on this one. Didn’t pay enough attention and someone fleeced you. You’ll be lucky if they don’t find you face down in the Inner Sea within the week. Stay out of it this one fucking time.

If there was one thing Irik Thijis wasn’t any good at, it was staying out of it.

“What’s in this, Arven?” he asked.

“The whiskey, cherry sugar syrup, a few dashes of bitters of my own making,” Arven called out.

“What’s this floating in it?”

“A blood cherry. I’ve got a line on them, fellow down in Emmerline,” the bartender said.

Fantasy-Faction Reviews ‘Exile: The Book of Ever’

Exile AMZN-EPUBThe award-winning fantasy website Fantasy-Faction reviewed Exile: The Book of Ever Part 1 and liked it!  The review was part of Mark Lawrence’s Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (#SPFBO), an ongoing tournament-style competition where a number of well-known genre websites review and choose the best of a long list of self-published fantasy novels.  Sonia Grace of Fantasy-Faction gave Exile 3.5 out of 5 stars, and had this, among other things, to say:

James Cormier’s Exile pleasantly surprised me…Cormier’s story grabbed my attention right away, and within a chapter I realized that I’d be reading the whole thing without putting it down.

The writing was solid and the characters had distinct voices and personalities. I loved the post-apocalyptic setting in particular; it was well thought out and well executed. I hope that in future books we learn more about the history of what actually caused the collapse of the world, because the bits of knowledge we got were extremely cool.

Read the full review at Fantasy-Faction.com.

You can find Exile on Amazon in ebook and paperback formats.  It’s also available free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

You can find Mark Lawrence’s work anywhere books are sold.  Follow the hashtag #SPFBO on Twitter for up-to-the-moment information on the contest and the front-runners.

‘The Doktor’s Spyglass’ Now Updated Every Tuesday and Thursday

The Doktors SpyglassAfter doing a bit of research and reconsidering my writing process, I’ve decided to change the way I’m serializing The Doktor’s Spyglass.

Instead of a whole chapter every two weeks to a month, I’ll be updating it biweekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays with smaller sections of writing.

This way you’ll get more story, more often, which is how Wattpad readers in particular seem to like it.

You can read The Doktor’s Spyglass for free on Wattpad.com.

Introducing ‘The Doktor’s Spyglass’

The Doktors SpyglassI’ve decided to take something I’ve been working on and serialize it.  It started as a short story but has turned into something quite a bit more interesting.

The Doktor’s Spyglass is a fantasy detective novel, and will be available a chapter at a time on Wattpad.  I will update it with new chapters periodically, but no less often than once a month.

Here’s the blurb:

When an eccentric inventor is reported dead, consulting detective Irik Thijis is called in to investigate. He soon discovers that Doktor Keynish Helg is not as dead as he seems, and that something much stranger than simple murder is afoot.

The Inspection Service of the holy city of Oridos is about as useful as a horseless carriage when it comes to solving crimes, and Thijis is used to sorting out their cases for them. But what he discovers lurking in the Doktor’s mansion soon finds them all out of their depth.

As Thijis probes deeper into his strangest case yet, he realizes that blood and death are only the opening gambit in a play that may cost him not only his livelihood, but his life.

If you like steampunk, noir stories, and hard boiled, harder nosed gumshoes, you’ll probably like this.

The first chapter of The Doktor’s Spyglass is available now on Wattpad.

1980s Fantasy Movies That Influenced A Young Me

342613Gather around children, and let Old Nuncle Jim tell you a tale.  Selfie sticks down.  Turn your phones on vibrate.  Pass me my beer and turn that Queen album back up.  Ahem.  That’s better.

There was a time, long before iPhones, long before the Internet, prior even to the advent of the DVD and stadium seating in movie theaters, when fantasy movies were not the big budget blockbusters they are today.  Before Peter Jackson was ordained from on high to grace us with a (relatively) faithful, three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, fantasy as a genre in Hollywood was pretty dead.  The 1990s in particular was a drought of fantasy so extreme that people did crazy things, like listen to Limp Bizkit and dance the Macarena (Wikipedia those if you have questions).  There weren’t even any good B movies; the fantasy movie-going public were left with pitiful dregs the likes of Dragonheart, Kull the Conqueror, and Encino Man.  (Just kidding about that last one.  Encino Man is a documentary about Pauly Shore.)

But let’s go back a decade, to a more magical time: the 1980s.  Yes, that one, the one you know from theme parties and Taylor Swift’s new album.  The one with music made by people older than your parents.  This was Nuncle Jim’s early childhood, a time of Transformers and Capri Sun and Ronald Reagan.  People still smoked cigarettes indoors, back then, and there were payphones.  There were actually quite a few fantasy movies made during the ’80s.  It was a good time for fantasy, in the sense that at least it was getting made.  This was probably due both to legitimate popularity (a lot of modern classic fantasy novels were written or begun in the 1980s), and the fact that Hollywood still made movies that weren’t expected to make $1 billion internationally.  Like I said, it was a different time.

And in addition to all the wonderful books Nuncle Jim read, there were lots of wonderful (and not so wonderful) movies that he watched that influenced the geeky course of his life going forward.  And if he’s being honest, he probably owes just as much to these pulpy, low-budget films as he does to the books he’s read.  So here’s a list of the ones that stand out in Nuncle Jim’s memory.

I will now end this belabored narrative device and switch to the first person, so as to list the influential movies in question, which are listed with a short explanation in no particular order.

Continue reading

The Line Between Opinion and Morality

The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing gay marriage nationally whipped the Internet into a rainbow-colored whirlwind of hope and love.  Supporters, gay, lesbian, and straight alike flocked to computers and mobile devices and the streets to share links and proudly display rainbow flags and profile pictures.  History was made.  It was a victory for the United States and humanity.  But even amidst all the celebrating, it was hard to ignore the ever-present voices of discord.

Leading up to this decision and certainly after it, the question (now answered) of whether to support same-sex marriage has been a divisive issue.  Everyone knows someone who opposes the idea for one reason or another.  The most obvious examples of this are the conservative Christian zealots, who express hatred openly.  I think reasonable people everywhere can agree that people who spout hatred are wrong, whatever their intent or denomination.  More subtle and ultimately more manipulative, however, are those who ask us to “respect their opinion” as they respect ours.

Certain opponents of marriage equality try to cast the issue as merely one of opinion, rather than a moral difference.  You’ll be able to recognize these people easily, because they are typically the first to speak out against equality while at the same time claiming that, as Christians, they love everyone.  It’s just that, for them, God defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.  It’s not that they have any problem with gay people (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s that God says (let’s not even get into where or how he supposedly says this) these people are unnatural and, based on the particular sect to which they adhere, may or may not be going to hell.

These supposed Christians then go on to say that this is merely their opinion.  That they respect others, and expect theirs to be respected in return.  That they have the right to believe their own religious beliefs.  That any negative response accusing them of intolerance is an attack against religion.

How to respond?  Hmm.  Let’s see.  How about…no.  I mean, hell no.

The fundamental disconnect, here, is that these people see the issue of marriage equality as merely a matter of opinion.  I see it as a moral issue.  They don’t get, or refuse to acknowledge, that for most of us, the belief that gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to marry is actually offensive.  That it’s the same as thinking that Jim Crow laws should still exist.  That’s right, Christians, that’s exactly what I’m saying: being against gay marriage is the same thing as being a racist.  It’s the same kind of moral choice.  They don’t believe this; they see themselves as having the moral high ground.  So when supporters of marriage equality do get offended, the religious get offended back, and accuse us of attacking them.

Let me state things plainly, just in case I haven’t been clear enough: the belief that marriage should be a right reserved to heterosexuals is morally wrong.  It’s akin to racism, sexism, or any other type of bigotry.  And despite what certain Christians–Mormons, for example (we’ll leave the question of whether Mormons actually are Christians for another day)–will have you believe, it is okay to disapprove of people who think this way.  In the same way that it’s okay, if not morally obligatory, to oppose racism, it’s okay and morally obligatory to defend the rights of gay people.  In other words, if you’re against equality, I don’t respect your opinion, and I don’t have to.

That’s what great about this country, at the end of the day.  We can all have our own opinions.  Even opinions that are intolerant and wrong.  But make no mistake: the fact that you have a legal right to believe anything you want, no matter how stupid, doesn’t require others to respect that opinion.  Especially when the opinion in question is morally abhorrent.

Which is not to say that I condone hatred or intolerance of those who believe stupid things.  I don’t.  I’m just saying that people with opinions that a majority of society now finds morally reprehensible shouldn’t expect to be patted on the head for expressing them.

Respecting the opinions of others, respecting difference, is important, but there’s also a line that must be drawn.  I will respect your opinion that Michael Bay is a fantastic movie director, even though I find his films vapid and ridiculous, because  nobody’s life or rights or well being is in question when we discuss film directors.  I won’t respect your opinion that gays or lesbians deserve less than equal rights than heterosexuals, because that opinion is harmful to others.  I may defend your right to have that opinion, but I won’t respect it, and we won’t be friends.  Them’s the breaks, kids.  Opinions have consequences.

Religion in ‘The Book of Ever’

Richard Wright, the author of Native Sononce said:

The more closely the author thinks of why he wrote, the more he comes to regard his imagination as a kind of self-generating cement which glued his facts together, and his emotions as a kind of dark and obscure designer of those facts. Reluctantly, he comes to the conclusion that to account for his book is to account for his life.

Where does the writer end and the writing begin?  To some extent every artist puts some of himself, of his or her own life, into his work.  Sometimes this is intentional.  More often, it is an unavoidable side effect of living and being an artist.  It’s certainly true for me.  I’ve discovered that writing is an intensely personal process for me: my ability to write successfully, such as it is, is intimately tied to my own life experience.  As Wright says, imagination serves as a glue and emotion as a designer, but the stuff of writing is memory and observation.  I suspect this is true of most writers.

It goes without saying, therefore, that there is much of me in my first novel, Exile: The Book of Ever.  In some ways, that reflection is literal: the book is set in New England, where I grew up and still live.  In other ways–in most ways, really–that reflection is thematic.  And one of the major themes of the novel is the question of faith.

The main character, Ever, is a young woman who grew up in a deeply religious community, one who managed to survive the apocalypse by remaining insular and holding true to a firm set of beliefs.  During her journey through the story, she often relies heavily on her faith in God to make decisions and maintain hope and determination.

More than a few readers of Exile have commented (with uniform courtesy and general acceptance) that they were surprised by the religious elements of the novel.  The simple presence of a religious theme seemed unexpected to them.  This isn’t surprising to me, and in fact is comforting in a way: I didn’t write the book for a religious audience, and as I’m currently not religious myself, I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a Christian writer.  I was pleased and flattered to see that my intent had, for the most part, succeeded: readers seem to see Ever’s faith as a part of her character, a driving force and a motivation.

Another theme of the book, and one I hope I conveyed adequately, is that all is not as it seems: that our reality is, in the end, defined primarily by our current perception and understanding, and that these things naturally change as we go through life.  Ever has faith, but by the end of the novel, hopefully it is clear that her exposure to the larger world and her experiences in it have begun to change her.

Faith is a journey that has no end except death, at which point, hopefully, our questions are answered one way or the other.  I was raised Roman Catholic.  I went to Catholic school for 13 years.  For most of my young adult life, I identified as an atheist.  Over the last few years, that atheism grew into something I like to call, tongue firmly in cheek, spiritual agnosticism.

I’m in the process of writing up an account of my long, strange, spiritual trip, but here’s the punchline: about a year and a half ago, for a variety of reasons, I decided to join the Mormon Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints).  I was baptized, attended for over a year, and went through their temple ordinances.

I am no longer a Mormon (thank all of the many, many Mormon gods, thank Krishna, thank Christ).

Why?  The short answer is because, at the end of the day, I couldn’t force myself to knowingly participate in a cultish church whose doctrines are not only intolerant but batshit insane.

Religious belief for me is a bit like an electron: hard to pin down, and changed innately by the act of observation.  If you asked me what my religious beliefs were, I’d say that the most accurate description of me would probably be that I’m an atheist.  But it’s a bit more complicated than that, and as soon as I define it the questions return to swirling around in their cloud.  Suffice it to say for now, however, that my long-held, shortly-retired, recently-reacquired viewpoint on organized religion is generally negative.

I think my readers are going to be very surprised by the direction Ever’s spiritual journey takes in The Book of Ever.

Bookish Lifestyle Calls ‘Exile’ ‘A Journey and an Experience’

buttonTiffany from Bookish Lifestyle recently reviewed Exile: The Book of Ever Part 1 and gave it four out of five mustaches.  Here are some of her thoughts:

The main character Ever was wonderful and you could tell from the start that she was different and followed her own heart, but she also let on that she believed a higher power was willing it.
  The characters themselves were extremely well written.  There was not one person that I did not feel I couldn’t envision.  Ever was spectacular and original, crafted to gain the readers attention.  Ever is strong willed and is the kind of girl that you want on your side.  Not because she is fearless, but because she is afraid and still moves forward.  This is something that the other POV that you occasionally get, sees when most others do not.  Jared came in a little quick and seemed like her could possibly be a problem (love triangle), but he doesn’t come out that way once you know him.  Beyond these two there are still many characters that stand out, but to even give short details would consume this review.

Write a Letter.