The Elemental Cycle: An Update

vrperFor those paying attention, it has been a while since anything was released from the Elemental Cycle. The reasons for this are myriad (marketing and editing issues, whole-scale relocation etc) but the good news is JW Whitmarsh is still writing and book five ‘Mars Fallen’ is in its final stages. Therefore this seems like a good point to look at what is to come in the next few months for the Elemental Cycle.

The first thing on the horizon is a second edition of ‘Valkyrie Rising’ with all new artwork consistent with the spellbound editions of the Books of Water. Hot on the heels of that we expect to be able to release the first edition of ‘Mars Fallen’. As for what lies in stall after that, we thought it best to ask the author….

Nexus Fiction: We’ve had three books from Water, one book from Earth and one book coming from Fire. How can we expect the story to continue from here? Are we going to start again from Air and Spirit or are the stories unfolding going to continue before that?

JW Whitmarsh: It’s always a difficulty when writing a story that develops across continents keeping hold of what is concurrent and what is consecutive. That said, the further the story goes on the more linear it will become. So far book 3 of water finishes before then end of book 1 of Earth, while book 1 of Earth finishes a couple of months before the end of book 1 of Fire.Fallenstraightened

NX: Will that staggering of events continue through the next volumes?

JW: We shall see. Nominally, I consider book 2 of Earth to be book 6 overall and book 2 of Fire to be book 7 but they will happen in tandem.

NX: Do you intend to write them in tandem?

JW: Provisionally, but the writing process is never simple. You have to allow yourself to be carried along. Some chapters are also easier than others. In many ways the prospect of writing two stories simultaneously is quite appealing. It’s harder to get writers block when you have two outlets.

NX: Is writer’s block a constant issue for any writer?

JW: I can’t speak for all writers. What I would say is that for me it’s never a case of running out of ideas; it’s more how to organise them and bring them to life. But more than that it’s about having the time to sit down and work through whatever is giving you difficulty. I prefer to write in long blocks of hours. Unfortunately, life doesn’t give you those all that often.

NX: What has been the biggest problem with ‘Mars Fallen’?

JW: I would say pacing and balance more than anything else. With previous volumes the story has primarily revolves around a singular protagonist. ‘Mars Fallen’ has three. Finding the right way to give each their voice is a new challenge.

NX: There are many characters in the Elemental Cycle. Are there any that you find easier to write than others?

JW: Yes. [Spoiler alert]. Tovrik is generally quite easy to write because he comes from a perspective of knowledge. He has spend so long in study that there is no need to show a road of discovery. He has his history already, he is fully formed. Whenever I write Tovrik there is a sense of confidence that I know what he is going to say or how he is going to react because nothing surprises him.

NX: By the same token then, who is the hardest to write?

JW: Probably Caleigh. She has the burden of carrying the story quite often and doing that while asserting your identity is not easy.  Coupled with the fact that her identity is not yet fully formed. She is being asked to do things that are utterly unreasonable for someone of her age and experience. So often she is in the role of learning by doing that it’s difficult to know until something is in process how she’s going to feel about it.

NX: Will we ever get to see more into the lives of the support characters?

JW: Well, yes. In the main story there are many who have a great role yet to play. In terms of stand alone stories though, there are a few. We’ve talked about it before and the more I think about it the more I’m sure there will be some side tales for Owain, Ysabelle and Eleric. I can definitely see a prequel trilogy there.

NX: It may be far too early to ask but have you thought about what is to come for the world of the Elemental Cycle after the Elemental Cycle is finished?

JW: Yeah, there are several thoughts in motion. I don’t see there being direct sequels as by the time the Elemental Cycle is done there will be plenty enough but I have ideas for the world some hundreds of years after.

NX: Can you give any clues about what that might be?

JW: Pirate wizards. That’s all I’m saying for now. We’re a number of years away from that.

NX: Suppose a new reader sees ‘Mars Fallen’, can they join the Elemental Cycle at that point?

JW: There’s no strict order so far from element to element. It’s possible to start from Book 1 of fire if you like. A lot of things will make more sense for readers who start on the Book of Water but that’s not to say there isn’t as good a journey working from Fire first. As an author you are kind of omnipotent in your world so you can never predict exactly what experience a reader will have when they don’t know what is going to happen.

NX: Going back to the previous point about intersection of storylines, do you have a notion of where the books of Air and Spirit are going to fit in?

JW: First of all, there’s not necessarily going to be distinct trilogies as with the Book of Water. That may well be the only time that three stories of one element conveniently flow into each other. It’s also quite likely that the other elements will not have 3 distinct parts. Earth and Fire are on a definite collision course and I think that is something we can expect a lot from here on with all the elements.

There you have it. Look out for more pages being added to this website along the way and for links to the new books as they are released.

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New Horizons: Choosing your time travel destination

Imagine time travel was a real possibility. Where would you go? Presumably you’d hear recommendations from friends ‘we had an amazing time in neolithic Europe’, ‘you simply must go to 15th Century India’. Magazines and websites would be full of adverts for favoured destinations. Soon enough, there would be lists of ‘time periods to visit before you die’. This is all fine and good but the problem is some places and times would quickly become overdone and ruined by all the time travellers materialising at their now overcrowded beaches and bars.

TV, film and books (let’s call it fiction) has had the use of time travel for some time now and, predictably, created a number of tourist traps as successive writers take cues from what has gone before and been popular. It’s about time (and space) that we started looking further abroad and away from the well-beaten track. Thusly, here follows a short list of tourist traps to avoid and a few suggestions of new places I’d like to see explored. Feel free to add your own ideas (comments accepted here, on facebook or on twitter).

Tourist Traps

The Old West

westernThere’s an amusing David Mitchell (the comedian not the equally brilliant writer) piece questioning why a mere 30 year period in history should constitute an entire genre when other more historically significant 30-year periods don’t. You never hear people say ‘oh, I like fiction about the 30-years war mostly’. Perhaps they should; there’s a hell of a lot more to explore there. In any case, westerns are well-established and that’s fine and if people want to make a western I’ve no problem with that. What I tire of is seeing people from many centuries later ending up there and unfailingly having at least one party member who is au fait with the period through their love of old movies. Seems unlikely given the current popularity trend of old classic westerns.

This obsession reeks of writers of a certain generation repackaging their youth and expecting all who follow to buy into the experience. Likely, if the time travel holiday were available tomorrow the old west would quickly become a new Florida riddled with ageing gunslingers distinguishable from the locals by the whiteness of their replacement gnashers.

The Late Republic/Early Roman Empire

I’m not knocking ancient Rome as a setting but when there’s so much to explore why keep going back to the same bit? As there’s more to Italy than Rome, there’s more to the Roman Empire than the section from Julius Caesar to Nero. Why not try the delights of the early Republican period as the Italian peninsular is united or witness the drama of the Punic wars? They’ve got elephants and everything! Or, if you are of a different taste, witness Constantine’s rise to power and the division of the empire between east and west. Want to see the Colosseum in it’s heyday? For that you need to travel on from Nero to get to Vespasian’s time. colusseum

When dealing with a period of hundreds of years it’s a shame to get stuck around a single lifetime.

Victorian England

English_School,_19th_Century,_Snow_Hill,_Holburn,_LondonI’ll admit a touch of bias here. I studied the Victorians early on at school and I found them to be quite an unappealing group of people. Ethically and aesthetically it seems to me to be one of the less enjoyable bits of history. That’s not to say many great things didn’t happen but does your journey through time have to mean bumping into Charles Dickens or passing under the shadow of Jack the Ripper?

Likewise, Victoria seems to be one of the least fun monarchs of the lot. If you want to dine with a King or Queen, I daresay most others would be more entertaining company. Oh, and if you are desperate to wander through a foggy London, remember the ‘pea-souper’ was called that for a reason. That pearly cloud you picture yourself bisecting in your greatcoat will actually be green and probably smell horrific.

 

Some alternatives

The Aztecs

The Aztecs were a very interesting people; fascinating architecture, a vivid pantheon with bloody rituals, and gold everywhere. For the most part they seem to have been ignored by fiction (I suppose Dr Who might struggle with the pre-watershed slot) both historical and sci-fi. Still, the story of the meeting between Montezuma and Cortez and how a great civilisation came to crumble so quickly would be interesting to observe from an outsider’s perspective.aztec

 

The Dark Ages

vikingSeeing as the ‘dark ages’ remain one of the most misrepresented periods of time, a visit here would be educational if nothing else. Most people’s notion of history seems to be that there was the Romans and then not much happened until 1066. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from anything else, there was still a Roman Empire in the east throughout the whole period. The rise of Charlemagne seems to be something unheard of to a lot of people who studied history only at school.

Oh, and there’s Vikings. Obviously Vikings are awesome in their own right (or horrific if you are on the other side) but more importantly, we need more depictions of them never bloody wearing horned helmets. We don’t use Wagner musicals to inform our history for anything else and it’s about time this annoying myth died a death.

 

A non-apocalyptic future

According to time-travel fiction, there’s only a couple of centuries at best left for human civilisation before we regress massively. That might be true, who can say for certain, and that’s one way to view the future. Does it have to be the only way? For once, can’t we see Earth a bit further on that isn’t dystopian? I appreciate this is harder to render because you can fall into the realm of futurology and having to make predictions which may turn out to be ludicrous. Equally, it’s harder to make political points about now if everything turns out all right (although there’s still room for this by showing the will to change was what made things better). That’s not to say our future has to be shown as utopian either. Maybe some of today’s problems will persist and be worse in some ways. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will all need to be hunkering down in burnt out shelters staring forlornly as the last of the water supply vanishes.

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There’s many more that can be added to both categories and I expect I will update as I go. For now, I will sign off with this. As people we like to see new things and visit new places: let’s do that as time-travellers too.

 

 

It’s all about the antagonists

Here’s a quick question for you; who is the most important character in the Harry Potter series? The answer is obvious, right? It’s the Harry Potter series; every book is called Harry Potter and the…It has to be Harry, surely? I would argue not: it’s Voldemort. That’s not to say Harry is some dully empty vessel who’s only purpose is to be he reader’s eyes into the world. On the contrary, Harry is a great character. He’s far from being a Luke Skywalker, true blue hero who is less interesting than the folk around him. Harry is wounded and sympathetic and occasionally flawed (although I’m not sure you’d get all this by just watching the films). Harry has many qualities but he is not the main mover of the narrative: that is Voldemort.

voldyThink about it. The book begins with the apparent first defeat of Voldemort. Harry is only famous because of the fame Voldemort bestowed on him by being unable to murder him. Likewise, the Harry potter series finishes with the final defeat of Voldemort. His absence is what tells us it is all over. Harry has a life after this but the series doesn’t continue to follow him in his life without Voldemort. Sure, there may be Cursed Childs and whatnots to come but they are addenda to the story of how Voldemort was defeated.

Speaking of Luke Skywalker. How interested are we in his life when there is no big bad around? The main story finishes with the death of Darth Vader. We don’t rejoin him until the reboots have another antagonist to throw at us. Likewise, it’s no surprise that we leave Middle Earth with the demise of Sauron.

I’ve been thinking about antagonists recently while reviewing the Defenders’ respective series. The broad consensus seems to be in terms of quality they go; Jessica Jones, Daredevil and then, someway behind, Luke Cage. Is it just merely a coincidence that while Jessica had David Tennant’s brilliance as Kilgrave and Daredevil had the grinding fury of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, Luke Cage had to contend with the short-lived and nonthreatening Cottonmouth and then the silliness of Diamondback?

I’m only halfway through Iron First but the major problem so far seems to be the lack of a good antagonist. All of which makes me think, maybe it’s all about the antagonist after all. At least when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy. Other genres have other considerations. Detective novels while benefiting from good antagonists are more about the protagonist.So what is it about sci-fi and fantasy that make antagonists so important? Partly, it is that a lot of sci-fi and fantasy is about conflict against an exceptional threat. If the threat is not sufficiently threatening then defeating it is less compelling.

Another reason is sci-fi and fantasy is often (though not always) less morally ambiguous. In a fight between good and evil the only way the evil is going to be defeated is through terminal justice. There will be no accommodation or settlement. The bastard needs to die and we need (for the most part) to be ok with the bastard dying. Therefore, their death must be both utterly necessary and morally and narratively satisfying.

joffYou might argue that some fantasy is not so black and white, A Song of Ice and Fire, for example. While there may be some truth in this, the series does also provide us with some genuine hate figures for whom we will endure all kinds of suffering to our heroes just to see them get what is coming, like Joffrey and Ramsay. Equally, the Ice and Fire overarching it all pretty unambiguous. Those white walkers/Others have to be defeated.

Ah, that’s fantasy but sci-fi is different, you might argue. Sometimes there is an accommodation in sci-fi, like in the Matrix and Mass Effect. In the case of the Matrix films, they clearly cottoned on to the fact that we were more interested in an antagonist battle so they made it more about the recognisable Smith than the amorphous Matrix itself. While Mass Effect 3 has one of the worst endings ever, so let that be a lesson about deviation from the template.

Other examples? Look at Star Trek. What are considered to be the best Star Trek films? Generally, people say Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country and First Contact. For which we have Ricardo Molteban’s Khaaaaaaaan, Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare quoting Klingon and, arguably the greatest Star Trek villain of all, the Borg.

For that matter, look at the series. What turned around DS9? The introduction of proper antagonists in the form of the Dominion. What was often the difference between a good Babylon 5 episode and a cringe-worthy one? Did it have the Shadows in it? In the same vein, I never really had much interest in Star Gate but I bothered with Stargate: Atlantis because the creepy Wraiths seemed like a genuine threat. Oh and lest we forget, what’s the surefire way to up the stakes in any series of Dr Who?I give you everyone’s favourite demented space nazis wailing EXTERMINATE!

It’s a lesson to all of us when we write. While we all want to give the world the next brooding hero who will show us complexity, humour and virtuoso fighting skills so far uncontemplated, make sure there’s someone out there for them who is capable of killing them and and shaping the narrative of the world they wish to terrorise. As much as heroes, villains have a challenge to answer. Let us hope they rise to the occasion.

loki

 

 

 

 

The Sinister Conspiracy: Left-handedness in fiction.

A few weeks ago the internet announced it was left-hander’s day and, predictably, people came out with articles about how difficult it was being left-handed ‘Boo, scissors are wrong’ etc. There was very little about how left-handers are depicted (and not depicted) in fiction, which is a personal bugbear of mine. In a curious way, being left-handed gives you a glimpse into what being a minority is like and what being disabled is like. This is both trivial and non-trivial.

It is trivial in that being in the left-handed minority isn’t going to get you killed or arrested or treated to abuse or violence from strangers as is the case for many minorities in many parts of the world (although it wasn’t so long ago it lead to beatings in the British school system). Likewise, contrary to those articles being left-handed in a right-handed world is not a major adjustment – we do possess right hands as well and are often quite adept with them.

Where it is non-trivial is it gives a flavour of how the world reacts to difference and diversity. For many writers at the moment this is a big topic and writers of fantasy are by no means exempt from these concerns. The way difference is treated in fiction usually falls into three forms; representation, tokenism and diversity. Thus through the lens of left-handedness and the minor insights it gives, I shall attempt to approach the topic as a whole.

 

barack_obama_signs_emergency_declaration_for_arkansas_1-28-09Representation

At times, I’ve been sceptical about the notion of the need for representation. What is this narcissistic need readers and viewers are deemed to have that they need to see themselves in everything? American film producers are often the prime culprits of this and, I think, underestimate their audiences in doing so. They wanted to make Harry Potter American in the films. Fortunately, JK Rowling vetoed that and lo and behold American audiences still were able to enjoy it.

Similarly, I watch a lot of American TV and films and don’t spend the whole time waiting for a British person to turn up. When I read ‘The Famished Road’ I didn’t scour through the novel hoping that a white person would appear. I expect the people who populate a particular story to be consistent with that setting and don’t need to see ‘myself'(myself being someone who shares some identity position).

There’s an easy rejoinder to this point of view, however. That’s ok for you to say when you’re in the majority and have any number of representatives in fiction. There’s a measure of truth in that which only comes into focus when you’re not in the majority. Here’s where I return to left handers.

How many left-handed heroes are there in fantasy? Off the top of my head, Tolkien has one, Maedhros, who after having his right hand removed goes on to be better with a sword in his left hand. George RR Martin does a similar thing with Jaime Lannister only he is awful with his left hand. In fairness to Martin, I believe Ayra is mentioned as being left-handed making her the only example I can easily recall. I haven’t read the majority of fantasy fiction novels ever written so it is possible there are many others but I think my sample is large enough to be indicative.

Why so few? Here comes the explanation that is most often given for the absence of diversity – realism or, more properly, verisimilitude. Lets now create our fantasy world. I’m not going to say what is right and wrong for writers here (with one exception), rather pose the questions. And yes, left-handedness can obviously be substituted for other things.

First question? Is left-handedness as common in your fantasy world as ours? If it is then something like one in ten of your characters should be naturally lefty. Are they wielding their weapon left-handed? If not, why not? In many historical cultures there had been prejudice against left-handedness and lefties were forced to do things right-handed. The Romans were possibly the worst offenders for this. Putting aside the general cultural aspect of this intolerance for a moment, what function does this prejudice have? The Romans were keen on close formation fighting and had square shields for much of their Empire. Holding a spear left-handed and shield on the right arm would create a weak point in the line exposing the man on the left and shielding the shield of the man on the right. Getting rid of the lefty seems like a sensible course in this context.

Is this the only solution? Some hoplite shields from a similar time in history were notched on either side so the spear could be thrust through left or right-handed. Another option would be to put the lefty on the end of line (or block if fighting in squares). Does your culture care enough about the exceptions to make these adjustments?

If, on the other hand, your fantasy culture doesn’t fight in close formation like the Romans, for example forest skirmishers, the imperative for everyone to fight from the same direction disappears. In general, in a world where the majority fight right-handed, being left-handed is an advantage. Therefore, if it doesn’t undermine a formation, it would disadvantageous to force your fighters to suppress their natural preference. You may still wish to insist on this but then you need to bring in issues of intolerance rather than practicality to explain it.

I suspect lack of representation of left-handedness in fantasy broadly stems from two sources. One, the writer is themselves right-handed and has never given it any thought and two, their fantasy cultures are largely reminiscent of historical Earth cultures and transplant their attitudes to left-handedness into the bargain. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this latter position but would it hurt to put in an occasional reference such as the character having a stronger shield hand than normal? Just as a note, if you do decide to make that reference don’t make it that the character is a liability or cack-handed. We get enough of that crap already (and it’s almost always untrue).

Tokenism

Tokenism is different from issues of representation in that in this example the writer/screenwriter has made an effort to include or make reference to the minority but has done so in a way that is shallow or unhelpful. If there’s one thing worse than being represented it’s being represented in a way that negatively stereotypes. Frankly, I’d rather there weren’t any more British characters on American TV than have another effete aristocrat speaking like they’ve walked out of the 1920s show up. Or football hooligans either. There are plenty (I dare say the overwhelming majority) of British people who are neither of these things.

Left-handers fare no better. When do we get a mention? In crime stories, of course. Left-handedness is used as a gimmick to help catch the killer, the killer almost always being left-handed in these cases. Dammit, my sinister plan ruined by my sinister hand. The only other example I can bring to mind is an episode of CSI where Grissom concludes that the victim’s work space has been interfered with because the mouse was on the right hand side. The episode then goes on to helpfully inform us of the many left-handed Amercians who die every year using equipment the wrong way round. Sorry, Grissom and your great detective skills but I don’t know any left-handed people who have the mouse on the left-hand side (see earlier point about being able to use our right hands). Another classic is which wrist the watch was on not matching handedness. It doesn’t? Maybe that’s because people don’t always follow that rule.

The problem with tokenism is that is rarely has a function beyond merely acknowledging the existence of a group. Little to no attempt is made to integrate that aspect of the person in a wider character or even to suggest they have a character beyond that particular aspect. In the case of lefties we are boiled down to murderers and being unable to adapt to a right-handed world, which ironically is actually something we’re generally pretty good at (the functioning not the murder although I’m sure we’d do a great job of that too if we put our lateral-thinking minds to it).

final_challenge_international_de_paris_2013-01-26_193155Diversity

How do you represent and get beyond tokenism? I think the major pointer here is about your motivation for including difference in your story. If you are including difference because you feel you ought to and it will make someone happy then it’s probably going to be a struggle to pass through tokenism because in essence that’s what you’re doing.

The most compelling reason I can think of to include difference and diversity in a story is that it is simply a better story and richer world for doing so. We don’t want to travel to a place that is the same as the one we left. We don’t want every new person to look and think exactly the same as the ones we already know. We wouldn’t survive as a species if everyone was attracted to one type of person.

In the case of left-handers, I think this works on an aesthetic and interest level. In sports, I always like the look of seeing a left-handed tennis player against a right-handed one or the field and tactics in cricket having to be readjusted for the left-handed batsman coming in. This can easily be transposed into fiction; the challenges of facing a left-hander in a duel or the particular advantage for a lefty fighting up a spiral staircase.

Left-handedness, like any difference, brings a new set of challenges and story-telling opportunities. As writers these are gifts that we should relish. Instead of contemplating how to bring diversity into our stories we should use diversity as a starting point and be grateful for the layers of complexity it provides.

 

 

New pages on fire magic coming soon

After a quiet summer on the Nexus front we are now settling down to a new run of activity. A new book is coming this season – Mars Fallen – where we will be taken into the classical world of the Senatian Empire where the element of fire is dominant. To tell us more we have the author JW Whitmarsh dragged back from exile by a pair of obedient centaurs.

Nexus Fiction: First of all, welcome back. It’s been a while. What have you been up to?

JW Whitmarsh: Yes. I’d love to say I’ve been working hard in my writing retreat reeling out chapter after chapter of new stories but alas the truth is more prosaic.Humdrum realities such as earning money and moving house have got in the way of creative endeavours of late.

NX: Normal life can be so inconsiderate. So what can we expect from the fire magic of the Imperium?

JW: As I think I might have said in a previous interview, magic is handled very differently in the Imperium. There it is believed that all magic comes from the Gods of the Pantheon and the magically-gifted are, on the whole, absorbed into the clergy.

NX: The classical world had many deities.How do you fit that into the way you have broken down magic before by the elements?

JW: I have restricted myself to 12 Gods (arguably the more prominent ones from classical mythology) and grouped them into four groups of three, four triads, if you will; Heliomantic, which includes Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva, Geomantic – Vesta, Vulcan and Ceres, Astromantic – Mars, Mercury and Neptune, and Lunarmantic for Diana, Juno and Venus.

NX: You’ve decided to go with the Roman names rather than the Greek.

JW: Initially, the story starts in the equivalent of the Western Empire so that made sense. Also Vesta has a role not mirrored by Hestia and the Vestal Virgins are a pretty important element to the novel.

NX: Going back to the groupings, are the priesthoods of each triad linked in the same way that the three disciplines of Enchantment are?

JW: No. The devotion of different Gods is kept entirely separate. The traitor Empyrean who was the architect of how fire magic would be learned gave thought to what might follow if one who was magically gifted could learn all that he had learned and so deliberately propagated the idea that one could only be blessed by a single deity at a time.

NX: So the Imperium has no great wizards like Caerddyn?

JW: No. Indeed the concept of a wizard who was in control of their own magic is a foreign one. The clergy of the Imperium are taught that magic only goes through them by the will of the Gods.

NX: Moving sideways slightly and with due care for spoilers, can you tell us why the contemporary wizards can’t learn all spells from their element in the way that the traitors did? Does that mean the past can never be matched?

JW: It’s a mixture. You have to remember that the traitors were the greatest wizards of their day in an age where magic was at its zenith. They were the guys who were left standing from the fight with Xyraxis and his arch demons where all others mages (bar Loreliath) perished. So all things being equal they would be hard to emulate anyway. There’s also the matter of what happens when you specialise. To go deeper into certain Arts you need a way of thinking that may be mutually exclusive with learning others. The expert specialists of the world contemporary to the stories would definitely be able to do magic within their Arts that had never occurred to their originators.

NX: So in a sense the magic of the contemporary world is more advanced than that used by the traitors?

JW: I’m not sure about advanced because that implies improvement. It’s more involved. An analogy might be something like in classical times Latin was widely spoken across western Europe. Now instead we have Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. If you pulled someone from the ancient world and compared them, speakers of each of those languages would be better at them than the Latin-speaker but if those speakers had never had any training in each others’ languages it is quite possible that the Latin-speaker would have the best cross language understanding because his/her language is the basis for all of them. Does that make sense?

NX: Actually yes. Does it follow that the priests and priestesses of the Imperium would be better at their disciplines than their Western Lands counterparts because of their focus?

JW: No, because they have been beset by false limitations. I think overall if you were to look at the world of the Elemental Cycle the places with the most impressive mages, the ones who most fit our idea of wizards, would most likely be found either in the Western Lands or in one of the mage cultures of ancient world.

NX: By which you mean the pre-classical civilisations?

JW: Yes, the equivalents of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Persia.

NX: When will we get to see them?

JW: Not for a while yet. Not this year certainly.

NX: On which subject, can you share your progress with us?

JW: Mars Fallen is nearly finished. There’s maybe one or two chapters to go. After that it will have to go through editing. We will see it this season, I expect. I intend to write Venus Ascending and A Clash of Gods in parallel so there may be a long wait before we see anything more. This time next year we could be talking about what’s to come in book 6 or book 9, who knows? As I said at the beginning of this, for authors as much as anyone life sometimes takes us in unexpected directions.

Fallenstraightened

Writing: Fiction vs Reality

Writer_JohnThink of a writer at work, go on…What’s the first image that comes to mind? It might be a man or woman, more probably a man because on film and TV (contrary to reality) writers are almost always male – female writers are usually journalists or diarists, and they will be huddled over a typewriter furiously tearing away unwanted pages and throwing them in the bin until the manuscript arrives as a neat stack.

On their desk there may be the odd note and a bottle of whisky (or a hip flask stashed into the top drawer if drinking is meant to be their issue) and as their eyes look up they may alight upon a strategically placed framed picture alluding to some past (possibly tragic) event, a hunting or mountaineering photo or group shot with army buddies or maybe a long-lost love. Hank Moody meets Ernest Hemmingway.

Or if your point of reference isn’t TV and film – a strange thought I do concede – you might imagine someone younger and well-dressed tapping away at an expensive laptop in a trendy cafe, an enigmatic smile threatening to break out over their face as the inspiration starts to flow in between sips of their impeccably prepared (insert name of fancy type of) coffee.

Now I can’t and wouldn’t wish to speak for all writers but that doesn’t ring true of my experience. For one, as the previous paragraph no doubt revealed, I don’t even drink coffee. My workspace isn’t a lodge or a beachside retreat or the great outdoors where I pen things into my extensive journal; it’s my bedroom. When I look up from my screen, I see another screen because sometimes I need two and there is nothing neat about the arrangement of my notes because sometimes I need to look at several pages at once. My desk doesn’t so much scream ‘writer’ as ‘potential fire hazard’.

So here follows a few things that I have heard or seen about writing that simply don’t match my experience. That’s not to say they won’t for you, perhaps you’ve reached that magical place, but I suspect that many writers would have similar variations.

Typewriters

I, like most people, haven’t used a typewriter since the 1980s and then only as a novelty. They are not ‘more authentic’ they are hard work and, given that we can now word process on a computer, needlessly so. Quite literally, I don’t know any writers who insist on using a typewriter because why would you? I know lost and stolen manuscripts make for convenient drama; in the real world a lost manuscript would be utterly and completely heartbreaking for a writer and for very good reasons you try to avoid that being a possibility. When most writers lose work it doesn’t involve chasing dogs or tracking down your jilted lover, it is comprised of clicking on a file then letting out a long and very repetitive litany of swear words, possibly followed by tears.

Cafe culture

workplace-480222_960_720This may be a controversial one because I’m sure writers do frequent cafes and do write things down there. In my experience, however, cafes are far too busy, noisy and distracting to get deeply into a novel in those surroundings. Making notes? Doable. Writing a blog? Sure. Putting in the hard grind? I’m less convinced but I accept that others may be better at blocking out the distractions than me. Likewise, they may not be bothered by paying for all those drinks and eating out twice a day. For me that’s an unnecessary expense.

Most of all though, what cafes lack for me is easy access to my notes, which as I’ve stated I like to spread out quite a bit, and the opportunity to roam. I find sitting down for long stretches a challenge. Pacing around, gesticulating and acting out action scenes are pretty good ways to get yourself sectioned when performed in the tight spaces between tables of your local coffee joint. At home it only gets noticed by your family or housemates and that’s fine; they probably already know you’re crazy.

The Retreat

Don’t have one because 1) I’m not enormously rich already and 2) I live in Britain. In a sense these two reasons are almost the same thing given what property prices are like here. Anywhere affordable that’s truly away from other people is probably not a property suitable for writing. Not unless you can get broadband in your tent or feel comfortable working in a derelict factory for the two weeks before it becomes a luxury apartment or chain store.

Maybe that’s how the whole writers-in-cafes thing got started. There they were minding their own business in a nice, quiet slum and suddenly cappuccinos sprung up around them, consuming them in gentrification too pleasing to escape.

The writer’s lifestyle

If there is something in common where all depictions of the writing lifestyle all feel false is that they show writing as a lifestyle. In my experience, writing isn’t a lifestyle it is part of your life and you try to fit it into your existing life any way you can. If you wanted to show the reality of a writer’s life, quite often you would show them at work, possibly doing something that has almost nothing to do with writing.

There would be no retreat; their workspace would be wherever they could put their computer and their notes in one place. Instead of crazy adventures, a lot of the time the writer would be opting to stay in glad of a rare space of hours when they can get down to doing what they love.

wblockOn that subject, fiction has a lot to answer for too. In popular culture writers have two modes: inspired and blocked. The truth is that the majority of the time they will be somewhere between the two. This is inevitable. Writing 100,000 words plus takes time and if you only wrote when inspired you’d never get to the end.

By the same token, writers block is rarely anything like what it is shown to be, namely the writer staring at a blank page for hours on end. Not writing looks much the same as procrastination does for anyone else – doing anything other than the thing you are supposed to be doing. If you are actually able to force yourself to stay at the keyboard for a long period and not get distracted then you almost certainly will write something.

At the end of reading this you might conclude that a writer’s (or at least my) life is quite mundane. There is a certain amount of truth in this, the observable process of writing is often not that exciting. It is hard work that requires a commitment of many hours sitting in front of a screen.

That is not to say it not rewarding. The beauty of writing is the words and the stories that come out; the product is what transcends the ordinary and hum drum. Most writers don’t have hugely exciting external lives because it is on the inside that all the action is happening. When you read our tales you’re reading about places we’ve been, dangers we’ve endured, struggles we’ve overcome and loves we’ve won and lost all within the confines of our heads. Frankly, real life can have a hard time living up to that.

The moral of this particular story is this: you don’t have to surround yourself with the artifice of being an interesting person to be an interesting person. If you are a writer (probably if you’re a reader too) you already are an interesting person with far more compelling things going on in your head than any amount of lifestyle trappings can conjure. While the idea might have some appeal, don’t worry about not being Hank Moody or Ernest Hemmingway. After all, their writing lifestyles are also works of fiction.

landscape-mountains-nature-mountain

Interview with JW Whitmarsh – Author of The Book of Water

Book of watereditNexus Fiction: Here we are again in the interrogation chamber of the Nexus castle. As we write our author JW Whitmarsh is being chained down by a team of obedient fomorii and told no food will be brought until all our enquiries are satisfied. So, with no further ado let us begin.

NX: How are you doing?

JW: Fine. I’m not sure how secure these manacles are though.

NX: We got them on the cheap.

JW: You mean you went to the adult store instead of the hardware store?

NX: It’s so much closer. Anyway, trilogy edition is out next week and since we haven’t interviewed you about Enchantress Destiny it seems a good point to talk about the final part of Caleigh’s journey.

JW: Won’t that be spoiling for those who were waiting for the trilogy edition?

NX: Be circumspect. Let’s discuss the books generally. Do you see the story as three parts or as one long tale?

JW: When I wrote it I definitely wrote it as one tale. I have or had a certain blindness slash ignorance of how long it was until it came to publishing. I thought I’d written something like a 600 page book. Long yes but not so long it needed to be partitioned.

NX: And then we told it’s 1,000 pages. A trilogy seemed like the obvious thing.

JW: Knowing what I know now I would have written it differently. Nonetheless there are distinct phases and tones throughout the story. Awakening is a coming-of-age journey. Apprentice is a quest. By the time we get to Destiny it is more of an all-out war.

NX: Less discovery and more resolution.

Destiny serpent2JW: Yes. I spent a long time gathering all the pieces and putting them into place. In the last volume we see how that unfolds. I noticed this in particular writing the dramatis personae for each part. By Destiny there aren’t so many people to introduce any more and so it is subsequently much briefer than the others.

NX: We’ve talked before about how some characters are ‘meta’ and some are ‘organic’. Can you expand upon that?

JW: Meta characters in storytelling terms are the ones who are required to be there by the plot and at certain points they will do certain things that are necessary to advance the narrative. In Dr Who terms they are fixed points that cannot be altered.

Organic characters, by contrast, do not need to be anywhere or do anything in particular but are grown out of the logic of the story or setting and evolve and act according to their personality.

NX: Can an organic character end up changing these fixed events?

JW: Organic characters can certainly influence how things play out and can create story-lines that would not have existed otherwise. That said, some fixed points are hard to get around.

NX: Can an organic character become meta and vice versa?

JW: Short answer, yes. The overarching story has a number of fixed events; the rest is fluid. Some characters started off as organic in Enchantress Awakening and have later become meta.

NX: So someone who started off as incidental can later have an important fate?

JW: Exactly. And the reverse can be true. Once all their fixed events have passed a meta character becomes organic. Almost everyone who was meta in The Book of Water is now organic.

NX: What would be the breakdown generally? Do you start with a set number of meta characters and let the rest grow around them?

JW: It’s hard to remember exactly what I was thinking ten years ago. I would say a handful of characters began their life as meta characters and others became so in the writing process.

NX: And all those who survived The Book of Water are now organic?

JW: No. A few remain or have become important to much later events. Without giving too much away I will say as an illustration one character who started off life as an organic character now has a key role in the end of the entire series.

NX: That’s quite a meta leap. Can you give an example of someone who is an organic character and how they came into life?

JW: I think the most non-spoilery example I can give is Ellie. She was not part of the overriding narrative but as soon as I created Caleigh it was natural for her to have a friend of the same age. I don’t think I intended for her to be as involved as she was in the end but her relationship to Caleigh kept bringing her back into the narrative. It kind of mirrors how she feels about her role in these great events. She’s surrounded by all these wizards and heroes yet time and again she finds herself being useful to them. Now I think about it there’s an argument to say she’s the real hero. Maybe one day I’ll write the story from her perspective.

NX: She’s quite popular with the readers so we’d be happy for you to write it. Do you ever find you have different reactions to things than your readers?

JW: Haha. Yes actually. One reader reached out to me to tell me they found the story really funny. It was not the reaction I was expecting.

NX: There’s a lot of irreverent humour in the books though. You must have realised that writing it.

JW: Yes, absolutely. It’s just it’s not something I made a point of inserting. Humour between friends seems like a natural form of interaction and life’s absurdities are impossible to avoid altogether, even if it were desirable to do so.

NX: Have you encountered any drastically different interpretations from readers so far?

JW: Not as yet. Obviously, everyone has their preferences. Some say there’s too much sex others say they want more. Some don’t like fantasy generally but like the characters, others would like it to be more fantastical.

NX: In what way?

JW: I think one reader asked if I would do a human-centaur relationship.

NX: I almost dread to ask but will we see that?

JW: You’ll get to see centaurs.

NX: Now, you’ve written The Book of Water as volumes 1,2,3. Will the rest of the elements follow suit?

VlakyriegoldJW: No. I always intended for the narratives to shift and merge. The Book of Earth and The Book of Fire run more or less parallel to each other and intersect at points.

NX: How do you decide which bits go where?

JW: It’s a matter of narrator mostly. If we are reading Valeria’s story it will be Earth, if it is Marcus and Junia’s it will be fire.

NX: Are there any characters who will intersect across the all the Elements?

JW: Two for definite, and I don’t think this is giving much away; Loreliath and the Beast.

NX: Of course. The Book of Water is now finished. What sort of timeline can we expect for the books to come?

JW: In terms of in-story events or release dates?

NX: Let’s start with the latter.

JW: Book 4 – Valkyrie Rising (Part One of The Book of Earth) is written. Book 5 – Mars Fallen (Part One of The Book of Fire) is maybe 85-90% finished. I expect Valkyrie Rising to come out in the summer and Mars Fallen somewhere between late summer to early autumn.

FallenstraightenedLike with 4 & 5, Books 6 & 7 (A Clash of Gods/Venus Ascending) take place more or less concurrently and I expect I’ll write them as such. I hope to bring both out next year.

NX: And beyond that?

JW: Let’s see. I don’t want to get into soothsaying or making unfulfillable promises. When is ‘Winds of Winter’ coming out, by the way?

NX: Nobody knows, least of all George RR Martin. You’ll just have to keep us well read in the meantime.

JW: A heavy responsibility. Just don’t expect too much twincest from me.

NX: Dragons?

JW: There is always a dragon eventually.