Gritty Is Good?

You only need to have heard of works like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Grim Company or Prince of Thorns to know that the current trend in fantasy is to practically brutalise your heroes before letting them win (or die). Perhaps influenced by Hollywood and the trend in society towards ‘gritty’ heroes and tales, the fantasy genre has more than followed this trend; it has shaped it.

If you had asked anyone if they had heard of Game of Thrones before the TV series made such a huge splash, they’d probably have just stared at you blankly. Nowadays, the series is everywhere and its followers encompass fantasy fans and ‘average joes’ alike. It seems people really love the brutal ‘fantasy realism’ (is that even a thing?) of the show and just can’t get enough bloodshed, betrayal and incest. Other TV shows hold a similar appeal (I’m looking at you, Breaking Bad).

Gritty, dark, grimdark, grim and err… horrible?

Fantasy likes to invent different names for things that are practically the same (in fact, all genres do). It seems that every day more and more authors are being included in the mentions when discussion about ‘grimdark’ takes place. Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan are two of the first to have been grouped under this banner. But just the other day I saw Scott Lynch referred to as ‘grimdark’. Hmm, I’m not so sure.

467913-bigthumbnail

Genres and sub-genres change all the time and gritty fantasy is no exception. For his time, Tolkien’s writing was just as gritty and complex as perhaps George R. R. Martin’s is now. Perspectives change over time and, the truth is, putting your characters through hell is an essential part of many stories, not just the ‘gritty’ ones.

Our heroes now are almost anti-hero in nature. We’re meant to root for the thief, the assassin and the mercenary. Where are our knights of justice, our superheroes? Well…

The ‘Dark Knight’ Problem

When Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot, Batman Begins, stormed onto the silver screen back in 2005, all the talk was on how superhero movies had been made relevant once again. But let’s not forget we had Spider-Man back in 2002; also successful, also with elements of darkness. For me, at least, it feels like Chris Nolan kicked off this ‘new’ idea of gritty, grounded superheroes and cemented it into the public’s subconscious. Now it’s led us down the road where Superman no longer has red briefs, Batman can fight no villain with supernatural abilities and Captain America’s mask must take on the design of a helmet, just so it’s all believable.

But they’re god-damn superheroes! Do they need to be believable?

Yes and no. Yes, the audience needs to be able to relate to them. No, every detail doesn’t need to be scientifically consistent. We don’t really care how Batman’s grapple-gun actually works, or how he has a powerful enough sonar in his suit to summon clouds of bats, so long as it looks cool and is at least consistent within the fictional world.

So… Fantasy?

OK, so we’ve established what gritty/grimdark is, but how does it fit into the world we’re concerned with: the world of fantasy fiction? Well, it turns out the fantasy genre is in the grip of the concept of ‘gritty’ right now. Namely, a drive for realism (and the occasional penchant for visceral gore). This trend has been intensifying for a long time now and I personally believe we’re reaching critical mass. Joe Abercrombie’s work was pretty violent and dour, giving you a sense of hopelessness as you read it. Following on from that was Mark Lawrence with Prince of Thorns and then the latest entry in the ‘grimdark’ arena is Luke Scull. With each new work, things get darker, more gory and far more grim. It’s only a matter of time before readers decide they want something fresh, something upbeat.

fist-of-the-first-men-battle-game-of-thrones-01-1062x580

I think a great way to wrap this article up is with a list of recommended reads, of what I consider to be some of the best gritty fantasy out there. What you need to understand is that I am a huge Abercrombie fan and I do enjoy the odd gritty tale or two. Lately, I’ve been exploring other works that you wouldn’t really classify as ‘gritty’, because I’m growing tired of the similar style and atmosphere in my fiction. I want to see a return to the great epics of old, but with a decidedly modern twist. It’s something I hope to at least try with my own writing.

The ‘Gritty Is Good?’ Reading List

  1. The First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie)
  2. The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch)
  3. Prince of Thorns (Mark Lawrence)
  4. Waylander (David Gemmell)
  5. A Song of Ice and Fire (George R. R. Martin)
  6. The Black Company (Glenn Cook)
  7. Malazan Book of the Fallen (Steven Erikson)
  8. Acts of Caine (Matthew Stover)
  9. The Darkness That Comes Before (R. Scott Bakker)
  10. The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher)

Honourable Mention: The Engineer Trilogy (K. J. Parker)Can this be characterised as gritty? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but be sure to check this one out. K. J. Parker is somewhat under-appreciated and deserves a lot more attention.


Advertisements

The Bestiary #1: Orcs

Welcome to a brand new series imaginatively entitled ‘The Bestiary’. In said series, we’re going to be looking at fantasy races and creatures and documenting them as if we’re some sort of fantasy David Attenborough. Why are halflings so short? Do dragons ever get burnt tongues? How many ogres does it take to change a light bulb? I’ll offer you my theories and thoughts alongside a great big slice of hard scientific evidence and fact.

Ok, maybe not scientific fact. More like fantatific fact. Or is that just facts about orange-flavour fizzy drinks? Hmm…

* * *

Orc_War_by_grenias

Ukrug gar bethk u skog!

That means ‘Good day, my fine fellow. How is the weather?’ in Orcish. Or does it? In fact, I just made that up. Here’s a ‘proper’ orc phrase from Mr. Tolkien:

Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai!

Which (roughly) means: ‘Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!’

Aren’t orcs just a bunch of lovely individuals?

No? OK, fair enough. But they are a race with a long and varied history, complete with their own language and intricate tribal customs. That depends on what particular type of orc you’re talking about, of course. If we’re talking Warcraft, then you’ll find orc shamans, orc cities and even orc diplomacy. If you’re talking Warhammer, then you’ll be lucky if you can get so much as a ‘WAAAGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!’ out of your average orc as it picks its nose and eats mud soup from a human skull.

Orcs are curious creatures, then. Humanoid, but not human. Sometimes they’re depicted as an ancestor or offshoot of the human race; other times they’re sentient globs of green space phlegm and others they are corrupt versions of elves. This makes determining just what the heck they are supposed to be a little tricky. Personally, I always consider them a distant ancestor of humankind, kind of like Neanderthals or something. Just don’t ask me to explain the green skin and tusks (maybe they cross-bred with diseased mammoths at some point, who knows?).

Orc Warrior

Now, again, depending on which universe you’re talking about, orcs use a variety of different weapons and ride a variety of different creatures into battle. Tolkien probably did it best by showing us the relationship between the wargs and orcs of Middle-earth and then it was only another short leap of imagination for us to believe that the orcs then rode those same wargs as humans rode horses. In other works of fiction, orcs ride all manner of beasts, from gigantic wolves and wild boars to plain old horses and sometimes even more exotic creatures.

Just check out a game series like the Elder Scrolls (or any traditional fantasy RPG) and you’re sure to find an orc blacksmith or two. Orcs love fighting and they love weapons, so why do orc-crafted weapons always look so damn crude and ugly? If they just took a little more time and effort… well, you get the idea.

Hmm, hold on one second…

  1. Enjoys fighting
  2. Loves pointy/bashy weaponry
  3. Often unintelligible

Remind you of anyone else? Yep, you guessed it… dwarves.

And that segues nicely into our introduction for the next instalment of ‘The Bestiary’!

The mountain slopes are alive with the sound of feasting, of drinking… and of war! Secreted safely away in their subterranean strongholds, the dwarves have many foes but fear none. They may be short, but they’re ferocious fighters. And whatever you do don’t tug a dwarf’s beard! And never, under any circumstances, stroll into town and proclaim: ‘Yo! Where the women at?’

Some things are better left uncovered.

Got anything to say about orcs? How about an interesting fact? Oh, do share!

Getting the Best From Your Characters

If you write fantasy fiction (or at least read it) you’ll be familiar with the trend of having multiple viewpoint characters. It’s become such a part of fantasy, that we almost come to expect it when we pick up a new book. As writers, this can be a blessing… but it can also be a curse. You see, every time you add a viewpoint to your novel, you divide the reader’s emotions, thereby making your job 2/3/4x harder. That’s the theory at least.

Want to know what I think? I think a writer’s job is only as difficult as he chooses to make it. If you start off planning your novel and throwing in characters left, right and centre then you’re going to have a hard time. Characters should be carefully considered before even making it into your plan, let alone your actual first draft. If you add a character whenever you feel like it, you’ll soon end up swamped and having to contend with dozens of potential plot threads.

Think of it like this: every character equals a new story to tell. Every character equals a chance that you’ll lose your readers. But if you think of those two sentences together, you’ll soon start to see how you create an effective character. It’s all about the story.

Take a look at your characters. Now ask yourself some questions. What is that character’s story? What do they have to do with the main plot? What will they/do they actually do in your book? Too many times I have created characters who just seem to be there for the sake of it; characters who don’t have their own story but instead piggyback on the main character’s.

Here’s an example for you…

Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He loves the Maid Marian but has to contend with the evil Sheriff of Nottingham for her affections.

Now, what if we also had Little John as a viewpoint character?

Little John is Robin’s friend and greatest ally. As Robin and his Merry Men plot to defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham once and for all, Little John must ready the men for battle.

Meh. Kinda boring, isn’t it? I mean, what are we going to get from Little John that we don’t get from Robin Hood? Maybe a few scenes focusing on the battle tactics and training of the Merry Men, but that’s it. So what if we gave the character some depth. What if we gave him his own story?

Little John has been with Robin Hood since the beginning. But as he readies the Merry Men for a daring raid on Nottingham to end the Sheriffs reign of terror, something preys on John’s mind. A son he had thought dead almost a decade ago has been sighted in Nottingham under the care of a corrupt friar named Tuck. If John is to reunite with his son and win his affections, he will need to convince Tuck to side with Robin’s men in their righteous struggle.

Ok, it’s not great, but you get the idea. Give each of your characters a purpose and a perspective all of their own. In reality, our lives don’t all revolve around, say, President Obama, the Queen or the astronauts up in the ISS just because they’re deemed important. We all have our own stuff going on. Make sure your characters do too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How do you develop your characters? Got any tips to share?

It’s not a race… It’s a marathon

Something I learned just recently, which has changed my approach to writing for the better, was the idea that writing a piece of fiction is not a race. For years, I was competing to write my novel as quickly as possible in order to get it out the door and sell. But it doesn’t work quite like that (at least, not for us amateurs). No… writing is a marathon, you see. It isn’t so much a question of when you finish, but a game of seeing if you even can finish.

When you’re rushing your writing, you rarely have a chance to pause and actually enjoy what you’re doing. Characters don’t develop in your head, so much as splat onto the page in a bloody mess of literary abandon. Plot lines become knotted abominations, settings broken and/or bland and your own mood takes on a dark, savage quality. In short, you are no longer writer and story; you are now raving madman and word-scramble.

The greatest thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to take time over what you are doing. The time you might think you’ll be saving yourself writing the first draft will come for payback, doubling, trebling even, when you come to re-drafting, IF you rush! Who cares how many words you wrote today, or yesterday, or last week? Is your story moving along? Are your characters developing? If so, what have you got to worry about?

As an old friend of mine said recently, everyone has time to write at least 100 words every day. Whether you bash them out on your phone while waiting for a train, or on a scrap of paper during a boring meeting, or even on a napkin (a NAPKIN, dammit!) while you’re knocking back your morning Starbucks… *pause for breath*… it doesn’t really matter.

Oh, and if you think you need to get your story written and out in the world ASAP because you might get hit by a bus next week, I have these pearls of wisdom for you:

  1. There’s more of a chance agents/publishers will reject you if you’ve rushed your manuscript.
  2. Your manuscript probably isn’t that good anyway (no offence, but let’s be honest with ourselves).
  3. What do you care if people read your story or not once you’re dead? Just relax and have fun haunting that guy at work you don’t like!

In all seriousness, though, just enjoy your writing. When you’re having fun, your best work will come through.

“King Rat” & a New Short

Today, I want to briefly talk about what I’m currently reading and also bring your attention to a new piece of flash fiction I’ve just made available here on the blog.

King Rat by China Miéville

I’ve never read China Miéville before. As a fantasy fan, I guess that should make me feel ignorant/shameful/unworthy (delete as appropriate). But you know what? It doesn’t. See, I like my fantasy quite traditional. As much as I love Mr. Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie, and his brilliant novels, I still need my fix of magic, quests, dragons and bearded men yelling: ‘By the beards of my forefathers, I shall have my revenge!’

Don’t get me wrong, though, I do read “normal” fiction too. Dan Brown is a guilty pleasure, I make sure to occasionally read sci-fi and I’ve dipped into William Boyd, Ian Fleming and Iain Banks. But China Miéville was an oddity. A fantasy author who doesn’t write about elves, wizards or dragons and almost manages to cross over into what you might call “literary” fiction. As a writer, I always try to broaden my horizons when it comes to reading. The more varied reading experiences I have, the more I’ll learn how to shape my own style and grow my “writing toolset”. Anyway, enough fluff, on with the post!

So, King Rat, what’s it about?

When Saul Garamond’s father is murdered in mysterious circumstances, Saul is left as the only suspect. Arrested and placed in a cell, he is rescued by a strange man called King Rat who needs his help to defeat an old enemy known as the Ratcatcher. King Rat introduces Saul to the real London, a grimy world where every rubbish bin contains a nourishing meal and where rats squabble over scraps of territory in the sewers. And then he reveals the truth about who Saul really is…

I’m about a quarter of the way through with this book and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s quite surreal, while at the same time feeling really familiar and grounded, which is a difficult thing to convey I think. The characters are all well-crafted, particularly King Rat himself. I’m not so keen on the characters/storyline of Saul’s friends, Natasha and Fabian, but I’m hoping something happens soon to draw me in (I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about Jungle music and Natasha’s vehement love of it for several pages). I need to be patient and give the characters their chance to shine, so I’ll reserve judgement on that for now.

I love the overall tone of the book and the atmosphere that the author has created around the character of King Rat, as well as his penchant for cockney-rhyming slang. I’m still a little puzzled as to how King Rat is a rat, but in human form, so I’ll read on to discover more. I may check out the New Crobuzon series at some point, as I can only begin to imagine what Mr. Miéville could do with a secondary-world fantasy.

Three Brothers: An Unfortunate Tale

And lastly, I’ve just added the titular flash fiction to the Shorts section for your reading pleasure! This was a piece I wrote a long time ago and self-published on Kindle as a bit of an experiment. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the Kindle platform, but now I want to share this story with you all. Basically, it’s a fantasy take on the tale of the Three Little Pigs and should hopefully have you chuckling and on the edge of your seat simultaneously…

Just hit the link below to check it out!

Take me to the story!

Back With a Vengeance!

You may have noticed the brand new blog design that’s just gone up. If not, don’t worry, I forgive you.

The exciting news, of course, is that Fantasy In Motion is back in business. With my novel-writing going well and really coming to life, I thought I should really get back to blogging. I’ve learned a lot about writing, about people and about the fantasy genre, so I have plenty to share.

As always, you can also find me on Twitter and Facebook.

This month, I’m planning to write and enter two pieces of flash fiction into contests at SFFWorld and Fantasy Faction. Fingers crossed!

The Words Are Flowing

Finally, I have started to feel like my writing is flowing for the first time in a long while. I wrote 1000 words yesterday and again today. I hope to make it a daily target. I think the secret was writing what I really wanted to write and planning properly.

More on this in detail tomorrow.

Writing 1K a Day

If you’ve ever had a go at writing fiction, short story, flash fic, full-blown novel or otherwise, you’ll know how difficult it can be to maintain a good pace. By that, I mean it’s not only hard to write something every day, but also to write enough every time you put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard. I know I struggle with both and for the last six months (at least) I haven’t really been that serious about my writing. Various events are to account for this (birth of my son, getting married, getting a new job) and, when I realised that, I gave myself some slack.

But now I am back in the saddle and ready to write. And not just write, but write and FINISH a novel. I know, right? Who would have thought I hadn’t ever achieved that in twelve-ish years of writing. Continue reading

Author Interview: Luke Scull

Luke Scull is a British designer of computer RPGs and writer of gritty fantasy. His debut novel, The Grim Company, was released last month and is set to become an exciting new fantasy series with enough teeth to take on the big players in the genre. We were lucky enough to put some questions to Mr. Scull – here’s what transpired…

Luke_Scull780

Luke, thanks for joining us today.

Your debut novel and first in a trilogy, The Grim Company, is available early 2013 from Head of Zeus. Could you introduce us to your world and the series overall?

The world of The Grim Company is that of the traditional fantasy setting fallen to a state of ruin and decay. The gods are long dead and immortal tyrants have divided the land between them. Continue reading

Spirit Thorn at BestThinking.com

For those of you who remember our interview with Mr. Zacharias O’Bryan, you’ll be pleased to hear his book Spirit Thorn was recently picked up by Best Thinking (Thinker Books). I encourage any fantasy fans to go check out the brilliant eBook. Here’s a short blurb:

Do parallel worlds exist? Searching for proof, Professors Rodger & Cassie Swift vanish. Kestrelle, a spirit-like girl claiming to know their fate, tells their son Braden he must brave a whitewater tooth-sprouting river into a land where wise vultures predict the future and blue minds inhabit lava caves. Only two powers can help: Kestrelle’s Blood Thorn and Braden’s vine-painted guitar.

Zacharias O’Bryan’s novel Spirit Thorn: A Tale of Parallel Worlds unifies spiritual ethics with both ecological mandates and the mind-bending cosmology of cutting-edge physics. Written as a science-fiction/fantasy adventure, Spirit Thorn captures seekers of all ages, from precocious ten-year-olds to questing adults.

Get Spirit Thorn today at BestThinking.com!

Author Interview: Igor Ljubuncic

Igor Ljubuncic is a physicist and a self-confessed Linux geek, amongst other things, but his real passion is writing. He is the author of The Betrayed, the first in the Lost Words fantasy series. Here’s a short taster to whet your appetite:

A war is brewing in the Realms. When the new religious sect of Feor from Caytor invades the Safe Territories, the home of the old gods, Commander Mali of Eracia scrambles to counter its advance. To that end, Adam, an Eracian prostitute who awaits hanging, is spared to join the army. In the Territories, a former criminal Ayrton and his young protégée Ewan face the threat of the invaders. Can the ruthless followers of Feor be stopped, and the old faith be saved?

* * *

Hi Igor, thanks for joining us.

Hi James, it’s an honor to be invited.

What first inspired you to start writing?

Uh-oh, a difficult question. I started writing at a very young age, probably seven or eight, although my first book, so to speak, did not come to life until three years later. It was a silly childhood thing, a ninja-flavored world adventure. I guess the early insipiration for that came from a weird combination of ninja comic books and the mystery revolving around them, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. Go figure. That was more than two decades ago. What hooked me into fantasy was The Hobbit. I read it when I was twelve or so, and the world changed. Bit by bit, I spared more time reading fantasy and science-fiction, as well as writing. Eventually, I wrote my first proper fantasy book over the span of three years in my early twenties. It’s a waiting-to-be-published monstrosity with some 700 A4-format pages.

What inspires you now to carry on writing?

I think it’s a deep, internal need. I do sometimes get inspired by events and people around me, but the real motivator comes from somewhere inside. I cannot imagine life without writing.

If you had to pick three, what would be your favourite books?

We’re talking about books that stirred me emotionally in a special way, not necessarily the most read or the most entertaining and engaging. Well, The Hobbit definitely. It’s a must for any fantasy author, any child. It does not have the modern flair you see around, nor the gritty realism or the complexity of some of the masterpieces we enjoy today, but what it has is charm and magic that remain unsurpassed today. In the second place, Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett. Again, it comes with that genius mix of nostalgia, purpose and intimacy you rarely see elsewhere. Something about that book triggers thoughts on a different level. The third would be Catch-22. It’s such a profound lesson in humanity.

How do you go personally about planning once you have a story idea?

Ideas usually come suddenly, sometimes when I dream. But once formalized, I am extremely meticulous about planning the rest of it. I create the story arch first, then think of the several sub-plots that should form it. Then, I expand on the characters. Sometimes though, some pieces remain unknown until after I have written them. The fact I surprise myself probably lends to the unpredictability of the story.

Has writer’s block ever been an issue for you?

Yes and no. I have been activitely writing for the past ten years without pausing really. My work falls into two categories – fantasy books and stories on one hand, and mostly software-related for my website, on the other. While sometimes I take a pause from the books, I continuously keep baking articles for the site, so the block is genre-specific. Usually, in winter, I am less inspired to write fantasy.

What do you think about maps in fantasy fiction? Are they a help or a hindrance to the reader and author?

I think the maps are a must for the author. For readers, less so. As a reader, I tend to not pay too much attention to maps, and sketch the world setting in my head. All that said, I think maps should be simple and generic, and too many books feature super-highly-detailed illustrations that do not belong in the medieval-era worlds.

Do you feel that the eBook revolution has helped fantasy authors or not?

I am not sure, really. I think the accessibility of reading material through a Web browser and reading devices definitely makes it much easier to distribute, sell and read content. However, I do not know if there’s a clear correlation between technology and success. I believe a good book will reach its audience, regardless of the medium. eBooks probably make the chance of that happening somewhat faster.

Could you tell us about your writing and where people can find your stories?

I have recently published The Betrayed, the first book in my epic fantasy series The Lost Words. There’s a website dedicated to that work, http://www.thelostwordsbooks.com. I also keep a sizable collection of short fantasy-genre stories on my other website, http://www.dedoimedo.com, in the so-called Life section. For those interested, I have a whole bunch of technical articles and books, too, but they are rather boring for most people.

Thank you very much for your time.

Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.

NaNoWriMo 2012 Approaches!

As you may know, National Novel Writing Month 2012 is fast approaching. If you don’t know what this momentous occasion is all about, I’ll tell you. It’s about writing a novel in a month.

There. Easy, right? Well, maybe.

Any other time of year, it would certainly be a seemingly impossible task. But during the month of November, during NaNoWriMo, the ball is in your court. There are a few reasons why it’s so much easier to write during this event and here they are:

  1. There are loads of other people around the world writing away, just like you.
  2. Everyone’s progress and goals are tracked and put into a leaderboard.
  3. You get regular pep talks from the organisers and also support from your fellow writers.
  4. If you reach your goal, you have a full novel written by the end of the month! What could be a better reward?

So, the reason I’m telling you all this is because during November we here at Fantasy In Motion are going to go NaNoWriMo crazy! That’s excited-crazy, not crazy-crazy.

Among other things we’ll have:

  • A weekly catchup where you can all come to the blog and share your progress and see my own.
  • Regular advice and handy tips from myself and published authors.
  • Maybe a guest post or two.

If that all sounds like fun to you, make sure you pay us a visit during the next few weeks and during November and we’ll help one another get into NaNoWriMo mode!

Leave a Comment
Twitter: @JWShortland
Facebook: Fantasy In Motion
Google+: Fantasy In Motion
Reddit: Cirias

The Top 10 List of Fantasy Cities & Settlements

This is my personal list of favourite fantasy cities, towns, castles and villages. Join in and leave a comment below!

  1. Marienburg (Warhammer)
  2. Helm’s Deep (LOTR)
  3. The Imperial City (Elder Scrolls)
  4. Adua (The First Law)
  5. Stormwind City (Warcraft)
  6. Ankh-Morpork (Discworld)
  7. Avalon (King Arthur)
  8. Altdorf (Warhammer)
  9. Midgar (Final Fantasy VII)
  10. Minas Tirith (LOTR)

That was not an easy list. I know I’ve missed out some awesome cities. Let me know which ones!