The DNF Pile: When Sirens Fail to Lure You to Adventure

Well, we’re only 2 months into the new decade and I’ve already abandoned 3 books from my “to-be-read shelves”. I don’t know about you, but I always kept my Did-Not-Finish piles in the “one day I’ll read this” fantasy dream. But, now that I have a tiny human to take care of alongside the daily realities of work and independent research (i.e with little to no leisure time), I feel the world’s too short to have a to pile of books looming over me, judging and shaming my failure as a reader.

Interestingly, I actually LOVED one of the books that I gave up on. So, being an academic and critic, I couldn’t simply accept the idea that I didn’t like something. I had to dwell deeper. Into the why. and the what. and the how.

The first book, Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World (2004), has a typical Call to Adventure (Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces) that seems to promise some blood and mayhem at least. Unfortunately, I didn’t even make it that far. The main character is introduced as “Smith,” an anonymous, generic name that matches the make-up of the character. That is, he doesn’t seem to have a character. In the early pages, he serves as a vehicle to carry the story, and reacts to rather than drives the narrative. His personality, former profession, associates, etc, is all tied up in this anonymity so that we know nothing about him. Now for some, this question might be enough to spur them to continue reading (See my discussion of Jess Smith’s Bone for a quick crasher on how micro and macro questions makes for a page turner). However, the summary on the book jacket threw in another complication: the story is described as the tale of Smith, and “the large extended family of Smith”; but it becomes clear very early on that these characters are not related in anyway, and that “Smith” is just a generic title that they have adopted in order to hide in anonymity. It’s unclear whether the copy on the book jacket was just sloppy editing or whether it was deliberately written to hide a double-meaning in the words; either way, the muddled synopsis left a bad taste in my mouth.

Character and narrative voice are key in inviting a reader to continue on with the story. You can have an exciting action-packed opening scene, but if you don’t connect with the voice from the start, then reading becomes a chore. K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter (2017) is another novel I added to my DNF stack due to my lack of engagement with the character/narrator’s voice. The story is conveyed as an embedded frame narrative through a series of letters between the two main characters. As a result, the main narrative is told in second person throughout. Second person voice is a hard sell. It CAN be done effectively (i.e. see N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, 2015-2017; for fear of spoilers, I won’t go into details of why the second person viewpoint served a dramatic purpose in all three novels, but let me just say that utilizing the second person voice to serve a purpose was sheer brilliance on Jemisin’s part). Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case for Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter. The story (at least in the first few chapters that I read) is simply told as character 1 relaying the events of their past to character 2 in a “remember when we did x? I’m going to tell you the story of it anyway in this long letter because I love the story so much.” This style of writing seems forced, as if the author wanted to use the letter-style of writing but couldn’t figure out a way to justify its use. Consequently, the letter-writing simply serves as a vehicle to tell the story, instead of using it as a medium to further explore nuances of theme and voice. It would have made more sense if the letter-writer had revealed some unknown fact or perspective that the letter-reader was previously unaware of; or it would have been more interesting if the letter-reader had reacted to the perspective of the letter-writer in some way, perhaps with their own interpretation of events, or an emotion of guilt, or nostalgia, or something. But this didn’t appear to be the case, and I sadly added it to my DNF pile. It was a shame, because I had such hopes for the story (the narrative concerns the romantic relationship between two strong, competent women, both daughters of equally strong, competent women). But as I kept waiting for the “main story” to start, and only realized (after a quick Goodreads search) that the letters was the main narrative, I couldn’t bring myself to continue.

On the surface, The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (2018) bear some relation to The Anvil of the World and The Tiger’s Daughter. Like The Anvil of the World, The Tangled Lands is novella collection. But, like both Baker’s and Aresnault Rivera’s narratives, this structure is not made clear on the book jacket synopsis. (In fact, The Anvil of the World is advertised as Baker’s first Fantasy novel, which is clearly incorrect.) Now, while I have nothing against novella collections, I would like to be made aware of the structure before I’m a quarter of the way into the book. Knowing the structure and medium of a text is important. It allows the reader to anticipate the peaks and valleys. Hit a peak or valley too soon or too late, and it puts the reader on the wrong footing. What do I mean by this? As I was unaware that the book was a novella collection, as I started reading the first “part,” I immediately felt that the pacing was too fast. It was building too quickly towards a climax, with the stakes being high very early on. Had I been aware that the narrative was a short-story, I would have approached it differently. I would have been prepared for the sprint, rather than settling in for a long, slow journey.

But more frustrating is that I became too emotionally invested in the characters. I had geared myself up to join them on an epic adventure, and befriended them early as a result. I worried for them and feared for them, in a way that I didn’t with my first two DNFs. Bacigalupi (who writes the first story in the collection) does an incredible job of creating characters with depths and high stakes with just a few brush strokes. The main character is presented to us with a history, one who has fallen and suffered great lost. It’s easy to feel worry for him and his young daughter as they dabble in things that are too dangerous for a simple craftsman. And so it was that when I got to the end of the first short story, I felt disappointment, as if I’ve been cheated. I wanted to know what happened to them, and wanted to continue joining my new friends on their dangerous adventure. Unlike the first two books, where I wasn’t invested enough in the characters to continue reading their stories, here I felt like I had lost new friends that I had only begun to discover. And so I may yet return to The Tangled Lands to read again. But only after my grief has time to mellow and heal.

The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-2019). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.

The Problem of Placing the “Original” Draft onto a Pedestal

Every once in awhile I see a tweet or post pop up on my dashboard about how J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected by nearly every major publisher. The message of the post always seems aimed at the foolishness of the industry, and how they missed out on publishing a successful author. To a struggling author, this message might give them hope, a “don’t stop trying” attitude. But, as an editor and author (albeit in the academic world), I can’t help but wonder whether her published work (or proposal letter) bears any relation to her original submission. In a society that values hard work, we also seem keen to hide the number of edits and revisions any art must go through before it reaches publication potential – or before it can even be deemed to be worthy of consideration.

In recent days, I’ve seen discussion of the Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker‘s so-called “original script” floating around on the internet. If this gives people some sense of reassurance that the studio hasn’t killed their childhood, then so be it. (I’ve already discussed in my last 3 posts why I think the movie was awesome, so I won’t get into it here.) But the point I want to draw attention to is the idea that the “original” script is authentic. For people who are extremely unhappy with the final product, they can hold on to this notion of the original script because it’s supposedly what the writers or director “really” wanted. This idea seems to leave out all the hard work of editing, and that, in fact, the final product is what the artist had aimed for all along. True, the artist might not be happy with the result themselves, but the first draft is like a hunk of unrefined clay, waiting to be moulded into something better.

The editing process is long and arduous, and anyone that dismisses it as an afterthought seems to lack a basic understanding of how publication and production works. This last December, 8 years after I formed the initial concept I finally published my article on the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle that I had sitting in my draft folder. In that time I obtained an MA, a PhD, got married, and had a kid. Nearly every year I sat down to re-draft the article all over again, completely revising the focus and perimeters of the paper. I can’t count the number of different forms its gone through – or the number of times it’s been peer reviewed. (In complete honesty, I used one of the earlier drafts to interview potential editors for Fantastika Journal. So if you’ve interviewed with me for the journal, yup, that was my rough work.)

The major problem with this draft (in my opinion anyway) was that there was two disjointed halves, a part A and a part B. This two part structure developed as a result of trying to expand a conference piece into a publishable item. While very few people picked up on the two disparate structure, many of the reviewers pinpointed that the article didn’t follow the argument I had proposed in my introduction.

I use this example, because it’s one that I see over and over again as a journal editor: conference papers that have been redrafted for article submission rarely fit the argument outlined in the introduction (or indeed, in the conference abstract), as, through the course of writing and research, the central argument will shift from the initial proposal. And really, if your article doesn’t change in the slightest after you’ve done all of your reading and research, then I’d question your research process. If you didn’t learn and adjust your ideas in the course of research, then I’m not sure what you might’ve gained from your reading.

To return to Rowling, based on the original synopsis, as an editor I would’ve rejected the work too! I’m not sure if the synopsis was a part of her elevator pitch (the “would you be interested in this sort of work” email), or part of a book proposal which was invited by a publisher who accepted the elevator pitch. But in any case, the first two paragraphs of the synopsis reads:

Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin because his parents died in a car-crash — or so he has been told. The Dursleys don’t like Harry asking questions; in fact, they don’t seem to like anything about him, especially the very odd things that keep happening around him (which Harry himself can’t explain).

The Dursleys’ greatest fear is that Harry will discover the truth about himself, so when letters start arriving for him near his eleventh birthday, he isn’t allowed to read them. However, the Dursleys aren’t dealing with an ordinary postman, and at midnight on Harry’s birthday the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid breaks down the door to make sure Harry gets to read his post at last. Ignoring the horrified Dursleys, Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard, and the letter he gives Harry explains that he is expected at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in a month’s time.

It takes two paragraphs to get to the fact that Harry is a wizard; an idea that is absolutely crucial to the plot of the first novel and the series itself. Yes, while Harry being a wizard isn’t revealed to Harry in the first part of the book, the audience knows it from the start, and once Harry discovers his identity, the rest of the plot doesn’t focus too much on this identity crisis. But, from the way this synopsis reads, it would appear that the book focuses on this hidden identity. His identity as wizard is discussed in a mysterious way (“odd things”; “truth about himself”). The reveal itself is delivered in a bland, boring way, “Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard.” And, to be honest, the whole language reads, kinda… dull. You can read the full synopsis here and judge for yourself. In fairness to Rowling, the synopsis is much longer than the brief introduction I’ve presented here, and she does go into the actual plot in more detail as she continues. BUT, publishers receives thousands of book proposals. You NEED to be able to sell them on the idea in the first few sentences. If you can’t entice the publisher to read past the first statement, then it’s a clear demonstration that you’re abilities as a writer aren’t at publishing quality. And, ask yourself honestly, if you had picked up this synopsis (on the back of a book at a bookstore etc), would you be enticed to read the whole story?

So go thank your editor today. Or, if you’re a reader and not a writer, give a big shout-out to the editors of your favourite books. They put a lot of hard work in helping the author finesse their writing and ideas into the amazing product you hold as gospel today.

Unedited Chaos (and a Tangent on The *Best* Pokemon)

Ah, the first blog post. It is infinitely worse than the “blank” page (that moment of writer’s block when you can’t seem to get started). Why is it worse? Because it’s public; unedited (or only mildly so); with no opportunity to muse and stew over each word choice. Any awkward sentences or bad ideas laid bare for everyone to witness your shame.

(Wow, so, we’re like a minute in and this has already spiraled into darkness. There’s is an uplifting turn, I swear. But first the promised tangent.)

My brother recently came back from a holiday in Japan and he brought his nephew – my 6-month-old son – two stuffed Pokemon dolls: Pikachu and Eevee.

“Eevee’s the best one of them all,” I confided to my husband (he doesn’t “get” Pokemon, so he didn’t argue this bold statement).

Eevee IS the best Pokemon IMHO because it can become so many different things! The base form has so much unlocked potential, and more and more iterations keep getting added as the franchise continues. Eevee has the possibility of becoming so many aspects of itself, all depending on a single choice made.

… Writing is like that. While the nature of blog-style of writing is unfiltered, sometimes this raw clay is more exciting than the pristine finished product. It’s full of possibilities; different directions to take; a potential for mistakes to become beautiful discoveries; or for different iterations to reveal something new.

There’s an underlying theme in my first book (The Shape of Fantasy, out this week!): an element of chaos theory that permeates the text. I’m not sure at what point I discovered chaos or starting identifying as a chaos theorist. Chaos theory is the idea that there is a recognizable pattern, or a repetition, but this pattern is unpredictable. This is an idea I discuss throughout my book, but what I neglected to state baldly is the idea that the reason the pattern is unpredictable is because, in the real-world, there are too many variable at play. Sure, the principle of science is that an experiment must be replicable; but these experiments are done in lab conditions, an area where every part of the environment can be controlled: temperature, pressure, humidity, etc. If a single factor is uncontrolled, it can impact the entire experiment. Which is why weather is so often used as an example of a chaotic system – because trying to create an experiment to measure weather in lab conditions is nearly impossible. And yet, scientists can still discern some pattern in weather conditions (enough to make a prediction of whether or not it’ll rain tomorrow).

It’s this principle of chaos that I apply throughout my book – and in life in general. Life is chaos. There may be patterns, a repetitive journey people follow (birth, school, work, death.) But there are so many different patterns to this “formula.” Similarly, Epic Fantasy has very well defined patterns (it is this structure that I explore throughout the book). But a great storyteller will manipulate and play with these patterns, mixing the variables to offer something new.

Writing any piece of work has that potential of chaos in it. The number of drafts you go through are all iterations of the same product. In the coming weeks, I will reflect on my own thought and writing processes for The Shape of Fantasy; directions I wish I could’ve taken it. I’ll refrain from reflecting on the smaller editing choices and focus on the big pictures. But it’s important to note that, when writing, minute changes can result in drastically different effects. For example, the simple act of italicisation – of emphasing one single word over the other – can change the meaning and tone. Likewise, every word, sentence structure, paragraph break can change the meaning and tone further. In this regard, every single choice can be important.

No wonder so many people fear the blank page.

But the blank page is not meant for perfection. It’s meant to be moulded, kneaded at, played with for a second, third, tenth draft. So I am here to assure you that there is nothing to fear about the blank page.

It’s the published page you should be agonizing over.