Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Better Name for Ug the Barbarian?

It used to be so simple.  Your fantasy hero was Ug the Barbarian; or, if he needed anything more elaborate, he could announce himself as Ug son of Og, or Ug of Barbariania.  The stunningly beautiful queen who first tried to trick him, then succumbed to his manly charms, could be called anything that sounded suitably sultry and slinky, as long as it finished with an a.  The captain of her guard, who was secretly plotting against them both, and the evil priest seeking to bring back a blasphemous god, probably both had some random Latin name.  Nome of them would have been seen dead with anything so un-chic as a surname.

Well, there have been historical cultures where that would have worked well enough, but they were usually cultures where only very local administration was needed.  Once records need to be kept to account for tens or hundreds of thousands of people, it wasn’t so simple.  Can you imagine how many peasants there were in mediaeval England called “John, son of William”?  It wouldn’t even have solved the problem to call him “John, son of William, of Nether Wallop”, since there were probably a fair few of them in Nether Wallop alone.

There’s a widespread but incorrect belief that no-one except the aristocracy had surnames in the middle ages.  In England, at least, the use of surnames began to filter down through the classes surprisingly early.  Thomas Becket (the à was a later affectation) was the son of a merchant, born in 1118.  In 1109, the abbot of Cîteaux was an Englishman called Stephen Harding – he must have been born not too long after the Norman Conquest.  By the 14th century, certainly, surnames were the rule rather than the exception at all levels of society.

The reason for this explosion of surnames was the English obsession with keeping records.  It’s been estimated that, in the year 1000, the English crown maintained more royal scribes than the rest of western Europe put together, and from around the 12th century onward there were manorial and court records kept that needed to identify people more specifically.  “John – you know, the one with the pimple on his nose” just wouldn’t do.

The custom of having family names has grown up independently all over the world.  China has had them for longer than most and puts the surname first.  I’ve heard it said, though I haven’t made enough of a study to know if it’s true, that cultures which value individuality more tend to put the surname last, whereas those that value family tradition put it first.  Then again, there are cultures that don’t have a fixed position for the surname.  I once knew someone (an Ismaili Muslem from India via East Africa) whose surname was the third of three names, whereas his sister had the same surname as the third of four.

The Roman patricians had three names: a personal name, a family name and a clan name, but were commonly referred to by one or two of them.  The variety in this can be illustrated by the three most important people on the Capitol on the Ides of March, 44 BC: Gaius Julius Caesar (known by his 2nd and 3rd names), Marcus Junius Brutus (1st and 3rd) and Caius Cassius Longinus (1st and 2nd).  And the emperors took naming to excess – as they took everything else.  The Emperor Claudius, for instance, was Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus.

Other oddities of naming having been used in different cultures.  Russian custom (pre-revolution, at least) was to have a personal name, a patronymic (son of...) and a surname, and who used which was closely dictated by etiquette.  If Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov (Lenin’s real name) had been moving in polite society, he’d have been addressed officially as Mr Ulyanov (or whatever title was appropriate); his social acquaintances would have addressed him as Vladimir Illyich; and only his close friends and family would have called him just Vladimir (or, more likely, a diminutive form).

Naming conventions in fantasy worlds can be as bizarre and inventive as the author wants them to be.  I’ve used several, besides a number of cultures who simply have a personal name followed by a surname (or vice versa).  Aristocrats in Ananë, for instance, use the prefix ne or n’ to their surnames: examples include Lord nePardin and Estent n’Ashne.  A similar tradition exists in Greclisk – depending on which of the kingdom’s many people are involved, the more upper-class can be Farlas te Norrimon or Sokauni Olya-vi.  In Errish, on the other hand, all classes have a prefixes for their surname: ma Kharish, for instance, for a male and me Anshik as an example of a female surname.

Perhaps the most complex naming system I’ve yet used is for Hafdosu, and uses a system of etiquette similar to the Russian one.  One native of Hafdosu, for instance, is called Fel Arith Fugon.  He’s addressed formally as Lord Arith – this system isn’t class-based, though, so he could be addressed as the local equivalent of Mr Arith.  His acquaintances called him Fel Fugon.  Anyone close to him (assuming that anyone is) would address him as Fugon.  The first of the three names is always short, personal to the individual, but is never used independently.  The main character of the story is a foreigner called Salsha Demnen (personal and surname) and the locals have immense difficulty working out how to address her politely.

I’ve only used this system in one story, but I’d like to revisit it.  I also want to invent other bizarre naming systems.  As long as it’s something that could conceivably work within a society, it’s plausible.

And much more fun than Ug the Barbarian.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Publishing, Self-Publishing and Scams

There’s been a lot of debate online recently about traditional publishing and self-publishing.  Most of this has been constructive, but there’s also some misinformation flying about, whether this is from people with a vested interest in a particular sector, or from authors who’ve got the wrong end of the stick from being scammed in the past.  I’d like to go through the various options in, I hope, an impartial and objective way.

Few would disagree, I think, that the holy grail for any author is to land a contract with a major publishing house.  While it doesn’t by any means guarantee a place on the bestseller lists, that isn’t easy to achieve without a major publisher behind you.  Besides having the funds to support a substantial print-run, they also have extensive distribution networks, large publicity departments ready to swing into action, and the name to attract the attention of reviewers and booksellers.

The drawback, of course, is that few major houses will even look at submissions from an unknown author.  Though there are occasional exceptions, the only practical way to get such a contract is to be taken on by a literary agent.  This too can be difficult, but not impossible.

I’ve read some extraordinary claims online about the way agents are supposed to work: that anyone who gets a business card printed up can be an agent; that all they do is leech money from an author, offering nothing in return; that they’re really publishers in disguise, or that they’re actually working for a particular publisher.  There are, as in any industry, crooks out there posing as literary agents, and perhaps these claims come from authors who have fallen into the clutches of such crooks.  None of the claims, however, are true of any reputable agent.

A good agent will have a background working in the industry, either for him/herself or for another agency or publisher, and will have a list of successful clients.  In the digital age, it’s easy enough to check up on them.  Besides studying their own website, google the name and see what’s being said about them online.  Pay particular attention to any discussion on the anti-scamming sites, such as the excellent Writer Beware.

A literary agency is, of course, a business, and its primary purpose is to make money.  However, the only way the agent can make money is if the author does.  An agent works for a fixed percentage (normally between 10% and 15%) of what the author makes and doesn’t make a penny unless there’s money coming in.  The golden rule in all sectors of publishing is that money always flows towards the author, not away.  If any agent or publisher (other than an avowed self-publisher) asks for money up front, do a quick about-turn and beat it.

In return for this, the author gets a range of professional services which, even if they could learn to achieve, would take away a considerable amount of writing time, together with a network of contacts and a reputation that only an already successful author could hope to match.

A literary agent is a facilitator, working for the author, and any hint of other interests should be treated with extreme suspicion.  S/he might, certainly, recommend using a professional editor, but a reputable agent will direct you to a resource where you can examine and compare the various editors available.  If an agent refers you to one specific editor, then it’s almost certain that the “editor” is the “agent” wearing a different hat.  This would be completely unprofessional behaviour.

If it proves too difficult to get an agent or major publisher, there are countless small-to-medium publishers out there who will usually look an unagented submissions – many of the best will be listed on sites like Ralan and Duotrope. 

These often use either POD (print on demand) or epublishing, both of which are sometimes mistakenly assumed to be synonymous with self-publishing.  In fact, they are merely techniques which can be used by publishers, self-publishers and scammers alike to keep costs down.  POD is a method where, instead of committing in advance to a large print-run, a publisher can produce copies as and when they’re ordered.  Similarly, epublishing requires only the initial costs for editing, layout and artwork, and the result can be sold however many times it’s needed.

What both methods offer is a means by which a book can be published with relatively little capital, thus allowing these companies to accept books that, although they might be good, wouldn’t be considered viable ventures by a larger company.  These small publishers operate a submission and selection procedure, rejecting far more than they accept, provide a full editorial service, fund all production costs and distribute the book.  What they don’t usually offer is a publicity service.  Some might send out review copies, especially if they’re electronic copies, but on the whole it’s up to the author to promote their work.  Not an ideal situation, but better than any option other than a major house.

One thing that epublishing has changed is the range of lengths possible for publication.  In general, traditional publishing is unlikely to be financially viable outside the 80,000 to 120,000 thousand word range – unless, of course, you’re already famous enough for sales to be guaranteed.  With epublishing, even short stories can be individual books, while epics could theoretically be as long as you like.

Self-publishing, in which the author pays the costs of production and distribution, has been around for some time, and many classic authors self-published their first book.  Some authors prefer to refer to this now as independent publishing.  There are many areas in which self-publishing works very well.  An academic, for instance, may wish to publish a highly specialist work which is unlikely to sell more than a few dozen copies, but might be the very thing that will gain the author that lucrative professorship or research post.  At the other end of the spectrum, during the 1990s I put together several booklets of poetry, which I simply ran off from my computer and sold at gigs, and this worked very well.

In recent years, self-publishing has become considerably easier and cheaper.  Epublishing systems like Kindle and POD systems like Lulu make it possible for authors to do it themselves with no upfront costs, simply paying the company a cut of each book sold.  It’s also possible to publish work on your blog or website.

There’s both good and bad in this.  It certainly provides a means for authors to get work out to the public that might not see the light of day otherwise, some of it excellent.  I know of at least one case where a novel originally published on the author’s blog was picked up by a publisher and is now enjoying a fair degree of success.

Still, these cases are rare.  Like all the old Hollywood stories of actors (or more often actresses) being discovered in bizarre circumstances, they happen, but the odds of gaining success that way are probably considerably less than by going through the conventional route.

The biggest disadvantages of the self-publishing boom are the sheer volume of material being put out and the fact that, because there’s no quality control, the vast majority of it is stuff that would never stand a chance of getting published in any other way.  Even books that have promise often come over as very amateurish.  I’ve read self-published books by authors who have considerable talent and flair, but their work cries out to be edited.

The editorial process isn’t a luxury or an optional extra or, as some unpublished authors seem to assume, an insult to their talent.  It’s a dialogue between the author and a highly experienced professional who can take a dispassionate look at dotting the Is and crossing the Ts, and this can make a vast difference.  I’ve a reasonably healthy estimate of my writing ability, but I’d be very reluctant to allow a novel to go out under my name without having gone through the editorial process.

Of course, it’s possible to hire a freelance editor to provide the same service, but that’s expensive, and the temptation to go it alone is too great for most authors.  This gives self-publishing a (mostly deserved) reputation for poor quality.

It has another effect, too.  It can be distressing and soul-destroying to endlessly submit and be rejected, but it can also be very good for the writing.  Some publishers and agents will give feedback as to why they weren’t willing to take the work, and this advice should be treasured, even if it hurts at first.  Even when the rejection is by form, it forces the author to think about what they’re not doing well enough, and to strive for improvement.

The reaction of many authors now to receiving a few rejections is to forget about it and self-publish.  They’re never challenged to improve because they know anything they want published will be.  Comparisons are often made with the music industry, and I think the same plusses and minuses exist there.  The Beatles, for instance, became the great band they did not just through raw talent, but by playing endless sessions, to every conceivable audience, in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg.  If they’d simply been able to record in their bedrooms and put out the results on YouTube, they’d never have achieved the polish to become the legend they did.

This doesn’t mean self-publishing doesn’t have a place.  As in the music industry, established authors can buy back the rights to older, out-of-print books and reissue them under their own imprint.  Authors who can afford to pay for editors, artists and designers might produce high-quality books.  There are other possibilities, too.  I’ve toyed with the idea of setting up a collective of reasonably experienced authors who can offer mutual editorial support and self-publish under an imprint which could eventually build up a reputation for quality.  Even so, I doubt that I’d publish anything longer than a novella that way.  I want my novels to be published because someone out there loves them, not just because I’ve chosen it.

I’ve dealt with the publishing and self-publishing in the title of this piece.  There are, unfortunately, also scams in publishing, just as there are in every other industry, traditionally referred to as vanity publishing.  Unlike self-publishing, these outfits delude authors into believing they’re actual publishing companies and praise their work to the skies, but come up with various excuses to part the author from his/her money.  The traditional method is to call something like “subscription publishing”, which they assure you is normal practice, or make the author undertake to buy a certain number of copies, usually to be paid for in advance.  If the book ever sees the light of day (the likelihood is that it won’t) it’ll be of poor quality, and it won’t stand a chance of being reviewed or stocked by anyone.

Other scams include referring the author to a specific service, such as an editor, as described above.  This will be the same outfit in a different guise, and the service will almost certainly not be worth the paper it’s written on (or the pixels, as the case may be).

There are various ways of recognising scams.  Firstly, genuine publishers rarely, if ever, advertise for authors – they get more submissions than they can deal with, without having to do anything.  Secondly, anyone who tries to get you to pay them money for the publication process isn’t to be trusted.  And thirdly, information about scammers can be found all over the internet.  Several sites exist primarily to give information about these – Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors are perhaps the best known, but there are others also doing sterling work.

Recently, the scammers have began to fight back.  A bizarre website called The Write Agenda is making a concerted attempt to impugn the integrity of everyone involved in exposing scams, and has started a “boycott list” of anyone they see as a threat to themselves, encouraging book-burnings of the authors on it.  Hopefully, this piece will get me onto the list – I’d be honoured to be included in such great company.  Essentially, believe nothing they say.  Their “information” is absurd, and all they’re defending is their right to steal your money.  A thread about them can be found on the Writer Beware blog.

So, whether you choose to go for an agent and a major contract, a smaller POD or epublisher, or for the more responsible methods of self-publishing, good luck in your ventures.  And stay safe from those trying to scam you.

Monday, October 3, 2011

What Is Fantasy?

What is fantasy?  Well, we all know, don’t we?  At least, we know when we’ve  read a fantasy novel, but that’s not quite the same.  This article was inspired by a discussion on the excellent, and I thought I’d try to go into some detail about my thoughts.

In one way, it’s irrelevant.  There’s good fiction and bad fiction, and quite a large proportion of good fiction (though by no means all) resists being pushed into convenient pigeon-holes and left there.  When I start with a blank sheet of paper (or more likely a blank Word file) I’m not thinking “how do I make sure this is fantasy?”  I’m thinking “how do I make this as good as I can?”  The fact that it usually comes out as fantasy is my personal taste.

Defining fantasy, or any other type of fiction, is descriptive, not prescriptive.  Its primary purpose is for marketing, as a shorthand for saying that this book contains X, Y and Z which, if it’s well written, I usually enjoy, rather than U, V and W, which I can take or leave.  Once we move into “you must include X, Y and Z, because you’re writing fantasy,” we’re descending very quickly into formula fiction.

I’d say that the primary division in fiction is between speculative fiction (including fantasy) and realistic fiction, although even here there are overlaps, such as some kinds of magic realism.  In medieval Iceland, one of the world’s great fiction-producing cultures, the primary division for narrative was between “true-seeming sagas” (including both realistic fiction and historical and biographical narratives) and “lying sagas” (fantasy – “lying” didn’t have a particularly negative connotation and only signified something unbelievable).

Speculative fiction incorporates the broad sub-categories referred to as science fiction, fantasy and supernatural horror (as opposed to stories of torture and serial killers, which are really extreme thrillers) and incorporating genres that don’t quite fit into any of those three, such as cyberpunk, steampunk, alternative history and slipstream.  It should be noted that none of the three sub-categories should really be referred to as genres – fantasy, for instance, incorporates a number of distinct genres, such as sword & sorcery, epic fantasy and paranormal romance.

It might be said that realism seeks to mirror the real world as it is, while speculative fiction seeks to extend experience beyond the real world.  At first sight this seems reasonable, but it raises a fundamental problem: what is the real world?  In the Icelandic example above, for instance, “lying sagas” told of gods and dragons and dwarves and enchanted hoards, but any “true-seeming saga” could include elements like ghosts and curses.  To those who wrote and read the stories, after all, these were simply part of the real world as it was.

These problems aren’t restricted to ancient cultures, though.  A fair proportion of people in western, developed countries believe in ghosts, for instance.  (For the record, my response to that question would be “it depends what you mean by ghosts.”)  If I write a ghost story, does it count as speculative to the sceptics and realistic to the believers?

It goes beyond that, though.  I’d contend that all fiction, and probably most non-fiction narrative, too, is set in an imaginary world.  Most of these fictional realities, as I call them, are very like the world we see around us, but each is filtered through a specific person’s perceptions and assumptions, as well as the needs of the story s/he’s writing.

To take an example, two authors might write stories about a maverick cop who ignores the rules in pursuit of suspects.  In one story, this will enable him to protect society against dangerous criminals, despite the bleeding-heart liberals who protect the bad guys.  In the other, he’ll destroy innocent lives by riding roughshod over rules that are there to protect basic rights.

The difference between these two stories isn’t a random issue about what happens in it.  They take place in different realities, where the way the author sees the situation (or chooses to see it) actually is the way the world works.  All authors of fiction, and many journalists, historians and others, consciously or unconsciously create a world in which the story they wish to tell will work.  Fantasy writers are just honest about it.

So, at what point does the invention become speculative – or fantasy?  Perhaps we could say that a story becomes speculative if it includes a component or event that couldn’t happen in the real world, either present or historic – but then we’re back to the problem that there isn’t a consensus about that.  There are also many kinds of realism and lack of it.  Poor examples (though certainly not all examples) of genres such as romance or thriller, and certainly TV soap operas, are rife with characters behaving in ways no human ever has behaved or ever will.  Does that make them fantasy?

It’s also possible to write a story in which the plot as a whole relies so much on coincidence that it’s difficult to believe that such a sequence of events could actually happen.  Some of Dickens’ novels fall into this category, for instance – without needing to bring up the plain fantasy of A Christmas Carol.  Nevertheless, if we examine each individual event, we’d be hard put to find a single non-realist link in the chain.

Perhaps the best way of defining it is that realism includes only types of event which the current state of science could confidently acknowledge as possible.  If a narrative includes events that rely on collective belief or suspension of disbelief, it should be counted as speculative fiction.  Individual knowledge or belief doesn’t apply here.  On a personal level, I only believe that Australia exists, since I haven’t directly experienced it.  On the other hand, someone might know that ghosts exist through direct experience.  Nevertheless, as far as the human collective is concerned, Australia is a proven fact, while ghosts are a working hypothesis, which may or may not be proved one day.

So what does speculative fiction include that realism doesn’t?  If it’s science fiction, it may include the assumption of scientific laws that may be true but haven’t been shown to be so, or else the effect of scientific laws being different from those we know.  Horror may involve supernatural beings, magic or curses working, or different planes of existence.  Both alternative history and steampunk involve the world having developed in a different way from the one we know.

Fantasy can incorporate most of these – especially magic – as well as other elements such as worlds like our own that aren’t speculated as being reachable.  Perhaps the difference between fantasy and the other types of speculative fiction is that it has no need to explain.  Science fiction postulates laws of nature to underpin the events.  Horror explains less, but it requires the reader to believe, even if only by suspension of disbelief, that the magic or supernatural beings fit into the world as we know it.  Alternative history relies on defining the point of divergence.

Fantasy sometimes explains itself, of course.  As I pointed out at the start, defining types of fiction is a matter of convenience, not of necessity, and it pleases some fantasy writers to explain how the fantasy works; but that’s an extra.  Fantasy asks not “how could this happen?” but “what would it be like if this could happen?”  At root, fantasy isn’t about the magic, or the dragons, or the exotic worlds: it’s the question “what if?”

Then again, perhaps we could just say that fantasy is Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, Songs of Ice and Fire, Perdito Street Station and things like that.  That’s a much easier answer.