Monday, June 27, 2016

Age of Myth: All the Stuff I Did Wrong

I work alone.

"I don’t play well with others," is how I'm most apt to put it. I tried to collaborate in my youth, and the result was frustration followed by my rewriting everything done by others. This did little to assuage their sense of worth, our friendship, and led to my abandoning the project altogether. I’m not necessarily a control freak, I merely want things done exactly how I want them.

Recently, I turned down the chance to write a book series in collaboration with a film director, because, for me, "Hell" would be writing in another person’s universe where I am subject to their rules. Luckily this tendency is limited to my writing—that’s my story anyway. This said, you can perhaps understand why my wife, and Alpha Reader, almost never gets to see anything I’m working on until the work is finished. Sometimes I will discuss a work with her, but only in specific details that without any reference points, must sound like gibberish. Most of these times my ramblings end up scaring her into thinking I’ve lost my mind.

 “Okay so my problem is that in order to escape the Agave, they need to utilize a source of power, but all they have is stone, so the solution here is water—do you see? Does that make sense to you?”

Anyway, I must have thought that something was wrong with Age of Myth because after writing  the first chapter I let her read the first scene.

She hated it.

 When Robin first finished reading the Riyria Revelations she half-jokingly insinuated that I did not actually write it because it was too good. This time was similar.

 “Who wrote this?” she asked, with a sneer as if something had just died in her mouth.

 “It’s not that bad,” I countered.

 She stared at me with a look usually seen on the faces of rookie first responders.

 “What’s wrong with it?”

 “It’s like you didn’t write it. This isn’t a Michael J. Sullivan book.”

 She went on to mention many things, but it didn’t matter as that one sentence explained everything. I had known something was off, and now I knew what that was. Good suggestions are like that. They don’t need to come from an experienced, talented editor—although Robin is most certainly both of those—anyone who can come close to communicating what’s wrong with a piece will generate that explosion of OMG! Of course! They see the thing you’re blind to. They point it out and boom, there it is—“Where’d all these baseball players come from, Ray?”

What she showed me was that I was writing in a different voice, a different style—most importantly, the wrong style.

This new series is set 3000 years before the events that take place in the age of Riyria. If Royce and Hadrian lived in a time roughly equivalent to say the High Middle Ages and if I go back 3000 years (if you want to think of it in Earth terms) the book's setting is in the intermediate to late Bronze Age in the Near Easter timeline, or the First Phase Nordic, or middle of the British Bronze Age. Generally, for those weened on the history of Western Civilizations that would be the age of legends, the era of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Trojan War...a time before written history when Gods took active roles in the course of human events and when larger-than-life heroes such as Achilles and Hercules roamed. The Bronze Age was also a time when—in the area of northern Europe—mankind was still very much in its infancy. Near Eastern cultures were reasonably advanced (at least by comparison), while in Briton or Ireland, people dwelt in small communities of roundhouses of thatch and daub.

This, then, was the setting, and I wanted to convey that shift in time between Riyria and Myth in more than mere limitations. I wanted the books to sound different in their prose. As a result, I adopted a more classic tone. My prose and dialog was intentionally formal, more high-minded, more dramatic. My presentation was more ladened with exposition. In short, my writing reflected the style generally found in most fantasy novels, and Robin was right—it wasn’t me.

When I wrote Riyria, one of my goals was to write in a readable form. Beowulf and other ancient ballads were written in a lofty style. In the 1800s George McDonald trimmed that style to reflect the taste of a more contemporary audience while writing the same sort of tale. Tolkien did the same to MacDonald. He wrote in the same heroic-fantasy vein, but once again discarded much of the prose style, tossing the gothic sound for a more modern, easier to digest approach. I wanted to do the same. My aim was to bring fantasy out of the lofty rhetoric were authors attempt to guess at what they think ancient people sound like, and instead translate that into modern English. Some authors want to transport readers to a strange and foreign place—I want to send you somewhere that feels like home. “We shall march at first light!” becomes, “We’ll leave first thing tomorrow.” Because that sounds far more believable to the modern ear, and this translates into easier reading, and easier reading allows readers to lose themselves far more readily in the text.

When Riyria was released, I received some pushback on this technique from fantasy traditionalists, but on the whole most readers appreciated the style. Many were not even aware why, only that the way I wrote was far more enjoyable. They found my characters to be so life-like, and I suspect that is largely due to my use of contemporary language. I could make jokes and use word plays that made sense. However, as I began writing Age of Myth I tossed that concept aside and wrote in a more lofty, more archaic style. I was channeling my inner Homer, and inventing terms for well-known things. Kings would be called “Fane” and tiny fortified cities would be called “Dahls” which I altered from the ancient term of “Tell” used for ancient hill forts. (I liked Dahl because Dahlgren is a place already in the Riyria stories).  I was going back on my self-pledge not to let the prose get between the reader and the story.

Robin hated it.

 I hated it too.

So I started over.

Tossing aside all the heavy prose, I felt free once more to write a gripping tale. Characters came to life, and the story flowed like water too long damed. And just when I thought this first book was going to pour out as smooth as pudding, the characters staged a revolution. In one afternoon the whole book changed, and went from what I had planned to "are you kidding me?" That’s…that’s…hmm…okay, wait, that could work. Hmm, that’s pretty freaking awesome. Let’s do that!

 Tomorrow: Scene Stealing Characters Stage a Plot Coup.


  1. I'm one of those readers who LOVES your less "traditional fantasy" style, so a big "Thank you!" to Robin for being honest (and perceptive) enough to point out that it didn't feel like "you."

    (P.S. Any chance we'll be seeing you at GenCon again?)

    1. Not this year Kate, unless Robin kidnaps me again. Why? You have another Scott Lynch book you need me to sign? Oh, speaking of that. At Phoenix Comic Con a few weeks back, I was telling someone about that and they only had a Brandon Sanderson book. So I signed it. Then the owner took it around to all the other authors and had them sign the same book. Amazing thing was that the book in question wasn't owned by the fellow who had me sign it. The book belonged to a friend. The friend loved it.

      Sound like someone? This could become a trend that you started.

    2. Oh man, that's awesome. I'm thinking that, if I ever actually get my book published, I'll take it around and ask all the authors who've inspired me to sign it. So we'll have to meet up again eventually!

      (I was thinking a Robin Hobb book this year, but maybe I can get her to sign one of yours?)

  2. It's always better when the characters stage a revolution. I wonder if there's anyway as a writer to encourage them to do this more early on so the writer spends less time floundering.

    1. I think it's through the writing that they become rebellious. What leads to floundering is trying to suppress them. Figuring out who deserves the spotlight early on certainly is a help.

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