Does there have to be magic in a fantasy story?

The topic of Jennifer Byrne’s Book Club on the ABC last week was the fantasy genre, and invited four fantasy writers, Jennifer Rowe (Emily Rodda), Lev Grossman, Matthew Reilly and Fiona Macintosh. A range of misconceptions and stigmas surrounding the genre were discussed but one commonality seemed to be that a fantasy story had magic in it.

Thinking about this assumption, I can understand it and agree with it to some extent, but I think the idea that a fantasy story is defined by the presence of magic (in whatever format, be it powers, spells, strange abilities, different physics etc) is limiting, particularly for those wary of the genre, or who relegate it to stories of children.

My preference is to think of an alternative history or world as the defining aspect. A fantasy is something unreal, created and imaginary in another (strange) place or a place made strange by the weird happenstances. Magic isn’t necessary per se, though likely present in each.

Extend the term “fantasy” to mix with its twin sibling, science fiction, and call it all “speculative fiction”... Fiction that speculates and imagines something different. Fiction where imagination is the only boundary. Fiction that has the biggest and most popular novels ever published (Tolkien, Rawlins and now Martin).

As was mentioned in Book Club, fantasy / speculative fiction has too many readers to be marginalised. When George R.R. Martin’s latest novel is the biggest selling fiction book of 2011 (not biggest selling fantasy novel, biggest selling fiction), then we can only take seriously suggestions that fantasy / speculative fiction is the mainstream now. From every child’s beloved fairy tales, through to adult myths and legends.

It’s a great time to write, and read.


The Runes of Odin - initial concepts

Where did I get the idea for The Runes of Odin, my first YA fantasy novel? Generally with any story, I have an idea for the setting first, and then work out who could / would live in such a place, how the environment has shaped them, what challenges them, what the character wants.

With Runes, it was almost as though the setting and the characters, Lena and Calum, arrived simultaneously in my thoughts. I have always been interested in cultural clashes, ever since I first learned some words of German in grade 2, and other in Italian in grade 3... and then lived in Germany as an exchange student when I was 16. I have travelled a lot, Europe, Asia, South America, but it’s only by living in a place for a while that I feel any real change. The old clichés of expanding horizons through travel I think only really sticks if you dive in and stay long enough to try to become as much of a local as you can. It’s through that struggle that you are challenged, linguistically, socially, culturally; that you are forced to re-evaluate your own assumptions by seeing the world not only through the eyes of other people, but people who have been shaped by an environment very different to your own. Everyone has a home that serves as their foundation, but what if you learn to love another place long enough for it to become ‘home’. How does that change you?

With Runes, I wanted to look at two characters who were already outsiders, who were displaced from a young age and had fewer ties to their current ‘homes’ than others. Of course, I wanted them to eventually meet (in fact, their meeting and getting to know each other is the essence of the book and the trilogy), but I wanted them to first show the reader their worlds through their own eyes, get the reader to sympathise with both sides of the impending conflict. No blacks and whites, just greys, mixed sympathies and the power of learning that your enemy is a real person with their own real fears.

A setting of northern Scotland or Ireland and the historical raids, invasions and settlement by the Norse (Vikings) and other northern peoples has always been of interest. How better for two impressionable young people to meet from opposite sides of a cultural divide?

The late German grandfather of the exchange family I lived with was a soldier on the Russian front during World War II. He was an amazingly generous man and wanted nothing more than for his family to know and love the people of other countries and cultures. He reasoned that if we all understood one another then there would be no wars. This then was the theme for my novels: learning to love the enemy by breaking down cultural walls. Learning to see the beauty in others’ ways of life.  

And having fun with it all with adventure, and mythology, and above all, the Runes.


Amazon buys out Book Depository

Online book retailing is about to get a little bit less competitive, with Amazon announcing that it will buy The Book Depository - read more here.


Ever tried, ever failed

From Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA):



e-book conversion

Slowly, but surely, e-books are becoming a fixture in my reading life. I’m not particularly wedded to hardcopy, paper books – I’m used to reading electronically – but a physical book is more convenient to pick up and more pleasant to hold... but, but, but. The advantages stood out like a sore thumb on my recent trip to the States. Instead of carting around one or more books to read, I had half a library’s worth in electronic form. That 700+ page door stopper of Justin Cronin’s (The Passage – fantastic read) wasn’t weighing down my hand luggage, I read it on the screen. Reading China Mieville’s The City and the City meant I didn’t have to reach for a dictionary for all those words I don’t know, I just highlight with a tap and the e-dictionary tells me the meaning. Bored, and look for another book, I just browse through genres, categories, authors and find books to sample instantly. If I like it, and the price is right, I might buy then and there.

Amazingly simple and convenient.My friend browsing the e-reader displays at a New York Barnes & Noble store. Note how large the display is, and that is located front and centre of the store.

Contrast this with books I have bought in physical form recently, and I am completely in love with sampling. Any chance I have to avoid shelling out $20 for a novel that just doesn’t hold me past page three, or page fifty, is money saved, paper saved, shelf-space saved.

I had many discussions with friends in the States about e-books, and their disbelief that it could ever replace paper books, and was generally playing devil’s advocate, but more and more I was advocating my own opinion that e-books are an overwhelmingly positive phenomenon for readers and authors. With them, authors can potentially make a reasonable living and control their own creative brand. With them, readers can sample books, enjoy their choices at a much reduced price, have the convenience of a virtual library in their bag, buy books anytime and anywhere there is an internet connection. The main downside is the loss of a physical object, the tactile pleasure of holding a book, turning pages, smelling the paper and ink, running your fingers over a glossy cover. But paper books won’t disappear. Vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs are all still with us. Paper books may be marginalised to collector’s items, or speciality goods or a reduced niche market for holdouts, but they’ll always be around. If there is a quality version of a book I love, I’ll buy it.
Jeff VanderMeer's The Steampunk Bible - an example of book that will always be better in hardcopy. Here shown on the shelf with other "bibles"...
David Cornish has written three volumes of his YA fiction “The Monster Blood Tattoo” series and his publisher has a hardcover version complete with additional illustrations (by the author), attached ribbon book-marks and expanded appendices. A beautiful package and well worth the few extra dollars. This type of book-as-artifact product will always sit on my book shelf. The rest will likely be a mixture of cheap imports from The Book Depository and e-books sitting on my reader.


The only book you'll ever need...


Double Deutsch

When I was at high school I went to a German school for a year as an exchange student. In that time, and in subsequent visits, I learned and practised German language and enjoyed speaking it immensely. There really is nothing like being able to navigate competently in another language, being able to use slang and colloquialisms correctly and get to know other people in their own language and culture.

Now it’s been many years since I last spoke German at all (probably 2006) and more since I was using it regularly, but one week with German friends speaking little English, or a mix of both, and I was back in the groove. I also met a number of new Germans and received a lot of compliments for my command of their language and the ultimate compliment when an older gentleman wanted to know if I were an ex-pat German living in Australia.

It’s a great feeling, but I am also very aware of how much German I don’t know, and how much my command of German grammar is letting me down. In German, there are three genders for the word “the”. As in French or Spanish, there is masculine and feminine, but German has an additional, neutral, gender. The three little words that cause me the most grief are der, die and das. I reckon these three little buggers explain a lot about the German psyche.

If you want to make yourself known, use any of them, it really isn’t important most of the time. Germans will understand you. But if you want to speak correctly, to not sound like a foreigner, or to have more fluid and fluent German, you need to know which noun gets which “the”. And there is often no logic behind why one noun gets the masculine and another the feminine, you just have to learn them by rote.*

And in this trip I really noticed how much I don’t know. I didn’t concentrate on this aspect of grammar before because I was putting my energies into learning fluency and idiomatic German. But now I want to. I was thinking in German fairly early into my trip, and even in my thoughts I noticed how clunky my speech felt without the correct grammar.

So, I never thought I would ever bother, but I want to improve on my German grammar. And the best way, I think, is to read. I have a number of German books from my friends and this way I get to learn, and to read stories of other places that will likely never be translated into English. It makes me wonder how many amazing narratives we miss out on because of our English-centricity.

Try these words in German on for size. Pronounce them as you will, doesn't matter, you'll likely get them wrong:




These are cool words:





And my mate PJ's favourite word:


*Pretty obvious that a Mann would be masculine (der Mann), and a Frau feminine (die Frau), but why der Tisch (the table)? There are some rules you can learn, such as all -chen suffixes take the neutral gender (das), such that "girl" Maedchen is therefore das Maedchen, but the rules are few and far between.


Five day impressions of NYC

This is either Manhattan, or a strange steel and concrete fungal growth of montrous proportionsMy few days in New York City are something of a blur. They were then, and are more so now. It's a city that I didn't like, but that has gotten under my skin, such that I am writing about it. I haven't ever felt the need to put pen to paper about Paris or London, though I could imagine doing so for Berlin, amazingly cool city that it is. But in this case, for this big city of big cities, more specifically for Manhattan, I want to.

The impressions and images that remain with me aren't just the stink of a big city, the human urine in the corners of stairwells, the pervasive acridity of dog pee along the apartment streets where a hundred apartment-sized wanna-be dogs have marked their territory. They aren't the claustrophobia of the endless buildings, skyscrapers, streets, cars, taxis, tourists, advertising imagery. I was a minuscule cog in the city's machine, tiny and insignificant but still a part. And I found that very surprising. New York has a harmony to it that surprised me. An endless patience for multitudes. Everything was smaller in my sight than in my imagination: Central Park a beautiful yet conceivable oasis, the Empire State building immense but not crassly so, iconic sights reduced in size simply by being real somehow... but not the city itself. That I can't conceive of and the city therefore feels larger than its parts.

Central Park Bubble Services: this guy specialises in transporting children to other dimensions by surrounding them with magic detergentAnd ridiculously smaller. There was a woman sitting, melting, in a subway elevator near Columbia University, Upper West Side. She sat behind a barrier in the industrial sized elevator, water bottle in hand and she showed me the esky she brought to work with her every day for her refills. Her job was to press a button, up or down, for the commuters. That's it. Her view of the world during her day was the endless faces entering and leaving her oppressive box. So too the doormen who sit patiently behind the entrance doors of apartment blocks, uniformed and waiting. The inescapable queues for food, tourist attractions and transport, more waiting. The rats darting beneath the subway tracks, catching the eye, while waiting for the next monstrously loud train. Being told by my friend to keep the apartment door closed at night to keep the rats out. Watching him handle his own rats in his laboratory at Columbia University. He showed his a daily kindness such that they would go to him easily, but told me of colleagues who did not and had to be vigilant not to let theirs escape.

More portals, this one between streets in New YorkI visited MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, and saw a drawing in the German Expressionism exhibit, drawings of artists following the loss of hope after World War I. A man and woman were collapsed against each other, parents grieving for a lost child. Collapsed into each other, joined completely in a grief that is a complete horror for me as a father. Nearby was a painting by Jackson Pollack that resembled a Pro Hart original, surrounded by admirers and the brand-curious. Immediately beside it, mostly unremarked and unnoticed was a stick thin metal sculpture of a woman that seemed to watch the crowd wryly, watching the obsession with brand names, famous names, infamous names. Anything with a name. The Statue of Liberty, Fifth Avenue, Macy's, Trump Tower. Lists of things to do and see in a Lonely Planet guide.

Finally I felt New York City's, Manhattan's, creativity. I wanted to write while I was there. I didn't. The city was aggressive in its noise, heat, smells; it was exhausting. Bookstores, little more than retail outlets for me in Australia, became safe havens of quiet and reflection, places to sit and recharge, to feel other worlds within the strange world outside. After being assailed by the city each day, I wanted to return to the quiet of my friend's apartment and write. I could imagine being there for that purpose.

The Lego jungle of SohoI met an Australian lady in Los Angeles who said she hated New York. That you either hated it or loved it, as though she were an authority on this. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I flew out of JFK airport on my fifth day. But I keep thinking about the place.


NYC and The Steampunk Bible

I'm in New York City at the moment, being a tourist and visiting friends. Wandering around it's simply stunning how many little events are going on (such as a random author talk in a garden plaza in Midtown). Nothing less than intoxicating... and that was before I learned via Facebook that Jeff Vandermeer is holding an authors' event to promote his latest literary work of art with co-author S.J. Chambers, The Steampunk Bible... and it's more or less just down the road. Can't wait.


Making memorable scenes

Every scene has to be memorable, otherwise what is the point? No one wants to read about ordinary characters, ordinary scenes, ordinary conversations. Banality is your bane.

Construct scenes (and populate with characters) that highlight something unusual, something weird, something amazing. Don’t describe a room or a city or a natural scene with the average or predictable. Gloss over those aspects. If you mention them, do it in passing, or if it is relevant to an upcoming action. Otherwise let the reader assume. You don’t need to do all the work for them – let your readers put their own ideas and expectations into your work and personalise it.

Instead, mention what is different about the scene. What is memorable. The why of including this scene in your writing at all.

Each scene should be unusual, or a usual setting for an unusual happenstance, or a normal setting that contrasts with something horrible, amazing, fantastic that is occurring to the character.