The Sword of Something-or-Other

As the year draws to a close, I find myself with a new literary agent and a YA fantasy series that she’s keen to try to sell. This is unusual territory for me. For years now I’ve been characterizing myself, tongue only slightly in cheek, as one of the West Coast’s least known and least active science fiction writers.

I’m starting to think maybe I ought to take this turn of events more seriously. Thirty years ago I thought I might have a real career as a fiction writer, but the notion gradually faded. The thing is, I know how to write, but it’s not always clear to me what to write. After blundering around not entirely at random, I seem to have arrived at a solid, exciting premise for this particular series. The first volume in the saga is finished and on the agent’s desk; the second is about 2/3 done (and it’s gonna be even more exciting); for the third I have a mass of notes and an outline; book four is, at present, only a title and a fairly clear idea.

Whether this series sells, or doesn’t, I’m asking myself, “What’s next?” Rather than throw darts at a wall full of taped-up 3×5 cards (joke — I don’t even own a dart), I figured I should roll up my metaphorical sleeves and do some serious market research.

Before we get to that, though … the first volume is called The Leafstone Shield. Think of it as Lord of the Rings meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Except, no vampires. I promise faithfully, there will not be a single vampire. Teenage girls kicking some serious butt, yes. Vampires, no. Look for it at your favorite retail outlet sometime in 2017, maybe.

Reading online lists of “best of 2014” fantasy titles is useful, up to a point, and I’ve made a long list, but you can’t tell much from reading a short review, and most of the interesting-looking items are not to be found on the shelves at my local library. So this afternoon I hied my very self down the freeway to Barnes & Noble, an actual physical bookstore. This trek brought into focus a couple of market trends that I had sensed earlier but had not quite seen in all their fulsome glory.

First, series novels are taking over. The days of a single free-standing title with no raft of sequels anywhere on the horizon appear to be numbered, if not gone forever. Even trilogies are getting scarce. Fantasy series with Book VII or Book IX on the spine are not hard to find.

There are even trilogies of trilogies. A couple of days ago I picked up Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Errand at the library. It’s billed on the cover as Book I of the Tawny Man trilogy, so I figured it would be something new, something where I could start at the beginning and get involved. Silly me! The first hundred pages of Fool’s Errand are so heavily devoted to reminiscences of events in the previous trilogies that I gave up. Nothing against Hobb, who is a fine writer and not afraid to be slow-paced (a trait I admire), but when the story still hasn’t started after 100 pages, it’s clear that she’s writing for a fan base that has devoured the first six books and is champing at the bit for more of the same. Fool’s Errand is no more Book I of anything than I’m an elf.

The second trend is Medieval warfare. With innumerable variations, of course, but swords and men in armor (or women in armor) are arrayed on dozens of book covers. I’m not quite sure who goes in for this type of story — it’s just not my cup of brimstone. My suspicion is that the runaway success of Game of Thrones has convinced publishers that Medieval warfare is where it’s at, fantasy-wise.

The third trend is what we might delicately refer to as moral ambiguity. There seem to be a lot of bad heroes. Like, really bad heroes. As in, slice you open for no particular reason and leave you bleeding to death on the cobblestones heroes. If you’re old enough, you might remember the phrase “hooker with a heart of gold.” That was a sort of archetype at one time. Today we have the assassin with a heart of gold. Or at least a heart of tinsel. Whatever. The glut of books about vampires and zombies is at the core of this trend. They’re nasty, and that’s why we love ’em! (Well, not “we.” Maybe you. Me, I wouldn’t touch a vampire novel with a flagon of holy water.)

This probably reflects a change in the zeitgeist. I suspect there are a lot of people in the world who know they’re doing bad things (driving an SUV, for instance, or cheating on their spouse or their income tax, or maybe smoking a little crack now and then) but would nevertheless like to feel that they’re good people. A story in which the hero does really nasty things and yet suffers momentary pangs of compassion or doubt is probably something readers can relate to.

I learned some other stuff this week too, but I’m keeping it under wraps because I might actually use it to give my next series a shape. You can’t give away all of your trade secrets.

A footnote: I did pick up a couple of fat paperbacks at the bookstore, which I’m looking forward to digging into. First up, Cold Magic by Kate Elliott. Kate, whose real name is Alis Rasmussen, used to have a desk about ten feet from mine in the Keyboard magazine office on Stevens Creek Blvd. in Cupertino. Lost track of her years ago — I hope she’s doing well!

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