On Learning European Longsword

Time to take a break from talking about submissions to talk about something else that’s been going on in my life and that relates to writing: I’ve started taking lessons in European Longsword. Fellow aspiring fantasy authors, if you want some amazing source footage for how to write sword fights as they ACTUALLY would have been fought, look no further than this video.

I used to watch films to try to get an idea for how people fought with swords. Troy, Braveheart, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Hero were all favorites to revisit, depending on the style I was going for. But I’ve come to realize through the course of these lessons that films just… aren’t a great way to study this, not if you want any degree of realism. How MUCH realism depends on you, of course. Maybe you just want to write a really cool scene with lots of witty banter between blows and cinematic elements. That’s totally legit. It’s one approach to a problem that has a multitude of solutions. But for myself, I like to try to research as much as I can for my books to get things as accurate as I possibly can, and martial arts are no exception.

Watching and reading can only teach you so much, though. Nothing substitutes for actually learning something, for getting your hands dirty (or in this case calloused), for feeling how the sword moves. What it feels like to block an oncoming strike, even when that strike is pulled for the sake of safety, or how heavy a sword is when you’ve held it in a guard for an extended period of time. What is possible in terms of body movement, and what’s not. Footwork. Guards. Strikes, thrusts, and parries.

So about six weeks ago I started learning. The specific style I’m learning is German Longsword. You can read a bit more about it here, or here. I also took a couple of seminars in broadsword and long & short form quarterstaff/spear, but those were specifically for stage combat, so for historical and writing purposes I’m focusing on longsword.

I’ve always been fascinated by swords, since I was little, so this has been a bit of a dream come true for me. Not only am I enhancing my writing, I’m getting to realize a life-long dream, which is pretty badass. Once my introductory class is done I’ll post up a video of a choreographed routine between my instructor and I, but for now I’ll leave off by saying that if you’re looking to add a touch of realism to your fight scenes without taking lessons yourself, look up half-swording (maneuvering your sword with two hands, one on the hilt and one holding the blade). This is something I rarely see in fantasy novels, and has a lot of historical basis. You can see it a few times in the video I linked above.

On Cutting the Puppy in Half & Taking the Leap

In 2004, I wrote a book. It was a pretty long book, even then. Over 100k words, if memory serves. I thought, in my Junior-in-college naivete, that it was pretty good. Over the course of the next nine years, I kept returning to it. I revised. And revised. And revised. I started from the ground up at least three times, completely rewriting it. Changing the plot. Removing characters. Adding characters. You name it. And then… finally… I felt like I had something truly special. Five years ago, after nine years of (admittedly sporadic) work, of editing and polishing and worldbuilding and tweaking of characters, I decided that I was going to try to make my dream a reality and actually be an Author. I was going to write every day! I was going to go to conventions and listen to writing podcasts! BY GOD, I WAS GOING TO GET PUBLISHED. And I had this novel already finished! And it was good!

There was just one problem. It was 350k words.

To put that into context for you, if you’re not steeped in the writing field:

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 198k words.
  • A Game of Thrones: 292k words.
  • The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy: 454k words.
  • Brandon Sanderson’s latest foray into Roshar, Oathbringer: 460k words.

“So?” you might be thinking. “Those other authors did it, so can you!”

Yeah. No. Here’s the thing. No one’s willing to risk taking on a project that large as a debut novel. Most of the time, when an author approaches a publisher with a book this long, they’re already established in the field. There’s a good writeup about word counts and what publishers are looking for here, if you’re interested in reading more about it. Basically, for fantasy sci-fi, they’re looking for 90k to 125k. I have literally been laughed at by people at conventions when I mention my wordcount.

“So cut it in half,” you say. “Seems simple enough.”

I once emailed Patrick Rothfuss about this, asking for his advice on the subject, as I’d heard that some overseas publishers had tried to cut his book into parts. “Cutting a book in half isn’t like cutting a pie,” he told me. “It’s more like cutting a puppy in half. You can never expect it to work the same way after.”

I took this to heart for a long time. The character arcs wouldn’t be complete if I split the novel in two. The plot would be incomplete. It wouldn’t be Right. I couldn’t cut my puppy in half! I loved it too much! So I decided that my best course of action would be to start another book, a spin-off in the same world that I hoped would be shorter and more marketable. “And,” I thought to myself, “if this trilogy does well, I’ll have a fan-base already built for the other novel! They’ll be excited to dive back into the same world, and surely that will make it more appealing to a publisher.”

So I started working on Greencloak, then titled “Prayers to the Wind.” My concept for it was a crime drama with elements of comedy and romance set in a high fantasy world; a buddy-cop comedy in which the protagonists slowly come to realize (in between the snarky banter) that they have feelings for one another. I’ve been submitting Greencloak to agents and the occasional editor for the last three years, with little glimmerings of hope which are always quickly extinguished. Some agents have requested the first three chapters, which I know is better than most people get. One requested the entire book once. I got a letter back from an editor at a major publishing house saying they enjoyed it but they had too many similar novels right now. Meanwhile, my beta readers were building me back up from each rejection, reminding me that the book was good. Very good. Better than some published stuff they’d read. Some of these beta readers were folks in the industry, so I felt buoyed, validated that this book actually WAS good, that I wasn’t just over-inflating my own ego, thinking too highly of myself. I kept submitting. And getting rejected.

The usual advice in a situation like this is to trunk the novel and move on to another. And I HAVE been working on other things (more on this later). But I know this book is good. And, more than that, I want this book to get into the readers’ hands because I’m doing something with it that I don’t see terribly often in mainstream fantasy novels regarding LGBTQIA representation, and I think that’s a damn shame. No one’s giving it a shot. I have one last hope before I go the self-publishing route – but that shot is a long one.

It’s TOR.

I never submitted to TOR, even though they’re my dream publisher and I’ve been writing non-fiction for them for a few months now. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been reading novels with that little mountain on the spine. My dad loved fantasy and sci-fi and almost all of the books in his office were TOR novels, back in the early 90s. I cut my teeth on this stuff, and to have a novel with them would be more than a dream come true. It would be THE dream, what I’ve always wanted, what I’ve been working towards since I started writing fantasy in middle school.

So I didn’t submit. Because I was terrified to. I was so scared that they’d reject me, and then the dream would be dead.

But lately, I’ve been thinking long and hard about my writing career. I’ve been writing seriously for about five years now. (By seriously I mean working on something every day, rather than tinkering with something for a couple months then leaving it by the wayside for a year.) And what do I have to show for it? One novella which was a semi-finalist in Writers of the Future and I went on to self-publish, and five unpublished novels (one of which is, as stated above, unpublishable due to length).

I need to get my ass moving on this, and take a chance. I need to submit to TOR, if only so I finally know one way or another and can move on. It’s my own personal Schrödinger’s cat, and by god I’m going to finally open this box.

So next week, I’m printing out the first three chapters and submitting it. Finally. If it doesn’t make it, I do have a plan to self-publish, because I truly believe that there IS a market for this novel and by god if the agents and editors can’t find it, I will. But maybe they’ll see the worth in this little novel of mine, and give it a shot. I can only hope for the best.

But I’m also working on something else, something that I should have put more thought into a long time ago. Something that I held back on out of fear, and that I now see that I need to just do. I’m cutting the puppy in half. My writing group just reached the end of what used to be Part Two of The Forgotten Soldier, what I am now considering the end of the book. They seem to think that it worked well as an ending – definitely an “Empire Strikes Back” sort of downer ending, but one which leaves the reader somewhat satisfied and on the hook for the next installment. And hey – if I CAN sell this, I’ll have the sequel already done, which has to be a huge boon in this age of long waits between installments in a series. Book One now ends up at 216k words. This still isn’t ideal for a debut, but it’s not completely out of the ballpark, either. Sanderson’s debut, Elantris, was 200k.

Once I run this draft by a group of beta readers, I’ll be querying it out to agents, starting with the lovely woman who read all of Greencloak way back when it was in its second draft and gave me such wonderful critique on it. She’d invited me to query her again if I had something different, and I fully plan to. So here’s hoping that the beta reader feedback is as good as that of my writing group!

Speaking of long word counts, this is coming in at over 1k now so I’ll stop rambling. I don’t post often, but when I do, I guess I make up for it with long posts.

The Oathbringer reread starts up tomorrow at 9am on TOR, so follow along on Alice and my adventures there if you’ve already read the book. Until then, happy reading, fellow travelers.

Unconscious Writing Influences

Or, “How I stopped worrying about appropriation and embraced the amalgamation of styles which is my own.”

Lately I’ve been reading all the “mainstream” fantasy novels I can find with LGBTQ protagonists, since Greencloak’s main characters are gay and bi and I need to know the market that I am attempting to break into. I started off with Kushiel’s Dart (slow, but very satisfying; great book) and then started in on Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald Mage Trilogy.

I’m really enjoying it, but the more I read, the more I realize just how much Lackey influenced my writing style. The Elvenbane (which was co-authored by Andre Norton) has been one of my favorite books for over fifteen years – I’ve read it so many times that the hardcover I pilfered from my dad way back in the late 90s is literally falling apart. (I remember bringing it up to Mercedes at a signing. She took it from me with a little knowing smile and said, “This book has been well loved,” which really touched me.)

Things that I am coming across that I have used – subconsciously – in my own writing are the use of the words Talent and Gift to denote magical ability and psychic ability, respectively (which is also something I remember Robin Hobb making use of in The Farseer Trilogy), the use of italics to denote mind-speech, and overall the character “tropes” she chooses to use. When I look at my own writing through this lens, I can definitely see the parallels.

This made me worry that I might have been unconsciously mimicking her. That my style was not my own. I did some real soul-searching on this – the very last thing I would ever want is to ape someone else’s work. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my own style is an amalgamation of that of all the writers I admire. I see Sanderson in my sparse prose and use of humor. I see Lackey in my characters and my magic system. I see Butcher and Whedon in my dialogue. I see Hobb and Weis & Hickman in my tragic, tortured character backstories. I see Jordan in my massive, epic plot lines.

And I realized that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Our personalities are reflections of our past experiences, and I don’t see why our writing styles should be any different. We naturally emulate that which we admire; we take pieces of what we love and make it our own. I’ve come to think of it like a quilt. I can see the individual pieces – each square of fabric beautiful in its own right – but the whole is something entirely unique and beautiful on its own. No author can say for certain that their writing style hasn’t been influenced by someone else’s writing, just as we as humans can’t say for certain that our past experiences haven’t changed our personalities and made us who we are today.

However! Each author I admire has one big thing which sets them apart from the others. This may not be true for everyone, but for me, I admire Sanderson for his magic systems. Rothfuss, Beagle, and Gaiman, their prose. Lackey, her characters. Butcher and Lynch, their humor and dialogue. They excel at these aspects, and no matter what other pieces of the patchwork they may borrow from other writers, these are their showpieces.

I think it’s important for us, as writers, to find that One Thing which sets us apart and focus on it. It’s important for us to be well-rounded, to understand all the parts of our craft, but we can’t be masters of everything. Every author has flaws. Every. One.

If I could offer advice to other aspiring authors, it is to find the piece of your writing you think is the best and hone it until it is as good as you can make it. This is what will evolve into your unique voice. Ignore the little voice in your head which wonders whether you’re copying all those other influences from your reading. They are the alloy in which you set the shining gem that will make you stand apart – the background which blurs into obscurity behind the object in focus.