The Guilt of Cancer

This article is a post from the NonsuchKitchenGardens.com blog put up by Sara on 15th December 2009. It is a precursor to the Silence of the Dying article. 

If you’re not up to reading a really, really angry post, with a few choice words, then please go no further.

Before I get started, though, I would like to truly thank Dr Karen R Brooks, an author, academic and newspaper columnist, who over the past few months has been such a loving, outstanding support. Thank you, Karen. I love you dearly.

I have been feeling angry for a long time, but it is very hard to articulate that anger (or I felt so guilty about trying to articulate it that I simply could not voice it). But the other day Karen (thank you, sweetheart) sent me an excerpt of a review of a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. It suddenly not only made sense of everything I’d been feeling, but in one wondrous swoop it lifted from my shoulders all that guilt I’d been carrying about (and which burdens so many people with cancer). It also made me very angry (yes, even more so!), because as I thought more about what the review said, I realised how people with cancer are made to feel guilty in so many subtle, different ways.

This post is a healing post for me, because it is the post where I am going to say, “Sorry, but I’m not falling for that guilt trap again.” I am absolutely over people who make those with cancer feel guilty.

The review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, appeared in the Washington Post in mid-November this year. Here is the part of that review Karen sent me:

… studies proclaiming a link between a positive attitude and cancer survival … are full of problems and discounted by most researchers. Furthermore, the popular insistence that cheerfulness can help beat the big C, while it can be a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, leaves patients in the uncomfortable position of having to deny their very real anger and sadness, even to themselves, for fear of being complicit in their own illness.

You can read the full review at the link above.

That small excerpt in itself hit a horribly painful nerve deep within me. How many times have I been made to feel guilty that I was depressed, or hopeless, or scared? That if I entertained those feelings, well then, I was simply going to allow the cancer to beat me, and it would all be my own fault if I died. How many times have I sat on my sofa, all alone, shaking in fear because I couldn’t banish the dark thoughts, and thinking those dark thoughts alone would condemn me? How many people have prattled on to me about the ‘power of positive thinking’, not realising that all they were doing was deepening my own pain, forcing me to suppress any feelings of anger or fright or grief — all emotions I was utterly entitled to feel. Perhaps they thought they were making me feel better. Instead they greatly increased my pain.

People diagnosed with cancer go through a huge range of powerful emotions. They are absolutely entitled to every one of those emotions, they need to move through them (in the same way people need to move through the grieving process), and they need to move through them at their own pace. Telling people to brighten up, or buck up, or try and put it behind you, or thinking like that won’t get you anywhere, or try to be positive, and numerous other empty platitudes, does such immense, immense harm.

I’ll repeat something that review said “… the popular insistence that cheerfulness can help beat the big C, while it can be a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining …” So be positive and cheerful, girl. Not only will that kill your cancer, it will make everyone about you feel that much brighter, too, as you’ll be such a nicer person to be around!

Oh dear, yes. I never realised until I developed cancer myself what a burden it can be – simply because the person with cancer often has to console many of the people about them. That is not true of everyone. I have family and friends who have been immensely strong for me, and I thank them and love them so much for it. But as for others, who I had to work hard to console and who, after a while, gave up actually asking me how I felt and came out with factual statements like, “Hello! I bet you’re feeling a whole lot better today! Right? Great!” … well, what can I say. I was forced constantly to say yes, I was feeling better, when all I wanted was someone to console me because I was hurting so badly inside. People with cancer have a double burden to carry – they not only somehow have to make it right for themselves, they often have to make it right for those about them, too. You are literally forced into false cheerfulness by the needs of those about you.

That is so bloody unfair.

Once that review got me thinking, I remembered many of the other subtle guilts I have been forced to feel.

One of the great guilt trips (which appears in many guises) is that you yourself are responsible for your own cancer, perhaps by hiding deep secrets or bad feelings (or whatever harmful little pimple of bad emotion you harbour deep inside). You have cancer? Then it is all your own fault, man, because you’ve been harbouring ‘unresolved issues’ haven’t you? This is a great one in alternative medicine. As just one example, on this page, about half way down, it states the belief of Louise Hay that “cancer is connected with deep hurt, long standing resentment. Or a deep secret or grief eating away at the self.” The site helpfully gives us Hay’s healing affirmation which we can say ten times a day in which we manage to forgive ourselves.

We have to forgive ourselves. Oh, well then, why don’t we just go all out and crucify ourselves at the same time and get it all over and done with. Thanks. Very. Much. Peace, light and harmony to you, too.

I also have problems with those who advocate alternative approaches to treating cancer because that often also increases stress and guilt. Despite what I say below, I am not against alternative approaches to treating cancer at all. I will happily try something if it resonates with me; I have most certainly tried alternative practices (although I’ve given up trying to forgive myself!). I don’t want to get into a debate about whether or not conventional medicine is better or worse than alternative medicine in treating cancer. Everyone is free to make their own choices and I fully support anyone with cancer going down Route A as opposed to Route B. Whatever makes you happiest, most comfortable and more confident, then do it. You can also mix both conventional and alternative happily and with few problems, and there are very, very few conventional medical practitioners who will want to try and stop you trying alternative approaches (whatever conspiracy theory the alternatives are trying to push down your throat).

What I hate (and deeply resent) is the guilt that gets ladled about on so many alternative medicine sites.

I have already mentioned Louise Hay’s theory that we’re all responsible for our own cancers by harbouring unresolved grief etc. The site where I found that little gem (www.cancerfightingstrategies.com) presents a guide to some alternative approaches to treating cancer, (but is heavily biased and the author of the site never identifies themselves, nor provides contact info – a big, big no no).

There was one thing on one page that soured the entire site for me – and, yes, it was the guilt thing again. The author discusses the idea that cancer cells feed off sugar, and suggests (as do many others) that you eliminate all refined sugars from your diet: “Cut out all sugars, cookies, chips, etc. Now of course, you may not want to change your habits. That’s okay, you have every right to live or die as you like.”

Bloody hell. What a patronizing bastard (or bitch – as they don’t identify themselves I can’t decide which way to go). I eat a pretty sensible diet. I don’t ‘do’ chocolate or crisps or cookies, or very, very rarely. I eat lots of organic veggies. I cook from scratch from whole, healthy foods. But my single love is a cup of milky, sweet tea. Now even that is denied me, because some ghostly voice will be echoing inside, ‘You know you’re killing yourself with this cup of tea, don’t you?’ (And, of course, the animal protein in the milk will do me in, too, as so many happily advise.)

I have to feel guilty about a single bloody cup of tea with milk and sugar. You may think this a small, insignificant thing – but it isn’t. Multiply this a thousand times by all the things the alternative practitioners tell you not to do (because if you do them you are feeding your cancer and are, quite simply, responsible for killing yourself) and your life becomes a nightmare of guilt and fear.

There are so many sites like this on the web. They each have an agenda to push, and they don’t hold back on using the guilt trip to get you onto their particular hobbyhorse. Everywhere you go there is someone laying further guilt on you. Very quietly. Very subtly. Any pleasure is denied, even a decent sob, because it will likely kill you … and it is most certainly your fault you have cancer in the first place.

A word also about what happens to someone who suddenly announces she or he has cancer. Every single one of us, I am certain, gets inundated by well-meaning people about alternative approaches to treating cancer. We are referred to countless websites, articles and books about miraculous waters, minerals, enzymes, juices, diets, meditations, teas, amazing berries from the foothills of the Himalayas, courses, healing hands/back supports/magical dusters, and the amazing power of dancing naked under the moon at midnight. Amid countless others.

Personally, I have been referred (completely unasked) to well over one hundred different web sites and/or approaches. Can I just point out, very politely (and without screaming, which is what I really want to do), what this does to someone? All of you well-meaning people are now forcing me to choose between over one hundred conflicting bits of advice about which route to go down. Can’t you understand that I now sit on my sofa and shake in fear about choosing the wrong one? Do I really need this kind of incredible stress?

It is the same as if all these people have taken me to one hundred different conventional doctors, all with different approaches, and then sat me back and said, ‘Make sure you pick the right approach, or else you’ll die’. (Need I point out the guilt issue again.) From talking to other people with cancer, as others with serious diseases, this is a pet hate of many – that they are inundated with unasked-for advice by the well-meaning who simply worsen an already incredibly stressful time.

If someone asks for the information, then by all means hand it over. If someone doesn’t ask for it, then please stop ladling out the advice. It does not help. It makes it much, much worse. Please credit whoever it is with cancer (or whatever serious disease) that they have enough intelligence to know who Mr Google is, and that they know what Mr Google can do, and that if they want to avail themselves of Mr Google then they bloody well will all on their own. And if they don’t want to avail themselves of Mr Google, then please accept that this is their right, too.

I know that if I keel over one day, then many of these people who push this or that bit of advice are going to suck their teeth and scratch their arses and say (or think), “If only she’d done what I’d suggested …”. And, yes, conventional practitioners will say it too, if their advice has been ignored.

Anyone with cancer knows that at their death there are going to be countless multitudes lining up to say, “Oh, if only she/he had taken my advice …”.

All the guilt people with cancer are forced to bear …

A single issue keeps coming up with alternative medicine sites and spokespeople. If all these alternative approaches were so bloody wonderful, why don’t conventional doctors push them? Well, the alternative medicine practitioners and their fans mutter, that’s because the conventional medical practitioners won’t make any money this way so they’re hardly going to tell you about them are they?

Oh God, that makes me so fucking angry. It always has to be a conspiracy, doesn’t it? The fact that the alternative medical practitioners are going to make money from their alternative medicines and treatments is never mentioned! There is an entire industry out there feeding off the terror (and the guilt) of the hopeless, and I find that vile.

Why are there so any people ‘out there’ who insist, and insist on telling me (or by insinuating it by suggesting this, that, or ninety-eight other alternatives), that I have taken the wrong route? Do you really think you are doing me a kindness? Where in God’s name is your humanity?

I can only speak of my own personal experience here, but none of the surgeons, doctors, oncologists and nurses who have seen me throughout my (conventional) treatment have proved to be black-hearted money grabbers who have intentionally withheld information from me because it won’t make them a penny. They have all been genuinely caring individuals who have done their very best for me.*

Not one of them has sat back and moralized about thinking positive and seeking a higher spiritual plane by eating an alkaline diet (or via whatever means) when I’ve been sitting sobbing in front of them. They have simply held my hand, or hugged me, and told me they understand, and asked what they could do for me. They have been brilliant. They have never once made me feel guilty. They have never once pointed the finger at me and said, “It’s your fault”, nor have they once insinuated it, and yet alternative medicine and all those platitudes offered by the well-meaning does this over and over and over in a myriad of subtle, horrid ways.

Well, I am past the guilt. I am angered by all those who ladle out the guilt, but I am now past it.

So now I am going to have a cup of tea with some sugar in it, and think some glum thoughts, just because I damn well can.

*There was one extraordinary doctor who gave me some expensive treatment one day. When I fronted at reception to pay, the doctor poked her head into the reception area and said to the receptionist, “There is no charge. She has been through enough already.” That, my friends, is conventional medicine. And that, my friends, was such humanity and compassion that it even now, months later, leaves me in tears.

Australian Shadows Award

dreaming-again-coverThe Australian Shadows Award is an annual literary award established by the Australian Horror Writers Association (AHWA) in 2005 to honour the best published work of horror fiction written or edited by an Australian. Works are judged on their overall effect within the horror genre based on the author’s skill, delivery, and the work’s lasting resonance.

In 2008 Sara Douglass was a finalist in the Australian Shadow Awards, with This Way To The Exit, a short story included in a collection called Dreaming Again, edited by Jack Dann and published by HarperVoyager in 2008.

This Way To The Exit is also included in The Hall of Lost Footsteps, a collection of short stories written by Sara Douglass over the course of her writing career, published by Ticonderoga posthumously in 2011.



Should I send my Manuscript off to be Read?

Once you have finished a manuscript, most writers have an incredible urge for ‘someone to read it’.

First port of call is a friend.

Friends are bad. Friends generally have no critical skills. They are either going to praise it to high heaven in order to please you, or they will be overly critical. They almost certainly won’t pick up on the real issues within a manuscript (for example pacing, dialogue, wordiness, or huge holes in the plot). Unless your friend is a professional editor or writer themselves, and is prepared to put the friendship on the line, you won’t get any decent feedback from friends at all. There is nothing more frightening to an editor at a publishing house to pick up a covering letter to a manuscript to read “all my friends love it!”. I know many people whose friends have all loved their book – none of them have ever had their books published. Unfortunately there is generally a huge chasm between a commissioning editor’s view and a friend’s view.

Second port of call is often the internet – publish a chapter on the web and have everyone comment on it. We’ve all heard the success stories: unknown author puts first chapter of book on web, a surfing editor falls over it, massive publication deal for millions of dollars ensues the next day. Some of these stories are even true. Sometimes it does happen, but … and this ‘but’ is a killer.

Apart from the obvious (strangers on the web are likely to give you even worse feedback than your friends), there are massive drawbacks. Putting up a book on the internet, or part thereof, is literally publishing the book. It is very likely that no publisher will ever consent to publish in hard print a book which has been circulating on the internet (and once it is on one page, trust me, it is circulating). Many of my publishing contracts now state that no portion of the book has ever, or will ever, be put on the web prior to, or within a year of, hard print publication.

If you have ever put a manuscript, or part thereof, on the web then you must, here and now, consider it lost. It has already been published, it has been circulated, and it is likely no one else will touch it. Hard print publishers do not want used stuff – they want fresh, new and completely unseen by anyone manuscripts.

But still you are consumed by the need to ‘have someone read it’. The third thing people do is try to send it to an author to read. Blind. Without even asking them (and in the hope that they’ll adore it so much they’ll beg their publisher to pick you up). Sometimes this can work, but there are also issues here, as well.

First, when I was an unpublished author, I would never in a million years have done that – I would have considered it incredibly rude (which gives you an idea how I feel about manuscripts landing in my post office box). Sending a manuscript, or part thereof, off blind to anyone is rude, and invariably will be seen that way. Write first, and ask. Read the person’s web page to see if they accept manuscripts. I don’t, as the vast majority of authors don’t, and I clearly state that on my contact page, but you’d be stunned to know how many people still send stuff anyway (and it goes straight in the bin – those are letters I won’t even acknowledge).

Now, before you think authors are incredibly mean, I need to explain why authors generally won’t read someone else’s work when it arrives unannounced in their mail box.

First, they are hugely busy – when five thousand people a year send in manuscripts, without asking, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that those manuscripts are not going to be read. We largely don’t have time enough to work on our own books the way we want, without having to deal with everyone else’s as well.

Secondly, and far more importantly, it is worth more than the hides on our backs to read other people’s work. Authors absorb ideas, and while we may not consciously plagiarise, five years after reading someone’s manuscript we may unwittingly incorporate their ideas into our own work – and then, hey presto, we’re in court. So most authors simply will not read other people’s work, and very particularly manuscripts that are sent in blind, because they shriek of unprofessionalism, and, in this instance, that’s highly dangerous. We don’t want to be sued, so we don’t read unsolicited manuscripts.

So who can you send your work to?

There are professional readers and editors who will critique a book for you (and I do mean critique, you will not receive a short paragraph of praise, but an indepth critique of how the work can be improved). Wherever you are in the world, you do need to be careful of sharks. For your money (and it will cost), you should get that indepth critique, and you need to work out beforehand with the provider what your money buys. Check with local writing societies, they will be able to give you an idea of who is working in your country or state and who is legitimate or not. Never trust anyone who claims they can get you published. If you pay for someone to critique your work you deserve a detailed report on it (although you don’t necessarily deserve a favourable report).

There may be local writing societies who are happy to read, but make sure they can provide professional critique, and not just hobbyist advice.

Is there a local college or university which offers creative writing courses? Taking a course may be very good for you – you can not only get someone professional to read your work, but you might learn something new as well.

You can send it off blind to a publishing house – you just never know your luck, but I advise very seriously against this. Ring or write first, ask someone to read it, and, if they do, consider their advice. You won’t get as much as advice as from a professional editor/reader, but it may help.

Authors also will work with unpublished writers via mentorship programmes. These vary from country to country, but I have on numerous occasions worked one on one with a young writer via mentorship programmes run by the Australian Society of Authors or other state bodies. They are professionally run, it is fun work, and applicants are interviewed and screened before hand.

Me? I never got anyone to read my work. I wrote and wrote and discarded and discarded and when finally I thought I had something worthwhile, I wrote to an agent, and asked if she’d like to read it (I didn’t send it off blind). She consented, and the rest is history.

The Author Tour

I am often asked what it is like to head off about the world promoting one of my newly-published books. I think most people assume they’re enormous fun and that authors look forward to them with bated breath and massive enthusiasm.

I used to think that, too …

Meeting readers is always a great deal of fun, and generally very rewarding.

But author promotional trips are generally not always the best means for either reader or author to make acquaintance.

The trip is paid for completely by the publisher. That means they want to get value out of the author; they want to sell books, after all. So days are generally packed with events and with people to meet (not readers, but people connected with the publishing industry, or booksellers, or agents … not readers as such).

What does ‘packed’ mean?

Well … imagine being in a different city every day. You rise at 4 am so that you can fly to whichever city you’re meant to be in that day. You arrive at a hotel completely exhausted (because you’ve been up late the previous night), if you can get to your room then you might have time for a shower and change, and then by early afternoon it is off to the events for the day.

Usually this will include book signings and bookstore promotional events. I enjoy these the best of anything connected with touring. Your get to sit down, signing books and chatting to readers generally isn’t very stressful (and usually very interesting), and people bring you things to eat and drink.

I like book signings. *grin* They can be strange, though, because just occasionally someone can line up for hours just to tell you how much they dislike my books. the fact that they might dislike them doesn’t’ fuss me, but I am amazed they felt the need to take an afternoon out of their life to make a point.

And bookstore events are great because sometimes parents bring in babies that have been named after your characters – I love that!

Okay, so we’ve established that I like book signings. the down side to them is that generally they are very rushed, and that the publicist is intent on dragging me off somewhere else.

That ‘somewhere else’ will almost always have to do with publicity, which means either a television studio or a radio station, or perhaps a sit down in a hotel lobby with a journalist.

I don’t mind radio interviews, but I loathe television interviews. That’s mainly because in a television studio, very particularly for a live show, guests are herded like cattle, you don’t get to meet the host until ten seconds before the interview commences, and you have no idea on earth what they’re going to ask. That means there you are on a live show and almost always the host throws you The Most Unanswerable Question in existence.

Then, once they’re done with the interview, the host turns away, you’re hustled off and the next guest hustled on … and it is just the most dehumanizing experience.

Radio interviews can sometimes be like that as well, but generally radio interviewers spend some time with you before hand, perhaps establish what they’d like to talk about, establish a rapport … and some of the live radio interviews I’ve done in studio have just been absolutely fabulous.

Of course, I could be sent back to my hotel room where I can be sat at a desk for six hours and do phone interview after phone interview after phone interview.

That can be absolutely horrendous. No matter how enthusiastic you may have been about your book at one point, by the time you’ve done all the writing and editing and proofing you never want to see it again, and having to do a publicity tour when you’re enthusiasm for a book is at its lowest ebb isn’t such a good idea!

Also, you may be promoting different books in different countries. It hasn’t been unknown for me to get off a plane, get in a car with the publicist, ask her desperately which book it is I am supposed to be talking about here, and does she have a copy on her – and if she does, then I desperately read the blurb on the back cover to remind me what the book is about!

So imagine between three to six weeks of this, living out of a suitcase, days running from 4 am to midnight, seeing only the inside of television or radio studios and hotel rooms and bookstores, and nothing of the city or country you’re actually in, and by the time I have finished I am literally ill with exhaustion and stress.

So the next time an author doesn’t appear particularly friendly at a book signing, just remember that they’re probably totally exhausted and thinking only of home.

Non-American authors tend to regard the American tour with complete horror – it is known as the most difficult place to tour in because of the nightmarish scheduling .I actually now have it stipulated in my contracts that I do not have to tour. I have become so ill and so exhausted, I just can’t do them any more.

It is better to go to a conference to meet and chat to authors – everyone has more time, no one is rushing off somewhere, and there is usually a bar close handy.

©2006 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Darkglass Mountain Trilogy

Tencendor is no more. The land is gone.

But not everyone is dead.

StarDrifter SunSoar, father to Axis, somehow survived the catastrophe and lives in Coroleas. But he is not the only Tencendorian to survive. Caelum SunSoar, in the days before the Timekeeper Demons decimated the land, maintained extensive diplomatic contacts both with the Corolean court and with the court of King Maximilian in Escator across the Widowmaker Sea. Now more than five thousand Icarii, as well Acharites (the human race of Tencendor), the remnants of these diplomatic corps and their families, live scattered about Coroleas and Escator.

Among them are many Enchanters, but none with the same degree of potential as StarDrifter SunSoar.

The destruction of Tencendor was an event that attracted attention all about the edges of the Widowmaker Sea. The Coroleans were amused (they had always envied the Icarii), and the Escatorians were saddened (they had admired the Icarii’s ability and learning), but further afield, in the land of Ashdod far to the south of Escator, news of the downfall of Tencendor promoted intense speculation.

And … well … no … that’s enough of the story line for now, I think!

The Darkglass Mountain trilogy is a chance for me to bring back all my favourite characters (well, most … I am trying desperately to write Hal Bolingbroke into this but don’t think I will be able to manage it) into the one story line. StarDrifter, of course. Axis. Maximilian, King of Escator, and an older Garth Baxter.

There will be new characters – the enigmatic Ishbel, the novitiate priestess of the semi-mythical Viscerati; Salome, a Corolean duchess, who has spent her life trying to hide a terrible secret; Isaiah, the battle-weary Tyrant of Isembaard; his court maniac, Ba’al’uz; and the Skraeling Lord, back at the head of his ghostly army.

You can see the working map for this series – showing the lands of Tencendor, Escator, Ashdod, Viland and Coroleas all shown in relation to the world on which they exist (or existed, in the case of Tencendor!).

You can now also read a page on The Serpent Bride.

©2006 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Strange Horizons: Beyond The Hanging Wall

beyond-the-hanging-wall-us-editionMines, Magic, and Monarchy: Sara Douglass’s Beyond the Hanging Wall

Set in Douglass’s Wayfarer universe, this is a tale of a power struggle in the kingdom of Escator which leads to the teenaged heir’s supposed demise. But what only a few know — including the man who usurped the throne — is that the death was faked.

What makes this novel worth reading, despite the too-light editorial hand, is that Douglass has devised a world where healing and magic have their prices, kings are made by trial and not only by birthright, and characters possess enough cultural and individual diversity that they are not immediately known or understood by all others. Douglass sets up an interestingly complex magic system that exhibits some actual thought beyond the templates used in cookie-cutter fantasy novels. Maximilian’s reluctance to leave the world of the Veins, the only reality he’s known since boyhood, is a very plausible and human element of his story. There’s not much blood and thunder here; this is a more thoughtful tale.

This book has faults. Editorial work should have been concentrated in the first 50 pages, which is where Douglass repeats certain phrases too often and too close together.

Theses details chip away at that all-important suspension of disbelief required to immerse oneself in fantasy worlds; chip too much away and that little bridge collapses. This novel doesn’t quite do that, but the little gaps make the mind itch, just a bit.

The fact that this is a stand-alone fantasy novel is worth noting all on its own. Such novels are rarities nowadays, since multi-volume fantasy series continue to sell well despite critical name-calling (before it got to be more than three books in a series, it was called committing trilogy — interesting connotations there). While Beyond the Hanging Wall has some defects, it also has an involving story and characters who draw the reader into Douglass’s vividly constructed Wayfarer world.

©2004 J.G. Stinson / Strange Horizons. To read the full review on the Strange Horizons website please click on this link.

Mostly Fiction: Hades Daughter

Hades-Daughter-1sted-usa“Cornelia was born and raised and fed by the evil that crawled out of Hades’ Underworld down the river to Mesopotama,” Membricus said. “She is Hades’ daughter, not Pandrasus’, even though he might have given her flesh. Thank the gods we have to endure only a few more months of her.” He paused. “For otherwise, my friend, if she continued to draw breath, then I think –I know — she has the power to destroy your entire world.”

Hades’ Daughter by Sara Douglass

In an interview, Douglass mentions that the Troy game is something that she’s read about in different periods in history. The idea of the existence of a real Troy Game makes this even more intriguing of a concept. She sells me on the book’s concepts completely, combining rich historical possibility with facts, creating not only a plausible and beautiful ancient world, but also making an excellent argument for the indelible connection that past events have on history as a whole.

©2003 Cindy Lynn Speer / Mostly Fiction Book Reviews. To read the full review on the Mostly Fiction website please click on this link.

The Rules of Writing

Currently some 99% of manuscripts sent in to publishers end up in the rejected pile. This is a horrible statistic, but it can be avoided. Of that 99% possibly some 50% could have had a decent chance if only their authors had adopted a more professional and business-like approach. This page is designed to give you some general tips, from starting out on your first work, to presenting a manuscript to a publisher. It is not a complete guide to writing; if that’s what you’re after, you should make use of one of the many excellent books on the market.

First rule – don’t give up. It generally takes time and disappointment to get published. But if you keep at it, and are prepared to learn … then the chances that you will succeed are good.

Second rule – be prepared to wait. Publication, fame and fortune almost never happen overnight.

Third rule – be professional. The publishing industry is run on hard-nosed business principles, and the sooner you understand that, and approach your writing with business sense rather than emotional expectations, the sooner you will be published.

I reiterate the point I made above … for some reason people lose all common sense as soon as they have a collection of words down on a collection of pages. Writing is a skill, not a talent. No-one is born with a ‘talent’, so everyone has to learn the skill of writing … it took me fifteen years of practice and honing skills. Take time to learn the skill, practice your craft, and then approach a publishing house with the same degree of common business sense as you would a bank manager from whom you hope to get a loan.

Some general advice on writing: what kind of book might be best for you to write, how to establish a discipline of writing etc.
Learning how to make your reader’s imagination work for you. One of the big things in writing is learning to use your reader’s imagination; making your reader work will work for you.

Once you have a manuscript, then you need to know how to approach a publisher.

On a more personal note, how do I write? And where do I get my ideas and inspiration? Easy. I have a business-like approach to baths.

If you’ve written something, and would like someone to read it over for you and give you some advice, then there are people who can read your work for you … but for a fee. Reading and commenting on a manuscript is a great deal of labour-intensive work, and there are professional assessors (who often work as freelance editors for publishing houses) who can give you high quality feedback on your work. They will professionally assess your work, which is something friends and family cannot do. You can find professional readers and manuscript assessors listed in writers centres or even the phone book (please don’t approach writers to do it, no professional writer has time to read anyone else’s work!).

Two very good Australian services which I highly recommend are Edit or Die, and Driftwood Manuscripts.

A word of warning: there are a lot of sharks out there – people who feed off the desperate need of those who want to be published. Beware of people who charge a great deal of money for reading alone: if someone charges you to read your manuscript, then you have a right to expect something back in return – an extensive critique or commentary, for instance. The USA has had a huge problem with literary agencies who do nothing but charge people for reading their manuscripts – the agencies never actually seemed to take on clients. This is not, as far as I am aware, a problem in Australia. A literary agent should never charge you to read your manuscript (apart from a small fee for return postage) unless that agent is going to provide you with a lengthy written commentary on the manuscript. So just be a little bit wary about who is out there.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Creating the Modern Epic Romance

Some time ago I gave a talk to the Shakespeare Society here in Bendigo (I’ve since given abridged forms of this talk elsewhere) called Creating the Modern Epic Romance. It’s a bit silly, but you might enjoy it.

This evening I’d like to talk about 2 things: why the fantasy (I loathe the word, but must perforce use it) … why the fantasy market has exploded throughout the western world in the years after world war 2, and some of the highs and lows of trying to write in a genre that demands not only thick books, but never-ending streams of thick books that deal with distant worlds, eternal quests, and an undying conflict between good and evil that can never be solved.

Fantasy is now the largest — and growing larger by the month — genre in fiction in the western world. Its fans range from children to inmates of aged care homes, from bricklayers to judges. Love of fantasy crosses all sexes, all classes, all ages, all walks of life. It sells as well in K-Mart as it sells in top notch book shops. There are millions of Australians, more millions in western Europe, the UK and the USA, who badger bookshops and publishers for more, please. A successful author is never left alone and never left in peace. She or he has got to get the next book out as soon as she or he can, and preferably last week. Why?

People who have never read fantasy, or who don’t like it, believe that fantasy is a) a fad based on Tolkien and, b) is childish. The reading public is bound to grow up at some point (when they will, presumably, start to read Jeffrey Archer), and the Tolkienish fad will die. Neither view, in my view, is justified. Fantasy is far older than Tolkien (again, it is only in the post WW2 years that the genre has been called fantasy) and it is far from childish — although there is a large proportion of fantasy out on the market that is either meant for children … or is indeed just plain childish. The fantasy genre as a whole is not helped by the fact that there is some very, very bad fantasy out there.

So before I talk about some of the highs and lows of trying to create the ‘modern epic romance’, I’d just like to talk briefly about where fantasy has come from, and why it still sells so well.

People often assume that fantasy began with Tolkien (and Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed). But the assumption that fantasy began with Tolkien is wrong — the history of the genre extends back thousands of years into the folk tales and myths of pre-medieval society. All human societies have always loved epic tales and myths, they’ve loved their constructs which are used time and time again, and today’s fantasy genre is merely a continuation of a love that has endured for thousands of years.

But not only is fantasy a continuation of an ancient love of myth and epics, it is one of the only ways people can now access that ancient love. Apart from the odd film, or role-playing game, there is virtually no other way people in our society can sate their craving for epic romance (although they might not think of fantasy as epic romance) that is relevant to their world.

But what is it about fantasy — or whatever — that people adore? There are several aspects to this, several things, or several needs, that fantasy can provide that people find it very, very hard to find elsewhere.

What? Action and adventure, yes, but it is far more than action and adventure. Romance? Yes, but it is more than romance. Fantasy allows people to — safely — indulge in their craving for a world where the mysteries of that world outnumber the sureties or the answers, where life is a constant conflict between the forces of good and evil, light and dark, and where life itself becomes a quest — a frightful, dangerous quest, but a quest where people can at least become something other than the mundane, where they can grow into some thing, or someone, with the power to aid the forces of good into eventual victory (of sorts) over the forces of evil. Fantasy gives their life a meaning they can’t find in their daily lives.

That may seem a tad pretentious, so let me explain myself in a bit more detail. Before the rise of modern science, let’s say before the sixteenth century, people lived in an enchanted world that was literally filled with the forces of good and evil: saints and angels, demons and sprites, spiteful elves and homely goblins. All of these creatures and beings truly existed, because the medieval world — and world view — allowed them to exist. The medieval world was literally a magical and an enchanted world but a world under constant threat from the forces of evil. People grew up and lived in a world where the ultimate goal was the salvation of their souls. People knew that the angels and saints were engaged in constant fight with the forces of evil for their souls. Life was a continual contest between good and evil. It was a horribly scary world, because the forces of darkness could snatch you or your child or your one remaining cow at any point, but it was a world that sated whatever desire it is that lives within humans for the unknown, for the mysterious, and for the unexplained. It was a world that was rich in food for the soul.

And then, if I can push things along a bit, along came the science. At the same time the Church, or churches and religion, began to fail and to lose their influence. In the new, brave and sterile logical scientific world, science exiled the elves and the angels. They didn’t exist. They were cute, but they were childish. The ancient conflict between good and evil, the never-ending fight to stay one step ahead of the demons and sprites who lived in the dark spaces of your home and farmyard were pushed safely into the realms of children’s fairy stories. People could relax. The only important things in life were to get a good job and pay off the house.

Science expunged the mystery and the danger from our lives. And perhaps, for a while, we thought that is what we had always desired. A safe life.

No longer does our world endure the once eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil. No longer must we keep a light burning in the house lest the demons creep out of the gloom and snatch our children. No longer need we appease the gods in the woods so that our crops might continue to grow. We only need to add blood and bone, and the only person we need to appease is the check-out girl at Safeway.

Our lives have indeed become a safe way. We have science to explain it all for us, and to get it all done for us. Life is full of logical explanations. There are no mysteries left, or, if there are, then the people in white lab coats assure us that they’ll be solved next week, or next year at the outside. The unexplained is no longer allowed to exist. It must be explained. It cannot be allowed to remain unexplained.

Science has done wonders for our lives — and I am the first to admit that I love the comforts that science has brought to our lives — but science has stripped us of mystery, and of romance, and of adventure and of the unexplained. We are not allowed to partake in the mysterious and the unexplained any more, because there are no mysteries left, and there are no adventures left to dare, and there certainly aren’t any demons lurking in the gloom under the gum tree waiting for the first chance they can get to snatch your soul. The forces of darkness have been repelled. Three cheers for science.

Well, our lives have become safe and comfortable, true, but they have also become bland and boxed. Being able to achieve a good job, and being able to pay off the house is wonderful, and it sure brings a nice warm feeling inside … but modern life goals are no match for the mystery and enchantment we’ve lost in the quest for a ‘safe and comfortable’ and totally explained life.

Our souls — the very ‘whatever it is’ that makes us human — crave romance and excitement and mystery. And isn’t it a remarkable observation on today’s society that one of the few places that people can find mystery and romance and adventure, one of the few places that people can once again engage in the quest and in the eternal conflict between good and evil (apart from religion), is labelled ‘fantasy’. That very label speaks volumes for what is important, and what is not, in today’s society.

It is, therefore, heartening to know that ‘fantasy’ sells in huge numbers, and it is heartening to know that one of the things that I am told over and over again — especially by young people, but it comes from all age groups — is that they read, and adore, fantasy, because it replaces the mystery and romance that they feel has been lost in their everyday, and somewhat mundane life. It fills the gap — and where else are they to go? Yes, people want a good job and a paid-off home, but they want a garden for their soul as well, a garden with strange, unmarked paths down which they can quest for the unknown and mysterious … and where they can risk their lives and souls in that quest.

Why else are we alive?

Having said all that, especially having said that people crave the mystery and excitement of the quest where death awaits around the next corner, people don’t actually want to literally experience the quest. No-one wants to wake up one morning and find Evil Incarnate at the front door and saying something like, “Swords at dawn okay for you, then, mate?” A book is a nice safe outlet for the yearning for the quest; it sates the craving in the soul for mystery and adventure and danger without the need to fret about how good your sword-wielding skills are.

So, fantasy sells well, hugely well, because it fills a need, in an otherwise often soulless existence, for mystery and romance and adventure, a need for a quest in which we can find ourselves something other than we first thought, and a quest in which we can prove ourselves. All the ‘cliches’, or constructs of modern fantasy, are there because people want them to be there.

However, and whatever the history that stretches back hundreds if not thousands of years, there are some things which are out in modern fantasy writing. I’ll talk about these in a while, but there’s one I just want to mention at this point. Strangely, I had someone say to me on the weekend that they’d had a manuscript rejected by Pan Books because, and I quote, “No-one wants to read about the quest these days.” I could cheerfully assure the rejected author that a) not only were Pan Books extremely suspect when it came to knowing what was in and out (after all, Pan had initially rejected me as someone who would never be able to sell a single book … some months ago my agent was on the phone to Pan about something else when she sweetly interjected that were they aware that Douglass’ sales were 200,000 and climbing, and what was it exactly they’d said about me?) … where was I? Ah yes, the rejected author who had included a quest and had been rejected by Pan on that count. Well, not only can Pan not always be trusted to know what can sell and what can’t, but I think the quest is very much in, and probably will be for all human time.

The quest is vital to both the fantasy book, as it is to our daily lives, but the author must be aware of what the quest is about before they embark on trying to build one themselves. Certainly there is always something that the heroes, or characters, or whatever, quest towards, whether it be a magic sword, or enchanted ring, or the single book in creation that can tell them how to deal with the evil lord that’s currently gobbling up the ice-bound north. What the author must realise is the object of the quest is never, never important, it is the quest itself, and what the characters who quest learn about themselves. A quest, for whatever object, is really an internal quest for what lies within, even though it is acted out in an external quest that may extend across a thousand leagues and several mountain ranges in the process. A quest is about finding yourself, about finding your true meaning, and about being transformed in the process. Whatever Pan thought, readers still long for the quest because it gives them the hope that one day they might find that kernel of truth within themselves, and become something other than what they appear, or what the world tells them they are.

So the quest is still a very, very vital part of the fantasy epic … the trick is not to make the object the important part of the quest … but to make the internal and very personal quest of the lead characters the important thing. The bad fantasy books around that make me tear my hair out are those in which the characters don’t change during the quest: they remain the same people as when they began. For the reader, that is one of the most frustrating, even hopeless, situations, because it denies them the hope for their own voyage of self realisation.

So here we have the fantasy author who wants to write a book, and hopefully one that will provide a garden for all those hungry souls out there. How does one go about creating the ‘fantasy’ world, how does one create the modern epic romance, and what are the highs and lows that involves?

First of all, one must create a world in which to place your epic. Again, before the rise of science in the sixteenth and later centuries, such tales were placed in our world, because this was a world in which goblins and elves and evil workers of enchantment and magic could exist. But science has banished all these creatures and peoples and enchantments to the realms of children’s fairy stories, to the world of fantasy, so the modern author, in order to allow their readers to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the tale, must perforce create a new world, or a different world, or, place their tale in one of our past worlds.

Thus, one must create a new world — and one of the great luxuries of being a fantasy writer is being able to create a world in which you make up all the rules. I remember speaking to a author who does crime fiction (can’t think of his name) who, in the past year or 2, put out a book about a murder mystery in Melbourne. At one point in the book, the author had the hero take a ride on a number 8 tram through the streets of Melbourne where he finally got off at the corner of St Kilda Road and some smaller street. Not sooner was the book out than the author was overwhelmed by mail from readers saying that the Number 8 tram not only didn’t stop at that particular corner, it didn’t go down St Kilda Road in the first instance, and what the hell did he think he was doing, ruining the story like that? The poor fellow was tearing out his hair, because he’d spent months researching that book, and taking tram journeys around Melbourne and making sure that people could get off a Number 8 tram at such and such a corner, and so he went back to check his copious notes, only to find out that he’d meant to put down a number 18 tram, but somehow in the printing process the 1 had been dropped and the entire murder mystery had been endangered in the process. No wonder I prefer to create my own worlds! At least none of my readers can actually take the merchant ship across the Sea of Death to prove that the Island of Fear actually lies in the Bay of Tears rather than the Inlet of Grief.

However, having said that the fantasy author creates a new world, we create is actually this world … but this world very slightly warped and returned to a more magical and — perhaps — a more naive age. The template for most fantasy writers is the medieval world — the last western world in which the fantastic was allowed to exist.

It is also, even for most Australian writers, a northern hemisphere world, where January and February are cold and snowy, and June and July are hot. Why? I am often asked … well, mostly because we’re forced to by the expectation of our readership. We might live in the great hot southern land, but our culture, and our mythic imaginations, are mostly European. And the northern European landscape (both geographic and mythological) is still where most fantasy writers choose to set their grand tale. Again, there are exceptions, but they are the exception.

Whatever, the fantasy author must recreate this world … with only a few slight changes (and those slight changes are generally to be able replace the mystery and magic that science has cut out). The problem in creating a vastly different world, and the reason why we don’t do it, is that the reader won’t be able to relate to it, and the one thing most fantasy readers want to do is to relate to the world they are being presented with, and to be able to place themselves within it. They want/need to be able to partake in the journey as well. They still need to be able to access the quest.

I just want briefly to mention how I create this ‘new’ (or revamped earth) world. Sometimes people who want to write fantasy feel daunted by the whole idea of having to create a new world, of having to create a plot that is deep enough to sustain at least one thick book and hopefully 3 thick books, and also creating all the characters and situations to go with this in depth plot. Not only that, but in creating a new world you must also create a new religion, a new culture (and a culture with myths that stretch back hundreds if not thousands of years), a new language, new systems of counting, new of ways of relating to space and time (new distances, new ways to tell time), new swear words … the list goes on and on. And, you must do this for every race you create to live in your world: every race has its own culture, languages, religions, myths etc. How long is all this going to take? the would-be author thinks, and perhaps decides it would be best forget the entire idea.

So how long does it take? No less than half an hour, no more than 2 hours, and 2 hours is more than ample. Quite literally, all you have to do is create a map, that is, create a landscape … and that landscape will then present to you the types and numbers of races, the structures of their societies, what is important in their lives and how they live their lives. It also give you religions, gods, systems of magic, government … whatever. Even the myths that stretch back into the unseen past. The landscape itself will give you the rest.

I’ve always started with a map. I sit down and take a half an hour to draw freehand, and without any planning, a map of a land. Here’s the coastline (always putting in a bay or two so you can have a port town … ports always come in useful), here’s a few towns, here some lakes, here hills, here’s a bog, here a road, and so forth. Oh, and always a fog-bound island or two off the coastline from whence fierce pirates or mysterious barges can sail forth from time to time. Once you’ve done that, then you can see where different peoples are going to live: here the people who live on the plains and grow crops and herd livestock; here the hills where live isolated groups of mysterious monks; here the peoples who live in the soaring mountains or the flat wastelands. The landscape dictates how they live, and from there you move quickly to the nature of their religions etc., the types of conflicts which might occur between the various races, the resentments that will blow up, etc. etc. etc. By morning tea time you have a plot and something to keep you out of mischief for several years while you write it up. Easy.

Now, I’ve always found that process easy, but I didn’t realise how easy it was for other people until this past weekend when I conducted a workshop on how to construct the fantasy world for the Bendigo Writers’ Group. I divided people up into groups of 3 or 4, gave them some general instructions and some do’s and don’ts, and set them down to, in their first half an hour, create a landscape. I must also add that about half the group were made up of people who’d never read fantasy and didn’t know much about it.

So I left them to it and wandered off to the kitchen and had a cup of tea and eaten all the chocolate biscuits the Writers’ Group had kindly provided, and then I wandered back in to see how everyone was going. I was stunned by what had taken place in my absence. All the groups, in half an hour, had not only created a landscape, represented by a rough map, but had also created the societies, races, creatures etc. which lived in their landscape. Myths and cultures were there as well. Not only that, they’d also got well started on their plots. All in half an hour. None of this had I asked them to do … it was just that once they had a landscape before them, the peoples and races and cultures almost literally leapt off the page and bit them on the nose. By the end of the workshop, which extended over 5 working hours, most groups had books ready to be typed up.

It showed me two things. One, the power of the human imagination given only a few prompts. And 2, what the human imagination does once it can visualise the landscape of a different world. Instantly it populates that world with gods and religions, races and conflicts, heroes and scoundrels, and even a thousand years of myth. One group, in presenting their world, got so carried away they began their presentation with the hundreds of years of myth and history that had shaped the races of their land.

Well, back to the creation of the fantasy world. Like most fantasy authors, I almost always use a clone of the western European medieval world as a template. In fact, my societies and landscapes are the medieval world, and I bless the day I decided to bind up my first year lecture notes and send them off to a literary agent as fantastic fiction. I haven’t looked back since.

Even though the author may choose to recreate one of our past worlds, most often the medieval world, the author faces some restrictions, and a few things that he or she must be very, very careful about. Because the fantasy world is so largely (if loosely) based about the eternal conflict between good and evil, the issues within the fantasy book can too easily become rigidly black and white. It therefore becomes a huge temptation for the fantasy author to portray not only issues, but cultures, in purely black and white terms. It becomes too easy, in using the template of a paternalistic and racist world, to be both sexist and racist in the newly created world.

An example: in many fantasy books (and some of mine, I admit) the main plot is driven by the conflict between two races (generally of very different creatures). Here is the race which leads a blameless (if rather boring) life on the plain, and here the malformed, dark and evil creatures who live in the hills and who, through sheer evilness, resolve to invade the good folk who live on the plains. Dark enchantment is hurled about by the handful, and at the very last hour the good (if somewhat naive and boring) folk who of the plains find amongst themselves a golden hero who is able, through sheer goodness and strength and bravery, to revive the forces of the good against the evil swarming down from the hills, and defeat them — generally only by the skin of his teeth. Ultimately the forces of the hill folk are completely wiped out, their culture is destroyed, their homes burned, and their leader killed in a particularly disgusting — but totally justifiable — way.

There is no shading, there are no grey areas, simply the good and the bad, and the bad have no redeeming qualities and must be wiped out … often only because they are ‘different’.

That’s bad. but it is all too easy, and the author has to be careful to avoid it while still trying to couch the tale in terms of this eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil, light and dark.

So, how to avoid it? The most successful fantasy books about are those which shade the difference between good and evil to the extent where there is almost no difference at all. There may still be a conflict between two races, or two types of beings, one of which closely resembles us and one of which might well closely resemble deformed toads, but the issue of who is right and who is wrong, who is cruel and who generous, who good and who evil, can be blurred to the extent that the readers should despair that any one side, or race, must lose at all, or must despair at the flaws and faults of the so-called good guys.

The sexist trap is also an easy one to fall into. Again, if the author bases his or her work on a medieval template — which society was highly sexist according to our understanding — then having weak and directionless female characters becomes too easy. Female characters can be shoved into roles that don’t allow them to choose their own destiny, or where they are merely beautiful appendages to the golden (and male) hero. Men, on the other hand, become the ones to lead the quests (their beautiful appendages carry the backpack with the food), it is the men who obtain the magic sword (their beautiful appendages will dust it off for them and glue the enchanted ruby back into its spot on the hilt), and it is the men who then thrust the magic sword — grunting manfully — into the dark overlord’s person (while their beautiful appendages swoon gracefully, and beautifully, in a gloomy corner). While this is easy too use (and I admit to having played about with it myself), no-one really wants to read it any more.

And, I am more than pleased to say, it seems to be the men leading the charge in not wanting to read it. I’m certainly pleased that my books have sold well, but I am more than surprised that my main readers seem to be men, because while I use the basic formula (golden hero leads quest to destroy evil overlord), I have strong female characters, and in almost all situations and books it is the girls who save the day after the golden heroes have tripped up miserably over their pointy-toed shoes and don’t know what to do next.

The other trap that fantasy authors have to be very careful not to fall into is what I call the ‘cute-trap’. There has been, and remains, I guess, a perception that fantasy is somewhat childish, and that if grown ups still read it, it is because they yearn for the tales and constructions of their childhood. Feeding this perception is the ‘myth’, if you like, that Tolkien is the grandfather of all fantasy, the best fantasy writer there ever was, and all fantasy not only derives from him, but must be as much like him as can be. All of that is false. Tolkien was/is only one aspect of fantasy, and his style is but one aspect. Tolkien was very, very good at what he did, but Tolkien-pretenders are so far out they’re lost somewhere on the Sea of Death as far as the current market is concerned. Why? Mainly because although many readers start with Tolkien, they grow up and move on, and they want fantasy that has grown up and moved on as well.

So Tolkien pretenders are out … what else is ‘out’? Cute furry creatures are out. Cute scaly ones are, as well (at least as main characters). Elves, goblins, dwarfs and dragons will virtually get a manuscript rejected on first sighting. There’s a manuscript that has been going around the Australian publishing houses for the past 3 years. It’s basically a very good manuscript, but it has a goblin on p. 49, and that’s been its death knell with every publishing house thus far.

What do publishing houses and readers want? Grit. Realism. What many hopeful authors over the past 30 years have overlooked — and I’m convinced it is the key to success in today’s fantasy market — is that, as I have said, the people who read Tolkien as children or teenagers, and who adored him, then proceed to grow up. For many years there was a huge hole in the fantasy market. Readers of 25, 35 or 55 still wanted to read fantasy, but they were sick to death of cute (especially if it lived behind a green door), they were sick to death of dragons, they were sick of people being stuck in the guts with swords and not saying, “Oh, gosh, that hurts”, and they were beyond sick to death of teenage hero after teenage hero. The adult readers wanted fantasy they could relate to, not the stuff of childish imaginations. They wanted to be able to partake in the quest, and they were not being allowed to.

About 15 years ago readers started to get what they wanted, although it came out only in dribs and drabs. Books that addressed real issues, books that had flawed heroes of over 25, books that had grit. Where pain was pain, and people endured large amounts of it. Where sometimes the good guy died and evil won. Fantasy over the past few years has become increasingly darker, and I don’t think that has any other reason for it than the fact that the market was over-stocked with the cute-Tolkien would-bes.

But while there are several aspects of fantasy that are ‘out’ in today’s market, there are some things about fantasy books that have remained, and I suspect will remain, the same for a very, very long time.

The first and most obvious of these is that fantasy books not only come in thick, but they also come in series of 3, 6, 9 or 13. One of the things I’ve learned as an author is that stand alone books often don’t sell. There are exceptions, but the market literally demand a tale that doesn’t end for a very, very long time. People want to immerse themselves, and they don’t want to leave. There is only one time I’ve been castigated for writing very thick books: a man came up to me once and said that he found my books very hard to read in bed because they were so thick. “I can only use one hand for the book,” he said, and so I asked why he could only use one hand to read in bed. Why? “Because I like to keep the other hand on my wife’s breast,” he explained.

So writers are stuck with the thick book, and the need to produce thick book after thick book. (Readers not only like to immerse themselves in the tale, of course, but they also like to get as much value for their $14.95 as they can.) This creates its own problems … fantasy authors have been known to pale and get the shakes when their agent rings them up to say, “Your last was such an outstanding success we need another 5 more. By next year, if you can.”

Can you imagine how hard it is to create a plot that you know will probably have to go on for 3 thick books and, if the initial series is successful, may have to go on for another 6 or 9 thick books?

So how do you do it? I always start by creating as many characters as I can: I can always kill them off later if I find I don’t need them (I know my characters spend their time between scenes in a pleasant room somewhere drinking endless cups of tea and saying things like, “Oh god, she’s halfway through book 2, that means she’s going to start to kill off those of us she’s decided she doesn’t need. Look out, chaps, half of us are for the chop!”). But what a large number of characters means is that I must also create numerous subplots to keep everyone gainfully employed, And what that means is that I am going to have to end up tearing my hair out trying to keep track of them all. Often, although not always, I must keep huge charts showing where every character and subplot is at all times, just so that I can keep everything under some semblance of control.

But just as often things get completely out of control. One of my nightmares, and one that occurs in just about every book, is that, as the quest runs its course, all the characters from every one of the plots ends up in the same inn at the same time. (Everyone always stays at roadside inns on quests. It’s just one of the things one does.)

Think about it. Thirty-five characters, all of whom are important enough to justify their own scenes, end up in the same inn at the same time. Thhis is no scene where they can all have their say — that would be a book in itself — and only some 3 or perhaps 5 of them will ever be able to talk. So where does that leave the other 30? Standing against the wall so involved in their jugs of beer they don’t feel like talking?

Over the years, and the books, I have evolved my own way of dealing with these scenes. In the early days I’d have the lead character stand up and say something like, “Well, I know what we’ve all got to do, and I’m going to stand here for an hour and tell you, and I don’t want anyone else speaking until I’ve finished.” And then when he has finished, he can say something like, “That’s it, no more to say. Now, everyone off on the quest. Hop to it! Go!” And out the door they’d all obediently go.

But you can’t do that too much, and I still have those damn scenes with everyone crowded in the same room and with not much for most to say. So now I’ve evolved a different way of dealing with it.

First, everyone gathers and someone buys the lot a round of drinks, complaining about the price as she or he does so. That takes care of half a page but I’ve still got all 35 standing and wanting to have their own important say. So, before the hero arrives, I stage a fight. Ten people are involved, out of which 6 are so badly injured they slip into a coma and can’t say a thing for the rest of the scene (down to 29). Several of the other characters, let’s say 5, can be so concerned about the 6 in a coma they decide to ride off in search of herbal healers. (Now we’re down to 23.) At this point the hero arrives and is so appalled by the carnage he ejects from the room the 4 fighters who are still on their feet (down to 19), plus 6 more men whom he says should have stepped in and stopped the fight in the first instance. (Down to 13.) Another 5 can be thrown out for swearing, or for being too drunk (down to 8), 2 more can be sent off to make sure the horses are okay (down to 6), another can be sent off with an important dispatch for the king (5), a further 3 can be sent to make sure nasty black creatures aren’t about to crawl down through the roof . That means we’re down to 2. One of these 2 can get upset with the hero and storm out of the room, and the other can drop dead from the poison put in the beer earlier by the landlord concerned that the 35 would not stay about to pay their bill (he was right).

That means the hero is left in an empty room (apart from those in comas or dead), with no one left to tell what to do. He can sit down and have a beer and wonder why there’s never ever anyone around for him to talk to. Problem solved.

The other problem with masses of characters is that you forget what you’ve done with them. I may have smiled with the author who got the number of the Melbourne tram wrong, but I’ve done far, far worse. After a while, especially when into the fifth book of a series, and there’s 4,000 pages behind you, and perhaps 3 or 4 years of writing, you just forget what’s what, who’s who and who’s got what. The odd instance where someone’s eyes mysteriously turn from blue to green is mildly annoying, but sometimes it gets far, far worse. In my most recent book (Pilgrim) I had a character who had nimble enough fingers to take up weaving as a craft … what I’d overlooked that I’d blown off his left arm in the previous book (Sinner) (and that arm-blowing-off scene had been the big scene of that particular book). Not only had he grown his arm back – but he’s taken up weaving as a craft!

I had numerous, and somewhat anxious, inquiries from readers wondering how he’d regrown his left arm. Needless to say, the arm has now been re-blown off in the reprint (can you imagine, in that room where all my characters wait out there turns for scenes, drinking endless cups of tea, there’s one poor chap who had been immensely cheerful because abruptly he’d got his arm back he’d been able to both drink his tea and eat his date cake all at the same time, and now he’s lost it again). I just have to be more careful about keeping track of characters, and it means that on my big charts of who is where and when, I am now also going to have to add things like, ‘left arm blown off one book ago,’ ‘one eye gone’, ‘minus two arms, a leg and a nose’ etc. It quite takes all the fun away!

Another of the great lows of writing endless series of books is being tied by what has gone on in previous books. It can be something as small as wondering what colour someone’s eyes were (and then trying to skim back through 4,000 pages trying to find the single line where I’d ascribed his or her eyes a particular shade), to trying to explain convincingly how so and so, killed in book 1, has now made a reappearance in book 4. None of my characters ever stay dead.

Nevertheless, whatever my mistakes, readers always seem to forgive me, so long as they feel they’ve got something precious from the books: a moment of hope, a chance to experience the grand romance and the mysterious and dangerous quest themselves. There’s one way that has really forced on me the realisation that my books do affect people … and that’s the number of babies about that have been named after some of my characters … and some amazing names. I was amazed to learn that some months ago a couple had decided to give their newborn son the name DragonStar … at least it was as his middlename and not as his first!

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises