Thursday, 5 February 2009

Guest post: John Marco

Recently I decided that I'd like to try and get a bit more interaction going with authors on Speculative Horizons. As a fantasy fan, one of the things I enjoy most about the blogosphere is reading the opinions of authors on various aspects of the genre.

So I'm pleased to present the first in - hopefully - a series of guest posts by various authors. Kicking things off for us is John Marco, author of the excellent Tyrants and Kings trilogy, and also the Lukien trilogy (he's currently working on a new novel in this world). His most recent offering is the upcoming Starfinder, which sees John treading new ground as he writes for a slightly younger audience. John maintains an active blog here.

So without further delay, here's John's guest post.

Write What You Love

I’d like to start by thanking James for inviting me here to talk a bit about books and writing. I’ve been reading Speculative Horizons from the time it started, and it’s obvious that James loves both books and the genres of science fiction and fantasy. I mention this because what James does here—and what other bloggers all over the internet are doing—is important. In a time when print and in some cases reading in general is threatened, blogs like this one keep the flame alive and the genre vital. James left the door open for me to talk about any topic I wanted, and it took me a bit to settle on one. But then it occurred to me that some of the people who visit this blog are writers themselves—aspiring or otherwise—and that’s when inspiration struck.

A short while back I had lunch with my agent in Manhattan. This isn’t something I do often so I was looking forward to the meeting. And of course I knew the subject of the publishing industry’s woes would come up, and how epic fantasy was taking a back seat these days to urban fantasy and other genres. For a person like myself who writes epic fantasy, who’s made it his entire career in fact, this kind of talk is distressing. Publishing is full of ups and downs. Over the years I’ve gotten used to them (mostly!). But admittedly, things do seem to be on a downswing right now.

So what’s a writer to do?

Follow the wind, you might say. Writers are always being told to know the markets. And in fact that’s good advice. (If you’re planning to make a living writing Westerns, well…)
Give up completely, you might say. No one’s reading books any more anyway. They’re all online or playing with their Wiis. Find another dream. Find another outlet for your creativity. (As you might have guessed, I don’t subscribe to this one.)

During lunch my agent told me a surefire way to get published right now. Write about a girl who falls in love with some sort of super-natural creature, he said. Make sure it’s a girl, because publishers don’t want to see manuscripts about boys any more. Sex it up. Tattoos are good too. My agent being rather deadpan, I didn’t realize he was being facetious. I said with a touch of indignance that no, I wasn’t going to do that. I was going to keep on writing what I want to write, what I love to write. He looked at me and smiled and said, “That’s right. And if you didn’t, I wouldn’t represent it.”

We human beings are gifted at the things we love. That’s how we identify what we want to do with our lives. That’s the seed from which the struggle is born. Maybe the odds of getting published have never been worse. Maybe epic fantasy is on a permanent slide. I don’t know. It had a pretty good run, and like I’m fond of saying every train comes to a station eventually. But if you try to write something you don’t love—and I mean love passionately—you’re not going to succeed. I could never write the kind of book my agent “suggested” because I don’t read those kinds of books. It doesn’t matter to me if editors are actively looking for them; I can never write one good enough because I don’t know the genre and don’t have the “juice” to sit down and write one.

Now, I’m not here to criticize urban fantasy or any other genre. A lot of fine writers are working in that area, selling books and keeping folks reading. Great. They do what they do, and if you’re a writer and that’s where your heart tells you to go, follow it there. But if not…
If you’re a writer of any kind you’ve probably heard the advice to write about what you know. And the genres you know best are the ones you read. Unless the lights go out completely, there will be an audience for epic fantasy. Maybe it will be smaller, but it’s not dead yet so don’t go writing any obituaries. If your fondest dream is to write a great big, sprawling epic fantasy novel, then writing a thin little YA book isn’t going to do it for you. You can try, but you’ll probably fail. On the other hand, if you write what you love you might just come up with something exceptional, something so good an editor just can’t say no to it.
A dozen years ago, when I first got serious about getting published, epic fantasy was in full bloom. It seemed like a good and viable genre to tackle, but more than that it was a natural choice for me, because I loved the genre and always had. Things have changed and the world has moved on a bit, but there are still new authors getting published. People are still reading books.

When I was a boy I spent countless hours in my local library, scanning the shelves of fantasy and science fiction paperbacks, in love with the cover art and challenged by the content. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I knew what I wanted to write. I bugged my mother to drive me to the library, and rode my bike through traffic to reach it once I was old enough. I’m at that very same library right now with my laptop, writing this post. It still looks pretty much the same. It’s still filled with people, old and young. Recently I went downstairs to the fiction section and snapped a picture with my cell phone. They only have one of my books, but it’s there on the shelf, and now I have a picture of it to remind me why I do what I do. When I look at it I know I made the right choice. And I’m going to keep on writing what I love because that’s the only thing I can do.

Write what you love. Read what you love. Whatever it is, be proud of it.

Many thanks to John for writing such an engaging piece. I, for one, totally agree with what he says. Sure, aspiring writers need to take market conditions into consideration, but ultimately you have to write from the heart, not the head.


T.D. Newton said...

Fantastic post. I couldn't agree more (not that it would be my place to disagree), especially with where I am - in the aspiring category with a potentially big year ahead of me.

I think if you don't love your project, you won't champion it as much as one you did love. You won't talk about it with fervor to friends and family, your query letters will show your hesitance to let it out of the gate, and, in the end, you'll expect it to fail.

In this way, I think it's important to both write what you love as well as love what you write.

I'm a big fan of the Lukien trilogy - those were some of the first books to open my eyes to the fact that Epic Fantasy didn't need elves/dwarves/orcs and the like to be fantastic.

Kristen B. said...

Right on the money, John. Great post. If you don't write what you love, editors and readers will see right through it.

Aaron E M said...

It's interesting that you mention that your library has a single book of yours. I got hooked on your work by seeing a single copy of The Eyes of God at my local library. That, of course, led to The Devil's Armor and onward.

Sadly, while I love epic fantasy, my writing abilities have tended to be effective in non-fictional ways - but if that ever changes, be sure that I'll bear your advice in mind.

In the meantime, I'll be more than content reading your work.

Jooky said...

I would love to be able to go to my local library and run into John Marco. I was also introduced to Johns work through my library.

Iain said...

Well said John Marco, fantastic post!!

Wow, another author who I will have to add to my books-to-read list.

Hell' Teeth, where am I going to put all these books??

By the way, just what is Urban Fantasy??