Excellence in “Borrowed” or “Original” Novels?

Excellence in “Borrowed” or “Original” Novels? by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

No author writes anything, even the most “original” fantasy or far-future ultra-high novel, without borrowing from somewhere.  To begin with, language, the very medium in which novels are written, contains cultural artifacts and meanings. Given human history, a wide range of religious and political structures have been tried, and history tends to suggest which work and which do not.  Tools of all sorts are cultural artifacts, and so on.

So, in my mind, all authors borrow, either from their own culture or from other cultures and times, and the only real question is whether an author borrows tiny pieces and rearranges them into something that seems completely “original” or whether he loots some culture or another, or even two or three, and files off the serial numbers, so to speak. 

There have been well-written works of fantasy and science fiction created from relatively small amounts of tiny borrowings and a greater amount of originality, and there have been well-written works based on whole-scale borrowing or “cultural appropriation” [which appears to be the current negative terminology when an author borrows from a culture which is seen as not being his or hers]. 

Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light borrows heavily from Hindu religion and mythology, and his Creatures of Light and Darkness borrows from Egyptian mythology.  Tolkien drew from the Volsunga Saga and the Elder Edda.  More recently, R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War draws heavily from Chinese history, and she admits that one scene is essentially a fantasy copy of the Rape of Nanking.

In a contrast, Iain Banks’s far-future Culture series [beginning with Consider Phlebas and ending with The Hydrogen Sonata] portrays an incredibly different galactic society combining AIs of different levels, aliens, and humans with enhanced capabilities and different governments and social structures.  My own Haze offers a very different governmental and social system as well, as does my novel Adiamante.

On the other hand, more than a few novels, which will go unnamed, are essentially shameless copies of history or of other authors’ works.  In this, by the way, I’m not talking about alternate history novels, because the point there is to show some sort of contrast, to indicate what might have happened and why.  

All of this raises two questions, possibly unanswerable, except by each reader, and these are:

  1. At what point does an author’s “borrowing” turn a novel into a copy of sorts?
  2. Are novels that don’t borrow wholesale or in large chunks inherently better?

In some ways, the questions are almost academic, but they’re questions I’ve pondered for some time.

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Patreon?

Patreon? by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Lately, I’ve run across more and more writers, singers, and other artists who have set up sites on Patreon to solicit financial support for their writing.  There are even some non-profit publications and foundations asking for contributions through Patreon.

At least some of those writers and singers have set up such sites because changes in the publishing and music industries have reduced their sales, and thus their ability to support themselves off their royalties.  As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, I personally known some authors who used to be able to support themselves by full-time writing who can no longer do so.

And many other authors, me included, now offer websites with blogs and/or information, in hopes of generating greater interest in and support for their work.  

What many people who haven’t studied the history of writers, singers, and composers may not realize is that over most of history, very few of such artists could actually make a living from their art itself.  The great composers, such as Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and others, relied on the support of patrons, such as the Emperor Joseph, the Esterhazy family, the Catholic Church, or others.  The only writers who could support themselves were playwrights, such as Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, who not only wrote the plays but performed them, and used the performance revenues to support themselves and keep writing – and many of them still needed some patronage, often royal.

Writers were in even worse shape.  Not until the nineteenth century could any significant number of writers, other than traveling bards, support themselves by their writing.

So, the democratization of patronage, through internet entities such as Patreon, is really just a new iteration of a long-standing practice. 

While it’s obvious why writers and other artists would turn to Patreon, either to start a career or to help finance one, Patreon, despite its more “democratic” approach to patronage than the traditional model, contains the same basic flaw as the patronage of Mozart’s time.  What’s paramount in success is the ability to raise funds.  Yes, a certain amount of talent is required, because over time people won’t support artists who aren’t very good, but it’s the mixture of fund-raising and artistry that determines success under any patronage system, not the excellence of the artistry.

Now, I’d be the first to admit, popularity also was a factor in traditional publishing.  Years ago, the Christian Science Monitor used to publish a listing of the best-selling fiction books, and in that listing was a column with either a red arrow that pointed down or a green arrow that pointed up.  That arrow represented the consensus of major published reviews.  And guess what?  Generally, but not always, the best-selling books featured red arrows.  I have problems with reviews that attempt to direct popular tastes, and with reviews that are more agenda driven than an effort to offer a fair assessment of a book, but the plain fact is that popular books are those that more people relate to… and many technically excellent books aren’t exactly popular.

That said, sales numbers at least reflect what the readers believe about the writer’s work.  Patronage funding reflects internet sales effectiveness as much as the work produced.

And, under traditional patronage, the works of excellent composers [if often difficult as individuals] such as Mozart and Beethoven were far less rewarded than the works of composers no one remembers and whose works are seldom performed.  One of the dangers of any patronage system is that it tends to reward talents other than excellence in artistic achievement.  And from what I’ve seen so far, Patreon is coming to resemble traditional patronage systems, if not totally, because it has enabled some outstanding writers to break in. 

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Shorter Isn’t Always Better

Shorter Isn’t Always Better by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

The other day I was going over some editorial corrections/suggestions sent by my editor, who was concerned that I was using too many long sentences with too many subordinate clauses.  As I’ve always said, when an editor has concerns, a writer needs to listen, although sometimes what concerns the editor is only a symptom, not necessarily the cause.  But I liked some of those sentences.

Still, I broke them up into smaller sizes… and then I realized something. Longer sentences, properly written, convey more information in fewer words than a series of short and direct sentences.

I recall that one of the ancient Roman writers apologized in a letter for its length because he hadn’t the time to make it shorter.  Most people who cite this or similar observations miss the point.  Making it shorter doesn’t mean breaking things up into little pieces, but rather making the sentences precise and as concise as possible in order to convey the information or feelings without unnecessary wordage.

Some people have difficulty reading long sentences, for various reasons. That, I understand. But… the danger in writing short sentences is that the paragraphs become jerky, and in a novel that can be even more distracting than long sentences.  So, reluctantly, I aim for the middle, despite the fact that I believe longer sentences are not only more efficient, but also more elegant.

Are there times for shorter sentences?  Absolutely, particularly if you’re writing a first grade primer, or a manual for employees or others with short attention spans and/or less than exemplary vocabularies.  They’re also best for political slogans to stir up prejudices.  And they’re often necessary for superiors who refuse to spend more than thirty seconds considering anything.  Necessary, but not better, especially since condensation of complex issues often results in short-term actions that lead to longer-term disaster.

And, of course, short sentences are vital for misleading tweets… and demagogues who rely on simplistics to gloss over what they don’t understand or don’t want others to understand.

All of which is why I’m often skeptical of anyone, including editors, who claims that shorter is always better..  

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Lead-Time and Instant Expectations

Lead-Time and Instant Expectations by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Quite a number of writers have a successful first book, possibly even a second… and then fade into obscurity.  There are several reasons for this.  The first is obvious.  The fact is that later books often just don’t sell as well, either because they aren’t written as well or because they just don’t hold the readers.  From what I’ve observed, publishers will publish books that even editors aren’t that fond of, or decent books where the author is a real pain in the ass – if they sell.  They’ll also continue to publish books that get great reviews and that editors like, even if the sales are disappointing, but just not disastrous.  But if an author is obnoxious and the books don’t sell that well, usually that author’s career with an established publisher is rather short.

But there’s another reason why some authors fade after a few books.  Some authors never truly understand the lead-time problem.  These authors, from what I’ve observed, share similar circumstances.  They wrote a book, often working on it for some considerable time.  Then it sells, and they get the advance, usually in halves [on signature and on publication] or thirds [on signature, on acceptance of the final manuscript, and on publication].  What many fail to recognize is that this may be the only money they get, because, if the sales aren’t good, the royalties won’t exceed the advance, and the advance is just that, a non-returnable advance against royalties.

This means that a writer had better start working on the next book immediately after finishing the first one – or resign himself or herself to staying at the day job forever.  Publishers really want the next book in hand or close to being in hand by the time the first book is published.  Yes, a few authors do flout that convention and expectation and get away with it – but only because their first book continues to sell, and that only happens, so far as I can see, in less than once in a hundred times.

Part of this inability to recognize this situation, I submit, is that computers and the internet have fostered the idea that everything can be accomplished faster. And that’s true in part for writers.  Having a computer file available as the basis for re-writes and revisions makes that part faster, but it doesn’t speed up writing the first draft that much from writing on an electric typewriter.  Since I wrote my first books on electric typewriters, and likely remain among the comparative handful of writers still writing who did, I can assure you that revisions and re-writes are much easier – and that the computer only speeds slightly that first draft.

So… if you’re fortunate enough to sell that first book, do not pause; do not relax and celebrate for more than a few days before you get back to writing.  You don’t want the editors or your few fans [and most beginning writers only have a few fans] to forget about you.

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Urban Fantasy Thrillers with James Jakins

Good day and welcome to this episode of the Fantasy Focus podcast. I’m your host, podcaster and author of Fun Fantasy Reads, Jamie Davis. This podcast is exactly what the title says it is, a show focused on everything in fantasy books. 

From Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, and everything in between, expect to find the best and brightest authors from all the various corners of the fantasy book world. Plus we’ll add in a few other very special guests as well along the way.

Let’s kick things off with my personal update. I’m working on edits for Cyber’s Escape, the second book in my new cyberpunk sci fi series. The story takes a definite twist in this part of the trilogy and I look forward to wrapping it up so I can mover on to book three. I’m also still writing the first draft of the yet to be named urban fantasy story with a virtual reality (VR) gamelit twist. Stay tuned for more updates. 

Don’t forget my upcoming cyberpunk sci-fi book Cyber’s Change is coming soon. You can pick it up at the 99¢ preorder price in all the ebook stores. Reserve your copy today at the pre-release price.

As always, if you’re interested in more information on what I’m up to, check out my fan group on Facebook, Jamie’s Fun Fantasy Super Fans and on my website and blog, JamieDavisBooks.com.

Now we get into the special guest for this episode. Today, I’m excited to say we have James Jakins on the show. James is a South African born writer with an American accent because children are cruel and laughed at the way he said “orange.” He was the last kid in his class to learn to read, so once that was remedied he quickly made up for lost time and read everything he could get his hands on. 

His first novel, Jack Bloodfist: Fixer is about an orc living in Virginia who has to protect his friends and family from a vengeful paladin. The sequel, Jack Bloodfist: Freelancer, is releasing this April. He is also releasing an anthology of short stories by a variety of authors to raise money for suicide prevention and awareness. It is called Where There Are Dragons and features a little something for everyone.

Check out my chat with James about the Jack Bloodfist books and more, coming right up.

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Medieval Gangster Fantasy with Peter McLean

Good day and welcome to this episode of the Fantasy Focus podcast. I’m your host, podcaster and author of Fun Fantasy Reads, Jamie Davis. This podcast is exactly what the title says it is, a show focused on everything in fantasy books. 

From Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, and everything in between, expect to find the best and brightest authors from all the various corners of the fantasy book world. Plus we’ll add in a few other very special guests as well along the way.

First my writing update. I started this week on a new Urban Fantasy series with a gamelit twist. I’m excited about the basic premise and starting a new project always gets me fired up to get creative and write. I’ll have more on that project coming soon. 

Don’t forget my upcoming cyberpunk sci-fi book Cyber’s Change is coming soon. You can pick it up at the 99¢ preorder price in all the ebook stores. Reserve your copy today at the pre-release price.

As always, if you’re interested in more information on what I’m up to, check out my fan group on Facebook, Jamie’s Fun Fantasy Super Fans and on my website and blog, JamieDavisBooks.com.

Okay, enough about me. Let’s get into the special guest for this episode. Today, we have Peter McLean. Peter is the author of the fantasy gangster thrillers Priest of Bones and the upcoming Priest of Lies (to be released July 2019). His first novels, the Burned Man series, are noir urban fantasy. He has also worked on game tie-in short fiction for various franchises including Warhammer. 

Peter lives in Norwich, England, with his wife Diane. Make sure you check out his site over at TalonWraith.com or on Twitter at PeteMc666.

Let’s get to it and chat with Peter right now.

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Miles Cameron on Re-enacting and Martial Arts on Podcast Episode 9

miles cameron author

Good day and welcome to this episode of the Fantasy Focus podcast. I’m your host, podcaster and author of Fun Fantasy Reads, Jamie Davis. This podcast is exactly what the title says it is, a show focused on everything in fantasy books. 

From Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, and everything in between, expect to find the best and brightest authors from all the various corners of the fantasy book world. Plus we’ll add in a few other very special guests as well along the way.

First an update on what I’ve been up to. I’m getting ready to work on a brand new Urban Fantasy Gamelit story alongside another author I can’t name at the present time. This is going to be a whole new twist on the genre and I think will be a welcome addition to the genre. I can’t wait until I can share a snippet of the story with you all over on my Facebook group.

If you are an audiobook listener and want to listen to it for free, all my audio books are available via your local library system, just ask your librarian to check them out and order them. I’ll bet some of them are there already. Cyber’s Change will be there, too, in early April.

As always, if you’re interested in more information on what I’m up to, check out my fan group on Facebook, Jamie’s Fun Fantasy Super Fans and on my website and blog, JamieDavisBooks.com.

Now it’s time to get into our special guest for this episode. Today, I chat with Miles Cameron, also known as Christian Cameron. He is a Canadian novelist, who was educated and trained as both a historian and a former career officer in the US Navy. His best-known work is the ongoing historical fiction series Tyrant and the book Cold Iron. Follow him on Twitter @phokion1.

Here’s my chat with Christian (aka Miles).

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Rob Hayes Talks About Dark Fantasy on Podcast Episode 8

rob hayes, viking author

Good day and welcome to this episode of the Fantasy Focus podcast. I’m your host, podcaster and author of Fun Fantasy Reads, Jamie Davis. This podcast is exactly what the title says it is, a show focused on everything in fantasy books. 

From epic fantasy, Urban fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, and everything in between, expect to find the best and brightest authors from all the various corners of the fantasy book world. Plus we’ll add in a few other very special guests as well along the way.

First an update on what I’ve been up to. I’m getting ready to work on a brand new Urban Fantasy Gamelit story alongside another author I can’t name at the present time. This is going to be a whole new twist on the genre and I think will be a welcome addition to the genre. I can’t wait until I can share a snippet of the story with you all over on my Facebook group.

If you are an audiobook listener and want to listen to it for free, all my audio books are available via your local library system, just ask your librarian to check them out and order them. I’ll bet some of them are there already. Cyber’s Change will be there, too, in early April.

As always, if you’re interested in more information on what I’m up to, check out my fan group on Facebook, Jamie’s Fun Fantasy Super Fans and on my website and blog, JamieDavisBooks.com.

Now it’s time to get into our special guest for this episode. Today, I chat with author Rob Hayes about his writing adventures. He’s been a student, a banker, a marine research assistant, a chef, and a keyboard monkey more times than he cares to count. But eventually his love of fantasy and reading drew him to the life of a writer.

We chat about his new book, Never Die, coming soon and also about his love of reading and meeting all the fellow fantasy readers out there. You can catch up with him on Twitter @RoboftheHayes.

Here’s my chat with Rob.

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Jack Bloodfist: Freelancer Review by Noelle Nichols

Jack Bloodfist: Freelancer by James Jakins

Review by Noelle Nichols

Freelancer is the second novel following the character of Jack Bloodfist, fantasy’s most humble half-orc, half-goblin character. It’s another enjoyable read from James Jakins that shows the growth of the author—with a story that expands the universe and storytelling on grander scale—while still staying true to the core of this story.

For someone who doesn’t read much Urban Fantasy, it’s been interesting being introduced to such a vast world with so many supernatural beings. At times, I found it a bit overwhelming. I’ll be the first to admit that I enjoy a story where we center around one character, with a strong character-arc, so this one felt a little more distant in the sense that we see the story being played out from different points of view and writing styles.

However, this is a matter of taste, and there’s certainly lots of scenes where you get to experience Jack’s witty banter and commentary that you feel close to the characters, so much so that you wish you could just pop over to play a few games of Mario Kart. (Which would be awesome, btw).

This is a different book than the first one, but I liked it for being different, and I appreciated the author keeping me guessing at where the story was heading. When I picked it up, I certainly was not expecting where it was going, which is always a pleasant surprise as a reader. 

As with the first book, I enjoyed the bits of humor and pop culture references, one of my favorite being a little easter egg for writers where he calls out the info-dump coming. I laughed at that part, and was smiling through a lot of the others witty scenes and humorous lines.

As for the main plot is starts off with the spear of destiny and spirals out from there, adding in a trip to the fae world, a run-in with some werewolves and a trip to New York city. All in all, an enjoyable tale that expands on what the first book created, with new and old characters. 

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Jack Bloodfist: Freelancer Review by Steve Caldwell

Review by Steve Caldwell

Author: James Jakins

Length: 326 Pages

Publisher: Robber’s Dog Pub

Release Date: April 21, 2019 (expected)

Genre: Urban Fantasy

I read the first book in this series, Jack Bloodfist: Fixer, last year. I found it to be a refreshing change of pace from the usual wizard PI and shape changer mechanic/bounty hunter tropes in urban fantasy. The story about a group of orcs, goblins and elves on the run from their own dimension settling in a small town the US is creative and fleshed out really well. This book takes off months after the climactic events of the first book.

After the events of the last book, Jack is now working for anyone who will write him a check. From guarding werewolves locked up for their monthly change to working with a corporation that fights supernatural menaces, Jack finally has the respect he has craved. Unfortunately, he also has more responsibility, as a case Jack is working on, a break in of a pawn shop, has consequences far greater than he could have imagined. 

When a necromancer attacks Jack and his family at a gathering, Jack must fight with his friends to find out what her plans are. What he finds out has potential consequences for the entire world, since it goes far beyond just orcs and wizards, to some truly powerful divine beings with plans that don’t involve peace and love for everyone. Jack finds out the universe is a much bigger place than he expected, and their are beings he never would have expected pulling the strings behind reality. Jack has a role he could have never imagined in the scheme of the world.

While the first book did a good job setting up the characters, This book really expands on them. We get little bits and pieces revealed throughout, really fleshing out the characters pasts and their motivations. The setting is expanded as well, and we get to see how the new arrivals to earth interact with the larger world. The new additions with the reveal of a larger universe work in the story, and some mystery is still left for later books to flesh out. All in all, it improves on an excellent series debut in just about every way. 

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