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On the Feast of Stephen – one from the archives

Some of my own writing…

Originally written on St Stephen’s day, 1995.

I updated it a little for a recording a few years ago.

“Good King Wenceslas”

A Christmas Fairy Tale

GOOD King Wenceslas looked outOn the feast of StephenWhere the snow lay all aboutDeep, and crisp, and even.Brightly shone the Moon that nightThough the frost was cruel.

* * *

LANKIN trod lightly. It was the only way he knew. Though the snow was deep, crisp and even, the footprints his felt slippers left in the surface would lead you to think that it was no more than an inch or so deep. Or that Lankin had very little material substance, which was rather nearer the truth.

Behind him, at the treeline, it wouldn’t have been diffcult to imagine small, sharp narrow eyes, watching from the darkness, but Lankin didn’t need to look back to know that the Queen was watching from the woods, and he didn’t have to look up at the moonlit hills to know that somewhere, the King, also, was watching.

Lankin, if his thoughts could run that far, was thinking of where he was going, and, if he could manage a thought so far from his instinctive nature, of what he would do, when he got there.

* * *

IT would have been called, in a more traditional tale, a cottage. It was more of a croft, long and low, shaped like a tumulus or small barrow, covered (if you could see under the snow) with layers of interwoven bracken fronds, but now, under the deep, crisp, even snow, the only features that disinguished it from the other humps, tumps, hummocks, hillocks and lumps around and about, was the thin column of smoke rising, from a chimney little more than a hole in the roof, in a straight line like a rope to the vivid stars.

With a certain amount of cursing, the Old Man, whose name was Felix Godbolt, shoved open the much repaired door, cursing the snow, the cold, the poor workmanship of the door and its hinges, and cursing most of all his age, that made the snow, the cold, and anything that required good workmanship his enemy.

His snow shoes were woven from twigs and willow-bark, and he pulled behind him a flat sled, on which he had loaded a couple of bundles, and axe, and some blankets. A casual observer, especially one that knew the song, might well have wondered where he was going to load the winter fuel, which he must have been going out over the deep, crisp, even snow to gather.

But the old man was not an idiot. If he had thought that he could survive the winter by going out into the snow to gather firewood, he would already have been many years dead. The croft was itself more than half filled from floor to ceiling with firewood, and there was a pile behind the croft fully the length and height of the croft itself.

He pushed the door hard closed with his shoulder, cursing again, and made sure that the horseshoe was hung straight above the doorframe, before setting out across the snow.

* * *

WENCESLAS, both King and Good, stood in Christian Bliss, watching the final preparations for the celebration of the birth of Christ that would, that night, take place within the Great Keep of his mighty feudal domain.

Every year, year after year, the same great feast, the same glorious mass, the same distribution of winter essentials to his guests. For this night, Wenceslas’ guests were the poorest of the poor of his kingdom – the serfs and bondmen, the dispossessed tenants and cursed sick, the lame, the deformed, those touched by the hand of God, and those abused by the hand of man.

For the moment, Good King Wenceslas looked in.

He looked into the mews where the austringers were preparing the birds for the Great Fly Past at midnight – most of the hawks would not take part – this was a job for the two Little Owls, and the Merlins, who could be trained to fly at night. The austringers would have spent much of the last two months rounding up the doves that would circle the keep in a great humming cloud.

He looked into the stables where for once there was quiet – none of his visitors had horses, and Wenceslas felt that on this Day it was better for the horses to be unseen, and he could feel that he was among his visitors.

He looked into the cellars where the butlar was teaching the underbutlar the art of judicious wine selection. He was at the point of saying that the secret was not to serve the best wine, but the one most likely to please the palate for which it was intended.

He looked into the mighty kitchens, where a fireplace large enough to accommodate four oxen was, indeed, accomodating four oxen. The heat in the kitchen was almost unbearable after the crisp sharp cold of the courtyard and the quiet still cold of the cellar. The fire was being charged with logs that took two grown men to lift, and the kitchenboys turning the spithandles and ladling wine and fat onto the carcases were having to work short shifts as even their iron screens were not enough to prevent them from being slightly roasted themselves.

(A cook offered Wenceslas a cup of hot wine, but he refused, preferring to await the beginnings of the feast.)

He looked into the dressing rooms where platters were being built up on dishes the size of cartwheels, and tunnys, flagons, kegs, barrels and bottles were being carefully pre-stacked for their speedy delivery to the hall in the proper order.

He looked into his daughter’s suite, where serving girls and pages were lined up, each one to be finally dressed by the Princess (who spent the rest of the year being dressed by them).

He looked in one by one on his sons, each of whom was preparing his party piece, beit a speech on the virtues of man (the eldest), a demonstration of the fine art of fencing (his second and third) or a selection of reels on the fiddle (his youngest).

Finally, he looked into the great hall, whose four fireplaces already blazed, where narrow tables had been laid out, narrow benches crammed in, and boards and knives set at each place. Wenceslas knew that it was a matter of pride for those that attended the feast every year to bring back the same knife that they would have found at their place at the table one the first year they attended, though each year a few knifes were taken home, by those who were there for the first time, or those whose knife had been lost, or worn out, during the current year – and of course those who had no need for a new knife, but who took one home anyway, through prudence or absent-mindedness.

The finishing touches were being added to the decorations. In other parts of the castle, seasonal decorations were of cloth or even paper, in addition to all the winter greenery that would be brought in to show that inspite of the cold and the deep, crisp, even snow, there was still evident green life outside in Nature, as much as inside, here in the abode of man. Here in the great hall, all the decorations were of polished brass, as the heat with all four fires ablaze, and the tremendous draft and noise (and occasional bouts of food throwing) would all to rapidly leave the more conventional seasonal adornments looking rather sad and delapidated.

Wenceslas cast about him for a page:

“Young fellow,” said he (for spake him always thus), “Methinks ’tis time about for looking out. Come follow me to the top of this our warm and homely tower, to see that none hath straid from the rightly path that lead him hence this night.”

“Sire.” replied the page (for no more word was needful).

* * *

THERE was a little but very light wind at the top of the topmost tower of the keep, and though the moon shone bright and full, yet the stars were bright, sharp, and faintly blue.

With foreknowledge of Wenceslas’ tradition, the snow had been swept from the top of the tower, and a small fire had been lit in the room below to warm the flags on the parapet. Wenceslas would not have noticed, as though he lived in comparative luxury, he was quite impervious to physical deprivations. The page, on the other hand, was extremely glad of the fire, and the warmth of the stones under his feet. A kindly guardsman handed the page a cloak as he stepped outside.

Wenceslas cast his eyes all about, and saw, to his considerable satisfaction, that all the tracks in the snow led like the spokes of a cartwheel in across the plains and hills to the castle. He saw many people moving along the tracks, with jolly lanthorns, singing cheery seasonal songs, some pious, others less so. Wenceslas appreciated both, as expressions of joy.

He raised his eyes to the horizon, and paused a moment:

“Methinks I do espy, upon the brow of yonder lowly hill, a man who pulls a sled across the deep crisp even snow. Surely knows he of the festival this night? It needs him not to seek his winter fuel, for he may have his fill of heat and light and food and joyous company this night would he just turn his path to the right, and join the host to which I am the host. Know you, page, who he be?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain. He has a cottage under the eaves of the forest, at a place the call the fount of Saint Agnes. Every year he goes to the coppice at the place called the Mound of the Other King, but none knows what mote he there.”

“Never has he come to my feast?”

“Never has he Sire.”

“Well we can’t have him stay out all night, especially when there’s food and drink to be had. Hie you to the kitchens, get me a good bundle of food, wine and stuff to make a fire. If he cannot or will not come to my feast, I shall bring it to him. Meet me at the gate.”

* * *

THE Old Man, with much trouble, finally reached his destination. Lankin was already there, waiting for him, but the steel of the Old Man’s axe was too much to bear, and he couldn’t hide himself, even against the pallor of the deep crisp even snow.

“So this year ye comes in person, milord?” the Old Man mocked.

“Mock me if you will. I come because I have no choice. An if happen you forget I was hear in person last year, and before that, and before that, back as far as memory.”

“My memory is longer. Them,” the Old Man streatched out his arm and pointed to the castle, “they’s forgot that yous’ve ever been. An now this, your yearly death at my hand, that your Queen sends you to and your King watches (I sees him, no matter what), is just a story. Do you not know what they say, in the village? They say I fights a battle that has long been won.”

“But you always come.”

“You too.”

“I come because one year, getting nearer every year, you’ll die, and that year, noone will be here to kill me, and I will be able to reunite the Queen and the King, and we will be more than memories and shadows.”

The Old Man smiled.

“I shall tell you what defeated you, as I know it will do not good, but let you know that you lost because you have no imagination; you don’t even realise that you’re changing even as you change. When I die, you’ll not come here any more; it will be as if you’ve never been.”

Lankin appeared to be distracted. Certainly he hadn’t heard the last part of the Old Man’s words, or he made as if not to have heard.

“We seem to have visitors.”

The Old Man looked in the direction of Lankin’s stare, and saw Wenceslas and the page.

“Let them come.”

Lankin and the Old man stood watching as Wenceslas and his page approached.

* * *

WHEN they were near enough, Wenceslas called out:

“I say! I bring you Christmastide goodwishes and the comfort and joy of good victuals and the wherewithall to make fire.”

“I have both those, in sufficient store, but I thank thee for thy thoughts going out to an Old Man who is of an older world that yours, and not long for it, either,” the old man called back, smiling quietly.

“You I know, from my page here, who says you are one Godbolt, of Saint Agnes Well, but this gentleman beside you I know not.”

“Nor should you, my lord King. He is a member of a certain gentlefolk, who visits this place apon this night every year, and I meet him, and we act out a sort of ancient rite.”

“How fascinating,” remarked Wenceslas in a tone becoming of the most modern of monarchs.

“Once upon a time,” the Old Man went on, “there was another King, though his name was spoken with trepidation and many a sidewards glance. Now, gladly, he is all but forgotten. I, and milord Lankin here, we remember, so we have to come, but I’m the last, and when I die, the memory will be gone, and even Lankin will not know any more.”

“You are mistaken,” Lankin cut in, “Look up to the top of the mountain, for there the King stands waiting.”

The others looked up, and though the Old Man did indeed see the tall figure of the Mighty King of the Elves, with his shaggy goat’s legs and his great head crowned with the antlers of a giant stag, this image struck no awe, fear or wonder in him, for he knew what Wenceslas and his page would see.

“A mighty stag,” said Wenceslas, “and a handsome fellow at that. I suppose he might seem like a king in this place, if there were no good Christian men. It is good to remind ourselves,” Wenceslas went on, “that we are not quite so far from the wilds as we like to think, but it is in the gesture that I make with these three nights of feasting that I affirm how men stand apart from beasts; we help each other because we can, not because we have to.”

Lankin wore a look of ill-disguised horror, for as he himself looked at his King, that glorious symbol of barbarism, he saw the silhoutted figure fade from view, replaced by a stupid stag, a mindless rutting beast.

“Then it is over,” said Lankin, “This year you will not even need your axe.”

Lankin turned and walked away, and it seemed to all three that as he walked he shrank, and dwindled, to a tiny, shiny winged mannikin, and finally to a little point of light that twinkled, spun, twirled, and vanished.

The page began, “but that was…?”

The Old Man continued, “a little story, in your head; you might know what you think you saw, but who can say what really happens. The best we can do is tell the story of the world as it writes itself, as that is how we see it. Now, shall we go to this feast of yours? My rheumatism is killing me.”


How to tell Good Fantasy from Bad Fantasy

A literary authority (to me)

My mum can’t stand fantasy, because it isn’t real. If you ask her about fantasy, she’ll complain about magic spells and monsters and elves and hobbits and whatnot.

My mum is one of the smartest people I know. She has a PhD (​Petrarch et le Pétrarquisme avant le Pleiade if you’re interested), and has read way more books than I have. She’s tried all the great fantasy books, and read C S Lewis as a child – but thought of it as more of a fairytale.

So why would someone with such broad and well educated literary tastes detest fantasy? Is it because it’s unreal, or doesn’t try to be real? Is it because it’s escapist or trivial?

Or is it because a lot of fantasy is bad fantasy?​

The Two Towers

There are two distinct fantasy paradigms, and any fantasy from high, through epic, to urban, naturalistic or magical realism, is based in one of the two. To a less prominent extent, most Science Fiction also fits into one of these two.

One is Fantasy as Agency, the other Fantasy as Environment

In Fantasy as Agency, fantastical elements are built into the plot. The most common form of this is of fantastical elements acting as a means to and end; it’s necessary to acquire and master them to be able to complete the quest.

In Fantasy as Environment, fantastical elements are part of the landscape, part of the everyday activities of people going about their daily lives; to complete his quest, the hero will encounter both fantastical and non-fantastical obstacles. The object of the quest might be fantastical in nature, but the objective of the story is not.

Either of these can result in bad fantasy. But Fantasy as Agency is the most usual culprit, and in one, very specific, form.

We Need to Talk about Magic

​Seriously, folks, we do.

What is magic in stories? What is it for?​

I’ve written about magic before. Quite a lot actually, and to help with this post, I’ve posted a couple of chapters from my book, Edit Ready.​

You can read them now, if you like:

In most fantasy books, magic is a means of achieving goals that would otherwise be impossible, or provides a variety of alternative means to solve problems that would be unavailable in the real world, because… well let’s face it: because physics.

Magic is also a source of problems, difficulties and obstacles that don’t exist in the real world. However, usually, when magic creates a problem in a book, it’s an analogy to some form of real world problem.

A Boy and his Magic

Subgenre “a boy and his dragon” is all about how a young boy, generally an outsider or a loner, probably with a poor relationship with his parents (or an orphan) who fits in badly with his peer group, befriends a young dragon and through their cooperation, comes of age. It’s an oft-mocked archetype (I often mock it, at least) but it can be (and has been) done extremely well, and it’s popular. It’s also rather fun to edit, and an extremely good story to attempt if you are a first time writer.

There are always elements of wish-fulfillment in it; there’s usually a scene where the dragon chases away some bullying kids. There’s usually a scene where the dragon saves a remote homestead. There’s almost always a scene where the dragon saves the village and the villagers gain a grudging respect for the boy, and a fearful, grudging acceptance of the dragon.

But because the dragon is a separate entity, the author has to work with the interaction and cooperation of two personalities, and this generally results in characters that are more accessible, and a story that is less likely to wallow in self-indulgence or go completely off the rails than it’s BAD FANTASY counterpart, A Boy and his Magic.

This story starts with the same boy. But he either discovers a magical artifact, or makes a faustian pact, or discovers an old tome, or is apprenticed to an aging, embittered, alcoholic wizard, and turns out to be naturally gifted.

The story soon becomes about how the boy develops in, and masters his power, and then, well…

It’s Payback Time

Okay, so not always. Sometimes the boy doesn’t settle old scores. But usually he does. Sometimes he doesn’t lord it over all those who used to look down on him. Actually, sometimes he just laughs up his sleeve at them.

What’s wrong with this story, apart from how predictable and lazy and banal it is, is that the boy’s mastery of magic becomes a means to an end, and that end… it’s just power over the world. It’s a childish fantasy of adulthood, that most of us know adulthood is nothing like.

And that’s what BAD FANTASY does.

Bad fantasy offers fantastical solutions to real problems.

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Whereas the boy and his dragon is about how a relationship with another person helps the boy to grow up, boy and his magic just hands the boy a really big stick, and he beats all the bad people with it, without growing up at all.

Science Fiction’s Fear of Fictional Science

It’s exactly the same with Science Fiction. Most of those people who say they don’t like or never read science fiction (yes, this includes my mum), expect Science Fiction to propose imaginary technology to deal with real problems. Just ask. That’s what most of them think Science Fiction is – being able to do stuff we can’t do (yet) through made up or at best extrapolated sci-tech.

And that sort of SF does exist. It’s called “Bad Science Fiction.”

Good science fiction provides an alternate setting for real problems, or, best of all, imagines real people in situations that can’t exist, and explores their reactions to it, in a realistic way.

(With an honorable mention to all the SF where real world solutions are sought by real people for problems caused by imagined or near-future sci-tech, especially where this involves ethics. Yes. SF is often about ethics. Who knew?)

In Some Enchanted Glade

… there sits Pan, cross-legged, the trills from his pipe flowing downstream in harmony with the babbling of the water. And the boy with the dragon is hand in hand with the boy with the magic, the dozing dragon coiled loosely around the grassy tump on which they sit. The dragon boy is trying, patiently, to explain how listening, and how kindness, and friendship, are the routes to adulthood, while the magic boy stares in wonder at how it is possible to be so calm, and so contented.

You see, fantasy stories are almost always allegories for the process of making sense of the adult world. If you hand someone fabulous godlike powers when they’re a kid, they don’t grow up. And no matter how much success they achieve, no matter how much dominion they obtain, they never really come to understand other people, and never find happiness.

Give a child a dragon to tame, and the child will learn to interact with other people or die trying.

I put it to you that one of this year’s American Presidential Candidates is Magic Boy, and the other is Dragon Boy. I’ll… er… leave you to guess which is which, and most of all, which one has read the most good stories.

The 8 Rules of Naming

WhoThing and WhatHer

The story takes place in an imagined world, so it doesn’t have real-world placenames. The place is inhabited by indigenous flora and fauna that are unknown on Earth, so they have their own, local names. And the folks that live there have, to coin a phrase, never heard of Birmingham.

So of course, the names of all these things: the people, the plants and animals, the places, have to be different than anything you could encounter on Earth, right?

You’ve had the experience – because, like me, you love your science fiction and you love your fantasy – and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the classic, the retro, the crossover, the social, the literary, the romantic, epic or erotic: the names have to be exotic, so at least half of them are impossible to pronounce, and half of the rest you can’t be sure what pronunciation is intended.

The remaining 25% are either words of 1 syllable or they follow the rules.

Where the Concept Breaks

As an author you should be worried about immersion. Immersion is the reader’s sensation of experiencing the story without being aware of the narrative mechanism, or to put it another way, the reader is enjoying the story without having to think about how the story is being told.

Anything you do that makes the reader stop to think forces the reader to think about the narration itself. There are plenty of ways to do this, but the Rules of Names are the simplest way to avoid doing it with names.

You see, in an unreal world, there’s another thing that they don’t have:

English (or insert Tellurian language of your choice).

And if you draw attention to names by making the names so difficult to pronounce that an English Speaking Reader has to stop to think, you risk the English Speaking Reader wondering why everyone in your non-Earth world is speaking English. This is the concept breaker of all non-Earth stories.

Even if it doesn’t get this bad, the reader is still going to have a hard time remembering who is who if she can’t say their names every time.

That is what the rules are for.

The Rules of Names

  1. The reader must be able to pronounce any name of any thing first time, with no doubt.
  2. All the names in the book, whether people, places or things, must differ from each other by at least two syllables unless there is an intended connexion:
    • Abteba and Binteba are brothers
    • Connomakovan and Connotekana are men from the city of Conno
  3. Spelling must be simplified:
    • Letters that serve no purpose in English must be missing:
      Jon not John, Fin not Finn, therefore Tan not Tahnn
    • If there is more than one way to write the name, use the one that uses the least letters:
      Fin not Phin, Teen not Teene, Jon not Gion (or Gyon)
  4. Names must follow typical English patterns and avoid English irregularities.In general, vowels and consonants should alternate. Where consonants are grouped, they must be limited to the most common two and three letter groupings, and the ones that are easy to say:
    • ‘hard’ consonants preceded or followed by ‘r’
    • ‘pt’ but not ‘tp;’ ‘kt’ (or ‘ct’) but not ‘tk’
    • ‘nk’ and ‘nt’ but not ‘kn’ or ‘tn’ (generally, rules that apply to k also apply to g; those applying to n also apply to s and l, however ‘f’ may only be conbined with t, not k)
    • ‘mp’ but not ‘np,’ ‘pm’ or ‘pn’
    • ‘sh’ and ‘th’ are fine, but prefer ‘ch’ to ‘tsh’ (and ‘ph’ is banned)
    • ‘gh’ and ‘ght’ are banned.
    • no soft ‘c’ or soft ‘g’, use s and j unless it looks really silly
    • ‘z’ always buzzes. If you need a ‘ts’ use ‘ts’
    • avoid ‘h’ where possible
    • prefer ‘kw’ to ‘qu’ unless it looks too exotic or fussy, never use q on its own
    • avoid w between vowels
    • avoid diphthongs that use vowels other than w and y (it is a convention in English to call w and y consonants. They are not.)
    • No double vowels other than ‘ee’ and ‘oo.’ Be aware that ‘nook’ is not pronounced like ‘noon.’
  5. It is better that your reader pronounce the name ‘wrong’ than be unable to pronounce it.
  6. If you can’t find a way of spelling the name that ensures that the reader can pronounce it correctly, change the name, rather than just using the spelling you’ve always used.
    The ‘long a’ sound is a common problem in English. In British English it’s the sound in the word ‘barn.’ In US English (with quite a lot of regional variation) it’s the sound in the word ‘gone’ (or ‘barn’ if you’re from Rhode Island). There is no adequate way of ensuring that any English speaking reader will pronounce a long ‘a’ as you intend it. So change the name.
  7. No English names have punctuation in the middle of them.
    An apostrophe at the start of the name is acceptable if there is a cultural reason for it, as are many other abuses of the rules – if you break the rules in a way that adds meaning, it will enrich the experience for the reader, as long as rule 1 is not violated.

    • C’Makovan and C’Tekana are abbreviations of Connomakovan and Connotekana.
  8. Paradoxically, the rules can be relaxed if the characters are originally from Earth.

Overcoming Laziness: How the Writer Has Become Their Own Worst Enemy

People are lazy.

Wait, I’ll say that in a broader sense. Nature is lazy.

Now you might find this opinion piece hard to swallow if you’re a young Earth creationist, and you might even find it problematic if you believe that God thought of evolution long before man was smart enough to catch up, although I hope you won’t.

I’m not a God denier, but a seeker of truth, and I think if God exists, then the more you learn about the Universe, the more you learn about Him, and the more you discover how inadequate your past understanding was compared with the awesome vastness of Creation.

You won’t often hear me talk about God, but in my experience, folks with strong religious convictions are often great storytellers. And I want as many as possible of the people with the storytelling urge to come along with me to the end of this line of argument.

So Nature is Lazy

All the evidence of the natural world is that nature tends towards both kinds of laziness. Nature won’ t try to specialize if generalizing will do. Nature won’t try to improve beyond good enough.

But also, Nature will tend to favor the solution that requires the least resources. The latter sometimes results in unexpected consequences.

In theory, apes like us should really be sitting on the sea shore stuffing our faces with shellfish all day, and doing very little else.

But Nature has a few other features that seem to conflict with this.


The main concern of nature is not to perpetuate any particular species, but to perpetuate Life. (If you are religiously inclined, and prefer to discover God through discovering His Creation) you’ve only got to look at the fossil record to see all the mass extinction events were followed by immediate and accelerated proliferations of life.

New lifeforms appear, and fill the gaps left by the recently extinct. And life endures by the simple expedient of diversity.

The more different lifeforms there are, the better the chance that some of them will survive mass extinction events. That’s the extreme example, it goes right down to the small, local and ephemeral, like culture: the more diversity there is within a population, the better that population’s ability to solve problems and adapt to a changing environment.

Diversity is not something to be tolerated, but something to be sought. It’s not desirable, though, it’s mission critical. Without it, you can’t meet unknown challenges.


Diversity results in competition. All it needs is an overlap between the resources being exploited by separate species, and the species are in competition – when one finds a better way to exploit the resources, the other suffers.

And this drives nature’s desire for efficiency. Get more resources for less effort.

It’s nature, folks. Spend less, acquire more, out-compete the neighbours.


It is out of instinct that many, though not all, of us (diversity) apply the laziness test to almost every need, demand, requirement or request that is presented to us. The laziness test comes in three stages:

  1. How long can I get away with putting this off for later?
  2. Can I get away with not doing it at all?
  3. Can I contrive a means for getting away with putting this off for later, doing it less often, or not doing it at all?

The laziness test is vital, because it reveals the consequences of not doing something. And you may find that dealing with the consequences of not doing it requires less effort than doing the thing!

But the laziness test is insidious, and stage 3 is where the test can become dangerous.

Gender Politics?

Working on and sharing in writers’ creative process, I’ve encountered all sorts of people, and I’ve discovered that there is a strong generalization that I can make about writers’ attitudes to their own efforts at self-improvement.

If you are over 35, male, white and speak English as a first language, you are lazy to the detriment of your own creative output. In short, if you fit that demographic, you work less hard at learning to be a better writer.


My theory is that our culture cocoons white men. It’s more praising and accepting of their work, and less critical of it. Our culture tolerates less effort from white men.

Women and all people from ethnic and racial minorities have to work much harder to get the same level of praise, recognition and success.

And they do work much harder.

But the cocoon has a negative consequences for the over 35 white males. Because they have been spared the criticism, because they have not had to suffer so many rejections, because they have been challenged with the almost universal: “what makes you think I should read your work?” with not nearly as much aggression as the women and the people of color, they haven’t learned to adapt to it.

The white guys don’t know how to take criticism. They don’t know how to look at and address their weaknesses. They don’t know how to push themselves, and how to seek out the knowledge that will lift them above the competition. Because they haven’t had to.

The Pearl

In fact, back when culture was wholly dominated by the white patriarchy, they realized that they could apply stage three of the laziness test to creative writing – to writing of any kind – by mystifying creativity, and mystifying talent.

The idea that creative talent is something that can’t be understood, that either you have or you don’t have, is an invention (a relatively recent invention) that exists to protect those who make their living from it.

Even more, it exists to protect the minimum level of effort that they put into their work.

Even academic analysis and literary criticism work to perpetuate this, because they analyse the output – they analyse what the writer created, not the process of creation, which is protected from close scrutiny lest the competition discover that through study and practice, through imitation and emulation, through mastery of meaning and language, through immersion in culture and cultural history, anyone can become a great creative talent.

The Competition

And today, it’s the women and the minorities, who have to be more open to and accepting of criticism, who have accepted the challenge to justify their claim to creativity, who have become more prepared to test, try and experiment, more prepared to seek and to learn, more prepared to find out how to become masters of the craft of creative writing, in order to be able to create great art.

If you’ve swallowed the fiction that greatness in creative writing is a mystery, then you’re stunting your creative ability, even if you are over 35, white and male.

But if you’re not, and you have the hunger for writing, you feel the urge to tell stories, then you’re already looking for how to become a great writer, and doing that is about putting in the hours. But not just hours writing.

Hours reading. Hours talking and listening to people. Hours going to shows. Hours watching the television. Hours reading the news. Hours exchanging views on forums and social media. Hours studying the work, but also the lives, of great writers.

Hours studying their sources and their inspirations.

Hours Not Being Lazy

The third kind of laziness is “engineer’s laziness.” The engineer who builds a bridge four times stronger than it needs to be because that way it will require less maintenance and won’t need to be replaced in a few years’ time.

  • The programmer who prepares a library of common functions so that she, and other programmers working on the same system, won’t have to repeat themselves.
  • The schoolteacher who teaches children how to learn effectively, so that later on, they will learn faster.
  • The mathematician who memorizes multiplication tables so that he won’t have to waste time with calculations.

Applying engineer’s laziness to creative writing is just the same. Bite the bullet, do the hard work now, so you won’t have to repeat it later. Build your knowledge and understanding so you can draw upon it later, while writing.

The Short Cut (That Isn’t Really a Short Cut)

As an author, to varying degrees, you will inevitably have two ambitions:

  • to write great books
  • to sell books

Notice the word “great” is left out of the second one. No mistake.

What’s awesome about publishing and reading today is that there have never been more readers, and selling your book to readers has never been easier. Which means that although there may be no shortcut to greatness, there is a shortcut to sales.

Because you can sell a book as soon as it’s written. The same day (if you do a small amount of planning).

Which means you can put in all those hours that are needed to hone, perfect and master your creative abilities, and get paid for it.

5 Reasons Why You’ll Never Be A Great Novelist (And The Reason Why It Doesn’t Matter)

There are a lot of reasons why there aren’t great novelists anymore.

I’m assuming you know what I mean by a great novelist. It’s someone whose fame as a writer of fiction is justified through the undeniable quality of their writing. Someone whose literary education, understanding, experience, effort, innovation and output is the source of their celebrity.

These people are easy to list. Whatever country you grew up in, you can list those writers because they’re the ones you had to read at school. If you’re British they include names like Dickens and Lawrence. If you’re American they include names like Twain and Steinbeck. If you’re French it’ll include Hugo and Balzac, if you’re German it’s people like Goethe and Boll (if it’s possible to suggest there have been people like Goethe). If you’re … okay this is starting to look like padding. You get the general idea.

1. This Is Not 1900.

Many of the great novelists you can list will be from before 1900, but the twentieth century was the peak of great novelists.

It peaked because of two things. Adult literacy rose faster than ever before, which drove a huge increase in demand for books to read, so everyone getting published, regardless of whether or not they were great, was selling lots of books. This meant that there was a big market for greatness, because there was a big market for everything.

  • New Media. In spite of the arrival of new media – film and television – the public appetite for literature great and not-so-great was voracious. And the mid twentieth century was also when most of the nations with the highest literacy (and hence biggest markets for novels) also ended state literary censorship, with celebrated cases in numerous countries leading to much media attention.

    But by the 1980s, publishers were feeling the pressure from other entertainment media, and had begun to change their publication model away from having many authors and many titles, to the “bestseller” model that is still familiar today – but which is probably beginning to fade. I suspect it peaked in the early 2000s though some insiders say it peaked earlier than that.
    The result of this change was a squeeze on the number of people who could be published, and a shift of publisher’s priorities away from writers who would be admired for their literary quality, towards writers who could stimulate a public phenomenon – what today is called “going viral”.

  • The “Literary Establishment.” One of the indications of this transition may be that the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, considered to be the top award for literary fiction in English, was awarded to the same writer in both 2009 and 2012. Is the field really narrowing?

    There is an impression in recent culture, that is perhaps finally fading, that there is, a narrow group of intellectuals and critics who decided amongst themselves who was allowed to be thought of as serious writer, who could be a writer of Literature and therefore be authorized to vie for the title of Great Novelist. But if this is coming to an end, who, in the future, will be able to make that crucial pontification, who will be able to say, ex cathedra, that anyone is a Great Novelist? Maybe no one.

2. You weren’t educated by private tutors any time between 1600 and 1850.

The period known as The Enlightenment began sometime in the early 17th century and ran (officially) until the late 18th century. It’s dates are sometimes given as 1630 to 1780. I had to look that up. I can’t memorize dates. Mostly because I don’t want to. And I have this thing call the “internet.”

The Enlightenment was characterized by major advances in science, technology, academic study and both political, social and ethical philosophy. It is said to be characterized by a rise in individual responsibility and a weakening of traditional authority.

Every country in Europe had its Enlightenment figures (as did the Thirteen Colonies that would later become the USA), with France, the UK and the German states having perhaps more than their fair share – for a number of reasons.

Almost all the major contributors to this movement had the same kind of education. They were privately tutored by specialists of all kinds, typically selected by their avant-garde parents. If you were a child of wealthy intellectuals, or wealthy social climbers who wanted intellectual children, or wealthy aristocrats who wanted fashionable children, you got an unique education, oriented specifically for you, and following the whims and caprices of your parents and tutors.

New Teaching, new thinking.

This created unique thinkers. People who saw the world in a way that was unique to them, and who, therefore, sought out the company of others who were equally different, which only further broadened their knowledge and horizons.

it is not, therefore, surprising, that those among them whose education had a literary bias became great writers. “Literary bias” makes it sound like a small thing. But education of the period was founded in the study of classical literature in the original language, and in a volume of reading that is almost unimaginable to us today, even though we have so much more choice as to what to read.

That kind of education is rare today. The only thing that comes close is some kinds of home schooling, though homeschooling today is rarely as intensive as it was during the Enlightenment.

3. You can’t read Classical Greek, Roman, Chinese, Sanskrit, etc, literature in the original language.

You might not be surprised to learn that I know a few people who can and do. I can read classical Latin, if slowly, and with a dictionary to hand. But most of the great writers studied it properly in the original language.

Whatever cultural tradition you live in today will have been influenced by a small number of famous texts that were known and studied for hundreds, even thousands of years. All the stories you know will be in some way derived from those stories.

Most great writers studied those stories intensively and extensively – they studied all of them, in depth. Their understanding, therefore, of the archetypes of the stories central to modern culture is much deeper than ours. They also read and studied in detail the major religious texts of their region of the world, which also have a lasting influence on the nature of the stories that we tell today – on their structure, their orientation, even the way that we present characters to the reader.

4. You haven’t written thousands of poems imitating the hundreds of great poets whose work you haven’t memorized.

Poetry was seen as a way of passing the time. Few were the wealthy intellectuals or aristocrats who did not both study and write poetry. Poets came in and out of fashion, and people learned their works to be able to recite them as a form both of entertainment and of intellectual stimulation.

Poetry was, therefore, not a marginal activity, or a hobby, and not at all a solitary or contemplative activity. It was competitive. It was social. Skill with poetry was considered essential to proving your intellectual worth.

The study and practice of poetry has a very particular effect on your language skills, and your understanding of how verbal communication works. With the added social and competitive element, there was strong motivation to excel at poetry, and great writers of fiction almost always do.

5. You weren’t mentored by publishers who are also great literary experts.

From at least the early 17th century, publishers were people who were passionate about books. There was a lot of money to be made in publishing, and there have been several periods in the history of the last 300 years where publishers have actively sought out writers and convinced them to try their hand at novel writing.

The relationship between the author and his publisher, or, more recently, his literary agent, used to be a lot less clearly defined. It’s not for nothing that terms like agent, editor and publisher still get confused by laymen, since until recently, these roles were not clearly defined or separate.

I have certainly already mentioned elsewhere the original “author’s editor,” Max Perkins.

Perkins worked most famously with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Not only did he help them to knock their books into shape, he gave advice, he interceded with publishers, he occasionally bailed them out or bankrolled their projects.

He may have been the most famous, but he was typical of a long tradition of editors working for publishing houses large and small, who made it their business to nurture talent; to see potential and show authors how to realize their potential.

With the rise of the bestseller culture that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, came pressure to write faster, to get to press faster, to sell faster, and, most of all, to develop author bankability™.

The risk of selling books on the name of the author has always been there – that the author will become complacent, and make less effort with later books, knowing that the public will buy anything with their name on. But once the publisher’s business model came to rely on this, it became inevitable that the author’s editor, who slowly nurtured talent until they began to achieve their potential for greatness, would soon disappear.

… In fact…

These are only five of the many factors that made the Great Novelists of the past unique.

But take heart, gentle writer.

A. Most readers just want to read a good book.

One of the effects of mass education and the rise of the mass market paperback is the destruction of literary snobbery.

Most readers are not looking to be impressed or edified. They don’t want to read a book by someone better read, better researched, better educated, better cultivated than they are.

What readers want from an author is simple: they want an author who cares about giving them the reading experience that they want. They want a reader who wants to satisfy them.

Now some readers just want a thrill, others want nostalgia, some want a scare, or a threat, or to be shocked or challenged. It’s not just about pleasing the reader. It’s about giving the reader what they want.

You don’t have to be a Great Writer to do that.

You do have to be a good writer. You need a minimum of knowledge and skill, and those do take both learning and practice.

But to be a success at writing, you don’t have to be unique or special. You do have to be dedicated.

You don’t have to be out of the reader’s league. You do have to care about what readers want.

You will never be a Great Novelist. But you shouldn’t try to be.
If not Great, then what?

  • You should aspire to being respected
  • You should aspire to being loved
  • You should aspire to being valued
  • You should aspire to producing the quality work that your readers expect
  • You should inspire admiration
  • You should inspire trust

A New Kind of Greatness?

It may be that Greatness is still possible. But if it is, it cannot be the same kind of greatness, or in any case, the wellspring of future greatness will not be found where it was once found.

After all, the uniqueness of the great writers of the last couple of hundred years came from more from social inequality than almost anything else. Name any 20 great novelists from before 1900 and you’ll be hard pressed to find any women, anyone not either from an wealthy or an aristocratic family, anyone who isn’t very, very white.

Having the time for the kind of education and life of adventure and discovery that made a great novelist in the past was strictly the reserve of privilege. It is to be hoped that level of privilege will not repeat itself.

Find your uniqueness.

I still think that the best source of greatness for a writer is uniqueness. You aren’t going to find your uniqueness by looking into yourself. Uniqueness has to be earned through unique experiences.

With so many people on Earth now, having a single unique experience is pretty unlikely. But having a unique combination of experiences should be possible. Build your uniqueness by seeking diversity in all your experiences.

The easiest way to do this is always to take the long route. Always to choose the more difficult option. Do what makes you feel uncomfortable.

As long as these are finite experiences, they won’t ruin your life; for instance, don’t take a job you know you can’t do. Don’t marry someone you can’t stand.

Another list?

All these are examples of the kind of experiences you should be looking for. They will all affect the way you think, the way you see yourself and other people, the way you look at the world. Only do the ones you have never done, and prefer the ones you really don’t think you want to do:

  • Help out at the homeless shelter
  • Volunteer for the PTA
  • Take a vacation in a country you would never have chosen
  • Spend the weekend at a Spa
  • Spend the weekend hiking in the woods
  • Go to mass at 10 different churches even if you aren’t a Christian
  • Every day, make a fruit pie, and bring it to a different house on your street
  • Spend a day in the local courthouse
  • Volunteer at a Ren Fair
  • Go LARPing
  • Read a book that from the title, cover and blurb, you’re pretty sure you’re going to hate

Look for any other experiences that are on offer. The principle is that they should be experiences that you had to look for.

Nothing that would have fallen into your lap.

Will this make you unique?

I don’t know. But it will prepare the ground on which future greatness might, one day, be built.

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