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Black Gate 4

Honing the New Edge, Part 3

Still Honing That Edge, part 3

In my previous posts I strove to define sword-and-sorcery and to argue for its importance. Now I want to revisit some of the conversations I had with Bill King and John Hocking and Clint Werner and Martin Zornhau, among others, and look at what we need from sword-and-sorcery today – and what many are already striving to do.

When Tolkien and Robert E. Howard crafted what they wrote their worlds were fresh and new. They never set out to create unbreakable molds from which all fantasy had to be cast. Tolkien did not mean to suggest that all fantasy had to be quests with bands of elves and dwarves in a vaguely European world marching off to fight an all-powerful baddie by destroying a magic whatsit. Likewise, it should be understood that sword and sorcery is not limited to a barbarian with a sword, despite Conan's prominence as the first sword and sorcery hero (well, Kull was actually the first, but I’m trying not to get over technical). Bill King wrote that: "One of the main problems with High Fantasy is that it has become a sort of post-Tolkien monocrop where a good deal reads and looks the same. The thing about the writers I grew up reading is that every one of them read differently and wrote about different types of worlds. Hyboria was very different from Zothique which was very different from Carter's Lemuria and so on."

But on to the guidelines I’d like to see in play for putting a new edge on an old blade.

1. We can find inspiration from the pulps without pastiching them. Specifically I mean setting aside the sexism and racism and the suspect politics, but embracing the virtues of great pulp storytelling: The color. The pace. The headlong thrill and sense of wonder. The celebration not of the everyday and the petty, but of those who dare to fight on when the odds are against them.

2. We can create new characters. Not homages. And not ironic sendups. I would prefer to go a long time without seeing any more “comedy sword-and-sorcery.”

3. We can craft exotic settings and/or settings that live - as in NOT faux Tolkien of faux Howard. We need to make our own worlds and look past the groundbreaking ideas that have now become limiting barriers set in place by Tolkien’s imitators and bookshelves stuffed with gaming manuals.

4. We must restore the sense of fantastic. Once magic is banal or easy, once magic rings can be found at the corner market and wizards are everywhere, sense of wonder all-too-easily goes straight out the window. It may be possible to write good fantasy in such an environment, but it would be very challenging to craft good sword-and-sorcery there.

5. We can check the irony at the door. Sure, humor and irony can be found in the world our characters walk, but we don’t need to write, as Martin Zornhau says, with “amused detatchment to revel in swordfights.” We should either embrace the genre or not, but we shouldn’t pretend to do so then try to excuse it to our literary friends by claiming it’s all just a joke and is really beneath us. Pfah.

Sword-and-sorcery can be hard to defend when we are constantly offered up poor or diluted gruel substituted for the real thing, or treacly imitation. But then we, and others, should remember the now famous Theodore Sturgeon’s Law. Whether or not 90% of all fiction is truly crap, or if 85 or 97 percent of it is crap might be endlessly debated, and one might as well argue over the number of angels on the head of a pin. The pin head is pointless, just like the debate. We should judge the genre by its best works, just as a wise critic knows to judge the contributions of an author by his or her best works, not the worst.

Now rather than going on and continuing to hone the language, I'm taking this public. I want to hear what you think of the points. What more needs to be said? What needs to be clarified?

As for what we can do to help sword-and-sorcery today? Well, one of the things we can do is support those few markets we have... and I'll post about that very soon. 

Hope to hear from you.

Part 1

Part 2

Sword-and-Sorcery Suggested Reading

Howard

Comments

100K S&S novel

Does "pure" S&S work in the longer form?

Re: 100K S&S novel

The Drenai books are around that, I would think - but the answer is probably not, in general. Wouldn't call those pure exactly, either.

Re: 100K S&S novel

Sure.

Of course, Kings Conan and Kull have that issue, too, or Thongor.

Re: 100K S&S novel

Yes, I think the stakes can be at the epic level, but the way of resolving them always involves personal action, with an emphasis on the physical rather than the interpersonal.

Even when he has an army, Conan, e.g., doesn't really wrestle with the problems of command etc like Sharpe or Honor Harrington.

Re: 100K S&S novel

Check out Michael Shea's 'The Mines of Behemoth' or Fritz Leiber's 'Swords of Lankhmar.' Both legit Sword and Sorcery novels that work very well, I think.

Re: 100K S&S novel

I've seen Nathan Long and Clint Werner pull it off. John Maddox Roberts has done it with King of the Wood. John Hocking's Conan pastiche, Conan and the Emerald Lotus, impressed me a heck of a lot. Speaking of Conan, there's Hour of the Dragon, by the mighty Robert E. Howard. It's not a LONG novel by any stretch, though. Some of Moorock works really well. The Pastel City by M. John Harrison is, as Hocking himself describes, a small masterpiece dealing with most of the themes Moorock likes to address, distilled to perfection and without the flaws that sometimes creep into Moorcock's work...

How's your elephant?

Re: 100K S&S novel

In the final snagging phase...
The pin head is pointless

Did you do this on purpose? ;-)
Actually, yeah. Pretty bad, huh?
I would have you shot, but I suspect you'd prefer to be run through or hacked to pieces.
The one problem I think that comes up with the modern S&S writer is that it's difficult to break the mold in worldbuilding. We read all this and have little choice with what our subconscious regurgitates for our work, with having been so influenced with the rich vastness of the Howard, the Tolkien, The Carter, Burroughs, Norman, Zelazny worlds we grew up experiencing.

I wouls suggest one question every high fantasy writer should ask him/herself - does this seem familiar? If yes is the answer, then perhaps your worldbuilding goes a bit deeper than just the familiarity of writing the story. Perhaps you are designing your take, and too closely, of a place you lost yourself in once, as another took you off to a barbaric, adventursome realm...

I wrote a story recently that bogged down for a couple months because it seemed too - familiar. I've been too well read growing up and have too good a memory for me not to worry about that.
Yeah, it's hard to do it, which is why it's so wonderful to find. Good luck to you, Wil! We have to take inspiration from the familiar and then find a route to a new place.
Howard, I think these are a very strong set of guidelines, and not just for Sword and Sorcery, but for the whole Fantasy genre. Well done. I don't have anything else to add, except that I will try my best to uphold them in my own work. We'll see how it goes...
Thanks, Nathan. I'm still trying to learn how to put them to work myself. From what I've seen of your work so far it seems to me like you'd already innately figured it all out. How goes the new project?

(Anonymous)

The idea of #4 is something I've heard mentioned elsewhere and I have to admit I'm not certain what exactly you're going for here--or me, for that matter.
I would think most (and I know thinking is my first step toward putting my foot in my mouth) writers do try to put the fantastic in their fiction. But with a well-read audience, and such a vast body of existing literature, even the most harrowing of magics or elusive of rings can easily be dismissed as something "seen before." Are you suggesting that in the current climate magic has become banal and rings ever-present, that it is a general condition within the genre, or that this occurs at the level of individual stories? Can you clarify?

I certainly agree about supporting those few markets that currently exist. It would seem that one hope for moving S&S forward would be to increase the fan base and bring in fresh readers and, very important, fresh writers. The existing long wait times coupled with those few slots available can be pretty discouraging for all, I think.
There's nothing new under the sun, of course. My point of 4 isn't to initiate a search in everyone's work for things that are similar to things that have come before. It's about those stories that cross my desk where magic is ho-hum and everyday -- sort of like the old Flinstone cartoons. Everything functions but hey, it's prehistoric, with a mamooth for a dishwasher or what have you. When you can solve your problem by going to the corner wizard market and pick up your magic blade...

My problems in general with modern fantasy short stories are that A. it's too ironic. B. There's almost no adventure in short fiction markets. C. It's really cute and magic is too easy. D. It's an exercise in literary experimentation but not a story.

I see a lot of C in my sub pile, and in magazines that I've stopped reading, which is also where I see A and D.

Does that answer your question? Or did I muddle it?

(Anonymous)

No, I think that answered it very well and I thank you for your time in clarifying.

Thank you. --Jason T (forgot to sign previous. Apologies.)
"It would seem that one hope for moving S&S forward would be to increase the fan base and bring in fresh readers and, very important, fresh writers. The existing long wait times coupled with those few slots available can be pretty discouraging for all, I think."

Increasing the fan base, yes. Getting all the people who like it together to support it, all the people who write it and want a market to support it, that would really be something.

Long wait times for responses drive me nuts, too. The problem for me here at Black Gate is that this isn't my day job. I don't get paid very much to do this, and there's lot of other things I could be doing instead. More of my own writing; heck, playing ball with my kids. If there was enough support, enough steady subscriptions instead of submissions, then maybe I could make THIS my day job and turn out response letters at the end of every week. If more people subscribed, there'd be more money to buy stories, then it would come out faster, there'd be more slots available... well, you see.

What happens instead is we get deluged with material. Much of it comes from folks who have never purchased the mag or even read the thing. I see it time and again; people are always dying to send us their writing. Are they dying to spread the word about us and support the mag? No, not so much. That's the reality, and I try to accustom myself to it, but it wears me down. I wish I could wave a wand and make it better; I do my best to spread word and try to generate interest, but I'm not sure how much harder I can work at it.


Howard
Concerning spreading the word about Black Gate magazine and contemporary S&S, one direction to go -- perhaps -- is the EBook download for the IPhone?

Evidently the customer base for this is huge, and will keep growing the better the interfaces become and the more materials are on offer. Kindle's been far more successful too, than so many predicted.

Here's the article in Publisher's Weekly.

Love, C.
Thanks, C. We're readying a page to sell Black Gate as PDFs. It should be available in just another week or so.

(Anonymous)

BG is a wonderful magazine and you are doing very good deeds. All the hard work that the BG staff is putting in shows and the BG crew certainly can't be expected to shoulder the burden alone. It must seem a thankless job at times but don't let it wear you down. You keep doing what you're doing, and feel good about it, and hopefully the rest will come around and do their share. I agree, the power to change this situation ultimately lies with the S&S (dare I say the SF) community at large. --Jason T
A great set of guidelines! Fair vibrating with hope for a strong and original future in the genre. Very fun! A fresh breath of steel-scented air!
Thank you!
At the risk of being the asshole here, I want to disagree with a few things:

First, I don't support markets. I buy stories I want to read. That's one of the reasons I like Black Gate--most of the stories inside are solid work.

I think it's poison to tell people they should support markets for their writing. You might as well tell them to eat lots of fiber and hit the gym on their lunch hour--maybe it's the best thing way they could solve a particular problem, but you'll get more response by making it sound appealing. IMO.

... groundbreaking ideas that have now become limiting barriers set in place by Tolkien’s imitators ...

Is Tolkien imitation really that big a problem? I know you're reading slush, so maybe you see a ton of dwarf/elf/Dark Lord of the East type stuff, but I really don't see those sorts of books any more.

About 15 years ago, the Tolkien clones fell back out of the limelight and a new formula came to the front of the stage. It featured young, female protagonists who had a special "Gift" inside them, who were cast out of their place in society and teamed up with a telepathic animal.

These were popular books for a lot of years--the market was full of them. A couple years ago, their popularity receded and we're now seeing a lot of paranormal romance with a contemporary setting.

And yet, I still see people complain about Tolkien imitators.

Now, I'm the first to admit that I'm not as up on the genre as other readers are. I'm not one of those book-a-day people, and I read in several genres. But I don't see Tolkienism as a current problem, only a current complaint (and to be clear, not just from you. I read about this elsewhere, too).

I'm happy to be corrected, though.
Supporting a market for the market isn't a point I hit on very often -- it wasn't in the start of thread, and it's not one that you'll see me standing on a podium saying as loudly. It doesn't play as well. But it's a legit point, and it's one I myself try to live by by supporting the markets that publish the fiction I like to see (which reminds me, I need to renew for Paradox again...). But then, referring to your analogy, I try to get to the gym sometimes too.

It's perfectly reasonable to like a mag because you like the stories in it. I mean, that's kind of the whole point. But I'm adressing mostly a writer crowd here with this stuff. And writers aren't rich. If they're really into heroic adventure fiction, why not rally 'round the flag? What I find frustrating is the people that decry the lack of sword-and-sorcery and markets for it and then send us things without checking out the mag or supporting it. It's something I have to deal with, and probably need to just get over.

Tolkien clones -- yes. Yes, I drown in Tolkien clones. Nay, not even Tolkien clones, but game fiction cloned from clones of Tolkien. So, yes, and double-yes, it's a point that must be made. So far I don't drown in too many paranormal romances. Thank God. Or thank Crom, but then he mostly hands down dooms, if memory serves.
Dude, I desperately need to get to the gym, but I do other stuff instead. Sometimes it's walking or playing with my son. Usually, it's just getting fatter and older.

But the best exercise, like the best reading, is the stuff you enjoy doing. /gets off soapbox.

As for the Tolkien clones issue, I will accept your correction with the most manly stoicism I can manage. Now that I've finished stamping my feet and whining, I'll go mope in the corner.

I'm glad most of it is consigned to the slush. Better you than me. I can't stand the stuff--except when I absolutely have to have it.

There was a point a couple summers ago when I wanted nothing more than a good Conan-esque story--which doesn't mean the man himself, but a character who responded to difficulty with decisive action, who spoke boldly and with courage, and who knew how to stab people who needed stabbing.

Unfortunately for me, the book I was holding in my hands was A Shadow in Summer, which had insecure protagonists, secret courtly betrayals, and a culture where rigidly defined body language is a part of everyday conversation.

::Assumes stance of restless dissatisfaction::

I guess I was the wrong reader for this book. After 100+ pages of reading, and the not-very-elaborate court betrayal still hadn't happened, I picked up Kurt Busiek's Conan comics in trade. I'm not normally a fan of Conan comics, but I had to have it.

Anyway, I'm writing this comment in between calls and it's getting a little disjointed, so I'll stop there.
There's a lot of fantasy writers, not so many of them can manage to be fantastic enough to get outside that Northern Europe forests, wolves and snow thing, too, apart from dwarves, elves, and dark lords.
Well said.
Yeah, Howard, I think the world building thing is a good point and not one I'd thought much about. Lankhmar wasn't much like the Hyborian world which wasn't much like the Young Kingdoms, which wasn't much like Lemuria so while Fafhrd and the Mouser and Elric and Thongor were similar in tone to Conan, they weren't at all the same thing.
I've said before that most pure sword & sorcery has some element of horror to it, and the two writers who've impressed me the most in my recent S&S reading are both better know as writers of horror, Ramsey Campbell and Manly Wade Wellman.
Anyway, you've given me food for thought and perhaps my next try at S&S won't be quite as Howardian in approach.

Charles R. Rutledge
Thanks, Charles. You're right about the horror aspect. How do you think we should phrase that in the "manifesto?"

How are things doing?
That's a good question, Howard. Usually when I explain the horror connection I give a list of examples from the stories of REH. Hard to find many Conan or Solomon Kane tales that aren't at heart horror stories with some swordplay. I think it's one of the elements that make Howard's work so powerful.
We might amend guideline 4 to include that magic comes at a cost and that sorcery is rarely practiced by the good guys in S&S. In fact the genre was often known as 'swordplay versus sorcery' in the old days. Magic was generally presented as something dark and dangerous in S&S. No Gandalf types.
Similarly monsters were monsters. Not some normal life form that inhabited the hero's world as say orcs or goblins do Middle Earth, but an aberration to the natural order. The heroes response to a gibbering Lovecraftian horror shouldn't be, "Oh well, another monster to slay," But rather, "Jeez, what is that thing?" Much like magic, monsters shouldn't be treated as commonplace. Even Conan was frozen with horror or revulsion at times. (Hmmm, I should write a longer essay about this.)

Things go well. I was a little out of the loop for a while there, but my interest in S&S has definitely swung back around lately, so I've been reading a lot of it and doing a lot of thinking about the origins and growth of the genre. Glad to see lots of folks here doing the same.
I started to write a response to this, but it was getting really long. I don't have time today to reply properly. In short fiction I have a number of recs, but considering that it's hard to get these kinds of stories published I'm probably missing some good things in more obscure small press.

In books some of the most promsing things I've seen in recent years are actually from the Warhammer universe. Three writers, Bill King, C.L. Werner, and Nathan Long, have impressed me in various ways. Scott Oden's historical fiction (Memnon, Men of Bronze)is a great fit save that, of course, the supernatural isn't involved. Some people I really respect are gaga over Steven Erikson, who I haven't investigated in depth yet enough myself to comment upon. There are probably a few others I'll think of as soon as I sign off.

I'll try to draft up a list of short fiction heroic fiction writers in the next few days.

Howard
Some of the Flashing Swords magazine stories of course

Here's a few I have come across :-

New Sword and Sorcery


The Red Priest - Dirk Flinthart
Vertir and Kulkan - Charles Coleman Finlay
Allandros and Balor - Ben Peek

standalones
Monkey See - P. E. Cunningham
Siege of Cranes - Benjamin Rosenbaum
Some of the most promising sword-and-sorcery in short form I see today is in Black Gate, which is the main reason I came on board.

James Enge's Morlock stories are going to leave a mark on the field. He's just signed a two-book deal with Pyr featuring the hunchback wizard. Martha Wells' wizard hunters were already popular before they joined Black Gate, and brought in new readers. Judith Berman and Harry Connolly write it for us, though I woulnd't quite call their work series stories. One of Judith's stories for Black Gate was nominated for a Nebula. There's Iaian Rowan, who writes a fine series for us about a Chinese exorcist. Speaking of Chinese exorcists, Brian Dolton's work really impresses me. He's writing of a different sort of Chinese exorcist -- a real one, as opposed to Rowan's clever impostor, and has appeared in multiple venues. Soon he'll be in Black Gate. So too will S.C. Bryce and a number of other promising writers. One of my favorites from my six issue tenure at Flashing Swords e-zine was John Hocking, who has a series Black Gate will be showcasing staring with issue 13. I could go on... there's a lot of talented writers out there and not enough magazines wanting to print their work.

bluetyson here introduced me to Dirk Flinthart's work, which really impressed me. There's also Chris Willrich, whose fiction sounds the way I wish mine did. He, too, will have an upcoming story in Black Gate, and has had four stories of Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone published in the mag of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

My post's gone on too long already. I haven't mentioned a number of good writers who have appeared once in BG, or a number of others from Flashing Swords...
...but I should. Two of my very favorites from Flashing Swords were by Edward Muller, and CJ Burch. Bruce Durham has great action chops and won first place in the Preditors and Editors poll twice for his sword-and-sorcery. I have high hopes for Steve Goble and Nathan Meyer.

And I'm probably forgetting some others whose work I really like, but, as I said, this note's too long already and at this point, to those unfamiliar with the writers, it's not much more than a list of names.
I knew I'd forget something -- Charles Saunders is writing again. He's one of my favorite sword-and-sorcery crafters from the 70s 80s. A lot of people go on and on about Karl Edward Wagner's Kane, but I've always found Kane pretty hit or miss. Saunders is much more dependable, and he's drafting new stories after a long hiatus.
Great summation, Howard. And I agree with the sentiment of never seeing another comedict S&S piece again.

Every one of your points is necessary to pursuing that 'new edge' you seek. I agree with and like that terminology so much, I've borrowed and adapted the concept at Rogue Blades Entertainmentit.

RBE is taking it one step further, however. We're also taking that step harder, faster, and more emphatically by emphasizing an Xtreme Edge with our soon-to-be unleashed house character Kaimer. I'm confident we have guidelines #2, 3, and 5 licked, and the goal is to consistently deliver points 1 and 4 - but the readers will have to be the judges of that.

As for supporting markets? Well, by our monetary choices we support what we like. The almighty greenback casts a pretty hefty vote, one that speaks louder than any soapbox at any rate.

(Anonymous)

A few years back, for the span of about 9 months, I worked pro bono as a reader for a literary agent's slush pile. It was an eye-opening -- and deeply disturbing -- experience. It cemented Sturgeon's Law as absolute truth in my eyes . . . and painted Sturgeon himself as an optimist. The real percentage for that 9 months was 99.9%.

One thing I noticed in regards to the fantasy that lurked in the slush pile was how flimsy it was. It WAS bad RPG fiction, as you'd mentioned. It lacked any sense of its antecedents; I'd go so far as to swear those who had submitted it had never cracked open the Iliad, much less REH, Tolkien, et. al. The worst part, for me, was rejecting writers who were good craftspeople but who nevertheless lacked the most basic understanding of how to tell a story.

IMHO, the best S&S, and the best fantasy in general, comes from writers who understand both the history of their genre and the history of the real world. Before they were writers, Tolkien and Howard were historians -- one rigorously educated, the other less so but spurred on by a deep-seated passion. It's not enough for those who follow in their footsteps to mimic Middle-earth or the Hyborian Age; they have to dig up the roots and examine them -- the prose and poetry of antiquity, the histories of the Greeks and Romans, the memoirs of those who were eyewitness to history. Couple that with a fecund imagination and good things will be born.

Sorry for usurping the soap-box, but I've been following these threads with great interest. Well done, Howard!

--Scott Oden
Slush can be pretty dreadful.

Please drop in any time you like and share your thoughts. I thought this was highly quotable: "It's not enough for those who follow in their footsteps to mimic Middle-earth or the Hyborian Age; they have to dig up the roots and examine them -- the prose and poetry of antiquity, the histories of the Greeks and Romans, the memoirs of those who were eyewitness to history. Couple that with a fecund imagination and good things will be born."