Criticism is a vital part of literature, and for that matter most fields. Active, reasoned critiques help identify weaknesses and strengths, provide multiple interpretations and perspectives on disparate matters, and foster improvement, perhaps more than anything else. They are just as essential to individuals; critical feedback is immensely helpful to improving oneself in any number of aspects, whether that's a specific ability, or more generally. It is something that we are encouraged to actively seek out in order to understand how our work and how we are perceived and received by others. Unfortunately, it is also something that I struggle with receiving.
For once, I actually managed to write a true short story; this particular piece comes in under six thousand words (barely), unlike most of the Blood Magic "short" stories, which hover around ten thousand words. It was a quick write for me, and will probably be a quick read for you. There aren't even any section breaks, and all of the action takes place in a single day. It's very much a read in one sitting kind of piece.
The point at which I'm driving is this: most depictions of people walking from place to place in fantasy books are terribly unrealistic. For a start, very rarely do they carry any gear with them, though they often are described as preparing gear, or having gear. But how are they carrying it? Where are the sore shoulders and sweaty backs and the sense of being about the float away when you finally take off your pack at the end of the day? Then they proceed to cover thirty miles in a day, and are promptly ready to get up and do it again the following day.
Over the past few months, I've been slowly making my way through the extensive historical archives of the Peanuts comic strip, starting all the way back at its inception in 1950. I don't usually get a lot out of comics, graphic novels, and other, similar forms - my patience and interpretive abilities for these visual media are only somewhat higher than my abilities to create in such media - but Peanuts was enough a part of my childhood that I am enjoying reading through them all from beginning to end. This rather esoteric project began from a random curiosity about how the strip originated, and while I continued with it in part because I was enjoying them, and out of curiosity, it also became something of a writing exercise.
Going back and re-reading these early episodes has really made me recognize just how much my writing has improved (in my opinion, anyway) in the less-than-a-year since I started releasing Blood Magic here on the site. The beginning of this episode, much like episode two, was told in a weird, semi-omniscient viewpoint, before reverting to the third person limited that is characteristic of most of the series. I think this was probably me trying to do a sort of "establishing shot," like would be done in a television show, but that technique really doesn't work for writing. It makes me wonder if I even recognized how jarring the viewpoint switches would be, or if I even knew I was doing it.
One wonders what other common facts about everyday life we tend to ignore because of how seamlessly our technology helps us overcome those difficulties. Since most fantasy stories take place in pre-industrial settings that would not have most of these kinds of aides, it is worth considering working these kinds of facts of the human condition into stories.
This post is loosely inspired by Brandon Sanderson's habit of posting complete annotations for many of his novels and stories, detailing how the story changed and evolved throughout his planning and revision processes, as well as what thoughts went into certain key decisions. I've found those annotations incredibly helpful as I've been working to improve my own writing, especially the copy of Sixth of the Dusk in which he includes complete drafts from various stages of the writing process. My goal is to offer something in a similar vein here, aimed both at fellow writers, and those of you interested in learning more about what goes into bringing Blood Magic to life.
In any book, the author must introduce the characters, the situation, and the basic elements of the setting, but in fantasy and science fiction you might have a viewpoint character in the first chapter who isn't even human, living on a planet that isn't even in this universe. The very laws of physics might be different, never mind the differences in culture, history, civilization, and everything that goes along with that: systems of measurement, idioms, naming conventions, philosophical principles, mathematics, science...speculative fiction strives to introduce and immerse a reader in a world that might be completely different from that with which we are familiar.
Orwell, author of 1984, wrote an essay decrying the decay of the English language. Specifically, he lamented that when most people go to write or converse, they rely on stock phrases which they stich together into different patterns, rather than developing original content.
I've noticed something about my writing recently, a struggle that I've been having but have not fully acknowledged. The problem is this: I'm too focused on the form of the words on the page.