Friday 3 March 2017

Gettin' techie with it

The other day I went to my first ever meet of the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club in London (although going to the pub after Jen Williams' book signing was very much a sort of prologue to this). 

Being possessed of all the social grace of a half-brick in a sock, I can't say I found it super relaxing, although there's nothing like trying to get the peel off an awkward sticker to make friends. It was good fun though, particularly the authorial Q&As, and I shall know people a little better next time. I might even manage some social grace. Hopefully it will even fall on a day when I don't have to run away from the pub to go to work.

The most interesting question came when someone asked Ed McDonald, medieval weapon enthusiast and new author, about whether he found his weapons knowledge to be a boon or a hindrance when writing Blackwing, his forthcoming book. 

He said that he'd found it necessary to tone down the technical details, for readers were a lot more interested in the details of how the characters felt than the angles at which the blades met. Which seems obvious really - its the advice most authors give.

However, I would like to ask 'Why not both?'

It seems to work for Miles Cameron after all. At times, his Traitor Son Cycle reads like a primer to medieval military history, KJ Parker is another author who often gets deep into technical descriptions in the course of his narrative. While they do cop the odd criticism online for that, I'd say that their writing styles has attracted more than enough fans to be getting on with.

One can point to them not being in the blockbusters and saying its a niche market. My counter would be Tom Clancy, who became one of the more commercially successful authors ever on the back of painstaking technical detail. Frederick Forsyth has done very well on the back of a similar style. They're not fantasy authors, of course, and the audiences are somewhat different. Nevertheless, I think there is room for saying that putting a lot of technical detail into a fantasy book can be a sound decision.

The key here is passion and enthusiasm. Its not enough to present interesting information is a clear way. Its when you can practically hear the writer thinking "this is really fucking cool" as you read that you pick up on their enthusiasm and enjoy the technical details in the same way they do. 

And usually you can hear the writer thinking that because one of the characters is doing so. Or at least appreciating the technicalities and being scared shitless about what their implies for their future health and longevity, or lack thereof. Which brings us right back to focusing on how the characters are feeling in these life and death situations. Yes, we want to feel their fear, their pain, their excitement. A lot of readers want to feel the characters' emotions at all times.

But the emotion can - should - be blended with an appreciation of the world around them. Emotions mean nothing without context. Now, pushing that appreciation to include the exact angle at which the blades met (to paraphrase McDonald), that is a bit much. But the more vivid the description of the world, the more power it lends to the emotions. And I believe a piece or two of technical description - sometimes very technical description - can go miles in making the world very vivid.

I don't know where exactly Ed McDonald strikes the balance in Blackwing but I know I do like authors who find a sweet spot, so I'm looking forwards to seeing how he manages it. And every other author I read too. Please be geeky and detailed with what you know. Most of your readers are intelligent, curious beings. We don't want technical manuals, but we do like to learn.

Every story has their details. The more real, the better. Get technical.

p.s. If you went the title and felt the urge to "na na na na" and then hated yourself because why do you even still remember that song, you are truly one of my people.

p.p.s. I can very much recommend SRFC and will be back - thank you to everyone who helped organise it and I look forwards to seeing people there again.