A Duel Upon the Razor’s Edge: Wielding the Sword of Crazy

What I’m about to tell you may come as a surprise, given how utterly, unrelentingly serious and grounded my writing has been so far: I don’t like it when people say such things as, ‘I’m going to write a fantasy novel- but low fantasy, because I don’t want to get too crazy.’ Whether or not people do, in point of fact, say that before doing so is irrelevant. It happens. Well, here’s my problem with that sort of thing. Anything which is scientifically possible, but hasn’t happened, is by definition science fiction, or even just fiction depending on how close you play it to reality. Fantasy exists purely for the purpose of letting us indulge our endless human capacity for making up crazy BS. You don’t have to get high to do this, either; in fact, I really recommend you avoid that, because you may go too far as it is.

But if thou knowest only what it is to recite, and not what it is to dream- then you’ll do what I just did and paraphrase dead Samurai. Here, you see, is the cruel paradox of our writers’ existence. If we try to push too far away from the ideas of our predecessors, we may find that no one understands what we’re saying. Niche is cool, niche is artsy- incomprehensible is, well, not (I don’t think it should be, anyway, not inherently). Yet, if we stick too closely to the verbiage, values and vistas of our valiant, er, forbears (credit where it’s due, that V thing is harder than it looks), we are immediately withered by the orbital barrage of hackery, quackery and brain-lackery accusations everyone keeps at the ready.  Honestly though, that’s no excuse for toning things down too much, being terrified to stick out one way or the other- you took the biggest risk in choosing to be a writer at all, don’t shy from the littler ones just because they involve other people. Don’t be afraid to write an idea out in prose (or rhyme, it’s all good!) and have someone look at it- it may seem crazy at first, but it might turn out well. Or it may actually be too crazy, and then you’ll know not to do that thing again unless you feel like a free, long-term tour of the nearest asylum. But please, understand that I chose the term ‘sword’ for the title very deliberately.

First, a sword requires a lot of control. You know that thing people do where they swing a baseball bat and let it pull the hand gripping it waaaaayyy around rather than just stopping it when the motion’s out of control? Yeah. Don’t do that with swords, unless you feel your spine could really use a more defined notch in its vertebrae. In much the same way, keep your crazy level under control. Don’t let the elements of your story whip back and forth between utter whimsy and totally serious, even if your leading braincase is top-tier batshit. If you’re writing something fantastic, make the fantasy elements fanciful, and the stuff that’s the same… the same. Most people know what a medieval farmhouse is supposed to look like- as opposed to what it actually did, because there’s a twisted architectural tale of woe! Spend time only on details that set it apart- the stunningly well-finished, lovingly kept woodwork where one expects creaky termite fodder, for example, or the total lack of glass windows because that stuff was more expensive back then. That’s why only churches and palaces tended to feature it- your average plebeian wasn’t keen to pay his entire life savings so he could make his house slightly less drafty (pre-insulation and drywall, remember?)

Yet all of this is nothing to do with the proper craziness of which I spoke. Onwards, then: if you’re writing sci-fi, but it’s really science fantasy because you already threw proper Newtonian Physics straight into the sun with a Reality-Warp Accelerator, and you’re not going to justify the tech you’re slinging around willy-nilly (watch it! You’re disgusting, you know that? You think people want to see your tech just waving in the solar winds like that? Ugh!) , then please don’t suddenly do a 180 and make everything conservative. The whole point of writing science fantasy is the ability to go nuts with it, to do whatever. Don’t offer BS justifications for everything that actually make even less sense than no explanation at all. Bring on the weird telekinetic stuff and instantaneous travel between star systems, the horrifically overpowered interstellar warships of unusual size (IWUSes? I don’t think they exist- KABLAM!), the aliens who can all produce human speech and have vaguely understandable values even though they should be separate from us in every way. You’re still writing a fantasy, even if it is in a far-future spacey place. It should contain things you wish were in outer space, not all the depressing crap that Stephen Hawking says is the only stuff we have any chance of finding. Much as I respect his scientific prowess, I don’t appreciate being told by physicists how I should feel about anything. I have psychiatrists for that, who I actually pay to make me miserable and give me huge doubts about my course in life’s fleeting flare twixt the twin voids of birth and grave. Do you see how horrible that idea is to me, even if you’re fine with it? Yes? Then let’s move on.

And when it comes time to have two sorcerers try to murder each other in your fantasy epic, please, please, please start with something other than a damn fireball. Pick anything. Ice would be a decent start, though Frozen‘s put that one on cooldown, hasn’t it? Geddit? Combination ice-pun and computer action game joke? Ha? I’m sorry. Also, screw Disney for making themselves somewhat harder to attack. I might actually have to try! Do you have any idea how hard it already is to be satirical when you’re not targeting political extremists and the like? But really now, what about all the other nutso forms of energy attack, huh? A black hole spell sounds positively horrifying, especially if it explodes later using all the matter it just pulled in. Now, yes, it’s been used (in computer RPGs, mostly!) but my point is there are so many damn options besides just ‘fire bad!’ Get a little crazy, or better yet, a lot- this is literally a power without limits. Kill some landscape, tear up a landmark or two- it’s okay to go a bit Hollywood, you’re writing about freaking magic!

Same thing with your swordsman characters and such. Shake up the rules a bit, given them some advantages of their own so mages can’t just sit in the middle of a spell-barrier and laugh as everyone dies around them. My personal favorite- mind-powers. Taking the angle that the two are separate, which some other authors (Mercedes Lackey for one, though I will attest I had this idea without her help) have already done, I tend to use psionics (to distinguish them from the dames wot stares into crystal balls, y’see) as a counter to mages. Lightning bolts? Not with a scrambled brain, they can’t! That grizzled archmage now believes he is a juvenile cockatrice. Guess he should’ve learned to shield his brain and not that dumb getup. What’s with that robe, anyway? Did a pixie puke on it after having a few too many in the local wine cellar?

And on that note, jokes. Sometimes they’ll fall flat, sometimes they’ll hit home, but if you don’t have any sense of humor, how are you going to write characters who do? Unless you’re authoring The Darkest Book That Ever Grimly Brooded (in which case, please leave), use some actual jokes at times. Develop some wit- I don’t care how painful the first efforts are, humor is a skill like any other, which means it can be learned– and use it to tickle people ’til they laugh, bearing in mind that wit is very much like a dagger, and if you press too hard you’ll get screams and the wrong kind of tears altogether. But few things help someone to appreciate a book quite as much as good laughs do- if you can make your readers laugh a few times, I guarantee they’ll appreciate you as long as the rest of the book is never worse than passable- that’s a lot more pleasant than ignoring the laughter bump and trying to write everything else exceptionally to compensate. Now, do jokes qualify as inherently crazy? Since their whole basis is generally on exaggerating, downplaying or twisting reality, I’d say they’re as crazy as you can get without wearing plaid sweaters.

And last of all, be totally schizophrenic when it comes to your ideas. Brook no argument against them until the precise moment when you realize they’re dragging you down- then shove them out your figurative cerebral airlock and start generating fresh ones. Or, you know, something like that. All things in moderation- including moderation! Because ultimately, I’d say the definition of insanity is not that dumb, trite one everybody repeats. Sometimes repeating the same action does have a different outcome, folks! Try kissing your mother, then a stranger’s daughter. Totally different, unless your mother is extremely abusive. No, to me insanity at it s simplest comprises a blatant disregard for rules of any kind, except when we really like the rules. Authors are (or should be) a form of artist, and if there’s one thing we artists love to do, it’s straddle the uncomfortably narrow and rather faded line between sanity and OH MY GOD THAT LEAF IS THE MOST AMAZING THING I’VE EVER SEEN WITH MY WAKING TOES! Or, er, something to that effect.
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