The Pen Versus the Sword – a FantasyCon Panel

One of the most exciting panels at FantasyCon, and one with a very eager audience, was ‘The Pen vs the Sword’, on combat in fantasy fiction. On this panel were…

  • Adrian Tchaikovsky – writes fantasy, fights at the Leeds Armoury for research, also does live roleplay
  • Juliet E. McKenna – writes fantasy, does aikido, used to do live roleplay
  • Fran Terminiello – writes fantasy, does 16th and 17th century martial arts
  • Clifford Beal – writes historical fantasy, used to do full armoured combat, now does rapier fighting
  • David Thomas Moore – fantasy writing, moderating on short notice

I’ll try writing this one up as bullet points, see if I get more in than with my last panel writer-up.

Bad sword fighting in fantasy

  • FT: Fighting that’s artless – real western fighting was and is an art and a science.
  • JM: The idea that you can just pick up a sword and fight. Complete novices often tear their own ears in the attempt to fight, and that bleeds a lot.
  • JM: Long fights. Most sword fights last two or three strokes.
  • CB: Using one weapon’s technique or terminology for another.
  • AT: Not taking account of armour – fighting someone with armour requires a completely different approach.

Best sword fighting in fiction

  • JM: Old samurai movies, like Seven Samurai.
  • JM: Game of Thrones books – less the nuts and bolts than the attitudes of the fighters.
  • AT: K D Parker – technically good stuff.
  • AT: Abercrombie’s The Heroes for the sense of the chaos of battle.

Fighting in its social and historical context

  • FT: Rapiers were very much fashion accessories.
  • JM: Swordplay’s survival in Japan was down to the ban on gunpowder weapons.
  • CB: Many wearing rapiers for fashion didn’t know how to use them.
  • JM: Fighting well requires day in day out training to build muscle memory.
  • AT: Old fighting styles can be invalidated by technological change.
  • JM: Fast technological change means skills get lost in two and a half generations.

Planning a fight scene

  • FT: Context is key – battle or duel? What’s the regional etiquette?
  • JM: Less is more on details.
  • AT: Have the fight’s pace and structure driven by the characters’ personalities.

Other odds and ends

  • JM: Someone can have a non-survivable abdomen wound and still fight for twenty minutes – taking out their ability to fight is what counts.
  • FT: The locked crossed swords thing never really happens for more than a second – there are lots of ways out of it.
  • CB: In full armour heat exhaustion is your enemy.
  • FT: Swords are a last resort weapon – would rather have a spear.
  • Someone recommended reading English Martial Arts by Terry Brown.

The panellists did a demo afterwards, which I missed, but here’s a video someone else took of it:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHQC_Ds5sTs?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

This panel contained a lot of practically useful information on writing fights in fantasy and historical fiction. Anyone have any other guidance on this, or good sources to check out?

Building the same old world – a FantasyCon panel

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the ‘Building the same old world’ panel at FantasyCon. Based on the panel description it could have gone two different ways – focusing on the mechanics of world building in fantasy fiction, or focusing on diversifying the worlds we build. In the end it was an interesting mix of the two, thanks to the excellent panellists. These were….

One of the results of all this world building
  • Camille Lofters – the panel moderator  and a PhD student who is dealing with world building in her thesis – how cool is that as a subject to study?
  • Foz Meadows – a YA fantasy writer and one of the people who most impressed me over the weekend.
  • Tiffani Angus – a creative writing PhD student who writes in many genres
  • Peter Higgins – writes epic fantasy based on 20th century Europe.
  • Kate Elliott – a guest of honour at the con and writer of all sorts of speculative fiction.

Camille did a great job of moderating a panel for the first time, keeping the conversation flowing without intruding too much with her own views.

The tension of world building

‘Our preconceptions are the hardest thing to push through.’ – Kate Elliott

One theme that came out early on was the tension in world building between presenting the familiar to draw people in and the unfamiliar to interest them and make a fantasy world. As Camille pointed out, deviating from accepted reality risks confusing and alienating readers, and so you have to be careful how you do it. It’s important not to try to change everything, but to give readers things they understand.

All the panellists found exploring imaginary worlds useful in writing, whether to create a lens for exploring contemporary issues as Foz does, or to tell stories Kate couldn’t read when she was young.

Challenging assumptions

‘It’s so sad because speculative fiction is about all this cool shit and there’s this one thing that people can’t get past.’ – Tiffani Angus

Discussion turned onto the concept of presenting more diverse and unusual worlds, combining conversations about world building with ongoing debates about representation in fantasy.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that the majority of fantasy is built from a male Euro-centric perspective. It doesn’t take long for debates about this to get angry, and that was something Camille directly raised. As Foz pointed out, people who are used to seeing themselves constantly represented get confused and angry when this changes, as their expected representation has been taken away – this reminded me of Sue Archer’s guest post here on the lack of women in genre blockbusters.

Kate gave some great insight into how to approach this sensitively. We should like what we like and be courteous about what we read, because other people will like it even if we don’t. What’s comfortable to read varies from one person to another, and it’s useful to think about whose comfort is being defined in any story.

But for all the maturity of Kate’s point, a line from Peter gave me a certain dark satisfaction – ‘One of the things that comforts me all the time is that most people hate most things.’

Fantasy and fantasising

‘If you can get away with it then it works.’ – Kate Elliott

Peter also drew a distinction that we easily forget but that’s important when talking about fantasy – the difference between fantasy and fantasizing.

Fantasy is things like a dragon, an imaginative creation empty of defined reality, that the author can shape and readers will believe in.

Fantasizing is transforming the real into something unreal, like making a hitman pleasant. It upsets readers’ expectations, and so can be harder to believe.

My own thought on this is that what’s fantasy and what’s fantasizing may vary from one person to another, but it’s a very important distinction to make in trying to create your combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Of course there was more

I sadly don’t have time to write up everything that was said in the panel, or even everything that interested me. This particular discussion brought together two different but related subjects and made something interesting out of them. I hope that I’ve given you a taste of that.

FantasyCon 2014

As I mentioned on Monday, I spent this weekend at FantasyCon 2014, the British Fantasy Society’s annual convention. It’s only the second time I’ve been, and the first time was several years ago, so I was a bit uncertain of myself. Despite that I had a great time listening to panels, catching up with a few old friends and making some new ones.

Taking notes helps me to take in what people say when they’re talking. As a result I took extensive notes on some of the panels, and will summarise the more interesting ones over the next few weeks. But to start with I just want to mention a few people who impressed me and why:

  • Juliet McKenna – a politely spoken grey-haired lady who turns out to be a sword-wielding badass – this is what action heroes should be like
  • Foz Meadows – the most thought-provoking panellist I saw over the weekend, bringing intelligent feminism and an analytical attitude to social and political topics
  • Paul Cornell – a lively and entertaining host for the weekend’s two gameshow panels who tolerated my brief burst of fannish enthusiasm while he was busy feed his son
  • Chris Barnes – a Scottish voice actor who did a very entertaining reading with Graeme Reynolds, complete with accents and voice modification via pint glass.

Special mention should also go to writer David Tallerman, who I spent quite a lot of time chatting with. I recommend his bonkers comic Endangered Weapon B, which I bought on Comixology after seeing a copy on Friday night, and I am now the proud owner of David’s own battered copy of his first Easie Damasco book, which I’m looking forward to reading. Though unsurprisingly it’s not the only book I’ve come home with.

Just some of the books I accumulated at FantasyCon
Just some of the books I accumulated at FantasyCon

 

This post-FantasyCon post by Den Patrick is also an interesting reflection on an aspect of author etiquette at cons, and perhaps reflects how as creative types we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot. Den’s name will come up again later, as he was on a couple of the panels I enjoyed.

More on FantasyCon and its panels later in the week.