Universal Maxims

(And no, not the teenager’s magazine)

When I was at school, I took a very bizarre set of A-Levels, eventually swapping Maths for Sociology after a few weeks of trying out statistics. The head of our sixth form asked me exactly why I’d do something like that, to which I replied ‘I want to know why people do things’.

Well, Sociology didn’t really help with that, and to be honest, neither did my Psychology degree, but I tried my best – and took a number of Philosophy modules at the same time. After graduation, I thought I’d missed a trick by not studying more Philosophy, so threw myself into more studying – but I found it all quite abstract and theoretical. It took me a long time to realise that what I needed was a much more personal explanation and reasoning – perhaps only for my own actions and thoughts, rather than rules that ‘should’ or ‘could’ apply to others.

However, literature has also provided me with a couple of very simple ideas that I’m quite fond of. The first of these is one that a lot of you will already be familiar with – Journey before Destination, from Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. It’s an excellent sentiment, and whilst perhaps not an entirely realistic one (any fans of 24 would certainly disagree in favour of a more Utilitarian argument) I’m a fan. I do believe that pursuing goals can be valuable, but since we spend a lot more time journeying than arriving, a purely goal-oriented view of life can be extremely harmful. After all, life is something of a journey, and how we spend that journey is definitely more valuable than the end destination!

My second favourite is Choose Again, from Dan Simmons’ Endymion duology. We grow up with so many fixed views on what is right and wrong, good and bad, shameful or worthy of respect, that often we forget that these views came from older times, times when we were children, or that they were inherited from people with blinkered views. Choose Again doesn’t necessarily mean choosing something different, but it does mean periodically revisiting the choices that you’ve made, as a (hopefully) increasingly-wiser adult. If you choose the same thing again, then that’s great. If not – then hopefully you’re choosing something better.

I’m not saying that these are the only principles that guide my life, but they’re certainly two that I value. I’d be intrigued to hear yours.

A weighty tome

That’s how my father would describe large books, and it always evokes images of ancient hardbacks, leather-bound spellbooks or something equally mysterious! For some reason, the phrase stuck in my head and made me wonder – just how weighty are the books that we lug around each day? And perhaps more importantly, what’s the heaviest?

Well, armed with my trusty kitchen scales, I set out to investigate. My mind first settled on A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, the concluding novel in the Wheel of Time series. It’s a chunky one in a series of hefty books.

On the scales, it comes out at 1.16kg, certainly a noticeable bulge in your bag if you’re carrying it to and from work each day.

But I thought that we could probably do better, and given that we’re on Brandon Sanderson, I had a look at Words of Radiance, also in hardcover, which clocks in at a pretty impressive 1.52kg! I briefly had a look at Oathbringer, but the UK version scrapes in at 1.48kg, so was barely worth a mention. I do also have the paperbacks of the first four novels in the Stormlight archive, which together come in at 1.63kg – very much more transportable than the hardcovers.

But wait! As many of you will know, I’m a huge fan of Clive Barker’s work, and some years ago, picked up the hardback versions of his Abarat saga as they came out. The first one is a relatively swift read at just under 400 pages, but it’s printed on really heavy paper because it has Clive’s original illustrations in it. The second and third novels are a bit longer, so I fished them all off the bookcase and put them on the scales.

The first novel – Abarat – clocks in at a fairly chunky 1.1kg. The second – Days of Magic, Nights of War, hits 1.2kg, but the third is the undisputed champion, clocking in at a huge 1.58kg, an extra 60g on Words of Radiance, but with barely half the page count!

With books like this, who needs a gym membership, eh?

“For fans of…”

I’ve been back on Twitter for a while now, and one thing I see a lot of is authors comparing their works to those of other writers, to help indicate who might (or might not!) like it. It’s not exclusive to Twitter either, and I see it a lot on Amazon’s pages.

I can really, really understand why people do it. I quite often say to people ‘oh, if you liked x book, you’d probably enjoy y book too’. But for an author, particularly a first-time writer, I think it’s dangerous. More often than not, you’re comparing your work to a very well-established (full-time) writer, with a team of editors and sub-editors, an agent and many, many resources at their fingertips. It’s useful shorthand, but it’s also dangerous. One I saw recently said ‘for fans of Brandon Sanderson’.

Now Elantris, Sanderson’s first work, was published in 2005, fourteen years ago. Since then, he’s written a breathtaking number of words across at least forty novels and novellas, from a quick glance at Wikipedia. I absolutely adore most of his work – Elantris, the first two books of the Stormlight archive and Final Empire in particular are truly magnificent – and I’m in awe of what he did with picking up Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga when Jordan passed away.

In some of his books, Sanderson’s world-creation is beyond compare. His sense of plotting is insanely tight, and his characters shine. So to set yourself up on a pedestal seems a very dangerous thing to do – sure, it might sell your first book, but you’re setting a very high bar.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I’d rather just write a good description of a book. I’m not saying that I won’t ever do this – I’ve just replied to a tweet about my current WIP using exactly this shorthand – and I get that it’s really tough to make it as a writer. But as an author, we’re here for the long haul, and I honestly think that it’s better to establish your own character and feel as a writer than try to put yourself next to someone else. And who knows – you might just be a better writer than them in time…

Who are the most immersive authors?

I wanted to do another ‘favourite books’ post because I’ve definitely neglected a few friends and had a couple of thoughts on how to make amends. It goes without saying that in the ‘favourite books’ section, most of these books suck you right in from the get-go, but there are also definitely a lot of noteworthy authors that seem to particularly have a skill for immersion! So, who would I recommend as a particularly immersive author? Here’s a few starters:

  • Laini Taylor: I absolutely love Taylor’s work. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was one of those books that I read on kindle and went straight out to buy in hardback so I could read it again (and managed to get a lush autographed copy as well!). But Night of Cake and Puppets, and Strange the Dreamer also manage this incredibly well. She’s a world-creator with mad skills!
  • Brandon Sanderson: I’d argue that Sanderson is fantasy royalty at the moment. There was a day when Final Empire sat alone on the shelves, but Sanderson now commands multiple shelves! I’m a huge fan of the first two / four books of the Stormlight Archive, as well as Elantris, Final Empire and the Rithmatist. Sanderson’s worlds – however fantastic – are always believable.
  • Charles De Lint: Urban fantasy is a tough gig. A modern world with magic, fairies and bikers? I came to De Lint’s work through Spiritwalk abnd Moonheart, and haven’t looked back since. His characters are complex, generally very loveable and his worlds completely compelling.

Who would you add?