Category Archives: Gregory D. Little

Gregory D. Little

The Darts He Suffers Are His Own

download (1)I write almost exclusively fantasy and science fiction, so the fact that The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett is both a historical fiction and my very favorite series of books should say something about how highly I regard it. The books have been around since the 1960s, yet the only people I have ever met who’ve read them are my mother (who convinced me to try the first book) and the people I’ve convinced in turn. To me this is nothing short of a travesty.

The six books are set in the middle of the sixteenth century and follow Francis Crawford of Lymond. Francis (known simply as “Lymond” to all but his closest friends) is already a wanted traitor to his homeland of Scotland when he returns there intent on clearing his name as the series opens. Lymond is, in the words of the author herself, “a classical hero: a natural leader whose star-crossed career, disturbing, hilarious, dangerous, I could follow in finest detail for ten years.” He is a leader, scholar, warrior and above all, rogue. No mere Mary Sue or shallow Renaissance James Bond, Lymond is a tragically flawed man of deep feeling and a tortured past, and might be better compared to a Renaissance mix of Jaime Lannister and Rhaegar Targaryen.

The series stretches from Lymond’s home in Scotland to the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Malta to the courts of Suleiman the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire and Ivan the Terrible in Russia. The breadth and depth of research Dunnett undertook to bring Renaissance Europe to life is nothing short of staggering. Lymond finds himself involved in many of the grand historical events of the time, blending so seamlessly into real history (and surrounded by so many real historical figures) that you’ll swear he must have been there.

Dunnett performs a neat narrative trick which was, for me at the time I first read the series, novel: at (virtually) no point in the series are you ever allowed inside Lymond’s head. Save for one critical scene, the POV always follows other characters. You are permitted to observe Lymond but never to inhabit him. This makes him central to the series but also keeps him at arms length from the reader, a necessary and fascinating technique to maintain Lymond’s air of mystique. It’s a technique I’ve used in my own writing since learning it from Dunnett.

Fair warning: these books are challenging reads, and the first book (The Game of Kings, referencing chess and not A Song of Ice and Fire) has the hardest prose to parse. Dunnett moderates her prose (relatively speaking) in the remaining volumes (Queen’s Play, The Disorderly Knights, Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle and Checkmate). But throughout the series Dunnett features quotes in other languages. Lymond is a polyglot and is not afraid to flaunt it. His use of multiple languages is not enough to disrupt your understanding of the books if you can’t translate, but it might be frustrating to those who like their prose clear and unaffected. There is an excellent companion book available for this series (and The House of Niccolo, Dunnett’s other series) that will translate the quotes for you and provide historical context, adding to the enjoyment of the diehards like myself.

The bottom lines are these. If you love action and adventure, read these books. If you love fascinating rogue heroes/anti-heroes, read these books. If you love star-crossed romance (in both senses of the word) read these books. If you love political intrigue and deeply-buried secrets, read these books. If you love worldbuilding and attention to detail, read these books. If you love to have your heart torn out of your chest, read these books. If you love soaring triumph, read these books.

If you love great books, these are the books for you.

Dorothy Dunnett sadly passed away shortly after I read this series for the first time back in 2001. But her work stands as a fitting legacy. Earlier I said that Lymond blends into history so seamlessly you’ll swear he was there. Alas, Francis Crawford didn’t exist in real life. But by the end of this series, you’ll wish he had.

Multiple POVs: Friends or Foes?

Multiple POVs. Are they friends or foes to authors? Well, as my dad likes to answer this sort of question: It depends. Let’s look at an example.

Two aliens walked into a bar. Krizznorp, Overlord Supreme of the Everlasting Fleet, surveyed the foul watering hole, disdain hue radiating from his luminous compound eyes. He was time was far too valuable to waste on such a putrid gathering of organic waste as this. But the Uber-Emperor’s polyp-spawn, Crown Prince Bill, was visiting from the blessed homeworld, and Krizznorp had been given the dubious but potentially career-advancing honor of showing him a good time. And if ever there was a waste of organic matter, it was the polyp-spawn gawking slack-jawed beside him. Setting his jaw, Krizznorp braced himself for a night of debauchery.


Okay, Greg again. This is a fairly ho-hum setup. The POV character has been tasked with treating the boss’s kid like royalty (which he happens to be in this case), but he’s got better things to do. There’s nothing new or interesting about this. But now let’s add a second POV.


Crown Prince Bill was ecstatic to be getting his first ever visit to a war zone bar. Oh sure, his guards and attendants had told him they were just exactly like every other bar in the quadrant, but Bill knew better. Even just standing in the doorway next to his new best friend Krizznorp, Bill could sense the desperation hanging in the air as if lifted there by the drunken fumes wafting up from the soldiers. Once he was able to return later, this time alone, that desperation would add the perfect savor to his favorite pastime.



So in that example of multiple POVs, the most obvious advantage afforded is dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the character, thus generating tension. In this case Bill doesn’t know how much Krizznorp disdains him, but Krizznorp also doesn’t know that Bill is some sort of alien serial killer. Thanks to the story dipping inside multiple characters’ heads (or whatever this particular species thinks with) the author has additional tools with which to generate conflict. Will Bill become aware of Krizznorp’s dislike of him and if so, will he murder Krizznorp, fearing no retribution because of his royalty? Conversely, will Krizznorp (I regret this name a little more every time I type it) realize what Bill really is, and if so, will he dare report it to the emperor? But what if Bill’s father already knows?

The opposite of our example with Krizznorp and Bill above is that if you have only a single POV, all information critical to the plot must somehow be conveyed to that character at some point in the story. This is what I like to call Overly-Important Character Syndrome, and it’s part of the reason so few epic fantasies have just one or a handful of POVs. It’s hard to convey “epic” through a single person’s eyes.

But for every advantage multiple POVs can convey, there are also disadvantages. The two worst offenders are length and pacing. I’ll discuss each briefly below.

Every POV character needs a plot arc. These can be of varying length, but if a character occupies a POV and an important part in the story and they don’t have a subplot of their own, it’s going to stand out in a bad way. But the number of POVs drives the length of your book as much as any other factor. My first novel manuscript featured about a dozen major POVs and was 287,000 words. For every first-time author not named Pat Rothfuss or Brandon Sanderson, that’s way too long. For my second novel I focused on keeping the number of POVs down. I ended up with five major POVs and the novel topped out at 126,000 words. For my third novel I went with just a single POV and ended up with 84,000 words.

Adding POVs and their attendant plot arcs also has dramatic impact on the story’s pacing. Maybe I want to have an unbroken segment of chapters featuring an extended, major action set piece for Krizznorp. But then I realize I haven’t checked in with Bill since chapter two and the longer I wait to do so, the more jarring that reintroduction will be. Or maybe I’ll alternate chapters so that Bill and Krizznorp each have an equal number and I trade off chapter-ending cliffhangers. That sounds great until I realize I have too little plot for Krizznorp and half of his chapters will end up being filler. If not well thought-out, multiple POVs can transform quickly from an advantage to a chore.

Multiple POVs can add a lot of richness to the tapestry of your story, but they also will have their own demands that must be met. I come back to this concept a lot in my posts, but it all comes down to what kind of story you are trying to tell. If it does require multiple POVs, advance planning (or an upfront acceptance that you’ll be doing a fair amount of rewriting) can save you a lot of headaches and frustration down the road.

How Much Blood is Right for You?

“This is a horror story: the mandate is to present a malefic universe.” That quote is from science fiction and fantasy (and occasional horror) author Daniel Abraham and I agree that this is where all horror stories begin. Once past that initial point, of course, there are a lot of different directions you can go. It’s a gross oversimplification, but horror is often divided into two categories: psychological and visceral. There are many degrees between the two extremes, not to mention all the various genre qualifiers that can be appended to any form of horror. but if you are beginning a horror story, it helps if you can decide roughly what kind of horror you are going for.

Is this story all blood and guts, tapping into the primal fear of being killed and/or eaten by a creature or entity you are incapable of fighting back against? Or is this a story of shifting shadows and fleeting glimpses of something insubstantial but terrifying, something that causes you to question the laws by which our world works? In short, are you trying to tap into the primal terror in the animal portion of the brain, or the existential terror that is our consciousness’s most dubious gift to us?

Since I’d wager that more people watch horror movies than read horror books, I’ll look there for examples. Movies actually adhere pretty rigorously to this stylistic split. If you’re watching a slasher flick like a Friday the Thirteenth or a Halloween, you’re trending more towards visceral horror. If you’re watching something more like 2013’s The Conjuring, you’re in more psychological horror territory.

When you get into the written word, however, an interesting thing happens. Movies, after all, have one distinct advantage over books. As a species sight is our primary sense. Graphic novels aside, we generally can’t show readers actual pictures. We have to hijack their imaginations to tell the visual parts of stories for us. But a movie, provided you keep your eyes open, can force you to look at whatever horrifying image the filmmakers want you to.  With a book the the reader’s mind is free to imagine the story in as vivid or as vague detail as it wants. For this reason, I think that visceral horror stories have to work a lot harder to have the same impact on the page as they do on the screen. By the same token, psychological scares on the page can prey upon already-primed imaginations, giving them a short cut to terror.

This is not to say that visceral horror in book form can’t be done. I challenge anyone to read Scott Sigler’s Infected or Scott Smith’s The Ruins and not be terrified (and nauseated)by the extremely visceral body horror elements present.

Ultimately the most effective horror stories make at least some use of both methods to achieve maximum impact. This is really more of a continuum than it is a set of polar opposites. You’ll have to determine what effect you are going for and utilize the correct techniques to scare your readers silly.

Leave the Spock Ears at Home: World Fantasy Convention

I’d wager a guess that most of our readers are neither independently wealthy nor possessing of vast amounts of free time. I’d also venture that most of you know by now the importance of networking in your burgeoning writing career. The old phrase “It’s not always what you know, but who you know” may be a massive cliche, but there’s a reason for that: it’s true.

So we know we need to show up at conventions, meet our fellow authors and hopefully get some editors and agents interested in our manuscripts. But for the reasons I mentioned above, we can’t just go to every convention that trundles up on the calendar. What’s an aspiring writer to do? What is the convention that gives you the greatest proverbial bang for your literal buck?

For you science fiction and fantasy writers out there, I humbly submit the answer: World Fantasy Convention. I like to think of it as Worldcon’s business-focused little brother. Whereas Worldcon is a fan-oriented event also attended by professionals in the writing industry, World Fantasy is all business. You won’t find anyone wandering around in cosplay there (so as the title says, leave your Spock ears at home), just writers, editors and agents who are interested in networking. Old friends and business contacts are caught up with, new friends and business contacts are made and through it all new opportunities are generated.

World Fantasy 2012 was my first convention and it was just what I was looking for. The afternoon I arrived (the day before the convention started) I met urban fantasy author Kat Richardson in the hotel elevator, and she was kind enough to introduce me around to her circle. I chatted with Pat Rothfuss prior to his panel. At the mass signing I ran into and chatted with epic fantasy author Scott Bakker. I talked with Norm Sherman, editor of Drabblecast, Mass Effect writer and author of The Palace Job Patrick Weekes, and lest I forget, I met a certain Evan Braun, author and blogger for Fictorians, an encounter that ultimately led to the post you are reading now. Make no mistake, this is the highest density of industry professionals you are likely to find at any convention. If you are looking for a convention to maximize your opportunities for career advancement, World Fantasy Convention is where you need to be.

Now, some tips:

-This con should be all about socializing. If you aren’t in a panel, you should probably be hanging out around the hotel bar. People will congregate there day and night. Even if you aren’t a drinker, the bar is the central hub of socialization for the con. If not the bar, find the hospitality suite and if not the suite, find the dealer room.

-Make an effort to figure out where and when the various parties will be held. They are thrown by publishers, sometimes to promote a new book release, sometimes just as a social event. A lot of times they aren’t advertised, so you may need to know someone who knows, so here’s where your people skills come into play. Be a pleasant person that people enjoy spending time with, and they shouldn’t be reluctant to fill you in on the details.

-Maintain good situational awareness. Just because people are at the con in a business mindset doesn’t mean they want to talk 24/7. If you see that agent you’ve been anxious to meet off by themselves but they appear to be busy checking their email, leave them be. The last thing you want is to make a poor first impression and be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

-Likewise, pay attention in panels if you’re looking for conversational icebreakers. If you’re shy like me, finding an excuse for starting a conversation is the hardest part. If you have something to lead off with, like “I really enjoyed your urban fantasy panel today,” that can make things a lot easier.

-Convince some of your writing friends to go with you. Writers tend to be shy, so you can all psyche each other up into approaching people who might otherwise intimidate you.

-Lastly, remember to relax and try to enjoy yourself. There’s no reason you can’t have fun and do your career some good at the same time.

This year’s World Fantasy Convention is in Crystal City, VA (I know the link says Washington, D.C., but any native Virginian will scoff at that) from November 6th – 9th. If you decide to come and see me wandering around looking shell-shocked, feel free to say hi!