A Writing Journey

Archive for the ‘Genre’ Category

I have eclectic tastes. I like books and movies from most genres. When it comes to decor I am torn between classic and modern. My collection of music ranges from Wolfstone to Twisted Sister to Trans-Siberian Orchestra and beyond. And yet, my writing is, almost exclusively, fantasy.

I’ve mentioned before that I love fantasy because I get to make up my own rules.  This has a lot to do with why I don’t write much else.  When I try to write something in the real world,  the rules I don’t know get in the way.  I don’t know the setting perfectly and someone else might call me out on it.  I don’t always know how certain ages talk or ac, but in fantasy I can create cultural rules to atone for any discrepancies.

I am thankful that other people have the gift for writing “real world” fiction, because I love it.  I just don’t like to write it myself.

Take care,  fellow travelers.

The Style of Fantasy

First, an apology for posting at an unusual time. I was so excited about work today that posting entirely slipped my mind. I’ll try not to let it happen again!

At the beginning of the summer, I wrote a whole series about breaking out of the box fantasy has been stuffed in. While I stand by everything I said, there is something else to consider. Every genre has a style. Do mystery writers worry about originality? Do romance writers try to avoid the cliches of the genre? Or do they stick with the style they know?*

Fantasy had a style too. It usually involves a quest or other things I identified as cliche in my previous series. The truth is, they are cliche for a reason. We as humans are drawn to the strange, but it can’t be too strange or else we don’t like it. That means we writers must walk a narrow path. We have to keep to the style of our genre while constantly trying to make our stories new and exciting.

Perhaps you think I am waffling on my stance. I’m not. Those things that I pointed out as overused are indeed overused. But there is reason behind it. Nothing is black and white. I can’t say that cliches are never okay, because, as I’ve mentioned before, there are good times to use them. Its a matter of knowing the style of your genre and using it to your advantage. It also means that we will be judged, over and over, either because we do not fit the mold or because we lack originality. Ignore the world. Write for you.

Take care, fellow travelers.

*As I do not write other genres, I can only infer that they don’t worry about originality based on the books I have read.

Reclaiming Fantasy Afterword

In all my writing on this series, I learned a valuable lesson: I don’t always follow my own advice. I use the cliches that I warn against, I craft my characters in stereotypical molds, I create bland, interchangeable settings. Everything I warned against, I’ve learned by doing. I’ve been questioning why I do the very things I say not to. My answer is: it’s complicated.

See, I love the cliches. I really do. In television at least. I like the shows and movies that are entertaining but have that typical character or plot or setting or whatever*. And sometimes I incorporate the cliches into my writing. And you want to know something? That’s okay. For a first draft at least.

A lot of my advice in this series was about things we should change or work on. But we’ve got to have something to work with first. We’ve got to know the basics of our stories before we can fix it. So write the first draft however you want and then worry about the cliches and stereotypes. You can try to do it all at once, but that might just discourage you. I know it would discourage me. First drafts are allowed to be – supposed to be – awful. Not in the sense that the story has no potential, but in that they have significant room for improvement.

I’m not advocating to purposefully write bad first drafts. What I suggest is writing without listening to anything outsiders are saying. Just get the story down. Then, while it is resting, explore the advice of others and apply it when you rewrite.

You want to know something else? Sometimes I write, just for me, and in those stories I have cliche after cliche. It’s comfortable, and comforting, to write that way sometimes. And guess what. All of the stories that I have shared with others started as a “just for me” project, filled with cliches and terrible prose. Because my goal in writing is to get the story out of my head (though as soon as I start writing it just gets deeper in my mind) and I don’t care if someone thinks it’s awful. It’s the story in my mind.

So. Write how you want to write, and then work on making it better. It’s a long process, but I fully believe that it is worth it.

Take care, fellow travelers.

*These shows are by no means my favorite, though.
If you missed any of the series Reclaiming Fantasy, follow the links below!

Reclaiming Fantasty – Part 1, Introduction

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 2, The Setting

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 3, Characters

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 4, The Plot

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 5, Magic

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 6, The Villain

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 7, Hero or Heroine

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 8, Series

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 9, Weapons

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 9, Weapons

Here’s a question: how many different types of swords are there? Yeah, I don’t know either.

I don’t write a lot of weapons into my fantasy because, so far, warfare has not been a focus of my work. This will be changing for some other stories I have slated, and when I get there you can bet I will be doing quite a bit of research. But here’s the thing, I probably won’t be using many swords. They are over used, for one thing. For another, they are BORING. Fantasy writers use swords for the same reason that they use a medieval setting: it is expected. Give your protagonist a sword (though if she’s female she HAS to use a bow just like the effeminate elves – duh*) and give your supporting characters a few other *unique* weapons – you know, an axe or a bow or a couple daggers. That will make the story shine!

WRONG. First off, those weapons are not unique anymore. Second of all, give your characters unique weapons in order to make them stand out is as bad as giving them funky color eyes or hair. If they have to have something that isn’t very common, have a good reason for it. Maybe all the people born in a certain month are taught to wield a certain weapon, or maybe it has to do with the village they were born in (of course, I see this as being in a very martial nation and don’t really see how it could fit a more general fantasy novel, but do you see my point?).

The problem with swords and similar bladed weapons is that they go right along with the medieval scream of fantasy. There are whole other time periods and continents to draw from. A quick search of “types of weapons” brought me to a list of Premodern Combat Weapons on Wikipedia. It isn’t that hard to do the research and find what works in your story, and for your characters. And that’s important, to make sure that you know how the weapon works. Maybe you can’t take a class, but for goodness sake don’t learn from movies – they are WRONG. Do the research and try to unlearn everything that you’ve gotten from movies, video games, and other fiction books. It won’t help you. (Some books might, but you can never be sure if the author did the research or not – best to assume not and do your own.)

Good luck on your quest and take care, fellow travelers.

*Note the sarcasm.

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 8, Series

Yesterday, I picked up a new book* to read, one that I’ve been waiting to read for quite some time as it is the newest in the series. With growing excitement I examined the cover and then flipped to page one – only to be swept away by my disappointment in the very first sentence.

What is this? I wondered. Why were there so many adverbs and unnecessary descriptors? Each sentence had at least three adverbs! The description was just an info-dump – there was no action, nothing to make me care about the description.  And beyond that – each character was described in such depth that I would have expected this to be book one in the series, not eleven.

I thought about this all day. Why is the description so over the top? Well, the books are written by two authors. Maybe they tried to make it as clear as possible the exact details so that they would each see the same thing. Unfortunately, they made things less clear for anyone reading their books. That kind of description is fine for first drafts, but not published works.

This morning I decided to go back to the first book and see if the writing was always that bad. To my surprise, it was not. The first book had clear description and fewer adverbs. It was still written by two authors, so that sort of scrapped my previous theory (though I think it is still valid). So what was the issue? Well, maybe that it is book eleven. I think these authors have lost their focus (which was really proven by the previous book, in which the entire contents of the book could have been condensed to one or two chapters). The first books in the series were great, they had definite endings and a plot that, while it could be connected to the next book, was all its own.

Why do fantasy writers write such long series’ if the quality of their writing deteriorates? Why do fantasy writers feel the need to write series at all? In other genres, stand-alone books are the norm.

Here are the reasons I came up with for why fantasy writers write series:

1. Most fantasy writers try to write epic fantasy – which by the word epic has a connotation of great length, something that cannot be contained within a single book. But why not? I don’t have the answer to this. My only suggestion to aspiring writers is to think about it, and write a single story. Don’t split it up.

2. We as writers get invested in a particular character. We know them inside and out. We want to follow their whole life, or as much of it as possible. Readers want it too.

3. Fantasy novels sometimes have a cast that is, honestly, too big. When we try to follow to many characters, we get caught up in all the things that the characters are doing and lose sight of the plot. Then, the plot gets drawn out into more books.

4. The idea that fantasy novels must be in a series. If all fantasy books are part of a series, who is going to step outside that box and write a stand-alone fantasy?

5. And last but not least, money. Sometimes I think published writers let go of the love of writing. It seems that it becomes just another dreary job rather than a creative passion. So they write a fantasy novel. It sells more copies than they ever expected. They continue with the characters and world, making ever more elaborate plots that don’t actually tie back to the original story – because these other books weren’t planned.

I admit, I love trilogies. I love reading them and I love writing them. Maybe it has to do with that there are three – the beginning, middle, and end – or maybe that’s just what I read most of. I don’t know. But I love them. I don’t know if I would write a stand-alone fantasy novel. I can see the benefit of doing it, but I think it takes more skill and practice than I have right now. Maybe you can do it.

What do you think about series in fantasy? Do you find yourself having to stop reading a series if it drags on forever and ever?

Take care, fellow travelers.

*I’m not naming the book because I don’t think it’s right to be negative about something that someone worked so hard on, and besides, that’s not what this post is about.

Reclaiming Fantasy Part 7, Hero or Heroine

Browse your bookshelf for a moment. How many of the fantasy books there have male leads? Almost all of them? That’s what I thought. Where are the female protagonists?

I didn’t get into fantasy until I started reading books by Tamora Pierce. She was the first fantasy author I found in my young years that was not afraid to give us a strong, female lead (and one that was still incredibly realistic). I don’t think I’ve ever read a single fantasy book written by a male author that had a strong female lead and, in unhappy truth, most female fantasy authors write male leads too. I have nothing against male leads. My favorite book trilogy is the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb (a woman) and the main character is a boy/man. I’m just saying that we need more well-written female protagonists.

Examples of well-written female protagonists:

-Alissa in Dawn Cook’s Truth series. In these four books, Alissa sets off to become a keeper (basically a sorcerer) and discovers that she has the key to defeating the bad guy. She isn’t afraid to be cunning – namely by making the villain think that her male companion is the sorcerer – and she fights back when her friends are threatened.

-Magiere and Wynn from the Noble Dead Saga by Barb and JC Hendee. These two female characters are as different as can be, and yet they are both characters that I love. Magiere is the (stereotypical) “warrior-chick” (a sexist term and character type) that won’t let anyone in, but as the series progresses she develops and becomes a much more well-rounded, interesting character. Even more interesting is Wynn, who isn’t introduced right away. She is a scholar, and she is by far my favorite character of the series because she shows that the “strong female lead” doesn’t have to be the sorceress or the warrior.

-Mel in Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel. Sure, she’s a teenager that is presumptuous and takes stupid risks, but what teenager isn’t? Mel is determined to defend a Covenant that the king wants to break, and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to do it. She’s loud and her assumptions get her into trouble, but she’s also normal. She gets scared, she makes mistakes, and she learns that she isn’t always right.

Those are a few of my favorite female protagonists. In addition, the heroines of Tamora Pierce’s novels are some of my favorite, especially for younger audiences.

I avoid calling these female protagonists “strong” not because they aren’t (for sure, they are the strongest) but because of the connotation that goes along with “strong.” Too frequently, a “strong female character” is really just a (pardon my language) bitchy character. She doesn’t have any strength, she just yells at everyone around her. A temper doesn’t make your female protagonist strong, neither does lack of feeling. And seriously, I hate it when a female protagonist starts out as unfeeling and grows to care or let someone in – to me that screams that the only thing women are good for is to find romance. Seriously, that kind of subplot only drowns out the primary plot. (As I have said before, I am sure that there are examples that prove me wrong, I am painting in broad brushstrokes.)

On that note, I’d like to share something. A friend of mine recently asked “Does having a female protagonist automatically mean the story will have romance in it?” My gut reaction was NO, because obviously that is the answer. I’ve thought about it. While I stand by my answer that having a female protagonist doesn’t mean the story has to have romance, it is important to look at the reasons my friend thought this.

Female protagonists tend to deal with romance, it is true. But that may be because women authors focus more on life issues rather than warfare and “manly” things. (I could be wrong, of course.) In addition, men who write a female character in might only have her there as a love interest or a plot initiator. (Again, I am sure there are books that counter this assumption, and by no means am I saying that male writers do this on purpose – it is culturally reinforced in the United States and many other places around the world.) In addition, many female readers are young adults and they crave the romantic aspect. Perhaps many authors just go with it, since they know it sells.

But here is the issue. Female characters are dehumanized by authors – and not just male authors. I’ve done it, I’m sure all of you have. My latest rewrite of Quest for Salvation involves giving my main character back her agency. I took it away without even realizing it, and the story has suffered for it. She became reactive rather than proactive. That won’t work.

To me, it’s all the worse when a male author dehumanizes the female characters. When they are only tools or props or scenery, I want to vomit. It’s sexism, plain and simple.

So here’s the thing. Next time you’re itching to pick up a pen and write that next novel, think about your protagonist. Think long and hard. What message are we sending readers?

Take care, fellow travelers.

P.S. Maybe you’re wondering why I didn’t include Katniss from The Hunger Games. Simple reason: that’s sci-fi and not fantasy. If we were talking sci-fi, I’d have a few more names to add to the list. Also, the second “related article” is excellent. Please read it.

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 6, The Villain

In fantasy, villains are often depicted as power-hungry, evil sorcerers (I’m picturing Jafar, in Aladdin). In most fantasy, there is no real motivation – the villain is just intent on destruction. There are issues with that. First off, a good character needs motivation. Yes, they may be the antagonist, but they can still be well-written. Second, generally speaking, people have a drive for self-preservation. If a villain is trying to destroy the world, what do they get out of it? Are they going to be destroyed right along with the world? I don’t think many villains are willing to go that far, and definitely not in an intriguing story.

So what is a villain’s motives? That is always a hard thing for me to come up with. In the beginning, I am much more likely to have a villain-caricature than a well fleshed-out bad-guy (or gal). And you know what? That is okay. In the beginning, things don’t have to be perfect, they shouldn’t be perfect. The task is to develop that caricature villain into something better. Motive is, in my opinion, the best way to do this. Build the back-story. Why does your villain have a beef with the MC? Why does the villain want to gather all the power to her/himself? Let’s take a step beyond “because as a child they were abused/neglected/etc.” and think a little more.

Think about Regina, from Once Upon A Time. Admittedly, I think the writers/producers could have played up her circumstance more and made it more intriguing. Regina became evil in order to escape her mother’s power. She didn’t mean to become evil, she just did. And guess what, she keeps messing up. And so no one will give her a chance to be good again, even though she is clearly at war with herself.

Motivation tells us a lot about our villains. I am in the process of rewriting my WIP, mainly because my villain was not strong enough. How am I addressing it? By adding motivation.

Another point that Nick over at Fictioner’s Net brings up is that the bad-guy needs morals. Sure, they can break their guidelines, but they have to start with them in place. You can read the article here.

My second point was that people have a drive for self-preservation. It may be better to give the villain the goal for control or causing the other characters the most pain and heart-ache possible. For goodness sake, don’t let your villain have a goal of hurting others and then make dramatic, and stupid, decisions that endanger him/herself. The villain is going to protect him/herself.

If your villain really wants to destroy the world, give them a good reason. Make sure that their psychology lines up with their actions. Check out the 12 common archetypes and use them to your advantage when creating your villain.

Don’t let the villain risk everything just to destroy everything – risking everything is the protagonist’s domain.

Take care, fellow travelers.

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 5, Magic

When it comes to magic, fantasy writers usually go one of two ways: learn the spells from the book or magic is in your blood and you don’t have to learn any spells. Both of these have problems.

Learning spells or “words of power” is, in my opinion, a massive cop-out (unless, of course, you are writing Harry Potter and that is integral to the way the world works – but usually it is not). If your characters can just go learn a new spell every time the need to, it ruins the tension. We all know that they are going to get out of this mess too (that was my one big qualm with Buffy the Vampire Slayer – they had a spell for everything). The only way this can actually work is if you have some sort of school or family tradition or something, and then the spells go wrong, or sometimes there isn’t one, or the cost is too much and the magician refuses to use the spell or something. But when all the problems can be solved with a new spell, there is no point in reading more.

Now, the bulk of this post is going to be about the magic that is inherent in a character – they’re either born with it or they’re not. There are usually categories of magic in fantasy: healers, summoners, elementalists, seers, and others. The problem with magic (and I am honestly not sure how we as fantasy writers avoid it) is that it’s all been done. I think some of the only room for creativity in magic is in how each person can use it, the cost, or even how many people have access to it.

That being said, it is difficult to come up with new and creative ideas for magic. In my WIP the creative part is magic’s source, and how it came into the world. The magic itself is, I’m sorry to say, fairly average (and probably more so than I would like to admit).  My suggestion is to experiment in your writing. Read a lot of fantasy where magic is at least part of the story so that you can see what has been overdone and what is still hiding in the shadows. Learn to write magic well, even if you stick to the norm. Create a system that, if not entirely original is at least consistent and interesting.

And for the love of everything good, don’t make magic this scary thing that has been banned for centuries and people are killed for using it. So overdone.

Take care, fellow travelers.

Another post about this subject by a friend of mine over at Write-Minded Razo can be found here.

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 4, The Plot

There’s a prophesy about a chosen one and the destruction of the world. The chosen one, after initially refusing to accept that they have a destiny, is faced with a life crisis that makes them care about this world. The chosen one embarks on a journey, faces dangers, and eventually defeats whatever evil is threatening the world.

BORING.

I’ll admit though, I use this basic formula (sans prophesy) as much as any other fantasy writer. But you know what? I really hate reading books like this. To that end, I’m trying to cease writing based on this plot. It has been over done and quite honestly, is rarely done well. (The only case of it having been done well that I can think of is Harry Potter.)

Before we talk about what can be done to reinvigorate the fantasy plot, let’s talk about why we are stuck in this rut. First of all, we see it in the media and in books so often that we assume (again) that it is the “right way” and people want it. I don’t know about the wanting (other people surely have different opinions than mine) but just because it is a predominant plot doesn’t mean it is the right one. Second, I believe it has to do with the characters we choose. When we as writers focus on nobility, knights, and royalty, the “saving the world” can seem like the only option for a decent plot (it’s not, by the way).

So what do we do? Well, as I said in Part 3, the characters have to shape the plot. Start with an interesting character that is not typical in fantasy, and develop them first. When you know their desires, goals, and beliefs you can shape the plot around them, rather than forcing your characters into a plot that doesn’t work for them. (This is also the way to make your characters more interesting. If you develop them solely to fit the plot, they don’t do anything interesting, they are static and boring.) Let the plot have a direct impact on the life of the MC and the people she/he cares about. When we make the plot more personal to the character, it will feel more realistic. When we make it more personal, the simplest conflict will have as much tension as the doomsday plot.

I’m not saying that we fantasy writers should never have end-of-the-world drama, or high-born characters. What I am saying is that we have to be aware of the cliches of our genre so that we can navigate them and either embrace or reject them. After all, it’s our imagination – why stick with what’s already been done?

Take care, fellow travelers.

Here is a link to a post about the rebirth story-arc: http://writeontheworld.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/writing-the-rebirth-plot-arc-rathilde/

 

Fiction and Real Life

Last Wednesday, I mentioned that I have started work on a pet project, and that it is YA. In my attempts to procrastinate working on various tasks, I came across some articles and posts about how certain books and TV shows exemplify and work through real life issues. Now, I’ve said this a few times before but I will reiterate: fiction, regardless of genre or medium, needs to reflect real life. This is especially true for YA, because teenagers are often struggling with issues that they keep hidden, or have no resources to help them work through it. Sometimes the only way they know that they aren’t alone is by reading a book, and seeing characters going through the same things – even if there are fantastical elements to the story.

I believe that the primary focus of writers should be to tell a good story, but I don’t think a story without a message can ever live up to the enduring prestige of those stories that say something important. There is no doubt that this belief has been influenced by my study and love of Russian literature. Many classic books (whether they are Russian or not) have important messages that echo throughout the ages. Crime and Punishment questions whether a person can do whatever they want just because they are “better” (or if some people really are better than others)While I don’t think YA books need this level of  musing, it is important to have a purpose behind writing.

Now, by no means am I saying that books need to be preachy or overtly biased in the message: it is up to readers to interpret what we writers are trying to say. I merely mean to make the assertion that there ought to be room for people to connect and interpret. The best way to explain is through examples, and so I have some for you. They are from both books and TV, and mostly from what I would consider to be YA fiction.

Many articles have been written on the real-life relevance of Harry Potter. Integral to the plot are messages about prejudice, abuse, death and immortality, betrayal, loyalty, oppression, and sacrifice. When the books first came out, I never saw these themes (I was a kid, after all), but as I grew and kept reading the books, it became obvious that they had relevance to real life. This wasn’t just the story of a boy who found out he was a wizard. This was the story of a boy determined to make a change in the world around him. He grew out of terrible circumstances and did something amazing, as did the people around him (heck – look where Neville ended up!).

The Hunger Games is another YA book series that has an incredible message. It is about children being exposed to (and forced to participate in) violence. It is about standing up for what you believe in and thinking of those you love. It is also, in my interpretation, about peer pressure (particularly in Mockingjay, book 3 of the trilogy).

The Farseer Trilogy, though not YA, deals with difficult real-life issues such as addictions, depression, and if people should always be obedient to authority.

Books aren’t the only medium in which reality informs fiction. The best TV shows and movies do the same thing. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy and her friends deal with a myriad of issues from relationship trouble to the death of loved ones to doing the right thing even though they know it will hurt to doing the wrong thing because they are in so much pain. M.E. Kinkade recently had an excellent post called High School as Hell: Buffy the Vampire Slayer about – you guessed it – how the show (at least the first few seasons) is about how rough high school can be. Stargate, a show about traveling through a wormhole to other planets and encountering other civilizations, deals with cultural issues, prejudice, and imposing one person/group’s values and morals on another person or group.

Stories – be they books, TV shows, or movies – need real life relevance. A story without something to say to me, no matter how good it is, leaves me feeling unsatisfied.

Do you think that books should have messages? Do you have a favorite book (or show or movie) with a message?

Take care, fellow travelers.

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