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Oak, Ash, and Thorn Available This Week!
The paperback version will be available through Amazon in another day or two, with digital versions coming shortly after that! Merry Christmas!
This novel, third in the Into the Wonder series, will also give readers their first bird’s-eye view of the faery geography in which most of the action takes place, thanks to my awesome design guy, Dave Jones:
A Map of Middle Earth with Tolkien’s Annotations
You never know what you’ll find tucked into an old book.
In the 1960s, the British illustrator Pauline Baynes was working on a color map of Middle-earth, the land of wizards, elves and, of course, hobbits. While she was drafting the map, she worked closely with J.R.R. Tolkien, who sent her a copy of a map from a previous edition of Lord of the Rings, covered in notes revealing details of Middle-earth.
Baynes tucked that map into her copy of Tolkien’s trilogy, where it stayed for decades, until, just recently, it was found at Blackwell’s Rare Books, reports the Guardian.
Kassan Warrad: Defining Human
Kassan Warrad’s latest post at Mythic Scribes seeks to ground fantasy races (orcs, elves, etc.) in real-world evolutionary framework. This is ground I covered in fleshing out the various groups depicted in Into the Wonder—and for the same reasons Kassan suggests. Namely, to achieve a greater level of lifelikeness:
A systematic approach to defining your races will help shape the underpinnings of your world. How are the races related to one another? Do they share a common ancestor? Can they interbreed and produce viable, fertile offspring?
These questions help define your races’ distinct sociopolitical boundaries. The world will feel more authentic, and many readers will appreciate the invested thought.
At the bottom of all of this is the issue of relatability. Do members of these groups have the same sorts of goals, aspirations, and emotions as the readers (who are all, at least in theory, human)?
The question of who counts as human is a theme underlying my third novel, Oak, Ash, and Thorn, which will be coming in February 2016.
Ten Commandments for Epic Fantasy Writing
If you’re a budding Epic Fantasy author, you’ve likely read quite a lot of advice about how your novel should start. Having read thousands of submissions and more than my fair share of published novels, I’d like to share with you ten openings that should be avoided. So here, in my opinion, is how not to do it…
Make sure you get all that pesky world-building out of the way up front. How can I ever enjoy your story unless I know everything about the world? What is that clasp on the archer’s tunic made from? Where and when did she get it and how much did it cost? If you want you can put all this in a lengthy prologue, but we need to know this stuff.
Is it raining? Describing the weather is such an dynamic way to start your novel. Nothing says ‘Epic Fantasy’ like a light breeze. We need a least three pages before we can even think about those characters.
The Family History. An extension of 1) really. Ok, so this guy is running for his life. But when was his grandmother born? Quick, I can’t possibly invest in this until you’re told me. That leads us to…
Introduce all of your characters straightaway. Fortunately readers all have photographic memories, so cram in as many names as you can in the first few pages. Better still, give them names that are impossible to pronounce like Horguur’thzogh and Ek’mazikav’tx so they will really stick in the mind.
Describe absolutely everything. ‘She deftly flicked the thin strand of her glossy raven hair from her cold green eyes and purposefully and steadily raised the bow of ancient, dark yew and meticulously…’ Whassat? Sorry, I think I nodded off for a second there.
And it was all a dream. A great way to make your world seem tedious to put a vivid dream right up front and get the reader to invest in it. Then wake your protagonist up, and you can rub it in the readers’ faces that it was all pretend and simultaneously make the ‘real’ world seem really boring. Result.
Waking up. Or you can skip the dream and just open with someone waking up. Every day starts with someone getting up, so why not every novel? Then they can have breakfast, which is one of the mainstays of Epic Fantasy.
Try hiding your info dump in dialogue. ‘My brother Rak, you know how our father, the Emperor, sent us on this quest six moons ago? Well, as we heard those outlanders – our sworn enemies – near our camp last night, if your twisted ankle is up to it, perhaps it is time to lay down the swords that once belonged to our grandfather – a famous hero of his time – and take the long road home through the mountains.’ Smooth, huh? This works well with internal monologues, too.
Use plenty of metaphors. Although you’re writing a Fantasy novel and everything is up for grabs in the first chapter, don’t be afraid of using metaphors from the off. Of course the beast isn’t literally a hundred feet tall or the protagonist really has eyes that shine like blue fire on a dark night. It’s obvious. Your readers are smart; they’ll figure it out eventually.
The epic battle. They say you should open with a bang, so why not a twenty-page action sequence? Who cares that we don’t know who anyone is, aren’t bothered if they live or die, where they are, or what’s at stake! Fight! Fight! Fight!
Agriculture and Food in Worldbuilding
Worldbuilding: Food for the People by B. Pine.
Building Your World through Multiple Texts
Lisa Walker England has put her finger on something that I have been groping toward for a couple of years now. There are just too many details of a well fleshed-out world to ever fit comfortably in any number of novels. In her recent post at Mythic Scribes, Lisa challenges us to think in terms of other sorts of texts that might be useful in conveying that information. Namely, she suggests
- Fable Collection
- Comic Book
- Fight or Magic Manual
I’ve worked out some of the basics of a bestiary for my Into the Wonder series as well as a fairly extensive essay on magic. Those who’ve read Children of Pride know that I’ve also written a handful of indigenous fables. (The idea of the kinds of stories faeries might tell their young children captured my attention at some point in the writing process.)
I was surprised History wasn’t one of Lisa’s suggestions, but perhaps that is such a common companion piece that it didn’t really bear mentioning. She also mentioned in passing the idea of a Law Code. In fact, the laws of the fae are an important plot point in my work-in-progress sequel, The Devil’s Due.
Good stuff all around. It’s a blog post well worth reading!
Build Diversity into Your Fantasy Setting
As Alice Leiper explains, the best way to build diversity into your fantasy setting is, well, to world-build it.
By considering diversity from the outset, you can create a world in which diversity is natural and normal without it feeling “unrealistic”, by developing geographies and cultures organically rather than defaulting to pseudo-medieval European.
Languages in Fantasy
Leo Elijah Cristea has posted some thoughts and observations about made-up languages in fantasy (and science fiction) over at Fantasy Faction. The bottom line: nobody who doesn’t have a Ph.D. in linguistics is going to do it as well as Tolkien, and even if they could, that’s not what fantasy readers want any more. Characters are everything, and the world-building must serve the characters (and, of course, the plot).
For Children of Pride and its eventual sequels, I’ve roughed out a couple of constructed languages. Esrana, for example, is the ancestral language of many of the fae kindreds of western Europe. It holds a place similar to Latin in the Topside world, especially a few centuries ago when Latin was a “prestige” language spoken by the educated elites. There are some characters (and locations) in Children of Pride whose names are derived from Esrana, just as there are people and places today whose names are derived from Latin or Greek (Julia, Gregory; Indiana, Philadelphia, etc.).
Not yet seen in print is Wechakáhli, the language of certain dwarfish clans. I worked out some of the details of this language just to play around with a language spoken by beings whose vocal apparatus is not entirely the same as that of humans. Other than a handful of vocabulary and a bare-bones grammar, there’s not much to it.
World-building: Extensive, Minimal, Top-down, and Bottom-up
Philip Overby has a new post up at Mythic Scribes about that perennial topic among fantasy writers, world-building. Philip lays out the pros and cons of both “extensive” and “minimal” approachs to world building, and he does it quite well. I’ll go ahead and state my preference for extensive world-building—as long as it doesn’t bog down the story.
I think of it sort of like a flower garden. People who come by to admire your roses and petunias don’t really care what sort of fertilizer you use or how you decide when to plant or the brand of your favorite set of clippers. They care about the finished product, not the process. And yet, when the other members of the local gardening society come around, they love to talk shop, share tips, etc.
I’m not sure what proportion of fantasy readers are like the members of the gardening society and want to delve deeply into the appendices in the back of the book (or the Wiki or whatever). I am fairly confident, however, that that number is greater than zero. 🙂
In addition to “extensive” and “minimal,” I find it helpful to think in terms of either “top-down” or “bottom-up” world-building. Top-down world-building gives you the big picture of what is actually possible in this new, fantastical world—and why, given this broad context, things actually happen the way they do.
I’m thinking here of the basic mechanics of the world, the elements that inform the overall direction of the story. Top-down world-building looks at the sorts of broad subject matter one could study about our own world: history, technology, geography, religion, politics, etc. Add to this the things that would be a part of a well-rounded education in our world if, in fact, our world was a fantasy setting: How does magic work? What sapient species (elves, dwarves, fauns, talking animals, etc.) exist, and how do they all get along?
It’s a good idea for writers to have a pretty firm handle on these sorts of issues. Philip is right that at least some of this work really should be done before writing commences. I would urge, however, that writers spare us the info dump. If the world is engaging enough, I’ll certainly ask for more “behind the scenes” information. But I don’t want all this fascinating detail to get in the way of a great story. Rather, let these kinds of issues bubble up organically from within the story itself.
Bottom-up world-building is different. These are the elements that lend a certain tone or “color” to the narrative. They may very well be the sorts of things writers dream up on the spot to give their world a greater sense of verisimilitude or simply to entertain the readers.
One good example of what I mean by bottom-up world-building is the in-universe terminology characters use to talk about the various features of their world. What sort of slang, shorthand, technical terminology, or even profanity grows naturally out of the way your world is put together? You can develop an entire magical system using generic terms like “non-magical person,” but doesn’t it add something to the story’s texture to call such a person a “Muggle” (if you’re Harry Potter) or a “straight” (if you’re Harry Dresden)? For me, bottom-up world-building usually begins when I say, “I need a term used by group X to refer to concept Y” or “I need a weird or magical way people in my world would perform ordinary activity Z.”
I’ll be honest and admit that some of my bottom-up world-building takes the form of puns and gags. My purpose is to entertain, after all. So maybe my protagonist is listening to a country-western song in which the cowboy-wizard’s three-headed dog runs away. Or maybe my elves fire “elf-shot” from a twelve-gauge rather than a bow and arrow. (I actually decided to include that last one in Children of Pride fairly late in the writing process. Fortunately, I already had enough of the magic system worked out to explain [to myself!] how it could work. Maybe someone will explain it to my protagonist in a later volume…)
Top-down and bottom-up complement each other. In fact, the two can even build upon each other as the writer reflects on how his or her world is taking shape.
I learned everything I needed to know about Stephenie Meyer and Twilight when I heard that Meyer did not do any research on vampire folklore. Seriously? If you’re writing a series of novels about vampires, how do you not research vampires?
I have already admitted my tendency toward Tolkien Syndrome or World Builders Disease. Say what you will, I like to flesh out how a fantasy world “works” to the extent that things make sense at a macro scale. Part of that is being aware of one’s source material: the mythological store rooms from which we draw our common ideas about magic, gods and demons, mythical creatures, and the like. You won’t be surprised, then, to know that I like to read stories where it is clear the writer has done his or her homework.
Let me hasten to say, I certainly don’t object to writers doing something new and different with a mythological concept. I just want them to give me a wink to let me know that they know what they’re doing.