Okay, if you’ve never read a Xanth novel than you probably should, though only if you are really into fantasy.
When people think about humour in fantasy and really rich and interesting worlds and characters they usually look at Pratchett, for good reason. Pratchett is a master of weaving the absurd into his stories and still making this amazing, insightful tale. Yet I find Piers Anthony to have created an equally rich and vibrant world of magic and zany characters though the writing style can feel a little dry at times (probably because the books were published before I was born).
Xanth is a world of magic. Every person (though I use the term person loosely) and everything must have magic or they are exiled from the land. The main character is Bink and we first meet Bink when he is facing exile because he cannot exhibit a magic power. It turns out he does have magic and extremely powerful magic but if I tell you anything else about that it will ruin the very first Xanth novel so you’ll just have to find out for yourself. The setting in these books is alive. The trees each have a magical function. This one grows shoes, that one will grow blanket, and the next one will eat you, etc, etc. The wildlife is intelligent and deadly and you really do have to pay attention to where you step in Xanth.
I really loved reading these books.
What did I learn about writing from reading these books?
- Even if your main character seems weaker than the others, they don’t have to be tearful and pathetic. So many protagonists in fantasy novels start out simpering and useless. Bink may start out weak and he may never rival some of the other characters for strength, but at least he always has strength of character. At no stage do you want something to eat him just so he’ll stop complaining.
- There does not need to be a big, dark, evil in a fantasy novel. There are all manner of conflicts your characters can face. Bink goes up against the rules of his society when he faces exile. Nobody is evil but there is a problem that has to be overcome. In one of the later books the characters choose to seek the source of Xanth’s magic and go on a quest. There is no evil stopping them but it is still a quest filled with danger and excitement.
- Said was not always the dialogue tag of choice. I can – and did – open ‘The Source of Magic’ to any number of pages with lots of dialogue and I found that said was used once. What was used was ‘cried’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘retorted’, ‘urged’, ‘murmured’ and so on. Yes, the current convention is to not use dialogue tags or to limit it to said. I am hoping that the trend changes because I enjoy people exclaiming and shrieking and all those other things that they used to do in books.
- Keeping your characters (and your readers) in the dark makes for a really interesting story as nobody really suspects where things are going to go and yet the story still makes sense.
I’ve finally come to Traci Harding. I would have done her first but unfortunately whenever I talk to people who read very few of them have read Traci Harding and that is a shame. She became my absolute favourite author of all time when I was in high school and even though I have not particularly liked her later work, I still think her Ancient Future Trilogy is the best fantasy trilogy I have ever read.
What did I love about the Ancient Future Trilogy?
- The protagonist. Tori Alexander is an amazing female protagonist. She is confident, strong (she’s a black belt), smart (multiple university degrees), funny, romantic and yet flawed in that she is overly emotional, stubborn and extremely proud. As a high school student she really appealed because her flaws were kind of endearing and she was just an incredible person to read about. Here is a girl who can get zapped through time (multiple times) and always lands on her feet and wins the heart of the really, really hunky guy who just happens to be a King. She’s also an Australian who just happens to be travelling around England when she goes time travelling,
- The setting – A time travel fantasy where they go back to the days of knights and kings but they don’t end up in Camelot. There are a lot of references to the kingdom, there are parallels, but this is not an Arthurian legend and it was nice to read something a little bit different because at the time it seemed like every second fantasy book I read was about Arthur and friends.
- The supporting cast – All the characters in this story are kind of interesting. The fact that you meet several incarnations of the same soul in several different time zones means you see how the soul has developed and grown overtime and you get a real insight into each of the characters by the time we reach the end of the trilogy. There are only a couple of characters who seem to get sidelined and really leave you wanting to know more about them.
- The time travel – I usually really dislike time travel stories because they tie themselves in knots and you are always left wondering how it works its way out. Traci Harding create a time travel story that for once kind of makes sense though by the third book she’s kind of skating over the details very quickly and her explanations may not hold up under scientific analysis but there aren’t any glaring inconsistencies just jumping out and hitting you in the face and disrupting the storyline.
- The ending – and I will not ruin the end of the trilogy for anyone but if you want to experience an end of the world scenario that is truly incredible, this is the trilogy for you.
Now, even though it is my favourite trilogy of all time and I fully recommend reading it to anyone who likes fantasy, adventure, romance, spirituality, strong female characters, etc, etc, I do have to acknowledge some of the issues with the trilogy.
- The language – I do not care what Tori Alexander studied at university you are never going to convince me that anyone living in modern Australia can speak ancient Welsh proficiently enough to communicate with people when travelling back in time. Admittedly, the story would kind of be awful if Tori couldn’t speak to anyone (mostly because she would have been killed within minutes of arriving back in time) but with so much magic and spells flying around later in the story, I would have bought translation spell as an explanation before linguistic genius.
- Repetition – The reader understands fairly quickly that underpinning this relatively simple story about a girl travelling in time there is this deep spiritual story about mastering your soul and acceptance of others view points and natural energy flows and all of these other ideas which are working well together to create a rich and interesting story. However the same concepts are explained multiple ways throughout the trilogy and at times you want to cut the character off and tell them “I already got that in the last book”. Actually, you don’t notice the repetition so much the first time you read the trilogy but the sixth or seventh time it starts to become a bit more obvious.
- The second book – It is always the second book of a trilogy that feels like it is marking time and filling in details and the second book of this trilogy is no different. Tori gets to visit Atlantis, which is kind of cool, except that the people in Atlantis are so spiritual and sweet and dull you are kind of happy when everything starts falling apart.
So, writing lessons learned from reading Traci Harding:
- Have an incredible protagonist – one that really draws people into the story. They don’t have to be perfect and they don’t always have to make the right decision but they need to be interesting and appealing.
- Put the extra work into the supporting characters. The reader will appreciate it.
- If writing a trilogy, spend the extra time on the second book and figure out how to avoid the curse of the middle book. It may not be possible but try anyway.
I know I said that my next writing lessons would have to come from a non-fantasy author but then I moved house and the people who packed the boxes didn’t really get the organisational structure of my collection. As I unpacked my house in a matter of two days, at the moment the books are on the shelf in whatever order they were put into the boxes and that means there is really no order at all. Finding a book, or group of books, from any one author is next to impossible and I like to have the books with me when I write these posts to refer to.
Technically R.L. Stine writes children’s horror rather than fantasy so it is a slight change of pace. He was my first favourite author and I read all through the Goosebumps and then Fear Street series as a kid. I couldn’t get enough of the books. I’ve read and reread my entire collection of these books so many times. The fact that I can read one of these books in under an hour also helps as I tend to use them to de-stress.
What lessons did I learn about writing from reading R. L. Stine?
- Just because a book is a part of a series does not mean the story has to continue. Sometimes I wish all series were like this. You can pick up any Goosebumps book and get a perfect understanding of the story. Or you can read them in order and you get a slightly bigger picture of the whole but for the most part it doesn’t matter. The Fear Street books were a little more connected at times and reading them in order helped you understand some of the references, but the stories made sense regardless.
- Simple writing does not have to mean simple story telling. The Goosebump books are fairly formulaic but the Fear Street ones really open up to a variety plot twists and intrigue even though the writing itself remains fairly basic.
- An off-sider is an incredibly useful device. Reading the Goosebumps and Fear Street stories, every protagonist has someone that they talk to and the few that don’t tend to keep journals and the like. The reason for this is the stories are written in third person but the author wanted us to know what was going on in the protagonist’s head. It is very much the same in Doctor Who. Without someone tagging along for the ride, why would the Doctor ever bother to explain anything. By having the off-sdier the protagonist can get away with explaining things to the reader. Though, R. L. Stine did like to vary his off-sider . He had brothers, sisters, best friends, worst enemies, dogs, neighbours and pretty much anyone who would serve the purpose filling this role.
- You don’t have to save everyone. Even as a young reader I really appreciated that R. L. Stine would at times kill his characters. This was very different from other books that were recommended for young readers and I really liked the fact that tragedy could happen. In other books for kids you don’t get a real sense of tension because you know that everyone is going to be all right. When reading R. L. Stine there is a good chance they won’t be and so you tend to care more about the characters and are more intrigued by the situation as a whole.