The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam

July 30, 2010 at 5:33 am (fantasy, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

I recently cam across this website (The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam) and had a lot of fun reading some of these questions. The exam is supposedly set up to determine whether or not your fantasy novel is actually original and the instructions say that if you answer yes to any one question then you should abandon the novel immediately. Now when question four is:

Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?

This doesn’t leave a lot of room for the vast majority of fantasy stories and so while the quiz does reveal some of the more cliche parts of the genre I don’t think anyone should be taking the instructions overly seriously. We all know that there are very few ‘new’ ideas out there. That said I think most of us can agree that if you answer yes to the following maybe you are going to have to work really hard to make it sound fresh:

Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?

How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?

Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?

What I found really fun was trying to think of at least five books I have read that the question would apply to. It actually was a lot of fun though there are a few cheap shots taken at Robert Jordon throughout as well as RPG’s which aren’t necessarily a bad thing though probably shouldn’t be used to plan the plots of novels.

So here’s the challenge for the fantasy lovers out there. Pick a question, any question from the list, and see if you can think of at least five novels that it applies to.

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The Problem of the External Muse

July 27, 2010 at 5:44 am (Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve talked a bit about inspiration previously and where ideas come from but I usually avoid talking about my muse (I’m not saying I don’t use this turn of phrase but it isn’t my favourite way to put things). The reason for this is that by calling it a muse and personifying the idea of inspiration it makes it sound like it is something external to the writer and not part of them.

I don’t usually like this idea.

For me inspiration is definitely an internal process and the ideas from within. Certainly my mind draws in things it has seen and heard and smelled and used these in combination to form what might become a story idea but that process definitely takes place within. No mythic being bestows the ideas upon me, fully formed or otherwise. And because it is an internal and slow process of bits and pieces being slotted together, the ideas become very much apart of the writer. You’ve raised the idea from just a tiny spark or notion to a fully fleshed out plot line that might eventually get written down.

Maybe the problem is that by externalising the idea it feels like it is cheapening the process. That somehow writers just get ideas. That nothing goes on, they sit around with empty heads and wait for a magic muse to hit them with some fairy dust.

Then again, at other times it does feel like something else is happening. The ideas move seemingly overnight (which probably means my subconscious is at work) but suddenly something that seemed unworkable has fallen into place. A line of dialogue that isn’t working can suddenly be heard clearly. That little voice in the back of your mind nudges you in just the right direction at just the right moment.

If my muse exists she’s probably going to clobber me after writing this. And yes, she would be female.

I think that if it is about the muse then we shouldn’t be waiting for her, we should definitely be out there hunting her down and demanding information right now. Hopefully with more success than Elmer Fudd ever had hunting rabbits.

What do the other writers think? Muses or not. Cheapening the process or giving writers a way to talk about something they sometimes don’t fully understand – their creative processes?

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Politics in Fantasy

July 25, 2010 at 6:04 am (Plot, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I have this story outline I’ve been kicking around forever and I have always wanted to write it. Yet every time I’m between projects or looking for something new I have chosen not to begin this particular project.

There may be a very good reason.

Essentially the story is a political thriller but set between two governments that don’t actually exist in a world that also doesn’t exist. See, I’ve always been interested in politics and diplomacy and this story kind of evolved out of that. It really is a guide on how not to be diplomatic and yet still not cause a war. The focus is on two characters that represent opposing governments but each have their own agenda independent of their respective governments.

The reason I don’t think I’m ever going to write this story is because I can’t think of anyone who would want to read it. The sheer number of people that don’t like real politics kind of convinces me that finding out about fictional politics wouldn’t really work for most people. And while other authors have used fictional governments as the scene to make social commentary, that isn’t what I would be intending. The story would simply be about the characters and there would be no social statement.

I have to wonder how many ideas are out there floating around that won’t ever see fruition because their owner decides they just don’t fit their current needs.

Do you have an idea you’ve sent to limbo?

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Dated

July 24, 2010 at 3:32 am (Setting, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Reading over some of my favourite childhood stories I realised that a lot of them have dated themselves terribly. I also note this when watching Buffy or other television shows that I loved in highschool. Just every now and then a line comes out and you just wince – wow! That’s dated.

I didn’t need to worry about this so much when writing Death’s Daughter because I set it in an entirely fantasy world that doesn’t directly link to any of Earth’s time periods. There were no references to current events or trends or anything else that would make it feel old within a few years and that was one less thing for me to worry about. Not so much with my current WIP.

Once again I’ve set it entirely in a fantasy world but this time there is a cross over element and one of my characters does come from modern Earth. How modern? Well, he is insisting on carrying his phone everywhere even though he hasn’t a chance at getting reception because the thought of leaving his phone behind is all but paralysing. What is this going to do for the story in terms of it getting dated?

Given the story and the fact that none of the other characters have current Earth knowledge I’m not throwing one-liners in referencing current events although he does occasionally reference television shows and notable characters. I’m resisting the urge to label his phone as any particular type because that would certainly date the story fairly quickly. His clothes are pretty basic and would fit most of the last twenty – thirty years and hopefully fashion isn’t going to completely change in the next ten.

What I’ve realised is that having any connection to the real world is adding a whole other set of problems to writing that I didn’t have to deal with previously and I’m walking a fine line between leaving it fairly non-specific as to when he was living on Earth in order to prevent the story being dated and just not giving the reader enough details to hold on to the story.

So I am seeking advice from those of you who have considered this previously. Do you worry about your stories getting dated and how do you deal with this?

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10 Ways to Know You Are Obsessed With Writing

June 26, 2010 at 5:40 am (Replay, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

I’m on holidays at the moment but I’m reposting some of the more popular posts from my old blog, Darkened Jade. If you leave a comment I’ll be sure to catch up with you when I get back.

Today I would just like to share a list of ten things that indicate you’ve become obsessed by writing (not saying obsession is a bad thing):

1. You start re-reading every sentence that you write and then start re-writing every sentence, convinced that you are ‘improving’ them. I know when it’s time to stop when I have just written the same sentence ten times and I no longer even believe it to be written in English.

2. Your partner/best friend/child sends you an instant message asking if you will be eating breakfast/lunch/dinner.

3. You start arguing with your characters out loud: “No, you fool. You have to go…”

4. You have any kind of repetitive strain problem (wrist, arm, finger, neck, eyes).

5. You get home from your day job and your computer is turned on before you have put your bag down, taken your shoes off, fed your pets, or spoken to your children.

6. When you have told your friend/partner/child you will be ready to leave just after finishing one more sentence you write another couple of pages and forget you were meant to be finishing until they unplug the computer at the wall.

7. In your bag you have at least three notebooks and five pens, as well as a pencil in case all of you pens cease working on the same day.

8. Every single thing you read or watch is critiqued in terms of character, plot and setting.

9. When you meet someone for the first time you repeat their name, not to help you remember them but so that you can someday use that name in a story.

10. In conversation you directly reference events and characters you have been writing about (even though nobody else has read it yet).

Add your ‘you know you are obsessed with writing when…’

And here’s the link if you haven’t yet checked out the blurb or excerpt for Death’s Daughter.

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They’re Dropping Like Flies

June 23, 2010 at 7:15 am (Character) (, , , )

Actually this is true literally as well as metaphorically. They recently sprayed the flies at work (fortunately over a weekend so I didn’t have to deal with the smell).  The flies did die and for two days there were none in the room and then new ones invaded. Now we’re waging a war with them and hitting them with various books and rules and whatever else is handy and I am sad to say we’re losing. The flies just keep coming.

The title of the post was actually talking about people I know. Everyone is getting sick or tired or both. I didn’t post yesterday because of absolute and complete exhaustion. I know that if I were to go to any group of teachers in the state at the moment they would be equally exhausted and there would be a high number falling ill. It’s the end of term.

We’ve all worked ourselves ragged over the last few weeks trying to meet deadlines for this term while trying to prepare for next and now that the final report has been written our bodies are telling us, enough is enough.

It is interesting that this phenomenon of people in similar professions getting sick at the same time is fairly common.  The stresses of various jobs really have a solid impact on people.

Could I use this in a story? Coud it add depth to a character or group of characters? Possibly but I’m too tired right now to try and find the link.

What I am going to do is catch up on reading a few blogs and then I’m going to crash on the couch for a few hours because tomorrow I have to get up and be and entertaining, energetic and enthused and I need to keep that up for three more days. Or at least keep up a very good pretense.

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The Dirty Dozen

June 21, 2010 at 6:02 am (Other) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’m participating in a blog hop set up by Alex J. Canauagh today. The question being – if I could only round up 12 films which 12 would I choose.

Tricky question and I had to really think about this and in the end I decided to go with the idea that I was going to be stuck in isolation for the rest of forever. Which movies did I have to take and what combination?

I decided to start with the child-hood classics.

1.  The Dark Crystal – Jim Henson at his finest. An epic fantasy tale told with muppets with some of the most interesting characters I ever met as a child. I love Kira and her matter-of-fact nature as well as her ability to talk to pretty much any animal with a reasonable expectation of being answered.

2.  Willow – Again, epic fantasy. This time it is a combination of Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer who are the defnitely draw though the shield bob-sled over snow we probably could have done without. Fairies, trolls, witches, prophesise, what more could a movie want?

3.  The Princess Bride – Because it is awesome. Fantasy and romance and action and adventure all rolled into one very entertaining story.

Moving on some old favourites.

4. Indiana Jones (If I’m not allowed the entire trilogy I choose Temple of Doom – though many fans think that this is the weak link) – With the exception of the Crystal Skull (which I still maintain is not Indiana Jones) these movies are incredibly fun, action packed and scenic.

5.  Clash of the Titans – The original. Clunky stop-go animation but that vulture is hilarious and this was my gate-way to Greek mythology. Can’t be without this one.

6.  The Trouble with Harry – Hitchcock at his most amusing. I just like the twisted sense of humour.

The B-Grade Collection – I have this thing for really bad horror movies.

7.  Tremors – If I can have all four of the movies I will, but otherwise I would have to choose the second one. Underground monsters that get smarter by the minute and eat anything that moves. A great laugh with one or two jumps thrown in (just so you remember it was sort of supposed to be a horror).

8.  Ginger Snaps – Possibly the best werewolf movie I have ever watched and yet you end up laughing more than being scared by this coming of age movie mixed with horror. I will say that the scariest thing in this movie is Ginger’s mother (creepy).

9.  Scream – This one was a toss up between The Faculty and Scream but Scream came out on top for two reasons. One – it gave us one of the best quotes from a bad villain ever: “My mum and dad are going to be so mad at me”. The second reason is that they made sure the last hurrah wasn’t dragged out. Short and sweet and done.

Finally, the feel good movies.

10.  Elizabeth Town – Most people will hate this choice. Yes, it is Orlando Bloom. Yes, it does start with him trying to commit suicide. Yes, it mostly deals with a funeral. It is light and amusing and by the road trip at the end you are genuinely feeling good about yourself. This is what I want in a movie when I need cheering up.

11. 10 Things I Hate About You – An updated take on the Taming of the Shrew and my introduction to Heath Ledger, I love this movie. It is well done and uplifting.

12.  Just Like Heaven – I needed at least one genuine, sickly sweet movie on this list. This is my choice.

You should head over to Alex’s blog and check out the rest of the blog hop.

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Heroic Failure

June 16, 2010 at 5:30 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve previously looked at heroic traits and my favourite heroes but recently I’ve been thinking about why some heroes just don’t live up to their hype.

Personally, I have never liked Superman. I know, this is a terrible thing I am saying and many of you are staring daggers at the screen but I’ve just never really connected with Superman. Why? Because the man in the red cape and blue lycra has it far too easy. The only reason he’s ever in peril is if someone manages to get hold of one particular kind of rock (which is meant to be hard to find but there seems to be prolifically spread throughout the stories) and you just can’t care about someone who is mostly invincible. I did like Tarentino’s take on the Superman story as explained in Kill Bill 2. It may be a long winded scene and the story itself has very little connection to the story of the movie (there is a very loose tie-in at the end of the tale) but it is fascinating hearing Bill’s perception of the man of steel.

So where do other heroes fail and why do they fail? And is it actually failure or is just a matter of these heroes not being directed at the right audience?

Examining movies the obvious character to pull apart would seem to be Riddick (or at least it would be obvious if you were currently inside my head). Riddick was an incredibly interesting anti-hero in Pitch Black and his characterisation and development were smoothly executed, he had some of the best lines of the movie, and while he was the hero of the story at no stage did he make you want to gag because he didn’t have that sudden epiphany of “what have I been doing with my life”. He was who he was and his essential personality did not change.

Then we move on to Chronicles of Riddick and while it might seem a pointless exercise to attack Riddick’s character when the entire movie had issues, I’m going to do it anyway. To start with, the minor developments of character that he underwent in Pitch Black are gone and we seem to be back at the beginning of Riddick’s character development. In their haste to try to develop a back-story we have info-dumps all over the place that weigh our character down and don’t really help us to understand him any better. As a hero he fails to appease the audience because at no stage do we care if he succeeds at overcoming an incomprehensible ‘evil’ army. The worst thing about his character here is that he becomes less heroic and more unlikable by the minute in this film. Heroic failure – though feel free to disagree if you found some redeeming qualities in Riddick.

If I look to books then I start to think about Janelle from Ann Bishop’s Dark Jewel’s Trilogy. I love these books and the stories. Janelle’s character is fascinating and frightening and completely mesmerizing, but as a hero she doesn’t really do much for me. Her changeable nature from passive, to fragile, to furious in the blink of a few pages makes her an interesting character, but hard to support as the hero. The characters surrounding her are more what you could call traditionally heroic, but even they are deeply flawed individuals. Great story but hard to find the hero.

Does it matter? Do we need a ‘hero’? Do we have to like the hero for the story to be effective? Clearly in the case of Ann Bishop I didn’t like the hero on reflection and can see all the flaws in the other candidates and yet I still loved the story. In the case of Pitch Black, I liked the development of the anti-hero but found the break down of Riddick’s character in the sequel to be tiresome and boring which completely undermined the little story being told.

Your thoughts?

Who are the heroes that you never liked?

What makes a hero work for you?

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Character Interview Blogfest

June 15, 2010 at 5:40 am (Death's Daughter, Feature) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

I’m joining in with Jangu Mandanna’s (from Echoes of a Wayward Mind) Character Interview Blogfest.

The character I’ve decided to interview is Emily from Death’s Daughter. Emily was a butler working for the Delaine’s. After the death of Mrs Delaine, Calandra dismissed Emily from her services. (There are no plot spoilers in the following as the events discussed are either early in the story or do not appear within Death’s Daughter.)

Q: Emily, can you briefly describe your role in the story?

A: I worked as a butler for the Delaine household in Kalthium. Mr Delaine hired me and I continued my work until after the death of Mrs Delaine.

Q: How do you feel about the way Calandra has told this story?

A: How do you think I feel? Miss Calandra Delaine is a thoughtless, selfish, child. Certainly she’s used this opportunity to justify her choices and her treatment of those around her but we all know her for what she is.

Q: So you would disagree with the way Calandra has portrayed the situation at the beginning of the story?

A: Naturally. I was there, wasn’t I? Calandra was always looking down her nose at me and thinking she was all high and mighty and meanwhile she’s breaking her mother’s heart while she plays around with her dusty scrolls. So what if she could read? And then she’s glorifying her father. Her father ran off to sea and left poor Mrs Delaine to clean up the mess he left behind – and by that I mean an over indulged child that never could see things the way they were.

Q: How did you feel when Calandra dismissed you from her services?

A: Well, that was a bit of good luck in the end. As angry as I was at the time it all worked out for the best. Besides, I don’t think I could have stomached working for Miss Calandra Delaine, even if I’d wanted to stay in the house. And despite our personal disagreements, Calandra did give me a very good recommendation so when my sister found an open position with Lord and Lady Serrite it was easy enough for me to take up that position. As much as I dislike Calandra, she was fair in her statements about my service. Can’t hold that against her.

Q: In Death’s Daughter, Calandra states that you accused her of killing her mother. Do you think she murdered her mother?

A: At the time, I think I did. It was quite a shock to the household and given the tension between Calandra and her mother it seemed very possible that she had. Thinking back now, I don’t know what I think about the murder. It is all a bit of a blur and I don’t know that anyone really knows what happened. Calandra has given us one version of the events and I don’t doubt that she’ll be taken at her word, but gossip will certainly continue for sometime.

Q: Final question – Do you believe the rest of Calandra’s story?

A: Far be it from me to call someone a liar, but the tale is just a little bit fanciful. Certainly things have been a bit strange in Kalthium but to believe that there are gods running around and mysterious forces, it’s all just a bit far-fetched.

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More on Plot

June 13, 2010 at 5:58 am (Plot, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Continuing on from yesterday where I looked at losing the plot in the mess and lack of clarity about what the plot actually is.

For me, plot is about characters. The events are less significant than how the characters react to them. In that way, the small and insignificant can take on much greater meaning when seen through the eyes of the character and the character reactions keep driving the story forward. But that isn’t always how people see stories.

So what makes a plot interesting?

The argument about there being no new stories certainly has quite a lot of weight behind it and if there are only seven plots (though you could contest that number if you like) then how do you make your particular plot line sound new and fresh and interesting. We’ve seen from the Avatar phenomenon that just putting a coat of paint on an old idea (moving a previously explored plot to an alien world) doesn’t really work as far as stopping criticism of rip-offs, meanwhile clearly the old story worked and so people found definite enjoyment in the plot even while criticising the movie.

One of my favourite segments from Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy (the television series) was when they described the basic theme of this one band’s songs. Boy meets girl who kiss near a setting sun which then promptly explodes. The way that line was delivered in the hum-drum, we’ve seen this all before, etc, etc was hilarious. How can the band continue to sell the same song over and over (though I guess many bands do this already when I think about it)? What makes a plot original and feel new?

I don’t know that anyone can actually answer that question because it is like trying to figure out what is going to be cool tomorrow. Plenty of stories that have been straight out rip-offs have become legendary while the original subject matter has faded into obscurity, meanwhile other writers get stones thrown at them because they dared to have a jealous best friend or a disgruntled worker.

What I do know is that there has to be some underlying point to the story for me to enjoy it, even if that point is only that there is no point. I know that heavily moralistic tales that feel the need to beat me over the head with the author’s values bore me. I know that every time I read a fantasy that starts with a farm boy I seriously question whether to read the next page or not. And I know that any book with a dragon in it will at least get my attention for a little while regardless of how bad the rest of the story may be.

Share your thoughts – what makes a good plot?

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