Tag Archives: fantasy

Evil vs. Hope

Several years ago, I participated in a book signing at a Hastings bookstore in some far corner of my state, and while I was waiting for the session to start I found myself chatting with a store janitor cleaning the aisles. When this man found out I was there to autograph copies of my latest fantasy novel, he mentioned the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling’s stories were then new and wildly popular, and this man was unsure about them. The popularity of the books worried him. He wasn’t sure about their themes of magic and sorcery. He was concerned about children reading the stories and how those stories might influence young minds to turn to the darker side of human nature. Most of all, he feared the villain he’d heard about.

My answer to him was as follows:  If you don’t write about evil in a story, how can you dramatize good overcoming it?

It made him think in a new direction. He went back to sweeping and I resumed signing books. My answer was a valid one because fiction needs a villain to test the hero and force the hero to change and/or grow; however, the janitor’s concerns should be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In the years since, they have stayed with me.

This morning I was reading an article called “Why We Need Utopian Fiction Now More Than Ever” by Eleanor Tremeer. It’s about the growing desirability for utopian themes to return to science fiction. As our real world careens through a climate of uncertainty and anarchy, it needs hope.

The author raises a good point; however, science fiction has a long history of reflecting the current times and whatever fears the population has. For example, the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear attack generated numerous stories about mutant monsters such as Godzilla rampaging against a helpless population. Our current glut of dystopian settings mirrors concerns about climate change and societal unrest.

Even so, I confess that I’m ready for some optimism in my fiction. I find myself worrying about the present state of so-called children’s fiction where it seems that anything goes. Do middle-grade children need to read dark, edgy stories that feature violence and disturbing anti-social behavior? If I stand on my answer to the janitor, yes. Books need evil in them, providing it’s overcome.

But if it’s allowed to prevail, what are we doing?

As I pick up book after book in the kids section at my local bookstore, I find myself sharing that janitor’s concerns. In children’s fiction, we need to take care. I’m not recommending that we censor books unilaterally, but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves: What does this story have to say? How will this affect a child reader? Will this provoke a child to ask questions? Will this influence a child to be more sensitive to the feelings of others? Will this inspire a child to be braver, more honest, and emotionally receptive? Will this frighten a child? Will this teach a child that lying is okay? Will this desensitize a child? Or will this make a child think, so that in the future the child can make connections and understand bigger, more challenging themes or issues in part because of having read this book?

Such issues used to be called the responsibility of authors toward child readers. Publishers, librarians, and teachers were gate-keepers that steered young readers to stories they might be ready for and away from stories that were perhaps too intense or confusing for them at their particular age. It went hand-in-glove with broadcasting’s prime-time regulations for television content, stipulating that certain programs could not be aired until 9 p.m. when children were in bed. There was a general agreement that children were to be protected–not just by their parents, but by all adults. At the same time, middle-class American society permitted any adult to reprimand a child for improper behavior anywhere at any time.

Having grown up in that era, I enjoyed a childhood with a bubble around it. I was protected yet given considerable freedom to play and roam just about anywhere in my community. My mother knew that the elderly lady down the street would phone her if I was doing something I shouldn’t. And I knew that if I ran into trouble I couldn’t handle, I could seek help from an adult. The single warning criteria repeatedly stressed was never to get into a car with someone I didn’t know.

That is not our world today. It is not the world that children grow up in now. The bubble has been shattered. Chide a misbehaving child in public, and you run the risk of having her parent attack you like a ferocious she-wolf. Helicopter parents guard and hover over their children, who rarely set foot outdoors and seem managed constantly. Stranger Danger is the lesson kids are taught, and they are so shielded from adults that all grownups are perceived to be a) monsters or b) totally without authority or relevance.

I find it odd that despite so much parental protection, no one seems to be watching the content of children’s books. They are troubling due to their tone, the behavior of the characters, the rudeness and profanity that now sprinkle the pages, the inability of a child protagonist to stand alone, thus gaining self-reliance and independence, and–most alarming of all–their lack of conclusive endings where evil is met, confronted, and defeated.

When stories don’t dramatize the termination of villainy, they are themselves, in their cumulative effect, villainous.

Which brings me back to Tremeer’s point about our current need for hope in fiction. When you do not feature a true villain that can be confronted, outwitted, and defeated, you are serving defeatism.

You are writing a pessimistic story that leaves nowhere for readers to go. You are saying, this is a bad situation and it can’t be fixed. It will go on and on without end, without resolution. Just survive it as best you can.

That’s not the approach to fiction that I know or love or believe in. It’s not the approach to life that I want to have. It’s not what I want to see spoon-fed to children as entertainment.

Do you?

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Exploding Plot

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion–that’s Plot.”

–Leigh Brackett

Have you outlined a tidy, well-organized, and logical plot for your story? Are your characters busy being civil, well-educated human beings going about their lives and work, sighing now and then over a lost dream or one of life’s disappointments? Are they angst-ridden mopers propped up on bar stools, feeling sorry for their failures and delivering beer-sodden soliloquies that are your insights to life?

Are you typing and typing and typing, compiling a ever-growing page count while in the back of your mind you worry whether your story is actually going anywhere and how will you end this thing anyway?

And if you have a reader that’s honest with feedback instead of simply an ego-supporter, and that person is quiet after perusing your sample pages and hasn’t much to say in reaction, then it’s time to face reality:

Your work-in-progress could well be a self-indulgent, staid, lackluster, sanitized bore.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Where, I ask you, is the fire?

A book, a story, a yarn intended for the commercial market isn’t a collection of words, or character speeches, or passages of description, or self-conscious style, or even a slice-of-life duplication of life’s most mundane moments.

Instead, it should be alive, with vivid characters bursting with emotion. It should be messy, because human beings are squalid, and tender, and ferocious, and petty, and heroic, and gentle, and greedy, and contradictory messes themselves.

Your characters should be in trouble. Not just suffering from a bad day. Not simply afflicted with the choice of whether to purchase a white car or a blue one. Not concerned with how to afford those Starbucks lattes while paying little Jimmy’s private school tuition. When I say trouble, I mean plagued with worry so intense the stress is eating them alive. Blighted with jealousy so white-hot it sears them every time they look at the person they believe is their spouse’s lover. Terrified in mind-numbed paralysis by the stalker that leaves eerie messages and gifts inside their apartment while they sleep. Raging with the grief and frustration of being falsely accused and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Horrified by the cruelty of cyber-bullies that have been secretly grinding their once-happy daughter into a withdrawn, bulimic, isolated, social outcast.

At its essential core, a story is what pits one character against another. It’s how those characters clash in struggle against each other, how they grow fiercer in striving to win–or survive–and how they overcome the biggest challenges of all at the end to achieve poetic justice.

You cannot generate a successful, emotionally satisfying plot that comes alive in reader imaginations unless you’re willing as a writer to get your hands dirty. By that, I mean willing to step right into the intense emotional quagmires within your protagonist and antagonist. Until you do that, you will never fully understand their motivations, and of course without motivation the actions a character takes will always seem contrived and artificial.

In other words, you can’t write at a distance from your characters. You can’t remain tidy and detached. You must be willing to crack open a sleek character’s facade and look at what’s seething beneath the mask.

More than that, you must be willing to apply more pressure to a protagonist already in tremendous trouble. This is done by not protecting or safeguarding your lead character. This is done by allowing the antagonist to hit the hero where he or she is most vulnerable–and hit that person hard.

Until we push a character hard enough, how will we–let alone readers–ever know what that story person is really made of?

Until we push a character hard enough, that character will not take action, will not take risks, will not dare to strike at another individual, will continue to hide or stay safe, and will remain dull and boring on the page.

Think about the best mysteries you’ve read. Often–in cozies anyway–the first victim is a sly, wicked, conniving, ruthless, immoral blackguard so rotten every suspect has a solid reason to wish him dead.

Think about your favorite thriller where the protagonist is swept up in the sudden terror of an ordeal so dangerous and horrific the suspense is tightened to an almost unbearable degree. The danger forces the protagonist to flee whatever comfort zone she has always known and attempt the unthinkable in order to survive.

Think about those romances where sparks fly between hero and heroine who stand on opposite sides of an issue yet are pulled together by a physical attraction so potent they are nearly powerless against it.

Think about the fantasy where magic is the only way to save the person the protagonist most cherishes, yet using that magic will extol a terrible price the protagonist fears to pay.

Do you see how, in each of these genre examples, I’ve set up a situation that puts the protagonist inside an emotional or ethical pressure cooker? Yes, some of these examples are stereotypical, and the tropes are well worn, but they work to illustrate my point.

Brackett’s quote says that explosion creates plot. If so, then you need intense emotion, conflict between characters in active opposition to each other, and situations that demand frequent clashes. They are your dry tinder. Additional pressure and/or stress is the spark.

Result?

Conflagration … and a plot that comes alive.

 

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Rules of Magic: IV

Willful Writer is back at his keyboard. Although frustrated by his writing teacher’s lack of appreciation for his efforts, he’s determined to succeed by writing the best fantasy story e-v-e-r.

He creates entirely new characters–a heroine, Fran Fantastica, and her magical pink cat, Angora. Fran Fantastica is a popular fan-dancer summoned to the palace to perform for the king. She is given a tour of the throne room, dining hall, and treasury. Each time Fran admires something she sees, Angora’s pink fur lights up with a puff of smoke.

“What’s that for?” Fran’s guide asks.

Fran shrugs. “Nothing. Angora enjoys doing that.”

Puff! goes Angora, sending pink smoke wafting through the air. Poof!

After dinner, Fran dances for the king and his magician adviser Warlo Wizard. Both men enjoy her act immensely. The king applauds enthusiastically. Warlo sets sparks sparkling from his magician’s robe and wand.

“Wow!” he says to the king. “When she dropped her fan, I sure wish her pink cat hadn’t puffed all that pink smoke.”

“Amazing timing,” the king agrees. “What a shame.”

“Most decidedly a shame,” Warlo says.

And although Warlo’s fallen deeply in love with Fran, despite being allergic to cats–pink ones being particularly conducive to sneezes–he finds that the king has moved more quickly by proposing to Fran and offering to make her his queen.

Poof! from Angora in delight. Puff! Puff!

“Oh!” says Fran in astonishment. “I do. I will. I’d love to.”

“Blast!” mutters Warlo and sets his beard on fire before stalking from the throne room in a very bad temper.

“So there,” Willful Writer announces while typing THE END. “I have written something that incorporates plenty of magic from start to finish, with a heart-filled love story as a bonus. If Ms. Sagacious doesn’t like this one, I’ll quit writing.”

“Willful, you should quit writing,” Ms. Sagacious says.

“But why?” Willful asks, forgetting his vow. “I included a lot of magic. Angora–ha, ha–is charming.”

Ms. Sagacious doesn’t laugh. “You included the cat’s magic to what purpose? What are its consequences?”

“Well, Fran’s going to become a beautiful queen. And Warlo will shave off his beard and pine from unrequited love.” Willful thumps his chest proudly. “But all that will happen in the sequel.”

“What about the magic?”

“I didn’t forget that magic should have a price. I’ll include that in the sequel, too.”

“No sequel!” Ms. Sagacious shouts, growing red in the face. “What are the consequences of it now?”

Willful, bewildered, ponders the question a moment before he looks up. “She drops a larger fan?”

I have a feeling that Ms. Sagacious is about to demonstrate the consequences of a bad answer to Willful right now. Let’s leave him to his doom.

Under this fourth rule, magic–if present–must affect the plot. It shouldn’t be only part of the backdrop. It shouldn’t be random, like Angora’s puffs of pink smoke. Its use needs to bring results–whether that’s what is intended or it’s disastrously unexpected.

In Disney’s animated film, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty’s fairy guardians are preparing for her birthday party. They disagree on what color her dress should be, and in the course of their squabble, they forget they aren’t supposed to use magic. They fall into a duel of blue versus pink. Puffs of colored magical smoke rise from the cottage chimney and betray Beauty’s location to the evil fairy Maleficent. Thus, their use of magic has consequences–dangerous ones–to the story.

When writing about magic, the consequences or results may link to the price the user will pay or they may not. But they must connect to the plot by affecting what happens next.

Without that direct connection, magic is simply a prop that will fail to achieve its full dramatic potential and lose what makes it special.

 

 

 

 

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The Rules of Magic: I

Once upon a time there lived a person named Willful Writer who wanted to create a story world filled with wizards, apparitions, a noble hero, and a talking cat named Orville.

Willful Writer began his story with an exciting event designed to kick off episodes of danger and calamity. A magical hurricane blew down the castle, releasing noble hero from his chains where he’d been kept in the dungeon for five-hundred years. Noble hero fled, heading through the ghastly ghost field and the haunted forest and the river of misbegotten souls before he joined forces with Orville. Together, these two intrepid adventurers finally made their way to the wizard’s gate, through which they had to pass in order to reach noble hero’s home.

But at the gate crouched a dangerous sphinx armed with riddles and traps and trickery. While Orville was trying to solve the riddle to keep the sphinx from eating their heads, the wizard arrived to blast them to cinders. But at that moment, noble hero discovered miraculously that he possessed magical powers that he’d never known about before. He was able to toss wizard fire back at the villain, then blast the sphinx to rubble so he and Orville could make it safely home.

Wow! thought Willful Writer while typing, “The End.” That’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

Happily Willful Writer took his manuscript to his writing teacher, Ms. Sagacious. She read it, grimaced, and tossed the pages at Willful’s head.

“Never, ever, do this!” she shouted. “Never cheat with magic!”

Okay, this fable stops here. I’m as exasperated with Willful as Ms. Sagacious. Aren’t you?

Now we can all see that Willful has made numerous writing mistakes with his story, including using every cliche and threadbare trope known to fantasy, but let’s stay focused on what Ms. Sagacious said to him. What did he do wrong with his magic? He cheated. He violated the first of four common rules of writing fantasy magic.

And what, exactly, are those four common rules of writing magic plausibly?

#1–Don’t cheat.

#2–Pay a price.

#3–Limit the magic.

#4–Reap the consequences.

Okay, we’ve established that Willful cheated. We’ve jumped up and down about it. But how did he? What did he do or not do? Why was Ms. Sagacious so upset?

Answer:  Willful did not stick to his own parameters. In other words, when writing a fantasy story you can establish any type of magic system you want, and you can award magical powers to any character or characters you wish. You can make magic an ordinary and mundane fact of life or you can write that magic is special, rare, and hard to possess. It’s up to you and the type of story you’re writing.

But whatever you create in terms of where the magic comes from, or how magic is used, or who possesses magic, or what the magic can do–you must thereafter abide by your rules.

That means you can’t suddenly award special powers to a character that never had them before just to get that character out of a tight spot.

That’s how Willful cheated in the above example. And readers won’t accept it.

If, let’s say, you set up the parameter that using magic requires a blood sacrifice from a firstborn human, then halfway through your story you can’t switch that requirement to any other birth order just because your firstborn protagonist is the last man standing.

If you establish that only human blood will appease the Lizard God Othal, then you can’t have the high priest shrug and capriciously allow his minions to toss a goat on the altar instead.

If your wizard protagonist uses rituals to cast spells, and several times you’ve described a painstaking procedure of gathering the correct herbs by the light of a new moon, boiling the knees of eels for three days, and lighting seven spell candles in proper order while chanting an incantation, you can’t–at the climax–dispense with that procedure simply because the trolls are coming fast up the staircase and there isn’t time to follow the ritual.

These examples are illustrations of what we call writing yourself into a corner.

When and if this happens to you, it means you didn’t plan well when you were outlining your story. Or just possibly you didn’t bother with outlining at all.

Does this mean you’re doomed?

Hardly!

When you can’t figure any way for your hero to escape annihilation except through breaking the magic rules of your story world, the solution is simple. Revise your story! Alter your magic system to allow flexibility in how the magic is used, OR plant for the possibility of hero doing the ritual in a new, very risky way that might possibly succeed although it hasn’t been tried in a thousand years and could result in his dying of spontaneous combustion. Before you choose a solution option, however, think long and hard about how you would react as a reader to each one. Which could you accept, if you were reading this story? Which would annoy you? Then make your changes from that perspective.

I’ll address Rule #2 in my next post.

 

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Book Promos

I just found out that Amazon has chosen two of my YA fantasy books–CRYSTAL BONES and THE CALL OF EIRIAN–to be discounted July 12, 2016, in connection with their Prime celebration. The books were published under my C. Aubrey Hall pseudonym. So if you know any youngsters–or just the young at heart–looking for fantasy adventure, please pass the word. Thanks.

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Writing Ergonomics: the Desk

A few years ago, I assigned a novel from my Nether fantasy series as class reading. One comment from a student surprised me: “Why does nearly every character in this book have a hurt shoulder?”

When I wrote that novel, I happened to be undergoing physical therapy for a frozen shoulder–a truly painful condition. I hadn’t made the connection until my student asked that question.

Of all the myriad distractions that can afflict writers, pain is one that affects your writing far more than you may realize.

Once upon a time, I had a very pretty new house. It featured a study at the front, with a tall window overlooking the street. I wanted very pretty office furniture to go in it.  Suddenly my old gray, steel-and-Formica computer desk looked too ugly for its new surroundings. I also needed a tax write-off at the time, so I invested in a dark cherry-veneered computer desk, file, and bookcase. It looked stunning. When I entered the study to work on my book, I felt successful. But after several weeks, I noticed sharp pains in my neck and shoulders during writing sessions. Investigation led to the discovery that the desk was too tall for comfortable computer work. It set my monitor at a height that was causing the muscle strain. Furthermore, the keyboard was at the wrong height, too.

Enduring those discomforts, I finished my manuscript in progress and started the editing/revision process. Normally I write fairly clean drafts, with few spelling and grammatical errors. But in this instance, the manuscript was littered with spelling mistakes and poor punctuation. I had been so physically miserable at my new desk that the effects had crept into my writing.

At that point, I hauled the ugly old computer desk in from the garage and put the pretty office furniture elsewhere.

Old Steel-and-Formica was constructed when personal computers were first being marketed to the public in the mid-1980s. It’s made at a lower height (28 or 29″) that allows the monitor to stand where it should. Because the desk top is lower than a standard desk height (30″), the keyboard drawer is also lower (27″). This means I can sit in my chair with my feet flat on the floor; my forearms are level and parallel to the floor; and I don’t have to skew my neck to a strange angle in order to work. I avoid neck strain and carpal tunnel problems in my wrists and hands.

Of course, although I’ll be forever grateful that I didn’t get rid of it, I still think old Steel-and-Formica is ugly. After my cherry wood furniture debacle, I set out on a mission to find a pretty computer desk at the proper height.

It doesn’t exist. By the 1990s, established desk manufacturers had taken over the fledgling computer furniture makers. To save money, they left the desks they’d always made at the same height they’d always been (30″) and simply attached keyboard drawers. Trouble is, the 30″ height works best for hand writing and is too tall for computers.

No one’s going to retool the factories.

Is there any correlation between incorrectly sized furniture and the rise of carpal-tunnel injuries during the last two decades?

So I cling to Steel-and-Formica. The old desk’s a rarity. It’s functional. It saves me a lot of grief. I pretend not to see it, and most of the time I can’t because its surface is piled with manuscripts and books. I will keep it forever, and when I move–as I do fairly often–the new abode must have a writing room large enough to hold it.

Best of all, when I write at it, I don’t hurt.

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The New Book’s Coming!

For the past two weeks I’ve been working like a fury on book revisions, doing those last tweaks and polishes in an effort to get the story and characters exactly right.  And the dialogue … pesky qualifiers begone!  My latest deadline is the end of this month — eek! — and next week I resume teaching at the university — double eek! — so I’m juggling a lot at the moment.

Unpacking after the Great Move continues to wait, although I have to say I’m growing just a tad weary of Braum’s cheeseburgers and have gone as far as locating the box labeled “forks.”  That box, however, isn’t yet opened because the book comes first. 

But to get back to book information:  the title is now official.  It’s CRYSTAL BONES.  I’ve seen an early scan of the book cover, and it’s going to be eye-catching.  My twin protagonists, Diello and Cynthe, are featured in profile on a burgundy background.  The title is done in ornate letters that shine like crystal — lovely!  I can’t wait until I’m able to show it to you.

Yesterday I let the computer run word searches through the manuscript while I combed my mind for better synonyms.  It’s easy to grow careless as a writer, to fall into bad habits of weak sentence structure or overused vocabulary.  Just as I can indulge in too many cheeseburgers and chocolate milkshakes to the detriment of my waistline, so can I let my prose become flabby.  And all my whining and moaning and complaining this year about revisions means nothing now, because I’m proud of where the manuscript stands at this point.  Proud and grateful to my editor who has prodded me into creating a story that’s toned and sleek.

If only I could say the same thing about my figure!

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