Tag Archives: urban fantasy

Quote for the Day

“Nothing will stop you from being creative as effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”

–John Cleese

How’s that for a piece of insight from a highly creative actor and writer? Fear is an enormous barrier, a hindrance that some of us never seem to move past. It doesn’t just affect newbies writing their first few stories. It can strike a writer at any time, at any stage in a professional career.

Let’s say you’re inspired by a new plot idea, one that excites you. As you plot it, however, doubts creep in. Is this plausible? Yeah, seems to be. Can I do it? Not sure, but I think so. Has anything like it been done before? Not that I recall. Is there a market for it? Uh, maybe not. Should I try it? Probably not. Why did I think it would work? No editor is going to buy this. Better put it aside for now.

How many good story ideas are lost forever because we’re afraid to write them? If they’re new and truly different, they don’t fit the market. And so we back away. Or we follow editorial hesitation and abandon what might make us a star.

Every huge hit or new genre in commercial fiction begins because a writer dared to be different.

Tom Clancy was an insurance guy that channeled his obsession with all things military into a novel that he wrote in his basement in his spare time. It was an era when the U.S. military was understaffed and underfunded. It had acquired a reputation for ineptitude. It was struggling and unappreciated. But Clancy dared to be different. He admired our people in uniform and wanted to celebrate what our military did right. Whether he ignored his fears or was unaware of the market, he wrote The Hunt for Red October and pushed it into the market in an unconventional way. It worked. The military embraced it first, then President Reagan read and praised it. Which meant every CO of every American military base read it. Word of mouth spread to the general public, and Clancy’s career was launched.

Jim Butcher admired the novels of Laurell K. Hamilton back in the fledgling days of urban fantasy. He wanted very much to emulate what she was doing, yet he came up with his own unique spin by inventing a wizard private detective. He combined noir mystery with fantasy, and forged a successful path for himself.

Alexander McCall Smith spent many years living in Botswana. After returning to Scotland, he created a female detective called Precious Ramotswe, the first lady PI in her community. Her cases are entwined with philosophical musings and ethical dilemmas; that, plus the African setting, are unlike anything else out there. Smith’s fans are now legion.

If any of these authors had allowed fear or doubt to hold them back, think of our loss.

I realize a lot of writing advice–mine included–focuses on the market, its ever-changing trends, and what editors or readers want. That’s necessary but writers also have to be willing to take risks and write what lies inside them. It is never easy. It can be downright scary, but even so, we have to trust ourselves and our innate story sense.

As for fear of the writing itself … years ago, I tried to coach a student with considerable talent, but she had made up her mind that every word she wrote had to be perfect. She was determined that her “first novel” be of bestseller quality. Now any writer should know that a first draft is a rough draft. It’s not precious. It’s not perfect. It will undergo many changes, tweaks, or rewrites before it’s ready to put before the public. Stubbornly, however, she clung to her fear of failure. She clung so hard that she could not accept constructive criticism or feedback of any kind. She wrote one chapter and quit, driven away by her fear of writing anything she perceived to be a mistake.

My view is, how can you ever learn or improve if you’re afraid to make mistakes? You have to try, fall short, try again, still fall short, keep trying in new ways, until you master it.

Years ago, I watched my small puppy try to climb the back porch steps. He happened to be a problem-solving breed, independent and stubborn. He made up his doggie mind that he would climb those steps. But his legs were too short. He could stretch enough to place his front paws on the bottom step, but he couldn’t wiggle the rest of himself onto it. So he would jump and jump with his hindquarters, to no avail. Except the following week–still trying–he got a hind foot on the step and was up. He had grown a little bigger and a little stronger. He immediately reached for the second step of three, and fell through the gap in the boards. Once he regained his breath from that thump, he went at it again. My point is that he never gave up until he mastered those steps. He was not afraid to fail, and he stuck with his objective until he achieved it.

When doubts sprout in your mind like weeds, what is their source? Is it the voice of some family member that has mocked you for even daring to dream of writing? Is it a memory of someone in a critique group that brutally eviscerated you in front of everyone? Is it your own inner critic at work–tearing you down psychologically before you have a chance to try?

Who–and what–holds you back?

And when–and how–will you break free?

As Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously said in his first inaugural address:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

 

 

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Building Urban Fantasy — Part III

When it comes to plotting an urban fantasy story, keep in mind that you need more than just a weirdly cool setting and a character waving around sparkles of hocus-pocus.

Urban fantasy has roots that reach into both horror and film noir. Let’s deal with them separately:

Make It Criminal

Noir means dark and gritty, with shades of gray in the protagonist and shades of gray in the villain. Everyone has a dark past or has made mistakes or has weaknesses. No one is all good or all bad. If you’re still not clear about what noir is, then read the mysteries of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler. Watch some of the great film noir classics to get a feel for the flavoring your story needs. I recommend one of the best noir movies ever made–DOUBLE INDEMNITY from 1944. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is based on a James M. Cain novel of the same title. It features an insurance agent seduced by a beautiful woman into helping her murder her husband so she can collect on a life insurance indemnity clause.

In crime plots, if the villain’s identity is known from the beginning and the plot is focused on stopping this individual from continuing evil deeds, then we call this type of story a thriller. And thrillers require lots of action and danger; in other words, chills and thrills.

On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is hidden and if the protagonist is trying to determine the identity of whoever is behind the crimes, then the story is a mystery. That means investigating the situation through the protagonist asking a lot of questions, checking information, thinking, reasoning, and deducing. Mysteries have less dramatized violence than thrillers. Crimes still happen, but off-stage.

Urban fantasies generally feature crime plots. Which is why you need to understand how mysteries and thrillers work if you’re going to write this type of fantasy. The chief difference will be found in the presence of magic and the occult. But there will be criminal activity. There will be a force of evil seeking to gain from those crimes. There will be victims–some deserving of disaster, others innocent. There will be someone determined to end the crimes and save the day, even if it’s only to personally survive.

Whether you shape the story as a mystery or a thriller–and choosing which approach you’ll take will help you determine the events you’ll include–there’s a third option if you feel adventurous. And that is to combine mystery and thriller elements together. Generally in a combo plot, the mystery investigation will come first until the villain is identified in the book’s center. Then the pace will pick up with exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes filling the second half of the story.

 

Bring on the Horror

Besides the crime-centered plot, urban fantasy needs to deliver the atmosphere and mood of horror. To do this, it can feature the following elements drawn from the horror genre:

Shock–This will come through surprises, threats, and/or plot twists.

Atmosphere–There should be a dark, brooding tone, which can be achieved through the setting details and coded language. Can we say Edgar Allen Poe?

Coded language–This means special vocabulary chosen to reflect the desired imagery. It is sometimes known in erudite circles as diction.

Most genres have their own coding, and such language will be familiar to their fans.

Here’s an example of description employing coded language:

Drake flitted from shadow to shadow along the deserted alley. Out in the street, most of the lights had been shot out long ago, leaving vast pools of night undisturbed. Spiky weeds grew through cracked, broken sidewalks. Rusted hulks of abandoned cars–wheels long since stolen–rotted where they’d been left. The air smelled lightly of sulfur.

Do you see how every adjective has been chosen to stick with a dominant image? Do you see how this description is laden with atmosphere and mood?

Is this passage subtle? Nope. Coded language isn’t supposed to be. Just ask Mr. Poe.

Danger–This element should pervade the story. It keeps the tension high and the outcome of the story less certain.

A sense of danger is established if threats to the protagonist or other characters are real. Victims are attacked, injured, and possibly killed. The protagonist is also in harm’s way. If the supernatural villain stays hidden, then its minions are actively attacking the protagonist or those the protagonist cares about.

Gore and violence–These go along with danger and real threats like tomatoes and basil, but generally in urban fantasy they are presented only as an aftermath to violence not shown.

Because urban fantasy isn’t as intense as horror, the gore will usually be presented obliquely through how a victim is found and what’s been done to it. The actual violence isn’t dramatized through scene action while it’s occurring.

In Jim Butcher’s novel, Storm Front, protagonist wizard Harry Dresden is called in by human homicide detectives as a consultant. Two victims have been found in a hotel room, apparently killed by supernatural means. Their chests have been cracked open and their hearts removed.

As a crime scene, it’s dreadful and shocking, but because readers do not see the crime committed in moment-by-moment story action, it is less horrifying than it might otherwise be.

What’s at Stake

The final aspect of urban fantasy that I want to address in this series of posts has to do with the scale of the stories.

In traditional, high, epic fantasy, the whole world may be at risk. Vast armies are often pitted against each other. It is Good (capital letters) versus Evil (capital letters). If the side of Good should fail or be vanquished, DOOM will encompass the world and all will be lost forevermore.

However, in urban fantasy, the scale of the story situation is smaller. A few people are endangered, but not everyone. We have a mostly good (lowercase letters) protagonist versus a pretty bad (lowercase letters) villain.

In other words, the protagonist–perhaps with a few companions or allies–is trying to stop the supernatural menace. If the protagonist should fail, he or she will probably die or be enslaved, but the entire world as we know it won’t end. It’ll just be a bit worse than before.

Lesser stakes than traditional fantasy doesn’t mean a lesser story. After all, the life-or-death struggle of a lone hero against the Houston vampire queen means a tremendous amount to that hero. And readers bonded with that protagonist will care deeply and intensely about what happens.

 

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Building Urban Fantasy–Part II

 

Supernatural Population

A necessary element for urban fantasy is its supernatural population. Certainly the villain is going to be supernatural, but there can be other enemies or allies to the protagonist from the magical or immortal creatures as well. And diversity of supernatural entities adds extra layers to your story.

M.H. Borosin’s novel, THE GIRL WITH GHOST EYES, features a San Francisco Chinatown that’s riddled with demons, ghosts, grotesque creatures, witches, sorcerers, and shapeshifting tigers.

Daniel Jose Older’s book, HALF-RESURRECTION BLUES, is set in New York City’s Puerto Rico district with ghosts and resurrected dead people walking the streets at night.

In JACK THE GIANT KILLER by Charles de Lint, modern-day Canada is populated by leprechauns and boggarts, to name just a few.

Beyond sprinkling supernatural characters into the story world, and beyond the goals of individual characters in primary and secondary roles, how will various supernatural types interact with each other? With humans? What are their societies? What are their customs? What are their special powers? How do they live? What do they wear? Where does their money come from? How are they governed?

Which leads us into the next point of consideration:

 

Politics

So how, exactly, are your supernatural beings organized? Do your were-leopards get along fine with with the vampires? Or are they at war? Or do they maintain territories and an uneasy peace?

Who rules the vampire hive? How many vampire hives, for that matter, are in the city of your choice? Or in the country? Do all vampires get along with each other? That seems unlikely, given that predators generally have trouble in that department. So who controls them? What are the consequences if a vampire breaks the rules?

Is there a fairy queen presiding over a court? What are her laws? Who are her enemies? Her allies? How does she govern the fae? How does she enforce her will over them?

Do all the wizards belong to a union? I can’t see Gandalf joining, but then he’s not a character in an urban story. But with the modern-day settings of urban fantasy, how can wizards fit in and operate within present-day America?

Butcher’s Harry Dresden character advertises in the phone book. He tries to obey human laws as much as practical. He also lives under the strictures of the White Council. And his ethics of confidentiality toward his clients can clash with the demands of the human police department.

Kim Harrison’s Cleveland is divided between the part of the city where humans live and work and the part of the city where the supernaturals are supposed to stay.

If you want to write about vampires, is vampirism legalized? Do vampires have rights of citizenship? Are they allowed to vote? And since they naturally tend to prey on humans, what laws govern that?

Maybe in your world, all supernatural creatures live in US cities illegally, in violation of immigration laws, and have no citizen rights at all. Does Immigration hunt and deport them?

Rules of Magic

Rule #1:  magic comes at a price. It should never be free because then magic makes getting out of difficult plot problems too easy. Story tension dissipates, and your plot will collapse.

Harry Potter can practice magic at Hogwarts, but he is forbidden to use his powers when he’s not at school.

In Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series, the male wizards eventually go insane. How’s that for a future?

Rule #2:  magic must be limited. This is for the same reasons as stated in Rule #1. Unlimited use of magic destroys story tension because there can be no uncertainty as to the story’s outcome.

A sure thing kills fiction.

Rule #3:  obey the rules you establish. It’s fun to set up a system of magic at first, but then in the story’s climax when your protagonist is cornered and desperate you may feel tempted to cheat a little and let the protagonist use magic in violation of the rules just this once.

BOO! HISS! CHEAT, CHEAT, CHEAT!

Never fudge your rules to save your plot. That is the completely wrong thing to do.

Instead, you have a couple of options:

*You can rewrite your rules from the story’s beginning and give your hero an escape hatch.

Or

*You can force your protagonist to pay the price that magic requires.

The second choice is terrible and difficult. It may upset you. Certainly it will be tough on your character. But it will leave you with a stronger, more complex story. Isn’t that a good thing?

Rule #4:  magic and its use should have consequences and repercussions. Maybe this should be discussed under Rule #1, but the point here is that magic shouldn’t be thrown casually into a story without consideration of how it will affect the plot’s unfolding, the characters involved, and even everyday life.

I’m thinking of the old television show BEWITCHED, where the beautiful witch Samantha promised her human husband that she would not use magic in their home. So these sit-com plots would revolve around some domestic crisis, where she would wrestle with trying to use a human solution for a while and then she might wriggle her nose and use magic to solve it instead. Samantha always meant well and tried to honor her promise, but audiences were aware of her inner struggle and determination to go against her natural proclivities. However, it’s like leaving a dish of raw hamburger out on your kitchen counter and expecting the cat to ignore it when no one’s at home.

In the classic film comedy, I MARRIED A WITCH (starring Frederic March and Veronica Lake), the witch Jennifer is much less ethical. But her evil plan backfires and she becomes the victim of her own potion.

In the next post, I’ll continue with plotting.

 

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Building Urban Fantasy–Part I

Ready to construct the fantastical, the supernatural, and the magical?

Come with me as I list numerous elements that go into the creation of this subgenre. There’s no particular order to determining them. Whatever works for you and your imagination is fine.

 

Protagonist

Usually this character is mortal or human. The protagonist may possess some magical powers or be partially supernatural–think of Percy Jackson, demi-god, in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. The protagonist is often less powerful magically than the supernatural creatures he or she is dealing with.

The point is that whatever the protagonist is, or whatever the protagonist can do, he or she has to be vulnerable. In other words, capable of being killed.

Often, the protagonist is a hunter–e.g. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden is a wizard private investigator; Kim Harrison’s witch protagonist is a bounty hunter. Such occupations give the protagonist license to track and pursue rogue supernatural baddies.

Of course, sometimes the protagonist is involved through proximity and sympathy for a supernatural group. For example, in Patricia Briggs’s novels, the protagonist Mercy is a car mechanic who also happens to be a shapeshifter. Her other form is a coyote. Because of that, she is acquainted with several werewolves living in her community and sympathetic to them. As a coyote, she is no threat to the wolves, which also helps them accept her friendship and assistance when needed.

 

Villain

Let’s not be sensitive or PC about this. I’m not going to be nice and call this role the antagonist, as I do so often in my writing posts. In this genre, we need a villain, a foe that’s seriously, seriously bad beyond the bone.

Now, urban fantasy will often serve up antagonists for the hero to contend with in addition to the true bad guy, but there must always be a dangerous, nasty, evil, supernatural villain causing the primary trouble.

Because the villain is supernatural, this character possesses the advantages of possible immortality, very dangerous powers, and a lot of magical strength.

It’s important for the hero and villain to be unevenly matched–at least on the surface or initially. Give the advantage to the villain. Otherwise, what’s the danger for the protagonist?

City

If urban fantasy was going to take place in a meadow, why would it be called urban? Okay, goes without saying but I said it anyway.

While occasionally I encounter a modern fantasy located in the suburbs or a small town, for true urban fantasy the setting needs to be a large city. The larger it is, the more diverse its population will be, which lends itself to more types of conflict and trouble as cultures, goals, and misunderstandings collide.

The city needs to be old enough or financially stressed enough that it has some ghetto flavor, some inner-city decay, a collapsing infrastructure, and a lot of crime. This is much more useful for story purposes than a city that’s clean, renewed, bright, and upbeat.

Know Your Town

It’s one thing to pick a city by closing your eyes and pointing at a map, and another thing to know it well enough to present it as a character in your story. Because the setting matters. It will play a large role. It will color the plot and affect the cast. It will influence the tone you achieve.

So you have to know it, understand the pulse of it. You should know it well, or at least have visited it more than once.

Never pick a city that you’ve encountered only through film or television because you’ll never get the details right. Hollywood is notorious for shifting streets and combining landmarks to suit a director’s vision. Remember the films that supposedly take place in New York City but feature a Canadian skyline?

Even if you choose a setting that you’re very familiar with, do you know the inner city, the derelict dangerous parts of it? Do you know where the tenements are? Rusting, abandoned train tracks? Empty factories abandoned when labor went off-shore? I’m not suggesting that you venture into physically dangerous places where you might come to harm, but research them. Look at photos of them. Talk to the public information officers at your police station about the problematic areas and ask questions. Find safe ways to glean the details you need. They will bring your setting to life on the page.

I will continue with more elements in my next post.

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Butcher’s Advice for the Aspiring Writer

It goes without saying that I’m proud of Jim Butcher and his success. It’s wonderful to see a writer taking hold of innate talent, harnessing it with solid writing craft, and not only breaking into the business but climbing to the top of it. Jim hasn’t achieved his success through blind luck or by his agent calling in favors from some editor. Instead, he’s done it the right way–through grit, determination, and sheer hard work.

You may still mutter about luck … he entered the urban fantasy market at just the right time, yada yada yada.

Well, folks, I believe that writers make their own luck. If you hone your craft and prepare yourself to be the best writer you can, you’ll be ready to seize opportunity when it offers itself.

And it will.

Better still, if you’re ready, you’ll recognize opportunity when it rolls by.

There’s nothing sadder to me than to see a young, talented writer fumble a golden chance through sloppy skills, lack of readiness, or inattention.

Take a look at Jim’s advice. (jimbutcher.livejournal.com/4217.html) Read it more than once. Let it soak into your heart. Take inspiration from it. And, most importantly, follow it.

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