There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

In Need of An Oracle? June 29, 2013

One of the things reading epic fantasy has taught me is that oracles are not to be trusted. They tend to be elusive, philosophical individuals that are more about fudging the truth and being mysterious, than being a font of good advice. (Except maybe for the Oracle in the Matrix, she was kind of cool…).

But where do we go when we’re writing epic fantasy and in need of specialist help?

In our stories our heroes either go in search of Jedi masters (or the equivalent), or more often than not (especially in the case of Jedi masters) one just happens along at the perfect moment. Or they go to some amazingly well-known, usually exclusive, but endowed-with-the-knowledge-of-the-ages learning institution (that inevitably doesn’t have all the answers after all). Or they bypass the whole she-bang and learn through the school of hard-knocks (I get knocked down, but I get up again…).

So does the same hold true for us?

The Master Writer: It seems that there are many of us working on the great epic fantasy, but only so many masters of the craft to go around. Sadly we all can’t be the chosen one (son of Darth Vader / Anakin Skywalker), able to discuss the finer points of our writing with the Gaiman’s and Rothfuss’s of our time. But unlike (most of) our characters, we at least have the internet.

Many of our favourite authors are available, if not for a cup of coffee and a chat, at least to give us some great advice based on their own experiences. Websites and the ‘frequently asked questions tabs’ are great places to glean advice. Search interviews with your favourite authors, and check out inspirational speaking engagements on youtube (one of my favourites was Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech to the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts (Philadelphia) – check out the link here).

Higher Education: Maybe not Jedi-school, but a great creative writing course could be the way to go. I was particularly fond of the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. Like a grown up Hogwarts it contained magical classes and opportunity for invention and advancement; not to mention fees that caused Kovthe no end of grief.

If you happen to live near a good school that understands and can nurture your talent for fantasy writing – and are able to attend – you are a fortunate person indeed (and I’m very jealous). However if not, you can always check out on-line courses (I can’t recommend any personally, but feel free to comment on your own experience in this area).

If you don’t want to pay to enrol (and gain the benefit of personal feedback) there are some helpful classes recorded on youtube. I stumbled across this Creative Writing Course for science fiction and fantasy authors taught by Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University, which contained all sorts of interesting genre-related information (such as some good general tips for map-making / world building – like making sure your rivers run down toward the sea).

A Band of Like-minded Peers: That really didn’t work out for the Jedi (bad bad Anakin), but when it comes to writing groups – there’s something to be said for getting together with other creative types and encouraging each other to push those  writing limits. I’ve often imagined being part of a group like The Inklings, the writing group that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien belonged to.

In my own experience talking to someone else who gets the appeal of epic fantasy tends to help me spark new ideas, or challenge the ways I’m trying to tell a story. It’s not every day that the Tolkiens and Lewises of the world find each other, but at least on-line – through blogs such as this one – we can find other people to chat with, bounce ideas off and occasionally have a true creative meeting of the minds. Visit the blogs of other fantasy writers and get chatting in the comments, you never know who you might meet!

Trial and Error: For many of us this is how we find our way. We write 150,000 word first drafts (especially if we’re epic fantasy writers) that require epic editing more than anything else. We look at the fantasy novelist’s exam and realise we’ve ticked 80% (or more!) of the boxes. We discover that our clichés are very loosely veiled and aren’t fooling anyone (except perhaps ourselves). And sometimes our writing just sucks on its way to getting better.

But take heart, most of the pioneers of fantasy writing wrote without a road map. They believed in themselves, followed their vision and wrestled with words the same way we do, while they were writing their ground-breaking stories.

I don’t believe in oracles outside of fantasy, but I do believe we have plenty of resources available to help us realise our own fantastic stories. If you have any favourite places to go when you’re in need of expert advice (for epic or fantasy writing) we’d love to hear from you in the comments!

– by Raewyn Hewitt

 

Getting Down & Dirty June 22, 2013

Filed under: Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 5:30 am
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~ K. L. Schwengel

Every writer out there is familiar with the concept of Show, Don’t Tell. You all know how it works.

Tell: Frederick was wet and miserable.

Show: The rain plastered Frederick’s hair to his head and soaked through his heavy cloak making it hang across his shoulders like a giant’s arm. Cold rivulets of water trickled under his tunic, slithering down his back and sending a shiver through him. With every step his feet squished in his sodden boots. If he were meant to be this wet, he’d have been born a duck.

That may not be the most masterful writing, but you get the idea. Showing raises the level of intensity by putting the reader in our character’s skin, making them feel, smell, hear, see everything our character is.

But where do you draw the line? When does it become too overwhelming?

There’s no right answer to that question, by the way. It becomes a matter of personal preference. But it’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. Personally, I like gritty — or what I’ve recently seen referred to as “grimdark”. I want to read stuff that makes me squirm if it’s making the characters squirm. Not everyone does. Some fantasy authors take that to the extreme and then get dinged for it in reviews. I got dinged for it in First of Her Kind and I didn’t think I was even being all that gritty.

Art must be fearless. That’s the tagline of friend and fellow author Devin O’Branagan and it’s something I tell myself anytime I feel like skimping on the details. If my character is a prisoner in a damp, dark cell, telling my readers the straw strewn on the floor smells bad is . . . well . . . weak. Bad like what? If, as a reader, I wrinkle my nose at the author’s description of what that straw smells like, I’m going to really empathize with that character a whole lot more. As a writer, I want my readers empathizing because that leads to caring.

Fantasy is definitely a genre with several camps. On one side we have the light-hearted, sometimes humorous, epic romp that has the Happy Ever After ending and doesn’t make us squirm in our seats. On the other is the brutally honest, face in the dirt, bugs in your teeth, hard-hitting, pulls no punches type. In between, a mix of the two. As a reader, I definitely lean toward the hard-hitting side. As a writer, I try to find a balance. I don’t want the violence, sex, or realism to ever be termed gratuitous but I realize that is also in the eye of the beholder reader. As long as it is essential to the plot and the character, and happens naturally, then I don’t consider it to be gratuitous

So how far do you go to sink the reader into your character’s skin? As a reader, how uncomfortable are you willing to get? Are there any particular authors you think handle this well, or not so well?

 

 

Trilogies, Chronicles and Sagas. Why Fantasy Goes On and On… May 25, 2013

   by Raewyn Hewitt

A friend of mine once said she didn’t read fantasy because the books looked like doorstops. Too many words, too much detail to keep straight and if there was a story in there, it was either too hard to find or it never ended. Ouch.

Although I’m the first to admit everyone has their own taste in reading material, she did have a point about the length of fantasy tomes. They often stretch across multiple volumes (just check out the recommended reading on this site), can finish at the most unsatisfactory places and occasionally fail to deliver on over-heightened reader expectations.

So what’s the deal?

The Realities of World Building:

I naively thought building your own fantasy world would be easier than researching a real world location. After all who is there to contradict you? Until I started building my own fantasy world and realised it was much harder than I’d previously imagined. Because although your reader will suspend disbelief to a degree, your world needs to be both believable and consistent.

If you have magic, it needs to have its own set of rules. Cultural diversity is complicated – especially when dealing with non-human cultures.  And don’t get me started on the rules of geography. Rivers flow down to the sea, certain types of harbours are suitable for ports and settlements and towns follow a sort of logic. Just thinking about the first map I drew (just to keep locations straight) still makes me twitch.

The challenge for the fantasy writer is once you’ve worked out the kinks in your created realm, you need to deliver it in such a way that your reader can grasp it and still be pulled into the story. If your story world is complicated this can take time to build up the layers and keep the readers hooked. But if you pull it off, the reader will be invested and may be prepared to take the long journey with you as you explore this brave new world through story.

And, after such a great investment in world building, who wouldn’t want to mine that world for as much story gold as possible.

The Big Picture:

Epic fantasy is, by definition, big. The stories are often greater than the fate of one person, nations or even worlds can be at stake and the very scope of the problem doesn’t lend itself to a quick fix. However when there isn’t an obvious place to stop, practical publishing considerations call for artificial breaks. As a reader I’ve on occasion howled at frustration at where a story is finished; but as a writer I am much more sympathetic. Tad Williams gave an eloquent response to similar criticism aimed at his own books:

I’ve received an awful lot of mail, electronic and old-fashioned-with-a-stamp both, about the first OTHERLAND volume. Most, I’m pleased to say, has been extremely nice and very favorable. The only note of discomfort has been from some readers who were upset by what they felt was the “cliffhanger” nature of the first volume’s ending.

I understand and apologize. However, the problem with writing this kind of story is that it’s not really a series—it’s one very, very long novel, which should be under one cover except that 1) it would take so long to write that my family and pets would starve, and 2) they couldn’t make covers that size, unless they were adapted from circus tents. That means I have a difficult choice to make: end each part in more abrupt fashion than some readers find ideal, or create artificial endings for each volume which I believe would change the overall shape of the book, and perhaps even adversely affect the structure of the story.

Thus, I can only ask for the indulgence of kind readers. I’ll do the best job I can not to end volumes in mid-sentence—”And then she discovered she was . . . oops, The End”—but please understand that what you’re getting is a part of a larger work, and may reflect that. I’ll still do the best I can to find some kind of closure for each individual volume.

He makes a good case for all fantasy writers!

I for one am the kind of person that gets a special kind of shivers when my newest fantasy purchase could also be used for resistance training. Content in the knowledge that when that new Patrick Rothfuss novel comes out it will certainly be no slim volume, but a hefty great serving of his extraordinary story-telling skills.

How about you? Are you writing a trilogy? A series? A saga? Does your story (and world) just seem to grow and grow the more you write it? Do you love long books? 

 

Why do YOU write fantasy? May 15, 2013

Filed under: Inspiration,Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 7:40 pm
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This may not have been deserving of a whole blog post, but I wanted to mention it because I thought it would be a lovely discussion point.

I wasn’t always a fan of fantasy. As a teenager I read every bit of historical fiction I could get my hands on. I loved the classics, but I took that further to include anything that was written awhile ago, even if it wasn’t strictly historical. I devoured the likes of L.M. Montgomery, Agatha Christie and Rafael Sabatini.

I fell in love with fantasy very, very slowly. And actually, it was the epic fantasy manuscript of a close friend that turned my head, not a published book or series. As I started to read it, I realized the “rules” of the genre were perfect for me. I could combine everything I craved; the action and adventure of Sabatini, the creepiness of Christie, and the sweet, ethereal description of Montgomery. It could all live in one world if I wanted it to.

But it was again my first love–history–that made me truly stick with it into this series. I always thought creating one’s own history was a cop-out… until I started reading the masters of fantasy. Now I think it’s beautiful. I love creating my own timeline. I love turning my backstory into something hundreds of years in the making, with politics and cultures drawn from Earth’s history, yet as fresh and unusual as I want them to be. And I love being able to incorporate just about anything into that history.

So here’s what I’m wondering: what made you love fantasy? And what made you want to write it? Now that you do write it, what do you enjoy most about writing in the genre? What is the biggest reason you keep coming back to it?

The excitement of building your own world from scratch? The permission to include and create anything supernatural or mythical? The creatures and the things that distinguish them from those we have on our planet? One particular story or author that you fell in love with? The allegorical power that comes with writing something this high concept?

In addition to the comments thread, I’ll be hanging out on the @ThereDraftAgain twitter handle for a little while today if you want to do some chatting about it. I’d love to hear why YOU write fantasy!

–Rachel O

 

Keeping the Soul While Ripping the Heart Out April 24, 2013

Filed under: Publishing,Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 5:06 pm
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Okay. This is completely not what I meant to blog about this month, and I may be getting a little personal here (har har, me? Never!)… but this is what I’ve been in the midst of lately. Plus, it can’t hurt to drift into the editing/polishing territory here on There and Draft Again, because it’s an important part of the writing process. So please bear with me. 🙂

I’ve been stuck in edits with my upcoming epic fantasy COLDNESS OF MAREK for awhile now, and as much as I love this story, it’s getting to that point where I begin to hate it. For me, once I get down to the nitty gritty, it becomes grueling. I start to question all of my decisions thus far and the text starts to look stupid and gangly.

For any writer, trimming down our words is painful and akin to shaving off pieces of the soul. But for a fantasy writer it becomes even more than that. You’ve created a whole world that reflects you in so many ways — things you think are good, or bitter, or right, or ugly — every facet is something you probably feel strongly about. You’ve spent hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours inventing this place, and then when it comes time for line edits, guess what else has to go besides pretty words? Yup. Pieces of your world. Anything that feels awkward or just doesn’t need to be there. Out.

If you’re being published traditionally, most likely someone else will be cutting out a lot of this stuff for you, but it will still hurt to see the result. If you’re doing it yourself or have hired someone to do it for you, it hurts a lot, too. Yet it must happen in order to make all that drafting, revising, and revising again worthwhile. It must happen in order to make that novel truly shine.

It’s hard not to get worn down in the process. You need help with this, for sure; you need friends who know how to be uber critical and uber supportive, and if you’re self-publishing, you need a professional editor before you’re done. In the midst it all, keeping your world consistent becomes increasingly complicated. And with all those world details to keep track of and hone, keeping the emotion in the story consistent becomes… well, complicated. You’re going to want to have your Fantasy Bible nearby, for sure.

I discovered there’s something else I need. Something I used to think was just for fun. But as soon as I got here, to this patch of crazy, I realized I needed it savagely. What is it? Emotional props. What for? To help keep myself on the same plane with my characters’ passions and loves. I didn’t have trouble with this in the drafting stage. Not even in the revision stage. But here? SO BAD, I NEED IT SOOOOO BAD!

Mine is a hodge podge pile, but it includes music, movies, youtube vids, outfits, Pinterest boards, other novels (usually completely unrelated to what I write), a font, a friend who understands why Marek and Trzl can’t be together… anything that connects me with the emotion in that story that I am now chopping into a million pieces. You’ll need things that rivet you down to the heart of your story, that strike that chord for you. Keep them handy. Not to influence your editing, but to influence you.

To remind you that there’s something lovely and shiny at the end of all of this. To keep the depth of your characters’ souls fresh and real. To convince you to stay the course tenaciously, to polish fervently and ruthlessly, because that heart and emotion is what all your words will say when you’re done.

Keep it alive.

Rachel

 

Drawing Inspiration From Other Genres March 13, 2013

Hello fellow fantasy writers!

I am a brand new addition to There and Draft Again, and I’m super excited to be here. *waves*

The first time I ventured into fantasy was a total flop. I was thirteen years old and I decided I was going to finish an entire novel. (I had started about four of them, but couldn’t get past the first five chapters or so before I got excited about another story. This was pretty much the theme of my teen years. Too. Many. Ideas.) It was supposed to be a dystopian fantasy murder mystery with a disappearence/kidnapping subplot and family issues driving the overall current, along with a spy saga going on the side. The resolution would include a wrap-up of who committed the murder, why the random brother had gone missing, some mended relationships within the family, and the spy saga would carry over to the next in the [seven book?] series.

Turns out I didn’t have any space in my brain left for worldbuilding. Literally, it was just too much story, which of course presented too many possibilities. So how did I turn that into an 80k complete draft? I took out the fantasy elements and the kidnapping, and it went down on paper pretty nice as a simple murder mystery. (I still need to go back and take out the spies.) I felt as if I’d had a near brush with disaster and swore I would never attempt fantasy again. I’d stick to historical and sci-fi where it was safe.

But then something funny happened four years later. The first time I tried National Novel Writing Month, I put my fingers down on the keys, and guess what came out? Fantasy. The story was character driven and the world building was effortless. I was so proud of myself when I finished. It was whole and complete. But it still felt a little empty. I stuck so closely to what I imagined high fantasy had to be that I hadn’t allowed for mystery, suspense, comedy, horror, romance, you name it — nothing that wasn’t strictly classic fantasy. It took me awhile to realize what was bugging me was that I didn’t incorporate other elements.

I’m sure there are some of us who heart our fantasy so much that we just don’t read anything else. And that’s fine! But I think there is a lot to be learned from other genres. Each one augments a part of the human experience that is important even if our characters aren’t human, because honestly, our readers are human. Of course, a lot of us will include essences and influences from life without even thinking, or maybe even go overboard like I did on my first novel, but the next time you feel stuck, or like something might be coming off a bit stale, don’t be shy about picking up a book from a genre you don’t typically read. You just might see a whole new dimension inside of your fantasy.

Here are a few of the questions I’ve asked myself that have helped me broaden the spectrum of my stories:

— What is the commonly known history of the places and families in my world? How does everyone remember it, and do they disagree on how it happened? Do the characters who don’t know the history need to learn more about it?

— Can I up the action anywhere? Take the adventure to the next level?

— Has anything horrific happened in the lives of my characters? Have I thoroughly explored these experiences and how they would affect those who had them?

— Are there any characters that ought to be attracted to each other that I’ve missed? Any backstory romance that is relevant?

— Is there anything funny or ironic that I can make more real? (Children, especially, can’t help but add some comedy.)

— Are there any strands of mystery in my story? Something that the reader will be wondering about already… can I make it more pivotal to increase the suspense?

Are there any other genres you’ve drawn inspriation from? Who are some of your favorite fantasy authors, and are there any you could name who’ve incorporated some elements of other genres? Did you feel it enriched the story? I’d love to hear more thoughts on this!

— Rachel

 

Opening your Fantasy novel right January 13, 2013

If you’re writing a Fantasy novel with the intent to have it traditionally published or to self-publish it, you need to have a stellar opening. Your first pages are what will grab the agent or the reader and make him want to read more. In order to avoid having agents reject your book or readers put it down, here are a few tips to start your novel right…

–          Start with an epic first line. Hook you reader with your first words. Consider these examples:

“A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s foreward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.” WICKED by Gregory Maguire

“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

They are both from best-selling books and they make you want to read more. Your first line needs to be just as good, whether it “hooks” your reader with humor, surprise, beautiful writing or suspense.

–          In your first page(s):

  • show don’t tell
  • ground the atmosphere and setting of your story
  • give a clear picture of your world but don’t overdo it (avoid “info-dump” at all costs)
  • give a sense of who your characters are by showing their motivations and emotions: make them interesting and complex
  • inject voice in your writing
  • don’t mistake action for tension
  • include your inciting event

–          A note on prologues: many Fantasy writers, especially the ones who are trying to get published for the first time, seem to include a prologue in their novel. Yet agents hate prologues and readers skip them. So before you query or self-publish, ask yourself the following questions: could your prologue be deleted from the novel without affecting understanding of the plot? If yes, why keep it at all, then? Is your prologue absolutely necessary to understand the rest of the novel? If yes, shouldn’t you include this information in the actual novel? (Yes, you should). Is your prologue mere info-dump? Is your prologue mere action? If yes, you don’t need it. As a reader and a querying writer, I promise you, your novel doesn’t need that prologue.

If you want more tips on starting your novel right, check out this blog:

Real Life Diagnostics: First Page Critique by Janice Hardy http://blog.janicehardy.com/2008/01/real-life-diagnostics.html

 Do you find this checklist helpful? What are your tips to make your opening pages compelling? Feel free to leave us your comments below!

EM