There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

A Bad Review: One Person’s Opinion… May 1, 2014

I must admit I’m pretty jaded by Amazon reviews. I’m sorry to say a five star review won’t induce me to part with my hard-earned cash, any more than a one star soul-stomping-hatred-fest will put me off something that really appeals.

My favourite fantasy author of the moment is Patrick Rothfuss. I devoured The Name of the Wind, and Wise Man’s Fear, the first two books in the Kingkiller Chronicles, loving the world, the characters, the glorious plot tangles and even the narrative structure. And I’m desperately awaiting the next instalment Doors of Stone.

And I’m not the only one to enjoy the books either. They have a 4.5 star rating on Amazon. So it was with much surprise I stumbled across my first scathing review of the book:

Kvothe makes me wanna gouge my eyes out. He’s that annoying. I know fantasy is attractive because it diverts us from the humdrum of our normal, uninteresting lives, and I’m aware that a heroic character should be more powerful and awesome than your regular joe. But seriously, if Kvothe excels beyond the realm of understanding in one more thing, I’ll scream.
I’d list all the achievements young Kvothe has earned himself but I just don’t have enough room. And I honestly cant swallow another list covering All That Is Supremely Awesome About Kvothe.

Wow. The reviewer J.J. Maken (read the whole review here) hated with a passion the very things that I really enjoyed about the books. Kvothe and his ridiculous giftedness was something I enjoyed about the story, particularly because he could be so good at some things and then completely clueless in other areas (like pretty much any interaction with women).

However rather than being upset on behalf of my own opinion, it reminded me that people have different tastes – and I thought J.J. Maken was at least able to articulate why the story didn’t work for her, instead of bashing the intelligence of the author or other readers who did like the book.

I prefer to like my protagonist as I’m reading, not secretly pray he dies a painful, drawn out death. I really loathed this book. I wish there had been more negative reviews available before I bought it.

I wish there were more negative reviews as interesting as this one.

My advice is read the reviews if you find they help. But the best person to judge whether a book is going to suit you, is you. Read the blurb, check out a sample, and try your luck.

What are your thoughts on Amazon reviews? Or any form of creative review?

– by Raewyn Hewitt

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Killer New Fantasy Series? August 14, 2013

Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle is to be a television series. Or at least last month Deadline reported it has been optioned by New Regency Productions and 20th Century Fox television as a drama series.

As a huge fan of Patrick Rothfuss, I was initially ecstatic. The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear are right up there with my all time favourite epic fantasy novels. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. NPR books 2011 poll of Top 100 Science Fiction, Fantasy Books had Rothfuss at number 18, a considerable feat for a relatively new author in a list full of classics and established Sci/Fi and Fantasy writers.

With visions of a Game of Thrones type adaptation, I couldn’t wait to see who they cast as Kvothe, the stunningly gifted and brilliantly drawn protagonist. I was also looking forward to seeing the world brought to life – a world Rothfuss portrayed with such depth and detail in the books.

But that was when it all started to unravel somewhat, at least in my mind. Because the books are big, full of nuance and attention to detail, and the story, told by Kvothe in the book is essentially his life story. Would it translate well to screen and still retain the intimacy and magic of the books?

Not withstanding budgets, timeslots and ratings requirements, could it ever live up to reader (my)  expectations?

I have no idea. At this stage it looks like Eric Heisserer (Hours, The Thing) is set to adapt the series and will be the executive producer – so here’s hoping he has a vision. Because with two huge books and the final instalment, The Doors of Stone, due out in 2014, he has a lot of material to work with.

And it’s true I still can’t quite forget what happened to Firefly on Fox’s watch. (Screened out of order and cancelled after one season!) Could my fan-girl heart trust them again?

Or what happened when Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series became The Legend of the Seeker for the small screen – and the story was changed so much there was no hope it would ever follow the books.

At least the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones has shown how it can be done, and with a slew of big budget fantasy movies doing well, perhaps we’ll see more high-quality fantasy television series being made?

– by Raewyn Hewitt

 

The Princess Bride and Narrative Techniques July 3, 2013

In the summer of 1992 I was injured on a working holiday and spent much of my summer watching my friend’s copy of The Princess Bride movie. (Forget flat-screens and high definition – this was state of the art VHS). By the time the neck brace came off I could quote most of that movie verbatim – it’s full of quotable gems such as:

“As you wish.” “My name is Inigo Montoya you killed my father prepare to die…” “To the pain.” “Inconceivable!”

As part of my love affair with the movie, I also tracked down William Goldman’s book and was pulled further into the rabbit hole. Because although the movie is told as a story within a story (a grandfather reading a story to his grandson), the book is even more complex – including Goldman himself as both character and storyteller.

In the book of The Princess Bride, Goldman claims to be presenting an abridgement of a story written by S. Morgenstern. According to Goldman he was read the story by his father. Some time later his fascination with the story leads him to track down a copy of the book for his own son, only to find that Morgenstern’s original version was actually a satire of the excesses of European royalty, complete with long and complex descriptions of etiquette and pedigree. Nothing at all like the tale his father told.

In the book Goldman tells it this way:

But my father only read me the action stuff, the good parts. He never bothered with the serious side at all.

And so, Goldman sets about publishing his abridged version of the book.

However, the truth is there is no Morgenstern, no son even (Goldman had daughters) and of course Florin is a fictitious fantasy realm. But the narrative technique seems to have been the key to opening up the writing process for The Princess Bride.

Goldman is quoted as saying:

And when that idea hit, everything changed. Tennessee Williams says there are three or four days when you are writing a play that the piece opens itself to you, and the good parts of the play are all from those days. Well, The Princess Bride opened itself to me. I never had a writing experience like it. I went back and wrote the chapter about Bill Goldman being at the Beverly Hills Hotel and it all just came out. I never felt as strongly connected emotionally to any writing of mine in my life. It was totally new and satisfying and it came as such a contrast to the world I had been doing in the films that I wanted to be a novelist again.

And although it’s hard to trust anything Goldman says (especially in the forewords and anniversary additions where he continues to spout great whoppers about his life and ongoing dealings with the Morgenstern estate) – there’s something that resonates as a writer about finding the key to opening up the story-telling process.

In the case of the book, Goldman was able to put on his larger-than-life storyteller persona and control the pace and the timing of the story. In the movie, this technique (to a lesser degree) is used to pull the viewer out of the story and create tension. It allows backstory to be covered quickly – shameless telling, but in a form that works; and keeps the tone of the movie light and comedic.

Some of the most memorable books I’ve read have had interesting narrative structures. Wuthering Heights used a narrator who heard part of the tale on his sickbed and set forth and uncovered the rest for himself. To Kill a Mockingbird chose a child narrator to get to the heart of justice and racial inequalities.

In the fantasy genre, Patrick Rothfuss, in his bestsellers The Name of the Wind, and Wise Man’s Fear uses another story within a story narrative technique. Having the main character dictate his life story to a scribe during a period of time in his life which seems far from a happy-ending scenario, not only provides a framework for the story, but colours the readers expectations. At first we wonder how this character will ever attain the degree of infamy he is apparently known for, but we’re also wondering how and when it’s all going to go so spectacularly wrong. The stakes are upped at the outset.

Finding the right narrative structure can mean the difference between your story coming to life or ending up ‘mostly dead’.

For Goldman, it not only unlocked his own creativity, but resulted in an on-going dialogue with his readers as he encourages them to write to his publishers for extra scenes and continues to spin tall tales around his visits to Florin and on-going legal wrangle with the family Morgenstern. You have to applaud him for using such an unusual vehicle for drawing his readership in; because there’s no denying there is something special about The Princess Bride.

Do you have a favourite quote or scene in The Princess Bride? Or did the book or movie make an impact on you back when it was released – or (for those younger souls) when you stumbled across it?

– by Raewyn Hewitt

 

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

 

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? 

 

World Building: In the Beginning… December 19, 2012

One of the most satisfying things about reading and writing fantasy is exploring new worlds. Whether it’s our own world transformed in a magical retelling, or a completely new creation; the joy comes because it feels real. As writers of fantasy, the question then is – how do we go about building a brand new world and making it feel as tangible as this one?

1. Start with the story.

Your world is always the backdrop to the story. It doesn’t matter how magical your unicorns, how grand the soaring spires of your cloud city, or whether the healing properties of the bobo berry have eliminated sickness forever; they won’t dazzle anyone if they aren’t relevant to the story.

So get a good feel for your story first, and then build the world up from there.

Who are your main characters? Where do they live? Who do they interact with? What political / cultural / geographical influences impact upon their lives? Unless you have a particular love of creating complete worlds from scratch (and some do), your world building need only extend to those elements that will directly or indirectly impact on your character.

2. Details, Details, Details.

Only in the planning stage – and always with your eye on the world your characters experience. This is the time to get creative and do some research. You probably need to have some idea about history, geography, geology, flora and fauna, culture, language (patterns, or idiosyncrasies if you aren’t keen on creating a whole new language), and mythology.

Create a reference document / folder or visual diary and note down things that make the world unique. Draw a map. The more you know about your world the more substance your story will have.

Keeping good records can help with consistency. This is even more important if you’re writing epic fantasy, when it can be quite difficult to keep the entire world straight in your head.

How much time you devote to this is entirely a matter of personal preference – some people like to set a time limit on their research (for fear of never being quite ready), others adopt a more organic approach. The key to remember is that each element should add something to the story.

3. Less is More.

There is a big difference between knowing all the properties of the bobo berry, and listing them all out as encyclopedic rote. It’s unlikely your reader has bought your book for a lesson on biology. So when you’re writing the story your aim is to weave the detail in seamlessly so it feels organic.

As Juliet Mariller so eloquently phrased it:

Ask dedicated readers of fantasy, and epic fantasy in particular, what makes a book special for them, and I’d guess a majority would place good world-building high on the list. I’m talking about novels in which the secondary world is so well realised and so expertly woven into the story that the reader becomes immersed in it within the first few pages: a world that’s convincing, consistent and fascinating. Its parameters and its quirks won’t be set out for us in long passages of descriptive exposition, but will be integral to the plot and will emerge as the story unfolds.

How much detail you provide is largely a matter of taste. But if it sounds like you’re narrating a nature documentary, or reciting a history lesson you might want to rethink your approach.  Remember the old advice is always good: Show don’t tell. And show in a way that would feel real to your characters and their situation.

4. Gaze Upon the World with Wonder.

I love Patrick Rothfuss’s attitude to building fantasy worlds:

We get to build castles in the sky, then show them off to people.

So if you’re going to dream, dream big. Pay attention to the world around your characters. Find the little details that tell more than their face value and truly enhance your story. The way you will build your fantasy world, will no doubt be as unique as that world itself.

– Raewyn Hewitt