Friday, July 9, 2010

Knowing your genre, part two

Yesterday I began a very long, rant-y post inspired by reading Unnamed Book by Some Author, who claimed they didn't need to read any fantasy classics before attempting one of their own. Not only was I peeved that someone would blithely dismiss needing to know much about their genre, but I discovered a few flaws in Unnamed Book that might have been avoided had the author actually read a few fantasies. For instance, tending to let your world-building overwhelm the reader with confusing details. In this post I'm going to continue my rant, which includes a few more tips for the aspiring fantasy writer.

2) Make your magic clear and consistent: This is actually the cardinal rule for any fantasy: if your reader doesn't understand how magic works in your world, or if you change how it works midway through—using some kind of magus ex machina you pull out of your hat to rescue your characters at the last minute—your readers will feel cheated, and you will undermine your big magical payoff. Or, as in the case of Unnamed Book, your reader won't realize there was a big magical payoff. While one kind of magic was portrayed very clearly—dreamwalking—it was a relatively minor magic (in terms of power); when it came to the major magics—the earth-swallowing, impenetrable barrier-creating kind—I wasn't sure how it was done, who could do it, or how you could battle it. So when the heroes finally had their big battle against a major magic, I wasn't clear how they were battling it and what the effects were. I actually thought one of the characters had been left in a coma by the battle, when it turned out she'd only gone in a different direction from the hero. So I was left feeling confused, unmoved, and unimpressed.

On the other hand, consider Ursula K. LeGuin's classic Earthsea series. Her magic is simple yet powerful: learn the true names of things and you can learn to control them. It's a simple, understandable concept, yet she uses it build various magical confrontations that are clear to the reader. Because we understand how the magic works, these confrontations have more tension and more impact. Your magic doesn't have to be original—think of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians or Artemis Fowl series, which make great use of Greek mythology and Celtic fairy legends, respectively—but the reader should be able to understand it.

3) Be aware of character archetypes: this can be a really big pitfall, especially if you aren't straying far from the familiar in terms of plot. It can crop up in the work of the most devoted fantasy reader/writer, too; I remember reading the first volume of one bestselling series, written by an author who was a fantasy fan, and about two thirds of the way through saying, "This is Star Wars, but with dragons!" The further I read, the more character archetypes I could identify: farmboy with a talent (Luke), spunky princess (Leia), secretive mentor (Obi Wan), mercenary with a heart of gold (Han Solo), oppressive ruler with some strange connection to the farmboy (Darth Vader) ... I kept reading and kept drawing more parallels, because the plot was actually very close, and it got very distracting.*

Now, that wasn't the case for me with Unnamed Book. I thought aspects of the plot were original enough that it didn't remind me of anything else in particular. (Maybe I haven't read widely enough, for one reader review on Amazon did complain of plot similarities to another popular fantasy novel.) But the traditional fantasy archetypes were all there: the Fatherless Young Man trying to prove himself; the spunky Priestess/princess; the thief/mercenary with a heart of gold; the mentor keeping a secret. Of course the first two characters had a sparky love/hate thing going on throughout the book, so of course I knew they would end up together at the end. That's not a bad thing (that's why we love romantic comedies), but I guess I felt dissatisfied because I didn't feel like the characters grew beyond the archetypes. For example, a big part of the ongoing love-hate thing was because Princess tricked FYM into rescuing someone from a prison camp, and he had lingering resentment from her "betrayal." But if Princess knew anything about FYM, it would be that he had severe daddy issues, and all she needed to do was tell him that the someone in need of rescuing was his long-missing father, and he would have volunteered to go in without any trickery. Either ignore the archetype, or use it and grow beyond it, but don't use it and then ignore the major character attributes attached to it.

For a great way to rise above archetypes, just look at Lloyd Alexander's five-volume "Chronicles of Prydain," which I think I read 20 times by the time I graduated from high school. The series' main character Taran, the hero who goes on several quests, is introduced to us as an orphaned assistant pig-keeper. He encapsulates the FYM archetype perfectly: worried about his identity, striving to prove himself, overconfident and yet unsure, overly impressed by power and rank. Over the course of the series, however, Taran learns different values and grows into a young man who values ability over nobility and comes to see war not as a chance to prove himself, but something to be avoided. I can read his story for the umpteenth time, even as an adult, and it never fails to affect me.

Now you might point out that Some Author of Unnamed Book has only written the one fantasy, while many of the "right way" examples I used are fantasy series. Rowling had seven volumes to detail her world, and Alexander five to develop his archetype. So am I being unfair? I don't think so; after all, if you can't manage to make the first volume work, the less chance you have of getting the next ones published.

Rant is over. Now if you'll excuse me, I feel a nervous urge to go revising.

*This is not to say your fantasy plot has to be the most original thing in the world. I attended a talk by Philip Pullman, author of my favorite fantasy His Dark Materials, and he claimed there are only 10 basic plots in fiction, and all of them are variations of the "Holy Grail" quest. But still, follow the most famous space fantasy film of all time event by event, and people will notice.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Knowing your genre, part one

This entry is part book review, part writing advice, part rant. It was inspired by a request from a friend, who lent me a new fantasy novel she had purchased by an award-winning author whose previous work she had really enjoyed. She wanted my opinion because she found the book disappointing, but thought maybe it was because she wasn't a regular fantasy reader. I, on the other hand, devour fantasy novels like candy, so she was curious what kind of reaction I would have. I'm always open to suggestions, especially when the book offered is free of charge, so I took it home and stuck on the top of my admittedly huge and wobbly stack of "to-reads."

You'll notice I've scrupulously avoided mentioning the title of the book, or the author's name, and that's because Mom always said, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." (Maybe it wasn't my mom who said that, she's always been pretty outspoken, but I'm sure someone's mom said it once.) Sure, I have no compunction bad-mouthing Herman Melville or James Fenimore Cooper, but I'm pretty sure they don't subscribe to Google notifications when they're mentioned on the internet. And besides, half of the following rant isn't so much a review of the book as a response to something the author put on their bio page.

This is what set me off: a declaration to the effect that "Gee, everyone said I should read all the fantasy classics before I wrote one of my own, but I figured I only needed to know about the real world." Which is partially true; you do need to know about the real world and real people to write believable fantasy characters and stories that have relevance to today's readers. But the casual dismissal of needing to know anything about the genre you're trying for the first time really set my teeth on edge. (Doubly so, because the genre this author usually works in—children's/young adult—is so often dismissed by people who know nothing about it as "easy." What do you want to bet that at least once in this author's career, someone said something like, "How nice for you, children's books, they're short. I'd like to whip one out someday, if I have a couple of weeks.") Still, I began the first page with an open mind, as I've read enough good books by people switching genres to know it can be done.

And here's where the writing advice comes in. As I was reading, I noticed several flaws in the book that a more experienced reader of fantasy might have avoided. So here, culled from my decades as a dedicated fantasy reader, are some important rules to consider when you're writing fantasy:

1) Build your world, but don't overwhelm the reader: Everyone who's enjoyed a really good fantasy knows how much fun it is to submerge yourself in a completely different world. It's great when an author has so thoroughly envisioned their creation that they can make you believe it's real. It's not so great, as in Unnamed Book, when an author drops so many proper names into the first two chapters that you have to stop reading every few paragraphs to look at the map on the first page. It's not that I have anything against maps in fantasy novels; I've created a couple of my own, and it's nice to give the reader a general idea of the shape of your world. But if I have to repeatedly stop reading just to figure out what the hell you're talking about, you're giving me too much detail, too fast.

In contrast, look at how J. K. Rowling creates the world of the Harry Potter series. I've read she had notebooks and notebooks filled character names, family histories, spells, and other details of Harry's universe. Yet she doesn't overwhelm us with detail in this first chapter; we're introduced to Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall and Hagrid, and see two spells and one enchanted motorcycle. Even better, we are gradually shown Rowling's wizarding world through the eyes of a novice, Harry himself, so any confusion is part of building his character. By giving us just enough details to make the world real, Rowling tantalizes us and draws us in, rather than confusing us. This is good advice for writers of any kind of fiction, actually. Whether you've done historical research or just know what kind of lunch box your main character used in third grade, you have to remember that there's a difference—a huge difference, actually—between what you as the author need to know about your world and your characters, and what the reader needs to know.

I've realized this is going to be one huge-ass rant, so I'm splitting it into parts. Part two will probably come tomorrow, assuming I finish my work-work on time, and I'll enlighten you about using magic and character archetypes.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Janespotting: The Matters at Mansfield

I conclude my survey of Mansfield Park-related works with Carrie Bebris's fourth "Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery," a series that turns the married Elizabeth and Darcy into amateur sleuths who just happen to encounter (and solve) puzzling events within their social circle. I really enjoyed the third volume, North by Northanger—it not only made great use of characters from the novel, but avoided some of the mysticism I disliked about the first two installments—and hoped the fourth volume would be another step forward.

I'm glad to report that this was indeed the case. Not only did The Matters at Mansfield bring in some of the most interesting characters from MP—mainly Henry Crawford and Mrs. Norris—but it also continued developing some of the minor characters from Pride and Prejudice. We get another strong dose of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is as stubborn and interfering as ever. The book opens with the Darcys at a family function (the engagement ball of Darcy's cousin Earl Fitzwilliam, the Colonel's older brother), and Lady Catherine is busily planning an engagement for her daughter Anne. You'll remember from P&P that Anne is sickly and put-on; Elizabeth observes, however, that while Anne is still put-upon, she seems a little less sickly than at their last meeting, and even dances with her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam while Elizabeth and Darcy distract Lady Catherine's attention away from her. At this ball they are also introduced to one Henry Crawford, who seems pleasant enough—although Anne won't dance with him, feeling her mother may return at any time. She is right to feel nervous; Lady Catherine is about to sign an agreement affiancing Anne to Neville Sennex, the son of a viscount whose reputation is that of a wastrel with a bad temper.

To everyone's surprise, Anne is found missing the next day, having run off to Scotland to elope with Crawford. She had a previous acquaintance with him, and sensing her mother's intent to match her with Sennex, decided to take action. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam follow quickly, but are too late to prevent the marriage and its consummation; they do convince the couple to return to England to face Lady Catherine and her lawyer. An accident injures Anne's leg and forces them to stop in the village of Mansfield, a place where Crawford is rather better known than he'd like. He gets unpleasant visits from both Mrs. Rushworths (the estranged Maria and her mother-in-law), and it looks as if he's going to settle the marriage with Lady Catherine's lawyer when a woman shows up looking for "John Garrick," points Crawford out as the man, and claims to be his wife.

This, of course, is utter disaster for Anne (emotionally) and Lady Catherine (socially), especially when Crawford splits town, threatened with gaol as a bigamist. He remains missing for a few days, until a body turns up on the grounds of Mansfield Park, with a gunshot to the head. Suicide? Murder? A duel? Darcy feels obligated to seek out the truth, even though the list of suspects could include someone in his own family and further complications make the puzzle even harder. The resolution is satisfying, both as a mystery—I figured it out just soon enough before the Darcys to feel clever—and as a romance, concluding with a wedding arranged for romantic, not financial, reasons.

I thought Bebris again made very good use of characters from Austen's novels, and I had no quibbles with her interpretations of this time. Henry Crawford, in particular, seemed very consistent with Austen's view of him; unlike his portrayal in some other sequels, he was both charming and thoughtless, much like the original. (So many of the sequels seem to give him a pass, putting all the blame for the affair on Maria Bertram.) So I give this installment another big thumbs up, and look forward to Bebris's take on Emma, which just came out this year. It's going to have to wait a while, though; "Janespotting" is going on hiatus for the summer, to give me a break from all the Austen sequels. While the last few summers I've turned to the classics for my remedial lit program, I'm going to go in a different direction this summer ... but you'll have to wait a couple weeks to find out more.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Photo of the Week--7/5/10

I realize my weekly photos have been woefully short on pigeons lately, but our last trips during our time in England were to more scenic places. Like this one: Urquhart Castle, on the shores of Loch Ness in Scotland. So why is Boy smiling? Is it because there were no pigeons for him to chase? Is it because we saw the Loch Ness Monster? Or is it because we saw an actual working model of a trebuchet (a type of catapult), just like the ones we saw people build on "Scrapheap Challenge" (aka "Junkyard Wars" in the US)? I leave it to you to decide.