A Lack of Layers

If there’s one thing most readers notice about fantasy novels, it’s that there’s a lot going on.

Multiple story lines.  Intricate subplots that tie in to the main plot in unexpected ways.  Detours to follow side characters.  Details that seem unimportant but reappear with earth-shattering consequences three books later.  Rules for magic, for governing, for courtship.  Many (sometimes many, many) people to keep track of, relationships to remember, places and faces and societies and who was that again?

Some authors even give us a character list (Jacqueline Carey) or glossary (Robert Jordan) to help when we’re confused, because there is so much going on.

This is a problem that I’m trying to address with Mara’s story (and, by extension, Gretchen’s story and Andi’s story).  The original Butterflies tried to cover too much, too quickly, so I’m dismantling it and making it a series.  I would like to give each of the three girls a separate story, at least until their lives intertwine and the stories coalesce.  There is enough in each life to make it worth the effort, but I’m finding that  now I’m going to simple.  If all we’re doing is following one character as she grows up, where’s the complexity?  Where’s that layered look fantasy readers are used to seeing?

I don’t want to use existing parallel subplots, because they will seem unrelated until the stories come together in a later book.  Perhaps what I need to do is find some side characters from the early lives of the girls, so we can have some subplots that resolve within each tale.

Great, Leigh, make this very challenging process of rewriting even more complicated than it already was.  Nicely done.

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Seven Sentence Story

“It shouldn’t count as a sacrifice if you’re just giving up something you didn’t want in the first place!” she shouted at the retreating backs of her former neighbors.  She had never been very good at keeping her mouth shut, or, for that matter, at following the myriad unspoken rules that guided the life of a village woman.  That was why she’d ended up here, chained to a boulder, wearing nothing but a shift and waiting for the dragon to show up and eat her.

She sent one more glare down the now empty path before turning to assess her situation.  The chains connected to her ankles met and linked into one before running to the boulder, creating a “Y” shape at her feet, while each wrist manacle was connected by chain directly to the stone.  The rock itself was an excellent height to sit on, except that the idiot villagers had locked her in facing the thing.  Shrugging, she stepped her right foot over the “Y” and lifted her right arm over her head; although it left her arms wrapped around her middle, she could sit down, and she might as well be comfortable while she waited for her doom.

Seasons

The official first day of spring is next week.  That doesn’t mean that it’s really spring everywhere.  It’s probably been spring for weeks in Texas, and it still feels like winter here in South Dakota, but March 20 is what divides the calendar.

There are many commercials that are playing into the concept of upcoming spring, and they got me thinking.  In fantasy, you generally see worlds that are variations on our own planet.  Science fiction is different, of course, as it often features different planets.  But fantasy is still speculative fiction, and who’s to say that an Earth with magic, or a magical realm different from Earth, needs to function the same as our planet?

It’s an interesting and very unfamiliar thing to think about mixing up the seasons.  Would it even really be possible?  If there is a hot season and a cold season, there would by necessity be a cooling-down season and a warming-up season to transition between the two.  Perhaps that’s why no one has really played with seasons, because there isn’t a lot of room for play.

There are places on our planet where seasons are different, and often fantasy stories will take place in rainforests, deserts, or mountains, taking advantage of the change in climate to work in a variation on weather.  The necessary logic of seasons might preclude toying with them in a fantasy novel, but it might be interesting to consider incorporating some the other variables that can change when you free yourself from the world we live in.

Childhood Memories

I’ve started rereading some of the books I loved as a child that are still part of my library.  I wasn’t too nice to books, so a few of them have passed into the next realm.  There is also one that I know was a favorite because I checked it out from the school library at least once a year; clearly I don’t own that one.  But I do have a couple that are still with me, and for fun I am reading them now.

I’ve noticed a couple of things about the two books I’ve read so far.  Both have strong female main characters who are intelligent and uncomfortable with the way society expects them to behave.  (Is anyone surprised?)  And both of them include a layer of magic and fantasy.

This second isn’t surprising, given that I am something of a fantasy junky, but the timing adds an interesting layer.  Magic was not a regular part of my childhood reading; fantasy was not a genre I was familiar with until high school.  Don’t get me wrong; magic was not completely foreign.  The usual fairy tales, with their godmothers and evil queens, were part of my growing up, and my mom encouraged me to read Tolkien as a pre-teen.  (That may have been primarily a ploy to get me to stop reading kiddie lit when I was in junior high, but it still counts.)  But books steeped in magic, with the usual cast of wizards, monsters, and vampires, were not high on the reading list.  So to me, looking back, books that include magic and are set in a fantasy world are surprising to find from my early reading days.

I’m guessing the fact that the magic was subtle and the primary subject of the books was a female battling against traditions is probably what got them on my shelf in the first place.  I’m glad they made it – even reading them as an adult, their quality holds and their stories draw me in.

Does Not Want Fantasy

I spent half an hour tonight on my preliminary search for agents to query.  I like the Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market because they put all of the important info in one place.

Due to that fact, there is a lot of material to read through.  Fortunately, most of the agencies are pretty specific about what they want to see cross their desks.  That’s where I start.

You’d be surprised at how many explicitly state that they are not interested in fantasy.  Even if they have a huge list of genres they’ll consider, sci-fi and fantasy are not options.  (There was even one that wants fantasy, but not “swords and dragons.”  As I am querying a book called Dragon Pendant, I’m fairly sure they don’t want mine.)

This makes my first pass really easy; I highlight all the agencies that are accepting unsolicited queries and represent fantasy.  It’s not a long list.

My next step is to narrow it down to a few that I’d be interested in at first.  If there is one that stands out, I will send an exclusive submission, but otherwise I like to send a couple at a time.  For those just starting out or not familiar, there are agencies that will not accept submissions unless they are exclusive.  I try to prioritize those; sometimes they get a query right away, and sometimes they get sent after I get a few rejections.

I already got out the highlighter for step one.  Step two requires index cards!

A Rush of Inspiration

Last night, as I was driving home from a friend’s party, I had a rapid influx of ideas for my next NaNo novel.

I already had the two main characters, how they meet, and a bit of each’s back story.  The big piece I was lacking was a plot.  I’d had several hints of ideas, but most of them were lame, overdone, or not fantasy.  (Having a fairy in the story does not automatically make it a fantasy, people!)

On the drive I found my plot!  It takes pieces from one of my idea-hints, but also incorporates new concepts that I hadn’t thought of prior to last night.  The really interesting thing is the setting – this is going to be fantasy in the real/modern world.  I know that it’s a well-established motif, but it will be new and different for me.  (Butterflies is set in its own world, and Dragon has gates between modern and fantasy, keeping most of the magic to the fantasy realm.)

I need to do a little bit of research and start making some notes so I’m ready to go when November rolls around, but I’m already getting excited!

Reading Recommendations

Tonight, for something different, I want to make a few book recommendations.  These are the books (and authors) that I suggest for people who are new to reading fantasy.  They are listed in no particular order, with a little bit of explanation of what I like about them.

Beauty by Robin McKinley and Black Swan by Mercedes Lackey.  Both of these are stand-alone novels by good authors, and both are based on fairy tales.  The styles are very different, but I find that tweaked fairy tales can make a great introduction into fantasy.

Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey.  While it is not the first in the chronology of the world, this is Mercedes Lackey’s first published Valdemar novel.  I recommend Mercedes Lackey as a great first fantasy author because her style is very approachable and she does epic fantasy in small bites, typically trilogies but occasionally stand-alones as well.

I may get some who disagree, but I find Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series to be a bit more approachable, at least for epic fantasy, than Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.  Both are great, but for newbies just starting to explore epic fantasy (which typically means a long series of linked books, most of which are large and some of which don’t have much of an ending) Goodkind’s are a bit less daunting.

Of course, the H.P. books by Rowling are also a great intro to fantasy, as are the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  (His Lord of the Rings trilogy is a classic, but not really a good place to start reading fantasy.)

Do you read fantasy, and do you have any suggestions for new readers that I missed?

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