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.

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?

Colorful Thoughts: Green!

This is part of a series.  We’ve reached the last (and best) color!  Missed the rest?  Here are the previous posts on purple, blue, yellowredorange, brown, black, and white!

Green is the hue that powers the planet.  It is the color of chlorophyll, the biomolecule that plants, algae, and bacteria use to convert sunlight into energy.  (Did you forget amidst all of the writing/reading-related stuff that this is a nerd’s blog?  Silly you.)  Because it is so incredibly important to every living thing on Earth, including us, chlorophyll (and by extension, green) is everywhere.

Don’t take green’s abundance to mean that it is insignificant in writing.  Rather the contrary.  Due to it’s almost universal presence, green has gained a plethora of meanings and connotations.  Even a “short” list gets long quickly.  Nature.  Science.  Snakes.  Money.  Envy.  Illness.  Ireland.  Aliens.

Wait, aliens? I have no idea why we’ve come to associate green (particularly neon green) with extraterrestrial beings, but we have.  Does the phrase “little green men” sound familiar?  But this is a fantasy writing discussion, not a science fiction one, so that will be the extent of our alien-related tangent.  Back to something more natural.

Let’s address the emotions and negative connotations first.  The relationship of green to envy and illness mostly comes up in sayings.  “You look a little green” implies illness, while “green-eyed monster” gives us a visual for jealousy.  The connotation of illness is likely because some people’s skin takes on a greenish tinge when they are not feeling well.   When it comes to the relationship between green and envy, we likely have Shakespeare to thank, at least for making it stand the test of time – like many of our modern sayings, his plays are some of the first written records of the use of the phrase “green-eyed monster.”

The relationship of green with nature is fairly obvious: any walk through a grassland or forest habitat will display a plethora of green in a multitude of shades.  Thus we have nature-related creatures, of both the real and magical persuasion, that are frequently depicted as green.  Most snakes (at least in the US) are not green, but if you ask a child to draw one, there’s a good chance it will be colored green.  Dragons are often green, although they can be any color, and nature fairies are often clothed in green.  Green can also be water-related, depending on the location of the story; water sprites often have something green (eyes, hair, skin) and swamp monsters are also frequently green.

Speaking of green eyes, I know that the question came up on the blue blog, so I did a little research about the green coloration.  (Thanks, Wikipedia!)  Unlike blue, which is structural, and brown, which is pigment, green is a combination of the two.  The color appears green because it is a blend of both a light layer of pigment (the same that, in larger amounts, makes eyes brown) and the structural effect that creates blue eyes.  This is probably why green, of all eye colors, seems to show so much variety in shades.  For my science/nerd readers out there, the genetic basis for green is very close to that of blue, and so it is seen in the same global range (northern Europe) as blue eyes.

On a personal note, green is my favorite color.  Although many people probably don’t remember choosing their fave shade, I have a very vivid memory.  I was asked, as a child, for my favorite color.  I thought about it and decided that it would be green.  My reason?  Nature is green, and so is my favorite category in Trivial Pursuit.  (Yes, we had a family version of Trivial Pursuit, and even then my category of choice was Science & Nature.)  Even though I have a lot of other colors in my life now, with a blue car, school colors of purple, maroon, and blue (different schools!), and a virtual rainbow of clothing in my closet, I have never seen or heard any good reason to give up on green as my favorite.  My original reasoning still stands, and is no less valid than when I came up with it as a child!

Colorful Thoughts: White!

This is part of a series.  Check out previous posts on purple, blue, yellowredorange, brown, and black! (I know I skipped green – it’s my favorite, so I’m saving it for last.)

White is the color of the week, and as with black, we are not going to address the argument about all colors vs. no color.  Instead, we’ll talk about white in writing, as usual.  🙂

White is often considered the color of purity, most likely because it is easy to get it dirty.   From purity it gets the connotations of innocence and goodness.  We often see white on angels, “good guys,” and endearing small children.  It can also be an austere color, filling a similar role to black.  Even in modern times, there are sects of nuns who wear white instead of black.

In Western culture, white is also the typical color of wedding dresses (and the associated connotations of purity), but I have a word of caution.  In a fantasy novel, be very careful about putting a bride in white.  Eastern cultures associate white with funerals and mourning, not celebration, so a traditional Asian bride would never wear white.  (Red is their traditional wedding color.)  White as a wedding color is also a modern tradition, not an old one.  Queen Victoria got married in white in 1840; until then European brides wore whatever color they liked, and even after the queen wore white it took a while for the tradition to really take hold.

Besides its role as a color of innocence and purity, white also functions to denote age and wisdom.  This is probably related to the whitening of hair as many people age.  In an age when the typical person rarely lived past 50, a person who was smart enough, wealthy enough, or lucky enough to survive to old age (and white hair) was given great respect.  Because of this, white has become synonymous with sagacity and wisdom.

We see both of these meanings used for magic users as well.  Mages in white are either pure in intent or have reached a high level of wisdom, or even both.  Magic creatures that are white tend to have similar roles, like unicorns (pure or wise or both) or dragons (wise or pure in intent).

There is another use of white, which is related to winter or snow.  People who live in a snowbound climate wear a lot of white, animals that live in the snow are white, magical creatures or beings that are affiliated with snow or ice are white or have white features (like eyes or hair).

And, like the rest of our colors, you can use white in the opposite way (for example, someone evil who wears only white) just to make things interesting.  You are the author, and it is your world.

Colorful Thoughts: Black!

This is part of a series.  Check out previous posts on purple, blue, yellowredorange, and brown! (I know I skipped green – it’s my favorite, so I’m saving it for last.)

Black, like red, can be different things to different people.  (We’re not even getting in to the “absence of color” vs. “all colors” argument.)  Let’s talk about it first in the context of clothing.

Black can be austere, especially when worn unbroken by other colors.  It is a favorite color of priests, puritans, and widows.  In this form, black is a symbol of sacrifice and loss.  Priests and puritans made sacrifices to separate themselves from the world, and their clothing demonstrates it by the color.  Widows have lost a loved one, and (at least in Western culture) black signifies mourning, a time to focus on that loss.

Black is also mysterious. It reminds people of night, when it’s harder for us to see and things that are unfamiliar happen.  Ninjas and thieves wear black as camouflage for their nocturnal activities.  This is also where black gets its sexy flavor.  A woman in a black dress and veil could be in mourning; she could also be a mysterious (and by extension, sexy) stranger.

Because of its relationship with sacrifice, death, and darkness, things that most people fear, black has also become synonymous with sinister.  (Disney hasn’t helped this.  Some of their scariest villains are associated with black: Ursula the sea witch, Jafar, and Maleficent all dressed in black, albeit with differing accent colors.)  Many children’s villains are black; it makes it easier for them to identify “the bad guy.”  Westerns, too, like to make use of black clothing to signify to the audience who is the antagonist.

In magic black is often associated with something dark and sinister, sometimes related to death, which is where we get the phrase “black magic.”  Magic users in black don’t have to be evil, though.  Groups of wizards can use black the same way that priests do, to symbolize sacrifice and identify themselves as separate from the world.

When it comes to individual coloration, black can be used many ways.  Dark skin is often given to exotic characters in fantasy, probably because it wasn’t commonly seen in medieval Europe.  Dark hair or eyes, especially paired with fair skin, can give a mysterious/sexy quality or a sinister feel, depending on how it is used.

As an author, you can either use people’s typical perceptions of the color black in a way they will anticipate or against expectation.  In Dragon Pendant, the black dragons are smart, unwilling to conform, and the only one we meet is pretty much evil.  In the movie How to Train Your Dragon, the main dragon is black.  He’s scary at first, but his character changes as we learn more about him.  Dress a character all in black to make her mysterious or even scary, and you can either carry her on in this fashion or reveal her as a sweetheart who really just likes the color black.  As always, you are the author, it is your call.  🙂

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