Category Archives: Fantasy

Escaping market slavery

There are two schools of thought, residing at opposite ends of a spectrum, about how creative people approach the market with their works.  One side advocates writing (or filming, painting, programming) what makes you happiest, regardless of the market.  This often leads to quality work that may never find an audience.  The creator’s satisfaction coming solely from the work itself.

The other side advocates writing (or creating) what is popular, what people already like, or what the market already endorses.  This perspective may take advantage of an existing audience, but often the work is of inferior quality and doesn’t keep the audience engaged for long.  The creator may find an audience and get compensation , but the satisfaction may be either short-lived or hollow.

What then is a writer (or artist) to do?  Be true to one’s art and broke, or sell out and earn a few bucks?  Does it even matter?

Well let’s take an easy pot shot at Hollywood.  How many of us have observed that Hollywood seems to churn out more sequels than original movies?  How many of those original movies seem like movies we’ve seen before, just with different actors and settings?  How often have you left a movie with the same feeling you get when you’ve eaten too much theater popcorn:  a vague sense of dissatisfaction.

But then every so often a movie comes along that seems ahead of its time, is true to the vision of the director and writer and is a movie that you either watch again soon or talk about with everyone you know.

For me, Inception was that movie.  It was unlike any movie I’d ever seen and yet was so compelling, so watchable, so intricate, and so satisfying.  A satisfaction that still lingers.  A satisfaction that reminds me of a New York strip steak  from Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.  It was savory to consume and a pleasure to digest.  Just like the movie, Inception.

Movies like that and The Matrix, ten years ago, show that creative vision and execution can create a new market or tap into the existing market in a different way.  Let’s face it, a great movie grows through word of mouth, or buzz, much more than advertisements and TV commercials.

So, the lesson to be learned for creative people pursuing the art of their choice, is to understand the market well enough to mold your vision into a form that will satisfy both needs, self-actualization and a connection with an audience.

If you choose to write (or create) for your own interest, then it doesn’t matter at all what anyone else wants.  You will find joy in the creation and achievement or your artistic vision.  And you will likely get supportive comments from friends and family.  And that is a great way to go.

However, if you intend to sell your work in any form, then you will need to understand the audience enough so that your vision allows a connection of ideas.  This does not mean that you jump on the latest trend and become a copycat creator.  Those bandwagons are usually already full and by the time you complete and present your work, the trend may have passed and you will be left behind.

A better strategy is to look for gaps or lulls in the market and fill them with the best quality work you can produce.  Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight at a time when the teen vampire market was concentrated around Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television and Anne Rice had long since moved on to non-vampire writings.  There was a gap and she filled it with a compelling emotional story that became hugely popular in just a few short years.

There are many who claim that J.K. Rowling is a genius of audience analysis because her Harry Potter series is set predominantly against the backdrop of a school for wizards.  Her young audience is all in school, and so it is a setting they can relate to.  And older readers all remember their school days, so it brings back memories for them.  Add to that the wonder of a hidden world of magic and likable, three-dimensional characters and you have a recipe for success.

Now we all can’t strike proverbial market nirvana like Meyer or Rowling, but we can understand what has been produced over the past twenty years, attempt to forecast what the next ten years might look like and then seek to carve out our own market niche.

This means we avoid either extreme of the conventional schools of thought and blaze a new path, one that leads to a synthesis of our creative vision and the wants of our target audience.

For me, I pay attention to the fantasy genre.  I’ve read the classics and the not so classics.  I’ve read as many of the newer releases as I could and I’ve studied what makes them work.  By understanding what was come before, I can ensure I capture those universal elements in fantasy fiction that readers expect.  By tracking what is being released and is successful now, I can ascertain what new elements are attracting readers to the fantasy genre.  Also, I understand what I should avoid, so that my work does NOT appear too derivative or imitative.  Armed with this market knowledge, I am now writing my contribution to the field, hoping what I sow will give me something to reap in the near future.

While the adage “a writer writes” is true, that is not enough for a career in writing.  Perhaps I should revise that mantra to “a published writer writes to capture a share of the market”.

Does anyone out there have any success in escaping market slavery and becoming a master?

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“Time Soldier” – first published story

Photo courtesy of Suat Eman

Below is the entire version of my only published work to date (errors and all). It appeared in the Fall 1991 edition of “Philae,” a tiny literary journal based in Colorado. The story is short, about 1500 words or three single spaced pages.

Content explanation: This is an early attempt at contemporary fantasy/time travel. If the core story concept holds interest, I have considered expanding this into a novel at some point. So, your feedback on the story idea or concept is very welcome.

Time Soldier by Mark Taylor

The man in the olive drab army jacket awoke in a daze. He sat up and looked around suspiciously. He was in a small park near a line of rusted railroad tracks. A slight breeze barely moved his dusty, unkempt hair. He looked down at this chest and thoughtfully watched the flow of blood slow to a trickle. In an instant, his life’s liquid dried and the hole in his chest sealed itself up like punctured bread dough. What was left was an odd numb sensation.

He heard voices and saw some college kids tossing a frisbee and laughing. Didn’t they know?, he thought. Of course not. They never knew. They never even suspected.

He stood up slowly and wiped the dirt and leaves from his uniform with absent swipes of his calloused and grimy hands. His thoughts went back to where he was before he had passed out.

War. With M-16 rifle in hand and body in a foxhole, he waited. There was always waiting. He remembered the thunder of artillery fire and the hail of mortar shells all around him. He couldn’t recall who they were fighting, or whose side he was on. He just knew he was scared. A cold, mind-numbing terror.

“Hey, hey you, toss us the frisbee will you?” Somewhere outside his head, a voice called out. He ignored it. Now he heard his sergeant and saw his face as clearly as if holding a photograph. The sergeant with the scar that stretched from his left ear to the corner of his mouth stood in front of him. He was close enough to see perspiration running along the ridge of that hideous scar.

“We got no room for pussies in the army. You listening to me, private? I have a feeling you’re going to be a private for a hell of a long time.” How right he was. “Now get yer thumb out of yer mouth and fight like a man.”

The soldier closed his eyes and wept silently.

“Hey, army dude, are you deaf? Throw us the frisbee.” An insistent voice said, closer.

This is my last chance, he thought. The last war this world will ever face started in a few hours, and he had to fight in it. He had fought in every war since the American revolution. He was a coward and a deserter even then. But, they found him. They always found him. That was when he met Luke. Luke was to supervise his “rehabilitation,” and through some incomprehensible power, Luke cursed him to fight in every war until the last. This would be the last. The world would go up in nuclear ashes.

He had only a vague recollection of past wars. Mostly just images and sensations of déjà vu and neverending fear. He had no idea what happened to him between wars, but he hadn’t aged physically. He was still a lanky 21 year-old with ratty brown hair and the shadow of a beard on his sunken cheeks. He didn’t care to wonder why he always survived to fight again. He only knew that he would be free from the curse if he displayed some form of unselfish bravery.

He blinked and his eyes focused on a well-built kid wearing a blue fraternity sweatshirt with yellow letters picking up a white frisbee not five feet from where he stood.

“What’s your problem? Are you some kind of whacked out Vietnam vet?”

The soldier just stared past him into the creamy blue sky.

“Hey, I’m talking to you, punk.” The college boy took a step forward. The soldier flicked his eyes to the figure in front of him and spoke.

“What is the year?”

“What? Where have you been? It’s 1992. What year did you think it was?” He smiled absurdly.

“I don’t know.”

“Sheesh, man, you’re whacked out.” He turned to walk off.

“Are you prepared to die?” The soldier said with such melancholy and surety that the college boy turned around.

“What?”

“I said, ‘Are you ready for the last great war?'”

“Now you’re talkin’ crazy, man.” He said as he clenched his fists. A pretty girl in blue and gold sweats jogged up and eyed the stranger sympathetically.

“What’s going on, Todd?”

“This lunatic is mouthin’ about some war and everybody dying.”

The soldier looked down at his feet long enough to cause the others to fidget impatiently. When he looked up a tear welled up in his right eye. When it broke loose, it cascaded down his scruffy cheek, carved a trail in the dirt and disappeared in the stubble. He met the girl’s gaze. “It is true. You must prepare. We haven’t but a few hours before the whole world goes up in flames like the sun itself.”

“Are you okay?” She said sweetly. “You look hurt.”

The soldier felt something inside that made him forget for an instant his torment. He tried to smile, but it had been too long. Instead, he looked into the pretty girl’s eyes and was mesmerized by the life and light they possessed.

“You better keep those crazy ideas to yourself, army dude, or they’ll lock you up like a stray dog. Let’s go, Amanda.”

“But Todd, he’s hurt—” she started, but was cut off when the college boy grabbed her arm and led her away. He was laughing and mocking him just like people always did. Their clothes were slightly different and their dialects were varied, but their disbelief was always the same. They thought America too powerful to be harmed. Too late to warn them. That would be a waste of time. But the girl, Amanda, had a shine of hope and a love of life in her expressions. Too bad it would never be realized by her college boy.

He sighed deeply and painfully and trudged across the grass to the lavatories. He washed his face and hands and thought back to his first war.

The colonies had been victorious when Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown in the fall of 1781. Washington was praised and the colonists were ecstatic, but one young soldier wept bitterly as a man known only as Luke pronounced an inhuman curse upon his head. Luke held pity in his eyes, but his judgement was swift and the young soldier’s damnation complete.

“You’ll benefit far greater from quick reform than from drawn out lamentation, my friend.” He had said like a disappointed father. How utter his punishment had been. Dozens of wars later, he was still a ‘whiteliver’. His self-deprecation had become more and more pronounced until he had become a shell of a man. He was filled with an empty regret that had eaten up his mind like acid and left nothing but the base instinct of survival and desperation.

Luke would come soon, he thought as he left the washroom and looked out beyond the railroad. He watched intently as a form in the distance moved toward him. As it approached, he could make out the unmistakable features of an old man in a gray robe walking laboriously with a withered staff for support. The soldier waited until Luke came up to him.

“Greetings, young one, the time has come.”

“I know, Luke.”

“And are you ready to free yourself? I can hear the wailing of your imprisoned soul. It pains me deeply.”

“Not nearly as much as it pains me.”

“Yes, yes. You know the consequences of failure on this your last chance, do you not?”

“I do. I’ll be banished to the dawn of time and must repeat the cycle from the first war to this, the last.”

“There will be no relief from your suffering. You cannot die. This you know.”

“I understand. And if I succeed?”

“Hello, what have we here? You have never queried about that before. What stroke of fate have we witnessed?”

“What if I succeed, Luke?” The soldier was amazed at his own insistence.

“You may go back home, to the place and time where we first met.”

“May I take someone with me?” He felt his bitterness and despair fall away like dead leaves and in its place the buds of faith began to sprout.

“What happened to you, my young friend? You look as if you’ve been smitten by Cupid’s arrows.”

“I’m not sure about that. But for the first time in ages, I have forgotten about my self. And it felt edifying. Am I going mad?”

“No my friend, you are perfectly sane. There is truly hope for you yet.”

“May I take her if I overcome my cowardice?”

“I have a feeling that you may do just that.”

“Thank you, Luke. Now, if you’ll pardon me I have a girl to save and a bomb shelter to find.

The old man smiled broadly and watched the young soldier sprint across the park and out of sight. He will not only save someone else, but he will save his own soul.

He’ll be home in no time.

The End


How not to set the stage

 

Photo by prozac1 on freedigitalphotos.net

 

How many times have you picked up a promising book based on an appealing cover design and an evocative title only to be disappointed a few pages into the first chapter because you don’t feel properly oriented to the time and place of the story?  Or on the other extreme, the author spends the first several pages describing not only the immediate setting of the story, but its history as well?

What is it that bothers us in these stories?  Even if we don’t recognize the flaw as being the setting itself, what signs point to either a too heavy hand or a too light hand in revealing the setting?  As we all know, according to Wikipedia: “A setting is the time, place and social environment in which a story takes place.”  Without setting, the characters act out their parts on an empty stage, a blank canvas, with no context for their actions.

For writers and readers of epic fantasy fiction and other speculative genres, setting is especially important for a new and different world needs to be explained to the reader so the story will make sense.  Again, I ask how is this done?  Rather than give a list of all the things you should do in your writing, or all the things that you shouldn’t see when you read a well written story, I’m going to do the opposite.

If you read or write any of the following (in no particular order), you will have successfully discovered bad examples of setting.

  • Assume the reader has seen all the science fiction or fantasy movies and does not need the flora, fauna, architecture, or weather described.  Let the reader imagine EVERYTHING, because after all, aren’t speculative fiction fans the savviest readers?  Everyone knows what an alien or a dragon or a sword looks like.  Why waste precious story time on describing such common things?
  • Readers don’t have an imagination and need everything described to them in infinitesimal detail.  How could a reader possibly imagine the trees in the forest unless you describe them down to each leaf, blossom, twig, termite, and root.  Don’t forget the special way the wind blows through this tree and how it sways as if dancing to an inner tree music.  Remember to point out the way light catches on the silvery bark at sunrise and the seventeen distinct insects and animals that inhabit the tree in various ways.  The readers want to know all this.  A story about the trees and insects is more interesting than one about people and their struggles, right?
  • Why not make it easy on the reader and use phrases and descriptions that everyone already knows so the story can focus on the characters and plot.?  “Dark and stormy night”, “thick as pea soup”, “pretty as a picture”, “deep blue sea”, “smooth as glass”, and “quiet as a mouse” and dozens of others will do the trick nicely.  Why make it hard on everyone?  Use as many clichés as possible so that your setting is as clear as the blue sky.
  • Keep your thesaurus handy because the only words that truly describe the setting in the story are those obscure terms that no one uses or recognizes anymore.  Don’t they have just the perfect pitch of meaning for what is intended and doesn’t everyone want to learn new words while reading a story?  Doesn’t everyone like stopping in the middle of a scene to look up a word that make no sense to them?
  • Don’t bother with world-building, it is a waste of your precious writing time.  A time efficient writer, doesn’t lose hours in research.  Write the story and make up anything that you don’t know about castle drawbridges or the speed of horses or the winter weather patterns in a northern climate in mid-winter.  Readers and editors are forgiving.  No one will mind if the horse in your story can run eighty  miles an hour when real ones can only run in the forties.
  • Ensure that not a single fact of your two-year world-building binge is lost.  It is essential that the reader know every fact about everything you’ve researched or developed for your world.  And why not?  Your world is so unique that no one could possibly imagine the trees in the forest unless you describe them down to each leaf, blossom, twig and root AND make sure the exotic name you’ve concocted for oak tree, “egetræ”, becomes part of the reader’s vocabulary.  (For the record, “egetræ” actually means oak tree in Danish.)  You can’t possibly let a single bit of your research be lost, it must end up in the story to justify the time spent.

You’ll notice the bullets above are listed by pairs of opposite extremes.  If any of the above are happening in stories you are reading or are writing then you may be experiencing some examples of how not to write setting.

I’m personally guilty of the fourth bullet about using the thesaurus.  One reviewer in my writers group called me on this in the Prologue and Chapter One of my current novel in progress.  Needless to say, I’ve corrected the problem using more normal words.  Ironically, the meaning wasn’t lost.

Do you have any examples that stand out to you?


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.