Tag Archives: epic fantasy

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Focusing on The Order of Altare first draft.  Making progress and hope to post again soon.   Thanks!

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The Great Magic Debate

I had a conversation with a writer friend recently (by conversation you should understand that to mean I.M. chat) about magic as used in fantasy fiction.  He noted that the wonder and awe of magic in a story was what appealed to him.  He also mentioned that for him as a reader, if the magic was too well-defined, into a system of sorts, then it became more of a technology than a mysterious force.

We discussed how this point of view was reflected in Tolkien’s works, particularly in Lord of the Rings, where magic is used infrequently, is so rare that only a few possess the power to perform magic, and the source of power and how to use it is never really explained.

I agreed that that approach in a story is very powerful and keeps magic at a distance so it feels like a big unexplained and awesome force.  For many readers this is what they want and expect of magic in a story, and a story written in this manner can be successful on multiple levels.  If Tolkien’s works are an example of this, and many consider him to the grandfather of the epic fantasy genre, then this model is a good one.

However, there are caveats to storytelling with magic as a rare, mystical force.  This is where the author must balance the power of magic within the story with the influence arcane powers can have on the plot.  Best selling author, Brandon Sanderson, devised what he calls Sanderson’s First Law–you can read his article here, where he discusses the limits of how magic can influence the plot based upon how well said magic is defined for the reader.  The text of the law is below.

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.  (*”satisfactorily” added later by Sanderson).

So, Sanderson is arguing that the reader derives story satisfaction in fantasy fiction by the relationship between magic and solutions to conflict or problems for the characters.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf possesses great magic and it isn’t really explained how he got it, how he uses it, and what is the scope of his powers, but it doesn’t bother us because he uses magic so infrequently and his influence on the story is minor or indirect in most cases that it never feels like we need to know more about the magic.  Gandalf is ancient, wise, magical and it seems that he always has always been.  He is a true wizard.  We don’t need to know if the source of his power is the earth, the sky, the moon, a mutation, part-Elven blood, a talisman he wears, or formal words of power he has learned.  We accept that he is a wizard and his actions provide us with wonder and awe at what he can accomplish in certain situations.  But he can’t save the world alone with his magic, he can’t destroy the One Ring, and he can’t defeat Sauron alone.  So, although we love when he can use magic and its effects are powerful, he solves many more problems with his leadership, his blade, his wits, or his allies.

Would Lord of the Rings be more satisfying if we knew how Gandalf’s magic worked, how Sauron’s magic worked, how the Elves’ innate magic worked, or what power enlivened the Ents?  I think for that great story, it would take away the wonder of Middle Earth.  It is a magical realm and thus many places, races, and people are touched by magic.  That’s all we need to know to be satisfied by the story.

This is what I think my writer friend meant in our discussion.

On the other hand, my writing and reading preferences lean towards the other end of the spectrum noted in Sanderson’s First Law.  Like Sanderson, I like a well-developed magic system that the reader learns along with the characters.  I like that a particular setting can possess great magic and much of it can seem powerful, wonderful, and awe-inspiring when it isn’t known, but can also be seen as highly useful, practical, and influential when understood and the magical power is harnessed by those characters who acquire or discover their own innate arcane capabilities.

With a defined magic system, the author can then use magic more often and in more various plot circumstances to solve problems or have characters overcome conflict because the reader will possess enough understanding to know how the magic should work, what its effects are, and most importantly what the limits of magic are.

Magic then becomes a sophisticated tool, weapon, cure, power, or method that operates within known boundaries that operate like real world laws of physics do for us.  In this perspective, magic is indeed science that we don’t yet understand.  Those that can learn it, can use it in a defined manner.  The usefulness of the magic isn’t in the innate power of the magic itself, but in the judicious, clever, or appropriate application of its power by the characters.  So, magic can’t solve problems, but the characters can use magic in a way that can solve problems.

Sanderson’s own Mistborn world has such a defined magic system.  Allomancy as one of his magic systems is called, is the ability of a character to ingest metal flakes or powder suspended in liquid, and then harness that “source” to achieve a desired effect.  Ingesting steel powder, for example, allows the allomancer to “push” with force against sources of steel in the world around him.  If the object has less mass than the allomancer, the object moves away from him in a telekinetic manner, like a thrown ball or knife.  If the steel object is fixed or weighs more than the allomancer, his body is propelled or pushed away in the opposite direction.  A competent allomancer can use this to push down on a steel beam and propel himself into the air in huge leaps that can be timed to resemble flying if there is a constant source of steel on the ground below him to push upward on.

As an element of magic, this steel pushing power has defined attributes, logic, and limits.  It behaves within the known laws of gravity and forces of wind, rain and other elements.  It is a power we do not have in the real world, but if we did, theoretically we could learn how to use it ourselves.

That last phrase, ‘theoretically we could learn how to use it ourselves’ is what appeals to me as reader and writer.  I like the wonder and awe of magic, but even more, I love the idea that if I had the innate power, I could actually learn to use these magics because as a reader, I’ve learned to understand how the magic works, and I can connect with the characters even more so because I want to be those characters for the duration of the story.  I want to use the magic they have.  I want to be the hero who has wits, weapons, and magic to face down evil and save the good people of the world from destruction or enslavement.  I become the viewpoint characters and use magic with them, because I know how to use the magic the way they do and am thus more fully vested in the outcome of the story.

That is what resonates for me as a reader and because of that, I write in the same manner.  I have developed a complex magic system that has rules, economics, defined attributes, a specific source, varying levels of power, and both known and unknown qualities that can be learned, studied, and pursued.  This magic systems interests me and hopefully, when applied to my epic fantasy series, will interest my readers.

Magic in fiction seems to be applied in a spectrum or scale of wonder on one end and system on the other.  Most writers of fantasy fiction fall somewhere on that spectrum.

Where do you fall?

Do you agree or disagree with Sanderson’s First Law?

What style of magic to you prefer to read?  To Write?  A defined system or an arcane power?  Both?

Please share your thoughts as either a reader or writer and let’s continue the Great Magic Debate.

–Mark


Digital Publishing?

Or what are you waiting for?

Consider this:

What are the odds of the average aspiring writer to first land an agent, then have that agent land a publishing deal, and then have that publisher produce a hardback copy of the new author’s book?  That is the dream that originally drove most of us still unpublished novelists.  How much time does this take once your manuscript is finished?  Up to a year to find an agent, another possible year to find a publisher, and at least another year to get an accepted manuscript printed and in stores.

Where will these books be sold besides in online mega-stores like Amazon or B&N?  Borders is gone.  Barnes and Noble brick and mortar stores are struggling.  Are there any independents going to be around?  Increasingly bestsellers are being sold at big box stores like WalMart and Costco.  New authors, mid-listers and genre writers need not apply.  I’ve read enough about diminishing advances, publishers’ insistence on owning and controlling all rights, including e-rights, forever, and other practices to worry me.

I originally had the dream of seeing my books in bookstores.  Some part of me aspires to that still.  But, what that dream really means is that I want readers for my stories.  If I can put my stories into the hands of the readers via a convenient and timely mechanism, whatever you want to call it, then why wouldn’t I take the opportunity while the barriers to entry are still low?  What is that old adage, “Fortune favors the bold?”

Yes, the whole industry is in flux and questions remain, but such transitions also create opportunities for those willing to take advantage.  If we wait too long until things “settle” then many windows may close, some permanently.

I can’t predict the future, but I can predict that I’d rather start selling my novel the day it’s finished and develop a readership than finish my novel and wait up to three years for publication IF my book is deemed worthy of print by the gatekeepers at the big publishing houses.

What of the risk?  Won’t self-publishing taint my reputation and cause traditional publishers to avoid me like a pariah?

What is the real risk for aspiring/unknown/unpublished authors?

We don’t have contracts that a slighted publisher can cancel.  We don’t have agents who try to keep us traditional so they can get their 15% commission.  We don’t have a reputation to harm by writing and publishing an unsuccessful book.  If it doesn’t sell, is our career doomed?

Really?

Of course not.

A book that doesn’t sell is just a book that doesn’t sell.  Write a better next book and sell more.  Write an even better third book and sell even more.  Sell enough and more opportunities present.  If that concern is too high, use a pen name.  Many famous and successful authors have used pseudonyms.

I don’t presume to advise anyone on the correct path.  I haven’t gone far down either path to have much experience to share.  But, I like the options, I like the potential, and I’ve waited too long in my own burgeoning career to keep waiting for either the industry to shake out or for the snail’s pace of the traditional process.

Who cares the most about my future writing career?  An agent?  An editor?  The board of directors at a big publishing house?  Or me?

Easy answer.

What about Amazon?  Aren’t they the big bad wolf?

I don’t care about Amazon.  I’m not pro-Amazon or anti-publishers.  Amazon digital publishing does currently offer the widest possible customer/potential reader base and that potential is tough to ignore.  And ultimately, any successful business needs customers.  Whether we like it or not, a writer is a business owner and the products are the written word.

I’ve had some recent conversations with those who have concerns about digital publishing and in many ways those comment threads felt like a few writers sitting in a coffee shop trying to convince each other of the best path to publication.  There are many valid points on both sides, some more emotional and less founded in evidence or fact than others.  I think we actually agree on more points than we disagree.  That is the beauty of such conversations.  All points can be explored and considered and every side of a topic can be covered.

Ultimately, the paths are many and each writer’s journey will be story until itself.  We must each decide our course based on the winds, weather, seaworthiness of our vessel and the capabilities of our captain and crew.  We must navigate towards the goal we have in mind.

Remember, though, when comparing traditional publishing to self/indie publishing,  we can’t really compared traditional publishers directly to Amazon digital publishing because Amazon isn’t really a publisher for digital indie published works, they are a distributor.

The author is actually the publisher and that is a different business model.  Author as publisher requires new and different skills and demands on the author’s time and that path is not for everyone.  Although many famous and historical authors self-published (as was not uncommon in the 19th and early 20th century), the latter 20th century publishing culture turned self-publishing into a negative connotation dubbing the process “vanity” publishing.  That culture has changed and the technology is now available for an author to write and publish an eBook for literally no cash investment, if he/she can do all the publishing tasks themselves.  This again a valid and increasingly respected path for writers.  Not a better path, another path.

What about the quality of work?  Don’t writer’s need an editor to maximize their stories?

The quality of work published varies with both traditional publishing and indie publishing.  The overall level of quality is arguably better with traditional publishing due to over a century of professionals investing their careers into the industry.  But even that doesn’t guarantee quality.

How would you as author feel if your big break into traditional publishing came with assignment of either a neophyte editor or musical chairs of editors, each less invested in your story than the previous?  I don’t have data to support, just enough anecdotal evidence to validate that it does happen.  This partially invested editor navigates the publishing process poorly and your book gets a rushed copy edit, a cover you hate, a title change you don’t agree with and publication with little or now marketing push.  Your book is published, it’s on a few bookshelves?  But now what?  How do you sell enough to earn out your tiny advance?  Especially in genre fiction?  This isn’t the only possibility, many authors have great experiences, but getting through the gatekeepers as new/unknown author doesn’t get you the attention of the publisher’s A team, either.

But aren’t self-published eBooks mostly garbage?

With the low barriers to entry with digital publishing, dreck will be published by authors who are not ready and haven’t honed their craft enough.  To me, poor sales and poor reviews are in some ways more timely and more useful feedback for a prematurely published author than several months worth of form rejection letters from agents or editors.  With digital, you can take the book down, rewrite it, re-title it, recover it and repost it.  With little or no cost.  If you hate the title or cover of your traditionally published book, good luck getting it changed.

As David Gaughran espouses in his “Let’s Get Digital” eBook, even self-published authors should hire a professional editor to raise the story quality publishable levels.

In fact, anyone even remotely considering self-publishing eBooks via Amazon or other outlets would be wise to read Gaughran’s entire book on the subject.  I’ve read it twice and it paints a crystal clear picture of both why and how to publish digitally.

My goal is not to debate with those who really want to follow the traditional publishing route, but to counter what I perceive as a wariness and caution by many writers and bloggers of the digital publication process and the current players.  I went through that cycle of doubt awhile back and can no longer remember the exact moment I decided to go digital.

Actually I do.

Almost a year ago, a member of my writer’s group came back from a conference and reported to us that editors and agents were communicating to new authors that fantasy manuscripts over 125K words were no longer being considered.  I confirmed this with an email to the editor of Pyr books.  I was at 90K words and only halfway through an epic fantasy novel meant for a trilogy.  The estimated total would be 180K plus.  I spent ten months on this manuscript and was now being told the market wouldn’t accept it, regardless of the quality.  (For a great analysis of word count for epic fantasy, see this post on The Undiscovered Author.)

So, I put my novel on hold and went back to the drawing board, drafted a prequel that would be a shorter, more compact introduction to the trilogy (in the same way The Hobbit is a shorter, more linear, simpler story that introduces Middle Earth and key players).

To my shock and surprise, after using the Snowflake Method as advised by Randy Ingermanson, my scene list and outline estimated my supposedly shorter prequel to be 175K words to tell the story right.

It was then back in February of this year, I think , that I decided the books could be as long as I wanted if I published digitally.  So, having made the decision, I started researching how to do that successfully.

What does that all mean?

Consider my thoughts a presentation of the concerns and fears some aspiring writers have about the current traditional publishing model and the great opportunity I see for creating, as an author, my own a publishing company and distributing my works via available channels, Amazon, B&N PubIt, Smashwords, Overdrive, and possibly LightningSource for printed copies of my books.

I like the future, as uncertain as it may be.  I will have more wisdom and insight once I’ve actually gone through the process, but for now, I’m willing to try.  I feel the risk is worth the attempt right now.  That may change if the whole thing shakes up again, but for now, this new model seems to be an open window.

A window I’m willing to not only look through, but climb through.

Are you?


How to Escape Unpublication

…or how I am going to do it.

The first step in escaping unpublication is outlined in the progress update below:

I may have mentioned previously that the working title of my writing group’s anthology is Offerings.  Here’s a brief progress update on this project.

Five stories were submitted for review by the group on August 1 with first draft critiques due on August 17.  Based on those critiques, each writer will make revisions/edits with the goal of completing and submitting a 2nd draft by September 5.

As you can see from the progress bar to the right, my own story “The Last Portal” has almost 90% of the 2nd draft to go this weekend.

Is it obvious what I’ll be doing until the end of Labor Day?

So, a little more about this project and my story to pique some interest.

Offerings will be published electronically in e-book format and will be available on Kindle, Nook, iPad, and any other eReader device on a date in the near future.  I’ll give a more specific date when we get the details settled.

The anthology will contain six stories which are more accurately called novelettes, since each will run at least 10,000 words or approximately 25-30 pages long.  Therefore the finished collection will contain close to 200 pages of stories.

The stories will be of the fantasy genre, with a few being epic fantasy, and at least one being contemporary or urban fantasy.  Each story builds on the common theme of sacrifice and/or the price of freedom.

My own story, “The Last Portal” is an epic fantasy story about sacrifice that currently runs about 15000 words.  I have mentioned before this story is set in the distant past of the same world in which I am writing a fantasy series.  I hope this story can serve as a way to enrich the story world of Laurentia and provide a mythology or history for the characters in the future.

So what is my story about?

A disgraced member of the divine Jadra race is called upon to discover what threatens the Portal that protects their underground civilization from the evil and corruption on the surface.  However,  nothing is as it seems and the threat is far worse than he could have imagined.

Once my story has been fully edited and finalized over the next several weeks, I will post excerpts here for all to preview.

So far, this has been an exciting venture and I look forward to the next steps as we all compete final drafts of our stories and prepare the collection for e-book publication.

Since we are publishing this anthology ourselves, we are handling the editing, formatting, book cover, submission, and accounting ourselves.  It will be interesting how the details unfold and I’ll provide updates on each significant step so you can see the process in action.

With the changing landscape in publishing and the access authors have to directly provide stories to readers, the path ahead seems ready for travel.  Writers no longer need to wait for some distant agent or editor to endorse or accept their work.  If you write at or near a professional level, you can escape unpublication on your own.  You can put your stories directly in the hands of readers who are eager for new stories and discovering new authors.

For far more expert advice than I can provide.  Read the “Think Like a Publisher” blog series on Dean Wesley Smith‘s blog.  He is a publisher, editor, author, and teacher who has written and published over a hundred fictional works.  His advice is golden.

Soon, I’ll be posting about my experiences setting up my own publishing company.

Is anyone else involved in the publication process?  How is it going?  What have you learned?


Secrets of the Writer’s Journey (repost)

A full year has passed since I launched this blog in August of 2010.  Looking back, I learned quite a bit about the nature of the writer’s journey.  By writing about it and hearing from others on similar paths, or from those who offer support along the way, I’ve come to appreciate that no undertaking is ever completed alone.  As such, I will share some of what I’ve learned.

I’ve reflected on the pilgrimage over the last twelve months and have discovered the following:

  • The publishing landscape has shifted with the advent of self-publishing eBooks via Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt, or Smashwords.  Many new breakout authors are coming from the ranks of the indie published, and many big names are putting out new work themselves via e-publishing.  This change alone has altered my intended path to publication.  I have decided to forgo traditional paper publishing in the near term and will focus my efforts on what many call indie publishing.  I am in the process of forming a small publishing company and will be publishing my own work electronically.  More details about that next month.
  • My writing goals have expanded.  When I started discussing my own journey and what I knew or thought I knew my only work in progress was Book One of an epic fantasy series. Since then, I’ve put that book on hold to write a new Book One (it takes place ten years earlier).  I’ve also written two novelettes (stories around 10,000 words in length) for near term e-publishing.  One via an anthology with my writer’s group, Quindecim, and the other as a standalone story that serves as a prologue to a contemporary/historical fantasy I’m outlining for release next year.  So rather than just one epic fantasy project, I have five distinct works in progress.  The key will be to finish them all and get them in publishable condition.  I’ll post more about those experiences as they occur.
  • Feedback is critical to improvement.  “A writer writes” is my mantra and favorite slogan, but perhaps I should expand that to be: “A professional writer writes well”.  What is “well”?  Writing well, means having a professional level of story craft.  This comes from practice, practice, practice.  And it comes from feedback from your first reader and beta readers.  We writers are not the best judge of our own work.  We all need a few trusted readers to read our stories or novel chapters and tell us what works and what doesn’t from a story perspective.  Does the opening hook the reader?  Does the ending satisfy?  Do the characters resonate?  Is the pace right?  Are there confusing descriptions?  Is the setting clear and grounded?  Many, if not all, of these questions can be answered for the writer by trusted readers.  If you don’t have some, get some. Friends, colleagues, family, may all be willing to help.  It is also preferable to have at least one writer provide feedback, to add an even more critical review of the story.  Join a writer’s group and get feedback from peers.  The feedback is invaluable.

Even though I haven’t yet completed one of my longer works, I am pleased with my progress so far and can still see the pilgrim’s road quite clearly ahead.  Looking back, we’ve had some good discussions about these Arcane Roads.  For newer visitors, I’m listing below a few of the most popular posts over the past year.  These generated the most interest and/or comments.

The writer’s journey, or the pilgrimage to publication as I’ve dubbed it, is an endless road of discovery.

For the writers out there, what has your journey been like the past year?  For you readers out there, what roads are you traveling?


Reaching the summit

With a couple of days to spare, I’ve dragged myself up the steep trail and have planted myself firmly on the summit.  The elusive first draft of my novella, “The Last Portal,” is complete.

Whew!

My wife/muse/first reader gave me the thumbs up, so I submitted the story to my anthology group this past Tuesday for editing.  Thus begins at least two rounds of scrutiny and polishing to elevate the story to its peak altitude (mountain metaphors intentional).

So, what was my process for writing a 16,000+ word story?

Since this story is set in the fantasy world I created for my novel series, the world-building had already been done.  I decided on characters and a single significant event that would be considered a legend or myth by the protagonists in the novels (which occur chronologically some 5000 years later).  The same way we look back thousands of years for our history, mythology, legends, and origin stories.

So, I came up with characters who would do something so significant they would be remembered as legends or myths in the story world.  My goal was twofold: produce a new original story for my group anthology and deepen the story world of my upcoming epic fantasy novel series.

To complete this story, I wrote between two and three hours per day for three solid weeks.  I estimate the first draft of this story took me at least 32 hours.  That seems long, but at 16000 words, that averages 500 words per hour.   I am not a blazing fast writer, since I often stop writing to think through the scene or the characters actions and how the plot should progress.  I had written an outline and short synopsis for this story, so it wasn’t discovery writing.  Even with a story plan, I spent big chunks of writing time thinking through a plot point or deviating from the outline for a better story path.

The result is under review by my writing group.  I’ll update soon once I get some feedback.

The process of collaborating on an anthology project has inspired me to expand my focus on short fiction.  I have rekindled my enthusiasm for short fiction, finding the process creatively satisfying.  Thus, I will soon have another new project to discuss as I prepare another novella for publication.  More details to follow.  Yes, another teaser.  This project is even more exciting to me because it is a novella that introduces a potential stand alone novel in the historical/modern fantasy genre.

What do you do to reach the proverbial summit in your writing?  How do you stay with a story until the end?


Major announcement update!

I recently posted a teaser about a new side project that I began recently.  It is time for more details.

I have been invited to submit a short story to an anthology co-created by members of my writing group.  There should be six stories each at 10,000+ words in length.  So, not really short stories, more like long stories/novellas.  The genre for the anthology is fantasy (including urban, paranormal, historical, epic, etc).  I will post more information about the title and contents as they become finalized.

We are all working furiously on this new project which we will publish as an e-book via Kindle, Nook, and other avenues sometime this fall.  You can track my own draft progress on the sidebar under the Project Q: First Draft progress bar.  Q stands for Quindecim, the name of our writer’s group.  For those of your not conversant in Latin, Quindecim means “Fifteen”.  Again, more details to follow as the plan unfolds and deadlines are hit.

I am very excited about this project as it will allow me an introduction to both project collaboration and self-publishing online.  My story is a legend set in the world of my epic fantasy series and is complementary to the two novels I am in the process of writing, The Lost Tower and The Codex of Shrines.

Check back soon for more updates.  Our first deadline in July 31 and I will have a post about the story writing process around that time.

 

–Mark

 


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.