The Art of World-Building

When the hobbit walked through Mirkwood, we all walked with him. We knew exactly how the trees looked, how the wind moved their branches, what the ground felt like as one fur-soled foot pressed down. We could smell the rotting leaves and…We were there as the master welcomed us into Middle Earth, his world. We were his honored guests and when we returned to this world, we felt a sense of loss.

No one, in my humble and uneducated opinion, has ever created a world in the rich way of J.R.R. Tolkien, and perhaps no one ever will. There are some among our younger readers who skip or skim the long descriptions. Do I need to know what every tree in the forest looks like?

And yet these same young people marveled over the world of Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. I am closing in on finishing the third of the Wycaan Master novels and will then begin another edit of the first book before passing it on to more professional hands.

One of the aspects that I want to focus on is how well have I described the land in which the story transpires. There is a lot of traveling and many different climates and natural wonders, as well as villages and cities, which are described. When I wrote the first book, it was in close collaboration with my then 11-year-old son. I was very conscious of maintaining a fast pace. The second and third books were more my own work, with my son reading and giving me feedback. I believe these two novels involved considerably more world-building.

Why do we need to show such detail in epic fantasy? It seems obvious for the Sci-fi writers to put so much emphasis on creating worlds and I understand why those who write in modern earth need not focus so much because we can see the world we live in. 

Do you enjoy the detail of a new world or are you content to receive hints and imagine it for yourself? How important is world-building to you becoming a loyal reader of a fantasy series? Finally, if you write fantasy yourself, do you have any best practices or tips? Do share in the comments below.

Appreciate your feedback. Have a great weekend and a happy 4th.

Alon 

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

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Character .v. Plot: The Dragon or The Dragon-Killer?

I am about to write the 75,000th word of the third novel in the Wycaan Master series. I have probably written over a quarter of a million words and I am not sure where the story is taking me, but it feels that I might yet walk in the path of Christopher Paolini and write a four book trilogy – if I do, I will have to man up and eat the words with which I taunted him for doing this.

But it is not about words. Anyone can put a lot of words on paper (or in a series of word documents). The art is keeping the readers as engaged at word 250,000 as they were at 5,000 and 95,000 (the beginning and end of the first book).

There is a lot of material on the net about plot .v. character. The tide seems to change every few years. A book must be plot-driven. A story must have rich characters. It is what might happen next that keeps us page turning after midnight. It is the characters who continue with us after we finish a book.

Of course, it is both. If the plot is not strong, we lose interest. If we cannot root for the characters, we disengage.

In the eight books I have written, the best ones seem to control their own plot. They steer themselves through me and onto the screen. I trust in the system and let them do this. Those that I felt a need to force a plot seem in retrospect…well somewhat forced.

It is the characters that seem to drive me on. I really do care about them and I can see myself hanging around to see how they develop. This week, I reintroduced a character (in book 3) who disappeared in the previous book. I don’t really need her, but I miss her. I’m not sure why, but it is more than the need for strong female characters.

In the survey that many of you filled out for me (Defining My Target Audience), characters figured highly. I wonder whether this is specific to our genre but I don’t think it is.

Humans crave relationships, even those who wile away the dark hours opposite a computer screen and make up stories. In fact, we writers thrive on the relationships we cultivate with our characters.

This is not a question of plot .v. character, but a question of emphasis. I will continue to develop my characters to keep them growing and loyal to their audience. If they slay a few figurative dragons along the way, then all the better.

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A huge thank you to those who filled out the survey. I have learned so much from it. I didn’t realize how much work it would be to correlate the results but I am aware that I owe you the answers.

I will get to this, but I need to carve out the time. Tomorrow, my son, who together gave birth to the first book of the Wycaan series, will be bar mitzvahed. This is a huge rite-of-passage, coming-of-age quest in its own epic proportions. It has, however, drawn time from my writing. I will continue to seek more answers to the survey and hopefully publicize the results later in the summer. I haven’t forgotten. And thank you, once again, for filling out the survey.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Ray Bradbury R.I.P

On Wednesday the book world received news of the passing of a master. Ray Bradburyauthor of The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and many more literary classics — died  in Los Angeles, at the age of 91.

I had the honor to meet Ray at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference where, despite age and health challenges, he continued to be an inspirational guest speaker. From the podium he urged us to write because we loved to, to let nothing but our imagination limit us and to dream big.

Here is Ray in a 2-minute clip from then.

In the introduction to The Illustrated Man,  entitled “Dancing, So As Not to Be Dead,”  there is a poignant line about death.

“My tunes and numbers are here. They have filled my years, the years when I refused to die. And in order to do that I wrote, I wrote, I wrote, at noon or 3:00 A.M. So as not to be dead.”

I’m sure they have a keyboard and screen waiting for you in heaven, Ray. Keep on writing … here on earth, your work will never die.

Ray Bradbury R.I.P 2012

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Fantasy – A Pagan Conspiracy?

First a big Thank You to the 30+ people who filled out my survey – Who Are My Target Audience – I am going to keep tweeting it and hopefully reach my goal of 50 responses (it makes it easy for my mathematically-challenged brain to do percentages).  If you have not had the time, please consider three minutes to answer ten questions by clicking here.

The first time I read that someone was uncomfortable with her children reading YA fantasy because of the Pagan themes running through it, I dismissed the reader as a maverick who is worried she won’t succeed in passing on her religious lifestyle to her children. But I have now seen this a couple of times.

I am sensitive to this. My first published novel, A Gardener’s Tale, follows the yearly cycle of the Pagan religion as it was (and still it) celebrated in rural Britain, and shines light on the struggle of Christianity to crush it.  While the novel was received enthusiastically in the Pagan community (their leader Vivienne Crowley called it “A beautiful and elegiac evocation of a timeless Britain and of a man of the ancient ways of the earth who brings peace and healing where the flames of persecution once burned.”), I incurred the wrath of many religious Jews and Christians.

The Pagan religion is based upon the agrarian cycle and the farmer’s connections to the earth. Being mysterious, the emergence of an earth-based religion, where there was power and magic in the earth and those who stewarded her (yes – her, another topic) were worshiped and studied.

A common theme in many books, mine included, is the source of magic comes from the earth, from nature, through animals and the elements. The Druids, so often mentioned, were a genuine religious order. The witches, millions of whom were burned at the stake as Christianity raised a frenzy of anti-women, anti-anything, were often healers who used herbs and minerals that were gifts from the earth. Even the Jedi Order harnessed an energy, the Force, from everything living around them.

Other common elements include the quest, the holy (magical) props, the connection with and reverence of nature. Most of all, however, is the power of story. All religions and spiritual practices maintain a powerful element of stories, legends, parables, a narrative history (the best selling book of all time, anyone?).

I am skeptical that there is an international conspiracy to revive the Pagan religion through instilling scintillating epic fantasy novels insidiously into the minds of our unsuspecting youth (now you are convinced that I am the High Priest – isn’t this how conspiracy theory works?).

However, it is not a huge leap of faith to think that those who put quill to parchment (there is probably an app for this) and write such stories do have aspirations of teaching certain noble morals and principles. I recently wrote in an interview:

“Working on the novel with my (now 12-year-old) son and seeing the potential to share my values and political beliefs while imbibing a profound love for storytelling and reading. I have seen the impact of the Harry Potter series and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series on my son and his friends. I want to help shape the landscape of the next generation’s imagination and maybe even the society they strive to create.”

Now if that is not a declaration to take over the world

Finally, one more plug – if you have a few minutes please fill out my survey – Who Are My Target Audience – and Thank You again to those who already have.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).