Dragons But Not Unicorns?

So there I was minding my own business, having merrily written 40,0000 words of a Magical Realism (“low fantasy –a sub-genre of fantasy fiction involving “nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.” – Brian Stableford – The A to Z of Fantasy Literature – I had to look it up a while ago).

I was quite happy imagining a Game of Thrones type book (I know, very different from the Wycaan Master series) and then one of my characters has to make an innocent quip: “Dragons don’t exist, do they?”

Before I could press save and turn off the laptop, before I could say – well, burn me to a cinder – there he (or she) was flying around, flapping those great wings, swinging that long spiked tail

“There goes my genre shift,” I thought as the next chapter appeared on my screen.

Now I was baptized in the fires of Smaug (actually I’m Jewish but Smaug as a Mohel performing a circumcision is frankly too disturbing), my sons flew in their imagination on the backs of Saphira and Christopher Paolini’s other dragons.

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But there is something about dragons that has kept them alive in our culture that is fascinating. The Chinese have a historic connection that goes back to, well it makes you wonder. In my homeland, Sir George had to slay one to become the patron saint of the Brits, and the dragon is possibly the most common and, dare I say, respected mythical animal in the fantasy genre.

So what is wrong with unicorns, for example? Why have they not become as popular? They can fight, heal, and even create powerful wands (which J.K. Rowlings wizard am I talking about?), but they have not caught our imagination like dragons.

Laying myself at the mercy of Google, I discovered that the dragon myth grew separately in China, Europe, and even the Americas and Australia. The Aussies have a number of animals including the Goanna that lend themselves to the myth. The Nile crocodiles were apparently much bigger than the one we know today and walked in an elevated gait. Whales and dinosaurs also add to the potential creation of the myth.

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But perhaps the most fascinating theory is suggested on the Smithsonian blog. I couldn’t find the author to attribute  – my apologies – but these are his/her words:

In his book An Instinct for Dragons, anthropologist David E. Jones argues that belief in dragons is so widespread among ancient cultures because evolution embedded an innate fear of predators in the human mind. Just as monkeys have been shown to exhibit a fear of snakes and large cats, Jones hypothesizes that the trait of fearing large predators—such as pythons, birds of prey and elephants—has been selected for in hominids. In more recent times, he argues, these universal fears have been frequently combined in folklore and created the myth of the dragon.

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Whatever created it, the myth of the dragon has deepened with the growth in popularity of the genre. Eragon’s relationship with Saphira and the history in the Inheritance Series is far more complex than Tolkien’s Smaug, or those Harry Potter had to deal with. George R.R. Martin skirts around the existence of dragons in his early books. His description of the crypts of Winterfell, and later when Aria is in the bowels of the capital, are almost a reverent tribute to these once majestic beasts.

It is a relationship that has captured the imagination of a generation. My sons, for whom Paolini was so influential, have devoured many books with dragons, without any sign of tiring. For them and others, I found this interesting artistic reflection of the sizes of the various dragons that Paolini creates – Enjoy.

Have a great week.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions. For all other eReaders, please click here.

More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

 

The Changing Pace of Novels

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post highlighting my favorite novels from 2015. The list included the venerable George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss. I am currently reading the third Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind. Followers of this blog will know that I hold Terry Brooks, Christopher Paolini, and Robert Jordan in high regard, and that I am somewhat obsessed with a certain Oxford professor.

What do they share in common? Okay – they are wildly successful and have dedicated hordes of followers – no need to rub it in. But I am referring to their writing styles. All these authors write slow-paced novels with intricate details about characters, their actions and personifications, and the world they exist in. Each writes thick tomes that you need to make a commitment to reading.

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The industry, so the experts expound, believes novels should be fast-paced. They demand that we hit the ground running: “Show me a hook!” we demand in our writer’s group. “You only have 20 pages to grab your reader,” “10 pages,” “5.” Sometimes it is the first paragraph or sentence.

If you look at the reviews of my Wycaan Master series, you will see compliments such as:

– The plot and action keep you turning pages 

– It’s fast paced

– Shalev delivers a well-paced novel

And my favorite:

– Fantasy that moves at a blistering pace

I am proud of these reviews because this was my intention. I wrote the series fast because I believed that is what the industry (which purports to know the readers) demands.

But I am having my doubts. I want to add the layers that the aforementioned wrote and I believe that a large segment of epic fantasy readers crave this too. I want to create a rich world in which the readers lose themselves. I want to offer a deeper insight into the mores of the society and analyze the intricacies and inconsistencies of my characters.

Tolkein spends three pages describing Mirkwood. I probably skimmed over it when I first read The Hobbit, but as I have grown older, I seem to enjoy it, thrive on it even.

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I see how this does not pan out on the screen. I have watched all fifty episodes of Game of Thrones, and am now enthralled with The Shannara Chronicles. But if I were to be critical (perish the thought), I would say they have missed out so much. Of course, this would mean that each GoT season would last a couple of years but hey, you won’t hear any complaints from me!

But back to the world of novels: What do you prefer between the fast-paced, action-packed novels and those that take their time?

Love to hear.

elfwriter

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, The First Decree, and three more novels in the Wycaan Master Series – all released by Tourmaline Books. From Ashes They Rose, is the latest in the series. The story continues.

Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+ 

Chicken or Egg: Book or Movie?

There is a story going round of a young man who enters his grandfather’s study. The room is a homage to the epic fantasy world in which he writes. There are helmets on shelves, swords on wall, and hundreds of books. The boy peruses the books and exclaims:

“Grandpa! You have so many books, but you are missing two of the most famous.”

“Oh? Which ones?”

“Tolkien’s The Hobbit.” When he sees his grandfather’s confused expression, he continues. “Look you only have one book. There should be three.”

The epic fantasy/magical realism world, received two big pieces of news this week: The first Shannara episode was aired and George R.R. Martin announced that he would not have the next Game of Thrones book, Winds of Winter, out before HBO releases the TV series.

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Fans of Terry Brooks (is there any fantasy reader who is not?) were ecstatic that the waiting was over. I worked that night and then waited 48 hours to watch it with my 12-year-old son. After all it was a coming-of-age thing, like a coronation – I’m that kinda father. I sat there for two hours, desperately not stopping the program to tell him some spoiler or … well, some spoiler! It was just as hard for him to watch having never read the books.

There is such a difference between watching a movie after you have read the book and the opposite. Call me old-fashioned, but it is simply not the same reading the book after watching the movie. There is so much texture in the books that the movie (hopefully) intensifies. But the depth of a book cannot, and there should be no expectation, be conveyed in a two-hour movie.

Which brings me to George R.R. Martin. Last time he announced that a book (Book 5) was not ready when it should have been, fans got really angry and, bravely hidden behind their computer screens, quite abusive. 

Now I don’t want to risk the wrath of Mr. Martin. After all, my favorite Game of Throne character is still alive at the time I’m writing this post and Mr. Martin holds all the power. It is not worth the risk. Neither do I want Neil Gaiman is tell me off and exhort me not to treat Mr. Martin like my bitch.

I would have no choice but to respond to Mr. Gaiman that Mr. Martin could do a lot worse than have me spoil him like I do my female Labrador. But I have seen Neil Gaiman speak. He is funny, smart, sincere, and he was very supportive of Terry Pratchett in the twilight of the latter’s life. He is also considerably bigger than me.

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Let me state up front. I am a big fan of George R. R. Martin, have read all his GoT books, and many articles and interviews. I love his work despite the sadness and despair he has caused me along with so many of his characters. As a humble author, I admire his craft, technique and vision.

But I do question his work ethic and organization. Everyone writes differently and Mr. Martin’s books are longer, more convoluted and evolved than mine. They also sell considerably more, have been made into HBO’s TV series and sprouted models, replica weapons and jewelry.

I hold down a full-time job that demands above and beyond a 9-5 day commitment. I still write a 100,000-word novel in less than a year. Actually, I write the shitty first draft in about 100 days, arriving in my office 1-2 hours before work, staying an hour or so afterwards, carving out large parts of the weekend, and neglecting my patient wife and children … and the dog!

So I do have a beef with Mr. Martin not finishing The Winds of Winter in five years. I understand his desire for perfection and I deeply admire his detail and research. But really four years? Now, it is not like he has done nothing in the meanwhile. He wrote (and I loved) A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.  

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I am currently on my final round of edits before I send Wycaan Master Book 6 to the editors. I loved writing the book and set about it with all the vigor I poured into the first five. But in the ensuing rounds of edits and rewrites, I began to feel a desire to finish the series, to look ahead at the dozen or so next projects that hover in my mind. Still, I am singularly focused on completing Book 6 and getting it into my readers hands as promised. This is not a one-way relationship. Even the A-list authors are nothing without their fans. Respect is a two-way thing.

However, I think my biggest problem is not Mr. Martin’s drive for perfection or whatever is holding him back. I might ordinarily enjoy the tension and anticipation waiting for the next book release. It is the idea that the TV series preceding the book, will have a huge influence on how I experience the book, and perhaps on how the author writes it. Could an exceptional scene or twist on TV not influence what Mr. Martin writes?

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I hear some of you say: Then don’t watch the movie, Shalev. I can hear Neil Gaiman extorting me to take long walks with my bitch. They are all, of course, right, and totally wrong.

What Game of Thrones fan, five books and fifty episodes in, is going to wait one day?! Rest assured, I will be on the couch watching HBO on Day 1 of series 5, with my faithful dog by my side, Mr. Gaiman!

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My Khaleesi – she’ll watch every episode, Mr. Gaiman.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions. For all other eReaders, please click here.

More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

 

Fantasy Novels That Stood Out 2015

I am a voracious reader. At any time, I am reading one book while static (on the bus, in bed) and listening to a second on audio while walking the dog, working out, or commuting.

One of these books will be fantasy or magical realism. The other is usually non-fiction, perhaps a social justice-themed book or a biography. Here are the ten fantasy or magical realism books that stood out for me. To check out what else I read and the reviews I left, please check out my Goodreads page.

Patrick Rothfuss – Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear.

My stand out reading experience of the year .I loved both these books. Rothfuss has a unique style and voice. I was totally captivated. The third book is very different and I was less enamored.

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Terry Brooks – Dark Legacy of Shannara

I have not read anything from Terry Brooks in a year. He is my role model and fantasy writer hero. But I think there was a reason that I took a break. Still coming back to his work was so enjoyable – like drinking your mother’s chicken soup after being vegetarian for a year (well, you get the point). Biggest problem is a fear I have harbored for a while – I am now up-to-date and have wait until May 26, 2016 – but who’s counting (124 days at the time of writing!).

Robert Jordan – The First Five Wheel of Time books.

This was the big intro for me this year. Robert Jordan is one of the foremost fantasy writers of the past few decades, but I had not read any of his work. I thoroughly hang my head in shame but I really enjoyed the first two novels and totally entered his world and connected to the main characters. Impulsively, I bought the entire audio set off of eBay on sale. I think I am now about six books through and taking a break, but long series’ are difficult to stay with. As with Terry Brooks’ work, I shall return to it soon.

Kevin Hearne – Hammered.

What can I say? This guy is so cool and his books are hilarious. Beware about laughing out loud. I have in each book. Looking forward to reading more.

George R.R. Martin – A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.

So, I admit it. I give the guy a hard time (not because I am insanely jealous of his talent and fame…oh no! Goodness!), but I have been in serious GoT withdrawal. The TV episodes are good, but the books are a lifestyle. So you can imagine how ecstatic I was to come across this kind of prequel. Kind of because it is a story in its own right that doesn’t, as far as I see, really prepare much for GoT. It takes place a hundred years before and is full of the flavors that make Martin’s writing so special. Well worth it to help tide you over until…

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Lev Grossman – The Magician’s Land

This is the third in the series and as impressive as the first two. I finished this at the beginning of January 2015 and don’t remember much beyond satisfaction and a sense of loss once completed. It is not an easy read, but great tales rarely are.

Hal Emerson – The Prince of Ravens

This is one author you might not have heard of. I picked up the book as a freebie on Amazon’s KDP program and was intrigued by its original world and concept. The protagonist is a troubled young man that we slowly learn to love as he learns to love himself. Great first book by an excellent author.

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Terry Pratchett – A Slip of the Keyboard

This was tough. In truth, I read it as a tribute to the author when he passed away. Discworld was a big part of my life and helped pull me through some of my own darker periods of life. There are some quaint stories and insights into the great man who no longer walks among us. Probably for the hardcore fans more than the casual reader. But for most of us, the world is an emptier place today.

Artist: Paul Kidby

Artist: Paul Kidby

I would like to show my appreciation of Goodreads for the ability to be able to track the books I read and the books that others are reading. I will write more about this in the future, but for now, thank you, Goodreads, for being my virtual bookcase.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and four more novels in the Wycaan Master Series – all released by Tourmaline Books. From Ashes They Rose, is the latest in the series. The story continues.

Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter(@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Goodreads.

 

No One Died and I’m Disappointed.

No One Has Died and I find myself disappointed. Have I Become So Corrupted?

I blame George R.R. Martin. I am on the fifth book of a series that is widely considered a classic by epic fantasy fans ­– If you want to know which, feel free to hook up with me on Goodreads – and I am beginning to find it really hard going.

I am trying to work out why this is. The world building is fantastic, and the characters are very compelling. This series has won multiple awards and turned a generation onto the genre. The Internet abounds with discussion groups, artwork, jewelry, collectible cards, and even a board game.

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The series lacks two things and I am embarrassed to admit that I am missing them. The first is sex, or at least sexuality. Sure everyone sounds very attractive, but seem to blush when a dress comes above the knee. Now, I respect a society that values modesty, but in every other aspect, this is a dangerous world with bad folk, extreme circumstances, and a lot of opportunity for more than noble romance. We delve deep into the souls of these characters, but burn me (yes a hint!), if just a bit of cleavage is shown then everyone blushes and flees for cover or avert their eyes. Sorry, Master Author – no teenage boy is going to do anything less than gawk when confronted by three beautiful women in skimpy negligees.

The second aspect that is beginning to bug me is that no hero or heroine seems to die, and I am really not expecting it as I approach the end of Book Four (I also read the prequel if you are counting). Please no spoilers if there are any!!!! But we seem to have fit into a rather comfortable pace and rather predictable story arc.

But here is what is really bugging me. I read, no devoured, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and there is neither anything remotely sexual (no matter the noble efforts of Peter L. Jackson), nor do any of our major characters die – with all due respect to Boromir and Haldir.

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So what has changed? Me? Of course not! I am as full of self-denial as the next man. And so I point the finger at George R.R. Martin: plenty of sex (not particularly healthy I wish to note) and plenty of main characters dying.

Now I have killed my share of protagonists in The Wycaan Master series – I Didn’t Mean To Kill Her and Oops! Just Killed A Friend – and I have neither enjoyed the criticism I have endured for my efforts nor got over the personal sense of loss that each death inflicted on me (let alone the character), but somehow I now crave that tragic turn, expect it, even anticipate it.

What has happened to me? Have I lost my (fantasy) innocence? And what shall I read while waiting for the next Game of Thrones?

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and three more novels in the Wycaan Master Series: The First DecreeAshbar – Wycaan Master Book 3, and Sacrificial Flame – all released by Tourmaline Books. From Ashes They Rose, the fifth in the series, will be released in September 2015. The story continues.

Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+

A Damning Tribute to George R.R. Martin

This tribute is a rewrite of a previous post written in honor of the launch tonight of HBO’s fifth series.

Dear Mr. Martin,

Let me begin by saying I’m a big fan. I’ve read all five books and, if that isn’t proof enough, I can’t wait for Book 6 (hint, hint). I have sung your praises on my humble elfwriter blog and keep your photo under my pillow (I don’t – but I want to make sure I still have your attention).

It’s like this, sir. One day when I grow up (I’m only 50-teen) I want to be a bestselling epic fantasy author like you. My fifth book comes out in the fall and I have sold more books as you’ve killed noble characters (I think!).

I spend a lot of time hanging out with other writers: online and (I know this is rare) actually in person. Everyone tells me to “observe the rules,” “don’t break the conventions,” and, my favorite, “Tolkien was one-of-a-kind. You wouldn’t get away with that.”

But you, sir, break all the rules, tippexed (anyone?) over the conventions. One friend suggested you only get away with it because you’re already famous, have a huge following, and probably don’t care anymore what anyone outside of the Seven Kingdoms thinks.

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So here is my list of 10 things you have done wrong:

1. Your books are too long. I keep getting told that 90K is way beyond the commitment that most readers are willing to invest today. But then why do I enjoy your tomes (and Christopher Paolini, and J.K Rowlings, and some unknown ancient language, Oxford professor) and feel a sense of loss when they are finished?

2. Your books are too slow. People want action, action, action. Instant gratification …debate in 140 characters or less. Have a car chase or blow up a bridge – well, you get my point.

3. Your books are too detailed. You mean I need to think? Concentrate? Invest? I hear you keep flow charts in your office – can we peek? How about a deal with Cliff Notes or an app that you can enter a character, your book and page number and get an update. Dude – I totally expect a commission on the app idea.

4. Your characters are too flawed (especially the good ones). If I’m not seeing Ryan Gosling or Kristen Stewart then it simply won’t do. If I want real people, I would put my book down and hit the pub.

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5. Your characters are too dead. I actually wrote a blog post about this (I Need A Hero), keeping the book and you anonymous so as not to spoil it. Guess what? Everyone knew who I was talking about.

6. You drop some characters for hundreds of pages – are you tempting me to skip pages, sir? Just so as not to spoil this for any readers on Books 1-4, you know what I mean when I connect this to Book 4//5.

7. You miss out key scenes – battles in particular – and subtly let us know they have happened. I know it is incredibly difficult to write battles and only the best can pull it off, but well sir, you are one of the best.

8. You have too many minor characters. I hope you are keeping track of them because, to be honest, I am developing a habit of scratching my head whenever someone resurfaces 1-2,000 pages later.

9. You care more for the old gods and the new than the critics.

10. Your books are too addictive. I can’t stop…

You broke all the rules, sir. Congratulations! I can’t wait for the first episode of Book Five tonight … not to mention Book 6 …Oops! Are there any Starks left?

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. His latest novel is Sacrificial Flame, the fourth in the series.

Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes.He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+

Crumbs of the Great Craft Masters

I want to give credit to Toby Hewson who gave me this idea: What I learned from the Gods of Fantasy? I have learned from many authors, not just the craft masters, but this post will focus on the select few. 

Terry Pratchett taught me about invention of an old theme. He created a world that was fantastical and yet so familiar. His satirical approach to Discworld was always engrossing and we welcomed familiar themes as they surfaced among the new ideas in each new novel.

George RR Martin taught me about depth of character in supporting roles. There is no excuse for making every single character special or unpredictable. It does not have to happen immediately, but when a character steps from the limelight to center stage, we are enthralled, but not totally surprised. This is a huge task for anyone and Martin does it with a thousand characters. I have mentioned before how much I have learned from him. Okay, I have also taken his name in vain, but I am full of respect for him.

George Martin to kill Tyrion

Stephen King taught me about simplicity of language and being accessible to readers. I am too much of a wimp to appreciate his stories, but On Writing is my writing Bible, and required reading…annually.
J.R.R. Tolkien taught me the opposite. It is possible to write elaboration, flowery, delightful fantasy prose. Can you describe a forest in three pages? Y’betcha and they will even make it into a movie or six. Tolkien also taught me the importance of giving my fantasy world a sense of history and leveraging that throughout the saga.

Terry Brooks taught me about having a well-worked story that had no loose ends or unnecessary scenes so the story flows. Brooks also has built a rich history of his world – Shannara – and a genealogy that excites his many followers. Again, his writing is very balanced between plot (action) and character development. He has the ability to give a strong and distinctive voice to each of his main characters.

Terry Goodkind is edgy without going over-the-top. His stories are simpler, but he adds little traits to make his characters familiar to us and a great job bonding us to them.

R.A. Salvatore taught me to create a rich world and non-stereotypical characters. His first Drizzt book takes place underground and is so impressive. I remember being blown away by it. I have not been disappointed going forward.

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There is much we can learn from these masters of our craft, but the most important one is READ, READ, READ.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions. For all other eReaders, please click here.

More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).