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).

 

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Churning Out Novels

I thought I wrote fast. I tell people I can write a 100,000 word novel – a first draft – in four months, writing for an hour before work, an hour or two later in the day, and a few solid hours on the weekend. I only thought this was fast because people told me so. Other writers spent a year, two or more, to get similar output.

So I was a little surprised when I started to follow a podcast by three authors, all in the sci-fi and fantasy world. These three, along with the different guests they interview each week, publish 4-6 books a year, often keeping different series’ and even different genres going.

So I did some digging. There are many writers out there who are churning out a 50-80K novel each month … and I mean from Chapter 1 through The End and into editing (I assume), book cover design, and placements.

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Wow!

I am emotionally exhausted when I finish a novel and only once (between Books 5 and 6) did I have any desire to continue straight into writing the next of the series. Editing, sure. Marketing, okay. But the idea of churning out another 100K?

I am trying to work out what it takes to do this and, as I listened more to these authors, and even got to question a couple, I think I get it.

1. Outsourcing – these people do nothing for the production process. Everything is outsourced and they do not play a part in the process. This makes total sense except when there is no investment in the process, when the author really doesn’t care about the end product. As one author said: “My book covers are more or less the same. Only the title and book number changes. The cover artist knows what to do.”

2. Editing – when my editor returns a manuscript, there are changes suggested in almost every paragraph. I am expected to go through these comments and decide what to do. True, I accept 95% of the suggestions, but sometimes the editor writes that a scene is not clear, a conversation does not make sense, or a description is repetitive. In this case, I need to rewrite. Sometimes, the editor suggests I delete something. If I am attached to what is written, I might rewrite it much shorter or insert elsewhere (oops – don’t tell my editor!).

images-63. Strict genre adherence – in order that some writers can keep pace with production, they keep the plot tight and similar – the same highs and lows. The protagonist acts as he (usually a he) is expected, the bad guy too, and often the women are…well, behaving in what is expected of women in that genre. Now there is nothing wrong here. If it ain’t broke, why fix? Who needs a bad guy you sympathize with, a woman who kicks the crap out of someone or simply  falls in love with the bad guy and not the hero? Real life is already too complicated. There are no twists in the plot and I expect that somewhere there is a story arc written that is faithfully adhered to. No time to spend experimenting. Take no risks with the loyal readership.

4. Investment in the characters – this is something I find hard to understand. I have never understood how people can write a stand-alone novel, and walk away. I feel so close to all my characters – I worry about them, fear for them, get angry when they screw up (and especially when they have the audacity to blame me). Long after the novel is finished, I think about them, and yes, I mourn the ones I kill off.

Now there is nothing wrong with any of this. There are people who write for the art and people who write for the royalty check and that is just fine. Most of us are somewhere in between. If the quality of the book is enough for the reader to enjoy, to read effortlessly and then crave the author’s next book, then what’s wrong with that? If the genre is popular just the way it is, then this is what the reader wants. And if it sells and so do the rest of the author’s work, then that is a clear sign that what they do is right and recognized by the most important views – the readership.

But sometimes it is tough to accept. In seeking the highest standard of writing, I agonize over a scene, word choice, how a character develops. Sure I can write a first draft in four months, but it takes longer to edit, rewrite, consider feedback, and feel once the book is published, that I have done my absolute best.

I’m trying not to be critical, but the book churn must have its limitations. And, in the end, a book exists forever. If the market is swamped by mediocrity, how will the special books get noticed? Will a generation get turned off novels because they just aren’t as gripping as a video game, a You Tube clip, or an on-demand TV binge?

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And I can’t help but wonder: what does George R.R. Martin think about this?

EXCITING NEWS: Tourmaline Books are offering At The Walls of Galbrieth for FREE during the month of March though Smashwords (good for all ebook platforms). Feel free to gift it to a young person (or not so young) who might benefit from a story of hope and friendship. 

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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.

 

Happy Birthday My Favorite Professor

Dear Professor,

Happy Birthday, sir.

You probably don’t remember me since I never took a class with you while you lived. Neither have I sat in the lecture auditorium at Oxford, nor a tutorial in your office.

But I consider myself a student of yours nonetheless. I have read most of your books (got a bit lost on the more obscure ones to be honest) several times, watched the movies (though I’m not sure you  would give academic credit for that), and read numerous books about you and your work.

 

When I write, I see you as someone to emulate, someone who has set the standard. It is not just you of course, please don’t get ahead of yourself; there is Terry Brooks,  Robert Jordan, and some new kids on the block: Christopher Paolini, George R.R. Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss – you would approve of the former, and latter, I am sure.

But as much as I admire them, when faced with an issue writing one of my books, I pause and try and imagine what a certain old Oxford professor would advise me to do.

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But while your books are legendary, your world-building stunning, and your ability to create languages are simply mind-boggling, what amazes me is that you had it in you in the first place: an academic, a somewhat upper-crust Englishman, a traditionalist, a Christian, and a war veteran. Was it the latter? Was what you witnessed on the battlefields of Europe in the First World War the seeds for LOTR? Was this the only way you could find to express the struggle of good .v. evil? 

What happened that fine summer day as you marked term papers? Were you bored? Looking forward to a vacation? Had a pint too many of Eastfarthing at lunch? When you stared at that blank sheet of paper a student had accidentally inserted, what made you scribble: In a hole in the ground there lives a hobbit…

Whatever possessed you, sir, changed the world of epic fantasy forever. Perhaps you should have heeded the advice you gave dear Frodo: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

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I hope you are sitting in a pub up there in heaven, surrounded by wonderful friends – elves, dwarves, hobbits, and even a few humans, most likely friends from The Inklings.  and raising a glass to celebrate his 123rd birthday.

This student thanks you for everything you gave him as a reader and taught him as an author. A very happy twelvety-first birthday, sir! And to celebrate, here is a rendition of Happy Birthday in elvish, the language you created, one word at a time. Thank you to Petri Tikka for this rendition!

Happy Birthday Professor – Oronnad meren allen! 

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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 Google+

 

An Author Needs His Hat

“So, what’s with the hat?” The question came from a young man in the back row of the small (but thankfully packed) room.

I had been fielding questions about plot, world-building, characters, building a series, and on being a writer, so this caught me off guard. My bad. It was not the first time I had received such a question. I was reminded of this when a twitter follower graciously allowed me to finish the day with a smile this week, posting that he couldn’t ignore a book written by an author with such a great hat. Thank you, sir.

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So, what is with the hat? I was wearing it when my sons and I wrote those first words deep in a redwood forest in 2010. Sitting at a campsite picnic table, I brandished my snow-white keyboard, doffed my hat and wrote: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…

Okay, I’m getting carried away. I actually opened At The Walls of Galbrieth with the words: The screams pierced his dreams and… Every summer since, I have read the next manuscript to my sons while camping, and while wearing my hat.

Reading Book 6 in the summer of 2015. End of an era.

Reading Book 6 to my toughest critics in the summer of 2015. End of an era.

Though I feel a great connection between hat and story, none of my characters actually wear a hat in the novels. Maybe I connect to it because I would simply feel too self-conscious walking around the San Francisco Bay Area with a heavy, hooded cloak and staff with the exception perhaps of Halloween.

Ironically, I am not much of a hat-wearer. Traveling to the East Coast in winter warrants a hat, and the same one I wear for camping, sits aloft my head as I fly fish. I am sure the trout take careful note of my headgear since they totally ignore my fly.

But now I have begun to take notice. The professor wore his tweed hat though not in his ancient Oxford study. Sir Terry Pratchett RIP had his splendid black fedora (hope I’m getting the title right). And I have seen other fantasy authors on twitter handles, websites, and Wanted posters.

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Neil Gaiman, in his wonderful tribute to Sir Terry, described their first meeting thus: The author, a former journalist, has a hat, but it’s a small, black leathery cap, not a Proper Author Hat. Not yet.

So here is my Wycaan Master books series by hat. Please feel free to click on each to see which book the photo features on (we used the same for Books 3 + 4).

Bookcover Trees copyBookcover Snow copy                                                                         Bookcover Ocean copyAuthor Photo Book 5 copy

Are you a fantasy author with a hat to show? Feel free to leave photo and link to your books in the comments.

Here’s to authors in hats. May our heads be ever covered, our pages full of words, and our minds ever brimming with imagination!

We are now less than two weeks from the release of From Ashes They Rose (October 1.). So please, consider investing $2.99 to preorder the ebook version. Maybe one day you can point out nonchalantly to friends over a deep red Merlot that you helped that best selling author when he was still a struggling writer.

How could I forget...

How could I forget…

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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, the fifth in the series, will be released October 1, 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+