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+

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Guest Post – Author Lisa Fender

My guest today is author Lisa Fender. She has co-written the fantasy novel, Fable – Book 1 of The Lorn Prophecy with her sister which is, in itself an amazing story. Author, J.E Rogers described Fable “as a wonderful book that combines, fantasy, with young adult romance. Lisa Fender, and Toni Burns, have deftly created a new world, another dimension. This well written fantasy will take its readers on an exhilarating ride to this other dimension. It is another world that young people will easily identify with, and enjoy.”

Lisa exudes a love for everything epic fantasy, so I was not surprised when she chose to write about why she finds it so enthralling.

Lisa and Toni: sisters in creative collusion

Lisa: I have been a fantasy freak for as long as I can remember. Ah, to be taken away to another world where dragons roam and Dryads peek at you from behind (or within) the trees. And, when I am immersed in a fantasy world and I read the last book in the trilogy, quadrilogy, or even twelve-part series, and the story(ies) end…argh! Agony!

I live and breathe fantasy fiction and when I decided it was time for me to write the story dancing around in my head, it had to be in the genre of…epic fantasy, of course! But, the question was: How to make mine different? To achieve this, I looked to my personal passions.

My inherent love for our planet and wildlife, and concern over how our species seems bent on destroying both, gave me my inspiration. This in turn, gave rise to the idea of the Djen.

Djen are my take-off of the Genie. Don’t think of a genie in a bottle, or “I Dream of Jeannie”.  Instead my Djen are a race of beings in a parallel dimension. They have but one purpose: watch over the planet and keep nature in balance. Of course, perfection cannot come without conflict, in the form of a faction who creates turmoil for the Djen and the series’ main character, Stevie Barrett.

Fable Book Cover

I started putting pen to paper back in 2009. After a couple of years—not simply writing, but additionally educating myself in the craft—I asked my sister, Toni, to with help me with revisions. At the time I had hired a writing coach and we discovered that my sister’s experience with journalistic and business-style writing was not the same as creative writing. The two of us began to learn the craft together. 

After a short while, Toni started to offer suggestions and became my sounding board to bounce off ideas. This led to our coming up with scenarios and directions for the book and characters that neither one of us had considered. Together we made the story more intriguing and exciting. She too, fell in love with the characters and the Djen world. I finally decided to ask her to be my co-writer and I haven’t looked back. We are ecstatic about publishing our first book in the series, Fable, and look forward to continuing our partnership.

Writing the series together has truly brought us closer. Sure we fight once in a while, all sisters do, but not about the stories or the way we write together. We have a system and even though some have said to me that I’m giving away my power, I disagree. I love writing together.

Most of the basic story is written by me, and then the two of us go over each line and clean it up. We discuss ideas together and decide which way we want the story to go. We complement each other’s writing strengths and skills. It works well.

Fable, Book 1 of the Lorn Prophecy has been in print since spring of this year, and we have completed a side book/compendium novel: Fated, Book 1 of the Djenrye Chronicles. We are now working on the second book in the Lorn Prophecy series: Lore. In essence, I have gone from being immersed in the fantasy worlds of other writers to creating one of my own!

What books and worlds do you like get lost in?

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I have the complete joy of living in Golden, Colorado with my husband, Rick, and our yellow lab mix, Branch. I love hiking, camping and enjoying the mountains and wildlife which provides so much of my inspiration. I don’t have some fabulous degree or a plethora of literary courses behind me, I am literally the waitress that wanted to write a book.

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Thank you, Alon, for having me as a guest on your blog! It is truly an honor.  I do so share your love for the classic fantasy fictions—J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin—as well as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter – and your finding your inspiration in the world around you.

Want to know more about Lisa and her work? Here are her social media links:

Fable – Book 1 of The Lorn Prophecy 

Fated – Book 1 of The Djenrye Chronicles 

Lisa’s Blog

Fanpage

Twitter

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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 Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. 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, on Twitter (@elfwriter) and on Google+.

Big Characters Without Big Boobs

Last week I asked in my blog post, 10 Questions For J.R.R Tolkien, what questions people would like to ask the Professor if they had the opportunity. The answers were great, but one stood out for me.

A person with the twitter username @oneyearnovel (happy to enter your name and website) wrote: “I would ask if he ever considered a woman character who was not beautiful?”

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This got me wondering. When I began looking around for a book cover artist and shared my concept of Mhari, an elfe (the politically correct term for a female elf) and Seanchai’s teacher, I was offered sketches of buxom women with cleavage-revealing armor, muscled (bare) legs etc. You get the picture. I talk about this in an earlier post – Big Boobs and Book Covers. While these images might have sold more copies of At The Walls Of Galbrieth, the pensive, wise face that adorns the cover truly represents the wise, yet world-weary mentor for my protagonist, Seanchai.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover

I don’t in truth know if @oneyearnovel is correct that Tolkien’s females in his books are all beautiful, or if this is Peter Jackson pandering to what he believes his Hollywood audience wants. I have not read Lord of the Rings in years and can’t even recall a female in the Hobbit.

Tolkien students: please enlighten us on this in the comments.

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There are three main female characters who each leave an indelible mark on the first four books of the Wycaan Master series. Sellia is dark, exotic and beautiful, but she is also an excellent warrior and probably fits the stereotype. While I never talk about her breasts, hips etc. (this is YA), she intimidates the younger male elves and has them stuttering. She makes a game of eliciting a blush from Rhoddan or Seanchai.

Ilana is tough, an ideologue, constantly seeking a peaceful solution and offering Seanchai her unwavering support. As a romance blossoms she is viewed for her beauty, but it is seen through the eyes of one who is falling in love with her. Don’t we doting men all think our wives/partners are the most beautiful women in the world? Of course mine really is!

But Ilana is possibly the most popular character among readers, certainly female readers. It is not anything physical about her that binds the reader to her, but her deep principles, cutting sense of humor, and well just about everything else concerning her.

Maugwen is a human, short and pudgy. She is a weak character at first and I never meant to give her a long run. But she grows, matures and becomes a wise friend and strong individual. Readers have told me that she intrigues them and, just between us, she intrigues me.

We don’t make all our male characters handsome and ripped, so why our females? I think @oneyearnovel has a great point. Society expects us to bind ourselves to a pretty woman, and in truth, this goes for good or bad characters, but fiction has a responsibility to not only change with the times, but to be present at the tipping edge of that change.

It is very popular to write a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps it is time for our genre to come of age.

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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. 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).

Genre Conventions .v. Originality

“But this is how it’s done in epic fantasy,” I whine to my writer’s group. “It’s part of the convention.”

We are a bonded group, anxious to support each other and so I receive sympathetic smiles and diplomatic silence. The silence screams in my ears. I know they are right. If I have to fall back on a sentence like that, I am in trouble. Or am I?

How important is originality?

Utter originality is, of course, out of the question.” – Ezra Pound

Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” – Voltaire

I feel better already.

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” – Herman Melville.

Ouch!

Elves are tall, thin, have pointed ears, and excellent hearing. They look good in green, and shoot bow and arrows with exceptional accuracy.  Dwarves are short, rotund, live underground, mine and play around with axes. This is so because J.R.R. Tolkien put the epic in epic fantasy with his Middle Earth series’. Are the rest of us thus condemned to be mere recyclers of his work? Maybe. But I am not convinced how this is different from any other genre: romance has the same images and general plot arc. So does suspense and horror. And don’t get me started on dystopian thrillers.

So why do we so enthusiastically embrace conventions in a genre? It might be because some themes are simply timeless. I’m thinking Beowulf (maybe written in the eighth century) and The Odyssey (sixteen centuries before that!). Tolkien would concede that he was not the first, but when something works, you build your own version of it, and sometimes your version is good enough to capture the imagination of a very loyal readership. But it is not just enjoyment. It is pure escapism to a world we can get excited about, to values we can admire or fear (or both). It is also something familiar, something soothing. 

And yet when we embark on a new epic fantasy series, or try the work of a new author, we are seeking both something familiar and something original. What makes each author since Tolkien distinct is some aspect of his / her work. The relationship between Eragon and Saphira (his dragon), made Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series special. I have just started reading The Weight of Blood by David Dalglish (check out his cool book covers by Peter Ortiz) which is about two brothers (okay) who are not just orcs (hmmm), but half-orcs (ahhh). I was caught on page one. Dalglish has written a variance on the convention. So did R.A. Salvatore when he introduced Drizzt – a dark elf whose race were the opposite from the stereotypical elves. Five novels on, I am still intrigued. Daniel Arenson came up with his own original approach to dragons in the Song of Dragons series. 

Before I end, let me say how much I admire those who come up with something original – Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson – they capture us all and we devour their new approaches. But those who seek to ride their coattails are not so successful and I think this is very telling.

It says that while the fantasy readership will embrace a clever, well-written, new concept, that very concept might not establish itself beyond one brilliant author. Epic fantasy, however, with its elves, dragons and swords, continues to stand the test of time. This is not because our readership is lazy. Instead they demand depth – world building, characters, and a plot that offers a twist on a well-tested theme. They continue to surprise us with the familiar.

It’s a great genre to be a part of.

 Good Writing,

Alon 

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic 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).

It’s In The Journey

“The problem with your genre,” the man declared with a smirk, “is that the reader always know what’s going to happen in the end. That’s why I never read fantasy.”

I could have asked him how he knew this since he admitted to not reading the genre. I might have questioned whether romance (the most popular fiction genre) or cookbooks (most popular non fiction) are any different. Those recipes never work for me!

Instead, I asked him what it was about epic fantasy that made it popular assuming he was right about the predictable endings. To his credit, he thought a while before answering. “It’s in the journey,” he replied.

I’ve been thinking about this. During my summer vacation, we camped by a river. The locals told me that there were no fish inhabiting it and it was only good for swimming in.

We went down to the river and my sons had a great time with their river rats (inflated tubes) negotiating small rapids.

I got out my fly rod, walked a bit upstream and stood in the middle of the water casting. The river was beautiful and clear, the rocks underneath and protruding were smooth and colorful. Majestic redwoods surrounded us and a noble mountain peak loomed above me. Wisps of fog hugged the tops of the trees and later in the day came almost to the edge of the water.

The author, deftly not catching fish!

I imagined where a wild trout (huge one of course) would hover and allow its prey to float right to it (a feeding pool, I think the experts call it). I cast my fly and watched it float in a wide arc. Being of only limited skill it took me a while to cast to the right distance, but I was very satisfied when I could consistently float my fly into the (imaginary) feeding pool.

A couple walked past arm-in-arm and the man felt compelled to tell me that there were no fish in the river. I nodded and told him I knew. He shrugged, but his partner got it, I think.

“Enjoy yourself,” she said.

I did enjoy myself that afternoon. I enjoyed setting up my fly rod and casting it out. I enjoyed the river, the trees, the mountain, the fog. I felt myself sighing as I released the tension of my real world and let it float away with the river.

Hemingway fly-fished. Tolkien smoked a pipe (I couldn’t find evidence that he fished but he wrote poems about it – see below). I strive to walk in the shadow of Tolkien rather than Hemmingway, but the pipe has long been relinquished. Still I remember the pleasure I got in packing and lighting the pipe, even cleaning it. I still yearn for the smell of the Borkum Riff tobacco all these years later. I miss it more than the smoking for sure. I recall the anticipation of waiting all day for that special time after dinner when I could sit outside my little house and puff away the worries of the day.

Gimli lights up after a hard day of killing.

At the end of one of my fantasy novels is a twist I am very proud of. Those who have read it all tell me that they gasped at that moment. In my writer’s group, while still only on page six of that novel, one of the women guessed the twist.

I never responded, never told her she was right. I want her to enjoy the journey.

Happy fishing everyone, however you cast your rod. I’ll leave you in the hands of the Master:

Fish Riddle

Alive without breath;
as cold as death;
never thirsting, ever drinking;
clad in mail, never clinking.
Drowns on dry land,
thinks an island
is a mountain;
thinks a fountain
is a puff of air.

So sleek, so fair!
What a joy to meet!

We only wish
to catch a fish,

 So juicy-sweet!

                                                      From Lord of the Rings By J.R.R. Tolkien

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic 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).

Traditional Epic Fantasy and The Higher Concept

There is a lot of discussion among fantasy writers about the need for the Higher Concept. Can an epic fantasy novel succeed if it is about a young underdog with a magical talent, who needs to overcome the evil (insert whoever)?

True, Tolkien did it, Brooks did it, as have many others. But they are established authors with huge followings. Who will take a chance on the unknown author?

I feel very defensive about this: what about memorable characters, internal conflicts, and plot twists? How about strong dialogue and a couple of intriguing plot twists?

The question is, whether these key components are enough to allow a manuscript to rise through the slush pile in an agent’s office?

There is no question about why Harry Potter, Percy Jackson or The Hunger Games, all stood out to their respective agents and publishers. But I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t something attractive in the familiar.

I have read eight books in Terry Brook’s Shannara series. I will start the ninth soon. I am not bored as each series offers something different, but the tropes remain similar and still I come back for more.

And while I am in defensive mode: Does Grisham, Patterson, or Steel, offer anything new within their genres with each novel? Romance, mystery, crime: don’t they have their own tropes that figure in book after book.

From Terry Brooks – First King of Shannara. copyright ©Andy Simmons 1995-2002

When people get familiar with a genre, do they not go looking for these tropes? Is it not enough to ensure a strong plot with twists, distinct characters and strong dialogue?

What do you think?

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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).

What is The Future of Epic Fantasy?

I have mentioned in past posts that I am seeking to differentiate my novel from other epic fantasy series. I am being continually told by those insiders that every descent agent and publisher has five hundred manuscripts on their groaning desks about swords and quests and good .v. evil. Apparently these agents groan whenever an elf is mentioned (especially if s/he is tall, thin, loves nature etc.).

At the Berkeley Writers critique group, visitors often ask: what differentiates this from Lord of the Rings?

All this begs the question: what is the future of epic fantasy?

Is it okay to accept that there are certain conventions that are timeless? Are dwarfs small and stout, brave and ready for a rumble? Is it okay that they are miners and love to live underground?

Gimli - plenty of blades, no razor

Here are 10 basic ingredients that need to be questioned:

1) There is the good guy (or gal) and the bad one. The goods is the underdog, the bad is all-powerful, though hopefully will fall in the end.

2) Magic – the hero/heroine has something special about them that gives them a chance to win.

3) There is a teacher who mentors the hero/heroine.

4) The dwarfs are stereotypical – see above.

5) The elves are tall, beautiful, healers, wicked with the bow and arrows and…

6) Romance

7) Everything takes place in New Zealand-type environment.

8) There is a lot of walking about.

9) Swords, bows and arrows, lots of insignificant people dying.

10) Long novels, preferably in series form, with huge potential for movies.

Journeys that never end...

I have mentioned the high-concept challenge in earlier posts. The idea is to have something that is unique, that separates your fantasy novel from the rest. Enter Harry Potter and Hunger Games. 

And yet, we come back for more. A new novel from Terry Brooks or R.A Salvatore has us salivating. Christopher Paolini’s final book of the Inheritance series was eagerly awaited, and we all know when we are going to see the Hobbit movie even if we haven’t booked our summer vacations or filed our taxes.

When I mentioned the higher concept to a woman who has been reading my manuscript, she baulked. As long as there is a strong plot, a few twists, memorable characters, and a high level of writing, she said, a novel will always stand out from the rest.

The question is: Are the essential epic fantasy novel ingredients timeless? When Tolkien first created Middle Earth, did he set in motion a genre that will endure into the 21st Century?

The Master

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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 has been entered into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).