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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Why Do Adults Gravitate To Young Adult Fiction?

I believe that more adults are reading the epic fantasy Wycaan Master series than young adults. I know there is a fair proportion of teenagers and even pre-teens reading, but judging by the emails, blog comments, and twitter responses, it is predominately adults. This is all despite the books being written for and with my children, which I describe here. It begs the question why are adults drawn to Young Adult (YA) books?

imgresI found this article by Kelly Johnson. In her post, she debunks the following statements (her words):

1. Our culture encourages an unnatural and prolonged adolescence 

2. YA books are escapist since you don’t have to look beneath the surface of them. They are easier to grasp.

3. Adults read YA because they aren’t able to read past a middle school or high school level because adults are getting dumber and dumber.

4. YA books are about hopefulness. Their problems aren’t really problems and they can be fixed. Also there’s always a happy ending, so it’s satisfying and fulfilling to adults. The characters are likable. 

5. Fill in the blank with your own justification here. Some examples may include: YA is all about first experiences; YA is nostalgia for adults; YA is cheaper than adult books and therefore more appealing to the wallet; and so forth.”

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I enjoyed Ms. Johnson’s fiery responses to these statements, but I felt let down when she finished with: “The only justification for why adults read YA books is this: they choose to. That’s it. That’s their reason. Adults read YA books because they as adults choose to do so.

I am disappointed. None of these reasons explain why an adult, working, raising a family, involved in a community, volunteering, following a sports team etc. would be so moved to take a few precious hours each day to sit and read, and then often reach out and engage with the author, fellow readers, come back to buy more books, and enter deep discussions online and at the pub.

Fiction is all about the plot, the characters, and the environment. It is true for John Grisham and Stephen King, and it is true for Terry Brooks, Christopher Paolini, and R.A. Salvatore.

When I read a John Grisham book, I am transported to Mississippi, to another time, and when I close the book at the end of a chapter, I worry about his characters and their choices. It is no different to George R.R. Martin who may kill off a few popular characters in the next chapter if he had a bad day.

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The issue, I think, is how we perceive YA. A young adult book means there is no sex, less violence and no profanity. There are certain boundaries not crossed if we want our youth to read them. But that is all it is. There is nothing here to prevent an adult from enjoying the book, unless you assume we are all sex-starved, violent, expletive-charged individuals, which would be sad, especially if this is how Hollywood and the mass media perceive us.

I am taking a few months break from the fourth Wycaan Master book to write an adult fantasy book.

I have not felt a need to raise the richness of language.

I have not made the characters deeper and more compelling.

I have not sought a more complex plot.

I have not deepened or diluted my world-building.

There are, to be honest, issues dealt with here that may be too dark to share with youth. I share a lot with my teen son, but would hesitate to share certain passages here. Characters deal with fears and obstacles that most of us who have children might not want them to read. There is sex and more graphic violence than in the Wycaan Master series, but that might yet get dialed down.

So what does make adults gravitate to YA novels? The problem is not with the answer. The question is simply wrong.

People read a story because it has a good plot, characters that the reader can bond with, a world that stimulates the imagination. This is the same for adults as it is for YA. YA is written within certain criteria in order to make them a safe space of teens. It certainly does not mean dumbing down or becoming predictable.

The discerning reader will be drawn to a book in their chosen genre simply because it is good: plot, characters, environment and strong writing.

A good novel is a good novel is a good novel…

So this seems like a good time to thank all of you who bought Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 and any of my other novels. I read every blog comment, every tweet, every priceless review on Amazon.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Have a great week.

elfwriter

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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). Hang out with Alon on Google+ here.

I Didn’t Mean To Kill Her

I swear I didn’t. She is beautiful, funny and has a wicked repartee. My protagonist might be a bit wooden, excusable given all the tragic events he has gone through and the overall mission he is on. He is moody, serious, but very good at killing the bad people. While he has great depth, she lightens him up.

And I’m going to miss the sex. She is as creative in this realm as she is with her comments.

It was an accident. Really.

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An assassin came to kill the prince. The protagonist chased him all over the castle battlements. They both had bows and shot at each other from some really cool angles, or while jumping or falling. I had a great time and if there are any video game designers out there, it will make a great video game addition to the movie (oh, and if there are any producers out there…).

So the good guy and the baddie are running and jumping, and I’m having a ball as my fingers speed around the keyboard. Suddenly they find themselves face-to-face with the prince and my aforementioned heroine. 

Now all this had been planned, in as much as I thought of the chase while at the gym in the morning. What came next surprised even me.

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Hero does a neat role and kills assassin, who gets off a shot at the prince. Sexy woman dives on the prince and takes the arrow herself.

Ooops!

I am staring at the screen. My reflexes press save and I curse that holy ethic that pompous authors such as myself are wont to say over a Merlot in a party (it would be legit to imagine mine accompanied by an English accent, acquired at birth, cultivated for maximum pretentiousness: “Oh yes, I let the story guide me.

Kind of like my protagonist and the prince, I am now staring at her prone, slight body, red hair splayed around her, and blood ominously seeping from her chest.

It was time to pick up my youngest from school. As we walked home, he asked if I was okay. “I have a problem,” I said and described the above scenario.

“Of course you can change it,” my 10-year-old says. “It’s your story,” and he spent the whole walk home offering various scenarios from his vivid imagination.

Sometimes it takes a child to add proportion. My fantasy woman will live… for now at least. I’m old enough to know I am not master of my own destiny, but I’ll be buggered if I cannot be master of my own muse.

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So tonight I will make the necessary changes. And if the critic cops point fingers at me, I’ll just hold up my hands: “But… I didn’t mean to kill her.” 

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. 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).

YA Epic Fantasy Readers and The Ebook Revolution

Last week’s post, Sex and Swords, generated a lot of great comments and a sound discussion. In the post, I wondered whether the author I was comparing myself to was selling more books than me because his audience are adults. Given that both of us sell more ebooks than tree books, am I likely to sell less books because young adults do not have the access to ebook readers that adults enjoy? Wait a moment  I need to tell my sons to get off screens and go play…

I wrote a post on another blog a couple of years ago and have taken material from there for this. There are a number of authors who have become bestsellers riding the ebook revolution. Amanda HockingJ.A. Konrath, and my own marketing guru, John Locke. But none of these fine people write for young adults (10-18 year old) – my primary market for the Wycaan Master series.

teenelectronic_396Laura Hazard Owen recently wrote: “The children’s and young adult e-book market faces special challenges not shared by the adult market, new research shows. And teens are slow to adopt ebooks, in part because they do not see ebooks as a social technology and they think there are too many restrictions on sharing digital titles.”

She reached her conclusion based on two online surveys commissioned by PubTrack Consumer towards the end of last year who surveyed 1,000 teenagers and 1,000 parents of pre-teens. The details of the survey can be found here – Children’s Publishing Goes Digital.   There are some interesting theories and statistics here. Firstly, youngsters are extremely social and want to share their books with friends and e-book technology is perceived as too restrictive. This is changing now and Amazon has been quick to identify this need. I thought that perhaps the teens did not have access to comfortable ebook readers. The majority has cell phones, but I am not including this. 60% of those surveyed receive technology from their parents as the latter upgrade.

images-7Ms. Hazard Owen makes another excellent point It is not just young adults propelling YA books like the Hunger Games trilogy onto ebook bestseller lists:

– 30-44-year-olds constitute 28 % of YA print book sales and 32 % of YA ebook sales.

-18-29-year-olds buy the most YA books, purchasing 31% of YA print sales and 35% of YA ebook sales.

Making a decision to invest in the YA fantasy ebook market doesn’t look as attractive as genres aimed at adults, but this is going to change as more young people receive the necessary devices. Also, the realization that the YA market goes not from 12-18, but 12-44 year olds make for a more encouraging prospect.

images-1A final interesting point is that this age group is more likely to buy a book because of a recommendation on a social network. Perhaps this prompted Amazon to make the investment to purchase Goodreads.

Now, please excuse me, this 49-year-old is going to read The Hunger Games, recommended to me by my 14-year-old son.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriterFor more about the author, check out his website.

       

Sex or Swords?

I recently finished reading an epic fantasy novel by an author who is perhaps a year ahead of me. He is a couple of novels deeper into his series and seems to have a similar, but not bigger, social platform. 

But his books are selling impressively and I enjoyed reading his work, but there was nothing in the quality of the plot, writing, etc. that suggested why he is outselling me.

There are a lot of things in common between our novels. They are both character driven and, though there is a clear plot arc, you really stay engaged because you are rooting for the characters. There is plenty of action and moral dilemmas. If and when I write a review, and I definitely will because this is so important to the author (hinting here!), I realize that it would be similar to many of the reviews I have received for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree.

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But there are two fundamental differences, perhaps three.

1) His novels are meant only for adults.

2) There is a fair amount of sex.

There is also considerable swearing, but I don’t think someone buys a book because of the swearing. It might deter a few people, but not act as motivator.

These differences lead me to wonder about whether young adults are reading ebooks – which remains the most popular with all struggling authors – and I will examine this next week.

But for now, I want to focus on sex. Let me be honest. I’m very fond of sex and I enjoy reading and writing about it. In my non-fantasy novels, there are probably two graphic sex scenes in each. I believe that the way my characters deal with sex, before, during and after, reveals far more than any long description can ever hope to achieve.

All three books ­– A Gardener’s Tale, The Accidental Activist, and Unwanted Heroes – have garnered criticism from a few reviewers who were upset or disturbed by what they read, but there are many others who mention it positively. There was nothing 50 Shades, or anything violent or forced in these scenes and, in truth, I remain proud of them, even when I know my mother and mother-in-law have read them!

A Gardener's Tale  - new cover

However, what is the place of sex in epic fantasy? The book in question has two sex scenes and neither are particularly graphic or explicit. Throughout the novel there are sexual references but little more than men’s comments or a woman’s thoughts. Both scenes were written well and felt part of the story. Both added to the richness of the characters.

 I have wondered about Game of Thrones, in particular because my 14-year-old is interested in reading and watching the series. I have no doubt that George R.R. Martin wrote what he understood to be sexual mores of that period and I agree that it probably happened as he described, but the sex was clearly not a turn on for me (neither was it for most of Martin’s characters come to think of it).

Much of the sex were men exploiting their power over women and a few scenes are of women who manipulate men to get something they want through sexual favors or binding the men’s lusts to them. All good stuff, perhaps, but not something I want to share with my teenage son.

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I want him to know about sex as something romantic, a bonding act between two people who love each other. I want him to know that anything that is not two consenting adults pleasuring themselves and each other, is deviant. It might not necessarily be wrong, but that is for him to decide according to his values.

In the Wycaan Master series, I touch on many values and morals. I challenge the young adults who read my books to make choices about race, violence, friendships, loyalty, and enjoy it when I hear my son or his friends comment that they are proud/disappointed/upset/ happy about the actions of a character. I like that they feel guilty, understanding and maybe partly rooting for the bad guys. Nothing is ever black or white.

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But what about sex? There are certain hints in my novels that some things are going on, but it is easily missed if a young adult is not thinking about such topics. To write about sex, even in a tasteful youth-orientated way, would strip my novels of being YA (young adult). I would lose the initial motivation of writing to influence a new generation. 

Is it possible to write in sexual scenes in a YA novel? Most parents do not vet a book, trusting that if it has received recognition as YA then it will not include certain things such as swearing, graphic violence, or sex.

I do not want to step away from the target audience that so intrigues me and I am not sure I am ready to abandon them. However, I am frustrated that there are strict boundaries, frustrated that I could convey so much to my target audience through my young characters having or thinking of sexual encounters. I could convey healthy values associated with sex, values that I want to share with my own sons.

So my question is: Can sex be handled within a YA context? Your thoughts?

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.

 

Sword and Gun Control

Epic Fantasy, among many genres, has the ability to whisk us away from reality and send us into a world of noble quests, ancient swords, and magnificent mythical animals. It also has the ability to offer wisdom for the world we live in and I have written about this before.

Airship10But sometimes it is really hard to let go and enter this world – or to return to the one we live in. I needed to write a post for this blog a day or so after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, and I couldn’t. What can one possibly write on a blog like this? 

I searched the Internet, found something amusing and pre posted it. It was a cop-out; admittedly perhaps some much-needed comic relief. But I’ve been thinking about this ever since. If epic fantasy is anything more than escapism, then we should have something to say? 

When National Rifle Association VP, Wayne LaPierre, blames violent video games, perhaps to deflect the debate on gun control, we need to ask ourselves whether we as fantasy authors and readers are also glorifying violence. 

The fact we use bows and arrows, axes and swords instead of semi-automatic machine guns doesn’t make it cleaner. I admire (begrudgingly as it is sometimes hard to read) the gruesomeness of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series. What he describes in his battle scenes are probably the closest we come to the reality of battle. 

imgres-8But I am stuck with the feeling that if we do not write about the darker side, how can we reach for the lighter? For a rainbow to appear, there needs to be a storm. We do have a responsibility not to glorify or keep the violence clean. I am not sure that I achieve this in At The Walls Of Galbrieth and especially not in the huge battles that take place in The First Decree. I am not sure how to even achieve this without excluding the young adults for whom I primarily write. I do not believe my 14-year-old son and his friends, who devour my books, should read A Game of Thrones because of the violence (and also the way he portrays sex).

How can we keep on moving forward after a tragedy? Does it not maybe become even more important not to give up? I’ll leave the last words to a couple of good friends.

FRODO: “What are we holding onto Sam?”

SAM: “That there’s some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

Frodo and Sam

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Alon Shalev is the author of At The Walls of Galbrieth, Book 1 of The Wyccan Master series, which reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012, released by Tourmaline Books. The First Decree, the sequel is due out in early 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

10 Takeaways From George RR Martin

Isabel Berwick had lunch with Game of Thrones author, George RR Martin, and wrote this great article for the Financial Times. This post is not meant to replace it, but here are a few takeaways that stood out to me, for those of us who love and write epic fantasy. Please do read her article. It is very interesting, but be warned – it will make you hungry!

George RR Martin

1) During their lunch,  George RR Martin sees a map in Ms. Berwick’s “giant slab of breaded chicken.” He points to different parts and explains: “There are various little inlets where cities could be.”

I have seen elves in coffee shops and magical tunnels in my local park. These magical worlds are not hidden from us, they are right in front of our eyes.

2) Having famous fans of your works helps. Apparently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg held a Game of Thrones-themed barbecue which made the news.

3) Martin didn’t have much as a child as his family struggled to keep financially afloat, but the seeds were sown – he was “the kid with his nose in a book.” Stephen King speaks of the need to be constantly reading – in your genre and outside.

 4) There are explicit sexual scenes in Game of Thrones (though I don’t remember much from the book apart from one scene – I have only read the first so far). This caught my attention because I use sex in my social-justice themed novels. Both A Gardener’s Tale and The Accidental Activist has vivid sex scenes. I believe these can reveal so much about a character, but I suspect HBO saw the fact that people like sex on their screens was reason enough.

5) It is okay to fail with a few books. Martin expected his breakthrough would come with his fourth book, Armageddon Rag, about a rock band. He concedes that: “it was the worst-selling of all my novels and essentially destroyed my career as a novelist at the time.” The most important lesson from this is DON’T GIVE UP!

6). When asked about his world-building, Martin, despite his success, is quick to give credit to J.R.R. Tolkien: “There were thousands of years of fantasy before Tolkien but the way it is shaped as a modern commercial publishing genre and the fantasy books that have been written in the past half century have all been influenced by Tolkien. So it still sort of defines the playing field.”

Martin has shown us that Tolkien’s legacy continues. People want to immerse into a rich world and are ready to read deep and vivid descriptions. 

7) Leave your own mark. Martin feels that his strong women, just as politically contriving and sexually adept, send a strong message that the female character needs to be as strong and vivid as the males.

I also think the way he perceives a hero is unique. John Smith and Tyrion Lannister are as close as I got to a hero (Edard Stark cuts a more typical Man For All Seasons-type hero). But they are clearly flawed and tainted enough to only just stand out from the rest. I admire this aspect of Martin – I am not aware who else succeeds in doing this.

8) Martin believes that maps are very important. I have talked about them in this blog before, but he confirms the necessity. It was important enough, he notes, to be at the beginning of each HBO episode. 

 9) The reader is willing to cope with many characters. This means the writer needs to stay extremely organized. Martin has over 1,000 characters in his series and his plots are both complex and spread over years. 

There are many ways to keep track of plots and characters. I think methodology is a very individual choice and will touch on this in a later blog. What is certain is that the passionate reader will remember what happened several years ago and not forgive you the error.

10) Martin, the successful author is traveling around the world.  I am sure it is very interesting and gratifying, but you can tell a writer when he says: “These trips are fun but they do interfere with my writing.”

Write. Write. Write. This is a busy period for me at the work which puts the food on the table. Anticipating this, I am mainly editing and blogging. The next book will wait for a quieter part of the year. But man, am I cranky!  

Finally, I just loved this quote. It requires no comment.

“When I am writing best, I really am lost in my world. I lose track of the outside world. I have a difficult time balancing between my real world and the artificial world. When the writing is going really well, whole days and weeks go by and I suddenly realise I have all these unpaid bills and, my God, I haven’t unpacked, and the suitcase has been sitting there for three weeks.” 

If you’ve been there you know it. If you haven’t, I hope you soon discover it. Terry Brooks says that this is when the magic happens. Here’s to those magical moments: and many more books from the world of Westoros.

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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).