How Fantastical is Fantasy?

I mentioned previously that I am reading Sometimes The Magic Works by Terry Brooks. On Page 27 of this little book of great lessons, he writes how, as he struggled with his writing, he began to realize that he could not write the book in this world. “Everything I wrote had to remind readers of what they already knew, yet makes them take a second look at whether or not what they believed was really true.

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I’ve been thinking about this sentence a lot. The difference between epic fantasy and magical realism (think Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin) is that the former transpires in a totally different world, whereas magical realism takes place in this world, but has elements of the unexplained – magic.

While the Wycaan Master series takes place in Odessiya, a mythical world, I kept it relatively easy to imagine, because I do not want the reader to struggle with my world building. Rather, I want them to focus on the characters and the plot, while still portraying a beautiful world.

Christopher Paolini does a wonderful job describing his land of Alagaesia, in stunning detail. He suggests his success in doing this is based on his love for the wild as he grew up in Montana. But again, his world is very easy to believe. When my family is on a road trip and are confronted by a beautiful vista, we point and declare: Alagaesia!

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I hope I have succeeded in portraying Odessiya as a beautiful land: full of great mountain ranges, deserts, forests, lakes and coast. I thoroughly enjoyed describing the ice worlds in the north and the forest of the Shanrea, but I never strayed from environments you can associate with on trips or the National Geographic channel.

When I sent Seanchai to the Elves of the West, I wanted to describe a rich world of mighty trees. Living in Northern California, I am in constant awe of the redwoods. My fictional bloodwoods are a tribute to these majestic giants and the name is meant to offer just enough to fill the reader with the images of redwoods. I wanted to offer an exotic setting with a connection to something known to the reader with just enough to be different.

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The age of a dozen pages of descriptions that J.R.R. Tolkien got away with no longer survives the red pen of the 21st Century editor. The publishers, facing rising costs of resources are loath to publish thick tomes, and the millennial reader does not have the patience to read several pages describing a small forest. My eldest son admitted to skipping descriptions after he had a clear picture in his mind and I am not completely unsure that I didn’t do this when I read Lord of the Rings back in the previous century.

That being said, the fantasy writer is challenged to offer opportunities for the reader to suspend belief as Brooks suggests. In his own prequels to the Shannara series, he sends us through post-apocalyptic California with humans and mutations. But the mutants are a result of the catastrophe that has all but destroyed the world. It is, tragically, not hard to take that leap of imagination, which again happens when he skillfully weaves in his elves.

Perhaps no one deserves more praise that he who blazed the trail and created a hobbit. There had never been a hobbit before Tolkien and yet it seems so familiar. Even ‘second breakfast’ and the family relations that Bilbo et al gets so worked up about, makes sense.

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The skill of the fantasy author is to create a world that the reader does not have to work hard to imagine and then to create something imaginative that allows us, because we have built trust between writer and reader, to suspend rational belief and embrace.

It is a subtle yet powerful tool that offers a rich layer to the world of epic fantasy. It is why readers flock to Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore and Christopher Paolini, and why those of us who walk in their shadows continue to cultivate our craft and build words, races and situations that are believably unbelievable.

Have a great week, everyone.

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+

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My Secret

Friday night, a Creative Writing Major asked me what was my ‘secret’. I like this question because I can respond that if I tell them, then it is no longer a secret. The truth is, it is not secret, and neither do I have any claim to originality. You will find these ideas in a dozen books and blogs.

What is important here is that they work for me. We are all different and live in different life circumstances. But I have three recommendations that I believe could resonate with others:

1) Write every day – writing is like working out. Go to the gym or wherever you work out every day and teach your body to expect it. Likewise, when you write every day, your brain settles into a groove and the process (like those bench presses) become more natural.

It helps me to set goals. I do this monthly and they are typed up and next to my desk. Keep them real and attainable.

What do you do when you finish your first novel? Begin to write your second. Have a glass of wine first to celebrate, by all means, but then get back into it.

 

Hit the gym and the keyboards every day.

Hit the gym and the keyboards every day.

2) Put yourself out there as a writer – if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will. Go to a writer’s group, a lecture circuit, conference, workshops, wherever there are writers. Become a member of the community. Start to think, act and behave like a writer (I’ll leave the details to you). Last night, at my non-profit’s annual fundraiser, I put my trilogy in the silent auction. Though I never hide my ‘other’ life, it was surprising how many students and donors came up to me and said: “I never knew…”

3) Learn the Craft – I know I have mentioned these books before, but I read annually. One is Stephen King’s On Writing, and the other is Sometimes The Magic Works by Terry Brooks. I believe that anyone who wants to write should read the former, and anyone who wants to be a fantasy writer (or a mensch) should read the second.

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There is more to this point than just reading a How-To. Take an author who you admire and learn their work. Read their books first to enjoy a good story, but then read them again to understand their plot arc, character development, world-building, etc. Analyze what they do well and emulate. I do not mean copy. Take their techniques and blend with your imagination.

You might do well to apply this to how they sell their books. But here I would suggest a word of caution. Do not try to learn marketing from an A-list author. Choose someone who is five years ahead of you and follow them. Don’t come to me if you get a restraining order, I mean follow their online platform and certainly, if they are in town for a book reading or writer’s conference, then go.

A man I have my eye on (and I am referring to his success as an up-and-coming fantasy author) is Daniel Arenson, He has just released a new book – Requiem’s Song – congratulations sir. My youngest has just begun the first Requiem having heard my eldest and myself enthuse about it. He has hardly lifted his head from the book all weekend. 

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If my ‘secret’ doesn’t work for you, find someone else’s. I won’t be offended, I promise. While we are on the topic: Authors – What is your secret” Please share in the responses or consider a guest post here.

Have a great week everyone.

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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+

All He Had To Say Was Thank You

There is an urban author’s myth of a now famous author in her undiscovered days – was it Janet Evanovich? – who spoke at a bookstore in a mall with pouring rain outside. She knew the audience would be sparse as the mall was empty, and to cheer herself up, she bought a box of chocolates from the store next door. 

Only four people turned up and she made them sit in a circle and gave them each a chocolate. They were silent as she spoke and read, and asked no questions. At the end three got up and left. The fourth thanked her and the author asked, rather desperately, if she wanted to buy a book. The woman laughed and said that all four were homeless, and just thirsted for a little culture so the bookstore allowed them to attend. The author felt compelled to give her a copy of her book and the rest of the chocolates.

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I recently went to a book reading of an author who is struggling to break through, like me. We had met a few times and I have offered advice at various stages. I dutifully spread the word of his book launch to my social and e-circles, attended the reading, and bought a book.

Not many people turned up and even less felt inclined to buy the book. He was disappointed and the bookstore staff was not too excited either. When I asked him to sign my book, he mumbled a weak thank you and scribbled. I don’t think he ever made eye contact with me, and I felt a profound sense of resentment.

This is reality for all but the 200 or so A-listers. The rest of us may have 50 people in attendance or 5. It is hit-or-miss and this is probably a significant reason why adopting an online marketing strategy makes sense.

To celebrate the first Wycaan Master trilogy and the Eric Hoffer Book Award, I held a celebration in my hometown at the iconic Games of Berkeley at the end of last year. There was a strong attendance, but I put a lot of time into advertising and most of those attending had already bought the books. It was not a good return on investment if I look at it through economic eyes alone.

 Games of Berkeley Question from Asif

But I loved doing it. I loved my friends who came and read parts, I loved the Q&A, especially the questions from the younger members of the audience, and most of all, I loved the conversations and the excitement of my readers – yes, for one afternoon they were all mine!

I sincerely hope that those who attended left happy and committed to my series and me. I especially hope that the young people were inspired to continue reading and, who knows, maybe put millennial quill to parchment. 

I have heard many times that my author-hero, Terry Brooks, is an inspiring author to meet. I hear he shares a conversation with everyone bearing books, and that he is a delight to be with. I can believe that after reading this passage in his book, Sometimes The Magic Works. He says that book signings are not about selling books or advancing your career. He say…oh why not just let him say it:

Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks

“It is not in fact about you at all.

Rather, it is about making a connection between readers and books. It is about making readers feel so enthusiastic about books that they cannot wait to come back and buy more – not just copies of your books, but of other authors’ books, as well. It is about generating a feeling of goodwill toward the bookstore and the staff. Mostly, it is about reassuring everyone that they did not waste their time on you. 

How do you accomplish this? …

…Speak to everyone. Make them aware of the fact that you are grateful to be there, anxious to chat, and ready to answer questions if they have any. Never sign a book without looking at and speaking directly to the reader, and then thank them for choosing to take a chance on you.”

I think I have always thanked those who buy my books. To this day, when a stranger tweets me that they just bought one, I feel genuinely touched and honored that they spent their hard-earned money on my books.

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And I thank them.

Maybe one day, someone will develop an app wherein I can put my hand through the screen and shake theirs as I thank them. Perhaps the 2.0 version will allow us to reach through and hug someone.

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The world would become a better place, for authors, readers and all humankind!

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 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).

 

Finding Mythical Places Everywhere

A while ago, I wrote a post about meeting elves in coffee shops. The point was that…well you can read the point for yourself, but there is more along these lines.

I grew up in England with real castles, stately homes, wattle and daub cottages, and signs of a more ancient, Pagan culture everywhere. I was not writing fantasy back then but imagine I would find a lot of inspiration there. Two weeks sitting in a castle in Wales writing – is that a business expense?

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My eldest at Conway Castle, Wales, several years ago. He sat there for hours, transfixed in a world of his own.

But we actually don’t have to travel too far. I attended a conference in the heart of Washington ‘DC Chinatown. I stepped outside the meeting room on the 7th floor  for some fresh air and stared at this:

Ruins by Hillel SIC

Today, I was at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and noticed Old Glory flying at half-mast in respect of the victims of the Boston Marathon attack. The sky was a rich blue and the flag and tower looked glorious. I could imagine Seanchai and friends arriving on a boat (do you pay the toll riding over the Bay Bridge on horseback? Do three horses and riders make a posse or qualify for the casual car pool?).

Interestingly, I crossed the Embarcadero between the Ferry Building and Bay Bridge and saw a restaurant with gargoyles and (what looked to me) a sign that could have been written in Medieval lettering. It could have been a tavern or pub for thirsty travelers before they put five Peet’s Coffee and nine Starbucks in the mile-square Financial District.

My point is that writing fantasy is as much a state of mind. When I am actually writing a story (as opposed to editing or marketing), which is about 4-5 months of the year, I notice these things as though they are only around for this time of the year.

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Picnic at our local park. Younger son discovered this tunnel. We sat in here and discussed how to use it in the book I was writing at the time.

It is why I see elves in coffee shops and get invited underground by hospitable dwarves. It enriches the already beautiful vistas, forests and rivers of Northern California where I explore. It is what makes my kids and I respond when we see a beautiful natural scene by exclaiming: Alagaesia! (You can blame Christopher Paolini for this. I hope he’s touched).

It is why Terry Brooks claims that ‘Sometimes The Magic Works.

Have a mystical weekend.

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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 At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

Meet Terry Brooks

There is still something magical for avid readers to learn about the authors of their favorite books. Even in the age of Internet and ebooks, there is something that draws us to author signings and the opportunity to meet them in person. We stand in line, hugging our copies of their books and wait patiently (sometimes longer than at a polling station) for a minute of his/her attention and their name scribbled in the book.

I have read at least 10 books in Terry Brook’s Shanara series. I have also read and treasure his book on writing: Sometimes The Magic Works. The part I love most from this incredibly useful book, by the way, is the autobiographical part.

The following interview is about 30 minutes long, divided into three parts. Terry touches on his life, his writing and the craft. There is something here for everyone because this is a not only a wonderfully talented author, but a modest, down-to-earth man.

My best part (not a serious spoiler) is how he talks about his fans: with love, respect and appreciation. Do you understand why I am so keen on this guy?

Terry Brooks Talks with Peter Orullian -Part 1 of 3

Terry Brooks Talks with Peter Orullian – Part 2 of 3

Terry Brooks Talks with Peter Orullian – Part 3 of 3

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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, At The Walls Of Galbrieth, which reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012, is due out in January 2013 by Tourmaline Books. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

When is an Elf not an Elf? And why do we care?

Yes, my novel is compelling, special, well-written etc. just like the 499 other epic fantasy manuscripts sitting in the slush piles of every publishing house that offers YA epic fantasy.

I am working with an agent who is asking the challenging and insightful questions that will help my manuscript stand out from the rest. It is tough and I am feeling very possessive. Last week I shared his prompting to seek a Higher Concept.

One of the aspects that he wants me to consider is changing my elves, who make up many of the main characters and cultural references. He suggests that I consider changing the elves for a new, mythical race that will set me apart from the rest.

Let me state from the outset that I have no doubt this man knows far more than I about the publishing world, has considerable experience and understands the current state of the publishing world.

But my elves? Our elves? Those of us who grew up on Tolkein, Paolini, Brooks and others, have standards, images, friends. Legolas and Anwen, Arya and Blodgarm, and many others have created a rich and familiar texture. We welcome them surfacing as we settle into a thick novel. We embrace them because there are common threads that pass between authors. We call it a culture, those who don’t read fantasy roll their eyes.

                               Nobel Haldir – we owe him for Helm’s Deep, no?

Terry Brooks’ children know that he is not all there, he tells us as much when he opens his book Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life. More on this book in a later blog.

But Brooks in not dissimilar to the rest of us, just considerably more talented! We pass through a gate in our imagination and reacquaint in a world that exists in a shared consciousness.

Here the elves are tall, thin, light-footed and beautiful. They are fast and posses stealth and discipline. They are in touch with the energy of the earth, the forest, the animal kingdom. They excel in archery, crafts and healing. Perhaps they are aloof, elitist, and closed to the other races, but this comes from their ancient and rich heritage. We know and love them.

We rejoiced to learn that Peter Jackson is bringing Legalos into a prominent role in the hobbit. Well, a few raised eyebrows, since Legalos was not even referred to by name in The Hobbit when he appeared flanking his father, the King of Mirkwood.

We accept, even with a bit of jealousy that he can fight at Helms Deep for five days, or run non stop for three and still not need to brush his immaculate hair. Nor do we care that his quiver seems to replenish itself, an occupational hazard of any archer who fights battles every other day.

We don’t mind because elves epitomize something that we identify with. We all want to be beautiful, brilliant, in excellent physical condition and, of course, environmentalists. When R.A. Salvatore created Drizzt Do’Urden and the dark elves of Menzoberranzan, a giant underground drow city-state he broke new ground.

Many of us were repelled and had it not been created in the hands of a master of fantasy, we would have rebelled. It was daring, it worked and by Book Three, we were rewarded with the typical elf one finds above ground.

It is tough to turn away from the basic tenets of epic fantasy: the teacher and student, the quest, the fight against a powerful evil, dwarves, elves, dragons, a rich natural world. There is something that has entered our collective consciousness and taken root.

It is why we read and reread the masters…and it is why we will return to read those who take over the role of entertaining us in a way that only epic fantasy does.

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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 will enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#elfwriter).