What’s With The Pipe?

When you write epic fantasy, you have the privilege sit before a blank page (well screen nowadays). You make up all the rules. If you want these creatures to have different colored skin, pointed ears, horns, or magic, go for it. If you want to have unicorns, dragons, or any creature you make up, it is your right.

So what’s with the pipe? I know, Tolkien smoked, but he strode around Oxford in tweed, talking languages no one else remembers. In fact, there are a lot of characteristics about the master that we can adopt.

I think the secret lies with those who puff. I used to smoke a pipe for several years, seeing it as a compromise, a halfway house between smoking cigarettes and not. I loved my pipe. I craved the taste, loved the touch of the warm bowl, and enjoyed packing the pipe correctly, even cleaning it. All day, I looked forward to that time when I could put my feet up and puff the worries of the world away. 

I succeeded in giving up cigarettes for the pipe, but giving up the pipe proved tougher than I could imagine. This is not an article about smoking cessation, but even eight years later, if someone passed by me with his briar, or even is sitting a hundred feet away (given the correct wind), I will smell it, yearn for it, crave it for the rest of the day …  maybe for the rest of my life.

Perhaps this is why we continue to give our characters an opportunity that we are denying ourselves. Are we being foolish? Indulgent? 

I recently read a scene to my writer’s group in which, shortly after a bloody fight, the characters (those who survived) sat down and puffed their pipes. A colleague questioned me having my characters smoking in a YA novel. 

Fair point, I thought, until I realized that she had not objected to me exposing my tender, young readers to battle, killing, blood and gore.

I guess that one man’s poison is…well poison is poison. I shall have to sit and think about this. Now where’s my pi–.

Why do you think pipe smoking is a mainstay in fantasy novels?

Good reading.

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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).

Oops! Just Killed A Friend

Wow! Killing a friend ain’t easy. You think you’re ready for it. You have planned the dramatic demise, executed to perfection, but when it gets right down to it, it is soooo hard.

And when they are lying there dead, with an arrow though their heart, or an axe wound in their head, you think you can just walk away. But what do you still have to do?

Press the Save button.

Haldir – too noble for our times.

Do you get the irony? Your friend lies dead on the page, their blood still wet, and you are totally responsible for it. Sure you didn’t wield the axe, or aim the bow, but you created this person, this character, this hero.

He trusted you, allowed you to move him from one part of the kingdom to the other. He has seen you put him in a tight jam and always something happens to get him out of it in the nick of time. He never complained.

Except this time he is dead. You killed him and now he glares at you from the computer screen.

Save

Brom – never got over the loss of his dragon.

And you walk around in a daze. What made you do it? Why? For the glory? So that the reader would say: “Wow I never thought he would dare…” And you know you will have to face your writers group next week with this and get flayed. They loyally listened to your manuscript week after week, growing to love your characters, buying into your plot, and now you do this to them!

Save

He hasn’t gone you know, not really. A knock on the door, a guy at the gym with the same tattoo, a person who bumps shoulders on the busy train platform. Your eyes meet fleetingly and you look away, guilty, ashamed. How could you have done that?

You killed a good friend, one who let you create them. And now you are going to expect the other characters in the story to trust you? Beware my friend. You never can be sure just how the next chapter will end.

Save

I simply could never accept this. Destroyed my childhood innocence and I’m in my 40’s!

Good Writing,

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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 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).

Where is the Moral Line in YA Fiction?

Since I wrote Wycaan Master with my (then) 11-year-old son, I assumed that our story fitted the Young Adult genre. It is a coming-of-age novel, so I never gave it much thought. There is no clear sex or profanity, though race is a big issue in the first book.

Since I have become absorbed in the fantasy genre, I have begun to wonder where the line is drawn. As I continue to write the second and third books in the series, intimacy has developed between characters, sometimes direct and at other times implied. There has been plenty of violence and references to overindulgence in alcohol. Colleagues at my writers group have questioned whether I should be including these themes.

As I began to research this, I found a number of excellent sources regarding YA fiction in general. Heather Dunlevy-Scheerer has written an interesting article about the historical development of YA literature.

She lays out several characteristics that she took from someone called Niday (I couldn’t find a clear reference).

(1) a teenage (or young adult) protagonist

(2) first-person perspective

(3) adult characters in the background

(4) a limited number of characters

(5) a compressed time span and familiar setting

(6) current slang

(7) detailed descriptions of appearance and dress

(8) positive resolution

(9) few, if any, subplots

(10) an approximate length of 125 to 250 pages.

From a brief skimming of the Internet, it seems that the common thread in YA fiction is an adolescent, rather than an adult or child, protagonist. However, the subject matter and story lines of leading YA literature are relevant to the challenges of youth, and more edgier novels include themes such as identity, sexuality, science fiction, depression, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, money issues, race, familial struggles, and bullying.

April Dawn Wells suggests seventeen common traits of young adult novels. These include: “friendship, getting into trouble, interest in the opposite sex, money, divorce, single parents, remarriage, problems with parents, grandparents, younger siblings, concern over grades/school, popularity, puberty, race, death, neighborhood, and job/working.

There are a number of YA novels currently in print that are on the edgier sides, dealing with peer pressure, drugs, gangs, crime, violence, sexuality, incest, oral sex, and female/male rape.

The obvious criticism of these novels is that they encourage destructive or immoral behavior or at least bring them into the adolescent’s mind at too early an age. Countering this is the fact that teens will be better equipped to deal with real-life difficult situations and social issues because they have role models in the protagonists they have followed.

Where is the line drawn in amount and nature of such issues between appropriateness and inappropriateness in young-adult fiction? How can we keep literature as a relevant medium when the exposure of TV, computer games and Internet is almost not monitored and easily accessible? None of these mediums, in my opinion, can offer the depth of thought and emotion that a good book provides.

Now more than ever, YA literature needs to stay relevant. Maybe the adults (including parents of teens like myself) have to accept that we might be more uncomfortable with this than our children.

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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 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).

Pro-logue or Against -logue

This week, I entered Wycaan Master/At the Walls of Galbrieth, the first of my Alliance series, into the San Francisco Writer’s Conference Indie Awards. In three weeks, I will submit it to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

Both competitions require the first 5,000 words of the novel and abruptly I find myself needing to make a critical decision. I have written a prologue, a short but hopefully eloquent setting of the scene.

Prologues are not always acceptable. When I presented the prologue to my writer’s group, the jury was out and, though I was not hung, neither was I acquitted.

It seems that prologues are more acceptable in the fantasy genre than others. Critiques have suggested that a prologue is there to mask a slow beginning or a lack of a hook.

One ring to bind them all… opened the master and we were duly bound for three long volumes, cartoon series, and epic movies. Now the epic fantasy world waits with bated breath for The Hobbit movie, even though we all know what happens.

Since my novel is directed at the YA audience I made sure to begin the novel at a fast pace. I can imagine many teens skimming the prologue, though I hope they will value it in later years when they ritually return to the series as I, and many of you, return to read LOTR every few years.

So, a couple of weeks before decision time, I wish to ask:

How do you feel about a prologue for an epic fantasy novel? Does the reader want it, the agent accept it and the publisher allow it?

Your comments and advice are gratefully received. Wishing you all a happy and healthy new year.

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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).