Stand Up Fantasy Readers

I came out of the literature closet when I made the decision to find a way to have my Wycaan Master series published. My ego prevented me from using a pseudonym and I knew it was time to let the world know.

At first I kind of tagged a mumbled line into my elevator pitch: I write social justice-themed novels and also dabble in some fantasmmmm (imagine a hand rising in front of my mouth).

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I was mortified when my boss’s wife turned to me one day and said her husband had told her I’m really into epic fantasy. I focused all my superhero strength on the ground opening up and swallowing me. Thankfully such talents are woefully non-existent because boss’s wife revealed with pride how she totally loves the genre and began reeling off her favorite authors and series. Then boss’s super-cool wife promptly sat on the stairs with my then 12-year-old son and talked for a half hour of their shared genre. He was beaming when I asked him how their conversation went.

I discovered that, as I assumed more confidence in sharing that I write in two genres, people began to share their love for epic fantasy. I found that there were plenty of fantasy nerds (Big Bang Theory, anyone?) but there are also many very cool people.

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As I begin to frequent the forums, I discover people who are deep-thinkers, who follow and critically analyze plots, world building, and character development. In fact, having participated in a fair share of workshops, read how-to writing books, and listened to countless authors, I have found these threads to be as profound and educational as any.

Fantasy readers are connoisseurs in the true sense of the word – a person who is especially competent to pass critical judgments in an art, particularly one of the fine arts, or in matters of taste (dictionary.com).

Last week I quoted from a comment on a long You Tube thread (I was listening to the Hobbit soundtrack) full of comments, disagreements, and debate. The author is RobbieBjork17: “Holy Crap that was one_ of the most educated conversations I’ve ever read on youtube…. shoulda known it was going to be Tolkien Fans ;).”

He (or she) knew something I didn’t. But then what can you expect from a genre led by two British Oxford professors!

Now I wear my genre on the side of my car and when I pick up commuters every morning at the casual car pool and they ask me about the car magnet, I reply: “I am an author. I write in two genres: social justice themed novels and YA epic fantasy.”

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And I say the last part without mumbling.

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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.  

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Being A Bestseller, Being A Mensch

The majority of this post has come from an account by a non-fantasy reader, One Ill Writer,  who happened upon a book signing of Terry Brooks in August 2011.

I have been looking of a way to recognize Brooks, whose first novel, Sword of Shannara,  will soon celebrate its 30th anniversary. I have personally finished three of his trilogies and I am, one would say, indeed a fan.

“This past Thursday, some friends and I went and checked out Terry Brooks at the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s Books. I had read one of his books back in the late 80′s. He writes elf magic fantasy novels mostly, which aren’t really my thing, but I’m always interested in hearing what an experienced novelist has to say regardless of genre.

“My favorite thing about genre fiction is that the fans are dedicated to their favorite authors. And let me just add here that Terry Brooks’ fans are fanatics. I love that. There’s something infectious about people being so in love with an author’s world that they squirm with unrestrained giddiness and exchange obscure trivia about the different books set in that universe. I didn’t know much about Terry Brooks or his novels, but within five minutes of sitting down, I was pumped for I didn’t know what.

“In all about 60 people sat in folding chairs and stood around the edges. There was a guy a row ahead of me who had a duffle bag full of all the Brooks novels in paperback. An employee from the store was handing out post-its so Terry would spell your name right when he personalized your book.

“There was a rolling rack full of dozens of copies of his latest novel and a few people grabbed a copy before they sat down. There was a microphone at a podium behind which was propped a large poster of the new book cover. To the right of that, a table with pens on it. Pretty standard book release/signing setup. I’ve been to a few of these things and sometimes the authors come out, they read, they answer a few questions (one of which is invariably, “Where do you get your ideas?”), then they sign books. The author’s demeanor at these things normally ranges from contemptuous to putting-on-a-good-face.

“But Terry Brooks has been in this business a long time. When he came out, he said hello and from that instant, he was in 100% control of his fans. He said he would read a few pages from a book, but instead of the book being released, he would read from the next, unpublished book. He then said he would make an announcement about upcoming works that he hadn’t even told his publisher.

“Lastly, he said he was going to release a book every sixth months instead of once a year. If you think the crowd was excited when they showed up, after these three statements, people were losing their minds. It wasn’t like they were cheering and screaming like a drunk at a soccer match, but they were exchanging looks and shifting in their seats. If there’s one thing about fans and collectors, they love knowing something before anyone else. And more than that, they love to be the ones who tell their friends who didn’t make it to the reading! More than one person was using their phone get video of the announcements.

“Mr. Brooks understands his readers. Maybe better than any novelist I’ve seen speak. When the Q&A came, he didn’t laugh or scoff at the obscurity of any of the questions. And he answered every question quickly with engaging humor and honesty. I couldn’t tell if he actually had his whole universe in his head, or was just making stuff up on the fly, but either way, every fan was satisfied with his answers. He never dismissed anyone or said anything like, “What do you think should happen?” It was amazing. I won’t even go into the pages he read, but I’ll sum up by saying the reading ended with a cliffhanger. I read one book 20 years ago and suddenly I can’t wait for the next one? Brilliant. The guy was a master of his element.

“What I took from this besides an admiration for the professionalism of Terry Brooks was that it’s crucial to know your audience. Crucial! He writes books that he knows his audience will love. He’s not writing to a general fantasy market, but specifically to those who already read his books. John Locke, the million-selling ebook guy, said the same thing. Guys like them know they will ultimately sell more books because their hardcore fans will be a marketing army. For FREE.

“I had noticed he pronounced “Shannara” (his universe) differently than all his fans did. He said “Shanneruh” while everyone else says, “Shuh-nara.” You know, sounds more elf-y that way. So I asked him if he ever got into arguments with fans who pronounce things differently than he does. He said, “No, man. It’s your book. Say it how you want.” People behind me in line laughed. Flawless. Now it’s MY book!

“The number of books he sold that night was astounding. People who had casually picked up a used paperback before he spoke had stacks of books by the time they got in line for the signing. The new release rack was nearly empty when I left. He had converted everyone in the room. He reminded his die hard fans why they read his books. If said before that the energy of the fans was infectious, Terry Brooks’ respect for his fans was doubly so.

“People who aren’t sci fi or crime or fantasy dorks don’t get it. Book nerds are weird people, they think. They also think it’s ok to dress head to toe in Timbers or Seahawks colors and get hammered in the nosebleed seats on game night, but not ok to take an armload of books to the suburbs and actually shake the hand of the man who enriched your life for the past 30 years? Give me the book nerds any day.”

I love this account because it comes from someone outside the genre. Brooks endears himself to people because he is both a master of his craft and a humble person. That’s a rare blend for a 21st Century celebrity. It feels almost mythical, even other-worldly.

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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 First Decree, the sequel to At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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I Hope It Never Gets Old

This is actually the seventh time that I am on the cusp of a book being published. This count allows for a couple of self-published books that were both picked up by Three Clover Press and repackaged with new covers, titles, and an extensive round of edits. 

But I am as excited as I was the first time, and the second, and the third… You get the point. Sometime in the next two weeks, The First Decree, the sequel to At The Walls Of Galbrieth, will be officially released by Tourmaline Books.

The First Decree-hi resolution

I wonder how it is for the big fish? When those A-list authors have their 20th, 30th, or 40th novel released, are they just as excited? Yes, I’m thinking of you, Terry Brooks, George R.R. Martin, J.K Rowling. Are these authors and others coolly not checking their email every hour for the official notice from their publishers? Do they accidentally type their name into the Amazon.com search engine and browse down the list of books on their author’s name?

I am, of course, way to cool to be checking every hour, myself. In order to be productive at work and give my sons the attention they deserve, I have set reminders for four times a day – I’m awake for eighteen, I figure that’s okay.

I have not yet held my review copy. I remember each time it happened with almost the clarity of holding my newborn sons. The books, I have to admit, were not as slimy or noisy.

I am currently almost 40,000 words into writing the fourth book (yes, I said Book 4). But I have promised myself that once The First Decree is launched, I will stop and begin the process of my own edit for Book 3, before I send it off to editors, cover designers and formatters. 

The process is ongoing. Each magical, landmark moment: finishing writing the last page, sending the book to the editor, seeing the cover for the first time, receiving the review copy… these are all just stages in a journey to build not only a world, but a dynasty – a multi-generational world with a history of its own.

But that never stops these special moments being magical – and it never should.

The First Decree Axe
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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.  

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Limited Time Offer To Elfwriter Followers

Dear Friends,

This is a limited offer exclusive to followers of elfwriter.com.

I would like to offer a free kindle copy of At The Walls Of Galbrieth to 10 people who will commit to read and post a review on amazon.com (and anywhere else you hang out).

If you are interested, please send an email to anelfwriter at gmail dot com.

Again, this is only for 10 people who are followers of elfwriter.com. I will take down the blog post after I receive 10 replies – first come, first serve.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover

Have a great weekend, everyone.

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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.

 

Big Boobs and Book Covers: A Critique of Fantasy Art

When I began soliciting artists interesting in creating the covers for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree, I asked the artists for a rendering of Mhari, an elfe (politically correct term for female elf in Odessiya) who would become the first teacher of my protagonist, Seanchai.

I explained that she was old but vibrant, tough but wise, and I waited for the examples. Every one of the four artists produced sexy, buxom female warriors. I realize that sex sells ­– I considered moving to T-Mobile because of the woman in the advert not her motorbike, helicopter or the beautiful color purple (okay I am partial to motorbikes and purple, but lets stay on topic…) ­­– but these are YA books.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover

Apparently, the use of beautiful women on covers of YA Fantasy and Sci Fi are nothing new. This article follows the noble battle by author, Jim Hines.

Hines produced a series of great photos in which he poses in similar positions to scantily-clad women on book covers. Mr. Hines wasn’t against showing some skin himself.

_65356744_scifi“The way women are portrayed is just so ridiculous, so often, you just stop seeing it,” Hines says. “I think posing has made people see it again – you see how ridiculous it is when a 38-year-old fantasy writer is doing it.”

Hines began posting his poses at the beginning of 2012 and they quickly became the most visited. This gave him the idea to create a series to raise money for research to help fight Aicardi Syndrome, a genetic disorder, and he has raised over $15,000 to date.

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The issue of depicting women in fantasy art in a sexual way is nothing new and, in fact, quite rampant in role playing games like D&D. Tracey Hurley, co-founder of Prismatic Art Collection, has commented: “Women are so often portrayed assuming that a stereotypical hetero male is going to be the person looking at the cover, … Male characters [are] powerful and strong, and women’s sexuality will be emphasised. And why is that a problem? It’s constraining for both men and women.”

I find this really depressing. I guess I expected something different from a genre free of stereotypical constraints because it creates its own reality. This is all the more disappointing when dealing with Young Adult literature because of the target audience. I wonder whether a scantily-dressed, thin, and cleavage-heavy woman might also be a turn-off for young women, conscious of their own body-type. Add to this that most of the women portrayed are white and I am left wondering if this explains why less teenage women read fantasy. I also think it explains the success of The Hunger Games, though the promo photos for the movie also follow the concept.

imgresIt is not enough to just thrust a sword in her hand or dress her in a chain mail bikini to project strong images of women, nor is the cover of the book enough to reinforce strong, positive female values.

While my protagonist is a male, I made sure to add strong female characters, who are indispensable to his quest. I believe I showed them as more than equal warriors, each with her own special character. I needed prodding with this, I admit, and even changed Seanchai’s teacher from a man to a woman. Interestingly, it opened up a number of exciting avenues.

Authors are powerful influencers in the community, and even more so when writing for a Young Adult market. But power comes with responsibility and we have a role to play in shaping the next generation of thinkers, leaders, and innovators.

Even though many of us write about different worlds and kingdoms, let’s help make this world a better place.

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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 GalbriethThe First Decree is due out in March 2013.

Criticizing the Critique Group

I’ve just read two interviews/articles with authors who were negative or detrimental about writers or critique groups. Neither would have fazed me, but having read both at one sitting, well, it irked.

I have facilitated the Berkeley Writer’s Group for more than five years now. There is a core group and a larger transitional crowd who join for a period of time. It is a working group – if you are looking for a social meeting, this is not for you.

Usually, 8-10 individuals will read, receiving 15 minutes to share about 1,200 words (if fiction), or a few poems, article etc. Before they read, they can ask for feedback on a specific aspect and we also write comments on the manuscript copies that they distribute. When they finish reading they shut up and listen unless asked a question (this is the hardest part!). We try to be constructive but honest and there are occasionally bruised egos.

For the past 6 months, I have been reading my YA epic fantasy: Wycaan Master / At the Walls of Galbrieth (I still can’t decide between the two). No one in the group (until a woman recently joined us) were fans of fantasy and, given that they had helped me with two social-justice themed novels, were not happy with my change of direction.

As I near the end of the manuscript, I feel a great appreciation for the group. Certainly, it has not been easy and there are times that I would love to be sharing with people who understand the genre, but there is something incredibly refreshing in their comments, as readers who can look down from 10,000 feet, with perspective.

I recently mentioned that I have changed the teacher figure. He was very much a hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Brom and Gandalf and my group found him formal and predictable. The agent who is coaching me also commented on this and urged me to turn the character on his head.

He transformed and became a funny and unpredictable woman. She aged, but still had the strength and energy necessary; it just didn’t always come easy. I feel this has had a fundamental impact on my novel, particularly where there is often a middle sag, and added a richer layer, while also distinguishing the book from comparable novels in the genre.

This, and much more, came from people who, while not experts, care about their craft and also about mine. They are not a replacement for the professional editor, but s/he will receive a cleaner manuscript and I will have a richer story.

I often hear from people who speak derogatory about writer’s groups. Usually, they have had a bad experience or two, and so their attitude is understandable. But a good writer’s group is about mutual support, not fluffing or shattering someone’s ego, but it is above all a group communicating in a very honest and artistic way.

And we do it all face-to-face, with no screen in between. A last bastion of a dying culture?

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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).

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).