Saturday, February 26, 2011

What Makes an Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 1 of 5: Making the Intangible Concrete

What makes a work of fantasy excellent?

Unsurprisingly, this is something I think about a lot.  Over the past few years of writing (and the past twenty years of reading) fantasy, I've come up with the following list, and over the next month or so, I'm going to devote a post to each of the points.  I’ll use the Harry Potter books as examples in a lot of cases, because I assume everybody’s read them, because I’ve read each of them at least twice (usually more; I'm not kidding), and because I think they're masterpieces of fantasy literature.  (I could nerd out on why for an entire post, but I’ll save that for later).  In any case, here they are, The Elements of Excellent Fantasy:

1) Makes Concrete the Intangible Intrinsic
2) No Free Lunch
3) A Complex Villain
4) Measured World-Building
5) Taps the Well of Universal Conflict

Today, I'm going to talk about point number one:   Excellent fantasy takes something intrinsic to being human and moves it from the intangible realm to the tangible.

This is really just a fancy way of saying that fantasy functions as myth.  For the purposes of this discussion, I'll define a myth as a symbolic story used to express some deeper cultural meaning.  I don’t mean to suggest that fantasies ARE myths.  A true myth, like, say, the story of Prometheus, is purely symbolic in addition to being purely story, and most modern fantasy doesn’t quite meet the “purely symbolic” requirement.  Still, a good fantasy novel will tap into something we already experience, usually something slippery and confusing, and give us a means to look at it, understand it, and deal with it in a way we never, in reality, could.

Here's a very simple example of how the wizarding world of Harry Potter externalizes something intangible.  In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Mr. Weasley tells Harry about spells some unscrupulous wizards use to bewitch Muggles' keys:  
"...Muggle-baiting," sighed Mr. Weasley.  "Sell them a key that keeps shrinking to nothing so they can never find it when they need it....Of course, it's very hard to convict anyone because no Muggle would admit their key keeps shrinking--they'll insist they just keep losing it.  Bless them, they'll go to any lengths ignore magic, even if it's staring them in the face...."*
It’s funny, right?  Everyone's misplaced a key at some point, and we can nudge each other and laugh and say, “Oh, so THAT’s why I couldn't find it!”  The Muggle-baiting wizard's spell is an externalization of something internal:  human absentmindedness.   It’s a silly example.  But fantasy—good fantasy—is rich with big, important examples, too.  Take Horcruxes.

As a culture, we've agreed upon the idea that murder is a bad thing, and not just in the sense that it deprives another person of life.  It does something to the murderer, too, something irreparable.  Rowling made this idea concrete in the form of Horcruxes.  Not only does murder tear your soul, it enables you to remove it from your body.  In Voldemort's case, his soul is so little a part of his self that he doesn’t even realize it when one of the pieces is destroyed.  His actions have corrupted him past all human feeling; he has become soulless.  There are echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray in this transformation, and in the gradual dehumanization of Voldemort’s appearance.  We can easily acknowledge that committing an evil act has consequences, but in a work of fantasy, those consequences can be felt and seen; they become a painting or an enchanted locket.  We get an object at which to direct our fear and confusion.

I've heard it argued that fantasy continues to be popular because it's escapist.  I don't think that's untrue--not exactly.  Escapism is great.  But we wouldn't keep reading fantasy to escape if it didn't also grab us in a deeper way.  Fantasy gives us a handle to help us understand ourselves and our world, in big ways and in little ones.  

Next week, I'll talk about another important aspect of fantasy fiction: There's No Free Lunch!

*from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling, p. 38.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I’ve never done NaNoWriMo.  I know; I know.  Sacrilege.  Honestly, the thought of writing that many words without once going back to edit freaked me out.  I edit constantly, and cutting off that impulse seemed wrong.  I distrusted any organization that told me not to work my prose until it’s perfect.  I mean, I’m a writer, right?  I’m supposed to be a compulsive editor.

But, last weekend, I had the very great fortune to hear Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, speak at my local RWA meeting.*  After hearing his thoughts on writing and creativity, I have a whole new respect for the process of writing without editing-as-you-go.**  Mr. Baty put it somewhat as follows (I’m paraphrasing):  As writers, creating beautiful sentences is what we do.  Taking an ugly sentence and making it shine is satisfying.  It’s doable.  It feels like progress.  And sometimes, it’s a lot easier than putting down a whole new sentence that moves the story forward.  In other words, editing is crucial, but it can also be an indulgence, a form of procrastination.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop editing-as-I-go—that’s just not the way my brain works—but it might be a good exercise for me to focus more on moving forward while I’m working on the draft of Book # 2.  Since I already missed November (I was, ironically, revising Book #1), I’m going to have my very own Novel Writing Month.  MyNoWriMo.***  Since I'm a wimp, I’m not starting from scratch the way the true WriMos do, and I’m going to set my word count and time goals a little more conservatively.  Say, 1200 words a day for the next forty-five days.  I’ll even track my progress and do some stats at the end of it.  Hey, if it works, maybe I’ll do NaNo for real next time.  

*Chris was giving a talk with author Rachael Herron, one of the stars of our RWA chapter.  Check out her post on the talk here.  Her first novel was a NaNo project, and it’s great!

**He had nice things to say about RWA, too. 

***This is also inspired by Feliza David, who suggested that we need an acronym for “writing like it’s NaNoWriMo even when it isn’t November.” I concur.

Monday, February 14, 2011

How to Tell if You're Gonna Get the Girl

Say you’re a guy, and you find yourself in a modern urban fantasy novel.  Lucky you!  As long as you’re not the villain, there’s a good chance you’re going to get up-close-and-personal with a seriously kick-ass chick.  But how can you tell if this deliciously hot relationship is going to make it to the end of the series? 

It’s easy to tell if you’re the hero.  First, make sure that the object of your affection is, in fact, the heroine.  Good?  Good.  If you’ve got supernatural powers, and the heroine seems to hate you but gazes longingly at your pecs, you’re probably the hero.  Still, there’s always that chance—that tiny, worrying possibility—that you might be one of many secondary love interests.  

Don’t despair!  It’s easy to tell if you’re not going to get the girl.  Do any of the following apply to you?
1) You’ve worked with her.  Ever.  Even at a volunteer soup kitchen.  Especially at a volunteer soup kitchen.
2) She seems to like you.
3) You drive a midsize sedan in a shade of dark blue or green.  (Dude, what are you thinking?)
4) Your nose is perfectly straight.  (I’m afraid this indicates a lack of willingness to engage in physical violence.  Very unsexy.  But you get a pass on this one if you’re a vampire with supernatural healing powers.) 
 5) She’s capable of kicking your ass.

Answer yes to any two of the above?  You might win out briefly in Book 2, but don’t get comfortable.  Some guy with a crooked nose, fangs/wings/fur, and a really sexy car is on his way to steal your girl.  I recommend preemptively ditching the heroine and hooking up with an Expendable Side Character.  Maybe you’ll get a spinoff.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Inception Can Tell Writers About Narrative (Hint: It's not what you think.)

*If you haven’t see Inception, be warned:  There are spoilers ahead!

Writers talk an awful lot about plot and character.   No surprise there, right?  Writing a good story means putting characters readers will root for in situations that keep them turning pages.  But of course, that’s not enough.  For a book (or any narrative art form) to be truly excellent, it needs more: fluid language, natural dialogue, and something I think of as “fine structure,”

If the plot is a path through the mountains, the fine structure is the pavement under your feet—it’s how each scene is stitched together with its neighbors.  When the trail is smooth and well-maintained, you won’t even notice it, but if it’s choppy and uneven, it’s distracting.  In a novel, the fine structure is where paragraphs, sections, and chapters break.  In movies, it’s in the scene cuts.  The best example of good fine structure I’ve encountered recently was in the movie Inception, and it's a good thing they got it right.  The success of the movie, in my opinion, hinged on the success of its fine structure.

In a typical narrative, we’re used to abrupt scene changes with transitions that alert us to the passage of time or space.  Dreams, as Dom points out, are different:  Your stream of consciousness is seamless while the world around you shifts.  Inception conveys a dreamlike feel through the high-gloss polish of the sets and costumes, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough without the brilliant, dreamlike scene cuts.  

The first place this sort of scene transition shows up is in the sequence with Dom and Ariadne, when she’s learning how to create dream-worlds.  We sense they're in a dream before Dom lets on that we are, because while the music and dialogue are without break, Dom and Ariadne move abruptly from a crowded hallway to a rooftop terrace.  These dreamlike transitions occur throughout the movie, but for me, the most memorable cut in the move is the last one.  When Dom leaves the airport, he moves without pause from the passport check to baggage claim, then to meet his father, then to his home.  It’s the transition from the airport to his house that’s best of all.  Something about the way Dom and his father move relative to one another makes the scene-shift seem as though they’ve stepped from the airport to Dom’s living room in a single leap.  Whatever you decided about the ending, I think this is a clue.

I’m not writing anything that cross-cuts narrative flow the way Inception does.**  Still, I think I can learn from the craftsmanship that clearly went into the movie.   Having a good story means having believable, empathetic characters and an engaging, well-paced plot.  Having a well-executed story is about the quality of the language and the seamlessness of the narrative.  There’s an art to knowing how to piece scenes together, where to cut them for the best reading experience.  Something for me to keep in mind as I take the collection of scenes I’ve written for my second book and forge them into a story.

**The Time Traveler’s Wife, a book that plays with time the way Inception plays with reality, is similarly brilliant in how it’s pieced together.  In my opinion, the fine structure of that novel is damn near perfect.  

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Right Chemistry: Ending up Where You Belong

I spent a long time studying chemistry, and I'm always surprised at how something that seems so different from novel-writing turns out to be quite similar.  To use an over-used metaphor, when characters have good chemistry, they behave a lot like chemical reactions.

In chemical reactions, there’s this concept of the energetic “state” of the process.  You start with a couple of chemicals (reactants), and they have a particular energy determined by what they’re made out of.  You bring them together in a test tube, and if they’re the right reactants in the perfect conditions, something drastic and irrevocable will happen, and they'll form something so unstable it can only exist for a few moments: the transition state.  Then, instead of falling back to where they were before, the transition state becomes something new:  the products.  The energetic state of those products is usually lower than that of the reactants.  That’s why chemical reactions happen.  Energy flows downhill, but it has to go through hell first.  This is how I think about stories.

When I’m starting a new story, the main character always comes to me in a “ground state.”  I picture her in her element.  It’s usually a single, mundane scene of her at work, on the bus or talking to a friend.  Once I understand her in this commonplace way, I know what kind of people to put around her to get her out of her comfort zone.  I know what will make her react.  Only then can I get her into a high energy, unstable state where the story takes place. 

This is where the exciting stuff happens.  People fall in love and sacrifice and kill and betray.  They form alliances they didn’t think possible and discover secrets about their lovers.  When we get to the other side of the story, no one will be the same.  

The key, I think, is that things aren't the same in a way that seems inevitable.  The place where my protagonist ends up should be more “right” for her than the place where she started out, because that’s what happens when you create chemistry between characters.  People get pushed out of their comfort zones, only to find out it’s what they needed all along to get where they belong.  I don't think all stories work this way (nor should they), but mine do.  What about yours?