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I just finished Elantris by Brandon Sanderson, one of the contributors to Writing Excuses podcast (an excellent resources for writers).  The story centers around the actions of three characters: Raoden, Crown Prince of Arelon, Sarene, Princess of Teod and future wife to Raoden and Hrathen, gyorn (high priest) of the Empire of Fjordell in the city of Kae, the capital of Arelon. The city in turn exists in the shadow of the ruins of Elantris, an ancient city of the godlike Elantrians who fell from grace a decade before. What happened to Elantris then and how that affects the future of Arelon are at the key to the stopping a religious empire bent on word domination.

By faith or by fire.

I won’t do a formal review as I don’t know what that is exactly. I’ll simply lists relevant points about the story and how they apply to writing (specially speculative fiction).

Strong Points:

  • Excellent characterizations: Strong characters you care about. No one is completely good or completely evil, but credible in their actions, word view and emotional states. You care what happens to the characters and the outcome of the actions.
  • Character Driven Story: Although it seems at first to be plot driven due to situations out of the characters control (mainly the Reod and the Dateline), what really propels the characters is their actions and interactions.  Each one of the three principal characters works with what they have at hand, many times at cross purposes. It is the mingling and colliding of these purposes that drives the story forward.
  • World building crafted into the plot: Instead of large blocks of obfuscating text the world bulding is subtly worked into the plot, in fact figuring out how the magic of the world works is key to the plot. You catch on quickly to the political, social and magical aspects of the Elantris universe and yearn to learn more about them. For someone who is known for his extensive magic rules and world building, Sanderson managed to write it in with a deft and light touch.
  • Not your standard fantasy setting: Yet it feels both real and fantastic at the same time. Flawless internal consistency and logic through out. The world feels unique in its modernity yet still has enough of the fantasy/medieval tropes to keep it within the genre it explores.
  • Great use of the Multiple 3rd Person Close POV:  Creates a nice back and forth between the view, expectations and actions of each faction from their perspective character. Enough is revealed to maintain logical consistency without ruining the future twists and turns in the story, even if some of them are predictable.

Weak Points:

  • Hook but no Line: The story starts with an intriguing hook, but the line behind it doesn’t seem to tug hard enough or with enough pressure to pull the reader along. The reason is that their is not enough tension in the narrative line because the stakes while described at extremely high remain distant. It is not until the stakes became immediate that the pace of the story picks up  tremendous speed and excitement.
  • Fantastic Name Confusion: The story has very little in the way of fantastic animals or objects, but the characters names can become confusing (except for principal characters). With some many minor yet important characters, losing track of who’s who happens from time to time. Much frustration ensues.

Well that is all I have to say about Elantris. Overall a good first novel, a strong entry in the fantasy genre and if you can go past the somewhat slow beginning, a rewarding narrative overall.

You heard about “raising the stakes” in your work.

But what are “the stakes” or should I say, what is AT “stake”?

Usually in speculative fiction it’s stuff like a life, a kingdom, a nation, a planet, the galaxy, the Universe, the whole of Existence. It’s what on the table and the reason why the characters do what they are doing. But the object itself is meaningless, it is the value that the author/character/reader give it that matter.

Stakes are like money in that money only has value relevant to what it gets you (what you can acquire with it) and the work you put in to get the money in the first place.

So what do the “stakes” need to acquire this “value”?

1)The stakes are real. Something that it’s quantifiable and observable. It’s hard to care when you don’t understand what your fighting for.

2)The stakes always rise. If you think the stakes are high on page 1 wait until you get to page 321. I mean it’s defeats the purpose of raising the stakes if they already reached their limit. Otherwise the character(s) (and the reader) will call it quits have way through. Thinks are always worse than you can imagine.

3)The stakes are personal. It’s always personal. Ties in with the stakes being real. There is got to be a reason why the character is willing to sit on the table and drop a wager. He may need the money to buy old grandpa’s farm from the bank before they foreclose or his waiting for the fellow who is drinking at the bar to let his guard down so he can drill him one on the head. What that bastard did to his sister won’t go unpunished.

4)The stakes are always constant. Seems to contradict #2 but if the stakes diminish, so does the overall tension that pushes the story forward. Not that the characters should not catch a break once in awhile, but it’s only a break before the story goes on overdrive.

5) The stakes demand sacrifice. Blood, money, life, it’s what your betting and there is always a chance that you are going to lose. You might think it’s a chew in, but it ain’t and before the day (and the story) is through you will lose some to win all. It’s the way the game is played.  Without the possibility of loss, the stakes are meaningless.

So that’s all I got to say about it. Now ladies and gents, the game is on.

By way of a visual explanation here is a short game trailer that will illustrate the above. Enjoy!

(Note: See if you can identify two of the voices in it.)

Another Teaser Tuesday post. I’ll guess I will have to stop riding Amy’s coattails and create something original for a change, since I am not really teasing existing works but crafting new ones for this feature.

Anyway, this is part of another D&D character back story. I like making them, they are good practice and keep me writing. I hope you like them too.

Jaymes walked anxiously among the towering pines of the Welkwood. He could feel the change in the air. Something called to his blood, he knew what it was, Home. The Land and the Queen’s Fairy Mysteries were one and his blood ran with said power, infused with the ancient pacts of time immemorial. Once Elves ruled the pathways between worlds, not longer. That power had faded with the eons.

In most of his race that is.

An arrow cut through the air and landed at Jaymes feet snapping him from his revelry. A voice from above cried out “Brother, turn back. You are not welcomed here.” He heard the sadness in the voice that belonged to a man he once called brother, one Cirdan Tasardur. “Turn back Súrion.  The Ways are close to you my friend.”

Jaymes shouted back “By what right do you  deny me the Way home Cirdan?”

A tall figure, wearing gleaming maille, landed a few feet in front of him. Blue eyes look down at him from between wisps of obsidian hair. “By the same right that allows you to change your name and defy the will of our Queen. The Ways are closed.”

Jaymes pulled a scroll from his pouch. “I returned as instructed and I present to his Majesty my qualifications and heraldry. By the laws of the Land I demand access to the Ways so that I may return Home.”

Cirdan looked at his friend with tired, sad eyes “Your family has lost their position, your actions run contrary to the wishes of the Fey Court, you know that your request will be denied. Has the impatience of humanity infected your soul as well?”

“I ask. You deliver” Jaymes replied.

“Very well.” Cirdan called out to the members of his patrol “We will set up camp. Calmacil, takes this note and deliver it post haste. We will wait here for you.”

The younger elf looked puzzled by his leader instructions but obeyed. The other rangers set up camp. Tári, a golden hair lass approached Jaymes with an offer of food. “Thank you Tári, how are your parents?”

She blushed, as she always did in his presence since he first spoke to her in Master Amroth class. “Doing well. Father wishes to join  the pilgrims in their journey to the Isles.”

Taken aback Jaymes chewed on the strip of venison. “He will not take the Gate?”

“No.” Her voice lowered to a whisper “Divisions among the clerics are spreading. Something stirs in their divination. They are starting to question—“

“Tári! How about a song!” shouted another member of the patrol. Jaymes had also know Fëanor from childhood and apparently a century of life had not changed his loutish ways.

“Why should she bother, your ears can’t tell the difference between her dulcet tones and a boar’s grunts” Jaymes shouted back.

The others laughed. Cirdan smirked, casting a sidelong glance at Jaymes.

“His ears are not that bad, once he remembers to clean them” Tári added with a wide grin of her own.

Fëanor eyes gleamed with anger. He opened his mouth to speak but saw Jaymes hand rest casually over his dagger.

“I am sure the rest of us will certainly appreciate a song or two, if you do not mind Tári” Cirdan said.

“Here, here!” echoed the others.

“Very well! If you insist Captain.”

A pang of jealousy hit Jaymes in the gut. Was there something between Cirdan and Tári? Fëanor’s barbed smirk showed Jaymes that he had read his expression like a book.

Tári stood in front of the fire and began to sing:

There’s a coldness in the air
but i don’t care….

Travelling somewhere
could be anywhere
there’s a coldness in the air
but i don’t care
we drift deeper
life goes on
we drift deeper
into the sound

Travelling somewhere
could be anywhere
there’s a coldness in the air
yeah but i don’t care
we drift deeper into the song
life goes on
we drift deeper into the sound
feeling strong

so bring it on so bring it onnnn
we drift deeper into the song
life goes on
we drift deeper into the sound
feeling strong
so bring it on so bring it onnnn
we drift deeper……..

we drift deeper life goes on
we drift deeper drift deeper
we drift deeper into the song
life goes on
we drift deeper into the sound
feeling strong
so bring it on so bring it onnnn
we drift deeper into the song
life goes on
we drift deeper into the sound
feeling strong
so bring it on so bring it onnnn

Jaymes joined the clapping of the others as she finished. The night passed without further incident. On the morning of the third day the runner returned bearing two scroll cases. He saluted the Captain, spoke a few words in his ear and then handed the tubes . One bore the Royal Seal, the second the Súrion family seal. Jaymes opened the first. As Cirdan had predicted, his request to enter Celene had been denied, yet again. He tried to open the second but it he could not break the seal. An inscription on the rim of the lid read:

This will not open until the appointed time and place.

Jaymes recognized his father’s handwriting and the runes that covered the bronze tube spoke of powerful warding magic. He would have to wait for the appropriate time and place to open it, whatever that may be.

Cirdan approached him. He extended a hand “Good luck in your path Jaymes, I hope that the Ways are opened to you when you return. Until then we will wait.”

He shook the offered hand “Thank you old friend. Take care.”

He waved at the rest of the patrol as it took the trees. The last thing he saw over his shoulder was a swish of golden hair. He heard a distant, lilting tune that lifted his spirits as he made his way back to the lands of Men.

Here is the video for the song included above.

All rights belong to their respective holders. I do not own or claim rights over D&D, The World of Greyhawk campaign/game setting or associated material.

Writer’s block comes in many forms, none more weird that finding yourself with the strange combination of too many ideas and too little focus. That was my problem going forward with the current WIP. The characters seemed to go places that had nothing to do with the main plot. This situation was made possible by the fact that I chose to write the story using a multiple-person third point of view.

The main benefit of use of this method is that I can paint a wide canvass, loaded with characters that gives the narrative a global scope plus an insight into the villains mind. In fact the story starts with a close third person POV of one of the villains. The main character doesn’t appear on stage until the second chapter.

But after awhile my mind filled with interesting scenes such as a trip to the Himalayas, a fight a top a aerial tramway/gondola lift, and an attack at a guerrilla jungle base. All of them very exiting sequences (except for the last one, it involved fighting a demon that had Mr. Fantastic like powers). All of these scenarios are exciting and fun to write but they do not, did not contribute to story in anyway since they were no segue logical from one scene to the next.

So how do you corral these disparate point of views so that they move the story forward?

  1. You may have multiple characters, but keep in mind who the main and/or principal characters are. He/She or they are the ones tasks with carrying the weight of the narrative. Therefore the bulk of the scenes should be from their POV.
  2. Keep in mind the specific reason for the shift. You may use the shift to show what the villain is thinking or the aftermath of the heroes actions. But remember that those scenes must dovetail into the main narrative and tie in with principal plotline(s).
  3. The transitions should be natural and logical. Don’t leave your reader hanging, finish the scene at an appropriate moment. Again, these scenes must segue into the main body of the narrative. Think in terms of action-reaction or exposition through “showing”.
  4. Any scene where the MC is not present should always push the action forward in one way or another. I had one large chapter with several characters narrating their experiences in recent wars. But at the end these flashbacks served to explain (hopefully by “showing” and not “telling”) the events at the very end of the chapter and push the plot toward a new location.

Apply these rules ruthlessly and you will see your kitty cats fall in line. Sure they will hiss and scratch, but in the end they will behave. Mine did!

P.S. Of  course if that doesn’t work, a pack of puppies will get the job done!

Dwarfs, Elves,  Vampires, oh my! On a recent post (and many more after that) on the NaNo forums the subject of “cuddly” vampires (a la Twilight) came up. The poster said that he didn’t like the recent fad of turning vampires from monstrous blood suckers to tortured goth heroes. I responded that the vampires in my NaNo project were anything but “cuddly”.  If anything they are conniving, manipulative, psychopaths driven by a demonic urge to rape, murder and destroy.  As far from the romantic (in the modern sense of the word,  one which would cause the likes of  Lord Byron, Tennyson or Blake to spit if they heard what passes for romantic these days) vision of the tortured yet irresistibly attractive vampire heroically fighting the urge to drink virgin blood while dating the only virgin left in town as you can get.

This got me thinking about the endless parade of writers that from the beginning of time felt compelled to take familiar character types (the stoic Dwarf, the ethereal Elf or the Vampiric blood sucking terrors of the night) and change them in some way. Of course these archetypes are variations on earlier forms defined by modern writers such as Stoker and Tolkien. The idea behind the manipulation is to take the familiar and turn into something new (if not unique). Problem is that you can only make so many changes before you end up with something unrecognizable and lose whatever advantage the use of the original gave you in the first place.

I don’t frown on the practice as I have done a bit of archetype twisting in my day (about a month or so back). Yet it pains me when I see author after author fail so miserably at it. While the author might think that his improvements are “cool” the end results are trite, cosmetic and downright disappointing. The reader is left wondering why the author engaged in the exercise in the first place. So I came up with a few tips that will (hopefully) help my fellow nascent writers to avoid the obstacles on the road from the familiar to the memorable.

First a few questions. Honest answers to these questions will yield the best results:

  1. Why did you choose a particular archetype?
  2. Do you know/understand the history behind the archetype?
  3. Are you changing the archetype for purely arbitrary reasons,  that is, you think it would be cool to have rhinos on submarines?
  4. Or have you always hated the archetype in question and think you can do better?
  5. Is there more to the these changes than simply creating a anti-archetype? Are you doing this because you’re in a contrarian  mood?
  6. What is the role of the archetype in the story; accidental, background, or central to the narrative?
  7. Would your narrative goals be better served by abandoning the archetype all together?

Like I said before, familiarity is what drives many an author to choose a given archetype. This is especially true of modern fantasy and science fiction books, in all their variations. Both the author and the reader know the archetype and feel comfortable with it.  No need to create an entire elven language (unless you’re Tolkien) or describe how a vampire’s gaze overwhelms it’s victims senses. Just drop the dwarfs down the nearest mine shaft and concentrate on writing that exciting battle scene where the stalwart defenders of the underground realm battle the incoming goblinoid hordes. But we already read Lord of the Rings (OK, I saw the movies, tried reading the Hobbit and fell asleep on the their page)  so we want something more than the fall of  Moria. So the author introduces a few changes into the dwarf archetype. His dwarfs are not the dour hammer swingers of Tolkien’s lore but singing sensations to rival he likes of Elvis (Costello or Crespo). The attacking goblins go from an unorganized rabble to a disciplined army that fights for duty and honor.

But in order for these changes to stick an understanding of the archetypes in question is a must. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of western European mythology, but understanding the history behind the myth will help you preserve enough of the archetype so that it remains recognizable to the reader.

Questions 3-5 deal with the particular reasons for the changes in a given archetype. Many a writer makes cosmetic changes based on what their DMs allowed on the gaming table while playing D&D. They go for what they think would be “cool”.  But just reversing the archetype role or characteristics is not good enough. Doing things just to be contrarian or different is  a waste of time. Might as well slap a goatee on the character’s chin and call it a day.

Which brings us to question #6, the role of the archetype in your story. Cosmetic changes are great, if you are coding a video game. A player will notice something out of the ordinary, gawk at it for a second or two and be on his way to kill the boss monster. Same thing in your book if its something that lies at the bottom of page 267 where a secondary character explains why the main character should never go to beyond the Impassable Peaks of Doom (which we know that the MC will, in fact pass with some difficulty). Things change as the archetype(s) inch their way to center stage. Without a solid explanation the reader is apt to question why is the handsome yet ravenous vampire zipping from frozen packets of goat’s blood instead of dinning on warm blood of his seventeen year old date with the body of a SI swimsuit edition cover girl. Solid answers to questions 1-5 will (hopefully) prevent the local bookstore from shipping back boxes of your latest offering to the publisher.  You need reasons why the character does not fit the mold, answers that go beyond “Well I think vampires are seriously misunderstood creatures”. These reasons should have a direct connection to the story so that it lends depth to the character and through him to the narrative.

Last but not least, could you do better without relying on the archetype? Creating a new alien race that does not read like a Vulcan on steroids is hard, yet if the changes are drastic enough as to erase the fundamentals of an archetype, I suggest you abandon it all together. Go with something else. Something that fits your vision and the needs of the story. A knight that uses a gun is not really a knight, he is a gunfighter. Go with that instead.

I hope that the above helps you in some way. I can’t wait to read how the goblins barely won the battle against the singing dwarfs yet earned their respect by their honorable behavior in battle.

Until then….