Really epic Epic Fantasy

lotr posterI love epic fantasy. It’s always been one of my favorite genres to read, and of course the very first book I tried to write was epic fantasy. Didn’t go so well, but I have an epic fantasy series I plan to release eventually, so I’ll get there.

What makes epic fantasy so, well, epic?

The best epic fantasy, whether they’re a Tolkien spin-off or some other giant, multi-volume series of tomes big enough to prop up the sagging foundation of a house, there are some common elements that make great epic fantasy work.

Think Tolkien. He was really the father of epic fantasy, and a big ingredient in his special sauce was the world he created. Many other successful fantasies leveraged that world and resonated with the work Tolkien did. World-building is a huge element to most epic fantasy, and few authors do it so well.

The Name of the WindOne who does is Patrick Rothfuss. In The Name of the Wind, he creates a vibrant world, full of magic and music and poetry that does an unrivaled job at transporting readers into another world. Fans want to explore the world with the hero, linger there, and wallow in the depth of the vibrant cultures he creates.

George R.R. Martin takes a different approach. His political intrigue and huge cast of characters who get killed off more than just about any other series, transports readers in a very different way. The intricate plot, warring families, and intense action has captured an entire generation of readers.

Usually when we think of epic fantasy, we think magic, and the king of awesome magic systems is Brandon Sanderson. Whether the dark, gritty world of Mistborn or the hugely epic Stormlight Archives, Brandon always delivers intricate magic systems and unexpected twists and turns that keep readers clamoring for more.

There are many other great examples of epic fantasy, but these are enough to get a sense of the challenge facing authors trying to break into the epic fantasy world. The stories really need to be epic, usually there’s a large cast of characters, the stakes are as high as they can get, and the magic can be in a powerful magic system, an intricate political world, or a setting so majestic people don’t want to leave.

So what are your favorite epic fantasies, and why?

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Setting as Character

This is my second post this month in the “special sauce” category. Last time I talked about research. This post is about writing, and how to add interest to the story.

Writing, as an avocation, is as prone to fads, convention and conformity as pretty much any other human endeavor. If you pay any attention to the reams of “advice” that are thrown at aspiring writers from all corners of the literary world, you will soon see not only the current orthodoxy, you’ll see the currents and tides of changes to convention as one fashion fades and another rises…

For example, the current conventional “wisdom” includes the following “rules:”

  1. Never, ever, ever have a prologue.
  2. Adverbs are the sign of weak writing.
  3. You have to grab the reader by the throat in the first sentence, or you’ll never get to the second.
  4. Passive voice must be avoided like a literary leper.

I could go on.

One of those current conventions is that long, detailed descriptions of places and things are BadWrongWriting of the first order. After all, it violates several of the most important rules. It’s passive. It’s full of adjectives and adverbs. It interrupts the action.

It has been said by many successful editors and writers that it is unlikely that J. R. R. Tolkien could have gotten The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings published in today’s market. Too flowery. Too slow. Too…. boring.

If that is so, it’s a shame. As a writer, part of my joy in writing is in building worlds and bringing them to life for my readers. But reality is what it is, and as much as I personally love that style of writing, I have had to accept that if I want to write stories that are accepted by both editors and readers, I have to respect that convention, even as I hope it fades.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on bringing my worlds to life. Instead I’ve taken another approach, and that approach is what I call “Setting as Character,” meaning I treat the world as a dynamic, interactive part of the story, instead of as a passive stage to move my characters around and through.

Here is an example of what I mean. Suppose you have a setting of a lush jungle and your protagonist has to find a ruined temple to advance the plot. You’ve gone to great trouble to create that jungle in some detail, including deciding the major flora and fauna, the weather cycles, the climate, and some level of history. Having done that you could bring the reader into that jungle like this:

“Dammit!” Joe cursed.

Blood welled up from shallow cuts on his forearm. With a gloved hand, he yanked the tangled, thorny tendrils of devil’s rose free, sending a shower of drops flying, making him blink. The cool water eased the oppressive heat, and he closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation.

Image result for stock jungle photos

A fibrous root caught his toe, making him stumble as it ripped loose, exposing a length of lichen-studded granite. The ancient rock caught his eye, it seemed out of place compared to the ubiquitous red sandstone of the area. Placing one hand on the thick trunk of a towering fern, he leaned down to study the strange stone…

In other words, make the setting part of the story. Have your characters interact with it, struggle against it, savor it…

Give your world a personality. Show the reader its spirit.

 

The Key to a Successful Crit Group – A 29 Year Example

There is a ‘special sauce’ when it come to making group dynamics work and having an effective writers group requires its own special brand of nurturing.

I’ve been a member of the Imaginative Fiction Writers’ Association (IFWA) for several years and I value every moment spent with this group. Founded in 1988 (yes, as of this writing it has been together for 29 years!) IFWA has nurtured, trained, and supported many writers along their writing career paths.

What is IFWA’s secret to success?

There are several factors:

1) It is not a book club. It is a writing group for writers who want to improve their craft and hone their skills.
To that end, the monthly meeting begins with crits. In the previous month, two people volunteered a work to be critiqued at teh curernt meeting. The work is no more than 5,000 words and usually is either a first chapter or a short story although we have had epic poetry. Two people volunteer to provide a a critique. There are rules for how to critique. To learn more about the art of critiquing, you can read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 on a series I wrote on critiques.

The critique porrtion of hte meeting begins with the author reading their story for ten minutes (a necessary skill we all need to practice). Each person critiquing the story gets five minutes to give the author feedback. An opportunity is given to the author to respond and only then is the group at large allowed to provide their feedback (for five minutes) to the author. These guidelines are strictly enforced.

The first time I experienced this process, it was nerve wracking. I read too quickly because I wanted to read the whole story in my allotted ten minutes. Mistake! So, I learned how to read calmly and more slowly. The second time it was much better. Some comments I agreed with and others I didn’t but I had to practice what I knew in my head – that there were things I needed to hear so I could learn them; that everyone has their own opinion and if you ask for it, you have to respect it, no matter what you do with it; and people are much kinder, much gentler than that stupid critic in my head!!!

That’s the thing, everyone in this group offers insight and wisdom, from a reader’s perspective and a writer/editor’s perspective on how the story can be improved. We do it from a genuine desire to see each other succeed. And we run the gamut of skill sets for our members include professional writers, editors, and beginners. No matter what stage any of us are at, we all have something to offer and something to learn – and we know it! This form of humbleness is the group’s core value and that’s why I think it’s been successful for so long.

2) The group isn’t exclusive.
We have every form of writing (screen, short story, novel, novella, graphic art, comic, etc.) and although we are a group for speculative fiction writers, we have lots of other genres and cross genres represented (fantasy, science fiction, horror, thriller, detective science fiction, noir, space opera, and fairy tale to name a few). Some members are published, some edit anthologies (and write too), some are not published. But we are all there with a view to encourage and support each other while encouraging growth in craft and business skills.

Then there are the splitters groups. Splitters groups are formed by members who have specific interests or needs. For example, I belong to a critique group which comments on novels and shorter works with a view to being submitted.

Our members are at all stages of development, including beginners, those trying to break into the market, and published and award winning authors. The group also counts many small publishers and well-known authors as friends.

3) A pay-it-forward attitude is practiced within the group and the larger writing community|
We help each other out with our projects. We share what we know. We organize writing events such as a writers’ weekend, workshops, manage a short story contest, produce an anthology exclusive to the group, attend and participate in national and international cons, and are a large part of organizing and volunteering in the local, annual con When Words Collide. We attend each other’s book launches, readings, and celebrate the victories of getting published and share the disappointment of a rejection. We are there for each other.

4) Skills sessions
Every meeting has a skills session which can be on any aspect of writing from craft to business. Sometimes the learning comes in the form of a presentation, sometimes it’s a discussion, and sometimes it’s a little of both. But always we learn, always we share and after the meeting that sharing continues at a local pub.

IFWA has a lot to offer its membership becasue it’s members contribute in somany ways. The group’s enthusiasm is infectious and the friendships are longlasting. This writers group definitely has its own brand of ‘special sauce’.

My Secret Ingredient

Once I went to a Comic Con panel about Joss Whedon and why he’s so good at what he does. If you’re unfamiliar with Joss, he’s directed the shows Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse and several of the Avengers movies and series episodes, just to name a few. He’s been wildly successful.

When I saw this panel, I was just beginning my Indie publishing career. I had two traditionally published books out, but I knew that was the tip of the iceberg. I had a long way to go, and needed some direction.

Well, I got it.

The panel moderator asked why people loved Joss Whedon’s stuff. By far the most popular answer was that the fans loved his characters. They were real, they were funny and they had great conflicts.

I took this all to heart, and wrote my next book, Fractured Memories. I included a large-ish cast of characters and thought I had them all worked out. Until my beta readers came back and said things like, “What is this character even doing in the story? She’s boring” or “Your characters are a little flat.”

Not. Okay.

So, I hit up the internet and Googled the best books on characters. I needed something deeper than Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint, which is great, but too broad for what I needed. I bought a couple: The Art of Character by David Corbett and Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins, which is a book on what authors can learn from actors. I studied, wrote down things I hoped would help, and incorporated them.

The biggest change I made was to give each character a dream. A goal. Something they wanted more than anything else. My main character, Wendy, had these things, but n ot the secondary characters. Arie didn’t have a purpose until I decided she wanted to be part of the council that ran Shelter, which propelled her entire plot after that. Cal loved computers and movies, which again brought him into the spotlight for something besides his passable fighting skills. As soon as I incorporated this technique, my book got better. Even I could tell. And a couple of the first reviews I got on it specifically mentioned how much the readers liked the characters, including the side characters.

My little heart went pitter-patter, and I melted. It actually worked! Now I do this in all of my books. Sometimes it’s more apparent than others, but it brings a depth to the characters that I was missing and one that readers crave.