Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

‘Blog hop’, you say? What the devil is that?
A big hand of gratitude to Jeff Whelan for introducing me to the ‘blog hop’. Jeff is the author of the zany SF-odyssey Space Orville, a recommended read, and a huge supporter of indie authors.

The blog hop is a way for authors to talk about their WIP and their latest opus and get the word out.  In the process, blog readers can be introduced to other aspiring authors.

Cover art by Steve Bissonnette

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

An exiled treasure-hunter and his misfit band struggle for survival against unscrupulous villains and ‘weird’ and dangerous creatures.

What genre does your book fall under?

Heroic fantasy and perhaps loosely, sword-and-sorcery.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

More the need for some self-entertainment.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I will expound freely.

Grinneth features several rogues, Risgan the Relic Retriever (Robert Downey Jr), in particular, and other infamous villains:

Xoltux the Shaman: Steve Buscemi
Captain Karshan: Ray Liotta
Ivith the Pirate: Joe Pantoliano
Jester the Pirate: Bruce Willis
Gorgere the ‘Mermaid’, although the appellative is debatable: Milla Jovovich
Grinneth, the ‘Unknowable’: Judi Dench

I’m glad to say that Grinneth is not only FREE, but is also part of The Relic Retriever series which features an eccentric pantheon of characters—unfortunately many of whom have gone the wayside by the time Grinneth arrives.  Alas, the full cast is:

Risgan the Rogue: Robert Downey Jr
Afrid the Sorceress: Peter Dinklage, the ‘Imp’ from Game of Thrones, also Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams were close runners-up for this prestigious role, with a bit of CGI.
Moeze the Magician: Colin Morgan from the TV series ‘Merlin’.
Jurna the Journeyman: John Cusack
Kahel the Archer: Andy Garcia
Hape the Homeless: Edward Norton
Farella the Pontific’s Consort: Michelle Pfeiffer
The Pontific:  Anthony Hopkins
Ravenna the Thieving Acolyte: Angelina Jolie
Melfrum, the Alchemist, Jouster and Knave: James Gandolfini (aka Tony from the ‘Sopranos’)

The Thornkeep and Lim-Lalyn episodes feature Kahel, Jurna, Risgan, Moeze and the fretful Hape.  The whole series is chronicled in The Relic Retriever.

I tag 7 fellow indie writers now who may expound upon their brilliant creations.  They will be posting their Next Big Thing blog posts in a week’s time.  Over to you, guys!
Ross McKitson, author of the Darkness Rising series

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The glue of enduring SFF: having a past, present and future

A rich tale encompasses all three time dimensions: the past, present and future.  Is a story just suddenly over after the last sentence, or are there questions that linger in the reader’s mind?  Is the reader thinking about what will happen next after the last scene? Has a sense of time and grandeur been conveyed?  This ‘lasting impression’ is a feature which makes some stories stand out more than others.

It is often difficult to include all three components in one story.  Most good books offer at least two of the three, present and past.  I believe using all three provides maximum interest.

The ‘past’ is used quite effectively in many of the best fantasies, as in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.  Each spotlight character seems to have a past that is developed throughout; the dialog is rich, tales of deeds and past goings on abound.  Whereas every story contains a ‘present’, ie some immediate action and conflict, not all stories are enriched by a past history or legends leading up to the conflict.  Fewer even contain a glimpse of what is to come.  Exceptional stories contain all three.

The Matrix for example, encompasses all.  We are given haunting glimpses into the long tragic past of humans versus machine throughout the film, until finally the bomb drops as the horrifying truth of ‘the human world’ is exposed.  The immediate conflict is established early on, with the introduction of ‘Mr. Anderson’ and his nemesis, ‘the man in black’, and ultimately progresses to the quest of a few edgy rebels defying the all-powerful ‘collective machine’.  Finally, we are left wondering: what are the ends of Neo’s supernormal powers?—as he flies up in the sky, like an exalted superhero.

The Mad Max film, The Road Warrior, encompasses similar scope.  As viewers, we experience the main character, a cynical drifter flashing back on his sad past when unexpected violence took his wife.  From the desolate setting, thuggish characters and lunar ambience, we get a sense of a world that has slowly degenerated to a hostile dystopia. The present conflict in the petrol rich band engages us totally with the ongoing battles.  The reprobates on wheels are wholly horrid.  The viewer is left ultimately with a poignant look at the future when the bandits are destroyed and we are left asking “where are Max and the gang to go”?

The Planet of the Apes develops well in both books and films the past, present and future.  The story arc entails a major conflict of humankind versus apes: featuring a reversal of fortunes, sometimes apes winning, sometimes humans.  Glimpses too emerge of a long-spanning history and the stirring vision of a stark future of a continual conflict between these two groups.  The saga continues.  Even more than the sense of primal conflict presented by the author, is felt the ever-present sense of impending tragedy, moved along by the setting and the mood.

As SF author Theodore Sturgeon demonstrates in his incomparable Microcosmic God, a good SF premise can be taken to extreme heights.  This short tale is rich with implication and grandeur and well worth the read. The fantastic tale deals with technology and knowledge gleaned by homespun creatures—workhorses, ‘Neoterics’, enslaved by a mastermind in a hermetically sealed environment, left to dig for knowledge. Amazingly, the bizarreness is complemented by the richness of science, featuring electric transmitters, nano-chemistry, eugenics, artificial synthesis, and other stuff.  A snapshot of the final commentary is chilling:

“Some day the Neoterics, after innumerable generations of inconceivable advancement, will take down their shield and come forth.  When I think of that, I feel frightened...”

The reader is left for a long time pondering the ramifications of Sturgeon’s musings.  Years after reading this story, I still think about ‘what could happen’ when the Neoterics are unleashed.  It is the author’s genius that created this lasting impression.

Some well-written stories tend to rely wholly on the immediate present to make their statement—yet still leave a lasting impression.  This is evident in the classic ‘life and death’ situation faced by the protagonist where every excruciating detail of the scene is given—a crash landing in Andes (I am Alive), falling down a steep mountain and bleeding to death, trapped in a cave, mine, underground grotto, or life in a prison (The Shawshank Redemption).

Whereas some stories tend to focus on the immediate present, others tend to make use of past and future to create depth.  The film AI, based on the book Super-Toys All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss, encompasses a massive time span.  The main conflict comprises a robot boy wishing to become human. The viewer is left with a sense of awe, wondering what is to become of the ‘brave new world’ of man and machine, as evolution of human and computer spans millennia upon millennia.

Across A Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg, is a fine work crafted to leave a lasting impression. The civilization of the ‘High Ones’, an ancient alien race, has reached the plateau of achievement, such that that there is nowhere else for them to go.  They become sterile and static. Yet the knowledge that these beings accumulated is astounding—their machines still amass data, yet no one is there to look.  A purposeless task, and the reader tries to fathom the scope of what they have achieved and what Silverberg is suggesting. The story is recklessly playful—albeit, it leaves the reader attempting unsuccessfully to imagine the age and scope of the universe that Silverberg is describing—even too, the potential beings that inhabit it, and the infinity to come.  Where will it go from here?

“What is going to happen” even after the immediate conflict is resolved is a significant question. This question is a natural offshoot of apocalyptic fiction, such as zombie horror and end of world scenarios.  The highly-popular Resident Evil offers a peek into a savage past, with a computer narrative describing the brief history of the underground turmoil in a laboratory complex far below the surface of the earth that went awry.  Not only is present conflict featured, with the kickass heroine hurtling to knock down zombies and manufactured freaks, but a disturbing vision of the future lingers—the masses of infected beings congregating on the doomed complex.  Such lingering questions are somewhat reminiscent of the hanging doom left at the end of the first Walking Dead series.

From my own specfic writings is Phane which incorporates similar devices: past, present, future.  The derelict past is reflected through the weary eyes of the character Simil, an eccentric inventor, a recluse, who expounds upon the past technology of humanity that went warlike, to the curiosity-smitten Kolbe, a youth who listens only with quizzical wonder to his prospective role model.  He learns how humanity came to colonize the galaxy, and then unwittingly brought about its ultimate decline.  Kolbe’s present-day challenge is to stand up against his bullying peer group and their uneducated conditioning, in order to embrace his personal passion for science and to devote himself to the task of learning.  A far-reaching future chord is left lingering . . . the boy may be the future . . .

Likewise, the Jisil-ou-az-lar, a dystopian SF, features an increasingly chilling outlook on the human fate.  In this far future world, oceans cover the major land masses as the polar ice has melted.  The reader experiences a vertigo, a ‘brave new world’ of a new kind: seafarers struggling against extreme climactic conditions, braced for a harsh existence in a sunlight-killing world.  The implications of the protagonist’s struggle against numerous opportunistic rogues, and the images left in the reader’s mind of a bleak future for earth, leave an imprint of melancholic speculation.

Similarly, in the heroic fantasy, The Temple of Vitus, Risgan the roguish adventurer must embrace his potential fatherhood after all his many harrowing escapades against sea pirates, villains, weird creatures of land, sea and air and a questionable cult leader installed on the coast.  What is left lingering, is the rogue’s gloomy prospect of wandering hostile lands in exile for eternity.  Yet of all of these plights, his fatherhood seems the most imminently worrisome.

These lasting chords resonate in the reader’s mind for good or bad and create a dimension above a tale’s main story line.  The ‘cause and effect’ that naturally emanates from use of a past history serves as a vehicle to promote more introspective thought, and in the case of dystopias, a dire warning.  For all writers and readers, I am curious if you feel similar sentiments.  I am interested in your views . . .

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Writing episodic fantasy

What seems to be every writer’s dream is to create a credible character-world that can be continued, is immensely popular, is original, and goes viral.

Sounds easy?  Perhaps, not quite.  The Oz books, the Tarzan series, Conan, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser all create this mystique, also the Dying Earth books, Star Wars, the Indiana Jones series, Robin hood anthologies and more, including TV series of countless numbers.

I think the secret lies in incorporating some simple but powerful elements:

(i) Each episode comprises a complete mini-adventure, containing a beginning, middle and end.  Readers can be satisfied in short increments—with the possible exception of the first episode which introduces the main character(s), sets up the initial conflict and describes the world.  Depending on how much world-building is involved, the first episode may remain a teaser.

(ii) The episodes are preferably centred around a main character or group of characters.  The story gains lasting appeal because the viewers and readers come to know the character(s) and want to learn more about the them while expecting entertaining twists and turns.

Being a fan of adventure, I subscribe to the philosophy of introducing a legend or history behind a character, a monster, hero, talisman, demon or magic item.  The story builds upon this foundation.  With escalating tension, the tale has the chance to write itself.  The history of talisman, character or setting provides depth, interest and an inherent mystery to the unfoldment.  An implicit realism is built.  It is an effective world-building ploy.

(iii) The main character(s) ideally should be likeable.  Nobody wants to plod along rubbing nose to chin with unlikeable characters.  But then, where do villains come in to play?  If they are villains, how did they come to be villains?  If they are villains, are they are trying to become non-villains?  Often ordinary or benign characters are only likeable because of their contrast to villains.  Even villains can be likeable (a la Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’).  If the reader can empathize early on with the good guy or villain then the author has an elevated chance of creating an engaging tale that will become popular.  The key issue is readers like to read about characters they enjoy, even if they are startled by some of their actions.

Another monkey wrench is that not all readers have the same tastes.  For example, a reader looking for a Walt Disney Bambi  character is not going to be enthused about murderous vampires or bloodthirsty pirates; neither is the diehard sword-and-sorcery fan going to be empathizing much with a maudlin hero from a harlequin romance.  So, genre and target audience are important.  Storywriters cannot please every reader.  Scanning the reviews of any popular book online shows a surprising number of negative posts listed.

The problem of the ‘likeable character’ is a real one and another way around it is to create a variety of characters in the story, both evil and good, and with natures in between.  Readers can bond with the good ones and wish the knife for others.  This expectation of the knife is a powerful ploy.  George Martin does a good job in the Game of Thrones series.

Incorporating the above elements may sound easy, but is not necessarily easy to do.  It may take a lengthy time for a writer to develop these skills.  At least to be aware of these elements is helpful.  What is engaging for an author often is not engaging for a reader, and vice-versa, a dissonance which in itself is a tricky issue.

(iv) The character-world ideally should be interesting.  The immediate example that comes to mind is the era-gripping ‘Star Wars’—an incredibly rich, detailed world of planets, machines, spaceships and futuristic colonies.  The ‘world’, albeit, is only as interesting as the characters.  Take out Han Solo and Darth Vader and the world is somewhat lacking the same spice.  Discarding C3PO and Jar-Jar wouldn’t have the same effect.

Worlds don’t have to be so elaborate.  The Cube and Hypercube movies centre around a setting of only a series of empty rooms.  The idea is so bizarre, frightening and captivating that it works.  Successful worlds can be created out of practically anything.  The tremendously popular Indiana Jones, set in a 1940’s world, is larger than life, very colourfully engaging, and yet it is light on fantasy aspects, outside of the dramatic representation of the ‘magical ark’ and roller-coaster ride through the mines in the Temple of Doom.

(v) Setting up each episode as a mystery can be an effective formula too, though not essential.  Developing a mystery works well if the writing is effective.  Readers become interested in provocative situations and characters.  Readers are excited to learn more about the unanswered questions in the story.  As a tale progresses, a reader is more willing to learn about the central character(s) episode by episode.  Subsequent episodes advance the overall series, heightening the reader’s interest in the protagonist or quest.  The success of an episode’s coherency is largely dependent upon a storyteller’s writing skill.  An overused magic item, might cheapen the drama or deaden the pace.  A well-defined magic item used skilfully in the hands of a discerning protagonist moves the plot along at a steady pace.  The reader learns more about the item in question.  A hero who uses a magic lamp with no explanation can sacrifice dramatic tension, but one with an exotic magic lamp or carpet from a faraway land, crafted by a sorcerer’s hand, with a story to its telling and what hands it has passed through and why, is much better.

The formula I used to write my recent fantasy-adventure novel, The Relic Retriever, encompasses legends and a build-up of suspense around a single character, a treasure-hunting gambler and rogue.  There are seven episodes in the novel.  Each story is complete in itself:

I have introduced a unique setting in each episode.  The same picaresque character reigns throughout, with ultimately a resolution of the initial and central conflict in the final episode.  The beauty of the format is that each mini-story can be enjoyed on its own.  One does not have to know what happened before.  Generally, this is a difficult scenario to muster.  Most series need to be read in sequence.  From a marketing perspective, this is better.  If order remains unimportant it is more lucrative.  New readers can be introduced in the story at many entry points.  If they like what they are reading, they’ll read more, and possibly go back and read previous episodes or plunge ahead into later ones.  To get around discontinuities between episodes, I insert a short paragraph or prologue in italics at the beginning of each section.  This is a technique used by many authors (like in the Conan series), which has the possible side-effect of hooking the reader into reading more.  The italicized preambles briefly describe what has gone before the subsections.  I think this inclusion can be limited to a few sentences or avoided completely by constructing the story with enough skill that events and plot knit together seamlessly.  Likewise, the character and scene is best carefully and cleverly developed.

Movie series, such as, Game of Thrones, True Blood, Dexter, etc, take advantage of this stylistic technique—flashing brief recaps of events in the first five minutes of the episodes.  It is harder to achieve in print form because of the lack of time to dole out previous details, or resort to the dreaded info dump which quickly stultifies readers.  Few stories are engineered in such a way that a reader can start at page 100 and know what’s going on.  Much is reliant on the author’s ingenuity in keeping the continuity and in designing the story to fit an ‘easy-to-read’ model, not dependent on backstory.

The format of The Relic Retriever is similar to that used by Jack Vance in his incomparable Eyes of the Overworld—one of my personal favourites.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Using legends and history to create a ‘3D’ fantasy tale

The sense of historical placement and an authentic background behind magic items, heroes, villains, settings makes a fantasy tale come alive.  A story is suddenly lifted out of the flat plane, to one of 3D, removing staleness and triteness.  This technique of incorporating legends and history is the mainstay of the greatest writers of the genre, and by and large, is an interesting study in itself.  Here are some fine examples I would like to share:

“In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were, of course, of various kinds: some more potent and some less.  The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles—yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals.  But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous.”

So speaks JRR Tolkien’s Gandalf the Wizard to his humble hobbit companion Frodo around Bilbo’s fireplace in the Fellowship of the Ring.

“The Three, fairest of all, the Elf-lords hid from him, and his hand never touched them or sullied them.  Seven the Dwarf-kings possessed, but three he has recovered, and the others the dragons have consumed.  Nine he gave to Mortal Men, proud and great, and so ensnared them.  Long ago they fell under the dominion of the One, and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants.”

Gandalf has gone on to create a pall of apprehension.  So much description and rich history in a few lines!  In the hands of a master this is what one expects.  Indeed, the Rings are no ordinary entities . . .

With a rich history and a plausible background like Sauron’s ring, the author can instil in the reader wonder and awe.  The magic item is not just a lump of lifeless material: it’s a living breathing thing with a unique past, inspiring reverence and even fear in the protagonist and ultimately the reader while said protagonist shies away from the ring or indulges in envy or fascination.  Perhaps this is why some of the best fantasy has elements as these in it.

One can quickly see that a character that uses a magic item with no history or thought behind its origin is one that invites little interest.  The reader is thinking: Yeah, right, another magic ring or lamp?  Who cares?

How to integrate this background naturally into the story without disturbing the pacing is a real art.  Either through cleverly constructed dialogue or accomplished narrative—as another modern master, George Martin does so well.  An excerpt from A Game of Thrones is as follows:

“...but the blood of the First Men still flowed in the veins of the Starks, and his own gods were the old ones, the nameless, faceless gods of the greenwood they shared with the vanished children of the forest . . . They were old, those eyes, older than Winterfell itself.  They had seen Brandon the Builder set the first stone, if the tales were true.  It was said that the children of the forest had carved the faces in the trees during the dawn centuries before the coming of the First Men across the narrow sea . . . A thousand years of humus lay thick upon the godswood floor, swallowing the sound of her feet . . .”

These brief passages create a sumptuous sense of ancient grandeur.  The godswood is not an ordinary forest, but some “dark, primal place untouched for ten thousand years with a gloomy castle rising around it”.  One can reach out in Martin’s world and touch these old growth woods and feel the marvel of his living antiquity carved out of ages of dream.

In contrast, the comic thrust of Jack Vance’s Bagful of Dreams is experienced via his impertinent magician, Iolo who describes his craft of catching dreams in his magic bag.

“I live beside Lake Lelt in the Land of Dai-Paissant.  On calm nights the surface of the water thickens to a film which reflects the stars as small globules of shine.  By using a suitable cantrap, I am able to lift up impalpable threads composed of pure starlight and water-skein.  I weave this thread into nets and then I go forth in search of dreams.  I hide under valances and in the leaves of outdoor bowers; I crouch on roofs; I wander through sleeping houses.  Always I am ready to net the dreams as they drift past.  Each morning I carry these wonderful wisps to my laboratory and there I sort them out and work my processes.  In due course I achieve a crystal of a hundred dreams, and with these confections I hope to enthral Duke Orbal.”

At first glance, one might think that Vance is being farfetched, even fanciful, but then, given an understanding of his style and mordant wit, a reader comes to see he is something of a uniquely different craftsman, and a little more imaginative and entertaining than a casual read might suggest.

Following quickly in the story, comes the orotund Duke Orbal’s brief exposition as Iolo and a crowd of gogglers gather to listen:

“As all know, I am considered an eccentric, what with my enthusiasms for marvels and prodigies, but, after all, when the preoccupation is analyzed, is it all so absurd?  Think back across the aeons to the times of the Vapurials, the Green and Purple College, the mighty magicians among whose number we include Amberlin, the second Chidule of Porphyrhyncos, Morreion, Calanctus the Calm, and of course the Great Phandaal.  These were the days of power, and they are not likely to return except in nostalgic recollection.  Hence this, my Grand Exposition of Marvels, and withal, a pale recollection of the way things were.”

Here, the Duke orates in shameless detail a rich background into the ages of the wizards, while similarly expelling some of his own grandiosity.  So, Vance develops the character, while building his world of the dying earth.

And yet there is a tone of seriousness to Vance’s earlier short stories in the Dying Earth series describing the dark dwindling of an earth millions of years in the future:

“At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses and sorceries had been known.  The reach of Grand Motholam—Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the south, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East—swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal.  A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated—though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic.  Pontecilla the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land.  The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obcuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man.  Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.”

Here readers are given a brief snapshot into Mazirian the Magician’s mind on the decadence of corruption that afflicts the dim world of a far future earth.

Here are some of my own humble attempts at creating historical grandeur: coming ripe from the lips of the tentative guardian Slag himself in the Temple of Vitus:

“The subworld is a cruel and intriguing place: cave-bound, with pitch black shadows, poking stalagmites, burning bogs, spooks, disgusts, and general rigour. Ur Daklith makes his throne on a pyre of black ghoul bones. He sits on high on his brazier, heedless of the ice-cold or the red-hot flames. His subimps wail and moan in the murks, waiting on him hand and foot while they grovel in slops and slime. Fatuous fools! I was one of Daklith’s lucky guardians, relegated to the far west extent of the realm, manning the lych gate before Imiz-Don, the kirg-haunted swamps. There, I guarded the portal against illicit entry, by smorgs, smoufs, lizipusts, envoy bats and Serkenian poisoners. Ur Daklith has many enemies, you see. ’Twas the same place where Vitus the Victorious came as an angelic spirit and proposed a sally.”

While in a faraway realm, the Time-smith of Ezmaron offers a completely different testimony in a snooty mood:

“The ‘Time Overlord’ or ‘Adjudicator’ has now recently constructed impressive tic-toc engines of his own to make mine look like children’s toys.  I like to think that my elaborately-constructed network would soon attract his attention and intersect with the Overlord’s domain.  There is a strong flux line positioned here at this exact location of the labyrinth.  The ancients knew it well.  In fact, this is the original site of Besimark’s old keep, where the First Magician set up his researches and commissioned the Second and Third Mages to work day and night to decipher the diagrams and apocrypha writ on the tablets of old Farlore.”

Afrid the sorceress of Thornkeep, an obscure thaumaturgist, describes the lore of her golems:

“I strive after the precepts of Architrax, the Green Mage.  A genius before his time.  I became fascinated with the concept of automata and how they could be used to enhance Architrax’s research in a variety of fields.  He took his studies to eccentric levels, encompassing botany, elixirs, magical causation, astro-reading, fire throwing, and other worthy disciplines.”

A brief tour perhaps, but one which I hope emphasizes the craft of a few compelling authors and how they have honed in on creating a unique mood of enchantment and mystery through the development of a rich background history—all bringing new dimensions to a fantasy tale.