Tag Archives: adventure

Literary or Genre Fantasy? #amreading

A question was recently asked in a Facebook authors’ group that centers around literary fiction, “What is literary fantasy?”

The answer is complicated, and many people who are hardcore readers of obscure literary fiction will radically disagree with me: Some work qualifies as literary fantasy because of the way in which the story is delivered. Because of the style in which they’re written, these books appeal to a much broader fan base than work pigeonholed into either the “genre fantasy category” or the “literary fiction category.”

Each story has a life of its own. Authors envision how that tale must be set down, and some stories that take place in a fantasy setting are focused on the characters and their internal journey more than on the external experiences. That focus on the internal rather than the external is a literary trope. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well. Allusive prose, steeped in allegory, is also a literary trope. Place those tropes and your characters in a fantasy setting, and you have literary fantasy.

Consider Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, volume I, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and volume II, The Ingenious Knight,  written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age. As a founding work of modern Western literature, and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published.

Yet, it is a fantasy, written about a man who believes he is a superhero.

Don Quixote had a major influence on the literary community, as shown by direct references in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

Among modern work, in my opinion, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairy tale about a young man’s internal journey to manhood, steeped in allegory, and told with beautiful, poetic prose in an unhurried fashion.

Within the burgeoning population of authors who are just learning the craft, opinions regarding style and voice run high and loud. Among readers, those who love  and seek out literary fiction are deemed “snooty” while those who love the sheer entertainment offered by genre fiction are deemed “unschooled.” Readers are just people after all–there are haters on both sides of the literary aisle.

Let’s talk about Stardust. According to those critique groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge, in the very first sentence of chapter one, Gaiman commits the most heinous crime an author can commit: he tells the story with leisurely, poetic prose.

Quote: There once was a young man who wished to gain his heart’s desire. 

Those narcissistic gurus armed with tattered copies of Strunk and White, and limited talent of their own really lose their minds over what he does after that first sentence:

  1. He sets the scene: In a style reminiscent of traditional fairy-tales, he explains how our hero, Tristam, lives in the village of Wall. It’s a tiny town about a night’s drive from London. A giant wall stands next to the town, giving the place its name.
  2. He goes on to explain that there’s only one spot to pass through this huge grey rock wall, and it’s always guarded by two villagers at a time, and they are vigilant at their task.
  3. Gaiman comments that this guarding of the gap is peculiar because all one can see through the break in the wall is meadows and trees. It looks as if nothing frightening or strange could be happening there, and yet no one is allowed to go through the break in the wall.
  4. Only then does he bring us to the point: Once every nine years, always on May Day, a unique, traveling fair comes to the meadow. That is the only day the guards ever take a break from their posts on the gap in the wall.

I can hear the group’s de facto emperor pontificating now. What was Gaiman thinking, starting a fantasy novel with a telling, passive sentence followed by an info dump? Why, everyone knows real authors only use active prose and never, ever, offer information up front.

To that breathless expert, I say “not true, my less-than-widely-read friend.” Lean prose can be leisurely and poetic and still pack a punch. That is what true writing is all about, conveying a story in a style that is crafted and has a voice that is uniquely that of the author.

That is why I consider Stardust literary fantasy.

In Stardust, each character is given a certain amount of importance, and even minor players are clearly drawn. The circumstances and events gradually pick up speed, and in the end, the reader is left pondering what might have happened after the final words on the last page.

If you saw the movie that is loosely based on the book but haven’t read the novel,  you might be surprised at how different the book is from the movie. There are no cross-dressing sky pirates in the book, although Robert De Niro was awesome in that role in the movie. The movie bears little resemblance to the book, and, like The Hobbit movie, should be looked at as a different entity entirely.

In the opening lines of Gaiman’s Stardust, nothing unimportant is mentioned although the prose meanders in a literary way. Yes, he takes the long way, but the journey is the best part of this fairy tale. He never devolves into florid, overblown purple prose, yet it has a poetic feel.

In my opinion, the arrogant perception of “fantasy” as having no literary merit is complete hogwash when you look at the books that make up the western cannon of great literature. ALL of them are fantasies of one sort or another, beginning with Don Quixote and going forward, and all of them were created for the enjoyment of the masses.

True authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.

You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. Read old books and new–but read. When you come across authors whose work deeply moves you, study how they crafted the sentences that moved you. You may find yourself learning from the masters.


Credits and Attributions:

Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

First UK edition cover of Neil Gaiman‘s novel Stardust, Illustrator: Charles Vess, Publisher Avon Books, Publication date: 1 February 1999, via Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use.

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#amwriting: Update, and the Room of Shame

I work in a room officially designated as the Room of Shame. It is not a room of shame in a dark, Fifty Shades of Gray way.  No. That would be interesting, which this particular Room of Shame is not.

This room is a boring office that could be owned by hoarders. I’ve mentioned before that it’s haunted by the Ghost of my Feline (Past): Yum Yum (the demon-possessed cat). My little companion died died in 2009, and I’ve never had the heart to replace her. Despite my oft-repeated intention to clean this toxic waste dump out, her ghost still manifests in the fur that still lurks behind the sagging bookshelves and boxes of papers dating back to the Bronze Age. Plastic bins filled with my books, ready to take to a show or signing, are stacked atop dusty crates still bearing her furry imprint. The disgraceful carpet is proof that to clean the floor, one must be able to find it.

Somehow, despite the embarrassing chaos, I do manage to crank out the work.

Last month I finished the second draft of Billy Ninefingers. He has been through the beta reading process and is currently fermenting in a dark place while I wind up some other projects. I received excellent feedback and have a firm idea as to how I will structure the final draft.

I am making headway on the first draft of Eternity’s Gate, a new novel in the Tower of Bones series. This is the ‘how it began’ story, and it features Aelfrid Firesword, Edwin’s many time’s great-grandfather, and the unintentional founder of the College of Warcraft and Magic. Even though it is set in an established world (Neveyah), planning this novel presented an unusual problem in that the magic system had to be redesigned as much of what is canon in the later books doesn’t exist during the time this story is set. New maps have been drawn. Alf is a Barbarian, so I have learned a great deal about his culture in the process of creating this early, far wilder version of world of Neveyah.

Knight’s Redemption, a novella featuring Julian Lackland, Golden Beau Baker, and Huw the Bard, is in the final stage of the revision process.

As always, I am working on flash-fiction and poems as the mood strikes, some weeks more than others. Flash-fiction usually happens when I’m at a stopping point on my other projects and my mind just wants to roam free. This is always a good time to think about possible blog posts.

And finally, I’m in the process of rewriting a short story for an editor who likes the overall premise, the protagonist, and the way the story ends, but wants me to make some fundamental changes to the way I am telling the tale. In my opinion, any interest from an editor should be celebrated, and their requests and suggestions should be given my full, immediate attention, so that will be an ongoing project over the next few weeks.

Not being rejected out-of-hand is good, in my opinion. I see this type of interaction as an encouraging thing. The door is open to an opportunity I might not have again, so I try to make whatever changes they request. The trick is to make the changes with your own flair so that you don’t lose what they liked about the piece in the first place. Either way, whether they ultimately reject it or not, I will gain something out of this.

Also, I have been cooking. I’ve found some more wonderful food ideas to take along when I am on the road. Traveling as a vegan can be quite dicey, unless you carry your own food. Once I leave the Northwest, restaurants don’t offer vegan options. Rather than go hungry, I make my meals ahead. I’m always looking for tasty treats that travel well, and are satisfying.

Today is a good day to write. I intend to make the most of it, working on whichever project is inspiring me. Having more than one project going at a time allows me to stay productive because when I can’t think what to do next in one manuscript, I’ll know exactly what I need to do in another.

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#FlashFictionFriday: The Cat was a Bastard

I love rhyming poems especially those with a simple, traditional feeling meter. And, every now and then I get in a silly mood, a moment where a single line will stick in my head, a simple, off-the-wall sentence that becomes something upon which to hang a comic poem. When that happens, all bets are off and this sort of thing is the result.

In this case, it was the stray memory of a joke my late father frequently told (and my mother deplored), “Home is where you can spit on the floor and call the cat a bastard.” This inappropriate oneliner morphed in my head to: The Cat was a Bastard, an equally inappropriate poem, displaying my low origins and affection for gallows humor.


boss-cat-id-72054715-mariia-sigova-dreamstime

The Cat was a Bastard

 

Around the corner and down the lane

Hurtled my car through hard, driving rain.

And from the brush near the verge of the road

Came running a cat, now dead as a toad.

 

I stopped the car, to check on the corpse,

A cottage did see, the cat’s home of course.

And bearing the body through pouring down rain,

I pressed on the doorbell, and then pressed again.

 

A lady quite elderly, shriveled, and old,

Opened the door and eyed me, quite cold.

“Your cat, I presume?” I gravely inquired.

“He’s met his end, with the aid of my tire.”

 

Her gaze was quite steely, as coolly she said,

“And what’s it to me that the old wretch is dead?

“I always knew his would be a bad end,

“His tomcatting ways he never would mend.”

 

Mystified, I thought an error had been made

For she looked like a cat-lady, proper and staid.

“Are you speaking of this cat, Madame?” I said,

“This flat-headed cat, who surely is dead?”

 

“The cat was a bastard,” the woman replied.

“We’re glad to see the old lecher has died.

“An untidy end for the bastardly cat,

“The lazy old thing who ne’er caught a rat.”

 

Shocked, I just stared, then set down the corpse

And turned to depart, bewildered, of course.

Let this be a lesson to tomcats who stray,

Don’t cross the road on a cold, rainy day.

 


The Cat was a Bastard © Connie J. Jasperson 2017, All Rights Reserved

Stock Illustration:

Boss Cat ID 72054715 © Mariia Sigova | Dreamstime.com

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Reblog: A Question of Quests, by Stephen Swartz #amwriting

My good friend, Stephen Swartz had an excellent blogpost on Sunday. (He usually does, but don’t tell him I said so.) Anyway, since I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “schedule,” thereby posting today’s post yesterday (DOH!) I offer for your reading pleasure:

A Question of Quests

by Stephen Swartz.

 >>>—<<<

swartz_efwd1_frontcvr6x9_bw_670_cs-3_thbA little more than a year ago, I set out on a quest, pushed by fellow writers who encouraged me to try my hand at writing an epic fantasy. Well, good folks, I did that. I typed every day of the year with a story firmly in mind. On good days in the summer I wrote for a full eight hours. I actually wrote a novel following a hero’s quest. Then I wrote a novella about a little princess in another part of the realm. Then I merged the two stories. The result is a 235,000 word tale of daring-do chocked full of all the epic wisdom I could stuff into it–which, I am learning, may be relevant in our heated political season.*

stephen-swartzBy “quest” I mean a journey of some kinda hero’s journey, in Joseph Campbell parlance. However, in writing an epic fantasy, a quest could be a hero going in search of something of value, or a hero simply trying to travel home from far away, perhaps from a place of tribulation. A quest could mean a bubbly travelogue, much like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Or, a quest could be a hero going to a particular place where he intends to do something important. This last option is the pattern I adopted for my epic fantasy. (e.g., A man with a plan, out getting a tan, and learning to pan the jokes of his sidekick Tam.) My model for a quest was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although I bent over backwards to avoid borrowing anything from it. Likewise, I started reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, but I deliberately avoided any dragon references which my readers might tease were similar to Martin’s use of dragons.

Then, much to my chagrin, I discovered a problem. A fatal flaw. An underlying faux pas. A fundamental error. So…what to do with a 235,000-word tale of rousing adventure that falls short of being an epic fantasy? Maybe call it epic sci-fi? That just might be crazy enough to work! You see, there are some rules….


For the rest of the story, continue on to A Question of Quests, Deconstruction of the Sekuatean Empire.

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#FlashFictionFriday: Edna’s Garden, Part 2

I’m packing up to move. Selling the house was more work than I thought it would be. My agent assured me the large sum of money I spent replacing the old carpets with laminate, and getting new, natural-stone counter-tops would more than pay for itself when I found the right family to sell the place to. Frank Lanier, my real estate agent, has known me for years. He accepts that I believe more is at stake than mere money and was willing to write some unusual clauses into the contract.

My daughter doesn’t know this, but I told Frank that if the right people wanted the house, I would accept any offer they made, even if it was a little low.

The problem is, I’ve buried two husbands, and now I’ve outlived my handyman, Jasper. He seemed so healthy too. But he dropped dead of a heart attack at the young age of only eighty-two. Jasper did everything I couldn’t for the last thirty years, mowing the grass, cleaning the gutters, fixing the wonky electric system, or repairing the roof. I don’t want to have to train some young know-it-all in how things should be done, such as not running the lawnmower over the sprinkler heads. I’ve accepted that I can’t care for the place anymore.

But I do have a responsibility to see to it the right family moves in here. They must be able to see past the expected, must have an imagination, and absolutely must be committed to preserving…nature.

Marjorie, my daughter, is only in her seventies and, unfortunately for her husband, she’s as healthy as a racehorse. The way she carries on about every minor ailment, you’d think she was at death’s door. Arthur, Marjorie’s husband, is the least spirited man I’ve ever met. I suppose forty-eight years of being tied to her has long since beaten anything resembling a backbone out of him. Marjorie has the notion her life will be much easier if they sell everything and move to Florida.

I know what my extraordinarily lazy daughter is up to.  By purchasing a condominium in a resort for well-heeled seniors, Marjorie will have housekeepers to order around and will never have to cook again. They could eat every meal in the community dining room. I’m sure Arthur sees that as a point in her favor since Marjorie can’t even boil water without burning it.

It sounds like a cruise ship but without the Norovirus. However, she needs me to foot the bill, because she always spent her and her husband’s salaries faster than they could earn it, and then she insisted on retiring early. So, they’re out of money now, but she has a new retirement plan–me. She’s been pretending I’m senile and petitioned the court to be given custodial power over me and my assets “for my best interests.”

That will never happen. She now hates my lawyer, because he made it clear that I am in complete possession of my wits, and the judge rather bluntly asked her what she was hoping to gain. She became quite offended, saying it was her duty to care for me in my declining years.

Of course, she came apologizing afterward, trying to convince me to move in with them, but I told her I had plans that involved having a life. Marjorie got that pouty look, the one she wears anytime she’s balked. After we had left the court, I did tell Violet that booking myself into the lowest-rated nursing home in a Bombay slum would be preferable to putting myself and my money in Marjorie’s power. Violet knows Marjorie, and had to agree.

With Jasper’s untimely death, I had to do something about the house, but I have a responsibility to the “guests” in my garden. I didn’t tell Frank why I wanted only a certain kind of family, but the truth is, whoever purchased this place had to be people with an open mind. They had to be able to see my fairies and understand they are an endangered species and that they have a sacred duty to protect them. That’s why I had Frank put the clause in the contract that the new owners must never cut the hedge.

Frank finally found the right people. Kaitlyn and Martha fell in love with it. When they looked at the garden, Kaitlyn spotted the fairies and got all excited, pointing and whispering to Martha that this was the place for them to build their life together, and she had to have it, no matter what.

Martha agreed.

So now, that perfectly sweet couple will live here, and my fairies will be safe.

As the judge advised me to, I’m spending Marjorie’s inheritance. Frank found me the perfect little condo downtown near the senior center, and I can bring my cat, Rufus. It’s only a few blocks from the farmer’s market, and it’s on the bus line so I can sell my car, which will make my insurance agent happy.

Once I get settled there, Violet and I will take a two-week trip to Italy. We have a lot of plans, and making a pilgrimage to Fabio’s birthplace is just the beginning.

512px-August_Malmström_-_Dancing_Fairies_-_Google_Art_Project

 


Edna’s Garden, Part 2 © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved

Click here to read part one of Edna’s Garden 

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#ammwriting: Firing Chekhov’s gun

Motivation memeThis last weekend, I attended PNWA’s annual writing conference in Seattle, Washington. I garnered a great deal of advice from industry professionals and took seminars offered by well-known authors, agents, and editors.

I attend this conference every year. PNWA is where I come to learn both the craft of writing and business of publishing. Craft and business: two aspects of writing that every serious author must know whether they are going indie or taking the traditional route.

Today’s post is about identifying what motivates your characters. Well-known writing coach,  Lindsay Schopfer, gave a seminar on this, which unlocked ideas for my works in progress. That is how writers’ conferences work for me—they pry loose the ideas that have been stuck and help me verbalize them.

You have probably heard of the literary rule known as Chekhov’s Gun, which says nothing should appear in the scene that has no use. If a rifle is important enough to be shown hanging on the wall, someone had better fire it, or it should be removed from the setting.

Firing Chekhov’s gun brings us to motivation. When I was in elementary school, I was taught  “the 5 Ws” of journalism. I feel sure they still teach this, but just to remind you, they are:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why

These five words form the core of every story. Who did what? When and where did it happen?

Why did they do it?

In some stories the author had made the what quite clear, but the why is murky. I hate it when the author is at a loss as to why their protagonist wants to do the task set before them.

If a character commits a murder, you’d better know why they were compelled to do it. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story.

When a character arrives at the inciting event, the things that motivate him/her should already be established. Identifying what makes your character do the things they do is the core of character development. Some characters are easy:

  • Edwin wants to save Marya.
  • Wynn wants to get back to his wife and his forge.
  • Huw wants to avoid being hanged for treason.

Some characters have motives that are more difficult to identify. Motives are driven by need, what a character desires, and what they are willing to do to attain it.

Suppose we have a protagonist who realizes her marriage is failing. We’ll call her Anna. Before we begin writing, we need to do a little brainstorming about Anna and find out who she is and what makes her tick.

She is a well-educated, professional woman, a writer of paranormal fantasy. She is married to another writer, David.

What motivates her? David is strong, charismatic and brilliant. There is nothing he doesn’t feel entitled to, and he will do anything to achieve his goals. Although she is a best-selling author of popular fiction and is the person paying the bills, Anna has made a habit of catering to his needs.

At first, she wants to keep her marriage together and presents herself as whatever she thinks David wants her to be. She feels as if she casts no shadow of her own. As the summer progresses and events unfold, she evolves, becoming an individual who no longer needs his validation. In the process, Anna finds that she is, and has always been, the strong one in the relationship.

With those paragraphs, we know the main protagonist’s desire—on the surface she has a deadline for her book and wants to save her marriage, but really she is seeking her sense of self-worth, trying to find who she is.

Now, let’s find out who the other characters are:

Anna and David rent a secluded house on the wild Washington coast for the summer. They invite 3 companions to join them for the summer, as a working retreat. All five characters have deadlines, and that is their official reason for accepting Anna’s invitation. However, the four other characters each have their own agendas. Other than Anna, they each have strong personalities, are charismatic, and are used to a certain amount of privilege. At first, although it is subtle, each of them uses and manipulates Anna for their own purposes.

Every member of the cast has a secret, including Anna. With the revelation of each secret to the reader, the motivations for subsequent actions become clear. Someone will attempt murder to ensure their secret is kept. In the end, three will die by accident, and two will be left to pick up the pieces.

With this information complete, we know the genre–this novel is a contemporary fiction, and is the story of Anna’s journey to self-knowledge. It will be slower paced than a thriller, and will be about the people and their relationships more than the events. However, the events will shape the people.

LOTR advance poster 2Unless each character’s wants and needs are clearly defined, the events won’t make any sense. Without clear motivations, it’s just a bunch of drama queens cooped up with a psychopath, in a house by the gloomy Washington North Pacific coast. Once we know their motivation, it becomes a story. And as a writer trying to flesh out characters, it becomes easy to picture these five people as individuals possessing depth and desires.

Motivation is the character’s quest to fulfill his/her deepest needs. Consider Frodo: he has seen what the ring did to Bilbo and Gollum, but more than that, he loves the Shire and does’t want it to fall to shadow. Without a real, personal motivation, there is no reason for Frodo to  agree to walk to Mordor and certain death just to toss a ring into an active volcano.

 

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#amgaming: Review of Stargazer, by Amaranth/John Wizard

Stargazer screen shot 3I spend a certain amount of time playing computer games, especially when I am trying to avoid doing any serious writing. And just like the books I read when dodging work, I love to talk about whatever game I’m playing. Today I am reviewing Stargazer, which was published in 2015.

I love old-school, indie-built, computer Japanese-style RPGs, and Stargazer, created by John Wizard in association with Amaranth, is one of the best games I’ve played in years. I’ve played it through four times over the last year, setting Aura’s magic up differently each time, and have not run across any glitches or bugs. Yay for that!!!

Magic no longer exists in the world, but Zach, stargazer and dreamer, doesn’t really believe that. The game begins when a meteor falls from the sky, and Zach goes to investigate it. He manages to avoid the Chancellor’s goons and discovers a girl who is suffering from amnesia. She thinks her name is Aura. There is an instant attraction there, and Zach is smitten. Their adventures begin, and they meet Scarbeck (a detective) Thyme (a healer) Grayson (a noble, but scary, knight), Kala, (has magic and rides a Firewing bird) and Amelia Mae (a 14-year-old genius).

Their romance is sweet, but not without stumbling blocks. There is no doubt how Zach and Aura feel about each other, but as for Thyme and Grayson…it’s a rocky road to the altar. And, in true Amaranth fashion, unless all the right criteria are met throughout the game, you won’t gain attraction points, and there will be no weddings.

The story line is a good fantasy story with a great quest, and the dialogue is hilarious, rife with snark and sarcasm.The art and graphics are excellent, colorful and highly detailed. Each setting is fun to roam around in. If I have any complaint, it’s the amount of walking back and forth over the same ground that one has to do to complete the many tasks, but that’s a minor irritation–the story keeps it interesting.

Stargazer screen shot 2The dungeons are difficult but not impossible, and the puzzles are challenging. The creatures are fun, and some are hard to beat, but you do gain strength, so nothing is impossible. You do have to be careful with the gold in order to get the best armor and weapons, as there are no goodie caves or secret weapons/armor stashes, although you can gain some good armor and weaponry in treasure chests.

Shybeard’s ship and Mala (the Firewing Bird) are delightfully hokey in an enlarged SNES Super Mario kind of way. Hawkeye is the lone graphic that is pretty much indecipherable.

The final battle is fun, and if you have met all the right criteria and gained enough attraction points for the two marriageable couples, you will get two weddings at the end. Or not, but either way, it’s a great game.

This is a terrific way to spend 25 or so hours, as there are over 200 puzzles and side quests to complete, all of which advance the story.

Amaranth and John Wizard are my 2 favorite indie RPG game makers, and they have lately collaborated with each other on several other games. Built using RPG Maker, their games are reminiscent of the old Enix/Square Soft games, for the Super Nintendo with strong story lines and fun side quests. They are as much fun as The Legend of Zelda, or Chrono Trigger or any early Final Fantasy game ever was.

Stargazer screen shotStargazer is available from John Wizard, or Aldorlea, or on SteamThis game is not for sale on the Aveyond.com website, which is what Google queries for Amaranthia redirect to. Amaranth has undergone some serious changes over the last year and their website is no longer the fun place it was, although gamers and indie game creators can still meet and discuss gaming and game creation in some limited forums.

I am not sure what to make of that—even though the John Wizard site redirects Stargazer questions to Aveyond, there are no forums there to discuss Stargazer, and the game does not appear on their website.

Regardless of that mystery, I give Stargazer 5 full stars, with no reservations whatsoever—I love this game.

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#amreading: Mad Science Institute, by Sechin Tower

mad science institute front-coverI have been catching up on my long-put off reading, starting with a book by fellow Northwest indie author Sechin TowerMad Science Institute . I had a great time reading this particular YA novel. But first, The Blurb:

Sophia “Soap” Lazarcheck is a girl genius with a knack for making robots—and for making robots explode. After her talents earn her admission into a secretive university institute, she is swiftly drawn into a conspiracy more than a century in the making. Meanwhile and without her knowledge, her cousin Dean wages a two-fisted war of vengeance against a villainous genius and his unwashed minions. Separately, the cousins must pit themselves against murderous thugs, experimental weaponry, lizard monsters, and a nefarious doomsday device. When their paths finally meet up, they will need to risk everything to prevent a mysterious technology from bringing civilization to a sudden and very messy end.

My Opinion: This book totally lives up to it’s promise. Soap is a great character, and so is Dean.  She is a little too adventurous in the laboratory, and things sometimes go awry. The story opens with her, and immediately shifts to Dean’s story, but shifts back again.

Dean is older, is a firefighter who loves his work, and has relationship issues, which launch him into the thick of things.

Soap is a feisty girl, who is launched into a series of immersive adventures. She’s a bit testy and awkward when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

The author, Sechin Tower, is a teacher in his real life, and I think he must be pretty awesome in the classroom, because the story contains a lot of historical information imparted in regard to Nicola Tesla and his scientific legacy, presented in such an entertaining way the reader doesn’t realize they’re learning.

All in all, I have three grandkids who would really enjoy this book–and Santa will be obliging this year!

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Elements of the story: calamity, villainy, and the hero’s struggle

Tolkien's art work for Hobbiton-across-the-water

Hobbiton-across-the-water, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Most writing coaches agree that the first 1/4 of your story is where you reveal your characters and show their world while introducing hints of trouble and foreshadowing the first plot point. That is the first act, so to speak.

The Calamity:

Something large and dramatic must occur right around the 1/4 mark to force the hero into action, an intense, powerful scene that changes everything. Quite often, in epic fantasy the inciting scene will be comparatively disastrous, and one that that forces the protagonist to react. He/she may be thrust into a situation that radically changes their life and forces them to make a series of difficult decisions.

  • What incident or event will occur at the first plot point?
  • What negative effect does this event have for the protagonist and his/her cohorts?
  • How are hero’s efforts countered?
A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Villain:

Conflict drives the story.  We know a great story has a compelling protagonist, but in order to have a great conflict, you must also have a great adversary. The hero has an objective, and so does the villain.

  • Identify the opponent–who is he/she, and what is their power-base?
  • What is the adversary’s primary goal, and who or what are they willing to sacrifice to achieve it?
  • Do the hero and the villain know each other, or are they faceless enemies to each other?
  • How does the adversary counter the hero’s efforts?

In fantasy, and often in thrillers and horror, we have an adversary who is capable of great evil. They may have supernatural powers, and at first they seem invincible. Their position of greater power forces the hero to become stronger, craftier, to develop ways to beat the adversary at his game. A strong, compelling villain creates interest and drives the conflict. Write several pages of back-story for your own use, to make sure your antagonist is as well-developed in your mind as your protagonist is, so that he/she radiates evil and power when you put them on the page. If you know your antagonist as well as you know the hero, the enemy will be believable when you write about their actions.

Bilbo comes to the huts of the raftelves by J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo comes to the huts of the Raft elves by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hero’s Struggle:

Now the story is hurtling toward the midpoint, that place called the second plot-point. The characters are acting and reacting to events that are out of their control. Nothing is going right-the hero and his/her cohorts must scramble to stay alive, and now they are desperately searching for the right equipment or a crucial piece of information that will give them an edge. The struggle is the story, and at this point it looks like the hero may not get what they need in time.

Their weaknesses must be first exploited by the adversary, and then overcome and turned into strengths by the hero. The hero must grow.

During this part of the story you must build upon your characters’ strengths.  Identify the hero’s goals, and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  • How does the hero react to being thwarted in his efforts during the second act to the midpoint?
  • How does the villain currently control the situation?
  • How does the hero react to pressure from the villain?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the hero and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  • What complications (for the hero) arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict, and how will he/she acquire that necessary information?
  • Midway between the first plot point and the second plot point, what new incident will occur to once again dramatically alter the hero’s path? This will be a turning point, drama and mayhem will ensue, perhaps offering the hero a slim chance. What stands in his/her way of realizing that small chance and what will the hero sacrifice to attain it?

the hobbitThe first half of the book can be exciting or a bore–and because I’m always growing as an author, my new rule is “don’t write boring books.”

I say this because the books I loved to read the most were crafted in such a way that we got to know the characters, saw them in their environment, and bam! Calamity happened, thrusting them down the road to Naglimund or to the Misty Mountains.

Calamity combined with villainy creates struggle, which creates opportunity for great adventure, and that is what great fantasy is all about.

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Elements of the story: Circumstances and Objectives

the hobbitAt the outset of any good story, we find our protagonist, and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs, and Hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the Situation, which is the core idea of your plot. This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself in the beginning of the story. 

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a respectable hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is living a comfortable life in a prosperous, sheltered village, and has no desire to change that in any way. However, a casual, polite greeting made to a passing wizard sets a string of events into motion that will eventually change the course of history of Middle Earth.

the hobbit movie poster 3The wizard, Gandalf, tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition’s “burglar”. The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo becomes a little indignant, and joins despite himself. The next morning he has second thoughts, but the last minute Bilbo literally runs out the door, with nothing but the clothes on his back.

  • How will the story start?
  • What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
  • How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
  • What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone?

Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: Objective

the hobbit movie posterA protagonist has no business showing up on the page unless he/she has a compelling objective. If he doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.

Bilbo does have an objective. Once he gets past his feeling of having made a terrible mistake, he desires nothing more than to help his friends achieve their goal: that of regaining their lost kingdom. Gandalf exerts a parental influence over Bilbo at the outset, guiding him and pushing him out of his comfortable existence.  But it is Bilbo who has common sense and compassion, who gradually takes over leadership of the party, guiding and rescuing them from their own greedy mistakes. This is a fact the dwarves can’t bear to acknowledge, and also a fact he doesn’t realize himself.

Those turning points where with each adventure Bilbo gains confidence and a tool or weapon he will later need are what make up the best parts of the adventure. That is what you must inject into your adventure, be it urban fantasy or science fiction.

  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is he going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?

Perhaps your tale is set on a space station. What does your protagonist need that is in short supply? What does he have to do to get it?

Perhaps you are writing an urban fantasy. Perhaps your main character is a vampire. He/she requires sustenance–what will he/she do to get it? Or conversely, if a human, what will he/she do to avoid becoming vampire-food?

Protagonists begin their tale in their current surroundings. They are thrown out of their comfortable existence by circumstances, and forced to identify objectives they must achieve or acquire in order to resolve their situation.

hobbit-battle-five-armies-bilbo-posterCircumstances and Objectives combine to form the plot. Character A desires Objective B–and will do anything to acquire it.  Along the way, Character A has a series of adventures that force him to grow and change, but which in the end give him the strength, the moral courage to enable the final resolution.

Thus, whichever you conceive first, characters or objective, you need to know why your character is willing to leave his circumstances and embark on his adventure. That objective must be compelling enough for him to risk everything he values to achieve it.

But what if a side character has such a compelling story that the book becomes about him, and not our hobbit? If you notice that is the case, rewrite your book so that the character with the  most compelling story is the protagonist from page one.

Potential for gain must outweigh the potential for loss–so if he is risking his life, there had better be a damned big payoff at the end, whether monetary or in moral coin. Without that risk and potential for gain, there is no story.

 

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