Tag Archives: Tad Williams

#BookReview: The Witchwood Crown by @TadWilliams

I am a great fan of Tad Williams’ work, in all its many incarnations. The Witchwood Crown is his most recent release, a follow up to his masterpiece series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It is a fitting continuation of the original story featuring four great characters, Simon Snowlock, Miriamele, Binabik, and Jiriki.

I became a confirmed fan of epic fantasy in 1988 when I first entered the world of Osten Ard and The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams. Simon was such a complex, sometimes clueless character that I was immediately drawn to him. Miri was also clueless and naïve. Binabik, Tiamak, and Jiriki had the wisdom needed to guide these two toward making good decisions.

Throughout the original series set in Osten Ard, it seemed like each character was deserving of a novel, and the diverse races whose cultures were so clearly shown fascinated me. The bigotry and arrogance shown by some members of each race, each believing in their innate superiority struck me as illustrating a sad truth about the real world.

When this new series set in Osten Ard was announced, I was curious as to how Tad Williams would maintain that deep connection to the story after such a long absence. In my opinion, The Heart of What Was Lost proved Williams had not lost his touch, that indeed, he had matured as a writer.

I bought the Kindle version of The Witchwood Crown, but also downloaded the Audible book, because I have a monthly subscription. Andrew Wincott is the narrator, and he’s an incredible reader. His narration makes this one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. I read along with his narration, which is an awesome experience.

The Witchwood Crown, by Tad Williams

  • Series:Last King of Osten Ard (Book 1)
  • Hardcover:736 pages
  • Publisher:DAW; First Edition edition (June 27, 2017)
  • Language:English

MY REVIEW (as originally posted on my review blog, Best in Fantasy):

This book is not a light read. Tad Williams’ work is brilliant and complex because he understands the character arc and the importance of agency and consequences. Change and growth or degeneration happen to each character over the course of the story—no one is allowed to stagnate. With a character-driven plot set in a fantasy world, the growth of the characters is the central theme. The events, shocking and yet unavoidable, are the means to enable that growth.

The story opens some thirty years after final passages of To Green Angel Tower. Many events have occurred in that time, leaving scars on those who have lived through them. Prince Josua and his family have vanished. The League of the Scroll is no longer what it was, death and age having taken most of the people who had the knowledge. Simon and Miriamele have lost a son to a deadly fever, and are deeply concerned about the behavior of Prince Morgan, their grandson and heir. They have reservations about their son’s widow and fear her influence has ruined him. They also fear for their very young granddaughter, Lillia.

There are other problems for Simon and Miri to contend with. Political unrest, lack of hospitality and rudeness by the King of Hernystir, trouble in Nabban, and rumors that the Norns are stirring. Simon, who has always been gifted (or cursed) with prophetic dreams, is no longer dreaming. A council is held, and it emerges that Binabik the troll also has concerns.

Prince Morgan is more than just a womanizing young noble, but he doesn’t know it. Jiriki and the Sithi will have a large part to play in Prince Morgan’s journey, as they did in his grandfather Simon’s journey to manhood. Whether or not Prince Morgan is the kind of man his grandfather is, remains to be seen.

The Witchwood Crown is an epic fantasy which will put some hoity toity literary purists off. It is literary, illuminating the internal lives of the many characters, and is centered upon how the perception that the king is dying has gendered plots and plans for coups among many factions. This lack of focus on one primary hero will put off the genre purists who need more noise and sixty-second sound bites in their literature. Those readers will find it difficult to follow the many threads.

Osten Ard is a place of contrasts. Dark, in many ways Gothic, negotiating the rough waters of this dark-age world is not easy. The three main cultures differ greatly from each other and are worlds of extremes. These contrasts drive the plot and frame the story in such a way the world of Osten Ard seems more real and tangible than this world. The room in which I read grows colder when the Norns breeze into the narrative.

In the years since the original publication of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams has matured as an author. His prose is beautiful, almost poetic yet not going there. Harsh, lush, and carefully designed with layers of allegory and subtext, some readers will find the narrative too literary, difficult to read. Williams has a large vocabulary and sometimes takes the long way rather than dumping you into the fray immediately. He isn’t afraid to use compound sentences, which makes it an adult read. Other, more avid readers, like me, will devour it, savor it, and think about the deeper concepts long after closing the book on the final page.

I give this novel five stars for its complexity, maturity, and sheer originality. A powerful narrative, this book left a different kind of mark on me as a reader than the original series did. That series is young and brash, detailing the early days of kitchen boy who became king. A young and brash author wrote that first amazing series. This book is mature, not only because the author has matured in the craft but because the king is older—it shows us who that boy became, what kind of man he is, and offers us a glimpse of who might succeed him.

I look forward to the next chapter in this very large story.


Tad Williams is a California-based fantasy superstar. His genre-creating (and genre-busting) books have sold tens of millions worldwide. His considerable output of epic fantasy and epic science-fiction series, fantastical stories of all kinds, urban fantasy novels, comics, scripts, etc., have strongly influenced a generation of writers. Tad always has several secret projects on the go. 2016 will see the debut of a number of them; March 2017 brings ‘The Witchwood Crown’, the first volume in the long-awaited return to the world of the ‘Memory, Sorrow & Thorn’ novels. Tad and his family live in the Santa Cruz mountains in a suitably strange and beautiful house.

You can find out more about Tad Williams and his books at www.tadwilliams.com  


Credits and Attributions

This review of The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams, as reviewed by Connie J. Jasperson,  was originally posted on Best in Fantasy,  on November 16, 2017

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The Character Arc: Agency and Consequences #amwriting

My favorite novels are literary fantasy, a genre which has a character-driven plot set in a fantasy world. I love books where the prose has been carefully crafted, the growth of the characters is the central theme, the events are  the means to enable that growth, and the fantasy setting frames the story.

Thus, I am a great fan of Tad William’s work, in all its many incarnations. When not writing, I am currently finishing reading The Witchwood Crown, and I must say, his work never fails to move me. On Friday, I will post my review here.

Tad Williams’ work is brilliant because he understands the character arc, and the importance of agency and consequences. No character is allowed to stagnate,  a lesson I have taken to heart.

Because I love character driven work, some of what I write is literary fantasy. I have found that, for me, the first half of the book is easy to write, but beginning at the midpoint of my first draft, I begin to struggle.

For many authors, the rough draft is challenging because we are pulling the story out of the ether. The good news is that once the first draft is finished, we can get down to actually writing the book.

The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment and give it form on paper. When it is finished, the rough draft is basically made of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalogue of events: who did what, where they did it, and why.  We are beginning to know our characters, but in the original version, we may not have a handle on how to portray their reactions. The character arc is uneven and making the story seem real becomes a challenge.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character/protagonist over the course of a story. Stories that interest me have a strong character arc:  the protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events he/she experiences, they are transformed, frequently changing for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

The third quarter section of your story begins with the midpoint crisis. It is crucial because the seeds planted by the events of the first half must bear fruit here, forcing a visible change (usually a positive change) in the behavior and outlook of the protagonist and his/her friends. Sadly, some books fail to live up to their promise when they arrive at this point, and the reader gives up.

In a book where the storyline follows the hero’s journey, at some point in this third section, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. This is your opportunity to learn who they really are as human beings. The events leading to this place have combined to break the character down to their lowest emotional state.

The protagonist must emerge from this section remade as a stronger person, ready to meet whatever awaits them at the final showdown. And you must make it believable, done in such a way that it feels natural to the reader.

If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

The way to avoid predictability in a plot is to introduce a sense of danger, an unavoidable threat. How our characters react to that event should feel unpredictable because they have agency.

In many ways, agency is the ability your character has to surprise you when you are writing them and their reactions. They seem to drive the keyboard, making their own choices.

When we give our characters agency, an unavoidable threat removes the option of going about life as normal but leaves characters with several consequential choices, the final one of which will be made in a stressful situation.

I used the word consequential relating to the choices your characters must make. I chose that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?

Why would a random trip to a convenience store interest a reader if something out of the ordinary does not occur? After all—we go out for bread every day, and it’s not too exciting. Frankly, I’m not interested in reading about Nadine buying a loaf of bread. But make her the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give her options:

  1. She can hide and wait for the intruders to leave.
  2. She can decide to be a hero.
  3. What other options does Nadine have? What does she see when she looks around the store?

Whatever Nadine chooses to do, there will be consequences. If things go awry, she could become a hostage. If she goes unnoticed but tells the police what she knows, she and her family could be in danger.

Once she is in the middle of these consequences, Nadine will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread will only be one of them. She will have many decisions to make, and each choice will drive the plot.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story.

At the outset, giving my characters agency is difficult to write. This is because, in the rough draft, the protagonist and her motives are still somewhat unformed. What I keep in mind is faithfulness in following the hero’s journey and allowing her choices to force her personal growth.

In one of my current works-in progress, my main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. Her world has been shaken to the foundations, and she no longer has faith in herself or the people she once looked up to. To write this story, I must discover the answers to these questions:

  • How is she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes her pull herself together and just keep on going?
  • How has she evolved after this personal death and rebirth event?

In all my favorite novels, this low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey. It is the place during which she is taken down to her component parts emotionally, and rebuilds herself to be more than she ever believed she could be.

By the time you finish writing this part, you should have come to know your character and how they will react in any given situation.

Paying close attention to making this section emotionally powerful in your first draft will pay off when you begin the second draft. In the first draft, use all the adverbs and modifiers you need because you must get the idea down before you forget it.

In the rewrite, these words will be the guide you need to make the prose evolve into a greater, more polished version of the original.

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#My5: Genesis of the Tower of Bones series #amwriting

 

Today’s post is part of a project begun by author K.M. Alexander, called My5. It’s hard to narrow it down to only five, but here, in no particular order are five major influences that helped shape my career as a writer.

Number One: I’m a gamer. I’ve always been a reader, so when I discovered the Super Nintendo and Final Fantasy style RPGs, I found an activity that had the ability to suck me in and keep me as enthralled as my favorite books could. I’m just going to come out and say it—I play both PC and console-based RPG video games, sometimes to excess. Me and my old beater PlayStations 2 and 3 are best friends.

My epic fantasy series, Tower of Bones, got its start in life back in 2009 as the storyline for an old-school style RPG computer game that was intended to be built using RPG Maker XP, but for various reasons, it never got built. But, I had the story and the maps I had drawn, so three years later, I managed to pull a novel, Mountains of the Moon, out of my hat. This prequel to Tower of Bones was sprung from the original idea I’d had of what would make a great storyline for an epic RPG, if only I could entice Square-Enix to build it.

Number Two: I’m a huge Fritz Lieber fan. My first completed novel, written long ago in a galaxy far, far away, began with the idea of writing a book Fritz might write if he were still alive (and if he had consumed several hallucinogenic mushrooms). I had just finished re-reading my collection of Fritz Lieber tales, and had Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser on the brain. These two characters are scoundrels, living in a decadent world where a lack of scruples a requirement for survival.

What I actually produced had no resemblance to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and was nothing like anything Fritz would have written, but within the uneven plot and frequently overblown dialogue, it had the bones of a good story. Eventually, the shreds of that manuscript spawned the novel featuring one of my favorite characters, Huw the Bard, and I have good old Fritz to thank for him. That proto novel also spawned Billy Ninefingers, which has entered the editing process and will be published in August 2017. Huw makes an appearance toward the end of Billy’s tale.

Number Three: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny was a watershed book for me as a reader. In what can only be described as a genius move, Zelazny introduces the concept of the Trickster as the hero-antihero. Originally conceived as a serial for F&SF in 1971, it was published in book form that same year by Walker and Company. Lester del Rey was unimpressed with this tale, but I read this book to shreds. What I loved about this book was the typical Zelazny mystique—many questions abound regarding Shadowjack, and answers come at a slow pace, just information enough to keep you interested, and be warned: not all your questions will be answered. Even the ending is a question.

Jack is an awesome character. He is good, and he is bad. He has deep compassion and can be moved to do great deeds that benefit all of humanity at the cost of his own life. Conversely, he can be the smallest, meanest man over a tiny little slight to his ego, capable of inflicting great cruelty. He abuses his powers, and also uses them for good.

In this book, Zelazny fully realized the concept of “shadow.” It is neither light nor dark, and it is not here or there. It is all of those and none of them. Thus the unanswered questions. What Zelazny did in this less well-known of his books is create a story in which the reader decides what is true.

Number Four: I gravitate to tales written with guts and substance. Give me the Flawed Hero over the Bland Prince any day. Tad Williams is an author who absolutely understands the craft of writing brilliant, deep prose and creates compelling characters who aren’t exactly squeaky clean. He knows what makes epic fantasy EPIC. There is just the slightest hint of the rebellious indie in his work, which makes his work a little wild.

I became a confirmed fan of epic fantasy in 1988 when I first entered this world of Osten Ard and the books of Tad Williams. The Dragon Bone Chair blew me away.  Each character was deserving of a novel, and the diverse races whose cultures were so clearly shown fascinated me. The arrogance some members of each race have with regard to their innate superiority struck me as illustrating a fundamental truth about the real world.

Number Five: George Saunders is famous for his short stories. He has the ability to get inside each of his characters’ heads, showing them sharply as unique individuals. They aren’t always nice, and certainly not always moral as I see morality, but Saunders portrays them with such vivid strokes that you feel as if you understand their reasoning.

For me, the most powerful short story I have ever read was in Saunders’ collection of short stories, The Tenth of December,  “Escape from Spiderhead.”  This sci-fi tale has an almost Vonnegut-like flavor. It is a stark journey into the depths to which we humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Where does punishment end and inhumanity begin? This story lays bare concepts regarding our view of crime and punishment that are difficult, but which are important to consider. The scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world, but it exposes the callous view society has regarding criminals and what punishment they might deserve.


So those are #My5,  the “tip of the iceberg” of the authors and ideas that influenced the creation of the Tower of Bones series, and also Huw The Bard. This strange collection of books, and video games has profoundly influenced my concept of story and shaped what I write, at least in my fevered mind if not in the execution.

I’m not alone in detailing #My5! I have joined many other authors who have written their #My5. If you choose to participate, go to K. M. Alexander’s post and follow the instructions at the bottom of the page. You can find some awesome articles by following the links below. Each article is really intriguing – it never ceases to amaze me how diverse and unique we authors are, and yet how similar.

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#bookreview: The Heart of What Was Lost, by @TadWilliams #OstenArd

tadwilliams-the-heart-of-what-was-lostI just finished reading Tad William’s latest book. Wow! Told from three points of view, Duke Isgrimnur of Rimmersgard, a Norn leader, Viyeki, and Porto, a Perdruinese mercenary, The Heart of What Was Lost, by Tad Williams is a gripping, worthy return to the world of Osten Ard.

But first, THE BLURB:

At the end of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Ineluki the Storm King, an undead spirit of horrifying, demonic power, came within moments of stopping Time itself and obliterating humankind. He was defeated by a coalition of mortal men and women joined by his own deathless descendants, the Sithi.

In the wake of the Storm King’s fall, Ineluki’s loyal minions, the Norns, dark cousins to the Sithi, choose to flee the lands of men and retreat north to Nakkiga, their ancient citadel within the hollow heart of the mountain called Stormspike. But as the defeated Norns make their way to this last haven, the mortal Rimmersman Duke Isgrimnur leads an army in pursuit, determined to end the Norns’ attacks and defeat their ageless Queen Utuk’ku for all time.

Two southern soldiers, Porto and Endri, joined the mortal army to help achieve this ambitious goal—though as they venture farther and farther into the frozen north, braving the fierce resistance and deadly magics of the retreating Norns, they cannot help but wonder what they are doing so very far from home. Meanwhile, the Norns must now confront the prospect of extinction at the hands of Isgrimnur and his mortal army.

Viyeki, a leader of the Norns’ military engineers, the Order of Builders, desperately seeks a way to help his people reach their mountain—and then stave off the destruction of their race. For the two armies will finally clash in a battle to be remembered as the Siege of Nakkiga; a battle so strange and deadly, so wracked with dark enchantment, that it threatens to destroy not just one side but quite possibly all.

Trapped inside the mountain as the mortals batter at Nakkiga’s gates, Viyeki the Builder will discover disturbing secrets about his own people, mysteries both present and past, represented by the priceless gem known as The Heart of What Was Lost.

MY REVIEW:

the-heart-of-what-was-lostI became a confirmed fan of epic fantasy in 1988 when I first entered this world of Osten Ard and the books of Tad Williams. It seemed like each character was deserving of a novel, and the diverse races whose cultures were so clearly shown fascinated me. The bigotry and arrogance some members of each race have with regard to their innate superiority struck me as illustrating a sad truth about the real world.

When this new series set in Osten Ard was announced, I was curious as to how Tad Williams would maintain that deep connection to the story after such a long absence. When The Heart of What Was Lost was launched, I bought the hard-copy, but also downloaded the Audible book, because I have a monthly subscription. Andrew Wincott is the narrator, and he’s an incredible reader. His narration makes this one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. Like some gutter-dwelling book junkie, I read along with his narration–an awesome experience.

This is not a long novel, only 224 pages. It is well-written, with the harsh, beautiful prose I have come to expect from Tad Williams. Most importantly, an inspiring story is encapsulated in those pages. I found the pacing excellent, and at times, heart stopping. There is no place where it slows or becomes pedestrian.

Osten Ard is created from both good and evil, with all the many grey places between those two absolutes clearly defined. For each misery, some small glimmer of hope is introduced, offering a reason for the characters to keep struggling. The unlikely friendship between Porto and Endri is deep despite their humorous rivalry. Through their eyes we see the truth of the conflict and what it means in terms of human suffering.

Duke Isgrimnur is strong and resolute, driven on every level. He is faced with hard decisions, an impossible task, and does what he has to. A many-layered character, Isgrimnur is one of my favorite people in the series, as is Sludig. I had wondered about them at the end of To Green Angel Tower. This ties up their threads well.

Opposite Isgrimnur is Viyeki,  a Norn who has risen high in the Order of Builders. He has also been given an impossible task. It is through him we feel some compassion for the Cloud Children, the immortal Norns, and what they have lost. His thoughts and the way he deals with the constraints he is under illustrate the alien society he loves, making their reasoning more clear to us. He sees many things that worry him, but as a Host Foreman, his position is somewhat perilous. His world is at stake, but faced with conquering the terrors of the deeps or being crushed by the enemy, he is beset on all sides, caught in the middle. He has questions, doubts, and the answers he is given offer him no comfort.

I give this book five full stars. In the watershed series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams originally created the world of Osten Ard masterfully, exploring it through the diverse people’s thoughts and conversations. This novel is a brilliant continuation of that tale. He uses his characters’ impressions to show the setting, the history, and the core of the conflict. Through their eyes, we know this amazing world. At the end of the book, it’s hard to let them go.

You can find  The Heart of What Was Lost, by Tad Williams  in paper, as an audiobook, or a Kindle download at Amazon. It is also available at other eBook retailers, and in paper at all brick and mortar stores.

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#amreading: cold, dark days and four books worth reading

the-heart-of-what-was-lostI read a lot, and I’ve become a fan of audio books, especially when I am editing for clients or wrangling tough plot points in my own manuscripts. It frees my mind to enjoy more books when I can put on the wireless headphones and cook or do my house work and never miss a thing.

My current audio book is Tad Williams’ new novel, The Heart of What Was Lost. It was only launched yesterday, and I’m already about six hours into it. (And so far, WOW!) I bought the hard-copy, but also downloaded the Audible book, because I have a monthly subscription. Andrew Wincott is the narrator, and he’s an incredible reader. His narration makes this one of the best audio books I’ve ever listened to.

the-woman-in-the-mirror-cathryn-grantWhile I love audio books, I do still read my Kindle, and one I recently read and enjoyed was The Woman in the Mirror by Cathryn Grant. Published July 01, 2016,  it is a dark, contemporary tale, a psychological thriller. The many twists and turns make what could have been a rant on misogyny and abuse into a many-layered mystery you never quite get to the bottom of. The book is set on the foggy central coast of California, in a house perched on the edge of the crumbling cliff. The precarious state of the house is almost an allegory for Alex’s character: looks beautiful and feels dangerous.

The author, Cathryn Grant, did a good job. The storyline is compelling, doled out in bits and pieces. Each time you have the pieces to one puzzle, another has reared its head. Every character is a riddle you finally begin to understand as the novel progresses, even “sweet, responsible” Noreen. Behind that facade is a scary woman. The author’s voice is unique, and the narrative flows smoothly, although the switching of POV between Alexandra and Jared is occasionally jarring. But overall, it works. I had a hard time putting the book down, reading it straight through, and staying up late to finish it.

The ending is surprising, but when you look back, it fits perfectly. I highly recommend this book to readers of dark, contemporary fiction.

the-couple-next-doorAlso, recently I read Shari Lapena’s mystery thriller, The Couple Next Door. This is a tale of love, fear, greed, and secrets. Nothing is what it seems, except for the central plot point: A baby is missing from her crib.

Anne and her husband, Marco Conti have gone to a dinner party in the house next door. The sitter has cancelled at the last minute, and the hostess has insisted on an adults only party, as she doesn’t like children. Since they share a wall with these neighbors, they have brought the baby monitor with them, leaving their baby home in the row house next door.

The baby, Cora, disappears during the dinner party.

No one is free of secrets.

Rasbach is the detective, Jennings is his assistant. As the case unfolds they discover that Anne Conti’s family is more than merely rich. They are old money and secure in their sense of privilege, and her parents are quick to offer a ransom.

Little by little, evidence emerges about each character, none of it flattering. Anne herself is not without secrets.

Anne is a well-drawn character, with a mysterious history she has never fully explained to her husband. She is portrayed realistically, flaws and all. Marco is also a flawed protagonist, which makes him intriguing. This book was full of twists and turns, and the ending is a complete surprise.

broken-numbersAnd to cap off my recent completed reads was the third installment in Dean Frank Lappi’s dark fantasy Aleph Null series, Broken Numbers. Violent and graphic, this series is not for the faint of heart, as it combines elements of horror, with a magic system based on mathematics and sexual energy. After a brief prologue bringing us up to speed on the Korpor (one of the creepier beasts of dark fantasy), Lappi opens the story with our protagonist, Sid, considering his losses, the death of his mother and loss of his magic being the two worst of them.

Sid, the Aleph Null, is a deep character, a man whose life has been seriously altered by events beyond his control. He has been traumatized by incidents that occurred in his early childhood, yet he remains kind and caring of others. His former childhood friend and now leader of the Oblate, Tris, has managed to rip away the Black Numbers from Sid. It’s a partial victory, but he won’t rest until Sid is dead.

The plot is full of twists and hard-hitting. Sid is desperate to get his numbers back but knows it won’t be easy. Nothing is simple, and every step forward brings another step back. Yet through it all, his companions remain strong in their support of him. This novel also had a surprise ending, and left me jonesing for the next book!

With the new year, we have entered my favorite reading time. Something about the dark and the eternal gloom of the Northwest winter encourages escapism, and what better way than through books?

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Learning from the masters: @TadWilliams: contrast and texture #amwriting

tadwilliams-the-heart-of-what-was-lostOne of my favorite authors is Tad Williams, who wrote the watershed series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. To my eternal joy, he has set another series of books in the world of Osten Ard. The first installment, The Heart of What Was Lost, is set to launch on January 3, 2017.

I have it on pre-order, as you might imagine—a Happy New Year present to me.

I became a confirmed fan of epic fantasy in 1988 when I first entered this world of Osten Ard and the books of Tad Williams. Each character was deserving of a novel, and the diverse races whose cultures were so clearly shown fascinated me. The arrogance some members of each race have with regard to their innate superiority struck me as illustrating a truth about the real world, something the Buddha once said: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”  

Why did I become so captivated by Tad Williams’ work in the original series?

Contrast.

It is well-written, with harsh, beautiful prose, but more importantly an entire world is encapsulated in those pages. It is built from both good and evil, with all the many grey places between those two absolutes clearly defined. For each misery, some small glimmer of hope is introduced, offering a reason for the characters to keep struggling.

Tad Williams created the world of Osten Ard masterfully, exploring it through the diverse people’s thoughts and conversations. He used their impressions to show the setting, the history, and the core of the conflict. He started out slow, introducing Simon Mooncalf (Seoman) and the other players, showing a certain amount of background by Simon’s wandering path through the various places in his familiar environment.

Simon Mooncalf is an orphaned kitchen boy, serving in the immense castle, the Hayholt. He is in service to King John Presbyter, but he is a dreamer, unable to concentrate on the mundane tasks he’s been given. With the reputation of being an idiot, his fortunes change when he is apprenticed to the good Doctor Morgenes, the castle’s healer and wizard.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1Unfortunately, the king dies. Many dark, terrible events transpire, and ultimately Simon finds himself alone and on the run, carrying Dr. Morgenes’ true biography of the good King John.

The action then intensifies, as do Simon’s struggles. He finds friends who help him along the way, but they are also in danger. Love, friendship, and loyalty are tested when thrown against a lust for power, a desire for complete domination, and the endless desire of the ultimate mastermind behind the war, Ineluki, the immortal Storm King.

Tad Williams uses contrast. He opens in a place that feels comfortable and familiar, a place where food is plentiful and cats are lazy. He then slingshots the reader into a world of violence and darkness, hunger and fear. Simon is lost, alone, helpless, and terrified. Despite his being an orphan, he has only known comfort and now his life of deprivation is more than he can bear.

When I first began reading the series, it was clear to me that Tad Williams understood a fundamental truth of life: if you have never felt hunger, you can never understand what it is to have plenty. In the same context, if you have never known sorrow, how can you know joy? The contrasts of life are the flavors, the textures that give it meaning.

Since we are waxing philosophical, the Buddha also offered this morsel of wisdom for authors to consider, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”  

That contrast of good and evil is a fundamental truth for all writers of traditional fantasy fiction to consider when devising plots. It is one that J.R.R. Tolkien understood quite clearly. After all, what would have been the point of Frodo and Sam going to the depths of Mordor, suffering the hardships they endured if not to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron? And why would they do this, if Sauron was not the embodiment of evil?

In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fiction. Both feature an epic quest where through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.

This use of contrast is why Tolkien’s work is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built. It’s also why Tad William’s work changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. The works of these authors inspired a generation of authors: George R.R. Martin and  Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.

To_Green_Angel_Tower

In my own current work (as in all my work), good people have found themselves in bad situations. It’s my task to demonstrate the beauty of life through the drama, heartache, and violence.

Employing contrast gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. My intention is to use the emotions that are experienced when joys are contrasted against sorrows to draw the reader in. If I do this right, my readers will think about this story and these characters long after it has ended.

As a writer, if I can create a tale in which the reader experiences the full gamut of human emotion, I will have done my job.  The longer I am at this craft, the more I see that the rest of my life will be a training ground, teaching me new things, widening my writing horizons everyday. Reading and analyzing the works of the masters is a joy and a privilege, and is a necessary component of my education in the craft of writing.

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#amwriting: breaking the rules with style

a writer's styleMuch of my blog time revolves around grammar and the mechanics of writing. As authors, it’s important to understand the rules of how the language in which we write works, no matter what that language is. Yet powerful writing often breaks those rules, and we are better for having read it.

So why am I always pressing you to buy and use the Chicago Manual of Style?

Authors must know the rules to break them with style.

Readers expect words to flow in a certain way. If you break a grammatical rule, know what you are breaking and  be consistent about it.

Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Alexander Chee, and George Saunders all have unique voices in their writing. Each of these writers has written highly acclaimed work. Their prose is magnificent. When you have fallen in love with one of these authors’ works, you will recognize their voice.

Ernest Hemingway used the word “and” in place of commas too freely.

Alexander Chee employs run-on sentences and dispenses with quotation marks.

James Joyce wrote hallucinogenic prose and at times dispensed with punctuation completely.

George Saunders writes as if he is speaking to you, and is, at times, choppy in his delivery.

But their voices work. They each break certain rules as set down by Strunk and White, but they produce brilliant prose that stands the test of time. Readers fall into the rhythm of their prose.

I will admit, I had to take a college class to be able to understand James Joyce’s work, and I did have to resort to the audio book for Alexander Chee’s work. It’s the hypercritical editor coming out in me, making it difficult for me to set that part of my awareness aside. It’s my job to notice those things.

I can hear you now: these are literary authors, and you are writing genre fantasy fiction or sci-fi. Shall I toss out a few more names?

Tad Williams mixes his styles. His Bobby Dollar series is Paranormal Film Noir: dark, choppy, and reminiscent of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories. In this series, he seems to be somewhat influenced by the style of crime authors, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It is a quick read and is commercial in that it is for casual readers.

Raymond Chandler was the creator of Philip Marlowe, the original hard-boiled, disillusioned, copper-turned-private-eye. His people take center stage, rather than the violence that characterizes so many detective novels of his era.

In his article, The Chandler Style, Martin Edwards writes:  Devising puzzles was always less important to him than style. He said, ‘I don’t really seem to take the mystery element in the detective story as seriously should,’ and joked about solving plot problems by having a man come to the door with a gun  Style mattered much more: ‘I had learn American just like a foreign language. To learn it I had to study and analyse it. As a result, when I use slang . . . I do it deliberately.’  And as he told one magazine editor whose proof-reader presumed to tidy up the Chandler grammar, ‘When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.’

Chandler understood how grammar worked. He knew what he was doing and did it deliberately. He was able to convey (to those who didn’t appreciate his style) why he broke those rules and was secure enough in his choice to continue writing in his own voice.

But Chandler also had to deal with the sort of sniping we all must deal with in our writing groups. Wikipedia says: The high regard in which Chandler is generally held today is in contrast to the critical sniping that stung the author during his lifetime. In a March 1942 letter to Blanche Knopf, published in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, he wrote, “The thing that rather gets me down is that when I write something that is tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, I get panned for being tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, and then when I try to tone down a bit and develop the mental and emotional side of a situation, I get panned for leaving out what I was panned for putting in the first time.”

Yet, although he writes Bobby Dollar in a Chandler-esque style,  Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn Trilogy is true epic fantasy, with lush, poetic prose, multiple story-lines, and dark themes. It is written for serious fantasy readers who want nothing less than the big novel. The story starts slow, but the powerful writing has generated millions of fans who are thrilled to know he has set more work in that world.

Beginning slow, going off on side quests, writing poetic prose, and gradually working up to an epic ending is highly frowned upon in today’s writing groups, but Tad broke that rule and believe me, it works.

Roger Zelazny wrote one of the most famous fantasy series of all time, the Chronicles of Amber, and was famous for his crisp, minimalistic dialogue, and he was also heavily influenced by the style of wisecracking hard-boiled crime authors like Chandler.

Most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing, and do it deliberately. Craft your work so it says what you want, in the way you want it said.

GRRM Meme 3If your editor asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author. Explain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand, and your editor will most likely understand. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so.

However, if I am your editor, you must be prepared to break that rule consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

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Elements of the story: Crafting magic systems

Green_Angel_Tower_P1I am thrilled that Tad Williams is writing another series of books set in Osten Ard. Tad is an author who  absolutely understands the craft of writing fantasy. He knows what makes epic fantasy EPIC. There is just the slightest hint of the rebellious indie in his work, which makes it a little wild. But more than that, Tad understand how important it is to make the limitations and roadblocks forced on the protagonists power the narrative.

If you love epic fantasy and have not read his powerful trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn–you should.

In Tad’s work, magic systems feel natural, organic and are not all powerful. I love epic fantasy books where the magic systems have been as well thought out as the political systems, and the characters are limited in what they can do with them.

I despise books where the hero/heroine can do anything, and be as awesome as she/he needs to be, all because he/she has a special power. No need to worry about planning that mission, because our hero can read minds and predict the future–he knows exactly how to thwart Evil Badguy. Several boring scenes later, an opportunity for something interesting turns up, but no! The author has blessed his favorite supercharacter with (cue the fanfare) amazing magic powers that have no explanation, and apparently no limits.

If you are writing fantasy, consider this–Infinite abilities instills infinite boredom in me as a reader.

Let’s talk about magic. Who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:

  1. if the number of people who can use it is limited
  2. if the ways in which it can be used are limited
  3. if not every mage can use every kind of magic
  4. if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  5. if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work
  6. if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal

Even if it does not come into the story, you should decide who is in charge of teaching the magic, how that wisdom is dispensed, and who will be allowed to gain that knowledge.

  1. is the prospective mage born with the ability to use magic or
  2. is it spell-based, and any reasonably intelligent person can learn it if they can find a teacher?

Mists_of_Avalon-1st_edMagic and the ability to wield it usually denotes power. That means the enemy must be their equal or perhaps their better. So if they are not from the same school, you now have two systems to design. You must create the ‘rules of magic.’  Take the time to write them out, and don’t break the laws, without having a damned good explanation for why that particular breaking of the rules is possible.

Limits make for better, more creative characters. In the Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley made the magic a natural outcome of religion, something only a few characters had access to, and they paid a great price each time they used it.

Lets pretend we have a mage, Gerald—we’ll make him a lowly journeyman mage, just allowed out of magic school on his own. Events beyond his control occur, and only he can rid the world of Stinky Sam. Sam is a very powerful, very naughty wizard, who will crush young, untried Gerald with no effort whatsoever.

Let’s say Gerald has a few skills at the beginning: he can draw water out of the air for drinking, and maybe he can use the elements of fire and lightning as weapons. Can he also use magic to heal people?  Can he heal himself?  What are the rules governing these abilities and how do these rules affect the progress of the story?  When it comes to magic, limitations open up many possibilities for plot development.

For this to be a good story, our bad guy, Stinky Sam, must be a master in whatever area Gerald has chosen–and he should have a few skills and abilities Gerald might never learn.

the night circus by erin morgensternThis means Gerald must work hard to overcome the obstacles set in his path by Stinky Sam.  With the successful completion of difficult tasks, and overcoming great hardships, Gerald will learn what he needs to know about his magic/gifts, and acquire the ability to counter Stinky Sam’s best efforts in the final showdown, although it will be difficult.

In great fantasy, evil is very strong, and has great magic–but there are rules.  The evil one might be a bully and he may have some awesome skills, but he’s not omnipotent, or there would be no story. All magic systems have limits, which means he has a weakness. With the discovery of the antagonist’s limitations, your character has the opportunity to grow and develop to his fullest potential in process of finding and exploiting it.

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Great Cover Ups

Old Restored booksBook covers. Remember when they were tooled, engraved leather, hand-made by monks? Yeah, me neither, but I do love good, well designed book covers.

We indies stress over them, and I suppose the Big 5 publishers do too, to a certain extent. But what, besides money and great designers who will make them for us, are elements that make a great book cover?

First up, in my opinion, a catchy cover has mystique. It expresses the central theme of the book, but it’s like a blurb–it can only capture one moment in time, so you have to choose what you will go for: mood, mystery, or great art.

Occam’s Razor (also known as Ockham’s Razor) comes into play here. According to iUniverse’s article on Cover Design Essentials, “…the essential theory is that unnecessary elements will decrease the overall efficiency and aesthetic appeal of a design. It can be a good indicator of why one design may succeed and another one will not. A good writer will spend hour after hour editing and re-editing their book, cutting words, paragraphs and so forth until it is “clean.” The cover designer’s method is not much different, other than it is a visual process rather than a written one.” 

In my own limited experience this is so true.  

Caged_bird2Book covers have really evolved since my childhood. They used to be quite simple, with the art kept to a minimum. In the 1950’s and 60’s, book covers were stark, modern–and in my opinion, boring, such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

My great problem is, I have always known what catches my eye, but not how to achieve it. So what are the simple, affordable elements of a good, catchy cover?

Again, iUniverse says (and I quote) good covers:

  1. Fall within the norms for your genre but visually stand out among other books.
  2. Appeal to readers and convince them to take a closer look at your book with a strong visual presence.
  3. Reflect the content of your book and expose readers to your writing style.
  4. Convince a potential reader to invest in a literary journey with your story.

Well, that is a hell of a lot to pack into a cover. And it’s hard to do! I am struggling with this aspect of being an indie. I am an artist, but until 2010 my work has been mostly in pastels and pencil. But I love Photoshop, and have been spending a lot of time designing covers and and learning how to make the graphics and the title a part of the art that captures the eye, but does not detract from the cover art.

I have been examining a lot of wonderful book covers, trying to define what it was about them that I liked so that my next book cover will be more true to what I want it to be. Being an old dog learning a new trick, I must learn from the masters.

So, here are only a few of my all-time favorite book covers, in no particular order:

Simple and to the point: The Martian, by Andy Weir tells us everything we need to know–this is going to be a hell of an adventure.

The MArtian Andy Weir

♦♦♦♦

Grail Quest, by J.R. Rain, cover artist not credited–intriguing, and made me want to look inside.

Grail, JR Rain 2

♦♦♦♦

To Green Angel Tower, Tad Williams, as painted by the brilliant Michael Whelan–representing the mood, characters, and setting of the book, and visually stunning. I can’t replicate this sort of beauty, but I can admire it, nonetheless.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1

♦♦♦♦

Heart Search book three: Betrayed, Carlie M.A. Cullen, cover by Nicole Antonia Carro. Completely speaks to what is inside the book–dark, mysterious, and a bit vampiric.

Betrayal front cover

♦♦♦♦

Roadmarks, Roger Zelazny, cover by the late Darrell K. Sweet. Simple, well-placed elements, promising a real roller-coaster ride inside.

Roadmarks_first

♦♦♦♦

The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey–almost retro 1970s, yet intriguing. 

The_Girl_with_All_the_Gifts m.r. carey

♦♦♦♦

Children of the Elementi, Ceri Clark–this cover is a real winner, as much for the graphics as for the stunning yet simple art.

children of the  elementi

♦♦♦♦

Antithesis, Kacey Vanderkarr — cover art by Najla Qamber.

Antithesis by Kacey Vanderkar

♦♦♦♦

For me, books that portray the features of the characters on the cover are a bit dicey. They never look the way I, as the reader, think they should. So, usually I find myself gravitating to the symbolic aspects of the cover and ignoring the artist’s conception of the characters. I want mystique, intrigue…the hint of danger and adventure. A book cover must flip the switch on my curiosity, make me wonder what is inside…and that particular trigger is subjective.

Each reader is lured by something different, which is what makes this aspect of indie publishing so difficult. However, I am beginning to understand what it is that I am looking for when I am drawn to a cover, so…I’ve been busy learning graphic design. I will be doing a cover reveal for my forthcoming book, Mountains of the Moon, a book based in the World of Neveyah, the same world as the as Tower of Bones series, and which is set to be released July 15, 2015.

My son, Dan, who is a graphic designer has really given me some pointers on this particular cover. I have been to “YouTube University,” and learned how to make vectors for this cover (I made two!) and I have learned several other unique little tricks of Photoshop. I have the layout finalized, and the graphics, and will be revealing it at the end of June.

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Elements of the Story: the story arc

Elements of the Story 1st Quarter of the MSWhen I first began writing, I wasn’t concerned with the nuts-and-bolts aspects of a tale–I wrote stories to read to my children, and I wrote stories I wanted to read. The stories lived in my mind, and I got a great deal of pleasure from writing them. It never occurred to me to submit them to a publisher, and I wouldn’t have known how to do that anyway.

It wasn’t until my youngest child was in high-school that I began thinking about writing as a vocation, and began looking for places to submit my work. So my evolution as a writer was: I began by writing songs in high-school and also writing poetry, graduated to writing fairytales for my kids and short stories for myself, and finally began my serious attempt at a novel in 1996.

2nd quarter of the manuscriptI began writing for my own pleasure, and had no idea of how to plot a novel. Since that first attempt at a novel, I have completed six novels, and am working on 3 more at this time. Each book has been an improvement over the previous one. Through working with good editors and educating myself,  I feel like I finally understand how  a good novel is constructed.

In my early books, I didn’t understand the way a good story worked. I knew one when I read one, but I didn’t really understand what made that story immersive and memorable.

I had a grasp of how to create characters, and I had a good idea for the basic plot,  but I was weak in the area of structuring the novel. Once I realized that weakness, I set out to resolve it.

For the last two years, that has been the area I’ve worked hardest on putting into practice, and for those who have beta-read my yet to be published work, that change in my understanding of how to write a novel is clear.

Now, I have an instinctive understanding that the evolution of the story can be graphed out in an arc–the Story Arc. I had heard of this concept, and in writing groups some authors will talk about it as if they understand it, but when you read their work it’s clear they don’t.

It wasn’t until Scott Driscoll, author of Better You Go Home gave a seminar on it last year that the pieces fell into place for me.

The Story Arc copy

Some books are character-driven, others are event-driven. ALL of them follow an arc.  For my personal reading pleasure, I prefer Literary Fantasy, which has a character-driven plot. Events happen, often in a fantasy setting, but the growth of the characters is the central theme, and the events are just the means to enable that growth.

3rd qtr of manuscriptI write literary fantasy, with some emphasis on the fantasy. My own books, as in Huw the Bard, tend to be more character-driven than action oriented, as the Hero’s Journey is what intrigues me, but large events occur that cause personal growth. Whether your books are character- or event-driven, there must be an arc to the story.

We have talked about the way the manuscript can be divided into quarters.  Let’s consider the midpoint. The midpoint of the story arc begins the second half of the book. The first calamities have occurred and up to this point, the characters have been reacting to the antagonist’s moves.

The midpoint of the story arc is the Turning-Point, the place where there is no turning back. Consider J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit: At the midpoint, Bilbo is committed to seeing the Dwarves regain their home, and Smaug is routed, but at great cost. Now, he can see only disaster ahead of them, if Thorin continues down the moral path he has chosen.  Bilbo has been changing, but now he shows his true courage, by hiding the Arkenstone. Then he takes matters into his own hands in order to head off the impending war.  Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone , but Thorin refuses to see reason. He banishes Bilbo, and battle is inevitable.

This arc is the same in every good, well-plotted novel: in the first half of the book everything had gone to hell, emotions were high, and the situation was sometimes chaotic, but the protagonist thought he had a grip on it. The Midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

4th qtr of MSThe second half is where the villain shines–the evil one is on a roll and it’s his ballgame. The truth underlying the conflict now emerges, and it culminates in the third calamity, the third plot point. This is also where the villain’s weaknesses begin to emerge, and the hero must somehow exploit them.

The third quarter of the book, from the midpoint to the third plot point is critical. These events tear the hero down, break him emotionally and physically so that in the final fourth of the book he can be rebuilt, stronger, and ready to face the villain on equal terms.

The third quarter of the book frequently sets the hero on the path to enlightenment, but first he must undergo a symbolic death and rebirth.

If you want to read classic fantasy where this type of story arc is really clear and yet the stories are strongly character driven, you should read:

magii of cyador

 

 

Magi’i of Cyador and Scion of Cyador by L. E. Modessit Jr. (2 books)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pawn_of_Prophecy_cover

 

 

 

The Belgariad by David Eddings (5 book series)

 

 

 

 

Green_Angel_Tower_P1

 

 

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams (4 paperbacks, 3 hard bound or ebooks)

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