The Magic of Children’s Books

I’ve been reading George Orwell’s 1984, and it’s fantastic.  I’m nearing the end, constantly asking myself, “Why haven’t I read this before?”  It’s more relevant than ever, even seventy years after it was written.

And, in some ways, that’s the problem: it feels like an extension of adulthood, shedding more light on the issues I see every day.  Rather than escaping from the day’s challenges, it’s giving me a deeper understanding of what’s happening in my own world, but with that comes additional burden and stress.

And so I’ve also started reading Brian Jacques’s Redwall.  When I was twelve or thirteen, I read Martin the Warrior and Mossflower.  It was an easy jump: I loved fantasy, and had already read through all the existing Shannara up to that point, starting with the first one somewhere around fifth grade.  (And admittedly, I specifically picked up Martin the Warrior because I wanted to strike up a conversation with a cute classmate who I noticed had been reading it.  And yes, it worked!)IMG_7618

Redwall marks the first book released in the series, and it seemed like it might be a nice diversion from the Orwell’s dystopian world of Oceania.  Only a few chapters in, I’m amazed at how much I’m enjoying it.  Unlike the grittier, more realistic settings of modern adult fantasy, it’s the sort of fantasy world I dreamed about myself as a child.  Adult fantasy often seems to start with the idea that their worlds are grounded and realistic, with magic sparing and obscure, while children’s fantasy starts by blanketing the world in magic and going from there.

That’s not to say children’s and young adult fantasy has no meaning simply because it doesn’t start from the idea of “realism”.  On the contrary, it can be as impactful as any work directed toward adults, with deep characterizations and meaning that transfers effortlessly to our everyday lives.  But it doesn’t ask me to be an adult, either, and I’m quite happy to be whisked away into a world of dreams.

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The Slog of Rewriting

I’m hoping to release a full novel (Vexation: a Tale of Swords and Sorcery) within the next few months, but it’s proving to be a challenge.  I finished the first draft of what was then called The Pumpkin Knight back in November of 2014.  Ignoring a 150,000 word in-joke novel I wrote for my wife, it marked only the second time I completed a serious novel from start to finish, and it also marked that terrifying period of editing and rewriting.

Having completed a few first drafts of novels by this point, the elation of writing “The End” quickly gives way to the daunting task of making your work something you can actually put out there.  I imagine it’s something like making it to the big leagues of a given sport: it’s an incredible accomplishment and a huge success just to get there, but the real work is actually still in front of you.

When you’re doing that first draft, there’s a lot of leeway.  Nothing needs to be set in stone: characters can be easily tweaked, plotholes and questionable decisions can be left alone, and the goal is just to make it from point A to point B.

My previous novel (also unreleased) was an incredible learning process, and each of the handful of rewrites I did marked drastic changes in the overall storyline and character make up.  I had little grasp on acts and structure (although hints of the natural tendency toward three acts were there), and it was more-or-less barreling ahead blindly and learning as I went.

With Vexation, things worked a bit differently.  I had a solid outline in place before I even started, with characters and the general flow of events in place and still present in 2018.  Yet I’m somewhere on the fifth or six ground-up rewrite in terms of the actual text.  What I’m learning now is the sheer amount of nuance that comes into play in any longer work.

Why would she do this?  Where is his family in all of this?  What season is it in that specific geographical region?  What’s the time frame?  Why does his magic help here, but not there?

To illustrate further, let’s take the idea of traveling, since it’s a fantasy novel and they’re off on their quest.  Why would Randell insist they take this route instead of that?  The obvious answer is because they need to arrive at a specific location for a specific event, and in the first run through or two that’s acceptable.  Yet this location can’t occur on the main road–so what excuse do they have to go tromping off the beaten path?  The later rewrites need to address that.

Further still, there are no easy answers.  Maybe the bad guys are watching the main roads.  Maybe the main road is blocked because a bridge is out, or local warlords are battling back and forth.  Maybe Randell just has a terrible sense of direction, or Idona can feel the magical pulses given off by this location and they can follow that.  Maybe this even can occur on the main road: maybe the village only appears to those it wants to.

The choices are myriad, and when you’re the author, it’s your world and your decision.  So which explanation is the most reasonable and fits best within the overall tone and style of the story?  Now multiply the above situation over and over again across every event, every important bit of dialogue, every meaningful choice made by a character, and the daunting task of rewriting and editing becomes clear.

Shenmue 1 & 2 Collection

It’s finally happening: the original two Shenmue games are being ported to modern consoles and PC!  The two games were originally released on the Sega Dreamcast (and later II was ported to Xbox) nearly twenty years ago, and were groundbreaking in terms of realism: the graphics were an amazing recreation of 1980s Japan, every single character had their own name, backstory, and schedule, the weather matches real weather patterns of the time, it was fully voiced, and so on.

I don’t write period pieces, martial arts epics, or real-world settings.  Yet, Shenmue is one of the greatest inspirations in my life.  It showed just how video games could become art, how they could truly draw people in to new and unfamiliar worlds.  It created a real connection between an 18-year-old American in 1999 and a fictional 18-year-old Japanese in 1986, one that has stuck with me for years–more than half of my life at this point.

And that’s one of the amazing things about writing: our inspirations come from a myriad of sources, not just those related by genre.  Regardless of our preferred genre, our stories come from memories created by all the experiences we’ve had in our lives.  We could be writing a historical romance based in 1400s Ireland, and it will be forged and tempered by our modern experiences, from childhood memories to the last slasher flick we saw.

In that way, every genre is built through an incredible amalgam of discrete, unrelated stories.

Oh, and look for Shenmue 1 & 2 Collection later this year!  I’m stoked!

Translating Video Games into Text

I have three great loves in life: video games, pro wrestling, and reading.  When it comes to pro wrestling, a keen eye can pick up not just typical story arcs but stories that take place within matches–really, a good match is little different in structure than a book.

But that being said, in my world books and video games have a symbiotic relationship.  Both carry me on dragon wings into fantasy realms that otherwise exist only in my dreams.  And my dreams are filled with ideas from the two mediums.

Even so, each format has its own idiosyncrasies.  In trying to adapt some of my video game experiences and inspirations into written stories, I’ve realized just how different the pacing can be.  Some games are taut narratives, but the best video game epics like The Elder Scrolls series are sprawling, oftentimes meandering experiences.  While numerous distractions would make a book bloated and unfocused, in video games, where you are the protagonist, exploration becomes its own reward.

Dolphin 2017-09-18 00-56-07-56How would you write a story that captures the spirit of a game like Skies of Arcadia?  SoA is all about exploration, about looking in nooks and crannies to find treasure and experiences unrelated to the storyline.  Similary, Suikoden is about searching far and wide to find 108 different characters: when translated literally into book form, it would be like an alphabet soup of names, swirling around the reader and mostly unimportant.  Yet it’s the heart of the Suikoden series.

Having a hero pause to inspect every little nondescript, unimportant cave probably won’t work well in text form.  Yet their essences can be distilled down to general ideas and concepts.  Skies is all about a sense of adventure in a free, open world.  Suikoden is about bringing together a wide range of discrete personalities to unite for a common good.

Find the spirit of a video game inspiration, and go from there!

Prydain: A Place Somewhere Between Narnia and Middle Earth

A few months ago, my dad and I were talking about our favorite books.  At one point he said, “I wish there was something between Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.”  We talked a bit about that, about how dense J.R.R. Tolkien’s LotR is, and how brisk C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are; how Narnia is a great way to interest young minds in fantasy while Tolkien is for the seasoned veterans.

Both are favorites of ours and highly recommended, but they are the extreme ends of the fantasy spectrum.  One series is made to be accessible for children in a series of shorter, easier reads, and the other is a hefty tome that amounts to an undertaking even for experienced adult readers.

I decided that the middle ground had to exist somewhere, and in the back of my mind I recalled reading–and enjoying–the first book in Lloyd Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles.  That seemed like a good starting place, and I started with Prydain’s first book, The Book of Three.IMG_1584

Standing on its own, The Prydain Chronicles was a wonderful experience.  But more striking to me is just how well it sits somewhere between Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasy epics.

On the surface, the middle ground is surprisingly literal.  Narnia sports seven books, Prydain five, and The Lord of the Rings three (okay, LotR’s is debatable, but you get the point).  The word counts show a similar connection: Narnia checks in at 238,080, Prydain at 351,540, and the LotR at 481,103, putting Prydain close to the middle.

That word count becomes apparent in the writing styles of the three series.  Narnia is low on detail and accessible to all ages.  Prydain delivers more grown-up writing that aims more for preteens and young teens.  And LotR, of course, is a detailed volume that sits amongst fantasy’s heaviest hitters.

 

Going a little deeper, Prydain checks of all the “fantasy genre” marks just like the other two.  Evil forces are threatening the world, and unexpected, naive heroes are called upon to be more than they ever thought.  The usual tropes are there: fantastic beings, magic, ancient artifacts, demonic enemies bent on destruction.

Like LotR, Prydain follows more-or-less the same cast through its multiple volumes.  But like Narnia, each Prydain book is its own self-contained adventure (with some references and connections to the others).  Prydain, both in terms of cast and storyline, is a little more consistently-comical than LotR but takes more serious turns than Narnia typically does.

Analyzing all three sets of protagonists, it’s almost as if each author tackles the challenges belonging to the next stage of growing up.  Lewis’s young heroes are curious and brave, wary and scared.  Alexander’s protagonists are teenagers who dream of adventure, excitement, and glorious battles; of becoming respected, responsible adults.  Tolkien’s are adults who understand just what responsibility means and the cost of glory, but still strive to do what must be done.

Of course, nothing is ever a perfect middle ground.  Prydain doesn’t quite reach for that deeper spirituality of Lewis and Tolkien.  To be fair, that was never Alexander’s intent: Prydain sprang from clearly-passionate love and desire to play within Welsh mythology.

Yet while Lewis’s aims with Narnia are clear, Tolkien did not set out to write a Christian work with The Lord of the Rings, nor did he claim an intended allegory: it sprang naturally from Tolkien’s own Catholic background.  Similarly, Alexander acknowledges his own Christianity flowing necessarily into Prydain, both unconsciously and even consciously through some overt Biblical references.  It’s no surprise then that the characters and the overarching morality are no less admirable than Lewis and Tolkien’s.

And if you’re a fan of Lewis or Tolkien and need any further push toward Prydain, Alexander openly acknowledged his debt to both authors:

“Like his fellow genius, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis has redefined the nature of fantasy, adding richness beauty, and dimension… In our times, every fantasy realm must be measured in comparison with Narnia.”

It’s through that understanding and acknowledgement that Prydain is manages bits and pieces of both Narnia and Middle Earth, yet is solidly its own, unique adventure.  If you’re hoping for something between Lewis and Tolkien, or just looking for some classic fantasy, Prydain is an excellent choice.

 

Fantasy Adventures Volume 1: Five Short Stories of Humor, Love, and War is out now for 99¢!

 

The Eyes of God Review

I just finished up John Marco’s The Eyes of God.  Sadly, I made a tactical error and ordered the sequel (The Devil’s Armor) later than I should have, meaning a few painful days of waiting for the postman before I can continue the adventure.  But on the plus side, that’s a few days to digest all that’s happened in the previous 800 pages.

With that, a short review!  Spoilers are limited to a few names, with very little said story-wise beyond the initial set-up.  And it might be worth noting that The Eyes of God is my first experience with Marco, noting his previous Tyrants and Kings trilogy received rave reviews.

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To set the story up with a nod to The Lego Movie: everything is awesome.  The new king of Liiria, King Akeela, is off to make peace with longtime enemies in the land of Reec.  Akeela is accompanied by Lukien, the Bronze Knight and the leader of Liiria’s invincible Chargers.  The two are close, almost brothers.

 

Reec is more than receptive to the idea of peace, but a princess, magical amulets, and a wide variety of characters from all over the land threaten to ruin everything that Lukien and Akeela have worked for.

The short review: it’s not perfect, but I quite enjoyed it.  It’s a wide-reaching epic fantasy that starts off a with a bunch of common tropes and clichés, but introduces some likable characters and takes us down some interesting paths.

Some of those paths feel like only a few steps in a longer journey, and in that regard, The Eyes of God suffers a bit from being “Book One of the Bronze Knight Series”.  The characters themselves come and go, with some interesting figures appearing only briefly (presumably, they’ll be bigger players in the sequels–I immediately fell in love with Meriel, and will be sorely disappointed if her role doesn’t expand!).  As well, there is a fairly significant amount of world building that’s done throughout the book, especially in the earlier parts.

That being said, the characters are well-written, likable but realistically flawed.  The heroes struggle with their own weaknesses and emotions.  The villains motivations and reasons, some even sympathetic.  Nobody makes the right decisions at all times–as it should be.

Yet thankfully, the bad guys remain the bad guys and the good guys the good: The Eyes of God‘s cast isn’t merely drab shades of gray, leaving the reader with a foggy cast and no heroes to cheer on.  Even with some insight into the antagonists’ minds, the idea is never conveyed that their actions are somehow in the right.

As for the actual storyline: characters come and go, time passes, alliances and kingdoms form, grow, and wither.  Adventures start in Liiria and then cross more than a half-dozen kingdoms, and Marco does a solid job of illustrating their varying cultures and inhabitants.  There’s action, romance, tension, and drama; magic, swords, and mythical beasts.  The Eyes of God hits all the right notes that epic fantasy demands!

There are a handful of small issues.  The pacing is a bit slow, and I think it might have benefited from being trimmed down just a bit from its nearly-800 pages.  Characters’ moods sometimes fluctuate rather quickly (such as going from despondent to cheerfully making jokes within a few lines).  Sometimes some of the nuance gets a little twisted: at one point Lukien noted he wouldn’t be surprised if a certain bit of news had reached his destination ahead of him, then, less than a page later, he’s surprised to find it has!

But those are all quibbles within the wider scope of The Eyes of God.  Marco has crafted a strong first entry in a wider epic fantasy tale, and I’m eager to rejoin Lukien (and, I hope, Meriel!).

 

Fantasy Adventures Volume 1: Five Short Stories of Humor, Love, and War is out now for 99¢!

Reading as a Writer

My brother works in television.  One day he told me about how it’s hard for him to watch anything now without analyzing it, because he watches it with the eye of an insider, who knows how things do-and-don’t work, and why.  He can explain why certain scenes are more appealing than others, often in subtle ways we don’t consciously process.

I’m noticing a similar trend now that I have several short stories and a few novels (mostly unpublished!) under my belt.  I’m not speaking of technical issues related grammar or spelling (I know that one well: my own writing is riddled with them until someone else can read through it!).  Rather, I’m speaking of things like story arcs, characterization, and so forth.

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One of the books I’m currently reading–John Marco’s The Eyes of God–is proving to be quite enjoyable, but dealing with a more critical eye on my part.  At times, character’s attitudes seem to swing quickly from one emotion to the next, going from zen-like calm to seething anger to mirth with only the smallest of provocations between them.  Personalities are, from time to time, a little inconsistent.  Certain words get re-used a little too regularly.  The pacing is a touch slow.

With some writing under my belt, though, I realize just how difficult all of that nuance really is.  I re-use words far to often within my own blogs and tweets.  My characters suffer from numerous instabilities.  “Cliché” is too generous a term for my storylines.  Managing a pace that is neither plodding nor dizzingly-fast is a massive challenge.

But I also noticed that, despite those criticisms, The Eyes of God isn’t any less enjoyable.  I’m quite liking my current read, and the occasional random, moody outburst from a character is a mere trifle within the sprawling, epic experience.  That Marco can craft such a detailed world and characters while keeping things fresh and intriguing is incredibly impressive (and far better than anything I’ve done!).

Having struggled for consistency and variety in 250-page tomes, it’s amazing that someone could put together something triple that size with far more success.  My butt gets kicked struggling with six cast members, while Mr. Marco has a roster three times that!

Yet it’s a rather heartening reminder of that Henry James quote: “Excellence does not require perfection.”  As a writer, you don’t need to be absolute perfection to create a grand adventure.  Even the best in a genre make mistakes, and that doesn’t make them any less exceptional.

(And if Mr. Marco ever reads this, I apologize for the criticism!  The Eyes of God simply happened to be my current read, and I was rather excited to blog about it!  I hope I adequately expressed my appreciation for your work, and there will certainly be more Bronze Knight-related blogs in the months to come.)

 

Fantasy Adventures Volume 1: Five Short Stories of Humor, Love, and War is out now for 99¢!