A Writing Entry – Fantasy Genre and Self-Promotion

The purpose of this blog, as stated for all the world to see, is the shameless self-promotion of my novel, A Song of Snow and Ashes. Since Smashwords only allows a small blurb to describe the novel and Facebook isn’t really set up for long entries, I thought this would be the perfect venue to explain why I wrote this novel and why I think it’s worth your time to read a completely free sample (~30 pages) and hopefully worth a dollar of your money to buy the whole darn thing.

First of all, the title is a not a rip-off of Song of Ice and Fire. I really wish I had published before Martin because that title is completely appropriate to my novel. Unfortunately, he got there first and I didn’t want to outright duplicate the title because, well, it would just cause confusion, and potential readers would think I was deliberately trying to capitalize on the success of someone else’s work. I don’t want potential readers to think my novel is any way derivative of someone else’s work. However, one of my main characters does sing, and the story concerns particularly ashes but snow as well, so I decided to go with A Song of Snow and Ashes and hope potential readers would give me the benefit of the doubt that I was not writing a cheap rip-off.

I’m not an expert in literature, but I think common opinion views Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as the granddaddy of the fantasy genre, although sword and sorcery type novels are older than that. Tolkien was not actually my introduction to fantasy, although I have read Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I have not moved onto the other works of Tolkien at this time. My introduction to fantasy novels was a set of books my elementary teacher was reading to the class. The novels were aimed at teenagers and I liked the story quite a bit as I easily related to the main character (I’m sure that was the point). The set of novels concerned the transition of a child into a hero, which is a rather common plot. I was a pretty strange kid since the other books I was reading at this young age included Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and The Return of the Native. My taste in reading is probably explained by the fact one of my parents happened to teach English literature. Kids tend to read what’s available, and those sorts of books are what I had available in my house. I’m not going to describe all the fantasy I’ve ever read, but eventually I did get my hands on Tolkien. I’ve also read The Prydain Chronicles which I found quite depressing in the end. Currently my favorite fantasy novels are some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Not all of them, though, would I consider strictly fantasy, but more on that below.

To me, a fantasy novel has to have a fantastic element as a central part of the world construction. In other words, if the story works as well with a wizard flinging fireballs as it does with a space trooper shooting a ray-gun, then the story is not truly a fantasy novel. This, to me, is why not all of the Discworld novels qualify as fantasy. Yes, the world is flat and sits on the back of four elephants who stand on the back of A’Tuin, the great Sky Turtle, but in some of the novels this is almost beside the point. This is particularly true in the later “Guards/Vimes” themed-novels. Yes, there are dwarfs, trolls, and spirits, but the thrust of the books are detective stories and/or political commentary. That said, Feet of Clay and Thud! are two of my favorite books. The “Witches” themed-novels are more fantasy to me because they are often directly concerned with how witches use or don’t use magic. Oddly, the “Unseen U.” novels are often less fantasy than the “Witches” (but moreso than the “Guards”) because even though they center around a school for wizards, a lot of the plots involve the generic absurdity of academia (although it is taken to new heights through the fantasy mechanism). There are other novels I don’t think are entirely fantasy. The aforementioned Song of Ice and Fire novels seem much more concerned with political machinations in a world with medieval technology. It doesn’t mean these aren’t good novels; this simply means that, to me, they don’t necessarily qualify as fantasy.

So, in my not very humble at all opinion, most fantasy novels follow two major themes – the hero quest, and the adventuring party quest. There are, of course, tons of variations on those themes. The Lord of Rings is probably the most well-known adventuring party quest set of novels. In fact, the way it breaks down, there are three adventuring party stories happening more or less concurrently (after the Fellowship breaks up anyway). Way too many fantasy novels follow this theme and end up reading like a chronicle of someone’s Dungeons and Dragons gaming group. If I recall correctly, the original “Dragonlance” novels are in fact a written chronicle of the authors’ gaming group adventures, with some artistic liberties (not the least of which is that in the gaming party, Tanis met a rather unfortunate end while investigating a well). The novels were just fine. I won’t say great, but they were fine. But because this format was so successful, it spawned a lot of sequels, prequels, and knock-offs, many of which ranged from fine to outright awful. The hero quest theme usually starts with a nobody who through fate or chance or just bad luck ends up involved in world-changing events and must rise to the occasion. Sometimes the hero is a wannabe who wants to be involved in world-changing events. Other characters are involved and lots of things happen, but the events in the story focus on the hero. The late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is a set of hero quest novels. There are lots (and lots and lots) of characters, but it’s about Rand. The aforementioned The Prydain Chronicles are also a set of hero quest novels.

Aside from individual complaints about writers, the fantasy genre as a whole seems plagued by lazy writing. So many of the novels seem to be a product of an author picking out common fantasy tropes (“I’ll take an elf ranger, a human wizard, a dwarf paladin, a halfling thief, and a human fighter” or “I’ll start with a poor peasant boy with a magical talent”) and using them in a cookie-cutter story everyone has read before (“And they’ll go save the world/kill a god/find the artifact” or “The peasant boy will be a great wizard/end up king/find the artifact”). The use (and frankly over-use) of these tropes often results in lazy writing because the authors assume anyone reading such books knows what an elf is, or what a wizard is, or how magic works, and they never bother to describe these things. This is especially bad when an author puts some kind of twist on the character trope’s stats, as it were, and the reader is jolted out of the story by wondering why the heck a dwarf weights six-hundred pounds or why the hell a vampire sparkles in the sunlight instead of bursting into flames like it’s supposed to (but that is another rant). Also, character development suffers when character tropes like this are used (and over-used). High elves are aloof and haughty, dwarves drink a lot, halfling thieves are kleptomanics, wizards are power-mad, etc.

So, when you read my novel, I have tried not to assume everyone knows exactly what a mage is. I can tell you this was learned the hard way when my English literature-teacher parent read a draft of my novel and asked me in all seriousness and confusion, “What’s a mage?” I’m not describing these tropes to be condescending, but to be thorough, especially since there are nuances I don’t want lost in assumptions. The novel does follow the hero quest theme and the magical structure of the world is central to the story. But I also wanted to keep my characters fundamentally human. I want to try to describe that the process of going from (to use a cliché), zero to hero is psychologically difficult if not outright traumatic. I think a story’s success is built on the characters and their relationships. If that doesn’t ring true, the story will not work. In short, I’m aiming for realistic fantasy writing. I hope potential readers like this approach.

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awritershailmarypass

S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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