Shaun blogs for the South Carolina Writer's Workshop group about the art of writing powerful fantasy fiction. The following have been classified as "must reads" for aspiring fantasy writers:
1-The Killer Opening
(click to expand)
Sometimes you want to sneak up on your reader. You stay carefully understated as you suck them into your narrative, inch by inch. At other times you want to smack them in the face with a double shot of verbal espresso—and for that you need a Killer Opening.
When the world was young, writers could begin with their stories with their search for inspiration.
Sing to me, Muse…
No longer. These days we have to keep that bit private. The first thing our readers get to see is our actual inspiration, and it had bloody well be inspired.
As a brief refresher we'll go through a short history of good openings.
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus son, Achilles.
From the hag and hungry goblin, that into rags would rend ye
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
So how do we create such interesting openings? Practice. Trust me, anything can be practiced.
One way you can come up with a good opening is by creating a formula. One of my favorite formulas is to add an idea that evokes strong emotion to something that causes personalization.
Cannibalism+Personalization="That's right, I ate him."
Love+Personalization="I love Richard Pilkington more than I love frosted flakes."
You can even go "hog wild" and add everything together: Love+Cannabalism+Personalization="I loved Richard Pilkington. I loved him more than frosted flakes. That's why I had to eat him."
That exercise is pretty easy because your opening can be about anything. Creating a high caliber, rock 'em sock 'em beginning with this method can be problematic, however, when you've already got the story in hand. While starting the plot of a story in medias res is ok, learning your literary skills on the fly is just going to waste material. It would seem wise, then, for a writer to get good at such openings before they commit one to paper.
So how do you practice making a Killer Opening for your pre-existing story? I often daydream about how I would open stories that were already written.
F#$@k the Muse's hundred epithets, Achilles was pissed, and he wanted my head.
The first time I saw a man more angry than a god was on that day when Achilles fought the river.
Like anything else in writing, there is skill involved in finding a good opening. After some work a writer can get the knack of creating a sentence that immediately inspires intrigue. To get a better understanding about what word combinations can be exciting you can also flip through your previous writings and take your own sentences out of context. Do any of them work well as an opening? For an example we'll take one from this article.
Trust me, anything can be practiced.
By Shaun O. McCoy
2-The Delayed Drop
(click to expand)
You've seen this before. It's worse than a stereotype. You could even call it a trope (the dirtiest of all words):
It's a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western and some cowboy has just burst into the bar. You can hear his spurs chinking as he walks across the wooden floor boards. He confronts the bartender and asks for something to drink. It's going to be whisky. They always want whiskey.
The bartender's eyes widen, he's seen something, something important. But what? He pours the whiskey shot in silence as the camera picks up epic close-ups of the unshaven and pock-marked faces of the clientele.
As the cowboy lifts up his drink we see… the music swells… he has manacles about his wrists.
That was what Leone called a delayed drop, and that particular one has gotten more play than a Best of Queen CD.
As hesitant as I am to take conventions of one storytelling medium and place them in another, the delayed drop is perfect for writing. Leone used the narrowed perspective of a camera to achieve his delayed drops, but writers have even more freedom. We can show an epic landscape in 3D and still leave out the one important detail that will shock the reader into exuberance.
Using a delayed drop is as simple as thinking about cause and effect. The writer can create suspense, surprise, or wonder in a reader by showing the effect before the cause.
Now go ahead, you haven't seen this one before:
"I'm too old for this sh*&!t," the damsel muttered to herself before calling down from the tower in a frightened voice, "Save me! Save me!"
She could feel her room shaking from the final heartbeats of the slain dragon, each quake softer than the last, as the silver armored knight guided his white stallion to the base of her tower.
The knight removed his shiny helmet, revealing the face of an exuberant boy.
"Jeffries, is that you?" she shouted, her eyes opened wide.
A delayed drop can spice up many a dull action scene and can be a vital tool in your storytelling. It also helps build a consistent reality in your work. One of the first things we learn as children is that events occur because of causes. The more cause and effect relationships you can create, the stronger your illusion of reality will be. If your character eats lasagna, they should get heartburn. If they eat Taco Bell… well you get the idea. Otherwise, readers will get the sneaking suspicion that things are happening for the purpose of the plot—and that would be unfortunate!
By Shaun O. McCoy
3-Devils in Details; Money in Minutiae
(click to expand)
If there's one thing I'm not, it's detail oriented. When dealing with my car keys and anniversaries I'm as clueless as a cage fighter in Bed Bath and Beyond. You could even say I hate the small stuff. As a writer, however, I love them details. A good detail makes a scene or character as real as New Jersey. A bad one slows down the story, confuses the reader, and degrades your work. But how can we tell the difference between the good minutiae and the bad?
A Mundane Detail is a Good Detail
I never would have guessed this one on my own. I had to be shown this by superior writers. I once read a scene where a character tossed her car keys onto the counter. The reality of that moment frightened me. Why did none of my scenes pop into life like that? I told myself that it was because I wrote Science Fiction and Fantasy. Those kind of details just aren't found in my genre, I thought.
I can be dense at times.
The things people do and see every day are the best details. You only really need one, maybe two, to make a scene count. You want me to know something about a surfer? You could tell me about his blond hair, bronzed skin, and glistening muscular torso all day, and it wouldn't mean diddly. But if you tell me what kind of wax he uses on his board, all of a sudden I know the guy.
This is true no matter what the genre. In fact, the more outlandish the thing you are describing, the more amazingly powerful the minutiae become.
What is a description of the magnificent wings of the dragon when compared with the vibrations of its heartbeats that you can feel through the cave floor? How real is the piercing gaze of the medusa? Not very. But if you tell me about her mood when her hair molts you'll find you've got my attention. You want a swordsman to come to life? Tell me about what kind of leather grip he puts on his sword.
How could I best know a golfer? What brand of clubs does he use? Does he have an idiosyncratic preference for a 9 iron in an odd situation? By all means, tell me about the long hair on the guitarist. You almost have to. But tell me also about the color of his favorite pick, or the callous on his thumb as you shake his hand.
One or two of these mundane hits should be all you need. Our imagination will do the rest.
A Sensory Detail is a Good Detail
Human beings have five senses, don't forget 'em. Very few things come to life like the description of getting smacked across the side of the face with a freshly baked blueberry muffin. If you're reading a scene, and you find that it's too abstract, pick a sense that you missed and throw it in there. You may be amazed by what comes out.
A Detail that Meets Expectations is a Good Detail
When wandering about the universe in which we inhabit, we have become accustomed to being able to gather certain information. If this information is lacking, the realism of the scene suffers. I for one, couldn't give two durns about whether the main character's dog is a Border Collie or a Pit Bull, Labrador mix. I'm not a dog person. But a ton of people are, so you bet your buttons that if I have to mention a dog in a story I call up a friend of mine to ask what breed of dog they own.
I've run into this problem in my current project with guns. In addition to guns, cars, bicycles and musical instruments also need extra exposition. If the thing has a cult following, you better make sure you give it its due.
Minutiae are wonderful for your story, but they can also weigh your narrative down into the dark bog of the non-published. They're kind of like salt. A little makes a bland meal lovely. A lot gives you high blood pressure. Flavor as appropriate!
Now where did I leave my car keysâ�¦???
4-Reality in Fiction
(click to expand)
Reality in Fiction
I'm a writer, and I want you to believe in a pixie. She's about 3.5" tall (although admittedly that's in heels) and she's buzzing through the forest, her little wings beating as fast as a humming bird's, trying like hell to make it home in time for the Laker's game. She's a big fan of Kobe Bryant's.
Do you believe in her? I do.
As readers, it's easy for us to believe in this pixie. In fact, I once believed in Bruenor Battle Hammer, an angry dwarf who's resistant to magic spells. I did, that is, until one day he pretended to be sick in order to convince his best friend to help him on a quest.
I wasn't buying. I almost put down the book. My battle-tested-celtic-faeriefolk-derived-mountain-dwelling-tough-man, playing practical jokes? That was too much. Never-mind that his best friend was an elf.
So what is it about stories that can cause readers to call foul? It certainly isn't plausibility. In order to engross a reader fiction does need to be realistic and internally consistent, but how can this be achieved in a story where so much is obviously fiction?
Well, don't forget, the majority of your audience actually believed in Santa Clause. I mean, this shouldn't be too hard. The reader left some of their disbelief at the door. You only really have to fool their inner child. Their adult is already on vacation.
Let's take a look at the earlier lessons a human child learns about reality. If we can satisfy these basic expectations our reader should be able to ride along with us without pulling his suspension of disbelief muscle.
Lesson 1: Object Permanence
According to Piaget (he's a famous psychologist, btw), one of the first things we learn about the universe is Object Permanence. That is, that objects exist even when you're not looking at them. While this understanding may forever ruin your games of peek-a-boo, it's very helpful in finding your car keys. Let's take a look at our Pixie. She's late for a game that is happening where she is not. This makes her tale more believable. Satisfying your reader's unconscious need for object permanence can make your narrative very appealing indeed. It's the new peek-a-boo. Remember that love potion in chapter 11? Peek-a-boo, the Prince is in love!
Lesson 2: The Difference Between I and You
Also according to Piaget (he's that famous psychologist from lesson 1, btw), the next big step we take towards understanding reality is that the universe is in itself separate from you. That there are other people in that universe who want different things. So many writers talk about character driven stories. Well why are these so compelling? Many of us lean heavier on the knowledge of the Ego than on Object Permanence. Stories that satisfy this particular subconscious need can be more compelling for readers whose reality "lens" is more focused on people. Let's look at our Pixie. She's a Laker's fan. Being a sports fan automatically enacts this I/You principle. By acknowledging that she likes the Lakers, we are also acknowledging that there are other people out there who also like the Celtics (see Philosophical Differences).
She's also not Kobe Bryant. He is the you, and she is the I.
Lesson 3: Philosophical Differences (bonus points)
In Piaget's last developmental stage, we realize that people whom we truly think are evil (democrats or republicans or communists or socialists or capitalists or misandrous pigs) truly believe that they are good people. They actually think that we're evil! If we can see their perspective, we can see that they are often as right about us as we are about them. These philosophies are varied, and not always didactic. I may believe that kinesthetic intelligence is integral to team building. You might not, but we're not likely to have a knock-down drag-out fight about it. This section is optional for a few reasons. Not everyone makes it to this stage, Piaget tells us, so our audience is going to be limited. Also, we left our disbelief at the door, remember. You don't have to fool the adult's sensibilities, they already know its fiction. We just have to have enough to fool the reader's inner child.
5-Dealing with Rejection
(click to expand)
You did it! You wrote that story. You sat down there in front of that accursed word processor and opened up a soul-vein. Your soul poured out of it like an artistic geyser of prosaic verbosity, blasting plot, character development, and witticism into the greatest story ever written by a unaided mortal. More than that, you found someone to send it to. Someone who says they like character-driven stories. Someone who has a professional-looking website. And you sent your baby off.
And you waited.
You're response comes as a form rejection letter:
Thank you for submitting your story, but I'm afraid it just doesn't work for us. It's not you, it's me. Really. You've got a very special editor out there, alone in the world, who can appreciate your story for who it truly is.
What? Didn't they read it? Stupid editor probably went for some leather-wearing motorcycle-riding story. Some manuscript who wears dark sunglasses and treats editors like Chihuahua poo. How dumb could that editor be? I mean, they say they like character-driven stories, but look at that other bull-hockey they publish? Editors never say they want what they really want. Nice stories finish last. It's time to go home, drink and prepare your story for a life as an old cat lady.
But wait... it doesn't have to be this way. This story is a good story. But what can you do? Maybe it's time to bite the bullet and meet that agent your mother always talks about. Or perhaps internet or speed-dating?
Internet or speed-dating? Durn right!
It's time to go eHarmony on those b$#@tches.
While it may be inappropriate to ask out every dude at a bar, that strata"gem" will only help you in the attempt to shop around your writing.
What we need is a system. We need to email out that manuscript like it's a snuggie on the QVC. We need to turn your home computer into a spam server that will make lolsec look like an 85-year old AOL user.
The first step is to make a list. Find a slew of Agents/Publishers where you can send your manuscript. You can find them with Google, a website like duotrope, a Writer's Guide from a semi-recent decade, or any other source. Then map your story's path. That's right, assume rejection. Be ready for it. Relish it like it's Laura's Creme Brulee. If the editor rejects it, pass it on through to the next one in line. Unless they give you some advice on how to improve the story, or you see a problem, send that puppy right back out there into the rain. Keep those birds in the air. Don't let that story sit un-submitted for more than a day. Simultaneously submit whenever possible.
...And write more! The biggest lie about publishing you'll read on the internet is that it isn't an odds game. Well, maybe not if you're already a fancy schmantsy uber-writer, or if you're so bad your work gets rejected from fan fiction websites. For the rest of us, there are many editors who would say no to our stories, and a handful who would buy them. You've got to find the handful amidst the unappreciative masses.
Don't wait with just one. Keep writing and keep learning, and then get those stories out and looking for work.
As a personal example, I calculated that if I were to only submit one story at a time, I would have to wait nearly three years in between short story publishings. With ten stories in the air I get one published every three months.
On the internet they'll tell you trite things like "don't take it personally." Pansies! Rejection is weakness leaving your manuscript, what doesn't corrupt your computer's hardrive makes your story stronger. Get back out there on that horse and date the prom queen! Get your story a motorcycle and sunglasses. And whatever you do, under no uncertain circumstances, don't stop writing--or get drunk.*
*Unless you've had your work rejected by a fan fiction website. Then it's time to start drinking.
6-A Plea to Storytellers Never Forget
(click to expand)
If you're reading this, ironically, you're probably a writer. I've got to tell you, my brothers and sisters, we used to have it pretty good. Our historic predecessors were responsible for the creation of seminal cultural documents whose tales were regarded as indispensible for development of a person's character. We put out stone cold epics like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Illiad, the Aeneid, the elder and younger Eddas. Guys, people used to take our stuff pretty darn seriously. On certain ignoble occasions, we even got away with pretending our stories were written by gods (although to be fair, those were probably penned by the predecessors of editors, who even to this day labor under their delusions of divinity).
In those days a successful writer was one who was so influential to his culture that his work would be inflicted on high school students for all time, equipped with a neat little lesson plan that says: "You see this story? This is what it means to be an Ancient Sumerian/Greek/Roman/Norse dude with a pretty kewl spiked helmet."
Things have changed. These days a successful writer might be expected to pen such esteemed tomes as Twilight or Harry Potter.
Yeah, things have gone downhill for us in the last few thousand years. A modern day Herodotus would be torn apart by archaeologists. Scientists and skeptics would giggle at our attempts to explain why spiders spin webs and narcissus flowers think that they're hot stuff. But that doesn't mean it's over, and it sure as heck doesn't mean that we should forget what stories are for.
Nomadic cultures would use their legends as a type of map. A story whose narrative involved a stream would be told about this valley. A tale involving game, or fruits and nuts, might be told about this hill. In this way, even if no member of that tribe had been to a certain place for generations, by listening to the wisdom of their long lost elders a nomad could know where to go in case of drought or famine.
In modern times food and water aren't really all that precious. Wal-Marts are fairly ubiquitous and thanks to the niceties of indoor plumbing, we all literally have our own personal rivers that flow directly into our own homes. But that's not to say that people aren't still hungry and thirsty… not at all. We're just hungry and thirsty for different things.
We literally live in a world chock full of Homeopathy and hatred. Where lies about living spread through the internet like a Texan wildfire. Where the tools for being connected with the entire world are the same tools that are used to create loneliness and isolation.
Language was perhaps mankind's first and greatest invention. It lets us learn from the mistakes of others. I love those stories that try and teach wisdom. I love To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Diary of Ann Frank, and The Myth of Sisyphus. I love movies like Milk, Hotel Rwanda, and yes, even Rambo IV.
So here's my plea: folks. Let's never forget what stories are for, and maybe as you pen your next little ditty you can share with the world your own small secret way of how to find water.