Reblogged the below because I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling somewhat guilty about pursuing a career in writing while the world around us crumbles and breaks.
The short answer, of course, is when it’s not written by JRR Tolkien. Now I should make it clear that I am not talking about the movies in any way, we can all agree they are a perfectly valid adaptation of The Lord of the Rings’ books, Peter Jackson has the rights to prove it and everything. I want to talk in this post about the countless of authors, and countless of books, that over the years have been inspired by The Lord of the Rings.
Now JRR Tolkien is by no means the first author to have written what can be described as ‘a life’s work’ or ‘magnum opus’. That honour belongs maybe to Homerus (or Homer, as the English-speakers call him), or some Egyptian with a very strong arm (from chipping out all those hieroglyphs, geddit). What JRR Tolkien did was write an era-defining, genre-defining (probably even genre-creating) work of fiction that influenced a generation of young kids who then became the authors we love (not just authors, of course, I think it took the internet and social media to create the first generation wherein everyone is an author of some kind, but that’s an aside), as well as influencing several generations after it, present and future included.
There are of course the obvious influences, like David Eddings, Steven Erikson, basically any epic fantasy writer. It is easy to see how these authors have been influenced not only by the story structure (i.e. person finds out they are special, goes on quest, hijinks ensue, thingamabob is used to destroy ultimate evil, the whole world breathes a sigh of relief), but also the rich and fantastical world creation of Tolkien. Then there are some authors who take the world-building, and create a different kind of story (hello, Laura Lam), or take the story structure and transpose it into our world (Wesley Chu, maybe? I can’t think). Then there are authors like Stephen King, George RR Martin, and Scott Lynch, who do something that is similar yet completely different.
I am currently reading the Dark Tower series, which is what influenced this whole post in the first place. At the start of every book in the series (at least the edition I’m reading) there is a little intro by King, talking about being 19 and wanting to create his own Lord of the Rings (mixed with a Western, say thankya). Yet there is nothing about the Dark Tower series that seems to relate to Tolkien’s vision. Yes, there is a tower, and yes, there is a big evil with a big eye (of sorts). And yes, there is a ‘hero’ seeking the tower. But Roland Deschain is not really a hero, not in the Tolkien sense. He murders, a lot, and isn’t that good at making friends, let alone keeping them. The world is somewhere between a complete fantasy world and ours, with elements of both thrown together (I’m trying not to be specific so I don’t spoil anything). And, most importantly, it doesn’t feel at all like The Lord of the Rings. Everyone is at least a little good, a little evil, and a lot screwed up. Right and wrong is not so clear-cut. The lines between reality and fantasy get quite blurred a few books in (book 6 oh em gee go Stephen). I’m sure people who hate The Lord of the Rings could still enjoy the Dark Tower series.
The same can be said of the world Scott Lynch has created for Locke Lamora and the Gentleman Bastards. From their name alone you can tell they won’t be squeaky-clean heroes. The world is pure fantasy, but there’s science more than there is magic, and tricks more than there are actual illusions. It’s gritty and real and immersive in a completely different way from Stephen King, from Tolkien, from anyone else. The same goes for Westeros, which has often been described as Middle Earth with added boobies and swearing. It’s got more political intrigue, more shady characters, more murders, more dragons, and more kick-ass girl assassins than Tolkien could ever had contemplated. And most importantly of all, it has its own unique voice.
Now, this might seem fairly obvious. No writer writes like any other writer. And I’m sure you could argue that the straight-forward epic fantasy examples I’ve mentioned are also completely different from the world of Tolkien. But my point, as far as I still remember that I had one, is that the best writers don’t try to deny their influences, they don’t try and hide the fact that their work was inspired by the previous generation, and they don’t try to copy it. By appreciating it for what it is, by letting it be its own thing, and by going so deep into appreciating the story that they sort of mind-meld with the writerly ghost of Tolkien himself, they can create something that is wholly their own, and therefore wholly different.
So don’t be afraid to read in the genre you write in. Don’t be afraid to read outside it either, read whatever you want. As long as you commit yourself to making something that is wholly unique, wholly you, and always aim to become a better writer, no matter where you are in your career, there is no fear of you being accused of reusing plots or copying others. You don’t avoid such things by avoiding reading, you avoid it by reading deeply and understanding as much as you can about the writers that have gone before you.
P.S. Sorry it took me a while to get this post out (which I promised to be ‘coming soon’ in my last post), and that it’s not more coherent or more directly related to The Lord of the Rings. I’ll aim to be better next time.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of Dear Damsels (for some reason I keep trying to write Dead Damsels, hmmm), they are a collective of kickass ladies who publish all sorts of short stories (up to 800 words, can be fiction or not) under a monthly theme. If you are a female writer starting out with short story submissions, it’s a great place to go and get inspired, and write about a given concept in your own unique way.
I am very happy to report that on this amazingly sunny Sunday, my short story Same Old has been chosen to kick off May’s theme of Tradition on the site. Please check it out, and also check out some cool stories under last month’s theme of language, sign up to the newsletter, etc. As always, I would love to get some feedback, on the story, my bio, my pen name, whatever you want to comment on. Now I’m off to enjoy the sunshine again with Mur Lafferty’s Ghost Train to New Orleans as company; hope it’s sunny wherever you are! You can expect a bigger blog post (on Lord of the Rings, but not of the same length) some less sunny day in the not too distant future.
Write what you know
To write a lot, read a lot
Observe people and how they speak
There is a lot of ‘age-old’ writing advice, little nuggets that in reality are entirely dependent upon the writer’s personality, the kind of stories they want to tell, and probably also the weather. One of these pieces of advice writers are often given is to travel. While I think that’s a great (though costly) suggestion, and I’ve certainly enriched my stories by traveling to places that have then been featured in them, I would like to mention some possible addenda to this advice.
When people think of travel, they are prone to think of a vacation, a brief trip to a new place. Often this includes highlights: famous monuments, buildings etc., popular shopping locations maybe, and of course the very best (touristy-oriented) local foods. While these kinds of trips may give you some interesting places to describe, and some much-needed relaxation to recharge the creative batteries, I don’t believe they are the kind of travelling that enriches a writer’s imagination.
The advice to travel is closely related to the advice to observe people. The kind of travel that gives writers new insights, that really can make a huge difference (and has, if you look at some famous writers’ biographies), is the kind that allows you to observe local people in their everyday lives. Not just the way they speak, which might be entirely foreign, but the little things that you never realise could be done differently until you view them from an outside perspective, as an anthropologist of sorts. Just try to explain your Christmas traditions to someone from a different country; even Americans and Brits, cultures thought to be so close together, will need to do some ‘translating’. People from different states/provinces might even give different answers. From an outside perspective, you can see and write down things that you would otherwise have thought needed no comment. This works even if your stories take place on a different planet.
The other benefit of traveling is to get to know yourself better. By staying to the safe, popular options, you are less likely to gain new insights. Learning about local differences, talking to new people, maybe overcoming some social anxiety (or that could just be me), can teach you a lot about yourself, and help you grow as a person. There’s a reason why so many European students/18-year-olds take a ‘gap year’ after school to travel around.
Not everyone (hardly anyone, in fact) can afford to move to a different continent and live there for a year, soaking in the atmosphere, the local ways of doing things, the realities of what it means to be a local in an entirely foreign culture. Sure, it worked for Elizabeth Gilbert on a small budget, but she still had a budget and didn’t have to worry much about what she was leaving behind. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope for more settled people. All it takes is to go sit in a pub or cafe frequented by locals, instead of visiting the Louvre. Sit all day, chat to people, really soak up the foreign-ness of where you are. You may not need to even leave the country to do this, just going a few towns past your ‘known world’ can be enough to expose yourself to different ways of speaking, doing, and seeing the world.
For the best results, you’d need to spend a substantial amount of time in a place, to ‘go native’ as anthropologists say. What also may work is to go some place outside your comfort/home zone frequently, to spend your weekends discovering new local watering holes in places all around you. But you won’t know what kind of inspiration you’re looking for, what kind of insights you might find, until you try.
So this holiday season, when/if you have some time off, why not try an experiment? Take your notebook, go somewhere you’ve never been before, find a place that a lot of locals hang out in, and just observe. You could even take your laptop and profit from your instant imagination-boost. As the age-old advice says, it can only make your writing better.
In a way, everything you do can make you a better writer, as long as you are observant enough to notice what, why and how you are doing it.
While I have read Sir Terry Pratchett’s last book very recently, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at it with any sort of analytical eye. There are too many emotions caught up in it for me, too many goodbyes. So instead, I’m taking a stab at Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in a trilogy. I’m currently reading the second book, which has given me some more perspective on the first one.
To shortly summarise the book, it’s about a boy who is the son of a crown prince and an unknown woman, a bastard as everyone so often reminds him. When he is dropped off at one of the royal palaces, his very existence causes the crown prince to put himself into exile. He is grudgingly accepted as Fitz, i.e. bastard, and raised by the stable master. As Fitz grows up, he comes to pledge his royalty to king Shrewd and the new crown prince, his uncle Verity. They train him as a royal assassin, a faithful executioner for the crown, and try to teach him the Skill, a form of telepathy. Naturally he is more inclined to the Wit, a highly forbidden form of telepathy with animals that sometimes gets him into trouble. Throughout the book, there are increasing hints of political friction between members of the royal family, which eventually leads Fitz to be caught in the middle of an assassination plot that nearly kills him as well as Verity.
Of course, there is a lot more to the story; it is a big book. I hope I haven’t given too much away as it is. Robin Hobb is not afraid to take her time, and slowly build up the world of the Six Duchies and beyond. As a result, the world seems very big and alive. She also does a lot to set up the sequel(s), by introducing a variety of different, interesting characters that clearly have more story to tell, and leaving the ending open (just like most political situations are never-ending). There’s a second trilogy that centres more on one of the minor but very vivid characters with his own secret past. Given the richness of the world, I’m sure there could be an infinite amount of books set there. If you don’t mind books that build slowly, or getting frustrated by how much the bad guys seem to keep winning, then this is a great book (series) for anyone who loves the worlds of Middle Earth, Ice and Fire, Arthur, Mazalan and Tortall.
So, what have I learned?
- If you write well enough and make readers invest in your character, not much has to go wrong to cause anguish. This in turn keeps people reading.
- There is a fine line between suspense and frustration.
- There is such a thing as being descriptive in the right way (I have just passed a sentence in the second book that’s close to purple prose but then also just so perfect in a universal, philosophical sense).
- I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a novel in this style; I’m too impatient for real action to happen. Also, I was right to never go into politics; I would literally start stabbing people out of frustration.
- The book is basically a masterclass in how to build a rich, vibrant world, and how not to dump all of it into the reader’s brain against their will.
That’s about all I can come up with. Has anyone else read the book and stolen some tips from it? Have I interested anyone in reading the book? I got it when Robin Hobb was offering the ebook for free, so keep an eye out on (necessary evil) Amazon.
This is the first in what hopefully will be a series of blog posts on books I’ve read. It will be a hybrid between a review and a list of things that I’ve taken away from the book that I plan to apply to my own writing. Since the primary advice given to writers is (and always has been) to write a lot and read a lot, I’m trying to read with more awareness of other people’s writing processes.
The first book I’m going to discuss is quite unusual, not only in that it isn’t in the fantasy genre that I’m writing in, but also just because it’s a very strange book. I’m typing of course about the classic ‘Breakfast of Champions’ by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I’m mainly discussing this because I just so happened to have read it recently, but also because classics are a masterclass in writing regardless of how they relate to one’s own particular style.
In short, Breakfast of Champions is about two men who are varying degrees of insane. One of them is a sci-fi writer with a destitute life, who is only published in smutty magazines, and gets into all sorts of trouble on his way to an arts convention where he is supposed to be the guest speaker. The other is a rich white man who has lost his wife to suicide and is highly mentally unstable. The book’s supposed author, some iteration of Vonnegut who gets introduced in the preface, also eventually places himself in the novel, and conspires events so that the rich man reads the author’s work, becomes convinced he is the only person in the universe with free will, and starts beating people up. Interspersed in the book are crude illustrations, ranging from smutty to funny to just plain weird. While BoC is a lot lighter compared to Slaughterhouse Five, it still deals with issues such as racism and inequality, describing them in matter-of-facts ways that are (to me) more depressing than if the author openly took a stance on them.
To be honest, I’m still processing the book. I’m not going to pretend I’ve found the deep philosophical implications of the text that are probably covered in many BA and MA theses. As a simple reader, I can only say that the book appealed to my dry sense of humour. I especially liked the illustrations, they added a lot to the humour and absurdity of it all. It was interesting to me that the story was told in a non-linear fashion, as if it was just a framework for discussing the people (and by extension the nature of all human beings). It was also funny how the sci-fi writer character kept referring to other works he’d written, which if I believe the ‘author’ are actually Vonnegut’s story ideas that he wanted to clear from his system. Of course the many serious themes match the absurdity, making me slightly more sad than happy overall. Basically, if you are looking for an easy-to-read story with funny illustrations and deeper implications that will leave you reeling and questioning humanity for days after, Vonnegut’s your man. But you probably already knew that.
Things I intend to ‘steal’ from Breakfast of Champions:
- A book doesn’t have to be a certain length to have a certain impact. Given the amount of space the illustrations took up, I’m sure that by today’s standards BoC would be labelled a novella. Yet the impact it has is no less profound than a much longer book like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for instance, and they are both modern classics in their own right. Content is more important than word count (which is sometimes hard to understand for a NaNoWriMoer like me).
- A characteristic writing style can sometimes be more important than the story itself. As evidenced by my short summary, the story itself is rather short, and the main climax is given away from the start. This is not important, this is not why I kept reading, and not why it’s considered a modern classic. Instead, it’s the context that the writer places his story in, the words he chooses, the themes he explores, that kept me reading on. Now I know I can never write like Vonnegut, only he can. But it’s helped me realise how important it is to keep working on my own personal writing style, and how much difference that can make to story-telling.
- Related to my previous point, I’ve discovered that describing things as a (mostly) neutral outsider/alien can have more impact than placing the reader in the middle of the action, at least if you’re Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not sure any other writers could get away with the way he described things like racism in the book, since it is a feature of his distinct writing style, but it is certainly worth noting that taking a step back from what is happening can be just as powerful as diving deeper into things.
How will I use these things, if at all? I’m not sure. But in the meantime I’ll keep on reading and writing and trying to improve myself.
“Why don’t you do something useful with your time?”
This is a sentence that many fantasy readers, and certainly writers, must have heard growing up. And yet, if ever there is a disastrous event that puts our civilisation back at square one, those people will be glad to have fantasy enthusiasts in their corner. Of course fantasy enriches our lives as they are, encouraging creative thought while letting us escape reality, and often teaching us about concepts such as morality as we follow the main character’s journey from doubter to hero. But that has been well-researched and discussed in the past. What this article focuses on is the grand potential that lies within fantasy lovers, waiting for a catastrophic event to reveal itself.
Since fantasy readers have had their imaginations tested throughout their lives, we will be mentally prepared for a completely different kind of world. I’m not saying we’d shrug, mutter “Well this was only a matter of time” and grab our survival packs, shooting anyone who gets in our way. But fantasy lovers would certainly be among the least shocked. We will know the new world, because we will have inhabited similar ones in our minds, through the words on the page and our own imaginations. We will rally, as we have learned from Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Ged, and many other such heroes dealing with impossible adversities. Just like those main protagonists whose lives gets uprooted, we will not break down and cry, because we know that the whiney, useless characters almost never make it to the end of the book. Instead, we will focus on staying alive, finding food, finding shelter, even finding a safe haven so we can continue reading.
All of the social awkwardness that forms the cliched image of the fantasy ‘geek’, that will no longer matter. Etiquette is thankfully the first thing that goes out the window when society breaks down, and in its place will have to be brutal honesty. We will know from endless experiences with foreshadowing who we can trust, and who needs to be left behind. After all, nothing sticks in your mind like shouting at a book because the protagonist is clearly trusting the wrong person and getting themselves in serious trouble. The groups that form, maybe from groups of friends that you already have in your life, will be stronger than ever. They will have to be. And hopefully we will be wise enough to bypass the awkward phase where a group of friends thrust together in the name of survival first distrust each other for no reason except to create tension and extraneous trouble, and no one would have to die a heroic death in order to redeem themselves.
Our leaders will be the fantasy authors. They have a lot of experience herding people through all manner of bad situations, even if they may cause those situations in the first place. They have often done a lot of research into various means of survival, to know if what they make their people go through is realistic, and into death, to make sure their characters are able to protect themselves, and into many more things that probably puts them on some government watch-list somewhere. Most importantly, they are able to see the big picture. Fantasy authors are the gods of their universe, even if they sometimes feel like they are not in control of what their characters get up to. As such, they are able to see what needs to be done and order people around even if that means putting them in bad situations. They might be cruel, but they are also effective, and in the end they hope and believe along with everyone else that the good guys live and win. Except maybe George R. R. Martin.
Some fantasy lovers will find themselves plucked from obscurity and become great warriors or thinkers or cooks, like Alanna the Lioness, Christopher a.k.a. Chrestomanci, or (Bel)Garion. Others will have developed skills in their life that may only be called upon after the end of the world. Prominent geek and all-around awesome human being Nathan Fillion has once said that he’s learned welding specifically so he can be the skilled person in a group of survivors, the one that will need to be protected, even if it means other people in the group have to die instead. Those of us who haven’t had such foresight and don’t develop into heroes might even become those people that sacrifice themselves in order for the more skilled survivors to have a chance to keep humanity going. Or not, since we are all the protagonists in our own live’s stories, and would generally prefer not to get horribly murdered…. Maybe I should find something useful to do with my time aside from fantasy after all, just in case.
Sure, the world may never have to fight off magic, aliens, or an army of orcs, but regardless of the challenge one can be sure that those of us with fantasy in our brains and in our blood will be able to think flexibly, adapt, and deal with things head on.
[P.S. This is an article I originally wrote for another website, but since I never heard back from them I figured it’s safe to just post it here now]