If you’re like me, you have probably starved for an original fantasy novel. So many novels and short stories rely too heavily on TheLord of the Rings and the epic fantasy genre that spawned from it. Are there any original fantasy works that use impossible situations without having elves, orcs, and dragons run across the page? Oh, and I don’t have that much time to read.
The answer? Peter S. Beagle’s anthology of short stories The Secret History of Fantasy.
True, it has a dragon on the cover. But it is half-concealed, placed against a minimalist white page. If we were to judge a book by its cover, we might guess there is a literary sensibility that went into these selections. You’ll find big-name authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Yann Martel, Gregory Maguire, and Ursula K. Le Guin on the cover, as well as other authors with whom you may be unfamiliar, but will remember once you’ve tasted their stories.
This anthology represents the top fantasists of the field. Each story has its own original flavour of the fantastic. Who could forget the remarkably compelling mythagos of Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood?” What is a mythago, you ask? It is a “myth-imago” or “myth-image,” basically a mythic archetype that runs amok in Britain’s oldest forest in Holdstock’s classic novel–here cut to the length of a short novella.
This anthology is filled with other wainscots. For example, there is Stephen King’s tale of Mrs. Todd, a lady who is obsessed with uncovering the shortest shortcuts from place to place, and ends up driving her car into another world. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” is a tale of a boy who is forbidden from eating ice cream due to his medication and forms a relationship with a girl he sees during one of this synesthetic trips.
Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, which is perhaps the most famous reworking of the classic novel The Wizard of Oz, returns with a story about the Scarecrow. Steven Millhauser’s description-heavy story of the P.T. Barnum Museum is also remarkable in how it is nothing at all like a fantasy adventure–more of a reflection on a setting’s affect on the people who visit and work there. The museum ends up becoming a metaphor for how we all encounter the fantastic, the wondrous, the inexplicable, and how we all remember our childhoods. Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi, adopts an even more alternate route and writes an experimental poem in “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company.”
Another brilliant feature of this anthology are the supplementary materials. Peter S. Beagle is serious about fantasy and he lets readers become serious about the genre with him. Ursula K. Le Guin, author of A Wizard of Earthsea, and David G. Hartwell, also a fantasy anthology editor, each write essays which Beagle includes in an appendix. Le Guin’s essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” describes the critical reception of fantasy up to the present day and how perceptions that fantasy should be dismissed because it is childlike and escapist have improved over the years. The roadmap to fantasy, she argues, is more inexplicable than the simplicity of Tolkien-derived drivel would suggest.
Hartwell in “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre” gives the history of how Del Rey capitalized on the Tolkien phenomenon in the late 70s and published The Sword of Shannara, the first of many Tolkien homages that sold like hotcakes. Terry Brooks’ first novel thus helped make epic fantasy the repetitive form it eventually became. Both essays provide you with a historical perspective on the development of a genre you love to read.
Peter S. Beagle uses this anthology to propose that fantasy has become stilted due to the staleness of epic fantasy. The market tends to favour a 2,000-page, derivative, Tolkienesque trilogy over more experimental but well thought-out fantasy novels. He attempts to show readers the diversity of fantasy–which may be the broadest genre in the world in terms of narrative possibility. If you ask me, it is impossible not to love this anthology. I would say fantasy is more diverse today than it was 40 years ago. But I would have to agree with Beagle that it is difficult, at least for new writers, to escape the stranglehold of genre.
If it is time for a renewal in fantasy, then it will be through short stories and novels like the ones Beagle has published in The Secret History of Fantasy. There are infinite angles to a fantasy story and Secret History attempts to show us some of those doors. But, like the myriad rooms and passages located inside and underneath the Barnum Museum, you can always count on the fantasy genre being bigger and more expansive than your even imagination can acknowledge.
I hope you all had a merry Christmas. Now, while you’re still warm with Christmas feeling (perhaps you are snug by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, or a drink of rum and eggnog, experiencing a similar but not altogether identical feeling of warmth) let me take you down to Memory Lane to see the Ghost of Matthew Rettino Past. I have finished my undergraduate degree now, sporting a valiant BA in Honours English, and have become an expert on Guy Gavriel Kay. Suffice it so say, I have grown as a writer since I finished my first serious novel in Summer 2010. How much you say? Well, lad, let me tell you.
Here are 13 things I learned while writing Battles of Rofp. I’m sure many fantasy authors have a Battles of Rofp somewhere in their past. For me, it was a 470-page secondary-world epic fantasy that took a rough understanding of J.R.R.Tolkien as my starting point, though I borrowed liberally from Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance series, which I devoured in High School, and Christopher Paolini’s InheritanceCycle (you’ll remember Eragon).
I had not written all the short stories that authors advise you should write before tackling a massive-sized novel. I just dove straight in, not knowing where I was going. It was the equivalent of learning wilderness survival without a guide, learning how to hunt the beasts and build shelter helter-skelter, by instinct. I began in Sec 1 when I was 13 and I ended just about three years ago now. My literary influences have diversified since then and I have simply become a better writer. I look back upon these years as an example of the primal literature of angst-ridden adolescence, a somewhat “barbaric” age in my career. Nevertheless, I believe I have derived a series of lessons from the experience, which I believe I can offer my devoted followers.
These are not rules. They are not even guidelines. They are simply lessons learned the hard way. If you find them helpful, do not feel constrained by them.
1. Choose names that people can pronounce.
Yes, include a pronunciation guide as back matter to your self-published novel. But that still won’t help your relatives from mispronouncing the title of your book. Do you think you know how to pronounce “Rofp?” Think again. You wouldn’t be able move your tongue the right way. It’s the “fp” that gets everyone. Somehow, people tend to roll it out into an “l”: “Rolfph.” This is not even the worse example of complicated pronunciation in fantasy. For example, anything that looks Welsh or has apostrophes is bound to be hard to read. But these challenges can be overcome.
2. Keep mechanics simple
I’m talking about your usual fantasy fare: secret keys, prophecies, hidden manuscripts, sacred stones, holy swords and the like–whatever clues or unique talismans your hero needs to defeat the archvillain. I had a prophecy, a clay tablet, four sacred swords, and a curse in my story, which took a rather long time to sort through. Oh yeah, and my villain Volkon, who is an immortal skeleton demon with his rib cage on fire, could only be harmed by one sword, owned by an undead king. This sword could only be used by that king’s present-day heir, and only if he collected the four aforementioned swords in a holy shrine to summon the dead to life. But if I had kept only the one sword, things might have been simpler.
3. A band of companions must have good reasons to stick together.
Three men, two dwarves, and an elf formed my group of companions. Roy is a squire aspiring to the knighthood when Gramrige, saves him from a goblin massacre in his hometown of Ebrook. On the way to Thull, the underground dwarven city, they encounter the homesick stonemason Gourd. The other members were Prince Adrugun, the angst-ridden heir to a great kingdom, Vileros, the Grand Master of the knightly order of the Riders of Rofp, and Guillonius, a dwarven fireball bent on revenge.
How are they connected? Somehow.
It is a hard trick to keep a diverse group motivated to risk their lives fighting dragons. If your characters were friends from an earlier time in the book, however, you have rapport and history between your characters. The companions will care about each other. That can serve as glue.
4. Do not be afraid to rewrite scenes.
We rarely get it right the first time. Are you a writer or not? If so, then you cannot be afraid to rebuild. On the novel I’m working on now, I have a rough draft, but I’m going over each scene, sometimes rewriting whole scenes (though not necessarily re-imagining them entirely). Rewrites let you add depth, to hit all the notes you wanted to hit on your first pass.
5. Do not jump straight into line editing.
NEVER waste time line editing after a first draft. That stuff’s raw and straight out of your unconscious. Chances are the story itself needs work, if not a complete overhaul. Line editing comes at least after draft #2. When the story itself is as it should be and all the scenes are in place, consistencies smoothed out, then you can get out the red pen and go line-by-line. For example, I will aim to cut 10-15% of my word count for my present novel.
Would you jump straight into a fray with a troll on a battlement catwalk? No? Then don’t line edit your initial draft either!
6. Exposition is used best when the hero is in conflict.
I realized this early on. When writing fantasy, it’s probably one of the first things you learn. Roy initially thought goblins and shapeshifters were myths, despite Gramrige’s warning that they were going to attack his city. Then he had to fight through mobs of the creatures during a wholesale massacre of his city’ inhabitants. Between the physical conflict of the attack and the personal conflict between Roy’s disbelief and Gramrige’s urgency, I managed to slip it quite a bit of backstory. Lace all exposition with tension and you can smooth it right over.
7. Ensure your protagonist has a distinct personality.
It’s easy to make protagonists have slight flaws, but be heroic enough to conquer his or her foes. It’s probably because we would like to be our protagonists. But flaws should be harder, sharper. They are really what makes character. I thought Roy had a distinct personality, but it was difficult for me to bring out his own idiosyncratic reactions to events in the book, to see that personality on the page. I always vouched for him to perform the “heroic” feat, if given a moral dilemma. He was not really flesh to me, more like an ideal.
8. Be careful that secondary characters do not steal the show.
Adrugun, the angst-ridden Prince of Theomina, becomes engaged in a romantic partnership with a elven woman named Virida. This happened at that soggy point in the middle of the book, where the plot starts to run out of steam. Brilliant move in one respect: adding interest at the low point of the novel. However, I was leaving Roy abandoned by the reader’s interest. The story became more and more about Virida and Adrugun and less about Roy. If your tale revolves heavily around one character, it is best to keep readers primarily interested in that character, instead of upstaging them. Other characters can have their time in the spotlight, but for Battles of Rofp, I felt as though Roy needed to be more central.
9. Diction may be the most important part of writing “epic fantasy.”
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a wonderful essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which explains this point amply enough. Tolkien’s characters speak nobly, like Shakespeare without the Elizabethan conceits. Bad epic fantasy sounds like CSI:Miami or even The West Wing: whether you believe these are good or bad American TV shows, elves do not talk like twenty-first century Americans! Keep the diction measured and formal–but don’t overdo it, otherwise you have impenetrable over-stylized prose, another whole problem. (Oh, and neither do elves speak like twenty-first century Canadians–eh?)
10. In writing any story, there comes a point where you can’t go back.
If I could go back and rewrite Battles of Rofp, I would not. This is not because I am overconfident in my abilities as a writer–perhaps you can tell from all this self-criticism that I am not–but because I want to move on. At a certain point with every story, you put in a certain number of hours and pass the “never return” point. The story is what it is and all the labour in the world can’t fix it without you having to completely rewrite it. And if you do that, why not just write a new story instead of trying to reformulate a story that’s already failed? Some story ideas are so simple that they cannot sustain even a short story. Battles of Rofp was more complicated, but it was conceived by a thirteen-year-old me, so when I turned 20, I knew it had to end. There were other worlds to explore.
11. You will have a hard time framing a cliched pitch even if, in the book, you take great strides to evade it.
Battles of Rofp‘s plot was the cliche of epic fantasy, although I will maintain it to the death that it was more original than The Sword of Shannara. A squire’s hometown is attacked by goblins. Then he discovers he is the heir to an ancient warrior of a famous knightly order, destined one day to fight the greatest evil of the age. So he goes hunting dragons across the land, collecting the four sacred swords that will be able to summon a power to defeat this evil. It had Legend of Zelda, Eragon, and The Lord of the Rings written all over it.
Yet, on the micro-level, I tried to be unconventional. Dwarves had names inspired by the Russian language. The kingdom of Theomina was divided into names that sounded Roman and names that sounded Semitic. The Phoenix Tribe, lone defenders of Theomina, were the only civilization in Rofp to use gunpowder. The Tongues of Shadow stretched from the sky like darkened tentacles wherever evil strikes, scooping up the souls of the dead in order to devour them.
Wow! Too bad the plot of my story overall still read like THE cliche of all epic fantasy! I should have demonstrated my creativity by coming up with unique plot points first. Then my synopsis would have simply sounded better. Even if you want to rebel against the post-Tolkien epic fantasy genre, you cannot do so while working within a frame that replicates that cliche. At any rate, it is usually best to have one true idea that is yours and build a world around that.
12. Model yourself after authors that you think you can imitate, using them as springboards to pursue the higher laurels.
The poet Petrarch uses the laurel branch, sacred to Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, as a symbol for his poetic aspirations. He was referring with reverence to Ovid, who in his Metamorphoses describes how Apollo chases Daphne his beloved, who the gods turn into the laurel tree. Apollo then appropriates the laurel as his symbol. For centuries, new poets aspire to the laurels of old poets, new writers to the reputation of their forefathers.
One of the reasons I aspired to the laurels of Eragon was that it was imminently accessible: it was written by someone who was my age when he wrote it! I took Paolini as my model. Alas, there are many Paolini-haters on the web. I will defend him this far: he had to finish a series he started when he was quite young, his powers as an author limited by lack of experience. (The ending of Inheritance did not impress me, however.)
I claim it was important to take Paolini as a guide through the first primitive years of my writing career. It was important to have something to aspire to, someone accessible. If he could do this at his age, I thought, then I can do it at mine! I now take Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman, and the great poets of the Canadian tradition–all mature, accomplished and duly lauded authors–as my new models.
These new models are sublime, to inspire me to reach the highest boughs of Apollo’s laurel tree. And if I miss, I shall land upon the stars!
13. If you set your mind to something, anything is possible.
At base, I am still proud of Battles of Rofp. Not because it will win me the Giller Prize, or a Hugo. It’s because I wrote a 470-page epic fantasy novel by the time I left high school. Who else can claim to have done that? If you set your mind on something, then it doesn’t matter what, or who, gets in your way. Social life, family time, breathing, sleeping: none of it matters, if you have the heart to pursue your dreams. But seriously folks, balance in life is crucial. If you can play the trick, stick to your dreams while supporting our livelihood, you will have battled a fierce dragon indeed.
Now because balance in life is important and I’m afraid I’ve written another monster post, I must retire. Fare thee well! See thee in the New Year MMXIV!