Sunday, March 28, 2010

Difficult But Great

Sometimes I want to talk about the books, movies, or music that have influenced me the most.  Tolkien is obviously one of my favorite authors, and just about any lover of fantasy has read at least The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  I love these books and re-read them every few years.  As a matter of fact, I am reading the LOTR to my two sons right now for the first time.

In my opinion, though, Tolkien's Silmarillion is perhaps the best of his books.  It is a difficult slog at first, so many readers do not put in the work to get the most from it.  I daresay many readers don't believe that reading should ever have to be work, and I can appreciate that point of view.  However, in this case I believe these readers are missing out an work of breathtaking beauty.

I tried reading it first as a teen, and I have to admit I wasn't thrilled with it then.  I tried again more than a decade later, but this time I did it right.  Each time I encountered a place-name that I didn't know, I paused to find it on the map.  Each time I didn't recognize the name of a person, I went to the appendix and read about them.  Yes, it was long and hard to get through it this way, but I finally realized how brilliant the book was and I fell in love.

I so wanted to see some of the major stories from the book fleshed out into full narratives, such as was done with The Hobbit or LOTR.  I never wanted these beautiful stories to end.  I assume most readers already know what the Silmarillion is about, but perhaps there is someone who doesn't.  Where The Hobbit and LOTR are traditional fully-fleshed fantasy stories, the Silmarillion is a high-level story, more like a history book about Middle Earth.  It does contain stories, some of them quite intricate, but nevertheless they are written in a more remote, poetic format than the more detailed Hobbit and LOTR.

If you are ever feeling ambitious and haven't tackled this book fully, I highly recommend doing it the way I have presented above.  Do it right, making sure you truly understand each place and name as Tolkien presents it, and you will be rewarded in the end.

I'll close with a link to my favorite edition of The Hobbit.  I am trying out the Amazon Associate program, which gives me some sort of credit if any readers happen to purchase anything through the links I embed in my posts.  I wouldn't do this for money, but only because for some few books, songs, or movies I actually do love them enough to want to review them and present them to any who might not yet love them as much as I do.  I wanted to put my favorite edition of LOTR here also, but it doesn't appear to be available at the moment.  I am normally a paperback person, but with these two books I found the versions with Alan Lee's amazing art to be fully worth the extra money.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Motivation and Procrastination

While thinking about a post I read tonight on Nathan Bransford's blog, I realized that I truly have a harder time motivating myself to edit my work than I do to write it. Motivating myself to write was never easy, but I was able to do it often enough that my inability to make myself get on with the editing process is getting embarrassing. I told myself all day today that once the kids were in bed I would make some progress on editing only to spend the evening listening to music and playing hearts and solitaire. Pathetic!

I think the reason for this is that when I write, at the end of the session I have created something. There is some tangible reward for doing it and I take pride in that. With editing I get to the end and feel like I basically have nothing new. Sure, the text has changed, hopefully for the better, but the amount I have is not much different than before. I don't get the sense of accomplishment.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Since I spent the past month and a half in London, I figured I might as well put a few photos up that I took during my stay. Note that Blogger for some reason crops and stretches them a bit, so click on them if you wish to see what they should look like.

I liked this 'crooked house' in the small town of Windsor to the west of London. It reminded me of old feudal towns such as the ones I have in my novel. I never wrote any crooked buildings into my book, but I like the look and feel of these old-style English places.

Below is a shot of the Houses of Parliament. The weather was bad pretty much my whole stay in London. It was the coldest February in thirty years. Still I did quite a bit of wandering about London, which is one of my favorite cities in the world. This was my fourth visit there, and I will be taking my family there again in June.
The next shot shows the huge ferris wheel and Big Ben and parliament beyond the bend of the river Thames.

This trip was the first time I visited Windsor Castle. It was nice, though I was frustrated that I couldn't get any nice wide shots. I had previously visited the older, smaller Leeds Castle, which I like better because it has a truer medieval feel to it. Anyhow, I had loads more photos, which anyone can see by clicking the link in my favorites. Despite the cold, it was nice to spend so much time in a city that I really love.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Potential New Prologue to The Shard

I like the way my book opens now, but I do think I could make it even better. I want something to make my main character, the minor noble Midas, have a more intense personal issue to tackle right off the bat. In the story as it goes now, I have him agonizing between wanting to raise his two teenage sons properly and train them to be great warriors and leaders versus his desire to keep them safe. I have been toying with the idea of him having had an older son who was killed, thus increasing the potency of this conflict.

There are a few reasons this needs to be a prologue. One is that the POV character is not one of the POV characters from the main story. The main reason, though, is that this event takes place about three years prior to the start of my main story.

I am concerned about the use of flashbacks, since I have not really used them before and I don't know if I pull it off successfully here. Any feedback is appreciated. It should go without saying that I retain all rights to my work, but just in case, I am stating it here!

Potential New Prologue

     Two white moons, the larger half full and the smaller just a sliver, shone through the bare branches of the willows, though the sun had not yet set. Miros sniffed and caught a hint of smoke in the crisp autumn air. He tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword and felt the first tingles of apprehension as he watched Dalthis slither forward another pace and gaze down into the rocky dell.

     Five men-at-arms crouched nearby, along with old Sir Meldon, who had trained Miros and his younger brothers in the knightly arts for as long as Miros could remember. All wore the red and black checker pattern of Welby on their surcoats. Off to the right, Miros saw his father Midas glance over at him and wink. Miros smiled in return. The apprehension remained but was nearly overpowered by the pride that welled up in his breast. His father had never before included him in a dangerous undertaking. I’m fifteen now; it’s past time, he thought.

     That morning three villagers had arrived at the small keep in Welby, begging to see Midas, their liege lord. Steward Larken led them to the great hall where Midas’s family and retainers were breaking their fast. After Larken whispered in his ear, Midas beckoned to the villagers to join them at the table. The two men looked relieved and found open spaces on the nearest bench, but the woman, her graying black hair in tangles around eyes red from weeping, ran forward and dropped to her knees near Midas, her hands clutching at his breeches.

     “Please, milord,” she said. “My son. Please help us.”

     Midas took her hands and raised her to her feet. “None of that,” he said. “I’m not the king. Here…sit down.” Midas sat next to her on the bench and placed an arm about her shoulders. “Your son? Go on.”

     The woman wiped her eyes with the hem of her cloak and met Midas’s gaze. “He’s gone, milord. Taken. Just like the sheep.”

     Midas glanced at the two men who had arrived with the woman. The better dressed of the two stood and sketched a bow. “It’s like she says, milord. A couple of sheep went missing two days ago. All the land round our hamlet’s tended ‘cept a small willow wood, so we figured some bandits might’ve taken up in the hollow down in the ravine in the woods. Ain’t none of us warriors, so we was afraid to go look.” The man pointed at the woman sitting with Midas. “Then Mavvy’s boy didn’t come home after play yestereve. We came straight here first thing.”

     Midas had agreed to bring some men immediately to try to find the boy. Miros was thrilled when his father nodded to him and told him to get ready. As he leaped up to go prepare his equipment, his mother beckoned him close, enfolded him in her arms, and whispered to him to be careful and obey his father. His two younger brothers pressed in to grasp his arm each in turn, envy and excitement warring on their faces. His youngest brother Alekas grinned ruefully at him and said, “It’s probably the only chance any of us will get. There’s never any danger around here.”

     It was true. Except for some problems with the barbarian tribes beyond the wall of mountains to the east, the Known Lands had been at peace for eight centuries. The tiny province of Welby hadn’t had anything more troubling than a few bandit attacks during Miros’s life, though he did recall a pack of wolves once taking some chickens and sheep from a hamlet on the border with Vimar Keep. Perhaps it’s wolves again. Would wolves take a boy?

     Now as he shivered at the mouth of the ravine, Miros wished that it had been wolves or even bandits or goblins. Dalthis, his father’s captain of the guard, was a splendid tracker. When the villagers showed them the pasture from which the sheep had disappeared, it hadn’t taken Dalthis long to find the tracks. Midas looked shocked when he knelt down near Dalthis to inspect an imprint in the yellowed grass. He shook his head and muttered something Miros couldn’t hear. When Miros joined his father he paled at what he saw--a print far larger than anything he had ever seen before.

     His father glanced at him and clapped a hand to his shoulder. “A troll.”

     Miros shuddered. Few creatures were more dangerous and cunning than trolls. He’d heard stories of them his whole life, but trolls never came this far into the civilized regions of the Known Lands. How did one manage to get all the way here? All Miros knew was that any trolls remaining in the realm lived far to the east near the Hellisgaard Mountains that separated the Known Lands from the wilds. He thought about the young boy who had vanished and shivered again. I don’t think this will end happily.

     The woods, mostly willow but with a scattering of oak and ash, were not far from the pasture; it had taken less than an hour to approach the ravine at the center of the thicket. Miros watched intently as Dalthis slid back from the edge and huddled with Midas.

     “I can’t see the hollow from here,” Dalthis whispered, “but there’s a fire going.”

     Midas looked at each of his men, his gaze settling on Miros last. He tugged at his graying brown beard. “Should’ve brought more men. I’m not sure we can handle this with just nine of us.”

     Dalthis shrugged. “Six of us have bows, milord. I think we can take him.”

     Midas turned his gaze to the moons and remained silent for a minute. “At least that red moon’s not up; should bring us luck.” He tugged at his beard again. “All right, let’s give it a try. But I don’t want anyone closing with him. We’ll lure him out and use our bows.”

     Miros’s heart began to thump so hard he wondered that it didn’t burst in his chest. He forced himself to breathe deeply as he strung his bow.

     “Son, I want you to move back to those boulders,” Midas said, pointing to a spot well back from the ravine.

     Miros felt his breath catch in his throat. He looked into Midas’s eyes. “Father, I can--”

     Midas tilted his head slightly and tightened his stare, an expression that Miros knew well. It meant, Don’t argue with me right now.

     Miros looked at the ground. “Yes, father.”

     “Give your bow to Sir Meldon.” Midas turned and crawled back to where Dalthis was giving instructions to the men-at-arms.

     Miros handed his bow to Sir Meldon, who tousled Miros’s hair and said, “Next time. This one’s too dangerous.”

     Miros watched Meldon move to join the others, then turned and stalked toward the tumble of boulders his father had pointed to. He felt relief mix with his disappointment. Trolls were nothing to be messing with. This thought made him worry about his father. He turned to watch, leaning his right arm against the largest boulder.

     Sir Meldon and the men-at-arms had the bows and were skirting the eastern edge of the ravine in order to get a better view of the hollow. Midas had drawn his sword and taken up his shield. He stood chatting quietly with Dalthis.

     So intent was Miros on watching what was happening in front of him that it took a few moments for him to realize that something didn’t feel right. The woods had fallen silent around him. He heard a slight scuffing sound. A jolt of fear spiked through his chest. His training screamed at him to dive forward, but his instincts betrayed him and he whirled around instead.

     He saw his death standing before him. The troll was enormous, at least four paces tall, and wider than any two men. Miros glimpsed rusty chainmail, matted hair, and two large fangs thrusting up from a jutting lower jaw, but his eyes focused mainly on the huge iron maul the monster was holding up over its head.

     I should’ve dived, he thought. He knew he couldn’t avoid being crushed by the maul. Time seemed to slow, and despite his terror Miros felt his mind clear. He looked back toward his father. Midas was looking at Miros with a stricken look in his eyes, his face drained of blood, one hand reaching out, and his mouth just opening to scream. In that last second before he died, Miros felt the fear drain out of him, replaced by the anguish of knowing his beloved father’s heart was breaking.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Waste Not

In my last post I wrote about the frustration of wanting to write a story within Tolkien's world of the Silmarillion, but knowing that I never could. Having a great story idea that you love but cannot write does not mean that one should simply discard the idea. Keep it in mind, and perhaps you can figure a good way to incorporate it into another work.

I did this very thing with my first fantasy novel. The story revolves around three main point-of-view (POV) characters: a minor lord named Midas, an elderly ranger named Edo (who actually just gives voice to the main character of this story arc, his mute partner Orcbait), and a teenage boy named Geldrath, off to serve his two year tour-of-duty guarding the lone pass into the Known Lands.

For that third story arc, I used both names and story elements from the original Tolkien storyline that I had wanted to write. Geldrath is similar to the young Edain warrior, though perhaps a bit more naive and untrained as a warrior. He is being taken to East Gate, where he is to serve his two years, by three dwarves in a trading cart. One of the dwarves is named Gorm, and he plays a significant role in the rest of the story. So, you can see that I did indeed recycle some of what I liked about the original, unusable story. And, though they never encounter huge spiders, once Geldrath's story arc combines with Midas's, they do go on an adventure beneath the mountains, just as in my outline for the Tolkien story.

In the second novel that I am writing, a sci-fi prequel to the first novel, I am doing a similar thing. While living in Moscow during the early 1990's I had come up with an interesting action story involving a young woman studying to become a teacher who, due to her drug-using brother, ends up being chased by the local mafia. I never started writing that story, but it lingered in my mind for years. I had begun developing an idea set in the 2100's about scientists trying to perfect a form of immortality. The idea was neat, but the story itself lacked punch, until I remembered my old mafia story and realized I could use it. I pushed the story of the scientists into the background and made the young lady the POV character. Rather than it being about the mafia looking for lost drugs, I had the mafia looking for stolen data chips from the scientists instead. I incorporated several scene ideas I had from the earlier story, and the new novel's outline practically wrote itself.

Never discard old story ideas; they can often lend the necessary spice to a new story.