HIGH FANTASY: HOW TO WRITE A BLURB

I promised in my last post to share my ideas on how fantasy blurbs attract readers. The best way to do this is to take a single blurb and examine it in detail. As I know how I write my own blurbs, I’ll use Renown of the Raithlin as an example. It’s climbed high on Amazon’s Epic Fantasy Bestseller List, so I know the blurb works.

A marauding horde. A famed city. A lone man who stands between them.

This is often called a tagline. Taglines are more of a crossover from movies than a traditional part of book blurbs, but they’re useful and quickly ground readers in the story – no lead-up or explanation required.

The first three words do a lot of work. Horde acts as an indicator that this is a fantasy novel of the high, heroic or epic kind. Readers deserve to know as soon as possible what type of book they’re looking at. If it’s not to their taste, they can move on without wasting time.

Not only is there a horde, but it’s marauding. This implies action. And not only action, but it lets the reader know who the bad guys are. Nice people don’t maraud . . .

A famed city.

This lets the reader know what’s at risk. It’s not an evil city, or a dark city, or a cesspool of a city. Famed implies that it’s large, wealthy and grand. Now we know where the good guys live, and not only that something is in danger, but a very specific something, and all the people who live in it.

A lone man who stands between them.

Here, we’re introduced to the hero. And we find him in a seemingly impossible fix. The marauding horde is opposed, and although it’s not clear what one man can do to defy and army, it’s apparent that he has a plan of sorts, although it must obviously involve great risk. Fertile soil in which a story can sprout.

So, a tagline covers a lot of ground in short order. In fact, it can set up the whole novel – not bad for a few measly words. And they’re right up the top so that a potential reader is either hooked into the rest of the story or can decide straightaway that it’s not for them.

Can one man defy an army? Only one of the legendary Raithlin would try. But trying is not succeeding – or even surviving.

This second line, again short to aid easy reading, builds on the tagline. It amplifies some of the same information and adds specific details. The lone man is now identified as one of the legendary Raithlin. Who or what they are isn’t clear – but they’re legendary for a reason, so the hero has something going for him, even if he’s outmatched.

Lanrik is confident in the time-honored skills of the Raithlin scouts. He tries to slow the army long enough for a warning to reach his home city, unaware that political intrigue, duty and ties of loyalty will test him more than the enemy.

Here, we’re introduced to the hero by name. His background and skills are mentioned, and we get an idea of how it might be possible for one man to try to achieve a near impossible task. But just as we learn that, we also discover that the marauding horde isn’t his only problem. The stakes are raised and we realize that Lanrik is in an even greater fix than we thought . . .

He enacts a bold plan against overwhelming odds to protect all that he loves. But his choices lead him ever deeper into a life-changing struggle. Dark forces of sorcery and witchcraft are on the move. So too are the powers that contend with them. The conflict draws him into a quest for the safety of the whole land and toward a girl who comes to mean more to him than anything. He enters a world of magic: sometimes beautiful, often perilous and always unpredictable.

Now, having given the reader a firm grounding in the story, it’s time to really open up about what’s happening. It’s safe to do it here, because if a reader has come this far the story resonates with them. They’re ready for a long and detail-heavy paragraph – the sort that would only have confused and turned them away had it appeared earlier.

At the same time as giving details, the stakes are raised still further. It’s no longer just about the city, but the whole land. The blurb, so far plot driven, now enters a character driven phase. The emotional components become clear: protect all that he loves . . . life-changing struggle . . . a girl who comes to mean more to him . . .

Above all, blurbs must foreshadow the story. It isn’t possible in a few paragraphs to explain hundreds of pages, and authors shouldn’t try. They need to invoke a feel for the book in the same way that the smell of good food attracts passersby into a restaurant.

Anyway, that’s the breakdown of one of my own blurbs. Other authors might do it a little differently, but at heart the recipe that most follow is this: ground the reader, give them a hero to cheer for, pose enticing story questions, add ever-deeper layers of intrigue, constantly raise the stakes, show the emotional impact and, most important of all, foreshadow the feel of the story.

Looking at that, it’s no surprise that a good blurb attracts readers, because the recipe for a good blurb is also the recipe for a good book.

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EPIC FANTASY AND AUTHOR BRANDING

Branding is important. It’s important in the commercial world of buying and selling. It’s important in politics. Religions have been doing it for thousands of years. Sports stars do it. Your local bakery does it. But what about epic fantasy authors?

First of all, what is branding?

A brand is something that represents a product. It might be a gimmicky logo, or perhaps a pithy catchphrase. More often than not, it’s both at the same time. Whatever it is, the best ones have an instant recognition factor. You see it, and it invokes a feeling for the whole product: what it stands for, how it’s different from its competitors and what it means to you emotionally.

There are two sides to this, which are often confused. The brand, and the brand experience. The two work together, and the more seamlessly they do so, the better the results.

S0, the brand of an author includes things like their name, the titles of their books, the look of their covers and, most of all, their blurbs. The brand experience starts from the first sentence and continues through to the last page. And more than that, it also includes an author’s website, newsletter, their correspondence with fans and comments during interviews.

To an author, the brand is important. It helps fans discover a newly released book from a writer that they like. It’s also a vital part of attracting new readers, especially if it can trigger that sudden recognition that this might be the type of book they like. More on that later.

Once purchased (or borrowed) the most important thing for both author and reader is the brand experience. This is the feel of the story, the mood and emotions it invokes. Most of all, it’s the author’s voice and how the reader reacts to it.

The voice of David Eddings is unique. So too Robert Jordan. They both wrote classic epic fantasy, reveling in its archetypes, plot cliches and tried-and-tested tropes. And yet they’re cheese and chalk.

Here’s a question. If the most important aspect of author branding is the brand experience, and a reader doesn’t know what this is until they’ve read at least some of the book, how can an author capture it in a few pithy words?

Well, blurbs do it all the time. So do leitmotifs and epigraphs. Whether you’re scanning a product description on Amazon or the back cover of a paperback in a store, those tantalizing few paragraphs foreshadow the brand experience. The better they do that, the better they give insight into the author’s voice and the mood of the whole book.

For now, I’ll have a look at how some of the great fantasy authors used recurring leitmotifs for their books. I’ll tackle blurbs in a future post.

 

A magnificent epic of immense

scope set against a history

of seven thousand years of the

struggles of gods and kings

and men – of strange lands and

events – of fate and a prophecy

that must be fulfilled!

This appears on the back cover of all five books of The Belgariad. At least, on my paperbacks bought in the 1980’s. The current editions have lost it, much to to their detriment.

Now, I can actually remember one bright morning, on the way to school, stopping at the local newsstand and looking for something to read. I found Pawn of Prophecy. It was the leitmotif that sold me – I didn’t have time for anything else. It sold me because, having read The Lord of the Rings for the first time only a few months previously, I recognized that this new book was the kind of epic story I wanted. That’s a brand at work. And as I read the series, waiting eagerly for each book to come out, the initial foreshadowing was met. The brand experience lived up to expectations.

Now, how about this?

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and go, leaving

memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and

even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth

returns again . . .

This appears on the back cover of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. At least, just as with David Eddings, on the paperbacks I bought in the 1990’s. Once again, the current editions have lost it. I can’t help but think that great authors know how to sell books better than publishers. Anyway, once again, it screams epic fantasy – and that was just what I was after.

And the high master of them all?

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky. . .

No need to quote Tolkien’s ring verse in full. Most of the English speaking world has heard it. Just like the others, this serves to foreshadow the entire story – to give a feel for it: elves under the sky, dwarves in their halls of stone, mortal men doomed to die, one ring to rule them all. In its own poetic way, it’s a plot summary.

So, the next time you’re looking for a new author to read, have a think about how they handle branding. Does it foreshadow the story and the author’s voice? Does its mood resonate with you? If so, you could be onto a winner – just as I was one morning before school in the early 80’s, on a day that was full of promise.

 

 

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EPIC FANTASY: THE MAGIC OF ADJECTIVES

Stories of epic fantasy bring the reader to another world. There may be dragons, strange beasts, combat between dark sorcerers and hard-pressed wizards. The land itself may be enchanted, and several moons might hang in the sky. In short, magic is at play.

But all stories bring the reader into the world of the main character, no matter that the setting is Middle-earth or Manhattan. In order to work, fiction must make that world come to life, and the author has to conjure a sense of reality from mere words on a page. Magic indeed.

An author might write, “The dragon lifted its head and eyed the warrior.” But the reader is entitled to ask, “What sort of dragon? Is it winged? Is it long and sinuous? Is it reptilian? Is its tail barbed? Does flame flicker deep in its cavernous mouth? Or is it a cold drake?” But if the reader has to ask those questions, the spell is broken, for they are no longer seeing images in their imagination, but trying to construct a picture by rational thought. That is the death of epic fantasy – or any fiction.

Writing experts, writing teachers, style guides and the self-appointed literati advise to avoid adjectives. But if you read the above paragraph again, and remove the adjectives, you’re left with little more than the dragon.

If I had to construct a mental picture myself, I would make him a winged creature with two curls of smoke rising from his long snout. You, on the other hand, might see a barbed behemoth never to be airborne, hard-plated scales undulating as he writhed over the ground like a snake. All very good until the author has your dragon take to the sky, and then the spell is broken.

So, while the experts proclaim rules, the best writers go about telling stories their own way and working a spell on readers. Few would serve as a better example than Tolkien, so I’ll quote The Lord of the Rings. The scene is in Rohan, and Gandalf is speaking to Wormtonge.

“Thus Gandalf softly sang, and then suddenly he changed. Casting his tattered cloak aside, he stood up and leaned no longer on his staff; and he spoke in a clear cold voice. ‘The wise speak only of what they know, Gríma son of Gálmód. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.’ He raised his staff. There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers. Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth.”

If that doesn’t convince you of the magic of adjectives, nothing will.

A word of warning though: not all passages should be so epic, even in epic fantasy. Adjectives are potent, but the magic soon fades if used too much, or worse, when the noun they modify doesn’t need it. For instance, saying, “They walked over the green grass,” is superfluous.

Try not to prove the experts right.

 

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HIGH FANTASY, WHY DOST THOU THUS?

Why do many high fantasy books have an element of archaism?

Certainly, the genre is archaic by nature, and the pages of its books are full of lightning-fast swordsmen, the slow but deadly maneuvering of armies, the desperate clash of steel on shield and the siege of thick-walled fortresses.

But that’s not what I mean.

Epic fantasy and heroic fantasy share these elements. And yet these stories are often told in a modern manner. The dialogue, sharp and witty, is just as we would speak today. The characters are people we can easily relate to. In fact, they’re so contemporary that it’s easy to picture them standing around in faded jeans and smoking cigarettes.

This quote from Magician’s Gambit, book three of David Edding’s Belgariad series, shows you what I mean:

“He’s not dead, is he?”  Durnik’s voice was almost sick.

“Not yet,” Yarbleck replied, “but Taur Urgas plans to correct that when the sun comes up in the morning. I couldn’t even get close enough to that pit to drop a dagger to him so he could open a vein. I’m afraid his last morning’s going to be a bad one.”

This is as modern as it gets, both in wording and worldview. Please don’t misunderstand me though – David Eddings is one of my favorite writers.

Yet one of the hallmarks of high fantasy is a poetic prose style, and archaic language, if used just right, is one of the most useful implements in a wordsmith’s tool box. Its use can evoke mood, setting and temperament. It can enrich a story.  Most of all, the language itself, given impetus by its very strangeness, speaks with rare clarity and vigor. It rises above the white noise of a thousand other books, of TV and Radio, of day-to-day speech itself.

The question is, how can it be used just right?

The problem with authors who occasionally use thees and thous is that readers often find those passages jarring. The archaism appears out of the blue, and disappears just as quickly. It’s not a natural part of the created world and disrupts the flow of a story that’s otherwise told in modern language.

Alternatively, if they’re used throughout, they become wearying to the ear.

So, how do the best writers do it? For them, the archaism is a natural part of the prose, from beginning to end. It might intensify during certain scenes or when certain characters speak. It flows and ebbs, but it’s always present. And subtlety is their friend. It’s often not the words they use, but the order in which they appear. Sometimes, they’ll use an archaic word too, but rarely a cliche like thee and thou, and they’ll choose one whose meaning is apparent from the context.

Cast your eyes over this, from The Lord of The Rings:

“For each of the hobbits he chose a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen, of marvellous workmanship, damasked with serpent-forms in red and gold. They gleamed as he drew them from their black sheaths, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. Whether by some virtue in these sheaths or because of the spell that lay on the mound, the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.”

This is modern English, and yet it isn’t. It’s not how the guy on the phone trying to sell me health insurance talks.

The main difference lies in the inversion of normal word order. Also, contemporary English is clipped – we like short sentences nowadays. Additionally, some of the words, like damasked, though not really archaic, are rarely used.

This is the same passage without the Tolkien magic.

“He chose a dagger for each of the hobbits. They were long, curved, and sharp. They were also of fine workmanship, decorated with red and gold snakes. He drew the blades from their black sheaths. They gleamed. They were crafted of some strange metal that was light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. The blades were unrusted and sharp, and they glittered in the sun. Time had not touched them. Possibly, some magic in the sheaths protected them. Or a spell lay over the mound.”

There’s nothing wrong with this – but the subtle unusualness of the true version stands out more.

It’s high fantasy at its best.

It’s poetry.

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HIGH FANTASY: FACT OR FICTION

One of the best things about fantasy books is their ability to take the reader into another world. This is a great strength. At the same time, from some people’s perspective, their greatest weakness.

A large number of readers only like “real” books – things to do with the world as we know it and historical events: memoirs, histories, self-help books and the like. I read a post on a writing forum recently where someone showed this attitude. He said that he was happy to charge high prices for his books because they were non-fiction and useful. The fiction writers, he suggested, were welcome to discount their novels as they were only made up things of no value.

I  certainly enjoy non-fiction books, but are they any more real than, say, the high fantasy of A Wizard of Earthsea?

Let’s take a closer look.

I’ve read the memoirs of many famous historical figures and sports people. Most of them were entertaining, some were enlightening, a few downright inspiring. These people had interesting stories to tell about their lives.

But telling a story is exactly what they did. It just happened to be their story. They presented a recollection of events, as seen through their eyes, and as such their reminiscences were filled not only with personal insights, but also their prejudices and misunderstandings. Who among us is free of those?

In short, a memoir is a record of how things happened, from a particular person’s point of view. Other people may have experienced those identical events, or reviewed the same set of facts, yet arrived at vastly different opinions.

For instance, I might argue that Tolkien is the greatest writer to have ever lived, but William Shakespeare need not agree (nor, for that matter, my English teacher). Likewise, some doctors say a daily glass of wine is good for you. Others argue that it’s poison. The truth is that the more you try to pin facts down, the more slippery they become.

So, what perspective do we gain on things looking out of the fictional eyes of Sparrowhawk while he sails the uncharted waters of Earthsea? Certainly, we learn a lot about pride, humility and the responsibility of power. Ultimately, these perspectives all derive from the author, because it’s the writer who breathes life into the character. But are the perspectives and insights any less real for that?

No.

And what about Sam and Frodo as they trudge across Middle-earth. Their struggles show us a lot about sacrifice, courage and loyalty. You can read a dictionary (one of those useful non-fiction books) to find the meaning of these words, but in The Lord of the Rings you feel them in your very bones.

Which is truer? Which more real? The desperate grit of Sam as he carries his master up the broken slopes of Mount Doom, empty of all hope but filled with determination anyway. Or the dictionary definition of the word: courage, toughness, resolution.

But as I say, it’s all a matter of perspective.

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TOLKIEN AND THE MAGIC GRAPE JUICE

The Lord of the Rings is the second highest selling book of all time. It trails A Tale of Two Cities, although I note that Charles Dickens had nearly a century head start. Tolkien’s masterpiece was consistently voted as the best book of the last century during a series of large-scale reader polls. For myself, I agree. But I have one question.

Why?

Undoubtedly, Tolkien was a great storyteller. He created memorable characters. His plotting was seamless, his prose fluent and poetic. But many authors can claim similar skills. What makes Tolkien different?

A blog on high, heroic and epic fantasy could do worse than attempt an explanation. And I do have one.

I think there are many reasons for Tolkien’s success, and I’ll come back to the subject in the future. For now, I’m going to focus on just one aspect. But first – a detour into history. It will, in the end, clarify my point.

The earliest archeological record for wine making dates to the late Neolithic period in the Caucuses. The people of that time (about 6000 BC) discovered that wild grape juice transformed into wine when buried in clay vessels through winter. And glad would they have been who first drank it.

Grape juice is nice. Its bold flavor is raw, fresh and vibrant. Its sweetness competes with its tartness. But it’s not wine. Wine is more subtle. Wine is refined. Wine is luxurious. The magic of fermentation turns grape juice into something entirely different. The flavors of the crushed grapes and the special characteristics of the yeast on their skins, which begin the process, come together as a whole and meld into something new. Just as soups and casseroles taste better the next day, so does wine improve over weeks, months or years. The flavors interact with each other and work together rather than compete.

The Lord of the Rings is like that. Everything works together as part of a greater whole. This gives the story depth. It makes it seem that things happen for a reason, rather than because of arbitrary chance, or author convenience. It makes things seem real. And that feeling of realness, of reading recorded history rather than fiction, of depth, is something that distinguishes Tolkien from other writers.

Many fantasy authors think that by adding appendices to their work, providing name lists, using a prologue establishing the mythological background, by giving dates for historical events in their fictional world, that they’re emulating Tolkien’s depth. But what they’re doing is tipping distilled spirits into a glass of grape juice and hoping for wine.

Tolkien’s depth comes from the melding of events, characters, names, languages and artifacts, rather than a mere dumping of raw information. If you pull on a single thread of his story, you find that the whole tapestry twitches. Shall we look at just one example to see what I mean?

When Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits from the Barrow-wight, they retrieve some daggers. Tom explains their history and something of the Men of Westerness, foes of the Dark Lord, who long before had been overcome by the evil king of Angmar. Nearly a thousand pages later we see one of those weapons in use. Merry has stabbed the Witch-king, who was once that same evil king of Angmar. When the Black Rider is dead, Merry watches the blade wither away on the grass. Tolkien gently reminds us, “But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago . . .  and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king.”

In this way Middle-earth’s past, Merry’s more recent past, and the present are connected. Just as in real life, events have repercussions, and they reverberate through the world.

But that’s not the only link. All through the novel is a sentiment that “Oft evil will shall evil mar.” This is reinforced by the fact that had the Barrow-wight not taken the hobbits, Merry would not have had the blade, and the Witch-king would not have been slain.

This is only one example. Take just about any event, character, name, sentiment or artifact, and think about how it’s connected to something else, and you’ll soon see that very little stands in isolation in The Lord of the Rings. The whole novel is like one of those buried clay vessels. The past is always bubbling up to the present, the fermentation always working its magic.

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