Tag Archives: High fantasy

EIGHT BLURB TIPS BIG PUBLISHERS DON’T SHARE

Authors love to debate their craft, and few topics are more hotly argued than the humble blurb. I say humble, for it’s tiny compared to a book, and yet it’s the keystone that supports the relationship between reader and writer. Few people buy a book solely because of its cover. Most will read the first paragraph of the story, or some random pages. Some will look at reviews. But everyone reads the blurb. So, what makes a good one?

The people who know the most about blurbs – the big publishers, don’t share. Knowledge is power, and in this case it’s sales too.

Self-published authors share generously, but here lies a morass of personal preference, brilliance, naivety, truths and half-truths.

Anyway, the best place to start learning how to write a good blurb is with readers. Why do they choose one book over another? So, here are my tips – gleaned, both as a reader and an Amazon bestselling author, on what works. Some, I promise, you won’t have seen before.

1. Attention

The blurb has only a few seconds to spark interest. People are busy – even when they’re lazing around. Instead of reading your blurb they could be checking out cat videos. Or watching TV. Or texting a friend. Or, worst of the worst, reading someone else’s blurb . . .

So, make the first line count. It should widen the eyes of the reader and pull them in.

Here’s some research from the old brick and mortar days. Readers spend an average of 15 seconds on a blurb. Yes, you read that right – 15 seconds. If your blurb doesn’t draw them in from the get go, you’re leaking sales like a glass without a bottom.

And that’s in a physical book store. There aren’t many titles vying for attention there. Also, the book has to be placed back on the shelf and another one selected, and that encourages a potential buyer to hold off on their decision a little longer. On Amazon, it’s click click and you’re gone. Those cat videos are always calling. So are millions of other books.

So, how do you get a reader’s attention?

The literary world has a fancy name for one method: in medias res. But when we writers aren’t trying to impress each other, we use the term hook. In medias res is usually spoken about in relation to the first chapter of a book, but if you think it’s limited to that, think again.

I list a sampling of hooks below, starting with our fancy schmancy Latin term:

In medias res

This means “in the middle of things.” It works because something happening is more interesting than nothing happening. It doesn’t matter if it’s a first chapter or a blurb. You can set the scene if you want to, but a potential reader might be long gone by the time you get to the action. Action, of course, is a subjective term. The action must be appropriate to the genre. A thriller might start the blurb with physical action, and a romance some other way entirely. The important thing to do is to immediately confirm to the reader that they’ve got their hot little hands (or more likely their twitchy click finger) on the type of material that they like to read. Have a look at these made up examples:

Action: James Bond looked down the barrel of the Walther PPK leveled at his head. Death, one-eyed, unblinking, inevitable, met his gaze.

Romance: Lady Chatterley could not see the gamekeeper’s face. But she could hear his voice, and she knew that she would listen for it all the days of her life.

Make sure something is happening – something consistent with genre. And whatever that something is, it should suggest a whole string of other somethings to follow.

The Eyebrow Lifter

Curiosity is one of the great drivers of human nature. It’s one of the propelling forces behind science. It is, in fact, the basis of our civilization. Without curiosity, humankind would never have invented blogs, the internet, computers, writing, stone tools . . . or gazed at the stars and wondered what they were. Leverage this primal instinct to your advantage. It’s powerful.

Here are the first lines of some real blurbs:

Could you survive on your own, in the wild, with everyone out to make sure you don’t live to see the morning? The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

The Capitol Building, Washington DC: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon believes he is here to give a lecture. He is wrong. Within minutes of his arrival, a shocking object is discovered. It is a gruesome invitation into an ancient world of hidden wisdom. The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown.

“I am Johannes Verne, and I am not afraid.” The Lonesome Gods, by Louis L’Amour.

These blurbs pose questions. Some, like the first one, are direct. Others are indirect. Either way, they act to stir up a person’s curiosity. They withhold information and make people want to know something.

The Statement

A hook is anything that gets attention. Questions are a great way to do it, but sometimes the complete opposite works just as well. By the complete opposite, I mean a statement of fact that doesn’t withhold information, but provides it. Newspaper headlines and magazine articles work like this. Consider these real headlines:

Sir Winston Churchill Dead

Obama Sweeps to Historic Victory

Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins

These actually provide all the information a reader needs. Yet you can imagine the vast numbers of people, when these matters were fresh news, who saw the headline and went on to read the article. Why? Because the headline alerted them that this was a subject they were interested in, and they wanted the details.

Taglines for fiction often do the same thing. They use keywords that alert the reader to what the story is about. Here’s an example from New York Times bestselling author H. M. Ward. It’s from volume 5 of The Ferro Family series:

Money. Power. Sex.

Poetic

Poetry catches attention. By its nature, it stands out, otherwise it wouldn’t be poetry. But for our purposes, I’m not necessarily talking about something as distinctive as rhyme – I mean something more subtle such as alliteration or iambic meter. These are all natural modes of expression in the English language. They have the effect of standing out from ordinary language; they have a rhythm like a heartbeat that draws the reader forward. Dean Koontz says he sometimes uses iambic meter in his prose for that reason. Advertises use these techniques, sometimes including actual rhyme, as well. Here are examples drawn from famous movie taglines:

Whoever wins…we lose. Alien vs Predator.

Man has made his match… now it’s his problem. Blade Runner.

Chucky gets lucky. Bride of Chucky.

One ring to rule them all. The Fellowship of the Ring.

The mission is a man. Saving private Ryan.

Trust a few. Fear the rest. X-Men.

The say whaaaat?

There are no specifics for this one. It could be anything – so long as it startles for some reason. Here’s an example from John Marsden. It’s a book title:

Tomorrow, When the War Began.

This is a ripper. It messes with our sense of the normal order of things. Generally, we would expect something like, Tomorrow, When the War Begins. Or, The War Begins Tomorrow.

Contrast

Contrast is powerful. It works by bringing opposing ideas or imagery together, and the resulting tension throws each into a stronger light. The whole becomes greater than its parts. Want some proof? There’s a reason the following quotes are among the best known in the English language:

To be, or not to be? Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Macbeth, by William Shakespeare.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

All for one and one for all. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas.

Like I say, contrast is powerful.

****

You may have noticed something about my examples. All of them use at least two of the techniques that I’ve listed. Each technique is powerful in its own right, but used in combination their effect snowballs. For instance, every single example under the “contrast” heading not only uses contrast but also alliteration and iambic meter – even the prose of Charles Dickens.

Another thing that you might have noticed is that many of these examples aren’t taken from book blurbs. Don’t limit your source of inspiration to books alone – ideas are all around you. Train yourself to spot them. Study them. Understand them. Incorporate them into your own skill set and make the techniques your own. Otherwise your blurb will read the same as ten thousand others.

2. Interest

There’s a lot of overlay between seizing a reader’s attention and stimulating interest. I think of the later as building on the first. Getting attention is all about the first sentence. If done successfully, the reader is compelled to read onward. This is where the blurb can really work its magic, but it doesn’t have to work quite so hard because momentum has started to build.

What most interests a potential book buyer is a book that the buyer wants to read. That’s pretty simple, huh? But people often forget something as basic as that.

So, what do people want to read? What interests them?

Well, the majority of people have a favorite genre or two. In my case, I read epic fantasy, but I also read sword and sorcery, crime and thrillers. That means there’s a lot of genres that I don’t read. For instance, urban fantasy. Now, a blurb should be signaling up front in its very first words what genre it is. Readers use that to decide if they want to read the book, and no fancy pants technique like the ones that I’ve listed above is going to make them read something they’re not interested in. You can’t appeal to all readers, so make sure the ones that you might appeal to know this is something for them. And do it from the word go.

But signaling genre isn’t enough. For instance, although I love epic fantasy it encompasses different nuances, moods and styles. Some that I like are: the hero (established or coming of age), a quest, a touch of magic, unsympathetic bad guys, high stakes, high styled prose. What I don’t like are anti-heroes, sympathetic bad guys or ultra-modern prose. And I have certain absolute turnoffs. If I’m reading an epic fantasy blurb and the main character is called Richard, or Derek, or some such name from the “real” world I click to the next possible purchase straight away. The important thing here is that what interests me may not interest others and vice versa. A good blurb gets this sorted quickly so that the disinterested can escape without time-wastage, and the interested are drawn ever deeper. Blurbs uses keywords like “quest” or “dragons” or “ancient evil” to give a sense of the specific nature of a story.

I said earlier that attention leads to interest. That’s true, but the reverse is also useful. Having gained attention, and then having stimulated interest by providing the true “flavor” of the book, you can compound interest by threading through more hooks in the prose. The middle sections of a blurb should pose a range of story questions. This heightens tension, increases interest and gives the potential buyer a reason to purchase the book – they want to find out what only reading the whole thing can tell them.

3. Desire

There’s a snowball effect in blurbs. Attention leads to interest. Interest to desire. This is where the earlier parts of your blurb work so well that the reader wants to know what happens. They can’t just put the book down and walk away. They need to know how things turn out for the character. Maybe they’re also fascinated by the setting. Perhaps they’ve fallen for the writing style. Whatever it is, or whatever combination of things are working on them, this is the time for a final twist or raising of the stakes – make the reader’s heart pound.

So, perhaps the most vital aspect of any blurb is the finishing sentence. This is where attention, interest and desire come to a crescendo. Or at least it should. Don’t let your blurb trail off on the final hurdle. Here is the place for the last hook, the last shot of adrenalin to electrify a reader’s curiosity. Make them desperate to know what happens next. I say this because…

4. Action

What happens next is the reader’s decision to move onto the next book or to buy yours. Or at least to check out the look inside feature or maybe the reviews.

If you’ve followed the preceding steps and got their attention, interested them, roused their desire, and then finished off with one last masterstroke, then the blurb reader will click the buy button/look inside feature, and they’re well on the way to enjoying your book and you’re on your way to earning another loyal reader.

What I’ve described so far is a set of principles for writing a blurb. It’s not a formula, because these principles can be used in any way, shape or form, only limited by the creativity and art of the writer.  What follows are some techniques that help make the principles shine even more brightly.

5. Clarity

The most common fault with blurbs is a lack of clarity. An author, trying to condense hundreds of pages of story into a few paragraphs ends up with a complex and confusing mess. They understand it, because they know the story. Others don’t have a clue what’s going on. This is blurb poison. Who buys a book if they don’t understand, in a nice easy read, what’s happening and why?

Here’s a tip. People read in an “F” shape pattern. Don’t believe me? Google “F shaped reading pattern” and then click on the images bar. A picture tells a thousands words. This means that blurbs should have lots of whitespace, especially at the beginning. If the blurb is strong, and you make the format clear and easy to read, you’ll find more readers. Simple as that.

I also advise simple words, simple sentences, and a perfect flow of logic. Everyone is time poor. It’s your job as a writer to make the language clear, not to throw dust in the reader’s eye.

6. A hero to cheer for

Put your main character at, or near the beginning of the blurb. Give the reader a chance to identify with them, understand them, like them, and have empathy for their goals. If a blurb can’t start that much of a spark, why would the reader try the book just on the off chance they might feel those things after a hundred pages or so?

7. Obstacles

An engaging hero is one thing, but there’s no story without obstacles. What problems does he or she face? Show the reader what’s at stake – not everything, just two or three of the most important things. Importantly, you should identify a villain. Put some kind of a name on them to bring the forces of opposition into focus.

8. Voice

This is that special something that lifts a good blurb to great heights. It’s rare. Only one blurb in a thousand has it. Voice will separate you from the masses. It will take things out of the bland “I’ve read that kind of blurb a million times before,” reaction into “wow!” territory. A few of the ways this can be done are:

An intimate conversational style

High style

A specific sense of humor.

These styles all comes from getting in the character’s (or narrator’s) head and bringing their voice from the book into the blurb. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but it works. Before I leave you to check out some cat videos, here are two examples:

A Thirst for Vengeance, by Edward M Knight.

My name is Dagan. There are few alive with more blood on their hands than me.

I have lived a life of degeneracy. I have studied the teachings of the dark mage Helosis and walked the path of the dead. I have been to the shadowrealm and emerged with my soul intact. I have challenged the Black Brotherhood and ridden with the Knights of Valamor as a brother-in-arms. I have spoken to Xune.

I’ve killed indiscriminately—for money, for fame. For vengeance.

When I was young, I fell in love with a princess and was punished by her death. I have scampered, begged, and thieved. I have been homeless. I have ruled the greatest city ever built.

I began a succession war. I alone know who lifted the Seals of Regor—and how. I was there when magic was restored to this world. If I’d been born in a different age, I would have been the greatest sorcerer known to man.

My name is Dagan. This is my tale.

Chase the Dark, by Annette Marie

Piper Griffiths wants one thing in life: To become a Consul, a keeper of the peace between humans and daemons. There are precisely three obstacles in her way.

The first is Lyre. Incubus. Hotter than hell and with a wicked streak to match. His greatest mission in life is to get Piper into bed and otherwise annoy the crap out of her. The second is Ash. Draconian. Powerful. Dangerous. He knows too much and reveals nothing. Also, disturbingly attractive — and scary. Did she mention scary?

The third is the Sahar Stone. Top secret magical weapon of mass destruction. Previously hidden in her Consulate until thieves broke in, went on a murder spree, and disappeared with the weapon.

And they left Piper to take the fall for their crimes.

Now she’s on the run, her dreams of becoming a Consul shattered and every daemon in the city gunning to kill her. She’s dead on her own, but there’s no one she can trust — no one except two entirely untrustworthy daemons . . . See problems one and two.

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A HIGH FANTASY HIJACKING: JACKSON’S HOBBIT

I saw that the first Hobbit movie was going to be on TV recently. I decided to watch it (never having seen it at the cinema) and put aside my misgivings (accumulated through watching The Lord of the Rings movies) in order to give it a fair go.

I really, really tried.

It’s a mistake for a blogger, especially an occasional one like me, to criticize a popular movie franchise. Undoubtedly, there are masses of people possessing a sharply different point of view, and they might well express it. Forcefully.

But I’ll stand up for what I believe in.

And I believe this: if a book is worthy of being adapted to film, the filmmakers should respect it. Likewise the author who poured his soul into it.

I understand that the mediums of novel and film are different and require different treatments. I understand (but don’t condone) the commercial tactics of certain changes to enhance marketability. For instance, the appearance of Frodo at the beginning of the movie. He’s not in the book, and his appearance is nothing more than a marketing strategy to maintain continuity between the box office hits of The Lord of the Rings films and the Hobbit spinoffs. His unexpected, and plot irrelevant, presence also plays a part in stretching one short book into four films.

So, now to my claim of hijacking. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of hijacking goes something like this: to illegally seize (an aircraft, ship, or vehicle) while in transit and force it to go to a different destination or use it for one’s own purposes.

We can dispense with any legal definition, just as we can ignore aircrafts and ships. What’s relevant here is “… force it to go to a different destination…” To do that to a book is not to adapt it to film, but to break it and remake it according to the filmmaker’s own personal tastes and preferences.

I don’t deny Peter Jackson the right to his own tastes and preferences, but I would say this to him: if you want to express them, write your own story. Pour your own soul into it. If you dare.

Anyway, back to the adaptation.  The book has such a wonderful opening, but it’s all gone in favor of backstory drawn from the latter parts of the book and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.

So many things made me cringe. The worst of it was Thranduil, the Elven king, paying homage to the Dwarf king after the discovery of the Arkenstone. As if! And why, in the name of God, did Jackson think it was a good idea for Thranduil to ride a stag rather than a horse? That’s not adaptation. That’s hijacking.

I’m not even going to discuss Radagast caring for an ill hedgehog called “Sebastian”or Gandalf sending a moth to ask Gwaihir, Lord of the Eagles, to rescue him.

The worst sin of the lot though was this: it was boring – mind numbingly, yawn inducing, coma producing boring. As much as I hated what Jackson did to The Lord of the Rings, at least those movies had narrative drive. I guess it shows what happens when you take a smallish book and try to spread it over four movies.

I didn’t watch to the end. It was nearly an hour before Bilbo even left Bag End to catch up to the Dwarves. That’s when I went to bed, being three quarters asleep already.

For me, it only had one redeeming quality. The rendition of the Dwarf song, We must away ere break of day. That was well done.

One final note.

I’m calling Jackson out for having total disrespect for Tolkien. He’s taken some of the greatest works of English literature, and, well, broken them. And he’s done it for financial profit. Not only has he disrespected Tolkien, but he’s disrespected the viewing public. We don’t need four Hobbit movies, where the story is dribbled out in unrecognizable bits and stretched like the life of a Ring-bearer. What we need is one good film. So, Mr. Jackson, not only have you disrespected Tolkien, but you’ve also disrespected the viewing public. At least this representative of it.

One day, sometime in the far future, another filmmaker will adapt Tolkien to the screen. Whoever that is, I wish them luck. In the meantime, I have the books – and that’s all I need.

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THE HUNGER GAMES: EPIC FANTASY?

The Hunger Games. You’ve got to love it. At least the first book, anyway. After that, it gets dark. Really dark. I suppose I should have expected that from dystopian fiction. But what was it about this dystopian story that pulled me into its world, avid fan of epic fantasy that I am?

First of all, the writing is good. By good, I mean that it’s clear, crisp and elegant in its simplicity. Although I do hanker after “high style” – a flow of prose where the very words come to life and sweep me into another world. One that pumps fear through my body when the hero is in trouble. One that makes me heady with breathless relief when the crisis is over. And most of all, one whose words transform letters on the page into vivid imagery in my mind.

For instance, although it’s years since the last time I read The Lord of the Rings, I can still picture the Red Eye of Mordor seeking out Frodo, and Gandalf, alone and trapped under the stars on the hard pinnacle of the tower of Orthanc. High style leaves the reader with potent mind-pictures that last a lifetime. And yet, The Hunger Games does very nicely without it.

There are times when Katniss, that oh so ordinary, but oh so remarkable girl,  brought tears to my eyes. Scenes where simple words and gestures shook the world. Moments of emotional honesty so clear, so true, so powerful, so heart-piercing that they may as well have been shot direct like a sure-flighted arrow from her bow. That’s reason enough to like The Hunger Games, but I found more.

What are the hallmarks of epic fantasy? What are the tropes that we’ve all read over and again, and yet still like when they’re presented to us in a fresh story, with a new author’s unique voice?

Well, the hero is often a peasant. A child raised in rustic obscurity, who turns out to be a prince in hiding or a magician of nascent power. At the same time, dark forces are on the move, and only the hero holds the key to defeating them. But the Dark Lord is aware of him and hunts him down. The forces ranged against the hero are staggering, and yet, aided by a band of scruffy rebels, (or a lone but steadfast companion) and a wise mentor, the hero undertakes a bold quest. One that will probably see them killed.

The company will of course encounter Strange People and trek through Strange Lands. That, in a nutshell, is epic fantasy. Or at least the tropes that good writers take, transform, and hammer into something uniquely their own.

But it’s also The Hunger Games.

Let’s look at Katniss. A grumpy (she has reason to be) hero. Where does she live? In District 12 – a place of poverty – a modern-day peasant village. And is there a Dark Lord? Well, President Snow comes pretty close. He’s a man of immense power and capable of unlimited ruthlessness to keep it. And Katniss does journey through Strange Lands. First, to the Capitol, (a very strange place indeed) and then the Arena. And what are her weapons? Her wits and a bow. She could almost be a lost elven princess struggling to survive in the woods, a place filled with the haunting calls of mockingjays like some sort of enchanted forest. It’s the kind of place where she’s most at home – except for the games going on around her.

And who becomes her trusted companion, Frodo’s Sam Gamgee? Peeta Mellark. And who is her mentor? Well she has two, a kind of practical mentor for day to day stuff, Haymitch, and another one, for the emotional side, the deeper stuff – Cinna: a man of wisdom and deep feelings. He might not carry a staff, but he’s Gandalf in another guise, for above all else he feels pity, and he kindles hope, when hope is lost.

You could argue that these are the characteristics of most fiction. Well, they are. But they run strongest in epic fantasy, and they run equally strong in The Hunger Games. If you’re one of the last people on the planet to read it, like me, check it out. But make sure you have a firm handle on what dystopian means. I wish I had when I started. . . If it’s not your thing, maybe leave it at book one, which is a self-contained novel.

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HIGH FANTASY: HOW BLURBS WORK

Reports on the value of global book publishing vary, but it’s worth several hundred billion dollars a year. In the time that it’s taken you to read these few words, hundreds of titles were purchased – most of them on the basis of the blurb. So, how does the book description work?

Some surveys show that book recommendations are the major factor in a person’s decision to purchase. This just proves that surveys are only as good as the questions asked.

Recommendations from family, friends, acquaintance and sites such as Goodreads provide visibility. A book can’t be purchased if the buyer doesn’t know it exists. But how many of us buy books on someone’s recommendation without looking at it? It’s hard to know, because the surveys don’t ask that question. I think, however, the answer is “not many.” Nor do the surveys ask how many people checked out a recommended book, and then decided not to read it after looking over the blurb.

At the end of the day, nothing is more vital than the blurb in the process of readers finding the sort of book they want to read.

I wrote here from an author’s point of view on how to write a blurb. The current post is for readers. It’s not a “how to read a blurb” as such, it’s more of an attempt to understand what happens subconsciously when you do read one, and it’s an interesting process. Don’t despair, writers: I’m willing to bet that this will give you something to think about as well.

Before we get to blurbs, let’s take a quick look at covers. Blurbs and covers serve a similar function – more so than is often realized.

Try this is an experiment: scroll through the thumbnail images of covers on Amazon as quick as you can. I bet you probably get an instant impression of what genre those books belong to in less than a second. Some of them just leap right out at you – epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, paranormal, thriller, crime, romance, horror. You can go back and look at them afterwards to figure out why, but it doesn’t really matter. Your subconscious picks up the visual cues and makes the leap without you even having to think about it.

Most people (most writers anyway) would say that a blurb should explain what the b0ok is about. It should provide enough detail to sketch out the basic plot. It should talk about the characters, and it should do all this in a way that intrigues the reader.

That’s standard blurb-writing advice. But I don’t think it’s what readers want, or what the best blurbs do.

Readers use the same sort of cues in a blurb as they do in covers, they’re just in the form of words rather than images. A good blurb doesn’t try to condense 300 pages of story into a few paragraphs. That can’t be done successfully. What a blurb can do, just like a cover, is to give the reader cues that say, for instance, epic fantasy. Not only that, it can narrow those cues down further. I think this is how the best blurbs really work. By “best,” I mean those that match the right book to the right reader.

Readers usually have a preference for certain types of epic fantasy. For instance, A Game of Thrones and The Belgariad are both epic fantasy. Their covers show them as such. Their blurbs show them as such, but the two books appeal to entirely different reader groups. One is dark and gritty, and the other an uplifting coming of age adventure.

Let’s look at their blurbs. They both share epic fantasy word-cues: long ago, time forgotten, quest, sorcerer, magic and prophecy etc. They both share a dearth of plot details. But what I’m interested in is how their specific cues set them apart. I bold these below, and it gets untidy, but a vivid picture emerges if you read them as a list.

A GAME OF THRONES (PAPERBACK EDITION)

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

PAWN OF PROPHECY (PAPERBACK EDITION)

Long ago, the Storyteller claimed, in this first book of THE BELGARIAD, the evil god Torak drove men and Gods to war. But Belgarath the Sorcerer led men to reclaim the Orb that protected men of the West. So long as it lay at Riva, the prophecy went, men would be safe.

But Garion did not believe in such stories. Brought up on a quiet farm by his Aunt Pol, how could he know that the Apostate planned to wake dread Torak, or that he would be led on a quest of unparalleled magic and danger by those he loved–but did not know…?

A good blurb gives a reader an instant (even if unconscious) cue, without trying to explain many plot details, as to the exact type of book that it describes. Words such as brutal, bastards, madness, protected, safe and loved are loaded with meaning – the kind that set a tone, and if our book-reading preferences are attuned to that signal, we pick it up.

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ROGER TAYLOR: HIGH FANTASY EXCELLENCE

Roger Taylor is a fine author, and The Chronicles of Hawklan is probably the most underrated fantasy series going around. The books have the authentic mood and classic style of high fantasy, but manage frequent bursts of originality.

The series abounds with intrigue, battles, strange creatures, magic, even a Dark Lord. But there’s not an elf or dwarf in sight. It’s a potent mix of genre cliches and new perspectives. Best of all, the story has a thread of philosophy running through it. This serves to unify the whole thing, to give it backbone and (at the same time) subtle grace. That’s a masterful achievement.

Perhaps one of the reasons the books never broke out on a massive scale is that they’re patchy. It’s almost like they were written at different stages over a long career, although they were published close together. This patchiness exists in some of the subsequent standalone novels, too.

I’m willing to forgive an author a bit of patchiness. Even Shakespeare had off moments. The main thing (for me at least) is that a book should take me into another world, thrill me, move me, make me think, make me want to linger even when the last page is turned. Roger Taylor does that, so I salute him. It’s no easy task.

Perhaps some of his later standalone books are better written. However, most readers of epic and high fantasy hanker after a series, preferably a long one. His finest work might well be Arash-Felloren or Farnor. Farnor is a two book series and also serves as an entry point into the world of Hawklan.

At any rate, I don’t mind giving a shout out for an author who provided me with some great reading over many years. In fact, I think I might dust of my old paperback copies (already read multiple times) and immerse myself once more. To me, books that can be kept, treasured and reread, are the telltale mark of a great author.

 

 

 

 

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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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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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