Supernatural

Fantasy and Sci-Fi You Should Watch

Ok. I’ve spent the past couple of posts harping on about cheesy fantasy movies you should avoid…but what about some stuff you should watch?

Rather than movies, I’m going to switch to television here, and broaden the discussion to include science-fiction (because, let’s face it, there’s a hell of a lot more sci-fi than there is epic fantasy out there in TV land).

Here’s a brief list of some good stuff on TV that, in my opinion, every fan of sci-fi or fantasy should be checking out (not all of it current).

Supernatural

Supernatural

I’m not always a fan of urban fantasy/horror, but Supernatural does it right. For 10 Seasons now the Brothers Winchester have been chasing ghosts, ghouls, vampires, demons, and all sorts of other stuff that goes bump in the night, and the results are often scary, at times funny, and always entertaining. Some may argue the show has started to wear thin (as one could argue for any show entering its monstrous tenth season), but you could do worse than check out this series from the beginning and watch the low-key, creative, and engaging manner in which each week’s plot plays out.

Battlestar: Galactica

Battlestar

Arguments can be made for the original 1978 series, which I remember watching quite a bit when I was younger, but in this case I’m referring to the brilliant 2004 re-imagining. Dark, brooding, at times downright disturbing, Battlestar chronicles the voyage of the survivors of the Twelve Colonies as they struggle to escape the grasp of the robotic Cylons, an artificial race that seems hell-bent on replacing humankind and evolving to a near divine state. There’s no question the series gets a little strange the longer it goes, but for the first three seasons its brilliant military sci-fi entertainment.

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

Not only an epic fantasy show, but the epic fantasy show. A brilliant re-telling of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling novels of the noble houses of Westeros and their struggle for power, Game of Thrones manages the extremely difficult task of telling a very multi-layered story with an immense cast of characters without losing track of any of the important events of the books or shortchanging any of the plot lines. The show is well cast, beautifully filmed and expertly paced. While Game of Thrones does suffer from a bit of excess (it often feels like they’re struggling to insert sex scenes when none are really called for), it’s still one of the best damn shows on TV.

Torchwood

Torchwood

You thought I’d say Dr. Who, didn’t you? Well, no offense to Whovians, but I’ve always preferred Torchwood, the Dr. Who spin-off which focuses on a U.K. based organization responsible for battling alien threats to Terra Firma, some of which can be quite horrifying. Torchwood isn’t quite as tightly written as Dr. Who, but the characters are engaging, the plots are original and the show is irreverent and sometimes quite dark. And I always enjoy watching Captain Jack Harkness, one of the more intriguing TV heroes in many years.

Deep Space 9

Deep Space 9

You could probably pick any of the Star Trek series – I actually prefer the characters in Enterprise, while my favorite overall Trek series is Voyager – but from a writer’s standpoint you have to appreciate what they did with this one. Deep Space Nine has an inevitable direction, and while the show isn’t consumed by the overriding plot of the war against the shadowy coalition known as the Dominion, the writers plant the seeds for that eventual conflict early and often, and the show does a wonderful job of conveying a subtle sense of dread as the countdown to the conflict grows shorter and shorter. Throw in the usual nicely layered social commentary and some truly remarkable stories and it’s easy to see why DS9 quickly became a favorite among the fans.

I’m only scratching the surface here: what fantasy/sci-fi shows do you recommend, and why?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

It’s been well-established Steven Montano watches way too much TV. If only he spent as much time writing as…wait, his third book of 2014, The Black Tower, is coming out next month? OK, never mind.

Learn more at http://steven-montano.com/

The Business of Word Count

WordCountWordle
How many words do you need to tell a story well? Conventional wisdom (as stated by Chuck Sambuchino in Writer’s Digest) says a novel should be under 100,000, and one seasoned author in my circle claims that any book longer than 100K either has bloated prose or should be split into two novels.

The 100K edict serves two purposes. First, it discourages inexperienced writers from padding their narratives the way high school students pad term papers to make the assigned 10-page minimum. Second, it holds down production costs. Whether the publisher is one of the Big Five, a small independent press, or an indie author, spending more money to produce a longer book is a poor business decision, unless you can be reasonably sure people will buy it. For instance, Tolkien considered Lord of the Rings a single novel, yet it was published in three volumes because his publisher worried it might not sell, and they didn’t want to pony up the printing costs for a flop. Dividing up the text also helped them overcome the engineering challenge of printing and binding a 1200 page book—for a reasonable price—that wouldn’t fall apart as soon as someone opened it.

In fact, cost drives trends in the length of books. Publishers (both traditional and indie) operate with very thin margins and their only hope for profit, short of run-away best sellers, is to keep production costs low. Smaller word counts mean less time spent by copyeditors and proofreaders who are paid by the hour (or the word), as well as less paper and ink. Artificially breaking longer works into volumes also allows publishers (including indie authors) to sell one book for the price of two, or three, or six. (Note, data from Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, suggest this isn’t the best strategy, because Smashwords readers, at least, tend to prefer books longer than 100K.)

litlenellA century ago, the market forces driving word count worked in the opposite direction. During the Victorian era, publishers sold novels in serial form and paid authors by the word. Naturally, authors like Charles Dickens responded by writing a lot of words in a lot of chapters. The hungry reading public paid for the books in installments, twenty or thirty or forty times, so they could find out what happened to Little Nell.

Several months ago I wrote a humorous post in which I gave Herman Melville beta reader’s notes about Moby Dick. I cited the 200K+ word count as something that would limit the success of the book. Indeed, Moby Dick flopped when it came out, and poor Herman died a pauper. Yet today people gather in Greenwich Village cafés to hold marathon readings of Moby Dick. They don’t gather to read Typee (Melville’s first novel, which was a best seller); they come to read a masterpiece packed with brilliant reflections on the morality of man’s desire to dominate nature, which also happens to be an incredible seafaring adventure. So, it turns out, the value of a novel doesn’t depend solely on its word count, but on how the words count. The difference between the novice who boasts about her 400K behemoth and Dickens, Tolkien, Melville, Elliot, and a host of authors who write long books is that the masters don’t waste words. Descriptions may be detailed but serve to frame and enhance the plot and provide subtext. Sentences may be long, complex tapestries woven from dependent clauses, but the resulting texture and poetry demonstrate mastery of the language. In short, the sentences are long but still vigorous. The reader does not slog through them, she glides.

BladeofAmber_final_sized for SWBlade of Amber and A Wizard’s Lot both exceed 150K. They’re not masterpieces (my magnum opus sits on a shelf in my workshop), but each offers a complete story (no cliffhanger endings) and a reflection on how we are molded by our memories—on the shadow the past casts on our present. The two novels together also present a mashup retelling of  Rapunzel, emphasizing the second half of that tale, when Rapunzel and the prince suffer separate travails. And let’s not forget they’re a pair of edge-of-seat adventure stories, with plenty of battles, hand-to-hand combat, magic, and giant intelligent insects. There are places roughly half way through each book where I could end with a cliffhanger and get four books out of two, but I prefer each Woern Chronicles volume to tell a complete story. There’s nothing wrong with authors choosing another strategy—many of my favorite series are one long story told over three or four or fourteen novels—but the single-volume complete story is the choice I made for my own work.

This choice may not be the wisest business decision. A word count over 100K closes many doors. Many agents and publishers won’t consider longer books; competitions may not accept them; book bloggers and media critics may not review them. I pay my editor more for each novel, and because I have to pay for more paper, I’m forced to charge a higher price than I’d like for a paperback copy. However, the beauty of the eBook age is that I can keep the price of my electronic copies at market rate (no paper costs!). For less than the price of a latte, readers can buy a ticket to Knownearth. And once there, they’ll get to stay awhile, reading words that, I hope, count.

Photo on 7-25-12 at 12.24 PM #3_2A.M. Justice writes fiction about distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. You can find more of her fiction and musings on the Knownearth Works website and her blog A.M. Justice Journeys Through Time.

Tricksters for Treats

by Chantal Boudreau

In the spirit of Halloween (and inspired by a short story submission I just sent out to a venue with a trickster theme), I thought it might be fun to address one of the tropes or arch-types of fantasy: the trickster. This type of mischievous character can appear in many different forms; from devilish deities to cunning spies to impish children, they can serve the sake of comedy relief, plot catalyst, annoying villain or even wisdom-instilling teacher by punitive measures. While not necessarily the protagonist in a tale, they are common to fantasy writing of all sorts, sometimes sidekick, sometimes rival and typically entertaining.

The trickster has strong roots in an assortment of mythologies, from Loki in the Norse mythos and Anansi in African lore to Coyote in North American Native legend, the mischief-maker seems ever present. Perhaps it ‘s because tricksters are a natural component to human social circles. Most people love a good practical joke, as long as they aren’t the butt of it. And we all need a good laugh from time to time.

But tricksters in story tend to be more than just someone with a playful sense of humour, the clever mischief-maker. Their tricks can be a unifying force, leading others to work together to counter their antics. They can be the cause of the trouble initiating a particular quest in a quest tale. Or in some cases they are the key, because they are inevitably brilliant and can be just as much a solution as a problem.

In addition to myth, tricksters are everywhere in fairy tales too. They are the playful fairy, the conniving fox, the dastardly witch or wizard or the wondrous talking cat in boots. It is no surprise that as characters, they transitioned to young adult and adult fantasy fiction.

And while tricksters are more commonly male – think classics like Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser or Flinx in Alan Dean Foster’s books – female tricksters are out there too. Tricksters and Pranksters: Roguery in French and German Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by Alison Williams dedicates a full chapter to the female trickster and some books, like Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen, by Tamora Pierce are centered on a female version of the arch-type. They are out there.

Male or female, the main point to the trickster is fun, and therein lies the treat. It need not be trick or treat – you can have both.

So how about you treat yourself to some trickster today. Might I suggest The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, a fantasy anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, for starters?

Exploring Backstory

by Autumn M. Birt

There have been a few posts recently here on the Guild of Dreams discussing how an author can share backstory to a novel. Be in a prologue, weaving in the details, or an info dump (or not!), there are always important bits of a storyline that need to be shared to more the plot forward.

I think there is one more use for backstory that we haven’t covered: reader exploration.

I know when I’ve read a short story or novel that really hooked me, I’ve googled the author and book, spending time perusing what they write, hope to write, and any information about the world they’ve created. That is why an author spends all that time developing a website, for those readers who know that there is instant access to more online.

How this happened is backstory to my latest WIP!

There are famous authors doing this or fans are doing it for the author. Think about how much information is out there on the world of Harry Potter. Books mentioned as part of the curricula of Hogwarts are being written. That is filling in backstory!

With that in mind, though I never envision that level of devoted interest, I’ve begun spinning out some of the backstory to my current dystopian work-in-progress, Friends of my Enemy. You see, for dystopia, the backstory on why the world is in such a bad state is really important. But the problem with backstory is that prior events to the story have backstory. And that loop is where I found myself when I wrote Friends of my Enemy.

Rewrote, actually.

You see the two novels that make up the storyline are based on a novel I wrote (and never published) a few years back. I liked the idea, but it needed work. And it needed some explanation. So to really flesh out the world, I wrote short stories set before the novel begins. I ended up with eleven short stories and references to huge events that happened before the short stories. Hmmm…

Which left what to do with those events? Leave them as references as well, allowing the reader to fill in details? Write more short stories? I decided to blog them.

Some of my on-line backstory uses created news articles, which have been a lot of fun to make!

That the events happened is important to the story, but the details I’m putting into the blog posts are less so. Instead, it has become a fun way for me to share and flesh out the story line. If a reader wants more information, the as yet to be published novels will refer them to the blog and the book’s page with its timeline. Considering I’m writing about cataclysmic events taking place in our near future, I feel strange saying how much fun I’m having researching and writing about such things as the pandemic of 2039 and the drowning of Miami in 2042.

And as I move forward with a new epic fantasy trilogy, Games of Fire, I’m trying to keep an eye out for backstory that would make an interesting blog post. With fantasy, I’m much freer to discuss nuances of the world, such as why the cities of the archipelago have ancient warding stones on its borders, as well as to discuss murky history like the Forgotten Wars!

Blogging backstory has become a fun way for me to explore the world without having to worry about putting too much in the novels. I can world build, discuss nuances with readers, and explore a world I enjoy writing about. Who knows, it might lead to another story.

How do you as a reader feel about discovering more about a story through blog posts and online? If you are an author, do you blog about backstory?

- Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy trilogy the Rise of the Fifth Order. She has also been blackmailed by its characters into writing a new epic fantasy series, Games of Fire, set in the same world while trying to chaperone characters from a dystopian novel who run around with swords and guns. No one is playing nicely with each other! Learn more about her and the world of her books, where her mind has permanently relocated, at AutumnWriting.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads (supposedly).

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Novelist

by Bruce Blake

—–

A few things happened in the last couple of weeks that have had me thinking about what goes in to being a novelist. We may not like to admit it–writers tend to be a bit on the shy and reserved side–but it does take someone special to complete the journey that is the completion of an entire novel.

The author's wife engaging in blatant husband promotion.

The author’s wife engaging in blatant husband promotion. Photo by Jo-Ann Way of Nuttycake Photography.

The first thing to set me pondering the plight of the novelist was my wife. For those of you who don’t follow regularly (or didn’t click the link fourteen words ago), the love of my life is a performer: she sings and acts, she is a burlesque diva and producer of shows, and she is also a playwright.

As a performer, she thrives on the feedback she receives from her audience, both during and after the performance. Their energy feeds her and her energy feeds them in a symbiotic relationship the likes of which an author will likely rarely experience. The feedback to a live performer is instantaneous–for better or for worse. Claps, whistles, cheers, autograph requests, wedding proposals, and so on. As writers, we peck away on our computers for months or years, loathe to show the product to anyone save our editors and trusted beta readers until it’s done, then we release it into the world.

Once it’s out there, the best we can usually hope for is the occasional review to pop up on Amazon or Goodreads; quiet accolades that pale in comparison to the thunderous applause of a rapturous theatre audience. Sure, a few may have the pleasure of a public reading and the requisite book signing afterward, but reading a snippet of a larger work hardly equates to watching an entire concert or play.

I was also struck by the difference between writing a novel and crafting a play. The major difference is easy to spot: the length. I don’t know how many words are in my wife’s current play (Stories of Love and Passion), but it is far fewer than the 100,000+ that typically make up a novel. That is not to say that it is easier to write a play–far from it. I don`t think I could have done what my wife did, but fewer words typically take less time. The next step after the writing was complete was to work with a dramaturge–the theatrical equivalent of an editor…sort of–and a director..

The jobs of the dramaturge and director are not only to make sure the correct words are set out in the right order, but that they

I think this is what my editor looks like, but I can't be sure. The picture is from her site, but it could be a fake.

I think this is what my editor looks like, but I can’t be sure. The picture is from her site, but it could be a fake.

are spoken properly, inflected in the proper way, that things are in the right place. To accomplish this, my wife and her dramaturge/director had to actually speak to each other. They met both by Skype and in person and more occasions than I can count. In comparison, I’ve worked with the same editor for seven of my eight novels (the fabulous Ella Medler) and we have spoken exactly…zero times. Skype? Nope. Face-to-face? We’re not even on the same continent.

Lonely.

The other thing that happened was an introduction to a man who wants to be a writer and has begun five novels and completed none. If the rest of you are anything like me, this is not an isolated incident. Many people I have bumped into have started novels only to abandon them, typically around halfway through. Many more have simply identified the desire to write a book, never to even get the first word down. So what is it that keeps these would be literarians (is that a word? Did I just coin a new term a la Willie Shakespeare?) from completing their books?

Could it be the stark terror of being so completely alone?

Write on, brave authors. I’m with you in spirit.

—–

Bruce Blake has written and self-published 8 novels and is likely hung up on the subject of loneliness because his wife recently left for a five-week tour with her new one woman play. Turns out Mr. Blake isn’t quite the bachelor he once was.

—–

Motivation and the Writer, Part 5: Bouncing Back

Since May, I’ve been writing about Victor Vroom’s theory of motivation and how it applies to the writer set. In short, this theory is all about expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.

In my last post, I explained the death of a writer’s motivation as one that is often due to failed instrumentality; that is, when a book has been written and it fails to sell (the means do not lead to the expected end), motivation suffers.

If you need to catch up, go ahead. Read it all here.

Before we can move on to the last bit about motivation (valence, or value), we need to take a look at what happens when…well…nothing happens.

We’re capable of writing that great novel. We have the ideas, the time, the ability. We put our pens to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) and we write until we reach “The End.” Finally, after completing our novel, spending time editing it and having it edited, writing another draft or five, we’re at the point where we’ve decided to sell it. We are ready to strip naked our souls and let the world gawk at us.

The problem is, no one is gawking (the novel doesn’t sell).

There are several things we can do at this moment, and one of them involves the delete button. However, I think I would be correct in saying that this rejection of our work is something that all writers have in common. And what were we told about all those other writers who failed at first?

We’re supposed to “bounce back,” right? We’re supposed to try and try again.

Here then is a trait of personality that not all people have. It’s called resilience.

GumbyResilience is that deep quality that allows some people to be kicked around by a cruel life and yet still come back like Rocky or Gumby. Resilient people won’t let failure overwhelm them and suck dry the marrow of their motivation.

What are some of the factors that make a person resilient? How about a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback?

You see, even after the means to the end—the instrumentality of an effort—fails, resilient writers are blessed with an outlook that allows them to move forward in time and not focus on failure.

Simple to do, right? Well, what if you’re not a resilient person? What can you do?

The American Psychological Association (APA) has listed a few tips to help you build resilience.

  1. Make connections (that whole “social networking” thing existed before Twitter, you know)
  2. Help others (nothing feels better than that)
  3. Maintain a daily routine (write, edit, repeat)
  4. Take a break (just not for years…try it for a day or two and take a walk on the beach or in the forest)
  5. Learn self-care (really, if you don’t feel good, you won’t want to bounce back)
  6. Move toward your goals (did you set a goal in the first place?)
  7. Nurture a positive self-view (you are good at what you do; how many people have actually finished a novel?)
  8. Keep things in perspective and maintain a hopeful outlook (again, how many people have accomplished what you accomplished?)
  9. Look for opportunities for self-discovery (keep learning and learning about yourself)
  10. Accept that change is part of living (we know that, but there are many people who are resistance to change)

There is a lot of help out there to help you bounce back after failures.

The last bit of Vroom’s motivation theory has to do with valence—what do you value?

Until next time…stay strong.

The season of darkness approaches

IMG_0352By Scott Bury

It’s fall. My favourite season.

To some, fall is the season of decay, or winding down to winter. “It’s the time when everything dies,” someone once told me.

To me, it’s very different. The temperature falls, the nights lengthen. School years begin again, the harvest gets into high gear. Fall, to me, is the time to begin projects. It’s energizing.

Fall for the fantasy writer

As I’ve said before, I derive a great deal of inspiration for my writing from the natural world. I like to get out into the forest (not too far away from my house—one of the benefits of living in Ottawa), close my eyes and feel the forces of the earth.

And there’s a particular spirit to autumn. I’m not the first one to think so, not by a long stretch. The ancient Greek myth of Persephone is a personification of autumn and winter; Tolkein’s depiction of the final days of the elves in Middle-Earth is a metaphor for autumn, for a fading time.

Image courtesy DailyDot.com

George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is set in an extended autumn. “Winter is coming” is the catch-phrase of the northerners, and it’s a saying heavy with meaning: there are forces gathering that you have absolutely no ability to change, turn or affect in any way, so you had better make sure you have enough fuel and food stored to survive. Oh, yah, and fix that drafty window and put really heavy locks on your doors. Maybe sharpen those obsidian knives, too.

But there’s much more than that: the autumn equinox, which we just passed, is the time of year when light and dark are balanced. To the ancient Celts, it was a time of the year akin to dusk, when the veil between this world and the “other” is thinner, and passing through it is easier.

We can also think of it as a time of balance between the forces of light and dark, sky and earth, sun and moon.

This writer

What are some of the ideas that come to me in the fall? The transfer of energy, for one—from the solar (celestial) sphere, stored in the earthly (chthonic) in the form of fruit. The dark season is the time when the celestial forces are secondary to the chthonic.

The harvest season is the time to turn our attention away from abstract, ethereal concerns and to the real day-to-day concerns like storing food for the winter—making jam, pickles, preserves, cutting firewood, making sure the tools you need in winter are all working, and making sure that you have enough various supplies to survive a season when nothing grows and there will be days, or periods several days long, when you just won’t be able to leave your home.

I feel balanced on an edge in fall. I’m filled with energy, with a desire to move forward, to write those stories that have been rattling around in my brain. To complete Dark Clouds, chapters of which I’ve previewed on this blog; to write the sequel to The Bones of the Earth, which I’ve outlined.

There are so many things to do, so many stories to write, so much inspiration to be taken from the season. I’m getting to it right now—

Pic-ScottBuryScott Bury is a writer based in Ottawa, Canada. His fantasy works include The Bones of the Earth, Dark Clouds, What Made Me Love You? and Teri and the River.

Visit his

And follow him on Twitter @ScottTheWriter.

Backstory Without Prologue?

In AM Justice’s post about prologues, she gives us a few guidelines for the user of prologues, including the advice: “Don’t include if, unless the story won’t work without it.”

I’m not one to argue about prologues: I decided not to include them in my works but I’ve seen them done incredibly well.

If you decide, however, that a prologue won’t work in your novel but you feel like there is a story that can shed light on your story, world, or characters, consider a different approach.

Like my own works, Gunpowder Fantasy author Brian McClellan has used short stories as a way to build his characters’ backstory and origins. Without these, the people of his world are well-rounded and deep; with them, the people of the Powdermage universe take on personalities that wouldn’t have made sense to develop in the main novels.

So what are some tips for building characters and backstory through secondary works?

-Have a Story
Without a story, your secondary work will be pointless – you’d be better off conveying information through other means. Do the same groundwork as you would for your novels.

-Build Something
If you’re going to use short stories to worldbuild, you can go wherever you like. But if you’re using these extra works to build an identity of personality, obviously you want your characters to play some role.

-Be Consistent
Finally, be consistent. You don’t want to use your short stories to build a character if it doesn’t match up with the personality in your main works.

Cheesy Fantasy Movies, Part 2

Not long ago, I wrote a post about some pretty awful fantasy movies, and why we love them in spite of their ultimate cheesiness (or, quite possible, because of it).  In that first post I discussed Beastmaster, Willow and Legend.  Now I have three more movies to get off my chest.

Hawk the Slayer

Hawk the Slayer

There’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of this bizarre fantasy flick, but I’m often surprised by how many people have heard of it.  This movie has “the 80s” written all over it, from the flair of the opening credits to the overly synthesized music to the mist-filled cinematography…all that’s missing is Richard Simmons and a soundtrack by Phil Collins, and we’d be all set…

The evil Voltan (Jack Palance, breathing heavily and using his scowl to terrific effect) is the scourge of the land, and when he and his men kidnap the Abbess of a small convent the sisters turn to a band of heroes led by the man called Hawk (John Terry, years before he was Jack’s alcoholic father on Lost), who has cause to hate Voltan (they’re brothers, you see, and Voltan sort of…killed…Dad).  Armed with a cool-looking magical sword (the bottom of the hilt is a hand gripping a glowing orb) and aided by Gort (a “giant” with a hammer), Ranulf (a warrior who manages to get his ass kicked in almost every scene), Crow (an elf, not the wise-cracking robot), and Baldin (a “dwarf” with a whip), Hawk and the others battle Voltan to an excessively Quincy Jones-like soundtrack and (spoiler alert!) ultimately save the day.

Honestly, Hawk the Slayer is so utterly cheesy its hard not to like it.  The film is hokey from the very first frame, and like a lot of the rest of the movies on this list that’s truly where the charm lies.  John Terry is a capable actor, and his ability to keep a straight face in spite of all of the heavy-handed zaniness going on around him actually helps to keep the film grounded.  And what is there not to love about Jack Palance running around with half of his face hidden and acting menacing?

 

Conan the Destroyer

Conan the Destroyer

Conan the Barbarian is considered by many to be among the staples of the genre — a bare bones, well-plotted, efficient sword and sorcery adventure with plenty of blood, babes and mayhem.  It never overextends itself, and never tries to be something it’s not.

Conan the Destroyer…yeah, not so much.

The sequel eschews the linear model of its predecessor and goes for “bigger, badder, more” (the failing, honestly, of most sequels).  This time, legendary warrior Conan (Arnold Schwarzeneggar, The Guhvenator himself) is recruited by the secretly evil queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas, taking time off from kicking Superman’s butt) to help Princess Jehnna (Olivia D’Abo) recover a sacred jewel in exchange for Taramis returning Conan’s lost love from the grave.  Accompanied by far too many other characters — Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain, without a slam dunk in sight), the captain of Taramis’ guard; Akiro the wizard (Mako, reprising his role from the first film and chewing on the scenery); Malak (Tracey Walter), a bungling and thoroughly annoying thief; and Zula (Grace Jones), a warrior-dame who the producers really wanted to be in the movie — Conan secures the jewel from the tower of the evil wizard Thoth-Amon (Pat Roach) and returns only to learn that Taramis plans to use the treasure to revive the Dreaming God and wreak havoc upon the world.  Oops.

Conan the Destroyer can be enjoyed on a very visceral, corny level.  The action sequences are well done, and there’s plenty of excitement to be found, but as a sequel this film is pretty lacking.  The original, even for as simple and sometimes cheesy as it was, had a soul to the proceedings, a sense of gravitas and conviction in spite of ultimately being about a big warrior running around and smashing things with his sword.  Conan the Destroyer, sadly, is full-on cheese, and while that’s perfectly enjoyable in its own right, the film could have been much better.

Krull

Krull

This, probably my favorite of the “cheesy” fantasy movies, is a highly enjoyable epic fantasy adventure that just happens to really be more sci-fi than fantasy.  Alien invaders called the “Slayers”, minions of “The Beast”, descend in their flying fortress and launch a ruinous attack that slays both of the monarchs of the world of Krull.  When Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) — who prophecy foretells will have a child who will one day rule the galaxy — is kidnapped by the Slayers, it falls to her betrothed, Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and an old sage named Ynyr (Freddie Jones) to rescue her.  Aided by a cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw), a bungling magician (David Battley), and a band of escaped convicts (including Alun Armstrong, Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson), Colwyn must find the elusive Black Fortress, lair of The Beast, which changes its location with each new dawn.

The only thing cheesy about Krull is the inherent sense of corniness present in most 80s fantasy flicks, because, all things considered, this is a pretty good movie.  The characters are a bit thin, yes, and The Beast’s efforts to woo Lyssa (who really does little more than run around the Black Fortress and look distraught) grows tiresome, but the battle scenes are well choreographed, the Slayers are sufficiently frightening opponents, and the special effects are, for the most part, pretty decent for a moderately budgeted film (though the scenes involving the Widow of the Web’s lair are, admittedly, pretty awful).  The soundtrack is even good (though it came at that stage in James Horner’s career where he was basically writing the same theme over and over again…if you get the main titles for Krull, Star Trek II and Willow confused, don’t feel bad, because they’re essentially the same).

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That’s it for my list.  What are some of your favorite fantasy cheese fests?

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Steven Montano watches too many movies, and there’s no question they’ve rotted his brain.  He also writes fantasy novels and likes to get lost in the woods.  Find out more at his website.

In the Beginning, There Was the Prologue

A few months ago I wrote about folding backstory into a narrative to give your readers the vital information they need without hitting them over the head with a history lesson. In that post, I quoted this received wisdom:

Don’t use prologues.

That advice comes from agents and traditional publishers who believe, based on the contents of their slushpiles, that “prologue” means “deadly boring waste of my time.”

MedeaThe actual definition of prologue is a separate introductory section of a literary work. Etymologically, the word comes from the ancient Greek prologos, which described the preamble to a play that established the setting and provided background information to enhance the audience’s understanding and appreciation of the drama. The Greeks may have given the prologue its name, but I’d lay odds they didn’t invent the literary device. Knowing human beings, I imagine we’ve been prefacing our stories since people could speak.

Another argument against the prologue is that readers don’t read them. I’ve heard this from several people, who say they flip past any text labeled “prologue” until they find “chapter one.”

Wwalker

White Walker in television’s Game of Thrones

Say what? I can’t imaging skipping any part of a novel, least of all the prologue. It is part of the creative work and must be read as such. If a prologue is a boring waste of time, that’s the author’s fault, not a problem with the literary device. When done well, a prologue provides not only essential information to understand the plot, but also catapults the reader into the story. Think of the prologue to Game of Thrones, where G.R.R. Martin introduces the White Walkers. We don’t see a Walker again for several books, but the deadly encounter in the prologue lurks at the back of your mind, reminding you that all the squabbling over the Iron Throne is just a warm-up for the clash between ice and fire yet to come.

So what can we, as authors, do to encourage readers to stop skipping our prologues? For me, the answer isn’t “don’t write them.” Instead, I want to rehabilitate the prologue’s reputation. With that in mind, I offer this list of do’s and don’ts for prologues.

  1. Hook the reader. The first line of the prologue is the first line of your book, so don’t waste it. Also, don’t write a great first sentence and then ruin it with a backstory data dump—a bored reader will snap shut your cover (or snap off your preview screen) and move on. As an example, let’s suppose I’m writing a fantasy inspired by World War I. I could fill my prologue with dry geopolitical details about the history of my world, or I could portray the fuse-lighting event:

Cover-snapper: In the year 3642, the Western Alliance declared war on the Eastern Axis. The conflict began a month after the assassination of Queen Eleanor of the Hinterlands by Otto Smithson, an embittered serf who resented the quartering of the Queen’s troops in his village.

Hook: Otto’s gaze traveled past the rifle sights, down the length of cold steel, and through the sultry summer air to a patch of skin between the queen’s hairline and her eyebrows. Exhaling relief, he squeezed the trigger.

  1. WoT01_TheEyeOfTheWorldKeep it simple. Don’t ask your reader to learn the names of a lot of strangers who disappear in a few pages. The prologue of The Eye of the World, the first novel in Robert Jordan’s 14-volume, cast-of-thousands epic, includes just two characters and one major event. In contrast, a pre-publication draft of my novel Blade of Amber began with a prologue in which a young Queen Elekia lights the fuse for explosions that will occur decades later, during the timeframe of Blade and its sequel A Wizard’s Lot. Yet while Elekia’s actions are central to the novel, the circumstances surrounding them were complex. In that failed beginning, Elekia interacted with half a dozen different characters about matters which themselves required a lot of explanation and backstory. Early readers got overwhelmed and lost,BladeofAmber_final_sized for SW and many never made it past that opening. Blade’s prologue now features a simple story about two children playing with a piece of technology that plays a central role in the story: the Device. The Device works like the transporters on Star Trek, allowing individuals to travel instantly from place to place. By accidentally setting it off, the children allow Vic, the protagonist, to escape from bondage, which is the first major turning point in Blade. Meanwhile, Elekia’s backstory appears much later in the novel, when the reader knows all the players, such that her history is illuminating rather than confusing.
  1. Don’t include it, unless the story won’t work without it. A prologue should be as vital to your novel as a handle to a teapot or a foundation to a house. While a prologue is a stage-setting device and not part of the main story, good prologues always portray action that has major implications for the plot. Don’t waste your readers time with dry history, but do show your reader the seminal event that will bear the fruit of your plot.

TombsIn another case, your opening narrative may be as vital as that teapot handle, but it doesn’t meet the definition of a prologue: a separate introduction. Prologues usually involve characters who play a only peripheral role in the story or events that occurred years, decades, or centuries before the novel’s timeframe. Therefore, if your prologue features your protagonist, just title it “Chapter One.” Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan begins with a prologue that initially features the mother of Tenar, the central character. The preamble then glosses over Tenar’s early life as a child priestess before the book settles more firmly into Tenar’s point of view in chapter one. LeGuin is my literary idol—the author whom I most admire—so I hate to question why she labeled this opening “Prologue” instead of “Chapter One,” since it’s mainly about Tenar. I suppose the change in point of view from third person omniscient to third person limited might justify setting apart the opening as a prologue, but the separation seems unnecessary to me. On the other hand, LeGuin would probably argue that Tombs is about Tenar’s rediscovery of her self—her identity—and her consequent liberation from an oppressive regime, so the story of her early life as a sequestered priestess isn’t part of the main action of the novel, its purpose is to set the stage. Well…much as I hate to argue with a literary master, Ms. LeGuin and I will have to disagree on this one.

 

AM Justice

AM Justice

A.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. When she’s not critiquing the work of literary giants, she divides her time between her writing fantasy and historical fiction and writing for the healthcare industry. For updates on her work, she invites you to follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page, or visit her website www.knownearthworks.com.