The font of knowledge: a rarely examined trope

By Scott Bury

Last week, Autumn Birt discussed villains and raised some interesting points about whether villains are truly evil, or just have different goals from the heroes.

It would be fascinating to continue this examination of heroes and villains, good and evil, absolutism and relativism. But today, I want to discuss another common trope in all literature, including fantasy, that doesn’t get much attention from critics but plays an indispensible part of almost every story: the source of arcane knowledge.

Keeping any story moving sometimes requires the protagonist to acquire knowledge of remote events, characters or items.

Statue of Perseus by  Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with Medusa’s head

Perseus, for example, had to search for the Grey Sisters or Witches, three sisters who shared a single eye and tooth. Only they could tell him where he would find the Hesperides, who would give him what he needed to slay Medusa the Gorgon.

How the Grey Sisters knew that information is never revealed, and in fact is not important to the story of Perseus. It’s just important that Perseus learns this so he can behead the Gorgon and from there kill King Polydectes and protect his mother.

Gandalf is the source of arcane knowledge in The Hobbit. He gives Thorin Oakenshield the map that shows the location of the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain, and also explains the fate of Thorin’s father, Thrain. Gandalf is also the source for uncounted old tales and background facts.

In Bruce Blake’s Icarus Fell series, the archangel Gabriel mysteriously appears just to give the protagonist, Icarus, little scrolls with the names of the souls he has to transport to heaven, as well as the location to bring them for the journey. How she gets this information, and how souls are chosen for salvation, is never really explained—and anyway, who are we to question archangels?

This structure shows up not only in fantasy, but in other genres as well. In the TV series Criminal Minds, for example, Penelope Garcia is

Penelope Garcia

Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, played by Kirsten Vangsness

a continual source of critical background information that she unearths from any database in the world. The show hints that she has unmatched computer hacking abilities as well as software and skills that allow her to cross-reference all sorts of things in seconds.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the mysterious hacker Wasp provides clues and facts for the protagonists. And at various points, Lisbet becomes both the protagonist and the font of knowledge.

I don’t know how many Hollywood movies feature a character popping up at a crucial point to impart a little factoid that the hero needs. How they get the information is never explained, and when you think about it, you realize how improbable it is that someone would find this information so easily.

But working that out would take a lot of time, and slow down the story. Good storytellers know when to skim over details that would only distract the audience from the important part, anyway.

The point is, the font of knowledge is an important role in any story—as important as a hero and a villain, because without him or her, the story just cannot happen.

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The Modern Writer: Pace

Continuing with the theme of the Modern Writer, today I wanted to touch on Pace.

With the advent of all of the modern technology that I’ve talked about in previous posts, and the explosion of self-publishing websites and services, the pace of writing has increased by a massive factor. But how fast is too fast, and how slow is too slow?

I know that every writer is different and that stories will come out when they come out, but at some point there’s the risk of losing readers if you’re too slow, or risking a non-quality product if you rush them out too fast.

For some authors, there isn’t really a pace that needs to be maintained. Whenever a new Honor Harrington novel comes out from David Weber, I’ll go buy it; millions are waiting for the next George RR Martin A Song of Ice and Fire novel (though we may be waiting a while yet on that one if history is any indicator). These authors have gathered such a reputation for their work that it doesn’t matter how long it takes for the next book: people will buy it in droves.

But on the flip side there are authors whose books I enjoyed and would have gladly continued reading, but they took too long to release the next one. I got distracted and never returned to the series.

Personally, I’ve been shooting for 1 book per year and I feel that if you aren’t a pop sensation or an author with a rock solid fan base, this might be a good pace to maintain. I’ve been a bit behind because of a variety of factors over the last 12 months, but I’m getting back on track. But what do you think? Is there a pace that you think that there is a pace that the average reader will accept? If you’re an author, what is your writing goal?

The Modern Writer: Writing on the Go

There was a time, I’m told, when writing required that the author be firmly planted in front of a typewriter, slamming away at keys, hoping to not make a typo because there was no easy way to correct them.

Then came the computer and with it the word processor, allowing authors to easily correct their typos and rewrite sections of their work as they saw fit. But they still had to sit at their desk and stare at their screen.

Those days, however, are long gone. With the development of laptops, tablets, and Smartphones, the Modern Writer has an incredibly diverse set of highly mobile tools that allow him or her to range free. From the couch, to the porch, to the coffee shop, the Modern Writer is not tethered to a physical location anymore.

But with this massive freedom of movement comes some new problems that require solutions.

When you had to sit down in front of a typewriter in some secluded part of your home or office, you could easily close yourself off from the rest of the world.

Writing in the living room, I can tell you from experience, is a trial of patience and self control. Between a rambunctious 3 year old, a 15 year old needing help with homework, and a spouse who somehow has “Josh sat down to write, ask him to do something” radar, I struggle with keeping in task. And that’s not even starting in on the topic of distractions on the computer itself.

Writing at a coffee shop would, I can imagine, be marginally easier but there you have the hustle and bustle of a business to contend with and if you’re not a regular, perhaps the glare of a barista who thinks you’re drinking too little to be staying so long.

Mobility doesn’t just affect the actual writing process, though. It affects everything before that. My smartphone has become a research assistant and tool, helping me look up topics and gather information.

The biggest task that my smartphone has made easy is writing down ideas and developing the seeds of a story before I need to sit down and write the skeleton of the story. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve found this to be a valuable method to keep story ideas moving and get them out of my head (so new ones can land and take up space).

But much like the world of constant connectivity and the loss of “space” between author and audience, the ability to work on something at any time can bring a weight of its own to an author’s life. There have been times where just the ability to write down an idea or tweak a concept has distracted me from my task at hand.

So what do you think about the increased mobility of our modern world? Do you think that the ability to write anywhere, at any time, has improved your writing process or introduced unnecessary distractions into it?

Getting to the Point

by Autumn M. Birt

I’ve been working hard on the final book to my epic fantasy series, the Rise of the Fifth Order. Things have been flowing good, but a few weeks back I was typing away and hit a wall.

It wasn’t writer’s block.

I’d just started a new chapter and it wasn’t flowing. I picked and prodded, typing notes to myself more than really writing. What I ended up typing after a few minutes was this:

Writing with purpose

That really summed up my feelings at that moment. I had no idea why that chapter was supposed to be there. I knew it HAD to be there for a variety of reasons: pacing, character development, so forth. But what it added to the entire arc of the story… I had no concept.

That is why I said it was’t writer’s block. I’ve dealt with that before and have learned quite a few tricks. Usually, if I start describing what the character is seeing, the weather, or make the characters talk to each other. Everything gets going again. I can delete the bits I don’t need later, no problem. Usually it isn’t too many wasted electrons.

But when it comes to a whole chapter that I truly feel needs to be there but can’t fathom how it progresses the actual story one iota… well, then I get stumped.

The advice to ‘just write!’ is great, but isn’t entirely realistic. Like so many other indie authors, writing for me isn’t a full time gig. I have a full time job, a husband, family, a house (which we finally moved into btw). On an average week, I can cobble together eight hours of writing time. That is in bits and pieces, usually at least half an hour, but sometimes less. I actually get a little gun shy when I find over an hour and a half of solid time that is empty of commitments and I am free to write. It gives me a nagging feeling that I’m forgetting to do something (like cook dinner). Hmmm….

Sure, if you look at the basic numbers with eight hours of writing time in a week and an average productive typing speed of 60 wpm, I could write a 90,000 word novel in Pi… errr, just over 3 weeks (I love math!). But if most of that ‘novel’ has no plot or direction and I have to delete a third of it… well, I haven’t really written a novel,  have I?

Now THIS is writing with a purpose!

Now THIS is writing with a purpose!

There is more to a story than typing speed and words on paper.

To actually produce enough words written in an order that tells a concrete tale within a year, I need to have a strategy to use my time efficiently. That is why I’m (1) a plotter and write when I have a solid storyline already in mind, (2) write notes to myself within the novel on the set up of future chapters and events, (3) work a lot on character development before I write, and (4) don’t waste my time writing things that I just KNOW I’ll delete (I apparently also make lists. This is new…). I don’t have the time to wander aimlessly in a word forest. I’d rather do dishes or spend time with my husband then stare at a little blinky cursor. When it all makes sense, then and only then, will I sit down to write.

It can be a tough balancing act. There are times I’m wondering if I’m procrastinating. Am I stuck? Maybe I should I try to write – at least flesh out the notes on what I think should happen to see if that clears things up? I love writing enough that I can never stay away for too long. Even the chapter I’m using as an example resolved itself with an ‘aha!’ after a day of pondering. I finally found something to include that was important to the overall plot and story. It added something rather than just existing. Whereupon at that point I abandoned my family, my chores, and dinner to sit down and write (I had to make up for some lost time)!

What about you? Do you find ways to make your writing time more efficient?

– Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy series on elemental magic, the Rise of the Fifth Order. She also has lots of other WIP (read TOO MANY), but she has put them ruthlessly aside to concentrate on Spirit of Life, the final book in her current series. It is going well! You can find her occasionally online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page or on Goodreads. But after writing this and realizing that she can write a book in a month, theoretically, well, you might NOT find her online!

Spring: Bring it on!

The sap is running here in Maine. Every maple tree has at least one tap and bucket hung from it. Chickadees raucously greet the overcast dawn. I know one of these evenings I’ll hear spring peepers down by the stream.

This time of year as the snow melts and the roads clear, I itch to get out my motorcycle.

I’ve found myself spreading out maps and looking for new roads to traverse, especially as the rumors of U.S. government furloughs growing (my current day gig is with them). I wonder if they’ll “give” me enough time off I can make it to Vancouver? Bruce promised me a cookie.

What does any of this have to do with writing? For me, a lot.

One of my favorite motorcycling pictures: me framed in my husbands mirror along the Gaspe cliffs.

One of my favorite motorcycling pictures: me framed in my husband’s mirror along the Gaspe cliffs.

There is something about the awakening of life that stirs more than my wanderlust. My entire psyche alters. Gone is the desire to daydream through winter snows. You see there is no space for inattentiveness or indecision on a motorcycle. Daydreaming = death, it really is that simple. Gearing up is about more than putting on a helmet. Heck, you want a lesson in zen mindfullness? It’s called rush hour on two wheels!

With my mind changing and thoughts snapping into focus, my writing alters too. In the winter, daydreams of fantasy adventures blanket my mind like the snow. Summer, not so much. I want action, blood, death, bullets cracking and romance so tense it will light a page on fire. Not very ladylike, I know. I did mention I ride a motorcycle, didn’t I? And it is even a dirt bike. 😉

So, the final book in my epic fantasy trilogy, Spirit of Life, may have to wait until fall. Don’t get me wrong, I love the characters and the story, but I don’t know if I will do the plot justice right now. Or it might just take a very apocalyptic turn, hmmm . . . .  Not to mention with hiking, motorcycling, camping, gardening (death to all weeds!), that house building thing I thought was such a great idea last year all going on, my time devoted to writing, already too small, plummets.

Instead of seeing that as an obstacle, I’m trying to use it to my advantage. The book I hope to work on after Spirit of Life is not epic fantasy. Think ravaged society after a future war nearly annihilates the world set in what remains of Europe. So with short writing periods, intense focus, and a new type of story on my mind, I’m thinking I might switch over to some short stories. I could develop the new novel a bit more while getting to know the characters. Plus, it would get all those destructive needs out of my system.

If some ideas for Spirit of Life happens to find inspiration, I certainly will encourage it. I really look forward to spending another 90,000 words or so with them. And after all, even summer has its rainy days fit for hazy dreams.

-Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy novel Born of Water and its Novel Companion and most recently the compilation of adventure travel stories Danger Peligros! All are available at Amazon, Smashwords, and other retailers of e-novels.

World Building Leftovers

As a teenage fantasy reader, I was quick to note and admire authors who put in a lot of effort to build out the world they were writing about. Especially the ones that didn’t tackle sharing the information with the reader via an information dump! I like discovering a world through the sights and sounds of a character, through their sifting of memories to connections, through the chance phrase that a savvy reader can pick up on. There is a certain feel to a story set in a world that has been well thought out, a sense of continued time and the linking of places. I quickly became addicted to a well crafted story. Some people are happy with a strong plot: I like to be transported.

So of course, when I started writing I paid a lot of attention to world building. When writing Born of Water, I drew maps to help me wrap my mind around the world and then I jumped in to describing a place. But descriptions are boring, even for writers! What I found the most interesting was to learn about the myths of the places and people. That is how I discovered this legend of the Ashanti:

“The greatest legend of the Ashanti is that they, the first children of Myrrah, once nearly had conquered the world. This was a time beyond memory or record, during the earliest days. To thwart their plans to rule as demigods, it took Mhyrah herself to stop them. She remade her first children along with their mounts: dragons of this early land. The recreated Ashanti were given short lives, so that they would not again raise an army for battles. Instead, they would be involved with struggles within their kind for power and the survival of their culture. The Earth Elemental, who wrote this tale, said the Ashanti who had related it to her was only twenty-two yet was old and infirm as a man of grandfatherly years.
During this war before all other battles, some of the Ashanti had stood against their brothers. These Myrrah gifted with the very abilities the Ashanti had sought. These few, who had fought the insanity of their brothers, were given eternal life and the same power over elements that Mhyrah had, but with once exception. She gave them supreme control over only one element, but not all, by making them spirit beings of that element. They became the fire sylphs, water nymphs, air spirits, and earth beings that the Elementals call upon today to do their bidding.”

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I am also an ecologist by not only trade, but mindset as well. I love to see how interactions happen and the uniqueness that results from the combination of myriads of small details. It was easy for me to fall in love with the forest ecology of the Tiak:

“The headlands along the Fjords are often misty and subject to frequent, gentle rains. The Yisha trees, only found along this southern section of the Alin mountains, grow thick in these damp conditions. But, the pines need fire to regenerate. Only intense heat will crack the thick covering over the seeds.
There is a small click beetle that feasts on the wood of the Yisha tree. In the evening and during afternoon rains, the click of their wings can be heard throughout the forest. Over time as the click beetle infests sections of the forest, the trees begin to take up minerals through their roots: mica, iron, zinc, and calcium. The beetles eat this wood and ingest the minerals, forming harder and harder shells as they decimate the forest.
Every decade or so, dry winds sweep up from the Great Desert of Ak’Ashanti, which lies to the south. The winds cross the Bay of Tiak and push away the gentle rains. The land dries and withers. In the places plagued by beetles, the hardened shells take on a new purpose. When hard and dry enough, the beetles click and create a spark. The forest catches fire.
Smoke from the great fires rises on the hot winds, climbing high over the mountains. The ash mixes with the melting snow of the mountain glaciers, evaporating in the heat of fire and desert winds. Clouds form and the rains come again. The fires burn out the home of the beetles, reducing their population. And it allows the seeds opened from the heat to sprout, so that new trees will grow on the burnt slopes. The cycle begins again.”

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In the end, I went further than my characters may travel in the novel. I learned – or created as you choose – so much about this world. I can hear, smell, see, taste, and feel it. I think it really does make the novel richer, to know so much about a world and its many different cultures. I ended up with pages of notes that never made it into the first novel. So what do you do with sheets of world building leftovers?

You can’t reheat them for dinner on Sunday night.

It was my husband who thought of the perfect suggestion: Why not take it all and put it into a novel companion? I might not be the only one who finds strange details fascinating or well end up enjoying Born of Water more by knowing extra bits. It took some time to compile and I added more extras as well, such as “Day Before” stories on each of the main characters. The most fun though, was deciding to write the Companion as a series of research papers from members of the Church of Four Orders. It allowed me to promote the view of the Church. This twist, focusing on one viewpoint, has become one of my most favorite aspects of being a writer: characters may believe something completely, but just remember you shouldn’t believe everything you hear. Really, would you trust a stranger off the street completely?

The Born of Water Novel Companion is out now. It is even FREE at any of the links listed below. However, it’ll set you back 99 cents at Amazon. Of course, if you feel like telling Amazon that it is free elsewhere, maybe that will change!

Smashwords

Barnes and Nobles

iBookstore

Also available through ebook apps if the above doesn’t fit your reader. Search for Born of Water Novel Companion!

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Autumn

A Page a Day, a Chapter a Week

 

You might wonder how long it takes to write a novel. Every writer would give you a different answer. It depends on so many things: time, interest, how long of a book is being written.

In fact, the answer can really be different for each book.

The sprawling mess of the rewrite to Born of Water. This is yet to come with the novel I wrote in a month. Soon . . . just after I finish Rule of Fire!

I hand wrote an 80,000 word novel in less than a month. It had been after a long period when I hadn’t read anything, hadn’t drawn anything, and had kept myself really from dreaming anything beyond the reality in front of me. When I opened my mind to it (caved in really), that story just poured out of me. I have more vivid memories of what I was writing during that month than anything I lived at the time.

The fact that THAT story hasn’t been published yet is more a matter of the fact that I was learning the ropes than any statement on the plot. I have plans to rewrite it to clean up the points of view and increase the pace. Otherwise, after the normal rounds of editing of course, it would have been a perfectly publishable story.

A novel in a month was pretty extreme for me (but it felt good!).

The other end of the spectrum was the first novel I wrote. It was a trilogy (yes, I often tend to bite off more than I can chew!). It took 9 years. And that was typing the whole thing!

True, I did go back to college, switch to a Master’s degree, graduated, got married, got a good job, lost the original manuscript, started over from scratch, and wrote all three very long books during that time. It was a busy 9 years.

Unfortunately, the story that took 9 years to write will most likely never see the light of day. It was a first attempt and contains too many mistakes and I’m really just not in love with it. Nine years is a long time to spend with a story!

 

 

The secret to writing a novel? No moment should ever be wasted! Me outside a laundromat . . . writing.

So, how long should it take to write a novel? Now that I have a technique worked out, I think 3 to 6 months is reasonable – 8 months not unrealistic. At a minimum when I get into writing mode, I try to write at least a page a day and a chapter a week. That is honestly a small goal, but keeps me writing during the early phase of the novel when you set up many of the subplots that will start to tie off later. Once I get going, I can usually manage 2 to 3 chapters a week (an average of 6 pages a chapter).

Rule of Fire is slated to have around 30 chapters. Born of Water has 42! If you multiply that out by minimums, that means it will take me 30 weeks or seven and a half MONTHS to write the sequel. And that is before editing! Of course, once I hit my stride (and focus!), I think it will end up being closer to 4 months to write Rule of Fire (and I have already started, but that house building thing has messed up even my meager schedule!).

Why tell you all of this?

I do get questions about how long it takes to write a novel and how I find time (I don’t watch regular TV – just Netflix on occasion, I give up sleep when I need to, I have been tempted to feed my husband cereal for dinner so I can go back to writing . . . !). And after Tami’s post on What Reader’s Want, I think it is good to consider how much energy, thought, passion, and LIFE went into that novel you just read. Please, give feedback if you liked – or didn’t! – an author’s work. It is really so amazing to hear from a reader. If we never hear back, the next time the alarm goes off at 5 am, your favorite author may just roll back over. No new releases, no sequels . . . now THAT is a horror story!

– Autumn

 

The Plot Thickens

Evin turned his collar up against the misting evening rain as he left the dark hulk of the stone hall. Across the common, beaten in recent weeks by military drills, he could see two guards huddled near the faint warmth emitted from a recessed torch. He knew their eyes would trace his every step across the open expanse shrouded in its rain soaked early dark. Evin ignored them.

He kept his pace unhurried and his face downcast, losing the distinctive scar on his chin to the shadows of his coat. By the time he was half-way to the outer wall, his hands were trembling. Blood pulsed in his neck with enough force he thought it would choke him.

A turn around the stable toward the western gate blocked the view of the guardsman. Evin took three more steps before breaking out into a run. He hit the locked oak door set deep in the wall at full speed. The old hinges rattled but didn’t budge. Above his pulse, he heard a shout from behind him. Evin threw himself against the door once more, hoping this time the old cross piece would cave in. The sound of footfalls hurrying across the damp ground behind him was faintly audible over the cracking of wood. Evin put his shoulder into caving wood, pressing forward with his full body. And then . . .

I don’t know. That is why I’ve become a plotter instead of a pantser.

When I first started writing novels and short stories, I was a pantser. I was also constantly having to stop to figure out what happened next. This is part of the reason why I think my first novel, Ancient Fragments, took so long to write as I mentioned in my last post. I work 40+ hours a week and have too many activities going on outside the office. I’ve found there is nothing more discouraging for me to have run out of ideas on what happens next. The curser sits before an ocean of emptiness while I watch it.

bleep . . . bleep . . . bleep . . . .

This is not only bad for my psyche, but I also find myself turning off the computer to disappear outside and go hiking! Even with Born of Water, I started off writing it in pantser mode, heading off into the unknown with Niri, Ria, Lavinia and Ty. We all promptly got lost, bored, and stalled. Not an epic start!

This is my fuel for creative writing!

I knew with Born of Water that the four not-quite friends would end up going north when they wanted to go south, but I didn’t know what would send them there. It was when I sat down, knowing I had the makings of a good story but no idea what to do with it, and started figuring out what was going to happen that I became a plotter. I wrote an outline of events, loose enough to allow lots of fun writing but detailed enough to give me a direction. It is a method, honed slightly since then, that I still use.

It really helps me write if I know where I’m heading with my plot. I am excited and that comes through in my writing. When I sit down in front of my computer, I can pick up immediately where I left off with plenty of energy focused in moving forward – not wasted on figuring out what happens next. And seeing the pages adding up helps my motivation as well!

I’ve also found that when I’m put on the spot getting to know my character and wandering about with an open ended plot while trying to write a novel, I tend to remain in familiar fantasy territory. This is true with characters, settings, and themes. Even with the story started about, I slipped back into another theme and time started in my short story “All is Lantern Light” (well it is related to the full plot of which “All is Lantern Light” is just a piece!). It is only when I take the time to write down an outline of where the story is heading that I can question where a character is from and why they act a certain way. I find the time to build originality and separate out what needs to be pushed further. Not to mention being able to hint at and tie up sub-plots. Being a plotter makes me a more original writer. Who’d have thought an outline would have that result?

The thing is though, I am still a pantser in first developing a story. Ideas sprout in my mind and I let them grow untended, moving along with them as they develop. If I think an idea has some potential, I hit rewind and run through it again. Then again. Then I play with a few additions or variations. Eventually when I feel pretty excited about the whole theme, I write down a framework including action sequences, lines I don’t want to forget, and potential points of view. Then I take the time to flesh out info on characters and places. I have several potential novels in this state with the notes serving as a personal short hand to the daydream version in my mind.

So after having time to ponder it, what about Evin? Geee . . . I don’t think he is going to make it out without help . . . . That gets me thinking! 🙂

Autumn