Category Archives: Entertainment

The Evolution of Fantasy

Fantasy as a genre has its origins in the myths and legends of ancient times.  These myths are often seen as primitive man’s attempts to explain the unexplainable.  Yet in modern times, we have explainations for almost everything… so why the interest in such things?  Personally, I think it is some attempt by us to recreate some of the mystery.  Some people turn to tabloids and conspiracy theories to spin wild tales… and the more mentally stable of us look to spin wild stories in other worlds.  But… I digress.  For this entry, I’ll go into a brief history of the genre of fantasy, talk a bit about some of the current trends of Epic Fantasy I’ve seen as a reader and a writer, and then write a bit about where I see the genre is headed.  I’ll also recommend some authors whose works I think are worthy of checking out.

The first ‘real’ fantasy authors included Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs who pioneered the field.  Tolkien and Robert E Howard’s many stories broadened it and yet opened it out into two very different areas.   Tolkien’s works gained more wide-stream attention, for a number of reasons, but Robert Howard’s various works still maintain a substantial following.  Other authors like C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander also had their parts.  These earlier authors often featured themes of good versus evil and heroes whose journeys and quests caused profound changes upon their worlds.  The overall themes and concepts tended to be heroes doing good things (or in the case of Conan, living by a barbarian code) as well as the tendency to reject technology and industrialism.  This was the general theme for the more popular and lasting epic and high fantasy for a while.  This changed somewhat with authors like Terry Brooks and David Eddings, who wrote less idealized stories, and more morally ambiguous characters.  Terry Goodkind, George RR Martin, Harry Turtledove and Robert Jordan led the way in the 1990’s with a host of epic fantasy series.  Fantasy became mainstream almost overnight, and the current round of epic fantasy began.  These authors virtually cast the mold for the ‘ideal’ Epic Fantasy series, with overnight blockbusters that continue to sell twenty plus years later.

That leads us into the current setting for Epic Fantasy, with my topic being about the current trends.  The changes brought on by the surge in readership in the 1990’s is still seen.  Authors like George RR Martin continue to sell books in the millions, have TV shows or movies, and have a massive fan base.  Their writing often includes morally ambiguous characters, convoluted plots, and severe, often drastic consequences for the characters as a consequence of their actions.  The pioneers of these types of books are often extremely proficient at both storytelling and manipulation of the reader’s emotions.  A disturbing trend, as I see it, is flood of books and authors who are not up to those standards.  The Epic Fantasy surge has led to dozens of series that come across as formulaic or rote.  There are a wide variety that follows the Campbellian Monomyth to the letter.  They have the main character on the Hero’s Journey.  They have the love interest.  They have the morally ambiguous companion/guide.  They have the mentor.  These stories check off all of the boxes, but they lack the passion and creativity of their predecessors.  Some authors have tried to replace that passion with grittiness or realism.  They often use anti-heroes or simply use lesser villains as the heroes (which can work, if done well) who turn the theme still darker and more ponderous.  In the rush to make money, fantasy has become exactly what we seek to avoid in real life: boring.  Other writers have sought to do something new or bold by changing the rules: fantasy worlds without magic or magic systems that work in some new or innovative way.  Yet I think in the roots, Fantasy started as escapism, a rejection of the world, if only for a short time, and a means to explore the imagination.  The trend of books that I’ve seen are book after book churned out by the big publishing houses, each looking for that next Robert Jordan or George RR Martin.  To me, at least as a reader, that gets old.  Fantasy, by its nature, is something that thrives on new and interesting, which is one reason we’ve seen the shift to urban fantasy around the turn of the century and more recently the expansion of steampunk.  Epic Fantasy has become too dark and too boring to be the inspiration to imagination it once was.

So what do I see in the future of epic fantasy?  As a genre, I think it hasn’t changed enough in recent times.  I think that new authors and new ideas will soon force it to change.   Evolution is a natural thing and something that will help that evolution along is the self-publishing market.  The variety of books that have become available means that new ideas and new blood is bound to shake things up.  Traditional publishing has stuck to what worked (which makes sense, they’re in the business of making money), but individuals, if they want to stand out, can’t afford to do that.  As a whole, I think we’ll see a lot of new ideas and concepts and hopefully some big changes overall in the market.

As a reference, here’s some authors and their books, both old and new, that are worth looking into for Epic Fantasy:

Robert Howard’s Conan series

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

David Eddings’ Belgariad

Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara

Ryk Spoor’s Phoenix Rising

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time

Lloyd Alexander’s Prydan series

David Weber’s Oath of Swords

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Building Strong Characters

One of my goals for writing characters is to develop them to the point that they feel real to the reader. Story can be interesting, but strong characters are what the reader ends up caring about. An excellent character will keep a reader coming back, again and again… and the victories and defeats of those characters are what bring out the most emotion in the reader. Flat characters are a crime that few authors can redeem themselves from. Flat characters are boring, trite, and often cliché. So how does one develop strong characters?

Strong characters feel like real people, sometimes more real that people we might interact with or deal with on a daily basis (trust me, I’ve had roommates with less personality than Master Harper Robinton from Anne McCaffery’s Pern series or Polgara from David Eddings’ Belgariad). What exactly does feeling real entail, though? I define it by several areas. First off, they typically have some defining character traits. Second, strong characters have a history, a place where they come from. Third, they have a morality (or lack thereof) that is coherent and based upon their origins. Fourth, strong characters experience joy, anger, love, and heartache just like real people. Last and most important strong characters make decisions based off of their emotions, experiences, and morality.

Character traits are often what define a character to the reader at first glance. These are often the most memorable things about them, and are often the things that pop into mind. Han Solo was a cocky and self centered rogue (he shot first!). Doc, from ‘Back to the Future’, was absent minded and excitable. Character traits are often established early on, typically in the first time the reader meets the character. It helps to make these traits memorable, as a writer, because this makes the character stand out in their mind more. Traits, however, are just a starting point. They create a character that has some resonance to them, but if that isn’t followed through, the character will seem hollow. A hollow character might be better than a flat one, but it robs the reader of the pay off of emotions as the character fails to grow over time and their experiences.

History and past play a huge role in our lives as people. It should be no less important for characters. As a writer, often I develop characters based off of the setting and their place in it. From the society and their place in it, I can develop what things they will find important, what their areas of expertise and knowledge might be. A character raised in the slums of a dystopian future might well view morality through a different lens than your typical 21st Century American. Beyond there, I typically dive into family (or lack thereof), which is often more important than society, and indeed, can alter things significantly. That same character raised in the slums might be the son of a missionary, who grew up treating the sick and injured…. Suddenly he might not be the callus killer. Throw in some life events, such as the death of his mother or the discovery that he was adopted and his adoptive parents never told him. These experiences change who he is, and will have effects upon how he acts.

Morality is often based upon the experiences of people. Morally upright characters can be vastly complicated or totally boring, whereas morally bankrupt characters can be highly entertaining or nauseating. Part of this is perspective and experience. A character who has a twisted sense of morals because of hi s experiences is understandable. He or she may frustrate a reader, but the moral code they follow will at least make sense. The same follows for a character with a comprehensive and solid code of ethics. What will drive me as a reader absolutely crazy is when there is a character whose morality doesn’t make sense. Characters who are bad because it’s cool or fun or the honorable street urchin are anomalies… and unless an author has a legitimate reason why, they quickly become an irritation. Even worse are characters with no defined or inconsistent morality. A character who will shoot a man in the back in one scene and yet fights an honorable duel in another would be incoherent without some background or logic behind his actions. A writer has a burden to show the reasoning and logic behind the characters’ decisions.

Emotion is the next crucial part of a strong character. A character who doesn’t experience emotion is boring, regardless of how many explosions or how interesting the setting might be. One of the best examples of this is from the movie Red Sonya. The main character’s sister — her only surviving family – dies in her arms in the opening part of the movie. Red Sonya then says something to the effect of “This is terrible, drops her sister’s corpse, and stalks off to exact her revenge. For a close knit family, the death of a family member is a powerfully emotional event. This event was supposed to drive Red Sonya to exact her revenge. This isn’t to say that the character should have fallen to pieces, but some small signs can go a long way to establishing the emotional toll of such an event. An excellent positive example of this is from Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hank’s character, after the Invasion of Normandy, goes to open a canteen and his hands are shaking so much as to make it nearly impossible. This shows that, despite his calm demeanor, he is barely holding it together, and mostly doing so for his men. A show of such emotional turmoil and yet strength immediately establishes his character as someone who feels real. Later on, when he makes decisions for his men, you can see that emotional turmoil is there behind those decisions, at war with his moral code and his defining character traits.

The last crucial part of strong characters is the decisions they make and, as a writer, ensuring those decisions are in line with the character. A character who makes decisions out of line with his morality, emotions and experiences is not a strong character. A character who has his emotions and experiences at odds with his morality is complex and interesting. Difficult decisions are what life is about, and the important decisions are always complex. An important thing to note here is that sometimes the characters don’t make the right decisions. Sometimes their morality or emotions or experiences drive them to make the wrong decision. In those cases, it is often a flaw, sometimes a tragic flaw. This should not be the norm, in my opinion. Authors like George R. Martin make their living by having characters make bad decisions on an almost constant basis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting reading, but as a reader, it frustrates me to the point that I give up. Good people make bad decisions sometimes, it happens in real life, and it happens in stories. Bad people make good decisions too, sometimes, which I find far more interesting.

The decisions that characters make often define them. These cause new experiences and produce new emotions that in turn, drive character growth and development. And the next step past making a strong character is to make that character grow as he progresses through the story. That’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, what is a strong character that you really liked and what were their defining traits?

‘The Shark Boats’ snippet

This is a snippet from my new novel ‘The Shark Boats’, available in full from Amazon.com . Enjoy…

The Chang Kai-Shek and the Franco rounded the stubby cape on their starboard, and John deKuyper gazed into hell. No more than two miles away, the heavy cruiser and a light cruiser sat bombarding the shore. Their guns were raised – it’ll take time to lower them, thank God – but they were surrounded by three escort ships, arranged in a rough triangle. The escorts were firing their own guns up at wherever Reiner was.

So many guns were firing so continuously that, now the noise barrier of the cape was gone, the roar was deafening. The whole area was shrouded in dull grey smoke, and every couple of seconds a flaming red burst erupted from one or another of the ships’ guns.

Holy hell, deKuyper thought. And Reiner’s in the middle of that, along with Quintillian and the others.

That thought made what he was about to do seem rational.

“Go! Go! Go!” he yelled into the radio mike for Fordham’s benefit.

The Chang’s RPM needle hit the far side of the dial as the boat surged forwards. To his right, the Franco was doing the same thing.

“Go for the big one,” deKuyper ordered. Shaking hard. “Kill it!”

I can’t do this. This is insane. This is bugfuck nuts. They must collectively have five hundred times our tonnage. A thousand times.

Orders were orders. Duty was duty. And they were already rocketing toward the heavy cruiser at what the gauge said was forty-eight knots.

Ahead, the enemy ships had noticed their presence. The big cruiser was starting to move, well within a mile and a half’s distance now. Guns were starting to swivel down.

Instinct, not thought, singled out the nearest destroyer as the worst threat. Smaller guns would de-elevate faster and they’d have to pass right by the thing. But couldn’t waste torpedoes on it. Facing the broad side of the cruiser, but the stern of the destroyer at about a twenty degree angle. About half a mile from the big cruiser – barely more than a mile from the two shark boats, and getting closer.

Can’t do anything. No. Can.

“Guns fire on the nearest destroyer! Distract and cripple her!” deKuyper shouted.

The fore gun crew began to aim. A burst of gunfire, over the still-deafening noise of the shore bombardment; deKuyper’s head whirled to the right. One of the Franco’s machine-gunners must have fired prematurely. Nerves, probably. Couldn’t blame him.

The destroyer’s stern guns were lowering.

They fired.

Boom. Boom, went explosions somewhere between deKuyper’s and Fordham’s boat. Huge noise. Waterspouts.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

The corvette opened up. More gunfire.

They have shark boats of their own around here somewhere. How do we deal with those?

That’s what machine-guns are for. When we’ve finished raking the destroyer.

More waterspouts and explosions, all around the area.

BOOM.

One of the big cruiser’s fore guns fired. A huge waterspout rocked the Chang, a hundred yards ahead of it. deKuyper absently noticed that he was drenched. It didn’t matter.

“Oh God oh God oh God,” Kaye was muttering. He held on for dear life.

“Yee-haw!” Fordham’s voice came over the radio. “Ride `em, cowboy!”

Water everywhere. Waterspouts everywhere. Blazing muzzle-flashes. Thrumming engines. For a moment deKuyper’s view coalesced into a burning conceptual gestalt of fire and noise.

Get out of it, John!

It was hard. It was easier to view the spectacle absently.

Snap the fuck out of it or you’re going to die!

Groggily, he fought himself back to his senses. Gripped the wheel again. Kaye had leaned over in the meantime – how long had it been? A few seconds, probably – to hold the boat steady.

He nodded a thanks without looking up at the young officer.

They were within probably four hundred yards of the destroyer. The Franco fired its cannon, and deKuyper realized he had one of his own.

“Fire, damnit!” he shouted. Somehow the two-man crew heard him above the roaring of the engines and the constant rolling thunder of the big ships’ guns. Above the clattering din of heavy-caliber machine-gun fire, both incoming and outgoing now.

His lead gunner made a final calibration and fired. An explosion bloomed amidst the aft battery of the destroyer.

Somebody cheered.

The aft battery fired as though nothing had happened.

This one’s dead on, thought deKuyper. Swerved the boat – realizing that he could swerve the boat.

The destroyer’s shell exploded within ten yards of the Franco. The blast rocked the boat sideways, almost throwing Kaye out of the cockpit. The second lieutenant had drawn his pistol and was holding on with only his left hand. He fired the pistol at the destroyer. The noise was unnoticeable amongst the massive general din of guns and engines and exploding shells, but the hot brass casing landed squarely on deKuyper’s bare forearm. Minor stinging pain.

The engines of the boat, pushed past their redlined maximum, kicked deKuyper’s backside like the mechanical bull he’d once tried riding on a dare.

They began to pass the destroyer. The Franco swerved right, the Chang Kai-Shek to the left.

“Eat lead, you commie sons of bitches!” Fordham yelled, as both shark boats’ quad fifties raked the destroyer’s decks. The Franco’s cannon boomed, the shell punching a hole clean through the side of the destroyer, which was turning, turning so that both fore and aft guns could go into action.

Incoming fire. A bullet scored a deep line along the top of the control panel, missing deKuyper by inches. Other rounds were striking home on the deck, punching right through the light wood surface. One of the Chang’s gun crew was wounded but trying to load a shell anyway, right arm clasped to an obviously hurting side while he helped his partner manhandle the three-inch shell into the breech.

A triple array of explosions followed by waterspouts. Three of the big eight-inchers firing nearly simultaneously and landing at about the same place, seventy or eighty yards ahead of the two zigagging shark boats. The destroyer was behind them, now – chasing them, it looked like to deKuyper when he glanced back.

No damn time to worry about the destroyer. The cruiser was their objective. Easily within a mile now. Slowly picking up speed.

Wasn’t sure how much range these torpedoes had. Theoretically they were good for up to five miles. deKuyper had heard the same rumors everyone else had heard about that.

Now? Then we can break away?

No. He only had one run at this. Better make it count.

“Stop zagging at half a mile when I do,” he told Fordham. “Straight run and fire when I give the signal.”

“Straight run? They’ll zero in on us and blow us to pieces!”

“They’ll probably do that anyway,” deKuyper yelled back without thinking. “You want it to count or not?”

More shells. Waterspouts. Three quarters of a mile. Five eighths.

Half a mile.

The Franco exploded like a matchbox stuffed with gelignite. Splinters of wood and metal flew everywhere, propelled outwards by a big blazing fireball.

Oh, fuck.

No chance to run now, even if he wanted to. Maybe there’d never been a chance.

“Ready torpedoes!”

They’d just have to do the job with two rather than four. He aimed the Chang amidships of the cruiser.

Kaye fired his pistol again, and again. Another bit of hot brass stung deKuyper’s left forearm. He flinched, and the boat swerved to the starboard a fraction.

“Will you fucking quit that?” he yelled at Kaye.

Kaye nodded, shouted something inaudible of his own, and emptied the rest of his pistol’s magazine at the cruiser.

The torpedomen probably couldn’t hear deKuyper either. Oh, shit. They were readying their torpedoes anyway. They knew from training what going dead straight, this close to a target, meant.

He just hoped they’d know when to fire.

They did. Fifty feet into the run the torpedoes slipped off their racks and slid into the water. deKuyper saw their trails begin to lance towards the big cruiser, but he didn’t have time for more than a glance. He was swinging the Chang away, turning her in a wide arc to get as far the hell from the rest of the fleet as possible. One of the destroyers was coming around the bow of the big cruiser.

The second destroyer’s guns fired. Waterspouts close, so close that they rocked the Chang hard, tipping forty-five degrees to port. Kaye was thrown loose and his .45 went flying overboard. The fore gun crew lost the shell they’d been reloading.

Bullets raked the Chang from somewhere – a lucky burst, deKuyper hoped, and no more than that. Through the din of the gunfire he heard someone scream.

Zig-zagging away. Then an explosion. A big one, with an overpressure wave. He turned his head for a moment – saw a fireball blooming above the aft section of the cruiser. Secondary explosions seemed to be happening.

They have shark boats around. Time to get the hell out before they arrive. Surprising they haven’t already.

He hit the throttle harder.

If you like what you’ve read here, you can get the full thing at http://www.amazon.com/The-Shark-Boats-ebook/dp/B00EZHY8S4 .

How the…

So, more from curiosity than anything else, how did various visitors find my blog? Also, for those of you out there, I’d love some feedback and comments about what kind of content you would like to see. Samples of my work, short fiction, more pictures of Dragon*Con or various cons, the seven winning numbers to tomorrow’s lotto… well no guarantees on the last one, but I’ll see what I can do. The floor is open to you all.

Of Dragons and Cons

I’ve just returned from my fourth Dragon*Con. As always, it’s been an experience. Dragon*Con is, in my opinion, a very unique genre convention. One thing that always hits me is the size. Five years ago, it was around twenty thousand people and spread over four hotels. This year they had five hotels and a convention center, and while numbers aren’t yet completed, I’d estimate over fifty thousand people, much like last year. They have a number of big events that occur throughout the time, to include musical concerts, film stars and directors, and of course, massive costume contests.Image

 

All the same, Dragon*Con has a very small feel to it, in some aspects. The writing panels are typically in small side rooms away from the main corridors. The is the same for the reading panels and other similar subgenre ‘tracks’. More popular events might require long lines and a bit of a wait to get in (and you’re not allowed to form a line prior to one hour before an event), but depending on your interests, someone might spend the entire time in small rooms away from the crowds.

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I have to admit, I have a certain level of nostalgia about Dragon*Con. It was my first convention, and I went there by myself, not really knowing anyone. I spent most of those four days wandering around in something of a daze and feeling a bit like a lonely ping-pong ball that needed a break. I’ve since developed some connections and have met a few people. Would I recommend Dragon*Con to others as their first? Not really, especially if they’re going it alone. It’s very easy to be quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of events to attend. I’ve seen plenty of people who looked like zombies by day three, burned out from trying to see everything. Also, there are easier ways to see the same things in other cons. Local conventions can be talked down on, but they often offer the same things, if smaller in scale. The important thing, in my opinion, is going with some kind of idea of what you want to see and pacing yourself. You won’t see much of Dragon*Con from the hospital if you collapse from exhaustion.

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Still, I like Dragon*Con. It’s big, it’s loud, and there’s always something to do. Unlike events such as Comic Con, it’s not commercialized and is still mostly fan driven and organized. Will I attend next year? I plan on it. There’s nothing quite like it.Image

Introductions

The most important questions anyone should ask when deciding to read something are who is the writer and why should you care enough to read what they’ve written. Or at least, that’s the assumption I’m going with. Time is short, and most people don’t want to read everything on the internet. Knowing the author, knowing they have something worth saying gives a reader the sense that what they write is worth reading. That’s an important distinction, because no one likes to start an article or blog posting, get halfway through, and realize what they’re reading is total rubbish and stop. Hopefully, if you’ve come this far, you think what I’ve got to say might be worth reading. If not, well, knowing a bit more about me might make it seem that way to you. Or you might run away screaming, but that’s between you and your pharmacologist really.

 

As for who I am and why you should read what I write, that’s no easy pitch to sell. There are countless writers out there, many quite good, no few quite terrible. They tell us when we are children that we are all unique and special, but they also tell you that the Tooth Fairy takes your teeth and gives you cash. Let’s face it, I’m not special or unique, but I do think I’ve got an irreverent humor, an introspective approach, and a wide and varied experience to base my writing on.

 

I’m going to go out on a limb and try to profile my audience a bit. If you’re reading this, you probably scale more to the ‘nerd’ side than not. You probably have at least some interest in space, science or just good stories that take place a long time ago or somewhere far far away. What that means to me is… well, you’re probably a little like me. You might go to work at a normal day job, but in your free time, you like to escape to other worlds. Like me, you’ve probably lived vicariously through movies, books and even games in countless adventures, journeys and battles.

 

Frankly, that’s what stories are all about, for me. The stories that grip you by the throat and don’t let go until you turn the last page. The stories that make you laugh, or cry, or just giggle a little maniacally. In real life we can’t be an eight-limbed alien who tries to live by a moral code not his own or a psychic who bends people to her will, or even a bioengineered assassin who cooks like a gourmet chef. But we can stand in their shoes and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes all we need is to live like that for a few moments in our own minds; to go to a distant place and be someone else for a few moments.

 

This is why I write. I can go those places in my own (sometimes twisted) imagination and (hopefully) share them with dozens or hundreds of people. I can take things I seen and people I know in my own life, mix and mash them with bits of science or news I’ve read, and spit out settings and characters that feel real; ordinary yet drawn to the extraordinary. And yeah, at a certain point, I end up laying my heart, mind and soul bare for strangers I’ll never meet… because, well, it’s just amazing to have an entire universe inside my head and I want to share it with you.

 

What do I offer? I write stories to be entertaining, maybe a little educational, and even to give a little inspiration. I love the stories of the underdog, the born loser who fights back against the unbeatable foe. I value vivid storytelling, detailed settings, strong characterization and elaborate plots. That’s what I offer from my writing and I think that’s what people want to read: a good story that has awesome characters in an exciting world where life and events aren’t always simple.

 

So, step into my world, and let me know what you think.