I Need “Real Life” In My Fantasy

This topic’s occurred to me a few times, particularly as I enrolled in the Bookcase Club subscription service for the “Strange Worlds” science fiction and fantasy box. For $15/month, Bookcase Club mails you two books in a genre you select, along with a journal (sometimes even fancy ones like Wreck This Journal). I will definitely do a post about what books I receive when they come in the mail next week. I thought it was one of the best priced book sub services, as the books price out to $6-$7 a copy, which is about what I would pay at my local bookstore.

But I do dread getting one particular thing in my box that may make the subscription less than stellar for me – high fantasy. Or epic fantasy. Or really, any fantasy that takes place in a distant, made-up, totally fabricated world that makes me learn the constitution of UnpronouncableLand before I can even get into the plot. Or the magic system. Oh, the dreaded magic system.

But Michelle! You’re a fantasy author! How can you say that?

Because I like Narnia. I like Harry Potter. I like Once Upon A Time. If we’re going with urban fantasy, I like Lost Girl and I’m intrigued by the premise of The Mortal Instruments. All of these fantasy stories use Earth characters, even if they aren’t necessarily normal or human. And most sci-fi takes place in a far flung future in which Earth exists, but is perhaps not the focus of the story. Even if it’s not explicitly stated, you can assume it’s there.

Game of Thrones (TV) is the only fully fictional fantasy world I enjoy. And it gets away with that because there is little to no magic in the series, especially in early seasons. As far as I remember, there are no elves, dwarves, trolls, etc. Most of GOT is based on Earth history, so GOT world has a sense of familiarity about it. Most importantly, the characters behave just as bawdily as real humans, instead of the weird sense of Arthurian propriety that hovers over most high fantasy. You can almost conceive that Westeros is an alternate history more than a completely new universe. Aside from the White Walkers, there’s not much that couldn’t have happened in our own history (dragons don’t count for me, as dinosaurs did exist *g*).

On the other hand, I find Lord of The Rings was far too dense and removed from reality, despite being Middle Earth. I could never get into Eragon. I never liked Redwall. I couldn’t care less about high fantasy games (I’m a Fallout girl much more than a Skyrim girl). Even when tropes are subverted, when new species are introduced, etc, I look at such books with a sense of exhaustion. I know, it’s not fair of me. I know there are probably original cool books out there that don’t involve elves and wizards and have totally pronounceable kingdoms. Maybe they’re very down to Earth and don’t even have magic – or maybe the magic is proper and makes sense instead of being there for no reason. I know. But I am tired.

Perhaps this is a sign of my waning intelligence. It seems as though I don’t want books that challenge me to keep up. Often, these are the books that are 800 pages long, and I feel they’d be half that length if the world didn’t need to be so explained. But I read postmodernism – S, House of Leaves, Infinite Jest. I’m interested in dense, challenging works. I am not interested in struggling to process or care about a world that is entirely fabricated, and that ultimately has no relatable stakes because of that. I’m often left with the question – why should I care? – when the story seems to be taking place a million miles away in a parallel dimension that never happened. Perhaps it’s the fact that I can’t suspend my disbelief that the story could be happening somewhere, in some time? I don’t know. It’s quite hard to articulate my disinterest, and it’s certainly not meant to be a bash on people who write or read this genre. I envy you, actually, and I’m struggling to figure out why I’m not one of you. I definitely don’t like pure realism, so why shouldn’t I like pure fantasy?

I am a genre bending sort of person, and I don’t like entrenching myself into any genre all the way. I can’t handle full on literary fiction, or full on historical, or full on romance. But if those genres are crossed in some way – if it’s literary fiction with a sci-fi bent, or a time travel romance, or a historical novel that steals from the thriller handbook – I’m intrigued. I think epic fantasy is what we automatically envision when we see the fantasy label, and maybe being that deep into one category is not to my taste. If you can blend a noir or a thriller or an action story with fantasy elements, like many urban/modern Earth fantasies do, you’re much more likely to have my attention.

Are you guys as picky about this as I am? Are there some subgenres you feel you should like but they fail to interest you?

Fun With Your Story Bible

Something I’ve always tried to do, and have usually failed due to lack of time and the pile of different notebooks I write in, is to make a comprehensive Story Bible for each WIP. This is mostly important with fantasy novels, as the world building and variety of characters demands a precise continuity and grounded history. But it’s not just for fantasy. Even for my NaNo WIP and for my previous NASA memoir, it was important to have ONE place to keep all my character notes, timelines, theme analysis, etc.

However, Paradisa is the first story that I’m really excited to write the Story Bible for, because it delves into a lot of stuff that the book doesn’t. While that seems moot now, I’m using it as a launchpad for things I’ll introduce in books 2 and 3. I want the world to feel fully realized and rich, and in order to do that, I have to research extensively. All of that research goes into a composition book, ordered by category, for me to find later. I put stars next to stuff I think I’ll actually use, and everything else is just there if I need it. Paradisa’s premise is simply that all mythologies and pantheons are real, so my Story Bible includes lists of every signficant mythological figure. They DO exist in my world, but whether or not I bring them into the story is another thing.

The other day though, I had a really ambitious idea that I’m super excited about, even though I doubt I’ll ever have the time to complete it. Inspired by Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, which is basically just a story bible that got published, as well as Bobby Pendragon’s field guide to the territories of Halla, I really want to make a vividly drawn/animated story bible for myself to use as a reference material. I’d write it, organize it, and perhaps sketch for it (or assemble pictures) and then use a vanity press like Lulu to send myself a hardcopy version. Then, anytime I wanted inspiration or wanted to assure myself of back story, I could consult my pretty field guide.

As you might know, I’m not much of an artist, but I’ve got a good hand with Photoshop. I’ve made digital inks based on photo references before, and I’m fair at photo manipulation, so I think I could achieve this. It’s just the TIME that it would take is something I don’t really have. I should spend that time writing and revising instead, so perhaps this will something I dabble in during my next beta round, or during the querying stage. Still, it’s something I want to do one day, preferably in 2015.

I also think it would help with the visual/scenery aspects of my story that I’m missing, a bit, by forcing me to imagine what the world looks like. I’m pretty bad about that, mostly because I’m trying to avoid falling on fantasy clichés for what my architecture looks like. I don’t want the Egyptian gods to live in pyramids, for example. That just doesn’t make sense with the world I’ve built, but what DO they live in? So, this is stuff I have to figure out eventually, especially when I have my characters stroll deeper through this portal world. Surprisingly, the hell world is actually easier to imagine than the heaven world, because religions are/were very good about describing what their hells look like :P

Does anyone else keep a sort of story bible? IMO, a centralized reference is important for fantasy, but I’m sure there are plenty of writers who can keep it all in their head, or scattered through binders of notes!

Some Talk On Setting Descriptions…and Follow Friday @NannaWrites !

For today’s Follow Friday, I hope you check out a rising Danish writer named Nanna Andersen. Nanna posts book reviews and tips on writing. I also think she’s just started building her platform, so give her some love!

As for me, my Draft Five marathon begins today! Hopefully. I’m going to see Guardians of the Galaxy at 5, with dinner afterwards, so that should leave me a whole evening of writing. I have finished 19/21 chapters in my new outline, so that is nearly set. My final two betas are delivering feedback this weekend, which will be added into the new outline as best I can do.

But here’s a “writer topic” before I head off to the weekend – setting description. Dad called Mom a few days ago and they talked at length about my book (with rather different opinions, as you might imagine from following this saga). Dad insists that I need more setting descriptions in the book. Like, five-senses surround-sound half-a-page setting descriptions for almost every place the characters enter. Lord of The Rings level description.

My mother’s opinion, and mine, is that no one wants to read all that. Those are the paragraphs readers are most likely to skip – aka, paragraphs I do not want in my novel.

To Dad’s credit, setting descriptions are flimsy in my book. This is because I honestly haven’t decided what everything looks like yet. I should probably go into more detail about the made-up places in my world, for those are places that readers have never mentally, visually, or physically been. A reader may be able to fill in some blanks with their imagination, but I ought to paint a nice two-paragraph picture = A literal visual translation (is this a house? a courtyard? a city?) plus time of day, weather, inside/outside, damp/dry, and a general mood of scary/safe is a good bet for most settings.

However, I don’t find it necessary at ALL to describe, at length, settings that a person can imagine clearly without my help. Like the airport. We’ve all been in airports. We know what they look like, smell like, feel like. Even if you’ve never been in one, you’ve probably seen them in movies. I will not waste time describing the ugly carpet, blowing AC, sterile colors, and uncomfortable plastic seats. First of all, none of that matters to the plot. Second of all, the reader “gets it” without that needing to be said.

In general, I won’t spend more than 200 words on any setting description, even if we’re in a new place. Not only can setting descriptions be peppered through the scene instead of dumped in one swoop (“he walked over to an antique wardrobe, its teal paint weathered with age”), readers don’t need to know the shape of the crown molding, the number of tiles on the floor, or the parts-per-million carbon dioxide in the air. Do you think about those sorts of things when you enter a new space? Probably not.

So describe the settings to the length that they matter to the characters and story. Trust that your reader has some imagination, and that it’s actually quite fun to make up your own visual scene as a reader. Being spoonfed every detail is not only tedious, but it takes some of the fun out (for me, at least). It tells me that the author is a control freak and doesn’t want the reader to “share” the fictional dream as much as the author wants the reader to “obey” the dream. And I will probably admonish that author by closing the book.