I’ve been reading some fantasy literature lately – not the usual for me. Don’t get me wrong: I admire writers who can pull off creating an entire other-world between the covers of a book, and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle and Michael Ende’s Momo are core building blocks in my own education. But I admit to being a reluctant fantasy reader – until, thanks to my daughters, many more worlds found their way into my home. I have lived through all of Mr. Potter’s condundrums many times over and discovered labyrinthine domains created by Chris D’Lacey and Cornelia Funke. I’ve choked up reading Philip Pullman’s trilogy and had my mind blown by his fascinating counterpoint to C. S. Lewis’s classics. And, lately, I can’t seem to get enough of Derek Landy’s wit -- and his ass-kicking heroes, pranksters and villains, brought to life with many accents by my 12-year-old as she entertains the family after dinner.
Here writers Donna Hosie, Helen Lowe, Rohan Quine and Thomas Taylor share a little of their worlds. And also Rebecca Fisher, whom I’ve asked to offer her take on current television writing and the surge in fantasy genre – because I’m also a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who.
Donna Hosie, More than a Tree.
Writers see the world differently from other people. Not that non-writers can't experience and enjoy the beauty of the world, but they don't tend to see what we (writers) see. And fantasy writers tend to be in a whole other world entirely!
I tried to explain this once to a friend. I pointed to her garden and asked her what she saw. She replied ‘trees’. And she was quite correct. Her garden was filled with fruit trees and cherry blossom trees and an enormous oak tree towering over everything.
And then I told her what I saw: a yawning mouth in the heart of the oak tree. To the outside world, it was just a knot in the trunk, a thickening mass. To me, it was where the spirit of the tree lived, and at night, it yawned so wide a person could climb in and be transported into another world.
My friend thought I was mental! Of course - I'm a fantasy writer!
Fantasy has always been my favourite genre to read, but when I first started writing, I found it impossible to think of an original premise. Between them, Tolkien, Lewis, Pullman, Rowling et al had every base covered. So I wrote adult fiction, and even scored a London agent to represent me.
But fantasy was where my heart beat.
Then one day I was doing the daily commute on the bus. The sky was vivid pink as the sun started to set. I'm sure other passengers thought it was pretty; I thought angels were bleeding! A few months earlier I had read a collection of Camelot tales by Roger Lancelyn Green. The epilogue to the Arthurian legends tells of a shepherd stumbling across a cave, hundreds of years after the final battle of Camlann. Here, the knights of Camelot were sleeping, waiting for Arthur to return. As I watched the bleeding sky from that bus, I suddenly thought, what if a modern day teenage girl found that cave?
Finally, I had my fantasy premise!
What was born from that commute trip became The Return to Camelot trilogy: Searching for Arthur (1), The Fire of Merlin (2) and The Spirit of Nimue (3). For three years I poured over research on medieval life and the legends of King Arthur. Research plays an important part in writing, especially for fantasy writers. If your fantastical world isn't realistic, your readers won't believe, which means they won't care.
Readers enjoyed the trilogy so much I kept receiving requests to revisit – and fantasy really is the gift that keeps on giving. In May 2014, I released the first novel in my next Camelot series, The Ring of Morgana. My agent (now in New York) also scored me a book deal with Holiday House, and in the autumn my third fantasy series will debut with the release of The Devil’s Intern.
Writing fantasy fuels my imagination and allows me to see the world in a different light, and I wouldn't have it any other way. So, the next time you see a sunset or a knot in a tree...
HELEN LOWE, Finding Adventure in Fantasy
My writing style is primarily intuitive, with stories springing from an initial ‘flash’ of an idea, before evolving. So in terms of ‘finding’ adventure (or any other element) in Fantasy, I agree with Ursula Le Guin that: "The world’s full of stories, you just reach out” (Steering The Craft). But I believe we also reach out for the kind of stories that ‘speak’ to us most profoundly. In my case this will probably always include adventurous stories, because I love them.
As a craftsperson, however, I know that an adventurous story will work best if there are peaks and subsequent levelings-off in the telling. The number of these 'peaks' and 'plains' will depend on the book's length. In Thornspell, which is a relatively short (ca. 70,000-word) retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the prince who breaks the spell, the structure comprises: an opening set up (aka a 'small hill'); the transition (a 'plain') of the prince from childhood to early manhood; a hunt sequence where he first crosses swords with the tale's antagonists (the central 'peak' of the book.) This is followed by a regrouping and gaining of necessary knowledge (another 'plain'), with a subsequent build-up of adventurous incidents resulting in the final resolution (peak) of the story.
A longer story, like The Heir Of Night (ca. 145,000 words) or The Gathering Of The Lost (ca. 207,000 words), will require more 'peaks' and 'plains' to sustain story tension and reader interest. This is particularly important where a story, as frequently occurs in fantasy, is based around adventure, whether quest, contest or combat. The 'plains' are as important as the 'peaks', because, as in real life, adventurers in stories cannot be constantly journeying through the wilderness or fighting off enemies without becoming exhausted – while reader interest may be correspondingly blunted. From time to time, both must come to the wayside inn or castle where the weary can eat and rest, regrouping for the next round of adventure, which will consequently press more sharply on both characters and reader.
The importance of balancing 'peaks' with 'plains' does not mean that both must be given equal treatment within the narrative. Transitions, such as Sigismund's passage from childhood to manhood, geographic periphery to centre, in Thornspell, may (and almost certainly should) be dealt with swiftly, before the rising ground that heralds the next peak – however blue with distance still – begins its climb… This reflects the principle that the story should always dwell longest on its most crucial elements. In an adventurous story, that will always be the high points of the adventure.
ROHAN QUINE, Illuminating the Darkness
Their five covers have a flavour that somewhat plays up the fantastical or magical realist element, at the expense of the litfic DNA, and that’s fine. I once overheard someone ask “What IS that plant there – or is it a weed?” as they peered at an unidentified green thing in a flower-bed, and I imagined the plant piping up in reply, “What are you talking about? I’m just me, growing here happily, thank you!” It was a literary agent who first labelled these tales as “cross-genre”, which was a term I’d never heard before; and I suppose it’s true, but from within they feel simply unified in themselves, sitting in the middle of their own coherent world.
If their content, pace or over-arching voice had been guided by market expectations of what fantastical literary fiction should be, then the process would have felt wrong. For me there was a lot more joy to be found (after all, writing may as well be as joyful as possible, we hope!) in being steered from within, by a three-pronged mission: (1) How can I illuminate the world, to the best of my abilities, using language in new and old ways, and thereby leave the world infinitesimally better than it was before I did so? (2) How can I aim and attune my ears as clearly as possible to whatever my/our highest artistic potential is, then bring down the richest results from that place, then give those results the truest and most beautiful form I can create? And (3) how can what I write take an honest account of the darkness and pain in the world, while at the same time being a vote for life (maybe even an absolute blast of fun, along the way)?
THOMAS TAYLOR, Turning Fear into Fiction
When my neighbour told me she had seen a Roman legionary walk through her kitchen, I believed her. And was duly deliciously terrified that I might see him too – yet another spectre to glance for in the glass of the night window as I drew my curtains. For ten years I covered every part of myself in duvet at night, sweating through summer and winter alike, to keep cold fingers from brushing my skin. Through a small hole I kept watch, straining to see what I didn’t want to see, until I fell asleep and dreamed them instead.
I can’t remember when the ghosts disappeared from my life, just as I can’t remember when I first realised I wanted to be a writer. But I do recall sitting down with the clear intention of writing a novel for the first time, and being nervous of doing that. I was in my mid-thirties, and had already spent a decade working as a children’s book illustrator. All I was scared of then was finding out that I couldn’t write after all. Adult fears are so prosaic.
There are no prizes for guessing what Haunters, my debut YA novel, is about. But there aren’t any spectral Roman legionaries in it, except in the oblique sense of being a source of inspiration. These days I’m more interested in what I might say to such a ghost, if I saw one, than in being scared. The possibility of ghosts as points of contact between the past and the present barely occurred to me as I hid beneath that childhood duvet, and I’d certainly never heard of “dreamwalking” or considered that time travel could be achieved by the dreaming mind, while the body slept. But if I could dreamwalk back to the 1980s, to tell my younger self to stop being afraid of the dark, I wouldn’t do it, for fear of destroying my own material. Then again, maybe I would just reinforce it.
REBECCA FISHER, Writing Imaginatively under Constraint
It’s an odd contradiction when you think about it: that writers for television have the luxury of more time than the average film to tell their stories (anything from ten to twenty-two episodes per season) but also less, what with the requirements of the weekly forty-five minute time-frame. Yet writers have long-since learnt to take advantage of television programming’s unique format. In melding the visual flair of films with the episodic structure of chapters in a book, television can offer complex plots that demand close attention and regular attendance from viewers.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
Perhaps I’m just biased, but it seems to me that it’s the science-fiction and fantasy genres that paved the way for television becoming the medium for such elaborate storytelling. We may have the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film franchises to thank for the recent surge of sci-fi/fantasy shows, but the presence of these genres on the box stretches back much further than that.
Cult favourites Star Trek and Doctor Who both began in the 1960s, solidifying the popularity of the genre, with neither franchise showing signs of slowing down nearly five decades later.
In the 1990s shows like Babylon 5 (1994 –1998) and The X-Files (1993 – 2002) helped introduce the idea of serialized “myth-arcs”, wherein self-contained episodes are interspersed with deeper, more intricate storylines that get expanded over the course of the entire show.
That same decade popular shows like Xena Warrior Princess (1995 – 2001) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003) put emphasis on character development, with their leads growing in maturity and wisdom as each year passed. Later the likes of Lost (2004 – 2010) and Once Upon a Time (2011 – ) revolutionized the idea of non-linear storytelling, in which extensive use of flashbacks, parallel worlds and time-jumps were used to entice viewers with mysteries that unravelled over a number of episodes.
These days shows can run for a number of years, allowing for stories of incredible scope and depth. For example, Game of Thrones has thirty-six main characters, whereas The Lord of the Rings trilogy had only twenty. Orphan Black, a show that requires a single actress to play multiple clones of herself, has a complexity that would be impossible to capture in a single feature film. And Sleepy Hollow, following on the heels of Battlestar Galactica (2003 – 2009) and Fringe (2008 – 2013), has perfected the art of melding character-arcs with unexpected plot twists.
Of course, there are risks. Writers can find it hard to sustain storylines for long periods of time. Actors may want to pursue other projects, requiring hasty rewrites. Worst of all, interfering networks can decide to cancel a show before it reaches its natural conclusion (2002’s Firefly is still mourned by many). But the growing mastery of television’s advantages – planning out complicated plots in advance, drawing out suspense on a weekly basis, letting characters grow and develop over time – means that TV audiences not only expect to be entertained by what’s on television, but engaged by it as well.
To write for television nowadays requires the ability to adhere to a long-term story plan, as well as enough discipline to stick to an episodic structure. At the very least, each instalment of your favourite show requires a weekly climactic event, not to mention a string of mini cliff-hangers to tide you over during the advert breaks. It’s undoubtedly a challenge, but one that is increasingly surmounted by the talent of those shaping the stories that unfold on the small screen.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS:
Rebecca Fisher is a graduate of the University of Canterbury with a Masters degree in English Literature, mainly, she claims, because she was able to get away with writing her thesis on C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman. She is a reviewer for FantasyLiterature.com, a large website that specializes in fantasy and science-fiction novels, and contributes fortnightly articles to author Helen Lowe's blog.
Donna Hosie is an English writer currently living in Australia. She writes young adult fantasy and is repped by Beth Phelan of The Bent Agency, NY. She is the author of Searching for Arthur, The Fire of Merlin, The Spirit of Nimue and her latest release, The Ring of Morgana. Later in 2014, Holiday House will release the first book in her next series about time travelling devils, The Devil’s Intern. More here and at her blog.
Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet and interviewer whose work has been published, broadcast and anthologized in New Zealand and internationally. Her first novel Thornspell (Knopf) was published to critical praise in 2008, and in 2012 The Heir Of Night won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and can also be found on Twitter: @helenl0we
Rohan Quine writes literary fiction, with elements of magical realism and a dusting of horror. He grew up in South London, spent a couple of years in L.A. and then a decade in New York, where he ran around excitably, saying a few well-chosen words in a handful of feature films and TV shows. He’s now living back in East London, pushing imagination and language towards their extremes. His novel The Imagination Thief was published in 2013, as an ebook including film, audio and photographic content in conjunction with the novel’s text, and then as a paperback in 2014. Interviews and reviews in The Guardian and elsewhere can be found here. Other works include four ebooks collected into one paperback entitled The Platinum Raven and other novellas. More about Rohan and his books here and a recent interview here.
Thomas Taylor’s first professional illustration commission was the cover art for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K Rowling. He is an award-winning author and illustrator of over a dozen picture books, and his first novel, Haunters, was published by Chicken House in 2012. He is also the creator of the Dan and the Dead series (Bloomsbury) – comic novellas about a teenage psychic detective and his ghostly sidekick. He is currently collaborating with author Marcus Sedgwick on a graphic novel. More here.