Fun Fantasy Worlds

One reason I wanted to do my deep dive into fantasy this winter was that I was looking to recapture some of the wonder I had when I first discovered the genre. I remembered wanting to crawl into the books and visit places like Narnia and Middle Earth, and it’s been a long time since I felt that way. I wondered if it was just because of being an adult, experiencing the difference between being 11 and being all grown up and aware of practical things like indoor plumbing, electricity, good beds, and not having Evil Overlords constantly trying to kill you.

I found in rereading The Lord of the Rings that I do still have that sense of wonder. I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to join in the quest, but I’d love to hang out at places like Rivendell. I’m quite certain they’ve got good beds and have figured out things that work like electricity and indoor plumbing.

But now I’m wondering why I so seldom get that feeling from the fantasy worlds in more recent books, and I suspect that on some level, maybe we’ve (fantasy authors) become too good at worldbuilding. When the world is so fully planned out that you’ve worked out not only the magic but also the political and economic systems and cultural interactions, is there much room left for wonder? I keep seeing Tolkien on lists of “hard” worldbuilding, but I’m not sure I agree. Yes, he has detailed histories and created entire languages, but I’d argue that what’s in the books is pretty “soft.” The magic is really nebulous. There’s only a vague sense of what magic can do, who can do it, and how it works. There’s definitely no economic or political system of note (in fact, if you think too much about it, the economics don’t work at all). There’s a lot that remains totally unexplained. There’s a rich backstory and a lot of poetry in made-up languages, but that’s the extent of the worldbuilding. That leaves Middle Earth as a bit of a blank canvas. Readers have a lot of room to fill it in to suit themselves.

I’ve seen a lot of critiques of the worldbuilding in the Narnia books, mostly that there’s no consistency. Figures from Greek mythology are right there with things from northern Europe, and throw in Father Christmas and a lamppost, and none of it fits. But I think that’s actually the entire point of Narnia. It’s the ultimate fantasy world, full of all the things a fantasy/fairy tale/mythology reader would want to run into in a magical world.

Basically, it’s the fantasy version of Neverland. Neverland is a bizarre amalgamation of all the things a boy from that time period would have read about in the fiction (pulp or otherwise) of that day. There were pirates, of course, because authors like Robert Louis Stevenson had popularized them. And there were “Indians,” which were staples of pulp novels, plus Buffalo Bill had brought his Wild West show to London. Throw in some mermaids which, if you want to get Freudian, are the perfect women for boys of the age when they’re fascinated enough to want to look but not quite ready to touch, and it’s basically a heaven for a pre-teen boy of the late 1800s/early 1900s who’s read a lot of adventure stories and wants to have all the adventures.

I imagine Narnia was Lewis’s idea of a dream world, with all the things he’d read about existing in one place, with talking animals, naiads and dryads, unicorns, giants, witches, and dragons. And, what the heck, Father Christmas, too. If you’re going to visit one fantasy world, Narnia would be a good choice because it’s all there.

Have we lost some of that wonder and fun when we spend so much time on creating coherent worlds that have consistent cultures with religious, political, and economic systems? If the world feels too real, does it lose something as a fantasy world? I’m still pondering this question and how it might apply to my writing.

I’m sure there are other factors at work. With the popularity of “grimdark” fiction, the worlds aren’t really places we’d want to physically visit. Being in Westeros would probably suck. It’s fun to read about, but I wouldn’t want to go there. It would not be a fun place, even outside the events of the story. There are a lot of fantasy books I read, and even in my mind’s eye they’re gray and brown, full of mud and dirt. Yeah, that’s realistic. The real Middle Ages wouldn’t be a treat to people from our time. Some of the clothes are pretty, and castles look cool, but that life would be pretty unpleasant from our perspective, even if we lucked out into an upper-class life. But do “realistic” and “fantasy” have to go together? Should they?

I’ll have to dig back through my bookshelves and memories to think of other fantasy worlds I’ve loved and wanted to visit. And I’ll have to consider these things as I build my own worlds. It may be tricky finding the balance between a place where things can happen where there’s something the heroes need to do, and a place I’d want to visit.

Do you have any favorite fantasy worlds you’d want to visit?


Starting Again (Again)

I finally started work on the newest version of the book I’m revisiting yesterday. I’d planned to do that last week, but I didn’t have power for a couple of days, and then I was pretty frazzled after that. So then I decided I’d get back to work Monday, but I couldn’t seem to make myself focus. It was beautiful and warm after a week of snow, so I spent a few days sitting on the patio, working out some details of the world, coming up with a map, etc. You’d think I’d have figured all that stuff out before, but apparently not.

Today it was cool (normal cool, not deep freeze) and gray, which I consider perfect writing weather. I got more than three thousand words written, the whole new first chapter. And I think that flipping which character was the protagonist with the story goal really worked. The story feels like it has a sharper focus.

One thing I discovered as I started writing was that the main character is a bit different than I’d envisioned him. Once I was writing from his perspective, I saw him very differently. I’m afraid he’s turning out to be yet another one of my adorkable wizards. I seem to like that character type. This one is different from Owen or Henry, but he’s still got a nerdy streak underneath a bit of bluster.

Now that I have a good start, I find myself actually eager to work on this book because I want to see how it comes out. I’m doing the “write the thing you want to read but can’t find” thing, which makes it fun to write but sometimes a bit challenging to market.

In today’s writing session I should catch up to the former protagonist, who is now a sidekick. She actually will probably have the same amount of “screentime” she had before. The only change is that the other character has the goal that drives the story. I’m not sure that’s even a change. He always had the goal that was driving the story, but I wasn’t acknowledging that, and that made the story a bit of a muddle.

So, I seem to have finally found the story. Maybe this time will be the time I actually get something done with this 30-year-old idea.


Old Influences

I’ve been reading some of what I jokingly call Old School fantasy, the books published in the 80s (sometimes the 70s, but with sequels published in the 80s). In part, I wanted to get back to my own fantasy roots, the things I read after discovering Tolkien that ended up leading to me wanting to write fantasy. I’m not exactly following my reading trajectory, but I am picking up some of the books on that line that I haven’t revisited in a long time. One other reason I’m rereading these books is that I thought it would be a good idea to read the things I was reading when I first came up with the idea I’m working on to see what bits of influence might have crept in.

I have found that some things from books I remember reading around that time are in my story idea — not so much that it’s any kind of outright copying or plagiarism, just some tropes showing up. I think part of this is that a lot of my story ideas come from reading a book that’s almost, but not quite, exactly the book I want to read. There’s something in it that really appeals to me, but it focuses on something else or does it in a way I’m not crazy about. Then I think of how it could go the way I want it to go, and a story idea is born.

One thing that seemed to come up a lot in that era — and that’s in the book I came up with — is the evil wizard who’s controlling the weather and using it as a weapon. Except in most of the books I’ve read with that plot element, the wizard makes it winter. I’m doing one in which the wizard makes it hot and dry, creating a dust bowl. Being from Texas, I find that a lot more nightmarish. Well, I did until last week, when it was freezing and I didn’t have power. It did kind of feel like some evil wizard had suddenly zapped us. The good guys must have won, though, because it was about 80 degrees warmer yesterday afternoon than the low temperature was a week earlier. It’s bizarre to think that last week I was bundled up in blankets and freezing, with snow on the ground, and this week I’ve been sitting out on the patio to work.

Another trope I’m seeing a lot of — and that I’m not using in this book — is the inept apprentice wizard who’s actually some new kind of wizard who can do unusual things, but they don’t realize that at first because he does things in a different way, so trying to do magic conventionally doesn’t work for him. And this kind of wizard always seems to be a klutz. I do like the idea of the person who only seems incompetent because he’s in a league of his own and his teachers have been trying to force him into the standard mold, but I don’t see why this character always has to be tripping over his own feet and knocking things over.

Noticing the plot elements and character types that seem to have been top of mind when I came up with the idea allows me to be conscious of these influences so I can avoid duplicating earlier books without realizing it. As long as it’s been since I came up with this story idea, there’s a real danger that something might have seeped in without me being aware of it. I remember the strangest bits from these old books, and there’s a lot I didn’t recall as being specifically from these books but that’s still been churning around in my brain.

And I’m not going to tell what books these are because I don’t want anyone looking for influences. Maybe I’ll discuss them some other time in a different context.


Warm Again

I’ve had power ever since I wrote Wednesday’s post, so the worst seems to be over for me. I’ve been able to cook and stay somewhat warm. They’ve asked us to conserve power so it doesn’t strain the system, so I’ve been keeping my thermostat low and bundling up. I’ve got water, but they’ve asked us to conserve that, too. I may go wild and crazy and take a shower, though. And I think there’s going to be a home spa day this weekend because my skin is in dire shape.

I haven’t accomplished much, and I’ve written off the week for productivity. It’s hard to focus when you’re anxious and worried the whole time and when there’s so much uncertainty. I think if I’d known the power on/off schedule, it would have helped. It was not knowing when or if there would be power again that was so stressful, and then when it was on, there was not knowing how long it would last. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at night because the power coming on would wake me up. It made my security system make a strange sound, it turned on the heater, and it made the face of my alarm clock light up extra bright (I keep it off because it’s so bright). Then I’d start to get back to sleep, but every time the heater cut off, I’d look at the other clock that I use for the time (it has dim red numbers) to see if it was just the heater cutting off or the power going out. Eventually, the power would go off again, I’d get back to sleep, and then the power would come back on and wake me up. I actually spent one of the afternoons without power napping, since there wasn’t anything else I could do and I was so tired.

I’m making a list of things I want to have on hand for the future, in case this sort of thing happens again. Some of them were things I’ve said I should get in the past but never got around to, like a non-electric fondue pot I could use to warm up food without power. I was fortunate that I sometimes had power, so I was able to make tea and get it in a thermos, and I filled another thermos with hot water, so I was able to make cocoa during evenings without power. I had instant soup mix and some pouches of tuna. I had peanut butter, but had to eat it on graham crackers because I didn’t have any sandwich bread. I didn’t buy any because my plan for the snowstorm was to stay cozy by baking bread. Ha! No power meant no oven. Fortunately, I’d baked some fruit and nut bread over the weekend, so I had that for breakfasts with my hot tea.

I got creative for dealing with it all. I did makeshift weatherstripping around the front door, using plastic grocery bags to poke into the gaps with a dinner knife. I put sheets and blankets over the windows for additional insulation, and I lined up bags of newspapers (I’d procrastinated on recycling) along the baseboards on the north walls. I was able to keep the food in the refrigerator and freezer fresh by collecting bowls of snow from the patio and using them as cold packs. I also filled dishes with water and set them outside to freeze to create ice packs for the freezer. The milk I had is still drinkable, and it doesn’t look like anything in the freezer thawed, so I should be good there. Still, I plan to eat out of the freezer for the next few weeks and then restock rather than trying to keep anything that was in there.

I learned during all this that I’m more resilient and resourceful than I realized, but I’d still rather not go through something like this again, and I know I had it better than a lot of people. I have friends who still don’t have water, and I know people who went for days without power rather than having the rolling blackouts. I’m not sure how I’d have coped with that. I had offers from friends who had power to come stay with them, but the roads were too bad to go anywhere unless/until I got truly desperate.

Maybe next week I can get back to work and business as usual. My book sales this week went down to almost nothing, and it sounds like I’ll have a huge power bill coming up since they raised the rates due to high demand, so I need to write and get something on the market!


Cold and Dark

I don’t know if you’ve seen it in the news, but Texas has been having some issues this week. We hit a deadly combination of record-breaking cold plus an incompetently managed power system. For a couple of days, temperatures were around 10 F, but there was little to no electricity. My house is all-electric. Without power, there’s no heat and no way to cook.

Mostly there have been rolling blackouts. For a while, I was getting power on for about 3 hours in the middle of the day, then another hour in the evening, then a couple of hours during the night. The temperature in my house was staying around 45 degrees, going up a bit during the times when I had power, but never quite making it to 60. I do have a fireplace, but I didn’t have any firewood, just three of those Duraflame type logs that I have learned are really just for watching pretty fire and don’t put out a lot of heat. Still, they did take the chill out of the air the last couple of mornings.

I have power as I write this, but I never know how long it will last. Even though it’s mid-morning, I have chili simmering on the stove because I need to take advantage of having electricity while I can, and I’m getting tired of cold meals. It seems that the power-on phases are becoming more frequent, which is good. I had two rounds of power during the night, so the house didn’t get too cold and I was able to make a pot of tea for this morning and put it in a thermos.

I’m luckier than a lot of people. I have had power occasionally and a lot of people have been entirely without, and I still have water. It’s boring in the evening when it’s too early to go to sleep but too dark to do much of anything. I have a battery-operated radio, and I’ve done some reading on my tablet. I’ve done some book brainstorming, and in the afternoons when I have light through the windows upstairs, I’ve managed to read.

It does remind me a bit of the storm in Interview With a Dead Editor, though this time the cold came on more gradually and it was snow instead of ice. If I’d been traveling, I’d have been stranded where I was, probably without heat. So, I’m lucky to be home.


Turning a Story Around

I mentioned that I was revisiting an old story idea that I came up with a long time ago and even wrote and submitted, with no success. I started writing it again last week and then felt like I’d hit a wall. I had scenes outlined, so I knew what happened next. And yet I couldn’t make myself write.

At first, I blamed it on what I was reading. I reread Stardust, and then I was reading a book by Michael Chabon. Both Chabon and Gaiman are strong stylists with poetic language. I figured that reading writers with such strong voices while I was finding a book’s voice was tripping me up, so I dug up an old fantasy book I read in college that’s the sort of thing with a fun story but without a particularly remarkable style. It was one of the books I had in mind when thinking of that romantic journey type book, so I was doing more analysis of the structure.

I knew that I was still pretty vague on some of the elements of this plot, and I suspected that had something to do with why I felt blocked, so I sat down to do some brainstorming and get the specifics worked out. The main thing I was missing was a concrete external goal. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve seen is to give characters a goal so concrete that you know what it looks like when they get it (or don’t). That’s what I was missing. The good guys wanted to stop the bad guy, but there wasn’t anything more specific, so I made a list of things for both of the main characters, and I realized that the only really concrete thing I could come up with was for the other main character, not the protagonist.

I let myself consider flipping the two characters, making the protagonist the sidekick and making the sidekick the protagonist, and I felt the entire book spin around on its axis. I got physically dizzy for a moment. I’d been looking at this story in one way for so long, so I was suddenly seeing it in a different way, like one of those optical illusion pictures, where you see one thing, and then you blink and suddenly see an entirely different thing. And then the whole story clicked into place.

I resisted for a little, saying I was just exploring a possibility, because from the start I’ve seen this as the woman’s story. She was the spark of the idea in the first place. She’s the one who has her life totally changed and who goes through a huge character arc. But the thing is, the guy is the one who has a goal, and in part it’s his goal that upends her life. She’s just trying to get through this without having anything beyond that she wants. I can’t think of a way to give her a more concrete goal within this story structure. Switching these roles doesn’t change events all that much or who gets the bigger role. It just changes where the drive’s coming from. I feel a bit better now that scenes have started playing out in my head because making her the ally/sidekick has made her voice sharper, like she’s been freed of a burden and gets to cut loose.

After going back through my plotting outline with this change in mind, I think I’m going to take it this way because it all fell together so well instead of me being vague and hoping I’d figure it out later when I got there. I think the woman will take over and be the protagonist in book 2 because she’s got a concrete goal by the end of this book.

I mean, if I decide it warrants a book 2. I haven’t really started writing book 1 yet, so planning the sequel is a bit premature. I’m spending the rest of the week doing more outlining and planning, and I hope to dig into writing on Monday — unless it’s a snow day (which it might be). I know I don’t have to commute, but I also know I won’t get much done if it’s snowing because it happens so rarely here that I turn into a four-year-old when it snows. I think they said it’s been something like five years since we’ve had more than two inches of snow. We had about 15 minutes of flurries last year, and that was it.


More Lord of the Rings Thoughts

I’ve been talking about my recent reread of The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read the book since seeing the movies, and I watched the movies about a year ago, so they’re reasonably fresh, and that meant I sometimes had a mental image clash between the movies and what’s actually in the book. One big difference is the pacing. I’d forgotten that there’s a big gap between Bilbo’s birthday, when the story begins, and Frodo actually leaving the Shire. It’s 17 years between the party and Gandalf coming back to warn Frodo about the ring, and then it’s months later before Frodo actually leaves. I can see why they’d want to tighten that up to give it more urgency. Then they spend a couple of months in Rivendell. Even after they get word that stuff is happening and time may be of the essence, they take a week or so to leave. It’s not as though we get details of what’s happening in the meantime. It skips straight to the next time something happens, so it’s generally only a paragraph or so later, but it still feels less urgent, and I can see why that had to change for the movies.

That time jump means that Frodo is older than I remembered. He’s 50, the same age Bilbo was in The Hobbit. Since Hobbits come of age at 33 and live longer than humans, I would guess that makes Frodo the equivalent of 30-something for a human, so an adult in his prime. On the other hand, Pippin is 29, so that makes him a teenager, the equivalent of 16 or 17 for a human.

I think one of the things I like best in the book is all the forests, and I suspect that was part of what made me fall into the story in the first place. The first time I read it, I was living in Germany, on the edge of the Odenwald, a major forest (and literally on the edge, as in on the other side of the fence from our yard) and we’d moved there from southwestern Oklahoma. Before that, we’d lived in West Texas. Neither of these places are known for their trees. Being in a real forest was absolutely magical to me, so all the forests in the book appealed to me. There was the forest in the Shire where Frodo and the gang ran into some elves and had a dinner party in a hall of trees. There was Tom Bombadil’s forest. There was Rivendell. And then Lothlorien. And Fangorn. I’ve decided I might be part Ent, one of the walking trees. I feel most alive in a forest. And yet somehow I ended up living in the plains …

Another interesting pacing thing is the way Tolkien handled multiple viewpoints with parallel storylines. Most books (and this was the way they handled it in the movies) use that to build suspense, ending on a cliffhanger from one storyline and moving to tell part of the story for another viewpoint, ending on a cliffhanger there and moving back, and so forth. But he tends to tell all of one story before going back to tell the other story, with time stamps to give a good idea of how the stories fit together. I wouldn’t recommend doing it this way in a current submission, but I think it works here, even though I entirely forgot where we left Frodo and Sam before we got the entire story of the battle and then returned to their storyline.

Apparently, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis disagreed about putting religion or religious allegory into fantasy fiction — though Lewis didn’t consider the Narnia books to be allegory. He considered Aslan to be the incarnation of Christ as it happened in that world, not a symbolic representation of Christ. But I found myself amused by how much Aragorn comes across as a Christ-type figure — he’s a prophesied king living a humble, nomadic life with his disciples (the Rangers). He has to walk the Path of the Dead where no man but he can go, and he brings out those who’ve already died, forgiving their sins and redeeming them for eternal rest. He won’t enter the city as king unless he’s invited. The people are looking for a great king, though there is a prophecy mentioning that he’ll have the hands of a healer, but he puts aside his kingly trappings after the battle to go about healing everyone and first enters the city as a healer rather than as a king. It may be that this isn’t meant as allegory but is more a case of Tolkien basing a character on someone he admired.

I can see why the movies skipped the Scouring of the Shire because it makes for weird pacing to have this big conflict after the climax. Including it would have made the end of The Return of the King drag on even more than it did. I suspect that bit is some historical allegory, the idea of returning from battle to find the world changed. Industrialization really ramped up during WWI, and Tolkien, who was rather anti-industrialization, must have been horrified to come back to England after the war and find the idyllic scenes of his youth corrupted with the smokestacks of factories. I saw a documentary on Amazon about the places that influenced Tolkien, and they mentioned some of the places he’d loved and the changed that had happened there.

Rereading this book has made me nostalgic for Old School fantasy, so I’ve found myself digging through my shelves and rereading books I read as a teen.



Back to Middle Earth

I finished re-reading The Lord of the Rings last weekend, and I was glad I read it again. I feel like I’ve reclaimed something I’d lost.

I first read this book (books? On this go, I had an e-book that had all three books in one volume, treated as one book, but the previous times I read three separate books. And I’m aware that there are actually two “books” in each volume) in the fall of my sixth-grade year. I discovered the Narnia books at around the same time, but I don’t recall which came first. I know I didn’t read the entire Narnia series during that fall because I was still reading those books early the next year, but I did read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy during that fall.

It was during this reading of both series that the switch that turned me into a fantasy fan was well and truly flipped. I’m still not sure why it hit then and not a couple of years earlier when I first read The Hobbit. The Star Wars obsession around the time of The Hobbit probably did have a lot to do with it because I wanted spaceships and robots instead of hobbits and wizards. I still liked science fiction in sixth grade, but the sharpest edges of the obsession might have been blunted. It might have been the setting, as we’d moved to Germany then, and we spent a lot of time walking through dense forests like those described in The Lord of the Rings, and we spent weekends visiting castles. That made fantasy worlds seem more real, less abstract. It was easy to visualize these kinds of places because I’d actually been there. I know I started reading the Narnia books because my mom gave me a copy of The Silver Chair to keep me occupied when I had to meet her at her office after school and wait until she got off work before we could go do something. I don’t remember why I picked up The Lord of the Rings, though I do have a vivid mental image of standing in front of that shelf in the school library and looking at those books. My school was a combination of upper elementary and junior high in the same building (grades 4-8), so the library skewed a bit older than the usual elementary library. I don’t remember if I picked them up because I wanted more fantasy after The Silver Chair or if I remembered reading The Hobbit and was curious about the other books (I recall there being some of that, but I don’t know if that was the main trigger).

At any rate, I fell madly in love with these books. I was totally sucked in and tore through them. I wanted to crawl into the books and live in that place — maybe not during most of the events of the story, as that would have been scary — but I wanted to be in the Shire, to hang out with the elves in Rivendell and Lorien, to meet the Ents in Fangorn. I tore through the books furiously, and I was so excited when the animated movie came to one of the base theaters not long after I finished reading the series — and then was horribly disappointed when it cut off midway through the story (I know there was another animated film that continued the story that came out later, but I’ve never seen that one). I think if I’d been in a place where there were other fantasy fans and related activities I could have participated in, I might have really gone big — stuff like conventions, role-playing games, costuming, etc. But we didn’t, so I had to do all that stuff in my head.

I’m surprised that I didn’t reread the books during my lonely teen years, though I was reading a lot of fantasy at that time. I didn’t pick them up again until I was in college, when they were discussed in a class I was taking on “parageography” (the geography of imaginary worlds — worldbuilding). They weren’t required reading, but the professor mentioned enough things that I didn’t recall that I decided to reread them. And it was a total slog. The magic was gone. I barely got through the whole thing. That memory held me back from doing another reread all this time, even when I was considering it soon after the movies came out.

But I was almost as delighted this time around as I was that first time. It perhaps wasn’t quite as fresh, since I’m not 11, I’ve read a lot of fantasy since then, and I’ve written a lot since then, but it was still magical. The language was easier than I remembered, especially earlier in the book. It does go into King James mode in parts later, but it still read quickly and easily. I wanted to crawl into the books and visit those places the way I did in that first read. I want to go to a woodland elf dinner party under the trees, with lanterns hanging in the branches or sit by the fire in a cozy hobbit hole. If I had the fabric handy, I’d probably be making an elf lady costume for myself (though, physically, I’d probably make a better hobbit, since I’m short and have curly brown hair, but I don’t like being barefoot). One nice thing about being an adult is that if you want to do crazy things because you love a book, you just can.

I’m so glad I reread the books because I feel like I got some of the magic back. It was fun to visit that world again, and finishing the read was like coming home from a vacation, where it’s good to be home (and to read something else after weeks), but it’s also sad to leave that other, more special place. I don’t know if I’ll do yet another reread, but I have the book on my tablet, so I can dip into the parts I particularly enjoy.

Since this is already epic, I’ll have to get into my more specific thoughts on the series later.


Rebooting an Old Idea

Earlier this year (so, not that long ago), I made a plan for the year, outlining the projects I was going to work on and when I’d work on them. I’ve already gone off the plan, and it’s all the fault of that cheesy fantasy movie I watched last month. That got me started thinking about how much I love those fantasy stories in which two people team up on a quest or a journey, bicker for a while, save each other’s lives, and fall in love.

And then I realized that I’ve written a book along those lines. Sort of. It had the raw material for that sort of thing, but I forgot to put in any conflict, and then I separated the characters for some strange reason. I first came up with this idea the summer after I graduated from college, and what I originally came up with was a later story about one of the main characters, but then I decided that the story of what led up to that needed to be told first, and this was that book. I played with the idea for a couple of years, and then I needed something to enter in a manuscript contest at a conference I was going to, so I wrote a synopsis and the first chapter — and I won the contest.

But it took me nearly ten years to really write that book. There were a lot of stops and starts and many drafts. Finally, I got something I was willing to submit. It was rejected. A couple of years later I took another stab at it, and it was rejected. I wasn’t even too disappointed because I knew that it didn’t quite work. I just couldn’t say why. Still, I never forgot the story or the characters, and if an idea sticks with you for thirty years, then there may be something to it. It wasn’t until now that I realized what was wrong with it.

I’ve spent the past few weeks reworking the idea, doing some more detailed worldbuilding, digging deeper into what’s going on with the villain so that I can figure out what he’s doing and why, and reworking the plot. Not only did I entirely miss the story I was really telling, but I’d been way too vague about what was going on, and being specific made a huge difference in making a plot take shape.

I started another draft of the book this week. Well, not really a new draft, as it’s almost entirely different. I’m not even looking at previous drafts, so it’s like writing a new book. It just happens to have the same title, two main characters, situation, magical system, and big-picture plot. All the words will be different, unless there’s something in my subconscious that pulls up bits and pieces from before. I guess you could call it a remake or a reboot. I’ve been thinking of it as revisiting.

So far, the scenes I’ve written weren’t in the original version. I’ve gone in the opposite direction of most rewrites and added scenes before the beginning instead of cutting away scenes (usually the beginner’s mistake is to start the book before the story really starts). I needed to establish the conflict and the situation better, now that I know what it actually is. We need to see the characters apart and figure out what they need before I throw them together.

I don’t know if this will go anywhere or what I’ll do with it if it does. Right now, I’m just playing with it, figuring it out, and I’m learning a lot about what makes a story work by doing this analysis. At the very least, giving this story another try may finally make those characters shut up and leave me alone. One thing I find amusing is that in the new first chapter, one of the characters finds a body. I guess writing mysteries has really affected my writing style.


The Romantic Fantasy Journey Stages

A few weeks ago, I watched a movie that involved a man and a woman reluctantly paired up on a quest, and my immediate thought was “Yes, this is what I like,” but then I couldn’t think of that many others — and I realized I’d worked on a book that was essentially this, but I did it wrong.

So, since it’s my firm belief that if it’s worth analyzing, it’s worth overanalyzing, I went back and watched the movies I could think of that seemed to fit the trope (and realized that a couple I thought fit the trope actually didn’t and I was remembering them wrong).

It was a little eerie seeing just how well all these things fell into a pattern. And so, I present the stages of the fantasy romantic journey. I’m drawing upon Stardust (the movie, though I plan to reread the book to see how it works), Anastasia (animated version), Tangled, Frozen, plus that The Crown and the Dragon movie that kicked off this musing. Spoilers for all of the above below (though I am trying to avoid giving away the actual endings).

1) The Deal — character A needs to get somewhere and needs character B to do so (or will need character B at the destination). Character B isn’t keen on the idea, but character A has something character B needs, and so a deal is struck.

For instance, in Stardust, Tristan needs to bring the woman he (thinks he) loves the fallen star, who happens to be Yvaine. Yvaine has no interest in being brought as a prize, but Tristan has a Babylon candle that can return her to her place in the sky, so she reluctantly agrees to go with him. Or in Anastasia, Dmitri needs a girl who can pose as the lost grand duchess so he can take her to Paris and collect the reward. Anya needs to get out of Russia and to Paris to follow the only clue she has to find her family. They make a deal to help each other.

2) Bickering — they may have struck a deal, but at least one person still isn’t happy to be there as they set out on the journey. The two people generally have very different worldviews and different ideas about how things should be done. One person may be able to see past the other’s facade and figure out exactly what’s going on with them, which doesn’t go over well. Or person B, who doesn’t want to be on this trip, tries to talk person A out of it. All of this results in conflict and bickering.

Rapunzel refuses to return Flynn Rider’s satchel unless he takes her to see the lanterns, so he tries to scare her out of facing the outside world so he doesn’t have to take the trip. In Frozen, Kristoff criticizes Anna for getting engaged to someone she met that day and says she doesn’t know anything about love. Tristan and Yvaine are on different schedules, and he doesn’t grasp why a star would want to sleep during the day. Meanwhile, she needles him about the idiocy of giving a captive woman as a gift to try to win someone’s love.

3) Attack — Their first encounter with the enemy or with the forces against them. They have a narrow escape, either by teaming up or by one of them taking a risk to save the other.

Tristan and Yvaine are caught by the witch who wants Yvaine’s heart to restore her youth and power, Rapunzel and Flynn are chased by the guards, Kristoff and Anna are set upon by wolves, the train Anya and Dmitri are on is sabotaged.

4) Bonding — In the aftermath of their narrow escape (possibly starting during it), the two start to overcome their differences. They see each other in a new way after seeing each other in action. There’s some vulnerability as they open up to each other.

This is where Flynn confesses that his real name is Eugene and he’s a nobody orphan who created the persona of Flynn Rider while Rapunzel reveals her magic powers to heal his wound. Yvaine gently tells Tristan that she doesn’t think he should have to do great deeds to earn someone’s love.

5) Resuming the Journey — Once they’ve rested and recovered, they continue on their way, now functioning as a team instead of bickering. There may be some element of training going on, either them learning from each other or one or both of them getting instruction from someone else.

During this phase, we get The Dance. Yeah, that’s a weirdly specific thing that doesn’t seem to fit, but there always seems to be a scene involving dancing around this point. I don’t make the rules. I just observe them.

Tristan and Yvaine dance on the deck of the sky ship, Dmitri and Anya dance on the deck of the ship taking them to France. Rapunzel and Eugene are part of a big group dance at the festival, Kristoff and Anna are surrounded by dancing trolls, and the main characters in The Crown and the Dragon spend an evening at the castle of an old friend of his, where there’s a celebration going on and they end up dancing. She realizes her feelings when she gets jealous about him dancing with someone else, and then they have a moment while dancing together.

In most of these cases, the dance is part of a larger community rather than a totally private moment and is when someone else notices that there’s something going on between them, even if they’re not ready to admit it yet.

6) Departure — At or near the end of the journey, one character leaves or seems to leave the other character. Generally, it’s either a case of not getting in the other character’s way because that person is a princess/the chosen one/promised to another/has some greater role to play. Or it may be that person needing to wrap up some unfinished business from their old life before committing to a new life with their traveling companion. Sometimes, the person who left gets captured, so it looks like they abandoned the other person.

So, we have Kristoff dropping Anna off with the hope that her fiancé Hans can save her with a true love’s kiss, Dmitri skipping out because he’s realized Anya really is the lost princess and can’t be with someone like him, Tristan ducking out to ditch Victoria before being with Yvaine for good, and Flynn handing the stolen crown over to his partners in crime before giving up the life of “Flynn Rider,” only to be captured and imprisoned.

7) Return for the Final Battle — The character who left has a change of heart or realizes the danger the other person is in and returns, just in time to join the fight against the enemy, or at least help make victory possible.

One thing I found interesting is that the Attack is generally the midpoint of the story, even though it’s fairly early in the sequence. That’s because if you slot these stages into the hero’s journey format, the Deal comes during the “Tests, Enemies, and Allies” part of the hero’s journey. The hero has already been seen in the Ordinary World, has had the Call to Adventure and Refusal of the Call, has met with the Mentor and has Crossed the First Threshold before running into person B as the first ally they meet. There’s also a pretty lengthy prologue giving the backstory in all these movies. It’s in the book of Stardust, too, but that’s Neil Gaiman. I’m not sure most novelists would be able to get away with taking that long to get to the meat of the action. Then again, that may be me thinking in romance terms, where you want the hero and heroine to meet as soon as possible. If things are happening and there’s conflict, you may be able to delay the part where they team up for the journey.

The Attack equates to the Ordeal in the hero’s journey, and the Bonding is the Reward segment. The rest matches up pretty well to the hero’s journey, with the departure/return equating to the Resurrection.

For more action, you can repeat the Attack/Bond/Resume the Journey sequence a couple of times (maybe more in a long book), escalating each time. Frozen has Anna and Kristoff fending off the wolf attack before resuming the journey as a team, then escaping from the snow monster before having a moment of awareness before he takes her to meet his “family” and they’re surrounded by the dancing trolls who think they belong together. Anastasia has Dmitri and Anya escaping the train disaster, then her accepting his teaching before they dance together and have a moment, and then Rasputin tries to lure her into jumping overboard, but Dmitri saves her, and then they go on to Paris together (and are out on the town with dancing).

There’s no consistent pattern in which person — A, the one who wants the journey, or B, the one “hired” for it — is the one to depart and return, though it does always seem to be the guy who leaves and comes back. The departure and return may be part of that character’s arc, but isn’t always the main character’s symbolic death/resurrection. For instance, Rapunzel is the main character of Tangled, the one who gets the call to adventure and crosses the threshold, etc., but it’s Flynn/Eugene who literally becomes a different person as a result of her influence as he drops his fake persona and goes back to his real name. Unless, I suppose, you flip the story (and ignore that this is a Disney Princess movie) and consider Flynn to be the true protagonist, with his opening theft his “ordinary world” and his call to adventure being her request to take her to see the lights.

The pattern also seems to fit the road trip romantic comedies like It Happened One Night or Leap Year, but instead of an Attack, they have some sort of travel disaster, and the Departure/Return thing seems to be a back and forth between the characters, with the guy doing the initial departure at the end of the journey, since the journey has been about reuniting her with the person she loves, so he completes the journey and walks away, but then at the end she’s the one who realizes she’s with the wrong person and comes back to the guy she traveled with. I bet Romancing the Stone fits, too.

And now I need to figure out how to use this in the story I’m playing with. You’d think that having this structure would make it easier, but in a way it makes it feel harder because I have to figure out how it might fit each of these things. What does one have that the other needs? What will they bicker about? Who’ll depart and come back? Why?

What remains unsolved is how this trope ended up on the Evil Overlord List that was developed in the mid-90s, since the earlier films I thought might have been the source ended up not fitting the trope at all. I’d mis-remembered how much of the movie Sorsha spent traveling with Madmartigan in Willow. It’s a journey movie, and there’s romance, but it’s not really a romantic journey movie. And Dragonslayer ended up having almost no journey component, and though there’s romance, it’s not a case of the bickering pair forming the team that defeats the villain (though a dancing scene is pivotal in their relationship developing). I guess the bickering couple that teams up to defeat the Evil Overlord started in books (I can think of a few pre-90s examples) and in romantic comedies, and then was adopted into fantasy, which was known for quests. Why not a romcom road trip quest?