Fantasy Unchained

I’ve written seven novels. The first two were published; the other five haven’t been. Three of those five my agent (who I guess is now my former agent, more or less) declined even to try to market. He didn’t feel they were commercially viable, and he may have been right. It’s very possible that my stories aren’t gripping enough to provoke excitement among hard-to-impress publisher types.

Even so, every few years I get the itch to try it again. Right now I’m sketching some ideas for a fantasy novel. The idea of writing another less-than-publishable book, however, fails to stir me. If I’m going to put all that work into developing a story, I’d like to believe, or hope, that other people might enjoy reading it too.

To that end, I thought I’d do a little survey of what’s going on in the fantasy field. I have my own favorite authors, but they’re not necessarily representative. Terry Pratchett sells like gangbusters, but I have no interest in writing like Terry Pratchett. Tim Powers I happen to like a lot, but I don’t think he’s a hot seller.

Poking around on the Web, I made a list of about 20 authors of epic fantasy series, folks who seem to be selling decent quantities of books. Hard sales figures are not readily available, but given that there are 14 books in Robert Jordan’s series, it’s a reasonable bet that the publisher was happy with the sales of volumes 3, 4, 5, and so on.

I approve of writers’ habit of putting the first chapter of a book up on their website. It gives me a reasonable glimpse both of what the book may be like and — more important — what elements these writers feel will draw in fantasy readers.

One strategy, in books that aren’t the first volume in a series, seems to be to bring in as many evocative references to earlier volumes as you can. Presumably, this reminds the series reader of what has gone before while also giving the newcomer a quick sketch of the back-story, which he or she can hope will be filled in later. In the first short chapter of Naamah’s Blessing, by Jacqueline Carey, I found mentions of Marsilikos, Master Lo Feng, the Five Cycles, Ch’in, Terre d’Ange, Naamah, Blessed Elua’s Companions, Anael the Good Steward, Bhaktipur, Rani Amrita, Ravindra, the tulku Laysa, the reborn Enlightened Ones, something called a diadh-anam, the White Queen, Alba, the Maghuin, Dhonn (the Great Bear Herself), a Yeshuite fanatic, Vralia, Jehanne de la Courcel, Raphael de Mereliot (Lord Lion Mane), and Eisheth. All crammed into what looks to be about four pages. And while that content is being ladled out, there’s not a speck of action. The viewpoint character is standing at the stern of a ship, looking out at the wake in the moonlight. Her husband comes and stands beside her. They talk a bit; the chapter ends.

It would be easy, and it’s very tempting, to heap scorn on this performance. It’s certainly not how I prefer to write. I believe pretty firmly that a book should get the reader’s attention by deploying some action on page one, if at all possible. I also believe that new elements should be introduced one at a time, and only in a context where the reader will be able to figure out what they mean.

On the other hand, Jacqueline Carey is selling books, and I’m not. So I have to take seriously the possibility that she’s doing something right. Maybe fantasy readers like it when all those exotic-sounding names and places and terms are spinning around in their heads at high speed. Maybe the subconscious connotations of made-up words are more important than any sort of narrative logic.

Personally, I’m a big fan of narrative logic. I like a story to make sense. This may be part of my problem.

When I was a freshman in college, I heard a lecture by a visiting professor. I’m no longer even sure of his name, but I remember this anecdote. He said (paraphrasing only lightly), “I sometimes wonder about the role of the college professor. In this regard, I’m reminded of the Zen proverb, ‘There are many roads, but only one mountain,’ and of Rousseau’s famous dictum, ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ A college professor, it seems to me, performs the same function as a Highway Patrol officer on Interstate 80 when you’re heading east over the Sierras in December. His job is to make sure you put on your chains before you start over the mountain.”

Maybe, in wanting the story to make sense, I’m being dragged down by chains.

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One Response to Fantasy Unchained

  1. As I cannot remember reading any of your works, it is hard to imagine being able to offer any advice on the question you are asking here, however, that very fact points me to, and underscores, what advice I can offer.
    Self publish.
    Better yet, give it away.

    I would at first suggest that you make the first chapter of your published works available, that would require absolutely no addition to the skills you’ve already demonstrated.

    You could also make the first chapter to your unpublished works available, and offer an opportunity to buy a download of the entire work, right here on this site.

    In light of your question here, I would actually recommend that you give away every work that you have the right to, and use the resulting demand side data to point you towards where you have been most successful. Then you could withdraw the offer, and sell the ones that were most pop.

    In either case, I imagine you are at least constrained from giving away the works published commercially.

    In terms of controlling, or charging for, self published works, you are also severely handicapped by using WordPress.com. I would be happy to advise you on how to set up a wordprss.org site to accomplish such goals. I am rapidly becoming a bit of an expert in which plugins and practices are best, and am currently looking into ecommerce and self publishing.

    It is far easier than you might think, esp. with someone to help you through the conceptual roadblocks. I can also help you get an extremely good deal with dot5hosting.com, one of the few hosting providers I can recommend (Dreamhost is also very good for such purposes as you would have).

    Furthermore, should you want to avoid purchasing a decent server account, I would gladly set you up on my account to get started, for just the cost of your chosen URL (7-15$/yr).

    The easiest ecommerce setup is one that charges to download content. For this you would also need to establish a Paypal account or some similar instrument.

    This is a serious offer, regardless of how I feel about your work, I like and respect the person you present here.

    My best advice is to first give away everything you can by linking to free files from this page (I am not that familiar with how/if one can upload files here, I use wp.com, but not for much but auto-reposting). if you need an easy free place to host public downloads, that would mos def be no problem at all for me to help with.

    When you have found the ones that “sell” best, then set up a site to sell and promote them. The only real effort that would reequire of either of us is your choice of templates (one of the many reasons to host your own WP site is the wider functionality, and choices, of templates, not to mention the extensibility of plugins, like the ones that enable registration, membership, and/or ecommerce.

    Anyway, feel free to contact me at geanark@gmail (put your name in front of the subject, I miss a lot of emails these days – maybe try a resend every few days passed w/out a response) about advice or actual help with hosting files or site(s).

    There is no rush, I’m working on some sites that would offer my advice and links to the best advice by others, but currently have a few roadblocks in that process, and several similar big collections of links I’m wanting to publish.

    When it comes to templates and plugins, there is a lot of trial and error involved, and in many cases I can help you save months of otherwise wasted efforts with just a few minutes spent on correspondence.

    I’m not trying to sell you anything, and this offer, for completely gratis advice and assistance, or even an initial setup and a year or two of hosting, is only for Jim Aikin.

    I am absolutely a WordPress evangelist, but am not at all impressed with WordPress.com. It serves your needs to date well enough, and brings with it a social community, but any real extensibility or functionality is either far too expensive or sadly lacking compared with the ease, power, and price of doing it on your own.

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