State of the Lands: Poetry in Epic Tales (Seriously, What Up with That?)

Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are many worlds, but only a single nature.

-Final Judgement, The Eye of Kog

I have a question. Or perhaps it’s a rant. And maybe no one cares, though I’m far too egotistical to go for that. But it’s a Two-World Tuesday (OK in all honesty, a world and a half, you’ll see what I mean). But here’s the thing:

Over and over in classics of epic fantasy which I adore, I hit a patch where there’s this poem. And I love-love the story, but the poem just stops me cold.

And I’m wondering- why on earth is that in there?

Keep the Tale Moving

As a modern-day epic fantasy author, I’m challenged to construct a story that somehow brings the reader into an entirely new world, slips in all the information they need to understand that world and empathize with the characters, and keep them on track with a

Illus. Rachel McReynolds

ripping good plot that forces them to turn the page. If there’s no magic, monsters, other races, incredible geography, unthinkably-evil villains and mind-numbingly old prophecies coming true… then why not write a paranormal-thriller-shapeshifting-romance set in the Alleged Real World? Like everyone else!

{<— Shapeshifter with romance, I got. Alleged Real World? Not so much!}

Point being– why are you stopping your draft for anything, for any reason, much less for something so overt, decorative, distracting and pace-slaying as a POEM. Yet that’s what our forefathers, the giants of the genre, did all the time. ALL the FRICKIN’ TIME!!

  • C.S. Lewis broke into poetry frequently, most annoyingly to my taste in Till We Have Faces, and just at the climax before we figure out what’s going on.
  • Not to be outdone, Tolkien put tons of songs into LoTR, both at times when things were already going slowly (Tom Bombadil singing about how much he loves his wife), and also at times of great pathos (the Elves of Lothlorien singing their grief at the death of Gandalf). But the former case, when we don’t need to care, is in plain English doggerel complete with heigh-ho’s and hey-nonny’s. In the latter, when we really could get some emotional impact from the words… then, Tolkien puts the poem into ACTUAL-FACTUAL ELVISH! Because of course he made up languages from like six years old, and they hadn’t built the signs to warn fantasy authors about world-building yet. I mean, honestly, Elvish? And it goes on for two pages!
  • Just this past month I finally got around to reading George MacDonald’s Lilith, which was a head-bender in its own right let me assure you. I staggered on through a tar-pit of allegory for about the first third, and finally caught the thread of his plot, hanging on for dear life and enjoying it fairly well. But I’m not kidding, hanging on.
    • Suddenly there’s a real situation: an evil-looking feline creature has run through the MC’s library and is hiding in a dark corner.
    • And this is kind of supernatural and he’s not sure what to do but his mentor the Librarian says “I got this”. And proceeds to recite a poem. No, not kidding. A rhyming poem, full of Christian allegory (which is fine, but now?) and all the assurance that the Guy Above is going to win (which is fine, but ditto).
    • And every three or four stanzas the cat in the dark corner yowls in pain, and I’m wondering is it because the goodness in the verse is hurting it, or are the metered rhymes just driving it nuts like they are me? And it goes on for at least four pages! Verse-Verse-Verse-cat yowls, lather-rinse-repeat.
    • The cat gives up hiding and comes out, and the plot labors back into gear again. And I’m still hanging on. But dude, why?

I got tired of just asking myself why about this, and decided to have a think. And here’s what I think.

They Kind of Had To

I’m not posing as a scholar of the historiography of literature here. I’ve read some stuff, looked back in my reading list, and thought about it a while. And I came up with some thoughts, maybe they’re even excuses. Nothing I say about these giants in the least bit diminishes their stature.

Poems Are What They Started With!

If you think about it, the roots of epic fantasy are epic tales, told by our ancestors and describing a world they sincerely believed had existed. Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Beowulf (you KNOW how JRRT went gaga over that one). All poems! Even the lays of Roland and Arthur were in verse: it was quite literally the stuff of which the genre was born. I hadn’t ever really considered that. The notion of telling a TALE with an epic fantasy flavor was far less than a century old by the time these guys got started.

A Whole New World

Here’s one I bet you might not have thought about: how many years went by with people writing extraordinary stuff– new discoveries, monsters, supernatural occurrences– but all still set in the Alleged Real World! Almost everything we think of as classic horror and sci-fi, it all stayed “here”. And why not, creating a whole world is so laborious. But the epics of the past, despite having gods and miracles and creatures beyond the pale, were nevertheless all still part of this world, and their authors believed it had all happened in their distant past.

Breaking away from that, to create something entirely new, did not come easy. Thus was born the emphasis on world-building. Though in fact, you ALWAYS have to build a world for your reader, even in lit-fic. But now it’s a game where ANYTHING could be on the chopping block of change– taxes, nuclear families, gravity– better explain it soon or the reader’s going to assume the default setting.

And I guess these guys figured that the best way to enforce the notion of a world’s character, its believability if you will, was for it to have poetry. Yeah, me either.

Put Your Name on It

Sort of related to the previous theme, some of the earliest efforts in fantasy were portrayed as frame-tales, or via “primary sources”, etc. in an effort to cloud the issue of authorship. How better to make a tale seem real than to point elsewhere for authority? This doesn’t do much to explain the existence of poems in the tale, but it does create a kind of buffer between the writer and any critique of their work. Hey reader, this verse is just there, don’t blame me! Then too, of course media wasn’t so rampant and easily available, the competition for a free hour not as desperate. Stories could take their time, perhaps, for a poem or two along the way.

Hey- They WANTED To

For all these reasons (and also just because, I suspect), the fantasy giants were drawn to the notion of writing poems into their stories. I can’t judge from quality– I mean, at all, I have no idea– but I think in many cases they were being true to their roots, in others perhaps they were truly trying to add verisimilitude to the tales and make them more believable by the lights of their day, and then too, in the case of the Christian authors, they may essentially have been trying to write hymns. Since the allegory put them in that vein to start with, they were looking at joy and worship and giving us their version of the Psalms. The ones I recall have meter, and could be set to music.

Thither Go I?

Can anyone name an extended passage of verse or lyrics within an epic fantasy tale of the last couple decades? I’m not the widest-read fellow and most of my page-flips are in the past, but I can’t pull up a single example. So, I should definitely avoid this trap in the future, right? I mean, I do have the usual ancient prophecy at the start of Judgement’s Tale, and a soldiers’ marching song in The Ring and the Flag. But when the bard Salinj’r refers to the cryptic tomb-epitaph they find in the Shimmering Mindsea, during The Plane of Dreams— you know, the epic rhyming verse poem that could serve as the basis of two or three plot seeds– I should bring those out in prose, I’m sure. Forget the rhymes and meter I found in there. And the Song of the Silvertongue, which I’ve only taken down maybe a quarter of: I should leave that alone in the mists of history, no point in bringing the other eight to twelve verses out in poem. Everybody already knows who won the Battle of the Razor.

Sure, that’s what I ought to do. I get it. Then I start to think about what makes a world seem real, and I come back again and again to the notion that the characters feel joy, have a capacity for happiness. Those kind of people, damn it, they recite tales, say stuff that rhymes, they sing songs. Just has to be part of the story, is all. I mean, I didn’t set out to write poems, I just… found them along the way.

What’s your opinion? Have you ever run across a poem in a tale that really boosted you along? Or are you one of those old-fashioned holdovers that isn’t looking to turn the pages at record speed? Comment here, you could be saving me from myself!

Audiobook Adventures Ch 4: Prep to Post!

Or did you think finding your own voice was just a metaphor?

We’re deep into this mad adventure now and I hope you’re enjoying it half as much as I am. As of this writing, my first book is “fully distributed” by Findaways and the second is awaiting approval. Having tripped over my own shoelaces with The Ring and the Flag I do feel my chances with Fencing Reputation are pretty good. But the time factor! Approval takes FOREVER, and that’s something I have to consider more carefully in future. Maybe just like with e-books and paper, having a stockpile before you release would be advisable. But for now, I soldier on with the first quarter or so of Book 3 Perilous Embraces, and it is proving to have its own challenges.

This installment assumes you have reached your second “done” line. The first came when you finished recording every word of narration. The second phase was going through that, cutting out bad spots, choosing the best takes, and even adding sound FX.

So now you have a smooth, complete chapter. No narration is missing, and all the added sounds, ambiance, environment and other things you wanted to hear in there, are there now. Great.

Get ready to produce this sucker.

Prepping the Track for Publication

I’m speaking in all this to the use of the recording utility Audacity specifically for the Findaways distribution service. To briefly recap– you can upload files to Findaways once and if they pass inspection, they will handle distribution to nearly 30 different audio-book outlets for you. Set a price once, and Findaways will handle the splits (including their own of course) sending you the rest.

But the files have to be ready-ready, I mean really ready. Here’s how.

Normalize and Compressor

These are two standard effects you find in the Audacity Effect menu, and you need to apply them both and in that order. I am no engineer but I can tell you that the impact of using these on your track will be to boost the sound level up generally (but guard against over-amping the level so that it doesn’t make a screech) and to some extent it smooths over the background white noise that’s there.

Click on Effect-Normalize, and take a look at this menu:

Make sure the top two boxes are checked (which helps keep the sound in a decent level) and set the dB box to -1.0. You don’t have to highlight any part of your file, it will automatically apply it to the entire thing (and this could take a half-minute or so). Done. You should see that the narration line has ballooned up to fill the width of the track– this is normal, and it may sound a bit louder overall as well (but like I said, it won’t be too loud). If you have places where your character shouted or screamed, you might click to those quickly and see if they still work OK for you.

Compression is just about the same routine. Click Effect-Compressor and gander at this enormous vista (DON’T PANIC!):

There are probably eighteen cool things you could do to make the sound a tweak better on this screen. Play with it by all means. But I recommend you make sure the top slider is set to read -21 dB (I believe it can be as low as -50 dB). The first box at the bottom was checked and I left it that way. But if your compression is not set to a range between -21 and -50 then your files will be rejected by Audible, the toughest of the online distributors as far as I can tell (and it takes them weeks to figure this out over at Findaways). So. Do this.

Once again it applies to the entire chapter and takes a half-minute or so to complete. The wavy lines get even fatter, most of the time, looking like they will burst out of their tracks soon. Which in a way is absolutely true– and the world has never heard anything like this! Indulge yourself in a hearty laugh of victory at this point. Then save the file, you fool.

Now one last step.

Listen to It Again

I know I already told you to do that before, several times. This is THE last time you have to do it (the rest are all optional, if you’re like me and can’t stand not to check again and again). But do yourself this favor, especially if you have added FX: I’m not 100% sure why but on a fairly frequent basis the sound levels get off-kilter when you Normalize and Compress. Here’s what I do:

Go to the start of the file and click on the space BETWEEN the tracks, just like the rows and columns in Excel or in a Word document table. You can click and drag each track UP so that it’s a quarter of its original size. Don’t worry, the sounds aren’t getting hurt. This way, you drag up all the tracks and you can SEE THEM ALL AT ONCE. Pretty bright, you get me? Now click Ctrl + 3 to Zoom out and voila! You have a wide view of your entire file, maybe a half-hour at a time. Click right to where your FX are coming in on the lower tracks and listen to a few seconds each time. Sometimes the FX you download and use are in stereo, or have a more professional quality to them– those tend to “bounce up” in volume and become too loud, even after you used Amplify earlier to shush them. Now you just have to shush them again, that’s all. Depending how many FX you have, it might be you don’t have to change anything, but it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

Got it? All Normalized, Compressed and re-Leveled? Deep breath. And hit Save again.

Time to make the finished file.

Creating the MP3

Man, this is it! The final step to create a finished chapter that’s suitable for upload to Findaways, and from there all over the listening universe. Feeling proud? You should be!

From the Audacity menu with your finished file open, click File-Export. A menu pops up that looks a lot like a Save-As menu in MS Word. You will do several things on this page and they’re all important. The LAST thing you will do is click on the “Save” button over to the right. The last.

First- click into the File Name menu and give your raw file a clear name. How about “Title-of-My-Book_year-Ch1”? Anything like that should do, just remember in some distributors the file name could be visible. Also if you send out copies as ARC for review.

Second, click in “Save as Type” below that to choose “MP3 files”. Because Duh.

STILL NOT CLICKING SAVE. Click on the bottom right button “Options”:

Try Bit Rate Mode: Constant, and be sure to drop-down the Quality menu to select 192 kbps. The default setting is 144 and that is not good enough for Audible, it will result in rejection. Select Channel Mode: Stereo, and then click OK.

Congrats. You saved yourself 3-5 weeks again!

Back at the main Export menu, you may NOW click Save. This takes you to the Edit Metadata menu where I advise you to fill in some of the rows for yourself, or at least blank out what’s there.

Edit Metadata gives you plenty of fields to enter info:

Artist Name: Yours, the Author/Narrator (Will Hahn, in my case)

Track Title: Title of the Book (“Perilous Embraces”)

Album Title: Here’s where I put the series name and book number (“Shards of Light, Book 3”)

Track Number: I use the chapter number here (1, 2, 3 etc.)

Year: This one!

Genre: Click into the box and see a drop-down menu, mostly different music types. You could choose “Podcast”, but I just typed in “Fantasy A-Book”

Comments: I wish I had thought of it earlier, but this would be a good spot to credit places like Findaways (in general)  or other help you had making this file. Or you could put in the dedication to your book.

Whatever you choose, look at this menu if only to remove some things that might have crept in there. If for example you grabbed a sound off Findaways that was recorded by a pro, they might have done this metadata thing and you’ll see that your entire chapter already has an artist and a name!

OK, so fill in this menu… hurry up, already, this is the big finish… and then click on OK, which might bring you one more message saying essentially “Hey, just so you know, we’re going to crunch down all these tracks into  a single track, just saying” and if you see it you can click OK to THAT. Because it is.

And finally, the utility goes to work and it takes maybe a minute to complete its job.

The fill-bar disappears and your file looks completely unchanged. Because it is. But back in the Audacity folder there is now a MP3 file with the the title you gave it.

Congratulations.

Next and last installment, I’ll show you how to post all your project files to Findaways and hopefully avoid some of the face-flops I encountered.

I used to say you can do this. Now you already have.