Category Archives: Lands of Hope

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!

Can You Hear Me Now? The Audiobook Adventure Continues

Since my last post in April, I have become increasingly absorbed by the effort to convert my tales to a-book format and I thought I’d report on that for anyone considering the same. This and following blog posts will be my answer to What I Did Last Summer, when fall 2018 arrives.

What in the Lands Am I Doing?

To be clear:

  • I’m leveraging the Smashwords-Findaways partnership announced earlier this year, where I can drop a finished product in the queue and they will handle distribution to two-dozen-plus outlets on their own. So that’s not the work I’m doing, I’m taking advantage of the offer for someone else to handle that.
  • As I said before, I absolutely insist on reading the narration myself. THIS is the work I’m doing now. As a day-job dilettante, my limited time can only go so far, and I feel a
    Spartan helmet optional. Coffee, so not.

    bit stuck on the next novel anyway, so this has been a good alternative (as well as a fun outlet for a desperate ham actor such as myself).

If you’re not interested in the first bullet, these posts are probably not for you. If you don’t feel you can handle the second, then this is not your work, but I still feel you should consider this outlet for your tales; there are of course many ways to get a narrator on your own and oversee their rendering. If folks want I could bring in some fellow indies to comment, and I did have the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Karin Gastreich once upon a time who had a terrific experience of doing just that. Perhaps in a later post we can check in with her again and see how it’s going.

But for the most part what I’ll be commenting on here relates to the points above:

  • Later on, I’ll post to report about how the distribution and sales appear to be going on the books I record.
  • Over this summer, while that is still baking I’ll talk here about the challenges and fun of actually creating one’s own audio book. You heard me (well, you read me)– you can do this if you like. Or you could just laugh at me trying to do it, that’s always an option.

Try, Try Again: the Need for Equipment

My first announcement turns out to have been a bit premature. The files I submitted, from my a-book version of The Ring and the Flag, were based on a recording I had done years ago and which, as I discovered, were not adequate to Findaway’s technical guidelines. The microphone I used to record the tale at that time was one of those omni-directional sticks that came for free with some computer game I bought back before Pentium was a thing. I swear to you, it said “Made in the Philippines” on one side, and on the other in very tiny letters “Viva Marcos”. So, yeah, poor quality.

Where is that noise coming from?

This was an epic struggle all by itself: I searched my entire house for the best room to read

in, made multiple tracks of each paragraph, and slaved away on my editing software (Audacity, by the way, fabulous program, high marks) to get the whine, the hiss-noise, the white fuzz out of the background. No soap, I sounded like Demosthenes trying to speak over the roar of the sea. Honestly, it could not have been less than a hundred hours that I spent altogether, for six chapters of around a half-hour each, to get one decent take of each section where my voice was louder than the whine the mike produced, from nothing, just from being that ridiculously cheap.

“This time my instrumentality is unbreakable.”

This was the product that Findaways rejected, probably for purely technical reasons like the kbps of the output. But I can admit now, it truly sucked. I cannot bear to listen to that version anymore.

Fortunately, I now have a dazzling-great Pronomic microphone sent to me by the incredible omnivorous publisher Katharina Gerlach at the Independent Bookworm, and I cannot begin to describe how much easier this job is now. I plug it in, open Audacity, and hit record. Then I start to read the tale And. That. Is. All. Background fuzz, white noise all gone: I used to have to keep my mouth in a range from the mike of about the width of a quarter, or I’d over-amp and under-amp. Now I can gesture, rock back, turn my head as I speak; and the mike picks it up, don’t get me wrong, but it sounds on the track just as if I had gestured, rocked back, turned my head. Background is clear and clean.

I’ve raved about it on my Facebook page, and at least two people have asked me where they can get one. Unfortunately, this brand (Pronomic) doesn’t seem to be available in the US, and I’m no expert but I’m sure products of similar quality are available. I can only recommend that you ask around to someone who knows recording equipment; the investment is absolutely crucial, but it’s a once-and-done and a pearl beyond price if you are thinking about doing this.

Does the Job TOO Well?

Some of my frustration (hardly worth mentioning compared to the old days) came with the mike picking up too well. I record with headsets on and they are noise-cancelling. So if one of the cats saunters into the room for a post-breakfast snack, I don’t hear it. But on the replay I laugh out loud; every dish-clink, each lip-smack is clearly there. I recorded the last scene of The Ring and the Flag, where Justin reaches the end of his mission, on a quiet Saturday afternoon with my ladies out of the house. On the opposite end of the ground floor here, thirty feet away, I had left the back porch door open a foot to let in the air. Across the back yard, maybe another thirty YARDS away, a single songbird was chirping how happy she was to have young ones in the nest or something. I heard nothing until the replay of course. Here I am, laying down the track of a marvelous city parade to the arena :: cheep! ::, with guards and litters and cymbals clashing :: chirp-eep! :: and Justin racing against time to reach the conference before the :: cheepy-cheep :: voting… OK, Take 2.

But all this moaning to make a point. It’s easy to do again. And I’ll talk about that next time.

How Long Will it Take?

I haven’t made precise measurements of the pace, but based on recording sessions I’ve done on this go-around, I would say you are going to be recording for roughly an hour per five thousand words of text. Your technique will probably vary and I’ll have more to say about the way I do it next time. That is what you’ll need to get a usable version of each sentence/paragraph. Editing that 5k section should take another hour, maybe two, and then if you wish to add F/X like music, echoes, etc. that’s rather open-ended. Personally, I love that stuff and can’t say enough about the resources of a site like Freesound. But you may want a purer track, fewer distractions, or maybe you haven’t really thought about your options there. I would liken the use of sounds in an a-book to that of word-art in an e-book. My tales on paper have ink-splotches, larger font when heroes are speaking, bloody marks on letters, and more. Something to consider.

Read the Tale Aloud– Not Selling Yourself Short

I have long been an advocate of authors reading their drafts aloud as a means to improving the work. Yes, I’m a ham actor, it’s true, and a Game Master of long standing and while we’re at it, probably the most ridiculously extroverted non-celebrity you’ll ever meet. So sue me. But when you read aloud, you catch repeat words, bad construction, breaks in the flow, and things that just don’t make sense. Habits you’ve become blind to in your enthusiasm, or fatigue: mistakes you are either leaving to a beta-reader to catch, or letting slip through to your readers to cluck their tongues at. I don’t argue it’s the only way. Just the best one I’ve found.

And now– see, this is the genius– if you decide to go a-book and narrate your tales… it’s also rehearsal!

Don’t try to kid a kidder!

Do you ever plan to be a famous author? And what would that entail, hmm, perhaps a public reading of your work in a library or bookstore? An excerpt to thrill millions on radio, whenever Terry Gross interviews you on NPR? Think about it, people. No sense dreaming of the Powerball if you don’t buy a ticket. Read your work. Out Loud.

And after you’ve done that a while, leave the microphone on.


More reports soon! Let me know what you’d like to, um, hear about my audiobook adventure.