Tag Archives: Epic fantasy

Getting to the Third Level of Writing

The writing I love. It’s literature I can’t seem to get along with.

In 10th grade, the final essay question on our test for “Catcher in the Rye” directed our attention to the final passage where Caulfield speaks longingly about his desire to serve as a kind of life-guard for children playing in a meadow- literally, the title of the novel. The question posed to us was “What did Holden REALLY mean?” I wrote a full response arguing simply that he didn’t mean anything- it was a job he had thought of and he really wanted to do that. Because hey, that was a great job! The teacher and I got into a rather furious argument- I know for a fact, she told me exactly what she thought about the true underlying meaning of the speech, but I couldn’t remember one word of it an hour later. Still don’t.

That stuff never meant a thing to me. I still struggle to get there, this third level of writing. Coming up on six years of formally chronicling the Lands of Hope, I begin to see, just dimly, a distant… something. It’s not something I do particularly well, or on purpose. But at least now I think I see it.

One more time, it bears repeating for those who just came in, I’m merely a chronicler. I have less control over what happened in the Lands of Hope than a first-time student driver on an Alpine ski slope with the brakes cut. Make it up? Puhleeze- it happens, I take it down. But no question, I can improve the way I describe it to all of you. You’ve done this yourself, right? The Lands of Hope are like a movie that you’ve seen but your friend hasn’t. There’s a way to describe the thing- concise, evocative, fascinating- you’re working uphill because every picture is worth a thousand of your words. If you get them interested enough to go see it on their own, give yourself a prize.

First level- the Plot

You need to put the events in order, they must lead to something, make sense by the end. Stories with plot weakness simply can’t work; the suspension of disbelief fails and there’s a chance the reader stops, never to start again. When I spot a loose end, or a lovely piece of description that doesn’t point to anything, it’s not fatal but I usually feel disappointed, or a bit impatient. Nowhere is this more of a danger than in epic fantasy- the world-building train so effortlessly becomes a runaway locomotive, taking the reader down a steep siding about magic forces, or the adolescent growth cycle of a gryphacorn, the alignment of the northwestern sky-quadrant… hey, where’d everybody go? Of course, fantasy carries a balancing advantage because you can have the most incredible things happen to sustain the interest level (at least temporarily).

Pretty much everyone does plot- I’ve read a lot of harsh editorials about how all indie pub is garbage, but I couldn’t have been this lucky in the stories I’ve downloaded. Personally, I have a lot of experience with story-telling: I’ve never thought that History was anything else, frankly, and I told those stories to high school students five days a week for thirteen years. I didn’t have any control over what happened in the Alleged Real World either… but I flatter myself that I got pretty good at putting the facts in the right order, having it all make some sense.

Second level- Character

Yeah, we’re going in ascending order here, this is substantially harder than Plot. You have to convey the tale through the vehicle of beings whose lives and choices the reader comes to care about. I bet there is isn’t a bad character on the internet- we authors often don’t introduce or describe them well enough, is all. That’s partly because there’s more wiggle-room: your character doesn’t have to have clear set goals, the conflict can hit them in differing ways, they don’t even have to be protagonists or antagonists in the traditional sense. But in my honest assessment, the biggest problem at this level is that the author assumes too much and shows too little. I’ve read halfway through a book before exclaiming to myself, “oh, really? This guy loves his country? That explains a lot!” or something similar. The patriotism was assumed by the author, but now as a reader I have all the work of thinking back, reconstructing everything that happened from that perspective- and I don’t want to do that, it’s already ruined.

When I try to assess my own craft, I would say again that Character is harder than Plot, but

I believe it’s the part I do best. I love and admire the heroes of the Lands, and I believe I can bring a certain depth-perception to describing them within the plot that helps inform, entertain and move the reader. In The Plane of Dreams, the intrepid stealthic Trekelny has taken it upon himself to open a cage in the enemy camp, freeing a wild tiger to roam in the nearby woods. The rest of the party catches up, and when one of them tries to reproach him for it, Trekelny coolly responds “I happen to like cats.” There is an entire story- Three Minutes to Midnight – from nine years earlier in his career to reinforce this one fact. And that’s just an example I can point to in publication. Time and again, I benefit from being able to back up a preference, or a love of something in my characters like that. I could tell you a whole story about it. Don’t challenge me on this- I will bury you.

This far I’ve been able to go on my own, by chronicling. And it’s made me rather happy, I won’t scruple to deny. Before I was telling these tales, setting my notes and memories to narrative, my brain was tenser, life less settled this past decade. The vocation of teaching gave me such great personal joy I didn’t miss out. But having a new life course, where I teach only as a pinch-hitter, plus the lack of contact with the Lands in other important ways, just made me miss it  more. So the telling has helped me tremendously.

And I think I always knew, I wasn’t getting where the really good, much less great writing went.

My daughter is home-schooled, so I overhear her mother talking to Genna about The Great Gatsby these days. And that’s what really pushed all these thoughts I’m having around the bend: I think to myself, “how could your writing ever be treated like this guy’s?” I say again, I never liked literature. The English teachers in school would gather to one side of the faculty room discussing books, even books I had read, in ways that made me feel stupid. Yet they were so engaged- gushing, really- over the deep meaning of it all. Those books had something I wasn’t noticing, a level of appreciation that maybe I’m not built to “get”, and if so, then I’m a poor guide to describe what it is to you. But a distant, misty glimpse is still something seen.

I call the third level, for now, Theme

It’s another entire strata tying the tale together, like Plot and Character, and I only guess from the clues of others and my inchoate vision, it’s the level that makes everything mean two things at one time. While all the stuff is happening, as the characters are displaying their virtues, vices and quirks, there’s just another THING that it all means. I can joke about it rather easily, even in my ignorance: pull my glasses down my nose, mimic holding a brandy snifter and say, “of course, it’s man’s struggle against himself”. Or nature, or the futility of breathing; or maybe it’s all of those things all the time, I just have no idea. Theme is the word one of my close friends advised me to consider, in the second year of my chronicling (2009). I was drafting my beloved opus, the work closest to my heart- and coincidentally the tale that’s coming out beginning this summer, at long last a trunk novel no longer. Judgement’s Tale means more to me than I can readily say, so it’s fair to describe my state as constantly heightened these days. But my close friend urged me to think of the theme of any longer work like this- what is the one thing it really means, he asked. And I could tell then he was onto something, I knew it. But I also knew that if I made any part of my work beholden to it- if I refused to continue before I answered the question- I would stop altogether, and probably for good.

Looking back, now that the novel is done and I’ve polished it seriously twelve times, I think I have an idea or two about what it means. There are some themes that run through the book. I know it would be better if I had noticed them from the start, worked them in and not settled for just letting things happen or for characters to grow and deepen in (my) ignorance of them.

But not to put too fine a point on it, that’s what writers do. Not me. My tales will either have deeper meaning for you, or they won’t. I pray for the former because I’m vain and because no one wants to do something less well than possible. But trying to describe the themes I see to you, as if some exciting movie I’d just watched, that’s where my train stops and I get off. I shall keep my counsel, for a change- but I am eager to hear your feedback around Theme especially, as you discuss the way you analyze tales.

Do you get to the third level in your writing?


A Salute to Sekinder: or, How Much Does a Golden Skeleton Weigh?

A post originally published elsewhere in 2012, now brought home to my own site.

This could be amusing to you, or perhaps it will serve as a dark warning about the dangers of writing epic fantasy to the modern world. I’m aiming for both!

I ran into a conundrum when taking notes on the most recent chapter of my WiP, “The Plane of Dreams”. I had first witnessed the events in this tale more than twenty-five years ago; before Hussein had invaded Kuwait, almost before Al Gore had invented the internet. I’m not a scientist, I studied history. But enough excuses. I saw something back then, in the Lands of Hope, and now was starting to doubt the truth of it.

{Brief aside, for anyone tempted to conclude that I made this whole thing up. I repeat, I am not a writer, but a Chronicler, and the event I refer to was witnessed by over a half-dozen others. So, nyah.}

Oh the Places You’ll Go…

To the matter at hand: 26 years ago (real world calendar), a group of heroes and I were observing the fabled underworld city of Jengesalamur in the year 2001 ADR.

The Tributarians, after surviving several weeks on the perilous Shimmering Mindsea, had discovered the ancient city of Despair and come across notes from the journal of Sekinder, the mad alchemist who had been the city’s ruler millenia ago. In his diary, Sekinder made obsessive references to his quest to find the Eternal Reagent, a chemical solution that would turn any substance to gold. After much searching through the city, and fighting against undead guardians there, the heroes came across the alchemist’s laboratory. There, to their horror and astonishment they viewed all that was left of Sekinder: a perfect golden skeleton holding a bubbling alembic over his head in short-lived triumph.

A True Treasure “Haul”

After much rejoicing, a few unkind jokes and some more deadly encounters, the Tributarians hauled the skeletal treasure back to civilization, thus ensuring the fame and fortune with which they began the tale known as “The Plane of Dreams”. Now that I was tasked with writing up that story, a sudden thought gave me a chill- was this even possible? Not the bone-to-gold thing; that we accept as a matter of course. But what would readers say about a golden skeleton?

Could they have moved it? And what would it be worth?

As I said, I am an historian, not a mathematician (or a doctor, to echo James “Bones” McCoy!). My early calculations, containing several important errors, indicated a weight that wImage result for i'm a doctor not an escalatoras beyond credit. I almost panicked- what had I missed? Was gravity in the Lands of Hope as low as that on Barsoom? Was Spitz, the party’s largest warrior, five or six times as strong as my notes indicated? But I knew what I saw, so I plunged back in and eventually straightened out my calculus. You might say I boned up on the subject. But I wouldn’t.

Sekinder was, for all his evil and arrogance, a normal-sized human, a bit thin and tall like others of his era. We can safely assign him a weight of 150 pounds and height around 6 feet.  The weight of a human skeleton (using Bing to find all my mathematical/scientific data points) ranges from 12-20% of the total, and I used the suggested average of 15%. At this point I converted to metric (because of the later calculations needed) so I concluded that Sekinder had 10.13 kg of bones under his skin. Who’d have thought the old man to have so much calcium in him…

He Ain’t Heav– well, OK he’s NOT my brother

If all that mass of bone converted to gold, the total weight (gold being 10.17 times as dense as human bone) would be 102.96 kg (around 225 pounds) of golden treasure on the hoof. Literally.


But just a moment, what about calculating via volume? What is the volume of a human skeleton, and what would that weigh converted to gold? This route yielded a more interesting, and somewhat more alarming figure.

The only solution I could find was to draw an imaginary cylinder around Sekinder. The formula you’re looking for is:


And assuming Sekinder’s diameter is 2 feet and height 6 feet, you arrive at 32,556 cubic inches. How much of this was comprised of skeleton? I could only guess that it was a small percentage, since the cylinder contained a lot of not-Sekinder within it. I used a figure of 5%, yielding 1,628 cubic inches. Converting to cubic feet and then to cubic meters gave me just 0.03 cubic meters of bone. Seemed small, but that gave me a startlingly-high 50.69 kg of human bone in the alchemist’s body- in gold, a whopping 515 kg (over half a ton in English pounds)!!

Man Enough!

Even so, I realized, Spitz could do the job of moving it.

This is where it gets tricky, because while we observed these heroes of the Lands closely over the years, we couldn’t actually pull them into our world and give them a nice NFL tryout or other means to gauge their strength. But I used some guidelines I had developed in my notes. Please understand that Spitz, at six and a half feet of ripped muscle, is enormously strong. Spitz can use his foot to batter open locked doors, and if he drops his two-handed sword he can snatch up tables and chairs to swing as weapons. He’s also a true shield-brother with a sexy deep voice, charming smile, not a jot of fear and a snazzy dancer. OK, exaggerating about that last bit. But he’s STRONG.

Spitz can lift and carry 90 kg for a long period. So by my first method, he could almost tuck Sekinder-in-gold under his arm and walk away. If he sets his mind to lifting, Spitz can certainly bench-press 125 kg (about as much as he weighs) and dead-lift nearly 180 kg; more than needed by the mass-method, but still short by the volume-method. However, he doesn’t need to lift the statue, he only needs to SHIFT it. With no mechanical assistance, he can push 324 kg, and with maximum exertion Spitz can shift up to 450 kg, which is pretty close. Spitz and the heroes rigged up a travois, like a cot with two wheels on one end, and carted Sekinder off with his arm in the air and that look of astonishment still stamped on his skull-face. Spitz split time with the others in the party (who worked in pairs) hauling it over sand (admittedly, not an ideal surface).

So they WERE able to move Sekinder- affectionately known to the heroes as Golden Boy- though not fast enough to outrun the nine-foot tall iron demon-golem who guarded the city. But that’s another story!

How much was this treasure worth when they got it home? As you will see in the tale, Sekinder was never melted down and cut up into coins; the statue was sold intact as a work of art. So once again I had to estimate. Depending on which method you fancy, the Golden Boy weighed in at either 3,300 or 16,500 Troy ounces (the unit of measure whereby gold is valued in the real world). I didn’t bat an eye at purity- nothing but 24-carat gold, I was sure, would do for an evil alchemist willing to spend that long and work that hard for success. At a current price of $1,657.45 (goldprice.org, noon on Thursday April 26th 2012), that yields a market price (before Imperial taxation of course) of between $US 5.4 and 27.4 million. The Tributarians probably got ripped off on the price, and still were outfitted with new enchantments, the finest equipment, nothing but the best… until the robbery…

So then- how much of all that went into my story? Not one jot.

But yes- evil does not pay (though it can occasionally generate a lot of loot for the good guys). Sekinder did die in the moment of his victory, the Tributarians did haul him back to town, Spitz was bushed (yet still manly), and the heroes were definitely rich as well as famous. It’s a relief to know that my eyes did not deceive me.

Here’s hoping that the internet age won’t rise up to haunt you in your writing.