Friday, February 20, 2009

Tastes Great, Less Filling

The Crown Conspiracy is an appetizer.

I am surprised I have not attracted more opposition for The Crown Conspiracy. Most reviews have been very positive. I suspect this has more to do with it not being a bestseller than anything. The amount of money an author makes appears to be inversely proportionate to the degree to which fans are critical. There appears to be a certain resentment if an author is successful. One comment I read was that, “JK Rowlings doesn’t deserve to be richer than the Queen of England.” Does any writer? Does the Queen of England deserve to be as rich as she is? I suppose it is the same sort of frustration one might feel when they see a young actor winning his third Oscar knowing that many of the legends—perhaps their all time favorite actors—never won one. It doesn’t seem fair. As much as I would like to be despised for my insane success, at this stage it is nice that I have received such positive attention. I am certain this will not always be the case. Should I begin making money, should my books become a sizeable presence in bookstores, so that they edge out others, I am certain negative reviews will pop-up questioning why this book deserves recognition. It will not matter that the price per volume has remained the same, or that the story is formed of the same words as when it was praised.

Still I am surprised that so many have accepted my book without complaint. It breaks nearly forty years of fantasy tradition, and yet to date only a couple of people (that are vocal enough for me to hear of it) have balked. A number of people have even praised the changes leading me to believe that there are more readers out there, like me, who felt a change was needed.

While a great case can be made that fantasy is the oldest form of literature beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and followed by the Odyssey and Beowulf, and the Arthurian legends (perhaps the first successful series of fan-fiction ever,) modern fantasy did not begin until the nineteenth century. While many people see Tolkien as the father of fantasy (still referred to as fairytales in his early days) he did not invent the genre. Fantasy began in the 1850s with the likes of George MacDonald, (who you might consider the forerunner of CS Lewis as his books dealt with people entering into different worlds,) who wrote “fairytales for adults.” But it was really William Morris who created the first completely alternate world (Tolkien’s forerunner and acknowledged influence) that started the genre.

Most fairytales were directed at children’s markets (as some of the most innovate still do today,) with the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan—stories complex enough for adults. Then in the 1920’s pulp magazines like Weird Tales became popular and launched several careers such as HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Then in the thirties and forties Tolkien and Lewis took the stage. They borrowed greatly from MacDonald and Morris, not only in plot devices but also in the dramatic/romantic language of the prose (although greatly toned down.) What the two added to the recipe was world-building and book series.

Tolkien’s success in the sixties (when his books came out in paperback) established him as the benchmark for all future writers in the genre. Some writers like Michael Moorcock rebelled against the new authority with anti-heroes, but most followed the master. Some a little too closely as Terry Brooks did with his Sword of Shannara, however, the success of his novel proved someone other than Tolkien could be successful in fantasy.

Like everyone else, I revered Tolkien’s work. I read it in the early seventies when little else like it was on the shelves, and I read Terry Brooks like everyone else, hoping to find the next Tolkien. I never found him. I began reading books in other genres, The Stand, Dune, Watership Down (still fantasy true, but not elves and dragons fantasy.) Then when in the eighties new authors appeared standing before the Tolkien Throne, attempting to draw Sting from the stone, I went back to read them and was disappointed. For me it was as if I had gone to war in Europe and returned to the farm and found it dull. The home I once loved felt so much smaller.

As time went on, as Eddings handed the baton to Jordan, Goodkind and Salvatore, the books got thicker, the series became longer, but the sword remained in the stone and the throne was looking shabbier than ever. A new kind of tradition had grown up while I was gone. Born out of Tolkien’s books this new consistency ordained that fantasy novels needed to be a thousand pages long. They required a vast cast of characters, whose personalities suffer from want of individual care. A world so detailed and elaborate that I felt I needed to take a course in it before reading the book. Romanticized prose, so stiff and backward, that reading becomes a challenge rather than a joy. Books starting desperately slow, humorless and plodding, ending in exciting cliff-hangers that left me cursing for two or three years. An unending series of novels that carry the usefulness of characters beyond their time, or merely repeat a formula. Lengthy prologues that delay the start of the story, but have become a staple fixture of the genre just as consistent as prophesies of young boys of dubious heritage growing up to be the savior of the world against the plans of a dreaded dark lord.

This is what I found when I began reading fantasy again, and why I decided to break with the established form. In my mind, I went back to the basics. It was not Tolkien’s elaborate world, or romanticized language that I found appealing in his books, it was how from the moment I began reading The Hobbit, I was drawn into the story. His books were inviting and compelling. I was never aware that I was learning about a vast world of complex systems, cultures and landscapes, I was just reading a fun adventure. It was simple, exciting and easily understood. When I got to The Lord of the Rings, the story became a bit more complex, but I already knew the basics and I wanted to learn more, and still the story and characters were strong and central.

With the new established trends in fantasy, the joy no longer existed for me. None of the books on fantasy shelves offered any hope. I randomly opened novels and read the first few pages and found them all so disturbingly similar. Then beginning with Rowlings, I started reading in the young adult section. There it was! The joy of fantasy! So many great innovative stories of strong, fun characters and imaginative plots. That’s when it dawned on me. The Hobbit was a young adult book too!

I never intended to get published, so it never dawned on me to try and fit in with the established form. I wrote what I wanted to read. I wanted a fantasy tale that was as compelling as a modern thriller. I wanted realistic characters I loved as friends that I could root for. I wanted a world that appeared before my eyes without the effort of reading about it. And I wanted a series, because one book is never enough when the story is really good, but I didn’t want the series to be sequels—a repeat or an add on. I didn’t want a new story, I wanted the old story to continue. I didn’t want to meet new characters, I wanted the main characters to grow. I didn’t want new mysteries, I wanted the old ones to deepen. But I didn’t want to be left on a cliff.

A few people have suggested The Crown Conspiracy is too short, that the main characters are not fleshed out enough, that they have been left wanting more. Certainly, fans may disagree with my choices, but these are not mistakes, they are intended by design. I went to great effort to resist the temptation to reveal the background and nature of the main characters, the world and the mysteries. By the end of the series readers will know the main characters as well as family members, their lives from birth to present, their hopes, dreams, quirks and failings as well as what made them what they are. But how often do you get this close to a person upon first meeting? Such relationships take time. A trust must be established.

The Crown Conspiracy is merely the appetizer to a six-course meal. It is designed to be a light and tasty course to merely awaken your appetite for the rest of the meal. It is an introduction, a deceiving trap, the hole I want readers to fall into, to plummet helpless into this new world, a far more thrilling entry than a dogged uphill trudge. The second book will also not satisfy the reader as it will not answer all the questions. Like the soup course, it will be warmer and more filling, but still leave the reader hungry. The meat of the meal is a long way off, but the wanting will make the main course much more satisfying, and yet those on a diet can stop at anytime and feel they got their money’s worth. It is my hope that when the meal is done, readers will be so full and content that they could not eat another bite. That they will lean back happily, dreamily remembering the whole meal and smile as they realize how it all worked together to form one flavorful, unique and effortless experience.

And yes, all six books are done, so you won’t be left holding the check before an empty plate.


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