On the Importance of Nailing the Landing

I’ve recently read a number of free or bargain-priced Kindle books that should have been right up my alley: They featured heaping spoonfuls of magic, mythological creatures, compelling world-building, mystery, and rip-roaring adventure. But they all had the same problem. They were all the first volume of a multi-book series, and it showed.

To be honest, I like series, and some of my favorite fantasy authors do them exceptionally well (I’m looking at you, Rick Riordan, Benedict Jacka, and Jim Butcher). If the characters are interesting and draw me into their world, I’ll be all over that stuff. But I still want each book of the series to have its own proper conclusion. I want a clear sense of development, that the protagonist has not only left Point A, but that he or she has arrived conclusively at Point B.

I wrote Children of Pride (Into the Wonder, book 1) as a standalone novel. I had an idea of where sequels might go, but I wanted the story to hold together on its own, and my sense is that it does. The Devil’s Due (book 2) has a pretty strong sequel hook. You know more adventures are coming, but the story itself still has a fitting conclusion. The same is true for Oak, Ash, and Thorn (book 3). The River of Night (book 4) is still in production. I think readers will like the conclusion, but the less I say about that right now, the better! 😉

So, I want good stories that stand on their own two feet, but I’m still a big fan of sequel hooks. If you want to throw me hints about a bigger, more dangerous world looming on the horizon, knock yourself out. I can even deal with a well-written cliffhanger. (I prefer not at the end of book 1; your mileage may vary.)

To be bluntly to the point, if I don’t know that you can bring your novel to a fitting conclusion, how can I trust you to do it with a series? Please end your novel and don’t just stop when you’ve reached the desired word-count. Give me a sense of resolution, a sense that the protagonist has achieved the goal he or she set out to achieve, and experienced a little character development along the way.

Do that well, and I’ll gladly read book 2. I promise.

Some Random Observations on “History of Magic in North America”

This past week, J. K. Rowling has sketched out a “History of Magic in North America” in four brief daily installments. As you may have heard, Native Americans have expressed disapproval at how their culture is depicted especially in the first of these snippets. (Yes, I’m quite aware Native Americans represent more than one culture; that’s part of the problem.) Others have found these essays wanting for other reasons. Though I am unwilling to call it a “travesty from start to finish,” I do believe it is a disappointing effort. Given the nature of this blog, I thought I owed it to my readers to share a few random observations on the matter.

1. J. K. Rowling Is Not the Devil

On the contrary, she strikes me as a considerate and thoughtful person. She has certainly inspired many, both through her personal story and the stories she has written for the world. My daughter is a great Harry Potter fan—as am I. I will continue to enjoy Harry Potter, and I look forward to seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, though I will admit that “History of Magic in North America” has caused me some misgivings about how this latest project will shape up…

2. J. K. Rowling Doesn’t Seem to “Get” America

I’m sure she has visited the States on many occasions. She probably has American friends. But her account of wizarding history in North America strikes me as somewhat tone deaf. As but one example, Rowling makes Puritanism and the Salem witch trials of 1692 a benchmark for all of wizarding North America with hardly a thought to the facts that (1) other colonies had different religious sensibilities and were founded purely in the interests of economic gain and (2) England, Scotland, and other parts of Europe were undergoing their own bouts of witch hysteria in this same era.

I understand this is most likely done to set up the plot of the Fantastic Beasts movie, but it strikes me as presenting a “theme-park” version of American history. One of the things I enjoy about Harry Potter is how British wizarding culture builds upon, parallels, and even satirizes British Muggle culture. For instance, even as a non-Brit, I know a bit about “A-Levels” in the British education system and can chuckle at their corresponding wizarding “OWLs.” It looks to me like Rowling has written the history of wizarding America in such a way that these parallels are not likely to exist, which is likely to diminish my enjoyment of Fantastic Beasts.

3. America’s History of Racial Violence Should Be Handled with Great Care

I’m not going to say Native American beliefs and folklore concerning magic, fantastic beasts, and so forth are off limits for fantasy writers. Nor, for that matter, should be the mythology of West Africans brought to North America as slaves. To be honest, leaving these elements out strikes me as more colonialistic than including them. Writing off black, Native American, or other non-white contributions to American life and culture leaves a story at best only half-told.

The challenge, especially for someone of European descent (something Ms. Rowling and I have in common), is to listen to these other cultures and go the second mile in attempting to depict them with dignity and integrity. Lumping all Native Americans together in one monolithic culture doesn’t do that. Neither do references to Native American medicine men as charlatans who only “fake” having supernatural powers. Nor do comments about Native Americans excelling at animal and plant-based magic, especially when paired with the observation that Europeans introduced the wand to North America. To me, this sounds like Native American wizards have plenty of raw power, but need the refinement and sophistication provided by European wand technology. I hope I don’t have to go into why that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

4. Fanfic Might Have Fixed Some of This

Disclaimer #1: At least 90% of all fan fiction is crap.

Disclaimer #2: I have written my fair share of Harry Potter fan fiction.

But here’s the thing. Lots of Americans  have wanted an American version of Harry Potter’s wizarding world for years, and some of them have wanted it enough to write their own. There is even a community at fanfiction.net for Potter stories set in America. Some of these spin out entirely new characters and settings in a world that is clearly the same as the one inhabited by Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest. Some of them send familiar characters across the Atlantic for new adventures in the States.

What makes even bad America in the Potterverse fanfic worthwhile is that it is all written by Americans. This means that even unimaginative, half-cocked stories depict an authentically American vision of what Magic in North America might be like.

I’m not saying Ms. Rowling should have done her research at fanfiction.net! (Heaven forfend!) I am suggesting, however, that it would not have been too difficult for her to have found some thoughtful American fans to take “History of Magic in North America” for a test drive and point out aspects that didn’t quite ring true.

West African Monsters and Faeries

James Calbraith has started a new series on less-familiar (to North Americans) mythologies over at Fantasy Faction. Check out the first installment, which deals with a number of creatures from West Africa:

Elves, trolls, dwarves, goblins… There’s no denying that the Western fantasy is strongly entrenched in a Northern European mindscape: those ancient myths of the Celtic and Germanic people that inspired Tolkien and his epigones. Writing about elves and dwarves is always a safe bet; when an author wants to be original and adventurous, they might look into the myths of the Mediterranean: Greek, Roman, Egyptian. Sometimes we venture into the Far East, and populate our worlds with qilin and long dragons, or, even rarer, into India or Persia. This seems to be the farthest horizon of our inspiration. Beyond that is the weird territory, with creatures born out of the writer’s own half-deranged mind in an attempt at uniqueness – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But the world is vast and old, and every culture has its share of strange and fascinating; there is a vast stock of ideas out there that you can tap into before running out of inspiration. In this series I will attempt to present some of these myths and legends. In the first episode, I tackle the mythologies of Western and South-Western Africa, a region stretching from Sahara Desert to the jungles of Congo, populated by a complex mix of cultures, nations, tribes and peoples descended from ancient Empires.

If West African mythology is your thing, you might also enjoy some of my write-ups about West African faery folk:

Krampusnacht is Tonight!

krampusHappy Krampusnacht to those celebrating…or cowering under their beds in terror!

For those who don’t know, Krampus is Santa’s demonic henchman. He’s a figure in Germanic folklore, generally from Alpine regions such as Austria.

Here are some fascinating facts about Krampus from mental_floss:

December 5 is Krampusnacht, when Krampus reigns. In the real world, people might attend Krampus balls, or young men from the local Krampusgruppe might don carved wooden masks, cowbells, chains, and elaborate costumes to run through town in a Krampuslauf (Krampus run), frightening and sometimes beating bystanders. According to legend, Krampus will spend the night visiting each house. He might leave bundles of sticks for bad children—or he might just hit them with the sticks instead. He might toss them into a sack or basket on his back and then throw it in a stream, or he might straight-up take them to hell.

The next day, though, is Nikolastaug, St. Nicholas’ Day—the same St. Nicholas whose Dutch name, Sinterklass, evolved into “Santa Claus.” In other words, it’s time for presents for all the little girls and boys … that is, all the ones who haven’t already been beaten, damned, or drowned.

And here’s a post on Krampus I wrote a couple years back.

Building a Better Bedtime Story

Now we know.

The ideal bed time story should be just 8.6 minutes long, feature a dragon, a fairy and a wizard and be set in a castle, the Telegraph reports that new research has revealed. Many a parent has melded the literary greats with the themes of Hollywood blockbusters to create bedtime stories to tell their young ones.

But now the formula for the ultimate bedtime tale has been revealed for the first time. A new study of 2,000 parents and their children has shown that the ideal story should last just 8.6 minutes long.

Characters should include a dragon, a wizard and a fairy, said the families who participated in the survey, and should ideally revolve around a mythical castle.

Children said that they enjoyed a brief moment of peril where the hero is endangered before ultimately triumphing over the forces of darkness. A happy ending is essential, according to nearly all of those surveyed with most children shunning love stories in favour of fantasy.

For what it’s worth, the fourth installment in the Into the Wonder series, with the working title The River of Night, will include a faery (lots of them, actually), a wizard, and a dragon. A visit to something that might be construed as a “castle” will also be featured. So other than the time restriction, I’m good to go. 🙂