The Gormenghast Novels

Gormenghast trilogyOne of the strangest, most compelling series of books I ever read was the literary, yet still fantastic, Gormenghast series of novels, written by the late Mervyn Peake during the years following WWII.

It has been said of this series that it is the the first true fantasy of manners.

Satirizing the manners and affectations of a social class or of multiple classes, often represented by stereotypical stock characters, a “Fantasy of manners” is fantasy literature that owes as much or more to the comedy of manners as it does to the traditional heroic fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien and other authors of high fantasy.

The Washington Post Book World had this to say about the series:  “This extravagant epic about a labyrinthine castle populated with conniving Dickensian grotesques is the true fantasy classic of our time.” 

The immense,  labyrinthine Hayholt, featured in Tad Williams’ epic masterpiece, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,  seemed reminiscent of castle Gormenghast to a certain extent, when I first read that series. I don’t know if Williams is a Gormenghast fan–I’ve never asked him, although I should. I do know he is not afraid to write great literary fantasy.

The Gormenghast series opens with the book, Titus Groan. Although the book takes its name from Titus, and he  is technically the main character, the book only covers the first two years of his life. Titus-the-baby appears infrequently throughout, but is still an integral part of the plot, inciting change in the routine of the immense castle. At the age of one, he becomes the Earl of Groan. The great library has been deliberately burned, sending the old earl, his father, spiraling into madness. He vanishes, having been eaten by Death Owls (!) while attempting to hide the body of his murdered chef, Swelter, who was murdered by another of his servants.

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Mark Robertson’s cover illustration for the Mandarin paperback edition

Wikipedia gives this as the plot introduction for the series: “The book is set in the huge castle of Gormenghast, a vast landscape of crumbling towers and ivy-filled quadrangles that has for centuries been the hereditary residence of the Groan family and with them a legion of servants.

“The Groan family is headed by Lord Sepulchrave, the seventy-sixth Earl of Groan. He is a melancholy man who feels shackled by his duties as Earl, although he never questions them. His only escape is reading in his library. His wife is the Countess Gertrude. A large-framed woman with dark red hair, she pays no attention to her family or the rest of Gormenghast. Instead, she spends her time locked away in her bedroom, in the company of a legion of cats and birds, the only things toward which she shows affection.”

GORMENGHAST-72dpiThese complicated, convoluted books of nonsense are not for everyone. They are beautifully written, but the less perceptive, more impatient type of reader will find this series confusing and plot-less. Despite being a dark, Gothic fantasy, the prose is literary. For some casual readers, this work will be considered too heavy on the descriptions  It may also contain too many “ten-dollar” English words–words of more than one syllable.

But for those readers like me, readers who adore beautiful prose, deep, involving  books, and darkly baroque settings peopled with unforgettable characters, the Gormenghast Novels strike a chord deep within the soul. These books must be savored, experienced in the fullest sense of the word. The focus is on the breathtaking visual descriptions, and while I am thrilled by it, the verbal beauty of Gormenghast is what will leave many impatient modern readers cold.

For me, Gormenghast is a surreal, visual painting, created of beautifully crafted words., and frankly, I say to hell with anyone who mocks my enjoyment of it.

Mark Robertson's cover illustration for the Mandarin paperback edition

Mark Robertson’s cover illustration for the Mandarin paperback edition

Just like J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, when you are reading this series of novels, the journey itself is more important than the destination. And speaking of J.R.R.–I just want to say that while this series is often compared to Tolkien’s work, there is very little similarity between the two, other than they are both extremely well written fantasy, written by authors with a good command of the English language and all its nuances.

Mervyn Peake was famous as a writer, portrait artist, and illustrator, and was considered brilliant in both fields. In 1959, after the publication of the third of his Gormenghast novels, the dreadful disease of dementia finally claimed him, eventually robbing him of his ability to draw.

Tragically Peake was unable to live normally for the last years of his life, and died in a nursing home 1968 at the age of 57, having left his literary masterpiece uncompleted in the way he had envisioned it.

 

 

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Elements of the Story: the story arc

Elements of the Story 1st Quarter of the MSWhen I first began writing, I wasn’t concerned with the nuts-and-bolts aspects of a tale–I wrote stories to read to my children, and I wrote stories I wanted to read. The stories lived in my mind, and I got a great deal of pleasure from writing them. It never occurred to me to submit them to a publisher, and I wouldn’t have known how to do that anyway.

It wasn’t until my youngest child was in high-school that I began thinking about writing as a vocation, and began looking for places to submit my work. So my evolution as a writer was: I began by writing songs in high-school and also writing poetry, graduated to writing fairytales for my kids and short stories for myself, and finally began my serious attempt at a novel in 1996.

2nd quarter of the manuscriptI began writing for my own pleasure, and had no idea of how to plot a novel. Since that first attempt at a novel, I have completed six novels, and am working on 3 more at this time. Each book has been an improvement over the previous one. Through working with good editors and educating myself,  I feel like I finally understand how  a good novel is constructed.

In my early books, I didn’t understand the way a good story worked. I knew one when I read one, but I didn’t really understand what made that story immersive and memorable.

I had a grasp of how to create characters, and I had a good idea for the basic plot,  but I was weak in the area of structuring the novel. Once I realized that weakness, I set out to resolve it.

For the last two years, that has been the area I’ve worked hardest on putting into practice, and for those who have beta-read my yet to be published work, that change in my understanding of how to write a novel is clear.

Now, I have an instinctive understanding that the evolution of the story can be graphed out in an arc–the Story Arc. I had heard of this concept, and in writing groups some authors will talk about it as if they understand it, but when you read their work it’s clear they don’t.

It wasn’t until Scott Driscoll, author of Better You Go Home gave a seminar on it last year that the pieces fell into place for me.

The Story Arc copy

Some books are character-driven, others are event-driven. ALL of them follow an arc.  For my personal reading pleasure, I prefer Literary Fantasy, which has a character-driven plot. Events happen, often in a fantasy setting, but the growth of the characters is the central theme, and the events are just the means to enable that growth.

3rd qtr of manuscriptI write literary fantasy, with some emphasis on the fantasy. My own books, as in Huw the Bard, tend to be more character-driven than action oriented, as the Hero’s Journey is what intrigues me, but large events occur that cause personal growth. Whether your books are character- or event-driven, there must be an arc to the story.

We have talked about the way the manuscript can be divided into quarters.  Let’s consider the midpoint. The midpoint of the story arc begins the second half of the book. The first calamities have occurred and up to this point, the characters have been reacting to the antagonist’s moves.

The midpoint of the story arc is the Turning-Point, the place where there is no turning back. Consider J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit: At the midpoint, Bilbo is committed to seeing the Dwarves regain their home, and Smaug is routed, but at great cost. Now, he can see only disaster ahead of them, if Thorin continues down the moral path he has chosen.  Bilbo has been changing, but now he shows his true courage, by hiding the Arkenstone. Then he takes matters into his own hands in order to head off the impending war.  Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone , but Thorin refuses to see reason. He banishes Bilbo, and battle is inevitable.

This arc is the same in every good, well-plotted novel: in the first half of the book everything had gone to hell, emotions were high, and the situation was sometimes chaotic, but the protagonist thought he had a grip on it. The Midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

4th qtr of MSThe second half is where the villain shines–the evil one is on a roll and it’s his ballgame. The truth underlying the conflict now emerges, and it culminates in the third calamity, the third plot point. This is also where the villain’s weaknesses begin to emerge, and the hero must somehow exploit them.

The third quarter of the book, from the midpoint to the third plot point is critical. These events tear the hero down, break him emotionally and physically so that in the final fourth of the book he can be rebuilt, stronger, and ready to face the villain on equal terms.

The third quarter of the book frequently sets the hero on the path to enlightenment, but first he must undergo a symbolic death and rebirth.

If you want to read classic fantasy where this type of story arc is really clear and yet the stories are strongly character driven, you should read:

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Magi’i of Cyador and Scion of Cyador by L. E. Modessit Jr. (2 books)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Belgariad by David Eddings (5 book series)

 

 

 

 

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Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams (4 paperbacks, 3 hard bound or ebooks)

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Structuring the Novel: the third plot-point, crisis of conscience

I don’t feel well. I have a mountain of work, and a spring virus has destroyed my very tight schedule.  I would bang my head if I didn’t already feel so crappy.

Today I have a client’s MS to begin editing.

Today I have revisions of my own to make on a ms I am getting ready to publish.

Today I was supposed to have a blog post ready to post on structuring the epic fantasy novel.

The Arc of the StoryWe were going to talk about the story arc, and how the third quarter of the book always begins with another life-changing plot-point. I was going to talk about how the the plot drives personal growth for the protagonist and his/her friends at this point.

And then I was going to discuss how this is the place where the protagonists often lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. What personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

I had intended to discuss how difficult this part of the novel often is to write, due to the fact that the protagonist has been put through a personal death of sorts–his world has been destroyed or shaken to the foundations and he no longer has faith in himself or the people he once looked up to.

  • How is he/she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her/his own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes him pull himself together and just keep on going?
  • How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?

quarrantine symbolI had intended to talk about that, but I don’t want to expose you to this crummy virus.  It always puts me through the emotional wringer to write this particular section of a tale, and I don’t feel well, so I can’t deal with talking about it. This low point is such a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the place during which he is taken down to his component parts emotionally, and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he could be.

This is where she makes the hard decisions and learns that she truly does have the balls to do the job–

But I am too sick to talk about it.

I blame The Boy.  He was sniffling during his visit last week, and you know what a germ factory the average eight-year-old is.

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More Wisdom of the Ages: Write the Damned Book

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Yes. Even Loki loves my work and want’s me to just get on with it. But here I am, stalled and unable to concentrate. because of things…strange, annoying things…. And what about this word? Is it even real?

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Never mind. I’ll just sit here and. sulk for a while. What is my purpose? Why do I do this?

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But I have a gift–a gift, I tell you!  Someday people will say “I knew that loser back when she had a job!”

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But no…I must hold fast to my dreams of someday selling vast quantities of kindle downloads! Someday I will sell more books than Hugh Howey. And he sold a bunch…so many that he scared the big publishers into acting like dumbasses…they showed up  at his house with pitchforks and Hachettes….

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Someday I will be more than just the crazy old lady locked in the office for everyone’s safety. Someday I will be famous for having written a fantasy series that rivals Tolkien…someday.

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Special thanks to Tumblr for providing me with all the diversions!

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Elements of the story: calamity, villainy, and the hero’s struggle

Tolkien's art work for Hobbiton-across-the-water

Hobbiton-across-the-water, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Most writing coaches agree that the first 1/4 of your story is where you reveal your characters and show their world while introducing hints of trouble and foreshadowing the first plot point. That is the first act, so to speak.

The Calamity:

Something large and dramatic must occur right around the 1/4 mark to force the hero into action, an intense, powerful scene that changes everything. Quite often, in epic fantasy the inciting scene will be comparatively disastrous, and one that that forces the protagonist to react. He/she may be thrust into a situation that radically changes their life and forces them to make a series of difficult decisions.

  • What incident or event will occur at the first plot point?
  • What negative effect does this event have for the protagonist and his/her cohorts?
  • How are hero’s efforts countered?
A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Villain:

Conflict drives the story.  We know a great story has a compelling protagonist, but in order to have a great conflict, you must also have a great adversary. The hero has an objective, and so does the villain.

  • Identify the opponent–who is he/she, and what is their power-base?
  • What is the adversary’s primary goal, and who or what are they willing to sacrifice to achieve it?
  • Do the hero and the villain know each other, or are they faceless enemies to each other?
  • How does the adversary counter the hero’s efforts?

In fantasy, and often in thrillers and horror, we have an adversary who is capable of great evil. They may have supernatural powers, and at first they seem invincible. Their position of greater power forces the hero to become stronger, craftier, to develop ways to beat the adversary at his game. A strong, compelling villain creates interest and drives the conflict. Write several pages of back-story for your own use, to make sure your antagonist is as well-developed in your mind as your protagonist is, so that he/she radiates evil and power when you put them on the page. If you know your antagonist as well as you know the hero, the enemy will be believable when you write about their actions.

Bilbo comes to the huts of the raftelves by J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo comes to the huts of the Raft elves by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hero’s Struggle:

Now the story is hurtling toward the midpoint, that place called the second plot-point. The characters are acting and reacting to events that are out of their control. Nothing is going right-the hero and his/her cohorts must scramble to stay alive, and now they are desperately searching for the right equipment or a crucial piece of information that will give them an edge. The struggle is the story, and at this point it looks like the hero may not get what they need in time.

Their weaknesses must be first exploited by the adversary, and then overcome and turned into strengths by the hero. The hero must grow.

During this part of the story you must build upon your characters’ strengths.  Identify the hero’s goals, and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  • How does the hero react to being thwarted in his efforts during the second act to the midpoint?
  • How does the villain currently control the situation?
  • How does the hero react to pressure from the villain?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the hero and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  • What complications (for the hero) arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict, and how will he/she acquire that necessary information?
  • Midway between the first plot point and the second plot point, what new incident will occur to once again dramatically alter the hero’s path? This will be a turning point, drama and mayhem will ensue, perhaps offering the hero a slim chance. What stands in his/her way of realizing that small chance and what will the hero sacrifice to attain it?

the hobbitThe first half of the book can be exciting or a bore–and because I’m always growing as an author, my new rule is “don’t write boring books.”

I say this because the books I loved to read the most were crafted in such a way that we got to know the characters, saw them in their environment, and bam! Calamity happened, thrusting them down the road to Naglimund or to the Misty Mountains.

Calamity combined with villainy creates struggle, which creates opportunity for great adventure, and that is what great fantasy is all about.

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Marketing tips from the eight-year-old

Me & Logan, Cannon Beach Oregon August 2014

Me & The Boy

My oldest daughter and her son came to stay for a long weekend. It was fun, and wonderful, having The Boy around, especially now that he is eight. He is becoming a well-behaved person, and developing a few manners, although he is still only eight, and rather a barbarian in many ways

Of course, it poured down rain while he was here. but we had fun anyway.

He discovered that grandma is a writer, and writes “real books.” He was quite proud. “I’m gonna read these when I’m a grown up.”

I confess, I did bask in the glory, until he explained that I had made a huge marketing error.

My biography is in the back of my books, but not my picture. The Boy said, “I want the kids at school to know that my grandma writes real books, but they won’t believe it if there’s no picture.”

I didn’t want to tell him that the camera steals my soul, and I hate every picture I’ve ever seen of me. But, after thinking about it, I agreed that he might have a point.

I also didn’t tell him that people who write books are a dime a dozen. Everyone you meet either is an author, or has a couple of the ne’er-do-wells in the family. Apparently people who are otherwise unemployable write books, in order to appear useful.

I didn’t tell him that, because for a shining moment, I was special. He was proud of me, his grandma, because I can write real books. I have to admit, that felt pretty good.

So we looked through the pictures of me. I thought this one would work, as it’s the most recent and hides my ample, middle-aged waistline.

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He said, “No–it doesn’t really look like you. You’re hair is a lot fuzzier than that.”

I said, “But I combed it just for that photo. I even put on lipstick.”

He wasn’t swayed.

So I tried a different one. “This one is only two years old.”

Connie J. Jasperson Profile Pic

I thought it was perfect, as it also hides the ample, middle-aged, waistline.

He was not impressed.  “Are you kidding? Your hair’s too short in that one.”

Heavy sigh. “This one?”

Connie J. Jasperson

 

“Get real, Grandma–people want to see the real you. The one who cooks and stuff.”

“No, they don’t,” I said. “People don’t care about that. I don’t think I need a picture in the back of my books.”

“Trust me, Grandma. I’ve read a lot of books, and they all have the writer’s picture in the back. I want my friends to know it’s you.”

After much discussion he picked a picture.  I doubt it will go in the back of a book, but this is what he picked.

Fall 2014 profile foto for avatars

“Why did you pick that one? I use that one as my Facebook icon. ”

“Because that’s how you look. Comfy, and like a grandma. With fluffy hair.”

It’s hard to argue with that sort of logic. But I’ll probably have to have a professional picture made at some point.

One that doesn’t show my middle-aged waistline or the comfy fluffiness of my hair.

extra small caricature of connie  by street artist Stacey Denton

 

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Elements of the story: Circumstances and Objectives

the hobbitAt the outset of any good story, we find our protagonist, and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs, and Hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the Situation, which is the core idea of your plot. This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself in the beginning of the story. 

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a respectable hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is living a comfortable life in a prosperous, sheltered village, and has no desire to change that in any way. However, a casual, polite greeting made to a passing wizard sets a string of events into motion that will eventually change the course of history of Middle Earth.

the hobbit movie poster 3The wizard, Gandalf, tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition’s “burglar”. The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo becomes a little indignant, and joins despite himself. The next morning he has second thoughts, but the last minute Bilbo literally runs out the door, with nothing but the clothes on his back.

  • How will the story start?
  • What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
  • How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
  • What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone?

Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: Objective

the hobbit movie posterA protagonist has no business showing up on the page unless he/she has a compelling objective. If he doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.

Bilbo does have an objective. Once he gets past his feeling of having made a terrible mistake, he desires nothing more than to help his friends achieve their goal: that of regaining their lost kingdom. Gandalf exerts a parental influence over Bilbo at the outset, guiding him and pushing him out of his comfortable existence.  But it is Bilbo who has common sense and compassion, who gradually takes over leadership of the party, guiding and rescuing them from their own greedy mistakes. This is a fact the dwarves can’t bear to acknowledge, and also a fact he doesn’t realize himself.

Those turning points where with each adventure Bilbo gains confidence and a tool or weapon he will later need are what make up the best parts of the adventure. That is what you must inject into your adventure, be it urban fantasy or science fiction.

  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is he going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?

Perhaps your tale is set on a space station. What does your protagonist need that is in short supply? What does he have to do to get it?

Perhaps you are writing an urban fantasy. Perhaps your main character is a vampire. He/she requires sustenance–what will he/she do to get it? Or conversely, if a human, what will he/she do to avoid becoming vampire-food?

Protagonists begin their tale in their current surroundings. They are thrown out of their comfortable existence by circumstances, and forced to identify objectives they must achieve or acquire in order to resolve their situation.

hobbit-battle-five-armies-bilbo-posterCircumstances and Objectives combine to form the plot. Character A desires Objective B–and will do anything to acquire it.  Along the way, Character A has a series of adventures that force him to grow and change, but which in the end give him the strength, the moral courage to enable the final resolution.

Thus, whichever you conceive first, characters or objective, you need to know why your character is willing to leave his circumstances and embark on his adventure. That objective must be compelling enough for him to risk everything he values to achieve it.

But what if a side character has such a compelling story that the book becomes about him, and not our hobbit? If you notice that is the case, rewrite your book so that the character with the  most compelling story is the protagonist from page one.

Potential for gain must outweigh the potential for loss–so if he is risking his life, there had better be a damned big payoff at the end, whether monetary or in moral coin. Without that risk and potential for gain, there is no story.

 

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