Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Discworld: The Hogfather and Christmas

Many of the Discworld books mirror (or parody) our world (if you’re not familiar with the Discworld see here and here). The Last Continent, for example, is laugh at Australia and some of our history, food and traditions. But that’s OK because we Aussies are so laid-back we’re horizontal and quite capable of having a laugh at ourselves. Anyway, a lot of it is true and there’s no denying the truth, right?

The Hogfather is the Discworld’s answer to Christmas. You might have seen it listed in the 12 Blogs of Christmas: Books. I could also have listed it in 12 Blogsof Christmas: Favourite Holiday Movies because they made a TV movie, but I chose not to, for variety. 

The Hogfather is a big, fat man in a red suit who delivers toys in a sleigh pulled by four hogs. Sound familiar? OK, except for the hogs. Unlike Santa, the Hogfather harks back to more primitive times, when Hogswatch was a sun festival, and he still has some of those trappings. 
Susan, Death's granddaughter

The Hogfather, like Death, is an anthropomorphic personality. That is, people’s belief in him has generated an actual corporeal representation of what is otherwise a natural force. In the Hogfather’s case, it’s the belief of children that keep him alive.  We know from Small Gods, where the great god Om was reduced to a powerless tortoise because he had but one believer, what happens when belief fades. When people stop believing, gods die…

When the Hogfather dies, the consequences are more terrible than disappointed children. 

If the Hogfather dies, the sun will not rise.

In The Hogfather, the Guild of Assassins has been engaged by the Auditors of Reality (kind of self-explanatory really – you could see how the Discworld’s existence might annoy them a tad!) to eliminate the Hogfather. This task is assigned to Mr Teatime, of whom Lord Downey, head of the assassins says:
“We took pity on him because he'd lost both parents at an early age. I think that, on reflection, we should have wondered a bit more about that.”

Mr Teatime’s cunning plan is to kill the Hogfather by preventing children believing in him. This he does by breaking into the Tooth Fairy’s domain and seizing the stash of teeth, which he uses to control all the children. This is a reference to many old beliefs that witches and the like can use a part of you, a tooth, some hair, nail clippings and so forth, to work their will on you. 

And it works. As belief in the Hogfather wanes, spare belief starts flapping around, to the point where even the mention of something, like an eater of Socks or Verucca Gnome, causes a glingleglingleglingle sound signalling the creation of that creature – because someone believes in it, and as we know, belief gives life. And we all believe in the Eater of Socks, right? That’s the reason we can only ever find one sock from a pair. Where does the other one go? We never find it. It must have been the Eater of Socks!

Death as the Hogfather
In an attempt to make children believe in the Hogfather, despite Mr Teatime, Death delivers the Hogfather’s presents, being sure to be seen in a long red cloak and a white beard. Imagine, a skeleton with a beard… I’m not sure it would have the desired effect! The role isn’t precisely one that comes naturally to him:
"ER...HO. HO. HO."
 I suspect that the cheerful ‘Ho Ho Ho’ lacks a little something when delivered in a leaden voice that sounds like crypt doors slamming. Even on paper it comes across as a little grim. 

It falls to Susan, Death’s granddaughter (who wishes she was anything but and would like to be left to live a normal life) to find the real Hogfather. At the Castle of Bones (wow, I think I like the North Pole better!) she meets the Oh God of Hangovers, also created by the excess belief floating around. His name is Bilious and he gets the hangover every time the God of Wine gets drunk. No wonder he runs around saying ‘oh me!’ so much (think about it for a minute if you don’t get it). Poor chap, I have to say I can’t help but laugh at his predicament. He is one of my favourites in this book.  

Bilious, Oh God of Hangovers
While probably not one of my favourite Discworld books, The Hogfather is, like all of them, entertaining and hilariously funny. Susan is an interesting practical figure who takes no nonsense from monsters (Death’s granddaughter, remember?) and Death is always worth a laugh for his awkward attempts to be something he’s not. The Wizards of Unseen University make an appearance with Hex, their ‘computer’, which is always guaranteed a laugh. Kind of like watching a bunch of people who really don’t understand the first thing about computers try and make one work. 

I’d give this four stars out of five. Now I wonder where I packed it… it is Christmas and I should read it!

This will be my last post of the year. Tomorrow we are moving into the house we just built (which if you are interested you can see here). I have the internet organised, but with the holiday season, who knows when it will be connected. 
So have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and hopefully I will see you all after January 1!

Monday, 19 December 2011

Six Sentence Sunday: Slang #3

Here is the final installment in the slang example I've posted for the last two weeks. If you haven't already seen them, you might like to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

The girl ground the ball of her foot against the dirt street in a squelching motion. ‘Get it?’
Yeah, he got it now. The foot movement spoke volumes her words didn’t. Not just dead, but dead in a spectacular fashion. What he would have called a messy example.
You can find more Six Sentence Sunday writers here.

There is no Six Sentence Sunday next week owing to Christmas Day. There is one on New Year's Day, but at this stage I am not planning to participate as I expect a fair number of you will be sleeping or recovering (or doing both together). Feel free to give me a shoutout if you object to this arrangement.

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Thursday, 15 December 2011

Using Prologues: A Case Study With Brandon Sanderson

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard the advice ‘don’t use a prologue unless you really need one’. If you write fantasy, you have probably broken this rule at least once (most likely before you ever heard it) and may have been tempted to break it since you did learn it. If you’re a reader of fantasy you have almost certainly ploughed your way through many prologues of varying calibre.  

There are many reasons for not using prologues. The key one for me is they are nearly always an infodump of backstory. That’s two sins right there:
  • Infodump – a massive dump of information that makes the reader’s eyes water and their brain desperately desire to be elsewhere; and
  • Backstory – which should always be trickled to the reader in the exact amount they need as they need it. Kind of like Goldilocks – not too much and not too little, not too early and not too late, just right!
First off, why tell your reader all the backstory in a lump at the beginning when you can keep them guessing? Secrets can drive plot, create suspense and keep the reader turning pages. I am guilty of this one in my manuscript The Fires of Madness. Did I mention it needs a complete rewrite? Yep. Total. Bulldoze it flat and build it up from scratch type rewrite. And there won’t be a prologue. Why would I reveal the reason for my character’s self-inflicted emotional torment and borderline insanity when I can get so much mileage out of teasing the reader with it? I mean, really, when you look at it that way, it’s a no-brainer, right?

So we all know that prologues are almost always a big no-no. But what about the other question? The one that you don’t see answered as much?

When should you use a prologue?

I don’t claim to be an expert on this, but I can point you to one person I believe has done it right. 

Brandon Sanderson in The Way of Kings.

I have nothing but respect for Brandon Sanderson. My favourite editor told me I should read some Dickens because my weakness is at the sentence structure level. When this was pointed out to me, I was reading The Way of Kings. Thinking about what she’d said, I noticed that Sanderson’s writing is very economical and effective. In fact, I have done so much writing and critiquing these days, it’s hard for me not to mentally rewrite the book I am reading. 

But I couldn’t rewrite The Way of Kings. Not for love or money. I suppose there is a reason he was hand-picked and personally invited to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan’s lamentable premature death. 

I asked my favourite editor and she said yes, Sanderson’s writing is technically near perfect. Of course, there is more to writing than technical perfection, but I'm not going to complain about technical perfection in addition to compelling stories - would you?

The Way of Kings is interesting because it breaks the prologue rule. 


I kid you not, this book has a prologue, but before the prologue, you read a prelude. 

I know what you’re thinking. In this day and age, when prologues are frowned upon, why would you write a prologue and a prelude? And how would you get it published? Well, the answer to the latter could be because publishing houses do have favourite sons and daughters who get to break the rules, and while a certain amount of this is going on here (The Way of Kings is so long it’s been broken into two parts) I don’t believe that is the reason the prelude and prologue slipped through.

No, I believe they are there for good reasons. So what are those good reasons?

The prologue and the prelude contain information the reader needs to know. This information cannot be dribbled to the reader throughout the book because the viewpoint characters don’t know it.

The prelude is ancient history. So ancient it has been lost in the mists of time. If I didn’t have this information, I believe a decent amount of the rest of the book would be confusing to me in the context of the bigger picture. Some of the foreshadowing I have identified would be meaningless. Also, one of the main characters has visions of the past. I only know they are true visions of the past because I know some of the past. Everyone in the book believes he is mad. I think it’s important the reader believes he isn't mad, otherwise the visions would have no meaning. And believe me, even with the prelude, my faith did waver at one point and I began to wonder if the poor guy really was mad. Without that prelude, I’d be almost convinced of it.

The prologue deals with more recent events – who was behind the assassination of the Alethi king. The Alethi know a little bit, but they don’t know the full details. The POV character of this prologue also gets his own POV scenes later in the book, but not many. Arguably these details could be dribbled in there, but since he only has two or three scenes, I personally believe those scenes would be getting into the realm of information overload if you tried. The reader just wouldn't grasp all the important information. 

The full details of the situation are important because it lets the reader know there is more going on than the war with the Parshendi, the Parshendi are not the unrefined brutes the Alethi think they are, and there is some kind of villain out there who is carefully orchestrating events for his own advantage and things are so much worse than the protagonists think it is. 

The villain is revealed at the end of book one – but of course you can’t build suspense and tension for a big reveal unless the reader knows there is something to be revealed. The prologue is the first step in building this tension and suspense, and of course the tension increases after the reveal because the identity of the villain is someone the protagonists trust – and they still don’t know he’s working against them. 

So the two key reasons for a prologue?
  • It contains information the reader needs to know; and
  •  There is no other real way to give it to the reader because, for example, the primary viewpoint characters don’t have this information.
The prelude/prologue were written in limited third person, which for me made it more engaging than using omniscient. That said, even though there is a good reason for including both the prologue and the prelude in The Way of Kings, I must warn you, they did still make it hard for me to get into this book. Inevitably, they will slow the introduction down, and I found myself wondering ‘when am I going to get to the real protagonist?’. So even if you need a prologue, be cautious in its use. 

And unless you are Brandon Sanderson, I really don’t recommend you opt for the prelude/prologue double whammy. 

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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Six Sentence Sunday: Slang #2

Here is the continuation from last week's excerpt, demonstrating the use of invented slang. You can read the first part here.
The girl’s mouth dropped open. ‘Ya know, smeared.’ When his blank look persisted, she rolled her eyes. ‘Smeared, wiped, ghasted…’
He shook his head, not getting it.
You can find more Six Sentence Sunday writers here.

Author's Note: 'Ghasted' is not a typographical error. However, as we use 'ghosted' to mean killed, I reasoned it was entirely possible a fantasy culture, in which undead ghasts exist, would use 'ghasted' in the same fashion we use 'ghosted'. 

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Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Worldbuilding 101 as Taught by Robert Jordan

A month or so ago I attended the Speculative Fiction Festival in Sydney. One of the key things the publishers said they were looking for was a ‘fully-realised world’. What does this mean? Worldbuilding! It’s imperative we get it right. I touched on the issue of world-building again this week in my Six Sentence Sunday post, particularly in relation to slang. 

And the week before last I did a tribute to Robert Jordan, discussing the genius that was Robert Jordan and what a loss the fantasy writing community suffered when he passed away. 

What is the connection between worldbuilding and Robert Jordan?

He got it right

Whatever quibbles you might have with Robert Jordan’s technical writing, his creative genius cannot be denied. His world is rich and varied. It is, in my opinion, a fully realised world. 

Wheel of Time Map
It comes with a map. A pretty coloured map in later volumes. A map, in my opinion, is a vital tool. I can’t work out where the characters are going without a map. That’s your characters and my characters. When I write, I need a map (drawn by yours truly in pencil and Artline with squiggly trees) so I can work out in which direction my characters are travelling and how long it will take them to get there by chosen mode of transport. Yes I can read a map. This kind, anyway. But I am directionally challenged. I can’t imagine where things are in relation to others without a map. I can Google how to get to New York. I cannot Google how to get to Saldaea (top left in the map).

More importantly, though, Robert Jordan’s countries are easily distinguishable. They have different political structures, different appearances, different accents, different clothing, different attitudes to magic… Funny, just like the real world. OK, except the magic part. Moving right along….

There is no good reason why all your countries should be feudal kingdoms who oppress women, who wear the same clothes and speak the same language, and are all white. Different religions are nice, too, but in fantasy there can be good reasons why everyone worships the same gods – for example, their gods regularly visit them. Yeah even I might convert for that trick. 

Robert Jordan was clearly paying attention for the worldbuilding lesson. His people range from fair to dark and everything in between. Light eyes to dark eyes. Blond to black hair. Religion is more or less universal, but yes we have different people putting different spins and interpretations on it (see the Whitecloaks for an extreme interpretation!) We have different political structures – kings, and queens, and councils, and both together. Different attitudes to magic – hate it, outlaw it, secretly embrace it, openly support it. Different trade items, different currency. Different fashions. Facial hair or none. Women’s hair braided or worn loose. The details are endless. Here’s a few examples to drive the point home:
Saldaean woman
  • Hair – Shienaran warriors wear their hair in topknots. Cairhien ladies wear theirs in elaborate piles. Arafellin men have braids with bells. Taraboner men have moustaches. Illianer men have beards but no moustaches;
  • Clothes – Tairen men wear coats and turned down boots. Cairhien dress in dark colours. Taraboners wear veils (both sexes). Domani women are known for dresses so thin they are barely opaque and leave nothing to the imagination. Ebou Dari wear dresses with deep, narrow necklines.
  • Skin colour – Tairens are dark, the Sea Folk are darker. Cairhien are very pale. Domani have coppery skin.
  • Hair – Andorans have dark hair, Taraboners are blond, Aiel are red or fair-haired;
  • Eyes – Saldaeans have dark tilted eyes, Aiel have light eyes, Taraboners are brown-eyed, Cairhien are dark-eyed;
  • Political structure – Andor is ruled by a queen, Illian by a king and a council, Tear by the High Lords, Tar Valon by the Amyrlin Seat, the Sea Folk by the Mistress of the Ships. Some roles are hereditary and some are not;
  • Political attitude – Cairhien are always playing politics, Borderlanders have no time for it because they are fighting off the Blight;
  • Attitude to magic – Andor openly has an Aes Sedai adviser, Mayene has one secretly, Aes Sedai are not permitted in Tear and in Amadicia they are burned as witches;
  •  Trade goods – Andor is known for tabac and steel, Saldaea for furs and ice peppers, Arad Doman for having the best merchants.
  •  Coinage – Andoran coins are the heaviest, Tairen the lightest;
  • Words and language – Myrdraal are also known as Halfmen, the Eyeless, Shadowmen, Lurks (in Tear), Fetches (in Illian) and Fades (in Andor). 
Myrdraal - also know as the Eyeless, Fades, Fetches, Halfmen among others.
A couple of other points:
  • Robert Jordan’s bad guy ‘The Dark One’ is a Sauron-type evil for the sake of evil bad guy. He is essentially the devil (his name is even an obscure name for Satan – you can think that’s lame or clever. I kind of liked it). Often this type of bad guy is not recommended because we can’t understand his motivations. In this case, however, I think it works because the Dark One has a horde of human minions, of varying degrees of power, who are really the key players on the board. And their motivations are very understandable.
  • Magic – Robert Jordan has created an entirely new system of magic. It’s not even called magic, although of course we recognise it is. He calls it ‘channelling’. Both men and women can do it, but in the present time men go mad because the Dark One has tainted the male half of the Power that men channel. I am so jealous. So far, despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to be so creative. Brent Weeks does something similar in his Prism series.
  • Don’t forget slang and profanity! Robert Jordan has created his own profanity (think about what your characters hold sacred, and that’s usually the basis for your profanity) though I don’t believe he has slang (unless you count some of the names for Myrdraal e.g. 'Fade' might be slang). A bit of invented slang can add to depth and colour to your world. See my example here.
As you can see, the variety of details you can use are endless. 

You may have come across the concept of ‘character sheets’ where you record key details about each main character. I do something very similar for each of my countries. 

First, I draw a map. I name each of the countries and identify key landmarks. Then I identify key features such as those outlined above. I might never use some of that information, but deciding it in advance means if I need those details I can just refer to my notes and slot in the appropriate specifics to avoid needing to make something up on the spot – or worse, just glossing over it because it’s ‘too hard’. It also helps to keep the details consistent. 

If you have trouble thinking up these details for every country you can use ancient cultures as inspiration. I discovered one ancient culture used square coins! Coins have always been round in my life and it never occurred to me to make them square. Another currency had a hole in the middle. So, by all means, use ancient cultures for inspiration. Why reinvent the wheel?

Details like this will truly bring your world alive.  

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Monday, 5 December 2011

Six Sentence Sunday: Slang

This is a little something I wrote for a workshop on world-building. It doesn't come from a story or a book, but I find the snippet intriguing enough to that I probably will write a story around it. It's eighteen sentences, so I think I'll post the whole of it over the next few Sundays.

You can also take this an example of the importance, in world-building, of the use of some well-developed slang that fits your world. I was told this was a good example of how to introduce slang.
The girl, maybe twelve, if that, waved a hand at Berhk’s clothing. ‘You’ll get smeared walking ‘round here like that.’
 ‘Smeared?’ Berhk looked down at his clothes, plain and unornamented, a little ragged around the edges, mended in places. They were none-too-clean, though not so dirty he couldn’t stand it, but nothing like the silks he was accustomed to. Why should he care if they got a little dirtier than they already were?
You can find more Six Sentence Sunday writers here.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven't already. If you're finding yourself here often, you might as well join as a member, or sign up through RSS or email! 
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