Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: fantasy

When Your Story Isn’t True

    I was stuck.

    Ever been stuck?

    On a creative project?

    It’s not writer’s block. It’s something different. Something elusive and singularly frustrating. A large, pulsating tumor of Resistance.

    This particular Resistance was centered around a certain section of the story. It pricked at me because I knew exactly what needed to happen. I tried every strategy I had heard of to break it.

    I tried outlining it to death. Useful, but the Resistance stayed.

    I tried leaving it and rewriting other parts of the book. Productive, but the Resistance stayed.

    I tried reading lots of fantasy books to jump-start my inspiration. Fun, but the Resistance stayed.

    I figured it out last night.

    I was bored. Restless. Distracted.

    That meant my story wasn’t quite true.

    You see;

Every good story is true. Even if it never happened.

So if the story is not good, it’s not true. And there are two possibilities when you find that your story is not true.

    (a) You have added false things to your story. Is there something false about your plot, characters or world? Falseness stands out in a story like the sound of nails on a board. Find the false and cut it out.

    (b) There is some important truth missing.

    It was (b). There was something missing. Once I realized it I immediately knew what it was. Scenes. Characters. An entire sub-plot. It’s a lot of stuff. Maybe ten thousand words of stuff. Or more.

    Now, if this was any other job I’d be upset about it. I’d be tempted not to add it, because of all the work it’s going to be. It could be a full two weeks of writing. And that’s if all my writing sessions are good ones.

    But I wasn’t upset.

    I wasn’t discouraged.

    I was elated.

    It doesn’t matter how much work a good story needs. I’m not too upset that George R.R. Martin took 5 years to write A Dance With Dragons. It was a good story. A true story. It was worth 5 years.

    And my story will be worth however long it takes to write.

    Will yours?

Review: The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Even after all these centuries, seeing a thunderclast up close made Kalak shiver. The beast’s hand was as long as a man was tall. He’d been killed by hands like those before, and it hadn’t been pleasant.
Of course, dying rarely was.

Even without his contribution to The Wheel of Time, Brandon Sanderson is a valuable voice in the realm of fantasy. The Way of Kings, the first book in The Stormlight Archive, is his first shot at something with a scope as large as The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire. I was a little wary as I picked it up.

I shouldn’t have been.

Like all of his books, the magic system is delicately defined and clever. But unlike books like Mistborn, the world is huge. I was worried about that only because when you read something with so many PoV characters you tend to love some and hate others. That’s what we all found with the Wheel of Time, right? (Oh no, not another Elayne chapter!) But with The Way of Kings I was surprised to see that I wanted to know what was happening with every character.

I enjoy how Sanderson is never afraid of pitting philosophies against each other in his works. Just like in Mistborn he examines concepts of sin vs purity, atheism vs religion and mortality vs ascendancy. And he does it all in ways that do not seem trite or preachy.

The Way of Kings tells the tale of a world at war from the point of view of warring surgeons, thieving scholars and mournful killers. The plot is deep and intricate. The characters are living and lovable. The cultures are many and true. I’m excited to see where this series will go. Pick it up. You won’t regret it.

Quotes:

– “Well, I myself find that respect is like manure. Use it where needed, and growth will flourish. Spread it on too thick, and things just start to smell.”

– “This last year in particular, you’ve become to be the person the others all claim that they are. Can’t you see how intriguing that makes you?”

– “You wonder why I reject the devotaries.”
“I do.”
“Most of them seek to stop the questions.”

– “Just an idle comment, nothing more.” He reached over, laying a hand on Kaladin’s shoulder. “My comments are often idle. I never can get them to do any solid work.”

New Story: The Dark Man

The Dark Man

I wrote this in the last few weeks of 2009. I was a fan of anagrams back then and supposed they were a clever and subtle way of putting hidden meanings into my stories. Not sure it worked. In this story, it only succeeded in giving my protagonist a really awkward name. Live and learn, eh?

The story itself isn’t all that original, I think. You’ll find similar themes in Star Wars and Mistborn and other fantasies. But I think it’s a theme that bears retelling. The theme of monolithic evil turning out to a bit more complicated and, maybe, earning a fleeting sliver of sympathy. And then the questions of whether or not that makes a difference.

I like this story because it came around the time I was trying to stretch and change as a writer. It’s my first experience with fantasy, my favorite genre, and even though I wouldn’t count it as an especially well-written work, it’s got a special place in my heart. Enjoy it.

Review: Sabriel – Garth Nix

It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough. Noonday sunshine could be seen on the other side of the Wall in Ancelstierre, and not a cloud in sight. Here, there was a clouded sunset, and a steady rain had just begun to fall, coming faster than the tents could be raised.

I didn’t find out this was technically a young adult novel until after I finished it. And I’m glad of that. Sometimes the labels people put on a book taint it before you get a chance to read it.

Sabriel is a fantasy about the daughter of an undead-slaying necromancer. Raised in a setting that feels like 20th-century earth, she is forced to leave school behind and seek her father deep within the Old Kingdom, a place rich with danger, magic and undead nasty thingies. Sabriel is full of great settings and intrigue. The most attractive part for me was the depth of the world and magics that made it.

The world is divided into two places. Ancelstierre, which is similar to earth a hundred years ago, and the Old Kingdom. They are separated by a great wall which holds back the undead yuckies and magics that try to pour down from the Old Kingdom.

The story was great. The plot was completely driven by the characters and deep. The writing, however, was a little clunky now and then, and that tend to be distracting. Also, the story was told strictly from the point of view of Sabriel herself. Usually I resonate with a book better when there are multiple views points to distract me. But I think that’s more of a failing with me than it is with the book. It’s the first in a series, and I still haven’t decided if I’m going to plunge ahead and get the rest of them. But if you like fantasy and teen novels and deeper-than-usual-coming-of-age tales, give Sabriel a whirl.

Quotes:

Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was.

Fear and realization of ignorance were strong medicines against stupid pride.

A Fantastic Place

Sometimes, I’m self-conscious about the kind of books I read.

There are two kinds of books out there, in popular understanding. Just like there are two kinds of movies and two kinds of foods and two kinds of high school tracks. Academic and applied. Gourmet and common. Critical and popular. High and low. Good and not-nearly-so-good.

These divisions don’t really exist, of course. And they ruin things. They try to make me think that I ought to like Agnes Grey better than The Final Empire. I mean, Agnes Grey is a classic (whatever that means). The Final Empire is about a metal-magic teen who needs to kill a god. But I don’t. The Final Empire (and the rest of the Mistborn series) was better. It’s hard to tell people that, though. Because fantasy sounds trite (though it isn’t).

I love fantasy. And I don’t want to be ashamed of my love for fantasy. So I drew up a list of the great and wonderful place of fantasy in literature:

  • Fantasy is closer to real life than the world we think we live in. Pop-secularism sees a drab, boring world, devoid of the wonderful, fantastic or glorious. Our culture gives birth to unverifiable dogmas that always seem to begin with “There’s no such thing as…” Fantasy gives us mystery back. Or, rather, it reminds us of the mystery we lost. It reminds us that fairies do, indeed, exist.
  • Fantasy helps us rejoice in the mundane. G.K. Chesterton suggested that one reason there are fantastic things in stories is so we can see how fantastic things actually are around us. A river of gold, he says, reminds us that rivers are actually filled with something more wondrous: water.
  • Perhaps better than any other genre, fantasy is able to embody truth. Fantasy is like a magnifying glass in its analysis. Courage is best seen and understood, not by one man fighting another, but by a weak, uneducated hobbit attacking the immortal dark lord of Mordor. Love is best seen and understood, not through a girl willing to marry a secure man, but by a girl willing to marry the Dragon Reborn, who is damned to kin-slaying madness.
  • Fantasy is beautiful. Those who read fantasy will tell you, it’s not the funny names or magic spells that draw us. It’s the glory of it all. The beauty in the idyllic origins of the world in The Silmarillion. The glory of the One Power in The Wheel of Time. The depth of character in the many protagonists of A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • Fantasy teaches us to open our minds and accept that we know nothing. You see that theme in nearly every fantasy. Frodo must open up and see that there is more to the world beyond the Shire. Rand Al’thor must realize that the petty morals of his youth are too small for the world. Vin must see that Allomancy is not shadowy witchcraft, but something deep, true and beautiful.
  • Own what you love. If you love it, I think I don’t have the right to call it trite or base.

    Review: Princess Mononoke

    Princess Mononoke
    Most people discount animations. It’s too bad, because some of the best films out there are animations. You should give them a chance.
    One of our favorite animations is the Japanese film, Princess Mononoke. It was written by Hayao Miyazaki, who also made Ponyo, which I’ve mentioned here before.
    I’ve heard it said that Princess Mononoke was Hayao Miyazaki’s best. And it’s easy to see why. The film blew my mind.
    A remote village in feudal Japan is attacked by a massive boar demon. The last prince of the village, Ashitaka, manages to save the village and kill the creature. Unfortunately, he is cursed for doing it. The curse will surely kill him, the elders say. But there is a faint hope if he abandons his people and sets out on a quest to the strange lands in the west. The story is all about his quest and the war he becomes entangled in while trying to find a cure.
    Princess Mononoke stands out among films for a ton of reasons. One is the way the film starts off looking like one of those epic battles between good and evil. But as it goes on, you see that it’s not that at all. The hero is good, yes. But not perfectly. The bad guys are, well, just on the other side, really. One of the themes is the constant battle between Man and Nature. In every story Nature is always the good guy and Man is the bad guy. Not so in Princess Mononoke. Both are good to their own. Both are bad to each other. Both are real.
    Stories with this realistic view of good and evil really resonate with me. I think that’s because in real life there are very few (if any) pure Good vs. Evil situations. Look through the Bible, even, and you’ll see that every hero is a little bad and every villain is a little good. Life is complicated, and so are our conflicts.
    Another great aspect is how completely character-driven the story is. Like with any decent story, I find myself caring about the characters’ goals, not because I actually want those goals realized, but because I’ve fallen in love with the characters and want them to get what they want. Heck, I find myself wanting some of the ‘bad guys’ to get their goals, because they are so real and sympathetic, that I love them, too.

    Tiny spoilers ahead:
    One of my favorite aspects of the film is how it refuses to resolve. Most popular movies have a very satisfying ending that ties up every loose end. The bad guys dies, the hero gets the girl, the annoying character get punished in some funny and satisfying way. No such resolution in Princess Mononoke. This annoys some people, of course. We are used to resolutions, which is funny, really, because we don’t have any in real life. Until you die, of course. So it seems to me that a story that doesn’t resolve mirrors real life better than a story that does. It makes it more raw. More real. Very tasty.
    Spoilers over.

    If you like rich stories with wild scenes and deep characters, this is a movie for you. If you like epic fantasy that breaks the mold of what epic fantasy usually is, this is a movie for you. Don’t mind that it’s a cartoon. It’s still epic. There’s nothing childish about it. In fact, I don’t think I’d let my kids watch it. It’s closer to 300 than it is to Scooby Doo.

    The Gathering Storm

    We’ve been holding our breaths for a long time.  But now it’s finally out.  The Gathering Storm.

    Many Wheel of Time fans have been worried and disappointed over the years.  The first half dozen or so books in the series were wonderful.  After that…things started to drag on a little.  Don’t even get me started on book ten, Crossroads of Twilight.  I think one thing happened in the whole book.

    But we kept on reading.  Why?  The plot was incredible.  The story was huge.  We fell in love with the characters (or we hated certain ones so much we just wanted to see them fall).  For some reason or other we endured the low points in the series to reach the point we’re at now.

    And then Mr. Jordan died.

    We’ve been worried ever since.  Branden Sanderson, his replacement, is a very good writer.  But how would he be able to hold that massive torch that Jordan left behind?  Was there any reason to hope that he would be able to fill those shoes?

    I’m almost done The Gathering Storm.  And let me tell you something.  Sanderson pulls his wieght.  And then some.

    For those of you who gave up on the series, I have a plea: Don’t give up yet!  Pick up whatever book you were on because The Gathering Storm redeems silly problems like book ten and all other plot-dragging from the other books.

    I may be called a fool for saying this, but I believe this book may be the best in the series.  I’m not sure yet, but it’s at least in the top three.

    The plot is moving at an incredible pace now.  Not only are my questions being answered, but I’m having fun.

    If you’re into fantasy, I commend The Wheel of Time to you.  If you’ve tried and given up on the series, I encourage you to give it a shot.  If you’ve been worried about someone else finishing Jordan’s masterpiece, don’t be.

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    Productive World-Building

    You may never have heard of the oft-deadly World-Builder’s Disease. But you may have suffered from a strand of it. Let me explain.

    Among fantasy writers, World-Builder’s Disease is a debilitating disease that makes you feel wonderfully productive. Rumor has it that Tolkien struggled with it. Basically, it’s when a writer is so focused with creating his world that he pretty much forgets to write the stories that make people like me care about the world. There are many aspiring sci-fi / fantasy writers who have been robbed of potential novels because of it. Usually they just degenerate into role-players.

    But there’s another strand of this disease that affects anyone concerned with productivity. It’s symptoms are often elusive. Generally, the infected individual will spend most of his time reading productivity books, making task lists and organizing work spaces. But very little work is actually done. The subject generally earns the title of ‘workaholic’ without the benefit of true productivity.

    And then there’s another strain that affects those who value spirituality. It’s pretty much the same of the productivity disease. The victim starts spending all his time reading about how to be spiritual, how to pray, how to love his neighbor and how to live a radical Christian life. But he reads so much that he doesn’t have time to put any of it into practice.

    Be wary of these diseases!

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