24 September 2016

How to Write an Epic Fantasy with Dragons

This season I shall be offering my newest novel, an epic fantasy. However, the story of how I came to write this book and how it changed chapter by chapter is a story in itself. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, my fellow writers said to me: 
"Why don't you write an epic fantasy? You've never written one of those." 
So I replied, "Sure, I could write one of those fat books, no problem." 
"Wait! There's more," they said: "You have to have dragons in it, too." 
"Dragons? No problem," I responded, adding a typed LOL.

[You can read in detail here how my writer friends goaded me into writing an epic fantasy. You can read here (part 1) and here (part 2) about dragons and the choices I made about portraying them in my epic fantasy novel.]

At first I was thinking it would be more of a spoof. I would use the tropes and memes and cliches and stock characters of epic fantasy but I would put my own warped sense of humor upon the proceedings. I started with a scene of a dragonslayer, my protagonist--let's call him Corlan. It seemed a good idea to construct a story about dragons around a dragonslayer, after all. I cast a hunky hunk in the role, then sent him back to the city where he had the worst weekend ever. I've never liked hunky hunks so it was fun making him suffer. So he is banished by the snooty prince and we have our quest, which will take up the bulk of the book.

As seems to happen on epic fantasy quests, there are episodes, miniature story arcs, new characters introduced and old characters dispatched. I also had to have a dragon attack about every other chapter. So I crafted a map of the journey area and plotted where this and that would happen, all the way to the geographical end of the journey. I had a rough idea what would happen at the end of the journey but I did not worry about it since I was still at the beginning. 

Meanwhile, I had an old screenplay for a novel I had long intended to write just sitting on my computer waiting for me to turn it into a novel. I had tried a few times but the "epic" story seemed too big to be written until I had endless hours during my retirement. The dragonslayer's story seemed a good way to incorporate this other medieval-esque story of five princes and the trouble they cause in the realm. So I decided to make the five princes another story line. I would interweave them.

Then I had another idea. A little princess, Adora, absolutely cute yet with unspeakable powers, would make a good counterbalance to the daring-do of my hunky hunk dragonslayer. I knew then that they would have to meet at the end. I was not sure what would happen when they met, of course. I was still in the planning stage. I also thought of two other story lines which would interweave with the others. I did not care about length because I was working on something "epic"!

I started writing the story line of the hunky dragonslayer. Good enough. I wrote the opening scene of the scribe's story line, preparing to tell the tale of the five princes. Good enough. I started the little princess's story line. I dabbled a few paragraphs of the other two story lines just to get them started. I had about 3000 words total written when I decided to cobble together a temporary book cover, mostly for fun but maybe also to help me focus. Being an "epic" I knew it would take forever and so I was in no hurry.

On the back cover I wrote the following blurb. At that point in time I did not know how any of the story lines would go or how they would end. I did what I've heard Dostoevsky liked to do: invent interesting characters then see how they react to each other.
Corlan the dragonslayer is in trouble. Again.
He has not met the Prince’s quota. He has defiled 
a Lady of the Court, too. His grandfather offers 
him a secret treasure that just might save him. 
Of course it requires a long and dangerous journey.

The Scriber Iz-Mal is determined to set straight 
the history of the realm even at threat of death. 
A thousand years after the War of the Five Princes
the truth of what happened to turn their kingdoms 
into a vast wasteland remains untold.

Princess Adora dares go against the Queen’s 
harsh command to hand over the newborn baby boy. 
He is destined to serve as just another soldier 
in the matriarchy’s army, but Adora 
spirits him away to safety in the wilderness.

Then I decided to write out the dragonslayer's story first, since that was where my mind was at that time. I left the other story lines. My hunky hunk dragonslayer had his day in court, the palace court, that is, and was banished to the Valley of Death. So far, so good (as a writer, I mean). Now to add some complications.... 

To skip ahead a bit... 
I wrote on EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS from November through June, all on the dragonslayer's story line. I wrote at night. I wrote on weekends. I wrote between the classes I teach, sometimes only a few paragraphs during a half-hour's gap. I liked what was happening to my dragonslayer. I liked him, too. Thankfully, he resisted becoming me; he always acted true to his character. I gradually knew what would happen to him, how the whole book would end. 
By the end of June I knew how long this single story line was going to be--long enough to be a novel in its own right. But I had to keep the little princess story line in because it would dovetail with the dragonslayer's story. So I dropped those other two story lines and found ways to tell the story of the five princes from the scribe's story line within the dragonslayer's story line. After all, when people camp out on a long journey they have to talk about something between dinner and sleep, true? 
In July I went back to Beijing, China to teach a 4-week university course. In my time off, I continued writing. I finished the dragonslayer's story line. Then returned to the little princess's story line and wrote it straight out in 10 chapters (I had one written previously). Then came the difficulty of merging chapters devoted to different story lines. I played with a regular pattern and by pure happenstance I found the arrangement that worked best: every four dragonslayer chapters I would insert a princess chapter (called "interlude" instead of chapter). That arrangement worked so well dramatically--cliffhangers, cross-references, etc.--that I knew it was meant to be. The two story lines come together at the end and as I wrote it tears dribbled down my cheeks. Not kidding! It was perfect. I was blessed to take dictation from my muses. 
Returning back to the USA I had the whole rough draft completed and could begin revisions, first on story elements, then on the smaller technical issues. I faced a 240,000 word manuscript. But it's supposed to be epic! Never fear, I told myself. I can whittle it down during revision. Even so, a novella of 38,000 words with a 198,000 novel wrapped around it is something special. Let us remember that J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novels still far exceed mine. The Hobbit is 95,000 words; The Fellowship of the Ring is 187,000; The Two Towers is 156,000; and The Return of the King is 137,000. When I was jousting with my fellow writers about writing in the genre many of them write in, I boasted of aiming for 250,000 words, but I did not seriously have that goal in mind. I thought 120,000 would be enough. But the story rolled and my hero and heroine would not stop having adventures. So here it is: 238,000 in its so-called final form.
Once upon a time, I firmly believed that if you have something that is good why wouldn't you want more of it? If a book is good you want to keep reading. So I can only hope that readers will find the pages worth turning. And, as reality often requires, if the pages do not engage, readers are free to set down the book and do something else. I will not take umbrage at the slings and arrows of a fickle readership. Seriously, I think you will enjoy this journey into [S P O I L E R S] and be sorry to see it end.

Now that EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS is finished, I rewrote the blurb to go on the back cover of the book:
When Corlan the dragonslayer is banished by the Prince, it is not the worst fate. Corlan has a plan to rid the realm of dragons once and for all. To complete his mission, he must journey to the far end of the Valley of Death. Only then will he be allowed to return.
Along the way, Corlan teaches a wayward boy how to be a man while questioning everything he thought he knew about his own life. They encounter a surly magus in his fourth life, harpies and hippos, rogues and river wyrms, a clever hunchback and a feisty ambassador, an evil queen, witches and warriors, and strange cities with bizarre customs. And there are always dragons to fight! No matter the cost, no matter what he learns about himself, Corlan must continue to his destiny.
Meanwhile, Princess Adora flees her home with her baby brother to save him from certain death. Chased into the mountains of Yozma, Adora and her companions find the secret to dragons—a secret Corlan only wishes he knew, one that will change everything.

That phrase "will change everything" seems to be required in epic fantasy book blurbs. In this case, it's completely true.

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

11 September 2016


In 2001, I was teaching at Wichita State University in Kansas. That Fall semester I had a Tuesday-Thursday class that started at 9:30. No big deal. Business as usual.

Wichita State University and Wichita skyline
On September 11, a Tuesday, I sat in my office preparing for that first class of the day. With my office door open, I happened to hear two of my colleagues talking out in the hallway. One said, with no apparent emotion, that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I did not give it much thought at that moment other than a "Wow" that something like that could happen. I did not consider it might have been a large commercial airliner, thinking more likely it was a small airplane, possible taking tourists on a sightseeing flight.

A little while later, I got up and headed to my class, choosing to swing by the Student Center and pick up some file folders at the bookstore on the way to the classroom. For some reason, my English Composition class had been put in a spare classroom in a science building on the opposite end of the campus from my office in the English department's building. As I entered the Student Center and walked toward the bookstore at one end of the building, I noticed the TVs on the walls in the common area were showing the so-called Twin Towers and a small group of students and staff were gathered below the TV to watch the live broadcast.

Black smoke was trailing away from the building that had been hit by the crashing aircraft. By that time, the TV broadcaster was announcing it was a commercial airliner. It was shocking to imagine the lives aboard such an aircraft. And then, as my eyes were glued to the image on the TV screen, a second aircraft flew into the picture, striking the second tower. Just like that--on live TV. It almost seemed like some insect had flown in front of the camera lens. But there was the crash, the flames, the billowing black clouds, right there on TV. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. 

I remember the big fellow standing in front of me who cried out "Oooo, cool!" at the sight of the second plane striking the tower, as though he thought he was watching a movie or a video game full of violence. But none of us really understood what we were seeing at that moment. One plane could be an accident; two planes had to be deliberate. Who was doing that? And why? Later we learned of another plane crashing into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and still another where the passengers fought back but which resulted in a crash in Pennsylvania before the plane could be used as a bomb.

I got the folders in the bookstore, but my mind was racing, my nerves rattled. I went to the classroom and a few students were there. They asked if we were having class. They said classes were being cancelled as the news spread. Not knowing what was happening, it seemed the best decision to not meet from some lesson on writing essays. We needed to focus on the events of the day. I returned to my office. I didn't have a computer in my office so I got no more news. 

Later, I picked up my daughter from preschool and met my wife at home. We watched further news, mindful of protecting our child from terrible images and being ready for anything. 

As it turned out, when the FAA put out the order for all planes to land, Wichita was in a unique position. Being centrally located, a lot of transcontinental flights landed here. Not only is there a commercial airport and an Air Force base but also the General Aviation industry has miles and miles of runway space. I heard about all the passengers from those many planes being put up in hotels and treated to restaurant meals. There were tours of the local attractions to help them pass the time. Eventually they got on their airplanes and flew on to their destinations.

Now it's fifteen years since that day. It is difficult to say if anything has really changed. Is the world better now? Or worse? Or the same but in different ways? 

I got my first cell phone after that day, so I would always be able to call the people I needed to contact. That was one change I made. In the weeks and months and years that have followed that day, I expected the problems which caused those attacks would be solved. I expected we would return to the relative peace we believed in before that day. I hoped we would be able to remain innocent to the kind of evil that some people can do against other people. And yet every day takes us further from that peace and innocence, it seems, and we adapt to a new normal, which is not anything anyone really wants.

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

04 September 2016

On the Madness of Holiday Weekends

You know how when you have a three-day weekend you spend the first day of it worrying whether or not you will be productive or waste all the time? That's me. 

And it will be worse on Sunday, as I stew and pine about what I should be doing, and I'll probably do some of what I should be doing, but not nearly everything I planned to do. Then Monday comes, the great holiday, and I'll spend the day moping around, complaining about not having enough time. I'll also start fearing the Tuesday morning as though it were a typical Monday morning. I'll ponder ways to extend the weekend, maybe let myself get sick....

And I won't sleep well, worried about using all this free time advantageously. Of course, some say simply doing nothing is not wasted time. It's called relaxation. Or rest. And that is a goal in itself. And beneficial. Anything to kill some time - because, as we all know, time is trying to kill us, as well. In fact, I sorta kinda blogged about that a really long time ago yet, sadly, it still remains here, if you wish to kill even more time by reading it. (Remember: you'll never get those minutes back again.)

Yet some folks swear by the "active" vacation whereby they arrive back at the start of the work week fully drained and unable to do their assigned tasks. Then they regale the rest of us with their tales of moral turpitude and/or risky behavior, swearing they have to do something even more wild next weekend,as though there is some kind of competition in life. It's as though the week was actually their period of rest and the job site their place of repose. (Mattress tester, perhaps?)

Not me. I like to be ready for my assigned tasks. So I spend the weekend worrying about being ready to perform my assigned tasks and thus gain little pleasure from my time away from those assigned tasks. Then, naturally, I complain about the assigned tasks throughout the week and dream of just making it to the next weekend. Ah! The next weekend...the undiscovered country! The paradise we dream of only to waste once we arrive.

Then the cycle begins again. It's truly maddening! Wash, rinse, repeat. Forever. Only boisterous children, fortuitous lottery winnings, precise meteorite strikes, and localized earthquakes can disrupt the pattern. So keep some candy in your pockets, a pen in your hand, a hard hat on your head, and a widely straddling skateboard close at hand. Then, perhaps, you may find yourself reading a blog or two, and dismissing them as pure fluff because it is, after all, just another holiday weekend. And you've got time to waste. 

PS, Update: I have managed to waste 2 hours by scrolling down my Twitter feed and then my Facebook wall and checking my email accounts twice. And making a fresh pot of coffee.

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.