Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Monster in the Closet




Fun Saturday. Ran five miles with my dad this morning. He is seventy years old and still makes me work to keep up. We ran along a trail that follows the edge of the Wasatch Mountains. A lot of people don’t know that most of Utah actually used to be a big lake. Apparently someone pulled the plug, because now much of Utah is desert. The trail is called the Lake Bonneville Trail, and it runs along what was once the shoreline.



After that, my wife and I took our two youngest boys out to lunch and to see Iron Man. Wow, so good! Robert Downey Jr. is a stud actor. Hope he continues to keep his life together now as I’d like to see him in a lot more movies. I also liked the scene after the credits. It gave me a fun idea for the actual release of Water Keep. Have to see what Shadow Mountain thinks of my idea.


Speaking of Shadow Mountain, I have a couple of updates. The ARCs are at press. Hoping they will be back before the end of the month. This also means they are working on the posters and bookmarks. Cool huh?

Also, they are going to do something pretty neat with the inside illustrations. (The illustrations are not in the ARCs.) Since the book is divided into four sections, they are going to do one picture at the beginning of each section. But what I think is really cool is that each picture is going to be a two page spread. It will cover both the left and right pages at the beginning of each part. Now I just have to come up with a couple of possibilities for each section. They need to represent the whole part of the book, but can’t give away too much. Hmmm, this is going to require some thought.

Finally, I received an e-mail from Daren H, with a couple of good questions. I thought I’d answer one of them today and the second one tomorrow. Here’s what he asked. (I’ve edited his letter a little to focus on the actual question.)

You mentioned, in one of your earlier posts, that you started Farworld with Marcus about to be ambushed. I was interested to see that the book actually begins with Bonesplinter's audience.

I have mixed feelings about that technique: On the one hand, it gives the reader a taste of things to come (and presumably an incentive to read through the initial material that sets up the story). On the other, one runs the risk of trivializing the antagonist--a fear you can define is less fearsome than one whose limits are not known.

Did you decide to begin with Bonesplinter in what is basically a prologue (as you mentioned in another post), or did the first chapter come out of the editorial process with Shadow Mountain? If it was the first case, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons of revealing the antagonist at the very beginning. If it was the second case, I'd like to hear about your experience in the editorial process, the give and take between you and Lisa Mangum, and what you learned from it in terms of the craft of writing and elements that improve the books marketability.

Actually, now that I've written both questions, I'd like to hear your thoughts on both subjects.


Thanks for the questions, Daren. It’s funny you should ask this question now as I’ve recently had a rather interesting online discussion with several other authors regarding the pros and cons of prologues. I won’t rehash my take on prologues in this posting, but rather I’ll focus on the pros and cons of introducing an antagonist early in the book. And in particular why I chose to do it in Water Keep.

First of all let’s discuss what showing your hand early accomplishes and what it loses. As most of the masters of horror will tell you, the scariest monster is the one that’s still in the closet. The reason being is that, as a reader, you can imagine whatever might be the scariest to you. Once you open the closet door, you risk the reader going, “Oh, it’s only a flesh eating spider with poison-dripping fangs and red eyes? I’ve seen dozens of those before.”

Another good reason for keeping the antagonist hidden is the mystery angle. Who really is the bad guy, and when and where will he strike? A great example of this was the first Harry Potter book. Voldemort is so frightening precisely because we don’t see him until the end of the book and then he is living on the back of someone’s head. Most creepy.

One of the problems with using this technique is the very fact that you must keep the antagonist in the closet. It doesn’t do you much good to hide the monster, only to have it show up in chapter 3. In a movie you could get away with having the creature strike so quickly you can’t see it clearly, or in the dark, or have it kill other characters. You can do the same thing in a book, but it limits your options. I personally like my protagonist to be proactive about fighting against his or her adversary. A proactive protagonist is much more likeable than someone who is always reacting to what’s thrown at them.

Another problem with using this technique is that in a fantasy series, you can really only get away with this trick in one book. Tough to keep the monster in the closet for five books. One way to get around this is to have progressively tougher antagonists to fight in each book. As your heroine grows stronger, so does her adversary.

I think it really comes down to what you’re trying to accomplish, and what each technique buys you. In my case, I had a couple of reasons for showing Bonesplinter early. The first is that Bonesplinter is going to show up soon anyway. Marcus needs to be put on the run early in the book, and the way I accomplish this is by having the bad guys show up.

Another equally important reason is that one of the biggest complaints I hear about YA fantasies is that they start too slowly. We typically first see our hero in rather ordinary circumstances (living under a staircase, in a hobbit hole, at a school.) This is so that we can throw them into extraordinary circumstances. I actually have two protagonists—Marcus and Kyja. Because of the way the story flows, we meet Marcus first. That means my first few chapters must take place on Earth. By showing Bonesplinter first, I accomplish two things. I get to introduce them (the boy and the girl) in the first chapter. And I get to give the reader a brief taste of my fantasy world.

Another thing to consider is that I actually reveal two potentially dangerous adversaries in chapter one, while hiding a third. We meet Bonesplinter, and get a taste of what is really going on in his head, (Can you say power hungry?) while also hinting at his back story. We meet the really nasty Summoners. But there is another baddy who stays in the shadows. What’s really going on in the head of the hidden antagonist? What is the figure hiding in the shadows up to? Of course there is the obvious. But is there more?

When I first thought up this series, I envisioned a story that grew like Lord of the Rings. In the first book we meet the two main characters, a couple of bad characters, and several side characters. There is a quest, lots of danger, several side stories, and a stopping point that wraps up one part of the story while leaving several things open, and introducing the next part of the quest.

As the series progresses, the danger appears on more fronts. We meet more heroes and the danger increases. Bonesplinter is not the only antagonist, and while there is plenty of swords and sorcery, there is also political intrigue, and battles on many fronts.

Could I have kept Bonesplinter hidden? Sure. And it would have worked just fine. But by introducing him early, we turn it from a horror/mystery to a thriller. We know who Bonesplinter is. But when will he strike next, and what might he be willing to do to increase his own power? And in the course of trying to complete their quest, Kyja and Marcus meet many more nasty creatures.

I guarantee you not all of the books in the series will start this way. In at least one of the books, you won’t see the scariest creature until the very end. But that’s another thing I like to see in a series. Surprise me. Instead of giving me five books that are different versions of the same song, take a new angle. I want each book to be bigger and better than the one before it, so I can’t wait for the next one to come out.

Hope that answers your question. Tomorrow I’ll write about the editing process and how it works best for me.

5 comments:

cat said...

First of all...

Running, not awesome. Crazy, in fact. :)

Iron Man, AWESOME! And I can't wait for more!

Secondly... Interesting take on Prologues and showing your hand early. You have me even more excited for the book!

Brian said...

Wow. Great post! I can't wait to see how the story progresses. It sounds amazing so far. Also, did you get through all of Iron Man? When my family went, my brothers drink started getting to him and he started barfing right before the big fight.

J Scott Savage said...

Cat,

You just need to run in the right places. Tracks and treadmills--yuck! Along the side of a mountin with the whol valley below--beautiful!

Brian,

Yeah, I read your blog about that. Made me laugh and sad for you at the same time. Poor kid. You definitely need to see the end. And stay through all the credits!

Deren said...

Scott,

"... by introducing him early, we turn it from a horror/mystery to a thriller."

That observation helps clarify the issues for me. We clearly need to know the scope of the peril in a thriller because it is fundamentally a story about an effort to avert the peril. Whereas a mystery is a story of discovery.

With stories set in the real world, the author has the luxury of relying on common knowledge and convention. In a political thriller, for example, it is sufficient to say that the conspirators are working to topple the government and proceed on the assumption that the reader agrees such an outcome would be a bad thing. But with fantasy, an author has the additional problem of introducing a reader to a world that contradicts or extends their common knowledge. That makes the prospect of a thriller set in a fantasy context more challenging--unless one relies on the conventions with which readers in the genre should be familiar.

Put another way, to be thrilling, the reader needs to know what's at stake (otherwise the action is meaningless). But in order to know what's at stake the reader needs to understand the fantasy world (where one risks being criticized for going to slowly). The problem of finding the right mix of action and information isn't unique to fantasy, but it seems that a fantasy author walks a finer line because of the additional burden of revealing information about a new world.

I'd like to hear your thoughts about striking that balance in general and some of the specific things you did in Farworld (insofar as you can do so without giving away too much.)

Anna said...

Hey Scott, when are you doing another Q & A? Mesa curious, 'cause I have a question for ya!