or: Finding Your Sparkle
Let's play a little game, shall we? It's called Fill-In-The-Blanks. Here is a simple yet accurate synopsis of a novel. I'll give you a hint (SPOILERS!) its epic fantasy. Shhh... don't tell.
___ ______ follows the journey of the title character _____ ______, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost _____ Kingdom of ______, which was long ago conquered by the dragon _____. Approached out the blue by the wizard _______ ___ ____, _____ finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior ______ ___________. Their journey will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with _______ and ____, deadly _____ and Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters and Sorcerers.
Ooo, that was fun. Shall we play again? Okay!
_____, a young farm boy, finds a marvelous blue stone in a mystical mountain place. Before he can trade it for food to get his family through the hard winter, it hatches a beautiful sapphire-blue dragon, a race thought to be extinct. ______ bonds with the dragon, and when his family is killed by the marauding _____, he discovers that he is the last of the ______ ______, fated to play a decisive part in the coming war between the human but hidden ______, dwarves, elves, the diabolical ______ and their neanderthal _______, all pitted against and allied with each other and the evil King __________. ______ and his dragon _______ set out to find their role, growing in magic power and understanding of the complex political situation as they endure perilous travels and sudden battles, dire wounds, capture and escape.
Do you see a pattern? Dwarves... dragons... unexpected journeys and unavoidable battles... Let's try one more from the fantasy realm. It's an easy one.
_____ ______ and the ____________ _____ is the first novel in the _____ ______ series written by __ _______ and featuring _____ ______, a young wizard. It describes how _____ discovers he is a wizard, makes close friends and a few enemies at the ________ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and with the help of his friends thwarts an attempted comeback by the evil wizard Lord _________, who killed _____'s parents when _____ was one year old.
Okay, so I left a big give-away in that one, as if it wasn't obvious enough. Mainly, I grew sick of typing blanks and "School of Witchcraft and Wizardry" is a lot of ____ing blanks. I'm sure you scored an A+ on my little test, crafty readers. In case not, what you read were descriptions of The Hobbit, Eragon, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, a few fantasy books that found minor success in the last century...
So what are you trying to say, Geoff? That fantasy is dead? That's its all the same derivative crap it has been since Tolkien stuck a robe on a bearded old dude and called him a wizard? I've been saying that for years. That's why I don't read it.
Well, A: If you don't read fantasy, why are at my blog? I mean, thanks for stopping by and all, but fantastic realms are kind of my lifeblood. And B: It's not just fantasy. You could take any genre and play this game. Try it! It's especially fun with paranormal romance. That falls generally along the lines of "Misunderstood Blank meets mysterious and brooding Blank who turns out to be a Blank and Blank can't really tell if Blank wants to hump Blank or eat Blank." That is not meant to be disparaging to the genre. Certainly it's not my thing, but fantasy is, and I can point out its tried and true tropes with complete acceptance of their oft-maligned place in literature as a whole. The Hero Quest. The Whatever of Prophecy. The Chosen One. The Dark Lord. The Wise Interloper. The Gruff Hero With The Shady Past. The Grand Battle. The Lost or Stolen Object. Most of these things - in some form or another - find their way into my own fantasy writing. Its sort of part of the territory. For better or worse, the tropes have become part of the cannon; what has come before has set the bar for what comes after.
So does this mean, as authors, that we stop writing? Certainly not. It is true that there are only so many tales to tell, only so many elements that build a successful story of any genre. But there are infinite ways to tell a story, and every author has within them a voice that was hand-selected to tell the story in that way.
Have you ever heard a comedian tell a really great joke and then you try to repeat it to your friends and it falls flat? It's not the joke. It's you. Your voice didn't write that joke; the Muse didn't give that riff to you. It belongs to someone else. Could anyone have put those words together? Sure. Most of us can string letters into words and sentences and speak them aloud with our tongues and teeth (or hands.) But just because you're saying the same joke doesn't mean that its the same joke. See my point? The comedian told it, in their specific way, and that's why it worked.
So, friends, if you find that you have a great story but it looks tragically like the descriptions above - it lies flat on the page - then you haven't found your voice. You haven't found that thing that makes your book sparkle (Twilight pun intended;) that makes your words and sentences stand out from the crowd. After four years of plugging away at this writing thing, focused on one large story - with little vacations into other worlds and tropes and genres - I think I can safely say that I've found my sparkle. But it took a lot of practice, a lot of knowing what's been done before, and a lot of thinking about staying true to what people know while (hopefully) giving them something they never see coming.
As my music theory teacher used to say, you have to learn the rules of music in order to break them, making the song your own. I'd say that applies here, especially with genre writing where the roads can too often seem weathered. Just respect the shoulders of the giants that you stand on and don't be afraid to tread a few new paths.