Fantasy brings to mind worlds of pure imagination. As an author this can feel like a nearly limitless power to craft any realm you desire and these worlds are so wonderful precisely because they are not our own. But that feature is also a limitation: the characters within the fantasy world should not (in most cases) have knowledge of our world. A critical issue arises when certain elements of our present reality leak into character dialogue or scene descriptions, an issue in fantasy which I call the problem of a leaky world.
A critical issue arises when certain elements of our present reality leak into character dialogue or scene descriptions,
...it is easy to let certain things slip through the narrative that are references specific to our reality; the effect of such a mistake is to yank the reader out of the fantasy world momentarily and break the spell of imaginative literature.
Consider the following cliche which might easily slip into a scene of dialogue between two characters.
“Give them an inch and they'll take a mile!”
The issue with this phrase in the context of a fantasy novel is neither the idea that is being communicated nor the fact that it is a cliche in English culture (as using cliches is just lazy in general); the ‘leak’ is in the specific reference to ‘inches’ and ‘miles’.
To refer to ‘inches’ and ‘miles’ in a fantasy novel is to directly reference an important part of the real history and development of our culture. This suggests that either these fantasy characters have some sort of access to our sphere of knowledge or that they miraculously developed the same unit of measurement completely by chance. In either case the suspension of reality has been fractured and the reader is dragged back into the world they are trying to escape.
To refer to ‘inches’ and ‘miles’ in a fantasy novel [...] suggests that either these fantasy characters have some sort of access to our sphere of knowledge or that they miraculously developed the same unit of measurement...
How can this be fixed? The first and perhaps most obvious solution might be to do the same thing that fantasy authors do with languages, towns, cities, and countries: make one up! But if you are to create a system of measurement in your fantasy world then you are stuck with the exact opposite problem. It is not your fantastic characters that are in possession of inaccessible knowledge but your reader who has a lack of inherent knowledge about the fantasy world. To inform them of the length of an imaginary unit of measure you'll need to use units the reader can understand, units like ‘inches’ and ‘miles’, and once again that drops them back into the reality that you are trying to suspend.
To inform them of the length of an imaginary unit of measure you'll need to use units the reader can understand, units like ‘inches’ and ‘miles’, and once again that drops them back into the reality that you are trying to suspend.
This allows the reader to remain in fantastic suspension while the narrator handles issues
The second solution is a bit more challenging but, I believe, lets the reader immerse themselves more fully in the world and, more importantly, in the story. Instead of relying on a narrator to bridge the worlds, the author can look for common experiences between them that could conceivably be shared without any ‘leaking’ of information. Ancient civilizations demonstrate this concept superbly as they developed things like chairs and clothing and swords independently without any need to ‘leak’ information between themselves.
...the author can look for common experiences between [the worlds]
So let us return to the problematic phrase about ‘inches’ and ‘miles’. With the right kind of narrator the units of measure used in the fantastic world can be directly translated to familiar units. Alternatively, the author might try to identify experiences common to both the fantasy characters and the reader. For example, to describe the height of buildings I have taken to comparing the distance to spear lengths. Spears, common across many cultures, usually reach a bit higher than the average person. A house that is “three spear lengths high” then becomes a description that would give both the reader and the characters in the fantastic world a good sense of its size. For longer distances, such as 30 miles, the author might express the distance in terms of time. If you believe that most people can walk about 10 miles in a day then to say that a group of characters walked for three days conveys a distance similar to 30 miles without needing to use a specific unit of measure.
For example, to describe the height of buildings I have taken to comparing the distance to spear lengths.
Of course, this is just one brief example of a ‘leaky world’ problem, but it illustrates a pitfall quite particular to fantasy which I believe should be vigorously avoided. Common phrases such as cliches are particularly prone to ‘leaking’ information and should either be avoided altogether, used very cautiously, or adapted to better suit the culture of the fantasy world. By crafting a narrative that brings the reader into a story with as few ‘leaks’ as possible we can convince them to leave reality behind and experience the wonder, the beauty, and the terror of our imagined worlds.
By crafting a narrative that brings the reader into a story with as few ‘leaks’ as possible we can convince them to leave reality behind and experience the wonder, the beauty, and the terror of our imagined worlds.
Early into the first draft of The Gatewatch I had a minor crisis of identity. Who was I to assume that I could write a book worth reading and did I recall enough proper grammar to pass for a 'real' writer? To quell my doubts I began devouring writing advice by respected authors while I pressed on with the story.
Who was I to assume that I could write a book worth reading
I first reread an excellent essay I encountered in university, George Orwell's Politics and the English Language. His pointed message renewed my determination to pursue and eliminate pretentious diction, meaningless words, and dying metaphors. As a writer of fantasy, a genre too often plagued by these particular issues, I found it necessary to thoroughly purge what I had written in my rough draft before proceeding with the story.
While discussing dialogue, Stephen King suggests that descriptors such as shouted, whispered, screamed, roared, wailed, moaned, and whimpered should be used extremely sparingly, if at all. Even worse are phrases like whispered quietly, screamed furiously, or moaned woefully. The reason, of course, is that if you have not made clear from the context of the conversation what the tone of the dialogue is then using a phrase like ‘he shouted angrily' is profanely lazy. King suggests instead that writers invest more energy describing their red-faced, tight-fisted, jaw-clenched characters leading up to the dialogue so that readers can infer their tone from context alone.
Stephen King suggests that descriptors such as shouted, whispered, screamed, roared, wailed,
I took this advice literally and removed any word for dialogue besides said from my rough draft. Though I meant it to be more of a writing exercise than a rule I soon found that my scenes pulsed with an energy that they lacked before. I swore from then on never to use a phrase such as 'he shouted angrily' or 'she whispered tenderly' and to this day I have not used any attribution other than said.
I swore from then on never to use a phrase such as 'he shouted angrily' or 'she whispered tenderly'
For anyone willing to accept the challenge of using only said for dialogue I feel compelled to offer some support. One area of knowledge that I had a decent intuition about but failed to study closely before adopting this rule was the science of body language. Facial expressions and body posture can do more to communicate a character’s state of mind than a paragraph stuffed full of emotive descriptors.
Ekman's Six Basic Emotions (Credit: Adam Murphy)
These traits are so consistent that psychologist Paul Ekman categorized expressive facial movements into six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. These expressions are performed unconsciously and are nearly universal. I believe as writers we can reverse-engineer this categorization to craft physical descriptions that are organic and intuitive for readers to interpret.
I believe as writers we can reverse-engineer this categorization to craft physical descriptions
For example, in a scene of courtly intrigue one might expect a line such as this:
“Damned fool,” Darius snarled disgustedly.
I hope you will agree that this line is particularly awful. The word snarled falls flat as it is a gross exaggeration; animals snarl but people do not. It is also confusing as a snarl is an expression of aggression in animals, not of disgust. As if all this was not enough to push this line into irredeemable mediocrity, the use of the word disgustedly shows that the author had neither the time nor the energy to show how Darius felt but instead cut a quick corner by stating it directly.
The word 'snarled' falls flat as it is a gross exaggeration; animals snarl but people do not. It is also confusing as a snarl is an expression of aggression in animals, not of disgust.
To rework this line I would first identify the basic emotion that the character is experiencing, in this case disgust. Disgust has been identified as one of the six basic emotions and is characterized by distinct positioning of the eyebrows, nose, and mouth. By utilizing these facts we could, perhaps, redeem the line as follows:
Darius furled his brow and wrinkled his nose.
“Damned fool,” he said.
In this case the word used for dialogue attribution is not hijacked to reveal Darius’ state of mind; it simply does its job of identifying who is speaking. In fact, the actual word disgust does not appear in the text at all. Through the description of Darius’ face and our own experience with facial gestures we, as readers, know exactly how Darius is feeling without being whomped over the head with a direct description. Our imagination is allowed to fill in the emotional context, and that is a far more powerful tool than words on a page.
In this case the word used for dialogue attribution is not hijacked to reveal Darius’ state of mind;
Further, we can easily adjust this line to convey other emotions by altering Darius’ facial expressions. If instead of wrinkling his nose Darius flared his nostrils we would know that he is feeling anger (another one of the six basic emotions) instead of disgust. Again, if he had opened his mouth and raised his eyebrows we would infer that he is surprised instead of angry or disgusted.
If instead of wrinkling his nose Darius flared his nostrils we would know that he is feeling anger
Though it is sometimes necessary to use said to identify the speaker I would refine the line one step further by eliminating the dialogue attribution altogether and communicating the source of these words through their position on the page like this:
Darius furled his brow and wrinkled his nose. “Damned fool.”
Though some might disagree with this last step, I have taken to doing this whenever possible. By avoiding dialogue attributions other than said, and even using said only when necessary, I have been able to craft lively dialogue between characters that is not hindered or burdened by unnecessary descriptors. In other words, some things really are better left (un)said.
For sage advice on the craft of writing Joshua recommends Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
The advice I gave in Part I of Becoming a Resilient Writer went down pretty easy, maybe not ‘strawberry milkshake’ easy but certainly ‘spinach smoothie’ easy. Part II is full of suggestions that most will find about as palatable as shooting apple-cider vinegar straight. However, as a beneficiary of honest writing advice myself I feel compelled to pass these lessons on.
"Clearly the message of resilience resonated with the wider writing community. "
The first lesson on the second stage of my writing journey is this: view rejection as a personal victory. I am not kidding when I tell you that I literally jumped out of my chair and did a double fist-pump in the air when the notification of my first rejection popped up on my phone. I was elated. Why? Because I was rejected by a big publisher. That means they had considered it. For three seconds, three pages, or thirty minutes, it didn’t matter. And believe me when I say it was not the last rejection I received. If I had let those rejections knock me down a notch I’d be far enough underground to hit the water table by now. Whatever I felt, whether it was excitement, frustration, or fear, I threw into the tank as fuel to send out another query, to reach out to another author, or to push through another edit of my manuscript. So don’t let rejection burn you down; use it as rocket fuel instead and eventually you will achieve lift-off.
"So don’t let rejection burn you down; use it as rocket fuel instead and eventually you will achieve lift-off. "
"That twenty five minutes which should have been spent crafting the final climactic scene will be squandered scrolling through the responses (or a depressing lack thereof) on your feed. Instances become patterns. Patterns become habits."
The third piece of advice I have for writers who aspire to publish their work is this: start networking early and pay it forward whenever you can. There is an incredibly diverse and active community of writers, published and unpublished, who are working their fingers into nubby little stumps trying to get their next book finished and released. Recognize that the rush you get from someone sharing a post about your novel or commenting on an interview you were in is something of value that you can pass on to other people. Here’s the best part: it only costs you a bit of time and energy. And while some might say that time spent connecting with and encouraging other authors should be spent writing, your future publisher might disagree. After all, writing a book is only the beginning; your future publisher is part of the publishing industry and that means selling books. The professional support network you build will be instrumental in getting your book into the hands of fans all over the world. So do unto others as you’d hope they would do to you: send encouraging notes, cheer on their successes, and invest in your own community of author friends, publishing contacts, and future fans.
"And while some might say that time spent connecting with and encouraging other authors should be spent writing,
As I said in Becoming a Resilient Writer (Part I), not everything that works for me will work for you. But the creative potential within you will not be fully realized if you don’t have the resiliency to see your projects through. Stand firm, forge ahead, and write the story you were born to tell.
For more on writing and resiliency Joshua suggests reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.
"as the northern realm of Noros came into clearer view and the main characters delved
The three main characters, Torin, Bryn, and Grimsa, are inspired by the three central figures of Norse Mythology: Odin, Loki, and Thor. Other characters throughout the book reflect familiar Norse personalities in a much looser sense: Freya, Frigg, Heimdal, and the dwarven brothers Brokk & Eitri to name a few. Certain events, such as a drinking contest in an enormous mead hall, are directly based on specific myths, in that case Thor’s Journey to Utgard. Torin’s obsession with riddles (part of his Odin-like nature) culminates in a duel of riddles to the death with a giant king; this is inspired by scenes from The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek and from Vafþrúðnismál in the Poetic Edda. The epic poems recited in the book are structured around some of the poetic rules of drottkvaett, the ancient court meter of viking skalds; further, many treasure and place names are direct or close translations of Old Norse words. And, of course, the entire book centers around defending the human realm against giants and trolls which is a classic heroic task of both Norse gods and Viking heroes.
"the entire book centers around defending the human realm against giants and trolls
"any readers who have had the pleasure of bathing in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon will recognize its influence on the underground baths visited by the characters in Gatewatch"
Distinctly lacking in The Gatewatch are Viking longships and the northern sea because the story takes place high up in the mountains. This, of course, will be remedied in future sequels, the first of which is already well underway. For now, find the first three chapters on the website and stay up to date on publication details and future novels by joining The Gatewatch mailing list.
"if you are not currently living a creative life and would like to
The Other Big Question: When do ideas appear?
My Answer: Microspaces.
Microspaces, as I define them, are all the insignificant moments of the day. Taking the elevator. Stopping at a red light. Brushing your teeth or standing in line at the grocery store. Tying your shoes. Sitting on the toilet. Microwaving your lunch. Waiting for the bus. Watching a laggy webpage load.
Microspaces offer brief moments of mental liberty. They are the empty ‘inbetweens’ in our days that so easily go unnoticed. They are the white space between the letters. They are the silence between notes. They are the breaks in the pattern and the place between strokes.
"Microspaces offer brief moments of mental liberty.
In my experience these microspaces are exactly when my best ideas appear. Not during dedicated brainstorming sessions. Not during my scheduled writing time. Not while doing research or hammering out words on the keyboard. They float into my mind during those empty moments. But look carefully at the microspaces listed above and you may find that those moments are not so empty for you.
"Advertisers and developers pride themselves on filling every unclaimed surface and second in our lives with noise."
If you are serious about being a creative person you need to actively cultivate your microspaces. Don’t fill every moment looking at a screen or gawking at photoshopped models in advertisements or on magazines. Just let your eyes rest on those round buttons in the elevator. Stare at the seagulls outside while you wait in line at the store. Don’t make a habit of checking your phone in the bathroom and look out the bus window rather than up at the ads.
"If you are serious about being a creative person you need to actively cultivate your microspaces."
Nothing has been more rewarding in my creative journey than protecting my microspaces from mental clutter, but don’t interpret this advice as dismissive of the hard labour that goes into being creative. Ideas are raw materials that need to be shaped and refined through hard creative labor. However, if you don’t allow room for microspaces in your day you’ve cut yourself off from that mysterious spring of ideas somewhere beyond our reach. Embrace your microspace.
To experience the benefits of microspaces in your creative journey Joshua challenges you leave your phone turned off for a day.
In a viking’s mind the sword lay next to the spoken word. Wielding words with skill was as important as wielding a blade; a clumsy phrase could lead to more bloodshed than a misplaced sword stroke. If injury was intended then every viking knew that a well-crafted insult aimed at an enemy could fly farther and sink deeper than any hand-fletched arrow. Intelligence could be measured by one’s ability to interpret poetic riddles and, for those seeking glory, a deed enshrined in verse would outlast the richest treasure. Therefore, no study of the Viking Age could be complete without considering their poetry.
"a clumsy phrase could lead to more bloodshed than a misplaced sword stroke"
The end-rhyme pairs love/of and day/say in an ABAB scheme satisfy, to the modern ear, what poetry should ‘sound’ like. Each line has either six or seven syllables which demonstrates a fair amount of consistency between lines.
"Modern song lyrics and traditional Western poems are primarily defined by
By contrast, the skaldic poetry enjoyed by vikings centered around internal rhyme and alliteration instead. Both of these were made easier by the fact that Old Norse as a language has less phonetic diversity than modern English. Since there are literally fewer sounds within the language it is much easier to find rhymes and alliteration in Old Norse. Skaldic poetry also featured over one hundred distinctive structured verse forms, each of which had its own strict set of rules. One of the most popular forms was dróttkvætt, also known as ‘court metre’.
"the skaldic poetry enjoyed by vikings centered around internal rhyme and alliteration"
While it is nearly impossible to re-create within the English language I will give an approximation of my own making based on a set of five dróttkvætt-like rules.
With those five rules in mind, here is an example of how they can be applied and what (with a great stretch of the imagination) viking verse might have sounded like.
Attempt to construct a verse of your own with these five rules and you’ll find it a synapse-stretching task. However, a skald would not consider the verse above to be dróttkvætt at all as it does not strictly follow the additional rules of the form. In conversations with doctoral students of Norse literature I have heard these skaldic forms described as ‘hyper-complex’ with ‘draconian rules’; however, Viking Age skalds were famed for being able to improvise such forms on the spot.
“skaldic forms [were] ‘hyper-complex’ with ‘draconian rules’; however,
In addition to these challenging structural complexities skalds were famously known for their use of a unique poetic device known as a kenning. Kennings were metaphorical phrases that alluded to Norse myth and culture. For example, the ‘whale road’ is a kenning for ‘the ocean’; the ‘sea of swords’ is a kenning for ‘battle’; ‘Freya’s tears’ is a kenning for ‘gold’. The best skalds might employ a double kenning, a reference to a reference. A phrase like ‘the venom of the battle snake’ employs the kenning ‘battle snake’ for ‘sword’, presumably making its ‘venom’ a kenning for ‘blood’. Therefore, by saying ‘the venom of the battle snake’ the skald simply means ‘blood’. While triple or even quadruple kennings may have existed, scholars such as Peter Hallberg declare that the intimate knowledge of Norse culture and skaldic traditions needed to decipher these kennings makes them practically inaccessible to the modern reader.
“Therefore, by saying ‘the venom of the battle snake’ the skald simply means ‘blood’”
For more on poetry in the Viking Age Joshua recommends Old Icelandic Poetry: Eddic Lay and Skaldic Verse by Peter Hallberg.
It is my firm belief that the kinds of stories a culture tells will, in fact, tell you far more about that culture than the stories themselves. What kind of stories do we tell today? I sense futility, anger, hopelessness, selfishness, and defeat in most of them. A sense of embarrassment about the story we are currently telling through how we live is already openly acknowledged: how often have you heard people shudder as they ask what their grandchildren might say of us and how we treated the environment, or nuclear science, or genetics research? But there are other cultures and with them other stories that we might tell instead.
"It is my firm belief that the kinds of stories a culture tells will, in fact,
What sort of people tell that kind of story? What kind of culture lets their heroes lose? Couldn’t the strength of Thor, the cunning of Loki, the beauty of Freya, the keen senses of Heimdal, or the wisdom of Odin divert this terrible disaster? No. The gods are doomed and each must live under the shadow of this impending apocalypse. Does that sound familiar? I think we might have more in common with the ancient Scandinavian story-tellers than most people imagine.
What sort of people tell that kind of story? What kind of culture lets their heroes lose?
So what is the response of Odin and the gods to their plight? Do they give up? Do they lay down their swords and surrender to their inevitable end? Do they drink themselves blind in light of the doom that awaits? No. Odin plots ceaselessly to seek out the bravest and wisest warriors to join him in Valhalla where they constantly prepare for Ragnarok. Thor continues to beat back the frost-giants with his hammer Mjolnir and Heimdal remains ever-watchful at his post atop Bifrost. And, of course, the iconic viking warrior emulates the Norse gods: despite the odds he fights, more concerned about finding a good end than in trying to avoid it.
So I offer this thought: if the stories we are telling today are not the sort we’d like people to remember us by then let’s look back and find stories worth telling. After that, when we are ready, we’ll embrace a new way of looking at the future and learn face the inevitable challenges that lay ahead with courage instead of cowardice. Then we’ll start telling stories worth living.
For more on Ragnarok Joshua recommends Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation of the Norse Myths.
My first lesson was this: inspiration feels more like rowing and less like the weather. I used to sit around in my writing chair as if it was a sailboat. There I would wait for inspiration to fill my sails and whisk me away on the adventure that was my story. Gusts of inspiration came intermittently but with such infrequency that they carried me nowhere; even worse, they often blew me right back to where I started. But when I learned to row, to start tugging at those oars despite the blisters and the rain, I started to make real progress. Then when a blessed gust of inspiration did come I was ready to take full advantage of it.
The second lesson I learned is going to sound strange, but I’ll share it anyways because this is what really changed the game for me: imagine there is a force that is actively and insidiously working against you finishing your book. You don’t have to literally believe this (I do) but it will put you in the right mindset. The creative process, like actual birth, isn’t a pretty, passive act. You won’t want to Instagram the reality of it. It’s a gritty, greasy slog that will take everything you’ve got, and then some. So forget all the perfect pictures of laptops and lattes that other people post online and brace yourself for all-out war.
"The creative process, like actual birth, isn’t a pretty, passive act. You won’t want to Instagram the reality of it."
My last piece of advice is for writers in the digital age: treat social media like sugar. It feels great to have your Facebook page liked, your Twitter announcement re-posted, or your podcast shared. However, nothing is going to crush you like a bad review or a rejected query letter if you’re relying on praise from strangers; it’s like trying to run a marathon on a stomach full of halloween candy. Instead, ground yourself in your work, believe in its intrinsic value, and invest in a support network of analog friends (preferably writers) rather than banking all your hopes on one-shot viral success online.
Not everything that works for me will work for you. But I do think your story is worth telling and I don’t think you will finish it in a reasonable amount of time without becoming a resilient writer. So ignore the storm clouds on the horizon. Nevermind that the breeze is blowing against you. Chalk up those hands then grip the oars and get writing.