A Public Declaration in Favor of Fantasy

I’m Laura Linney, your host for a new season of Masterpiece Classics. Except I’m not really Laura Linney. But don’t change the channel just because I’m not. I felt the post warranted an authoritative air.

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The real Laura Linney

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time (five seconds will do it), you’ll discern that I’m a fantasy fan. I read fantasy. I write fantasy. I read and appreciate other genres and have written other types of fiction. Nonfiction too. But I gravitate to fantasy like a moth gravitates to a light fixture. I’ve written about my need for fairy tales, now it’s time to go on record that the greater genre umbrella—speculative fiction, specifically fantasy—is my genre of choice.

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You might say I already made that abundantly clear when I wrote about fairy tales. I would say I haven’t, because I’ve run across a few who, based on their suggestions about what my next fiction project should be, still hold out hope that I’ll someday snap out of this fantasy obsession and write something else. Sorry. You’re in for a long wait. . . . But feel free to send chocolate just in case.

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I first declared my commitment to fantasy back in my undergrad days. Those were challenging days, since we often had to hide from marauding dinosaurs. Early in the morning I would grab my trusty club and brave the wilds on my way to my writing core classes. Back then, saying you wrote fantasy usually garnered you the type of look Oliver Twist received when he asked for more gruel at the workhouse. Of course that was before even cuneiform writing was discovered. I was ahead of my time.

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A typical day at school . . .

Over the years, I’ve heard people complain about fantasy and cite the unpronounceable names, weird animals, and “fantastic” situations as reasons why they “can’t get into fantasy.” One of my ex-coworkers from years back said, “The stories are too made up.”

28876Last time I checked, all fiction stories are “made up.” Otherwise, they would be nonfiction. But I take the meaning. Fantasy stories are a clarion call to the imagination. A skilled fantasy writer snatches you off to an imaginary world and makes you believe this world is as real as your own. Or perhaps the writer skews our world a little differently by the addition of a fantastic element. (For example, dragons in the Napoleonic era ala Naomi Novik’s series.)

If you read Andra Watkins’s April 18 post on the effects of sustained reading on the brain, you came across this article: “How Reading Lights Up Your Mind” by Christy Matta. The article cites two fantasy realms: C. S. Lewis’s Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. If you’ve read these authors’ series, I don’t have to say much to get you to picture in your mind some aspect of these worlds. You’re already there, aren’t you, roaming the roads in search of Aslan, Mr. Tumnus, hobbits, or elves. Perhaps you’re thinking of ways to dodge or defeat orcs. This is the type of mental firing the article discusses.

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C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien

If you’re not a fan of fantasy, I get it. You don’t want to be proselytized any more than I want to be told what I should be writing. You don’t care that George R. R. Martin, Catherynne Valente, Brandon Sanderson, N. K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Patricia A. McKillip, and others are critically acclaimed, award-winning fantasy authors. (And let’s not forget a writer named J. K. Rowling. You may have heard of her.) Maybe for you, even science fiction is more palatable because its roots in science point to a semblance of rules and measurable boundaries. Even if the action takes place “in a galaxy far, far away,” a galaxy entirely made up, the story seems believable to you because our solar system is situated in a galaxy (the Milky Way) and men and rovers have traveled to the moon and Mars respectively. Maybe you have a cousin at Cal Tech studying jet propulsion who helps you wrap your head around the possibilities of warp speed.

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I’ve made peace with the fact that if you think fantasy is icky poo, maybe you wouldn’t crack open a book of mine out of fear that you’ll find some unpronounceable name or a weird creature—a justifiable fear, since you will find both. If so, you’ll miss all the fun I’m having, because fantasy writing is mind-blowingly fun. It’s like being a kid watching clouds and imagining that she sees all kinds of things. But beyond the whimsical aspect of writing, there’s also the need to ground the story, to provide frames of reference to help readers understand the world and relate aspects to what they know. That’s the hard part.

So knowing that, maybe our paths will cross someday on the pages once I finish the book and send it out into the world. See? I’m truly a fantasy writer if I believe that maybe someone who dislikes fantasy will look my way. I can dream, can’t I?

A good post on the fantasy genre: http://childliterature.net/childlit/fantasy/

Laura Linney photo from celebs.com. Tolkien photo from the-hobbitmovie.com. Lewis photo from pjcockrell.wordpress.com. N. K. Jemisin photo from opionator.wordpress.com. T-rex from animaltheory.blogspot.com. Chocolate truffles from thefoodsite.net. Fantasy creature from findwallpaper.info.

How Much Is Too Much?

This post was sparked by a conversation on Jane Eyre that I had recently with the awesome Laura Sibson. (You remember Laura from this post and of course her blog? Thought so.)

As an undergraduate, I was a writing major, part of the English lit program.

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So, I’m used to books with long passages like this one from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

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Masterful stuff, and reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 3 in the Bible. Dickens provides a window into the age. But would a paragraph like this fly in a book written nowadays?

Many writers struggle over how much description to include in their narratives. Enough to help a reader picture a scene or a character, and understand said character’s motivation, surely, but not so much that the pacing suffers, and a reader loses interest. As Nancy Lamb, author of The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, states, “Too much detail can destroy your story” (202).

Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French, authors of Writing Fiction also aver, “The points to be made here are two, and they are both important. The first is that the writer must deal in sense detail. The second is that these must be details ‘that matter’” (23).

Details that evoke the senses and are important to the story. Okay, got it. But how much is too much?

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“Yer askin’ me? How should I know?”

Back in the day, when letters were exchanged and months would pass between visits of relatives and friends, long, descriptive paragraphs in books, particularly Dickens’s serialized works, were savored. But in this age of instant communication through email, phone texts, Tweets, etc., we’re used to short sound bites. And some of the hustle and bustle of our busy days leaves us with little leisure time for lingering over long passages of description. Or so I’ve been told by a few teens who claim to have been “forced” to read the classics.

As a fantasy writer, I’m torn on the matter. After all, world building is paramount in fantasy. And world building requires a certain amount of exposition.

As I reread books like Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Catherynne Valente), I revel over the gorgeous descriptions, some of which are tucked within long passages.

Tolkien waxes eloquent on the setting, because in his books, setting is as important as the characters. In Valente’s book, the second of her series, the setting at times literally is a character, as voracious towns and marketplaces scoop up unwary travelers to populate their streets.

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Tolkien’s book debuted almost 60 years old. Valente’s book, however, debuted last year, but has the style of a classic adventure story. Valente, like Tolkien, lingers lovingly over descriptions.

As I struggled with the question of how much description is too much, Laura had this to say:

I agree with you that the Internet and the television and instant everything has an impact on our pace and, as a result, the way we experience literature and the way we write it. But I’m not sure it’s all due to electronics impeding our attentions. I think it’s a style choice and also a bit of fashion. If you think about Raymond Carver and before him, Hemingway, there have been writers who were purposefully spare. I think (though I’m no scholar) that in Carver’s time, that spare in your face approach was sort of all the rage.

Wow. I had forgotten about Hemingway and his sparse prose. And I confess I didn’t know about poet and short story author Raymond Carver until I Googled him. (I know. For shame.) Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger, also has a sparse, but brilliant style that packs a punch.

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When it comes to description, I’m probably somewhere between sparse and fulsome. That’s because I usually have a reluctant reader in mind—a byproduct of my textbook writing days when I worked on ancillary material for reluctant and ESL readers. I wouldn’t want a reader to approach something I’ve written and whine, “Oh, this is sooooo boring.” But I also want to be adequately descriptive.

What’re your thoughts on the matter? Do you like to write long passages of description or linger over them in books? Do you have favorite books with lengthy descriptions? Please comment and share!

Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction. Boston: Longman/Pearson, 2003, 2007, 2011. Print.

Lamb, Nancy. The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.

Confused baby from therealkenjones.wordpress.com. Authors photo from tuition.com.hk.