Tolkien vs. Jackson: An Open Letter to Orson Scott Card

Sigh. All right, one more Tolkien related post before it’s back to business as usual. I swear. Just one.

Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite authors. I admit to not having read a lot of his work, though. I do remember reading The Memory of Earth, Ender’s Game, and a few of his short stories, as well as a truckload of essays he publishes in the Rhino Times. His writing advice is solid. I like the way he says things.

But that makes it all the more disappointing when he keeps harping on a particular issue. Every time I’ve seen him refer to Tolkien’s body of work, he feels compelled to throw a tantrum that Jackson “ruined” Lord of the Rings as he brought it to the silver screen. And now the same accusation has been flung against the first Hobbit movie. These films do happen to be my favorites of all time, but that is not why I’m disappointed in his Grumpy Old Man routine; it’s the fact that he keeps going back to it, like the proverbial canine returning to its regurgitated meal.

I don’t expect him to pay me any attention. He’s a big-time, talented writer, and here’s little me, shaking my head on the sidelines. But someone needed to say this, and I didn’t see anyone else calling him out for it. So, without further ado:

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Dear Mr. Card,

We get it. You like to attribute movies you don’t appreciate to dumb Hollywood executives and incompetent directors, following the wrong formulas taught in screenwriting classes. I have heard this complaint over and over and over again. But does it really apply to Jackson’s accomplishment?

I remember from one of the DVD featurettes a teary-eyed John Rhys-Davies — who played Gimli, and was therefore heavily involved in the trilogy’s production — giving his thanks to the whole crew and cast, saying of their love and dedication to bringing Tolkien’s work to the screen, “You won’t find that in LA.” If there is any big-budget movie series that wasn’t subjected to the all-too-common incompetence and cynicism of Hollywood, it was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everything from the dialogue to the props was crafted with the care of a historical epic and the passion of people who had been in love with Middle Earth all their lives. And now The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings us another movie that is a similarly excellent labor of love from the same people. Even that doesn’t stop you from parroting the myth that The Hobbit was padded out into a trilogy purely for financial reasons. And doesn’t the accusation of padding fly in the face with the complaint that so many “vital” parts of the trilogy were cut out from Lord of the Rings? Too short, then too long. Are you going to have your cake or eat it?

I understand that you appreciate Tolkien in a very particular way, and have spent decades enjoying the story as only you could enjoy it. And maybe the differences between the original books and Jackson’s interpretation felt like a betrayal to the vision you had cultivated and examined and appreciated for so many years. But that should be a matter that is stated once or twice, and then left alone for the opinion and private reaction that it is. It gets under people’s skin when you go back to the same complaint time and time again.

Take as an example the Scouring of the Shire. How Peter Jackson changed the ending made it work better as a movie, even if the book’s ending worked perfectly as a novel. If he’d kept the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King, it would have dragged out the story past the central conflict: the danger and destruction of the Ring. Which, again, works fine in the story’s original form, but drags a movie out even more than the myriad endings we already got. I would have left the theater disappointed and more than a little upset.

Granted, I have learned much about storytelling since then, and am in more of a position to appreciate the Scouring of the Shire and what Tolkien was accomplishing with it, but even now that is all I can do: appreciate it. Not love it. Not find it quickening my imagination. And it undeniably would be a frustrating, dour note to conclude a movie on. But because Jackson left the Shire blessedly intact, I walked out of that theater elated, thinking “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a fantasy writer.”

Some of us were inspired toward fantasy, toward becoming writers, toward the wonders and treasures of Tolkien’s world, because of Jackson and company’s tireless efforts. I should know; I’m one of them. And in honesty, ever since I read the trilogy and The Hobbit, and then saw the movies, I admit to liking Jackson’s Middle Earth even more than Tolkien’s. That’s partly because of personal taste, and partly because of the necessary differences between novels and movies. I’m beginning to think that it isn’t Hollywood’s fault, but yours that it has taken so long for an Ender’s Game movie to finally get made. Clearly you don’t get along well with the movie business and have been far too lacking in cooperation or trust with people who care about storytelling just as much as you do, only in a different medium.

A writer of your talent and sophistication dragging out the same misguided complaints amounts to little more than eloquent trolling. I will still be reading your work, but will stay firmly within your fiction, where I don’t have to hear this bellyaching anymore. And I do look forward to seeing Ender’s Game in theaters, hoping I don’t find myself saying it was a violent betrayal of your own novel. Because I’ve had my fill of writers saying movies ruin the books they’re based on, and don’t want to fall into the same trap.

With sincerest regards,

John K. Patterson

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Characters: Conflict vs. Suffering

Characters are the reason fiction exists. Or so I am told. And this means it is most important to ripen your characters until their stories satisfy the reader. If you focus on plot before character, you’ll get a cool summary of events, but it reads like a news story, and it will be virtually impossible for readers to be immersed and feel like it’s happening to them. If your emphasis goes to worldbuilding, you might get a nice 400 page travelogue (whether or not it’s a world you made up), but again it will be a little cold and aloof — two things fiction are not supposed to be.

Characters are important, is what I’m saying. And one of the basic commandments for a writer is “Make things difficult for them.” Often this has been spoken of in terms of a character “suffering.” It might also be referred to as “conflict.” Interest can only be maintained in a story if something prevents a character from getting what they want.

For the sake of honesty, I’ve lately discovered that I prefer the second term. Maybe that’s just for me individually. I haven’t lived an especially hard life, and like most people I hate the idea of bullying or making anyone suffer. For me, there’s something deeper and more painful than mere discomfort that springs from the idea of maliciously forcing a person to go through a hard time even if it’s for a good end, like writing a satisfactory tale. Just because I want a character to rescue his/her one true love from an assassin and want to make the task overwhelmingly hard doesn’t mean I’m going to do something I hate. If you can do this (to fictional people, mind you) and still tell a great story, then you have my utmost respect and admiration.

However, I can still make the character’s journey difficult and keep myself inspired and glad to be writing at the same time — if I tackle the same problem from the approach of “conflict.” For some reason, that approach gets my own gears turning. Ideas pour out onto the page when I’m not putting some obstacle in the way of a protagonist out of some hidden malice, but because they need a problem to solve that is interesting, urgent, or high-stakes.

Probably a matter of semantics, I know. Nevertheless, even if the character is traumatized and suffers because of the “conflict,” I still need to treat it like a puzzle, and hope to God that I don’t end up with cold, aloof fiction. The approach may be a little more detached, but I take more joy in it, and still realize its final result must hit home for the reader and engage them emotionally.

By the way, yes, I know these characters exist only in my head. It’s still my job to regard them as colleagues and human beings. After all, I’m telling their story, and trying to make readers care about them.

How about you? Do you like approaching characters from a standpoint of suffering or conflict, or something else altogether? I’d love to have some input and get a discussion going. That is, when I’m not frantically trying to finish my own novel’s edits.

Thanks for putting up with another of my dry, abstract ramblings. I do appreciate it!

Worldbuilding — Magic — Types of Magic-Workers

I’m doing another Wolfglen Legacy worldbuilding post here, again regarding the magic-system. Mostly this is meant to be a quick-and-dirty guide to some of the different types of magically talented people (which are a small segment of the population, according to my post on the system of magic in my world). If I develop any other types of magic-workers, I will add them on in another post.

As always, criticism or suggestions are welcome. Hope you enjoy it!

BASIC INFO

Theoretically, it’s possible for a given magic-worker to do most or all of these things, but their expenditure of energy is usually enormous outside of their specialty. A seer, for instance, can spend hardly any effort in seeing what’s ahead of her on the road for dozens of miles, but could break into a sweat if she uses her powers to lift a large book several feet into the air.

As said in the last post on my magic system, active spells cannot directly affect living tissue, apart from the magic-user’s own body (although the spell’s physical effects can affect others, and elixirs and certain objects already imbued with magic can have an effect). Different cultures and languages will have different names for these varying ranks.

A magic-worker’s strengths and proclivities are largely dictated by his or her physical environment during the magic’s formative stages. If there is a lot of combat or destruction around them during that time — anything from the rending of bodies to earthquakes to the demolition of houses — their magic is more likely to be violent and destructive in nature. Or if they get little sleep and use their eyes more actively than most (reading, hunting, picking out faces in a crowd, etc.), they are more likely to become a seer. If there is much water around them, they’ll have a greater sensitivity to controlling water. And so on.

VARIOUS TYPES

Seer ~ Can transfer the sense of sight from their eyes to their seer’s gem, a transparent stone about 9 inches long and made of diamond, smooth and shaped like a flattened egg. They can then hover and guide this stone a great distance from their body; some of the strongest seers have been known to send their stones almost a hundred miles away and could still call it back. The farther the stone goes, the weaker their sight through it. If the stone is broken or goes too far while their sight is still attached to it, they will go permanently blind.

“Warrior” ~ Loosely defined, someone with magic that is immediately practical for causing destruction on the battlefield, and who has been appointed to do so. Typically, this means they specialize in spells involving explosions, heat, or shockwaves.

Carrimva ~ Magic-workers who can change the color of an object without using pigment, even though they are often nicknamed “painters” or “dyers.”

Witch ~ Any magic-worker who has cast spells through a pitch diamond (a Founder crystal altered from its original state). This process permanently alters the way magic pours through their body and mind, making their spells harsher and harder to control.

Hilnarra ~ Someone who can sculpt, fracture, or otherwise alter the structure of a solid physical substance. They are often renowned artists and craftsmen, especially when they focus on glass, wood, metal, ceramic, or stone. Ice, dead bones, and leather are also popular materials for them to use.

Conduit ~ A magic-worker who can turn themselves into a channel for magic to flow from one place to another, rather than turning it into physical energy. The most common use of this talent is putting energy into crystals that are depleted and can be recharged, or to imbue mundane objects with magic for a spell.

SUPPLEMENTAL NOTE: THE SARNOUTHAN SOCIETY OF MAGIC-WORKERS

Sarnoutha is the country where the first book takes place, and like in most developed nations, its magic-workers have their own institution. Through some donations and a lot of private funding, the Society takes care of its members’ education and training. Its members are divided into seven ranks based on ability. From least to greatest:

Fledgling

Conjurer

Druid

Magician

Wizard

Summoner

Warlock

The Reason I Love Speculative Fiction

I do not mean to say other genres suck or are inferior. I mean only to celebrate what I love in my own field, shameless optimist that I am.

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Alternate History. Together, these genres form the pillars of what is called speculative fiction. There can be lots of blending and subgenres that don’t quite belong to any one group (just look at steampunk and dystopia), but together they give an image of worlds that, as far as we know, don’t exist. Yet that’s not all they do. They can accommodate any other theme or motif, perform any other task, that characterizes fiction of other stripes.

Speculative fiction is a field of storytelling that specializes in “What if?” and “Why not?” It probes, challenges, questions, and explores in ways that no other kind of fiction is capable of. Yet it can take whatever has been produced by other sorts of fiction and give it more flavor, more chances for originality and finding what has been overlooked. Science fiction can probe as deeply into human nature as any literary novel you can think of. Alternate history can be as pulse-pounding as any spy thriller, or as romantic as a bodice-ripper from the checkout line. A fantasy can be a murder mystery, or even a slice-of-life tale (though it may be a slice of life from a magic student or an apprentice dragon-breeder).

Admittedly, there is a reputation which says speculative novels are not as introspective or deep or profound as “literary” novels. There are indeed thousands of shallow, hackneyed tales in all three genres, with little thought behind them.

However, one-dimensional stories do not remove the capacity for profundity or depth from any genre. Though fantasy may have its Twilights and Eragons, it also has its Name of the Wind and Song of Ice and Fire. Science fiction may allow The Fifth Element or Transformers into its ranks, but it boasts of  Star Trek, Fahrenheit 451,  and Dune. A million terrible novels could not extinguish even one book that doesn’t just ask “What if?” but also provides the best answer it possibly can.

I think bad fiction is usually bad because of untapped potential. The writer did not squeeze hard enough, or didn’t look in enough shadowy corners, to see what could nourish their characters, story progression, pacing, or anything else writers need to consider about their work. But when they do, they should be recognized for their incredible achievement.

In summary, this is why I love to read and write speculative fiction: It can always find a new place to go, and there’s nothing other fiction does that it cannot do.

Progression and Feedback for Your Novel’s Synopsis

There is nothing like an upcoming writer’s conference to give you a kick in the pants and force you to be a better writer. When your work will be scrutinized by many of your peers, often face-to-face, and especially when you are pitching a novel to editors and agents, it can present wonderful new challenges to a novelist.

And that is a challenge I look forward to in April, with the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs, one of the nation’s most respected gatherings of writers and publishers. I have started to gear up for the conference by working on the “elevator pitch” for my soon-to-be-completed novel (the elevator pitch is how you would describe your story to someone who’s riding an elevator with you, a 10-15 second description of your story, who the characters are, what they want, and whatever conflict stands in their way). I thought it would be a helpful thing to post here, in case any of you are planning on attending the conference, or are simply a writer who wants to submit your work to a publisher soon.

Draft 1

This is the “early” draft of my elevator pitch for the fantasy novel entitled The Wolfglen Legacy: Awakened. Before I got feedback, I focused on the titular Wolfglens, the royal family in the story, and the desires and conflicts they face:

A royal family and their allies fight to protect their people and government from a supernatural enemy’s covert war that is engulfing the country.

It’s a starting point, but it needs work. The pitch provides no specific characters for the reader to connect with, and doesn’t offer much information on the conflict. It’s a detached take on the overall story. A good pitch, however, packs as much specific detail into as few words as possible (an area where I have a long way to go). Fortunately, at a recent writer’s workshop I found some truly great assistance from my writing friends Connie and Grant McKenzie, and Bonnie Hagan. I hope to pass their advice along to you.

The Three Big Questions

Something else which is important to remember about an elevator pitch (and which I learned in the feedback) is that you need to answer three essential questions:

1. Who is the story’s central character?

2. What does he want?

3. Why can’t he have it?

If you can answer those questions right away when you are pitching a novel, it stands a much greater chance of getting read and accepted. I’ve been toying with ideas and building the world for my books for five years. Now it’s time to populate it with deep characters, with human beings. Well, them and elves, fairies, nymphs, etc.

Lynchpins

Especially when you only get a few seconds to pitch your idea, it’s vital to know who is the “lynchpin” character, the one sitting at the heart of the story and most connected to its main events. If you can “sell” an agent or editor on that character and what they do, then selling them on your novel becomes all the easier. In the case of my novel, the best character to fulfill that role is Josh, a young man from another time who wakes up in the fantastical world, and who gets embroiled in its events.

Draft 2

Once Josh has been established as the “lynchpin,” at least for the purposes of the elevator pitch, I can focus on his side of the story and make it specific enough to give the reader an idea as to what his tale will look like. After discussion with another writer about focusing the synopsis on Josh, this is the suggested pitch he wrote:

Twenty-one-year-old Josh wakes up in a future world, more primitive than his own, and finds himself in the middle of a global uprising against the supernatural powers that threaten their very existence.

Now this is an elevator pitch that tries to get you invested. It gives specific information about Josh (his age and his status as a fish out of water), reveals a little of his new setting (a world not as advanced as the one he knew), and tells the reader what the stakes are (obliteration at the hands of a strange enemy).

[It’s also worth noting that revealing his age as twenty-one will help inform an agent that this is a book for adults. Generally speaking, 21 is seen as “too old” for a character in a YA novel.]

Giving it the Old College Try

Now, given all the excellent counsel from my fellow storytellers, I will attempt to build a summary that still has Josh as the novel’s lynchpin – for the purposes of the pitch, that is – and combines his story with a sense of the larger story and stakes. Additionally, this pitch integrates a hint that the world does not meet his expectations. (Remember those three questions: Who is the character? What does he want? Why can’t he have it?)

Twenty-one-year-old Josh awakens to a future where magic thrives, and must face this world’s dark realities as he takes sides in an escalating supernatural war.

This will need some more work, I am sure, but I have until April to polish it up. If anyone has feedback for it, I would love to hear from you. Thanks for your time, and have a wonderful weekend!

And Now, for the Main Event

Now, back to the conference: If the Pikes Peak Writers Conference sounds like just the thing for you, you can register here: http://www.regonline.com/builder/site/default.aspx?EventID=972508

If you would need a scholarship, go here instead and learn how to apply for one: http://www.ppwc.net/html/scholarships.html

And for additional incentive, here is a picture of Roo, the official mascot for the conference:

Seriously, who doesn't love a big, soft-hearted dog?

Roo would love to see you there! And so would I. If you can set aside April 19-22, you would be more than welcome. God bless, everyone!

Update: January 19, 2012

Based on further critique and advice from some good friends of mine, here is the most up-to-date version of the pitch. Let me know what you think:

“Twenty-one year old Josh wakes up in a future where magic thrives, and is drawn into an escalating supernatural war while searching for a place to call home.”