Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Category Archives: science fiction

Time to Update

Hi friends,

I sincerely apologize for not being very active on the blog over the past two months. I’ve been a busy boy – working full-time at a job that gives me tons in tips, rehearsing full-time for a show that’s in the Edmonton and Vancouver Fringe Festival, and launching my own theatre company – Third Street Theatre (www.thirdstreet.ca).

So I have been quite busy, with so many projects on the go. Last count had me at 95 hours/week of work, and I don’t think I’ve had a day off in six weeks. It’s a pretty rigorous and exhausting schedule.

That being said, I have had continued interest from the literary agent in my book, and he is working with me on fixing some of the issues regarding pacing. My only challenge is to grab some time to dedicate to revisiting the manuscript.

I have had a seven month break from the book, which I am sure has given me loads of perspective. I am hoping that in the next couple of months I’ll be able to find a couple of days to really dedicate myself to editing again, so that we might be able to continue on this path.. and hopefully lead to official representation.

There are so many exciting things going on in my life, and the Universe seems to keep sending more projects my way. It’s hard to complain about it (although, I find myself complaining that I am tired, have no time, and no social life.. which isn’t a fun story to be telling all the time).

I can make no guarantees that I will be blogging every day, but I will do my best to write a post now and then – especially as I move forward with editing the manuscript.

All the best, and cheers.

Paul

What Makes a Good Story?

I have had a very busy year.

A rough estimate would suggest that I have seen over 110 plays in the past 12 months. In a way, it has been fantastic: I have been exposed to so many differing types of stories through the medium of the theatre. In another way, it has been a chore. Most of the shows have been perfectly acceptable pieces of theatre, with a few true “stand-out” pieces. And the elements of those stand-out pieces vary. In some instance, it was the direction, and in others it was design that made it stand above the rest. In yet others, it was the performance – the skill and craft of the actors involved. And in precious few, it was the story – the elegance and execution of a perfectly crafted script.

That definitely gets me thinking: What is it that makes a “good” story so hard to tell?

We can and do spend countless hours trying to understand and master structure. We struggle to perfect the rhythm and the pacing of the piece, and we try to create compelling characters. We throw them into interesting worlds with challenging, believable conflicts, and we hope and pray that we will succeed, that someone will be moved by our work.

So why is it that we so often come short?

I do not have the answers.

I am still learning this myself, and while I have theories, I cannot claim to have true knowledge as to what makes a good story. Indeed, when I read, watch, or experience what I would describe as a “good” story, I often find it challenging to explain why. I find myself saying that it touched me, moved me, excited me, or surprised me. In other instances, it inspired me, sparked something in my imagination that took me to another place, that caused my own ideas to multiply and grow. All good things, but definitely not tangible – and certainly not universal.

The elements of a good story are something I am exceptionally curious about. I do my best to read other people’s take on the subject in an effort to understand what it is, what that magical trick might be, that allows a storyteller to weave a tale that will have an impact.

So I wonder: Can we ever truly master the elements of a good story? Do good stories exist that defy the logic, the “formula,” as it were? And when that happens, why does it happen?

Is it voice? Artistry? A certain je ne sais quoi?

The curiosity lingers.

But we are curious beings, so I can only conclude that this is a good thing.

Have you read any articles that have given you an “ah-ha!” moment when it comes to what makes a good story? What resources have played important roles in the development of your craft? What are some examples of good stories that defy the logic, as it were? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear them!

The Joy of a Good Story

Just a quick blog post tonight.

I have just come off a 5-week children’s theatre tour, taking a 50-minute show to Kindergarten-Grade 6 students throughout northern Alberta. I had a blast, even though it was exhausting (picture doing jumping jacks while giving a speech for an hour.) The show took tons of energy, but the pay-off was worth it: excited, happy, transcendent children.

Why did this happen?

Because we’re brilliant, of course. But seriously, the reason why it really did happen is that we were given an incredible script to work from. The story of this play was beautifully constructed, with the perfect amount of exposition leading up to a wonderful inciting incident. Add to that a great rising action, a rewarding climax, and a brief – yet poignant – resolution/denouement, and you’ve got the recipe for success. All we had to do was show up.

Well, not true. We had to show up and get out of the way of the story – and add to it in our own, unique way. In the writing world, this is viewed as ‘voice’ – something that can’t be forced, but happens naturally. The show was a two-hander, and I am fortunate enough that we both had enough faith and trust in each other to surrender wholly to the honesty and authenticity of our own unique voices.

I think the most rewarding thing about sharing a good story is the number of people who will be profoundly affected and changed as a result. This is why I act, and this is why I write. I want the stories I tell to make a difference, and, when I have the chance to do just that, it’s an incredible thing.

Learn about story structure. Figure out what it takes, and why. Understand it. Master it. It will never serve you wrong.

What are some of your all-time favorite stories? Have you ever seen a movie or a play that has had an incredible impact on you? What was it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

And a good story? It never goes out of style.

Which Genre Is It, Anyway?

Fantasy vs. Science Fiction All books need to be classified, for it tells book sellers – and readers – where a book belongs. If you go into a book store, a quick glance at the aisles tells you that it is imperative for a book to fall into a certain genre. Often, fantasy and science-fiction are grouped together in one big section, which can make it a challenge in searching out a specific sub-genre of literature. But when we submit our work to agents, it’s important to have the right genre classification.

Why? Because the agent needs to know how they are going to sell the book. If we say that our book is a “young adult, middle grade, high fantasy, space opera, steampunk set in Victorian-era Mars,” an agent will likely give it a pass – because they will be unable to sell the book to a publishing house (and chances are, such a book would be a bizarre mess.)

It can be confusing knowing where to place your book. As such, it is important to fully understand the genre. To help with that, I’ve done a little work for you and defined some of the sub-genres of both fantasy and science fiction, with a little note on classification. I hope it helps!

Fantasy:

Epic Fantasy: Arguably the father of all fantasy, epic fantasy is a genre where the protagonists must save the world, typically from some malevolent, evil antagonist. They typically fight the final battle between good and evil, conquer evil nations, overthrow evil overlords, or even face off with the gods themselves. Often times, epic fantasy and high fantasy are considered interchangeable, but there is a subtle difference. J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan fall under the heading of epic fantasy.

High Fantasy: Closely related to epic fantasy, the high fantasy genre typically has just as much world building as its epic counterpart, but the difference is in the scope of the story. High fantasy typically involves stories that are more personal in nature, perhaps more limited to the needs and desires of a single protagonist, rather than a group. He or she is focused on a single antagonist, rather than on a global/end-of-world event. Typically, by the end of the story, our protagonist has attained his or her goals, but the rest of the world is generally unaffected and continues on as though nothing had happened. Often, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels are considered to be high fantasy.

Urban Fantasy: Sometimes referred to as contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy is typically set in the real world, such as Earth, and is often in the present day. Magic still plays a pivotal role, and, as such, is not to be confused with science fiction. Guy Gavriel Kay has some urban fantasy in his oeuvre.

Sword and Sorcery: Sword and sorcery fantasy involves stories that are typically smaller in size with less emphasis on world building and more time spent on action. Think of dungeon-crawls, where the protagonists must fight off the hordes of evil on a quest for his or her goal. Xena: Warrior Princess would be a good example of a sword and sorcery type fantasy.

Dark Fantasy: Dark fantasy isn’t necessarily ‘scary’ or ‘horrific’ fantasy, but rather it is typically a story where the protagonist fails to win. They may involve antiheroes rather than heroes, and the stories are often set in worlds where evil has triumphed over good. Sometimes they are set in dystopian or post-apocalyptic worlds. H. P. Lovecraft is well known as a dark fantasy author.

Historical Fantasy: Often set in the historical real world, urban fantasy includes magical elements set in historical eras. Susanna Clarke is an example of a historical fantasy author.

Erotic Fantasy: Also known as fantasy romance, erotic fantasy tends to have a lot of sex and/or romance as central drive for the plot. The Sleeping Beauty” novels by A. N. Roquelaure – a pseudonym of Anne Rice – are examples of erotic fantasy.

Science Fiction:

Hard Science Fiction: With a heavy dose of science, hard science fiction is perhaps one of the more challenging genres to write in. The author must have a solid understanding of scientific fact so that their futuristic science is wholly plausible. Asimov is considered the grandfather of hard science fiction.

Space Opera: This tends to be a fun genre, with less focus on scientific fact with perhaps more liberal, fantastical elements. There can be hard science and military science fiction in this genre, but it leans heavily on the fiction side. George Lucas is a good example of a space opera author.

Steampunk: Steampunk is typically a very specific type of historical fiction, where more modern technology is set within classical historical eras. For instance, you’ll often have mechanized gizmos and gadgets in a Victorian-era world. The new Sherlock Holmes movies lean towards steampunk, as well as novelists such as Cherie Priest.

Classification:

We typically don’t need to classify when a novel is suited for an adult audience. It is assumed that all literature can be read and appreciated by adult readers. Adult fantasy and science fiction tends to allow for more sex, romance and graphic violence, with a more sophisticated point of view.

Young Adult: The primary distinction here is that the protagonist tends to be close to the age of the reader (typically 13-17). If you visit the young adult section of the book store, you’ll see that it has exploded in popularity. It is interesting to note that young girls tend to be the target demographic for these stories, although the popularity of these stories is growing among young teen boys. Suzanne Collins, of Hunger Games fame, is a good example of a young-adult (YA) author.

Middle Grade: These are books intended toward kids ages eight to twelve (also known as ‘tweens’). They are starting to make decisions on the types of stories they’re interested in reading, and typically the protagonists are of a similar age to the reader. There is typically very little – if any – sexual content, although there is definitely action and conflict. Janice Hardy is a good example of a middle-grade (MG) author.

Have I missed any major sub-genres? And was this helpful in making sense of the differing genres? If so, please include your thoughts in the comments below. Note that literary agents and publishing houses may disagree, and that these are only guidelines.

Alchemic Nameology – The Challenge of Fantasy Names

When reading or writing fantasy, we’re often faced with the challenge of character names. Some names roll off the tongue, while others trip us up and become recurring problems throughout the duration of the text.

There’s an expectation in the fantasy genre for names to sound a little heightened – a little more exotic – and if a name is too common, it’s scoffed at and frowned upon. If it’s too complex and missing vowels, it’s equally dismissed as distancing. So we must find the right balance.

Some family friends recently read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Stieg Larson’s subsequent books, and most of them commented on the challenge of keeping track of all the similar-sounding names. Far too many character names began with the same letter, or had nearly identical construction with l’s and j’s and b’s. I know I’ve seen similar problems in some fantasy novels (particularly those involving a non-humanoid race), so I understand the complaint.

The names just don’t work. Or rather, they create obstacles for the enjoyment of the story – and that’s never a good thing.

During the beta reads of my novel, I, too, received some feedback that two character names sounded too alike, and it became a challenge keeping track of who’s who.

Both were secondary – or perhaps tertiary – characters, and they appeared in the same locale. In a couple of instances, I even made the mistake of typing the wrong character name – which definitely added to the confusion. In case you were curious, the names were Corella and Corinna. I’ve since changed Corella to something else.

Part of the problem stems from how our brains read English text. Our brains don’t read every single letter. They’re highly efficient (or perhaps lazy) so they try to make sense of the word based on an image-capture of the word. The order of the letters within the word doesn’t seem to matter – the brain gets a “hit,” makes sense of it, and moves on. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out this example at Help.com.

On the flip side of the coin, readers would also comment on a name sounding “too common” – that it would take them out of the mythic realm and send them crashing back to the real world.

We’ve likely all encountered some characters with unpronounceable names, or names that simply roll poorly off the tongue. There has to be a balance. But what is it, and what’s a writer to do?

Fantasy Faction posted an article back in September, 2011, called What’s In A Fantasy Name?, and they brought up some valid observations.

“The temptation is to develop names that are imaginative and unique to the created landscape. That’s a great idea but remember to keep the names pronounceable. Imagine someone reading your work aloud. Will the names detract from the flow of the story? A short common name can often allow for a character’s formal title to be a little more imaginative.”

So how do we go about choosing a name?

Some authors choose historic names or names from mythology, and tweak them – changing the vowel sounds, adding in additional letters here and there, etc. Some will scour foreign-language dictionaries or documents, looking for names that have a specific meaning in another language. Others will seek out names with sounds that evoke the character personality – or the base stereotype or archetype they’re trying to conjure. These are all valid tools, and can lead to some wonderful names.

For me, I look for names that suit the style of my writing. Some cultures in my world have very specific name constructions (and name lineage), while others are vowel-heavy. And as a voice, speech, and text specialist in the theatre, I understand the impact of vowel and consonant sounds, so I tend to make use of them to help underscore or produce meaning. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it falls flat. But for the most part, I’m always game to tweak the names until they’re just right.

Have you ever encountered names which turn you off? What are some examples of overly complex names? If you’re a writer, how do you choose your name – and how much does that name define the character for you? Would you be heart-broken if a publisher asked you to change the character name? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Feeding the Addiction – What I’m Reading #2

Okay, even though I have a huge stack of books I have to read, I went shopping tonight and picked up some more books. Here’s what I grabbed:

I promise I’ll write a book review for these and the other books I’ve recently added to my collection.

What’s your favorite genre of book? Do you cross genres regularly, and if so, where do you choose to read? Or perhaps you’re exclusive to one genre? If so, why? Please comment below – I’d love to hear your thoughts, and get a taste of what you’re reading these days.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been reading a fantasy short-story anthology lately, and I’m sad to admit that it has left me quite disappointed. I haven’t been enjoying the stories at all. They feel poorly constructed and highly uninteresting. Indeed, I had a moment two nights ago where I was losing hope in the fantasy genre.

So my decision?

Get inspired.

I went shopping and picked up some new books. I hit up a couple of independent and used book stores, and here’s what I came away with:

It might come as a surprize that I haven’t read either Dune or Game of Thrones just yet, but sometimes you get a little back-logged in your reading list.

Let the inspiration begin!

What are some of your favorite science fiction or fantasy books? Do you have any all-time favorites that always inspire you? What about hidden treasures that are often overlooked? Let’s discuss them in the comments below!