This is the second of my series reflecting on this book I was bought…
In my previous post, two weeks ago, I focused on the value reading Fantasy has for children’s development and for their understanding of the world around them. You can read that post here if you missed it.
This week, I’m going to reflect more on the writing of children’s Fantasy fiction and how what I read in Diana Wynne Jone’s book has influenced my thinking on my own novel.
The Structure of Writing a Fantasy Novel.
Let me start by saying that when started writing my novel, Prophecy of Innocence, I had no idea how to write a novel, let alone one in a specific genre. One, which I have since learnt, is a much loved genre, a genre which readers and writers can be very precious about. There are purists and then there are progressionists and I have discovered no writer of Fantasy will please both factions.
Dianna Wynne Jones seems to my mind (having read none of her novels, yet having read Reflections) to be very much a progressionist with a touch of the classical about her. In Reflections there is a whole chapter entitled ‘The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings’, (a wonderfully inspiring read). In it she reflects deeply on the clever and classical narrative shape Tolkien’s book takes. She writes about ‘movements’ and ‘codas’, things I know absolutely nothing about when it comes to writing. I’ve never studied writing as she did, and she had the great fortune to attend lectures by the great Tolkien himself (even if he did stand mumbling at the board for the most part…apparently).
Later on in Reflections she talks about the ‘Value of Learning Anglo Saxon’ and she speaks with an authority on texts (original texts that is) of such greats as Beowulf and how it taught her about how to orchestrate and shape a narrative more than anything else she’s ever read. This from the original poem, not, as she say,s from any translations. From this and other chapters in Reflections you discover an extremely intelligent well read woman to be admired and listened to. A woman who knows how to weave a narrative in the correct way.
Me? Well it seems I’ve just been going on pot luck. I knew my story and most importantly its end point first of all. (The end is always in mind first.) However, I do not, and never have, consciously think about how, for example, the weather in the first ‘movement’ might foreshadow an event in the third, (as it seems Tolkien did.) I wonder if, in this modern age of writing, anyone does? (Waits for droves of writers to set me straight and tell me they do.)
Both chapters in Reflections which I refer to above could probably explain why I love both of those stories (despite my never having read the original Anglo Saxon version of Beowulf) and why they have had so much influence on why I write the type of Fantasy I do. In fact, is was Beowulf and other quest stories of a similar ilk which led me down the writing of hero quest Fantasy for children in the first place.
During the winter of 2009/2010, I was teaching writing quest stories to a class of 10 year olds. We had studied a translated version of Beowulf. (I remember a particularly fun drama lesson where tables were turned upside down to create still image scenes of when Beowulf first appears at the Great Mead Hall at Heorot and chaos ensues.) Anyway, once we got to the writing process, I had to model writing an opening to a quest type story, as is the normal process in teaching writing at primary level. I found a title prompt on a teaching website entitled ‘Land of the Forgotten.’ I ended up, with the help of the children through various modelled and shared writing sessions, writing a whole short story rather than just the beginning. It was very Anglo -Saxon/Celtic /Medieval in its feel. (I blame my obsession with Robin Hood for my tendencies towards the medieval.)
In the story I had a giant half-fish, half-snake like monster called a Flotsaith which had hollowed out eyes. If a person looked into these eyes then the person would lose all memories.
Of course our hero, Balathar, has been sent, with his companions, to a remote island, (a version of the tiny Isle of Staffa off the West Coast of Scotland) where the beast dwells, on orders to slay it. The beast has caused the Princess Pathadtch (with a silent d) to lose her memory, and, as the hero loves the princess, he risks all on the quest to save her. Yes, it’s full of every Fantasy trope and cliche you can think of, and the characters are completely two dimensional, but the point of the exercise was to help children build a narrative and a plot. (I may still take the story and build it into a full blown novel, now I know what I’m doing more. I’ll see. It wouldn’t be original enough to sell, but I wonder whether children might just enjoy stories of monsters, whatever the cliches involved!)
Anyway, six months later, having enjoyed the process of writing ‘Land of The Forgotten‘ so much, I reached into the depths of my psyche and started writing Prophecy of Innocence from the glimmer of an idea I’d had when I was twelve.
Now, I know my novel and ideas are heavily influenced by the likes of reading The Lord Of the Rings and Beowulf and the Narnia stories and so forth, although the story itself is quite different and unique in premise. Some may think the fact I have characters who are two inches tall is borrowed from The Borrowers. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve never read it and couldn’t tell you what it was about other than there are little people in it. If the idea of small creatures living under the ground came from anywhere it came from Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock, so there! (I used to imagine we had Fraggles living through the split in the wood between the skirting board and door frame of our lounge when I was growing up.)
Reflections however, made me question everything I’ve written in Prophecy as being almost fraudulent, because it seems, completely unwittingly, I have committed cardinal cliched sin after cardinal cliched sin. Oh dear.
Jones says in Reflections that she wrote a book called The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land because she was “exasperated with the way too many fantasy books, deriving ultimately from Tolkien, were so much the same.” She says her book “pretends to be a tourist guide and starts with a map – like all the conventional fantasies do.” (Oh dear, strike one Joanne! Oh and George R.R. Martin, but we’ll skim over his huge success.) Jones’ book is laid out very much like a dictionary or encyclopedia, and is based on highlighting, in a satirical manner, the tropes and cliches that some Fantasy writers put into their books. From the excerpts I read in the two essays ‘Inventing the Middle Ages’ and ‘Freedom to Write‘, it seems to me quite scathing in places, rather than simply “poking fun” as she says. Her vitriol (for this is how it came across to me) seems to have come about from stereotypes writers were making in adult fantasy novels about the Middle Ages. However, maybe stereotypes about fields been burnt by armies and monasteries with thick walls set high on hills aren’t stereotypes at all but used in adult Fantasy books because traditionally Fantasy books (Tolkien’s included) have leaned towards Medieval setting and culture. Those things did happen and were there in the Middle Ages.
So I have another problem as some of my novel leans towards this time culturally (albeit with completely made up characters, i.e the elflings. Probably not entirely made up as you know there are elves in traditional Fantasy stories, so there would be something else to slate me for. Ho hum.)
Anyway, this leads me to my disappointment in reading about her derisive attitude towards adult Fantasy writers who write in this purist, “conventional” form. First of all she mocks books written in trilogies. “Aren’t they always trilogies?” – oh damn, another ‘rule’ broken by yours truly.
I then read more and realised I’d followed quite a lot of the same cliches she so berates these other writers of adult fantasy.
Here are just a few:
1) Clothing: “Apart from robes, no garment thicker than a shirt has sleeves”. (Guilt flooded me as I wrote about my character’s robes and tunics and braise. Oh goodness, did they wear such things in Medieval times? Am I allowed to dress them in such or am I being too cliched?)
2) Colour Coding: section 3: eyes. There is a whole section, too long to write in here, about how colour of eyes means something, but the one which stuck out was: “Black eyes are invariably evil.” Oh well darn, darn, darny darn. My antagonist has onyx eyes. I did not do this on purpose. It suited him to have small, dark, mysterious eyes. He has a lot of stuff to hide!
Also eye colour and eyes as a physicality are important in my book. My characters are two inch high elflings. They live under the ground. Their eyesight is, as such, adapted to the darkness of the underground and to reflect this fact I used gemstones to describe eye colour. I did this also as gemstones are an important part of the magic in the novel and so there is that element. I’ve not gone on about it and repeated the eye colour stuff continually in heavy description. (I did, but I’ve culled a lot…one lives and learns. ) Nevertheless, their eyes are important. They do shimmer and sparkle like gemstones because if they didn’t then the elfings wouldn’t be able to see.
3) Crystals: Oh crap, I have crystonal which is a made up compound of various crushed gemstones which give longevity of life to the elflings and is central to part of the plot.
4) Missing heirs: “blah blah blah de blah”….Oh ooops. Now mine’s not missing strictly speaking. They (for there are two of them) just don’t know they are heirs. (Oh dear, now I’ve strayed into Star Wars territory.)
5) Slaves. Oh I give up! Damn it! I do have some of my characters end up becoming sort of slaves in Book 3. (Not yet written, so could change.)
Despite all this use of tropes she berates, I do hope I’ve not overdone any of them. They are afterall just stuff from my subconscious. So much of that background stuff is. Subconscious from my own cultural references. (Maybe that’s the problem, perhaps I need to work harder as a writer to take out any cultural references and be completely original. Though I’m not sure true originality exists anymore.)
One chapter in Reflections goes into great detail about a time when Jones was judging for an International book award. She talks about one particular Fantasy book, using words such as “absurdities” and “worrying”, as though her type of fantasy writing holds more merit than any other and this really got my back up. I’m not excusing sloppy writing, not at all but, as she says herself though this didn’t seem to be the main issue for her. It was more to do with the use of cliches of the genre. This despite conceding that “many readers of Fantasy would expect them [the same cliches] and be highly dismayed not to have them. The fashion for so called heroic fantasy, derived ultimately from Tolkien, has been going so long it seems quite unalterable.” As though this is a bad thing? She goes on to say: “The unalterable convention is now getting incorporated into books for children and young adults.” Oh no! Whatever shall we do? Bring back some tradition to children who may never have read this type of book? (Let’s face it The Lord of the Rings may be heavy going for your average ten year old these days!) “Oh dear”, she says. I say why shouldn’t it spread to children’s books?
Finally and more importantly for my writing, Jones speaks about why she doesn’t write historical fiction for children, and this includes this medieval conventional type of fantasy. Oh no, I thought. My book is set at the time of the Industrial Revolution and the underground world of my elflings is almost medieval in feel as they are a more ancient species. I’m about to break another sacred rule of Fantasy writing by actually following the rules of fantasy writing. Jones argues that, as children are forward thinking they are “not going to be interested in anything other than the here and now and moving forward to what will be.” (I can see the point as a valid one, yes. But do all children not like history, even if they don’t fully have a sense of it as she suggests?) I, for one, loved books set in the past when I was a child, so I don’t think her argument holds too much weight. Anyhow, this is why she wrote Fantasy as she did, without the conventions of adult fantasy or a historical slant (despite, it seems, many of her cultural references coming from Greek mythology, Chaucer, and Anglo Saxon legends such as Beowulf amongst others….Hmmmm. ) In “the guide” she says:
“History [in medieval fantasy] is generally patchy and unreliable. Any real information about the past is either lost…” (oh here we go again; I’ve done that in my book too, for good reason related to plot..) “or in a scroll… jealously guarded…” (uh oh…). “All that can be ascertained is…that there was once an Empire” (monarchy in my case, damn!) “…that ruled the continent…” (Trelflande) “and…that there was once a wizards… (tribal) “…war that occurred earlier still.”
Oh deary deary me. My book is doomed it seems. However, my view is this: It was exactly like that for historical records in Medieval times or before. It was patchy, of course it was, by very nature of not having much of it recorded. I can’t see her issue here at all. Also those of us who write about times set in the past do so because it allows us to play around more. As science fiction writers or dystopian/ futuristic Fantasy writers do. There are things which historical culture and settings allow us to do as writers as is the case with other forms of writing. Take detective fiction written by Agatha Christie. Very different to modern detective fiction as there were no computers, mobile phones, ways of tracing DNA. Not even finger printing it seems in the 1930’s, so what you get is a very different feel to the same genre. And anyway, when writing fantasy who says history has to be completely accurate? Especially when simply referencing fields, castles, shacks, clothing etc.. You are writing fantasy! The reader knows this.
But of course all this made me feel as though my novel is doomed.
First because of the fact I have written in this ‘conventional’ style FOR CHILDREN! For children who must be protected from medieval fantasy tropes as all cost!
Furthermore, I have written in some actual history, which of course Jones says children “are not going to be interested in books that are not about the here and now or what is to come.” (I’d argue sometimes you have to understand exactly what’s been before to understand what’s happening now and what will come, er…surely this is how The Lord of the Rings works, but then I’m a historian and believe in the power of history, so I would say that wouldn’t I?)
Thirdly of course I go and write every medieval Fantasy trope going into the story. Jones would rip my book apart if she was still alive and it’d been entered for an International book award as the one she slates was.
She seems to basically be saying that: anyone who writes fantasy for adults is trying to write Lord of the Rings and that it is a travesty if we do this for children too. Now I’ve never written a fantasy like LOTR intentionally, but I like the fantasy hero quest genre. For me it has a neat, familiar structure and I don’t think authors can help being influenced by what they’ve read. She was, but she seems to damn other writers for the same. She took names of characters from Dante, I take mine from UK motorway service stations. Does this make me any less of a writer? Okay perhaps it does. Perhaps Jones was just an incredibly skilled author at taking what she read and what she learnt from her Oxford University Education in English and being able to mould them into progressionalist, original Fantasy works for children.
And I’m not. But that’s perhaps because I can only take what I can from my readings and from my bog- standard Secondary State Education and very small University of Birmingham Bachelor of Education degree with honours in History. Perhaps I’m only capable of writing tropey Medieval traditional fantasy as that’s what I enjoy.
Hopefully some children will enjoy it too.
Thanks, as ever for reading. Phew, that was a long one!