The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: A Hilarious, Necessary Voyage

While at Sirens last year, I sat in a panel devoted to discussing Resources for Writing Fantasy. Even though I’ve been writing since I learned how, I haven’t been writing fantasy for long. I dabbled in the genre a bit when I was young, but hadn’t thrown myself into it until about two years ago.

In the mean time I had read my fair share of fantasy books, mostly epics, but none of the major canonical works in the genre. I’d also watched quite a lot of fantasy derived movies and television shows. The latter of which can outline so many ‘what not to-do’s’.

After reading my first urban fantasy book, Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten, I knew that’s what I wanted to write. The more I read in the genre, the more attached to it I became. But I had a little problem. It would take me decades to read all the really significant urban fantasy works out there. And, the more novels I read in the sub-genre, the more aware I became of the cut-and-paste tropes constantly recycled. Some worked, many annoyed me because the whole series grew predictable.

Then I discovered I had a personal problem with the genre.

The people who work and write in the fantasy world are hard-core. Fantasy is what they live and breathe. While I adore the genre, I read outside it. Widely. And I no longer watch many fantasy shows because books are so much better. It’s no doubt nerves talking, but sometimes I feel like a pretender because I don’t know all the significant works and big names in fantasy. I easily get lost in fandom conversations.

Still, I was and am determined to write my own fantasy stories. A researcher at heart, I really wanted the list of titles the women of Sirens could direct me towards.

Thus, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland entered my realm. I am forever grateful.

The Tough Guide to FantasylandI literally just finished it this weekend and I need to gush about it. First though, as I’ve said under my Reading Recommendations tab, this post and my blurb under the tab are not intended as reviews. I want to talk about this book because it has helped me so much and I’m ridiculously excited about it.

The Tough Guide is based on the premise that every single fantasy story anyone anywhere has read all take place in the same locale: Fantasyland. Fantasyland is run by the Management, who love to subject characters and readers to the same tropes over and over.

It’s a no holds barred barrel of laughs that opens your eyes wide, like all good comedy does. Genres are built on tropes, that’s just the way it is. But sometimes those tropes get so overused they turn into cultural clichés –many of which are exhausted. Jones’s Tough Guide not only outlines 98% of the tropes, she illuminates 100% of the tired clichés writers need to stay clear of.

I didn’t expect a reference book to entertain me like this one did. I laughed throughout the journey and had many of my favourite fantasy epics flash before my eyes, mostly The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I also came away utterly inspired. Every time I sat down and read it I thought about the different aspects of my own epic fantasy work and wanted to write down notes like a madman.

My absolute favourite entry involves the infamous BATH; it’s a long entry so I’ll share the best part:

Management Rules state that no one ever steals your clothes/valuables or AMBUSHES you while you are immersed in a Bath. Any lurker will wait until you have finished, take care, however. Baths are the occasion for SEX with one or more of your FELLOW TRAVELLERS. No matter how irritating you have found her/him up to then, after or during the Bath you will find her/him irresistible. It is probably something in the WATER. (17)

Pollen is the only hint I will give about the Horses entry. Source for this image.

Pollen is the only hint I will give about the Horses entry. Source for this image.

The HORSES of Fantasyland also have one of the best entries, as do most of the ANIMALS and types of FOOD. However, I’ll have to make you read the book to find out!

Finally, with the breakdowns of each type of character found in Fantasyland, it’s apparent the kinds of roles women have been forced into across the history of the genre. The sexist tropes are changing, thankfully, but they still run rampant. For instance, the long entry on VIRGINS shows outright that male virgins are seemingly non-existent while young women shouldn’t be anything but.

The only thing I’m walking away dissatisfied with is the lack of focus on aspects of fantasy subgenres, like urban fantasy. The Tough Guide is all about high fantasy that focuses on vast kingdoms, long lost royalty, and great quests.

Still, The Tough Guide is beyond useful and I’m glad I read it. Have you read it? If so, what did you think? If not, has my excitement sent you into its arms? What types of reference books have you found instrumental?

A Look at Writing Workshops

On May 16th I quit my hemming and hawing and purchased a spot in a writing workshop Kate talked me into attending. It’s called Bait and Hook and is one of the pre-festival workshops in conjunction with When Words Collide, a local readercon. The workshop, run by Faith Hunter, will last one day. The first five pages of participant’s manuscripts are due July 15.

As of today, I have spent 51 days obsessing over my five pages. I have only one (unfinished) manuscript I would even consider sharing with the outside world. Luckily for me, the first chapter of my manuscript works out to five pages. It’s also the same genre that Faith Hunter writes. Her feedback may be truly significant -I’m still not sure right now if that’s a good thing.

Hunter is going to give me feedback on whether those five pages contain enough to bait and hook her into reading the rest of the book. I am terrified.

Although I’ve been working on it for nearly two years, my novel is incomplete because I’ve had to walk away from it for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t read that first chapter in months and was understandably anxious about doing so. After some editing, I’m proud of what I have written. I plan to have another comb-through session with the pages before I submit them but I’m not embarrassed to do so. Nervous, yes. Because sharing any piece of work for the first time is nerve-wracking.

Excitement and trepidation are warring within me the closer July 15 comes. Once the pages are emailed away I’ll be resigned until August 13, where I will be a mess on the inside.

At this point you might be wondering why I’d submit the pages of an unfinished story at all. Why I’d share my work with someone intent on telling me what works and what doesn’t. Are the rewards really worth the stress?

Heck yes!

It’s extremely painful to share creative work with others. I have always compared it to stripping naked in public –something I have never done and will never do. You reveal so much about yourself when you open your shell, especially when you open it up to be analyzed. However, the opportunity for growth is undeniable.

Reading and taking to heart the basic tenants of writing is well and good –don’t use clichés, limit your use of adverbs and adjectives, show don’t tell, etc. But when you get into the zone of writing your brain doesn’t follow the rules. It can’t if it wants to stay creative, especially when it hasn’t had a long time to practice doing so.

Reading another person’s rough draft allows you to actively engage with a piece that hasn’t had the broken elements removed. A lot of writers make the same mistakes in their work so more often than not you can see first-hand why lots of things you do don’t actually work. I.e.: clichés are boring, adjectives remove power from sentences, obscure metaphors are irritating, and so on. Seeing why they don’t work versus simply hearing it over and over lets a writer grow much faster in my opinion.

I survived Patty Briggs reading chapter one of my werewolf novel.

I survived Patty Briggs reading chapter one of my werewolf novel.

Outside of workshops, it’s not very often that writers can get exposure to –and for– their unperfected prose and enter a safe environment to discuss them. There are heavily enforced rules in a workshop because they are designed to be a safe, creative space. Thankfully, nearly all writers are fragile and encouraging creatures. We like to nurture each other.

I’ve had a lot of experience with workshops. I have three and a half years of critique classes from university under my belt and I’ve attended a workshop with WWC before. My skin is thick. Not unpierceable, but thick.

So, I might be biting my nails about submitting my work and reading the feedback afterwards, yet I relish the chance to see what someone else thinks of the trajectory of my story. Besides, having a deadline has never been a bad thing for any writer.

Inspiration

There is nothing a writer loves more than moments of inspiration out of the blue. Not that we sit around and wait for them. Well, not those of us getting any words down.

Horseshoe from above.

Horseshoe from above.

On my birthday, my friends treated me to an afternoon hike in Horseshoe Canyon, Drumheller. It’s a relatively quick drive from where I currently live and it’s a spot good for beginner and intermediate hikers. While I have some experience hiking -I spent much of my youth wandering nature- it’s been a good decade since I pulled on my runners and hit a trail.

I hadn’t realized how much I missed wandering the outdoors.

The day was unseasonably warm for early May, yet it remained cool enough that my t-shirt and jeans didn’t have me overheating. A couple of clouds floated lazily overhead, but for the most part we had clear skies.

There are few views better than clear skies in Alberta. Just saying.

Crocus. Hairbell, I think.

Crocus. Hairbell, I think.

The trail hadn’t yet opened for the season, or so the busload of tourists who first arrived told us. Not a trio for listening to signs (even when we maybe should), we picked the best looking path to descend into the canyon while the crowd milled around the filthy washrooms. We picked a direction at random and started walking wherever the paths took us.

The only other humans we saw was a couple we ran into halfway through our walk. Otherwise, the place might as well have been abandoned. That completely suited me.

Spring flowers bloomed, grass hoppers chirped, bees flew in staggered lines over the ground. I stepped over various forms of scat and prints as we followed the recently dried melt trails further downward.

A mating pair of golden eagles swooped over us at one point, long gone before I remembered I packed binoculars. I found a thrush’s nest at the top of an insanely steep incline we decided to tackle. The last bit of wildlife we met were a male and female Mountain Bluebird arguing in a deadened tree at least a kilometre from us.

Golden beans.

Golden beans.

All of those details made the day special for me. I am a nature nerd if ever there was one. Seriously, I was raised on National Geographic.

Still, the incredible inspiration I derived from the area for one of my back-burner works in progress (WIP) made me giddy.

This particular WIP has been jumbled in my head for years. It’s a series focused on werewolves that I intend to set in Alberta. Originally, I planned to park my pack near Canmore in the relative privacy of the mountains. After walking through Horseshoe, imaging my wolves running, hunting, and playing in the canyon, I’m wavering.

I hadn’t expected to be hit by the writing bug while panting my way up and down precarious, crumbly slopes of dried mud. But there you have it. The writer brain never sleeps and when your characters are all but clambering to the forefront of your mind demanding to be placed in a certain setting, well, how do you ignore them?

Coyote print. Possible wolf chow?

Coyote print. Possible wolf chow?

I can’t. Besides I’m as excited as they are.

Deer print. Definite wolf food.

Deer print. Definite wolf food.

I don’t know if Horseshoe will be a place my pack merely visits –believe me, I will be relaying the images that played out in my head eventually– or whether I’ll move their home to a spot closer to Drumheller. All I know is that this hike fueled my brain into working harder on this particular story. Maybe it will see the light of day sooner than I anticipated. I’ve got to hit the trail more often!

Inside Horseshoe Canyon. I can picture my wolves running those slopes.

Inside Horseshoe Canyon. I can easily picture my wolves running those slopes.

An Evening with Jane Goodall

journey beyond the jungleOn April 8th, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a presentation put on by the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada (and other fantastic sponsors) at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium. And, you guessed it, the speaker and person of honour was none other than Jane Goodall herself!

This was my second time listening to Dr. Goodall speak about her work around the world. I enjoyed it just as much as the first -and the third, fourth and fifth, however many I am able to buy tickets to. Because I am an animal lover and primatology nerd, Dr. Goodall is something of an icon for me. Which is a significant statement for someone who can count the people they would consider overall inspirations on one hand. With fingers to spare.

Dr. Goodall is a woman of slight stature; she was nearly hidden behind the podium. A stuffed Jersey cow and a chimp holding a banana were her only on-stage companions. Her voice floated softly out of the surrounding speakers as she rearranged her shawl. None of this diminishes her power in the least, when her mouth opens you hush up and listen.

Jane Goodall: Conservationist and Humanitarian

Newsflash, Dr. Goodall is big on saving the planet. Her entire professional existence has been devoted to educating humans about animals, specifically, acknowledging them as creatures to be respected and the importance of protecting their habitat. That is simplifying her work extremely.

However, Dr. Goodall is also a promotor of eradicating human poverty. Save the people, save the animals, save the planet. It’s pretty easy to connect those dots, right?

I want to paraphrase a comment that really stuck out to me: “People, looking at the global problems we face, feel hopeless to solve them. Except youth. They see a problem and tackle it. When I look at global affairs I myself feel sad. But there is hope and we can change things for the better.”

Sometimes watching the news makes me want to hide under a blanket with my cats and cry. Hopeless is how I feel 90% of the time when I take care to learn about what’s going on around the world. One hour of news provides an enormous dose of despair. But maybe if I can be the change I want to see it’ll catch on and hopefulness will become my 90%? I’m not saying this will happen overnight but I would love to see it over the long term. We need more idealism in this world.

At any rate, her comment is something for me to think about. It’s inspiring. And can even apply to my own professional life.

I work a day job I enjoy but am not 100% devoted to. As it takes up more and more of my time, I start to feel hopeless because I’m not in the place I thought I would be at this stage of my writing career. Heck, I’m not even where I thought I would be in my personal life.

All the negativity, even in my own meagre existence, gets heavy. I need to look at the smaller pictures that make up my life and start positively influencing the ones I want to have a stronger presence.

My first Jane Goodall book.

My first Jane Goodall book.

Jane Goodall: Scientist and Woman in the World

Another newsflash, Jane Goodall is a feminist and believer in women’s rights! Not only did she open the doors of science with her initial study of chimpanzees, she opened the doors for women in science.

No one at the time thought that the three women Dr. Leaky sent out to study apes, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas would accomplish anything. Now they’re household names.

One of my favourite parts of the evening was listening to Dr. Goodall speak about her mother. Her mother who fostered her curiosity from a young age; who even travelled to Africa as 23-year-old Dr. Goodall’s companion when no one else would. How much more supportive could any mother get?

Of course, this made me think about my mom. I sing my dad’s praises a lot because he’s never treated me any different than my brother as far as perceived girls and boys skills go. He’s never told me I can’t do something because I’m a girl. He’s never treated me like a dumb china doll.

Neither has my mom. Some part of me believed that because she’s a woman she shouldn’t inherently treat me like I’m a second class citizen or teach me such values. My entire life I’ve taken for granted that my mom is a “forward thinking” woman because that’s the right way to be.

I now know that that’s hardly the case around the world and I am eternally grateful.

My mom is the one who taught me how to play sports, how to laugh at life even when it’s kicking you down, and to never let anyone trod over you. Our big mouths have gotten us both in trouble but we’re not silent wallflowers when it’s imperative we speak our minds.

gorilla

I own a gorilla, not a chimp.

Moreover, like Dr. Goodall, I’ve found in my mom one of my biggest supporters. And not just because she has to be. My mom is the only other person who’s heard my poetry. She’s read most of my stories –even the one I wrote, illustrated, and bound with staples at the age of 8. She’s read essays about Agrippa, Elizabeth I and the Faerie Queen, and short stories I’m sure didn’t interest her in the least. But I needed a second set of eyes, so she said to send it her way.

I may not be a woman of Dr. Goodall’s stature in the world but I don’t know that I would be the person I am with the dreams I’m striving towards if another woman had raised me.

My evening with Jane Goodall was eye opening and entertaining. I left feeling a renewed hope that maybe humans will see the error of their ways in time and having learned a few things about myself.

Influences: A Brief Background of What You’ll Find in My Writing

Writers get asked about their influences a lot. Readers and fellow writers want to know what helped make a certain creation come to life. Usually, answers include a compiled list of favourite and respected authors. Sometimes a notable book that offered inspiration years ago.

I’ve never been good at giving a list. I have too many favourite books. Too many favourite authors. And I read too widely for the list to make sense to anyone not privy to my mind (count yourself lucky). Besides, books I’ve read don’t actively enter my own stories. I’m not a meta writer. I’m sure if I delved deep enough I’d locate pieces of books that have stuck with me and influenced me over the course of my life. But that seems like a lot of work.

I’m more the type of artist that compiles inspiration for a piece. For instance, I have a high fantasy novel in the works sparked by a book I read called Sex with Kings. I’m now assembling a list of research books -fiction and non-fiction- which I hope will lend a hand as I create and populate my world. That’s how I get inspired, it’s a constant process as I start weaving the bits together.

The fabled muse is obviously not what I want to talk about today. As far as influences across the board go, I’d have to say my core principles are what stand out on the page. That’s what I’m going to label the following list as anyway. I can’t possibly give a detailed description of each and every principal I hold dear. So I’ll stick to the items that I actively try to transcribe in all of my work.

Women are human beings. This is a d’uh one. Yet funny enough it still needs to be said in this world we find ourselves a part of. I actively identify as a feminist and I do my damnedest to make that obvious in my writing. Gender relations are extremely important to me, as is the representation of women. Women want more out of life than a Stepford existence. They’re complex, multifaceted, and interesting. People learn from the media around them and I want to leave behind me positive examples of how men and women interact; and a real picture of the struggle women have had to face across feminism’s lifetime.

Consent. People think consent is a new concept. It’s not. It actually ties into the principal above. You see, in a world that doesn’t treat women like they’re human, consent becomes a moot point. That infuriates me. Consent is relevant. Consent is important. Consent is non-negotiable. Again, when it comes to gender relations and any kind of intimate or sexual relations, I intend to put consent front and centre.

History is full of ugly truths that must be faced. This one kind of explains itself. As someone with exclusively white, European ancestry, some days looking in the mirror can suck. A lot of the world’s bad history *cough imperialism cough colonialism cough* can easily be laid at the feet of Caucasian individuals. Not all of it, of course, but quite a bit in recent years. As awful as history can be, I acknowledge it. I want to learn from it and prevent horrific events from occurring again in any way that I can. Sweeping hard-to-digest truths under the rug is not the way to this. You have to meet the negative face to face.

Diversity matters. This is a new one for me because it never occurred to me -living my white, privileged existence- that there were kids and adults out there who were denied dreams and futures because of the colour of their skin. Still. Yes, I realize it’s impossible to be that naive, especially when you’re well aware of racism but there it is. My revelation came when I was researching for my honours project and came across a piece by an African-Canadian in which he stated he’d never before had a teacher ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He didn’t know he had options before one asked him. That, and reading items connected with Twitter’s hashtag #wndb that have forced the world to see that the majority of kids out there aren’t seeing themselves in major media and when/if they do their faces get erased, has forced me to open my eyes. I want to be part of the solution, not a problem.

That’s the short of it, these are four topics you will find time and again in my writing.

 

*Image source.