Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Visiting Peter Jackson’s amazing cinema in Miramar, Wellington

The other day She Who Must Be Obeyed and I went to have a look at the Roxy Cinema in Miramar, Wellington. It was done up a while back in classic golden-age cinema deco by Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, among others.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi frieze on the upper floor.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi sculpture on the upper floor. I took this photo hand-held, incidentally, and apart from adding copyright info and scaling back for the blog, it’s unedited.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork - Dr Grordbort himself in action.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork – Dr Grordbort himself in action.

There is a magic about the cinema that we’ve lost, these days. Except here – where it’s been recaptured with a vengeance. And more. It was like stepping back in time – not just to the magic of the 1940s, but the magic of the 1940s as they never were, a bronze-and-gold world of deco-infused dieselpunk, streamline moderne spaceships and fantastic planet-scapes.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Inevitably, it featured heavy Weta Workshop influence. Not least in the Hobbit Hole entrance leading up to the second floor atrium with its amazing Greg Broadmore ceiling featuring his iconic Dr Grordbort dieselpunk artwork.

And if that wasn’t wow enough, we also found a model of the Wotwot spaceship – and a glass-encased Lego model of the cinema, which was simply extraordinary.

Even the facilities had been finished with full attention to period detail, down to the shape of the handbasins – though it’s unlikely, I suspect, that 1940s cinema bathrooms had hand-movement sensors to turn the water on and off. But maybe, in the dieselpunk alternate world of this cinema, they did.

I had only one thing to say about the whole thing. OMG!

And when can I watch the Dr Phibes movies here?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

Viggo Mortensen’s recent suggestion in the British Telegraph that filming on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was chaotic got me thinking about how a book of that scope can be adapted to the screen, anyway.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

People at the 2012 Hobbit craft market in Wellington, New Zealand. Click to enlarge.

Some years ago I had a chance to hear Phillipa Boyens, the script-writer, explain how they’d done Fellowship, the only movie out at that time. Tolkien’s novel couldn’t be translated direct to a movie. The pacings were wrong for film. That’s true, of course, of any book.

Boyens didn’t discuss The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it seems to me that adapting them couldn’t have been straight forward. They were structurally different from The Fellowship of the Ring – the story broke into two linear threads. If that had been made directly into a movie, it would have been peculiar – effectively, two movies jammed together. So it had to be reorganised. I got the impression that was quite a task, and one for which there was no obvious answer. The original cinema cut of The Two Towers was radically different from the DVD version – I saw both editions, and they were very different movies.

The Return of the King, it’s worth noting, was also inconsistent with the other two stylistically – Tolkien, quite deliberately, shifted to more epic tones during the climactic sequences. Another challenge for film-making.

A point to discuss. And I’d be inclined to agree with Mortensen’s reported observation that Jackson’s series of Middle Earth movies have been progressively captured by special effects. The Hobbit bears only a passing resemblance to the book, and the second one – particularly – was virtually all CGI. Nice eye candy, but I missed Tolkien’s original story.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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What writers can learn from fantasy RPG’s

Back in the early 1980s I used to do role-playing games. It began with the old classic, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™, which came with hardback rule books, dice and long evenings with friends where everything was defined by random die roll:

Dungeon Master: You enter a room and [rattle of dice] find a wardrobe.
Player: My character opens the wardrobe and [rattle of dice] steps in. Are there fur coats?
Dungeon Master: [rattle of dice] The wardrobe is a shape shifted Gob Monster. Make a saving throw.
Player: [rattle of dice] Failed.
Dungeon Master: You’ve been swallowed and are about to pass through the [rattle of dice] duodenum.
Player: My character says [rattle of dice] “Aaaargh”.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to re-draw and digitise. Similarity to the coast of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, is entirely coincidental. Honestly, officer.

However, our little group balked at the way the whole was framed around hack-and-sorcery stereotypes, into which had been droozled elements of Tolkien. Then there was the way characters were ‘aligned’ to a nine-space cliche morality grid. Even as young twenty-somethings, we knew human reality was a tad more complex:

Player: My character backstabs the Elf and steals the magic dingus.
Dungeon Master: You can’t do that, you’re Lawful Good.
Player: Haven’t you heard of the law of the jungle...and it’s good for me.

We shortly ditched the game and swung into creating our own, which was very different and built around telling the story of characters in a fantasy world, largely via what amounted to improvised theatre between the players – collaborative creativity. Character names varied from the German slang for ashtrays to a brand name of analog synthesisers. Place names commemorated 1980s synth-pop bands and motorcycle part makers. The rest came from Bored of the Rings

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

This brand of analog synth became a character name. I own the synth pictured here…but it wasn’t my character. Anybody care to guess the name?

As you can guess, if it was silly, it usually happened. A lot got written down. And therein is the lesson. It was good practise. The rules and scenarios demanded creativity, and an ability to write in ways others could follow. Afterwards, we got down to writing down the adventures. None of it is publishable – or readable outside the playing group, now scattered. (The guy that developed the map and game with me, these days, is an indie film-maker in the UK, for instance.)

I last played our RPG©®™ nearly 30 years ago. We’d come to the end of the world scenario, and our characters had gone through their development arcs. We deliberately ended it with a final adventure that wrapped up the characters. The end. It was fun at the time, but I don’t miss it. What counts – now – is the way it created writing experience. Part of the million word journey from unconscious incompetence to making writing part of your soul.

Did you play AD&D™ or its variants? Did you write down those adventures? Or is there something else you’ve done that has captured your imagination and got you writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Do you have a writing group…like Tolkien?

Most writers, I realised the other day, hang out with writing groups. Or at least other writers.

Inside the Eagle and Child. Photo: A. Wright.

Inside the ‘Eagle and Child’. (Wright family photo)

J R R Tolkien, for instance, was part of a group called the ‘Inklings’, who met in a local Oxford pub – the Eagle and Child, known locally as the ‘Bird and Baby’Every Tuesday from 1939 until 1962 they’d go there to drink beer, swap stories – and read their tales to each other.

Imagine that – C. S. Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield or maybe Lord David Cecil were the very first people in the world to experience The Lord of the Rings  – and they heard much of it in Tolkien’s own voice, as he sat there reading them the manuscript.

Tolkien himself was one of the first to hear passages from Lewis’s Narnia series. How awesome is that? Two of the greatest fantasy writers in the twentieth century, hanging out in the same pub and reading each other’s stories.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My souvenir key-ring from Raffles. Complete with the original wrapping.

During the early twentieth century other writers congregated in Raffles hotel, Singapore, to the point where there’s a Writers Bar, which (in its original location in the lobby) was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham. Its denizens were usually well lubricated with gin, tonic and Singapore Sling, invented around 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boom in the Long Bar on the opposite corner of the building.  Alas, this literary enclave came to a sharp end with the Second World War. But the spirit lingers. Did I say ‘spirit’? I did, didn’t I.

I made the pilgrimage to the Writers Bar in 2001, sans the cocktail.

Established writers usually veer into shop talk – the scale of the latest advances or gossip about editorial changes at Publisher X. I know that’s how my chats with other writers go, when I catch up with them. Which, unfortunately, isn’t often. I know plenty of writers and publishers, and it’s always good to have a yarn. But it’s hard to find time to get together.

Besides which, a lot of what I write is history – which, here in New Zealand,  is owned by viciously hostile in-crowds. Someone once described the behaviours of the military history crowd, particularly, as akin to circling piranhas.

Instead I hang out mostly with mathematicians and science types. And talk about my original interest, which isn’t history… it’s physics.

Do you have a writing group? How often do you meet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, geekery, science and more. Watch this space.

Creating your own literary ‘ear worm’ – like Tolkien and Rowling

Ever had a song stuck in your head – usually, the catchy riff or chorus the composer deliberately engineered for the purpose? They’re called ear-worms.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington, December 2012.

It’s apparently been discovered that the way to kill them – for a third of us anyway – is to listen to Thomas Arne’s eighteenth century ditty God Save The Queen.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that dislodging mental wheelspin with something horrible is a discovery. Back in the 1970s, for instance, Kiwi gentlemen knew that if they became transfixed by posters of the latest glamour pin-up de jour (Farrah Fawcett or, given that New Zealand was still 98.5% British back then, Caroline Munro), all they had to do for instant antidote was glance at a picture of our Prime Minister of the day, Robert Muldoon.

For writers the problem is the exact reverse. We have to figure out how to create a literary earworm – a concept or idea that keys so deeply into popular psyche that it sticks. I hesitate to call it a ‘book worm’. It’s one of the keys to sales.

To my mind the guy who did it – in spades – was J R R Tolkien. Not intentionally. What he was consciously doing with his Middle Earth mythos was creating a new mythology for Britain. And for a long time, nobody noticed – he couldn’t get the Silmarillion published, and Rayner Unwin was dubious about the viability of The Lord Of The Rings. A judgement borne out by dismal early sales figures.

But then something happened. In 1965 – after nearly a decade of bobbing along in mediocre-sales-land – it took off. The break-through came with a guerilla edition produced via copyright loopholes in the US. Tolkien hastened to get an authorised ‘second edition’ pushed into the market. That sold like hotcakes.

But even the pirate edition wouldn’t have taken off if it hadn’t keyed into what society wanted, just then.

Tolkien’s rusticated Hobbit society – and his faerie imagery with Tom Bombadil – harked to ‘Merrie England‘ and, to some extent, the arts-and-crafts movement of the nineteenth century. But by chance it also keyed directly into the values of 1960s counter-culture, which drew from similar inspiration. Mix that with epic-scale setting, the huge operatic scenario of good and evil – imagery that ran to the heart of western culture – and he had a winner.

The Lord of the Rings, in short, became a literary ‘ear-worm’. J K Rowling did much the same thing – using, in this case, classic ‘magic’, blended with much the same epic-scale themes – with Harry Potter.

So that’s how it’s done. The problem is that in both cases, luck played a role. But, as I’ve said before, that’s always part of the calculation.

Have you ever read something that stuck in your mind – that impressed you hugely? And have you ever read a book that’s left you stone cold – the ‘anti-earworm’ of literature?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing and publishing tips, science, history and other stuff. Watch this space.

If you think of Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ as a fan-fic video game it makes more sense

I finally caught up with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Part two of the trilogy – and don’t we know it. The film ended – splat – in the middle of what was structurally the build-up to the dramatic finale.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

It also confirmed what I pretty much understood from watching the first instalment, The Hobbit: Leaving Bag End and Getting As Far as the Front Gate. Once upon a time I read a wonderful book by J. R. R. Tolkien. A few scenes in these movies bear passing resemblance to one or two passages in the book, but I think we have to accept that this movie trilogy isn’t really Tolkien’s wonderful kids’ tale.

To me this instalment – particularly – came across as a cross between high-budget fan fiction and a shoot-em-up video game, with plenty of set-piece chase sequences and puzzle-solvers, melodramatic cliff-hangers in lieu of real tension and cliched game-style characters (I’m talking about you, Tauriel). But it had little in the way of tight plot, characterisation or true dramatic tension.

Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.

Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.

Judged on its own merits – and accepted as the middle third of a nine or ten hour story – The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug was OK. It’s very much in line with current trends, like X-men and other SFX spectaculars. But I know Jackson’s capable of better than this. He did a stunning job on The Lord Of The Rings. Wonderfully scripted, structured and paced.

What happened? I fear the market happened. The Lord of the Rings was over a decade ago. The big studios don’t seem to be taking major risks these days – it’s why multi-parters and franchises rule. It’s why movies appeal more to the video-game set now than they ever have in the past.

In the wider scheme of things, Jackson’s version of The Hobbit pretty much nails current market expectation. I fully expect to see a vid-game involving [spoilers!] a helter-skelter barrel chase while overcoming obstacles, pulling levers and dodging orc arrows; or a scuffle through Erebor jumping between platforms and moving conveyor belts, pulling levers and so forth in order to flood the bad guy with molten gold.

To me that tells us a lot about ourselves, about how society has changed, about how our expectations have been moulded. And Tolkien’s ouvre, I think, deserves more than this.

Your thoughts? Have you seen this part of the trilogy yet? What did you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More art deco holiday snaps, regular posts resume next week. Watch this space.

Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

Not really Gorgoroth – this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

Write it now: the perils of the deus ex machina

If you think Sharknado was bad, as in ‘deliberately-so-bad-it’s-good’, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘”That’s no moon”. “Wait – yes it is. It’s Mimas, orbiting Saturn.” “Quick- switch on the INTEROSITER!”

Before Baywatch, before Knight Rider, there was… Star Crash. Spaghetti sci-fi made in Italy 22 milliseconds after Star Wars, directed by Luigi Cozzi and featuring The Hoff. I saw it on first release and again recently. It has a certain cult status, and is ‘good’ in that atrociously awful way. As it was Italian, it oozed visual style and had some wonderful nods to Ray Harryhausen. But the spaceship models had been put together from kit parts, including the sprue. The story didn’t hang together at all. The script was hilarious, and the soundtrack was dubbed from English into…er… English, sometimes without proper lip synch.

It also shared the major plot problem with Star Wars. The deus ex machina.

In Star Wars, the Death Star, via a very stupid design flaw, could be blown up by a single shot. (‘I’m going to turn off the targeting computer’. ‘No, Luke, no. Turn ON your targeting computer. It’s designed to hit small targets. That’s what it’s there for.’)

In Star Crash, one character had super-powers, never hinted at until needed to get the Good Guys out of a scrape.  And again…and again…

Still, even the best authors succumb – look at Tolkien, for whom eagles repeatedly  rescued everybody at the last moment. especially in The Lord of the Rings where to be consistent with what had happened to that point, Frodo and Sam should have died after fulfilling the quest. I suspect Tolkien’s decision to repeatedly portray a defiance of death, whatever it took, flowed from his Western Front experience – after all, the whole Mordor sequence reflected that aspect of his life. However, it led to such obvious questions as why nobody asked the eagles to fly Frodo to Mordor in the first place. Much easier.

Setting that aside, the deus ex machina happens mostly when the author paints their characters into a situation that’s impossible to escape from. Either intentionally or through ‘seat of the pants’ free-flow creation.

The Hemingway answer is ‘OK, then they die’. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I point to the last pages of Farewell To Arms.

But that doesn’t happen in deus ex machina stories.

The problem is that deus ex machina reduces the story to melodrama, killing suspension of disbelief stone dead. Why? Because deus ex machina moments don’t happen in the real world unless you’re deliberately funny.

What’s the answer? Planning. Sketching out plot and story; and if you must have your characters end up in an impossible position – well, it’s going to be on the last page, isn’t it. The trick is to ensure the plot is structured to that end – that it completes the arc, dramatically and in terms of character. As Hemingway, indeed, always did.

Hemingway. Tolkien. spaghetti sci-fi… Did I just post something linking them all? I did…didn’t I.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Finishing up the NaNo tip series, more writing hints, and fun stuff about Interositers – watch this space.

Drawing your readers with pace and character

It seems to me that the most important thing about a story is the least visible – the structure. A well-written story should draw the reader along invisibly – pulling them into the tale without obvious device or technique.

Of course, it IS done through device and technique – just not overtly. One of the ways this is done is through proper pacing; a rise and fall of tension, in systematic waves, building finally to an explosive denouement that resolves the diverse plot threads of the tale. This means putting the major excitement at the end – and avoiding the temptation to build up to it via a succession of melodramatic ‘Perils of Penelope’.

Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three 'life size' trolls. Cool.

Bert and Tom from ‘The Hobbit’. Spotted by me in central Wellington rather than Trollshaws. Cool.

The trick is to build the story through the way characters systematically react to events – to show how their character develops as a consequence of the narrative experiences. One of my favourite stories, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is a model of how to do it – partly because Tolkien takes Bilbo on the classic ‘hero journey’ of self-discovery. The major battle, at the very end, resolves all the loose ends of the narrative plot and simultaneously completes Bilbo’s character evolution. From the narrative sense, the return journey to Hobbiton can be dealt with in just a few pages even though it’s as long as the journey out, because it’s not important to the key story.

A less experienced writer might be tempted to narrate the return journey as well – and, indeed, Tolkien did in an early casting of the plot, envisaging the Battle of Five Armies near the Misty Mountains as Bilbo returned with the treasure. But it would have been a less compelling story, structurally – and he then decided to go with the more integrated tale we know and love.

Another of my favourites is Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Every ‘road trip’ Kerouac’s hero (and alter-ego) Sal Paradise takes is a further step towards resolving why Paradise has to be on the road at all – his quest for self-discovery, all at helter-skelter pace, building to the final journey in which all the experiences he was seeking come together in a final outburst of hedonism.

Both these books – and, of course, many other classics we know and love – offer models of how it’s done. Lessons we can draw from today.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013