Happy New Year! My three favorite nerdy men are here to tell you to stop browsing the internet, get off Facebook, and get back to writing!
Good lord, I love Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling is a master of reaching readers’ hearts, and her series will stick with its fans for a long time for one simple reason. Characters.
Even as I type this I’m watching The Goblet of Fire for the millionth time, and loving the story all over again. What a well-written world that captures the imagination and a cast of characters that really brings it to life.
(Actually, my entire blog may be one gigantic Harry Potter Spoiler, so…Be Ye Warned)
While watching the third movie, based on the third book of the series, The Prisoner of Azkaban (PoA), I was struck with the delayed gratification that Rowling must have experienced as people became familiar with her characters and with her world. As author and creator of her series, the back story and motivations, the hidden scars and deep-seated emotions of her characters were second nature to her. But to the reader, who doesn’t know the end of the story, certain actions don’t carry the same weight or emotional significance as they do for the author.
An example will help me explain what I mean. In PoA, Harry has a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin. Now, we only receive bits and pieces of Lupin’s back story, not learning the full extent of his relationship with Harry’s parents until much later. So, during a class exercise with a boggart, when Lupin throws himself in front of Harry to shield him from the thing that he fears most, the full impact of what he does is not quite clear the first time through.
For me, it didn’t really hit me until this time through (and trust me when I say I’ve read and watched this series more than a few times). Lupin’s love for James and Lily and for their son runs so deep that he’s willing to throw himself into the path of Voldemort…even a copy of Voldemort…, and in the end even meet death…in order to save Harry. And this time around, in finally connecting to Lupin and the depth of love that he has for the Harry, I burst into tears.
Which surprised me…because I had never cried at that scene before. Yet how could it possibly have taken me that long to really see into the heart of Professor R. J. Lupin?
Now…Rowling could have tried to rush me to that point. She could have tried to force more of Lupin’s story on me to begin with, so that I would be aware of the significance of that relationship before I reached that scene in the story. But…I doubt, if she had, that I would have had the same emotional connection to the character that I do now, that the power and the impact would have been so strong.
Do you see what I mean about delayed gratification on the part of the author? And on the part of the reader, although I didn’t really know what I was missing until today.
My point is, while I understand that, if the reader only knew what you know about your characters, they would love them more…you have to realize that the process takes time. Sometimes it takes a whole series to tease out the depth of love that one character has for another, to get to know and love a character so well that their heart becomes plain…and sometimes the reader has to love your series so much that they return to it over an over again before they really get it, before they really come to appreciate that one character that you feel like gets overlooked time and time again. But, if you’re patient, and if you’re a good story teller, that moment, the moment that you reach your reader’s heart, will be well worth the wait.
Today I’m excited to share with you 6 questions with fantasy cartographer James Hunter-Shortland! Thanks for sharing with us, James!
Would you please describe what a fantasy cartographer is for people who might not know? Who needs this?
A fantasy cartographer is essentially an artist who makes maps of fictional places or time periods. We’re not to be confused with “proper” cartographers, who create maps of Earth using techniques such as GIS (geographical information systems) – they train for a long time and their work is more of a science than an art (though they might disagree). Fantasy cartographers are mainly semi-professional and self-trained. As far as I know, there are no courses or qualifications you can go out and get if you want to create fantasy maps.
The main communities who need fantasy maps are fantasy authors and RPG companies/creators. Sometimes video game developers will have a need for a fantasy map for their game (think Elder Scrolls, Witcher 3, Dragon Age) but most have in-house art teams who will design those. Recently, another cartographer was commissioned to design a tie-in map for the movie After Earth. I was even contacted by an individual who needed “old map” sets of slides for a corporate presentation. So there are lots of possibilities and you never know where the next request is going to come from.
How did you get started doing fantasy cartography? and Why?
I pretty much stumbled into fantasy cartography out of necessity. I was about twelve when I started writing a fantasy novel and realized I wanted a map to go with it. I had grown up with great stories like The Hobbit, LOTR and a series called Redwall, all of which featured these beautiful old style maps inside. I started out imitating my favorite maps, with nothing more at my disposal than a piece of paper and a pencil. Over the years I started to experiment with graphics software. My earliest experience of Photoshop and GIMP was taking movie posters, applying various effects to them and changing the layout. Eventually, I realised that if I could import my maps into PS/GIMP, maybe I could get a better final result than I could achieve by hand.
I don’t remember when or how, but at some point I came across the Cartographer’s Guild, which is a fantastic online community of fantasy cartographers. There are so many great tutorials on there for all kinds of styles of maps. I started tearing through those tutorials to see what kind of maps I could make. Up until a couple of years ago, I was only making maps for my personal writing projects. It’s only recently that I started to make maps on commission.
What’s the easiest part? What’s the hardest part?
That’s a tricky one! I’d say the easiest part of making a map is working out where everything goes and how it all fits together. For example, mountains are like the backbone of a continent and everything else flows down out of them. Rivers are at the mercy of gravity, so they always take the least difficult path, which is usually downhill and around obstacles, not through them. Forests grow around rivers and lakes and so on. Once you get all the rules straight in your head, it becomes easier to know how everything needs to be set out.
The hardest parts, at least for me, are labeling (place names) and anything that requires me to draw anything more than mountain and tree markers! Firstly, map labels are time consuming as there are usually a lot of them. And drawing – I’m a horrible “traditional” artist. While some fantasy cartographers are also great at painting or drawing, I really focus on using digital applications to achieve all my effects. That isn’t to say I don’t do any manual drawing when I design a map. I do own a graphics tablet which I use to draw in landmasses, create geographic markers and to shade/add in fine details.
What’s the most fun project you’ve worked on recently?
Projects are always a heady mixture of self-doubt, fun and perseverance. There are elements of certain projects I have enjoyed hugely and there are others that I have hated with a passion. There are two projects that come to mind where I really had a fun time.
First was my entry to the One Page Dungeon contest (this year was judged by Ernie Gygax, the son of the late Gary Gygax), “In the Vault of the Howling Palace”. I made this weathered paper type thing that was designed to be a page from the journal of a master thief. Needless to say, I didn’t win in any category, but I really enjoyed designing that page.
Second was a map called Tar Ebon which I made on commission for author Dayne Edmondson. He had this huge write-up for his world that he emailed to me, which I really enjoyed reading and helped me shape his map. I just really love the colors and the feel of that map – it’s a world that I would really love to explore.
How can people contact you if they want to know more?
For more, you can visit my website, The Fantasy Cartographer, or head over to my deviantArt page. I also recently launched my Facebook page so I’d really appreciate some Likes!
What are you currently reading? (Or what’s the last book you read?)
I’m currently reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch and really enjoying it. I also devour non-fiction history books – if there’s a castle or a Roman, I’m sold!
Thanks so much, James!
This post is part of my ABC’s of Writing Well series. We’re skipping O for now and heading directly to P because Point of View is on my mind and I want to talk about it! Ha!
Point of view, when it’s targeted correctly, when the author is truly immersed in the voice and character on the page, can create vivid, emotional pictures like this:
The Quorum chamber is low ceilinged and windowless, like a tomb. Candles flicker from sconces set in dusty mortar between gray stones. A squat oak table fills the center, surrounded by red cushions. The air is thick with unyielding silence, and I feel as though the ghosts of weighty decisions and secret councils press in around me, telling me to hush.
Rae Carson, in The Crown of Embers, pulls on her main character’s skin to conjure up this slice of perspective on a room in the palace. The room feels oppressive, suffocating, not because it actually IS that way, but because of the perspective and the emotional baggage that the main character carries with her when she crosses the threshold. You can feel her dread and at the same time her need to prove herself, to break free of those who want to use her insecurity to control her.
You’ll notice that Carson is writing in first person, a popular method of storytelling in YA fantasy and dystopia these days. First person perspective highlights the advantages of effective point of view in narrative. Using a first person perspective limits your options. You really can’t slip into a minor character’s perspective or cheat and give the reader details that your main character would never know, wouldn’t care about, or wouldn’t notice. You ARE your main character. You see what she sees. You tell us what she feels in the moment, and the effect is that the reader is drawn deeply into the scene and into a relationship with the main character.
The thing that’s REALLY hard to wrap your head around is that, in order to truly find your story’s voice, you have to do those things no matter which POV you choose. Even in third person you can (and should) put on your character’s skin and dip into her emotions, using her past and present experiences to illuminate the scene before you. That is what makes inspired writing.
And now for the obligatory example from the pages of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
Harry dropped his gaze to the chair in the center of the room, the arms of which were covered in chains. He had seen those chains spring to life and bind whoever sat between them. His footsteps echoed loudly as he walked across the stone floor. When he sat gingerly on the edge of the chair the chains clinked rather threateningly but did not bind him. Feeling rather sick he looked up at the people seated at the bench above.
J.K. Rowling taps into Harry’s memories and emotions to paint a picture of the witness stand in the Wizengamot that chills the bravest, most defiant spirit. You can feel Harry’s anxiety, his powerlessness in the moment. He is at the mercy of people and powers that are at best disinterested, and at worst invested in his destruction. She doesn’t have to tell us these things for us to figure them out. We read it in what Harry notices, what he remembers, and how he reacts to his environment and to the other characters in the scene.
The third person POV advantage is that you can occasionally slip into other characters’ heads and write from their perspective as well. But you have to be choosy. Really examine why you need that character’s perspective to paint your picture. If you can’t come up with a compelling reason for using a character’s perspective, stick to your main character. Otherwise you risk diluting the narrative and losing your reader in the process.
If you’re having trouble with this, if you find that you keep straying from your main character’s point of view into other character’s heads, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the story, up the stakes to refocus your narrative and your main character’s goals, or decide if your main character is really your main character. It’s possible that the story belongs to someone you thought was in the background. Stranger things have happened.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A great ending to a highly imaginative trilogy. I appreciated the complexity of the characters and the depth of emotion in the relationships while at the same time frantically flipping pages to find out what was going to happen next!
Bardugo captured my imagination with her faux-Russian culture and landscape and created a world that inspired awe and fear all at once. I am so glad I finally got to read this book! I’ve been waiting impatiently ever since I finished “Siege and Storm”.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’m a huge fan of the Veronica Mars TV series, so when I heard that Rob Thomas had written a book, I knew I had to read it. I wasn’t sure entirely what to expect. Thomas wrote an amazing TV show, but I was worried that his prose might fall a little flat, or that the characters would not live up to the actors who portrayed them.
In an uncharacteristic move for me, I decided to listen to the audio book (read by Kristen Bell) instead of reading the novel. Let me tell you, that was probably the BEST thing I could have done after deciding to read this novel. Kristen Bell, who plays Veronica on the TV show, added SO much to the narrative voice. It really was Veronica telling the story. I loved it!
The book picks up where the Kickstarter movie left off, which is good, because I had many unanswered questions after the movie. I look forward to finding out more about my favorite characters as this mystery series unfolds.
Thomas’s writing was spot on like the TV show. I laughed out loud many times at the dry wit, gasped with pleasure at the appearance of my favorite characters from the show, and teared up at sentimental moments with Keith Mars (Veronica’s dad). The story kept me guessing, figuring out “whodunit” along with Veronica was part of the fun, and I never felt like I was jerked around by the author trying to tie up loose ends.
This book was a pleasure I cannot WAIT to repeat, so hurry up and publish the next book in the series, Mr. Thomas!
DIY MFA (Do It Yourself Masters of Fine Arts) is a great writers’ resource center, with tools and tips for doing your best creative work. They host webinars and courses to help you on your way to a successful writing career. Stop in and see what they have for you!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Christopher Moore’s rendition of the life of Christ through the eyes of Biff bin Levi, Christ’s childhood best friend, is witty, thoughtful, and well researched. He managed to touch all the major points of the gospels’ outline of the life of Christ in a hilarious and strong narrative voice. As the daughter of a minister, I was impressed with the attention he showed to the details of the story, while telling it from the unique and brave perspective of Biff.
I laughed out loud more than once.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was NOT my favorite Neil Gaiman book. In fact, this was the first Neil Gaiman book I read, and almost the last. I liked it that little. I found the setting and the characters to be hollow. The naming convention he used for the villains made them more flat than they might have actually been.
I put this book down with a “harumph!” and moved on to other things, determining never to read anything by Neil Gaiman again. Then… after following him on Twitter, and really coming to know more about Neil’s creative life, I decided to give him another try. I picked up American Gods… and since then have fallen in love with Neil and his worlds of fantasy. I still haven’t tried to read Stardust again, and probably won’t. But I find that I can forgive him for that book, since the larger body of work he has produced captivates me so.
The thing is, sometimes we hate our own writing. Sometimes a project starts out with so much potential and then suddenly you find that it’s gone terribly wrong… taken on a mind of its own and traveled to a place that you would never have taken it and that you never intended to go in the first place. That can be exhilarating, or it can be devastating.
At those times you may be tempted to scrap your project altogether… and that’s ok! It’s perfectly reasonable to take a break from your work and stretch your mind doing something else. Just DON’T throw away what you’ve already accomplished. Even if you hate it. Even if you think that you’ll never look at it again.
Put your work in a drawer (literally or figuratively) and give yourself some space… but NEVER give up on what you’ve begun. One day you’ll come back to it… 6 months… 2 years from now… and you’ll have a fresh perspective, a flash of inspiration that will help you to transform your writing into something new. But you can’t do that if you don’t have something to start with.
So get out there, get writing, and see where it goes! Then, if your project takes a turn for the worse, give it some time, some space… come back to it later. You might be surprised at what you find.
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