The Trouble with Tropes

If you are a writer worth your salt, one of the cardinal rules you must follow is to make sure you follow the submission guidelines of the publications in which you hope to be published.

Mainly these are fairly prosaic: guidelines about line spacing, font preferred, word count, type of file to send, etc.

But often I will see other recommendations, not so much about the nuts and bolts but more about the meat and bones of the story. These are equally as important to pay attention to, if you want to give your work any kind of chance at all.

Often these will mention avoiding tropes. Tropes, according to Wikipedia, are “commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative work.”

Every genre has its own tropes. Think of the hardboiled detective in mystery novels, or the swashbuckling hero in romances. Fantasy is no exception. There are many of these tropes, but just to give you an idea, here is some of the advice given to hopeful writers from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly:

Witty banter usually isn’t.

Stories that start in an inn are usually out.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious individual who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire).

Double ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious man who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire) who then turns on the very adventurers he/she/it hired only to be thwarted by the one dwarf in the party.  In fact, toss us a dwarf curveball.  So far we’ve never seen a story with a dwarf character where that character doesn’t kick ass from beginning to end.

We are not all that interested in stories with vampires.  We feel much the same re: zombies.

Neither are we terribly keen on pirates; just remove that word and your odds go up.

There’s more, but you get the drift. (Let us all spare a moment of sympathy for editors everywhere, who have to sort through piles of drivel in order to strike gold, and who,in most cases, are doing this just for the sheer love of stories, with not a coin exchanged in compensation.)

A few of the fantasy tropes are listed here, such as the inn as meeting place, the overuse of sorcerers/vampires/zombies, the hard-as-nails dwarf. Once you start thinking about it,  if you have read any fantasy at all, you will be able to come up with quite a few more. How about:

The orphan whose mysterious past vaults him into the role of hero, sometimes (often) reluctantly. Chosen One, anyone?

The peaceful, nature loving, mysterious elves; the grumpy dwarves; the terrifying orcs/monsters; the wise wizard/mentor. 

The quest for the sacred sword/jewel/manuscript/whatever. 

The evil Empire. 

Fake-medieval Europe/England setting. 

Weird names with apostrophes. Tal’c or Ryl’d or Sh’one or whatever. (I first encountered this in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, and there, the Dragonriders were given a new name that was a shorter form of their original name, as a form of honorific that denoted they had become Dragonriders. Fair enough. But I see this so often now, and often for no reason except that it looks exotic.)

One evil twin, one good twin, separated at birth. 

The school for youngsters where they learn how to use magic.

Villain is hero’s father. 

I could go on, and likely you could think of many more.

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The scantily clad, ferocious warrior-chick is a fantasy trope I’m more than happy to say good-bye to!

It’s a bit terrifying as a writer, to be honest. How do you avoid all these clichés? They are so ingrained in our collective well of story-telling that often you find yourself using them, even though you are trying to be original.

The good news is, you don’t have to, at least, not entirely. It is true that it is easy to fall into the trope-trap, and if your story has too many of these, it is likely not going to be published. However, there are plenty of excellent stories and books being published today in which you can find more than one of these tropes and yet they still feel fresh, exciting, and original.

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“An elf, a wizard, and a giant walked into an inn…” (Horsemen and Travellers Outside an Inn, by Pieter van Os, on Wikicommons. )

Take The Name of the Wind, by Pathrick Rothfuss, for example. That book is full of standard fantasy tropes including the orphaned hero, the school for magic-learning, the vaguely medieval setting. And it even starts in an inn!  But Rothfuss takes these tropes and, through the power of strong storytelling and beautiful prose, creates a compelling and original book.

Of course, George Lucas famously studied Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and used it as the basis of his Star Wars movie. Which became a cultural force to be reckoned with (pun intended!).

So tropes aren’t necessarily bad. Including them in a story isn’t necessarily lazy storytelling. In fact, in some cases such as The Name of the Wind, or Star Wars, readers and movie-goers have rewarded the storytellers who use them in their works.

Why? Perhaps it’s because there is something about the hero’s journey (embodied in many of the tropes) that speaks to us on a deep and subconscious level, something that resonates with the story of the backwater nobody who becomes the hero, the forgotten prince who arrives on the scene to rescue his people, the group of friends who band together and conquer the evil in their world.

The great Christian writer and philosopher, C.S. Lewis,  would explain this resonance by saying that there are deeper truths hinted at by the hero’s journey. In other words, we long to be rescued, and stories allows us to vicariously fulfill that longing, which is why they are told over and over again and continue to be popular. Lewis would say that the  story of the prince who came to rescue his enslaved people is the true story which is the foundation of all the hero stories, and it is the story that is told over and over again in the Bible, culminating in the final telling of the story of the life of Jesus.

Tropes are not necessarily bad. Half the battle is being aware of them, and the other half is using them sparingly and wisely.

So let your wizard wander into an inn. Carefully.

 

Featured image: The Wizard, by Sean McGrath, on Wikicommons

 

 

 

 

The Agony and The Ecstasy….

I’m sure I must be the slowest writer in the world. Honestly this road to publication is a long and winding one, and I’m not exactly zooming along. More like creeping with ten pound weights tied to my ankles.

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I finally sent my MS of the first book to an editor that I met a couple of years ago at the When Words Collide conference, and who was interested in working with me. She not only does the line by line edits in terms of spelling and grammar, but also takes a look at the big picture. Story structure, pacing, characters, etc. In the meantime, I have been forging ahead on edits to Book Two.

Just last week I got the edits back. Gulp. The truth hurts, right?

A lot of what she said is definitely truth. So it’s all good. But it’s hard to know exactly where to start to fix it. I have a lot of work and rewriting ahead, and it’s hard not to be discouraged by that, but it’s okay. Ultimately I want this to be the best effort I can muster, so I’m willing to do the work.

There’s a lot of trimming to do (she took out whole chapters!) and a lot of thinking on how to make it all work. It might turn out that I have only two books, not three. I know that one of my failings as a writer is to overwrite – not only in the story but also on a sentence level. So having to trim and condense isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (See? “Trim and condense?” I could have just said “condense”. Overwriting. Heh.)

 

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I have some homework to do in terms of some articles and books to read, so I will get to work on those and then sit down with my book to see how I can whip it into shape. Leaner and hopefully better.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

Fall is upon us. I don’t know how that happened – just yesterday was the first day of spring, wasn’t it?

I’ve had a busy but refreshing summer, and I’m looking forward to getting back at the desk and back to work on my novel revisions.

I’ve sent out my MS to a couple more agents and publishers, but no one is knocking at the door yet. I’m sure I’m going about this all wrong. I should be sending out dozens of queries at a time, not just a couple. But seeing as it is probably non-productive to send out queries to agents that don’t want to represent a historical fantasy trilogy set in Dark Ages Britain I’ve tried to limit my queries to agents that I think just might be interested. And there aren’t that many of those, it seems. Of course if you are one of those agents and are reading this, let’s talk. 😉

In my research I’ve found that lots of agents don’t want fantasies set in medieval times (and even though mine is not technically medieval, it would still get tarred with that brush). Especially those set in Europe/Britain. If my book was set in  medieval Japan or Africa, well, maybe I might get in the door. They are looking for the next “thing”, not the old “thing”. There seems to be a feeling that fantasies with a European setting are yesterday’s news.

Historical fantasy is also a narrow field. Unless you are looking at steampunk, which is a genre all its own, it’s hard to find a niche of books including fantastical elements set in a real-world historical setting. It’s not impossible, mind you, but difficult. Which means that not a lot of agents are looking for these books, either.

Elves are also “yesterday”. Even though my take on the Fey is different from most of the stories out there, the agents/publishers have to actually read the book to understand that. Right now they just see “Fey” in my proposals/query letters and their eyes glaze over. I think.

And the fact that my main character is a person of faith whose struggles to reconcile a faith in a good God with all the bad that is happening in his life (including demons chasing him to 643 AD) probably knocks it off quite a few more agent’s acquistion lists. Unless you are making fun of Christianity or making it responsible for all the bad in the world in your novel, agents and publishers aren’t interested. Ok, I might be exaggerating that a bit but it sure feels like that some days.

So….okay. I suppose I could spend another year sending out the MS, but time is a-wasting. I’ve already spent many years of my life on this project, and I’m getting impatient to get to the next step. Which is to actually get it in front of some readers. Release the kraken, so to speak.

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I spent a weekend in Calgary at the When Words Collide Festival again, and I sat in on quite a few presentations on self-publishing. There are pros and cons, of course, but at the moment the pros (especially the fact that by doing this I could actually get the books published!) are outweighing the cons.

So I’m getting ready to go down that path. I’ve been in contact with an editor, who will do a professional edit (both developmental and copy-edit) of my MS. Which is somewhat terrifying but I’m looking forward to it, too. I want to put the best book out there for my readers, and this will help me do that.

I’m building in time this fall to do some intensive research on the whole process of self-publishing. I could upload my book to Amazon tomorrow and start selling it right away, but realistically if I want to give myself the best chance of success I need to do some preparation. Self-publishing means that not only do I wear the “author” hat, I will also be donning the “marketing and promotion” hat, the “business plan” hat, the “book cover design” hat, and the “book distribution” hat. I have been listening to some podcasts about all these things, and I have some ideas of what I need to do, but I’m going to need a little more flesh on the bones of my plans before I can launch. I’ll be reading some books on self-publications, talking to other authors who have gone this route, getting a plan in place for both the launch and beyond. And plus, I have to keep going on Book 2 revisions.

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My tentative plan is to have the book published by Christmas, but….I’m not entirely sure how realistic that will be. There’s quite a lot I need to have in place before I can jump into the fray. So, watch this space! I’ll keep you all appraised of my progress. A more realistic statement is that by this time next year, my book should be out and I’ll be well on the way to the release of Book 2.

Thanks for being with me on this journey! I’m looking forward to sharing with you a firm publication date, once I have it all figured out. In the meantime…stay tuned…..