08 January 2007

a short, incomplete definition of the difference between trope and fresh

I like fantasy, and I like much of my fantasy traditional, with cloaks, horses, feudal relationships and swords. A recent rejection said my story was too much like “regular” fantasy. Well, duh. (And yeah, it happens, editors get rejected.) While we’re on the subject, I’ve not seen all that many submissions of traditional fantasy at this ezine.

Not that I’d ever speak against urban fantasy, which often has that wonderful sexy, dark slant, or even SF, which broadens my world every day. (And horror gives my brain delightful tingles.) But, I primarily like to write and read fantasy set in a vaguely medieval world. I like the play of world-building against reality, the known rules of "archaic trope," and that creative slant that makes me really want to be there.

I sometimes discriminate against the use of magic in fantasy, though, because it’s so powerful that an author might write herself into a corner trying to define it and put limitations on it. Commonly used tactics: Magic uses life energy. Magic takes training. Magic requires physical elements. OR, it’s uncontrollable. There might be that tempting dark side, or even amusing side-effects. I don’t immediately discount such mechanisms for storytelling, so don’t worry if yours has any of these, but I think the best limitations are based firmly in the nature of the character rather than some world-building rule. Spec writers often get so caught up in their world that they forget to fully flesh out the people inhabiting it. Characters need internal as well as external conflicts, and somehow the two need to be linked in a way that makes a reader know it could have only been done in that particular story.

I think trope can work when the sacrifices required to make the Great Leap, via magic or pure, rabid strength, makes the character face his worst demons, and makes him a better person for it. Not to say I must have the quintessential happy ending (bite your tongue, for I am the “dark editor”), but such connections between internal and external struggles make me believe a kitchen slave can become a king, a farmer can tame a dragon, or a blacksmith can save a city from destruction.


Betsy Dornbusch said...

I've gotten the same comment from agents about one of my books. It presents a difficult dilemma: how do you say within the genre but still be different from everything else that's out there? I wish I knew.

Keep at it, Bets! What matters most about fantasies is that they are well written and exciting. I happen to know that yours has both of those qualities.

David de Beer said...

I know some folk who would be delighted to hear that at least there is one market out there who still likes horses, cloaks, swords and traditional fantasy stuff.
It's ironic that the top selling fantasy is still traditional, while the short fiction market has been taken by an almost obsessive zeal to do urban/ contemporary/ somethinig different. (I do like Charles deLint and Neil Gaiman, but also Goodkind and Martin!)
I think it's because of the paradox of the genre:
fantasy, at face value, would appear to be most limitless of all genres. It's not; it's the most restrictive when you get right down to it. And now we have people panicking and insisting on "new" fantasy. That's fine -but at the loss of readers who made the genre in the first place? Get real.

It's a trend right now - this moving away from the tradtional. And, as is the nature of trends, we have happily embraced the "new and exciting" - noticed how many folk out there are now writing, not urban, but fantasy set in Asian settings?
Oh, yeah, let's all be like lemmings...that will bring the fans back in. I'm gettnig to the point where I'm seriously wary when a short (or novel) has an Asian setting or theme. I love my anime, but come on!
I like elves, dragons, wizards, orcs and goblins...and quite happily ignore the people in my crit group when they say I can't use them, because it's soooo Tolkien.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I think zines reject those stories out of hand because a lot of fantasy writers cut their teeth on trope. We do see our share of action-packed stories with all the regulars en masse, but they still lack the essential saleable elements of compelling character and world. I think it takes a lot of experience to know what can be reused and what should be new, and it's different with every book and story.

David de Beer said...

I'm about balance; there's times I like a little traditional we're-off-to-save-the-wonderful-world!, and other times I like contemporary, or urban fantasy a la deLint or Gaiman.

I suppose you're right though; I've seen enough of crit groups to know the bulk of fantasy is still traditional styles and themes, and most of them are very generic.
A problem I see with a lot of them is that they're either:
setting, no genuine plot;
huge action-packed sequence that reads like an episode from a TV show, like Alias, with nothing actually happening.

Still, I don't like the fact that too much of the fiction that is sold is urban-styled. That gets to be repetitive as well. I read a review on Tangent, where all the stories in a magazine were somber, and themed around death and dying. As the reviewer put it - by the time he reached the last story, he wasn't sure if it was good anymore, it felt hardly any different from all the others due to the relentless nature of the same theme over and over.

hmm, I'm actually making a case of why slush readers reject traditional fantasy out of hand, aren't I?

Betsy Dornbusch said...

Yes you are. :) Truth is, it's all subjective. And honestly, I often choose/like very different stuff for the zine than I would choose to read for personal pleasure, or even write, for that matter. Thanks for conversing with me on this!

David de Beer said...

lol! well, it;s certainly more interesting than work right now! And I'm always curious to see the "inside" mind of an editor, as it were. You lot used to terrify me, till I stumbled across one on a forum, without knowing she was an editor till much later, and we chatted a bit and I thought "well, maybe they're a little human after all...just a tad weird."