Category Archives: Analysis

That Fantasy Element My Novel Is Missing

Years ago, when I thought my first novel was about done (hahahaha!), I gave it to the boy who would eventually become my brother-in-law. He is an avid reader of fantasy, so he seemed like a natural beta reader choice. What I didn’t realize is that he would eventually change some of my thoughts on my novel — though the major piece didn’t click until a couple weeks ago.

I’ll never forget how confused I was when he returned my manuscript, said it was good, and suggested that I read some of Brandon Sanderson’s work. Or at least hear a little about his philosophy on fantasy. I though to myself that I had learned from Tolkien, the lord of the genre. Why would I look to anyone else?

That Christmas, he introduced me to Brandon Sanderson. After a few reluctant pages, I started to get into it and I started to understand what he was saying. But what I didn’t realize at the time — what I haven’t realized for a few years — is that I was missing one of the things that he was sweetly and subtly trying to tell me: I needed some work on the magic in my world.

If you had asked me before, I would have told you there isn’t really any magic in the novel. There’s a supernatural element, but it’s not really magic. What I hadn’t realized, though, is that that supernatural element had slowly transformed from something that didn’t really affect the plot to a major piece, especially in the climax.

In the process of growing, it had taken on a magical role in the story. Certainly not to the degree of the different things that happen in Brandon Sanderson’s works, but it was very different from where I started.

It didn’t hit me until I was reading something — I can’t remember what now — that discussed Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic. (Read about those here.) For the first time, I realized that there is a type of magic flowing through my novel’s world, and I had basically used it like a deus ex machina in the climax. Finally, I get what my brother-in-law was trying to tell me all those years ago.

What does that mean for my novel? Well, instead of writing, there’s been a lot of thinking going on. It might mean some adjustments to my world’s history and structure, but I think the end product will be much better than what I have now. Maybe this is the final adjustment that my novel has been waiting for before it really is actually done.

Have you ever found yourself in the same place with writing advice? What’s the best advice you’ve gotten for writing in your genre?


Tolkien and Lewis’ Movie Date

When I think of JRR Tolkien’s contemporaries, I usually think of CS Lewis and the rest of the Inklings. I rarely think about what was happening on the other side of the pond — even though that’s where I live.

As anyone familiar with Tolkien knows, he had strong opinions, and that went for his contemporaries. One of those — one I never thought of — is Walt Disney.

Back in the 1937, The Hobbit and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves made their debuts in their respective countries. Since both have always been a part of my life, I never realized that they came out within months of one another and share a protagonist surrounded by a band of dwarves. It’s just fascinating to think about.

While I don’t know what Walt Disney thought of Tolkien’s work, Tolkien certainly wasn’t a fan of him. Neither was Lewis.

Unlike the past several generations, they grew up only knowing the original (and usually darker) versions of fairy tales. To see dwarves — the creatures of Norse mythology — playing jazz and being downright goofy just felt wrong.

I can understand it. When Frozen first came out, I was appalled by just how different the story is from Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale. There are a handful of similar elements, but besides those things, the stories couldn’t be more different. Since then, I’ve warmed up to it (pun only sort of intended) and have come to like it as its own thing, but certainly not as adaptation. “Inspired by,” sure. “Adaptation”? Definitely not.

Needless to say, it was a fascinating read. If you want to check out the full article, it’s available here.

What are your thoughts on different adaptations of films? Have you ever found yourself in Tolkien and Lewis’ shoes?

Why I Believe in the Oxford Comma and a Tidbit on Van Gogh

Today’s post feels very random, but these two links are too fascinating to pass up so why not post them together?

The first is on the importance of the Oxford comma. While some prefer to drop it (and I don’t judge), I prefer to use it for its clarity. As it turns out, the use of the comma has been helpful to some dairy drivers get overtime pay. Read more about that here. (Warning and apology: There’s a smidge of language in it.)

The second is about the Impressionists, specifically Van Gogh. If you thought “Starry Night” was a cool painting before, you’ll never be able to think of it quite the same way. It appears to capture fluid dynamics in action. Read that article here.

And since the video mentioned in the article isn’t linked, it’s here.


What do you think of the Oxford comma? Are you a fan of “Starry Night”?

Movie Adaptations and The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

So I’ve finally seen The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. Any time I watch a beloved book turn into a movie, it takes a few days to fully process my thoughts. Of course there are the comments that I give in the moment to the people unfortunate enough to be seated next to me. (In most cases, my mom and husband are the lucky — or is it unlucky? — two.) The rest, though, requires a few days of brewing and some discussion.

Overall, I liked it. While I would still rate The Lord of the Rings films more highly, I still enjoyed it. There are some things that I would have changed if I’d been given a say, and there are moments that I hope will be included in the extended edition because they deserved some screen time, but I can say that for nearly every adaptation I’ve ever seen. And they were balanced out by great moments that I have long been hoping for.

Since I can’t say much more without spoilers (though if there were an expiration date on spoilers, I would think about 76 years should do it :) ), the whole topic has gotten me thinking about movie adaptations in general. There are some that I’ve really loved over the years and some that have earned my deep animosity.

Peter Jackson’s adaptations of JRR Tolkien works are obviously some of my favorites (and if LOTR were video tapes instead of discs, mine would probably be in the early stages of those weird problems tapes used to have from overuse). So is the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. (Six happy hours of banter and the Bennets!) And the newest incarnation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The film is actually the reason I broke out my mom’s old books. To do things right, I read at least the first book before the film, and it’s still a movie I put on in the background when I need to relax and have a good laugh.

One of the worst that I actually watched: Eragon. When a friend bought me the book and the movie, she warned me that the movie was awful, and it was. It’s been years since the one and only time it was in my DVD player, but I remember how far it felt from the book and how easily it glossed over major plot points. No book deserves that sort of treatment. That’s why, when I know it’s bad, I try to just avoid them altogether.

And one of the rare moments in which I enjoyed the movie more than the book: Stardust. While similar for most of the ride, the climaxes are completely different. Since I watched the movie first (which is understandable since I had no idea it was a book), I expected something rather exciting and still quirky. When it turned out to be downright anticlimactic, I left the book puzzled and a bit disappointed. There is a certain appeal at times to anticlimactic endings, but this was less Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut and more a huge sigh from all of the characters as they wandered off saying, “Oh, I give up.”

Obviously, there are many more to talk about, but I’m out of time at the moment.

So, what did you think of the film adaptation of The Hobbit and other books you love?

Writing History

Every time I begin reworking anything in my novels (especially Novel #1), I find myself thinking about things I never considered before. I suppose it shouldn’t be any wonder that it’s been a 15+ year adventure.

Anyways, my most recent musings have mostly centered on history. It’s probably thanks, in part, to reading The Silmarillion. Of course, that should be no surprise. Many of Carrick’s overhauls as a world have come from analyzing the techniques of other writers, especially Tolkien.

In any case, Tolkien’s world – and the worlds of most fantasy authors – are very old. Thousands upon thousands of years. Perhaps it’s in part because our world has thousands of years of history to its name so we’re very familiar with it, or just because it’s the perfect breeding grounds for epic events to grow to mythical proportions.

In either case, for whatever reason, it’s not the road I ended up on so far. The original histories I started to compose in high school only account for 516 years of Carrick’s history. Of course, there’s more to it: a time before the monumental mistake that changed the world completely, but I don’t know much of it. How long was it? What was life like before it? How much have things changed? I used to dodge the question because I would deal with it later. But that’s starting to change. I need to establish this now, before I get in too deep.

This whole musing makes me think of conversations I’ve had with my students lately. As we discuss King Arthur, we’ve talked about what the real man who inspired King Arthur might have been like and how the story could have changed over the years. But this inflation to legendary status doesn’t just happen to stories that are over a thousand years old. After all, the United States has only been in existence for less than 250 years, but George Washington and many of the other Founders are usually thought of with a similar mystique: many people know some facts about them but some things have become more like legends. (George Washington and the cherry tree, anyone?) So there’s plenty of opportunity for anything to grow to legendary proportions, even if it’s only been a few hundred years. Right?

In any case, it’s just one more thing to ponder in this never-ending adventure.

What are your thoughts on writing histories for stories?

The Silmarillion Recap: Quenta Silmarillion (Part XIII)

Now that the Noldor are reunited and have an alliance with Thingol and his people, the Elves are settling in. But secrets are about to change everything.

Part I (Chapter 1)
Part II (Chapters 2-3)
Part III (Chapters 3-4)
Part IV (Chapters 5-6)
Part V (Chapter 7)
Part VI (Chapter 8)
Part VII (Chapter 9)
Part VIII (Chapter 10)
Part IX (Chapter 11)
Part X (Chapter 12)
Part XI (Chapter 13)Part XII (Chapter 13 cont.)

Quenta Silmarillion: Chapter 14-15

Chapter 14 focuses on the boundaries of the Elvish realms at this point in Arda’s history. It can be summed up in the map below.

The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, 2nd edition, 1999, page 139

The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, 2nd edition, 1999, page 139

Among these realms, one is unlike any other.

Turgon (one of Fingolfin’s sons) has already established his own realm in Nevrast. But one night, Ulmo (the Vala who loves water) gives him a warning. Morgoth is a more dangerous foe than they all realize. If Turgon wants to keep his people safe, it’s time to create a safer fortress. A secret one.

So, with some direction from Ulmo, Turgon finds the perfect spot amid the Encircling Mountains (though discomfortingly closer to Morgoth’s fortress of Angband) and starts building his new kingdom, Gondolin.

Once it’s ready, he slowly begins gathering his people in Nevrast and secretly transporting them to Gondolin. Before long, Nevrast is completely abandoned, about a third of the Noldor and some of the Sindar (Elves who never went to Valinor with the other Elves) are hidden away in the secret kingdom, and no one outside of the walls knows where they’ve gone. After all, living in Gondolin provides a new level of safety but it comes with a price: once you come in, you’re not allowed to leave again. (Unfortunately for Turgon, though, this rule is occasionally broken… like in the very next chapter.)

While Turgon and his people feel safe in Gondolin, Ulmo leaves with a final warning. Because Turgon is one of the doomed Noldor, Gondolin won’t be safe forever. One day, treason will compromise it and the people within. But that won’t be for quite a while, so Turgon can rest easy for now.

Meanwhile, Galadriel (yes, the Galadriel) has settled into Thingol and Melian’s realm. Since Thingol and Melian never went to Valinor, the only news they have of the Noldor’s time in Valinor comes from the Noldor themselves. Since the beginning, Galadriel has freely spoken to them about everything up until Morgoth kills the Trees. After that, though, she is silent.

This is concerning to Melian. Originally, she and Thingol thought that the Noldor had been sent by the Valar to help them against Morgoth. But that clearly isn’t the case.

One day, Melian confronts Galadriel about it, and Galadriel finally tells more of the story. They have come for revenge on Morgoth, who stole the Silmarils. Though Melian doesn’t know what’s to come, she does know that “the fate of Arda now lay locked in those things [the Silmarils]” (Tolkien 148). She has no idea just how true those words are.

But Galadriel still doesn’t tell Melian everything. She still omits the part about the Noldor killing the Teleri (Thingol’s kin) for their ships.

But that doesn’t last for long. Morgoth himself sees to that. Just as he spread rumors in Valinor that made the Noldor turn against the Valar in the first place, he starts spreading rumors about how the Noldor killed the Teleri for the ships. And, as Morgoth hoped, Thingol finds out about it.

The first time he speaks openly about it, though, is when Galadriel’s brothers have come to visit. As they’re eating dinner, Thingol can’t contain his anger and grief. He’s entertaining those responsible for the brutal slaughter of his people. If he hadn’t met Melian, he would have been there too, and he likely would have been killed as well.

Finrod (Galadriel’s brother) knows that he can’t defend himself, his siblings, or the rest of the Noldor. They made a terrible mistake. He knows that now. But he doesn’t try to throw the blame on Fëanor and his sons alone since they all had a part in it.

His brother, Angrod, however, does try to defend what little honor they have. He makes sure that Thingol knows it was Fëanor’s idea, and he tells Thingol the rest of the story in gut-wrenching detail. And he doesn’t skip over the fact that Fëanor left them to die in the frozen wastelands between Valinor and Middle-earth, ending with “Wherefore should we that endured the Grinding Ice bear the name of kinslayers and traitors?” (Tolkien 150).

Though Thingol is deeply hurt, he sees that Finrod, Angrod, Galadriel, and the others who arrived with them have been betrayed too. In a way, they’ve already paid for their crimes because of the near-impossible road they had to take to reach Middle-earth. So he shows them some mercy. They will stay allies. But Thingol wants some time alone. Galadriel and her brothers leave his realm, leaving Thingol to mourn his fallen kin.

Next week, Aredhel (Turgon’s sister) learns why we don’t wander in Middle-earth alone. (You might get kidnapped and married off to a Dark Elf!)

The Power of Song

As I reviewed the rest of chapter 14 of The Silmarillion for this week’s Silmarillion Recap, I couldn’t help pondering an element that mythology, legends, and fantasy (mostly older fantasy, from my exposure so far) share: the power of song.

When Fingon is faced with jagged rocks, a sea of enemies, and no idea where to go in chapter 14, his first thought is one that would never occur to most modern characters. Instead of fighting his way through the hordes of enemies alone or infiltrating the fortress like a secret agent, he sings an old song that Maedhros knows and listens for his reply. And while it seems a bit ridiculous, it actually works.

This isn’t the only time that J.R.R. Tolkien uses this, either. While it was cut from the film version of The Return of the King, Sam finds himself in the same situation when Frodo is captured. He’s in this enormous tower filled with Orcs, and he has absolutely no idea where Frodo might be. So what does he do? Without even meaning to, he begins to sing. And as his voice echos through the halls, he thinks he hears someone join in the song. It’s not something that Orcs would sing, so he takes heart and follows the echo until he finds Frodo.

Throughout Tolkien’s works, song plays an important role in the plot. In The Silmarillion, it’s used to conjure up a disguise so that two lovers are able to travel straight into the enemy’s lair undetected, and it later changes the mind of the Valar (the equivalent of lesser gods in other mythologies). The Lord of the Rings is filled with it, though one of the most notable mentions would be Tom Bombadil, who sings constantly and sometimes nonsensically but who brings down the terrifying barrows with his words. Not to mention that Arda (the earth in Tolkien’s works) is first revealed as a vision created out of a song. (And don’t forget that his fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis, used song in the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew.)

It even shows up in historical fiction that I teach at school. The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff is filled with “singing magic.” While it’s never completely clear how it works, the power of song is used by both Brits and Saxons in the late 900’s A.D. — in the years following the Roman’s abandonment of Britain. While the protagonist’s sister refrains from using it when it’s not appropriate, a Saxon princess uses her voice to enthrall Brits and Saxons alike at a feast. Only the protagonist seems to see past the beauty of her and her words and understand how she is using it to manipulate the people around her.

And the examples from mythology, legends, the Bible, other fantasy novels, etc. are so countless that it would be quite a feat to list even a fraction of them.

S.B. Roberts 2014

S.B. Roberts 2014

So what is it with song?

Obviously, there are cultural aspects to it. In cultures that share their stories orally, it makes sense. It naturally adds a cadence to the words and makes it easier to remember. And it’s more aesthetically pleasing. But it’s more than that. Words, especially when they’re spoken, are powerful. Like the “singing magic” from The Lantern Bearers. And when they’re set to music, it makes them resonate with us on a deeper level. I may not know all of the science behind it, but it’s hard to deny when listening to a favorite song. It changes my mood, engages with my emotions, reminds me of other things.

No wonder it’s able to bring hope in the deepest dungeon, captivate listeners, and bring worlds to life.

What do you think about the power of song? Do you know any other great examples? Have you noticed it in other genres as well?