What Constitutes “Derivative”? Part 2

Reminder: Today is the last day to vote in the Clive Staples Award – Readers Choice for the best Christian speculative novel published in 2008 by a royalty-paying publisher.

Also, you have until December 2 to vote for the November CSFF Top Tour Blogger.

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I find this “what constitutes derivative” topic interesting because the accusation that a work is derivative seems to be leveled at fantasy more than at stories in other genres. When was the last time, for instance, that you heard someone criticize a romance for being derivative? Never mind that category romances, for years, followed a strict structure that was taught as necessary for the success of a novel.

I suppose, rather than “derivative” these works are considered formulaic, but didn’t they derive from one original work that contained the elements that have since become requisite to romance?

Still, I find it odd that fantasy similarly can’t fall into an easy formula and be acceptable, despite Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Rather, fantasy that cuts too close to an established work is labeled derivative, and this accusation is the kiss of death. It’s a wonder that Lord of the Rings became so successful once the derivative accusation began to swirl around Tolkien.

What exactly was it that brought the criticism, since it wasn’t setting, imaginative creatures, plot points, people groups, poetry, names, prose or style?

I suggest, in the case of Lord of the Rings, critics saw similarities with the central premise in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen:

The plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world

Add to this that the ring was cursed, enslaving whoever would possess it, and you have strikingly similar central plot points. Discussion swirls around the idea that the similarities exist because Tolkien and Wagner drew from the same influences. Yet some scholars cling to the belief that Tolkien knowingly “borrowed” Wagner’s core concept.

Interestingly, some fantasy is intentionally derivative. I think of Bryan Davis’s Raising Dragons and Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven Trilogy. Both derive intentionally from the legend of King Arthur. However, both, in unique ways, twist the familiar story in such a way that it becomes unique.

The accusation of “derivative” is not used in such instances. Instead, it seems to be reserved for works that either model themselves after another work (which is what Christopher Paolini seems to be accused of) or those that utilize someone else’s unique development (science fiction that employs Star Trek technology and lingo, for instance).

In some cases, it seems as if critics are simply weary of stories with tropes such as good versus evil, at least ones that represent good as good and evil as evil. Normally bad vampires, as good seem to be all the rage, but then the Twilight books are hardly high fantasy.

I guess my point is this: the accusation of “derivative” has been around since Tolkien first made fantasy literature a thing of its own. Does the mere suggestion that a story is similar to some other source mean it does not have merit? I think millions of Lord of the Ring readers would say otherwise.

Fantasy Friday – What Constitutes “Derivative”? Part 1

Before I begin, just a reminder: you have until November 30 to vote in the Clive Staples Award – Readers Choice for the best Christian speculative novel published in 2008 by a royalty-paying publisher.

Also, you have until December 2 to vote for the November CSFF Top Tour Blogger. Lots of really, really good posts. I’ll be honest. I still have to vote because I’m having a hard time making up my mind. 😯

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Some while ago, as I prepared a post over at Spec Faith, I stumbled upon something interesting in a Wikipedia article about J.R.R. Tolkien. Some scholars claim this great fantasy writer owed a debt of influence where he claimed none.

Due to the common use of the same textual sources employed by Tolkien and [Richard] Wagner there are a large list of close parallels between The Lord of the Rings and the Der Ring des Nibelungen. Several critics have made the assumption that the novel was directly derived from Richard Wagner’s operas.

Despite the similarities of his work to the Volsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied, which were the basis for Richard Wagner’s opera series, Tolkien dismissed critics’ direct comparisons to Wagner, telling his publisher, ‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.’ According to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, the author held Wagner’s interpretation of the relevant Germanic myths in contempt.

In the contrary sense, some critics hold that Tolkien’s work borrows so liberally from Wagner that Tolkien’s work exists in the shadow of Wagner’s.

J.R.R. Tolkien, derivative? So those critics claimed.

I find that to be thoroughly ironic because the great accusation against writers of high fantasy today is that their work is derivative, a mere shadow of, you guessed it, J.R.R. Tolkien.

While Tolkien denied taking his ideas from Wagner, he did not hesitant to mention others who influenced him such as William Morris, H. Rider Haggard’s novel She, and S. R. Crockett’s historical novel The Black Douglas.

So what’s the difference between derivative work and that which has come under the influence of another?

Whether Tolkien mentioned it or not, his work bears clear markings of Finnish, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse mythology. Some think there’s even a dose of Celtic mythology, though Tolkien claimed a distaste for those works.

But “derived”? Only the similarities to Wagner seem to have stirred this accusation?

Maybe the easiest way to come at this would be to identify what did not illicit the derivative accusation.

1. Including mythical creatures such as elves and dwarfs.

2. A fictive world pitting good versus evil.

3. Similarities between Hobbits and the “table high” characters in Edward Wyke-Smith’s work.

4. Monsters apparently influenced by such works as Beowulf.

5. A paraphrased Anglo-Saxon poem as an illustration of the poetry of one people group in Tolkien’s fantasy world.

6. An adapted Shakespearean scene.

7. Intentional imitation of Morris’s prose, style, and approach.

8. Borrowed setting elements such as Mirkwood and the Dead Marshes.

If none of these earned Tolkien the accusation of derivative, what then, qualifies as such? I have some ideas I’ll share next time, but I’m interested in what you think. Thoughts?

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 1:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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I’m Thankful I’m a Writer

I love writing. I love the opportunity to say things that are important to me. I love the fact that I can do so in creative ways or clear, concise ways or thought-provoking ways.

I love the way words work. I love the way a story comes together, sometimes seemingly in spite of me. I love creating unique character voices and looking for fresh or unique details to describe even the ordinary.

I love the adventure of starting a new project. I love thinking and planning or imagining and creating.

I love grappling with ideas through writing. I love organizing those ideas so that I understand them better. I love analyzing ideas and measuring them up against Scripture.

I love talking to other writers. I love hearing their successes and fears and rejections. I love bouncing ideas back and forth. I love comparing notes and learning what they learned. I love passing along the tidbits I’ve learned.

I love going to writers’ conferences. I love being in a place surrounded by like-minded people. I love listening to editors and agents and other writers further along in their career than I am. I love seeing writing friends and hanging out together. I love meeting new writing friends.

I love writing instruction books. I love to learn what professionals have to say about how to write good fiction. I love to dissect the examples and compare them to books I’ve recently read.

I love to enter writing contests. I love the challenge. I love the chance to get feedback. I love the opportunity to try something different.

I love sharing my writing prayer requests with others. I love knowing that a group of believers is praying for my writing and what becomes of it. I love the knowledge that more people praying equates to more people praising God with each answer.

So with Thanksgiving Day a few short hours away here in the US, I’d have to say, apart from God Himself and my family, friends, food, and all the daily needs, I am most thankful that I am a writer.

This is a job I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to hold. I didn’t even realize what a perfect fit writing is for me until I became a writer.

So I am thanking God for His incredible gifts which He lavishes upon us. And the one closest to my heart is my job as a writer.

Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 5:40 pm  Comments (1)  
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Last Week to Vote

The first ever Readers Choice – Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction (CSACS) has one week remaining.

If you’ve planned on voting but haven’t gotten around to it, now’s the time. If you’ve meant to tell your friends about the award, especially your friends who love and read all things Christian speculative fiction, now’s the time.

The survey will close at the last tick (Pacific time) November 30, one week from today.

Requirements for voting? You must have read at least one of the books nominated for the award. One. Only one.

Just to make things simple, here are the nominations, in alphabetical order:

A Dark Orange Farewell by George L. Duncan (OakTara Publishing)
All My Holy Mountain by L.B. Graham (P&R Press)
Cyndere’s Midnight by Jeffrey Overstreet (WaterBrook)
DragonLight by Donita K. Paul (WaterBrook)
Havah by Tosca Lee (NavPress)
Hero, Second Class by Mitchell Bonds (Marcher Lord Press)
Hunter Brown and the Secret of the Shadow by Christopher and Allan Miller (Warner Press)
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson (WaterBrook)
Shade by John B. Olson (B&H)
Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy by Theodore Beale (Marcher Lord Press)
The Battle for Vast Dominion by George Bryan Polivka (Harvest House)
The Book of Names by D. Barkley Briggs (NavPress)
The Infinite Day by Chris Walley (Tyndale House Publishers)
The League of Superheroes by Stephen L. Rice (The Writers’ Cafe Press)
The Restorer’s Journey by Sharon Hinck (NavPress)

This is your chance to make your voice heard. Let people know what book you think was the highest quality in the Christian speculative genre published in 2008. Don’t miss out! 😉

Published in: on November 24, 2009 at 1:53 pm  Comments Off on Last Week to Vote  

CSFF November Top Tour Blogger

If you were unable to read all the posts last week for the CSFF Blog Tour for Curse of the Spider King by Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper, I understand. After all, there were over sixty articles.

I have to tell you though—and this is not some kind of promotional hype—there were some of the best, most thought-provoking, interesting pieces written during this tour, everything from interviews to personal experience encounters with the authors to reviews to literary analysis.

I want to encourage you to take a look at what these bloggers said (entire list of participants available at the end of last Monday’s post). Then add your opinion to determine which sustained a high quality all three days of the tour by voting in our November poll.

There’s so much good material in these posts, plus here in the US we have the Thanksgiving Holiday coming up, so I’m going to keep this poll open a little longer than usual, say until December 2. That’s a week from this coming Wednesday.

Those eligible for the award and their posts are

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 11:49 am  Comments (1)  

Evolution’s Narrow View

Last night I watched part of a PBS program hosted by Alan Alda. Yes, the Alan Alda of Mash fame. The program, Scientific American Frontiers, has some really interesting material, but all from an evolutionary point of view. So, too, last night’s show.

This one discussed researcher Jane Goodall and her work with chimpanzees, in particular some of her groundbreaking observations. Chimps can and do use tools. They have minimal rational thought, not just imitative behavior. They form “nation” groups with differing traits from one another. They exhibit emotions and even prejudice or at least aggressive behavior toward outsiders—chimp groups that have broken from the main body. They operate under a set of “moral” rules, with inappropriate behavior corrected by the leader or group.

All these observations are on film, and much of the program showed footage that gave evidence of these findings.

Honestly, I find it fascinating. But here’s the key assertion. According to Alda and his research team, this look at chimps is a look at Mankind’s earliest development.

Some might find this a natural conclusion: chimps do simple cognitive reasoning; man as a more developed creature does advanced cognitive reasoning. One leads naturally to the other, thus offering further evidence that the latter came from the former.

I find this conclusion to be based on narrow thinking. Rather than looking at the facts and asking, How can this be? these scientists look at the evidence and say, Then it must be this way.

As I see it, their thinking is along this line of reasoning: a pine tree bears pine cones which aren’t edible; an apple tree is more advanced because it bears apples—an edible fruit. Therefore, pine trees must be the primitive fore bearers of apple trees.

On the surface that looks rather silly, but why so more than the idea that chimps are the fore bearers of humans? The logic follows the same lines.

The point of division is that evolutionary theory apparently only accounts for evolutionary cross-species changes in biological life, not botanical life.

Admittedly, I am ignorant of a lot of evolutionary theory, so I could be wrong—possibly evolutionary scientists extend the theory to the botanical but for some reason based on their science, do not see pine trees as the forerunner to apple trees.

Nevertheless, my point remains, which is this: evolutionary theorists are narrow in their thinking. They see a set of observations and draw conclusions based on only one possibility—that similarities in species indicate a common source (the primal ooze) that underwent evolutionary changes, giving us life as we know it today.

The fact is, there is another possibility that fits the data just as well—or better. The observed similarities in species exist because the same Creator made both chimps and Man.

In fiction we talk about an author’s voice—a kind of signature woven into novels through word choice and sentence structure and characters and theme and genre and style and mood. Those familiar with an author can often pick out which lines are his simply because they know his work so well.

Why would it be a stretch to believe that Creator God, who said He created Man in His image, nevertheless showed something of His personality in the rest of the creatures He made?

An artist paints according to his style. A sculptor, an architect, a wood craftsman … all those who create stamp what they make with their own identity. Why not God?

Seems to me, a theorists that don’t at least consider this question are narrow.

Published in: on November 20, 2009 at 12:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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What I’ve Learned from CSFF and CSACS

The last few days I’ve gained some insights into the publishing business as I’ve flitted from blog to blog reading what participants in the November CSFF Blog Tour for Curse of the Spider King had to say, and as I’ve counted votes for the Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction (CSACS). (No worry – voting isn’t over until November 30. I just didn’t want to wait until the end and then try to count all those votes. And double don’t worry – I’m not giving away any results! 😀 )

First what the CSACS vote counting taught me. There’s a two-fold point here connected to “platform.” Publishers are right—platform matters. But the second point is equally important: when you tell them, they will come.

Here’s the thing. Since I receive news from a number of fantasy authors, I know some of those nominated for the CSACS mentioned the Readers’ Choice survey to those on their email list. Within days, votes started pouring in for their books. Within days!

In some cases, I began to think a book had built up an insurmountable lead, until a different author mentioned the Reader’s Choice survey, and votes started pouring in for that novel.

Amazing but true – if an author has a following, then he or she needs only to inform those fans, and they will come. In every instance I was aware of, no author used “strong arm” tactics. No promises for votes, no coaching how to vote, no begging, pleading, wheedling, or cajoling. Just making readers aware that his or her book was on the list of nominated books and here was the link to check out the award. And they came.

So my conclusion is this: platform matters only if it’s utilized.

Now, what I learned on this last blog tour.

Writer involvement matters. Some of the bloggers participating, myself included, have met Wayne Batson and Christopher Hopper, co-authors of Curse of the Spider King, in person. But on many blogs where there was no such connection, these authors popped in and left comments, in some cases thanking the blogger for their negative comments! 😯

Reader anticipation makes a blog tour work better. While we didn’t break a record for the most bloggers touring a book, we may have broken the record for the most bloggers posting all three days. Why the difference? I think part of it is this anticipation factor. When you’ve been looking forward to a book, a tour, it’s something you don’t want to have over-and-done-with in one short day.

Good books help, too. It’s easier to talk about good books. Interestingly, I even think it’s easier to talk about good books that may be a little controversial or that have some flaws. It’s harder to talk about so-so books or poor books unless you’re into slamming them.

Thankfully the blog tour is about showcasing books that are worthy of attention. And doesn’t that, in turn, add planks to an author’s platform?

Published in: on November 19, 2009 at 3:50 pm  Comments (2)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Curse of the Spider King, Day 3

Review, Part 2 of Curse of the Spider King by Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper.

More Strengths. I wanted to mention a couple other things I really enjoyed about this book—primarily things important to writers and less so to readers.

First, I thought Wayne and Christopher created an incredible mood through their writing, evoking tangible creepiness, even fear. Some of this was accomplished by creating such diabolical creatures as Wisps, so that even “friends” couldn’t be trusted completely.

Another means of creating this mood was through brilliant foreshadowing. How many times did a character nonchalantly brush aside a spider web or did a window crack spider-web across the pane? How could a reader not anticipate the presence of creeping evil, given such hints and suggestions?

A second thing I really liked was the hand-copied history book that showed scenes to a select few, as if the readers were actually there. I thought this device was a brilliant way to insert flashbacks. It gave a feel of mystery and magic, made the backstory interesting, even exciting, and promised more of the same as the story moved the protagonists toward the fantasy world.

Weaknesses. There aren’t many, in my opinion, and the ones I noticed were again something another writer might think about but would probably not stand out to the average reader.

The first problem—and it was a problem for me at first—was the host of characters. One of my pet peeves is books that have so many point-of-view characters, the reader has no one to root for. I was feeling similarly peevish at the beginning of Curse until I realized what tied all the young people together. From that point on, I cheered for the group—or actually for any particular individual who was a member of that group.

Still, I easily mixed the characters up. I did not wish to slow my reading at the beginning of a point of view switch to consult the chart at the beginning of the book that tells who everyone is. Within a page or two I was back into the new character’s world … until the characters came together. Then my confusion was more noticeable and costly.

This “many characters” mix-up was exacerbated by the fact that a number of the names were similar—Tommy and Johnny and Jimmy and Jett, Kat and Kiri Lee. Autumn was the only one with a name that easily identified her.

A second weakness, from my perspective, was the first chapter, which was actually a prologue. The action occurs in the fantasy world, but the authors missed a chance to anchor the readers by clearly revealing the elfin connection. Here’s the opening:

Concealed in a grove of alder trees, two cloaked figures waited, their whispered voices lost in the soft rustle of wind-stirred leaves.

“Commander. I had forgotten how brilliant the moon is.”

“I know, Brynn,” the burly warrior replied, absently rubbing a whitish furrow on his cheek, one of many scars on his face and neck. “Since we are allowed only rare views … I, too, drink it in.” He sighed.

“How many hundreds of years since we could gaze our fill?”

Clearly this scene is occurring in the fantasy world, but why hide the fact that these are elves? That point, along with the fact that I only learned two paragraphs later Brynn was female, and that the whole conversation smacked of a “As you know, Bob” exchange for the sake of the readers, not the characters, made this opening irritating.

I didn’t know these people, didn’t understand what they were doing or why, didn’t believe the story was about them because chapter two created a completely different world, so I felt those opening pages were superfluous. Actually, I still think so. At any rate, I didn’t retain anything in those first pages. For me, the story started with chapter 2.

Recommendation. There were a couple other writerly things like the last point, but from the moment I accepted the seven protagonists as a collective, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. It was fast paced without feeling reckless. The characters were well-developed and interesting. I felt for each one of them, in different ways.

For young adult readers who enjoy fantasy, this is a Must Read. For other fantasy lovers, I highly recommend Curse of the Spider King. For readers who want a good adventure story, I highly recommend this book as well. In other words, you’ll be richer for having read the book.

Don’t forget to take a look at what other blog participants are saying. John Otte has some divergents view from mine, so you might want to see what he’s saying.

CSFF Tour – Curse of the Spider King, Day 2

Today I’m posting Part 1 of a review of the CSFF Blog Tour’s November feature, Curse of the Spider King by Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper. Often times I will take a day to highlight the author(s), but Wayne and Christopher are hardly strangers to CSFF. Both are members and have participated from time to time—Wayne, most recently in the September tour for Donita Paul’s book The Vanishing Sculptor. In addition, I interviewed Christopher for the Fantasy Fiction West Coast Tour a couple years ago.

Speaking of interviews, James Somers posted his exchange with Wayne (and a very cool sword fighting picture) as part of the tour while Ryan Heart has an interview with BOTH authors. Donita Paul even posted an interview of Wayne interviewing himself! 😉

But on to the review.

The Story. Curse of the Spider King is an ambitious tale featuring not one, not two, but seven principle characters—apparently “average” twelve year olds. Except they’re not.

Each of them has a number of things in common, the most important being that a stalker intrudes in their otherwise ordinary lives. Well, “ordinary” doesn’t describe them quite right because another thing these pre-teens have in common is that they are beginning to develop skills, abilities, talent they didn’t have before.

Some also encounter a kind, bookish adult who befriends them and gives them a leatherbound tome entitled The History of Berinfell. Amazingly, the book, under certain conditions, has the ability to create a visual representation of the scenes it narrates.

As the stalkers (yes, there is more than one) close in, the young people each learn that more is at stake than their own lives. They must make a decision that will affect them for all time, for good or for ill, and they must do so for the sake of others—some in a world they do not know, some they care about and love.

Strengths. The characters! I was absolutely stunned by how real these characters felt. I taught seventh and eighth graders for years, and I felt as if in the pages of this book, I was meeting some of my students.

Not only did they come across as believable and authentic, they seemed unique from each other. One was musically gifted, another an athlete. One was picked on and a bit of a nerd, while another was a bully. One came from a close, loving family, and another felt as if he’d been abandoned because his parents favored his younger brother. Each of the stories was well developed, interesting, true to life, and unlike any of the others. These kids came alive on the page.

The story is also a strength. Not only were each of the kids different from each other, the things that happened to them, while similar in some instances, were not predictably repetitious. Consequently, I found myself on the edge of my seat more often than not.

The action kept me engaged and the characters made me care—a great combination in a book.

I’ll have more to say tomorrow, but I hope you reserve some time this week to see what others participating in the CSFF Tour have to say (by the way, there’s a second tour underway this week as well, this one hosted by Mama Buzz).

Also, check out The Berinfell Prophecies Web site for more information about the book, forums, contest, and authors.

CSFF Blog Tour – Curse

The title of this post sounds dramatic, which is fitting for the book the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring this month – Curse of the Spider King by Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper, first in the Berinfell Prophecies. For a variety of reasons, I’d like to skip the preliminaries and get right to the review of the book, but I’ll restrain myself.

Rather, let me mention The Biggest Contest in the History of Men and Elves. The prize is truly one of a kind, and the contest itself promises to be a fun ride, though I recommend it most for younger young adults.

The actual name of the contest is “Tribe Building Quest: An adventure based on Curse of the Spider King.” The goal is to build tribes of twenty-one people or more.

For someone looking to be a part of an existing tribe, there’s information in the Underground – a discussion forum connected with the Berinfell Prophecies.

The other option, of course, is to start your own tribe. By the way, the larger the tribe, the better the chance of winning.

After a tribe has been formed and a name chosen, then there needs to be a home (such as a Facebook page) and a leader (someone with Internet access – and communication skills, it would seem 😀 ).

Each tribe member then earns points by doing such things as joining the Underground, posting about one of Christopher or Wayne’s books, mentioning them on Facebook or Twitter, even doing homework well without being told (note from parent required to verify this. 😉 )

I don’t know about anyone else, but the whole thing makes me wish I was back in junior high. What fun. What a great chance to interact with others who also love fantasy. What an excellent way to reach readers in the target age group.

But there’s more to the adventure—a clue at the end of Curse of the Spider King that can lead to solving the Alternate Reality Game, videos, store visits, and of course book buying.

Sound enticing? Just think of all the points a tribe could tally by participating in the blog tour!

See what other participating bloggers are discussing. Oh, before you do, have you voted yet for Readers’ Choice Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction? You have until November 30.

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