Thursday, July 29, 2010


I've touched on this before, but feedback from a reader is making me think more about it again. Up front I want to state that I am all for originality in almost all aspects of creating stories. The reader of my book is absolutely correct that there are strong unoriginal aspects of my story. I am in no way upset to hear the reader mention this, but I do wish to explain a couple of conundrums that I have.

The unoriginal part of my book is the type of creatures involved. I use trolls, dragons, goblins, orcs, dwarves, and elves. I believe that there is a huge base of fans that wants worlds that echo this Tolkienesque style. We were born from the big Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) craze of my teen years. I heard there was upward of five million active players back then. People mention that orcs belong to Tolkien. That may have been true at one point (though I believe he got them from old legends himself) but D&D changed that by having orcs be one of the most common types of monster. Hugely popular computer games, such as Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights also reflect this. I believe publishers and agents are overlooking this one big fan group, not understanding that originality is not always what is wanted. Sometimes people want the type of world that they love most, but with a good story (not like the weak official D&D books that have been released). Each time that someone has dared to publish books along these lines, the reviewers skewer them....but they sold like hotcakes. Isn't publishing supposed to be a business? Look at The Sword of Shannara and the Iron Tower trilogy to see how unoriginal stories can sell.

Second, though it may be heresy, my fictional universe suggests that Tolkien was the one that was unoriginal. The magic that flows through every atom in the universe acts almost like a form of DNA, propagating an echo of life through each habitable planet such that each will have nearly identical flora and fauna. Those creatures and plants that differ between these planets often show up in the legends and stories on the other planets, because the creatures most attuned to magic feel a resonance in their minds. So, Tolkien and others who came up with the legends of goblins and dragons and such did not truly imagine them on their own, but got the story ideas through the magical resonance that came to them through the energy that connects everything. Similarly, there would be planets out there that reflect the legends of other cultures, such as the Chinese or any other group that has their own legends. The fact that the Western scientists land on the planet that reflects Western legends is not an accident, but rather another of the effects of magical resonance. Imagine how shocked these learned scientists were to find birch trees and wolves and such on a distant planet! It took them a long time to cope with the shattering of their scientific ideas.

Sorry if that sounds weird. I honestly don't know how to get an agent to look beyond the unoriginal creatures. All I know is that I most hunger for stories of this exact type (Tolkien and D&D) and the publishers are not giving them to me!

Note: I fully realize that there is a pretty hard-core group of fantasy readers who would be glad to never see another Tolkienesque fantasy in their lives. However, I believe those people should recognize that those of us who DO want more derivative fantasy have a right to exist.


  1. Well Ted, you can join my crazy group. I love Jane Austen and the Regency period. How many romances today are set in the Regency period? A LOT. They almost all have the same set of unoriginal characters, settings, backgrounds, mannerisms, etc.

    I wrote something I thought was original and like you -- I most hunger for stories of this exact type and the publishers are not giving them to me! -- so what's a writer to do?

    I guess go back to the marketplace and scour around for agents who publish this, or find an e-book publisher who'll take it. I think that's what publishing is all coming down to anyway. Sad to have to admit it.

  2. Wow Ted! I thought you were writing about the Force there for a minute. I think you hit on something. You want to explain away your use of familiar fantasy creatures in a query. Take that third paragraph and condense it to query form. That might do the trick.

  3. Not sure how to do that, Matt, especially since none of this makes it into this first book. It comes out in later books. I may have to shelve this one at some point and write the others to try to sell them first.

  4. Has anyone read Rick Riordan? Or Michael Scott? They both borrow heavily from myths and legends that are centuries old. Are their books good reads? Hell yes? Do they sell? What do you think?

  5. Right on, Mr. Rush! The funny thing is that as far as I can tell, every time someone did publish a book with a good story that was derivative of Tolkien, it sold like crazy. It shouldn't take a genius to see that another good story along the same lines would sell.

  6. Don't give up, Ted! R.A. Salvatore still writes about elves and orcs. Query every fantasy publisher out there.

  7. I really think it sounds COOL. I think it is tricky to get ACROSS quickly, and that will be your challenge, but as an idea, it seems EXCELLENT. Maybe design a quote type thing that goes in italics before the book starts.

    'All worlds, all universes, all places that can hold life, are bound by the magic that connects us'

    Not that... but something LIKE that, that hints at it, then possibly have a wizard reveal that gives it another couple paragraphs of meaning.

  8. Shimmer magazine just rejected a submission of mine because it didn't cover any "new ground". Try throwing some bizarro elements into your tale, and I'm sure it will sell. (He says tongue-in-cheek...)

  9. I began considering having 'excerpts' from one of the scientist's journals that explain some of the confounding things about their arrival on this planet. These excerpts could open each chapter. However, the drawbacks are that this makes the book longer, and it also turns what was a stand-alone fantasy into a blatant mix of fantasy and sci-fi, so I'm not sure how that would go over with an agent or publisher.

  10. Ted, I read your 3rd paragraph three times, not because it was confusing or because I'm (that) slow in the head, but because: wow. Thanks for the post.

    I've read traditional fantasy, but am not a mega-fan, nor do I come from a D&D background. I'm an urban fantasy girl. But I like a good story, and I like some of the archetypes that orcs, trolls, elves etc present in the traditional fantasy context.

    I do not like reading high-concept fantasy with large numbers of "original" creatures and origins where I have to constantly cross-reference to understand what certain creatures represent or how they are likely to react. It pulls me out of my suspense of disbelief and brings my read to a grinding halt.

    I think the key is to have a great story and characters and, when it works for you, twist up the presentation or origin of the other elements. If the story is "new", then I would think that agents/publishers would be more receptive to a world populated with known commodities (I don't mean for that to sound condescending, not at all).

    P.S. Milo, I thought that Shimmer billed itself as a sort of "avante garde" spec fic mag. Do they take traditional fantasy?

  11. I think this is a great discussion Ted and I may have to start a thread on NBs forums if you don't. Personally I don't see nearly enough traditional High Fantasy being published. Tolkien started it all for me but Gary Gygax and TSR/D&D kept it all going, at least when I was a kid.

    Tolkien may not have "invented"
    Elves or Dwarves, but he made them what they are today, and he DID invent Orcs (even if the word is borrowed from Old English). Did he write enough Middle Earth based literature? Hell no, not by a long shot, not for me. Obviously unlike H.P. Lovecraft Tolkien did not encourage writers to borrow from his legendarium but that doesn't mean one can't write a story that has derivatives of his kind of creatures and still have it be amazing.

    I am personally in Ted's crit group so I am lucky enough to get to read The Shard and while I'm only barely into it (lengthwise, not appreciation-wise) I already think it stands out against others in the genre.

    Simon and I were discussing a lot of the tie in franchises the other day on FB (where is your account Ted) and we agreed that Drizzt, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and many of the others do have their strengths and are sometimes decent reads, but really nothing has come along for decades in the genre that truly puts a reader on their ass, wanting for more.

    It is my opinion that while Tolkien may have written the greatest fantasy ever written, he doesn't own the creatures, or at least not all of them. Ents, Balrogs, Nazgul, and Hobbits may be too specific, but Elves, Dwarves and Orcs are very general (along with Trolls, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Dragons and so forth). Also there is the option to borrow from one of these specific races and make it your own. Like the Kender Race in Dragonlance/Krynn novels that were invented by Weiss/Hickman and though probably not quite as awesome as Hobbits, they are new, unique and hilarious as hell.

    I would like to discuss this further. I'll email you Ted and we can talk about starting a thread on NB.

  12. I think we could all use more fantasy in the bookstore! But I do think that agents are shying away from the traditional epic fantasy, which is why I'm not writing it. Otherwise I'd be writing about unicorns nonstop. *sigh*

  13. Matt, thanks for the thread. I posted there a few minutes ago. I have avoided Facebook like the plague. I really don't want another excuse to avoid writing!

  14. You know, I absolutely agree. Being a fantasy author myself, I never read Tolkien until the first movie came out, but I was a D&D player. I love those kinds of stories. I have all of those unoriginal creatures in my stories, but I do give them my perspective. For example, Elves being immortal but several different kinds of their race based on things that have happened in the history of my world. It has forced them to adapt and change, yet being out-casts as they are no longer of pure Elvish blood, etc. But you are right, these stories DO sell quickly and publishers as well as critics rip them to pieces. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to self-publish those knowing the huge fan base of the genre does in fact exist.
    The other comment I wanted to make about Tolkien was something I had read somewhere about how he wanted his works to be expanded upon. I think there was a point where his Elven language was free for people like us to use. Then I contacted the people who have his Elven Dictionary and they told me it was all copyrighted. So I take bits and pieces from his Elvish language, combine it with Latin and Drow. The rest of the time I come up with my own stuff. XD
    Excellent post, Mr. Cross.