The Hero’s Journey is one of those classic, prevalent narratives that you can find anywhere from Homer’s Odyssey to the first Star Wars. An early work used for its development might be Carl Jung’s archetypes, which were then further explored and used by Joseph Campbell in his Hero with a Thousand Faces, an exploration of what he termed the ‘monomyth’. (Writing students are probably also familiar with Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which is in turn adapted from Campbell.)
The Hero’s Journey is typically broken into stages and obstacles – here are the twelve stages which Vogler adapted from Campbell’s original seventeen:
1. The Ordinary World
2. The Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of The Call
4. Meeting with The Mentor
5. Crossing the Threshold
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
8. The Ordeal
9. The Reward
10. The Road Back
11. The Resurrection
12. Return with the Elixir
Such a structure will probably be familiar to many readers and film fans (especially Disney fans). Another example might be The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, it’s clear that Gandalf acts as both ‘Call to Adventure’ and ‘Mentor’ while other stages should be recognisable without me summarising the whole story – something I’m far too lazy to do! (But I will say that what I liked best about what Tolkien does with the structure might actually be when Frodo returns (with Elixir/Dirt) he finds another problem in Sharkey.)
But my favourite stage is Five – where the hero will typically encounter a Guardian of the Threshold, often a physical enemy but which can also be represented through an internal struggle (a great visual example of the Guardian is probably the Sphinx/Oracle scenes in The Never Ending Story). This is one of my favourite aspects because it allows a hero to really show the reader what they’re made of – are they strong, powerful or rash, clever, resourceful or kind? I learn a lot about my favourite heroes when I see how they deal with Threshold Guardians.
The example I wanted to chat about just a little is Sen and No-Face from Spirited Away.
For those who have seen the film, obviously it isn’t until after she literally crosses a threshold to enter the bathhouse that she encounters No-Face properly. At that point she has already faced various guardians and trials, but it is No-Face as much as Yubaba that stands in her way. No-Face is constantly seeking her, offering her what he thinks she desires, No-Face terrorises the bathhouse and if not dealt with, it will be No-Face that prevents Sen from saving the stricken Haku.
And then comes the telling moment, a test of the hero’s mettle perhaps – Sen sacrifices medicine she won from the River-Spirit, medicine she had been saving for Haku – and with it, uses her kindness and compassion to not only pass beyond the Guardian, but transform him into a friend. From that point onward, Sen looks after him and his rage is eased.
Such kindness is actually a hallmark of a many of director Miyazaki’s heroines and something you’ll rarely encounter in say, an action blockbuster that follows the Hero’s Journey.
As it turns out my favourite Threshold Guardians are often those that are transformed after coming into contact with the hero – take Inigo from The Princess Bride or even Puss in Boots from Shrek 2 as film examples, both become strong allies of the hero. What I love about this as a writer, is that the transformation often equips the hero with better knowledge that can be used against the villain, knowledge he or she would have lost had they simply slain the Guardian.
Trope (defined in this post as a ‘commonly recurring element in fiction’)
I wanted to ramble a bit about Tropes as they impact fiction, both from a writer and a reader’s standpoint. Some of these thoughts are disjointed to an extent, as I lifted my ideas from my thoughts in past discussions at one of my writing groups.
So, let’s go!
Firstly, I have a love for tropes because they can operate like ‘shorthand’ for an element, idea or genre (thanks for that idea Aliya!) and because they become a shared shorthand. That idea is kind of thrilling to me as a writer – it’s the idea of communicating with so many different readers quickly and effectively.
Of course, the use of tropes can be problematic if a writer simply launches into a work without some level of cultural literacy, without which, we writers could be repeating tropes without any idea of that particular trope’s place in the history of storytelling. This could result in a ‘tired’ story or a missed opportunity for subversion.
On the other hand, a trope handled well (like any other tool in a writer’s toolbox) can be wonderful, no matter how old or well know.
Connected to this idea is when a reader encounters a given trope. Some tropes you read as a teenager perhaps, or someone new to a genre, and it’s all amazing, all new, all fresh! You’re blown away, you can hardly believe how awesome the story is!
But you might not have a lot of context, so you can’t yet see if that trope or set of tropes is being used in a heavily derivative or dull manner. One day, you might not enjoy the same kind of story, you might feel like you’ve seen elements within done better before or since.
Which leads me to the other thing that fascinates me about tropes – once a (popular) writer puts something out there that is ‘original’ or ‘revitalising’ etc that thing then becomes vulnerable to being copied.
And then, before you know it bam it’s beyond trope – it risks cliche.
It’s almost a fragile progression and it occurs at different stages for different readers – for instance, consider different readers who enjoyed Dracula, Interview with a Vampire, Buffy and Twilight.
Each use or create or subvert different vampire tropes to varying degrees. Different audiences will see more or less of the storytelling history in each text.
But to return to the idea of tropes as shared storytelling shorthand, I’d like to try and argue that tropes are necessary.
For instance, if we were to accept that there are only, when you boil all stores down, 7 plots – then don’t we need tropes connected to those plots, in order for the plot to play out?
Doesn’t a Revenge Story need a loved one to be killed to set off the need for revenge? (Most likely.) How the loved one dies will then appear as the trope, for instance, if it’s street scum think maybe Batman or The Crow and so on.
So if tropes can also connect a story to a tradition or history of storytelling, this might bring a reader comfort. For instance – take a classic trope from fantasy storytelling – opening your story in an inn.
Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss does this but it certainly didn’t hurt his sales or the storytelling. When I read the novel, it immediately established a link to the storytelling tradition and this set the tone for what was to come. I was pleased: my choice in buying the book seemed to have been validated. I thought, yeah, I’m going to enjoy this. (And I did.)
And so it seems that tropes, whether I notice them consciously or not at the time, operate in such a way as to guide me as a reader into choosing one text over another. It gives me an instant snapshot of the type of story I’m about to read – and then, while reading, provide familiarity and comfort and thus enjoyment.
As an example, take this blurb from Legend by Gemmell:
Druss, Captain of the Axe, was the stuff of legends. But even as the stories grew in the telling, Druss himself grew older. He turned his back on his own legend and retreated to a mountain lair to await his old enemy, death. Meanwhile, barbarian hordes were on the march. Nothing could stand in their way. Druss reluctantly agreed to come out of retirement. But could even Druss live up to his own legends?
This isn’t actually the blurb I remember from my copy of the book, but I see ‘The Reluctant Hero’ trope in there right away and it tells me a lot about what to expect in terms of character arc and I felt excited before reading it. I couldn’t wait to see how it would play out – would the arc play into my expectations in a satisfying way? Or would it subvert them and surprise me?
So, there it is, my rambling on tropes, hope you enjoyed it!
Today it's part 2 of a ‘double interview’ where Ryn Lilley (a fellow Snapping Turtle author) and I talk about writing, music, conventions whatever else comes up!
Hope you enjoy it and feel free to ask either of us a question in the comments : )
RL: What defines a great writing group for you?
AC: Great question – for me it’s definitely size and the flexibility of the group, and to an extent, a familiarity with each other’s genre. For size, I usually prefer a smaller group typically because the time and support that group can offer each other is more concentrated. In terms of flexibility I think of the way that my Alchemy group understands that there is no one, single way to write or revise etc. We each appreciate the varying degrees between plotting and pantsing for example, and can help each other with either approach. And in terms of the last criteria, I don’t think it’s necessary but just really useful for your partners to be familiar with your genre, especially when it comes to specifics.
AC: Tell me how important you think genre conventions are to a writer?
RL: I live in a rural area, and the closest writers group to me is a 100 km round trip, which kind of puts it a bit out of contention for regular interaction. So one of the few times I get to mingle and interact with others on various stages of their own writing journey, is at conventions. As I write science fiction, and inhale science fiction and fantasy as my preferred reading, genre conventions tend to be where I gravitate to. That said, I have only been able to get to a few over the years I have been learning the craft. If you look at the panels as a chance to take notes in a uni lecture, they can be enormously instructive. But a new writer always needs to remember that each author can only tell you how they work, and therefore their methods are not necessarily going to work for everyone else.
A writer isn’t going to get “the magic method” for guaranteed being published by their dream publishing house from a genre convention – but they can learn how to improve their writing in general, and the inspiration that can come from being around like-minded people is incredible. I have never come away from a convention without my head full of plans and ways to make my work better. And you do get to see how very many different methods there are to write – while there are some general rules that can be learnt, your own style is something you have to discover. And you only do that by writing.
However, with the last few questions regarding the learning process - I’m going to be a bit cheeky here and put in a plug for one of our fellow Snapping Turtle authors. When looking at advice from beta readers, or writers at conventions, it’s also helpful to know the credentials of those who are offering writing advice. Jennifer Fallon has taught master classes at Supernova and not only is she an internationally published author who has sold over 750, 000 books world wide, she holds a Masters in Creative Writing, and has been working in adult education for a couple of decades. Her general writing advice is definitely worth the investment as a valuable education resource How to Write a Bestseller.
RL: What have you found to be the best and worst things you have taken away from a genre convention?
AC: Hands down the best thing would be the connections made, sometimes it’s just great to chat with like-minded people, huh? Next would be the sense of motivation – the exposure to ideas is really inspiring and so I usually find myself keen to write after leaving one. I actually can’t think of a big negative – perhaps the occasional microphone hog, but there haven’t been too many of those that I’ve seen (blessedly!).
AC: So, not much of a segue this time, but how important, or how dangerous even, do you think tropes are to our writing/genre?
RL: Tropes have their places; you have to know them well to be able to break them successfully. I can think of occasions where an author has written in a genre without having the slightest idea of the reasons for the tropes, or even that the tropes existed, and found commercial success, but the kind of fans that stay with a genre from teenage to old age, won’t touch their work. In most cases the tropes developed for very specific reasons, for example: research into folklore tales across the UK, Europe and Scandinavia shows a common diagnosis today, existed in those tales. We call it autism, they called the children with behavioural and developmental problems fairy changelings (Or troll changelings etc etc, depending on the country). It is likely that porphyria sufferers may have lead to the creation of the Vampire tropes.
The dangers, I think comes from how others outside the genre view it. If they think of all horror as being like a bad 80s slasher film, then they are unlikely to ever read the darkly charming stories like Fluke, by James Herbert. If they perceive all fantasy to be a boys own adventure with wizards to save the day, then they miss out on the unique works by the likes of Glenda Larke, with Havenstar, or Jennifer Fallon’s more political, tightly plotted works with characters you can’t help but love, even if you suspect she’s going to kill them off, or Dave Freer’s highly technically, and wonderfully light-hearted alternate universes. Marketing has a role to play in how these books are perceived, and of course from a marketing point of view you want a book to be instantly recognizable to those who are already interested in that style of book. But it does limit the potential audience.
Today I’d like to present the first part of a ‘double interview’ where Ryn Lilley (a fellow Snapping Turtle author) and I talk about writing, music, conventions whatever else comes up! Hope you enjoy it and feel free to ask either of us a question in the comments : )
And for those of you looking for a new YA sci-fi series check out Ryn’s Underground books (two are on special right now here & here) for a fast read, great lead character and an alien world that has me deeply curious, especially about the gender politics at play. You can also visit Ryn here at facebook and twitter.
I’ll go first!
Ashley Capes: Music plays a big role in the lives of many writers – can you tell me a bit about how you use it when writing? What genres do you favour? Is there a different style of music required for different phases of the process – say, writing vs editing?
Ryn Lilley: For me, music is as essential as breathing. Even when I’m writing, I need to have my guitar nearby, and music playing. I’m a fan of guitar driven rock, and Australian punk from the 70s and 80s, but there are very few genres of music I don’t like - so have a huge array of music that helps keep my energy high while I’m creating. A lot of The Underworld books have been/are being written to some fairly dark music: Alice Cooper, X (Australian punk band made up of the late, great Ian Rillen, Cathy Green on drums and Steve Lucas,) Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, T-Rex, and The Stooges.
There is actually a scene in Episode 3 - The Fosterling, where I had X’s 'Don’t Cry No Tears' on repeat while I was writing it. It’s a beautiful, haunting piece and when I read back over that section while editing, despite having other music playing, I could hear that song as I read.
For editing, I tend to like smoother, more mellow music that can just flow over me, so I’ll put on J.J. Cale, or Lou Reed. I also find I can come back to my work with a clearer mind if I take regular breaks to play my guitar.
Ryn Lilley: You know I’m going to turn this one back on you, as a former muso yourself, what influences do you find most helpful to your own creative efforts, and do you find any real difference between what you listen to while writing, and what you listen to while editing?
Ashley Capes: Deal! I do find that when writing it’s often about pace. A fast beat really keeps me going and I listen to a lot of metal while writing first drafts, along with hard rock like Sabbath and Zeppelin. Sometimes it’s any music I know so well that the lyrics don’t bother me and for some scenes I’ll switch to something tense – for instance, in some parts of City of Masks, where I wanted more tension, I looped ‘The Battle Remembered’ by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and it worked really well.
And like you, for editing I ease off a bit too. I might go with Miles Davis’ cool era or sometimes a game soundtrack, something from the Sega Megadrive perhaps. One of my favourite albums to edit to is actually the Howl’s Moving Castle soundtrack, it’s beautiful and just works so well when I’m revising. Like you said, it gives more space to the thinking process I think.
AC: I know a lot of writers get asked about where ideas come from and it’s an old question perhaps, but I hope I can flip it on its head a little and ask instead, what makes you pass on an idea? For instance, maybe when it comes to you at first it seems exciting but you go to write and it just isn’t? Maybe it’s too small, too big? I’m curious :)
RL: My usual answer to where I get my ideas from is that they come from breathing; I’m an inveterate people watcher, so as long as I’m breathing, I’m getting new ideas from the world around me : ) However ideas that I don’t use? I can’t think of any that haven’t been used, or notes taken for use in other stories, if the idea requires a lot of research or isn’t suitable for the story I’m working on. An idea may not always be used in the way I expected – they might turn out to be not big enough to carry an entire story, but they will shape a scene or a chapter, or work in as a sub plot. Of course, the original spark can always be improved on, I’m currently writing Season Two of the Underground series, and I re-wrote the first chapter five times as a better way to begin telling the story occurred to me.
RL: I’m going to tweak your question a bit further – with your writing, have you ever been ambushed by an idea that was really essential for the story you were trying to tell, but required a great deal of re-writing to make it fit in?
AC: A few times, yeah! It’s always exciting but frustrating too – and if I was a hardcore plotter I think it would be a rare thing, but I generally pants within a framework and so it’s definitely happened. In City of Masks I had to do that for Sofia, one the leads. Her opening chapters were scrapped between draft 1 and 3 and it included removing a mentor character and changing her personality a fair bit for the rewrite – but I’m happy I made the changes!
AC: The changes above were spurred on by some great feedback I got from my writing group actually, and it brings to mind what I hope is a Stephen King quote, to ‘write with the door closed, revise with the door open’ and so I wanted to ask, when do you let first readers see your work? At planning? Only after a draft is complete?
RL: You are correct, it is a Stephen King quote from On Writing, and I’ll put the whole quote in as I think its good advice to remember:
‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.’
I tend to do this, a few people are allowed to read over my shoulder now as I write – but these are people for whom my Underground world is as real is it as for me, they have known the characters and the set up since I first wrote it. It has undergone a great deal of re-writing since that first early work. But those who are allowed to read over my shoulder will always get a defensive answer to criticisms, and it takes me a day a two before I accept they are right, and I act to make the work better. At research stage I will talk about specific needs for research, and I find some research and some conversations lead to future story ideas, that I write a rough plan for, add in the links of any sites that I might need, and file it til I have finished the work I’m on. Mostly I write without others seeing the first draft til it’s done – and then send the whole story out to be beta read. Then the rewrite process begins, until it’s ready to send to the publisher, which is of course, never the end of the story : )
Stay tuned for Part 2 & Part 3 coming soon!
For me the very idea of writer’s block is a myth.
I don’t mean that artists (not just writers) cannot find themselves struggling with motivation or with non-project related problems.
What I believe is false, is the idea that the BLOCK is some great, unseen, unknowable force that simply comes crashing down like a wall to stop us. We don’t forget how to use words or sentences, no force binds us to a chair in a shack deep in a jungle, no thing physically stops us from writing.
That’s equally unrealistic as the idea of a mystical muse that feeds the artist ideas.
Instead I believe in the agency of the writer. And when we’re blocked, there’s probably one of two things happening from a craft viewpoint or a third thing happening from a motivational viewpoint.
1. We’re blocked if we’re not sure/have fooled ourselves, usually via excitement, into thinking an ‘idea’ is the same thing as a ‘story’.
2. We’re blocked if we’re working in the wrong mode, or even in the wrong percentage of a mode, ie: we are ‘plotters’ at heart trying to ‘pants’ a story or vice versa.
3. We’ve been working on this damn novel/short/poem/script for way too long and we’re sick to death of it, we’re sick of writing, we’re burnt out. There’s no motivation left, there’s no joy in the task anymore. Forget it, get the thing out of my sight!
Any of these three things might be at play at any given time when a writer feels blocked. But it is possible to break through each of them, we’ve all done it before and we’ll do it again, it’s all part of the job.
Below is how I generally beat those problems:
1. Story vs Idea
I ask myself, do I have an idea or a story on my hands? That’s the most important question for fiction, I feel, when it comes to sitting down and finishing a project. Ask yourself that question in the beginning and if you can answer ‘story’ you ought to have a great chance of finishing.
Here’s why I think that’s so.
An idea is exciting and highly motivating and for me, it’s the best part of writing, but the sad fact is an idea is not a story. One is a spark, one is a complete piece of work. A story has conflict, movement and structure, a story has narrative. An idea does not.
So, to try and illustrate my claim I’ll make up an idea and the summary of a story:
A man uncovers a golden elephant statue in his backyard.
A man uncovers a golden elephant statue in his backyard, quickly becoming obsessed with it. His wife, however, loathes elephants and cannot bear to look at it, let alone have it in their house. She casts it into a river and the man is struck with despair, leaping after it and diving for the statue every day and every night, until his wife finally leaves him.
Hopefully, despite the silliness of my idea, the difference is clear. The idea is a starting point, and the story develops it. The story introduces conflict with the wife and the man’s obsession. Further, it shows change and includes a resolution. When we’re blocked, I believe it’s because we’re so excited about an idea that we leap into it, without realising that there is in fact no story yet.
Related to this problem is
2. Plotting vs Pantsing (and the ratio)
Plotting is the process of outlining and planning a story from beginning to end. The amount of detail which goes into this will vary, but the key point is knowing just about everything before you sit down to write.
Pantsing is the opposite, whereby you write a story without preplanning, simply discovering and creating as you write. This can be quite enjoyable for the writer, but often results in more rewriting in subsequent drafts, while outlining usually makes for quicker work but can be less interesting during the act of writing.
It might seem that one is a safer or better approach than the other, but I don’t believe so.
Both can work wonderfully for different people so it’s best to try each operating mode and see what happens. Neither approach is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ instead it’s whether the mode is ‘suited’ or ‘not suited’ to you.
I, like many writers I suspect, am more hybrid, in that I work in both modes. Here’s where the idea of a ratio is important to me, because I outline a book with dot points, noting vital ‘hit points’ and add to this character sketches and arcs, but then I ‘pants’ or ‘discover’ within the framework I set. (And within this method I can still adjust my outline if I discover a new plot point or character during the writing etc.)
Therefore I’m probably 40% planning and 60% pantsing on most projects, yet even that can change, depending on what the story demands. I find that’s the best way for me to work, because it ensures I stay motivated during the writing and I’m never blocked.
But working in a mode that someone else tells you is the ‘only way to write’ is dangerous and will probably lead hitting a wall at one point. And the way to get around this problem is simple – experiment. Learn how you as a writer actually work best, then refine the process.
Finally I’d like to share an idea in regards to
3. Burn Out
This one is a lot tougher to combat. Especially when you’re close to a story or if you have a deadline and sometimes you’d rather vomit than work on a project for a single second longer.
But the best advice I’ve ever been given is to step away from whatever you’re writing for as long as you can – and to work on something else while you’re having time away.
If you’ve burn out on a particular novel you’re writing, switch to different novel or a short story for a while and see what happens to your motivation when you come back to the original novel. Or, if it’s writing in general that you’ve had enough of, go play guitar for a while, break out the paints or find some friends and shoot a short film. Try another art form altogether.
This really motivates me not only because I’m having fun again, but because I get critical distance from the first story and at the same time, my mind continues to tick away on that story, only I’m not conscious of the fact.
And then, when I sit down again with that first project, I’m ready again!
Finally, maybe the burn out is so deep that you’ve lost motivation for creating. To get around this, it’s recharge time. Get inspired by consuming great art, a favourite book or film, a trip to a gallery or beautiful location – anything but creating.
When you’re finished, hopefully you’ll be ready to hit the keys once more!
Any writer and probably every reader has seen this ‘debate’ and it’s been raging for a good long while. Every time I see it start up in the online world, and in person, I kind of want to vomit.
Because who cares? I mean, I obviously care enough to write this post, but only to express frustration. Surely only a bunch of muppets would worry about this empty dichotomy? What is gained – or more pertinent perhaps, what is lost when we waste time and energy quibbling?
The arguments are always tedious rehashes of the same accusations too: pretentious/shallow/predictable/aimless blah blah blah, and they all reek of the insecurity and posturing that reminds me of ‘Question’ Time in Australian Parliament. Which is about as schoolyard as it gets, folks.
Having said all that, I sometimes wonder whether writers are among the most precious about this obsessive categorisation? Categorisation is a useful tool for marketing and choosing but does it matter when writing? Hell no.
Although, I do have two types of stories I split work into – stuff I like and stuff I don’t.
A quick update about where I am with a few projects:
The Lost Mask
Have handed in the next round of revisions to the publisher and now we hope to go into copy editing very soon, and remain on track for the December release. So if you enjoyed City of Masks, you don't have to wait too long before the follow-up is out!
The Fairy Wren
Sadly I've faced a few delays and should now release The Fairy Wren in the middle of November instead of the end of Oct - in the meantime there's a Goodreads Giveaway on at the moment, so If you're curious check it out :)
Sea of Trees
Revisions for The Lost Mask bumped this one back a little - I hope to finish the third draft in December while TLM is in production. Then the novella should be ready in the new year. I've got a bit more foreshadowing to do on the story and it will be much, much better for it.
Here's a rough, general blurb:
When ESL teacher Riko finds an old journal buried in the forests beneath Mt Fuji, her chances of staying in her adopted home are threatened, as dark forces begin to twist everything around her; work, friends and even the very fabric of reality.
Worse, no-one takes her fears seriously and the more she studies the journal for answers, the more questions she uncovers.
Planning for Book 3 of The Bone Mask Trilogy is all done and I've got a rough chapter one down - only fifty or so to go!
If you're on Goodreads the Giveaway for The Fairy Wren has just gone live!
I've got two copies to send off when it closes in mid November, which is probably closer to the revised release date. I'll also be choosing a winner from the Newsletter entrants then, so stay tuned!
So, I’ve been slogging through the third draft of The Lost Mask (Book 2 of the Bone Mask Trilogy) and will be handing it to my editor at Snapping Turtle on August 1st. So far everything looks set for me to meet that target so it’s my hope that The Lost Mask will see publication before Christmas!
I’ve also revisited the outline for Greatmask, the conclusion to the trilogy, and I have to say that I’m taking a lot of care with it. I don’t want the series to spiral into an endless line of books, but that also means that the third book might be a bit bigger than the first two – each a bit shy of 500 pages. We’ll see!
In other news I’m hoping to release an unrelated novel, The Fairy Wren possibly in September, you can check the blub here. I’m just working on preparing the e-book (print is ready to go as we speak) and the cover art. In yet more 'other' news, the parnormal fantasy novella Sea of Trees (working title) is also at the publisher and I'm really looking forward to the feedback so I can refine it further.
In the meantime, stay tuned for a cover reveal for The Lost Mask and a teaser from The Fairy Wren in the near future, along with a couple more interviews with great authors!
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Ashley Capes is an Australian writer of fiction, poetry and very occasional non-fiction.
Imperial Towers (Never Book 5) - draft 1
Moss Dragon - draft 1
Reed Lavender (working title) - draft 1
Unnamed Spec Fic - draft 1
Whisper of Leaves (sequel) - Outline