The Dragon Book: How to Read Like a Writer
As a fantasy reader and writer, one of my favorite story elements is a dragon, but The Dragon Book edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozious is more than a collection of stories featuring one of my favorite creatures. It is an excellent example of how writers can twist tropes and stereotypes to create their own take on a reader favorite. The Dragon Book also demonstrates how to pace and design a collection.
Twisting Tropes and Stereotypes
Every genre has their creatures, settings, or characters that are so well-known by their readers, writers don’t even really need to describe them. In westerns, the desert landscape of the wild west of New Mexico, Arizona, or Nevada is well-known. In women’s fiction the husband who has an affair and causes the divorce is a common figure. In fantasy, one of the most universally recognized and understood creatures is the dragon.
In The Dragon Book’s preface, Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois quote Avram Davidson:
Although the wombat is real and the dragon is not, nobody knows what a wombat looks like and everyone knows what a dragon looks like (vii).
This statement is very true, but that kind of recognition is a double-edged sword. Writers don’t have to work as hard to describe the mythical beast, which means they can spend their words elsewhere. It also means they can easily fall back on the stereotypical dragon instead of making the creature their own.
When well-known creatures like dragons really come to life and transport readers into the world of a story is when the writers make those tropes their own. In each author’s story in The Dragon Book, the dragons are recognizable as the infamous creatures, but they are also unique, different, and interesting. In some stories the dragons are helpful. In others they’re the antagonists, and in a few they are more neutral. None of the authors stopped at the trope or stereotype of a dragon. They used it as starting point and pushed the concept farther, making it their own. Think about this in your own stories. If you are using a trope or stereotype, consider it a jumping off point. How can you tweak that idea, so it becomes your own?
Pace Your Reader’s Experience
The organization of stories in an anthology or collection is just as important as the order of chapters in a novel. You want the stories to flow into each other and create a pace and rise and fall of emotion. Don’t clump all of the tragic stories together, and don’t put the humorous ones back-to-back. Take your reader on an emotional, thrilling journey with fast paced sections and breathers. All of the stories with antagonist dragons aren’t together in The Dragon Book. The stories with hero/heroine protagonists are mixed with those with antihero leads. This ebb and flow is crucial to a successful collection.
Jonathan Stroud’s “Bob Choi’s Last Job” is gritty and dark with dragons described as “. . . the gold scales glittering beneath the long, slow wing-beats as they wheeled into the sun” (51). The next story has a lighter tone. In Kage Baker’s “Are You Afflicted with Dragons?” the creatures are described as “. . . preening, squabbling over fish heads, defecating, spreading stubby wings in the morning sunlight . . .” (53). In the first story, the dragons are intelligent, fierce, and graceful. In the second story, they are more like bats. In each story, the creatures are clearly, recognizably dragons, and the difference in tones takes the reader on a flowing, emotional journey.
When you’re arranging your own collection of stories, poems, or other writing, pay attention to the overall story you’re creating. Do you have high and low points of emotion? Does the pace from piece to piece vary? Do your pieces’ lengths vary? Just like the beginning and ending of a story are the most memorable parts, your first and last pieces will have the greatest impact on your readers’ experience, so choose them accordingly.
Designing Your Collection
In a previous article, Why the Inside of Your Book Needs Professional Design, I covered why the interior of a book requires actual design, not just a print out of your story. The interior design of an anthology is especially important. Even if there is a theme, an anthology is filled with the different voices of its authors. One way of tying everything together is visual.
Having the same fonts is one way, but another, more subtle design to pay attention to is the way the pieces themselves are structured. If each piece uses the same spacing conventions to show the passage of time or change in scene, the reader will subconsciously recognize that they belong together. The same goes for the symbols used to show point of view shifts. As you’re designing your collection, pay attention to the design aspects you can use to tie them together.
Why an Editor Recommends a Collection of Short Stories
Short stories, poems, or other pieces are great places for writers to experiment, to learn new skills, to master their craft. Even if you don’t plan on creating a collection, writing short pieces every now and then is a great way to improve your writing. And if you have a bunch of short pieces, consider putting them together in a collection like The Dragon Book or composing an anthology with other authors in your genre. Anthologies are a great way to cross-promote and give fans a little something in between books. So read The Dragon Book edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozious to learn how to twist your story’s tropes, pace your readers’ experience, and design your collection to Ignite Your Ink.
What did you learn from reading The Dragon Book? If you haven’t read the anthology, click on the image. For more articles on the craft of writing and publishing, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.