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Not sure how to phrase this as a question, but I'm interested in your perspectives on this. I've been reading agent blogs the past few months, and I've seen a lot of them comment on their disinterest in portal stories. Originally I figured the rise in portal books might be linked to Narnia, what with the lovely new film adaptation, but it takes a long time to write a novel, and the Narnia movie is too recent for that. I’ve been reading Cheryl Klein’s blog and articles, and with that in mind, I’m trying to play editor to myself. Tonight while working on the Deep Underpinnings of My Novel (which I didn't write as a portal novel, but which I’m seeing has some elements of it after all), I think I finally figured out what these agents mean.

I can definitely see what the portal pull is all about. I looooved reading books like this as a kid, and I still do. Ordinary character (like the reader) falls into extraordinary situation, undergoes exotic, fantastic stuff (reader imagining him/herself right along), and comes out a winner, able to deal with the mundane real world equipped with new knowledge and skills and self-confidence.

BUT, I think the problem with portal stories is that they are frame stories. They’re too disparate, the connections between the real world and the fantasy world are coincidental instead of causal. They are in some ways similar to episodic novels. There’s nothing wrong with an episodic book (and in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader you get both portals AND episodes, and it’s still a wonderful story), but most readers today find causal stories stronger and more compelling than they do episodic ones. I think the agents mean that a neat little frame, a casual (as opposed to causal) reason to get characters from Situation A to Situation B, isn’t enough to carry the story.

So the moral, if I can say that out loud, is that if you’re going to do a portal story, the struggles/plot arcs from your two settings needs to be 1) causally related and 2) inextricably tied to each other, so that there is no way you could possibly separate the story that happens in the fantasy world from the story line in the real world.

Thoughts, anyone?
#1 - July 03, 2006, 09:15 PM

lurban

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Olmue

I don't read much of the portal variety -- though I have read a few.  I'm wondering if it makes a difference to you and to others whether the MC is sucked through a portal or whether she goes willingly, choosing adventure/duty/curiosity over what she knows?
#2 - July 04, 2006, 04:53 AM
« Last Edit: July 05, 2006, 01:42 PM by lurban »

bzirkle

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Olmue:  

I'm not a big reader of portal stories, but I read somewhere that the lack of interest in portal, dream, etc. stories came about more because of the way the world is...people are afraid that children will start to believe they can solve the bad things in their life and not face their "real" problems becuase any day now they will find that secret door or they will wake up and their problems will have gone away...

I take this to mean that they believe children believe everything they read or see on t.v. is true...sort of like (and this may be a stretch, but I'm not quite with it this morning, so its all I can think of...grin)...video games...the ones that kids can have control as far as killing people, raping women, etc....i think too many companies are being blamed for these kids actually doing these things, so publishers and the like are starting to get a bit worried the same will happen to them...look at cartoons...most of them have changed to not show the funny violence that we grew up with...how many times did I watch the coyote drop things on the road runners head...did I go out and try to do this to my little sister...no...but, again, I read somewhere that cartoons like this were making some kids believe that they could kill and that the dead would come back to life...

Have I gotten off the subject?  Sorry if I have...I think what you say at the end of your post is true (at least this is my thoughts on the matter) and as long as the portal isn't sooo far out there then you should be okay...why can't someone's room be their portal...or a secret place where they can find peace and think about their problems and how they want to solve them...afterall...isn't that what most portals represent in a story...a place where the imagination gives them the strength to be what they always could be....???

Just my thoughts...Brenda
#3 - July 04, 2006, 05:33 AM

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Lurban, yes! I think that makes a lot of difference. Is the character acting and consciously choosing (so that the plot is a result of his/her choices), or is s/he having stuff happen to him/her and just reacting to it?

Lilfix, I remember when my sister was in elementary school (she's 33 now), the teachers wanted to show the kids a movie, and Escape to Witch Mountain was the one at stake. In the end they didn't show it, not because of the witchcraft thing, but because the kids in the movie could make things move with their minds, and the teacher didn't think her students would understand that that wasn't real. My kindergarten-age sister was HIGHLY incensed at the idea that she wouldn't know what was real and what wasn't! I agree. Kids aren't dumb, and by age 5 they've pretty much got the laws of nature down pat. But lawsuits are common, so maybe you have a point on that.

And I think yes, you're dead-on with portals being a place where imagination makes them be their dream self. I actually think a lot of stories are portal stories in a way, not just in the classic fantasy sense...going away for the summer to a new place...camp stories...etc. Magic aside, I'm wondering if the portal allergy isn't more of a plot structure issue than a genre issue.
#4 - July 04, 2006, 06:24 AM

grant farley

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Olmue, your observation about portal stories seems right on target.
#5 - July 05, 2006, 03:11 PM

wyomachinook

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Here's my thought on the portal thing: Isn't every book a portal?  ;)
#6 - July 05, 2006, 03:18 PM

grant farley

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Interesting.  Please explain this.
#7 - July 05, 2006, 03:20 PM

wyomachinook

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Really?
#8 - July 05, 2006, 04:09 PM

lizlane

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We can't use portals.  We can't have dream sequences.  We can't have flashbacks.  We can't...we can't...we can't!   :fury  I say we can!  We just have to do it better than it was done before!  There was a point in time when I felt like giving up altogether because the list was getting longer and longer of what they weren't looking for while the list of what they were was pretty short.

My thought is that they really won't know what they're looking for until they're reading it.  I remember reading a book as a child that the girl had a pair of magic boots that would take her extraordinary lengths.  On second thought, it could have been a boy but I remember the boots.  Very effective portal.
#9 - September 08, 2006, 10:23 AM
« Last Edit: September 09, 2006, 06:09 PM by ShirleyH »

ecb

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Liz, that wouldn't have been HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, would it?  There's a whole slew o' portals in that wonderful book.

Here's the thing.  I think portal fantasy is like rhyming pbs, or anthropomorphic animals:  It's what newbies think kids'  lit is about (mostly because they haven't read widely enough), and so slush piles get loaded down with them.  I don't think there's anything wrong with portals in and of themselves (except I personally find the term annoying, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything :stuckup:)... it's just that there is so very much bad portal fantasy out there, that it can be an automatic turn-off.

But it's still possible to write a good one and get it published. Christine Norris's TALISMAN OF ZANDRIA is a recent example (2004, IIRC).
#10 - September 09, 2006, 05:45 PM

lizlane

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I wish I didn't have such a bad memory!  It was such a good book!  I loved the post by chinook because ideally every book will be a portal to a different experience or world!  But even though the portal might be outrageous, I think the writer has a duty to sell it well.  When I studied drama in HS and college, there was a theatricall term called "willing suspension of disbelief."  It described the point at which the audience viewing the play became captured in the action on stage, whether by story or plot or characters and viewed the play as real just for the time being.

The difficulty is wooing the reader to that point that they'll buy what's on the page (literally and figuratively, ha ha!) :reading2:
#11 - September 10, 2006, 07:52 AM

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Lizlane, I think that's exactly it. The craftsmanship simply has to be there, or the portal falls flat. Just the device isn't enough; it's like rhyme, where you need a story to go with it.

And Howl's Moving Castle--yes! What a portal book! Four in the castle itself, not to mention that one of them is a portal to another world--ours. (sort of a backwards portal from the norm, if you wil) If you ever have to pick a book to read aloud, this is a winner. My 8-year-old and I were dying of laughter for a good part of it (the green slime chapter in particular). Must buy a copy of this book.
#12 - September 10, 2006, 08:30 AM

JustinDono

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I think with any portal book or any book involving the idea of going to another world, the new world has to feel like a world, and not just some place that "isn't earth".  If the latter is the case, then the only really fantastical thing is the portal itself, which typically doesn't get a lot of page time.

However, let's look at a rather recent portal boo kthat has one of the most amazing worlds i've seen: clive Barker's abarat.  I won't get into details (if you're curious, google it), but abarat has one of the most complex and diverse fantasy worlds i've read about, and has connections to our world as well.  It doesn't exist in a vaccume.  It has past ties with earth and future interactions.  I think by doing so, it becomes even more real, whereas something like Narnia (though i enjoy it a great deal) typically remains separate, and removed, even to the point where when the children go missing for YEARS, they return and nobody has noticed they've gone.
#13 - October 30, 2006, 08:18 AM

lizlane

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That always bothered me too, that the kids could leave, live a lifetime in Narnia, return in the same day unnoticed, even as a kid.  Even though I didn't believe it, I wanted to believe it could be done, which might be a more powerful reaction...

I'm bogged down in Imajica right now...Tell me is  Abarat a sequel to it and does it read as tediously?  (No offense, because I do like the book but I keep wondering when it will grab me.)
#14 - November 03, 2006, 02:24 PM

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Imajica has two parts to it: The Fifth Dominion and The Reconciliation.  Most copies of Imajica now feature the two separate books consolidated into one.  As far as "grabbing" you, I'd say that depends on where you are in the book.  I was grabbed pretty early on by the mysterious Pie-Oh-Pah, and it just got better for me from there, though i admit, it does move really slowly at times.
Abarat is in no weay related to imajica.  It's a completely different fantasy series for young adults and children, and is very, very good.
Barker's best fantasy book, in my opinion, was Weaveworld, hands down.  The pace is always quick and keeps you hooked, and all the characters are really awesome.  That's not to say those in Imajica aren't.  The ending to imajica totally blew my mind and had me shaking my head for a couple days.
#15 - November 05, 2006, 08:36 AM

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I just attended a workshop on time-travel portals and there sure are a lot of writers doing this sort of thing. Some are quite successful.

I think the agents are balking at first novels featuring time-travel or other portals. Once you've proven yourself and published, there is a definite market for this kind of book. Kids like them but many agents (acording to their blogs) don't.
#16 - November 05, 2006, 09:20 AM
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I love time travel books ... and yes, there has to be some sort of mechanism.

Think of The 13th Floor by Sid Fleishman or the Indian in the Cupboard by Banks.  They don't go into the physics of why it could be possible ... but everything is believable and we follow the characters.  And it IS an integral part of the story.  Other books that delve into how it could be possible (a bonus), like Timeline by Crichton or Time after Time by Finney, but it's still the great characters that make me follow them anywhere ... even through portals.

Chinook, I also think that books are portals!
Grant, it's because we are transported to a different time and place while we're reading.

Vijaya
#17 - November 05, 2006, 09:56 AM
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quester

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I think we are kind of losing track of the point here. It's not that portals are bad in themselves, it's just like a lot of other fantasy clichés, they can be used to avoid any real character driven conflict, and tend to make for an episodic piece... If you can make everything hold together, and meaningful, instead of just letting characters escape into another world where they're a superhero etc..., then maybe it can work. But it's easy to be done badly. I just gave up on a WIP, where the guy just kept going through all these friggin doors into different places. After awhile, I got bored with it... Things get interested when people are forced to do things, instead of just being able to pop into some other place... You need to be sure I think to have some real strong motivation, a race against time or something else to make life in another world meaningful...

I have three fantasy novels that are too episodic. My resolution is: in the future, plot with a character with a Problem, an attempt at a resolution that makes the problem worse, etc... Instead of having a main character going through a portal, or moving all over the place running into people and fighting with them. At the moment I am digging into my books and trying to find overarching themes and plot arcs to pull them together. But I think avoiding some of these tropes makes it more likely that the book won't be episodic in the first place.

Theodore

Sorry this is so rambling.

Read Rachel Vater's blog for a lot of good info on this type of thing... the woman is a master of layered plots and the old "raising the stakes" type stuff.
#18 - November 05, 2006, 04:48 PM

Alison

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I have also heard of agents lately saying "no more portal books, please!" but I think that's too bad because kids haven't stopped wanting to read them. My 8-year-old will read pretty much anything if it seems to be about a portal to another world! His life's dream is to build his own portal into the Internet. ;) (Which means he even loved the movie Spy Kids 3-D, in which they go into a computer or video game or something, even though from an adult standpoint it's almost unwatchable!) Even my 5-year-old, when he was 3, invented an imaginary street he said he would visit regularly, which he could get to by going up in the air or down in the ground from our house, and he kept talking about it for nearly 2 years!

I don't read much traditional fantasy, but I love the "what if" nature of portal and time travel stories, or even body-switching stories. I think there's an audience for everything, though I'm sure it is overdone, like so many things in children's writing!

I guess even Harry Potter is a portal story--with various portals, such as the train station platform, that carry Harry to places he's never seen or heard of before, even though they are theoretically in our world.
#19 - November 05, 2006, 05:16 PM

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I really like time travel stories. Some of my favourite episodes on Star Trek involved time travel or parallel universes. And I loved the holodeck--another portal that could take you anywhere you wanted.
#20 - November 05, 2006, 05:50 PM
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Kelsey

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My current WIP, Emma of the High Seas, has a portal to another world, and it's mentioned in the query blurb.  Although I have an awesome agent now, just before I signed with her, and based on the query blurb, other agents wanted to read the manuscript.  With my agent now, editors have expressed interest in wanting to read the manuscript when finished.  So, yeah, I guess it has to do with what happens in the other world.  My MC doesn't go all super hero over there, but she does learn a thing or two about herself.
#21 - November 06, 2006, 05:25 PM

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My time travel YA novel, Stuck in the 70s (Putnam, May 2007) has a bathtub portal. I revised several times for both my agent and editor. They never thought the portal was a bad idea.
#22 - November 06, 2006, 06:28 PM
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nhasnat

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Sigh... I must confess, I too have portaled.  My next MG, which I havent shown my agent yet, has a device that makes my MC to another world.  Personally, as a kid, I loved books that had believable 'other world' elements...Today, I didn't even realize it was such a cliche when the "NO PORTALS" argument got started.   I'll let you know what the agent thinks...if we have been portaled to death....

NH
#23 - November 07, 2006, 11:18 AM

Laurie

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Rules, schmules.  Still, for someone who is querying -- every agent and editor wants something that sounds fresh and new, a story that stands out with strong characters and strong writing. I don't think it's the portal or the quest that's inherently bad -- it's what you do with them that matters.

I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to a long hot soak in my portal tonight.   :bubblebath:  (Right, Debby?)

Laurie
#24 - November 07, 2006, 11:45 AM

lizlane

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Thanks Justin for the Barker reviews!  I'm going to look for those titles at the library. 

Anna, I feel your pain!  I am sick of all the rules and stipulations but I agree that originality is the key to making "tired cliches" breathe with new life.  I'm still looking for an agent for my ms, though I admit that I haven't actively pursued the search in some time.  All we writers can do is submit our absolute best work and hope for the best!  Oh and do extensive research to make certain we're approaching the best suited agent to represent our stories...
#25 - November 10, 2006, 06:27 AM

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I think the "no portals!" cry comes from a couple of places.  The first is the fact that there are a lot of people out there subbing fantasy, and a lot of it falls under the "not anything special" or "quite bad" category.  If you're on this board reading this message, I'll take that as an indication that you're serious about your craft, and that already puts you ahead of a lot of what's being submitted.  But anyway, if X percentage of fantasy being subbed is bad, I'd be willing to bet X gets a lot bigger if you limit your sample to fantasy books with portals.  It's not the portal that makes the story bad, but because it IS a cliche and a very common/popular/appealing idea, it may attract more novice writers.  At the same time, I do think a portal story can be hard to pull off.  You need to give readers a sense of who your character is in the real world, what the new world is like, the connections between the new world and the old world, the similarities and differences between the two, and how your character naturally changes with being in a new place.  You also need some originality in the destination, and to stay away from some of the more cliched and predictable aspects of a quest-based story. 

So basically, I think it's harder to write an original portal story than it is to write, for example, an original fantasy story grounded in the real world, and I also think that, on average, the quality of portal slush submissions is perhaps lower than the average quality of other fantasy submissions.  I think it's one of those things where you've got a lot of writers who haven't cut their teeth on the craft yet writing a subsection of fantasy that's very difficult to write well, which basically ends up with agents seeing a LOT of queries for crappy portal stories.  If you write a really good portal story, with an interesting world, engaging characters, sharp writing, and some kind of marketable twist, then people are going to be interested, and the portal aspect isn't going to keep many people away.
#26 - November 23, 2006, 04:47 AM

grant farley

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Thanks, Jen.  A very insightful post. 
#27 - November 24, 2006, 02:10 PM

aniprof

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If you write a really good portal story, with an interesting world, engaging characters, sharp writing, and some kind of marketable twist, then people are going to be interested, and the portal aspect isn't going to keep many people away.

Sounds like good novels make the portal an integral part of the story, while poor novels treat it as a MacGuffin.*

(*A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story.
The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term "MacGuffin" and the technique. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Hitchcock explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: "[W]e have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin)
#28 - December 23, 2006, 07:28 PM

SarahP

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Yup, I think Jen is right on, too.

Particularly here:  " It's not the portal that makes the story bad, but because it IS a cliche and a very common/popular/appealing idea, it may attract more novice writers."

I wonder why it's so compelling to new-ish writers.  Jen speculates that it's easier to jump through a portal than do fantasy in the contemporary world, and I definitely agree.  I add that portal fantasy is easier to write than secondary world fantasy:  because a portal provides a jumping off place, you begin in the 'real', known world--grounded, as it were--before jumping through the portal into the fantasy world.  Because the writer always has a frame of reference, the real world, portal fantasy might be easier to write.  "It's just like a rabbit, except it has six legs!"

I think portal stories are popular, too because they are 'there and back again' stories, which are somehow safer, more comforting, promising both escape and return (which JRR Tolkien talks about as key for fantasy in his essay "On Fantasy"). 

#29 - December 24, 2006, 07:04 AM
« Last Edit: December 24, 2006, 07:07 AM by SarahP »

Craig

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There's been a lot of insightful takes on portals here (Quester, Jen, SarahP to name a few).

In my own mind, when I read a novel, I tend to classify things.  I believe there is a difference between a portal novel and a novel with a portal or three in it.  I usually brace myself for disappointment when I realize I just dove into a portal novel, since they are extraordinarily hard to pull off.

In a portal novel, the protagonist is generally an everyman(-woman, -child).  The lives they lead before the portal are grey (see The Wizard of Oz for the blatant approach to this in film).  It isn't necessarily a flaw.  Everyperson protagonists are a great, if easy, way to help readers jump into the skin of a character and live vicariously in the magical world beyond.  However, this has been done to death.  The protagonist often has superficial or flat relationships in the real world, and the portal is what makes them special.  Here the writer is, to varying degrees, relieved of the necessity to build a three dimensional character, interweave social patterns, or think through complex real world consequences and situations.
Once the protag is in the magical world things get interesting.  The character may develop, become wonderful, meet compelling characters, find the plot, etc.  However, since the protag is not from that world, the author is not required to build past/present/future relationships and consequences there for them.  It also makes the POV easier to deal with.  Since the protag knows little about the world, there are plenty of long dialogues and minutia laden descriptions.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's riddled with pitfalls, and it's hard to find an origional approach.
    Examples of portal novels I've enjoyed:
                 A WRINKLE IN TIME
                 THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE  (Essentially a clever retelling of the story of Christ.  I guess that's what happens when a preacher just happens to be a wonderful story teller.)
                 CORALINE

A novel with portals might seem very much the same, superficially at least.  The play is the thing here, though, not the portal.  The characters are all developed.  The bits about the real world might be easily fitted into prologue and epilogue, so long as the otherworld has meaningful connections either to the real world, or the protagonist has a history there.  The term otherworld (with the magical parts removed) might be interchangable with the term 'next door', 'the next state over', or 'the country to the North of us'.  That is to say, the character development and/or plot events that occur in the otherworld could have occurred in this world if magic wasn't in the picture.
     Examples of novels I have enjoyed, with portals:
                NEVERWHERE
                AMERICAN GODS
                SUMMER KNIGHT
               
And that, is my uneducated guess.
#30 - March 20, 2007, 11:49 PM

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