Killer Dreams?

As adults, I think most people discount dreams. We don’t pay attention to them, don’t put any significance in them, and don’t bother remembering them.

I’ve always been glad that I have never had that tendency. I dream often, vividly, in color, and I remember my dreams.

Today it paid off. I dreamed up a whopper, that is still vivid enough for me to think about writing it up as a test thought or two. It starts off with some boxes found in the sand on the shore of a lake that contain odd things, and as an investigator I am tasked with figuring out if there was a crime or not. Yeah! I love puzzles, and I love them when they come in my dreams. The problem is, this was not a puzzle. This was a murder that happened nearly 30 years ago, and the evidence in these boxes is a very sad tale that implicates the father of a friend of mine. We had heard that he was dead, so it should be all over, right? Right?!?

Maybe. Will I write it? I don’t know. I’m a bit busy with other stuff at the moment, but I may very well come back to this one. I’ve never tried a murder mystery.

So take it as a cautionary tale, my scribbling friends. Don’t discount your dreams. Write them down. Mine them for ideas. Follow where they lead.

Publishing Comparisons (POD vs POD)

(Updated because I can’t believe I didn’t include Scribd!)

(Updated again for some interesting International info for non-US folks trying to publish on Amazon!)

I had my mouse cursor hovering over the Upload button at lulu.com, but I am truly thankful that I took more time to research the POD / self publishing / vanity publishing horizon before I settled on a publisher for my current project. No, I’ve not settled on that publisher(s) yet.  Thanks for asking.  I was originally leaning toward lulu.com, but all bets are off at the moment.

There may be several dozen ways to organize this data, so I didn’t. This is a semi-random info dump of what I’ve found so far.  Some entries are lump-able into categories, and others just kind of stand on their own.

Since I don’t have a legal department, I’ll issue a disclaimer anyway.  This information is all gathered recently across many web sites. For all I know it is already outdated somewhere.  This information is for rough comparisons only. Your mileage will vary.

Most of these publishers are a mix of paper/digital, so I did not differentiate unless there is something unique in their approach.

NOTE ->  All places where I report the cost of a copy of a single book for an author, it is either a 5.5″ x 8.5″ or 6″ x 9″ paperback trade book – color cover and black text on white paper @250 pages (or similar as described on their page).   I’ve tried to give similar data where it is available, in a similar pattern in the text.  It is extremely difficult to match apples and apples across these many web pages.  

The other cost I list is the minimum cost for your first hundred books, which is the minimum setup fees and book costs with NO additional services selected.  Also no discounts are accounted for, and my math may be fuzzy, but I tried to be consistent.

Mind your security while you browse these sites. Some of these pages are truly horrific throwbacks to not only Web 1.0, but Windows 98 or something.  They tease with a little information and require you to register so they can send you more data.  I did not bother registering with these sites, assuming they either didn’t know how to spell “Internet”, or they were up to something else evil.  Really folks, this is the 21st century. Put your data out where we can find it, or some of us are just not going to play that game and you’re losing authors. Allrighty then?

I may also have missed some significant publishing vendors.  Let me know and I’ll include them as an update.  So here we go.

POD and Self Pub (paper/digital) Publishers (in no particular order)

Most of these entries have editorial, layout, book design and marketing packages that can be purchased. Sometimes the packages are bundled. 

iUniverse [http://www.iuniverse.com/] has a separate service for everything.  If you’re the author who needs a lot of services, the kind of traveler who demands room service and excellent concierge service, this is perhaps your publisher.  I would not be surprised if they have services for their services.  Setup fees range $599 – $2099.  Author cost per book (for our example size as stated above) is $11.19.  The minimum cost per the first hundred copies (your promotional stash) is $1718.  Layout, design and editorial services are abundant.  They don’t seem to have much of an author community, but they do have author podcasts going.  They also offer hosted web sites to market your book.  Only books, no other media.

Lulu [http://www.lulu.com/]  also offers a suite of services for editing, layout, cover design, and etc.  There are no setup fees, but the services can rack up the cost quickly. The author cost for one book is $8.53. The cost per the first 100 is $853.  Lulu also handles CDs, DVDs, audio books, PDF downloads, and some other media as well.  There is an authors forum area, and they brag about their technical support.  For a confident author with an editor friend and a graphics friend, Lulu can be a low cost entry point effectively.  Lulu has storefront pages for your book collection that is a fairly staid template with your customized background image.

 

Authorhouse
 [http://www.authorhouse.com/]  opens their setup fees from $598 to $1298.  The author cost for a book is $9.83. The minimum cost for the first hundred books seems to be $1581.  Authorhouse will grant a free ISBN number, but they didn’t say anything about US Copyright registration.  They also brag on their technical support.

 

Scribd
[http://www.scribd.com/]  Scribd is the single eBook-only venture I came across (but that is not what I was looking for so that’s appropriate).  You may upload any document to Scribd, and readers can read a sample online for free.  If they purchase that book, they may read it all online, or download and therefore print it.  The author may set any price, and keeps 80% of the revenue.  This is seemingly a streamlined system (I’ve not tried it yet) and the home page is already throwing books at the viewer’s browser, which I like as a marketing approach.  The downside is that the browser must load the iPaper application, which streams the document to the browser, and therefore takes a bit of time to load.  This feature has taken some heat in some forums I was reading through.  Scribd has a fairly complete FAQ area to welcome new authors, so that’s a plus.  

Selfpublishing.com [http://www.selfpublishing.com/]  This is one of the sites that requires registration, so I didn’t investigate it very thoroughly.  One odd thing is that a hosted ISBN is $99, and an indie ISBN is $125 and the barcode is another $25.  You can buy 10 bar codes in a block from the source on the Internet, plus bar codes, for that amount.  If you have nine more books in you, I’d venture elsewhere.

CreateSpace [http://www.createspace.com/] This one also requires registration a little sooner than I would have preferred.  The author cost for a book is $3.66 (or less if you upgrade your package). They offer a free hosted ISBN, and an indie ISBN for $35.  They pay royalties as follows:  Retail is list price -20%, and Amazon is list price -40%.    They offer hosted web sites for your book.  One big plus is that they handle multiple media formats (including the only video service I found so far).  CreateSpace is owned by Amazon, so if you publish here the next step for marketing should be a breeze!

Xlibris [http://www.xlibris.com/] Packages run from $299 to $12999 (whew!) and the author cost for one book is $13.19 (whew!). Royalties paid are 25% on retail sales, and 10% of Amazon sales.  The minimum cost for 100 books therefore is about $1618.  

Mill City Press [http://www.millcitypress.net/]  This group has a different approach. They claim to only charge the wholesale printing cost to the author without a markup (which is only $3.90 for our sample size), and the author keeps 100% of the royalties.  They also claim to not use book cover templates.  Packages are either $1497 or $3798.  The cost per the first hundred books is $1887.  The less expensive package does not cover things like web site fulfillment and ebook creation, which cost extra. 

Wordclay [http://www.wordclay.com/] charges an initial setup fee of $245.  A single book costs the author $9.41. The first hundred book cost is $1186.   Layout help is bundled with the Premier package at $999.  Hosted ISBN is $99, indie ISBN is $135.  The scrolling box at the bottom of the sites page says smashwords and ebook formatting is available as of May, but I didn’t see any further info about that.

Dog Ear Publishing [http://www.dogearpublishing.net] gets extra points because I love their name.  They also have gone out of their way to compare themselves to other POD vendors, though some of the data is dated.  Tsk.  Packages are $1099 or $3499. Author cost for a book is $4.28.  Cost per first hundred is $1527.  Hosted web sites are available, and they will handle US Copyright registration – but they say nothing about ISBN availability (or I missed it).

Smashwords [http://www.smashwords.com/]  Multiple ebook formats without DRM.  No costs up front to set up your ebook. Royalties are 85% of retail sales.  The books are available online for free, in a somewhat controlled window that takes awhile to load (because it has to read in a book’s worth of data or some such).  This is awkward for some internet readers. But hey, they know Kindle from iPod, so there may be hope.

Green alternatives?

Book Printing Revolution  [http://bookprintingrevolution.com/]  Do you insist that your publisher be as green as possible? There is only one publisher that I found to be bragging on their environmental credentials.  BPR (that’s my shortcut, not theirs) is an offset press / digital combination.  The author retains rights.  Minimum print run is 100 copies.  Your book may hit the press in 10 – 20 days.  They offer editorial, layout, cover design, and distribution help.  I found no information abou
t hosted ISBNs, indie ISBNs, or US Copyright registration.  

How about secure (view online-only) PDF, or print as a book options?

Feeling paranoid about illegitimate downloads of your book? You might want to think about Completely Novel[http://www.completelynovel.com/].   This is a UK-based publisher.  There are no setup or packaging fees.  The author cost of one copy is £3.29 (GBP).  Cover design help is available via a free widget of which they seem to be proud.  Books are all available on paper or online in a variety of formats.  They claim the books online are not printable or downloadable, and can be read by anybody as a teaser for the paper edition.  Another angle is that you can publish your document and embed it in your blog, which I thought was a unique approach.

Vanity Publishers (sorta)

Outskirts Press [http://www.outskirtspress.com/]  A quirky web site that will not cough up much real information without registering (therefore I did not comply).  Setup packages range from $199 to $1099.  Publishing commences up to 90 days after contract.  They claim to pay royalties by check (awesome! ??) have templates for book covers (yawn),  and only include an ISBN at the $699 level package (not defined as to hosted or indie).  Make no mistake – this is your grandfather’s web site!

Raider International Publishing [http://www.raiderpublishing.com/]  wasted my time with a flash intro that did absolutely nothing to explain themselves.  It’s a pet peeve of mine.  Then when I entered the main site the color, fonts, and display contrasted very sharply.  So I’m lead to believe that they are still experimenting with this intarweb thingy…  Raider wants you to submit your manuscript for consideration.  How nice of them!   Listen, are you going to trust a place named “Raider” to submit your manuscript to?  I’m just sayin’.  Setup and publishing packages range from $699 to $2499.  Think about it – you have to submit your manuscript and then you also have to pay the setup costs.  I really have no idea what they think they’re doing. 

Books go to press up to 6 months after the contract is a ‘go’.  Six months?  Geez, I could go faster on Gutenberg’s original movable type press, in German, translating from Latin.  I don’t know either of those languages.  They offer layout help and talk about international printing options, but I didn’t pursue those avenues fully.

No, I’m not a comedian, nor am I a professional critic of web pages. But as a consumer, I have my preferences, right?

NOTE: International Authors! Trying to distribute via Amazon?  You have two options, either lulu.com or CreateSpace. I’m not entirely sure of the connections you might need for lulu.com. I found out that CreateSpace is owned by Amazon, and they require either a bank account in a bank that has a branch in the US, or an address to send the check to before you proof your first copy.  Contact the tech support department of either publisher for more info.

Lessons Learned?

Do your own homework. Some of these prices are easily out of date.  Some of these policies may not be in effect by the time you read this blog entry.  Also, if you Google around, some of these outfits have been accused of being scams.  Is it worth your while to pay $499 for a marketing package that is only going to write a blurb to paste into a news release?  Keep in mind it is entirely possible to pay thousands of dollars, and sell only a dozen books.  There are no guarantees.  Read the fine print!

Find your comfort zone.  Many of the base packages are fairly hefty in cost, yet they contain elements that I can certainly do myself.  I’m somewhat handy with graphics programs, I can handle marketing blurbs, and I have at least a fuzzy idea about how to get visibility for my work.  Your mileage may vary.  If you need these services, go with the package you need for the price you’re willing to pay.

Strike your balance.   There is a huge difference between publishing cost, and the cost of printing the books themselves.  If you publish a book for free but you have to spend a fortune for the books to send as promotional copies, you may not have done yourself any favors.  If you pay for a marketing plan that boils down to sending out a newsletter to some dead-end outlets, and/or they send
you a stack of postcards and news release forms, did that really help you? What exactly did you pay for?

Think it through to the end!  Ask about return policies!  Some booksellers in some markets might see as high as 70% return rates. This means there are books coming back that somebody is going to have to eat, right?

Last rant:  I am absolutely amazed that only a couple of sites knew anything about smashwords or Kindle.  Or DRM.  I was hoping to be more informed about electronic and paper publishing convergence, but I’m a little disappointed in the exercise. 

Now then, I’m off to find my ibuprofen because I’ve typed too much.  Cheers!


Steal this plot!!

Thanks for bearing with me while I've been on a non-voluntary hiatus.  Now, back to work!

It's pretty easy to get the "plot" confused with what your characters are trying to do, and where they should be going by the time they meet what's-his-nose in chapter 5.  It helps sometimes to think about plot at a higher level.

Take the plot for example, where a guy moves into an area and finds that the people there are being bullied by a tyrannical leader. He's shaking them down for money, abusing them physically, insulting them constantly.  The new guy takes exception to this, after a couple of run-ins with this guy, and he gets fed up. Having a relationship starting to build with a local beauty just furthers his drive for justice.   So the stranger calls the bully into a trap and kills him and his henchmen in a triumphant, climactic battle.

You might have been thinking, 'ah, this is a Western'.  It might have been. It could also be high fantasy, SciFi, modern contemporary fiction, or a period historical piece.  I was thinking of the movie "Unforgiven".  The plot is not defined by setting or characters. The setting and characters serve the plot.

The plot works in any genre be cause it is generic to humanity.  Any unjust leader who rises to this kind of abusive leadership is just begging for a fight, right? 

So if you don't like this plot, steal a different one. Really, they've all been done before… more or less.

Take a story that really moves you for whatever reason. Strip away all of the character and setting information.  Summarize the main points of what the conflict is and how it is resolved.  Then, see how you can make that your own by bringing it into your own world, with your voice and your characters.  Then add some twists – like maybe some slaves that need to be released. (Does that bring the Mask of Zorro or the Temple of Doom to mind?) Or a big political problem if the hero wins. Or maybe that lovely gal won't love him if he succeeds – does he choose love over justice? (That's a question about the character, not the plot!)

If you write it well, and remake it well enough in your own words, nobody is going to quibble about where you got the plot from.

Building stronger story themes

Strong stories are built on strong thematic elements, or combinations of many strong elements. Otherwise, it's not a strong story – just a nice character study that moves around a bit with some pretty scenery. Right? So it stands to reason that if we can dissect a strong story we can find those elements and perhaps borrow some of those ideas to incorporate into our own writing?

Have you ever taken a story (movie, novel, or any other work) and de-constructed it to see what makes it tick?  It's important for writers to read, but reading for the sake of turning pages is not necessarily informative. If a movie or novel really moves you, ask the question, "why"? If you can answer the question, then you have a hook to build into your own writing.

So let's take this one step further. I will compare the themes of two of the most popular (and fanatically followed) story lines. We may find some clues on what makes a strong story tick, perhaps?

I'm going to compare Star Wars (SW) with Lord of The Rings (LoTR). I'm not talking about giving Frodo a light saber, or suggesting that Darth Vader might want to get his hands on Galadriel. This is not about characters, so letting Yoda talk to Sauruman is right out the window. This is not about plot exactly, so we're not talking about simply putting the Shire in jeopardy from storm troopers. I'm talking about those deeper issues that characters face that motivate them, and thus affect the plot.

I've read LoTR many times and enjoyed the movie adaptations. I've seen all the Star Wars movies. I've been considering what makes these two blockbuster story lines so immensely popular. The result of my pondering is that there are some similarities between these two story lines. In some ways I consider them the same kind of coming-of-age adventure romp, just in vastly different settings and completely different genres.

This is neither a complete nor scholarly discussion. Just some of my observations. Your results may vary.

The Opening Situation – let's look around:

Both stories happen in environments that are fully populated. Yes, it's easy to take the tapestry of the environment for granted. But let's consider things for a minute. Tolkien's world is so complex that to understand it completely there is a companion book, 'The Silmarilion' full of additional stories and background notes that gives you the keys to some of the more complex relationships. Lucas wrote of odd things like jar-jars, light sabers, Jabba, and his entire menagerie of oddball species. The relationships between elf and dwarf, or between Jawas and Sandpeople, usually come naturally through the dialog – as if they had always been that way, not being 'invented' or described to a complete stranger on the spot. Of course there are explanations, but from the voice of either Gandalf or Obi Wan, not the voice of the narrator.

A sense of wonder: Magic equals Technology. Gandalf's power is hinted at but in battle he usually prefers a sword and staff. He's not throwing fireballs around and being the star of the show here. His magic is used sparingly (except for fireworks, perhaps) and its impact is always felt powerfully by the enemy. Those touches of magic take us someplace else very effectively. The technology in Star Wars creates a world many otherwise rational humans would love to live in. Flying vehicles, hovering cars, light sabers, palantirs, elvish rope, light in a bottle, and magic rings all add to the sense that we'd like to see that for ourselves at some point if we could. Magic (or technology) is used to take the reader far away to a place that can't exist – to delight us and prompt us to try to recreate that magic for ourselves.

Both stories open with a vague sense of impending Evil. This dreadful force, while being rather profound, is rather far off. Frodo's skin crawls at the mention of Mordor in a way not very different from the way Luke reacts to the Empire. There may be something bad going on, or did go on in history, but it doesn't affect them until something else happens. The mention of evil at first is not a good thing, but its depth is surprising, its power is absolute, and it is coming soon.

Evil comes home for a visit.

Frodo has a hard time grasping the seriousness of his situation until the black riders come into the Shire and he barely escapes. Sure, he understands what Gandalf says intellectually, but I don't think it sinks in viscerally until then. Likewise Luke doesn't think he can do anything important against the Empire until his aunt and uncle are roasted out of their home by stormtroopers looking for those two droids. Both Luke and Frodo are highly motivated from this point of realization onward. So, evil coming next door doesn't have as much impact, does it? Or, if evil stays over there somewhere.

You can't go home again. This is the next logical step.  Frodo must leave the Shire because the ring-wraiths are searching for him. He is not safe in Bree, and must flee to Rivendel with Aragorn and his friends. Luke has no reason to stay on his uncle's arrid farm – his foster family is dead, so there's nothing really holding him there. What is not really discussed however, is what the impact would be of Luke's staying. His prospects can't be that great, can they?

Ah, the safety of home. We can't have it here. Leaving home is a similar event to Cortez burning his ships when he arrived in the New World. You're more motivated to go forward if you cannot go back. No nets, just give your hero a high wire and a poke in the backside. The bittersweet side of this is that there is a 'home' to go back to, or reminisce about. Frodo and Sam on the rocks near Mount Doom try to remember the taste of strawberries – which is not pivotal to the plot. But you can taste the berries, can't you? It re-emphasizes the contrasts between good and evil (more on that later).

Speaking of home, don't forget to remind your audience of what's worth fighting for. In Star Wars, it is mostly salvation from the technology / tyranny of the Empire. In the Ring Trilogy we're elegantly reminded of the Shire from time to time. When Frodo and Sam are at the foot of Mt Doom, they try to remember the happy days long past, Rosie, and the Shire. Get specific here. Remember to show elements that have already been shown or talked about. Home is a powerful, patriotic theme for any hero to fight for when you conjure the right memories. The greener the better. It wouldn't make much sense to die defending the arid wastelands from marauding Druids who only want to plant seeds and water them, would it?

The Good Guys

Obviously, both story lines have heroes and villains. I want to look at similarities among the heroes first.

The main hero has no father. Yes, Luke has a father. But Luke lives with an uncle, and does not know his father – in that role – until the last five minutes of Episode VI. Frodo lives with his uncle, and not much is said about his father at all. Yes, they have no mother as well – but I suspect the absence of a father is a stronger position psychologically. I tend to agree with the author of Iron John by Robert Bly with his thoughts on how boys become men, and how fathers can be immensely important. But I'm not an expert so we'll move on.

The hero is reluctant. Luke is a mere tinkerer on his uncle's farm, and is completely unfit for any duty in any army, force, or adventure. When Obi Wan throws out the suggestion that he could travel and see a bit of the Empire, Luke shrugs it off, because he is needed on the farm. Likewise, Frodo offers the ring to Gandalf rather than take responsibility for it. Bilbo's stories had always fascinated him but he was not ready to make a journey until he had to throw his gear in a ruc
ksack, grab Sam, and hit the road with Gandalf pushing urgently from behind. It's an endearment that these guys start out as antiheroes, not at all likely to ever do anything dangerous.

That's pretty much the lowest common denominator isn't it? You can't go much further down on the totem pole – both Luke and Frodo are pretty hopeless at the opening of their stories, even though their foster families speak highly of them and their abilities.

The good guys don't like each other right away. Episode IV of Star Wars shows Leia and Han not really getting along. Han is hard to trust right away, and we don't know what the Wookies are all about either, do we? Later in the story Han and Luke compete for Leia's attention with a bit of humor and bravado – but ultimately that's a sidenote not part of the plot. In LoTR the friction starts in Bree with the stranger Aragorn leading the hobbits away, is amplified in Rivendel as the Fellowship is formed, and doesn't end until Boromir meets his noble end defending Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli have buried their differences. This all adds a nice bit of political or social tension that keeps you turning pages, or watching the show. If the good guys are too vanilla, there's less impulse to keep reading. Add some spice then, and see what happens.

The hero has a mentor. While the hero has a father figure of sorts instead of an actual father, there also is a spiritual guide who takes over his training. For Luke this is Ben Kenobi, and later Yoda. Gandalf fills this role for Frodo until Gandalf makes a detour in the Mines of Moria, and Galadriel fills in that role in his absence. It's not exactly fair to throw your hero out into the wild without any guidance, is it? I mean after all, he's taking on the ultimate in evil, and needs all the help he can get, right?

The Bad Boys

In both stories, evil is not just a nuisance or a minor trouble. It is a vital force that is gathering strength and is all-consuming in its purpose and scope.

Evil is represented in the biggest, baddest thing around. It is supernatural, impending, all-consuming, corrupting, and relentless. In the Ring Trilogy, Sauron is a major spiritual force, who keeps himself together by the magic he created and his own determined willpower. In Star Wars, the Force is corrupted (or completed if you prefer) by the Sith, who use it to complete their own ends. In both stories the sense of evil and dread is something you can almost taste. Whether it is flaming eyes piercing through to your invisible self, or strangulation by remote squeeze, make sure the bad guys are really, really bad. Marauders or pirates create tension and a plot with somebody for your hero to make a story out of, but sometimes they are just not big enough for an epic-sized tale.

Evil likes to make converts of key people. Aniken Skywalker gets slowly seduced by the Dark Side, just as surely as Sauruman (and Theoden) became poisoned by Mordor through the palantirs. These are powerful figures that initially are allied with the side of light, but they ultimately turn on their friends – bitterly disappointing those who trusted them to say the least.

Evil is masked. Have you noticed that both Sauron and Darth Vader are masked? Vader doesn't don his mask until he is horribly disfigured in the lava, but this is also very early in his evil career working for the Emperor. Both masks are inflexible. Neither mask allows emotion to show. Neither mask comes off. When Darth Vader's mask does come off, it is when he is morally rescued by his son Luke, and has a change of heart at the end, revoking the dark side. We see his emotions again in his eyes as he dies at that point. We see Sauron's eye, but it is aflame with his burning passions and dark thoughts – not a comforting visage. The masks are not particularly frightening of themselves – it's the context of WHO is wearing them that makes them that much more fearsome.

Evil is mechanized. While this sounds like a Godzilla movie element or something, it holds true for both of these story lines. Sauruman is busy destroying the forest to create his Uruk Hai. Treebeard laments that Sauruman has a mind for metal and wheels. Mordor is already in ruin. Meanwhile in a galaxy far away, the Emperor is busy putting together technology to destroy entire planets.

The flip side is that both sets of 'good guys' are nature-based. Frodo and Sam are from the Shire, the greenest and most peaceful home you could want. Luke Skywalker begins to learn the natural Force that holds the galaxy together while near his uncle's farm. This makes the contrast between what good and evil are (and represent) utterly unmistakable. So from the plot point of view, you can say that evil is 'not natural' now, can't you? 

Moving the Story

The stories both involve friends coming from unexpected places, or sometimes being misunderstood (Lando for instance in the Cloud City, or the Wood Elves being suspicious of the fellowship, or the Rhohirrim being aggressive toward Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas). This keeps the drama going. If everybody always likes everybody else right away it is much easier to yawn. On the other hand, the elves show up at Helm's Deep with no questions asked, and their help is vital in keeping the orcs out until Gandalf can arrive with reinforcements. Star Wars is less dependent on showing these relationships – they are assumed – but there still must be some underlying reason why the rebel alliance has so many different freaky kinds of peoples in it. Where does General Ackbar come from anyway? Never mind….

The hero is wounded. Frodo gets a grievous wound in his shoulder from a Mordor blade that never heals. Luke loses his hand and gets a prosthetic. (I think Lucas has some kind of stump fetish or something – somebody loses an arm in most SW episodes) You can't kill your hero, but you can throw him around some. Leave some marks to give him something to talk about later. Emotional marks work as well as actual ones. For instance, Frodo knows the anniversary of his shoulder's wound because of it aches every year as a reminder on that anniversary.

The mission is clearly suicidal but we hope they succeed. So this little hobbit has to take a very important ring that the bad guy wants, and melt it under his nose in the Mountain of Doom. Riiiight. And Luke and his friends have to take down the death star by shooting a perfect shot down some tiny vent. Riiight. But we're glad they succeed. If the mission is impossible, with no odds of success, the more curious the reader is going to be about how exactly they're going to do it. Of course, this only works if there's a reason for us to like the main characters, or a reason to empathize with their situation in the first place. The lesson here is that a difficult mission done with difficulty and danger is not enough – we have to care about the outcome.

The mentor dies yet lives again. This is a bit more tenuous, but I still see some parallels between Obi Wan letting Darth Vader finish him off, and Gandalf doing a selfless descent into the pit with the balrog. Obi Wan is gone – but can still talk with Luke somehow from the other side. Gandalf doesn't really die. Well, yes he does, but he comes back differently – all in white. I think the bottom line is that you can kill off your main 'spirit guide', as long as he/she can hang around for advice somehow when the main hero needs it later. I'm going to throw in a similar thought from a third story line here – remember Jurassic Park? Ian Malcolm the mathematician is wounded badly and cannot communicate easily with the rest of the scientists as they try to survive after the dinosaurs get lose. Here is the voice of logic, the philosopher, and the most independent observer symbolical
ly laid low.

The friends are split up and reunited. The Fellowship is sundered at the river when Boromir dies, Frodo and Sam head into Mordor, and the remainder of the company go after Merry and Pippin. In Star Wars, the group is split up when Luke goes on a detour to find Yoda, and Han is separated from Leia in a carbon freeze thingy – and shipped to Jabba. Two plotlines with the same central characters gives you opportunity to talk about twice as many adventures. So your characters are fearful and don't want to split up? Do it anyway.

Moral salvation with a physical rescue. In Star Wars episode VI, there is a poignant moment between Luke and his father at the end. Luke wants to 'save' him meaning a physical rescue from his wounds. The dying Anakin reports that he already has been, meaning a moral recovery from the dark side. In the ring trilogy, don't forget that Eowyn did a similar favor for Theoden at the death of the witch king on the field of battle in front of the White City. Eowyn wanted to save Theoden's life, yet Theoden's thoughts were that he could now rest in honor in the halls of his fathers. Both of these mortally wounded characters were deeply flawed, but had found some sort of reckoning through their final actions (and the actions of their kin). Yes, feel free to jerk a few tears. But then be sure to get over it and get back to the story.

Conclusion?

My point here was to direct you toward some similarities between some immensely popular story lines. I wanted to give you some story line devices that a writer might want to consider for inclusion as he/she begins work on any epic project.

Why are these story lines so popular? I suspect the answer may be deeply rooted in the psyche of the male. Why male? Both of these stories are male-centric, and I suppose (though I've not seen any data) that the majority of the fans are also male. But I'm not a psyche-ologist, so to speak. Some ideas here may be more effective with a male readership, I don't really know for sure.

Let's put the shoe on the other foot.  If the story had involved all female characters, it would have been an entirely different story even if the overall plot were the same, would it not? 

Now get out there and plot yourself an epic!