Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Fun of Writing Fantasy

I have two loves when it comes to fiction: horror and fantasy. Just as I've lost myself in a novel by Stephen King or Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon or Brian Keene, so, too have I gone to other worlds in tales by Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R.R. Martin. By extension, I've tried my hand at writing fantasy, too, to mixed results.

One of the first original novels I did was fantasy. I intended for it to be the first of a series, and while I think there were some good bits, most of it was utter garbage that will hopefully never see the light of day--at least not in the form it is now. A few years ago, I tried again. I got through a few chapters, and then I put it down. It just wasn't time.

Then a friend and I came up with a fantasy world for a Dungeons & Dragons game, and something clicked. I picked that in-progress novel back up, read over it, and realized it wasn't as bad as I thought at the time. So I went back to work on it. And finished it. And then finished the second book in what will probably be a trilogy called The Time of Ashes Cycle.

Here's the problem: I'm a pantser by nature. That means I have a story idea and start writing. I don't plan things out, I don't think very far ahead, I just let the characters and story pull me along. Fantasy, due to the intricacies inherent in the genre, doesn't work well with pantsers. Therefore, I've had to do a hybrid plotter / pantser thing that I am totally not used to.

A few examples.

For one, I set up a dangling plot thread in the first book to tell what the main character would be doing in the second one. Then I wrote the second one a couple of months later, and completely forgot the plot thread was there. As a result, the main character does nothing for a large chunk of the book. Not only that, but I didn't even remember the thread when I did the second draft of that first book. I only caught it on the third. Much swearing ensued as I realized the additional content I get to write for the second volume. At least I was preparing for revisions, so I was already prepared to dig into that manuscript again.

Another good one: timelines. The world this story is set in has A LOT of history to it. A good thousand years or so. In theory, at least. I also realized while working on that third draft that there is no flow to the continuity or the events being referenced from the past. All that history, and I didn't create a simple timeline to follow for when those events occurred. Something else to put into place before going into revisions.

Then there's maps. Pick up a fantasy book and open to one of the first pages. What do you see? That's right, a world or region map. Maybe even a city map, if that city is crucial to the story. For a world so detailed, the only map I've got is one sketched on a sheet of notebook paper. Nothing digital to put with the series when it gets picked up or if I self-pub it. So I've spent the evening watching map-making tutorials for GIMP and Photoshop so I can at least get a basic map together to include with the book. "But John," you say. "Isn't that what a publisher's for? To help with that interior art, like they did with JEREMY TODD?" Well, yes, but if they don't know what the world looks like or how it's laid out, how can they make an accurate map? See the dilemma?

Last but not least, foreshadowing. Now, even as a pantser, I've managed to foreshadow events in books, usually by enhancing it during the revision process. For a fantasy series, I'm not just doing it within a book, but also for future books in the series. In Time of Ashes, I have to set up a major conflict for book three, the climax of the whole storyline. Aside from a couple of throwaway bits in the first book and some ham-handed bits near the end of the second, that hasn't happened yet. Even more work for the revisions process!

What does all this mean? Ultimately, I've hit a point where I've managed to scare the shit out of myself over this series. I'm going to finish it--I'm too close not to, now--but I am intimidated as hell over it. I suddenly understand why those fantasy authors I enjoy take so long between books in their own series (except for Sanderson, who's more of a writing machine than I am!). Mad that Kingkiller Chronicle Day Three isn't out after five years? I'm not so much anymore. I kind of get it. I still think Martin writes too slow, but he'll admit that himself, so that's different.

I'm going to get through this, and, like I said, I'm going to finish this series. Pride won't let me give it up, if nothing else. But the next time you pick up a thousand-page epic by some fantasy author, keep in mind the work that went in behind the scenes, all the hours of worldbuilding before a single word went down on the page, all the details that had to be thought out, all the plot threads that had to be trimmed or tied together, and be thankful there are those out there who are insane enough to do it.

As if I needed more proof of how crazy I am....

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