James’s Writing Journey: Part 2
So … I’ve decided to write an epic fantasy trilogy. Brilliant. Now, where do I start? I know – I’ll build the world into which my ‘story’ will fit. I’ve done enough imagining to get on with it. How hard can it be?
I fancied myself as a bit of a Tolkien, conjuring pretty looking languages and a social system necessary at the core of my world. Geography was important too, and I had a great time drawing some maps (see below) and a few pictures (a James Hockley original heading the page!) I even started thinking about ‘writing’ the Book of Rha – effectively the Mandari equivalent of the Bible. In hindsight, that was a little optimistic.
And here was the problem: Tolkien was an extraordinary linguist with a lifetime of meticulous imagination behind the political, religious, and social structures of Middle Earth. I was a young and reasonably competent accountant. It was never going to stack up.
And here was another problem: I didn’t actually have a story. I just wasn’t entirely aware of this fact yet. I was dreaming.
In reality, I think I spent the first six(ish) years solely on world building, and in all honesty, dragging my heels. It was a perpetual effort in avoiding the actual work of writing – but it would never work. I don’t think I wanted to write because I wasn’t actually very good at it – we’ll get onto that later – but however much I kidded myself, a collection of random imagined references would never constitute anything other than scrap. So, was this all a waste of time?
Not at all. It may sound like it was, but there was a lot of life going on too, so I doubt I would have effectively operated in any case. If anything, it allowed my underdeveloped ideas to fill out somewhat, and my constant imagining allowed the dreamed constituents to filter into my longer term memory – so I can pick out broad world concepts at will. The world-building may have been strewn about various bits of paper, with a lot of it subsequently overwritten, but it was also in my head; which was useful.
That being said, there were a number of things I did consign to written evidence as follows:
- Started a Mandari equivalent of the Bible (chortle);
- Lots of maps;
- Designed a Mandari language which was, in reality, just letter substitution;
- Created a ‘deity-scape’;
- Created a Mandari social history and class system;
- Started some short stories from notable points in history.
Now, it’s not unfair to say that quite a lot of this was tosh, but that’s not to say it wasn’t useful – it was. That being said, would I do it this way again? No. No I wouldn’t.
I tackled this novel with the idea that I would build the world within which the action happens, and once that ‘template’ was complete, I would write the story. But that’s probably the wrong way round. I’ve said elsewhere that I now see that story is king, and the fantasy aspect is really just a ‘flavour’ of the story (almost embellishment). So why worry about garnish if you haven’t cooked a decent meal?
However (and at the risk of contradicting myself one too many times!) one of the great assets of the fantasy genre is the escapism it offers, and much of this is achieved through the foreign worlds on offer – and in fact, the worlds can often be one of the key draws – so we cannot just ignore world-building. How best then to tackle this challenge?
Well, having only created a single world, and having done it all wrong the first time round, I can only conjure an idea if what I’ll try next time. This is how, I think, I would go about it:
- Let’s have a story please;
- What aspects of the fantasy world are ‘core’ to the story? Make sure these are well thought through and write them down;
- What are the key additional ‘flavours’ you would like to bring out in the world? E.g. is it medieval? Modern? Are we talking humans or other? How do people fight? How do people live? How do people love? Get the thoughts written down somewhere;
- Start writing;
- As you build weight to the tale, it should naturally highlight what aspects of the fantasy world require more ‘colouring’. Think about these more, and collect these higher concepts together with the previous notes that have been made;
- Incorporate the detail into subsequent edits;
- Once you are happy with the world ‘notes’, start looking for key gaps and loosely fill them in. If a reader might think about that aspect, it needs to be thought about. I think that the gaps (be it history or be it lifestyle) are best ‘explored’ by writing a short story. My reasons are that a) writing stories is more fun than writing purely informational text; b) it is good practice; and c) this creates great additional content that can be offered to fans further down the line;
- Rinse and repeat.
So, ultimately my new tactic is to develop the world in tandem with the novel. Not too controversial I don’t think, but the main risk is that discontinuities creep in. So that is where the core spine of the world needs to be ‘nailed’, but the finer detail can be honed as the story progresses.
Think of a car journey in the darkness – you know broadly where you’re going, but the landscape details only materialise as you travel along the path. My view now is that novels are the same.
And this is actually a practice I’m now using. For the novella, Mandestroy, I am in a world outside but closely related to the main novel. Although the core themes and tangents are set, the detail of Mandestroy is largely discretionary, and I am having a lovely time exploring as I go. And this just feels far more natural than world-building purely for the sake of it. It provides context, and that is important in everything we do.
Without context, a task is a chore, but with context, it becomes a challenge. And challenge is what drives us forward.
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