The Uncanny in Fantasy

Man. So, last week’s piece? That was a monster, huh? Seriously, I don’t know how many pages that was. And you know what? I don’t want to know. It’s been a week and I’m still pretty drained from all of that Milestone business. So when I tried to decide on a topic for this week, I was all, “Let’s do something light. Let’s just have a good time… Oh, I know! Let’s talk about the concept of the uncanny in Fantasy!”

Yeah. Cause, ya know, my brain’s an asshole. I tried to think of another topic that I’d rather write about, but my brain refused to even consider anything else. So here we are!

Again, and as always, I have to stress that I’m not yet published and these are just observations I’m making about a genre I love and write on a daily basis. So take from this what you wish with the knowledge that I don’t claim any expertise here. This blog is therapeutic for me and at best, let’s hope it’s thought-provoking for you. In particular, this post is just a collection of thoughts that aren’t meant to provide anyone with anything more than food for thought.

The Uncanny Problem: Not Too Close …

So, let’s say you’re reading a fantasy novel. And you get to a scene where a wizard and a warrior…

… Wait. Dial that back.

A wizard and a warrior walk into a bar. The wizard goes and does magic somewhere–he’s not important (and yet, I put him in?)–and the warrior goes to the bar and orders a whiskey.

How does that feel? Did that immediately stop you–the fact that the warrior ordered whiskey? Does something seem a little… off about that?

Let’s dial that back again.

A wizard and a warrior walk into a bar. The wizard starts dry heaving immediately (because that’s just what came to mind) and the warrior shrugs (?), goes to the bar, and orders a Mike’s Hard.

Okay. That seriously must’ve stopped you. Why?

Because Mike’s Hard shouldn’t exist in this world. Why the hell would there be Mike’s Hard Lemonade?

Well, that’s what I’m talking about here today; that is, according to me, the Uncanny Problem in fantasy. In short, some kinds of fantasy (i.e. not urban, superhero, or anything else that takes place on Earth or a modern-Earth analogue) absolutely cannot introduce elements that are too close to things we have, in reality, right now or even things that are popular right now. That warrior cannot order a hard lemonade because it’s something we have right now that’s popular enough to stick out in our minds as “recent”; t’s just too current (even if it’s not). Really, the whiskey’s also too current, and seeing it immediately ties what we’re reading way, way too closely to reality. Maybe someone could argue around that–maybe someone could make a point that this is the best pub in all of… PublishSaveDraft Town (thanks, WordPress–they’ll never know the difference)–but that person would then be taking time out of their story to explain why the characters have hard lemonade.

I’m a firm believer that you could make a lot of things work if presented in the right way (just trying “sourmash” for example, instead of “hard lemonade”–or even presenting Mike’s Hard in a weird fantasy story that includes lots of modern trappings as part of its theme), but it’s incredibly easy to accidentally include elements that are too “Earth-modern” (we’ll say) in your own fantasy writing. In short, it’s incredibly easy to use the uncanny by mistake and incredibly difficult to use it on purpose.

For example, someone might put a confession booth in a fantasy world church without thinking about it, because, hey, confession booths are things that are in churches, right? But what if the society that built the church is a race of deep elves, let’s say? What if for the majority of your story, you illustrate that these elves aren’t keen on apologizing and often take opportunities that will further their goals out of principle, with no remorse? Would this society actually have confessionals in their churches? Or would churches be something practical that they use for other purposes? Would worship even be the same for this race? Do you, as a writer, feel like you have to justify these elves having confessionals for it to make sense? Is there a chance you’re just trying to justify these confessionals because they’re what you expect to be there–possibly because they’re familiar? And, maybe, easier? The answer to all of these questions probably isn’t clear immediately, but your best possible response whenever you encounter them in your own writing is always, “I should really think about that.”

It’s a slippery slope. Especially because fantasy also can’t go too far away from what inherently makes sense to us… as humans.

The… Other Uncanny Problem: Not Too Far

Okay. Just… Just try this on for size.

A blorfenlaz magic soul and a sentient… (fuck)… metal (fuck it) phase through the flesh wall of a jenmursian. The sentient metal slides through… the… the membrane–

Look, whatever. You get it. What does any of that mean? How does any of that make sense? It doesn’t. Because none of what I was thinking relates to you, as a human, at all. You’re already lost and I didn’t even get to the part where that sentient metal orders a Mike’s Hard.

Because as much as it is fantasy’s job to challenge reality, the genre also can’t stretch too far away from it. Why? Because we’re human, writing and reading human stories. I do believe the genre can push past this inhuman point, but eventually, you pass into sci-fi… or into something else that we as humans just inherently wouldn’t want to read. I’d love to see that envelope pushed as far as it could go, but that’s mostly because I’m really unsuew how far someone could take it.

I think the best anti-uncanny pushing I’ve ever read comes courtesy of Brandon Sanderson. In a lot of his writing, he pushes the boundaries of what we consider normal. But even then, those otherworldly details are tied to concepts we understand. The best example that I can think of are kandra in the Mistborn series. If you haven’t read it, I’ll just say that kandra are not like human beings; they’re an incredibly original, bizarre race that’s really fascinating. But, as a reader, they’re easier to accept because they prefer to present themselves as humanoids–and even beyond physical presentation, kandra think like humans. Even if this was not an intentional decision on Sanderson’s part (I’m not comfortable with making one assumption or another about any writer’s intentions here), the point is that the need to have inhuman things presented as humanoid is as much a facet of fantasy as the need to not have elements be too modern. It’s why orcs and atronachs and countless other races, no matter how weird, are still almost always “humanoids.” It’s why a fairy realm, no matter how bizarre, still has castles (or, if not, still has homes or dens or any kind of dwelling the faeries call their own). It’s why even if there’s not Mike’s Hard (and really, there better not be), there’s still–always–ale.

In short, there’s a weird balance between what’s absolutely not okay to put in a fantasy world and what’s not okay to omit.

Disciple or… Student?

It’s a weird divide. And one I have struggled with because it’s the kind of issue that can pop up for nearly any detail during your world-building. There will inevitably be the point where you think, “Well… should these forest people have bread?” and “Wait… how likely is it this other race would have large wings?”

The answer here is a resounding, “Do research.” But even after research–and on humbler issues, like the naming of a drink in a tavern–the question becomes, “What do I call this thing?”

And that’s when you have to work the uncanny scales and decide. Is your initial concept unrealistic in relation to your fantasy world? Then dial it forward or backward on the Uncanny scale until either you get something that’s both human enough and otherworldly enough to work (keeping in mind that unless you’re making a story about, say, half-orc vampire squid, it’ll probably be [inherently] easy to keep things human enough). In my experience, even just working that dial on one concept–like “student”–will eventually result in a word that might change your concept of a character or world element (in my case, I recently worked the scales on the word “demigod” and wound up with a different concept that changed the way religion works in one of my worlds).

~

Well, I think I’ll call it quits there. Thanks for reading and, as always, I hope you enjoyed the rant.

On Reaching the Creative Writing Milestones

Earlier this week, I popped open an email from a friend. She’s an aspiring author like me, and like me, she has her strengths and her weaknesses as a writer. In particular, she does really amazing research; I definitely search for a quick answer or example for an element I want to use, get it and stop reading if I can work with what I found, but she learns all that she can about a topic, records relevant details, makes an educated decision about what she’s going with and why (and then records those reasons as well, I believe).

Anyway, I’m reading her email and spot something that comes up off-hand; she’s actually written a bit–her words (well, tone [whatever]), not mine. She only spared a sentence for this bit of information, but I smiled. Not in a douchy way, but because, in my mind, she hit the third Creative Writing Milestone (or Waypoint? [Tier? Tier! That works… No it doesn’t (not Event [not Phenomenon (not Happening [Got it! Yes!… Milestone!])])]). And just knowing that–seeing where she was in my concept of the writing process–made me want to tell anyone about that concept. So here we are!

Before I go on, I should caution you that they aren’t a defined thing supported by research; they’re the product of my observations and opinions as an aspiring writer and, as with nearly everything on this site, they’re flavored with an implied “fantasy” before every instance of “writing” and “fiction” (whatever application you can take from them as a general fiction writer, for example, is completely up to you).

That said, in my mind, there are Milestones that every aspiring writer experiences. Each of them is an event (phenomenon, or happening) that–while not all difficult–are still steps we have to surmount and experiences we need to have for better or worse. They are events that I believe we all experience, although their prominence in our lives is different for each of us. I should add that if you get nothing from this, you’ll at least have a pretty clear idea of my growth as a writer.

Anyway, enough foreplay.

The First Milestone – The Realization

You realize that you want to tell stories. Specifically fiction. You aren’t sure what or how, but you want to entertain people. Perhaps you’ve read something and enjoyed it so much that you wanted to try doing the same. Or you experienced a story in a different medium that you enjoyed but that you knew could’ve been better, and now you want to figure out how by writing the story you expected. No matter how you came to realize that you want to write, the point is, you know now and it starts to color how you see everything.

However, for a while, there’s only guess work. You fumble with a few ideas as you try to decide what stories you want to tell, but these ideas may never fully take. Eventually, you may either forget these ideas or remember them fondly regardless of your choice (I hope you remember them fondly). At the very least though, you find characters and story elements that you really like during this time, and often carry them with you afterwards, growing with them and eventually finding their stories if you can.

For me, the Realization only came in full after I did two separate things: played Lunar: The Silver Star for the first time and watched Jurassic Park for the first time. I do fondly remember the characters that I found in those days, but I’m not the person to tell many of their stories (although I brought many of them with me, I could not bring them all; oddly enough, one of my current characters is actually named after one of my First Milestone characters who I had to leave behind [because he was literally just the stereotypical noble knight]).

I haven’t met many people who come to this point and don’t continue–this time for a writer is usually exciting, I think, so there’s an uncontrolled, unplanned, and potentially accidental progression to the next Milestone.

The Second Milestone – The Concept

After trying a few ideas, you experience your very first, oddly cartoonish epiphany; there’s a really good chance that somewhere in your timeline, a young you actually stopped what he/she was doing, jumped up with eyes wide and said, “That’s it!”

After the epiphany, everything happens very, very quickly. You start to create a world based on that single, brilliant idea–an idea which can be anything from a particular setting to a social element in your world. It could be the origin for a character or even just the reason why they wear an iconic piece of clothing.

For me, it was a single social detail about a world that I didn’t know otherwise. I thought the element was amazing, and, in my memory, it was immediately followed by countless details about that world and the realization that two of the characters who I’d been drawing for the past year were key players in its story.

Now, the important thing to realize here is that the Concept can be absolutely addictive. It can go on for ages and can ultimately swallow a writer whole. It’s beautiful, pure creativity, but it requires a lot of work that most of us give willingly, which is part of the problem. For my part, I spent at least ten years of my youth creating new ideas for the one fantasy series. In retrospect, it would’ve been a terrible idea for me to start writing that series in high school, but regardless, the point is that I just kept building that world. And when it got too big, I didn’t stop–I remember having countless files on my computer that conflicted with each other (we’re talking about conflicting world timelines). When I realized this, I tried to prune it all down, but in my excitement, I just created more details and piled them on. Ultimately, I never started that first series in part because it’s still an incredible tangle of concepts that I know I can’t use and won’t do justice to until I’ve had experience actually writing and being published. The point is, however, it’s incredibly easy to burn out from all of this; in my experience, in fact, this is the point where many of us ultimately give up. We carefully and meticulously build worlds and then life happens and for whatever reason we forget or we let go. Either way, very few of us actually move on to the next Milestone.

The Third Milestone – Actually Starting

I don’t want to say that anyone who hasn’t made it to this point isn’t a writer–I believe that anyone who meticulously and lovingly builds a world is someone who wants to write.

However, there is ultimately a huge difference between building that world and actually writing a story in it. Put simply, no matter how much you love your world and your characters, no one will ever find out about them until you start putting pen to paper. Actually doing it–actually starting to tell your story–is one of the most important things you can do. Because, to vastly understate a fact, it’s the hard part. This is the point where you challenge yourself to do this thing you’ve wanted to do for years but were afraid of. This is where you actually try to give these characters you love their voices.

And if you’re anything like me, this is where you suddenly realize that among all of the elements you created, all of the tense dialogue you outlined between characters and all of the plot events you lovingly polished until they were all shiny with epicness, the one thing you didn’t actually do was write out a full, detailed, logical plot that your stories follow. There is a first scene or a first chapter that you work through, but you eventually get tired and stop because you find that there’s no chapter 2 outlined anywhere in all of those notes.

It’s important to say here that this Milestone isn’t all failure though–it’s a victory. You’ve actually started to write and that’s awesome. However, it’s another, strong opportunity for an aspiring writer to stop. Suddenly things don’t work and, at best, you struggle to make them work. You start to let go of some projects while focusing instead on the best you have because you start to realize that what you considered a collection of awesome stories is actually just a group of ideas that require execution to be completed (and enough logic to be executed).

But at the same time, the experiences that come with this Milestone are synonymous with actual, successful writing, and for some of us, the entire process can stop here. Over the years, you can figure out everything about a story, finish a novel, get published, continue writing, and be happy. But again, that’s for some of us.

For the rest of us… there’s the Fourth Milestone.

The Fourth Milestone – Realizing that Everything You’ve Been Writing Is Complete Shit: The Reckoning

<sigh> So… every Milestone is important. But for a lot of us, this is the final, terrible hurdle. Like I said, not everyone experiences this one.

But for the majority of us, there comes a reckoning. It will have been coming for years, and when it finally hits, you’ll melodramatically realize, “I always knew.” It may come out of nowhere or it may come from finally and honestly trying to accept harsh criticism you’ve received for a sample you sent out. Regardless, it is, officially, the point at which criticism stops being inherently harsh in your mind. Not because you’re suddenly zen, but maybe because your third eye opened, and through it you realized that when someone said they didn’t like x and y about the excerpt you sent them, it wasn’t because they were assholes (unless they were actually assholes about it)–it’s because your excerpt actually sucked. And why? Because when the Third Milestone came, you realized that “things don’t work,” you spent the last few years struggling to “make them work.” And in the process of trying to force things to make sense, you took shortcuts and made tenuous, odd ties between conflicting elements. You held onto original concepts you liked (i.e. the magic flute that lets the one character talk to animals) even though they no longer worked with newer, more logical angles you created (i.e. it’s silly how unnaturally useful this flute is). Put simply, your brain and your heart have been fighting on paper and you stepped in to force a settlement between them. And that torn up battle ground? That story that doesn’t make the sense you thought it did? That’s what you’ve spent the last few years writing.

You were too close–that old creative writing adage you’ve heard and used so many times without actually knowing what it meant. In short, the answer was never “make the magic flute less useful.” The answer was, “You honestly think this fucking magic flute is stupid, just like everyone else. Why aren’t you seeing that? Why are you so afraid to delete that stupid flute?”

But, it doesn’t matter. As harsh as all of this is, the point is that you realized you were too close. You finally saw what you were doing and you stepped back and honestly reevaluated your writing. You actually took the criticism and looked at it instead of just glossing it over and telling your friends, “Thanks. I’ll definitely keep this in mind.”

Now, I’m probably biased because I just got to this Milestone a few years ago, but I cannot help thinking that it’s something every writer should look out for. If you’ve been writing for a while now and you love what you write to the extent that you’re sure everyone’s opinions about your work are wrong, you need to stop and very openly and honestly reevaluate yourself as a writer. If you have friends who have told you that your work is great but you have a hard time tying scenes, character motivations and plot events together in a simple, logical, and compelling way, then–as harsh as it sounds–you need to consider that your friends are being nice and that your story / characters / writing in general is missing something.

Something, by the way, that you can absolutely provide. At this point, you will have already worked on your craft for years, and despite how bad this sounds, this is not a reckoning that you won’t understand. When you get here, you’ll realize you’ve been ignoring issues with your writing for ages. Whether it’s because you’ve heard it from others or because you’ve made excuses for clear plot holes, you’ll know what’s wrong.

But when you get to this point, you’ll have found a solution. And maybe it won’t be clear (maybe you’ll have to figure out exactly what you need to change about your writing to produce quality stories), but finding this solution–admitting that you can always improve as a writer and that you always need to try harder–is synonymous with producing quality writing. If you reach this Milestone, you haven’t been defeated. For lack of a more melodramatic phrase, you’ve been set free.

~

Well, that was an incredibly long post. If you read through, I hope you enjoyed and got something out of this. Either way, thanks for reading.

A Year Later

So I was on the bus with Chaos Mechanica last week after seeing The HughJackverine. It had been about two years since I’d last seen him (Mechanica, not HughJackverine), and talk eventually turned to work. Our days after Infinite Ammo have seen him get a position with Dual Shockers, a gaming website. And they’ve seen me…

… Well, definitely fail to finish writing my book in the time constraints I originally gave myself with Brand New Day–let’s just throw that right out there. It’s been a very long year after IA and it hasn’t been kind; there’s been all manners of fighting with friends, fighting with family, various fun injuries, and a lot of other issues I don’t want to get into. Really, the fastest way to say it is, life happened. Oh, did it ever happen.

Anyway, back to Chaos Mechanica; we got around to talking about our blogs eventually. He asked me how long it’s been since I’ve written on mine. I was all, “I seriously have no idea.” We talked about how blogging was a therapeutic thing anyway, and how, really, we just didn’t have the time for it.

But, despite having a job now, I realized… I do absolutely have the time for this blog.

If I’m completely honest about it, time was never really an issue in writing this blog the same way that time is never really an issue… with writing. It wasn’t that I couldn’t–I just didn’t, which is always the brutal truth of writing anything; yes, we may come home from work and we’re exhausted. And yes, we may get to our day off and we just really can’t be bothered to start because we just want to relax. But, really, those are always comfort choices; it’s never that we absolutely need to spend the whole day gaming, watching TV, going out or doing whatever–we just choose to.

And that’s absolutely what happened with me. While it would be nice and dramatic to pretend that I took a break because I was sad that I lost Infinite Ammo, the truth is, Mechanica and I gave it up; for my sake, I can admit that journalism was not for me at all and the constant pressure, along with the certainty that I didn’t really know what I was talking about a lot of the time, absolutely burned me out. Pulling back from that–taking a breather from talking about the gaming industry and comics industry like I was an expert when I absolutely wasn’t–was so cathartic that I kind of just gave up everything. It was a choice that I made the same way an aspiring writer comes home after work, sits down, and decides without a thought that, nope, they aren’t writing tonight. And, really, it was the worst choice.

But, there’s something important to specify here. While I say I gave up everything, I mean everything except for writing my book. My book which I’m super embarrassed to admit I’m still working on (even though I’m somehow also absolutely proud to still be working on). More to come on that, but for now, the point is, I haven’t given up on that, which, I believe, is why I’m writing this blog post at all. Because despite everything falling apart–despite deciding to give up for a while–there was something that I never questioned sacrificing–my writing. As hokey as it sounds, I just kept doing it in part because it was always there, always waiting, and always relying on me to do it. Because there are characters with voices that only I know and places only I have seen and I would be nothing without those people, those places, and the chance to bring them to others.

Man did I say “hokey”? Not a strong enough word.

This is all to say, I realized that I have the opportunity to write about all of this here on this blog because I haven’t given up. And I have the opportunity to share my findings with other people (specifically my findings about writing fantasy–the one thing I’m certain I know about). So why shouldn’t I do that? Because I’m tired? Because I got burned out? If I say yes to those things, then I’m not a writer.

So, instead, I’ll just say, hi. I’m back.

A Brand New… Vamlemtime’s Day Tribute to Baelbericht, the “War of Exiles” Character Who Got Away

If there’s one thing I love to do on this blog, it’s say one thing and be all, ” ‘S fuckin’ right, dude. S’a way to do it!” but then totally come from the other hand with, “<sigh>… Yeah… That’s the… way to do it. *sniff*”

So, hey, I thought I’d do some of the latter to celebrate this Valentine’s Day. And, ya know, maybe talk about writing at the same time—maybe stumble upon some kind of meaningful, important concept… maybe.

But, really, the learning—the important concept—shit’s not important. What’s important is paying tribute to a character who, I realized earlier today, totally did not make it to the rewrite of War of Exiles. Ladies and gentlemen, this post is for my friend…

<3 Baelbericht <3

So last year, Week 13 of Brand New Day, I wrote a post that was all about how I’d deleted a character. That was Ozi, who I’d called “the Laughing Ghost.” Still love that guy, still totally going to use him somewhere else (and I’m really excited for that), but this isn’t about him. In that post, I talked about how great and important it was to delete a character and chapter that were just not working with the rest of the plot. That’s still a good and healthy thing to do because a lot of aspiring fantasy writers (and I’ve totally been guilty of this) tend to add way too many ideas to one world or plot. The result?

Well, think of it like cooking; you’re trying to make your first dish the very best dish ever, which isn’t the worst idea, only you try to do it by adding in everything that sounds delicious… which is, like, everything in the cupboards. There’s already a jalapeno in there (intrigue?), but fuck it—empty the jar. Chocolate (romance) is awesome, so I’m going to throw that in there! Wait! Lemons (Jar Jar Binks)!? Going in! That last one was a joke, but the point’s gotta be clear; whether or not these elements are good or bad, they can’t all work jammed together with no rhyme or reason. Even a trained chef can’t make every single awesome element work in the same composition (i.e. why Dinosaurs aren’t in Game of Thrones). The discerning writer knows this and it’s ultimately why deleted scenes / characters / chapters happen.

But sometimes, deleted scenes are awesome and that’s what this post is (supposed to be) about.

Baelbericht was an awesome character who I really loved. He was a barbarian (they aren’t called that in my story, but I don’t want to get into the mess of naming analogue races [or, ya know, the mess of analogue races] right now, so I’ll just say barbarian). He had an awesome weapon that was so cool I’m not even going to talk about it. I will say that his shoulder guards were bear skulls (only the skulls were faced inward, so that it looked like he’d shoved his arms down their throats)… Not really sure how that armor worked out visually, but it was a cool, smaller detail on a character I liked a bunch.

Of course, the thing is though, I totally didn’t remember he wasn’t in the book, which says a lot about my capability to love things, right? But months ago, I’d planned out exactly how and when he would make his appearance in the rewrite.

It just didn’t happen.

So am I going to go back and write him in? Well, of course not. That’d be ridiculous and although I’m on a really awesome writing schedule right now, I don’t have time for bullshit like adding a character into chapter six and editing back up to twelve.

And really… Looking back at this character who I’d thought was so damn awesome, at this point, is like looking back at another time in my life. It’s perhaps, the same reason why I took out Ozi; I’m different now in the same way that the rewrite is different. Two years ago, War of Exiles was something else. Something I enjoyed at the time, but something that was, ultimately supposed to be a really quick project written by someone who definitely hadn’t read enough fantasy or tried to do anything more than create analog races (in a written story, at least [the series I started planning back in high school had a bunch of original races that I often go back and tinker with]).

When it came down to it though, the me I am now, nearly at the end of this extremely weird time in my life, just didn’t remember Baelbericht. Somewhere between figuring out (and always [always] writing down) exactly how my characters feel and just which twists are / should be hinted at in a scene, I’d completely forgotten to put in the generic dude with the crazy bear armor and the wicked cool weapon. And the plot (sorry, Bael) totally forgot as well. Because it isn’t a plot about giant warrior dudes battling zombies with their electric guitars (I swear that never happened in the first draft); it’s a plot about emotional people with real problems, thrown into a terrifying situation and trying to get out of it (add a bit of jalapeno).

So what’s my point here? How is this even a Valentine’s Day post? What does it have to do with anything?

Well, a major part of love is letting go, right? Whether it’s letting go of insecurities so you can trust someone or letting go of the one who got away so you can find someone else, goodbyes are essential for love.

So I thought it was appropriate I say goodbye to Baelbericht tonight.

I know I’ll see him again somewhere down the line, and I know that when I do, it’ll be awesome and he’ll be a real character. But for me, it’s just one of those Valentine’s Days that’s all about letting go.

A New Methodology

Writing used to be a feel good, hobby-ish thing for me. I would sit down and stare at my computer and brainstorm about what would happen next. And more often than not, an answer would not come. But that was always okay–cause it would come in time! As long as I was getting something done at all–as long as I was at least sitting at the computer with the intent–I was doing alright for myself. And to an extent, that’s true; just sitting down and clocking in is the first test of all writers.

 

But, that approach wound up leading to some major issues. First and foremost, I was way too laid back about what was happening in my story; things would feel right and I would throw them on the page, always going with my gut, never wondering how often my instinct matched what was happening or the tone I’d already set. More crucial than that though, plot lines got completely out of control; my first edit took months because I was just trying to close loopholes. I remember thinking, say, in the middle of my first draft, “Hey! This should happen! I’m going to write it in even though it hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else in the book yet! I’ll just catch it later and smooth it all out!” When I reached one of those moments during my first edit, I remember stopping, sighing, and (probably) saying aloud, “You bastard.” Tack on the countless switch-ups of characters’ moods and logic and the zig zagging plot (products of my returning to the computer completely clueless after weeks of not reading a word of my book), and the first draft of my manuscript was kind of a nightmare. And yeah, maybe it was a nightmare that would’ve sold–cause, sadly, I’ve seen worse in published Fantasy–but not something I’d want to produce.

So, really, the only option was to rewrite the whole thing, but the question became, “What can I do to keep everything from falling apart again?” The answer is probably too bureaucratic and neurotic  for everyone’s taste, but, hey, I’m just explaining how I do things.

 

An Outline, for lack of a better word. A single master file that compiles all of the post-it notes, standalone files, and thoughts I ever had about any snippet of my book, including the full outline of the plot. I’m not going to post a sample of the Outline here, but I will give a vague example of its set-up.

Chapter Number / Chapter Title

Main Characters: A list of all of the characters who are present in the chapter. But not just Name, Age, and Place of Origin; we’re talking everything about them, from what they’re wearing and thinking in this chapter, to whether or not the wound they took two chapters ago is still sore.

Side Characters: The same, only I add side characters’ back stories (I have a Foreword detailing all of my main characters’ stories).

Locations: A full description of all the major areas featured in the chapter.

Plot Lines: A list of plot lines, keeping close track of what I’m revealing, what I’m hinting at, and what I’m saving for later.

Bullets: The full outline for the chapter in bullet portions that are as simple or complex as I want.

 

This is a very streamlined, boring summary, but I have to add, before you bail on me, that it has a lot of great advantages if you use it correctly:

  • First off, approach the Outline chapter by chapter in solid, helpful steps. This is your chance to experiment and work out all the details of your story. To make sure I’ve worked out the initial kinks, I start with the Bullets written by hand in a notebook. Writing by hand keeps me from correcting or even caring about corrections because I can’t free-hand half as quickly as I can correct in my mind; I give up and just get the plot down, bullet by bullet. Here I take my time, deciding what happens on a ton of different criteria (“Is this too boring?” “Does this make sense?” “Would my character actually do this, or is it just from that one movie?” “Is this to simple / predictable / cliche?”) After I finish the Bullets by hand, I look them over and find every character, location, or thing I’m going to talk about in the chapter. With these points of interest, I return to the Outline and that’s where my supplemental info (Main Characters, Side Characters, etc.) comes from. After I have all of the supplemental info down, I copy my handwritten bullets onto the Outline, using the info to improve what I already have and, thus, making sure what remains is as solid of a first draft as it can be.
  • Actually write the supplemental info. All of it. When I was rewriting the first chapter, I decided I’d use a town called Mycelston. But it wasn’t until writing supplemental info that I realized Mycelston had a mine. And, hey, wait, if it has a mine, I could use that at the end of the first chapter… and it’d be awesome. Since doing this, I’ve found a healthy terror in the amount of things I know about my world that I’ve never, ever realized. But also, right there with it was some frustration; that first draft would’ve been a lot better if I’d known Mycelston had a mine. Or that Dawnspear has outlying farms up and down the Dawn Coast. But, hey, how was I supposed to know these things about my fantasy world if I didn’t write or even think about them? More importantly for you, what do you know about your fantasy world that you haven’t realized? You’d be surprised, I bet. Take the info dumps as opportunities to explore your world; don’t sell your it short by rushing through this step.
  • Treat the Outline as a very rough first draft. The bullets are there for you to explore and express your story without you getting bogged down by things like writing style and narration. You’ll have all the time in the world to work with those–give your plot its own attention and see where it takes you.
  • And stay on point with your plot. I know tracking all of your plot points for each chapter sounds tedious, and, yeah, it totally is. But the only thing that’s worse is losing hold of something or forgetting a very important but very minor detail 230 pages into a 461 page book.

Overall, is an outline like mine insanely time consuming? Yes. Will it require you to create a ton of content that (and this is necessary) isn’t even mentioned in your book? Yes. But will your world feel that much more complete? Will you have (as Ron Carlson calls it) more fuel for your story when you create that content? Of course. And when you’re done, will you have enough fuel left over for a collection of short stories set in the same world? Ohhhh, you betcha. Try it out is all I’m saying. I haven’t gotten anything published yet so I’m no guru and there’s a great chance this approach is just a crazy, Louis thing, but if you’re struggling, I hope this helps.

At any rate, I’m going to keep working it. Right now, I’m almost on chapter three. It is, in fact, taking forever. But really, all I ever have to do is compare the old draft to what I already have now and the time and effort are immediately so, so worth it.

A Split in the Road

I remember finishing the second draft of my book. I made the last corrections and was content. My friends and I had a barbeque over it and I was pretty certain I was about to achieve total victory; there was just one edit left–the one where I would spruce up all of the writing and tie up any holes.

Only, the agent I had an eye on wanted books that were about one hundred pages shorter than mine, so major cuts had to happen. But facing that challenge, I didn’t shrink away; I knew immediately what would go. At the time, it just felt like I was being prudent. I looked at parts I’d earmarked for deletion and thought, “These chapters aren’t really important to the story.” “This scene kind of annoyed me.” “I didn’t really think this should have happened anyway.”

And then a friend linked me to a post on Patrick Rothfuss’ blog where he explained his editing process. And from there, things kind of snowballed. I found myself wondering why I was ready to send out something that had multiple nonessential chapters. I realized, really, that a few parts of my own book made me cringe because they were so campy. Most important though, I realized why these things happened: I started writing the book in 2005. Such a long, long time ago. I was 22, I was conceited, and I was a completely different writer with a whole different set of priorities. I remembered wanting things to look good and be fun, never giving enough thought to how original and different everything was. I had the ground work set for something interesting, but then dropped in old cliches because I didn’t know better back then. The result was something I enjoyed, sure-probably something that a lot of people would enjoy-but not something I wanted to submit.

So I told a coworker of mine one morning that I’d completely rewrite War of Exiles only if I could imagine a better, more original version of it’s prologue. I began plotting it out at 6:30 AM. By about 7:20, I knew there was nothing to be done. It was too much better. And there were too many other possibilities-chances to make changes that were too complicated for simple edits.

So, here I am-back to square one. My goal: to finish my “first draft” before 2012.

The Editing Process

Around when his eyes start to sting and his head begins to throb, Louis realizes he misses the writing process and very much prefers it to the editing process. Fondly, he remembers that the former was like this:

-Louis sits down at his computer and rereads the pages he wrote the previous day (or the day before that, or the one before that, etc.).

-He then remembers what he wanted to happen next. He contemplates the next pages, running them through a complex, mental filter.

-He then starts awake and remembers that he decided what he wanted to happen and how best to execute it around when he dozed off.

-Ready now, he starts. With “Then.” Or no-wait. “But then again.” Ah yes. That’s right. “But then again.”

-Satisfied with this start, Louis gets up and locates a snack.

-He returns to find “But then again” and sighs deeply.

-He starts awake again and realizes he needs to brainstorm.

-He lies down on his bed to do so.

In contrast, editing is a far more constant and steady business that is frighteningly portable (like Pokémon), so that it can dominate your life even when you think you’re safe (likePokémon).

And so, Louis squints at the red mess of a particularly bad page and realizes that there are no snacks. There is no “brainstorming” required. There is only the deed, so glaringly simple now (as it is, in fact, simply transcribing corrections from his massive hand edit to his computer).

But then again…

Character Design: Why Bother?

I was sitting in class at City College once, not taking notes – drawing instead. One of my peers looked over and asked what I was doing. I turned my book so she could see a sketch of one of my favorite main characters.

It wasn’t enough for her. “Who’s that?”

I told her and she asked, “You draw your characters? Why?”

Now it was my turn to be confused. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Writers are taught that in prose, it’s a clever tactic to leave the physical appearance of characters to readers. Give them guidelines – simple descriptors that create an image of the kind of person someone is. You could say, for example, that Rock Stout had golden hair, perfectly curled, and wide teeth that almost glistened when he smiled they were so white, and from that we’d generally get that Rock Stout was an ass – or probably an ass.

The same occurs in Fantasy writing. The simplest description in the world is “he had a chest like a barrel.” I’d almost be worried about quoting someone specifically, but this has been said in so many ways in so many stories that I believe it’s impossible to quote anyone specifically with this, and – furthermore – I’m not saying this descriptor is a bad one. The point is, we get everything we need to know from that phrase: this man drinks, laughs loudly, probably uses an axe or warhammer, probably likes wine and whores, is possibly a black smith. It’s simple – about as simple as Rock Stout’s description. Likewise, our hero can be simply described as “usually the tallest head in a room” and again, we get the idea.

The question then is, why bother doing more than this? Why devote as much time to character design and artistry for a media that barely needs it?

The answer is simple. Because I don’t want this to happen:

My... God.

This is the US cover of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm. And, sadly, it’s probably the best cover for the series so far, or among the best.

Now, let’s see what happens when, Seamas Gallagher, who takes his time and, more importantly, cares, renders Rand Al’Thor:

Kind of totally way better.

So, what am I saying here? Is it that all fantasy writers should spend time trying to draw and design their characters? That even if they do, the artists assigned to do their cover art somehow will – or will even try to get it right? No. What I’m saying is that when War of Exiles is released, if it has a cover that looks as off base as this –

This book is not about a waterfall. It's - wait... Are those people?

– you can come back here and look at the awesome character sketches and art that I’ll have up by then until the pain stops and the tears go away. Mine and yours.

Starting a War

A Different Experience

From the beginning, my approach to story telling has been grounded in a desire to give readers something fresh. But I realized early on that different experiences go further for making stories fantastic than different worlds do; a novel set in a world full of dwarves, elves, and orcs gains strength from it’s familiarity and accessibility, no doubt, but it fails to be intriguing if the three races are engaging in another war for another magical relic, or fighting the same evil from the North.

How does this relate to War of Exiles? Simple – this first novel was a side project. Before, behind, and after it, I’ll be working on my masterpiece. However, I needed something to kick start my career – a debut that’s both familiar in appearance but truly fantastic in narrative. I believe Exiles achieves this. With deep characters, the unique, exiled setting of Ashiaden, and an interesting twist on the traditional quest narrative, War of Exiles gives readers something unexpected – a different experience.

A Different World

“And somewhere, in a direction he couldn’t discern and a distance he couldn’t fathom, there was a wasted continent where someone from his long-forgotten lineage had laughed, cried, fought, and at some point sacrificed themselves to ensure that his grandparents or their parents escaped, lived, and carried on the bloodline that eventually ended with him.”

I can’t boast that Ashiaden will be visually new and breath-taking. There will be barbarians – the Baerlungs. There will be short men somewhere far away who make weapons and tools that run on steam – the Steiners. There will be druids who can shape nature – the Ceudin. But these will not be orcs, dwarves, and elves. They are Ashiads, all human – their differences cultural, not racial – with a lineage that falls back to the unifying event of their exile.

About 300 years before the novel starts, the exiles touched down at Ash Landing. Having escaped the fall of an empire, the refugees settled there or escaped South, East, and North, only certain that this new land would be called Ashiaden, “ash home” in the Old Tongue, as the elders claimed. Centuries later, villages have expanded and fortified, but unified systems of law and rule have yet to be established. Baerlungs raid towns and rob weary travelers, bandits and the native creatures called Lessermen do the same, and the strongest bit of the Old Continent’s Magic exists only in Necromancy. Travel is dangerous, travelers rare – save for bards, who gain fortune from selling information whether through story or song and in truth or fabrication, and merchants foolish enough to gamble abroad.

Among the cities on this island is New Dawn, where the novel’s protagonist, Lethe Dega, is born. An austere rock just off the coast of the mainland, the veritable island fortress is as closed as any other city of Ashiaden, and kept that way by the sects of Sentinel and Rider.

Different Characters

Traditional character types are offset by unique personal situations. Lethe Dega, a Sentinel of New Dawn, is driven to rid Ashaiden of necromancers, despite how deeply it affects his relationship with his family – an already tenuous bond. Etalen, a druid of Clan Terra, finally decides to put her life on the line if it means she can escape her family’s intent to let her dwindle into obscurity. Semacien, one of the island’s bards, seeks a story he can live off of for years to come. And all of them and others grow and change  in ways that the strapping hero, plucky rogue, and wise old mage would not.

A Different Quest

Without saying too much, the adventure of War of Exiles takes a different approach that I’m sure will intrigue readers easily. When I decided to start off with a more traditional, familiar story, I knew that I couldn’t give my readers an adventure that spent hours on the road. Although authors like Robert Jordan and Garth Nix do well with such quests, I’d already heard enough of them that I couldn’t be satisfied giving another to my audience.

So instead, I looked at all the ways you could do a quest narrative without doing a quest narrative. In the end, I found an answer that could suit my needs, serve the plot, and give readers something unexpected, unfamiliar – different.