Back in early 2012, I jammed out the first draft of my third novel, Bokur, in exactly 40 days. I didn’t take that long to plot out, either. My fourth book, Another Goddamn Novel About the Collapsing Quantum Multiverse, was similarly quick, with essentially no written plot or character development work. On that one, I simply sat down and improvised.
Both of those novels benefit from occurring in more or less the same world that we currently inhabit, with more or less the same history, the same land masses, and so on. On the other hand, my first two novels – originally written as one long manuscript between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2003 — exist within a fantasy world.
Writing in a world of your own devising is fun. It gives you tremendous freedom. But here’s the flip side: A multi-volume story set in a world that doesn’t exist means that every portion of that world must exist in your imagination. Which means the heavy lifting of preparation is exponentially more difficult.
What year is it? How are dates figured? When were your characters born? Where do they live? How many miles is it from that city to the next one over? And so on.
And then there’s the issue of culture. A realistic world not only has history and language, but belief and religion, folklore and myth. There’s the history we believe as children, and the deeper understanding that we can acquire as adults. Towns develop based on industries and markets. Wars leave scars and ruins. Biases emerge. Old grudges become easily exploitable weapons. By the time I sat down to write the first draft of A Madness, I’d already written dozens and dozens of pages of background material, which sat at my desk as a reference book while I wrote, supplemented by multiple maps in various scales, outlines of plot and overviews of characters and conflicts.
Anyway, back in the spring of 2010, while working as a bike mechanic, I decided the next book in the series (a prequel called Chene) would be the story of Seamus Dannan’s parents in Gwynyr. I spent a few weeks working out the basics of the plot, then dove into development work that included far more detail than anything I’d ever done the first books. That was in June or July. Roughly a month later, 100 percent of that work disappeared in a hard-drive crash. I spent most of August in Portland, then returned in September and wrote down as much as I could remember. Then I filed it away and got on with the next thing.
Roughly five years later I took up the story as part of an attempt that began in 2012 to create more detailed histories of figures and concepts and cultures from the original books. I wrote down things no reader knows. I documented the source of mysteries that I never plan to reveal, outlining them only for the sake of consistency and logic. Between 2012 and the today, I’ve produced more than 200 pages of reference material and story development documents for the Darbas Cycle. And as that became unwieldy, I found myself switching to spreadsheets, tracking everything from character names to dates and locations and relationships.
Because here’s the truth about writing fantasy: Yes, it grants you great freedom, at first. But once you publish a story from any fantasy world, you are now captive to the canon you’ve created for readers who care about the story. For better or for worse, you’re now accountable for that published backstory.
Which has made just plotting out the story of Chene the most complicated logistical writing task I’ve ever undertaken. The story itself? Not so much. At its core, it’s simply a romance between a young man and a young woman. But the world in which it takes place is now far more nuanced than anything I produced in writing the first books. I know far more about where the story came from, over millennia, as well as where it all ends.
Preparing to write the first chapter is rather like cramming for an essay test.
And here’s the trick: It’s not just that the format requires me to take a deep dive into this fantasy world, it’s that getting through this first draft is going to require me to stay under water, without coming up for air, for the duration. The amount of work required to get to this kind of creative headspace is daunting. Once there, you want to stay there for as long as possible. Preferably until the work is complete. Every extended break makes returning to the work that much more difficult.
But can I do that? Can I work that way with tractors to repair and ground to break and trees to cut and cover crops to sow? Can I do it alongside freelance assignments and web jobs and maybe a new bike business, not to mention keeping an eye open for opportunities here in the Upstate?
That’s what I have to find out.
But what I already know is this: My written preparations for Chene and the rest of the Cycle are already longer than the finished drafts of either of my last two books, and when I’m finished, I hope that the actual novel will be far shorter than what I wrote while developing it.
This isn’t the sexy part. But I’m convinced it’s absolutely essential.