The Kingdom In A Nutshell

When I sat down to write about Grant Scotland, I was much more interested in what he was doing and how and why than where. I don’t know if it’s like that for other fantasy authors. I’ve never bothered to ask anyone. I don’t know very many. I suppose I could do a Google search and find out, but as I mentioned before I’ve stopped reading author interviews. When they don’t bore me they intimidate me, especially the ones that talk about using a “formula” or having a “plan.”  I’ve never been a very good planner. Experienced internet users might see where I’m headed with this:

joker_plan

It’s like this, except I don’t wear as much eye shadow when I’m writing.

When people start talking mysteriously about their writing technique, I always feel like I’m back in a high school classroom and everyone’s giving answers and I haven’t even figured out what the question is yet. So, I gave up trying to figure out how other people write and just decided to move forward – plans and formulas be damned. Of course, I certainly do have “plans” just not “THE PLAN.”. Story plots are planned out, obviously, and character histories are mapped out so I can keep track of motivations. But world-building? No, not so much. My goal more or less from the start has been “My world is just like the real world, except in the places where I tell you it’s different.”

Still, I became frustrated after writing a few chapters of Spy for a Dead Empire because I found I didn’t have any choice but to build the world, or at least Grant’s experience in it, before I could go any further. I could’ve used our own world, but I wanted the freedom to shape it myself. I didn’t want to share it with Caesar or Charlemagne or King Arthur or be restricted by having to explain some fantastical element with real world logic. I’ve seen other authors do that and it just looks like too much work. I want Grant Scotland’s world to be largely mysterious to him and I want to stay focused on his own personal conflicts, be they internal or external. For example, my world has magic. Grant doesn’t really understand it. Do you need to? You don’t, but maybe you want to. That’s fine. I’m not judging you, but you’ll probably be frustrated by my writing if that’s the case.

Worst. Fake World. Ever.

Worst. Fake World. Ever.

My approach probably has a lot to do with writing in first person, but it also has something to do with my own reading tastes. I’ve found I’ve started to move away from typical “epic fantasy” because authors of books in that subgenre seem to focus so much on the geography and culture and history that they leave the characters they write about seeming small and uninteresting. I’ve labeled these authors as “Dungeon Masters.” What do the individual struggles of their puny characters matter in the grand schemes of the massive forces at work upon the operatic stage of terrestrial and extra-planar strife?

Of course, this is all a matter of taste. Many people like that sort of thing, as long as it’s well written, and there are certainly many wonderfully talented authors working in the subgenre today. I’m more interested in believable characters existing in believable worlds and working at knife-fight range with the obstacles I throw at them. I want to keep the reader linked as personally as I can manage. That’s perhaps the main reason I chose to make sport of the fantasy tropes of Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes and all the other “races.” They always seemed too alien to be considered actual races like the ones we know. When reading most fantasy books, it drove me nuts that authors never explained how these completely different sentient species all came to evolve and exist together on the same planet. Nor how Elves who live for 1,000 years have the same perception of reality as Humans. Usually in fantasy there are gods at work, so it can be pretty easily explained through creationism and some sense of static technological advancement, which always seemed to me to be a boring cop out. But imagine if all these different sentient species had evolved in tandem! Wouldn’t that have been one hell of a primordial soup?

Campbell's got nothing on this stuff.

Campbell’s got nothing on this stuff.

A little far fetched? Yeah, I couldn’t imagine it either. This line of reasoning is what led me to reimagine these archetypal fantasy races as distinct human ethnicities instead of different species. By doing so, I feel like I can lay a subtext about racial and cultural alienation if I want to (sometimes I want to)  by getting rid of the piggish snouts, long ears and inexplicably Scottish talking beards. But, I knew if I paid too much attention to my world as a character, I’d risk bogging myself down and losing focus on Grant Scotland’s character. So, I made a deal with myself. Every time I needed to add a piece of the world to my story, I’d go ahead and invest a certain period of time to flesh it out with notes and sketches before moving on. But that’s it. No grand map. No detailed history of the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms. No memorable characters drunkenly sung about in smoky halls of sweaty barbarians during the long winter nights. No elaborate pantheons with colorful deities and improbable creation myths.

There’s just Grant stumbling around in a dark and dangerous world, trying to find some answers and maybe even rediscover some sense of home. That’s not to say there won’t be a map at some point and certainly not to say there aren’t larger forces at work that haven’t been written about yet, I’m just doing the lion’s share of fleshing those things out in tandem with the book plots rather than ahead of them. I don’t know, maybe most authors are like that, too, but I’d be really surprised if Georges R. R. Martin didn’t have the entire history of Westeros jotted down somewhere in a book he’ll no doubt clean up and publish all Silmarillion-like after the Song of Ice and Fire is finished being sung. I wouldn’t blame him. I’d probably buy it.

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A Good Chair

The most important part of writing is having a good chair. It has to have good back support, mobility, armrests and appropriate cushioning. It cannot be too soft or too hard. You should get the feeling that you want to do something productive as soon as you sit in it – like a starship captain’s chair, maybe, but probably nothing like that. Knees and hips and back should all be ergonomically supported in a way that ergonomically inclined people would all agree is ergonomically sound.

I’m only half-kidding. I’ve tried writing in other positions and in less than ideal chair arrangements and while it is still possible to write, it is much more of a chore. When uncomfortable, I find I keep thinking about how I can be done with writing as quickly as possible rather than how I can say what I want to say as well as possible. It’s not the end of the world to write like that, because most of the polished prose comes in during revision anyway, but if you can get it as close to perfect on the first draft then you’re saving yourself some work. And I hate work.

And writing is work. Let no one tell you differently. It’s hard, intimidating, demanding, frustrating, uncomfortable and lonely. The closest thing I can compare it to is exercise. You know you have to do it to achieve the result you’re looking for, but it really sucks while you’re doing it. Even the endorphin rush you get from exercising, which is the only thing that makes it barely tolerable, is akin to the feeling a writer gets from constructing a sentence that is funny, interesting or maybe has some measure of literary merit. And, of course, as with exercise, the best part is when it’s over.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

When I decided almost exactly two years ago today that I was going to throw everything I had into being an author, I already knew I could write, I just wasn’t doing enough of it. It had been about the only marketable skill my former bosses could agree that I possessed, but just having an innate proclivity and/or talent towards writing obviously wasn’t going to be enough to build a new career. “Writer’s write,” Billy Crystal admonishes us in Throw Momma from the Train. And he’s correct. No one got rich writing one blog post or clever tweet. It takes many hundreds of thousands of words, or even millions, before a body of work can be put together and given a chance to make some money.

And please don’t mistake me. I’m in this for the money. Would I still be writing if I was independently wealthy? Maybe. Maybe not. I’d probably just play computer games all day. But since I’m not wealthy and am no longer even remotely qualified to re-enter the white collar work force, this is my last shot at meaningful employment. That may sound like a joke to most people, but I’m doing this because I sincerely can’t sing or dance or program. It’s this or pizza delivery. Well, probably both. 😉

Might I interest you in an e-book to go with your pizza? You could eat and read!

Might I interest you in an e-book to go with your pizza? You could eat and read!

So I began making writing a daily task for myself. At first, it was more like a once every three or four days kind of thing, but even on days when I didn’t write, I took notes or went on long walks and forced myself to work out plot problems and imagine the history of my fantasy world. Like exercise, you have to start slow and be patient. First you walk a half mile. The next day you walk a full mile. The next week you jog a quarter mile and then walk a mile on top of it and so on. It was the same thing with my writing. After a year I had Spy for a Dead Empire done and was convinced I could get Troubled King finished in nine months. I believe I did it in seven. This is just the writing and internal revisions, I’m talking about. I’m not including the month of final production I spend with an editor and cover artist.

As of a couple of days ago, I finished the first draft for Spy for a Wayward Daughter. It took about four months of pumping out about one thousand words a day, allowing for the occasional day off for real life to intrude. After another two months of internal revision, the manuscript should be ready for final production. That’s about where I want to be for the Grant Scotland series – around two books a year.

I’m optimistic I can keep that pace up for the foreseeable future. The more I write about Grant’s world, the more I find I want to write about. I’ve also found that it’s become much easier to summon Grant Scotland at will and hear his voice and understand the how and why of him. He is as interesting to me as his world, if not more so. That’s fairly obvious, I guess, since I chose to write in first person, but it’s exciting for me to think about since it means I won’t soon grow tired of him. I’ve got many books still to write and now that my writing muscles are in good shape, I don’t think I’ll slack off. Besides, my chair won’t let me.

Don't even think about watching porn while sitting on me, buster.

Don’t even think about watching porn while sitting on me, buster.