Those of you reading this are about to learn a secret that I doubt the eventual readers of our eventual book(s) will ever imagine:
Our epic fantasy is science fiction in disguise. Really, really deep disguise.
I am often able to lose myself in someone else’s fantasy novel without questioning, for example, the provenance of human beings on a planet that is very obviously not Earth. When constructing my own, however, I want an explanation, if only so my brain will stop complaining about convergent evolution and crap like that.
So our planet’s humans are descendants of colonists that originated on Earth. Our magic systems are examples of Clarke’s third law; they are technological in origin, even if the wielders don’t know it and the readers never guess. And so on.
(It occurs to me that I do this for much the same reason that I slaved over villanelles and sestinas but rarely bothered with free verse. I don’t work well in a loose system; it feels … sloppy. Give me a tight framework, please, and let me weave something intricate around it.)
By the time we got a trilogy’s worth of plots and characters roughed out, we had four major countries, each with a distinct culture. Each of these peoples has its own language, but again — the secret is that they’re all descended from a future English, which was the shared language of the colonists over a thousand years before. They are all cousins, like French to Spanish.
Jak and I are both getting tired of the lack of names for our major characters; we’ve been making do with placeholders like ‘mountain king’ and ‘red herring dude.’
So late last week I began the complex process of creating four separate versions of ‘far future English’, learning the necessary linguistics as I go. I spent almost all of Saturday and Sunday on it, on little sleep, and nearly burned myself out. Now I’m progressing a bit more slowly. Language One is at the phoneme stage, Three is into morphemes and basic vocabulary, and Two, where I’ve spent the most time so far, is all the way into early grammar. (Language Four I haven’t even started; none of Book One’s major characters are named in it, so it can wait.)
I’m enjoying the linguistic geekery quite a bit, despite occasionally feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. Plus it was totally worth it to read off a pair of sentences in Language Two, with translation, and watch Jak’s eyes go wide and his mouth fall open. Heh.
I remember what it’s like trying to write a scene too far from the here and now without adequate background information. It’s akin to trying to paint without colors.
I’d need to describe a room, and I’d have no idea what the walls or floor would be made of. So then I’d have to read about how stone is quarried, and about different types of roofs, and make some decisions about the availability of wood, which in turn entails some decisions about geography, maps, and placement of forests. Several hours later I might come back to my scene and eke out a sentence. Only to discover that I now need to know if the windows would have glass, which means researching the history of glass-making …
No. I’ve been firm in my conviction that I’m going to do all the research I expect to need before attempting a single line of prose. I want the geographies and the cultures and the technologies and the languages spread out before me like colors on an artist’s palette, so that the times when I have to halt everything and drive to the art supply store for a new pigment are mercifully few and far between.
Jak’s style, on the other hand, is much more ad hoc. He wants to outline the plot in considerable detail, but would be happier doing most of the worldbuilding on the fly. He’s never argued with my need to do it all up front, but he’s already showing signs of dismay at the amount of time it takes … and I’ve only covered a fraction of what I believe we need.
I suspect he feels like until we’re setting down prose we’re not really writing, and fears that perhaps we never will — that it will be all buildup and no payoff. I can understand this, but I can’t effectively reassure him, because I’ve never done anything on this scale before. I think this will work out, but I can’t be certain.
Last week I ran across this interview with Tim Powers:
How long does it take you to write a novel? And what do you make of the whole idea that a successful novelist ought to write a novel a year?
It takes me a long time. Longer than I can really justify, I guess. But I do have to do a powerful lot of reading before I can even figure what sort of plot would fit into the period I’m writing about and the things that were going on then. I take heaps of notes, make dozens of long, cross-indexed files! And I freely let myself get sidetracked on peripheral topics, which generally don’t prove to be useful (though it’s very nice when they do!). And then I have to figure out my plot and characters, in a lot of detail since I want to have made the tricky decisions in the outlining stage rather than be surprised by them as I’m writing—though inevitably a few sneak in anyway. All this winds up taking about a year, somehow.
Then all that’s left is to write it; and with revisions and all, if the book is in the neighborhood of 200,000 words, that takes about a year too. And then the editor usually has some suggestions for revisions, which prove to be good ideas.
If I wrote a novel a year, they wouldn’t be the sorts of novels I write. They might be better, objectively!—but in my eyes, at least, they wouldn’t be what they could be. The real reason to write fiction, after all, isn’t to make money, nor to show the human heart in conflict with itself, nor to give a picture of one’s time, nor to call attention to the plight of any oppressed classes, but to show off. You want to be able to say to visitors, “Sit down, let me clear that stuff off the couch, it’s copies of my new novel.” And to show off effectively, I want each book to be as close as I can get it to what I want it to be. It’s like making six-foot-tall replicas of Gothic cathedrals out of toothpicks in your basement—you might as well get all the saints’ faces right.
I found this immensely reassuring, as it all sounds very much like me and the way I work. When I told Jak, he half-laughed, half-groaned at the thought of a whole year of pre-writing. I honestly hope to have it done in less time than that, but it’s likely to be measured in months rather than weeks, which is tough. For both of us. I am very fond of instant gratification, and this novel process is the antithesis of that.
But damn it, if we’re going to make six-foot-tall replicas of Gothic cathedrals out of toothpicks, we might as well get all the saints’ faces right!
There’s a famous cartoon where two scientists confer over an elaborate equation, the middle step of which reads ‘then a miracle occurs …’.
That’s been the plot outline of our first novel — a complex escalation followed by a gaping hole where the climactic scene should be, indicated by ‘some powerfully big magic happens here’.
But it couldn’t be just any powerfully big magic, and finding something that would fit in that very precisely-shaped hole had been stumping us for weeks. Yesterday I think we finally carved out an answer.
I’m not quite ready to trust it — I’m still half-afraid one of us will realize some terrible overlooked flaw that sends us back to the drawing board. If this does work, though, then we have all the major story elements of book one in place, and the rest is just details.
Lots and lots of details.