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The Process of Writing Fantasy
Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 2:18 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

I'm a huge fan of finding out just how people approach writing their fantasy (of any sub-genre), so I'm going to get this out there now.

What do you do when you start building a world, writing a new novel, planning a new novel or anything dealing with the fantasy writing process? (This can also apply to science fiction, but since there isn't a place for hybrid commentary, I bid welcome to any sci-fi writers out there who want to pitch in.)

For me, I almost always start with the world. Over the years, the world I write most of my stories in is fairly well developed, though it is constantly in a state of flux as I find new ways to improve it, discover ways to add political tension, and otherwise find fatal flaws in my thought process.

When I start world building, I usually find a cultural characteristic that I want to pursue, something that sets one kingdom apart from another that might be a good source of conflict. This characteristic can be a physical aspect of the land they live in: Danar has a dry, dusty, parched landscape brought upon as a consequence of their own actions. Kelsh is peaceful to a fault, but cannot keep its nose out of other people's business in the pursuit of trade and being noble. The Clansman are so hesitant in their dealings with outsiders that they'll often kill first and ask questions of the corpse unless certain clans are dealt with. Or if it is obvious that the Outsider is an honored trader. In the Rift, well, no one knows a whole lot about the Rift, but if someone comes out of it on the trench horse, they stay well clear of them and bow low just to make sure they survive the encounter.

I work in big, glaring, lovely stereotypes that I pare down until I have a unique set of people to work with. Then I consider what landscape would give these people the traits they have.

At that point, I'm usually comfortable enough to start writing. I do create maps, which I have a great deal of fun doing. These maps are more artistic in nature (one hangs on my wall with no small amount of pride.)

Then the writing begins. I will pick a character with the flat characteristics of his or her stereotype and mold them into a unique personality. It turns out I'll go so far as to write a quick book to get an idea for that unique personality and rebuild them in the rewrite once I know what kind of person they really need to be by the -end- of the book.

Once I know that, I put them into the story with having the basic potential to be that sort of person, but being far away from currently being that person. I figure characters grow up as things happen to them, and I enjoy when characters change over time.

Of my two stories, Shyanna (Snowy Owl character) is in the first phase. In Betrayer's truth, the main characters there are mostly considered, developed and tested and are being toned to better form. Some characters, like Yektrik, still need work, though. Unlike Snowy Owl, which is limited to one primary pov with two extras occasionally added in, Betrayer's Truth has four or five central characters which share the spotlight.

I usually write linearly. By this, I mean in consecutive order that the scenes appear. This often lets me keep track of what is going on in a complex fantasy plot.

I write willy-nilly until the end and begin edits.

Betrayer's Truth has been an exercise in adapting my writing style to test the limits of my personal comfort zones in writing. I pursue many things I usually avoided, which has let me learn a lot of myself as a writer.

Once I get a scene in my arc complete, I will often skip to a different arc to edit a scene, clear my thoughts from the precious arc, and try to kill two birds with one stole. I am always trying to improve my writing style as I draft and edit. While I *like* to think that I've improved the quality of my writing between Snowy Owl and Betrayer's Truth, I'm a terrible judge of my own writing. (FYI, Snowy Owl was written two years before I started Betrayer's Truth.)

I prefer receiving comments during the raw rough draft phase of my writing. I hate polishing just to find out that 'this really didn't work' for the majority of those reading. This way, I can also swallow criticism a lot easier, as the work is NOT my 100% absolute best. I want to be chewed on and spit out when it can make the most impact and I'm not afraid of completely rewriting scenes to make them work. I also find that this keeps my writer's ego strictly in line, and helps me keep up my critiquing skills as I try to help other writers as I want to be helped.

Rinse, repeat, polish with a cloth and some spit. That is my general process.

What is yours?

Michael L Martin Jr
Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2011 4:39 PM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 23

It's not a conscious decision that I make, but I seem to always start with the characters. My worldbuilding follows the trajectory of an explosion. I start small and then branch out, getting bigger and bigger as I go along. So, it'll go something like: Characters>Setting>Culture. I don't really pay attention to what I do first, second or last though. So far, it all has been happening naturally fluid for me. The writing and worldbuilding begin in unison and neither of them stops until the book is published. Which hasn't happened yet. lol *ahem*

With Burn In Hades, I knew I wanted to have a character traveling through the underworld. But before I started thinking of setting, I had to figure out why he was traveling in the first place. I see no point in building a fantastic world, and not having a story to tell in it and to show it off. It's like building a house with your bare hands and not living in it or showing it to anybody. To each his own though. Once I had a hint of the main characters motives, I had to figure out I could throw specific, story-worthy obstacles in his path. Lastly, I figured out what kind of culture would exist in this setting and what concepts could be used in the story. As I learn more about the world and characters, I revise, and this process continues over and over and over.

I try to use both pantsing and outlinning to my advantage. I create milestones and checkpoints for my characters to hit and discovery write my way towards them. Sometimes the milestones change as a result. I write the draft as if I live in a TARDIS. I jump around forwards and backwards through time, from chapter to chapter, scene to scene, and I edit as I go along. Not like spelling, but scene construction. I murder my darlings as I go. Well, not completely. I cut them and save them in a "deleted scenes" document. Once the story is complete, I do delete them though. There have been a few times I've killed scenes, only to resurrect them later, and was glad I kept them on file.

My rough drafts are sacred. I never let anyone view them. I've always preferred presenting a "finished product". I like to get a story as good as I can get it before I send it out into the world. I already know my first drafts need work. I don't need anyone to tell me that. I need someone to tell me my story needs work when I'm physically unable to see the work that it needs.
Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2011 5:49 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

This is an interesting perspective, Michael!

I'll tell you why I do this: I am telling more than one novel story in this world. The world -is- the main character in a way. People are a product of their environment, so I feel it is necessary to have that environment readily available.

I realize that much of the work I do will never see the light of day, but it is satisfying to me to have that foundation. I also enjoy not having to world build every time I want to start a new novel.

I love series -- or series of series -- that use one world over and over. Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar. Anne McCaffrey's Pern. David Edding's Belgardiad & Mallorean.

I enjoy being able to take the lore I've learned from previous books or short stories and imagining it as I read. This is what I wish to accomplish my with novels. I want each series or set to stand alone, or novel, but I want readers who DO read them all to be able to snap their fingers and go, "I remember that!" or "Hah! This is so true."

The references shouldn't -confuse- new readers, but it should enhance the experience for those who have read other books. I want to show readers the history of this world as though they were there, watching how it develops and watching how it struggles to survive.

I find writing a novel is not just about one character, but the culmination of hundreds of characters that converge into one individual. I know that I am a product of my environment, and I can't make a character without the world around them. It is just easier for me to build the culture and world first before I dig into the characters.
Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2011 6:51 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

My process changes with each project. I know when I was starting out on my adventure to becoming a writer I began with an idea for a character and set about creating a world where the events and this character would be plausible. One informed the other. This novel took me 8 years to finish a first draft. Mostly because I started it when I was a junior in high school and college and grad school came along to interrupt things quite often. A couple years ago I sat down to flesh out the world some more. I'd had a map, I'd had my characters, I'd explored the world this story was to inhabit. I wrote an entire history, from the world's creation to the present of the novel I was writing.

I crafted my characters, looking at the adults to see who they were and looking at the children to see who they'd become over the course of the books. (This was the first of 3 planned books.) Some ideas were discarded along the way but as everything came together, it made this world where my character and plot were plausible.

With the latest novel I completed, the process wasn't as long or involved. I wrote out a brief sort of history, but only enough to have a general idea of where certain characters were coming from. This book was based here on Earth with a paranormal element, but at the moment it's written as contemporary fantasy. The world-building then became the interactions between the paranormal and the human throughout history, taking major events in history and giving them a spin based in my paranormal world.

I always, though, start with characters. That's just how it works for my head. A character will pop into my head, embryonic in form, and I'll set about discovering who they are and the world they inhabit.
Michael L Martin Jr
Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2011 7:16 PM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 23

@RJBlain - Guess what? We're doing the exact same thing! We just have different methods. (There's no one way to eat a Reese's Peanut Butter cup...or write a novel.)

I, too, am writing more then one novel in this world (meaning: the fictional world that I built. Not like the real life world that we live in, lol). It's going to be two trilogies and a six part series. I've written Book 1 of each series so far and only planned the sequels.

We share a love of series of series, and everything you said about them, it's like you stole the words from me. Thief! haha It seems I enjoy reading/writing series as much as you do. We have similar goals too. We just approach the construction of our worlds differently, which is very interesting.

Jessie Kwak
Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2011 9:19 PM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 27

Man, this has really gotten me thinking. Like all of you guys, I've got a world that has multiple novels set in it, though none of the stories are connected at all. Trying to figure out if I start with characters or worldbuilding is a total chicken-and-egg question, though.

When I first imagined this world, years ago, I'd mostly only read traditional epic fantasy, where everything was kings and feudal systems, hence, my world reflected those systems. As I started reading more and more history of the New World, and specifically South American politics during the 18th and 19th centuries, I started to think: what would my fantasy world look like in a post-feudal age, when the main empire was starting to crumble, and newer states were forming out of its ashes? Would they seek democracy? What would that look like? How would the working classes react?

The characters seem to come to me out of that thought process: the charismatic and corrupt guerrilla leader, the smuggler's daughter, the jailed incendiary printer, etc.

I like to find real-word historical events that correlate to the situations in my novels, in order to use them as a blueprint, and I read South American (and other) history extensively in order to glean potential situations.

In the end, though, my characters dictate the story I'm telling. My current WIP involves a "populist" military coup, and so I began to research the 1972 coup in Peru, one of the few that actually resulted in liberal social reforms instead of conservative repression. But in the end, my characters are going to take over the government however they damn well please, irregardless of what research I did.

And that's why writing fantasy is so much more fun than writing historical fiction.
Posted: Friday, April 29, 2011 6:10 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

I agree with you, Ted -- the use of earth concepts in fantasy sometimes makes me shake my head. Would a rabbit be named a rabbit, except for the fact that it makes it easier for the reader to understand?

You have an interesting idea, and I support pursuing something you like. I love creating an entire world (though deer and horses exist in mine, but there are many other creatures that don't exist on earth and never could...)

It is a different approach for each person, but the key and most important thing is the execution of the idea. If you write it in a way that stands out, the influences of other writers (or the origin of your influence) is only color to the icing rather than the flavor of the cake.

A drastically different process than mine, but I think you might very well have something very worth pursuing at the end of the day.
Joe Selby
Posted: Friday, April 29, 2011 4:44 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 30

My process is a lot like Michael's except that I rarely outline. I may write a sentence or two for the next five chapters if I feel I want to ensure events play out in a particular direction, but mostly I sit down at point A and write until I reach point Z. Sometimes I know where point Z already is. Sometimes I just have an inkling. Sometimes I think I know where Z is but that turns out to be something else entirely and Z is something completely unplanned for.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2011 5:15 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Oh God! How do I start? Like most people on here, I start with the characters and then I develop a rough plot. Then I produce a world that would fit those characters and plot. Even though I am still on my first book, I have 3 planned, each with four parts. I have even written two short stories based in my world, so it became really well developed. I found that my fascination with the boom of technology during the industrial age in the nineteenth and early twentieth century has really influenced the trajectory of my work. Our world's current energy debates and politics have even tinged my writing. I have notes all over the place in my notebook. When an idea pops into my head I write it down. Most I keep, but others I reject. I found I also change and adapt things based on what other people have done. I was tired of the medieval setting for high fantasy, so I went with the nineteenth century idea again, only there is a ban on technology. My SF roots show the more I try to write my fantasy (I blame my mother for raising me on Star Trek.), so I definitely have to take that into account as well when it comes to my world building.
Stacy Jones
Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2011 3:22 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 6

When writing a full length work, I often find it necessary to write multiple pieces from the character's perspective. I always start with a character because characters are what our stories revolve around. If your characters fall flat and your reader can't identify with them, they're not interested in reading more of what you have to say. So focusing on character development is key in the storytelling process. I think that because I tend to think of myself as a character in my own story, it's easier to envision what the world is like around my characters because I can just step into their shoes and look at the world through their eyes. I find it difficult to build a world concept first.. and I would rather read stories that are character driven than focused on world creation. I love Tolkien, but The Silmarillion was a total snoozer for me because it focuses heavily on world building.
Christie Renzetti
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 4:53 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 7

In all honesty, I'm still working out my process.

It's all a bit of trial and error at this point.

What is working for me so far, though, is getting to know my main character. She tells me about herself and what's she's doing and I write it all down before I forget.

And as we go along, I'll get snippets of scenes from throughout the story and write those down for future reference.

So right now, I've got a character sketch of the main character, a few names of people in her life here and there from throughout the story (their sketches will come later when I start talking to them), a few brief conversations to later build the scenes around, and an outline of what is supposed to happen overall.

I sometimes wonder if I'm doing it wrong, you know? It doesn't seem to follow any kind of structured process...

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