Tag Archives: writer’s journey

The Past, and Other Things You Can’t Really Trust

Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are many worlds, but only a single nature.

-Final Judgement, The Eye of Kog

You’d think after a decade of chronicling I’d be out of surprises around the actual process.

I’m old, first of all, and how many new tricks would I be inclined to show an interest in? Plus, epic fantasy in many ways isn’t about discovering anything new. We explore the classic truths about ourselves and the joy comes of recognizing old friends despite their outlandish disguises. Lots of reasons. But when I came to the desk with intent to write, I figured I was pretty much doing the same thing. A beloved, well known activity.

And I am. But…

This Time, Different- The Test of Fire

An earlier test of fire.

The current WiP is what I pretentiously call a demi-sequel. When I decided I wanted to chronicle the Lands of Hope, the first thing I drafted, the very first thing, was a ramshackle adventure that turned into The Plane of Dreams. But the thing I called it, the working title when I first wrote it in 2008, was “Prologue to The Test of Fire”. I was working from my instinct of course in those days, and from one other important thing.


Tons of them. I have maps, and character descriptions (let’s just call them that), and detailed information about lots of locations where dark secrets of Despair were buried (often literally). I have data, if you will, on what the monsters are like, how magic spells and miracles work, how long travel takes depending on conveyance. I have of course the figurines that I’ve showed you in other columns. And I have primary source material (just go with me here), letters and journal entries and first-hand accounts to draw on about What Really Happened. Some of it not in my own handwriting, let’s just leave it there OK?

When I started to chronicle, in many ways I simply went to the bulls-eye, the place where these notes of mine were the thickest. That produced the tale I eventually rounded off and called The Plane of Dreams in 2011. I really enjoyed the job. There were just two things that I found a bit frustrating about the process.

One was where the tale actually began.

The other was where it ended.

Long story about the first. I’ll eventually write another novel to answer it. For now, this: I’m working on the book that comes after The Plane of Dreams, and I’m working from notes. Got it?

“I Only Know What Happens”

This is the battle-cry of my chronicling: for more than 35 years I’ve known the giant arc of the plot around the Lands of Hope. Notes, no notes, that part makes no difference: it’s always been there, like whatever those programs are that constantly use 4 or 5% of the CPU on your PC . I’ve gone to sleep idly wondering about this character, that event. Years of this, before I even thought about trying to write it out for others.

I think the word for this is ‘insane’. But happily so. This is simply part of my life. I couldn’t forget it with a gun to my head.

But that is all merely plot, so to speak, and of course it’s not terribly detailed. You can TELL your friend about your favorite movie, the one you’ve seen ten or twenty times, sure. But can you write out the screenplay, shot by shot? I blogged once about the three levels of writing: Plot, Character and Theme. I came into The Test of Fire with the plot practically tattooed onto my brain. But writing out the details, revealing character and perhaps even showing (discovering, honestly) the meaning of the tale… that’s where it gets interesting.

Thought I Knew These Guys…

Recently I finished writing the beginning (maybe the first third or so of the tale), and now I’m into the middle-meat of the novel. Here, my notes became very polished, much more detailed, from the main character’s PoV. In essence, a first draft. Or perhaps a kind of Reader’s Digest version of the novel itself.

Except the novel hadn’t yet been written. Is that actually a thing? Did anyone in history write up an abstract of the tale before the tale itself? Without meaning to follow up!

And just look at all the missing details! Mostly about character, of course. So far I’ve gone through about one page of the old draft (from more than 20 years ago, when I thought I was saying goodbye to the marvelous interactions I was having with the Lands). It’s spot-on for plot (one minor exception with an event coming a shade earlier in the non-existent timeline than previously believed). 

But what I’m adding is mainly about character. Who said what, more of that. The way the hero Qerlak feels, of course. Now it’s four and a half pages; it flows, it makes better sense, and I dare to think it will affect the reader.

The More Things (Sort of) Change?

Is it different now? I retreat to the words of Pooh-Bah in The Mikado:

“Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

Of course, Pooh-Bah had very nearly bungled the whole deal with his “corroborative detail”, so this is not entirely a joke.

I simply cannot reel in the words to describe how utterly strange it feels now, to be looking at an absolutely authentic account from two decades ago, and then changing it so dramatically. What was correct? Can both be right? How can I be working so steadily and smoothly, yet adding so much? I mean, remembering LESS over time is how memory usually works…

I do feel I know them better by now. And in the furthest reaches of my delusion–by the way, this IS a delusion, let us have no delusions about that–but sometimes I even start to believe I’m seeing something about the theme of the tale, of what it all means and which informs the action and the characters. That’s a comforting notion.

Look both ways

The main hero Qerlak is learning about the proper code of behavior for his life. As a younger son of the nobility, he never had to worry that he would one day be responsible for leading a foef. He joined an adventuring band, the Tributarians, and was known as the chivalrous one among commoners. He excelled, gained fame and enough fortune (almost) to buy a vacant knighthood (this happens during The Plane of Dreams). He THINKS he’s retiring. He thinks the noble’s code will be the beacon whereby he guides his life.

He’s wrong on both counts. Qerlak, and the other heroes in this story, must learn that there is another code, the adventurer’s code that they have committed to (perhaps unknowingly). And you might be able to guess how well those go together.

The Way Forward

No stopping both ways!

Choices to be made! Consequences to be suffered for those aforementioned choices. Impact to the unsuspecting reader following on from that, and more than likely, a new set of choices to be made. Therein, not to put too fine a point on it, lies a tale.

One that, it turns out, I’m not yet completely familiar with. THAT’s the strangeness, in a nutshell. I’m the Alleged Real World’s foremost authority on what happens during The Test of Fire, and even I’m unsure–a little bit–how this will all turn out. How utterly delightful.

And you thought only readers could enjoy my books.



Sneaky World-Building Part 5: The Where

If you’re not building a world for the reader, then you must be telling them only the facts. I can’t help you with that! This series is for those of us who need to be sneaky, to smuggle the unknowing, almost unwilling reader into another place and time without giving them too many clues about what we’re teaching. This is the second of the final three chapters in the series, all related to the nuts-and-bolts level of the job. Here, I will argue that you must make your world-building do double-duty; that the proper place to show the reader something they must know (but don’t want to learn) is the place where something else is also happening.

That’s the Where.

Camouflage Your World


This notion supplements what I said previously about an engaging context, weaving a tapestry, etc. Whatever image floats your boat, but in this case the camouflage I’m talking about is more related to stress or urgency. So many times we see a block of information about a world’s past, or the workings of magic, or the specific nature of technology or the undead– and it’s just sitting there out in the open, so to speak. Why would the reader want to take time to learn this thing now and drop the plot to do so? Never mind they need to know it. Show it. Buried in the action, in a task that carries importance for a character that you want the reader to care about.

How About… Running?

Suppose your main character is headed toward the manor, to meet three lovely suitors and choose one of them to marry. If your character thinks about each one at this time– their merits and advantages, the political situation, the social implications, parent’s wishes and dare we add, how much she likes each one (or doesn’t)– that is all appropriate to the When and the How, it’s in the proper context and relevant to the character’s thoughts. Sure- but this is going to take several paragraphs, all at once. And even if you masterfully sprinkled in all the info earlier in the story, it’s still quite relevant for her to revisit her thinking now, at crunch time. Is the reader doomed to a boring recitation, a bloc of world-building?

I suggest you have the character run.

Just adding the speed of her movement to the manor (or perhaps for a few lines, running AWAY!) will lend a sense of urgency to the plot. And after all this is an important time. Intersperse these matters you have to cover with even a small layer of action. Her speed increases as she realizes the dishonor and shame of being late, or it slows as she fights within herself to decide, or to avoid this dreadful decision. The simple action of her movement from one place to another, so often ignored, can lend that meaning the reader needs to empathize. Maybe you took it for granted. And sure, choosing between three suitors, we get the picture. But how long can you expect the reader to just hang on without a little emotional juice while you compare the dirt-poor marquis to the fabulously wealthy merchant and the rake with the enchanting musculature?

Remember, the reader is not actually marrying the dude. You just have to make them WANT to!

In Exemplum Gratia: Judgement’s Tale

Come now, you didn’t seriously believe I would run a half-dozen blog articles out here and not put in a plug for my own work! But aside from shameless self-promotion, I want to demonstrate that I’m drinking the Kool-aid here. When I started my chronicling career I was not conscious of these matters, there were just books I’d read that I liked and others not so much. Working to bring the Tales of Hope to publication has certainly taught me a lot, and I hope you find it useful too. Thus ends the non-apology.

Solemn Judgement is a stranger to the Lands of Hope, but he’s not an ignorant narrator because I never take his point of view when I write. The level of remove I chose means I can only show the reader what Judgement does or let them hear what he says. Fortunately for him (and me), Judgement meets a kindly elvish sage named Cedrith who observes the young lad’s rigid, lonely demeanor and becomes determined to be his friend. As part of his tutelage, he takes Judgement to see a theatrical performance.

This is a veritable King Solomon’s Mine of world-building. There is a metric ton of stuff the reader needs to know about the past of this world, because in classic epic fantasy fashion, Judgement is destined to be the hero tasked with saving it. Thus, the way Hope pushed back the armies of Despair, and the fight between the hero Areghel and the Earth Demon Kog that happened millennia ago, and a hundred other things all need to be presented to Judgement (and to the reader). And I’m using the equivalent of Henry V to do it.

Snoozefest Alert? I knew the risk was there. But consider:

  • When you put on a play in a world with magic, you get to use that. Actors in the play wear artefacts called Miens, and appear to be 8 feet tall and shine with their own light. When I start the chapter I don’t immediately clue the reader in to the fact that we’re in a theater, and it might appear to be a flashback or miraculous occurrence. When one of the actors gives a hero’s speech, I even made the font bigger.
  • Turns out, Judgement is deeply offended by the notion of people dressing up and playing hero. Cedrith belatedly realizes the lad has never seen a play before, and though Judgement is very polite he is clearly quite angry (since he has adopted the devotion to the Heroes of Hope very strongly). Thus, Cedrith needs to manage the youth’s emotions between acts of the play.
  • He does this by drawing Judgement’s attention to the existence and mystery of the Miens, as well as an ancient, broken-down war-vessel of Despair, called a Makine, which is being used on stage as a set prop. It’s inactive. Probably.
  • It also turns out that the script being recited beneath this struggle  comprises the most direct source of history in the Lands. The words are originally in the Ancient tongue (which only Judgement can well understand) and they appear to have been penned millennia ago by the heroes themselves.
  • Judgement becomes interested despite himself and agrees to meet with the lead actor of the company, who will be an important supporting character and help to drive the plot forward. Judgement doesn’t like him either, so Cedrith has more work to do, trying to balance that relationship.
Or perhaps… a badger? BTW, Run Away!


Did I succeed? You’d have to gauge for yourself– and now that I’ve showed you my tricks, I bet you wouldn’t be as impressed with the skill. Camouflage never works once you point it out, and your readers will probably catch up to the same old idea if you go to the well too often. Trojan Horse? Score. Trojan Rabbit, not so much. But I cannot tell you how much better this chapter became from the time I first drafted it to its published form. As you might guess, it’s one of my favorites.

{<– Special thanks to my high school friend Bill Michaels for his  fabulous article on making your own Trojan Rabbit. Yeah, camo doesn’t always work…}

Writing Exercise: The Where

Recall that list I had you scrawl back in the first chapter? Let’s pull that out again and scan the whole thing, the “Needs to Know” part as well as the “Doesn’t” part. Identify one or two of them and challenge yourself: WHERE would this kind of information be BEST found in your world? Forget the tale a  moment: if everything in your world existed what would be the most likely source to find the thing you have down on your list? Perhaps a census document, a newspaper, diary, social register. Figure out where it would most logically be found.

Then think about writing a bit of that. Not your story, but a day or two’s edition of the newspaper, or a few entries in that journal, even an encyclopedia article about these things. Put the information in its most natural order, without worrying about whether the reader will be bored by it. INFORM YOURSELF. See where it takes you for a writing session or two, or perhaps when you feel blocked and want a change of pace. Indulge yourself, write in all the patience-burning glory of detail that you like. Later, you can draw on this new “source” and go back to the rules, dribbling out just a little, putting it in the proper context, adding a sense of relevance, and you won’t feel so beholden to “the whole thing” as you might have originally. It IS already written. It’s a new source!

I discovered an important supporting character for my tales in this way. Whenever I think of the big political developments happening in the Lands of Hope, I immediately look to the Kingdom Chronicle which annually registers these developments. Chronicle style is easy for me to imitate, and as I got to know the authors better I could use their unconscious prejudices to leak into the accounts and sometimes even help the reader see where the tale was going. Don’t mistake me, it’s still epic fantasy with a large load of corrections to the default setting on its back. But in smaller excerpts it can of course be efficient. And the better you get to know the entry and the author of it, the more you can become absorbed in finding out more about the latter from the former. Which is camouflage (sshhhh…).

If this all seems somehow dishonest, you’re probably headed in the right direction. Think of it this way: why shouldn’t your writing serve double-duty? We speak of “camouflage” or a “song and dance” and we forget that these things save lives, win battles, and even entertain people. In that tremendous musical Singing in the Rain, camouflage itself is a major theme! They hit on the idea to substitute the heroine’s lovely voice over the harpy’s face. Deep!

I hope you can see that all the preceding advice is pointing in a single direction now. If you’ve mastered the size, placement and context of your world-building you really just have one decision left to make. And it’s a whopper. Next week we conclude this series with The Who.