As I type this, I’m so utterly mentally exhausted, I feel like I could sleep for a thousand years or more. Over the last couple months, I’ve been working hard on the first draft of a currently-unnamed fantasy novel, and am rapidly reaching the part where I plot out the fabled Second Draft. This legit feels like it’ll be one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve ever achieved, and it’s honestly taking every bit of willpower I have not to just gush about the concept here and now. Sadly, it’s far too early in development to do so, though I do have some concept art I’ll be sharing at a later date. Fun stuff!
Right now though, I just wanted to talk about my first draft journey, where it’s taken me as a writer, and what I found out about myself and my craft along the way. Which…sounds a lot more dramatic than it really is. But like I said before, this genuinely feels huge to me, and this is coming from someone who’d had work (shorts) accepted by publishers before. This project is my baby, a world I’ve been building for 5+ years, and a genuine joy to work on, even through the sloggy bits.
While working on it, I learned a lot of valuable things, chief among them being:
My Genre and Voice
Initially, I set out to make this project a grimdark sword-and-sorcery story set in a sort of Gothic Horror fantasy setting. But when I actually tried to write out the book, I found that grimdark and gothic horror just don’t come naturally to me, at least in fantasy. I can do elements of it sure, but not wholly. I find that at least for my personal writing style, grimdark is to my fiction what bacon is to a burger. A little bit gives it more meatiness, but add too much and it’s just…well, greasy.
I don’t even know if that made sense, and I think I’m just hungry. For burgers. Specifically from Carl’s Jr because dang it, you make a good western bacon cheeseburger. You can keep those fruit loop donuts though, those look nasty.
Anyway, what was I talking about again? Ah yes, fantasy subgenres. So it turns out, I think I write High Fantasy best, but there’s a caveat to that — it has to have horror elements to work. Again, the bacon on the burger. I did a previous short story that tested pretty well with beta readers that was basically high fantasy with Lovecraftian elements, and people kind of dug it. So when I decided to make a full-blown book, I was like “Ha! I’ll add MORE horror elements!” But ultimately, I feel it works better with a balance, and you need the high optimism to really make the scary bits scary. Thus, Draft 2 will likely be totally different, and sadly won’t feel like a Castlevania level, but should be pretty cool in its own right.
Okay, so now that I’ve actually written a draft after reading Sanderson’s Mistborn books, I feel like I totally get why the Sanderson-style magic system is a major thing in current fiction. Like I said before, when I started working on the first draft, my goal was to homage Robert E. Howard and classic swords-against-wizardry type stories. The type of stories the Stranger Things kids probably read before diving head-first into 80’s game night.
In practice though, I found myself often wishing I had a magic system to pad out certain scenes and add more character development. There were times when I was practically saying aloud, man, this scene would be so much more awesome if the protagonist had a special power I could have him talk about or use. And even cooler than the powers is of course, the weaknesses. The kryptonite, the bits where the MC has to macguyver himself out of bad situations, or can’t use his neat magic system because if he uses Tacomancy under the light of a full moon, the Taco Bell Chihuahua will drag his soul down to the ninth circle of Hades and…oh hey, there’s food again. I should really eat an apple or something before I post.
But yeah. Long story short, magic systems are awesome because:
A) They add something totally unique to your story a la Airbending, Allomancy, or the lightweaving from Blackwing. It fleshes out the world and makes it feel like its own, unique thing as opposed to Tolkien or Conan or Game of Thrones with a DLC reskin.
B) It adds meat and pagecount to your story in an organic way, and helps add an element of character growth and development a he/she learns to use [INSERT MAGIC SYSTEM HERE]
C) It makes your readers wonder ‘what would I do if I had those kind of powers,” which is the SIGN OF A GREAT BOOK. All of us as kids at one point tried to throw a kamehameha, or cast Wingardium Leviosa, or use the Force, and anything that makes the readers theorize about what they’d do in that setting is like a hook you sink into them. Magic systems are like, the BEST way to accomplish this, besides really solid worldbuilding and characterization. A good High Fantasy book should ideally have all these elements.
Apparently Brian Jaques was a Huge Influence on my Writing Style
So I went back and skimmed through an old Redwall book, and holy smokes, I think he probably influenced me a LOT more than other writers.
That’s not to say my books feature talking animals or anything, but there’s this sort of cheerful optimism and humor that even when I try (and fail) to write Grimdark, just keeps slipping in. I think Brian was an absolute master at making characters that stick with you, and are really unique and interesting. I still remember that one psycho weasel princess from Triss who smiled when her mother died, or Clooney the Scourge and that flail on his tail, or the weird birds from that same book, or the long-drawn out feasts, Constance the badger, et cetera.
I place a LOT of importance on iconography and place in stories. It’s one reason that despite not being really into YA books or non-secondary world fantasy, Harry Potter sticks out in my mind as a great example of this. You have the four Houses, Hogwarts, a whole wizarding culture, Butterbeer, Bott’s Beans, the Olivander’s Wand-shop…it’s just an endless stream of all these really iconic bits. There’s other fantasy stories I’ve read by contrast, that have massive chapter counts, but never made me feel that same way. That never really put me in that place Redwall or Hogwarts, or King’s Landing or Hobbiton did. And I think going forward, that sense of identity and place is something I’m hoping and praying I can impart in my own fiction. Now that’s a tall order to be sure, and the prospect of living up to such a task is honestly a little (VERY) frightening. But as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.