Things I Wish I Knew Before Writing a Fantasy Series–But I Just Did It Anyway

Whoops–ever get the funny feeling you just slipped up and wrote an epic trilogy or two? Here’s some of what I went through when writing the Despair series…

1) You will use many of the same words over and over again. You will fall into certain patterns. The up side is that it will be easier and easier to edit this. You may, as I did, use versions of the word “look” 499 times.

2) You will need to edit. A lot. Like around 30 times. 30 times for 300 k plus words is a LOT a LOT.

3) You will have to write supporting materials, like lexicons and timelines and character sketches and sketches of where people are sitting around a table, and maybe draw maps, even if you can’t draw. You will also try to draw your characters, realize this helps you visualize them, realize you can’t draw, and wind up relying on SIMs 4 far too often.

4) Eventually you will realize that everyone in your story needs last names, then ages, then middle names, then birthdays, then parents, then an entire back story, then possibly even children… by the time you’re finished, you’ll know every item in their wardrobes, plus their social security numbers.

5) You will try many ways to organize information, including but not exclusive to Word documents, cards, notebook paper, pieces of paper stapled together, Excel, Scrivener, hand-drawn charts, bubble maps, graphic art, and SIMs 4. All of these will both fail your expectations and help you along a little bit further.

6) People who have not written a fantasy series with this level of complexity cannot understand what you are going through. You will feel closer to Tolkien and Jonathan Stroud and L. Frank Baum than to your own family.

7) Conversely, anyone who helps you hash out your series, listens to your work-in-progress being read aloud, or offers you encouragement will be your best friend forever.

8) Anyone who criticizes your work-in-progress will feel your wrath and possibly have an evil or obnoxious character named after them.

9) You will mutter, mumble, and murmur to yourself about your characters. You will use your own made-up words in regular conversation with adults. You will quote yourself in public and laugh hysterically, and no one will get the joke.

10) Your worlds will become incredibly real to you, and you will mourn not spending time there.

11) You will have these horrible cock-ups when you realize that a) something canonical that you wrote just does not jibe with reality or history at all b) something that all other plot points depend on is horribly, horribly illogical and must be completely rewritten c) the thing that was so horribly, horribly illogical that you rewrote actually made perfect sense and you were insane when you thought it was illogical and now the rewrite needs to be scrapped d) fifty things you brought into the story that you meant to do something with just sat there, and now you’ve got to either develop them or take them out.

12) You will use the word “canonical” far too much considering the work is unpublished.

13) Your characters will develop and some of them will come so far that you wouldn’t even know them if you went back and looked at the material you started with. They will reveal untold layers of depth to you, and even if you fail to convey this in your writing, you will be touched by it. This is a completely mysterious process, and you will forever wonder where these character people that you apparently invented really came from.

14) You will discover there is a huge divide between a good story and good writing. You may have an awesome story and the best ideas, and you will still have to figure out how to write it like everybody else.

15) You will begin to feel a massive responsibility to your characters. You may find yourself telling people that you can’t hang out because your characters need you. After all, who else do they have?

16) You will feel an even more massive responsibility to your characters’ children, should they have any, or should any be planned.

17) You will become insufferable when watching or reading any sort of series at all. You will point out all kinds of inconsistencies and say things like “I had that problem too, but at least I didn’t rely on the idiot man child trope to solve it.” You’ll claim to feel the pain of other series writers and yet mock them when they fail to satisfactorily resolve a subplot, or the emotions in a character interaction don’t ring true. I recall a particularly ugly moment when I insisted on rewinding one part of a series show over and over to illustrate that “the writing is so bad here, even the actors don’t believe it–see? See?”

18) You will read other books and fill them full of obnoxious and snarky notes about everything the author did wrong. You will feel superior for five minutes, and then become paranoid for the rest of the day that you might have done the same thing or worse.

19) You will have music for things. Songs for different characters. Music that gets you going. You will be trained like Pavlov’s dogs to that shit. When the music turns on, you write.

20) You will fall in love with several of your characters, at the least, and miss them when you don’t spend enough time with them. But this will not prevent you from doing horrible things to them in the name of the story.

21) You will obsess over whether your books are just like someone else’s, or similar in even a small way. This will agonize you. Then you will turn around and agonize because your books are completely unlike anything else in the bookstore, and have no genre, and therefore must be totally unreadable and unmarketable.

22) You will write pages and pages of narrative and back story and “notes”–for want of a better term–describing aspects of your world and your characters. None of this will add to your actual word count, and later you will lose them. Even if you don’t lose them, you’ll probably never look at them again due to the sheer volume. Somehow, even without these notes, you soldier on.

23) Your point-of-view will be an absolute disaster because you have no idea what you are doing. Somehow, you soldier on.

24) Even though you have no idea what you are doing, the words will keep coming and the ideas will pop up and you will keep writing. At times, you will curse this and wish you could stop and wish this burden could be taken from you. You will feel like you are pregnant but can’t give birth. You will feel like this for way longer than nine months, for way longer than any human ever should.

25) Some people won’t get your series, won’t like it, or just won’t take any interest. Those people are dead to you.

26) Some people who care may want to stage an intervention or suspect you have a mental illness. In the end, you will realize the word “project” just isn’t strong enough to describe what you’re going through, and “all-consuming obsession” sums it up better.

27) In the middle of a normal conversation, you’ll suddenly say things like “I wrote something about that in book two,” or “There’s actually a penguin in book three” and it will be totally unrelated to the conversation at hand.

28) You want to speak to other authors desperately, but they don’t understand what you’re going through either unless they have also written a fantasy series, and most of them haven’t. But you’ll wind up jawing their ears off anyway.

29) You will give half-baked versions of your work out to everyone under very dubious circumstances. You will wet yourself with anticipation when your beta readers respond back. You will get feedback that says thing like “It was good. I liked the X character. You should include space Nazis,” where the X character is a minor character of no development who could have been replaced by a large stone.

30) After much, much repetition, certain people will become half-hearted “fans” and what this means is that they will insist on “playing” with your work. They will make a lot of suggestions, rewrite bits of it in their own minds, pester you about elements they want you to change, and get all creepy like Annie Wilkes in Misery when you do something to a character that they don’t like.

31) You will later regret some of the horrifying fates you dished out to certain characters, but it will be too late.

32) You will spend too much time “interviewing” yourself about your books, planning the amusement park based on your setting, and planning toys, t-shirts, and Halloween costumes based on your characters. You will also spend hours thinking about cover art, haranguing artists whom you don’t intend to hire or pay, and Googling pictures of people who might look sort of like your characters, if composites of them were done with hot, good-looking actors or actresses.

33) When you came up with how the magic worked, you never knew 1) it would develop new ways to work as the series went on 2) new things would be discovered that stop it from working 3) It would just keep getting more powerful and Quick! Somebody turn this thing off before it takes over the world!

34) It seemed like a good idea to have portals, alternate dimensions, and magical McGuffins at the time. And what’s wrong with people who can read minds and receive visions? Three methods of procreation and four half-baked religions? Why not? The more the merrier!

This is what you thought before the fridge horror kicked in and the implications of all your bad choices became totally apparent. Then one day you realize your main character is probably related to her love interest, your seers are mind rapists, and your method of creating portals encourages character suicides. This is a bad, bad ugly day.

35) For reals, who knew you would use “as if” THAT many time? It’s embarrassing.

36) Your imagination will become a lot stronger, like a muscle that you overuse. Maybe before, you couldn’t imagine your way out of a paper bag. Now you will confound even children with the things you come up with. The up side is that children will like you and your own children will “catch” the creativity, become more creative, and maybe even join in the creative process. The down side is that adults think you are mentally ill and avoid you.

37) You will have trouble eating and sleeping at times, and may drink more coffee than can actually exist in this time-space dimension, although no one can prove that yet.

38) You will pretty much stop watching TV because you’re too busy making up your own stuff. The difference is that when most people are reading or watching something, and they want to know what happens, they just read or watch some more. In your case, you have to make up some more if you want to know what happens. That can be frustrating when you are really into your own story. It’s also frustrating for anyone else who happens to be following along.

39) If you have kids or significant others, they may confuse your characters with other TV, movie, or book characters. This can be insulting or gratifying. My daughter constantly gets “Sirius Black” from Harry Potter mixed up with my own character, “Classic Evil.” Yesterday, she called my friend’s son by one of my character’s names. When we watch movies, we’ll say “Oh, isn’t that character just like Blade? Doesn’t that remind you of Sam?” and other people have no idea what we’re talking about.

40) A story is a living, organic thing. Yeah, it has identifiable parts and can be broken down–but there’s also something indefinable and holistic that will defy all attempts to categorize it or logically understand it or control it. We wouldn’t tell stories if they didn’t convey something other, something we can’t tell any other way. There’s a magic within the process of telling. People may tell you to plot your story, outline it, plan it–none of this makes any difference when the story takes over and pulls you into its flow. My advice is just to go along for the wild ride. There’s a saying for skiers, “Skiing is a dance, and the mountain always leads.” I think this goes double for a fantasy series. “Writing is a dance, and the story always leads” or something like that. You can always go back and edit 30 times, so enjoy the ride.

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