I know I promised last week that I’d review some flintlock fantasy books, but sadly they have not yet arrived. I’m looking forward to reading them, and to finding out how much they resemble my own writing, or differ from it.

I’ve recently made an interesting creative decision with regards to my own writing. As some of you may remember, I’ve been writing the first draft for an epic fantasy novel. I started in April and I’m now the proud author of a jumbled 23,000 word mess of fragmented extracts from all over the story. I’m alternately pleased with it and disgusted by it, which is normal, but I’ve had the lingering feeling for a while now that there was a certain something lacking from it. A few days ago, while I was sitting at my desk, trying to scoop the sad remnants of a kamikaze biscuit out of my tea, and pondering what to do next with the story, I figured out what the problem was. I needed to do some more planning.

Apparently planning isn’t optional. I don’t know, this sign says so.

This surprised me, because I used to be the kind of writer who did far too much planning, spending all of my time worldbuilding and plotting but rarely doing any actual writing. I know a lot about the universe I’ve created, its history and its social structures, and a lot of the worldbuilding that I did is still invaluable to what I’m writing. Other parts weren’t – I created characters, subplots, even entire nations which seemed unnecessary when I found myself struggling to insert them into the story. Plot and worldbuilding should always furnish your story, not the other way around. About a year ago I realized that excessive planning was holding me back, and I began to view planning as a trap, something I should avoid like the plague.

I know that there are many authors who do very little planning for their books. They simply launch into the story like an erudite penguin sliding off the iceberg of comfortable certainties into the cold sea of creative possibility, seeking out juicy narrative fish with only their raw gumption to guide them on their way. From what I’ve heard, I believe Neil Gaiman is one such writer. It seems to work out well enough for him, so I thought I should try it. I held my nose and plunged into the water.

Diving straight into it like a true penguin
Diving right into it like a proper penguin

It turns out, perhaps predictably, that the Intrepid Penguin approach isn’t the best method when you’re trying to write a ten-book fantasy series with a plot that contains a lot of complicated colonial geopolitics. For five months I’ve been typing away without any preconceptions, letting the story develop on its own terms, and trying to let it unfurl as I wrote it. I did find a few metaphorical fish that way, and it did allow me to make more progress with a first draft that I’ve ever made before, but I was slightly troubled by the vast depths of the uncharted ocean that I’d jumped into. The scenes that I was writing felt devoid of context. Each one was an island of detailed narrative in a ghostly world which seemed featureless and uninhabited, shrouded in mists of uncertainty, entire continents changing place around it on a whim. My protagonists (though I use that term loosely) had journeyed across the sea to the realm where most of the series will be taking place, only to find it barren. What next?

Whatever it was, it felt too nebulous for me to get a grasp of it. I knew that they had to go somewhere, so I accepted, glumly, that I needed to apply myself to a task that I’d been avoiding for months: drawing a map. Until then I’d viewed a fully drawn-out map as a hindrance. Why set down in stone the exact placement of certain key plot locations, long before I knew how the story was going to unfold? What if it became a narrative imperative for two provinces to be near each other, after I’d drawn them at opposite ends of the map? How could I draw a map before I knew what was going to happen later in the series?

Bring me my crayons!
Paige boy! Bring me my crayons!

As soon as I’d asked myself that last question, I knew what needed to be done. I needed to apply myself to yet another task that I’d been putting off for even longer: plotting out all of the later books in the series, and doing it in fine detail. It was a vast undertaking. I felt very daunted, but knew it needed to be done. I set myself to it and began with the third book in the series, which was already a little more developed than the others.

I was amazed to find that, in the year since I did all of my original worldbuilding and storycrafting, the plot of the third book had been coalescing somewhere in my subconscious, bubbling along nicely like a stew left to boil, getting more tender with time. When I set my mind to it, the plot became clear. It fell into place almost instantly, and before I knew it I’d written over a thousand words of detailed plot notes. Enough perhaps for a quarter of the book, or more. The demands of the new story made it easy to know where one or two locations needed to be on the map, and I eagerly filled them in.

Looking at my new plot notes, I felt excited about the prospect of eventually writing this third book. It seemed a shame that it would have to wait until after the first and second books, especially as I hadn’t yet figured out what their stories were going to be. After thinking this for a moment, a new thought occurred to me – why not just write the third book now?

So that is precisely what I’m doing: setting the first book aside, and writing the third book first. Over the last few days I’ve already written several thousand words, mostly by stealing a few hours now and then to write clandestinely at my desk when I should be writing about radiators. Thanks to my planning, I can see the story stretching out in front of me, scene-by-scene, inviting me to write it down. It isn’t a feeling I’ve felt for a while, and I’m going to make the most of while it lasts.

2 thoughts on “Starting in the middle: worldbuilding and fluid storycrafting

  1. Tom, I have two words for you. Star Wars! Started in the middle and not finished yet.

    A ten novel run, eh? Seems that I know a lot of novel series that the author eventually came out with a ‘prequel’ or two. I think you are right there in with the majority.

  2. Hi Wayne. I’m still hoping to publish the first book first – hopefully writing the third one will help me work my way backwards and extrapolate what needs to happen in it!

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