Shortly after my mother passed away in 2010, I decided I’d better hurry up and address some of the things on my bucket list. I’d already been a professional actor, a stand-up comedian, I’d performed with Seattle Opera, I’d taken a solo bicycle trip from Seattle to Salt Lake City, I’d been a teacher (and still am), done a fair bit of travelling, met and married my wife, and become a father. But I still had creative energy to burn. As a much younger person, I’d been into illustrations. I also loved to write.
I decided to write a book, loosely based on my Dungeons & Dragons musings. Almost instantly, I knew who I wanted to write about, and a lifetime’s worth of books, films and television shows began to inform my perceptions of my M.C. I wanted to create a warrior so badass, he would, as one of my readers suggested, “make Conan run home to his mommy,” someone who would not be out of place in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, someone who could kill the Bloody Nine.
That someone turned out to be Tarmun Vykers. I didn’t think overlong about his name. I chose ‘Vykers’ because it resonated with ‘Vikings.’ Tarmun just popped into my head, as most of my other characters names do. I wanted him to be as dominating as Achilles, and as fate-marked as Ulysses, as mysterious as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, as fast as Bruce Lee. I wanted him to be unaware of his destiny and/or unable to resist what little he did know. And I wanted his story in-progress, with him at his lowest point.
I understood a fair amount about my (first) antagonist and his ‘family.’ I knew there would be the requisite band of ne’er-do-wells. And I knew who ruled the land. I knew the opening scene of the book, and I knew the story’s climax. All the rest came to me as I wrote.
There were many things I had to discover that I might have preplanned, including the sorts and names of deities, the names of currency, the days of the week, the months, etc. I had to come up with holidays, towns, street names, and more. For some folks, that’s the gravy. I was more interested in the dynamic between characters, more interested in action than in minutia. But, as the saying goes, to each his own. It is probably true that almost everything a person comes into contact with has its parallel in a fantasy world. Cellphones are just a means of distance communication. Toilets, in some form, are necessary, when and wherever your story takes place. Propaganda can take place on a posted bill as easily as on a flat screen T.V.
Somewhere over the course of my first draft, I began to realize that I had more to say and explore about my characters than one book would allow, so that, before I’d finished, I was already pondering Book Two. Likewise, I decided early into Book Two that I was writing a five-book series. Why five? It sounds silly, perhaps, but I felt the standard trilogy was too clichéd. But I also knew I wasn’t ready for a ten-book series like Malazan. And I haven’t changed my mind. Vykers’ story has run its course.
So: what advice would I give?
- Know how your story begins and ends.
- Know some of the highlights along the way
- But allow for yourself to be surprised
- It used to be said that not everyone has to live. Now, thanks to the Rains of Castamere, we say not everyone has to die. But some people should die. Some good and some bad, because that’s life, right?
- Political machinations can be more thrilling than swordplay.
- You will never satisfy all the detail geeks. I know some folks who feel there has to be a logical, scientific foundation for magic, for example. But then it’s not magic, is it? At the same time, it should have a cost, a price.
- Your work will never be universally loved; there are those who hate Tolkien and even Shakespeare.
- You will find your audience, people will enjoy your work and read it religiously.
- You will come to loath tropes, even as you’re bound by them.
- You will develop strong friendships with colleague/competitors.
- Be generous; you’re not competing with anyone but yourself.
- Most people will miss half of what you’ve written into your books.
- You will be unfairly panned once in a while.
- You will, someday, get a one-star review.
- Familiarize yourself with Six Trait Writing:
- Sentence Fluency
- Vary your sentence length and style
- Word Choice
- Don’t write to impress. Write to be clear. Don’t be repetitive.
- This is where you write like you
- This is where YOUR imagination comes into play. Don’t rewrite the Lord of the Rings.
- Know the difference between its and it’s, there, their and they’re, etc. Check your spelling and then have ten other people check it.
- Sentence Fluency
- Read good and great writers. Read a few terrible ones.
- Have a daily word goal.
- One sentence is better and more progress than no sentences.
- It’s okay to change your mind.
- You’re (probably) not going to make money on your first book. Or your fifth. It’s a body of work you’re creating.
- Use pronouns, nicknames and other titles for your characters. If you write David, David, David over and over, you’ll drive your readers mad.
- Read Stephen King. You can break the rules of good grammar if you know you’re doing it and have a purpose.
- Spread out your exposition. Infer some of it. Make your readers think.
- If you have no combat experience, do your research. A LOT of it.
- Let the princess rescue the daring young knight.
- Let the bad guy be the good one all along.
- Make the dragon cowardly.
- Make your magic useless, occasionally.
- Lastly, don’t be bound by fear.
And that’s amazing.