The Sense of Wonder

I’m getting deep into the next run-through of Traitor’s Duty, and there are a few tweaks to make - as ever - but it’s going reasonably well. It’s hard to do more than ten pages at a time, though, because concentration is an absolute essential for obvious reasons, so naturally I’m taking frequent breaks. Which I am using to work on the fantasy setting some more, refining my ideas. One thing that I already know - that I defined right from the start - is that this will be an Alamo-style series. By which I mean an ongoing epic, with each book designed to stand-alone, with each book in the run around the 70,000-word mark. I’ve been occasionally tempted to ‘go longer’, but eventually I decided to go with what I know - for there are good, logical reasons for sticking with that sort of length.

I’ve spoken before about the ‘commuter read’, so I won’t rant on about that here; suffice to say that I think 70-80,000 words is about the right sort of length for a Kindle book, enough to be enjoyed over ten train rides and five lunch breaks, or over a weekend or a long journey. That has a whole host of implications for plotting, of course, as well as for plot length. As for the stand-alone, well, that’s been my ideal all the way through with Alamo. Yes, each book is required to build upon the other, adding to the setting, and with on-going character arcs, but ultimately, each book should stand by itself as a complete entity with a satisfying conclusion.

I will be the first to admit that I haven’t always succeeded in this goal - hell, right now I’m going over the second part of a two-parter - but as a core concept, it’s one I like very much, and one that I don’t really think has been particularly well-served in fantasy of late. The trend, very much, is to the contained saga, a trilogy or longer series, rather than the stand-alone novel - though I know that there are exceptions to this, especially in the independent arena. It’s all part of my assessment of where things are going - I think there is great potential in the ‘TV Series’ concept.

A counterpoint that must be remembered is the ‘DVD Box Set’ effect. A great many series are, frankly, designed more to be watched in one mammoth session, over the course of a few days, rather than one a week. Back in the days of the Battlestar Galactica re-imagined run, I always waited for the box set to come out before watching - I think that was the first time I set out to do that, though I must admit that Babylon 5 is much improved by being viewed in that way - a show ahead of its time in a lot of ways. Game of Thrones, for me, is the same - I tend to watch them a season at a time, rather than in dribs and drabs.

When you are working on a series, you need to realize that there will be people in both categories, and cater to both. There will be people buying each book as it comes out, who will not have read anything in the setting for weeks or months - so they will need some gentle reminders of key elements you need to bring forward, characters, settings and the like. Others, later on, might buy six books at once and plough through them in a fortnight; that must be prepared for as well. If you go too heavy on what for want of a better term I’ll call the ‘Previously on...’ approach, you might get some kudos from those who need to reminder, but for others, it might just be a wasted - and worse, dull - waste of half a chapter.

Wow, this one is going even more stream of consciousness than usual. For the fantasy series, what I have in mind for the moment is plots for the first three or four, as well as an idea of the general situation of the area - but I must allow myself room to expand, room for growth, and room for new plots and situations over the course of time. Now, that’s fortunately not something I’m unfamiliar with. When I was running RPG campaigns, I always left ‘mysterious locations’ to explore, spots on the map that I had no idea what I would do with, but that I could use as seeds for future development. This I must do again. Heck - worst case, it’s actually good to have some spots on a map that aren’t visited. It implies a bigger world, and allows readers to use their imagination.

So, what goes on the map? Eight castles, two of them ruins, a couple of towns, one of them a port - nothing like a harbour to bring in elements of mystery and intrigue, and besides, I need a ‘Port Blacksand’ analogue. Every fantasy setting can use one. Some terrain types - mountain, forest and swamp, I think - and some landmarks, maybe half a dozen, to keep things interesting. Note that there will certainly be places that are not on the map - travelling inns, small villages, and the like, but the key here is to make it something that is easy to view visually. It needs to fit on, well, the screen of a Kindle, though I hope to have a larger version for the website as well. What I have in mind is sixteen named locations and four types of terrain, and that shouldn’t be too much of a problem to put together. (This is something I need to do fairly soon, incidentally - it takes more than five minutes to commission maps, and I’ve given myself a deadline of less than three months to publication.)

That also means an intricate internal structure. Guilds, Priests, warring noble families and all manner of fun. Some of it will just make it an intricate and engaging setting - I hope - and add flavour to the work, while others will inspire plots for future books in the series. Yes, series. I want this one to run for a while, to - essentially - be the fantasy Alamo in that context. I wanted to get two ongoing series instead of just one, and the more I work on it, the more I begin to feel that this is what I’ve been waiting for.

As for what lies beyond the map, well, there are two things I will do here. The first is to simply keep a master list of locations, and to rough out as paragraphs what lies in each compass direction. That means I can have envoys from rival kings, and the like, which should prove useful; potentially I can expand the plots in those locations in future books. (I already know that I’m going to need an extra map, but I can’t go into spoilers at this stage, tempting as it might be.) There is another old trick, of course, the name drop. Now, if used to extreme, with your characters drinking Hyborian Ale and eating Atlantian-style Sandwiches from a Denubian Oak Table, it just sounds silly, but if done with a light touch, it can be quite effective.

Perhaps the most important element is the same one that drew me to science-fiction - the sense of wonder. The clip above illustrates it very well - from what is realistically my favourite fantasy movie, Krull. (I am not blind to the problems with the movie - I simply choose to focus on the good.) This genre is a chance to go to other places, other times, other worlds, and to savour the wonders therein. That’s where the magic comes from, whether it is hunting serpents in the Sea of Sagas or leaping with wings made of the hides of a pegasus from the Giant’s Teeth Mountains to soar above the world. That’s what this is all about.

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