So about four years ago I had a fun idea for a short story. It was a fantasy story, which was a little off the beaten path for me at the time. By which I mean I didn’t write fantasy, had no aspirations to write fantasy, and though I grew up reading it and still do and really dig the new directions people are taking it in these days, I was much more interested in what I termed ‘near-future speculative fiction with emergent magic realist elements.’
But this fun little idea wanted written, and I thought, what the hell, let’s see where it goes.
So, a little background before I tell you what the idea was. Like many nerds, I spent a good chunk of the ‘80s playing Dungeons & Dragons. Outside every dungeon there’s a tavern, where the players go before the adventure to learn some important backstory and play at a last huzzah before the adventure, because some of the party might not come back. At the tavern, there’s wenches, and more often than not their job is not only to bring food and drink but to absorb sexual harassment. Not unlike far too many of their counterparts in the real world. Men will be boys, after all.
The tavern wench is the most non-player-y non-player character there is. Seriously, there’s not even a TVTropes page. At least there wasn’t last time I looked.
So who are these women, I asked, and three women answered. There was Marinie, the tavern-keep, an aging beauty with a bastard son and a jaundiced view of the the world. There was Perse, who was shy and quiet and didn’t want to talk about her past, or much of anything, really, and not because she’s afraid, either.
And then there was Brenaea, working to put herself through magic school. She had the most to say of all of them, and while the other two pretty much are who they are, she was the one still in the process of becoming who she would be. It was clear pretty quickly that this was her story.
So I had some characters. The setting was obvious. The tavern’s near a dungeon. The dungeon has a dragon. There’s a magic school there, too. Sure, it’s chock-full of tropes, but it was enough for a short story, right? And obviously the story was how do I get these three into and through the dungeon to save the day?
Easy. First I needed some even tropier adventurers to come along and mess everything up by waking the sleeping dragon (thanks, JRR). The last dying one returns, bearing the McGuffin, and it’s up to the wenches to save the day. How do they make it through the dungeon? Well, Marinie’s been working the bar and talking with survivors for years now, and she’s managed to put together a map. Perse’s got mad skillz, because of course she does. And Brenaea, well she’s the one with the education to tie it all together. And the dragon, well, the dragon turns out to be a little different from what the classics might lead you to expect.
Hm. That’s a lot to pack into thirty pages. Maybe it’s a novellette. Or a novella. Oh, shit, I am writing a novel, which is a thing I’ve tried before but never succeeded at, because to me revision always turns out to mean ‘This is crap. Total reboot.’
This will turn out to be a theme.
So, okay, I’m writing a novel, because too much has to happen before I can get these three credibly into the dungeon. There’s a library heist (man, I love typing that), a love triangle, a magic school that needs fleshing out, and, you know, a frickin’ dragon raining fire from the sky. As they do, and you would, too, if you were in that dragon’s shoes, or scales, or whatever. But if I’m going novel-length then I need to build a world around it, and worlds have histories, and theologies, and geographies, and economies, and WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?
This will also turn out to be a theme.
I hand-wave my way through the first draft. Come the end, I basically punt and figure I can flesh it out in post. The draft is 110,000 words long. Four or five hundred pages. A solid length for a novel. It takes me a year and change to finish it.
Okay, start the second draft. This time I’ve got a bit better idea what I’m doing, and fill in some backstory and flesh out the world and OH SHIT I AM 96,000 WORDS IN AND NOT HALF DONE. I am either writing a serious door-stop or a multi-volume series. At least a trilogy. Definitely a trilogy.
What have I gotten myself into?
But no, this is good. Now I’ve got time to do all the things. I can start Brenaea’s story much earlier. Instead of trying to tell a reader how she came to be who she is I can show them. Because where Brenaea comes from is important to where she ends up, and things that happen later will be more meaningful for showing it.
So I’m on my third novel-length draft, and I’m two and a half or three years in, during which time I’ve worked on very little else save for a novelette that borrowed my fingers and brain for a few days to say itself into the world. But it’s alright. Right?
As I’m sure you can imagine, things have gotten pretty out of hand at this point, but in a good way. The characters, the story, that’s all more or less clear to me. The worldbuilding’s still pretty thin, but thicker than it was when it started, and things become clearer and more defined with each draft. I have a better idea how I want magic to work. I have a fun bit of history where the story takes place a few centuries after the collapse of an advanced magic-driven civilization. I have a reason the dungeon is where it is, and why there’s a town and a magic school nearby. The magic school has a philosophy that makes sense, and I know what they’re trying to accomplish.
Book one turns out to be Brenaea’s journey from hardscrabble origins on the frontier fringe to the magic school and the difficulties she encounters getting accepted (the story as originally conceived is now book two). Well enough. Enough happens and she changes enough for it to stand alone, and by the time I got to the end of the draft it had that ‘won a hard-fought victory and now your real problems begin’ kind of feel I was hoping it would.
Time to revise. Speaking of time, we’re up to last summer now. Call it June.
I get a reminder email that I signed up for a novel workshop with Paul Park, who’s teaching Clarion West. Awesome. Wait, not awesome, because the draft I have needs so much work and there’s a limit to how much I can turn in and what I need feedback on is all the background stuff, the worldbuilding I’ve been too busy chasing the narrative to flesh out.
I bang out a synopsis and a plot outline and some notes about how stuff works in my made-up world and turn that in. I get some good notes. I sit down to write a beta-readable draft of book one.
Which is where I am now. Okay, I’m most of the way through part one. But I have a much better idea where I’m going this time. I’ve got fixes for some problems I’ve been hand-waving past. And because I’ve got the first two books plotted out and the third one concepted semi-thoroughly, I’m able to seed in things that will grow to become meaningful later. There’s plenty left to flesh out, but I’ve got enough plotting done to pants my way through.
Some things have changed this time round. Brenaea’s pretty much a badass from the start. Not that it does her much good, since that just means I can put bigger obstacles and more impossible choices in front of her. And starting her from a position of more or less complete ignorance gives me a chance not only to showcase her hunger for knowledge and the hazards and capabilities that come with it but to let the world she lives in unfold in all its messy particularity.
I know what I’ve gotten myself into.
Time to get back to work.