The problem with novels is that they are very long stories, and long stories tend to get complicated. The problem with long, complicated stories is that you have to keep them straight and you have to remember what you’ve said; otherwise people begin to suspect you of telling lies. Which of course, if you’re a novelist, is exactly what you’ve been doing.
Everybody likes a good story. Nobody likes to be lied to.
The trouble with fantasy novels in particular is that the people who read them really, really want to believe in them. So badly do they want to believe in the alternate worlds of fantasy that some of them dress, talk, walk and behave in other ways as if those worlds are as viable and complete and, well, as “real” as any other shared reality and as if other people—ordinary, decent people who inhabit, either principally or exclusively, the world outside of or in between the realms of fantasy fiction—people who have never attended a fantasy convention or even want to know about them—are unimaginably dull. Nobody suspends disbelief half so well or half so willingly, in other words, as a devout reader of fantasy fiction. Nobody more actively participates in the fictional world. Fans of fantasy want to know your monsters and other magical creatures, to converse with your heroes and heroines, to vie with your villains and villainesses and, most importantly, to believe in the laws of your imagined physics—precisely because those laws and the situations governed by them provide an interesting and often empowering alternative to the physical, social and temporal limitations we all face in our daily, three-dimensional-only lives.
You’d think—wouldn’t you?—that the willingness of such a readership to suspend disbelief in one’s fiction would be the greatest asset a writer could enjoy. Probably it is. But there is no disappointment more bitter than the disillusionment of the true believer.
All novelists tell lies. Fantasy writers tell whoppers. For this reason there is—or at least, in my opinion, there more often ought to be—a greater level of anxiety and uncertainty in a fantasist’s heart than in the heart of any other kind of writer. If our vulnerability to our own enthusiasms and our unrealistic expectations of the world and how it might operate are part of our charm, these tendencies might also explain why the “mainstream” world of fiction so often and so reflexively despises our stories, why its critics wink and draw circles around their ears whenever we venture beyond the Young Adult section at the bookstore.
“Why?” we might ask ourselves, bewildered. “Aren’t all novelists, all story-tellers, engaged in the same game of make-believe that we are?”
They are, they are. And that, I think, might be a significant part of the problem. As fantasists, we are such a patent bunch of bold-faced liars that we threaten not only our own houses of cards but every house in the neighborhood and, by extension, every flimsy edifice in all of fictiondom.
Fantasy has long borne the status and the stigma of cult fiction. What makes a cult a cult, however, is not the ludicrousness of its beliefs but its fanaticism, the enthusiastic and uncritical devotion of its adherents to its central tenets. In other words, a cult is defined by the lack of a sense of irony to buffer its edges, those corners where it most uncomfortably rubs up against a prevailing and contradictory doctrine. (This explains why magical realism is not truly a subset of fantasy, why it stands so much closer to the heart of mainstream fiction and does not get relegated to the YA shelves.) In fact, what marks a group as a cult is the dismissive attitude of the sanctioned religion toward it and any other sect that embraces beliefs (called heresies) that challenge the perceptions of reality embraced by the more powerful group. A cult is an outsider religion, and fantasy is outsider fiction, naïve fiction. Because it does not seem to appreciate or even to quite grasp the popular elegance of conventional representations of reality, it seems somehow primitive, awkward, uncouth.
The mainstream, in order to maintain its credentials and its credibility, would like to deflect attention from the fact that it perpetuates the same kinds of lies that fantasists tell, and for the same reasons, but mainstream writers get to pretend that they are somehow closer to the perceived ideal of a universally shared “adult” reality (which gets equated with truth and associated with respectability, with—come to think of it—the likes of Shakespeare and Beowulf and Homer and the Bible and the Arabian Nights and…want me to go on?)
Yes, it’s absurd to relegate the fantastic to some low-frequency end of a cultural spectrum, but it’s persistently done. You know it and I know it. And our discomfort under the scrutiny of an authority predisposed to disapprove of our methods, our shakier verisimilitudes, makes us want to create air-tight magical systems and worlds that obey at least most of the laws of physics (as we currently understand them) and maps and comprehensive language systems and imaginary histories and cultures and—did I say maps? Especially maps. Maps simultaneously ground us and lend us a god’s eye view. Maps and plot outlines—very detailed plot outlines—to help us keep our stories straight.
We tend to get lost in the back-stories of our back-stories, in the prehistories of our subplots, in the nuances of tectonic plate shifts in the late antediluvian period of a planet created by a wizard banished from a star system in a parallel universe referenced in a footnote to an imaginary biography of Plato’s mother. It is all a wonderfully entertaining distraction from the job of telling bold-faced, entertaining fictions.
We have prepaid subscriptions to Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory (you know the one: that a writer must know seven or eight times more about his story than he includes in his actual manuscript, if it is to float like a convincing ice castle capable of sinking a real life, nuts-and-bolts Titanic). But by the time you’ve finished a rough draft, you probably have more information in your head than you need about your invented world or magical system, with or without a plot outline. Blueprints, I say, are for houses that are not yet built, not for an ice castle that’s been afloat since Odin was a boy.
The acquisition of knowledge is a twofold process: first, of discovery and, only later, of the invention of categories by which to sort and label those discoveries and other accumulated bits of information for the sake of easy reference and retrieval. We learn about the primary world as children at play, through observation of and interaction with its elements and principles. We discover the fundamental laws of physics by climbing on things, throwing things, bumping into things. Before we can wield logic as a tool for abstraction, we must experience situations that create in us the immediate conditions of pain and joy, comfort and fear. We deduce because we exist and because it is in us to want to go on existing.
Imagining a secondary world necessarily mirrors the proces of discovering our first one. Since we can’t experience such another world directly, we do it vicariously, through a set of characters—a set, that is to say, of imaginary playmates—who act out a story on our behalf. Only as a result of that activity do we begin to know what sorts of features exist in the invented world.
This is the natural way to invent worlds. At the very least, it is the novelist’s way. It may not be the planetologist’s way or the linguist’s way or the way of the chemical engineer or even the way of the writer whose advice you’ve always taken, but it is the way of the born story-teller to make up lies on the spot and to cover for them with ever bolder, more audacious lies when the first ones begin to feel wobbly. It is, in any event, the way that I advise.
Your imaginary world is not going to exist more convincingly (even if you happen to actually be a planetologist) just because you’ve thought everything out in advance of telling your story. It will exist in your reader’s mind to the same extent and for the same reason that it exists in your own: because it’s where your characters bump into things.
So tell your story first; figure your world out as you go along. Trust it in the same way that you trust the floor next to your bed in the morning. Describe it with your senses. Touch it with your sentences. Explore it with your eyes and your fingers and with the muscles of your legs and your back, not with your prefrontal cortices. The time will come when you will need to develop cohesive theories, or at least an intuitive understanding of the nature of magic in your world. You will get to tell snippets of the history the neighboring kingdom, if you need to, and develop taxonomies for your species and maybe even decline the verbs of a language or two. And yes, you may have to rectify certain details of your story that you got wrong the first time through. If you don’t find a good enough explanation for the fact that your princess had green eyes in chapter 8 and yellow-orange ones at the end of your story, when it matters, then you had better find the bottle of correction fluid or the delete key.
That’s why we read and reread, revise and correct and ask someone with a fresh pair of eyes to proofread for us sometime around the fifth draft. The first draft is a race against time across unmapped territory. You will get lost. It’s necessary and it’s to be expected. Does this mean you don’t plan for the trip? No. You take what you need, but you travel lightly. You hope that you will find something edible when you get there—wherever it is (you later discover) that you were going all along—enough to sustain you while you explore your new environment. If you don’t find the food you need to keep you going, come on back. Reprovision for a different trip.
What provisions do you need?
You need a crew—a protagonist, probably an antagonist or two and one or more allies—and a handful of ill-conceived ideas about what’s important to each of them, what they hope to accomplish and what’s going to get in the way. In other words, a scene or two. A conflict, a situation, a beginning and a middle and some vague ideas about how it’s all going to turn out—whether for good or for ill—in the perfect world of your imagination.
Start by writing scenes. Not a novel. Not an outline. Not an introduction and not a beginning. Scenes. The most exciting scenes you can think of, no matter where they might ultimately occur in your story. The first mission is reconnaisance. Grab a parachute and drop your protagonist somewhere—anywhere—behind enemy lines. Follow along and see what happens. Draw your maps, if you have to have them, after you get there. Better yet, bring a camera. Take lots of pictures. Draw the map when you get back home.