Friday, 5 November 2010

Round Robin - World-building in Fantasy

And so to Tim Stretton, another writer who likes to go down paths unknown. Tim’s novel, The Dog of the North, is a fine example of world building – Mondia is a fully realised fantasy land of epic proportions, which was visited first in the novel, Dragonchaser. But I would like to ask Tim, which came first? The world or the plot? And why? And would he ever consider writing his books the other way around?

Finally, as it is something that effects us all and Tim has had some experience in this area, I would like to ask him whether self-publishing via e-books is something that has become not only more viable, but also more appealing?
--Matt Curran

The challenge faced by fantasy novelists in bringing their worlds to life is the same one which faces all writers of fiction, except in a more extreme form.  When we read Deborah Swift's The Lady's Slipper, the reader must be compelled and convinced by a world they can never have visited.  Even L.C. Tyler, whose novels are invariably set in present-day Sussex, where I live, is creating a fictional analogue rather than the real thing: "Sussex", rather than Sussex.  The writer works unobtrusively to lay down the ground rules for their world regardless of genre.

The fantasy novelist goes only one step further, in creating a world about which the reader knows nothing.  (At least at the outset; by the end of some fantasy series, the created world can be stiflingly familiar, particularly if it recycles the tired epic fantasy tropes).  The wise fantasist will make familiarisation as easy as possible for the reader.  It is sensible to ground a fantasy world in some aspects of the one we know, however much you subsequently departs from it.  (The Lord of the Rings can be read at least in part as a lament for a pre-World War I England).  My Mondia novels draw heavily on Renaissance Italy, with its glittering surfaces and treacherous depths.  I hope this gives the stories greater richness, because readers are unconsciously bringing their own perceptions of the period, and so doing some of the heavy lifting for me.  This approach also acquits me of the need for tedious exposition, which slows the story, and allows the reader to make a greater emotional and imaginative commitment to the story.

Plot, for me, is rather less important.  There are only five--or seven, or twenty--plots; the exact number is unimportant.  The key is that there are so only so many ways you can configure character interaction, and those ways are susceptible to codification and analysis.  Whatever the shape of your plot, someone has been there before.  I hope that the ending of The Dog of the North surprises, satisfies and moves the reader, but my aim in getting there was not to make a shape which had never been seen on the page.

The third leg of the stool, which Matt does not mention, is character.  Plot and world together, in whichever order they are conceived, make a sterile brew.  It is character which draws us in, character which keeps us turning the pages.  Some writers give us plot without meaningful characters--Agatha Christie springs to mind--and create fiction analagous to an intellectual puzzle.  (This is an observation rather than a denigration; no value-judgement is implied).  The idea for most of my fiction begins with character.  Without characters to keep me interested, the world is flat and static, the plot a limp succession of events.  The projects with which I struggle are the ones where the characters resolutely refuse to come to life.

The Dog of the North is my only commercially published novel (and this was self-published before being picked up by Macmillan New Writing).  My two previous novels, Dragonchaser and The Zael Inheritance, exist solely as self-published titles.  Self-publication met most of my objectives as a writer, the one missing thing being breadth of audience (unfortunately the one which allows the writer to make a living).  Print-on-demand  technology, for instance with Lulu, brings self-publishing into the grasp of most writers, but the cover prices remain significantly higher than commercially published books, even where the writer is prepared to take a negligible royalty.  The rise of the ebook counters even this problem; it is possible to publish an ebook for the Kindle, iPad or Sony reader which retails for next to nothing.  As these reading platforms grow--and the Kindle looks to be here to stay--this is a market which will become increasingly important for self-published writers.  I still don't see it being especially lucrative, but if your aim as a writer is to put your fiction in front of the widest possible audience, and build a reputation by word of mouth, ebook publication is something you should take very seriously.

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Next on our round robin is Faye Booth, whose novels Cover the Mirrors and Trades of the Flesh have a fresh and compelling take on Victorian England.  Faye, what is it that attracts you to that period, and as your career develops can you see yourself writing in other settings?


Aliya Whiteley said...

Very interesting, particularly the bit about using existing connotations in the reader to do the 'heavy lifting' of your fantasy world for you. I think a lot of that also comes down to having a great name for your place. Mettingloom is one of my favourites - a great name.

Tim Stretton said...

The name "Mettingloom" was panned as "linguistically incoherent" in Deathray Magazine's review of the novel. I always rather liked it myself...

C. N. Nevets said...

Tim, you know how I feel about your approach to world-building. I've tweeted about it and I've blogged about it.

The approach to building through implications and in-line description rather than voluminous exposition makes your world-building in The Dog of the North some of the very best I've ever read.

Brian McGilloway said...

A really interesting insight into 'world building' Tim. I agree with your contention about the need for plot and character too - all genres really rely on the same key ingredients.