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Mapception

For the last several months I’ve been stuck in Book Three. Done some revision and stage-setting, but haven’t been able to charge ahead through the big mid-book cliffhanger.

The problem is that at this phase of Book Three, I’m supposed to mastermind an elaborate heist. This is difficult for obvious reasons, the main one being that I can’t do my usual thing and just start writing. Two paragraphs into pantsing one character’s subplot and I’ll already be screwing up another’s. If I don’t envision the entire interlocking mechanism before hitting the switch, it’ll end up falling apart.

The heist is going down in a palatial underground complex. Currently it’s kind of a black box in there, and this is the problem. I have a highly visual imagination, and I can’t even begin to plot out who’s supposed to do what where until I get blueprints for this place. I know what’s going on with my characters before they go in, and I know what they’ll be like when they come out, and I’ve caught glimpses of what happens inside, but the nitty-gritty details elude me. What I need is a map—or better yet, a 3D render.

So that’s what I’m making. Not a 3D render; a map that’ll let me render the setting in my mind.

In a way this is a positive predicament. Much to my chagrin, I’m right there with my characters. They need to infiltrate this place, and so do I. Hopefully the map gets me inside.

Blank Page Energy

Hello there, nascent fandom! The work progresses! With Chapter Nine completed, Book Three has passed 75,000 words. For the first time in … what, a year? … I’ve finally pushed through to a blank page.

As those of you who’ve been keeping up with this blog know, late last year I paused partway through Chapter Nine to circle back through Book Three and integrate additional subplots. What’s news is that, after finally catching back up with myself, I proceeded to turn Chapter Nine into the longest chapter in my entire series thus far. But I’ve been assured it doesn’t feel long, because it’s mostly frenetic action!

Anyway, now for the first time in what feels like forever I can make a fresh incision on a blessedly featureless block. The next chapter will conclude Part One of Book Three. Each book contains two parts, and the part-break typically bridges some great tension or revelation. This next chapter will lead up to a deliciously stressful development. Exciting!

No news yet on the publishing front, but I’m not worried. All I need is a single bite. The “Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow” saga will see the light of day one way or another.

Don’t Kill the Messenger (Bury Him)

We all know message fiction when we read it. The easy problems and solutions, the just-so moralizing, the strawmen antagonists. Sometimes the message gets delivered almost halfheartedly, as though the author’s under an obligation, and sometimes it’s presented with passion and through action, but in either case it’s obvious that the story’s just there to support a sermon.

Nobody ever said propaganda can’t be pretty. But if there’s one thing that’s sure to turn off a prospective reader, it’s being made to sit through a predictable exhortation when what’s wanted is the mystery and volatility of undomesticated story. If we know where we’re going before we get there, the only ones who’ll make it are those who didn’t need to make the journey.

The problem with message fiction isn’t that it has a message; it’s that the message protrudes from the narrative like a stone haystack erupting from the shallows. There’s no depth to it, no mediating currents to soften the surf, drawing the reader in with a mesmerizing eddy. What you can descry from a distance is all you’ll ever get.

But where context is sufficient to sink the message deep, beyond our direct observation, it becomes discernible only through its effects—like the invisible bedrock that molds the ocean into waves.

And isn’t that more intriguing?

Slush Rush

Late last week I was informed that A Sea Sought in Song had been selected from out of a well-known publisher’s infamously vast slush pile “for closer examination.” This was a pleasant surprise, as it’d been eleven months since I’d deposited my manuscript in that particular quagmire. Who knows if it’ll make the next cut, or how long that might take, but I consider this a big achievement in any event.

SlushPile

Since I always try to pair my news reports with authorial insights, I’ll observe, in a spirit of undaunted uncertainty, that Book Three continues to progress elliptically. I’ll write a scene, think through its ramifications, then go back and rewrite one or two past scenes before circling back around to the front lines. I’m calling due a lot of the open-ended place-markers with which I’ve strewn my path, connecting heretofore-unseen dots, complexifying the narrative matrix. It’s slow going, but quite rewarding. A certain knowledge of future events has proven unnecessary to weave a tightly-plotted tale.

Kinda like in real life.

Cartography À La Carte

I firmly believe that good writing will obviate the need for flyleaf maps. If an author can’t adequately describe his story’s setting without resorting to another medium of communication, he needs to put in more work. However, as value-added accessories, especially to a fantasy novel, maps can perform some important functions.

One of the key effects of classic fantasy is the generation in the reader of a sense that the world is deeper and wider than what is currently known. Whether that takes the form of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, Tolkien’s seemingly-endless ancient histories, or Sanderson’s periodic tables of undiscovered magic, it lifts—if only for an instant—the blinders of familiarity from our eyes and reminds us what it was like to be children filled with wonder and fear at a world bigger and wilder than we could possibly comprehend. But here’s the tricky part: this effect is achieved not primarily through invention, but rather insinuation.

If I as an author simply tell you that a thing exists, then it becomes known. Known things can be classified, quantified, categorized. It might still be weird or dangerous and inspire curiosity, but the mystique stirred up by an activated imagination won’t transform it into something far more.

However, if I hint that something exists, it’s like an invitation, a stimulant. Does the bizarre inscription summon a deity? Do the grass-swallowed ruins have a history? Can the precisely-formulated elixir grant even greater power? This is where maps come in.

Fantasy maps aren’t just bird’s-eye visualizations of the narrative. I’ve seen ill-considered ones from some big-name authors that do nothing but follow the route our heroes take on their quest. They’re just mostly-blank canvases bisected by winding rivers of detail. You can predict the plot progression just by glancing at them. This elicits no wonder, no added value.

I’ve also read books that feature fully-populated flyleaf maps, but which seem to go out of their way—literally—to justify the inclusion of every last hamlet and geological particularity, such that by the time our heroes finish crisscrossing every square mile in the known world, any chance for cartographical wonder is lost as surely as if nothing at all had been shown.

A good fantasy map, on the other hand, behaves like a real-world map. It isn’t partial to those regions you’re planning to traverse in the immediate future, and it encompasses more territory than anyone could or would realistically encounter within a short-term timeframe. By imitating reality, it reinforces our illusion that the fantasy world is real. And the real world, as we well know, contains many places we’ve never been and sights we’ve never seen.

Hey, look at that. What’s that spot on the map? That’s an odd name—what’s it mean? Will we ever go there? Will we ever get to find out?

That’s the kind of value a good map can bring to a story that’s already strong enough to do without. Ideally, fantasy maps should engender more questions than answers. They should expand the world, not shrink it.