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.

Dated Communiqué

Book Three recently passed 60K words, but still needs the equivalent of two more chapters’ worth of content before I can declare its first Part complete. This puts it on track to equal or exceed the length of my first novel.

Speaking of Book One, I’m still waiting around for word from the acquisitions editors currently perusing it. Just this morning I got antsy enough to check my calendar, then took a calming breath. It hasn’t actually been that long yet. I just have to take life as it comes—kinda like the readers of this intermittent blog.

And speaking of taking things as they come, I’ve been mildly amused to find myself twelve years and 278K words into an epic high fantasy saga, with seemingly nothing left to do but write meet-cutes and awkward dates. Le sigh. Such is life, especially when I’ve arranged for the narrative to take a sharp turn into espionage-thriller terrain. I just hope the incessant banter comes across as witty rather than as self-indulgent. It’s certainly a change of pace from Book Two’s dire sobriety.

The second half of this book is shaping up to be a doozy. I keep tossing new locations, items, people, and events into the stew like there’s no tomorrow—kneading and layering the narrative for all I’m worth—all the while cringing at the callback commitments I’m racking up. I aspire to complexity, so I can’t just introduce cool things without making them an integral part of the story, which means they gotta reappear at some point as significant plot elements. My running list of Unexpected Things That Need To Also Be Inevitable continues to expand. Fortunately, my main cast has yet to show up there.

Thoughts on Getting Things Done

As a discovery writer, I’m never entirely sure how I manage to turn chaos into order. “Instinct” is my go-to explanation, but I can’t be certain about a cause whose operation I can’t describe. All I know is that, nine times out of ten, connections will be made if I just keep writing. It takes some amount of skill to recognize and capitalize on those connections, yes, but I couldn’t have foreseen them before they appeared on the page. Maybe I’m just such an editor at heart that I can’t get truly creative until there’s some preexistent material to mold and finesse.

Things don’t play out according to some grand master plan I dreamt up beforehand. Instead I simply put in the work, never quite sure where it’ll lead, and things always seem to work out okay despite my uncertainty.

I feel like there’s a life lesson here.

Exposition Position

Excitement is afoot in Arlam!

First off, some big names are currently reading A Sea Sought in Song. Saying more would be imprudent at this point, but hopefully I’ll have positive news to report soon. Anything could happen.

Secondly, Book Three passed 55K words this past week, and continues to climb. A few months ago I realized that an encounter I’d begun describing carried more ramifications than I’d anticipated, and required additional setup. So I skipped back several chapters to insert several thousand words’ worth of character development, and have been working my way toward my last point of departure ever since. It’s going great. This section of the book involves a ton of exposition (at last, the answers you seek!), and it’s required my full attention to keep it from degenerating into a perfunctory data dump. But fear not: some of the revelations in Part One of Book Three count as the most thrilling stuff I’ve written to date, at least to me.

And yet I can’t wait for the upcoming scenes in Part Two. As characters begin to converge and subplots to commingle, this tale’s gonna blow wide open—slowing my progress with exponentially-expanding complexity.

But I did go ahead and write its epilogue already. That’s the second one of those I’ve tapped out on my phone whilst wedged into a seat on a crosscountry flight, so I guess that makes for a tradition. The strange, freefloating mental state engendered by being alone in a crowd at 30,000 feet has leant itself to the task of epilogue-writing, since the last two have been set so completely outside the normal parameters of the narrative.

I do feel similarly about my publication prospects at the moment. Things are happening, quite swiftly in some cases, but I can’t see out the windshield to anticipate what’s next. Instead I must content myself with awkward glances over a stranger’s shoulder at the unfamiliar terrain flowing past me far below. But such is life.

The Plot-Paint Thickens

Now that the work of selling my series has passed out of my hands, I’ve been free to focus on finishing Book Three—a wild waltz through a kaleidoscope of espionage. It’s good to be back in the saddle and traversing new ground. As of now, I’ve completed 45% of my initial 100k-word goal for the novel.

But the thing about kaleidoscopes of espionage is that they demand plotting. Which is not my strong suit. Ugh. Fortunately, it’s actually quite simple to create a complex plot if you know the secret three-step formula: (1) create a simple plot, (2) identify all its holes, and then (3) explain them. Voila!

So if I’m being honest, my plotting process looks a lot like a four-year-old’s interrogation.

Me: “Why does W happen?”
Also me: “Well, I guess because X.”
Me: “But why does X happen?”
Also me: “Well, I guess because Y.”
Me: “But why does Y happen?”
Also me: “Well, I guess because Z.”
Me: “But why …”

In other news, the inimitable Hannah Gunderson, Painter of Arlam, has unveiled a gorgeously pensive new portrait of Ilina Lightkeeper.


Once More Unto the Freytag, Dear Friends

So I gave in and submitted another entry to the Writers of the Future contest. I wasn’t planning on doing so, but the fact that my first entry made it up onto the scoreboard has given me what may be false confidence that I can top myself. But a single rangefinding strike, no matter how visible, is still only one data point. It’s impossible for me to know whether I’ve adjusted correctly for windage until I see further results.

Out of curiosity, I recently read an article that purports to delineate the characteristics of a strong WotF entry (after I entered in December, of course). I laughed at how badly I’d handicapped myself. First, because trace elements of fantasy don’t even appear in my story until right toward the end. Second, because the story is set in a very specific historical time and place—one which I know only through Internet research. Third, because the coordinating judge is partial to a “traditional Freytag triangle with three Try/Fail Cycles” … whatever the heck that is. Basically, I’m lucky the thing even got read.

So did I buckle down and do my due diligence and pick the brains of successful entrants and research plot structure and map out an optimally-calibrated story specimen on a grid? Of course not! That’s not how I write, and it’s not how I got where I am. Why on earth would I switch gears now?

What I have done this time is to create original content for inclusion in my second entry. I have neither the time nor the inclination to write original stories simply to enter them in contests, but in order to continue cannibalizing “Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow” I had to do some retrofitting. Last year I tossed Book Two’s overture in the WotF hopper because it was the only chapter in my series that was entirely self-contained. This time, my selection made more of a ripping sound upon extraction from its surroundings. This time, I’d turned to the overture from A Sea Sought in Song.

If you’ve read it, you know it’s full of questions. I originally wrote it as an exercise back when I was first fleshing out the character of Ilina Lightkeeper, without ever intending it to see the light of day. It’s a petri dish of thematic ambiguity from which the whole novel burgeons. Yes, it has an arc. But it was never intended to stand alone.

So I went to work. First I had to figure out which threads could be left to dangle and which needed tying off. Turned out there were two that felt out-of-place sans closure: Forkbeard’s relationship with Ilina, and Ilina’s relationship with her father. A Sea Sought in Song explores both of those relationships in detail later on, and its overture—”To Face the Night”—concerns itself primarily with the Ilina/Rikard dynamic. Nonetheless, I had to bring those supplementary relationships to some kind of conclusion if I wanted to refashion the overture into a self-contained narrative. They needed little arcs of their own.

And hey, you can decide for yourself whether I succeeded, because I ended up liking my additions enough to include most of them in the story proper. So if you click through to the initial chapters available on my website, you can read a version of “To Face the Night” that’s nearly identical to my WotF entry. I think it’s a strong contender, but what do I know? After all, I’m not even familiar with the traditional Freytag triangle, lol.

Delay of Gratification

So at the end of December, on the final day before the quarterly deadline, I submitted the “Overture” chapter from Book Two to the famous Writers of the Future contest. I imagine everyone who enters WotF entertains delusions of Rothfussian grandeur, and I may or may not have been no exception. I was told to expect results around mid-March. Well, March came and went, and I heard nothing, so I shrugged, resigned myself to continued obscurity, and dispatched a bevy of queries and submissions to agents and publishers.

Then, two nights ago, I was notified that my entry had received an honorable mention.

*epic fantasy facepalm*

It’s not like I actually won or anything, but I’m still quite pleased. The chapter was never intended as a contest entry, and barely contained any fantastical content. I submitted it because it—as a flashback episode from Hugh Conrad’s past—was able to stand on its own as a self-contained narrative. That it received any recognition at all is quite gratifying. I only wish I’d restrained my horde of solicitous missives a tad longer.

And now, a treat: the honorably-mentioned story, on the house to readers of this blog! It’s spoiler-free for the same reason it worked as a contest entry, so those inclined may indulge without regret.