An Adventure Into The Fantastic
It goes without saying that writing fantasy is very different to writing a crime novel. But I didn’t realise just how different it was until I attempted one. It not only doesn’t read like any other kind of literature; it doesn’t write like one either.
My favourites in this genre would include ‘Gormenghast’, ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’, ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, ‘The Once and Future King’ and the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. Plus, I’ve worked in the area of fantasy on two occasions before. The first was with the novel ‘Calabash’, in which a young man fell from a seaside pier and awoke in a version of ancient Persia (although this event could be explained in rational terms too).
The second was a short story, ‘Britannica Castle’, with a gallery of grotesques in the titular castle, and while it was more fantastical I still avoided supernatural or purely fantastical invention (i.e. dragons, magical powers).
I’d long wanted to turn this tale into a novel, keeping the behaviour of the inhabitants rational and real but retaining the setting of a fantasy world. My artist pal Keith Page got excited about the project and drew several of the major characters, including the one-eyed King Scarabold, seen here.
Now, I’ve just finished a crime novel. This was the process:
First, research. Then a first draft that includes a committed crime, an innocent caught up in it, a search for truth, revelations. Each stage built on the last and the hero’s options are whittled down, in a sort of pyramid structure.
Then I came to writing my fantasy. First, NO research. Then a series of scenes and events, which all sit beside each other in a string – no pyramid, more like a single row. Very different experience. So I went back and looked at all of the fantasies in my favourites list.
The only one which doesn’t quite conform to my experience is Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, which feels more classically constructed like say, ‘Lord of the Rings’, in the form of a journey.
The point is that it was the easiest book to write that I’ve ever attempted.
Now, the book is a reality – I’ve nearly finished the first draft. The style is baroque and gothic, dark and mad, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’ll be called ‘The Foot On The Crown’, and will tell the story of a brother and sister in a castle, their enemies and the search for an heir that leads to a war.
Before I started, I reread the ‘Titus Groan’ trilogy, and discovered two things. First, you don’t have to roam across seven kingdoms to tell a grand story but can stay indoors, as it were – Melvyn Peake never takes his tale far from home in the first two volumes – and second, that the Peake novels are much, much more fun to read as an adult. I remember struggling with them quite a lot as a child.
I get that fantasy is too big a leap for some readers, but although my reading in this area is limited so far (I haven’t read my mate Joanne Harris’s ‘Runemarks’ yet) I can see that it only works when you follow a strict set of rules. Before I started, I read ‘Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Imaginative Fiction’, by Jeff Vandermeer. It was filled with colourful graphs and maps and diagrams illustrated in the style of fantasy novels, and featured dozens of writers discussing characterisation, structure, plotting and the creation of worlds. It featured ideas about the ‘protantagonist’ and ‘contamination beats’ and ‘tonal modulations’ and ‘subjective interpretation’.
It was no help at all.
It was based on a specific, analytical and uniquely American form of thinking about imaginative fiction, which may not have suited my style. It also seemed like a book for fans who fantasise about writing but read an awful lot about the idea of writing instead.
I have a feeling that what I’ve created is closer to ‘Gormenghast’ than any of the more magical fantasies out there, and quite gruesome in places, like the books I had as a child.
Time will tell. I’m about to start the second draft, and will report back. It will be interesting to see whether this continues to be as easy to write. One thing I have discovered; don’t preach meaning – let the reader find that out for her/himself.
Favourite fantasy novels here, please.