Writing what’s real in fantasy

This year I’ve had difficulty getting to grips with writing a new series. I’ve written about 100k worth of false starts, not including 50k of a story that I’ve since abandoned. I couldn’t work out what was wrong with me: all I had to do was come up with a world, some people with swords, some conflicts and that was it, right? But nothing ever felt quite right.

This week I worked it out.

When I wrote Blackwing, there wasn’t really much of a plan, and there wasn’t any worldbuilding behind it. Everything grew up quite organically along the way, with a ton of cutting, deleting, adding and reorganising. Heck, I got 90k words in thinking I was at 50k and realised that I had to end the book, and soon. It ended at 165k and then came back down to 108k before it found a home. But it wasn’t a plan. It wasn’t a set out story, and it wasn’t the world that I wanted to write about. No.

It was Galharrow, and it was Ezabeth. They are the heart of the story. It has always surprised me that Ezabeth gets so few mentions in reviews or reader comments. To me, she is the absolute heart of the book. By far my favourite character. Maybe Galharrow could claim that role, but he’s so bound to her that they don’t exist without one another. To me, Blackwing is at its core a love story. In many ways, it’s Ezabeth’s story told through Galharrow’s eyes.

And that was what I had wanted to write. So I just wrote it.

Blackwing is a story of longing, and of regret. When I came to write Ravencry, it was different. The characters were pre-existing. But again, it wasn’t plotting that got me through the writing of it. It was Valiya, and Amaira. The key themes of Ravencry are difficulty in moving on, the prospect of unwanted parenthood and the taking on of responsibility. All of those things were major factors in my life at the time, whether I realised what I was writing about or not. Again, not things that get mentioned in reviews, not things that readers talk to me about, but the entire book is focused on them from beginning to end. It’s Galharrow’s story, but every real impact point deals with one of those.

As for Crowfall? You’ll have to wait and see, but it’s fair to say that the major themes from the first two books continue, and Galharrow continues to grow as a character, struggling through his personal demons (and against actual demons). But again, I was writing about things that were important to me on a deeply personal level.

World building, heroic deeds, dastardly dark overlords – those things are all fun. But they aren’t, and maybe never have been, the point of it all to me.

This week I hit a new patch of ground and started to run on it. I didn’t know what to write, so I just thought, “where’s my head at?” And so I wrote about that and I put it into a new character’s brain, and I explored bits of my past through someone else’s eyes. Words fell like rain. Before I knew it I’d cracked out 1,500 words, a full scene, and the character was alive in my mind. I understood him. I knew who he was, and what was haunting him. I put hurt and regret and darkness and frustration into him and let him breathe them for me. Perhaps there’s something therapeutic in that.

And suddenly I knew how it ends. A kiss, in a storm of fire. If this book gets written then I guess that’s a spoiler, although it’s highly likely that the end will be different by the time I get there. From knowing the ending, I knew the story, I knew the characters, and maybe most importantly, I knew what the heart was. Heart is super important. It’s what makes a book hit you deep in the chest. It’s what counts. All that other stuff? For me, it’s fluff. Beautiful, important, changeable fluff.

All readers are different. We all enjoy different things. But what I’ve discovered lately is that it’s not enough to have a steady plot, conflict and a handful of interesting people. There has to be pain behind it. There has to be blood on my teeth as I write it. I have to live in the story to feel it enough to write it.

Every writer is different. This is just what works for me. But I’m glad that it’s working.

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Published by EdMcDonald

Ed McDonald is the author of The Raven's Mark trilogy and the forthcoming Redwinter series. He currently lives in the UK. Find me at www.edmcdonaldwriting.com

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