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The Creative Restraints Of A Fantasy Series

I’ve pretty much finished a rough draft of the final book in the Legends of the Red Sun series. I’ve got most of it done on Scrivener, and this is the point where I move everything to a Word document and start polishing, smoothing over cracks and so on. To say I’m relieved to be at this stage is an understatement, because writing this book has made me realise quite a few things about writing a long epic fantasy series.

1. It’s a marathon. You think finishing one novel is tough, tying up lots of novels, plot-threads, and personal character stories, and retaining continuity for years of your life is energy-draining work to say the least. The more complex you try to make your novels (i.e. sophisticated or subtle sub-plots, themes, references and so on) the more this bites you on the arse for the finale.

2. Creatively, writing the last book in the series sucks. I’ve tried for each of the first three novels to create self-contained stories, with new plots and characters. That approach gives me a huge amount of creative freedom, which is severely lacking in a novel that has to bring everything together. It’s a challenge to do so because you’re picking up old plots and are heading towards a resolution that was planned (in theory) ages ago, so much of what you create is pre-destined. That kills a lot of the creative spark.

3. I’ve discovered I have a new respect for those who write mammoth series, even Robert Jordan who seemed to relinquish control of his books. Sure there’s no excuse for many pages discussing the stitching dresses, but that goes to show what a toll it can take on the writer’s perception of time and detail.

4. This loss of control is why novels are often late. There are laws of motion working on plots. Things that were set into action ages ago suddenly crop up again, or need resolving. Much like life, things become more complex and tangled, and representing this when you have multiple points of view means that you have to write about things you didn’t intend to cover. You have to remember names, places and character traits you created years ago – a quick fact-check on Google won’t cut the mustard. You have to manage airtime in a totally different way. For the first novels, you didn’t have to do this as much.

5. The last books in a series are nearly always read by fewer people than the first book in a series, which really doesn’t help with motivation. You’re writing to a different, more hardcore crowd.

All of these combined factors can mean that it isn’t quite as much fun to write. All books are tough to create, sure, but when writing stops being as much fun, it becomes work. Essentially, as a writer, you’re bound by your own series. You’ve one hand tied behind your back. You’re hamstrung. You’re whatever simile or metaphor you can think of. What starts off as a neat expansion of a few ideas soon grows into an uncontrollable beast at times, and your job becomes not so much about telling that story as it is about controlling the beast and putting it back in its cage.

None of this is to say I haven’t put my heart into the project – quite the opposite. You start to feel extra love for it. But if you’re new writer trying to unleash a fantasy series upon the world, be careful what you wish for…

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

16 replies on “The Creative Restraints Of A Fantasy Series”

A lot of that seems to apply to more traditional (“Jordanian” series). With your Weirdier work, the series seems to be getting more creative, more engaging and more acclaimed as it goes on… I’m sure there are physics and boundaries and things, but they certainly haven’t slowed you down. The Red Sun world seems to be a pretty free one, and you’ve been taking full advantage of that liberty as the series progresses.

Not sure where that was going… I guess that I’ve never considered your books a traditional fantasy series – more similar to Bas-Lag or the Castle books (or even Discworld), where each book can very easily, coherently stand alone. That’s fast becoming a lost art.

Kind of you to say so! Well, I guess it’s something I’m finding for the last novel. For CoR and TBoT I had specific themes and feel in mind, as well as bringing in lots of new characters, which kind of has to be sacrificed for the requirements of finishing the damn thing off. That means making sure I’ve got airtime for the characters I’ve created so far, and giving them their resolution…

I’ve structured The Crown of the Blood in such a way that each installment covers new territory physically as well as narratively, which helps to keep things fresh for me as a writer. Also, it helps that other than The Big Plot, I didn’t work out in advance how every character’s journey would progress, so I have the joy of discovering that for each book in turn.

I was like that for the first three novels, which is a pretty effective way, I agree; so much so that the series nicely became a mosaic series. I guess here I’m largely talking about the *final* novel, the general results of which I’ve known for a good couple of years at least.

Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I agree, whenever I’ve read long series, one can start to see where the ‘beast’ begins to take over.

Fascinating post. I’m only at the start of my project, but should I get a couple of books into the series, I can see where things might start to get harder.

I bring this up, as there are obviously connections in your own work to M. John Harrison’s Viriconium “series.”

Do all series need to be so constraining?

In the example above you have a deeply realized world/setting, and characters who sometimes overlap – but as often as not, are left behind, die offstage, or simply do not figure in the other parts of the larger story.

No question that it is less commonly seen in epic fantasy, but I’d say the Viriconium books are an example where such an approach clearly works: where the series becomes a useful playground in which an author can experiment and expand on her or his ideas.

I think with Viriconium, that’s a good example of an anti-fantasy, a conscious attempt to undermine not only the expectations of the reader, but the notion of continuity within a series, too (a constantly fluctuating place, in many respects). Whilst I’d love to be able to write something like that, I think it’s worth throwing into the mix the commercial restraints these days (to sustain a career, and so on).

But I think when I speak of constraint, I do so in the general creative sense. It is nice to step up to a blank sheet of paper, as I have done previously, but I have found this final book to have some pencil sketches from years ago plastered all over it.

Point #4 reminds me of an ancedote that George R R Martin said about keeping consistency in his own mammoth series and how he has basically subcontracted that out to some superfans, who CAN keep the details straight.

I’d like to think that crowdsourced tools in the vein of Wikis will help big phat fantasy authors and fans going forward.

This is why I’m sticking to a trilogy initially – it’s long enough to give my characters’ stories room to breath, but not so long that I will be building up an unmanageable level of complexity (she says optimistically, being only halfway through Book 2). I guess I work the opposite way to Gav – I have a strong idea where I want the character arcs to go, but the foreground plot of each book doesn’t get pinned down until I write it!

I know the start and the end of the final book and a rough idea of the plot (although I’ve left room for it to grow as the series progresses). I’m really looking forward to writing those scenes. That’s probably why I’ve taken my time with this first book, as I know there are things I need to set up in book 1 that won’t seem relevant until the very end. I’m keeping one eye on the future at all times worrying how any change will impact the over-arcing plot. That’s the plan anyway, I’m sure it will be different if I ever get to write that final novel

Great post, though it’s not making me any more enthusiastic about writing book two of my trilogy 🙂 Though, since no one yet has shown interest in book one, there’s no real need to start. There’s something refreshing about working on stand-alones.

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