This has been an intense week, and writing-wise I probably made it a little harder than it had to be, but I think I’m getting something good out of it. The time has come for the almost inevitable mythical backstory of my world, which is very much a part of fantasy writing and poses a unique challenge. Writing a myth is hard.
For me, there are a few requirements for a good invented myth. It has to be unique, it has to be detailed, and it has to be told in a memorable way. When I think of all the books on my shelves, there are very few whose myths I remember and enjoy on their own merits. Most of the time they’re necessary elements that led to the present conundrum. Off the top of my head, of all the mythic origins I’ve read, I can only remember two: Tolkien and Jacqueline Carey’s story of Elua, the origin-god of her d’Angeline people. I’ve read a lot of other fantasy series, but I really have to rack my brain before I start to come up with any others.
What I think was unusual about Tolkien and Carey’s myths was the amount of effort they put into them. Tolkien’s histories, songs, and lore are epic. He is father of modern fantasy, he set the standard for world-building. He has thousands of years of detailed history of all his races. He has stories and songs of their heroes and religious figures. Most crucially, in my opinion, he spent six years writing a translation of Beowulf. Everyone knows Tolkien’s skill as a linguist–at least, everyone with even a glancing familiarity with Lord of the Rings–but I think an exhaustive study of a myth like Beowulf would give real insight into what makes an enduring myth.
Carey also goes much deeper with her myth. She repeats aspects of the origin story throughout her trilogies, all of which are rich with symbolism, but she even wrote and released a book that was basically a short bible of the origin story, written in appropriately mythic language. It’s clear that the myth wasn’t just a utilitarian bit of backstory; she gave a great deal of time and effort to developing it to support different aspects of her story telling and provide a structure for her world-building. She made it vivid and lyrical, with several very memorable images and often-repeated quotes, i.e. love as thou wilt. It wasn’t a story she wrote, inserted into the novel, and then abandoned. It underpinned it and floated to the surface in different iterations repeatedly.
I will add that to my list of requirements. Unique, detailed, memorably told, and embedded in the world.
What I did that made this harder on myself–but might benefit in the long run, we’ll see–is actually looked up myths to see how the language looked. I found a translation of Homer’s “Odyssey” and looked at local myths for one of the cultures I’m referencing, and also some of the traditional poetry of another reference culture. I actually avoided Beowulf because the Eagles have nothing of that language in their make-up and I don’t want to contaminate them; my Wolves are decidedly more Beowulf-y and I mean to save him for them. I wrote to myself about what the important points of the myth are; there are key points that I need to carry down to my current-day story, not just to support the explanations of this is why my world is as it is, but also to highlight certain cultural values that will underpin my own civilizations.
What I found for the oldest myths and stories, like the Bible, for example, is simple language that was meant to be spoke aloud. I do read my dialogue aloud frequently, just to see how it feels, but I think it’ll be crucial in writing this myth. Homer often has single-phrase descriptions of his characters, like “wise-eyed Athena” or something similar, which I think has a definite mythic quality. Picking the descriptors for my mythical characters (and not too many of them) will hopefully let me make them unique and memorable in as few words as possible.
But I think this is a section I’m going to keep rewriting and cutting down for a long time, long after I’ve moved on in the story. It’s way too long as it is right now.
First things first: 49,839 words, and the first draft of section two of episode three is done.
Second, this writing session is why I don’t rigidly outline. I have milestones, I have a road map (I also have an actual map), but I have always found that for me, rigid outlines tend to stifle my creativity and the possibility of some new surprise surfacing that I didn’t plan on. Those surprises are why I sometimes feel like I can’t really take credit for my own writing. I don’t know where they come from.
It was the germination of a seed that has been wandering around on the edge of my mind for a while now, but in this scene it came together and gave me both the raison d’être for this scene and a wonderful thread to unroll over possibly the rest of this book, at least. It will be delightful for me to write because it just tickles me; the idea makes me smile, for reasons I’d have trouble explaining. And unfortunately I can’t tell you what the idea is because it would be a spoiler.
It’s also one of those things where it’s absolutely not necessary to the plot, so it takes a bit of judgment on the writer’s part. Just because I think it’s a delightful idea doesn’t mean my readers are going to want to splash around in it with me for pages on end. And that’s the heart of the writer’s maxim to kill your darlings. If my beta readers say, why do you have multiple scenes referencing x when it doesn’t move the plot along, then the delightful idea that I so enjoyed writing, and that makes me smile every time I read it, is going to have to be sacrificed.
For some reason the image that comes to mind is an infant on an altar, and a battleaxe. It makes me very sad.
So to avoid that adorable, cooing little infant getting the axe, the only solution is to make it as adorable as possible and only include it when it’s necessary, so the only time the reader notices the idea is to admire it for its cleverness and adorableness. Which is true of much of writing in general, but when it comes to your darlings, one prefers to make them simultaneously as attractive and unobtrusive as possible.
Yesterday was my first critique session with my new writing group, which really is an excellent one. One of the subjects I was concerned about, and a subject we discussed a few times, was names.
There’s a few issues at play here. One, for me personally, names are incredibly important to my characters. My names almost always mean something, whether because of the sound of the words or because the etymology of the name reveals some aspect of the character’s personality or appearance. Naming stops me dead in my tracks when I’m writing. Until I have the perfect name, and I won’t know it’s perfect until I stumble across it, I can’t write a word. It’s not such a hard block with secondary or tertiary characters, but for my main characters, the name must be perfect.
This can be tricky with normal modern names, but it’s even more difficult for names in fantasy worlds, because of course fantasy names aren’t necessarily modern, familiar names; in fact, it goes against the genre if they are, at least for traditional and high fantasy.
47,768 words, still working on the first scene of episode three. I’ve got a name for the episode now, and a good idea of where I’m headed as well as what dangers Marrok, Iolië, and their merry band will face as they travel. The phrase of the week is overpowered. That was really the hinge on which my plotting turned, as I have to come up with problems and obstacles for them to face, and some real danger for them in facing it. It makes me glad–for the thousandth time–that I’m waiting to publish any of this until The Red Book is complete. It’s an easy trap for an author to fall into, making their characters too strong in the beginning, and giving them nowhere to grow and no minor dangers that are still a challenge to overcome. There are a lot of different things that can kill you in the world. Or at least there should be.
Considering that led me to expand on the lore behind the world, which is always a treat. I ought to write a post talking about the supplemental documents that go with world-building, as the 47,768 words I’ve written on the actual story are nothing compared to the word count of my supplemental files; the total word count for the story and the additional files is probably around 200-250k words. It would be interesting what, if any, supplemental files others keep to organize their world-building.
I have officially completed episode two, which (if it were a TV show) would be the end of the two-part introduction. Episode two is longer than I wanted, but I think I am happy with the ending. I think it got the payoff it needed.
But now I am adrift, with many major milestones ahead and no idea how to get them. I have a map (which I am pretty proud of) so I have a literal roadmap; the question is, what happens on the way there.
This is a trick of mine that over the years I’ve ended up employing more and more, almost to the point that I consider it the first and roughest draft of anything I write. I sit down and write to myself. Just thinking about the problem doesn’t help me; it’s too easy to get distracted. So instead I write it as if I’m talking to myself, asking myself questions, answering them, exploring the different options, identifying problems and figuring out why it’s a problem, then what to do about it. Here’s a little example of what I was working out earlier today: