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You’re going to read another fantasy novel? But it’s not true. What’s the point? By this dictum, fantasy novels fail spectacularly. Not only are the people invented; the whole world is. There will often be magic. Magic? Didn’t we emerge from that darkness when Davy turned on the light bulb?
But what if it was true?
Readers who can ask that question have the key to a world of imagination. Not all stories have happy endings, but when you finish a good story, you feel more. You have gained something intangible from going on the journey with the author. Becoming absorbed in a story can release you from your troubles. It engages a better state of mind.
All stories have this effect, this escapist aspect of a disconnection from reality. Science fiction and fantasy offers a complete disconnection, because you are not reminded of the world-as-it-is. You are offered only the world that might be. Some part of us suspects that what we read is make-believe, but the better the story, the more we can be induced to bypass our skepticism and find the wonders beyond.
Sometimes, a good story offers more than just an escape. Usually, the imagined world reflects the one we live in, but occasionally, it offers another reality to connect to. That’s what I look for when I read fantasy – that sense of discovery, when you feel the author has found the gateway to a hidden world or time that exists independently from the author’s mind. The author is a witness. It is not as if the world is so well imagined that it seems real, it as if the author has encountered the knowledge of it through deep study and insight. This desire for knowledge of the hidden worlds has guided how I write.
For example, I began The Riddler’s Gift without any kind of plot structure. I cannot know what I do not yet know, so how can I place the knowledge I will uncover in a structure before I begin? I hit the same problem when structuring each chapter. With this kind of writing style, I can’t force events to lead to a devised conclusion. The knowledge and visions come to me, not from me, so I can’t see an outline until I’ve walked in the world I am writing about, to the end of the tale. I cried when I walked with Tabitha through the sudden ruins of her life. I felt the panic of being pursued. I knew the uneasy relief of meeting the Riddler.
I am trying to survive just as much as the others who live there. For instance, in Second Sight, I was sitting in cave with Ashley Logán, holed up and desperately cold, but at least he had his horse, when all of a sudden I turn around and go “Oh my god, the dragon has just bitten off the horse’s head! [typing frantically] What! She can’t do that. [keyboard smoking] She just did it. Oh hell. What is Ashley going to do now? He’s going to die in here!” Because I’ve seen it, it’s true, I can’t write the story any other way. I’ll spend weeks trying to work out how the narrative can possible lead from the new vision to the other scenes I’ve already seen (which is another way of saying ‘hitting the writer’s block with my forehead until I see the linking scene in the stars’).
This style of writing is terribly slow, very frustrating, but ultimately joyous when I find the thread of truth leading from one scene to the other. I might change my method in future, for another kind of story, because this style of ‘drawing down from visions’ is unlikely to produce books that fit neatly into a commercial form, but right now that’s not what I’m focused on. I’m focused on finding and understanding this peculiar and precious thing I discovered, the Lifesong, and sharing that with my readers. I’m serving my own apprenticeship, and grateful to have the gift.
Where it really hampers me is trying to pitch ideas to agents or publishers. I will write a third tale of the Lifesong, if I can discover it. What is it about? I have no idea. If I had an idea, it would dictate what the story would be about, and it would be limited by who I am today. I can only tell you what the story is about when it is done, and even then, I cannot truly sum it up. In his review of Second Sight, Liviu mentioned that the experience of reading the book was much more satisfying than what the blurb was offering. It may be that the blurb does a poor job of communicating the real story. It may be that the kind of writing I have produced is impossible to blurb.
The way I see it, the story is a web of thought that spans more than 600 pages. The experience of being inside the web is unique and personal. For those who are soulful, there are mystic heights and hidden depths. Maybe my readers will be able to express the meaning of the Tale of the Lifesong better than I. I’m not counting on the blurb to sell it, I’m relying on word of mouth. I have no idea how to sum up the experience in two paragraphs, but I know that ‘You’ve got to read this!’ from a friend will do the trick.
Back to the topic of make-believe being a waste of time … this might be true. There are some staggering examples of bad prose within fantasy, which have been thrown across my reading room. But the good ones? They are works of art. The Thought Police say we should only read ‘real’ accounts and books of facts? Might as well suggest washing down all the paintings in the world and covering them with functional battleship gray. Art is an expression of the spirit, and it enriches those who can see the beauty in it.
Without artists, we wouldn’t have much color in our world. Why bother with dyes and designs, when you can be adequately dressed in brown? Without creative writers, we wouldn’t have such rich lives – no legends, no films, no stories at all to inspire us, guide us, transform us. And without fantasy stories, we probably wouldn’t know anything about magic.