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Monday, October 12, 2015

GUEST POST: The Art of Serial Deduction By James Cormier

It started with a detective.

No, scratch that: it started with the holy city of Oridos, the oldest and last remaining center of civilization on the continent of Westalen. It started as my first attempt at creating an epic fantasy setting, that of an ancient city that sat at the center of a centuries’ long struggle for racial and religious dominance. It started with a desire to examine the world of the First Crusade, a world where different groups of people fight to retain or regain physical possession of a place equally holy to all of them, and the resultant mixing of cultures that came with it.

But then, it didn’t really start there at all, did it? It started with my desire to write epic fantasy. In the pursuit of that goal, I spent years filling notebooks and Word documents with characters, histories, and descriptions of various cultures, beliefs, and gods. You know, like fantasy authors do. I even started writing this magnum opus: a multi-part, multi-perspective epic fantasy series set in the aftermath of the sack of Oridos by my world’s equivalent of Western Crusaders. It had a good-hearted rogue, a troubled antihero, a young woman who meets a god, and a gay politician trying to inspire a workers’ uprising against the established aristocracy. It had swords, knights, guns, and courtroom drama, and it even had a quest, of sorts.

I got almost 70,000 words into it and then stuck it in a drawer, so to speak. I wasn’t ready to write it, both because I didn’t have a clear enough vision of where the story was going and because I didn’t want the story that felt closest to my heart to be the first book I wrote. Instead, I decided to try and turn myself into a writer worthy of it. I wrote and self-published my first novel, Exile: The Book of Ever (Vol. 1), which made it to the semi-finals in Mark Lawrence’s Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (#SPFBO) at Fantasy Faction. Exile was as big of a departure from epic fantasy as I could think of: it’s a young adult, post-apocalyptic story about a small community of Christian extremists struggling for survival in the ruins of the northeastern United States.

At the moment, I’m working on the first novel in a new series called The Trials of Karthanas. I’m calling it swordpunk, which is basically sword and sorcery except more meta. Or maybe “New Game Plus” mode for sword and sorcery, if you get my meaning.

I’ve worked on a lot of short stories in and among my longer fiction (some complete, many incomplete), and around a year ago I sat down and started writing one set in the same world as that first epic fantasy series, but far in the future from when those books would take place.

Which brings us to that detective. The first glimpse of the story I had was a consulting detective, a la Sherlock Holmes, standing over the prostrate body of a man with a strange device strapped to his head. The detective was smoking a pipe full of tiny crabs, which he would snap and stick in the pipe bowl and cook until they started smoking. I wasn’t sure yet whether it was steampunk, New Weird, or something else, but it was fun as hell to write.

I wanted to write a sort of intensely immersive vignette, a brief episode in a larger story in a larger world that would leave the reader wanting more. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that none of the story ideas I had would fit—they were too big. I was writing a novel, not a short story.

As the story began to unfold in my head, the book became a noir thriller set in an urban fantasy realm. Imagine King’s Landing or Caemlyn as they might look and feel in their world’s version of the late 19th Century, and you’re on the right track to seeing my vision of the city of Oridos. The main character is a professional who values deduction and forensic procedure over the brute force typical of police work in this era. The fact that Irik Thijis is a bit of a louche and more than a little unreliable doesn’t change the fact that he has a fine analytical mind, not to mention a problem with authority and a nose for trouble.

In short, I had created a book that could be best described as Sherlock Holmes meets Locke Lamora, an analogy that I hope will only prove to be more and more accurate as the story goes on. The plot follows Thijis as he unravels a web of conspiracies all somehow centering on Doktor Keynish Helg—the eponymous mad scientist. Cabals are unveiled, old secrets revealed, and the future of a city determined. The only question is whether Thijis survives to see it.

The decision to release it as a serial was based on a couple of factors, both related to convenience. For one, I was and still am in the middle of writing another book, the aforementioned “swordpunk” novel, and the ability to focus on small, discrete sections of writing designed to be released immediately appealed to me as a side project. For some reason it seems easier to switch gears from a long, more traditional manuscript to an episodic adventure—sometimes it seems like writing for film versus writing for television.

I also wanted The Doktor’s Spyglass to have a very organic, frenetic feel to it, like the hardboiled detective novels of Chandler and Hammett. Serialization lends itself to a more turbulent plot; the reader feels pulled along with the main character, unsure of precisely what’s going to happen next, forced to unravel a mystery as it comes at them. Another reason to serialize a novel is to maximize the potential for timely, topical feedback. Wattpad is particularly well focused on this, allowing readers to vote for each section of the story if they like it and comment on each as well. Ideally, it’s like expanding your pool of beta readers to include the entire Internet.

I like to think of it as diversifying my writing portfolio. Hopefully it will lead some readers to my other fiction, but more importantly, it increases my exposure and provides yet another forum to engage with readers and potential fans. It’s something that I see more and more authors—both traditional and self-published—getting into. Mark Lawrence is working on a great one right now, a weird western called Gunlaw, and I was surprised to discover recently that Dan Brown has a Wattpad profile. Who knew?

It makes sense, from a technological perspective: the vast majority of Wattpad readers, for instance, read on their phones or mobile devices, and are therefore naturally more attracted to stories told in short, easily digestible snippets. They’re also, by and large, quite young: YA is a huge part of Wattpad’s market. Savvy penmonkeys (as Chuck Wendig would call us), have seen the light, I say! Introduce a new generation to your work! Thrall the impressionable youth with your incendiary prose! Plastics! The future is in plastics, I tell you!

Perhaps we’re entering a new golden age of serial fiction, where the iPhone is to the modern writer what print magazines were to Charles Dickens. How’s that for postmodern? It’s something Irik Thijis would understand quite well, as frantic and unconventional a thinker as he is.

You want to talk about meta? If you’re following The Doktor’s Spyglass, you might have noticed that serial pulp fiction is a burgeoning phenomenon in Oridos. Oridosi kids are reading stories and comics about a man called Black Hunter, a vigilante who once stalked the alleys and dark corners of the Warrens, the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. It remains to be seen whether there’s anything to these stories—whether they’re worth the paper they’re printed on.

I suppose we’ll all just have to read and find out.


Official Author Website
Order Exile: The Book Of Ever #1 HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: James Cormier went to law school and spent years as a practicing attorney before realizing that what he really wanted to do with his life was sit around and write stories about imaginary places. Which is why you're reading this now. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, his son, and the requisite two cats that every writer of fantasy and science fiction is presented with upon the publication of their first novel.

NOTE: Medieval city artwork courtesy of Kyle G. Anderson (Geistig)


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