What’s So Hard About Writing Fantasy?

When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in high school–and I’m currently re-reading it, I don’t know how many times–it blew me away. I didn’t know it was possible to write such stories; but a couple of chapters into it, I knew I wanted to write fantasy. It took me over 40 years to come up with Bell Mountain.

A lot of people write fantasy, but according to any number of readers, few write it well. After Tim Wildmon interviewed me on his internet TV show, he turned to his assistant and shook his head. And said, “He made the whole thing up! Whew! I don’t know how you do that.”

Practice, man, practice…

People ask me why I have to sit outside to write it. Well, the phone doesn’t ring outside. I’ve got trees and sky, birds and squirrels, to keep me company. And I have to get myself into a world that doesn’t exist except in my imagination. I have to be able, in my mind, to see it and hear it and touch it. This takes a great deal of concentration, easily broken.

I have to relate to characters that I invented as if they were real. Although I’m inventing what they say and do, think and feel, I can’t just have them do anything I want. They have to behave as if they really live. Again, lots and lots of concentration. A character like Helki the Rod doesn’t just grow on trees. He has to say and do whatever he would say and do if he were real.

I have to see these landscapes, it has to be a movie in my mind. And I have to resist the temptation to load my story with elves and dwarves and wizards and all the other stock characters that burden so many other fantasies. No invincible female warriors, no crusty but benign old sages. Impossibly beautiful, know-it-all elves, uh-uh. Otherwise, next thing you know, all you’ve got is a pile of cliches.

It’s all very difficult, a constant challenge–but it’s the kind of work that I love best. The finished product has to be very different from everybody else’s finished product. I reach back into vanished worlds of the long-gone past and pluck out animals that most of my readers never heard of before. Creatures known to us only imperfectly, from bones and scientific speculations that may or may not be accurate.

Nor can I do any of this without prayer. Lots and lots of prayer.

Which leaves me, when a book is finally done, figuratively gasping for breath and wondering, “Well, now what do I do???” But the Bell Mountain stories are a kind of history, and in history there’s always yet another chapter.

4 comments on “What’s So Hard About Writing Fantasy?

  1. I find your description of the creative process interesting and, in some ways, familiar.

    When I write music, or write an arrangement of someone else’s composition, I find that the creative process is sudden, and usually triggered by one simple idea. Ringing phones, blaring televisions and other distractions are absolute death to creativity. The best ideas come when I’m alone with my thoughts.

    What I find most interesting is that it is usually a very small grain of an idea that opens to door to a much larger creative episode. Sometimes I just hear a couple of notes from a song, but hear them in conjunction with a novel way to lie them on a guitar and then an entire arrangement grows from that. The closest analog I can think of would be unearthing a tiny fossilized bone and then discovering that it is part of an entire creature, preserved in perfect array in a single fossil bed. Each inch unearthed helps to complete the picture, but it all started with one tiny outcropping.

    The analogy of a movie in your mind rings true, but with a twist. I find that arranging a song is like memorizing the topography of a certain place. It starts with basic orientation, and then the details fill in to ever greater resolution. It begins with a chord progression and the layout of verses, choruses and any bridge parts or breaks. Once that has solidified, the rough details come into play, basic layout in the neck of the instrument. At that point the song is recognizable, but the beauty of an arrangement is often found in the details.

    The details, the nuances and harmonic subtleties take time. It may change continually for weeks, months or even years, but that’s where the hombres are distinguished from the muchachos.

    1. My musical aptitude stops with the harmonica and a few basic chords on the guitar. I used to write songs, but never could learn musical notation.

      The difference here is that you can actually hear a note that you produce, whereas what I produce can exist only in the writer’s mind. Then, when it’s finished, it takes on another existence in each reader’s mind, and not the same from reader to reader.

      What’s really cool is the way my cover artist, Kirk, sometimes hits the nail smack on the head when he paints one of the character’s I’ve created. It blows my mind. I mean, he got Ellayne and Gurun **exactly** as I’d imagined them, and I do mean exactly! He uses live models for his preliminary work, then fine-tunes the details.

      I don’t really think that any of us who take part in the creative process, whichever form it takes, can truly and accurately describe it for someone else. It’s more of God’s stuff.

  2. When I am in a creative flow, I find time stops – like where did the time go? Or as they say, time flies when you are having a good time. Being creative is a good time – maybe a taste of what Heaven is to be like.

    What? Helki the Rod isn’t real? There is no Lintum Forest? I’m shocked!

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