Planning A Fantasy Epic
Planning A Fantasy Epic
As I finally hit the publishing button on the first four books of Dirt and lean back to relax for a couple of minutes I have to admit that I am more than slightly amazed that I have managed to get this far.
When I think about it, I have been working on this project for the last year and it has consumed me to the point that I go to bed dreaming of characters, wishing my dragons actually existed and have sleepless nights worrying about whether I have got dates right, travel times right, names right … oh, the list goes on!
I do not know how many words I have written in total in that time, but the first four books add up to nearly 600,000 finished words, 1,346 pages in print, and my OneNote notebook is becoming a significant memory hog!
On top of that, I have written the first two books of series two and a couple of short stories. The final book count is going to be around 12 books plus some side projects, so I suspect that I am looking at around 2 million words, one way or another.
So, how does a writer manage to keep all this in control?
I do not need to plan
If I have heard that said once, I have heard it said a thousand times and some of those utterances have been from me, myself and I. It is so easy for anyone with reasonable pen or keyboard skills to sit down and start a story that the temptation is to do exactly that. Actually, I would recommend any budding writer try that before anything else just to prove they can get words down in a half sensible order, but to be honest, apart from getting into the rhythm of writing, it is a waste of time.
I have started ten different novels over many years, none of which were finished. With one exception, the reason is simple; I lost my way. I think the longest any of those grew to 40,000 words before petering out, getting shoved in a box and forgotten.
Then I met a girl who liked my writing and she persuaded me to dictate my most recent attempt to her; just tell her the story as it sat in my head. So I did that and she wrote it down. Just one short paragraph per chapter/idea. Now, this did not totally solve my problem and that book has never been finished, but it was not through lack of planning and that taught me a valuable lesson.
Last year, I picked up one half-forgotten project and decided to finish it. It is called The Stink and is set in London in the 1970s. I simply opened a note book and mapped out the story over about two days. I kept separate lists for locations, characters, list of music from the times, other cultural references, and basically created myself a reference book. To my surprise, it was rather fun! Have you ever started watching a TV series and thought, “I can not be bothered to go through all of this, but I would love to hear the quick version” Well, this was a little like that.
The result was that when I sat down to finish the book proper, not only did I do it in record time, but the process was enjoyable, smooth, satisfying and 130,000 words later I had done it – I had at last completed a novel.
It was the planning wot did it, officer!
I am a free thinker and, I hope, a lucid thinker, and the attraction of not planning is very strong in me. I think I could write a novel without planning, but it would be hard and the result would be rubbish. I am not even sure it would make sense. I am sure there are those out there that can write without planning or keeping notes, but they are very rare indeed and for the rest of us, planning is vital.
So, onto how I planned Dirt
Yeah, well, it wasn't that clever actually. Initially I wrote a plot line, played with the idea of a couple of characters started writing and got lost. Oops. Basically, I had too much confidence from The Stink and forgot that with a book set in London in the 70s at least half the story had autobiographical elements. I knew the location off by heart, I remember the culture, the slang, the music everything else; well I would because I grew up there in the 70s.
However, I did not grow up in a world called Dirt.
Keeping track of people and places
Of course, The Stink is a single book, though I am going to write a sequel, and Dirt is very definitely not. As I ran into trouble, the first thing I had to address was the pure quantity of everything! Years, characters, places, fauna and flora, weather…
The entire story will spread over a thousand years; the three main series being 500 years apart. The plot takes in two complete continents, each around the size of the USA, though the population is tiny and spread out. Unless you are on a dragon, travelling anywhere takes weeks, not days and the wars take years, not months. When you have something so big, even though I have just a handful of central primary characters, you are going to meet a lot of people. There are going to be a huge number of locations. There will be a lot of mountains to climb, rivers to ford, forests to camp in. Somehow you have to keep track.
Just on character count, the number of named characters in the 6 books I have so far written are just under 300. Many, many of those are just one liners or even just mentioned – someone met in a tavern perhaps, or “go and see Jon at the Livery” However much I plan the story, I cannot guarantee that I will not revisit a character at some point or that they will not come up in conversation, so I must remember who they are, what sort of age they were, or what they did for a living; something about them. To make things worse, I have quite intentionally decided to reuse a couple of names. Now I am told that this is really, really bad practice, but for me, it is realistic. Over my life I must have come across at least fifty people called John, so why not in books? So, there are a couple of landladies of Taverns that are called Hilda – different places, years apart, but it is a nice warm feeling to find a familiar name somehow. And names run in families, and they do in Dirt families too.
To keep these characters in check I do three things. In OneNote I have noted down Minor Characters as I go. Under my chapter notes I put a little list of characters that I meet. And then I have been compiling this into an excel spread sheet, which has been imported into The Abbey on my Dirt website. Additionally, in Word, since many of the names are unique and trigger my spell check, I “Add to dictionary” If I make up a new original name and it does not trigger spellcheck, then I know that I have used it before! It is depressingly easy to come up with the same brainwave twice.
This sort of attention to detail I repeat with locations. I draw rough maps where I write down every village, river or mountain top I visit. I draw out my character's journeys, when I need, so I know where they have been and can plan how long it takes to get to where they are going – it is only a scribbled line and takes seconds. I make notes in OneNote about the towns; their age, whether they have walls, if they are friendly. I write down the weather, the amount of rain they get, in fact anything that might trip me up later because I cannot rely on my memory for something so big.
Now, all of this sounds potentially boring as hell and to be honest, it could be. Some writing tutors suggest that a writer should use templates for places and people that force you to fill in age, hair colour, weight, gender, whatever. Personally, I think this is a terrible way to work. It is like being chained to a desk in the back office of some boring government department. We are meant to be crazy creative people with wild hair, for goodness sake!
No, my way round is different; I talk rubbish instead. In real life, when we meet people, we rarely take in every detail of them, but rather we have an overall impression. This will be made up of all kinds of subtleties like how they brush their hair, what colour clothing they wear, how they stand, how fast they talk. We probably do not think about these in detail, they are part of a range of inaccurate ideas that our brains absorb to use for some sort of conclusion. It makes our interaction with people and places interesting; a little journey of discovery. So when I make notes about characters and places, I do the same thing; I just start writing about them. I pretend I met them somewhere (preferably to do with the story line) and just waffle on. Some of these mini essays are very short, some long, but they give an overall impression that is far more helpful than any statistic.
“John is six-two, broad shouldered and blond”
Who cares? Unless any of that is going to be used in the plot, what does it matter?
“John is a funny bloke. Bit loud sometimes, but he seems a little shy and his loudness is covering his insecurities a bit. Likes his beer and he is a bit of a strong-arm”
That person is living, breathing and existing. We can fit him into the story much more easily and we will remember him better. In planning, both those are vital.
“The town was built in 1768, has 35 foot tall walls in need of repair. The population is 5,000 and it has two churches”
Writing a history tour?
“This place stinks. Not that old compared to some, but feels it. Get no idea of the size, though it is not very big. Church on the way in with a queue of people waiting to enter. Gates unguarded, so not scared of neighbours or too poor for guards”
When we revisit that town later in the book, then we know how it felt and if it needs to change over the centuries, then we know what it changed from. Much more important!
When planning, making notes that are impressions, possibly even from your character's point of view is much more important than vital statistics; statistics which are probably not really vital at all and you will never use. However, if the height is important, put it down. I have with Johnson Farthing, he is six-foot-five, because it had some relevance, but everyone else is either tall, short or left completely undefined.
Never Ending Story
The problem with a 1000-year-old epic (or even a short story) is that it never will have an end. Unless your world is going to blow up, life will carry on in your world even after you give up writing. With a long epic, you get so used to this story going on and on and on that it is difficult to know when to stop.
When planning that is an issue.
So, I wrote the epilogue about a year ago. It will probably change several times in detail, but it is basically a conversation that wraps things up. I know I can stop there and it gives me a target to aim for. Before I get to that point I must have resolved all my plots and subplots.
In effect, just by writing those few paragraphs, I have turned my epic into a short story – just a very long one…
This is an area where I got myself into a lot of trouble.
When you write an epic saga, one way or another it will spread over a long period of time; it is kind of the point really. If you do not keep adequate track of what happens when, then you can get yourself in terrible trouble.
For instance, “John set out in in late spring to cross 3000 miles over the continent on foot. When he arrived at his destination he bought a beer at the pub and sat in the warm sunshine”
He did what? He has walked miles and it would have taken him months. It is going to be winter! Doh!
So this is one area where I have been very precise. In my notebook I keep tables broken into months and years and all I do is keep a note of when each chapter starts and stops. So, for instance, if I have a battle in March, week 1, and then the army has to travel miles to the next battle, plus recuperate and wait for supplies to catch up, then I know that my next battle is going to be at least 4 weeks away. Possibly a lot longer. The weather may have changed, other things have happened, all sorts of things might be different, simply because time has passed. Because I now know that, I can plan for it.
Now, I do not do this in advance, most of the time, except in very broad strokes. I know what is going to happen in my future chapters, but not how long those events will take until I actually flesh it out with detail, so these time lines are built up as I write. I may not have planned in advance that my battle will be in winter, but now I know it is I can write up the description and action accordingly.
The exception is where I have an event that has to happen at a certain time. In the second series of dirt, there is a famine caused by a terrible winter. Trade ceases, crops are ruined, that sort of thing. Obviously, that HAS to be in wintertime, so in that case I know that the story up until that point only has a fixed time frame and I cannot invent a sub plot that will take longer than the time I have.
I didn't do a strict timeline for Book 1 and when I read it back I realised I had several things wrong. My dragons fly at certain speeds (they are not very fast) and boats sail slowly (old boats) and horses can only travel so many leagues in a day, and so on. Having established that in an ad-hoc way, I realised my timeline didn't work and I had to go back and do a lot of editing to get it right, including adding and removing way points in the story.
It nearly put me off writing the book, to be honest, and I will not make that mistake again!
I haven't mentioned the actual plot. Well, there is a good reason. Writing the detailed plots for the later books has been significantly different from the early books. The reason is that I now know my world so much better. I know the limitations of dragons and humans. I know what the weather is like. I know that the world is terribly poor and communication is rubbish – people in one town may know nothing of the lives of those in the next. If I had known my world better in the beginning, I would have made my life a lot easier.
To a certain extent this is never possible because the very act of writing is also a journey of revelation and education. As you write the book proper, describe your places and people in literary detail, slowly you brush away at the fog over your landscape and it becomes more and more real. However, I could have done more earlier on.
Plots themselves can be written in stages, and this is especially important for something that is going to be ridiculously long. I was once told by a conductor that the best operas can be summarised on the back of a cigarette packet, and this is sage advice. For obvious reasons, I will not reveal the summary of Dirt, the epic, but even though it is 12+ books long and stretches a 1000 years, the central plot is just one sheet of A4 long.
From that initial start, I have then gone on to create my world and my story lines, ever mindful of where my A4 sheet tells me I need to end up.
From my experience I have written myself a todo list for writing epics:
1. Work out very short basic plot – no more than one page.
2. Identify the main characters and give them names (possibly temporarily)
3. Decide the location for the ENTIRE epic and do a very rough map.
4. Work out some seasons and whether dates are used. (In Dirt there are no dates because of a very strange religious reason – see The Abbey on the website)
5. Make some simple notes of how long it takes to do anything – walk, run, fly, drive, cook, eat, whatever.
At that point I stop, or will do next time, and start planning out Book 1 and chapter 1. I do this fairly loosely based on what I know of my world.
Then I write a couple of chapters. This is the really important stage. In most writing of this sort, you have two ways to describe the world. You, the author, can be a god-like figure and describe things that the characters cannot possibly know, or you can look at the world from the characters' points of view. Personally, I do not like the first because I think it removes the adventure and mystery for both the character and the readers, so I use the second. Starting the proper writing process allows me to begin to view my world, feel and taste what it is like and get a sense of how my first characters fit. Inevitably this brings up more questions than answers and probably means that the chapters will have to be rewritten at some stage, but this the point really.
Write those questions down. Why is Farthing so poor? Why is he shifting Dirt? How big is Redust? Does he know? What sort of trade comes into the port? How big is The Prelates Sea?
These were all questions to which I had no answers in the beginning, but without starting the writing process I would not have known how to answer them or even that they existed.
6. Create a notebook called About my World. Add sections like names of places/continents, economy, religion
7. Add any notes, even in question form so that you are creating a reference library
8. Write short essays on the characters you have met so far, even if they seem insignificant.
Now I know this seems hard work, but picking up from earlier when I said just waffle, do exactly that. These are your notes and they are not going to be published (well, maybe not – The Abbey is basically my notes!) so do not worry about grammar, spelling, structure – just write rubbish and write as quickly as possible. Don't stop to think, let it pour out. You can always delete stuff later.
By now, although not detailed, you have a sense of time and location and the people in your story. If there are going to be elements like religion and politics that will play a vital role (as they do in Dirt) then you need to sit down and work those out. Try and avoid doing it in context of the story, except where you need to create specific problems, but work on them so that they make sense.
Once you think you have a handle on the world, at least from your main characters' points of view, then you need to get back to some serious planning.
9. Expand on your original plot creating one for this particular book. Make it no longer than four or five pages, which is plenty enough detail.
10. Read this new plot through over and over again until you are 100% certain it works.
11. Using this plot, start mapping out a few chapters. DO NOT work too far ahead of yourself. In writing you must leave yourself room to manoeuvre because however certain you are that you have it all worked out, something will crop up to derail you.
12. Start writing.
From now on it is a game of chicken and the egg. You need to get writing to get a feel for your story so you can plan better and you need to plan better so you can get writing. Oh, dear.
Actually, it is fine – do both!
I use three screens, which I am told is greedy. My copy of word is open in the middle screen, but my OneNote notebook is open permanently to my right.
When I first started writing a long time ago I got the impression that you should not interrupt yourself once you had your muse going at full stretch. My English teacher told me to keep planning and writing as very dedicated processes, only meeting at the point of creativity.
Rubbish. As I write, I constantly stop, go back and forwards and, most importantly, add things to my notes. I don't always even wait to the end of a sentence, let alone a page or chapter. If I think of something as I write, I stop and note it down. Every time. I have yet to lose my flow or my place, but since I have started working like this, I don't lose good ideas either.
It could be anything. Sometimes I suddenly create a mannerism in a character that is really cute. I am going to use that again, so I note it down quickly. I even sometimes leap back a few chapters while I think about it and sneak it in earlier.
Or I will point up an architectural style in a description and realise this should apply to the whole region – rush off and make a note of it before I forget.
Sometimes those notes are short, sometimes long, sometimes I just copy and paste the paragraph I was writing. It is all notes and it is all worthwhile.
And like I said much earlier, when your story is huge, you never know when you might just revisit someone or somewhere.
I have exactly that in Dirt at the moment. Without revealing too much, I have a character who has two lines in book one. In book six, she suddenly becomes more important. I hadn't planned that originally, but I needed a character to fulfil a particular role in my plot and realised I already had them. If I had not kept good notes, I would have missed a great opportunity.
And that really is my final, really clever trick when it comes to planning an epic – I never stop planning, even when writing the actual books and I write EVERYTHING down.
So, to conclude
Planning an epic should be no harder than planning a short story – it is just bigger. But in reality, it challenges not just your organisational abilities, but your memory. If you are writing two million words, there is no way you are going to remember everything and every chance you will make one or more serious errors that mess up your story. I am not talking about those little things that are picked up by the minority of rather pedantic readers, but things that might actual derail your story from the tracks.
So, plan, plan, plan. Check your timings, your distances, you speed of travel, your languages, your names, your character ages (if one goes and celebrates a birthday); just write it all down.
Use a big book or a notebook programme to keep it organised so you can find things quickly.
Lastly, don't be afraid of making too many notes – it is simply not possible. Just go for it. Write notes all over the place and have fun!
Then when you write your epic, it will be fun too.
The high fantasy epic Dirt is out on Amazon now. Find out more at the website A World Called Dirt
C.C. Hogan is a writer and composer and has been working in the media since the late 70s. He is a lover of wine, big jugs of frothy beer and rum. Scroll down to see his Readers Gazette Details
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Dirt by C. C. Hogan
Book 1, Series 1 A fantastic tale of love, war, friendship and dragons!
If Johnson Farthing thought that life as poor cart pusher in the coastal town of WeadWodder was going to be his lot in life, then he was about to get a rude surprise, and not necessarily a good one.
Once it becomes clear that his beautiful younger sister has been kidnapped along with the daughter of the Prelate, his life is completely turned on its head. Farthing has to rush across a vast ocean and a huge...
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