Writing a Fantasy Trilogy Part 2: Planning

Disclaimer: Ye gods, this is no how to guide. This is just an on-going collection of thoughts as I work my way through the process. They may or may not be useful or entertaining to people; it is more likely they may well end up providing a great deal of amusement to me when I look back over my posts and realise what a load of nonsense I was talking. So please do not think I am laying down rules here or instructions – I am just laying out some writerly jams. Or something.

(here is Part One, on ideas, if you want to track back)

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This is us, bravely preparing to plan our trilogy. Yes, we are as badass as She-Ra.

So here we are at part 2, after a lengthy break, ironically because I’ve spent the last couple of months finishing off my previous fantasy trilogy. I suspect it’s a thing that only becomes apparent when you’re in the midst of the publishing process, but writing professionally involves a lot of hopping around: there was a time there when I was promoting the second book, editing the third book, and writing the first draft of the new book. Exciting times! Anyway, the proof read of The Silver Tide is finally handed back and the story of the Copper Cat has come to a close (let’s just swiftly skip over all the crying I did) so I have a wee gap in which to talk about planning things.

This is a super brief outline of how I personally go about it. Take note, ignore or openly mock at your will: There are three stages to planning a fantasy trilogy that I can see. Expansion, whittling, and the abuse of stationery.

Expansion

So you have your idea. The seed that will become a trilogy of books is in your head now, and there’s a special aura to it, a certain feeling that this is the thing. You’re excited about the idea, and you get a slightly fluttery sensation when you think about it (not kidding). The idea may take different forms. A lot of people will have a hook, a thing that is almost handily like an elevator pitch – ‘sword and sorcery Escape from New York’ (I swear I am writing this one day) or ‘a girl fails her exams and flees into a radioactive desert full of mutants’ (already written that one). My ideas more often take the form of characters – ‘lovable female rogue with a tendency towards recklessness attempts to avoid responsibility for the end of the world’ or ‘teenage girl with latent magical powers and OCD discovers that her council flat is haunted by the ghost of a serial killer’. My first planning stage is writing down as many details as I can about that idea. All possible things that could come from it, even if I won’t use them or they don’t work, are written down into a fat notebook of some kind. I ask myself lots of questions.

What does this character look like? Where are they from?

How old are they? Do they have family? What is their relationship with them?

What do they care about? And then: What do they want?

What terrible thing has just happened to them? How do they react to this terrible thing?

From there, the story starts to spool outwards, and I follow the trail of things I find exciting. Which details pique my interest? What do I want to know more about? One or two notebooks will be filled up in this way, a great jumble of Lego bricks, and somewhere in there are all the pieces required for the awesome space-castle-dragon I’m thinking of building.

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You will need approximately 800 of these for this stage.

Whittling

This next bit is a little odd and will possibly sound a tad obsessive, but I’ve spoken to at least one other writer who also does it so I’m sure it’s fine. I have my fat notebooks full up with a zillion thoughts and ideas. I get a new notebook, and in that I write down everything I can remember from the first notebooks, without looking at them, if I can help it. All the really important stuff, all the significant stuff that has lodged in my subconscious, will come through, and what you end up with is a distilled version of the idea explosion. From there, I will work on them again, ask myself more questions, and these are the questions that start to become very important if this is going to cover more than one book.

There will be multiple setbacks. What are they?

My characters are changed by events. How are they changed?

What revelations will they have?

What sort of bad-ass cool things do I want to see in these books?

Now, that last question sounds somewhat daft coming on the back of everything else, but if I may drop an entirely wanky phrase in the middle of this: I am quite a visual person. My favourite ideas often come in the form of what I think of as ‘shots’: how cool would this look in the movie version? Early on with The Copper Promise I knew I wanted to have a scene where the heroes are riding griffins, whilst flying around an enormous dragon – the griffins are tiny in comparison, like fat bees buzzing around, um, a giant scary lizard. That image hung in my head while I was writing the book, along with many others (Wydrin and Frith in an opulent gaming house, a young girl with bare feet covered in blood) – ideas that knew it was their time to happen.

So I have a new notebook with the distilled ideas. I go and buy a new notebook, and I do it all again (I did say it was a little odd) – whittling the ideas down further. Everything becomes a little sharper, a little clearer. The characters become more defined, and crucially, the structure of the books start to emerge, like the wreck of a ship revealed as the tide goes out (but only, you know, more optimistic).

You might at this point say: Jennifer this is bollocks. You write everything down and eventually it becomes clear? Are you taking the piss? The difficulty is of course that so much of writing comes from instinct, floating up from the deep dark channels of your mind. Other writers will no doubt have an infinitely more systematic approach, but all I can tell you is: follow the things that give you that fluttery, excited feeling. Your trilogy is at the ends of those.

Next stage: notecards. Rainbow ones, if possible, because I have a stationery problem and will use any excuse to get pretty stationery. I have two sets of notecards: one set for characters, and one set for story. I write down all the vital things about each character (they each get their own notecard) and then everything I know about the story on a set of numbered notecards – these will be split themselves into three sets, one for each book. Inevitably, book one will need more notecards than books two and three, because I know more about how it all starts. This lot will then get pinned up onto my corkboard, usually with a variety of rainbow pins and pins that look like tiny turtles. Yes.

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A portion of my corkboard at about halfway through the process. I’ve smudged the notes so they are unreadable- my handwriting isn’t quite that bad, honest.

Sidenotes: Worldbuilding and The Rules

By this stage I will have lots of notes on worldbuilding. One of the most important questions I ask myself early on is: where is this character from? The place that they grew up, the experiences and relationships they had there, will inform the character in hugely significant ways. Wydrin Threefellows grew up mostly on Crosshaven; an archipelago of islands that’s a little like Mos Eisley, full of dodgy dealings and a wide variety of people. It’s not difficult to see how such an environment can produce a smart-arse mercenary with a morally dubious outlook. Similarly, Sebastian’s childhood in the largely religious and somewhat austere Ynnsmouth has led to a quiet, thoughtful man who is trapped by the need to do the ‘right’ thing. World-building notes at this stage are written down carefully on approximately a billion post-its, and carefully pinned around the notecards on the board. Over the course of planning and then writing the book, these post-its will normally end up three or four post-its deep – but they’re not really there for reference: they’re there so that the idea is fixed in my head.

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A selection of serious and important stationery currently being used to make The Ninth Rain happen

Now, the extra special pain in the arse about writing a fantasy book is the magic, of course. How you approach this will ultimately depend on the fantasy book you’re writing. Some fantasy books have barely any magic in them at all, while others will have a vast and complicated magic system. Or some will have simple magic, with strict rules, that is at the heart of how their entire world works. It’s not always possible, but it is a good idea, I think, to know what you’re going for before you start. Whatever you know about your magic, whatever the rules and restrictions might be – chuck them on to their own special notecard. Cover them in glitter, maybe. And get ready to change it as you go, because if there’s one thing that magic tends to be, its unpredictable.

Aaand when I’ve done all that, I take some fresh notecards and I write the story out again, and then I pin those over the top of the originals. It sounds ridiculous, but you’re starting to know what the story is now, deep in your heart. That golden thread you will follow from the start to the end is there, and you’ve just caught the beginning of it. Then you have to start writing the bloody things.

The next post will be all about the thrilling rollercoaster of horror that is The First Draft. Any questions or comments, do shout me in the comments!

Random Round-up: fantasycon, writing and teeny weeny cats

I am so horribly busy. How is it November already? On account of the fact that I barely know what day of the week it is at the moment, here is a super quick round up of STUFF with random pictures:

Fantasycon was great! Super well-organised, full of lovely people. I caught up with lots of old friends and made some new ones. Oh, and the hotel was excellent. Bravo all round!

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With thanks to the lovely Sophie E. Tallis, here’s me on the Here Be Dragons panel with Gillian Redfearn, Bradley Beaulieu, Brandon Sanderson, Marc Turner and gentleman pirate Den Patrick.

The Silver Tide is up on netgalley currently (how terrifying is that?) and available for request, while I am in the midst of the final proof read. Once that’s done, the trilogy is officially finished. I am planning on drinking a large bottle of wine and laying face down on the sofa for a bit.

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Uh, my face was randomly on Doctor Who. I am a Zygon now apparently. 

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It’s November so Nanowrimo is happening! I am participating this year (well, in between proofreading and job stuff), working on the first draft of The Ninth Rain. 

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THIS GAAAAAAAAME!!

 

 

This just in: Fantasycon now alarmingly close

It’s Fantasycon next weekend.

This raises lots of questions, such as: how it is nearly the bloody end of October already? Where is this year going? Seriously, I swear it was April yesterday. And so on.

It might also raise the question: hey what are you doing at Fantasycon? Does it mostly involves the bar? Well yes it does, but also on the Saturday at 4pm I will be on a panel called Here be Dragons: How can epic fantasy reinvent itself? alongside Bradley Beaulieu, Den Patrick, Brandon Sanderson and Marc Turner, with the excellent Gillian Redfearn moderating. Hooray! I will move swiftly on from here pretending I am not super nervous about that…

And then at 7.00pm we’ll be running a special edition of Super Relaxed Fantasy Club with readings and chatter from Kim Lakin-Smith and Adrian Tchaikovsky, so two of my very favourite genre people. It’s going to be a good one.

On Sunday I will also be attending the British Fantasy Society awards, because much to my unending surprise I am up for Best Newcomer (I keep remembering that this is real and freaking out a little bit). And then I will likely go home and sleep for about 24 hours.

So if you see me at fantasycon do say hello – I am rubbish at being the person who says hello, and also terrible at recognising people, and at remembering names (I know, I am really selling myself here) but despite being shy I do like saying hello to people and will happily draw dragons, or indeed other things on request. See you there!

The Copper Cat Conquers New Territories!

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BOOOM!

Sometimes in publishing, you have sit on a piece of news for rather a while, as you wait for things to be sorted out and contracts to be drawn up in the blood of a righteous unicorn etc – sometimes it can feel like you’ve been sitting on a nugget of news for so long you have compressed it into a beautiful news-diamond of sparkling frustration.

Well, finally, I may present my twinkly gem of news: the top folks at Angry Robot have purchased the North American and Canadian rights for THE COPPER PROMISE and THE IRON GHOST.

That’s right, I’m COMING TO AMERICA BABY! (every time I think about this I am earwormed by the song at the end of Coming to America, a film I have seen at least 50,000 times – in fact, I once snuck into a cinema to see it. I know right?)

Anyway, I’m over the moon. The Copper Cat will be making her way across the pond, bringing mead, mayhem, monsters and magic. There will be a new cover too, which is beyond exciting, and for extra levels of glam it was announced on the Barnes & Noble blog, where I also wrote a guest piece on 21st century fantasy.

As ever, huge thanks to my wonderful agent, the now near-legendary Juliet Mushens, and to Angry Robot, for letting me be a part of the robot army. Now, where’s my giant mecha suit?

Release the Bristolcon! AWOOOGA AWOOOGA

That’s it, the Bristolcon siren has sounded. Genre-related shenanigans have been spotted cavorting off the port side, and will be arriving with us Saturday 26th of September. All hands brace for AWESOME.

Oh I do like Bristolcon. It’s enormously friendly and relaxed, and Bristol is an odd and funky place (with excellent graffiti and its own Forbidden Planet). I have been a zombie in Bristol, and chased a helium-filled Spiderman down a street. Anyway.

Here is the programme. I’m on a panel in the evening on editing, my books will be there is some form, and I’ll be generally mooching about so do say hello if you see me! I won’t be dressed as a zombie but I will have had to get up very early, so take pity.

Writing a fantasy trilogy Part 1: Ideas

Disclaimer: Ye gods, this is no how to guide. This is just an on-going collection of thoughts as I work my way through the process. They may or may not be useful or entertaining to people; it is more likely they may well end up providing a great deal of amusement to me when I look back over my posts and realise what a load of nonsense I was talking. So please do not think I am laying down rules here or instructions – I am just laying out some writerly jams. Or something.

Disclaimer the second: This is a giant wall of text so I have chosen to break it up with pictures of old cartoons. Look I’m sorry but I’m not sorry.

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The Thundercats just had the BEST idea – Let’s all laugh at Snarf!

 

Ideas

Let’s go back to the very beginning (a very good place to start*). Where do you get the idea for your fantasy trilogy? Well, the good thing about starting with this is it is a completely impossible question. I cannot answer it. ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is traditionally the question writers hate the most, and the truth is we do like to sound like we know everything, and it’s annoying when we don’t. I wish I could tell you where The Copper Promise really came from, or where exactly it started, but if there was a eureka moment it has been lost in the mists of time. The truth is, I think, that books start out as a gradual thickening of ideas. Lots of little ideas will start to bunch together, and eventually they will grow little legs, and suddenly you have a thing.

I knew that I wanted to write modern sword and sorcery, and there was this loveable rogue I wanted to write, who was a woman and *pop* Oh there’s Wydrin, and perhaps the characters are a sort of dysfunctional group who wind each other up, and I really like dragons…

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Actual picture of me, having an idea

 

I do have a theory about this thickening of ideas though. I think that writers tend to fall into two groups: writers whose ideas centre around characters, and writers whose ideas centre around stories. I am a very character-driven writer, and the characters of the Copper Cat trilogy were all in my head long before I knew what the story was. Other writers that I know well often talk about having an idea for a story first, and how sometimes bits of other stories latch on to that and become a book. I think (and this is a slightly wilder theory) that often story-centric writers (that is to say, writers who begin with the story idea) gravitate towards science-fiction, that genre of ‘what if?’. This is probably why the one SF novel I wrote revolved around a shoal of fish living in an exo-suit and a gangster spider.**

That isn’t to say, obviously, that character-driven writers have no story, or that story-driven writers can’t do characters. We’re all making the same journey, we just get there in different ways.

For me the question is rarely ‘What is the story?’ but ‘Whose story am I telling?’

Now, should writing a trilogy change how you approach having ideas? Does it differ, at this very early stage, from writing a standalone book? I think not. Is the idea big enough for a series? Does it naturally split into three, or four, or ten books? For me specifically, because I start with the characters (and I always have more than one main character) I am rarely worried that I won’t have enough story to go round, because I have their whole lives to play with. If anything, I’m not sure where to stop… (I’ll come back to this in the next blog, on planning)

 

So in terms of helpfulness, how do we assist the thickening of ideas? Here are some things I have been known to do:

Dedicated daydreaming time. Carving out a slice of time when you don’t have anything else to do for a bit. Easier said than done, of course. And I think the key to this is not to sit glaring angrily at your desk trying to boil your own eyeballs in your head with ‘THINK OF A BLOODY IDEA DAMNIT’ but to summon the sort of imaginative play-think-dream-time you would have had as a kid. Alright, that sounds like bollocks, I know. The truth is, 99% of your best ideas will come when you’re on the bus, or having a shower, doing the washing up or falling asleep, which is why:

Have a notebook with you. I HEAR YOUR COLLECTIVE GROANS: ‘Jeez Williams, everyone already knows this, you charlatan.’ Yes okay, but really, my notebook is never more than a few feet from me unless I’m in the shower. Ideas get thicker faster if you’ve written them down somewhere.

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True fact: Battlecat looks after He-Man’s notebook for him.

 

Read lots of everything you like. People have a lot of differing opinions on this, but I’m going to go with a straight up: read what you bloody well like. I know some people suggest you should read bad books so you can learn what not to do (ye gods no, life is too short) or read those stonkingly enormous bestsellers so you can steal their secrets. Some people I know won’t read books that are in any way similar to the book they are writing, just in case something seeps through, and I know people who read exclusively in their genre to absorb as much as possible. I try to read lots and lots of what I love, and I try to figure out why I love it so much.

(I do sometimes avoid reading books written in the first person while I’m writing, as I write third person POV and I like to keep my brain in the right headspace – however, this is clearly nonsense as I just read Fool’s Quest and The Empty Throne, both amazingly good first person books and I REGRET NOTHING)

Look out for odd things, and collect them to your bosom. Often for me, ideas tend to spawn from a single image or a scrap of random information. I read a description of an enormous ancient city in a history book not so long ago. Threatened by the possibility of invasion it had been abandoned, and this sprawling metropolis – one of the greatest cities in the world at the time – was claimed instead by weeds and prowling wolves. Reading that, I knew I wanted to write about such a place, and that was one of the seeds that eventually grew to be The Ninth Rain.

Ideas are attracted to each other. Get enough of them in the same place, and stories start to happen. You’ll know when it happens, because you won’t be able to scribble in your notebook fast enough, and suddenly everything makes a beautiful kind of sense as all the pieces plop delicately into place. It is, in my opinion, one of the finest parts of the writing process – the little hitch and flutter in your chest that means your book is coming alive.

When you have your idea – or your membranous collective of ideas – then you can start planning, which will be part 2 of this blog series. And if you have any questions about ideas, or why I have an unhealthy obsession with Thundercats, do stick them in the comments.

 

*thank you, Sound of Music.

** I probably shouldn’t write SF.

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Look, this just makes me happy, okay?

New characters and new journeys: upcoming posts

Come with me now on a journey through time and space, and Chunky Peanut Butter Kit-Kats…

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space be cray

Over the next year (and indeed, years) I intend to do a series of blog posts charting the creation of a fantasy trilogy – from the ideas to the planning, to the first draft, to the inevitable scrapping of that first bit, to the 60K point where I traditionally pause to panic, to the revision and the eventual editing. I won’t be going into super specific details about the trilogy for obvious reasons, but I hope that seeing the birth* of The Ninth Rain, to some extent, might be useful or at least interesting in some way.

Anyway, this isn’t one of those posts, more a warning of what might be popping up over the next few months, but it occurs to me as I plunge myself into this new world, that the weird thing is the characters. Or specifically, the lack of them.

Now, I do have lots of characters. Four main ones already, and they are already a treasure and a joy and a pain in my bum. But it’s like the beginning of The Copper Promise. When I started the first Copper Cat book, I had Wydrin, Lord Frith, and Sebastian, but I didn’t yet have Ephemeral, Ip, Crowleo, Xinian, Selsye, Tamlyn and Nuava Nox, Toast, Gwiddion, O’rin, Dreyda, Bezcavar, Enri and Roki, Mendrick, or any of the other characters that were to make themselves known to me over the years. They all emerged from the story, stomping up with big leather boots, or on sinister bare feet, unknown to me until they appeared, sliding in at the edges or appearing in a fanfare of violence; they grew naturally from the story, causing trouble for my beloved Black Feather Three, or just occasionally, offering help. And that’s what I look forward to the most I think – all the new characters I’ve yet to meet. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

 

*seeing the birth – I know this sounds gross. I am sorry.

On selling a new trilogy, and the weirdness of writers

Yesterday I was finally able to talk about some good news – Headline have acquired my new fantasy trilogy, and I get to write more books.

I wanted to write a blog post about it immediately, but inevitably got distracted by trying to find a suitable picture to convey my feelings. It turned out it wasn’t all that easy, and then I went and had a glass of fizz in celebration instead. So a day later, and well, I did what I could.

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Perfect!

Yes good, this is good.

Yes good, this is good.

The first book of the new trilogy is called The Ninth Rain and… I don’t feel like I can say too much about it just yet. What I can say: it’s a new series set in an entirely new world (no surprise visits from Wydrin and co, I’m afraid) and I am very excited to be going on this journey.

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A bit much maybe?

So, a second book deal. It’s hard to say exactly how much this means to me personally, as overly dramatic as that sounds. Writers are oddly delicate, paranoid creatures, I think, and we spend much of our time convinced that some solemn-faced bastard with a clipboard will turn up at some point, explain that it’s all been a terrible mistake, and gently crumple your career up into a sad little ball of paper. I remain startled by the fact that the Copper Cat trilogy made it into ‘real book form’, and even as I trip over the box of Iron Ghost author copies in my living room part of me thinks it has all been an overly elaborate dream. Because it is a dream, I suppose – I just got to have mine.

I'm... I'm not sure these make sense any more

I’m… I’m not sure these make sense any more

As ever I am struck by how lucky I am to have had that chance, and to have had such a brilliant team to kick me up the bum over the last few years. So big thanks to Headline, not only for believing in the Copper Cat trilogy but for wanting to support what I do next too, particularly my editors Emily Griffin and Claire Baldwin (who ROCK), and big thanks to my agent Juliet Mushens, who is just one of the best people. BEST.

Cover reveal and blurb: THE SILVER TIDE

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I love this so so much. Every one of my covers has been tremendous, and I owe a big thanks to Patrick Insole and the excellent team at Headline for knocking it out of the park again. THESE DRAGONS GIVE ME LIFE.

Keep reading for more info on THE SILVER TIDE, the sequel to THE COPPER PROMISE and THE IRON GHOST:

Tales of the Black Feather Three and their exploits abound far and wide, and Wydrin of Crosshaven, Lord Aaron Frith and Sir Sebastian have become sell swords in demand. Having foiled powerful mages and evil magic, they now face a challenge unlike any before – in the form of Wydrin’s mother.

Devinia the Red, notorious pirate and captain of the Poison Chalice, is intent on finding the fabled treasure hidden within the jungles of the cursed island of Euriale. She needs the skills of her daughter Wydrin and her companions to get there, and our heroes cannot resist the lure of coin and adventure. But no explorer has returned from the heart of the island, and it’s not long before the Three find themselves in the clutches of peril. Deep within the island of the gods, there are remnants of forces best left undisturbed…

British Fantasy Award Nomination EXCITEMENT

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The teeny IRON GHOST – with cave troll for scale

Gosh, well yesterday was a bit exciting. I had just received through the post an early copy of the tiny paperback version of THE IRON GHOST (spoiler: it’s not that tiny) and sat down to admire its loveliness when my @ mentions on Twitter went crazy. I had been nominated for best newcomer in the British Fantasy Awards.

 

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Me, yesterday

I’m over the moon, and it’s an especially good list of nominations, full of friends and people I admire. Also nominated for Best Newcomer are my fellow SRFC co-hort Den Patrick, and Actual Beam of Sunshine Ed Cox (for The Boy with the Porcelain Blade and The Relic Guild respectively) and the wider list is full of fabulous writers and publishers too – TBR piles all over will be newly embiggened!

It’s a pretty amazing thing. As I’m sure I’ve blathered on about before, I never truly thought I would have books published, and THE COPPER PROMISE was such a wild card: a book that stomped all over my plans for writing other books and pushed its way to the front of my head. The fact that people have cared enough about it to vote for it in any way, is very cool indeed, and a big boost to a new author. So thank you, lovelies. You rock.

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Mead, mayhem, monsters, and irresponsible red-heads.

 Soon, I will hopefully have more news for you, and I’ll be able to show you the cover for THE SILVER TIDE too, which I’m editing right now. EXCITING TIMES!