Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza is an independent scholar, and has presented papers on Romanticism (Keats) and Fantasy (Tolkien) in international conferences in Europe and the US. Her non-fiction features, entitled, ‘Keats and the Coronavirus’ was published in The Society of Classical Poetry, ‘Social Isolation – What’s the Alternative?’ was published on The Beautiful Space – A Journal of Mind, Art, and Poetry, and ‘Making Silence Sing’ was published in LitroNY.
Her poems have appeared in 50+ Journals, including Gramma, Columbia Journal, and The New Verse News. Her fantastical/surreal poems have appeared in The Society of Classical Poetry, Bewildering Stories, spillwords, Enclave, and The Peacock Journal. She has read her fiction/poems in India, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, Ireland, and the US. Her fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review (USA), and has been published in Coldnoon Journal, and Entropy. Her 100+ articles (on art, film, and humanitarian issues) have appeared in English and French.
Fantasy and the Need to Revise Inter-connecting Stories
Part I – Inspiring Sagas
While I enjoy reading fantasy, the process of writing it can be somewhat confusing at times. In fact, it’s hard to come across titbits, since writers talk very briefly about their writing process. The whole world is waiting for George RR Martin’s last two books, Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, as the TV series based on his materials ended in 2019. Book readers were disappointed with the story lines of the TV show, but there’s still hope that their thirst for the bloody politics, coupled with choice bits of magical elements in Westeros will be quenched with his remaining two books. Why is it taking him so long? He’s bombarded with these questions wherever he goes. Fans have even composed songs, and started websites, urging him to deliver the missing goods. But he’s resisted caving into that pressure since 2011. Why not just finish the damn things, and get it over with?
Perhaps there are business considerations involved, such as publishing the books when they’ll have the most impact on sales of the main books, and many ancillary products, such as The World of Ice and Fire (2014) and Fire and Blood (2018).
However, tying innumerable knots, unravelling dozens of plot-lines, and giving hundreds of characters satisfactory endings, making sure that lots of tiny details make sense to the readers must be very time consuming indeed. The arcs of the plots and the major characters, as well as some minor characters span many years, not to mention numerous places, and even two continents in some cases. The books will be published just once, and Martin’s name will be associated with them forever. He has to make sure it all ties in neatly.
For example, Quentin Martell is not a major character, and enters the story relatively late. Yet, which one of this trio is the real Quentin? What are the real identities of the other two? Could one of them be the real Viserys Targaryen? What impact, if any, will Quentin and co have on Dany’s and the Dornish story lines? Is Quentin really dead? How does Quentin’s story arc reveal Doran Martell’s master plan, and the future of the Martell dynasty? George RR Martin has to make sure these and similar types of questions for all the major and relatively minor characters are answered in a believable fashion. Specially if he is to carry on with the same sort of quality that got his readers hooked in the first place, while remaining true to his vision and original plotline that he set up more than two decades ago. Not an easy task to do.
Perhaps his Ice and Fire series has one of the most tightly meshed plotlines. In his latest book, A Dance of Dragons, he’s left certain arcs and plot-lines with multiple possible endings. Perhaps he’s having a difficult time remembering how and where he wanted certain minor characters to go. There’s speculation that he could use the TV show based on his books as a sort of experiment to see how viewers react to certain outcomes, and adjust his story-lines accordingly. Even if he’s already said a number of times that he’s not influenced by fan reactions or speculations. Readers are hopeful that Martin will have found more time to write during the Spring 2020 lockdown.
Also brilliant at plotting story and character arcs is Rick Riordan, YA writer of mythical fantasy. Ten books which combined his Percy Jackson and the Heroes of Olympus series are a testimony of his skills. He’s also managed to weave in some characters from the Percy Jackson series into the Trial of Apollo series. He’s come up with at least one book per year, if not two. So how quickly, and at what speed does he have to plan all the outlines and sub-plots is something that the Oracle of Delphi has refused to divulge so far. In between writing 5 series of books, he’s found time to do the entire plot-lines of the 39 Clues series comprised of 11 books, which led to 3 more sub-series, with a total of 25 books. Now he’s even started and is in charge of his own imprint, Rick Riordan Presents. He’s been writing a non-stop marathon and winning it every time ever since The Lightning Thief was released in 2005. Apparently he’s in talks with Disney to shoot a TV series on the Percy Jackson stories, since the two films based on his books weren’t all that well received by his young readers. It remains to be seen when this new TV series will take off, given the 2020 pandemic (at the time of writing this article).
Seemingly writing in a never-ending marathon is David Mitchell, whose worlds and characters in an urban fantasy setting stretch across various countries as in ghostwritten, or even across different eras, and planets, with Cloud Atlas being a case in point. His Horologists and Anchorites have popped up in many of his novels, such as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, orthe very different The Bone Clocks. Though they’ve played hop, scotch and jump through many centuries, and countries, is Mitchell done with them yet? For example, did he plan out the entire arc of Marinus for a few centuries? Not necessarily so, yet most writers have an inkling of where their characters are going, long before they put it to paper. Perhaps he’s already planted clues as to the future of Horologists in the characters of Rafiq and Lorelei in The Bone Clock, and avid readers are waiting/hoping to be surprised by the wide reach of his character and story arcs.
Speaking of inter-planetary plot arcs, how easy was it for Frank Herbert to juggle plot-lines in the Dune series? Though Dune falls under sci-fi, it does have a lot of mythical, supernatural, fantastical, and surreal elements in it. Not to mention that socio-political, ecological, religious and spiritual factors play an important role in this saga. It’s not just about how snazzy one’s tech is, and how fast one can fly in space. Researchers will be sifting the sands of Dune for decades to come. As they will the works of the other authors mentioned here.
Of course, all the above thoughts are used to console myself about the fact that stories, specially ones involving fantasy can’t be rushed, and have to written at their own pace. For example. George RR Martin began the first volume of his series, A Game of Thrones, in 1991, and it was eventually published in 1996. Until then, he must have led a more tranquil life, without hordes of (Dothraki-like) readers urging him to give up his prize novels for them to consume.
My own writing journey makes more sense when I look at how long it takes some writers to continue with their works set in a particular world. Philip Pullman published the last book of His Dark Materials trilogy in 1999, and published La Belle Sauvage, the first one in The Book of Dust series in 2017, which is connected to his first trilogy. Though he’s published other books in between, perhaps the stories and manuscripts of the new trilogy needed to percolate for 18 years, covered by motes of golden dust.
Tolkien, often known as the father of medieval fantasy, famously took about twenty years to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and spent nearly all his life creating the fabulous worlds of Men, Elves, and Hobbits. Though he worked on and off for most of his life on many of his tales, including The Silmarilion, the Tale of Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin, he never really ‘finished’ them per se. His son, Christopher Tolkien then untangled the different versions, assembled coherent threads to form stories, and released them over the years, with the last one being, as recently as in 2018.
Interestingly enough, none of the highly successful writers mentioned above have degrees in creative writing, even if many have studied English Literature. Frank Herbert may have taken some courses in creative writing, but was too interested in different subjects to get a university degree. While creative writing courses can help to hone one’s skill, but that original spark needs to be there in order for writers to create their worlds and tales, specially in fantasy.
Part 2 – My Fantastical Journey
Writing fantasy is different from penning most genres. The stories seem to evolve at their own pace and time. They need longer periods to unfurl, and one needs to give them that space so that they can spread out their leaves and bloom. Some of these branches and flowers can be unusual or quite unexpected. At least in my experience, one can’t force a story with fantastical elements to fit into one’s schedule and to advance in expected ways. George R.R. Martin has compared his writing style to that of a gardener who lets the garden grow at its own time, and pace, and this seems to be the case in my way of working too for some projects.
While one can’t completely control the outcome of fantastical sagas, one can stay with them, or nurture them, until certain crucial elements come to the fore, and the plot unfolds by itself. I started a children’s story in verse, entitled The Golden Quill, and then left it to marinade, as I couldn’t figure out how the Golden Quill was created. And I didn’t want to force it, but a satisfactory answer wouldn’t come. Then I wrote a children’s story, a portal fantasy, entitled, Paddy and the Unicorn of EverMorn. Suddenly a small group of golden birds showed up at a crucial moment. I knew they weren’t really from EverMorn land, and all the other birds, and the entire Jumpy Woods knew they were foreigners.
Then I wrote a fantasy play, Marbled Dolls, and in it was a lady, Shanara, with a magical singing voice. Then I figured out that one of her ancestors had sung those golden birds to EverMorn. And their leader, called Sunny Prince was related to Aslahar in Marbled Dolls. Possibly Sunny Prince, who has a crown and ring around his neck could meet another little girl in one of the Ever Lands in a future story, and they could meet a special bird, and that could lead to the birth of the Golden Quill.
So I’ve discovered that one can’t force fantasy stories, and they tend to come at their own pace. On the one hand, the inter-connections are exciting, but on the other, it takes a very long time to finish these projects because sometimes one has to write 3-4 stories before one discovers some facts about the first book. This means one has to go back and revise the first story. Therefore, it’s better to be sure than sorry when it comes to finalizing and publishing inter-connected stories, even if at first one didn’t know about possible links between them. For example, there’s also a link between two different hermits found in The Golden Quill, and in the play, Marbled Dolls. Plants with special properties may have spread their roots across these different worlds as well.
All three of my stories are obliquely inter-connected. Funnily enough, the third story, Marbled Dolls is complete, while the second one, Paddy and Unicorn of EverMorn needs a little more revision. The first story The Golden Quill needs the most revisions, as it’s only now that I’ve finally resolved the mystery of how that writing artefact came into existence, and that information would have a significant impact on its functioning, and how it’s used.
I take heart from the fact that a lot of fantasy authors tend to write their books for many years before they start publishing them. Ironically, I’m glad that I’ve resisted the urge to get any of my stories published till I’ve found a satisfactory solution to key questions about the plot or characters.
Additional Notes: The Golden Quill is a play in verse about a little girl who is the only one who can write the truth about people and situations with the Golden Quill. She is imprisoned when a Prince takes her to his palace. Can she use the power of the Golden Quill to save the entire kingdom, with the help of her guardian, Herman the Hermit?
Paddy and Unicorn of EverMorn: Trying to escape bad men, our ten year old hero ends up in EverMorn Land, where he attempts to find a solution to his family’s problems (of a drunken father unable to take care of his two younger siblings), while protecting the EverNoon Locket, aided by the Unicorn and other friends.
Marbled Dolls: Drawn by the hypnotic singing voice of Shanara, Aslahar ends up on the Isle of Hisses. Attempting to rescue Shanara, Aslahar encounters many obstacles set up by a witch and Rugermayne, a giant. Can Shanara and Aslahar escape along with numerous servants, court entertainers, and a hermit?. Can Aslahar win without actually killing his enemies?
I got new insights into Marbled Dolls when it was read by the New World Theatre Group in Luxembourg in May 2018. I’d like to thank the organizers and actors for that unique experience. I’d encourage writers to get actors to read their plays, or fiction with lots of dialogue in it, in order to get some distance from, and a better perspective on their writing. More importantly, it could be a good idea to give some stories the necessary time and space to grow and bloom at their own pace.