What it takes to write Epic Fantasy

I am a big fan of goodreads.com. The website is a fantastic resource for individuals who are total bibliophiles. There are tons of reading groups, fantastic book reviews, and tons of authors. It’s kind of like the Facebook for readers. Anyway, this one book group I’m a member of has an author each month come and answer questions about the series of books they wrote. This month is Janny Wurts, the author of the above book which I am in the middle of reading. (By the way, Curse of the Mistwraith is a very heavy book. It’s complete wordcandy but not a book you blow through. This is a book you read slow and savor.)

Anyway, I asked Janny Wurts the following question and the woman was nice enough to answer me in a detailed (immensely) response. So, if you’ve ever wondered what it takes to write epic fantasy, here is your answer. I am in awe. Seriously.

My question:

I guess my question is kind of mundane. I’m not yet finished with Curse of the Mistwraith so I probably should keep my mouth shut and ask when I’m done reading the series but I can’t help myself!

This seems like an incredibly, amazingly complex series. I think most people (well, I’ll speak for myself here) would get totally lost trying to lay out a story that epic and that complex. Did you have any specific steps or a process to lay the plot(s) out so they flowed smoothly, didn’t get all mixed up? How did you create such a complex, broad world while insuring that it all seemed to sync together nicely and flow smoothly?

I guess I’m in awe and just want to know how you did it. 🙂

I’m not sure if this is the kind of question I’m supposed to ask here. If it’s not, I apologize.

Janny’s Answer:

Sarah – the question is completely appropriate!

First of all, when I had the idea, I didn’t rush.

I fiddled with the opening – wrote multiple versions of volume one, and experimented with how to present the story.

While I did that, I worked out the backdrop, backwards and forwards. Three Ages of history. The whole pool of ideas that framed the concepts behind the Paravian language – gajillions of notes.

This was not done logically – but organically. The inspiration just kept on coming to fill in the gaps, connect this to that, so things that just ‘popped in’ that seemed random interlaced with the rest – not random one bit. Nothing was ‘worked out’ – the world and story evolved themselves.

As stuff got more complex, I started a file box with cards and dates, with major historical events tabbed…so I could add and look up and refine the entire sweep, and know where things connected.

As the books began, I started reference material:
A full dictionary on the language.

A notebook referencing each character, birth dates, life events, death dates, description, traits, offspring.

Another list with chapter names so I knew which fell in what volume.

Best – a huge spread sheet, done for each book; Across the top – the political factions, split by character.
Downward, the chapters, and under the faction, the event IN that chapter, complete with dates.

This enables me to look back at Any volume, and instantly pinpoint a scene – where it occurs, when it happened (day, season, year) and reference that scene forward by faction – it also enables me to overview a book IN PROGRESS and see where action has not been fore-run clearly, and fix that discrepancy immediately.

You will have noticed the odd formatting of the chapters – many series stumble in that, action or event needs to be shown that is not of great dramatic interest to the reader – the chapter format was begun very early on, to help contain sprawl, move the story, and maintain the impetus of dramatic focus.

You will note: ALL the action in this series moves present, simultaneous, or forward. There is no ‘backstep’ as in, this character did this THIS month, now we go back and see what That character did This month, too…no. It goes, this happened NOW, and then this happened NOW, or, a few days from now.

That took careful planning!

Moving armies/covering supply, doing the ‘distance and travel time’ to maintain that forward in time/present action – DID require intense research and planning, because sometimes logistics dictated when an event COULD fall in the timeline of the story.

Planning in the form of research – a whole other ball game. No way to get there except by plodding discipline and logic and reading lots of reference books.

Mistwraith was not written UNTIL 20 years of planning was ON the boards, and, most of the series up to Peril’s Gate was written in crude draft…for the future – the ending two volumes ALSO have a very thick file of scenes written in advance, and set into chronological progression.

So nothing was shoved into print, half baked.

Honestly, for the interconnected story and the beauty of the world and its resident magics – I bow to the muse. I just take the notes.

Muse? That takes pure genius.


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