Friday, 17 December 2010


Happy Friday everyone! Today I'm answering more questions from readers, one of which came to me via email, and the other arrived in the comments here.

Aimen says:
Recently, I've come across a really big problem. Which is that I can't visualize my fantasy world. I've been obsessing a lot over the political system, and the education system and the characters and now, that my characters are being given the opportunity to explore the world, I'm tripping over my feet trying to visualize it. I think that it's primarily because I've only ever lived in a place that has only one distinctive geographical feature. And sand. I don't have any idea as to how a desert would lead into a forest? Is that even possible? What does an autumn breeze smell like? How cold is -10 degrees C? I actually thought I was doing pretty good but now, my world just seems awfully bland. I really don't want the whole of my world to be a desert. Do you think that I should just leave my world the way it initially popped into my head and let the desert be another thing that stands in my protagonist's way? Or should I add more variety to the landscape?
This is such a good question. The feelings you're describing here are the same ones that beset me every time I set out to write something, so you're not alone.

The first part of your problem is that you're forgetting that your story is set in a FANTASY world. You're making it up. It can be anything that YOU want. If you're not happy at this point writing about forests and mountains, don't write them. That might be the 'familiar' fantasy setting, but it doesn't mean you can't use your own, unique, sandy landscape to write your own, unique, sandy world. Don't feel pressured to write a story just like everyone else's story. Don't you know things about the desert that no one who doesn't live there can know? The colour of the sand as the sun comes up, the shapes sand paints in the air when the wind sweeps over the dunes? Those details might not fit in a cliched Lord of the Rings world, but that doesn't mean they're not beautiful and wonderful.

The second part of your problem is that at this point you don't know enough. If you honestly and truly feel that your fantasy country needs to contain a variety of landscapes (and it's fine if you do!) then you need to do your research. And by that I don't mean that you need to go and walk through an autumn forest, although it's obviously nice if you can.

The real meaning of research, for me, is to give your imagination the tools it needs to work. You need to get hold of books and pictures and DVDs that show the sort of landscape that you want to write about and watch them, paying attention to details but also soaking up the atmosphere.

When you've seen a TV character shiver and go blue, your imagination can tell you how that must feel. You've been cold, right? Imagine yourself into your character's skin, wracked by shivers and tight with goosepimples, and you're there. Look at a picture of a mossy forest and you can imagine the damp smells of the green, growing things there. Read books set in a cold, forested world and those details will seep into your mind and make it feel much more natural to write about such places yourself.

I know it's a challenge. When I was writing Shadows on the Moon I went without *food* to be able to afford all the books I wanted because I was desperate for more knowledge to make me feel more secure. At a certain point, though, you have to let go and just MAKE STUFF UP. If a desert isn't exotic enough for you, set your book in a kingdom of clouds that hovers above the world! Go for it, and have fun.

Okay, next, Emma:
Do you find it difficult to make sure that the first and second books round feel complete and round up their own plots and still leave things open? Because that's a major block that I've hit with the first of my series - the ending just seems so inconclusive!
Lord, do I! Surely everyone must struggle with this one. The temptation, when you realise you're telling a story over three books or four or even two, is literally to come up with one big story and just chop it into three or four or two pieces. No need to bother tying things up at the end of each book. No need to show significant character change until the end. No need to plan individual arcs. Easy peasy. I even know some pretty successful authors who've gotten away with it.

But as a reader, I find it infuriating. It is one of my biggest pet peeves. It makes me do this:

The thing is, your book will cost the same and require the same investment of time and energy as any other book. Why should readers accept half of or a third of a real book for the same price? They're investing in your story. All good stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You HAVE to make an effort to give them that.

Successful trilogies and series (and by 'successful' I mean, 'didn't make me want to chuck them across the room') get around this problem by telling several stories within one story. I won't lie. It is complex stuff. I know it's complex because doing it for Big Secret Project took a few years off my life! And you can see the kind of jiggery pokery I had to go through to get it to work back here. But the end product should work something like this:

  • First Book. Characters get pulled out of their normal routine by some extraordinary event. They begin to realise that big, scary things are happening around them and they try desperately to escape these, without any long term success. They are confronted with an immediate problem which represents a small part of the larger, scarier events taking place. In trying to solve this problem, they are changed, for better or worse. The book ends either when they've solved the problem or when they've given up on solving it and the reader has seen the consequences. In either case, the readers now have an understanding that the world and the characters can't go back to what and who they were before.
  • Middle Book/s. The world throws a larger problem or problems at the characters, who again have to scramble to solve them. In doing so they - and we! - begin to get a grasp on the enormity of the big, scary events which are overtaking the world. The characters start to plan to either escape their situation or tackle it. It might work but trigger more problems. It might go completely wrong. However, in carrying out these actions, the characters are again changed, and this allows them to gain a better understanding of themselves, the problems they have to face in the future, and each other. This is where romantic subplots, secondary characters and backstory has room to blossom. By the end of the story there should have been some significant event, an unexpected victory or a terrible loss, a new resolve made or a character's resolve broken, that sets up the reader's expectations for the end of the series.
  • Final Book.You finish your plot and character arcs and type THE END. Pretty simple to describe, this one, even if it's not easy to do. 

If you can't go through all these stages, then have a good think about whether your series or trilogy is really a series or trilogy at all. It might just be one long story, and when some extraneous events and characters are trimmed out of it, it will make a great standalone book.

Phew. I hope all this was helpful, guys. If anyone has anymore writing or publishing questions, email me or toss them in the comments.


meghaz said...

Aimen has a really... real question. I feel like that a lot.

I don't often write series and sagas and stuff. Probably because I don't read them that much. One of the ones I have read is The Joshua Files by M G Harris. You MUST read them, Zoe!

Zoë Marriott said...

Me too! I know just where he or she (they didn't say) is coming from.

I've never really had any ideas that had enough legs to be a series or a trilogy before. I mean, I tried to make FF into one, but that was just because I was having an insecure freakout about how long it was (and then it didn't turn out to be that long anyway). But the Big Secret Project felt BIG right from the start, so I've had to learn what I was doing as I went along. It's been fun but exhausting.

meghaz said...

I wish you could just leak out the Big Secret Project right now. I really wanna know what it's about.

Zoë Marriott said...

Nope, sorry! That would take all the fun out of it.

Megha said...

But, it would be exciting if you DID tell us, too. Even a tiny clue?

Zoë Marriott said...

I'm looking at you over the top of my glasses now. Just be patient, all right? I will tell you when I *can* tell you.

Megha said...


Zoë Marriott said...


Megha said...

*even louder!*


Emma said...

Thank you so much Zoe, that's a massive help. I've saved your advice to look over when I feel like I'm going to explode!

I really want to work on my novel now - but I have to revise! WHY? Why is it always when I have loads of uni work to do that I have the biggests flashes of inspiration about the novel?!

*Deep breath* Sooo ...

I'm dying to find out about the Big Secret Project too! How shall we ever wait???!!!

Isabel said...

I'm back! (Till Sunday, anyway.)
That was soo helpful, Zoë! I do run into the problem of imagining my fantasy world from time to time. What I usually do in that case is go online and look up pictures of certain fantasy landscapes, like forests or rivers, and use them as inspiration to imagine my world. I hope that's not cheating. My desktop background thingy is a gorgeous drawing of forests and mountains and a lovely palace with waterfalls and a pond. It's such an inspiration. But more helpful yet is simply taking a walk through the forest or beside a river or something.

Anyway... Emma, great question too, I don't really do series or sagas (yet) but that's good advice, Zoë; I'll keep it in mind.

(Emma, I know how you feel! It seems inspiration likes to come to us when we can't write. That's why the notebook method is so helpful! But yes, it's infuriating.)

Sorry I've been talking forever, but I'm still not done. We bought lots of books in Chicago, including PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL. (Never did get around to ordering it.) The first Borders we went to was closing, sadly, but, not so sadly, everything was on sale for 40% off!! There my sister got THE HOURGLASS DOOR and POISON STUDY, and I got DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST, by Juliet Marillier. I started happy dancing in the middle of the aisle when I found that. It was hard to find stuff because nothing was in order, but besides those I also got SUN AND MOON, ICE AND SNOW, by Jessica Day George. :) That's not all! The next day, we went to *another* Borders, and my sister got the sequel to THE HOURGLASS DOOR. There I found PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL and again started happy dancing in the YA section. (Any of you also do this? I know you do, Zoë. :D) My sister and I made my poor mother wait in line *twice* to by us those two books (plus one for my dad). I also found some stuff by Diana Wynne Jones that I wanted to buy, as well as SECONDHAND CHARM, by Julie Berry, who's stuff I like, but then we had to go. I am reaching the end of my rant. I've been talking waaaay too long.

I adored A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY! Have you read it? About to start REBEL ANGELS. Oh, Pippa! Sniff sniff. Sorry, I won't spoil anything for those who haven't read this but I'll say that I was right about Gemma's mother. Okay, I really need to stop talking now.

Zoë Marriott said...

Nope, Isabel - that's not cheating at all. I do the thing with the desktop pictures too.

I love how excited you get about books and reading! I'm sure you and I are not the only ones that do happy dances when we find great books in on the shelf.

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