So I guess I’m just going to go build some worlds now

World map

What’s the best naming system for a matriarchal, tribal society in South America?

How long can divers hold their breath underwater?

What’s a radioactive gem or stone?

How many miles of river can a 16-year-old girl alone in a canoe cover per day?

I’ve been spending the last couple of months trying to answer these questions, along with hundreds of others, each more bizarre than the last. I’ve pestered my coworkers and friends to help  create a dictionary of words and terms for my third book. I’ve read books about geography and astronomy, fleshed out Pinterest boards with such a bizarre assortment of photos that anyone trying to make sense of it would probably fall into a seizure.

I’m in love with this process. My brain feels electrically charged. I dream of plants that never existed and of a river that does, only my version of this river is, shall we say, embellished, like a Victorian dollhouse with a disco ball and a hot dog where the chimney should be.

Why? Because I can.

I grew up knowing that I wanted to be an author, but somehow managed to avoid giving much thought to the question of what sort of books I would write. Good ones, of course. I would follow the grand tradition of authors I particularly liked by writing books other readers would enjoy. Without any consideration of the many possible genres available to me, I drew the most generic conclusion possible: fiction. I would simply write fiction.

It took two books–one self-published and one written–and a third in the brainstorming phase for me to realize what type of books I write. And the conclusion surprised the hell out of me. Horror was out, as well as crime and mystery, and romance, of course. Scourge of the Righteous Haddock was a young adult novel, which makes sense because I didn’t feel prepared to launch my career as a novelist writing to adults–despite the fact that I’ve always envisioned adults as my primary audience. Of course, none of this takes into account the fact that most young adult readers are, in fact, adults.

But I surprised myself over the course of writing Scourge of the Righteous Haddock. Don’t get me wrong: The process of writing is essentially just a series of surprises, moments in which you realize some part of you has access to information that it’s withholding from the rest of you. But I was startled by how important the world of the book became, how important those strange, little details that differentiate a fictional setting from reality become over the course of writing a novel. And mostly I was surprised by how much I relished it all: building a world, trimming it in little bits of absurdity and charm, and then stepping aside to see how my characters interacted with the world.

It was something I’d never done before–creating a world–and yet it happened so naturally, as though some part of me had longed to do it from the moment I decided to become a writer.

But it wasn’t until I read an article about a college professor who teaches a writing class about world building for fantasy novelists that it hit me, like a tankard in a greasy but beloved inn on a well-traveled path: I am a fantasy writer.

I marveled at the luxury of it–an entire class dedicated to learning how to build an embellish a world manifested in your imagination! What I wouldn’t give to attend this class! How useful it would be for my third book, which attempts to merge two very dissimilar worlds into a cohesive and strange fantasy land!

How did I get this far without realizing that I was writing fantasy all along? Why did no one stop and ask me how I’d settled on fantasy as my genre of choice? Was it so obvious to everyone else that it didn’t merit comment?

And why fantasy?

I tried to make a list of all the reasons it took me so long to realize I was writing fantasy and I came to a few conclusions mostly based on my stereotypes of fantasy novels, and writers: Most (and we’re talking like 95 percent) of fantasy novels I’ve read were written by men. Many of these novels were not very well written, by which I mean the authors generally seemed more concerned about the plot than the overall quality of the writing. Very few of these novels had a fresh or contemporary feel to them; they could have been written at any point in the last 40 years and you would never know the difference.

This might sound like I’m disparaging the genre, but I’m not. I love fantasy novels, adore their ability to transport you to a completely alternate world. And frankly, I love how detailed fantasy novels are, the fact that they don’t shy away from dozens of characters and multiple plot lines. Fantasy novels have taught me patience as a reader. They’ve improved my ability to split my focus among multiple events and characters without feeling as though I’m drowning–as I’ve noticed many readers have a tendency to do when the plot diverges from a simple, single, linear narrative.

I just couldn’t see myself–a woman who wants to write something fresh and new, who mimics the literary quality of Edith Wharton and Charlotte Brontë (in my own limited fashion)–finding a place among the cloaks and tankards and heaving bosoms of the fantasy world.

However, much of that was before I’d read Neil Gaiman, along with a handful of other utterly brilliant writers who have managed to marry an interesting plot and world with the kind of writing that you linger over, sentences you pause overlong to appreciate and envy. And while I still contend that female writers are underrepresented in fantasy, there is a strong tradition of female writers producing incredible work within the genre of magical realism. Which I sort of hesitate to bring up because, at the risk of sounding incredibly ignorant, I still have a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and magical realism sometimes. Certain books seem to fall into both categories, and I sometimes wonder whether magical realism isn’t simply a term applied to more literary fantasy novels written by women. Yes, that might sound condescending, or oversimplified because it is, in fact, both of these things.

So now on to the question of why I’d want to write fantasy. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought over the last couple of weeks, and here’s what I have come up with: There’s an incredible freedom in writing about a world not limited by reality. Fantasy and magical realism–the latter in particular–are incredibly well suited to satire and social criticism. And, as those of you who have read Scourge of the Righteous Haddock can attest, one of my primary reasons for being a writer, besides the fact that I just have to be because I love it, is the possibility of making a positive social impact. Books change the way you look at the world, alter the way you think and see yourself and others. Lastly, but no less importantly, fantasy is fun. I love that I get to work with an artist to create a map for each of my books and, despite the amount of work involved, I’m downright gleeful over the opportunity to create a dictionary of terms for this third book. And while I originally hated the suggestion from two of my second draft readers, writing The Haddock Hymn for Scourge of the Righteous Haddock turned out to be silly and fun, even if I’ve never written a song and can’t lay claim to any musical talent whatsoever.

So there you have it. I’m a fantasy writer. Or plan to be, anyway. And with that discovery everything makes sense: the maps and dictionaries, the worlds I painstakingly build in my head, the Pinterest boards, the giant research notebooks I carry around with me. And, of course, the fact that I’m apparently incapable of writing a novel shorter than 300 pages.

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Comments

  1. suneuys says:

    Hi Ashley. I’m in the process of writing my first novel and I think you can give me some advice. Where and how do you get someone to read a second draft of a book?

    • Happy to give advice! (Understanding, of course, that I’m still figuring a lot of this stuff out.) I’m fortunate in that a lot of my friends are writers and artists who understand that I need people to help read and edit stuff. So I find people to edit my second drafts from that circle. For my first book, three people read and critiqued it and then I paid a copywriter I know for the final grammatical sweep. I know it seems like you have to or should use a professional service, but that wasn’t practical for me financially. And Facebook is pretty useful for that type of stuff. Typically I put out the call and a couple people respond. Not everyone who offers always come through, but a few people do. And in terms of formatting, I’ve found people tend to prefer if I share the manuscript with them as a Google Doc, or for friends with a Kindle, as a PDF. And then I ask people to highlight typos but mainly I ask them for their overall impression. I hope this helps, and don’t hesitate to ask any other questions!

      • suneuys says:

        Wow, thanks so much for your response! This definitely gives me something to think about.

  2. I get your confusion over fantasy vs. magical realism. I always thought my favorite fantasy novel ever, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (written by a woman!), was magical realism because the magical elements took second place to the social/historical/philosophical writing, which is stunningly beautiful, but I think it’s largely considered regular fantasy. Or alternate history. I’m not sure. Either way, I’m excited to read this news, and I look forward to reading what you create 🙂

    P.S. My favorite quote from the book: “It is also true that his hair had a reddish tinge and, as everybody knows, no one with red hair can ever truly be said to be handsome.” Ahhh, love it.

    • I have not yet read that book, but that quote really is fantastic so I’ll have to add it to the list! I feel like I mostly understand the differences, but not well enough to explain it to someone if they walked up to me and asked. And I’ve always believed if you can’t explain something to someone else then maybe you don’t know it as well as you think you do. I think I’ll probably walk a finer line between fantasy and magical realism than a lot of authors do, but I can’t say anything with any great amount of certainty, seeing as how I’m just figuring all this out.

  3. betternotbroken says:

    Ok. I feel better,
    “It took two books–one self-published and one written–and a third in the brainstorming phase for me to realize what type of books I write” I am still figuring it out. Congratulations on your progress on the writing journey.

    • The figuring it out is kind of the fun part. I’m sort of enjoying my utter shock when I realized what I’ve been writing and intend to write, and if I went into the process already knowing then there would be no surprise and delight. But I’ll bet you’ll figure your own writing path out too, and maybe it will change over time, but whatever you decide it will be an incredible experience.

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