I think the most intimidating thing about writing fantasy is the creation of new worlds. Does every author need to be a Tolkien-level genius to create their own fantasy universe, complete with invented languages? I’m constantly amazed by the level of detail in Tolkien’s universe, right down to the naming conventions of the dwarf civilization. I don’t know that I possess the focus or knowledge or desire to create several civilizations complete with distinct languages, cultures and histories. I barely have the focus required to finish doing the dishes after dinner. I also know that other authors tend to not put that much effort into things but still manage to be be wildly successful. Stephen King’s Mid-World, the setting of the Dark Tower Series, was completely captivating for me and many others, but the High Speech he invented was dumb as shit.
I suppose it helps if you already have a setting in mind. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is roughly based on Europe, while King’s Mid-World is based on North America. And both authors based some aspects of the cultures of their created worlds on the culture of the existing continent that inspired them. I’m not saying that it’s a great idea to try to do that for your first novel, but I totally tried to do it. I based my story in the Great Lakes (not that anyone would ever figure it out) and decided to have my created world be a hybrid of early Canadian settlers and First Nations cultures as they would have become in an alternate history type of situation. That is, what would Canada have looked like if certain empires had not been successful in claiming the land.
I expected to feel reassured and positive about having a sort of template to use in creating my world. Instead, I found it massively stressful. I was worried about historical accuracy and staying faithful to the linguistic roots of the cultures I’d be using. My intended setting is very complex and it is SO MUCH WORK. I tend to be a perfectionist about these things and feel like I can’t progress with my story until I’ve gotten everything exactly right and manufactured a setting that is believable and engaging. For a while, I was paranoid that the story wouldn’t “turn out right” if I didn’t have that setting in place before I started to build on the plot. But in reality, my story exists without any of this — it existed long before I started fooling around with settings, time periods, and goddamn naming conventions. More and more it’s starting to feel tedious and frivolous to invent a whole world just so that this story can be told.
My newest nerdy antisocial hobby is critiquing stories. I signed up at critique.org, which is sort of an online writing workshop. I don’t submit any work, but I usually manage to read and critique one short story per week if life isn’t super busy. It’s an incredibly engrossing pastime for me, but boring as fuck to everyone else, so I don’t really like to bring it up when someone at work starts the whole “so what do you DO with all of your free time?” Since I don’t have kids, apparently my life outside of work is considered just a gaping meaningless void by those around me who have spawned. (It obviously is a gaping meaningless void, but anyway.) Instead of trying to explain this hobby, I just pretend I have no hobbies and then let them think whatever they want to think. BUT ANYWAY so I do that now. I wish I could get paid to do it. I absolutely love editing.
Editing other folks’ work has helped my writing. I think expanding one’s horizons and reading different kinds of fiction — good or bad — will help a writer either way. But reading first drafts of short stories has kind of helped me relax my perfectionism. I’ve been slowly realizing that even the best story is kind of a mess in its first draft. I like Stephen King’s assertion that a story exists like a dinosaur skeleton in the earth, and it is just waiting to be excavated by the writer. I see that now as I read others’ work. In the past few weeks, I’ve read stories that maybe haven’t emerged intact and need to have all the pieces put together in a better way. Or maybe they haven’t been uncovered all the way, or they just need a little polishing here and there to make everything shine.
I never feel like the writer is just making some shit up — that story exists as a concrete thing, just as real as you or me or this extra large wine glass I’m currently drinking out of. No matter how poorly written, a story exists in its own right and a writer’s true talent is in uncovering it and showing it to the rest of us. By reading and critiquing it I am helping to uncover a very small bit of it. It makes me feel better about my own ideas for stories that have existed for years inside my head. They are not just half-formed mutant idea, but actual things, and even if they look mangled and broken at first, they will eventually emerge as a whole creation. Every stage of editing is just another layer of excavation.
I tell myself this every time I start to despair that my shitty first draft is even shittier and less coherent than I had originally thought. It’s just stage one. It’s a dinosaur femur being dug out of the earth. There are still delicate hand bones, knuckles, teeth and vertebrae to be uncovered. It’s not till those have been pulled out of the earth and pieced together that I will finally know the nature of the creature I am exposing.