Writing Journeys – Steven Kelliher
Steven is a fighter turned writer wishing disputes could still be settled with a friendly game of hand-to-hand combat. To my knowledge, he’s the ‘newest’ of our writers, being the most recent to launch their debut – though not by much. And what a start he had with a solid 7/10 from FantasyFaction for his first novel Valley of Embers.
At least I was.
Some who have followed my early writing career know I used to be a kickboxer/karateka/MMA athlete. You name the combat sport; I’ve done it. And I was pretty damn good at it. 2x Regional Champion with an eye on UFC glory, etc. etc.
And then 2011 happened. I was riding high on the back of a 10-fight winning streak and it all came crashing down when a series of injuries left me unable to train effectively, eventually bleeding over into my personal life in the form of nerve pain, a failed surgery and countless rounds of physio that failed to correct the damage done.
Enter January 2015. To sum the early part of the year up in a word: done. I was done—physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. It was only through the support of my then-girlfriend and soon-to-be wife that I was able to keep going.
But it was in rediscovering my love of the written word that I was able to turn a mental corner. My body still hurts every day. I still get tired. I still get angry and bitter. But I’m happy, on the whole. I’m happy with my life, my loved ones and now, my art.
Somewhere along the line, between the broken noses, bruised ribs and bloody toils in rings and cages, I had forgotten my first love: before fighting, it was all about writing. I came up on tales of fantastical adventure when my brother introduced me to Dragonlance and writers such as Weis & Hickman, Douglas Niles and R.A. Salvatore.
From there, the now-iconic Lord of the Rings film trilogy blew my mind (and still does.)
It didn’t hurt that English class was my strongest subject. I enjoyed writing immensely, even if I didn’t love being told what to write about. The solution? Create my own worlds.
Still, though I fussed over manuscripts and outlines for years—my first real attempt at a novel came at age 16 and was abandoned a few hundred pages in—I just couldn’t seem to put it all together. I was frustrated, and strange as it may seem, I actually found progression in my fighting career to be easier to come by than the words, “The End” at the close of a novel.
Whether it was a lack of drive, a failure of plot and character or the illusion of unlimited time with which to play and not work, I just couldn’t get anything done. So I stopped. I didn’t write anything resembling a novel-length project for close to a decade.
Fast-forward to the aforementioned start of 2015 and you can picture me as a broken shell of what I once was. Hardly fertile ground for a creative renaissance.
Or perhaps it was.
One afternoon, I opened my laptop and began virtually thumbing through old documents. One of them was a two-page free flow I’d typed up six months earlier. It followed a young man named Kole Reyna waking up just in time to be called to the wall to defend his village from an untold threat. I read it, and though it was rough, I was inspired to continue.
I picked up right where I had left off, and with each passing page, each rolling paragraph and each finished chapter, the whole started to resolve into something that—with editing and several re-writes—had the potential for a gripping Fantasy yarn. The end result was Valley of Embers, the first in what is now planned as a Saga that is some combination of the works of Hayao Miyazaki, east-meets-west, Avatar: The Last Airbender and my own dark Fantasy bent.
Like so many creative projects, Embers was a passion that kept me going through dark times, giving me something to focus on like the Everwood blades that defend the people of Last Lake from the terrors of the World Apart.
When I finally finished and set to work on Book 2, I had time to figure out what went right this time where it had all gone so decidedly wrong in the past.
On some level, my condition produced a keen realization of waning mortality that provided me with a fresh drive to tie up loose ends. On another, hitting daily writing goals gave me something other than work and constant, suffocating depression to focus on.
But do you know what the biggest change was?
I realized I was not the writer I thought I was.
You hear plenty talk about the difference between planners and pantsers. One is like a meticulous architect, the other a carefree gardener, following threads like suggestions of possibility rather than carefully laid frames.
I used to plan my stories to death. Literally. I’d spend weeks, if not months, writing an outline only to grow bored when it came time to sit down and write. Ironically, I hit writer’s block more when I had it all mapped out than when I tore the map into pieces and danced atop it.
To me, characters define the greatest Fantasy tales. Worlds are fun and diverting. Magic systems evolve and entertain, but it is the characters we remember. And I had the epiphany that I couldn’t possibly know the ins and outs of any given character without getting to know them through the act of writing.
How do they react to life-and-death situations? Who do they get along with and whom do they despise? Who do they love? What drives them?
These things are amorphous and ever changing, just like we are. And binding character arcs in rigid outlines before sitting down to see where they took me was leading to stagnation and creative rot.
Now that I have the world of The Landkist Saga set up, I’m planning more. Because of my pantsy ways with Valley of Embers, the first draft needed a LOT of work. I hope Book 2 needs less, but I still allow myself to divert the flow of the river when needed. Now, I describe my outlining process like a scatter plot, knowing major events ahead of time but chopping my way through the brush with whatever I find on hand to get there.
The pathways through the forest are often jagged and criss-crossed, but the process allows me to stumble upon truths of character and theme I never would have considered when taking the most direct route to the end.
I may not be a fighter these days, but the idea of progression still obsesses me. Just as my characters progress on the page, I hope to progress in writing them. I face creative challenges the way I used to face training. I face publication day the way I used to face fight day.
So far, so good.
Now onto the next.
Come back tomorrow when we’ll hear from rising star, Graham Austin-King, author of the Riven Wyrde Saga.
fantasy authors, steven kelliher, writing journeys