Writing Journeys – Steven Poore
Joining us today is Steven Poore, author of the Malessar’s Curse duology. Book 1 of that series, The Heir to the North, was nominated for Best Newcomer at the British Fantasy Awards in 2016. Steven is also a highly active member of the fantasy community both online and in person, and it was a pleasure to read this post. Now it’s your turn….
Sometimes I believe that the duology is under-rated. It is the perfect length for a story – the first book arrives at a crisis, and the second book resolves it. The story doesn’t hang around like the last guest at the party, but nor does it leave before everybody starts dancing. It’s like two sides of a record (or the best double album ever). Stephen Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need is one of my touchstones here, and over in SF-land Peter F Hamilton’s Commonwealth books flow the same way. Joanne Hall’s The Art of Forgetting is another fantastic duology.
I deliberately wrote Malessar’s Curse (Heir to the North and The High King’s Vengeance) as a duology. I had a story to tell, and it didn’t need twelve and a half books to get it out there. The protagonist makes some awful choices. She gets to set things as right as she can. What more do you need?
Part of that was down to previous experience. Somewhere in my backup files there’s an unfinished epic fantasy series that I started with half an idea, never properly planned, and waded hip-deep into the mud only to discover that there wasn’t enough to sustain it any further. I had no idea where it was going or how it was going to end. Or how long it would be. It tried to be ambitious, throwing all sorts of stuff into the mix, and ending up being a bit of a dull chase with a character I couldn’t get behind. It got trunked, quietly, but firmly, and I learned my lesson. Always know how it’s going to end.
So with Malessar’s Curse I knew exactly how each book would finish, down to the final line. Made things a hell of a lot easier. Plots tightened themselves up, in anticipation of the ending. It was much easier to work unanticipated revelations into the main storyline. It was also easier, oddly enough, to leave threads hanging too, unanswered questions hiding behind the resolution. As American Music Club used to sing, “A real showman knows how to disappear in the spotlight”.
That’s not to say that Malessar’s Curse is perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. There are things in the story that I would do differently if I were to write it again. (Of course, if I’d self-published it, I could always go back and revise it, take out the imperfections, but that would negate the story that’s already been told, if nothing else. That’s kind of cheating, I reckon. When I wrote it, it was the best it could be at that time.) More lessons learned. Not least of which is that while I focused on the art of the story, fitting the puzzle together, I hadn’t done a very good job of populating the world it was set in. Cassia was very much a Smurfette, surrounded by old soldiers, soldiers who were old, and old men who had once been soldiers. Mea culpa.
And the massive run-on sentences, with endless commas and semi-colons (95% of which were beaten to death by my brilliant editor). Oh god, the lengthy sentences and the mammoth chapters. When Heir to the North went to Audible, that was an ear-opener. I had read Heir to the North aloud to the Sheffield SFF Writers’ Group before, but I had never heard anybody else read it. I hadn’t been writing with audio formats in mind, and you can hear that in the book. I love it, I love Diana Croft’s spot-on narration, but heck I wish I had cut those chapters up a bit more.
All of which is a very long-winded way (this is me, I’m long-winded, get over it) of getting to the point. Because Malessar’s Curse is over and done, and there’s no story left to tell. Except…
Except, I realised, that there might be a story there. But, given the unfinished and unstructured plots I’ve abandoned over the years, I had to be absolutely certain that anything I decided to write in Cassia’s worlds of Hellea and Galliarca would stand up for itself and be at least as good as the duology that had preceded it. It’d be all too easy to launch in, start writing, and for the result to be as shambling and meaningless as Book 9 of The Wheel of Time (I bought that in hardback. I was furious).
And it had to take in the lessons I’ve learned along the way, while at the same time staying true to the world I had created. A bit of a tall order. It had to fester at the back of my mind for a good year while I tried to work on other things. Then, out of the blue, as all these things seem to be, there was a single image of a small boy staring up through the branches of an orange tree into a clear blue sky as a dragon sailed, wings fully outstretched, low overhead. That had to be written. Then, having worked out just who the boy was, I had to work out who the boy was going to be. That might sound overly cryptic, but eh – spoilers.
I wrote that chapter, which belatedly answered an outstanding question from High King’s Vengeance, and sent it to Sammy at Grimbold for her opinion. You’ve still got it, she said. I wasn’t so sure – I didn’t know if the story had an ending yet. I had to nail myself to a chair and write out a full plan. That hurt. But it worked – I’ve got a plot that doesn’t sag and hits all the right beats, and each volume of the story has both resolution and cliffhanger to drive it all onwards. And the overall arc has a conclusion that’s a total killer.
It’s a trilogy. Dammit. Oh well, you can’t have it all, can you?
Steven Poore is an Epic Fantasist and SF Socialist. He lives in Sheffield with a crafty partner and a three-legged cat, and cannot move for towers of books. Heir To The North, published by Grimbold Books, was shortlisted for Best Newcomer at the British Fantasy Awards in 2016. The sequel, High King’s Vengeance, was published in September 2016. You can also read some of Steven’s short fiction in the Fox Pockets series of anthologies by Fox Spirit Books, in Aliens: The Truth is Coming (Tickety Boo Press), and the forthcoming Journeys (Woodbridge Press). Steven hosts the semi-regular SFSF Social events in Sheffield, supported by the BSFA and BFS.
Follow him on Twitter: @stevenjpoore & @SFSFSocial
Come back tomorrow for J.P Ashman author of the gigantic piratey epic Black Cross!
fantasy authors, steven poore, writing journeys