Our week long series of posts celebrating the publication of The Night of the Swarm, the final book in the Chathrand Voyage Quartet, continues with a brilliant post from Robert VS Redick.
I wrote above that I “thought” of Pazel, but that is shorthand for “let myself dream until he arrived.” I know how ridiculous that sounds, but it’s simply and absolutely true. Specifically, I dreamed this:
It began, as every disaster in his life began, with a calm. The harbour and the village slept. The wind that had roared all night lay quelled by the headland; the bosun grew too sleepy to shout. But forty feet up the ratlines, Pazel Pathkendle had never been more awake.
That’s the first paragraph of Book One, The Red Wolf Conspiracy. I dreamed it at my desk. But the great thing about the dream we call writing is that you can pause and rewind as many times as you like, until you’ve snared the dream with language. I wrote that first paragraph some 200 times. The first page, twenty or thirty. But with each subsequent page the writing grew easier. The dream stopped bucking and biting. Very soon it was walking by my side.
Pazel existed before I had a world for him to live in. Fortunately, I had twenty years of practice with that former world. Alifros is the great-grandchild of that gaming world. They have similar cheekbones, customs, tricks of speech: the commonalities that pass unmentioned from one generation to the next.
But I would not know this for years. When the world-building started, Pazel was my only guide. I felt his terror, his hopes, the swift workings of his sixteen year-old brain. Watching steadily, I discovered facts to fit the terror (other boys were trying to kill him), the hopes (a long-lost friend had come aboard the vessel, hours before) the tireless thinking (these were no coincidences, and neither was—). I knew a great deal about Pazel’s homeland, thousand of miles away, before I knew even the name of that little village in the opening lines, because it happened that Pazel missed his home in those first quiet minutes on the mast. There it was: beautiful Ormael, “Womb of Morning,” a city of tall cliffs and plum wine. Quiet Ormael, where a woman fleeing from sorcerers might find refuge, marry a sailor, give birth to a boy…. Doomed Ormael, sacked by order of an admiral whose daughter at this very moment is sitting locked in a convent school garden across the bay from Pazel Pathkendle.
And there’s the handoff. Now the world starts growing from two points of view. I’m abbreviating, however: the story does flow from Pazel to Thasha, but along the way it hitches rides with a deranged sea-captain, a noblewoman eight inches tall, a brooding doctor, an intelligent falcon, and the most twisted spymaster I ever hope to let into my dreams. Each one of these people is a branching of the vine. And each one stopped my writing-hand dead awhile, until I could dream the world into being around him or her. These small glimpses widened day and night, until at last their edges met, and they merged. This was the world I needed; this was their world, Alifros.
A dream, like a story, is not made of facts (population of kingdom X, hit points of dragon Y). It is made of seeing; it is made of point of view. The perspective may flow and shift, but always from one definite form to another. Someone sees. Someone feels and processes a moment. The world flows outward from that person, and is larger than him or her. And yet at the same time the world only exists in relation to that person. No matter how beautiful the set, it remains cold and lifeless until someone we believe in steps onto the stage. The spotlight follows them; warmth and colour blaze in the glow of the spotlight. Elsewhere there is nothing but shadow.
My approach is not unusual. The only strange part is that twenty-year practice session in world-building. A lot of us write a first book (or two, or five) before the one that pleases us enough to share. I did the same with world-building. I hope the results bring you joy.