Shambly Town sat on the edge of the great rift. No one spoke of it, and few could look into its depths, but the ragged hole in the world affected every aspect of life on the edge.
Most citizens were huddled inside their hovels because there was a storm brewing that night. Some unknown wizard had been experimenting with deep magic, upsetting the natural order on a large scale. From time to time, purple-tinted lightning traced opal-like veins of light through the black dome of sky. The weird lightning and even the hail could be tolerated, but no one wanted to risk exposure to the magic tainted fallout that came with the rain. Even die-hard mages stayed inside.
But nothing kept Charlie from his regular visit to Goodforwhat Ales. The ten round tables in the tavern were all made from thick, rough-hewn oak and the décor was an odd mixture of late medieval and early western. Charlie took his customary booth in the dim corner that offered the best view of the room.
The only other person in the tavern was the stout, bearded amateur philosopher Miles, who rented a sparse room upstairs. Miles was dressed in a coarse home-spun tweed, and smoked a pipe while he joked and verbally jousted with the bartender.
Charlie didn’t join in. Instead, the detective ordered a mug of his usual and fretted about the incomplete fragments he had from his current case. His last trip to the lower realms had been particularly disturbing, and he couldn’t talk about it with anyone here. Enormous things in the undergirding were orbiting this place, and obscure omens had taunted at him. After staring at the wall till his drink was flat and warm, he decided to pay a visit to the Protective Order to discuss his suspicions.
When he stood, the barkeep said “Are you sure you don’t want to wait out the storm in here?”
Charlie pointed to his green protective cloak and its brooch made of wrestling brass snakes. “I’m covered. Nothing can get through these.” To be extra cautious, he pulled the hood tight around his face.
Distracted, he took a quick glance out at the street to look for ambushes before he pushed through the swinging doors. With his first step, his boot sank deep into a puddle of the magical, rainbow-colored fallout. Then Charlie disappeared completely, before the expression could change on his face.
An imbalance had been created. Silence reigned for twelve heartbeats. Then with a thunderclap, in the exact same corner booth and outer clothing the previous patron had occupied, a younger, more confused man appeared. The young man struggled to remain upright and make sense of his new surroundings.
Despite the loss of a steady customer, the barkeep said in a bland tone, “Greetings, mage. You must be Charlie’s replacement.”
To get from a new idea that excites me to print starts with six to eight weeks of brainstorming to get enough critical mass. Sequels take much less effort once the world is established and result in higher sales, which is why they’re so popular. So in outlining this effort, I want to leave that door open. My target for solid notes and sample scenes before beginning any novel is about 20,000 words. I also like to have two pages of maps. I start by determining the type of story this will be by listening to the raw pages—you’d be surprised how much they say when you ask them. The initial idea is a spark of holy fire, and it’s your job to feed it until it’s a blaze.
Since Daniel is a troubled sixteen year old boy, the result will be a YA fantasy that my son could read. This means the final length should be 60-80,000 words. My working title is one that I vaguely recall from Lovecraft and a 1980s pop tune—Behind the Walls of Sleep. This title tells people it’s about a dream world, exclusive, and hints at something dark in the depths. The fantasy element of this story will be a metaphor. At the start of the book, Daniel doesn’t like his life. In fact, there is a hole in the world that everything revolves around, but no one talks about. Some traumatic event, probably a fatal accident or disease, has forced him out of childhood prematurely. In the map or Astra, his travels and the places of power underscore that he is orbiting the hole without realizing.
Daniel doesn’t fit in where he’s been moved, and underachieves at school. Dreams are his escape. My notes summed this up as, “Astra is the place we go where we can be ourselves.” In dreams, he has power and the illusion of control. He ignores the storms and the odd magic that caused the death of his predecessor. All we know about his powers at the beginning is that the storm makes him different. Later, we learn that he can teleport anywhere in Astra that he has seen. He also has a knack for finding things. These talents will make him useful to powerful people. This sort of character is normally non-combative, foolishly fearless, and will tend to become either a sneak thief or a detective.
I’ve seen one other scene clearly at the end of the story: he’s tied to a wheelbarrow by someone in a ram’s head mask, about to become a sacrifice. This is clearly the villain responsible for Charlie’s death at the beginning, the case he was investigating. Daniel overcomes him by sheer luck, using a memory stone to complete a spell that he heard earlier. We just have to find our way from point A to B. To underscore his journey, we’ll take a year, transitioning from his emotional winter to summer. Jaded skeptics will noticed that each Harry Potter book takes place over a one-year span.
Gaining confidence and strength, Daniel meets many people in Astra, both good and evil. He plays with both, refusing to choose one action or the other. We’ll show the two major organizations: the good Protectors, and the evil Circle of Deception. I chose Foxglove, a seemingly harmless shape shifter to be the face of this organization. Daniel runs errands and delivers messages for both sides as he learns the land, recording his memories on small stones. As a teleporter, the extra memory of locations and messages is the bread and butter of his business. The tone of this section is rather like a series of beginning D&D or Warcraft adventures.
The Circle works rather like the mob, trying to expand its influence in both worlds through extortion and secrets, but Daniel doesn’t see the dark side at first. In fact, the villain may help heroes to hunt down another member of the Circle who committed a heinous act. Foxglove tells Daniel, “Astra is like college. Meet others like yourselves, and expand to become what you were really meant to be. I can take you to that next level.” Eventually, Daniel is lured in and agrees to something new—delivering a message from Foxglove to a witch in the real world. The witch commits suicide soon after. Daniel returns to rage at Foxglove who invokes a contract or disease to bind him. He passes through a dark period, unable to leave nightmare. Here is where I must have another powerful anchor scene. I believe that he overcomes this binding by merging with a werewolf that represents his anger. He may also need to help someone else in order to leave his dungeon. I’m not solving right now, just sketching.
The violence and frequency of the magic storms increases, but the freed and stronger Daniel still doesn’t commit fully to the Protectors. Instead, out of guilt, he tries to protect the granddaughter of the witch from the Circle’s power in both worlds.
Eventually Daniel has to face the disaster that created him. Since he doesn’t investigate soon enough, the Protectors are thrown captive into the wizard’s basement, killed, or misdirected. The high wizard, one of the people he’s known all along, decides Daniel’s very entrance into Astra stole what was necessary to complete his master spell. The wizard lures him in as a friend, and lays him out as a sacrifice—scene two. Daniel can’t directly free himself, but taps his memory stones to open the door to the wizard’s basement and what he fears. Something from the basement distracts him for just long enough for Daniel and the Protectors defeat him. In the end, Daniel is invited to fill the gaps in the protective order, and the witch’s granddaughter reveals her Astral identity to him. They have the potential for a relationship but nothing explicit, leaving the door open.
The hard part of this story, the part that prevented me from writing this story already, is the mechanics—world building. The potential for adventure is unbounded, but the rules need to be established early on or it gets absurd fast. To compound the difficulty, I need to make sure my approach is new and original.
I know that the hole in the world leads down many layers, through nightmare to the Deep, the primal chaos that predated the world. Only by tapping the Deep can wizards forge new magic, but such experiments are always dangerous. To keep things simple, we’ll only have three levels of inhabitants: low (tradesmen), medium (college educated), and high (PhDs who add something new). [Reference Catastrophe’s Spell.] Detailed powers and levels on each person in Astra will be essential. Like superpowers in a comic book, each wizard is unique.
When someone sleeps in our world and dreams, they appear in Astra. Waking, they disappear from whatever adventure they’re in. [Reference L. Ron Hubbard’s Slaves of Sleep.] In practice, having the characters interact in such a system is difficult. For true REM, a six minute dream could be a day or more in Astra, a slippery concept. A much better model would be hackers gathering in a virtual fortress in real time. [Reference Roger Zelazny’s Coils.] To be original, I need to cover a wide range of planar issues. For example, this continuum isn’t the top of the food chain; other things passing through can run people over like a deer on the highway. Philosophies and ideas can take independent forms [Reference David Brin’s Startide Rising.] Waking world personality problems can affect Astra: insomniacs, egomaniacs, epileptics, multiple personalities, self-image, and Hollywood actors who others force believe into a certain shape. The main catalyst, Foxglove, is a coma patient. Energy to do magic will need to be addressed explicitly [Reference Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files]: quantum levels, brain wave types, emotions, and the ability to stay at the highest levels of Astra takes effort. Why do people need to eat in Astra? How do injuries heal? Can death or spells in dream cause negative effects in real life?
The final issue has to do with personal space in this shared continuum. Important people have a castle or lair that they impose on the continuum and maintain with the force of their personality. Monsters are both more powerful and more vulnerable in this place. The villain at the end can be defeated in his tower, but has the ability to hold the heroes captive inside. Just willing themselves awake won’t free them. They certainly can’t do it by the end of the ceremony.
All of this has to be hammered out in painful detail in advance for the arc to work. Once the legwork is done, I can order the scenes and layout the plot almost to the chapter. Because this is an e-book fantasy, my target is three-page, single-spaced chapters of 2000+ words each. Given our length, that makes about thirty chapters. Ahead of time, I sort the notes into rough bins based on order of occurrence/introduction.After all this, the actual story-writing begins. Because I write fairly fast, a first draft for a book of this length should only take two months for me to write. Then, I add two months for the beta readers and editors to give feedback and to polish the results. While they read, I pick images to tell the story on the cover of the book. If I started today, this story could be out in six months of hard work, but I’d have to reserve my free-lance experts now to guarantee my time slots.