Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Writing The Magician King

The Magician KingI’m going to try to explain how I wrote The Magician King. This is harder than it sounds, because writing a novel is an extremely chaotic and abstract process. Or at least it is when I do it.

If you were watching me do it in time-lapse photography, like on a nature special, it would just look like me staring at my computer and occasionally typing and once in a while appearing to whack my head on my desk, which would actually just be me putting my head down and then waking up again, but in fast motion.

Fast motion was in fact the theme for writing The Magician King, because for the first time in my life I actually had a deadline for a work of fiction. The Magicians was done entirely on spec: I wrote the whole thing in my spare time, nights and weekends, with no contract. I didn’t even talk to publishers about it till it was done. The downside of that was that every time I sat down to work on it I had to think about how bad I would feel if I spent five years on the thing and nobody ever read it. The upside was that I could take as long as I wanted. As it turned out that was five years.

With The Magician King it was all different. I hadn’t initially intended to write a sequel to The Magicians at all – it was always supposed to be a standalone book. But to my complete surprise, I realized after I was done that I had an idea about what was going to happen next. The publishers (Viking) thought it was a good idea, and they suggested that I’d better write it before everybody forgot what happened in the first book.

They gave me an advance check, which I was happy about, and then a deadline, which I had mixed feelings about. I had two years. After some involved calculations I concluded that I was going to have to re-engineer my creative process to run approximately 2.5X faster.

For no good reason, I believed that I could do this. One always begins a new novel believing that this time, this time, it will be different. One will write an outline and one will stick to it, and one will get everything right the first time, and it will all fall into place, and it won’t hurt a bit.

All abrim with dewy naiveté, I started by setting up two bins. (Metaphorical bins. They were really Word documents.)

One bin had to do with mood. I threw into it everything that felt the way I wanted The Magician King to feel. It didn’t matter if it all fit together, I just threw it in. I’d connect the dots later.

So in went: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Ronin. The Bourne Identity. Cryptonomicon. Ubik. Fafhrd and/or the Grey Mouser. Neil Gaiman’s run on Miracleman. The Polanski movie Frantic. Beckett’s Endgame. Watership Down. Total Recall. Dangerous Liaisons. The Corrections. Joe Abercrombie. Iain Banks. The Venture Brothers. Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. Bits from Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. (Look, it’s my bin, I can put what I want in it.)

It didn’t matter if I could explain it, even to myself. If it felt right, it went in the bin. When you’re starting a novel, it’s not a good time to second-guess yourself.

The second bin had to do with the book’s actual plot. There were certain sorts of things that I wanted to have happen in the new book, certain scenes I knew I wanted to write. For example, I wanted to do a descent to the underworld à la Homer’s Odyssey. I wanted swordfighting – there was no swordfighting in The Magicians, and how can I call myself a fantasy writer if I haven’t written a damn swordfight? I wanted a mystery. I wanted a magical boat. I wanted a dragon – I’d had to cut a dragon out of The Magicians, and you can’t have a homeless dragon wandering around your subconscious at loose ends, setting things on fire. I wanted a talking sloth and a genius mapmaker. I wanted seven keys. I wanted a little girl who draws, and I wanted a sexy Customs Agent, and I wanted a tropical island. I wanted heartless, wordless silver gods. I wanted the End of the World.

I can’t tell you why I wanted these particular things, but when you’re in a certain phase of novel-making, you’re like a magpie: when something gleams at you funny, you swoop down and grab it and take it back to your nest, because you know, you just know, you’re going to need it later.

There were also some characters I wanted to bring back from The Magicians, like Julia, Quentin’s friend from high school. She went in the bin too.

Once the bins were full, I had a pretty good idea of the kinds of feelings I wanted the book to create in its readers (Bin #1). The trick was to use the stuff in Bin #2 to build a machine that would make people feel the feeling in Bin #1. The machine would be the novel.

Of course a novel isn’t a machine. A novel is a story. All this business with bins was a funny, backward way of figuring out how to tell the story I wanted to tell, which I knew a lot about but couldn’t quite write yet. I knew it was a quest story, something like a hero’s journey, but I knew I didn’t want to tell it the way it’s usually told. I wanted to make it feel somehow more like the way our lives -- real lives, modern lives -- feel. In your classic quest story, if you’re brave enough and pure of heart enough and clever enough and kill enough monsters, you generally end up with what you were looking for. In my experience, anyway, life isn’t like that at all. Often you don’t understand what you’re looking for till long after you’ve found it, and being brave and good and handy with a sword aren’t always enough in the end to guarantee a good outcome. Sometimes they have nothing to do with the outcome.

But how do you make that into a story – one that’s exciting and wonderful the way quest stories are supposed to be, but that’s also true to the way life feels? I knew that story could be told, because I knew what it felt like. It felt like Bin #1. The actual details came out of Bin #2.

The way I thought about it – and I apologize for the arcane quality of this analogy but bear with me – was like that puzzle Indiana Jones has to beat in the third movie, Last Crusade, when he’s trying to get to the Holy Grail, and he has to cross the invisible bridge, and he throws a bunch of a sand across it so he can see where bridge is. All that stuff in Bin #2, that was the sand. I knew the bridge was there (because I had faith – you know, like Indy did). Once I threw it out there, I could see where to step.

Of course in practice it wasn’t that simple. True: I didn’t have a bunch of Nazis waiting for me, for starters, and my dad wasn’t bleeding to death from a bullet wound. But however much trouble you take with your map, the map is not the territory (if you’ve seen Ronin, you’ll hear that line in Robert de Niro’s voice). For example: I had allotted Julia a nice long chapter in which to tell her story, rather the way Jordan Baker tells Daisy’s backstory in The Great Gatsby. But when I was done with that chapter, I had 6,000 words, and Julia’s story was barely getting started, and so far it was the best thing I’d ever written in my life. I went back to the outline and expanded Julia’s story. It now takes up half the book.

Sometimes you just have to give a character what she wants.

I could go on, but from that point on the process gets a lot less interesting. There’s a reason they don’t have reality shows about writers: it’s not visual. There’s nothing to see and not much to tell. When you’re really getting stuff done, you’re just sitting in a chair with a laptop and trying to type fast enough to keep up with the movie in your brain. That’s the glamorous life of the writer for you.

I started writing The Magician King in earnest in December of 2009. In October 2010 I wrote the last line of the first draft. In February of 2010 I sent the manuscript to about a dozen beta readers (including Kat Howard, one of the editors of this site, whose own novel I impatiently await). In May I handed the last marked-up page to a very impatient production editor, who sprinted back to her office – she was very spry, as I suppose you’d have to be with her job -- to transmit it to the printing press.

I feel like I barely escaped with my life, and I’ll probably have to do it completely differently the next time, but this time at least the system worked. The Magician King was published today, two years to the day after The Magicians.