So, here we are. At the end of a series, and the end of about five years of planning, plotting, scribbling, writing, editing, revising, rewriting, re-editing, re-revising, re-plotting, re-re-planning, and generally . . . just a lot of work.
What is it like to finish an epic fantasy series?
Mostly, it’s exhausting. Sure, thrilling, triumphant, terrifying, all of those things, but mostly exhausting. It takes a lot out of a gal to write a trilogy. What a lot of people don’t realize is that writers are not only writing while they’ve got the pen in their hands, or their fingers on their keys.
Writers are thinking about their stories constantly, playing mental Jenga with scenes as they do the dishes, composing the perfect opening line in a boring office meeting, brainstorming how on earth they’re going to get themselves out of that corner they wrote a character into while doing the bedtime routine with the kiddos. Writers are making notes everywhere—scrap paper, receipts, notebooks in purses, on whiteboards and chalk walls, on their hands while on the subway, and on sticky notes that bristle from the edge of their computer screens like a lion’s mane. Writers are bouncing ideas off one another in chat groups, at pub night, on 3 a.m. phone calls, and around the next play on the hockey rink. In short, writers are always writing.
That moment when you hand in that final manuscript, when you’re not allowed to make any more changes, when all the notes in red pen have been addressed and all those plot holes sewn up, that moment when it stops being your burden is . . .
Wonderful. Freeing. Terrifying. Scary. Amazing. Tear-and-laughter-inducing.
You know you’ve done the best you can, and that you can stop carrying your little book baby all over the place. It has its own legs now; it can learn to walk. It’ll be running soon enough, and then, if you’re lucky, it’ll be flying off the shelves.
Yeah, it’s exhausting. But it’s thrilling. It’s wonderfully challenging. It’s the culmination of years of hard work, and lost sleep, and having your creativity pushed in directions you never expected, bloomed in ways you never could have predicted, and bruised in ways you couldn’t have mitigated (but that you would never wish to have unhappen because you learned from it). It’s amazing. It’s magic.
The thing is, though, I was never meant to know this feeling. True story. Like Deal-Maker Spirits, literary villains stepping off the pages into the real world, and magic leaking into the world through scars, The Accidental Turn Series wasn’t supposed to exist.
With a working title of “Feminist Meta-Fantasy Thingy,” (evocative, I know,) this series began as a rant I wrote in my personal journal about the intended audiences of classic Western fantasy, and those current writers who were inspired by it. It was framed as a woman, standing on a bar in a tavern, screaming at a bunch of barbarians who had just pinched her butt, and the Knights Errant who refused to reprimand them. Sound familiar?
Deciding that there might be some merit in that rant, I expanded it into a scene—what’s now known as Chapter Eleven of The Untold Tale—and then took some time to think about whether or not there was a novel there. I began writing what happened next, what happened first, trying to figure out where in the story this soapbox moment would work, or if it had to be scrapped entirely, and whose POV this portal fantasy should be told from. Howl’s Moving Castle remains, to this day, my favorite example of the genre, so I took a page from Diana Wynne Jones’s book and decided to tell the tale, and deconstruct the tropes, from the inside. Not five minutes later, Forsyth Turn walked into my brain, sat down in a very nice Turn-russet leather club chair, perched one ankle on the other knee, and said, “Well now—are you listening? Very good. Take up your pen and let us begin, then.”
A year later, the novel was with my agent—still titleless—and not long after that, it was signed with REUTS Publications. Still, still titleless. There was just one catch.
REUTS didn’t want just one book. They wanted a trilogy. The full fantasy shebang.
But it wasn’t a series. It wasn’t planned to be one, and I hadn’t left any room in the narrative to create one—I didn’t think. I had a very short amount of time to come up with some plots (which, in the end, we three-quarters scrapped and revised); plots that had to extend not only the world, but address new and different parts of the Established List of Fantasy Series Tropes that I hadn’t yet touched on. And, somehow, the narrative still needed to have workable Plot Points and Character Moments.
As you can tell from the fact that you are now holding book four of the trilogy (yes, I know how that sounds), we can assume that I finally figured it out. Not without a lot of ink on my whiteboard office wall, calls to friends, and bottles of Valpolicella. And not without a lot of rewriting of those plans as each major work in the series was completed; the next one always needed tweaking, revising, or straight-up raze-and-rebuild of what was originally planned based on what had just been written.
And I had to do it while pretending to be a different author entirely.
Authors like to write stories about writing. Stephen King did it. John Scalzi did it. Jodi Picoult did it. Jim C. Hines did it. Cornelia Funke did it. Jane Austen did it. When I started The Untold Tale, I knew it would be about fans, and community, and cosplay, and Mary Sues, and all the things I loved about fanfiction and conventions. But I didn’t realize so much of the books would be about writing, and writers, and the burden/joy of creating a novel.
Through the writer character in this series, I had the unique pleasure to not only talk about writing, but show my audience what it meant to be a creator. I hope you like Elgar Reed and his creations: Kintyre and Forsyth Turn, Sir Bevel Dom, the world he envisioned. And when you next read a book—not just my books, but every book—I hope you also have a better understanding of just how much of each of us goes into the work we write. And what had to go into basically writing the series twice.
Every scene, every reaction, every moment where something had to happen, I had to envision through three different lenses. Like the eye-testing thingy at the optometrist’s, I had to first isolate from the novel as a whole each scene, or moment, or decision on the part of a character. I had to view them with—let’s call it a Viewing Tube in this analogy.
Then, I had to add another disk of glass: the Lens of What Needs to Happen. In every moment of a novel, a character needs to agree, or disagree, or take action, or fail to take action. This is a pretty clear lens; no issues. But then things got fuzzy, because that motivation had to be informed by how the character was created to behave, not how I (or even they) wanted them to behave. This is the Lens of How Elgar Would Write It. I had to decide how it would happen, then figure out how a completely different author would write it. And then I needed a third lens, to counteract the fuzzy Elgar one—the Lens of Characters Gaining Sentience and Agency—where they fought their own Written-in instinct to behave how they wanted to. And just for funzies, a fourth lens was added—let’s call this one a colored lens, the Lens of J.M. Frey is Actually in Control Here Guys, where I actually had to write the darned thing.
Remembering, of course, that Elgar Erasmus Reed isn’t actually real and I made him up, too. (This is why writers talk about their characters as if they’re real people, folks. Because how else are we supposed to keep track of the little buggers?)
And it’s been fun. I love this series. I love these people. I love this world.
But I’m also ready to let it go.
Are there more stories I could tell here? Sure! But I think these are the important ones. These are the ones I had to tell. Everything else, my beautiful Readers, I leave to you to imagine.
So yes, it’s been a lot of work. Certainly more thinking than I’ve had to do since my MA thesis. As well as writing and editing hours that count well into the multiples of thousands. You’ll get a glimpse of those processes in this collection, as each chapter will feature another mini-intro from me, sharing more information about why and how I wrote each of the stories between these covers. It’s been fun to be able to go back and figure out where I was when I wrote each piece, and what I was thinking.
It’s been exhausting, true, but it has also been wonderful, and enriching, and so, so worth it.
And I am delighted, and verklempt, and honored to share this story with you, my dearling, darling Readers. This whole world has grown out of Pip’s little soapbox moment on the steps of a tavern, lost in a fantasy world not Written for People Like Us, and into one where, I hope, everyone who picks up these books and falls into them in their own ways, knows in their hearts that they are always, and forever, welcome.
Happy reading. And thank you for coming with me to Hain one last time.
Jessica Marie Frey
On a beautifully sunny Summer Solstice, 2018
Order The Accidental Collection here: http://www.reuts.com/product/accidental-collection-j-m-frey/