No, not that First Book.
I mean the first book of the Wingfeather Saga, also known as On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, which might be one of the longest, silliest book titles ever. For the record, it was my wonderful editor Jeanette Thompson who suggested it.
People are always interested in beginnings. When it comes to superheroes, origin stories are the best. Even if you never read the Bible, chances are you’ve flipped to Genesis 1:1 just to see what it says about how things got started. Whenever I’m in Oxford I can’t help but visit one of the pubs where Tolkien and Lewis read aloud early drafts of their books. Yearbook pictures are always good for a laugh. I’ve read a few books about Pixar Animation and find it almost painfully interesting to read about early versions of some of my favorite films.
Not to presume too much, but I thought you guys might be interested in how this story began.
Back in 2004 my sons were five and six years old, which was just old enough for me to inflict the Chronicles of Narnia on them. I had loved them when I was a kid and couldn’t wait till they were old enough to encounter that magical place (and especially Aslan) with me. As it turns out, not all of those books are great read-alouds for kids that young, so while Aedan mostly stayed awake, Asher mostly slept. Still, it was the first time I had read them aloud, the first time I had experienced the story with someone, which was a tremendous thing for my 30-year-old self. More than once in each of the Narnia books I had to swallow tears as my little boys looked on in confusion.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I had dreamed of writing books when I was young, and had even made several false starts as an adult, but alas, nothing took. Meanwhile I was busy writing songs, making records, and touring, which was another dream I nursed when I was young. The book thing was definitely on my list of Things to Do Before I Die, but it wasn’t until that read-aloud experience that I finally dug in and decided to really do it. To finish something. And I must say, though I’m getting ahead of myself here, finishing is the thing. I’ll say it again to any of you would-be writers out there: FINISHING IS THE THING. The only real difference (the ability to put coherent sentences together notwithstanding) between Real Writers and People Who Only Ever Talk About Writing is the persistence and discipline required to cross the finish line. Having had some real world experience bringing songs to completion, and then bringing albums to completion, and then bringing long and grueling tours to completion, I had been unwittingly prepared by my musical day job to keep my hand to the plough with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.
(One quick side note. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care what C. S. Lewis said in some random letter to a kid, the most enjoyable way to experience the Narnia books is to read them in the order of publication. The way they bounce around chronologically is wonderful. So for the love of Pete, don’t read them in chronological order! You might as well be watching the loathsome Star Wars episodes 1-3 before the wonderful episodes 4-6. And while I’m waxing opinionated, we might as well just chuck episodes 1-3 out the window altogether. They’re just awful, and you should protect your brain from them at all costs. And I’m not just complaining about the annoying Jar-Jar Binks or the terrible writing and acting and directing (though the visuals were pretty cool at times, and if that’s the best you can say about a film, it ain’t a very good one). As my friend Ben pointed out, the “hero” of first three episodes is an arrogant kid who becomes not just a murderer of children but a destroyer of worlds–basically, a young Hitler–and I can’t think of a single thing about him worth emulating. Anakin makes for a great villain, not a great hero.)
Where was I?
Ah, yes. The Igibys. When the day came to really–and I mean really–start writing, I realized right away that I couldn’t tell a fantasy story without doing my research. What I mean is, I had to do some serious world building before I could populate that world with the characters in this tale. If you were writing a novel set in Victorian London you’d have to do some work learning about how things worked back then–what kind of money they used, how people got around, who was in charge, what the political atmosphere was like–and only then could your characters move about in that setting in a convincing way. Details matter. Since this story would happen in another world I needed to know how it got there. I needed to know, for example, how Janner Igiby would purchase honeybuns at the Dragon Day festival. I needed to know not just who the villains were, but why they were villains at all. (Which is what George Lucas was doing when he wrote Vader’s backstory, I’ll give him that.) And where did they come from? And why on Aerwiar would Gnag have wanted to destroy Anniera?
So you see, before I could get to Janner, Kal, and Leeli, I had to take care of business. So I started with a map. In fact, it wasn’t until I had drawn the map that I had the slightest inkling who the main characters would be. They sprang up from the soil, right there in my sketchbook when I labeled a little town “Glipwood” on the edge of an ocean I goofily named “The Dark Sea of Darkness.” The next step was writing little faux histories of Anniera, and Gnag, and the making of the world. That took me weeks, and to be honest, it was a delightful process. The more I imagined about the world, the clearer the Igiby children’s conflict became, and once I had that down the story began.
I outlined a few things, but the ending–other than the revelation regarding the Jewels of Anniera–was hazy and embryonic. Part of the joy of writing is that the author gets to discover the twists and turns with almost as much surprise as the reader.
So what about you? If you’ve written an otherworldly tale, did you write the backstory first? Did you find, as I did, that the history of your world shaped the story you ended up telling? Tolkien talked a lot about this in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” which you must read if you plan to drive a book like this across the finish line.