“We have to believe in our work; the only thing that lightens the burden of it, sometimes, is the sense that it matters, and that we’ve committed ourselves to something valuable.”– from “Writing Fantasy Realistically” by Philip Pullman
New writers are encouraged to read, and so read I did – about the evils of misrepresentation, the cleverness of subverted tropes, the laughable Mary Sue phenomenon, fantasy clichés, fantasy subgenres, new books, classic books, books that I could have written better, books that put my prose to shame, books that irritated me for reasons I could not identify…
I didn’t want to write an irritating book. No, my book had to be aligned with values like acceptance, justice, and interdependence. Crafting a story to meet these standards has not been easy work. But the thing that stopped me from writing the NIP (novel in progress) altogether came in late 2021: I lost my belief in stories.
The publishing industry is a business first and foremost. It wants books that can be marketed to a wide audience. My interests usually stray away from the mainstream, and I’ve always worried that my NIP will be a hard sell as a result. Are my neurodivergent characters relatable? Have I omitted too many fantasy tropes? I’m a very analytical person, which also means I’m good at worrying. In case you couldn’t tell.
Along with fussing over the NIP, I have plenty of other things to worry about. Any day of the week, I can scan the news and read about war crimes, forced sterilization, hunger, rising costs of living, wildfires…
I do not have the money or influence to mobilise change. The most effective thing I can do is hit the retweet and share buttons. Aid is needed now, systemic change needs to begin now, but novels cannot be written and published in a weekend. Fiction does not feed anyone.
But I do have a book, borrowed from the library, whose author has been writing fiction much longer than I have.
I read Philip Pullman’s books when I was a teenager, but his tone always felt a little didactic and his style too separate from mine to enchant me like some other writers did. Still, I admired his intellect, so last month I dipped into his nonfiction volume Daemon Voices.
The essay titled “Writing Fantasy Realistically” drew my eye despite the fact that I’d avoided my own fantasy novel for seven months. Perhaps I wanted a reminder of what being a writer felt like, or a jumpstart for my work. I got both: Pullman describes the embarrassment and confusion he felt when his mind began insisting that he write the fantasy story that would become His Dark Materials.
The series is now considered a classic of the genre, but in its early stages, Pullman resisted it because he associated fantasy with the sort of story that prized adventure over moral nuance and subtlety of character. At the same time, however, he harboured another belief that allowed him to set his doubts aside.
“…if I know anything about writing stories, it’s this: that you have to do what your imagination wants, not what your fastidious literary taste is inclined towards, not what your finely honed judgement feels comfortable with, not what your desire for the esteem of critics advises you to. Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that.”
I myself have been so tangled in intentions for the NIP that my imagination dwindled, and with it my enthusiasm for writing. After reading Pullman’s essay, I could finally allow myself to be a writer again and approach the NIP. I reread the last two chapters I had written in 2021, and somewhat to my surprise, I enjoyed them. The prose carried me through the rising suspense of the narrative while simultaneously filling me with the deep satisfaction of discovery and innovation I had felt when I wrote it.
I had delighted in creating this part of the story. Now I had the delight of reading it too – and a desire to read more. It looks like I’ll have to finish it after all.
However, while imagination remains the driving force behind my decision to keep writing, I’m not sure how to sustain my determination to finish the NIP. I’d like to open the discussion now and ask you, my readers, why you value fiction. Any tips you have on staying committed to a long, arduous project would be helpful too.
What are your thoughts?
Quotations from “Writing Fantasy Realistically,” featured in Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman. 2017, David Fickling Books.