I have finished! Well, I haven't. I have finished the first draft of TWC, nearly two years after I started: it's a milestone but it doesn't feel like one. It's not done until it's done, and it isn't, er, done.
Still, this means I have some free time in the evenings for the first time since late 2006. The draft will be revisited in a few weeks' time once I've adequately forgotten it: in the meantime I'm mapping the next one. After much thought and consideration I'm plumping for fantasy, so I get to literally map it, with an actual map - I remember my first encounter with Lord Of The Rings, aged eleven, bored rigid by the book itself but entranced by the vast foldout map glued to the endpapers. Fantasy books should always have maps. Even I wouldn't break that inviolable rule.
The trilogy goes under the working (well, pre-working) title of Tales Of Komorolia, which astute readers may recognise as the graphic novel Anais loved in Living Things: the scenes described therein will appear in the real version, albeit as an actual novel rather than the manga retelling with which Professor Booker was so enamoured. The first volume is probably going to be called The Vagrant And The Snowflake. All three volumes are roughly plotted, and the last week or so has seen the full synopsis of volume 1 take shape, not to mention the most involving and arguably most fun aspect of fantasy writing, that of inventing a world.
I mentioned before that ToK was originally a role-playing game design, but I concentrated on the game mechanics rather than the world in which the game played out: consequently all my existing notes are conceptual, leaving plenty of room for world-building. Once upon a time novels were the only way to experience a virtual world, but with World of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls the old ways no longer cut it - it's not enough simply to say 'this is what the world is like'. One has to have good reasons for it being that way. Unfortunately most fantasy either doesn't do this at all or focuses on world-building at the expense of an actual story.
Compare the fantasy genre to that of superhero fiction, for instance. X-Men and Spiderman together opened the floodgates for superhero movies, so much so that they constitute a proper genre now, one that mainstream moviegoers have embraced: so why didn't the same happen for fantasy after Peter Jackson's wildly successful Lord Of The Rings? Where's the film of The Wheel Of Time? Where's the movie Eddings, or the movie Feist? Gods, even the putative remake of Conan is stuck in development limbo, and that's surely a dead cert. Apart from the superlative Pan's Labyrinth there hasn't been much to see beyond a crop of stultifying kidddie flicks.
I think the simple explanation is that superheroes modernised, or rather appeared to modernise. In actual fact comic books have been adult and complex for a long time, but never in the popular mind: ten years ago people still thought comics were simplistic and childish morality tales. X-Men showed the general public what comic book readers had known for years, that superhero fantasy had grown far beyond Superman. It doesn't hurt that twenty-first century people are a little more ready to embrace allegory in their movies, either.
Unfortunately fantasy isn't really in a position to pull the same trick. LOTR is an exception, because it's a classic - a prototypical exercise in consistent world-building, with a story that seemed terribly diluted in the text (to me, anyway) but works a hell of a lot better in nine hours of film. It's an unsophisticated piece of narrative but it has the cachet of myth that excuses this. The trouble is, even recent fantasy novels are no different: rehashing Tolkien and Howard in myriad permutations without adding to them, without evolving the genre.
A lot of fantasy writers, readers and publishers will justify this as a simple marketing equilibrium. Fans are devoted and want more of the same: provide more of the same and they will continue buying it. But as profitable as this stagnation might once have been the market is dwindling, and will wither entirely unless new readers are drawn in. The RPG market helps - Dragonlance and the like will always sell through - but those readers are looking for expansion of their favourite universe, reading as an adjunct to gaming: this is no less a purpose than purely literary entertainment but it seems like the industry is missing a pretty big trick here. In a climate where Doctor Who can find a whole new generation of fans, where Iron Man is considered a cool film (rightly), where everyone wants to see the new Trek and not just the Trek fans, why isn't anyone serving the market for quality fantasy?
Obviously there are two massive elephants in the room here, namely Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, neither of which can be said to be low in quality, backward in tone or sub-Tolkien recycling exercises. But that's because they're not really fantasy in the same sense: Potter owes far more to the genre of schoolchildren-fighting-crime than swords-and-sorcery, whereas Pullman's masterpiece isn't remotely fantasy at all, but avant-garde science fiction. They borrow elements from the fantasy genre and wear them as adornments. (Also, I am deliberately excluding the 'urban fantasy' (gods, what a clumsy term) of Gaiman and the like, since they're really a separate genre.)
It's this awareness of the genre that makes Terry Pratchett the one and only truly modern, truly mainstream fantasy author: he actively takes the piss out of the tired tropes of fantasy, and provides a decent story at the same time - in so doing he has created a whole new mythos which has a far wider audience than merely fantasy fans. As I said in a previous post, genres should not be preserved in amber but should move and flex and be broken and remade with the passing of ages. I can't promise I'll revolutionise the fantasy genre myself, but I'm going into this with an acute awareness of how backward and anachronistic it is, and do not intend to fall into that deep pit.