Anna Kashina: Five Things I Learned Writing The Guild Of Assassins
Kara has achieved something that no Majat has ever managed – freedom from the Guild!
But the Black Diamond assassin Mai has been called back to face his punishment for sparing her life. Determined to join his fight or share his punishment, Kara finds herself falling for Mai.
But is their relationship – and the force that makes their union all-powerful – a tool to defeat the overpowering forces of the Kaddim armies, or a distraction sure to cause the downfall of the Majat?
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Worldbuilding for a fantasy world is even more involving than research for a historical novel.
It is commonly known that a well-done historical novel requires a lot of research. Getting down the major dates and facts is only a small part of it. Historical authenticity comes with details: clothing, geography, customs, beliefs–not to mention all those obscure historical facts you would never find in commonplace sources. Only a fraction of these facts ever finds its way onto the pages of a finished novel, but the information must be there, forming the foundation of the story.
When I approached the task of creating a world for my Majat Code series—an epic adventure fantasy set in a fictional empire–it had seemed at first that I would be spared the necessity to do any research at all. After all, the world is all in my head, which makes me the foremost expert on every aspect of it. Right?
I quickly realized how wrong I was. To give life to a story, the world it is set in it has to be real–possibly even more so than for a historical novel where readers often can relate to sparingly mentioned facts. And, creating a world with this kind of realistic feeling takes a lot more than researching a world that already exists. As an author, I needed to achieve a state where I knew so much about every aspect of my world that I could literally write books about it. All the back history, geography, customs, clothing, languages, religion, politics had to become alive in my head, as if it actually existed. Except that this time there were no places to look it up. Every time I found myself missing a fact or a reference point, I had to sit down and develop it, often basing it on historical analogies that required even more research.
In the end, I found the process of worldbuilding a lot more tedious, and involving, than any kind of research I ever had to do for historical fiction. It was also lots of fun, watching my created world take shape and substance, from the detailed maps I drew, to all the history, culture and lore. It seems a pity that most of these things have to remain in the background, forming the foundation for my world that no one ever sees. But as I now know it is also a necessity that could make all the difference in the story.
One point of view is not enough.
I often see discussions among readers and authors on whether it is better to write in one point of view, or several. Opinions differ. Many prefer to stick to only one character throughout the whole story, and this strategy has certainly yielded many successful books. Others enjoy epic stories with multiple point-of-view characters. In that camp, my ultimate example is “The Game of Thrones”, which can easily serve as an encyclopedia of character development.
In my writing, I have originally opted for a single point of view, which seemed to be well suited for my action/adventure genre. But only a few chapters into my first book I realized that I won’t be able to keep it up. There were aspects to the story I needed to develop which were more natural for another character to describe. Often the same scene needed to be described from more than one perspective, based on people’s positions in the room, as well as their experience, skills, and perceptions. Finally, there were parallel story lines which could only be shown by people involved. In the end, the interplay between points of view, male and female, young and old, became one of my favorite aspects of writing “The Majat Code”.
No story is ever a stand-alone.
I used to disapprove of the idea of sequels. To me, each story had to be a stand-alone that resolved all the possible conflicts and plot lines and left nothing unsaid. I have since realized that, like life, a good story is impossible to resolve completely. Even if all the conflicts come to an end and everyone achieves (or fails) everything they set out to do, something always had to be left behind. Those stand-alone books out there just choose to leave these things in the foreground rather than following through. In the end, it all comes down to these kinds of choices.
After creating a world for my Majat Code series, I also realized more. It would take me more than one book to leave that world behind, to move on and create something new. I fell in love with some of my characters, and even though their stories got resolved in book 1, I could see many more things that needed a follow up in books 2 and 3, and possibly others.
By now, having written three books in the Majat Code series, I am aware that it is impossible to wrap up all the story lines without leaving a gap that could be explored in another story. In fact, I believe that the best sequels stem from the issues that were unintentionally left unanswered in the previous book(s) in the series. In my case, I found that it works best if I write with a full intention to complete each story, and then pick up a thread and unravel it into the next book. This way, the sequels flow more naturally and each book is more satisfying than if I tried to deliberately leave things open.
In the “Majat Code” series, book I, “Blades of the Old Empire” ended on a note where one of the main characters had a status change, and while everything else in this book had been resolved, this status change left behind an uncertainty not covered by the rules of their world. This uncertainty feeds the conflict in “The Guild of Assassins”, which is, again, a full stand-alone, but for which I had to start working on a sequel almost as soon as I finished the book.
Trust your characters.
Along with the worldbuilding, another very important task is character development. To me, it starts even before I sit down to write. I imagine a person, his/her major character traits, appearance down to the details of clothing. I also imagine their opposites, and those they would most likely be friends with. Once these characters come alive in my head, I create a scene and give them all tasks to do. And then, if it all works well, all I have to do is sit back and write down what happens.
When done well, this could be a very rewarding process, which, to me, parallels writing to watching a movie where I can also direct the setting and the action. This synergy with my characters can expand my abilities so much. If I don’t know what to do in a certain situation, one of my characters is bound to know, and all I need to do is allow this character to take over. If I want to explore my character’s limits, all I need to do is throw this person into a conflict and see what he or she can do. I used this a lot in “The Guild of Assassins”, where three characters with a lot of unresolved feelings for each other must unite to fight a common enemy. Writing this book I had a sense that the words already existed somewhere, and all I had to do was write them down. It was an amazing feeling, one that I miss every moment I spend not writing.
Follow your heart.
Like most authors, I spent many of my early years dreaming of finding a publisher while working my head off trying to perfect my writing. Like many, I tended to think of this process in terms of “what will the editors/readers like?” and “how can I write something popular?” Fortunately for me, I quickly realized that these thoughts were completely counterproductive. The only things I can write well are those that come from my heart, those I love, those I can pour my soul into. The question of who and why would like it becomes irrelevant, and certainly I could not do anything at all to make my writing deliberately likeable other than by doing my best. So, I learned to live by this rule: follow your heart when writing, and never worry about others. Well, not during the writing process, anyway.
I am a firm believer that one can succeed only if one does something exceptionally well. For an author, this has to start with writing something that opens your soul, not something deliberately commercial or appealing. One small example concerns the genres. I was writing epic fantasy when the majority of sales were in the urban fantasy genre. I felt crazy doing that, but I simply could not stop. Urban is just not by genre, even if every now and then I feel tempted to try.
I had to put this rule to the test again and again, most recently when writing “The Guild of Assassins”. One of the unexpected turns of the plot involved a controversial move, and I knew the readers were bound to be divided about it. I even considered changing the story. But then I realized that for me, as an author, it was the only possible one, so I went with it–and it worked just the way I wanted it to. I consider this book the best one I have written so far. I followed my heart. In the end, it made it all seem worth it.
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Anna Kashina grew up in Russia and moved to the United States in 1994 after receiving her Ph.D. in cell biology from the Russian Academy of Sciences. She works as a biomedical researcher and combines career in science with her passion for writing. Anna’s interests in ballroom dancing, world mythologies and folklore feed her high-level interest in martial arts of the Majat warriors.