by Timothy Pike
If you know anything about tabletop role-playing games—”Dungeons & Dragons” being the most well-known among them—you can probably picture the kinds of worlds that fantasy author John Alleyn dreams up for his characters to live in.
And if you’ve played any of these games yourself, you’ll understand why John can lose himself for hours designing these imagined realms. “Sometimes it can be too much fun,” he admits, “and I get so engrossed in building a world that I never get around to writing a story.”
But eventually he does, and fortunately for us, we get to enjoy his creation as he shares his story chapter by exciting chapter.
John writes from his home in Maryland, where he finds plenty of inspiration and support from his wife and two adult children. “My wife, of course, is my muse and First Reader,” John tells me. “She appreciates the same kind of science fiction or fantasy that I do, and she’s not afraid to tell me when my prose doesn’t measure up.”
Given his recent win of the Challenge Choice Award in the 10K Novel-Building Challenge at ChapterBuzz, though, I’d say his prose has been measuring up just fine.
John’s professional background in math and computer science, which he currently uses to design and teach courses in cybersecurity, never appeared to be leading him toward a writing career. But for world-building, the more subjects one is familiar with, the better, and John says he’s also been driven to deep-dive into astronomy, geology, climate science, history, anthropology, and linguistics, among other fields.
It was this natural curiosity and hunger for learning that led John to teach himself how to write. “I can’t claim any formal training,” he says. “Honestly, I think I learned to write first by reading. I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a small child. I still plow through two or three books each week.”
“The best way to learn how to write is to read,” he explains. “And to write, and write, and write some more. Never stop writing, never stop looking for ways to improve your craft.”
All in the name of world-building, John has been driven to deep-dive into astronomy, geology, climate science, history, anthropology, and linguistics, among other subjects.
Before too long, John knew he wanted to go all in and pen an original novel of his own. “My main project right now is a swords-and-sorcery fantasy novel with the working title of The Curse of Steel,” he says. “It’s the story of Kráva, a young woman from an Iron Age ‘barbarian’ culture—not quite identical to any culture from our own history, but most like the Celtic or Germanic tribal kingdoms of the pre-Roman period.”
It’s not exactly sorcery that John uses to pull his stories together, but it’s close. “My writing process is more like alchemy than anything else,” he says. “Only parts of it are driven by conscious choice. When I consider writing a piece of science fiction or fantasy, I usually start with a simple premise and one or two characters.”
“Once I have a premise,” he continues, “I spend a lot of time—weeks or even months—building the setting in which the story will take place. This may involve drawing maps, setting up backstory timelines, developing a constructed language, and documenting customs and traditions.”
That’s when time starts to get away.
“One day, while I was sitting in the back of a classroom and watching one of my colleagues teach,” John recounts, “I doodled a piece of a world map on the back of a sheet of paper. All at once, the first chapter of The Curse of Steel came to me, almost in its entirety. All I had to do was go home and write it down.”
“I usually start with a simple premise and one or two characters,” John tells me, and in the case of Kráva, he says he actually didn’t know a whole lot about her at first. “I knew she was a young woman from a tribal culture who had just lost her father,” he says, “and had just taken a magic sword from her enemies. That was all.”
For John, a crucial detail will often emerge early on that allows all the pieces to fall into place, and this was no exception. “Sometimes I need to hunt around to find some angle, some final piece of inspiration, that will cause the whole story to snap into focus for me,” says John. “In this case, it was the insight that Kráva should be an actual demigod, descended from the divine figures of her world.”
From there, the story came to life quickly, and I’ll let John sum it up:
At the beginning of the story, Kráva is an ordinary warrior of her tribe, serving as her father’s charioteer and bodyguard while he travels to visit friends. Suddenly her father is killed in an unexpected battle, leaving her alone and far from home. Soon afterward, she comes into possession of an ancient and powerful weapon, and she also learns that she is descended from the gods of her people. Kráva quickly grows into the role of a classical hero: a skilled and resourceful warrior who proves her worth in violent action, motivated by a craving for fame and esteem.
Kráva’s own culture admires such behavior, and for a while she enjoys her new status, but in the end the results are a disaster for herself and everyone around her. At the end of this first story, she has matured a little; she departs on a quest to repair the harm she has done and find a more sustainable way of life for herself and her people.
But despite all his talent for creating stories, characters, and worlds steeped in a wealth of real-life knowledge, John has found himself wondering whether his tales could turn an enjoyable hobby into an actual writing career.
“Several times, I’ve been hit by the feeling that my writing is never going to find an audience,” he says, “that my style doesn’t measure up, or the markets are too competitive, or the world doesn’t seem to want the kind of story I want to write. When that happens, it’s easy to become discouraged.”
While John knew he could write, he was unsure about his prospects. “It’s entirely possible to be a competent writer,” he says, “and still struggle to get anywhere.”
If you pick up on a hint of J.R.R. Tolkien’s style as you read John’s work, it’s probably not your imagination—John says he has drawn a fair amount of influence from the legendary storyteller.
These thoughts led John into a long writing slump when he was in his late forties. “I wrote a pile of stories during that period, aggressively submitted them to every market I knew about, and collected a substantial stack of rejection slips,” he says. “I reached for the motivation to keep writing new stories and trying to sell them, and there wasn’t any to be found. It didn’t help that other events threw me into an emotional slump at about the same time.”
As John weathered the storm, he did everything in his power to chart a new course. “I never stopped reading—in fact, I found new writers to appreciate, new bits of history or science to study, and that certainly helped.”
It would be a year and a half before John got back on his feet. “After a while, I started feeling more hope and positive energy in the other parts of my life,” he says. “Eventually, I found myself coming up with new ideas for characters, scraps of dialogue, and dramatic scenes. I had to write them down, and before long I was functioning as a writer again.”
Fortunately, John is feeling much more optimistic about his budding writing career now, and his immediate goal is to finish up The Curse of Steel and publish it. “That’s going to require a few months of careful revision, at least,” he says. “I’m hoping the folks at ChapterBuzz will continue to help with that.”
That, by the way, is your cue. You can help John perfect his masterpiece by checking out his work-in-progress and leaving some constructive feedback.
And if you pick up on a hint of J.R.R. Tolkien’s style as you read, it’s probably not your imagination—John says he has drawn a fair amount of influence from the legendary storyteller.
In fact, he and Tolkien seem to be kindred spirits. “He’s the patron saint of world-builders,” John says. “He’s also the patron saint of people who spend so much time on world-building that they have trouble finding the time to write and publish stories.”
Sounds a lot like someone we know.
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