Have you heard the word ‘imagineering’? It’s a cheat word that just mashes together ‘imagination’ and ‘engineering’ to describe a process that blends the two things. For a while I told myself that I’d made the word up, since I’d not seen or heard it anywhere, so imagine my annoyance to find out that someone else had come up with it. Worse, a Google search for the word is littered with Disney logos, giving the impression that this concept is monopolised by theme-park attractions. So here I’m going to stake a claim for this word for humble writers.
I’m not an engineer – the engineering genes in our family went almost exclusively to my brother. Even fixing a puncture or constructing a brio train-track taxes my engineering skills. But I have imagination. I mean really have it. Most people can be imaginative when they want to be, but as a fantasy novelist I live and breathe it. I’m constantly using my imagination, sometimes for real-world issues, but more often for the invented world of my own creation.
That world is vast and varied, but it’s sparsely populated and far emptier than I’d like it to be. After the manner of medieval maps, there are great tracts covered in mystery and only containing wonders barely guessed at. You see, no matter how much work you put into a created world it can never rival the sheer complexity and detail of the real world that billions of people have added to and which is shaped by innumerable natural processes that no one mind can ever fully understand.
A created world needs a certain level of detail and plausibility to be believable. Too little and you never really transport people there – they just pick holes in it from a distance. Too much and you can get lost there, wandering the rich corners of Middle Earth or Westeros. I aim for the latter end of the scale, having created a world of similar size to our own and with at least 11,000 years of history. That’s a lot of time and space to fill, and I can never do enough. My imagination always runs ahead of what I can physically find the time to write. I don’t suppose I’ll ever get down on paper (or screen) all that I have, even vaguely, in mind, and I probably don’t need to in order to produce authentic and captivating novels. I don’t just write to try and sell books, I write because there’s a world in my imagination that deserves to be brought to life, and it’ll be my life’s work to try and do that.
Imagineering is the key first stage in doing that. Before any masterpiece comes the dream, the vision. The unspoken, intangible vista of what could be. Where it comes from, beyond God’s gracious gift, I know not, but what I do know is that imagineering is the process whereby these fleeting glimpses and embryonic ideas are knitted together in the mind. It comes before writing because you can’t write what you haven’t thought. And the thinking is a long, slow, delightful gestation. Delightful and frustrating, because the ingredients are elusive, like shreds of clouds in a stormy sky. Somehow you have to catch them and wrestle them into some sort of coherence.
In that potent mix you have the outline of plots, the essence of characters, the seeds of stories and minds-eye portraits of landscapes and places so wondrous you doubt you have the skill to convey them. Before ever pen is set to paper, inception needs to happen, ideation needs to germinate, and questions need to be answered. How do these ideas coalesce to become a story? Who are these people, what are they like and what do they want? How do they relate to each other, where do they live, what details and rhythms mark their lives? Imagineering is where all this takes place.
Imagineering takes place while I doze or day-dream. I do it while staring out of windows or when I can’t get to sleep. I’ve lain awake at night listening to evocative music and just letting the imagination do its work. It can be like witnessing the creation of a marvellous tapestry in fast motion, sometimes with no conscious involvement at all. It’s like part of your mind is just a spectator to what some other part is doing. It’s like magic, an act of conjuring behind your eyelids and between your neurons. I do it in my study, my den, by candle-light and with my favourite film soundtracks or epic scores playing. Nothing fertilises the imagination quite like the work of Hans Zimmer, Thomas Bergersen, Audiomachine, Vangelis or Ramin Djawadi. Best of all, though, is when I’m out in nature, with the scent of pine resin in my nostrils and the sounds of rushing water or crashing waves in my ears. When the fallen leaves rustle or the desert stones crunch beneath my feet, that’s when I’m most transported to this inner world. To witness and then report back to the people of this world what I’ve seen.
Take away all that, and writing becomes a chore, a dry thankless labour of futility. The imagineering gives life and fuel to it. It’s not inspiration because that happens even earlier, a thousand million stimuli and encounters that you absorb, deconstruct and rebuild in new and unique ways. It’s not simply imagining, because that doesn’t convey the work that’s done. Imagineering captures the sense of mental construction, the persistence and endless honing and reshaping that’s involved. Imagining sounds so effortless, so fleeting. Imagineering is a labour of love in the mind. It’s a huge part of who I am and what I do. I’ve tried to describe it to you, and whether I’ve succeeded or not, I hope you’ll enjoy reading the finished products.