One of the strangest things that has happened in this my latter day attempt at writing is how little heroic fantasy I ended up writing. In fact, only in the last book I wrote was there a conventional fantasy narrative, and it was more science/fantasy than straight-out Tolkienish fantasy.
Strange because, forty years ago, Tolkienish fantasy was the everything to me in my first attempt at writing. I couldn't really imagine writing anything else at the time.
Something that most younger folk don't understand (and every day that goes by, the more younger people there are) is that there was a brief moment when modern fantasy was in an incubation phase but not yet birthed. LOTR's and the Hobbit hit the USA in paperback form in the early 60's. I think I read them in about 1965 or so.
I went searching for more of that. I know I'll get arguments about this, but at least in my estimation, there wasn't anything else out there. Some SF had great fantasy elements: Jack Vance and Roger Zelazny helped scratch the itch for awhile.
Around 1968 I found Robert E. Howard and the Moorcock, and that also scratched the itch. But sword and sorcery still wasn't heroic fantasy.
But it wasn't really until around 1970 that I started seeing real Tolkienish fantasy hit the market, in dribs and drabs at first, then it started accelerating and then it exploded.
But before that had happened, I'd already had my plot completely outlined for Star Axe. This was sometime around 1972 or 1973 (before I'd ever heard of Star Wars--thus the Star Axe title.) I tried to write something like Tolkien, without using any of the creatures or terrain. Same thing with Snowcastles and with Icetowers.
When Sword of Shannara came out, I was dumbfounded. "You mean, I can use dwarves and elves? You mean I can actually shamelessly copy Tolkien?"
Seems incredibly naive to me now. Basically, everyone copied Tolkien, with no effort to be different.
Nevertheless, I read every fantasy that came out for a few years and then I hit a wall. It all started seeming the same--and when it wasn't the same, it was some outrageous switch that usually seemed gratuitous and unconvincing. (Lord Foul's Bane, anyone?)
I know people love these fantasies, but none of them truly impressed me.
And so in my long hiatus from writing, I drifted away from reading modern fantasy. SF? yes...it has very wide perimeters. Urban Fantasy? a little. Steampunk? Always seemed like an interesting idea.
Instead, I started reading lots of mysteries and thrillers, mixed with literary fiction and non-fiction.
Nevertheless, people constantly recommended new fantasy authors as different. They never were. Some were better than others, but none really knocked my socks off. Usually I read the first book and stopped. Again, I'm talking about heroic fantasy, not the many spinoffs, which at least were different.
It wasn't until I was much older that I decided that heroic fantasy was bound by its conventions, and that no one was ever going to match Tolkien within those conventions. Some fantasy could be really well done: The Curse of Chalion by Bujold; Game of Thrones by Martin; Name of the Wind, by Rothfuss, but completely new? Probably not possible.
Nevertheless, I always thought if I ever went back to writing, that fantasy would be my main focus. And indeed, my first two failed attempts were that. But then, I just had the urge to write a vampire story, even when I knew the genre was played out. After that, I wrote a story idea that I'd been thinking about for years: what if the Donner Party had included werewolves? Immediately following that, books about super-intelligent pigs out to destroy humanity? And so it went...
The horror community seemed very welcoming, and I realized that unlike most genres, horror was open to every style and idea. It seems to me to be the genre least restricted by formulas. So I went with the flow.
I still have a hankering to write my grand trilogy in the Tolkien tradition, even though I'm not sure the world needs it.
It surprises the hell out of me that I wrote so many books without doing a fantasy, though. At least, not one I completed.
But you know what? I wrote the books I wanted, the way I wanted. I don't think any of them consciously followed a formula. I thought of many of them as written in the style of old-fashioned disaster movies: a cast of characters facing an expected and steadily increasing danger.
All I know is that they were written without regard to convention. They probably are mostly conventional, because I'm pretty conventional by nature. But none of it was cynical, and in all of it I was following my own muse and I was simply trying to be entertaining, if to no one else, to myself.
In that sense, I feel they are "original," whether the end result appealed to people that way or not.
At the end of the day, I still have a strong urge. I just don't know if I have the time or the grand idea that will hold it all together. If I live long enough, though...