There are certain sweeping statements that people who don't like fantasy seem to make over and over again. I can only conclude that either these people have never read any fantasy, or their experience of the genre starts and ends with Lord of the Rings. What follows is my attempt to bust some of the common myths.
1. Fantasy is for children.
If, by this sweeping claim, you mean fantasy is a form of juvenile wish-fulfilment then I would respectfully point you to the many hardships, moral dilemmas and deep-rooted personal questions that fantasy characters typically have to face. Anyone who actually wants to live inside a fantasy novel must really enjoy confronting their worst fears. No, there are far worse offenders around when it comes to unrealistic daydreaming (cheap romance, anyone?).
If you mean fantasy can recapture some of the wonder, excitement and sense of adventure that we only have when we're children, whilst at the same time confronting the fundamental questions that most 'adult' fiction seems to shy away from, then yes. Fantasy is for children – or at least, anyone who was once a child.
2. Is that why it's so easy to write?
I have no idea whether fantasy is easier to write than any other genre. It's certainly no easier to write well.
This misconception may come from the fact that there are an awful lot of would-be fantasy authors around – more, perhaps, than the market can take. But concluding this means fantasy is easy to write is like using the existence of the X Factor to prove that it's easy to be a musician.
3. Well, ok, but it's not really literature, is it?
No, for a certain narrow definition of literature. But nor is crime, thriller, historical fiction, chick-lit or anything else that can be categorised by genre. So it's not like fantasy really loses out on that score.
For a more sensible definition of literature, yes, fantasy can be as beautifully and cleverly written as anything else. But like any other genre, there are literary fantasises and commercial fantasies; language-focused narratives and action-focused narratives. Exactly where a book falls between these poles is up to the individual author, not some mysterious set of genre guidelines.
4. I'm just not into elves and orcs and stuff.
Great! Nor are many (most?) fantasy authors.
The wonderful thing about fantasy is its breadth and depth. Sure, there are Tolkien clones out there, but there are also numerous unique and fascinating worlds just waiting to be discovered. One of them is sure to suit your taste, whether you like your magic flashy, gut-wrenching or non-existent.
Fantasy may have been heavily influenced by Tolkien, but it didn't end there. Nor, if you're interested, did music end with the Beatles.
5. But it isn't real.
It's as real as love. It's as real as courage, despair, freedom, hope and friendship.
If you answered 'but those things aren't real either' then I suggest you go and read a book about dry rot or something equally tangible, and leave fiction to those of us who still believe in life.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
'Lock the doors, stop the clocks, switch off the internet' – @HMGoodchild
The interweb is a wonderful thing. But it's also a distraction and a massive time-waster.
If possible, I really would recommend writing on a computer without an internet connection, or even (if you like things old school) a notebook. The non-electronic kind. And if, like me, you have a partner with an iDevice then ask him/her to hide it somewhere you'll never, ever find it.
Of course, this doesn't apply to genuine research. But just so you know, spending hours on TV Tropes isn't research. Especially if you're not writing anything down.
There are all kinds of writing 'rules' washing around the interweb: most of them, it has to be said, ignored by virtually every published book I've ever read. Don't write in first person present, for instance – not sure if it's coincidence, but all the books I've enjoyed recently have been written in that very tense. Or don't use the verb 'to feel' (as in, to use a generic example, 'I felt a nervous flutter in my stomach' as opposed to 'Nerves fluttered in my stomach'). Or even our old friend don't use adverbs. Every successful writer I know ignores that one – sometimes.
Of course, it's the sometimes that matters. The point is, like all rules, these should come with a caveat: unless it's for a good enough reason. In any craft, the novice breaks the rules because he doesn't realise the difference; as he begins to learn, he absorbs those rules and sticks rigidly to them, believing them to be absolutes. Yet as he grows still further in confidence and knowledge, he learns where the rules can be bent and where they can be broken. He learns that the 'absolutes' are really a set of guidelines. And thus the difference between the amateur and the professional is that the amateur follows the rules because, well, them's the rules. The professional follows them because she knows why they work – and when they don't.
This is all really interesting stuff, and bound up also with the wider question of style (because, after all, no-one can have style if all they do is follow the rules. That's just painting by numbers). But it's not what I set out to talk about. No, I came here to wave the flag for another much-maligned and misunderstood friend of mine: the prologue.
The rule there is simply don't use a prologue. And indeed, I've heard all kinds of bizarre statements about the poor persecuted prologue. No agent will touch a novel that starts with a prologue, it seems. If you have a prologue then you should consider making it your first chapter or cutting it completely. Some people don't even bother to read them and skip straight on to Chapter 1. Clearly no-one in their right mind would include one in their book.
Well, setting aside the fact that I simply cannot understand someone not reading a prologue – which, after all, is part of the writer's vision and put there for a reason – it seems to me there's an awful lot of confusion here. Certainly there are plenty of ways to write a prologue badly (the info-dump prologue, in which a fantasy writer pours out all the supposedly vital facts about the history of their world in a dry regurgitation of invented knowledge, springs to mind). But then, there are plenty of ways to write a book badly. Generalising about prologues is like generalising about books. Each one should be taken on its own merits.
If a book has a prologue then it's safe to assume the writer chose to put it there. As such, it shouldn't be treated by the reader any differently from a first chapter (though no doubt the writer has chosen it as a literary device because it fulfils a different structural purpose). Come across a book with a prologue you hate, and chances are you won't like the book. But come across a prologue you love, that intrigues you and makes you want to read more – well, then, it's done its job. It's the exception that proves the rule. Because, like all those other rules, don't use a prologue should be followed by except if it works.
How to make it work is another matter entirely, and one I don't claim to be an expert on, so I'll simply end by listing a few of the benefits that a prologue can bring to a book, if it's done well. It can add depth and richness, bringing a context or a viewpoint that wouldn't have been available from the main narrative. It can widen the book's sense of history by touching on another time and place. It can tease the reader with hints of what is to come, or give insights that are only fully realised once the book has been read. It can grab the reader by the throat and drag them kicking and screaming into the main body of the story.
Remind me again why you wouldn't want one in your novel?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
You know that scene you just can't bring yourself to write? The one that sits there like a big black hole in your manuscript, except instead of sucking you in it repels you every time you get near it? Well, this week is a perfect time to make yourself tackle it.
To do that, you need to work out why you're so reluctant to write the darn thing in the first place. If it's because it's boring to write then you should seriously think about cutting it, or changing it, because chances are it'll be boring to read as well. If it's because the words just won't flow then maybe you need to do more research (it's hard to write convincingly about something you know nothing about). Or maybe you're trying to force your characters into uncharacteristic behaviour for the sake of the plot and they won't cooperate – that's always a bad idea and you're probably better off listening to them. If you're struggling because the scene is too emotional and you find it painful to write, you just have to go with it. Pick a time when it doesn't matter if you end up bawling like a baby and immerse yourself in the very thing you're afraid of. Your readers will feel what you feel, and the scene will be all the better for it.
Looking back over the long and glorious history of my blog (i.e. the past four months), I realised that I haven't talked much about fantasy writing specifically. As a fantasy writer myself, that seems a little remiss of me. And since there's one aspect of writing that's more relevant to fantasy (and its hi-tech cousin, sci-fi) than any other genre, I thought that would be the best place to start.
For those of you who don't know, worldbuilding is simply the process of creating and filling in the details of the world that a book's characters inhabit. In most genres that's fairly simple, because the world in question is our own. In some genres – horror, for instance – it requires the addition of an extra layer that isn't part of our everyday reality (werewolves or vampires or whatever it happens to be). And in fantasy, it's the foundation of the entire novel.
So let's go back to basics. What is the most important thing to bear in mind when creating a fantasy world? What is the number one consideration? What, in fact, is the first rule of worldbuilding?
Well, for a start, it isn't You do not talk about worldbuilding. Otherwise this would be a pretty short discussion. Nor, contrary to what some seem to think, is it You load up your world with all the coolest weapons and monsters you can think of, chuck in an impossibly muscular hero and see what happens. And it certainly isn't You take the plot and dialogue patterns of LOTR, add a couple of swearwords to make it gritty and label it 'The next big epic everyone's talking about!!'. No, if I had to pick one rule, one principle to follow when creating a fantasy world, it would be this:
Everything has to be logical.
Though that may seem like a second-rate Spock quotation, it's actually very important. If a world has internal consistency then it's possible to believe anything that's written about it – and belief, above all things, is what writers want to instill in their readers (if only for the duration of the book). If you were reading a thriller and suddenly, for no obvious reason, the gun floated out of the villain's hand, allowing the heroine to knock him out, you'd feel pretty cheated. It would break the laws of physics, of causality, of probability: all laws that we know exist and operate in the world around us. Of course, most of the time this isn't even an issue, because thriller writers don't have to think about the laws of the world they're writing in; they grew up with them, and so the logic comes naturally. But when you add a layer of worldbuilding to the narrative, that's when it can all start to go wrong.
I say that, but the problem seems to be far less common in sci-fi than in fantasy. Sci-fi writers have to be rigorous, because the things they invent have to be plausible technologies. OK, no-one reading a sci-fi novel today is ever going to know whether the author's vision of 2312 was correct, but it has to at least be possible based on what we know now. Most sci-fi writers are aware of that, and they put a lot of effort into making their systems coherent and consistent. So why in the name of Arthur C. Clarke do so many fantasy writers lose all sense of logic as soon as they pick up their quills?
I've heard people say they don't like fantasy because 'it's unrealistic' or 'anything can happen'. But the point is, it shouldn't. When you're building a fantasy world, every single detail has profound consequences. Decide your system of magic requires fresh-laid eggs to work, and you can't suddenly change your mind when the hero finds himself in a desperate situation with not a chicken in sight. And because you're inventing the world from scratch, the issue goes even deeper. OK, so you've got a city in the middle of the barren desert plains; that's fine, but you'd better have a damn good answer to the question of why they didn't build it a few miles to the south where there's a handy water supply, or a few miles to the north where it would have been elevated above the surrounding terrain. And no, before you ask, because it's cooler that way is not a valid reason.
So, if I had to give one piece of advice to the fledgling writer about to take their first steps down the worldbuilding path, it would be this: please, please think everything through first. Yes, you can be as inventive and as creative as you like; yes, you can have mile-high cities and magic based on rainbows; but above all things, your world must have its own logic – and stick to it.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Choose an aspect of your world (if it's a standard fantasy trope, so much the better). For instance, say swords are the main weapon. Now ask yourself a series of questions. Is steel common? Is it cheap? Who can afford it? Who produces it? If there's magic in your world, why don't people use that as a weapon instead? How come gunpowder hasn't been discovered yet? Do people walk around armed as a matter of course? What effect does that have on the level of crime? And so on. Once you've finished, you'll have solidified the logic behind that area of your narrative, and maybe created some useful social/historical/economic background to draw on as well.
Many years ago, sometime after dinosaurs but before Justin Bieber, writers worked in isolation. They came up with an idea, plotted the book and wrote it – maybe in mere months, maybe over several years. Then, in happy ignorance of what any other writers in the world might be doing, they sent it off for consideration.
With the arrival of the interweb, however, all that changed. Being online brought many advantages for the would-be writer – a wealth of information and advice, a greater degree of access to publishers and agents, a hitherto absent sense of community. But it also brought one serious disadvantage: the newly connected writer could compare him/herself to other people.
I'm sure you know how it goes; most of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. My online writer friend has just published her first book. And that guy I did NaNoWriMo with last year has signed with an agent. X has a wildly popular blog, Y has an amazing website, and Z has ten thousand Twitter followers. I'm failing as an author and as a human being! I need to catch up!
Thinking like this is easy to fall into, but it's ultimately unproductive. We're not in some kind of global race to see who can achieve the most the quickest. What matters is the quality of the final product: the book itself. If it takes you a year to write a decent book then there's no point rushing to publication after six months. In fact, it does you much more harm than good.
Fine, so that girl you met in a writer's forum can go from blank page to completed novel in the time it takes you to come up with a sketchy plot outline. So what? She's not you. Work at the speed you know has the best results for you. Making sure what you've written is as good as it can be before you start submitting or self-publishing will have much more positive consequences in the long run than trying to sell something you rushed through in a vain attempt to keep up with some idealised schedule.
Of course, 'taking the time to get it right' can become an excuse in itself – and that's where the other half of my title rears its head. There has to come a point when you know, deep down, that any further editing you do will only be changing, not improving. Any further work on the book after that falls under the heading of procrastination. I've written about this before, so I won't say anything more about it here except Stop. Just stop. You can't make it any better; steel yourself and take the plunge.
So what's the optimum length of time to spend on a book? you may be wondering. The golden mean between rushing and lingering? Well, that's the point: I can't tell you. It's different for every writer and every book. But if you keep on writing, you'll know it when you find it.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
OK, so you've decided to have a go at writing every day, but you're finding it difficult to get started. Maybe you're used to only writing at weekends, or you can't seem to get more than a sentence on the page without thinking That'll do until tomorrow. If that's the case then here are a few suggestions.
Welcome back, everyone. I hope you have enjoyed the break and are now looking forward to 2012 with wide-eyed excitement/terrible glee/unmitigated despondency (delete according to character type and personal preference).
It being the first day of the new year, I thought it would be appropriate to talk a little bit about resolutions. For this is, of course, the perfect – or at least traditional – time to cast away old habits and form shiny new ones. Now, if ever, is the moment to resolve to eat my greens, go for a healthy refreshing run every morning and be nice to everyone, even if I don’t feel like it. Right?
Well, no. Because I came to the conclusion some years ago that making resolutions is thankless, fruitless and pointless. Mainly, it has to be said, because I never keep them. A list of resolutions in January is the perfect recipe for misery and self-disgust in December. In the past I would come up with ten or twelve things I wanted to get done during the year, then concentrate all my efforts on the one I was really interested in. And I’m not convinced that the virtuous feeling I got when I wrote down things like ‘keep the house tidy’ or ‘stop eating so much chocolate’ was worth the subsequent and rapid realisation that it was never going to happen.
So this year, I’ve decided to take a different approach. There’s just one thing I want to do: write every day. No matter how busy, how tired or how unimaginative I feel, I want to get some words down. And I’m not going to look at it as a resolution so much as an inevitability. Because I know how easy it is to slip into days, even weeks where the notebook remains closed and the laptop gathers dust. And the one thing I don’t want from 2012 is to look back and wish I’d done more.
Of course, it’s not going to be straightforward. As some of you already know, my partner and I are expecting a new addition to the household later this year, which won’t exactly make it easier to find time for writing. But even if I can only manage a sentence a day, at least I’ll have done something. At least I won’t let whole months go by in which I realise I haven’t achieved anything at all.
So, that’s the plan. I’ll let you know how I get on. And in the meantime, best of luck with all your resolutions – if, that is, you chose to make any.