There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

In Need of An Oracle? June 29, 2013

One of the things reading epic fantasy has taught me is that oracles are not to be trusted. They tend to be elusive, philosophical individuals that are more about fudging the truth and being mysterious, than being a font of good advice. (Except maybe for the Oracle in the Matrix, she was kind of cool…).

But where do we go when we’re writing epic fantasy and in need of specialist help?

In our stories our heroes either go in search of Jedi masters (or the equivalent), or more often than not (especially in the case of Jedi masters) one just happens along at the perfect moment. Or they go to some amazingly well-known, usually exclusive, but endowed-with-the-knowledge-of-the-ages learning institution (that inevitably doesn’t have all the answers after all). Or they bypass the whole she-bang and learn through the school of hard-knocks (I get knocked down, but I get up again…).

So does the same hold true for us?

The Master Writer: It seems that there are many of us working on the great epic fantasy, but only so many masters of the craft to go around. Sadly we all can’t be the chosen one (son of Darth Vader / Anakin Skywalker), able to discuss the finer points of our writing with the Gaiman’s and Rothfuss’s of our time. But unlike (most of) our characters, we at least have the internet.

Many of our favourite authors are available, if not for a cup of coffee and a chat, at least to give us some great advice based on their own experiences. Websites and the ‘frequently asked questions tabs’ are great places to glean advice. Search interviews with your favourite authors, and check out inspirational speaking engagements on youtube (one of my favourites was Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech to the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts (Philadelphia) – check out the link here).

Higher Education: Maybe not Jedi-school, but a great creative writing course could be the way to go. I was particularly fond of the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. Like a grown up Hogwarts it contained magical classes and opportunity for invention and advancement; not to mention fees that caused Kovthe no end of grief.

If you happen to live near a good school that understands and can nurture your talent for fantasy writing – and are able to attend – you are a fortunate person indeed (and I’m very jealous). However if not, you can always check out on-line courses (I can’t recommend any personally, but feel free to comment on your own experience in this area).

If you don’t want to pay to enrol (and gain the benefit of personal feedback) there are some helpful classes recorded on youtube. I stumbled across this Creative Writing Course for science fiction and fantasy authors taught by Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University, which contained all sorts of interesting genre-related information (such as some good general tips for map-making / world building – like making sure your rivers run down toward the sea).

A Band of Like-minded Peers: That really didn’t work out for the Jedi (bad bad Anakin), but when it comes to writing groups – there’s something to be said for getting together with other creative types and encouraging each other to push those  writing limits. I’ve often imagined being part of a group like The Inklings, the writing group that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien belonged to.

In my own experience talking to someone else who gets the appeal of epic fantasy tends to help me spark new ideas, or challenge the ways I’m trying to tell a story. It’s not every day that the Tolkiens and Lewises of the world find each other, but at least on-line – through blogs such as this one – we can find other people to chat with, bounce ideas off and occasionally have a true creative meeting of the minds. Visit the blogs of other fantasy writers and get chatting in the comments, you never know who you might meet!

Trial and Error: For many of us this is how we find our way. We write 150,000 word first drafts (especially if we’re epic fantasy writers) that require epic editing more than anything else. We look at the fantasy novelist’s exam and realise we’ve ticked 80% (or more!) of the boxes. We discover that our clichés are very loosely veiled and aren’t fooling anyone (except perhaps ourselves). And sometimes our writing just sucks on its way to getting better.

But take heart, most of the pioneers of fantasy writing wrote without a road map. They believed in themselves, followed their vision and wrestled with words the same way we do, while they were writing their ground-breaking stories.

I don’t believe in oracles outside of fantasy, but I do believe we have plenty of resources available to help us realise our own fantastic stories. If you have any favourite places to go when you’re in need of expert advice (for epic or fantasy writing) we’d love to hear from you in the comments!

– by Raewyn Hewitt

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Avoiding Fantasy Pitfalls April 6, 2013

One of the advantages of writing fantasy is the big backdrop to the story – spanning time, space and the furthermost reaches of the imagination. Yet sometimes a story can get lost on a big canvas. So before creating a bold new world, it’s worth bearing in mind some of the pitfalls of writing in the fantasy genre.

1. Description Overload. Beware of overwhelming the reader with too much detail. Although it takes a lot of time to create a new world, remember you’re telling a story – not putting together a documentary. World building is about providing a framework and highlighting the unique qualities of your setting. As the author it’s important you know the intricacies of your creation; but ask yourself, does the reader really need to know?

2. Too Many Characters. Great epic fantasy, such as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, is able to weave together multiple storylines that both draw the reader in and convey a sense of scope. For lovers of this kind of fantasy, the advantage of seeing so many points of view provides depth and perspective. However, as good as Tolkien and Martin undoubtedly are, many people won’t read their stories because they are complicated and it’s hard to invest in so many characters.

3. The Never-ending Story? Does your book have an ending? Or are you stringing it out over 10 instalments?  Sure it’s great to have a captive audience. I’ll usually follow a good author through a series, a saga or a decent set of chronicles (there is something comforting about a familiar world and characters). But there comes a time when as a reader you want a resolution. Padding the plot, creating impossible obstacles, or manufacturing new and even more evil enemies, can end up frustrating a reader. Keep the end in sight. Give your reader a bit of a breather at the end of each book. And know when enough is enough.

4. Point of Difference? With all the scope in the world at our disposal, there are still common fantasy elements that tend to be revisited time and time again: Vampires, elves, faeries, dragons, objects of power and prophecy are well recognised within the genre. But as Alec Austin so aptly noted;

A dragon must learn to make a good first impression if it is to do well in this life.

In essence if a reader has encountered hundreds of dragon stories, your dragon will be subject to comparison. So you’d better make it good. Agents are always asking what makes a story unique. If you’re working with fantasy tropes, at least make sure your story has a point of difference.

5. Poor Craftsmanship. I’ve been at ‘literary’ writing courses, where fantasy writing has been considered the poor relative to literature. Don’t believe it. Storytelling is an art form that sells. But it doesn’t matter how imaginative your story is if you can’t tell it well. So ignore the detractors, hone your writing skills and bring the reader along for the ride.

The great thing about a pitfall is – once you’re aware of it, it’s much easier to avoid.

– by Raewyn Hewitt