I once did a ‘Lunchtime Learning’ event the Athens Clarke County Library asked me to do on the topic of writing fantasy. As the audience included wee newbies as well many-times-over published writers, it presented a unique challenge. Below are the handouts for the class if you’re interested. The first was ‘How to Write a Novel’ — a brief overview for the utter newbie. Then, having taught them everything they could possibly need to know about that topic (in one page, no less!), we moved on to the second handout ‘So You Want To Write a Fantasy Novel?’ We had a great group and a lot of fun.
How to Write a Novel
Come up with an idea. Read a lot, especially books outside of your favorite genre (fantasy, crime, young adult etc). When you have an idea, ask yourself — who has the most to gain (or lose) in this situation? A little fish goes on an adventure across the ocean. Who — besides him— has the most to lose? His dad, who wants to find his only child and bring him home safely. It’s been said that the best book to write is the one you want to read — but can’t find because it hasn’t been written yet. Go write it!
Really think about your characters. Who is living in your world? Who’s the hero? Do they have flaws like we all do? The ‘ordinary world’ of the Hero’s Journey storytelling model has the hero ‘making do’ — they think things are fine, but really their world is about to change in big ways. Think about Rick in ‘Casablanca’ — he needs to confront his past, and become a more whole person to move forward. Find songs, make playlists, buy jewelry that you think your character would wear — get into their heads and discover their voices.
Outline your story. This will help you know where you are and inspire you to keep moving forward. You can outline every scene and plot development but you don’t have to. Google the ‘Snowflake method book outline’ if you want a very detailed outline. Otherwise, work on a 1-2 page outline or synopsis. Writing down the major plot points of a favorite movie (is if you were telling the movie to a friend) can help you learn the process. Just remember, a good outline is a roadmap — not a blueprint — and like any roadmap, if something interesting catches your eye you should follow it and forget the plan. Just get back on track with the roadmap after your side adventure.
Your only goal is getting to ‘The End’. As a beginning novelist, the idea of completing a book can be daunting. On your first draft, don’t worry about perfect spelling, editing, etc. Follow your outline — as long as it’s still exciting to you — and head for the finish line. Set aside some time every week to write. This is your dream — and you can make it happen! A novel is usually at least 75,000 words long but it can be as short as 45,000 words (Think of ’The Bridges of Madison County’).
Go through a second draft. After you reach ‘The End’ pop a bottle of bubbly, enjoy a fancy dinner, and put your manuscript in a drawer. Leave it there at least two weeks, maybe even a month, and then pull it out and reread it. Look for big problems: did one of your characters disappear halfway through the book? Add them into the later sections — or cut them entirely. Does the beginning make sense now that you’re written the end? Does the book start too soon — can you cut the opening? And what about ‘theme’? If your story became a coming of age story while you were writing it, is that clear from the beginning? The second draft is a great time to add in or cut large sections of the story if need be.
Do a third draft. Time to polish. Run ‘spellcheck’, then read it carefully to check all those wrong words it missed — then/than, there/their/they’re. Consider reading your work aloud to yourself — sentences and especially the way characters speak will sound right or wrong when heard out loud. Do any last research you need. Basically, make it the best book you can write. Then…
Find some beta readers. Beta readers are your first ever readers (yay!) and they are doing you a big favor. As proud as you are of your book, they don’t know anything about it and are probably really busy in their own lives. So appreciate them. 3-5 beta readers are the ideal number. Try to find people who are kind, your friends, smart, and hopefully will give you honest feedback. It helps if they read your kind of story. Take feedback cheerfully.
Do a fourth draft. Good golly! Yes, that’s a lot of rewrites. But good readers will point out issues and problems you might want to fix. I say might because in the end, it’s your call. Also, read the whole thing again checking while for spelling and grammar errors.
Sent it to agents, publishers, or self-publish. You did it!
Write another book! Check out the Athenswritersassociation.wordpress.com for help.
So You Want To Write a Fantasy Novel?
Fantasy is a genre of novel and it includes such sub-genres as ‘Urban Fantasy’ (modern day and set in the city), ‘High Fantasy’ (elves and dwarves and wizards — oh my!), ‘Young Adult Fantasy’ (Hunger Games/The Maze Runner/Twilight), and even ‘Magical Realism’ (usually a character-centered drama with the merest hint of magic [her grandmother caused it to rain every time she baked gingersnaps]).
Fantasy is exceptional because it allows us to dream bigger, hope more, live greater adventures, and experience things that could never be in this world. When we are young, fantasy stories fill our lives — animals talk, drive, solve mysteries. And even as older children — Neverland, Narnia, OZ, and Hogwarts are as real as Main St. and our school. And in the last 15 years fantasy has blown up as a mainstream category for adults — with books, TV shows, and movies full of vampires, werewolves, post-apocalyptic trials, and superheroes are becoming more and more common.
So what do you need to know about this unique form of storytelling?
World-building in fantasy is paramount. You get to make the rules! But the flip side is that the drama, plot, and character growth is only as strong as the world you build. Think about all the details in Harry Potter — often the most important storytelling devices were tiny aspects of magic. And you have to know what your hero can and can’t do (and explain it to your readers) so they can enjoy the story and the world you made.
Readers want to connect to your character. This may be true in all fiction, but in fantasy you’re asking the reader to take a leap of faith into a strange, new land where everything we know may not apply. That’s a lot to ask. But a great lead character can help suck readers in, and often learn about the new world at the same time your hero does (think about how many fantasy stories start with the lead character embarking on a journey, entering a new, dangerous land, or discovering powers/family/purpose they never knew they had).
Go for the ‘WOW!’ The only limits in fantasy are the limits of your imagination. So don’t settle for what you’ve seen done before; give us new creatures, devastating choices, weird powers, unusual rules, and awesome fight scenes. Expand your mind — if you read only 100 young adult fantasy novels, your work will sound like the rest. Instead, read Shakespeare, watch ‘Spongebob’, listen to murder ballads from the 1920s, play ‘Portal’, and read the comic ’Fables’. The more influences you have, the most interesting your work can become.
Find a plot that MOVES. Tolkin said, ‘A journey is a wonderful thing for a writer.’ Most fantasy is plot-based versus character-based which means that what the characters do is more important that who they are. This isn’t to say your characters don’t matter, but they have to be taking an active role in their world and trying to change things. Think of Katniss in the Hunger Games: in the very beginning she’s hunting to feed her family, saves her sister’s life, and starting working to survive the games. She’s active from minute one — and we can’t wait to see what happens next — what she makes happen next.
Know the rules, then break them. If you want to make every character in your story named something like Xaxzxa Axzxaxzz, then you need to ask yourself two questions — Are the fantasy books I love doing this? And if not, why not? Very strange names, 68 main characters, a 1,000,000 word count (most books are between 75,000 and 150,000 words), and other out there ideas aren’t necessarily bad, but they are all very challenging for readers. Even the best, most experienced writers would hesitate to make their book hard to read, so just ask yourself if you can do anything to make the reader have a more enjoyable time.
Remember that fantasy is often about INNER conflict. Sci fi tends to be about the outer/other — what’s in space, on other worlds, and how we treat those who are different than ourselves. But fantasy is about US, who we really are, what destiny lies out there waiting for us, and what good and evil powers reside within our souls. While the plot (action) is most important, characters who learn, are challenged, and grow are why this genre is so memorable. You can also make the implicit explicit — the boy who doesn’t want to grow up, the girl who discovers ‘There’s no place like home’, the boy who makes his father proud by taming a dragon instead of killing one, and the young man who carries his father’s ‘sword’ and says ‘I am a Jedi like my father before me’. Anything going on in your life, anything that hurts and makes you feel, can probably be turned on its head and become a great fantasy curse/power. As any scholar can tell you, vampire and werewolf stories are really about our animal natures vs. our civilized world.
Fantasy is a part of our history, our heritage. Almost all of us grew up hearing fairytales. And myths and legends, from The Odyssey to the alligators in New York sewers, have been popular for thousands of years. ‘Once upon a time,’ invites everyone in, and the human mind often welcomes the chance to hear something beyond belief.
You are unique. Therefore, your story is unique. No one in the history of the world has ever thoughts the same as you, enjoyed the same things as you, or liked the same triple-decker ice cream cone flavors as you (you freak!). So don’t worry about all the other fantasy stories out there. They call it ‘stalking the gaps’ — look for the story you wish existed but that you can’t find. Then think of a plot and characters that make you excited, and write the story you wouldn’t want to stop reading (hint: it’s the one you can’t stop writing or thinking about). As writer Brenda Ueland said, ‘Everyone is original, unique, and has something important to say.’
You can make the world a better place. Good writing, and great storytelling, is far too rare. And you never know how many people might desperately need your special, magical story in their lives. J.K. Rowling was out of work, and surely very busy, but she took the time to write down little Harry Potter’s first story, and millions of lives are better for it. Fantasy has readers are people who believe in the power of magic — some are young, and some simply never stopped believing that the world is full of great and beautiful things. I think that makes fantasy novels unique because its readers believe that the book you write can change their life, can alter their path, sometimes — it can even save a life. You should have the most fun you can while writing your fantasy novel, but you should never, ever — even for a second — think that it’s a silly thing to do. You might just change the world, for the better, forever. At least you’ll be able to say you made one dream come true — yours. Best of luck.
Please contact me at Katherinecerulean@gmail.com with any questions.