writing fantasy, you should have a sketch of your plot already
in mind. You need to know something about your characters and
going to be doing in your story. That way, you can create exactly
the kind of world or environment best suited to the needs of your
plot, and you won’t waste a lot of time creating a more elaborate
setting than you can use. I usually focus on the following four
whether my characters are going to be roaming around feudal kingdoms
or an imperial empire. I want to establish what the power structure
is at the family level, village level, and so on to the top.
Then I decide where my protagonist fits in that hierarchy. Often
I use models from history as a template that I then adapt to
support my intended plot. For example, the kingdom of Nether
is based loosely on medieval Russia; the kingdom of Mandria is
based loosely on France. That’s why the two countries
have differing aristocracies and titles. In my novel The Pearls,
I had to plan an imperial army, and figure out the ranks and substructures
within each legion.
climate of my story world matters because it’s going to affect the characters in the story, just as
they must also cope to some degree with terrain. If, for example,
the setting is a harsh desert land, then game and water will be
scarce. Your characters – if they aren’t carrying provisions
with them – will have to take time to hunt, and it won’t
be easy. Blazing heat and armor don’t mix well. Or, if the
climate is extremely cold and snowy, visibility is poor, travel
is hampered, and there’s a danger of characters freezing
to death. People who are uncomfortable, thirsty, and hungry are
going to become short tempered, which leads to conflict, which
leads to story development. Unless the characters have a magical
means of transportation, they aren’t going to be able to
move about faster than they can walk, ride an animal, or float
life is a delight to create. I love all the details of what characters
eat, wear, play with, carry, and live in. Everything from forging
armor to shopping for horses to dancing to music to cutting firewood
can spawn endless details of how the characters in a story live
their ordinary lives. Whenever possible, I try to incorporate
the appropriate physical senses (taste, touch, hearing, sight,
and smell) to provide a vivid sense of place. There is a danger
to this fun, however, in that if you aren’t careful
you never leave this part of the story preparation and the story
itself never gets written. The details should also be consistent
so that they’re plausible to readers. For example, if your
story world is a dangerous place where folks are commonly assassinated,
no one is going to throw a huge banquet without having bouncers
at the door to check the credentials of arriving guests. Bodyguards
will be vigilant. People will have personal food tasters checking
out their food before they dine.
ethics, what code do your characters live by? What principles
or beliefs do they support? If they have a religion, what is
it? What does it mean to believe that particular doctrine, and
how will it be challenged in the story? Is magic a common part
of the story world? If so, it will be developed as part of everyday
life. If it’s uncommon,
or forbidden, or greatly feared, then it’s going to be flashier
and more dramatically presented in the story. Magic has to be limited;
otherwise, if your protagonist possesses a magical sword or special
abilities that can get her out of any kind of danger, there won’t
be any need for readers to care about the outcome. But if your
character can’t always control the magical sword or is the
only one in her family without special gifts, then she’s
at a disadvantage, and readers will enjoy worrying about how the
story will turn out. Whatever rules of magic you create for your
story, you must then abide by them. You can’t cheat just
to save your characters and expect readers to like it.
all, once you’ve created your story world, feed in the information
small bits at a time. Avoid stopping the plot for huge information
dumps that go on for pages. Open your story with action, get your
protagonist in trouble, and move quickly through events. If you
feel you must explain nine thousand years of world history to readers
in chapter one, chances are no one will ever continue to chapter
two when the barbarians actually attack the village. So hold off
on the background and endless passages of description until you
have readers hooked and intrigued by what’s happening.
No matter how good or talented you think you are, it takes a long
time to become a published author. Writing involves long, solitary
hours of hard work. If you don’t like being alone or if you
want quick results for little effort, then this isn’t the
profession for you.
If you become a writer, you need to be sure you’re in it for
the long haul. It takes months to write a novel, more months –
perhaps even a year or two – to market that manuscript to
a publisher, and several more months to a year before a purchased
manuscript becomes a published book. It’s
foolish to waste time by sitting around and waiting for a letter
of rejection or acceptance; you
have to be writing on the next project, living on some kind of belief
in yourself even when no one else seems to share it, and remaining
determined to keep trying until you succeed in breaking in.After
your first book is published, you have to commit yourself to being
a professional, working the hours, meeting your deadlines and contractual
obligations, making whatever revisions are requested, and always
striving to better your work.
No matter how many books you get published,
there’s never a guarantee that the next one will sell. Or
that the public will read what you’ve written. It’s
always a gamble.
distractions: This is hard to do. We get lonely
writing in a room all by ourselves. But as part of your commitment
to being a professional writer, you have to plant yourself in a
chair in front of your keyboard every day. As part of your commitment,
you have to keep your writing time sacred and not sacrifice it to
go do something more fun. It means setting up your day and your
life so that while you’re working on your book, you are interrupted
as little as possible. Turn off the phone. Take the tv set away
from your writing area. Shut the door. Get up an hour earlier than
the rest of your family in order to work during peace and quiet.
Don’t overcommit yourself with
too many obligations while a book is in progress. Life gets in the
way enough without us sabotaging ourselves with avoidable interruptions
like moving, volunteering for committee work, attending conferences,
helping friends, etc. You can be a friendly, sociable human being
between writing projects. Otherwise, when you have a deadline, be
a writer and get the manuscript done.
Even if you’ve graphed out the
available hours in a day and think you have plenty of time to fit
writing in between other activities, remember that writing is a
mental process. If you’re worried about something, or unable
to focus on the book because you’re juggling too many other
details and plans, that’s distraction. Get away from it as
much as you can.
your craft: Although writing depends on talent,
it isn’t enough to be brilliant. You also need to know what
you’re doing. There are plenty of books on writing techniques,
plenty of available classes, plenty of writers groups out there.
Check into them to gain knowledge about handling viewpoint, organizing
the story into sequential scenes of conflict, introducing characters,
and varying the story’s pace. Learn to read critically as
a writer instead of just for pleasure. When you finish a story you
really enjoy, look at how that author put the plot together, brought
in new characters just when the momentum was sagging, ended chapters
with hooks so that it was very hard, if not impossible, to put the
Even if you’re struck by inspiration
and the story pours out of you onto the page … what are you
going to do the next time, when inspiration doesn’t strike?
Or what are you going to do when an editor asks you to make some
changes, using terms you’ve never heard of?
When you’re competent at the
writing craft, you can deliver consistently good manuscripts over
the course of your career.
the story moving fast: Novels today are competing
with a lot of other entertainment. I think it’s important
to grab a reader with the first 25 words or so. If you’ve
grown up reading Dickens and Tolstoy, you’ve certainly gained
an excellent foundation in plot and characterization, but you won’t
be up to date with pacing. Think about the best, quickest way to
hook a reader’s attention right away. Avoid starting the story
with a lot of background explanation. Until readers are interested
in what’s happening to your characters now, they probably
won’t care what’s been happening to them before the
complications coming: It’s not enough to get
your protagonist in some kind of trouble on the first page; you
have to keep building complications into the story. If everything
is easy for your characters, the story will stall out and die. If
things get progressively harder, the story will keep rolling. Kind
of a paradox, but that’s the way it works.
If you’ve written several chapters,
and the story is starting to bog down and get boring, increase the
conflict and see if it doesn’t perk up.
come best from an antagonist: Your protagonist needs
an opponent, someone motivated to stand in direct opposition to
whatever your lead character wants or is trying to accomplish. Then
you can have genuine, engaging conflict for readers to enjoy.
A steady of stream of random bad luck
is boring to read.
imitate your favorite writers: Okay, maybe you’ve
got a favorite author whose books you love. This author has inspired
you to write stories of your own. Terrific! Just make sure that
when you start plotting and world building you don’t slavishly
imitate what your favorite writer is doing. Create your own worlds
and your own characters. Find your own style by trying to write
as clearly and simply as possible.
Imitation may be flattery, but it
will train you to be nothing but a derivative copyist when in fact
you need to be developing your own unique voice and approach to
a doer, not a dreamer: To quote Billy Crystal’s
character in Throw Mama from the Train, “Writers write.”
Too often, people would rather be a writer than actually do the
writing. That’s because it’s very hard work.
You can’t learn, improve, or
achieve by wishing for it. You have to sit at the keyboard and meet
the challenges despite fatigue, doubt, worry, and uncertainty.
And after you’ve completed a
book, please understand that the next one will bring new challenges
of its own. It can be scary, but it’s also part of the appeal.
out the pages as you go: Psychologically it’s
important to print out your daily quota. In a project as long and
involved as a novel, it helps to see those pages stacking up. They’re
tangible evidence of progress. And even if they’re not very
good pages at the moment, so what? You have to write a rough draft
before you can begin to revise and refine the story and characters
anyway. How can you edit and polish if you never begin?
From a practical standpoint, printing
out pages is just extra insurance against hard drive crashes and
other equipment failures. Yes, I’m sure you’re wise
enough to make backup copies on zip drives, CDs, and memory sticks,
but what does it hurt to have a hard copy stashed in your car in
case your house burns down or a tornado strikes?
give up: If this is what you really want to do,
then persevere. Opportunities come to those who are prepared, so
get ready for them. Besides, the only sure way to be a failure at
writing is to quit.