• Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us!

Approach to writing fantasy fiction

M. Popov

Scribe
Recently I stumbled on a example on how to plan and write a novel. Essentially the advice boiled down to using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to outline your novel's structure, displaying chapters, their pages, their word count, the main perspectives and summarizing the main points the chapter is conveying to the reader. It offered a more systematic way to writing fiction, encouraging people to plan things out in advance instead of going with the flow.

Granted the writing process and resources differ from person to person, but seeing other people's approach to it made me curious. Other writers I met told me they prefer going in blind with just Microsoft Word, writing what feels right to them in one go, then sandblasting in the form of rewrites. Some people write their things out on paper first, use sticky notes for the plot and characters and later transfer everything onto a computer and begin the fearsome editing process. For characters and plot I've seen computer and mobile software meant to keep track of everything.

I'm not subscribed to the idea of there being a "definitive" technique to writing a novel. Of course there should be standards in a finished product, consistency in style, interesting characters and good structure, but all the steps people took to make said finished product is what this post is about. I'll describe how I currently approach my novel and I'm open to suggestions and insights.

I'm writing the novel in Microsoft Word with the following:
  • Courier New font, size 12.
  • Line Numbers restart each page.
  • Contents section is on the first page and every chapter is linked.
  • Thesaurus is always active.
  • When I still had my printer, I'd print out chapters and read them out. I'd write comments to the side, passages that didn't sound good to me were crossed out, wording that could be improved was highlighted in marker. I'd later make the changes to my document. This is also where I've jotted some of my most important notes.

The story:
  • Each character is meant to be diverse with a different background. Meant to explore different themes and ideas.
  • Inspiration comes from other fantasy media, Game of Thrones, Pillars of Eternity, Tolkien, Arcanum, Clive Barker.
  • Other media includes the Sharpe series and Hornblower.
  • The novel is presented through multiple perspectives. Each chapter follows a different character from the main cast. This is done to convey multiple ideas to the reader, develop lore and keep the story interesting.
  • Chapters have color coding so I can keep track of who it should focus on.
  • I've downloaded character sheets to summarize the cast, their appearances, backgrounds and motivations.
  • I've outlined the main themes of the novel.
  • I plan on following the advice I started with and making a spreadsheet to keep track of the novel's structure.
  • I have the start, middle and end planned out.
  • I plan on making a glossary to keep track of all the terminology.
 
Last edited:

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
It sounds like you're off to a good start. Best advice now is, just keep writing. And know that, whatever methods you choose, you're likely to do the next one differently, so stay open! Maybe keep notes on the process, what felt good, what felt like a waste of time, to help guide you on the next one.
 

pmmg

Istar
Way more work than I do.

I often write in notepad, and transfer to word later for the spell checking. The only think I require (other than the PC) is a place that I know no one is going to come interrupt me, usually after midnight. I like my screen to be dark and not white. That's about it.

I do use scrivener to keep notes, which is new for me. In the past I might have used a spread sheet. My notes are not detailed, usually just one word points, like character names, or place names.

I had one friend tell me that the would prefer a list of phonetically spelled names at the front of the book and not the back...I've never seen anyone do that. I think he is destined to be frustrated.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>a list of phonetically spelled names
FWIW, I don't provide this sort of thing because I think it doesn't matter. Let the reader pronounce as they please. After all, the reader could be from another culture, where the word would naturally be pronounced one way, while another reader from another culture would pronounce it differently. Both would be correct within their cultural context, and incorrect in another. Why try to establish one right way?

You say tomato, he says Solanum lycopersicum.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
Having a plan is good. For the most part it doesn't matter how you organize yourself as long as you find a way that works for you. Over the years, I've gone from roughly sketching things out to doing detailed outlines to individual scenes that are hundreds to even thousands of words long. I do lots and lots of planning now. BUTTTTT....

There's one thing that always happens. No matter how much planning you do, no matter how detailed or well thought out everything is, the plan never survives intact once the pen meets the page or your fingers touch the keyboard. You always come up with better ideas as you write, because the more you write out the story, the better you understand what you're trying to achieve, so things change. Things get tossed out. And the plan becomes an ever evolving entity. So don't become too attached to it, because chances are you're going to have to butcher that adorable piece of perfection.

With two of my novels, I had to literally throw out the last half, and redo them from scratch, because I came up with bigger, better, and/or more fitting along the way. But having a plan/outline helped tremendously, because it's like a map of a road trip. It lets you see the whole journey and lets you make changes to the route to explore other things without getting lost and disconnected with the places you want and need to see.
 
This is showing up more and more. I've noticed it more often in going over books for the SFWA and glancing at books in this year's SPFBO. It's not super common, but it's becoming more normal. I don't like it because it often takes up some of the typical preview section on Amazon.

Way more work than I do.

I often write in notepad, and transfer to word later for the spell checking. The only think I require (other than the PC) is a place that I know no one is going to come interrupt me, usually after midnight. I like my screen to be dark and not white. That's about it.

I do use scrivener to keep notes, which is new for me. In the past I might have used a spread sheet. My notes are not detailed, usually just one word points, like character names, or place names.

I had one friend tell me that the would prefer a list of phonetically spelled names at the front of the book and not the back...I've never seen anyone do that. I think he is destined to be frustrated.
 
Back in my RAGBRAI years, a week-long bicycle ride across Iowa that includes beer parties and often live music at every small town you go through—this is a good way to get a hangover in the middle of the day, BTW—we had a tongue-in-cheek saying: Gears are for wimps. So, in that spirit, planning is for wimps.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>the plan never survives intact
Depends on what one identifies as "the plan" and what one means by "intact."

That is, my planning often includes descriptions of scenes and snippets of dialog. Those have a way of finding a place in the finished product. Perhaps equally important, they can show me how that approach wasn't going to work and so can be said to participate by their absence.

Similarly, the plan, however tattered and dishevelled, is still there at the end. The goblins still invaded and Constantinople was still saved. The child learned her true identity. The explorers made it back from the Second World. And the mystery of the Signet Ring was solved.

True, specific ideas fell by the wayside. The order of telling shuffled about. But that's ok. An outline doesn't have to survive untouched. Like the protagonist, the changing might well be the point.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
The plan never survives intact? I often wonder if people really understand what the elder von Moltke meant when he said that "no plan survives contact with the enemy."

The point von Moltke was making applies as much to writing (or indeed any task whch needs preparation) as it does to military operations. His point was that you couldn't predict what would happen when the fighting started, so your plan was just the starting point. What he also stated in addition to his famous quote (and which usually gets forgotten) is that it is the process of planning (that is, thinking the problem through, thinking about what could go wrong, what could go well and what you needed in the way of manpower, supplies etc) which prepares you for the battle, not the documents and maps you produce during planning. Thinking things through gives you an understanding of the situation and it is this which enables to you think on your feet and react to the developing situation once the fighting starts.

In that sense I agree with Penpilot, in that what you plan will change and evolve as you go along with your writing. I can't outline in detail, do character sheets etc etc. It's beyond me because of my dyslexia. But I can think through where I want the story to go, and in that sense I do have a plan. But, that plan starts to change when I reach for the keyboard, because that's when the characters metaphorically step out of my head and start to do things - and I as the author end up reacting a bit as things start to develop in ways I hadn't foreseen. Is it a problem? For me, no. But then, I have more than 30 years experience in the military where this sort of situation is normal when you're in the field on operations.
 

M. Popov

Scribe
My only previous writing experience includes short stories, personal and commissioned, and a novel that got scrapped very fast because of a lack of direction on my part. I hadn't really thought it through and before I knew it I was biting off more than I could chew and being an emotional wreck at the time, I think it was destined to be scrapped. I probably should've disclosed that tidbit at the start of the thread.

I've never really had to undertake much prep in the past because those were limited concepts and in most cases the characters were already outlined for me. So there was a strict guideline to be followed, but a novel has a lot more potential for things to go south. In regards to a novel I do admit there's a good chance the final product to be beyond what you'd originally imagined, but at the same time, having some kind of path might alleviate a few troubles. I'm currently saving my drafts on a USB stick, in case my laptop suddenly combusts or if I have the need to compare the WIP with the finished thing.
 
The novel is presented through multiple perspectives. Each chapter follows a different character from the main cast. This is done to convey multiple ideas to the reader, develop lore and keep the story interesting.
I would suggest you use a MACRO STORY, to anchor the POV's. Otherwise it may read like Short Stories -- that, would be better told in a short-story collection.

What you [almost] have there is called a TANDEM NARRATIVE. In these kind of stories THEME and CONNECTIONS are more important than anything else.
 
Last edited:

M. Popov

Scribe
upload_2022-7-14_21-20-43.png
So I mentioned earlier:
  • I plan on following the advice I started with and making a spreadsheet to keep track of the novel's structure
And this is it. I downloaded a template online and I'm modifying it a little.
 

M. Popov

Scribe
The excel sheet says it is:
(Based on Larry Brooks' Story Engineering, with elements from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat and Alexandra Sokoloff's Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II)
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
The excel sheet says it is:
(Based on Larry Brooks' Story Engineering, with elements from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat and Alexandra Sokoloff's Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II)

If you can get a hold of Snyder's Save the cat series, I'd highly recommend it as nice jumping off point. It was the first book on story structure that I really connected with. I think I clicked with it because it had lots of examples.

This might help you along too. It's a video series by author Dan Wells describing the 7 point plot structure he uses for his stories, with some nice examples.
.

Also, here's a chart that shows a whole bunch of the various story structures and how they line up to one another. Hopefully it'll help you keep in mind, it's all just different sides to the same coin/story. Sometimes the same bits have different names, but at the end of the day, each one describes the same the same thing, just in a different way.

zYUYv8gO7r2HrFIxLfNnCyYrf6Jja64XcCI-YrFmwd4.jpg
 

pmmg

Istar
I like George Lucas's story structure.

I dont think any of my stories follows those very well. Maybe if I broke it down and cut out the background noise.

Billy Wilder's is good as well.
 
If you can get a hold of Snyder's Save the cat series, I'd highly recommend it as nice jumping off point. It was the first book on story structure that I really connected with. I think I clicked with it because it had lots of examples.

This might help you along too. It's a video series by author Dan Wells describing the 7 point plot structure he uses for his stories, with some nice examples.
.

Also, here's a chart that shows a whole bunch of the various story structures and how they line up to one another. Hopefully it'll help you keep in mind, it's all just different sides to the same coin/story. Sometimes the same bits have different names, but at the end of the day, each one describes the same the same thing, just in a different way.

zYUYv8gO7r2HrFIxLfNnCyYrf6Jja64XcCI-YrFmwd4.jpg
 
If you can get a hold of Snyder's Save the cat series, I'd highly recommend it as nice jumping off point. It was the first book on story structure that I really connected with. I think I clicked with it because it had lots of examples.

This might help you along too. It's a video series by author Dan Wells describing the 7 point plot structure he uses for his stories, with some nice examples.
.

Also, here's a chart that shows a whole bunch of the various story structures and how they line up to one another. Hopefully it'll help you keep in mind, it's all just different sides to the same coin/story. Sometimes the same bits have different names, but at the end of the day, each one describes the same the same thing, just in a different way.

zYUYv8gO7r2HrFIxLfNnCyYrf6Jja64XcCI-YrFmwd4.jpg
I am currently using a modified Save the Cat Beat Sheet to help plot and structure my novel. Being a way creative scatter brain, such things are necessary, for me function in a somewhat organized fashion..
 

M. Popov

Scribe
By all means use whatever works. But do try to have a means by which you can recognize when and how it's working, as well as seeing when and how it isn't. All tools become most useful when you make them your own.
Understood. In the end there is only one way to know if I'm comfortable.
 

Righmath

Minstrel
Your process worries me. Only because I am not even remotely as organised as that. :LOL:

My first few pages are a bunch of notes, quotes, maybe phrases which will be coined with the book. A diary entry and other stuff which will likely be removed. My prologue also.

Then I've got 140k of words in the body, and the last few pages I've got more notes to remind me who's who, what some words mean, some notes about characters family etc.

To be honest, my aim is to get this finished. If I printed out chapters and edited as I went along, I would never finish, but thats just me!

EDIT: However! I do have an intricate map, with cities, villages, mountain ranges on which is really my true guide to the book. My map was the first thing I drew.

I then have a note book with some rough time lines, but I know what I'm writing so I haven't needed to look at it. That's not to say I have plenty of editing to do with themes I've changed as I've moved along...
 
Top