This article is by Frank LaVoie.
Don’t be mistaken. Writing in the fantasy genre is not the same as working in other types of literature. They each have their complexities, and I’m sure you could argue for the inclusion of some of my points below in one kind of writing or another. But, the overall depth and scope of fantasy in terms of writing has all the intricacies of playing God.
You are now the master of your own continent, world, universe, or even something so grand that you have a hard time comprehending it yourself.
Well, your world needs rules—rules like how you as an author will handle magic, race-creation, social interaction, and more. Some authors spend years note-taking and planning, developing their fantasy worlds like an over-obsessed artist would a masterpiece. Others just write, hoping that the world fleshes out itself and happy to be along for the ride.
In any case, some pointers in considering the nature of your fantasy realm:
- As with most fantasy literature, develop the rules and exemptions therein to the understanding of magic in your realm. Will magic play a role in your narrative? If so, perhaps before you write, create methods as to how one or many might employ that magic and to what end. Using almost a scientific approach might be helpful. Think about one of the most original inclusions of magic in modern-day fantasy, Sanderson’s metal-based system in Mistborn. Such an approach allowed for a relevant reference while writing, I’m sure.
- Ask yourself whether or not you want to portray any sort of religion in your text? If so, again, hash this out at some point. Religion in almost all forms is a complex system that exists to answer questions for a given people. Questions like…Why are we here? What happens when we die? And more. Will there be one, more, or no religions in your work? Will your work be a commentary or mirror on a religion that exists in our own world? This last question can be a delicate matter and is something of which you might want to make yourself aware before continuing in the writing process.
- Race and species creation is also important. Although some of your favorite denizens might be the product of the writing process itself, you should have some idea of who and what inhabits your world, perhaps even to what degree before getting started on a project. There will be rules that govern their behavior, appearance, and any other number of attributes. At first, stick to what’s most important, and reveal the rest as you write.
- Other cultural and social issues might play an important role in the telling of your tale. Decide what is most important to your plot and solidify these ideas. How might one race interact with the next? How does the social system of rule work in a given locale? What are living conditions like? Do these vary? There are so many concepts to take into account. The work might be overwhelming, but (again), decide on level of importance. If these issues aren’t worth the extra thought and time, start writing and see what unfolds.
- You must give at least minor thought to the creation and development of landscape. Many fantasy authors and future fantasy authors love the map-making process. How often have you flipped back to the included map when reading your favorite fantasy selection? A new world deserves a new layout, and sometimes this is the most God-like part of your creative abilities. You get to fork rivers, push mountains out of the grounds, and land-lock oceans…molding a world that could never exist in our own. That’s the point.
Creation of a Style Guide
For all the above (if you are considering publication), you might want to include or generate a style guide for you editor/publisher. This will allow those people who are vested in the handling of your work to know what gets a capital letter, what a “bantaraax” might be, or what made-up words should be added to their lexicon.
This might be unnecessary for shorter works, and sometimes (and luckily in my case), the publisher might do this on their own. But it doesn’t hurt to give them a head start in dealing with the numerous creations of your world.
This could also be considered a notebook of sorts, a place where you develop your ideas and jot down the valued tidbits that will ultimately become your story.
Market and Audience
Most of us aren’t writing for ourselves. We are writing for others. We want to share our fantasy world with as many people as possible. Many of us have the goal of publication as well. In this light, you have to consider that audience and the market that coincides.
Right now (mostly due to the Rowlings and Riordans of the world), more fantasy is published and purchased in the YA subset. Is this a route you are willing to go? If so, great—if not, do research. Do research regardless. What does your desired market look like? Is there a fantasy sub-genre that looks like your piece? Is your work entirely original in the scope of fantasy?
By answering these questions, you might have a better understanding of who buys and what sells. There are formulas to what we do in fantasy literature. We discuss and debate these formulas all the time. Be aware that they exist, and then mold your work around them, away from them, to them, or what have you.
For shorter pieces like poems and short stories, you still have to do your homework. Find a publication that accepts works like you have in mind. They probably have word-count limits, format suggestions, and even material exemptions. I know I have seen multiple publications in my own searches that mention an exclusion of certain genres like ‘gore’, ‘vampire-teen’, and much, much more.
If you are only writing for yourself, do whatever you want. But if you have an audience in mind, understand that audience. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “Decide what it is you want to be and then do what it takes to make it happen.” I might have slightly misquoted the man, but he’s been dead a long time and will probably forgive me. The idea here is to decide…if I want to publish in X genre, in X sub-genre, and with X audience, I better do what it takes to make that happen if I have any goal at all of gaining readers.
More so than with other genres, writers of fantasy must delicately handle the issue of length. Our genre has to be one of the tops in terms of average length of published novel. Tolkien, Sanderson, Jordan, Martin, Rowling. They all have whoppers of novels that each represents only a portion of a series on a grander scale.
A couple things to keep in mind…
- If you are a new author, your chances of publishing a 300,000-word super epic are greatly diminished by the fact that no one cares about you. At all. Get over it. Now, you might of course get lucky, but the trend doesn’t speak to this. Most publishers accept new fantasy novels in the realm of 90-130,000 words. More or less and you are pushing the limits. Do limits need pushing sometimes? Of course. But…do you want to get published?
- In narrowing your work to the aforementioned range, do you still maintain a stand-alone piece? I think I may have failed in this very line of questioning. Although I do have a beginning, middle, and end to my first published novel, I think I could have created a work that didn’t necessarily beg for so much at the finale. If you are new, keep this in the forefront of your thought processes while planning. Publishers realize a novel by a first-time artist will require the ability to stand alone as a story—even if you are planning on a 12-book series.
Work of a Master
There are dozens of other issues worth discussion. Fantasy literature is most typically entirely of new creation. Some Sci-Fi is like this as well, but not nearly to the degree. I am an opponent of over-planning, but I also understand that to create a world from nothing requires some leg-work. A plan to any level of detail will help in instilling your world with the reality that makes good fantasy so intriguing. Some might call realistic-fantasy an oxymoron.
I call it the work of a master. When an author can imbue a world with all the details that make it live and breathe, something special happens.
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