Lately I’ve thought a lot about my skills and what differentiates a good (fantasy) writer from a bad one. Or what makes an original, engrossing fantasy novel versus a bland, boring one.
Now, there is no perfect recipe. And doing anything well is difficult. But I’m becoming more convinced that if I or anyone else can do these four things right, we’ll be in a much better position as writers.
Stop giving a shit about the rules
You should absolutely learn the tenets of good writing practices, from everything involved in creative writing to grammar. You should also study story structure.
But when it comes to writing the first draft, you should forget all of it.
Okay, here’s the thing. Writing rules can constrain you to the point that you don’t take risks, and that’s bad. For example, I’ll get so obsessed over not using “to be” verbs that I slow myself down when I’m first-drafting because I’m always searching for that perfect verb. Or I get so worried about showing and not telling that I struggle to put words down at all and end up distancing readers from a character when I could be putting the reader in their heads more. I’m holding myself back, and I can feel it.
Do me a favor. Crack open a book you like and flip to a random page. Now count the verbs like “was” and “is.” You’ll probably see a lot of them. Or actually analyze a scene and count how many times the writer tells instead of shows. Often this is hard to do because you get sucked into the story — and that’s what really matters. Nobody will care how many times you use “was” or “were” if you can succeed in getting them in the characters’ heads and investing them in what’s happening.
I absolutely recommend outlining before writing so that you at least keep yourself on track. And yes, you should absolutely care about using stronger verbs and showing more than you tell. That’s good writing. But you probably don’t need to worry about it as much as you are, especially when you’re first-drafting. Turn off that editor brain. Get messy. Indulge your whims. You’ll have a better story for it.
Put a twist on everything
It’s important to take risks not only with your prose but also with your world and characters. When I think about stories that captivate me and make me jealous of an author’s imagination, I think of stories that do things differently.
The Fifth Season is a book I’m reading right now that’s an excellent example of this. There aren’t towns, there are “comms.” It’s not another stereotypical medieval fantasy world with land surrounded by oceans, it’s a world of shifting tectonic plates, where earthquakes are the normal way of life and everything — from how society functions to how magic works — builds from that one idea. It’s brilliant, really.
But author M. K. Jemisin is just pulling stuff out of her ass. She’s a writer! She’s supposed to make stuff up! You can invent as crazy and new and different of a world as you want!
Yes, you need to create a consistent, logical world with constraints and consequences. But otherwise you can do anything you damn well please. My new goal: Think of something I’d assume would be “normal” in a fantasy story and challenge it by putting my own spin on it. Even if it’s something small, if you do that enough times, you’ll have a book brimming with originality much like The Fifth Season.
In a way, it’s hard to give ourselves that kind of creative license. Fantasy writers are very much influenced by The Lord of the Rings, cyberpunk writers by Neuromancer, supernatural writers by Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, etc. etc.
But guess what: Those writers made shit up. You can make shit up, too. There’s no law saying you have to follow their rules, and if you don’t, you’ll be all the better for it.
Make everything harder, and force characters to act
Conflict is at the root of a good story. But again, easier said than done. It’s hard to 1) constantly up the ante because we love our characters and 2) put them in a position where they have to do something and then actually go do it. Our characters should be those people we yell at in horror movies who go through the door when why would they be so stupid as to go through the door.
Think of it this way: If a crazy killer broke into your house, you’d probably be tempted to hide in the closet and cry and hope they go away. Or maybe you’d call 911 and then play it safe until the police arrived and handled it for you. But the more interesting stories are those where the character is so much braver or more foolhardy than we’d be, and they just start doing things. Because without them taking charge and taking risks and trying things out, it’d be pretty boring to watch. This goes for all of your characters. They need to actually move to move the story forward.
Same thing applies to intensifying conflict. As writers, we have to be willing to get our characters in a pickle and then do the hard work of figuring how the hell they’re going to get out of this one. But that’s what will keep people reading.
Nail their voices
You know that test that goes, pick a passage of dialogue at random, and if you’ve done your job, you should be able to identify the character without looking at the dialogue tag? That’s maybe a little excessive, but the general idea is right.
Voice is being able to tell, how does a character speak that makes them unique from the others in my book? Voice is reading their POV and having all the writing filtered through not the author’s style, but the character’s style. Reading their chapter should be an experience in itself.
Again, easier said than done, right? What helps is to create a quirk or trait that is all their own, as well as a core value that defines their life philosophy (or “misbelief,” an often imperfect worldview). That’s going to help them stand out from the other characters.
Now think of those couple qualities as a straight line. Constantly, when you write their character, you need to write around that line. You can veer in a zig-zag, snake-like pattern around it as you reveal new facets of their character and personality and story, and as they falter and grow. You don’t want to stick purely to the straight line because, well, then you’ll have a boring, one-dimensional character. But if you keep who they are in mind and return to that throughline, it’ll be easier to write them differently than other characters — not only in dialogue but in their actions and narrative voice, too.
All in all …
The more I write and acknowledge weaknesses in my writing, the more I realize how important all these things are to do. And “do” really isn’t the right word. These are goals, and I should always strive to meet them to the best of my ability.
And that ability is growing, little by little, story by story. It takes time and practice and experience, and sometimes you gotta get the “bad” stuff out of you before you can drill down to the really juicy stuff. But if we stick with it, we’ll get there.
What do you consider the most important skills to master in writing an awesome, original story? What makes a good book “good”?