4 most important skills to master for writing good fantasy

Wonka Imagination

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.

Lower Your Expectations Writing

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!

Adventure Time Jake Rainbow

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.

Alien Movie Ripley Action

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.

Die Hard GIF Bet Your Ass

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”?

Cool Story

Novel progress update: Eliminating info dumps

info dumps writingSo this year I’ve vowed to work harder on revising my novel. I love copyediting (I do it every weekday for GamesBeat), but it’s much easier to look at someone else’s work with a clear eye than your own, trust me. That’s why I don’t edit my own articles! I have another one of our fine editors check over them.

The same problem occurs with novel revision, but it’s a lot deeper. Instead of dealing with the coherence of a 1,000-word body of text, you’re managing 60,000 and above. GULP.

I’m so glad I made an outline for my novel before diving into it. I got about halfway through writing the first draft of a fantasy novel in high school before I realized how badly I needed a roadmap, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. But when you’re editing a chapter that’s around 20 pages and trying to make it work within a much greater context, a lot more can go wrong.

I’m trying not to worry too deeply about that right now, though. I need to polish each chapter several times first before handing it over to anyone to read and provide feedback, which I want to do before moving forward with publishing. So right now, I’m concentrating on each chapter, one at a time.

info dumpsOne of my main goals is eliminating clumps of exposition or author-like material — the notorious info dump. I’ve noticed that anytime I’m spoon-feeding the reader unnecessary or convenient background info, either through description or dialogue, I need to stop and perform surgery. Just cut it out. If it sounds like I’m stepping in and talking directly to the reader, then I need to find a more natural way to integrate those details.

An article on writing.com suggests, “Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know everything, just what’s necessary to move and complete the story.”

This is sound advice, but I wanted a better idea of how to avoid and address info dumps, or narrative summaries. Here are some good tips from a professional editor:

When writers tell instead of show, they’re generally writing from the author’s POV and not the characters’. While the technique called “narrative summary” does have its place in a novel, it should be used sparingly.

Here’s a before-and-after example. The first version, written in the author’s POV, is a narrative summary:

But the site itself had been inhabited for much longer. The previous day she and Mike had jogged along an old path which edged the Knob, and she spotted the stark, vertical rock chimney of a burned-out cabin. It jutted from a weathered rock foundation that was now covered with thick vines and forest debris. The cabin had been built near the Knob’s edge, which plummeted almost two thousand feet to the valley floor.  She realized that, when the one-room cabin was built, its owner had probably cleared trees away to open the valley up for a spectacular view.

Notice the author is telling about the discovery, just as one tells ghost stories around a family campfire. She is summarizing what happened yesterday. There is no action. There was action yesterday, but that doesn’t count as action today.

I wrote that passage years ago. I thought it was fine writing until an old writing pro pointed out the problem. I read it again, and—by gosh, she was right. Following is the passage as I rewrote it to put the scene into a character’s POV and show the action, instead of leaving it in the author’s POV and tell about it:

Mike stepped aside and she saw a clearing. Grass, kept at bay in the deep woods they’d passed through, covered an area the size of an average yard.

She frowned. “This is it?”

“Yep. The original cabin site. See if you can find it.”

She saw nothing but the woods and grass. Blue sky appeared over a huge, waist-high stone outcropping at her left. She stepped to it and peered over.

“Why, we’re right at the bluff’s edge!”

“That’s right. Jump off that rock, and you’ll fall almost two thousand feet.”

And then she saw the vertical stone chimney. She’d overlooked it before, since it resembled the surrounding tall trees. She walked tentatively toward it. As her eyes adjusted she saw the stone foundation of a long-gone, one-room cabin. Its chimney rose from one corner, its hearth opening toward the center. Slanting rays filtering through the treetops brought the chimney and foundation to life.

She turned to Mike. “Look at that—it’s just like a shrine. Why, I feel like I’ve just stepped out of a time machine.”

The lesson? Write in real time. Don’t tell what happened in the past, but show it as part of the action now.

How do you deal with info dumping in your writing? What’s a good way to catch it?

info dump truck