While my first published novel actually ended up being contemporary romance, I’ve been writing fantasy for over fifteen years, and I’ve probably amassed as many rejections during that time as all my romance writing friends combined! I’ve also talked to dozens of fantasy writers and read many partial manuscripts. And we all (myself included) seem to struggle with the same mistakes.
So, in no particular order, here are the top five mistakes that most beginning fantasy writers make.
1) Not getting into the story fast enough
One of the things I love most about fantasy is that the fact it’s the one genre that hasn’t been touched by the “less is more” rules of contemporary writing. I love lush and evocative descriptions. I love setting tone and scene. And I actually do rather like the common fantasy habit of “panning in from the long shot”—that is, giving us a setting paragraph before we “zoom in” to the character.
But that doesn’t mean that we can afford to lavish pages and pages on the description. As a fantasy reader, I am much more forgiving of a lag into the action for a paragraph or two if the writing is good and it gives me tantalizing bits of setting. But I want an introduction to the primary conflict—whether that be internal or external—and a glimpse of the main protagonist on the first page.
Which brings me to the sticky subject of prologues. While long a staple of the fantasy writer’s toolbox, prologues have begun to fall out of fashion for the very reason I mentioned above. Most often, it’s telling us a story from hundreds or a thousand years ago (or maybe just the birth of the main character), that doesn’t immediately get us into the primary action of the story. In most cases, it’s back story that can be filtered into the main story or discovered by the protag as he goes along. And readers are like ducks—we imprint on the first interesting character we find. Often, the annoyance of learning the very cool character we just fell in love with died five hundred years before Chapter One begins is enough to make a reader put down the book.
2) Writing too many points of view
I blame Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin for this one, with their casts of thousands and family and clan interconnections so complex it would take a wall chart to remember them all. Do I love them? Yes. Do most beginning fantasy writers have the ability to weave that many points of view together effectively? No.
Now, before you say that you are the rare exception to the rule, let me just say: I thought was, too. My first fantasy novel had multiple storylines and dozens of characters that all eventually intertwined. (It also was nearly 300,000 words, back when editors actually bought books that big, and the bookstore was the primary method of discovery, but I digress…) I didn’t have the chops to write it. The story was too big, too unwieldly, and it quickly got away from me. Needless to say, that did not get published.
My first published fantasy novel (the upcoming Oath of the Brotherhood) has a large cast but only two main points of view, with perhaps five scenes total in secondary character’s POVs. It was much easier to manage, and more importantly—sucks the reader into the story through the two characters to which I want the reader to relate. Writing only one or two points of view can allow you to get to the heart of the conflict and engage the reader in a way that skipping around into ten characters’ heads may not.
3) Making everything up from scratch
What I love about fantasy is the ability to make stuff up. Want to have a unique form of magic? Go for it. Want a world in which everyone has gills and can live underwater as well as on land? Sounds like fun. But if we’re not careful, we can swiftly move into a world in which everything is so foreign that the reader doesn’t have anything familiar to grasp onto. It’s absolutely fine to have stew just be called “stew” and not “bakalna” in the local language. A monk can be simply a monk instead of a Prelate of the Ninth Circle of the Moon Goddess (though you’re certainly welcome to do that, too.) By choosing your made-up elements carefully, you can draw the reader into the uniqueness of your world, without making them struggle to reconcile what they’re reading with the real world as they know it.
4) Not being consistent
Inconsistency is the bane of the fantasy-writer’s craft. I struggle with it every day. There is a reason I like to model my fictional worlds on real life cultures. Unless you’re a sociologist or cultural anthropologist, it’s extremely difficult to make up every element of a culture and have it work together in a way that feels realistic. Sure, you could decide to have guns and swords develop as weapons simultaneously, but you have to think through the cultural implications of those choices. Are those who have guns considered modern-thinking, while the others are traditionalists? Where did gunpowder come from? Is it because the merchant class has contact with other civilizations while the rest of the society eschews any sort of cross-culture contact? If you’re going to deviate from the way that societies have historically developed from ancient to modern times, you need to spend a good amount of time thinking and reading about the potential impact of every single one of those deviations.
Oh, and along these lines, if you’re going to have a character named A’lanka Low and one named John Brown, there should be a good explanation behind the linguistic differences of those names’ origins.
5) Using magic as a substitute for good plotting and world-building
Magic, like love, complicates everything. Or at least, it should. If you watch Once Upon A Time (or you know, read any fantasy novel ever written) you know that magic comes with a price. Either it takes something from the user, or it upsets the balance of the universe, or it has its limits, which are often discovered at the most inopportune time. One of the most common mistakes made by new fantasy writers is letting magic be the answer to everything—the bad guy is defeated because the farm boy suddenly discovers he’s the master of the universe, without any build up or explanation.
Even more than any other element in fantasy, magic needs to be thoroughly created and integrated with the world, not just because of the implications to the plot, but because of the ripple effect it has on every other aspect of society. Nothing betrays the reader’s trust faster than a deus ex machina solution to a plot problem. Unless, of course, you’re writing the sort of story where there really is a god in the machine.
Now it’s your turn to tell me. What elements do you find to be the most difficult to get right when writing fantasy? What do you wish you could learn to do better?
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