September 05, 2004

How To Write A Best-Selling Fantasy Novel

Jaquandor comments (with reference to his manuscript in progress) on this post about how to (or how not to) write formula fantasy fiction. Jaq compared his work-in-progress with the guidelines and discovered he'd hit 7 out of 10 of them--but with extenuating circumstances in each case.

As it happens, I've written two fantasy novels; Through Darkest Zymurgia, which you can read on-line for free because not only isn't it a best-seller it isn't any kind of seller, and The King of Elfland's Nephew, of which I have a pretty good draft but which I'm not really through with yet. As it's a slow weekend (Jane and are both afflicted with colds, and our youngest is teething) and Jaq's example seems like goodly post fodder, I'll do the same. You'll need to read the original guidelines, linked above, to make complete sense of the answers.

1. Create a main character

And according to the guidelines he should be a loser, so that young, under-confident males will identify with him. Alas, I blew this one; Leon Thintwhistle is a successful academic and a leading name in his field, and Jonas Morgan's a successful investment banker.

2. Create a Quest

Because the fate of the whole world has to rest on the main character's shoulders. Hmmm. I blew this one, too. Zymurgia has an expedition, certainly, but it's of no importance to anyone but the principles. And while considerable weight rests on Jonas Morgan's shoulders, there's no quest as such, nor is the whole world (or anything like it).

3. Create a Motley Bunch of Companions

Each with particular skills that will be necessary at some point in the story. The author of the guidelines might have added, "And then play them against each other for laughs." Here, I confess, Zymurgia hews to the party line. But then, the members of a scientific expedition are supposed to have particular skills that will be necessary at some point. Elfland seems to be free of this sort of thing, though. Jonas Morgan doesn't (for the most part) have companions; he's a banker. He has a staff. Of employees, not of oak, hickory, or (spare me) lorken.

4. Create a wise but useless guide

He must be wise and powerful and never say anything or do anything terribly helpful. If the book were a computer game, I suppose he'd be the on-line hints. Zymurgia simply has no such character; Elfland has something of the sort, but Mr. Godwin is about as different from Gandalf as one can reasonably imagine.

5. Create the Land

It must have all of the landforms you can imagine, in bewildering and unlikely juxtaposition, through which the motley crew can be dragged, and it must fit on two pages of a paperback book. Hmmm, I seem to have blown this one, too. Zymurgia is all about geography in one sense, but I seem to have restrained myself with the variability; and anyway it takes place in a modified Europe/Mediterranean world. Sort of. And in Elfland I never go into the geography, it not being particularly relevant. Though I can find most of the parts that take place in Los Angeles on the map.

6. Create the Enemy

After all, you have to have a Dark Lord. Except that you don't; Zymurgia has no such thing. In Elfland, on the contrary, there's definitely a bad guy, the King of the Unseelie Host, but frankly he's not much of a Dark Lord. Evil, yes, but human-scale. Or Elven-scale, perhaps. Not that my elves are particularly like anybody else's.

7. Make it Long

Blew it here, too. IIRC, both novels are around 90K-100K words.

8. Skip the Hard Parts

Such as the battle scenes, for they are messy and hard to write. As the original guidelines put it,

The sound of the battle was suddenly a long way away but just as he closed his eyes and the black cloud engulfed him he thought he heard someone crying from the grassy knoll, "The Toasters are coming. The Toasters are coming."

I don't think I did this. There's precisely one (short) battle-scene between the two books, and I describe it in detail. Oh, and there's a bar fight that takes place off-stage, but that's only because it was funnier that way. In fact, come to think of it, both books have a bar fight that takes place off-stage because it was funnier that way. Hmmm.

9. Lead up to a Cataclysmic Battle

OK, a good bit of the plot in Elfland leads up to a battle. It's a fair cop--except that the battle doesn't really settle anything. There are no battles to speak of in Zymurgia

10. Kill Almost Everybody

To quote the guidelines,

Most of the Motley Bunch must die in terrible pain and degradation before the Loser/Hero gets his act together. This is to keep us mad at the Enemy, thought it is basically the Loser/Hero's fault for being so slow and incompetent.

Precisely one person dies in Zymurgia, mostly because he's nasty and stupid, and it's his own fault. A few more people die in Elfland (there's a battle, after all) but only two of them are really important to the plot. The book begins with the funeral of the first of them, and the second dies well before the halfway point.

After giving these ten guidelines, the author goes on to list a few other keypoints. Jaq skipped these, but I think I'll give 'em a go.

Bad Expendables: E.g., orcs, goblins, trolls, cannon fodder. I don't have any of these in either book. That is to say, Elfland certainly has ogres and trolls and goblins, but none of them are expendable.

Tough Old Warriors: Nope, none of these either. Unless an experienced CPA/comptroller counts.

Pure Maiden Warriors: Nor these.

Body Types: All of the people in my books (the corporeal ones, anyone) do indeed have body types. But I don't think that's what he meant.

Character Names: Some of my names are a bit silly, it's true, but all of them are pronounceable.

Technology: E.g., gaps therein. The technology in Zymurgia is at a level roughly equivalent to the Victorian era I'm evoking. The technology level in Elfland is consistent with the Elves' interest in such things. (Snicker, snicker, guffaw.)

Magic: I quote, "the Good Wizard's fire is always blue, and Bad Wizard's is always green or red." There are no wizards in either book. Unless an experienced CPA/comptroller counts.

Dwellings: "There are three sorts of dwellings in fantasy novels -- caves, huts, and castles." I've got caves and castles, certainly, though none of the caves are of the "passageway under the impassable mountains" variety. But I've got a number of other kinds of dwelling as well, including a picture of a really nice Craftsman-style living room.

The Enemy's Stronghold: There's no enemy as such in Zymurgia, and hence no stronghold. The enemy has a stronghold in Elfland, but the good guys never get near it.

The Enemy's fatal flaw will always be that he is over-confident.

But in Elfland, the Enemy certainly is over-confident. But that's not what proves his undoing.

So. I believe I've established that my stuff doesn't follow the formula particularly well. The question is, does that make it bold, original, innovative, and fresh, or simply uncommercial?

Posted by Will Duquette at September 5, 2004 04:13 PM

Craig Clarke said:

In fact, come to think of it, both books have a bar fight that takes place off-stage because it was funnier that way. Hmmm.

This will simply give your legion of fans "recurring themes" to discuss, whiling away their nights.

Will Duquette said:

I hasten to add that the bar fights occur for completely different reasons. One involves contemptuous bikers, the other enraged opera-going sailors.

Deb said:

I liked your stories! Especially the opera loving sailors and the bit with the beer--that was over the top!

And the prescriptions you've listed seem like just another formulaic way to rewrite Tolkein.

Will Duquette said:

Deb, yeah, the original site was very tongue-in-cheek. But a lot of books seem to follow that basic plot.

Jane Duquette said:

The experienced CPA/comptroller does have black and red ink and he uses them both. I still think he is a good wizard. The best CPA/comptrollers always are.