Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Getting Started in Fantasy Writing

Sandra C. Durham

© 2003, Sandra C. Durham

his is a newcomer’s guide on how to get started in the genre of fantasy writing, from one newcomer to another.  The majority of what is discussed here has come from the Forward Motion community as well as from occasional meanderings on the Web based on pointers given by members of that writers' community. 

Writing fantasy, whether in the form of short stories or novels, does not necessarily follow a set pattern or formula.  A fantasy story can contain aspects of most other genres, including mystery, horror, and romance.  The underlying elements of the story determine the category it fits in.  A recent post by Forward Motion member Emily Horner listed sub categories of fantasy from Terri Windling’s The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.  These sub categories included (along with sample novels):

  • Contemporary and Urban Fantasy – Stories taking place in the real world, but with an element of magic or fantasy.  Memory of Fire by Holly Lisle.
  • Epic and Heroic Fantasy - Stories that involve a battles of Good vs. Evil or quest.  Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R Tolkien.
  • Historical Fantasy - Stories that are set in factual History, but contain fantasy elements.  Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
  • Mythic Fiction - Stories directly inspired by myth, folklore, and fairy tales.  The Gates of Sleep, by Mercedes Lackey.
  • Humorous Fantasy - Light hearted fantasy stories.  Xanth series by Piers Anthony.
  • Science Fantasy – Stories where science and magic work, or science extends to magical abilities.  Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

The best approach to writing in any genre is to know your field.  If you have not read modern works of fantasy, you may want to go out and buy or borrow a few books in a sub genre or two that interest you.  Like most things, the field of fantasy has changed over the years, and what sold well ten or twenty years ago may not have the same popularity today.  This can be approached by scanning for recent bestsellers, this year’s award winners (Hugo, Nebula, etc), recommendations from other’s who read heavily in this genre, or a quiet afternoon spent in the fantasy section of your favorite bookstore. 

Once you have your book collection, read them carefully.  If your experience in this genre is dated, note the subtle differences in the more recently published books.  While a fantasy novel about a woman who battled her way out of the kitchens to become the first female ruler of her kingdom may have flown off the shelves in the 1970’s, the same basic story element may stagnate in a time where women’s equality is not at the forefront of societal issues in the real world.

A next logical step in progressing as a new fantasy writer might be to pick up a few good books on the subject.  A few suggestions are

  • How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
  • The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference, from Writers Digest Books.

The first book gives an overview of the field from a writing perspective.  The second provides an introduction into elements of fantasy worlds that may be part of your stories - discussions of ritual magic, medieval life, or cultural differences. 

A critical step in writing fantasy is a concept called world building.  Workshops exist on this subject at Forward Motion, and books abound.  World building is the effort of designing the world in which your story and your characters live.  Depending on the subcategory of fantasy you are dealing with, this can be as simple as introducing magical elements into modern life, or as complex as designing the geography, history, language, and culture of a world that exists only in your own imagination. 

Each step in the world building process is crucial to providing a cohesive background to your story.  Writing thousands of words to describe your new world is not uncommon, even though this effort never becomes a direct part of your story.  Consider it as if you were writing a history story or article.  Though you may understand and remember a good part of the focus of your history article, you may not be able to link important subtle issues without going through the detailed process of investigating your topic.  World building is the investigation and discovery of your new world.  It provides the rich detailed backdrop of your fantasy story that enables you to work in subtle nuances like Faylin the Chief Bard hates raspberries because a particularly thorny bush sat outside his childhood home, and his elder brothers used to toss him into the bush at any occasion.

A final step in all this is market research: who are the publishers for your field of interest, and what have they published lately?  Many resources exist for this, both as printed material, and as online references or newsletters.  Fantasy markets exist in novels, ebooks (electronic downloadable or online books), magazines, and ezines (electronic or online versions of magazines).  Research and keeping up with the publishing market for your stories are crucial steps to your eventual success in publishing your efforts.  Writers Digest is an excellent resource on many levels, for both their comprehensive annual Writer’s Market guide, as well as their monthly magazine, and online article archives.  Unfortunately, for the tight budgets of many aspiring writers, little of this comes free. 

A less expensive route may be options like the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America).  This organization has interesting articles and links off their web page, as well as a quarterly bulletin available even to nonmembers (membership requires being a paid published author, and may not be an option for a beginning writer).  The bulletin has a reasonable fee, and focuses exclusively on the science fiction and fantasy markets, unlike the Writer’s Digest magazine, which covers all genres of writing. 

You can glean current information about the market for your stories from numerous resources on Forward Motion and other writing sites online.  One of the upcoming resources includes the Writers Research Index effort started on Forward Motion, which covers all aspects of what has been introduced here.

Beyond these general guidelines, fantasy stories must contain all the usual elements of good storytelling – plot, characterization, description, and dialogue.  There are many resources listed in Vision articles, and on the Forward Motion web pages.  Learning the basics of writing and storytelling means writing, whether you write the first draft of your proposed novel, or you write a series of short stories.  No one learned to ride a bicycle by reading about it, and few have likely learned the skill of writing and storytelling solely by reading. 

An excellent resource for honing your writing skills is critiques.  These are editorial reviews of a story or subsection of a novel.  At Forward Motion, you can request that others review your story, after you have gone through the effort of editing it yourself.  You can also learn much about writing from doing critiques for other’s stories.  Crits, as they are called, are not just a good community service.  Critiques can be a tool to sharpen your eye for seeing issues in your own writing. 

Entering the world of fantasy writing can be equal parts excitement, and frustration.  The elements of storytelling and other genres combine with the rich depths of your own imagination, to produce stories to amaze or entertain.  With these introductory tools, perhaps your steps to creating the stories that burn in your mind's eye will come more easily to the written word. 

Books referenced :

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighth Annual Collection
by Ellen Dalton (Editor), Terri Windling (Editor)

Publisher: St. Martin's Press; ISBN: 0312132190

  Memory of Fire by Holly Lisle.

Publisher: Eos (Mass Market); ISBN: 038081837X

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R Tolkien.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co; ISBN: 0395193958

Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Publisher: Del Rey; ISBN: 0345350499

The Gates of Sleep, by Mercedes Lackey.

Publisher: Daw Books; ISBN: 0756400600

Zanth:The Quest for Magic by Piers Anthony.

Publisher: Del Rey; ISBN: 034545328X

Darkover  series by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Publisher: New American Library; ISBN: 0886775930

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Publisher: Writers Digest Books; ISBN: 158297103X

The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference, from Writers Digest Books.

Publisher: Writers Digest Books; ISBN: 1582970262