I’m still oh so very busily working away at the first draft of what will eventually be called either The Fantasy Author’s Handbook or The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: 6 Steps to Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller, I guess neither of which is actually the final title of the book. But titles are like butterflies: elusive and beautiful from a distance but up close are really big gross ugly bugs.

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to clip out a few excerpts from the work-in-progress so y’all can have some idea what this book will be like.

On the subject of customs and cultures:

I suppose if I bothered to Google it I could find some explanation for why they drive on the wrong side of the road in England and other places, and I’m only a little ashamed to say that I’m going to ask you to hold yourself to a higher standard than I’ve just set for myself. If in your created world you have a similar disconnect: some mundane thing that one country does on the right and the other does on the left, be prepared to make that mean something—and I almost said, be prepared to explain that. But no, don’t explain it. Explanations are boring, and make your story come to a stop. Make it clear in context why it matters that the Zyltariians drive their chariots on the right, and the Martians drive their flying saucers on the left. If it doesn’t really matter, don’t waste your time, or your readers’, including it at all.


A little something on how important I think motivation is:

Why is he doing it? “Why not,” is never a good enough answer, and if all you can come up with can be boiled down into: “If he doesn’t, there’s no story,” then for goodness’s sake, don’t start writing. Maybe the biggest mistake I’ve seen from inexperienced authors is a weak eye toward character motivation. Why a character does anything is absolutely critical. Spend days on this one alone. Actually put effort in trying to debunk a character’s motivations. Keep thinking, keep asking questions, until you can’t think of anything else to ask. And that’s not when you’re done, it’s when you start. As you’re writing, you’ll find yourself constantly circling back to that why question. Never, ever shrug that off. If it drags your writing to a complete stop, good. Stop. Think. Support your characters, and get started again, even if it means a radical left turn in what you thought your story was going to be. There is no story compelling enough to support unmotivated characters.


In regards to monsters and aliens:

The question of whether or not to include monsters in your world and story is entirely your call, but if you do, you should approach the creation of new monsters and/or the inclusion of traditional, archetypal monsters (like dragons and unicorns) with as much care as you expend in placing mountain ranges on your map.

“First,” according to Mike Resnick, “(monsters and aliens) have to fulfill the needs of the story. Second, I try to create monsters or aliens that are not quite what the reader is expecting. Mainly, I try to keep them from ever being considered generic.”

This is a call to action I hope everyone reading this will heed. If you do decide to use those mythological/fantasy archetype creatures like dragons and unicorns, make sure they are clearly your dragons and unicorns. Though it’s easy enough to assume that a dragon is a dragon is a dragon, that’s thinking small, and you don’t ever want to do that.

Having to do with research:

Paul Park warns that, “Research can be a trap, a way to delay starting a book. I don’t do a whole lot of general research; it’s mostly on a need-to-know basis. After all, it’s what you invent that will make your book original or derivative, and you can get started on that anytime.”

True, but how much research you do as you build your world will depend on how closely related you want it to be to various real-world touchstones.

So what’s the result of all this research? Well, it’ll inform every step along the worldbuilding process. Rather than continue to beat the same drum I’ll leave it said that every chapter that follows assumes you’re doing relevant research along the way. Short of getting your historical facts straight if you’re writing the next Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, research into the details of your world will help you balance plausibility and realism.

Certain things only seem obvious:

Hey, what’s the big idea?

It’s the whole point of even writing a book, that’s what it is. When I say “idea,” I mean the answer to this question: “What is your book about?”

In Hollywood they use what they call a “log line” to describe a movie in twenty-five words or less. Though I’d never go so far as to suggest that the publishing world do any more than it has already to be like Hollywood, it’s not a bad exercise to run through early on, and can help to keep you focused as you write, and help you describe your book to agents, editors, and readers when you’re done.

A reluctant hero inherits a strange family heirloom that just happens to be at the center of the ultimate struggle of good against evil.

That’s one way of describing The Lord of the Rings in twenty-four words.

A simple farm girl with dreams of escaping her humdrum existence finds herself in a strange world, the target of a wicked witch.

The Wizard of Oz in twenty-three words.

Some of what I think about the question of “action”:

In relation to fantasy fiction, the word “action” probably conjures up visions of steely-eyed warriors locked in mortal combat, blade-to-blade, mano y mano. Or maybe a single hero desperately fending off the hungry assault of a hideous monster straight from some madman’s nightmare. Or a valiant ragtag group of militiamen fending off the advancing horde of orcs with only their farm tools and enchanted barnyard animals to protect them.

Sure, but open that definition up a bit and you’ll find that there’s a little bit of action happening all the time. Those big action set pieces are essential, in my mind at least, to any successful fantasy or SF novel, but keep in mind the little action sequences within every single scene. As I’m typing this, on the desk in a little loft space in the upstairs hallway at home, my son is passing back and forth from the stairs engaged in various work-avoidance strategies to put off the inevitable homework. My wife is downstairs doing something I can’t see, but I can hear her moving around down there. Wait—the dog just barked. My daughter is even now asking me for some paper from the printer. The TV is on, but I don’t think anyone is watching it.

If me sitting here writing this is a scene in a novel, my son walking by reciting TV commercial catch-phrases actually counts as action. He’s moving. He’s doing something. And he’s doing it for a reason: he doesn’t want to do his homework. So like everything, his “action” is motivated.

And it’s never too early to start arguing over some basic definitions:

Sword and Sorcery has always been a favorite (sub-genre) of mine. These are tales of even smaller scope, with fewer words spent on worldbuilding and more on action. It wouldn’t be out of order to credit Robert E. Howard with the creation of sword and sorcery in his classic tales of Conan, Kull, and others. These are the stories of axe-swinging barbarians splitting their monstrous enemies in twain. Blood is liberally spilled, heads are lopped off here and there, and sexy femme fatales always need rescuing and are generally a little less chaste in the way they show their appreciation. This is fantasy for boys. I like to call it “results oriented” fiction: there’s the bad guy, when he’s decapitated, the story will be over.

From time to time between now and the release of the book I’ll share a few more snippets, and keep digging deeper into specific subjects. It looks like the book will release in July, so I better get back to work!

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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