STEP THREE ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (PART 1)

Is there such a thing as a perfect book? If there is, I haven’t read one, let alone written one. One of the things I’d hoped to accomplish with this blog was not just to promote the book but to supplement it with additional material. This wouldn’t be much of a blog about the writing and publishing process if I just let the printed book speak for itself, so here we go, a part or “step” at a time, digging in to correct mistakes, struggle over inconsistencies, patch in missing information, and resurrect edited text.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction


Thanks to master fantasist Paul Park for the opening quote!

See how I’ve shed the who world building/worldbuilding baggage and didn’t even bother mentioning it again . . . wait . . .

I definitely went back and forth on the first paragraph of the introduction to this section in which I strongly imply—oh, actually just come right out and state—that SF and fantasy are inherently harder to write than other genres. I worry that this comes off as disrespectful to authors of all other genres, and I really don’t want to be that guy. But in fact worldbuilding is hard, and mystery and romance authors don’t generally have to do it. That does not mean I think that SF/fantasy authors are better than, say mystery writers. I love authors, full stop. But worldbuilding is hard. In the first draft I also said that writing SF/F is more rewarding. Cringe.

No way out of this hole I’ve dug for myself, so, moving on . . .

Chapter 14: Decide on a Setting

A bit of a recap of the sub-genres here, but worth working through again. I want to also take a moment to state unequivocally that no one should feel penned in by these sorts of distinctions. Though I tried to make the various categories broad enough, there remains all sorts of room to move within and between these categories. Certainly, for instance, created worlds can be richly inspired by multiple real world historical periods and cultures without necessarily moving into the fantasized world camp. If you borrow a bit from China, a bit from Civil War era America, a little from Stalinist Russia, and so on, you’re using history to inspire your created world, but if you fully commit to one culture, as in the example of Sean Russell’s The Initiate Brother, then you’ve created a fantasized world.

Think about this, but don’t get overwhelmed. Your world/universe is whatever you want it to be.

Here’s a whole bit cut out of the first draft for space, but I think is worth reinstating:

Believe it or not, real world cultures can come in and out of fashion. Japanese-inspired fantasies have gone through alarming peaks and valleys. I watched this happen at Wizards of the Coast. When we first released our Legend of the Five Rings novel line, set in a fantasized Feudal Japan, it did really well until all of a sudden it wasn’t. It was just over, and by the time the Magic: The Gathering expansion set Kamigawa, also a fantasized Feudal Japanese setting, was released the blush was really off the rose. You may find that you’ve done all this research only to be dismissed off hand by editors and agents who just, “can’t sell Japan this year.” Why? No one knows. What’s the next big thing? Fantasy Middle East? I don’t know. Fantasy India? Maybe. Pre-Columbian Americas? Give it a try, maybe you’ll be the author who starts the trend.

And contemporary fantasy is very hot right now, which means that by the time this book goes from me sitting here typing this to you holding a printed copy in your hand—a year or more, maybe—it very well could be over and done with, and all those editors are now looking for a new Fantasy India series to compete with all the other publishers’ hugely successful Fantasy India books.

Okay, so the Fantasy India thing didn’t materialize, and urban fantasy continues to sell, but note that I missed the post-apocalypse stuff that’s really hot right now, and steampunk, so point made.

If you’ve been following the sidebars, excised for clarity and space’s sake, here’s the one that would have gone with this chapter:

Example World: A Little of This, and a Little of That

I’ve already established that the world of the Armless Swordsman is a created world all my own. To serve the basic parameters of the characters and story, though, that’s not necessarily the only option. There were numerous cultures in which skill at arms was valued, and the greatest swordsman in the world could climb to power. My hero could very easily be a Feudal Japanese samurai—that setting really plays into the strictures of personal honor that eventually drive him from his home, for instance.

But I just want to create a world all my own, and not because I’m too lazy to do the research. I will put some time in reading up on samurai culture, for instance, for inspiration and a sense of how these swordsmen might interact with each other. Though I’m making a world of my own, it won’t be without some connection to historical sources. After all, I live in a world influenced by the sum total of all of human history. It’s in me as much as in anyone else, and will color all of the decisions I make, whether I’m conscious of it or not. I’ll build a world of my own, cobbled together from a little of this and a little of that from history, contemporary America, my own personal experience, and so on.

Chapter 15: Build the World

Here’s a line that bears repeating: Research is really a process of figuring out what to read.

Having run over, a couple examples were edited from the first section of this chapter. Restored here:

Jay Lake’s brilliant Mainspring (Tor, 2007) imagines a Victorian England in which outdated pseudo-scientific ideas of the time turned out to be true. TSR’s old Spelljammer setting for the Dungeons & Dragons game had a similar concept: a universe based on medieval misunderstandings of celestial mechanics. In these cases the fantasy elements came out of what the authors purposely got wrong—though extensive research went into finding out how those ancestors of ours thought about the world and universe around them. Regardless of your desired end result, better information is always better than worse information. How’s that for sage advice?

I honestly think that the short section beginning on page 72, PLAUSIBILITY VS. REALISM, is the heart of this book. Please, please, please read and understand that over literally everything else. To see a bad example of what happens when this is ignored, watch the movie Legion, which is making the cable movie channel rounds now. Think about the rules that movie establishes then watch the mess it becomes when those rules are ignored.

Breaking my rule never to be a critic, I think there’s a whole blog post about that movie in terms of plausibility in my near future.

This chapter’s sidebar:

Example World: And Phil Said, Let There Be Light

I think I just scared the crap out of myself with all that talk of historical research and trend-driven publishing. Created worlds tend to be less dependent on trends. Fantasy readers always seem eager to discover a richly-realized new world, so I’m going to stick with my plan and set my Armless Swordsman novel in a world of my own creation. Also, creating a new world from scratch will give me better examples of the worldbuilding advice that follows.

I’ll be doing research as I go, as I add elements, but I’m not going to necessarily start with a particular historical setting as a primary source. This means my research will be scattered. I already know some things about my characters, a very little bit about their society, and a little about the available technology.

Because we’ve been talking all along about our hero being a great swordsman, we know that swords will play an important role. I should and will read up on swords. Over the centuries in which they were in common use swords came in all shapes and sizes and were developed for specific purposes from the swift but less imposing rapier to the slow but terrifying claymore. I should know what kind of sword my Armless Swordsman is using when, and why.

I’ve also said I want there to be some kind of watch making/clockwork tradition that will lead to the hero’s invention of his mechanical arms. I’m not a watchmaker myself, so I better bone up—and not because I feel as though I’m going to be tested by a professional watchmaker who might read my book and eviscerate me on if I get something wrong, but because I know that researching watch making and clockwork mechanisms will certainly result in a some cool new ideas that could take my story and characters into unexpected, but fantastic places.

Let the reading and Googling begin. Not necessarily in that order.

Chapter 16: Know Your Geography

Oh, this is the chapter where I did some drawing. It never made it into the book, but I had planned on this whole exercise where you could see me filling in details to a map as I went along, but then the reality of the publishing business intrudes once more, and no map. In fact, that one was killed so early on I only ever made the very first version of the map. I drew it and scanned it, so here it is:

Oh, it was going to be beautiful.

I went the pencil and paper route but there are all sorts of tools available for mapping now, some for free, only a Google search away. If, that is, you’re inclined toward mapping. I am, but you don’t have to be.

Oh, and this blank map? My gift to you . . . hmm. You know what? This might be a fun exercise for later!

Actually, comparing this to the first draft, this chapter really took a massive editorial hit. So much so that, what the heck, here it is in its complete original form:

“Good stories, well told, are what matters,” cautions Lou Anders of Pyr. “Whether you obsessively build maps, or disdain them as Joe Abercrombie and M. John Harrison do. What you do in them is what counts.”

I tend to fall on the opposite side from Mr. Abercrombie and Mr. Harrison. I’m a big fan of maps, and was even before I started playing Dungeons & Dragons. I find maps of all kind fascinating. When I was very young—younger than ten, I think—my mother read an article in a magazine, or saw some TV spot that talked about makeshift wallpaper. One of the examples they used was a room wallpapered in maps. She thought that was a swell idea and set about collecting maps from every source she could find: road maps, airline route maps, National Geographic magazines . . . everywhere. Soon enough our kitchen was wallpapered floor to ceiling in maps of every part of the world. This is how I know geography, and at a pretty in-depth level. Did you know there’s a mountain in Wyoming called Crazy Woman? I do, because it was on one of those maps.

So maybe that, and thirty years of D&D, has made me weird, but I’m not alone. According to Kevin J. Anderson, his Terra Incognita books, “are heavily driven by geography; the major conflicts flow from the locations of countries, of trade routes, of mines, deserts, ocean passages—I draw maps in detail and refer to them as I choreograph the plotlines.”

Spending as many years as I did as the Forgotten Realms line editor at Wizards of the Coast has also made me pretty map dependent. When you have multiple authors working on separate books across wide swaths of the same world, you have to pay attention to geographical detail. Once you publish a map that shows it’s, say, fifteen hundred miles from one city to another, and the characters travel between them by donkey cart, you have to figure out how long that would take. If you’d rather not specify the distance, but decide for purposes of the story you’re telling today that it’s, “a day’s ride by donkey cart,” from the first city to the next, okay, but make sure you write that down, too, so that when your characters travel back it takes about that long, and always takes that long, assuming the cities are stationary and not getting closer together or farther apart as time goes by. If that’s true, your notes actually have to start getting even more detailed, especially if you commit to the fact that the cities move in relation to each other in a set speed and pattern, like planets revolving around the sun. Now you have to really keep track of your time and chart those things out. Believe me, if you don’t, one of your readers will, and will probably start a web site about how much of an idiot you are. Trust me. They do that.

Years ago I started writing a fantasy novel set in a world that was all open air into infinity in every direction, in which rock islands floated on the winds. People lived on those islands but if they stepped off the edge they would fall for eternity. That was a rule I just came up with, inspired by a video game I played once, actually. Why do people fall and rocks float? Because that’s the rule in that entirely fantastical world. The islands moved in relation to each other but at the time I was afraid to set up some kind of mechanism. Maybe one of the reasons I never finished that book is that the world started to feel too random to me. Had I spent a couple days working out in what direction and how fast islands drift on the winds, maybe depending on how big they are, or how high up they are, or what have you, I might have been inspired to finish it.

Now that I mention it, I should go back to that, rethink it, and make it work. There were some concepts in that book and in that world I still really like.

Since you’re not going to steal from me the idea I stole from a video game, chances are your world will be a reasonably Earthlike planet. Most mainstream fantasy novels start with that conceit, then the author builds continents, mountain ranges, deserts, rivers, islands, cities, and so on as his story and imagination demand.

At least sketching out a rough map really can help you remain logically consistent within your own world, with travel times that make sense and don’t change and cities and other landmarks all in their proper places in relation to each other. You only have to tell your readers that the castle is eight miles north of town once for that to be fixed forever in space. Write that down, remember where you wrote it down, refer back to your notes (whether those notes are in the form of a map, or a scribbled line that reads, “Don’t forget that the castle is eight miles north of town!”), and keep yourself and your world honest.

You might be wondering what geographical elements in your world, like my floating islands, can be fantastical and what should be more realistic. The only answer I can give to that is that the balance of reality and fantasy, realism and plausibility, in your geography is entirely up to you. If you want the whole thing to just be utterly bizarre, like a world that’s really one giant tree, or a world inside a planet-sized whale swimming in an endless ocean, you go, fantasist! If you’d rather take a more conservative approach and create a continent not unlike Europe, then do that. A really bizarre world doesn’t automatically make you a more creative, or a better writer. Truly strange worlds can overwhelm even a very strong story. If you don’t intend for the world to be too big a part of the story, unless the world itself (like my Deep Air world) is a metaphor for something germane to the story, keep it simple.

Research can help you make your maps more recognizable, and can provide new ideas you might not have thought of. Did you know that regions on the lee side of mountains tend to be dry, even deserts? Ever been to Central Washington, on the east side of the Cascades? Which direction do rivers flow? If you place a city on the west coast of the world will it be hot and dry like Los Angeles, or mild and rainy like Seattle? If the city’s on the east coast will it be chilly like Boston or muggy like Daytona? You might be thinking, oh, crap, really? Now I have to take high school geography again just to create a fantasy world I’m supposed to be conjuring entirely from my imagination? No, you don’t, but if you do, your world will make more sense to you, and I gave you a swell anecdote from my own writing career as an example of what can happen if you can’t buy into your own created world.

I studied film in college, and one day while we talked about set design, the professor told the story of a friend of his who was an art director for TV commercials. The art director was once dutifully filling the set—whatever it was, a typical suburban living room, probably—with various knickknacks and photos, when one of the actors asked him why he bothered with all that stuff for a twenty-second commercial. The question was something like, “Who’s going to even see all that stuff?” The art director’s reply was that they won’t notice it, but they would notice it was missing. The room wouldn’t look lived in. It wouldn’t look real, and that was his goal, not to get fan mail for the girl in one of the pictures in the photo collage on the mantle behind the actor’s right shoulder. The details will fade into the background, but the set as a whole will be convincing. That’s what any good fantasy worldbuilder should strive for.

If you spend some time learning how mountain ranges form and why they tend to cluster in certain patterns, if you understand where rivers begin and how they flow, if you know a little something about weather and the effects of geographical features on it, your map—your whole world—will look right, even if the overwhelming majority of readers would never be able to articulate what you did right and what you did wrong. If you skimp on the research your readers will feel like something is off, just like people who saw that commercial couldn’t tell you who was in the photo on the mantle, but would detect something missing if the actor was selling furniture polish in an empty house.

While you’re at it, look at political boundaries. I think you might find as you scan a reasonably detailed political map of the world that there are very few straight lines. Political boundaries pretty much exclusively followed natural features like rivers and mountain ranges until very very recently, at least in historical terms. One of the weird things about the United States of America is how many straight-line political boundaries we have, like the state of Colorado, which is actually square. America is a relatively young country, divided up when modern surveying techniques were available, and we were fairly civilized about parceling out land so that North and South Dakota didn’t have to fight a war over where their state lines lay.

Skip all the way down to the chapter on available technology and decide if your world has this sort of technology. If not, the border between the Kingdom of Jarmon and the Ghringley Protectorate probably runs across something either side can defend, like the Oder River, which forms part of the border between Germany and Poland.

Side bar included, with note to editor Peter Archer regarding the whole map thing:

Example World: The World of the Armless Swordsman

I want my world to have some unique features, something that makes it a little alien from earth, but I don’t want the geography to overwhelm my characters, so I think I’ll start with the empire we already know exists. This is part of a very large continent and the empire has some sea coast, but so far I just haven’t seen my characters on a ship, or anything, so I don’t want it to be too overtly seagoing a realm.

But what am I talking about, “I don’t see them as . . .”?

Yes, I am starting to picture the Armless Swordsman and his femme fatale opponent. Aren’t you? I don’t know why, but I see them on land, with mountains in the distance, and a river—maybe lots of rivers. There’s something about rivers that I just like. They’re great metaphors for all sorts of stuff and they provide swell places to set cities and provide borders.

I’m going to start by drawing a very simple, basic version of my map, with just the bigger geographical features drawn in. I’m going to be careful to place mountain ranges where I can imagine tectonic plates have met. Rivers will flow down from mountain snowmelt, and everything will tend to move from the west to the east, with the wind and weather. Ooh, what if this is a part of the world in which we have lots of dramatic, violent thunderstorms? I like thunderstorms.

Some of this might sound flippant to you, like off the top of my head I just decide thunderstorms are cool and I’m going to design my world around that? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing, and there’s nothing flippant or ill-contrived about it. It would please me to write the final confrontation between the hero and the villain while lightning strikes the ground all around them. I’m already thinking about how lightning and water might interact with our hero’s clockwork arms.

I’ll change my mind, and the map, at least a few times as I continue to add layers of detail to the world, but I have to start somewhere. This is where I’ve chosen, after much deliberation, to begin:

[Diagram FAH02 HERE]

[PETER: I’m not entirely sold on the necessity to actually include this map. My original plan was to add elements to it as I went along, using it as a visual example of worldbuilding. But I think you’ll see as you read on that I don’t reference the map again. I could, though, if you think it’s a good idea worth pursuing, or drop it if there are space or budget concerns about including multiple graphics. I leave the map’s fate entirely in your hands.]

Okay . . . this is getting to be too big, so let’s cut off here at the end of Chapter 16 and pick up again for the rest of Step Three next week.



—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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