STEP FOUR ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (Part One)

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 and Science Fiction

STEP FOUR: Details

Thanks to Logan Masterson for the snippet from one of his columns in Fantasy Magazine.

A little more on this idea of endless worldbuilding: It took something like 10,000 years to get human society to where it is today, and despite the efforts of some brilliant historians, no one knows everything about every part of that time. You may find yourself tempted to know more about the invented history of your fantasy world or SF universe than real world historians know of Earth history. Without mentioning names, I can tell you I’ve actually seen someone I know well go down that path, and it isn’t healthy.

Never let yourself forget that your fantasy world must serve your story and characters first and foremost. Give yourself the elbow room to invent as you go, and the permission to actually start writing. Yes, even before you’re fluent in your version of Elvish.

Chapter 20: When in Zyltariia . . .

Here’s a paragraph expanding on the U.S./U.K. cultural disconnects that was cut from a previous draft. It might still be useful, if only in my admission that I blew off some research:

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.

Actually, I think that was worth restoring as another example of those decisions you need to make based on this simple, four-word question: “Does it really matter?”

Here’s another deleted paragraph:

It’s interesting that the most popular genre characters I can think of off the top of my head are, almost to a man, anti-nationalist. It’s a rare thing that we have characters like the original version of Captain America anymore. Recent new comics have painted him as a living anachronism, an aging nationalist relic of a bygone era. Indiana Jones doesn’t go after the Lost Ark of the Covenant for the sake of the war effort. It’s just a cool prize. R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden starts out his life just trying to escape the matriarchal theocracy of his birth and later only kinda hangs out in Mithral Hall because that’s where his friends live. What nation does Bilbo Baggins represent? But all of them value individual liberty more than anything.

That was a really good point. Why did we cut that? There’s at least one whole separate blog post in that—the SF/fantasy hero as anti-nationalist.

Here’s a handy link so you can buy a copy of Why I Write by George Orwell, which includes the essay excerpted from in this chapter. Highly recommended.

And now, this chapter’s deleted “Example World” sidebar:

Example World: Strength to You, Armless Swordsman

I just made that up: “Strength to you.” That’s how people in the Armless Swordsman’s world greet each other. It makes sense in a militaristic empire, doesn’t it? From there, I think I’ll look at military traditions for most of my cultural underpinnings—at the very least for the way the swordsman himself speaks and interacts with people. I’ve already said he’s a career soldier, so that makes sense. But I’d also like to see that side of him come out in relation to the customs and manners of the other parts of the world with which he interacts.

The imperial court, for instance, should be better mannered, more formal, than the military men. The gruff but loveable soldier will then seem exotic and rough-and-tumble to the more genteel princess he’s in love with. People tend to be attracted to each others’ differences, so I can see these two, who don’t come from two different worlds, but who come from two very different parts of the same world, really drawn to each others’ unique customs.

Then there’s the zylvaani, who the swordsman spends some time with. I know these guys are exotic mystics, aliens who live an entirely separate existence from the empire, so I’ll need to go much farther afield for their customs and manners. I might steal a little from the ritualistic protocols of the court of Imperial China, but do my best to give it twists in all the right places so it becomes my own.

Then I had this idea: I once saw a documentary on TV, years ago, that described how people during World War I would sit in bleachers to watch the aerial dogfights overhead—warfare as a spectator sport. I’ve been suffering over how to make my Armless Swordsman story different from the movie Gladiator, so at all cost I want to avoid Roman-style gladiatorial combat. In my empire, they don’t reenact battles the way the ancient Romans would, they come out to watch the real thing, which is how Armless Swordsman first became a famous champion.

Take note of my conscious efforts not to copy existing texts. Sometimes you have to work to be original!

Chapter 21: Define a System of Weights and Measures

I suppose the title of this chapter actually could have been Don’t Define a System of Weights and Measures.

Here’s a mini-rant that was cut for space . . . and decorum:

For what it’s worth, I’m very pro-metric system, myself. It’s way easier. Real life story from just the day before I’m writing this: I had a recipe that called for 2½ cups of half-and-half, but I assumed that the containers at the store would be sold by ounces. I had to pull a measuring cup out of the cabinet to figure out how many ounces were in a cup and wrote the number of ounces on my shopping list—only to find that half-in-half is sold in quart or pint containers. I have to admit it, I was completely stymied, having not the foggiest clue how many ounces are in either a quart or a pint. And I will maintain to my dying breath that that doesn’t make me stupid, it makes the English system of measurement way too complicated, with things divided by eights, twelfths, or sixteenths. What insane moron came up with this mess? Not me.

But, yeah, we’ll hold on to that mess for a while still, so I’d advise against converting us to the metric system in all but the farthest-future SF—or SF in which any other nation but the U.S. or the U.K. is the dominant culture of the future. The Chinese will not go to Alpha Centauri carrying a pint of half-and-half. NASA will.

Preach it, brother.

And this does bear repeating, over and over and over again:

If you’re translating everything your characters do and say from their native language, either real-world foreign, historical, or created, choose with the utmost caution what you choose not to translate.

And another deleted paragraph, one that drew back the curtain on some of my efforts at Wizards of the Coast:

A number of times over the course of my time working on the Forgotten Realms novel and game setting for Wizards of the Coast, we suffered over whether or not a mistake was made when it was decided that there were no weeks in the Realms, but that its thirty-day months were separated into three even tendays of, as the name might imply, ten days each. In some cases this interfered with certain Dungeons & Dragons game rules that measured time in weeks, and authors would forget and just use weeks . . . it’s been kind of a pain in the butt, actually. But we said that’s the way their calendar works, so by Amaunator, we stuck with it. I honestly can’t say I’d do it again in any fantasy world I’d create after that.

I still have moments, reading SF and fantasy that has nothing to do with the Forgotten Realms world, when someone mentions a week going by and I stop and think, wait, that should be “tenday.” I wonder how long it will take me to shed that? Six months, and counting.

And the Example World sidebar went like this:

Example World: A Sliver for Your Thoughts

For the created world of the Armless Swordsman, I’d like to have a simple system of currency, and one that’s strictly regulated. Having a strong central currency is kind of a new idea, in terms of human history, but I envision my empire as being very civilized, reasonably technologically advanced, and stable, so a real currency would help make that clearer. I also know that my Armless Swordsman will start off rich and famous then fall into some level of poverty, and eventually have to work his way back up, so though ultimately he’ll measure his own success not by his net worth but by his ability to overcome his handicaps (both physical and emotional) and regain the love of his life, money will come into play in his journey, for sure.

Being relatively math-challenged, though, and wanting the empire’s currency to showcase it’s civility, but not its complexity, necessarily, I’m going to devise a simple system based on tens, and have it set on a gold standard. This makes sense to me, especially for a simpler, more medieval world. People will want to trade something of obvious value, not necessarily trust some kind of Federal Reserve system—even though they love and respect their emperor. So what if we have currency trading in true weights of gold, so that an ounce of gold (I’m not inventing a system of weights, because I honestly think that would just be confusing) is basically equivalent to a dollar. Set aside that in the real world an ounce of gold is worth lots more than that.

The empire mints coins roughly equivalent to a penny, a dime, a dollar, ten dollars, and a hundred dollars, but I can’t use those words, so, a penny, or one one-hundredth of an ounce of gold is a “sliver,” because I imagine a hundredth of an ounce of anything would be pretty small; a dime, or one tenth of an ounce is a “nail,” because it’s about the size of a thumbnail; an ounce is a “duke,” because these U.S. half-dollar-sized coins are stamped with the likeness of the various dukes of the empire; a ten-ounce (ten dollar) coin is a “hero,” because those coins are stamped with heroes of the empire—that would be fun, because we could have coins minted with the profile of our armless hero, a distinction that haunts him in his days of self-imposed exile; and the hundred once bar is an “emperor,” though very few people carry these around.

Otherwise, my world’s year is the same length as Earth’s, divided into twelve months, which I don’t think I’ll even rename, for clarity’s sake, so readers won’t have to try to remember, or refer to an appendix, to figure out what time of year it’s supposed to be. Inches, feet, and miles, will certainly suffice for measurements, and I’ve already let it slip that we have ounces, so I guess now I have to learn how many of those make a pint.

Oh well, no one ever said it was going to be easy.

Chapter 22: Speak the Language

I was really delighted with the way these example paragraphs worked out. I think the point comes across that balance is king. Genre readers like and want some fantastical/exotic language, but in the end, they want to understand what the heck is going on in the story, too, so pick and choose very carefully what adds character and richness to your setting, and what just weighs it down.

I’m a firm believer in making notes—as by now I’m sure you’ve heard—but as far as the over-use of invented words is concerned, if you feel you’re going back to your notes too often, if you’re having trouble remembering your own system of weights and measures, your calendar, and your military ranks—if it isn’t starting to become second nature for you by the halfway mark in the story—you should sit back and rethink. Maybe it’s time to reconvert to miles, weeks, and sergeants.

And wow, a nice long sidebar in which I link to the particular baby name book I’ve been using for years. There are others—and free online sources as well now, too. Avail yourselves!

Example World: A Little Language Goes a Long Way

I keep going back to the military life with this story. My hero is a soldier, so is the villain, and they live in an empire with a strong, well-organized military. That being said, I think I’ll use my invented language to further emphasize that angle. I’ve had enough friends who were in the military, and am well-read enough, to know that soldiers can have a language all their own. They have a range of sometimes impenetrable colloquialisms, a complex idiom, and speak in acronyms that leave civvies like me at a loss.

There, see, I just used one: civvies—short for civilians.

My research into military organizations will yield some good stuff, I’m sure, but I’ll also be careful to make sure that there are other characters—the princess, for instance, and the zylvaani—who don’t know the lingo, so my hero will have to explain himself to them, and hence to the reader.

To start, I found a list of the ranks of the United States Army: Private, Private 2, Private First Class, Specialist, Corporal, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Sergeant First Class, Master Sergeant, First Sergeant, Sergeant Major, Command Sergeant Major, Sergeant Major of the Army, Warrant Officer, Chief Warrant Officer 2, Chief Warrant Officer 3, Chief Warrant Officer 4, Chief Warrant Officer 5, Second Lieutenant, First Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier General, Major General, Lieutenant General, General, and General of the Army

A pretty long list: twenty-six ranks. That’s too complicated for me—too much for my readers to be asked to remember—and besides, this is the rank structure of a modern professional military organization, with reasonably subtle distinctions made in the interest of pay grades. I think it’s entirely reasonable to shorten this list to: Private, Sergeant, Master Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Colonel, and General.

That’s seven. I can swing with that. The various units under the command of people of this rank in the U.S. Army is even more complicated than the ranks themselves, so I need to further simplify that. In my imagined world, the military is a fairly straightforward thing, with two simple missions: enforce the will of the emperor and defend the empire and her citizens. It would be interesting, maybe as a way to comment on the current state of affairs with our now having a Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, so let’s add an eighth rank, for now called General of the Army, so there are two officers who report directly to the emperor, one in command of the expeditionary forces, who impose the will of the emperor outside the borders, and the other the commander of the home guard.

From there, I like the idea of breaking these guys down by how many men are under their command, and sticking, like my currency, to a rule of tens, so that each of the Generals of the Army have ten million men under their command, there are ten generals reporting to each of the generals of the army, each in command of a million men split into ten units of a hundred thousand each commanded by a colonel, who each have ten captains in charge of battalions of ten-thousand men each, who have ten company lieutenants in command of a thousand men each, including ten master sergeants in charge of units of a hundred men each, broken into ten platoons of ten men, overseen by sergeants, while the other nine of whom are privates.

But all this sounds a little too modern still, and since it’s such a big part of my story, I’m going to go ahead and change these ranks to seem more exotic, but I’m not just going to make up nonsense words. I’m going to give readers a chance to at least identify these as military ranks: Footman, Armsman, Master Armsman, Lieutenant, Captain, Commander, War Duke, and Lord Commander of the Empire

Why did I keep lieutenant and captain? Why not? I like the sound of them, and touching back to real-world ranks will help me make it clearer where people stand.

Obviously there’s more to the language of the world of the Armless Swordsman than a list of military ranks, but this is a good example of the limits you should put on your thinking. And from here I’ll move on to the idiom . . .

I know there’s a saying in the military: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” In my world that becomes: “Plans are like willow-chins, but don’t last as long.” Now all I have to do is make it clear that willow-chins are delicate little fluffy animals that are eaten by just about everything and are known for their short life-spans. As long as I don’t have to explain more than maybe three or four of those sorts of sayings, I should be able to manage them.

So then how do I name these characters that so far I’ve just been calling the Armless Swordsman, the emperor, the villain, and so on? I do have a few things to go on. First, there are the beetles I’ve called ridgebacks. That would lead me to believe that people in the empire at least are fairly straightforward folk who tend to name things based on a description of what it looks like. So I think their names should be more common real-world first names that I can draw out of my baby name book and from historical sources so that there’s a cultural connection to most readers, and their last names will be a little more exotic. I’ve already called the alien diviners the zylvaani, so I know they like the sound of the letter z, and use uncommon vowels like the y and the double a, so I’ll try to keep that in mind for their names for each other and the world around them. Then I’ll avoid those sounds for the humans’ last names.

Flipping through my baby name book, I eventually fell upon the first names for four of my main characters, all of whom hail from the human empire. The first was Marten, for Armless Swordsman. It’s an alternate spelling of Martin, Latin for “warlike,” at least according to my little book. I like that, and it occurred to me that if one of their names is rooted in Latin, if the rest are, too, there will be a sort of background consistency that readers might pick up on, so I started filtering just for Latin roots and came up with Harman (“high ranking person”) for the emperor, Leandra (“like a lioness”) for the villain, and Candra (“luminescent”) for the princess. Now all I have to do is make sure there are subtle references to how “luminescent” the princess is and I’m in business. Inspired as much by Luke Skywalker than anything else, I think I’ll make my last names combinations of descriptive words—maybe in the empire your last name is something you give yourself, or is given to you in adulthood as a descriptive title. This gets me:

Marten Chillwind, Leandra Silversword, Emperor Harman Seven Stars, and Princess Candra Seven Stars. Why Chillwind? Because before he has his crisis of confidence, Marten is kind of a warlike jerk, “chill” or cold in personality, but as difficult to pin down as the wind. Why Seven Stars? I recently saw a documentary about astronomy that referenced the Pleiades and I thought, hmm, what if this world actually orbits one of those seven stars, and the empire somehow understands that and has named itself after those stars, and the emperor shares the name of his empire. But the Empire of Seven Stars was a little too SF for my high fantasy story so I thought, what if, in keeping with the Latin theme, I the empire was established long ago, when people spoke a different language (like Latin) so that my characters live in the Empire of Septemastri, but the emperor has translated his name into the more common language—he is a man of the people after all.

Cool, that means that from now on “Example World” is Septemastri, and Armless Swordsman is Marten Chillwind.

Other names will come out of similar conventions, like the Greenfork River, the Deepbough Forest, and a mountain range they call the Towers. Here’s a cool name for one of the zylvaani: Luryazia. I like the way it sounded, and it fell back on those uncommon vowels.

Onward to Septemastri!

We’ll finish up the rest of Part Four in the next couple weeks.

Till then, keep writing!


—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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