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

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.

Buy it now!

Chapter 23: Render Unto Gorthak What is Gorthak’s

I have no recollection of why some references to Dan Brown were excised from the discussion on religion, but I did mention The Da Vinci Code (a work of contemporary/urban fantasy if ever there was one). Maybe the editors just thought I was overstating it.

Here’s a whole paragraph that didn’t make the cut:

As an editor for the imagined polytheistic Forgotten Realms fantasy setting, I’ve seen more than one author simply replace God with one of the setting’s imagined deities so that people say things like, “Oh my Tempus,” or, “for Lolth’s sake.” I tend to nudge them away from that—even while calling this chapter “Render Unto Gorthak What is Gorthak’s.” But, yeah, do what I say, not what I do! Though actually that can be a fast (read, lazy, but still . . .) way to let your readers know that in this fantasy world of your creation, Gorthak fits the role that God inhabits in ours.

I hope the message was still conveyed in shorter form in the next paragraph of the printed book. But really this chapter made it through pretty much as originally written. This is one of several places where I thought a whole separate book could easily be written on this subject. Has anyone ever done a scholarly review of SF/fantasy religions? That would be a fascinating read.

Those “Example World” sidebars continue—here’s the one that was cut from this chapter:

Septemastri: Clash of the Gods

I thought about this a while and thought it would be interesting if Septemastri—the world of the Armless Swordsman—had two religions: a militaristic code of honor for the empire, and the zylvaani peaceful if tepid spirituality. I can say a lot about these two cultures, and enrich my hero with his experience of both, if they’re very different, but fill similar needs.

What this world wants is a set of laws, reasons to behave in a civilized way. In the human empire there’s a set of rules that in some ways treat life like a giant football game, with penalties for rule infractions and rewards for the strong and steadfast. At the same time, the more esoteric zylvaani value wisdom for wisdom’s sake. Their philosophy is tempered by ancient wars that claimed the lives of the vast majority of their population, leaving very few zylvaani alive to transcend the ways of bloodshed and the acquisition of wealth and territory, but at the same time, our hero, Marten Chillwind, bristles at their seeming inability to stand up for themselves, or to reward individual accomplishment.

I can see that dichotomy as a multi-purpose tool to inform and enrich both my hero, and his world.

Probably the real reason these sidebars were cut . . . That last one outlines a basic idea for religion in my created world, but goes into no detail about the very hard work that will follow to bring those religions alive in a meaningful way. I would still suggest you be able to form that sort of short, clear “mission statement,” but you really won’t be able to just leave it at that.

Chapter 24: It’s Not Fantasy Without Magic

That seemed to be the common thread in my interviews with authors, editors, etc.: Fantasy is defined by magic. I agree—it’s a perfectly serviceable definition.

This is fun. In the first draft was a more strident version of my cautions to authors who undertake “The shared world thing”:

If you’re writing in a shared world setting like the Dungeons & Dragons-related novels I edit and have written, the game gives you a detailed system of magic. Take that seriously or your editor will take it seriously for you, and not hire you again. Did I just tell everybody that in writing? You bet I did.

I don’t edit D&D novels anymore, but that’s still true of the editors I left behind. Respect the property or don’t sign the contract in the first place. It’s better that I’m kind of a dick about it way in advance than you write a whole book that has to be killed, rewritten (maybe by another author), and there are bad feelings and bad times for all involved. It’s perfectly okay to approach your writing career in an all-or-nothing way. If you have no interest in writing work-for-hire, shared world stuff then by all means don’t. But if you decide to, decide to do it well. Your name is on the cover of the book, and if there’s one thing I learned from the Baldur’s Gate experience (and trust me, I learned more than one thing from that time) it’s that it can be harder to write your way out of one bad book than to write your way into your first one.

Speaking of my own shared world career, here’s a whole section that was edited out for the sake of space, but that I would still like to share:

In my outline for the Forgotten Realms novel Annihilation, I had written in a few places something to effect that, “Gromph and Dyrr engage in a huge magical duel,” followed eventually by, “the magical duel between Gromph and Dyrr continues.” Well, that was easy for me to say. The writing of it was a different matter entirely. That set of scenes took up the lion’s share of my handwritten notes, and took the longest to actually write. It was so difficult that I did something I normally never do: I took it out of sequence and wrote the whole duel from beginning to end. In the published novel we cut away from that fight between the Archmage of Menzoberranzan and the lichdrow of House Agrach Dyrr, but all that was pasted back in in pieces. Why?

Thanks to fellow War of the Spider Queen author Richard Baker, we had detailed Dungeons & Dragons character sheets for all of the major characters, including Gromph and Dyrr, so all six of the authors, two editors, and R.A. Salvatore, all knew what they could and couldn’t do so we could be consistent in our depiction of their powers and abilities, magic items and equipment, through the six books of the series. And we actually published some of those character sheets in Dragon, so I had to get it right. The fans would know. So every spell they cast in that book come from those character sheets, and I even determined a way to express how long things would last based on the spell’s duration, the effect of successful or unsuccessful saving throws, and so on. And you know what? That was hard—very hard—to write, but was in some ways easier, too. I had rules to follow, a set playground, and a rich array of creative tools provided for me.

If that book were set in a world of my own creation, I would have benefited from that much thought being put into how magic works, exactly, so though I’m certainly not asking you to first design your own role-playing game, I am advising that you think about the limitations of magic in your world, and the degree to which it can be accessed and manipulated by your characters.

And all that really circles back to the essential: Be consistent.

Another paragraph removed because I think my editor thought I was talking about myself too much, and he was probably right:

The Dungeons & Dragons magic system that I rely on as an editor and author of books set in that universe didn’t just burst into being in an instant. It started as the carefully-crafted brainchild of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and has been almost continually built upon and revised by a veritable army of gamers, game designers, and authors for more than thirty years. It’s not just hard, but impossible to hold you to that high a standard of immersion in a system of magic. You need to get started on your book sooner than thirty years from now.

That also kinda repeats the idea that you don’t have to create your own role-playing game before you start writing your novel.

And the sidebar:

Septemastri: A Little Magic Goes a Long Way

We’ve already established that the world of Septemastri will have a bit of a steampunk air to it, with clockwork mechanisms that do everything from helping to control domesticated giant flying beetles, to providing the fantasy-inspired “bionic arms,” for Marten Chillwind. Where I’d like to slip away from “steampunk” in its most literal form is how those clockwork devices are powered. You could have to wind them up, but that’s kinda inconvenient, isn’t it? I tried to imagine my hero having to stop and wind up his arms and though there was some appeal in giving this fantasy technology some limitation, the image just didn’t work for me. Also, it didn’t feel as though that really moved the story along. I’d rather fall back on magic to power the various clockworks, maybe tiny crystals that act as batteries.

Otherwise, I see magic as being fairly limited in this world. If you have cadres of battle-wizards for instance, that can provide a sort of magical artillery, or even a fantasy version of a modern air strike, someone being a particularly talented swordsman starts to get less important. Don’t believe me? Go back in time and ask the swordsman who was first confronted with a musket how he feels about a weapon that can kill you from a hundred yards away. And with centuries now having passed since the invention of the firearm, how many famous swordsmen can you name?

The magic of the zylvaani, like their religion, should be different than the magic understood in the empire. I want them to really be infused with an alienness. Where the empire’s magic relies on a technological/mechanical component, the zylvaani is more ephemeral, conjured from their own internal power sources, their own spirits, with no physical grounding in crystals or other focus items. At the same time, I see the zylvaani magic as more spiritual than physical. They don’t have purple fire storms, or really any other sort of magical weaponry, but they can, maybe, see what’s transpiring thousand of miles away, or get small glimpses into the future—or at least possible futures. Their magic is more informational, what we’d call divination. Why? Because it serves my story that these guys are the exotic wise men, and they need tools to gather that wisdom.

That one was a bit better thought through than the sidebar on religion. The main point: Religion, magic, and technology must serve your story, not the other way around.

Chapter 25: It’s Not Science Fiction Without Technology

I stand by that first line from Baldur’s Gate, by the way, though I’m going to have to step aside almost immediately after that. It’s me practicing what I preach in terms of beginning a novel in media res.

A funny cut here—my nod to the SF equivalent of armor:

Though police and military personnel in real life do wear Kevlar vests, there’s only so much protection against a powerful enough rifle, and no vest will keep you safe from an atomic bomb. But since any soldier is way more likely to be killed by a bullet than an A-bomb, those vests really caught on.

Uh oh, looks like some sloppy edits on page 139:

“The first submarine brought to bear in a real-life wartime mission was the Turtle, invented in 1775 by American David Bushnell and set to work to bear (with mixed results) in the Revolutionary War.”

What happened there?

I think I must have meant to cut the second instance of “brought to bear” and replace it with “set to work,” but added the new text without adequately cutting the old text. This is a very common mistake and one that you hope won’t elude your proofreader, but sometimes it does. We live in an imperfect world, people, try as we might to perfect it.

Another opportunity for a whole book here, and those books have been written, including Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation and Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. And there are no shortage of history texts to populate your medieval, classical, renaissance, or Victorian world with various real-life gadgets.

The technology sidebar went a little something like this:

Septemastri: Magical Clockwork Makes the World Go Around

I’ve already jumped forward a bit and started talking about the available technology in the world of Septemastri. I know they have this clockwork technology powered by magical crystals. I know that Marten will use that technology to replace his amputated arms, and I know he uses it to control the ridgeback he uses as a mount/vehicle. But what else?

It’s a cinch that they have clocks, so I know they can speak in terms of modern timekeeping: “Wait a second,” or, “If you’re not ready to go in half an hour, I’m leaving without you.” But I don’t want clockwork technology to overwhelm the sword.

That leaves me two standards to protect: clockwork devices exist, but the sword is still the preferred weapon and skill at arms is highly valued. So that means there are no clockwork tanks, or clockwork repeating crossbows, or other technologically advanced ranged weapons to replace the sword. I want my hero to be special, and his approach to fixing his problem (he has no arms) to be novel and surprising, so that means no one has ever built a clockwork arm before. Like Luke Skywalker’s first glimpse of the Death Star, the people of Septemastri will be shocked when they first see Marten’s clockwork arms.

I also don’t want people to be able to communicate easily over long distances. Once Marten leaves the empire in disgrace, I don’t want him to be able to call Princess Candra, or she to be able to call him. Also, anything like the telephone makes the zylvaani divinatory magic less special. So for sure, communication is limited to the speed of travel.

And that gets us to the end of Step Four!


—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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1 Response to STEP FOUR ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (Part Two)

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