STEP FIVE ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

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.

It’s never to late to buy, read, use, and discuss The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction

Thank you, Kevin J. Anderson for the quote that starts off this section. In all the interviews I did with authors for this book, most of which have been posted here by now, it was their definitions of SF and fantasy that seemed to generate the most conversation. What surprised me wasn’t the variety of definitions, but the variety in expression of generally the same ideas. SF and fantasy are actually fairly well-delineated genres. The fact that they both still allow for such a massive—I’ll go so far as to say endless—variety of interpretation is fascinating, and keeps me reading both genres year after year.

I’d also like to take a moment here to reiterate my feelings on formula. There is no “one-part-this-plus-two-parts-that” method you can use to create the perfect anything, really, and that’s certainly true of writing—or any form of art. But remember what we talked about in terms of the difference between a formula and a recipe. My recipe for lasagna, which I’m making for dinner tonight, will be at least slightly different than yours, and in fact “lasagna” can come in a shockingly wide variety of interpretations. If everyone made lasagna exactly the same way, what a boring culinary world it would be. Same is true of a novel, or parts of a novel, like action scenes as we discussed in this section. Mix it up—make it vegetarian, alfredo, with or without mushrooms . . . In the same way I’m always happy to experience a new variety of lasagna (I must be hungry or something . . .) I’m always happy to experience a new variety of action scene. Originality is not an option.

Chapter 26: Don’t Spare the Action

Hmm. “Fending off” twice in two sentences. I hate that. Why did I do that? Don’t do that.

Adding an example to that section on “business”: In the director’s commentary of the DVD of the movie Boogie Nights (recommended for mature audiences), Paul Thomas Anderson points out how in one scene actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (his generation’s DeNiro, by the way) is biting at the top of a ballpoint pen, clicking it open and closed with his mouth. Anderson talks about how Hoffman always wants something in his hands to fiddle with. The director was kind of making fun of him, but in truth his pen added a layer of reality to the scene that was utterly brilliant. People do that. We fiddle with pens, make faces based on our own internal dialog, chew gum in some oddball way we’re not aware of, pick at our eyebrows . . . all that sort of stuff. I’m not saying clutter your writing with irrelevant method-actor twitch, but a little will go a long way.

Ah, now to WWJCD: What Would Jackie Chan Do?

I hope all of you who read the book actually really did put it down right here and go watch a Jackie Chan movie. For those who haven’t yet, and in celebration of the difference between a blog and book, embedded here is a three and a half minute scene from the 1996 Jackie Chan action classic Rumble in the Bronx.

See how the scene begins with Jackie and the bad guy pretty much just trading blows, but they jump up on a pool table first in order to separate themselves from the onlookers. Then one of them accidently smashes part of the light fixture above the pool table. They both seem to notice it’s there, then, and start using it alternately as a weapon and a shield. When Jackie throws the bad guy away, he lands on a pinball machine, establishing them for later.

There’s a pool table, so there must be a cue handy, and sure enough a pool cue is brought to bear against Jackie. And Jackie eventually finds himself rolling across the room on a chair with wheels. This device changes the arena, opening it up to the rest of the room. Jackie doesn’t just run from here to there, the environment gives him a sort of vehicle, which he quickly presses into service to block another attack.

The chair has taken him over to a bank of refrigerators, which he makes use of, again as both weapons and shields. One of the bad guys tries to throw a TV at him—why? Because it was handy. And that same TV ends up inside one of the refrigerators. Empty bottles are pressed into service as ranged weapons. The pinball machines become a place for Jackie to hide, but are also heavy and can be used against him.

Go ahead, tell me that scene wasn’t better than if they just stood there punching each other.

Movies and other visual media allow you to populate that kind of scene at a glance. Novelists will have to expend some words to set that scene. If a guy just suddenly produces an old TV set, your readers are going to wonder where the heck that came from unless you describe the room as littered with old appliances. We need to know those pinball machines are there before Jackie hides behind them, and so on.

There, now you know what Jackie Chan would do.

I plan on expanding the discussion of “What’s at Stake?” in future posts, so we’ll leave the book to say what it says until then.

Here’s the Example World sidebar, cut from the final text:

Example World: Violent Villains and Action Heroes

Our Armless Swordsman idea, being entirely based on characters who define themselves by their fighting prowess is going to have to have plenty of action to back that up. Further, we’ve said we’re at least going to try to work within the high fantasy subgenre, so right there we’ll have some expectations out there once we start describing our novel to prospective agents and editors.

Obviously, I meant the definitions above to cast “gore” in a pretty unfavorable light, and we’ve already worked at giving both our hero and villain pretty strong motivations for wanting to fight each other.

Looking for balance, I think I’d like to see the villain engaging in violence. She wants to hurt people. She doesn’t mind attacking unarmed opponents, killing innocent shopkeepers, and torturing enemy agents in order to get what she wants. Again, she’s someone who’s motivations we can understand, but who’s methods we abhor.

The hero can’t do any of that stuff, otherwise it’ll be a stretch to call him a hero, and I want to be creative but I’m not trying to redefine the archetypes with this book. He at least used to be the greatest swordsman in the realm, so obviously he’s no stranger to physical confrontations. But he doesn’t use his sword to hurt people, he uses it to defend people by using it to hurt people who hurt people. The fact that blood sprays out when the hero slashes an agent of the villain across the throat doesn’t make it “gore,” it’s more like “intense action.” Likewise, when the villain castrates a captured Imperial Army soldier, that’s not gore either, it’s “intense violence,” because it’s yucky, but she’s doing it for a reason.

She better be.

Anyway, I think we’ll go with heroic action and villainous violence, but ease up a bit on the intensity, leaving the gooey stuff implied rather than detailed.

Chapter 27: Everyone Need a Little Romance

My editor wanted me to cut this, so I did:

We just talked a lot about violent action, a staple of the fantasy genre to be sure, but man can not live by fighting alone, eventually he needs to . . . be romantically . . . involved.

Am I uncomfortable with this subject? A little, though I don’t know why. Let’s just say it: the hero needs to get laid.

Yikes—maybe that’s not what I’m saying, or at least all of what I’m saying. He needs to be kissed, too, and hugged, and romanced.

Most authors who haven’t taken the full-throated plunge into the romance genre tend to struggle with romantic, especially erotic scene. This is something we should approach with as much care as anything else, but not be so timid of.

Whoa . . . “full-throated plunge”? What the—?

I’ll refer you back to a series of posts here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook in which I chronicled my first ever exposure to a romance novel, and my subsequent interview with its author, Chantelle Shaw.

A little bit more text cut from the first draft:

I once read a novel pitch in which there was a sort of brothel run by doppelgangers who, for a fee, would take on your form so you could experience sex with yourself. Not my scene, but, okay.

In my own Watercourse Trilogy (from Wizards of the Coast), the villain, Marek Rymüt, is gay. That’s not what makes him a villain, now, so easy there, but it does make him a bit of an outsider in a provincial city with very old fashioned mores. It made him a much more interesting character, too, with a sad back-story and a sense of unrequited longing, and no, it didn’t mean that trilogy was branded as “Gay Fantasy.” I’m not even sure anyone ever noticed.

Sorry, kids, no Jenna Jameson video embedded here. Instead, here’s the sidebar.

Example World: Who Loves Who and How

I’m going to try to find the middle ground for our Armless Swordsman book, like we did with action. We’ve already got love interests in play, with the villain strongly motivated by an affair gone horribly wrong, and the hero intent on marrying the emperor’s daughter.

So we understand our villain better, I’ll want a flashback scene to that fateful night when she was discovered in bed with the enemy soldier, and I don’t want there to be any ambiguity as to what was going on. I want to see her vulnerable, too, see her at the point where she was utterly open, and so utterly betrayed. But I’m also looking for that big mainstream high fantasy audience, so there won’t be lots of anatomical references. I’ll keep it soft R- as opposed to X-rated. Thinking in terms of movie or video game ratings, even though books are (so far) not saddled with that kind of process, it can help you organize your thinking in terms of the audience you want to reach.

That ratings system thing is definitely worthy of a separate blog post, but let’s leave it there for now, with the rest of Step Five to come in the next few weeks.


—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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One Response to STEP FIVE ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

  1. Pingback: WHAT ARE YOU WEARING … AND WHY? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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