STEP SIX 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 and Science Fiction

Hmm. In retrospect, I should have pushed through on my previous errata post to include the last short section of “Step Five.” But anyway, we’ll tack that on here before we plunge into the last “step.” And no, I can’t resist putting “steps” in quotation marks. I’ll say it again: This isn’t really a step-by-step process. Always allow yourself to jump from element to element as your own process demands.

Chapter 28: Use Humor With Care

In my first draft, the quote from Sir Donald Wolfit (“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”) had this footnote for my editor: “I checked this out through:, which seemed a reliable enough source, but please feel free to double check the quote’s authenticity.”

I’m not sure he went any deeper than that. If the Harvard Gazette and I are wrong, please set us right in the comments!

Here’s a short paragraph that was edited out, probably because it was too personally revealing. The book in question is the now infamous Baldur’s Gate novelization:

Once, a proofreader made this note in the margin of one of the Forgotten Realms novels that I wrote: “Is this some kind of FR joke?” Well, I thought when I read that, I guess not. If you have to ask if it was a joke, it wasn’t funny. My editor and I discussed it for a few minutes and out went the joke, well before the book saw print.

That, and you know what? I’m a funny guy. Everyone tells me so, even people who don’t work for me. Maybe I’ve made you laugh a few times already in this book. I hope so. I was trying, but I also hope that regardless of funny asides and quirky turns of phrases, my respect and love for the fantasy genre still comes through.

I’ve used comedy in every one of the fantasy novels I’ve written myself and enjoyed the sense of humor of any number of authors I’ve worked with as an editor, especially R.A. Salvatore and Paul Kidd—Paul Kidd, in particular, is hilarious.

And he is, by the way. I urge everyone who reads this to scour the internet for a copy of The Council of Blades and enjoy it not as a Forgotten Realms novel, per se, but just as a ridiculously fun light fantasy. You won’t be disappointed . . . unless you’re a hardcore FR fan.

This whole question of when are you having fun with a genre and when are you making fun of it can be a tricky one. For instance, I love the classic Universal monster movies and wouldn’t stand for them being denigrated, but I adore Young Frankenstein. I think there’s something to be said for a purely subjective feeling that someone is approaching a funny genre piece with love, or at least respect for the genre in question. If all you’re doing is ripping it to shreds, that’s easy and cheap, and I won’t buy that book. If you hate fantasy or SF, don’t read it, and have the common courtesy to leave the rest of us alone. We’re not interested in your “deconstruction” of the genre. There, I said it.

Here’s the sidebar that went with the first draft, which reveals that originally this whole section came before the section on worldbuilding:

Example World: To Joke, or Not to Joke

My action-packed high fantasy, light romance novel should have some humor to it, but I definitely want to treat the genre and my audience respectfully. I also want to be respectful of my characters and their situations, and my as yet undeveloped world, which I plan on putting quite a bit of work into developing—I don’t want to dismiss it off hand for the sake of cheap gag.

I like the idea of focusing most of the humor on one character, but I have to admit I’m struggling with how to shoe-horn Mr. Comic Relief into the story. The hero is obviously a very serious, earnest guy with a major tragedy in his life he’s struggling to overcome. Our villain is shaping up to be a real tough bitch. Either of them slips on a banana peal or drops trow and I’m screwed.

But what about the aging emperor? I might be on to something there. I’ve seen elder statesmen characters in books and movies before that have that “what do I have to lose,” attitude that can make them as endearing as it does curmudgeonly. The emperor may be suffering over who will succeed him, but so far we’ve assumed he’s reasonably secure in his position, and is a kindly ruler worthy of our hero’s respect. What if we made him something of a smart ass? Old, powerful guys can get away with a lot. For some reason I keep thinking of the movie Citizen Kane, when the reporter is interviewing an aged Leland, who, sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home says, “When I was a young man there was a rumor going around that nurses were pretty. It was no truer then that it is today.”

See what I did there? I turned to the work of another writer for inspiration for one of my characters. Thank you, Mr. Wells.


It’s interesting that I got to this step in my ongoing series of second looks at The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction just as I got to the end of the rough draft of my own current novel project. I’ll need to heed my own advice as I get into the edit stage!

Thank you, J.M. McDermott for the opening quote.

There were no Example World” sidebars in this section. I can’t remember why.

Chapter 29: Keep It Fresh

I know you’re probably sick of hearing me pine over The Runaway Robot by now, but this bit was cut from the first draft, in the paragraph in which I compared George Lucas’s C-3PO to Fritz Lang’s Maria:

One of my favorite books as a very young child was The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey. I still remember crying when the robot was left behind. Yeah, I cried. Seriously. That robot still lives in my memory probably thirty-five or more years later.

Sniff . . .

In another footnote I called out my online source for the Pablo Picasso quote, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

As an aside, they cut out some of my more colorful and politically incorrect language, but gave me a pass on “douche.”

Editing is a subjective enterprise.

There was a whole bit cut out of the section Exactly Alike but Completely Different, mostly because it referred back to the previously-excised sidebars. Here’s what you missed:

In the Example World sidebars I mentioned my concern that the story I was developing was a little too close to the movie Gladiator. Hopefully you were paying attention as I went along, mentioning it again at least once. I was thinking about that similarity. I was taking it into account, and I was making specific decisions to keep my story original. If you think, even for just a brief moment, that you’re heading in a direction that makes you think of someone else’s SF or fantasy novel, stop and do that thinking. Don’t dismiss it—if it occurred to you, however briefly, it will occur to someone else. For your sake, hopefully at the agent level, before it gets into print and whole online message boards are dedicated to how much of a derivative hack you are.

“Derivative hack.” Ouch, did I really just say that? Yeah, I did, and if you don’t take active steps not to be one, you will be one, and just please, please don’t. If you don’t have anything original to say, including an original take on a shared world, just don’t start. Always bring your own fresh ideas, even to the old archetypes.

That last line at least is really good advice, if I don’t say so myself.

Chapter 30: Avoid Anachronisms

In the editing some of my political rhetoric is regards to 1984 was softened, believe it or not. This line was cut:

I’d rather the Pan Am space shuttle had come true than Room 101.

Um. Yeah.

And in the first draft the “angry reader” was a “pissed off reader.” Newspeak!

And speaking of “censorship” (okay, it wasn’t actually censorship) this whole last section was cut from this chapter:

I remember one author in the first draft of a Forgotten Realms novel had a character dropped to the ground when someone hit him with a D&D spell called “shocking grasp.” The author lovingly described the way in which the spell’s electrical effects momentarily overloaded the victim’s nervous system, and so on—fairly accurately describing what happens to you when you’re electrocuted. But no one from that world actually understands what happens to you when you’re electrocuted, and the book was written in limited point-of-view third person past tense, so we assume the narrator doesn’t know a nervous system from a transistor. The spell conjures “lighting” that can be used to “shock” someone. The physiological processes behind that are a mystery to these fantasy-medieval folk. That was fixed in the final draft.

You’ll also find that people in the Forgotten Realms don’t swear like we do. No one utters “the F word.” Why? Because it just doesn’t sound right. It sounds too colloquial, too contemporary, just not “medievally” enough. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked authors to “think of a more medievally word for this.” In keeping with previous advice I won’t encourage you to come up with your own list of replacement swear words. You can fall back on old favorites like, “thrice-bedamned,” or, “son of a whore,” but you can also just tell us it happened: Galen swore under his breath then said, “Then what are we supposed to do?” We’ll imagine that he said his world’s equivalent of, “Oh, fucking shit,” and the whole thing won’t come off as Martin Scorsese’s The Hobbit.

Pardon my Elvish.

Okay, that’s it, I’m going to “out” the author of the too-precise shocking grasp. It was the brilliant Mel Odom in the first draft of his FR classic The Lost Library of Cormanthyr. Sorry, Mel.

And while I’m at, my favorite colloquial anachronism, cut from a Forgotten Realms short story by Keith Francis Strohm, the exclamation: “Tymora’s Tits!”

Oh, it feels so good to finally be rid of that baggage. . . .

Chapter 31: Follow Your Own Rules

If you only read one chapter of this book, you need to read, believe, embrace, remember, and use this chapter. The collision of inconsistency and implausibility is the disease from which no SF/fantasy story can successfully recover. You have to clearly establish the rules of your fictional world and stick to them, or the whole thing collapses on you and nothing—and I mean nothing—will save you.

Read the rest of the book, too, y’know, but I’m just sayin’ . . .

This was cut from the first draft, maybe for space, maybe the editor thought I was over-stating it, but:

Throughout the section on worldbuilding I think I probably repeated this a dozen too many times, but it’s really that important: Follow your own rules.

I’m working really hard to make sure this book is positive and uplifting, and have resisted the occasional temptation to point out authors who’ve gotten things wrong, dragging other writers’ work into the spotlight to use as negative examples. Trust me, I’m firmly aware of my own glass house. The whole Battlestar Galactica centon thing, y’all are just going to have to forgive me for. But in order not to compound that, I won’t “out” anyone who’s fallen down on this cardinal rule, but what I hope I’ll succeed in doing by the end of this chapter is sensitizing you to this crippling shortcoming so that you might first spot it in the work of others, then your own, and avoid it like the plague.

I would like to actually find some kind of common text, maybe a movie we can all watch, in which the problem of internal inconsistency raises its ugly head, then we can dig into that and see the negative ripple effect this can have on a story. That would be an interesting post. I’ll ruminate on that. Maybe we’ll watch the movie Legion.

Leaving it at that for now.

This was cut from right after the sentence that ends with “Even if you’re sure you have a photographic memory.”

Here’s a test. Without flipping back, answer in less than ten seconds this question: What is the first word on page 117 of this book. Not sure? You don’t have a photographic memory. Got it right in less than ten seconds without cheating? Stop reading this, switch over to a book on Blackjack strategy, learn to count cards, and get to Vegas as quickly as possible.

Okay, so if you’re reading this line you haven’t left for Vegas, and you’ve admitted to yourself that you need to write stuff down.

And here’s some swell advice that didn’t make the final cut:

Here’s a money saving tip: Hit the discount stores a week after school starts and stock up on all the unsold notebooks they’re trying to unload now that all the kids have bought theirs and have made it back to school fully equipped.

It’s true, too. I do this every year.

And there’s that advice about rituals again. Do not get in the way of your own creativity. The more rules you set up for yourself in terms of where, when, why, and how you write, the less writing you will do. It’s that simple.


—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 SIX ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

  1. petty says:

    Your “respect and love for the fantasy genre still comes through” for sure. I am enjoying this book so much. Seriously. It’s helped me think about a lot of angles I wasn’t considering (in crafting my world/society/characters) — but it’s “uplifting” and positive enough that these considerations aren’t bogging me down, aren’t totally overwhelming me (e.g. I didn’t stop writing to create a complex religious system for my world just yet… because the scenes haven’t called for a religious system yet). Oy, must not go on and on about how much I appreciate this book! Reading the Kindle edition. Highlighting tons. Thanks for writing it.

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