Do you have a question about writing fantasy, science fiction, or horror? A question about writing, editing, or publishing in general? Have a great tip for your fellow authors?

This is your chance to ASK PHIL—and join in a conversation with your fellow authors.

But please, this is, and always will be, a blog about writing, so I will need everyone to keep politics, religion, reviews, self-promotion, spam, and anything else that isn’t specifically about writing off this page. There are loads of other places on the internet to talk about any of that other stuff.

That being said, please leave your questions here as comments, and I will respond as soon as I can. And please feel free to comment on comments, and, well . . . you know how to work the internet.

For those of you looking for more specific advice, you can hook up with me for full book edits and one-on-one consultations and on-going story and writing coaching via Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

—Philip Athans

P.S.: As requested, the plot graph from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction:



171 Responses to ASK PHIL

  1. Pingback: ASK, AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  2. Juan Dougnac says:

    Just a psychological question, Mr. Athans: When you started writing, did you get the sensation your writing was worthless, despite the good comments of other people?

    It happens to me as I read what I’ve written. I like it and I think other people find it enjoyable too, but then I take a look at the Lord of the Rings or Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and get the sensation that I’ll never get to be as good as Tolkien or Williams, no matter how hard I try. Do you have any counsel about this situation, besides “keep writing”?

  3. Yes, I did get that feeling when I started writing, and the entire time including right now. If you’re reading your favorite books, especially stuff that’s widely considered classics of the genre like Lord of the Rings, and think your writing isn’t as good, that isn’t necessarily an instance of a lack of self-respect. I read books all the time that make me think, “I should be this good,” or “I should have thought of that,” and I honestly think that’s a GOOD thing. It’s you saying: “I want to be better at this.”

    Creative writing is not something that can be “perfected.” No matter how long you do it, you’re still getting better at it–that is, if you recognize that you always have something to learn, and always give yourself a next higher level to strive toward. Once you’ve decided you’ve got this thing locked, and every word you write is pure, unassailable genius, you’re in big trouble.

    So, yes, KEEP WRITING but also keep thinking you could be better at it, and keep working toward that goal. You will get better, but you will never finish learning.

  4. Salient advice, Phil. I agree. It’s good to be wowed by other writers. It’s what keeps us alive as readers, and what propels us to improve as writers. Which is pretty much what you said.

  5. I think one of my biggest issues with my writing is knowing what the heck I’ve written after I’ve written it. Because I loathe writing product descriptions for Amazon, summaries for interviews and blog posts, and, above all, I despise pitching my stories orally. I didn’t spend a year writing my WiP just to give someone a five-second summary of it so they can take another one to two seconds to decide if they think I’m a “real” writer.

    So, how do you figure out what’s you’ve got once you’ve gotten it? Have half a dozen beta readers write a description of what it’s about as if they were simply telling a friend? And then collate the similarities and join them with my own?

    • Philip Athans says:

      Actually I think that’s a great idea–giving it to trusted readers and having them do it. Traditionally, it’s the editor who writes cover copy, catalog copy, etc. I did it for so many books at WotC I’ve long ago lost count, and it’s not a skill everyone has. But then authors are indeed asked to essentially write marketing copy in order to get it in front of agents and editors in the first place.

      There’s very little you can do to avoid some level of formula in that sort of thing, and it does have to distill what may be a massive epic fantasy into less than a hundred words, but the good news is that the “gatekeepers” who read that (agents and editors) know:

      1. You aren’t necessarily an experienced copywriter.
      2. There’s always more to a novel than its log line or elevator pitch.

      So if all you’re doing is identifying the hero, the villain, and the central conflict no one in the publishing biz is going to think, Oh, what? No subplots? No worldbuilding? But they will be able to see if you can form a coherent sentence (I done writted a fictional novel), are not insane (this is the greatest book of all time, like Harry Potter meets 50 Shades of Grey), and at least a smidge original (Bulboo Blaggins leaves Halflingshire in search of the Single Ring…).

      Ultimately if you can’t identify you hero and what he/she wants, your villain and what he/she wants, and why they end up in conflict, your book probably has more significant problems than the lack of a decent cover letter.

  6. craig says:

    Any plans to participate in events up in the True North Strong and Free, where winter is perpetually coming (aka Canada)? Particularly the Vancouver area? We’re just a quick drive from Seattle, so no flying, and all you’ll have to deal with is a border guard asking if you’re bringing any guns with you…

  7. Joe says:

    ok, so i know this isnt exactly about writing but im in high school and i really want to work at wizards of the coast like you. so im wondering what is work like at WoTC and what things i should do to prepare myself to work at a publishing company. thanks.

    • Philip Athans says:

      For the record, I no longer work at Wizards of the Coast, but all in all it was a terrific place to work, and I still have a number of friends there. There were times when I was just blown away that I was sitting at a table talking about D&D and it was my job–they were paying me to do that.

      For a high school student I would give this basic advice: GO TO COLLEGE. Go to the best university you can get into and study English, Journalism, or some combination of Liberal Arts/Humanities. I think you’ll find that editors and writers alike come from varied academic backgrounds. I went to film school, for instance, and I worked with history majors and so on, and one editor with a master’s in cultural anthropology.

      While you’re getting that education stay current with the genre. Play RPGs and TCGs, and video games, and read not just WotC and other shared-world/tie-in books, but be conversant with the fantasy and SF genres in general. Go to conventions and attend the seminars where you can interact with editors, authors, and game designers. Pay attention to what goes on in convention booths, read all the little pamphlets, flyers, and giveaways for a sense of how companies like WotC present themselves.

      You’re still young so you have plenty of time to just SOAK IT IN. But without that degree you will not even be considered for a staff position, so keep those grades up and get that degree. Even if you end up in an entirely different field, an education is essential and something no one can take away from you.

  8. Hi Phil! This is a great idea.
    What’s the most common mistake/error you saw as part of WoTC or have seen from your students? What one question about writing do you hear most often and how do you respond?

    • All in all I think the most common mistake writers make is a passive beginning. I advise anyone who’ll listen to begin a story or novel in media res (in the middle of things). Too many manuscripts begin with what my friend and former co-worker Mark Sehestedt termed: weather report/fashion report/travel report. These are stories that begin with some variation on “it was dark and stormy night,” then move on to a loving description of the hero’s flowing blond hair and shining silver armor, then a dry recitation of where he’s going and where he’s coming from. In other words: scene setting.

      Better to start your story with the same hero hanging off the side of cliff while an army of orcs throw rocks at him — THEN filter in who he is, where he came from, and where he’s going as it becomes relevant. You get as little as one sentence, rarely more than one paragraph, and surely no more than one page to really hook an editor–especially with a short story. GRAB THEM!

      As for the most common question it tends to be some variation on “How much money will I make?” or “What are my chances of success?” The answer to both questions is “Slim to none, unless you work your butt off and are very lucky.” But the latter only ever follows the former.

  9. Shawn says:

    This is about writers and depression. Are you ready? Here it comes.

    This past October 30th proved to be a day that would change the rest of my life. When my thoughts are cleared of unfiltered emotions I can say that in the long-run this change will be for the better but right now it hurts like nothing has ever hurt before. I can’t go an hour alone with my thoughts without running to one social networking site or the next, looking for someone to talk to in order to distract myself.

    Sleeping comes in 2 to 3 hour spurts in which I wake up just as exhausted as when I closed my eyes. Eating has become just as much of a chore. I’ve gone from wallowing in misery and woe to feeling positive and motivated and back again; sometimes all within the span of an hour. Don’t worry; I’m getting to the writing part.

    Looking at the great writers of the past from Mark Twain to Robert E. Howard, many of them suffered through depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, or some combination of the three and suicide often seemed to follow sometime after. So on to my question/s.

    Are we writers somehow predisposed to things such as depression and substance abuse? Are these the trials we must suffer for our chosen craft? And more importantly, could we truly write without it? Sure, anyone can write a sentence describing Joe-schmo walking across the street to the store. But could R.A. Salvatore have conveyed Wulfgar’s struggle with demons if he himself had not struggled with his own at some point in his life?

    I guess my biggest question is how do we take these negative emotions and use them in a positive way? And how do we make sure we do not become overwhelmed by them?

    Thank you in advance. A section like this is truly a generous idea and it speaks volumes of you as a writer and a person.


    (As a side note, I understand that not just writers seem predisposed to such problems. Many people in the creative field seem to be, from artists and musicians to directors and actors.)

    • I have written here a number of times about my own struggles with depression and anxiety and have found some science to back up the idea that we writers seem more prone to it than most, but I’m not sure anyone has a clear answer as to whether writers become depressed, or depressed people become writers.

      One of the many “hardest parts” about being a creative writer, and I suspect a journalist as well, is that you often have to dig into the darker side of humanity. As you said with a character like Wulfgar, or with villains too, you have to write, often in some detail, about people doing terrible things and/or confronting the most difficult circumstances imaginable. And ultimately you have to dig into the darker corners of your own psyche and experience in order to give that stuff the appropriate emotional weight.

      I have a feeling that substance abuse comes from an attempt to self-medicate. Rather than calling on the good advice of a healthcare professional, we wind up in the bottle, or worse. But we live in a world where that help is available–a world that Robert E. Howard wasn’t lucky enough to see.

      I’m doing a million times better just having gone to my doctor and getting a single prescription. For some of us, it gets a little more complicated, a little more difficult, but there is help out there and once you realize that depression and/or anxiety has found its way into your life you have to reach out for that help.

  10. craig says:

    What’re your thoughts on hiring a freelance editor to review ones work before submission? Is this frowned upon by publishers?

    • I don’t think that’s frowned upon by publishers, who don’t really even ever have to know you took that step. If you feel your manuscript could benefit from a professional edit, and you have the money to invest, I’d say go ahead and do that. In fact, I’m working on an editing project for an author right now that falls (at least partially) into that category.

      And what I mean by “at least partially” is that that author is still weighing the pros and cons of sending that to editors or publishing it himself. Of you’re self-publishing, to my mind, that edit step is NOT optional.

  11. Pingback: WHAT I’M THANKFUL FOR, 2012 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  12. Tina Roye says:

    Hi Phil,

    My question is about writing and editing.

    Writing question is:

    When you are writing, how do you get past writing awkward scenes, and stuff that do not make sense to the story? I find I am doing that a whole lot lately and want to know how to fix it.

    Editing question:

    I am about to graduate from UNT with a Bachelors in Professional and Technical Communications, and I have to build a portfolio online not only for school, but also for my future career as an editor.

    I was wondering, how do you show off your editing in a portfolio?

    Thats all for now, thank you Phil.


    • Philip Athans says:

      In regards to awkward/extraneous scenes as you’re writing: Don’t worry about it … yet! I tend to be a write-first-ask-questions-later kinda guy. If you’re writing along and thinking, Hmm, not too sure about this… just keep going. It’s always better to write first THEN edit than to edit as you write. People who do that tend to get caught up in a loop with the first few thousand words, going back over stuff in a vain attempt to get it perfect before moving on to the next chapter. That way lies madness.

      Get the whole thing down–just get it out of you. When you have the whole story–or even the whole BOOK–done in rough draft form you’ll be able to more clearly see what needs to be revised, cut, or added, based on a bigger-picture view. Once you feel it’s ALMOST there, give it to a trusted first reader for a fresh set of eyes. There WILL be problems you couldn’t see. It’s not actually possible to edit your own work.


      To be honest, I’m struggling a bit with my own editing resume. It happens to be a big item on my to do list for the next two weeks. Keep an eye on to see what I came up with. I’d appreciate comments and suggestions!

      • James says:

        It really is all in “master the basics” isn’t it! I’ve heard this advice – get it down first – thousands of times, but you might suggest that the answer to one of my questions below is just that!

  13. Chris Parsons says:

    I absolutely love your Guide to Writing Sci Fi and Fantasy. Your book is exactly what I need in order to progress.

    I know werewolves, vampires, giants, dragons, elves, dwarves, etc are all within the public domain and are available for any writer to use without permission or express use.

    There are so many more that seem not so cut and dry as being “available”. For example I am not so sure about bugbears, gelatinous cubes, kua-toa, wererats, displacer beasts, duergar, etc,

    My books will be set in the realm of fantasy and will certainly reflect various iconic fantasy races and monsters. I’m not sure of where that line of “free” material is versus “copyrighted” material.

    Would you be able to recommend a source that might have a more comprehensive list as to what encompasses public domain material for writing fantasy?

    I appreciate any help you can provide.



    • Philip Athans says:

      GREAT question!

      I’m not sure that a comprehensive list exists, but it should. There are some monsters that are proprietary, like the beholder and mind flayer from D&D, but many, like the bugbear, are taken from mythology. The trick with mythical beasties is to give them your own fresh take. The D&D bugbear was INSPIRED by the old tales, but has become something unique to that game. I’d leave your D&D Monster Manuals on the shelf and refer to them only to make sure that your bugbears are different from their bugbears.

      One of my ten favorite fantasy novels, The Stolen Child, is about hobgoblins, and those hobgoblins are nothing even remotely similar to the D&D hobgoblin, and much more influenced by myth and legend, but then given a unique and clever twist.

      The fast way to at least identify if a particular monster comes form the public domain of myth and legend is a quick Google search. Even the often incorrect Wikipedia will at least tell you that such and such first appeared in, say, Greek mythology. Anything that comes from another author’s book, or from a game, etc., you’ll want to pass on.

  14. Philip,

    Your advice has been invaluable in my journey to write my first (yes, I’m an optimist, there will be more than one) fantasy novel. You specifically admonish us to ‘show, don’t tell.’ I have written my book using that approach. However, when I go to my bookshelf and reference the many outstanding, and highly successful, fantasy novels I’ve grown to love, I notice many of those authors failed miserably at that advice. Yet those books are great to read and were very successful.

    Is success more about a great story than it is about the mechanics of how it’s told? I’m sure there are many books written that are examples of technical mastery, yet are uninteresting.

    Between a great story that breaks the rules of good writing, and an ‘adequate’ story that follow the rules of Good Writing, what is your recommended approach?

    • Philip Athans says:

      Absolutely, a great story is most important. Advice like “show don’t tell” is good general advice, but the trick is always to know when to bend the rules, or break them, always doing what’s best for your story and characters. That having been said, there are some great books–classics–that wouldn’t be published today. Styles and expectations change.

  15. Thanks for presenting at ECCC last weekend. I greatly enjoyed your panel discussions and just ordered a copy of your book, “The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction”. – Looking forward to its arrival.


  16. Don says:

    Hi Phil,

    I just recently finished reading your incredibly helpful book on writing fantasy and science fiction, and I am really enjoying your blog. I am working on an epic fantasy book. I feel like I have gotten some great insight from you and others (really loved S. King’s “On Writing”) on the writing end of things, but I’m lagging behind in understanding the publishing side.

    Are there some good resources that you can point me to for gaining some understanding about the publishing process and how to go about it. I’m a novice, so I’m looking for the 101 kind of information – where to begin, when during the writing process should i start thinking about publishing, how to choose an agent/agency, what an agent should do for you, how to look for a publisher (or should the agent do that?), etc.

    I would appreciate any help you can provide, which is a double blessing since you’ve already been so helpful. Thanks!


    • Philip Athans says:

      Thanks, Don, it’s always great to hear that the book was helpful.
      Great question, too, about the business side of publishing. You’ve inspired me to write more on that part of it here, so you’ll have that to look forward to. But in the meantime, you should check out Writer’s Digest University. I’ve done a couple of tutorials for them, and they have plenty more, covering a wide range of topics, and all coming from industry professionals, including authors, agents, editors, and marketing folks.
      Here’s the link:

      Look on the left side under the heading “WORKSHOPS BY GOAL” and you’ll find “Traditionally Publish My Work” — some valuable info in there, from a reliable source.

  17. Pingback: MY BICENTENNIAL (AFTER A FASHION) | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  18. lidy says:

    Hi Phil,

    Have you ever had a prolonged hiatus while writing. I’m currently working on my first novel and have already built up my world and written my synopsis. i already know how i want it to start and end but i still find myself stuck on moving forward past chapter 7. I wonder if it’s because i know the destination that I’m unsure on how to write a compelling journey. The story itself has four main characters, all with their own agenda. You would think having more than one character will the writing process easier but it doesn’t seem to be the case. What do you suggest I do to get over this hump?
    Also how would you fix the problem of being too wordy?

    • Philip Athans says:

      I had exactly the same problem this time last year, and wrote all about it here:

      The best thing to do is stop and THINK. What’s stopping you? Chances are you’ve hit something in the story, characters, etc. that just isn’t working for you. It helped me to sit down with Cat Rambo and talk it out. Hopefully you have someone whose ear you can bend, or maybe even whose shoulder you can cry on!

      As for wordiness, that’s where your “beta readers” come in. Have someone whose opinion you trust and who won’t just give you one-word feedback like “great” read your manuscript. Actually ask the question: “Is it too wordy?” “Did it slow down for you at some point?” You have to give that friend permission to be straight with you. Once someone told me I used the words “just” and “actually” too often I started to keep and eye out for them. I still use them way too much but now I search for them and weed them out before submitting a manuscript and my writing has improved because of it.

      • James says:

        For a minute there I thought you meant you sat down to talk with the character! I might just try that. Or a friend or tape recorder – supposedly getting everything out of your brain out, as fast as you can in a semi-intelligible form actually increases IQ. Because the answer is in your thoughts, you just ignore it. Either way, the Law of Attraction is: the more you pay attention to a certain kind of thought, the more you get. (People think it’s the events. That’s an illusion, or a myth, or at best an unprovable hypothesis. The events *do* connect with what your observing, either way.)

  19. Andrew Ireland says:

    I probably have too many questions, so I’ll just post a couple.
    Firstly, I believe a good cover is key to grabbing potential readers, where have you gotten your cover art done?
    lastly, I’m having a hard time world building. My characters live in a kingdom that is rife with political corruption and is recovering from a war of expansion and a civil war yet I feel like when they are walking around and exploring I am failing to describe to the reader just what I see when they’re our on an adventure. Coming from WoTC and having worked with, in my opinion, the greatest world builder of our time, Robert Salvatore, what advice do you have to build a world readers will not only just read about, but be able to envision in their own minds?

    I really like your Blog. Very helpful.
    -IS1 Ireland, USN

    • Philip Athans says:

      I’ll take these in order…

      Good covers are ESSENTIAL and this is where a lot of indies fall down. The artists for Arron of the Black Forest (Keith Birdsong) and The Fathomless Abyss (Mats Minnhagen) are being paid a royalty rather than the traditional flat fee. Not all artists are willing to work this way, but from where I sit the new indie/self-pub/micro-press “boom” can only continue if it successfully challenges the way money traditionally flows. The traditional publishing business puts ALL of the financial risk on the shoulders of the publisher, which is what made it virtually impossible for small press publishers to function under that model.

      There are legions of unrecognized artists out there who may be happy to sign on — start trolling the internet and sites like Deviant Art. It doesn’t hurt to ask. the worst that’ll happen is they’ll say no, and you ask someone else.

      On the other hand, I have advised indie authors — and will continue to do so — that the second you self-publish you are now, for better or for worse, and with all that entails — a publisher, and that means you have to pay for some of the stuff that publishers pay for, like editing, cover art and design, marketing, and so on. You may find that artists are reluctant to create a new piece exclusively for your book on a royalty basis, but they may be willing to sell you non-exclusive rights to an existing piece for a reasonable price. So if you see art out there that you think might work as a cover for your book, approach that artist and see what you can work out.

    • Philip Athans says:

      The worldbuilding question is a much harder one to answer.

      The best I can do, I think, in this venue, is give a couple pieces of big-picture advice:

      Appeal to all five senses.
      Stop for a minute (or an hour or more) and put yourself in that scene–now go beyond what it looks like and imagine the sounds of the place (birds singing, the rumble of an engine — what?). What does it smell like? And not just when that’s obvious, like the smell of rotting flesh right before the discovery of a body, but in a more mundane/real way. What does it feel like? Is it chilly? Humid? People experience the world in lots of different ways. If all you do is describe the visual scene, it’ll feel as though we’re watching this on TV or through a window–we’ll feel separated from the place, and so will feel separated from the characters in that space.

      Always ask yourself why, why, why? Why is this scene happening in this place and not someplace else? What is the psychological/emotional MEANING that this place has for the people who inhabit it? Think about how a conversation between you and your significant other might change depending on where you are. Would you say the same things in the same way in the waiting room at a doctor’s office that you would in the privacy of your bedroom? Do you talk back to the screen while watching TV but not in a movie theater? And then ask yourself–why is that? Why do people speak softly in a library and scream their heads off in a football stadium? Then think carefully about the “rules” for the place that scene is set, and how that would effect the people in that space.

  20. Pingback: IF AT FORTY-NINTH YOU DON’T SUCCEED, TRY AND TRY AGAIN | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  21. Jeremy Snow says:

    I really enjoyed the no bullshit approach to “The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction”. It didn’t blow rays of sunshine in my face, but gave useful information that showed that this CAN be done if the work is put into it. Big thumbs up, and thanks for writing the book.

    First, I’d like to know of a good online community to mix into for advice, and be able to share constructive criticism about what I’m doing, and what I need to do.

    Second, I’d recently picked up WriteItNow 4. It seems like a great tool to put all my stuff together including characters, timelines, events, relationships, ideas, etc. (It even graphs some of the stuff) I like that it has a user friendly interface and is easy to get started. Before, I’d keep separate files of everything which con sometimes get messy and confusing. Are you using it, and if so, what are your thoughts on it?

    Take care, and have a happy Thanksgiving.


    • Philip Athans says:

      Thanks, Jeremy–it’s always great to hear the book is helping!

      As for online communities, I’m honestly not sure if such a thing exists, though you may want to check out and Poets & Writers:

      I haven’t used WriteItNow–I’m still stuck on Word, stripped of all auto-formatting functions, but if that’s a tool that works for you, have at it.

  22. David Guymer says:

    I realise I’m following on from Jeremy above, but I also just read “The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction” and wanted to say how much I enjoyed it compared to other books that are out there. I write for Black Library (your short story with the “Time of Legends” anthology was actually my introduction to your work) and it’s become something of a ritual for me to read How-To books between projects so I’ve come to read quite a few.

    I particularly enjoyed the addition of ‘Hugo Mann’s perfect Soul’ at the end. I can’t believe that that story never got published, and just goes to show how tough it can be. I’m delighted that you were able to give it a home because I feel ever so slightly enriched for having read it!

  23. Hi Mr. Athans! Please excuse the preamble; my questions are coming… I have followed your blog and read TGTWFASF all through the process of writing my first novel. I’m currently running through my 4th draft, incorporating feedback from a group of beta readers.

    After doing months of research, I’m leaning toward self-publishing. I’m a quality nut (although this is my 4th full draft I’d put it closer to 6 with the amount of revisions and corrections I’ve done piecemeal), and I’d like to hire someone to do a substantive edit. My problem: I can’t afford the rates.

    It’s not that I’m not willing to put some money out for an editor, but the rates I’ve been finding would put the cost of an edit for my 125k-word manuscript in the $2k-$4k range – double to quadruple my max budget. On top of that, there’s little chance of me making that up in royalties for a first-time, self-published book.

    So, my questions:
    1. What advice do you have for someone looking for a substantive copy-edit on the cheap? Is it possible to find quality editors that will work for less?
    2. For a self-published novel, do you think the ROI on hiring an editor at these rates is worth it? As optimistic as I’d like to be, the realist in me says I’d never cover that gap on royalty returns. On the other hand, I don’t want to publish crap…

    Thanks in advance for your time. I really appreciate the advice you give here, and I’m looking forward to hearing back from you.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Thanks Luke!

      I think I can give you one answer to cover both your questions…

      Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to get quality “anything” on the cheap. But that having been said, we’re a bit through the looking glass in this new era of indie publishing, and making up the “rules” as we go along, so make up a rule!

      I’ll continue to maintain that when all is said and done the new affordability in publishing with e-books and POD isn’t, and won’t, create a real boom in individual self-published authors making a living entirely on their own. I’ll refer you back to this post: in regards to why it’s still MUCH better to at least try to get published through the more traditional route, especially in fantasy, which is very popular — publishers and readers are buying.

      If you have made the decision to go it alone, please keep in mind that once you self-published you’re no longer “just” an author, but a publisher too and have to do everything (or almost everything) they do — and one of the things they do is spend money. The fact is that unless you have also spent money on significant marketing, already have a big readership, etc., your chances of earning back as much as $4000 are EXTREMELY slim.

      Here’s one suggestion that might help: The co-op.

      With the two indie series I’ve worked on, Arron of the Black Forest and The Fathomless Abyss, we had a group of authors and an artist who shared the work load and the royalties. Even without creating that sort of shared-world series, do you have a friend who’s also self-publishing? If you edit his/her book will he/she edit yours? That’s how Mel Odom and I are working Arron. We share credit on the cover but really the book is written by whoever’s name is first and the other acts as editor. That way you’re getting a “free” edit on the time-honored barter system.

      Anyone in any business needs to have a solid network of associates, and writers are no different. Look for online communities where other indie authors hang out, take a look at the quality of their work, make yours available to them, and throw this idea out there. Believe me, you are NOT the only one who’s unable to pony up thousands of dollars for an edit. Nor are you the only one who recognizes that a solid edit is not optional.

  24. Phil, on a related matter regarding self-published authors [I self-published my first novel, Ohlen’s Arrow, a few months ago] … what are the pros and cons of a self-published author actually creating a publishing company (S-Corp or C-Corp, etc.) that is its own legal entity? I’m already spending my own time and money on my book … paying contractors to design my cover and edit the text … would there be an advantage to forming a publishing company (with one employee: me) and publishing my book that way?

    • Philip Athans says:

      That’s a question I’ll have to leave to those more qualified. Ask your tax advisor/CPA or a good tax attorney for advice like that, especially with the more complex business models like an S-Corp.

      There are simpler ways to form a publishing company, like a sole proprietorship, that will lend your book a more professional appearance, and may lead to bigger things. If you approach this as a small press rather than as a single author publishing a single book, you may be able to raise funds, via Kickstarter, for instance, that will help you pay for marketing. This is another opportunity to hook up with a co-op of other indie authors, pooling those resources to publish half a dozen books under a co-owned imprint that might help increase your discoverability in a VERY crowded marketplace.

  25. Hi Phil – I enjoyed your presentations at Emerald City Comicon last year. Will you be presenting again this year?

    • I don’t think so–kinda spaced some of the spring conventions this year, getting really busy at the end of 2013. Also, I’m trying to widen the net a little and looking at other (relatively) nearby cities like Portland, Spokane, etc.

      • If you ever make it down here to Portland let us know. I enjoyed the sessions at ECCC last year and I’d like to hear you speak again. If you’re down this way you might consider hitting up Aaron Duran and the guys at Geek in the City and about being a guest on their program.

  26. Phil, having worked for WoTC, you are in a special position to answer my question. I am wishing to write a novel that references AD&D concepts and names. Specifically, character classes like clerics, magic users, fighters, and thieves, and monsters like kobolds and orcs. I realize those are still somewhat general terms, but I am also curious about placing my novel within the World of Greyhawk, and reference specific locations and cities in that TSR product. Is this allowed? I tried to find this info on the WoTC web site’s author’s FAQ and by contacting them through email, but haven’t found an answer nor have I heard back from them.

    • Wizards of the Coast has all rights to Dungeons & Dragons, including the distinctive monsters (beholders, yes; orcs, no) and settings (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, etc.) and you won’t get permission to use those valuable trademarks for your own work. WotC publishes fiction set in those lines, and they are the only ones who are legally able to do so. From my understanding, the novel lines are getting much, much smaller now, so I doubt there are any opportunities for new authors to write D&D or Magic: The Gathering-based books.

      Ultimately, don’t waste any of your time or creative energy on a Greyhawk book. It will never go anywhere. Instead, build a new world of your own and show the world what great original fantasy you have to offer!

      • James says:

        I wondered if ‘orc’ was copyrighted. I renamed my orcs, made them a bit more anthro – I actually thought they were already — and gave them a world-specific culture to evade copyright issues. (Superstitious dread of anything that can be destroyed, and a creation-myth that says that humans first created them, then rejected them out of jealousy.) Still, I worried a bit because the word “Orc” is sometimes used as a pejorative by my less ‘forgiving’ human characters.

        Anyhow, I note you didn’t say that it wasn’t copyrighted, only that TSR/WotC didn’t have it…

      • Philip Athans says:

        Orcs come from mythology and so are free for anyone to use. Still, if you’ve created your own specific culture that’s always better anyway, so stick with that! I think Games Workshop has at least tried to trademark the spelling “ork,” but I’m not sure how successful that was.

  27. ferrariforlife says:

    First, thanks for your blog. It’s awesome! I discovered it today and I’m learning a lot.

    I’m writing a fantasy novel using the six core competencies explained in Larry Brooks’ book “Story Engineering.” I think your readers will find the book very helpful in taking an idea for a story, and running it through the story engineering process before writing a single word of prose. Trust me! It works!

    I had a scifi story idea that I ended up tossing because it just didn’t pass the story engineering litmus test. Although that might sound like a bad thing, it turned out to be a good thing because the story just wasn’t going to work. What was stupid at the time, is that I just started writing after coming up with the idea. Then I got stuck. While looking for some advice on how to get unstuck, I stumbled across Larry’s book and it helped me see the light. I was doing it all wrong. As Larry puts it, I was just “pantsing” the story. For me, that was a bad idea.

    A year past and I finally came up with a unique fantasy story idea. It took me about a month to engineer it – and it wasn’t that easy, but after engineering the story, the prose is a piece of cake! Yes, I did do a rough outline, but I no longer have to think about where the story is going or where to put critical elements. I just have to write it. I’m starting chapter 6 tomorrow.

    Unfortunately, I still have a lot to learn about writing a novel, and that’s why I’m reading your blog. It’s good stuff! I’ll have to read your book next.


  28. Pat says:

    Dear Mr. Athans,
    Thank you for the blog; it’s been a great read. For the one-on-one consulting that is now offered through Writers Digest, how much of a client’s work do you read before hand in order to help with questions that may come up about the work in a 30min to 1hr phone call.

    • Philip Athans says:

      We’ll figure that out on a case-by-case basis, but a chapter, a short story–whatever (short of a full-length novel) will give me a sense of the specific challenges you’re facing.

  29. Might there be any place on the Web where I can find some of the figures/graphs presented in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction? So far I am specifically looking for the very first figure presented concerning plot development and the character’s A-B line but I would be interested in finding the others as well.

    Also, I am looking forward to your new guide, Writing Monsters. It looks very promising but I actually have a question about one of your other guides: The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference. I had a chance to look through a preview of it on Amazon and it looks like it covers a lot of the same things as Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction (the one by yourself, Orson Scott Card and Jay Lake). I already own the latter and so I was wondering if it is worth getting the former or should I just save my money?

    Thanks a lot! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You’re an awesome person for having a blog like this and letting some Joe-schmo like me come and bug you with questions. Keep writing!

    • Philip Athans says:

      I’ll try to post that chart from the Guide to Writing Fantasy & SF here soon.

      I didn’t have anything to do with The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference and only wrote a new chapter on the state of the fantasy and Sf genres for Orson Scott Card’s book.

      And I’ll keep writing if you will!

  30. Mike Wallace says:

    Self-publishing is a route a lot of writers are taking, but my research paints a pretty dismal picture concerning the costs of printing, layouts, colors, type of paper, etc. Are there sites online that can help guide you through the process of publishing in a way that is affordable (or at least reasonable) but can get you the resources you want (or again, within reason)?

    • Philip Athans says:

      This can be a difficult question to answer since no two people will necessarily share the same definition of “affordable” or “within reason”–but the one thing any self-published author needs to understand is that once you make that decision to self-publish you are now, for better or for worse, a PUBLISHER. And what almost no one seems to understand about the publishing business is that it’s the publisher that bears ALL of the up-front costs of a book, and often sees the lowest percentage of return on the cover price.

      there are online sources for editing services, typesetting, some POD services like Lulu or iUniverse will do all the work for you (for a price, of course), but it’s still not a way to make a living…

      The fact is, self-publishing both e-books and print-on-demand books is easy and free, but if you do that without a professional line edit (aka story edit, developmental edit, and for most novels this is around $1500 and up), AND a professional copy edit (maybe $800), AND a professional proofread (as little as $500) — and by “professional” I mean someone who doesn’t kinda know what to look for and has maybe read a lot of books, but someone who is educated and experienced in that very specialized field — your book is not going to be on par with even the smallest publishers. NO author can edit himself!

      Then, and this is especially important in the fantasy genre, real cover art… a professional illustrator is going to need at least $5000 for that cover painting, maybe $6000 or more. A typesetter? Somewhere in the $500 range. And that’s just to get the book ready to put on sale.

      Of course, you can work the angles to try to get some or all of these services for much less or even for free. Do you have a bunch of indie author friends you can swap editing services with? Do it! There are good but still young/unestablished artists who might be willing to work on a royalty basis–can you throw him/her 5% or 10% of the net? Do it! Do you have Adobe InDesign on your computer? Willing to spend hours learning at least basic typesetting skills to do it yourself? Go for it! But still you’ll end up trying to find ways to get the word out in a social media landscape chock full o’ GoFundMe for this, Kickstart me for the other thing, and buy this then buy this then buy the other thing.

      You might make it work–stranger things have happened–but the odds are against you.

  31. Mike Wallace says:

    So who can we turn to when we have a story or tabletop game that we really want to publish, also want to retain control over? Publishers can do a lot for you, but at the end of the day, you’re singing over your rights to that product and leaving it in the hands of people determined to reshape it in their own image. I really want to publish a tabletop campaign setting using the Pathfinders system, but I want to keep control over it so that I and anyone who I can entice to work on it with me retain an amount of creative freedom over it, that I can keep it from being say, apocalypsed into something I hadn’t intended, while other writers can come back to a shared world and know that they have freedom to continue writing about characters they developed that exist in my setting.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Now that’s a horse of a different color!

      If you’re writing a story or novel that’s unique to you–not set in someone else’s property like Forgotten Realms or Star Wars–you do maintain the copyright to that story. But the game world, including tabletop RPGs, is a very different universe. Everything I ever wrote for TSR and Wizards of Coast is owned, lock, stock, and barrel, by the company and though they pay me royalties on the books they can do with them as they damn well please, including have another author write a sequel, etc. It’s the nature of the beast.

      There might be RPG publishers who would be willing to publish your game setting without asking that you assign rights to them, so I don’t want to speak for the whole industry, but this is why you see so many small RPG companies out there — if you want to own it, you have to go it on your own. And it can be an even more expensive proposition, since a novel tends to be the simplest thing to typeset — no illustrations, no charts, etc. — but RPGs will require real InDesign kung fu. Be ready to PAY for that. If you want interior color — wow, is that expensive — oversize/magazine-sized hardcovers, also really expensive. Put a budget together, decide what you’re willing to live without, and get thee hence to Kickstarter!

  32. fantasywriteronline says:

    If you’ve not already seen it, I hope you enjoy this video.

  33. fantasywriteronline says:

    So do you have any tips or motivation for someone starting their own writing blog? Especially as far as promotion and content goes.

    • Philip Athans says:

      I have two:

      First of all, put yourself on a schedule of regular posts and STICK TO IT! I post every Tuesday, religiously. Once a week seems to have worked for me. I don’t even recall why I chose Tuesady–that probably just happened to be the day I finally sat down to create the blog in the first place. Choose your day based on when you feel confident you’ll be able to sit down and write something.

      Second, stay on topic! It’s exceedingly rare that you’ll see me writing about anything here other than SF, fantasy, and horror; writing; publishing; and related subjects. Like anyone, I have my own personal political leanings, but generally try to keep that out of FAH. I don’t want this to become a blog for “liberal writers,” or “conservative writers” or “Christian writers,” or “atheist writers” … it’s for WRITERS, full stop. So there will be no rants about what’s in the news, and so on. Also, I always like to keep it positive. With very few exceptions, this blog is about how to write better and why SF, fantasy, and horror are genres to love and care for. I love and respect all writers, so there will be no reviews here, and (with the possible exception of my anti-new Star Trek movie rant) you won’t see me taking pot shots at other authors.

      I hope that helps!

      • Shawn Colletti says:

        Thanks a lot! This has really helped me. Your second tip is a huge help in my description of the blog and what it is all about. I think I will post reviews on my blog but sticking with your tip to keep things positive, I’ll only be reviewing books and other media that I enjoy.

        Also, I just wanted to let you know that I am going to use your text concerning WordPress ads on the blog.

        Thank you for your tips and your time. It means a lot to me.

        Keep writing.

        P.S. Show me mercy but I am actually a fan of the new Star Trek movies. Then again, I do not consider myself a Trekkie, only a casual fan. I started with TNG and for the longest time I never likes TOS but I gave it more of a chance after seeing these new movies and I’ve come to appreciate it (and the movies) a little more. So at least in that, the new flicks have done something positive. =]

  34. Pingback: Tears from Laughter | Fantasy Writer Online

  35. Anna Dobritt says:

    When dealing with several characters in a scene, how do you stay in one specific POV? That’s my weak point when writing.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Think carefully about what you need that scene to do–how it best moves your story forward. If it’s better that we know Character A is lying to Character B, for instance, then work from Character A’s POV. If it’s better we don’t know that Charcater A is lying, or there’s more dramatic tension in thinking he might be lying, then you want to be in Character B’s POV, wondering whether or not Character A is tellig the truth. Think of this one-scene, one-POV rule not as a hindrance but as a feature–as a way to control what your readers know and when they know it, so your readers are experiencing the story along with your characters.

  36. Anna Dobritt says:

    That’s the best piece of advice I’ve received concerning POV. Thank you very much!! 🙂

  37. Kristoffer Harbo says:

    Hi Phil,
    I was wondering if you can answer a question for me.
    Recently I read a discussion thread on LinkedIn for fantasy writers about cultural appropriation (I’m not sure if you have a LinkedIn account, haven’t found any yet). The name of the topic was “Stop giving Katanas to White Protagonists”, an obvious pun to Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. The forum does not specifically limit itself to the use of Katanas by non-Asian protagonists, but rather to the appropriation of cultural artifacts in our fantasy works.
    I wrote a question at the end of my posting on the forum, but unfortunately I have not received any answer. I feel that is question is important to my world-building.
    The katana, in my opinion, is not really a contentious weapon to use in fiction because it is a sword, and swords are quite common throughout history and in fantasy literature. On the other hand, It would be contentious to specifically write ‘katana’ in a fantasy setting, it is after all a Japanese word.
    But because swords are a common weapon, I simply describe them in my fiction and allow the reader to visualize them. I give them various names as well in order to differentiate them.
    This works well with common weapons such as swords, spears, maces, etc., but the challenge is when adopting weapons that are far more unique and exotic. I enjoy going into details of weapons, and there are a few weapons I am willing to add to my fiction, such as the Indian katar, the Indonesian karambit, and the Native American tomahawk. Weapons such as these are used by a specific culture and have no counterparts throughout the world, they are only known by their original names.

    There is a certain risk when European or American authors rely upon cultural appropriation of ‘exotic cultures’. Edward W. Said discussed this in his influential book “Orientalism” that focuses upon “Western” patronization of Oriental cultural artifacts. I believe most fantasy authors avoid this problem by building their world upon a European medieval setting, but for myself who wishes to incorporate elements from other cultures, this poses a concern for me.

    I’d like to know your views on this issue if it is not too much trouble.
    Best regards,

    • Philip Athans says:

      Not an easy question to answer, Kristoffer, but I’ll give it a try!

      The fast answer: It’s your world and you can do whatever you please!

      But the more considered response…

      As with weights and measures (minutes become centons, etc.), this sort of cultural anachronism can be avoided by asking a simple question that can reveal some complex issues: to translate or not to translate?

      If you imagine that everyone in your fantasy world is “really” speaking, say, Elvish or the Common Tongue (etc.) and, just as an author of historical fiction would do, you’re essentially translating everything from Elvish to English, be very careful what you chose to translate and what you choose not to translate. I’ve used the example of the piwafwi from the Forgotten Realms setting — a specific sort of cloak made by the drow. So if it’s a cloak, then why not just call it a cloak? In that case it’s becuase the piwafwi actually has some specific and unique magical properties. It’s not just a cloak but a very specific kind of cloak that exists nowhere else. In fact, there’s no “Common Tongue” word for it either, so even people inside the world will call it a piwafwi.

      So if that particular design of sword is called a katana in real-world Japan, in a novel set in the real world we’d use the word katana for the same reason we use the word piwafwi in the Forgotten Realms. But what you’re dealing with here is a clash if languages. If you’re translating everything but piwafwi from the drow language to English, to call that sword a katana is translating everything into English except this one Japanese term. Logic might then dictate that you describe the sword to look and function like a katana but invent a new word for it.

      But then there’s this level of complexity:

      English contains a huge number of words that were imported into the language from elsewhere … Words like canyon or facade have their roots in Spanish and French, respectively, but are now English words too — even exhibiting some subtle changes in spelling to accomodate the new language, like the addition of the y in canyon to replace the n with the ` over it, which in Spanish is pronounced ny. I think you could make a case that the word katana has entered popular English useage, even if we’re still aware of its Japanese root, so that you’re “translating” this particular sword from Common Tongue to the English “katana” the same way your characters might get lost in a winding canyon or put on a happy facade.

      That might have only added to your confusion… In the end it’s a judgement call that you — not some handful of potential critics — need to make.

  38. Kristoffer Harbo says:

    Complex or not, I am really grateful you took the time to answer.

    The drow anology really cleared things for me. I’m gonna go with my gut instinct and try to strike a balance. If I can describe an object well enough then the original ‘Earth’ name seems unnecessary. Of course, I’ll have to be selective over which names I use. I seem to have underestimated the language aspect of this issue.
    I won’t be using the name ‘katana’ though, it has too much ‘otaku’ over it. I’ll just think of a better name.

    Thank you so much for your opinion, it’s been a real boggle on my mind. I always look forward to your posts.
    Best regards,

  39. Shawn Colletti says:

    I hate maps!

    Okay, that’s not true. I love maps. Few illustrations make me smile more than a beautifully drawn map to really bring the setting alive.

    But I HATE making a map, even if it is for my eyes only.

    I love worldbuilding except for when it comes to the physical setting. I feel really comfortable creating a culture, a religion, history, characters, and monsters but when it comes to the setting (even when I can see it clearly in my head), I feel stuck.

    So do you have any tips for creating a setting that does NOT involve me drawing a map? A lot of authors in the fantasy genre have said that their story actually started with a map but I already have things such as plot, characters, and theme mapped out in my head. I’m just having trouble with the setting because I’ve become spoiled to the beautiful maps I’ve come across in other books.

    I wrote a post detailing the trouble I’m having but I’ve not gotten any replies so I thought I would run it by you.

    Thanks! And keep writing.

    • Philip Athans says:

      This is an easy one…

      Revise your definition of “drawing” to include anything that helps you–and just you, not anyone else–visualize the lay of the land.

      No one says your maps have to be professionally rendered, detailed works of cartographic genius.

      I love maps, love drawing maps, love looking at maps, exploring maps, but for a lot of my own writing, the maps I use in worldbuilding, in blocking action scenes, etc., are very, very, very crude. I draw maps in ballpoint pen in lined paper notebooks that are just squiggly lines and irregular circles. It could be all you need from a map is a way to remember that, say, the castle is nortwest of town and the mountains are in the south. You should never put yourself under any sort of pressure to be readable or “professional” in your own notes. Your notes serve you, and shoould never be seen by anyone else. That being the case, who cares how nicely drawn your maps are?

      Not me!

  40. Philip, I am wrapping up the second book in a series and will begin work on the third. The first two were written in the third person perspective. Is there any rule against me changing perspective and writing the third book in the series in first-person perspective?

    • Philip Athans says:

      There’s no “rule” in the strict sense of the word, but I’d definitely advise you to rethink that. If the first two books are third person then that changes for the third book it could be really confusing to readers who have followed you through two books. It will FEEL very different and could work against you. That having been said, I tried to use words like “could” because on the other hand, if that shift is warranted and makes sense and otherwise just… works… then it could be a brillaint move. The trouble is you’ll have no way of knowing that until it’s too late. The question then becomes: What’s motivating that change? What does the change to first person do for the series/unfolding story? If it’s just because you feel like experimenting or trying that out, etc., then save that experiment for a different story. Whatever it was that drove you through two books in third person should sustain it for the third book.

  41. Anna Dobritt says:

    If I”m reading a series and the author suddenly changes the perspective, I wouldn’t be happy. When reading something like a series, a reader gets used to the way the author wrote and a sudden change would be jarring. Particularly if it goes from third to first person.

  42. My thinking was, the first two books center around one character and take place six months apart. The third book will be centered around a different character 20 years later. The main character will reflect back on lessons learned (when he was young) from the previous main character, hence the idea of writing the story in first-person. But based on your feedback, I don’t see a clear enough benefit of doing that. I’ll probably stick with third-person. Thanks.

  43. Alex Schnarr says:

    Hello Phil. I am an aspiring fantasy author and I really enjoy what you have posted but there is two things I do not understand. Copyrights and the process. How does the process of the whole book publishing procedure go? What should I expect if I end up being successful? What should I be prepared for? How do I be sure that my work is legally mine when I send it in?

    Thanks for the help! (Hopefully you understand what I am asking)

    • Philip Athans says:

      Hi Alex–a lot of complex questions in there, but I’ll see what I can do…

      First of all, I am not an attorney and nothing I say here or anywhere else should be considered legal advice or an offer of legal advice. If you feel you need specific legal advice, please consult a qualified attorney.

      That having been said, it’s been my understanding that all you need in order to secure copyright over something you’ve written is to make sure that a copyright statement appears on the cover page of your manuscript, though I am seeing many authors running that copyright statement on every page as a footer. That copyright statement is either the copyright symbol (a c inside a circle) or the word copyright spelled out, followed by the year you actually finished writing the thing (can not be in the future) and your name. You can also register your work with the copyright office for a reasonable fee, but in my experience this is seldom necessary.

      That assumes that the work is actually a work, which is to say that it’s a short story, a novel, a screenplay, etc., not an idea for any of those things. In terms of unrealized ideas, I refer you to this post:

      This also assumes that the work in question is actually your original creation. It can not be set in someone else’s world (Star Wars, Forgotten Realms, HALO, etc.) nor can it co-opt specific elements from someone else’s world. Trust me, Disney will protect its rights to Star Wars, WotC will protect its rights to D&D, etc.

      As for the “the process of the whole book publishing procedure”–that’s a pretty huge subject for this venue. Here are some posts that might help you piece some of that together:

      Regarding galleys…
      Defining “successful”:
      Writing an author bio:
      Working with an editor:
      Cover copy/also good for query letters:
      What different editors do:

      I’ll leave you with this, which I think is the one thing no one tells you about, and that no one is ever really prepared for: If your book is published, someone will go online and say immensely insensitive and mean-spirited things about the book and you. You will tell everyone you have a “thick skin” and that stuff doesn’t bother you, but it will, and that’s okay. Do your best to get past it, and keep writing anyway. No review has ever made any writer better, even the really positive ones, even the really well-written and well-researched ones.

      • Alex Schnarr says:

        I will keep that in mind. I have commonly been concerned with that last detail there but it is good to know it is normal. I really appreciate what you do here and I have a feeling I will be asking more in the future! Thank you so very much sir!

  44. Alex Schnarr says:

    Hello again!
    Some simpler questions now that the other ones have been thoroughly researched (Thank you kindly) More character and setting orientated.
    How do I know if my character names are “good” or even more so not “lame”?
    Are certain races copyright (I.e. Drow? Shardmind? Ents? That kind of deal)
    Are anagrams good in writing at all such as attempting to imply a connection between a character and a place?
    Thank you very much for your time!

    • Alex Schnarr says:

      To add on to the above:
      Manuscripts, I saw your PDF format for them but I am unsure what they are supposed to include. My whole story? Part of it? Something else?
      Before I go to talk with an editor, what should I have prepared with me other than questions and a manuscript?

      • Philip Athans says:

        Carefully read the submission guidelines for whoever you’re sending it to (an agent or an editor) and follow that precisely. If they ask for the first 20 pages, send them the first 20 pages (in that manuscript format) only–not 19 pages, not 21 pages, and not the last 20 pages or some 20 pages in the middle. If the first 20 pages of your manuscript can’t sell it, by the way, you need to cut those 20 pages and write 20 pages that will! If they want an outline, send an outline. If they want a cover letter, send a cover letter, etc.

    • Philip Athans says:

      I get asked about character names so often, and end up giving such lame answers, I think the time has come for me to really put some thought into that subject and see if I can come up with something better, so on that score let me punt here and circle back when I have something more valuable to offer.

      A good rule of thumb in terms of copyright/originality is that if you’re worried something might not be okay to use (drow, mind flayers, ents, etc.) just don’t. If this is making your “spidey sense” tingle, listen to that inner voice, which is really telling you: “You’re not being original enough.” Still, there are plenty of “fair use” monsters and whatnot out there–nobody owns dragons or vampires. What you need to be working on is making sure that YOUR dragons are as unique as you can make them.

      As for anagrams, I’d avoid them, frankly. They’re a little tired post-Da Vinci Code and can come across as gimmicky.

  45. mjtedin says:

    What is your opinion of prologues based entirely on flashforwards or flasbacks? Do you think it is distracting to be set up for a scene, then in the next chapter to be brought back to another time and possibly another character? Or do you think it is a good way to bring the reader into the story, introduce some questions that will make her want to keep reading?

    • Philip Athans says:

      I’m perfectly okay with flashback/flashforward prologues and prologue/epilogue framing stories. This can be a great way to make sure your book starts with a “bang,” or in media res (in the middle of things). Then you can begin introducing characters, worldbuilding elements, etc., starting in chapter one once you’ve got readers hooked. Of course, like anything, this device has to be used carefully and with all your creativity and writing chops in evidence. It’s a tool, and like any tool can be used to build or destroy.

  46. Phil – Did you ever find a copy of the J.T. McIntosh novel ‘Galactic Takeover Bid’ to scan for Prologue Books? I saw a posting on this site saying that you were looking for a copy, but it was several years ago and I thought you might have found one by now. If you have not, I have a copy that could be borrowed. I also have a substantial library of other older SF/Fantasy novels, if you have other books you are looking for. Please let me know if you still need this novel. Keep up the great work in making old classics available again to younger audiences.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Thanks Steve, but as far as I know all the J.T. McIntosh books that Prologue intends to publish have been found and published. It was a gas being a part of that effort and I think we got some great stuff back out there in the world!

  47. Aaron Jordan says:

    Hey Philip! I have a huge question about the specifics of fantasy world building.
    I do have a great idea for a story but I’m a little skeptical about writing middle english dialogue, learning mythical creatures, describing outfits, describing weapons, creating names for characters, and countries. So basically everything on fantasy worlds. How do I obtain this kind of information? Where can I get it?
    Who should I talk to and read about?
    Thank you, Aaron.

  48. mjtedin says:

    I have a chapter that starts in one POV but ends in another. Is it OK to shift POV once in a chapter if it is not going back and forth? Should I separate it into different sections even if the scene doesn’t change?

    • Philip Athans says:

      Always separate different POVs with a scene break even if there’s no shift in location or time! And it’s okay to shift POV as you feel necessary, even switching back and forth in the same chapter, as long as there’s a really compelling reason to do so.

  49. mjtedin says:

    I’ve run into a real dilemma. I used a flash-forward at the beginning of my book to get things going right off. Now the story has progressed to the events of the flash-forward. How do I summarize the events and get the narrative past them without being redundant? Should I just summarize or just skip over the events, assuming the reader will know what happened from the first chapter?

    • Philip Athans says:

      I’d try a combination of the two… summarize and skip over, which is to say summarize only very, very briefly then get on with it.

      Another idea you might want to try is to present that prologue scene from a different point of view once you get to that point in the unfolding narrative, adding some new story/character elements to it that help move the story forward based on new information your readers have gleened in the space between the prologue and the same scene in its proper place.

      • mjtedin says:

        I had considered recapping the scene from someone else’s point of view. I think that’s the way I’m going to go. Thanks!

  50. Zeus says:

    “What are people afraid of? I asked myself this question while working on a fantasy novel in which I envisioned a world overrun by demons.”

    That sounds like something I’d like to read. Was the novel ever published?

  51. Craig says:

    Hi Phil, I’ve been following your blog for a few years now, and enjoy it very much. My question for you is around the day to day life of an author… Specifically, how did you and your various clients (most of whom you mentioned were not full-time scribblers and had day jobs) manage to find productive time to write while juggling work and family life?

    Writing has been something I’ve done on and off for the better part of the last 20 years, and I found I was fairly productive as a teenager and also for a few years after I graduated university. Now with two preschool aged kids and a job that requires more then 40 hours a week, my word output has shrunk worse than George Costanza in the pool!

    I don’t imagine all authors are idly wealthy, penning their works in solitary seaside resorts… some have jobs and some might even have kids… but how can this all be balanced successfully?

    Any advice would be much appreciated.

    • mjtedin says:

      Personally, I set myself a time to write. Usually, it is Saturday mornings when my wife is still in bed. If she’s up, she wants to talk and I can’t get anything done. Your situation is a bit more difficult than mine. I don’t have kids that I have to work around. If you can find an hour a week and hold yourself to it, you can probably be productive.

    • Philip Athans says:

      It really can be a challenge — and one that constantly changes. Lately I’ve been terribly unproductive in my own writing as well. In the past I’ve gotten in the habit of staying up late and writing for at least an hour or two, 2-4 nights a week, while the rest of the family is asleep. Think about bringing your laptop (or at least a notebook) with you just about everywhere. Can you steal away half an hour at lunch? If you commute by bus or train, set that time aside for writing. If you’re not a night owl like I used to be and more of a morning person like I’m turning into, can you get an hour of writing in every morning before everyobody else is up and you all have to start getting ready for work, school, etc? You might be amazed by how many words you end up with at the end of a month just by stealing an hour here, two hours there–even if not every day.

  52. Craig says:

    Thanks Phil and mjtedin, it’s comforting to know this is a struggle for many authors, even the pros…

    I guess what it comes down to is finding those little slots of time and having the discipline to use them for writing as opposed to other distractions. At one point I actually installed dictation software onto my ipad so I could speak my stories while I drove and have them turn to text… unfortunately the software was far from flawless and I decided it probably wasn’t the safest form of multitasking 😀

    But I will find some way to make the writing happen.

    Thanks again,

  53. Jeremy Snow says:

    With my current situation, time to write is at an extreme premium (laid off, working two jobs, walking 10 miles a day to two jobs). Nonetheless, I have to realize that there is still no excuse to not do what you are passionate about. I’ve found a couple little things to help out. Nickels and dimes add up to dollars, as Phil pointed out.

    One thing I learned is that sometimes you have to set some ridiculously low goals so that there is no logical reason not to meet that goal. One paragraph a day seems like something too low, but getting that one paragraph is better than nothing. If you happen to go more, then even better! The point is, you’re still getting somewhere.

    The second is that I got an app on my phone (called “A Novel Idea”) where I can build basic story elements when I can’t be at my PC. Since I have to walk so much, it leaves me time to let my mind wander and daydream about stories. At the very least, when I think of a character, scene, location, or story idea, I can jot this information down to reference later. This way it’s not forgotten, and it’s still progress in what I used to believe was an impossible situation. 🙂


  54. James says:

    I’m going to have to bookmark this, hope I find your response! (Oh, there’s a check mark at the bottom… duh!)

    I seem to have a problem resolving my stories. I’ll be very creative, pouring out enough backstory and world creation that complete stories come from the material below the surface, but I won’t complete the original.

    E.G. Kissla’s trying to help Carolie get her son out of the house to get help. During that, Carolie runs across a bunch of stuff that Kissla’s stolen from the household, including (gasp!) Carolie’s wedding ring. And Kissla’s response was, “If I’m the thief, and you’re the mark, how is it that everything that’s mine ends up in your hands?” My family signet, my boyfriend, (my heart…)

    So what started as a delicious, tense scene became its own story. How did her boyfriend get hold of her family signet and use it to marry her girlfriend? I’ve also had spin-offs that highlight the cultural attitudes of my humanoids.

    Yet I never seem to be able to see an end to larger conflicts. In the above example, the world is plagued by a cult that strives to get everybody casting an addictive spell that sucks the life from the world. Luckily the local chapter is attempting to exercise self-control. Is there some way to find an ending to a story that didn’t start with one? Or should I just resign myself to starting from the end, from here on out? I’ve a feeling that optimistic and industrious people have less problem than I do. Perhaps there’s something to be done without a personality graft? Because … mostly limited to 21st century technology, here in my life.

  55. James B. says:

    Any hint on how to dole out explanations?

    My work lately has been primarily fantasy, which to my mind creates several bottlenecks. The first, the POV doesn’t understand or even *recognize* everything. The second is that the character will understand things but can’t stop to explain them. The third is erring on the side of show don’t tell (which sometimes should be show then tell. I’ve noticed Asimov did a lot of telling, it was great, and I think he’d be successful even in today’s market.)

    Especially at the beginning. My exciting, in media res beginnings bewilder people or create the wrong impressions about my characters.

    Sorry that my questions seem to require entire books to answer. Or, perhaps that’s your plan? I assume that if you write a book in answer to my question, you’ll email me with the ISBN so that I can order a copy?

    • Philip Athans says:

      If I do write that book I’ll try to remember to mention you in the acknowledgments!

      These questions are really difficult to answer in a general way, since ultimately any sort of show/tell and POV is entirely execution dependent. I’m a big Asimov fan from way back, but I think most contemporary readers would find him impenetrable. This continues to be a difficulty: Many of the great classics of the SF and fantasy genres are written in various ways that have gone out of style, so that emulating them will actually make it seem as though your manuscript is riddled with “mistakes.” The language is a living thing and what editors key into, etc. will morph over time.

      In the end you have to find your voice on your own, trends be damned. Finding the right specific advice/mentoring s really the best way to start to parse out what’s a bad habit, what might work, what’s an intentional style choice, etc. Try some online or in-person classes, get together with a writers’ group, or hire an editor and you’ll start to see what you’re doing “right” and what you’re doing “wrong” in a specific, actionable way (in quotes because there really isn’t a hard and fast right or wrong in 99% of cases).

      As for your in media res openings giving the wrong impression of your charcater–why is that a bad thing? You won’;t really ever be able to control each reader’s individual impressions of any part of your work, anyway, and if some of them start your book thinking your character is X and as the story unfolds it turns out he’s Y… that’s actually a good thing!

      • James says:

        Good question. So good I couldn’t quite formulate the answer.

        I thought it bad, that my reader got the wrong impression, because she thought I was a throwback to the nineteen-fifties on women’s rights. Then I probably lost still more readers because Kissla, my heroine, was more Dark Knight than Wonder Woman. And I know I lost a few when Kissla had a crush on her boyfriend’s wife — leaving me with apparently, nobody.

        Surely that merits a trip to the revision cage? Because people who enjoy a maniac amazon heroine aren’t going to put up with apparent chauvinistic themes. Or am I the one being too simplistic? Especially since in that first sentence of the second paragraph it plainly says ‘reader’ not ‘readers’ got offended… I wonder if all that could just as easily drive the readership as drive it away?

  56. rwalker12813 says:

    Hi Philip,

    First off, thanks. This is a great resource. I have read your books and watched your Writer’s Digest videos. They have all been very helpful.

    I am currently working on my first science fiction novel. Within the story I have three key events where all of my major characters are thrust together (a protest, a banquet and an execution). These are pivotal scenes where the plot turns sharply and the stakes are raised for both protagonist and antagonist.

    These moments are told through the eyes of the protagonist with supporting scenes retelling the same events from the point of view of other key characters. I have been struggling with finding the right balance of storytelling, world building, character development and tension within these larger events.

    As a part of my process I have been looking for other great examples in SF/F of expansive events that bring together a large cast which are NOT battles. Diana Gabaldon’s Witch Trial and George R.R. Martin’s Weddings, particularly the Red Wedding are good examples of what I am looking for. I was wondering if you or anyone else reading this blog has any favorites?

    Again, thanks,
    Ralph Walker

    • Philip Athans says:

      Hmm… Good question!

      There’s the pivotal scene at the very end of Dune, though that is a “battle”–a duel, really between Paul and Feyd.

      I’m going to have to ruminate on this one a bit.

    • mjtedin says:

      Other ideas might be any public gathering. You mentioned a trial, a protest, a banquet, and an execution. I have an event that I mentioned in a character’s back story involving a riot (really more of a police riot). Perhaps you could use a public ceremony that goes wrong. Maybe soldiers firing the twenty-one gun salute turn the guns on the crowd, sending them into chaos.
      Other ideas for modern or sci-fi would be disasters, man-made or otherwise. Perhaps public transportation crashes or is attacked by terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view.)
      These kinds of events also give you a lot of opportunity for world-building.

  57. Sarah says:

    Hi Philip,

    I’m currently working through all the story building for my first fantasy, and the thing I’m struggling with most is whether to write in first person or third person. Just wondering if you have previously discussed this topic in any articles, or know of any great articles discussing the benefits of each?

    I’m yet to have that moment that pulls me towards one over the other. I love writing in first person, and getting into the depths of what my characters experience throughout their challenges and conflicts, yet I think I might struggle expressing everything through first person and making it believable as I’m planning to delve into some pretty deep themes, and not sure if I can pull it off for my first novel.


    • Philip Athans says:

      I haven’t written on this subject, but probably should. It’s a very good question and one not easily answered, but consider this:

      Can you tell your story through one and only one point of view (POV)?

      First person forces you to present only what that POV character knows at that exact moment in the story. So you’ll never be able to switch over to, say, the villain and what he/she/it is doing or thinking at any given time. You can’t experience the full effect that certain plot points (etc.) have on any character beyond the perceptions of your first person narrator (she seemed scared, he looked upset, etc.). This sounds like a big limiting factor, and it definitely can be, especially if what you’re planning is “epic” in scope and involves layered conspiracies, and so on.

      Generally speaking, it’s exceedingly rare that fantasy is written in first person anymore, but some of the orignal greats, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series, was. But even as brilliant as ERB was he sometimes fell back on what can only be described as “cheats” to the first person narrative, to make clear some worldbuilding aspect that John Carter couldn’t have been aware of at that moment. In fact, right now I’m reading Lin Carter’s Jandar of Callisto, which is a pastiche on ERB’s sword-and-planet stories and the first part of the book is full of these cheats: “I later learned that the thing on my heels was the fearsome yathrib, the savage dragon-cat of the Thanatorian jungles…” If you ever find yourself falling back on that kind of thing: “I later learned” or “little did I know at the time” to me that’s a signal that you’d actually really prefer to be writing in third person.

      I guess what it boils down to is that first person requires a significant commitment to do well, so it should only be used when there’s overwhelming benefit–like in a “whodunnit” mystery–to limiting that POV to one, and only one character.

  58. mjtedin says:

    I’m reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell right now. He does the entire novel in first person, but each section is a different character’s POV. If you changed POV too often in first person, it would get very confusing, but The Bone Clocks is in four different sections, each with a different POV in first person. It’s interesting, but I agree it would be very hard to pull off as a beginning writer. I wouldn’t try it myself.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you both for the help. I think now I see the greatest challenge with 1st person as having to write with each characters’ ‘voice’ (I have 3 POVs), and as a new writer, that could present another challenge that I could do without. I could find myself veering towards my own natural voice, and making the characters’ storytelling less genuine.

      Ok I think I’ve finally decided. Third person it is!

  59. mjtedin says:

    My wife is proofing my book right now and, being a grammar geek, she is annoyed with possessives that end in s’s. I noticed that you edited my manuscript to add them to names (Polous’s seems to be the most common), but not to other words. I know that either -s’ or -s’s is considered acceptable, but shouldn’t it be consistent?

    • Philip Athans says:

      Here’s the rule from The Chicago Manual of Style 16 (7.15, page 353): “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s. The possessive of plural nouns (except for a few irregular plurals, like children, that do not end in s) is formed by adding an apostrophe only.”

      So if a character’s name ends in s (like Polous) then Polous’s is correct to indicate something possessed by Polous. Later in the CMS (7.21, page 355): “Some writers and publishers prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s–hence “Dylan Thomas’ poery,” [etc.] Though easy to apply and economical, such usage disregards pronunciation and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.”

      And bonus rule: Remember, the apostrophe indicates possessive only, not plural, so things like “the 1970’s” should be “the 1970s”–and if a plural is indicated: “one of the 1970s’ greatest filmmakers” add the apostrophe withouht the s to indicate a plural possessive.

      Grammar geeks take note!

  60. mjtedin says:

    Got it. Thanks!

  61. Hey Phil,

    You said this was a place I could post a great tip for fellow authors, so I just wanted to take a sentence to mention that if you need a writing partner, a free service just started called that matches writers with other writers based on their genre, experience, etc.

    It’s the only service online that finds a writing partner for you instead of sending you to a forum / group / comments section to find one for yourself, so I thought it would be useful news. Hope that wasn’t spammy, feel free to take it down if it is.

    Thank you,

    • Philip Athans says:

      It seems legit, so we’ll let the FAH community give it a try. Anyone who does, please report back on your experience!

  62. Locke Mage says:

    Hey Phil, do you have any recommendations for a good site or program to write with (that is free)? I used google docs, but all the fonts and options distract from writing. And I used Hermit, but it’s saving system lost me lots of progress. Is there a website you reccomend to write on, free of distraction?

    • Philip Athans says:

      Unfortunately, no. All of the free writing software I’ve tried have been equally okay–not terrible for just getting words down on (virtual) paper–but none of them come anywhere near the tools that MS Word gives editors. But even then, never let fonts distract you. As a writer the only font you’ll ever need in your life is Times New Roman. If Google Docs (etc.) offer other options, just ignore them–never open that pull-down menu. This is pretty much true of all other options. Just leave it at standard margins, Times New Roman, basic half-inch indents, no spaces between paragraphs, and start writing.

  63. Steven Capps says:

    Hi there, I currently am juggling two major projects. One is revising a 100,000 word manuscript and the second is writing the rough draft for another manuscript. Do you have any advice for balancing the workload for both? I hope you are having a wonderful day, and I am looking forward to hearing from you.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Before you start each day’s work, close your eyes and say, out loud if possible: “Right now I want to work on ____” and however you finish that sentence is what you should work on right then. Both the revisions and the new writing are of equal value, and both will benefit from you working on whichever one is top of mind for you in that moment.

  64. Anuj Agarwal says:

    Hi Phil,

    My name is Anuj Agarwal. I’m Founder of Feedspot.

    I would like to personally congratulate you as your blog FANTASY AUTHOR’S HANDBOOK has been selected by our panelist as one of the Top 100 Writing blogs on the web.

    I personally give you a high-five and want to thank you for your contribution to this world. This is the most comprehensive list of top writing blogs on the internet and I’m honoured to have you as part of this!


  65. mjtedin says:

    I received an unsolicited Facebook message today from someone who said he was a non-fiction editor that had recently started editing fiction as well. He had 4 specific critiques of my book. Some of it I expected and have heard the criticism before, but I am unapologetic about the difficulty of the various languages in my world. I write for myself and hope others like what I read. On the other hand, he had a criticism of the structure of the book that I took issue with. I think he was dead wrong about it. Should I expect this sort of thing a lot now that I have published? I’m not sure whether to take it into account as a helpful suggestion from someone who liked my book or pass it off as someone who might be trolling for clients as an editor.

    • Philip Athans says:

      That’s a little weird, actually, that someone would offer an unsolicited critique of a book to the author via Facebook as a way to prospect new editing clients. That’s a pretty big red flag to start with.

      With only a very, very few exceptions (primarily if you’re writing shared world/tie-in fiction) you can look at any edit as a suggestion and decide for yourself if it’s helpful or not. There’s no such thing as a perfect novel (or short story or screenplay… or any other work of art) and any particular plot point might be a deal-breaker for one reader and another reader’s favorite moment in the book–and this goes for editors, too. If you think s/he (or any other editor) was dead wrong about a requested change then don’t make the change. Full stop.

      But I would definitely caution you–and everyone–to consider it carefully, even if at first blush you think it’s way off. Rather than reject the idea off-hand, think about what might have triggered that response. If, for instance, the editor said something along the lines of “I didn’t think this worked, do this instead,” at least listen to the first part. Something is stopping that editor, and even if the suggested fix is way off the problem might still exist. Start from that and see if there’s a better fix that editor hadn’t thought of, and you hadn’t either, that will make the story better.

  66. Kevin McCarthy says:

    Are agents who represent Fantasy/Science Fiction real or mythological? Is the only way to contact them through a séance? Any advice for reaching these unreachable (and most likely fictional) creatures? Would a bowl of milk left on my doorstep in the light of a full moon help? Thanks.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Believe it or not, agents who represent SF/F are actually real–I’ve even met a few of them in person!’s-handbook-interviews-viii-ethan-ellenberg/’s-handbook-interview-donald-maass/

      That having been said, they can be a bit difficult to pin down. Think of the whole publishing business as something akin to the food pyramid. At the very top of the pyramid are a very small number of franchise authors: people like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and a few others. These are people who can dictate terms because they’ve earned it. They write books that lots and lots of people buy. It’s so impossible to intentionally engineer a path to this that we’ll just stop talking about it.

      Below that are the very few editors who work for reasonably successful publishing companies that have a budget to actually buy books. This might be less than a dozen people (per genre) at any given time. And we all just have to accept the fact that none of them have unlimited money or time. They all reject maybe a few dozen manuscripts every year that, all things being equal, they’d love to publish but for a million possible reasons none of which are in any way under your control, they just can’t. Then there are the–literally–THOUSANDS of manuscripts rejected because, on a completely subjective level, they aren’t quite good enough.

      The next group are the agents–more of them exist than editors. That means editors are under a constant stream of pitches from agents, who outnumber them. Some agents try to throw as much product (manuscripts) at them as possible, playing the percentages, in the hope that one will stick. These are not the best agents, unless yours sticks then that agent will love you forever. The better agents are very careful about who they represent and when a manuscript is ready to shop around. Editors know who these agents are and value their gatekeeping. That means your chance of getting your book sold by one of these agents goes up, but your chance of securing the agent in the first place goes down.

      Below that is the mass of authors–and there may be a dozen or so editors, a few hundred agents, and thousands upon thousands upon thousands of authors clamoring for their attention. The odds, quite frankly, are against us all.

      But here’s the real secret, and one that I know it’s very difficult to see from the outside, or to believe when you hear it: Every agents and every editor is desperate to find the Next Big Thing. And that’s not going to come from J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. They’ve been the Next Big Thing and are now the reliable Big Things. Who was J.K. Rowling before she sold the first harry Potter book? Nobody. Who did she know? Nobody.

      If there are a million things conspiring against you, none of which you have control over, what you do have control over is the quality of your own work. Be good at it. Then go off in search of agents by doing these six things, in this order:

      1. Really be sure that this is the best book you know how to write right now. Hire a good editor/mentor if you can. Render it in standard manuscript format–make no fancy!
      2. Write a pitch letter that shows you’re a professional, not a crackpot stalker.
      3. Create a list of agents put together from various sources:
      Publisher’s Marketplace has good, up-to-date listings
      look at the acknowledgments in recent books you like and that are more or less similar to what you’ve written–author’s often thank their agents
      look at the web sites of writers conferences that include agent pitch sessions, even if you can’t afford to attend (if you can ATTEND IT!)
      Google those agents. You can find anyone’s email and/or work address if you put your internet detective cap on
      4. Send in exactly and only what they tell you to send, and if they say they aren’t open to new clients, just walk away
      5. Wait–for months, most of the time:
      6. Take no for an answer–you can’t fight your way into this

      And remember. No one cares how many NOs you get–it only takes one YES!

  67. Zeus says:


    Is there a list of links to errata and cut material from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction?

    There doesn’t seem to be a category or tag that includes them (and only them) all, so I’m having a little trouble tracking all the additional material down for my bookmarks.

  68. Phil, after running a beginning dungeon (using 1st edition Basic D&D rules) for my family, most of whom had never played D&D before, I was inspired by the events of the game and used that inspiration for some core elements of my third novel, Paragon’s Call. I’ve recently published that book on Amazon, and was wondering if I can make the dungeon I created available as a free PDF download on my web site, sort of as a marketing freebie to help promote my book.

    1. Would this be helpful in my marketing efforts?
    2. Is it allowed from a legal standpoint, with Wizards of the Coast? (I know TSR would have sent the dogs after me back in the day.)

    • Philip Athans says:

      That one I really can’t answer since it’s been a long time since I’ve worked at Wizards of the Coast and can’t speak for them or their current policies in any way. That said, you should check out this new program they have, the Dungeon Masters Guild, which I think might give you all the information you’re looking for:

    • Steven, you might want to look at Labyrinth Lord, a ‘clone’ of the 80s Basic rules. You can publish the dungeon as being for Labyrinth Lord without any legal problems.

      As far as I know you could also publish it as being for Basic, as long as you didn’t use any trademarked logos and made it clear it wasn’t an official product, under the doctrine of ‘Nominal Use’. However, most people choose to just use Labyrinth Lord or one of the other ‘clones’.

      You could also put the dungeon on drivethruRPG.

      PS I’m assuming you made the dungeon up.

      • I will check out the Labyrinth Lord clone. Thanks for that recommendation. Yes, I made the dungeon up. The creative work is mine; it assumes it is played within TSR’s original 1st edition Basic rules (although I suppose it could be modified to fit 5th edition’s rules, using their Open Gaming License).

        I have contacted Wizards of the Coast’s legal team for clarification.

      • Good–but bear in mind that companies often claim more rights than they really have. For example Games Workshop famously claimed to own the phrase “space marines”.

  69. V.S. Vitale says:

    Hi, I am a published author and just finished writing my first fantasy novel. I’m writing my query letter, synopsis, bio, polishing my resume, and studying agents and their genres. My question is about word count for fantasies. Mine is 114,000. Many “experts” say that’s a good amount for a fantasy, however I’ve studied some writing sites that are far less generous and suggest around 80,000 words. I’ve had my novel professionally edited and the editor is quite experienced and very happy with the novel and word count, but I wanted to get your opinion. Thank you, V.S. Vitale

  70. V. R. Craft says:

    Do you accept guest blog posts from scifi/fantasy authors?

  71. Craig says:


    First off, I just want to say that I very much enjoy your blog and look forward to reading it every week.

    I have a question for you… Is there a market at all for new writers in the Fantasy genre? Is the genre healthy, or is it shrinking faster than what the existing established writers can pump out?

    To clarify, I really don’t care too much if I make a penny on what I write, but I do care very much that someone somewhere will potentially just maybe enjoy it.

    I haven’t written anything in the last year or so, and I know why I stopped… I read too many articles about agents who receive mountains of terrible submissions, and noticed many of the organizations that publish shorts are saying they’re too overwhelmed to respond to submissions. Or worse, that they no longer accept unsolicited material. I convinced myself that it doesn’t appear the world needs yet another Fantasy story, and stopped making them.

    Still, I want to write them regardless. I can even handle pretty poor odds or an extreme meritocracy. But if the chances are effectively nil, it’s pretty hard to stay motivated during the tougher parts of the process (and there are many of those).

    Your thoughts would be very much appreciated!


  72. It’s definitely not easy to get anything published these days–either novels or short stories–but that has ALWAYS been true. In fact, I asked those same questions while sending short stories to magazines and banging away at novels that will never be read… in the mid 80s.

    It’s not easy, and it will almost definitely take WAY longer than you might be prepared for but the fact is, it IS possible to have your short fiction (you’ll never make any more than a few hundred dollars, maximum, on short stories–write those for the love of the game) or your novel published (with smaller advances than we saw in the pre-Depression era. The readership is still there. Fantasy is always one of the top three genres in the publishing business (with romance and thriller), and Harry Potter and Game of Thrones have made it mainstream on both the YA and adult sides of the business.

    It is a meritocracy in that you’re only as attractive to the publishing business as your latest BookScan numbers prove out. But while that means big problems for mid-list genre authors it actually benefits new authors in that the middle of the field is constantly being churned through. Most publishers are more willing to roll the dice on an unknown author who just might be the next big thing than stick with the author who has proven her/himself to be another medium-sized thing.

    If you write well and have something interesting, ENTERTAINING (don’t forget that!), and original to sell–there are agents out there waiting to represent it, and editors who are ready to buy it.

    • Craig says:

      Thanks Phil for the thorough and quick response. Interesting point on the mid-list… I guess agents and editors would rather swing for the fences and potentially strike out instead of making a safe bunt.

      So it seems to me that’s how I’ll have to write… bold and outlandish, vs say mages shooting fireballs at orcs or something.

      Time to apply pen to paper 🙂

  73. Catherine Smith says:

    Hi! I thought you might find my 12-year old daughter’s book review of Writing Monsters of interest.

    Thanks for inspiring young authors!

  74. tanya grout says:

    How do I subscribe to your blog? I can’t find that button 🙂


    • Philip Athans says:

      You’ll find that in the righthand column–scroll all the way down to the bottom for subscription options.

  75. tanya grout says:

    Oh thank you. OMGosh. I’m so sorry. So many options 😉

  76. harlequinbishop says:

    Is there still a market for literary fantasy? Is this genre worth pursuing? (Aside from the sheer personal joy, naturally.)

    • Philip Athans says:

      Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by “literary,” and “market.”

      But kidding aside, yes–but not necessarily a super high-paying one. And to some degree that can be said of any genre or sub-genre–that it either is or isn’t worth pursuing. If literary fantasy is waiting for the next Palimpsest, say, then your literary fantasy may just be that book–or the book that breaks out even bigger. While at the same time, the category that seems to have the most active marketplace right now, post-apoc/dystopian YA science fiction, can dry up just like that.

      What that all means is that, regardless of where the market is, isn’t, might be, or probably won’t be, write the book that means the most to you. If it’s burning its way out of your brain, let it out. If you write from the standpoint of commerce you might get lucky and find a way into that now (believe me) very crowded YA marketplace, but you might just have the same chance of creating a marketplace of your own with the story that means more to you. Readers can sense your attachment to the material and they will respond to it!

  77. Hi Phil

    Novice writer here, was hoping to get your opinion on when to start writing. I’m going through my plot details and worldbuilding etc but I so desperately want to just start writing. Now I know starting too early can have consequences -I’ve read your book- but at the same time I just want to start. In your opinion, do you believe its ok to build upon certain aspects as you go along? Or do you think it’s safer to continue with the plot building etc until everything is completely laid out?

    • Philip Athans says:

      Start writing as soon as the first sentence comes to you. You may have to–honestly, you WILL have to–pause along the way to consider some aspect of worldbuilding you hadn’t thought you’d need. You might realize you need to add a new character in there for any one or more of a million reasons. You might completely rethink your ending at least once, maybe dozens of times. And all that’s okay! Though I do think it’s a good idea to have some version of a plan before you begin anything, much less something as complex as a novel, there will always be something you didn’t think to plan for and if you’ve over-planned, if you’ve convinced yourself that “everything is completely laid out” and those unexpected curves come your way, they can really freak you out. But if you go in knowing you’re not following too rigid a plan, those unexpected curves will start to look more like opportunities than disasters.

      If you desperately want to start writing, LISTEN TO THAT IMPULSE and start writing!

  78. Bryan says:

    Hey Phil!

    Where can I get me some beta readers!? I was recently laid off (no worries, I was happy it happened) and am now pursuing this dream of mine since I was a kid. Here’s the thing. I’m writing, but I’m getting to the point that I need some critique. I feel like I’m spinning a little. In my old profession of software development, I got results and felt progress daily. (Yes, yes, I’m leaving the high paying world of software dev for writing…that’s how determined and insane I am). I need some sound constructive feedback – good and bad – to feel more progress than just word count. And hopefully from people with some chops! I don’t have any connections to people in the industry, folks with literary degrees, authors, etc. I could pay for something, but given my circumstances would rather avoid it. I’ve joined HWA, submitted some stuff, been in a writing group, attended a conference, getting active on social media and so on. My wife and kids are gonna shoot me soon with my constant feedback requests – plus they’re too “near” me. Do you have any advice on this matter?

    • Philip Athans says:

      I’m not sure I can recommend much that you haven’t done already.

      You said you’ve “been in a writing group”–what happened to that? In my experience that tends to be the best way to not just get a bunch of beta readers, but to nurture relationships through discussion that helps those beta readers go into your work with an understanding of who you are, what your goal with this particular work (novel, short story, etc.) is. They understand your genre, and so on. With the give-and-take of a good writing group, as long as you’re prepared to be a beta reader for your cohorts, you’ll get good feedback without having to pay except in time and mental energy spent reading their work–and that’s time actually spent learning from their writing, too. So if that group broke up for whatever reason, I’d encourage you to get out there and try to gather another group.

      How to find those people, though, can be a challenge and I’m finding myself wishing I could give you some kind of a link to a place that might serve as a sort of writers group “dating service.” But I can’t. MeetUp, maybe? But not for nothing… maybe someone with a tech background who’s seeing a need for this kind of service…? Just sayin’.

      As for people “with chops”–industry professionals, etc. Well, professionals, by definition, are going to need to be paid for those services, and I absolutely understand that not everyone’s situation allows for that sort of professional help. Hiring an editor generally comes after you’ve gotten some beta reader feedback and you’re feeling like you’re pretty close to either getting it out to agents, or self-publishing.

      Another option that might be great for you is either an online or in-person course. Check out places like Writer’s Digest University (I’ve got a few courses up there myself) or the continuing education program at your local community college. I’ve taught courses at mine in the past as well. This is a smaller investment than bringing in an editor, but can get you not just the professional feedback you’re looking for, but feedback from your classmates as well. There were even a couple instances where students in my continuing ed classes stayed together as informal writing groups after the course itself was over.

      Those beta readers are out there, just most of all be prepared to be a beta reader too!

      • Bryan says:

        Thanks Phil! This is helpful and informative. I miswrote. I participated in a writing class, not group. It came at a cost and lasted only X number of weeks. Much appreciation and I will definitely consider your courses as they seem to be in my wheelhouse. Cheers

  79. Bill Spencook says:

    I have written a novellete of unspeakable horror. In other words, I have tried to make it the most horrifying horror story ever. The only problem is; no one in the industry is interested. As you know, literary agents have very specific “needs”- and extreme disgusting horror is not one of them. Should I give up, or try my hand at writing in some other genre like Christian/Inspirational or Historical Romance?

    • Philip Athans says:

      I would never advocate so hard a left turn as going from “extreme disgusting horror” to “Christian/Inspirational” as a reaction to the marketplace. You need to continue to write what moves you, what you love, what you find interesting and valuable–and entertaining. There may not be a ready market, in any given year, for one or another sub-genre, and it’s generally impossible to successfully surf those trends. I have a completed urban fantasy novel, for instance, that’s sitting on a shelf because I missed that trend by a few months. If/when I get the feeling that’s back on the rise it’ll go back out into circulation. In the meantime there are small presses that specialize in, quite literally, everything, including so-called “gonzo” horror. Most agents tend to shy away from anything that could be called “niche” and concentrate instead on what might have potential for mainstream sales, so if agents are begging off, look for those small presses and bring your stuff to them directly.

  80. mjtedin says:

    What is the rule for italicizing made up words? The Chicago Manual of Style says, “Italics are used for isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers.” I assume this does not include names, but how about titles attached to names? For example, I created the word Sensumor that essentially means Senator. If I attach it to a name such as Sensumor tur Moline, should Sensumor be italicized but the name not?

    • mjtedin says:

      Along those lines, how about the names of businesses that are in foreign languages? For example, the inn that some characters are staying at means The Hotel of the Golden Hair, but is Dostalor Golipúlos in the local language. Should this name be italicized?

      • Philip Athans says:

        Again, this depends on what language the POV character speaks. If your charcaters are travelling in a foreign land and manage to communicate that they’re looking for the name of a decent inn:

        “Dostalor Golipúlos,” the guard repeated, pointing to a tall structure down the street.

        “What is he saying?” Galen asked.

        “I’m a little rusty,” Bronwyn replied, “but I think he said ‘the Hotel of the Golden Hair.'”

        If they don’t include unfamiliar foreign words, names of business don’t need to be italicized, so even if everyone all speaks the same language and the inn is just called the Hotel of the Golden Hair, that would not need to be italicized, but you were correct to apply the initial caps for the proper name of a place.

        Well timed question, too, Mike since I’m going to be doing a whole hour seminar on naming characters and places as part of the Writer’s Digest Online Conference this Saturday!

    • Philip Athans says:

      If the invented word in every other way works like a foreign word would then italicize it. In fiction I would extend that rule to include words that are unfamiliar to the POV character.

      Indeed, this does not include names. We’ll borrow Drizzt for an example. Drizzt is a drow name, unfamiliar to the human citizens of the surface world, but even if someone other than Drizzt–a human from Ten Towns, say–is the POV character, Drizzt is not italicized. This is the same for names in the real world, so if your story is set in, say, Italy in 2018 and a character comes along who’s name is Vasily–a Russian name–Vasily would not be italicized either.

      Titles attached to names are also not italicized. My understanding of the rule is that if the title is attached to a name it adopts the rules for the name, so same as you would italicize the Nazi German title reichsführer, you would not when attached to a name: Reichsführer Schreck. Note that the former also begins lower case (though you may want to adopt the German rule and go ahead and give it the initial cap) when used in the generic–any old reichsführer–but always gets the initial cap as part of a name: Reichsführer Schreck.

      So in your case it would be:

      “Have you seen Sensumor tur Moline?” the king asked.

      “No,” replied Queen Bronwyn, “but shall I summon another sensumor?”

      Note that neither is italicized assuming that the POV character (let’s say it’s Bronwyn) lives in the society in which everyone knows what a sensumor is. Now it’s not a “foreign” word, but a common word for the POV charcaters. This would be the same as, say, invented technologies in SF. If the starship uses a nilhyperphasic engine, and to people in that world nilhyperphasic engines are no more foreign than internal combustion engines are in our world–no italics.

      Now, if Brownyn is the POV character and this title sensumor is foreign to her:

      “Have you seen Sensumor tur Moline?” the king asked.

      “I dont know,” replied Queen Bronwyn, “what the heck is a sensumor?”

      Does that make sense?

  81. WolfyAuthor973 says:

    I’m writing a werewolf fantasy, and it’s theme is in medieval times.
    One of my hindrances is that I’m in middle school and one of the smartest kids, alass discouragement from peers sometimes gets to me! I was wondering if I could have tips, and had a question. Would the word “heck” be good in my theme? I’ll copy and paste the sentence. Ahem.

    “Kane has been gone a while, Caleb.” Logan said worriedly.

    “Calm the heck down!” Caleb insisted. “Kane can handle himself! I hope…”
    I’m glad that I have help from F.A.B. the author of shadows, but she’s in college and doesn’t have a lot of time to help me.

    • Philip Athans says:

      I love the idea of a medieval werewolf fantasy and though it’s been a long time since I’ve been in middle school, I definitely understand how difficult it can be to be seen as the slightest bit “different.” The best advice I can give you on that score is just KEEP WRITING and always keep in mind that middle school, and high school after it, don’t last forever and you’ll soon find that those discouraging peers either disappear from your life as time goes by, or start to understand what’s special about you–so don’t stop writing. I didn’t!

      As for the word “heck”–sure, why not? This is your world and your characters, and the way they present themselves come from you, from your language and comfort zone.

  82. Pingback: TEN YEARS OF FANTASY AUTHOR’S HANDBOOK | Fantasy Author's Handbook

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s