There are some phrases you never want to hear. As a publisher and editor, one phrase in particular is a harbinger of doom:
I’m writing a fantasy novel — well, a trilogy, really.
I heard some variation on this theme every week or so, and over time I have developed certain methods allowing the victims of would-be fantasy writers to survive. First, it is important for the victim to accept that loss of the next 20 – 45 minutes of life. Second, the victim should prepare to hear a very long pseudo-history, and perhaps a treatise on pseudo-languages too. And third, if the victim is unable to avoid being force-fed a manuscript, never tell the assailant the truth: Your fantasy novel sucks.
“But wait!” you object. “How can you know it sucks if you haven’t even read it yet?” Well, my friends, as it turns out, I have read your novel. I read it the last thousand times someone else shoved it into my face, with slightly different (yet equally flat) characters and a very slightly different (yet equally thin) plot. It sucked then, and it sucks now.
Books can suck for many reasons, and everyone is (or should be) aware of the usual culprits: The author isn’t well-read, the story is gimmicky, the characters are unbelievable, the plot is poorly constructed, the prose tells rather than shows, etc. Any attempt at writing a book can go wrong, and every professional writer has a few books are articles that they look back on as personally embarrassing. But fantasy novels tend to suck in very specific ways not common to other kinds of books.
The problem is the example of Tolkien. He created his artificial languages, and built around them an artificial world, complete with geography, history, and all the trimmings. And so would-be writers of fantasy novels understandably try to follow his example. They begin like latter-day Inklings, as world builders, cosmic creators, attempting to develop rich settings for their tales.
The problem is, you are not Tolkien. That isn’t to say that you might not have his talent (you probably don’t, but you might). Nor that you can’t have a better writing process than Tolkien — his writing process was famously slow and clunky, and his response to any criticism was to begin rewriting from the very beginning. No, you are not Tolkien in that you simply don’t have the world-building chops he had. Tolkien had become one of the most important medieval scholars in the world by the time he was in his early 30s, so this was a guy who knew all about the world he was building.Â He hadn’t just read the classics of medieval literature — he had translated and taught them at Oxford for years before he really started working on his own stories … and they truly were his stories, because he had spent his professional life dwelling in them.Â You can have Tolkien’s backwards writing process only if you are Tolkien. The rest of us need to put story first.
When someone tells me they are writing a trilogy, I’ll sometimes ask, “Oh, you have three stories?” And they never do. If I ask them some detail about the history, geography, or languages of their world, they always launch into a long treatise on the subject, but if I ask them questions about their protagonist, or some detail about the plot, they never have much to say. “Well, I’m still working on that,” or “I want to see where the story takes me,” or “I want to get this history right first.”
Would-be writers of fantasy novels see the example of Tolkien and imagine writing a book is a lot like playing “The Sims” — you just build a world, drop some people in it, and see what happens. That just doesn’t work. You might object, “But some authors don’t know how their plot will end!” That’s true, but such authors create rich characters first. You can have a plot-driven story or you can have a character-driven story, but you can’t have a world-driven story. Look at fantasy authors who aren’t Tolkien, and one thing you’ll notice is that maps tend to be drawn by fans, or retconned after the fact. First, comes the story, then they map the world around the story.
OK, so what do you do if you’ve just realized that your nascent fantasy novel sucks? That you really don’t have any kind of story or characters at all? Well, if you’ve really got nothing, just start by drafting out a compelling story (ignoring who’s an elf, or what languages they speak, etc), and then once the story or characters are interesting, map your world out over it. But the truth is, you might already have the seeds of a story in your novel. You know that little throw-away you have about how the kingdom was divided 600 years ago in a clash between two brothers, and the priestess of whatever fake god you’ve imagined prophesied the coming of a hero to reunite the kingdom? Instead of dropping your clichÃ©d prophesied hero into your fantasy world, write the story about the two brothers. THAT story has potential, and if you really want to, after you are done you can end it with the prophecy and follow with a second story about your hero — but this time instead of just some stupid “Uh, I guess he fights orcs or something until he slays the big bad guy with a magical sword” plot, you can have his quest undo what had previously been done by his progenitors, healing his family as well as his kingdom. And this is the kind of thing you could write the heck out of, because you’ve never been the subject of a kingdom-healing prophecy, but you have experienced sibling rivalry, have seen family conflicts spiral out of control, and have turned to your faith to heal the rifts in your relationships. Those are your stories.
To unsuck your fantasy novel, search through all your world-building notes for the seeds of compelling characters and plots. Write about them first, and be willing to completely remake the world to fit your new focus. No one wants you to be Tolkien — Tolkien already did that better than you could ever do. Instead, do something Tolkien could never do — tell your own story.