May 5, 2020

5 Things to Consider Before Starting Your Fantasy Novel

By Paul Goat Allen

So, you’ve been contemplating writing a fantasy novel for a while—or maybe you’ve begun drafting it out or are already in revisions. Before you go any farther, I want you to seriously contemplate this question for a moment: “Why are you writing this particular story?” If you’re writing this novel largely for yourself—it’s a personal goal you’ve always wanted to achieve—that’s great, and I wish you the best of luck. My advice below, however, probably isn’t applicable to you. If you’re writing this novel with the intent to sell it to the masses and to actually make some money in the process, then I believe the information below may prove invaluable.

With the general storyline of your novel in mind, consider these five things:

1. Reader Expectation

Fiction—and genre fiction, in particular—is considered literary escapism for a reason. Readers pick up a romance, a crime fiction thriller, or a fantasy with certain expectations in mind. They want to escape the mundanities of their existence and temporarily live vicariously through the main characters. But—in certain genres—that craving for escapism comes with specific expectations. Fantasy, for example, is all about the sense of wonder. It doesn’t matter if it’s an urban fantasy, historical fantasy, or adventure fantasy—that expectancy always remains the same.

Wonder is defined as “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.”

Have you wowed your readers with some narrative element—setting, characters, creatures, magic system, etc.—that is unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable?

As a reviewer for the last 25 years, I can’t tell you how many fantasy novels I’ve reviewed that were set in the same old Tolkienesque, pseudo-Western European setting replete with elves, dwarves, humans, orcs, and dragons. The same old backdrop, the same old characters, even the same old similar quests. These kinds of storylines do not instill a sense of wonder in me. [Insert words here like derivative, uninspired, rehashed, etc.]

The 19th Bladesman (2019) by S. J. Hartland is a perfect example of an indie novel that brings a relentless sense of wonder with unconventional characters, richly described and wildly original world-building, and a deep backstory with a fascinating mythos. The BlueInk review called the novel “nothing short of an epic fantasy masterwork” for good reason.

Bottom line: Deliver up what your readers want—pure unadulterated literary escapism. Take them to someplace new. Wow them with the unexpected. Fantasy writing is like playing in a massive sandbox—the potentials are limitless. Let your imagination run wild!

2. Immersion

In fantasy, this is largely tied to world-building. While making sure that your world isn’t derivative (see #1), you also need to ensure your realm is described adequately. Superficial world-building rarely equates to a bestselling fantasy novel. Think back to your favorite fantasy stories and I’ll guarantee you that they all had fully immersive backdrops—worlds so richly described that you felt like you were living vicariously in them as you read.

There are two common writing mistakes to be aware of here. Many writers begin a novel with a clear focus on world-building but then completely forget about it once the storyline begins unfolding. This doesn’t work—your focus on world-building needs to be consistent (although it can be subtle) throughout. Many young writers also rely almost solely on visual descriptors—particularly color. This creates a cardboard world with no depth. By infusing in a consistent variety of sensory descriptors (where applicable), your world becomes three-dimensional and exponentially more immersive. The inclusion of smells, tastes, sounds, and tactile descriptors can dramatically deepen—and even transform—a scene.

An example of how sensory descriptors can enhance a scene—and ultimately, create immersion—can be found at the beginning of Mel Nicholai’s The Shake (2010), a great read that blends crime fiction with vampire fiction. The first chapter begins: “I could hear and smell them as they turned the corner, a young man and a dog coming down the sidewalk in my direction. The man smelled like a broth of testosterone, sweat, tobacco, and some remarkably foul cologne. The dog smelled like a dog…”

Within just a few sentences, I felt like I was beginning to become submerged in Nicholai’s world. As a reviewer, if I don’t feel like I’m fully immersed in your fantasy world, chances are good that the review is not going to be positive.

3. An Identifiable Hero and/or Heroine

This may seem like an obvious narrative element to focus on, but I’m continually amazed by novels that feature characters that are either not emotionally connective or just plain unappealing. For a story to have power, it needs to resonate with the reader. The easiest way to accomplish this is to create a main character that readers can identify with on some level. These characters need to be believable, well developed, and be wrestling with issues (external and/or internal) that readers can identify with. Are they struggling to find their place in the world? Are they loners? Outsiders in some way? Has a loved one been murdered or died from a dread disease? Dealing with an unfaithful spouse? Struggling to attain something? Think about it like this. We’re all on our own respective journeys of self-discovery. Your main characters should all be on their own journeys of Becoming—and if they’re not, then your story has serious problems. Additionally, these characters should most definitely have flaws that they’re aware of and are attempting to deal with. Deeply flawed heroes and heroines are fine—everyone has flaws—they just need to be portrayed in a way that readers understand them and ultimately root for them.

J.H. Moncrieff’s City of Ghosts (2017)—a highly appealing fusion of dark fantasy, horror, and paranormal fantasy—is the perfect example of a novel powered by fully realized and emotionally connective characters. Jackson Stone is a cubicle-dwelling IT geek from Minneapolis who, tired of his boring life, embarks on a journey of a lifetime by traveling to China to explore abandoned cities with a tourist group. After a strange woman attempts to communicate with him in the middle of the night, a woman from the group—a beautiful medium named Kate—informs the highly skeptical Stone that he saw a ghost, and together they embark on a much more dangerous adventure to uncover the dead woman’s story.

It has been more than three years since I reviewed City of Ghosts and I still vividly remember these two characters. That’s your challenge: create memorable characters whose lives and struggles resonate with readers.

4. Hook

This is the big one when it comes to sales. You understand that indie publishing is a highly competitive business—whatever category of book you’re writing, you know that hundreds of comparable titles are being released every day. Potential buyers may give your title a few seconds of attention on Amazon or BN.com, looking at the front and back cover or reading your novel’s overview before moving on to the next title. What’s your hook? Is it the world-building, a leading character’s journey of self-discovery, an epic conflict or adventure? How does your novel differentiate from the tonnage of other releases out there?

Let’s do the elevator pitch challenge. Imagine you’re in an elevator with a prominent literary agent and you have a few seconds to pitch your fantasy novel. What’s your hook? How would you pitch your novel to the agent? If you can’t identify a strong and clear hook quickly, then you’re going to have trouble selling the novel to readers.

Here’s a good example of a strong hook—Monsterland Reanimated (2018) by Michael Okon, an audacious tale set in a world gone mad after a plague decimates humankind and monsters from various theme parks around the world escape to wreak havoc. Readers know immediately from the cover design exactly what this novel will deliver. It’s right there: “Welcome back to Monsterland—the scariest place on Earth!” With just a handful of words, readers know this is going to be scary and fun. Mission accomplished!

5. Market (and Marketing)

Know your market. Understand—in your specific category—what exactly is selling. Do you know what is hot right now? And what isn’t? Being aware of ever-changing genre trends can certainly be advantageous—especially if comparable novels are selling well—but I’m not telling you to be a trend-chaser. Don’t change your story so that it fits into a specific trending category. (Like adding zombies!) If your specific category—like military fantasy, for example—doesn’t have many comparable titles on bestselling lists, look at it as your opportunity to fill a void. (See EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey back in 2011.)

This all ties directly in with a past blog entitled Familiar but Unique: The First Rule of Selling Your Novel. It’s all about market, and marketing. If you’ve written a great paranormal fantasy and paranormal fantasy is popular at the moment, take advantage of that popularity. But if paranormal fantasy isn’t selling well as a category, there’s a golden opportunity there to shine a spotlight on your uniqueness. It’s all about how you market it.

Hopefully this blog has given you some things to think about. Good luck—and keep writing!

Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program. Readers of this blog are offered a $50 discount on a BlueInk review by using the “key code” Allen. (This in no way guarantees a review by Allen.)

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