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What kind of fantasy novel are you writing? August 26, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing.
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Source: readingbookinfo.com

It’s been an exciting few weeks around here for an assortment of reasons I won’t go into, which means my catatonic fantasy novel is being pushed even further back in my list of ‘things I must work on soon’.

I started this novel about 10 years ago as a bored student who had read little fantasy and had zero idea what made a good fantasy novel and even less of an idea on how to write one.  And yet I wrote slabs here and there, developed character biographies, planned, planned and planned some more.  Most of the writing took place over the space of two years, but it’s been one of those projects that can get neglected for years at a time — and it has been.  I guess I am one of those millions of people out there who would love to reach their goal but haven’t yet been willing to (or developed the discipline to) put in the hard work necessary to get there.

My dreams of becoming a fantasy novelist are still very much alive, but the expectations are no longer the same.  Having now read more fantasy and with a better understanding of what makes a good book and how to produce one, it has actually gotten much harder to write.  I also know now what a difficult industry it is, how poorly the industry is performing right now, and how bleak the future is looking for the majority of aspiring novelists.   Not to say it can’t be done, but hard work alone won’t be enough.

Simply being a good writer and writing a great book isn’t going to cut it.  These days, it’s all about the market — and the marketing.  You really have to identify your target market and write specifically for that market.  Sometimes you get lucky and the book has cross-market potential (say Harry Potter), but if you don’t have a clear target market you’ll find it difficult to find a publisher willing to take you on (especially if you are not an established writer).

I find it’s a catch-22 situation: you want to write something that is different to what is already out there at the moment to distinguish yourself from the pack, but publishers are seldom willing to take on books that they can’t comfortably squeeze into a particular genre.

And that’s just to get published.  What about sales?  Of course, paranormal romance has been big since Twilight, and I suppose that’s not really fantasy any more because it kind of become a standalone genre.  It seems every second book on the shelf involves vampires, werewolves or other mythological creatures these days.

More recently, thanks to the HBO series Game of Thrones, epic fantasy is starting to really pick up again, especially those with dark plots that feature demented themes and characters.

When I was in writing workshops, the general consensus was that if you want to sell these days, you ought to target the ‘young adult’ market.  According to Wikipedia, that’s roughly the ages of 14 to 21.  But apart from the Harry Potter clones (ie teenagers playing around with magic and magical worlds) and Twilight clones (ie teenagers falling in love with magical creatures), I can’t really think of any young adult fantasy sub-genres that have been hugely successful in recent years.

Every week I am coming across more and more people who are writing fantasy novels, and the majority of them either doing something generic or one of the above.  And that got me wondering — where the heck does my fantasy novel fit into all of this, and should I be doing anything to change it?

Back before I knew anything about anything, my intention was just to write a good fantasy yarn.  I thought I had a good story, a few interesting characters, and didn’t think about much else.  I suppose if I had a particular slant, it was to make the novel less like the sprawling fantasy epics that give me headaches just trying to decipher the blurb on the back cover.  I wanted to write something lighter, more straightforward and action-packed, like a thriller with a fantasy setting.  I wanted to appeal to the RPG geeks who like the idea the these fantasy worlds but are either too lazy or find it too tedious to read 1000+ pages for a good story.

I still want to keep that idea in tact, but I’m wondering whether I need to rewrite the damn thing so that it fits more into a particular category.  Because right now, it’s not really anything.  On the one hand, I could go ‘George RR Martin’ and make it a more ‘adult’ fantasy with more violence, gore, treachery and sex (and let’s face it, the geeks love that kind of stuff).  On the other hand, I could go the ‘young adult’ path and make my protagonists younger, make the story slightly more sanitised, and maybe even throw in a little more romance.

They would make completely different books, but I can’t figure out which one would be more appealing to the wider market.

Anyway, that’s my aimless rant for the day.  If you too are writing a fantasy novel, what kind of fantasy is it?  Does it follow the trodden path of those before you, or is it something drastically different?  Are you writing with a specific target market in mind or do you not care?  And what makes you think your novel is special enough to be published or potentially become a bestseller?

Is it ever too early to start re-writing? July 26, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Fantasy, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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I’m trying to put my focus back into writing starting this week, and one aspect of that is to revisit my dormant fantasy novel which I have been thinking about a lot these past couple of months.  I still think the book as potential and I like the story it has to tell, but having written significant chunks of it around 2 years ago, I know it will require plenty of work.

Conventional writing wisdom suggests that rewriting comes after completion of the first draft.  The primary goal in the first attempt is to just get the words of the story out of your mind, out of your system and onto the page.  Anne Lamott, who wrote the popular writing book Bird by Bird, discussed at length the unavoidable ‘shitty first drafts’ even excellent and seasoned writers churn out on a regular basis.

The idea is that if you worry and procrastinate over every paragraph, sentence or word, you’ll never generate any momentum and it will take you much longer to finish the story.  And often it’s when you are in that ‘zone’ of pumping out a copious amount of words at a frenetic pace that some of your best writing is generated (though it has to be ‘unearthed’ from all the crappy stuff).

However, although I am not even at the halfway line of the first draft of my fantasy epic (around 150,000 words), I’m highly tempted at the moment to go back to the beginning and rewrite a few of the first chapters.  One of the main reasons is that I realised my beginning lacked a serious punch.  After an action-packed prologue, I started with the usual boring ‘fantasy world introduction’ chapter where I introduced the characters and the world in which they lived in a methodical fashion.  It occurred to me that it would have made a lot more sense to start in the middle of the action, beginning with the final of a tournament in which the protagonist is involved in.  In the current version, the tournament was already over by the time the story began.

But would rewriting before I’ve even finished the first draft be a waste of time?  What if I later change my mind and come up with a better intro?  What if later on I decide to change characters or events?

I read in an interview with Philip Pullman (author of the His Dark Materials trilogy) that he doesn’t have a particular method when it comes to writing and rewriting.  Sometimes he waits until the end and sometimes he does it as he goes along.

In Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing (my review and summary here), he says that first drafts should be completed within 3 months, which is pretty much supernatural for most people out there, but even for him, this essentially means no rewriting until the first draft has been completed.  King also recommended putting the draft aside for a while before coming back to it with fresh eyes.  That said, King might be an anomaly because he seems to churn out pretty decent first drafts.  I say this because he suggests that a second draft should tighten a first draft by 10% and that he usually only does two drafts and a polish for a novel.

Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, said in an interview that he did literally 150-200 drafts of the first 90 pages just to get it right.  Can you imagine that?  I did about 5 or 6 drafts of the first chapter of my Masters writing project and I found it to be brutal already.

In the end, my gut tells me that I should just do whatever I feel like, whether it’s keep going or go back to the beginning.  It’s been so long that anything is better than nothing.

Pardon the delay July 17, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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A quick one.  I just got back from our nation’s capital (Canberra) as part of a surprisingly good short vacation.  Contrary to popular belief, there is actually a lot to do there!  So some exciting posts will be coming shortly.  But I’ve still got a few China posts left, which I might try and finish off first.

I also watched the final Harry Potter movie today, so I have to give my two cents on that too.  In short, a fitting finale for a wonderful franchise, and a pretty good film in the grand scheme of things.

Lastly, some great news.  Got a great grade for my masters project (the best possible grade), which gives me a load of confidence moving forward.  I still have to finish the darn thing though, amongst other things.  A lot of big changes coming up in my life.  Not sure if I am ready to tackle them all head on just yet but I don’t really have much of a choice!  I do perform my best under extreme pressure, so maybe it will do me some good.

Stay tuned.

The Last Minute Man! July 7, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, Novel, On Writing.
2 comments

There is something seriously wrong with me.

It seems I can never can anything done these days unless I have no choice.  I might have a list of tasks I need to complete throughout the day, but for whatever reason I bludge it away and don’t get anything done.  But if there is anything on the list that has a deadline or is something that must be done, I’ll blitz through it at the last minute and complete it with such amazing efficiency that I almost consider it superhuman.  Tasks that would ordinarily take me an hour I would knock out of the park in 10 minutes — but only if I only have 10 minutes to do it.  If I had 15 minutes it would take 15 minutes.  But no matter what, I get it done, right at the last minute.

It’s like those people who lift burning cars to save babies.  When there is no choice and the panic reaches boiling point, I morph into a superhero called the Last Minute Man.  Unfortunately, I have not yet learned to harness this astonishing ability.  I often wonder what my life would be like if I could be Last Minute Man all the time.  I’d be like Bradley Cooper in Limitless.  I would have finished my three books in the last three weeks, rather than biting my thumbs and staring at the wall.  I would have churned this post out in two minutes rather than the 15 it is taking me.

And yes, I have tried to impose on myself superficial deadlines.  But they ultimately don’t work because, well, they are superficial.  When it’s not real life and death Last Minute Man refuses to show.

It’s a horrible power to have because relying on Last Minute Man becomes a habit.  I always think I can leave things until the last minute because Last Minute Man will save me.  I can sit there and stare at the clock, wondering how far I can push it and still get it done.  And I always do.

Damn you, Last Minute Man.  Damn you!

Rekindling the passion with old writing projects June 27, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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3 comments

Have you ever started writing, got halfway through, or almost finished a piece of writing, but for whatever reason never saw it through to the end?  Have you then, days, weeks, months, or even years later, tried to pick it back up again to see if you can finish it off?

That’s what I’ve been trying to do the last few days.  I have no less than three ‘old’ projects that I’m trying to get back on track, with the time off being from a couple of weeks to almost a couple of years.  And you know what?  It’s really really hard.  Ridiculously hard.

What I’ve been trying to do is rekindle the passion I once had with these projects, to recapture the flame inside me that made me want to write all day, work on it all night, think about it as I’m drifting off to sleep and getting right back into it the moment I wake up.  I’ve had those moments with all three projects, but whenever I stop (due to a plethora of reasons, including laziness, procrastination, holidays, other work and unforeseen circumstances outside of my control) I find it difficult to regather that momentum again.

I ask myself why that is the case.  Do I still want to finish them off?  Of course, more than ever — in fact, now is the best time because I actually have the time to work on them.  Do I still think they are good ideas?  Yes.  Perhaps not as brilliant as I originally envisioned, but good enough.  So why, dammit?  Why?

I guess part of it might be because I fear that I’ll pick up the old project, have a look at it, and be stunned into depression over how crap it is and how much work I’ll need to do just to fix it up.  That almost always happens when I look back at my old work.  But surely I’m not alone in that, and others have gone on to put in whatever work was necessary to finish it off.

Having a zillion distractions around you certainly doesn’t help.  That’s why I am so enamoured of full-time writers who work from home, people who can just sit down at the table X number of hours a day and work on their shit rain, hail or shine and no matter how much they don’t want to do it — like a real job.  I remember Stephen King said something like that in On Writing, that you have to take your writing seriously or else no one will.

That’s it.  I’m going to give it a try and see what happens.  Work on my shit like a 9-5 job on the days where I can.  I’ll report back with the results in a couple of weeks.

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