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The Top 5 Things I’ve Learned Writing My First Fantasy Novel

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I haven't posted in a bit. That’s because I’ve not only been taking care of my new twin babies, but because I’ve been a bit preoccupied with my other baby…my first novel. Transitioning from writing games to writing a book has been a challenge, but I’ve learned a lot along the way. I thought I’d take some time to share some of my biggest takeaways.

World Building is Anthropology

When I started writing my novel, I attempted to be as “realistic” with my world building as possible. My protagonist is a merchant sailor in a culture with tech equivalent to the late middle ages. I did in-depth research about several real world cultures from that time. I learned a lot, but it was exhausting, daunting, and almost paralyzing. I began to question if I could even write the book. I mean, after all, I’m not a medieval historian. I was bound to get things wrong. And since in some cases I was writing outside of my own ethnic background, I was worried getting things wrong could end my career before it even began.

Things changed after I listened to this talk by NK Jeminson, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6xyFQhbsjQ

I won’t spoil the whole thing for you, because you should really, really listen to it yourself. But the TLDR is that fantasy worlds are better if they aren’t “based” off a specific real world culture. Instead, think about how the world you want to write about is fundamentally different from our own. Imagine what culture or cultures would grow out of that difference. What you get will be more unique and feel more real than taking an existing culture and tweaking it to feel fantastical.

Outlines are a Living Document

There’s a lot of talk in writing circles about the advantages of plotters *people who outline their books before writing) versus pantsers (people who just write what comes to them). Traditionally you’ll learn that writers who are “plotters” tend to have better stories whereas writers who are “pantsers” tend to have better character development. I say, why not both?

While I started out with a strong outline, I noticed that as I wrote, things changed. Some important beats that I had in the outline just didn’t feel natural on the page. Instead of forcing the characters to behave like my outline wanted I temporarily embraced the mindset of a pantser and let the characters do their thing. But I didn’t go full pantser. After making a major change, I’d go back to my outline and see how those intuitive changes affected the act structure as a whole and rewrite the outline until I had a solid plot again. 

Sentence Structure Matters

I’ve always thought of myself as a substance over style kind of person. So naturally when I began writing, my first impulse was to think of the style as secondary to the content. What I didn’t realize was that the style of the writing is what allows the reader to get immersed in the content. That may seem obvious, but  as someone with experience mostly in a dialogue focused medium, I hadn’t put much thought into writing action or description until I tried writing a novel.

While I still employ a simple, straightforward writing style, I find that writing in a way that doesn’t call attention to the writing is a skill in itself. A book that I highly recommend for teaching that skill is Ken Rand’s “The Ten Percent Solution.”

Take Beta Reader Feedback with a Heaping Helping of Salt

While I do think having a beta reader period is important, there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you don’t let amateur feedback put you in a worse position than when you started.

Firstly, you should be selective of who you invite to participate. If your target audience is 18-25 year old males, then your 60 year old mom’s feedback isn’t very useful. In fact, your mom’s feedback probably isn’t very useful anyway because she’s likely already biased to like your book. When selecting beta readers, the most useful readers are people within your target demographic who’s taste you respect. If possible, I also find it useful to do a second round of feedback with people I don’t know personally to eliminate bias. People in this category include friends of friends or other writers I find through trusted groups and forums. 

When working with this second group, I’m especially careful not to take the advice they have too seriously. One person’s opinion is just that, one person’s opinion. People you meet in writer’s groups aren’t professional agents or editors. They don’t know what will or won’t get you published. Instead of using beta readers as editors, use them as a temperature check. Is there a part of the book where multiple people stop reading? A character more people tend to like or dislike? I find sending out a survey at the end of a beta reading period is useful for collecting this kind of data.

When It Comes to Publishing…Patience is a Virtue

The worst thing I did when working on my book was sending it out to some of my top choice agents before it was ready which led to form rejections. Of course, I didn’t know anything was wrong with my book at the time or I wouldn’t have sent it out. It wasn’t until rejections started rolling in that I realized something had to change. After that I decided to go to New York Pitch where I talked to professionals and realized that my antagonist wasn’t strong enough, which led to the book coming across as uneventful and therefore difficult to market. 

Obviously since you are here, you know about New York Pitch so I won’t rehash the benefits with you. Another way to talk to professionals before submitting would be to other professional conventions. In the case of Science Fiction and Fantasy, WorldCon and the Nebula Conference are good opportunities for meeting publishers and agents. Secondly, if you can afford it Manuscript Academy does paid consultations with top agents that can be a good temperature check before submitting. 

Obviously, if any of this advice doesn't appeal to you, you by no means have to follow  it. No one person's experience as a writer is universal. These are just a few things I wish I'd read before I got started.

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"King of Pantsers"?


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