Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Few Fantasy Questions and Answers

By Jill Williamson

How hard is it to get into the market for science fiction/fantasy books?
The market for science fiction and fantasy is huge! And it’s very popular. Lots of publishers are looking for books that fit these genres. Plus, there are so many subgenres that writers have a lot of room to be creative. (See my recent post on speculative fiction subgenres.) And if you can come up with an interesting twist, so much the better. What publishers don’t want to hear is “this is the next Twilight” or “the next Harry Potter” or “the next Hunger Games.” Always try to make your book stand on its own. 

And do your homework. Know what genre you’re writing and what books the publisher has put out so that if you get the chance to meet an editor or agent, you can tell them about your story in a quick, sales-pitchy kind of way and explain how your book will fit the types of books they publish.

I'd also like to suggest that you don't write fantasy because it's popular. You need to write what you love. If you love fantasy, great. But if you hate fantasy or feel kind of "blah" about it, you probably shouldn't write it. Be who you are as a writer. Be yourself. And if you don't know who you are, take the time to find out.

I’m having trouble knowing where to start my fantasy novel. Since it’s in a made up world that people can’t relate to, how do I know what to write about?
I feel that ever great fantasy needs to have a great storyworld. Think about it. Narnia. Middle Earth. Alagaesia. Prydain. (Click here to explore the map for my medieval fantasy world Er'Rets.) Since I adore the maps in the front of fantasy novels, I always recommend starting a fantasy novel by drawing a map to start creating your made-up world. Put cities on the map. Write up backstory of the different rulers. Which rulers are at peace? Which are at war and why? What trades are popular in each place? Ex: mining, farming, ranching, fishing, etc. 

This will give you an idea of how the people in each place make a living. A character who was raised in a fishing town will be different from a character raised in a mining town. And while the majority of readers who’ve had jobs at fast food restaurants might not relate to living on a farm, they will find it fascinating. You reader doesn’t have to relate to everything about your characters and story. They just need to be able to imagine themselves in your character’s situation. And if you give your character a goal, your reader will follow along. I mean, how many of us can relate to being a hobbit? None! But we might know what it feels like to be small or to be brave or to be asked to do something we'd really rather not do.

Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that fantasy novel plots are all that different from contemporary ones. A plot is a plot. Whatever genre you write, work on creating an interesting main character and give them a goal. It’s as simple—or as complicated—as that.  

Hi, I’m currently working on a fantasy story, but I’m a bit stuck. I need a period-appropriate name for my character. I’ve gone through dozens of sites and stuff, but I can’t find any!
Naming characters depends on the time period of book you are writing. For fantasy, it’s fun to use different languages. I used Hebrew words to name some characters in my Blood of Kings trilogy. For my bad guy, I looked up the words that defined him, “evil,” “torn,” “divided,” “liar,” and eventually settled on naming him Esek, which means “dispute.”

I also came up with themes for different cities. For example, Carmine is a city that makes wine. It’s all vineyards. So I brainstormed a list of words having to do with wine: Vert, Rioja, Pinot, Basalt, Malbec, Terra, etc., which gave me a nice list of character names. For a wild forest-dwelling people, I used Inupiat/Eskimo names. For a coastal town, I names one family’s children, Riif, Shoal, Gil, and Aljee, playing with ocean-types of words (reef, gills, shoal, and algae.)

Things like this help you give your different cities character from one another. Another trick for fantasy names is to use an atlas and look up different countries like Russia, India, or Argentina. Use cities, lakes, rivers, or mountains as they are or by changing them a little to get very different sounding names. It’s a good idea to look up the meanings of such names, though. That way you won’t accidentally name your characters a word that means something gross or derogatory in another language.

If you’re writing a historical piece, it’s easy to find names online. Simply Google “popular names 1850” or whatever year you’re looking for. I recently looked up "unique British names" and found a number of fun lists, including some from the sixteenth century (click here to see that list). If you can’t find what you’re looking for, a good trick is to look up a historical event around the time of your story. An article on the Civil War will name soldiers and generals and perhaps inspire some names from that time period. When I was looking for first and last names for a steampunk novel, I Googled a list of thepassengers on the Titanic. That gave me a wide variety of names from 1912, both upper and lower class.

If I’m writing a contemporary fantasy, I have a baby name book I use—though you can find dozens of baby name sites online. I also have an old Los Angeles phone book that’s a great tool for finding first and last names.

Hope that helps!

And I've been meaning to mentionand keep forgettingbut for those of you with mp3 players or who like to listen to audio books, I podcast my Blood of Kings fantasy trilogy one chapter a week for free on my blog. I'm currently almost finished with book two. But if you'd like to start at the beginning, you can see all the chapter archives by clicking here and then clicking on By Darkness Hid, to start with book one.

22 comments:

  1. Great advice! I've only made a fantasy world (That doesn't take place on Earth.) once, and while I sort-of liked how it turned out(but it needed work.) I had to shelve the story because it is beyond my skill level right now. :( I just can't seem to get something right with the POV characters. It needs to be told in alternating POVs, and I don't think I'm skilled enough for that yet. :/

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    1. That's wise of you to be evaluating your skill level, Allison. And you can always come back to your fantasy story someday. :-)

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  2. I've been creating a fantasy world in my head for the last couple of years, but I haven't started writing because I don't really have a plot yet. When I try to think of one, it always seems way too similar to the plot of a book I've already read. I think I might try the Sword and Sorcery fantasy from your list the other day; maybe it would be easier to create a unique plot if it was more small-scale.

    Oh, and for character names, part of my fantasy world is based on the Middle East, so I've tried to have names similar to names from there, and then another part is based on Europe, so I've just been tweaking names :)

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    1. I have that same problem sometimes! I'll think up an Amazing world, and some characters, but then I have NO idea what to do with them, or where to put them.
      -Abby

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    2. Cool, Anonymous! Clever idea using names from the Middle East and Europe. That will give your story names two different cultural feels.

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    3. Abigail,
      That can be really frustrating. Sometimes it helps to write about that one amazing character. Just journal his thoughts, have him talk about what is going on in his life and world, and sometimes you'll stumble onto a plot that way.

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  3. Thanks for the post! I love writing fantasy!
    I for character names I like to take a modern name, and give it a spell twist. Like instead of Derek, I'd change it to Deryk- that's how I like it anyway. Or just flat out make them up.
    I love creating fantasy worlds! I've got three or four of them, and I draw maps constantly. It's so fun, and helps alot when i'm writing about the characters traveling.

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    1. Have you thought up names for all of your fantasy worlds? It does help a lot to have a map to refer to whenever characters are traveling.
      -Abby

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    2. MaddieJ,
      I've been doing that spelling twist on my current dystopian novel. It seemed a logical jump to me that there might be some similar names in the future, but they might spell them differently. Just think of all the different ways to spell Kaitlyn! Ha ha.

      And good point about traveling. It inspires, doesn't it?

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    3. @abigail miller
      Yeah, all my worlds have names, and lots of towns too.

      @Jill Williamson
      I know! catlynn is a very fun name to spell:)
      Yes, it really does:)

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  4. Oh wow Jill this is so helpful! I'm always trying to think up interesting names for my fantasy characters, but you've just given me a great idea. Sometimes I have looked up greek names, and that was helpful. And writing out a map is fun! Especially when you can get a darling nine year old to help you color it in lol. And I've actually just started describing all the countries, trades, and rulers in my world. Thanks again for the article, I really appreciate it!

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    1. You're welcome, Bethany! I'm glad you were inspired.

      Whenever I start drawing new maps, my kids draw them too. It's fun to see what cool ideas they come up with. Since they're family, I can steal their ideas. Mwa ha ha! JK

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  5. I really enjoyed reading this post, even though I don't write fantasy. I've always liked designing towns/countries, and have, in the past, tried to create a ficitional town for a story that isn't fantasy lol.
    You know, I always wondered how fantasy writers thought up their characters names! Reading how you (and MaddieJ!) do it is quite enlightening. :)
    Have a great day!
    ~Whitney

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    1. Whitney,
      I've read several teen books that had little maps on the neighborhood in the front. So you don't have to write fantasy to draw maps. In fact, I drew a map of Moscow for my upcoming book to point out the major places my characters went. And I also drew a floor plan of their apartment. But that's because drawing house floor plans was one of my high school hobbies. :-)

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  6. Anyone got any idea's about some kind of plot twist in a fantasy novel that involves a people/province going to war, that is a little more original than a tyranical king?? I'm trying to figure something out.

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    1. MaddieJ,

      Have them fighting over something. Think about our world. What do people fight over? In the Middle East, it's religion and oil. You could have them fighting over coal mines--because each kingdom would need energy to survive. Or they could fight over a river or bay--because each kingdom needs access to the sea for fish as a major food source or river water for irrigation of farms.

      You could also have them fighting over laws. Laws of slavery or education or weapons...

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    2. @Jill
      OOHHH!! The laws idea sounds perfect!!....Now I just need to start it:)

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  7. I've realized over the many years I've been writing that even though many ideas for fantasy are very similar and clashing with other fantasy novels, I tend to try not to care because I do my best to make it my own and let my imagination run wild. Fantasy writing is my ultimate passion.
    I guess I'm lucky enough though to have great ideas stored away in a binder for my fantasy world Amerada. :) I just wrote the first book by the seat of my pants and finished it in 2008, but now someday I will go back and fill plotholes and make something of it.
    All the things I just added for fun and didn't know where they would go have made me think about how I could connect A and B and then unique and awesome twists and turns have come about. :D
    Gosh, I'm rambling...
    Lol.
    Thanks for posting this Mrs. Williamson! This was super helpful. I want to work really hard to create more of Amerada, I hardly know anything about the land.

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    1. Cool, Jazmine! Planning out more info about your storyworld is lots of fun. You can get lost in it and forget to write the book! But it is always time well spent. :-)

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  8. Thanks for the AMAZING post, Jill!
    I love to write fantasy stories. A while ago my friend and I made a map of a fantasy world called, Orithinia. We had to think up all of these city names and stuff. It was really fun! A few times we would take brand names and try spelling them backwards. :) For example: We took Suave, (The shampoo brand) and spelled it backwards, which gave us, Evaus, which we then changed to Eveos. It was quite fun! Thanks again!
    -Abby :D

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    1. Clever idea with the brand names, Abigail! It is fun to create a world. Makes me want to go draw a map right now! lol

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  9. Jill, how did you come up with Er'Rets?

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