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Thursday, November 4, 2010

"The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction" by Philip Athans (Reviewed by David Craddock)


It is my contention that no other genres inspire readers to write more than science fiction and fantasy. The sense of wonderment that accompanies sprawling fantasy worlds unfolding within our imaginations and sci-fi's bold exploration of scientific and evolutionary possibilities have acted as catalysts that spurred many a writer to pick up a pen or peck at their keyboards. But how does one do that? How does one create memorable, interesting characters, then build the world in which they exist, and then chart a course through that world that--if the author is lucky--captivates readers?

New York Times best-selling author Philip Athans knows how. As a fantasy author and the former senior managing editor for book publishing at Wizards of the Coast, Athans has spent years mentoring writers and penning his own adventures.
The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: 6 Steps to Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller (henceforth The Guide) is the manifestation of much of Athans' accumulated knowledge, as well as that of many other renowned authors known for charting fantasy and sci-fi epics.

The subtitle to
The Guide is, of course, a bit of a misnomer. Before getting into the meat of worldbuilding, character development, and tightening the nuts and bolts of details that breathe life into stories, Athans is straightforward in clarifying that simply following his six steps is not a shortcut to fame, fortune, and midnight book launches. Rather, the steps can be thought of as lessons, critical components necessary to crafting a tale. Starting at the beginning, Athans defines each genre and its subsets (i.e., high fantasy, steampunk), before moving on to meatier subjects such as the nuances of storytelling; protagonists, antagonists, and their supporting cast; building a world from a blank slate to adding flora and fauna; paying attention to the details that will make worlds and their inhabitants stand out; keeping the narrative fresh by sprinkling in action, romance, drama, and humor at just the right places; and the ins and outs of publishing.

However, readers need not take Athans' word on any or all of these topics. Backing up Athans are authors such as R.A. Salvatore, Paul S. Kemp, Terry Brooks, Kevin J. Anderson, and others, as well as various editors and agents--all of whom Athans interviewed in order to pepper
The Guide with their words of wisdom. Hearing from such notable names and industry veterans serves to reinforce Athans' many pointers and explanations, showing readers that the advice being dispensed is not just so many words; it has been put into practice, and successfully.

The Guide is mostly comprehensive, it occasionally lacks the detailed explanations that many readers might hope for, especially regarding subjects as intricate as worldbuilding. There are times--not many, but some--where Athans and his band of writing colleagues will recommend that readers do something, but will not go into detail on how, exactly, that something is done. I didn't expect every subject to be dissected, of course, but there are areas that could have been given more attention.

Fortunately, Athans himself admits that no book is as thorough and authoritative as one might like. As an excellent (and free!) means of expanding
The Guide, Athans maintains The Fantasy Author's Handbook, a blog on which he supplies visitors with writing exercises designed to apply principles discussed in The Guide, in-depth interviews with authors and publishing industry representatives, book recommendations, expansions on chapters in The Guide, and more.

Though it's not perfect,
The Guide belongs on the desk of all fantasy and sci-fi writers. Whether read cover-to-cover or consulted only when advice on a specific area of writing is needed, The Guide is a great resource for those looking to break into the industry, as well as established authors looking to hone their skills.


Jamie Gibbs said...

Many thanks for this review. I've seen this advertised in a few places, but I was wary about it after reading through Scott Card's Guide, which I didn't like. This looks like it had a much better grasp of teaching the ins and outs of fantasy writing. Definitely on my Christmas list, thanks :)

Bets Davies said...

As much as it sounds as if the guide introduces readers to the important, nuts and bolts of fantasy and sci fi, I'm leery. In any writing, but especially fantasy and science fiction, imagination is the limit. Given a guide, we will limit ourselves.

I learned to write by reading, and writing and writing, and writing some more. Oh. And an MFA (okay, I cheated, but I obviously didn't focus on spec fict there). In the end I came up with my own genre rather than cram into someone elses sub genre: Fusion Fantasy. It allows you to take whatever genre you want, with a solid base of fantasy, and hit blend. Much like a smoothie. Look up my blog.


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