Review: Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

Like any aspiring author, I’ve read more than my fair share of books on writing. After reading Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I thought it was worth a review. Since the book is nearly six years old, I doubt this review will cause a significant sales bump. As a good primer, it encourages referencing to other works. It’s worth picking up. Sorry the review is overly long.

Let me start with the caveat: I am not a bestselling author. I’ve written and published a few books. I’m big into understanding the craft of writing. I enjoy writing, though as a skill I have to say I am still on the windward side of learning. From time to time, I offer my naive advice to others who are starting writing. There are a few books I recommend. Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is the latest that I’ve read, and the first I’d like to blog a review about.

I am not a huge fan of Wizards of the Coast. I’ve never read a book by R.A. Salvatore, who has been a phenomenal author within the Dungeons and Dragons universe. I loved D&D back in my teens and twenties (which should be the tweens, but that’s a rant for another day.) I am not a fanboi.

Philip Athans is an editor for WotC novels. To me, this means he’s not written a lot. But, he has a solid understanding of the craft by having read and edited a lot. He has access to some of the finer minds in world building, again from the D&D universe.

Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction should be viewed as a primer. There’s a maxim somewhere that says that after you read five books in a domain, you are qualified to write the sixth. I get that the point of the maxim is you need to know enough about the domain to see what has been left unsaid, then say it. I’ve personally turned that on its head by saying “read five books in a domain and you are functionally literate in that domain.” As a primer, the Guide provides a broad understanding of worldbuilding and fiction writing in its target genres of Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

The Guide uses a simple, six step process. Only the steps are simple.

Part I: The Genres. This is a 14-page part that summarizes the overall domain of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. There are many ways to slice the sub-genres, and those offered here are pretty solid. The next series I’m contemplating, for example, is in the slipstream sub-genre. There is also a good summary of audience categories and ages. There’s nothing much new there for me, but a good summary that would encourage further reading.

Step One: Storytelling. This is a 25-page section that should ground an author in the need to say something in your writing. Not just writing, but messaging. Beyond that, it’s a summary of plot types. There are far too many books that align to this section. Books I like that add to the conversation include:

  • Writing Fiction For Dummies, Randy Ingermanson. A very good primer on the craft of fiction writing. Randy includes his Snowflake Method, of which I am a fan.
  • How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson. Did I say I like Snowflake? The concept is Randy used Snowflake to put together a fictional account of a writer’s group using Snowflake. The appendix includes his snowflake development of the main portion of the book.

Step Two: Characters. Another very good summary, this one involving characterization. This 25-page section emphasizes the need to have all your main characters well developed.

Me: when you have a solid theme in your novel, your two conflict characters (hero/villain) have the same basic goal. They just have different means to the end. This explores the theme and leads the author to essentially state the hero’s means were worthy of the end. There are far too many books on Characterization, and I admit it’s my personal weak area.

Step Three: The World. Worldbuilding is something I’ve been keen on since I was a teenager. I started creating campaign worlds in D&D, and from there expanded to worldbuilding for novel writing. To date, only the Postal Marine Series has emerged, largely from work done at the Espace Society. Athans does a very good job of summarizing worldbuilding, and does discuss the mixed lesson of having enough detail to coherently understand the milieu but not get caught in analysis paralysis.

Books I like that add to the conversation include:

I would be remiss to leave out some worldbuilding websites. Some I used to use are gone (though I have the Evernote of snippets).

Step Four: Details. This section is 45-pages long, which is the longest. This is all about those little flourishes that have been abused in the past. They refer to 70s Battlestar Galactica’s use of “centon” and “yaran” for minute and year. More specifically, this section is about ensuring that you only add the flourishes that add to the flavor of the story.

For example: In the Postal Marine Series, humanity is largely in the metric system. They use metric time (10-cycle day, 100 beats to the cycle, 100 seconds to the beat). To compare to real life, there are 144 minutes to the cycle. A second in PMS is 0.86 earth seconds. Since they use the metric system, imperial terms were re-purposed. “Mile” was reused to represent relativistic distances and speeds (i.e. one mile is one percent light speed times a cycle, so a ship traveling one mile per cycle is moving at 2578km/second.)

The section is long because they demonstrate rewriting bad flourishes via six iterations, which helps show why you should be judicious with details. It also points out that fantasy needs magic-like elements and science-fiction needs technology. These are speculative genres, so you need to speculate.

I like C.S. Lewis' term “supposal.” You take a real-world concept and then ask, “suppose X were different. How would things turn out?” The Narnia series supposes Christianity in a milieu with sentient animals. The Grimnoir Chronicles supposes a fairly sophisticated magic system affected humanity in the 18th Century and it’s social impact and history changes by the 1930s. These genres are all about supposing.

Step Five: Nuts & Bolts; Step Six: Finishing Touches. I’m summarizing these two sections. It’s a superficial treatment of what is discussed in detail via the books mentioned in Step One.

Part III: The Business. Here they offer general advice for writers. It’s about work-life balance and how to monetize. Orson Card might have sold Ender’s Game movie rights, but in a book signing event explained how he divorced himself emotionally from the movie to avoid being frustrated at the outcome, and how novel writing is a richer medium. I don’t expect anyone to ever ask me to option a movie from my writing. But, if they do, I’ll know to find a good agent and lawyer.

Part IV: Hugo Mann’s Perfect Soul. This is an effort to explore R.A. Salvatore’s short story using the concepts in the book. It is a little lackluster, but still has a few nuggets.