Posted by: Jodi | January 23, 2010

Writing a Fantasy Novel: The Basic Steps

So, you want to write a fantasy novel and you think you have a great idea? Now what? Do you sit down and start writing chapter one? You could. Do you create elaborate timelines, charts, character profiles, and maps? Perhaps. Do you spend hour after hour writing and rewriting the same scene over and over trying to make it perfect? If you are just getting started, I hope not!

There are many ways to write a book and every novelist has come up with a way that works for them.  This is what works for me after trying many different approaches.  Maybe it will work for you.

Step one - Figure out the central plotline and try to sum it up in a few sentences.  This is the lifeline of the story and where you should put the most effort.  For example, the lifeline of the book Fablehaven I just reviewed would look something like this:  Boy and girl forced to stay with grandparents on magical reserve for mystical creatures.  Boy can’t follow rules and gets family in big trouble.  Boy and girl fight to save family.

If you can’t sum up your idea in a concise way that has a beginning, middle, and an end, then you are going to run into big problems down the line.  It’s easy to come up with a handful of scenes that you really like and want to use but if you can’t plug it into a story then you can’t write a book.  Although it sounds simple this step is deceptively difficult because it forces you to think through what you want to happen in the story from beginning to end.

Step two – Write a narrative that walks through the events in the book  starting with parts you know have to happen and build up the narrative before and after that will make it happen.  The joy of using a word processing program is that you can insert new thoughts anywhere and remove them just as easily.  While writing this mini story you will encounter the need for a vast array of secondary characters, not to mention locations which all need names and personalities.  During this step, don’t get stuck on creating names or figuring out exactly how concepts work in your world.  Instead, use pseudonyms to stand in for the names of characters and cities.  Keep a list of characters and other things that need to be figured out, you’ll use it during step three.  If you are going to incorporate parallel stories in your story this is when you can organize how they interact with your main story.

A narrative of Cinderella might start like this:  For years a girl has lived alone with her widowed father who has to leave often for work.  He marries a stern woman with two daughters of her own.  The father dies leaving the girl to live with her stepmother and sisters who make her their servant.  They treat her cruelly.  The mother is trying to get her daughters married to the prince.  etc…

The more detailed the narrative, the more you’ll have to work from when you start writing the book.  There are many advantages to having a mini story written before tackling the manuscript.  First, you’ll know immediately if your idea is going to work the way you planned or if you have to make changes.  Learning this early on will save you hours, if not days, of work.  There’s nothing more irritating than to be writing and realize that the last four chapters have led you to somewhere you shouldn’t be!  Another advantage is that you can use an edited version of your mini story to create a synopsis later on when drafting query letters.  You will also learn if you need to research any particular topic, like how to ride a horse or fire a crossbow.  If your story requires the use of items that you personally have never used then you will need to do some research or your description will fall flat.

Step three – Start figuring out names and places.  Your world is populated with people, creatures, cities, taverns, and more and they all need names and details that make them unique.  Your main characters and locations should receive the most attention, make them as interesting and unique as possible.  If they are not well-formed then they will not support your story and nothing is more irritating than having an incredible story supported by weak characters.

Keep a notebook of people that fasinate you and exactly what about them keeps your interest.  These can be family members, friends, celebrities, or fictional characters.  When creating your characters draw from what you’ve observed being sure to avoid copying and stereotypes.  The same process can be used for locations.

Step four - Start writing! You are now well equipped to dive in and write that novel.  Although it’s tempting to write the scenes you like first, you must start at the beginning and spend time developing your characters.  If you skip the development process and dive into writing the climax you’ll end up wasting time explaining why your character feels compelled to act a certain way.   Use your mini story to keep your writing on track and to keep an eye on the big picture.  Often while working on the manuscript things happen that aren’t planned.  If they are good and help the story then they get to stay.  If they don’t, review the scene and make changes to create a different outcome.

Don’t sweat it if you feel you aren’t writing well, rough drafts are meant to be rough.   Your goal is to get it out of your brain and on paper or screen.  My mantra is “Progress, not Perfection”.  Being a full-time mom of two young kids I force myself to complete a quota of 1000 words daily and 5000 words a week.   A standard paperback fiction novel is anywhere from 35,000 to 80,000 words.  Books take time to create, good books take longer.  Accept that fact and relax and enjoy the process.  No first draft is expected to be perfect, editing to make the story better is part of the process.  Which brings us to…

Step five – Edit and perfect.  The more you write the more you will learn about your characters, your storyline, and your locations.  The more you know and understand, the easier it will be to add the finishing touches and additional descriptions that your story needs to come to life.   Save yourself the push for perfecting and editing your story until you have the rough draft out of your system.  Although I haven’t reached this step in my novel project, it’s the same process for other projects I’ve completed.  Read through the entire rough draft and see if it is the story that you originally imagined.  If it’s even better, good job.  If it needs some help, pinpoint parts that are weak and rewrite.  Be sure that the writing is active, not passive.  Show, don’t tell.  Check your spelling and grammar.  Be sure that your punctuation is correct.  It might take you as long or longer to revise your rough draft as it did to write it.  That’s ok.  Read it aloud to yourself and be sure is sounds right.

Step six - Get critiqued!  Have someone else read your work and listen carefully to what they have to say.  There are professionals out there who, for a modest fee, will give you excellent feedback on your work and ideas for what you can do to make it even better.  Choose someone who you can trust to give you their honest opinion and who is familiar with your genre.  Not your mother, I mean it.  After receiving their critique go back through and make adjustments as necessary.  If possible, do this several times with different people.

Good Luck.  In the creative process there are no absolute rules.  You must do what works best for you.     I wasted months before I discovered that what I was doing wasn’t getting me any closer to holding a finished book.  Now I’m well on the way towards a completed rough draft and I have a clear picture of what needs to happen to help me get there.  Will there be hard days where I can’t get it to make sense, yes.  But there will be fantastic days where the words just seem to flow on their own.  Happy writing!

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Responses

  1. Some good information for getting started here – as you said at the beginning everyone has to find the path that works for them but this should definitely get people thinking. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. This is a great post! I bookmarked it for future reference. I’m going to add you to my blogrolls as well. This is @versinox from Twitter, btw.

  3. Thanks for reading! What’s funny is I allowed my hubby to proofread it after I published and he had some great suggestions. One was that my sentence flow was too choppy. So I went back and did another edit – Progress, not perfection!

  4. You’ve offered a well-presented insight into the methods and motivations that will lead one from start to finish… hopefully. As you said, there will be different methods and techniques that will work for each individual writer, but you’ve offered some solid basics that should help the beginner get started. :)

  5. [...] Writing a Fantasy Novel: The Basic Steps [...]

  6. [...] I knew better… In January of this year I wrote a lengthy post called, “Writing a Fantasy Novel: The Basic Steps”.  Looking back I can see how naïve and pretentious I was then compared to now.  At the time, I [...]


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