Ten things I have learned as a fantasy writer.

Over at Ben Peek’s blog here and at Elizabeth Bear’s here , there are great lists on what they have learned as a writer…

So here’s my ten things I have learned as a fantasy writer:

1. No matter how brilliantly you write, there will still be people who will assume you write crap because it’s fantasy.
2. There is no way a fantasy writer can answer the question, ‘What’s it about?’ without sounding like an utter idiot.
3. There will always be the odd person who thinks you write the other kind of fantasy.
4. No matter how much you think people who read speculative fiction of any kind must be in search of writing that is sharply different, imagination-challenging and intellectually stimulating, the truth is that, by and large, what sells best is the comfortable stuff that wouldn’t challenge a Barbie doll.
5. There is no way a fantasy writer can answer the question, ‘Will they make a film out of it?’ without sounding like you’re making excuses for not being good enough.
6. It’s better not to look at the expression on the face of the person who has just said, “Fantasy? Oh, you write children’s books!” as you try to explain that no, you actually write stuff for adults.
7. Fantasy writers stutter a lot when speaking to people who don’t read fantasy but want to know all about it.
8. Science fiction writers are not always kind about fantasy books or fantasy writers.
9. Any sff book that achieves success in the wider world of literary fiction gets called something else – like “magical realism” or “surreal fiction” or “fabulist” or “a visionary portrayal” or “an allegorical look at the modern world” or “a futuristic tale of…” You get the picture. Never science fiction or fantasy.
10. Marketing people think dragons on the cover sell books, even if there’s no dragon in the story. Likewise with wolves, chain-mail (especially on women), swords (especially wielded by babes), castles on crags, bearded ancient sages with staffs, eagles, stormy skies, ravens…


Ten things I have learned as a fantasy writer. — 19 Comments

  1. You could switch ‘fantasy’ for ‘sf’ in a lot of your comments and they’d still hold true. Just picture someone writing angst-ridden ‘serious’ books when I tell them I write about a loony space pilot.
    I think the SF writers attitude to fantasy is coloured by the fact that fantasy is much stronger in the market. However, that’s down to what people are buying and has little to do with what the publishers choose to print. I may joke about fat fantasy trilogies from time to time, but I wish all genre authors outrageous success no matter what they write.

  2. Ah but Simon, not all SF writers are as enlightened as you. *g* Many (and I’ve been there when they’re doing it) place the blame for publishers not publishing them at the feet of the fantasy writers. Vitriolically, more often than not. It really irks me. We’re all in the same genre ghetto boat. Instead of hating the fantasy writers, the sf writers should think long and hard about what they write and why it doesn’t connect with an audience. You’ve created a hugely successful character and world. There are sf writers with excellent, excellent sales. But then they are excellent, excellent writers.


  3. I dunno whether its quite as simple as that, Karen – although I wish it was. One would like to think that good writing will sell books to publishers no matter what the subject/genre. But publishers’ editors have to sell the book first to the marketing people upstairs, and they are a cautious bunch. They are guided by past history. And if sf didn’t sell in the past, they are wary. Yet, if sf doesn’t get out there now, how is it going to sell?

    I am reminded of something by an agent that I read many years ago. She said that she had read many hilarious short stories in which false teeth figured – but she’d never ever been able to sell one, no matter how well written and witty.

    Hmm…is sf in Oz the false teeth of the spec fic world? Lol.

    If so, more kudos to you Simon, for not only getting your book published but for being successful with it!

  4. I don’t think you can sell science in Australia. It’s a country close to nature. Fantasy will sell because is ultimately biological, there’s nothing cold and alien about it. Cold steel untempered with blood will never sell there.

  5. I don’t know. Always seems that way to me. And #11 The book will be better accepted if the author’s name has a caucasian ring to it.

  6. Hmmm- I think I would have to dispute that #11. My first book was published under my married name of Noramly and sold like hot cakes while there were copies available – far faster than the later ones published under my Anglo-Saxon name of Larke.

    And I could name a great many recent and highly successful books with authors like Amy Tan, Ishiguro, Monica Ali, Salman Rushdi, Ondaatje, Tash Aw. But they are, I admit, mostly outside of sff. Within the realm of sff, there seems to be less.

    I suspect that the reason is simply that people with non-Caucasian names are not writing in the English-speaking market, rather than that they don’t sell once they are there. Possibly, they change their names as I did.

    The reason I was asked to change my name? HarperCollins said it was because people looked at the name and saw it as “normally” and problems with the spelling could affect orders, or that people wouldn’t remember it. A marketing ploy.

  7. So why wasn’t there a reprint ? It’s true that they sell, but only under their sphere of what you might call “assumed influence.” I mean, Joy Luck Club etc. had to have a Chinese name cos it was about Chinese American life. Salman Rushdie is a case in point. If he was called Rizalman Rusdi, would he have sold as much ? I don’t know. Ondaatje is a typical caucasian (or perhaps “western”) name. Tash Aw is another one.. he’s got to sound vaguely asian because of his content, but then he doesn’t use his Chinese name. If he did, I’m guessing it might not have sold as well. Ditto for Amy Tan. “Ali” is pretty much “western”, it’s a fairly common name in the US at any rate, “Allison” is sometimes shortened that way, so they’re famillar with it. The people there can’t pronounce it and can hardxly spell it, how are they going to order it ? I mean, if your name was Thean Tzy Tzhing, you’d be better billed as say Thomas Tan or something.

  8. It was never reprinted because the publishing imprint went out of business after publishing just 4 books. When that happens, I imagine the writers of those books get a bit tainted by the failure of the publisher. Certainly, I have never managed to get it republished elsewhere, even though copies are still selling years later for crazy prices secondhand and I have secondhand shops begging me for copies (which I don’t have).

    Ondaatje is a Sri Lankan name, I believe. However, you are doubtless right – marketing people want names that readers will remember, and most of their readers in Western nations are Caucasian and will therefore remember the familiar more easily.

    I have lived in Malaysia almost 30 years, and I am ashamed to say still have trouble remembering ethnic Chinese names! I have few problems with Indian and Malay names – but Chinese… If I remember all the bits correctly, then I get the order wrong because the same name can be a surname or part of the personal name. So is it Siew Cheng Li, or Cheng Siew Li or Li Siew Cheng or…and then there is nothing there to suggest to a Caucasian whether the person is male or female, which further complicates matters.

    However, the name of a new author would be utterly irrelevant to a publisher or agent when they consider whether to take on a book. It’s afterwards that things get changed, if at all.

  9. Ondaatje sounds dutch to me. Dutch post-colonial. It’s true, traditionally the Chinese have always had their family/sur/last names first. The rest of the world’s always had it the other way. There’s a lot to be said about that, the Chinese have always placed their families before themselves. Anyway with globalization and all that, things have changed. So sometimes the family name is placed last. This is also a metaphor for the changing times, family is not always placed first these days.

  10. God, you could have been Greek. Or describing the modern Greek publisher's attitude towards fantasy AND sf writers. And here I was, thinking things outside Greece were different…

  11. Maybe it was so about 3000 years ago. Now fantasy (and science fiction) is something that happens to other people. All those things you describe are our every day reality, not only as (potential/wannabe/amateurs) SF/F writers, but also as readers. How about that? We are not only "judged" for wasting our time writing fantasy stories, but also for wasting our time reading them.


  12. So, do Greeks watch SF TV or fantasy films? If so, you can always hit back at the critics by asking them how that is different? In fact, surely watching, say, Spiderman or Buffy or Lost or Heroes is more "a waste of time" than the more intellectual activity of reading a SF book?

  13. "This is stuff for kids". "This" includes films from Looney Tunes to the Lord of the Rings. Maybe it is "fun", but it's still not "serious". Add this bitter reality to the even bitterer truth that Greeks don't read in general and you have the picture. It is a sad thing, but it is so true. All in all, say that you read fantasy (or science fiction), admit that you also write, add the cherry of playing rpgs on top of this cake and you're either a ten year old who refuses to grow up or an unnatural abomination who receives weird glances and ironic comments. A lovely country to thrive as a fantasy author, wouldn't you say?


  14. It does sound a bit grim.

    Perhaps you can comfort yourself with the thought that twenty years from now, you will be lauded as "the pioneer of modern Greek science fiction and fantasy writing…"

    Have you thought of writing young adult stuff, aimed at 12 year olds and above, and trying to entice a new generation of fantasy readers? Did Greek kids read Harry Potter with enthusiasm?

  15. Ah… there you are touching ad even more delicate subject. If a Greek has written it, it's not good. Even if it is, it's not advertised at all, so it's still not read. Harry Potter, you say. I know not of one single kid that has not seen the movies, but the books? I heartily doubt that even 5% of them have actually read them. It sounds hopeless, doesn't it?

    And then, there is "us", a bunch of heroic hearts (to quote Thoreau) determined to keep writing SF/F, encouraging each other and taking strength from each other, reading as much as we can, supporting fantasy as much as we can, taking pride in every new (and old) author's success as one more small victory and trying, always trying to surpass any obstacles. I'm sure you understand, having no doubt passed through this more than once.

    I am surprised and sad to find that this happens also outside the borders of our small and savage country. Yet it is "comforting", in a way, to find that a good fantasy writer, with many published novels, shares the same views and questions with a bunch of amateurs, struggling really hard to become professionals. It is good to feel that all of us are in the same boat, sharing the same dreams and fears. Let us all hope that the future will give birth to people who will understand and value fantasy. 🙂

  16. It sounds a bit like fiction in Malaysia, where I live. If it's local, it can't be good – partly even true in days gone by because it was too easy to get published. Standards were not high enough. However, things have changed a lot over the years and are still changing.

    As for what I wrote in this blog post – it is true, but also a little tongue in cheek. The difference between us and you is that in my home country, Australia, for example, there are also many SF/F readers and publishers and successful writers. So the silly people who think we are childish are little more than a mild irritation.

    Take heart and keep trying. There are always inquisitive minds out there – no matter what the nationality – who will want to know: "What if –?"

    Write for them. They'll love you.

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