Discussion on Writing Fantasy Fiction (Somerset Writers’ Festival, Gold Coast)

The Missing Kin (Chronicles of Krangor)Royal ExileQuillblade: Voyages of the Flying Dragon: Bk. 1The Puzzle RingTree and Leaf: Including Tolkien: A BiographyLaws of Magic 3: Word of HonourThe Whisperer

The ‘Fantasia’ panel at the Somerset Writers Festival featured Michael Pryor, Fiona McIntoshBen Chandler and Kate Forsyth discussing writing fantasy.

Ben Chandler had his first novel, Quillblade, published in 2010 by Random House. Quillblade is a steampunk adventure novel for teens with a range of mythology mixed in. Michael Pryor is best known for his Laws of Magic steampunk series for teens, also published by Random House. Fiona McIntosh has written many fantasy novels, set in fantasy medieval European settings, published by Harper Collins (and a few other sorts of novels). Kate Forsyth has written many fantasy novels involving such things as gypsies and magic charms, dragons, and curses, mostly published by Pan Macmillan.

Ben discussed how Quillblade was the second novel he wrote but the first he got published. Michael discussed how his Laws of Magic series is “a historical fantasy in a world not unlike our own set just before world war one. I have the year 1910 in mind.” He also discussed how, when writing the last chapter of the last book (book 6) in the Laws of Magic series, he wanted to “do it right for the characters”. Kate discussed how, “at the age of 25, I had a quarter life crisis”; she quit work, did a masters degree and during the uni holidays thought: “Two months. No uni. Write something.” She set out to write a 3000 word story for Aurealis magazine, came up with 30,000 words (then thought maybe it’s a novel, then thought maybe it’s a trilogy). Having written her 30,000 words, Kate sent them to a publisher who asked for the rest of the manuscript and Kate replied she hadn’t actually written it yet. So she wrote day and night for two months to get the rest of the novel manuscript written. Two months after the manuscript was finished she got a 3 book deal with Random House.

Kate Forsyth discussed how her initial idea for a novel came from a dream of a girl who can talk to animals (to which Fiona McIntosh replied “I don’t dream of girls who talk to animals; I dream of Colin Firth”). Similarly, Fiona discussed a midlife crisis as the trigger for her first novel – which she “wrote furiously for ten weeks” to get written. Fiona also described how she got the interest of a publisher before she had the manuscript fully ready. “Can I have the rest of the book?” Fiona’s response? “In two weeks. I have to go to Paris.” She got off the phone and wrote furiously for the next ten days to get it completed. Fiona discussed how she wrote her children’s novel, The Whisperer, for her sons because other children’s parents were getting concerned about the regularity with which brutality appeared in her novels and her children pleaded for her to write a children’s novel ‘so they could be normal’.

Ben Chandler explained how he and Fiona have a history (which she didn’t know about). When Ben was starting out with his fiction writing, Fiona gave a talk at Flinders University and mentioned she responds to her readers’ emails. So he wrote to her when he finished his first novel manuscript and she advised him to put it aside and get straight to work writing the next one. Ben said he “was crushed” but did what she said and wrote a second manuscript, which became his first published novel.

The Somerset College librarian facilitating the discussion asked the authors their thoughts on distinguishing between fantasy and science fiction, or whether they thought it was okay to consider them together. All the authors strongly agreed that fantasy is very distinct from science fiction. Ben put it: “If you’re going to lump fantasy with science fiction you might as well lump crime with romance.” Fiona said she “stomps across all genres; crime and horror and romance and history”.

Ben said that in fantasy “you’re creating secondary worlds with the addition of magic”. You need to give the detail which ‘is not real’ because people don’t already know fantasy elements made up by the author just for that story like they can know about more realistic story elements. Kate Forsyth asserted a quote from Tolkien that fantasy stories are stories which have “an arresting sense of strangeness and wonder”. Michael Pryor pointed out that, while fantasy and science fiction are distinct, he understands that fantasy and sci fi often both contain speculative aspects which can be quite similar when juxtaposed with less speculative stories. Kate countered that all stories have made up stuff in them, but Michael pointed out that although all fictional stories have made up stuff in them there is an identifiable distinction between making up realistic characters and events and making up characters and events with speculative aspects such as magic.

The authors discussed whether ‘literary’ and ‘fantasy’ fiction are diametrically opposed and whether there should be separate ‘general fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’ sections in bookshops. All the authors disagreed with the idea that ‘fantasy’ or ‘genre’ fiction should be treated as a lesser kind of fiction than ‘general’ or ‘literary’ fiction.

Fiona discussed how she and several other fantasy novelists discussed fantasy literature for an episode of ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club filmed a few weeks ago and how host Jennifer Byrne said she gained a new appreciation for what fantasy writers do. (Fiona has discussed this episode on her website.)

Michael, Kate and Ben discussed how they use spreadsheets to plan and keep track of their stories. Fiona on the other hand was repulsed by the idea of cataloguing notes, plot outlines, maps, etc, preferring to just write the actual story. Fiona put it: “I don’t take a single not; I just gunsling. I sit down and if I’m in a bad mood people die. […] If I’m in a good mood there’s adventure and romance.” At one stage Fiona looked like she was about to vomit if they didn’t stop talking about plotting stories with spreadsheets, but that may have been partially a symptom of the lack of chocolate she was craving but unable to source before the session.

Kate discussed how some writers start the writing process by drawing a map to help create a fictional world in their mind. Fiona said she travelled the world until she was 40 (she used to work in travel) and discovered that to be a very useful resource when she started writing fiction. Fiona emphasised the importance of visiting real places to “immerse your five senses” as a basis for setting fiction in those places (or fictionalised versions of them). Fiona mentioned the importance of details like smell, Ben added that the differing qualities of light in various parts of the world can be an important factor to consider, and Kate discussed how when she was writing her novel Gypsy Crown, set in Sussex and Kent, visiting the actual places helped her with lots of little details which impact the story and the level of authenticity readers will consider it to have, with even something as seemingly minor as the size of cobble stones in a street able to have a significant impact on aspects of the story.

Ben advocated an assertion by Tolkien that good fantasy is set in a secondary world (eg. a fictional world in which wizards or dragons exist, or where animals can talk) which is completely consistent; that good fantasy is not just about suspension of disbelief but also about a secondary system of beliefs. Ben recommended that if the people in the audience only read one academic book on fantasy writing that it be Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf.

Michael discussed that good fantasy writing provides enough explanation of the secondary world without being heavy-handed and over-explaining it.

They each discussed their writing routines, which varied from basing it primarily around their children to basing it around the university semester, from writing everyday and hitting word targets to writing sporadically in chunks. However, they were all emphatic that to write successfully for commercial publication a writer needs to take their work seriously and, whatever their preferred method, make sure the writing consistently gets done. (500 words a day is very managable and is a fast enough pace to have an average-length novel written (and significantly rewritten) each year, but several thousand words in a day is also quite managable.)


You can also read the article Fantasy: Why is the Genre So Popular? by Rowena Cory Daniells on The Australian Literature Review.

The Missing Kin (Chronicles of Krangor)Royal ExileQuillblade: Voyages of the Flying Dragon: Bk. 1The Puzzle RingTree and Leaf: Including Tolkien: A BiographyLaws of Magic 3: Word of HonourThe Whisperer

The Australian Literature Review

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One Response to Discussion on Writing Fantasy Fiction (Somerset Writers’ Festival, Gold Coast)

  1. Michael Grey says:

    Being a budding speculative fiction writer I loved this article, thank you. And also, being a budding spec fic writer I’m bored passed the point of tears with the ‘genre versus literary’ argument. It’s pointless and besides, which after party would you rather be at, he Booker’s or the Hugos?

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