By John K. Patterson
Fantasy has been a popular form of literature for decades, even before Tolkien introduced us to Middle Earth. With so many novels in that genre, many writers ask, “How can my book ever stand out in this mess?” Of course, there are many ways to get potential readers’ attention through techniques like viral marketing and blogging. These techniques are valuable, but an even more effective strategy is to begin with the story itself. Whether you’re in the planning stages or revising, you can make your novel stand out before it joins the mob of Kindle e-books or falls into an agent’s hands. Here are three suggestions to get you started.
1. Twist clichés to your advantage.
Most readers of fantasy are tired of clichés. As in “shred the book and add it to my garden’s mulch” tired. Often it’s the same wizardry schools, greedy dragons, and prophesied Chosen Ones ad infinitum. Fantasy has piled up these tropes higher than Pikes Peak, and as a result, lots of authors’ books get lost in the crowd and forgotten.
Is the solution to rip every single cliché out of your own work-in-progress? Well, not necessarily. If you don’t want to get rid of a cliché the key is to give it your own flavor. If you’re using a common trope in fantasy like dwarves, you can make them stand out. Most dwarves live and work underground and are obsessed with gold and jewels. Maybe your dwarves live like monks, giving aid to the needy and foregoing material wealth. Or perhaps they have a goods-based bartering system, rather than depending on precious stones and metals. Maybe they prefer fresh air and wide prairies to the confines of a cave.
Fantasy tropes may not kill your book, but they can become boring if you let them. Use them in a fresher, more interesting way, and they’ll help give your novel a life of its own.
2. The best pacing isn’t always “Ludicrous Speed.”
Much advice for fantasy writers amounts to “No long descriptions! I will set fire to your lawn if I catch one line of purple prose!” Nowadays, characters and pacing are frequently treated as very important, and everything else is just above “disposable.” Novels have to be lean and mean. Give your characters conflict and do it fast. Everything else, especially about your setting and the larger world around it, should be kept to a few terse paragraphs.
There’s a huge problem with this advice. Fantasy (much like science fiction) is in a position where the setting itself is just as important to the reading experience as the characters. Many writers have taken the minimalist approach too seriously, treating character and pacing as all that matters. I should know – I’ve fallen prey to this idea too many times to count. The advice is well-intended, but we don’t want readers gliding through a couple hundred pages of a story that really deserved four or five hundred.
This isn’t a license to indulge every whim and include everything you want. Make your book flow at the rate which feels natural. Be quick and efficient when you sense that works, but don’t always think faster is better. Where’s the fun, the sense of wonder and discovery in creating an entire world then barreling through it just to reach the end? Can you imagine the missed potential if The Lord of the Rings was written like The Hunger Games? Let readers linger a bit. Be sure to reward their patience with a good story, of course, and keep the extra material to a minimum. But in our hyperfrenetic ADD world, we readers could use some books that teach us the value of a slower, richer buildup.
3. Find the right balance between grit and beauty.
The success of series like Game of Thrones and The Night Angel Trilogy has given rise to a trend in “gritty fantasy.” Generally this means lots of darkness, blood, sociopathic characters, and little if any hope or beauty. And many fine works have been produced in this vein of fantasy literature. Their creators got tired of lighthearted, Disney-fied fantasy that hardly paid attention to the severity of evil, or how rotten and unfair the world sometimes is. And they were right to insist on more honesty, because even fiction is meant to mirror the fundamental truths of real life.
Like any trend in fiction, though, grit has its limits. Make a fantasy novel too dark, and you rob it of its magic. I’m not talking about the spells a wizard casts. By magic I mean the effect the book has, of transporting readers to another world where they can’t help but stay and keep turning the pages. When a book starts to feel like punishment to the reader, she’ll lose her excitement or fascination or sense of tension, and she won’t pick up your book again. People need a reason to keep reading, and that means you can’t constantly yell through your pages “Life sucks!” If that’s all you have to offer, maybe your book could stand to include a few flickers of light. Your readers will thank you if your character occasionally does the morally right thing, and good things sometimes happen to them.
Including light alongside darkness actually makes your book more realistic. Despite what many writers insist, “gritty” doesn’t equate to realism. Too much darkness and treachery and exposed entrails can look every bit as excessive and garish as a too-perfect Thomas Kinkade painting. Grit and beauty need to find some kind of balance with each other for a good novel. Even if you have a lot more darkness and evil in your book than good, you get readers to care if you take to heart the words of Samwise Gamgee: “There’s some good in this world, Mister Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
About the Author: John K. Patterson is an artist, dinosaur nut, and published fantasy author. He has led the “Scribes and Bards” writers workshop for the Pikes Peak Library District since 2007, and is the liaison between PPLD and Pikes Peak Writers. He is currently working on a four-book fantasy series entitled “The Wolfglen Legacy.” More of his work can be found at johnkpatterson.wordpress.com.