Review: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

by Philip Athans and R. A. Salvatore, 2010

$9.99 (iTunes bookstore) or $11 (paperback from Amazon.com)

When writing a fantasy novel, coming up with a great story is only part of the equation. You could say that’s the roast beef of the meal, but there’s a lot of mashed potatoes and green beans that still need to go with it. If you want to know how to cook the whole meal, The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, by Philip Athans and R. A. Salvatore, is a great cookbook to read.

I purchased the $9.99 electronic edition from the iTunes Bookstore and read it on my iPad. The chapters follow a linear path through the process of writing a fantasy or science fiction novel, from how to come up with ideas to getting it published. The book specifically covers the business and marketing aspect of getting your book published, which is the primary reason I bought it. Athans and Salvatore don’t pull punches when it comes to letting the reader know their chances of making money as an author. That honesty is exactly what aspiring authors need.

There are a lot of books that can help you improve the mechanics of your writing. Writing Worth Reading by Nancy Huddleston Packer (which I’ll review later) is an outstanding example. There are even some books available that focus on getting published. This book, however, is a concise source of both. Consider it a crash course on the gamut of writing and publishing your first fantasy or science fiction novel.

This book is worth far more than the purchase price, making it an outstanding value to beginning novelists like me.

Writing to an outline vs. freestyle

Something unexpected happened to me as I’ve been writing my book. The first three chapters were a stream of consciousness, everything just came out of me as a pure expression of my own creativity. At the end of those three chapters, I read what I had written and thought, “This is pretty good. I’d like to carry on with it and see where it goes, but take it seriously.” So instead of just writing for fun, I decided to make it a formal effort.

As a web developer, I have worked on some very large projects in my career, and have had to use a lot of project management techniques to stay on top of things. Otherwise the project would be too large and I would become overwhelmed. So I outline what needs to be accomplished at a high level and then go back in and fill in the details. I decided to do the same thing with my book. After the first three chapters, I spent several days coming up with the overall plot line and main events. This, too, was a purely creative effort.

The problem came when I tried to sit down and continue writing the additional chapters. I had to fit my writing to the outline that I had created. Without realizing it, I had inadvertently constrained myself within my own boundaries. My creativity was no longer free, and I found it very difficult to write.

It seems counterintuitive; having a guideline of what I’m supposed to create should make the creation process easier. But for me, it doesn’t.

If I write freestyle without any constraints and just let my creativity flow, I think I produce good works but I have no idea if I am going to write myself into a plot hole or create inconsistent character descriptions, etc. in essence I am only looking at the ground immediately in front of my feet. I have no roadmap or destination in mind. If I work with a map (my plot outline) I have a clear idea of where I am going and how to get there, but I lose my creative motivation to take each step necessary to make the journey.

Scrivener: My main writing tool

ScrivenerI discovered Scrivener after reading an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) thread on Reddit by author Michael J. Sullivan, and it’s easy to see why he likes it so much. It’s more than a word processor, it’s a writer’s tool. The premise takes a word processor and adds tools and methods that help you stay organized as you write. Scrivener is also non-linear. Instead of having one long document, you can write individual scenes and then organize those scenes into chapters — and you can experiment by changing the order of those scenes with simple drag-and-drop maneuvers.

This tool is worth a few hundred dollars, but it costs less than $50. It’s produced by a small team in the U.K., originally just for the Mac, with a brand new Windows version just released in November, 2011. The interface is easy to use yet has the complexity under the hood to let you really take charge of your writing project.

Scrivener isn’t just for fiction writers. Screenwriters can use it as well as researchers and any producer of non-fiction. I have found it to be extremely useful as I work on my book and am amazed at just how much it adds to my writing experience.