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The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest: How to Write Fantasy Stories of Lasting Value

edited by Philip Martin

(The Writer Books, 240 pages, trade paperback, $16.95; 2002; cover art by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt.)

I found this book on the shelves of our local cover scanbookstore on a day when I was feeling rather despondent about revising one of my own manuscripts. I was looking for information on how to write professional outlines when I spotted The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature. It can't hurt to have a look, I thought, and I leafed through to discover where in the text this sort of thing was being discussed. Within minutes I was transported. I was delighted to find some of my favourite authors discussing their methods, and an answer to my question of preparing outlines. The answer was that "there is no right way to write a story" or an outline. Every author, professionally published or not, wildly successful or not, beginner or seasoned writer, creates differently. I immediately felt much better, and bought the book.

The Writer's Guide, upon further reading, is not so much of a general how-to tome, more of a sharing of practical creativity. Certainly there are chapters about what actually goes into creating a good work of fantasy, but the essays, interviews and discussions of methods are far from being condescending. There are examples from authors' experiences and also from written works that are pleasingly easy to relate to.

The first chapter is a study of Pottermania, an in-depth look at J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, which have of course taken the world by storm. The study is concise and objective in a friendly way, and gives the reasons behind the books' success as stories, with more than a passing nod to the mythological reasoning of Joseph Campbell and J.R.R. Tolkien. There are quotations and comparisons with other writers and works along the way.

Following that are five articles, in either interview or essay form, on writing High Fantasy, Adventure Fantasy, Fairytale, Magic Realism and Dark Fantasy. There are quotes and excerpts from some of the best-known names in fantasy fiction, interwoven with a wonderful dialogue concerning what defines the genre without actually boxing it in. I found that very refreshing.

The subsequent chapters offer two viewpoints apiece on the themes of characters (Franny Billingsly and Kiji Johnson), places (Jane Yolen and Ursula K. Le Guin), patterns (Peter S. Beagle and Susan Cooper) and plot/purpose (Midori Snyder and Gregory Maguire). These essays and interviews are full of a wealth of common sense and humour, and are, on the whole, inspiring. There was an accompanying challenge to my own self as a writer as well: when you write, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't, and the only way you're going to find out which is if you write, write, write.

Chapters Eight to Eleven cover the nuts and bolts of the technical aspects of Fantasy writing. Philip Martin, the book's editor, has written encouraging dialogue on the themes of Generating Ideas, Planning and Preparation, Start Writing and Revising Your Work, again interspersed with quotes from fantasy of all historical periods.

Chapter Twelve begins with an introduction by Martin that encompasses the more sobering facts of rejection slips, editors, agents and submitting your work. However, this monologue is followed by two items that really made me smile: an interview with Terry Pratchett and an essay written by the irrepressible Ray Bradbury. In fact this quote from Bradbury stayed with me long after I had finished reading his words:

I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime.

I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you.

May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories.

Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

How appropriate.

At the end of all of this comes another valuable section: Resources. In Part Five you find names and addresses of publishers who release fantasy fiction, on paper and also on-line; resources for how-to books and articles, and sources to find that elusive piece of information you were recently looking for; and contact information for groups of creative people just like you. The index of authors quoted in the book and where to find them in the text is also quite extensive.

In short, reading The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature is akin to putting the kettle on and calling up a writer friend to have a long conversation over coffee about philosophy, technique, ideas and many other wondrous things. I found this book immensely satisfying and one that I will go back and read again and again.


Review by Marianne Plumridge.


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