Monday, April 22, 2013

Recommended Reading for fantasy authors.

This is one I've been tossing around in my head for a while now. I held off on doing a "recommended reading list"  because, well lets face it, recommending anything to anybody is already kind of a slippery slope. Not everyone is gonna like everything and trying to get someone to do anything is like shooting a gnat from a thousand miles away in the dark with a blowgun. Besides, for a topic as subjective as this, there are gonna be a lot of people who look at this and tell me I'm full of it. And I'd be hard pressed to say otherwise (because even I feel like I am sometimes). All that, and I'm simply just not that good at recommending stuff.

Then I just thought, "Ya know what, screw it. Just do it anyway and stop worrying." So, while we wait on R.A. Salvatore to get back to me with his answers for the interview. I'm just gonna do a quick run down of a few books that I think should be in every fantasy writers toolbox. I'm not gonna talk about them much, and I'm going to do my best to avoid classic literature or the stuff people should probably read anyway (like Shakespeare). But I hope that maybe reading and studying these books can maybe help some people improve like they did for me. Oh and if you want to buy the books for yourself, just click on the pictures and it will take you the the page.

I. On the craft of writing. 

Because everyone needs a refresher of the basics from time to time. There are tons and tons of books out there that fill this role, but the following books are the ones I found to be the most helpful for me personally. Not only as a fantasy writer, but as a writer as a whole.

1. On Writing By Stephen King.

Part Memoir, and part practical advice. In the first and third halves of the book, King delves into his own evolution as a writer, his struggles to get published and the victories, trials and tribulations of fame. While the second half focuses on the practical side of the craft, likes advice on grammar, ideas, how to develop plot and characters, self-editing and so on. Its a little academic but it's also a fascinating look into a writer's life and how said life influenced his work, and full of good advice for both newbies and old veterans.

2. The Elements of Style by William Strunk JR. and E.B.White

Speaking of academic. This book covers all of the mechanical aspects of the craft. It might come off as a little stuck up, but its comprehensive, short and reinforces the rules of  proper english grammar and style. Besides, as Robert Jordan once wrote, "You must follow the rules to the letter until you understand which you may break and which you may not." Which basicly means, knowing the rules will help you break them. I recently found out there is an updated edition of this, but the fourth edition (pictured on the left) is the edition I use so *shrugs*.

3. Writing Fiction: A guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French  

Its basicly a step by step guide through the creative writing process from idea inception to final revision. It includes a lot of writing exercises, short stories to illustrate its points and overall, its a pretty good coach of the basics of the craft. It meant for beginners, but I still think there are things that old pros can gleam from it.

4. Zen and the Art of Writing By Ray Bradbury.

This collection of essays is just brilliant. Bradbury doesn't focus on the mechanical aspect of writing, but the mental side of it, the sheer joy of it. It dispenses wisdom while at the same time encourages you to pursue your dreams and have fun while doing so. And that, I think, is the most practical advice of all. Rest in peace, Ray.

II. Books on story structure.
Ok, admittedly, this one is much harder to talk about. Because its basicly all subjective and I in no way claim to be an expert on this. But I do have at least one recommendation that I think stands above the rest.

1. The hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

This is Storytelling 101, people. This book is about comparative mythology, more precisely looking at the heroic stories of the worlds various mythology and belief systems and studying what they have in common. It takes a look at, among other things, how they are structured, what the common character archetypes are and so on. The structure that Campbell presents here has influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, just about every narrative medium (movies, books, video games, etc) out there, the most famous example being the Star Wars movies. The structure presented is in no way binding, it leaves a lot of wiggle room, but like I said before, knowing the rules makes it easier to break them later.

III. Books on world building. 

As many fantasy and sci-fi authors will tell you, there really is no right way to build a fictitious world.  It involves a lot of note taking, inner exploration and a lot of logical thought piecing it all together. So what I'm gonna do here is put up examples for authors to read and study and, hopefully, be inspired by and learn from.

1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R Tolkien.

Yeah, you knew that Tolkien was gonna show up here eventually. What many don't know is that he originally never intended to make a fantasy world. Middle-Earth was conceived when he was 17 as a project to create a unified mythology for the British Islands, and The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings just kinda grew off from that by accident.  The Silmarillion is the early history of Middle-Earth (ya know, the stories that the characters from Lord of the Rings constantly make references too), from its creation to the rise and fall of Sauron. I think what authors can learn from this book is how to lay down the foundation of a fictional world, not so much in terms of physical creation, but in cultural and religious. After all, the stories here provide the foundation for which Middle-Earth's Elven culture is based on.

2. The Dune Saga by Frank Herbert

What can a sci-fi book teach fantasy writers about world building? Well a lot of things actually (not all of which I have time to cover here, so please bear with me). Least among them is how to make a fictitious cultures seem believable, in this case its the form of the desert dwelling Fremen, whose culture is dictated and centered around their environment. It can also give some insight into how politics work, and how both can change over time, thanks to the fact that the Dune saga takes place over a span of many thousands of years. There is a lot you can gleam from this series so give it a go.

3. The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan & Teresa Patterson

Aside from reading The Wheel of Time itself (which you should do anyway In my opinion), this companion book is a great resource for potential world builders to study. Why? Because it literally talks about every detail of the world, providing maps, explanations on each of the series various nations and their culture, how the magic system works and so forth. Studying it, I think, is a good way to get a feel as to how make a fantasy world believable, in pretty much every since of the word.

4. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. 

Ya know, I really debated about including this one because A) this book is more of a general "how to" and not so much a book on world building and B) Orson Scott Card is an overhyped, homophobic ignoramus (to use the most polite term I think of) who really doesn't need anymore money. BUT, despite that....the advice laid out in this book is actually pretty good. And I think that there is a lot you can actually gleaned from it. So yeah, I think you all should read this and take it for what it is.

IV. Magic Systems. 

The general rule of any good magic system is "Make sure it has limits and rules and make sure it follows your world's internal logic." That's certainly true, but still, the following books are ones that I think potential and beginning Fantasy Writers should look at to get an idea as to what that actually means.

1. The Wheel of Time Saga by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson for the last three books).

Call this a fanboyism if you really have too, but I found The Wheel of Time's magic system to be one of the most interesting I've ever come across. It really embodies the "Make sure it has limits" thing mentioned above. It treats magic as a science and not so much an all powerful force. Not necessarily a new idea, but Jordan takes it to its logical extreme, and I think that studying how its system works (in both the books themselves and the companion book mentioned in the section above) could give potential fantasist some insight into how to make their own magic systems believable.


2. The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

I think that one of the greatest strengths that Brandon Sanderson has as a world builder is his ability to make magic systems that are both stone faced believable and  jaw dropping "wow." After all, he was a originally studying to become a biochemist before switching to writing, so he understand perfectly the concept of "everything has limits" and applies it to his magic systems. All of this comes out in his original work (The Stormlight Archive, Elantris, Warbreaker and so on), But I chose the Mistborn series because its his most well known creation and you get two magic systems to study for the price of one. So if you haven't picked him up yet, best do so.

V. Conclusion.

I could go on and list books for another hour, but then I'd just devolve into naming every book on my bookshelf and that I'm not gonna do. But I hope that I've given some people some potential resources that that they can learn from, or at least I've given them a starting point to expand their knowledge. Because honestly, the best way to learn how to write fantasy is to write it (obviously). And to read everything, not just fantasy and sci-fi, but literally everything, regardless of genre or subject matter.

But anyway, I hope you all enjoyed this. And I'll keep you all posted on the interview with Salvatore. Thanks for your undying patients.
See you soon.

VI. Links to some additional advice on writing fantasy:

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