Book report: The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature

Book report: The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature

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

I picked up this book at a library book sale a few years ago. It was published in 2002, and on first flip-through, I thought perhaps it was a bit too out-dated and shelved it.

I also allowed myself to become detracted by a few critical reviews of the book that complained the delivery was dry, or that there was nothing new or helpful. But I was searching for a different book last week and came across it sitting on my bookshelf. I pulled it out and ended up reading it cover to cover, highlighting bits all along the way.

The essay format could probably read a little dry for some, but to me it felt like I’d won the lottery and somehow managed to get personal advice from a host of amazing writers. The title does make it sound like it’s going to be a step-by-step guide, and it isn’t really, but there are lots of instructive bits, and I enjoyed it immensely.

In fantasy, magic is the analogy; it is the spark that lights our imaginations, that fires up our dreams. Fantasy allows us to return for a few precious moments to that luminous realm of childhood, to a time when our unlimited powers of imagination and our hopes to discover our place in the real world were all one.

We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairy land… [But] Does anyone suppose that [a child] really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale — really wants dragons…? It is not so.

It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, give it a new dimension of depth.

— C.S. Lewis, from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” Emphasis my own.

…[E]ven for stories that do not swirl with such gale-force power, in the first scene we should meet the main character. We should sense soon that this character has some desire, urge, or drive. And we should get at least a whiff of an impending action, problem, or event.

[C.S.] Lewis made the bold statement that “myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.”

Tolkien disagreed. Through fantasy’s liquid patterns, Tolkien knew, we can share old truths, wondrous beyond the point of fact.

Emphasis added.

“The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! Which I consider most unfair. As a writer, you feel like one or the other should be better.

[…] When it’s a few years later, and you’re reading the scene out loud and you don’t know, and you cannot tell. It’s obviously written by the same person and it all gets the same kind of reaction from an audience. No one leaps up to say, “Oh look, that paragraph was clearly written on an ‘off’ day.”

– Neil Gaiman, interview with Claire E. White, in the Internet Writing Journal, March 1999.

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