Friday, 26 April 2013

Writing Magazine - "It must be magic"

The Writing Magazine does a regular column about writing different sorts of fiction, and this month the "Fiction Focus", by Margaret James, was on Fantasy writing.
Now, fantasy writing is something I think I know a bit about. I've been reading it since childhood, and trying to write it for about ten years. The article is a beginner's guide - but so disappointing, even when that is taken into account.

She starts off gradually, for those people who are not fantasy readers at all, with some examples of alternate history. Robert Harris's Fatherland is very well known, of course - but where's Harry Turtledove? He's written a lot more excellent alternative history than Robert Harris ever did.

Then Margaret James gets into the meat of the article. "There are at least three gradations of fantasy writing," she says, "from reality-based fiction, through to fiction which links our world to an alternative reality, to heroic fantasy set in an invented world in which not even the laws of classroom physics need apply."

For reality-based fiction, she mentions The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, which is based on a Russian fairy tale. All very fine - but where is Charles de Lint's Newford, for example?
She goes on to talk about time-slip fiction, with no examples of that sub-genre at all, so how about Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, a children's story set at a girls' boarding school? That story was so good it got onto Jackanory, the children's BBC series that read a book a week for many years. In fact, when I look at Goodreads, there is a list of 617 time travel stories, and just among the children's examples there is Moondial by Helen Cresswell, The Children of Green Knowe by LM Boston, and Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett, all of them made into TV serials. Or for adults, how about Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, or Tim Powers' Anubis Gates?

"As for stories set in both our own world and in a fantasy world, linking the two, the Harry Potter and Twilight series are the obvious contenders here," Margaret James says. But surely Twilight should go into her first category of reality based fiction set in this world only? And what about Narnia and the most famous wardrobe in all fiction, or Alice in Wonderland? Or for adults, Neil Gaiman's London Below in Neverwhere, or Guy Gavriel Kay, or Barbara Hambly's Darwath series?

And for heroic fantasy, she chooses Lord of the Rings. She says herself it's the "obvious role model" - but heroic fantasy has come on a long way since all those sub-Tolkien quests with Halflings, elves and dwarfs, and if a writer wants to start writing heroic fantasy now, they'd be better advised to read some of the more recent work. What about Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea, or even Robert Jordan's immensely long Wheel of Time series, or Raymond E Feist, or Tad Williams, or Robin Hobb, or George RR Martin...?

Some of the advice she gives is good, however - but it doesn't just apply to fantasy. The reader has to be able to identify with the characters, even if they're in love with a sparkly vampire or three feet tall with hairy feet. "[We need] to believe we're reading about beings which share our human traits, both the good and the bad, and with whom we can empathise," she says, and later, "We need these stories because they explain us to ourselves."

If someone who has never written fantasy, but would rather like to try, takes this article as their guide, I'm not at all sure that what they produce would be publishable.


  1. Not sure if its a book but The Amazing Mr Blunden what a story

  2. You're quite right - The Amazing Mr Blunden was a book first ( called The Ghosts, by Antonia Barber) - then it was serialised on Jackanory, and then it was a film starring Diana Dors.