So you want to write a fantasy novel?

The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author

So you want to write a fantasy novel, or in the case of many first-time authors—the vaunted “fantasy trilogy.”

That’s how my Raine Benares series started out—a trilogy.  It grew, as many fantasy series have a tendency to do.  I’m going on six books now, but that’s not why I’m here.  I’m here to talk about fantasy and the gazillion permutations and sub-genres thereof.

If you walked up to someone on the street and asked them what fantasy fiction was, you’d probably get the following in some shape or form.  Fantasy is when elves, dwarves, humans, and assorted allies are on a quest to find the long-lost magical thingie or elusive sacred whatsit, which the bad guys (evil wizard, mad king, and their menacing minions) will kill, enslave, or obliterate you to keep for themselves.

Yeah, that’s fantasy, but that’s far from all there is.  Subgenres include epic fantasy, urban, contemporary, sword & sorcery, dark, historical, alternate history, steampunk, Arthurian, comic, mythic, fairy tales, science, mystery, paranormal, erotic, romantic, and recently I’ve even heard mention of zombie romantic fantasy. (Yeah, I don’t want to go there either.)

Since it’d probably take half the magazine to write about them all, let’s stick with six of the top sub-genres, which as a beginning fantasy novelist, probably include at least one of the pools you’ll be dipping your toes into for your first foray in the worlds of fantasy.

High Fantasy—Also called Epic Fantasy, this subgenre is what the general population thinks of as fantasy.  At its core is the battle of good versus evil, the stakes are high, with races, civilization, or even the entire world at risk. High Fantasy usually takes place in a quasi-Medieval or Renaissance world.  Quests and magic are an integral part of the plot.  The classic example of this is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Urban Fantasy—The story takes place in our world in the present or near-future. The setting is usually in a city (hence the name “urban”).  Magic and magical/supernatural creatures either exist openly in our world, or covertly with only a select few (the protagonist and their allies) aware of their existence.  Just a few of the more popular creatures inhabiting the urban fantasy world are monsters, fairies, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, angels and demons.  Two of my favorite urban fantasy series are The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, and The Cal Leandros Novels by Rob Thurman.

My favorite quote about the difference between High and Urban Fantasy comes from Scottish fantasy novelist, Alan Campbell: “If high fantasy asked you to embark upon a quest to find a magic stone, then urban fantasy would be waiting in the shadows, ready to mug you when you got back.”  Priceless.

Contemporary Fantasy—This sub-genre, like Urban Fantasy, takes place in a modern setting, contains magical or supernatural creatures, which either live in our world or crossover from another realm.  Also, the creatures and magic tend to remain secret to the vast majority of the population.  Great examples of this sub-genre are Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

Sword & Sorcery—This is considered by many to be the “granddaddy of fantasy.”  Think Conan the Barbarian.  In Sword & Sorcery, the quest is the thing, with a small band of adventurers getting in dicey and dangerous situations fighting their way to their goal with plenty of derring-do.  Kind of like Dungeons & Dragons in a book.

Alternate History Fantasy—Think “what would happen if . . .”   For example, what would happen if the Nazis invaded England and the elves helped the Brits kick Nazi butt?  The possibilities are nearly endless here.

Steampunk—A relatively new addition to the fantasy family, Steampunk is alternate history with a twist.  They’re set in the Edwardian or Victorian era and make cool use of steam-powered technology.  A great (and fun) example is Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series.

The key when writing any kind of fantasy is to take the expected and turn it on its head.  Or take the tried-and-true and make it your own.  Find your distinctive voice.  You’ll know when you get it; your work will come to life for you.  Believe me, if it’s flat on the page (or screen) for you, it’ll be flat and boring for an agent and editor. These folks look at literally hundreds of submissions a day—make sure your work perks them up, not puts them to sleep.

And if the High Fantasy you’re writing starts to veer into Urban Fantasy or Comic Fantasy territory, don’t fight it.  That’s one of the great things about fantasy—there are as many successful combinations as your imagination can dream to life.

So, let your muse out to play and have fun!


The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author: Stay true to your voice, especially if it’s different

Find your voice. Those three little words rank right up there with “Read, read, read” and “Don’t give up” as the advice most often given to newbie writers.

Finding your voice isn’t the hard part; it’s staying true to your voice once you’ve found it, believing that it’s good enough to be published.  We authors are big on self-doubt.  That self-doubt starts in the author cradle, when we’re first starting out.  Chances are if you’re a writer, you’ve always known deep down that you wanted to be one.  But when you read a certain book or series by a particular author, you knew you had to be one.

That’s how it happened to me.

I read Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels and I knew I wanted to do that.  I wanted to write like her.  Guess what?  There was no way in a hot place that I was going to write like Mary Stewart.  Why?  Because I’m not Mary Stewart.  But when I first got the writing bug, she was my ideal of how a great author should write.  Absolutely gorgeous prose.  And if I couldn’t write like her, then I’d never be a greatauthor or even a good one.  I tried to write like her, and then like several other authors whose work I fell in love with over the years—three manuscripts worth of trying.  Those books are in my office closet now, never to see the light of day.  Why?  They weren’t me; it wasn’t my voice.  As a result, the words just lay there on the page.  It was me trying to be someone I wasn’t.

I write quasi-traditional fantasy.  I say “quasi” because my characters use modern speech.  Yes, they wear doublets and fight with blades (and bombs and buckets and whiskey bottles), but for the most part, they talk like us.  I’ve heard my books called The Lord of the Rings meets The Sopranos.  Definitely not like Mary Stewart, or any of the other authors whose work I admire.  It’s like me.  I don’t do fancy speeches and lush descriptions.  I can’t do it; and now I don’t want to.  I write like my heroine Raine Benares talks—straight-shooting, plain-spoken, snarky with a dry and twisted sense of humor.

That’s my voice.  And that voice was what sold my series, first to my agent, and then to my publisher. They offered representation and bought my books because they were different.

So if your voice is different from anything out there, don’t try to change it.  You’re unique and so is your voice.  Embrace it and run with it.

Being different can mean being published.



The fine art of procrastination by The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author

For writers, it’s also the bane of deadlines and the arch-villain of productivity.

For me, the vast majority of procrastination comes courtesy of the Internet.  Writing is a solitary job.  A chance—any chance—to socialize with like-minded people isn’t just taken, it’s eagerly seized with both hands.  Twitter is my kryptonite.  That’s how I get my book industry news and keep up with writer /agent/editor friends.  It’s like an office water cooler for writers.  We may write for a living, but we do like to cluster together and talk shop, better still if we can do it while imbibing adult beverages.  (If you’re at a conference or convention and wonder where all the writers are, just find the hotel bar.)

I don’t remember how I procrastinated before the Internet came along, but I’m sure I found something to lure me away from the humongous manual typewriter I wrote my first two “practice novels” on.  Procrastinationandwriting go hand in hand.  Nowadays most writers do their work on computers, and most of those computers are connected to the Internet.  Some writers can claim research as an excuse. I can’t. I’m a fantasy writer; what I write, I make up. I don’t need the Internet for that. I’m incredibly productive at my family’s mountain cabin — no Internet, no TV, three radio stations.  I get an amazing amount of work done. Hmm, I wonder why?

It’s not just the computer’s fault. Actually, it’s completely my fault; the computer is just an innocent bystander, a tool of procrastination.  When I’m working on a particularly tough section of a book, I also have what has to be the cleanest house in the neighborhood.  I get an inexplicable need to do five loads of laundry, dust the bookcases, clean the cat box (okay, that’s a real need), empty the dishwasher, and ooh, looky, there’s three bananas left.  Must. Bake. Banana bread.

I like to tell myself that I’m merely allowing time for a particularly juicy plot point to stew, or that I’m multitasking, or that I’m “taking a writing break.”  Yeah.  Right. What I’m doing is avoiding the book.  Writing is hard work.  Contrary to what non-writers probably think, words just don’t fall out of our heads onto the page.  Aside from being messy, it just doesn’t happen that way.  For me there’s the pressure (and fear of failure) to get the vividness of the scene running like a movie in my head onto the page.  A book that’s not finished is a book that doesn’t suck.  But when you’re under contract and on deadline, not finishing is not an option.

So, what’s the solution to procrastination?  Having someone yell “sit down!” every time I start to stand up would work (well, might work).  Saying “no” to procrastination takes the same discipline and dedication that drove me to not give up during those years of submitting books and getting rejected.



Writer’s insomnia – or the 3:30 a.m. muse wake-up call by The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author

3:30 a.m.: I’m awake, wide awake. The beginning of the next scene is coming to me. Actually it’s already here, fully formed. I can see it like a movie in my head complete with dialogue. Just like in real conversation, my characters don’t repeat themselves, and the I know from past experience that the film won’t run for long, so it’s up to me to catch it all while it happens.  If I don’t, it’s gone. Dang it.

Not because I’ve got a fully formed scene (that’s great), but because it’s 3:30 in the a.m. and I know I won’t be able to go back to sleep after I write that scene down. Once my writing brain is firing on all cylinders, it doesn’t care what time it is. Though I really can’t complain when it happens. If it’s productive. Anything that gets me closer to the end of a book with a scene I just couldn’t quite reach during the daylight hours is good.

But sometimes it’s not productive. If I wake up at 3:30 with my heart beating faster than normal and my first coherent thoughts are: “The book sucks. My career is over.” That’s when it’s not productive. For me and a lot of writers I know, if my work in progress is giving me trouble during the day, then it’s highly unlikely that I’ll wake up at 3:30 thinking warm and fuzzy book thoughts.

I have yet to come up with a solution to a book problem at 3:30, but that doesn’t keep my muse’s evil twin, the Anti-Muse, from waking me up and trying to make me do it.  For me, book problems are solved in the calm, rational light of day—3:30 in the morning is neither calm nor rational.

When I’m finishing a book, it’s normal for me to get both types of wake-up calls. It’s usually at its worst when I only have a few chapters left. The Anti-Muse kicks me awake and wants me to start revising the previous twenty chapters, to wrap my head around the whole book, find the weaknesses, faulty spots—basically the good, the bad, and the ugly. And once I think that one book-related thought, she’s won and I’m awake for the rest of the night.

Yes, there may be (okay, probably are) some problems with the book, but they’re not nearly as bad as the Anti-Muse makes them out to be; in fact, they’re probably pretty minor. But at 3:30, my defenses aren’t up, and the Anti-Muse gets in.

But those mornings when my characters come knocking makes up for all of it. Dialogue comes fast and furious. I have no idea where it fits in the book. I just go with it.  So I grope around for the mini-flashlight, notepad and pen I keep in my bedside table and start eavesdropping and taking dictation.  For a writer, this is when the magic happens.  And it’s this kind of wake-up call that assures me that the book doesn’t suck, my career is not over.

And sleep is way overrated.


The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author: Writer’s Brain Gush—The hazards of too many words coming too fast

Writer’s Brain Gush.  Yeah, I know it sounds disgusting, but to a writer with a looming deadline, it’s actually a very good thing (though embarrassing and potentially dangerous).

Brain Gush happens when my muse has finally decided to get off her duff, quit futzing around, and help me get some work done.  As a result, ideas strike anywhere and everywhere. This is good. Mostly.

Now to the embarrassing and dangerous part. Since I was up early on a recent Saturday (my muse’s fault again), I decided to go to one of the two grocery stores we go to by myself and let my hubby sleep in.  I did good on the drive there, and actually managed to get out of the store without incident (major miracle). But when it came time to put my cart back in the “cart corral,” I had two problems. One, I couldn’t figure out how to re-attach my cart’s chain to the line of carts already in the corral.  (We shop at Aldi, and you have to use a quarter to unlock a cart to use. When you finish shopping, you re-attach your cart’s chain/lock thingie to the one in front of it and you get your quarter back. Cool.) Now these things aren’t rocket science. Yet there I stood, completely unable to figure out where to insert the other end of the chain to get my quarter back. I actually had to study the line of carts in front of mine to figure it out. Then came the embarrassing part. For some reason I couldn’t get the chain to reach my cart, so I pushed on the cart, and then and only then did I see what the problem was.

All of my groceries were still in the cart.

Fortunately, no one saw my moron moment. I took my groceries to my Jeep, loaded them, returned my cart — and successfully attached the chain and got my quarter back. Let’s hear it for writer ingenuity!

I took the first load of groceries home and told Derek that in light of my present state of mind, it might be best if he drove to the next store.  As a result, we got there without incident—until the soap aisle. Our favorite soap was on sale (woot!), so I bent over to get one and rammed my head into a huge display that a normal person would have noticed. Again, I don’t think anyone saw me. Derek kissed me on the head to make it better and gave me a hug right there in the soap aisle. As he held me against his chest, I could feel him laughing. Yep, I’m a source of constant amusement to my husband.

So, a word of warning: while brain gush is great for a book, it can leave a writer with only two brain cells to rub together for basic human functioning.

Your absent-minded, Mr. Magoo-impersonating author, Lisa