Correction: the list of books a fantasy writer should read had no end. That’s the honest truth for any genre. What I’m really getting at is a book strictly for fantasy writers, Diana Wynne Jones’ book called The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
This is a different kind of book, and I was guided to it by one of my writing mentors during grad school. It’s a dictionary of all the clichés found in the fantasy genre. While quite numerous, the book had me chuckling throughout. If you haven’t read much fantasy, you won’t find it as amusing, but if you have, you’ll probably nod, smile, and laugh as much as I did–more so if you’ve consciously avoided those clichés you saw cropping up in one book after another. Here’s an excerpt from pages 37-38 of my 2006 paperback version:
“CLOAKS are the universal outer garb of everyone who is not a Barbarian. It is hard to see why. They are open in the front and require you at most times to use one hand to hold them shut. On horseback they leave the shirtsleeved arms and most of the torso exposed to wind and WEATHER. The OMTs for Cloaks well express their difficulties. They are constantly swirling and dripping and become heavy with water in rainy Weather, entangling with trees or swords, or needing to be pulled close around her/his shivering body. This seems to suggest they are less than practical for anyone on an arduous Tour. But they do have one advantage. Female Cloaks usually add a wide frilly hood, male cloaks a wide plain one, and neither of these adjuncts ever gets blown from the head or lets water in round the edges. So at least your head is dry.
It is thought the the real reason for the popularity of Cloaks is that the inhabitants like the look of themselves from the back.”
“Tour” is the substitute word for “adventure” and OMT stands for Official Management Terms. Those two pieces of terminology and more are used to describe reading fantasy like advertising a vacation getaway. Really. Go read it. Go laugh a bit.
The first books I ever got into were the “Harry Potter” ones, then came The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, followed swiftly by the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a bunch of books by David Eddings. Barring J. K. Rowling’s books, I began to notice an aggravating pattern in this overall wonderful genre: all the damn books model themselves after Tolkien’s.
Seeing as how so many authors have the Tolkien imitation thing covered, I made a point to write something as far from all that as possible. No modest-sized group of companions, no map at the front of the book, no mindlessly traveling all over that cursed map for some stupid magical object that’ll save the day, no relying on horses to get you everywhere, no inns, no money issues, no Medieval setting, etc. Instead I tried to draw from Tolkien and all his imitators wondrous worlds you wish you could visit, captivating races you wish you could either be or meet, and an intent to have an internal journey be that which must be traveled to find something within that will save the day.
From Rowling’s books, I constantly try and push myself to expand the limits of my creativity. Details, details, details! And backstory. I am a firm believer that the more details a writer incorporates into his/her writing, the richer the world that has been built from scratch. Just beware overloading a book with useless details. This is no easy feat to accomplish. Still, go nuts in the first draft, then take out what needs to be removed later. And as for backstory, I will have to dedicate a blog entry just to this subject. Coming up with a character’s backstory makes me question my sanity now and then, makes me wonder if I have MPD or something, in a way.
One other thing I’ve learned from all my fantasy reading is that I most enjoy settings that are connected to our contemporary reality. I’m always aware of the difference between fantasy and reality. Human history is so full of myth and magic, and we humans have quite the imaginations. I often wish magic were real–not just to wave a wand and have problems disappear, but to see a real dragon, to be able to fly like Superman, move objects with a thought, etc. How cool would all that be? Yes, we’d have quite the slew of other problems to deal with, but still, I have yet to meet a fellow fan who at one point hadn’t wished that secret wizarding world from “Harry Potter” didn’t exist.
(This blog entry has been Dark Lord approved!)