As a fiction writer, I love books on the writing process. Some of my favorites are John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth (2004), Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing (2010), and the granddaddy of them all, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (1983). These guides are aimed at writers of all genres, particularly literary fiction. I was therefore excited to get my hands on Writing Fantasy Heroes: Powerful Advice from the Pros (edited by Jason M Waltz), a collection of essays by accomplished writers and that focus specifically on fantastic literature.
Unfortunately, I found the collection as a whole disappointing. The reason for my disappointment didn’t become clear until the last essay, a great analysis of the taxonomy of the hero by Orson Scott Card, “The Reluctant Hero.” There Card says, “in writing this essay I was loath to use my own stories as examples,” which he attributes in part to a longstanding policy of not referring to his own work when discussing literature. The reasons for this policy? It “spared me the embarrassment of realizing that nobody in the audience was at all familiar with my work, and I avoided annoying audience members with authorial self-obsession, thereby making them more likely to buy my books.” I found myself nodding along as I read this passage. Then Card reveals, “[b]ut the editor reminded me that the point of this book is for the practitioners of Heroic Fantasy to talk about what they have done.”
So this explains why the book is so full of passages taken from the contributing authors’ own work. More than half of the essays contain at least one self-quotation that runs longer than a page. As I always tell my freshman composition students, quotes should be kept brief because people’s eyes start to glaze over after a paragraph of quoted text.
Now to be fair to Waltz, talking about one’s own work and quoting extensively from it are two different things. The absolute worst offender is Cecelia Holland, who wrote a twelve-page essay containing nine pages of quotations from one of her stories. She then ends her essay with an invitation to read the whole story. Why bother? As this was only the second essay in the collection, it kind of turned me off to rest of the book, and I found myself paying more attention to all of the self-quotation than what the writers were trying to say.
Others handle Waltz’s charge more deftly. Card, for one, makes brief, insightful and contextualized references to his own work without stooping to self-quotation. So does Glen Cook, who seems to yield to Waltz by appending one long self-quotation at the very end of the essay. I just skipped it to keep myself from souring on Cook as I had so many of his fellow contributors.
Cook’s essay, “Shit Happens in the Creation of Story, Including Unexpected Deaths, with Ample Digressions and Curious Asides,” is the most entertaining in the collection. A personal narrative interweaves his advice, along with lots of references to history and literature. The best part, however, is his discussion of the “Sea of Stories” from which he and all other writers get their ideas. Not surprisingly for a fantasy author of his caliber, Cook has invented a wonderful mythology that seems to pretty accurately explain the writing process.
A few writers take a better spin on Waltz’s charge. In “Monsters—Giving the Devils their Due,” C.L. Werner writes passages (one intentionally bad) specifically for the purpose of illustrating points in his essay. This approach, coupled with his focus on a topic of specific importance to fantasy writers, makes his one of the best essays in the collection.
The same can be said of Brandon Sanderson’s “Writing Cinematic Fight Scenes.” His contribution is the best from a purely instructional point of view. He goes through three versions of a single scene to highlight keep points and demonstrate the revision process. I would have learned a lot more from this book if the other authors had followed Sanderson’s lead. Ian C. Esselmont’s “Taking a Stab at Writing Sword and Sorcery” also includes a weak passage that he then revises, which works well.
There are some good nuts-and-bolts craft essays that addressed important elements of the fantasy genre. Werner’s focus on monsters and Sanderson’s on fight scenes both provide good practical advice, as does Paul Kearney’s “So You Want to Fight a War” (on crafting realistic armies and battles), “Two Sought Adventure” by Howard Andrew Jones (on how to manage multiple heroes) and Ari Marmell’s “Tropes of the Trade” (on how to use fantasy tropes without falling into cliché). Cat Rambo’s “Watching from the Sidelines” is a little heavy on self-quotation, but gives some good advice on how to use supporting characters.
The most puzzling piece is Jennifer Brozak’s “NPCs Are People Too.” The NPCs of her title refer to “Non-Player Characters,” a concept borrowed from role-playing games. The problem here is that fiction doesn’t have “Player Characters”—as much as I might identify with the hero of a novel, I am not a “player” and have no ability to control the hero’s actions.—so having a “Non” version doesn’t make much sense. Some of the advice, like keeping notecards describing minor characters, seems specifically targeted toward people playing RPGs, which made me wonder if Brozak hadn’t just repackaged an essay intended for a different audience.
Two strong essays addressed larger themes in fantasy literature. “The Hero in Your Blood” by Janet Morris and Chris Morris argues that heroic literature has been with us forever, and that we may have an innate attraction to it. Alex Bledsoe’s “Man Up: Making Your Hero and Adult” is not so much a craft essay, although there were some good tips, as an argument that fantasy literature needs more adult heroes (like Conan and Han Solo) and fewer Bildungsroman heroes (like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker).
Writing Fantasy Heroes has some good advice for writers. I recommend using it more as a reference book than something you read from cover to cover. I would skip Holland’s essay altogether (or at least read it last) and go in with the expectation that you are going to read a lot of writers quoting themselves. I loved the idea behind this collection, but the execution left something to be desired.[subscribe2]