What books should fantasy writers read? Well, any books they like, actually, and the more the better, but what I am getting at is what books might help us to be better writers? Here are some ideas for books I have found useful, broken down into categories for your comfort and convenience.
But before I do, can I just say that if you want advice on the building blocks of novel-writing, and are intimidated by the jargons used in works of literary advice, or are perhaps new to this whole writing a book lark, hie you at once to Jesse’s Studio, where the estimable Jesse Stuart has just such (excellent) advice laid out in clear and easy to understand language.
So, on to the books, and first there is one book that is absolutely essential to all fantasy writers. None of us should be without:
Diana Wynne Jones’ guide to the literary world of fantasy is as vital to the aspirant fantasist now as it was when first published in 1996. Framed as a spoof tourist guide, it lists (in a humorous and entertaining way) all the common tropes and clichés of fantasy, most of which have now been so over-used that you can’t get away with playing them straight any more. Read this and learn what they are, so that you can either avoid or subvert them, according to taste.
Other Works of Fantasy
We should all read other fantasy novels, to see how the masters of the craft do it, and also because if you are going to steal, steal from the best. Like most fantasy readers I started on The Lord of the Rings, and this is still (I reckon) the benchmark for the genre. Although rest assured that that kind of length is not mandatory. It is a work of great craft and skill, and anyone could learn from it, especially with regard to world-building, and also the precise use of language. Tolkien was a philologist, and when he used a word, he knew exactly what it meant, and what all the connotations of it were. Look closely at the way he gave each character their own voice, using subtle differences of language; although both are rulers, Théoden does not use the same mode of speech as Denethor, for example.
Now, I must confess here to being a huge Tolkien fan, and own and have read pretty much everything he wrote, so my next recommendation isn’t for everybody, to say the least. But I got a lot out of reading the volumes of the History of Middle-Earth series concerned with the history of writing The Lord of the Rings. It was absolutely fascinating, almost as if I were watching over Tolkien’s shoulder as he wrote. In one way it was encouraging to see that his first drafts sucked just as much as everyone else’s, but on the other, very intimidating to see the years and years of sheer hard work that went into it. (Although, to be fair, he was writing it all longhand, with pen and pencil, and he did have the odd distraction, like a world war). I was particularly struck by the way small changes to wording could have such a disproportionately large effect. If nothing else, reading it will convince you of the value of editing.
Another writer I own (almost) everything by is the late Sir Terence Pratchett, who is proof that prolificacy is not necessarily the enemy of good writing. Anyone (such as your ‘umble scribe) trying to write comic fantasy should read him, even if only so as to try not to imitate his style. What the aspirant writer can learn from Pratchett, among other things, is how to let the jokes grow organically from the story. There’s always the temptation, and I plead guilty, m’lud, to wrench the plot just to accommodate a good gag *cough Jasper Fforde cough*.
Other fantasy novels I have learnt from include Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, which was a lesson in how to use magic sparingly, and in a rather different vein Richard Adams’ Watership Down, a book that shows it is possible to create a fully-realised fantasy world from the most unpromising material (rabbits, in real life, are pretty damn boring).
Books About Writing
None of these are about fantasy writing, particularly, but are books I found useful for learning about the bricks and mortar of novel writing. You can, of course, break any rules you like when writing, but before you do it is as well that you know what the commonly accepted methodologies (aka ‘the rules’) are. To slightly misquote Gandalf, if you want to take something apart, you should find out what it is first.
The first work I want to mention in this category is The Art of Fiction, by David Lodge. Lodge taught English Literature at Birmingham University, but proved he wasn’t just a theorist by also writing a series of successful and very funny novels, which often made serious points as well as jokes, and in them he played with many literary tropes and genres. I read The Art of Fiction on the strength of having enjoyed Lodge’s novels, but it is a useful guide to the core concepts of literature, presented clearly and concisely, even if you have not read any his fiction. He does use some critical jargon, but he also takes care to explain it (not a given in this sort of book), and gives practical examples throughout.
I was much taken with the concept of ostranenie, a Russian term meaning ‘making strange’, the means of showing the reader that they are in an unfamiliar environment, not congruent with our accepted reality, but doing so subtly, with careful use of language. Perhaps the best-known example of this is the opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’. This tells the reader at once that the story is set in another world (a future world, from the original readers’ perspective) at least until such time as chiming timepieces actually do use the twenty-four hour clock.
This is obviously a great technique for fantasy writers: it says ‘this is a different world, please re-set your expectations’, but avoiding, if you so choose, hideous long infodumps. I have tried to use it in my writing mainly by having the characters and narrative use unfamiliar (but I would hope comprehensible) terms for familiar concepts. You might use it by adding a line about the moonlight on the bay coming from more than one moon, perhaps. It’s simple, effective, and fun to do.
Another of David Lodge’s non-fiction works I enjoyed was The Practice of Writing. This is mostly a more personal work, focusing on Lodge’s own experiences in writing, especially with regard to a stage play what he wrote. It is thus perhaps less relevant to our subject, but I still got a lot out of it, especially in respect of how real-world events related to the writing affected the content of Lodge’s play.
My final choice in this category is perhaps more entertaining than practical, but I thoroughly enjoyed John Sutherland’s literary puzzle series, beginning with Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? (fat chance). In them he takes a look at various literary conundrums, some famous, some not so, and comes up with ingenious explanations to try and answer them. Some of the puzzles stem from authorial error (such as having flowers bloom at the wrong time of year) or are, quite frankly, plotholes. Sutherland puts forward some interesting solutions to these that let the author off the hook, but I must say that I was comforted by the idea that even the literary greats drop the odd bollock. Essentially the books are an exercise in textual analysis of the ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ type, but a great deal more entertaining than most such exercises. Besides being fun, the series is very thought-provoking concerning plot and character development.
So those are books I got something out of in terms of developing my own critical and writing skills. I’m sure there are many others just as good, and perhaps my choices wouldn’t work for you, but I hope you enjoyed reading about mine.