One of the things I like about Writer Unboxed is that it takes genre writing seriously – we respect each other as writers and don’t make any assumptions about just where mystery, fantasy, romance, horror or whatever fits in the total spectrum of fiction writing. People who don’t know me well often take it for granted that I must read a lot of fantasy. But genre writers don’t necessarily read mostly genre fiction, let alone mostly their own genre.
I was recently invited to contribute to a fascinating blog called Writers Read, in which a wide range of writers talk about what books are currently on their bedside tables. From Writers Read you can get to a bunch of related reading blogs owned by the creative Marshal Zeringue. These are well worth a visit. Writers, check out your own work against The Page 69 Test.
I always advise aspiring fantasy writers to read as widely as they can, certainly well beyond their own preferred genre. It’s interesting what perceptions we can develop about genres we don’t read. I noted Eric’s recent comment on WU that he hasn’t read any fantasy since he was 13. I’m taking this opportunity to provide a brief reading list for anyone like him who overdosed on bad Tolkien imitations as a teenager, then gave up reading fantasy in the belief that all it offered was derivative epics full of elves, wizards and magic rings. I wouldn’t want to force anyone into reading fantasy, but I do think you may be missing out on some great books.
My own recreational reading is mostly outside the fantasy genre. When I do read fantasy I choose it with care. These are four of my favourites. Each lies well beyond the perceived fantasy ‘norm’. None is designed for teenage readers. Together they illustrate the depth of talent and the diversity of approach in today’s fantasy writers. I would add the wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, but it’s a big brick of a novel so perhaps better as a second step toward appreciating how much the genre has developed in recent years.
I did a Q&A for a German blog recently and was asked, among other things, why fantasy is so often written in trilogies. It’s true, a certain mode of fantasy does tend to be structured this way. Many fantasy stories require the creation of a detailed secondary world and contain high themes (often a monumental struggle between good and evil.) A trilogy provides a big enough canvas for that kind of epic tale. I note, however, that with the exception of Kushiel’s Dart, none of the titles mentioned above is part of a trilogy. Most are stand-alone. Jacqueline Carey’s novel is part of a six-book series (a double trilogy, if you like.)
A three-book series does provide a satisfying beginning-middle-end shape for a story that may well cover vast distances of both time and geography. Remember also that the raw material for much of fantasy storytelling is taken from traditional story (myth, legend, folklore and fairy tale) and that in this canon three is a lucky number that pops up all over the place. Three Billy Goats Gruff, three wishes, three bears, three Fates, three brothers seeking their fortunes … Is it surprising that so many of us choose to write our books in threes?
My own current work in progress has just gone off to my editors and I won’t see it again until it returns with their comments in January. It has the same setting as my first series, the Sevenwaters Trilogy, and is a stand-alone novel. Or is it? I had every intention of ending the book in a way that did not indicate the possibility of a sequel or sequels. Did I succeed? Absolutely not. Despite the fact that its one-book plot was, I think, satisfactorily wrapped up on page 496, the darn thing is full of potential for a continuation. I just couldn’t help myself. Because, after all, real life doesn’t wrap itself into neat and tidy packages – it’s got loose ends everywhere. Even if the girl gets the boy and they ride off into the sunset, somewhere on the fringes of the story there is a shadow that we want to explore, a half-seen figure beckoning us onto a fascinating byway. So there is certainly room for another book, but I will put it on record that at this point I have no intention of writing a trilogy.
© Photographer: Elad Nussbaum