Fantasy and speculative fiction generally is traditionally associated with lots of characters, detailed settings, rich texture, complex ideas developed slowly over great long novels. But there are forms other than the novel suitable to this most magically expansive of genres, and I’ve had a lot of fun over the years going on potted excursions, as it were, into other worlds through short stories and articles with a fantastical twist. Some kinds of ides are better explored in short form, anyway: the ghost story is a case in point. It’s an interesting fact that there are many more great short stories in that genre than there are novels. But many kinds of fantasy can lend themselves very well to the short-story form, even epic fantasy.
The fantasy article is perhaps rarer than the short story, but you can build up your writing profile very successfully that way if you are interested in the fantasy genre. Such articles can be offered to the specialist speculative fiction press, in print or online, but it can also be one of the few ways to attract attention in the mainstream media, which rarely accepts short stories, but may well be interested in a fresh, intriguing look at an unusual subject. This form of writing can include interviews, extended reviews of books and films, essays, and exploration of fantastical themes of all kinds.
Here are some of my tips for the fantasy short story:
- You don’t have time to build up a detailed setting, but must still plunge your reader directly into atmosphere. Use a setting you already know well.
- Direct use of a single source is very effective.
Focus straight not only on one story, but on one strand of one story: for instance, the reaction of a single sailor from Odysseus’ crew, turned into a beast on Circe’s island; the feelings of Andromeda, chained on her rock in the ocean.
- Think about focussing on minor characters, rather than major heroes.
This is especially so when you’re using big myths as your background. For my Arthurian short story, ‘The Common Dish’, I used the voice of a very humble character, the anonymous sister-in-law of Sir Agravain, to tell the story of those who are left behind in the great Grail Quest, but who nevertheless learn very important truths.
- If you’re going to write about major heroes, focus on revealing his/her character.
The short story is probably one of the most emotional forms of all. Revealing character, though, doesn’t mean being talky; it means allowing the character to come through effectively, in action as well as reflection.
- Choose one event as the pivot for your story.
This is not the form for lots of sub-plots, though it’s perfectly possible to have more than one narrative stream.
And here are a couple of tips for the fantasy article:
- Keep your eyes and ears open.
Wonderful ideas can come from unexpected sources. A while back I conceived a series of short articles called ‘The Sorcerer’s Realm’, about how tyrants of all stripes are often fascinated by magic and sorcery. The idea came into my head after I read a book about Saddam Hussein where it was mentioned, in passing, that a/his mother was a fortune-teller, and b/that Saddam himself was a firm believer in magic, and patronised many sorcerers and psychics. The first article in the series was about Saddam and magic; the others followed other tyrants, modern and ancient. I sold this series several times over.
- Use your own interests
Is there a writer whose work you love? Why not interview them, by email if necessary? Is there something fantastical that fascinates you—for example, goblins? Why not write a piece about them, and what they might represent? Have you got a gripe connected with fantasy—for example, are you sick of great big fantasy series that go on and on and on? Do you think a film-maker misinterpreted a fantasy character? Write a nice, sharp, polemical piece about it!