What kind of fantasy novel are you writing?
It’s been an exciting few weeks around here for an assortment of reasons I won’t go into, which means my catatonic fantasy novel is being pushed even further back in my list of ‘things I must work on soon’.
I started this novel about 10 years ago as a bored student who had read little fantasy and had zero idea what made a good fantasy novel and even less of an idea on how to write one. And yet I wrote slabs here and there, developed character biographies, planned, planned and planned some more. Most of the writing took place over the space of two years, but it’s been one of those projects that can get neglected for years at a time — and it has been. I guess I am one of those millions of people out there who would love to reach their goal but haven’t yet been willing to (or developed the discipline to) put in the hard work necessary to get there.
My dreams of becoming a fantasy novelist are still very much alive, but the expectations are no longer the same. Having now read more fantasy and with a better understanding of what makes a good book and how to produce one, it has actually gotten much harder to write. I also know now what a difficult industry it is, how poorly the industry is performing right now, and how bleak the future is looking for the majority of aspiring novelists. Not to say it can’t be done, but hard work alone won’t be enough.
Simply being a good writer and writing a great book isn’t going to cut it. These days, it’s all about the market — and the marketing. You really have to identify your target market and write specifically for that market. Sometimes you get lucky and the book has cross-market potential (say Harry Potter), but if you don’t have a clear target market you’ll find it difficult to find a publisher willing to take you on (especially if you are not an established writer).
I find it’s a catch-22 situation: you want to write something that is different to what is already out there at the moment to distinguish yourself from the pack, but publishers are seldom willing to take on books that they can’t comfortably squeeze into a particular genre.
And that’s just to get published. What about sales? Of course, paranormal romance has been big since Twilight, and I suppose that’s not really fantasy any more because it kind of become a standalone genre. It seems every second book on the shelf involves vampires, werewolves or other mythological creatures these days.
More recently, thanks to the HBO series Game of Thrones, epic fantasy is starting to really pick up again, especially those with dark plots that feature demented themes and characters.
When I was in writing workshops, the general consensus was that if you want to sell these days, you ought to target the ‘young adult’ market. According to Wikipedia, that’s roughly the ages of 14 to 21. But apart from the Harry Potter clones (ie teenagers playing around with magic and magical worlds) and Twilight clones (ie teenagers falling in love with magical creatures), I can’t really think of any young adult fantasy sub-genres that have been hugely successful in recent years.
Every week I am coming across more and more people who are writing fantasy novels, and the majority of them either doing something generic or one of the above. And that got me wondering — where the heck does my fantasy novel fit into all of this, and should I be doing anything to change it?
Back before I knew anything about anything, my intention was just to write a good fantasy yarn. I thought I had a good story, a few interesting characters, and didn’t think about much else. I suppose if I had a particular slant, it was to make the novel less like the sprawling fantasy epics that give me headaches just trying to decipher the blurb on the back cover. I wanted to write something lighter, more straightforward and action-packed, like a thriller with a fantasy setting. I wanted to appeal to the RPG geeks who like the idea the these fantasy worlds but are either too lazy or find it too tedious to read 1000+ pages for a good story.
I still want to keep that idea in tact, but I’m wondering whether I need to rewrite the damn thing so that it fits more into a particular category. Because right now, it’s not really anything. On the one hand, I could go ‘George RR Martin’ and make it a more ‘adult’ fantasy with more violence, gore, treachery and sex (and let’s face it, the geeks love that kind of stuff). On the other hand, I could go the ‘young adult’ path and make my protagonists younger, make the story slightly more sanitised, and maybe even throw in a little more romance.
They would make completely different books, but I can’t figure out which one would be more appealing to the wider market.
Anyway, that’s my aimless rant for the day. If you too are writing a fantasy novel, what kind of fantasy is it? Does it follow the trodden path of those before you, or is it something drastically different? Are you writing with a specific target market in mind or do you not care? And what makes you think your novel is special enough to be published or potentially become a bestseller?