An Open Letter to Aspiring Fantasy Writers

writing 3

I want to ask you why you write.

Every aspiring writer claims they want to write the books they want to read but cannot find. They claim for themselves a unique voice and brilliant ideas, and they NEED to write – they just can’t help themselves.

If you have said those words, even just to yourself, you need to take a long, hard look at this problem.

You keep reinventing the wheel.

How many reluctant “chosen ones’ railing against the vagaries of prophesy can one genre cope with? How many worlds must mobilize against an all-powerful demon and always win by the skin of their teeth, before Hell is seriously depopulated? How many wisecracking paranormal investigators can the city of Chicago reasonably support? How many weird nightclubs run by power-hungry vampire clans could really exist in the continental United States before someone notices?

It isn’t that these are clichés. A cliché could be re-spun. A cliché could be subverted. A cliché could even (gasp) be acknowledged.

It is that you don’t even try. You perhaps do not even notice this, but you aren’t writing a book – you’re writing thinly disguised fan-fic. You loved “The Wheel of Time” so much that you cannot even see that all you’re doing is extending the series for yourself. You are so in love with “The Dresden Files” that you just reproduce Butcher in miniature.

It even be would be okay, if you just admitted that. It would be more than okay if you were the 21st century equivalent of Shakespeare, because he was a master at taking someone else’s plot and clothing it in language and characters so rich and cadenced that the plot didn’t even matter.

Listen: the reason that Jim Butcher is an enormous success is because, while he wasn’t the very first to do it, his marriage of Mickey Spillane meets paranormal was a truly unique voice and vision, and he did it in such a way that no one else can repeat it except by copying him.

Similarly, Robert Jordan took epic fantasy and wrote it in the most intimate and down-to-earth vernacular, pairing those earth-shattering omens and events with the everyday responses of ordinary humans in such a way that the early books were like a whole new genre of their own.

You can’t be those writers. You can’t write those books. Not because you are less talented, necessarily, but because you aren’t them and because they already did the thing.

You have a choice. You could do what you already do, and rewrite those books, endlessly.

You can try to come up with good wisecracks while your Paranormal Investigator uses his limited wizardliness and marshmallow heart of gold to barely manage to defeat the vampire succubus nightclub owner before she unleashes the mayhem, interspersing this with some quasi-rape scenes so it feels all edgy and adult. You can find new complaints for the Chosen One to hurl at their magical mentors while they travel to strange places trying to stay one step ahead of the Dark God who must destroy him/her before they can Take Over the Universe, and make up new words for serpent-creatures to convince yourself you aren’t really stealing from books that were published when you were in kindergarten.

You can. No one will stop you, and you might sell a bunch of copies. Your fans and your family might tell you they like your books.

But if you are honest, you’ll know, deep down, that all you did was a mental version of copy-and-paste.

You could, of course, do something else. You could find your own stories and your own voice.

It all depends, of course, on why you really do this.

It’s the difference, I suppose, between wanting to write, and wanting to have written.

Your choice.


2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Aspiring Fantasy Writers

  1. I think the problem is that most all stories have been told.

    Nothing is truly unique, except for the author’s voice.

    So that, while you may crave originality, the fact is that there’s not much room for originality.

    There’s going to be tropes in everything you read ever. Unless you read the very first books in which those tropes appear. And because you’ve been conditioned to react to these stories in a certain way, you’ll recognize the same tropes you find annoying in everything else.

    I think so long as the story is unique enough that it doesn’t come off as fanfic, then that story is good enough.

    Not everything has to be a bestseller to be great.

    Just a thought.


    • Mea culpa! I should have replied here a lot sooner.

      Thr thing is, you can play with the “tropes”. They don’t always have to work out the same way. Turn them around. Add a wrinkle. Change the outcome.

      I mean, what if the thing that is guaranteed to work based on every other fantasy novel turns out to be the one thing your main character should NOT do in your novel?


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