Robert Holdstocks writing tips

In the last Pulp Idol feature, SFX spoke with Holdstock about the art of writing. Here's the full thing:

SFX: Many SFX readers might assume they know what makes up a fantasy narrative – a quest, a ring, a wizard, etc – is it really that easy?
Robert Holdstock: “It depends on how tough with yourself you want to be, I suppose. It can be that easy, I’m sure. (You forgot to mention dragons, by the way…) The word ‘quest’ can indicate a cliché, but not always; it depends on the quest itself, or the way it is framed in a lively and hopefully audacious and novel narrative. But no, there’s more than those simple trappings. At the heart of a fantasy lies a character, or myth, or ‘thing of beauty’, or land, something unknown, something that gives both hidden and overt power to the story.”

SFX: How do you freshen up fantasy narratives/plots, add fresh elements?
RH: “This is the whole point of fantasy, my sort anyway – to take a fresh look at an old idea. If you’re inventing something, why write it unless you have a new twist, or a world that fascinates you? You wouldn’t want to re-write the Odyssey as it was – but you could swap the roles of Cyclops and Circe to splendidly fantastical effect. The draw of a fantasy should be either the new ideas it explores in familiar territory, or the way a familiar idea is subverted, hopefully to entertain by recognition and to make a point, however small.”

SFX: Are there any shortcuts for getting a narrative moving, tricks such as dropping readers right in the middle of a battle?
RH: “You wouldn’t have many readers left if you dropped them right in the middle of a battle. But you’re right: set up from the first sentence something that relates to the story, maybe mysterious, off-beam, but no pre-amble. That said, Cliver Barker was (is) excellent at introducing each short story with a paragraph that sets the scene and suggests the theme. Avoid: ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ Better: ‘I was flying five miles high and still playing the piano.’ Another tip: every writer I know writes more than they need, then edits back severely at the end. Self-editing is essential.”

SFX: Can you say something about the intersection between narrative and ideas, how do you balance plot and wider themes?
RH: “Everything is subservient to the story. The story carries along, twisted by plot; the idea should be obvious – it’s what the plot is dealing with – and the theme is there, underneath, informing everything. But everything is subject to the story. My last three books (The Merlin Codex) could be said to have tackled themes of courage (the courage to persist, the courage to give up) and abandonment of dreams. Most of the main characters in each book reflect these themes in some small and different way. But I wasn’t thinking of this as I wrote the story. And that’s it: your character is the bridge between plot and idea, an essential part of the evolving tale.”

SFX: Have you any tips on establishing a fictional universe, making it believable?
RH: “Nothing helps more than making the characters believable, and their motivations right. Brian Aldiss employed experts to help design Helliconia: its climate, its seasons, its wild life and flora, its land masses and Solar orbit. And the world exists! But if this is too much, each time you write something new, note it. Effectively, index your world. My own universe is that of lost myth, and I make many of them up. So I keep a note of everything from masks to fortresses to the supernatural abilities of ships.”

SFX: How do you research new worlds?
RH: “If you’re writing on a vast canvas, a world of your own design, then most of the research is imagination. But it’s essential to know the politics and social set-ups of the world, so research the sort of Oligarchy, or whatever, you want, then play with it. Mike Moorcock used to point out how often whole campaigns would happen in novels with no apparent need to eat or drink or water the horses.”

SFX: How important are believable details in comparison to big picture stuff?
RH: “Very important. It’s an old maxim that even if it’s magic it must be consistent. Obey the Law! But you can build in unpredictability. Paying attention to what clothes are made of, what weapons can achieve, is all well and good. But any world has a previous world, a past, and that world itself will still be all around. That said, if you’re writing about the Celtic tradition, as I have done, where men bragged about casting a spear so far that it took a year to bring it back… well, you just have to persuade the reader!”

SFX: Anything else you'd like to add?
RH: “On difficulties - I’ve designed two fantasy worlds: Mythago Wood, and the world of The Broken Kings. ‘Mythago’ is a forest world, enchanted and out of time, where fragments of all legend appear. The Broken Kings, and the others in the Merlin Codex (Celtika, The Iron Grail), are set in the real world of Celtic Europe, and Argo sails her waters, and she finds very real intrusions from the past along the way. Each world raised its own difficulties, but the biggest was making the assumption that the reader would understand my references (especially to the pantheon of gods and demi-gods and heroes I invoke). So: Think of the reader at those moments. A little clarification always helps.”

Robert Holdstock was talking to Jonathan Wright. Hurry, there isn't long before our Pulp Idol competition closes!