James Barclays writing tips

Want to write a fantasy short story for Pulp Idol? Well, here’s some advice, as author James Barclay’s shares his thoughts on the genre, focusing on narrative and world building.

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?
James Barclay:
“Tragically, no. Or actually, not tragically, because if it was that easy, everyone could do it and actually it’s a far more complex genre than that. There is no problem with having a ring, a wizard and a quest in your work so long as you make it original and not merely a rehash of Lord of the Rings. Many fantasy readers are very comfortable with classic tropes like magic, elves, dragons and farm-boy-becomes-hero but they need authors to weave those elements in original ways. I think there’s a danger in thinking that all fantasy has to be quest-based and set in a pseudo-medieval English world, which is not the case at all. Any aspiring writer is recommended to take a good look at the fantasy shelves and see just how wide the genre actually is.”

SFX: How do you freshen up fantasy narratives/plots, add fresh elements?
“Identify your themes early. Perhaps you’re looking at the nature of heroism, the effect of religious conflict, the aftermath of a natural disaster and the evil that might rush to fill a vacuum. If what you are talking about is genuinely interesting, then wrapping your chosen themes into a classic quest is no problem. It will read fresh and original. But remember, do not ignore your plot because you’re too focused on your themes. If you do, you’ll end up writing a text book.
“Look at your characters. Not every hero has to be likeable. And heroes can die like everyone else. Swords and magic fighting is incredibly dangerous. Even the mighty are prey to mistakes. The dynamic between characters is critical.
Cardboard heroes and villains don’t do it. Most people have shades of grey in them. A villain is not necessarily evil from every perspective. Look at how your characters speak, react to others, think, fight and dress. The language they use does not have to be stuck in the 14th century. Your characters make your work live. Without them, you have nothing.
“Writers should not be put off using classic fantasy tropes. You want elves? Have elves, just don’t make them like Tolkien’s. My elves, for instance, are rainforest-dwelling isolationists tied to a complex, all-pervading religion. They never skip anywhere, cannot ride horses and use short bows. They are brutally efficient fighters. But they have elven physical characteristics so I call them ‘elves’. Same goes for dragons… have them but not sitting on a pile of jewels. Ask yourself what makes a dragon tick: are they a complex creature or a simple predator? Must they breathe fire?
“If you’re worried that a race you use will be deemed derivative, dump it because it’ll make you nervous writing about it.
“There is nothing wrong with a classic quest novel. Fantasy readers have long loved the quest plot. But steer clear of the linear nature that blights some quest novels. Perhaps the successful conclusion of your quest begets greater problems in the future. Perhaps the whole thing is a wild goose chase. Turn it on its head in the middle of the novel… don’t let your readers get too comfortable or they’ll get bored.
“And examine your setting. You haven’t got to change too much from a classic medieval setting to give your work a fresh feel to it. Earth’s history is full of fascinating cultures… many of which have been underused.
“Finally, remember there are no rules but the ones you create for yourself. And these you must adhere to. So long as you are creating credible races, settings, and plotlines, you can go pretty much where you like. Adding classic tropes to an otherwise ‘non-standard’ landscape… elves in the desert, dragons under the sea as two simple examples, is a fine way to go but you have to be able to explain why. Gratuitous changes will be seen for what they are… feeble attempts to look different. An elf who is short, bearded and a miner who fights with an axe is, let’s face it, a dwarf.”

SFX: Are there any shortcuts for getting a narrative moving?
“Fantasy lends itself to a lot of words, judging by the thickness of many books on the shelves (including my own…). In short form, you cannot afford wastage so the kernel of the plot needs to appear quickly. On page one if you can, to hook your reader (actually, it’s the same in a novel but readers will give you time to establish your world and people). Absolutely drop your readers into the centre of a conflict. Have your protagonists already running to, or from, something you reveal in a few paragraphs time.
“Don’t ditch description because you’re short of words, just make it count. Every word needs to advance your story. No one cares what sort of shoes your hero is wearing unless by them falling off, a disaster occurs or the story is moved ahead in some way. What I’m saying is, if you open with action, readers will make some assumptions for you… like if it’s a battle, that the characters are most likely already dressed for it. If it’s a chase then is it already more interesting to open by letting readers know that your protagonist has no shoes. Why? Because it might mean he/she left in a hurry. Why..? Well, you want your reader to read on and find out.
“Begin in the middle of a conversation or argument. Your opening line could discuss the final act of an event that has just occurred. You might even want to begin your story with a preposition because it means something important has gone before that you will find out about later. For instance: ‘But he could not cling on and the last sight of it was a glimmer as it sank to the deeps.’ You know the sort of thing.”

SFX: Can you say something about the intersection between narrative and ideas, how do you balance plot and wider themes?
“It’s actually not that hard a balance to strike if you think about it. Readers will enjoy your work if the plot is engaging and as original as you can make it. They aren’t picking up your work to read what you think about the essence of heroism. What themes do, and this is why you need to think about them early, is add huge colour and depth to your narrative. To use an old cliché, they are the backdrop to the painting where the subjects are the plot. And your characters are the living embodiment of everything you are trying to achieve. If you think of building your work in layers like this, you probably won’t go far wrong.
“Your themes will impact your characters and hence your plot. For a simple example, if your theme is religious intolerance, then having your hero denounced as a heretic is a massive impact and a reason for a chase that drives the narrative. That chase might lead your hero to a chance meeting with a love interest which in turns moves the plot forward. Perhaps because it is a forbidden, inter-religion love. So, themes can catalyse action. What you need to be careful about is letting you, the author, speak too loudly. Your characters need to evoke and illustrate what you are trying to get across thematically, you don’t want to be lecturing (so be careful how you handle themes in dialogue).”

SFX: Have you any tips on establishing a fictional universe, making it believable?
“At the risk of sounding glib, be sure that it actually works. On the geographical level, make sure your rivers run in the right direction, for example (uphill is difficult). Rainforest and desert exist in certain conditions and they don’t mix. Putting them side by side is not recommended.
“Be aware of the distances you are asking people to travel and the modes of transport available. Ocean-going ships are a huge step forward in technology from fishing boats. Remember your characters might be doing plenty of travelling so it has to be feasible to get them to where you want them to go.
“Would anyone build a city there? Ask it every time. Look at London. Built on a river. Why? Trade and food. Every city, town, hamlet, will be in its place because the people who settled there believed they could make a living. Doesn’t stop you having ruins because people were wrong. But a thriving settlement needs reasons to thrive.
“Does your economy function properly? I’m not talking about going into deep theory, but if you have a market place, have an idea where all the goods come from, who wants to buy which and for what purpose. You can’t transport perishables over huge distances unless your world has developed refrigeration. If you can’t make fire, you can’t do metalwork.
“How does the government/king/whatever, raise money to build armies, cities etc? Is the population large enough to fund a war and form the nucleus of an invasion force, if that’s what you want to do? What would happen to the economy if too many were conscripted and marched away for years on end?
“Your ruling system needs to be clear too. A monarchy works in a very different way to a democracy and this impacts the lives of everyone. A king does not necessarily rule by consent, a tyrant never does. Consider the impact of your system of laws and how it might restrain trade, for instance.
“Magic systems… make sure you have rules and make sure you stick to them. How hard is it to do magic? How tiring is it? Can anyone do it? What can be done? Magic has to have boundaries. If it doesn’t then it stands to reason that those who can use magic would be in charge because there would not be a force strong enough to stop them. For me, one of the simplest ways to control magic is to make it tiring. No one can cast indefinitely. Hence it has a limit. Don’t let your magic system get your heroes out of every scrape. If they’re in a hole, a magician suddenly remembering that he has a ‘get out of any hole’ spell, is really irritating to readers. Adapting what readers know he already has is entirely different and far more interesting.
“Understand the history of your world, its magic, how countries came to be where they are in terms of power, influence, trade and military might. If two countries are bordered by impenetrable mountains then it is unlikely that they will ever have been to war with each other. It’s just too much trouble. Why go east over the peaks when you can go west over the fields?
“In essence, ask yourself questions at every step. Challenge your assumptions. And try to balance your world-building with the writing of your story. World-building is great fun but it eats time. I would say, make your world work on a basic level. Add your detail as you write.
“And remember that most of your world will never be spoken of. It sits there in the background allowing your story to be told. Resist the temptation to explain everything in your narrative.”

SFX: How do you research new worlds? (Yes, that’s paradoxical, which is kinda why we’re asking...)
“There is absolutely no substitute to looking at our very own Earth and her glorious, rich history. When I’m drawing landscapes, I look at an atlas. Take a look at how grand geological elements fit together. It’s the simplest way of working out why mountains affect weather and hence terrain, for instance. And how water and land fit together. I’m not saying redraw bits of Europe necessarily, but as a basis, you might as well begin with what you know rather than guess at what you don’t.
“When I’m building government, army and economy, I read history. My latest world is based on Rome, for instance. You can use any culture as a basis and grant them extra technologies, or remove some, to get the history the way you want it.
“You can be as off-the-wall as you want with your world but you have to be able to explain it all to yourself or you’ll be uncomfortable writing about it.
“But do play around. Let’s face it, the size of Britain makes it laughable that at one stage we should have controlled about a quarter of the world. Didn’t stop it happening though. If you want to know why and how so you can use and adapt, the library is your best friend. And the internet of course.”

SFX: World-building: How important are believable details in comparison to big picture stuff?
“Crucial, I’d say. It is the fine detail that your characters notice and live with every day. They don’t notice weather systems in the ocean 2,000 miles away but they sure feel their effects in leaking roofs, poor clothing and rusting metal.
“If a certain technology is flawed… maybe the forge cannot be made hot enough, then the effect could be weapons that shatter.
“The food people eat says a great deal about their level of civilisation but to them it is all they know. In a world without aircraft, refrigeration and ocean liners, people in temperate zones will have no knowledge of pomegranates. OK, crass example but you get what I mean.
“It is also the fine detail that readers can instantly understand and with which they can empathise so far as your characters are concerned. They probably don’t care that your tanning industry is sub-standard but they do care that your character’s clothes are poor as a result.”

SFX: Anything else you’d like to add?
JB: “It’s all about your characters. Then it’s about the plot. Then it’s about the themes. Then it’s about the world.
“Read your work out loud to yourself. If you trip over what you’re reading, it isn’t working so change it so you don’t.
“And even in a fantasy world, keep it real. Too bizarre might be fascinating in theory but impenetrability turns off readers. Remember, you’re writing a story, not demonstrating how clever you are at creating a world, nor how much you know about macro-economics or religious conflict.
“Live it and love it, as I think Jamie Oliver often says.”

James Barclay was speaking with Jonathan Wright. You can read more tips for horror writers in the current issue of SFX . If you want to enter our Pulp Idol competition you’d better get your skates on – the closing date is fast approaching, so if you want to pit your words against the judges, send them to sfxpulpidol@futurenet.co.uk
by no later than midnight on 5 June 2007.