Joe Abercrombie's writing tips

He’s not exactly short on confidence, so who better to ask about writing fantasy than Joe Abercrombie? His first two books, The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged , are “marvellously self-aware character-driven stuff” according to our review in SFX. So here are some expert tips to tie in with Pulp Idol .

SFX: Many SFX readers might assume they know what makes up a fantasy narrative – a quest, a ring, a wizard – but is it really that easy?
Joe Abercrombie:
“I guess it can be. There’s a battle, there’s a quest. There’s a young hero who learns something about himself and a wise mentor who has some kind of magical powers. There’s at least one magic tower, or at least an unusual tall building of some kind. That could describe pretty much any epic fantasy going, excellent or awful. In a way I’ve always felt that the story you tell is less important than the way you tell it. The narrative is the framework on which you hang the things that really matter – the characters, the dialogue, the development of themes.”

SFX: How do you freshen up fantasy narratives/plots, add fresh elements? Do you mix familiar elements with the new as a way of drawing readers in?
“Absolutely. Epic fantasy is packed to bursting with well-worn tropes, as everybody knows. I think its important to give readers enough that’s familiar to make them feel on safe ground – go on, give ’em a dark lord with a dangerous name! – but at the same time the fact that they expect things to develop in a certain way gives you ample opportunity to really surprise them – maybe the dark lord turns out, all in all, to be an alright kind of bloke.”

SFX: Are there any shortcuts for getting a narrative moving?
“I think a writer should always be getting on with it even in a big-ass epic fantasy novel, so it’s triply true for a short story. Drop your reader in the midst of the action, and let them find their own way out. Ask yourself about every scene, every paragraph, every line and every word if this is really necessary. If not, cut. Never waste time on anything that you yourself find dull. If you’re bored, how the hell can you expect anyone else to be entertained? And that’s what we’re really doing here, after all. Entertaining.”

“If A and B are scenes or sequences you really want and need to tell, but you’re having trouble getting from A to B, try not doing. That’s what the old gap with an asterisk is for. Or, if you’ve got several points of view, you could try alternating between them in order to speed things up.”

SFX: Can you say something about the intersection between narrative and ideas, how do you balance plot and wider themes?
“I suppose I’d argue that there’s no need to find a balance, the two should be – have to be – complimentary. Events on their own seem kind of worthless to me, that’s more the preserve of narrative history. As a writer of fiction I feel you should always be using the events to do something further – showing some aspect of your characters, investigating some idea, giving your characters the opportunity to relate to each other in some new way. Hey, why not all of them at once?”

SFX: Have you any tips on establishing a fictional universe, making it believable?
“For me, when it comes to world-building, less is so much more. Poring over your maps and getting the names of your months in elvish isn’t necessarily wasted time, but remember that it’s very much secondary to the task of actually writing. To use a movie metaphor, the world is the sets, and the best sets ever are never going to make up for rubbish acting, script, camerawork, editing and direction. The things that make a fantasy novel good are the same things that make any other novel good. Interesting characters. Sharp dialogue. Effective action. Plot twists you don’t see coming. Getting on with it.”

SFX: How do you research new worlds? (Yes, that’s paradoxical, which is kinda why we’re asking...)
“If a good liar tells as much truth as he can, then I think a good writer tells as much from personal experience as he can. Clearly, you may never have duelled with a troll, but you can extrapolate from how you felt when that really big kid kicked your head in in the playground. If you start from the point of settings or events that you know well and just tweak the details, you may find your work gets a sense of authenticity it’s hard to replicate from pure imagination. I read a lot of history, and I find a lot to inspire me there, so I suppose I would say, somewhat pretentiously, that the best place to look for new worlds is in our own…”

SFX: How important are believable details in comparison to big picture stuff?
“The great and liberating thing about writing compared to film, or TV, or painting, is that you don’t have to describe every detail, you need only describe things that are strictly necessary, that add in some way to the scene. If you find your writing is clogged up with description, try just cutting it all and using only the dialogue or action. The reader might not care what colour hair your characters have, or the shape of the leaves on the special trees you’ve invented. Let them fill in that stuff with their own imaginations. They might well prefer it that way, and you are left free to get on with it.”

SFX: Anything else you’d like to add?
“Get on with it. And forget everything I just said. There are no rules. It’s fantasy.”

You can read more about writing fantasy stories in SFX 156, on sale now . For more about Joe Abercrombie’s books, check out the Gollancz website here . He was speaking here with Jonathan Wright. Update: there are now some more answers from him about his personal writing, on this page .

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