Advice for Budding Fantasists

Posted on July 14th, 2008 in advice

Some among you may find this hard to believe, but I do on occasion get emails from folks either wanting to have a stab at writing some fantasy of their own, or who’ve written some and want some advice on how to go about getting it published. So I thought I’d collect some thoughts together here so I can refer folks to them if required…

I regret that I won’t read stuff myself – I honestly don’t have the time. If I found something I liked there’s nothing I could do with it besides pass it on to my editor or agent for them to make their own decision. Far more likely I wouldn’t like it, and I’d then spend hours trying to think of the best way to express myself in an email. Sorry to say I just can’t get into it.

I’d offer two pieces of general advice, though, for anyone who is interested, one for the writing and one for the selling.

The best piece of advice I had as far as writing goes came (like all the best advice) from my Mum. She has (and my father and my brother have) always read my stuff pretty much as I’ve completed a batch of chapters and given her honest and extremely well-read opinion. Invaluable criticism. On one occasion, early on, she read a chapter of mine in which I’d used some particularly trite expression (I forget what, now, there are plenty of contenders), and she drew my attention to it and said, you have to try to be honest. In every area of your writing. When you use a metaphor to describe something, you have to ask the question, ‘does that thing really look the way you’re describing it?’ or are you reaching for an easy cliche, for any old words to fill the space? When you write dialogue, you have to ask the question, ‘would this character really say these words in this situation?’ Everything that seems dishonest, that seems unconvincing, that seems untrue, weakens the effect. If you keep honest, you can’t go too far wrong.

As far as selling goes, there are some simple steps to follow that will give you the best chance (though your chances are always small with any individual submission, so prepare for rejections, possibly a lot of them). Finish a book, first of all, because no one’s going to buy anything without reading the whole thing. Find out who you’re sending material to, and ensure it’s a suitable book for them, then send them exactly what they ask for, in the format they ask for. Usually this will mean the first couple of chapters, or fifty pages of material. Err on the side of less, because they’ll probably know within a paragraph whether they are interested or not, and they’ll surely ask for more if they want to see more. Put a covering letter with your work that explains what is so special about it, why it’s something they need to have, and can sell. Spend plenty of time making sure the letter is good, because it may well be more important than the extract – if your letter is rubbish they might get no further. Remember that, even if to you this is your wonderful baby, to them it will always be, to some degree, a product. They may fall in love with it, but they still need to sell it.

But hell, I’m no expert. Why listen to me when you can listen to professionals? Lately the awesomely talented folks at my own publisher Gollancz have been talking to SFX about the business of writing in the genre, both creatively and commercially. Firstly a Q&A; with evil arch hype-sorceror Simon of Spanton and my own editor Gillian Redfearn (she found me, she’s got to know what she’s talking about, right?) and secondly with their esteemed colleague Jo Fletcher. Still have questions? You could check out the advice of genre doyen John Jarrold, long-time editor and now successful agent, who runs a message board over at the Chronicles Network. You could even sign up there and ask him a question or two. There’s nothing about selling fantasy books that man don’t know.

You could also nip over to the Geek Syndicate, where they have a set of audio interviews with me and six other genre authors, talking about our experiences getting into the business.  Who knows, you may find something useful there…

Lastly, if anyone thinks they have some wonderful advice, or is in need of some particular answer I might conceivably be able to help with, by all means comment below…

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  1. Always fascinating to hear this sort of advice and opinion from successful writers; I can only begin to imagine how tiring the question “How do I become a fantasy writer like you?” becomes after the ten thousand billionth time, so thanks for sharing.

    What I’d like to ask is: what pushed you over the edge with respect to knuckling down and writing your first book? Was there any specific inspiration, encouragement from others or any other such thing? I’ve always harboured the dream of writing a fantasy or sci-fi book, but I know deep down that it’s never likely to happen. Predominantly because I’m a lazy arse, but also because it seems just too daunting to get started. Was it made easier because you had an idea of the story that you wanted to tell, or was that just the fundamental foundation that has to exist, and something else gave you the impetus to build on that foundation?

    And apologies if those were other questions you’ve been asked a thousand billion times before. You can just sigh loudly and stare unamusedly if so, I won’t get all Glokta on you for not answering.

  2. I liked that SFX article – though I was slightly disappointed on my second read-through that Gillian Redfearn had actually said ‘Know Your Deadlines’ as opposed to ‘Know your Deadliness’, which I thought might have been the best advice I’d ever heard.

  3. Melmoth,
    As far as being pushed over the edge goes, one big factor was simply that I had the time. As a freelance, I always ended up with odd weeks off in between jobs, and I decided I needed a project to take up in this time beyond playing video games. I’d always had some ideas in mind for a fantasy trilogy and had even made a couple of abortive attempts long before, so I gave it another stab.

    The main thing that kept me going was, first, that I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I liked what was coming out. It seemed to have a life of its own that I found interesting and inspiring myself, had a certain world-weary tone and humour that my previous efforts had lacked. Second, I had great encouragement from my family once I’d plucked up the nerve to show them the first few chapters and was starting to take it a bit more seriously. They expected it to be rubbish, it was only slightly rubbish. So I wrote it in blocks of chapters for them, as much as anything, but obviously starting to get the idea about trying to publish it in the long run. They gave me a lot of brutal yet constructive advice that was greatly helpful early on. I kind of went at it chapter by chapter, and took my time. Took about two and a half years to finish the first book.

    JDP,
    ‘Know your deadlines’ applies to writing alone. ‘Know your deadliness’ is more life advice, applicable in every area – professional, personal, romantic, culinary, sanitary, political, leisure pursuits, black ops. You name it, it always pays to know your deadliness.

  4. Oh crikey, Joe. I am soooo glad I didn’t embarrass myself with a request for backcover blurb with my own self-published tat ‘Feng Shui Assassin’. (http://www.fengshuiassassin.com)

    A great article and it’s refreshing to hear that you shared your efforts with those close to you! The four readers . . .

    I started writing something bigger than comic strips because I was so bored of the SF and fantasy offerings on the shelves of Ottakars. Lots of same same but different.

    But then I discovered Joe Abercrombie’s precocious little number – ‘The Blade Itself’ and Richard Morgan’s ‘Market Forces’ – and I think there was also a push of interesting Yank talent and suddenly there was plenty of choice on the shelves of the local bookstore.

    I’d be intrigued to hear more of your initial step’s too. If memory serves, you didn’t have any big marketing splurge – but I did browse thru some very favourable reviews online. Perhaps you might consider the success of your series to be online generated?

    Anyhoo – don’t let all this blogging distract you from the real job – counting the oodles of cash (ha ha) and serving up some exotic dish best served cold :)

  5. I decided I needed a project to take up in this time beyond playing video games

    And that is why I’ll never be a writer.

    Thanks for the answer. It’s a fascinating insight.

  6. I received my first rejection from an agent today, and well I’m sure it will be the first of many, I’ll just keep plugging away. But it was a nice rejection as compared to some of the ones I’ve received.

  7. All very sensible advice. Echoing my agent (Mr Jarrold himself) I’d add to that: read, read, read! Know what market you’re selling in, know what the best books and best-selling books are. Because in publishing what matters just as much is when the editor goes to the sales team and is confronted with the questions on who can we sell this to, and is it commercial? It can be wonderfully written stuff, but if that sales team ain’t convinced…

  8. The only advice I’d add comes from my own experience: at a time when it’s difficult to get an agent, let alone an editor, to look at your work, why not consider Macmillan New Writing?

    http://www.panmacmillan.com/imprints/macmillan%20New%20Writing/

    They only publish new writers, so they are set up to deal with slushpiles, and you don’t need an agent. They don’t specialise in fantasy but neither are they prejudiced against it. The proof of that particular pudding is that my fantasy novel “The Dog of the North” is published by them this month.

    It doesn’t mean, of course, that if your work is unpublishable it will suddenly be published. But what Macmillan New Writing do guarantee is that if you submit a complete novel, they will read it. Can’t be bad!

  9. I’m such a lazy arse I took my ‘novel’ (read 30K words of odd shenanigans) and did a brief comic strip instead. Now I can whine that artist hasn’t finished it. :)

    However, one day I will get back to grips with it… (ahem) honest!

  10. Ady,
    Well, very few genre debuts, or genre books of any kind, for that matter, get marketing beyond proofs being sent out and word of mouth, really, discussion on the interweb being pretty much an accelerated and observable form of word of mouth.

    As I remember there wasn’t a massive amount of attention for The Blade Itself online when it first appeared – it didn’t get a US release until some 18 months later – it’s really been more of a slow and steady burn as the books have come out. Online attention certainly helps, but I think if you spend a lot of time online it’s easy to think of it as more important than it is. A very few voices are heard disproportionately loud here (what, mine? Never!). There’s still a vast, silent majority of readers who buy books off the shelf, get a recommendation here or there, and would never dream of looking online, let alone posting an opinion there.

    Natalie,
    Well the problem I had with the agent’s rejections was that they were all utterly bland and offered me not the slightest help, advice, or even reason for rejection. I understand why, of course, but at the time I was kind of surprised by that.

    Mark C,
    Indeedy. I think it’s easy to get sidetracked by your love for a project and perhaps become blind to the commercial realities…

    Tim S,
    MacMillan new writing, there you go. Hold on, though, “don’t specialise in fantasy, but neither are they prejudiced against it?” Didn’t you know that this is genre island we’re on, you’re either with us or against us, and it must be defended to the death against outsiders. There is no middle ground in this…

    Little Kid,
    I await the fruits of your labours with bated breath. I await the breath of your labours with baited fruits. I bait the labour of your fruit with awaited breath. And so on.

  11. Enough all ready. Stop screwing around and write your next book

  12. Random comment, but I’ve noticed that you never, ever seem to use semi-colons in your writing (both blog and books). Is this a conscious effort on your part, maybe to get a nice easy flow going? It’s quite unusual, and kinda neat that you can still vary sentence structure without them; I personally can’t help slipping them in all over the place!

  13. 1st Anon,
    Enough already. Stop screwing around and buy some more of my books.

    2nd Anon,
    Semicolons. Hmmm. I guess I aim for prose that reflects the thought process of the character in question and has a conversational tone, and in that context I tend to find semicolons a bit distracting. I don’t feel as if I think in them, if that makes sense, and I rarely see an instance where a full stop or a comma won’t do as good a job. I’m sure technically there are many examples where I should be using colons or semicolons, but for me the technicalities fall a long way behind creating the right feel and rhythm.

  14. My advice is. . .

    No matter if you love them or detest them, always have a way to utterly and amusingly destroy any character you’ve created physically, mentally, and spiritually. Helpful should you write yourself into a corner.

    Remember that if Tolkien had not talked himself out of killing Gollum when Frodo and Sam caught him in the fens, Sam would’ve tossed Frodo into the Cracks of Doom and considered it a good days work.

  15. Well, I don’t know where to thank you, so I’ll do it here. Thank you for your books. I’ve read only thirst of the trilogy, but I love your work very much. Thanks for those well spent hours :) I can’t wait while other two of the trilogy and “Best served cold” will come.

    Thank you Joe and best wishes.

    Simon

  16. I love you joe your writng is amazing every one i let borrow my books that you wrote fall in love as well, just call me joeaddict
    take it easy and look forward to showing my kids and other family members your future storys.

  17. I’m working on something right now, for a few years in fact, that could very well make your review of “The Steel Remains” seem quite safe. I use my WIP as a ruler for brutality and wickedness when measuring other works. The advice I’d like to have from my favorite author is this: How do you sell something that was written to be darker than anything else you’ve ever experienced?

  18. Its the first time i read a book and fell in love with a character!Nicomo Cosca is something… the words are so poor to describe. I read first the Best Served Gold, the The Heroes and now the trilogy. i know but dont blame me, blame my husband who had the inspiration to give me first the 4th book. When i read the second and found Cosca again i was thrilled. But to be honest i cant find a character i dont like even the bad ones.
    You have a talent. You create characters, totally different and so much interesting and adorable.
    Dont stop writing PLEASE!
    You have a talent and thank you for that, to make people happy and in these days that is rare.

  19. Joe,

    Just wondering if you are an advocate of outlining or not. Now that I have abandoned my previous stance and tried to map out a direction, I feel like I know where I’m going with my story. Thanks and I can’t wait for the next book.

    -KL

  20. Hello Joe,
    You are a wonderful person, author…etc. Continue your writings…
    You have not only the talent… you are a writer by vocation…
    Here in Russia, we love your books…

  21. Hi there Mr. Abercrombie,

    im actually reading your books and im happy i bought them, their a great piece of fantasy, and i read much. YOur in my top 5 list of the best authors ;-)

    Im sure you´re getting much questions of giving tips and help to upcoming, young authors who want to establish them in the world of bookwriting. im such a person though. but my goal is to tell a story, not to earn much money.
    thats because of i have not much time to write efficiently, im working 40 hours a week, have a stepchild, a dog, a wife ^^ usual, hehe.

    I want to ask you one special – what was your inspiration for your storyline, your plot? and what is the so called “magic way” to stay motivated all the time for your own work? i have this maybe typical problem, that i cant stay motivated, because i see other works from authors with the same idea, nearly same etc. And im doubting on my own plots, as far as i have one though. i just seek to ways and tips to get startet and continuing with my own.

    thanks for your help so far.

  22. Malleus,
    Anyone who gets into writing as the high road to riches is likely to be disappointed, only about 5% of published writers are able to make a full time living out of it, let alone a good living. And of course you could be hugely successful with one book, not so much with another, and then vanish without trace.

    Inspiration, I guess anything you see, play, watch, read, experience and particularly enjoy or don’t. For the First Law, Tolkien and the classic epic fantasy of the 80s that closely imitated him, a desire to do something similar and to do something different, if you like. You could avoid your problem of seeing the same idea by reading a long way from your chosen genre. Read much and widely.

  23. hi Mr. Abercrombie,

    thanks for your fast response.

    tolkien and the other great fantasy sagas inspired me most, just like the most people, i guess. im interested in history, mythology, religion and i try to use this to applicate for my storylines, but its hard to get the right point. im always thinking that the readers dont like this idea.

    what would you think about a storyline, inspirated by the divine comedy story and landscape, indian and bhuddism religion combined with historical ancient parts of the sumerians, akkadians AND feudalistic middleages? kind of too much?

    my other problem is, that i have so many ideas. im getting it down as notes, to be sure i have them there if i forget them. my wife says, that i spend too much time for writing down notes, make maps, think about too many details of the religion etc that i wont get started in years. i dont even have a manuscript, just notes. what would you do in such a situation?

  24. PS:

    I forgot to mention, that the inquisiton is another part what inspires me very much. i thought about a working title for my work which could be called “reliving history”. that the reader is part of the history of my world from an early scratch on…

  25. Joe,

    OMG I only discovered you 2 weeks ago and I am already into my 3rd book with 2 more on order. What wonderful despicable nasty evil brilliant characters you have created. I really appreciate your use of language, they speak more or less as we do in todays world (with exceptions of course). Adorations over with now get back to putting the fingers to the keyboard and create me some more brilliant stuff to read.

    Thanks for being worth my hard earned cash:).

  26. Mr. Abercrombie,

    I hope I didn’t break some ethical code with the outlining question. If I did could you let me know?

    One thing I really appreciate in your writing is the tendency for a couple of pov characters to share a lot of their inner thoughts and feelings via italicized text. I don’t know why more writers don’t do this. Do you think this lends itself better to certain characters–the sacrcastic–than others?

    Thanks again for the great series and I apologize if I tread on posted property with the outlining question.

    -KL

  27. One thing I’d love to know – how was it trying to sell a ‘Part 1?’ I’ve read that it’s practically self destructive to attempt to write a 3 part epic to break into the market, since the publishers can’t know that you’ll be able to finish it. I’ve also heard that going beyond 120,000 words is a bad idea, since the publishing costs are prohibitive. You seem to have broken that mold. I’ve managed to finish two books, both of which I’ve discarded as not being good enough to bother publishers with (and I know, there’s lacking self confidence, but really, what I wrote just didn’t make sense), but I find it very difficult to create a fantasy world in less than 200,000 words, and I always want to write very meandering, character focussed stories with armies traipsing slowly about. Any advice that you could give me would be hugely appreciated. I’ve just given up on 80k words as I’m only a third of the way through the story and part one of a trilogy at that.

  28. Hi Joe,
    I was wondering if you could give me some advice on writing, in particular how you come up with names for characters. This is something I really struggle with in my own writing, everytime I have a name I like I decide the next day I don’t like it, and find my characters going through umpteen name changes and then things start getting really confusing. Is there some method you use when coming up with names that you could share with me?
    Thanks for any help you can give
    P.S. Love all your books

  29. Yo

    I absolutely adore your books like one should a small child. Alas children are nothing but a source of protein. Anyhow, I’ve been wondering more about the environment you write in. How d’you get yourself in the mood as it were? Is music involved? Food, wine etc? Are you a pen and paper person or does it get plugged straight into a word processor? I’ve not read much on the meta aspect of writing; something I feel is rather important. When you weave a complex net of plot and character, is it something you plan on doing or does it simply emerge as you write? Does emotion influence what you write and when you write it? That is, do you write fight scenes when you’re angry, love scenes when in a good mood etc? Do you construct the story in a patchwork fashion or is it all a linear progression? I apologise if you’ve answered these questions before.

    Thanks for your time

  30. Having read all your books, I am never disappointed with the depth and complexities of the characters you create.

    This leads me to question whether you create your characters and let them form a plot or if you have an idea about a plot and think up characters to make it happen?

    I guess this could be linked to the outlining question above. I’d be interested in how you write – what comes first, characters, world building or plot ideas?

    ps. Please give us some new material! ;)

  31. Hi Joe, not sure if you still reply to this thread, but thought I’d ask a question that has been burning away in my mind.

    Do you find it easier/more manageable to edit as you go along with the first draft? Or do you prefer to get the whole lot down and then go through it in one go?

    I’m trying to write my own piece of gritty, thought provoking horror/comedy fantasy and have only just breached the 20,000 word mark after 4 months. I feel like a one legged man trying to climb everest, it’s taking a long time. Should I just stop looking back all the time and just go full on and get that first draft finished rather than going back and fannying around with it all the time?

    I love your books by the way. They are an inspiration and an absolute pleasure to read.

  32. Gary,
    These days I tend to write each part then give it a quick go-over, but leave most of the editing until the book’s finished. When I first started I would go over pretty much every sentence as I finished it, then every paragraph as I finished it, and spend ages going over and over everything. I’d start each writing session by going over what I did last time. I think that was valuable in developing a style and approach. Editing at the end is probably most efficient, but when you’re starting out it’s nice to see some results, and seeing those results can inspire you going forward. Whatever works for you, I guess, in the end…

  33. Thanks for the response Joe, it’s much appreciated :-)
    I’m still trying to discover what works best for me and what you have said certainly gives me food for thought and something to experiment with.

  34. I read a lot and role play a lot (42 now since 13) and i read based on ease of reading and usefulness for campaigns.
    Tolkien is 4/no scale, Gemmell 8/9, eddings 10/4 (very silly) and yourself 9/9 love the no shit style, Blunt in in your face without the floury trupe you get with some authors where they spend 3 chapters describing a fight where no one gets hurt or the character names couldn’t even be remembered by a tourettes on speed.
    George R R Martin holds much acclaim but I feel he going a bit senile with the waffling.
    Gemmel had it right – keep it simple. sword, belly die. though please don’t get as homicidal with your characters as he did, bless his soul.
    I write as I please for the local campaigns (AD&D, Rolemaster, Spacemaster, Traveller, Twilight 2000, Gang Busters, gammaworld, Superworld) Do not pirate but “borrow” Ideas. I have my own dedicated fantasy campaign world that i have maintained for 20 years and can proudly say I have never borrowed for that yet. I want to write but am a lazy bugger, never getting past the first 5 chapters.
    Please never stop writing.

  35. I am a huge fan of your work and aspire to be a writer but I am not very disciplined. How do you make yourself sit down and write because I’m a okay writer and I have all of the ideas mapped out in my head but the task seems so daunting and unattainable that it’s actually hard to put it on paper. Also if I write a short story the ending seems to become sloppy kind of like I’m running out of endurance because I’m so undiciplinded the fact that I’m fifteen might have something to do with it but I would love some advice thanks.

  36. No questions here, simply a huge thank you for an extremely entertaining set of novels.

    I’m just coming to the end of a re-read of the trilogy on the kindle and just don’t want to finish the last book (again).

    For me, the mark of a good author is one that takes your emotions and draws them into the story so that when the book ends (and there are no more to follow. Hint: get writing!) you feel a sense of loss as you must part way with the characters.

    Worth every penny (even with the kindle VAT added…may Glokta get his hands on the Chancellor) – long may you continue :-)

  37. I picked up First Law because I liked the cover and I’ve been hooked since then. I’m not a writer but just wanted to say thanks for the unhealthy but much needed dose of blood, violence and sex. Nothing like Glokta, Logen or Monza for a peaceful nights sleep.
    keep writing

    ps…is Best Served Cold in spanish too???? i MUST have it!

  38. Sounds corny but I am reading the first law trilogy again. It is not often that I can glean aditional information, humour and pleasure from doing such.
    I find myself taking notes on all of the aspects of the books – Euz, his sons, servants, the world, empires, characters.
    Rather than say keep up the good work I shall say the other side has gained a victory of you cease.
    Remember, they are the tellers of lies.

  39. Hello Mr. Abercrombie,

    I’m an aspiring writer, most like everyone else in this forum. I stumbled upon my very first fantasy book, and it was yours. Surprisingly, I never realized how much I actually enjoyed fantasy novel. I want to be able to create a whole new world like you, however, I was never a huge fan of different species (dwarves, elves etc).

    So is it still possible to write an endearing fantasy novel without different species that was already over-done? Also, the novel I am writing…I find to be quite straight-forward and simple. In your honest opinion, what makes a story good? The plot or the characters? I want to show the complexity of my story… not through my plot but through my characters. Is that good enough for an entertaining read for readers?

  40. I’m an Australian guy also trying to write and has nutted out my first book. I just wanted to say i love your books Joe, they have gotten me to write mine and think it’s actually all possible.

    I just love the grit, thinking mans tough guy fantasy and the punk rock attitude. If you want to do it, just sit down and do it. Keep it up, you’re stuff is awesome and original.

    I’ll get you to sign something if you ever come to Australia.

  41. Hi Joe, I love your work and have read that you have children.

    How do you work with a partner and children? Since my 1st child was born, I’ve written one 1st draft novel and simply can’t find the time to re-write it. For me, a 1st draft is easier because I don’t hold back. It’s a creative rush which partially writes itself. Then there’s the re-write in which I have to make things make sense. That requires days of isolation and reading for me. Do you follow a similar process when you write? And how do you managed to make time with a family?

    Alex

  42. Joe *tips white stetson hat*

    Just thought I’d try a different greeting…

    I watched an interview of yours with some Australian girl a while back and found startling similarities between what I think now and what you were thinking back as a freelance editor. (Something I also happen to be.)

    The interview helped me force myself out of procrastination and get writing the idea that had been in my head for a while…more than a while really…ahem 10 years. But I digress.

    The idea germinated in a time before I had read your books and a Game of Thrones. So When I found that Mr.Martin had literally had the same idea to put a massive *beep* off wall in the north with an enemy behind it my heart sank.

    Since then, my idea has evolved(though lets face it-been forced to change). I was just wondering if you have ever come across that problem yourself? Where You think you’ve got this great idea that could really make your book and its already been done, and if so…did you change it? leave it the same? if so how and why?

    cheers.

    P.S. Love your action scenes, probably the best I’ve ever read. (at least i my opinion) ;)

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