Some Ideas For The Theory and Teaching of Fantasy

I have lived in Georgia for a little over three years. Only a few months ago did I learn that the Decatur Book Festival a) exists {less than 2 hours away from me}, and b) is the largest independent book festival in the country. Add to that, one of my current favorite authors who has one book just released and a second out later this month was going to be there at 2 panels on the same day, and I wasn’t going to be able to catch her on the upcoming tour (which was actually stopping in my hometown, now 1,000 miles away). Needless to say, I decided to go. I was not disappointed.

I should say for the sake of full disclosure, I only went Sunday since both sessions with V.E./Victoria Schwab were that day. I should also admit that, in spite of holding multiple advanced degrees in languages and literatures, I have never actually been to a literary festival of this sort before. I have also not been in the presence of someone who has hit the NYT Best Seller list several times in a row, and in different ranges (adult, YA, Middle Grade); I have been in the presence of famed academics whose books were crucial to my own scholarship or teaching, but it’s a different kind of fan-girling when you see a famous fiction writer who is probably more recognizable to the general public, both in the wilds of a local coffee shop a few hours before panels started, and in a room with a few hundred other people, or in a signing line with a few hundred people (at least).

Besides going to see authors I know, I also decided I wanted to listen especially for writing advice, since that almost always comes up during the Q&A parts of any fiction author presentation. I first noticed this phenomenon attending single author talks; inevitably, someone will ask for advice for the aspiring writer. I have since noticed that such advice has a place in the world of academic writing, albeit with a few adjustments.

The first advice that struck me as useful came from Joanne Fluke, author of a cosy mystery series featuring Hannah who owns a local cookie bakery in her hometown. She (Joanne that is) was on a tour for her latest installment, and stopped at the local indie bookshop in Milwaukee WI (#BoswellRules). When she was asked the advice for aspiring writers question, she said that it would be to always stop for the day when you haven’t totally wrapped up a thought. This way, you are guaranteed a place you can start off writing the next day and not be stuck trying to figure out what to write next. I have found this useful with the following tweak. Finish your thought, but then have a bullet point or two for what you know comes next. Then pick up where you left off when you come back to whatever academic essay, project, or whatever you’re working on.

Another piece of advice comes from a social media posting; I can’t remember if it was either Facebook or Twitter, but I’ve seen it several times since I first saw the Rule of 5. This I’m guessing is designed with the professional or trying-to-be professional writer more in mind. The Rule is that you must write at least 500 words or edit 5 pages 5 days a week. This doesn’t quite work as is for academics since often, in academic scholarly writing, you have to pause for research more often than you do for fiction writing. Sometimes it takes all day to straighten out a single footnote, which then feels like a major accomplishment. Or, you might need to spend a few hours trying to find a source that focuses on something obscure, like the history of travel to the moon in fiction. Worse yet, is trying to find a reference you know you’ve seen somewhere but didn’t fully record or note, and now when you need it you have to re-locate it. To accommodate such research realities that come with scholarly writing, I would amend the rule to 500 words, 5 pages edited, or 3 hours research, 5 days a week.

Back to the Decatur Book Festival 2018.

The advice I was looking for at the festival was both of the sort listed above, but also anything that would help me teach literature, especially longer works like novels.

The most useful and greatest amount of advice was brought up in the panel “Power and Vengeance in Other Worlds” featuring V.E. Schwab, Jonathan French, and Drew Williams. I didn’t always manage to catch who said what, so apologies in advance for any mis-attributions.

One of the first questions asked was about world-building and if world should come before plot or character, or vice versa in any combination. All three writers had different responses which was interesting in itself, but since I’ve taught Vicious by V.E. Schwab and will likely use some of her other works in the future, I focused mostly on her responses. She prefers to start with a main character who is nearly always an outsider of some sort, and ask ‘what if…’ some general kind of scenario or situation, and then build the world from there. Another version of this idea came up as starting with the character and concept, and populating the world based on those premises. She also expanded a little on a theory she’d introduced during the 2018 J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. The idea is that basically, a fantasy writer can either create a window in which the reader only sees parts of the world and has to infer the rest, or a door in which the reader can see and experience the design of the entire world.

The basic idea of determining what a key focus is in a novel like the character, the plot, or the world I think would be a useful approach in teaching a novel, but even more so is the vocabulary of the door vs the window. I also think that these ideas could easily be adapted to other genres of fiction that aren’t necessarily based on fictionalized worlds.

The second useful question was how much do you plan for a sequel with a first book in what might be a series. This time there was more agreement among the writers, but I’ve got V.E.’s response as representative. The first book in the series should feel like a stand-alone story; that is, the reader should not need more to feel satisfied with the story and the world, but should want more. Any following sequels should not be mere continuations, but rather stories in their own right. Looking at it another way, the day should be saved, but not necessarily the world. One of the more interesting ideas that came up during this part of the discussion was that sometimes the saving of the day might be more internal than external. V.E. Schwab said, as she has said before, that she really like to write fight scenes. But especially with outsider main characters, the battles should get more internal as the story progresses. The first battle can and should be an external one, but the struggles tend to get more internal as the story progresses.

The idea of the internal versus external threats and fights I think provides a good way to consider how character and plot depend upon each other. The ideas about sequels might also provide for interesting prompts concerning how suspense is developed and how an author might try to draw in their readers.

I probably won’t be able to test any of this out until the spring semester but it’s never too early to start some general planning since I’ve found that some form of fantasy is generally acceptable to a wide range of potential students.