February 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia        home  /  Join Mailing List

The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond
Dragon Moon Press (Can) Trade: ISBN 1896944094 PubDate: 08/01/03
Review by Edward Carmien

360 pgs. List price $19.95
Buy this book and support SFRevu at Amazon US / Amazon UK

My theory of reviewing is simple. I read a book, I consider what audience will likely appreciate it and why, and I write accordingly. At times I come across a book I find hard to review because it is difficult for me to imagine what audience would best appreciate it.

Enter The Complete Guide To Writing Fantasy, a collection of 19 articles ranging from “Roots of Fantasy” to “Market Resources” aimed presumably at the inexperienced writer with a yen to, well, write fantasy fiction. As such, I imagine new writers at a certain point in their development will indeed find information of note. However, some of what is presented is wrong or incomplete, and much is based on subjective aspects of the writing business (and at least to my eye, appears dodgy). Missing from the list of influential 80’s fantasy writers are Hickman and Weiss, who might have originally written as TSR, Inc. employees but who quickly joined the ranks of independent writers after their books blasted the best seller lists into a smoking ruin. Missing also is standout writer C.J. Cherryh, who debuted in the 70’s with her Morgaine Saga. It is hard to imagine discussing this era of fantasy publishing without mentioning these best-selling authors.

As a text intended to illustrate for new writers how things are done, one would hope the authors (who confusingly here are called “editors”) to have substantial weight in the field. Instead, we see authors who are working on being published, authors with limited publishing credits, and authors with interesting backgrounds. We see very few published fiction writers, a few academics, and a scattering of people with practical experience in the areas they write about.

Consequently, the prose here is uneven. Though an advance copy is not to be taken as the final example of the prose that is to be published, all but one of the advance copies (of various other books) I’ve ever seen have been largely complete and ready for publication, possibly with a typo or two. This Guide, one hopes, will not see print (or has not seen print) in its current form. Book titles are not denoted with underlining or italics. Sentences sometimes aren’t. The spacing can be off.

Serious research rarely begins and ends with a web page, and if it does one expects that Internet source to be hosted by an institution of note. Much of the research noted here is from Internet sources hosted by commercial sites, which by definition lack permanence and are unreliable sources of intellectual rigor. In addition, citing a Geocities web page as a reference for a would-be writer is a near-guarantee of frustration. How long will that page be available to the public?

Despite the fact I’m unloading both barrels into this poor beast of a book, I do find it charming in many ways. The authors form a diverse crew, ranging from Croatia to Australia to the United states, with backgrounds that touch on the military, paganism, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), anthropology, gaming, and writing and editing. The advice here is generally good for as far as it goes. What’s missing is textual clarity and often attention to the wider aspect of writing. This Guide can do a good job of preparing someone to write a “stock” fantasy novel, Tolkienesque or not, based in European Feudalism or not, organized and scripted to be effective fiction. Some of the best elements describe how to narrate special kinds of scenes found in fantasy literature such as hand-to-hand combat. And as a special gift to the reader the editors included an INDEX, that most useful of items, for which they are to be commended (and, it is hoped, imitated).

As I wind this review to a close, I think perhaps the problem here is in the attempted scope. This is a jack-of-all-trades master of none text. The manuscript preparation section is woefully incomplete, and the “Market Resources” section in general is at best and dangerously incomplete at worst. This chapter serves as an example of how attempting to cover too much resulted in producing too little for the prospective audience.

One final note: to the authors who I’ve dished pretty hard here, and to others who might be thinking “this guy’s on a pretty high horse, isn’t he?” let me say that my modest production of non-fiction and fiction over the years does not necessarily make me an expert. In fact, I see myself in many of these authors—myself ten (for fiction) or twenty (for non-fiction of fantastic ilk) years ago. To these folks I say “be proud of your accomplishment—you’ve been published. Keep writing.”

To the brains of this caper I say “just because you can do a thing does not mean it should be done.” This project needed a narrower scope or a thousand more pages, and a higher bar for inclusion. Most readers will have a hard time finding the gems hidden here (the passage on passive voice is useful and instructive) amidst the dross (13 pages on comedy—now that’s funny!). And though a significant publishing history does not a Wonk make, writers with an established presence in the world of publishing tend to have a bit more to say that is valuable.

Can I recommend this to even a narrow audience of new and interested writers, people interested in the craft of fiction who for some damn reason can’t get fantastic elements out of their imagination? Only in a limited, buyer-beware, watch-out-for-the-quicksand and please don’t use this as your only source of information way.

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia                    home  /  subscribe