Thursday, 26 September 2019

The Fantasy Fiction Formula - Book Review & Writer's Resource

   I recently read through The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester. It's the second guide I've ever used for writing, despite having been practising the craft for 16 years and having two published fantasy books. The first was Neil Gaiman's The Art of Storytelling course on Masterclass. I'd been terrified for so long of looking at any such thing in case it told me I was doing something wrong, and, let's be honest, no one likes to change their ways, and they especially don't want to re-learn things. But I found some bravery when an opportunity dropped into my lap on January 10th this year, and decided to try the course when I saw it in February.
   In doing it, I wound up in tears. I was basically already doing everything right. I was so freaking happy. And yet, at the same time, a little disappointed because I hadn't learned anything new aside from how to write short stories, which I'd never really tried before this year.
   So I decided I wouldn't mind trying another home course, and it came, this time, in the form of a book: The Fantasy Fiction Formula.

(I wrote a book review on Goodreads when I finished it, and posted it again on Insta, but I'm going deeper here.)

   The Fantasy Fiction Formula is well-written and presented in digestable chapters. Just what you would expect from a book. But in this case, one chapter doesn't necessarily cover an entire topic from start to finish - for example, the 'Dark, Dismal Middle' (eg everything between the opening and the climax) is covered in 3 chapters directly, with a couple of others with varied titles afterwards to elaborate upon a few details before sending you off towards the end of the story. If all of this had been crammed into one chapter, you'd never know where you'd be able to put it down and walk away (an indirect lesson, in itself, on the importance of chapters within a story). It would have been an overload of information. It's definitely better when done this way, with each chapter (or lesson) anywhere from 7-21 pages in length.
   Rather than try to cram everything into single, tidy chapters, one per subject, and then cut information out in order to keep it compact and friendly, you're given everything you need in reasonable, chewable chunks.
   There are also exercises at the end of each chapter to help you put into practice what you've learned, both practical and theoretical (writing and reading).

   The advice at the start is varied, and rather than being about the structure of story planning, it explains, briefly, the components of a story, as well as the character design, viewpoints and dialogue (all individual chapters), all of which make the story really move. Getting these latter points down is as crucial as a book plan, if not more so (looking at you, pantsers). Starting the book, too - the hooks and opening lines - is included here, then scenes, conflict and everything in between.
   It then also gives you the SPOOC structure which informs you, immediately, as to whether or not your idea or basic plot can actually work. I'll give you this one for free: SPOOC = Situation, Protagonist, Objective, Opponent, Climax. For my book, The Zi'veyn, the SPOOC is as follows:

Situation   -   When wild magic begins physically tearing the world to shreds,
Protagonist   -   banished warmage, Rathen Koraaz,
Objective   -   must find the only ancient relic capable of silencing or harnessing magic, including the disembodied force.
But will he succeed when
Opponent   -   Salus, mage-hating spymaster of the Arana,
Climax   -   arrives at the relic's resting place first?

   Once you get past this and into the lessons of actually structuring and writing your story, the advice comes chronologically. It talks of the 'Dark, Dismal Middle', and how to 'survive' it. Why 'survive'? Because it's arguably the hardest part. It's where the story can completely fall apart. Once you've set your character/s on their way, it's easy for a writer's interest to drop. Personally, I've never once actually suffered this, but that's in part because I plan meticulously. Not everyone does, but I find it prevents tangents and makes sure there's always something happening. 'Spinning plates', is the phrase used in The Fantasy Fiction Formula (and perhaps elsewhere; I'd never heard it before now).
   The book gives many solutions to keeping the story exciting throughout the middle to keep both writer and reader interest solid until the end. Because if a writer loses interest, the readers will definitely notice. There will be none of the lustre from the start and many will give up. A lot of young writers will find it useful - and while I've never suffered the need of it, I am not so brazen as to say I never will. In fact, I've had some concerns about the next book I'm writing after my trilogy, and these suggestions have helped me feel more confident about it.

   The advice that I paid most (conscious) attention to was that of writing the ending. I obviously have a lot of experience with the dark, dismal middle (have you seen my books in print?) and I've written the openings over and over and over again. And while I rarely give up on books, I have to go through a lot to actually get to the point of writing the end. So, naturally, I have the least experience in that.
   The Devoted trilogy has been a huge undertaking, with such a complicated plot and very involved characters, so I admit that bringing the final book to an end remains, even now, a concern. The last thing anyone wants is an unsatisfying ending. Even in reading these final chapters, I remain concerned that I won't execute the information properly. But the upside is that the straight-forward, 6-step plan for the climax of the book (anywhere from one chapter to five - it's always subjective) has shown me that I'm already on the right path. Every step, I'd already considered. The only thing I think I've picked up on that I would have done wrong if I hadn't picked up The Fantasy Fiction Formula is dragging it out. I feel like I would have been frightened of too much happening at once and tried to ration it, which, when it comes to a climax, is wrong. It's supposed to be intense, with a breather part way through (which I've learned is called a long sequel) to serve the part of 'The Dark Moment' - wherein the protagonist is allowed to be human, not heroic, and take in the scope of what's ahead of him/her and voicing (or internalising) their biggest doubts and fears.
   With this knowledge, I realise I already have all the components I need for a great ending - I just need to make sure I don't shy away from doing it, that I don't try to protect my characters, or make it 'easier' on the reader. The climax of the story is the last place you want to do any of that.

   All praise aside, I do have this to say: take it all with a pinch of salt. The writer of this wonderful guide has also presented a few opinions as though they're fact, and one in particular that rubs me up the wrong way is when she tells you not to use phrases like 'burst through the door'. Now, as someone who has been reading for 25 years, I've read that kind of sentence so many times, and never once have I thought "oh my goodness, they actually exploded as they stepped through the door?! What on earth happened?!" No. I think, "they stepped through the door with unrestrained fury/excitement." And I ask you then: which of the two is easier to read?

They burst through the door.
They stepped through the door with unrestrained fury.

   She lists it as a technical impossibility - which is hopefully the case - but at the same time almost seems to be mocking writers for using it and, worst of all, also implies that the reader is stupid enough to believe that's actually what happened.
   There's nothing wrong with 'bursting' through a door, 'slipping' into a room or 'storming' off. As I said: pinch of salt.

How I used it

   I'm not a slow learner, but I also know that, since I'm not a kid any more, I'm not as quick as I used to be, and because this information is actually important to my career - a career I intend to hone and live off of until I die - it sort of matters that it sinks in. So I only read one chapter at a time, I typed out notes and did the exercises, and then I wouldn't touch another chapter until 3 days had passed.
   A lot of the time, even if I felt like I understood (or it even struck me as stupidly obvious), some nuance of the information wouldn't hit me for a day or two. Then, once I felt like I'd gotten as much out of ruminating as I could, I'd move on.
   Then, once I'd finished reading the book, I started writing my notes up by hand into a notebook. This meant that the core elements were refreshed in my mind, and I had the chance to revise it all again and add some later points to earlier ones if I felt they would be better known earlier.


   If you think you know how to write, great. But pick this book up, anyway. It has everything you need - not tropes or things like that, but actual story structure. It helps you fill holes as well as prevent them from opening in the first place, and will set you on a much sturdier path.
   If you intend to get artistic or experimental, that's great, too - but you need to know the rules before you can break them, if just so you can defend yourself when you're challenged.


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