by Rob Balder
The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy
edited by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond
Dragon Moon Press, 360 pp.
The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy is a remarkably ambitious title. Imagine a warehouse filled with all of the Fantasy literature ever written… stacks of books, rising to the ceiling, representing everyone from Piers Anthony to Roger Zelazny. In struts a 360-page trade paperback, which glances around at the looming towers of works.
“Oh yeah,” says the cocky little book, “I’ve got it covered.”
Fortunately, we’re all drilled from grade school not to judge a book by its cover. On the inside, the Complete Guide is a much more homey and down-to-Middle-Earth read.
The book is a carefully assembled collection of essays by writers, fans, and subject-matter experts (often all three rolled into the same person). There are chapters on the basic staples of Fantasy (magic, arms & armor, combat), plus some fun oddities and surprises (martial arts, medieval food, humor). In all, fifteen people contributed their expertise. The committee-animal nature of the book is both a strength and a weakness, as might be expected. The quality of the information provided is uneven from section to section. Some of the contributors laid out their knowledge in great depth of detail, creating a useful reference which a writer might use for, say, choosing an appropriate weapon to arm a horde of goblins. Others only gave the reader a batch of glossy platitudes, the sort of opinion-tinged generalities you hear in the last ten minutes of a panel discussion.
Overall, though, the diversity of writers is much more of a plus than a minus. Single-author guides to writing can often suffer from tunnel vision. This book is less of a tunnel and more of a magic forest. There are sights to be seen and treasures to be uncovered. The chapter on medieval food, for instance, is a wealth of detail and insight into an aspect of world creation which a writer could easily overlook. For that matter, the chapter on world creation does a great deal to encourage the aspiring writer to exercise creative muscle in place of cliché. And there’s even a chapter on clichés themselves, giving some useful warning flags and Do Not Enter signs for the landscape of Fantasy writing.
My main complaint as an aspiring Fantasy writer reading this book is the lack of real industry insight. There was a lot of care to discuss anachronisms and other potentially-correctable cosmetic mistakes a writer might make. But it would have been nice to have a section to talk about the limits of the genre, the “unwritten rules” of published Fantasy, the sorts of themes and choices an author could make which are most likely to cause a publisher to reject the work. There is a section on markets, but it does almost nothing to guide a writer to write for publication, other than advising you to study the publisher’s submission guidelines. But this is a nitpick. The book is filled with insights, examples, anecdotes and advice, which any Fantasy writer can use to good benefit. Taken as a whole, The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy is both an informative resource and a very entertaining read. It belongs on the shelf of anyone who is setting out to write in this challenging and popular genre.