Monday, February 5

Five Tips for Aspiring Fantasy Writers (by Kamilla Benko)

Welcome to today's blog tour stop for Kamilla Benko's debut middle-grade read: The Unicorn Quest. Not only am I excited to share this book, but also share her expertise on writing a good piece of fantasy. As a children's book editor and now author, she's got some fantastic advice. But first! The book itself...

About the Book

The Unicorn Quest
Kamilla Benko

Bloomsbury (January 30, 2018)

Claire Martinson still worries about her older sister Sophie, who battled a mysterious illness last year. But things are back to normal as they move into Windermere Manor . . . until the sisters climb a strange ladder in a fireplace and enter the magical land of Arden.

There, they find a world in turmoil. The four guilds of magic no longer trust each other, the beloved unicorns have disappeared, and terrible wraiths roam freely. Scared, the girls return home. But when Sophie vanishes in the night, it will take all of Claire's courage to climb back up the ladder, find her sister, and uncover the unicorns' greatest secret.
Five Tips for Aspiring Fantasy Writers
By Kamilla Benko

When people ask me who are my favorite literary characters, I sometimes reply, “Hogwarts!” Or Pern, or Tortall, or Ketterdam, or Red London, depending on my mood. Hey, these are worlds, not characters, you might say. And you’d be absolutely right.  But I don’t see the difference. Worlds are what I fall in love with.

As an editor who has worked on several fantasy novels at the Big Five Houses and as the author of The Unicorn Quest, I’ve spent a lot of time creating and shaping new worlds, and I have five helpful steps to take as you begin to build your own.

Step 1. Finish this sentence with one word: “My story is about ____.” 
When creating a world, it can be fun to get lost in details: what deities do they worship? How are names created and passed down? What is their biggest export? How long are the seasons? There are so many things to think about! So many choices to be made! Often times, I find authors starting to craft a big world fantasy become so caught up in getting the details just right, that they never even start the story. They are left with a massive world bible instead of a compelling fantasy novel. To break myself from what I call “productive procrastination,” I create a tool for myself: a single word that can focus the sprawling world inside my mind.

How do you use this tool? It’s simple. Fill in the blank with one word: “My story is about _______.” And yes, I mean one word! You could have the coolest idea for flying cars, or a magical sport, or a fantastical beast—but those things are texture. This one word should be the heart of the book. For example:

His Dark Materials is about change.
Harry Potter is about choice.
A Wrinkle in Time is about love.

Once you figure out what your story truly is about, then you can start using this word to answer another important questions, like….

Step 2. Ask: Why did you choose this world for this story? 
Your world should inform your story. Think about it: if you go through the bother of creating an entire world, then that world should directly impact your plot. Let the story—and that one word— inspire your details. Let’s look at His Dark Materials again. The daemons don’t feel random to the world or the plot, partly because they are a physical representation of his one word theme: change (or adolescence, really.)

Another example. The Unicorn Quest is, at its core, a story about change: of the ever-shifting relationships within a family; of history’s mutating narratives; of chimneys that turn into wishing wells; of the fearful hearts who become leaders. And as I was coming up with the specific magic for Arden, I knew I wanted a magic that reflected my theme. The story explores the possibility of magic, no matter how slight, in the everyday world. I wanted to write a book that recognizes that the very act of planting a garden, forging metal, sewing clothes, or carving stone, is one of magic. It is a transformation of one thing into something entirely different.

Step 3. Make the Setting Work for You. 
Once you’ve answered the above big picture questions, you can start making the setting work for you. One of my favorite things about third world fantasy is how the world feels like an actual character of the story. Don’t you feel as though you could spend hours talking about the intricacies of Hogwarts, in just as much detail as you could describe, say, Professor McGonagall or Hagrid.

You can rely on the third world to help you tell the immediate front story. For example, let’s say you’re writing a book about a conquered people currently oppressed. There would be ruins from the time before they were conquered, and perhaps on the walls of these ruins you could still find mosaics that show how their society used to be. As your character takes this in, it’s an opportunity to explain to the reader how life used to be before the occupation. In this way, details should work twice for you! They should provide images to readers but also inform the reader of how the fantasy world works. For example, The Room of Requirements in Hogwarts serves to illustrate that this is a magical place, filled with countless untold secrets, while also providing a place for the main characters to meet in secret and move the plot along.

Step 4. Write sentences that contain multitudes. 
All right, I’ve been advocating for restraint and simplicity when prepping your world, but once you have a firm grasp on what you want it to do, you can have fun—without getting bogged down in a world bible and actually writing your story!

My favorite fantasy worlds are when a single sentence feels like a door, and if you opened it, you’d find years of history and stories just behind it—enough to spawn its own book. Details that can add those layers include world-specific sports, songs, traditions, slang, and art. The best parts of Harry Potter, in my opinion, are when Harry, Ron, and Hermione gather around the Gryffindor common room, playing Exploding Snap, drinking Butterbeer, maybe doing some homework, and solving magical mysteries. These scenes contain an entire universe of magical history, tradition, past-times, and more, while still informing you of story you’re being told.

Step 5. Read! 
This is the most obvious piece of advice, as well as being the most fun. Reading is an essential part of being a writer. We all became writers because first we were readers.

Think of the fantasy worlds that have inspired you, whether it be Gail Carson Levine’s Frell or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros. What captured your attention in these worlds? What made you fall in love with them? Re-read these passages. Underline your favorite details and pay attention to the craft these authors put into their creations.

After you reread your favorites, read something new! Don’t just read what connects to your story. Did you know that the Battle of the Blackwater in A Clash of Kings was based on a real siege of Constantinople? As a former history major, I have to say that a lot of great fantasy is, in some way, inspired by real events. All this is to say, read everything you can. Read books about history, politics, famous memoirs. It is human nature for the mind to look for patterns and connections. Your brain will start to see elements of your story in new and fascinating ways from all these different sources.

Kamilla Benko spent most of her childhood climbing into wardrobes, trying to step through mirrors, and plotting to run away to an art museum. Now, she visits other worlds as a children's book editor. She currently lives in New York with her bookshelves, teapot, and hiking boots.

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