10 Writing Tips I’ve Learned From Reading 10 Fantasy Books

You can learn something from every book you read, regardless of its merits. Great writing teaches you what’s effective and poor writing helps identify issues in your own work. 

Last year I started my journey to read a book in every subgenre of every genre, starting in fantasy. This had been a great reading motivator. I recommend you take up this life-long challenge yourself.

If you’ve read these books before and are interested in seeing my novel discussions, please check out this video playlist — or each individual video below:

  1. Contemporary Fantasy: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  2. Fairytale Fantasy: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll
  3. Comic Fantasy: The Colour of Magic: Terry Pratchett
  4. Superheroes Fantasy: Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
  5. Historic Fantasy: Shades of Milk and Honey by Marie Robinette Kowal
  6. High Fantasy: Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
  7. Fantasy of Manners: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
  8. Low Fantasy: The Windup Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  9. Dark Fantasy: It by Stephen King
  10. Urban Fantasy: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Even though fantasy was a genre I’m familiar with, this project introduced me to a whole new world of stories I wouldn’t have found otherwise. 

In doing so, I read some novels that surprised me and some that disappointed me. Having to share my thoughts about the book during and after finishing it helped me understand what I’ve enjoyed and what I didn’t. In the end, I read 10 books across the spectrum of fantasy, and here 10 nuggets of insight I’ve unearthed from them. 

1) Use Creative Verisimilitude: (American Gods by Neil Gaiman) 

One way to colour your story is by bringing realism into your writing. This can be as simple as having your characters drink Coca Cola or eat at McDonald’s, but in American Gods, Neil Gaiman showed that you can push verisimilitude to the limits by understanding common human habits and traditions. Some things never change — at least, it doesn’t change that much. Take something that exists, something we all understand, and warp it a bit. Traditions have roots in every country and every culture. In American Gods, the characters find themselves in a town with a Groundhog Day-esque tradition. A beat-up car is driven out onto a frozen lake and citizens take bets on when the car will fall through the lake, and thus commencing spring. If you told me that such a tradition existed, I’d believe you because it’s as crazy as some of the traditions that do exist. 

2) Leave Parts Open For Interpretation: (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol)

While a good story is believable that doesn’t mean you can’t include mystery and surrealism to it. Like life, not every aspect of your story needs to be explained. Leaving parts up for interpretations creates intrigue and gives your readers something to ponder after they close the book. Nonsense, when crafted in a way that’s interesting, becomes a puzzle for your readers to solve. Readers today are still offering their own interpretation of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. Take for example the riddle posed by the Mad Hatter: “How is a raven like a writing desk?” It’s never answered in the story, so it’s up to the reader to figure it out on their own, almost like a mental souvenir of the story. 

3) Comedy is Best When It’s Relatable: (The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett)

If you want to write comedy, then you need to relate to your readers. This doesn’t mean you need to know all your readers’ interests and hobbies, but rather share an experience that is common to your audience. You know why stand-up comedians always make jokes about airports? It’s because most people have been to an airport. If nobody had been to an airport… it wouldn’t be funny. Nobody would “get it.” While reading The Colour of Magic, I found that the parts that made me smile and chuckle were the parts where I could relate to. For example, Twoflower is an insurance salesman on vacation in a magical world — I know what it’s like to take time off after working an unglamourous job to travel to a tumultuous destination. And for Rincewinder, the wizard, he’s always reminiscing about his time in university, which is an experience of my modern life that I too think about often. It’s with these relatable connections that support the comedy. 

4) Use Foil Characters: (Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman) 

To show off the strengths and weaknesses of a character, you can use another character with opposing traits to highlight the differences. These are called foil characters. In Soon I Will Be Invincible, a story about superheroes, we find that the hero and the villain are both intelligent, but it’s how they’re treated by their high school peers that sets them apart. Corefire was popular, while Doctor Impossible was an outcast. This helped develop the relationship between those two characters as well as establishing the roots of the characters’ motivations. 

5) Every Character Serves a Purpose: (Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal) 

When we think of fantasies, we often think of epic worlds with an enormous cast of characters, but I respect a story that has restraints. Being economical and ensuring that each character and each scene moves the story forward is a mastery that I hope to achieve one day. Shades of Milk and Honey is a localized story and each character (some of them foil characters) does exactly what’s needed to provoke conflicts, reveal details, or address solutions. There is no wasted energy or time introducing a character for the sake of it… there is always a payoff — and that type of creative control, I respect. 

6) How to Show the History of a World: (Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas) 

It’s easy to get carried away with world-building, especially in a fantasy novel. There is so much to deal with: the geography, the history, the language, etc. How do you share these scenic aspects of your story without pulling the cart completely off the rails? Well… in Throne of Glass, the story begins with a travel scene and then is continuously interjected with the character studying the history of the world. The world-building is scattered throughout the novel and is never unloaded all at once. The readers aren’t responsible for consuming the details on their own, but rather, they’re seeing their world from the character’s eyes. The discovery happens alongside the character as opposed to straight-up exposition. 

7) Challenge Your Readers: (Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner) 

Give your readers the tools, but don’t build it for them. There is something gratifying when you read a complex story with a bunch of stray dots and you’re able to connect them on your own. It’s like building a piece of IKEA furniture perfectly. A story that treats the reader as an intelligent person and reveals only the details necessary — leaving little bread crumbs or clues — without hand-holding offers a reading experience that feels so much more than merely an escape. As a writer, we should have confidence to challenge our readers. Don’t be afraid of tripping them up now and then as long as you can trust your writing to catch them before they fall. In Swordspoint, something as simple as giving different names to the same characters is enough to add another layer of complexity to the story. 

8) Use Different Format: (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami)

I often think of a novel like a musical album. It’s a collection of different songs with different styles created by the same artist. That is why I love it when a novel includes different prose or poetic styles. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, we see the story being told in letters, interviews, text on a screen, etc. These change-ups in the middle of a novel can behave like an act break or even create an unsettling feeling for the reader. Change is often unnerving and this type of disturbance is effective when applied at the right place and at the right time. 

9) Transition Between Time: (It by Stephen King) 

If nothing else, It was a great textbook on how to make dramatic timeline shifts. Going from present-day to flashback in a seamless way — especially repeatedly through a thousand-page epic — is not an easy feat. What King did was find unique ways to blur the time jumps. Instead of making a hard cut in-between time, what you can do is mimic the technique King used and that’s by transitioning right in the middle of a sentence. Have a character do or say something that is connected to something they will (or they have done) do or say in the future (or the past), and cut right at the end. This technique is common in movies (often known as a match cut) but it’s not that common in books. 

10) Limit Your Scenes: (Stormfront by Jim Butcher) 

Don’t overload your readers with too much information in the first act. In Stormfront, during the first half of the novel, each chapter took place in a single location and had the main character, Harry Dresden interacting with another key character. This type of confined scene establishes the relationship between the characters and their environments. How Harry Dresden relates to one character is different from another just like how we wear different masks in different situations. Slowly, one chapter at a time, the reader gets to go one layer deeper into the character and the plot. 

There you go, those are 10 writing tips I learned from reading 10 fantasy books. I am continuing with my reading journey. Currently, I’m in the throes of reading the sci-fi sub-category with the suffix “punk.” Such genres include cyberpunk, steampunk, etc.

Follow me on YouTube to see how everything unfolds. And if you want to recommend some fantasy, “punk,” or any other genre of books to me, please share in the comments! 

How to Balance Reading and Writing Time

Read a lot and write a lot. That is the hot tip established writers will tell aspiring writers. Except, how do you balance the two? Should you split your reading and writing time 50/50? 

So here’s the dilemma, you have this idea for a novel… but you also have that book over there that you want to read. What would be more valuable for your time? Reading? Or Writing?

This is a problem I have because my TBR list keeps growing and so does my list of story ideas… I’m known for biting off more than I can chew. Nevertheless, here is how I approach balancing reading and writing. 

I like to think of it in the same way as exercising and dieting. 

Ask yourself, what is your goal? Is your goal to finish writing a novel or submit to a writing contest? If so, then prioritize writing. Or is your goal to more intuitive? For example, if you want to write a blog that requires you to make commentary, then perhaps you need to read more to be perceptive. 

Just like your physical health where you have to decide whether you are losing weight or gaining muscle, you need to start aligning your reading/writing habits to meet those goals. If you want to lose weight, you wouldn’t just be working out and if you want to gain muscle you wouldn’t just be eating salads. 

First, figure out your goals and then slowly design a routine that enables you to write and read in order to meet it. 

Writing is the workout. Reading is the nutrients you consume in order to keep your mind in shape. So write! Write as fast and as hard as you can. Then sit back and renourish. 

Reading is the healthy food you eat. TV or surfing the Internet or playing video games are less-than-healthy food when you are trying to be a writer. You can have your cheat days, but on most writing days, you need to refuel with a book. 

So the two activities have to work together. It doesn’t have to be a perfect 50/50 balance. You can write more and read less one day and then read more and write less another. The key is to cut out all the other activities that don’t nourish you or doesn’t motivate you to write. 

When you wake up: write, when you are on lunch break: read, when you get home from work: write, before you go to bed: read. Find little pockets of time here and there to commit to becoming a better writer. 

Drain the well and then refill it. Exercise and then eat a hearty meal. Don’t think of your reading time as time you should be writing, but rather a necessary part of the writing process. You only have 24 hours in the day, so it’s not about picking one or the other, it’s about eliminating the other activities so you have more time to read AND write. 

I like to read a few different books at the same time. I find it helps me motivated to read more and it generally inspires me to write a lot.

Don’t get too distracted, but here is my YouTube channel filled with writing inspirations and ideas to help with your creative process. Check it out!

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Is Reading a Creative Process?

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When you sit down and read a book — a novel specifically — are you being creative? This is a question worth debating. On one hand, you aren’t really creating anything. There is nothing visible to show for it when you close the book and put it aside. On the other hand, the ideas you are getting from the book, the visuals you are weaving and constructing in your mind, are all intangible materials that you can be applied to your creations.

With that being said, is watching a television show being creative? Is listening to an album being creative? Is watching a hockey game being creative? Where does one draw the line between entertainment and creative research?

For me, the creative process is an intent-driven process. You are present with all that is happening. You aren’t simply walking through an art gallery, but you are stopping to admire each painting and sculpture along the way. You are processing it.

If a novel, a television show, or an album is being consumed with the same frame of mind as one simply moving through it as quickly as possible, as a means to an end, then it is not a creative act. However, if one pauses occasionally and consider why the writer, cinematographer, or artist chose to use this word, this lighting, or that note, then what is being done is perhaps the most important aspect of being a creator.

Yes, I consider reading a creative process, but not everyone does. Some will simply read for pleasure. A filmmaker will watch a movie and consider it a part of the creative process while a mere civilian will watch a movie as a means to escape.

There is this hallway and you get to walk through it at your own speed. That is how I see a piece of work. What you get out of that experience is up to you.

 

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Why You Should Be a Polygamous Reader

There is no time to read.

Correction: there is no time to read literature, poetry, and other creative writing.

Work and school life don’t present a lot of opportunities to explore new literature. But in order to achieve imaginative growth and find new perspectives, we need to read more than instructional documents and textbooks. How though? How can we incorporate stories into our lives after an exhausting day of reading everything else?

A Book is a Relationship

Reading while commuting, in waiting rooms, or even during television commercials are fantastic ways to make use of potentially wasted time. And as Bruce Lee says:

“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what makes up life.”

So, if you love life and you want more lives to live, you got to read!

Carry a book with you wherever you go. That’s an order. Sure it might take up space in your backpack or purse, but when the opportunity arises, you’ll be glad you have it.

When Kindle and other e-readers first appeared on the market I was a bit skeptical because I loved the feel of pages between my fingers. However, I’ve learned to appreciate having a library in the palm of my hands. The technology also allowed me to “cheat.”

I’m an advocate of reading more than one book at a time. Many people aren’t, but to them I say, life is too short, I’m going to be a polygamous reader.

If you can enjoy two or more television series, you can read two or more books. I don’t follow any rules; I read what I want for however long I want. The key is to always have at least one book you are passionate about. If not, keep searching.

Because No One Book Can Fulfill All Your Needs

Having different books on the go allows you to read different genres, formats, and authors through a period of time — days, weeks, months, years. Our attention span has shrunk because of mass media, but that doesn’t mean we can’t counter it. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet; don’t fill up on the salad.

Audiobooks have also found a place in my life. Sometimes music exhausts me and all I want is something to keep my mind off the monotony. While driving my car or going for a run, audiobooks are a fantastic companion. Hours fly by even if I’m cleaning the house or preparing food, having an audiobook playing in the background makes me feel twice as productive, which is an awesome feeling.

Make Every Page Count

Make a timeline for the books you read. Create goals and set milestones. Track the novels you’ve finished and even keep a record of the ones you’ve abandoned. Make a game out of it. Forty percent of Americans admitted to not having read a book last year. Perhaps they didn’t have the time or perhaps they didn’t feel like there was a reason. But it’s about personal growth. Like fitness, books train your brain and give you strength where dumbbells and squats don’t.

Looking for some books to read? Follow me on my journey as I read a book in every sub-genre of every genre

Diversify your reading life

Read more books and be a better person

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By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published by The Other Press. March 10, 2015

Work and school life don’t present a lot of opportunities to explore new literature. But in order to achieve imaginative growth and find new perspectives, we need to read more than instructional documents and textbooks. How though? How can we incorporate stories into our lives after an exhausting day of reading boring material?

Reading while commuting is a fantastic way to make use of potentially wasted time. Carry a book with you wherever you go. That’s an order. Sure it might take up space in your backpack, but when the opportunity arises, you’ll be glad you have it. And if you invest in an e-reader you can have a thousand books with you without breaking your shoulders.

When Kindle and other e-readers first appeared on the market I was a bit skeptical because I loved the feel of pages between my fingers. However, I’ve learned to appreciate having a library in the palm of my hands.

I’m an advocate of reading more than one book at a time. Many people aren’t, but to them I say, life is too short, I’m going to be a polygamous reader. If you can enjoy two or more television series, you can read two or more books. I don’t follow any rules; I read what I want for however long I want. The key is to always have at least one book you are passionate about. If not, keep searching.

Having different books on the go allows you to read different genres, formats, and authors at the same time. Our attention span has shrunk because of mass media, but that doesn’t mean we can’t counter it. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet; don’t fill up on the salad.

Audio books have also found a place into my life. Sometimes music exhausts me and all I want is something to keep my mind off the monotony. While driving my car or going for a run, audio books are a fantastic companion. Hours fly by even if I’m cleaning the house or preparing food, having an audio book playing in the background makes me feel twice as productive, which is an awesome feeling.

Make a timeline for the books you read. Create goals and set milestones. Track the novels you’ve finished and even keep a record of the ones you’ve abandoned. Make a game out of it. Forty per cent of Americans admitted to not having read a book last year. Perhaps they didn’t have the time or perhaps they didn’t feel like there was a reason. But it’s about personal growth. Like fitness, books train your brain and give you strength where dumbbells and squats don’t.