Friday, October 05, 2018

Review: "The Fantasy Fiction Formula" by Deborah Chester

I picked up Deborah Chester’s “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” ($19.95, Manchester University Press) about a year ago for the simple reason that it received such high praise from Jim Butcher, an author I admire greatly. He basically gave Chester credit for giving him the secret to success, which intrigued me.

I used to read “how to write” books with some regularity, but it’s been a long time since I cracked one. After a while much of the advice becomes repetitive and a bit boring. It seems there aren’t that many different ways to do it.

I started “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” about a year ago, and I wandered away from it. Mainly because in the early going there weren’t that many new ideas. It was all about planning your characters and knowing their motivations, desires and goals – things that have been covered over and over.

I recently picked it up again, this time determined to push through looking for some magical formula to help me get past my own personal block: I seem to be a natural novella writer. Every time I sit down to write a book, the finished product falls in the 35-45,000 word range. I’ve done it about five times now with the same result. In revisions, I end up trying to bulk it up to novel length, and I always feel that I’m just bloating it and the shorter version was much stronger. I was hoping for some sage advice to get me to that 60,000-plus word level.

If you’ve read a lot of these books, like I have, much of the advice you’ll find here, you’ve heard before. But it’s really when you get into the meat of “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” that some fresh perspectives begin to come out. They’re not necessarily new ideas, but different ways of looking at things we already know.

Chester stresses a scene-based character journey, where each scene pushes the protagonist harder and makes life tougher for him or her until you reach that final showdown between hero and villain. She also talks a lot about an action/reaction writing structure and the effective use of sequels to show the evolution of your character and move to the next scene.

She also offers some interesting insight on keeping the story moving and compelling through the “dismal middle,” which I think is something that all writers struggle with.

The advice itself seems familiar, but I came away with a slightly different view of how I look at my stories. Some of the things that Chester talks about, I do naturally. I’m sure many other writers do, as well. But how much more effective would our work be if we looked at those things with a critical eye and better planned them?

Chester offers exercises in each chapter of the book to either examine your own work or the work of a famous author – she particularly likes Butcher and J.K. Rowling – to find those patterns. These are quite helpful. It gives you a chance to see how successful authors handle the tools that she’s talking about and compare it to how you’re doing it. There’s definitely some food for thought.

So can Chester help me turn my novellas into the works that I want them to be? That remains to be seen, but she’s certainly given me some things to think about as I approach them again.

If you’re looking for the magic formula or roadmap to a great book, this really isn’t it. But you knew that already, didn’t you? There’s no magic bullet, just a lot of work. “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” will, however, give you a different perspective with which to focus on that work.

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