It took me a long time to be able to admit to people that I was a writer. When people asked, I felt compelled to give them some answer that sounded more like a “real” job, whatever those are. There are two reasons for this, as I’m sure many of you know. Because there are two reactions that we all get when we finally have that courage to proclaim, “I am a writer.”
The first is that sort of apologetic, “Oh.” As if we had some kind of terminal disease and should really be in a home being cared for. After all, we obviously couldn’t get one of those “real” jobs everyone seems so proud of. Never mind that we almost certainly do have a “real” job and are simply choosing not to identify ourselves with the part of our life we’d rather wasn’t there at all. The benefit of this response is that if there are any follow-up questions, they are generally half-hearted and the conversation quickly turns to something less awkward for the other person. Like politics or religion.
The second reaction is that “Oh!” of awe that we’re never quite sure is feigned or not. It is usually followed by questions very similar to those of the above reaction, only a modicum of interest is actually shown. Unfortunately, we are also more likely to get some of the more frustrating or downright depressing questions like, “Hey, I have a great idea for a book you should write,” or, “Have you sold anything yet?” or even, “Have I heard of you? Do I know any of your books?”
However, the most interesting response I’ve ever received to self-declaring as a fantasy writer was, “So what makes you qualified to write fantasy?”
This response was so unexpected and, frankly, original that at the time I had absolutely no idea how to respond. I could understand where he was coming from. I mean, if you write about cooking, you better be a dang good chef. If you write about cars, you better know how an engine works backward and forward. And if I’m going to take the advice you give me in your self-help book, I want to know you have some kind of education that makes you a trustworthy authority on re-assembling (or at the very least polishing) people’s lives. So by his thinking, if you write fantasy, there must be something that makes you qualified to do so.
I frankly have no idea what I said. I probably mumbled something incoherent and then changed the subject. But now, with some time to think about it and no one staring at me waiting for an answer, I’ve come up with a few items.
1) Have an imagination. This would seem like a no-brainer, but the more I talk to average people the more I see that it isn’t. I think it has to do with the “real” job predicament. Imaginations are distracting. They are time-consuming. And to most people they just don’t fulfill any real purpose, especially when it comes to getting that job that pays six figures. (Which seems to be the mandatory goal everyone must have in life.) Children are all too often encouraged to leave those pesky imaginations behind and focus on the things that really matter. They must, “get serious.” Now I’m not knocking having goals as a teen, that’s essential. And I’m not against people making lots of money. As long as that is what they want. Not what someone else tells them they should want. Really, I could write a whole other blog on imagination. Let’s just say, that if you don’t have one, you’re not going to get far as a writer of any kind, and especially Fantasy.
2) Be able to track a million tiny points of minutia that you have created over years. Fantasy includes more world-building than any other genre. Everywhere else, you can pull from science, historical fact, and general public consciousness to keep your reader informed. Fantasy uses all of these to an extent, but cannot rely on any of them. Have a new race? You better know everything there is to know about that race, even if you never tell the reader straight out. Because all of those minute details inform things that other characters do and say. Magic? You better know exactly how it works, who can use it, why, how, how they learn, what the cost is. Everything must be designed by you. Oh, and did I mention that if anything you design or invent resembles too closely something someone else created, that you will be decried as a hack and your work dismissed as derivative. Even if you didn’t know the other person’s work existed!
3) Read Fantasy. Lots of it. A no-brainer, right? Perhaps. But it is surprising how many people don’t. But without doing so, you don’t know what works, or what doesn’t. You don’t know what’s been done, overdone, or never done at all. Reading is just vital. However, I’ll give you a hint for free. Ready? It’s all been done. All of it. It’s just a matter of doing it slightly differently.
So that’s it. My qualifications for being a fantasy writer. Sound easy? Then maybe I should add on a fourth. Write! Because you’ll never be a writer if you don’t actually write. And when someone asks you what you do. Stick your chest out, raise your head, and proclaim it proudly. “I am a writer.”