Writing a Fantasy Series.Jun 06, 2021
Bestselling Fantasy Author Tricia Levenseller explains:
- Start with a hero or heroine (make them a fierce badass i.e. a girl monster slayer)
- Pick your sub-genre (i.e. high fantasy, urban fantasy, dystopian, sword and sorcery, dark fantasy...)
- Forget about what the market wants and write for you
- Have your cake and eat it; combine the things you love your way
- Build a world that works for your combo
- Drive the plot according to your main character's overt and covert wants and needs
- Add the familiar fantasy element or trope - literally pick a preference: (i.e the chosen one, the dark lord, talking animals, the mentor, medieval magic (unicorns, elves etc.)
- Divide the quest, story or quite literally the map of the world into parts
When I decided to try writing a book for the first time, I’d been given this horrible piece of advice: write what you know. I was seventeen years old. I didn’t know what I was doing, only that I had a love of books and reading. For a school project, I decided to try my hand at writing the beginning of a novel. So, like the beginner I was, I followed the advice I was given.
Being a girl in high school, my book was, naturally, about a girl in high school. That’s what I knew. It was a contemporary romance, because even in my early attempts at writing, I couldn’t figure out how to write a book without romance. It had no plot. It had no driving force. It was just me rambling about this girl and all the things she hated about school.
To give seventeen-year-old Tricia some credit, she managed to write 40,000 words on that project, which is impressive given the fact that the novel lacked said plot. That first attempt at a novel also featured a lengthy prologue that had no relevance to the story whatsoever and a rather unfortunate meet-cute in a public bathroom. Thank goodness, it will never see the light of day.
Because I petered out. The story became uninteresting to me after a while, so I stopped. I got another idea for a different contemporary romance and started that one. This time, I only made it about 15,000 words before I became bored with it.
Then I went to college. Life got really hard, and I put my full focus into my schooling. When I went to visit home for the summer, Mom and I made a deal: she wouldn’t make me get a summer job if I finished a book. I was suffering from some pretty serious anxiety at the time, so I jumped at the opportunity.
And I tried something new. I gave myself permission to write what I didn’t know. I crafted an urban fantasy about a girl who discovers she’s the only female of her half-demon, half-human race. On top of that, she’s a monster slayer with special abilities.
That’s when I discovered my true calling: fantasy and action/adventure. Because I finished that book in five months, edited it for four months, queried it for three days, waited on an agent to read it for two weeks, and then boom: nineteen-year-old Tricia had an agent for her urban fantasy book titled The Curse of Beauty.
But life never turns out the way we expect.
I had an agent who was subpar, at best, in his enthusiasm in finding a publisher for my book. A year went by; nobody wanted it.
I wrote a second book, a high fantasy, where I discovered that I much prefer writing in made-up worlds rather than the real world, which was an important realization. I’m so glad that first book never sold because I would be stuck as an urban fantasy writer. (Publishers like to brand you early and keep you in your lane.)
Alas, book two also never sold. Book three was flat out rejected by my agent. It never went out to publishers, which turned out to be a good thing in its own way, because then I started book four.
I decided to forget worrying about what my agent would like or what I thought publishers wanted. I allowed myself to write something just for me.
And what I wanted to write was a pirate book. Specifically, a pirate book with fantasy elements and romance and action/adventure and humour—all the things I love most in stories.
So I began to plot.
I loved the idea of a girl getting kidnapped by pirates, and I also loved the idea of a female pirate captain, who is a total badass. At first, I struggled to think of how I could put the two concepts together. How could a girl who is a capable pirate also get kidnapped? Then I decided that this pirate girl wanted to get kidnapped. In fact, she orchestrates the whole thing because there’s a treasure map on an enemy pirate’s ship that she needs to get her hands on.
I like princess stories, so I thought What the heck? Why not make her a princess, too? Then I had to figure out the logistics of a pirate monarchy. How that would work, what it would look like, how was it even feasible. In order to have a pirate king, I needed to create a world with a lot of water. That’s how the Seventeen Isles were born. I needed to craft a kingdom that depended on sea travel for trade, travel, and basically everything else. The pirate king has a monopoly on the sea. Anyone who wants to sail on his ocean has to pay a toll or suffer the consequences.
So I had a world, a plot and the main character—what I still had left to figure out was the fantasy element.
I thought about the most common things I see in sea stories: mermaids, the kraken, selkies, etc. What I hadn’t seen a lot of were sirens. When I decided I would use them, I had to figure out how to work them into my already existing world and plot.
The thing I like most about sirens is the fact that they lure men into the water with the power of their singing. They have their way with them and then drown them. Which is both horrifying and awesome. But how did this fit with a pirate girl looking to find a treasure map? And then it came to me. What if sirens also stole anything shiny off a sailor’s body after drowning him? What if sirens were like dragons in the sense that they hoarded treasure? What if that treasure map that my pirate girl is looking for leads to the siren treasure?
Then I took it even further because I knew I wanted this story to be a series.
What if this treasure map was split into three parts? What if three different pirate lords were each in possession of a piece of the map? Book one would cover acquiring the first piece.
Everything fell into place so perfectly. I wrote my first published novel, Daughter of the Pirate King in four months. Edited it for two months. Got a new agent in another four months. Went on submission for eight months before a publisher wanted to buy it. I had initially pitched the idea as a trilogy, but my publisher would only buy two books, so I condensed books two and three into one book, which became the sequel, Daughter of the Siren Queen.
Now I’m five books into my career. I still write high fantasy. Sometimes standalones, sometimes series, but always stories rife with fantasy, adventure, and romance. I’m writing what I love, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s so much more entertaining than writing what I know, because, for me, books are my escape. It is my greatest hope that my readers enjoy escaping into my worlds, too.
From the Desk of Tricia Levenseller.
(Read on to find out more about Fantasy Tropes from our author tutor Katie Khan.)
Tricia Levenseller is the bestselling author of six YA fantasy books, including The Shadows Between Us and the Daughter of the Pirate King duology. Her latest novel is Blade of Secrets. She will be our guest for a Live Author Session on Monday, July 12th at 6 pm BST.
From the Desk of Our Author Tutor, Katie Khan:
Of Tropes and Trends in Fantasy.
Modern fantasy fiction is heading into exciting places – both metaphorically and geographically. Fantasy novels based on non-European cultures are breaking out in a big way: take a look at Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, Jade City by Fonda Lee, and The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, which are brilliant examples of the genre.
Think carefully before you reach for a medieval English or European setting for your novel, as these have been done to death by everyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. Martin, and it’s hard to bring something fresh to such a well-established time and place that readers have seen many times before… and I’m afraid the same is also true of Celtic mythology.
What can you twist, to make your novel setting feel different and new? Or is there somewhere you have personal experience of, and a deep understanding of the culture, which could inspire a new fantasy analogue, particularly a place that’s not often seen in fiction?
As Tricia has so brilliantly written herself, there is definitely a current trend for pirate stories, particularly featuring female leads taking to the high seas – I ripped through Fable by Adrienne Young, which was a Reese Witherspoon YA book club pick, and the sequel is published in the UK next week. I think this speaks to a larger trend of female adventurers dominating parts of society that have previously belonged to men: pirates, assassins, thieves. The main characters don’t always have to be criminals, but it sure is fun to read!
Fairytale retellings are also having a moment, but as they’ve been popular for a while the new wave tends to have a radical take, often centring on characters who have previously been pushed to the margins – for example, Malice by Heather Walter is a sapphic retelling of Sleeping Beauty, in which the female villain is in love with the princess. It’s wonderful to see LGBTQIA representation coming through in this genre louder than ever before.
Tropes in fantasy fiction aren’t always a bad thing: regular genre readers will have certain expectations, but it’s up to you as the author to decide how you fulfil them. Any twist or subversion on iconic tropes such as the Chosen One or the Prophesy will be appreciated by a well-read reader – Denis Villeneuve’s recent film Blade Runner 2049 had an eye-opening twist on the well-trodden 'Chosen One' path.
What could you do with yours?
There’s never been a better time to write fantasy fiction. The genre offers the opportunity to say something about the world we live in, but to tell it through the thin veil of allegory. It’s one step removed from our society, and often escapist and joyous in its imagery, but almost always revealing and startlingly relevant about people and history and where we’re going next.
For a useful listing of tropes take a look here.
If you're writing fantasy, you'll find our famous Classic Course will inspire you to put that story on steroids, mining your own fiction passions and pairing your interests with the archetypes, tropes and techniques of the all-time bestsellers to help you with your world-building and story planning to prepare for a fierce fantasy! Join us on The Book in a Year Plan which begins with the Classic Course and will see you all the way through completing your novel, with an author tutor at your side, as you scope out your series.