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The Exam for Fantasy Novelists

November 11, 2010

Image from Wikimedia

A friend of mine sent me the link to this article through Facebook, and I found it highly entertaining as well as self-reflective, forcing me to look at my own writing.

The exam can be found here.  It consists of 75 questions for the fantasy author, essentially asking the central question of “Did you basically rip off Lord of the Rings or Narnia (or Robert Jordan)?”

It’s quite a funny read.  But it also makes a point about fantasy books–so much has been written since Tolkien that is set in the European forested setting with elves, dwarves/dwarfs, wizards, etc.  I don’t think we began to get away from that position probably until Marion Zimmer Bradley came onto the scene about twenty years ago with her very woman-centric books with females as the heroes rather than the males.  Even so, far too many amateur writers attempt to imitate Tolkien or Jordan or Lewis.  (I’m adding Jordan to the list because he was very much a Tolkien-esque writer and his series has been another huge influence on the fantasy scene.)  I once read a manuscript and, as much as I hate to say it, the manuscript was absolutely and unequivocally not publishable because it was essentially a rip-off of Tolkien.

I love Tolkien as much as the next hardcore fantasy fan.  But the “exam” does make a very valid point that new writers focus too much on emulating one of the greats because they think by doing so they will come up with a great novel that will be published and make them tons of money.

Not going to happen.

Most editors put such novels in the trash.  Harsh, but true.  No one wants to read something set in a new Middle Earth.  It’s been done, it’s been overdone, truth be told.  The first key to getting published?  Come up with something that is uniquely you.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have the setting be in a forest or a European landscape.  That doesn’t mean you can’t have elves or dwarves or giants.  It does mean that if you have those elements, you’d better have something else that is not in Tolkien/Lewis/Jordan.  Do not follow the tried-and-true formula presented by the Great Ones because no one wants to read it.

As for the exam, I disagree with a few of their points: numbers 28, 29, 35, 36, and 37.  What if I have a name that’s over three syllables (#37) but it’s a name like Vanessa (Va-ness-a)?  That’s a normal name but according to the exam I would fail.  *sad face*  And one of my characters–ONE–has an apostrophe in his name (#36).  I see nothing wrong with this, just as long as it’s not overused.   And, yes, my characters go between one world and another (#35).  By that logic, a number of very good, big-name authors (such as Anne Bishop, who has her characters world-jumping in Belladonna and Sebastian) would be disqualified.  I get the point that if you have world-hopping you could be copying C. S. Lewis, but I disagree that this particular convention can’t be done in a unique way.

As for #28 and 29, I don’t see any reason why you can’t at least have a short outline for a series.  It’s good to know where you’re trying to head.  I believe that even J. K. Rowling had some kind of basic outline in mind when she wrote Harry Potter.  Is she disqualified from the exam?

Anyway, those are my personal reservations about the “exam”, though it’s just meant for fun and poking fun.  Though it does also make a more serious point–new writers, make an effort to be more unique, rather than emulate the Great Ones.  Be your own Great One.

[And I spent a little more time on this topic than I intended.  Oh well!]

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