How to write fantasy for children

“Don’t put in a Gandalf”, and other thoughts from Eoin Colfer.

That was actually quite entertaining - I may even have to read his take on H2G2 one day…

P.S. Was that a plaster on his nose?

Particularly liked his first point: give your magician (or your hero, or whomever) a weakness, a shortcoming. Superman started out great, then ran into the same problem; if he could do any/everything, there was no challenge, no antagonist. Enter kryptonite et al stage right.

Weakness or flaw in the protagonist keeps the narrative alive.

It’s barely possible that a vaguely similar point could be made about drama. Or novels.


It just seems weird that most writers say, “Don’t write a book that you think will sell,” then they say, “know your audience and write a book they will want to read.” So, am I suppose to write a book that everyone wants to read, but no one is willing to pay for? Both are good advice, I would assume, even though those two statements back to back seem logically flawed.

I think there definitely is a difference between the two, though there is a fairly large area of overlap where books address both statements in part. To me these two statements revolve around the attitude one should take. Consider this, if I’m writing documentation for a piece of software, knowing my audience is an integral part of that process. If I spend pages and pages digressing on the technical guts of something it will neither be enjoyable (unless one is a programmer, perhaps) nor useful. In this particular case, there is very little to do with money, but producing something that is informative and “aware” of the audience is vital to the success of the documentation. In the same trade, but in the spectrum of cash mongers, walk down the computer aisle in a bookstore some time and see how many third-rate “Learn Quantum Computing in 24 Hours!!” books there are. A percentage of these are okay, but clearly many of them have been written to cash in on some fad technology and are a waste of everyone’s time.

The same came be applied to other areas of writing as well. While the word audience does certainly conjure a degree of “shaping one’s vision”, and can be abused, I don’t think it is as necessarily negative as shaping one’s vision (or discarding it altogether) to spew out Part Fifty-Three of some heavily over-worn saga that hasn’t seen a novel trait in ten years.

To come back around to your query: I see it as perhaps three modes of priority here. Writing for some purpose (knowing your audience), writing for cash, and writing for art. In my mind, writing for a purpose is a bit of a blend between the latter two. it is recognising that one needs to eat, and that to do so effectively with words, one needs to shape their writing so as to reach as many as possible, but not at the total abandonment of “art”.

Behind this contradiction is the #1 reason businesses fail: Personal feelings. It boils down to this, your personal feelings about your produced product have no real relevance to true value of the book. Just because you think it will sell does not mean that anyone will buy it. The only meaning is that YOU would buy it. We see this often on these forums. Folks telling KB what scrivener “really needs” to be a killer app for writers.

What I find is that success seems to follow a dispassionate view of your product. If it is software, artwork, carpentry, writing, the making of widgets, if you can look at it with out “feeling” then your chance of success is much higher.

Just because I like to see myself talk let me use one sentence to set a scene and illustrate my point using writing as the backdrop.

Your submission to a house is accepted, but the editor wants you to change

  1. The names of all the main characters
  2. The outcome of the plot
  3. The title

If you are here to make money I suspect you shrug your shoulders and start editing. If you “wrote what you thought would sell” you scream and holler defaming the linage of the idiot that dares tell you how to write your book.

I suppose it all depends on how you see your audience. If you aim just to please the biggest audience, you will be forced to focus all your tools on the easiest sell: the things that push the biggest, simplest, most primitive buttons we all share: conflict for conflict’s sake, sex and violence for titillation, cliched language for for ease and familiarity, description for moviegoers stuck on the beach, characters sketched for superficial identification, story that just pulls your audience headlong into “what happens next?”, even originality for the mere “shock of the new” . You are writing pages to be turned rather than savoured.

What are the alternatives?

For one, you could try to chase the Long Tail. Try to find the smaller audience that wants, that perhaps needs to hear what you have to say. If you’re lucky this might map fairly well to what AmberV calls “writing with purpose.” For all our whining, writers have never had it better. We have instantaneous access not only to unlimited information but to vast riches of knowledge. We can carry all the work of our forebears in a pocket. Not only can we “write what you know”, we have infinite opportunities to know something interesting. We have read, heard, seen, even lived a million stories to draw from. And we have an unprecedented opportunity to reach a profitable enough percentage of a small audience. An opportunity to at least make a living, make a life, by writing.

Or you could struggle for critical recognition. Good work can achieve the prize, get the reviews, be read by thousands for the pleasure of it and bought by millions for its renown. But not one great novelist sweats blood daily with the sole purpose of winning the Booker prize. In the moment of creation, she has to be doing it for the thing itself - she must be responding to the screaming demands of the work itself - or she will not produce great work. End of story. The Booker is icing on the cake. In any case, even for critical success, good work may be necessary but it’s surely not sufficient. The Booker winner had a great publicist, the Tony winner stumbled into his niche on Broadway, the Oscar winner won because she was cast in a half-decent film about the issue of the month – and besides, it was her turn.

You could try to make “ART”: to find your own niche in that large part of the “ART” world that feeds on itself. Where work is only comprehensible in terms of other work, paintings feed off each other, poems are part of a school, artists have personas. But at this rarefied end of the art spectrum, you might paradoxically find yourself having to make the same compromises as the bestseller: shock for shock’s sake, peddling visceral experiences that may well be fashionably confusing but are somehow empty. Playing man of the people while sneering at the world for not understanding you: I could give a fuck about Tracey Emin’s self, much less her “self expression.”

Best of all IMHO- you can believe it’s possible to make art that whispers to some small, best part of the “common man”. You can attempt to create work that seeks out the dangerous, the difficult, the perhaps small, specific yet universal truths. For art is not as unlike science as we’d like to think, it is an attempt to unearth some sort of truth - however provisional. The main difference, as Douglas Hofstadter points out, is that science is about classes of things, whereas art is about specific ones. Though it’s foolish to overestimate the public’s level of culture, it’s cowardly to underestimate their intelligence. So you can make a thousand specific daily choices in your work that will play not to our common stupidities and vanities, but to our shared intelligence and sensitivity. Choose to challenge, surprise, to fascinate your audience in ways they didn’t know were possible. Make them think and feel differently. That is art. And it is possible.

Writers who just try to write bestsellers or express their neuroses through their “ART” are in the same position as crack dealers who live with their moms - legions vainly battling to be one of the few big cheeses - as if status was the whole and only point of life.

So with all due respect (seriously!), I’d reorder AmberV’s pritorities: try to make “art” in such a way that you have enough of a real audience to survive and make more. Leave the bestsellers and “ART” to the suckers for fame.

An interesting debate.

I think there’s no real conflict. The first statement is quite opaque. Perhaps it would be clearer if it said: “Don’t write a book simply because you think it will sell.” Often you’ll be wrong anyway, as Colfer states.

Personally I feel certain that the motivation for a lot of writing, particularly great writing, lies purely within the writer. I blame the parents. :wink:


I’ve seen authors make these statement a lot, and I think it really boils down to advice on how to write the best book that you can write.

If you go about it trying to shoe-horn yourself into a niche that you’re not suited to write, then you’ll fail. So if you’re a real-world fiction writer, and you get it into your head that you should write the next Harry Potter because that’s what sells, you’re going about it with the wrong attitude.

Writing for a specific audience on the other hand, can help you focus your writing. Neil Gaiman, for instance, probably had young adults (or maybe just one of his daughters at a particular age) in mind when he wrote Coraline. He probably had another set of readers in mind for American Gods, and yet another audience for the Sandman graphic novels. They’re all the best books he could have written at the time, but they definitely were written for different audiences.

That’s what I’ve taken from the advice you paraphrase. Although what I’ve taken to hear is slightly different: “Don’t try to write a book that will make you rich, but do write a book that you’d like to read.”