Learning a New Skill

Whenever I set out to learn a new skill, I generally prefer to have someone show me how its done first while explaining how they do it. Then I try to copy them as best as I can, which inevitably means I make mistakes but that’s okay because the only way to learn is by making mistakes (even though making mistakes is rarely fun, especially embarrassing ones).

Interestingly enough, this isn’t how I learned to write fiction. I didn’t have someone show me how to do it. I just sat down one day and started writing really awful fanfiction (that I cannot find anywhere at the moment). Of course, since then I’ve read countless books, articles, blogs, and videos on the art, craft, and business of fiction writing, but I’ve never had a teacher or mentor of any sort, even though I find the idea of a writing mentor really cool. I’m self-taught, I suppose you could say.

I’m not exactly sure why I like hands-on learning best. I guess it’s because I find explanations and instructions, even well-written ones, difficult to follow. I’ve always appreciated having someone show me how to do it and then letting me try to copy how they did it, even if it means messing up. It’s probably because explanations and instructions, whether verbal or written, are more open to interpretation than watching or doing something yourself, and misinterpreting instructions can cause a lot of grief for everyone involved (especially on projects that require following the instructions to the letter).

This preference for hands-on learning extends to teaching as well. Whenever I have to teach someone something, I usually show them how to do it while explaining what I am doing. I then let them try it themselves; after all, how else am I going to know if they learned something if I never let them try it?

What is your learning style?

The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam

The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam is a checklist of fantasy clichés that, according to the writers of the exam, all fantasy writers should be required to use. It’s obviously facetious, but it has a lot of good questions any fantasy writer should take into account when writing a fantasy novel, so I recommend at least reading through it.

I decided to put my NaNo novel, The Mad Voyage of Prince Malock, through it and I thought I’d share my answers here, just for fun:

1.Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?

Let’s see . . . no. A character tries to commit suicide, two characters have sex, two characters get into a fight, and other characters are kidnapped by a tribe of savages. Hardly what I’d call ‘nothing.’

2.Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?

No. He’s an old fisherman from a backwater island on the fringe of human civilization.

3.Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?

No. One of my main characters is the heir to the throne of his kingdom, but already knows it.

4.Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?

No. There’s not even a supreme bad guy, although they do run into a few unseemly fellows on their adventures.

5.Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?

No magical artifacts here, sorry.

6.How about one that will destroy it?


7.Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?

No. That’d be boring.

8.Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?

No. Such a character is more of a plot device than a character, in my opinion, and so I would never seriously use a character like that in my novel (or in any of my stories, for that matter).

9.Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise?


10.Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?

There is no evil supreme bad guy. Try again.

11.Is the king of your world a kindly king duped by an evil magician?

No kings, whether kindly or otherwise.

12.Does “a forgetful wizard” describe any of the characters in your novel?

Bifor is hardly what I’d call forgetful. He’s probably the smartest person on the ship.

13.How about “a powerful but slow and kind-hearted warrior”?


14.How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?

Uh, no? That would be stupid.

15.Do the female characters in your novel spend a lot of time worrying about how they look, especially when the male main character is around?

Why should they?

16.Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?

Hell no to the tenth power.

17.Do any of your female characters exist solely to embody feminist ideals?

Nope. Nothing against feminism. I just think a character should be more than their beliefs.

18.Would “a clumsy cooking wench more comfortable with a frying pan than a sword” aptly describe any of your female characters?


19.Would “a fearless warrioress more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan” aptly describe any of your female characters?


20.Is any character in your novel best described as “a dour dwarf”?

Dwarves don’t exist in my world, unless you’re using “dwarf” to describe an unusually short human being. So no.

21.How about “a half-elf torn between his human and elven heritage”?

No elves, sorry.

22.Did you make the elves and the dwarves great friends, just to be different?

See answers to 20 and 21.

23.Does everybody under four feet tall exist solely for comic relief?

No. That would be stupid.

24.Do you think that the only two uses for ships are fishing and piracy?

If I did, the plot of my novel couldn’t work. So no.

25.Do you not know when the hay baler was invented?

Why does it matter?

26.Did you draw a map for your novel which includes places named things like “The Blasted Lands” or “The Forest of Fear” or “The Desert of Desolation” or absolutely anything “of Doom”?

I hate drawing fantasy maps, so no. And I made sure to give most of the islands real names, so still no.

27.Does your novel contain a prologue that is impossible to understand until you’ve read the entire book, if even then?

Of course not.

28.Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?

It’s a standalone.

29.How about a quintet or a decalogue?

See 28.

30.Is your novel thicker than a New York City phone book?


31.Did absolutely nothing happen in the previous book you wrote, yet you figure you’re still many sequels away from finishing your “story”?

It’s a standalone. There are no previous books.

32.Are you writing prequels to your as-yet-unfinished series of books?

No prequels, either.

33.Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?


34.Is your novel based on the adventures of your role-playing group?

I don’t have a role-playing group.

35.Does your novel contain characters transported from the real world to a fantasy realm?

No way. This world exists independently of ours. I don’t usually enjoy “people from Earth come to Fantasyland” kinds of stories anyway.

36.Do any of your main characters have apostrophes or dashes in their names?

I would have to turn in my author badge if I even considered doing that.

37.Do any of your main characters have names longer than three syllables?

I don’t think so, no.

38.Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named “Tim Umber” and “Belthusalanthalus al’Grinsok”?

I see plenty wrong with it and I avoid it in my stories.

39.Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings?

No, no, no, and of course not.

40.How about “orken” or “dwerrows”?

Let’s not be stupid here, okay?

41.Do you have a race prefixed by “half-“?

I can’t think of any reason a race — even one composed of, say, half-human/half-elf hybrids — would voluntarily use the “half-” prefix in their name, so no.

42.At any point in your novel, do the main characters take a shortcut through ancient dwarven mines?

Kind of hard to do on the high seas.

43.Do you write your battle scenes by playing them out in your favorite RPG?

Pull the other one.

44.Have you done up game statistics for all of your main characters in your favorite RPG?

Why would I ever do that?

45.Are you writing a work-for-hire for Wizards of the Coast?

Uh, no.

46.Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls?

No inns, so no.

47.Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?

I don’t understand feudalism, so no.

48.Do your characters spend an inordinate amount of time journeying from place to place?

Now this might actually apply to my novel, considering all the traveling involved. Really depends on how you definie “inordinate,” but they rarely take more than a few weeks to a month to get from island to island, which doesn’t seem at all inordinate to me when you take into account all the hazards ships face on the open seas.

49.Could one of your main characters tell the other characters something that would really help them in their quest but refuses to do so just so it won’t break the plot?

Of course not.

50.Do any of the magic users in your novel cast spells easily identifiable as “fireball” or “lightning bolt”?

One character did. I don’t think this means I have to throw out the entire book, though, because it was a one time thing and is never used again for the rest of the novel.

51.Do you ever use the term “mana” in your novel?


52.Do you ever use the term “plate mail” in your novel?


53.Heaven help you, do you ever use the term “hit points” in your novel?

Why in the world would I ever — and I mean EVER — use “hit points” in a novel that has nothing to do with video games?

In case that wasn’t clear enough, the answer is no.

54.Do you not realize how much gold actually weighs?

It’s pretty heavy. Ingots are 25 pounds. Don’t see what this has to do with my novel, though, considering gold is never used.

55.Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?


56.Does anybody in your novel fight for two hours straight in full plate armor, then ride a horse for four hours, then delicately make love to a willing barmaid all in the same day?


57.Does your main character have a magic axe, hammer, spear, or other weapon that returns to him when he throws it?

This isn’t Thor fanfiction, so no.

58.Does anybody in your novel ever stab anybody with a scimitar?

No one even uses a scimitar, so no.

59.Does anybody in your novel stab anybody straight through plate armor?


60.Do you think swords weigh ten pounds or more? [info]

No. I imagine their weight varies depending on the kind of sword being used.

61.Does your hero fall in love with an unattainable woman, whom he later attains?

One is gay; the other already has the woman he wants. So no.

62.Does a large portion of the humor in your novel consist of puns?

Uh, no.

63.Is your hero able to withstand multiple blows from the fantasy equivalent of a ten pound sledge but is still threatened by a small woman with a dagger?

No. That would be a bit silly.

64.Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?

I have no idea how many arrows in the chest it takes to kill a man. Might be worth researching it, now that I think about it.

65.Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an “on the road” meal?

If you have a kitchen on board your ship, complete with all the necessary equipment and supplies, a stew certainly doesn’t seem like a poor choice for an “on the road” meal to me. Guess it depends on how you travel and what kind of resources you have available.

66.Do you have nomadic barbarians living on the tundra and consuming barrels and barrels of mead?


67.Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer”?


68.Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?

I tried to avoid it, so no.

69.Is the best organized and most numerous group of people in your world the thieves’ guild?

That would be weird, so no.

70.Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death?


71.Is your story about a crack team of warriors that take along a bard who is useless in a fight, though he plays a mean lute?

A bard character might be interesting, but that’s not what the story is about, no.

72.Is “common” the official language of your world?

I do have a language called “Northern Common,” but it is only spoken by humans and even then not all of them speak it all the time. So it’s not.

73.Is the countryside in your novel littered with tombs and gravesites filled with ancient magical loot that nobody thought to steal centuries before?

There is no countryside, at least no one countryside, so no.

74.Is your book basically a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings?

I don’t recall “The Lord of the Rings” being about a ship sailing to the end of the world, so no.

75.Read that question again and answer truthfully.

I don’t recall “The Lord of the Rings” being about a ship sailing to the end of the world, so no.

Obviously, this exam in no way tells me whether my fantasy novel is good or not, but it was fun to take and has given me a few ideas for the second draft, so I don’t regret using it.

What do you think about the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam? Have you used it? Do you even want to use it? How does your novel do when compared to the exam?


Are you writing a story or building a world?

Several years back, I tried my hand at writing what I planned to be a five book epic science-fantasy series (that I might still write some day, so I won’t share too many details here to avoid spoilers).

Because this was my first serious attempt at writing an original story (up until then I had written mostly fanfiction), I was determined not to go in blind. So I took a long time to worldbuild, crafting world after world, character after character, culture after culture, all with the intent of making the best imaginary universe I could for my series. It would be even better than the Star Wars universe or the Star Trek universe or any of the other countless detailed fictional universes out there. Okay, maybe not better than any of those, but it would certainly be great.

When I decided I had done enough worldbuilding, I sat down to write the first book in the series. And I did; I wrote a few drafts, changing details that didn’t make sense to me, doing what any writer does when working on a novel, the usual stuff, you know.

And then, after the third or fourth draft, I just lost interest in the series.

I still have the drafts, still have all the worldbuilding notes. I haven’t tossed any of it away and frankly I don’t want to because I might still return to it someday.

I just don’t want to write it. Even though I couldn’t wait to write it before, it has been years since I last wrote about any of the characters or worlds I made (although I have borrowed a few ideas and names because I liked them a lot). Why did this happen?

I believe this happened because I lost sight of the series’ heart. I got so caught up in worldbuilding that I forgot this very essential, basic fact: That I was writing a story, not building a world.

To be sure, worldbuilding is highly important in speculative fiction. I don’t disagree with that. It’s just that I forgot that I was creating a world for the story, not the world for its own sake. As fun as worldbuilding is, to the speculative fiction writer, one must always ask the question, “Does this help the story?”

Some people worldbuild for the sake of worldbuilding. And if that helps, sure, go ahead. Have fun. I have a lot of fun doing it, too, at least when I’m on a roll.

But not all of us find worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding so wonderful. Remember what we’re doing here; we’re writing speculative fiction. Not world guides. Not gaming manuals. Not Wikis. Not histories. Fiction. Stories. Adventures. Art. Life, even, if you want to go that far.

Worldbuilding is a tool and should be treated as such. In my inexperience, I lost sight of the story for the sake of making more and more detailed worldbuilding notes on subjects that weren’t even important to my story. I unconsciously treated worldbuilding as an end in itself. And it killed my series as a result. Or at least put it into a coma that it has yet to awaken from.

My advice to all speculative fiction writers out there, to beginners and veterans alike, is this: When you find yourself getting lost in worldbuilding, ask yourself, “Am I writing a story or building a world for its own sake?”

The answer will determine what you should do next.

What about you, my readers? What have your experiences been with worldbuilding? Do you like worldbuilding? How much worldbuilding is enough and how much is too little? Post your thoughts in the comments!