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My Struggle Writing an Epic Fantasy Novel: Knowing Your Calling

Updated on August 21, 2014
M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer is the author of four novels and received a Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing from Grand Valley State University.

To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird

I don't write literary fiction, but I recognize its merit. To Kill a Mockingbird is one example of exceptional literary fiction.

 

Knowing your calling

Another thing I didn’t anticipate when I first started writing fantasy was an intense personal struggle between the value of genre fiction versus the value of literary fiction. Anyone who has read my writing before will probably be familiar with this struggle, but it boils down to this: is genre fiction as important, intelligent and valuable as literary fiction? Genre fiction stories are the more popular types of books (fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.) and literary fiction is the stuff you generally read in school; think of books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men. The latter is what we tend to regard as ‘good writing’ whereas genre fiction tends to be thought of as afternoon reads without much value after the turn of the final page. This mentality was built into me at a very young age to the point that I felt all of the short stories I wrote for school had to be based in reality, otherwise they weren’t worth writing. It’s odd that I thought this way considering I loved reading and watching more fantasy oriented stories. I wasn’t able to break this mold until high school when I wrote a story about a man who became infused with steroids and soda pop to become a weird monster that attacked his colleagues. The story wasn’t all that great, but it helped me realize that writing speculative fiction (things that just aren’t possible) was possible.

I wrote pretty happily after that point, secure in the idea that I was finally writing what I wanted to write and was reading some pretty good literature about it. It wasn’t until I enrolled at a four-year university that I started questioning myself again. I had spent three years at a community college where my love of fantasy was encouraged, but as soon as I started at the state university, it was clear that genre fiction was out and literary fiction was in. I spent years reading literary fiction and hearing endlessly about its merits and endless interpretations. Not only that, but in the writing classes I was enrolled in, students were writing primarily literary fiction, with the occasional genre fiction story treated like a joke when peers would edit it. There were some exceptions to this rule, as there always are, but the stigma was unmistakable. Genre fiction was ‘cute’ but it wasn’t serious literature.

Other fantasy authors might not have as big of an issue with this as I did, but over and over again I questioned if what I was doing was mere fluff or if I was actually writing good literature. It wasn’t until after I finished at the university that teachers and classes began to embrace genre fiction slightly more. I think that a lot of the misconceptions about genre fiction come from generalizations. If you walked up to a literature professor and told them about a really thought provoking book involving orcs, he would probably laugh at you. It doesn’t matter if the book really is thought provoking, it has been tainted because it stars orcs instead of humans. Okay, some professors might still read it, but I met a few who would absolutely have refused. Many people think of genre fiction as the endless shelves at a used book store with title after title of romances with burly shirtless men on the cover. Or in the case of fantasy, elves, elves and more elves. But that does not define the genre, it is merely the face that is most often applied to it. Literary fiction just happens to have the luxury of having its generalized face be something people think is good anyway. Just because it’s literary fiction doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean it’s bad. Every genre has the same potential for greatness, and I would argue that every genre has exceeded its potential on equal levels to other genres. There is no one best genre; literary fiction does not deserve a free ride just because professors say so. Each book has a chance to prove itself to you, and every book should be given that chance.

So if you’re a new fantasy writer or a seasoned fantasy writer, never doubt your genre. If you enjoy writing in it, then you know that it has value. Don’t worry about what other people will say because your words will inspire and enchant other readers just like yourself.

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    • Ameraka profile image

      Evelyn 

      2 months ago from Wisconsin

      It's silly to think that science fiction and fantasy can't have the same literary value as "literary" fiction. Serious, reality-based dramas. There shouldn't be such a sharp delineation. It's artificial, anyway. There can be beautiful prose and wonderful imagery in a fantasy or scifi novel, just as in a regular "literary" novel. It's simply prejudice to think otherwise. Some classics of literature like Beowulf and the Odyssey have what we'd now call fantastical elements. They're not strict reality-based fiction! But they're undeniable classics. Writers of speculative fiction are NOT inferior. They can write just as deep and excellent books as others-- with the added factor of more creativity. They create worlds of their own, so in my opinion are more creative people than the ones who stick to realistic fiction. Maybe some people like that-- but I've always liked anything out of the ordinary. I get enough ordinary in real life--I want something new and different, which takes me to places I couldn't go in real life.

    • M. T. Dremer profile imageAUTHOR

      M. T. Dremer 

      4 years ago from United States

      no body - The great American novel is definitely a different concept today. The contrast between the novels I read in school versus the ones coming out today is pretty stark. However I think a lot of that comes from a flooded market. There are considerably more authors writing today than fifty years ago, particularly with the boom in e-publishing. I'm convinced that there is more great literature now, it's just harder to find. Thanks for the comment!

    • no body profile image

      Robert E Smith 

      4 years ago from Rochester, New York

      I have found that writing is writing... unless you have a purpose in your head. If you consider why people read and think to fill a basic need of an audience then notions of the "great American novel" may not be as important. I really don't know if the Great American even is alive anymore. People are drawn to some standard as they were in times past. Now if something is to your liking you do it until you don't like it anymore. If there is a consequence to the time spent or the activity done, people think to address that when it comes. In my opinion, it would be great if there was a standard but society is thinking that standards are too general and that people like me are old fashioned and outdated. The titles of "fundamentalist" and Bible banger" are thrown around so much that I usually get no chance to actually defend my stance at all in these matters. Another good one.

    • M. T. Dremer profile imageAUTHOR

      M. T. Dremer 

      5 years ago from United States

      mercuryservices - I have read On Writing; it's one of my favorite books. :) And I completely agree that good stories transcend genre. I think I've spent entirely too much time trying to please the literary side of things and not enough just focusing on what makes me happy. As a writer, we have to enjoy what we're doing or no one else will, regardless of the target audience. Thanks for the comment!

    • mercuryservices profile image

      Alex Munkachy 

      5 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

      MT, check out Stephen King's "On Writing" if you haven't already. He totally changed my ideas about genre fiction vs. literature. Personally I think that good writing is good writing, no matter what you call it. I think of literature as a genre in itself. Literature can be boring if it's a puzzle that you have to piece together to understand, but some people like to do that. Also some people like to read the same story about elfs killing dragons over and over again. Good stories transcend genre and are well-liked by everyone. Cheers, and happy writing!

    • M. T. Dremer profile imageAUTHOR

      M. T. Dremer 

      7 years ago from United States

      Sarah Beach - My biggest fear is having the work I've spent years perfecting, being dismissed because of a blanket stereotype (that genre fiction is fluff). Some critics/readers can be particularly brutal, reducing honest hard work to nothing more than 'examples of what not to do'. It's frustrating, but at the same time, it's part of the industry. If one wishes to become an author, they must be prepared to take negative, if not violent, feedback to counter the fans that appreciate the book. That's why it's so important to write for yourself first and your audience second. Thanks for the comment!

    • profile image

      Sarah Beach 

      7 years ago

      Genre literature can indeed qualify as "good literature" - it's just that a lot of it isn't such. But that shouldn't stop you from writing well in whatever genre you desire. I can understand your feelings about the matter, though. When I started college, my intention was to train myself as a writer, and I did not want to write what I characterized as "hack work". I wanted to write literature. And I felt to write it, I needed to study it. So I did.

      But if you really want to connect with those who treat well written fantasy with literary seriousness, you need to check out the Mythopoeic Society (www.mythsoc.org). It focuses primarily on the works of the Inklings (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and their friends) and then broadens out into fantasy in general.

    • M. T. Dremer profile imageAUTHOR

      M. T. Dremer 

      7 years ago from United States

      Elefanza - I don't think I've read any Gertrude Stein, but I know the name. One of my English professors mentioned her constantly. I met a number of people who claim that they were forced to read the Chronicles of Narnia in school, but I never got to read it, so I think they're either lying, or my school was just avoiding it. But anyway, I would love to see more genre fiction taught in both high school and college. My university was starting to get a little better, but it was after I had already graduated, so that wasn't much help. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. :D

    • Elefanza profile image

      Elefanza 

      7 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain

      I remember talking a class on Milton's Paradise Lost and listening to the professor talk about how she exchanged bitter arguments with scholars who wanted to study Tolkien. It was so depressing! I'm still mad at my English classes for not incorporating works like that ESPECIALLY because Tolkien's work was so influential. And I think the Inklings were much more influential than the the Bloomsbury group. Also, have you read Gertrude Stein? I had to read that for one of my English classes. Why? That book was complete nonsense! And I still don't know why HSers have to read Ethan Frome. In the into to House of Mirth, the editor even notes the misfortune of having HSers read that book! Aargh. I would like to continue my studies of writing and lit, but I am disappointed with the universities for being so prejudiced against genre fiction. It seems silly. Good hub by the way!

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