This is part of a letter I wrote to a client and friend last night that I thought a few of you might benefit from. It concerns writing in the fantasy genre and how one ought to maneuver in order to find success.
I was thinking about your project this evening and came to a question that should have an answer: What does your project say that your audience needs and wants to hear? The closest answer is a given, that you speak to a child’s sense of wonder. However, that’s genre-broad and won’t on its own seize a publishing deal, no matter how successfully you fulfill that objective. The fantasy genre is so flooded with books that in order to succeed one much find a niche, much like an sponge grabbing onto a crevice in the ocean floor. Otherwise any book is just a floating homeless thing waiting for an opportunity to root, which necessarily comes before flourishing.
Take the Harry Potter series, which I know you like, as a case study. The popularity of the series did not start with the first book nor the second. Both were fairly run-of-the-mill stories that were lucky to find a publisher; they had symptoms of something larger, such as Harry’s distrust of authority via Snape, but the driving force of the series was wholly undeveloped and ephemeral.
The third book held the foundations for what really made the series work later on. Larger branches of authority than school administrators were offered; real-world weight became attached to the consequences of Harry’s failure or success. The Prizoner of Azkaban stepped beyond the scope of the schoolyard into the world at large, and a fairly metropolitan world at that, offering students what they so long for in an age whose marketing and art are so overly focused on them: importance and a place in the world’s troubles. Children can sense, in my opinion, that the world is shrinking before them, and even if they can’t, it’s certainly a message that their parents would want them to hear.
After the development of the Ministry of Magic and the mythology behind the characters, stepping into problems of the culture became the order of the day, such as Hermoine broaching classism (or perhaps slavery, depending on which side of the pond you’re addressing the question to), awkward social dynamics, and tools through which one can challenge authority. That all of these structures were well developed and paralleled feasibly actual-world problems simply heightened the draw of readers of all ages into the story.
The problem is not one of artistry but of thoughtfulness. If you see how your world connects with the real world, you can exploit it in your writing to the delight of your fans; nobody how poorly this is done, your readership will appreciate the effort and the depth.
For another example of this same point, take Terry Goodkind, a favorite of my adolescence (alongside Heinlein and Barnes) whose books have been mentioned as offering one of the best-developed fantasy worlds since Tolkien. To whatever extent that claim may be true (his world, perhaps in the beginning, was seen to a limited extent, but by the fifth book had grown too large and unwieldy), I would argue that his success hinged on his ethical messages inside the text. Indeed, the title of the first book in the series was The Wizard’s First Rule, clearly outlining that the books would focus on a series of rules dictating how one ought to live ones life. This caught my attention easily according to my nature, but I suspect that many adolescent boys just like me clung to the masculine figure of Richard Cypher and the short, too-the-point rules he came into contact with. That this episodic tool failed Goodkind in the end by becoming too demanding and dogmatic seems inevitable in hindsight, but it’s just the sort of depth that the audience will be looking for, hence that an editor will be looking for. It is that well-discussed but seldom hit-upon force called the niche.