Writing Fantasy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating and Publishing Your Story

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The fantasy genre in literature, especially that of the Young Adult (YA) age group, is a constantly changing and maneuvering beast of new ideas, expanding themes, widening horizons, and tedious design—not only inside but outside of the book. 

Most of the time writers, even readers, have this image in their head that fantasy authors are simplistic, easygoing individuals, or pack rats with at least four cork boards covered in over a thousand post-it notes showing a clear line of story, interweaving plots, and character dialogues. But the truth of the matter is a fantasy author is the same as any other writer, aspiring or established. We have our minuscule rituals that vary between every person, but for me, I find myself being a mix of the two latterly mentioned writers. 

I focus on my plot, my characters, and specifically how the dialogue is going to progress a story or explain a mythology. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Before You Write Your Bestseller

When it comes to writing fantasy—whether you’ve drafted a 200,000-word contemporary manuscript or have yet to write the opening scene—don’t be intimidated or scared of the genre, or yourself. Too many times have I heard, “I’m not smart enough to write fantasy,” or even, “Fantasy is too complicated for me to write.” Both of these statements are just two of the thousands of excuses I’ve heard from fellow friends and writers, all of whom are talented and skilled in their work. 

I’ve heard even more justifications from aspiring authors who are too scared to write their book. Doesn’t that sound funny? Being scared of your own work. It happens a lot more than one would think. 

If you desire to write fantasy, the story and characters itching to crawl out of your head onto a clean empty page, I recommend first familiarizing yourself with the genre. 

I am all for drafting whatever is in your heart, and writing the story you want to write, but that needs to come alongside the research. Familiarize yourself with your age group: Adult (A), New Adult (NA), Young Adult (YA), and Middle Grade (MG).

For me (being a YA author), I focus most of my reading on Young Adult books, specifically fantasy. 

Reading is studying; it's practicing. Some authors say that while writing a book in a specific genre, don’t read books in that same genre simultaneously because it’ll affect your process, your story, and even your writing style. Some aspects of this are true, but as long as you focus on keeping your novel wholly your own and make a conscious effort to not be plagiarizing or copying an author’s style and work,  I actually recommend it. 

Think about it like research. Let's say you have to come up with a ten-page research paper on William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. You can write the paper after only reading the play itself, or you can enhance your understanding using outside sources, digging into scholarly and credible sources. What would you choose?

When familiarizing yourself with the genre, make sure to keep an eye on the cover, titles, and tropes—it’ll come in handy later. After becoming acquainted with fantasy in whatever age group you plan to write in, it's time to prepare your story. 

Preparing Your Story

I know this seems like a given, but be prepared for hardships, hiccups, and roadblocks in the plot or development of a novel, “plotblocks” as I like to call them. They can happen often when writing fantasy. Whether you’re a novice writer just dreaming of your future book or an established author who's already written nine bestselling novels, prepare your book. ALWAYS prepare your book. I feel like I can’t stress it enough.

There are two types of writing styles that are commonly spoken of in the industry: Plotters and Pantsers.

So what's the difference?

A plotter is a writer who outlines their story, chapters, and character arcs before even putting a word to the page. They plan the mythology, kingdoms, and their politics before the book has even begun. They’ve designed a map and pinned it to their wall so they could take strings of colored yarn, showing the path their characters will take throughout the book. 

I’m one of these. 

Then there are the Pantsers. These are writers who know very little about their plot, story, and subplots, but more about the characters and world. Maybe they haven’t done as intense developing as a Plotter, but they know enough to put words on the page. They let the story tell itself.

Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, you can still hit plotblocks. But if you prepare your story and research your imagination, then you shouldn’t hit too many, and if you do, they’ll be easier to fix. 

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My Beginning: Writing as a Pantser

I used to be a Pantser, but I believe that inside of all of us is a Plotter. Before I was enlightened with the beauty of being a Plotter, I used to make Pinterest boards of how I imagined my fantasy world and book’s cast. I had folders and folders of character portraits, action shots, weapons, and outfits. Buildings, castles, citadels, and miniature towns; oceans, skies, forests, caverns, and mountains. 

These all helped me get a clear image in my head of my world. It helped me gather the ideas and images I know we authors all imagine in our heads, and untangle them into a clear, concise picture of my world and characters. 

With the folders and Pinterest boards, I was able to pull together my story and what tropes I wanted, and I dreamed up four major scenes for my novel. That was it. That was all I knew before I drafted The Rise of Titanium.

And it wasn’t until I finished the book that I made a mythology, creating each of my kingdoms and their symbols, beliefs, trades, and rulers. My map was a giant piece of poster paper scribbled on with a fat black Sharpie that I scrambled together on my balcony. It very much resembled a broken Africa, or possibly a rough-hewn urn. 

And there is nothing wrong with this. Sometimes you need to experience your world with your characters. That’s why the first drafts are great. First drafts are word dumps, getting all your ideas on the page, info vomiting all of your dreams and imagination into a document or notebook. 

My Sequel: Living the Life of a Plotter

After finishing my first book in 2015 originally titled, The Rise of Titanium, I fell in love with my characters, my world. I began to understand the mythology, side characters, and background cast so much more. It gave my world more meat; it familiarized me with my story, so I focused on my map, honed in my ideas, and edited my first book before outlining the sequel

With the first draft of The Rise of Titanium done using only four major scenes and some basic image folders on Pinterest, I completely reversed my writing style for the second book.

I went from a Pantser to a Plotter and outlined my second book through every scene and chapter. My dialogues were brief conversational phrases and I ended up making a 200-page outline with over 40,000 words.

This time around, I chose to plan out everything. It made my process easier; it made the writing more enjoyable because I got to explore every little idea I had outlined over the months prior. And any time I hit a blip or a plotblock, I was able to refer to my outline and see whether I should stick with it the whole time or whether there was an issue in my draft causing the hiccup. 

Why I Don't Believe in Writer's Block

Maybe I should mention that I’m a rare type of writer—I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in plotblocks, hiccups in the story that just aren’t working, dialogues that don’t flow or feel awkward. That’s when I know I need to rework, reread, and look over what I’ve already written and drafted. 

Hitting a plotblock doesn’t mean you should stop writing, throwing the book aside in a fit of anger... it should inspire you instead. You’re a writer—an aspiring author—and when your story tells you to stop for a minute, that is common and healthy. It helps you more than you know. So don’t fight it, ebb into it. A type writer with paper in it, symbolizing book editing.

Massage the stiff muscle, stretch your fingers, shake the creaks out of your joints, exhausted from typing out 4,000 words in one day. 

Take a break. Step away from the manuscript. Just don’t leave it behind. 

I talk a lot about this particular issue because it is discouraging for a new writer, an aspiring author, and even contemporary authors who are trying their hand in fantasy. 

Writing is no easy feat, no simple task. Knowing your story, trusting your process, and focusing on the book and creating the fantasy experience you want to tell is the most important aspect to creating fantasy novels. 

Getting over plotblocks can be as easy as rearranging the order of chapters, adding a slight bit of foreshadowing earlier in the manuscript, or altering the direction of that particular scene—but it can also get complicated. Sometimes during a plotblock you’ll have to not only refer to your outline but also your draft, honing your vision in on what may not feel right. Maybe it's the way a character is reacting, the romance between the side cast, or even a subplot that doesn’t feel like it's necessary for the development of the story. And in my opinion, that’s what makes writing fantasy fun. 

Writing Your Story

The advice that I have tried to always listen to while writing actually comes from Sarah J. Maas. When I first met her back in 2013, I asked how I should approach writing my dream fantasy and she told me to write the story I want to tell. 

I know this may seem funny or strange to say, but sometimes you may feel influenced by a certain trend in the Young Adult Fantasy genre that's popular right now, so you try to force it into your novel and find yourself hitting plotblock after plotblock after plotblock. Or maybe you wish to have a romance between the protagonist and a morally gray side character, but your readers despise the idea, so you feel influenced by your audience

Although your audience is important, never let them tell you how your story should be told.

Write the novel you want to create; write the story you feel is right. After you’ve done that make sure to edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite, edit again and again, then rewrite again, before editing one last time and going into the printing/creating process of your novel. 

Self-Publishing Your Book Baby

For almost all of my writing career, I was told that self-publishing (aka indie publishing) is the worst way to print and sell your work. Of course, the people who told me that were those who didn’t do it themselves and still have yet to write the first chapter of their memoir featuring their obsession with Oprah. (That is not a slight against Oprah, I love her!). 

All kidding aside, I found indie publishing to be the best option for me. I got to choose my cover artist, cover designer, interior formatting, trim size, and printer. I picked my alpha/beta readers, marketing plan, and editor.

And you will get to as well! Although some individuals reading this may find this ending part rather boring and something to take with a grain of salt, in my opinion, it is one of the most important aspects of selling novels, especially fiction, and especially Young Adult (YA) Fantasy fiction. 

The Complete Guide: How to Self-Publish a Book

Trim Size/Cut

Some people may decide to go with a basic trim size that is commonly used in self-publishing, which is 5.5” x 8.5”, and there is nothing wrong with that. It works for both hardcover and paperback (making your interior designer happy because they only have to sift through the finished manuscript once). Oftentimes, I've heard indie authors choose this standard size or 5” x 8” because it not only prints nicely but will make their book stand out on a shelf. This is a true statement, but I think it actually does the opposite of their intention (we’ll return to this marketing note in a bit). 

The best way, in my opinion, of course, is to pick the trim size that best suits the genre/age group you're releasing your book in.

  • For traditionally published Young Adult Fantasy books, I looked online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many more sites that print U.S. paperbacks, and I discovered the most common trim size to be 5.5” x 8.25” and the most common hardcover to be 6” x 9”. 
  • As for Adult Fantasy, both the paperback and hardbacks often print in 6” x 9” and 6.14” x 9.21”.  

Now I know you’re wondering why this matters and you’re likely thinking, Zach, why would I want my book to be the same size as all of the others?

My answer to you is marketing. 

For years, self-published authors receive a bad reputation due to the lower quality of their books, which you and I both know isn’t always true.

And although over these last few years, the community for indie authors has been growing exponentially and gaining a good reputation, reinventing itself to be known for higher quality products—I don’t think we should be reinventing the publishing world. I believe we should become a part of it. 

In YA Fantasy, a paperback in the United States often prints at 5.5 x 8.25” and hardcover prints at 6” x 9”, so I chose both of these so that I could blend into the shelves and easily have my book sit beside New York Times bestselling authors in stores. 

Choosing The Perfect Cover

I am going to keep this short and sweet to the best of my ability. Picking a cover all depends on your research in the genre. Find novels that are similar to your own in tropes, themes, settings, and magic/special beings like Elves, Fae, or Aliens. Look at their covers. Most Fantasy book covers are art-based images of landscapes, castles, people, or even crowns, scepters, and swords/shields. Of course, when creating your cover you can choose to push aside all of these notes and decide on whatever you want, but I think it is best to stay in the popular perimeters of your chosen age group. 

The phrase, “Don’t choose a book by its cover,” can sometimes be true, but for a lot of individuals who will be helpful to the marketing and widespread discussion of your book (i.e. bloggers, bookstagrammers, youtubers), they like to choose books based on their visual capabilities.

This specifically applies to social media influencers using Instagram to take bookish photos and videos for their followers. 

I only marketed through this avenue and I’ve sold nearly 474 copies of my book in all formats in two months, strictly based on people’s followers seeing the cover of my book on their shelf or in their images, looking it up, and getting hooked by the synopsis. 

My Book Cover Process

Iridescent Fury is my debut story, the new and rewritten version of The Rise of Titanium which I released in 2018 with zero marketing knowledge. This book is a Young Adult High Fantasy following the path of a young princess who is trying to save her father from a curse that seems unbreakable. She enters a darkened forest to search for answers and is met with Fae Queens, horrifying monsters, and sickening truths. 

Due to this being the plot of my novel, I focused my attention on two things.

1. What is currently selling and popular in the YA Fantasy genre?

2. What books feature Fae and princesses and monsters on their covers?

After researching, and digging through the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists, I determined what sort of style/cover I wanted to go for. 

Then, I researched even more. I didn’t keep a dollar from my cover artist because I knew that I wanted to give my book the perfect face the artist and I could dream up.

Soon into my process, I worked with one individual who had a very specific style. She was able to give me different sketches and mock-ups from the basic concepts and reference images I had shared with her. Her ideas were beautiful and she even began to work on coloring our decided image, but then I got a gut feeling. The market shifted slightly, which I noticed through Instagram posts and the frequently updated bestsellers lists, and I knew that this design and artist wouldn’t work.

This was a hard lesson for me.

I decided to not work with her based on the fact that my idea and desired concept changed slightly with the market, but I still needed to be able to professionally explain what I was thinking and what I wanted. The young artist was grateful for even the opportunity to work on this cover and I was even more appreciative of her, so it was a quick decision of mine to pay her nearly half of the commission because of the work she had already put in after nearly a month of endless texts, emails, and sketches. 

Soon after delving back into the realm of research, my new concept and dream bright and shining in my head, I thought of a wonderful artist I worked with in 2019. Gabriella Bujdoso had drawn a beautiful poster of three characters in my novel, depicting them exactly how I imagined, so I had already signed her for a commission in October of 2019 for another poster—but requested it be changed to a book cover.

A stack of several copies of self-published fantasy novel Iridescent Fury.

Gabriella is one of the most talented artists I know and I’ve been in love with her work for a long while, but it was only within these last two years that we have gotten to know each other well. Working with her is a dream come true and I want to stress that you should look for the same.

Find YOUR dream artist, look for someone who you know can expertly craft what is only simmering in your head as a concept. 

As work began in September (a month earlier than planned) of 2019, Gabriella and I discussed many aspects of my story and world. She took the time to try and get a feel for the adventure, and the characters, and know how to best approach a mood for the novel’s cover. Her attentiveness to detail and balance and color is exquisite in not just her art, but also in her novels. 

She asked for three concepts from me and I only gave her brief descriptions for two and told her to come up with whatever she was inspired to create for the third. Choosing this route may not be available to some people, you may know what and how exactly you want your book’s cover to look like, or the artist may not even offer this. But all I can say is that you should always give your cover artist room for interpretation, room for fun, and their inspiration to flourish. 

Countless times, not just in book covers, but throughout history (and in any forms of artistic creation) the best work is always born of inspiration and excitement for the piece. 

You may also choose to have your cover made by you! Maybe you can utilize websites and software like Canva and Photoshop to expertly craft what you know best represents your story, not needing to commission anything at all. Maybe going the route of digital art is not for you and your book, so you look into amazingly talented photo manipulators. 

This all is decided by you. Remember, you are the key and siphon to all of this! 

Cover Design

For as long as I can remember I always believed that Cover Art and Cover Design were the same thing, but over time I’ve come to learn that I couldn’t be more wrong.

  • Cover Art is exactly what it is named, the art of the book’s dust jacket. It is the intricately drawn characters and landscapes featured in your story or maybe the manipulated photos of a smoky forest revealing itself in the silhouette of a man.
  • Cover Design is the title, excerpt, book description, praise, and author name that is printed onto the cover, placed, and decided by someone else and not always yourself. 

If you find a cover designer and artist who will intricately piece everything together and choose the fonts and bevels and colorations for you, then this next little section does not pertain to you at all...also please email me the name of this designer

But if you’re like me and need to decide the placement of the design and what fonts would be used, then this is all I’ve got to say. 

Find someone you can rely on, a company you trust and know will not back out on you. One of the hardest lessons I learned while publishing is that nobody cares as much for your work as you do, and some individuals are only waiting for the check you’ll be putting into their bank account. 

When Gabriella Bujdoso finished the cover art for Iridescent Fury it was just a textless image, so I reached out to a business I thought I could trust. I will not name any names, but their lack of correspondence and professionalism shown during the designing process of my novel has permanently damaged their reputation in my opinion and I will not be working with them further. 

In the future, one of the companies that I'll be working with for the design of my first release’s sequel is Stone Ridge Books, which is run by Mandi Lynn. She is a wonderful author who's made an awesome name for herself in the indie publishing world. 

Another company I have seen and heard amazing things from is Damonza. Although a little on the pricey side, I have seen in their catalog and from working with them personally that they are attentive and worth the pretty penny!  

A fantasy book with a castle on the cover.Now all this talk of designers aside, if you are requested to offer a list of fonts/concepts for the cover design of your provided cover art, go back to your age group and genre. Look at what best represents certain stories, and even think of what your cover visualizes. 

If you have an intricate and heavily-detailed cover like mine, go for a more simplistic font recommendation to your designer, but also listen to their ideas and concepts. And if you have a simple cover featuring a crown or maybe a scepter surrounded by shadows, don’t be afraid to look into swirling and flowery fonts that’ll pop off of your cover and into the eye of the reader! So having a clear idea in your head of what you want before going to a professional designer is helpful for them! Good companies like the ones I recommended above will work diligently with you until the cover is to your liking. 


If you haven’t been able to tell already, a lot of planning and thought goes into every aspect of a fantasy novel. Transporting your reader into a beautiful and decadent or dark and brutal world of your creation is an experience you should think about and organize. Whatever aspect you are at in writing and self-publishing fantasy—an aspiring indie author or an experienced contemporary/ fiction writer—make sure you keep your eye on what's selling. 

That's why I recommend reading, researching both the age group and genre, and doing many many rounds of edits and rewrites. Learning the ins and outs of your book will make sure you're prepared for the final part of the publishing fantasy process: marketing. 

Before we got to this part, I wanted to discuss the importance of trim sizes and visual/physical appeal. As I mentioned earlier in this article, many authors in the reinvented self-published realm want their books to be set apart. They want their book to be a little taller or a little smaller, drawing the eye of the reader as they browse, but what worked for me was the opposite. 

Due to the stigma that formerly (and still sometimes) surrounds indie-published books, some readers aren’t willing to try a self-published novel, no matter the pretty cover. They believe it to be lesser, only because we, as independent and hard-working writers, aren’t traditionally published. Which you and I both know couldn’t be further from the truth. 

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IngramSpark is an amazing print-on-demand company because it gives you everything you need to blend into the shelf with New York Times bestselling authors. Choosing the common trim size for both your hardcover and paperback book along with the texture (matte or gloss), you’ll be placed next to the reader's favorite authors. They won’t be able to tell the difference between Sarah J. Maas’ worldwide phenomenon saga, Throne of Glass—or maybe even George R.R. Martin’s critically-acclaimed Game of Thrones series—and your fantasy book. 

Why, you may ask? Because you’ve erased the stigma, the image in a reader's head of what a self-published book looks like.

Leading up to the release of Iridescent Fury, I have been asked nearly a hundred times, "Who is your publisher" and "Who is your literary agent?" Every time I receive one of these messages, I chuckle to myself and explain that all I have is my own determination and a print-on-demand company. 

When you’re marketing your novel, you don’t want to make people feel like you are selling them something. As a reader myself, I spend 90% of my time posting photos of my bookshelves, books and reviews of stories I loved, and interacting with other readers on Instagram. It is so much fun communicating with people who are not only like you, but have similar interests, and may just happen to be your target market

Studies show that someone needs to see something seven times before they finally hunker down to buy it, and you should apply this to your own marketing abilities, but don’t shove your novel down their throat. I’ve been able to interact with lovely, amazing readers who have fallen in love with my book because, in all truth, they are my friends. Their support means everything to me, but find a way to give back to them, your followers, and readers. 

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I continuously say that you should always write the story you want to tell, don’t influence your characters and world through the reactions of readers, because in the end you can’t please everyone and the ones who matter will remain with you and support you. Readers come in time and making sure that you’re selling to the right audience means making sure you acquaint yourself with that community. 

Truthfully, I feel blessed that I love reading Young Adult (YA) Fantasy so much, because I find myself in the throes of the fandoms full of super fun readers who have grown to be my second family. I know what they would like because I like it too, so I know it's okay to talk about my book. Sometimes people will come to you JUST to hear and know everything they can about your book baby. 

Two advanced reader copes of Iridescent Fury by Zachary James.Don’t be afraid to put out money to get some back. In some instances you’ll find that readers and influencers across multiple platforms may request your novel—especially if they know you and know what work you are getting ready to release—so I say, do not be afraid to send them advance reader copies. Whether they are E-ARCs or physical ARCs, happily give select individuals your book early—just make sure you know they are interested in your genre/age group. 

You wouldn’t want to send an Adult Romance reader your Middle Grade Urban Fantasy following the adventures of a sewer rat-turned-superhero; it just would not sit well with them. If that is your novel, research fans of Middle Grade Urban Fantasy or Superhero/turn-of-fortune stories. 

Final Thoughts

Now, it is up to YOU. Go and get back to editing that third draft or finally sit down and start that Paranormal Fantasy you’ve been daydreaming about since Twilight. I've given you the major ideas for writing fantasy. I’ve detailed what my journey has consisted of, from pantsing to plotting to choosing my novel’s physical appearance and feel. 

And although this all worked for me, it may not work perfectly for you.

Make your own path, carve out your own future with your goals shining at the end of the finish line. Implement your tricks and techniques in marketing/publishing, but always keep in mind that the readers are the most important part. They are the ones consuming your work, ingesting your story and characters that you’ve spent years writing.

Just remember, readers (extremely important and very necessary for garnering any amount of success) should not tell your story. Therein it would no longer be your novel, instead, there's. 

So before I go and send you away with this knowledge to do with as you see fit, I want to tell you to celebrate every small success. Take a day off after finishing that hard and intense chapter. Celebrate with a glass of champagne or pick up that new book you wanted from the store.

Writing is hard, no matter the genre or age group, and you should always remind yourself of how powerful you are; celebrate the magic in your fingertips. 

We writers, both practiced and aspiring, have a gift. We gather twenty-six letters into various words that we arrange in varying ways to build sentences that structure paragraphs and create worlds that will be interpreted by every single person differently. If that isn’t magic in real life, then I don’t know what it is. Practice your craft and have fun wielding your power. 


Much love and thanks,

-Zachary James


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Zachary James

Zachary James is a young adult author and lyricist who is currently at college studying English. As someone who formerly hated English, reading and anything writing, he is still confused how this happened. When he isn’t writing, he’s reading, working, studying, or trying to uphold his nearly non-existent social life. He was born and raised in the same small New Jersey town all his life and is excited to explore the world beyond the pages of his own and other author’s books.  His debut novel, Iridescent Fury, was published in January 2020.