CS Pacat's 'Captive Prince' fantasy trilogy evolved from online serial to commercially-published book series. She shared her thoughts on worldbuilding, self-publishing and the future of fantasy with Michelle McLaren, republished ahead of her Digital Fantasy Novel Intensive, starting January 2018.
What makes fantasy unique as a genre?
To me, fantasy is unique because it is the place where we create our heroes and villains, and imagine our most aspirational selves.
As a writer, I'm also interested in exploring extreme situations. I think that extremes are what fantasy does best – sometimes better than realist fiction. Realism as a technique is very good at describing actions and behaviours within a certain bandwidth, but because extreme acts and situations can seem so fantastical that they explode believability even if they are true, they often sit awkwardly in a realist setting. In a fantasy setting, the extreme is assumed to be plausible, and can be explored in depth.
Fantasy novels are known for being immersive – for readers and writers alike. How do you recommend writers avoid getting too caught up building their fictional world?
I think worldbuilding is a key component of fantasy – of all writing really – and my advice would be to spend as much time on building your world as you have to spare. A lot of the most enduring fantasy feels so rich because the writers spent years on worldbuilding, often before they even began writing manuscript - five years in the case of Harry Potter, thirty years in the case of Lord of the Rings.
The flip side is that worldbuilding can be seductive, and I suppose what is key to keep in mind is that worldbuilding cannot come at the expense of other elements like plot, character – or at the expense of finishing the book. My advice would be to be honest with yourself: Are you building your world to enrich it, or are you building to avoid working on other things? If you are worldbuilding out of avoidance, then set limits for yourself, in the same way that you limit your other forms of procrastination.
Your phenomenally successful ‘Captive Prince’ trilogy started life as a web series posted on your blog. How did this come about, and is it a process you’d recommend to other emerging writers?
When I started to write ‘Captive Prince’ there was nothing that was really like it in the mainstream, commercially published space. But I knew that online there was this vast community of readers and writers who were reading and creating online in part because they were seeking something that they weren't finding on commercial bookshelves. It was also an incredibly accessible space with no barrier to entry, and so I started to write ‘Captive Prince’, and as I wrote, I posted each chapter to my fiction blog.
‘Captive Prince’ ran as an online serial for over three years, and during that time, the readership grew from (literally) six people to tens of thousands of readers who would return to the blog each time a chapter was posted. The rise in readership was fairly typical of the way that word of mouth can interact with the serial format, in that there was a long period of latency, a sort of slow build, followed by a critical mass of word of mouth that propelled the book into popularity.
I eventually self-published using Amazon's self-publication platform, and it was self-publication that led to my eventual publishing deal with Penguin USA. Because it had an established audience from its days as a serial, ‘Captive Prince’ did well enough as a self-pub to hit number one across various categories on Amazon, and to pick up reviews from mainstream review sites, I think the first of which was a really positive review from ‘USA Today’.
After that happened I was approached by an agent (and signed with her in the spirit of pure optimism). We ended up with two offers, the most robust of which was from Penguin.
The great thing about the internet and the current ease of self-publication is that they open up new avenues and opportunities for writers to connect to audiences and publish their work. I would absolutely recommend both methods to aspiring writers – although if mainstream, commercial publication is your goal, it is probably still easier to go the traditional route of querying agents and selling your manuscript that way, at least as a first option.
What kinds of characters and themes would you like to see more writers of fantasy explore?
I'd like to see fantasy celebrate diversity of all kinds. A queer kid, I grew up reading fantasy novels in which there were few queer characters. Of those who did exist, many were either hidden (coded, sub-textual Dumbledores) or they were explicit but struggled with issues of persecution and oppression, as writers created fantasy worlds that reproduced real-world prejudices. I would love to see instead a continuation of the modern trend in fantasy in which queer characters have opportunities to take on epic or heroic roles.
The wider debate over diversity and representation in genre is happening in part because we have understood that genre is important. It's the place where we create our heroes and villains, and celebrate our most aspirational selves. And when we write genre, we are engaged in a form of cultural production: we are creating the myths of our time.
I am excited to be writing at a time when a new heroic pantheon is beginning to emerge, peopled by different and exhilarating characters. I look forward to the ways in which fantasy is going to evolve over the next few years, and the kinds of stories that we are all going to write.
About CS Pacat
CS Pacat is the author of the best-selling fantasy series ‘Captive Prince’. Born in Australia, she has lived in a number of cities, including Tokyo and Perugia. Her first series began as an online serial, which attracted viral attention before being acquired by Penguin USA. The ‘Captive Prince’ trilogy went on to become a 'USA Today' best-seller after being published to commercial success and critical acclaim.