Ari Lewin: Writing Fantasy Novels

Ari Lewin is the senior editor at Disney/Hyperion, and she loves fantasy novels. She’s loved them ever since she was young. In fact, she loves fantasy so much that  her personal list for Fall 2010 includes four fantasy novels (out of five books coming out). Two are zombie books, one is high fantasy, and one is contemporary fantasy. The following are her tips on fantasy writing, the market, and what she’s looking for.

We Are Living In the Golden Age of Fantasy YA:

  • That’s right! We are in the golden age of Fantasy YA books. We are living in it! So there’s no better time to write a fantasy young adult novel.
  • Fantasy books are popular because they are escapist and they are aspirational.
  • YA fantasy has a huge readership of both adults and kids.
  • The NY Bestseller list is almost all fantasy books. Barnes and Noble’s top 20 books of the year is also almost all fantasy as well.

What Constitues as a Fantasy Novel?

There are up to sixty different sub-genres of fantasty. Some include:

  • High Fantasy (Lord of the Rings)

    Steampuk

  • Steampunk (Leviathan, The Golden Compass)
  • High Magic
  • Low Technology
  • Urban Fantasty (Set in the city, such as Holly Black’s Mortal Instruments).
  • Paranormal Romance (Bluebloods, Hush Hush, Twilight)
  • Distopian (Forest of Hands and Teeth, Feed, Hunger Games) Distopian was described as a future where something major, like an atom bomb, has caused the government to collapse and a new world has emerged, completely changing the way of life.
  • Ari sees no big demarcation between fantasy and sci-fi.

Why Editors Have to Be Picky:

  • As an editor, Ari, has to be super selective. She has to weigh both cost of getting the book against the potential demand for the book. She feels like she is both betting on the race horse, and the jockey at the same time.
  • A few books that Ari lost in auction but thinks we should look for when they come out are: When There Were Lilies and Matched.

A Succesful Fantasy Novel Will Have:

  • A strong writing baseline. This is super important!
  • Good characters and dialog.
  • A refreshing plot line.
  • The story stays personal to the character.
  • The concept is workable.
  • The world has  rules, structure, and limitations. And it’s clear how the creatures operate.
  • Powers do not work for convenience only.
  • Unfolding your world is important! Learn how to do this by reading books that do it well. She used an example of Black Juice by Margo Lannagin. (She also wrote Tender Morsels which won the printz a couple years ago). Take us into the world. You don’t need to explain everything through exposition.
  • If you are going to start with a pivitol moment, you need to orient the reader in the character first.
  • I want tension and fear.
  • I like horror.
  • Authors she thinks write fantasy really well are Kristin Cashure and Cinda Chima.
  • For Tips on World Building check out the websites of Holly Black and Cinda Chima.
  • Beware of being too aggressive with fantasy elements. Don’t try and cram as much as you can into your world. If there’s too much we we will be overwhelmed. Focus on one world and your character.

Books Ari Has Bought and Why:

Cinda Chima’s The Warrior Heir:

  • This book has a slightly overdone premise but it was done in a fresh new way that worked.
  • The book has good writing.
  • It’s fun.
  • It’s fast paced.
  • It has good strong sub plots.
  • It was a fresh idea to start in a contemporary setting and then move to the fantasy world.
  • It was an American story – not a British story (which we see a lot of in fantasy).
  • The story has a complex political and social system. The author actually created her own historical time line for the book.
  • Despite the complexity of the world the story and the way the information is presented is uncomplicated.
  • The book is timeless, and thus will have longevity.
  • It’s a book for all ages.
  • Ari, also bought the author’s new series, and The Warrior Heir was also turned into a series.

Sarwat Chadda’s Devil’s Kiss:

  • The book is high concept.
  • It has good action scenes.
  • It has a good tone.
  • Ari, bought this book on a proposal – though she doesn’t usually do that.

If You’re Writing a Fantasy Series…

  • Many authors don’t have a stand alone story, they have a series in mind. Ari, likes this because it means there is potential for the future. If a fantasy book does well, she will probably try to turn it into a series. But that doesn’t mean she wants to know that you have six books written. In fact, that will scare her because you may be too attached to your work. Write one book with other books in mind. She assumes that if your book does well that you will be willing to do more books in a series. Leave some loose threads in the book so that there can be a sequel or companion books.

Before You Send Ari Your Book:

  • Try and poke as many holes as possible in your story before sending it to an agent or editor.
  • Make sure you have an end game in fantasy. You need stakes that will create tension! Beware of a disconnect with characters or other worlds we don’t care about.

A Few Other Annecdotes:

  • Hand selling makes books sell well, and helps with a book’s popularity. Hand selling is an actually book seller (in the store) will pull out a book and tell you about it and encourage you to read it. This happens a lot at independent books stores.
  • If you query Ari and never hear from her that means she is not interested.
  • A good middle grade historical fiction novel to check out is A Drown Maiden’s Tale.
  • “You have to make yourself a writer!” It is always about craft, craft, craft!!!

A Bit About Ari and Disney/Hyperion:

  • The title Disney/Hyperion means that Hyperion is owned by Disney. Disney is  their cash cow, but they are independent in terms of editorial decisions and what they buy and publish.
  • Yes, Ari is interested in multi-format work like The Invention of Hugo Cabaret.
  • One of Ari’s favorite books when she was young is Artemis Fowl.
  • Ari will usually do around three drafts with an author before she is ready to line edit.
  • The darkest book that Ari is publishing right now is By the Time You Read This I’ll be Dead by Julie Anne Peters.

Arianne Lewin is a Senior Editor at Disney * Hyperion. She edits an eclectic list that emphasizes young adult novels and fantasy, but also includes picture books and chapter books. She works with authors Cinda Williams Chima; Whoopi Goldberg; Julie Anne Peters; EB Lewis; Scott Magoon; and Daniel Waters, among others. Arianne is currently looking for fresh new voices in all genres.

5 thoughts on “Ari Lewin: Writing Fantasy Novels

    • Marthie,

      You will want to look up Disney Hyperion’s submission guidelines. Though I believe you can’t send and unsolicited query to anyone at Disney Hyperion, you need an agent. At least that is what Senior Editor Stephanie Owens Lurie said in a session I saw her speak at (those notes are on the blog here, you can search for them).

  1. Marthie,
    I wanted to query Ari but I read your blog. How do I get an agent for a manuscript that I wrote with Disney in mind?

  2. I would check out the website Literary Rambles (You’ll find it in the blog roll to your right) as it has a great list of Agents and what they are looking for. That’s a great place to start your agent search!

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