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In The Beginning – Advice On Starting An Epic Fantasy Novel

JWI’ve known John Wordsworth for a number of years and in addition to being one of the nicest guys in publishing he is also one of the most talented. Formerly John ran, what I consider, one of my favourite genre labels in the UK: ‘Headline Science Fiction & Fantasy’. They weren’t around very long, but when you look at who John signed – Myke Cole, Jennifer Williams and Richard Ford – they were all (rightly) bombarded with 5* reviews for their books and are still being nominated for awards today.

Fast-forward a few years since John left Headline and is now working as a Literary Agent besides another legend in UK SFF, John Berlyne of Zeno Agency. Their signed authors include Ben Aaronovitch, Peter V. Brett, Jack Campbell, Myke Cole, Maggie Furey, William Gibson, Simon R. Green, Charlaine Harris, Anne Lyle, Elizabeth Moon, Brandon Sanderson, and many, many more besides.

JW came to me here at Fantasy-Faction because he is looking for a writer (possibly you!) to add to this incredible list. The two John’s want to find an author ready to take the World by storm – the next Joe Abercrombie, George Martin, Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, Elizabeth Bear, Patrick Rothfuss; you get the idea. If you feel that your work fits that bill then there is some good news for you too: Zeno Agency have an open submission period for Epic Fantasy Novels RIGHT NOW!

To celebrate the open submission period and to kickstart budding authors John Wordsworth has kindly agreed to put his editorial and agent hat on for us here at F-F and tell our readers a little bit about what he looks for in an Epic Fantasy Novel’s opening chapters. We hope you enjoy it and find it useful. More details about Zeno’s open submission follow John’s post.

In the Beginning…

If you’re a budding Epic Fantasy author, you’ve likely read quite a lot of advice about how your novel should start. Having read thousands of submissions and more than my fair share of published novels, I’d like to share with you ten openings that should be avoided. So here, in my opinion, is how not to do it…

  1. Make sure you get all that pesky world-building out of the way up front. How can I ever enjoy your story unless I know everything about the world? What is that clasp on the archer’s tunic made from? Where and when did she get it and how much did it cost? If you want you can put all this in a lengthy prologue, but we need to know this stuff.
  2. Is it raining? Describing the weather is such an dynamic way to start your novel. Nothing says ‘Epic Fantasy’ like a light breeze. We need a least three pages before we can even think about those characters.
  3. The Family History. An extension of 1) really. Ok, so this guy is running for his life. But when was his grandmother born? Quick, I can’t possibly invest in this until you’re told me. That leads us to…
  4. Introduce all of your characters straightaway. Fortunately readers all have photographic memories, so cram in as many names as you can in the first few pages. Better still, give them names that are impossible to pronounce like Horguur’thzogh and Ek’mazikav’tx so they will really stick in the mind.
  5. Describe absolutely everything. ‘She deftly flicked the thin strand of her glossy raven hair from her cold green eyes and purposefully and steadily raised the bow of ancient, dark yew and meticulously…’ Whassat? Sorry, I think I nodded off for a second there.
  6. And it was all a dream. A great way to make your world seem tedious to put a vivid dream right up front and get the reader to invest in it. Then wake your protagonist up, and you can rub it in the readers’ faces that it was all pretend and simultaneously make the ‘real’ world seem really boring. Result.
  7. Waking up. Or you can skip the dream and just open with someone waking up. Every day starts with someone getting up, so why not every novel? Then they can have breakfast, which is one of the mainstays of Epic Fantasy.
  8. Try hiding your info dump in dialogue. ‘My brother Rak, you know how our father, the Emperor, sent us on this quest six moons ago? Well, as we heard those outlanders – our sworn enemies – near our camp last night, if your twisted ankle is up to it, perhaps it is time to lay down the swords that once belonged to our grandfather – a famous hero of his time – and take the long road home through the mountains.’ Smooth, huh? This works well with internal monologues, too.
  9. Use plenty of metaphors. Although you’re writing a Fantasy novel and everything is up for grabs in the first chapter, don’t be afraid of using metaphors from the off. Of course the beast isn’t literally a hundred feet tall or the protagonist really has eyes that shine like blue fire on a dark night. It’s obvious. Your readers are smart; they’ll figure it out eventually.
  10. The epic battle. They say you should open with a bang, so why not a twenty-page action sequence? Who cares that we don’t know who anyone is, aren’t bothered if they live or die, where they are, or what’s at stake! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Taking my cynical hat off, I should say that there are some truly brilliant novels open with someone waking up (The Stand), a line about the weather (Best Served Cold), some backstory (The Fellowship of the Ring) and so on, so I’m being a little glib. But however you choose to open your novel, make sure it’s a conscious decision and you’ve discounted at least half a dozen other options. And remember, the first page is the hardest one to turn for a reader. Make it as easy as you can.

Zeno Agency is now open for Epic Fantasy submissions. More information and submission guidelines can be found

Zeno Agency Ltd is a London-based literary agency specialising in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror. We represent a top-drawer range of genre authors, both as primary agent and in association with a number of well-known agencies abroad. Our list comprises major brand-names, high profile award winners, talented debut authors and prestigious literary estates.

Founded in 2008, Zeno was originally a partnership between literary agent John Parker and freelance literary consultant and genre critic, John Berlyne. John Parker left in 2012 and the company is now solely run by John Berlyne. In 2014 former commissioning editor John Wordsworth joined the company as an agent. Zeno is a member of the Association of Author’s Agents and an affiliate member of SFWA.



  1. A brilliant piece, illuminating, witty and so so true! 😀

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