Charles Stross writes them. So does Taylor Anderson. Eric Flint‘s 1632 is all about portals! So why are portal stories so bad?

When I was shopping Gordath Wood, I heard from a couple of agents that the “portal” novel was overdone. Joshua Bilmes and Kristen Nelson both said that the portal, in which a protagonist from our world goes into a fantasy world and the novel commences from there, was an overused device. Nelson in particular pointed out that if the action takes place in the fantasy world, then the story should start there.

Since Gordath Wood is a portal novel — the “gordath” is the portal by which the characters move between our world and Aeritan — I thought I was dead in the water. Luckily, my agent and editor took a chance and Gordath Wood and Red Gold Bridge made their way into print.

The ultimate portal novels are the Chronicles of Narnia. And what I write can best be termed at “Narnia for grownups.” No doubt most readers of fantasy can remember being pulled — figuratively — into Narnia when they were kids and wishing it came true. The portal novel is itself a metaphor for the book, because the best books open portals into other worlds.

With all due respect to Kristen Nelson, and of course understanding that as an agent she can’t sell what doesn’t speak to her personally, the idea of a protagonist standing in for the reader, who takes that plunge into a fantasy world, is a very powerful and alluring one. Saying that novels should start in the fantasy world is missing the point. Writers and readers are trying to capture that experience of opening a book and falling inside, of becoming the main character.

So why should beginning writers beware the portal story? For one thing, the market is saturated with them, according to the agents. Too much of a good thing, even a portal story, is not going to stand out. For another, if they are done badly, they are no fun. Remember how sad I was over Sandra Hill’s Viking and Navy Seals books? They are portal stories and, well, they just didn’t work for me. The fantasy world (in her case, Scandinavia during the Viking era), was not rich enough or deep enough to make me believe I was there. So I didn’t buy it when her heroes were there either.

But if you are trying to capture that feeling of entering a new world, that old Narnia magic, then a portal novel, done right, can really bring that to life. And you will have readers. Because I love portal stories. And I know I’m not the only one.

Good luck!


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