Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fifteen Authors Who Have Influenced Me Greatly

There are various lists making the rounds lately, most notably the ten books that have stayed with me lists. I have one of those, but it occurred to me that some of my favorite authors are not on the list, because some of them wrote series where it is impossible to ferret out which book was the most influential. And of course, there are some stand-alone books out there too (To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind) where the authors did not go on to write more.

But my favorite genres by far are fantasy and SF, and authors of these genres tend to write series or create universes that pull their readers back time and time again. So I decided to list my favorites. But then I got to thinking. Should I limit my selections to books that I've read as adults only, or only to adult books? Should I have only SFF books? Should I make an effort to include some classics that I didn't actually like very much, even though they've probably influenced me and everyone else who grew up when I did speaking English as their sole or primary language? I'm humbled by the prevalence of classics that are not remotely contemporary, or even SF or F on most of my writer friend's favorites lists. Makes me feel like an imposter.

But in the end, I have to be true to my own perceptions. I ended up with fifteen authors, not ten. And even so, there are some favorites I have left off.

One sobering thing for me is the lack of diversity on this list. Of my fifteen, only two are writers who are not white. Ten out of fifteen are women, which is rather biased towards one gender. But given the lean that most people's lists have towards men, I don't feel too bad there. I'm not sure about the sexual orientation of most of these writers. Five of these writers are/were British, Nine are/were American, and one was an American who adopted Ireland as her permanent home. I suppose this bias is understandable, given that I am white, English-speaking, heterosexual, cis-gendered, female, and American. I'm going to have easy access (and relate to) to more books by people who are like me in some ways at least. But still, I want to do a better job of reading books by people who come from different cultures than I do.

1. JRR Tolkien. I think this is the book that really made me fall in love with fantasy. I don't seek to emulate Tolkien's style, but I've probably re-read The Hobbit and LoTR more than any other novels.

2. C.J. Cherryh. One of the unsung SF greats in my opinion. She was and is a master at weaving intricate worlds and cultures, and she is one of the people who pioneered the use of a more "limited" point of view in SF. When she started writing, many SFF writers felt you "had" to lapse into telly omniscient from time to time, because the reader wouldn't "get" the world building otherwise. She has a special talent for immersing you in the perceptions of a character and for making their reality yours. I think she's had a pretty strong influence on me stylistically.

3. Ursula K. Le Guin. She also had/has a flare for world building and a simple, yet lyrical way with language. She proved to me that you don't need purple prose to paint a clear picture of a world and character. And she deserves kudos for writing fantasy where the default race wasn't white and for exploring our assumptions about gender.

4. Alice Walker. She did such an amazing job of bringing me inside the heads of characters who have lived very different lives than I have, yet to whom I can relate so utterly and completely. She has a talent for writing in a very colloquial voice without making it inaccessible or distracting. I cared deeply for Celie and Shug in particular, but all of her characters were real people to me.

5. Robin Hobb. There's an uneven and somewhat bumpy ride here (I liked her Shamen Trilogy, and Rain Wilds books, but they weren't as good to me as her earlier titles), but her Farseer and Tawny man books moved me deeply, and her latest Fitz and Fool book has pulled me back into that world with a vengeance. She doesn't get much credit for this, but her character of the Fool was definitely outside of the binary concept of gender. She just handled it much more subtly than some writers have. She made me fall in love with modern fantasy and showed me that broken, flawed people make the most compelling characters. There's probably a bit of Fitz in my current protagonist, for all that he's a very different person in a very different situation.

6. James Herriot. I just loved his books growing up, and I've read and reread them over the years. He's one of those rare authors who really felt like a friend, even though I'd never met him. Last time I was in the UK, I was able to go to the Herriot Museum, which is in the house where he (real name Alf Wight) really practiced with Donald and Brian Sinclair (aka Seigfried and Tristan Farnon)  for many years. It was just so cool to see the places I'd read about coming to life.

7. William Shakespeare. Regardless of how you feel about his plays, he is probably the greatest and most versatile writer the English Language has produced. His work resonates even today, and it's impossible not to be influenced by it.

8. Judy Blume. I loved her books as a pre teen and teen. She portrayed issues that I may or may not have been able to relate to initially, but once I read about them, I couldn't help but do so. They made me into a more empathetic human being, and her book Forever, which portrayed a teen aged girl having her first sexual relationship as if it were not (gasp) a terrible thing had a profound influence on my own attitude about sex in general and my own resolve to never have unprotected sex unless I wanted to become a parent.

9. K.M. Peyton. Another YA fiction writer from the 70s. Her stories about the horse-crazy Ruth Hollis pulled me in, but she had a number of other stories too, most notably about Pennington, a very troubled musical prodigy, and her Flambards books (set around the time of WWI). She didn't talk down to teens at all, but she also didn't sugar coat the consequences of bad decisions or promise her readers that every good decision, personal victory, (or love affair) would end in a happily ever after.

10. Micheal Moorcock. I don't know why his Elric stories have stayed with me the way they have. I didn't especially like Elric, and his whole situation was rather depressing. But darn it if some of his plight doesn't carry over into my current work (though I really hope I can have a happier ending).

11. Amy Tan. I love her books. Her characters are relatable, even when I am angry at them for their flaws and foibles. I think my favorite was The Hundred Secret Senses, but they've all spoken to me in one way or another.

12. Connie Willis. Her stories set in the universe of her time-travelling Oxford Historians are my favorite, but Passage and Bellwether also pulled me in. She has a knack for making me laugh and cry at the same time, for weaving everyday frustrations and absurdities into the darkest stories. And she never fails to remind me that the biggest heroes often go unnoticed.

13. Margaret Atwood. Lovely writing, memorable characters, fascinating, non-linear approaches to narrative that would be too unexpected and unintuitive for me to like at the hands of anyone else. I don't think she's ever written a dud. I don't think I'd ever in a million years try to write the way she does. But I've been enriched by her prose.

14. Anne McCaffrey. Her work  helped pull me into modern SF as well. She gets dinged a lot for (possibly) flogging a successful series into the ground, and in spite of her many awards and huge following, she doesn't seem to get included on many lists of masters or all-time greats. And there was that stupid "tent peg" comment that reminded me how someone can be admirable in so many ways, yet hurtfully wrong in others. But I have read and re-read her Dragonrider books over the years, and they've stuck with me in ways many other series have not.

15. David Brin. I loved his Uplft books, and I have wished so much that he would return to that universe. If I wrote SF, I'd probably be shooting for something in between him and Cherryh in terms of style and approach.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Adorable Hyena Video

No, this is not an oxymoron. This is a video clip from the Oakland Zoo's web site.

And it means that my crocot characters in Umbral Heretic do indeed take water baths.

That is all.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Comma (mis) Usage and Other Punctuation Peeves

 This is a really handy link that does a good job of explaining the basic (and not so basic) rules of comma usage. It even discusses some of the negotiable ones, like the so-called Oxford comma.

As an aside, commas seem to cause more problems for writers than all the other punctuation marks put together. I'm guessing this is because commas have more uses than all the punctuation marks put together. I don't know if grammar and punctuation are really getting worse overall, or if people have always been terrible, but the internet certainly makes it easy for people to display their ignorance. I generally try to not correct people on social media or internet forums, because there's usually a karmic comeuppance in store when one does this. It's always amusing to see someone taking another person to task for a specific grammar error when they've committed that same error (or a different one) in their own post.

It's pretty common for people to blame teachers for this sort of thing. I teach college biology, and anecdotally, I think your typical college (or even university) freshman has always been pretty bad at grammar and spelling. The majority had to take the infamous "English A" back when I was at UC Davis. I do think certain kinds of spelling and grammar errors are more common than they used to be, but I don't know that it's fair to say it's because "they don't teach this in school anymore." There has been a lot of grade inflation in the public schools (high school GPAs are, on average, higher than they were when I was young), and a higher percentage of the population attempts college, at least, than once did. We also have a lot of English learners in our community college student population. So even without the internet, these things will change the demographics, and create and apples and oranges dichotomy between the college students of yesteryear and today.

Plus, US society does not, in my opinion, value knowledge, or even the appearance of having knowledge, for its own sake. Ask the average person why they're in college, and they'll tell you, "To get a degree that lets me get a good job," not, "To become educated or become a better, more informed citizen and to develop skills that will allow me to embark on a lifetime of intellectual and professional growth and learning."

We like to laugh at people who "use big words," or "talk too smart."

But I digress.

I've been thinking about some of the things I run across fairly often that are serious pet peeves for me.

1. Misuse of apostrophes in plurals that aren't possessives or contractions. Just don't do this. Please. "Possessive's or contraction's." Whimper.

2. The possessive form of it with an apostrophe. It's=a contraction for "it is." Just as you don't use apostrophes for his or hers, you don't use them for its in this context. It's amazing how many professional web sites do this. We all make occasional typos, but when someone uses it's as a possessive throughout, it's pretty clear they never learned that rule back in school, and they haven't been observant in their daily life to pick up the correct usage.

3. Incorrect dialog tag punctuation and capitalization. When someone says something, you use a comma.

Bob said, "It's really very simple."


"It's really very simple," said Bob (I actually would prefer Bob said there, but "I did it this way to show how said shouldn't be capitalized here).

4. Using a word that really can't be "spoken" as a dialog tag instead of an action that occurs immediately before or after a spoken sentence.

For instance:

"It's really very simple," Bob coughed.

instead of.

"It's really very simple." Bob coughed.

5. Incorrect use of semicolons. Unless you are constructing "smileys" in a forum post or text message, these little puppies have two uses: separating two independent clauses within a sentence that lacks a coordinating conjunction (and, but, so etc.), or for separating the elements of a list when the list elements themselves contain commas.

Some people love dogs; other people fear them.


I have been to the beach in California, the Pacific Northwest, and Maine; to the mountains in California, Oregon, and Colorado; and to the desert in California, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Notice that the punctuation mark I used after "these little puppies have two uses" is a colon (:), not a semicolon.

6. Misusing the term "run on sentence" to generically refer to any long sentence. Run ons are, in particular, sentences that need a coordinating conjunction (with comma), or a semicolon, regardless of their length.

My dog hates my neighbor's dog they always fence fight.

This is a run on, because it needs a semicolon between "dog" and "they."

Or you could just write:

My dog hates my neighbor's dog, so they always fence fight.

It is possible to have a very long sentence that is not a run on. The issue is whether or not it contains independent clauses that are mashed together without appropriate punctuation.

7. Okay, this isn't a grammar or punctuation error, per se, but a spelling one. But here goes.

Loose and lose. They are two different words, people. They're not even homophones. This one seems to be proliferating like mold lately. I honestly don't remember getting e-mails or reading student papers that made this mistake until a few years ago, but now I see it all the time. Even on writers' forums. I really don't know what gives.

It is sometimes good for a giggle. When someone writes, "I'm always loosing my keychain," I imagine her tossing her keys up in the air and shouting, "Be free, little fob!"

8. Here's one that's a bit more obscure, maybe: fewer versus less. You use fewer for items that can be quantified exactly (as in counted), while you use less for grammatically single nouns described in relativistic quantities. For instance, you'd say, "There is less money in my wallet since I had kids," but, "There are fewer bills in my wallet since I've had kids."

I think this one is hard, because a similar distinction doesn't really exist for the analogous quantitative word "more." There is the "many" versus "much" distinction, however.

Okay, I've ranted a bit. Does anyone have "favorite" grammatical or punctuational peeves of their own?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

More fun with maps

It's a well-known fact that while world building is essential when one is writing fantasy or science fiction, it can be an addictive time sink that prevents you from ever finishing anything. Still, mapping is so much fun, I've been messing around with my novels' world lately.

I used Campaign Cartographer 3(from ProFantasy Software) to make these maps of Rilinda, the continent where the places in my novel in progress (Umbral Heretic) and its sequel (tentatively titled Umbral Hunter) are located, but I'm still playing around with scale. I want Sa Tarkil, the capital of Vestala to be at about the same latitude as Seattle and to have a similar climate. However, I want Minua in the southwestern part of the continent to be more subtropical/Mediterranean. However, I want things to be close enough together so that sea voyages in pre age of sail ships (more or less equivalent to galleons) to be able to get between the ports in a reasonable amount of time. Naming is still a work in progress, and I've focused mostly on locales that will actually be germane to the stories I'm working on right now. I'm shooting for most of the names in Vestala and Altua to be literal, but with a sprinkling of "Old Empire" and "Tundish" language ones as well.

Rilinda: To the south and below the equator lies the continent of Sunabera, where Yawandi (Akello's home) is located.

Here's a more zoomed in view of northern Rilinda.

And here's a shot of just the northwestern portion--Vestala (where most of Umbral Heretic takes place) and the northern portion of Altua (where Jarrod and Danior are from). Ruu is from Temmevhode originally (a Zeryan city state), and Alana's family is from Minua to the south of Altua.

Father's Port is the capital of Altua, and is where the Luminarium and Citadel of light are located. Jarrod's home village is northeast of this city, near the border with Vestala. Tesk (and Captain Gilson) are from the North Hills.

I haven't filled in the smaller villages and features yet. I'm having a great deal of difficulty parsing the instructions in CC that allow me to capture a small section of my map and paste it into a new map with a smaller scale for more detail. I'm also having trouble figuring out how to do the same in reverse, so I can place my continent on a world map. I don't think there's any way to do create meridians with CC, or to do a projection (Mercator or some such) that takes into account the meridians, unfortunately. It would be really cool to find a SF/F map making program that lets you map your world on an actual globe, but I guess there's not enough demand to make one marketable.

I have the city mapper from CC, though I'm having some difficulty with some of its features, but I'm hoping a map of Sa Tarkil (where much of the novel actually takes place) will be possible in the future.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Word Counts and Debut Fantasy Novels

Two recently-purchased "fat" fantasy novels, with Leo for perspective
Most writers have word count on the brain. Conventional wisdom has it that a typical novel is around 80,000-90,000 words long, but that's a lot shorter than most of the fantasy novels I've read in recent years, particularly traditional fantasy set in secondary worlds or any fantasy with an epic flavor.

First-time authors are usually cautioned that excessive word counts are off-putting to agents or potential editors. This source is commonly regarded as word count Bible for people trying to sell their first novel in the US. Even writers of traditional or epic fantasy are advised to keep their word counts below 120,000 words, and the closer to 100,000 the better.

This makes sense, because it's expensive to edit, print, bind and distribute a longer book, and those fat fantasy books that fans love take up a lot of room in warehouses and on bookstore shelves. I always suspected publishers of fantasy had a bit of a catch 22 situation going on, actually. Fans of secondary world fantasy want to get lost in long tales and explore exotic worlds with the characters. But they don't want to pay 2-3x the price that one pays for a more typical-length book. So agents and editors have to weigh the pros and cons of a lengthy manuscript from a complete unknown very carefully indeed. It's rare indeed to see a fantasy novel that has fewer than three hundred and some odd pages, and longer page counts are very common. But page counts don't correspond tightly to word counts. A 120,000 word manuscript could have anywhere from 300-480 pages, depending on the line spacing, margins, font size and so on.

Another piece of advice given to first-time fantasy authors is to write a stand-alone book. An editor doesn't want to commit to more than one, I've been told, because if it doesn't sell well, they don't want to be roped into publishing more duds. Again, this makes sense, but it seems a bit unfair, given that very, very few writers produce a bestseller their first time out. It can take a while to attract the attention of fans and build a readership, and it's often hard to predict when and whether a debut will hit the market's sweet spot.

This places an aspiring novelist in a difficult position if she wants to write the kinds of fat fantasy series she likes to read. Should we skimp on world building, limit the number of characters, and reduce our plot to a bare-bones minimum in order to make it fit? Should we avoid traditional adult fantasy completely until we've sold something shorter, maybe geared to a YA or MG market even?

This got me to thinking. It's certainly not impossible to sell a debut that's considerably longer than 100,000 words. Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself was close to 200,000 words, and it is the start of a series. But he's a British writer, and it's said that the British markets run to longer books. But what about Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind? He's an American, and his book is close to 250,000 words. That puts it in the territory of George RR Martin, Robert Jordan, and other established writers. But on a more sobering note, he won the Writers of the Future contest with a short story based on an excerpt from the novel. Most of us aren't going to accomplish this.

In any case, bestselling debuts are exceptional. An agent or editor would make allowances for a debut they think has a better than average chance of becoming a bestseller. The question I have is whether or not long debuts ala Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Lynch and Weeks are the norm over the past decade or so, even among writers who have more ordinary sales.

So I decided to do a little poking around to see whether or not most fantasy debuts are really as short as people say they need to be to attract the attention of agents or editors. As it turns out, this is a difficult task. Word counts seem to be jealously guarded. There are some writer's forums that have provided them for some famous and bestselling works, but it's much harder to find them for mid-list fantasy titles. There is allegedly a feature on Amazon's website that allows you to access text data for some titles, but  they don't seem to have it for any of the books I was investigating.

A few people helpfully suggested sites like these:

But they're primarily concerned with children's books or with well-known or classic titles, and they didn't have data for most of the traditional adult fantasy titles that have been published over the past twenty years. Some authors mentioned word counts on their blogs or in interviews, but more often than not, googling word count for given titles came up blank.

So I was forced to estimate word count with many of the titles I listed. And it's been a painstaking process. This is not by any means a representative or exhaustive list. And these are all books I've heard of or have had recommended to me based on other books I've read. So there's little chance this list represents a random slice of traditional fantasy either.

My criteria for inclusion were:

1. Written for and marketed to a primarily adult readership (because YA and MG fantasy tend to be somewhat shorter)
2. Traditional fantasy set in a secondary world or an alternative world with a fairly epic scope. These are the subgenres that are most inclined towards longer word counts. So no UF or contemporary fantasy.
3. published during the past 20 years (to see if there are any trends)
4. A debut novel, or at least, a debut epic/traditional fantasy novel written under a given name.
5. initial publication in an English-speaking country (not to disregard work in other languages, but these are the markets most of my fellow epic fantasy fans are likely to be interested in)
6. initially trade published. Agent or editor word count restrictions obviously don't affect self-published titles, even if they are later sold to a trade publisher.

Page counts are for the hardcover edition when available, or for the trade PB. Mass market paperback editions tend to have longer page counts and are given in parentheses when that was the only version available.

As you can see, the correlation between page count and word count is loose at best, so any formulae used to calculate word count based on the number of pages (like the gloriously inaccurate 250 words per page guideline, which is for standard manuscripts, not for published novels) are bound to be inaccurate.

So here's what I've come up with so far:
Australian Writers

Trudi Canavan: The Magician's Guild. (2001). 120,000 words. 384 pp. First of a series.
Glenda Larke: Havenstar (1998) 163,000 words. 440 pp. Stand alone.

Canadian Writers

R Scott Bakker: The Darkness that Comes Before: (2004) 175,000 words. 604 pp. First of a series.
Jones and Bennett: Havemercy. (2008) 121,000^ 400 pages. First of a series (Jones is American, Bennett is Canadian)

UK writers

Joe Abercrombie: The blade itself. (2007) 531 pp 192,000 words. First of a series.
Peter Brett: The Painted/Warded Man. (2008): 541 pp 158,000 words. First of a trilogy.
Paul Hoffman: The Left Hand of God*. (2011):  115,000 words^. 372 pp. First of a series.
Francis Knight: Fade to Black (2013):  98,000 words 384 pp. First of a trilogy.
Jane Welch: The Runes of War. (1995): (? words) 494 pages. First of a trilogy.

US writers

Patricia Bray: Devlin's Luck*. (2002) ? words  434 pp mm paperback First of a trilogy.
Kristen Britain: Green Rider. (1998) 150,000 words^ 450 pp. First of a series.
Dawn Cook: First Truth. (2002). 114,000^ 336 pp.
Betsy Dornbusch: Exile. (2013) 109,000 words. 274 pages.
Amanda Downum: The Drowning City (2009) 91,466 pp. 384 pp (mm pb). First of a trilogy.
Lynn Flewelling: Luck in the Shadows. (1996) 156,000 words 479pp (mm pb). First of a series.
Eve Forward: Villains by Necessity. (1995)  446 pp. Stand alone.
Robin Hobb: Assassin's apprentice* (1995) 164,088 words 400 pp. First of a series.
NK Jemisin: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. (2010) 111,000 words^ 425 pages. First of a trilogy.
Mark Lawrence: The Prince of Thorns (2011). 90,000 words^. 336 pp. First of a trilogy.
Jane Lindskold. Through Wolf's Eyes (2001). 192,082 words. 590 pp. First of a series.
Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora (2007) 190,000 449 pp. First of a series.
Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind (2007) 662 pages 259,000 words. First of a trilogy.
Brandon Sanderson: Elantris (2005) 199,000 words. 496 pages. Stand alone.
Ken Scholes: Lamentation (2009) 130,000 words^. 366 page. First of a series.
Brent Weeks: The Way of Shadows (2008) 156,000 words. 668 pp (mm pb). First of a trilogy.

So some trends here, for what they're worth:

1. Only three were stand alone. This suggests that publishers are not adverse to picking up books that lead to sequels. Of course, a satisfying ending is probably a better idea than a cliff hanger, even if there's clearly more to come.

2. The average word count for the titles here (where I had estimated word counts at least) was: 147,892

This is considerably longer than the recommended cutoff of 120,000. But again, I have no idea how representative my titles are for debut secondary world/epic fantasy published over the past 20 years.

One interesting feature is that the word counts for debuts published during the past five years are lower than the ones published previously. But my data set is way too small for me to determine whether or not this represents a significant trend.

So this obsessive enumeration really raises more questions than it answers. If anyone has different/more accurate word count numbers for any of these titles than I do, please let me know. Also, if you have any more debut epic/traditional fantasy titles published in the past twenty years with relevant data, please let me know.

I think the take home message here is to write as tightly as you can without compromising the story you need to tell. A longer manuscript is not impossible to sell, but whether or not fat books are as tough a sell as everyone says for first-time fantasy writers, unnecessary verbiage is not going to help anyone's cause.

* Not a true debut, as this author published previously in another genre/subgenre or under another name
^Estimated using editor's word count method described on SFWA website
Other word counts obtained from personal communications, author web sites, or the following forums or links:

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I Hate It When Writers Do [insert literary device]

Pet peeves. We all have them. I gnash my teeth when I hear some scientist on NPR's Science Friday uttering the phrase, "The data says that..."

A slip up like that would have earned me ridicule back when I was in grad school (which wasn't quite during the dark ages). "It's 'say,' damn it. Data is a plural word!" I growl back at the radio.

Except, it isn't. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word can be used to refer to a mass of information in the singular, and in fact 60% of the usage panel accepts the use of "data" as a singular word. So my advisors were fighting a losing battle back in the 90s, but they managed to instill a lifetime hatred of what, to me, sounds like an ignorant and inaccurate usage by people who should know better. Even knowing that it's not incorrect usage, it would be hard for me to be objective about a manuscript where someone educated refers to "data" as a singular word.

When you hang out with writers (in both on and offline environments), you won't go very long without running into similar pet peeves that are similarly overstated. One person hates the Oxford comma and provides an impassioned screed about why it's (usually) not needed before the terminal "and" in a series. Another person rebuts with an equally vehement excoriation of anyone who creates the potential for lumping the last two words in a series together by leaving it off.

This example is a bit silly as a defense of the O.C., IMO
It can be amusing to share rants with our fellow writers, but it can also be demoralizing, especially for those of us who are still developing our writing chops. Just today, for instance, I learned that it's (sic) wrong to ever have someone climb down a ladder (claiming that "climb down" is a pleonasm and that pleonasms are always bad writing). I've also learned that it's bad writing to italicize a word for emphasis, because a good writer knows how to create the needed emphasis via context. I've also recently learned that metaphors or descriptions that aren't literally plausible are ludicrous. One fellow writer, for instance, said that he hates it when someone "rolls their eyes" at something (says it makes him think of eyeballs on the floor).

Occasionally, I find myself sputtering indignantly during exchanges on writing forums, as I sometimes use colloquial language in my writing (characters have even been known to sit down on occasion, which really is a pleonasm), because people say and think it that way in real life, so why can't characters in novels? And sure, I'm clever enough to think of ways to write around italicizing words I want to emphasize, but maybe I don't want to, because I'm trying to create a certain voice or tone (note how I just emphasized want in the manner so derided).
New rule to me--all use of language must be literal.

Another technique that is growing more popular is present-tense narratives. Some people categorically loathe the use of present tense in fiction and will not/can not read (or give a positive crit) to anything written in that tense. I read one such comment in a blog a while ago. Something along the lines of: "I don't see the point of it, and I've never seen a story in present that wouldn't work better in past. It's gimmicky, bad writing."

A few other things some writers/readers hate and denounce as bad writing that are not necessarily wrong, depending on context:

Italicized "direct" thoughts
Sentence fragments
Any use of passive voice to intentionally place the emphasis on the recipient of an action
Flashbacks to deliver backstory
Novels with multiple pov characters
Sex scenes in novels
Swearing in novels
Novels where the pov character's voice infiltrates the narrative
Contractions in narrative
Narrative with a more formal tone than the dialog
Details about characters' appearances
Tags that follow dialog and lead with said instead of the proper name ("Let's go," said Sam)

And so on. Readers and writers are human, of course, and we all have our likes and dislikes. But it's important to differentiate between something that's pushing our critical buttons because it's not being done well or feels out of place in the context of a given story, and something that's pushing our buttons because it's one of our personal pet peeves (or even something we were taught was incorrect when it isn't, like the above-mentioned use of the word "data" as a collective singular). Opinions stated as fact can have a devastating effect on brand new writers. Inexperienced writers lack the perspective to know whether the negative feedback is because it really is categorically wrong to do something, or if they're simply not doing it well enough, or whether it's simply the critiquer's pet peeve bludgeoning perfectly sound writing over the head.

And this got me to thinking. How much of the feedback we give others about their writing is not really intended to improve their writing, but to mold them into writing to our own preferences or conceits? It's a tough call to make sometimes, since our own perceptions of what is good writing is shaped by the things our own mentors have told us and by our own reading experiences. Writers tend to read more widely than most people do, but even so, when pleasure reading, we tend to gravitate towards books written in styles that lie within our comfort zones. This can affix us with literary blinders.

Neil Gaiman famously said, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

I suppose this can be taken too far. If someone tells a novice writer that she's punctuating dialog incorrectly, or that he's got a problem with comma splicing, that critter may very well be right, and he or she may very well be able to tell the writer to fix it. But for issues that are more related to tone, style, and voice in writing, I think Gaiman is probably spot on in a high percentage of cases.

The take-home message for me as someone who critiques the work of other writers is to remember that I'm trying to help them find an approach that works for them in the context of their project. I should want to help them write like their best selves, not to write more like I do, or even to write more like my favorite authors. Criticism should be given with a dollop of humility, and it's a good idea to include the caveat, "This is only my opinion."

Likewise, criticism (unless it's clearly meant to be destructive or demoralizing) should be accepted graciously, even if you disagree with it. It should definitely be considered, at least, if multiple critters are offering the same feedback. But that doesn't mean you should change your approach to writing simply because someone, or even several someones, doesn't/don't like it.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Which Words Belong in a Fantasy Novel?

The short answer, of course, is it depends. Fantasy is a broad genre, and some novels are set in real-world historic times, and others are contemporary or even futuristic. Many fantasy stories take place in secondary worlds that have no connection to the "real" universe at all. With the latter kind of novel, one could argue that the characters aren't "really" speaking English, but the language used by the author can evoke a particular voice or tone that will appeal to some readers and not to others.

It's not uncommon for someone to ask questions about fantasy language use in writer's forums. Many people seem to think that writing epic or high fantasy in particular requires the author to write in a sort of faux version of Ye Olde English where no one uses contractions (except, maybe 'tis and 'twas) and verbs and nouns are inverted.

'Tis a most wondrous thing that you show me. How came it to be here?"

I'm pretty sure I'd chuck a novel where everyone spoke like this across the room in short order. To be honest, I can't think of any fantasy novels, high or otherwise, where people spoke like this. People often cite The Lord of the Rings as an example of the "old high fantasy style," but actually, Tolkien's characters did not all speak with the same voice or diction (Samwise even said ain't sometimes).

One approach is to have characters speaking relatively modern English, but to remove words and phrases that reference concepts that wouldn't exist in the world where the story takes place, along with words that simply sound too modern to most readers.

The line can be fuzzy at times. Is it acceptable to use a word like "collaborate," which didn't enter the English lexicon until the 1870s (according to the OED) if your story is taking place in a typical quasi-Medival/Classical/Reinaissance era mashup? Might the use of such a word knock some readers out of the story, even though it's taking place in a different world and is, in essence, a translation of whatever word they'd use for the concept?

I'd be inclined to leave this word out of a historic fantasy set in the 1700s or 1800s, since the people would in fact be speaking something very close to modern English, and the presence of a word that had not been coined yet in their lexicon would stand out more than in a historic novel set in, say, Saxon times, or in a secondary world fantasy.

But that's me. And this is the problem, really. There's no approach that will make every reader happy. And no matter how carefully I (who am most assuredly neither a historian nor linguist of any kind) research word use, mistakes will slip through. There's also the issue of misconceptions that are so well established they might as well be reality. For instance, some people say the use of "modern" curse words like "shit" and "fuck" throw them out of a pre-industrial setting, but they're fine with the use of the word "bloody" as a sentence enhancer. Actually, the previous two words are about 100 years older than the latter, though none are as old (in their current form) as many suppose (dating back to around the 1500s-1600s).

Here's a list of words that are more recent than most readers and writer assume. It's by no means exhaustive, but it includes some words that often appear in fantasy novels.

Doll: While the term was used as a female nickname from the 1600s, it wasn't used to describe the familiar children's toy until the late 1700s. The word "poppet" is much older and was used to refer to human-inspired figurines and toys (and I am guessing is closely related to the word puppet).

Feudalism/feudal system: This term and historic concept only dates to the 18th century. That's right, it's a term that was coined by historians to describe a social system that existed centuries before. People living in the middle ages did not refer to their sociopolitical system as feudalism. Makes me wonder how future generations might refer to our society.

Improvise: early 1800s. I have no idea how people referred to making things up on the fly before this word entered the English lexicon. Did the concept even exist?

Interested: Only from early 1700s. The term interest to refer to a legal claim or a concern dates to the 1500s, however. Interesting (as in something that arouses interest) only dates to the early 1700s as well.

Leggings: Dates from the 1750s, and originally referred to an extra outer covering that protected the leg, but it's often used in place of words like trousers, pants, britches etc. in fantasy or historic novels. I think Ayla and Jondalar were wearing "leggings" in the Earth's Children books.

Nice: An old word dating to the 13th century, but it originally meant foolish. By the 1300s, it meant fussy or fastidious. Its modern meaning only dates to the late 18th century.

Slums: The word came into use sometime between 1805-1815. It's not clear that the concept of slums as we know them now, or the strict stratification of neighborhoods along socioeconomic lines, existed in Medieval or Renaissance cities, but slums are present in most of the fantasy novels I've read in recent years.

Smallclothes: Also dates from the 1750s and referred specifically to a men's undergarment, but it's often used as a generic term for the underwear of both sexes in medieval-type fantasy settings.
Stake, as in to stake a claim: mid 1800s. Stake out only 1940s era.

Uniform (as in a noun to refer to something worn in a military or professional context): From the mid 18th century. The use of the word as an adjective to denote sameness is older. Yep, prior to the mid-18th century, soldiers did not wear uniforms.

Vaguely as an adjective for doing something in a vague manner: only from 1780s, though the word vague is much older.

Now, there's nothing wrong with using these words in a fantasy novel if they describe something that does exist in your world. Unless you're shooting for a very historic feel.

Words that are a lot older than many people think. 

This list is no more exhaustive than the other one, but it includes words that might cause some readers of a Medieval to Renaissance-inspired fantasy to raise their eyebrows.

Booze: From the early 1600s.

Committee: Dates back to the early 1600s, and could either be from the word "commit," or could be a revival of an earlier Anglo-French word. This came as a surprise, since committee seems much more modern to me than words like collaborate or improvise.

Funk: To mean bad smell (from a dialectical French word for smoke) dates back to the 1620s. Referring to a bad mood from the mid 1700s. Referring to a style of music, from the mid 1900s. However, the word is so strongly associated with the music (or the concept of quirky coolness) in people's minds, that they often assume the original meaning is modern too.

Obtuse: Dates to early 1500s, and of course means dull or blunt. However, the use of the word to mean stupid or dense is nearly as old.

Quirk (meaning a peculiarity) dates to around 1600, though quirky as an adjective for someone with lots of quirks only appeared in the early 1800s.

Snot with reference to mucus: 1400. Using the term as an insult only dates to the early 1800s.

Warp (meaning to bend or twist out of shape): 14th century.

And finally, a vanished word, I wish were still in the lexicon: snite, which was an Old English word meaning to pick or wipe one's nose, and very possibly the ancestor of the word "snot."

Sources of word ages:

 Can anyone think of any other words that are much older or younger than most people assume?

Oooh, I just thought of one I completely forgot to put in: Escalate. Now I always assumed that Otis Corporation named their movable staircase (invented circa 1900) an escalator because it escalates things, but in fact, the word escalator was coined from scratch to refer to the invention, and the verb "escalate" was back formed from this noun sometime in the 1920s. So it really is an anarchistic anachronistic (though it well may be anarchistic too :)) word.

It's a darned good word, though, and another example of a really new word that references something that wouldn't exist in a fantasy world, yet it feels old.