Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sighs, Nods, and Shrugs: Those annoying Little (Literary) Tics

I teach college biology. One of the many perks of my job is that it provides me ample opportunities to observe human behavior in all its glorious, and not so glorious, variety.
My husband also teaches, so we sometimes share stories about amusing things that happen in our classes (in ways that respect the privacy of all parties involved of course). One thing we've both noticed is that every class seems to have a mad sigher--a student who emits theatrical sighs when the instructor announces a quiz or homework, changes topics in lecture, misspeaks and corrects themselves, or when another student asks a question.

Needless to say, it's a noticeable mannerism. It's something that calls attention to itself. And while everyone sighs from time to time, some people do it more (and do it more loudly) than others.
Mannerisms are an important part of character building in fiction. Some characters will sigh, nod, blink, shrug etc. more than others. This is fine if it's intentional, but we often don't even realize it. Simple, everyday gestures can become mindless insertions.

So how many times can a character nod before readers think herhead may fall off? How many times can a writer mention quirked or raised eyebrows before they start to resemble great fuzzy caterpillars that may escape and attach themselves to the wainscotting?

Writing instructors and editors often enjoin us to be more mindful of stock gestures. I've even run across blogs that suggest that you only get five or six nods per manuscript. While I agree that excessive use of these gestures can become annoying, I got to thinking. Why five or six? What's magical about that number? And do all  successful and popular writers (or their editors) follow this advice?

I have both a nook and an ipad, so I've become an avid consumer of e-books. One thing these devices allow me to do is to conduct word searches. So I thought I'd do a little informal experiment and count the number of uses of some of these "go to" words in some of the books in my e-library. My reading is heavily weighted towards fantasy and SF, so all the titles save one fall into this category.

The words I searched for were: sigh, nod, shrug, grin, frown, eyebrow, gritted (in the context of teeth), groan. I didn't look at specific context, though I did toss incidents that were embedded in unrelated words or not used in the description of a character, and I considered all tenses of these words.

The books I examined were: The Last Argument of Kings, by Abercrombie; Promise of Blood, by McClellan; Fool's Assassin, by Hobb; Ancillary Justice, by Leckie; Cold Magic, by Elliot; King Rat, by Meiville, Old Man's War, by Scalzi, The Thousand Names, by Wexler; Havemercy, by Jones and Bennett; Colours in the Steel, by Parker; The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by Jemisin; Oryx and Crake by Atwood; Foreigner by Cherryh; Fade to Black by Knight; and The Lies of Locke Lamorra by Lynch.
Obviously, I can make no claim about how typical these are for their genre. One interesting thing I noticed is that the three SF novels on the list (Foreigner, Ancillary Justice, and Old Man's War) were all below the overall average in their usage for all of the words in question, as was the one book on the list by a writer who could be termed  "literary" (Oryx and Crake). The sample size was not large enough to do meaningful statistical analysis, of course.

What I did discover, though, was that while there was an incredible amount of variety between authors. And most of these words were used more than five times, on average. Of all of them, nod was the most popular, averaging over 60 uses per book, ranging from a low of 7 uses (Cherryh) and a high of 179 uses (Wexler). The largest single word use in one book, however, was frown, with a total of 208 uses in Abercrombie's book. Tooth gritting was the least popular overall, averaging 4.5 uses per book (and ranging from 0-28).

Every single one of these novels had at least one mannerism that was mentioned seventeen times or more.

After I did this gesticular bean counting, I went through my own manuscript and discovered that my own characters rarely grit their teeth or groan, but they seem to nod (78 incidents) and grin (60 incidents) more than the overall average for the novels I sampled.

So, what does this mean? Are uses of stock phrases like "nodded" and "shrugged" the kiss of death to a manuscript? Clearly not, since some highly successful writers make heavy use of them. Is there some predetermined number that represents a tipping point in a given novel? If there is, it's clearly much higher than five or six. But I'd also argue this doesn't means a writer should be oblivious to their use of these words.

One thing to consider is that some words also call more attention to themselves than others. Raised eyebrows and gritted teeth were mentioned less frequently overall, and probably for good reason.

In contrast, I think that some of the more common stock phrases, like nodded, grinned, frowned, and shrugged can be nearly invisible to readers, assuming they're spaced out reasonably well. Still, it certainly won't hurt anything to ask oneself whether or not the description is really needed, and if it is, whether or not there might be a way to make the gesture more evocative.

Also, are all the characters in a novel using all the various gestures equally, or is one more likely to, say, grit her teeth, while another is more likely to sigh like a forlorn maiden? Trademark gestures can be an aspect of characterization, but it doesn't take a huge number of repetitions to get across that a person is an inveterate sigher, or nodder, or shrugger.

A writer can reinforce that a repeated gesture is part of a character's mannerisms by having the other characters in the story notice them, especially if they have the potential to be irritating. It can be amusing to have one character call another out on it. The character can (if we spend time in their point of view) become self-conscious and worry whether they're doing it too often.

So are there any repeated actions or mannerisms you find irritating in a novel, or are there any you find you have to watch in your own writing?

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.