Before I start this rant, three caveats:
- I’m writing this as a critical reader, copyeditor at an e-zine, and freshman English teacher, which means I’m writing it as someone who’s thinking of an awful lot of mistakes, both major and minor, that crop up in published fiction, in hopes-to-be-published amateur fiction, and in short stories written by students who’ve told me they hope to be authors someday.
- An author may well have an explanation for something that looks like a mistake to a reader. But if the explanation doesn’t show up in the book, or the following book, or somewhere in the author’s work, the reader has every right to go on thinking it’s a mistake.
- I do think every author should develop as many self-critical and self-editorial faculties as possible, because no one knows your work like you do. Some things will be impossible to judge, others will escape your eye no matter how critical it is, but if your response to every mistake or nitpick is “But!”, you will not like this rant and should not read it.
These are in entirely random order.
1) Keep your character details straight. No one else knows them.
Numerous times, when editing a story, I’ve seen a character’s name change in spelling, or the author declare on one page that the character has blue eyes that turn to brown, then go back to blue, then turn to brown again. And I’m left helpless as to what changes I should make, if any, because I am not the one who knows how the character’s name is supposed to be spelled, or what color eyes she has. There are times I’ve gambled and gone with the spelling or color that appears the most, but I could be wrong. There’s just no way to tell.
You are the one who came up with this character’s name, who knows what she looks like, who knows whether this person appearing on page 2 is her mother or her aunt or her cousin. Get used to keeping a mental character dossier in your head that you can access at will. Being away from your notes is no excuse. If you don’t know whether her name is Julianna or Juliette or Juliet, how can you expect anyone else to?
2) Learn to use commas.
This is the most frequently abused punctuation mark, no matter the writing. It’s a good story when I only need to put two or three in. Sending a list of corrections about where commas need to appear in every other sentence on a page is tiresome—and also something I’ve done before.
Most confusing are those authors who appear to know their commas for the first three pages of the story, then abruptly abandon them. I can never tell if they were making lucky guesses or got lazy.
For what it’s worth, these are the two most frequent places commas are missing in the work I’ve read:
- around a name used as a salutation.
“Hey[,] Sunkisser[,] how are you?”
Since my mind automatically tries to read this as a sentence about Sunkisser instead of to Sunkisser when it’s without the commas, this is doubly confusing.
- in the middle of a long sentence where there should be natural pauses.
“He bent down and retrieved the boots which had been under the bed because they were so dirty there hadn’t been time to clean them last night and he didn’t want the sight of them to embarrass him in front of Sunkisser.”
This is a case where you could make some arguments about where the commas go, but I definitely think they need to go somewhere. I’d put them after “boots” and “night,” because that’s where my breath pauses when I’m reading it. Reading a bunch of sentences like this without commas makes me feel tired. It’s not a good thing to do to your readers.
3) Know the natural laws that you use in your story.
This is here because fantasy authors, I believe, tend to get spoiled. They can use magic to excuse a whole lot, so they start using it to excuse everything. That’s all fine and dandy if the author explains that it’s magic and why someone is using it, which can be done in a throwaway line. It’s highly unfine and dressed in crumpled clothing when they cut the explanation out of the story altogether and include violations of natural law in an Earth-like world.
I’ve read five stories in the last half a year that all had wolves randomly attacking travelers in the forest. There was absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. The wolves showed up in the middle of summer or fall, attacked, and then ran away. But, see, wolves don’t do that. They’re shy around humans, and generally attack only in winter and only if they’re starving. And if they’re starving, they’re not going to go away because the hero yells at them and manages to get in a lucky strike with his sword.
Could someone be controlling them by magic? Sure. Could they be werewolves? Sure. But the authors didn’t put that in their story. And if it’s not there, it’s unfair of any author to put the burden on the reader for coming up with some explanation that fits. It’s up to the author to craft the magic or do the research that makes this randomness fit by taking away the randomness.
4) Who are these people?
Throwing a bunch of different names at a reader in the first three lines is not the way to get them involved in the story. Especially, throwing a bunch of different names that are sufficiently different from any Terran language so as to be hard to pronounce at the reader in the first three lines of the story is not the way to get them involved. Trying to sort out characters from each other will probably take some time. If those character names are mixed with the names of cities, provinces, gods, magic spells, and institutions, it gets harder.
It can work if you’ve got one of the following:
- sufficiently strong characterization skills that the characters start speaking in different “voices” right away.
- names that are easily pronounceable, yet distinct from one another. (Sorting Artisoron, Artisporos, and Artilon from one another will take some time).
- a storyline that focuses on one character, so even though the story might hurtle into a whole bunch of names, the other names drop away for a little while and the reader has a limited number to keep track of, all filtered through the mind of one person who’s becoming increasingly distinct.
Of course, I don’t think that you need a bunch of names at the beginning of a story at all. A novel will give you world enough and time to introduce them, especially as long as many fantasy novels are, and short stories should have a limited enough cast to fit the limited form anyway. But that doesn’t stop people from tossing them in there, and making me spend more time on memorization than I really want.
5) Why should we care?
If I get through a short story and am unimpressed, this is most often the culprit. All right (not a real example, but combining traits of several), so this character saw a flash of light over the lake, acquired a stone that sparkles in a vaguely magical way, and was told that he had to leave home. And then…the story ends.
So what? A mysterious event is not a story. Nor is a bunch of mysterious events. Nor is the character having an epiphany and the author not telling the reader what it is, which I’ve seen mar the ends of several otherwise good stories. Okay, so the imprisoned mage meets the king, the king tells him a sad story and shows him a mirror, and then the mage says, “Yes, Your Majesty, I understand,” and is freed to return to his village. What the huh? What did he realize? The author being all mysteeeeeerious about it is silly.
In short stories like this, I often have the feeling that the author is trying to interest me, as a reader, in the world, that this is a tease. It would have been better to send a complete story. In a complete novel that just gives little details without providing a hint of the larger picture, the whole thing exists only as a transition from one book to the other (a common problem with the middle books of fantasy trilogies), which is a cheat.
Readers don’t need to be teased. Being profound does not mean being incomprehensible. Give people a reason to care. If the story is meant as a character sketch, tell us enough about this character that we care about him. If it’s meant as a complete story, there has to be a story there.
6) Having a moral is nothing new.
It’s great if you want to teach morals. Hey, more power to you. But when the moral could stand on its own without the framework of the story, or, worse, comes in at the end out of the blue, then I have a problem with it.
The thing you’ve got to remember is that didactic literature really is nothing new. It’s been around forever, and by the time that a lot of people read your story, they’ll be jaded on it. So you’ve got a few choices:
- come up with a way of presenting your moral so enjoyable that the reader loves the story, whether or not she absorbs the lesson.
- present the moral gently, in a framework that makes sense. It might be obvious, but it won’t be a sledgehammer.
- put a new twist on the moral. Really hard to do, actually, especially if your wording sounds just like everyone else’s.
- change the story to suit the message.
I’ve read enough moralistic stories that were bitter pills in the end. Unremarkably, they’re also some of the more poorly-written stories I’ve read. The author hurries along, sacrificing characterization and world detail and plot to the mighty Message. It doesn’t matter what permutations she has to go through to get the lesson in there; it’ll appear.
Oh, yes, that reminds me.
7) What’s true on page 7 should be true on page 107, and 207, and 307, and 407, and so on.
This applies even in the case of mysteries or a deliberately twisty and complex story, because, while the author might take the readers in for a while or intrigue them with an apparent inconsistency, the author should know the truth. (In final drafts, if nowhere else). Stating unequivocally on page 7 that the hero’s faith cannot move mountains goes out of the window if his faith moves a mountain on page 107. The author had better come up with one hell of an explanation. If she doesn’t, then she’s had her cake and eaten it too, because I bet you the faith-moved mountain solved a plot problem for her that would have been insurmountable otherwise. And that is bad, because it leaves no cake for the readers.
I’ve heard it argued that fantasy has to be the most realistic of the genres, to convince readers that they’re really in another world, and that it has license to be as unrealistic as it pleases, thanks to inheritance from fairy tales. I think (now) that both are wrong. Fantasy, like any other book of any other genre, gets the chance to invent plenty, such as characters and settings and histories and subplots. But if it doesn’t keep its own rules, if it changes them around whenever the author’s whim changes, then it’s impossible to keep to a consistent or coherent story. Anything might happen next. Suspense dies first, and then characterization, and then the plot, and then the story.
Be especially tough on inconsistencies in your system of magic, and those points in the plot when the hero solves a problem. It had better be possible—not by our own world’s rules, necessarily, but by your own. At some point, the freedom of storytelling collapses, as every choice you make takes away another choice, and you’ve got to be happy with the story you’ve got.
8) Keep the location of physical objects in mind.
Please read the following sentences:
Desperate to keep her enemies from finding the hand-carved mirror that Mindy had given her, Kiara threw it into the bushes.
Three days later, and miles from where she left the mirror:
Kiara positioned the hand-carved mirror that was their only hope of salvation against a rock, and smiled in relief. Mindy had known what she was about, when she gave Kiara this farseeing mirror!
…Okay, what? How did the mirror get from the bushes back to Kiara’s hand? Even if the enemies stopped, searched for it, and found it, why in the world would they let her have it back? Why wasn’t there a scene of her stealing it back, if that’s what happened?
This shows up all over the place when the author doesn’t have a good sense for objects. Personal possessions vanish and reappear at random times. The heroine has a bloody wound in her hip at one point, then a “bruise” there a page later. The hero has a trained falcon that he sends off to spy for him, and then it never returns for the rest of the story. A sword gets dropped in a desperate battle, and shows up stuck in a stone. The sun rises in the west. Chaos and anarchy reign.
My personal pet theory for this is that the author is concentrating so hard on people, and making sure that she doesn’t mention a character in the wrong place or have somebody show up after they died, that she doesn’t bother with the objects. If the thing is one unfamiliar to our own daily world, like a telepathic bird, she’s all the likelier not to pay attention to it; it takes time to get into the mind of a character who thinks of the bird as an extension of his body.
Is this really a problem? Yes, when it benefits the plot undeservingly, such as letting Kiara escape with the help of a mirror she has no business having. If the character is horribly wounded and then all right and then horribly wounded again, it’s drama that doesn’t actually present any harm to the character. The telepathic falcon or animal sidekick whom the hero doesn’t use is pointless clutter, one more useless name to remember. The sword that shows up stuck in a stone has apparently violated a physical law. Having the sun rise in the west is a pretty effect that sends your world to hell and gone.
Practice. Think about where your heroes leave things, where the non-human characters are, what’s happened to the heroes in the past that will affect their physical condition. Keep your eye on it, or the inconsistencies can start ripping your story apart, and you won’t even notice.
9) Infodumping in dialogue is STILL INFODUMPING.
I’m running into this problem with Jennifer Fallon’s Medalon at the moment. One character, Garet, is reciting history to another, Mahina. Mahina regularly interrupts him with statements like “None of this is news to me,” and “Commandant, I admire your grasp of history, but is there a point to all this?” (45). What makes it even better is that Mahina was a teacher, and has hammered this history into her students’ heads for years. Yet on the infodump goes for two pages, with no information that’s new to Mahina being introduced until after that.
There seems to be this idea that if a fantasy reader doesn’t know everything about the new world she’s in right away, she will scream and have a fainting fit. I really don’t think that’s the case. The sheer number of people who enjoy books like Nine Princes in Amber, where Zelazny does not explain everything and the reader discovers the world as the amnesiac Corwin does, begs to differ. You’ll lose some readers if you delay, but you’ll also lose readers if you infodump. There is no way to snare everyone. And at least the slow-world exploration is often interesting, while infodump is boring and hard to make believable. Yes, dialogue or not.
…This will have to be a two-part rant. No way I can fit everything in here right away.