This rant is practical advice more than anything else, and largely based on my own experience.
But then, what in these rants isn’t?
1) No one else is going to check your fantasy languages and names for you, but they will notice if you misspell them.
There have been times, reading a story on the Internet, where I wound up entirely unsure what a character’s name was at the end. Authors dislike their spellchecker stopping on names and original vocabulary, so they tend to ignore it when it happens. However, it’s a much better idea to hit “Add” than “Ignore” the first time. That way, the computer will accept the correct spelling, but it will stop and let you know if you’re spelling marheliss as marhelis again.
This is one of those extra responsibilities that a fantasy writer signs up for by including non-Terran names and languages. It doesn’t mean you need to stop. It does mean that you need to keep an eye out. Also, if you stop work on a story or novel for a long time and then pick it up again, don’t assume that you just “know” the correct spelling of an unusual name or word. Go back and look it up. It doesn’t take that long.
2) Remember that readers cannot access your silent system of nomenclature.
It may be perfectly obvious to you, if you introduce two characters named Robaran and Fellarell, which one is male and which one is female. It won’t be obvious to your readers. Be careful about using random substitutions such as “the green-eyed woman” for the characters’ names, especially if you first introduce them in a fast-paced dialogue scene. In a few sentences, you can probably establish them as distinct personalities in the readers’ minds, but it will take at least that amount of time.
Oh, about the “green-eyed woman” thing…
3) Cut down on descriptors that concentrate exclusively on characters’ physical appearance.
Names and pronouns have the very great virtue of becoming invisible, especially once the reader has gotten used to the odd spelling of this particular name or the realization that this particular Melinda is male. Descriptors such as “the green-eyed woman” are not as invisible, and can jar someone entirely out of the story. They also:
- characterize the person exclusively by physical features (something fantasy has enough of a problem with as it is; sometimes I feel as if I’m reading about a jeweled statue with all this golden hair and emerald eyes, not a person).
- become distracting and jarring in their own right, because they’re trite phrases (there’s a spectrum on this. “The younger man” is relatively inoffensive, for example. “The raven-haired man” is not, and neither is “the flame-haired woman” or “the emerald-eyed beauty.”)
- are one place where authors misuse colors like crazy (hint: claiming that your hero has malachite, jade, emerald, cyan, and tourmaline eyes is scattering an enormous variety of gemstones and shades in there, and none of them sound as good as plain old “green.”)
4) When you go seeking something to chase off, concentrate on the adjectives first.
In the hands of all authors but the most inexperienced, nouns and verbs tend not to pile up like neighbor kids who’ve heard that you have free hot dogs. Adjectives, however, are like those kids who get on their phones and tell all their friends that you have free hot dogs, and then those friends tell ten of their friends. At their worst, you get sentences like this:
She brushed her long, silky, raven hair out of her darkly grimacing face with a long, pale, slender hand, and then turned and paced languidly to a plush crimson chair covered in dravain wool next to the merrily roaring, scarlet-hearted fire, where she settled with a grace unbecoming to the youngest uncrowned, unmarried princess of Cavain Hall in a century.
Excuse me a moment.
*Limyaael cleans eye-blood off the monitor* Ah, that’s better.
A little adjective goes a long way. A great deal of the problem, I think, is that fantasy authors seem to feel a scene—or a sentence!—is wasted if they can’t use it for infodumping. This one wants me to know what the princess looks like, what the chair looks like, what this particular kind of wool is, what the fire looks like (though I think most people can picture a reasonable fire, thank you), what the princess’s position is, and what the place she rules is. This poor little sentence is being made to do work that would be better spread out over a scene, or even several.
Remember: You have the whole book to make sure the reader knows pertinent details. While it’s not good to dump them all in a huddle at the climax, much fantasy has the opposite problem; it vomits them up at the beginning. And adjectives are the main culprits in this. Chase them back home, the little monsters, and save the free hot dogs for the nouns and verbs.
5) Passive voice is not evil, but it is lazy.
After frowning at a great deal of draggy fantasy over the last year or so, but not being able to articulate to myself what made it drag so, I think I’ve figured out part of the problem. A lot of authors tend to write first with phrases like, “She went down as if she had been hit by a club in the back of the knees.” It would be much, much easier to write, “She went down as if clubbed in the back of the knees,” or even, “She went down as if someone had clubbed her in the back of the knees.” Both take less time, use active verbs, and give a shorter sentence. Both also stop making it look as if malevolent flying clubs inhabit the author’s world, lurking around to take down unsuspecting heroines. (Do let me know if there’s a world like that. I would like to borrow a few clubs and venture to a few fantasy worlds).
All authors struggle with this to some extent. I think the source of the problem in fantasy is a) a mistaken conception that because passive voice predominates in academic and legal language, that makes it “impressive-sounding” and b) an over-fascination with long sentences, which forgets that long does not always mean complex. Many authors want to sound impressive, archaic, and distant. Passive voice and long sentences do no good if they make your story drag, though, or drop the thread of its clarity.
6) Learn its/it’s, please.
For some reason, this is the student error that I’ve seen make it into published stories. The “they’re/their/there” thing and the “you’re/your” thing aren’t very common once the story’s been rigorously edited, but the so-subtle distinction between these two continues to haunt even writers who’ve published multiple books. No, I don’t know why.
Just for the record: There are no English possessive pronouns with apostrophes in them. Possessive nouns, yes, as in “Michael’s” or “dog’s” or “families’.” But not pronouns. It’s is only and ever translated as “it is” or “it has.” Who’s is only and ever translated “who is” or “who has.” But if you’re going for pronouns, the noun replacements, you want its and whose, just as you want his and hers, not hi’s and her’s.
7) Check the meaning of those archaic words before you use them.
Vermillion means red, not green. (Abuse of colors alert again!) Tenebrous means dark and gloomy; it’s not a synonym for tentative. Quicksilver is another name for mercury, highly poisonous. Having your heroine wear a quicksilver medallion is possible, I suppose, if the quicksilver is contained in something, but it would still be dangerous. And more often it seems to be used as just a “prettier” name for silver, which is wrong.
Even if you’re using the archaic words properly, I would be wary about using too many of them. Too much of that, and you sever your connection with the reader. There are dedicated people who will struggle through it, looking up every other word in a dictionary if necessary, but when there are clearer alternatives available, why not use them instead? Then, you can use the archaic words as they should be used, for ornamentation and style, rather than making the style the whole of your story.
There are authors who can get away with that, yes, but it depends. While I enjoy Lord Dunsany’s stories, especially the highly stylized ones like “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean,” I know a lot of fantasy readers who can’t stand them. Lovecraft wins as many critics as admirers. And for me, Patricia McKillip has become one of those authors to borrow from the library now, if I read her books at all. The last few books have seemed as if the commitment to style were greater than the commitment to plot or characterization.
And that’s all for right now, as I’m still trying to recover from a stomach virus. Poll later if I continue to feel better.