Tag Archives: This blog was written in July 2011

Fanmail Q&A: The Biggest Mistake

Pat,

I love your books, and I’ve been reading your blog for years, silently lurking. Not wanting to take up your time with a comment, let alone a letter.

But here’s the thing. After years of thinking about it. I’m actually starting to write.

Yeah. Surprise surprise. I’m looking for advice.

I know most of it I’ll have to learn on my own. And I know you don’t have time to tell me all the tricks of the trade you’ve learned over the years. But I was hoping you could tell me just one thing. Not something I should do. Something I should avoid. What’s the biggest mistake you see new writer’s make in fantasy?

If you can tell me what that mistake is, then hopefully I can skip that one and make other mistakes instead.

Love,

Jan

Awww…. free love.

Well Jan, the biggest mistake I see new writer’s make is the grocers’ apostrophe.

No, wait. Don’t cry. I’m just teasing a little. I mock because I love. I don’t hold minor grammatical goofs against people. I’m no Strongbad. Hell, I make the classic it’s/its mistake more than half the time.

Anyway, to the heart of the matter. Let me answer your question the way that I answer all questions, with a story.

Months ago, I was sitting around with Oot. He was just starting to get really verbal in those days. Whole sentences. Picking up words right and left.

More to the point of this story: he was just learning how to count.

So. We’re sitting around and I hold up a finger and say, “One….”

He knows where I’m going with this. Counting is a new thing, so he’s pretty exited about it.

“One…” I prompt him again.

He jumps on board this time. “…two. Three. Four! Five! SIX! EIGHT! TEN! SIX! THREE! SIX!

He gets really worked up after three. He makes little fists and waves around his arms enthusiastically. On a good day he’ll get all the way up to nine before he falls apart.

It’s perfectly natural, really. When you have a cool new piece of information to show off, you’re bound to get excited.

Later on in the day I come in and he’s reading a book with Sarah. It’s the last page in a big Richard Scarry book, and it has groups of things lined up, just for counting. One picture of a whale. Two pictures of walruses. Three pigs.

You get the idea.

Mom is coaching him with ladybugs and buttons. There’s lots of those, way more than ten.

I tag Sarah out so she can go do some stuff on her own, then I sit down with Oot.

I point to the book. “How many walruses are there?”

He looks at the page. “One…. Two….” He looks at the book seriously.

There’s a pause. A long pause. He furrows his brow.

“Two,” he says.

“Good job!” I say, completely earnest. This is big stuff. Cutting edge. I’m proud of him. He really thought it out. Didn’t just make a guess.

I point one line down on the page. “How many pigs?”

He looks at the three pigs. “One… two…. Three.”

But he doesn’t stop there. He’s on a roll now. “Four! Five! Six! SEVEN! TEN! SEVEN! MANY!” He finishes by throwing his arms up over his head triumphantly.

It’s cute as hell, really. But the fact is, he’s wrong. He got carried away.

And this, Jan, is the biggest problem I see most new fantasy authors make.

* * *

(Yeah. That’s a scene break. I’ve decided I can put a scene break in my blog if I feel like it.)

You see, one of the hardest parts about writing fantasy novels is describing things.

Now this problem isn’t unique to fantasy novels. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you have to describe things. That’s a given.

The problem is that in fantasy, there’s so much you have to describe.

If you write a novel set in the real world, you can assume your reader will have a certain baseline knowledge. They will know about Seattle and Paris. They will know what the internet is. They will (almost certainly) know who Robin Hood is. They’ll (probably) know who Don Quixote is. They’ll (maybe) know who Cyrano De Bergerac is.

But when you’re writing fantasy, especially secondary-world fantasy (By which I mean fantasy where the story takes place in a world other than our own) the reader doesn’t know anything about your world. They don’t know the cultures, religions, magic, or cities. The reader doesn’t know anything about the myths and legends of the world.

Now a lot of times, this is one of the major selling points of the book. A big payoff of secondary-world fantasy is the thrill of exploration. We get to see new countries, fantastic creatures, odd cultures, curious magics, etc etc.

And, honestly, this is one of the big perks of being a fantasy writer. We get to build castles in the sky, then show them off to people.

So here’s how it goes wrong.

1. You create something for your fantasy world: a creature, a culture, a myth, whatever.

2. You’re proud of your creation. You’re excited about it. You love it with a fierce love.

3. You need to describe this thing to your reader, because if they don’t understand how it works, your story won’t make sense.

(3b. Remember, the story is the real reason people are there. Story is everything. Story is god.)

4. So you start to explain how folks in the the Shire celebrate their birthdays. (This is important because one of the first major events of the book is a birthday party.) You talk about how hobbits give presents away at their parties instead of receiving them. (This is important because it ties into why Bilbo is going to hand over the ring to Frodo.)

Then you start talking about how some of these presents get passed back and forth, party after party. And how those items are actually called mathoms, and how there’s actually a museum full of mathoms at Michel Delving, which is in the Westfarthing of the shire, since, as you know, the Shire is composed of four sections which take their names from prominent families in the area, such as Tookland being named after the Tooks, who are among the largest and oldest of the Shire families, and in fact still held the title of Thain, which had been passed to them from the Oldbucks, and while the title was largely ceremonial these days due to the lack of Shire-moot in recent, peaceful times…. Four! Five! Six! SEVEN! TEN! SEVEN! MANY!

You see what happens? It’s easy for an author to get so caught up in the details of the world they created, that they go off the rails and give us more than is really necessary for the story.

Now it might seem like I’m picking on Tolkien a little bit here. But again I say: I mock because I love. I grew up reading Tolkien, and I mean that quite literally. I read the lord of the rings at least once a year through all my teenage years.

To his credit, Tolkien gave us one of the best traditions of our genre, that of elaborate, realistic worldbuilding.

Unfortunately, he also gave us the tradition of providing *way* too much information at the beginning of the story.

Tolkien is the cornerstone of modern fantasy. His impact on the genre is immeasurable. His arm has grown long….

Again, I love Tolkien. But the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring is one of the most egregious instances of info-dumping in existence. At best, it resembles the dry essay it was intended to resemble. At worst, it’s like reading Leviticus.

(Okay. Fine. It’s really more like reading Numbers. But you know what I mean…)

And yeah, you can argue that Leviticus is a chapter in the best-selling book of all time. But the key is that the bible doesn’t *start* with that chapter. The bible starts out with action. Right out of the gate you get you have magic, “Let there be light.” You get conflict. You get character development. You get a good antagonist, drama, betrayal, exile from paradise. That’s exciting stuff. Genesis really gets the story going. It sets the hook.

That’s why the bible sells so well. Only after you get involved in the plot does Moses start giving you the heavy worldbuilding in Numbers and Deuteronomy. He did that for a reason. If he’d started the bible with the info-dump, it would have been *way* too boring. No publisher would have printed it.

So how do you avoid falling into the trap of telling too much?

I wish I could give you a simple answer to this, Jen. But the truth is, I could teach a week-long class on this seemingly simple question. There are dozens of tricks and cheats. There are hundreds of ways to do it well, and thousands of ways to do it badly.

What makes this such a horrible problem is that “too much” is largely a matter of taste. Some readers really *do* want to read all the details of the ancient Shi-Ang dynasty, and how their government relied upon the use of telepathy crystals. Other readers just want you to hurry up and get to the part where the Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood initiates apprentice Ayllisia into the secrets of the Eternal Kiss.

It’s also a matter of style. Some writers are better at making exposition engaging than others. Some worlds are more alien than others, requiring more explanation.

My personal philosophy is to err on the side of caution. Given the choice, I’d prefer to give too little description and leave you wanting more, rather than give a lot and risk you being bored.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony of preaching “less is more” after writing a 400,000 word novel. Imagine how long it would have been if I hadn’t been consciously riding the brake.

In my opinion, Jen, the biggest thing is you can do to avoid this problem is to be aware that it *is* a problem.

Knowing is half the battle, and all that.

Verbosely yours,

pat

Later Edit: Yeah. I know the author of the e-mail was Jan, not Jen. I changed it as an oblique reference to the way that Strongbad would usually change/screw up the names of the people that wrote into him by the time he finished answering their questions.

See? That way we start and end the blog with a Strongbad reference, providing a sort of closure and narrative unity.

I can tell from the comments below that at least a few of you got it. But it’s clear the rest of you just thought I didn’t care enough to get her name right.

Just wanted to let you know that I’m not an insensitive asshole. No. I’m just prone to arcane referential douchery.

Posted in Fanmail Q + A, I mock because I love, Oot, the craft of writing, Things my baby has taught me about writing | By Pat85 Responses
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