How realistic should a fantasy story be?

First, let’s distinguish between fantasy stories set in what is basically our own world, and those set in different worlds. A fantasy set in our world can leverage existing settings, cultures, languages, etc. This simplifies some aspects of the writing process, but can add complications, particularly if set in the modern era. But it’s the other type I want to discuss.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the iconic example of a fantasy set in a world that is distinctly different than ours, but still has many similarities. There are different races, different languages, strange monsters, and powerful magic, but the world itself looks much like our own in terms of the flora and fauna. The technology level is medieval, with castles and keeps and walled cities. It’s swords & sorcery, in modern terms. Many fantasy novels hew to this pattern, including my own.

It is certainly possible to write a fantasy set in a completely different world. The world can have a green sky, ten moons, and three suns. All of the animals and plants can be different. There can be unique races, each with differing language, titles, units of measure, religion, magic, culture, government, etc. But unless the author is incredibly talented, I can pretty much guarantee it will turn into a confusing mess for the reader. I know, because I’ve read both fantasy and science fiction novels that have taken things too far. The reader needs something to identify with, and they don’t want to be constantly having to look things up in appendices.

Dungeons & Dragons was heavily influenced by Tolkien, and my world was based off of my own D&D campaign. That provided the basis, and I made a deliberate decision to not make any drastic changes. Medieval fantasy worlds of that kind are traditional now. The familiar elements comfort the reader and make it easier for them to imagine what is being described. And the magic and fantastic creatures thrill them, or so the author hopes. It certainly seems to be working for George R.R. Martin.

In a future post, I may discuss the specific decisions I made, and some of the unintended consequences that resulted. Happy writing.

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Pronoun Trouble

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(image from the classic Warner Bros. cartoon “Rabbit Seasoning”)

In the process of reviewing my first book and looking for issues, I noticed something that I could then not unsee: I underuse personal pronouns. What do I mean by this? I mean that I tend to repeat character names when I could just as well have used “he” or “she” or “they”, as examples. Fixing this issue is taking considerable time, and is complicated (as I will describe below). When I am finally finished, I will upload a revised version of the book and ask Amazon to push out the changes to anyone who has automatic updates turned on.

My primary concern is that I will go too far and end up erring in the other direction. If the reader can’t figure out who is speaking, or who is being referred to, then they’re probably not going to keep reading. A sentence like “She told her that she wasn’t interested.” can be a nightmare. Each of the three personal pronouns could potentially refer to a different person, e.g. “She told Jane that Sally wasn’t interested.” But even that version requires that the reader understand who “She” refers to.

The use of personal pronouns depends on both the number of characters involved and their genders. If there is only one male, then “he” and “his” are clear. Two of the same gender makes it much more difficult to use personal pronouns. Three or more speakers in a single conversation almost always requires the repeated use of the actual names.

This issue is something that I am still struggling with, and it’s probably only a matter of time before I discover yet another of my bad writing habits.

This is a Bestselling Post!

In this exciting post, I will argue why I think the term “bestseller” no longer has any meaning.

Long ago, in a much simpler publishing world, describing a book as a bestseller actually meant something. Specifically, it implied that the book had been listed as one of the  top-selling books by a respected publication, such as The New York Times. The ranking was typically based on sales for a one-week period, and there were only a small number of very broad categories, e.g. “fiction”. These books were often featured prominently in bookstores. Actually, they still might be, but who goes to a bookstore these days?

Now consider the following: An author writes a novel and self-publishes it as an ebook on Amazon (or some other similar site). The author runs a promotion in which the book is free for a few days, and they advertise the living hell out of it. Lots and lots of people “buy” the book, and for a brief period it ranks in the top ten of its incredibly narrow and highly-specific category, for example “coming of age, zombie techno-westerns”. (Okay, I just made that up.) From then on, the author proudly brags to anyone that will listen that their novel is a bestseller, and even adds that claim to the cover. Woohoo!

I wish that the previous paragraph was fiction, but sadly it’s not. There are an incredible number of people that no one has ever heard of now claiming to be “bestselling authors”. They’re everywhere. There are even businesses that guarantee to make your book a bestseller, and measure their success as described above. It’s actually rather sad if you think about it. It would be far better to write a book that actually sells well based on its merits.

In conclusion, the term “bestseller” has now been abused to the point that it’s practically meaningless.

Stay tuned for a future post in which I explain why an award your book received from a six-month old website run by your cousin out of his parents’ basement should not be plastered all over the cover and included in the blurb. 🙂

The Editing Never Stops

I am currently making another pass through my book, Audrey of Farmerton, preparatory to offering a paperback version. Despite the best efforts of both myself and my beta readers, I am still finding typos and minor mistakes. It appears that no amount of copyediting will ever find all of the mistakes. The good news is that when I am done, I can update the ebook version, and the new version will be automatically pushed out. You can’t do that with printed books.

It is my contention that there simply aren’t that many decent editors left out there. These days, even books by popular authors are published with obvious typos and grammar errors. Last year, I read a science fiction novel that had won major awards despite having significant plot holes and the author not really understanding how to use commas. The editor was either incompetent, or was too rushed to do a good job.

The advent of easy self-publishing is probably to blame for the current situation. The publishing industry in general has dealt poorly with  emerging technologies. That has led to cutbacks, including editorial staff. And when cutting staff, it is invariably the most experienced (and best paid) people that are let go.

What makes a good editor? They obviously need to have a good knowledge of the English language (or whatever language they are editing). This includes both spelling and grammar. But they also need to understand composition. They need to be able to judge if sentences are properly grouped into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, and scenes into chapters. They also need to understand what they are reading, otherwise they will be unable to spot larger issues such as plotting and pacing. To be perfectly honest, a good editor first needs to be a good writer. But a good writer isn’t likely to be interested in editing the works of someone else unless they’re a close friend or relative. A good writer would rather be writing.

I can’t offer any magical solution. For now, I’ll just rely on my own editing skills, resigned to the fact that the things I write will never be perfect.

Cover Art

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I want to discuss how I ended up with this particular cover, but first I wish to inform you that Audrey of Farmerton is free as a Kindle ebook through Sunday January 8.

I decided to go with a professional artist for my cover because I’ve heard that it’s important both to have a good cover, and to have one that looks good even when reduced to a thumbnail. My cover was done by Brandi McCann, who is very experienced at creating book covers. She works primarily be compositing existing pictures, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Despite this limitation, she gave me a cover that I’m very happy with.

The cover depicts an actual scene in the book, with Audrey in the foreground, and Saxloc farther back. The artist quickly found an excellent background, as well as wolves and a man in chainmail that was easily modified to portray Saxloc. The real issue was Audrey. Finding an appropriate picture was a challenge. After several false starts, I finally realized that a traditional karate uniform had the kind of look I wanted, similar to peasant clothing. In the original picture, the woman is wearing an all-white uniform with a karate belt. The artist was able to make the top look more like a shirt, alter the belt, and change the cloth colors. She also had to add the boots, because people in karate uniforms are nearly always barefoot.

I think the final cover turned out remarkably well. She even added paw prints in the snow and shadows. I also like the fonts she picked. I will definitely being employing her services for the sequel, The Witch’s City.

Dialog and Dialect

People from different backgrounds, or different places, speak in different manners. This can take the form of a different accent, altered vocabulary, or variation in how a sentence is constructed. Accents are difficult to convey in writing, and when attempted are often annoying to the reader. For example, I have relatives that pronounce the word chair with two syllables (chay-are). I know of no way to put that in writing that isn’t both awkward and confusing. So it’s best to focus on the other two methods and simply mention when someone has an accent.

Consider the following sentences:

  1. Dontcha worry, Audrey.
  2. Don’t you worry, Audrey.
  3. Don’t worry, Audrey.
  4. Do not worry, Audrey.
  5. Be not concerned, Mistress Audrey.

The first example uses English slang, which is a way to make someone sound informal (and less educated). The second example sounds more folksy than the third because of the added (and unnecessary) you. The fourth differs from the third simply by dropping the contraction, and it is a simple way to make a character sound more formal. The final example is designed to sound extremely formal, pretentious even.

Simple word choice can help to differentiate characters. Where one person might say “okay”, another might say “all right”. Something might happen “a lot”, “often”, or “frequently”, depending on who is speaking about it.

Deciding on just how a character should speak is a challenge, and the way they speak might change over time or even depending on who they are speaking with. (Think about how most adults simplify their language when talking to small children.) But it is definitely something that a writer needs to keep in mind.

Third Person, Past Tense

I started writing my fantasy novel, Audrey of Farmerton, in the third person and the present tense. Because the story is told from a single viewpoint, I could have written it in the first person, but I decided against it. That was partly because the planned sequel would have multiple viewpoint characters, and partly because I wasn’t comfortable writing as though I were a teenage girl.

Why did I change from writing in the present tense to the past tense? That’s complicated. First let me give some examples.

Present tense: He is writing a blog post.

Past tense: He wrote a blog post.

Past perfect tense: He had written a blog post.

The present tense provides more of a sense of immediacy–“She opens the door and leaves in a huff.” as opposed to “She opened the door and left in a huff.” Present tense can work well, especially when there is a great deal of action. It also has the advantage that referring to earlier events can be accomplished by simply employing the past tense. On the other hand, the majority of fiction is written in the past tense. That is what is traditional, and that is what I decided I should employ.

The past tense is easy to write in, with one major exception. Referring to earlier events (outside of dialog) requires the use of the past perfect tense. This involves a great deal of “had” and “been”, and maybe even the dreaded “had had”. This is something that I am still coming to terms with. One way to reduce this nuisance is to use past perfect in the first sentence of a paragraph and then switch to past tense, possibly returning to the past perfect at the end of the paragraph to make things clear to the reader. Writing every single sentence in past perfect may be grammatically correct, but it can be tedious to read.