A couple weeks ago, I saw one of those articles on Buzzfeed that basically recycles a bunch of social media comments. This one in particular was a series of comments made by readers about things they find distracting in books.
It’s one thing to ignore editorial comments. There’s quite a bit about editing that is subjective. We all have different ideas of flow, pacing, and structure. Grammar and writing rules are not absolute–but each individual editor will have different limits for how much bending of the rules they will accept. The best advice is always to thoughtfully consider any editorial criticism received, but not to feel mandated to accept it in every case.
But a published (or hoping to be published) author ignores her reader base at her own peril.
To that end, I find articles like these useful in developing my sense of the current market. What do today’s readers like or dislike in books? So I’d like to take a few moments and examine a few of the comments made by this pool of readers that are directly related to the fantasy genre.
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1. The use of modern and Earth-based slang in second world settings.
This might be one of the hardest problems fantasy writers face with our prose because slang and colloquialisms are so deeply embedded in our sense of language. I have a simple rule for all my authors: do you best to avoid all turns of phrase that do not logically fit within your setting.
This could be an issue of the time frame of the story. One example that I read that often comes to mind was a story in an ancient setting where the first-person narrator referred to something as a “wake up call.” You, of course, cannot have a wake up call without the telephone, not to mention that the very idea of the wake up call is directly tied to the history of the hotel industry.
Another one that comes up quite often is the use of the term “earth” as a synonym for dirt or soil, on a fantasy world that is not Earth.
You’re not going to be able to remove all modern-isms from your prose, of course. But do make an earnest effort to monitor your language, especially in dialogue. It’s one thing if a unidentified third person narrator is using out of place slang; it’s something entirely if the characters are doing it.
2. Age and skill, as it relates to YA protagonists.
For me, the joy of a coming-of-age fantasy novel is watching the hero grow from being a nobody into a strong warrior. But there are a lot of books out there where the hero is way to capable, way too fast. In my YA novel, CALL OF THE GUARDIAN, the young lead has ten years of training which happens off-stage, before being launched into the fray. Even then, he is still learning and growing–particularly about being a leader–as the story progresses.
Of course, there is room for mythical great figures, if you intend your story to be myth rather than real. And depending on the setting, younger people might be more mature and have greater demands placed on them than in modern times. But a reader is going to struggle to believe that a 16 year old, bratty, emotional child can be a skilled general.
3. Spelling of names in fantasy.
Let me get this out of the way upfront, apostrophes serve a specific spelling function. You can’t just throw them about willy-nilly. The apstrophied name is such a well-established cliche at this point, that I probably don’t need to say anything more.
But legibility and reader ease in fantasy can go beyond just wild, exotic names with seemingly random punctuation marks. Long names are harder than short names. Unconventional spellings slow the reader down, often when not even necessary. You don’t need to spell a common name in different way, just to make it seem fantasy. If your hero’s name is Tim, just write Tim, not Tym or Ty’m or whatever.
I find it’s helpful when writing a longer series to have a standardized spelling. We have a spelling and pronunciation guide for our OMAM CORE setting, which does include the use of apostrophes–specifically, and only, to mark syllable breaks between two vowels rather than a diphthong.
4. Random complaints related to dialogue.
This one is not specific to fantasy, but fantasy writers often violate this one more often, as we try to hide our worldbuilding in dialogue (which doesn’t work, by the way). My ground rule for my writers is that the dialogue should be real for the characters speaking it. Characters should not enagage in remembrances of past events that they are both aware of, just to convey that information to the reader. Here are several examples of unrealistic language in dialogue.
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Bottom line, it’s important to listen to people’s experience as readers. As I commented to another writer recently, you can be a writer and do whatever you want. And today, you can even be a (self)published author by doing whatever you want. But you cannot be a successful published author, unless you heed the desires of the readers. To some extent, we have to give them what they want.
As always, leave your questions or comments below. I’d love to hear your point of view on some of these items.