Some Helpful Hints for Writers

I’m often asked for advice on writing fantasy, so I thought a few suggestions might be helpful. Here are some pitfalls you should try to avoid.

Don’t bombard your readers with outlandish names. If you write a sentence like this, you’re asking for trouble: “Froobish the Saffronesian dismounted in front of the Temple of Quor and prayed a silent prayer to Poogle-Mo-Pooble that he would find High Priestess Botchygaloop in a forgiving mood.” Oh, I can imagine your objections. “No way, man! Lord Dunsany always wrote like that! So did Clark Ashton Smith–and what about all those crazy monikers J.R.R. Tolkien came up with? He had a character named Legolas, for cryin’ out loud!”

Yes, part of the fun of fantasy is making up the names. All I’m saying is, don’t overdo it. Besides which, great artists like Dunsany, Smith, and Tolkien can get away with things that the rest of us can’t.

Don’t even think about using a fantasy novel to act our your own personal wish-fulfillment drama. Readers can almost always sniff this out, and they always find it odious. People get a laugh out of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but they wouldn’t enjoy novels written by Walter Mitty about himself. Always remember how tedious it was, years ago, to listen to the biggest B.S. artist in your dorm bragging about his imaginary amorous exploits: and don’t write like that.

Never, never resort to cliches lifted from our pitifully lame popular culture. For one thing, it reminds your audience that they’re just reading a story somebody wrote, and it defeats their search for a respite from the world. Don’t offer them escapist literature in which you, the writer, block off their escape. It also indicates to the reader that you just aren’t very imaginative.

Unless you’re writing a unique fantasy set in our own world of here and now, the following words and phrases must never appear in your tale: diversity; self-esteem; gender; social justice; wellness; anger management and conflict resolution; erectile dysfunction; culture; inclusiveness; this or that “community”; lifestyle; socio-economic status; anything or anyone described as “spiritual”… I could list quite a few more, but the exercise is beginning to upset my stomach.

Don’t try to re-invent the English language. It’s gotten along fine without you since the says of Geoffrey Chaucer, and it doesn’t need your innovations now. Avoid those random archaisms–the odd “thee” or “thou” or “smote” dropped into the text for no particular reason. Shun the temptation to invent new and creative names for things like swords, armor, chairs, soup, etc. In short, don’t set up barriers between the reader and the story.

There’s much more that could be said; but for now, I open this forum to suggestions from the readers.

13 comments on “Some Helpful Hints for Writers

  1. I agreed with everything you said, but you left out two words in the list of words never to be used in fantasy: cope and guys. I read a fantasy (Christian one, by the way) which used both those words, as well as the characters calling their father ‘dad’, and it drove me nuts!

  2. This brings to mind the screenplay for Anne, With an E, which was a TV production of Anne of Green Gables. While it remained set at the turn of the 20th century, the dialogue employed modern-day, politically correct phrases, resulting in nearly non-stop anachronisms. This really detracted.

    1. That is such a gender-normative, non-affirming, non-inclusive, white-supremacist comment that I don’t know what to say. Where’s my Pla-Doh? 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. Hey, what do you have against the good old Italian name Baciagalupo?

    As for “don’t use” words, let me add “ethnic.” And “issues” to denote “problems.” (Actually, I cringe and sometimes yell even when “issues” is used this way in books set in modern times. Issues are editions of a periodical, topics for discussion, or, when used in the singular, offspring or the excretion from a wound.)

    And for categories, puh-leeze don’t give us a whole chapter of some expert giving the characters (and readers) a lecture on physics, chemistry, astronomy, architecture, history, ballistics, etc. These lectures are similar to the wishful-thinking Walter-Mitty dramas that you list, but here someone wants to show off his wealth of knowledge rather than advance the story.

    1. I appreciate your last point Phoebe.

      While I love the overall contribution of Jules Verne, he employed certain cliches in his books that became quite predictable as one progressed through the series. There was almost always an all-knowing, learned professor type, whom possessed a degree of nobility and self-sacrifice that strained credibility beyond the breaking point. There was usually at least one student that would have gladly suffered any horrible fate to protect the professor and was, himself, a nascent version of the professor’s selflessness and nobility.

      The professor character in Verne’s novels would occasionally launch into lectures on various scientific subjects while all of the other characters in that setting paid rapt attention. I have to cut Verne a bit of slack on this point, because when his novels were written, these subjects were far beyond the knowledge of most people and he had to educate his readers in order to tell the story, but the settings he used tended to be a bit cliched.

  4. Oh no, I talk about culture, and having a community of learners, in my soon to be published book – and “awesome” also (it is written for elementary students). I had better call my editor pronto (can that word be used?) and expunge all the bad words, ha ha.

Leave a Reply