Thursday, July 8, 2010

Knowing your genre, part one

This entry is part book review, part writing advice, part rant. It was inspired by a request from a friend, who lent me a new fantasy novel she had purchased by an award-winning author whose previous work she had really enjoyed. She wanted my opinion because she found the book disappointing, but thought maybe it was because she wasn't a regular fantasy reader. I, on the other hand, devour fantasy novels like candy, so she was curious what kind of reaction I would have. I'm always open to suggestions, especially when the book offered is free of charge, so I took it home and stuck on the top of my admittedly huge and wobbly stack of "to-reads."

You'll notice I've scrupulously avoided mentioning the title of the book, or the author's name, and that's because Mom always said, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." (Maybe it wasn't my mom who said that, she's always been pretty outspoken, but I'm sure someone's mom said it once.) Sure, I have no compunction bad-mouthing Herman Melville or James Fenimore Cooper, but I'm pretty sure they don't subscribe to Google notifications when they're mentioned on the internet. And besides, half of the following rant isn't so much a review of the book as a response to something the author put on their bio page.

This is what set me off: a declaration to the effect that "Gee, everyone said I should read all the fantasy classics before I wrote one of my own, but I figured I only needed to know about the real world." Which is partially true; you do need to know about the real world and real people to write believable fantasy characters and stories that have relevance to today's readers. But the casual dismissal of needing to know anything about the genre you're trying for the first time really set my teeth on edge. (Doubly so, because the genre this author usually works in—children's/young adult—is so often dismissed by people who know nothing about it as "easy." What do you want to bet that at least once in this author's career, someone said something like, "How nice for you, children's books, they're short. I'd like to whip one out someday, if I have a couple of weeks.") Still, I began the first page with an open mind, as I've read enough good books by people switching genres to know it can be done.

And here's where the writing advice comes in. As I was reading, I noticed several flaws in the book that a more experienced reader of fantasy might have avoided. So here, culled from my decades as a dedicated fantasy reader, are some important rules to consider when you're writing fantasy:

1) Build your world, but don't overwhelm the reader: Everyone who's enjoyed a really good fantasy knows how much fun it is to submerge yourself in a completely different world. It's great when an author has so thoroughly envisioned their creation that they can make you believe it's real. It's not so great, as in Unnamed Book, when an author drops so many proper names into the first two chapters that you have to stop reading every few paragraphs to look at the map on the first page. It's not that I have anything against maps in fantasy novels; I've created a couple of my own, and it's nice to give the reader a general idea of the shape of your world. But if I have to repeatedly stop reading just to figure out what the hell you're talking about, you're giving me too much detail, too fast.

In contrast, look at how J. K. Rowling creates the world of the Harry Potter series. I've read she had notebooks and notebooks filled character names, family histories, spells, and other details of Harry's universe. Yet she doesn't overwhelm us with detail in this first chapter; we're introduced to Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall and Hagrid, and see two spells and one enchanted motorcycle. Even better, we are gradually shown Rowling's wizarding world through the eyes of a novice, Harry himself, so any confusion is part of building his character. By giving us just enough details to make the world real, Rowling tantalizes us and draws us in, rather than confusing us. This is good advice for writers of any kind of fiction, actually. Whether you've done historical research or just know what kind of lunch box your main character used in third grade, you have to remember that there's a difference—a huge difference, actually—between what you as the author need to know about your world and your characters, and what the reader needs to know.

I've realized this is going to be one huge-ass rant, so I'm splitting it into parts. Part two will probably come tomorrow, assuming I finish my work-work on time, and I'll enlighten you about using magic and character archetypes.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like this nameless author ignored cardinal rule #1 of writing: write what you know. (At least I think it's rule #1, but not being an author, I could be wrong.)
    And I did say if you can't say something nice....... I just don't always follow it.