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I'm in a writing group. I see repeating word-choice patterns among the fantasy writers. Example: frequent use of certain words (like 'utter,' everyone seems to use that word... ), or certain symptoms manifesting with magic (for example, illness, usually headache, always accompanies emerging psychic ability).

Maybe there are tons of irritating 'beginner habits'.

These aren't really tropes that I am talking about. I simply want to avoid rookie errors. I'm asking if there are blind spots that beginning writers have, especially in fantasy, and what those might include?

My question is broad because I don't mind a range of answers (I'm trying to get up to speed quickly, but blogs/etc give general advice like 'show-not-tell,' or 'edit edit edit," etc. ... Great advice but not really pertinent to the question).

Specifically, as a few focused thoughts.

  1. Are there any words or types of words that have been overplayed? Or are considered juvenile-esque? I have heard many people say to avoid adverbs. Really?

  2. This fad of 'talking like real life' seems to be used by some beginning writers, to me, as an excuse for sloppy writing. Am I off base? Is 'talking like real life' good, or a fad? I realize anything can be done poorly, but I see very little real life dialogue that stands on its own in the absence of competent framing.

  3. I'm annoyed by tons of made up words, which may be a problem in fantasy. Is this a common annoyance among other fantasy readers? A few made up words I can handle, though I wish they'd be grounded it recognizable etymology.

  • Welcome to the site DPT! Your question is pretty broad. I suspect there are tens, if not hundreds of things beginning writers do which would be wise to avoid. No one is going to have all the answers, and that means a lot of the answers are going to be based on conjecture in order to fit the broad nature of the question. I would suggest focusing the scope of what you are looking for. Perhaps tell us what you are not looking for? That might help to narrow things down. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Sep 17 '17 at 21:55
  • I am back to staring at adverbs. @S. Mitchell gave nice advice on this below. I am staring at a sentence in my manuscript that is essentially: "They rarely spoke." For the life of me I see no way to eliminate rarely, or find a verb to replace it. Is my instinct right, that in a sentence like "They rarely spoke" the adverb i s OK? I could say "They spoke now and then" but this is ridiculous. It eliminates an -ly with an adverb that is longer. – DPT Oct 19 '17 at 15:39
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    You're overthinking it. Using adverbs is fine. Overusing them to the point where another word would be better is not. Rarely is the best word there. No need to remove it just because it's an adverb. Not only is your sentence fine, it also makes for a very strong first line to the book, as the reader is immediately confronted with two questions: who are these people, and why do they rarely speak? My advice would be to just write, and then go back and eliminate adverbs. Just make sure that they are unnecessary and have a better alternative. Otherwise leave them. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Oct 19 '17 at 17:33
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They aren't tropes, but both examples are indicative of common mistakes for beginners.

"Utter" is an extremum word, like "absolutely", "completely", "devoid", "unbelievably", etc. These are shortcuts that shouldn't be used. An utter lack of social skills for nerds, for example, is a cop out and unrealistic: Even on The Big Bang that deals in fairly cartoonish nerds, the characters manage to get dates, get laid, get married and have kids, and portray feelings and evoke sympathy.

To me, "Getting ill" is a cop-out for a transformational experience. Yes, spider man got ill after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Other superheroes were exposed to radiation. Can't we use some imagination? How about falling in love, could that be a transformational experience?

Let's have Charlene fall in love with Doug. She's a normal girl, a sophomore in high school, a virgin, and she's been on two dates with Doug. She's kissed him. He's all she can think about. One morning she wakes up, goes to turn the door handle in her room --- and crushes it, then in surprise she pulls the door off its hinges. She has no idea what happened. Is her brother playing a joke? No, she really does have sudden super strength.

How about a twist on "ill?" Like, mentally ill. Or a minor ability that frightens the person: Everybody is dreading the advanced calculus test by the truly incompetent teacher that nevertheless gives the hardest tests of all: Including our hero that failed to study. But he finishes the test as fast as he can write it -- which also turns out to be about five seconds; and his plastic mechanical pencil got so hot it formed to his grip. He's not thrilled by this, he's afraid because he doesn't understand what happened.

Two of the MOST common mistakes to avoid are making things too easy for the characters or the author, and using clichés.

Although some extremum traits can be the whole story (think Sherlockian detectives, the Hulk, William Tell / Robin Hood, Spider Man), they should never be used to make things EASY for the character or the writer, and that is often how beginning writers try to use them. When they do, they end up writing wish-fulfillment fiction and it is just boring. Characters must struggle to the point of despair, they must be a fingertip away from failing, defeat, losing the love of their life, even death. Despite their extremum trait.

To avoid the clichés, develop a practice I call Zoom Out, Zoom In. For anything you write, try to generalize what you wrote. Above, an emergent psychic ability is, in general, a transformative experience. What other transformative experiences can I think of? Death of a parent/child/sibling/lover. Falling in Love. Puberty. Being raped. Losing your virginity. Graduating college. Being fired for the first time. Nearly dying. Actually dying and being resuscitated. And on and on... Surely something must be better than "not feeling well."

That's the Zoom In (somewhere else in the list): Generalize, think of things in the same vein, then pick one that strikes your imagination and seems original. You can do the same thing with descriptions; the world doesn't need another sunset that was beautiful and awe-inspiring. By generalize I don't mean break out the Thesaurus, I mean find the metaphors. What else is beautiful in the way a sunset is beautiful?

I tend to assume if it comes easily, I should probably work harder on it; and for me that usually results in something better.

Beginner mistakes is a book length topic, so I won't go on: I just wanted to generalize to two frequent ones, based on what you mentioned.

5

Talking like real life ...

Generally, the vocabulary of characters should match their character. My warrior girl Alex doesn't say "ubiquitous", she says "everywhere." But if she is talking about a weapon, she knows the correct name of every part of it, and the correct name of every move with it. Her life is fighting and killing, in five wars, it would be stupid if she called the fuller a groove or the grip a handle, or didn't know the difference between a good quench and a bad one, or didn't know the name of the rain guard.

You should also understand, for characters, a realistic vocabulary: Read the Wikipedia Vocabulary link. Basically, we have in order of increasing size: Speaking, Writing, Listening and Reading vocabularies. (e.g. You may write a word you never use in conversation; you may read words you would not recognize when heard).

On average people acquire words as they age; young characters (even teens) have a more limited vocabulary than older ones. Less educated or poor a more limited vocabulary than well educated or wealthy (again, on average).

Do not include people's "uh", "um", or weird pauses, or fillers while they think like, "like", "you know", "I mean" or memory lapses like "whatever" or "kinda like". There are exceptions for dramatic effect when the pause or filler indicates an important hesitation and/or state of mind.

But in general this is not a way to build character or indicate any trait. In books and in film all characters do not struggle with putting things into words and do not need pauses to think. Such "real life" doesn't add a thing to the story, and just makes it a pain to read.

If they DO need pauses to think, put that in prose and make it explicit:

"I want ..." Alex struggled to find the word. "I want peace."

It felt odd, and she briefly wondered if she had ever said those words before.

Because an ellipsis indicates a pause or hesitation, but not WHY. It could be embarrassment, or a distraction, or looking for a word, or distrust, or any number of things. (dashes indicate an interruption or hard break; "I want --" is NOT the same as "I want ...")

The halting, pausing, searching, confused language real people use in recordings has no place in writing. What you hear is the people thinking and changing their mind as they speak; what you hear is the failure of people to remember words or names or even what they were saying. But again, those quirks are symptoms of something going on in their mind, they don't tell us what is going on in their mind. If it makes no difference to the story, leave it out. If it makes a difference, explain it to the reader. Do not use these kinds of things to indicate character. Speech patterns can be used (an extreme example being the inverted grammar of Yoda in Star Wars) to give a character a unique voice.

Like real people characters should have habits of speech. Certain words they like, phrases they use repeatedly (but not in every sentence or exchange), patterns of grammar (or lack of it). These are useful for avoiding attribution. If Josh is the only character that likes to agree by saying "Truth."; then he can speak without attribution.

Characters with their own speaking style (and don't try to write accented speech!) can have long exchanges without attribution: That is her fight trainer speaking, this other is her lover, that is her father, that is her mother. But you don't have to club readers over the head with such differences; they can be subtle, readers have a natural ability to pick up on such differences. If you DO club them over the head (like Yoda) then don't do it for every character; do it for an important singular character, or it could be for characters from an important culture, race or species.

  • Thank you! I've sorted my characters' language by education and their surnames suggest where they live geographically. I'll be certain to pay attention to their age when I edit. It sounds like the lone character who uses the word 'mebbe,' maybe shouldn't? I might correct that 'accented speech,' or mebbe I'll leave it. ;) – DPT Sep 18 '17 at 15:53
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    @DPT An odd word could just be an affectation, inside joke or childhood slang that became a habit. A lone character saying "mebbe" sets him apart; which could be useful. I meant, for example, don't try to write words so they sound out to mimic a Mexican accent. It can only matter if Bob fails to understand them; and THAT should be written out from Bob's POV: "Paul shouted at Bob over the noise of the machines, but Paul's accent made Bob unsure of the command. What does "doondoondoon!" mean? Down! He ducked and felt the swinging steel beam behind him brush the hair on his head..." – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 18 '17 at 17:21
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As far as I can tell from the MSS I have read in critique groups and from the kind of questions asked here, the biggest mistake of aspiring fantasy writers it to focus too much attention on worldbuilding, followed by too much attention on word choices, with very little attention being paid to story, and the story that is there existing mainly or entirely to animate the world that had been built.

The point of writing a fantasy is that it gives you a stage to tell a certain kind of story, which is to say that it lets you more easily isolate and expose certain themes and ideas that you want to express in your story. Worldbuilding should be done in the service of story, and no more of it than the story requires. The great danger of worldbuilding that the the writer then tries to fit all the features of the world they have built into the story whether the story needs them or not. Build no more world than your story demands.

As to word choice, a compelling story will be enhanced by the right word choices, but it will not be held back greatly by indifferent ones. It is not the power of your prose that is going to sell your story, it is the power of your story that this going to sell your story.

Think less about worldbuilding and less about word choice and focus on the heart and the limbs of your story.

5

Advice about adverbs is complex. I will try to explain simply.

Adverbs make writing more vibrant and interesting – sometimes. The 'sometimes' comes from the type of adverb.

There are different types of adverbs. The basic categories are those that modify:

  1. verbs e.g. He ran slowly.

  2. adjectives e.g. She was very small.

  3. other adverbs e.g. He ran extremely slowly.

  4. whole sentences/clauses e.g. Yesterday, we ate pizza.

It is the first type, those that change verbs, which we need to think about more. Consider these pairs of sentences:

    She spoke quietly.
    She whispered.

    He talked loudly.
    He shouted.

    The man walked slowly along the path.
    The man shuffled along the path.

I hope that you will agree that for most purposes the second one is better. Of course, no writing rule is ever absolute, but replacing ‘ly’ adverbs with strong verbs is a good idea.

  • Aha. Adverbs can also be cop outs. I am beginning to get it. Just as elite athletes are more exhilarating to watch than amateurs, writers should work to get it right, and not be lazy. Because it shows. And it is appreciated. – DPT Sep 18 '17 at 14:03
  • I adhere to the principle of always replacing 'ly' adverbs with their stronger alternatives, though other styles of adverbs are more useful and often don't really have a better alternative. – Nick Bedford Mar 13 '18 at 1:54
  • Yesterday a student asked me about three different sentences that used 'ly' adverbs. I couldn't find a better alternative to any of them: they didn't have stronger verbs. I said that writing 'rules' aren't really rules. – S. Mitchell Mar 17 '18 at 18:18

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