An open letter to authors and publishers of Fantasy Novels

Yesterday was a strange day. It rained thoroughly and steadily. It thundered, it winded, it stayed blessedly far below 100 degrees (where it'd been hovering for the previous far too many days). So we celebrated as Newmans are wont to celebrate stormy weather… by going to Borders.

(And a side note about what happened when we went to Borders: on the front table, the new book by 9/11-widow-insulting harpy Ann  Coulter was prominently displayed. A woman was actually thumbing through this foul volume. I said to Fisher as we passed, loudishly I suppose, "I don't know why they have to mess up the front of the store with this crap." Fisher told me a few seconds later, "Mama, when you said that, that lady said 'But I like it!' " God, I can't wait to get out of this misbegotten town.)

The last several times we went to the bookstore, something weird happened: I didn't purchase a damn thing. So yesterday, I sorta kinda made up for it by picking up not one, but three fantasy novels: First Betrayal by Patricia Bray, Raven's Shadow by Patricia Briggs and Medalon by Jennifer Fallon (all of whose work I've read & enjoyed before). But in the process of picking out these three, there were many (O, many, dear reader) which I picked up, then put down again promptly. And having just re-read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, the reasons why I decided against these books were perhaps more sharply delineated than usual in my mind.

So in the interests of Improving the State of the Genre (ha ha) and Expressing My Cranky Self (indeed!), I hereby present to you this list of

Reasons to Put a (Fantasy) Book Back on the Shelf

  1. The blurb on the back makes any reference to Saving the World with the assistance of a Magic(k)al Widget.
  2. The title contains the words Sword, Ring, Crown, Blade (if you mean
    "sword," say "sword," dammit), King, Lord, Dark or Fate. Even if your
    novel is about the Lord Blade of Ring-land and his beloved Sword Crown
    battling the Dark King of Fate… puh-leeze, think of something else to
    call the book. You ain't no Tolkien, and you probably ain't no George
    R.R. Martin either. And they are the only ones who can reliably get
    away with trotting out these overused words.
  3. Any of the characters have names of four syllables or more.
    "Camaleiya" is OK as a summons uttered by Kira in the Dark Crystal. It
    is not OK as a name that recurs on Every. Freakin'. Page.
  4. Any of the characters have apostrophes in their names. This may be
    forgivable if someone is named something like D'Artagnan or L'Amour…
    but F'ri'saille is right out.
  5. Any of the characters' names have weird unnatural combinations of letters
    unlike those any found in any earthly tongue. It doesn't sound mystical or
    Elvish, you twerp… it sounds as though some drunkard has been
    pounding on a keyboard. Take this Sfiglathiearhnel and shove it.
  6. In one paragraph, one character "gasps" something; and in the next
    paragraph, another character "grunts" something. Is this a suspenseful
    chapter, or a low-rent Vivid orgy?
  7. In the same vein… characters repeatedly "respond," "demand,"
    "deny" or "wonder" their dialogue. You get ONE of these per chapter,
    and even that's pushing it, buddy. They can "say" things. They can
    occasionally "ask." And, since I'm an Anne of Green Gables fan, they
    can "ejaculate" if they must. But THAT'S IT.
  8. That means no "hissing!" And for God's sake, no "smiling" your words! Go ahead, try it; it's freakin' biologically impossible.
  9. Adjectives are like Tribbles. They must be stomped and squished
    before they breed. Admittedly, they are kinda cute, and you might want
    to keep one or two around… but they must be separated at all times by
    vast gulfs of nouns and verbs.
  10. Adverbs are like cockroaches. They must be stomped and squished…
    and they are not cute, and you must not keep them around… for
    otherwise, for every one you see, there will be thousands more lurking
    stealthily, menacingly and defilingly behind every door.
  11. The book features a red-haired heroine.
  12. The book features a green-eyed heroine.
  13. Do you know how rare the above-mentioned genetic traits are? What's
    wrong with brown hair, brown eyes and brownish skin… as is proudly
    sported by probably more than 80% of the world's population? Or if
    you've gotta go with the Christmas colors theme… how about a
    red-eyed, green-haired heroine? Maybe she's a pot-smoking (or
    excessively tearful) backstroke champion.
  14. Faux-Elizabethan dialogue. And/or lofty, elevated speech. When
    Shakespeare did it, people actually talked like that (and if you'll pay
    attention, you'll see that only his nobly-born characters talk that
    way). When you do it, it sounds Stupid. And False. There will be no
    hie-ing, no forsoothing and only the very minimum of indeeding.
  15. Do you have people from two geographically disparate countries?
    Then they probably don't speak each other's language. Especially if one
    of them is a simple farm boy (who's really the bastard son of the
    Mighty King Rencesfrew) and the other is an illiterate but admirably
    stacked barmaid from a remote village. They CANNOT TALK TO EACH OTHER.
  16. On the same note: one can only say so much with "signs" and
    "pantomime." Maybe you can indicate that you want something to eat.
    Without the mutual understanding of a language such as ASL,
    you cannot indicate that you are a monk from the remote northern
    province of Foofle with an important message regarding the current
    whereabouts of the One True King.
  17. Honestly, do you really believe that monarchy is a valid,
    appropriate and laudable form of government? Dude, that's just creepy.
    Can't you think of something that doesn't involve "outdated imperialist
    dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our
    society?" Try having "supreme executive power derive from a mandate
    from the masses" instead. Or at least, stop pretending that kings (at
    least the True-Born, non-usurper type) are holy and good and have the
    Lowly Peasants' best interests at heart. History shows us that kings
    are more likely to turn Lowly Peasants into tufted footstools than into
    members of their advisory councils.
  18. Please, please, please… don't let your doughty adventurers cross
    a mountain range in two days. On  horseback. In the dead of winter.
    Without large sacks of fodder for their mounts. Or a pre-assembled
    collection of firewood.
  19. The word is "Magic." Not "Magick." Not "Majik." If you're a
    practicing Wiccan, you can call your spellcasting ceremonies anything
    you like. But if you're writing a book, please do us all a favor and
    leave off the extraneous "k."
  20. For God's sake, leave out the poetry. Leave out the children's
    nursery rhymes that oh-so-cleverly conceal the secret to defeating the
    Dark Sword Lord. Leave out the mysterious prophetic verses that could
    not possibly mystify any thinking person for longer than about four
    seconds. Leave out the Ancient Rimes of Woe that preface every chapter.

Thank you for your attention, and happy writing/publishing! Tomorrow I will list a few fantasy novels that cleverly manage to sidestep all
these pitfalls and produce a Slamming Good Read instead. Won't that be

Update: well, it wasn't "tomorrow" (is that such a surprise?), but I did get around to the list of fantasy books that don't suck.

About Molly Newman

Writer, cook and trivia/spelling bee hostess, living it up in North Portland.
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17 Responses to An open letter to authors and publishers of Fantasy Novels

  1. Angi says:

    I was just in Borders last night and bought nothing for myself. But I did buy my best friend 2 books (one of them “what would Bill Hicks say?”…are you familiar with Bill Hicks? If not, you should be, because you would love him) and I bought my dad a Dragonlance book, which I’m sure probably commits a few of the offenses on your list. Ha.

  2. Herm says:

    But isn’t all that why it’s called “fantasy”? In my fantasies, everyone has quadrisyllabic names. Like “Pumpernickel.”

  3. Jill S says:

    Love it! I’m sending the link to my husband the gamer! I swear, this is what happens when role players become writers.

  4. Go Molly you are my hero in more ways than you know!! Love ya Wanda

  5. Suzanne says:

    I am a big Ann Coulter fan but I do think she was very disrespectful to those 9/11 widows. I wouldn’t classify as anymore full of hate than say, Hillary Clinton…

  6. Jennifer Adams Donnelly says:

    As a natural redhead with natural green eyes, I take offense at one of your points… but I’ll grant it nonetheless.
    And I agree with just about everything else… that’s pretty much why I don’t even venture into that aisle… it’s mostly dreck.
    Glad you found something you liked!

  7. Mimi says:

    Bwahahahahahahhaa. I’m not a Fantasy fan, but I can see oh so many of these just from the covers.
    And, I’m thinking, maybe you have to be named Patricia to write a good Fantasty novel?

  8. Amy Sorensen says:

    This was JUST what I needed this morning…a good laugh. I’m hoping you do post that list because I’ve been in a mood, lately, for some GOOD fantasy but feel I have exhausted the possibilities.
    BTW, if I were still teaching I would *SO* turn this into a handout!!! 😉

  9. robert eggleton says:

    Re: open letter to authors…
    I think I’m innocent, but judge for yourself by searching the title.
    Robert Eggleton
    “Rarity from the Hollow”

  10. Eva says:

    As to point #2… most authors don’t get a choice on what the book is called when it hits the shelves, at least according to what I’ve seen. Other than that, your points are valid.

  11. Bronze Dog says:

    Love it! I’m sending the link to my husband the gamer! I swear, this is what happens when role players become writers.
    I certainly hope I’m a better gamer and writer than any of the cliche doinks referenced in the list.
    You know, I’ve gotten really tired of the “Save the world with a McGuffin!” thing.
    Other, related annoyance: Mech genre anime: The super-neo unobtanium prototype mech. If mechs are mass produced in the world, the heros shouldn’t have anything beyond slightly customized models. They should get blown up, repaired, and replaced periodically.
    The only situation where super-duper mechs should come into play are worlds where mechs of any sort are rare.

  12. Yaron says:

    A pretty good list. And funny.
    There are some exceptions, though:
    1. Can’t trust the blurb on the back. The blurbs lie. Plot lines from the blurb often have little to do with the plot lines of the books. Heck, I recently read a book where the character the blurb talked about, several times, didn’t even exist in the book!
    2. As Eva said, I assume most writers don’t have complete control of the title. Also, Dark and Fate are bad, but Betrayal and Shadow are good?
    4+5. There are real Earth languages and names that sound like that. And personally I’m willing to accept fantasy characters with names that are not late western-European in origin.
    11+12+13. About 10%-13% percent of the population in Ireland and Scotland should have red hair. Rough searches show values between 2%, 4% and 6% in the US. Fantasy characters can’t have genetic similarities with the Irish? Heck, at the lowest it still means that with only 10 characters in the book one of the has a realistic 20% chance of having red hair. I think that’s much higher than the genetic disposition for magic, and fantasy characters are allowed to have that sometimes. I couldn’t find a value for green eyes (except for a citation-less wikipedia claim of 2%), but I doubt it’s in the entirely unrealistic realm as well.
    17. Yes, a benevolent monarchy with a kind, caring, and yet effective, king is a big warning sign. On the other hand, how many other forms of government do we have which are kind, caring, and effective? So don’t pick on the poor kings just because they’re the only one smart enough to fool everyone for the entire length of the novel into believing they’re the good guys.
    As for the rest, spot on. Though I am merciful and tend to allow even adverbs their place, just as long as they behave.

  13. Pete says:

    I freakin’ love Ann Coulter.

  14. Charles says:

    *chuckle* Guilty. I’ve done almost everything on this list in at least some form. I’d say I’m getting better at not including some things, but there are certain points (like “Save the world with this sword!”) that I use, not because I can’t use something else, but because I require the imagery (who calls it ‘visual imagery’ any more?) that comes along with it to fulfill the comedic side of my story.

  15. Janice in GA says:

    There are certain folks whose blurbs on a book make me IMMEDIATELY put the book back on the shelf. /coughAnnMcCaffreycough/ They serve as an anti-incentive to me.

  16. Histor says:

    As for #17: It’s fantasy! If you can put up with dragons and ogres, you can put up with altruistic kings.
    I recommend as #21: never read anyone who writes more than 12 books based in one fantasy world. They inevitably are all identical to each other.

  17. John Seavey says:

    I recommend highly ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’, by Diana Wynne Jones, which is apparently back in print (I have the older edition.) It’s an A to Z guide to this kind of fantasy cliche, covering (among other things) red-haired heroines, Magick, rhymes, Good Monarchs, and the like. You’ll love it.

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