0. Top 10 technical aspects of SFF creative writing

  1. Long v. short words. Many new writers think that it is more literary to use long words in their writing. They may have had a school teacher who encouraged them ‘to use more long words’! So, a new writer might use the Latin-derived ‘require’ instead of the Anglo-Saxon-derived ‘need’, or ‘provide’ instead of ‘give’, or ‘inform’ instead of ‘tell’. However, the new writer needs to be aware that the Latin-derived words are more formal, more objective and less emotional than their Anglo-Saxon equivalents. Latin tends to be the language of politics, empire and science fiction, while Anglo-Saxon tends to be the language of physicality, personal relationships and fantasy.
  2. Narrative perspective. These days, fantasy books tend to be written in the third-person past tense. Even so, a good writer ensures that any single scene is told from a single character’s perspective throughout. It is essential that the perspective does not ‘shift’ to another character’s within the same scene. If you have read A Game of Thrones, you might recall that each chapter is actually named after the character whose perspective is used to ‘narrate’ the chapter. To be sure you are remaining within a consistent perspective, check that every adjective and adverb (effectively ‘opinions’) used in the scene consistently come from a single character’s perspective.
  3. Quality description. When setting a scene or describing action, a good writer will use verbs and adjectives that appeal to all five senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste). In this way, the reader will have a full sensory experience and they will be able to understand the scene as if they were standing in it. The scene will be ‘vivid’.
  4. Show, don’t tell. Many new writers of fantasy think that ‘world-building’ involves telling the reader at length and in detail how the world ‘works’. Or they think that ‘building character’ involves telling us a big back-story. Such ‘telling’ is exposition. It is boring. It is the author lecturing us. Once we’ve been told everything, there are no surprises left, the chances for unexpected revelations are seriously reduced and the possibility of a neat ‘twist’ or two is denied us. It’s like being told who the murder is and why they committed murder at the start of a murder mystery. Good writing, therefore, describes things happening ‘in the moment’ and from the perspective of the protagonist. We see what they see, we hear what they hear and we feel what they feel, but we do not know everything. We have to make sense of what’s happening via snippets and clues, as the world and events unfold before us.
  5. Intrusive author voice. Drawing on some of the points above, the author needs to be careful not to over-describe things, as otherwise there is a risk that they are beginning to ‘tell’ us too much. We begin to lose the sense of the protagonist’s perspective and voice, and we begin to ‘hear’ the author’s lecturing voice instead. An intrusive author voice can be over-controlling, alienating, patronising and disruptive (breaking the captivating ‘spell’ of the world we have imagined and stepped into). The author’s voice brings us back to ourselves and we realise that we’re just sat reading a book. It ruins the reading experience, since we like to get ‘lost’ in a book. The author’s voice is most obvious when descriptions and information are provided that the protagonist-narrator cannot possibly know about. Here’s an example of some bad writing: ‘A filthy, suspicious-looking, old crone called out to him and, being a helpful and trusting sort, he made his way over to her.’ The really problematic adjective is ‘suspicious-looking’, since it is a judgement that cannot possibly have come from the perspective of the ‘trusting’ protagonist. Also, the protagonist does not go around telling himself that he is ‘helpful and trusting’, so this phrase is also intrusive.
  6. Making a character engaging. It is important that the reader can ‘identify’ with the protagonist and therefore care what happens to them – otherwise, the reader has no reason or desire to keep reading. The reader might like the protagonist for their positive personality traits or find them amusing. However, it is also possible to have an immoral protagonist, as they can be fascinating. What both types of protagonists should have (if the reader is truly going to stay engaged) is a moral dilemma that they need to resolve. The reader then becomes interested in the character based on a problem-solving dynamic (like a detective trying to solve a crime). A clever writer will quickly (in a line or two) show us a character in terms of their behaviours, habits and philosophy of being, and then immediately outline the seemingly impossible dilemma that they are facing.
  7. Using hooks. Drawing on the previous point, you might be able to understand what is meant when we say good writing has a number of ‘hooks’ early on in the narrative. A hook is like the moral dilemma mentioned above, except it can just be a tantalising, suggestive or curious piece of information that is not fully explained. Many opening lines are ‘hooks’ – challenging statements that we do not fully understand until, sometimes, the very end of the story. As an example, the opening line of Necromancer’s Gambit is ‘The corpse opened its eyes.’ Immediately, the reader is asking ‘How can a corpse open its eyes?’ or ‘Whose body is it?’ The reader then finds out the corpse cannot remember who it was when it was alive. And so the revenant sets out on a journey to discover who they were, how they died, who was responsible and whether there is any way in which they can be fully restored. The reader is hooked from the first line. If you’ve ever seen the TV series Lost, then you’ll begin to realise the plot is nothing but a long series of hooks, pieces of information that are never fully explained.
  8. Overusing character names. When there are several characters in a scene, the writer will often have to keep repeating character names to make it clear who is doing what. Too much repetition of names and the writing becomes annoyingly unnaturalistic. Pronouns might be used (e.g. he, him, etc), but if the characters are the same gender then this only increases the confusion about who is doing what. It is important therefore that the writer introduces other unique references for certain characters. So, a character might be known by their job instead e.g. the mercenary, the cleric, the assistant, etc. Or they might be known by the place they come from e.g. the Cimmerian, the Vulcan, the Northman, etc). Finally, you could name them in terms of their physical attributes e.g. the older man, the big woman, the boy, etc. Make sure to use a regular variety of character references.
  9. Being aware of your tics. Related to the point above, every writer has a set of tics. The tics are a part of the writer’s style or preferred set of sentence grammars. For example, some writers will always advance action sequences using words like ‘then’ or ‘now’. Certain writers like to use sentence fragments only (rather than full sentences) to describe action, in order to show/enact the chaotic and confusing nature of what is going on. It is important for any writer to stay aware of their tics and to try to avoid using them too often. Too much repetition becomes annoying and unnaturalistic. The author’s voice also begins to intrude.
  10. Typos and editing. Related to the last two points, it is therefore essential that your writing is read through and checked for tics, typos and word-repetition. Some writers are not very good at spotting their own errors because they get a sort of ‘snow-blindness’. In such cases, you should ask a friend, reading group or editor to check things for you.
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