I’ve been trying to amp up my reading, both as a way of weaning myself off my video game addiction and as a way of slowly chipping away at my to-read bookcase. Yes, not a to-read pile, I have a full bookcase full of books I need to read. That was a wakeup call. Along the way, I’m seeing good writers make bad mistakes. I won’t call anyone out by name but I do want talk about what we can do as writers to make it easy for readers to pick up our work and immerse themselves in our world.
To start with, minimize slang and world-specific words. I committed to reviewing a novel for another writer (it’s coming, it’s coming, I swear) but when I picked up the book from Amazon, I immediately bounced off the text. The prose was fine, the descriptions were good and even the characters were interesting enough. However it was a fantasy novel set in a secondary world and nearly everything in the book had it’s own slang name or a world-specific name. I had to decode every other sentence. It was and is painful. For example (not a quote from the book):
“Chop kept his face sunsetside, letting his wide-brimmed talen shade his features. Tinder played in the streets, distracting the merchants along the dongalle canal so their trained chermink could steal cool and sweet podoods in their hook-like claws. Chop’s hand rested on his xiphos hilt, with a little luck no one would tumble and he could keep it resting-like.”
Translated into more normal English, that should read:
“Chop kept his face towards the west, letting his wide-brimmed hat shade his features. Street kids played in the streets, distracting the merchants along the canals so their tamed and trained chermink* coold steal the cool and sweet melons in their hook-like claws. Chop’s hand rested on his sword’s hilt. With a little luck, no one would recognize him and he could keep it in its sheath.”
Now the good thing about the first passage is that it shows that the author has really crafted their world, that they know it well enough to actually create its own slang. But look how many strange words and and strange usages of words we have. Most readers will bounce right off. A few, a good core, will get into the story and let that level of world detail absorb into themselves. They will love your book. And good for them, we need more readers like that. But a larger majority of readers will be turned off. There can be very good writers and very good stories that are nearly impenetrable. Trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange, Finnegan’s Wake all create a huge language barrier that rewards the patient reader willing to work at it.
Most readers don’t want to work. That’s just the way it is, for better or for worse. When you’re writing, strive for clarity. You don’t have to write ‘down’ and if you’re a language stylist, go for it. Write what is true to yourself. But if you have any mental flexibility in your work, make it easy for your reader. Don’t call a melon a ‘podood’, call it a melon. Now part of the appeal of fantasy is to write about settings and cultures and creatures that don’t exist. So how do you handle those?
Clarity first. Describe what you’re showing the reader. Don’t just toss out an archaic or created word and hope your readers will understand it**. Describe it. There might be good reasons you’re having the main character use a xiphos instead of a more conventional fantasy broadsword. So show the reader the short two foot length, the narrow waisted, leaf-shaped double edged blade. If it’s a fictional food or race, all the more reason to describe it. You don’t have to go on for pages, a couple of sentences of description will usually suffice.
But you don’t want to drown the reader in description after description either. So space out your created words. Use slang sparingly and make it clear in dialog context what the words mean. One sentence from a character that’s full of made up words can be a delightful puzzle for the reader. A page that’s full of them is a minotaur’s maze that many readers won’t make it through. A good rule of thumb for me is no more than three or four world-specific words per page. Even that might be a bit much but I think that’s reasonable. Same with slang and make sure you’re using your words consistently. Repetition will help recognition in readers, just again, try not to overdo it.
Next time, I’ll look at sequels and how to build on what you’ve written while making it accessible to more casual readers.
*this actually is a world-specific animal, sort of a monkey cat so it really doesn’t have a good translatable name
**I got dinged on this recently so it’s fresh in my mind.