No Visible Means of Support. Please.

August 18th, 2009

In the days when I was reading slush (unsolicited manuscripts to the fortunately uninitiated) we had a rule of thumb: the more “supporting materials” came with a fantasy manuscript, the more likely the MS was to be rotten. This wasn’t a hard and fast rule: some manuscripts that came with this stuff were okay; few were top-notch. A beginner mistake is to assume that, as finished books have these things, it’s necessary for the aspiring writer to provide them.

Really: no it’s not.

First of all: it reads like a newbie mistake (see above). Second of all, the more detailed and lavish the supporting materials are, the more likely the story itself has been shorted, because the writer has gotten so wound up in providing the schematics for the world (and showing you that they’re all, all there!) that she has forgotten things like logic, character, and wordcraft.

This does not mean that the writer should not do her homework, keep charts and research files and maps and whatever else makes it possible for her to construct a world.  But, as I think I’ve said before, 9/10ths of the worldbuilding iceberg should be underwater, unless you want your manuscript to sink like the Titanic.  Even when the work is finished, think carefully about imposing too many maps, etc. on your reader. 

Of course there’s a reason I’m thinking about this.  I just finished reading a quite satisfying fantasy novel, second in a series set in a big, sprawling elsewhere.  The worldbuilding is generally quite satisfactory.  Two problems:

  • In the first book in the series the author included a pronunciation guide so that readers would understand how to say the names of characters and places.  The problem with this is that once I read the arcane rules of this language it meant that every time I met a new character I not only had to remember what she looked like, but that her name was pronounced so that the first H was aspirated but the second H was not*, and that U was always pronounced long, as in you, but A was always short as in aaaa. This means, for me as a reader, that I’m doing the equivalent of walking through a new country with a guidebook in my hand, rather than getting involved in the story. In the second book there is no pronunciation guide, but (sadly) I still remember it, and kept trying to sound out the names in the new book by the same rules, rather than just getting into the story.
  • Both books have maps. The first book takes place entirely on one continent, and it’s pretty easy to follow the peregrinations of Our Heroine and her dauntless companion once they leave her hometown and set out to save her people from invaders.  But in the second book–because there were maps (not only of the continent but of the world itself) I kept referring back to them. In the second book Our Hero and his dauntless band sail off to save some captives and wind up saving the world and…it’s a good story, full of cool worldbuilding and action and angst and stuff.  Only, I kept trying to figure out where they were on the maps, and got hugely frustrated because I couldn’t: the larger map that compassed his travels did not include the names of the places they visited, so I still have no idea where they started from and only a rudimentary one of where they ended up. But every time the author gave me a new place name I leafed back to the front of the book and tried to find it. Once again, having that supporting material available was a distraction, not an aid.

Not everyone reads as I read, I know.  Many people would skip right over this stuff, or wouldn’t be bothered the way I was.  But some people will be, and for us, it’s a drag.  So think carefully about including your supporting materials with your work, either in ms. form or in the final book.  If someone proposes it, ask yourself (and the proposer) what you want the map to accomplish.  If you’ve built your world solidly enough, readers might not need a map.  And if there are specific reasons (you want a visual reminder of how close the enemy city is to Our Heroine’s wee tiny cot in the woods, or to give some visual cue as to why the journey from Hither to Yon takes six years by carrier yak), make sure that the map is set up to be useful. Because human nature is such that some people are going to try to use it, and hold it against you if they cannot.


*The real pronunciation rules have been changed to protect the innocent.

11 Responses to “No Visible Means of Support. Please.”

  1. Maryon 18 Aug 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I’m working on a fantasy novel where a map would be impossible. Sometimes the distances changes, and always, it does not obey Euclidean geometry.

    Nice to know I will be protected from temptation.


  2. Madeleine Robinson 18 Aug 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Wow. Inconstant earth. That’s rather cool.

  3. kvon 18 Aug 2009 at 11:06 pm

    I too find it terribly frustrating when a book goes to the trouble of providing you with a map, but then neglects to label any of the locations actually visited in the course of the story. Why bother with a map at all, then?

    On the other hand, I once read a series set in a world that had, in effect, a magic river — you could travel along it and go from almost anywhere to anywhere else. The journey might take hours, or weeks, or anything in between. Thing is, the whole construct felt like a cheat, a way for the author to conveniently make travel last exactly as long as he wanted without having to provide any rhyme or reason, and (for me) it badly undermined the reality of the setting. These books didn’t come with any maps, but as I read them I really felt the need for a map to help ground me in the world. On reflection, though, I guess the real problem was not a map or the lack thereof; the writing itself needed to convince me to believe in the world, and for whatever reason, it didn’t.

  4. Wenamunon 19 Aug 2009 at 8:45 am

    And yet there are readers who can’t get by without this kind of material. I’ve had readers complain that they couldn’t figure out how to pronounce “Ankhtifi” (the name of an historical figure who served as my protagonist). Another reader–same anthology; can’t recall if she was among those who complained about the name–wanted historical notes for each story. She didn’t get them! So no matter what you do, you’re going to trip up some segment of the readership. Especially if it’s not done competently. (Unlabeled maps?? Sheesh!)

    I’ve contemplated a pronunciation guide for the novel in progress, which has a number of “active” foreign languages; one story in the milieu has already seen print and several others are seeking homes. If I do go through with this–and I suspect I won’t execute it before consulting with my agent–it would take the form of an excerpt from Baker’s Hand-book for Travelers in the Antique Lands.

  5. Madeleine Robinson 19 Aug 2009 at 9:56 am

    Well, in justice, the map of the larger world had the countries labelled…just not the city where they started out, or any of the cities they passed through (and they do a lot of moving about in this book).

    I wonder if I might not have been so fussy about that pronunciation guide if it were put at the end. Because I tend to read everything upfront, but leave the glossary material until I need/want it. If I’d been able to read the book and then find out how to pronounce the names, maybe it wouldn’t stop me so hard now.

  6. TStewarton 20 Aug 2009 at 11:49 am

    Wonderful post, thank you – I had been a little fussed about a map for at least part of my story, but I had also come to the realization that the more time I spent playing with it was more time spent not writing. I still plan to rough something out to use myself – and now I know to leave it in my files at home.

    As Wenamunon basically says, you can’t please everyone… I saw a review somewhere in which the reader adamantly laid down the law that she would never ever ever read a book without a map included. She seemed to think it meant the writer was lazy or didn’t care about the reader … I was left thinking she was a little tweaked.

  7. Joyon 21 Aug 2009 at 6:37 am

    For a world I’ll only visit once or twice, maps are no big deal. I find they help provided they are labeled with places actually visited in the book but for a world I return to regularly supporting materials can help. Years ago I was into one of the major fantasy story/role playing worlds and I couldn’t get enough of the maps, recipes, short histories on magic objects etc. and I found these materials really satisfying. Now a map and a short, easy to read pronunciation guide are fine. I do enjoy a good glossary too if adequate explanations are not given in the book.

  8. Maryon 22 Aug 2009 at 12:05 pm

    the writer probably needed to make the river inconvenient on an occasion or two. Like, more often than it was convenient.

    Such neglect has consequences for world-building

  9. Mary Osmanskion 22 Aug 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Maps and pronunciation guides aren’t the story. They’re not likeable characters whose fate a reader will care about. They’re not the quality of the writing. They’re not the pacing of the story. They’re not even standard manuscript formatting with a minimum of typos and syntax/usage errors. [And in hard copy, they’re not plain, white paper.]

    You don’t sell on editor on a your novel with maps and pronunciation guides.

    So why worry about those things when you could be putting your time and effort into creating the best-written novel that you are capable of writing?

    [When I’m reading a novel and encounter unfamiliar character names for which the proper pronunication isn’t certain, I tend to assign one-syllable nicknames, just so I can keep on reading at my usual pace. Calling someone “Em” or “Ess” in my mind as I am reading along doesn’t bother me at all, and I don’t want to know if this habit of mine would upset the author or not!]

  10. Carolon 24 Sep 2009 at 11:38 pm

    If I cant pronounce the name I kind of make up my own way of saying it, so for me that becomes the name. That way the story flows in my head and I am not bogged down with it. I too will continuously refer back to maps and guides if they are presented (especially at the start of the book), but use the glossary only if I really cant figure what on earth they mean. It annoys me immensely if I can’t find myself on the map.

  11. Richardon 19 Oct 2009 at 10:05 am

    If a novel has a person or group traveling any distance, and that journey is described in the text, I want a map. On that map, I want the places named. All of them.

    I just finished an 1,100 page duology that had a map, and about a third of the places in the book were shown – in small, blurry print, I had to get out the magnifying glass. Ever hopeful, I kept going to the map every time a place name was given, city, river, mountain. Finally, at the end of the book, where the Big Action took place, the location was on the map, but the description and map didn’t match.

    I like maps. I want maps. But they HAVE to be accurate and detailed enough to be of use!

    As for pronunciation guides, I figure they’re for the linguistics students, and that’s not me, so I skip them. Same with a lot of “epic poetry” found in some fantasy novels and series.

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