Vonda N. McIntyre...
...Pitfalls of Writing SF & Fantasy
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Pitfalls of Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy,
|His eyes fell to the floor.||(Boing! boing!)|
|She screwed up her face.||(To the ceiling? Owie!)|
|He ran through the door.||(Able to penetrate strong oak in a single bound! Might one possibly mean the doorway?)|
|She strained her eyes through the viewscreen.||(My all-time fave.)|
Be careful about capitalizing words in order to indicate their importance. Several problems attend rampant capitalization.
First, extraneous capitalization tries and fails to conceal a lack of intensity, style, substance, or all those qualities, in your prose.
Second, if you capitalize Many of the Nouns in your Sentences, your Prose your Wish a Story in German to write will read. (In German you capitalize all the nouns.)(And the verbs come last, but that’s a different Pitfall.)
Third, when you sell your novel, the cover blurb will contain every single word you’ve capitalized. Here is a possible result:
On the Plains of Mystery, Prince Greeb of the Empire of Thorns rides his WindHorse, Fred, to challenge the TrollBugs to a FireDuel!
A species is a group of living things reproductively isolated from other groups. The plural of species is species. Specie means money, specifically, coined money.
Other false singulars: Phenomena is plural; its singular is phenomenon. Series is both singular and plural; the singular is not serie. Bacterium is the singular; bacteria is the plural. Biceps is the singular. Bicepses is the plural, though you can use biceps if you insist. There is no such thing as a bicep.
Never use a title that is (a) impossible to pronounce or (b) embarrassing to say. Doing either causes people to find it awkward to discuss your book. For example, Superluminal (a book of mine) has been misspelled and mispronounced by everybody, up to and including the New York Times (“...her novel Superliminal, which she says means ‘faster than light.’”)
Neologisms are made-up words. Be very careful with them. If you’re good at them, terrific. (Heinlein was great at them. I got all the way through The Moon is a Harsh Mistress before I realized that tanstaafl wasn’t a perfectly good Dutch word, and I used to live in the Netherlands.) If you aren’t, you can make yourself sound silly.
In particular, watch out for what Damon Knight calls “calling a rabbit a smeerp.” Just because you call a long-eared short-tailed lagomorphic mammal with long hind legs a “smeerp” doesn’t make it alien. We all write sf in standard English, unless we are Anthony Burgess (who did made-up dialect well), or some other people who do it not so well. There’s no particular reason to translate words for time, distance, and food into gibberish. (I don’t know why time, distance, and food are so susceptible to this in science fiction, but they are.) If your characters are drinking coffee, have them drink coffee, not “klaa” or “jav.” Coffee’s been around for more than a millennium. It’s probably going to last.
Besides, as a linguistically oriented friend of mine pointed out with some exasperation, almost all the made-up words in science fiction written by English speakers sound like made-up words derived from English.
Be very careful about the use of words such as “seem” and “appear,” especially in science fiction. As Samuel R. Delany pointed out, in sf things can happen that are unlikely to happen in real life or in realistic (“mainstream”) fiction. Therefore, if you use “seem,” you should mean “seem.” As in, “This is what it looked like but this isn’t really what’s going on, so pay attention!” A perceptive reader will note “seem” or “appear” or “looked like,” perk up their ears, and wait for you to tell them what really is going on. If nothing other than the superficial action is going on, the reader is going to be irritated. Eventually the reader will quit trusting you.
Samuel R. Delany’s technique for determining whether a phrase is redundant (if you have any question): choose one of the words you suspect of being redundant. Switch it to its antonym. If the resulting construction is inherently ridiculous, an oxymoron, you have redundancy. For example, a “large giant.” As opposed to a small giant? Other common speech-habit redundancies include rich heiresses and consensus of opinion.
Hyperbole is a fine and respected literary tradition, and speech habits are indispensable for creating characters. (Think of Stephen Maturin’s charming habit of saying “little small.”)
A current, curious, fad among writers who should know better is the construction “[Character] felt something like [emotion].” Example: “He felt something like annoyance.” Extreme example: “She felt something almost like amusement.” Over-the-top example: “He felt something vaguely approaching absurdity.”
One possible explanation for avoiding accurate description is that the writer doesn’t know what the character is experiencing, and can’t take the trouble to figure it out.
In some cases, the writer has grasped at a metaphor and clutched an illusion.
When I encounter this construction, I’m always left with the impression that the character (or more likely, the writer) has such refined sensibilities and lofty feelings that I, the lowly reader, can’t be expected to comprehend them... so why should the writer bother trying to describe them?
And why should I bother trying to read them?
“Figuratively” means that you are speaking metaphorically or symbolically. “Literally” means that you are speaking with precision and realism, that you are saying what exactly happened. “Literally” is not a generic intensifier. If you are talking about someone’s headache, “figuratively exploded” is the phrase you’re looking for — at least in comparison to “literally exploded.”
A word that is similar to another word, but longer, is not necessarily an intensified version of the shorter word. For example, “penultimate” does not mean the absolutely completely most important pinnacle, the ultimates of ultimates. Nor is it an esoteric sexual technique.
It means “next to last.”
Similarly, a center is a single point. It’s hard to imagine something more precise than a single point, and yet writers and commentators will try to emphasize a center by calling it the “epicenter.”
It’s rare under these circumstances that an earthquake is to be found anywhere.
Enormity, problematic, and singular are other words commonly misused for similar reasons.
President-Elect Obama used both enormity and singular correctly in his election night speech. (He can also pronounce “nuclear.”) There’s hope for us yet.