Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Chopsticks
  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
July 2013

Barrier to Entry

Lower barrier to entry is one of the key distinctions between YA and adult writing, whether it is contemporary or genre or literary. And by this, I don't mean (although many people are going to hear it anyway), that stupid people write/read YA books. It isn't true. I don't think that reading YA means that you don't want to work your brain harder. But it may mean that you don't want to work your brain in the same way.

Barrier to entry can be seen in a variety of ways:

1. Elevated language (meaning words with more syllables, more likely Latinate or Greek roots rather than Germanic).

2. More jargon (particularly in fantasy and sf, you see this with a barrage of "new" or "scientific" words page by page).

3. Complex world building (I gauge this sometimes by the number of pages devoted in a book to glossaries, family relationship explanations, and maps).

4. Number of characters (cast of thousands is a lot harder to keep track of than a cast of a dozen, for instance).

5. Number of pov's (Look at George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series to see how many pov characters can work in an adult series).

6. Pages devoted to recapping the previous book in the sequel.

7. Pages devoted to explaining lore, legends, and history of the past 1,000 years.

There is nothing wrong with George R. R. Martin's books, which have a huge barrier to entry. There is nothing wrong with readers who love complex worlds and stories. I love Game of Thrones, as well (the books -- I haven't seen the TV series yet).

But it is also true that there is nothing superior about people who like complex worlds and stories, either. I suspect that part of the prejudice within the adult genre community is a defense mechanism. After being looked down on for so long by the mainstream literary world, we have survived by telling ourselves that we are actually smarter than everyone else and that's why we love this stuff.

YA genre does have less barrier to entry. Sometimes this can mean that there are certain rules that are not followed. I have certainly seen YA genre books that spend the first chapter simply info-dumping, as if the YA readership cannot handle a more subtle way of world building. I have seen YA books that have an absurdly small number of characters doing important things. I have seen YA books that show a sadly average ability with real science, and some that have something worse than that. But none of these are really unique to YA.

I love YA genre in completely different ways than I love adult. I don't think that this makes me stupid or lazy. I don't think that enjoying being able to read a book in a single setting makes me a worse or less complex reader. Nor do I think that a focus on a single pov character means that I am less capable of stretching my mind and understanding the complexity of the real world.

But I do think that low barrier to entry has made it possible for YA genre books to gain a wider readership. In addition to that, YA genre books are targeting a group of people who have largely not yet decided that they read one category of books and no other. I think this is a good thing, not just for YA writers (who obviously want to sell their books in larger numbers), but also for the world in general. I think it's a good thing that more people are able to enjoy sf/f.

I have advised many writers to follow a few simple rules of thumb if you want to avoid too much barrier to entry in a YA genre book.

1. Don't use more than one new word per page.

2. Don't spend more than one paragraph in a row telling backstory.

3. Whenever possible, use real English words to describe your world and its rules.

4. Give your characters names that are pronounceable and which follow the rules of some known Earth language.

In The Rose Throne, there are five new words:

weyr (magic -- actually related to the current word "weird" and its roots in old English magic)

newyr (female magic -- derived from the nasal sound "ma," the typical sound for mother, and the "n" sound, which is as formed just slightly farther back in the mouth)

taweyr (male magic -- derived from the sound "pa," the typical sound for father, and the "t" sound, which is again, formed slightly farther back in the mouth)

unweyr (those without any magic at all)

ekhono (those without the proper magic).

Other than that, the only foreign words a reader should encounter in the book are words that are from the time period of Tudor England, or place names and person names. Place names I admit I simply made up. Most person names are taken from a list of Dutch equivalents of English names. When the Dutch names did not work, I altered them for a name that was easier to read.

But even with this careful attempt to make this book very low barrier to entry, I get frequent complaints from readers that they don't understand the rules of the magic system. I suspect this is because I never stop to explain them in more than a paragraph at a time. I don't want to halt the movement of the story.

In The Princess and the Hound series, I tried to find an even lower barrier to entry by refusing (in the first two books) to ever make up a word for the magic. I simply called it "the animal magic" or some other combination of English words. I was very fierce about this because I felt like there was no need to make up words if you had perfectly good ones already in English. English is a rich language with words from all different sources. Use it.

I think that even if you are writing genre fiction for adults, you may want to consider some of the lessons that YA genre has taught about barrier to entry. In the YA world, science fiction and fantasy are not considered "genres" so much as they are tags. By this I mean that young adult readers rarely think of themselves as solely readers of one genre or another, and they are also very rarely snobbish enough to think that they would never read fantasy because it isn't literary enough. They don't read solely award-winning books or solely contemporary realism. The lines simply are not drawn as finely, and this is partly because young adults have yet to define themselves as firmly as adults do.

But it is also because young adult genre fiction has less barrier to entry, and is thus inviting to those who are new readers in genre. If a teen has never read a single fantasy novel before, has no background in Tolkein, McCaffrey, or Wynne-Jones, it won't make a bit of difference when navigating the back-story of the average young adult novel. Every book is a new one, and every book is meant to be a new one. This means that young adult fantasies can be shared more easily between friends, and are more likely to be recommended by teachers and librarians to any teen who is interested in reading.

The same is largely true of science fiction, though the genre is still fairly new in the young adult world. For many years, the term "dystopian" was used to refer to almost all science fiction for young adults, because the success of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins meant that young adult readers and gate keepers knew what that term meant. It meant sometime in the future, that young adults had power and would try to change the government in big ways, and that there were problems in the future that technology had not solved and made a perfect utopia out of it. We readers of adult science fiction are aware that this description could refer to almost any science fiction and is not really confining. And indeed, more and more young adult science fiction is set in space, is more adventure based rather than political, and has more similarities to the many sub-genres of science fiction in the adult world.

If writers of adult science fiction and fantasy wanted to court a larger audience, I believe lower barrier to entry is one of the main ways to do this. There are a handful of titles that have been sold as mainstream fiction rather than genre fiction and have sold extremely well. It may be easy to turn up your nose at books like The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Yes, these books use info-dumping. They are also less complex in terms of world-building. They stick as much as possible to contemporary realism. They only veer away from it when necessary. They also tend to use much fewer new words, jargon, and require less hard work from the reader. I don't think this means they are books that shouldn't be read by those who love genre fiction. They also tend to have a more literary quality in language, which can be another way to get notice outside the genre.

There are many ways to tell a story, and I don't think that choosing one over another means selling out or dumbing down your fiction. Telling your story in such a way that it is accessible to as many readers as possible isn't giving up or selling out. It is making a choice, and it's not necessarily an easier choice. There are times when you may want to tell a story to a particular audience of insiders because they won't get the jokes otherwise. There are other times when you want to tell a story as if it was completely new, as if you invented everything yourself, and as if your readers are young, eager to hear a great story, but unaccustomed to the traditional fantasy assumptions and tropes. Those stories are worth telling, too.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison


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