Your World is Boring

— January 04, 2010 (9 comments)
I'm always surprised when someone who I know loves fantasy (or just books) tells me they have not read The Lord of the Rings. I mean, this book is fantasy. And it's awesome! How can so many people not have read it? I'll give you three reasons: worldbuilding infodumps, long plot-stopping songs, and unintelligible languages.

Now before you Tolkien fans lynch me, hear me out. I know these things make LotR what it is. These are what make the world so big and so real. For you uber-fans,* the world is what you love the most. But you have to understand that for a first-time reader -- someone who is totally unfamiliar with Middle Earth -- these parts are boring.

Tolkien loved his world. And rightfully so; it's amazing. But the truth is that if Tolkien tried to pitch this today as his debut novel, he'd be told to cut the word count in half, split the story into smaller parts,** and for Pete's sake use a 'k' instead of a hard 'c' in your fantasy names!

Sorry. I'm okay now.

Many of us who write fantasy fell in love with it because of books like Tolkien's. We started creating our own worlds with new races and cultures and politics and histories and languages. We wrote a story in that world. But you know what happened? Our story became more about the world than the story. And it was boring.

Now we're full grown wannabe authors. We know about character and conflict. We're good with pacing and tension. But every once in a while, we start our story off with an infodump prologue, or we toss a 70-line poem into our story just because we love it. Even if we manage to keep the world on a tight leash in our novel, it comes bursting out in the query letter.

People don't want to read about your world. They want interesting characters they can root for (or against). They want compelling plot. Give them these things and only then will they listen to whatever you've got to say about the history of the Sidhe (and why it's pronounced 'she').

If you get nothing else out of this post, remember this: readers that love your characters will love your world, not the other way around.

And if you love fantasy, please read LotR. It would make me feel so much better.

* i.e. Those of you who have read all the appendices, can write your name in Angerthas Daeron, and converse in Quenya as easily as Sindarin. You know who you are.

** Oh wait, he was told to do that.

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  1. I have two binders and three notebooks full of notes on the world of SON OF MAGIC. Am I naive enough to believe anyone cares about that information? God no.

    The only reason I need to know all of it is to maintain consistency.

  2. I'm actually not a huge fan of Tolkien's writing (though I loved the movies ;) b/c I found the writing a bit too long-winded (and I skimmed a lot). Good story, but you're spot on about today's market.

  3. I think that's a great reminder. That is after al why I read. I need somewhere different to escape.

  4. Ah, the world/character balance. I find it fascinating how it's changed over the years. Right now, it really is so much more about the characters. I wonder if it'll ever swing back to the world again?

  5. Yeah - I tried to read LotR, but I only made it to almost the end of the 1st book. I LOVE fantasy, but there was waaaaaay too much excess for me.

  6. A question - would it not make sense to have someone else draft the query letters? Which is to say, someone who is more detached from the book and possibly has a style that is more succinct than that of the novelist.

    It's just that writing a 200+ pg book and a punchy 2 paragraph summary of said book are such different tasks that they seem like they might reasonably be better done by two different people.

  7. Good question, Paul. It definitely helps to have someone else help you draft your letter--maybe even write a first draft for you. But agents don't just want to know what the book's about; they want to see in the query your voice, your style, and some of your ability. Most agents, if they find out the query letter was written by someone other than the author (a query service, for example), will reject it immediately.

    The writing is one reason, the other is more about professionalism. The query letter is very much like asking a girl out or going to a job interview. Sending someone to do so on your behalf is not only counter-productive, it can be insulting.

  8. What's that line about how most fantasy merely rearranges the furniture in Tolkien's attic? :-) In relation to characterisation, I find that's what the hobbits are mostly there for - to give a closeup to all the events that are happening and a filter for us to learn of the older legends and songs. I guess that's why if someone's going to read LoTR, they'd better start with The Hobbit first.
    I won't deny that I love every bit of Tolkien's writing :-)

  9. "I won't deny that I love every bit of Tolkien's writing :-)"

    I know you do, Deniz :-) And you're right; the Hobbits were our window. If the story had been told from Aragorn or Gandalf's POV, it might have been even worse, boring-wise.

    Hm, like The Silmarillion...