Hi, my name is Rosalie and I am the first to admit there is a lot about writing I don’t know. 
There is however, a lot I have learned about writing fantasy since I have been studying the topic for the last fifteen years. Experience has taught me a great deal, often the hard way.

Like art, writing is an indefinite science, but there are rules that help improve your readability. There are guidelines that improve your chances of publication. If you plan to self-publish, it is vital these rules are part of your writing craft. Self-publication removes the support of a team of editors. Their advice and expertise can identify a weakness in a novel or in a writing style. Once recognized, correction and improvement should become a habit.

Anyhow, I contacted three editors who shared their ‘pet peeves’. We can discuss how to rectify these problems once we know what we are looking for.
Editors’ Pet Peeves
Barbara Ehrentreu, who edits for two publishing houses, said her pet peeves are:
– Run on sentences: So many authors keep adding clauses to their sentences and connecting them with commas.
– Long paragraphs with a ton of exposition that puts me to sleep.
– Too many dialogue tags with anything but said. I’ll take replied, but using anything else detracts from the sentence. Many times, you don’t even need a tag if the author has delineated the characters with one or two at the beginning of the dialogue.
Karen McGrathMuse Content Editor said:
– I don’t like to see more than three POVs, preferably only one or two. It’s my worst pet peeve.
– Passive voice used inappropriately is another one.
– I really sigh when an author has characters use dialog out of line for their age or characterization.
Nancy BellMuse Editor said:
– I don’t like to see a lot of passive voice, also inadequate research resulting in a lot of rewrites for the author, too many and/or awkward dialogue tags, overuse of em dashes (–) and ellipses
– (. . .).
– General overuse of the same words or similar words, which we all are guilty of I might add. In particular the words, then, he, she, a character’s name, had, had been, that.
Thanks to these editors for their time and interest in our writing.
Now, can we recognize and replace, remove or somehow avoid those pitfalls?
Run on Sentences
Commas have their uses, but if they are creating run on sentences it is time to rethink their use. I heard that sentences should not exceed twenty-five words. Anything over that might constitute a ‘run on sentence.’ At least it could use looking at for improvement.
Paragraphs That Have Too Much Exposition
I have a feeling Barbara is describing what fantasy authors refer to as info-dumps.
The temptation with fantasy to explain things too early or too in-depth is hard to resist. Remember that as long as the author knows everything there is to know about the characters, the world and the conflict they are creating, then that’s fine. Readers are on a need to know basis, they are looking for action, emotion and a story to flow. Background is necessary but in small easy to absorb portions. As long as the author has all the information, it is their skill to share it carefully. A passing comment, a name dropped, a reference given can be all that the reader needs to follow the plot.
Dialogue Tags
Pronouns. The guidelines on the use of ‘he said’/‘she said’ vary from publisher to publisher. Barbara’s comment refers to the idea that these simple dialogue tags become invisible to the reader. These editors are working in today’s ebook industry. Their comments are up to date and apply to books about to be published. There are ways to limit the need for dialogue tags. Showing the reader actions and character emotions can give more information, identify who spoke and avoid repetition of ‘he said’/‘she said’.
Care needs to be taken using character names and pronouns. Keeping the reader in the loop is vital. Overdosing them with character names, ‘he’, and ‘she’ is not. How often in dialogue do we name our subject? When we talk among ourselves we know who we are talking to, so we should reflect that in our writing where we are able. An occasional name or pronoun is necessary. Overuse is something we need to watch out for.
Passive Voice
As writers we strive to use active voice. The rule of Show Don’t Tell applies here. To avoid passive voice, rethink forms of the verb ‘to be’: was, were, had and had been can often weaken our writing. Again, this topic deserves a discussion of its own.
Too many POVs
That’s an interesting one. Karen was not referring to ‘head hopping’ where the Point of View changes abruptly, but telling a novel from too many character viewpoints. Readers identify with the main POV characters and moving away from their story can cause the reader to lose interest. Not what we want!
Em dash, ellipses. (…)
When editing for the digital world the use of the em dash (–) ellipsis (. . .) and exclamation mark (!) becomes problematic. Although they have their uses, remember in this day and age we must cater for ebooks and not only print format. Besides the technical headache they can create, their overuse weakens writing across the board. They often indicate a break in the flow of thought. Any break can cause the reader to hesitate and should be justified before inclusion.
There are other pet peeves I have heard editors quote. This is my favorite.
Autonomous Body Parts
The most often used examples are ‘his eyes followed her’, ‘her hands fell into her lap’, ‘my nose is running.’ Avoid if possible. There has to be an alternative way of saying things. ‘His gaze followed her’. ‘She lowered her hands into her lap,’ and ‘I have a runny nose.’
There are other hints and tips that can help us avoid the dreaded rejection slip, or ensure our self-published novel is as good as we can produce. For now though, I am grateful to Barbara, Karen and Nancy for giving us an insight into what annoying problems we can eliminate from our work.
Next article will address the task of applying polish to our manuscript.

One: Let It Sit

Like a vintage port, your writing can improve with maturity. Sounds odd and hardly proactive, but leaving your completed manuscript to sit for a while can help you see flaws in it later. While the ink is still drying, you are too involved with the characters and situations to look at every word objectively. Despite the urge to submit your masterpiece to a publisher, or publish it yourself, give it time to settle.
As an author, don’t rush anything about your writing, unless perhaps completing the first draft. Once completed step away and think about other things. The next work in progress, or cover designs or even a map, anything but the manuscript. Trust me, when you pick it up in a few weeks, or months you will see it in a new light. This is when you can begin to polish your work and make it shine.

Two: Check It For Plot, Continuity, and Flow

Reading through your dusty manuscript, look at it from the perspective of the reader as much as possible. Try to forget you are the author and see where there is too much information, or too little. Do your characters behave true to form throughout the novel? Do relationships remain believable? Does plot thicken and drama build? Are there moments of introspection, action and resolution? Does the plot move forward smoothly? Does every word, conversation and scene tie back to the plot? Check that your theme and underlying premise remains topical.

Three: Action and Reaction

When editing your manuscript for publication ensure you have always followed the Action before Reaction rule. Look at each sentence and scene, checking that an action motivates the POV character BEFORE they react. His/her reaction should then follow with initial feelings first. The hit of adrenaline or fear will prompt reflex reactions. Flinching, fighting, fleeing, and anger, come before the character thinks rationally. Then we have deliberate actions taken. Planned actions or speech such as a plea for help or a threat, follow the first feelings and reflex reactions. For example:
Motivation: The dragon dropped to the ground in front of our hero.
Feeling: Fear coursed through our hero’s veins.
Reflex: He grasped his sword, rasping steel free from leather before he dragged air into his lungs.
Deliberate Action: Fleeing didn’t rate a mention. Standing his ground our hero glared into the beast’s dark eyes. “Now or never. Meet your nemesis.”
For more information on this subject, check out Randy Ingermanson’s “Writing the Perfect Scene”.
Once confident all actions have motivations, and scenes have hoped for outcome, conflict and problem, followed by response, problem and choice. Each scene should push the plot forward in at least five ways. These can incorporate the concepts used for modeling any well-structured scene. They include conflict, crisis, calamity, consequence, change, conclusion,
Watch that each of these ideas are met in some way to ensure you don’t have excess words that deviate from the plot. In a rich, riveting manuscript each sentence, paragraph, and scene is vital to the story.

Four: Cull Words To Avoid

Excess words are superfluous to good writing. Any author you meet will have a list of words they try to avoid. Reasons vary, and so will the length of the list. The list tends to get longer as you learn more about writing. I have listed some here. There are reasons to go with them that we can discuss more deeply later if you are interested. Please share your favorite ‘bad’ words if I have left any out.
Avoid: ‘To be’ and variations of the verb (has been, should have been). Passive voice can weaken any fantasy tale. Give your readers more. Let them see and hear what is going on and become a part of the scene by using the five senses.
Weak: He was angry.
Strong: He clenched his fists and ground his teeth.
Stronger: Anger tightened every muscle, pumped adrenaline through each vein.
Avoid: Had, That, Up, Down, Really, Almost, Just, So, Went, Actually, As, Suddenly, Beautiful and Handsome. These words are used without thought, but often do little to improve a sentence. When a fantasy author is polishing their manuscript, they should go through and remove any case where these words are unnecessary.
‘Had’ places the action in the past. That is often unnecessary. To bring immediacy to their writing fantasy authors will strive to keep action and interest in the present.
Weak: He had done his best.
Strong: He did his best.
Weak: He had to find the answer in the scroll.
Strong: He must find the answer in the scroll.
Avoid: Adverbs those pesky words ending in ‘ly’ that don’t strengthen the verb. Find a stronger verb. For example:
Walked slowly … strolled
Ran quickly … sprinted
Yelled loudly … shouted
Avoid: Thought, Felt, Wondered, Pondered, Sensed, and Hoped. When writing in character driven POV, these words intrude on the reader. Try and eliminate the need for them.
Weak: He felt the cold rain against his skin.
Strong: Cold rain chilled his skin.
Weak: She thought the beast looked exhausted.
Strong: The beast looked exhausted.
Stronger: Exhausted, the beast’s head hung, flanks heaved, eyes looked dull and listless.
Avoid: Excess words. Words that add nothing to your story. Go through the manuscript and look for extraneous words. These are words that fail to add meaning or clarity to your work. In the example above, we have ‘yelled loudly’. ‘Loudly’ is unnecessary here, not because it is an adverb, but because ‘yelled’ by itself infers a loud shout. Consider, explosive eruption, frightening nightmare, draconian dragon, illuminating light, raging wrath, fearless courage, aching hurt…You get the idea.
Weak: He sprinted at top speed.
Strong: He sprinted.
Weak: She knelt on bended knees.
Strong: She knelt.
Weak: Riding on feisty horses, they rode into the sunset.
Strong: On feisty horses, they rode into the sunset.
These are obvious, but keep the idea in mind when you look at your work.
Avoid: Overusing pronouns. He, she, and it, overused can cause confusion. If the sentence doesn’t work, rewrite. Confusion can lose your flow and continuity in one flawed sentence. Try to keep pronouns and their subject clear and precise. The danger of uncertain reference can affect the use of ‘it’ and ‘they’.
Only a few of the knights owned warhorses. They needed to find mounts.
‘They’ seems to refer to the knights who already had horses, or the warhorses themselves, rather than the knights who did not own warhorses.
Uncertain reference can also affect ‘he’ and ‘she’.
“He told him he must help him saddle the horse.”
Here the reader has no idea who is saying what to whom. Avoiding the pronouns can clarify the situation but leads to a stilted style of writing and is probably better to rewrite the sentence.’
“Connor told Dean that Dean must help Connor saddle the horse.”
Better, but rewriting the sentence will make it less clunky.
“Connor needed to saddle his horse. He told Dean to help him.”
“Connor needed to saddle his horse. He told Dean to help”
“Connor needed to saddle his horse, so he asked Dean for help.”
Or you could use dialogue.
Connor turned toward Dean. “Help me saddle the horse.”
For the sake of clarity, the fantasy writer should place a proper noun before its personal pronoun.

Five: The Senses

Painting the image includes incorporating information from the five senses. Sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch/texture, and emotion all help add authenticity to the fantasy setting. Including these pieces of information need not involve a huge info dump. The fantasy author should develop the skill of introducing snippets of information in narrative or dialogue without blocks of descriptions.
Sight: Remember to address the reader’s visual imagery: What can they see?
Smell: Their olfactory perception (smell): taste, smell and air quality.
Sound: Audio response: noise, background noise, voices, music, wind, rain, waves etc.
Touch: Textures, from clothing to cobblestones, every extra piece of info adds to the world you are creating.
Emotions: The most important information the reader needs is to know how each character is feeling or reaction to the situation. The POV character can ascertain emotion through body language and tone of voice, facial expression and gestures. One interesting thing to remember is that we take only 10% of our impressions from the words we hear. The rest of our impressions are from those other factors, like body language and tone of voice. These are the writer’s allies and vital to expressing a character’s emotion.
Hope you find something useful here. These are ideas for the initial polishing of your manuscript. The more often you polish the better the shine. Keep note of new ideas on how to improve your work. Take note of critique comments and ask questions if in doubt. Often discussion can clarify a problem before it becomes a habit.
AMY ROSE DAVIS posted this article on Fantasy Faction… I find it very useful.
Amy Rose Davis
As a marketing writer and freelance copywriter, I spent several years trimming sentences and blurbs to fit in newspaper ads and on postcards, brochures, and other marketing collateral. Then I started writing fiction again. Oh, the joy! I could wax poetic about anything, not worrying about wordcounts or keeping things trim and tidy. And since I write fantasy, well, certainly my readers would want big, fat, wordy novels to keep them busy.
Don’t get me wrong—I’ll still slog my way through a massive fantasy tome if the story captivates me, and I won’t care if it’s upwards of 200,000 words. But if the book is full of extraneous words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, arcs, characters—you get the point—I’ll drop it like a hot dragon’s egg.
So what’s the difference? A lot of things, but for today, I want to focus on the extraneous words in individual sentences. I see these words in all kinds of writing—published, unpublished, and independently published. Many of these words and phrases are easy to simply search and destroy, and eliminating them will make the difference between beginner-quality narrative and professional, polished prose.
Eliminate or work around the word “that” to tighten your sentences. Consider some examples:
Wordy: I wish that I could cast spells.
Better: I wish I could cast spells.
Wordy: Steel that comes from Eirya is sharper than steel that comes from Taura.
Better: Steel from Eirya is sharper than steel from Taura.
Best: Eiryan steel is sharper than Taurin steel.
Bonus points if you can eliminate an entire phrase before the word “that!” I usually see this sin more in business writing, but it could easily creep into first drafts of fiction.
Wordy: The fact was that thousands of infantrymen died in the battle.
Better: Thousands of infantrymen died in the battle.
Wordy: It was commonly known that the pub was a front for many illicit dealings.
Better: The pub was a front for many illicit dealings.
“Almost as if”
This phrase is one that feels like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I think it hedges, and it feels passive. Plus, other words often must be added to the sentence to make the phrase correct.
Wordy: The sun touched the horizon almost as if it were a hesitant lover.
Better: The sun touched the horizon as a hesitant lover.
Wordy: She looked almost as if she were going to cry.
Better: She looked like she would cry.
Best: She blinked back tears.
Okay, I cheated a little on that last one. I’m always in favor of finding a stronger verb that shows rather than tells.
Redundant Adverbs and Adjectives
I posted about adverbs two weeks ago, so I won’t rehash the rules on those. However, I think it’s worth noting an issue that can crop up for both adverbs and adjectives: Redundancy. What do I mean?
He was a lanky, gaunt man.
Pick one—lanky or gaunt. Both words mean similar things. I see this error a lot with writers who seem to be striving for vocabulary awards. One $25-word is enough.
She tiptoed quietly into the room.
Would she tiptoe any other way? If you’re going to use an adverb, make sure it doesn’t repeat an idea you just conveyed.
“Just” and Its Conversational Counterparts
I blame this sin on blogs, e-mails, and the plethora of conversational writing on the Internet. And I confess—“just” is my own personal demon. My fingers type it automatically, and I have to search and destroy. Here are a few more you can search for: Reallyveryhonestlyseriouslyboththere was/there isbeganstartedcontinuedaboutkind ofsort of.
“Was” with an –ing verb
I’m not a “was” hater, but beginning writers often couple “was” with an –ing word, which is a weak construction. The solution is simple: Change the verb form and eliminate “was.”
Wordy: She was dancing to the music of the drum and pipe.
Better: She danced to the music of the drum and pipe.
Or: She danced to the drum and pipe.
I cheated again. We know from context that the drum and pipe are making music because she’s dancing. You can tighten your sentence by eliminating “music of the.” However, I will say that I like the poetry of the second sentence better—the rhythm of it appeals to my ear and eye. But then, I have an unholy love of prepositional phrases. Which brings me to the next point…
Prepositional Phrases
There are times when I love a good string of prepositional phrases. I think they add a poetic rhythm to writing when not overused. But when it comes to trimming word counts and making sure our writing is as tight as possible, it’s worth searching for some key prepositional phrases. You can often eliminate or combine them to tighten your sentences. Look for key phrases such as of theto theon thein the. Those particular offenders indicate a string of prepositional phrases in my own writing; you may discover other offenders in your own work.
One caution: This level of editing is for later stages of your work. Don’t worry about tightening word count in first drafts or even second and possibly third drafts. In creative mode, just get the story down. On your first couple of edits, look at big things—structure, character, plot. There’s no reason to tighten flabby sentences when you might cut the entire scene! However, once you’ve revised your story to the very best it can be on a structural level, these edits will help you eliminate flab and give your work a polished, professional shine.
After all, if you’re going to write a 200,000-word epic, you may as well make every word count.

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