10% Above the Waterline

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.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


10% Above the Waterline — 6 Comments

  1. Don’t ever read SAINT LEBOWITZ AND THE WILD HORSE WOMAN, patched together by Terry Bisson from bits left by Walter M. Miller. It has a supremely frustrating map that leaves out everything in the text and includes all kinds of stuff that is not mentioned.
    And sometimes a map really helps. In the Gor novels, there is a point when Tarl Cabot leaves the capital city of whatever it was heading north and turns right, to the sea. A couple books later, he leaves the city heading north, turns right, and climbs the mountain range. But those were, manifestly, not works that one read for the worldbuilding.

  2. I have that problem as well, with the useless maps. There are currently three very highly praised Fantasy series with useless maps that I can think of on the fly. I have read — or tried to — these three, whilst I don’t bother with most these days.

    Like many other reader, certainly, I love maps for themselves, and always will follow a map if it is included in the book. Or try to. Sigh.

    Love, C.

  3. I tend to skip the maps until I need them. But there are those who adore maps, and that’s great. It’s just that when you’re submitting a novel, the first thing in the package should not be a map. Or a pronunciation guide. It should be a really good novel.

    • And, a further wrinkle, the first thing in the Look Inside feature on Amazon.com should not be a map, nor a pronunciation guide. Nor a foreword, a lengthy dedication, or an Author’s Note! All that stuff should be pushed to the back of the book, so that the first thing the prospective reader sees is the actual work!

  4. Yeah, it’s a perspective thing, or an investment thing: the author is invested so all the subsidiary stuff is cool beans to her. But to the reader coming cold on the project? They don’t want trappings, they want story. If they like the story, then the trappings become cool beans.