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Uncle Chris’s Writing Tips #3: What The Hell Is A Jazzlewozzy?

‘See there,’ said Rablaaaan the Octrazine. ‘A jazzlewozzy! It will make fine vittels, iffen we can catch it and stick it in a stew with some grated a’rair’thian’ttt’x!’

‘A jazzlewozzy?’ asked Bert.

‘See its long pointy ears, its elongated hind feet and round fluffy tail! See how it prances and snuffles!’

‘Are you talking about that rabbit?’

Rablaaaan looked bewildered. ‘A… rabbit?’ Then he laughed, so long and hard that several sentences after this paragraph ended he was found by a passing troll and got his head bitten off. ‘What kind of stoopid name is that for a jazzlewozzy?’

Naming stuff in fantasy and SF is a minefield. I’m gonna use fantasy for my examples here, but the same things apply in SF. It’s the worldbuilder’s dilemma: what the hell do I call a rabbit?

So there you are, happily creating your fantasy world, and it occurs to you that your heroes might need something to put in their stew. Now, you think to yourself, you’re going for a proper fantasy world, none of this Tolkien-knockoff pseudo-medieval elves-dwarves-and-goblins stuff. It follows that if your whole world is full of strange and wonderful races and beings, then populating it with domestic Earth animals like cats and dogs, or having people ride about on horses, is a bit lame, really. Why not just come up with something new to replace all those little animals?

Writer, you just bought yourself a whole world of trouble.

One of the little-discussed aspects of the fantasy writer’s art is the balancing act between telling the reader what they need to know to enjoy your world, and drowning them in information. Much has been said about info-dumping (for those that don’t know, this is when one of the characters picks up a pot and the author pauses to explain the history, culture and favourite flavour of ice cream enjoyed by the native people who crafted it) but the reason it’s so pervasive is that it’s so incredibly hard to deal with.

The thing is, everyone knows how elves, dwarves and goblins work. You don’t even need to explain them; they come with their own set of assumed rules. Ditto witches, wizards, vampires, werewolves and zombies, which explains why they massively dominate the bookshelves. They’re easy, both for the writer and the reader. The more original your fantasy world, the more time it is necessary to take to explain to your reader how the world works and who lives in it. Even with all the skill in the world, that’s gonna mire your story in swathes of explanation and backstory.

Now usually you can get away with a few awesome new races that no-one’s ever heard of. You can come up with a dinky magic system. You can create some great monsters. But what I’ve found is that, when you get down to the nuts and bolts of a civilisation, you have to cut corners.

If your heroes all cook with crazy containers of glistening crystal, then you have to give those things a name. Let’s call them valax. Now what do they eat with? Spoons? Too conventional. Let’s give them obzol, which are cups of dried and toughened leather they dip in on a cradle of string. Oh, wait, we can’t have string…

Wait a minute.

Rablaaaan the Octrazine dipped his obzol into his valax and drew up a mouthful of jazzlewozzy stew.

Hmm. Beginning to sound a bit like A Clockwork Orange now. I don’t envy the writer who has to explain to the reader all those new terms they’ve put in there. And not explaining them is worse. You can get away with it by context a few times, but if you barrage the reader with made-up words then eventually they’ll give up trying to decipher them and put your story down.

Sooner or later, you end up having to call a pot a pot.

The other thing is, even if you do come up with lots of new kitchen utensils, domestic animals, etc, you can only ever describe them by likening them to the thing they replaced. You either call it ‘a spoon-like utensil’ or you tie yourself in ridiculous knots by saying ‘it was made of steel, with a long handle, and a depression at its furthest end used as a receptacle for food, the better to transport it to one’s mouth,’ etc etc. It’s the same with animals. No matter how original you make your horse-analogue look and act, as soon as someone climbs on its back, we know it’s a horse (go watch Avatar if you don’t believe me).

In my opinion, a book is not just a record of the writer’s imagination.  A book is a bridge between the author and the reader. The author has a certain obligation to consider his or her audience. The reader doesn’t know a thing about the world they’re entering into. It’s up to the author to make sure they know everything they need to, without ever forgetting that all this stuff in the background is only there to service the story, not to overwhelm it.

In a perfect world, I’d never have anything remotely Earth-like creep into one of my fantasy books. I’d design everything from the ground up to fit my world. But it doesn’t work that way, because that would turn my book into an encyclopaedia, not a story. I could get away with it in a movie, perhaps, but words are too slow for that; it’s one of the limitations a book has. So a compromise needs to made. I need to throw the reader a bone and say: ‘screw it, this dog-like thing, it’s a dog, okay? Let me spare you two paragraphs of explanation and just say ‘In the distance, a dog barked.’ Not a the howl of kakarinch. Not the percussive chee chee chee of a optryx. A dog.’ You’ll thank me for it later.

Let me tell you the tale of a young, enthusiastic writer who one day decided he was going to write about a fantasy world that wouldn’t have anything even remotely Tolkein-esque in it. In fact, he thought, I’ll set it all underground, a fantasy world that evolved away from the light. There’ll be no horses or dogs or cats. I mean, there’ll be humans, or human-like races, and they’ll have an easily recognisable society (one a plutocracy, one fundamentalist), so we won’t go too crazy. But definitely no horses, dogs or cats. Because they just wouldn’t be there. Right?

I was halfway through that book before I tossed it in the bin and started again. The reason that The Fade is written the way it’s written is entirely because of the reasons I stated above. Whichever way I cut it, there was loads of explanation necessary. Every little thing that Orna came up against needed a lengthy description, otherwise the reader wouldn’t know how it worked or why it was there. It drove me insane.

I only cracked it when I rewrote it so Orna starts the book in prison. That way, I got to show the reader a tiny space in the world, and gradually expand it through flashback, until by the time they got to the big panoramas they were thoroughly prepped for what they would see. The entire story changed in service to the world I’d set it in. And even then, the animals still ended up being fairly obvious analogues (flying ray-like things, big cuttlefish-like things, dog-like things, bear-like things they rode around on, etc)

People do sometimes question the relative lack of originality in the world of fantasy and SF. Why, when we have ALL OF POSSIBILITY to explore, do we end up narrowing ourselves into little mini-genres? It’s because there’s no point writing a book if no-one understands it. It’s because fantasy and science fiction only works if the reader has some real-world thing to relate it to. Sometimes, it’s better to make your world an easily recognisable one, so it doesn’t get in the way of the story. Better to tell a great hero story in a feudal, medieval setting than to have the same story buried under masses of description in a floating, upside-down clockwork world populated by ghosts.

Of course, none of this applies if you’re just writing a story for your own enjoyment. But if you’re writing it for someone else to read, then it’s a fact of life. Strange to think, as a writer, that imagination and words can actually be limiting. But there you have it.

* * *

Speaking of clockwork, the word on the street (by which I mean the aisles between publishers’ desks) is that steampunk is on its way back to your bookshelves in a big way. This is kinda funny, since only a year ago I was telling a bunch of people at the SFX show that calling a book ‘steampunk’ virtually guaranteed its death on the shelves, as was the accepted wisdom at the time. How things have changed.

I hope it’s true, since steampunk rocks. And the thing is, this might be the right time for it. I think it might actually be ready to storm the shelves. Why this strange and frankly unusual optimism? Well, because it’s been around for so long. Like vampires and werewolves, it’s seeped into the public consciousness. Movies like The Golden Compass, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Wild Wild West and the new Sherlock Holmes have come and gone, along with plenty of good, bad, and indifferent novels. Steampunk has never been a big hit on the bookshelves, but writers (and publishers, to their credit) have kept on trying. Steampunk is not unusual anymore. It’s familiar enough that your casual shelf-grazer might just pick one up and, instead of thinking ‘This is clearly not about Thongar the Barbarian or anything similar! Fie upon this tome!’ they’ll give it a go.

Who knows? I for one would prefer steampunk to paranormal romance, zombie fiction, or any of a dozen other tired sub-genres. Bring it on!

17 Comments

  1. Zach says:

    Hey Chris,

    I totally know what you mean about the whole creating original characters. It’s really hard to do anything truly original because unless you describe excessively agonizingly long, the reader is clueless. I write this kind of extremely odd and I guess you would say original, kind of fiction. I just decided recently that I would stick to more simple fiction without all of the explaining of weird creatures and beings.

    I was totally amazed by the movie Avatar though. It was utterly incredible. I saw in 3D, and it was one million times better than I thought it was going to be. It was so hard after to write anything because I had so many ideas, but all of them were way to similar to Avatar.

    One huge question though, I’ve read most of your books, including The Braided Path. After reading that series I was hooked to your books and trying to think of something as original as the Weavers, and I just can’t figure it out. How do you do it?

  2. Lucy says:

    I completely agree to everything you just said. It’s an issue that I’ve just suddenly become aware of. My graphic novel wound up having elves in it just because it seemed to fit the story, but I wouldn’t say it was the most original thing for me to have thought of!

    I also wonder whether it’s harder to think of more original things, but then that could just be me getting inspired by things. I’m new at writing! I’m sure I have a lot of things to learn.

    I was just literally reading the Fade literally about five minutes ago so it also made me laugh when I read the bit you wrote about it. Ironic? 0_o

    I love the idea of more Steampunk books coming out though. It’s a genre I’m quickly getting addicted to and certainly something I want to explore in my own writing. 🙂 I’ll keep my eyes open for that!

    Oh and I loved Avatar because you could relate to it. 🙂 And I loved it in 3D too! Best film I’ve ever seen!

    Great Post!

  3. Lucy says:

    **minus the two literallys in that sentance… lol

  4. Joseph Evans says:

    You’re absolutely right, Chris. Too many original ideas can be too much hard work for a reader.

    I think it’s perfectly fine for characters in an original fantasy world to call a rabbit a rabbit because we can assume that the speech is being translated from their native language into English for us. I think it’s also fine for characters to use English language idioms and expressions for this same reason – whatever they’re saying in their language, we are having it translated into the closest possible English equivalent.

    Where an object’s physicality is original and the thing it most resembles in our world doesn’t exist in the story’s world, then I may have a minor problem in the author using a simile. This would depend on the perspective of the narration. The obvious no-no would be first person. But the same would be true with me for third person limited. Describing something as horse-like when horses do not exist in the protagonist’s world would feel clumsy, I think, as the narrator should be limited to the character’s thoughts and also to their world. Referencing real world objects in third person omniscient, however, is much less jarring. I’m sure Tolkien did it quite often. He even spoke directly to the reader and said something along the lines of ‘not like the world you and I live in,’ if I remember correctly.

    On the subject of steampunk, I would love to see it become a more prominent genre. I think one of the most visually mesmerizing films I’ve seen is Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children, which was very steampunk. The film didn’t capture me with its story unfortunately, and I thought there was way too much focus on the grotesque things in the film. What really awed me was the city itself with its lamp-lit docks surrounded by stagnant green water. The setting would have been perfect for some kind of steampunk romance.

    If somebody wrote a captivating plot surrounded by a fascinating steampunk world I would love it.

    Do you know of any good steampunk novels that are out there at the moment, Chris?

    China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station (which is fantastic) comes to mind whenever I think of steampunk, even though it probably wouldn’t be classed as that. Maybe it’s because of the mad science and giant, moving, messy machinery.

  5. Y’see, I’d count Perdido Street Station and The Scar as great steampunk novels, even though not many people class them as steampunk. I think steampunk got amalgamated into the New Weird, which is why I can’t come up with any great ‘pure’ steampunk novels. Depends if you think of steampunk as purely Victorian-England-with-extra-machines, or whether (as I do) you include anything with a retro society that used macro machinery (big machines, no microchips, that kind of thing). Mieville’s Bas-Lag society is pretty modern, but I still think it’s closer to fantasy than science fiction. PSS has a kind of ‘difference engine’ in as well, IIRC, which is a big steampunk indicator. But Mieville went out of his way to avoid classifications like that by coming up with one of his own, so it’s just my personal take on it.

    City Of Lost Children was great, though. Total steampunk. I really liked Avatar, too, btw… just using its horse-creatures as an example of how any riding beast instantly becomes a horse (unless it flies, in which case it becomes a dragon).

    @ Zach – We authors don’t give up our secrets that easily! Probably because we don’t know… 😉 Seriously, I just come up with that stuff, there’s no calculation or formula in it.

  6. Joseph Evans says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that saw Perdido Street Station as steampunk 🙂 I’d heard Mieville categorising it as New Weird, but I prefer the term steampunk. New Crobuzon was a fantastic city to immerse myself in. The giant mass of scrap metal and circuitry that Isaac gave consciousness was fantastic. And that giant spider weaving the fabric of reality was quite psychedelic.

    Edward Miller’s illustration on the cover is beautiful. I think loads of people pick it up just on the strength of that. Edward Miller was the guy who did your original Alaizabel Cray jacket, is that right? I love that illustration too. It’s a shame it’s got a different cover now. Actually it’s the same artist for The Fade too, just looking at it.

    There’s a very recent (silent) point n click adventure on the pc called Machinarium which is full of rusty oversized machines and looks stunning (it’s also really fun). Also I guess the original Syberia game was steampunk with its automatons and clockwork inventions.

  7. defcaasI says:

    I agree that all of that generic fantasy stuff is way overplayed. However, I was wondering if you had an opinion on something specific. Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle does have a lot of generic elements (Elves, Dwarfs, humans, dragons, etc…) But also incorporates more original concepts.

    Also, while readings your post I thought a lot about your Broken Sky series, some of that may be because I just reread it for kicks. But when I think about your writing and Originality, that’s just something specific that I think of.

  8. Kel says:

    You keep hitting all these nails directly on their stubborn, unyielding heads. World building is such a tricky line to tread. I’ve loved, for the most part, the way you’ve worked through it, but goodness knows there’s a whole pile of encyclopedias for every gem of an original world.

    And ditto on the steampunk hoping. I can’t tell you how tired I am of seeing shelves flooded with paranormal romance. Maybe steampunk will bring a little more action, plot, and fun(ny) characters back to our stores!

    Thank you very much for the lovely post! Your blunt honestly is refreshingly helpful, and I usually get a good chuckle or two here as well.

  9. Hope says:

    I feel as though I’ve had a revelation.
    You are a beautiful human being.
    And I’ve never read any steampunk, but I like the word. So I’ll read it. Plus, I remember I liked Wild Wild West. Cracked me up. Plus, the whole atmosphere was really cool.
    OH! Wait. I did READ The Golden Compass (This happens to me a lot. People ask, ‘Oh, have you seen [insert title of book-based movie]?’ ‘No. But I’ve read the book.’ ‘There’s a BOOK?’). I can’t remember much of it, though… I read it when I ought to have been sleeping, so that might explain it.
    And I am getting a bit tired of paranormal romance… I’ve been avoiding it. The only things I’ve managed to get down this week are Through the Looking-Glass and The Maze Runner.
    @ Joseph – I too am sad that Alaizabel has a new cover. I love the original.

  10. Tierney McKee says:

    Hi, Chris! I have been a fan of yours for — oh, I guess it’s been five or six years now — and I treasure every nugget of writing advice you’ve offered. Thank you for it, by the way. If my books never get written, it won’t be for lack of background knowledge.

    Anyway, I wanted to throw my two cents in regarding the steampunk evolution. I am almost through with INCARCERON (sorry for the caps — can’t do italics) by Catherine Fisher. It’s one of the most original stories I’ve ever read, and I think it fits the steampunk definition as I understand it. But I teach a Speculative Fiction class at a US high school, and I’m finding that adequately defining the range of subgenres within Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror is a daunting task. New Weird? What the heck is this?

    I have read all the Wooding novels I can find here. There are so many ways to classify them. And sometimes I find your work in the YA section, and sometimes I find you in the SciFi/Fantasy section. How do you define what you tend to write? Or do your publishers? Or do you simply not worry about, write whatever tale is in your head, and let the dystopian/steampunk/dark fantasy/gothic chips fall where they may?

    Thanks in advance for whatever insights you can offer.

  11. @ Joseph – Yes, it’s Edward Miller. Actually, the reason I first picked up Perdido Street Station was because Scholastic showed me a few covers from his portfolio when we were talking about Alaizabel and I thought how ace it looked. I also lament the original covers. Don’t like the new one at all.

    Syberia was kinda steampunk, you’re right.

    @ defcaasi – Originality isn’t a word that springs to mind when I think of Eragon, to be honest… kind of the opposite, actually. Sorry, I’m not a fan.

    @ Tierney – I do YA stuff and adult SF/Fantasy stuff, for two different publishers. That’s where the division lies. As to the genre boundaries, I don’t really think about it that much: most of the time they’re for the convenience of publishers, who need to quickly sell books to booksellers, who don’t have time to read everything they sell. The place these decisions are made tend to be on fan-forums, who thrash out the terminology by a democratic kind of shouting match. I’d recommend hanging out on some of the major forums if you want to keep up on the subgenres.

    Haven’t heard of INCARCERON; I’ll check it out. Another one that sounds very much like steampunk is BONESHAKER by Cherie Priest. Am quite interested in checking that one out…

  12. Tierney McKee says:

    I read BONESHAKER recently, and loved it. Passing it around to all interested students — just a great, great book. And another one I really loved is THE MAGICIANS. That one was unsettling — I still think about the creepiness of it.

    Thank you very much for answering me back. Lest you believe that I am just on your website to plug other authors, I should tell you that MALICE is also in heavy rotation in my 11th grade classroom. My kids are really digging it.

    Congratulations on the award situation!!! I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

  13. I found myself really underwhelmed by Boneshaker, in the end. It started off great and got worse until I gave up about two-thirds through. I thought the mother-son relationship was great in the first few chapters and I was nailed; but oddly, once it ‘got going’ I stopped liking it. Lots of zombies, lots (LOTS) of running about, and not much else…

    On the other hand, I just read PUSHING ICE by Alastair Reynolds and that has to be one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read, ever ever. I am now hounding my editor for more of his books. Meantime, am a third of the way through THE WINDUP GIRL which is another one that everyone in America seems to be talking about, and that one’s really good so far.

  14. Tierney McKee says:

    I agree with your assessment of BONESHAKER. I have a bad habit of reading a good portion of a book, liking it, and then losing interest. And I always assumed it was me — not the storytelling — so when other people said that they liked a book, I’d rave too. That’s kind of bad for an English teacher, isn’t it? No critical integrity. Worse yet, I’ll often just skip to the end. I bought COURT OF THE AIR by Stephen Hunt, and found that — what shall we call it? Point of Return? — about 1/3 of the way through it. Then I read the end, and passed it along to a student. Kind of like second-hand clothing, but without the tax write-off.

    Of course, I’ve never done this with any of YOUR books.

    No, really, I haven’t. I think that’s why I get so thrilled when I actually find an author who can hold me through the whole story. And when that happens, I will read for hours and hours on end. POISON was a gem, and so was STORM THIEF. It’s why I’ve been a fan for years, and why I’ve ordered Permabound copies for my classroom. It’s also probably why I’m so nervous about giving the proper time to my own stuff. Ideas in their pure form are so perfect — why mess them up by trying to write them? I know I’ll never do them justice.

    So if you have any good advice about overcoming that mental reluctance, I’m all ears. And in the interest of integrity, forget what I said about THE MAGICIANS (first 1/2 was good, and the end was satisfying) and only read about 2/3 of INCARCERON. If our scale includes just those books that “can’t be put down,” then I’d proffer The CITY & THE CITY by China Mieville, and THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY by…

    Well, you’re probably already familiar with that one.

  15. It’s not just you: I dump books midway through all the time. Life’s too short, books are a big time investment, and the vast majority of books that are out there aren’t all that great. I’ve read too many of them to hang on for an amazing twist that’ll knock my socks off: it almost never happens. If it’s not caught my interest by 100 pages in, it’s never likely to, so it gets slung into my Voracious Metaphorical Fireplace Of Doom.

    THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY? Never heard of it. Silly name, too, if you ask me. How are you supposed to pronounce it? 😉

  16. JL says:

    I get how hard it would be to have to create all of these things. I had to write a short story for school last year, and I tried writing a fantasy thing that was totally unique, and it ended up way weird. It was totally over the page limit, and I couldn’t explain anything! I ended up scrapping it and writing something totally different.

  17. […] authors, Chris Wooding, wrote a blog on this once, and It was very helpful. Here’s the link. I took a lot of advice from this post, as it is very important to balance the completely alien […]

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