The State of Writing

Some interesting articles about writing in these modern times. (And no, it has nothing to do with NaNoWriMo — though my best wishes to anyone surfacing for air from that 🙂

Instead, this article deals with several aspects of writing — from the story-telling to the actual chicken-scratching-on-dead-trees.

First, an inspiring and encouraging piece from a fantasy magazine about Why We Didn’t Buy Your Story. Sounds counter-intuitive (especially since the sub-title is “Can You Handle the Truth?“), but when you review the selection process and the reasons for rejections — it’s actually encouraging!

It seems like indie authors are getting better, working smarter and producing more polished works. While I’m sure that the stigma of “self published” will take a while to disappear and that traditional publisher will still rule reach (the ability to expose a novel to the masses) for some time to come, it’s a good sign on the tumultuous road the publishing industry is currently on.

Anyway, the rest of this post deals with and collects various resources about both story-telling and languages (written and fantastical) — the things reflected in the act of writing.

Writing Stories

Next, an excellent article about Character-driven vs. Plot-driven: Which is best?

This article comes from an independent editing services company in NY. It details the differences between the two approaches, and includes (just the way I like it) some concrete advice for writers.

I always find it encouraging when such pieces are not trying to be prescriptive, but rather strike a balance. It acknowledges the differences both in craft an in author and reader personalities. It stresses the strength of each approach and the benefits of working both them and on your weaknesses to compensate. Highly recommended.

Then there’s Ray Bradbury’s advice for writers. This is a collection of quotes from a grandmaster of literature, taken from various interviews throughout his illustrious career. While I may not agree with every single piece (some are dated, and others I would argue with), I think overall it’s an excellent collection of motivational “tips” for authors. I highly recommend that any author, published or otherwise, at least scan through the points. It might give you the boost you need on a low day. (My own, highly condensed, advice is very much in line — encouraging for me ;-).

Going on a tangent, Fairy Tales Could Be Older Than You Ever Imagined. A short piece from the Smithsonian about the origins of fairy tales, and how using linguistic and biology-inspired techniques dates them back to before some language family splits, or 5,000-6,000 years ago. Should provide an interesting story fuel for those who like retellings of fairy tales and an “old ones” approach to mythical themes and creatures. It’s going to be relevant further down, when we consider oral vs written traditions.

Written Languages

As for actual writing, here’s a series of articles about what happens when someone who specialised in ancient (historical) writing systems takes a critical look at Tolkien’s Elvish languages… Warning: Linguistic Geekery Ahead!

If you’re still conscious after that article, do bear in mind it’s part of a series. The next one covers Elvish vowels… I do remember as a child the first time I read the appendixes. I was a bit obsessed back then with finishing books and reading everything an author wrote, though when I reached the bit about diphthongs I quit in disgust. I was getting enough of that at school, and didn’t need my fantasy ruined.

Of course, not all languages (even constructed ones) are meant to be understood. Take a look at this article about the Etruscan language, from the perspective of a linguistics student trying to learn it. We know quite a few things about the language from plenty of surviving inscriptions and historical attestations, without actually being able to fully decipher it. And that doesn’t even touch on languages no one alive can understand, like Linear A.

Fantastical Writing

Which is another way of bringing up fantasy languages. I’ve talked before about historical and fantasy naming conventions, so why not extend this discussion into writing systems?

And no, I’m not advocating going all Tolkien-esque crazy with your writing systems. Remember that he was a linguist first, and used his fantasy fiction as an outlet for that. Instead, I want to focus on written media as out intrepid adventurers come across it.

There was a very interesting article a while back on about maps in fantasy titled Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters. The point is about how people and cultures consume this information, how equipped are they to understand and make use of it. (If you look at early historical maps, relative locations seems almost incidental. The best you can hope for is an itinerarium that will give you an indication about the travel times between locations).

What does that have to do with writing? Well, as with names it’s about the cultural implication of writing. We tend to take it for granted, but giving due consideration to related aspects can give you depths and surprising twists:

  • What percentage of the population is literate? How and when are they taught?
    (Same problem as early fax machines — they’re only useful if the other side has them)
  • Is there a difference between the lingua franca and the daily language? Does that affect written material?
  • What is the writing medium? How durable is it? How costly is it, and what’s it’s general availability?

Take Ancient Rome as a handy example. Paper (papyri) certainly existed, but wasn’t necessarily cheap or durable. The standard for disposable messages was the wax tablet — two leaves of thin wood, whose inside surface was covered in wax. You’d write by scratching the wax with a metal stylus, and can reuse the tablet by smoothing it out (the heat from you hand was enough to make the wax pliable). You could also stamp you seal ring in the wax, if needed. These tablets could be tied together and wax dripped and stamped, to show if they were tampered with.

Other mediums were vellum (animal hides) that was costly but very durable, and so were used for more permanent “books”. These were constructed from sheets of velum glued at the edges to make a continuous roll.

More than that, though, consider the writing itself. In many ancient writing systems there were no punctuation marks and no spaces between letters. That made parsing the text very hard. Caesar was noted as a genius because it was said he could understand a text at first reading — mere mortals always needed to go through it a couple more times to understand it. It actually wasn’t a big deal as you might first think, because you’d normally have time. People weren’t expected to read on the spot, as the focus was on oral delivery, on proper rhetoric and speeches. (You can read this excellent BBC article about the origins of punctuation).

However, that delay makes reading missives in the heat of battle quite difficult. Go forward a few centuries, and each region in Europe speaks its dialect that’s based on local languages mixed in with vulgar Latin. But if you need to communicate in writing you’d fall back on “proper” Latin — meaning the languages you write and the language you speak daily aren’t the same.

Side note: in building the world of Egretia, there is no long-distance communication magic. There are some forms of general scrying and divination, and some wizards can travel great distances quickly (but the price to learn that branch of magia often makes them deranged and unstable). So reliable communications are via written messages carried by people. I’ve done this to preserve the feel of the antiquity.

So, again, we come to how useful is writing (and reading) to our protagonists, out and about in their daily business. Are they primarily from an urban society, or do they roam the countryside? How do their peers transmit culture? (likely mostly oral traditions). What use do they have of language — how often do they need to send and receive messages? What’s the delivery mechanism? How available and trust-worthy are couriers?

If the protagonists are educated, what languages and tools are available for them? How long does it take and using what means can they communicate with others? What other languages would they come across, and what are the chances they could understand them? Does signage mage sense, and how would indigenous people use it vs invading cultures?


A bit of a link-heavy start, with a discussion of languages and writing systems in history and fantasy towards the end. You might find that it’s not particularly relevant to your more contemporary setting with high literacy rates, or that you don’t care enough to deal with it as not important to the story you’re telling.

But with a few glints off the iceberg, you can paint layers of complexity and present interesting challenges to you and your protagonists that will enrich your story telling in a way that will make it stand out in readers’ minds.

What are some interesting treatments you came across for writing in literature?

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