The Big Idea: Karen Healey

Author Karen Healey has some very specific advice about the use of apostrophes, and prologues. What is it and how does it have an impact on The Empress of Timbra, the novel she co-wrote with Robyn Fleming? Healey is here to fill you in on the details — with all the apostrophes in the correct place.


There are two pieces of high fantasy writing advice, often given, that I think are thoroughly sensible:

  1. Don’t use apostrophes in characters’ names.
  2. Don’t write a prologue.

Don’t use apostrophes in names, because it’s a cliche. You’ll annoy your readers. Don’t write a prologue, because your world-building should be incorporated into the main plot; there’s no point in getting the reader interested in events that happened a generation or a century or a thousand years before your main narrative. You only run the risk they’ll be more intrigued with your prologue than what you’ve decided is the real story.

But just because you’re aware of the guidelines doesn’t mean you won’t convince yourself it’s all right not to follow them, especially when you’ve read enough high fantasy to know stories that have got away with breaking one or both of these rules to spectacular effect.

About a decade ago, my co-writer Robyn Fleming and I wrote an epistolary fantasy novel in the style of the Letter Game, exchanging emails back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Like us, our protagonists were separated by an ocean, and like us, they were two young women who were close friends. But unlike us, they lived in a second-world high fantasy setting. They were discovering a vast conspiracy, getting embroiled in politics and romances, and saving two nations with a combination of smarts, luck, and magic.

They had apostrophes in their names.

We started the story as a game, but we realised pretty early on that we had something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a real novel. So we showed it to some friends.

(For the record: Our apostrophes were meaningful. They were significant. They indicated status, linguistic drift, cultural detail, and history. They were the good kind of apostrophe!)

“Ditch the apostrophes,” our early readers said.

“But they are very important,” we told them, and each other. (The biggest joy–and biggest problem–of having a co-writer is that you can easily reinforce each other’s ideas.) “One might even argue that the apostrophes are essential to the very heart of the narrative! You wouldn’t ask us to cut out the heart of the narrative!”

We took the book to a WisCon writing workshop. Every single critique told us to ditch the apostrophes.

“Fine,” we said. “Fine. We guess the world isn’t ready for our apostrophes.” We cut the goddamn apostrophes. The narrative retained its heart. We learned a valuable lesson about murdering our darlings.

Nobody told us to cut the prologue, and the reason for that was because nobody, including us, actually knew it was a prologue until long after we’d finished the sequel to the first book. The sequel wasn’t told in alternating letters, but in alternating chapters. The protagonists are Elaku and Taver, aged eleven and fourteen, the children of one of the main characters in the first book. The story follows them as they meet for the first time, figure out how to grow up, and, just incidentally, get caught up in a political plot that could destroy their homeland.

We had two protagonists again, and political machinations, and hefty doses of smarts, luck, and magic. We had blacksmithing and dangerous herbivores, religion and treachery, pirates and battles at sea.

This time, we left out the apostrophes.

The Empress of Timbra was undeniably a better book than its predecessor. Our villains were more interesting. Our world-building was stronger. The events of the first novel had sparked a period of rapid social and religious change, and through Taver and Elaku, we were able to explore the implications of that from the perspective of characters who were growing up in a world marked by those changes. And then we wrote a direct sequel to that book, still with Taver and Elaku, and plotted a third and realised… the first book was a 90,000 word prologue.

And we had to cut it.

I don’t regret writing that book. The prologue novel gives a depth and vividness to The Empress of Timbra that makes it feel like part of a larger, older world–which it is. Writing it allowed us to explore some big ideas. But when we gently folded that prologue novel away into a virtual drawer, we were able to concentrate on the even bigger ideas that followed it.

The real story isn’t about the women in that prologue novel. It’s about Taver and Elaku, two bastard half-siblings drawn into dangerous conspiracy in a changing world, relying on their smarts, their magic, their luck, and each other to prevent disaster.

So this is our advice to high fantasy writers who might be starting where we started:

  1. Go ahead and write a prologue. But if it doesn’t help you tell the best version of your story, let it go.
  2. Seriously. Ditch the apostrophes.


The Empress of Timbra: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt (at the Kobo site). Visit the co-author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

17 Comments on “The Big Idea: Karen Healey”

  1. I remember the letters. And I’m glad to have helped kickstart the book. Haven’t had a chance to start reading yet, but I’ve got a four-day weekend coming up.

  2. Sounds very interesting! Any plans for a paper edition?

    Also– rats! I love epistolary novels; I was excited for that. It’s ok, I’ll get over it ;)

  3. I don’t get it. What is gained by not releasing/publishing the epistolary book in this case? More books focusing on friendship between women rather than kids growing up are actually very welcome. Why not recast it as a ‘prequel novella’ than a ‘prologue’ — many of those find publishing success.

    “No apostrophes because they’re a cliche” isn’t convincing at all. If everyone told you to get rid of your apostrophes, sure, get rid of them. Throwing apostrophe’s into ev’rythin’ is’n’t’ a ‘good’ i’d’e’a, after all. But leaving out ones apostrophes when theyre useful isnt so wonderful, either.

    “No prologues because readers might find the prologue more interesting than the main story” is the opposite of convincing. If that’s the case, it’s the main story that ought to be tossed, sounds like.

    You’re posting this on Scalzi’s blog and he admitted to the first chapter of The Collapsing Empire being a prologue, involving characters the reader won’t see again and just there for world building; he also admitted the first chapter of the sequel does something very similar. So maybe we aren’t the audience for this message.

  4. Well, I’ve never minded exotic names with apostrophes, and I usually read prologues after I’ve finished the book, so that advise is lost on me. Also — yeah, I was all ready to go looking for that first book — maybe someday it could re-appear as a prequel?

  5. Aw, I’m sort of with Leah F on this one. You’re not going to release the epistolary novel?

    I think part of my *sadface* is because I actually have a deep affection for sf novels that are, like, 80% worldbuilding and 20% plot. Like, off the top of my head, I love the ‘Long Earth’ series by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett, I love the ongoing ‘Finder’ fantasy graphic novel series by Carla Speed McNeil, I love Erin Morgenstern’s ‘Night Circus,’ and, more old school, I love Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth.’ Each of these books have a few fleshed out characters who are, primarily, exploring a strange, new, surreal landscape and just…talking about it, mainly. Letting it sit in the reader’s head.

    Talking about the place and its cultures and politics can sometimes be a synecdoche for talking about themselves or each other, and there are ways to explore that are engaging and exciting rather than info-dump-y. It sounds like you maybe had something like that going.

    And, I guess I get sad that fantasy and s/f is being pulled into the intense marketing gravity of YA-coming-of-age books, because it means so many beautiful books that appeal to people who love exploring fantasy universes but not, perhaps, to a broader teenage demographic, are getting shut away.

  6. Also, what actually is the Big Idea of ‘Empress of Timbra’? Besides “not an epistolary novel about two women in a time of political upheaval” and “doesn’t have apostrophes”?

  7. Wow, I’m delighted so many readers want to read the first book! We might need to consider a prequel.

    But, to address a few concerns voiced here:
    1. There’s a ton of world-building in The Empress of Timbra. That world-building is made better by the invisible prologue.
    2. The big idea of this book is that we’re following characters growing up in a world marked by rapid social and political change begun by the generation before. That, to us, was more interesting and thought-provoking. Your mileage, may, of course, vary.
    3. No print edition, sorry!

  8. @Leah Think of the prologue as scaffolding for the statue you’re making, or a preliminary sketch — important and even valuable during the creation process, but unnecessary once the work is complete.

  9. I’m with the “if there is a legitimate reason – it’s a contraction, like the Dragonriders of Pern – fine. But if it’s to make it cool, all apostrophes in names are pronounced “boing” so you get Auboingriel.” school of thought.

  10. Mixed feelings about the “bin the prologue” dictum. As previous comments show, one reader’s refreshing palate cleanser is another reader’s bowl of stodgy porridge is another reader’s delicious meaty chunks. I’ll gladly take “the creators put their own special sauce into this, and took joy in its making” over the “carefully seasoned to appeal to a particular market/nearly everyone” approach.

    Or maybe leave the prologue in, but just don’t call it that!

    The apostrophe discussion brings to mind the Apostropocalypse in “Reamde.” Heh.

  11. You get one apostrophe, use it wisely….

    That said, if you’re using languages which have glottal stops you can use a backwards apostrophe to represent them.

  12. “Apostrophe” used to mean “to call out to someone specific”. So one unpleasant association may be to hear Navi going “Hey, listen!” every time you’re tempted to put an apostrophe in a name.

    PTSD Zelda aversion therapy is surprisingly useful.

  13. @Matthew Reardon ha! That actually made me lol.

    @Karen Healy — That sounds like it could be cool. What kind of political and social change? Feudal system to a capitalist dictatorship, where the immediate appeal of economic freedom fights the long-form desire for free speech and worship? A five gender strata conformed into a two gender society, or vice versa? Monolingual to multilingual and thus new ideas to express…and misunderstand?

    (Points if you know which LeGuin books I’ve been reading lately ;))

    Seriously, though, I do want to know what the changes are, and I think other readers might be interested too. I mean, change could be anything in a fantasy setting; that’s part of what makes the genre so great!

  14. Sold. And, nice blog, btw. I think I was reading Mr. Scalzi’s blog for substantially longer before buying one of his novels. (My loss , of course.) Thanks for the big idea, and cheers! Ang

  15. Aww. That’s a shame because I’d put a lot of work into my fantasy setting of “Ireland”, but now I realise that almost all my characters have names like “O’Brien” and “O’Neill”. Back to the drawing board.