Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Showing rape in SFF

Here’s a good post from Marie Brennan at Swan Tower: Thoughts on the Depiction of Rape in Fiction

Brennan has an archive of good essays at her website, many about the craft of writing. This one demonstrates that. Here’s a sample from near the beginning:

There are a lot of reasons you might have one of your characters be raped. Some of them are better than others; all of them are things you should think about.

1. I need to show that my villain is evil.

. . . okay. But why rape? Why is that your go-to method for showing he’s evil?

It’s one thing if you’re writing a mystery about a detective hunting down a serial rapist. In a story like that, the bad guy raping people is the entire point. But if your villain is a genocidal tyrant? Then I kind of give the side-eye to the notion that you need rape to convince me he’s bad. If that’s true, you haven’t done a very good job writing the “genocidal tyrant” part.

This is a serious topic, obviously, but I did chuckle at the last sentence of the excerpt above. That’s definitely true.

The broad category of “worst things I’ve seen in fantasy novels” doesn’t include many instances of rape — I know other readers say their experience differs in that regard, but I think the books I’m reading must not overlap much with the ones they’re reading.

The “worst things” category does include Gedder, in Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin, who burns down a city after blocking the gates so that no one can get out. There is a genocidal tyrant, even though Gedder is not really a tyrant, at least not at the time, as he doesn’t have that much power.

Enough to burn down a city with the population locked inside, though.

It is not necessary to show Gedder doing anything cruel, in person, to an individual. In fact, showing him being cruel on an individual level would make him less awful. A villain who glories in being vicious is probably not as utterly horrifying as a villain who sort of stumbles weakly into mass murder, then justifies the act afterward.

Ugh.

This moment, and this character, are not the only reason I never went on to the second book in that series. But they contributed to that reluctance.

A good example of epic fantasy with a gritty edge and many villains, some quite complex and some simpler, is The Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler. I will note that in that series, Wexler shows attempted rape. But he never shows successful rape on screen.

Off screen, in a character’s backstory, yes. Marie Brennan has something to say about that too:

2. I need to motivate one of my characters.

. . . okay. But why rape? Why is that your go-to motivation? …

… time and time again, we have female characters being motivated by rape, and male characters being motivated by the rape and murder of their wives/sisters/daughters.


Try harder. Think about the emotional impact of everything else this character has experienced, and what else you can use if the current material isn’t enough. Ask yourself why rape is the best answer to this question, when it’s about as fresh as having a Dark Lord with Armies of Monstrous Minions as your villain. 

In Wexler’s case, there is in fact a reason why rape is one motivator for Jane (not the only or probably the most central motivation, I’ll add). This is the case because being sold into slavery/marriage was the whole point of that home for girls where she and Winter were both held for part of their childhood. It wasn’t incidental. That institution set up everything about Winter’s backstory as well as Janes.

Being sold to that brute was not only a motivator — again, not the only one — for Jane; having Jane sold that way, and failing to save her, was a central motivator for Winter. So in this case, that element of the backstory ticks both boxes for the “time and time again” comment Marie Brennan makes.

Why it works: Lots of reasons, I think. It’s in the backstory; it’s not only non-explicit, it’s not shown and barely referred to; the rapist is killed because of his act; the victim is the ones who kill her attacker; Jane’s primary motivation comes from other issues that have only a tenuous relationship to that aspect of her backstory.

And most of all because of the complicated way the whole situation feeds into Winter’s backstory and into the relationship between Winter and Jane. The primary problem for Winter was that Jane asked her to murder the man for her and Winter couldn’t bring herself to even make a serious attempt to do that. Not only did that motivate Winter’s escape from the home, it became for her the central defining failure of her life. Then later, well, Winter’s and Jane’s shared background has a ton of ramifications and in fact the relationship between those two characters is arguably the central pillar of the whole series.

So, Brennan’s essay is definitely a good one and well worth reading. And Wexler’s series is definitely one I’d pick over Game of Thrones, not only because of treatment of rape in the respective series, but just because as far as I’m concerned The Shadow Campaigns is just a better epic fantasy.

In fact, it would be great to see it turned into a TV series. If we were voting on next epic fantasy series to be picked up for TV, I’d vote for it. I’d even actually watch it.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Killing your characters

Can you kill important characters? Sure. Happens all the time.

Should you? When does that work and when does it fail, or perhaps go over the top? Let’s take a look at various examples of SFF novels featuring the deaths of important secondary characters and/or the deaths of protagonists, and consider why those do or don’t work.

As it happens, I’m not personally too keen on authors who slaughter characters left and right for no good reason. I’m thinking here of Game of Thrones. It was one thing when Martin set the reader up to think Ned Stark was going to be an important protagonist and then killed the character early in the series. That was a way to break important assumptions for how the story was going to unfold. It increased tension in a good way, for a good reason — who else might seem too crucial to die, while actually headed for an early grave?

But besides that, as I recall, from time to time Martin also introduces a new pov character and then kills that character at the end of the chapter. I mean, what is even the point?

On a related note, personally, except in murder mysteries, I detest the trick where the author kills the pov character with whom he opens the book. When that happens with a new-to-me author, it’s probably going to be a DNF moment.

Even more annoying than that are authors who set out to manipulate you by introducing a very likable character specifically in order to kill her. (It’s always a “her.”) If this manipulation is too blatant, it’s a real turnoff. I’m thinking of all of Steven King’s recent books, here, where very likable characters are obviously present solely to function as tearjerkers upon their gratuitous deaths, which is why I eventually stopped reading King’s books.

However, it’s not like I’m opposed to character death per se. The pathos created by a sympathetic character’s death can be very useful when it’s done well and for a good reason. In a recent WIP, I deliberately killed a particular secondary character after going to some trouble to make the reader like him. Even though his death wasn’t at all important to the plot, it wasn’t gratuitous either; on the contrary, it was essential. I had to do it because without the death of that character, the deaths of a couple hundred other people would have passed without a blip on the reader’s emotional radar. They weren’t known, they were just a faceless mass. The death of the one character served as a proxy for all those deaths, giving that whole scene emotional heft it had completely lacked before.

I’ve killed other characters, of course, and I’m sure I’ll kill more in the future. Sometimes it’s necessary to get the plot to work and sometimes it’s necessary to add emotional weight and sometimes for some other reason — you know, there’s an infographic for this — here:

I think this is a very good infographic! Best touch: having “removes an extraneous character” on both sides of the graphic.

Perhaps somewhat iffy: while the death of a secondary character may be motivating to your primary protagonist, the modern author may wish to avoid having all the female characters exist solely to motivate the male protagonist through their abuse and/or death.

I will also just note, considering the above infographic, that if I’d known how The Great Escape ended, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. I prefer less realism and more survival in my WWII fictionalized novels and movies.

But, though I really like the above infographic, I believe that the whole thing can be boiled down to this: two things are always, always bad when killing a character —

a) The reader can see the strings you’re pulling. You should indeed do things for a reason, but your manipulation should not be nearly that visible.

and

b) Killing a dog. Sorry. Other sympathetic characters may have to die, but the dog should live happily ever after.

Incidentally, T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, which I’m about a quarter of the way through now, features a Very Good Dog. The dog is an important character AND important to the plot AND really well done, because Ursula Vernon / T. Kingfisher knows her dogs.

And right up near the beginning, the author makes it clear that the dog lives by throwing in a casual line: “… but because he’s a coonhound and all nose, we both survived.” or something like that. I bet that is not a chance occurrence. I bet she deliberately chose to let the reader know this up front, to avoid alienating those readers who won’t touch a book until they can be sure the dog lives.

I really like the story so far, by the way! Getting creepy, but without overt gore or anything of the kind. It reminds me just a bit of Sunshine by McKinley, even though it’s very different.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Shifting the reader’s view of secondary characters

So, Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan is a new standalone, or perhaps the first book of a series related to the Memoirs of Lady Trent series. It definitely reads like the first book of a series, though it concludes the main plotline perfectly well.

If I’d realized there were two covers, I’d have gotten the white one. Oh well. Moving on to the actual story:

This is an epistolary novel, which is in keeping with the Lady Trent series. In this case, it’s mostly diary entries written by Audrey, granddaughter of Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent. Audrey has been given the task of translating an extensive set of Draconean tablets, which turn out to contain an important creation myth of the Draconean people. (To offset the unlikely nature of this amazing discovery, we are told that the vast majority of Draconean tablets found are just tax records, which does seem a lot more likely than stumbling across a central myth.)

The myth is interesting and engaging in its own right. Brennan plainly put a lot of thought into writing a creation myth in a style that seems (a) archaic; (b) plausible; (c) different from, if reminiscent of, any actual creation myth in the real world; and (d) consistent with what we already know about Draconeans from the previous series. Interspersing the myth with current action as bits of it get translated is a good way to handle it. If it were handed to the reader all at once it wouldn’t be as interesting or (it turns out) as suited to the overall plot.

Anyway, translating this myth in time for a specific political event constitutes the basic setup of the story. There’s a certain amount of chicanery going on, as plenty of people have strong motivations to interfere one way or another. But that’s not quite the aspect of the story I want to focus on here. Audrey is an engaging-enough protagonist, though actually I found Cora Fitzarthur the most interesting character in the story by a wide margin, but I don’t actually want to focus on either of them right now either.

No, what I’m most interested in is the development of a secondary antagonist, Aaron Mornett, and the reason I’m interested in him is because he presents such an interesting contrast with another antagonist, James Drake from Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker trilogy.

Now, if you’ve read the Spiritwalker trilogy, then you definitely remember Drake. He’s the one who seems like a good guy when we first meet him, and then every single time he reappears, he seems worse. And worse, and worse, until he arguably becomes the primary antagonist and definitely becomes the most despicable villain in the story. Elliot takes her time developing Drake, so for some time the reader may be unsure. This one thing he did was bad, but maybe not that bad? Maybe we can understand it. It’s offset by actions that are good. Or arguably good, if possibly a bit ambiguous. Then Drake does something else, and something else, and before long the reader is repulsed and then strongly repulsed. By the end, James Drake is one of the most awful bad guys I can think of. But when the reader first encounters him, that won’t be the impression at all. This is something Elliot develops slowly over the course of the whole story.

Aaron Mornett in Turning Darkness into Light seems poised to develop in precisely the opposite direction. Here in this book, we are given ample reason to distrust and dislike Mornett, but – and I think this is important – not because he is a really awful person. His great fault is intellectual fraud and plagiarism, and while I absolutely agree with Audrey Camherst that this is very bad, it’s not remotely on the same level of, say, torturing puppies.

James Drake is the kind of bad guy who isn’t going to be redeemable because the arc of justice in the story demands his destruction; nothing less can possibly satisfy the reader. That isn’t likely at all in Mornett’s case. Several times during the course of the story, Aaron Mornett does something kind or virtuous or both; it’s clear he really does have feelings for Audrey, though she is totally justified in not forgiving him for the things he’s done. It seems to me that Marie Brennan is deliberately setting Mornett up to be a returning character who shifts from an antagonist to an ally, and then most likely to a love interest.

That’s interesting and fun. It’s probably tough to do this kind of shift, where the reader’s perception of an important secondary character shifts completely over the course of the story, in less than a trilogy. The author has to do it gradually or it’s not as believable or at least not as effective. Plus Aaron really did engage in dreadful intellectual fraud and that is not something that can be brushed lightly aside. Not just a shift in the reader’s perception is going to be required (if Brennan does go in that direction) — it will take a change in the character himself.

Not quite the same, but related: some authors have a knack for handling an abrupt shift of perception from presumed-enemy-to-actual-ally. In this case, the abruptness can be part of the reason it’s effective, as the protagonist’s, and thus the reader’s, opinion is jerked sharply sideways. Barbara Hambly is especially good at that, or at least especially likely to do that. If you’ve been keeping up with the Benjamin January series, you may recall Chloe, Henri’s wife. Henri is the “protector” of Benjamin’s sister’s Minou, as you may know, and when this marriage first looms on the horizon, it is presented as a serious threat to Minou because Chloe is cold as ice and possibly truly vicious. Then we actually meet her and wham! our perception is radically altered within a sentence or two.

This is so characteristic of Hambly’s storytelling that when I was reading Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, when the same kind of sharp perceptual shift happened with Lieutenant Coldstone, I immediately said, “I bet this is really Barbara Hambly,” and looked for confirmation online. Sure enough, “Barbara Hamilton” is Barbara Hambly. No doubt the sentence-level writing contains all kinds of tells, and I might have picked up on those subconsciously, but it was this abrupt shift from presumed-enemy-to-actual-ally that made me sit up and say, “This is Hambly’s writing.”

None of this is the same as the sometimes rather artificial dislike-to-love arc that’s so very common in romance. That kind of arc can work, of course, though it’s so cliched it’s hard to make it seem sufficiently real and natural to satisfy an experienced reader. I can think of several examples that worked for me, or at least didn’t really irritate me. But the relationship between Audrey Camherst and Aaron Mornett is very different. Here, Audrey’s opinion is not remotely based on a misunderstanding, and sorting out that relationship would take, not a change in perception nor a decision by Audrey to tolerate a slight flaw in Aaron’s character, but a real change in Aaron’s ideas about right and wrong.

I hope I’m right that this book is the first in a series, because I’d enjoy watching that happen.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Is it possible to mechanically construct lyrical prose?

Here’s a recent post at Well Storied: Three Tips for Crafting Lyrical Prose

Tips are all very well, but this gave me pause. Can you teach someone to write serviceable prose? Sure. Can you actually teach someone to write lyrical prose? Um. Can you provide three tips that make an actual difference? Um …

Well, I am skeptical, but let me see.

Tip 1: Use different types of repetition. The author is talking about alliteration, consonance, and assonance.

Hmm. The first thing that sprang to my mind was none of the above. I thought first of repetition of words, and the book that sprang to mind was The Silver Chair by CS Lewis. In that one, Lewis might have gone a little overboard with repetition of certain words, such as “moonlight” and “silver.” He might not agree that he overdid it; I read in Planet Narnia that Lewis specifically liked repetition of words as a way of achieving lyricism in prose.

CS Lewis also used plenty of other techniques, including alliteration, as here in The Screwtape Letters : “Was he not unmistakably a little man? A creature of the petty rake-off, pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stainless platitudes in his public utterances.”

Tip 2: Set your syllabic style. The post appears to mean, stick either to shorter words or longer ones.

That seems weird to me. Though the author of the post does say, “Now, this doesn’t mean you have to use the same syllable count throughout your entire short story; instead, you just have to keep some syllabic consistencies within certain sections of your prose.”

… No, that still seems weird to me. I guess I would think of this as part of the style, but only part, and not necessarily worth focusing on especially. Word choice is surely at least as important as number of syllables.

Two syllable words that anybody would use:

Christmas, special, garden, midnight, happy, future, Monday, water.

Two syllable words that not just anybody would use:

adjure, ersatz, verdant, feckless, ribald, inure, nuance.

Number of syllables actually has little to do with style. I mean, I guess it’s a contributing factor to style, but pulling it out as one of three factors on which to focus seems, yes, weird. It seems to me that it would have been better to say Set your style and discuss that, as opposed to focusing on number of syllables.

Tip 3: Consider sentence structure.

The author of the post says: “A short, punchy sentence conveys abrupt truth, sureness, and practicality. A long, flowing sentence, however, can usher in a lyrical feel and a sense of elasticity.”

Here I agree. However, I’d roll that into “style,” and I’d add that it’s important to note that a short sentence only has maximum punch if it’s surrounded by longer sentences. Let me see . . . no, nothing here about how varying your sentence length could be important.

Pretty sure that three fairly simplistic tips are not going to guide anyone from serviceable prose to lyrical prose. Pretty sure that ten tips won’t do it either. I think what might is reading a bunch of novels written with lyrical prose. After reading ten or so, maybe that would be the right time to ask yourself what the authors are actually doing and begin to dissect sentences.

So, fine —

Ten authors who write lyrical SFF, in no particular order

1.Patricia McKillip

2. Guy Gavriel Kay

3. Ursula K LeGuin

4. Jane Yolen

5. Catherynne Valente

6. Peter S Beagle

7. Gene Wolfe

8. Joy Chant

9. Rachel Neumeier

10. ____________________________

Who else? Pick someone to fill in the blank.

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For love of the comma

I found this article via a link from Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog:

For Love of the Comma

What I’ve learned 18 books later is that, while other punctuation has a distinct and undebatable purpose, the comma remains ambiguous. A period signals a stop. A question mark demands an answer. An exclamation point should be used sparingly and never in threes. …

The comma is an enigma. Loved and loathed. Bound by personal taste rather than rigid rule books.

In a social media–saturated world where everybody is screaming the loudest that they’re right and you’re wrong, the comma lives in gray areas of uncertainty. It asks us to take a breath, reflect, and listen. It reminds us to consider words and meaning. For a small piece of punctuation, that’s a profound gift.

Entertaining essay! Fine, okay, sure, I agree the comma is ambiguous in the sense that the overall rule is: Use them for clarity first, follow rules second. Some of the rules offer less wiggle room than others, however. Comma rules that are unbreakable:

a) commas must be used in a series of more than two items.

b) commas must be used to set off parenthetical phrases (unless you’re using something else to set off those phrases).

c) commas must be used to set off transitional expressions such as “however” and “moreover.”

d) commas MUST be used appropriately to begin or end dialogue. Nothing looks worse than incorrect periods in dialogue.

But there are a whole bunch of places I think require artistic judgment, because it’s surprising how often you want to break the rules:

e) commas should not be used between two complete sentences, unless you want to introduce a rushed feel to dialogue or thoughts, and then you might use comma splices to achieve that.

f-a) commas should be used in front of conjunctions that introduce independent clauses, unless the clauses are very short

f-b) ditto, unless the sentence is really complicated and has a lot of truly crucial commas in it already. In the latter case, rather than taking the sentence apart, you may choose to omit a usually required comma, and this particular kind of comma may be a good choice.

f-b) ditto, unless you want to promote that comma to a semicolon. This is sure to be queried by a copy editor (as is most of this stuff, I guess), but if you decide you really do want that semicolon there, then you can do that. It’ll produce a slightly exaggerated pause and emphasize both the clause before and especially the clause after the semicolon. I got this technique from CJ Cherryh and think of her when I stet a semicolon of this kind during copy edits.

g) commas should be used between adjectives unless you choose not to put them there. Either choice will produce a distinctive feel to the prose. I’ve done it both ways, most dramatically in The City in the Lake, where I omitted most of those commas because I liked the more poetic feel this gave the prose.

h) commas can be used to set off conversational tags, unless you choose to omit them. In general, I think it looks better to say “Now, now, Bob. Don’t lose your cool.” than to omit the tag commas. I think it looks MUCH better to say “Yes, sir.” than omit the comma. But certainly I’ve seen writers choose to omit it.

i) commas can be omitted after short introductory clauses, and how short is short is up to the writer.

Which leads into this comment from Kristine Kathryn Rusch about the linked article. The author of the comma essay, Kate Dyer-Seeley, says:

Copy editors have differing and unwavering beliefs how best to use the comma. When my first manuscript went through copy edits, every introductory comma was removed. I made note and intentionally didn’t use a single introductory comma in the next manuscript. 

And KKR responds:

She tried to learn what her editors “wanted” when it came to the comma, rather than telling the original editors that she believed in the introductory comma, at least for the piece she had written for those editors. Dyer-Seeley’s subconscious had believed the introductory comma needed to be there, so she had put it there. And then meekly removed it when asked by someone who “was in charge” or “knew better.”

I have three responses to this conundrum:

First: The copy editor does know the correct punctuation rules, or should. The author should cherish the opportunity to think carefully about breaking those rules and may very well decide that the nonstandard punctuation originally chosen may in fact distract the reader or otherwise not be worth pursuing.

Second: Sometimes the author is right about the artistic effect and in that case KKR is correct: the author should defend her own usage by profligate use of “stet.”

Third: Sometimes, however, the punctuation in question is actually pretty trivial and the author need not feel committed to defending it. It’s okay to use or not use commas after some or most introductory clauses. That’s all right either way, as long as the author doesn’t think it matters all that much.

There have definitely been times I have let a suggested change go forward because I just felt, Well, whatever, this is fine either way. That isn’t even rare! It happens dozens of times during copy edits. I’ve had editors email me about some last-minute sentence level thing and I have literally emailed back, Either way is fine with me, whichever you prefer.

My last copy editor took out a good many introductory commas and I thought that was perfectly okay. I liked the sentences fine the way she preferred, let her take out most of those commas, and decreased my use of commas after introductory clauses not because I let my artistic judgment get overruled by the copy editor, but because I let my judgment get influenced by the copy editor. Which is fine! Everyone’s judgment gets influenced by all kinds of things! The important thing is to make a deliberate decision based on how the change feels to you artistically, not cling like grim death to the way you’ve done it in the past because you just don’t want to consider alternatives when those are suggested.

… So, anyway, both KKR’s post and the original post about commas are worth reading. And if you now find you pay a lot more attention to commas in the next book you read, sorry! I’m sure punctuation will once again fade into the “feel” and “sound” of the prose shortly and become much less visible.

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Ten novel openings

So, I mentioned that recently I’ve been in a zap-em-all mood, removing books from my Kindle as fast as I can make the decision to do so. There are, of course, lots and lots of books still on my Kindle’s TBR folder – those I know I want to read and those I just haven’t gotten to yet, plenty of each. Out of curiosity, today I opened the ten at the very back, the ones that have been sitting on my Kindle the very longest, and took a look. No decisions; just a  quick look at the very first lines that open each one.

Here they are:

1) Emissary by Melissa McShane

Zerafine had only a moment’s warning before the ghost was upon her. A shout, a flicker of movement, and it enveloped her like a chilly whirlwind.

Definitely catchy. I can hardly imagine a reader not going at least a little farther. Certainly this is a nice example of opening directly into action. Sometimes that winds up working and sometimes it doesn’t, but I do think in general this kind of opening will tempt a prospective reader to go on for at least a couple of pages.

2) The End of Earth and Sky by Tom Simon

Let me tell you why I destroyed the world.

Okay, that is even more catchy, even though it is so very much not an opening that catapults the reader directly into the action. A teaser opening, let’s call this.

3) Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond

I planted my feet on the wire that ran parallel to the rafters. My new act involved a series of ballet-inspired moves, building to a trio of slow but tricky pirouettes, and the barn was the best place to practice.

First person is supposed to draw in the reader and make the action feel immediate, but  I find this a rather static opening even though the narrator is on a high wire. The narrator is essentially reporting on the situation to the reader, and I think that prevents the reader from feeling engaged in the action.

Static openings can work perfectly well, but I am mildly disinterested at this point, though obviously I would go on quite a bit past these opening sentences before making an actual decision about reading vs deleting this book.

4) Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout

On the last true day of spring the nine worlds will ever know, my brother and I fly recon through the land of the gods. From this high up, Asgard shimmers. The shields that roof the timber halls glimmer like golden fish scales. It’s all green grass and fluffy white sheep and fresh red blood. A very pretty scene.

Well, now, this is an interesting and engaging opening. Of course it is present tense as well as first person. That’s also supposed to draw in the reader and make the action feel immediate. Normally it doesn’t, for me. It feels artificial and distancing to me, so ordinarily I dislike the first-person-present style. But I can like almost any style if it’s done well.  I might like this. I’m not sure yet. One can guess the voice of the narrator may be crucial to whether the reader connects to this story. So will the development of the setting. Flying recon, a military type of phrase, sits oddly in a paragraph about Asgard and timbered halls and fluffy white sheep. The blood fits right in for both, of course.

5) The Spark by Susan Jane Bigalow

A ghostly gray ship floated high above Valen, its running lights and beacon switched off. Deep inside, a young woman in a cramped cabin watched a video loop endlessly.

Completely uninteresting. Naturally I would go on for a page or two minimum. I will add that ending a sentence with an adverb can work, because almost anything can work under the right circumstances, but it can also seem a little awkward and weak. I do think that is the case here. Stick that adverb in front of the verb and I think the sentence would be smoother.

I see that this is actually the third book in the series. Hmm. I imagine there was a Kindle daily deal or something, since ordinarily I don’t like to start a series in the middle. The first book is called Broken. I might get a sample of that one and see if that’s enough of a guide.

6) Raetian Tales: A Wind from the South by Diane Duane

Her first memory was of the shine of copper in the kitchen – a dim, warm, ruddy light, gleaming from pots hung on the cream-colored, stuccoed wall, catching the firelight in the near-dark.

By chance, this opening makes a fine contrast with the previous one. Both are static openings, but I find this a smoother, more attractive sentence, as well as a dramatically more visual scene. It’s interesting how very much more positive I feel about Duane’s book vs Bigelow’s based on just these first sentences. Huge difference.

7) Magic’s Poison by Gillian Bradshaw

The attack came in the evening, when Marin was making camp.

She’d been late leaving Stonyvale that morning. The horde of last minute details that  always cropped up before a long journey seemed even more numerous than usual, and she’d been flustered and anxious about her errand to begin with.

Ah, this is an interesting example of opening into action, immediately followed by a flashback. A hook, instantly followed by a pause. That can work as a very effective teaser, or it might get frustrating. Depends entirely on the author’s skill. And how long the flashback lasts, but that’s part of the author’s skill. I expect Bradshaw probably pulls it off, she’s written plenty of excellent books. Of course I do intend to give this book a real try. I love many of Gillian Bradshaw’s historicals, so I really hope I love this book of hers too. I would never delete it without reading, at minimum, several chapters.

8) Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin

The palanquin dipped sharply and Ai Li had to brace her hands against the sides to stay upright. Amidst the startled cries of her attendants, the enclosure lurched again before crashing to the ground with a splintering crash of wood.

I don’t find this very interesting, despite the crash. It’s interesting to compare this one with the first entry in this list. Both open with sudden, sharp action, but I find the first sentences of Emissary more appealing. I think this is due to the inherent poetry in the phrase A shout, a flicker of movement. Let me try casting the second sentence above in the same mode … “A startled cry, a sharp lurch, and the palanquin crashed …” What do you think? Does that seem at all different to you? It does to me. I’m going to call this a matter of rhythm.

Oh, and I notice “crashing” and “crash” both in the original sentence. Now, I have great sympathy for undesirable repetition, a bane of my existence, but it is not a great sign to see this in the second sentence of the novel. I wonder if perhaps my ear picked that up before I really noticed it.

9) The Devil and Deep Space by Susan R Matthews

“I have your report from Burkhayden, Specialist Ivers,” the First Secretary said, looking out the great clear-wall window over the tops of the fan-leaf trees in the park below. “I apologize for taking so long to get to it. I find it rather strongly worded in places.”

This did not particularly appeal to me until that last sentence, which made me smile. Ah, I see it is the fifth book in a series. Well, hmm. Highish rating, but of course the fifth book would have a high rating, as readers who don’t like the series won’t have gotten this far. The first book is called An Exchange of Hostages. Good heavens, that one seems to feature a doctor being forced to act as a torturer? Not completely certain that would work for me. Ah, here’s a review saying the torture is explicit and appalling, and the doctor struggles with the fact that he is actually a sadist. Well, this is a no. The fifth book apparently does not feature these elements, but I can now say, the first pages are going to have to be pretty darn good for me to read it.

10) The Secret Portrait by Lilian Stewart Carl

Jean Fairbairn sat on the stone windowsill of her office, if hardly in command then at least in admiration of all she surveyed.

An elegant sentence. I like it. I immediately feel that this writer knows what she’s doing.

All right, any of the ten stand out for you, in a positive or negative way?

And have you read any of these? If so, what did you think?

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Writing craft

So, my mother passed me a new Dortmunder book by Donald Westlake, which I don’t really expect to read because I have an overflowing TBR pile already, although I do rather like the Dortmunder books, so who knows. I bring this up because at the end, the editor included a selection of Westlake’s letters to various people — his agents and copy editors and so on.

The one to a copy editor includes comments about the semicolon. Let me share a bit of that one with you all:

. . . I suggest that the purpose of the semicolon is at least in part rhythmic.

My own rhythms tend to be long ones, and I grant you that as a result I tend to over-use the semicolon, but some of them are right, and in most instances the copy editor’s alternatives are less correct. Breaking the offending sentence into two sentences is grammatically correct but often rhythmically wrong.

I, of course, agree; often one of the last things I do when polishing a manuscript is to search for and take out some semicolons (and dashes), but generally I leave in a whole bunch of both, as you may have noticed.

Unlike, apparently, Westlake, I have never yet had a copy editor attempt to remove correct semicolons and replace them with equally correct (but rhythmically incorrect) periods. Plenty of times I’ve had copy editors go the other way, trying to replace technically incorrect (but imo rhythmically correct) comma splices with semicolons. I accept this correction some of the time, especially if I discover that I’ve tended to sprinkle that kind of comma splice into more than one character’s dialogue or internal thoughts. That’s supposed to be for more informal characters; you wouldn’t catch Grayson Lanning speaking or thinking in comma splices.

Even better than Westlake’s take on semicolons is this letter of his to David Ramus, in regards to the manuscript of his first novel, which Westlake had obviously agreed to read and critique. It’s a good critique. Here are several useful excerpts:

I think you can improve the reader’s grasp of Ben Hemmings [the protagonist] by having other people say what they think of him. Not a lot, maybe two or three times in the book. But for instance, when Grace, on the boat, tells him he doesn’t look like an ex-con, he could ask her what do I look like, and she could say something along the lines of, “You look like a carnival roughneck, but a nice one, who’d let a poor kid sneak in.” But earlier than that, possibly with Grantham, who could tell him how he’d look to a jury. …

Next point. If you tell us something twice, it’s a plot point. When Black mentions that FBI men never work alone but Partone is working alone, that’s the second time I’ve been told that, and now I know Partone is a rogue, not doing the government’s work but his own. …

Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no. He just happens to be standing here when somebody standing over there says the stuff he needed to know. No. But if Ben wanted to know what was going on, and felt it was important, he could put himself at risk to deliberately eavesdrop. Almost get caught. …

There’s more, but these are three suggestions that are soooo generalizable, and such obviously good advice, that I thought it might be useful and instruction to share them.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

To clarify your sentences, put the subject first

Not infrequently, I find myself trying to help students see that their sentences are not clear. Yes, we see a great many comma splices. True, we see frequent incorrect word choices (too to two; their there they’re, etc). However, all other faults pale before an essential lack of clarity.

It seems to me that the single tidbit of advice that is most helpful in this regard is to have a clear subject and put the subject first. That won’t fix everything — I wish it would! — but it simplifies a whole bunch of writing advice that you often see, for example here at this randomly chosen university writing center website. (Not quite randomly chosen; it came up near the top in a google search about clear sentences.)

Writing advice offered by this writing center (all examples are theirs):

Use active voice:
Passive: It was earlier demonstrated that heart attacks can be caused by high stress.
Active: Researchers earlier showed that high stress can cause heart attacks.

Use active verbs:
Nominalization: An evaluation of the procedures needs to be done.
How to fix it: We need to evaluate the procedures.

Reduce prepositional phrases:
Unnecessary prepositional phrase: The opinion of the manager
Correction: The manager’s opinion

Reduce expletive constructions:
Expletive: It is inevitable that oil prices will rise.
Correction: Oil prices will inevitably rise.

Avoid vague nouns:
Vague: Strong reading skills are an important factor in students’ success in college.
Precise: Students’ success in college depends on their reading skills.

So five of the nine categories of advice at that link could be boiled into one: Choose a clear subject, and put the subject first.

When trying to write in an erudite style, students are especially likely to go for expletive constructions. When using long introductory clauses, students are apt to get lost and throw a period in at random, producing a long fragment. When an instructor comments about lack of concision or lack of clarity, this one principle — clear subject, first thing — can help a lot.

Just thought I’d mention this in case any of you, or your students, or your own children, find it helpful.

Now, if only there were some super-reliable easy advice that would simply help students recognize when a sentence of theirs is complete nonsense. I’m talking about sentences like this: “Numerous people immunizations focusing on disregarded sicknesses in low- and center-wage communities.”

Putting the subject first is good advice, but it won’t help with something like that. If you have a tip for helping with that, please, please share it with me.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Third vs First Person Narratives

Here’s a thought-provoking post on third- vs first-person narrative styles: Using Third Person vs First Person Novel Narratives

This post is not about how to handle first versus third well, and it’s not about the reasons first-person is challenging even for many experienced writers (though I think it is challenging). Here’s a snippet from the middle of the post:

…anyone who’s read many manuscripts knows that a great many first-person novels are thinly-disguised autobiographies, usually espousing some recently-learned political or social philosophy, or, if not that, their imitation of some current (or just-over) line of bestsellers. At present, this includes vampire or zombie opuses, or invincible characters who look suspiciously like Jack Reacher but have different names.

Another reason many choose a first-person narrator is that it seems easier to newer writers. Many (many!) first novels are written with characters saying and thinking things the writer him- or herself thinks in their own minds. Novels that are fiction in name only; primarily many are just vehicles to assign the writer’s own thoughts to in a loosely-degenerative plot.

I’ve never read through an extensive slushpile, but this seems plausible. The author of the post, Les Edgerton, does note that the most common reason inexperienced writers sometimes reach for first-person narrative styles is that they feel this is more intimate. Edgerton then goes on to point out the benefits of close-third-person for providing that feel, and provides an interesting snippet written in first a distant third person style, then first person, then close third. This is all well worth reading.

His point that a more distant (he uses the term formal) third person can easily be switched to a closer third person by simply substituting personal pronouns for nearly all the instances where the character is referred to by name … not so sure! But I’m tempted to try it.

CJ Cherryh is said to write in a close, very limited third-person style. I may open up a book of hers and take a look, with this post in mind.

I will also add that in general I suspect that most book-length works will “feel” best if the author shifts back and forth from a closer to a more distant third-person style depending on what is going on in the narrative at the moment. I suspect if you pull most third-person books off the shelf and read them carefully, that’s what you’ll find happens. The ability to move closer than then farther away from the protagonist is one of the many advantages offered by third person and unavailable to the author writing in first.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Her and I

I have seen so many mistakes of this kind lately, in three or four different published novels plus several student papers. Probably this is a confirmation bias sort of thing — probably I’ve been sensitized recently so that these errors are leaping out at me more vividly and memorably than usual — but this is a common mistake in both writing and casual conversation. Since I’ve noticed it over and over in the past week or two, I thought I would take time to address it.


“You should vote for Samantha and I for class presidents!”

“That movie was terrifying — it really scared my mother and I!”

“That class is driving students to distraction, including my brother and I.”

In every case, the “I” should be “me” because the pronoun is part of the object of the sentence, not part of the subject. Those faint memories of teachers insisting on the “My mother and I” format are memories of compound subjects — or result from your teacher being clueless about grammar, though I hope that wasn’t the case.

Subjects are he, she, I, and we.

Objects are him, her, me, and us.

If you weren’t using a compound object, the mistake would be blazingly obvious, like so:

“You should vote for I for class president.”

“That movie was terrifying — it really scared I.”

“That class is driving students to distraction, including I.”

You see? Absolutely, obviously wrong. The quick and easy way to check, therefore, is to take the other person out of the sentence and see if you still want to use “I.” If not, then you should use “me” — even when you include the other person.

If this is something you can’t yet do reliably by feel, then I suggest you do a global search for “and I” and check every single usage in your manuscript.

A related error is this:

“Please keep that secret between you and I.”

Between is a preposition. You wouldn’t say to someone, “My brother was born two years after I.” When a pronoun comes after a preposition or is used as part of a prepositional phrase, it’s objective.

The correct version is: “Please keep that secret between you and me.”

“Between you and I” is so common that probably you can get away with it. Which is to say, as a writer, you can get away with it in dialogue when the character is speaking casually, but not when your character is an English professor or someone who normally speaks in a formal manner. Grayson Lanning, for example, would never say “between you and I.” If your character is supposed to be a pedant or formal, then you as the author need to be able to put formally correct phrases into that character’s mouth in order to encourage reader buy-in.

Similarly, you can get away with more errors in a novel that is written in an informal, light style than in high fantasy.

So when you see a discussion about grammar that says, Oh, whatever, it doesn’t matter, most people accept “between you and I,” you need to understand that in your life as an author, this just isn’t true. Your understanding of what is formally correct matters a lot because it increases the range of characters you can write believably and the overall range of styles in which you can write.

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