Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

Blog / The Craft of Writing

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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Blog / The Craft of Writing

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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Saying nothing

From Kill Zone Blog: How Should a Character Say Nothing?

Reacher said nothing has become a Lee Child signature. …I’m sure he puts it in with a bit of a wink and a smile.

In fact, the phrase is now so familiar that the recent book by Andy Martin chronicling Lee’s writing of Make Me is titled Reacher Said Nothing. In the book Lee explains that Reacher “often says nothing. He shouldn’t have to be wisecracking all the time. He’s not into witty repartee. He’s supposed to do things.”

Nothing wrong with that. And though I personally love witty repartee, there are times when a character should stay silent.

How do we do that effectively? X said nothing is an option. I’ve certainly used it myself. But lately I’ve begun to consider other ways.

This is a pretty good post about how to handle a character who is in fact not saying anything.

James Scott Bell identifies four methods for handling silence, all of which are good, effective techniques. I use them all, but I’ve never thought about them before. Here they are:

1) Reacher said nothing.

There’s nothing wrong with “X said nothing.” Sometimes that’s exactly what you want to use.

2) The action beat — The character can do something rather than say something. Bell cites Hemingway’s exchange in “Soldier’s Home,” where the mother says, “I pray for you all day long, Harold.” Then Harold looks at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

The character can look at anything. You can create a whole different feel depending on what your character looks at. He might look out the window, which gives you one idea of what he’s like; or he might look at his feet, which obviously gives you a whole different idea. Especially if he sighs with boredom in the first instance, say.

3) The thought beat — The character can think something rather than say anything out loud. Here Bell uses the example of a direct thought set into the text in italics –as in one character saying accusingly “You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?” and the second character thinking Uh oh. He knows.

I don’t usually find myself doing this, though I’m sure I have used a direct italicized thought occasionally. I think this can sound artificial or weird somehow, though I’m equally sure some authors make it sound perfectly natural and smooth. Lois McMaster Bujold drops an occasional single silent word into dialogue, usually or always when a point-of-view character is trying to think of a different word. The sort of situation where someone might say something like, “I’ve just been admiring the –” depraved — “sophisticated decorating choices you’ve made for this room.” She does a great job with those little asides.

4) The perception beat — The character notices something rather than saying anything. Bell uses this example:

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill looked at the scuff marks on the floor.

I don’t know. This looks a lot like the action beat. Not sure I think it’s very distinctive. Can perception be used without having your protagonist look at anything? Let’s see:

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill couldn’t believe Alex’s smugly satisfied tone.

There. That’s a perception or perhaps reaction beat. I’d expect it to be followed by more of a reaction or perhaps a stronger action of some kind.

Now, this all makes me think of Deb Coates’ Wide Open series, where Hallie’s father is basically inarticulate and Coates builds his character with his silence, which is at least as demanding as building a character through witty repartee. He is actually one of my favorite secondary character in the series.

This is a bit different from handling moments of silence from the protagonist, but it’s another component of handling a character who isn’t saying anything.

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In praise of negative reviews

Here’s a recent post by Rafia Zakaria: In praise of negative reviews

The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection. In essence they bow to the premise that every book is a gem, and every reviewer a professional gift-wrapper who appears during the holidays.

I don’t follow any newspaper-based professional critics, so I don’t know whether this is true. Every book a gem, every review an advertisement, really?

Does it matter, when participants in Goodreads and readers at Amazon leave plenty of negative reviews? Maybe it does. A thoughtful, critical review — I’m thinking here of the job Mari Ness does when reviewing Disney movies at tor.com, as for example here — is quite a lot more interesting and perhaps far more worthwhile than any one-sentence comment at Goodreads. But do that many people play that much attention to professional critics these days? Maybe libraries and so on when considering what to purchase, but ordinary people?

Not that I don’t prefer glowing reviews from the critics when I happen to get ’em.

Anyway, Zakaria’s post is possibly a tiny bit turgid…

Reviewers are neither arbiters of taste nor are they ushers doing the job of wheedling readers to get under a particular set of covers. Consideration of a book is an engagement with its context, and even more crucially an enunciation of the alchemy between its content and the inevitably subjective experience of reading it. In this sense, the unique subjectivity of every reader will inevitably interact differently with a book; this prismatic aspect of what individual readers “get” from literature is part of the intimacy of reading, its inherently individual aspect.

… I’m having trouble getting through that unique subjectivity sentence, for example. Still, the point Zakaria is making is perhaps correct, depending on whether you consider professional critics very important or not.

In this context, I had to laugh when I read Emily St. John Mandel’s post on negative reviews:

Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.

Oh, yes, Publisher’s Weekly! There’s a professional critic’s venue that is not always on my personal top-ten list. It depends. Obviously I was pretty happy with their review of Winter, rather less so with their review of Mountain. I said something snarky to a writer-friend about that latter review, and she pointed me to a Pub Weekly review of one of hers that made the Mountain review look like a paean of praise.

St. John Mandel — if you are trying to remember, she is the one who wrote Station Eleven. I loved that one and in fact Pub Weekly also rather approved of it, so her post about negative reviews was written before that and she may feel differently now. Anyway, she goes on:

The repeated experience of being swiped at by PW’s nameless ghosts has made me think, though, about the phenomenon of lousy reviews in general: the perils of responding to them, and the pressures they impose on our work, and how difficult they are to ignore, and whether or not they actually matter.

And then a long meditation on that theme, well worth reading.

I spotted both posts about negative reviews via The Passive Voice blog.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Worldbuilding: cities don’t all look the same, at all

Do you happen to remember the Laodd, the great fortress above the city in House of Shadows?

Well, this is the real-life fortress that inspired that one.

This is in Slovenia. I just happened to see a picture somewhere and I totally went head over heels for the whole idea of this fortress. Of course I blew it up in scale and gave it lots and lots of glass windows and poured a waterfall off the cliff next to the fortress, but this image was definitely the inspiration. I found it by googling “fortress in cliff,” I think.

In The White Road of the Moon, I specifically made the city of Riam colorful: “eggshell blue or soft green, madder pink or rich buttercup yellow . . . the colors glowed in the afternoon sun.” This description was inspired by this image of Cinque Terre, Italy:

Later, when Meridy and Jaift and everyone arrive in Cora Talen, they find that here the people “build narrow and tall, with umber-colored brick and slate.” I don’t remember for sure, but I might have been thinking of this image from Provence:

The City in the Lake and The Keeper of the Mist draw more on traditional images of pastoral Europe. Perhaps more like this:

My current WIP is set in a sort of SE Asian ecosystem, so that I’m drawing on that region for ideas about food and cooking styles, crops and wild plants, domestic animals and wild ones, weather and climate, clothing and materials, and definitely architecture. Of course there is an important magical element and naturally the society is quite distinctive, but I’m trying to make it decidedly non-European. Here are some of the images I’m working with as I build the solid underpinnings of the world:

These are images from Thailand, from China, from Bhutan, from Tibet. In the end I think my protagonists, and thus my readers, will get to see a good deal of their world. I look forward to showing it to them.

At some point maybe I’ll go back to a WIP I have sitting here that is set in a sort of alternate Turkey, where much of the landscape is similar to Cappadocia. That will let me draw on the beautiful architecture of the hot, dry, and even desert regions of the world:

One of the things to pay attention to when worldbuilding is the very different architectural traditions and styles that different societies have come up with, and how those fit into their surrounding ecosystems. If you, like me, are a visual writer, then images like these can become windows to the world you are building. Certainly the setting will inform both your characters and their quests.

There’s nothing wrong with medieval Europe as a setting for your story. But so many other beautiful settings are possible as well! Typing “beautiful traditional villages” or “beautiful ancient cities” into Google can be a great way to inspire yourself to reach outside traditional fantasy settings when you’re designing a world.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

May vs Might

I thought I would post about this distinction, since I mentioned it yesterday and also because it’s a confusing distinction to talk about and some online sources don’t do a very good job of nailing down the misuse of “may” that was bothering me in Beverly Conner’s books.

So, here we go:

1) May and might are not interchangeable, no matter how many internet sources tell you they are. This is because the two words are not only used to express more or less likely conditionals. Here at Grammar Girl, it says: The difference between may and might is subtle. They both indicate that something is possible, but something that may happen is more likely than something that might happen. So you may go to a party if Matt Damon invites you, but you might go to a party if your least favorite cousin invites you.

This is true, but not exhaustive. I believe it’s this usage that causes various authorities to tell you the two words are basically interchangeable.

2) However, an important difference occurs when you are talking about things that might have happened, but didn’t; versus things that might have happened and you’re not sure whether they did or not.

“My mother was hit by a car and she may have hurt her back” should be followed by something like “She’s having an MRI on Monday to find out.” In this case, the “may” is used to express uncertainty about whether she is or is not hurt.

“My mother was hit by a car! She might have been badly hurt!” should be followed by something like “Thank God she’s all right!” because in this case, the “might” clearly indicates that the uncertainty is in the past and she wasn’t hurt. Both the past and the thing not occurring are indicated by “might.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary online, while you could have some leeway if the situation isn’t clear, you really shouldn’t use “may” if the situation that might have occurred, didn’t:

But there is a distinction between may have and might have in certain contexts. If the truth of a situation is still not known at the time of speaking or writing, either of the two is acceptable:

By the time you read this, he may have made his decision.

I think that comment might have offended some people.

If the event or situation referred to did not in fact occur, it’s better to use might have:

The draw against Italy might have been a turning point, but it didn’t turn out like that.

It’s this specific use of “may” instead of “might” that caught my eye in Conner’s books — and in others. I think if you pay attention, you’ll see that almost any writer you think of as more literary or more a stylist or just especially skilled will make this distinction and use “might” instead of “may” in those contexts.

Also, not sure I’ve seen this at all in the 4th Lindsay Chamberlain mystery, so either that’s pure chance or a copy editor who’s a stickler for this usage or Conner’s trained her ear for this distinction. I know it was a copy editor who finally made me pay attention the the “that” / “which” distinction. More recently, I somehow lost my ear for the “was” versus “were” in the subjunctive mood. Two or three copy editors have more or less been enough for me to retrain my ear for the subjunctive “were.”

No doubt that distinction will vanish eventually, but for now, I prefer to have an ear trained for the more formal usage so that I can choose to disregard it, not accidentally disregard it. I’m sure a less formal character — Natividad, say — might use “was” in dialogue. But Grayson wouldn’t.

Also, in high fantasy, more formal and correct usages are almost always appropriate. That’s part of why elves and hobbits don’t sound the same in Middle Earth. Can you imagine a writer like Tolkien shrugging off these distinctions? Of course not.

That’s why an author should know the most formal and correct usage for these sorts of things as well as the more casual usage. It’s all very well to declare that in modern English no one cares, but clarity of communication not the only goal when writing fiction and the most casual, modern style is not always appropriate.

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