Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

Blog / The Craft of Writing

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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Blog / The Craft of Writing

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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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Weaved vs Wove, and other interesting verbs

Did you know that “weave” in the sense of “They weaved back and forth among the slender boles of the trees” is derived from a different word than “weave” in the sense of “They wove cloth?”

Learn something new every day.

I was reading the most recent Mercy Thompson novel, and at one point Patricia Briggs wrote a “They weaved” sentence and so I looked it up because Briggs doesn’t usually make mistakes in word usage. It turned out, as I say, that these two senses of “weave” derive from different sources and so they are really two distinct verbs that happen to be spelled the same way in the present tense but are conjugated differently.

I hope I never stetted “wove” back to “weaved” incorrectly. How embarrassing that would be. I wonder if all copy editors are up on these two different verbs and how many would re-query with a little note that no, really, they are right and the author should look it up.

I’ve stetted “leaped” back to “leapt,” I’m pretty sure, to consider a different type of irregular verb. I don’t know that I’d care enough about that one to argue with a copy editor, though. On the other hand, irregular forms like “leapt” look good in high fantasy, I think. Perfectly appropriate there even if an author might write “leaped” in a contemporary novel.

It turns out that “leapt” is not archaic, though it looks that way to my eye. The Grammarist says it’s always been an alternate past tense and past-participle form of “leap,” with “leapt” becoming more common in British English a hundred years ago. I gather this is also the case for other verbs, such as “learned” vs “learnt” – whereas “blest” has been vanquished everywhere by “blessed.” Apparently this happened when the –ed mostly stopped being sounded as a distinct syllable; at that point the –ed sometimes got replaced by a –t. Interesting! I hadn’t know that.

Not all the –t forms have lost out in favor of the –ed forms in American English. Would you say “dealed” or “dealt?” My spellchecker is pretty sure the former is just incorrect. It’s definitely uncommon and weird-looking, except in the phrase “wheeled and dealed.” I think “sweeped” looks just as wrong compared to “swept,” and once again my spellchecker agrees with that assessment.

Looking further into interesting irregular verbs, I see that some of the –n verbs have this American / everywhere else kind of thing going on. Like “hewed” in America and “hewn” everywhere else. Well, I don’t care. I like “hewn” much better. I also prefer “shone” to “shined” under all circumstances – except when “shined” is used as slang to mean “murdered” in Brust’s Taltos series! Grammar Girl suggests “shined” when the verb has an object and “shone” when it doesn’t; ie, She shined the light at the bear; the moon shone brightly. Hmm. “Shone” is just a more attractive word and yet that difference does look right to me. What do you think?

Of course we all know the difference between “hanged” and “hung” – right? Grammar Girl says that, like the difference between “weaved” vs “wove,” this difference in the past tense of “hang” came about because there were really two different verbs originally, “hon” and “hangen.” Fascinating stuff!

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Dialogue vs exposition

I’m reposting this during my downtime this month; this post first appeared in a slightly different form several years ago.

The three important constituents of a novel: exposition, description, and dialogue. Which of course can blur into one another.

Exposition – of course you know this – is the part of a novel where you’re explaining something to the reader. In general it is nice to disguise this as one character explaining something to another; ie, you hide exposition within dialogue. The classic bad way of doing this is the “as you know” dialogue, which goes like this: “As you know, Dr. Smith, the United States and the Soviet Union have been at war for nearly two years now.” Good writers handle exposition much more gracefully, so that it feels natural and the reader doesn’t really notice it.

Obviously novels vary a LOT in the ratio of dialogue to exposition. But I bet you haven’t realized just HOW MUCH that ratio can vary. Or maybe you have, but I hadn’t, until I found myself reading Eric Flint’s 1635: The Eastern Front, which I borrowed from my brother. It’s a good series to read when you’re really working on your own book, because the books in the 1632 series aren’t that compelling, at least not once you’re into the later ones in the series. And why, you may ask yourself, do the 1632 novels fail to really grab your attention?

Well, that would be because some of them are almost pure exposition. The feel of the novel is actually more like nonfiction than fiction.

To examine this issue, let’s take a look at three different books I’ve recently read:

Here’s a more-or-less random page from Vlad’s pov in TIASSA, by Steven Brust:


“You don’t trust the Empire much, do you?”

“As much as you do. Less, because I probably know it better.”

“All right. So it won’t work much longer to just use the coins elsewhere. What do they do if you spend it somewhere that doesn’t have the means of detecting it?”

“What? I don’t understand.”

“What if you went to, say, my shop and bought an ounce of dreamgrass. I wouldn’t know the coin was tagged. So then I’d spend the coin somewhere, and –”

“Oh, I see. They treat it just like they do a coiner: ask you where you’d gotten the coin, and try to work back from there.”

“I was approached by the Empire about six weeks ago. How long has this been going on?”

“About that long, more or less.”

I nodded. “A new program. They’re always thinking, those Imperial law enforcement types. They never let up. It’s an honor to run rings around them.”

“That’s been my feeling, yes.”

“So it sounds like the only choice is to reduce the cost of removing the – what were they called?”


“Right. Reduce the cost of removing the tags.”

“That’s better than my idea?”

“What was your idea?”

“I was going to write the Empire a letter saying please stop.”


So, the ratio of dialogue to exposition is . . . wait for it . . . that’s right: 1 to 0. This page is 100% dialogue and 0 exposition. I would say this is true even though the characters are explaining stuff to each other. How much description is there? Also zero. How characteristic is this page? Well, starting with this passage, we find that the next five pages are also almost pure dialogue, with a little description (3 or 4 lines) and one line of exposition, slipped in invisibly as a line of dialogue (“It must be hard on you . . . most of the time when dealing with clients, you have the advantage. Must be hard for a Dzur to take.”) There we are told something about Dzur, but it sure is minimal.

In the ten pages following the passage above, this is as close as we come to actual exposition: “I still have no idea why she [Kiera] likes me, but we go back to a day when – no, skip it. She was good to me from the moment we met.”

Call that exposition?

Obviously there must be SOME exposition in TIASSA, but there’s not much, and what there is, is thoroughly scattered through reams of dialogue and brief descriptive passages. This is partly but by no means solely because it’s a later book in the series and the reader is expected to be familiar with the characters and world.

Let’s contrast this to a book I would consider more typical in its dialogue to exposition ratio: THE CLOUD ROADS by Martha Wells. Here’s a random passage from this one:


After they [Moon and Stone] ate, Moon stretched out on his stomach, basking in the warm firelight, the cool turf soft against his groundling skin, comfortably full of grasseater and tea. From somewhere distant, he heard a roar, edged like a bell and so far away it almost blended with the wind. He slanted a look at Stone to see if they had to worry.

“Skylings, mountain wind-walkers.” Stone sat by the fire, breaking sticks up into small pieces and absently tossing them into the flames. “They live too far up in the air to notice us.”

Moon rolled onto his side to squint suspiciously up at the sky. The stars were bright, streaked with clouds. “Then what do they eat?”

“Other skylings, tiny ones, no bigger than gnats. They make swarms big enough to mistake for clouds.” As Moon tried to picture that, Stone asked, “Did you ever look for other shifters?”

Stone hadn’t asked about this before, and Moon wanted to avoid the subject. Looking for his own people had led him into more trouble than anything else. “For a while. Then I stopped.” He shrugged, as if it was nothing. “I couldn’t search the whole Three Worlds.”

“And the warrior you were with didn’t tell you which court, or the name of the queen, or anyone in your line?” Stone sounded distinctly irritated. “She didn’t even give you a hint?”

Moon corrected him pointedly, “No, my mother didn’t tell me anything.”

Stone sighed, poking at the fire. Moon got ready for an argument, but instead Stone asked, “How did she and the Arbora die?”

That wasn’t a welcome subject either. It was like an old wound that had never quite stopped bleeding. Moon didn’t want to talk about the details, but he owed Stone some kind of answer. He propped his chin on his arms and looked out into the dark. “Tath killed them.”

Tath were reptile groundlings, predators, and they had surrounded the tree Moon’s family had been sleeping in. He remembered waking, confused and terrified, as his mother tossed him out of the nest. He had realized late that she had picked him because he was the only other one who could fly, the only one who had a chance to escape while she stayed to defend the others.


Okay! Here we have a good bit of description melted into the dialogue. To me, this represents just about the ideal amount of description in a passage. You get a sense of place and poetry completely lacking in the passage from TIASSA (though the extremely quick pace and vivid voice of the Vlad Taltos books are also an example of strong writing, just very different).

Plus we have some exposition. Not much. But the bit where Stone explains what kind of creature made the distant roar, and of course the part where Moon thinks about the creatures that killed his family. We aren’t just being told things about the world (as I’m sure you notice), we’re learning about Moon’s backstory, and we’re learning about Stone, too – that he’s experienced and knowledgeable and possibly irritable.

Because this is a secondary word fantasy, and the first in the series, Wells has to draw her world for us. But she does it mostly in tiny bits of description, not in long expository passages. In fact, through the whole book, she tells us relatively little about the world, leaving nearly everything tantalizingly unexplained. To me, this is an example of ideal worldbuilding: all poetry and vivid imagery, no pauses to unnecessarily explain stuff. What explanations are necessary get worked in seamlessly because Moon actually is totally ignorant about his own species and thus serves beautifully as the reader’s window into the Raksura people.

Now! Let’s finally contrast both of the above examples from a randomly chosen page from Flint’s 1635: THE EASTERN FRONT.


After a minute or so, Ferdinand mused, “It’s too late for the Turk to launch an invasion this year.”

Drugeth nodded. Like many Hungarian noblemen, he was an experienced soldier. The Ottomans would have to mobilize a huge army to attach Vienna – and get that army and its equally enormous supply train through the Balkans. It was impossible to do so in winter, of course. But it was also essential that such an army not be left stranded in the middle of winter. There would be no way to keep it supplied with food, if it failed to seize Vienna.

The end result of these harsh logistical realities was that any attack launched by the Turks against Austria had to follow a rather fixed and rigid timetable. The invasion couldn’t possibly be launched until the fresh spring grass arrived, or there wouldn’t be enough grazing for the horses and oxen. There was no possibility of hauling enough fodder. Not with the immense number of livestock involved in such a campaign.

Traditionally, the Turks began their campaigning season at or near the time of the festival in honor of Hizir Hyas, the Moslem saint who protected travelers and other people in peril. That came in early May, in the Christian calendar.

Of course, the Turks wouldn’t wait that long before they began moving their troops. They’d march them north to Belgrade in March and April, and launch the attack from there once the weather and grazing permitted. Belgrade was roughly half the distance from Istanbul to Vienna, but the terrain over the final stretch was much more difficult for an army. Much of the terrain south of the Danube consisted of marshes and swamps.

The Turkish army was extremely well organized, too. Being honest, he acknowledged that it was better organized than the Austrian – or indeed, most Christian armies. But it still couldn’t move faster than ten or twelve miles a day. The earliest the Ottomans could reach Vienna would be late June or, more likely, sometime in July.


Okay! That’s one line of dialogue on this page, zero description of the actual scene, and paragraph after paragraph of exposition. The “being honest, he acknowledged” is a nod in the direction of keeping the actor in the scene, but it’s just a nod.

In this section, there are seven paragraphs between one line of dialogue and the next. In this chapter – a short chapter, ten pages – there are 43 lines of dialogue. That’s less than a page and a half. There is zero description of the immediate scene, even though the previous chapter was set somewhere else. The rest is all exposition, couched – barely – as internal monologues, but actually clearly the author explaining stuff to the reader. It’s a lot like reading a history book, only with the occasional line of dialogue.

The first book in the series wasn’t so extraordinarily heavy on exposition or so extraordinarily lacking in description. This series has a fanatical fan base, but I wonder if it would if the first book had had such an extreme ratio of dialogue to exposition? And such a dearth of description? I sort of like the books, but a) I’ve been following the series from the beginning; and b) I have a high tolerance for exposition if I’m in the right mood; and c) I don’t want to get absorbed in the story, because I want to be able to put these books down and work on my own current WIP, which means I’m in the right mood.

But I would hardly say that “non-compelling” is an advantage for most readers most of the time.

However complicated your backstory may be, however ornate your world, however much you want to show off both to your reader, you may be better off keeping exposition to a couple of sentences here and there if at all possible. Either that or pay careful attention to how writers may manage to work in more exposition while keeping the narrative moving along. For that, I might suggest Kim Stanley Robinson. Also Neil Stevenson in Seveneves. Also maybe Varley in his Gaien trilogy.

If anybody springs to your mind for particularly good exposition, drop them in the comments, please.

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Worldbuilding: More about names

I thought, given the recent post about names and diacritical marks, I’d just talk a little bit more about developing consistent-sounding names for secondary world fantasy novels. Of course that’s a very different type of thing than coming up with good character names for a contemporary or historical novel, and most science fiction books either use contemporary names, or a mix of contemporary and created names, or sometimes contemporary words in unexpected ways (such as Butterflies-are-free Peace Sincere).

But for secondary world fantasy, you need a whole bunch of character and place names that all sound good, and kind of evoke the character or place, and also sound consistent, like they all came from the same language background. I’m sure I don’t need to point this out, but within one geographical region, if one character is named, say, Innisth terè Maèr Eäneté, then maybe another shouldn’t be named Kzoch Techotlin or Qing Pe Swe or anything else so very different. That’s reasonable only if one character has traveled a long way, from a region with a very distinct language background. What are some ways to make up names that all sound like they came from the same linguistic tradition?

For The White Road of the Moon and Winter of Ice and Iron – again, both based on my first attempt to write a fantasy novel – I just made up words that looked nice to me. The trouble with doing that forever is that the same letters and letter combinations always are going to look good or look less good to a specific author, unless their taste changes dramatically for some reason. I like t and r and n more than g or p or z. But if you are writing in lots of completely different secondary worlds, none of the languages should necessarily look too much like English and (even more important) they should not all look like they are derived from the same language, so you can’t keep on emphasizing “t” and deemphasizing “g” forever in everything you write.

One way I’ve used several times to create a coherent-sounding set of names is: open a handy guide to (say) the mammals of Borneo and steal a whole bunch of words, shuffling letters around to avoid using the actual names and also to avoid the rather common “ng” letter combination, which to English-speakers looks unpronounceable if at the beginning of a word (ngombe) or often silly if at the end of a word (pring). This will give you a lot of cool-looking names that are pretty easy to pronounce, seem to have come out of one unified linguistic tradition, but don’t look a bit like English. (The resulting book with the names derived from those names derived from the mammals and places of Borneo is not yet published, so don’t try to think which one it could possibly be.)

Another time I opened a German dictionary and did the same thing, again switching letters around freely. That was for the second Griffin Mage book, when I needed a lot of Casmantian names and places. This did create a different complication: for the German edition, the translator asked if it would be all right to change any names that would look silly to German-speaking readers. Of course I said yes, so the names are a little different in that edition. I don’t know if that suggests this method of creating a coherent-sounding language is inherently unwise, but it does illustrate one peril of doing it that way.

An alternate method, if one is wary of sounding silly to German-speakers or whomever, is to list the letters of the alphabet and more or less arbitrarily remove half a dozen consonants and one vowel. Then pick half a dozen consonants and one vowel to use a lot. Then come up with one or a few letter combinations that are uncommon in English, like aa or tch or tl or ei.

Now create a bunch of words. Want to make all the masculine names end in –a and –i, all the feminine names end in –o and –aa? This is the time to come up with rules of that kind as well. Maybe reach outside modern custom and pick –a for children and –ei for adolescents and –i for adults and –o for the elders; why not?

Just don’t do the same kind of thing with prefixes because if you name all your children something beginning with A, your readers will never be able to tell your characters apart. It’s quite remarkable how names that ought to be obviously different, such as Ketièth and Kehera, confuse the eye even though one terminates with a vertical stroke and the other a rounded letter. (I had a rather important character named Ketièth for a long time in Winter, but at the last moment changed his name to Gereth on the grounds that there were hardly any characters who started with a G and even I was sometimes confusing the two K names.)

Okay, I’m sure we all agree that names are important. If you have by any chance ever invented a world that was not contemporary or historical, but was secondary, with a completely different language, did you use any specific tricks to create names that sounded consistent, unfamiliar, and interesting? Can you think of any authors who have done an especially great job with names in a secondary world setting?

I’ve got one: Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) in The Goblin Emperor. Let me add, in case you do not know, there is a glossary in the back of the book. This is not obvious in the ebook edition, but it would be handy to know about while reading because the names are quite something: long and complicated and often difficult to pronounce (Csethiro, for example). You will note, however, that Addison gave the actual protagonist an easy-to-pronounce name. I definitely think this is a good idea. No matter what you are going to do with names in general, for heaven’s sake, make sure the main character’s name is not going to cause difficulty. It’s got to be difficult to connect emotionally with the character if you can’t pronounce the name. The farthest I’ve ever departed from that rule is with Timou in The City in the Lake. At least it’s short and easily recognized. Any reader should be able to decide how they want to pronounce it, so hopefully it wasn’t a problem for anyone.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Worldbuilding: Names and naming conventions

So, as you might already know, The White Road of the Moon (now available for the bargain price of $10.22 in Hardcover, a tiny bit cheaper than Kindle) and Winter of Ice and Iron (which you can preorder this very moment for the low, low price of $7.99) both had their origin in the first unpublishable fantasy story I ever wrote: a sprawling 1500-page trilogy that taught me a whole lot about writing, especially when I took it apart and put it back together in these two standalones. This post describes that process in more detail.

The two stories are now set in quite distinctive worlds, with very different metaphysics and magic and all that, but their common origin remains evident in two ways (I think just two, but you can all judge for yourselves when Winter comes out).

One is the basic shape of the land in which the story is set: each has four or five smallish kingdoms distributed across a kind of peninsula, a landmass that is longer north-south than it is wide, separated from the rest of the world by some sort of barrier in the south. This is largely because I originally started drawing the map in the lower left corner and drew one continuous coastline up and around until I wound up in the lower right corner, and then threw up a mountain range in the south because that was the bottom of the page. I always have a mild tendency to draw landmasses that basically look like this, though if you flip through my books – I think they mostly do have maps in them – you’ll see I have sometimes fairly successfully resisted that tendency.

In The White Road, as you may know, the southern barrier is the Southern Wall, a barrier of impassible mountains raised up by magic long ago in order to protect the peninsula from the threat of conquest. In Winter, it’s the Wall of Winds, also called the Wall of Storms and so on. This was also magically created to protect the northern peninsula, though this time from a really dire threat of total destruction. For all anyone knows, nothing now lies to the south but maelstroms of chaos and dragons (these are thoroughly chaotic dragons, totally different from the dragons of The Floating Islands or the one in House of Shadows. Coming up with extremely different conceptions of dragons for each book is a delightful part of worldbuilding … well, leave that for later. Back to names!

Which are the other main way in which these two worlds still resemble each other. Lots of the characters and lots of the place-names from that original trilogy got assigned to one or the other of the new books, so there are common elements in the names of people and places; far more so than, say, the names from Feierabiand and Casmantium in the Griffin Mage trilogy. For example, there is the common diphthong “iy”, which I basically threw into a bunch of names to say This Is Not English to the reader, lending a foreign flavor without making pronunciation especially difficult. (Just pronounce Tikiy like Tick-EE and Deconnniy as Deck-CON-ee.). There are also lots of vowels and various letters are more common than English; others less common.

In the same way that I changed the nature of the southern barrier and just how it got there and exactly what threat it protects the northern lands from, I stripped nearly all of the original diacritical marks from the names in one of the books and exaggerated them a trifle in the other, basically as a cosmetic change to indicate a little more firmly that This World Over Here Is Not The Same As That Other World Over There. There were plenty of diacritical marks in the original fantasy because they’re just kinda pretty, but the way they are now used in Winter of Ice and Iron is more carefully standardized because (as the Griffin Mage trilogy made clear to me) some readers really care A LOT about pronunciation.

Here are some typical names from each book:

From The White Road

Jaift Gehliy…..which was originally Jaïft, but that accent mark didn’t do anything to the pronunciation, which for me was simply Jayft, so there was no reason not to take out the mark.
Niniol…..which was originally Niniöl; again, I think it looks like Ninn-ee-ol with or without the mark.
Diöllin…..which retained the diaeresis, also called in French the accent tréma, because I just think the name looks so much better with the accent mark than without. This led me to declare that in this world, older, archaic names might still have diacritical marks, lost in the modern era during which the events of the story occur. Thus we have:
Tiamanaith……the name of a modern woman, versus
Aseraiëth…..the name of a woman who lived a long time ago.
And we also have Carad Mereth as the modern name of a man who once was known as Laìdomìdan – a name that picked up accent marks specifically to signal that it’s an archaic name.

Modern place names in The White Road are also simple: Riam, Surem. This is mainly to give readers a break from more complicated names, but the reader is supposed to understand, without having to figure it out, that some sort of unexplained historical convention underlies variants of names for associated places: Cora Tal, Cora Talen, Cora Diorr; also, if you look at the map, Elan Tal and Elan Diorr and so on. The author doesn’t have to explain this kind of thing for it to add a sense of history and depth to the world; the reader is just safe in assuming there is some kind of historical, philological reason for these kinds of names. (No, I don’t know the history of naming in this world; I just know there is such a history.)

The double “rr” at the end of the word “Diorr” isn’t something I pronounce, incidentally; though if a reader felt like rolling it, that would be fine. It’s just there to say again This Is Not English, since the double “rr” in English never occurs at the end of words.

But let’s move on and contrast the above names with some from Winter.

Winter of Ice and Iron, US Hardback

Eäneté, both the name of a province and the name of the principal town in the province.
Innisth terè Maèr Eänetai, the ruler of that province.
Eänetaìsarè, the name of the Immanent Power of that province.

Careful reading will make it clear that “Innisth” is the personal name, “Maèr” the family name, and “Eänetai” the name that indicates Innisth Maèr rules the province of Eäneté. (I never established rules for the lower-case middle names because it never became important.)

Similarly, we have Raëh, a province and city; Kehera irinè Elin Raëhema; and Raëhemaiëth. The name of the Immanent is always longer, the ruler’s name medium, the province name mostly shorter. I don’t swear that I stuck to that every single time, but I kind of had that pattern in mind.

You’ll see other names of that sort all through the book, and you have my agent, Caitlin, to thank for the similarity of town-title-Immanent names, because they didn’t start off that way but she just insisted that the names were too confusing and kept prodding me to provide more cues about what person and Power belonged to what place until I eventually did it her way. I’m sure she was right and anyway it wasn’t that much trouble to adjust the names.

As you can see, though not all the names have accent marks, lots do, and plenty have more than one. As it happens, all the accent marks work pretty much the same way in the world of Winter as they do in French. Thus:

Reiöft: The “ei” vowels are pronounced together, but the accent tréma, also called a diaeresis, indicates that the “o” is sounded separately. This is the same use of the mark as in the word “naïve.” You can think of it exactly that way every time it’s used. I also consider that it adds emphasis, so this name would be pronounced Ree-OFT.

Verè: The accent grave deemphasizes the vowel. You will see it mainly on an “e” at the end of the word, and it almost renders the terminal “e” silent. If that “e” is sounded at all, it’s as in “eh,” a breathy, half-swallowed vowel. When you see an accent grave in the middle of a word, as in Quòn or Caèr, it still deemphasizes that vowel. The former name is pronounced with a single shortish vowel sound, a lot like Kwon; the latter becomes more breathy, like Kehr.

The accent aigu, or acute, is used to accent a syllable – but in French it also indicates that the é should be sounded as “ay.” I intended the latter. You nearly always see the acute on a terminal “e” and it sounds that “e” as an “ay.”

Thus, clearly, Eöté is Ee-OH-tay.

Also, Eäneté is Ee-AN-eh-tay, and Eänetaìsarè is something like Ee-AN-neh-tie-sah-reh

So you see, even though to begin with I fundamentally threw in the accent marks to look pretty, I did make a reasonable attempt to standardize pronunciation before I finalized the spelling of the character and place names. I’m pretty sure the above rules are more or less what I was using when I subvocalized the names. But again, hey, if you like other pronunciations for any of the names, that won’t bother me one bit.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Setting isn’t everything, but it’s a lot

One of the panels I’m on during ArmadilloCon this coming weekend is about setting. About building a fantastic setting; about how the setting can drive the story.

Well. Good topic.

Obviously the single thing that separates SFF from all other fiction is setting. Right? You can certainly find compelling characters and neat plots anywhere, though I grant you it might be a trick to find a classic hero in, say, literary fiction, where I suppose it’s still all about antiheroes and passive, depressive nonheroes. I mean, I doubt that has changed lately. But you can find plenty of great protagonists in contemporary fiction overall, from caper or heist novels (Dortmunder, say), to all kinds of thrillers and mysteries, to contemporary YA.

On the other hand, thrillers are very much like adventure fantasy and also space opera, but distinguished from them by setting; hence the situation where a story that is clearly “really” SF gets published as a thriller. I’m thinking of Patrick Lee, whose exciting stories are so much fun but definitely depend on SF elements.

The *setting* of Lee’s thrillers is contemporary. There are just important SF elements driving the plot. So if his books are considered non-SF thrillers, which they are, that does imply that setting is more important than plot in distinguishing one from the other. So I would argue that setting is definitely an important component, probably the most important component, when defining SFF.

So how do you frame a setting in science fiction or fantasy?

That could be the subject of a book, and probably is, but one approach, far more useful in fantasy than SF, is to use a very traditional, even stereotypical type of setting. In fantasy this is of course a medieval-European setting. That way you can use all kinds of shortcuts in setting up the world and the characters, getting to the actual story much more quickly than if you had to set up the setting from scratch. There are drawback to this approach, of course, but I suspect that close to 100% of the time, you will be able to get to the story faster, and thus your story will feel faster paced, if you use a setting that does not depart too much from the typical. (Departing a little is great; it adds a feeling of newness and discovery that lots of readers will enjoy.)

I suspect this ability to speed things up explains a lot of the continuing prevalence of this kind of setting, and I also suspect that it explains a good deal of the popularity of fantasy compared to science fiction. There is no such typical SF setting — the closest we come is a kind of shared set of tropes common to space opera — so a great proportion of SF authors have to do more worldbuilding. The more out of the ordinary the setting, the better the writer has to be to pull readers in before they get bored. Also the more readers just will not be interested. I am thinking of my mother here. She reads all the time, but never fantasy or SF (except for my books). She doesn’t like settings that depart too far from the familiar; she doesn’t like historical mysteries either, though she reads a ton of mysteries with more familiar settings. I think a lot of readers are like that to some degree.

One of the things we hear all the time (relatively speaking) is that

a) publishers won’t buy fantasy that has other than a medieval-European-esque setting, and

b) this is because readers won’t buy other than same.

For example, from a comment here:

“I once heard a fantasy author talk about the fact that there’s so much pseudo-European/Tolkienesque stuff out there.

She said that basically, it comes down to the economic realities of the publishing business. The publishing houses who put out fantasy novels want to go with what they believe will draw their biggest audience, and 99 percent of the time, that’s European/Tolkien-style fantasy. She’d said that she once wrote a very detailed, dramatic novel set in a fantasy analogue of Egypt. After reading it, the publisher said, “This story is great, but the one thing we’d like you to change is the setting – we need it to be something more like medieval Europe.”

So, after a week or so of being upset about it, since she needed to put food on the table, she went ahead and reskinned the story as something with a more Norse/medieval flavor; and they published it.”

I can see how this might happen.

The fact is, I like a good medieval-European-esque setting fine, if it’s well done, but I love a more exotic setting. Ever read BRIDGE OF BIRDS, for example? I’m hardly alone. Many, many, many reviewers also say they love exotic settings. Every reviewer who raves about EON/EONA, for example.

But prolific reviewers are almost by definition super-readers. So am I. So are you, probably, if you’re reading this. Super-readers are exactly the sort of readers who do get bored with typical settings. There is just no reason to expect the kind of person who reads maybe ten books a year, maybe twenty, to ever get bored with any particular types of setting. This would lead to a situation, which we arguably see in the real world, where unusual settings are a tough sell to publishers, but once the book is out there, reviewers and award committees just love them. But they don’t really hit it out of the park with the greater mass of readers and don’t become best-sellers.

I believe setting transcends even genre, setting up fundamental divisions within literature, so that the three broadest fiction categories are contemporary/realistic; historical; and SFF. And within those categories, the more familiar settings — WWII for historicals; medieval-European for fantasy — are likely to appeal the the greatest number of readers. It’s actually hard for me to see a writer deliberately planning world design and setting one way or the other, because for me so much of world design is organic and unplanned. But I suspect the trade-offs between familiar and unfamiliar settings are inevitable and that it might be useful to have this possibility in the back of one’s mind when starting a new project.

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The Craft of Writing

Characterization: writing a great protagonist with an (invisible) disabililty

This post is based on one from 2011. It was easy to update since I’ve encountered several great protagonists with disabilities since then.

The original post was inspired by Five Flavors of Dumb, a contemporary YA. In Five Flavors, the protagonist, Piper, makes herself into the manager for a wannabe band (Dumb). Adding an ironic twist to this aspect of the plot, Piper is deaf.

It was Ana’s review which initially caught my interest, and the one line of the Kirkus review Ana quoted: It’s not that Piper is a Great Deaf Character, but that Piper is a great character who is deaf. I was instantly hooked: What could Piper and her family show me about the experience of the deaf? I don’t want to be preached at an author bent on writing a Great Deaf Character, but I’m interested in Piper and her world.

Ana was right: Five Flavors of Dumb is a thoroughly enjoyable story, even for me, and I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. I’ve picked up a couple other books by Anthony John since, which are alas still on my TBR pile. Piper’s got a distinctive voice, a distinctive attitude, interesting family dynamics, and actually she’s pretty good at managing high school students who want to form a band. You know that’s gotta be tough.

There are quite a few characters with disabilities in SFF, once you start looking. The majority are disabled in some visible, physical way. Think of Miles Vorkosigan, or for that matter Dag in the Sharing Knife series, though missing a hand no longer slows him down one bit.

Rarer are invisible disabilities. Especially mental disabilities, though I think SFF deserves a good deal of credit for including quite a few of those as well, especially in the past few decades.

My favorite such protagonist — one of my favorite protagonists of all time, really — is Lou Arrendale, in Elizabeth Moon’s incomparable The Speed of Dark.

If you’re thinking of Elizabeth Moon as the author of the Paksenarrion books plus quite a lot of space opera, well, yes. Also no.

It’s not that The Speed of Dark defines Moon as a writer — it’s quite a departure. But this one is just a masterpiece. It won the Nebula, which it richly deserved because it is truly one of the great books of the decade.

Lou Arrendale is an autistic person, see, inhabiting a very near-future world, and there’s an incredible feeling of authenticity to his first-person narrative. Moon does such an awesome job capturing his point of view — sort of sideways to the rest of us. Here’s a sample passage:

“The floor in the hall is tile, each tile treaked with two shades of green on beige. The tiles are twelve-inch squares; the hall is five squares wide and forty-five and a half squares long. The person who laid the tiles laid them so that the streaks are crosswise to each other — each tile is laid so that the streaks are facing ninety degrees to the tile next to it. Most of the tiles are laid in one of two ways, but eight of them are laid upside down to the other tiles in the same orientation.

I like to look at this hall and think about having those eight tiles. What pattern could be completed by having those eight tiles laid in reverse? So far I have come up with three possible patterns. I tried to tell Tom about it once, but he was not able to see the pattern in his head the way I can . . .

I look for the places where the line between the tiles can go up the wall and over the ceiling and back around without stopping. There is one place in this hall where the line almost makes it, but not quite. I used to think if the hall were twice as long there would be two places, but that’s not how it works. When I really look at it, I can tell that the hall would have to be five and a third times as long for all the lines to match exactly twice.”

There’s also this delightful bit:

“The next page [of the book] has the title, the authors’ names — Betsy R Cego and Malcolm R Clinton. I wonder if the R stands for the same middle name in both and if that is why they wrote the book together.”

I laughed out loud! What a perfect tidbit to show how differently Lou interprets normal trivial details he encounters.

Now, that kind of thing is like reading an alien’s point of view, and actually it’s also like reading Gillian Bradshaw’s The Sand Reckoner, where Archimedes is the main character and keep drifting off on mathematical tangents (it’s a great book!). Writing really good aliens is certainly a challenge and so is writing geniuses. I certainly did tons of research on materials science when writing my genius-protagonist, Tehre Amnachudran (The Griffin Mage, Book II). And actually, Lou is kind of a genius with some kinds of math, so Moon is doing several hard things at the same time.

But what she does is more than that. Both harder and more meaningful. Moon really brings the reader into the emotional and philosophical world of her autistic protagonist.

For example, though an important secondary character has a grudge against Lou, Lou has enormous trouble first perceiving and then acknowledging that the man is not his friend:

“When I think of the people who know my car by sight and then the people who know where I go on Wednesday nights, the possibilities contract. The evidence sucks in to a point, dragging along a name. It is an impossible name. It is a friend’s name. Friends do not break the windshields of friends. And he has no reason to be angry with me, even if he is angry with Tom and Lucia.”

Every stylistic choice Moon makes as a writer — choices of sentence length and structure, of Lou’s diction and for that matter the diction of all the autistic character, of using first person for Lou’s point of view and third for occasional dips into other character’s points of view — are so perfect for the story. Check out the style here, for example:

“I want to go home now,” Eric says. Dr. Fornum would want me to ask if he is upset. I know he is not upset. If he goes home now he will see his favorite TV program. We say goodbye because we are in public and we all know you are supposed to say goodbye in public.”

And behind all those stylistic details, Moon also addresses all these big questions — about what ‘normal’ is and about the difference between what we conventionally pretend normal people do and feel vs. what normal people *really* do and feel; about what we consider appropriate behavior for ourselves vs. what we think is appropriate behavior from others — the whole idea of the double standard re-interpreted through the lens of autism. The Speed of Dark is really about identity and about the degree to which we choose who we are.

As Kirkus said about Piper in Five Flavors of Dumb, it’s not that Lou Arrendale is a Great Autistic Character. He’s a great character who is autistic.

The Speed of Dark is a beautiful book. Honestly, when I took it off the shelf, I meant to just look up one or two passages, but I re-read the whole thing instead. I loved it the first time and now I love it even more. Plus, having written a good handful of books of my own, I can now really appreciate the skill as well as the passion that went into a novel that should, if the fates are just, be a classic for the ages.

But these days I have another favorite to place beside Lou and The Speed of Dark: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby.

The corn was talking to him again.

It had been a warm winter and a balmy spring in Bone Gap, so everyone with a field and a taste for corn had plowed and planted earlier than they’d ever dared before. On the last day of his junior year, exactly two months after his life had burst like a thunderhead, Finn walked home from the bus stop past plants already up to his waist. It was his favorite part of the afternoon, or should have been: the sun was bright and hot in the sky, the corn twitching their green fingers. Corn can inches in a single day; if you listened, you could hear it grow. Finn caught the familiar whisper – here, here, here – and wished it would shut up.

The characterization throughout this book is extremely good. I love Finn and Petey; Finn’s brother Sean and Petey’s mom Mel. I love the relationships between all these people! I do blame Sean a little for not trusting his brother more, but I can see why he didn’t; and I also blame him for letting Roza go, but I definitely see what led him to do that.

I love Finn’s bravery, which is the courage of the loner who has learned to go his own way regardless of what other people think; and I love Petey’s ferocity and strength, a kind of strength which is different from Finn’s, and complementary. And Roza’s courage, which is different again – the strength to endure, and to keep trying to rescue herself, and never give up. Roza honestly does not come across as too good to be true even though everyone loves her.

But for this post, I particularly love Finn, who is face blind. I’m moderately face blind myself, though not nearly to the degree Finn is, of course. But the bit about never being able to tell the male actors apart in movies is definitely something I recognize!

It’s so unusual for an author to hand a protagonist some kind of subtle, invisible issue like this, and here Finn’s face blindness is beautifully elucidated as well as integral to the plot. No one among Finn’s family or acquaintances understands what is going on with him until Petey figures it out. It’s a wonderful addition to a wonderful book, one of my very favorites from the past couple of years.

Lou and Finn are hard to beat. For voice and depth of characterization, and beautiful writing throughout the respective books, these two are simply extraordinary protagonists. With disabilities.

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