Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

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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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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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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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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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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Blog / The Craft of Writing

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?”

“Tags.”

“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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