Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

The Craft of Writing

Weasel words

It seems hard on the poor little weasel, which is quite cute, you will agree.

I suppose it is just barely possible that a writer will suddenly discover that every single “very” should be removed from his or her writing, but most of them, or at least some, might actually be playing a useful role in the text.

Okay, did I get every single “weasel word” in the above sentence? Here they are:


Did any of them bother any of you in the above sentence? I am actually not very bothered by any of these words, though that might suddenly change if I find myself just really overusing one or another of them, I suppose.

I would include “really” and “actually” and “quite” in this list, btw. But I would exclude “but.”

My favorite post about this topic was Gary Corbey’s explanation of how he got autocorrect to change “just” to “NO! NO! NO!” Now that is hilarious. Also, it would sure train you to quit using the word “just” in your writing.

Does “sure” count as another little weasel?

I will admit that I do sometimes find it necessary to go through and remove about half my “very’s”. But one thing I appreciate about the “weasel word” post linked above is this:

“Sometimes if a weasel word is used within dialogue, it should stay. Ask yourself if the sentence would sound weird or out of character if you took it out. Weasel words are usually acceptable if a specific character is using them. Usually.”

Because, yes. In the sequel to BLACK DOG, one character says “just” fairly often — I hope not often enough to annoy readers — but I tried to make sure it was him and not everyone.

And yes, this is something to think about after completing and even polishing a draft. I would not suggest derailing your writing efforts by worrying about it during the actual writing process.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing / The Psychology of Writing

One baby step forward, three giant steps sideways

So, yeah, I’ve suddenly realized certain obvious things about the later plot of the current WIP, which is good. I will call this one KERI after the main character just to help us all keep straight which WIP is which. KERI is a work under contract, though I haven’t actually signed the contract yet, but I am assured that someday the contract will appear and then I will sign it (I presume), after which I will be able to tell you all about this particular WIP in more detail.

I have about 75 pp of KERI written, plus a loose outline that might be sort of accurate, plus a good idea of the next couple of things that might happen — drawing a blank on the thing after next, though — plus a nice scene that recently occurred to me but that would require an important secondary character to step up and take the pov. Which I think makes sense, but I had planned to have only one pov character (for a change). But I sure can’t see how to get the original protagonist into this particular scene, where the secondary character is crucial. If he does become a pov character, then I’m going to need a Chapter Two where he gets to be the protagonist and I’m going to need it to happen before we get 75 pages in.

So whatever, I’ll figure it out.

All the above constitutes the baby step.

What unexpectedly took me off sideways was, I suddenly figured out how to handle basically everything about revising this very early work of mine that I wanted to eventually self-publish. By revise, I mean:

1. Remove two of the three protagonists completely, along with at least two important secondary characters (including one I really, really like).

2. Take a different secondary character and make him an actual protagonist, adding material about his earlier life.

3. Remove one major plot thread and one major worldbuilding element.

4. Smooth out the remaining plot, in the process cutting 350 pages.

5. Yes, really. This was a trilogy to begin with, if you can’t tell, and even after selecting the characters and plot threads to keep, it is almost exactly twice as long as it should be.

6. In combination with cutting, revise every single paragraph on a sentence-by-sentence level.

And at this point, you may well be asking yourself, But wouldn’t it be less work just to ditch this and write a new book from scratch?

And the answer is: Why, no. Writing a book from scratch is, in fact, a lot of work. Having a basic plot that goes straight through from front to back, and the important characters with their personal character arcs, and the essential worldbuilding all in place means that even a truly huge revision is actually a lot less work than writing a new book. The main thing is suddenly deciding you want to bother, which I guess I have.

So that’s been my weekend so far. It’s a shame to kill writerly enthusiasm when it turns on, so unless I lose interest or get stuck — and it’s hard to see what I could get stuck ON, since the whole thing has come pretty well into focus at this point — maybe I’ll just finish this right now, in one straight shot. I estimate that it will take . . . about three weeks to a month, given the ordinary interruptions of life during April — work, gardening, the need to take dogs hiking, all the standard things.

This puts me in the odd position, as we finish up the first quarter of 2014, of having three WIP that I plan to finish this year:

A. The HOUSE OF SHADOWS sequel, which is about, oh, 80% done. I stalled out on that in January and set it aside, but it should not take more than a month to finish, if that. Right now it’s taking a back seat to both the others.

B. KERI, which is more like 20% done, but is under contract (I’m assured) and therefore technically ought to have priority. I expect its deadline to be about September of this year. I’ve written books from scratch in two months before (though I prefer not to have to), and summer is a good time for me to get work done, so I don’t anticipate any problems.

C. This big revision, which I’ll call KEHERA for now (yes, again, main character’s name), which honestly even given everything . . . I have to say, I would count it as at least 85% done. Maybe 90%. I swear, I think the rest of this one will be all downhill.

I would actually like to see both the HoS sequel and KEHERA come out this year, say in September and November. (No promises, stuff could happen). KERI of course, being under contract, will come out according to the publisher’s schedule, which is to say, 2016 if I remember correctly. Speeding up the timing is one big reason to shift some of my titles to self-publication. So, September and November. Cover art, copy editing, formatting, it will all be a new universe to explore.

So, yeah, that’s why I don’t know how long it may take to get to most of the books piling up on my TBR shelves. A while. The rest of you, enjoy spring’s new releases!

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Laura Florand: Chocolate Romances and the Craft of Writing

Okay, so we have in this series:

The Chocolate Thief – light, fun, beautifully written, with a poor-little-rich girl protagonist who is neither clichéd nor annoying, but instead a character you can really root for. Plus an arrogant chocolatier, her perfect foil, who is not really all that arrogant – well, he is, but he is also a wonderfully believable and sympathetic protagonist.

The Chocolate Kiss – not quite as light, because Magalie is vulnerable in a way that is actually kind of heartbreaking. Where Thief is basically a comedy, this one is more serious and genuinely touching – though certainly not without humor. I honestly don’t know which book of this series is my favorite, but Magalie is my favorite of the female protagonists.

The Chocolate Rose – am I slow or what? Because I didn’t catch that this story was going to draw on the Beauty-and-the-Beast fairy tale until about the third time Gabriel Delange thinks of himself as a “beast.” After that the shoe finally dropped: A beast, a beautiful girl, her father who steals the rose from the beast, hello. I don’t want to make too much of this, because the fairy tale just echoes gently through The Chocolate Rose, so don’t pick this story up thinking it’s actually a retelling. It’s not. But the fairy tale does add an extra layer – I’m trying not to say it’s the icing on the cake, but I can’t help it; all the beautiful desserts in the story are getting to me.

Let me just add that The Chocolate Rose also has one of my favorite lines ever, because after Jolie has just peeled and sectioned a zillion grapefruit, we get this: “She was not without kitchen skills, not by any means. But the speed, the intensity, the amount of competing motion she had to dodge, and the sheer repetition of task surpassed anything she had ever done before. Jo hated grapefruit. She hadn’t known that before, but not she hated it with a profound and utter passion. Maybe she should give up cookbook writing, become a microbiologist, and create a fungus that would wipe grapefruit trees of the planet.”

People, I laughed out loud. I honestly did.

I also really enjoyed Jolie – because she’s a writer, see, and also because I personally own like a hundred cookbooks and usually read them straight through, like novels, so I can easily imagine the effort that goes into writing a cookbook with a top chef. I enjoyed watching Gabriel struggle with the concept of “recipes a talented amateur could pull off”. I also definitely appreciated how a chef’s crazy hours would be absolutely perfect for a writer who needs a lot of time to herself. As always with Florand, I loved both Jo and Gabriel.

So each of these three books is a little different from the others, and this is true even though you can very definitely tell they’re all by the same author. They all have beautiful characterization and lovely writing and great description and nice, tight plotting, but to me they also seem to be gaining depth as you move through the series, especially if you add Turning Up The Heat, which incidentally is a perfect little gem of a novella.

So, how about Florand’s most recent story, The Chocolate Touch?

I just finished it. And, seriously, it blew me away. If Magalie is my favorite of Florand’s female protagonists, Dom is definitely my favorite of her male protagonists. And I say that as a reader who really enjoys all of Florand’s protagonists in all her books. I think I love best the most damaged protagonists? And Dom definitely carries the most extreme baggage. He carries it very, very well. He knew the value of strength, that was one thing he knew very well. It was to make himself unassailable. And now he would make her unassailable, too. At last somebody needed his strength.

Wow. I fell so hard for Dom, I can’t even tell you.

Anyway, I bookmarked dozens of pages of The Chocolate Touch because I also thought it would be a good book to take apart a little, if you’re in an analytical mood.

Here’s the beginning:


“She’s back.”

Dom straightened from the enormous block of chocolate he was creating, gave his maitresse de salle, Guillemette, a disgruntled look for having realized he would want to know that, and slipped around to the spot in the glass walls where he could get the best view of the salle below.


What I like about this beginning is the disgruntled look for having realized he would want to know that. That’s a really nice phrase. Just right there, it establishes so much about Dom’s character, plus it instantly sketches the minor secondary character, Guillemette.

Now, Dom. He is pretty fabulous. He tries so hard. His background is so awful, and he is so determined to overcome it. I love, love, love his relationship with his employees. You know, they call him “Dom” and address him as “tu”? His interactions with his employees not only drive the plot but serve perfectly to develop Dom’s character: Someone catcalled. Amand gave a long wolf-whistle. “Oh, shut the hell up,” Dom said. He couldn’t entirely suppress a grin, even though he was flushing.

One disappointment for me in this story – I found Dom’s employees so engaging, and their relationship with Dom so charming, that I would have really enjoyed seeing them actually get the news about Jaime asking Dom to marry her. They must have gone nuts and I didn’t get to watch. Well, the author can’t put in everything, I know. But if I wrote fan fiction, I would totally write that scene. And I want to point out that this means that even very minor secondary characters like Guillemette and Célie and Amand felt like real people to me even though we barely glimpse them on stage, which is quite an accomplishment.

Now, Jaime. Jaime is also a great protagonist, and I say this even though I have a low low low tolerance for the sort of person who devotes herself to Saving The World. That’s because it’s pretty plain that actually that sort of thing is often all about First World posturing: Look at me, I’m a Good Person, I Care, never mind that my Cause is poorly thought out and not actually helping anybody – maybe even hurting people. Yeah, excuse me while I roll my eyes, but I’m the sort of person who cares strictly about results and not about how bright and shiny anybody’s intentions might be.

But! In this book, Florand has given Jaime a backstory that involves truly helping real people deal with real abusive practices. She shows the problem, and (extremely important for me) she also shows the results that Jaime was achieving. And Florand does this without preaching and without spending a lot of time developing the issue. And then Jaime’s backstory makes her perfectly suited for Dom. Really nice, and we’re back to a study of characterization and the importance of backstory for motivation.

You can also reach for The Chocolate Touch to look at description and detail and drawing the scene. Like Dom’s rosebud wall, and La Victoire. And like the Eiffel Tower: “He liked the impossible, fantastical strength of [the Eiffel Tower], the way the metal seemed so massive up close. He liked the fact that it had risen above all the complaints and criticism that surrounded its birth and stamped its power not only over the city but the world. He pulled out the little moleskin journal he always carried with him and stood for a long time sketching the curves and angles of the bolts and metal plates, thinking of designs for the surfaces of his chocolates.”

And I want to point out how description also deepens characterization, because nothing is described in isolation – everything is described in terms of the protagonist’s reaction to it – this Eiffel Tower scene is a perfect example. It’s so important to embed your character in the scene that way. Problems with setting the scene have been so noticeable in the workshop entries I’ve seen at conventions.

Florand also has some stylistic tricks that are worth noticing. Like her use of italics to emphasize a particular phrase when we’re seeing a character’s thoughts. I read something somewhere (sorry, no idea where) where an author said something like: emphasis is so personal to the reader, he had all but quit using italics. Well, Florand wouldn’t agree, and I’m glad, because I get a real kick out of her use of italics. Like here:

“How are you?” Dom asked the brunette crisply, trying to make himself seem unavailable without making anyone watching think he was a rude, crude, and socially unacceptable human being who had sex with women whose names he couldn’t remember later and then treated them badly. Everything else might be true, but he did not treat them badly. . . . brushing her off wasn’t going to be that easy to do. Certainly not without giving the definite impression to people who happened to watching that he used women and was heartless to them afterward.

We see both the standard use of italics for emphasis here (not) and the really clever use of italics to add humor to Dom’s self-derisive commentary on the situation. It seems to me Florand mostly uses this technique with her male leads, and I think this might be because they are all extremely arrogant and this self-derisive tone is a way of showing their vulnerability. (I could be totally wrong. It’s not like I’m taking notes every minute, right? I get lost in the story, too, you know. But it does seem to me this is mostly something Florand uses for her male protagonists.) Oh, and let me draw your attention to that crisply and just reiterate that adverbs are not bad, not even in dialogue tags, if you use them well. I know I have said that before.

This scene also shows a really close third-person voice, which is worth noticing because Florand uses this kind of voice to great effect and it is by no means the only choice when using third person. If you use phrases like “It would be difficult, he thought, to get rid of this brunette without appearing rude,” then you are using a much more distant third-person voice. In other words, you can either report on your character’s thoughts and feelings: he thought, he felt, he imagined. Or you can bring the reader directly into your character’s head, in which case you would not use that kind of report, right? You will find that a skilled author moves back and forth in distance as she moves through the narrative, because a really close third-person stance is too exhausting for the reader to keep up for a whole book. Florand uses a lot of close third-person, but even she doesn’t stick to it all the time. I don’t expect she analyzes this (I don’t imagine anybody actually writes so analytically.) It’s something you do by feel. But if you wanted to really study close third person and see how it’s done, these books would be excellent.

So, characterization, scene, style. Dialogue, too. My favorite scene in the whole book may be the one where Dom meets Jaime’s family. I love Dom’s aggression, wow. And I love how he forces himself to acknowledge Sylvain’s kindness to Jaime before he met her, and honestly I just love the way the whole family interacts. Writing a scene with that many characters in it is not easy – in this one, we have Dom, Jaime, Sylvain, Cade, James, and Mack, and they all have to be there through essentially the whole scene. If you have anybody fall silent for three or four paragraphs, the reader can lose track of him and that’s a problem. This is a nice crowd scene, if you would like to take it apart and see how it works. My favorite line in it may be: “I’m begging you, James, stop with the spinach.”

Is this book totally perfect? Well, just about, yes. On the other hand, I’m not going to buy a copy for my mother. She wouldn’t be able to tolerate the occasional English cusswords – I am going to have to look up putain some time – and she, like me, really prefers a discreet veil to be drawn across the bedroom door. For anybody where those aspects aren’t dealbreakers, though – yes, it comes pretty close to perfect.

Laura Florand is definitely on my autobuy list after this year – not just for the Chocolate romances, but for whatever she writes. I’m only sorry I’ve now run out of her entire list, but at least it’s not too long a wait till her next title comes out — she has a novella, “Snow-Kissed” due out in September, and two more Chocolate titles are scheduled for this coming November and January release dates.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

When a book just doesn’t work for me, sometimes I can actually figure out why

Yeah, still at the show, but though I don’t feel up to REAL writing, I do feel up to writing blog posts. So . . .

So, Greg Stolze’s SWITCHFLIPPED, which did work for me as you may recall from a recent post, got me thinking about why some books don’t.

I occasionally find myself reading along and thinking: Why is this so boring? Why am I not engaged with these characters? We have all this conflict, all this drama, one crisis piled on top of another, and I just don’t care. Why does this happen? I’m sure that sometimes happens to you, too.

Problems with tension or with emotional disengagement from the characters are often, it seems to me, actually problems with plotting.

Does the story’s primary conflict somehow seem to involve everyone but the putative main character? Is there a series of problems, but they don’t arise from or connect to a single main conflict? Is there no identifiable main character at all, just a large cast of secondary characters, each with his or her own problems?

These are problems with plotting. I say this as a reader who prefers character-driven stories to plot-driven stories: Big problems with the plot produce big problems with reader engagement, even if the reader is primarily reading for character. A tight plot is going to produce a more satisfying experience for almost any reader, even if the reader isn’t able to put a finger on why one book succeeds and another fails.

Let’s take the problem where there is a whole series of main characters – or characters, anyway, none of whom are really main characters – who are all going along with their own separate plotlines in a story whose overall plot barely links them together. Wow, look at that, I’ve just described modern epic fantasy!

But I’ve also described SWITCHFLIPPED. Of course the plotlines are in fact connected, but the connections are not clear for a long time and one important plotline does not get resolved during the course of this story (which is why the book needs a sequel!). Nevertheless, SWITCHFLIPPED is fun to read. This is because:

a) Stolze is good at getting the reader to invest emotionally in multiple characters, and

b) All the plot threads do tie together eventually and most (if not all) important plot elements do resolve as the story progresses.

But I can think of other stories where scattered plotlines pretty much kill the book, because you (or at least, I) just don’t care about some or most of the main characters and/or because the separate threads of the plot are too separate.

I have an example in mind.

Elizabeth Moon’s recent return to the Paksenarrion series (the Paladin’s Legacy series) doesn’t work very well for me, even though I loved her first trilogy set in this world, and the reason is that:

a) I don’t care about Arcolin. Why didn’t Moon choose a more interesting character to carry that part of the plot, if she had to show it at all? Like Stammel, maybe? Or hey, that new guy, the half-blind captain, Arneson? He’s got this great backstory and tons of potential, though we hardly see him. Yes, Arcolin’s in charge, but the guy in charge doesn’t have to be the point-of-view character and sometimes shouldn’t be, particularly because people lower down the hierarchy may have more opportunities for conflict and tension.

b) I don’t care about Kieri. Wow, how tough for him, figuring out how to be king. And I despise the elf queen. What a total idiot she is. I’m sick of her, and of people like Kieri making excuses for her.

c) I don’t care about Prince Mikeli. He barely has a personality.

d) I like Dorrin, though.

e) And the thief, Arvid! He’s a great character! About the only time I was really engaged by the second book was his chapter. Alas, he only had one section, because Moon spent tons of time with everybody else.

f) Plus, plausibility? I totally don’t believe you can have two countries separated only by a river, not even an ocean for God’s sake, that know absolutely nothing about each other’s societies. Yeah, right, tell me another, okay? A serious failure of plausibility is a different kind of failure of plotting, and this is unfortunately a stellar example.

Interestingly, if you look at Moon’s other books, HUNTING PARTY is fabulous and has just one main pov character and, if I remember correctly, one important secondary character gets some pov time late in the book. The first few books of that series are very good, and then as the pov characters multiply and the plot(s) scatter all across creation, the books become (for me, at least) notably dull. I recall reading one or another of them (it was one of the Esmay Suiza ones) and thinking halfway through that the book simply didn’t have any main character at all, just a lot of secondary characters. It was the first book I ever read where I really noticed this happening and actually understood why I had lost interest. In that sense, it was an important book for me.

And I will just add that Elizabeth Moon’s TRADING IN DANGER series is also fine. It’s another series where the books mostly stick to one pov character – and when, later in the series, the pov scatters, it doesn’t scatter too widely. I can think of three important pov characters in the entire five-book series, and they all work for me. Plus the overall thrust of the plot is consistent: some unknown enemy is trying to wipe out your family! That’s a big, clear, understandable problem. A big, clear, understandable problem is important, and often seems lacking in modern epic fantasy.

If modern epic fantasy stands out for scattered pov and diffuse plotting, what genre in modern fiction stands out for consistently tight plotting? Go on, think about it. I’ll wait. [Twiddles thumbs.] [Whistles.]

Why, yes, that’s right, Young Adult! Which is not actually a genre, so I sort of cheated in how I phrased the above question, I know. But whether you’re talking YA contemporary, or YA fantasy, or YA historical – it’s all characterized by tight plotting. I’m sure there are some YA stories that fail. But if you want to look at tight plotting, YA is the place to go to find it. In my opinion – and I’m not trying to claim that I’ve read even a representative cross-section of the genre fiction published in the last five years – but the average YA fantasy being published today is just better than the average modern adult fantasy. And the most important reason it is better is that YA editors make their authors tighten up their plots and adult fantasy editors don’t think it matters that much, or (if they’re editing epic fantasy) don’t seem to think it matters at all.

And I say this as a reader who often enjoys a slower, more leisurely pace. Because I’m not conflating tight plotting with pace at all. I’m declaring that a tight plot is one where:

a) There is only one main conflict in the story, and it revolves around one or a small number of clearly identifiable protagonists, who drive the action,

b) The smaller conflicts in the story all echo, support, or arise from the main conflict,

c) The tension steps upward through the story, reaches a clearly identifiable climax, and resolves.

Now, you can stretch a point. In a book with two protagonists, they may both have their very own main conflict. But if they do,

d) Though it doesn’t have to be this way, you will often find that the individual dilemmas driving each of two main characters are actually in opposition with one another, thus creating a huge overall conflict – I’m thinking here of THE SCORPIO RACES by Stiefvater, but there are many good examples.

e) And, to the extent you’re going to have multiple pov characters and/or a diffuse plot, you have just got to have exceptional skill with characterization, voice, and dialogue — which are all really aspects of the same thing — in order to make that work. Which Stolze does, and Moon — in the Paladin’s Legacy series at least — just doesn’t. (I know, right? I really do love a lot of Moon’s work, and THE SPEED OF DARK is absolutely incredible, yet for this new series of hers, sorry, but characterization, voice and dialogue are all flat. Sorry! It’s true!)

So if you are reading a book and think: This is dull, this is boring, I just don’t care about any of these characters – well, that may look like a problem with conflict or tension, or like a problem with characterization. But I suspect that whatever immediate problem has caused you to lose interest, the ultimate problem is that there are too many pov characters, that you don’t find most of them engaging, and maybe that the plot is diffuse and fails to create a sense of building tension.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Recent Reading: a focus on Greg Stolze

You may recall that a little while ago, I read Stolze’s new superhero novel, Sinner, and really enjoyed it. In particular, Stolze showed a real talent for dialogue and character. Sinner left me wanting more, so I picked up Mask of the Other, and then Stolze was kind enough to send me a copy of Switchflipped, and I read both in quick succession — though it took me a while to figure out how to write about them.

These books are so different from each other and from Sinner! It’s very interesting how Stolze chose such different treatments for each of his novels. Each book shows the same gift for dialogue, but character is handled differently in each, and the structure of each novel is quite different, too.

Look, Sinner is nearly a pure first-person narrative with one pov character, right? And of course if it works – which entirely depends on the voice of the pov character – then this is the form that will most closely engage the reader with the protagonist. Because Hector Lear’s voice is so perfect, his story is extremely engaging.

Switchflipped is similar in some ways. It’s told in the first person, for one thing. Also, though it’s not exactly a superhero book, in a way it is, and if you like superhero stories you might want to give this one a try.

In Switchflipped, various people embody specific concepts. There is someone who embodies the concept of The Evil Witch, for example (She gets murdered early on, which is great, because, hey, Evil Witch), and someone who seems to possibly embody, I don’t know, the concept of a Mad Gadgeteer, maybe. And so forth.

The narrative actually starts when the fiancée of the primary main character, Jasper, reappears. She vanished five years ago, and now she reappears for one wild night, after which she leaves again, telling Jasper only that she couldn’t bear it if he got switchflipped because of her.

Pretty catchy, right?

Then the narrative switches among Jasper, his ex-fiancée (Jane), his current girlfriend (Vivian), a guy called Kung-Fu Pete (you can tell what concept he embodies, right?), and to a lesser extent half a dozen other characters. I think there are eleven characters who get at least a little pov time. So this is very different from Sinner obviously. It worked pretty well for me, because I liked Jasper, Jane, Vivian, and Pete. Here Stolze’s gift for characterization is crucial, because I would not ordinarily be very interested in this many different characters, but he made each of them come to life for me. I can think of more than one well-known author who bore me to tears when they break a narrative up like this, and maybe I’ll post about that later, but in this one, as I say, it works.

Jasper’s basically an ordinary guy, Jane is an ordinary woman who got caught up in an extraordinary and rather creepy situation, Vivian is a WONDERFUL psychologist, and Kung-Fu Pete is my favorite character in the book – I like heroes, and I like them to be pragmatic when necessary, and I just loved Pete.

Though one major plot element gets resolved in this book, there is clearly supposed to be a sequel. I will definitely grab it when and if it appears, because I really am just dying to know how Jane’s creepy situation fits into the broader picture, and do she and Jasper manage to get back together, and does it wind up working out between Vivian and Jasper’s friend Dave? And I love the sort-of-superpower Jasper acquired and want to watch that work through a full book.

Let me just reiterate once more that the dialogue is really fun in this story. Here’s one of my favorite exchanges:

A friend to Vivian: “Is David the one you were trying to set me up with?”

Vivian: “I was not trying to set you up, and yes, he was.”

The friend: “You do realize that your last sentence completely hogtied logic and rational thought?”

Okay! So that’s Switchflipped. How about Mask of the Other?

In one way, this one is similar to Switchflipped: it has a lot of pov characters. In general, though, it is VERY different. It’s told in the third person, and though one particular character (Rick Hazard) gets more pov time than the others, even he doesn’t necessarily seem like a main character. Moreover, though Rick is sort of admirable, if anything he gets less admirable over the course of the book, though I never really disliked him. Of the other characters, I really did dislike two and felt pretty neutral about several others. Of the minor characters I liked, all died.

All this bothered me at first. Then I realized: This is not a character-driven novel! (Obvious, right?) This is in fact a horror novel, a Cthulhu-type of horror novel, so it is meant to be driven by its atmosphere, not by its characters. Most of the characters exist to build the atmosphere by getting killed!

I liked it much better after I realized that. I’m not really a horror fan, but this was all right, and in fact I would have liked it a lot less if I’d found the characters really engaging, because after all most of them do die. Stephen King’s habit of introducing one ultra-charming character for the express purpose of jerking tears by killing her drives me insane, and in fact it’s so transparently manipulative that I can’t stand it and quit reading his books. I liked the way Stolze did it much better.

The dialogue is, naturally, excellent. I will just say, though, in case this is a major turn-off for you: we spend a lot of time with characters who start off in the military, so the dialogue is also often pretty, um, coarse. I would not, for example, loan this book to my mother. Even if she liked military SF / horror, she just about had a fit when I included half a dozen cusswords in Black Dog. This one goes well beyond that, eh?

Okay, disclaimers inside, I loved the bit where this rock group went to a ruined city on an island to film a music video. You can really see Stolze’s awareness of cinematography here in this chapter. This is of my favorite passages in the whole book:

“That sea is going to look great if we can catch it before the light goes,” she [the photographer] fretted after their third try, which, while still a failure, had been the least disastrous. Pulling her lower lip, she looked at the clouds, the water, the sullen band, and she came to a decision. It was visible in her posture. She straightened up, squared her shoulders, and said, “Right: Ruins, take twenty, hydrate, catch your breath. You guys are doing great. We are ready. We’re going to set the cameras, we’ve got the lights hung, and we are going to do this in one take. One take and we can be finished! You are going to run hard, play hard, hit your marks like they owe you money and at the end we’re going to have a single-shot video which will win a VMA and get you the recognition your music deserves. When you accept your awards, you can joke about what a bitch I am but you will do it with affection because this thing will be awesome.” She said it as if sheer force of intent could make it true.

That passage is pretty awesome itself. I was sorry when the photographer and the entire band got killed by the . . . well, never mind.

If any of you are Cthulhu fans, please read this and tell me how close to Lovecraft’s canon Stolze stayed? Because I am just curious.

So, the take home message for me is, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for Stolze’s next books. And I would like one of them to pick up where Switchflipped left off.

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The Craft of Writing

Very good advice —

From Scott Lynch, hattip from Martha Wells.

Now, Lynch, as you may know is the author of THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA, which I liked quite a bit. It’s an involved, complicated coming-of-age politics-heavy story that was close to too dark for me, but never went over that line. Kind of like Brent Weeks that way, if that gives you an idea.

I enjoyed Lynch’s second book, too, but it ended with the protagonists painted thoroughly into a corner, so I suggest you may not want to read that one until the third is out (this year sometime).


Lynch says:

… there’s always a tiny minority I can spot by the nature of the questions they ask and the statements they fixate on. They’re not interested in hearing about hard work, study, or self-improvement. Their eyes glaze over when I talk about concepts like effort or practice. They want nothing to do with developing actual skills … They just want me to tell them how to duck under that imaginary velvet rope.

So, advice about getting published, obviously.

It doesn’t fucking exist, this shortcut. This magic steam-catapult to perceived stardom. This underground railroad for misunderstood slacker geniuses. It’s just not there!

Ah, those misunderstood slacker geniuses! I don’t know that I’ve met too many, actually, but isn’t that a wonderful phrase? The whole post is fun, not that the misunderstood slacker geniuses are likely to read it, much less think it applies to them, I guess, but the rest of us can totally read this and enjoy rolling our eyes.

And Martha Wells adds:

… if you knew someone who said they wanted to be a doctor, but they didn’t know they had to go to medical school first, that would be weird, right? Or if they knew being a doctor involved curing people, but they didn’t know what the process was for doing that? Or if they rented an office and got a stethoscope and a lab coat, and thought that was all they needed? That wouldn’t be rational. Especially as all the information about the process for becoming a doctor is readily available online. It’s kind of like that for publishing.

Which, yeah, exactly. Of course the good thing about publishing is that you don’t have to pay some school a boatload of money for the training, it’s all do-it-yourself to the max.

I was just talking to a student about this the other day — she had this assignment — and one of the questions was about what kind of degree you need to be a professional writer, and of course the answer is: None in particular. The more specific answer is: But if you don’t know anything about anything, good luck with that.

Of course you don’t need a degree to learn stuff these days, you just have to be interested in how stuff works in the world, right?

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

The writing process can be weird

Through a miscommunication with the intelligent part of my brain, I seem to have the same important secondary character, Keziah, appearing in two scenes that are happening simultaneously.


The way this happened is, see, I thought there was going to be another chapter in between these two scenes. So there would be book-time to get the character from one scene to the other. But now I think, no. I think now those two scenes are happening simultaneously. And magic is all very well, but nobody gets to be in two places at the same time, because we sure don’t have THAT kind of magic in this universe. So, FINE. Now I have to decide in which scene the character can be most easily replaced by a different character.

And by “most easily” I REALLY mean “most effectively” because easiness is not actually the point. Quality of the story is the point. Though luckily I think the best chapter in which to replace this character is also the easier one to do it in.

Which character shall I sub in to replace Keziah? I have about three choices, assuming I use a continuing character from the first book, which I definitely will because there are enough secondary characters in the BLACK DOG world already, let me tell you. I’m thinking Ethan. Probably. Maybe.

Also, I think this would be a good time to gently remove another secondary character from the back half of chapter two and also from chapter three. I just don’t think that guy is going to have anything to do in the rest of the story, so I think I better leave him behind. Which is disappointing. I like that character! And I will lose a great line of dialogue! I think maybe I will save the version where he sticks around in case I suddenly think of an important role he could play later on.

Removing characters that seem promising but don’t play an important role: this is a thing. I always seem to be introducing neat characters with a vague feeling that I will do something with them, and then, no. And then of course sometimes you can leave them alone, but sometimes you need to get rid of them entirely and replace them with something like “the guard” or “the waitress” or whatever — some unnamed role. The FIND command is super, super useful for making sure later on that I have removed those characters completely.

Okay, so, the project for today is defined.

I’m thinking that I will not get any more pages written as such this weekend. But this kind of sudden important revision counts as progress, and hey, whatever, I am totally in fine shape as far as the deadline goes — I mean, I expect to beat the deadline by about six months — so that’s no problem.

If I get this whole revision done today, I think I will reward myself by reading Maggie Stiefvater’s SHIVER trilogy tomorrow.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

While we’re on the subject of epic fantasy —

So it turns out that Marie Brennen recently posted a long, detailed analysis of where Jordan went wrong with his immense Wheel of Time series, which I’ve never read, btw, so I can’t offer any personal commentary about that. But Brennen’s analysis is extremely interesting, especially in light of some of the problems I’ve had with modern epic fantasy. (And it’s even more interesting to me, because I can see my BLACK DOG duology stretching out to, say, five books or so, if all goes well with the first couple.)

Brennen says: “I’m speaking, mind you, as someone who has yet to write a series longer than four books (and those structured almost entirely as stand-alones). This is all based on my observations of other people’s efforts, not my own experience. But as I said to Tom Smith in the comments to “Zeno’s Mountains,” there’s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward. If you want to write a long series and not have it collapse in the middle like a badly-made souffle, you have to learn from other people’s mistakes.”

Whoa, is that ever true.

Brennen’s whole post is very much worth reading. She makes four main points:

a) The author had better figure out ahead of time the basic length of the series. Five books? seven? ten? — and set up some major goalposts up that are going to carry the overall narrative, and then stick to this basic structure, because otherwise it is too easy for the narrative to dissolve into chaos. Brennen says:

“As answers go, [discipline] isn’t perfect; keeping your series confined within its intended boundaries may result in a less satisfying arc for various plots than you would get if you let them stretch out to their fullest. But letting them stretch may very well be detrimental to other aspects of the story. Keep one eye always on the larger picture, and know what must be accomplished by the end of the current book for you to remain on schedule.”

Then she goes on to make lots of good observations about what happens if the author loses control of the narrative:

b) The author had better not let the pov characters proliferate unchecked. To which I say, amen — even though I often struggle to keep down the numer of pov characters in my books. (Someday I will write a book where there is only one pov character period, and in fact I have that book in mind, but not this year.)

“But let’s pretend for a moment that the information here is actually vital,” says Brennen. “Does that justify spending time in the head of this minor villain? No. Because here’s the thing: switching to Carridin is lazy. It’s the easiest way to tell us what the bad guys are doing — and I do mean “tell,” given that most of the scene is Carridin thinking rather than acting. Had Jordan restricted himself to a smaller set of pov characters, he would have been forced to arrange things so that his protagonists found out what Carridin was doing. In other words, they would have had to protag more. And that would have been a better story. Every time you go to add a new point of view character, ask yourself whether it’s necessary, and then ask yourself again. Do we need to get this information directly, or see these events happen first-hand? Can you arrange for your existing protagonists to be there, or to find out about it by other means? Are you sure?”

Want to know just how many pov characters Jordan’s series wound up with, total? Go read Brennen’s post and laugh, because it really is, as she says, a totally absurd number.

c) The author had better not let the number of sub-plots proliferate either, which will certainly happen if the number of pov characters gets out of control. “Making up subplots to keep a character busy is a cascading problem. The proliferating points of view created and/or abetted new plot complexity, which meant the central ropes of the narrative got stretched out farther than they were meant to go.” And also:

d) The author ought to try to centralize the action — to get all the main characters together at some point in every book, doing something important.

Yes, definitely, to both those points. Seriously, there’s lots more and it’s all worth reading, and the comments are worth reading, too, so you should click over.

Nor is epic fantasy alone in struggling with sprawl. You know who I find myself thinking about here? SM Stirling. I think this is a huge issue with the later books in his ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME series and particularly with his Novels of the Change series (the series that starts with DIES THE FIRE). I find the early books of those series much more compelling than the later ones, and in fact I have drifted away from the Novels of the Change because I’m just not that interested anymore.

Plus, moving into space opera, I think David Weber and Elizabeth Moon have had problems with this, too — the former with his Honor Harrington series, obviously, and the latter most distinctly with her Esmay Suiza series. I’ve always thought that was one big reason that Moon started her other space opera series, the TRADING IN DANGER one featuring Kylara Vatta — to start over with a much more tightly focused narrative. Though even that series, which works much better, dose start to lose focus toward the end.

You know what one ultra-long series comes to mind that does NOT suffer from any of these problems? CJ Cherryh’s FOREIGNER series. That’s up to what, twelve books? But the ultra-tight focus on Bran Cameron as the sole pov protagonist through the whole thing means that Cherryh completely avoids every problem Brennen discusses. That right there is a lesson for us all.

What do you all think? Got any candidates for series that lose focus, sprawl into a mess, and wind up becoming a salutary lesson for others? Or alternatively, for long series that keep their focus and wind up with a clean narrative arc through the whole thing?

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The Craft of Writing

Further thoughts on revision —

— Or: Why your editor’s (and readers’) reactions to characters in your novel may be unexpected.

I was thinking about how often Caitlin’s comments could be boiled down to: Your character needs to show more emotion in this scene.

This is not an unfamiliar comment. My Knopf editor asked me to do something similar, asking: Can you put the reader more into your protagonist’s head?

I do work on this. Honest.

But this morning these ideas sort of struck a note of familiarity. Ah hah! I exclaimed at last, and went looking for this essay.

It’s an essay by Marie Brennan on the trouble the author, as an introvert, can have in getting across a character’s reactions to the readers. And of course, you won’t succeed with all readers, so there’s no sense worrying about it.

I’m not trying to imply that all authors are introverts, btw. Just that this paticular issue might be something that applies to authors who are.

Brennen says: “Some readers love my characters for their believability or depth, while others dismiss them as lifeless cardboard. . . . as I am a fairly reserved person, my characters’ idea of demonstrative floods of emotion may not look like much to the extroverts out there.”

And there you go. Doesn’t that make so much sense? Especially when you add to it the obvious truth that the author knows what is in her characters’ heads whether they wear their hearts on their sleeves or not?

Brennen adds: “So I, not really being the sort to wave flags when I’m excited or angry or whatever, don’t tend to wave them for my characters, either. Or rather, I do — by my standards of measurement. And maybe if you’re a similar sort of person, then the things I intend to be flags register as such, and voila, you see depth of emotion. But people who are more used to wearing their hearts on their sleeves will only see a faint tick on the psychological seismograph, and think the character is made out of wood.”

I could hardly put it better. And yes, Brennen adds that this isn’t going to be the full explanation for how differently various readers perceive characterization in any particular book. Of course that’s true. But the idea really resonates with me.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t gotten to her book, MIDNIGHT NEVER COME, which is down on my TBR shelves and has been for literally years. I swear I will get to it this year. Probably. For me, stand-alones filter toward the top of the pile and series fall toward the bottom, especially if the last book of the series isn’t out yet. I just don’t always have TIME to read a whole trilogy, if I’m supposed to be working on a project of my own. Even though I read fast.

Anybody read Brennen’s series? (Probably everybody but me, right?) What did you think of it? Her Swan Tower essays are good enough that I’m pretty confident I’ll really enjoy her books.

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