Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Amazon’s bundled ratings

Listen to this:

Badly translated versions of classic books and critically panned remakes of Hollywood films appear to have glowing endorsements on Amazon thanks to the website’s policy of bundling together reviews of different products.

Analysis by the Guardian shows products that have actually been given one-star ratings appear alongside rave reviews of better quality items, making it impossible for consumers to judge the true value of what they are about to buy.

Seriously? SERIOUSLY? Because I depend on those ratings when making buying decisions! I had no idea! Listen:

The same is true of a Kindle version of the Dickens classic, selling for 91p. Far from meeting the great expectations the 4.5-star review might imply, a glance inside suggests the rave reviews do not apply to this version….

A review from a reader, which appears to be about this edition, gives it just one star and describes it as terrible.

“Each page has a dozen errors. It reads as if it has been translated from a foreign language. ‘Dog’ in the original is ‘canine’ in this version; ‘file’ in the original has become ‘document’; ‘tremendous’ has become ‘maximum incredible’; ‘man’ has become ‘guy’.

Unbelievable!

Shakespeare’s plays suffer the same fate as Austen’s work, so anyone wondering whether to buy or not to buy a paperback copy of Hamlet will find it shares reviews with Kindle versions of Othello and Macbeth that turned out to be in German.

Most of the reviews do not mention which play or edition is being appraised, making them meaningless to consumers attempting to pick between different options.

UNBELIEVABLE!

Well, to be fair, I almost always or always do skim through some of the actual comments before buying anything at all pricey. With clothing, I search carefully for reviews by people who state their height and weight so I can estimate whether the item would actually work for me. For appliances, I want to know what kinds of things people like and dislike.

For books, I’m mostly not buying a specific edition of a classic. But if I wanted a beautiful edition of Lord of the Rings, I would be extremely miffed if I discovered I had accidentally ordered a much worse edition … or an edition rife with errors … or one that had been translated into German.

And if I see a basic 4.5 star rating for a specific edition, I would sure prefer that the rating apply to that edition!

Humph.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

For love of the comma

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

For Love of the Comma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And KKR responds:

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

I have three responses to this conundrum:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nora Robert’s writing process

I found this post interesting. Two responses leap to my mind:

1) Wow

2) This sounds like an ideal life

Oh, wait, three responses:

3) It would sound just a tiny bit more ideal if I weren’t just a little stuck right now on both WIPs. But that’s all right! Getting mildly stuck is pretty much part of MY process, it’s just TUYO spoiled me for that part by whooshing at very nearly top speed from beginning to end.

Anyway, here’s Nora:

I’m able to produce a lot of books because I work every day. Because I don’t go out to lunch or dinner, or to events, go shopping, have hobbies or socialize all that much. I don’t want to.

I like home. I like my space. I have plenty of people living in my head for company.

Exactly! That sounds pretty much completely ideal.

She writes four books a year. (!)

This is her post explaining why that pace of writing happens to suit her.

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Book covers that catch the eye

I just happened to see this book cover at Janet Reid’s website:

I just like it, so I’m sharing it with you even though it’s not fantasy or SF.

Here’s what Amazon says:

The mystery of the body in motion. The surprise of seeing what seems impossible. And the pure, joyful optimism of it all. Dancers Among Us presents one thrilling photograph after another of dancers leaping, spinning, lifting, kicking—but in the midst of daily life: on the beach, at a construction site, in a library, a restaurant, a park. With each image the reader feels buoyed up, eager to see the next bit of magic.

Photographer Jordan Matter started his Dancers Among Us Project by asking a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company to dance for him in a place where dance is unexpected. So, dressed in a commuter’s suit and tie, the dancer flew across a Times Square subway platform. And in that image Matter found what he’d been searching for: a way to express the feeling of being fully alive in the moment, unself-conscious, present.

A coffee table book of photos — not what I expected! But how delightful.

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Recent Reading: Arkad’s World by James Cambias

Okay, this is Cambias’ third novel, and I’ve read all of them, and they are all very different, far more so than any other author’s first three novels, so far as I can recollect. Let’s briefly reprise:

A Darkling Sea: This novel features two fantastic alien species, especially the Ilmatarans, who, as you may recollect if you’ve read the book, are the aliens who evolved beneath the thick ice on a planet much like Triton. Much of the story is told from the point of Broadtail, an Ilmataran. This is the best part. We also have the Sholen, a different alien species obviously based, albeit loosely, on bonobos. And then we have the human pov characters, who are fine, but frankly not as engaging as Broadtail. I really should re-read this book, which honestly does feature one of the very best alien species in all of SFF.

Corsair: a near-future SF tale featuring space piracy, and in particular featuring a specific space pirate who gets in a bit over his head with much nastier bad guys. It’s a fairy exciting story, especially as the action picks up in the second half. This time no aliens, but plenty of more complicated and interesting human characters.

And now Arkad’s World, which in fact reads to me a bit more like a first novel, so I’m guessing – and this is purely a guess and could easily be wrong – that Cambias might actually have written it before the other two. Heaven knows books are frequently published out of the order in which an author wrote them. It’s just about as different from the other two as they are different from each other. In this one, we get an alien world on which half a dozen different species mingle, relatively peacefully. Most of them are just trying to get by – they’re ordinary people, by alien standards, not heroes or villains or whatever. There’s just one human kid on this world, and of course we find out something about how he got there and the backstory during the course of the novel. The backstory includes the conquest of Earth, and this story starts with three people coming to Arkad’s world to find the ship that originally brought his parents there, for various reasons that make perfect sense in context.

So that’s the set-up. Arkad, three newly-arrived humans, and a bunch of aliens of various species. My favorite worldbuilding element, no question about it, is the Itooti language, in which there is always an adjective in front of every single noun. Here, for example, is a brief section of a conversation between Arkad and his friend Tiatatoo. I’m leaving out everything but the dialogue.

“Lonely Tiatatoo suggests gentle Arkad come view the adorable babies.”

“Curious Arkad wonders if the healthy babies have personal names.”

“Sensible Tatoota has not given the feeble new babies individual names yet. When the strong children learn to fly, proud Tatoota will give them impressive names.”

“Anxious Arkad hopes affectionate Tiatatoo doesn’t hurt his tiny brother.”

“The vigorous little male will seduce many adoring females if the annoying infant survives.”

This is a wonderful language, and as you may gather just from this snippet, the Itooti don’t have instincts that are all that similar to human instincts. In particular, males are pretty hostile to each other – Arkad is genuinely concerned that his friend might injure his infant male brother. Writing aliens who are alien is something that Cambias did extremely well in A Darkling Sea, so it’s not at all surprising we find great aliens all over the place in Arkad’s World.

The story itself is extremely simple: Arkad and his new friends go on a quest to find that ship. There you go, that’s the story. They do, of course, encounter one or two complications along the way. And the three humans who’ve come to this world are not necessarily what they seem, although an astute reader . . . or in fact even a reader who is not very astute at all . . . will probably rapidly come to three important conclusions: Jacob is in fact exactly what he seems. Baichi is not entirely human. And Ree is a traitor.

I thought about not mentioning that last point on the grounds that it could constitute a spoiler, for a sufficiently non-astute reader. I went back and forth on the issue and finally decided that the reader just cannot miss this EXTREMELY OBVIOUS fact, so, what the heck, I could put it in. And I wanted to mention it, because it is BY FAR this story’s greatest failing. I don’t want to encourage any of you to read this book and then let this flaw smack you in the face as though I somehow didn’t notice it was going to.

From the exact moment Ree’s personal backstory is described, it’s just screamingly obvious that’s she’s a plant. Many further hints follow, if the word “hints” can be used to stand in for “major cluebats.”

Now, it’s completely fine that Arkad doesn’t realize this at first because what does he know? He’s a kid who grew up on his own with no contact with his own species. Baichi, well, who knows, one would think she’d have twigged, but she’s kind of strange, so maybe not. But I cannot begin to describe how extraordinarily dense Jacob had to be not to realize it. There is no justification in the story for his failure here. Moreover, as the story goes on, Arkad seems almost to be in deliberate denial about this extremely important facet of Ree’s character. It’s just . . . words fail me. I’m trying, and failing, to come up with any plot point in any other book ever that is (a) this important, and (b) this obvious, and (c) realized by the protagonist so very, very late in the story, even though he is hammered over the head with it for much of the book.

There is also a very significant deus ex plot element, so given that I’m providing warnings, there you go, this is the second most important failing. It was not as omnipresent an element, so it didn’t bother me a bit.

Despite all this, and despite the death of a character I was really quite fond of, FINE, I liked the book anyway. I’d be happy to read a sequel. Though this story is self-contained, it could indeed take a sequel. Especially if Earth got liberated, because hey, that would be a nice thing to happen. Another alien species ought to be liberated too; I feel bad for them and liberating them would be a fine thing if it could be managed. Lots of room for improvement in this galaxy, to be honest. However, a specific element of the ending makes me feel like a sequel is not super likely to happen. Plus so far Cambias has stuck strictly to standalones, though of course that’s hardly conclusive.

Overall: The aliens are great. The world is fun. Arkad is a fine protagonist. If you decide to read this book, hopefully being prepared for the obvious inevitability of the Big Plot Twist of Ree’s treachery will help you brace yourself for that so you can enjoy this story’s strengths. If you’re into SF With Aliens, by all means, pick this one up.

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Brain architecture is weird

So, did you know this?

[Birds] also have very different brains than mammals: while mammals have a neocortex arranged in a characteristic pattern of layers, birds have a different unlayered structure called the pallium with neurons “organized into nuclei”.

Here’s what that actually looks like:

The green part is considered to be used primarily for higher cognitive functions, incidentally.

Isn’t that remarkable? I took a class in comparative animal physiology, but I don’t remember ever hearing anything about the striking differences in brain architecture between birds and mammals before. Maybe that was included, but it seems like the kind of thing I would have remembered, so I don’t think it was.

Here is a post about the architecture and function of parts of the avian brain.

Here is another post about avian brains and intelligence.

Birds have another exceptional capacity that helps them to have small but intelligent brains. They can generate new neurons when they need them and shed them when they are no longer necessary. … For example, in those parts of the world where breeding is governed by the seasons, song birds sing only during the breeding season, and they do so using parts of the brain (nuclei) that have grown larger by recruiting new neurons that have recently been generated in other parts of the brain. Once the breeding season is over, the number of cells in these song nuclei declines because some of the cells die when not needed. 

That’s pretty neat.

And of course the octopus brain is very different from both:

Here’s a post about the octopus brain.

This is so freaky:

The octopus brain is split into two halves and then into many lobes with particular functions. These lobes are folded, which increases the surface areas and connections. Some regions have very small neurons where large numbers can be packed into a small compartment. Also, the distance between them is very short, which increases processing speeds.

The Vertical Lobe (VL) is the seat of learning and memory and is organized like the human hippocampus with many sensory inputs at right angles to the small neurons that process the information. …

The brain is divided into three parts, each with a hierarchy. The central brain, surrounded by cartilage, has 50 million neurons and surrounds the gut. The vision brain (with 150 million neurons) and the eight arm brains (with a total of 300 million distributed neurons) are outside of the central nervous system.

Aliens among us!

I was thinking about this because of Scott Alexander’s recent posts about brains and complex thought and human perception of the moral worth of various animals. This series of posts begins here:

NEURONS AND INTELLIGENCE: A BIRDBRAINED PERSPECTIVE

Driven by the need to stay light enough to fly, birds have scaled down their neurons to a level unmatched by any other group. Elephants have about 7,000 neurons per mg of brain tissue. Humans have about 25,000. Birds have up to 200,000. That means a small crow can have the same number of neurons as a pretty big monkey.

Does this mean they are equally smart? There is no generalized animal IQ test, so nobody knows for sure. …

So does that mean that intelligence is just a function of neuron quantity? That the number of neurons in your brain, plugged into some function, can spit out your IQ?

It…comes pretty surprisingly close to meaning that. [Ellipse in the original.]

That is interesting, even though imo, AI people are not remotely near building anything that is at all intelligent, which is what the research Scott references is actually about. Stuff that fakes being intelligent, yes. Computers that are actually intelligent, no.

No, the reason it interests me is that it opens up so many different architectures by which we can get intelligence, and that is just fascinating.

If you would like to design an alien species that is small, but much more intelligent than seems reasonable for its size, no problem! If you care to do so, you can absolutely have a character comment about the very peculiar brain structures your alien species possesses. At the very least, if challenged by a reader, you can whip out your handy understanding of avian and octopus brain architecture.

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YA is not a genre

A very good post at Book Riot: Do Teens get Pushed out of YA When It’s Called a Genre?

Answer: Yes, they do.

I agree with almost everything in this post. That makes it hard to excerpt. But here:

YA, especially over the last decade, has been called a genre over and over. … YA, seen as a genre, is less about who it is intended for and more about the commonalities among books. YA books as a genre are fast-paced, intended for quick consumption, often come as a series, …and most importantly, feature a person who is “a young person” as a main character.

Yes.

YA classified as a genre also means that books which have no business being called YA are called so. To Kill A Mockingbird is one such culprit …

YES.

… teen literature emphasizes the teen aspect of the books and that they’re intended for teen readers. YA, on the other hand, is a genre that reaches any reader itching for a specific reading experience.

YES TO ALL THE ABOVE. Bold in the above is mine.

Also this very important point:

Moreover, teens are fresher to books than adults. This means that those predictable twisty books that are panned for being “too obvious” and those books which feature “overdone” tropes aren’t seen that way for teens, who are discovering these storytelling devices with eager, excited, and non-jaded eyes.  …

And thus more and more YA books are aimed at adults, not teens; because YA is treated as a genre for adults, not as a category for teens.

The problem is, in my opinion, not solvable at this point. I believe the best solution is not to try to reclaim YA for teen readers — which might be nice, but I think that is hopeless. Rather, I think it’s time to stop directing teens toward YA at the expense of “adult fiction.” I would like every single librarian, publisher, bookseller, teacher, and author to stop pretending — or worse, sincerely believing — that teens can’t identify with protagonists of different ages. I would like to just let YA become a genre that deals with young protagonists coming of age and completely quit worrying about the age of the readers, while directing teen readers toward whatever part of YA appeal to them AND ALSO the zillions of non-YA books out there that are just as likely to appeal to them, such as, I don’t know, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, to take one example almost at random.

At the moment, we have a ridiculous situation where, first, all kinds of books are considered YA when they definitely are not — not just To Kill A Mockingbird, but lots and lots of others.One that struck me recently is Thick as Thieves, which I just re-read. It’s considered YA because the “author writes YA,” even though the story itself does not meet ANY of the criteria expected for YA-treated-as-a-genre. Ditto with Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.

And second, at exactly the same time that YA is pulled away from teen readers, we direct teens away from near-infinite numbers of “adult” novels that are not only approachable but really ideal for teen readers.

For the foreseeable future, I expect both trends to continue. I expect teens to continue to be directed toward YA as though that’s the only category suitable for teen readers, and I expect YA to continue moving away from the kinds of stories that appeal to teens toward the kinds that appeal to adults.

In the meantime … the whole Book Riot post is worth reading.

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Octavia Butler’s Patternist Series Coming to TV

From tor.com, this:

Deadline has announced that Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions is developing Wild Seed for Amazon Prime Video, with Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu to co-write the series.

Wild Seed is the first book in Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series, about two African immortals whose lives span ages. One is Doro, who kills and uses his abilities to breed people as livestock, the other is Anyanwu, a healer who demands that Doro come to terms with his cruelty.

I am torn. I love Wild Seed. I have read it many times. But I am one of the apparently rare-ish readers who hated Okorafor’s novella “Binti.” Though I did like Who Fears Death, so there’s that.

I would love to see Wild Seed done well. I think the single best thing the writers can possibly do is stay completely true to the original, including keeping as much of the original dialogue as possible. And the characters. And the plot. Just don’t mess with anything! It could be great!

Well, we’ll see. Crossing my fingers.

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The internet and OCD

I initially saw this article on The Passive Voice blog.

What It’s Like Using the Internet When You Have OCD

Morgan was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) 20 years ago. While a combination of medication and therapy has kept it mostly under control, she says, it still comes back occasionally in an incredibly frustrating manner.

“There have been flare-ups that have slowed me down because I had to type a sentence, erase it, and type it until it was ‘safe,’” she says.

What Morgan is experiencing is an emerging manifestation of OCD: When symptoms express not in the physical world (for example, when a patient repeatedly, and in a way that interferes with their life, checks their oven to ensure that it’s off), but on the internet instead.

This is interesting to me partly because everything about psychology is interesting, partly because seeing how OCD can manifest in the context of the internet and writing is interesting, and partly because I’m clearly one of the many people who occupies space in the penumbra of OCD.

I went through a brief period decades ago where I did indeed feel compelled to go back to my apartment and make sure the oven was turned off every single time I left the apartment. Soon enough I said to myself, “This is turning into a compulsion,” and I made myself stop. I never went back to check again, ever. Being able to stop is what I mean by “being in the penumbra of OCD.”

More recently, after people leaving gates open and dogs getting out twice in the past couple of years, I often check the gates several times a day to make sure they are closed. This urge to check the gates got much stronger after Honey was lost in St Louis that time. Even though I didn’t lose her personally — even though I got her back after 7 hours and she was fine — I still wound up very strongly sensitized to the whole idea of dogs getting lost. I don’t always give way to the urge to check both gates twice or three times a day, but I feel it. If it gets to be a problem, I’ll eventually padlock both gates and then I bet I will be able to make myself stop checking.

It is not at all unusual to be in the penumbra of a serious condition. Reading Peter Kramer’s books has made it clear to me that a lot of people experience something that is somewhere near the edge of, but not nearly as extreme as, a real disorder. Sometimes I wonder whether that’s more commonly the case than otherwise.

This phenomenon of OCD manifesting as various problems using the internet is interesting. Like this:

Saxena says he has patients who have trouble sending emails at all, concerned that they might write something offensive or use foul language, even though such modes of communication are totally out of character for that person. These “checking behaviors,” he says, “can sometimes take hours and hours and hours out of a day. 

Fascinating. This one is hard for me to wrap my mind around, even though I know that obsessive thoughts about hurting people — especially your own children — is rather a common manifestation of OCD and this fear of writing inappropriate things in emails sounds somewhat similar.

This all makes me think of the only SFF novel I know of where obsessive / compulsive disorder is very important to plots or characters: Xenocide by Orson Scott Card. In that one, as you may all recall, many of the people on the planet Path were deliberately engineered to be intelligent (to make them useful) and also to have OCD (to make them easier to control). This is still the novel that I think does the best job of showing the reader the experience of OCD.

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