Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Fascinating post from Scott Alexander: Why and how using your brain will get you killed

This is actually a (very) extended book review. I hardly have to say it’s lengthy: this is Scott Alexander we’re talking about. He writes basically the longest posts on the entire internet. So if you click through, be aware, you aren’t going to read the whole post in two minutes.

The book in question is:

The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, by Joseph Henrich. I’ll add that after reading (part of) Scott’s review, I’ve ordered the book. In paper. I don’t like stuff like this on Kindle, where it’ll probably get shuffled toward the back of the pile of electrons and I’ll forget it’s there. I want this on the coffee table, where I’ll pick it up and dip into it whenever I’m in the mood.

Here is where I stopped reading the post and just bought the book:

Rationalists always wonder: how come people aren’t more rational? How come you can prove a thousand times, using Facts and Logic, that something is stupid, and yet people will still keep doing it?

Henrich hints at an answer: for basically all of history, using reason would get you killed.

A reasonable person would have figured out there was no way for oracle-bones to accurately predict the future. They would have abandoned divination, failed at hunting, and maybe died of starvation.

A reasonable person would have asked why everyone was wasting so much time preparing manioc. When told “Because that’s how we’ve always done it”, they would have been unsatisfied with that answer. They would have done some experiments, and found that a simpler process of boiling it worked just as well. They would have saved lots of time, maybe converted all their friends to the new and easier method. Twenty years later, they would have gotten sick and died, in a way so causally distant from their decision to change manioc processing methods that nobody would ever have been able to link the two together.

Henrich discusses pregnancy taboos in Fiji; pregnant women are banned from eating sharks. Sure enough, these sharks contain chemicals that can cause birth defects. The women didn’t really know why they weren’t eating the sharks, but when anthropologists demanded a reason, they eventually decided it was because their babies would be born with shark skin rather than human skin. As explanations go, this leaves a lot to be desired. How come you can still eat other fish? Aren’t you worried your kids will have scales? Doesn’t the slightest familiarity with biology prove this mechanism is garbage? But if some smart independent-minded iconoclastic Fijian girl figured any of this out, she would break the taboo and her child would have birth defects.

I must say, I think this smart, independent-minded, iconoclastic girl is obviously a YA protagonist. Except that in YA literature, the protagonist is always right if she breaks away from tradition, whereas in the real world, apparently she may very well discover she was wrong, and now her babies have birth defects. Oops.

Anyway, it’s a very interesting review with commentary, and I’m pretty sure the book is going to turn out to be even more fascinating when I read it myself.

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Is quality important?

A post by James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: Should you write dreck?

The gist of [a recent post by Joe Konrath] is that it may be pointless for today’s writer of indie fiction to spend too much time trying to improve the quality of his writing … He goes on to say that readers of an author will stick with that author even if subsequent books in a series are not as good as the first few.

Bell then adds,

To be clear, Konrath’s post does not actually advocate its title. He does not think you can write pure dreck and get away with it. He says he couldn’t live with producing a work that’s “less than a grade C … But I could live with Bs. I was fine with getting Bs in school. Why put in all that extra work to turn a B into an A when I won’t lose readers for a B?”

This is interesting. My personal knee-jerk reaction is revulsion as an author and strong disagreement as a reader.

There is a short but definite list of authors whose work I used to read quite avidly, but stopped because imo the quality of their writing fell off over time, sometimes dramatically. Laurell K Hamilton comes immediately to mind, but I could add four or five more names.

There is a longer list of authors whose first book or series was great, but a second book or series was worse than mediocre. I’m quite hesitant to follow those authors to a third book or series and frankly I’m having trouble imagining that many readers don’t care if the quality falls off. I say this even though I personally do know someone who apparently can’t tell, or doesn’t care, whether the book she’s reading is good or terrible.

Here is Konrath’s post. A reasonable snippet:

I am 100% convinced that I could have self-pubbed my original novels with minor changes and made the same amount of money as I’ve currently made on those books. The reviews would be justifiably bad, but it would have benefited my career because I’d have new six books out instead of three, and the three new JD books I would have written would have sold more copies, and the three old Phin books I didn’t rewrite would still make a few bucks and my fans would forgive me.

What does this mean for writers?

Do we write books that are good enough and then move along, or do we hold onto those books until we can make them better? If all signs point to readers being forgiving and sticking with authors, shouldn’t we be listening?

I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to test my hypothesis.

SHOT GIRL took three months. Lots of research, lots of planning, a good deal of polishing.

CHASER is my next Jack Daniels book.

I’m going to start writing it on July 1 and see how quickly I can finish, and I’m not going to follow my normal routine of taking a month to make it better. I’ll get it proofed and get that sucker out there and see how it compares in sales and reviews to my other books.

I’ve got no objection to hypotheses and experimentation, but here’s the experiment that I think is relevant:

Write one great book. Follow it with a less great book in the same series. Then with four more, still in the same series, that you just zip off at top speed without any particular effort. THEN look at the numbers.

I do think readers will forgive an author for a dud in the middle of a series — Tekla did not stop me from reading the Taltos series — but I cannot believe many readers will still be with you by the fourth book of the above series. Or for your next book that’s in a different series, either.

But I guess I could be wrong.

I don’t think you commenters here are a random sample, but weigh in. How many so-so books would it take before you gave up on an author and stopped looking at their books?

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Weird news from astronomy

A couple random headlines caught my eye this morning:

Milky Way is “in the top percentile of all the galaxies that exist”

By size alone, it’s “in the top percentile of all the galaxies that exist,” says Joss Bland-Hawthorn, an astronomer at the University of Sydney who helped compile the galaxy’s vital statistics for a 2016 article in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics. He puts the Milky Way’s mass at a hefty 1.0 trillion to 1.6 trillion times that of the sun, outweighing the vast majority of its peers by a factor of 10 to more than a million and greatly outshining them as well.

Who knew? Certainly not me. Much, much more about types of galaxies and the detection of “ultra-faint dwarf galaxies” at the link.

I’m enjoying the phrase “ultra-faint dwarf galaxies.”

Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, this:

Mass anomaly detected under the moon’s largest crater

“Imagine taking a pile of metal five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii and burying it underground. That’s roughly how much unexpected mass we detected,” said lead author Peter B. James

Really? That’s pretty big. I wonder what would happen if a chunk of metal that big happened to hit the Earth tomorrow. The one that zapped the dinosaurs was, what, about fifty miles in diameter? This one was about an order of magnitude bigger.

And it hit the little Moon. Wow. Must have been quite an event.

Unless it didn’t. An alternate hypothesis for the mass is offered at the link.

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Heavy horses

Here’s a post by Judith Tarr at tor.com about the big guys.

Modern legend would have it that he’s the descendant of the medieval destrier, but that celebrated war machine was probably more like the modern Andalusian or the Lipizzan (the latter with its substantial bone and strong build) or, though the breed itself came along quite late, the Friesian. What we know now as the draft horse is a product of selective breeding over the last handful of centuries, including breeding for size. The really, really big guys are a modern phenomenon.

I always figure that when the apocalypse comes, horses will hang on. They’re too useful not to. Riding and lighter driving horses for faster-than-human transport over distance, and heavy horses to work the land. They’re two sides of the same important and historically valuable coin.

This is all well and good, but I primarily linked to it as an excuse to post the following picture, which is of a Friesian cross rather than one of the really, really big guys:

I have a poster of this horse — his name is Mystic Warrior, but he’s called Domino — anyway, I have a poster that shows him in a beautiful floating trot. Even though he is a horse and not a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, I look at that poster every time I go down that hall, as a reminder of what a REALLY GREAT trot looks like.

Also, as you can see, he’s just a spectacularly beautiful horse. You really couldn’t put him in a novel, except cast as a semidivine horse like Shadowfax. He’s too unbelievable for fiction.

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Where to start with Robin Hobb

A post at tor.com: Assassins, Pirates, or Dragons: Where to Start With the Work of Robin Hobb

This is one I can’t really weigh in on, because I haven’t read all that much by Hobb . . . oh, wait, yes I kind of can, because I have strong opinions anyway. Here are the series —

The Farseer trilogy, which I haven’t read, but which starts with Assassin’s Apprentice and includes four books; the Soldier Son trilogy, which starts with Shamen’s Crossing and which I haven’t read because it sounds grim grim grim and I don’t think I’ll ever be in the mood for that much grim; the Tawny Man Trilogy, which I haven’t read, which starts with Fool’s Errand.

And then the series I actually have read:

The Liveship Trader’s trilogy, which I liked, I guess …

Book Cover: Ship Of Magic

The Dragon quadrilogy, which I liked quite a bit …

Book Cover: The Dragon Keeper

And The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, which starts with Fool’s Assassin; I read most of that one before giving up on it …

Book Cover: FOOL'S ASSASSIN

Plus this one, which I also haven’t read but which has an interesting horse on the cover:

Book Cover: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince

Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, and granted that I’ve read just three of the series, the correct place to start is with the dragons.

Pluses of the dragon quadrilogy:

Most of the characters who are supposed to be intelligent and competent, are in fact at least reasonably intelligent and competent. Most of the point-of-view characters with whom we spend a lot of time are pretty decent sorts and some are really engaging. Plus, there are dragons.

Minuses: It’s a pretty slow-paced series and the dragons are not necessarily cast in the Special Telepathic Friend category of dragons. (This is also a plus, really.)

Pluses of the Liveship series:

It’s extremely well written and often engaging.

Minuses: Many (all?) of the characters who are supposed to be intelligent and competent ARE CRIPPLINGLY IMMATURE AND TOTALLY IDIOTIC. This is hard to get past.

Pluses of Fitz and the Fool:

I know, I know, it’s not fair to start here without having read the Assassin series and the Tawny man series. I will say, in fact, that the post at tor.com specifically says that Fool’s Assassin is not the place to start.

But as far as I’m concerned, there aren’t any pluses for Fool’s Assassin. The main protagonist is portrayed as both incredibly incompetent and incredibly stupid. In the opening scene, he showcases the former trait, as all sorts of people crash a party at his house, some of them assassins and some of them targets, and he completely fails to deal effectively with anything. In the later part of the book, when his post-menopausal wife is pregnant for two years and then bears a very tiny child, he is incapable of connecting the obvious dots and concluding that maybe his daughter is not supposed to be entirely normal.

Also, my goodness, the pace is simply glacial. I may like a slow-paced story, but there are limits and this novel goes waaaaaaay past them. It didn’t help that I was listening to it rather than reading it. I got within just a few chapters of the end and just could not bring myself to care how it ended.

Chime in, please! I haven’t really had the nerve to try anything else by Hobb since bouncing SO HARD off Fool’s Assassin. If you’ve read some that I haven’t, thumbs up or thumbs down? If you’ve read the intro series before Fool’s Assassin, did that background serve to make Fool’s Assassin more tolerable, as indicated by the tor.com post?

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I expect this is accurate, alas

From Jon Konrath: Your Book Marketing Plan Won’t Work

SOCIAL MEDIA

The catchall go-to for all authors. You have two Facebook pages, a personal one and a public one. You’re on Twitter. You’re on Instagram and Tumblr and Pinterest and Flickr and Reddit and 4chan and 8chan and Kboards and Goodreads and Blogger and you are constantly posting new and interesting content because you’re smart enough to know that yelling “BUY MY BOOK!” doesn’t sell anything.

Guess what? Posting new and interesting content doesn’t sell anything either.

When was the last time you actually bought anything because someone liked it on Facebook? Or retweeted a product link?

Your social media isn’t going to sell much for you. This blog gets millions of hits a year. You’re one of them.

How many books of mine have you bought? Can you name any? What’s the latest one?

Then, more usefully, this:

It is possible to improve your luck and sell a bit more than random chance.

While I’ve poo-pooed all of the above strategies, they aren’t all entirely bad. None are a magic bullet. None will guarantee sales. But if used cautiously, in moderation, you can give your sales an occasional boost.

Here are the things you need to do, in order of importance. …

Number one is: write a lot of books. Click through, if you like, to see what else Konrath recommends.

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Uber-competent ensembles

At tor.com: 5 super-competent SF ensembles we’d trust to get us through space.

And sure, the choices are okay so far as I know — I’ve read two of the five choices. (I KEEP meaning to read something by Max Gladstone, but still have not quite gotten to it.)

But I know a group I’d pit anybody against:

The characters in this series — Ezra Mason, Kady Grant, Hanna Donnelly, Nik Malikov, Ella Malikova, Asha Grant, Rhys Lindstrome — are definitely uber-competent. They aren’t actually believable, as such. They’re too uber for that. Too many hotshot hackers and natural tactical geniuses and whatnot.

That is what makes me happy to pit them against anybody on that tor.com list. Pretty sure these kids would come out on top against ANYBODY.

Also, though this trilogy is completely (even insanely) over the top, it’s also completely fun to read. But don’t get it as an ebook or worse, an audiobook. Paper is almost certainly the superior way to go for the wild graphics embedded through the novels.

…. and now I’m feeling like getting these off my shelf and starting to re-read them from the top.

Anybody else got an uber-competent team they’d like to bet on?

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Good letter, bad letters, and terrible vowels

Here is a fascinating article written by Darcey Steinke, who used to stutter and later became a writer:

It was around this time that I started separating the alphabet into good letters, V as well as M, and bad letters, S, F and T, plus the terrible vowel sounds, open and mysterious and nearly impossible to wrangle. Each letter had a degree of difficulty that changed depending upon its position in the sentence. Much later when I read that Nabokov as a child assigned colors to letters, it made sense to me that the hard G looked like “vulcanized rubber” and the R, “a sooty rag being ripped.” My beloved V, in the Nabokovian system, was a jewel-like “rose quartz.”

That is a wonderful paragraph.

Incidentally, this author has recorded her own audiobook. I think that’s pretty awesome.

The central irony of my life remains that my stutter, which at times caused so much suffering, is also responsible for my obsession with language. Without it I would not have been driven to write, to create rhythmic sentences easier to speak and to read. A fascination with words thrust me into a vocation that has kept me aflame with a desire to communicate. As a little girl, I hoped my stutter would let me into the secret world of animals. As an adult, given a kind listener, I am privy to something just as elusive: a direct pathway to the human heart.

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Publishing scams

Here’s a (long) interesting post by Anne R Allen: The #1 Mistake New Self-Publishers Make That Leaves Them Vulnerable to Publishing Scams

This week I realized that almost all the victims of publishing scams have one thing in common: they don’t understand the most important part of the digital self-publishing revolution that started in 2009.

This is the thing you MUST understand in order to be a successful indie author:

Successful self-publishers make most of their money selling ebooks.

This interested me because I wasn’t aware anyone thought otherwise. Evidently Anne Allen routinely encounters people who want to pursue self-publishing but think the important thing is distribution to physical bookstores. This seems startling.

Anyway, Allen then goes on to note various types of publishing scams: Author Solutions and so on, the scams that try to sell you marketing packages involving signings and book fairs and things like that.

This one was certainly new to me:

A number of authors approached by ReadersMagnet say they’ve been offered something quite different: the chance to be interviewed on what is apparently a fairly high profile radio show.  I’d never heard of it, but I mostly listen to NPR. Apparently this show is real. … the fee for this service is $699.

Wow.

Anyway, interesting post, with incidentally many potentially useful links.

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What would English look like if it used German grammar?

This was a question asked on Quora. Sombody named Ivan Andreev wrote the most fantastic answer, which I will now share with you here.

Have you geheard, we should to the German Grammar overswitch? That have i already yesterday gemade. The German Grammar could, itself tofirst, strange sound, but you will perhaps discover that it not so difficult is. It is yes only a Matter of Wordorder… wait but. Have i “geheard” gesaid? I estimate once, that there also other Factors be could.

Firstens, the Verbs. The Present Perfect in English is not the same as the Perfekt Timeform on German. On German, corresponds she to the Simple Past on English, in the last Years becomes but also increasingly employed in order all past Forms to indicate. The perfective Aspect, on German, is with the Gerundform geformed. So, now say we Things so like “gefound” and “geshopped” and “atgelooked”.

Wait, “atgelooked”? Right. Whereas on the old Language, we Things “looked at”, now we Things “atlook”. This is a separable Verb, so the Gerundmarker becomes in the Word insidegeinserted.

Secondens, the Nouns. Each has a grammatical Gender, and it must with the Pronouns match in anaphoric Situations (in this Answer, i want it to avoid, new Morphemes to withupcome, or from the Old English to borrow: so it’s called the Phrase, not þēos Phrase, is but still toreferred as she).

If one with the Goal operates, new Words not towardstoadd, and the existing Inflections to reuse (“in the last Years”, not “in the lasts Years”, because the adjectival Plural unmarked in English is), then are we already more or less there. Some Littlehoods remain: Questionwordorder, Compoundnouns, certain Verbconjugationdetails and a few more, but in the Principle should you on Denglish communicate can. Much Luck!

I knew nothing about German except you capitalize the nouns. Now I know a little more! If you’re on Quora already, you may want to follow this guy. I sure did, because that answer is not just informative and fun, it’s just plain cleverly written.

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