Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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You know what’s changed?

The “Books” page on this very website, that’s what.

Having totally failed to bludgeon WordPress into doing what it was told — I mean, tell it to put a picture on the left and it would drop it in just anywhere, a phenomenon which indeed is occurring again in this actual blog post, but for one post I don’t care enough to figure out how to fix it.

Anyway, Felice at Orbit got WordPress to sit up and beg when SHE held up a cookie.

So the “Books” page now looks much better! With buy links and everything! I specifically asked Felice to make sure all the books are shown in strict reverse chronological order, most recent on top. All taken care of!

I did want to show the German editions and the audiobook editions and everything all on the one page, but it got awfully cluttered, so we agreed to let people click through on the Griffin Mage books to see the specialized editions.

Also, I found out that all three books of the trilogy are out in German — though Books Two and Three only in Kindle. Still, very cool. I like their covers:

Herr Der Winde


Land des Feuers

Gesetz der Erde

Are those pretty or what? I kind of like that they are totally different from the Orbit covers. I think I also like the sort of almost-but-not-quite abstract quality of the griffins and backgrounds and everything.

Pity I don’t read German. I mean, just barely enough to figure out which cover goes to which book. Obviously if you happen to be learning German and want books to practice with, these would be a great choice!

Now, just waiting for HOUSE OF SHADOWS to actually join the rest out in the world . . . right now it just sits on top of the “Books” page like kind of a tease.

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Recent reading

So, just finished Deb Coates’ debut novel, WIDE OPEN. I’d put a picture of the cover here if I could figure out how to open two windows at once on this new laptop, which is a ridiculous problem, I know! Because obviously there must be a perfectly simple way to do this. I will call the place I got it and ask them one of these days. In the meantime, google WIDE OPEN because that’s a pretty nice and quite unusual cover, you should take look at it.

Now, Deb and I have the same agent, and I’ve met Deb a couple of times, and hey! She’s a dog person! She actually owns a GERMAN PINSCHER. You know nobody just stumbles into owning a German Pinscher. You have to be a real dog person to even know they exist. She also has a Rottweiler, btw, so naturally I told her she ought to get a black-and-tan Min Pin, too, just to complete the set.

Anyway, naturally I wanted to love her book!

Whew! Because I did. WIDE OPEN’s being marketed as an urban fantasy — well, contemporary, because it sure isn’t urban — or a paranormal, and of course that’s no surprise because paranormal is so hot hot hot right now, but this one really isn’t very paranormal-ish. The romance is not central enough and it’s not woman-with-psychic-powers-meets-super-hottie anyway. Instead, the main character, Hallie, is recently bereaved (her sister has just died), grieving, angry, and pretty well hair-triggered — I liked her very much. And the romantic lead? He gets called “The Boy Deputy” by everyone in town because he’s so baby-faced. (Hilarious!)

And my favorite secondary character? Hallie’s father. Talk about the strong silent type, emphasis on the silent. I mean, here’s a line I just loved:

. . . while women organized the kitchen or the laundry or feed for the horses and men walked across the fields, looking for her father so they could lean against fences and never say a word.

Isn’t that great? I love the relationship between Hallie and her dad — I really look forward to seeing that subtle relationship develop in the next book (this one’s self contained but there will be at least two more).

And the setting! I’m SUCH a sucker for setting! South Dakota! Who sets a book in Big Sky country? I mean, other than westerns, and they’re not contemporary. LOVED the setting. Deb caught it just so well, it’s a real You Are There setting. Excellent dialogue, too, which I really admire. Deb really captured the clumsy stumbling dialogue that really happens in charged, intense situations. Like here, where Hallie calls a dead man’s fiancee to tell her about his death, and the fiancee says:

“He was the only guy I ever dated,” she said. “Because I’m not — No one ever — I’m not pretty,” she stated flatly. “It was a blind date that first time. My cousin fixed us up. And it was so embarrassing and kind of awful, but he was sweet about it, you know? I didn’t thnk he’d call, but he did — the next day even. And I liked him. I — he was the best guy. But I never knew, I couldn’t ask him, because why? Why would he go out with me? I don’t understand.”

I just loved that scene. It’s not an important scene, but it works really really well. And that’s typical.

So the identity of the bad guy is obvious and the bad guy himself is pretty ho-hum, for me anyway, but it’s the rest of the story which makes this book.

So I wouldn’t recommend this one to my mother, because one cuss word and she’s done with a book, you have no idea, but if that doesn’t bother you the way it does her, then hey! Ghosts, South Dakota, excellent characters, great dialogue, good solid writing — if that sounds like you, you might keep an eye out for this one.

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Advice

No, no, not MY advice to YOU, because I’m not convinced that’s helpful. At least not writing advice. Always happy to offer advice about cakes (of course you should make one tonight!) or dogs (No, of course you should not leap casually into breeding your Yorkie — do you KNOW what kinds of things can go wrong? I would be happy to tell you, at great length.)

But, what I mean is, there sure is a lot of writing advice out there. Like here, for example, a post about whether you should follow “the rules” when writing. It’s a good post, nothing wrong with it, don’t get me wrong. I agree with it, mostly.

But advice. There’s so much of it out there. Seems like every time you turn around, somebody’s explaining how to give your characters more depth or increase your sales or whatever.

Well, it’s nice to understand where a rule comes from and what it’s for and what happens when you bend it or break it or turn it upside down. But I’m not sure there’s a single rule out there that’s, like, really a RULE that you HAVE to follow in order to succeed. And I think that’s true at the craft level (Never Use Adverbs) or at the artistic level (Never Have More Than One POV Character Per Chapter). AND at the get-it-written level (Write Every Single Day). I don’t follow any of those rules, personally, even though I try not to use too may adverbs and a don’t USUALLY have more than POV character per chapter. And when I’m trying to meet a deadline, I do write every day. Well, mostly.

Now, the post I cited? The autor says: When it comes to craft, I believe that there is at least one hard-and-fast rule that ought to be followed by everyone; newbies and crusty, experienced types alike:

“Omit needless words.” Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed., p. 23

I cannot say it any better. All of your words should matter. Cut filler, as this only distances your reader from the meat of your story.

Aaand . . . I’m all for rules, in moderation, but you know what? I don’t think I agree that this one is any more universal than a “limit your adverbs” rule. But then, I am not the world’s biggest fan of Strunk and White. Really. Ever happened across the post “Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”? Because I checked, and the author of that one — google it, okay? — is right: Strunk and White don’t seem able to tell the difference between the past tense and the passive voice, and this does not lead to confidence about the rest of their prescriptions and proscriptions.

But the author of the post I linked above also says this about craft: “There are also many rules that, in my opinion, are best followed by those seeking to learn the craft. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard new authors object to a critique with something along the lines of, “Frank Herbert shifts point-of-view multiple times on one page in Dune, so it can so be done!” Well, yes, it can, but not necessarily by you. Not yet. The problem is this: many writers who respond this way weren’t even aware they were shifting point-of-view, let alone doing it for specific effect and in a way important to their story.”

And I think that’s a great way to think about rules and who should break ’em. You get to do it if you know what you’re doing and why and if you can make it work. If you can’t tell whether it works, well, that’s why you need good, critical, analytical readers.

But I think that’s true not just for rules about the craft of writing,, but for all rules about writing. If it works for you to write seventy pages of a manuscript and then set it aside and not even touch a keyboard for the next two months . . . well, it’s not that I disagree with the butt-in-chair rule, but on the other hand, I’ve done exactly that. Once at a convention I was the only person in the room who didn’t raise her hand when asked “Do you write every day?” Because I don’t.

Just thought I’d mention that in case you also don’t and you were wondering if you were breaking a law of nature.

So: advice! Do you find it helpful, or do you think that by the time you’re ready to write a good book, you’ll be doing it by feel, not by thinking about rules? And can writing advice, no matter how good, actually get you to that point?

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And Cake! / Blog

New great books to read! Plus cake!

FAIR GAME finally arrived. Yay! It only took SIX DAYS instead of two, but hey, I don’t expect that will happen very often, and Amazon did give me a $5 coupon, so I can’t complain.

Anyway, of course I enjoyed it — I always enjoy Patricia Briggs’ werewolf books. The bad guy was more than a tad obvious, but it’s not like I was reading it for the mystery, right? And Charles’ problem seemed a little too easily resolved. But I liked Anna’s attitude when she was in trouble at the end. Good for her, not being a victim.

I have to say, if I’d been on that jury, I’d have hung it till Kingdom Come before I let that guy off for torturing and raping and murdering dozens of people. Are you kidding me? So I’m not sure I believe in the jury verdict, although of course Briggs needed to do it that wa if she wanted to do the next bit, which, whoa, that ending certainly throws a HUGE spanner in the gears. Wow.

Okay! On to the cake!

It was Dad’s birthday a few days ago, and this chocolate-peanut-butter cake is what I made. I combined a couple of recipes and then fiddled around a bit to make this one. Dad says that as he’s gotten older, he’s stopped liking really intense chocolate, so I deliberately toned the chocolate down, using a little less cocoa than indicated for the cake and semisweet instead of bittersweet for the icing. And he loves peanut butter. This cake came out REALLY good, with a great moist crumb and just the right amount of peanut buter. I admit that whenever I happened to stroll through Mom’s kitchen, I would sneak another little tiny slice.

There really aren’t any eggs in this cake, so don’t think I left ’em out accidentally. The vegetable oil provides the moisture and fat and the baking soda give it lift. This cake is from Bon Appetit Jan 2009, except for the peanut butter cups, which are my addition. (Why, yes, I have hundreds of interesting magazine recipes indexed so I can find ones I’m interested in when I want to. Why do you ask?) (This one is filed under Fancy Cakes, of course.)

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Cake

3 C all purpose flour
2 C sugar
2/3 C cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 C water
2/3 C veg oil
2 Tbsp cider vinegar
2 tsp vanilla
8 oz peanut butter cups, all but five or so chopped.

This is a super easy cake, really a one-bowl cake. Combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Combine the water, oil, vinegar and vanilla and whisk into flour mixture, whisking until smooth. Pour most of the batter into two 9″ cake pans that you have lined with circles of parchment paper. Sprinkle the chopped peanut butter cups over and then spoon the rest of the batter over the candy. Bake at 350 degrees for 24-28 minutes, until a tester comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool 10 minutes and turn out cakes onto racks. Cool completely. Obviously it’s fine if the surface of the cakes aren’t smooth because of the peanut butter cups — which mine weren’t — because you’re going to frost the cake anyway.

Now, I made the frosting based on a totally different recipe, and then fiddled with that, thus:

Chocolate Peanut Butter Frosting

8 oz semisweet chocolate — the recipe said milk chocolate, but come on, are you kidding?
4 oz cream cheese — I added this to help thicken the frosting
1 C cream — without the cream cheese, to me, the frosting seemed too thin.
2/3 C peanut butter — the recipe specified 1/2 C but I put in more than that.
1 C powdered sugar — the recipe didn’t call for any additional sugar, but Dad likes sweeter frosting.

Put all frosting ingredients in a microwavable bowl and microwave, stirring frequently, until everything is melted enough that you can whisk until it’s smooth. I found it necessary to chill the frosting for half an hour or an hour before frosting the cake — sorry, I didn’t time the chilling.

Frost the cake. There! All done! Except go get those few reserved peanut butter cups, cut them in halves or quarters, and use them to decorate the cake. Birthday candles optional.

This made a bit more frosting than necessary. Either slather it on or, hey, just eat the extra with a spoon. It’s quite good and not too sweet despite the extra sugar. Mmm.

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Spring has thoroughly sprung!

Which is fitting, because, after all, it IS spring break. I plan to write 50+ pp of something but I’m not prepared to talk about that yet. I did get 10 pp done today. (That’s 3400 words if you think in words.) It wasn’t even hard. I mean, I spend a lot of time still just sitting in the puppy room keeping an eye on Kenya, so hey! Might as well get some work done, right?

I did get the peas planted today, though. Also beets and daikon radishes. (Mom kept an eye on Kenya for me.) Tomorrow, more seeds! Not sure what till I shuffle through the packets and see what I have set out for this spring.

Also, I did take time to walk around the arboretum. (I mean my personal arboretum, here, not an official one — it’s a fenced acre-and-a-half where I try to keep design principles in mind as I plant stuff. Trees and shrubs and tough flowers that are not likely to be bothered by dogs crashing through them. Or not too bothered. So, here’s what I found in bloom today: The black pussy willow (brand new, just knee high, but very promising). The star magnolia, saucer magnolia, magnolia ‘Ann’, and the loebneri magnolia — yay for magnolias, and no frost likely before they’re done! Yet to come, I have a Magnolia sieboldii and a Yulan magnolia and a big (well, big compared to the others) southern magnolia. Plus I ordered Magnolia ‘Butterfly’ for this spring. You can probably tell I have a thing for magnolias.

Also the apricots and J. plums in the orchard are flowering like mad, plus the daffodils, crocuses, and vinca minor. I’m sure forsythia is blooming, but I don’t have any. But I do have Cornus mas, and that is blooming. Little bitty plants, so not much of a show yet.

Also! Now that I’m less nervous about the puppy (though of course things can go wrong even yet!), but time to think about names. Show names and call names. It’s my G litter, so G names. I was talking to a friend about poor Kenya’s disaster and the one puppy we got, and she proposed Anara Give Me A Break, which is funny and perfectly suitable for a show name. I’m also thinking of:

Golden Rule
Grace Note
Guilder Rose
Ganache (I’ve been baking)
Gaiety
Gloryflower
Gilliflower
Gingersnap

Or even a human name! Not, however, anything you would probably name your daughter today. Something like:

Gwenhwyfar (though that’s kind of tragic with all the King Arthur connotations), or
Gwenaelle (which means ‘blessed’ or ‘generous’)

Or something with a fantasy tone, like Galadriel.

No idea what I’ll actually call the puppy. I’m not too keen on Gay or Gwennie or Goldie (ick!) or even Grace or Gil. Just have to think about it.

Tomorrow — ten more pages! Plus WHEN is Patricia Briggs’ new book going to arrive? It should have been here DAYS ago. I’m peeved: what the heck is Amazon Prime for if it’s going to take five days (or more) for a book to arrive? Next internet stop, Amazon, so I can complain.

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Puppy update and historical novels

First! I retired the feeding tube and threw the rest of the formula away FOUR DAYS AGO. Yay! The puppy is absolutely thriving. She’s gaining an ounce a day – and think about that for a moment: when a six ounce puppy gains an ounce in 24 hours,her weight has gone up by a whopping 16%. Wow.

Anyway, a healthy puppy is supposed to double its weight in 7 to 10 days, and Little Puppy G has done exactly that. She was 4.25 oz at the time of the section and today, seven days later, she is 8.5 oz. She is now the proper size for a newborn puppy, only fatter. There should be a picture up on my other website (www.anaracavaliers.com) in the next day or so if you’re curious. Also, just in case you have a burning desire to know this, puppies are basically out of danger when they reach three weeks (Or I expect three weeks and five days for my preemie), though since I’m not sure this one got sufficient colostrum, in her case I won’t be really happy till she’s had her first vaccination. I usually name them and register them they’re four weeks old.

Now! I love really good historical novels, which are just like fantasies, only, you know, without the magic. And my favorite historical writer is Gillian Bradshaw. Anybody want to weigh in with a really good historical author?

Bradshaw mostly sets her books in the classical era. My favorites are A BEACON AT ALEXANDRIA, THE SAND RECKONER, and CLEOPATRA’S HEIR, but I love nearly all her books, except if she’s the one who wrote that Arthurian trilogy early on in her career, I didn’t like that, but hey, can’t hold an early trilogy against a great author forever. The thing about Bradshaw is that she softens the attitudes of her main characters enough to make them sympathetic to modern sensibilities while still managing to hold onto the flavor of a substantially more brutal era. (I didn’t make that up; my brother-the-history-expert pointed it out.) Great characterization, good plots, great writing, and the occasional scene that sends shivers down your spine. I’m thinking here of a climactic scene in CLEOPATRA’S HEIR.

Anyway, just read IMPERIAL PURPLE, and although it didn’t unseat one any of the ones in my top three, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Also! I have finally managed to get some work of my own done, too. This is wholly due to Kenya settling down a bit and her puppy becoming more robust. Should be possible to really get ahead on some project or other over spring break, which technically starts next week although of course I stayed home all last week with the puppy. The weather’s too beautiful to stay in with a laptop, except that I’m stuck in here to keep an eye on the puppy anyway, so that’s useful even if I’m dying to grab a couple of dogs and hit the hiking trails. Hopefully I will be able to post a tidbit from this particular WIP in the next week or so.

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Recent reading . . . and puppy update

So, first! Glad to say that I haven’t tube-fed the puppy for twenty-four hours and in that time she gained 3/4 oz all by her own efforts! Whew! I wouldn’t want to say that I’m now confident she’ll make it, because that would be quite the overstatement. But I will say, if nothing else goes wrong, she should make it. Technically she is now at term, because born one day early is considered full term. She does look better. And she is almost as big as Adora’s puppies were when they were born. I won’t provide a list of the things that could still go wrong, though, because a) it is a long list and would make for tedious typing and b) not very cheerful to dwell on anyway, right?

Now! Actually I have been doing a little writing, in fits and starts, when Kenya and the puppy are settled. Still straightening out the beginning of the Ottoman-ish adult fantasy. Thought I’d be done with that part by now, but hey, distraction and sleeplessness kind of interfere with writing. Not nearly as much as being distraught because of a dying puppy, though, so don’t think I’m complaining!

I’ve also been reading, naturally. Somebody was recently telling me large chunks of her life story — you know what I mean — and of course depending on the person that can be a horrifically dull kind of conversation. Not this time! It’s a story filled with major ups and serious whoa-that’s-awful downs and — most important — meaning, which is so often what life stories lack, right? I made a note to lend her one of my favorite books from last year, THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, by Jandy Nelson. I went so far as to get it off the shelf and bring it upstairs so I won’t forget. Then, of course, I read it again myself. It’s still amazing. But it also made me think about writing style and sort of connected back to the idea of purple prose. Because strained metaphors and stupid similes are sometimes considered to be another hallmark of purple prose, right?

I mean, SHATTER ME, by Tahereh Mafi, had quite a bit of buzz built up, and then I read a review of it by The Book Smugglers (just google it, okay? Remember, major bandwith issues when I post from home) and just decided right there not to read it. And one of things that most bothered Thea and Ana about SHATTER ME was the use of similes and metaphors that didn’t make sense. Like “I catch the rose petals as they fall from my cheeks, as they float around the frame of my body, as they cover me in something that feels like the absence of courage.” and “Hundreds of thousands of seconds pass and I can’t stop dying.”

And that was interesting, that those phrases struck The Book Smugglers as wrong and awkward and ridiculous rather than as, say, poetic. Because it was Ana’s extremely positive review of THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE that made me get that book even though I virtually never read contemporary YA, and there are plenty of metaphors and similes in that book, and they are wonderful. So then yesterday when I was re-reading THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, I found myself really noticing the incredibly apt similes and metaphors that add so much to this book. Like:

My voice sounds creaky, unused, like bats might fly out of my mouth.

Grief is a house where the chairs have forgotten how to hold us, the mirrors how to reflect us, the walls how to contain us. Grief is a house that disappears every time someone knocks on the door or rings the bell.

When I’m with him, there’s someone with me in my house of grief, someone who knows its architecture as I do.

Dusk splatters pink and orange across the sky, beginning its languorous summer stroll. I hear the river through the trees, sounding like possibility.

I can’t shove the dark out of my way.

I look into his sorrowless eyes and a door in my heart blows open. And when we kiss, I see that on the other side of that door is sky.

Nothing has been like this, nothing has made me feel like I do right now walking up the hill to Joe’s, like I have a window in my chest where sunlight is pouring in.

When Joe plays his horn I fall out of my chair and onto my knees. When he plays all the flowers swap colors and years and decades and centuries of rain pour back into the sky.

Our tongues have fallen madly in love and gotten married and moved to Paris.

Now, some of those are from actual poetry, because the protagonist scatters poetry all through the book. Which is not just an affectation, btw, because those scattered bits of poetry wind up being really important to the plot. But the thing is, every one of those similes and metaphors exactly fits the story and the moment. They are an integral part of the voice of the protagonist. Which is a fabulous voice, because this is a virtually flawless book.

So what makes the similes and metaphors work for THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE and not (remembering that I haven’t read it and am not personally judging its use of language) SHATTER ME?

And I think that connects with the purple prose thing: if you do it well, it sounds like poetry; if you do it wrong, it sounds ridiculous.

And I think what makes it work is aptness. I think you need to have readers notice your simile not because of the poetry in it — or not just because of the poetry in it — but because it is perfectly apt. You want readers to say: “I would never in a million years have put it like that but THAT IS SO PERFECT, that is exactly what it’s really like.”

And that is exactly my response as a reader to THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE.

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Sadness! Hope! Major lack of sleep!

Okay, Kenya was due to have puppies this coming Thursday, right? And I know the exact due date because, along with all the other enormously expensive things I did to ensure a decent litter of top-quality puppies — I would be scared to calculate what proportion of my actual income gets spent on the dogs — I ALSO did an LH test as well as progesterone tests to make sure I would in fact know.

Instead, she had an emergency c-section this past Saturday. You will notice that that is five days early — six if you count the Saturday. The gestation period for a dog is nine weeks, so you can see that five or six days early is VERY early. Usually puppies that premature do not survive. There was one survivor at the time of the section, a nicely marked girl puppy. Happily, she does not look quite as premature as expected given how early she was. She weighed 4.25 oz at birth and has been gaining a little and then losing a little ever since, so she is now 4.375 oz. Maybe she’ll keep going up. Maybe she’ll make it. And, of course, maybe not. Kenya’s milk has come in, I would say finally except actually having the milk come in this fast when the section was that early isn’t bad at all. So maybe the baby will start gaining better now. It would be nice if I could stop tube-feeding her every two hours around the clock. She’d be much more likely to thrive if she proved strong enough to nurse adeaquately on her own, especially since her mother’s milk is just much better than any formula, and why is it that we don’t seem capable of developing REALLY good milk substitutes, anyway?

I’d add a picture, only do you know how slow the connection is from my house? Slow enough that I have to try a dozen times or so to pull up the wordpress login page — if I can get on at all. It took (literally!) an hour this afternoon to sign in. So if this puppy lives, I’ll add a picture or two later, but right now pictures are just out of the question. In the meantime, just take my word for it that she is very small and looks more like a little hamster than a puppy.

So! What with the feeding every two hours and the constant hovering to make sure the baby doesn’t get chilled and that Kenya doesn’t step on her, it’s not much use trying to do anything actually creative. However! This also means spring break just started a week early for me. So the odds that writing will occur is VERY high as I get more and more bored. Unless I get more and more stressed instead, but I will optimistically hope that the puppy starts to thrive and that I start to trust Kenya to take care of her. Then I will definitely be bored rather than stressed, which would be GREAT.

In the meantime, I’m rereading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife quadrilogy. I’ve read it several times and it’s just one of those comfortable series that I can enjoy with part of my mind while really thinking about other things, so it’s perfect for days like these.

Okay! Posting will be light what with the connectivity issues, but hopefully the next post will sound more cheerful!

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Purplish Hues

The OED declares that purple prose is writing that is “too elaborate or ornate.” But how ornate is too ornate?

Wikipedia says that purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Yet I definitely notice Patricia McKillip’s beautiful sentences; I might very well say her prose draws attention to itself. But, I mean, in a good way! So if you notice ornate prose but enjoy it, does that mean the prose is not purple or does it mean that you have terrible taste because look at you, admiring all that purple?

The wikipedia entry goes on to say that purple prose is “evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.” So then, I do agree that if you can spot a writer’s attempts to manipulate you, that is definitely a flaw whether the prose is ornate or not. For example, I think ALL of Steven King’s recent books suffer from this problem: the character you meet early on who is PARTICULARLY likable is ALWAYS going to die. In fact, I have pretty much stopped reading Steven King because the SUPER OBVIOUS manipulative thing is so annoying.

Did you know there is a site called Novel Writing Help? I have to say that I have my doubts about whether anybody is going to learn to write novels from a website, or indeed from any teacher, but this bit was interesting:

“. . . their [beginners’] prose is horribly overwritten — they use too many adjectives and adverbs, they say something in a paragraph they could have said in a sentence, they describe the setting too much and way too fancifully.”

Which instantly raises the question: how many adjectives and adverbs are too many? When are you describing the setting “too much” or “too fancifully”? I mean, we are not all going for stripped-down bare-bones simplicity in our writing, are we? Would anybody actually find this advice helpful?

It seems to me that if you’re using formal, elevated language and a poetic style and doing a fair bit of description, and if you do it well, then you are probably writing high fantasy. If you do it badly, then you’re writing purple prose.

How can you tell which?

Well, there’s a post on this subject from back in 2009, by Scott Bailey at a site called The Literary Lab. I really like this post! The examples are great! I ESPECIALLY love the re-written “Hills Like White Elephants” example. HERE is a really good example of “too many adjectives and adverbs”! AND “describing the setting too much”!

And even though Bailey is offering advice to beginners, such as:

“Sometimes writers, especially new writers, feel that in order to write in a writerly or serious or studious manner, they must put on their Prose Stylist hats and churn out pages of paragraphs that are as fancy as possible. Every phrase must paint a 1,000-word picture for the reader, and plain language must be chased off the page. Because, they feel, good writing is elaborate. This is a mistaken idea.”

somehow the tone of his advice does not come seem condescending, which is a nice trick.

And the examples he uses are just way more helpful than saying DON’T USE ADVERBS which is too often the advice that’s actually given.

Besides, I remember vividly hearing this advice while I was writing my first novel: DON’T USE ADVERBS. And you know what I did? I went and took a Patricia McKillip novel off my shelf and looked to see whether she used adverbs. Then I quit worrying about adverbs because hey, if she could do it, I could do it. (I actually do use fewer now, but way way more than the NO ADVERB crowd advises.)

Also from the comments of that post, which are worth reading through:

“Some writers (Proust, James, Dickens, Byatt, Wolfe, Tolstoy) create thick prose, with lots of layers of meaning and complex sentences. But every word counts; every word means something important and the cumulative weight of that dense prose is beautiful. Other writers simply lard on all sorts of extraneous junk in an attempt (usually quite innocent) to look like serious writers, and because that’s not their own writerly voice, it comes across as clumsy
and just not good.”

Which seems right to me: it’s not that you can’t do ornate, but that it looks fake if you’re, you know, faking it.

And also hitting that exact notion, one more link! I really got a kick out of this one, by Dave King.

Dave King there is also talking about how maybe you’ve gone purple if you’re describing things the pov protagonist wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t describe or wouldn’t care about, which is another interesting take on the problem with purple.

King also hits the idea that you can’t fake a formal style and trying to write like Tolkien when you’re not Tolkien may lead you into trouble, which gets back to my personal view, which as I said is that if you are doing ornate well, you’re writing high fantasy, and if you’re doing it badly, you’re writing purple prose.

Who does ornate very very very well?

Obviously, Patricia McKillip, right? Who else?

Here are some I’d choose:

Sharon Shinn (sometimes), e.g. THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE
Guy Gavriel Kay
Juliet Marillier

By an amazing coincidence, all of the above are favorite authors of mine! Also, here’s one you might not have heard of: Dahlov Ipcar’s A DARK HORN BLOWING.

Here’s the first paragraph of the second chapter of Ipcar’s book:

“When I stepped into the shallow water and into the black boat, it seemed that my husband, my baby, my home, and all I had left but a moment before had fallen so far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the black boat and my whole world faded away. High on the curved prow the carved dragon’s head turned and flickered its tongue at me. The small man put down his dark horn, and the long boat slid out into the current and glided
silently into the darkness with never a breath of wind or a sail or an oar to move her. She slipped through the black water that was so still it scarcely rippled at the boat’s passing.”

Notice that nearly every noun has an adjective? Does it bother you? My answer: no. It sounds just fine. It sounds, in fact, dreamy and evocative. In a good way. The repetition (“I stepped into”) and the simple phrases and the dreamy images (the dragon’s head turning, the boat gliding forward), the use of three-part lists (husband, baby, home; wind, sail, oar) — it all adds up to a beautiful style that may be noticeably poetic and flowery, but — I repeat myself here — in a good way. The casual reader may in fact NOT notice this style, noticing style may be more a writer’s thing. Anyway, I bet the reader isn’t going to stop and analyze this prose, but is going to be led by the style into the fairy-tale-like story that ensues.

And being led into the story is the whole point. If the prose style does THAT job, it’s probably not purple.

UPDATE: Elaine T. from the comments did a hilarious job reworking the Ipcar paragraph above! Here’s her version. Enjoy!

“When I timidly stepped into the shadow glimmering shallow water and into the ebon black boat, it seemed that my beloved husband, my dear baby, my comfortable home, and all I had left but a short moment before had fallen so terribly far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the jet black boat and my whole beloved world now faded away into shadow. . . ”

I especially like the “timidly”. That is exactly the sort of adverb that seems to me to clutter up purple prose. (Not that I have anything against the world “timidly” as such.)

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Whew!

Just finished the powerpoint presentation for the class I’m doing at the Master Gardener symposium on Saturday. This Saturday. Don’t think I’ve ever cut down to the wire on something like this before.

Seventy-six slides plus a separate handout because that’s too many slides to print out as a handout. The topic is Gardening To Stop Traffic. I hear they cut it off at 41, which is capacity for the classroom. (I know. Forty-one seems like a strange number to me, too.) Actually, very basic topics like “Composting” are extremely popular this year — I think the bad economy has given lots of people a shove toward growing their own produce. Which, when the August drought hits, they may view with less enthusiasm.

And, no, I definitely do not put a lecture on powerpoint slides and then read the slides to the audience. What a horrifically boring presentation that would be. I’d walk out on a presenter who did that. (I say that, but I’m probably too polite to actually do that. Probably.)

The slides are for pictures and brief notes to help me remember what I meant to say. My favorite combo? At least in MO, dogwoods, regular old-fashioned Vanhoutte spirea, Narcissus ‘Actaea’, and Cerastium, which all bloom along with pink peonies and late pink tulips. If you’ve got quite a few dogwoods in one area and then a whole swoosh of spirea, it’s like this massive blizzard with pink accents. Just breathtaking. It’s really hard to take good pictures, though, with a small camera like mine.

Okay! Now that the gardening thing is done and under control, BACK to writing! But maybe not tonight. It’s eight and I don’t think I’m in the mood (I was in the mood this morning, drat it, and of course it didn’t last till I had time). Since I’m not on a deadline, no need to force it — tomorrow will do.

Even if all I end up doing tonight is playing this keen mahjong game that turns out to be on this new laptop, which is entirely possible.

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