Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Okay! More or less the last Chicon post, probably, plus Recent Reading because it’s relevant

Which will make for a long post, but hey.

First let me just say that I was happy with the way the Hugos went. I only voted for the print categories because I didn’t know enough about the other categories, but next year maybe I’ll take more time and listen to all the podcasts, even. E Lily Yu was very charming as she accepted the Hugo for Best New Writer, and judging by her speech, Betsy Wollheim really deserved Best Editor Long Form. Evidently her writers really pushed for her to win, always a good sign! Best Short Story was The Paper Menagerie, which I voted for; Best Novelette was Six Months Three Days, which I TOTALLY voted for; Best Novella was The Man Who Bridged the Mist, which I LOVED and definitely need to read again, plus I really must look up Kij Johnson’s other work. Best Novel was AMONG OTHERS, which was my second choice and certainly not a surprise.

Arguing about and voting for the Hugos was a suprisingly fun thing and I think maybe next year I will buy a voting membership, even though I doubt very much that I’ll go.

Working backwards chronologically:

Here’s an idea for a moderator! If I ever moderate a panel, I’ll keep this technique in mind: Louise Marley (THE BRAHMS DECEPTION etc) noted down every panelist’s info and introduced everyone in order, thus getting the job done efficiently and subtly establishing her control of the panel. Clever! I am not so much into music as all that, but apparently her first career was in music. I’m thinking of picking up one of her books, though I didn’t before the con. Other panelists besides me on “Write What You Don’t Know” were Lynda Williams, Howard Andrew Jones, and Jack Skillingstead.

Now, MY opinion is that the minimal amount of research you can do to ground your story is: read other people’s novels. I mean, if you want to write a book set in an alternate China? How about UNDER HEAVEN by Kay, BRIDGE OF BIRDS by Hughart, etc. That’ll give you the flavor of the setting without a ton of research, right?

Of course, Marley writes these historical fantasies! And Howard Jones’ first book is set in an alternate Baghdad that is supposed to be very closely based on The Arabian Nights. So it won’t suprise you to know that they both do a TON more research than that, to the point of Jones’ learning Arabic, though he says he’s slow to learn it, but wow.

Both of them really emphasize going back to primary sources, not so much to get details of architecture etc (although that, too), but to get patterns of speech and things like that, which no secondary source will give you. That sounds like a great idea but I don’t plan EVER to write a book where I need to do that much work! Much less learn Arabic!

Jones’ book DESERT OF SOULS is one I just read, though, since I knew he would be on this panel. It’s quite good. We had this fun discussion afterward about his two main characters and my brother commented, “So it’s like pairing Sherlock Holms with Archie Goodwin, then,” which made everyone laugh because it was really very apt. I’m looking forward to the sequel because obviously the girl CANNOT have married the guy she was promised to, don’t tell ME that actually happened. So although mostly self-contained, important elements did not get tied up in the first book.

Now, Jack Skellingstead and Lynda Williams are a little more like me, except they both write SF rather than F. But they also both totally do casual handwaving to make their science fit the needs of their stories, so they talked about that, about how to put in a little real science or (more important) make fake science sound plausible, or sound cool enough no one cares whether it’s real or not.

I haven’t read anything by Skellingstead because most of it’s been short and I read almost no short stories. He does have a novel out, but I’m afraid I didn’t read that either. I did read the first book of Lynda Williams’ HUGE Okal Rel saga, which apparently has quite the fan base and other people writing stories in it. Really that’s a good series to go look at if you want to study a series that inspires a cult following.

The first book is THE COURTESAN PRINCE, as you may recall from an earlier post. It is not flawless, but it is one that draws you in. For me it was a slow starter, largely because the first protagonist we meet, Ann, is rather a twit. Impulsive, volatile, emotional, hormone-driven, maybe a bit dim, Ann is exactly the kind of person who makes me roll my eyes. But as the book went on, I have to say, I got kinda caught up in the story and wound up really involved in her plotline with Von more than the other main plotline.

Most interesting about the Okal Rel universe, and it is very interesting, is that the two main cultural branches are so very much a contrast. Williams apparently started building this culture when she was quite young and didn’t realize that she was really building TWO dystopias, not one violent culture with questionable attitudes (to put it lightly) toward killing and slavery plus one very very very nice culture where your own special virtual social worker will hover over you night and day to make sure you never do anything to hurt anybody else or yourself. Given a choice, I’d choose to live in . . . uh . . .

So the book is sort of interesting just for that, I mean just for considering what makes a dystopia and what makes a utopia. It would be REALLY interesting to poll the evidently huge Okal Rel fanbase and ask: Is the Reetian culture a dystopia or a utopia? With a forced-choice question so no one can pick “neither”. I would be fascinated to see what people thought and whether and how the response broke down geographically. Also I’d like to know how old fans were when they discovered the series; I’d be willing to bet that this is a series that grabs you harder if you’re younger when you read the first book.

Which raises questions about YA vs adult, but hey, this post is going to be long enough, so maybe later.

The panel on Essential Worldbuilding was kind of repetitious for me because it was in some ways similar to Write What You Don’t Know. THere were some great writers on the panel: Jacqueline Carey, whom unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to tell her how much I love her books; Valerie Estelle Frankel, who mostly writes nonfiction which I haven’t read; Roberta Rogow, who writes alternate history mysteries; Jean Johnson, who wrote A SOLDIERS DUTY etc, which I haven’t read yet; and Martha Wells, who sat next to me, which was great because I DID get a chance to tell her how much I loved HER latest book, THE CLOUD ROADS.

Seriously, YOU MUST READ THE CLOUD ROADS. It’s a wonderful book! With a great world! That is exactly the sort of world I would create! Which is not surprising because Martha Wells and I turn out to have been separated at birth. The panel went like this: Jacqueline Carey: I do all this research; Jean Jackson: I do this huge story bible and work everything out about the world; Rogow: Of course I have to work things out in detail first because I’m writing mysteries; me: I totally don’t do any of that; Wells: Me, either. [We look at each other: They do what? Really?]

Constantly during the panel, Carey (the moderator) would ask a question about worldbuilding and Jean Johnson would want to go into great detail about how she works out every single element of every kind that could possibly be relevant, and Martha Wells and I would look at each other: Really?

I was all like: If you are spending all your time on worldbuilding, you need to cut it out and move forward with writing. And Martha Wells was all like: Yeah, that. Or vice versa, I don’t remember who said what exactly, but seriously, I’m sure that’s why Wells’ book feels so much like one of mine, because neither of us feels the slightest need to figure everything out and explain it all to the reader, we just throw in details and move on with no explanations of why there’s a city sitting in the mountains on a huge turning wheel or who built it there. It’s just there, move on. We’ll figure out the why part only if explaining that is necessary to the story.

Mind you, Wells’ protagonist can fly. Her character isn’t human, I don’t think anybody in her world is really human (they act human enough the reader’s involvement with the characters isn’t challenged, but the details of body language and stuff are different). I mean, take a look at this:

This is the protagonist, Moon. Wouldn’t you love to be one of his people for a bit? Wings! So cool! Great story, great plot, great characters, great writing, go grab a copy. The second book is out now but I may not read it yet because the third doesn’t come out till December.

And Essential Worldbuilding? Do it however works for you. What works for me is: take a real culture, strip away most of the physical details, keep the societal attitutes, and presto: a culture with depth and consistency. Plus I would add, the details of daily life matter and need to be consistent with the environment surrounding your society. Is it a really cold land? Because in that case you may want to have your people eating barley or buckwheat rather than wheat. Details like that. And Martha Wells does what I would do for a nonhuman species: takes the mannerisms of a real species and spins them around a little and give them to her people. Poof! Nonhuman body language that feels real.

What does not work for me, or for Wells: if you are buiding a world, that’s a hobby and it can be fun, but every hour you spend drawing detailed maps of the other continent and working out what was happening is an hour you are not moving forward with your book. I’d say: pick one, worldbuilding or writing, and be aware there’s only so many hours in the day.

Okay! One more and I’ll be done: Designing Fantasy Animals. That was Howard Taylor, Daio (artist, unicorns), Barbara Galler-Smith, and Jean Johnson. And me. Nobody else had my level of expertise in the subject, but everybody on the panel turned out to have a reason to know and care about correctness in fantasy animals. Daio has horses, Galler-Smith emphasized animal behavior in college, stuff like that. We all agreed that wrong details drive us crazy, especially if the animal is being presented as accurate but is actually totally wrong. And we all agreed that an alien species or a fantasy nonhuman sentient shouldn’t speak and think just like a human. Actually, a lot of agreement all the way around on this topic.

A great way to build an alien species that feels right and consistent? Take a real species and base the behavior of yours on that. I don’t mean the details; I mean the deep instincts and broad patterns. Like if you want a species where females are dominant to males? Read about spotted hyena behavior, about marmosets and tamarins, about dwarf mongooses, about coatis, about bonobos. You’ve just about hit all the mammal species where females are in fact dominant to males. Pick one and base your species on that. It wouldn’t hurt to think about what ecological and behavioral factors lead to female dominance and make sure that’s consistent with your species. Like in marmosets: females have got to have priority for food resources because otherwise they won’t get enough food to lactate adequately. So a typical troop is one female who has twins, two or three males who carry the babies for her and give her priority access to food, and that’s it.

Or in spotted hyenas, the males are quite likely to attack and eat cubs if they get the chance, so females keep the males away from the dens; also the cubs dig the dens so the farther back in the tunnels you go, the smaller they get, so that only the smallest cubs can fit into them, which means the males can’t. Plus other stuff is going on, it’s a fascinating species.

Or in bonobos, females act as though they’re related even when they’re not and form alliances, and males don’t, which is why females can gang up on males and beat them up and wind up dominant. It’s completely the other way around in common chimps, where males form alliances and females don’t — if you’re a girl, you totally want to be a bonobo.

I handed out a reference list with lots of well-written popular books about lots of social animals. I’ll post that if anybody’s interested? Obviously it’s a totally fascinating subject, right?

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You call that a masquerade?

There were only 27 entries and two didn’t show up. That was a surprise. The masquerade at the much smaller Archon in St Louis last year was the first I’ve ever gone to, and I guess there must be an unusually big costuming group in St L, because there were probably twice as many entries there, and a lot more at higher levels than novice. This masquerade here was kind of a disappointment. Though some of the costumes were excellent. My brother’s friend Mike had a fantastic camera, so when I get home, I’ll ask him to send me a couple and then post them here. My personal favorite was this ice-queen-like Lady in the Lake costume in the master category . . . never mind, I’ll wait till I have pictures.

Saturday was overall a much calmer day for me. Lots of time where there wasn’t a panel that really interested me, so I spent a lot of time in the dealer’s room and (I’m sure this will amaze you) bought a lot of books. Steven Brust’s latest is out, TIASSA. I really enjoyed the one that came out last year, whichever that was — the one with the lawyer and legal system entanglements. And I got the second Abigail Adams mystery by Barbara “Hamilton”, which I’d been thinking of for a while but kept forgetting to actually get. And Dan Wells has a new one out! I didn’t realize. THE HOLLOW CITY. The protagonist is a shizophrenic? If anybody can pull this off, it’ll be Wells. And I picked up some used books. I’ll have to unpack them later and see what all is in the pile.

Oh, and I’ll be picking up a few of those unique non-book items you sometimes find at cons, too. I’ve already grabbed a calendar for next year, one of the ones by Daio, tiger unicorns and stuff like this:

Snow leopard, for example

Staying with my brother gives me this possibly dangerous feeling that of course I can spend money, look how much I’m saving by not staying at the hotel.

I really will have stuff to say about my panels later! Because they were all interesting and they all went well and they were all blessed by having good moderators! And I will have to tie it in to my recent reading, because I have now met all kinds of people whose books I read in the last week or so, since I knew they’d be on one panel or another with me. So I will tell you about their books at the same time. One of those is definitely on my Top Ten list for 2012, no question, and then I and the author, Martha Wells, turn out to be, like, seperated at birth — we write in a very similar manner, it turns out.

Anyway, more about that later, probably tomorrow while I’m waiting for rush hour traffic to thin out before leaving. Right now, again, gotta get ready to zip back downtown.

Oh! Newsflash! Downtown Chicago has polluted air! My eyes keep tearing whenever I’m outside. I guess if I lived here I’d adjust? But I will be glad to be back in the country tomorrow evening.

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Looong days at Chicon!

And I don’t even like coffee!

I think Friday may turn out to be the best day for me; loads of panels that were interesting, my first real sweep through the dealer’s room — it may surprise you to know that I bought BOOKS. I know, right?

Actually, I carefully went through all the tables of dealers who carry new books rather than used, and since only Larry Smith had ample copies of MY books, I bought books from him. That seems fair, right? And signed the copies of mine that he had, of course. I got this new one by Dan Wells that I don’t remember the title of . . . just a second . . . here it is: THE HOLLOW CITY. I didn’t even read the inside flap, just bought it because for me Dan Wells is an insta-buy. After I bought it, I saw that the main character is a paranoid schizophrenic. Well, if anybody can handle that in a serious, sympathetic way, Wells can. I have his book PARTIALS on my TBR pile at home, too.

And I got the second book of Martha Wells’ in-progress trilogy THE SERPENT SEA. (I know, it looks like I’m on a kick to buy books by anybody named Wells.) THe first book, THE CLOUD ROADS, is fabulous, I just finished it a few days ago, I was going to comment on that in a different post. And I got the second of Barbara “Hamilton”s Abigail Adams murder mysteries because I was sort of thinking about getting it recently, but kept forgetting, and then there it was! So I picked it up. Later I saw a different dealer had TIASSA by Steven Brust out. I want that. I need to go see if Larry Smith has it.

There’s this one dealer who has these great vertical jigsaw puzzles of unicorns and griffins and carousel animals and dogs — the dogs are represented with amazing accuracy, you can tell the Portuguese Water Dog from the Poodle and the Akita from the Shiba Inu. I may go back and buy a griffin. I think that’s pretty likely. Unless I go for a dragon.

And I think I NEED some cloisonne bat earrings for October. Right? Of course.

First panel I went to on Friday was on plotting. Turned out to be interesting but not helpful, because ALL of the panelists do VERY DETAILED OUTLINES. I can’t even imagine. I do sketchy outlines and I do them when I’m halfway through the book and trying to figure out how to get to the end. And then I change those. No post-its scattered around, no corkboard hanging with notecards, no synopsis — do you know, someone said she writes the back cover copy first and then the synopsis and then the novel? She says it focuses the novel. Well, yes, if that were even imaginable I guess it would have that effect.

If I tried to create such a detailed outline? I think it would kill the book dead. Why write it if you already know everything?

And somebody said she writes the climax and conclusion first because she loves that part best. I was like, what, really? I mean, I love that part, too, but if I did it first, what would be the reward for slogging through the middle?

So, interesting to see how very differently people write, but I hope aspiring authors in the audience don’t take away the idea that everybody needs to have this vastly detailed outline.

Oh! One good suggestion after all, which in fact I do sometimes do: outline after the book is finished. You do that to think about flow, of course. That can be a good thing to do. And now that I think about it, I think someone suggested outlining your favorite books to see how their plots work. I think that could be a really interesting and helpful thing to do. I don’t know that I’ll ever do it, but really, that’s a neat idea. And one great little catchphrase that sticks in my head: “Frontload your cool.” Put the neatest stuff in right away so the reader can see and enjoy it, don’t hold it back as a great prize for getting to chapter 17. I thought that sounded right and it’s a great phrase. And then someone else said, “But don’t frontload your world,” which of course means don’t do all this infodumping of history and worldbuilding in some vast prologue, and WOW IS THAT TRUE DON’T DO THAT. That’s why people skip prologues!

Then I went to a panel on YA trends. It sort of degenerated into a panel on the IMPORTANCE OF DIVERSITY IN YA which I am sooooo bored with that whole topic, can we talk about something else for a while? But I was very pleased that someone did say that just throwing in The Gay Friend or The Black Friend to show how progressive and forward-thinking you are is not going to work, which is SO TRUE and extremely obvious when an author does it, which is one reason I’m tired of the whole topic.

And I went to this fabulous panel on designing a cover for your self-published book. I always forget how much I enjoy art panels. I took lots of notes because I’ll probably self-publish a book in the next few years just to see how it goes. Lots of good stuff about composition and contrast and making the title pop and how to make your book stand out even when all the potential buyer can see is the thumbnail on their phone or the spine on the shelf. Great panelists. Really great panel. Someone said green covers don’t work and I said What? and gave the panelists a copy of HOUSE OF SHADOWS and they thought it was a great example of how green covers CAN work, as long as the focal point is actually in a warm color, which of course the girl and peony are warm peaches and pinks, so that was fun to have them comment on my own book.

And I know I should be telling you who the panelists were and who said what, but I’d hardly heard of anybody and I was too far away to see name tags. Okay, looking it up in the program: the plotting one was Julia Mandala, Valerie Estelle Frankel, Diana Rowland, Betsy Dornbusch, and Melinda Snodgrass. All right, I have heard of Melinda Snodgrass.

The YA Trends panel was Bryce Moore, Aurora Celeste, Gwenda Bond, Leigh Bardugo, and Emily Jiang.

The cover design panel was Mark Ferrari, who was the moderator and a great panelist, Maurine Starkey, David Malki and Alan Beck. And two women were there, who aren’t listed and must have been added after the program was printed, but I don’t have the corrections sheet with me.

Okay! I had two panels, too, but MORE ABOUT ThEM LATER. It is time to go have breakfast so we can get back to the convention hotel well before my 9:00 panel starts. I HATE being late for things.

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Chicon 7

Everybody is emphasizing the “Chicon 7” name rather than saying “WorldCon Whatever.” In fact as you can see I have forgotten the WorldCon number. Did you know the first Chicon was in . . . wait for it . . . 1940? And that one of the guys who organized that first Chicon is actually here as a guest of honor? (Sorry, but I don’t remember his name and he doesn’t appear to be listed as a guest of honor in the program, though he was certainly treated as a guest of honor at the opening ceremonies). I started counting decades and gave up in disbelief. He looks very spry for a guy who has to be in his nineties. I told my brother I would say I hope to look that good at ninety, only this is an SF convention and actually I hope to look roughly like I just turned thirty when I’m ninety. Where’s that anti-aging medical miracle? Hello? I’m waiting . . .

Okay! The only panel I went to on Thursday was on researching and writing Alternate History and I went to it because a) It’s moderately interesting to me, b) it’s definitely interesting to my brother, Craig, c) my brother’s friend Ken Hite was on the panel. Craig and Ken and Mike Schiffer wrote a couple of alternate history gaming supplements, which are well worth reading just for the sidebars about the alternate histories, even though I have never been into gaming. Funniest comment: Ken said, “When you ask yourself, How would this be different if this guy was a vampire? And then you start researching what would have happened . . . halfway through you’re suddenly like, “My God, this guy WAS a vampire!” : ) Can’t you just see that happening?

Mary Robinette Kowal was also on that panel. She wrote SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, which I’ve sort of meant to look up for a long time. She said she had been reading epic fantasy, and then she was re-reading PERSUASION, and she thought: Is it possible to write an intimate family drama that is also fantasy? She said she hopes she isn’t giving away too many spoilers if she says that at the end of the book, PEOPLE GET MARRIED. She was a great panelist, so I went ahead and dropped that one on my wish list so I won’t forget about it. I mean, I love Jane Austin. It’s just tough for someone to write in-the-style-of because being compared to Jane Austin? Tough row to hoe. You know what else Kowal wrote? THIS, whichis hilarious. Also, just a reminder in case that name sorta-kinda rings a bell: She wrote “Kiss Me Twice”, one of the very good novellas that made that category such a challenge to vote for for the Hugo.

Also! Just mentioning: of course I’m sure a lot of us are foodies by inclination, but not by opportunity or budget. I mean, there aren’t any foodie restaurants within eighty miles of my house, and if there were, I couldn’t afford to eat at them very darn often. But of course Chicago is quite a foodie town and it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, so Craig and I and Mike and his wife Linda all went out to this place called Vermilion? Which advertises itself as “Indian-Latin fusion”? (Just try to imagine that, right?) We all ordered one or another of the tasting menus. Mine included:

Blue Corn Crusted Scallop with Calabasa Goat Cheese Puree
Kerala Shrimp Patty with (a VERY sharp) Cucumber
Duck Vindaloo on Arapa with Pomegranate Molassas
Mysore Lamb Chop with Minty Red Onions
Street Bombay Chaat with Mint Cilantro Water
Lobster Portuguese (this turned out to be in a very nice coconut-milk sauce) with Coconut Rice
Kadai Sweet Potatoes (with fenugreek and other spices)
Chimichurri New Your Strip Steak
Mango Flan
A pudding-cake type of thing with pistachios
A death-by-chocolate type of thing with strawberries

It was amazing and very Indian with a little Portuguese and stuff. The waiters were wonderful and explained every dish with great enthusiasm and whisked the dishes away and brought clean silver in a surprisingly unnoticable way. It was quite spicy, but not TOO spicy. The flavor combinations were so complex! Araene from THE FLOATING ISLANDS would have loved it even more than I did. But it would definitely not be for, say, my mother, who would have needed way milder flavors.

So, my first panel’s not till ten thirty this morning (Friday), but we’re going to try to get back to the convention hotel by nine. Stuff to do, places to go, huge huge huge dealer’s room to explore . . .

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Writing Dialogue —

So, you have two choices when you’re writing dialogue. No, wait, three.

a) You can write good dialogue.
b) You can write bad dialogue.

I bet that seems like it exhausts the possibilities, doesn’t it? But no, because

c) You can write dialogue incorrectly.

Starting with the most trivial case, one you don’t see all that often actually in print, unless maybe this kind of thing is more common in self-published books, which seems possible:

c) Incorrect dialogue.

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” She asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I see this in student narrative essays sometimes. Even if a student gets how and when to demote periods inside quote marks to commas, it’s less obvious that when you use a question mark inside quote marks, but followed by a dialogue tag, it is also demoted to comma status, sort of. ANYWAY, it doesn’t end the sentence. The dialogue tag ends the sentence, so that tidbit should go like this:

“You can’t really think that’s likely?” she asked. “I mean, considering what we know about his pet vampire pterodactyls?”

I trust you see the lower-case “she”, right?

Any book published by an ordinarily competent publisher should be free of this kind of error, which is why you can pick any book off your bookshelves to see how to punctuate dialogue correctly. But look at this:

“You don’t have to retire,” Von protested.
“I do,” Eva rejected the compliment. “And if Liege Monitum doesn’t make me an offer soon, I will have to retire here.” She smiled. “You would keep me?”

And also this:

She took his face in her hands. “Promise me that you will be here? Promise me that you will dance with me?”
“I don’t know, Eva,” Von squirmed. “Liege Monitum may not want that.”

Do you see what’s wrong with these tidbits? Eva rejected the compliment and Von squirmed cannot in any way be substituted for Eva said or Von said. They are complete actions, not dialogue tags, but they are being used as dialogue tags. This is wrong. This is incorrect dialogue. In both these cases, there should have been a period rather than a comma inside the quote marks.

Unlike the vampire pterodactyls, I didn’t make these tidbits of dialogue up. This is from THE COURTESAN PRINCE, by Lynda Williams, which I’m reading now. There are things I like about this book, and I think I will finish it (I don’t finish any book unless I really do like it), but I already know I won’t keep it. Dialogue errors is one of the main reasons. Even though there aren’t a lot of errors, I keep mentally rolling my eyes when I hit things like the above and this is not conducive to a smooth reading experience.

b) correct but bad dialogue, type one

I’m a big fan of adverbs, compared to anybody who thinks NEVER USE ADVERBS EVER EVER EVER THIS MEANS YOU is a rule to live by. I think adverbs are a perfectly respectable part of speech, thank you. But here is a bit of dialogue which shows why so many writers turn against adverbs:

“I know we can’t do anything right for you, Ann,” he said, “by definition. But there is something I want to be sure you know before you go.”
“Flying is bad for my health,” Ann said sarcastically.
“Of course, but I didn’t mean that.” He looked down into his big, gentle hands.

This is from the same book by Williams. Actually, this doesn’t bother me if you only see it now and then. But if characters are always saying things sarcastically or hastily or nervously or whatever, probably the author should go through and strip at least two thirds of those dialogue-tag adverbs out of the novel. Three quarters. Nine tenths, maybe.

You want to beware of adverbs in dialogue tags where the dialogue itself or the situation makes it plain that somebody’s sarcastic or hasty or nervous. If a car blows up, you don’t have to say it blew up suddenly. Because, hello? That is the nature of explosions? To be sudden?

Where the dialogue and/or situation don’t indicate how a line is spoken, though, you can reasonably have somebody say something gently or sharply or harshly or whatever will draw the right picture for the reader.

Also, when combined with another error, too much variety in dialogue tags, overuse of dialog-tag adverbs really stands out. On just one page of this book, we have characters who:

Pleaded
Asked
Said
Countered
Volunteered
Exclaimed
Demanded
Pointed out

And the only two invisible tags in this list are “asked” and “said”. Any one of the others would be fine, even any two, but because there are so many different words used as tags, they start to catch the eye. And once the reader notices that there are too many different words being used as substitutes for the invisible “said”, this sounds more and more ridiculous.

This particular book is actually not horrible in this respect. It’s actually not horrible at all, which is why I may go on and finish it. But I was thinking about dialogue and so relatively mild overuse of different tags kinda stood out.

b) grammatically correct but bad dialogue, type two

Boring dialogue is just as bad as overuse of creative tags. There are heaps of books with boring dialogue out there, but I don’t keep them, so it’s hard for me to come up with a good example. I’m talking about the kind of dialogue where every line is predictable, where every line serves to convey information but nothing about it surprises or engages or entertains the reader.

Sometimes this kind of dialogue is just used to dump info, where you aren’t having a conversation but a series of monologues, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can have what should be a quick, light conversation and yet every line said is boring and predictable and clichéd.

Info-dumpy or not, this is the kind of writing where you find yourself skimming ahead to see what happens, but you aren’t really engaged in the story or interested in the characters. I personally seem to see this a lot in contemporary mysteries when I’m trying to find a new author my mother will like, which is hard because the old-time mystery writers were SO GOOD stylistically (Rex Stout, Emma Lathen, Ngaio Marsh) that it’s hard for contemporary writers to compete.

Next! The fun part! Want to see brilliant dialogue? There’s so much great writing out there!

a) Fabulous non-use of dialogue tags by Lois McMaster Bujold.

If you’re looking for an example of how to minimize use of dialogue tags, you could hardly do better than Bujold. Just take any of her books off the shelf, flip it open randomly, and you get something like this:

Miles sank into his seat with a groan. “Some bodyguard you are,” he said to Elli. “Why didn’t you protect me from that interviewer?”

“She wasn’t trying to shoot you. Besides, I’d just got there. I couldn’t tell her what had been going on.”

“But you’re far more photogenic. It would have improved the image of the Dendarii Fleet.”

“Holovids make me tongue-tied. But you sounded calm enough.”

“I was trying to downplay it all. ‘Boys will be boys,’ chuckles Admiral Naismith, while in the background his troops burn down London . . .”

Elli grinned. “’Sides, they weren’t interested I me. I wasn’t the hero who’d dashed into a burning building – by the gods, when you came rolling out all on fire –”

“You saw that?” Miles was vaguely cheered. “Did it look good in the long shots? Maybe it’ll make up for Danio and his jolly crew, in the minds of our host city.”

“It looked properly terrifying.” She shuddered appreciation. “I’m surprised you’re not more badly burned.”

Miles twitched singed eyebrows and tucked his blistered left hand unobtrusively under his right arm. “It was nothing. Protective clothing. I’m glad not all our equipment design is faulty.”

“I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I’ve been shy of fire ever since . . .” her hand touched her face.

Okay, he says five lines and she says five. How many actual dialogue tags are in this passage? Not ten. We have “said” once to get the conversational ball rolling. After that, there are no dialogue tags at all. But we aren’t allowed to get lost in who-said-what? confusion, because every time we need a reminder about who’s speaking, we get a movement tag. Elli grinned. Miles was vaguely cheered. She shuddered appreciation. He twitched singed eyebrows. She touched her face. That’s four lines of dialogue with no tag at all and five with a movement tag, and zero confusion.

Plus! Notice the adverb “vaguely”? See how great that adverb is? “Vaguely cheered” is so not the same as “cheered” – we get a way better idea of Miles’ state of mind because of this adverb. And in the next line, Elli declares that the picture of Miles on fire was “properly” terrifying. Then Miles tucks his hand “unobtrusively” under his other arm. See how good writers aren’t the least bit shy of using adverbs? But mostly don’t in dialogue tags.

Nobody I know of does dialogue better than Bujold. The rest of us could only improve by studying her dialogue and trying to consciously apply techniques that I bet she just uses by feel. That was from BROTHERS IN ARMS, btw, but I expect you all recognized it?

a) Snappy, fun, unexpected dialogue by Dean Koontz

The reason I was actually thinking about dialogue is that I just finished the latest Odd Thomas book by Dean Koontz, and this made me go back and re-read all the other ones in the series.

There are five now, incidentally, and the latest one doesn’t resolve any of the big, HUGE questions that are raised by the fourth book, in case you wondered; it’s an interlude rather than any kind of resolution. Just a warning in case you rush out to get the fifth book because you expect a resolution: No. Doesn’t happen. I’m not persuaded Koontz actually knows where he’s going, actually. But the fifth book is still good, though.

Now, one of the reasons I like Koontz is that he is kinda horror-light, if you know what I mean. Things turn out happily in his books. The characters you become particularly attached to never get killed, whereas when the bad guys get eaten by mountain lions (or whatever), they are bad enough you can cheer their deaths. If there’s a dog? It won’t get killed, either. You can just absolutely trust all this, which I deeply appreciate because I really am not a hard-core horror fan.

But the Odd Thomas books are really good, a definite step up from most of his other books imho, and the wit of his protagonist is one big thing that contributes to this. (So is the moral character of the protagonist, but let’s stick to the subject, which is dialogue.)

Listen to this, from BROTHER ODD, the third book in the series. This is [part of] a conversation between Rodion Romanovich, who is supposed to be a librarian from Indianapolis but certainly isn’t, and the protagonist.

The kitchen offers stools here and there at counters, where you can have a cup of coffee or eat without being underfoot. I sought one of these – and came across Rodion Romanovich.

The bearish Russian was working at a long counter on which stood ten sheet cakes in long pans. He was icing them.

Next to him on the granite counter lay the volume about poison and famous poisoners in history. I noticed a bookmark inserted at about page fifty.

When he saw me, he glowered and indicated a stool near him.

Because I’m an amiable fellow and loath to insult anyone, I find it awkward to decline an invitation, even if it comes from a possibly homicidal Russian with too much curiosity about my reasons for being a guest of the abbey.

“How is your spiritual revitalization proceeding?” Romanovich asked.

“Slow but sure.”

[. . . . .]

With his attention devoted to the application of icing to the first of the ten cakes, he said, “I myself find that baking calms the mind and allows for contemplation.”

“So you made the cakes, not just the icing?”

“That is correct. This is my best recipe . . . orange-and-almond cake with dark chocolate frosting.”

“Sounds delicious. So to date, how many people have you killed with it?”

“I long ago lost count, Mr. Thomas. But they all died happy.”

[. . . . .]

Romanovich’s brow seemed to include a hydraulic mechanism that allowed it to beetle farther over his deep-set eyes when his mood darkened. “I am usually suspicious of people who are universally liked.”

“In addition to being an imposing figure,” I said, “you’re surprisingly solemn for a Hoosier.”

“I am a Russian by birth. We are sometimes a solemn people.”

“I keep forgetting your Russian background. You’ve lost so much of your accent, people might think you’re Jamaican.”

“You may be surprised that I have never been mistaken for one.” He finished frosting the first cake, slid it aside, and pulled another pan in front of him.

I said, “You do know what a Hoosier is, don’t you?”

“A Hoosier is a person who is a native of or an inhabitant of the state of Indiana.”

“I’ll bet the definition reads that way word for word in the dictionary.”

He said nothing. He just frosted.

“Since you’re a native Russian and not currently an inhabitant of Indiana, you’re not at the moment really a Hoosier.”

“I am an expatriate Hoosier, Mr. Thomas. When in time I return to Indianapolis, I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.”

“Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.”

“That is correct.”

The pickle had a nice crunch. I wondered if Romanovich had added a few drops of anything lethal to the brine in the pickle jar. Well, too late. I took another bite of the dill.

Okay, I hope everybody finds that as much fun as I do, but since I’ve read the whole book and know what’s really going on with Romanovich, and also remember all the great exchanges between him and Odd Thomas, I have advantages. Trust me, though, the interplay between these two characters adds such pizazz to this book!

You can also see that out of nineteen lines in which somebody speaks, there are only four real dialogue tags – three using a plain “said” and the other an equally plain and invisible “asked”; none using adverbs. There are also two movement tags. The other thirteen lines I’ve quoted don’t use tags at all, but it’s always crystal clear who’s speaking. Partly this because of grammatical conventions – ie, switching paragraphs between speakers – and partly it’s because the two characters’ voices are so utterly different.

Not only are the voices distinct and distinctive, but also very little in this exchange is predictable and boring. Anybody see that line about Jamaicans coming?

Personally, I loved the bit where Romanovich says “I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.” He’s a great character with a wonderful voice. Plus, hey, cake! Which I will just remove some of the suspense and assure you that the cakes are not poisoned.

Okay! That’s enough, I’m sure! Go forth and pay attention to dialogue! Me, I’m going to go re-read something by Lois McMaster Bujold now.

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So, this time next week? WorldCon!

Or should I call it Chicon? Frankly I find it confusing to have two different legitimate names for this convention.

Anyway! WorldCon is in Chicago which is SO CONVENIENT because it is a) within driving distance and b) my twin brother lives in Chicago and will be attending also, which will be great!

So, I’m on three panels:

1) Designing Fantasy Animals and Monsters — Friday at 10:30 AM. I asked to be on this panel because, and I know this doesn’t come across in my writing, but I have a master’s in animal behavior and evolutionary theory. So I will enjoy this panel very much! Plus I could easily just go gaze at my personal library and note down 20 or so books on the behavior of various animals that are both good and also intended for a general audience, so I hope panel attendees will find that helpful.

SO MANY BAD FANTASY WOLVES, I CAN’T STAND IT! I actually don’t mind a writer using symbolic wolves, but when an author thinks he or she knows what wolves are like (or wolf-dog hybrids) but actually doesn’t, it drives me batty.

In case you’re curious: wolf-dog hybrids usually don’t have nearly as much wolf in them as they’re advertised as having, but the more wolf a hybrid has in it, the more likely it is to be: extremely skittish and shy, extremely traumatized by being re-homed or subjected to a new environment; extremely difficult for strangers to handle; extremely difficult to train; extremely prey-driven; extremely dominance-driven; extremely unpredictable; and quite dangerous. All of these traits are likely to be worse if one of the parents was a German shepherd, which is NOT AT ALL LIKE A WOLF behaviorally. (An actual pure wolf is much more predictable and much safer to handle, but still very shy, very hard to re-home, very prey-driven, very dominance-driven, and very difficult to train.)

Now, how much does that sound like the wolf-dog hybrid in RA MacAvoy’s latest book DEATH AND RESURRECTION? Or the wolf-dog hybrid in SM Stirling’s DIES THE FIRE series? Why, not at all! Because people have absolutely no idea at all what real wolf-dog hybrids are like! Which I am used to, but detest.

Excellent wolves are shown in Kelly Armstrong’s werewolf books, btw. Several of my friends from grad school independently commented about how good her wolves are, how much like real wolves here werewolves are when they change shape. They’re such a pleasure to read about!

So, off that soapbox!

I’m also in a panel on Essential Worldbuilding at 7:30 PM on Friday night. I felt like I had something to say about this because I really do know pretty much what my worldbuilding influences were for my more recent books. Got some writers I really admire on that panel, too!

And the last one I’m on is a panel on Write What You Don’t Know — the panel description includes: “We’ll discuss how a little research and common sense can give you just enough background to really write what you don’t know.” I read that and thought: A little research, exactly! No need to spend a year reading everything ever written about China if you want to write a book set in China! So I have suggestions about what to do instead.

I did feel curious enough about the other panelists on my panels that I ordered several books by ’em. Don’t know if I’ll have time to read them real fast before WorldCon, but I’ll try. Some of them sound pretty good — I’ll let you know how they are when I read ’em.

I already know I love Jacqueline Carey’s books, though I haven’t read them all by any means. And I have read DESERT OF SOULS by Howard Andrew Jones, which is set in a fantasy Baghdad and which I quite liked. But I now also have DRUIDS by Barbara Galler-Smith; THE CLOUD ROADS by Martha Wells, about which I’ve heard excellent things; and THE COURTESAN PRINCE by Lynda Williams.

Plus there are other authors I know who will be there. If I get a chance, I want to swing by one of Sharon Shinn’s appearances and at least, you know, wave.

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Here’s a nice article —

About running a workshop on writing, a subject I’ve naturally been thinking about recently, because, as you may know, I get to participate in a workshop in a month or so at Archon.

Now, Amelia Beamer — who, btw, I hadn’t heard of but she has written a zombie novel called THE LOVING DEAD
“I tried hard to balance between encouraging them and giving them a bit of reality about the publishing industry and how much work goes into a writing career, so that they could make realistic goals about their writing and, hopefully, have a better chance of achieving their goals.”

And most of the feedback she got for the workshop was good, but I’m sure no one is surprised to find that one participant thought she was too negative about everybody’s chance for success. And I’m worried about that, too. Because in the abstract, it isn’t kind to let somebody think their work is just this close when it really really isn’t. But in practice, I sure don’t want to be the one to say This Really Isn’t Very Good, because, you know, ouch.

I have a pretty easy time telling a student, “No, you haven’t been doing your homework, because if you had done your homework, you would be able to do this problem. You may have been gazing at your homework and then getting the answer from the study guide, but that isn’t the same as doing your homework.”

But students aren’t, you know, emotionally invested in their homework, or even in their whole grade, the way a writer is invested in a book. So it’s a lot tougher to say, “No, you haven’t written a book, you have just put a lot of words in a row, but that isn’t the same thing.”

Besides, maybe I’d be, you know, completely, totally wrong. I have specific tastes in books — I like character-driven stories, for example, and in fact I generally really dislike stories that aren’t character driven, but plenty of people don’t share this strong preference and that is why there are non-character-driven books that are wildly successful and get nominated for the World Fantasy Award, say, and I’m all like, What is this? (I’m thinking of a particular novel that just left me utterly cold a few years ago.)

Plus then I think about other articles, such as for example this one by Rusch, where she says:

“Anything can be critiqued. Criticizing something is easy. It makes the critiquer feel smart, and just a little bit superior to the writer. But that kind of critique serves no real purpose, because that kind of critique is wrong from the moment the critiquer picks up the story or the manuscript . . . . Often, I tell writers this: Do not touch this story. Mail it. Everyone in the room liked it but me. Therefore what I have to say is irrelevant.”

And, well, there you go. Very important to keep that in mind: Everybody but me might like this.

Beamer says:

“In my defense, I agonized about how to balance between being encouraging and being realistic. I told these writers that I agonized about what to tell them, and I told them I hoped that they would beat the odds.”

That’ll be me, I expect. The agonizing part, I mean.

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Beginning A Novel: A different take on the subject

Just came across this post by Justine Larbalestier, whom you may recognize as the author of LIAR and the MAGIC OR MADNESS* trilogy.

So, in recent posts, I was really talking about the craft involved in beginning a novel, right? In her post, Larbalestier is talking about the impact of, I dunno, personality? Personal quirks? At least, individual variability in the way a particular author approaches a brand new book.

Larbalestier says:

“For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.

And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.”

And this is all very interesting to me, because — and this is the point I want to make, right here — this is SO DIFFERENT from the way I feel when I’m starting a new novel.

I love beginning a new novel! It flows! It sings! It writes itself! The protagonist walks onto the stage and does things and says things! The world builds itself around the protagonist! All of this deserves that clutter of exclamation points because it is just as easy as I am making it sound!

Most of the time, I barely revise the first pages. Lots of the time, I barely revise the first chapters. That part nearly always works just fine, it only gets polished a bit and then a bit more, but it seldom changes much. (I can think of one exception at the moment, where I went back and added a whole ‘nother chapter on the front of a finished book. But even there the first first chapter didn’t change much, it just got turned into the second chapter.)

Where I bog down, ten times out of ten, is the middle. Especially the early-middle part of the middle. Then it usually (not quite always) gets easy and fun again toward the end.

I thought I’d mention this just because, well, I know you are all aware that everyone is different. But sometimes it is a good idea to really make that point clear. Just to be sure that no one thinks they must be doing it wrong if [Insert Author] says they write this particular way but that’s not how you write. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever that every successful writer does or feels. Except put a lot of words in a row at some point, of course.

Larbalestier also says:

“Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I . . . have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.”

There we can agree. I have currently five — wait, six — novel beginnings of forty to seventy pages each sitting around. And just like Larbalestier, I sometimes have a really hard time choosing one to work on.

Anyway, just found that post interesting! So there you go.

* By the way, this is the only YA fantasy series I’ve ever read where magic seems to be intrinsically, unavoidably, a bad thing. Bad for you if you practice it. Bad for it if you have it but don’t use it. It really is a choice between magic and madness — either you use magic and die young or don’t use it and go mad, I think those were the choices. Not 100% sure, it’s been a while since I read the series, but definitely two bad choices, no good choice. Magic was definitely bad bad bad. Anybody else know of a magic system where the magic is intrinsically a bad thing? In YA?

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Goals vs plans

See, it was my GOAL to finish the current WIP and cut 100 pp before August 20th (classes started today, see, so back to work!). But that was not a PLAN. ‘Cause a plan is kind of a commitment, whereas a goal is just a goal, see.

So! I’m glad to say that I have indeed finished the current WIP! So far I have cut about 60 pp. More importantly, I have done the hard cutting that involves thinking. I cut chapters 5 and 6 entirely and knitted up the raveled edges, connecting the back of chapter 4 with the front of what used to be chapter 7. This required a certain amount of thought, as you can imagine. But we now get to the exciting part much faster!

I would still like to cut about 15,000 words — about another fifty pages — but a whole lot of that will be at the brainless read-and-cut-words level. Very little actual thought. A few changes will need to be made to be consistent with the stuff I changed in the early part, but not for a while and not too much.

Then I will read it straight through from front to back. That will actually be the first straight read-through. Hopefully I will find I like the ms! Although I will be trying to tighten things up a bit more and be working on characterization, that’s the part where I will actually be concentrating on catching all the inconsistent tidbits and fixing them. I think I have a fair knack at this, luckily.

Finally I will go through and deepen character arcs. Sigh. That is in fact something I always work really hard on, and I always wind up going through multiple times and thinking hard about things like: is this enough of a relationship between these two characters? Really? Does this other character change and grow from the front to the back? Really?

That is the stage at which I get both bored with the ms and unable to judge it; that’s when I finally send it to my agent. Her fresh take on it is SO VALUABLE, I can’t even tell you. Then usually one or sometimes two revisions after that.

Can’t wait to tie this one up with a bow and send it off. I haven’t worked too hard and thus am not feeling like I need a break to whittle down the TBR pile — I’ve been reading fiction right along and actually the TBR pile is amazingly small, only about forty books left on it — but in fact I have another ms I really want to pick up as soon as I’m done with this. So! New goal: to have this one sent off to my agent by the end of the month. Actual plan: to do that not later than the end of September.

If I get started on my other new ms. by the beginning of November . . . maybe I can actually get that one finished over Christmas Break? That would be great! (But it’s not a plan. It’s not even really a goal, till I see how it moves after I pick it up.)

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Quick link —

To a new favorite book review blog!

Naturally, this blog — Into The Hall Of Books — caught my eye because of Asheley’s review of HOUSE OF SHADOWS.

But it’s not just that the review is positive! No! (Though of course it is, or I would hardly link to it, right?) It’s also that it’s splendidly well organized and easy to follow! Which, for a fairly complicated book like H of S, is pretty impressive.

I particularly like the way Asheley underlined the important character and place names, and the way she broke the post up into different sections: The Characters, The Story, The World. And I PARTICULARLY liked the second on The Romance: “There are no swoons in House of Shadows”. Making that clear is a real favor to readers, these days when half of all fantasy (two thirds? Three fourths?) is very, very heavy on the romance.

And I liked the list of tags for Who This Book Would Appeal To at the end.

I’ve been reading other entries in this blog lately, and really, very good thoughtful reviews. Plus entries that made me add books to my wishlist, like I needed to expand that. I’ll definitely be stopping by Into The Hall Of Boooks regularly after this.

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