Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Writing craft

So, my mother passed me a new Dortmunder book by Donald Westlake, which I don’t really expect to read because I have an overflowing TBR pile already, although I do rather like the Dortmunder books, so who knows. I bring this up because at the end, the editor included a selection of Westlake’s letters to various people — his agents and copy editors and so on.

The one to a copy editor includes comments about the semicolon. Let me share a bit of that one with you all:

. . . I suggest that the purpose of the semicolon is at least in part rhythmic.

My own rhythms tend to be long ones, and I grant you that as a result I tend to over-use the semicolon, but some of them are right, and in most instances the copy editor’s alternatives are less correct. Breaking the offending sentence into two sentences is grammatically correct but often rhythmically wrong.

I, of course, agree; often one of the last things I do when polishing a manuscript is to search for and take out some semicolons (and dashes), but generally I leave in a whole bunch of both, as you may have noticed.

Unlike, apparently, Westlake, I have never yet had a copy editor attempt to remove correct semicolons and replace them with equally correct (but rhythmically incorrect) periods. Plenty of times I’ve had copy editors go the other way, trying to replace technically incorrect (but imo rhythmically correct) comma splices with semicolons. I accept this correction some of the time, especially if I discover that I’ve tended to sprinkle that kind of comma splice into more than one character’s dialogue or internal thoughts. That’s supposed to be for more informal characters; you wouldn’t catch Grayson Lanning speaking or thinking in comma splices.

Even better than Westlake’s take on semicolons is this letter of his to David Ramus, in regards to the manuscript of his first novel, which Westlake had obviously agreed to read and critique. It’s a good critique. Here are several useful excerpts:

I think you can improve the reader’s grasp of Ben Hemmings [the protagonist] by having other people say what they think of him. Not a lot, maybe two or three times in the book. But for instance, when Grace, on the boat, tells him he doesn’t look like an ex-con, he could ask her what do I look like, and she could say something along the lines of, “You look like a carnival roughneck, but a nice one, who’d let a poor kid sneak in.” But earlier than that, possibly with Grantham, who could tell him how he’d look to a jury. …

Next point. If you tell us something twice, it’s a plot point. When Black mentions that FBI men never work alone but Partone is working alone, that’s the second time I’ve been told that, and now I know Partone is a rogue, not doing the government’s work but his own. …

Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no. He just happens to be standing here when somebody standing over there says the stuff he needed to know. No. But if Ben wanted to know what was going on, and felt it was important, he could put himself at risk to deliberately eavesdrop. Almost get caught. …

There’s more, but these are three suggestions that are soooo generalizable, and such obviously good advice, that I thought it might be useful and instruction to share them.

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Thrilling space settings

At tor.com, from James Davis Nicholl: Classic SF Works Set on Thrilling Space Habitats.

Disappointingly brief: Nicholl should have been able to come up with more than four such works. I mean, seriously, four? Of which, incidentally, I haven’t read any, so no comments from me regarding his choices, except there aren’t many of them.

I get that “thrilling space habitats” may be uncommon, depending on how you define your terms. How about Niven’s Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring? A ringworld is a “space habitat,” isn’t it? And you can hardly get more classic than these books, right?

How about all those linked stations we get in the last third of Stephenson’s Seveneves? The ships and stations we saw during the first two-thirds might not quite qualify as “habitats” but they were pretty thrilling. Not a classic yet, I grant you, since this book only came out a few years ago.

Oh, I’ve got one which is pretty much a classic — LMB’s Falling Free. That’s specifically a habitat — the Cay Habitat. True, the trilling part comes more from the story than the habitat, but still.

Lotta wild space habitats in KSR’s books, especially (of the ones I’ve read) 2312. 

In fact, in that one, almost all the thrillingness comes from the habitats, not the characters or the story. Love that city-on-rails on Mercury. Oodles of wonderful habitats, though.

I’ll throw in one more, the one that made me want to write this post, because I just read it last night: Linda Nagata’s Skye Object 3270a.

Who recommended this one to me? Pete Mack, I think? I liked it quite a bit. Here’s the relevant bit from the Goodreads description:

But the people of Silk face dangers of their own. Their city is in space, built around the column of a space elevator that rises from the planet’s surface into high orbit. Three-hundred kilometers below is the wild, plague-ridden planet called Deception Well.

See that? Thrilling space habitat, there you go. We see lots of thrilling space habitats in this short novel. Silk is one of those relatively rare SF settings where I would be happy to live, given a chance to move there.

Skye herself is an okay protagonist; the secondary characters are good — I was particularly fond of Buyu, who imo got rather a raw deal, but I’m sure he’ll manage to find something else to do with his life. This is a YA story, btw, which means that the teen characters have to drive the story while the adults are mainly obstacles to get around. The insane risks taken by the four teen characters are surprisingly justifiable given they are actually totally insane.

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The next step beyond an imaginary friend

T-shirt I got for Christmas:

No doubt you all already know all about tulpas, but if not, here’s Wikipedia:

Tulpas are “magic formations generated by a powerful concentration of thought” . . . Once the tulpa is endowed with enough vitality to be capable of playing the part of a real being, it tends to free itself from its maker’s control. . . . David-Néel claimed to have created a tulpa . . . which later developed a life of its own and had to be destroyed.[ David-Néel raised the possibility that her experience was illusory: “I may have created my own hallucination”, though she reports that others could see the thoughtforms that have been created.

Who knows if I’ll ever use this concept in fiction, but obviously it has plenty of potential. At least I can nod knowingly if I see someone wearing this t-shirt. And now, so can you. You can get a t-shirt like this online, incidentally, for example here. This t-shirt was created by Ken and Robin of “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff” — a podcast — on the grounds that vampires and zombies are so, so, so over and tulpas would be a neat replacement if we’re looking for a new fad in supernatural creatures.

So far I’ve worn this t-shirt in public twice. So far no one had asked me what a tulpa is, nor has anyone nodded knowingly. I may wear it to work — not that it’s normal work attire, but on some appropriate occasion — because I have one coworker who might recognize the word and might even nod knowingly.

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2018 went so fast …

I wonder if 2019 will feel like that too? If it’s a function of getting older, I guess all years will seem fast from now on. Faster and faster, no doubt. If it’s a function of being really busy, then who knows. I suppose most likely it’s both.

Can you believe it’s almost 20 years since 2000? Those of you of a certain age will no doubt nod knowingly. Yeah, 20 years, no, that’s unbelievable. I still feel like the ’90s were practically yesterday.

Anyway, happy new year! I hope you all had a nice holiday, and more importantly, a good 2018, and most of all, I hope we’re all poised for a good 2019, filled with (among other things) great books we read; and for those of us who write, great books we write.

Here’s an interesting thought for the coming year:

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.” 
— G.K. Chesterton

Possibly a little too deep, even from Chesterton.

This one may be a little more in reach for most of us:

Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.” 
— Benjamin Franklin

Well put.

Pithier still:

One resolution I have made, and try always to keep, is this — To rise above the little things.” 
— John Burroughs

There, if I can’t quite manage a new soul, I’ll settle for that one.

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Finished, yay!

So, LAHN, which I was hoping to get finished before Christmas and then I gave up on that? Finished the actual first draft this morning. I feel like it probably needs a fair bit of work, probably clarification of some points, not sure the relationships all develop believably, various concerns about the plot, but I am too close to it now to tell, so I’m done. I sent it to my brother and to my agent about one minute ago.

My brother is just supposed to go thumbs up or thumbs down for plot clarity, with comments about that, though if he has comments about other aspects of the manuscript, I’ll be interested. Caitlin will undoubtedly have comments about all kinds of things, especially pacing. I won’t be at all impatient to see those comments because I am hereby sick of this manuscript and don’t want to think about it again for a month. By then I’ll probably have acquired enough distance that I can see it better myself.

Largest word count during the creation of this draft: 142,000 words. Word count as of this morning: 118,000 words. Virtually all the cutting came out of the last quarter of the manuscript. I added stuff too, but obviously not nearly as much as I took out.

Glad it’s done! I would now take a serious break from writing, but I can hardly waste the remaining 2 weeks of Christmas Break. So next: I do want to finish this Ysidro novel by Barbara Hambly, but I will definitely be starting work on the 4th Black Dog novel, COPPER MOUNTAIN, tomorrow, if not today.

That will be easier now anyway because I tossed ideas around about the plot with my brother while he was here and now I have a pretty good idea of the stuff that will happen in the book vs the stuff that will wait and happen after the book, in novellas. It was hard for me to sort that out, so this was one of the rare moments when it helped me to talk about a novel before beginning to write it.

Important things that got settled:

a) Does the book open directly after SHADOW TWIN or has some time passed?

You can see how impossible it is to begin working on the manuscript without answering that crucial question. Now I know: it’s going to open immediately after the third book. This will almost certainly require me to work in some of the novellas from Short Stories III during the course of COPPER MOUNTAIN, so I will (almost certainly) have to include a time-has-passed moment or two in order to set those novellas into place. That will be different, since always in the other books, all the action has taken place during an intense few days.

b) How can I remove some characters from the action so I don’t have to include everyone? And, related

c) Who is going to get to play important roles during the main action in the 4th book?

The cast is enormous now and there’s no way to cut it down without imposing an enormous disaster on Dimilioc, which I don’t want to do. They’re supposed to be recovering from the first enormous disaster; I don’t want to destroy the house completely. At least, I don’t think I do.

For SHADOW TWIN, I left Ethan and that crowd in Vermont, as you recall, and set Justin and Keziah and their group over in Roswell with Justin’s grandmother. That let me trim the character list for the main story down to something approaching reasonable size.

For COPPER MOUNTAIN, I’ll have to do something of the same kind. I have an idea for getting Etienne and his people away from the main stage, and there are various other characters and groups of characters I think I might set at a distance as well. If your favorite secondary character(s) do not get to play an important role in the 4th novel, I can just about guarantee that they will get a starring role in the next set of novellas. I like all those secondary characters too, you know, so I will feel compelled to give them a story if they get scant attention in the novel.

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Just stumbled across a zombie story you might like–

Here’s a short story, about zombies (or zombie fiction), I happened to find on Scott Alexander’s blog. Click through and check it out; it’s funny and only takes a minute to read.

It starts like this:

He walked into my office and threw the manuscript on my desk with a thud.

“It’s called Thankful For Zombies. A zombie story where…”

“Nope,” I said.

His face deflated like a balloon. “But I didn’t even…”

“Zombies are overdone,” I said.

“But this is a zombie story with a twist!”

“Zombie stories with twists are super overdone.”

“But this is a story about an extended family who get together for Thanksgiving dinner, only to be interrupted by a zombie apocalypse. It’s a Thanksgiving story about zombies. You have to admit that the combination of zombies and Thanksgiving has never…”

“Done,” I said.

“Wait, really? The family starts out estranged and suspicious of each other, but then when they all have to work together to…”

“Done,” I said.

“How could that have been done?”

“Listen. I know you won’t believe me, but for the past ten years or so, the best literary minds of our generation have been working on creating zombie stories just different enough from every other zombie story around to get published. First the clever and interesting twists got explored. Then the mediocre and boring twists. Then the absurd and idiotic twists. Finally the genre got entirely mined out. There is now a New York Times bestselling book about zombies invading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If your idea isn’t weirder than that, it’s been done. And that’s the logical ‘if’. If your idea is weirder than that, it has also been done.”

I actually found this story because I was looking for a story about the zombie apocalypse, only the zombies are philosophical zombies. I couldn’t find that one, so if anybody knows title or author or where to find it, please drop that information in a comment.

In the meantime, though, I hope you enjoy Alexander’s story.

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Life skills we’ve learned from reading fiction

Here’s a post from Book Riot: Unnecessary Life Skills We Learned from Reading

My favorite: how to escape from prison and gain revenge: The Count of Monte Christo.

Yeahhh, pretty sure this particular method could not be used to escape from a modern prison; unless, of course, your prison happens to be on an island where bodies are disposed of by being thrown into the sea. For a more useful twist on the same basic method, The Shawshank Redemption would probably do better: sewer crawl instead of burial at sea.

And for revenge, not sure the basic lesson: First find a huge buried treasure is all that practical for most of us.

Let me see, stuff I’ve learned from reading, hmm. Well, how to fix a unicorn’s broken horn. Got that one from The Magic and the Healing, mentioned in yesterday’s post. Plus how to treat gout in birds, same place; also of course gout in the eagle foot of a griffin.

Oh, here’s one: if you’re kidnapped, make a real try at getting away as soon as possible, don’t wait. That’s from that recent-ish Mercy Thompson novel, Silence Fallen, and also any number of mysteries. I expect it’s probably good advice, for a situation that is perhaps not super-likely to occur in my calm, boring life.

The enemy’s gate is down . . . wait, not likely to need that one. Unless you take it as “Think outside the box in combat,” which is still not likely to come in handy, but no doubt substantially more likely than zero-gravity combat.

Never go anywhere alone with a guy you don’t know that well if you’ve discovered a body in the prior week or so. That’s always a bad idea, especially if you’re a female business owner who bakes, and most especially if you are developing a romantic relationship with a cop. Every cozy mystery in the world makes this plain.

If your nearest-and-dearest is bitten by a zombie, you really need to just shoot them right then. Waiting won’t help anybody.

Never put an alien artifact on your head unless you’re perfectly certain you’ll be able to take it off again.

Always be nice to SecUnits and other such entities. Be nice in general when a SecUnit is present. You never know when you might need that SecUnit to jigger its governor module and save your life. …. I guess that if you generalize this one sufficiently broadly, it’s actually pretty good advice.

If an AI / alien / who knows what invites you to join the Synergis, make sure you concentrate on developing your lan as fast as possible. That one’s probably not as generalizable.

What’s a real-life or not-real-life tidbit of important advice you’ve picked up from reading fiction?

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I’m mostly dreaming of working my way through some of my TBR pile. Thanks, though.

From James Davis Nicoll at tor.com, 100 SFF books you should consider reading in 2019.

100 is a lot for a list. Any list. But I’m mildly interested, even though I really don’t get the impression my tastes overlap all that well with JDN’s tastes. Let’s just take a look and see what he’s got here . . .

Okay, I take that back. First book on his list:

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette.

Well, he is going in alphabetical order, that’s why it’s first. Still, I am 100% behind this choice. Now I’m more interested in seeing what else is on this list …

Joan Aiken, good. Handmaid’s Tale, uuuugggghhhh, no. My goodness, I hated that one in college when someone pressed it on me. Self-conscious dystopias, not my thing.

LMB, “Mountains of Mourning.” Okay, good. War for the Oaks, yay! Octavia E Butler’s Wild Seed, another yay! Now I”m starting to get more inclined to try other books JDN recommends and we’re only just through the B’s.

Oh, Naamah’s Curse by Carey. Not my favorite series by this author. I liked the Kushiel’s Dart series much better. Oh, here’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Good choice. Red Moon Black Mountain. Two thumbs up on that one. Oh, here’s the Morgaine series by CJC. You know, I should re-read that.

Wow, this is an eclectic list. It’s just all over the place for older vs newer works, well-known vs more obscure books. So far, of the ones I’ve read, that’s one I hated and seven I liked a lot or loved, plus a couple where I like the author quite a bit, though not necessarily the work chosen. Pretty impressive proportion.

Click through if you like; I bet those of you around my age will recognize a lot of titles. I mean, look! There’s Enchantress from the Stars! I hadn’t thought of that one for decades. I liked it a lot, way back when. I wonder if I’d feel it’s held up?

Here’s Those Who Hunt the Night, Hambly’s first vampire novel. As it happens, I’m reading her most recent title in this series at this very moment. The first book is really still my favorite, but I do like the whole series.

Good heavens: Janet Kagan’s Hellspark. Did not expect that. Great story. I mean, the mystery was not so very mysterious, but the characters were wonderful and the setting pretty snazzy.

Ah, there’s Patricia McKillip. I was waiting for her to appear. Riddlemaster Trilogy, sure, fine choice, but it’s hard to go wrong with McKillip.

Okay, I’m going to skip down to the end of the alphabet now . . .

Ah, not at the very end, but here’s one I really do want to try: Banner of Souls by Liz Williams. I have one more Inspector Chen mystery to read first, but then yes, I would like to try something else by Williams.

Well, I am hardly going to try to generate a list of a hundred titles myself, especially since I would end up repeating some titles and authors from JDN’s list. But I will add just one author he missed. Let me try to pick something a little older, a little more obscure . . . say at least 20 years old, by an author who might not leap immediately to mind . . . okay, got one:

There you go: The Magic and the Healing by Nick O’Donohoe.

I learned a lot about writing perceptive characters from this book. O’Donohoe doesn’t have to say: BJ IS PERCEPTIVE, LOOK, DID YOU SEE HER NOTICE THAT? She just is perceptive, and if the reader is as well, then the reader will realize it.

Also, veterinary medicine! Fantasy setting! Griffins! I liked it a lot and if JDN’s list of a hundred doesn’t give you enough ideas about older (and newer) titles to seek out, well, here’s another.

Got one of your own? Drop it in the comments, because there’s no such thing as a TBR pile that is too high or too unwieldy, right?

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Christmas music I never get bored with

Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas album is (nearly) the only one I can stand to listen to for the whole duration of the Christmas season, which for me starts today and goes through New Years. I mean, today, Christmas Eve Eve, is the first day I ever deliberately put a cd of Christmas music in the player. This is that cd.

On the off chance you’re not familiar with Mannheim Steamroller, give it a listen.

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Surprising deals if you need last-minute Christmas gifts

The Keeper of the Mist is currently just $4.99 as an ebook, I notice. The paperback version is $9.99, so the ebook price is pretty good.

Oddly, my other reasonably current Random House title, The White Road of the Moon, is currently showing the reverse pricing pattern: the ebook is $9.99, but the hardcover is only $4.99. Don’t ask me, but this is certainly a good time to snap up the hardcover, even though I expect you might not quiiiite get it in time for Christmas.

The Floating Islands is also $4.99 in ebook form.

And of course Black Dog is just $3.99, which is where I generally leave that one. Inviting price, I hope!

Those are the best prices for any of my books on Amazon right now. Just FYI.

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