Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Is it possible to mechanically construct lyrical prose?

Here’s a recent post at Well Storied: Three Tips for Crafting Lyrical Prose

Tips are all very well, but this gave me pause. Can you teach someone to write serviceable prose? Sure. Can you actually teach someone to write lyrical prose? Um. Can you provide three tips that make an actual difference? Um …

Well, I am skeptical, but let me see.

Tip 1: Use different types of repetition. The author is talking about alliteration, consonance, and assonance.

Hmm. The first thing that sprang to my mind was none of the above. I thought first of repetition of words, and the book that sprang to mind was The Silver Chair by CS Lewis. In that one, Lewis might have gone a little overboard with repetition of certain words, such as “moonlight” and “silver.” He might not agree that he overdid it; I read in Planet Narnia that Lewis specifically liked repetition of words as a way of achieving lyricism in prose.

CS Lewis also used plenty of other techniques, including alliteration, as here in The Screwtape Letters : “Was he not unmistakably a little man? A creature of the petty rake-off, pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stainless platitudes in his public utterances.”

Tip 2: Set your syllabic style. The post appears to mean, stick either to shorter words or longer ones.

That seems weird to me. Though the author of the post does say, “Now, this doesn’t mean you have to use the same syllable count throughout your entire short story; instead, you just have to keep some syllabic consistencies within certain sections of your prose.”

… No, that still seems weird to me. I guess I would think of this as part of the style, but only part, and not necessarily worth focusing on especially. Word choice is surely at least as important as number of syllables.

Two syllable words that anybody would use:

Christmas, special, garden, midnight, happy, future, Monday, water.

Two syllable words that not just anybody would use:

adjure, ersatz, verdant, feckless, ribald, inure, nuance.

Number of syllables actually has little to do with style. I mean, I guess it’s a contributing factor to style, but pulling it out as one of three factors on which to focus seems, yes, weird. It seems to me that it would have been better to say Set your style and discuss that, as opposed to focusing on number of syllables.

Tip 3: Consider sentence structure.

The author of the post says: “A short, punchy sentence conveys abrupt truth, sureness, and practicality. A long, flowing sentence, however, can usher in a lyrical feel and a sense of elasticity.”

Here I agree. However, I’d roll that into “style,” and I’d add that it’s important to note that a short sentence only has maximum punch if it’s surrounded by longer sentences. Let me see . . . no, nothing here about how varying your sentence length could be important.

Pretty sure that three fairly simplistic tips are not going to guide anyone from serviceable prose to lyrical prose. Pretty sure that ten tips won’t do it either. I think what might is reading a bunch of novels written with lyrical prose. After reading ten or so, maybe that would be the right time to ask yourself what the authors are actually doing and begin to dissect sentences.

So, fine —

Ten authors who write lyrical SFF, in no particular order

1.Patricia McKillip

2. Guy Gavriel Kay

3. Ursula K LeGuin

4. Jane Yolen

5. Catherynne Valente

6. Peter S Beagle

7. Gene Wolfe

8. Joy Chant

9. Rachel Neumeier

10. ____________________________

Who else? Pick someone to fill in the blank.

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How do you know what you are meant to write?

Another good Q&A at Janet Reid’s blog

A question offered for perusal:

But does a good writer always KNOW what they are MEANT to write? What if the awards and cash prizes for my sci-fi/horror writing are just a testament to my ABILITY to write well, and not for my true calling for WHAT to write? I LIKE to write sci-fi/horror, but is it possible for another genre, such as humor, to be a better fit – a better fit that if I were to explore it could finally be the break I need (getting an agent, getting a pub deal, etc.) ?? Maybe LIKING a genre isn’t enough to justify writing in it. 

My instant response: you’re not meant to write anything. Write what you want and hopefully that genre will work for you.

Let’s see what Janet says:

I have always believed that the way to know you are fulfilling your purpose here is to measure your joy. If writing in one particular category or genre brings you joy, that’s a good thing.

If you try out something else, and give it a chance, not the one minute “I told you I don’t like lima beans” test, and it too brings you joy, even better.

That seems reasonable to me.

Also, Janet declared everyone needs more perfection in their lives and linked Torville and Dean’s famous ice dancing performance to “Bolero. ” I remember watching that when they first performed it, and she’s right, it’s an example of perfection. If you’ve never seen it, click through and watch the video.

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Discouraged? Here you go —

Just happened across a fun and possibly useful page of Factoids To Boost Your Confidence as a Writer:

Writers have bad days. We get negative book reviews, we take too long to finish a story, and we get rejected—sometimes all in the same week.

But writers are also resilient. When you need a kick-in-the-pants, read this post for instant encouragement and motivation.

I’ll give you a sampling:

When It’s Taking “Too Long”:

Gillian Flynn: 3 years to write Gone Girl

When You Feel Too Old/Too Young:

Mark Twain: 41

When You Experience Self-Doubt:

“Self-doubt is just part of the creative process. It doesn’t go away. It sits there. It’s part of the process. So we need to learn to live with that and go forward. Finish your manuscript, publish your book, and get your words out into the world anyway. Self-doubt is just part of the job of being a writer.” — Joanna Penn

When Another Agent Rejects You:

“120+ query rejections on my first (shelved) books. I sent my first query for One of Us Is Lying to my dream agent, and she signed & sold it a couple of months later. Then I got another query rejection after it hit the NYT bestseller list.” — Karen M. McManus, @writerkmc

When Someone Mocks Self-Publishing:

Andy Weir (The Martian) — Matt Damon starred in the movie version, which won an Academy Award.

When You Get Negative Reviews:

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

“The plan and technique of the illustrations are superb… …but they may well prove frightening, accompanied as they are by a pointless and confusing story.” —Publisher’s Weekly, 1963

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I picked a good time to drop in on Janet Reid’s blog

Because I met a very familiar Good Dog there.

I sent that photo to Janet when her blog was on hiatus earlier this year. She wasn’t on hiatus long enough to use the photo at the time, but here it is now: one of the very, very best photos I have ever taken of one of my dogs.

The one with the literary name, too, as it happens: his registered name is Anara Call Me Ishmael RN RA RE.

That was very eye-catching, but Janet also has a recent post about backstory that I noticed because of the recent Archon panel about that, followed by my post here.

Your recent critique on Query Shark mentioned cutting set up and backstory to keep a query lean and effective. My question is … when does set up / backstory become necessary to avoid confusion (the great query sin)? ….

I guess my real question is this. If we do attempt to include set up / backstory, is it better to just be blunt with it and get it out of the way (avoid confusion) or try to “say as much as you can without saying it” (avoid it looking like set up / backstory)???

You say surprise like it’s a bad thing.

I love twists and turns. I LOVE it when writing surprises me…in a good way.

But my guess is you mean that the agent won’t understand the story without some set up.

And that’s the answer to your question. You need set up if the reader won’t understand the plot without the key element.

But often times writer fail to understand that your reader isn’t looking for problems. We’re looking for a great story. And we’ll buy in to what you tell us if we can.

And then Janet goes on, with examples. As always, it’s a great look at a concise explanation of when and how much to explain backstory.

And it’s quite true about buying in, if you can. Janet adds, “Overexplaining is one of the biggest problems I see in queries.” I can believe it! I think this is exactly like saying, “Prologues that read like history textbooks are THE WORST!”

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Twenty top mysteries —

Via a Book Riot post, but generated by looking at the most popular mysteries on Goodreads.

Okay, I’m mildly interested. Given this is a popularity contest, I’ll start by guessing that at least five titles will be by Agatha Christie. First, everyone has heard of her. Second, bookstores always carry some of her titles. Third, some of her books got made into well-known movies. Given all that, her name has to come up a bunch when you just look at most popular mysteries.

I have to admit that I have never been a Christie fan, though of course I’ve read a couple of hers and I saw Ten Little Indians once, I think.

Besides Christie, I don’t know whom I expect. I know what some of my favorites are — Gaudy Night, obviously — and I know who I think was a great mystery author — Rex Stout — but I don’t know who I expect to find on a Goodreads list.

Let’s take a look:

1 and 2: Agatha Christie, as expected. Murder at the Vicarage and The Mysterious Affair at Styles, neither of which I’ve read.

3: Oh ho, the third entry is a Sookie Stackhouse novel! Well, that is not a mystery. I mean, of course it’s a mystery, but it’s a paranormal. Most paranormals are also mysteries, but I think it’s kind of cheating to include paranormals and UF and other things on a list of top mysteries.

4: Here’s one I’ve read: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Actually, I listened to it in audio form.

This time set in 1950, our heroine is an aspiring chemist with an inquisitive mind who is intrigued by a series of seemingly unconnected events (a dead bird, a postage stamp, and a dead man in a cucumber patch). While I would probably back away from the bizarre turn of events, young Flavia de Luce is appalled and delighted. If you’re looking for a bit of history mixed with a plucky female protagonist then this series may be right up your alley.

Yes, well. I liked this book, but not that much. I liked Flavia, but not that much. I never did go on to the next book in the series.

5: Still Life by Louise Penny. I’ve read this one and liked it quite a bit. Setting is very important to me in mysteries. Penny delivers a wonderful setting, lyrically drawn. Her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is just okay for me though. I’ve read several of Penny’s books and might well go back to the series.

Okay, that’s the top five. Let me see how many of the others I’ve read . . . The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I read that one and liked it a lot. Gone Girl, no, ugh, I read a review of this one at The Book Smugglers and it turned me right off the book. Definitely don’t ever plan to read it. Rebecca by DuMaurier, wow, that’s a classic. Sure, I’ve read that one and seen the movie both.

Oh, here’s a true crime section. Yes, I’ve read In Cold Blood. That’s actually my favorite one on this list. The slow reconstruction of the crime was so interesting.

Okay, that’s it. I’ve read five of the books listed here. That’s 25%, more than I would have expected. Missing:

Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout. Gosh, look, Arthur Conan Doyle is missing, that’s actually shocking now that I think of it. PD James! She’s far from my favorite, given a tendency to create a sympathetic character and then make that person the murderer, but she’s so well known and popular, I’m a little surprised. Lots of really popular authors are missing from this list. Sue Grafton.

Let me see, who would I pick for a personal top twenty? Well, a personal top five, just off the top of my head

Dorothy Sayers — Gaudy Night

Rex Stout — overall list of titles

Ellis Peters — the Brother Cadfael stories, which for a change I liked better on the BBC than as novels

Dorothy Dunnett — the Dolly mysteries

Beverly Connor — both her series of forensic anthropology mysteries. I freely acknowledge these are not as well written on the sentence level as any of the above, but I love them.

Who are your favorite mystery authors? Did the Book Riot list pick any?

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Adequate keto bread

It’s not like I’ve tried every kind of keto bread substitute ever developed, but I’ve finally found one that’s really not bad — as long as you don’t mind steamed rather than baked bread. And after all, who doesn’t like Chinese bao, right?

Not that this bread is too similar to bao because it’s not a yeast bread. But it is not wholly dissimilar, because it’s made in the microwave, which does mean it’s more like steamed bread than baked bread.

Anyway, it’s super easy, so definitely give it a try if you like. This is Ninety Second Keto Bread, for which there are a million recipes on the internet. Here is Rachel’s Slightly Streamlined Version:

1 T butter, oil, or melted bacon grease (if, like me, you have a lot of bacon grease around)

3 Tbsp almond flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

Pinch salt

1 egg

The recipes all say to grease a ramekin or mug. I’m sure that would be a good idea. If you prefer, you can skip that, melt the bacon grease in the ramekin via the microwave, stir together the almond flour and baking powder and stir that into the grease or butter or oil, add the egg and stir briskly to both scramble and incorporate the egg. There, one bowl. Microwave, covered, for ninety seconds. Turn out onto a rack.

Serve like an English muffin, with eggs and whatever, for breakfast. Or split and use as you would sandwich bread. I’m not going to just rave about how great this bread is, unlike this blog post, or this one, but I will say this: it is a perfectly decent bread substitute that has decent texture.

It’s also flexible. Want to add a handful of grated cheese? That will work. Want to add a tablespoon of low-sugar truvia and a handful of chopped pecans? That will also work (use butter or oil, of course, nothing bacon flavored, if you’re making a sweeter bread). Want to use coconut flour instead of almond flour? That will work too.

This version here recommends adding 1/2 tsp psyllium husk powder. It’s supposed to give the bread a texture more like baked wheat bread. Well, I haven’t tried that, but sure, maybe eventually. Right now I’m okay just making this bread without that addition.

Lots of posts recommend toasting to improve the texture and “reduce the eggy flavor.” I don’t find this too eggy and I actually like a very moist, steamed texture, but I expect that would be fine.

Whatever version you make, this is definitely my favorite keto bread so far.

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Recent Reading: Raven’s Shadow and Raven’s Strike by Patricia Briggs

Okay, I read this duology some time ago, but this was like reading it for the first time because it turns out I barely remembered anything at all about the story. I knew the Raven duology is used as an example of a story with an older female protagonist. It is indeed a good example once the reader gets past the first section and we jump ahead twenty years, although actually there’s very much an ensemble cast here.

So, the story. Tier rescues Seraph, who is a Traveler (like a gypsy or a Lakewalker, distinct from the general population of settled people) and also a Raven (a natural wizard who works magic freestyle, by intuition, rather than with rituals from books). There is a brief low-key romance. They get married, at least partly out of convenience. We jump forward twenty years or so and the actual story begins. That whole introductory section was a bit generic and boring for me, but when we shift forward in time, the story really picks up and I got a lot more interested.

The opening problem is that Tier has not returned from a trip when expected and is presumed to be dead. Seraph and her three children – Jes and Lehr, who are young adults, and Rinnie, who is ten years old – deal with this loss, discover he probably isn’t dead but has been kidnapped, and the story unrolls from there, with the viewpoint dividing mainly between Seraph and Tier. That problem resolves in the first book, and then they deal with their real enemy in the second book, where the viewpoint divides a lot more.

What makes the story work:

Once the story really begins, both main viewpoints – Tier’s and Seraph’s – become compelling. Tier’s situation is especially engaging. I have a particular fondness for the sort of situation where someone competent is tossed into a crowd, begins to recruit allies, and essentially takes over. We saw that when Miles Vorkosigan took over that Cetagandan prison, and when Torin Kerr took over her prison, and in the Honor Harrington series where Honor has to get a new crew to work together properly, and in a whole bunch of other stories. I always like that trope.

The secondary characters add interest, especially Jes, whose character is the most complex. There are similarities between Jes in this duology and Charles in the Alpha and Omega series; the sharing-your-body-with-a-monster thing is right there in both stories. The Raven duology may be where Patricia Briggs did this first and then she wanted to make that element more central when she started the werewolf series. Anyway, that’s also a trope I like.

Not just Jes, but all three of Seraph and Tier’s children have inherited magic, each one a different kind (there are six inborn types of magic). Plus Seraph is a Raven and Tier, it turns out, is a Bard, so every member of the family is gifted with a type of inborn magic. This is not entirely a coincidence. Briggs has used a method to deal with helpful coincidences that I actually used myself in Winter of Ice and Iron she’s set a force for order into the world, so that helpful coincidences have a reason to occur. Why did Tier and Seraph encounter each other in the first place? Why has every child been born with some kind of magic? Well, this is why.

I think that’s quite helpful. If the author needs helpful coincidences and those begin to strain reader credibility, introducing the appropriate metaphysics can be a great way to rescue the situation. Of course once you introduce a metaphysical force for order, you probably have also introduced a force for chaos, and then that may well give overall shape to the plot as those two forces are opposed to each other. Or in this case, not exactly. Patricia Briggs went for a more subtle situation than that.

But the pov cast is actually bigger than this one family. The Emperor, Phoran, is a neat character in his own right. He would have made a good protagonist for a different story. Hennea is not as interesting to me, though her role is pretty important. And so on. Lots of secondary characters get a little bit of point-of-view time. That’s a somewhat unusual way to tell a story these days, as first person has become so much more common. Briggs does a good job with it.

Overall a fine fantasy duology, well worth picking up, especially if you like ensemble casts and very definitely if you appreciate older protagonists who are in settled relationships and stories that include positive family dynamics.

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We live in a science fiction world

Mind-controlled ‘exoskeleton’ restores movement to totally paralyzed man

“For the first time, a quadriplegic patient was able to walk and control both arms using this neuro-prosthetic, which records, transmits and decodes brain signals in real time to control an exoskeleton,” said project chief Guillaume Charvet. The experiment was launched by the biomedical research center Clinatec in Grenoble, France.

So impressive! Hopefully developments of this kind will move ahead at a brisk pace.

Here’s another one:

Grand Rapids man one of the first to receive ‘bionic ear’

The vestibular implant is a device similar to the cochlear implant, which is used for people who have hearing loss. But it serves a different purpose — to restore balance when people have the lost the function of their inner ears.

Another really nice development.

A third noteworthy medical advance:

Boston Children’s Hospital researchers seem to have pinpointed the cause of multiple sclerosis

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital have now pinpointed the specific helper T cells that cause MS, as well as a protein on their surface that marks them. As reported this week in PNAS, an antibody targeting this protein, CXCR6, both prevented and reversed MS in a mouse model.

Animal models can be iffy for many reasons, but if you click through you’ll see this looks quite promising.

And more more, the most science-fictiony of all:

After 5 Years Of Trials, Doctors Create Human Liver From Scratch

“It’s not like ‘wahoo’ and the next morning you think, ‘ah, I’m gonna make a human liver,’” says Dr. Alejandro Soto-Gutiérrez of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center.

It took five years of trial and error but using stem cells, genetic and tissue engineering, organ cultures and a team of experts in these areas, the researchers have come up with this.

This isn’t a viable, long-term organ suitable for, say, a liver transplant. Yet. But it’s hard not to see this as a pretty good step in that direction.

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Planning to write a postapocalypse novel?

Then this might come in handy: Best countries to survive an apocalypse.

Let me see, let me see . . . ah ha, looks like New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland.

Well, those look like more or less reasonable choices to me, given that you’re starting with the belief that some countries or areas will survive. Not a huge meteor impact or the Earth going into “snowball Earth” mode or anything like that, but a pathogen-based apocalypse. Okay, that makes sense. Evidently the criteria included a large enough population to sustain a decent technological base, so the people who compiled the list preferred island nations with populations of over 250,000 and a decent base of food and energy.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think big countries like Australia and for that matter Iceland have borders which are too porous for, say, infectious diseases carrying a zombie plague or some awful nanotech grey goo weapon. An awful lot of flights go through Reykjavík these days. Even with a relatively slow-moving pathogen, there is, I estimate, a 100% probability that government officials would dither much too long to shut the borders and thus the pathogen or whatever would certainly be carried into the country, after which everyone would be zombified or turn into grey goo or whatever.

Not that one couldn’t make it work in a novel. Anything, no matter how implausible, can be made to look practically inevitable if you do it right. New Zealand might be a better choice than Australia just because it’s smaller and has less border to defend and, I assume, fewer government officials. You could start with a couple specific people in positions to make a difference who are unusually decisive and willing to take risks and go from there.

Lots of fine post-apocalyptic stories out there based on a pathogen-style apocalypse. Let me see if I can get to ten. No order, just as they occur to me.

1.Station Eleven. This is a literary post-apocalype novel. I liked it a lot. Beautiful writing and elegant plotting.

2. Newsflesh trilogy. Great zombie trilogy, flawed by several plotting issues, of which the worst is the . . . spoiler . . . magic clone. Still a great trilogy, though.

3. The Stand. I strongly prefer the version King’s editor trimmed down. All the parts King put back in later were better taken out, imo.

4. The Girl with All the Gifts. I loved this book, despite (a) a completely unnecessary romance, or at least sexual, subplot that was both gratuitous and unbelievable; and a completely predictable ending that I, at least, saw coming ages before I got to the end. Great voice, though.

5. Black Tide Rising series. Despite the somewhat wooden characters and sometimes uninspired sentence-level writing, an amazingly compelling zombie apocalypse. Zero nations survived in this one. All survivors were either on boats or in tiny, highly defensible locations on land.

6. Dies the Fire. This is one where we get a magical technology-just-stops-working apocalypse. I really like SM Stirling’s series toward the beginning. As he progresses through a series, the points of view multiply and disperse and I start to lose interest. But I really loved the first few in this series.

7. Ariel. Another one where technology stops working. In this case, certain kinds of magic start working. An excellent YA-style post-apocalypse story, with a unicorn.

Okay, I have to acknowledge that I have diverged from plague-type apocalypses. Sorry. Let me see if I can think of a few more that really belong on this list.


8. The Country of Ice Cream Star. Dark, dark, dark story where a plague causes everyone in the US to die as they reach the age of about 18, so a new child-focused society — set of tiny, tribal societies — has arisen. Did I mention this is an extremely dark story? I loved the use of language in this story.

9. Clay’s Arc. You know, you can make a case for this story by Octavia E Butler, can’t you? This book shows the very opening moments of a plague-based apocalypse. We know, because of books set much later, that this plague does bring down the world as we know it. Very different from a zombie type of plague, though.

10. Andromeda Strain. Okay, once I thought of alien plagues, this classic leaped to mind. Crichton has a slower-paced style and this is not a story I found especially compelling, but still. Now I’m thinking of a number of classics:

11. Earth Abides

12. Emergence. This one is especially fun if you enjoy over-the-top competent protagonists. And if you like macaws.

And hey! When I put in the link, I noticed that the sequel, Tracking, is now available as an ebook! Definitely check out Emergence and then you can get Tracking if you like. The latter does not exactly tie off everything, but it ties up enough loose ends that the ending is pretty satisfying.

There, that’s twelve, to make up for including a couple tech-goes-away stories that don’t technically fit the plague-apocalypse theme.

If you’ve got a favorite apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic story that fits the theme, drop it in the comments!

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