Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Punctuation is your friend!

A post from Janet Reid: Punctuation is your friend!

Recently, a writer bemoaned “agents hate semicolons”on Twitter. …

The idea that anyone who wrangles words would hate any one member of the punctuation platoon is perplexing to me. …

Deft use of punctuation can give your work power and punch and panache.

To rob yourself of any piece of punctuation is idiotic.

If an agent says s/he hates semi-colons, my guess is s/he’s seen them abused too often, but that’s like blaming the victim for the crime.

I don’t hate ellipses even though some writers fling them about with abandon; as if they’d bought a barrel, suspended it over their computer and dripped them down on the manuscript like faux freckles.

Generally I frown on that … but not always. 

I have, myself, personally, met English teachers who do not permit their students to use semicolons.

I’m with Janet Reid. To rob yourself of any piece of punctuation is idiotic. I’ll go further: to rob your students of any piece of punctuation is malpractice.

I’m guessing you’ve probably noticed I specifically do not hate semicolons. Or ellipses. I bet you didn’t know that after finishing a manuscript, I generally spend about three hours “finding” semicolons and ellipses, and taking out about a third of them. Obviously I leave a lot in, so that gives you an idea of how many I have to start with.

But if anybody tells me I’m overusing semicolons, I will just point them to Jane Austen and let them argue with her. NO ONE today uses as many semicolons as great writers used in that era.

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Pet peeves

Here’s a post by Elaine Viets at Kill Zone Blog, about problems that make a reader pause and perhaps slide into negative review mode.

This reviewer is not some crank who looks for excuses to rip writers. If he has to give a book a bad review, he agonizes over that decision. … But here are some writing wrongs that upset this reviewer.

1) Padded middles. Here’s what this reviewer had to say about this issue:

This is my reviewer’s number one problem – novels that slow down in the middle. “The padding doesn’t advance the narrative,” the reviewer said. “It’s pages and pages of the thoughts and feelings of people who aren’t very interesting. They offer no valuable insights. Sometimes, I wonder if editors make writers add this unnecessary information because big books are so popular. Most books I’ve read recently are 20 to 30 pages too long. …”

And here I paused. While not disputing with the perception that the pace slows down in the middle . . . an extra 20 to 30 pages? Really?

Who even notices a mere twenty extra pages?

I guess if you’re reading a Penric novella and stumble over twenty pages of not-much, you might notice. I’m not sure I would personally really notice twenty pages of static scenes in a novel of extra length.

Also, if the people aren’t very interesting, maybe that’s a bigger problem than the narrative slowing down?

Now I’m tempted to go back and look at the final Harry Potter book. It’s been a long time since I read it, but my possibly unreliable memory suggests there were about fifty pages too many about wandering in the woods feeling depressed. Maybe it was actually twenty. If so, then yes, that was a noticeable chunk of too-much-nothing in the middle of a book. It had nothing to do with the interestingness of the characters and everything to do with being really bored with the problem Harry was facing right then. I thought a paragraph of two would’ve been plenty, followed by getting out of the woods and back into the story.

The next couple of comments seem more reasonable to me:

2) Switching names. “The character is introduced as Joseph Smith. Then the author proceeds to call him Joe, Joey, Joseph, and sometimes just Smith. It’s hard to figure out who the writer is talking about.”

This is actually a real problem in some books. It’s very much connected to the next comment:

3) Who’s talking? “A character is introduced in the first 50 pages, and then shows up 200 pages later with no ID.”

This is the same type of Wait, who? problem. It’s definitely a real annoyance when a character steps on stage and I can’t remember who that person is. I suppose characters with too-similar names would trigger the same annoyed response.

I don’t believe any other pet peeve mentioned in the post bothers me as much as (2) and (3) above. Except seeing wrong words. Parameter instead of perimeter is one I recall. That made me ditch a sample rather than going on to the full book.

I feel like there’s one I’ve seen several times recently, but it’s not quite coming to mind … maybe it was “illicit” when the writer meant “elicit.” Something like that, certainly. That sort of thing is really just annoying, which I am saying even though last night I typed “insure” when I meant “ensure.” (I caught it immediately.)

Oh, and here’s the final pet peeve mentioned in the linked post:

9) TMI in the first chapter. Nearly every one of us at TKZ has written about this problem. Overcrowded first chapters slow the pace of your novel. Our reviewer said, “It stops a good book dead when the first chapter has an overlarge cast of characters and I can’t keep them straight.”

a) Yes, it does. Also, incidentally, not keen on opening in a battle scene involving characters I don’t know fighting for reasons I don’t understand.

b) But cramming the entire cast into the first five pages is NOT as big a problem as delivering a History of the World in the first five pages. Or even worse, the first 25 pages. Wow, is that boring.

Backstory is fine. It really is. Setting the scene is important. But for heaven’s sake, if you’ve got a history textbook you’d like to use as a prologue, just don’t. Work the five coolest details in someplace else, in tiny little bits.

I actually hated that in the Lord of the Rings movies, too. Never a good reason to start a fantasy novel with a history lesson. Never.

Feel free to drop exceptions in the comments.

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A Sword Named Truth

An interesting post about this book, by Sherwood Smith, at Bookview Cafe: All the Worlds and Time: The Long Arc

The initial story arc is divided into three books, called The Rise of the Alliance. The first book is A Sword Named Truth. After this arc comes another arc, when the main characters introduced in this series hit adulthood, and the world shifts into crisis. Then there is another arc about what happens after.

These all have been written—some of them redrafted several times. The toughest to redraft were actually these early ones, which contain story threads written forty, even fifty years ago. To work it together, I—a visual writer—had to learn a lot about narrative strategies. I read a metric butt ton of literary theory, venturing way out into Theory of Mind and Semiotics, which was fun, but taught me little, because visual writer.

So I ended up rereading pretty much all of the nineteenth century classics that developed the novel, focusing on the various levels of omniscient narrator. And that gave me my handle on pulling it all together….

Click through to read the whole thing. I have to say, I’m getting more interested in taking a look at A Sword Named Truth. That great title doesn’t hurt, either.

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Oh, come on

Here’s a post at tor.com: Celebrating great parents in YA SFF.

While I have no problem celebrating great parents in SFF, given the date, I assume this is probably a nod to Father’s Day. With that in mind, the title of this post looks a lot like someone tried to think of great fathers, gave up, and broadened the question.

Well, I’m pretty sure it’s possible to think of ten great fathers in SFF. Let me take a stab at it.

1) Aral Vorkosigan.

2) Miles Vorkosigan. We haven’t had a chance to see him in action as a father, but does anyone doubt that he’ll be a great dad now that he has children? I mean, he’s already done well with his stepson.

3) Adam Haupman, in the Mercy Thompson series, is a great dad.

4) John Aversin from Dragonsbane.

5) Tabini in the Foreigner series.

6) Sam Vimes.

7) Benjamin Sisko

8) Okay, the name reminded me, so moving out of SFF just for a minute, but Benjamin January from Barbara Hambly’s historical series.

9) Now that we’re outside SFF, obviously Keith from Veronica Mars.

10) Back to SFF, a father trying to work through a very difficult situation with his son: Albin Ronay in Growing Up Weightless. The first time I read this book, I was not super impressed by Albin. He grew on me the second time I read it.

11) All right, fine, the tor.com post does offer one good father who I really should have remembered myself: Derk from The Dark Lord of Derkholm.

12) Luke Nix from Dogland by Will Shetterly. I can’t recommend the sequel, but this one is quite impressive for several reasons.

Okay, that’s ten from SFF and a couple from outside the genres. It’s true I had to do some thinking, but really, was that so hard?

Please add your own favorite or noteworthy (in a good way) fathers from SFF in a comment. I’m sure I missed plenty.

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Robin Hood

At tor.com, if you’d care to listen to the first bit of a new Robin Hood retelling in audio, you can do so here.

I don’t plan to listen to it. I hate excerpts unless the full book is available. The book, slated for release in August, is available for preorder at Amazon. I’m mentioning it here because, (A) I have always loved Robin Hood; and (B) the description given at Amazon makes me both interested and wary.

When I say I love Robin Hood, I mean the original, or semi-original. The children’s version I read first set the mold; the Robin Hood presented in Ivanhoe was okay, The Outlaws of Sherwood set the new mold; some gritty version in there did not appeal to me (don’t remember who wrote it or what the title was, sorry); and no doubt there are others.

Now there’s this one: Nottingham, by Nathan Makaryk. Here’s the description:

England, 1191. King Richard is half a world away, fighting for God and his own ambition. Back home, his country languishes, bankrupt and on the verge of anarchy. People with power are running unchecked. People without are growing angry. And in Nottingham, one of the largest shires in England, the sheriff seems intent on doing nothing about it.

As the leaves turn gold in the Sherwood Forest, the lives of six people—Arable, a servant girl with a secret, Robin and William, soldiers running from their pasts, Marion, a noblewoman working for change, Guy of Gisbourne, Nottingham’s beleaguered guard captain, and Elena Gamwell, a brash, ambitious thief—become intertwined.

And a strange story begins to spread . . .

This sounds fine. I don’t necessarily object to the addition of a thief. I like thieves. Robin as a soldier is a little bit of a departure. If Guy of Gisbourne is presented as not quite so terrible, that would be okay.

But there’s also this tagline:

Nathan Makaryk’s epic and daring debut rewrites the Robin Hood legend, giving voice to those history never mentioned and challenging who’s really a hero and a villain.

Now, okay, but … is this meant to indicate that Robin Hood is a bad guy in this version? Because that would not work for me. I’ve also seen, poking around, an assertion that this is a “deconstruction of the Robin Hood Legend.” Hmm. Just how much of a deconstruction is this?

There are a few reviews up on Goodreads already.

Having read those, I’m still not sure. The word “grimdark” floated through one of those reviews. So did a comparison to Game of Thrones, which whatever, everything gets compared to Game of Thrones, but that’s not a recommendation for me. Yet, yet, yet …

From one review:

I’m still processing which characters I love and which I hate and which I both love and hate. Every time I thought I found someone to root for someone on the other side would give me a compelling reason to root for him or her. Because what looks like a necessary survival decision for one looks like irrational misfirings for another. Likewise pragmatic decisions can look cowardly and heroism can look selfish. 

I won’t give any spoilers away but there are tons of amazing twists and turns and the ending is certainly worth it. Especially the last line.

So, not sure. I’m not going to preorder it, but I’m adding it to my wishlist so I don’t entirely forget about it either. I think this is one where I’m going to want to read a sample, and then I still might not know.

Unless of course one of you reads this before I do. In that case, try to remember to let me know what you thought.

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Quotes of the day: Dorothy Sayers

The Passive Guy often posts quotes, which I appreciate on my way past. However, I especially liked this short quotes today:

Those who prefer their English sloppy have only themselves to thank if the advertisement writer uses his mastery of the vocabulary and syntax to mislead their weak minds.Dorothy L. Sayers

Ah, Dorothy Sayers! If she were a contemporary author, she’d probably wear this t-shirt:

Which is a nice variant on this particular t-shirt theme, I have to add.

Let me see if I can find some more especially good Sayers quotes. … All right, how about this one:

The popular mind has grown so confused that it is no longer able to receive any statement of fact except as an expression of personal feeling.

Wow. Snarky, pithy, and, I fear, all too accurate. She wrote that 78 years ago, in The Mind of the Maker, but she might as well have said it yesterday.

Here’s another:

We are much too much inclined in these days to divide people into permanent categories, forgetting that a category only exists for its special purpose and must be forgotten as soon as that purpose is served.

Again, both astute and relevant to modern life. That one is from Are Women Human? Penetrating, Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society

One more:

People who prefer to believe the worst of others will breed war and religious persecutions while the world lasts.

That’s from The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1899-1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist

I just thought I’d choose quotes from Sayers’ nonfiction. One can find a thousand pithy, accurate quotes from Gaudy Night — by far my favorite of her Peter Whimsy novels — but if you’ve never read any of her nonfiction, well, it’s worth taking a look at as well.

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

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

The book in question is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is quality important?

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

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

Bell then adds,

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

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

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

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

Here is Konrath’s post. A reasonable snippet:

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

What does this mean for writers?

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

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

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

CHASER is my next Jack Daniels book.

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

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

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

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

But I guess I could be wrong.

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

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Weird news from astronomy

A couple random headlines caught my eye this morning:

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, this:

Mass anomaly detected under the moon’s largest crater

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

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

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

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

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