Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The intricacies of commas

Here’s an entertaining and possibly useful post about commas:

You win this round comma.

Did you immediately get the joke in the title? Like: You win this round, comma. versus You win this round comma. I have to admit, I didn’t get it at first. I just found that sentence confusing, full stop.

Turns out it’s based on this joke:

And then the punctuation jokes continue:

[Oxford comma laughing in the distance.]

[Vocative comma wondering what Oxford comma thinks it’s doing here.]

And okay, yes, I thought that was all pretty funny because what can I say? I appreciate punctuation humor.

Anyway, the post is largely about the somewhat subtle-ish use of commas in restrictive vs nonrestrictive clauses and why you really, really cannot just stick a comma in where you would breathe. I will pause here to wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said to a student, “No, actually, you can’t just stick a comma in whenever you would take a breath. That is a completely unreliable method of putting commas into your paper. Sorry.”

Anyway, the post offers various examples, like so:

Restrictive—The bread that I bought yesterday is stale.

Not the bread I bought today, or the day before yesterday. The phrase “that I bought yesterday” is essential; it restricts the sentence to just that loaf of bread.

Nonrestrictive—The bread, which I bought yesterday, is stale.

The commas tell us there’s only one loaf of bread. That I bought it yesterday is informative but not essential, since readers just need to know it is stale.

The post also points out the [American English] use of “that” in restrictive versus “which” in nonrestrictive clauses, which I eventually internalized after three or so copy editors changed half my “whichs” to “thats,” or the other way around (I can’t remember my default before I started to follow the rule).

I never think “Is this clause restrictive?” by the way. I just put “which” after a comma. If there’s no comma, I put “that.” In order to use this shorthand, easy method, you have to have a feel for whether the comma goes there, so without that, I guess you can spend a lot of time asking yourself, “Uh, is this clause restrictive?”

From the linked post:

But is it that big a deal if I mess it up? Most of the time, no. Most of the time, context will help readers autocorrect the mistake and infer what you meant. Other times, getting this wrong will create ambiguity, or worse, confusion. All of the time, it creates extra work, and if part of your reader’s brain is busy trying to decode syntax-level meaning, that part of the brain cannot fall in love with your protagonist, your plot, or your prose.

I agree with this. I think a lot of writers make errors in punctuation, grammar, syntax, and word choice that cause brief confusion and extra work for their readers and they should all do their best to learn better.

However, as we all know, there are many usage choices for commas that are genuinely a matter of artistic judgment. In particular, the copy editor for one of my more recent books … I guess that was probably for WINTER OF ICE AND IRON … took out a lot of my commas after introductory clauses.

I was following the general “put a comma after introductory clauses” rule.

She was following the specific “short prepositional introductory clauses do not need a comma” rule.

After consideration, I let most of her changes stand. What’s more, going over the copy edits for that manuscript shifted my general inclination. Now, unless doing so improves clarity or rhythm, I don’t put a comma after a short prepositional introductory clause. That is, I now prefer not to use a comma in sentences like, “At last the warleader dismounted.” or “In the winter country we can evade them and stay out of their reach.” I’m still a little surprised that one copy editor could permanently shift my preference, but apparently so.

Another context in which commas are pretty much a matter of artistic taste is acknowledgments, such as “Yes, sir.” I very strongly prefer including a comma there, but plenty of writers disagree, as quickly becomes obvious if you read space opera and military SF. Also historical military fiction, I presume, though I haven’t specifically noticed. The only time I wouldn’t is if a character, speaking very fast, slurs the words together into “Yessir.”

Similarly, I think it’s crucial to use a comma in “Hi, Bob” even though lots of people don’t bother when dashing off a quick email.

So the linked article is pretty good, and now I’m curious: do you even notice whether there’s a comma in “Yes, sir” in military fiction, and does it bug you at all when the author disagrees with your preference?

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Keyboard shortcuts

Okay, after writing WINTER OF ICE AND IRON, I have a lot of keyboard shortcuts memorized for accent marks. Like:

Control + shift + : = an umlaut on top of the next vowel you type, for example.

I can type vowels with accent marks almost as fast as vowels without, which is seldom useful in normal life, probably, but there it is, a skill that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.

Yesterday what I wanted was the upside-down exclamation mark for Spanish. I have that sort of thing saved in a different Word document so I can open that document and copy and paste symbols without having to scroll (in vain, too often) through the “insert special character” list. Having the upside-down punctuation marks saved in a file has been my workaround for years, and it’s . . . a moderately convenient workaround, I guess.

Well, here is a super-useful post at Kill Zone Blog that tells me the keyboard shortcut for the upside-down exclamation point is:

ALT + 1 = ¡

I wish I’d known that yesterday! I have never taught myself the Alt shortcuts. There are heaps of them, apparently. The upside-down question mark is harder, and in fact the linked post does not appear to offer that one, so I googled it and it is this:

Alt + Ctrl + Shift + ? = ¿ 

I will never be able to do that on the fly, without looking at the keyboard. But on the other hand, it’s slightly more convenient than opening a different Word file to copy and paste the symbol.

The linked post offers lots more — too many, really — but those two above are the ones I need to remember.

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Falling down the rabbit hole

At Book View Cafe, this fun post by Phyllis Irene Radford: RESEARCH RABBIT HOLES

Back in 2000 I needed to know the name of the Bishop of Paris in 1558 for an historical fantasy Guardian of the Vision, Merlin’s Descendants #3.

A quick Google search provided me with a long list of names of every bishop of Paris since Rome appointed the first one back in the post Roman dark ages. Except there was an eight-year gap surrounding 1558. Blank. No name. Nothing.

This gap in the records eventually leads to the conclusion that beer is responsible for the rise of civilization. The rabbit hole that leads from the starting point to that conclusion is what makes the post fun.

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Writing “echoes”

Here’s a post by James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: Stir your echoes

A writing echo is the close repetition of a word or phrase:

Monica charged into the room.
“So there you are!” she said.
Harvey said, “You don’t understand.”
The girl in the bed elbowed Harvey. “I think she does.”
“See you in court,” Monica said as she charged out the door.

The obvious echo here is charged. The words occur in close proximity. The echo clangs on the ear of the reader. It’s what I call one of those writing “speed bumps” that, even for a brief moment, can take the reader out of a smooth, fictional ride.

So don’t put them in.

But an echo is easy for a writer to write and overlook when editing his own manuscript. It should be something a good editor or reader catches for you.

Bell is SO RIGHT that this kind of repeated word is “easy for a writer to write.” He does not go far enough in his comment. Let me rephrase it more forcefully:


Bell suggests doing a search to find words you tend to echo. Well, that’s a peachy idea, except that there is no specific word that I personally “tend to echo.” I mean, sure, maybe, but that isn’t the problem. If there were specific words, I could do a search for them as Bell says and there would be no problem.

But, no.

The problem is with every dratted word in the dictionary. It’s like the back of my brain says, OH! Let’s describe this guy as “sauntering!” And then for the rest of that page, the back of my brain continues to consider “saunter” and variations the ideal word for everyone moving anywhere. Then I’m over it and don’t use “saunter” or “sauntering” again during that book.

This is incredibly hard to spot when revising.

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Mystery and Suspense Novels: revealed!

So, I’m currently listening to a Great Courses offering called (somehwat amusingly) The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction. I do get a kick of the use of the word “secrets” in this kind of title — LOOK! SECRETS! Obviously there are no secrets to reveal; how could there be? It’s just a set of lectures about the development of this genre of fiction, from Edgar Allen Poe on forward.

Thirty-six lectures. The lecturer is David Schmid of, let me see, Stanford.

I’m enjoying listening to these lectures, mostly. The topic is inherently interesting but low-key. I mean, when I listened to a Great Courses offering on terrible military blunders, I literally could not bring myself to listen all the way through some of the lectures because hearing all about the drawn-out tragedy crashing down was sometimes too stressful. Obviously this topic isn’t like that.

So far Schmid has emphasized three stories by Poe, then the Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie, then the hardboiled detective era with a lot of emphasis on the Maltese Falcon, and honestly he has barely mentioned any of the mystery authors I most would like him to bring up. He did discuss Ngaio Marsh, not too extensively. Not a word yet about Rex Stout, though I have some hope he will appear at some point.

But what I want to rant about here is Schmid’s take on cozy mysteries.

I really would like to be in his actual class so I could write a paper (I assume he assigns papers) tearing apart his view on this subgenre. Let me summarize his position as clearly as I can:

a) Cozy mysteries are criticized for their lack of realism given the lack of on-stage, dramatic violence and career criminals and the central presence of amateur detectives rather than police or private detectives, but it is that very lack of realism that appeals to readers, especially in trying times, and

b) Cozy mysteries are defined by the above characteristics and by their setting in a small town or suburb, and if we look closely at mysteries and suspense novels with those sorts of settings, we will see how many such novels push against the perception of small towns and suburbs as safe and comfortable. Just look, for example, at Gone Girl and various other novels, which show us the dark underbelly of these settings! Thus we see that human tragedy and terror lurk even where we should feel safe.

… and I listened to this lecture all the way through thinking, Good heavens, what are you SAYING? Have you never actually READ cozy mysteries?

I surmise that David Schmid likes noir detective novels and psychological suspense novels and so on and that he doesn’t like cozy mysteries, and probably hates cutesy mysteries (if he acknowledges them at all), and that’s all very well, but I can hardly see how he could be more wrong if he tried. I mean, he’s right about the small town setting and about the protagonist being an amateur sleuth, and he’s sometimes right about the lack of realism (though not always!), but he’s totally wrong about the heart of the whole subgenre.

I’m certain I wrote a post on cozy mysteries not so very long ago, but whatever, here again are the actual defining characteristics of cozies, which do not overlap in any substantial way with psychological suspense regardless of setting:

Cozy mysteries —

–Generally have a small town or village or rural setting, so that’s fine.

–Generally center a female protagonist who is a the owner of a small and quirky business rather than a cop or detective — Schmid did not mention either of the bolded characteristics, just left it as “amateur detective.”

–Generally or always involve an important romance subplot that unfolds over the course of the series, frequently though not necessarily involving a cop or detective as the male lead. Schmid does not appear to have noticed this at all! This is completely antithetical to “showing us the dark underbelly of village life,” which he considers so important to the best writers of cozy mysteries.

Let me go way out on a limb and say that if the central point of the story is to show the reader the dark underbelly of anything, that story is NOT A COZY MYSTERY. Why do you think the word “cozy” is in the name of the subgenre? The whole POINT of a cozy mystery is to center and develop positive relationships, not only romances but friendships, between the female protagonist and a bunch of supporting characters, while also involving a mystery plot. The emphasis on positive relationships and romance is the single most central feature of cozy mysteries. THIS is what appeals to readers who like the subgenre! It’s like you dropped romance novels, mystery novels, and chick lit in a blender and hit the “blend” button. That’s what cosy mysteries ARE — mysteries with much more emphasis on romance and relationships than you will find in any other subgenre within mystery and suspense fiction.

This is OBVIOUS.

And Schmid does not seem to have noticed.

And that is why I would love to write a paper in his class.

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Here’s an article on the etymology of lots of words related to the Covid virus — LANGUAGE in a TIME of CORONA

The details here are really fascinating:

As with much of the early medical terminology, CRISIS migrated to English from Greece via Rome. The Greek word is krisis, and it was used in medicine by Hippocrates and Galen, but its general sense in ancient Greek was “judgment, the result of a trial, a selection.” It is from the verb krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” which probably is from a PIE root meaning “to sieve.”

To sieve or sift is, figuratively “to discriminate, to distinguish” (as when the police inspectors “sift through the evidence”). Sifting and winnowing were essential activities in agricultural communities, and their purpose is to separate that which is good or usable from that which is neither. Judgment is implied.

The Old English cognate is hriddel “a sieve.” Native English had the word only in a literal sense, and its best-known survival now probably is the derived verb RIDDLE“perforate with many holes.” (The other RIDDLE, the “word-puzzle” sense, is from a different root and is related to READand RHYME).

But beyond homely Old English the PIE “sieve” root has had a prolific sense development. In Latin it yielded both literal (cribrum “a sieve”) and figurative senses (crimen “indictment, accusation”), and words that had both: cernere “to sift, separate,” also “to distinguish.”

There’s lots more. Click through and read the whole (fascinating) thing.

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We live in a Science Fiction world

I know we live in a SF world, okay? I’m aware that this is The Future and we are living in it and new, wildly futuristic technology is everywhere, but still, this headline, which appears to be real (?) makes me blink:

KFC will test lab-grown chicken nuggets made with a 3D bioprinter this fall in Russia

The chicken chain has partnered with 3D Bioprinting Solutions to create a chicken nugget made in a lab with chicken and plant cells using bioprinting. Bioprinting, which uses 3D-printing techniques to combine biological material, is used in medicine to create tissue and even organs.

The 3D-printed chicken nuggets will closely mimic the taste and appearance of KFC’s original chicken nuggets, according to the press release. KFC expects the production of 3D-printed nuggets to be more environmentally friendly than the production process of its traditional chicken nuggets. The fall release will mark the first debut of a lab-grown chicken nugget at a global fast-food chain like KFC.

It’s not April 1st. I guess this is true?

Seems like a short step from this to Star Trek food replicators.

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Book cakes

Here’s a post at Book Riot that you can certainly sink your virtual teeth into: 19 UNBELIEVABLY REALISTIC BOOK CAKES THAT WILL HAVE YOU SIDE-EYEING YOUR BOOKSHELVES

I realize that photos of cakes that really, really look like books is … well, it’s a little hard to tell that they are actually cakes, rather than books. I’m taking their word for it that these are cakes. Although I wouldn’t be eager to slice into a super-fancy cake of any kind, I do feel a photo of a book cake would be improved by taking a slice out of it so that the viewer can tell for SURE that the thing is a cake, not a book.

The first entry is … THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO! That’s so appropriate given recent posts here, such as this one and this one.

No way to copy the image and post it here, so click through and enjoy the image at Book Riot. The one with the roses is my actual favorite.

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Voice acting for an audiobook

In case you’re interested, the voice actor who’s producing the audiobook for TUYO, Patrick McCaffrey, has a Facebook page, here, where he’s doing video presentations about the process of creating an audiobook.

Here’s his post where he records a chapter of TUYO. (With the help of a charming young cat, I’ll add.) This isn’t the first chapter, so it would be hard to figure out what’s going on if you haven’t read the book. I will say, he’s given Hokino a very dramatic style compared to Ryo or Aras. Probably that’s part of the continuing effort to make every character sound different, but part of it is that he’s drawing out the vowels a little for Ugaro — because, if you remember, that’s something Ryo is told very early, that to improve his accent in darau, he should shorten his vowels.

Here’s a sample of the comments and queries I get from Patrick — I think you’ll be impressed by how thorough and careful he is when he’s preparing to record:

Did the script analysis for chapters 5-10, and read ahead to chapter 14. I think I was slightly wrong in Esau’s personality, he’s more than just a generic soldier, he has a bit of a bored tone in most of what he does and says. And a lot of Lord Aras’ tone will continue to be a very knowing and matter-of-fact. And Harana’s impatience/annoyance will be a little more obvious. For Chapter 6 – Ianan – pronunciation ‘EE-ah-nan’ (like naan bread). For Deracas Govis Taranat, is the ‘G’ in Govis the same sound as in Geras’ name? Chapter 7 – Aedani – is the pronunciation ‘AY-ee-da-nee’ ; ‘AY-da-nee’ ; or ‘ay-DA-nee’ or some other pronunciation? All of the other new names are pretty straight forward. Chapter 8 – Laraut – ‘la-ROWT’ – friendly voice, somewhere between Esau and Suyet. Lalani – ‘la-LA-nee’ – mischievous and cheerful. Sestaket – ‘ses-KA-tet’ Chapter 9 – Hokino inKera – Proud, Strong, not without guile. Longer speech patterns to indicate Taksu. The entire interrogation feels like horse trading/haggling. Chapter 10 – Primarily a monologue about all the inner turmoil of his thoughts; his conflicts about honor and oaths and sorcery and magic. If there’s anything that is important that I didn’t mention, please let me know. 

And here’s a post where he does “pick ups” — corrections — later.

The whole thing makes me (even more) glad that I never for one second considered recording an audio version myself. A lot goes into this! I’ve listened to the first four complete chapters so far and I can assure you that the final product is smooth, nothing like the somewhat stumbling and repetitive recording process.

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When writing back cover descriptions …

Here is the back cover description for Chaos, by Iris Johansen, a book that’s included with this month’s SFBC mailing:

When CIA agent Alisa Flynn flaunts the rules by breaking into a mansion in the middle of the night, she skillfully circumvents alarms and outwits guards only to find herself standing in billionaire Gabe Korgan’s study . . . busted by Korgan himself. This could cost her her job unless, in a split second, she can turn the tables and try to convince him to join her on the most important mission of her life.

In a ripped-from-the-headlines plot, schoolgirls in Africa have been kidnapped, and Alisa knows that Korgan has the courage, financial means, and high-tech weaponry to help rescue them. With so many innocent lives hanging in the balance, what she doesn’t reveal is that one of those schoolgirls is like a little sister to her. But when the truth gets out, the stakes grow even higher.

Calling in additional assistance from renowned horse whisperer Margaret Douglas, Alisa and Gabe lay their plans, only to see them descend into chaos as the line between right and wrong wavers before them like a mirage. Every path is strewn with pitfalls, each likely to get them — or the hostages — killed. But with the help of a brave team and a horse with the heart of a warrior, they might just get out of this alive.

Quick! Who spotted the problem with the above description?

This is actually the first time I’ve personally seen someone using “flaunt” when they mean “flout.” I’ve heard other people say this is one of the typos in their personal top ten most hated, but I’ve never noticed it and don’t think the words seem that same and kind of wondered whether this error is actually all that common.

Well, I guess maybe it is, if it got into the book’s description on Amazon and in the SFBC mailing and no one caught it.

I think this particular error has to occur for people who don’t subvocalize. The words do not sound very much alike to me, so I suspect those who do subvocalize don’t tend to make this mistake. What do you all think? Is this a typo that gives you trouble, and if so, do you or don’t you silently pronounce words as you read them?

I like the general sound of the story, but typo aside, the description does have a few problems. You can’t convince anybody of anything in “a split second.” Convincing somebody necessarily takes time. It’s not clear why the protagonist reserves the information that one of the children is special to her — what’s the reasoning there? I get why the person who wrote the description wanted to mention the horse — lots of readers like horses — but this “And there’s a horse!” type of mention seems weird to me. One sentence indicating why a horse is a useful in a rescue mission in Africa would have helped a lot.

I think what I actually like is my impression of what this story could be, depending on how the author wrote it. I like the idea of the story I would write if I were matching that description. Having never read anything by this author, it’s difficult to guess whether I’d like the story Johansen wrote. I know this isn’t SFF, but has anybody read anything by her? What did you think?

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