Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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An unusual happy ending in Paradise

So, the fire. That was pretty horrifying.

It seems as though there’s not much room to cast blame around, though I understand why a lot of people feel blame ought to go somewhere.

Apparently cell service was very, very poor in the town, so a lot of residents didn’t have cell phones or didn’t get the warnings; also the warning system in place, which did call landlines as well as cells, could not make 10,000 calls per minute. That would have been nice, but no. I don’t hear my landline phone if it rings at night; it’s upstairs. I turn my cell on airplane at night to conserve the battery; reception is so terrible that the charge runs down super fast if I leave my phone on. I completely understand why a lot of the residents did not get the warnings.

The fire started early in the morning and reached the town at an hour that was still early-ish, and then the evacuation plan that might have worked for a fire moving at a rate of one football field per minute wasn’t adequate for a fire moving at a rate of one football field per second, which is one estimate I’ve seen. Hard to imagine how incredibly fast this fire was moving as it approached the town.

And finally, Paradise was built in a place where all the roads were constrained by geographical features: no way to put in anything wide. Gridlock was inevitable, probably.

It’s probably true that aggressively cleaning out the underbrush would have helped. Or staging small fires at safe intervals, but that’s trickier than some proposals make it seem, because if there’s a drought for several years, then there’s no safe time for a burn. A buddy system would have been nice. Not error-proof by any means, but very useful for those who didn’t have good phone contact, probably.

So, honestly, although things could probably have been handled better, especially if authorities had had a time machine so they knew how fast that fire would move, it looks like most likely things couldn’t have been handled much better, given the way events unfolded. Here’s an article about this. 

It was just a terrible place for a town. You could say that about a lot of towns after the fire or earthquake or hurricane hits, of course.

Here’s a good video. I admire the calm of the father who’s driving his sons out of the inferno. If you watch long enough, you’ll see the darkness give way to daylight as the car emerges from the smoke. It’s impossible to believe this video was shot during the daytime until that happens.

And here is the orchard that survived the end of Paradise:

“So,” I asked, “Is it all gone? Is the green stone house gone?”

“It’s all gone,” Mr. Noble said. “All except the trees. The orchard survived.”

“What? How’s that possible?”

“My trees were still all green and full of leaves and fruit. There was a fire break I put in years ago and have been improving. When the fire got to our place there was no easy food to be had from my apple trees. They were too moist and out of reach. The fire went around them. My trees are still there. The orchard made it.”

That makes me unreasonably happy. I’m glad something survived in Paradise. If no one wants to build a town there again — which would be very reasonable — maybe the whole area could be turned into orchards.

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Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists

I’m sure you all saw Franzen’s Rules on Twitter, because there were so many funny responses, but hey, if you missed it:

Here are Franzen’s 10 Rules. They are in fact ridiculous, and Literary Hub should be embarrassed to have given them space. More on that in a moment.

Many, many novelists jumped in with their own lists, as you might expect.

Much hilarity ensued, of which, taken in its entirety, my favorite was Chuck Wendig’s takedown.

Here is Literary Hub’s follow-up piece, showing that yes, they actually were embarrassed, at least after the fact.

Now, if you missed out on everything, I bet you’re curious, so if you are undecided about clicking through, here are Franzen’s 10 Rules:

1.The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

2. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

3. Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.

4. Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

6. The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.

8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

10.  You have to love before you can be relentless.

Here are two of Chuck Wendig’s responses:

“I really hate the prohibitions against language that demand you not use a whole chunk of words, or ask that you prescriptively remove a common word from your stable of words. NO ADVERBS is bad advice that writers should stop telling other writers, f’rex.”

And also this:

“I’m just gonna try to say something vaguely profound and hope people are moved by it. And if they’re not, they at least pretend to be moved by it, because they don’t want to feel stupid.”

There you go, I don’t have to say those things because Chuck said them. Along with a lot of other pithy things that you should click through and read, but moving on: 

I missed out on my chance to jump on this bandwagon until it was too late … partly because I follow Rule 8 more closely than I would like to … but sure, 10 Rules for Novelists, no problem. I love many of the short, funny versions produced on Twitter, especially the ones that are just song lyrics set to the ten-rule pattern, but I’m not that creative, so how about actual rules that are possibly more useful and certainly a lot less fake-profound than Franzen’s:

1.Not all readers will like your books. Even the readers who love most of your books probably won’t like them all. Don’t worry about that. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway. Put it out of your mind and write for yourself and for the readers who will love this particular book.

2. Writing for money is also okay.

3. If an adverb would improve your sentence or your scene, go for it. Ditto for other parts of speech, including “then” and “and.” If you’re concerned you might have gone overboard with a word such as “very,” it’s tedious but possible to look at your manuscript and take out 3/4 of the uses of “very” before you call it done. (That’s on my mind because I’m doing that in fits and starts for my current WIP, since I don’t want to do it all at once at the end.)

4. If writing is in any way reminiscent of a journey into the frightening or the unknown, maybe you should calm down a trifle before proceeding. Have some hot chocolate. Pet a puppy, I hear that helps. 

5. Write in third or first, whichever works. Write in present or past tense, whichever works. If it’s not working, switch and see if that’s better.

6. Listen to your beta reader’s opinions.

7. But don’t take that advice if you can’t stand to. It’s your book in the end and you hopefully have a pretty good feel for it.

8. If you fall down the rabbit hole of research and never come out, it might be hard to finish your book. But the internet is a super-keen means of quickly finding out how to make explosives out of common household items or look up how much weight a single Siberian husky can easily pull or whatever other adventurous details your life might not have prepared you to just know off hand.

9. It’s okay not to write every day if that works for you. Everybody’s process is different.

10. And imo the only truly universal rule for all novelists everywhere: If you want to be successful as a novelist, you must finish at least some of what you start.

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Recent Reading: The Wind Reader by Dorothy A Winsor

As you perhaps know, I haven’t been reading much this year, especially not since August, when the obsessive WIP happened. I’m now revising that manuscript, and let me tell you, the revision may not be as obsessive as writing the first draft, but it is still a lot more compelling than ordinary revision. No comparison. Nevertheless, it’s revision, so I am now reading again, if you count “reading for 20 minutes before bed, sometimes” as reading, which I guess I do, this year. I do wonder when and if I might actually be able/ inclined to make inroads in my (still growing) TBR pile. Fortunately some of the pile is electronic, so my house is not actually collapsing from the weight of accumulating books.

Anyway, I am reading at least a little now, so I managed to finish this one:

The Wind Reader is a Middle Grade story, just about perfect for taking in 20 minute chunks, at least to begin with. Doniver’s traveling with his father, plague hits the ship, his father dies, and he gets stranded far from home without a penny to his name. So Doniver falls in with a couple other penniless kids and winds up faking fortune telling to earn the odd coin and the plot unrolls from there, as various important people buy into the fortune-telling shtick.

So: street kids and a gritty, hand-to-mouth struggle to survive; false fortune-telling and true-fortune telling; enemies and friends and a good scattering of characters who switch from one category to the other; princes, acrobats, assassins, and the odd gardener; and, unintentionally in the middle of everything, Doniver, trying to get home without completely compromising his honor and preferably without abandoning his friends or leaving assassins on the loose.

The story was a little young for me – you all probably know I don’t read a ton of MG – but by the end I wound up getting a little too absorbed by it, so that I put off reading the last 50 pages until I’d have time to read  the rest all at one time (ie, more than 20 minutes right before turning out the lights). I finally finished it during the snow day yesterday, so yay for snow days!

Here’s why the story wound up pulling me in:

a) Sons and fathers.

This story includes some very important friendships, but the most intense relationships are between sons and their fathers – even if a father or a son happens, in some cases, to be deceased. Where a MG reader might notice primarily the adventure story, I was drawn in by the added depth these relationships brought to the story. And yes, there were also important daughter-mother relationships and so on, but the son-father theme is so powerful, I would call that the thematic heart of the story.

b) Trust and honor.

If you’ve read more than one or two of my books, you can’t possibly have missed that trust is an important theme for me. So is honor. Those are the big issues Doniver struggles with in The Wind Reader. Telling false fortunes is a really big deal for him. He’s lying about something that is of great cultural importance to him. How can he justify that? But how can he not do it, given his terrible situation? Besides that, he really wants to trust Beren, the prince for whom he’s telling fortunes. But he doesn’t dare. Then things go wrong … and more wrong … and Doniver finds himself with his back to the figurative wall, forced to make very fast choices. Which of course he does, that goes without saying.

c) Good writing.

Smooth prose, sufficiently invisible that the writing style doesn’t especially catch the reader’s attention. I did notice one line which I would like to steal:

“She’s smarter than you are about this stuff.” Jarka spat into the dirt. “You begged for trouble none of us needs.” He clumped down the alley, his crutch thumping with each step like a series of sharp words.

His crutch thumping like a series of sharp words! That did catch my eye, so I marked the page to make sure I’d remember to mention it. But mostly the writing is unobtrusive.

Who should read this book?

Well, practically any MG reader who likes fantasy. The story’s straightforward enough to appeal to rather young MG readers, probably, but there’s enough complexity to it that older readers should enjoy it too. In particular, if you have a kid whom you think would love The Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones, but the kid isn’t quite old enough for that one, then The Wind Readerwould probably be a good choice. Plenty of the same themes, but aimed at a slightly younger reader.

What I didn’t care for:

This was not a big deal, but the dirt and grime involved in life as street kids hit my gross-out buttons a little more than I’d have preferred. Especially Tava’s bag, but really all the dirt. Ugh. But my guess is a good many MG readers would find this element actually a plus, especially boys.

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Ivory dust jelly, really

Here’s a great post by Brenda Clough at Book View Cafe: Feeding your invalid in the 19th century.

Of course we already know about the treatments thought appropriate at the time, all those leeches and so on, but this? This is new to me:

1 lb. ivory dust (obtain it from any ivory turner, or a druggist)

5 pints cold water

½ teaspoon salt

Lemon juice or essence, to flavor

Put the dust in an earthen jar with the water and salt, and simmer for 12 hours. Take off all the liquid that is clear, and add flavoring. Another 4 pints of water may be added to the dust and simmered again. Add to other dishes as a strengthening ingredient.

I suppose it gels on its own, since gelatin does not appear to be required. 

Remarkable. Probably reasonably harmless, though, which makes it an improvement on many medical treatments of the time.

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Barnes and Noble tries a new strategy

This seems like a sensible idea; or rather, trying something different seems like a sensible idea: Barnes and Noble is opening a smaller store.

Maybe they’re going to try to capture more of a boutique feel at some stores. Maybe that’ll work. 

If it were me, I’d probably try something like that. Maybe open small bookstores that cater to particular genres, add a bigger coffeeshop and free wi-fi, plenty of comfortable furniture … what else? How about welcoming dogs and adding a patio for people to sit with their dogs while they have coffee and read. 

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We absolutely live in a science-fiction universe

Check out this headline:

Bacteria Ride Bionic Mushrooms to Generate Electricity

What do you get when you combine the high-tech world’s “wonder material”—graphene—with a lowly fungus? A bionic mushroom, of course.

Researchers at the Stevens Institute of Technology have reported in the journal Nano Letters the seamless merging of cyanobacterial cells and graphene nanoribbons on the cap of a mushroom. The resulting combination represents a three-dimensional interface between the microbiological kingdom (cyanobacteria and mushroom) and smart electronic nanomaterial (graphene nanoribbons).

The researchers believe that this approach—which they refer to as bacterial nanobionics—can spur the development of next-generation “designer bio-hybrid” functional architectures for applications ranging from sensors to “smart” hydrogel materials.     

I can’t possibly add anything to this. 

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Sharing your brain

Here’s a post by James Davis Nicholl: Get Out of My Head, about the somewhat uncommon SFF trope where a character permanently shares space in their brain with someone else.

Interesting! Especially because I’ve read most of these (and I swear I really will read Ninefox Gambit eventually).

Mentioned in this post:

Penric. Yay, Desdemona! If you have to share your brain with someone, or multiple someones, this is the way to do it. Awesome magic powers and besides, Desdemona is a nice person. People. Mostly.

Ninefox Gambit. I didn’t know this had the sharing-the-brain trope in it. Nicholl says:

Yoon Ha Lee’s Captain Kel Cheris, in the Machineries of Empire series, is both brilliant and expendable. She is therefore chosen as host to the stored memories of the noted military genius and homicidal maniac Shuos Jedao. She is not allowed to refuse. Cheris and Jedao manage to work out a modus vivendi, one that changes both in dramatic ways.

That sounds really neat! The book just ticked upward on my vast TBR stack.

Cormac  in Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series. I’ve never read that but listen to this:

[Cormac] is a mundane human with an inordinate talent for hunting and killing monsters. The American judicial system takes a surprisingly dim view of Cormac’s prudent custom of gunning down people he deems a threat and sends Cormac off to a stint in prison. A haunted prison, to be exact—at least of one of whose ghosts makes a compelling case that Cormac should serve as their new home.

That also sounds really neat! — and here is where it occurs to me that I apparently think this is a pretty snazzy trope. I didn’t realize I felt that way, perhaps because the trope is not all that common. But both of these descriptions make me want to pick up the book immediately.

Leland de Laal in Steven Gould’s Helm

The glass helm … was stored on an unclimbable mountain peak for very good reason. It is the last surviving imprinter, a device that downloads the knowledge and personality of a long-dead scientist and martial artist. It can also be configured to enslave others…

Ah, that one sounds alarming.

But not as alarming as this one:

Aleytys in Jo Clayton’s Diadem series. Wow, I read that a loooong time ago. I liked it, but I believe I eventually gave the series away, so not that much, I guess. Here’s Nicholl’s acerbic comment:

Aleytys didn’t agree to have the recorded memories of several dead people installed in her head. All she did was don a mysterious alien artifact without asking sensible questions like “Is this a powerful psionic device in which are stored the minds of the deceased?” or “Will I discover that, having donned this stupendous example of alien technology whose owners no doubt want it back, it cannot then be removed?” Yes to both! There’s probably a lesson to be learned here.

In contrast, Steven Dalt in F Paul Wilson’s Healer didn’t do anything wrong, stupid, or desperate. He just hid in a caver for a minute and wham! Permanent new person installed in his head. I read this a long time ago too. Pretty sure I still have a copy. I should re-read it one of these days.

Nicholl finishes off with Silverberg’s To Live Again, which I haven’t read; it’s an SF story where people voluntarily host the minds of the wealthy, who pay for the privilege, I gather.

Other examples? I have one, but this trope wasn’t as thoroughly developed in Mountain as it might be in, for example, a sequel:

Disembodied memory is kind of the thing. I would bet that in any sequel, Gulien’s secondary personality might be more of a thing. Especially because I have now noticed that I like this trope and would probably enjoy developing the idea. It’s not quite what previous Kiebas have experienced, but then Gulien’s initial experiences weren’t quite customary either.

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A real-life happy ending

I saw the original link at The Passive Voice blog; the post is by a guy named Chris Wilson: The books that saved my life in prison.

I thought, The world is so big. It’s full of ideas and people. I can go anywhere. I can do anything. I can be anyone I want.

It didn’t happen. At 17, I killed a man in a confrontation. I was sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole. I sat on my bunk that day, in my solitary confinement cell, and cried, because my life was over….

Steve and I didn’t read alone. Other prisoners saw us and were inspired. So we started the Book Crushers, where we challenged each other to read the most books each month. (I was number one for more than five years in a row.) Around 2005, I started a book club. I put together a list of books I wanted and wrote letters to hundreds of organizations and famous people I read about in magazines asking if they would donate one of those books to the Patuxent library. Can you imagine how special that was to hear the library got a new book and realize it was one I asked for, and that someone donated it because of me?

I didn’t just live for that library. I lived because of that library. The Patuxent prison library saved me from crushing despair. It saved hundreds of other guys, too….

This post didn’t quite clarify where Chris Wilson is today. Well, I’ll tell you, he’s out of prison and doing fine. In this case, I’m sure glad the life-in-prison thing got reduced by a bunch.

Here are a bunch of programs that supply books to prisoners, in case you, like me, find that these posts inspire you to look for such programs.

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When you have a lot of apples

Last year we lost all our fruit to:

a) a late freeze

b) squirrels

c) drought

This year, we avoided the late freeze (mostly), and cleared back all the trees that had grown enough to allow squirrels to get avoid the electric wire and get over the fence, and had plenty of rain. That last was especially amazing. We almost never get enough rain. We did have almost no rain in September, but basically this was an outstanding year for rainfall.

We have six apple trees: Fuji, which hardly bears most years; Honeycrisp, which ditto; Hokotu, which bears about every other year; Liberty, which is too young a tree to really predict; Goldrush, which bears heavily every other year; and Pink Lady, which bears heavily every year if you give her half a chance.

Hokotu put on a lot of apples. They ripen early and we ate them briskly; that’s not a storage apple. Like most earlier apples, it’s best used right away. Liberty is a late-ish apple and bore very, very well. Lovely unblemished apples. Excellent tree, but I’m finding that although it’s stored pretty well, the fruit, picked a month ago, is now really too sweet for me.

Goldrush bore pretty well. Tart apple, not always my favorite, but all the apples are well-flavored this year, I’m guessing because of the rain. We just picked the last of them because it’s supposed to get down under thirty in a few days.

Pink Lady as always bore a very heavy crop of good, if small, apples. They’ll easily last into March, stored in plastic bags in the fridge, with plenty of overflow stored in plastic bags in my bedroom (which I keep cold) and in an unheated garage. 

Of course we are making all kinds of apple pies and cakes and things, but here is my favorite recipe so far, which helpfully uses the greatest number of apples of any single recipe I’ve tried:

Apple-Date Salad

This is actually a dessert. I don’t remember where I got this recipe so I don’t know who’s trying to kid whom here, but this is not remotely a salad, even though that’s what it says on my card. The original has celery in it, probably to maintain the illusion of saladness, but I zapped the celery the second time I made this because really, it is so not a salad. But if you want, you can add 1/2 C sliced celery and tell people firmly it’s a salad. Maybe they’ll buy it. Anyway:

5 apples, diced, or more like ten small Pink Lady apples. Toss in another, what the heck, some of these are practically crabapples they’re so small (I am using the smallest ones up first).

1 C chopped dates

1/2 C halved pecans

4 oz or so cream cheese, softened

4 oz or so sour cream

4 oz or so cream, whipped

1/4 C sugar, more or less

Soften the cream cheese if necessary. Beat with sour cream and sugar. Whip the cream and fold that in. Add the apples, dates, and pecans. Chill an hour or so. There you go: Umm.

Do not leave out the dates, even if you don’t like dates. I mean, you can do whatever you want, but the chewiness is very appealing in combination with the crisp apples, the sweetness is an asset with the tart Pink Ladies, and the date flavor is practically unnoticeable.

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The “H-word”

At Terrible Minds, this guest post from Alan Baxter: The H-Word

I often used to have conversations that went something like this:

Some person: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a writer.

That person: Oh, cool! What do you write?

Me: Horror, mostly, usually mixed up with a lot of crime and thriller stuff.

But they already narrowed their eyes at the first word. Everything I said after “horror” was a blur to them, and I just know they’re visualizing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Freddy Kruger, slicing knives and gouting blood. 

Baxter discusses this phenomenon and then segues to his newer conversational gambits:

Some person: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a writer.

That person: Oh, cool! What do you write?

Me: Supernatural thrillers mostly, often mixed up with a lot of crime and noir stuff.

Or

Me: Dark fiction, thrillers with weird supernatural and crime elements.

Much discussion then ensues. It’s worth reading, so click through if you have a minute and find the topic interesting. I do find it interesting, partly because I have exactly the reaction Baxter describes … oh, wait, no, not exactly.

When I hear the word “horror,” I do think, How gross is this going to get, because I hate too much disgusting imagery. That obviously overlaps with the slasher flick idea, though spurting blood is not gross. I don’t feel inclined to describe the kinds of things that are too gross for me, but violence alone is not what I’m thinking of.

But more importantly, when I hear “horror,” I also think, Probably too grim and awful for me. When I hear “supernatural crime thriller,” I think, Oh, that sounds like it might be pretty keen. I don’t think of horror as a code word for slasher flicks, I think of horror as a code word for “Characters you really like are probably going to die in terrible ways and the ending may be completely awful and tragic.”

Baxter points out that Steven King is (a) the best-known horror writer, and (b) not writing slasher novels, which is true, but you know what King does write? Books where characters I really like are probably going to die in terrible ways, no matter how he has to contort the plot to kill them. He didn’t used to predictably do that, but then all his books started to include this element, and now I never touch his novels because I simply hate that. I never watched enough slasher flicks to have much of an association with them, but I read enough King novels to have this other association set in pretty firm concrete.

When I hear “dark fantasy” or “supernatural thriller” or something like that, I don’t have the same reaction. This is largely because I expect dark fantasy and thrillers of all kinds to have positive endings, and I can at least hope the gross-out factor might be low-ish. So, though I have no problem if Baxter wants to try to reclaim the word and get people to think of something less awful when they hear “horror,” if he wants to make readers like me click through to Amazon and check out his books, he really ought to continue saying “supernatural crime thriller.”

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