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A Laura Florand week –

July 21st, 2014

This week, over at Chachic’s Book Nook, we have a series of guest posts about Laura Florand’s books! Just thought I’d mention it, as some of you may also be Florand fans. Also, I’ll have a guest post over there later this week, so I’ll give you a pointer when that goes up.


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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 21st, 2014
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Another look into the past: THE MAGIC AND THE HEALING by Nick O’Donohoe

July 21st, 2014

I am pretty sure I’ve mentioned this one before in several different contexts, but probably not lately. Let me mention it now, at somewhat greater length.

But first! What is it with covers for re-issued books? Once again, not a very appealing cover for the newer edition:


And once again, the original cover was far superior:


Hello, marketing departments? Who in the world would prefer the new cover? Do you really think that radiograph of a unicorn’s head even faintly evokes the story? I grant you, it is logically connected to the story, more or less, but it is also ugly and unappealing.

Weigh in, people: agree / disagree on this pair of covers? Am I wrong in thinking the marketing department did this cover redesign on Clueless Day?

Anyway, the book!

THE MAGIC AND THE HEALING was first published in 1994, so 20 years ago. O’Donohoe has written a decent handful of books, including two sequels to this book; TOO TOO SOLID FLESH, a fairly ambitious Shakespeare thing that is a bit hard to describe, but if you’re into Hamlet you should check it out; and THE GNOMEWRENCH IN THE DWARFWORKS, a WWII home front story with, yes, gnomes and dwarfs.

I actually like all of his books that I’ve read, but THE MAGIC AND THE HEALING is my hands-down favorite. Like so many other excellent books, it hit the massive ocean of Available Titles and vanished with nary a trace, at least so far as I know. I never see it on lists of great books, but it seriously deserves to be pulled back into the light of day. There don’t appear to be ebook versions, unfortunately, but it is still available in print.

Do you happen to have a teenager around who reads fantasy and thinks she or he might like to be a veterinarian? Did you yourself ever think you might like to be a vet? For that matter, *are* you a vet? I loaned this book to my own vet; she loved it and gave it two thumbs up for the medical details.

My impression from an informal survey is that many many many girls and some boys at least toy with the idea of becoming a veterinarian. I know I did! Let me tell you, if you checked Yes for any of the above, you really must track down a copy of this book.

In Virginia, veterinary student BJ Vaughan cleans out her locker, about to give up on animal medicine forever.

In Crossroads, an injured unicorn needs help . . .

We get more than unicorns in this book. We have centaurs, fauns, werewolves, and the occasional sheep, all with their own particular medical issues, not to mention their own social customs and sometimes scary personalities. We also have a splendid griffin, the very one that made me want to put griffins into a story of my own, a griffin who . . . okay, approaching spoilers, there, so never mind. But you will love the griffin. Really.

Anyway, as an additional rotation in veterinary school, Crossroads is hard to beat, though venturing into Crossroads does come with a certain amount of danger. Well, a lot of danger, actually, given the invading army and everything, but there we’re getting into spoilers again. Moving on, moving on.

So: BJ Vaughn is a great protagonist. She is intelligent, capable, and perceptive. In fact, I remember quite plainly how this book demonstrated to me the difference between intelligent, capable, perceptive characters and characters whom the author insists has those qualities, without actually providing evidence. When I first read this, I had just read something forgettable with a protagonist whom all the secondary characters treated as special for no obvious reason, so the contrast was dramatic. Actually, if you want a primer on How To Write Characters Who Really Are Unusually Perceptive, this book is a good choice.

We also have a large cast of excellent secondary characters, even aside from the Griffin and various centaurs and fauns and so forth. For example, Sugar Dobbs, the vet in charge of this peculiar rotation. Also Lee Anne, Dave, and Annie, BJ’s fellow students. I will note here, since it is unusual in modern fantasy, that these secondary characters are diverse in a broader sense than the one in which we use the term today: one is from a poor rural southern background and one is from a devout Christian background. Both are handled well and respectfully by the author and the story.

Although THE MAGIC AND THE HEALING is the first book of a trilogy, it can absolutely be read as a standalone; it closes beautifully. Though the two sequels are worth picking up if you like the first, in my opinion, this one is the strongest of the three. I am just positive you will enjoy this book if you appreciate strong, straightforward writing and you’re at all into veterinary medicine.

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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 21st, 2014
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The writing life: an update

July 18th, 2014


I just thought you might like to know how things stand as we head into the back half of July.

Wow, can’t believe how fast the summer is going.

Anyway! KERI is going pretty well. I’m no longer working on the SF space opera thing, though it’s in excellent shape to pick up, I know way more about the next several scenes than I used to. But I’m dying to wrap up this rough draft of KERI and that’s my only real focus now.

Yesterday afternoon was frustrating, as I had 84,000 words when I turned on my laptop, and hours later, I once again had 84,000 words. I suppose I should be grateful this two-steps-forward-three-steps-back thing hasn’t happened more often with this project. Shoot, I *am* grateful that hasn’t happened more often! But it was still frustrating. I got over that hump later in the evening and wound up nearly making my minimum 1500 words for the day, so it was basically fine.

This is one of the few books I’ve worked on where I am not over in terms of length. Often at this point I’m cheering when I cut words, but not this time. I also don’t think I will have a huge amount of junk pages to cut at the end, which will make a nice change. I’m pretty sure this one will come in at roughly the 350 pp my contract specifies — if anything, it might be a little short — well, I probably shouldn’t say that, as in fact every single scene takes more pages than you expect. (This is an ironclad rule, in my experience.)

I am indeed expecting to get the full rough draft completed by August first, and get the first beat-it-into-shape-for-Caitlin revision done in the first week of August. It will help (a lot) that I take off the last week of July and the first two weeks of August (the summer session is winding up, and classes don’t start for Fall till August 18th, hence the break). Caitlin then has the challenge of turning the manuscript around in time for me to revise again before the September 15th deadline. Caitlin is great about helping me meet deadlines, plus I usually revise fast, so barring acts of God, this should not be a problem.

I would take a significant break while waiting for Caitlin’s comments, except it seems a shame to waste all those days off, so I will most likely work on the KEHERA revision — lots to do on that one, it’s a mess, but it’s a great mess and I’m looking forward to getting back into it. THEN when school starts, I will take a break. Except for going on with self-publication projects. Whew, quite a year, really looking forward to what I hope will be a slower pace next year.

Meanwhile! I’m trying to come up with possibilities for a real title for KERI.

My favorite title so far, by a mile, is SPUN SUGAR MAGIC. Alas, it honestly doesn’t fit the book. The baking thing does go through KERI from front to back, but it’s such a minor element that, well, no, just can’t see it. That would be a fabulous title for a MG story, though, don’t you think? Anybody who has a MG manuscript out there and wants this title, feel free.

My other favorite at the moment is THE WYVERN KING. The actual Wyvern King in the story is an important figure looming in the background through a lot of the book — actually, I need to go make him loom more in the earlier part of the story. That will be part of my first revision. In fact, a few days ago, I invented a child’s counting song about him, and I’ll need to go work that into the earlier part of the book so it doesn’t come out of nowhere in the last bit, and let me just say, writing a child’s song is fun, but way more work than writing the actual story. I don’t like one line, may have to change it eventually.

Anyway, my main characters are juuuust about to meet the Wyvern King in person, if not today, then certainly this weekend. After that I will know a lot more about him.

I think I know the rest of the plot. No guarantees, even at this point. The reason my outline matches my story is that I change the outline ALL THE TIME, but I do think the endgame is shaping up and is not too likely to make any sudden left turns. From my perspective; I hope readers will find some of the upcoming events startling!

So, yeah. I also need to pull some of shoulder-high weeds in my yard, especially the ones setting burrs because burrs + spaniel ears = bad news and I’m getting tired of having to brush all the burrs out of the dogs’ ears twice a day. You’d think they’d have run out of burrs by now, but evidently not. I know the plants must be along the fenceline and in with the shrubs, so I should be able to find them all — I just need to go out there and do it. That’s my other priority for the weekend.

I hope all of you have a great weekend, productive if you’ve got stuff to do or relaxing if you have time!

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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 18th, 2014
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Yet another art post — Julie Dillon

July 18th, 2014

So, yeah, but there are all these art things that keep catching my eye.

First, a brief post up about Julie Dillon and her art at

Second, a kickstarter for an art book Dillon wants to self-publish. I haven’t decided whether to join in funding this kickstarter, btw, and I’m not particularly suggesting you join in, either. I just mention it for anyone interested.

Third, shoot, while we’re on the subject, here’s Dillon’s actual website.

And, to remind you all about Dillon’s style and because it’s pretty, if you don’t have time to click through, here’s a detail of one of her paintings, Taking Flight, with, yes, a dragon:

Taking flight

I think this is my favorite of the works pictured for the kickstarter project. Because, hey, dragon! Also, I like the, I don’t know, cheerful, exuberant feel of the piece.

You know, one of the things I especially enjoy at conventions is art panels. As long as they’re not too technical, I like to listen to artists talk about their methods and show early sketches and discuss color choices and everything. I’m tempted to say, “I don’t know anything about it, but I know what I like.” Ouch, cliche, I know! But after all, it *is* true.

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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 18th, 2014
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Past Reading: Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls by Jane Lindskold

July 17th, 2014

Speaking of cover art, I’m sorry, but I hate this new cover for Lindskold’s BROTHER TO DRAGONS, COMPANION TO OWLS:


The original cover is much better. Here is a little thumbnail which will hopefully give you a general idea:


Now, the reason I was thinking of this book recently — it was published in 1994, which is when I first bought it, so it’s not one that comes up in casual conversations about books all that often anymore — is because of AN INTERIOR LIFE. This book is completely different. But when I think of the category Unique SFF Novels, this book is one that leaps to mind.

As it happens, it was Lindskold’s debut novel, and she notes that she is “irrationally fond of it.” Hah! The reason she’s fond of it is because it’s an excellent book that must have been a challenge to write. Also a lot of fun.

Sarah is insane. After all, she talks to walls, rubber dragons, and other inanimate objects. What no one else knows is that the inanimate answers her back. When budget cuts put Sarah out of a mental home and onto the streets, she is adopted by a street gang ruled by Head Wolf, a sometimes brutal man who may be as insane as she is. But someone wants Sarah — perhaps merely to put her back inside, perhaps for more sinister reasons. Championed by the hacker Abalone, assisted by other members of the Pack, Sarah goes into hiding, but hiding may not be enough to preserve her freedom — or her life.

The thing about Sarah is she can’t speak normally, she can’t read or accurately process written words. She can, however, remember and parrot emotionally charged language, so she communicates by means of appropriate quotes from Shakespeare and so on. She also talks to her two-headed rubber dragon, named Betwixt and Between. Talking to toys is not unusual, but they talk back, and the reader is immediately confronted with the whole question of how much of this is in Sarah’s head. In that way, it’s similar to AN INTERIOR LIFE, because there the entire fantasy plot could be in Sue’s head.

In this one, though, every now and then an inanimate object will tell Sarah something really useful that she has absolutely no way of knowing. How this works is not really adequately explained — there is some handwaving, but it doesn’t really make sense, not that this is likely to bother the reader, because this is a story that pulls you in from the first moment.

Today, this little gem of a novel (220 pp) might be published as a dystopia, since that’s such a Thing right now. But the focus is not on a horrible repressive government, though given the street society Sarah joins, it’s obvious that there must be dystopian elements to the broader society. The bad guys are part of an Evil Corporation, though, rather than a Repressive Government.

This is told in a first-person-present-tense voice that I believe was less common at the time it was written, and that is still hard to pull off. Sarah is an excellent protagonist, especially the contrast between her as an adult character with adult complexity and motivations, and the way those around her tend to treat her as younger and more innocent because of her problems with communication. There are a good many secondary characters, mostly drawn broadly but well. Lindskold does a fine job making every character interesting and believable — in Head Wolf’s case, it’s amazing that Lindskold pulled off “believable”, but you really WANT him to be real. His Jungle Books-based gang is a wonderful element to the story. In fact, this novel crams a lot of disparate pieces into its short length, yet they somehow all make sense as you read the story. Writing any kind of synopsis must have been tough!

Jane Lindskold has written quite a few books, but I must admit, I haven’t read all that many of them. I looked for more of her work after I read this, so I’ve read a handful of the titles that came out in the late nineties. Of those, BROTHER TO DRAGONS was far and away my favorite. Now that I’ve got this title back in mind, though, I’m curious about Lindskold’s later work, especially the six-volume Firekeeper series. Has anybody read those? What did you think?

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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 17th, 2014
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One more bit of dragon art –

July 17th, 2014

Darren Turpin commented: I can’t believe they did a whole piece on dragon art and didn’t mention Les Edwards. He does fantastic dragons, quite a few of the later Anne McCaffrey ones, to boot.

So I clicked over via the link and yes, he does. Like this:

sky dragon

This is Sky Dragons, for one of the later Pern books. Nice, eh? I haven’t tried any of Todd-and-Anne Pern books, but I have to agree that any post on dragon art ought to have included the recent Pern artwork, especially imo this particular piece. I’d be happy to hang this on my wall.

Also, here’s his cover for CJ Cherryh’s Fortress of Eagles. What a beautiful cover! I adore landscape-heavy covers. I like my cover of Fortress of Eagles just fine (I believe it is the SFBC edition), but I like this much better.

Fortress of Eagles

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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 17th, 2014
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Dragon Art –

July 16th, 2014

Wow, tons of dragons over at this morning.

I scrolled rather briskly down the whole list, and I must say, either: a) lots of artists like monochrome; or b) lots of artists feel monochrome is somehow especially suitable for dragons.

Not me! I like color, movement, realism, and non-evil dragons.

It’s still hard to beat Michael Whelan’s dragons, but I do like this one by Heather Theurer a whole lot:


I clicked through to look at Theurer’s website and galleries. She does good horses and other animals, too. I particularly like her pencil drawings of the elk and moose.

Anyway, back to dragons! Marie Brennen’s Natural History of Dragons is here. So is one of Julie Dillon’s dragons. In fact, I bet you’ll recognized quite a few of the dragons in this post.

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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 16th, 2014
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Writing a page-turner

July 15th, 2014

Chuck Wendig has a good post up about the sorts of things that create a real page-turner of a book. As always from Chuck, fun to read. Not that I think advice, even good advice, is terribly helpful to a writer, but then I’m totally a do-it-by-feel-and-then-tweak kind of writer, personally. I have a hard time imagining the kind of write-by-the-numbers thing that would allow someone to actually take advice. Even, as I say, good advice.

But it’s still a fun post to read.

This is my favorite bit:

Point To The Shoe: “That’s Gonna Drop,” You Say

Sometimes it’s not about surprise. Sometimes it’s about spoiler alerting your own story. “Heather dies in seven days.” You’re giving away the end of the magic trick. You’re saying: “I’m going to turn this donkey into a bushel of mangosteens.” You just gave away the ending — or, at least, gave away something that’s going to happen. You’re pointing to the Sword of Damocles dangling over our heads and saying: “This shit right here? It’s totally going to fall. Head’s up. Like, literally.” And then you get to spend the story showing us how. It’s a tease, a hook, a taste — and if it pleases, the desire to want more will power them to turn pages oh-so-quickly.

I can think of two really good examples off the top of my head:

THE RAVEN BOYS by Stiefvater, which opens like this: Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love. And then the short prologue finishes by adding, And Neeve added before Blue could answer, “This is the year you’ll fall in love.”

Quite a shoe. It doesn’t drop in this book, either. I haven’t read the sequel, but I bet this particular shoe isn’t going to drop till the last book. Anyway, there’s an example of a good prologue, as well as Sword of Damocles.

I expect a lot of you have read THE RAVEN BOYS, but I’m not sure this next example got as much buzz.

This is THE DEATHDAY LETTER by Hutchinson, which also starts with a (very) short prologue, like so: The first thing you need to know about Oliver Travers is that at the end of this story he’s going to die. There’s no twist of fate that save him, no deus ex machina, no deal with the devil that changes what’s inevitably going to occur. He’s going to croak and that’s just how it is. But this story isn’t about Oliver Traver’s death, it’s about his life, and the best person to tell that story is Oliver.

This is a unusual YA story. Here’s the teaser at Amazon:

Oliver lives in a world where at some point in their lives, everyone receives a Deathday Letter, a letter that kindly lets you know you have twenty-four hours left to live. Abraham Lincoln received one, Heath Ledger received one, and on an otherwise typical Thursday morning, fifteen-year-old Oliver Travers receives one. Bummer.

With his best friend by his side, Ollie has one day left to live life to the fullest, go on every adventure possible…and set things right with the girl of his dreams.

Interesting concept, nicely handled. It is in fact a page-turner of a story. Have any of you read this one? I liked it quite a bit — and I do think it’s a page turner.

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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 15th, 2014
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Past Reading: An Interior Life by Katherine Blake

July 15th, 2014

Published in 1990 and never re-issued, AN INTERIOR LIFE is one of those (many) good stories that has become all but invisible, buried in the heaps and piles and mountains of newer releases.

However, it’s still available used via Amazon, I see. Many copies are going for just pennies, though evidently you can pay upwards of $40 if you really want to. Luckily my copy is in fine shape. As far as I know, Katherine Blake never published anything else.

Oh, hey, I see on Goodreads that another commenter says: Jo Walton had recommended it and that the author was Dorothy J. Heydt.

Looking up Dorothy Heydt, I see she has written in the Darkover universe and that she has a standalone called A POINT OF HONOR, which in fact seems to mix contemporary with fantasy in yet another way. That’s interesting. *Buys copy*.

As it happens, AN INTERIOR LIFE recently came up in some comment thread somewhere, sorry, don’t remember where, but in a general “I’ve never met anybody else who’s heard of this wonderful book” sort of context. It is worth hearing about, so here:

Sue had two kids, one husband, a lovely home, and a boring life. Sometimes, when the PTA meeting proved that a committee is a life form with many feet and no brain, or when her husband was even more inattentive than usual, or when the realization that the kitchen would never be clean for more than two hours at a time would hit her, she just wanted to escape. To get out of her incredibly mundane world and live a little.

So she did.

And found that an active fantasy life can be a very dangerous thing . . . and very real . . .

This story is not only good, it’s unusual. It’s actually two stories that braid around each other: a story about Sue, a Typical Suburban Housewife, getting her life together and, as it were, finding herself without moving a step; and it’s also a story about Marianella and Lady Amalia, who are trying to stop the Darkness spreading over their land, and Aumery, unwilling servant of the Darkness.

So, two stories. It’s actually rather rare that a single page doesn’t contain a bit from both. Let me show you the first transition, which happens just four pages into the novel. I’m going to rewrite it just a tiny bit so it will read smoothly, since I want to show how this works without retyping the entire beginning of the novel. Anyway:

The chocolate scurf on the front burner had softened, and Sue leaned hard on the sponge and scrubbed away . . . she dropped the sponge into the bleach solution and looked out the kitchen window again. The sparrows had taken fright at a dog, cat, or toddler and flown away. The lucky stiffs. Above the pyrancantha, something glinted in the sky, a 747 maybe, or a sea gull, the sun bright on its wings, high above the sparkling sea. She stood at a white-washed wall, chest high, that ran along the top of the cliff north and south from the sea-keep. She could feel the grittiness of the mortar under her fingers, and the pressure against her breasts as she leaned far over the wall to see the shore below. A strip of clean sand ran along the cliff’s foot, smooth and white.

Sue is now in the persona of Marianella, who has just arrived with Lady Amalia at the abandoned keep. The story is going to shift back and forth from this point on, but the lines between the worlds are going to blur even more than the bit above makes it seem, because Marianella and Amalia comment freely on the details of Sue’s life: what she could cook for supper, what kind of dress she should wear to an important party, how to extricate herself from an awkward situation with her husband’s boss.

Sue can also peek into the other world almost at will, shifting pov between Marianella and Amalia to keep track of what’s going on. She can comment on events that are occurring there, just as the others can comment on her life. When Amalia meets a suspicious character who spins her a tall tale about his past, Sue comments, “And if you believe that, I have a bridge I can sell you.” And she knows that Amalia doesn’t believe him either, because at that moment, Sue is simultaneously in her own pov and in Amalia’s pov.

Now, the situation confronting Lady Amalia and her world is dire. Here we have a pretty standard fantasy plot: a terrible threat, heroism and last stands, romance and star-crossed lovers, all that. It’s a good enough story, but what’s surprising is how juxtaposing this story with Sue’s ordinary life makes all the tiny events of her life somehow much more interesting. Sue does confront real problems, but they are very ordinary problems. Yet reading about her life does not slow the story down or bore the reader; quite the reverse, as the reader actually becomes invested in Sue’s life at least as much as in the fate of the fantasy world. (At least, that was my experience as a reader.)

As it happens, I like a story where someone gets her life in order and comes to understand herself better and grows in confidence and realizes she does actually still love her own husband. Even so, without the fantasy story braided in with Sue’s contemporary life, the latter would be boring. But put the two stories together, and somehow Sue’s personal story becomes more interesting and appealing than the violence and adventure and heroism of the fantasy. This isn’t my favorite book ever, but it’s good. As a writer, I think it must have been fun to write. A challenge, but fun. I definitely think it’s worth picking up if you have room on your no-doubt-tottering TBR pile.

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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 15th, 2014
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July 14th, 2014

Something I just discovered:

Did you know there is a WikiHow page for how to write a dystopian novel? Really.

Tip number one: Think of a world-impacting topic/word/phrase that you’re passionate about. It could be pollution, politics, government control, protests, poverty or privacy – problems with the world. Any of the suggested topics could easily lead to an amazing exploration of a dystopian world within your novel.

Um, okay. I notice there is no step for “develop your skills as a writer.” Although there is one for “read extensively within the dystopian subgenre,” which does count, to some extent, I think.

There are also WikiHows for How to Write Dark Fantasy, How to Write a Credible Fantasy Story, and, I’m guessing, many other categories, but I stopped looking for them at that point.

Significantly more useful: simple but out of the ordinary tasks such as How to Remove Surgical Staples. That’s nice and clear and all I wanted to know was which which bit of the tool goes under the staple, which is plainly indicated. (This was for staples on a dog after a c-section, btw, not on myself, and no, I don’t have my own staple remover, I borrowed the vet’s spare.)

Anyway, I just got a kick out of this. I wonder who thought “writing a dystopian novel” was appropriately boiled down to seven steps on a WikiHow page?

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Posted in: Blog by Rachel on July 14th, 2014
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