Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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In the Ring . . . and ringside reading

Yesterday, Dara beat Kenya. There were exactly two Cavaliers entered in the show, both mine, so I was pretty confident that one of my girls would get Winners and Best of Breed — but I thought it would be Kenya.

Here’s Dara — though, granted, this was a win from a month or so ago. I cropped myself out of the photo because it’s an awful picture of me, though Dara’s shown to advantage, which is what matters. The purple ribbon is for Winners — the Best of Breed is purple and gold. It’s nice that Dara has a BoB ribbon for her scrapbook, but actually she got more points with the win shown below than the win yesterday because she beat nine other girls that day rather than just one.

It’s not that Dara isn’t nice — she has an excellent body and great movement — but I asked the judge why he put her over Kenya. “I’ve been thinking of her head as plain,” I said. “Have I been too critical?” Yes, said the judge. He said her nose might be a little long, but Kenya’s is a little short for him. I’m thinking now that really Kenya has a modern more extreme style of head, whereas Dara doesn’t have a bad head, exactly, but a more old-fashioned style of head. I admit I still prefer Kenya’s, but at this rate, Dara will certainly finish her championship faster.

Changing the subject! To a topic of possibly greater general interest!

I like to read books about writing, even though I don’t actually think this is mostly a very useful thing to do. This seems a little strange even to me, but it’s kind of like reading agent’s blogs and Query Shark even though I already have an agent and don’t need to write queries (thank God). Reading about writing is, for me, sometimes reassuring, sometimes worrying, often entertaining.

Plus, like all nonfiction reading, it’s something to do when I really don’t want to get absorbed in a story. For example, for a few minutes here and there at dog shows.

So recently I have been reorganizing my personal library and re-reading, or at least re-glancing-through, a lot of my books on writing. It turns out I have more than I thought:

Armstrong, David. 2003. How (Not) to Write a Novel.

Bishop, Leonard. 1988. Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction.

Block, Lawrence. 1979. Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print.

Bova, Ben. 1994. The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells.

Bradbury, Ray. 1990. Zen in the Art of Writing.

Butler, Robert Olen. 2005. From Where You Dream.

Card, Orson Scott. 1988. Characters and Viewpoint.

Ibid. 1990. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Dillard, Annie. 1989. The Writing Life.

Kessel, John, et al (eds.). 1996. Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology.

King, Steven. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Maass, Donald. 2001. Writing the Breakout Novel.

Ibid. The Career Novelist.

Prose, Francine. 2006. Reading Like a Writer.

Silverberg, Robert. 2001. Science Fiction 101: Where to Start Reading and Writing Science Fiction.

Wilson, Robin (ed.). 1996. Paragons: Twelve Master Science Fiction Writer Ply Their Craft.

Ibid. 1996. Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader.

So, seventeen books on writing.

I wouldn’t necessarily *recommend* most of them, exactly. Armstrong? Too negative a tone. Bishop? Too much like reading a word-a-day calendar. Annie Dillard? Like reading poetry disguised as nonfiction — beautiful, yes. But helpful? Not so much.

And quite a few of these books are aimed at short fiction, and while taking short stories apart can be informative, I fundamentally just am not interested in short stories, don’t much like reading them, and don’t get as much from books oriented towards that form as other people might.

However, okay, yes, there are a few that I actually *do* think could be helpful to anybody who wants to improve as a writer.

First, there’s the free downloadable book by Donald Maass. I mean, why not? It’s free! And it’s by Donald Maass! Actually, I liked both books by Maass and think they could both be helpful — though some of the practical how-to-be-a-writer advice is dated, of course.

Speaking of dated, how about Lawrence Block’s book? 1979! He’s got all these great references to typing and typewriters! But actually, I kind of do recommend this book. Block addresses developing plot, characters, starting, getting through snags and dead ends, etc. Though Block draws on his own experiences, he almost completely avoids the “This is the way I do it, so it’s the right way,” tone.

Francine Prose’s great book will never be dated. It’s about the love of language and the *craft* of writing. She’s got chapters on words, sentences, and paragraphs; on narration, character, and dialogue; on details and gestures. She really takes a close look at the role *attentive* reading plays in learning to write. I loved this book so much I actually started reading classics, which I used to avoid, having been burned in high school by Animal Farm and the Lord of the Flies. (I mean, not exactly cheerful, are they? For years, until I discovered Jane Austin, I thought all classics were depressing.)

And last but not least, I definitely recommend Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint. Really. It’s an excellent, in-depth look at creating believable characters, raising the stakes, character transformations, verb tenses, points of view, and lots more. Very valuable book to read and re-read. A lot of it is valuable, and not just about characterization as such.

I mean, I thought I knew why I don’t like first-person point of view — that is, WHEN first-person narratives are badly done, I HATE them, and they so often seem to be badly done. I’ve said for years that verb tenses are hard to handle right in first-person narratives, and I’m happy to rant about what goes wrong to anybody who will hold still long enough (in a nutshell: clumsy writers fail to switch from past to present tense when they need to).

Well, I stand by that. Definitely! But (among much else) Card lays out the OTHER reasons first-person narratives go wrong: problems with intensity and tone, with an imposed distance between the narrator and the reader (yes, really), with the author’s need to withhold information and then justify withholding it.

Of course, Card also mentions books where first person narratives are handled extremely well, and I’m sure we can all think of lots of others. For example, Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms springs forcefully to mind this year. I won’t be at all surprised if The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sweeps all the awards this year, and it’ll deserve to. But not only is it a fantastic book, it’s also a great book to read over again carefully, especially after reading Card’s book, to see how Jemisin *deals* with the potential problems a first-person narrative raises.

Oh, there are lots of really well done first-person narratives! I totally get that! Let me recommend one more in particular: The Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce, which to me shows a huge step up in sophistication from her earlier books. Notice the author’s note at the end of the first book — which by an amazing coincidence is about the difficulty of writing in the first person. Pierce did a fantastic job, possibly because she realized she’d taken on a challenge and was conciously paying attention to what she was doing.

And that’s an effort Card’s book could help with, for any writer who wanted to do the same.

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