Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

And Cake! / Blog

Archon . . . plus a Cavalier party

It was quite a weekend! Ending up with my catching a virus or something, so sorry for the delay, but I was a bit out of it for a couple days.

Okay, so, First the Archon report.

I really enjoyed it! Well, that’s a given, of course. I do wonder if attendance was down this year, though. The halls and dealer’s room and art show seemed as crowded as ever, but the panels and readings were rather sparsely attended – all the panels and readings, as far as I could tell. Virtually no attendees came to the readings. I mean, *I* went to one set of readings, because Gilman (of “The Ice Owl” fame) was going to be there, and Brian Katcher (Almost Perfect, which I loved), and Mark Tiedemann, whom I know. And I was glad I went. Attendees who didn’t go missed out. All the readings were good and Brian Katcher’s, from a book that won’t be out till 2015, was really good and very funny. I hope he remembers to remind me when it’s out. I definitely want a copy.

At my own reading, I actually just read a brief selection from ISLANDS because nobody there had read it, so why not? But I was slightly disappointed, after preparing and timing a selection from BLACK DOG.

Now, on Friday, I was on a panel that discussed the importance of editing your work. I wasn’t supposed to be on that panel, but I walked in and Mark Tiedemann immediately invited me to join the panel, which was really nice since I’d almost always rather be on the panel than in the audience. So we talked about “big” editing and the importance of your agent / editor / beta reader when you get to the stage where you can’t tell whether your finished book is any good or not. I think we all agreed that you do indeed get to that stage! Writing groups came up and of course I said vehemently that I hate ‘em and would never join one, and Mark said how they can turn into round-robin ego support groups and how useless that is. But he did suggest that maybe beginning writers might benefit from joining a writer’s group for six months and then quitting while it was still helpful. He went to Clarion, and he found that helpful. And some of the other panelists did like writer’s groups – they must be more social than I am (not hard).

But we *all* agreed that line editing is important and can’t be too strict and that “all right” is TWO WORDS. TWO. WORDS.

So, anyway! I totally hadn’t realized that on Saturday I was scheduled for three back-to-back panels, from 11:00 AM straight through to 2:30 PM. Whoa. That was crazy. Next year I will be careful not to let that happen.

The first was the one on Alien Manners. One of the other panelists really stressed the biological underpinnings of behavior, and that was a great point, and I suggested looking at Octavia Butler’s Oankali series, which starts with DAWN, to see an alien species whose instincts are nonhuman. I’ve always wondered whether Butler actually realized that she’d set up a species whose primary difference from humans is that they, unlike humans, can’t override their instincts?

I love the topic of behavior and instinct, but the topic of manners isn’t exactly the same thing, right? I absolutely recommended Cherryh’s Foreigner series and warned the attendees that they should expect the entire first book to be an intro, because I know the slow start can turn off readers. And I suggested that when you’re creating an alien species, or a nonhuman fantasy species, that it needs to be exotic enough to seem nonhuman, yet familiar enough to modern American sensibilities to appeal to readers. Which is actually something my brother pointed out about Gillian Bradshaw’s historical novels, that Bradshaw captures the exotic feel of classical Greece and Rome, but tones down the brutality of those societies so that modern readers can be comfortable reading her books. And of course a historical novel can be just like a fantasy in that the society you’re working in has to be, or at least should be, different from modern American society.

And an attendee asked about creating a star-spanning civilization containing lots of species and how would you handle that? And one of my co-panelists started talking about how, realistically, fear and the necessity of self-preservation in the face of the alien would be such a constraint on that kind of society. And I said, Well, yes, but if you want to write book with that kind of setting, who cares whether it’s realistic? It just needs to be well-written. You just wave your hands and declare that you DO have that kind of civilization, and then you write the story you want to write. I said story telling is the goal and used Tanya Huff’s military SF Valor series as an example, because it’s just like that. It’s such a good series that nobody’s going to fret about how much sense it makes, or doesn’t make.

Then I ran to the other end of the convention center, not quite knocking anybody flying, and arrived, panting, for the panel on writing for YA readers. There was only one other panelist, and he turned out not to write SFF, and I’m afraid he wasn’t a very assertive panelist, and I did try not to totally take over the panel, but I’m afraid with rather limited success. Of course this is a common panel topic. We talked about pacing and the need for tight plotting and how the YA protagonists have to drive the story and how they need to be operating “under the radar” and evading adult control. And I said that agent Kristen Nelson’s (of Pub Rants) opinion is that in YA, the protagonist has to take the first irrevocable steps out of childhood and into adulthood, because I think that might be true and I know it’s one helpful thing to think about when writing YA. It was a good panel, I think, even if I did wind up dominating the panel maybe too much. Sorry, co-panelist! The audience was good. People asked a lot of good questions.

Then I rushed *back* to the other end of the convention center and did the writing workshop. I really wished I could tell the participants that I loved their novel fragments and thought that they were just this close to publication, but of course I couldn’t. We talked about beginning your novel and I explained, for example, how saying “the young man” or “the petite woman” as description had the effect of pushing the reader away from the protagonist, because the pov protagonist would never think of himself (or herself) in those terms, see? So you fall out of their point of view the minute you do that. So even a seemingly tiny phrase like that counts as “telling rather than showing” and is in fact a worse problem than all kinds of “telling” that might at first glance seem much more extreme. And I handed out all those novel beginnings I typed up earlier. I was really glad I’d taken plenty of time to think about the strengths and weaknesses of the fragments way in advance.

Then I staggered off on a quest to find lunch. At three. I never miss meals. I’m surprised I didn’t faint on the way.

Then, fortified, I went to the dealer’s room and bought – let’s see here – I have a list – right, here we go: Traitor’s Gate by Kate Elliot, Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb (now I need the first book in that trilogy), Forest Mage by Robin Hobb (I see now it is the second book of a series), Labyrinth by Kate Moss, Heart of Light by Sarah A Hoyt, Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, and Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynn Jones. I got most of those used because it turns out that Glen Cook may be closing up shop as a book dealer, so he had a lot of books available for half price or a dollar apiece or whatever. I think my TBR pile is back up in the region of seventy books or so again.

The last thing for me on Saturday was the dog panel, and it had been moved so that it was opposite the masquerade, unfortunately. So I and the other panelists chatted with the tiny number of attendees who came to the panel and told stories about our dogs and every now and then we gave a nod to the official topic, which was of course the role of dogs in SFF. We didn’t do more than make vague gestures toward that topic, though. I’ll just say here, though, that to me some of the best “real dogs” in SFF are Ash in Robin McKinley’s Deerskin; the Cardigan Welsh Corgi in Duranna Durgin’s A Feral Darkness; and the pekes in Barbara Hambly’s Bride of the Rat God, which is a great book, btw, and has that campy title for a very good reason, and you should all go find a copy. Pekingese are far from my favorite breed, but Hambly makes me love hers. Though, admittedly, they are actually just “mostly real dogs”, as in the course of the book, we find out that pekes were really bred to hunt demons.

And in the “humanized dog” category? My favorites are Sirius in Diana Wynne Jones’ Dogsbody, and the dogs in Dodie Smith’s novel 101 Dalmations (yes, really).

Then, on Sunday? Well, on Sunday, there was the very important Cavalier Halloween party, so you see why I couldn’t be at Archon on Sunday! Naturally, I had to go home Saturday night, get up early Sunday, bathe dogs, make my special entry for the Halloween-themed potluck, load all my dogs up (five at the moment), and drive back to St Louis in time to set up the obstacle course and help organize the entry forms for all the contests. Very important!

I set up a half-rally / half obstacle course. Tunnels and jumps and a figure eight around distractions and stuff. Lots of people entered in the novice category. I swear I hadn’t shown the obstacles to my girls ahead of time, but in fact my Giedre won the novice category. And Pippa won the pro category, which was just for dogs who already have performance titles. Somebody else won “best trick” – deservedly, I should add, she’d taught her dog all kinds of tricks. My friend Deb won “cutest puppy” – that’s mostly dependent on age, since the younger the puppy, the more likely it is to win. The costume contest was great, and there was a tie – both entries in owner-dog duo costumes were great. One woman dressed as Princess Leia and dressed her dog up as Yoda!

So, to wind all this up: Here’s my entry for best Halloween-themed potluck item – not sure whether to call it a cookie or a pie or a cake! It is a giant cake-type chocolate-chip cookie, spread with nutella and sprinkled with chopped twix candy bars, gummy worms, and candy corns. Then I arranged chocolate cookie mice around the rim. I expected to win this category, and I did, by a satisfying landslide.

In case you happen to want to try this, here is the recipe:

Giant Chocolate-Chip Cookie:

This makes a nice, cakey, soft chocolate-chip cookie, which is perfect for this recipe.

¼ C shortening
¼ C sugar
½ C brown sugar
1 egg
½ C evaporated milk
½ tsp vanilla
1 ¼ C plus 2 Tbsp Flour
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
3 oz (1/2 C) chocolate chips
½ C nutella
A dozen gummy worms
A small handful candy corns
About eight fun-sized twix candy bars, cut into thirds

Beat the shortening, sugar, and brown sugar. Beat in egg. Beat in evaporated milk and vanilla. Combine dry ingredients and beat in on low. Spray a pizza pan with cooking spray and spread cookie batter onto pan. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30-35 minutes, until golden-brown and a toothpick in the center comes out clean (if you hit a chocolate chip, it won’t come out clean, so poke it again if you think it’s done; it probably is). Let rest on rack until mostly cool. Spread with nutella and sprinkle with other toppings, leaving space around the rim for the mice.

Chocolate mice

2/3 C semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 C coarsely chopped crumbs from crushed chocolate wafer cookies or chocolate animal crackers – I suggest a food processor for this job.
½ C very fine crumbs from those cookies, sifted out when you crush the cookies.
1/3 C sour cream
Candy sequins, for eyes – look in the baking aisle with the decorating supplies.
3 strips chocolate licorice, for tails – I can’t find string licorice, but you can cut normal licorice into very fine lengths for tails.
Sliced almonds, for ears

Melt chocolate. Stir in coarse crumbs. Stir in sour cream. Roll into a dozen or so rough balls. Then take each piece and roll into a smooth ball, then shape into a fat torpedo shape with a pointy end for the nose and a rounded end for the tail. Place the sequins in the right spots for eyes. Roll the mouse in the fine crumbs. Stick a toothpick in the round end to make a hole and insert the tails. Find a couple of matching almond slices and insert them for ears. Set the finished mice in place around the rim of the cookie. Prepare to enjoy your guests’ expressions when you bite a mouse in half – it’s not like they look *that* real, and yet they kind of do.

The mice are best a day or so after making them, so that the crumbs have time to soften and the whole thing melds into a fudgy whole. Because of the sour cream, it’s probably best to refrigerate the mice to store. They’re not only strangely cute, but quite tasty, so you might not have to worry about that for very long!

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4 Comments Archon . . . plus a Cavalier party

  1. Mary Beth

    Thanks for the con report! It sounds like a lot of fun, though too bad the readings and panels weren’t better attended. (That panel with only one other panelist sounds particularly difficult, but interesting.) I totally agree with you on the use of epithets–I have no objection to “grey-eyed Athene” but “the younger man” gets my hackles up every single time. I read a good article on this a week or so ago but danged if I can find it now. The gist of it seemed to be that writers use that sort of descriptor 1) to avoid ambiguous pronouns (when they might as easily just use someone’s NAME) or 2) to shoehorn in a description or a reminder of who’s who, as if you’ve forgotten. Good descriptions are one of my favorite things in books; bad descriptions, conversely, will cause me to give up on an author faster than almost anything else.

    I loved Duranna Durgin’s books as a teenager (Touched By Magic, Wolf’s Justice, and Dun Lady’s Jess in particular) but never found a copy of A Feral Darkness; I’ll have to look in my library here. I understand she’s moved on to paranormal romance, which probably sells much better. Though I still hold out hope someday for another Reandn book. Obviously I need to put the Hambly on the To Be Read list as well.

    I just spent the morning reading Sharon Shinn’s Summers at Castle Auburn, though, and loved it. It was very like Troubled Waters–a delightful protagonist whom I felt I would like in real life, great relationships between women, a solid, sweet, and comforting read. I read a review at TOR.COM calling it “kingdom-level fantasy,” which I quite liked, and which I’ve realized is my preference in fantasy. “Saving the world” sounds both daunting and kind of unrealistic; “saving the kingdom” sounds doable and still dangerous enough to keep me interested.

    I think that’s one thing I particularly like about your books as well. The protagonists aren’t out to Defeat Evil For All Time, but they do care about the people around them, about their homelands, and even about the people across the border from them; it’s those people they’re out to protect. And I believe them when they do it.

  2. Rachel

    Yes, in the case of the novel fragments submitted for the workshop, the writers should just have been using the character’s name.

    And, DUN LADY’S JESS was my favorite! I liked the sequel, too. Maybe I should check out Durgin’s paranormals — but not sure it will appeal to me as much as her earlier fantasy.

  3. Brad K.

    You commented about starting a novel — I enjoy the start of Tamora Pierce’s “Wild Magic” over any other novel that I can recall (including E.E. “Doc” Smith, C. J. Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon, Patricia Briggs, H. Beam Piper, Juanita Coulson, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, David Weber, Mercedes Lackey, Sheri S. Tepper, Pauline Ashwell, Nicola Griffith, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Lois McMaster Bujold, and other beloved authors).

    Your comment about C. J. Cherryh and her slow pacing struck a chord. One of my first readings of her works was the Faded Sun Trilogy — essentially a long, painful journey, that happened to end. Which could also describe the story line of the Pride of Chanur cycle (a favorite of mine), Downbelow Station and the rest of that story line.

    Thanks!

  4. Rachel

    I guess I need to go look at the opening of WILD MAGIC, because that’s quite a paean!

    And yes, if I were picking a personal top-ten list for all time, the Chanur series would be on it for sure!

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