Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Theater informing fiction

Here’s an interesting post by Leanna Renee Hieber at SFWA’s blog: Theatrical Shortcuts for Dynamic Fiction

I’m often asked if my professional theatre and playwrighting background helps me as a fiction writer. It does in countless ways. Theatrical form, training, and structure are holistically integrated into how I see the world and operate as a storyteller. I adore diving deep into character, creating atmosphere, and ‘setting the stage’ for my novels.

Here’s the part that struck me:

Knowing what it is like to move, sit, prepare food, lift, climb stairs, walk, trot, run, seize, weep, laugh, recline, jump and collapse in a corset, bodice, bustle, petticoat, hat, layers, gloves, and other accessories–all of which I’ve personally experienced in various historical plays and presentations I’ve acted in–is vitally important to taking the reader physically as well as visually and emotionally through a character’s experience. 

That … is both obvious and kind of a revelation. I mean, sure, everyone writes scenes where the lady steps carefully out of a carriage while managing her layers of petticoats and skirts or whatever, but still, I’m not sure I thought of this in such a physical way until those lists of verbs and nouns caught my eye. It would be pretty neat to dress in all that for a couple of days and go through a Regency reenactment, wouldn’t it?

In fact, you know what would be so much fun? An extended murder mystery live action role playing game, in costume, in a Regency-ish setting. I would never willingly do anything requiring acting skills because I basically don’t have any, but even so, that would be snazzy. And you’d come out the other side knowing how it feels to wear all that amazing clothing, a possibly substantial plus for anyone writing in that kind of setting.

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A storybundle you might want to consider

Here’s an interesting opportunity: a storybundle called “Crossing the Veil,” which involves, I suppose, some sort of movement between life and death. Yes, taking a closer look, I see that is indeed the theme.

The reason that it’s interesting is that this bundle contains both Archivist Wasp and its sequel, Latchkey, by Nicole Korher-Stace. Here is my review of Archivist Wasp, which was one of my three favorite novels in 2016. I have never quite gotten to reading Latchkey, which came out at a time when I was really busy and sort of got shuffled out of sight before I got to it.

Let me just see … okay, the first four books in the bundle are:

Archivist Wasp

Hollow, by Rhonda Parrish

The Spirit Caller trilogy by Krista Ball, so actually this is six books total in the first set.

The Illuminated Heart by Thea van Deipen

The “bonus” eight books includes two collections of shorter fiction as well as six novels.

My point is, however you feel about bundles, if you haven’t ever picked up Archivist Wasp and Latchkey, this sounds like a pretty good chance to do that.

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Not sure I’d use the word “monument.”

Stonehenge: Neolithic monument found near sacred site

 A ring of large shafts discovered near Stonehenge form the largest prehistoric monument ever discovered in Britain, archaeologists believe.

Tests carried out on the pits suggest they were excavated by Neolithic people more than 4,500 years ago….

The 1.2 mile-wide (2km) circle of large shafts measuring more than 10m (30ft) in diameter and 5m (15ft) in depth are significantly larger than any comparable prehistoric monument in Britain.

As far as we can tell they are nearly vertical sided; that is we can’t see any narrowing that might imply some sort of shaft. Some of the silts suggest relatively slow filling of the pits. In other words they were cut and left open,” added Prof Gaffney.

This is pretty neat! But is it a “monument”?

Monument, noun

  1. a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a famous or notable person or event.
    • a statue or other structure placed by or over a grave in memory of the dead.
    • a building, structure, or site that is of historical importance or interest.

I vote NO. No matter how old or impressive, a series of deep pits is not a monument.

What is a better term for giant pits dug by people 4500 years ago? Obviously the author of the linked article just gave up, because that article uses the term “monument” over and over and does not (as far as a quick skim revealed) try to come up with any other term to describe this … thing. This nonunitary series of giant holes. I’m certain it’s possible to do better.

How about this?

 A ring of large shafts discovered near Stonehenge form the largest series of prehistoric excavations ever discovered in Britain, archaeologists believe.

Tests carried out on the excavations suggest they were created by Neolithic people more than 4,500 years ago….

Regardless of the language used to describe them today, I wonder what beliefs drove the creation of such labor-intensive excavations at the time. Not as much work as the Cahokian mounds, I guess, but not remotely easy to create.

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Beginnings: recent samples

So, I’ve picked up quite a few new books and a scattering of samples recently. Seems like a good time to take a look at some of them and see if there’s anything that immediately gives me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down feeling.

With rare exceptions, I don’t remember who recommended a book or an author, or what event (such as a Kindle daily deal) might have occurred that made me think I should try a sample of a book. If someone in particular did recommend something and I remember that, then I’m likely (very likely) to read at least a couple of chapters even if the opening doesn’t especially grab me. Otherwise, the initial couple of paragraphs can make all the difference.

I’ll start with the samples — I see there are seven of them. In no order, or rather, in the order they exist on the (massive) unread book portion of my Kindle:

1.  Black Sheep: A Space Opera by Rachel Aukes

Captain Halit “Throttle” Reyne ran her third lap through the Gabriela’s vacant corridors. She could hear her boots hit the floor, but she couldn’t feel them. In fact, she couldn’t feel anything below her hips.

The ship’s motion sensors turned on the lights before her, and she knew from fifteen years of being on board the Gabriela that the lights would also turn off behind her. Her lungs burned – it was a good burn, like sipping a glass of dark rum. She pushed herself to run faster. Her leg braces clicked with every step.

Boring! But there is nothing here that turns me off, so I would certainly go one for a chapter or so. I dimly remember reading something somewhere that made me feel I might like this space opera. (By “dimly,” I don’t mean it happened a long time ago. I’m sure it was just last week, but the details still escape me.) The reviews look good.

2.  The Innocents by Michael Crummey

They were still youngsters that winter. They lost their baby sister before the first snowfall. Their mother laid the infant in a shallow trough beside the only other grave in the cover and she sang the lullaby she’d sun all her children to sleep with, which was as much as they had to offer of ceremony. The woman was deathly sick herself by then, coughing up clots of blood into her hands.

Goodness.

This is a literary novel, and I do recall who recommended it — someone on Facebook who belongs to a gardening group and who writes short stories. I knew it was literary, but I thought I would take a look. This novel is about two young people who are orphaned and completely on their own somewhere on Newfoundland. I like survival stories, which is why I decided I’d give it a try, but in fact I’m guessing from this first paragraph that it’ll be too grim for me.

3.  Up to the Throne by Toby Frost

Gulia reached Carlo’s house at dusk. She raised her hand to knock on the front door – and stopped. The door was already open.

Carlo always kept his house locked up. Gulia drew the long knife from her belt and held it so the folds of her cloak would hide the blade.

This is the first book of a series entered in the SPFBO. I thought it looked promising when I was glancing at book descriptions sometime in the last few weeks. This is just a tiny, tiny snippet, but I read the next couple of pages after this and it’s still looking promising.

4.  Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

It was a four-hour journey by train from the coast to the desert where the Tower of Babel rose like a tusk from the jaws of the earth. First, they had crossed pastureland, spotted with fattening cattle and charmless hamlets, and then their train had climbed through a range of snow-veined mountains where condors roosted in nests as large as haystacks. Already they were farther from home than they had ever been. They descended through shale foothills, which he said reminded him of a field of shattered blackboards, through cypress trees, which she said looked like open parasols, and finally they came upon the arid basin. The ground was the color of rusted chains and the dust of it clung to everything. The desert was far from deserted. Their train shared a direction with a host of caravans, each a slithering line of wheels, hooves, and feet. Over the course of the morning, the bands of traffic thickened until they converged into a great mass so dense that their train was forced to slow to a crawl. Their cabin seemed to wade through a boisterous tide of stagecoaches and ox-drawn wagons, through the tourists, pilgrims, migrants, and merchants from every state in the vast nation of Ur.

I’m struck by the vast, vast difference in paragraph length and in emphasis between this one and the one above. Talk about a demonstration of “opening with action” versus “opening with description.” Wow. I like this a lot. This one was also an entry in a previous year’s SPFBO.

5.  The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams

“. . . perfect Babel,” Mr. Coningsby said peevishly, threw himself into a chair, and took up the evening paper.

“But Babel never was perfect, was it?” Nancy said to her brother in a low voice, yet not so low that her father could not hear if he chose. He did not choose, because at the moment he could not think of a sufficiently short sentence. A minute afterwards it occurred to him that he might have said, “Then it’s perfect now.” But it didn’t matter; Nancy would only have been rude again, and her brother too. Children were. He looked at his sister, who was reading on the other side of the fire. She looked comfortable and interested, so he naturally decided to disturb her.

Elaine T mentioned Charles Williams in a comment last week. I hadn’t even realized he was one of the Inklings. This is a delightful beginning, even though Mr. Coningsby is immediately presented as kind of a jerk. It may also be the only novel every published that begins with an ellipsis.

6.  The Vine Witch by Luanne G Smith

Her eyes rested above the waterline as a moth struggled inside her mouth. She blinked to force the wings past her tongue, and a curious revulsion followed. The strangeness of it filtered through her toad brain until she settled on the opinion that it was best to avoid the wispy, yellow-winged ones in the future.

This was a free-to-borrow book via Amazon Prime. The teaser is: A young witch emerges from a curse to find her world upended in this gripping fantasy set in turn-of-the-century France. I did not expect it to start with a toad’s eye view of the world. I do find this interesting and engaging. Yes, blinking does indeed help frogs and toads swallow a big mouthful.

7.  Blood Standard, by Laird Barron

As a boy, I admired Humphrey Bogart in a big way. I coveted the homburg and trench coat. I wanted to pack heat and smoke unfiltered cigarettes and give long-legged dames in mink stoles the squinty-eyed once-over. I longed to chase villains, right wrongs, and restore the peace.

Upon surviving into manhood, I discovered the black and comedic irony that is every gumshoe’s existential plight, the secret that dime novels and black-and-white movies always elide: each clue our intrepid detective deciphers, each mystery he unravels, each crime he solves, makes the world an unhappier place. I got smart and became a gangster instead.

This one sounded good — the protagonist does not remain a gangster; he winds up becoming a good guy, though morally probably still pretty gray, and the real story starts at that point.

 Isaiah begins a new life, a quiet life without gunshots or explosions. Except a teenage girl disappears, and Isaiah isn’t one to let that slip by. And delving into the underworld to track this missing girl will get him exactly the kind of notice he was warned to avoid.

I read the whole sample, but the problem was, I could not force myself to believe in two, maybe three, important elements of the set-up. That made me reluctant to go on and I wound up deleting the sample. In case you’re curious, here is the element with which I had the biggest problem:

You are going to be snatched by enemies and tortured to death. You can’t get out of the city via the airports. As you are completely aware of this situation, you therefore:

a) wait for the situation to occur as you have foreseen; you are snatched by enemies and tortured, but you are saved largely by luck as well as your gangster boss.

b) get out of the city in some other way than by plane and disappear.

c) stick around, but make very, very sure that your gangster boss protects you against the entirely predictable snatch-and-torture scenario.

Our protagonist goes for (a). I was, and still am, baffled by this choice. I’m not sure how an author could sell this. I didn’t buy it, and so when I came to the end of the sample, I didn’t go on.

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Pick a cover

Sarah Higbee of Brainfluff rounded up a bunch of different covers that have been used hither and yon for The Bone Clocks. These are really interesting to compare! Here they are:

American
British
Polish
Portuguese
Bulgarian

How about it? I like all of these except the British cover, which is too cluttered for me. But my favorite is … the Polish cover! Really love that one! My second pick is the Bulgarian cover.

A great set of covers overall. I’ve never actually read this book. Let me take a look at the description …

Following a terrible fight with her mother over her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her family and her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.

For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.

I’m losing interest in this book. “Nightmare brought to life.” “Irrevocably scarred.” I’m thinking at this point, yeah, probably not for me. The description continues:

A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting on the war in Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.

I have to say, no one here sounds remotely like a character I’d like to spend time with, no matter how fantastic and clever the writing may be. Then we wind up with “everyday grace and extraordinary wonder” and for the first time I’m thinking well, maybe.

Have any of you read this one?

Either way, which cover do you prefer?

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Superhero bundle

Hey, this superhero bundle just brought itself to my attention. I’m hesitant about bundles because my TBR pile is soooo over the top already, and yet here we are.

I think I’m probably going to try this one. Has anybody by chance read any of these already so they could contribute a thumbs up on one or more of the books included?

For $5 —

  • Captain Nemo – The Fantastic Adventures of a Dark Genius by Kevin J. Anderson
  • Cynetic Wolf by Matt Ward
  • Working Class Hero by James Robert Smith
  • Dove Season by Robin Brande
  • The Superhero’s Test by Lucas Flint

Included for $15 —

  • Playing a Hunch by Dean Wesley Smith
  • Fid’s Crusade by David Reiss
  • The Enlivening by Ashlyn Frost
  • Nobody’s Hero by Mark Leslie
  • Morning Sun by Jeremy Flagg
  • Overlook by Jon Mollison
  • Hellbent by Tina Glasneck
  • Brave New World Revolution by Matt Forbeck

I will add that my favorite superhero books I can think of , at least at the moment, are:

Sinner by Greg Stolze

I found the ending weak in some ways. But I still liked this book a lot. Quick, engaging. Villain pov, but obviously I wouldn’t have liked it if he’d actually been a villain. I need to re-read this, I really do. You can read my review if you click on the Amazon link; mine seems to be at the top for this one’s reviews.

and

And All the Stars by Andrea K Höst

Which, I KNOW, is not exactly a superhero novel. Or not only a superhero novel. But it is definitely a now-you-have-super-powers novel, plus the alien invasion. Plus one of the most astonishing plot twists EVER.

One of the books I disliked most in all my reading life also falls into the superhero subgenre. I guess I won’t name that one. I ranted about it at the time, as I recall, but I didn’t post any reviews anywhere because, well, it was quite a rant and I don’t really want to drop one-star reviews on anybody’s book no matter how much I loathed it.

Of course there’s no end to superhero stories out there, very few of which I’ve read. If you’ve got a favorite, drop it in the comments, by all means.

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The Craft of Writing

Hi, I’m beautiful, talented, and caring

This is a fun post about characterization from James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: How to characterize

[T]he second paragraph went something like this: She was beautiful, talented, and caring. She was a hard worker, and earned every bit of her success…

It went on in the same vein for a few more lines. And I found myself thinking, “Really? You expect me to believe this?” …

 How would we feel if we met someone for the first time at a party, and the person said, “Nice to meet you. I’m beautiful and talented and caring. But enough about me.” 

I didn’t laugh out loud, but I chuckled. That’s a pretty good analogy: introducing a character that way IS a lot like introducing yourself that way. In fiction, it certainly screams “badly written Mary Sue.” In real life, well, we shall assume that this never, ever happens in real life. Bell advises that to avoid this problem, the author should show and not tell — I imagine everyone has heard that before.

And since everyone always says “show, don’t tell,” let me add that there are absolutely times to tell and not show. Here, in fact, is a different post about times when you may want to do exactly that. This post suggests, briefly, that telling may most often be useful when writing a transition to get from one scene to another or one time to another; when glossing lightly over over unimportant action or unimportant characters; or when adding backstory. That sounds basically about right to me.

Later in his post, it seems to me that James Scott Bell is advocating an unusually high level of deliberate thought in the writing process: Brainstorm possible actions and dialogue that will show us these things, and salt them in early in your novel, for example. My basic response to this advice is: Good heavens, that sounds painful. How about just writing the beginning of your novel. Characters will do stuff and say stuff and there you go, characterization. I suppose more writers than I realize might do this more mechanically. I find that hard to imagine.

His other advice seems more reasonable to me: have other characters react to the protagonist. Let their reactions show your protagonist more clearly to your readers. He provides some pretty good examples there if you wish to click through.

This sort of post benefits from great examples of well-done characterization in the opening scene, so let me see, what are some examples that occur to me right off … all right:

  • The Breach by Patrick Lee offers a fantastic example of developing the character very naturally and organically through his thoughts and actions. I’m certain I’ve used this one as an example before, and by the way, it’s a fantastic thriller, so if you haven’t read it, take a look.
  • The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith, which I just referred to for something else the other day, so it’s on my mind. Aud is one of the most amazingly written characters I can think of.
  • So, you remember how The Wizard Hunters starts out, with Tremaine contemplating suicide? Of course it turns out she had a little nudge from a despairing sorcerer trapped in a sphere, but still, right off the bat, her character is established by showing her in this darkly contemplative mood.
  • Oh, of course, Murderbot, with those waves of I-don’t-care interspersed with actions that show it absolutely does care.
  • Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson opens with strong characterization and then goes on from there, basically getting better and better. You need to be up for a novel where the journey is the story.

In Carson’s novel, having the story be the journey worked for me; in some books, the journey feels too much like the author should say, “Three months later …” and go on with the real story. In order to compress time that way, incidentally, the author would tell and not show.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Pronouns

Here is a quite good post at Writers in the Storm: Harnessing the Power of Pronouns

Sit with this simple sentence for a moment:

Look at what they are doing to my city.

More than likely when you read that sentence, your inner voice reacted. How did it make you feel? What did it make you think about?

Consider this sentence below and notice what changing the pronouns does to the tone, feel, and imagery.

Look at what we are doing to our city.  

The author of this post,  John Peragine, then goes on to discuss pronouns in some depth, spurred on, we find out, by his experience changing a third-person manuscript into a first-person manuscript.

And who hasn’t been there, right?

I’m glad to say I have never had to do this for a WHOLE manuscript, but I’ve done it for pretty big blocks of pages. Not recently. This was way long ago, when I first took a stab at writing a first-person novel and gave up because wow, that is just not the same as third-person. That’s when I found out several useful things:

a) verbs are harder to handle in first-person narratives, and

b) if you don’t know who the protagonist is telling the story to, that can actually screw up the writing process terribly, at least for me. I know that not all authors have this problem, but it messed up my initial attempts at first person.

I have mentioned the problem with first-person verbs before, in posts generally inspired by seeing yet another author handle verbs badly. The fundamental problem is that when you’re writing a third-person past-tense narrative and the protagonist thinks, “Vampires were a serious problem in Georgia,” this is fine. It implies nothing. But when you’re writing a first-person past-tense narrative and your protagonist thinks, “Vampires were a serious problem in Georgia,” this absolutely implies that now they’re not.

Most of the time, the author does not realize there is a problem, so this happens a lot and the reader experiences an instant of confusion over and over. Readers (many readers) tolerate this well, partly because the problem is extremely common, so readers have lots of practice tolerating it. But even if readers will put up with this, is still not a great thing to do.

The proper way to manage verb tenses in first-person narratives is to let the protagonist make general statements about the world in present tense and then switch back to past tense as the narrative continues. This requires the author to pay attention to which statements are about the world and which ones carry the story forward and are part of the narrative. This is hard.

TUYO is, as you may have noticed, my only published first-person story (other than “Vigilante” in Beyond the Dreams We Know). I found TUYO so much easier to write than my (very) early tries at this form that there is just no comparison. I’m not sure why that is, except I have read a lot more first-person novels in the interim, and have therefore had a chance to critically notice a whole lot of good verb use and bad verb use in the process. Anyway, whatever, the point is, the form was much easier for me this time around.

I also have a notion to whom Ryo might be telling the story. I might be wrong, but kind of having an idea about that also probably helped.

Anyway, I’m not saying I’m absolutely certain I never screwed up the verb tenses, but if you pay attention in TUYO, you should see that every time Ryo thinks about the state of the world or the nature of Ugaro people or whatever, he thinks about that in the present tense. Then the narrative goes on in the past tense. So he’ll think, “Everyone knows the Lau are a deceptive people,” and then immediately, “But there was no reason he should have lied to me.”

If you read lots of well-written first-person narratives, you will see that this is generally how the authors do it. For example, I just checked The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith because she’s such a fabulous writer, I knew she would handle verb tenses this way and sure enough, there we go, right away we see: The sidewalks around Inman Park are made from uneven hexagons … and then right back to a past-tense narrative.

Let me also just mention a different but related pronoun/verb issue that drives me up the wall whenever I see it:

Every single time the direct thought of the protagonist is reported to the reader, that thought should be in the present tense, regardless of whether the story is being told in first- or third-person.

Absolutely no one ever sees a puppy come up for attention, bends down to pet the puppy, and thinks, “Wow, that was a cute puppy!” That is as wrong and awkward as if a puppy ran up and jumped on you, and you turned and said to a friend, “Wow, wasn’t that a cute puppy!” while the puppy is actually still right there, still jumping and wagging and being adorable. OBVIOUSLY in both cases, you would think or say, “Wow, THIS IS a cute puppy!” I don’t understand what that is not absolutely crystal clear.

Yet a lot of authors working with first-person past-tense narratives put past tense thoughts in the protagonist’s head in exactly this way. It’s so common I had a copy editor once try to do this to a direct thought for one of my THIRD person protagonists. [I wrote a little note saying No no no and here is why and absolutely do not do this. It’s one of the few times I wrote a note instead of just STET.]

Anyway, the post I linked way at the top is more about things like the she-is-a-subject, her-is-an-object distinction. That is useful and I hope a lot of people read that post, because last I noticed every single grammar checker on the market absolutely cannot tell the difference and fails to mark things like, “My dad drove my mother and I to the park” as wrong, and wow is that an annoying mistake. So you can certainly click through and read that article if you wish; the examples are fine. I just got distracted thinking about changing a whole manuscript from third- to first-person, and wondering whether the author also took another good look at verb tenses in his novel.

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Tuyo audiobook update

Wow, it was not entirely intuitive how to post an audition script exactly the right way. I accidentally offered payment up front AND splitting royalties, which gave me a few complicated days. However, that is now sorted out and everything is fine.

So: yes, I have a narrator for TUYO. I really like his voice and I think his style is very good. Because he agreed to do the project royalty-share only, he will be fitting TUYO in around other projects and estimates that it will be finished in around two months. I said that was fine! He seems very professional and I’m glad he’s willing to do it.

So my first guess is that TUYO will be available as an audiobook in September or (depending on how fast ACX puts through finished works) maybe November. I have that long to figure out how to best promote audiobooks, so I’m sure that will be fun.

I wound up getting eleven auditions, but some, not sure how many, under basically false pretenses because they thought I was doing royalty-share-plus instead of royalty-share-only. Still, many of the narrators willing to do royalty-share-only seem perfectly good. I made a note of one in particular for a different project (soon to be announced).

Hopefully in the future I’ll be all, “Oh yeah, it’ll earn back the cost of paying a narrator in three weeks, so no problem!” But I’m glad there is this royalty-share-only option for right now.

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