Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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So what was it you didn’t like?


Over the years, I’ve discovered that I get very critical of anything I read. When I don’t like a book, I can’t just say, “Eh, that wasn’t great. Time to read something else.” No. I have to sit with the book and analyze what the heck about the book is bugging me….

So, just curious:

a) Do you do this?

b) If so, are you able to figure out what it is that you didn’t like?

Me, I’m willing to spend, I don’t know, up to five or six minutes thinking about why a particular book isn’t working for me. At least three or four minutes. Okay, definitely at least one minute. Honestly, if it’s not pretty clear to me up front, I am generally okay with just saying, “Not working for me” and stopping with that.

Sometimes it is clear. For example, if the author used the word “parameter” when she meant perimeter” on the first page, and also nothing about the first page is especially grabbing my attention. (This is an actual example.) I don’t feel inclined to trust a writer who uses a blatantly wrong word, but I’d be more forgiving if the story seized my attention right up front.

Sometimes I just don’t like the protagonist, most often because she seems overly ineffectual or stupid or impulsive or emotional, or some combination of those traits. That takes longer to realize, so I would probably be stopping after several chapters, not merely several pages. I am aware that the protagonist may improve. These characteristics are so unappealing that I’m generally not willing to wait for that to happen.

Occasionally some plot element seems so unbelievable or so repulsive that even though everything else about the book is working for me, I quit. I’ll give an example for that one: NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, where the protagonist kills a man who is trying to help her plus everyone else in the village because she is upset. I grant that she has reason to be upset, but I don’t care. This element repelled me so strongly that I stopped immediately, even though the writing was thoroughly compelling.

But sometimes I just don’t know why a particular book isn’t really working for me. Everything about it seems fine, but somehow I just don’t care about the characters / don’t care about what might happen next / find myself just not inclined to pick the book up. This is not a feature of quality as such. Sometimes I find books that aren’t that well written to be quite compelling reads, whereas I simply loose interest in a beautiful literary fantasy that everyone else just loves.

In those cases, I do think (briefly) about why the book isn’t working for me. But if I can’t figure that out in a few minutes, I quit worrying about it and just go on to a different book. How about you? Do you feel compelled to analyze every book you dislike, or are you willing to let your reaction remain a mystery?

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Don’t kill your darlings

A few days ago, Ann Leckie wrote this series of tweets about the “kill your darlings” advice:

Yeah, this is definitely a thing. Much commonly passed writing advice is aimed at “remove anything inessential” and for a particular, very specific kind of story it’s probably mostly ok advice. But–look at that “essential.” What’s essential?

Longish thread, click through and read it if you’re so inclined.

Now I see that Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds picked this up and wrote a good post drawing on this topic: THE OPPOSITE OF “KILL YOUR DARLINGS

It is, taken lightly, good advice.

It is, taken rigorously, very bad advice.

Why, taken rigorously, is it bad advice?

It’s bad because it presupposes to know what is essential in a story. A story, we are then lead to believe, is a concise series of narrative events, and anything that does not move them forward is chaff that must be separated from the wheat lest the story-food be chewy and unpleasant. …

In a story, what’s essential?

Beginning, middle, end?

Character doing stuff, saying stuff?

Is a character’s description essential? How much is essential? One sentence? Three adjectives? A paragraph? A page? A whole chapter?

What about the description of family crests and epic meals and massive amounts of diplomacy? That wouldn’t go well in a spare thriller, but in epic fantasy, it’s a feature, not a bug

I would say that a beginning, middle, and end are indeed essential. Everything else is optional.

I remember when an editor asked me what a protagonist looked like and I realized I didn’t have a single word about his physical appearance. No hair color, no particular references to height, nothing. Plainly I don’t find character description essential.

Chuck then adds:

Next year, I have a novel out — Wanderers. One day, a young woman finds her sister sleepwalking down the road — the sister cannot be harmed, cannot be stopped, and every mile or three, she’s joined by another sleepwalker. On and on they go, the flock of sleepwalkers growing as their friends and families walk with them as shepherds. We don’t know where they’re going, or why, or for what purpose sinister or benevolent, and that’s what the book is about — that mystery, and those people. The book is 280,000 words. It’ll be in the 700-800 page range when it finally bursts its copy-editing cocoon and becomes its MIGHTY WINGED BOOK FORM. It’s a huge-ass book. And all along, I had to resist a single piece of writing advice:

Kill your darlings.

On the developmental edit, you know how much total word count I cut?


I wanted to quote that because … whoa, what a concept. I really like this idea for a suspense / horror type of story. What could possibly be going on?

Also, I’ve definitely added plenty of words during developmental edits. Also cut plenty, but that’s before the editor sees the manuscript, generally. Editorial comments for me usually result in adding words, not cutting.

Well, well, the basic notion is still: No writing advice fits every story or every author, so just get in the habit of ignoring advice that’s wrong for you.

Or as Chuck says:

Know when [your darlings] are a hill you’re willing to die on, even if you do, in fact, die upon it. Know they they’re there. Why you must keep them. Then plant your feet, raise your sword, and demand your darlings be allowed to live.

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Your Handy Book Review Kit

From Book View Cafe, this handy tool for writing your very own unique book reviews.

The Kit includes:

“A” List Adjectives (select 3)

“B” List Adjectives (select 2)

“C” List Adjectives (select 3)

Plus declares that you’ll also need:

2 words which are the name of a genre (like fantasy or horror)

An adverb

2 plural nouns (like cats or galaxies)

2 verbs

An adjective describing action (like frantic or slow)

An adjective describing a historical period (like Colonial or prehistoric)

A type of character (like villain or sidekick)

6 nouns of your choice

Then you plug these items into the following paragraph, thus making your review writing much faster and easier:

This is a (A) and (B) (name of genre) novel, and the (A) story line enhances the (adverb) tale. From the onset, fans will welcome the (plural noun) as each character struggles to (verb) the (noun) of the (C) (plural noun). ….

Fun post! It made me laugh.

Let me try this model out for the mystery I just read by Beverly Conner:

This is a (intriguing) and (enthralling) (mystery) novel, and the (suspenseful) story line enhances the (adverb [I think it means another adjective?]) tale. From the onset, fans will welcome the (evolving complexities) as each character struggles to (solve) the (mystery) of the (disturbing) (deaths). The characters are then caught up in a (thrilling) (battle) to (restore order to) the world. The author makes the setting seem as if it comes from (contemporary) (small-town life) rather than her imagination. The cast of characters is (fully rounded), especially the (secondary characters surrounding the protagonist). However, it is the (clever anthropological details) and the (crime scene details) that spellbind the audience as no one knows the (fascinating) secret of the (doomed) (serial killer). Loaded with (tension), fans will not want to put down this (powerful) (mystery) novel.

What do you think? … possibly not a substitute for a more personal approach, but hey, at least it was pretty fast to complete this template.

I think “the world” in the third sentence is not a good choice. Epic fantasy or some kinds of SF may involve saving the world, but a mystery set in a smallish town is seldom going to get to that level.

Fun post. I bet if you read lots of the very short book reviews written as advertising copy, quite a few do seem to more or less fit this template.

If you click through, be sure to read the comments. The second one down suits the post perfectly.

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Whew, glad that’s all in order —

Just loaded the final draft of Beyond the Dreams We Know to KDP. Whew! It’s not like I was in danger of missing the deadline — for a June 15th release, I needed the final drafts loaded by the 11th. Nevertheless, it’s a relief to have it done.

I have loaded both the Kindle file and the paperback version. Unless there’s some unexpected problem, both should go live at roughly the same time, which is to say, one week from today. Very exciting!

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Okay, this is different

In Japan, a Buddhist Funeral Service for Robot Dogs, it says here at National Geographic.

[T]his is actually a religious ceremony, and the emotions expressed by the human participants are genuine. … AIBOs aren’t like a remote-control car. They were designed to move in complex, fluid ways, with trainability and a simulated mischievous streak. …

Over time, they would come to “know” their human companions, who grew attached to them as if they were real dogs.

Uh huh. Well. I’m guessing, given the current state of technology, that if someone has one of these robot dogs along with a number of real dogs, they will find that the robot’s impression of the real thing suddenly seems less convincing. That would probably drive a stake through the heart of their emotional attachment.

I get that people can (somehow) get emotionally attached to cars and other mechanical objects. So I guess I sort of believe that a person could get attached in that way to a robot dog. But no one believes their car actually returns their attachment, right? No one thinks their car’s feelings will be hurt if they don’t pat it good night. So ordinarily a person’s attachment to a machine is not remotely in the same ballpark as the emotional attachment to a real, living, dog. At least, not under normal circumstances. I feel sorry for someone so lacking in the company of real animals (and people) that they are at all inclined to emotionally attach to a robot dog. In the back of their mind, they have to know all the time that it is a fake and doesn’t have any kind of emotions or thoughts.

It reminds me of this:

Sex robot creator wants to have a baby with his machine and says it would be ‘simple’

He [Spanish electronic engineer Sergi Santos] predicted that within the next couple of decades robots like Samantha won’t just be playthings men hide under the bed or in the back of the closet. Men will be marrying them, said Santos, who runs a company named Synthea Amatus in Barcelona.

And after marriage comes the baby carriage, which Santos claims he can make happen with nanotechnology. The doll wouldn’t give birth like a human. Santos would create a new artificial intelligence brain — an SD card in its head — for the offspring by merging the robot’s personality with the beliefs of its human partner.

“I can make them have a baby. It’s not so difficult. I would love to have a child with a robot,” he told the Sun.

Obviously a robot doesn’t have actual beliefs. AI would have to develop a LOT further before there would be any point in talking about the beliefs and emotions and personality of a robot doll. What kind of person could fool themselves into thinking that either the doll or a “child” doll could in any way be a real person?

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Good heavens

An Agent Nightmare Revealed

The news broke publicly over the holiday weekend. If you blinked, you missed it.

The bookkeeper for a prestigious New York literary agency pled guilty to embezzling millions from the agency, leaving the agency “on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Donadio & Olson has existed for 49 years. Started by legendary agent Candida Donadio, the agency has represented some of the biggest names in fiction for decades….

The panic is clear in the calm language of Donadio & Olson’s attorney on the civil case. He said, the agency is focused on “ensuring that all of its impacted clients are made whole to the greatest extent possible.”

Here is The Passive Guy, weighing in with what seems to me to be a common-sense perspective:

PG is interested to see a couple of articles describing the literary agency, Donadio & Olson, as a victim of the wholesale theft of client funds.

If a community bank closes because of financial improprieties that have continued for years, is the president of the bank regarded as an innocent bystander? Can he/she credibly point to a clerk and say, “It was all her fault! I had no idea this was happening over all these decades.”

In a criminal trial held in a court of law, the president is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion, the president is presumed to be part of the scheme or too incompetent to be responsible for running a bank.

PG suggests that in the court of public opinion, the agents that own (and have owned) and operated Donadio & Olson during the lengthy period of time over which client funds were stolen from authors should be similarly judged.

I am stunned that anyone is casting the agency as a victim, when it allowed this kind of large scale theft to take place for decades.

You know, when the AKC sanctions a breeder for falsifying records or something, the wording goes like this: The breeder knew, or should have known, or had a duty to know about this falsification. That seems to me to be the correct view here. The agency either knew, or definitely should have known, and certainly had a duty to know, about the money coming in and about where that money was going. They are to blame very nearly as much as the actual embezzler.

You know, this does add some urgency to the question of why the publisher ever pays royalties to the agency in the first place, depending on the agency to disperse the funds to the author. Looks like it’s well past time to try doing it the other way around.

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To no one’s surprise —

Romance writer’s bid to stop authors from using word ‘cocky’ fails in court

In the case, heard in a New York court on Friday, judge Alvin Hellerstein described romance readers as “sophisticated purchasers” unlikely to be confused between different authors’ books, found that cocky was a “weak trademark”, and denied Hopkins’s motion for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order to stop the publication of books with the word “cocky” in the title. …

I’m no expert in copyright law, but I know a bit more now than I did before all this came up. Lots of interesting blog posts out there focused on just this case. To me it seems that
Faleena Hopkins has no case and either (a) everyone knows it except her because she is mentally deficient, or (b) everyone knows it including her, but she is going on with this because she is deficient in both morality and common sense.

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Weirdest thing we saw in Europe

So, I would just like to share with you this odd . . . building . . . sculpture . . . thing:

This is called, unsurprisingly, the Square Head Building. It’s in Nice, France. Just right there in the middle of all the normal buildings. The bus drove past it without the slightest comment from the driver or tour guide. Just a giant square head thing, not worthy of notice, I guess?

It was apparently build in 1989 as part of a larger art project, then converted from a sculpture into a habitable building:

The architect in charge was Yves Bayard. The theater and museum were built, but for the library the city had no more money left and for over 10 years, there was a kind of empty closed space waiting for the finalization of the original project.

Meanwhile, the architect Yves Bayard worked with his friend Sacha Sosno to realize a crazy idea: transform a sculpture in a building where people could live! The very first habitable giant sculpture!

At the end of the 1990’s, the project of the city library could finally be continued and the most spectacular part of the new plans was to make a giant building out of Sosno’s famous sculpture called “the square head”, where the administration and offices of this cultural complex could install their headquarters.

So, apparently the square head accommodates offices for library administrators. How would you like to have your office in such an odd building? Apparently the construction materials are opaque from outside, but transparent from inside, so the people in there can see out. It must seem like tourists are staring straight in at them all the time. Very strange work environment, I expect.

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Fathers in Romance Novels

I’m revisiting this topic because I recently read a romance that offers a really great father/daughter relationship. Not central, of course, because this IS a romance. The central relationship is obviously between the female lead and the male lead. But the female protagonist happens to have solid relationships with both her mother and her father, and these relationships are important to the story.

I said in the previous post on this topic that I’d read three of Carla Kelly’s novels and in all of them the father was pretty bad to terrible. Well, not in this one.

In Borrowed Light, we have Julia Darling, whose father is the vice president of a bank and whose mother is affectionate and intelligent. Both parents are drawn well. The solid family bonds are, as I said, important to the overall plot even though we see the parents only briefly in the beginning and then a little more extensively partway through the novel.

Despite her good relationships with her family, Julia is unhappy because she’s engaged to a man she doesn’t much like. A graduate of the Fanny Farmer cooking school, she answers an add from a rancher in Wyoming who’s looking for a cook. And so the story unfolds.

Things to love about this story:

1. The characters. Julia is a sympathetic protagonist, genuinely nice but not unbelievably saccharine. Because of her background, she has a good deal of confidence and good sense — but she does have some growing up to do. The male lead, Paul Otto, is quite possibly the nicest guy I’ve met in literature this year, but again, not in an unbelievable or saccharine way. The secondary characters are complicated and interesting and generally quite likable. Again, the family relationships. I particularly liked how Paul Otto related to Julia’s father when they met.

2. The setting. Carla Kelly makes me believe in her stories because they’re set on such solid foundations.

3. The treatment of religion. This story is, I guess, aimed at a Mormon readership. I gather the publisher is a Latter Day Saints publisher. If I’d known that, I might not have been inclined to pick this book up, but actually I found that Kelly perfectly captures the centrality of religion and spirituality in the early 1900s without losing any of her skill with character or setting. Quite the reverse. I don’t think the reader needs to be all that familiar with LDS beliefs to thoroughly enjoy this story.

4. This is a book without a real villain, but there’s plenty of tension. Life was sometimes pretty tough in the early 1900s. Kelly kept my attention all the way through.

5. The writing. Many delightful details. I thought naming a character “Julia Darling” was ridiculous — until it turned out that Mr. Otto addresses all his employees just by their last name. Hah!

Slight flaws:

1. The denouement was a touch predictable, though still a pleasure to read.

2. I did not really find the character arc that Kelly gave to James, the boy taken in by Mr. Otto, very persuasive. Some of the details of that sub-plot just did not really work for me.

Overall: Totally charming. I’m looking forward to reading more by Carla Kelly, including quite possibly the next Latter Day Saints book in what is apparently a loosely-linked series.

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