Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent reading: Some books should come with a warning label

By which I mean, at least this time, books in which the bad guy wins. And I don’t mean a charming bad guy such as, say, Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder or Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos. No. I mean a real bad guy, the kind where it’s an offense against the universe when they win.

I also mean the sort of books in which the good guy loses. I mean really loses, so that his life is thoroughly screwed up at the end. Worse: the sort of story where the good guy does it to himself, so that you, as the reader, can see everything going wrong while the protagonist’s mistakes pile up and then come crashing down on him and everyone around him with all the power and inevitability of a tsunami.

Don’t tell me real life is sometimes like that. If I wanted to read stories like that, I could read current news or ancient history or whatever.

So. I picked up IN THE WOODS, a debut novel by Tana French that came out several years ago, at a recent book sale. Here’s what the back cover copy says: “. . . three children leave their small Dublin neighborhood to play in the surrounding woods. Hours later, their mother’s calls go unanswered. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children, gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
“Twenty years later, Detective Rob Ryan – the found boy, who has kept his past a secret – and his partner Cassie Maddox investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl in the same woods. No, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him, and that of his own shadowy past.”

My tolerance for horror is fairly low, but I sometimes do like suspense and crime dramas, and I often like cop books, and this book was an Edgar Award finalist, and I liked the cover. So I read the first couple of pages. Here’s the first paragraph, to give you an idea:

“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping chants, One! two! three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.”

Okay, I’d call that promising, wouldn’t you? The second sentence got me. Beautiful! And then the rest of the paragraph: setting is very important to me in mysteries, and this story, set in Ireland, looks like it will be perfect. Just exotic enough to be appealing without being challenging. I may not know what Marie biscuits are or what a BMX wind is, but not knowing stuff like that isn’t going to bother me a bit.

And the writing here is top-notch. That part is undeniable. But I started to see the trend toward the protagonist’s life unraveling pretty early, and though the writing was good enough to keep me going, I definitely took a gooood step back emotionally and wound up not being very emotionally engaged with the characters. Which was wise. Because this author really ticked me off. And it’s not just because of the ending where the bad guy gets away with murder, and worse than murder, and is clearly going to go on destroying people’s lives for the foreseeable future. It’s also because of the way we get to that ending.

First, French provides one of the very, very few true nonsexual friendships between a man and a woman in all of fiction – Ryan and his partner Maddox. How often do you EVER see that? The author does it so well, the relationship comes across as totally believable. Then . . . well, then the author throws sex back in there after all and that relationship gets completely, irretrievably screwed up. I’m not saying this isn’t believable. Ryan’s all messed up because of his personal history, and although I don’t totally get his reactions with regard to this relationship with his partner, fine, I can believe he might possibly react the way he did. But I hate it. And I hate what it puts his partner through, and I hate where Ryan himself ends up.

Not only that, but Ryan’s personal history? The bit about being found gripping a tree trunk with his shoes full of blood? You see how the back cover copy invites you to believe that Ryan is going to figure out what actually happened to himself and his two friends when they were kids? And that unraveling that old mystery is going to be connected to the current murder? Well: sorry to spoil this for you if you were going to rush out and buy this book, but no.

There are hints about supernatural weirdness, probably evil supernatural weirdness, connected with those woods and that old disappearance. But in fact those hints stay completely unexplained. We never find out what really happened. Those shoes full of blood, a distinctly weird and creepy image the author rather dwells on? We never find out about those. We don’t even find out whose blood it was! Was it the blood of the two kids who disappeared? Don’t know, could be! Why was there blood in the shoes and nowhere else? We have no idea. Is there a connection between the old disappearance and the current crime? You’d think so, right? But if there was supposed to be such a connection, it was so subtle and mystical that I missed it.

And then the bad guy won.

I don’t care how good the writing was. I won’t be coming back for Tana French’s second book.

Here’s the Goodreads page for IN THE WOODS.

I particularly recommend Matt Sommer’s review, which is the second one down. Yeah, what he said. There’s an interesting comment in his thread, that Ryan himself may be supposed to be a sociopath and that he himself killed his friends. I don’t think I buy it, but it’s certainly an interesting idea. I think we see enough relatively normal emotions in his head to rule out that he his himself sociopathic, and I don’t *think* he killed his friends. But I don’t know. If you’re into psychological mysteries, hey, maybe you’d like to read this one after all and see what you think.

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Interesting statistics

Over at Kristen Nelson’s blog. (She’s an agent, as you may know.)

I like statistics. And I’m familiar with the notion that most queries don’t get a “send me pages” request from an agent. But check this out:

32,000 queries in 2012, and

81 full manuscripts requested.

In case you’re curious, that is two tenths of one percent of the queries. Wow.

But then, if you’re sending out queries of your own? Or thinking about it? Whatever proportion of queries look like this are not your competition.

And if you’ve never seen it, you MUST go read the post “Slushkiller” by Teresa Nelson Hayden, which has got to be just about the best post ever written about slushpile queries.

And, if you ARE thinking of tackling a query letter? Then here’s a resource you may want to explore: a list that links to various successful query letters. And of course you’re familiar with Janet Reid’s Query Shark?

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Did you know Amazon’s just zapped thousands of reviews from their site?

Or so it says here .

In general, I don’t know that I care that much. But: here is the first comment to this article:

“Here’s my standard: any book with five stars is likely cause for suspicion. It probably means either the reviewer has something to gain or the reviewer’s standards are low and therefore untrustworthy. Indeed, of the, let’s say, 10 million books written and reviewed, maybe less than 1% deserve five stars. Five star books are those by authors whose books have stood the test of time (e.g. Tolstoy, Twain, etc.). Usually, I go straight to the negative reviews, which are often more informative and accurate in my experience.”

To which my immediate response is: Well, buddy, it’s nice you have such high high high standards, but I almost never review books I don’t like, which means I often DO give a book five stars. And I hardly think I have such low low low standards compared to you. Or need a book to become a time-tested classic before I can tell whether it’s any good. So lighten up.

You know what? Five stars is not that many. If this was a ten star system, then I expect I would be giving very few books ten stars and I’d be a bit suspicious of books that garnered a lot of ten-out-of-ten stars. But it hardly seems out of the way to give a book five-out-of-five. Four out of five is actually too low for quite a lot of books.

Which that guy in the comments actually would realize, if he could do math. Because if 1% of 10 million books — his guess, not mine — deserves five stars, that’s 100,000 books, which is going to be a whole lot of the ones people have actually heard of.

If I’m using reviews to make a buying decision, which I actually sometimes do, I personally read a good handful of both the positive and negative reviews. A negative review that declares a book is “boring” may actually be a suggestion that I will like it, particularly if someone else left a comment about the book’s leisurely pace and lyrical writing.

And! Something else that is interesting: Harriet Klausner, who is cited in the article linked above because she has 25,000 reviews on Amazon? Well, her reviews make it perfectly clear that she really did read the Griffin trilogy, and since I know *I* didn’t pay her for those reviews, my guess is, she REALLY DOES read roughly a zillion books a day. I’m glad I don’t read that fast, as how could you linger over a book long enough to actually enjoy it if you read half a dozen per day?

But, in fact, overall, I don’t know that I care that much about what Amazon does with its review policy, since I actually go to Goodreads to read reviews or post my own. Besides, it doesn’t look to me like Amazon did anything to my reviews. Not (in case you wonder) that any close family members have ever left a review for any of my books. (Not that I would object if they did.)

How about you all? Anybody tend to write reviews, and if so, do you do it at Amazon or Goodreads or someplace else?

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The best of the Adventurous Cookies

Or at least the ones that I personally liked best — though I thought all of the cookies were good, or I’d hardly have submitted them for the contest!

AZTEC GOLD / MAYAN END-OF-THE-WORLD CHOCOLATE COOKIES

For these, I started out with the Death-By-Chocolate Cookies that Elaine T. sent me. The first thing was to de-death them so that I could use a ganache filling without overloading the chocolate tolerance of a normal chocolate-loving person. I did this by dropping the amount of unsweetened chocolate and replacing the lost chocolate and part of the butter with cream cheese – that gives a nice texture and softens the flavor. I also removed the chocolate chips entirely. Then I added a bit of chipotle powder (to make them adventurous) and, to half the dough, a bit of cinnamon. The cinnamon is the only difference between these two versions. I don’t ordinarily care for cinnamon combined with chocolate, but I found the tiny amount here very nice.

8 oz bittersweet chocolate
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 ½ C. flour
½ C. cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
½ tsp chipotle powder
1 tsp Ceylon cinnamon, optional – I prefer true cinnamon to the cassia that is sold as cinnamon in this country, because true cinnamon is actually less “cinnamony” and has a lighter, almost floral fragrance. But I’m not a cinnamon lover, and if you are, you would probably prefer ordinary cinnamon (which is really cassia, if you follow me, sorry, it’s not my fault, I’m not the one who decided on this the terminology).
1 ½ C. Demerara or other raw sugar
8 oz cream cheese
1 stick butter
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

12 oz bittersweet chocolate
½ C cream
2 Tbsp Anejo tequila, optional – I didn’t use it, but I put it into the cookie lacking cinnamon to increase its “adventurousness”
¼ to ½ tsp chipotle powder
¼ tsp cinnamon extract, optional

Edible gold dust

Melt the chocolates together. Combine the dry ingredients. Cream the sugar with the cream cheese and butter. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture. Chill one hour to overnight. Roll into 60 balls and place on parchment-lined baking sheets. Flatten each ball to a 1 ½ inch circle with a glass dipped in flour (or sugar, or Demerara sugar, whatever you like). Bake at 325 degrees for about 12 minutes, until set. Try not to overbake.

Heat the chocolate and cream together in the microwave and stir until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients. Let set until the ganache thickens, 30 to 40 minutes. Assemble the cookies. Dust the top cookies with the gold dust, for a particularly exotic and attractive presentation – I think I got my gold dust from King Arthur Flour, and it is a beautiful touch.

Okay! And my favorite of the bunch:

TASTE FOR ADVENTURE TRIPLE GINGER CHOCOLATE COOKIES

These are basically an easy chocolate-gingerbread whoopie pie type of cookie. Even if you think you would hate chocolate gingerbread, you really might try them, because that’s honestly what I thought and boy was I wrong.

Basically what I wanted with these was a cookie like chocolate gingerbread, NOT like a gingersnap or molasses spice cookie, not flat, not chewy and certainly not crunchy. I was really happy to get this cookie just right on the first try. But they’re not a very fancy looking cookie, so I don’t know that they have much of a chance in the contest.

2 ¾ C. flour
¼ C. cocoa powder
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¾ C. butter
¾ C. packed brown sugar
1 egg
½ C. molasses
2 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
2/3 C. buttermilk
½ C. minced crystallized ginger
1 ½ C. semisweet chocolate chips

Filling:

6 oz cream cheese
2 ½ to 3 C. powdered sugar
1 Tbsp grated ginger
½ C. minced crystallized ginger

Combine the dry ingredients. Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the molasses, egg, and grated ginger. Beat in the buttermilk. Stir in the flour mixture. Fold in the crystallized ginger and chocolate chips. Drop rounded Tbsp on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes, until set. Try not to overbake. It’s easier to tell with these than some, because they’re so cake-like. If a cookie springs back when touched, it’s done. Cool about 2 minutes on the sheets. Remove to racks to cool completely.

Combine the filling ingredients, using enough powdered sugar to make a decently thick, spreadable filling – getting that right was the hardest part – and assemble the sandwich cookies.

There! I hope you enjoy all of these recipes as much as I did!

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An update in bits and pieces

On a whim last week, I tried tethering my laptop to my phone and connecting to the internet right from my own house, which has never worked. Strangely, it now DOES work. It’s been working consistently all week! Is it the weather? The season? Generic tecnology weirdness? I have no idea. But — newsflash! — it’s amazing how addictive and distracting the internet can be, if you can actually connect to it whenever you want!

Despite this new connectivity experience, I have reached 100 pages (32,000 words) on my new WIP! This is four complete chapters. It isn’t actually great progress, considering that I had about fifty pages in place when I started working on it (on Jan 1st). But it’ll do. Hey, it was a busy, busy Christmas break. Now that I’m at a stopping point, I think I will email my agent, send her the revised ms for THE MOUNTAIN OF KEPT MEMORY, and ask for her comments on the revised copy of the other WIP ms she has right now. I don’t mind going back to revisions now that I’ve made somethig resembling progress on a new project. Wish me luck in the coming year! I should have no fewer than four complete mss by the end of the year, all of which I hope wil have found a home, one way or another, by this time in 2014.

So, Dad finished installing the new shelves he made for me! Yay! Having one of youer nearest and dearest be handy with carpentry is an excellent thing. I spent the afternoon moving books and shelving the stacks that used to be piled on the floor. I now have lots of room to expand. I estimate it’ll take two years before I am again pressed for space. By then I will probably have a kindle or nook or something and space will be a lot less of a concern.

And! Almost better than actually getting new shelves, since Dad had the paint out, I asked him to put some aside for me, and spent more of the afternoon scrubbing woodwork around the house and touching up the paint. It’s all a creamy white, which is beautiful, but GOOD LORD was it showing wear! The dogs do not understand why they can’t sit on their windowsill tonight. I assured them that tomorrow they will have a beautiful clean windowsill to sit on. I also have the front door blocked off with an X-pen, the single most useful item I own that normal pet owners don’t even know about. I use it ALL THE TIME to keep dogs away from seedlings under the lights or confine a dog after surgery or to block off wet paint or, for that matter, actually as a pen when I’m showing four of them at one show or whatever.

Tomorrow I will put another coat of paint on the baby gates (which had puppy toothmarks all over them) and do more windowsill and cabinet doors until I run out of paint. Painting windowsills and stuff is an oddly satisfying activity; hopefully I will remember that and not wait ten years before touching up the paint again.

Next for the evening: choosing a book to read. I figure, hey, last weekend of Christmas break, I may as well actually take a break, right? I’m leaning toward THE KILLING MOON by NK Jemisin.

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A very snazzy infographic —

So we find that twitter is sometimes actually useful! Because I wouldn’t have noticed this infographich without a tweeted link.

See, it seems a young Chinese woman has created an infographic to show how emotions for which there aren’t English words map onto the world of emotion. Isn’t that a neat idea?

To be sure, some of the terms seem pretty indistinguishable from concepts we already have. Like this Japanese word which is supposed to express the “emotional attachment between friends, family, even animals” — I wonder how that is supposed to be different from at least a broad conception of “love”?

I like the Hebrew term which means “sick on you”, ie, obsessed. If Maria and Janet in Sharon Shinn’s shapeshifter novels had to pick a word to describe their feelings for their boyfriends, this term would certainly fit better than “love.” (Sorry, the word is given in Hebrew characters, and I have no idea what the phonetic spelling would be in English.)

I have absolutely no idea what the Turks mean by Serefe, though. I mean, what?

One of my favorites didn’t make the list — pena ajena, which is Mexican Spanish for the embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation. (That one is given below the infographic.) That’s a useful term. This emotion is exactly why I can’t stand watching sitcoms, because almost all the so-called humor in the shows is based on putting the characters in embarrassing situations and then laughing at them. I don’t think that’s funny; I think that’s embarrassing. I guess I’m not alone, since evidently we have this term for that feeling.

How about you? Any of these emotional states strike a chord of recognition with you?

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The Craft of Writing

Dialogue Tags: The Bad, the Visible, the Audible, and the Absent

Dialogue should bring your characters to life. We all know that. It should contain and express their unique voices! It should be witty or profound or surprising or interesting or in some way effective! Right? Just serviceable dialogue is not good enough. Dialogue must not be boring or stilted or too predictable, and it should not make your character sound like Mr. Spock, unless, of course, he is Mr. Spock. Above all, dialogue should avoid silly or incompetent use of dialogue tags.

I mean, we all know perfectly well how a bad writer sometimes handles dialogue tags. Like this:

“You can’t mean it,” she exclaimed.
“I assure you, I mean every word,” he smirked.
“Oh, you’re too, too cruel,” she moaned.
“You better believe it, babe,” he sneered.

I’ve actually seen fanfic written like this, so don’t think it never happens. But of course most writers understand that “said” is invisible and most other dialogue tags are visible, right?

Which, actually, is a bit of an overstatement. The fact is, as I recently noticed while listening to an audiobook, “said” is often but not always invisible. In a minute I’m going to provide several examples of dialogue and take a look at what makes “said” pop out of the sentence almost as much as the tags above, and what techniques writers can use to keep that from happening.

But first! Let me add that actually quite a few other dialogue tags are nearly invisible if used effectively and in moderation. I don’t think everybody acknowledges this, though it is obvious.

Some other tags that generally work include: “shouted”, “whispered”, “protested,” “murmured”, “muttered”, and “answered.” But this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Opening up my current WIP, I see that in the first conversation, I use “inquired”, “observed”, “conceded”, “added,” and “repeated” as well as “said” – I only use “said” a couple of times. This is all within two or three pages, yet (I would argue) none of these tags stands out or catches the reader’s eye.

I really do want to emphasize this: if used smoothly and correctly and in moderation, lots of tags besides “said” sound just fine, barely draw the reader’s notice, and in fact add to rather than detract from your dialogue. To use them properly, of course, you need to have your character shout only when she ought to shout, and so on. And it’s certainly true that you don’t want to tag too many lines with any of these. But go actually look at what kinds of dialogue tags are used by really good writers such as Patricia McKillip and you will find plenty of variation, far more than you might expect given the popular advice to avoid tags other than “said.” You definitely don’t want to surrender your artistic judgment to some simplistic rule – even a rule that is cited everywhere as though it was handed down on a stone tablet from God.

And, hey, while on the subject of overstated advice, how about adverbs? I mean, how often have we seen advice to cut all adverbs from dialogue tags? That’s going a little far, too. Of course you don’t want this:

“I really must get my husband to a doctor at once,” she said urgently.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her heartily. “There’s a hospital less than half a mile away.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she exclaimed thankfully. “Can you help me get him into that taxi?”

But if you open any novel by Patricia McKillip, you will see that she sometimes uses adverbs in dialogue tags. If she does, then clearly it’s okay! So that no-adverb rule is better conceptualized as “Don’t use too many adverbs in dialogue tags, and never when the adverb is redundant.” Lots of times it is perfectly clear from the context that your character is worried or in a hurry or awkward or whatever, and if it’s perfectly clear, then you don’t need to have her say something worriedly or hurriedly or awkwardly. Or rather than “said quietly” maybe you should be saying “whispered”? Because you don’t want to use an adverb merely as a substitute for the actual right word.

But it’s important to understand that neither “murmured” nor “whispered” nor “muttered” mean the same thing as, for example, “said gently.” The first sounds quiet, the second tentative or secretive, the third embarrassed. Only the adverbial tag sounds kind. Sometimes you really do need to say “said gently” and no other construction will do. It’s important to have enough of a feel for language to know when that is, and be confident enough to ignore overstated advice.

Now, back to use of the ordinary “said” tag. Look at this tiny sample of dialogue, from Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS, which I just listened to. And it was really good, btw – an excellent choice for audio format. But look at this:

“I was promised a long story,” Duvall said, after they had gotten their food and drinks.
“I made no such promise,” Dahl said.
“The promise was implied,” Duvall protested. “And besides, I bought you a drink. I own you. Entertain me, Ensign Dahl.”
“All right, fine,” Dahl said. “I entered the Academy late because for three years I was a seminary student.”
“Okay, that’s moderately interesting,” Duvall said.
“On Forshan,” Dahl said.
“Okay, that’s intensely interesting,” Duvall said.

Notice something? Every single line is tagged and in all but one case, the tag is “said.” Besides that, in all but one line, the dialogue comes first and the tag afterward – the sentence pattern is nearly always the same. Of course I selected this tidbit on purpose to illustrate a point, but I promise you that the overall feeling you get, given Scalzi’s writing style in this book, is that every single line is tagged with “said.”

I wonder how many readers actually start to notice all those “he said, she said” tags? When you’re reading, I wonder if you don’t just skim over this dialogue so fast you really don’t notice the tags? But I can tell you, when you’re listening to this in audio format, those tags sure catch your ear. They don’t sound exactly silly, but they start to pick up a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard quality.

Then you get used to it and the dialogue tags stop being so annoying, and I actually did find this story highly entertaining, and honestly it is an excellent choice for a short drive (the whole thing is six cds, but that includes three short stories; the main story is only four cds long).

But listening to this story made me really notice dialogue tags, which is exactly what the use of “said” is supposed to avoid. Compare the above sample to this, which you may recognize as a bit of dialogue from NINE PRINCES IN AMBER by Zelazny:

Just as she neared, I sat up.
“Good evening,” I said.
“Why – good evening,” she replied.
“When do I check out?” I asked.
“I’ll have to ask Doctor.”
“Do so,” I said.
“Please roll up your sleeve.”
“No, thanks.”
“I have to give you an injection.”
“No, you don’t. I don’t need it.”
“I’m afraid that’s for Doctor to say.”
“Then send him around and let him say it. But in the meantime, I will not permit it.”
“I’m afraid I have my orders.”
“So did Eichmann, and look what happened to him.” And I shook my head slowly.

Out of fourteen lines of dialogue, only four are tagged. Using so few tags could lead to confusion, but in this case it doesn’t, because it’s perfectly clear from context which character is saying what. Only one tag is “said”. Neither “replied” nor “asked” stands out or sounds the least bit stupid. The fourth tag is, of course, a movement tag, which is an excellent way of tagging a line without using “said” or any substitute.

You know who really does a great job with movement tags? Sarah Addison Allen. Check this out – it’s from THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON, which I’ve decided is my favorite of her books:

“You’ll never guess what Stella told me last night,” Sawyer said, strolling into the kitchen just as Julia was finishing the apple stack cake she was going to take to Vance Shelby’s granddaughter.
Julia closed her eyes for a moment. Stella must have called him the moment Julia left her last night.
Sawyer stopped next to her at the stainless steel table and stood close. He was like crisp, fresh air. He was self-possessed and proud, but everyone forgave him because charm sparkled around him like sunlight. [ . . . ]
“You’re not supposed to be back here,” she said as she put the last layer of cake on top of the dried-apple-and-spice filling.
“Report me to the owner.” He pushed some of her hair behind her left ear, his fingers lingering on the thin pink streak she still dyed in her hair there. “Don’t you want to know what Stella told me last night?”
She jerked her head away from his hand as she put the last of the apple and spice filling on top of the cake, leaving the sides bare. “Stella was drunk last night.”
“She said you told her that you bake cakes because of me.”
Julia had known it was coming, but she stilled anyway, the icing spatula stopping mid-stroke. She quickly resumed spreading the filling, hoping he hadn’t noticed. “She thinks you have low self-esteem. She’s trying to build up your ego.”
He lifted one eyebrow in that insolent way of his. “I’ve been accused of many things, but low self-esteem is not one of them.”
“It must be hard to be so beautiful.”
“It’s hell. Did you really say that to her?”
She clanged the spatula into the empty bowl the filling had been in, then took both to the sink. “I don’t remember. I was drunk, too.”
“You never get drunk,” he said.
“You don’t know me well enough to make blanket statements like ‘You never get drunk.’” It felt good to say that. Eighteen years she’d been away. Look how much I’ve improved, she wanted to say.

See that? Not just movement tags, but thought tags. We are carried straight into Julia’s point of view here, and her thoughts and reactions substitute for dialogue tags several times just in this little snippet. In fourteen exchanges, there are only three actual dialogue tags. But there are only three completely untagged lines. Movement and thought tags accompany the remaining lines of dialogue, keeping us completely, effortlessly aware of exactly who is saying what – there’s no possible way to get confused. Allen manages this even in a quite long scene with a lot of different characters, which, believe me, is a tricky kind of scene to write.

Let me just add that Allen also works a lot more description into her dialogue than either Scalzi or Zelazny, often with very beautiful unexpected metaphors and analogies worked in, like charm sparkling like sunlight and, oh, lots of examples – read the book.

Now, where does Allen stand on the adverb question? Let’s take a look:

“I’m sorry,” she immediately said. “I didn’t mean to –”

“Win, you know my brother would be alive today if it weren’t for her mother,” Morgan said tightly.

“No one in town has ever said a word about that night,” Win said calmly.

“Like I said, I didn’t know her well,” Julia said carefully.

These kinds of tags are not that rare in Allen’s writing; it took me no time to find a good handful of examples. And in every single case, the adverb makes the dialogue more effective. It really does. That “calmly,” given the context, conveys Win’s self-possession, which is his central characteristic. Saying “carefully” in that last line – it’s one more way of signaling the reader that there is a secret Julia is trying not to give away. All these adverbs do something, they’re important, and no, the feel they add to the story could not be conveyed just via the spoken words of dialogue.

So . . . to sum up, my advice is: be aware of the common advice to minimize adverbs and also be aware of why adverbs are considered to detract from dialogue, but do not write off the use of adverbs in dialogue until you’ve studied how authors like Patricia McKillip and Sarah Addison Allen write dialogue. And that goes double for dialogue tags in general: pay attention to how skilled writers handle dialogue tags, and don’t take simplistic advice like “only use ‘said’” or “avoid dialogue tags” too seriously. No simplistic rules can ever substitute for your very own feel for the language.

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Blog / The Best Cookies In The World

A few more Adventurous cookies —

Moving right along, we come to —

CHOCOLATE GINGERBREAD MARSHMALLOW BARS

These are meant to look a LOT like ice cream bars. I made a couple different versions, experimenting with different flavors, with different techniques of assembly, and with the amount of marshmallow. I found making a full recipe of marshmallow was better, both to make the cookies look A LOT like ice cream bars and for the marshmallow to balance the cookie and for ease of prep.

To my surprise, I liked this gingerbread version significantly better than the kind I made with plain chocolate cookies and coconut marshmallow. Until this contest, I was under the impression that I didn’t like chocolate combined with ginger. Apparently I was wrong! These are good, not THAT hard, and just plain fun to serve.

2 2/3 C. flour
1 C less 1 Tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp ground ginger
¾ tsp salt
1/8 tsp baking powder
1 ½ sticks butter
1 stick margarine
1 C. sugar
2 egg yolks – here’s what to do with the yolks if you used the whites for the paciencia!
1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger

1 recipe marshmallows, prepared like THIS, but with 1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger and 1 C. minced crystallized ginger added.

Combine the flour, cocoa, ginger, salt, and baking powder. Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg yolks and grated ginger. Chill the dough thirty minutes or so. Divide in half. Roll out each half, between a sheet of parchment paper and a sheet of waxed paper, to a 12 x 8 inch rectangle. Peel off the waxed paper and trim the edges so you have two nice straight-edged rectangles, still on the parchment paper.. Poke holes in the dough with the end of thermometer or similar blunt instrument – you want the holes to look like the ones in ice cream sandwiches. Lift the paper with the rolled-out dough onto baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 16-18 minutes, until set. Try not to overbake. Cool completely on the baking sheets because if you try to lift the parchment paper up, the cookie sheets will break, which isn’t a total disaster because the marshmallow will disguise a lot of flaws, but try not to break the cookies if possible.

Now, fit one cookie into a shallow 13 x 9 inch baking dish, which you have prepared by lining it with foil and spraying the foil and sides of the dish with cooking spray. Now prepare the marshmallow and pour it over the cookie, working fairly briskly because it is easier to spread while warm. Top with the second cookie sheet. Cover the dish loosely with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature overnight to let the marshmallow set.

The next morning, use the foil to slide the whole shebang out of the baking dish. Use a pizza cutter sprayed with cooking spray to trim extra marshmallow away from the edges. (You can eat that extra marshmallow as a reward for tackling this recipe – not that it’s that hard, honest.)

Cut into bars about the size and shape of ice cream bars. I found a 3 x 2 inch bar looked nice. The best way to cut the cookie is to use a sharp serrated knife to gently saw through the top cookie, then press straight down through the marshmallow and bottom cookie layer. Dip the edges of the marshmallow into cornstarch if you wish, to keep them from sticking to everything. I am pretty sure you will get admiring comments when you serve these. Plus, they’re really good. I kind of overdosed on the first batch I made.

CHOCOLATE ORANGE PINENUT SPIRALS

I saw a picture that looked nice in a cooking magazine, but totally changed the dough. I didn’t add enough orange when I made them; I’m going to suggest ingredients that should significantly bounce the orange flavor, but I admit I haven’t actually tried the cookies again with the adjusted ingredients.

1 C. butter
4 oz cream cheese
1 C brown sugar
1 egg yolk
½ tsp orange extract (I didn’t include this in my trial run, but I think I should have)
2 Tbsp Grand Marnier OR orange juice concentrate
2 ½ C. flour
¼ C. cocoa powder
½ C. ground pine nuts or other nuts

A filling to make sandwich cookies with, if you wish – for the contest, I used an ordinary chocolate ganache with a bit of orange extract and a good pinch of cayenne. This was fine, but a caramel-orange filling would be a good choice, or my brother suggested vanilla ice cream, which I am pretty sure would be fabulous. But the cookies aren’t bad at all just as-is.

Cream the butter, cream cheese, and sugar. Beat in the egg yolk and orange flavorings. Add flour. Divide the dough into two portions. Add the cocoa to one half and the ground nuts to the other half. Chill about an hour. Roll out each portion between two sheets of waxed paper to a 16 x 8 rectangle. Peel the top sheet of paper off the nut layer and use the other sheet of waxed paper to help you lay it over the chocolate layer. You do want the chocolate layer on the bottom because it is going to be stiffer than the nut layer, which will make it easier to roll the dough up jelly-roll style if you have the chocolate layer on the bottom. (Yes, I am speaking from experience.) Roll up the two layers together into a nice tight spiral. This is not at all difficult. Wrap the log of dough in plastic wrap and chill until very firm – several hours or overnight.

Slice the log ¼ inch thick and lay the slices on parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 9 to 11 minutes, until set and just a little browned on the bottom. Cool completely on racks. Use whatever filling you like to assemble into sandwich cookies, if you like. These are pretty and impressive and really not at all difficult.

Enjoy!

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Recent Listening: A Hat Full of Sky

So, I ran up to St Louis yesterday to do some (fun) errands, which let me finally finish listening to A HAT FULL OF SKY by Terry Pratchett. Which was really very good, of course. It’s supposed to be YA, but I don’t know, I think it’s actually MG — Tiffany is only 11 in the story. There are, it turns out, four stories in the Tiffany series: THE WEE FREE MEN, A HAT FULL OF SKY, WINTERSMITH, and I SHALL WEAR MIDNIGHT. Naturally I am listening to them out of order, because I didn’t happen to have burned the first one to cds yet. I’ll go back and pick that one up first before going on to the later two, and it may take awhile to get to any of them because I won’t be showing again till next fall. I’m thinking of using audiobooks while weeding next spring, though. Doesn’t that sound like a good idea?

ANYWAY. I usually don’t go out of my way to read MG, but there are exceptions — Diana Wynne Jones, for example. And Terry Pratchett is like DWJ in that all of his books are likely to appeal to adults, even if they’re more aimed at children. And though I’m not that interested in his earlier books, it’s hard to beat his later ones — and all the Tiffany books count as later, imo.

So, anyway. Pratchett caught the small personal concerns of a child as well as the big concerns of an adult. I loved Tiffany! I was right there with her in her impatience and distaste for dealing with some of the daily concerns of a witch — witches as social workers: that was certainly new. I was with how Tiffany grew and changed through the course of the story, but didn’t ever become too perfect. I enjoyed watching her figure out Mistress Weatherwax. I really appreciated how some of the minor characters stayed themselves (Anagrama) or else chaged pretty dramatically (Petula). (Sorry if I don’t have the spelling quite right, I was listening to the book, remember, not reading it, so these are phoenetic spellings.)

Now I’m looking forward to going back and picking up THE WEE FREE MEN.

Now, about those errands I was running: what am I going to do with this fennel bulb? I ran up to Global Foods, see, to renew my supply of Chaokoh coconut milk (very important!), so you can see this was a fun errand, not the tedious annoying sort. I only get up to Global Foods a couple times a year, see. They have just about everything! They hang flags in the aisles so you can see what counry’s food is in that aisle. I always go up and down all the aisles. I get pressed tofu, which I like, and things like couscous, which they have in bulk, and of course I look carefully at the fascinating produce. Hence the fennel bulb. I also got some beautiful baby bok choi and beech mushrooms, bean sprouts, dates and figs, quinoa — my mother wanted some and I like it ground into flour and used in baking — I already have lemon grass in the freezer, but I picked up some lovely poblanos and jalapenos. I tried hard to exercise self-control, but jeeze.

I always try to pick up something new to me, and I always give way to the urge to pick up something indulgent. I wanted anduille, but they were out, very disappointing. I forgot to look for dried Chinese sausages, alas. I picked up shrimp balls, used in South Asian soups, which were both new to me AND indulgent. I looked at lamb and goat, but it was too expensive. I got whole grain barley flour, which I’m almost out of, and chickpea flour, which I like for making various Indian dishes.

Then I came home and made soup with the shrimp balls and bok choi and the beech mushrooms and a handful of bean sprouts. It was very good,which was nice, because I sure didn’t follow the recipe. Even my mother loved it. I also made beef satay with peanut sauce, which was excellent. Today, pad thai. Lots of good things in store over the next few days. Ah, cooking, the hobby that is truly its own reward! But I still have no idea what to do with this bulb of fennel.

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