Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Okay, first, I bet you saw this coming:

Look! Her eyes are open!

She’s getting cute! Also, at three weeks, she is finally pretty safe from basically everything, so long as I don’t actually drop her or anything. Last night I finally moved downstairs to the actual bedroom, leaving her on her own with her mom. She is able to toddle a little, though she certainly isn’t steady on her feet yet!

Other stuff that I’ve completed:

1) I have indeed finished starting all the seeds indoors that I’m going to. Fifty petunias, for example, and forty melampodium (creeping zinnia). A handful of little single marigolds, but those germinated so super-fast that I will start others outdoors when it’s warmer. They germinated in two days! If I were playing around with a gardening project with kids, I might use those, because I don’t know of anything faster.

I’m starting just a handful of tomatoes and peppers and eggplants this year. I attempted to start four tithonia, but only one germinated. I may try more outdoors. I’ll start celosia in peat pots a week before I want to set them out, they hate having their roots disturbed. I’ll start Phacelia and centauria and stuff outside, too, shortly. And annual vinca. Later this week I need to outline planting spaces with hoses even if I don’t sprinkle the seeds out there yet.

2) I finally wrote my guest post for Kristen’s Women in Fantasy month over at Fantasy Book Cafe ! Whew. I started about four different columns before finally settling on one and finishing it, that’s why it took so long.

3) I finished reading Merrie Haskell’s rough draft of her third book. It was really good, but I was glad to find something substantive to say when I was about 2/3 of the way through the manuscript. But I don’t think she’ll need to do much with it — honestly, it’s excellent. I’m really looking forward to A Handbook for Dragon Slayers , which is out in May. I didn’t get to read that one early, so I have no idea if it’s a fairy tale retelling or not — doesn’t offhand look like it from the Amazon description.

4) AND, yes, so far I am progressing with MY manuscript as planned. Well, not today. Today I have not even opened the file. But hey, the day is young, so I trust I will get my 5 pp (about 1800 words) written. Probably. I also want to take the two teenagers over to a hiking trail if it gets a little warmer. I must admit, freezing rain would compel me to be more productive.

Anyway! I am adding a new chapter 1 in front of the two chapters I already had. I went in knowing that the first words were going to be: “It’s a trap,” somebody said.

But it may amuse you to know that I didn’t know who was going to say this, or exactly what the trap comprised or who had set it, or who all was present in the scene, or much of anything except what the bait in the trap was going to be.

Obviously I worked that all out pretty briskly once I got going. (It was Natividad who said the line above, unless I change my mind, which I don’t think I’m going to.) Plus now I know more or less who set the trap, and what the different layers of the trap are (I think). Not sure yet how the good guys are going to spring the trap, defeat the bad guys, and get out with the bait. I expect I will find that out today. Or tomorrow at the latest.

So, lunchtime, and I still haven’t actually written a word as such. Bye, internet!

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

While we’re on the subject of epic fantasy —

So it turns out that Marie Brennen recently posted a long, detailed analysis of where Jordan went wrong with his immense Wheel of Time series, which I’ve never read, btw, so I can’t offer any personal commentary about that. But Brennen’s analysis is extremely interesting, especially in light of some of the problems I’ve had with modern epic fantasy. (And it’s even more interesting to me, because I can see my BLACK DOG duology stretching out to, say, five books or so, if all goes well with the first couple.)

Brennen says: “I’m speaking, mind you, as someone who has yet to write a series longer than four books (and those structured almost entirely as stand-alones). This is all based on my observations of other people’s efforts, not my own experience. But as I said to Tom Smith in the comments to “Zeno’s Mountains,” there’s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward. If you want to write a long series and not have it collapse in the middle like a badly-made souffle, you have to learn from other people’s mistakes.”

Whoa, is that ever true.

Brennen’s whole post is very much worth reading. She makes four main points:

a) The author had better figure out ahead of time the basic length of the series. Five books? seven? ten? — and set up some major goalposts up that are going to carry the overall narrative, and then stick to this basic structure, because otherwise it is too easy for the narrative to dissolve into chaos. Brennen says:

“As answers go, [discipline] isn’t perfect; keeping your series confined within its intended boundaries may result in a less satisfying arc for various plots than you would get if you let them stretch out to their fullest. But letting them stretch may very well be detrimental to other aspects of the story. Keep one eye always on the larger picture, and know what must be accomplished by the end of the current book for you to remain on schedule.”

Then she goes on to make lots of good observations about what happens if the author loses control of the narrative:

b) The author had better not let the pov characters proliferate unchecked. To which I say, amen — even though I often struggle to keep down the numer of pov characters in my books. (Someday I will write a book where there is only one pov character period, and in fact I have that book in mind, but not this year.)

“But let’s pretend for a moment that the information here is actually vital,” says Brennen. “Does that justify spending time in the head of this minor villain? No. Because here’s the thing: switching to Carridin is lazy. It’s the easiest way to tell us what the bad guys are doing — and I do mean “tell,” given that most of the scene is Carridin thinking rather than acting. Had Jordan restricted himself to a smaller set of pov characters, he would have been forced to arrange things so that his protagonists found out what Carridin was doing. In other words, they would have had to protag more. And that would have been a better story. Every time you go to add a new point of view character, ask yourself whether it’s necessary, and then ask yourself again. Do we need to get this information directly, or see these events happen first-hand? Can you arrange for your existing protagonists to be there, or to find out about it by other means? Are you sure?”

Want to know just how many pov characters Jordan’s series wound up with, total? Go read Brennen’s post and laugh, because it really is, as she says, a totally absurd number.

c) The author had better not let the number of sub-plots proliferate either, which will certainly happen if the number of pov characters gets out of control. “Making up subplots to keep a character busy is a cascading problem. The proliferating points of view created and/or abetted new plot complexity, which meant the central ropes of the narrative got stretched out farther than they were meant to go.” And also:

d) The author ought to try to centralize the action — to get all the main characters together at some point in every book, doing something important.

Yes, definitely, to both those points. Seriously, there’s lots more and it’s all worth reading, and the comments are worth reading, too, so you should click over.

Nor is epic fantasy alone in struggling with sprawl. You know who I find myself thinking about here? SM Stirling. I think this is a huge issue with the later books in his ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME series and particularly with his Novels of the Change series (the series that starts with DIES THE FIRE). I find the early books of those series much more compelling than the later ones, and in fact I have drifted away from the Novels of the Change because I’m just not that interested anymore.

Plus, moving into space opera, I think David Weber and Elizabeth Moon have had problems with this, too — the former with his Honor Harrington series, obviously, and the latter most distinctly with her Esmay Suiza series. I’ve always thought that was one big reason that Moon started her other space opera series, the TRADING IN DANGER one featuring Kylara Vatta — to start over with a much more tightly focused narrative. Though even that series, which works much better, dose start to lose focus toward the end.

You know what one ultra-long series comes to mind that does NOT suffer from any of these problems? CJ Cherryh’s FOREIGNER series. That’s up to what, twelve books? But the ultra-tight focus on Bran Cameron as the sole pov protagonist through the whole thing means that Cherryh completely avoids every problem Brennen discusses. That right there is a lesson for us all.

What do you all think? Got any candidates for series that lose focus, sprawl into a mess, and wind up becoming a salutary lesson for others? Or alternatively, for long series that keep their focus and wind up with a clean narrative arc through the whole thing?

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Recent Reading: The Dragon’s Path

So what is it about modern epic fantasy that makes authors insist on showing us the pov of really unlikable characters?

To be fair, I actually did enjoy THE DRAGON’S Path, which as you may know is the first book of an epic series by Daniel Abraham. It’s very well written, as you would expect from Abraham.

But you know? I’ve liked Abraham’s other first-books-of-series too, and yet I haven’t ever picked up the second book of any of his series. That kind of says something right there, doesn’t it?

The problem is, even if I really do like many of his primary characters, and even if they improve (come to understand themselves better, increase in competence, commit to an important goal, whatever) — as I say,even if they improve over the course of the book, there are always enough grimdark elements to push me away from other characters and from the book as a whole.

In THE DRAGON’S Path, we have:

a) Marcus, a mercenary captain. I like him a lot, I truly do. He is interesting. He very much thinks outside the box when necessary, which it often is — this is mostly because he is a captain without actual troops, so he has to improvise. And I like his backstory and how that influences everything he does. Abraham has a deft touch, weaving all that history in without you really noticing: no info dumps here. There’s no doubt at all that Abraham has the chops when it comes to writing.

b) Cithrin, a young girl who was raised by a bank (yes, really) and understands banking right down to her toes, but is not the least bit used to the real world. I like Cithrin . . . mostly. I like competent characters, and she sure does understand banking. But she has a self-destructive streak a mile wide and a really tough time handling setbacks, and those are two characteristics that go very badly together. At this point I am flinching from the second book because I’m afraid of what situations Cithrin might get into — and because I’m convinced that whatever nasty situations those are, she will have got into them herself. I really like the father-daughter relationship that grows up between Marcus and Cithrin, though; that’s more interesting than the romance I expected, and Abraham handles it really well.

c) Master Kim, who is extremely cool. I love Master Kim! He runs an acting troupe, and I don’t want to say too much about this whole subplot, but I loved the acting troupe and everything about it! (Well, almost everything.) Master Kim is very definitely a secondary character compared to Marcus and Cithrin, though; those two are the primary focus throughout. But just let’s take a look at the rest of the pov lineup:

d) Geder, a totally ineffectual, incompetent character we are supposed to feel sympathy for, as he bumbles into becoming a horrible tyrant sort of by accident. I mean . . . my sympathy ran out even before he BURNED ALL THOSE PEOPLE ALIVE. To be fair, at that point I don’t think Abraham imagines we will still feel much sympathy for Geder. But, yuck, can we NOT spend time in his head, ever? (I know he is doing it to show us plot developments we would otherwise not know about, but still, yuck.)

e) Lord Kalliam, who is totally committed to supporting the monarchy and keeping those damned upstart peasants in their place. Let the lower classes think they can run their own lives and who knows where it will all end? Lord Kalliam is written in a sympathetic way that is interesting, but you are constantly jarred out of the story because how can you really have sympathy for a guy who thinks like this?

f) Lady Kalliam, his wonderful wife, who everyone is going to love, but nothing about her can make up for her husband — plus she is a very minor character.

Compared to GRR Martin, Abraham almost counts as light and fun. Compared to Joe Abercrombe, well, there’s no comparison! Marcus really is admirable and competent, and you can root for Cithrin even as you roll her eyes at her. And Master Kim, seriously, very cool guy.

But epic fantasy today — I mean, is there ANY modern epic fantasy where we are not forced to spend time in the pov of several evil characters? And ineffectual is almost worse than evil, it’s so painful to read! Both ineffectual and evil at the same time, and, well, not rushing out for the second book.

So . . . I was in the mood for epic fantasy, but now I think I’m over that for a while. Next up: something lighter.

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You know those moments?

Those momements when you suddenly realize something that everybody else has known for ages?

Well, in a very minor sense, I just had one of those moments. Because you know what next week is? That’s right: spring break! I can hardly just WASTE nine perfectly good days where a) I have no serious time committments, and b) Puppy H will be in the most trouble-free period of her puppyhood (the brief period after she is no longer at risk of anything much going wrong healthwise (three weeks) and before I need to worry about weaning and housetraining (five weeks)).

So . . . what to do, what to do?

Well, how about:

a) Finish that guest post I’m writing for Kristen’s Women in SFF Month. Can’t believe I haven’t got this done yet, one guest post, jeeze. Though to be fair, I was writing guest posts for Mel’s World earlier this month (to appear later in the year), so it’s not like I’ve been so super lazy about this really. But even so, this weekend for sure.

b) Get out my deck of Rally Obedience cards and actually work with the teenagers! I will be so embarrassed if I don’t have both Folly and Giedre ready to pick up Rally Novice titles at the specialty in April. I can’t believe I’ve let them both get over a year old without even one easy title!

c) If the weather’s nice, take all the girls hiking. Well, not Kenya, but all the girls who haven’t recently had a puppy. (Not all four at once. They’re trained, but there are limits, and Kenya is the only one I would really trust on a hiking trail off lead.) It seems like ages since I’ve had a chance to get out of the house and I am certain they would love to join me on the great hiking trails around here.

d) Start the rest of the seeds that I’ll be starting under lights. And think about broadcast-sowing some of the hardier seeds out where they’re supposed to grow.

e) Cut that one low branch off the birch tree before it puts someone’s eye out. Probably mine, since no one walks that way after dark but me. It would be nice to do this while the tree is still dormant. I’ve been swearing I’d get to it since December, but you know how it is.

f) Finish reading the rough draft of Merrie Haskell’s third book and put together a helpful critique. Actually I should finish reading it tonight. Or maybe tomorrow. The critique part is looking difficult, though, since so far I’m all: You rock! This is great! But I’ve got half the book still to go, so maybe I’ll be able to find something a little more helpful to say, who knows? (Not that unadulterated praise would be unwelcome, I expect.) It is a very creative take on Sleeping Beauty, btw, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to blur into another fairy tale shortly, considering what Merrie did with THE PRINCESS CURSE.

g) Aaaand . . . I think this would be a great time to pick up the BLACK DOG sequel. I’ve got about fifty pages sitting there already. Fifty more pages in nine days shouldn’t be too big a committment. Probably. If it gets rolling. And hey, if it gets rolling, I won’t necessarily stop again till it’s done!

Which means that the newly expanded Kindle-inclusive TBR pile is going to sit there laughing at me. I think I have two or three nonfiction books on the pile, though, so at least I can read those.

On the other hand, after realizing just this morning about spring break? I spent the whole day firmly telling students: I expect you to work through the rest of this chapter on linear equations over spring break. I want to see a finished rough draft of this paper the Monday after spring break. I think you had better suck it up and learn to add fractions over spring break, so do these worksheets. (I can’t tell you how tired I am of teaching college students how to add fractions.) (And you cannot imagine how many younger students have never learned the multiplication tables, seriously, it is beyond appalling.)

So it could be worse! At least no one is making me do homework over spring break. No! Because as a writer I get to choose to do homework all the time.

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It’s all good now!

But yesterday? You have no idea. I came home and found my new puppy shivering, even though she was on the warm side of the whelping box, and she had lost half an ounce. Scary!

She's okay, though!

The shivering reflex isn’t even supposed to have turned on yet. She’s only sixteen days old today, and they say two and a half weeks before the puppy can raise her body temperature by shivering. Glad Puppy H beat that, because she had plainly gotten chilled, and that made her lethargic and she so she quit nursing, and you can see the vicious cycle coming, I expect.

Anyway! I warmed her up and mixed up some formula and tube-fed her and four hours later, after a little detour into doing worse, she was doing much better. But you know what I did for those four hours? Because there was no way I could do anything involving actual thought, right, because do you KNOW how many things could go wrong that would BE WORSE than just getting a tiny bit cold? That would just kill the puppy and there would be nothing to do about it? LOTS OF THINGS. And you can’t tell for sure what’s wrong until the puppy either starts to improve or goes steeply downhill.

Okay, deep breath, she’s fine.

So I re-read FAIR GAME by Patricia Briggs. Even reading my brand new copy of FROST BURNED was too much!

So, whew, another deep breath, today should be fine.

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1st vs 3rd person —

This post over at Omnivoracious, by Susan Morris, caught my eye: it’s on using first and third person in the same novel. Morris starts off by saying:

“First person, while seductive in its seeming simplicity, is actually an incredibly difficult technique to master. Similarly, third person, while omnipresent, is far from easy—requiring the mastery of various “narrative distances” to truly work it to its best effect. And using both in the same novel? Adds a whole new level of tricky!”

Which is totally true. Whenever I’m on an appropriate panel, I’m all: Watch out, people, first person is much harder than it looks. And then it just kills me not to provide good examples of authors who really aren’t using first person effectively, by which I guess I mean bad examples. Whatever.

I mean, there’s a reason I haven’t ever written a (published) book in first person, right?

Someday I will try it again as a way to stretch, and at least this time I will really know how important it is to frame the story so I can keep track of who is telling the story to whom and how far after the action the story is being told. This is like what Marie Brennen did in A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS, and framing the story makes it MUCH easier to write, and never mind that it also clarifies the story for the reader. Though it does that, too.

Also: Technique aside, notice that if you are telling a story in first person, with the story being told after the fact, then your narrator must be distant in time from the action she is narrating. Right? So that in a peculiar way you are distancing your reader from the story in a way that a third-person narrator doesn’t do. So that a third-person narration may feel closer to the reader and more immediate than the first-person narration, even though it seems like it should be the other way around.

Not that every first person narration has this effect. But you just have to be a better writer on a sentence-by-sentence level to pull that off. DIVERGENT by Roth springs to mind as a book where this worked fine, but then various unbelievable plot elements drove me away and I haven’t ever picked up the second book. But the sentence-by-sentence story telling is really good!

So, anyway: A book that has a good discussion about all this is Orson Scott Card’s CHARACTERS AND VIEWPOINT. Card also discussing narrative distance, in case that caught your eye in the snippet from Morris’ post: how close to being in your narrator’s head are you, and how and why you move closer and farther away from your narrator when you’re telling the story. All good stuff! Really this is one of the only books on writing that actually seems like it might be helpful rather than purely interesting.

Morris brings in RA Salvatore to explain how he combined first and third person, which he did by adding first-person “journal entries” to a third-person narrative. But you know, I can easily think of an author who combines first and third person seamlessly without resorting to any kind of inserted-journal-entry gimmick. That is Judith Merkle Riley, who in her wonderful trilogy that starts with A VISION OF LIGHT, moves very smoothly back and forth from first to third person, with Margaret’s viewpoint being presented mostly, but not always, in first person, and other characters’ viewpoints being generally, but not exclusively, in third person. So it can be done. But only if you’re a really, really good writer.


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Recent Reading: The Raven Boys

Okay, I must admit, I didn’t love this book as much as THE SCORPIO RACES.

But I still loved it.

And I’m very pleased that the ending is not a cliffhanger, which I was afraid it might be. Sure, there’re important unresolved questions, but this book does come to what I think is a satisfying ending point.

The characters are just wonderful — not just the main characters, but definitely the secondary characters as well. Blue is a truly excellent protagonist, but she wouldn’t be so appealing if she didn’t have her whole weird family to play off. I love her mother and Persephone and Calla. I didn’t quite see that whole thing coming with Neeve, but on the other hand I wasn’t very surprised by it, either. It was very satisfying to see Neeve outmaneuvered by the rest of them!

I loved the raven boys, too. Especially Adam. And Gansey, and the way they really, really don’t understand each other, and the way that clash of principals plays out. I love Ronin, too, poor guy; so angry and damaged. And despite the tricky consequences, I’m glad he stepped in for Adam there toward the end. I hope things work out for him, and I am dying to know what in the world the truth is about his father’s death.

Noah was always more of a cipher, but of course Maggie Stiefvater handled him that was on purpose, and it worked beautifully.

Of course the viewpoint was much more scattered in THE RAVEN BOYS than in THE SCORPIO RACES. In this book we get not only Blue as a pov protagonist, but also Adam and Gansey and Barrington, though thankfully not very often for that last, since Barrington is not a very appealing guy.

The plot flows beautifully, from an excellent prologue that begins: Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love and ends “You’re Maura’s daughter,” Neeve said, and before Blue could answer, she added, “This is the year you’ll fall in love.”

How about that for establishing tension right from the beginnings?

Everyone in Blue’s family (except Blue herself) is a psychic, you see. I love the way Stiefvater handles this, by the way; she makes it seem crazy-weird and yet almost normal at the same time. And the we get this strange situation where we can’t tell how the heck this true-love stuff is supposed to work out: Should we be worried most about Gansey? Or about Adam? Or both, even? And yet there isn’t exactly a love triangle, either, and avoiding triangleness must have taken some adroit handling because the potential for major trianglehood is all over this situation. I’m glad Stiefvater avoided it, because I do find triangles tiresome, though continuing to sidestep the potential for triangleness (if she does continue to avoid it in the next book) looks it may take even fancier footwork.

So, anyway, I’m definitely right there for the next book. Surely it’s due out this year sometime? And I think I will go back and look for Stiefvater’s paranormal series now, because she is just an amazing writer and at this point I am ready to grab up anything she writes.

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Well, yes and no

Kristen Nelson has this interesting post up about hitting the middle of your book, and how that is a wall you have to scale. Or a swamp you have to wade through, or whatever metaphor you prefer:

Ms. Cremer said that all writers need to remember this (and I’m going to paraphrase here): when she starts a project, she’s just so in-love with it, she can’t wait to sit down and write it. She’s excited. The words fly onto the page. Every idea, every bit of dialogue she writes is a gem. Then she hits word 20,001. Bam. The wall. And it happens every time. Then she has to force herself to sit down to write each day, none of the scenes come easily, she ends up deleting half the dialogue. In other words, she has to slog through the next 20,000 words until she breaks through to the ending section.

It happens to her with every manuscript she writes. And even more astonishing? Every other author on the panel agreed with her. They had never thought of it that way but it was so true!

Well, I wasn’t there, of course, but I only *almost* agree with these four authors. For me, it’s 40,001, because my natural length seems to be (sigh) 120,000 words. I’m always trying to shorten, shorten, shorten. It’s true that those chapters I wind up cutting entirely are usually from the middle third of the book, though.

Actually, my experience is that you hit the wall at different points, and get to the top of it at different points, too. If you’re lucky, that slog through the middle actually comprises less than a third of the book. I’ve been lucky like that once, where nearly the whole book was a pleasure to write. And at least once, at least 3/4 of a book was a total slog.

Luckily, I don’t think readers can tell from the outside which book is which. (Want to guess? Which of my books do you think “wrote itself” and which did I have to hammer out of the aether by brute force?)

That’s probably the best reason to make yourself finish a book: just so you know you CAN finish, even when it’s a matter of brute force. Knowing I’ve had a tough slog to get through a manuscript before gives me a quite reassuring conviction that I can do it again, if necessary.

But I’m still hoping that the second BLACK DOG book is the kind that writes itself! I guess I need to think about starting that soon, but hey, gotta have priorities: it’s very important right now to play with my new Kindle.

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This is nice to see —

Anew review of LAND OF THE BURNING SANDS, from Heidi over at Bunbury in the Stacks.

Always a pleasure to see a nice review of one of my books at a blog that’s one of my regular stops in the blogosphere. It was Heidi’s review more than any other which made me want to read Andrea Höst’s AND ALL THE STARS, for example.

It’s fascinating to see everyone’s different take on the Griffin Mage trilogy. Those are the ones that get the most variable responses. I’ll be watching with interest to see what Heidi thinks of EARTH. If I had to pick one, though, SANDS is definitely my favorite of the trilogy. Out of curiosity, which one was your favorite?

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