Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Okay, now I’m bored

Well, not really. Yet. Quite. Getting there, though!

I have finished the first read-through for HOUSE OF SHADOWS! Whew! (It helped that the book I’m longing to read hasn’t yet arrived, so no distractions.)

I’ve read every word of the ms. and done plenty of work at the word-and-phrase level — changing “sure” to “certain” and back again, taking out semi-colons, you know the kinds of tiny little things you constantly fiddle with. Did some cutting (mostly description), but not much. Added a couple of thousand words — worldbuilding and stuff. Worked out the recent history in a bit more detail. Made some minor changes that weren’t suggested but that I think help smooth out the flow of events.

I think I have now addressed all of Devi’s concerns. So! Now I am re-reading all the added bits, polishing them and making sure they fit where I put them and that they are all doing their jobs.

So, so . . . I rather thought I might have the thing ready to go by today. But you know what? REALLY I should finish the current task, re-read Devi’s notes and make sure they’ve all been addressed, and then . . . sigh . . . I really ought to do a straight-from-the-top re-read ONE MORE TIME. That will take till about Friday, I expect.

After which I will definitely be bored with the manuscript. This is why going over the copy-edited version and then the page-proofs is not my favorite part: because by the time I get those, I really do think it is pretty tedious to go through the whole manuscript yet again.

Important, though! Yes, it is! I could describe, but do not want to put in print, how I feel when I see a typo on the page of the finished book. I’ll get my mother, who is a grammar whiz, to look at the page proofs, too. She likes to get a sneak preview and *I* don’t think you can proof too many times!

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Editorial comments and revisions

You know, I’ve had everything in editorial letters from “Virtually perfect as is, don’t change anything” to “Chapter five isn’t working, can you totally rewrite it?”

And that’s from editors, after my wonderful agent has already said things like “Can you maybe condense this fifty-page journey to five paragraphs or so?” and “The middle is slow, can you cut 10,000 words and maybe introduce a monster or something?”

It’s easiest to make changes when a) you agree that the change would be a good idea (this is nearly always the case for me); and b) the suggestions are very specific.

The House of Shadows editorial letter is definitely on the “easy” side of the spectrum. My editor does list some extremely specific suggestions, but I’ve barely looked at those yet because I’m dealing with the five general suggestions first. My quick glance over the specifics (“on p. 20 can you maybe delete this sentence?”) indicate that they’re are all going to have the same answer (“sure”), so there’s no rush for those. They’re trivial.

Here are the four general suggestions (boiled down):

1) Cut a little description from Nemienne’s and Taudde’s points of view, especially in earlier chapters.

2) Make Nemienne more decisive and make sure she doesn’t come across as wishy-washy.

3) Give the reader a little more on the history between the country of Lirionne and the country of Kalches (the tension between those countries is an important plot element).

4) Give the reader a bit more of a handle on the villain’s motivation.

I’m also doing a slow, careful read-through of the whole thing to check for continuity and typos and stuff (found three typos so far! “Pray” for “prey”, for example. Ugh. I expect the copy editor would have caught them, but ugh.)

So I’ve done about a third of the ms so far! New really obvious technique that I can’t believe I’ve never used before: All big chunks of added text are in red! That will make it easy for me to find them and think about them again later, and I bet my editor will also like being able to see the added text, too! (Next: think of some obvious technique to track deletions.)

Yesterday it took 2 hours to go through 20 pp! Wow, slooooow. But I added 1000 words or so, addressing some of the concerns listed above, and I’m fairly happy with the changes. And you know what? I’m also just kind of enjoying the book and even the process of revision. I don’t think I’ve looked at the ms for 2 years or so. I like it! Looking forward to seeing it hit the shelves next year!

I see there’s no excerpt of House of Shadows here on the website. That’s reasonable, ’cause when the website was put up, it wasn’t very close to its publication date. But getting to be about time to see about that, I imagine. In the meantime, I think maybe next week I’ll see about posting short excerpts from each main character’s point of view . . .

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The problem with gardening —

Is the sudden desperate need to find something to do with the pak choi, broccoli raab, the last of the snap peas, the first of the green beans, the amaranth (I tried amaranth last year — very easy to grow and self-sows EVERYWHERE, but the bean beetles love it and turn many leaves into lacework), etc, etc.

My favorite new vegetable? New to me, I mean? Daikon radishes. Love ’em! They’re turning out great! Way, way better than the little round red ordinary radishes, which didn’t work out at all this spring. The little radishes were too hard to cut with a knife by the time they were big enough to be worth picking! What gives? I may grow only daikons from now on.

The daikons are maturing right now. Here’s my favorite thing to do with them, so far. This is a fusion Thai-Sichuan recipe I made up, based on a recipe for spicy daikon slivers from Fushia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty.

10 rice paper wrappers
30 medium shrimp
8 oz daikon, grated
8 oz carrots, grated
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 Tbsp chile oil (Dunlop suggests 4 Tbsp! Much too hot for me!)
1-2 Tbsp sesame oil (Dunlop suggests 2 tsp)

Grate the daikon and carrot using a food processor. Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt, and toss. Leave for half an hour. Squeeze out excess liquid and place in bowl.

Combine the sugar, vinegar, chile oil, and sesame oil. Toss with daikon and carrots.

Peel and devein the shrimp, saute in butter or oil or whatever you like, and set aside.

Soak each rice paper wrapper in hot water for about 30 seconds, or until flexible. arrange about 2-3 Tbsp grated daikon-carrot mixture in a log shape near one side of the wrapper. Lay three shrimp on top. Roll up like a burrito. Set aside and repeat with remaining wrappers. You may have some daikon-carrot mixture left over. I’d say this is a generous but light lunch dish for two, or you could stretch the daikon-carrot mixture, add a couple more rice paper wrappers and a few more shrimp, and probably have enough for twelve rolls and three people.

I imagine crab or fake crab (surimi) or scallops or maybe even cooked chicken breast would probably work, too. I have lots more daikons in the garden, so I may try each of those in turn.

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The current WIP . . .

Has switched temporarily! Editorial comments on HOUSE OF SHADOWS have arrived! It’s been quite some time; I’m actually sort of looking forward to reading through the whole ms. (Alas, I’ll be bored with it again by the time it gets through the copy editing process.)

There’s no great rush, but I think I will take care of this first, THEN finish revising the new ms.

Here’s the book description Orbit’s using for HOUSE OF SHADOWS (comments below):

——-

After their father’s death, two sisters must find their own fortunes. Karah’s seems secure as she has a place waiting for her in a glamorous Flower House. But Nemienne sees the world differently, as if on a slant, and no one will take her in until she meets the mage who will change everything in her life.

An apprenticeship means a home and survival, but can Nemienne trust the mage? And life in the Flower Houses turns out to be rife with unsuspected intrigue and subtle games of power. Now Karah and Nemienne find themselves at the center of a plot that threatens not only to upset the fragile futures they have found for themselves, but also to destroy their kingdom.

And then the arrival of a mysterious bard uncovers dangerous secrets that not even the mages suspect… even sleeping dragons must wake some day.

——

And you know what? There are actually three point of view characters in this book, and though the mysterious bard is one of them, Karah isn’t. You wouldn’t guess that at all from this, would you?

This gets at a whole huge topic: how to write back cover copy that sort of reflects what the book is about. Let me tell you, this is hard! It also isn’t actually the priority. The priority is trying to write something catchy. If it’s also accurate, that’s great! And if it’s more or less complete and doesn’t leave out somebody important, well, that’s icing on the cake.

From time to time, I’ve noticed a reader commenting that they were bothered because a major character didn’t appear in the back cover copy of a book. (This happens with THE CITY IN THE LAKE. Sorry! I wish it was possible to write perfect back cover copy!

Maybe when HOUSE OF SHADOWS actually comes out, I’ll hold a vote to pick the coolest character who doesn’t appear in the back cover copy . . .

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How far can you go in YA?

How grim can you be? How graphic? Can you kill important characters? Can you kill them in disturbing, gory ways?

Obviously, yes.

Should you?

After MOCKINGJAY came out, there was quite a lot of discussion about this. And then I happened to see a recent post over at Nathan Bransford’s blog, and that got me thinking about this topic again.

As it happens, I’m not personally too keen on authors who slaughter characters left and right for no good reason. Or set out to manipulate you and jerk your tears by introducing a very likable character specifically in order to kill them (I’m thinking of ALL Steven King’s recent books, here).

Or on authors who seem to be out to test your tolerance for gore, again for no special reason — just using gore as an end in itself. And, you know, this isn’t a YA thing as far as I know, but sometimes the torture scenes get so numerous the plot sort of disappears behind them? Which is kind of appalling, imho, because it actually winds up (for me) generating boredom with the torture, which is kind of not the reaction I prefer to have to reading about pain and suffering. I’m thinking of Laurell Hamilton here. But she’s very popular, of course, and fine! If lots of gore and sex and gore and violence and gore are what you like, great!

But I do think that there’s a tremendous difference in the TYPE of violence from book to book, and that this then makes a huge difference to the reading experience, and THIS hasn’t been addressed at all (that I know of) in discussions about violence in YA literature.

Let’s take only stories that include quite a lot of violence. One end of the spectrum, we have stories such as GRACELING which has plenty of violence, but it’s not going to hit too many “WAY TOO DISTURBING” buttons for most readers, I think. The main character, Katsa, is used by her king as a threat and a thug, but she loathes being used that way, rebels, goes off on her own, and winds up facing the REAL thug in the book. GRACELING is not going to give too many readers nightmares, and I think part of the reason for this is that the book’s underlying message are normative, prosocial, and not at all disturbing: It’s wrong to force your will on others, it’s right to go to the limit to protect the helpless. These are not challenging themes (not that there’s anything wrong with that! I *like* prosocial themes!)

DIVERGENT is a little more disturbing, but not much. The conflict between putting others first and putting yourself first sets up an interesting theme, which I expect to unfold through the sequel(s). The main character, Tris, thinks of herself as selfish, and in some ways she even IS selfish — and, as Thea at The Book Smugglers pointed out, that’s actually kind of refreshing. When Tris refuses to forgive that guy for trying to kill her? Well, hey, trying to murder a rival isn’t actually very forgivable, you know? There is quite a bit of cruelty in the story, but in DIVERGENT, I think the quick pace, the excitement, and the fundamental lack of realism offset both the cruelty inflicted on the characters and the cruelty they inflict on each other.

THE HUNGER GAMES is something else again. The slower pace draws you into a far more detailed and far more believable world, the society is just about the most oppressive EVER, and the situation into which Katniss is dumped is way more awful than anything in DIVERGENT or GRACELING. Interestingly, we get a conflict between selfishness / selflessness here as well, but overall we get far more challenging themes in THE HUNGER GAMES. For example, Suzanne Collins slams home (in MOCKINGJAY) the idea that although war is sometimes absolutely necessary, it is still awful and brutalizes everyone involved. I think the greater plausibility of the world and the greater complexity of the themes add a big impact and, to my mind, make the cruelty and violence in the book much more disturbing.

Elizabeth Wein pushes the limits of violence and cruelty on a much smaller scale in THE SUNBIRD, which is not a dystopian novel (it’s an adventure story, more like GRACELING than like DIVERGENT or THE HUNGER GAMES, although not much like any of the three). The setting (the African country of Aksum) is wonderful, and wonderfully detailed. The main character, Telemakos, is a contender for coolest-main-character-in-all-YA-fantasy. The writing is flawless. Oh, this is a great book! But some of the cruelty that Telemakos witnesses, and some he suffers, really push the envelope. It’s bad enough I hesitate to spell it out. But I don’t think this book got the buzz of those above (unfairly!), so probably many fewer people have read it, so here goes:

In one scene, Telemakos witnesses a slave boy, a porter, being whipped for clumsiness and dropping things. This is a boy who was in the wrong place and heard the wrong thing, and just a day or so previously his master cut out his tongue and cut off his hands, so he could neither speak nor write. THEN he was beaten for dropping things.

This is a historical novel (well, historical-ish). Is that level of, I don’t know, indifferent, thoughtless cruelty historical accurate? Probably. Is it okay in a YA novel? Well, I loved the book, and highly recommend it. Would I let my kids read it, if I had kids? Probably. These awful scenes are redeemed, for me, because none of the main characters take them lightly or find them at all acceptable — and also because they are all wrapped up with main plot (they are not gratuitous, they are not there just to shock the reader). Would I expect kids to have nightmares about this scene. Umm . . . wouldn’t be surprised.

Okay, one more: The TOMORROW series by John Marsden, starting with TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN and proceeding through six sequels. These aren’t dystopian, exactly, though people who love dystopias would probably love them. They’re adventure. Not fantasy, not exactly SF, the idea is that some unnamed (nonexistent in our world) country suddenly moved to conquer modern-day Australia, and a group of kids who were camping in the bush and didn’t get swept up with everyone else wind up on their own, doing guerrilla stuff to fight back. This series doesn’t have the horrifically oppressive Capital of THE HUNGER GAMES, run by the extraordinarily evil President Snow, nor does it have any individual scenes of such overwhelming cruelty as THE SUNBIRD (so far; I’ve read the first four). What it does have, in spades, is realism in the emotional reactions and interactions of the main characters. Like when an enemy soldier is going to rape one of the girls and another whaps him on the head with a rock and he dies, slowly, without regaining consciousness — the emotional reactions of the kids as they watch him die is SO VERY BELIEVABLE. This sort of thing happens over and over and it is ALL totally believable and feels totally true to life and just RIGHT. (How does Marsden DO this? I am so jealous!) And it is this quality of total believability on a human level which gives this series such tremendous punch.

And the TOMORROW series also works for me because once again the themes and underlying messages are positive: it may be totally necessary to kill somebody, in fact pacifism might be totally wrong, but it’s not easy, not okay, not something you’re going to recover from instantly. Or even at all. In that sense, the message of the TOMORROW series are an awful lot like like the ones in MOCKINGJAY.

For me, the more believable the setting and the characters, the more powerful the violence. And the themes. And the reading experience.

Appropriate, NON-gratuitous violence is part and parcel of all the books above; it’s inextricable not just from the plots but from the themes. It’s part of what makes them effective; removing it or even toning down the violence and cruelty from these books would make them not just sanitized, but also ineffective or even “unwritable”, as they really could not exist in such a form.

And that’s how it should be, I think, if an author answers the “Should you?” question with a “Yes, I should.”

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Last of the Hugo nominees —

Blackout, by Connie Willis.

You know, they only sent me an e-copy of Blackout? And it is really the first half of the book. I see why the actual nomination is for Blackout/All Clear: because Blackout has no ending — not even a vague gesture toward the idea of an ending.

Phooey. Now I need to buy a copy of All Clear, pronto, so I can find out what happens!

This is a time travel story, of course: historians go back in time to study things. I like the VERY NARROW studies they do, that seems so realistic! Like a tiny snapshot of evacuated children in one particular manor in the country, for example.

I liked this book a lot, though for me it was sloooow to get started. Normally I don’t mind a slow pace, but it took a while for me to start to care about the characters. It has a lot of point of view characters — five — two important, two medium, one minor — which would probably be why it was a slow-starter for me. But it also sets up an interesting contrast with The Dervish House. Why did the large number of characters work for me here (eventually) whereas I just quit reading The Dervish House?

I think the answer is simple: Willis gives each point of view character more space — that is, more pages in a row before switching to the next character. That gives me a chance to connect to one character before switching to the next. Also, she places each character in a small-scale, intimate setting: dealing with the godawful children in the manor, looking for a job in a department store during the Blitz, like that.

Each situation is easy to understand, and it’s easy to imagine yourself in the place of Eileen or Polly or Mike or whoever. And those places are stressful! You start to really WANT to know how Eileen is going to cope with the mother of those godawful children, how Polly is going to manage when she can’t get a black skirt — trivial, but it all seems to matter.

Willis ramps up the stress level with virtually every chapter. The kids have measles, so Eileen can’t get to her drop site. Now she finally gets to the drop site, but it doesn’t open! She has to go to London (encumbered by the godawful children) and find Polly, only she doesn’t know which department store to look in and SHE’S not the one who knows when and where each bomb will fall . . . and so on.

By the end, Eileen and Polly and Mike have at least found each other (whew!) but nothing has been resolved. I have some predictions!

I bet other historians from the future are thick on the ground. Marjorie, for example. The vicar, quite possibly. Sir Godfrey, definitely — I think he’s actually Colin. Anybody want to bet? No fair reading All Clear first!

So I’ve definitely got to buy All Clear.

Now, the Hugo?

Not sure. I’m going to glance at The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms again first, because it’s been awhile, but I think for me:

1. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
2. Blackout / All Clear
3. Feed
4. Cryoburn
5. The Dervish House

Now gotta think about reading the rest of the short-form nominees . . .

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Narrowing down the Hugo nominees

The books I really want to read are the rest of the Tomorrow series by Marsden. I’ve read the first two and three of the remaining five have arrived, but not the third in the series, so I’m stuck.

Sigh.

So I’m reading the other two Hugo nominees while I wait! A useful productive activity so I totally don’t need to feel the least bit guilty for reading instead of, say, pulling weeds. Right?

So! I’m liking Myra Grant’s Feed better after starting McDonald’s Dervish House (links below).

Feed pulled me right in, I was instantly attached to the characters and pulled forward by the plot and I had a hard time putting it down, and I definitely put the sequel on my get-to-it-soon mental list.

The Dervish House . . . none of those things. I was thinking about the difference, and I think the big one is characterization and focus. It’s not that McDonald’s book doesn’t have characterization — it does. And it’s got setting in spades, and that usually matters to me, too. The writing is fine — plain, invisible, doesn’t get in the way at all.

I think the problem for me is the great number of viewpoint characters and the extra-quick shifting from one to another. If we were sticking to the kid with the “monkey”? I’d probably be hooked. The woman who’s into acquiring rare, valuable items? Ditto. Any reasonably sympathetic, likable character would do, but there are so many characters!

I read fifty or seventy pages last night and just couldn’t get interested. I was skimming large blocks of print out of a mild desire to see what happened next, and so I quit, because a “mild desire to see what happens next” is not enough reason to spend time reading a book.

So I get why this got nominated, but it’s not for me.

Right now: choice number one — Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; choice number two — Feed; choice number three — Cryoburn.

Next and last of the novels — Blackout, by Connie Willis. I hope I like that better!

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Reading the Hugo Nominees

I do TRY to read the award nominees if I’m going to be voting on ’em. I try hard! Especially the novels!

Luckily the Hugo people help with this by sending you an electronic packet with all the nominees in pdf form, if you’re eligible to vote. Yay!

The Hugo nominees are
The Dervish House, which I haven’t read yet.

BlackOut / All Clear, which I haven’t read yet.

Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold, which of course I preordered and read the moment it arrived. I enjoyed it, naturally, but it’s not my favorite of her Vorkosigan books and I won’t be voting for it.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I loved loved loved and I will vote for it unless one of the others knocks my socks off even more than this one did, which I don’t expect but who knows?

And Feed, by Mira Grant, which I just read and liked a lot but will not be voting for. Here’s my take on Feed, which I just read a week or so ago —

The explanation for the zombies was clever, the zombies themselves well done. I’m not a zombie fan, but I really liked how Grant handled hers. Characterization and voice was excellent. It would never in a thousand years have occurred to me to write a book about bloggers covering a presidential campaign — whoa. Grant did a great job, a *fantastic* job, with the near-future tech and with the close-up of the political campaign. I had some problems with this book, but I will DEFINITELY be buying the sequel.

Here’s why I won’t be voting for it for the Hugo (spoiler alert!)

One — the main bad guy was VERY VERY obvious. The moment this guy walked on stage, I was like, Hello, here is the bad guy! And it kept getting more obvious until I decided that maybe Grant was pulling a fast one and REALLY the bad guy would turn out to be a shocking surprise. Well, no. That really was the bad guy. The protagonist of this book, Georgia, is supposed to be so very very competent, and that’s exactly how she comes across, except honestly, it makes anybody look stupid when something is so crystal clear to the reader and yet the protagonist doesn’t get it until it’s spelled out in flaming letters ten feet high.

And Two — look, I’m only a casually religious person, okay? But I am nevertheless offended by the stereotype of religious people as either useful idiots or else as narrow-minded bigoted crush-your-enemies repressive EVIL dudes. Frankly, the use of this stereotype made me simply not believe in the bad guy. I rolled my eyes every time he opened his mouth, and twice as hard during his big final speech.

So, doesn’t begin to kick The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms out of first place for me. But! I really really honest DID enjoy Feed very much, and I WILL be buying the sequel!

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Busy weekend!

Got the second rough draft of the current WIP done! That means I’ve done the first cut (I cut 47 pp) and also taken care of the 30+ notes-to-self to fix continuity etc, which added back about 6 pp. The story’s now about 123,000 words, which isn’t bad. I’m sure I’ll wind up doing a final cut and knocking it down a bit more, but this is good for now.

The accumulated clean-up notes are sometimes totally trivial: if somebody uses a knife in the last scene, she’d better HAVE a knife in some earlier scene. That’s easy: find a place to insert the knife, put it in, all done.

Then there are the trivial-but-annoying fixes: does everyone who’s supposed to have an accent have one all the way through the story? Checking this means reading over every single scene a character appears in all the way through. You don’t want to overdo the references to the accent, either, so you have to evaluate each scene to see if the references to the accent, if any, seem appropriate. Same sort of thing with physical description: too much? Too little? Does that character have blue eyes all through, is that one consistently bald? Same again with the physical description of the landscape: don’t want to bog things down, but I want to do enough description to put the reader in the scene.

This sort of checking is so VERY VERY tiresome. It’s this sort of thing that makes me bored with the manuscript by the time I send it off for a second opinion. Luckily I get un-bored as time passes, so when someone requests revisions, that’s not usually such a trial.

Then there’s the need for re-checking big, important aspects of the book. Oressa’s relationship with her father is not the same as Gulien’s. Relationships have to stay consistent, or change in appropriate ways, as the story unfolds. If I reinterpret one character toward the end of the book, then I have to go back through and smooth that out from the beginning — initial scenes with that character may have to change, everyone’s relationships with that character may have to be tweaked — lots of decision making and judgment calls. This is not as tedious, but it is hard.

At the end, I routinely wind up not sure whether the characterization works. This is a big, big reason I need another opinion. Like in the Griffin Mage, Book 2: I couldn’t tell whether the relationship between Gereint and Beguchren worked. It was supposed to be a subtle relationship, but it’s central to the story and very important and it was harder than putting in a romance because you know the reader understands how romances work and will “fill in” the appropriate emotions, but a subtle nonsexual relationship between two men? You have to do it all yourself because that relationship could take so many different shapes.

So the notes that are left? They are permanent notes about conflicts and relationships. Those notes never go away, because I refer to them over and over as I do the final revision. And then I hope my second readers tell me how great the characterization is. Always a relief when I hear that!

AND! Taking a break now, because I’m dying to read the rest of Marsden’s Tomorrow series! I hope the rest of them arrive TODAY!

I can talk myself into thinking the characterization works or doesn’t work — I can talk myself into and out of both beliefs in a surprisingly short period of time — so it’s extremely helpful to have an objective reader tell me that Yes, it’s fine; or No, they can’t see that character acting like that in this scene.

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