Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Scary books for Halloween

I’m not much for horror, really, but given the time of year, this list from Book Riot caught my eye: 14 of the Scariest YA Books for Horror Fans

Especially because I’ve met the author of The May Queen Murders, Sarah Jude. She’s often at Archon; she’s probably local or local-ish to the St. Louis area.

Nice cover, eh? I like the pink lettering across this horror cover.

Ivy’s family has lived in Rowan’s Glen, a remote farming community in the Missouri Ozarks, for centuries. The other kids at school may think the Glen kids are weird, but Ivy doesn’t care—she has her cousin Heather as her best friend. The two girls share everything with each other—or so Ivy thinks. When Heather goes missing after a May Day celebration, Ivy discovers that both her best friend and her beloved hometown are as full of secrets as the woods that surround them.

I do read a little horror, now and then. Maybe I’ll give this a try.

Another book on this list, There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins, that strikes me exemplifying a super-unlikely type of horror plot. I mean, super-unlikely but you see it all the time. Here’s the description:

One-by-one, the students of Osborne High are dying in a series of gruesome murders, each with increasing and grotesque flair. As the terror grows closer and the hunt intensifies for the killer, the dark secrets among them must finally be confronted. This is a fresh take on the classic teen slasher story that’s fun, quick-witted, and completely impossible to put down.

Pop quiz for the parents out there: the students at your kid’s high school are getting gruesomely murdered. You:

a) Tell your kid to be careful and stay with groups.

b) Decide this is an excellent time for a family vacation, pull the kid out of school, and vamoose.

I just can’t see anybody picking Option A. If the parents have trouble getting out of town for practical reasons, this is a fine time to send the kid to stay with grandma. Or hey, at the very least, time to withdraw the kid from school and try out homeschooling. Who in their right mind would let their kid set foot anywhere near this high school while the murders are still going on?

Lots of horror plots like that. You know, if I moved into a new house and blood started running down the walls and a voice hissed GET OUT, I don’t know about you, but I would skedaddle.

Here’s the one from this list that most appeals to me:

The Girl From The Well by Rin Chupeco

A dead girl walks the streets. She hunts murderers. Child killers, much like the man who threw her body down a well three hundred years ago. And when a strange boy bearing stranger tattoos moves into the neighborhood so, she discovers, does something else. And soon both will be drawn into the world of eerie doll rituals and dark Shinto exorcisms that will take them from American suburbia to the remote valleys and shrines of Aomori, Japan. Because the boy has a terrifying secret—one that would just kill to get out.

This sounds pretty neat!

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Cool tidbits about women in history

Here is a charming website offering tons of brief bios about interesting women in history.

For example, here’s a woman I’ve never heard of: Mariya Oktyabrskaya.

When the stars are all burned out and human beings are but fairy tales told by robots, somewhere there will be a list of the toughest women who ever lived. And near the top will be Sergeant Mariya Oktyabrskaya, the first women to win the Hero of the Soviet Union Award, and her tank, Fighting Girlfriend….On her first outing in the tank, she outmaneuvered the German soldiers, killing around thirty of them and taking out an anti-tank gun. When they shelled her tank, immobilizing Fighting Girlfriend, she got out — in the middle of a firefight — and repaired the damn thing. She then got back in and proceeded to kill more Germans.

Wow.

Also these sisters: The Mirabal Sisters

The Dominican Republic of the 1950s was a totalitarian nightmare. Obsessively controlled by cruel dictator Rafael Trujillo — a man for whom no slight was too small, no grudge too big — the nation’s citizens quickly grew fearful of expressing any dissent. It was not until a group of sisters slapped Trujillo in the face (both literally and figuratively) that the nation finally found the courage to follow their example and oust the despot…

Lots of interesting snippets of history at the linked site.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Weaved vs Wove, and other interesting verbs

Did you know that “weave” in the sense of “They weaved back and forth among the slender boles of the trees” is derived from a different word than “weave” in the sense of “They wove cloth?”

Learn something new every day.

I was reading the most recent Mercy Thompson novel, and at one point Patricia Briggs wrote a “They weaved” sentence and so I looked it up because Briggs doesn’t usually make mistakes in word usage. It turned out, as I say, that these two senses of “weave” derive from different sources and so they are really two distinct verbs that happen to be spelled the same way in the present tense but are conjugated differently.

I hope I never stetted “wove” back to “weaved” incorrectly. How embarrassing that would be. I wonder if all copy editors are up on these two different verbs and how many would re-query with a little note that no, really, they are right and the author should look it up.

I’ve stetted “leaped” back to “leapt,” I’m pretty sure, to consider a different type of irregular verb. I don’t know that I’d care enough about that one to argue with a copy editor, though. On the other hand, irregular forms like “leapt” look good in high fantasy, I think. Perfectly appropriate there even if an author might write “leaped” in a contemporary novel.

It turns out that “leapt” is not archaic, though it looks that way to my eye. The Grammarist says it’s always been an alternate past tense and past-participle form of “leap,” with “leapt” becoming more common in British English a hundred years ago. I gather this is also the case for other verbs, such as “learned” vs “learnt” – whereas “blest” has been vanquished everywhere by “blessed.” Apparently this happened when the –ed mostly stopped being sounded as a distinct syllable; at that point the –ed sometimes got replaced by a –t. Interesting! I hadn’t know that.

Not all the –t forms have lost out in favor of the –ed forms in American English. Would you say “dealed” or “dealt?” My spellchecker is pretty sure the former is just incorrect. It’s definitely uncommon and weird-looking, except in the phrase “wheeled and dealed.” I think “sweeped” looks just as wrong compared to “swept,” and once again my spellchecker agrees with that assessment.

Looking further into interesting irregular verbs, I see that some of the –n verbs have this American / everywhere else kind of thing going on. Like “hewed” in America and “hewn” everywhere else. Well, I don’t care. I like “hewn” much better. I also prefer “shone” to “shined” under all circumstances – except when “shined” is used as slang to mean “murdered” in Brust’s Taltos series! Grammar Girl suggests “shined” when the verb has an object and “shone” when it doesn’t; ie, She shined the light at the bear; the moon shone brightly. Hmm. “Shone” is just a more attractive word and yet that difference does look right to me. What do you think?

Of course we all know the difference between “hanged” and “hung” – right? Grammar Girl says that, like the difference between “weaved” vs “wove,” this difference in the past tense of “hang” came about because there were really two different verbs originally, “hon” and “hangen.” Fascinating stuff!

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Giant blades of ice on Pluto

There are giant ice blades on Pluto? Who knew?

Pluto’s surface hosts blades of ice that soar to the height of skyscrapers — and researchers have narrowed down exactly how the dramatic features form….”When we realized that bladed terrain consists of tall deposits of methane ice, we asked ourselves why it forms all of these ridges, as opposed to just being big blobs of ice on the ground,” Jeffrey Moore, a New Horizons team member and lead researcher on the new work, said in a statement. “It turns out that Pluto undergoes climate variation and sometimes, when Pluto is a little warmer, the methane ice begins to basically ‘evaporate’ away.”

Pluto turned out to be much cooler than I’d have expected for such a tiny, cold planetoid.

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Good News Tuesday

Here’s something else science-fictiony in medicine: New synthetic molecule could trigger tissue regeneration

A newly discovered DNA-targeting molecule could inspire the first tissue regeneration therapies. The synthetic molecule can cause stem cells to transform into heart muscle cells.

The scientists responsible for the new molecule believe their breakthrough could be used to turn stem cells into a variety of cell types — paving the way for tissue regeneration.

I’m seeing a future that looks back in horror at the days when an amputated finger couldn’t be regrown. And preferably in even more horror at an era when nerve cells couldn’t be regenerated.

Faster, please!

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Character names in contemporary fiction

Here’s an interesting rant I happened across recently: These Character Names Should be Banned Forever

Authors are forever naming a character Cassandra and having the other characters ignore her predictions, or slipping the word Abel into a character’s name and having them struck down by a trusted friend. They’re calling people Goodman or Christianson to show that they’re heroes. Grant Morrison just managed to claim the last acceptable use of Damian for the (symbolic) antichrist, and only managed to make it a surprise because he built it up for years. No one is going to be surprised if an angelic character named Beth dies, or a character whose name is based on Judas is a betrayer. …

This is something I’ve never noticed, actually. Except maybe for Cassandra, and there are certainly Cassandras who play entirely different roles in their stories.

The author of this post especially hates the name Katherine and all possible derivatives … which I think is a stretch, because she identifies Caitlin as a Katherine-derivative. But there are so many relatives of the name “Caitlin” that the whole concept becomes unwieldy, imo. Kaylin, Kayleigh, Kaylee, Cally, where does it stop being a variant of Catherine and start being a variant of something else? Keep going with this idea and Kali starts to look like a variant of Katherine, which it certainly is not.

I must say, I pick contemporary names that just somehow seem to fit the character, without much reference to literary uses elsewhere. Now I am inclined to name a character Cassandra just so I can a) have her not make predictions at all, or even more tempting, b) have her predictions be entirely wrong.

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Devil toads

Good heavens:

Prehistoric ‘devil toads’ with Pac-Man mouths ate dinosaurs

Small dinosaurs, obviously. But still:

According to the study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, the frog — which grew up to a foot and a half in length and weighed more than 10 pounds — had a powerful bite. Modern descendants of the ancient amphibian, genus Ceratophrys, have a head about two inches wide. These horned frogs can exert a force of about 6.7 pounds….In comparison, Beelzebufo, which is anatomically similar to the modern horned frogs, may have had a 500-pound bite.

Oddly, there are no good pictures of the “Pac Man like head” at the linked article.

Google images presents many pictures — search for Beelzebufo — plus many articles and posts, of which my favorite is here. Click through and admire the huge frog. Or sympathize with the tiny doomed dinosaur.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Dialogue vs exposition

I’m reposting this during my downtime this month; this post first appeared in a slightly different form several years ago.

The three important constituents of a novel: exposition, description, and dialogue. Which of course can blur into one another.

Exposition – of course you know this – is the part of a novel where you’re explaining something to the reader. In general it is nice to disguise this as one character explaining something to another; ie, you hide exposition within dialogue. The classic bad way of doing this is the “as you know” dialogue, which goes like this: “As you know, Dr. Smith, the United States and the Soviet Union have been at war for nearly two years now.” Good writers handle exposition much more gracefully, so that it feels natural and the reader doesn’t really notice it.

Obviously novels vary a LOT in the ratio of dialogue to exposition. But I bet you haven’t realized just HOW MUCH that ratio can vary. Or maybe you have, but I hadn’t, until I found myself reading Eric Flint’s 1635: The Eastern Front, which I borrowed from my brother. It’s a good series to read when you’re really working on your own book, because the books in the 1632 series aren’t that compelling, at least not once you’re into the later ones in the series. And why, you may ask yourself, do the 1632 novels fail to really grab your attention?

Well, that would be because some of them are almost pure exposition. The feel of the novel is actually more like nonfiction than fiction.

To examine this issue, let’s take a look at three different books I’ve recently read:

Here’s a more-or-less random page from Vlad’s pov in TIASSA, by Steven Brust:

——–

“You don’t trust the Empire much, do you?”

“As much as you do. Less, because I probably know it better.”

“All right. So it won’t work much longer to just use the coins elsewhere. What do they do if you spend it somewhere that doesn’t have the means of detecting it?”

“What? I don’t understand.”

“What if you went to, say, my shop and bought an ounce of dreamgrass. I wouldn’t know the coin was tagged. So then I’d spend the coin somewhere, and –”

“Oh, I see. They treat it just like they do a coiner: ask you where you’d gotten the coin, and try to work back from there.”

“I was approached by the Empire about six weeks ago. How long has this been going on?”

“About that long, more or less.”

I nodded. “A new program. They’re always thinking, those Imperial law enforcement types. They never let up. It’s an honor to run rings around them.”

“That’s been my feeling, yes.”

“So it sounds like the only choice is to reduce the cost of removing the – what were they called?”

“Tags.”

“Right. Reduce the cost of removing the tags.”

“That’s better than my idea?”

“What was your idea?”

“I was going to write the Empire a letter saying please stop.”

——–

So, the ratio of dialogue to exposition is . . . wait for it . . . that’s right: 1 to 0. This page is 100% dialogue and 0 exposition. I would say this is true even though the characters are explaining stuff to each other. How much description is there? Also zero. How characteristic is this page? Well, starting with this passage, we find that the next five pages are also almost pure dialogue, with a little description (3 or 4 lines) and one line of exposition, slipped in invisibly as a line of dialogue (“It must be hard on you . . . most of the time when dealing with clients, you have the advantage. Must be hard for a Dzur to take.”) There we are told something about Dzur, but it sure is minimal.

In the ten pages following the passage above, this is as close as we come to actual exposition: “I still have no idea why she [Kiera] likes me, but we go back to a day when – no, skip it. She was good to me from the moment we met.”

Call that exposition?

Obviously there must be SOME exposition in TIASSA, but there’s not much, and what there is, is thoroughly scattered through reams of dialogue and brief descriptive passages. This is partly but by no means solely because it’s a later book in the series and the reader is expected to be familiar with the characters and world.

Let’s contrast this to a book I would consider more typical in its dialogue to exposition ratio: THE CLOUD ROADS by Martha Wells. Here’s a random passage from this one:

——-

After they [Moon and Stone] ate, Moon stretched out on his stomach, basking in the warm firelight, the cool turf soft against his groundling skin, comfortably full of grasseater and tea. From somewhere distant, he heard a roar, edged like a bell and so far away it almost blended with the wind. He slanted a look at Stone to see if they had to worry.

“Skylings, mountain wind-walkers.” Stone sat by the fire, breaking sticks up into small pieces and absently tossing them into the flames. “They live too far up in the air to notice us.”

Moon rolled onto his side to squint suspiciously up at the sky. The stars were bright, streaked with clouds. “Then what do they eat?”

“Other skylings, tiny ones, no bigger than gnats. They make swarms big enough to mistake for clouds.” As Moon tried to picture that, Stone asked, “Did you ever look for other shifters?”

Stone hadn’t asked about this before, and Moon wanted to avoid the subject. Looking for his own people had led him into more trouble than anything else. “For a while. Then I stopped.” He shrugged, as if it was nothing. “I couldn’t search the whole Three Worlds.”

“And the warrior you were with didn’t tell you which court, or the name of the queen, or anyone in your line?” Stone sounded distinctly irritated. “She didn’t even give you a hint?”

Moon corrected him pointedly, “No, my mother didn’t tell me anything.”

Stone sighed, poking at the fire. Moon got ready for an argument, but instead Stone asked, “How did she and the Arbora die?”

That wasn’t a welcome subject either. It was like an old wound that had never quite stopped bleeding. Moon didn’t want to talk about the details, but he owed Stone some kind of answer. He propped his chin on his arms and looked out into the dark. “Tath killed them.”

Tath were reptile groundlings, predators, and they had surrounded the tree Moon’s family had been sleeping in. He remembered waking, confused and terrified, as his mother tossed him out of the nest. He had realized late that she had picked him because he was the only other one who could fly, the only one who had a chance to escape while she stayed to defend the others.

——-

Okay! Here we have a good bit of description melted into the dialogue. To me, this represents just about the ideal amount of description in a passage. You get a sense of place and poetry completely lacking in the passage from TIASSA (though the extremely quick pace and vivid voice of the Vlad Taltos books are also an example of strong writing, just very different).

Plus we have some exposition. Not much. But the bit where Stone explains what kind of creature made the distant roar, and of course the part where Moon thinks about the creatures that killed his family. We aren’t just being told things about the world (as I’m sure you notice), we’re learning about Moon’s backstory, and we’re learning about Stone, too – that he’s experienced and knowledgeable and possibly irritable.

Because this is a secondary word fantasy, and the first in the series, Wells has to draw her world for us. But she does it mostly in tiny bits of description, not in long expository passages. In fact, through the whole book, she tells us relatively little about the world, leaving nearly everything tantalizingly unexplained. To me, this is an example of ideal worldbuilding: all poetry and vivid imagery, no pauses to unnecessarily explain stuff. What explanations are necessary get worked in seamlessly because Moon actually is totally ignorant about his own species and thus serves beautifully as the reader’s window into the Raksura people.

Now! Let’s finally contrast both of the above examples from a randomly chosen page from Flint’s 1635: THE EASTERN FRONT.

———–

After a minute or so, Ferdinand mused, “It’s too late for the Turk to launch an invasion this year.”

Drugeth nodded. Like many Hungarian noblemen, he was an experienced soldier. The Ottomans would have to mobilize a huge army to attach Vienna – and get that army and its equally enormous supply train through the Balkans. It was impossible to do so in winter, of course. But it was also essential that such an army not be left stranded in the middle of winter. There would be no way to keep it supplied with food, if it failed to seize Vienna.

The end result of these harsh logistical realities was that any attack launched by the Turks against Austria had to follow a rather fixed and rigid timetable. The invasion couldn’t possibly be launched until the fresh spring grass arrived, or there wouldn’t be enough grazing for the horses and oxen. There was no possibility of hauling enough fodder. Not with the immense number of livestock involved in such a campaign.

Traditionally, the Turks began their campaigning season at or near the time of the festival in honor of Hizir Hyas, the Moslem saint who protected travelers and other people in peril. That came in early May, in the Christian calendar.

Of course, the Turks wouldn’t wait that long before they began moving their troops. They’d march them north to Belgrade in March and April, and launch the attack from there once the weather and grazing permitted. Belgrade was roughly half the distance from Istanbul to Vienna, but the terrain over the final stretch was much more difficult for an army. Much of the terrain south of the Danube consisted of marshes and swamps.

The Turkish army was extremely well organized, too. Being honest, he acknowledged that it was better organized than the Austrian – or indeed, most Christian armies. But it still couldn’t move faster than ten or twelve miles a day. The earliest the Ottomans could reach Vienna would be late June or, more likely, sometime in July.

———–

Okay! That’s one line of dialogue on this page, zero description of the actual scene, and paragraph after paragraph of exposition. The “being honest, he acknowledged” is a nod in the direction of keeping the actor in the scene, but it’s just a nod.

In this section, there are seven paragraphs between one line of dialogue and the next. In this chapter – a short chapter, ten pages – there are 43 lines of dialogue. That’s less than a page and a half. There is zero description of the immediate scene, even though the previous chapter was set somewhere else. The rest is all exposition, couched – barely – as internal monologues, but actually clearly the author explaining stuff to the reader. It’s a lot like reading a history book, only with the occasional line of dialogue.

The first book in the series wasn’t so extraordinarily heavy on exposition or so extraordinarily lacking in description. This series has a fanatical fan base, but I wonder if it would if the first book had had such an extreme ratio of dialogue to exposition? And such a dearth of description? I sort of like the books, but a) I’ve been following the series from the beginning; and b) I have a high tolerance for exposition if I’m in the right mood; and c) I don’t want to get absorbed in the story, because I want to be able to put these books down and work on my own current WIP, which means I’m in the right mood.

But I would hardly say that “non-compelling” is an advantage for most readers most of the time.

However complicated your backstory may be, however ornate your world, however much you want to show off both to your reader, you may be better off keeping exposition to a couple of sentences here and there if at all possible. Either that or pay careful attention to how writers may manage to work in more exposition while keeping the narrative moving along. For that, I might suggest Kim Stanley Robinson. Also Neil Stevenson in Seveneves. Also maybe Varley in his Gaien trilogy.

If anybody springs to your mind for particularly good exposition, drop them in the comments, please.

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We live in a science fiction world

Dr. McCoy probably had one of these: ‘Pen’ identifies cancer in 10 seconds

The pen is touched on to a suspected cancer and releases a tiny droplet of water.

Chemicals inside the living cells move into the droplet, which is then sucked back up the pen for analysis.

The pen is plugged into a mass spectrometer – a piece of kit that can measure the mass of thousands of chemicals every second.

It produces a chemical fingerprint that tells doctors whether they are looking at healthy tissue or cancer.

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First part of October: stepping away from the internet

I want to let you know that I may be more or less away from internet access for the next couple of weeks. I am scheduling posts to appear during the first half of October, but if you comment — please do! — and your comment happens to get snagged by the spam folder, which occasionally happens to regular commenters for some reason, I will not be able to straighten that out until midway through the month.

Also, for some reason I can’t get to Goodreads from my phone. So ditto: if you comment there, I probably will not be able to see or answer that comment until midway through October.

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