Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Sharing Knife series

Here’s a column by Liz Bourke at tor.com: Revisiting LMB’s Sharing Knife series.

Interesting! I have read this series quite a few times because it is a comfort read for me — something I will pick up if I have a cold or just feel under the weather, or if I want to read but not something new-to-me, or if I want something pleasant to read a few pages of before bed, or whatever. In general:

–I like the first book quite a bit

–I skip lightly across most of the part where Fawn is visiting Dag’s camp and family in the second book

–I like the third and fourth books much better than the first two

–And btw, Knife Children, the novella that is set after this series, is quite enjoyable and well worth picking up.

So what does Liz think?

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife tetralogy never, I think, equalled the popularity and recognition of her Miles Vorkosigan novels or her World of the Five Gods work (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, The Hallowed Hunt, and the Penric and Desdemon novellas…) but it remains, for me, a revelation about the kinds of stories that it is possible to tell in fantasy, and the struggles it is possible to reflect.

Yes! This is a promising beginning to the post. I would say that the Sharing Knife stories are unusual in their emphasis on showing the daily life of ordinary people. Sure, sometimes there are giant bats, but mostly these are stories about daily life on a farm, in a camp, on a small riverboat. What we see are ordinary people living their lives while also dealing, generally in small ways, with the necessity of pushing gently for broad-scale societal change. Or that’s what I think. Let me read a little more …

Ah! Liz does mean that, in a sense, but she also has in mind the difference in handling a threat like a Dark Lord, something that is Big and Immediate and then Over, versus handling a threat that requires slow, grinding work generation after generation. That’s a good point too!

Click through and read the whole thing if you have a minute.

Meanwhile, what did you all think of the Sharing Knife series? How about compared to the Vorkosigan and Penric stories? I am not actually sure how I would rank these three series personally. I can see going V –> P –> SK, but I can also see shuffling those letters around into a different order. All the series include books that are somewhat uneven in quality.

But for warmth and settling down comfortably, it’s probably exactly the reverse: SK –> P –> V.

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Internal vs external conflict

Here’s a brief but good post at Pub Rants: Internal vs External Conflict

No matter what stage your manuscript is in, there are three questions you need to be able to answer:

  1. What is your protagonist’s internal conflict?
  2. What is the manuscript’s major external conflict?
  3. How do those two conflicts work in harmony?

All too often, I see internal and external conflicts that don’t work together the way they need to. Here’s the secret: Your external conflict and internal conflict should be tightly woven together because the external conflict exists as a mechanism to force internal change and growth in your character.

The example given is one of the Harry Potter books. It’s a pretty good extended example.

Since it’s a brief post, here’s another, this one by an SF author, Gary Gibson, rather than an agent: USING INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL CONFLICT IN GENRE WRITING

This post offers a rather different take on the topic:

Broadly speaking, the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is this: literary fiction deals in internalised conflict. That could be fear, jealousy, greed, desire for power or revenge, thwarted love and so on. …

Commercial fiction, on the other hand – and remember, we’re speaking broadly here – deals in externalised conflicts. It creates dramatic stories out of direct conflict with something ‘other’, other races, other religions, other cultures, classes or political orders, and so on.

Interesting take! I’m immediately leaning toward the Pub Rants interpretation — I think commercial fiction should, and does, have both, and it’s nice when the internal and external conflicts support each other.

Actually, something to note is that interfering with each other counts as support, in this sense, as nothing creates more tension than pitting two characters against each other via the external plot, while having them strongly drawn toward each other by internal desires but pushed apart by opposing loyalties. Here I am thinking of Joanna Bourn’s Spymaster romances, which are admittedly a little over the top in many ways, but she does a great job of setting up opposing internal and external conflicts and letting them rip through the story.

The linked post above actually does agree with me here, and with Pub Rants, because the author goes on to add:

Once I realised this distinction between internalised and externalised conflict, the defining quality of the very best sci-fi and fantasy became clear to me. It synthesises both approaches – and most often it does so by externalising what is otherwise an internal conflict.

There we go, we are definitely back to using the two basic types of conflict to support each other. Gibson uses The Lord of the Rings for his example. Again, it’s a good example. Gibson sums it up this way:

If your book isn’t coming together – if your characters feel lifeless, or lack motivation, or feel wooden and two-dimensional – provide them with an internal conflict to balance the external. It’s that conflict that, when handled properly, keeps readers glued to the pages. … conflict must be mirrored through your protagonists’ own thoughts and actions, and their own internalised moral dialogue.\

Both posts are worth a look if you have a minute.

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Covers that show action

Okay, so, I happened across this post over the weekend at Bones, Books, and Buffy:

The Friday Face-Off was created by Books by Proxy, where each week bloggers can showcase books with covers centered around a weekly theme. You can visit Lynn’s Books for a list of upcoming themes. Join in the fun each Friday by finding a book whose cover is based on the theme!

This week’s theme: A cover that depicts action of some sort.

And then three book covers depicting action, which you can click through to read if you wish. The person doing this post — Tammy — commented that it was surprising hard to find covers depicting action among the books she’s read recently.

Really? I said. So I went to Amazon and skimmed through the (many) books I’ve bought this year, and you know what? Hardly any of them depict action! Have you noticed that?

Of course for romances, you don’t get covers with action, as a rule. You get That Shirtless Dude or The Lady In A Regency Ballgown or whatever. But for everything else, it turns out, action is also just astoundingly rare on covers.

Here’s one that sort of might qualify? I mean, there is MOVEMENT, even if I’m not sure there is ACTION.

This is some sort of light paranormal mystery or something, I forget, the price was low and it looked like it might be fun, that’s all I remember. Yep, looking at it again, I see it’s free on Amazon.

I had to go 18 books down in my orders before I found one with even this much action. In 58 books that Amazon shows I’ve purchased this year, this is the closest I came to a book showing action on the cover.

That’s really kind of remarkable. There’s a woman on a motorcycle, but the motorcycle is at rest. There’s a soldier, but he’s floating quietly in space. Murderbot is walking, not running, across the top of some sort of space ship. A guy is walking, not running, down a tunnel of some kind on another cover. Here’s a spaceship, but like most spaceships, it could be sitting still, there’s no sense of motion involved in this cover.

Okay, moving farther back, last fall I got this one:

These people appear to be ABOUT to be active, at least. There’s certainly a sense of movement and urgency here.

Okay, here’s one:

There, at last, is incontrovertible action.

I had to scroll back a remarkably long way to find that. It looks to me like fewer than one novel in fifty shows action on the cover. I never would have guessed.

If you’re reading a novel right now that shows action on the cover, or you did recently, out of curiosity, what was the book?

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That’s a lot of caper movies. I see this is an accompanying post to their previous effort to rank the top fifty heist movies.

Here’s how Crime Reads defines the two different subgenres:

The Caper sub-genre features films which are (overall) lighter and wittier than the standard Heist movie. While characters in Capers also frequently pursue large sums of shadily-acquired money or other items of value, these films are not necessarily about the acts of committing robberies, as Heist films always are. This is important, so I’ll repeat it: for a film to be a heist movie, items have to be literally stolen. In a caper, items may be stolen, but they don’t have to be; there can be swindling and cons and money-laundering and other forms of theft. 

Sure, sounds plausible, I certainly won’t argue.

In last place, #35 is The Hustle. Here’s the beginning of the comment: It would have been a huge relief if The Hustle, a female-led con movie starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson were any good, but it’s really, really not….

You can click through to see their #1 pick. Personally, I prefer the sound of How to Steal a Million, which they put at #2:

Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole light up the screen in this perfect little caper, about a young Parisian woman who disapproves of her jolly father Hugh Griffith’s penchant for art forgery. He’s an impeccable imitator of the Great Masters, and makes a pretty penny from selling them, but when he loans a priceless statue forged by his father to a museum for an exhibition, he finds out that the statue will have to be examined in order for it to be given its $1 million insurance protection. Knowing that an examination will expose her family’s history of art crime, she decides to steal it back from the museum, somehow. Only, since she has had no interest in a criminal lifestyle until now, needs to enlist the help of sexy cat burglar Peter O’Toole to help. The heist they pull off is one of the cleverest ones I’ve seen onscreen. And the scene where Audrey Hepburn sees Peter O’Toole for the first time, when he’s peeking out at her over the frame of the painting he’s swiping, and his eyes are super blue and when he puts it down it’s revealed he’s wearing a tuxedo… no better meet-cute in the history of cinema.

I wonder if I ever saw that? I certainly don’t remember it. Sounds delightful — I should definitely add it to the list of movies to see someday.

If you’re interested, they put Ocean’s Eight dead last on their list of Heist movies. I will note that they put the first Ocean’s Eleven remake as their #3 pick, so . . . wow. Quite a point spread there. They put the original Ocean’s Eleven as #42.

Their #1 pick for Heist movies is another old one, Asphalt Jungle.

Much, much, much more at the links.

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Ooh, a game for grammar nerds!

Via File 770, this: Stet!, the Hot New Language Game

The game of Stet! comprises two packs of cards with sentences on them, fifty of them Grammar cards with indisputable errors (dangling modifiers, stinking apostrophes, and homonyms, like horde/hoard and reign/rein) and fifty of them Style cards, on which the sentences are correct but pedestrian, and the object is to improve the sentence without rewriting it. There are trick cards with no mistakes on them. You might suspect that there is something wrong with (spoiler alert) “Jackson Pollock” or “asafetida” or “farmers market,” but these are red herrings. If you believe that the sentence is perfect just as it is, you shout “Stet!

How neat is this?

So, here’s the link to the game on Amazon.

It says:

There are 100 entertaining sentences waiting for you, the copyeditor, to correct–or, alternatively, to STET. The first person to spot the error, or else call out “STET!” (a copyeditor’s term that means “let it stand”) if there is no error, gets the card. There are two ways to play: compete for points in a straightforward grammar game, or play with style and syntax and whip the author’s sentences into splendid shape. The person with the most cards at the end of the game wins!

If I were teaching English grammar and punctuation, I’d definitely get this. As it is, not sure there are enough grammar nerds handy to play it. But it does sound like fun!

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I hate feisty YA protagonists

I think the term “feisty” tends to be code for “stupidly impulsive.” Maybe your take on that is different, but that’s my impression. Therefore, when I see a post like this one at Book Riot, Five of the Best YA Fantasy Books with Feisty Princesses , I flinch a little.

I haven’t read any of the books they select, btw. The thing is, there are SO MANY YA books with feisty everything, it’s impossible to keep up.

Let me see, of those five …

Worst title: The Princess Will Save You

Wow, that is a terrible title. Why insert the reader into the title like that? How can that even work? It sounds like a choose-your-own-adventure book, not like a novel. How do you all feel about it? Thumbs up or thumbs down for this title?

The one here that looks most interesting to me is Decendant of the Crane. This one has a Chinese setting and a pretty good description …

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. … Hesina turns to Akira―a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of her kingdom at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?

Still, the “feisty” part is probably a translation of this bit of the descritpion: “eager to shirk responsibility.” I hate that in a princess. I greatly prefer responsible princesses.

Let me see. Tamora Pierce has a lot of good YA protagonists, some of them princesses, who are determined and/or responsible rather than feisty. Not sure how many hit the intersection of princess + non-feisty, but probably some.

Sherwood Smith’s A Posse of Princesses offers a pretty wide selection of princesses, mostly difficult to describe as “feisty.” The actual protagonist might fit that term, I suppose.

Jessica Day George gives us some excellent princesses in her fairy tale retellings, like Princess at the Midnight Ball.

One of the best, especially after she matures, is Princess Cimorene from Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest stories, starting with Dealing with Dragons.

And, of course, I specifically wrote Kehera, way back when I wrote the first version of this story, as a response to irresponsible, feisty princesses who run off and desert their people. She stayed responsible, thoughtful, and (relatively) calm right through the revision as the original trilogy got sliced, diced, and turned into two standalone novels.

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Useful tip?

It turns out that writing SOS in giant letters is indeed a useful strategy, if you happen to be stranded somewhere.

Here’s a useful tip: If you ever find yourself stuck on an uninhabited island in the Pacific, it turns out that writing SOS in giant letters on the sand works.

At least, it did this past weekend for three men whose small boat had run out of fuel and drifted off course among the hundreds of islands and atolls of Micronesia.

Short article, basically that’s the whole jist of it right there: ran out of fuel, got stranded, wrote a giant SOS in the sand, got rescued — sounds like it all worked out.

It makes me think of that bit in The Touchstone Trilogy where Cassandra makes it through that whole ordeal of swimming and running gauntlets of bad guys and then winds up in that desert and makes that huge flaming arrow. That was a effective series of scenes. Long, drawn-out crisis, but the whole thing was very tense, especially when Cass nearly got turned around in the desert at the last minute. That’s a good example of how to ratchet up the tension for an extended period during a story.

Anyway, the author of the post about the giant SOS starts it off with that “Here’s a useful tip” line, and I must say, I doubt many people will ever be in a situation where that tip is remotely useful. Fortunately.

On a (very) slightly related note, it occasionally passes through my mind, when I’m reading a lost-in-the-woods story, that if I’m ever lost in the woods with the right dog, I definitely won’t starve to death. Not that box turtles are probably particularly desirable as a food source, but I’m sure they’re edible, and many of my dogs are excellent at finding them.

This is a puppy named Jos who was just puzzled by the whole concept of “turtles.” I think it’s one of the most adorable expressions I ever captured for one of my dogs. But many of them go beyond puzzled to FANATICAL. This spring, Conner found FIVE turtles in less than ten minutes in an acre-and-a-half area. So, while looking for a good place to create a giant SOS or huge flaming arrow, I would also have plenty of turtles to sustain myself and my dogs as I waited for rescue.

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YAY, another Foreigner book THIS YEAR

Okay, you may recall that the 20th Foreigner book, Resurgence, came out this past January. If you recall that, you may also remember that I really was not at all impressed by it, that I thought it was very much a low point for the entire series, and that I thought the biggest problem was a dire lack of continuity with the previous book. Then we had something of a discussion about that in the comments. That was this post here.

Now, having a serious problem — several serious problems — with Resurgence actually makes me MUCH more eager to read the new 21st book in this series, Divergence, which will come out in just about exactly a month. This is because I REALLY HOPE that CJC will rescue the situation in the previous book — that she will somehow recover and that THIS book will be much better.

If it’s not, then we’ll see. I could in theory back up a bit, get rid of the last few books of the series, and stop following the series entirely. But I don’t want to do that. I want the series to improve again, either the way I suggested in my comments on Resurgence or by CJC doing something else that works.

Okay, now, let’s check out the description of the soon-to-be-released book. Okay, here’s the relevant bit:

…since the aiji-dowager has also invited a dangerously independent young warlord, Machigi, and a young man who may be the heir to Ajuri, a key northern province—the natural question is why the dowager is taking this ill-assorted pair to Hasjuran and what on this earth she may be up to.

… Ilisidi is hellbent on settling scores with the Shadow Guild, and her reasons for this trip and this company now become clear.  One human diplomat and his own bodyguard suddenly seem a very small force to defend her from what she is setting in motion.

What this suggests to me is that at the very least more will happen in this book than the previous one. The continuity problems are not resolved, but CJC is apparently not going to try to resolve them. The best, maybe the only, way to truly resolve this problem where Nomari was absolutely confirmed as lord of Ajuri and now is absolutely still waiting to be confirmed, would be to go back to the scene, two books ago, where he is confirmed, de-confirm him by heavily revising those scenes, and re-issue the book. That isn’t going to happen, but I guess I will pretend it has been done.

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Cozy mysteries: another take

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog about cozy mysteries. Not quite like my take on the subgenre, but we overlap. Certainly this post offers another contrast to David Schmid’s lecture in the Great Courses course.

The author of this post is Leslie Budewitz, who must write cozies . . . yes, food-themed cozies, as of course so many are. I expect with recipes in the back, a touch I generally enjoy, but a lot of hers have puns in the titles, often a sign that the mystery is too cute for my personal preference.

Anyway, here is what Budewitz says:

Ultimately, the cozy is about community. The sleuth, usually a woman, is driven to investigate because of her personal stakes. She wants justice, for the individuals and for the community. The professional investigators—law enforcement—restore the external order by making an arrest and prosecuting, but it’s up to the amateur to restore internal order, the social order, within the community.

That’s not quite what I said — what I said was, Ultimately, the heart of a cozy mystery is the romance and other relationships of the female protagonist; a cozy is basically a mystery wrapped around a romance story. I stand by that, but I like this way of framing a cozy too.

Budewitz’s post is mostly about style and tone — the restraint with blood and violence, the clean language. Not all cozies avoid vulgar language, I will say, but in general the tone of a cozy will be on the warm-fuzzy side. I certainly agree Budewitz is right to suggest the benefits of clean language. This topic always makes me think of my mother, who reads a ton of mysteries, but absolutely detests bad language that makes it onto the page. From the author’s point of view, it makes no sense to alienate readers like my mother when you can so easily say, “He swore under his breath,” or whatever.

Anyway, good post if you have a minute and care to click through.

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Finished! — times two

Okay! So, busy weekend!

1.First, I’m really glad to say that I finally completed the entire Copper Mountain revision. It turned into significantly more work toward the end than I initially thought it was going to; I re-worked some of those chapters a fair bit, including cutting the entire last chapter and replacing it.

As a side question, I wonder how many of you prefer which pov character? The four pov characters we have had so far in the novels are: Natividad, Alejandro, Justin, and Miguel, pretty much in that order chronologically. I did not exactly do this on purpose, but Natividad and Miguel almost entirely split the narrative in Copper Mountain. I hope that’s all right with readers.

Of course the pov moves around a lot more in the shorter works. Let me see, who else has gotten pov stories … well, Thaddeus, Ethan, Keziah, Carissa, Tommy … anyone else besides the main protagonists from the novels? I think that’s it. The next Black Dog project will be another collection, so whom would you most like to see take the pov again? There will be another Ethan novella for sure — I wrote that last year some time — so who else? I have vague ideas for a couple more stories, but I’m not sure what I’ll be doing for those, so if you have preferences, this would be the time to let me know.

All right, next:

2.Second, did I mention that I’d written a long novella / short novel set in the world of Tuyo? I’m not sure I mentioned that, except to a couple of you whom I asked to critique it. It’s just about exactly 70,000 words, about 215 pages, so that’s roughly half the length of Copper Mountain but well within the typical length for a short novel.

Well, I got that revised this weekend and I think it’s in pretty good shape for, if all goes well, release later this month. It’s quite different from Tuyo. It’s third person, set 14 years earlier, from the pov of Nikoles Ianan. The story he told Ryo in Tuyo stuck with me, so this is that story. I hope you all enjoy it!

I’m ready for typo reads for both of these books, so if you volunteered to read something for me, thank you! You will be getting one or the other of these stories in your mailbox today.

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