Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Nathan is still The Man

Nathan Bransford captures the importance of stories in our lives:

“Life is too complicated to hold in your head and relationships are too immense and multi-faceted to easily comprehend. So we write and tell stories to make sense of our relationships and existence. A novel can capture more than we can readily contemplate, and an author can, brick by brick, build a world that can illuminate and give meaning to some part of the full tapestry of our lives and relationships. They help us understand things that are too difficult to think about all at once.”

I totally agree.

Read the whole thing.

Not that I think you necessarily sit down as an author and TRY to tell The Truth about the Human Experience. Or if you do try, if that’s your actual aim, I think you’re likely to come across as horribly preachy. But I don’t exactly think it’s an accident when truths (lower case “t”) about the human condition emerge, either, and it adds immeasurably to a story when they do. That’s what Marsden did in his Tomorrow series.

I’m sure the same can be said about every single book that really grabs you, but you know who else comes to my mind here? Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m sure everybody’s familiar with her Vorkosigan books? Right? (If not, you OWE IT TO YOURSELF to buy them all ASAP!). Unlike Marsden, she doesn’t signal in any way that Here Comes the Philosophy. But from time to time, she drops a knife-edged truth into the middle of a scene and it just reverberates all the way down your spine.

Kind of mixing metaphors there, but you get what I mean.

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The Tomorrow series

Finished it a few days ago! Definitely one of my favorite stories of 2011!

The Tomorrow series is a seven-book YA series by John Marsden, starting with Tomorrow, When the War Began. Sort of post-apocalyptic. Well, really more of a war story. I’d never heard of it until I saw a reference to it here. Then it was like, where has this been all my life?

I see the first book is supposed to be a “major motion picture.” Says so right on the cover. I have my doubts. Can the movie version possibly begin to approach the quality of the book? I don’t think I’ve ever liked the movie version of a story half as well as the real book — except for The Hunt for Red October. But that was at least half due to Sean Connery, of course. What an actor! What a voice!

And, of course, it’s voice that makes the Tomorrow series, too — well, and good plotting and excellent writing, too. But the whole seven-book series is told in Ellie’s tight-focused, not-quite-objective point of view. Ellie grows and changes so much through the course of the story, not always in positive ways, but always in believable ways.

Believability is the key to the Tomorrow series. What a job Marsden takes on, getting us to believe that Australia really has been invaded and these kids really are acting on their own, pushing back against the conquest of their home and country.

Here’s why it works:

First, Marsden never explains who the putative invaders are, which is important because there just aren’t any real-world candidates for a country that both would and could conquer Australia. He’s such a good writer you barely notice the care he’s taking to avoid naming the bad guys.

Second, the tight pacing keeps us hurtling forward, so we don’t have time to worry over implausibility — but there’s not much implausibility to worry over, either. All the action really is believable, and you know what I was particularly impressed by? In one of the books, nothing the kids try to do actually works! They try to help a group of New Zealanders take out this super-important airfield, but the Kiwis fail and disappear and the kids have no idea what went wrong. They never find out, either. Then the kids try to hit the airfield themselves, two different ways, and both methods fail,and the kids barely get away, and the book ends with nothing accomplished. And I thought that was great! You know if you’re really taking action against an occupying force, you’re going to have weeks like that.

Though when they actually do get the airfield later, I mean, whoa. Quite a job. I loved it!

Third, the tight focus on a small group of kids is also very important: we don’t get an omniscient view of Australia. We see only what Ellie sees, know only what she knows. Everything’s colored by her reactions. That enhances believability AND heightens the tension. ARE her parents still alive? She doesn’t know and neither do we. Marsden does such a great job keeping the kids on their own — it’s not like there aren’t any adults around, but the kids really CAN’T let the adults take over making the decisions because — well, read the books! It really works out that way and it’s all totally believable.

Fourth, the characters carry the story way more than clever plotting could ever do on its own. Ellie and Homer, Fi and Lee, Robyn and Kevin, Corrie and Chris — they are really, really believable kids. Far from perfect, but so very real. I particularly love Homer — what a guy! Nearly a juvenile delinquent when he’s bored in normal times, but in a good-natured sort of way. Then suddenly he’s got an enemy invasion to face and man, he can really pull it together! The tension between Homer and Ellie is perfect: neither one can stand to let the other be the unquestioned leader. I loved Homer’s “Stand back and let a MAN through” attitude, and the way Ellie would roll her eyes and let him through because he had a crowbar and could get the door open — but then take over again ten minutes later.

And the relationship between Ellie and Homer is perfect, too — not romantic, and yet Ellie can hardly stand to watch a romance develop between Homer and Fi because she nevertheless feels so territorial about Homer, except she knows she’s being mean and jealous and tries so hard to get herself out of the way between them.

That’s what I mean by not perfect but very real. I mean, I have a new model for Perfect Teen Characters now. I mean, I feel I ought to take notes.

I kind of like the occasional perfect character — think Ender in Ender’s Game, for example — but Marsden’s aware he’s putting his characters through a ringer and he doesn’t back off from what that does to them. Like, the small and large nervous breakdowns suffered by various characters — well, I should think so, given what they’re all going through. And the hardening we see in Ellie and Lee as they both do pretty grim things and are hurt by that, in different ways.

In fact, about the only quibble I have is the on-again-off-again relationship between Ellie and Lee. I think it should have been on and then stayed on and deepened. I mean, twice we get moments when Ellie is looking at Lee and she thinks: He will never let me down. When the going gets rough, he will always come through. And yet then then she’ll back off from their relationship. Well, at first that made sense, what with one thing and another, but by the end I couldn’t see it. Steadfast loyalty and competence and the nerve to go right to the wire when things go bad? And she’s at least mostly in love with him, at least some of the time? Well, why is that not all the way in love with him all the time, by the end?

Oh, well!

I think actually there is one more thing besides great characters and clever plotting and great writing that makes these books sink into your mind and heart to stay. That’s the touches of philosophy we see, mainly but not exclusively in the epilogues. Like this, in the first book:

“Loyalty, courage, goodness. I wonder if they’re human inventions too, or if they just are. . . . We’ve got to stick together, that’s all I know. We all drive each other crazy at times, but I don’t want to end up here alone, like the Hermit. Then this really would be Hell. Humans do such terrible things to each other that sometimes my brain tells me they must be evil. But my heart still isn’t convinced.”

And from the second:

“Sometimes you just have to be brave. You have to be strong. Sometimes you just can’t give in to weak thoughts. You have to beat down those devils that get inside your head and try to make you panic. You struggle along, putting one foot a little bit in front of the other, hoping that when you go backwards it won’t be too far backwards, so that when you start forwards again you won’t have too much to catch up. That’s what I’ve learned.”

And, from the last book in the series:

“The old stories used to end with “They all lived happily ever after.” And you’d often hear parents saying: ‘I just want my kids to be happy.’ That’s crap, if you ask me. Life’s about a hell of a lot more than being happy. It’s about feeling the full range of stuff: happiness, sadness, anger, grief, love, hate. If you try to shut one of those off, you shut them all off. I don’t want to be happy. I know I won’t live happily ever after. I want more than that, something richer. I want to go right up close to the beauty and the ugliness. I want to see it all, know it all, understand it all. The richness and the poverty, the joy and the cruelty, the sweetness and the sadness. That’s the best way I can honour my friends who died.”

That’s Ellie. And it’s so in character: these are exactly the sorts of big ideas that teenagers struggle with, and there is so much in the story to prompt a touch of philosophy. I think it adds such depth to the Tomorrow series. I wonder if it’s possible the “major motion picture” captured that. The story would be incomparably lessened if it was turned into nothing but an adventure flick, where things blow up with with huge fireballs but where nothing that happens really touches the characters and, in the end, all the sound and fury signifies nothing.

So I may or may not bother to find the movie . . . but the books are definitely keepers.

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You know it’s July . . .

When it’s 80 degrees at dawn. Whew. The dogs all got out for their morning walk, but I think that’s it. Supposed to get up over 100 degrees today. The heat’s like a wall when you open the door — even though I keep my air conditioner set at 78 or 79 or even 80 degrees. No, the dogs can just amble out into the yard and back in for the rest of the day: no dashing around in the arboretum this evening. Sorry, dogs! We will all hope for cooler weather later in the week.

Weather like this does make it easy to stay inside and get work done, though! I’ve finished working on HOUSE OF SHADOWS. I made a fair number of changes, added some worldbuilding and stuff — came to about 2000 words in additions, but it was a pretty short book to start with, so that’s no trouble. 115,000 words or so now.

So, over to Devi again! I think she’ll approve it the way it stands, so the next step will most likely be checking the copy edited version.

Meanwhile, back to my actual current (still titleless) WIP. I’ve been thinking about it and I think I will add a short chapter at the end, tie off Erest’s point-of-view story a bit more neatly. I think I will probably really benefit from some good old critical feedback pretty soon; got some good readers lined up who should be able to highlight anything that’s not working.

And you know what? Noting whether a story is working or not, and preferably taking a stab at what’s going wrong (if anything — but there’s always something) is the first job of an editor and it’s why I agree that editors are not dispensable.

Professional editors associated with a publishing house? You may be able to get away without one. Competent, critical, knowledgeable editors who can read analytically and give you some serious feedback? Feedback about the worldbuilding, the flow of the story, the pacing, the characters? You absolutely cannot get away without that.

Or at least, I can’t. Or at least, I wouldn’t want to try!

So, a few more weeks to get this manuscript in as good shape as I possibly can and then we’ll see what readers say.

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A tough weekend coming up —

I’m sending Bree to a new pet home on Sunday. This is one of the really tough parts about breeding dogs. She’s not just some puppy, you know! She’s three years old! But it’s not fair to ask a dog to live her whole life with just a fraction of my attention when she can be the center of attention for a whole family.

Bree should do great! And they are getting a great dog! Bree has three obedience titles — I’ve made up a loooong list of the commands she knows. I think her new people should have a great time learning how to talk to Bree. There’s nothing like training to bond a new dog to you (and bond you to a new dog) — and it’s fun when your new dog already knows how to heel and stay and take jumps and lie down with a little hand signal and so forth and so on.

But it’s going to be hard on Bree for a week or so, I know. And it’s going to be hard on me for longer than that.

Bree when she was one day old!

She’s the one on the right. Hard to believe she’s going to grow up into a real dog!

Bree at two months

Is there anything cuter than a puppy with a shoe?

One year old

Bree grew up into a solid, dependable, willing dog — easy to work with, easy to live with. She’s going to leave quite a hole in my pack for a while, no getting around it. But she is going to a local-ish family, so I should see her from time to time . . . and of course, she goes with the understanding that if she’s not happy in a couple of weeks, or if her new family EVER can’t keep her, she must come back to me.

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Love this —

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

Hysterical!

You know, I love semicolons! But not as much as I used to. You know what I do now? I do a search through the manuscript and look at every single semicolon and colon and dash and decide whether I want to keep it or change it. This takes HOURS and is VERY BORING, but I think it’s worth it.

Also, every now and then? You do want to break a semicolon rule. Just from time to time, you want to use both an “and” and a semicolon at the same time. It just gives the exact right “feel” for the sentence — a sort of catch-and-drag. I guess I do this about once per two books, so not very often. Just every now and then.

I’ve let copy editors talk me out of doing a ” . . . ; and . . . ” construction before, though. Then I tend to notice a great writer do exactly the same thing I wanted to do. (I’m thinking of Robin McKinley here). That makes me swear to stick to my guns and break the rule if I want to.

I do wonder whether the occasional grammar whiz is bothered by it, though. Breaking this rule means you’re betting that nearly everybody will feel the catch in the sentence without noticing what you did to cause it.

It’s the same with other rules, of course. You can use a comma splice, especially in dialogue, to create a rushed, breathless feeling. I’ve done this, lots of writers have done this, not only am I doing it here right this minute but Gilman uses this technique in her wonderful Mrs Pollifax mysteries .

But this drives my mother NUTS and more than once, if I’m reading a book after her? She has MARKED THESE AS WRONG IN THE BOOK. IN PEN. That drives ME nuts. But at least it keeps me aware that some people are very very very bothered if you break a grammatical rule and totally do not think that the “feel” of the sentence or the “breathless” voice of the pov character justifies it.

And that is useful because it makes me think twice and three times before breaking a rule.

But I am still going to do it now and then. Please don’t mark up my books in pen when I do! It was deliberate, I swear!

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Important tip

Got a project to finish?

Don’t start reading Marsden’s Tomorrow series.

I had trouble getting the fifth book — I ordered it, but it went astray and I had to re-order — but it finally arrived. I DID manage to finish reading through the altered sections of my manuscript first, but then I must confess I put my own manuscript aside and read the fifth, sixth, and seventh books of the Tomorrow series in one fell swoop.

Whew. At least there’s only the seven, so now I’m done.

So back to the real world tonight (so to speak) . . . with the Tomorrow series entirely out of the way, SURELY I can finish the last manuscript read-through before Monday.

I’ll comment in more detail on the Tomorrow series later. At the moment, I’ll just say that it’s brilliantly written and entirely too addictive and these books may technically be YA, but if you don’t normally read YA, don’t let that stop you. I’m going to loan this series to my Dad next, and he’s not exactly in the normal YA target audience, but I bet he loves it.

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Recent reading

Also! In between finishing the first manuscript read-through and starting the second, Myra Grant’s book DEADLINE arrived. The sequel to FEED, right? Which I really enjoyed even though I found the bag guy INCREDIBLY obvious and also annoying, right?

So I grabbed Deadline when I had a break, especially because on July 2nd it was way too hot to do anything outside and I didn’t even take the dogs for a run at dusk the way I usually do in the summer (seriously, I hate to disappoint them, so that means it was really really hot). I handed out extra chew toys instead and sat on the couch in the air conditioning and read Deadline.

And I really enjoyed it! I stopped on page 380 to give myself a break, because it’s a long sucker, and finished it the next day before getting back to work on my own manuscript.

The pluses: nonstop action! great writing! great characters! I really liked Shaun as the protagonist. I really loved what Grant did with him. Loved the characters. Maggie’s a little over the top, but in a good way.

The minuses: once again villains I do not believe in. In the first book I didn’t believe in the bad guy because he was too campy and stereotyped; in this case I didn’t believe in the bad guys because OH COME ON THAT IS JUST OVER THE TOP. I am trying to avoid spoilers so no details, except apparently two can keep a secret if one of them is dead OR IF THEY ARE JUST SO EVIL AND THEN ANY NUMBER CAN KEEP A SECRET, I guess.

Also, worse — I get that explanations for the unbelievable stuff may be provided in the third book, but! Grant is going to have to come up with one WHOPPER of an explanation for how a clone remembers the life of the dead person it was cloned from. Because right now, it looks like this happens, and I have to tell you, I don’t believe it for a minute.

Clones, I’m fine with. Magic clones that are somehow adult copies of people who somehow remember every detail from the life of the person they were cloned from? Not so much.

Awaiting the third book now. I will enjoy it, I’m sure, but SO MUCH MORE if some plausible explanation is offered for the clone thing.

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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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