Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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How is it —

That it took me so long to discover The Intern’s blog?

Cause today another very nice bit of analysis of The Hunger Games.

Not that it’s a new idea that, say, readers like a book to be rich in conflict, but this comparison to video games and addictiveness and what causes the addictiveness is really interesting. I would never have thought of a book in these terms because I don’t play video games. (And why not? Because I’m afraid I might like them too much — I have enough to do right now! Don’t need another hobby! So there’s the addictiveness idea right there.)

I wonder, if you did this kind of analysis of all the YA titles you find in WalMart — like Twilight and Divergent and Hush,Hush and City of Bones and so on and on and on — I wonder if you’d find this kind of writing pattern in both the good ones and the not so good ones?

I mean (to simplify) new discoveries prompt internal conflict –> internal conflict leads to a decision –> every chapter ends on an unresolved conflict.

Plus goals that are always, every minute, obvious to the reader. And every action having consequences. All that stuff The Intern describes.

I kind of suspect you would. I haven’t read all that many of the really popular YA titles — I mean, the supply of really popular YA titles appears to approximate infinity — but I wonder whether this particular writing pattern explains why some books that are objectively not very good nevertheless have such wide appeal?

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The Intern —

Has a really neat post up analyzing The Hunger Games.

Which I’m sure you’ve read. No? Well, then, I’m sure you should read it! And the sequels! Then you can join the rest of us in arguing about whether Mockingjay is
a) great or b) lousy. Not too many opinions in the middle on that one!

Anyway, HERE, and see what a really analytical person does for fun while the rest of us are playing solitaire.

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Finished! Again!

You know, it’s surprising how often you can “finish” one manuscript.

I mean, first you actually finish writing down the story and that is of course HIGHLY SATISFYING and totally means you deserve a pint or two of best-quality double-chocolate fudge brownie ice cream.

For me, the first finished rough draft is pretty well revised and polished, but I almost always want to cut 10,000 to 40,000 words (seriously! sometimes even more!) plus I have probably accumulated about 30 notes-to-self about various trivial-to-difficult things I need to add / change / reevaluate in the manuscript. Like, if somebody uses a snazzy magical item in the penultimate scene, I better go back and add that item into earlier scenes as well, right? That is very easy. Or if someone is bald, I may need to make sure he is bald all the way through the story, which is also easy but very tedious as I’m going to have to check for baldness through all his scenes.

Once I’ve finished taking care of all these notes, I’m finished for the second time. I can’t say that I feel that finishing this minor pain-in-the-neck revision really deserves ice cream, but certainly a nice piece of extremely dark chocolate. (Everything deserves a piece of extremely dark chocolate!)

If I’m not working on a deadline, the best thing to do after that is set the manuscript aside for several weeks or a month and then read through it again from the top and make any substantive changes that seem necessary and polish everything up. That’s where I am now! Finished for the third time!

The major thing I did last night was take the long (30 page) last chapter, read it carefully, find natural points at which it divided, cut out the middle, carefully change the point-of-view for that section, and put it back in. I thought I might add a short additional tie-off-the-loose-ends chapter at the end, but dividing up the last chapter is what I decided to do instead after reading it veeerry carefully and slowly, and I think it worked.

Tonight I will read this chapter over one more time — hope I still think it works — tweaking as necessary. I think I want to make a minor change to one earlier scene and then a related small change to the last little bit of the story. Then I will quit messing with it because at this point I am going to want objective critiques from a couple of readers.

A good critique is very important, but just as important is a simple, plain, “Yes, I like it, it works for me, I loved this one scene and this other scene and that’s a great character and both the characters work for me” — in other words, praise! It’s fine if a reader says that a particular scene didn’t work for her or she doesn’t believe a character would have done thus-or-so or the world is confusing because of this-and-that. What matters here is the over all YES IT WORKS summation. It is hard for me to be sure a story DOES work — and I need to feel good about the story to do the NEXT revision, which I hope won’t involve much.

Then! Off to my agent, who will provide a critique oriented toward commercial viability (very important! Not what my readers can do!) and thence, we hope, to a home at a nice solid imprint at a good publishing house.

After which I will have a chance to “finish” the manuscript AGAIN after editorial comments.

Even after a book hits the shelves, you know, the revision process isn’t necessarily OVER over. I have, right here at this moment, five pages of copy-editor suggestions for the omnibus version of The Griffin Mage trilogy, which will come out in the fall.

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WIP is in fact progressing . . .

You know, I thought I was done cutting? But I guess not. What I think is going to happen is, I’m going to add another short chapter at the end, or break the current last chapter in two, or something. Not sure!

To get back in the mood and remind myself about how the story works, I started at the beginning for a straight read-through. I find that really helpful any time I’ve taken a break from a manuscript (which I had to do because Devi at Orbit requested a little bit of work on House Of Shadows), or any time I kind of get stuck and need to get un-stuck.

This time, a couple of nice side-effects: first, I cut another 1400 words without really trying (yay!), getting the length down to 121,500 words. I wouldn’t mind losing a little more length along the way because, as I said, I expect to add a little at the end.

And second, I found out I really kind of like the story. Whew! It was hard to judge, before. I guess I really did need to step back from it for a week or two.

So I’m 2/3 done with the read-through. I’ll finish that tonight. I bet I can have the ending re-done by Wednesday, say. Do some neatening up and have the manuscript ready to go by Friday, or Monday at the latest.

Next step: sending it to a couple of readers, especially my brother.

You know what would be nice to have first, though? A decent title. I just don’t have a knack that way. I’m thinking maybe I’ll try Rachelle Gardner’s advice about how to create a good title. Kind of a brute-force approach, but waiting for inspiration to strike doesn’t seem to work very well for me.

Then a break! Got a lot of books I’d like to read. I’m thinking I’ll start with Eon and Eona. I do love a good story set in an exotic setting! I’m confident enough that I’ll like these that I bought the second book without reading the first — so I hope I’m right! (Every now and then that confidence backfires — but usually if Thea at The Book Smugglers loves a book, so will I, so I should be pretty safe.)

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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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