Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Free Books!

Are one of the things I’m sure everybody looks forward to from the World Fantasy Convention. When you register, they hand you fifty pounds (or so) of books. You then spend the weekend sorting them out and, man, on Sunday morning? Huge turnover at the exchange table as people get rid of the ones they don’t want to keep and grab copies of different books as others discard them.

For me, if the writing quality looks good on the first page, then I’ll read the first chapter or so and then decide whether to keep the book or not. Like, if the author can’t tell the difference between the past tense and the past perfect, I’m not likely to make it past the first page.

But I don’t keep all the ones that are well written, either. I didn’t keep, for example, MR SHIVERS, even though it was beautifully written, because I’m not into horror. Also, I wound up discarding AMERICAN GODS because I read the whole thing (I was waking up VERY early because of the time difference, so lots of time to kill every morning). I actually kind of liked it, but I don’t think I would read it again in a hurry, and I didn’t want the weight of another hardcover, so I put it on the exchange table. Where it was snapped right up, believe me.

I don’t remember most of the ones I discarded, but here’s the list of the ones I kept:

IORICH, by Brust — I read this after my flight home got canceled and I suddenly had time to kill before coming home. Loved it! I’d been wanting to get it, so I was delighted to see a copy turn up on the exchange table and grabbed it instantly.

THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, by Jemisin — I already had it, but just in mm paperback and this was a trade paperback, so I kept it. I actually got to meet NK Jemisin! Whose name turns out to be Nora (if you were wondering). I so wanted her book to win the World Fantasy Award, but it didn’t (the one that did was the only nominee I haven’t read (WHO FEARS DEATH) so now I guess I’ll have to pick it up and see if I agree with the judges).

THE GODSTALKER CHRONICLES, by Hodgell — well written and I enjoyed it, but I see there are FOUR MORE books in this series and remember how I said I was epicked out for a while? Don’t know if I’ll look for the rest of the books any time soon.

And then a bunch I haven’t read yet and know nothing about except they looked good enough to add to my carry-on burden:

MAYAN DECEMBER (Cooper); THE HAMMER (Parker); THE DROWNING CITY (Downum); OUTLANDER (Gibaldon); GLITTER ROSE (de Pierres), which looks like short stories and may not be my thing but was small and pretty; UNPLUGGED (Horton, ed.) which is short stories from the web and includes Merrie Haskell’s great story The Girl-Prince, which is why I kept it; CAN’T CATCH ME (Cadnum), which also looks like short stories but I think I might like them. I think that’s it.

I also bought a copy of THE KINGDOM OF GODS by Jemisin, which I’m loving so far. What a fabulous trilogy, really, there are no words, you have to read this! I didn’t get a copy of MASTIFF, the third book in Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy, because I was pretty sure I’d pre-ordered it. Yep, good thing I held off, because it was waiting for me at home, so no need to haul it around.

So! I know I said I was taking October off to read books? And October is over? But there’s no way I’m stopping before re-reading the first too Beka Cooper stories and then this third one that just arrived.

Plus, also waiting for me — SILVER PHOENIX, by Cindy Pon. Who is a very nice, vivacious person, by the way; met her at a panel on Saturday. Gotta fit that one in sometime soon, too.

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From the air —

You know what’s fascinating about flying from St. Louis to Denver and then from Denver to San Diego?

On the first leg to Denver, there is nothing below you but fields and pastures laid out in geometric squares and circles. I mean, the WHOLE way. You start to believe that there isn’t a square inch of the country that isn’t already in use. (It turns out, looking at a map later, we probably flew over Kansas the long way.)

Then the second leg, from Denver to San Diego? That’s hundreds of miles of mountains and then broken plateaus and desert — Colorado and then Arizona — all with hardly a TRACE of human activity, and you start to believe that your plane might have flown back in time and there might not be another person anywhere on the continent. Nothing but the occasional highway breaks the illusion.

Very cool.

I kept thinking about Louis and Clark and how they must have felt when they hit the Rockies. I mean, whoa.

But imagine crossing Arizona and hitting the canyon lands? That would have presented at least as big a challenge, surely? From the air you can see just how far people on horseback would have to go to get around some of the canyons. It looks impossible to get down into the canyons and then back up.

If I ever send a protagonist on a quest across unknown lands . . .

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When reviewers disagree —

With each other, I mean.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste, like when one reviewer of THE FLOATING ISLANDS prefers Araene, and the next thinks it’s really Trei’s story, and the third says how his favorite part was the interaction between the two cousins (which is exactly what the first three reviews I read said). So I was happy about that, of course, since obviously both characters worked well.

But what if, as Marie Brennen says, “Mileage doesn’t just vary; it hardly seems to have gone over the same road.” ? How to explain that?

Brennan offers a neat idea about one factor that might underlie some of the more flatly contradictory opinions readers sometimes offer about a book.

She says: As I am a fairly reserved person, my characters’ idea of demonstrative floods of emotion may not look like much to the extroverts out there.

She goes on: I, not really being the sort to wave flags when I’m excited or angry or whatever, don’t tend to wave them for my characters, either. Or rather, I do — by my standards of measurement. And maybe if you’re a similar sort of person, then the things I intend to be flags register as such, and voila, you see depth of emotion. But people who are more used to wearing their hearts on their sleeves will only see a faint tick on the psychological seismograph, and think the character is made out of wood.

Doesn’t that sound just so plausible?

Lots of great essays over at Marie’s site — check ’em out.

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Voice

So, I’ve read 19 books so far this month. That doesn’t count three I started but put on the give-away pile before I’d read more than a couple of chapters. What makes me put a book down that fast? Just plain bad writing can do it, but that wasn’t the case with these.

I think one of the main things that makes me set a book aside is that I don’t like the protagonist’s voice — either the voice is not interesting or engaging, or else the voice is distinctive but I just dislike the main character.

Patti Hill at Novel Matters has a post in which she considers voice.

She notes that Elizabeth George defines voice as “The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character’s defining way of speaking and thinking” which seems reasonable. I think it’s important to get the “and thinking” in there, because voice certainly includes a character’s attitudes and biases. How about actions? Maybe not, don’t want to get too far afield, we’ll lose the idea of “voice” itself if we expand the definition too far.

Patti also notes that Donald Maass maintains that a character must have strong opinions or else his voice will be uninteresting. I think that might be true. Or true-ish. Does it have to be strong opinions, or would strong reactions do the same job? I’m thinking either would do.

So! How about some examples of voices that instantly captured my attention?

Listen to this:

Questions, always questions. They didn’t wait for answers, either. They rushed on, piling questions on questions, covering every moment with questions, blocking off every sensation but the thorn-stab of questions.

And orders. If it wasn’t, “Lou,what is this?” it was, “Tell me what this is.” A bowl. The same bowl, time after time. It is a bowl and it is an ugly bowl, a boring bowl, a bowl of total and complete boring blandness, uninteresting. I am uninterested in that uninteresting bowl.

If they aren’t going to listen, why should I talk?

I know better than to say that out loud. Everything in my life that has value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say.

In this office, where I am evaluated and advised four times a year, the psychiatrist is no less certain of the line between us than all the others have been. Her certainty is painful to see, so I try not to look at her more than I have to. That has its own dangers; like the others, she thinks I should make more eye contact than I do. I glance at her now.

Dr. Fornum, crisp and professional, raises an eyebrow and shakes her head not quite imperceptibly. Autistic persons do not understand these signals. I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand.

What I haven’t figured out yet is the range of things they don’t understand. The normals. The reals. the ones who have the degrees and sit behind the desks in comfortable chairs.

I know some of what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know I can read. She thinks I’m hyperlexic, joust parroting the words. The difference between what she calls parroting and what she does when she reads is imperceptible to me. She doesn’t know that I have a large vocabulary. Every time she asks what my job is and I say I am still working for the pharmaceutical company, she asks if I know what pharmaceutical means. She thinks I’m parroting. The difference between what she calls parroting and my use of a large number of words is imperceptible to me. She uses large words when talking to the other doctors and nurses and technicians, babbling on and on and saying things that could be said more simply. She knows I work on a computer, she knows I went to school, but she has not caught on that this is incompatible with her belief that I am actually nearly illiterate and barely verbal.

She talks to me as if I were a rather stupid child. She does not like it when I use big words (as she calls them) and she tells me to just say what I mean.

What I mean is the speed of dark is as interesting as the speed of light, and maybe it is faster and who will find out?

What I mean is about gravity, if there were a world where it is twice as strong, then on that world would the wind from a fan be stronger because the air is thicker and blow my glass off the table, not just my napkin? Or would the greater gravity hold the glass more firmly to the table, so the stronger wind couldn’t move it?

What I mean is the world is big and scary and noisy and crazy but also beautiful and still in the middle of the windstorm.

What I mean is what difference does it make if I think of colors as people or people as sticks of chalk, all stiff and white unless they are brown chalk or black?

What I mean is I know what I like and want, and she does not, and I do not want to like or want what she wants me to like or want.

That’s the first bit of THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon, which is one of the best and most impressive books I’ve ever read. It’s actually hard to stop copying it out here because it’s so good that I want to hold up every bit of the first chapter and point to it and say Look At This.

And what makes it so good? The voice, of course. The unique, fascinating, instantly sympathetic voice of the main character, Lou.

Now listen to this one:

No shit, there I was . . .

We’d been cut up so many ways and so many times we hardly had a skirmish line, and the enemy kept getting reinforced. I, like the rest of the outfit, was exhausted and terrified from swords buzzing past my ear and various sorts of sorceries going “whoosh” over my head, or maybe it was the other way around; and there were dead people moaning and writhing on the ground, and wounded people lying still, and that was almost certainly the other way around, but I’m giving it to you as I remember it, though I know my memory sometimes plays tricks on me.

More on that in a second.

First, I have to ask you to excuse me for starting in the middle, but that’s more or less where it starts.

So there I was, in a full-scale battle; that is, in a place where no self-respecting assassin ought to be. Worse, in a full-scale battle with the keen sense that I was on the losing side, at least in this part of the engagement. I stood on Dorian’s Hill, with the Wall about two hundred yards behind me, and the Tomb (which is not a tomb, and never was, and ought not to be called that) about a quarter of a mile to my left. I wanted to teleport out, or at least run, but I couldn’t because, well, I just couldn’t. I had a sword, and I carried enough other weaponry to outfit half of Cropper Company (my unit, hurrah hurrah).

Now, that’s the first bit of DRAGON, by Steven Brust, who probably didn’t invent the style sometimes called “first person smartass” but certainly does it well, doesn’t he? And there again, a unique and fascinating voice.

Both of these are first person. Can you build a voice so fast and with such certainty in third person?

How about this one:

She scowled at her glass of orange juice. To think that she had been delighted when she first arrived here — was it only three months ago? — with the prospect of fresh orange juice every day. But she had been eager to be delighted; this was to be her home, and she wanted badly to like it, to be grateful for it — to behave well, to make her brother proud of her and Sir Charles and Lady Amelia pleased with their generosity.

Lady Amelia had explained that the orchards only a few days south and west of here were the finest in the country, and many of the oranges she had seen at Home, before she came out here, had probably come from those same orchards. It was hard to believe in orange groves as she looked out the window, across the flat deserty plain beyond the Residency, unbroken by anything more vigorous than a few patches of harsh grass and stunted sand-colored bushes until it disappeared at the feet of the black and copper-brown mountains.

But there was fresh orange juice every day.

She was the first down to the table every morning, and was gently teased by Lady Amelia and Sir Charles about her healthy young appetite; but it wasn’t hunger that drove her out of bed every day. Since her days were empty of purpose, she could not sleep when night came, and by dawn each morning she was more than ready for the maid to enter her room, push back the curtains from the tall windows, and hand her a cup of tea. She was often out of bed when the woman arrived, and dressed, sitting at her window, for her bedroom window faced the same direction as the breakfast room, staring at the mountains. The servants thought kindly of her, as she gave them little extra work; but a lady who rose and dressed herself so early, and without assistance, was certainly a little eccentric. They knew of her impoverished background; that explained a great deal; but she was in a fine house now, and her host and hostess were only too willing to give her anything she might want, as they had no children of their own. She might try a little harder to adapt to so pleasant an existence.

She did try. She knew what the thoughts behind the looks the servants gave her were; she had dealt with servants before. But she was adapting to her new life as best her energetic spirit could. She might have screamed and hammered on the walls with her fists, or jumped over the low windowsill in her room, clambered to the ground by the ivy trellis, and run off toward the mountain; but she was trying her best to be good. So she was merely first to the breakfast table.

Okay, anybody recognize that one? That’s THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley, one of my “comfort reads” — I first read this when I was in high school and I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve read it since. So I’m not necessarily objective about this one, right? Nevertheless, I’d hold this up as a great example of establishing voice instantly with a straightforward third-person protagonist. We get such a clear impression of Harry Crewe — not just her background or her current life, but her as a person.

Okay, just one more:


Gwyneth Blair heard the bell as the last, dying ember of light guttered into the cloud bank over the sea, and put down her pen.

She looked over the cobbled street, her father’s warehouses, and the bobbing masts in the harbor from the highest room in the house, just below the peaked roof, where the sharply slanting walls made the place unfit for anything but brooms or a writer. She had wedged a tiny writing table under the single window, a rickety affair from the schoolroom, whose surface her older brother had riddled with a penknife when he was bored. An ugly cushion, covered with lime ribbons and liver-colored velvet, that she had purloined from the parlor protected her from the split in the scullery stool she had rescued from the trashman’s wagon. There was just room enough in the angle between the table legs and the roof for a small tin chest into which she dropped the pages of unfinished stories. When they were completed, various things happened to them. Some she read to the twins; others she took to the bookseller, Mr. Trent, for comment. Most were consigned to the dark under her bead, to be considered when she was in a better mood. A few she took down to the garden and burned.

It grew dark quickly in the tiny room after the sun went down. She dried her pen, capped her ink, dropped a half-covered page into the chest. She sat a moment longer, following the ebb tide out of the harbor, through the rocky channel where a fishing boat foundered, invariably, once a year, and out to the restless deeps, already growing shadowy with dusk.

The bell had haunted her as long as she could remember.

It was the first thing she had written about, years earlier, the most exciting, the most dreadful piece of writing she had ever done.

That’s THE BELL AT SEALEY HEAD, by Patricia Mckillip. This is actually the start of Chapter 2, not because there’s anything the least bit wrong with Chapter 1, but because Chapter 1 uses dialogue to establish voice and character and I wanted all four examples to be parallel in structure.

So . . . do these protagonists have opinions? Show reactions? We see their surroundings through their eyes, don’t we? Don’t we immediately get an idea of what they are like as people?

In all four cases, different as they are, I know I would want to turn the page — I’m immediately engaged by each character, and voice is a big part of why.

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Troubled Waters . . .

. . . actually came out last year, but I only just now got around to reading it. Actually, a year on my TBR pile is not that long. I should figure out the proportion of books I read within days of getting them, but it’s not that high.

Sometimes even I’m sure I’ll love a book, I’ll put off reading it just because I like the anticipation. Plus I want to be in a guilt-free place in my own writing schedule. With chocolate!

So, TROUBLED WATERS.

Loved it!

My top three Sharon Shinn books? At the moment, that would be THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE, THE TRUTH TELLER’S TALE, and now TROUBLED WATERS.

If you love Patricia McKillip, then you should definitely read THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE. If you love YA fantasy, you should definitely read THE TRUTH-TELLER’S TALE. And if you love peaceful, flowing, beautifully written fantasy that doesn’t rush you along too fast and lets you enjoy your stay in a charming non-gritty world? Well, then, hey, TROUBLED WATERS.

I was so going to use a river metaphor for talking about this book, it’s hard not to, in fact, only a commenter on Goodreads , Laura, beat me to it:

Reading this book is like taking a relaxing boat ride down a smooth, wide river, where the current is just fast enough to continuously present new scenes of wonder and delight yet slow enough to allow you to take in all the details of each vista. Any unpleasantness in the story is like a small rock in that river, rising just high enough to cause a small ripple without creating any dangerous rapids or exposing any sharp surfaces which might damage the boat. (And I have officially run this metaphor to ground.)

And what can I say? I hope I would have put that as well, because that’s exactly how I felt.

The “blessings” were a charming idea and I loved how Sharon Shinn used them in the story, and I loved the way they are all, like, blessings, and not EVER in an awful monkey’s paw kind of way, either, but actually positive. I loved the understated divination thing Shinn did with them. And the elemental associations and powers? Very cool.

And of course the characters are well-drawn. I mean, Sharon Shinn, right? Of course the romance is obvious from the start, but it’s obviously not supposed to come as a surprise and it’s fun to see how it works out. The twist at the end, you can really see why he might not be sure how she’d take that, right? So he really would be tense about that.

TROUBLED WATERS was exactly what I was in the mood for. I know Sharon wrote this as a stand-along because I asked her, but I hope she eventually finds time to write a sequel or two for it, because there’s obviously more she could do with this world. I’d especially like to know a little more about those odd non-elemental blessings . . . lots of room for cool stuff with those.

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reading to relax with

So, ACROSS THE GREAT BARRIER? Much more relaxing and just, you know, purely enjoyable than a long, gritty-ish, complicated, multiple-viewpoint epic fantasy. As I knew it would be, of course.

The first book — THIRTEENTH CHILD — is still my favorite of the two because the character development and world building is so wonderful. We’ve got this great version of the American West where magic has SEVERELY limited exploration of maybe the western two-thirds of the continent (steam dragons are my favorite!). And history is different, too, so everything is recognizable but at a slant from how it was in our world. It’s a really fun world to set a story in!

In the sequel, of course, the character and world are both already in place and so though it’s fun to see how the character changes and what gets revealed about the world during the course of the story, that’s not the same.

Of course, slipping into a story where you already know the characters and the world can also be really comfortable, which is no doubt while neverending urban fantasy series are so popular. And even more neverending mystery series, of course. Both of which I love, so don’t think I’m knocking the neverending series thing, because I’m not.

But I really love the first book in a series, if it’s well done, which THIRTEENTH CHILD was really well done. I read it the first time just to enjoy it and then went back and studied how Patricia Wrede did her “time-is-passing” scenes, since she grew her protagonist up from about five years old to eighteen in the course of a very slim book.

Wrede also has to do the time-is-passing thing in ACROSS THE GREAT BARRIER, but not as much so because only a year or two pass in the course of the story. The problem the protagonist (Eff) is going to be facing is obvious from the very first glimpse we have of the animal “statues”, but it’s fun to see how things work out.

My favorite detail? I LOVED how the scientist in the story, Professor Torgeson, is SO PERFECTLY A SCIENTIST. All that obsessive, methodical precision and record keeping is EXACTLY right. Loved it!

It’s definitely set the scene for a third book, in which I expect we will finally learn what in the unknown far west has been driving weird and dangerous critters east toward the settlements and towns. Can’t wait to find out!

Next up: TROUBLED WATERS by Sharon Shinn

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Epic fantasy

My agent recently commented that sales of adult fantasy have really fallen off, except for epic fantasy. (She was talking about sales of manuscripts to publishers, not books to readers.)

Then an author I was talking to at Archon said that although Caitlin (my agent) had turned him down as a client, she’d given him some advice that really helped him — she said that in order to count as epic fantasy, a story has to have multiple viewpoints. This was Mark Tiedemann, btw, and he recently landed THE AGENT, ie, Donald Maass. Congrats to Mark! That is a huge big deal and I bet the two manuscripts he has with that agent will get plenty of attention from publishers even if they aren’t epic fantasies.

But about epic fantasy and that multiple viewpoint idea.

Obviously there’s more to it than that. Like, epic fantasy novels are long, and have warfare and political maneuvering in them; we expect magic; we expect swords to be the weapons of choice though maybe guns are used around the edges a bit. Also, don’t you expect epic fantasy to have a high fantasy tone? An epic may be gritty, but it is never going to be light or humorous and it isn’t going to be sword-and-sorcery either, right?

And at fantasy-fiction.com, an essay suggests that the word “epic” isn’t a random choice, either:

The word “epic” suggests a certain weight, a significance to the work that raises the stakes of the drama, that gives the tale it tells distinctive power and gravitas.

. . . Further, in all of the traditional epics, the narrative of events takes place on what historians call “a world historical scale.” This means that deeds of the main actors, the struggles and journeys that the epics recount, have an effect on the very nature of the world. They permanently change history. For better or worse, something is different at the end.

And the author of this essay (Chloe Smith) then goes on to declare that it’s a story’s depth, rather than its breadth, that makes it an epic; and that epics don’t have to be super-long doorstops.

Well. That’s a very good essay and you should certainly follow the link and read the whole thing, but as far as I’m concerned, I kind of do expect epic fantasies to be really, really long. Not necessarily George RR Martin long, but long. And how about the multiple points of view?

I think that’s true — basically true — usually true — to be most precise, I think it is commercially true at this time that epic fantasy MUST have multiple points of view if you want it to sell to publishers because otherwise they won’t agree it’s epic fantasy — but I also think Marie Brennan (author of MIDNIGHT NEVER COME) offers a really useful take on how multiple POV has been handled in epic fantasy recently versus how it used to be handled and I think she totally hits the nail on the head. Her post made me sit up and go: Yeah, that’s IT.

I think it is harder to become invested in a story when the narrative jumps too quickly from one pov to another; I think George RR Martin does make it easier to follow the narrative from one character to the next than many other recent epic fantasies; that has been a problem for me in reading recent epic fantasies. Even though, like Marie Brennan, I can’t really talk because I also have multiple viewpoint characters even though I’m not writing epic fantasy as such.

I just finished the first two books of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet — A SHADOW IN SUMMER, A BETRAYAL IN WINTER — and frankly I’m epicked out for the moment. Even though I liked both books and they grew on me more and more as I went on and I liked the characters better at the end than I had at the beginning and I really did come to care about Otah and the rest. EVEN THOUGH that is all true, I feel no immediate urge to buy the other two books or to read THE DRAGON’S PATH, which I have downstairs on my TBR pile at this very moment and which I was sort of excited to get to until I suddenly found I had met my quota for epics for the month.

No.

I’m going to go read a nice YA by Patricia Wrede (ACROSS THE GREAT BARRIER). And it’s going to have one close pov and I’m going to read the whole thing in a couple of hours and I know I will enjoy it because hey! Patricia Wrede, right?

And if I ever do tackle an epic of my own? I think I will re-read that essay by Brennan first. In fact, I will probably print it out and tack it to the wall above my laptop. Because I can tell you now, I will almost certainly be aiming to do the multiple pov thing more in the old style than in the new.

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What she said –

Agent Rachelle Gardner says:

“I could be wrong, but I believe we’re moving into an era in which high quality, intensive pre-publication editing is going to be harder and harder to come by.”

I don’t think there’s much chance she’ll be eating those words!

Gardner argues that it matters:

Readers . . . may not be able to identify why they’re not compelled by a book. . . . . BUT. They know when a book is good enough to not only finish but recommend to their friends.

Of course I totally agree! Vehemently, even! But I’m not necessarily the archetype for American readers or anything like that, because I’m pretty sure I’m way more turned off by poor writing quality than most readers.

From time to time you see a discussion about which matters more: pure storytelling or quality of the writing.

And most commenters declare that storytelling is primary and good writing is icing on the cake. And I sort of agree, in only in a yes-but-not-really kind of way.

I’d argue that without a certain level of writing quality, the story itself just cannot be well told. At least, not in written form.

Just what that certain level is . . . that’s a different question, of course! Higher than many self-published books (probably), lower than Twilight . . . in there somewhere.

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Coming up with ideas —

Of course you hear from time to time about prospective writers being nervous that somebody — an agent or editor or whoever — will try to steal their ideas. Or the other way around: somebody wants to sell you his great idea and then all you have to do is write the book! I actually got this offer for the first time a little while ago. (I didn’t actually laugh, but I admit to rolling my eyes.)

Ideas are thick on the ground! For me, they are in particular scattered abundantly through the pages of every book I pick up, even the books that won’t necessarily make my Top Ten List for the year. I thought it might be interesting to show how you can lift ideas from wherever and stir them briskly together to create neat ideas of your own, so here goes!

This weekend, I read THE TIN PRINCESS by Philip Pullman. To be honest, I found the ending disappointing — though not quite as disappointing as an “And then she woke up” ending. (Those are the WORST.) Not that I want to put anybody off the story if they like Pullman and were thinking of looking this one up or something. The story has a lot of good things about it and it’s not like it ends up with all the main characters in a heap of bodies or anything.

But check out this particular bit of description, my favorite passage in the book:

“In the oldest parts [of the city] there weren’t even any streets: The buildings were all jumbled together. According to one tale, the houses would give themselves a shake overnight and turn up somewhere quite different in the morning. According to another, the mists from the river played tricks with the appearance of things: they dissolved statues, altered house names, etched new designs into doorposts and window frames.”

Now, in Pullman’s story, none of that is literally true. But what a great idea! Houses and maybe streets that shift from place to place, and maybe rain instead of mist to dissolve landmarks and etch new designs on houses and other buildings . . . it’s a GREAT idea. For a setting, of course. Now, how about a character to put in this city of shifting buildings and dissolving landmarks?

I also just finished Michelle West’s HUNTER’S OATH and HUNTER’S DEATH. Not my favorite stories ever, but good, and I particularly loved the way the first book started, with a child thief being deliberately lured into trying to steal from the wrong man. Then there’s this great scene of pursuit through the city, with the man using dogs only a step removed from the Hounds of the Wild Hunt to track the thief. I really liked that! All this tension and action and yet the reader, if not the protagonist, knows all the time that the hunter is maybe a bit high-handed but not evil or anything. So it’s exciting without being scary, right?

Okay, a child thief isn’t exactly a new idea, but I’ve always liked thief characters, so why not go for it? Let’s drop a child thief into our shifting city, maybe a girl instead of a boy, and have her snagged by a mysterious but powerful person for reasons of his own. (Or maybe her own?) And let’s not use dogs. Maybe hawks? Wouldn’t that be neat? Oh! Maybe little bitty miniature dragons? Not cute charming ones like Anne McCaffrey’s fire lizards, but scary little things, all sharp talons and black knife-edged scales and gleaming slit-pupilled eyes.

What kind of woman might have little dragons for familiars or pets or companions or whatever? A wizard or mage? Maybe the priestess of some god? Maybe the servant of a BIG dragon somewhere? That could go in all kinds of directions depending on what we want the BIG dragon to be like.

What can we do to make our child thief interesting and engaging? Don’t want her getting lost in the crowd of child thieves, right?

Actually, if it were me, given this idea for the setting and the opening scene, I’d just start writing and see what happens and what kind of voice and background emerge for my thief protagonist. The world would develop around this initial setting and around the protagonist and the secondary but important woman with the little dragons — and then the plot would start to suggest itself. I mean, you probably shouldn’t have a shifting city unless the “shifting” quality of the city is going to actually be important to the plot; ditto with the BIG dragon, even if, in this first scene, it is only glimpsed in your head and not on the page. And if child thieves exist in the city, that tells you something about the society right there, doesn’t it?

And there you go! See how easy that was? If I didn’t have other ideas for what I want to work on next, this would be a perfectly viable candidate. For that matter, maybe I’ll actually come back to it some time. And if somebody else “steals” it first? That’s okay, too! Lots of other ideas out there!

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The Princess Curse

Is a book I wish I’d written!

Here, look:

Okay, full disclosure: I know the author.

But!

What I did not know when I ordered her novel, which just came out (at last!), is that it’s a Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling and a Beauty and the Beast retelling (to a lesser extent, though). I wish I’d thought of that! If she’d asked me to name my two favorite fairy tales, well, there they are. (Really. My favorite version prior to this was Robin McKinley’s short retelling in The Door in the Hedge.)

Plus the Eastern European setting, with Vlad Tepes in the background? How cool is that, right? And I happen to know that Merrie really did her research on Eastern European dragons when she was writing this book, too. I must admit, I don’t remember how to pronounce “zmeu”, even though she pronounced it for me several times.

I didn’t know anything about THE PRINCESS CURSE when I ordered it, except I’d seen the cover. And I knew that Merrie had written this hilarious short story, which is the only other thing of hers I’d ever read and has a line in it that I would love to steal. The one about “having six more beautiful dark eyes” — seriously, go read the story.

Well, THE PRINCESS CURSE was even better than I’d expected — I really want to quote bits, but it would be a shame if I gave away all the best lines. Plus there are a lot of great lines so it would take too long. I did laugh at the “It is a curse of shoes and naps” which everyone is quoting, but there were lots of great bits.

By a startling coincidence, Thea over at The Book Smugglers posted her review just a day before I read this one myself! She does REAL reviews, not like me, so — go read that, and what she said.

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