Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading

So, just finished the most recent Barbara Hambly mysteries:

Dead and Buried
and

The Shirt Off His Back

And they were both excellent! These are part of the Benjamen January series, of course, which is set in the 1800s and is my favorite mystery series ever.

Both of these had exactly the same minor flaw: lots of characters that were, in the beginning, hard to keep track of. Eventually you remember who’s who and after that it’s fine.

The former of these two focuses more on Hannibal Sefton and we finally learn something about his past life, so that was interesting. I guess it was starting to feel strange that we didn’t know anything about him, come to think of it. I won’t say the ‘revelation’ at the end came as a shock; it’s hard to imagine any reader being surprised by it, but I didn’t feel that that was a problem. In fact, I sort of thought it added depth to the events of the story to strongly suspect the truth about . . . well, don’t want to give it away; read the book.

Biggest surprise / Biggest disappointment: Augustus Myerling makes an appearance, but there’s NO REFERENCE to his secret (revealed in the first book of the series — A FREE MAN OF COLOR). I was surprised Hambly resisted the urge to add at least an aside to clue the reader in about Myerling! I’ve always liked Augustus Myerling and would have loved to see him get more screen time in this book. In particular, when Ben had to go cross country and Hannibal couldn’t go with him, why not ask Myerling? I’d have liked to see HIM deal with those guys who gave Ben so much trouble on the journey.

Oh, well.

The latter book focuses more on Abishag Shaw and we learn more about HIS past life, against a background of fur trapping and Indians and obsessive vengeance-seeking bad guys. Some unexpected plot twists ensue. I really liked the last line of the book (don’t flip ahead; as always that line will lose its impact unless it comes as it’s supposed to: at the end).

So glad this series is still going strong. My vote for the next book: I want to see the underground railroad stuff become important, and I would particularly appreciate more than a cameo for Myerling. But I get that there are so many neat characters in this series by now that it’s hard to give ’em all the time they deserve.

Before I take another book of the TBR pile, gotta go re-read bits of A FREE MAN OF COLOR.

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Negativity —

So I followed a link from Janet Reid’s site to here and found this great post on negativity.

You know the glass-is-half empty folks who can spin from “that editorial letter was kinda harsh” to “I hate my life and want to die” in 5.7 seconds? Being around that sort of energy sucks every ounce of joy and creativity out of my brain and spits it out in a dirty napkin. . . . The funny thing about negative people is that they’re seldom happy to wallow alone. They’re generous enough to want to share their misery with others.

Yes! I thought. These are the people who drain all the positive energy from the room the moment they walk in. I remember this one person I knew in grad school . . . eventually I realized she was NEVER going to have a good day. Now I seriously suggest to my students that they avoid people like that and cut off friendships if necessary. You so do not need to surround yourself with a cloud of negativity that’s going to drag you back down every time you succeed at something.

But what I was really looking for was this post on dropping commas, because by an amazing coincidence someone gave me this cartoon:

last week, and I instantly put it up on my office door.

Hilarious!

But I kinda disagree with Tawna, though, when she says commas are a detail you shouldn’t really worry about too much. Commas are important, and putting them in the right places by feel is important. If you are a writer, grammar is your tool — language is your tool, and grammar is part of that — and if you can’t use your tools effectively, you can’t write as well as you ought to.

Not that I mean to be negative or anything.

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Yesterday —

I spent all day talking to class after class of students at Francis Howell High School, west of St Louis. It was fun! Hopefully at least some of the kids thought so at least some of the time! There were sure a lot of ’em! My high school was roughly a quarter the size of FH.

I did not lose my voice, but I don’t know why, because I’m not used to lecturing five hours almost straight anymore. And it was like lecturing, because you know what? Most of the time, when you ask a large group of high school kids: “Any thoughts about that? Questions? Comments?” there is no answer, so you have to just go on. I guess come to think of it that that is pretty typical of a college classroom, too.

I’m sure this is not news to any teachers out there.

So luckily I can keep talking anyway even without too much feedback, but if you’re one of the kids who asked a question? Or nodded? Or looked interested? Thanks! That makes it significantly easier.

Questions I can answer:

Where do you get your ideas? (long and involved, but I can answer this!)

How long does it take you to write a book? (2 to 6 months depending on whether I have a deadline or get interrupted or whatever, then another 2 to 6 weeks to revise and cut)

Do you often use your own experiences from your own life to write a book? (no)

Questions I can’t answer:

What will the publishing process look like five years from now?

Wish I knew!

Do people want to hear about the writing process or the publishing process? The latter, mostly. (This is true for every group I’ve ever spoken to.) And here we are with no idea how the publishing process is going to change, except it will be a Very Big Change and probably happen really soon.

In some ways it’s almost as hard to talk about the writing process, though, because that’s so very different for different writers. Like, Angie Fox says she writes all the dialogue first and fills in the description mostly later, which is SO WEIRD. When you are talking to other writers about the writing process, you have that reaction (You do what? That is SO WEIRD!) all the time. So when you’re talking to a group about writing, it’s important to constantly say: “Now, for ME, it’s like this . . .” You don’t want to imply that it should be like that for them or else they’re doing it wrong.

I can sum up the universal truth about how to write a book pretty easily, though:

a) Read a lot of books.
b) Learn to tell the good ones from the bad ones.
c) Sit down and put words in a row until you have not only started but also finished a book. Preferably a good one.
d) Revise.

Random observation:

Man, that high school library had a LOT of great YA books that I would love to read! Wish I had access to a library like that!

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Nathan says —

About internet jerks:

If you mock and belittle someone who has done something wrong you’re not helping them learn from their mistakes, you’re being a jerk.
If you’re knocking someone down to make yourself feel better you are absolutely being a jerk.
If you’re knocking someone down period you’re being a jerk.

Yeah, what he said.

I’ve also seen this as “We need to be nicer to children who do stupid things on the internet” and at the time I thought, WELL ACTUALLY we need to be nicer to everybody who does something stupid on the internet.

Actually Nathan is especially talking about people who, for example, call a book a piece of trash. Not nice, says Nathan. Well, of course that’s true, but I don’t care if one or two reviews of my books are negative. (Well actually, I probably care a little). But you know what I hate? I and some other authors were talking about this at Archon and you know what we REALLY hate?

Somebody who gives our books a one-star review because the publisher says it’s 400 pages long and really it’s only 384 not counting the “extras” at the back. Really? And for this you go to the trouble to write a bad review that gets averaged with real reviews?

Somebody who gives our books a one-star review because they don’t like the cover.

Somebody who gives our books a one-star review because they think the back cover copy was misleading.

I mean, hello? The back cover copy is
a) hard to write
b) often not written by me
c) sometimes written before the book was finished
d) sometimes written before the book was started (seriously)
e) NOT RELATED TO THE QUALITY OF THE BOOK

So I hereby declare that if you write and post a negative review based on anything but the actual quality of the book, you’re being a jerk.

But I mean that in a nice way.

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Archon

Okay, sorry, I didn’t take a camera, but the most fun costume at the masquerade?

The MC (Vic Milan, who did an awesome job) announced “The grouchiest pirate on the seven seas!” — who turned out to be Oscar the Grouch in a pirate outfit. Great costume, great performance, it was unexpected and hilarious and the audience (including me) roared for at least five minutes before Vic could continue his narration.

The performance wound up with the announcement: “Brought to you by the letter “P”, without which a pirate would be merely irate.”

Ha ha ha ha ha!

Seriously! Loved it!

I thought Oscar would win! But he didn’t, though I’m sure that costume won an award. (I hear the winner was a much quieter but very impressive Senator Padme from Star Wars.)

Most interesting comment during a panel . . . we were doing a panel on YA and YA audiences, and of course the subject of do-boys-read-YA came up and we were talking about how if a cover looks like a romance, then even if the main character is a boy, what boy would ever be caught dead reading it?

And a member of the audience pointed out that with e-readers, no one can see the cover.

Well, of course that’s perfectly true. That’s a potential advantage of e-readers that never occurred to me. Though I hope e-readers never cause readers to devalue the artwork of the cover, because I do love a beautiful cover.

Oh! Something else! Check this out:

This is one of two new Benjamen January novels!

I didn’t know Barbara Hambly had those out. The original publisher dropped the January series, which horrified me because I LOVE that series! So I am very pleased Severn House picked it up. I should mention that though DEAD AND BURIED got a starred review from Pub Weekly, it’s very very short, like 250 pages, and the next one is not much longer. Just so you know. I’m about halfway through it now, though, and really enjoying it, and it was certainly worth plonking down the ten bucks or whatever even though I hardly think it’s a real novel if it doesn’t reach at least 300 pages.

And! Patricia Wrede’s old book, THE SEVEN TOWERS? Out as a nice new hardcover with a very pretty cover:

But I already have a perfectly serviceable paperback, so I didn’t buy it. Glad it’s out again, though, it’s a charming book and deserves to be brought again to readers’ attention.

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How apropos —

A post I stumbled on today in the INTERN’s archives:

The 14 Stages of Critique Acceptance

I found this the very day I sent my newest just-finished twice-revised (so far) WIP to a handful of readers.

Here they are (summarized — go read the real thing because it’s funny!):

Stage 1: Anticipation — the critique is back from the readers! Oh yes!

Stage 2: Dread — Wait, what if my critiquers thought my ms was a “cheesy overwritten trainwreck?”

Stage 3: Elation — The first paragraph of the critique contains words like “brilliant”! Yay!

Stage 4: Dread — whoops! The rest of the critique contains words like “confusing”.

Stage 5: Panic
Stage 6: Paralysis
Stage 7: Avoidance
Stage 8: Re-dedication
Stage 9: Grim determination

Stage 10: Surprise — When you realize your ms is actually getting better!

Stage 11: Second guessing — Is this feeling of “great betterness” all in your head?
Maybe you’re actually making things worse?

Stage 12: Wonder — You realize the feeling of betterness is based on reality after all

Stage 13: Dread — send ms out again, wonder if it really is no kidding better.

Stage 14: Elation — get it back again and LO! EVERYONE AGREES IT IS GREAT!

I’d say this is actually pretty darn accurate. With luck there are relatively few words like “confusing” and the stage of grim determination is relatively short, but yep. The INTERN pegged it.

BTW, I think agents and editors take a special class in letting authors down gently. Because that first paragraph of their critiques does indeed always contain words like “brilliant” and “loved it” and “love your writing” and “such a beautiful job” and “only a few tiny changes”. Which, yes, I do re-read those paragraphs multiple times and I believe every word, too. Praise is indeed an excellent motivator.

THEN they tell you which bits are confusing, repetitive, slow, etc. Which, with luck, really ARE pretty tiny. Though I guess that’s not actually a matter of luck.

Least amount of time it’s ever taken me to do a revision: about four days.

Greatest? About two months (I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic and there wasn’t a looming deadline and it was a pretty extensive revision.)

Number of times the editor thought the book was perfect and made such trivial suggestions they all got dealt with at the copy-editing stage: one. So it does happen! But this was after revising according to my agent’s suggestions.

Most appreciated suggestions: those tiny picky very specific changes the editor suggests after you have already revised? I always like those. I really appreciate a perfectionist attitude in my editor!

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Archon —

Is not the biggest convention, but it is always well-run, and a pleasure to attend from the pro’s side, and I always enjoy it. And for a change it’s only a little over an hour from my house, which is very nice.

Archon is an interesting convention in other ways because it’s really meant to draw in prospective writers. They’ve really emphasized that side of things for several years. Lots of panel topics and workshops meant to appeal to that audience. I like being on panels and I don’t mind participating in workshops, so I like this.

Since I don’t mind taking off a day from work, I volunteered for Friday morning panels. I’m on three or four panels this time (total, not just on Friday) and I’ll be helping with at least one four-hour workshop, but I like to keep busy so that’s all good. Plus I’m free most of Saturday, so that’s my time to hit the art show and check out the venders and all that stuff. I’m always looking to buy something at the art show, so I hope I see something I really love that’s in my price range.

The part I’ll give a miss to? The late-night movies and filksinging and parties. I see on the schedule that various things keep running till 2:30 in the morning! I’d be in a coma by then!

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From the comments —

So, Mary Beth comments —

Your book-reading break seems like an excellent way to celebrate (and, assuming it’s proceeded by a period of book-abstinence, to keep your work on your manuscript free of other authors’ influence.)

And this is a good point! And psychologically interesting! And worth discussion!

Do you want to prevent yourself from absorbing another writer’s voice while working on a manuscript of your own?

Yes! No! Sort of! It depends!

At least in my case.

I don’t know how it works for other people, but suppose I’m writing a story and I want it to have a fairy-tale feel to it, like CITY. (I would indeed like to write another story with that kind of feel, though not in the same world.) In this case, I would definitely read a lot of Patricia McKillip and also I would re-read Sharon Shinn’s THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE and maybe some Robin McKinley and anything other books I could think of where the prose has that lyrical fairy-tale shimmer to it. I have no problem absorbing their voices! It is a plus! The more the better! I just don’t think it’s possible (for me, at least) to go too far and fall into a copy-cat voice. “Strongly reminiscent of” is possible and is exactly what I do want.

The problem would be purely one of distraction: if I start a McKillip book, I’m going to finish it, and if I’m reading that book, I’m not working on one of my own. So I would read a lot of the “right” style of book before I started working on mine and then (more or less) give up fiction for the duration.

But, if I am trying to write this particular kind of story? I would avoid CJ Cherryh like the plague, both while writing my own book and immediately before starting. I once bought four books by her as they came out and owned them all for at least a year before I read them. For me, her voice is VERY invasive, and since it does not suit a lyrical story, I have to put her books in a lead-lined casket and bury them eight feet deep in the garden while working on that kind of story. (Barely exaggerating).

Can I read fiction at all while working? Yes, sometimes. I just re-read all my Ngaio Marsh’s in the past few months. Ngaio Marsh was a great stylist, but for me her voice is not the least bit invasive and also I have read her books many times so they are not too terribly distracting. I can pick one of hers up to read for an hour and then actually put it down again. Usually. Well, frequently.

Nonfiction is always safer. I usually add to my cookbook collection while writing. Or a fairly dry treatise on the Ottoman Empire is, for example, perfect.

And letting myself loose on my increasingly huge TBR pile in between working on projects of my own is indeed VERY celebratory. Even without the chocolate.

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Diverse settings?

So one of the things we hear all the time (relatively speaking) is that

a) publishers won’t buy fantasy that has other than a medieval-European-esque setting, and

b) this is because readers won’t buy other than same.

For example, from a comment here:

“I once heard a fantasy author talk about the fact that there’s so much pseudo-European/Tolkienesque stuff out there.

She said that basically, it comes down to the economic realities of the publishing business. The publishing houses who put out fantasy novels want to go with what they believe will draw their biggest audience, and 99 percent of the time, that’s European/Tolkien-style fantasy. She’d said that she once wrote a very detailed, dramatic novel set in a fantasy analogue of Egypt. After reading it, the publisher said, “This story is great, but the one thing we’d like you to change is the setting – we need it to be something more like medieval Europe.”

So, after a week or so of being upset about it, since she needed to put food on the table, she went ahead and reskinned the story as something with a more Norse/medieval flavor; and they published it.”

I don’t know. I like a good medieval-European-esque setting fine, if it’s well done, but I love a more exotic setting. Ever read BRIDGE OF BIRDS, for example?

And the thing is, many many many reviewers also say they love exotic settings. Every reviewer who raves about EON/EONA, for example.

So I don’t know. How much of this publishing / readership bias is real and how much is perceived? If I want to write a fantasy in a sort of Ottoman Empire-esque setting (which I do) should I? Or should I put that off in favor of a story with a more European setting? Or (worse) should I expect a publisher to want the story, but only if I change the setting?

As evidence of something or other, the nominees this year for the World Fantasy Award are —

a) ZOO CITY (Beukes), set in a near-future South Africa
b) THE HUNDRED THOUSANDS KINGDOMS (Jemisin), with a fantasy setting that is hard to categorize (if you’ve read it, how would you describe the setting?)
c) THE SILENT LAND (Joyce), with a contemporary European setting
d) UNDER HEAVEN (Kay), set in a barely-alternate 8th century China
e) REDEMPTION IN INDIGO (Lord), a Senegalese folktale retelling
f) WHO FEARS DEATH (Okarafor), set in Saharan Africa

What are we to make of this?

That publishers like exotic settings, as long as the books are good? It would be nice to think so.

Or that exotic settings may be a tough sell to publishers, but reviewers and award committees love ’em once they’re out? That seems believable to me.

Can we make any kind of extrapolation from this to what readers prefer? (My guess is maybe not really) (But hopefully many readers prefer great stories regardless of setting?)

I’ve ordered a) c) and e). I’ve already read b) and d) — both were great, but I’d vote for THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS over UNDER HEAVEN, which in my opinion had a weak ending. I haven’t ordered f) and don’t really plan to, because I read this author’s first book and just never really connected to the protagonist — though I did love the setting.

I really hope I love all the nominees and that none of them were nominated just because the exotic setting appealed to some committee somewhere. But this list does make me feel more like starting work on my (wonderful! fun! long and involved! with underground cities! and dragons!) Ottoman-esque fantasy, in the hope that publishers will turn out to agree with me that exotic settings are a great idea.

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Finished!

Again!

This time with the revision of my current WIP (KEEPER) (not it’s real name).

Okay, basically finished. I have a little fiddling to do tonight and maybe tomorrow. But for all intents and purposes, it’s done now. The last ten or so chapters went really fast, which is a good sign, it means I was enjoying myself. So different from the painful, slow slog through Chapter 3 a week or so ago, which I did not enjoy at all.

I totally didn’t revise the way I thought I was going to. A different idea occurred to me and rather than cutting one character’s point of view chapters down to the bare bone, I did something else that I hope will work.

Next step: sending the ms to readers and to my agent to find out if it DID work. I don’t know about other writers, but I really, honestly can’t tell whether some things work the way I hope, or not. Hence the need for readers.

I mean, usually I’m all “This relationship is supposed to be subtle, not invisible, does it work for you?” because I really can’t tell.

Which reminds me of an article I read in the lastest SFWA bulletin last night dealing with the changing world of publishing — I think it was the continuing Resnick / Malzberg point-and-counterpoint articles that run in every bulletin. They were talking about whose jobs will disappear (agents, editors, publishers), and I was thinking, WAIT, WE NEED EDITORS.

And it turned out they were thinking mostly of acquisitions editors. I grant you, that’s a job that’s likely to dissolve in the chaos. But I do think that writers will continue to have a definite need for:

a) Analytical big-picture editors, who can tell them what works and doesn’t work (pace drags here, repetitive here, confusing here, do we really need this scene?, I didn’t believe this character would do that . . . ) and ideally make suggestions about changes.

b) Copy editors, who look for errors in fact, consistency, and grammar.

c) Proofreaders, who focus exclusively on grammar.

The question is, will writers hire editors or just find them? Because I got some excellent editorial advice from Sarah Prineas regarding a recent manuscript, and I didn’t have to hire her to give it. She volunteered to read it. (Thanks, Sarah!)

And maybe beginning writers will just ask their friends to read their manuscripts? Which my guess is that will not work very well because many many many people cannot see what works and what doesn’t and what you need least of all is a yes-person who thinks every word that hits the page is perfect as-is. But will beginning writers know this?

Proofreaders, yes. Surely everybody knows they need a proofreader? Three proofreaders, plus their Mom?

Anyway . . . fiddling with my manuscript tonight and maybe tomorrow. Then I’m taking a break and reading a lot of books!

Books I most want to get to:

The Princess Curse (Merrie Haskell) which is MG and thus a little younger than I usually read, but sounds like a great combo of the twelve dancing princesses and beauty and the beat beast (thus proving my point about proofreaders!).

Toads and Diamonds (Tomlinson) which is another fairy-tale type of story and has a lovely, lovely cover.

Hunter’s Oath and Hunter’s Death (West), which were recommended to me and I’ve been wanting to get to them.

Not sure what else will shuffle up toward the top of the TBR pile. Oh! Maybe I’ll find out what all has been nominated for the World Fantasy award this year and read those before the convention!

Gotta lay in a nice stock of really good chocolate to go with the books!

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