Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

On plotting and pacing —

Here’s an interesting question, and an even more interesting conclusion, from Nathan Bransford.

Nathan asks:

“Writing in the modern era emphasizes moving the plot forward at all costs, and everything else is “ruthlessly killed off no matter how darling.” Digressions and detritus that might otherwise be compelling on their own are eliminated. Is this a purely modern phenomenon? And is it for the best?”

And he concludes:

“My opinion: Yes to both.”

Now, of course, Nathan is always very nice about it when he takes a strong position on something like that, and his comments on MOBY DICK and other classics are very interesting. And I like his optimism about the future of books! But I’m not sure I agree.

It’s not that I doubt that modern books are more streamlined with regards to plotting and have much faster pacing than a lot of older books. Not that I’ve ever studied the question or anything, but it’s certainly plausible.

Although I read MOBY DICK once, it was a long time ago and I don’t think I liked it. (I was sorry for both the whale and Ahab, plus I wanted the whale to win.) These days, I’d be a lot more likely to read RAILSEA. But now if I do read RAILSEA, I’ll be tempted to go back, read MOBY DICK, and think about this plot thing and whether Mieville pares away everything nonessential in a way that Melville didn’t.

Anyway, the part I’m not sure I agree with is whether this paring away the extraneous bits is a good thing. I just don’t think every book in creation has to be fast fast fast and nonstop action and hurtle along to the blazing climax and all like that. That’s fine in its place, and if that’s what you want you could hardly do better than Patrick Lee’s THE BREACH and sequels, by the way, because wow, talk about nonstop and hurtling.

And I have to admit that when I finally read an unabridged copy of THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO, which is one of my all-time favorite books and why can’t they do a good movie version? Like cut the whole prison thing down to ten minutes max and move on with the cool part? But anyway, I found I really strongly preferred the abridged version because I liked having all those extraneous bits removed.

And yet. And yet, sometimes I really like a slow exploration of the author’s world. I read the unabridged LES MISERABLES, and I really enjoyed the long digressions on, like, the street urchins of Paris and on convents and so forth and so on. And more recently, I really liked the easy pace of Robin McKinley’s DRAGONHAVEN, which my very own agent thinks should have been pared way down. And how about Sharon Shinn’s TROUBLED WATERS? Part of what made that book so comfortable for me was its unhurried pace. The exposition about the world in Myra Grant’s FEED was my favorite part! Or at least one of my favorite parts!

And what about Tolkien, hmm? I actually have met a woman at a convention who said she thought he was a bad writer. A bad writer! Tolkien! I would bet that what this woman meant was (among possibly other things): too slow.

So . . . so I guess I would say: pacing depends on the book and on personal taste. A fast pace is not intrinsically a good thing. Can we perhaps stop holding a fast pace and an unadorned plot up as an ideal that all books ought to meet?

Agree or disagree? Anybody got examples of a slow-paced book or a book with digressions that they particularly enjoyed?

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Oh, hey, this is sad —

Margaret Mahy passed away yesterday.

Mahy wrote THE CHANGEOVER, which is one of my all-time favorite YA titles. I read it and her other books pretty recently, well, years ago but certainly as an adult. She wrote beautiful family relationships into her stories.

The boy in this story is not a ghost, despite the way he seems to be translucent. And though this story IS a romance, it is so much more — the most important relationship is between the girl and her little brother, and the relationships between parents and children are also very important and beautifully drawn.

Mahy’s first book came out roughly when I was born and her last one this year, which is pretty amazing. I haven’t read all of her books, not by a long shot, but THE CATALOG OF THE UNIVERSE is also excellent, and again it’s the family relationships that make it stand out. It barely has a fantasy element to it — in fact, really I’m not sure it has any fantasy element at all; I’d really call that one contemporary. But wonderful! If, like me, you don’t ordinarily reach for contemporary YA, well, you’d be missing out to skip this one.

If you’ve never read anything by Mahy, now might be a good time. I think I’ll pick up another one or two by her today, in memoriam.

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Fantasy settings: what do you prefer?

A standard medieval setting with castles and kings, princes and princesses, dragons and fiery steeds? Thieves in the forest or in back alleys, battles with pikes and duals with swords?

I like all of the above, especially thieves. I know! Just another sheep following the herd! But I LIKE THIEVES! If, of course, they are well done.

Anyway, would you prefer the above, or would you reach first for a story set in an alternate Japan, with Samurai and fox women? (I have a particular liking for fox women.) Or China, with complicated politics in jade palaces? How about Ottoman Turkey, with onion domes and djinn? Or Africa — as far as I’m concerned, well-done elephants would definitely add to a story! (I also happen to have a particular fondness for elephants, but I’d want the author to have ready, say, Cynthia Moss’s ELEPHANT MEMORIES before writing that story.)

And I know, btw, that I am leaving out the whole category of secondary world fantasies that are really neither of the above.

But considering only the two categories Exotic and Standard, for me, it actually depends on my mood and whether I want to be able to “fall into a story” without much effort — if that’s the case, I would definitely prefer the more standard setting. If I want to really enjoy the worldbuilding, I might reach first for the more nonstandard setting.

As it happens, I now have more than seventy responses to this question, which I have sorted out very very very roughly, and here’s how they fall:

Nineteen respondents said they would quite strongly prefer a nonstandard setting. Eleven respondents (not included in the nineteen) said they would strongly prefer a specific nonstandard setting, with Asia being the most popular choice. One respondent specified that she or he particularly likes Victorian or other specific British settings, which is definitely nonstandard.

A further twenty-two respondents said they would lean toward a nonstandard setting, but they didn’t sound as firm in their choice.

Fifteen respondents said they strongly preferred and six leaned toward a standard setting.

Six respondents said setting is not important to them when choosing a book, but didn’t indicate what might be more important. Three respondents said it’s all about character for them; one said it’s definitely how appealing the plot sounds; two said it depends on how catchy the first line is, and two said the cover is very important to them.

So that’s something on the order of 30% of respondents saying they’d prefer a standard medieval European setting and something close to 67% declaring a preference for a nonstandard setting, with the remainder stating that other things matter more to them than setting. I’m simplifying because a good many responses were very thoughtful and said things like: It depends on my mood, it depends on whether the world seems well-developed, it depends on whether the author is treating an exotic setting as too much an “other”, and so forth.

Isn’t that interesting? Especially when from time to time one hears that publishers resist buying fantasy novels with nonstandard settings?

Now, allowing for the possibility that many people might underestimate the appeal of the familiar (which I think is likely) and the possibility that people might feel like they OUGHT to prefer nonstandard settings (which I think is extremely likely, note the commenter who said she (or he) was ashamed to admit preferring standard settings), and the possibility that commenters at The Book Smugglers are a self-selected group and might prefer different kinds of books than the overall fantasy readership . . . nevertheless!

I find it reassuring to know that a significant proportion of the readership definitely appears open to nonstandard settings. Maybe next year I will have time to pick up that Ottoman-ish fantasy I have the first part of, and if I do, you can bet that I will be referring to the above results to help get past any doubt that it’s a project worth working on.

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Goodreads giveaway —

btw, just letting you all know, the Goodreads Giveaway for HOUSE OF SHADOWS is about to expire!

You have about a 1.5% chance of winning at the moment — looks like about 1500 people have entered so far and I’m giving away 10 copies.

I’m going to play with Goodreads giveaways more in the near future, though. Like try one signed copy and run the giveaway for 3 days, different variants like that. Plus I have lots of copies of other books I could give away. PLUS German copies of LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS, I should do a giveaway for those because why not? I only want one for display purposes anyway.

The Terrible Goodreads Bully Kerfluffle is quite something, while I’m on the subject of Goodreads. Have you heard about that? Like, some Goodreads authors are going after people who have posted negative reviews. Which would be bad enough. But they are doing it by, get this, posting their personal info and encouraging people to hunt them down in real life.

I know it sounds totally unbelievable.

And the confusion between “bullying” and “writing negative reviews” is JUST SO WEIRD. Especially when the only people ACTUALLY bullying anybody are the INSANE authors, which you would think would be instantly obvious to anybody?

My favorite take is Scalzi’s. My favorite bit of his post is:

When I need your help with a negative review, I will ask for it.

If I don’t ask for it, I don’t need your help.

If I do ask for it, you should consider me temporarily out of my head and ignore me.

Yeah, ya think?

Anyway, my personal means of handling anything less than a four-star review on Goodreads is . . . not to read it. Radical, I know. If you’ve posted a four- or five-star review on Goodreads or Amazon? I have probably read it several times so far, and will probably read it several times more in the near future. Thanks so much! Keep it up!

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My public service for the week —

Which does not involve writing or books but does involve (you can probably see this coming) BAKING!

Because it has occurred to me that my mother’s recipe for 100% whole wheat bread is just way, way better than any other recipe for 100% whole wheat bread I have ever tasted. So I will share it with you, in case you too were under the impression that a 100% whole wheat loaf just has to be dense, heavy, and off-flavored.

I don’t know why this recipe works so well, by the way. Orange juice is often added to whole wheat bread to prevent the off-flavor that you get with ordinary whole wheat flour, especially if it’s gone stale, and I certainly suggest you try replacing some of the liquid with orange juice in other whole-wheat recipes. But this recipe doesn’t need that. And white whole wheat never tastes “off”, but this recipe uses ordinary whole wheat, so that’s not it. Maybe it has EXACTLY the right amount of honey?

Anyway, here it is:

Honey Whole-Wheat Bread

4 1/2 tsp bread machine yeast (my mother uses active dry yeast)
1/3 C honey
1/4 C butter or margarine (my mother always uses margarine)
2 tsp salt
2 1/4 C warm water
5 to 5 1/2 C whole-wheat flour

My mother’s directions: put everything in the bread machine, select “whole wheat” and hit go.

I use a bread machine, too. But if you’re into making your own bread, then hey, you already know how! Onward!

But, briefly: stir everything together, starting with four cups of flour. Knead, adding flour as you go, for about 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and not tacky. Place in oiled bowl, cover, place in a warm location, and let rise an hour or until an indentation you make with your thumb stays indented. Shape into two loaves, place in two oiled loaf pans, cover again, let rise another hour, until dough has about doubled. Bake at 375 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Cool a few minutes in pans, turn out onto racks, and cool completely before cutting.

This is an excellent bread for sandwiches or toast. My mother hardly ever makes any other kind of bread now, except for things like cinnamon rolls.

Okay, and now, here is my VERY FAVORITE BROWNIE RECIPE FOR POTLUCKS. I made these last weekend for a potluck, so I had the recipe pulled out.

There’re lots of good brownie recipes, right? But this one is easy and reliable, looks pretty, tastes great, has lots of kid-appeal, and tends to work both for people who like fudgy and people who like cakey brownies. It makes a moist cakey type of brownie, btw, just so you know what to expect.

Plus, these brownies freeze really well. In fact, they’re quite good directly out of the freezer, though if you have the patience, they’re better at room temperature. One warning, though: don’t take these to an OUTDOOR potluck in JULY, because the middle layer will melt and the tops will slide off. Naturally I am too clever to discover this by personal experience.

Chocolate Crunch Brownies

1 C butter
2 C sugar
4 eggs
6 Tbsp cocoa powder
1 C flour
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt

7 oz jar marshmallow creme

1 C peanut butter, any kind
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
3 C crisp rice cereal

Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs. Stir in cocoa, flour, vanilla, and salt. Spread in 13 x 9 inch pan that has been oiled or lined with foil (and then the foil greased). Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean or nearly clean. Cool completely in pan.

Spread marshmallow creme over brownie layer.

Melt peanut butter and chocolate chips in the microwave, stirring frequently. Stir until smooth. Stir in crisp rice cereal. Spread over marshmallow layer. Chill.

Lift brownies out of pan with foil and slice into small brownies, or cut in pan — if you didn’t use foil, they will still cut and lift out easily if they are cold. Arrange on nice plate. Serve to widespread enthusiastic acclaim.

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When page counts are not your friend —

You know what? I just hit 100k words on my work in progress! And it isn’t done! It isn’t close to done enough to reach 100k. Oh, the agony!

Actually, I am pretty calm about overshooting on length. I almost always do overshoot, sometimes seriously; I always have to go back and trim. I remember cutting 20% of CITY, for example. And 100 pp off the third Griffin Mage book (yes, exactly 100 pages, by pure chance. I swear it just worked out that way).

I think I’m going to overshoot pretty far this time, though hopefully not by a full 100 pages (that’s about 32,000 words, btw). I would like the full, finished length to be no more than 110,000 words; hopefully I won’t exceed that by TOO much before typing THE END and starting to cut. There are some scenes that could go, I think, but I like some of them, so I don’t know. Just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, yes, it is actually pretty cool to hit 100k words. You know at that point you have Been Writing. Look, even if it isn’t quite finished, there is A Book sitting right there. You’re definitely on the downhill side of the job when you hit the 100k mark!

Plus, I’ve hit this great scene I’ve really been looking forward to! I worked till 11:00 PM last night, which is late for me since I get up at 5:30 AM. If only I had this week entirely off, I would plunge into the endgame of this book and finish it off with a flourish by Friday. Alas, life is in the way; stuff to do, people to see, can’t just ignore the world, tempting though it is.

I have turned the ringers off on my phones, though. And don’t expect me to check in on Twitter too much for the next few days. #amwriting

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In other news —

Not related in ANY WAY to gender issues —

Guess what just came out?

DEEP SKY by Patrick Lee

I read it last night in one fell swoop. Man, can that guy write a thriller! These are SF thrillers, and if there are implausible bits, you sure don’t have time to notice them in the midst of the action. My favorite of the trilogy is probably the second book, GHOST COUNTRY. Especially that scene at the airport — wow. I’m re-reading it now.

Isn’t it interesting that it’s the second book I liked the best, btw? When everybody usually expects the second book of a trilogy to be the weakest? I can think of three other trilogies where I really liked the second book the best:

THE TRUTHTELLER’S TALE by Sharon Shin was my favorite of that trilogy,

STAY was my favorite of that thriller/mystery triology by Griffith,

and actually, if I’m allowed to pick one of my own books, BURNING SANDS was my favorite of the Griffin Mage trilogy. I’d actually be interested to know, given that you’ve read the Griffin Mage trilogy, which one of the three would be your pick?

Any other trilogies where you prefer the second book? Or where you just think the second book was really strong?

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I’ve read twenty of these books —

But who gets to decide what’s “great” and deserves inclusion in this list?

And why why WHY do we need to know who wrote a book before we can decide whether it’s worth reading?

I can’t believe how huge the focus on gender is this year. Maybe it’s been this way for ages but I didn’t notice till I started using twitter?

I bet we could ALL put together a COMPLETELY different list of “fifty great books by female authors.” And then “fifty great books by male authors.” With relatively little overlap, too. And with what possibly justification could you say that any one of those lists have priority over the others?

Except that naturally MY lists would include the BEST books.

ps — hey, just realized, I’m not on that list! QED it is clearly not a legitimate list!

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Another review —

And you can bet this one was important to me, because seriously, The Book Smugglers is the single review site I check almost every day. Thea’s taste is very close to mine, and when Ana gives a book I wouldn’t ordinary notice a nine or ten and I pick up a copy, well, I’m always glad to have stepped outside my normal preferences. (Ana reads a lot more contemporary YA than I do, for example, and was responsible for my reading THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, one of my favorite books from last year.)

Anyway! Thea’s review is here. I’m very pleased by her rating of “8”, because she sure calls ’em as she sees ’em.

I also have a guest post up at The Book Smugglers, here.

It’s connected to a giveaway, so if you happen to want a second copy of HOUSE OF SHADOWS, go right ahead and enter. There’s a quiz question attached, so whether you enter the giveaway or not, I’d like to know:

Given two books that you expect to be about equally good, perhaps even two books by the same author, which would you reach for first: a novel with a familiar medieval-European type of setting, or one set somewhere more exotic, such as an alternate China or Ottoman Turkey or Africa or someplace?

I’m really interested to know how people answer this question! Please leave a comment here if you don’t enter The Book Smuggler’s giveaway.

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