Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Pacing issues then and now

Check out this paragraph, the opening paragraph of a novel. When do you suppose this book was published? Anybody recognize the style?

“In as much as the scene of this story is that historic pile, Belpher Castle, in the countyof Hampshire, it would be an agreeable task to open it with a leisurely description of the place, followed by some notes on the history of the Earls of Marshmoreton, who have owned it since the fifteenth century. Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”

Anybody recognize PG Wodehouse? This one is A Damsel In Distress, which was originally published in 1919. Almost 100 years ago!

My mother got a bunch of reissued Wodehouse novels for Christmas. It’s been a while since I read any Wodehouse, so since she’s pressing them into my hands as she finishes them, I’m slowly reading them. I like ’em if the main characters aren’t total jackasses. (I mean, Bertie Wooster IS kind of a total jackass.) And what a fabulous writer! Not that I’m going to devote myself from now on to romantic comedies of manners, but still. Listen to this:

“There was a tense silence. What [the young] Albert was thinking one cannot say. The thoughts of Youth are long, long thoughts. What George was thinking was that the late King Herod had been unjustly blamed for a policy which had been both statesmanlike and in the interests of the public. He was blaming the mawkish sentimentality of the modern legal system which ranks the evisceration and secret burial of small boys as a crime.

“It’s all right, mister. I’m yer friend.”

“You are, are you? Well, don’t let it about. I’ve got a reputation to keep up.”

“I’m yer friend, I tell you. I can help yer. I WANT to help yer!”

George’s views on infanticide underwent a slight modification.

And so forth. It’s wonderful writing. It’s also PERFECTLY CORRECT English, which gives me yet another writer to recommend to people who want to raise their ACT (or whatever) scores. You can (and should, I guess) study grammar, but really there’s nothing like just reading a lot of really correct beautifully written prose to develop a feel for the language.

Anyway, this one is maybe my favorite so far. My other favorite so far is Jill The Reckless. Anybody read that one?

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Great articles —

Here’s one on writing evocative description in order to build a you-are-there feeling and pull the reader into your story.

And here’s another on violence and what it takes to make an explicit, violent scene work — here’s the part I really like:

Here’s a final reason [to write such a scene]:

9. A writer depicts violence because it provides the platform and stimulus for higher ideals to address it. Those things might include actions involving sacrifice, forgiveness, love, justice, determination, survival, hope, gratitude or redemption.

This last point invites us to strive for loftier goals than simply pointing out that ‘life is hell and then you die’.

That’s me! I don’t mind explicit violence in a book — usually — if it works this way. Whereas shocking, horrible violence for the sake of being shocking and horrible really makes a book a tough read for me, which is why I strongly prefer, say, Brent Weeks’ THE BLACK PRISM to his earlier Night Angel trilogy — because the former takes the horribleness back a notch or two.

And I really liked this post, by Kate Elliot, about re-reading stories and the narrative experience.

And you know where I got all these links?

HERE.

And there are plenty more where those came from!

Bibliophile Stalker is my new go-to site for links to all kinds of great writing-related posts. Especially great because he separates the interviews (which I almost never care about) from all the other articles (which are frequently interesting).

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Is competence hot?

Asks a post by Marie Brennen (author of MIDNIGHT NEVER COME, which I swear I will get to sometime this year) here.

Actually that’s not quite true. The post is asserting that competence IS hot and scantily clad contortionists do not look competent. Here’s my favorite bit:

Do these [urban fantasy contortionist-with-sword] covers actually appeal to women? It seems like they must, or publishers wouldn’t use them . . . but I’m not sure it’s that simple. At this point, they definitely work in terms of advertising “this book is an urban fantasy!,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying appeal is very strong.

And I couldn’t agree more.

Except that really I could.

I think that marketing departments notwithstanding, those covers actually hurt urban fantasies by making them all look exactly the same.

I remember being just appalled when I was in a big box bookstore a few years ago and a) EVERY BOOK IN THE SF/F SECTION WAS AN URBAN FANTASY. Well, not really, obviously, but it sure seemed that way because b) THEY ALL HAD EXACTLY THE SAME COVER. Well obviously not really, but here’s the thing: it sure seemed that way.

And the effect was that I didn’t know which book to pick up and read the back cover copy or the first page. They all looked so totally clonal that I just got overwhelmed by the mere idea of trying to sort through them, so I ignored them all and wandered over to look at cookbooks.

And my conclusion is that marketing departments might try shaking up the UF Look just a trifle. In particular, when my very own urban (well, mostly rural, but whatever) fantasy comes out? I definitely do not want a sexy contortionist on the cover.

And that is completely aside from all the questions about the objectification of women etc etc etc. Which I followed this other link that led to a should-Wonder-Woman-wear-pants poll and I do suspect there’s an additional big factor leading to people not liking the idea, I mean besides possible sexism etc. I mean, hello? People love traditional looks because they’re traditional. No major double standard really needed to explain why people say No on that particular poll.

No, if you want to look at sexual double standards, I think you’re better off looking at modern UF covers rather than iconic symbols of everybody’s childhood.

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Newsflash!

Fifty-degree weather in January is not conducive to writing!

My goal was 15 pages a day, 45 pages for the weekend. That’s nearly 50, which counts as really getting a book off the ground!

Well, hey, good thing I’m not working under a deadline, because I made only 31 pages for the whole weekend. Pretty sad if you look at it one way, but hey, I also took dogs out for long walks and started housetraining the SUPER CUTE puppies and had a long conversation with a friend I haven’t seen in a good long time. So it was a good weekend. And, you know, one of the important titbits to keep in mind when getting a new book of the ground . . . at least for me . . . is, self-imposed deadlines and page-number-per-day goals are there to give you a push, not to give you heartburn. Here’s an interesting post I happened across which hit that topic — I loved the bit about Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (which I haven’t read, I confess). But it’s a neat story about how it was written.

Anyway! I’ll finish the current chapter over the next few days and write the next over a week or so, and that’s just fine.

Alas, they say

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Check this out —

Here is the new German edition of LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS.

Isn’t that snazzy?

The back says, and I quote:

Scharfe Schnabel Klauen wie Dolche Blitzende Schwingen aus Bronze.

Doesn’t that sound exciting?

Then it goes on to say a lot of other stuff, equally unreadable unless you are cool enough to read German, which as you can probably gather, I do not. The only part I can read is this bit:

Erster Band der Trilogie

Which from it’s placement on the back has got to mean “the first book of a trilogy.”

Anyway, I think it’s a pretty neat cover. I like the griffin! Sort of abstractionistic wings, very nice. I like the desert, too — can you see the ruined city down there? It’s a little hard to see at this size, probably.

I even like the woman, even though no character in the book remotely resembles her. She’s got these weird sort of furry boots and what appears to be a whip, but she does look cool. I’ll look forward to seeing the covers of the other two German books, but I have no idea about the German publishing schedule, so I guess I’ll see ’em when I see ’em.

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Recent reading: HEXWOOD

You know, I looked a list of all the books Diana Wynne Jones ever wrote, and I was wrong about the Chrestomanci ones being my favorites. My ACTUAL favorite was DOGSBODY,which of course won’t surprise anybody — I mean, dogs, me, it’s a given!

Except it’s really not, because the fact is, Dogsbody is really perfect in a lot of ways, particularly characterization. And the plot would sound a bit weird if you tried to describe it to somebody who doesn’t read SF/F, but it’s actually a very clean plot. And it’s not easy to write humanized animals, and DWJ did a fabulous job with that, though of course Sirius isn’t really an animal, but the actual dogs in the story are really nicely done, too.

It makes a nice contrast with HEXWOOD.

The thing about Hexwood is . . . you know how people will say pretty often about a book or movie that “Nobody in this story is who they seem!”, right?

Well, that statement should be reserved for Hexwood, in which almost all the characters are literally not whom they seem to be. At all. The only exceptions are the bad guys.

Man, this was such a strange book!

I’m glad I read Time of the Ghost first, because it was, like, practice for Hexwood.

Okay, I don’t want to put any major spoilers in here, because eventually I want to loan this book to my brother (Hi, Craig!) and see what he thinks, but did I LIKE this book?

Yes. More than Time of the Ghost, because whereas I didn’t actually like any of the characters in that one, I really did like Ann, and I also liked the person she turned out to be, and the same goes for Mordion. Come to think of it, you could in fact sort of know who Mordion was for the whole thing if you were paying attention. Couldn’t you?

The extremely weird shifts in time and reality didn’t bother me, actually the story was amazingly easy to follow given the way it was written, I can just see DWJ going to one friend after another and saying, “Read this and tell me if you loose track of what’s going on.” I bet she did that way more for this one than for most of her others. But the way it was written did stop me from really “falling into the story” or really getting to know any of the characters, so no, Hexwood will never be on my DWJ top-ten list.

One book this reminds me of is Patricia McKillip’s ALPHABET OF THORNS, only that was beautiful and totally successful in weaving different layers of reality or time or whatever all together(though yes, all right, the ending did seem a little truncated, but still). HEXWOOD strikes me as clever but not beautiful and therefore not totally successful. I think that’s exactly what Elaine meant when she said HEXWOOD missed being numinous. I think that’s right.

DOGSBODY had depth. HEXWOOD had cleverness. Given a choice between the two, I’d go for depth every time.

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Buying books in 2011

So I happened to keep track last year of all the books I bought as well as all the books I read, and I have to say, book sellers should love me. Except I buy mostly from Amazon, of course, because the nearest bricks-and-morter store is eighty miles away and I don’t get there very often, right?

Anyway . . . I buy a lot of books, it turns out. Like, 147 books last year. Wow. That surprised even me.

I bought 50 adult fantasy, that was the biggest single category, and if you add the 12 paranormal / urban fantasy and the 38 YA fantasy, then fantasy becomes BY FAR the biggest category. Though I swear I didn’t plan for it to come out as an even 100. That just happened.

So that’s two-thirds of all the books I bought. Then there were 22 SF books, split about equally between adult and YA, which is 15%. And then the remaining 20% or so is divided among mysteries, nonfiction, contemporary YA, historical, and horror, in that order — just one horror, which is not a genre I really much like. That was THE SILENT LAND by Joyce, which I only read because it was up for the World Fantasy Award. It was okay, the writing was good, but I thought it was pretty obvious what was going on. I liked it, though, partly because it wasn’t too horrific.

So I also counted up how many of the books I bought I also read, and it turns out that was 97, with a nice even 50 that are still on my TBR pile. I actually read about 120 books last year, so that means only 20 or so came off the stacked-up TBR pile from previous years, only actually that’s misleading, because if I took a book of the TBR pile and started it and decided pretty quickly it wasn’t my thing, I didn’t count it. That accounts for another half dozen books or so.

So I posted about my five favorite books (well, or series) from last year over at The Book Smugglers on Dec 1st, as you may recall. And those were, in no particular order:

The 100,000 Kingdoms trilogy (Jemisin) — adult fantasy
The Sky is Everywhere (Nelson) — contemporary YA
The Tomorrow, When the War Began series (Marsden) — um, SF-ish
The Blue Place trilogy (Griffith) — mystery
and
The Breach and Ghost Country (Lee) — SF thrillers

And I stand by those choices, but there were a handful that REALLY fought it out for a top spot, and if you’re interested, here are the top five of THOSE:

Thirteenth Child and Across the Great Barrier (Wrede) is a YA fantasy duology, obviously with a third book on the way, with a wonderful alternate-world-wild-west setting that I just loved. And hey, Patricia Wrede, so you know the writing’s good, right? I came very very close to putting this in my top five, bumping Patrick Lee’s duology.

The Black Prism (Weeks) is an adult fantasy that I just loved. The sequel’s due out in 2012, I think. If you’ve read Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy and it was a little much for you? This one takes the horrific stuff back a notch or a notch and a half, which made it a book I could really enjoy. Loved the characters. The plot twist in the middle took me by surprise, though I bet other readers see it coming, but I missed it even though it was foreshadowed. Anyway, unusual magic system and great writing, it was a real standout for me.

A Fistful of Sky, by Hoffman. I discovered Nina Kiriki Hoffman in 2011 and loved many of her books, with this one my pick for best of the bunch. Loved the cookie scene! The main character is, I dunno, about 24? But the book reads like a YA anyway, which is interesting.

Troubled Waters, by Sharon Shinn. It was exactly the kind of book I was in the mood for, nice and smooth, with excellent writing and not too much tension. I liked it a lot. It may be one of my favorite by Shinn.

The Princess Curse (Haskell) was debut MG fairy tale retelling which pushed a lot of my buttons just right. I really enjoyed this take on the twelve dancing princesses — I think it’s my favorite version. I know lots of people love Wildwood Dancing best but the heroine in that one is so ineffectual (sorry! she is!) that I couldn’t get into it — I like this version MUCH better.

There! And isn’t that interesting? Only one fantasy series made it into my top five for 2011, but all of THESE five choices are fantasy — which actually reflects my reading tastes a lot more closely

My TBR pile currently comprises 67 books, almost all genre but with a couple nonfiction in there too — a book on economics, for example, and a book on sperm whale social behavior. (People forget that my actual degree is in animal behavior — I’m also slowly re-reading the eight volume set I have on East African mammals by Jonathon Kingdon.)

First book read in 2012? MOUSE AND DRAGON by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee. Which was good, but the whole last part felt rushed to me, I think they should have tied this book off differently and put all that part in a sequel.

The second? I just reread HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, preparatory to reading the other DWJ’s stories set in that universe. Kind of a treat! Makes me want to watch the movie again, now that I’ve got the plot of the book back in my head.

So the year’s off to a good start! I guess I should aim for an even 150 books read in 2012?

Next! After I read the other Howl books, should I start another book of my own?

We’ll see! I should! It’d be nice to start of the year with a nice productive fifty or hundred pages, quick before the puppies distract me — only a couple more weeks before I’m seriously into housetraining.

They’re doing great, btw! The little boy’s going to make it to two pounds tomorrow, I can see it coming.

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Finished, again!

Whew! The revised and now freshly re-revised YA version of Black Dog went back to my agent . . . lessee . . . about five minutes ago. A nice start to the new year! I added about 4000 words — well, more than that, but then I did a little cutting, too, which of course is harder and harder because all the obvious deadwood is long gone from this manuscript.

I did a little of this and a little of that, but mostly what I added are short flashbacks — Caitlin’s suggestion, a way of getting more into the characters’ heads and developing both plot elements and character arcs just a little more. It was a good idea, now we’ll see if Caitlin thinks the stuff I did works the way she thought it should.

Next: a few days off! I want to read Mouse and Dragon by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee. Maybe the rest of my new Diana Wynne Jones books. Maybe a couple other things. But it’d be nice to get a start on a new book before the new semester begins. Which is on the eleventh, so hey, not much time for loafing!

Well, but I have LOTS of cookies in the freezer to fuel the ol’ creative urges. You know, I figured out that I made upwards of 1800 cookies and candies between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Really. Thirty-two kinds counting the almond pastry, which is made in a long “S” shape (about 14 inches long), but since you serve it in very small slices, I’ve decided does reasonably count.

So not going to run out for a few months, I expect, even with the boxes and tins and platters I gave and will still give away.

Though the rest of my cooking had better emphasize light food for those months. Thai and Japanese and vegetarian Indian and no coconut milk, either. I don’t have to step on a scale to know that I’ve put on a few pounds. And I don’t think typing even counts as exercise, worse luck.

Okay! Off to dive into a wonderful book and enjoy a chilly evening where I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything, other than gaze admiringly at the puppies from time to time. They’re starting to show very early play behavior! All very cute. I’m thinking of naming the girl Frivolity and the boy Fiddlesticks — don’t have to decide till I register them. I could call the girl Folly, but I don’t know about calling the boy Fiddle.

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Blog / The Best Cookies In The World

And here is THE BEST COOKIE IN THE WORLD

Seriously. Even though there’s no chocolate, which I know seems like it’d take a cookie right out of the running. Even so, seriously, you have to try this cookie! I really think it’s a springtime cookie, but hey, try it out at Christmas, I don’t think anybody will complain!

I modified this recipe heavily, but the idea is based on a cookie from tigersandstrawberries.com — Barbara is an amazing cook.

Aphrodite Springtime Cookies

2 1/2 C flour
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
2/3 C buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
14 Tbsp unsalted butter,
1 C sugar
2 eggs

Filling:

1/2 stick butter
4 oz cream cheese
8 oz powdered sugar
2 tsp rose water
2 drops red food coloring

Whisk together dry ingredients. Combine buttermilk, egg, and vanilla.

Beat butter and sugar three minutes. Beat in flour mixture and buttermilk mixture alternately, beginning and ending with flour mixture.

If you think that this method is much more like you are making a butter cake than a cookie, you are right! These are the most cake-like cookies you can possibly make. They work perfectly with the filling, believe me.

Now, you can drop the cookie dough on parchment-lined baking sheets, but I STRONGLY SUGGEST piping the dough, which is MUCH faster and easier and gives you a lot more control over the size of the cookies, plue ensures they come out round. Make ’em small, like a tsp each.

Bake at 350 degrees for 6-8 minutes, until just barely brown around edges — you don’t want to overbake them.

Now combine the filling ingredients. Pipe the filling on half the cookies and top with the other half to make sandwich cookies.

These freeze beautifully, but because the cookies are so soft, you will find they stick to each other. Put waxed paper between layers.

If you have filling left over, ice cupcakes with it. In fact, if you make twice the filling, you’ll have enough to ice a whole layer cake! Mmmm.

When I was depressed last year after losing Adora’s only puppy from her first litter? These are the cookies I made. Then I sat down and read THE HUNGER GAMES and ate all the cookies. (Well, not all, but lots of them.) So that’s my prescription if you need a comforting evening after a hard couple of weeks: a really good dystopian story and a lot of really good cookies.

Extra note here: Adora’s two puppies this time around are doing great! Which does not stop me from eating cookies, but means I’m less inclined to eat them all myself.

Okay! Merry Christmas! See you after the holiday!

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The revision is slow . . .

But the cookies are coming along very nicely, thank you!

Here’s one if you like a not-too-sweet but very rich cookie . . . if you like fig newtons, you’ll probably like these, though they really aren’t at all similar. Except for the figs, obviously.

Fig Shortbread Cookies

1 C butter (no substitutes)
1/4 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 C ground pecans
1 C ground dried figs
2 C flour

With a cookie this simple, each ingredient shines forth pretty brightly, which is why you should use butter and not margarine. Makes a big difference in this cookie! So cream the butter and sugar (yes, it’s only 1/4 C), then beat in the vanilla, then stir in the pecans and figs and flour.

Shape into little torpedos and bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes, until set but not browned.

I’d say the above are an adult-type of cookie, probably not going to be a huge hit with the kids. This following recipe will be the ones the kids will love!

Chocolate Thumbprints

1 C butter or margarine
1 1/3 C sugar
2 eggs, separated
4 Tbsp milk
2 tsp vanilla
2 C flour
2/3 C cocoa powder
3/4 tsp salt
2 C toasted ground walnuts or other nuts

Filling:

1 1/2 C powdered sugar
3 Tbsp butter, softened
1 1/2 Tbsp milk
3/4 tsp vanilla

Chocolate chips

Like always, cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg yolks, milk, and vanilla. Combine four, cocoa and salt and beat that in. Chill at least 1 hour.

Shape dough into 80 balls. Dip each into beaten egg whites and roll in ground walnuts. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets. Indent each cookie with the tip of your finger. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Make the filling — combine all the ingredients until smooth. Spoon or pipe a little filling into the indentations of each warm cookie. (Piping is much faster.) Place a chocolate chip in the middle of the filling and press down lightly so each chocolate chip is surrounded by a ring of white filling.

There you go! Very tasty, but definitely on the fiddly side; if you’ve got kids handy that are recruitable, that’d be a real plus for this recipe.

Now, one more, not a cookie but so good I’m throwing it in anyway!

Coconut marshmallows

3 env. unflavored gelatin
1 C cold water, divided
2 C sugar
1 C corn syrup
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp coconut flavoring
1/2 tsp vanilla

Ground toasted coconut

Line a 13 x 9 pan with foil and spray the foil with cooking spray.

Sprinkle the gelatin over 1/2 C water in a LARGE bowl and whisk quickly to break up the gelatin. Set that aside.

Combine the other 1/2 C water, sugar, corn syrup and salt in a pan. Bring to a boil over med-high heat, stirring only until the mixture comes to a boil. Bring to 240 degrees (use a candy thermometer, for heaven’s sake! They’re wonderful to have even if you don’t use them all that often.)

Once the syrup has reached 240 degrees, gradually pour the hot syrup mixture into the bowl with the gelatin, while the mixer is running. Then continue beating on high for 10 minutes or so, until the mixture is white, thick, and trying hard to climb up the beaters to the mixer. Beat in the coconut and vanilla flavorings.

Pour and spread into prepared pan. The mixture will be VERY STICKY, so don’t bother trying to get ever bit of it out of the bowl. The kids can clean some of it out for you and then you can run hot water in the bowl to dissolve the rest.

Anyway, let the marshmallows sit, uncovered, in the pan, for six hours or so. Although I’ve rushed it with no ill effects, so I think four hours is enough, probably.

Lift the marshmallow mixture out of the pan with the foil, lay it upside down on a cutting board, peel off the foil, and cut it into squares with a pizza cutter sprayed with cooking spray. Roll each square as you cut it in the coconut.

Store at room temp in an airtight containger. Stores just fine for weeks, but they’re not likely to last that long.

I’ve also done this to make chocolate marshmallows: add 2/3 C cocoa powder to the gelatin before you beat in the syrup, then roll the finished marshmallows in a mixture of 1/3 cornstarch and 2/3 cocoa powder. Also very good!

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