Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Brief update

I am now officially 100 pages over the maximum length I would prefer. And NEARLY finished but not quite.

By this time next week, barring acts of God, I will be finished. By which I mean, cutting.

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So, did anybody actually enjoy reading LORD OF THE FLIES?

Anybody who didn’t go on to become a high school lit teacher, I mean? Because (as I may have mentioned before) I hated it.

But I just read LOST GIRLS by Ann Kelley, which is not likely (I guess) to become the sort of classic that everyone is required to read in high school, but was quite good. After I read it, I looked up a plot summary of LORD OF THE FLIES to see just how similar the two books are. And the answer is: pretty similiar. I was sort of thinking everybody might have died at the end of LORD OF THE FLIES, but no. (You can see how much I hated it, with that half-conviction of a terrible ending in the back of my mind.)

I liked LOST GIRLS pretty well. It didn’t take me by surprise — I’d read the review at The Book Smugglers and I thought it sounded pretty good. I didn’t love it as much as Thea did, but it was good, and just what I was in the mood for. But Kelley avoides the descent into savagry, the hunting each other stuff. Whew! I did not miss those elements. Some of the characters do die, though, including one that shocked me.

I would have liked at least one of the “Glossies” — the girly-girls with their make-up and hair curlers and all that — to wind up growing as a person, becoming competent and decisive and taking responsibility for herself and the younger girls. I will spare you the slowly growing disappointment if you read this by telling you up front: No. Doesn’t happen. I thought that was a real shame and an important miss on Kelley’s part; it made those two girls boring and made the story as a whole seem more shallow. That’s my biggest criticism, though.

I liked the setting (an island off Thailand!) and I loved the narrator, who was definitely not too good to be true. I loved her anger. I would have felt exactly the same way. I did wonder just how much trouble you could possibly have with starvation on a tropical island; I kept thinking about those coconut crabs. Crabs that can break coconuts? They must be huge. They sound like a very promising source of protein to me. Maybe there was some reason the girls didn’t eat them, but I missed it.

And I liked the tiger! Hey, tigers are always good.

And of course high school teachers now have great potential for group discussions: if you MUST assign LORD OF THE FLIES, how about also assigning LOST GIRLS? Then you can have a rousing debate about whether things would really proceed so differently with girls stranded on an island as opposed to boys, and which author got closer to a likely scenario (if either).

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On a more writerly note —

I enjoyed this article.

I am certainly glad that when I hate a book, I can stop reading it. I would not much want a job that required me to actually finish reading a book I hated. And Lev Grossman’s feelings about this book — that the author is being artificially made into a phenomenon even though his books are actually not good — well, I would REALLY hate feeling like I was part of the machinery that made that happen.

My favorite bit:

“I’m telling you, this book: it’s like the sentences are dead tennis balls, no air in them, no fuzz on them, coming at me across the net with no spin on them at all. No verbal energy, no humor, barely even the occasional stab at a mot juste. It’s so. Very. Earnest.”

Isn’t that a great description of a book you would never, ever, ever want to read?

Though Grossman is certainly careful to note that statistically, somebody is certain to love this book.

As an added and quite appalling tidbit — there are links in this article to a different article on a completely different phenomenon I never even imagined. Did you know people are re-writing classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, sexing them up, turning them into erotica? Like, adding a bondage / s & m component to Jane Eyre?

Ooookay. I don’t think I’m particularly prudish, but that’s just . . . that’s just . . . well, that’s just really disturbing. Comments?

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The last comment about the specialty —

Just in case you’re curious. Adora did okay at obedience, Pippa did great at Rally Excellent, and Adora got fourth in her class in the breed ring. Fourth! I was not very happy, but these things happen. The judge did say she liked her and she should “finish easily.” I wanted to say, but restrained myself, that I don’t think the word “easily” means what she thinks it means.

Oh, well! At least the performance went well enough to make the weekend worthwhile.

Next planned trip is not a show, amazingly enough, but Worldcon (Chicon). So if anybody happens to be going, well, see you there!

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Still at the show —

So still mainly doing dog things. I’m sure you will all find this fascinating, right? I did get eight pages written last night, but tonight was the BBQ dinner and auction and you know what? No writing. Too busy with the ribs and potato salad and watching other people buy really nice items for largish sums. The guy who acted as the auctioner was hilarious, btw.

Yes, in case you wondered, the girls got to share the meat off one of the ribs.

So, show news! Adora finished her CKCSC CD this morning! Yay, Adora! That is the novice level of formal obedience, but “novice” doesn’t mean “piece of cake”. There’s heeling both on and off leash, heeling in a figure eight around two people, the “stand for exam” where you leave your dog in a standing position and walk away six feet and the judge comes over and touches her head and back — she’s not supposed to move, obviously. The there’s the off-lead recall and the sit-for-one-minute and the down-for-three-minutes with you across the room. Adora is very reliable about all of this but the off-lead heeling. Which she is also great at in practice, but in an actual show it falls apart, probably because I’m nervous.

Anyway! She did a decent job today and finished off her . . . um . . . sixth performance title.

Pippa did a fabulous job at the Excellent level of Rally (highest level). In Rally, the judge lays out a course of 15 signs or so and each sign says to do something and when you get to the sign you do whatever it says. There was a sign in today’s course that was new and that I never heard of before! It was a Stand Leave Sit Call to Front Finish, or something like that. What you were supposed to do is, you’re heeling and you do a moving stand to stop your dog in place while you keep going six more feet. Then you turn to face your dog and signal her to sit. She sits and you call her to come sit in front of you, then signal her to turn and sit in heel position, then move on to the next sign.

I had never taught Pippa to sit from six feet away! I taught her that in the ten minutes or so before I needed to go in the ring. She is a very fast learner! She actually did it almost right, but for some reason gave me a down instead of a sit, which lost her three points. Otherwise it was a perfect score for the course! So go, Pippa! That was her first leg for her eight performance title. Tomorrow I trust she’ll get her second leg, which will leave her needing one more for the title.

And! In the OTHER competition, while I was disappointed that Adora didn’t win the ruby class, she did get second, and it was a fairly large, competitive class, so that wasn’t TOO bad. I would really like her to win tomorrow! I am quite sure that Adora also feels that if she has to have her ears shampooed an extra time and her coat misted and her drying coat put on and then be carefully combed so her coat is absolutely straight and then have a veeery light rub of shine oil applied, she should win.

Well, maybe tomorrow! Because we will do it all over again with different judges.

No pictures, sorry, my phone is sloooow to send them to my email. Maybe later!

10:30 PM! Time for one more walk and then that’s it for the night! We’ll need an early start tomorrow.

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Recent reading

So a day or so ago, I finished THE MAYTREES by Annie Dillard. (Last book I read before leaving for this show, which by the way has a very large entry and many, many beautiful Cavaliers, I could never judge those classes.) (Didn’t bring a novel to the show, got this fast internet connection + pages to write, don’t need a book.)

ANYWAY. I hadn’t previously read any novels of Dillards, but I had read PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK and THE WRITING LIFE, and thanks for that image of the moth, by the way. Moth aside, I kind of thought both books were really interesting as philosophy and beautifully written, which is why I thought I’d try THE MAYTREES.

Which, after some reflection, I think I liked it, more or less. It’s not really my kind of thing at all. But it’s one of those where a single line makes a book worth reading, even if it’s not a book you really enjoy.

I don’t know that I’ll be reading any more of Annie Dillard’s novels (and I’m not saying I won’t, just that I don’t know). THE MAYTREES is so . . . so . . . you know, the writing is indeed beautiful. And the way philosophy is sort of tucked in, inextricable from the flow of . . . can you call them events if nothing much happens most of the time? I mean, yes, there are two or three pivotal events, but compared to, say, Patrick Lee, honestly, nothing happens.
In fact, can you call this a novel if there’s not really dialogue? Sure, from time to time one character speaks to another character, but despite that, there’s no real dialogue as such. Dillard points that out pretty plainly by, you know, not using quote marks. (Kind of like Cormac McCarthy, only way warmer and more optimistic about people.)

Actually, in another more technical sense, I guess THE MAYTREES is exactly a novel – and not a romance – if you’re aware of the technical definition that holds (I think) that in a novel the movement and change is internal, whereas in a romance (which includes all genre stories whether or not there’s what we’d ordinarily think of as romance in the story or not), the important movement and change is external.

This is not a definition I ordinarily find helpful or compelling, but it’s just right for THE MAYTREES, where everything is about what’s going on internally in the characters. Like after he leaves her, she spends months and months coping internally, not that you are shown this on a day-to-day basis, thank God. But we get lines like this: “Within a month she figured that if she ceded that the world did not center on her, there was no injustice or betrayal. If she believed she was free and out of the tar pit, would she not thereby free herself from the tar pit? . . . After only seven or eight months relinquishing Maytree, she saw the task would take practice, like anything else.”

Genre authors certainly can capture an important truth about the human condition in their writing – I think Lois McMaster Bujold is good at tossing in, here and there, a single line that does this with amazing accuracy – but I think the effort to do this is the main driver of THE MAYTREES. And it’s a pretty successful effort, actually. Here’s the line I had in mind that made the whole book worthwhile:

“Lou thought Jane was getting too old to regard her bitterness as the natural effect of a cause outside herself.”

At which I paused, struck by admiration. Can I someday steal that line? Do you supposed anybody would notice? Because I think it REALLY captures a central and important truth: that you can choose to be bitter, or not. That bitterness and envy and grimly-held resentment are choices you can make, or (in this novel) not make.

That’s what the whole book is about, really. And the reason I read it all the way through? All the characters make admirable choices, in the end. To forgive; to be openhanded and generous; to become independent; to become dependent. Without that, all the lyrical language in the world (which this novel has in spades) wouldn’t have made me finish this book.

But the next book I pick up will be something light and fun.

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Ah, the main joy of a hotel in a big (biggish) city —

A great phone connection and thus an excellent internet connection! Sigh. At home I have sit on the deck outside to get two bars. Literally sit outside. Don’t know what I’ll do in February. And here I am in Louisville KY in a decent if not fabulous hotel room, with aaaallll the bars. No, not that kind of bars! The 4G kind. Anyway, so much better!

The girls, wondering if I'm going to eat all the pretzels myself

This is Pippa, who shows only in performance because she had to be spayed; Adora (the ruby) who will show in performance and the breed ring; and Giedre, who is not quiiiite old enough to show but is along for the experience and because I want her dad’s breeder to look at her.

I’m not showing tonight; it’s puppy sweepstakes and my puppy is, as I say, not quite old enough to enter. Nor am I showing tomorrow; it’ll be my chance to actually watch the show. Especially the puppy dog classes in the morning and the special limit bitch classes in the later afternoon. (It’s always dogs in the morning and bitches in the afternoon.) (The classes are, in order, junior puppy, senior puppy, graduate puppy, junior American Bred, American Bred, Bred By Exhibitor, Special Limit Blenheim, SL Tricolor, SL Ruby, SL Black-and-tan, Open, Winners — I think that’s all the classes but I might have forgotten something. Oh, yeah, Health and Conformation and Veterans.)

Saturday and Sunday I’ll be showing in performance in the morning, so I’ll likely miss the early classes, and my ruby bitch Adora will be in Special Limit Ruby, which means that in practice I won’t be able to watch any class for two hours or so before that since I’ll be getting ready myself.

Wish me luck!

Plus, yes, I brought my laptop. I am too close to finishing my WIP to take a whole five days off; I need to keep moving forward because a full stop can mean trouble starting. Plus this close to the end, I just couldn’t stand to take all that time away from it! I got a room to myself mostly because I want privacy and quiet wrapped around the show events so’s to have quality time with my laptop. Though the fast internet here may be a touch distracting. But I shall maintain focus! Later. Soon.

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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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