Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The (next) end is in sight!

I’m kind of thinking I can finish the entire first clean-up and cut of the manuscript by Friday. Probably. Certainly by Monday even if things go slower than I expect.

I’m going straight through from top to bottom right now, editing and cutting as I go, trying not to keep moving forward rather than going back over and over a scene I’ve just altered. Let it rest, let it go, it’s fine for now, and I know I’ll have better judgment about whether the scene works better LATER.

You know what’s weird is when you’re approaching a scene and it occurs to you that of course you should change it in some obvious fashion — edit out a particular character, give an action or piece of dialogue to one character rather than another — and you get to that scene and LO! The change has already been made.

I have no memory of editing that scene before. If particularly friendly and specialized brownies are doing my job while I sleep, well, I hope they keep it up.

I’ve got it down to 388 pp now; that’s 125,000 words, more or less. Progress! I have to remind myself sometimes that cutting paragraphs and whole pages is still a good thing, I shouldn’t just concentrate on cutting words and phrases — that’s for later. I definitely mean to cut at least 5000 more words, that’s about 15 pages, but three times that would probably be better.

So, break time when I get it done! I don’t know about another quart of double-chocolate brownie chunk ice cream, because I try not to do that too often, but I definitely have a celebratory book picked out as a bribe to myself to get this revision done! Five books, actually: I just discovered the Tomorrow series by John Marsden. It’s a set of seven short YA novels involving the invasion of Australia by an unspecified nation.

I’ve read the first two and they are SO GOOD. I am so impressed by Marsden’s characters. He has quite a few and they are all distinct and well drawn and the way everyone responds to what’s going on — perfect! I love his plotting, which is tight and clean. And his writing is great, it just disappears so you can fall right into the story.

And I think it was so clever of Marsden to avoid specifying the bad-guy invader nation. Honestly, there IS no possible real-world candidate for a nation that both could and would invade Australia, and he totally side-steps this whole problem by just deciding up front not to try to shoehorn a country that couldn’t work into that role. That is so much better than trying to twist things around to make something work when it couldn’t.

So, anyway, I’ve got the other five books ordered and they should all be lined up in a row waiting for me just about exactly at the time I finish this revision. Can’t wait!

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A special visitor to the garden

Not that I’m crazy about deer, they stomp all over my planting beds with their sharp little hooves, and they treat my gardens like their own private buffet . . . but . . .

Okay, I have to admit, that’s pretty cute! This little critter was tucked a foot away from the vegetable garden fence when I took this picture. Naturally my mother asked whether its mother might have abandoned it, and luckily I was available to say, as firmly as a conservation agent, NO, THE BABY IS FINE, THE MOTHER IS FINE, LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE.

Which we did, and in fact this little guy has been back, finding hiding places here and there around the house. Under a smoke tree, for example, right next to the house. My dogs have no idea or they’d go nuts. At this age — the hide-and-freeze age — fawns have little to no scent, so predators have a hard time finding them, and that includes my dogs. Luckily there are the cicadas for the dogs to chase, so they’re not too deprived!

I’ll post a piece of my current WIP pretty soon . . . I’ve cut 32 pp so far, condensing three of the early chapters into two — that was a big and very necessary job. I’m still in the clean-up stage, and will be for a while. But yes, I did really enjoy my celebratory quart of double-chocolate brownie chunk ice cream, after finishing the rough draft. I ate it while reading a YA dystopian novel that’s kind of getting some buzz — Divergent, by Roth.

Both the ice cream and the book were very good — an important plot twist that I predicted didn’t happen, or hasn’t happened yet (maybe in the sequel?), and I’m still deciding whether I think that’s good or bad (it was a neat plot twist, and I’m not sure I believe that it could fail to happen given the way Roth set up her characters).

Do all popular YA dystopian novels have to be written in the first person? Roth did a fine job, it’s not that I was bothered by the first person pov, but I’m wondering whether young readers today expect / depend on / need the first person narrative in order to connect to this kind of dark-ish dystopian novel? Or are authors just following the herd? Haven’t decided that yet, either.

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Blog / The Best Cookies In The World

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie

So a few weeks ago I mentioned I was going to make a lot of different kinds of chocolate chip cookies, each purported to be the BEST CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE IN THE WORLD, and have a taste test.

I actually have seventeen different chocolate chip cookie recipes in my “everyday cookie” file, each of which looks different enough or interesting enough to keep. I didn’t have time to make all seventeen kinds for the test, but I made eight. One doesn’t really count because it had vanilla chips and dried cranberries in it, but no real chocolate chips. (I knew at least one person didn’t like chocolate, and she did like these.)

So, seven cookies — pretty paltry, but enough for a first wave of testing, right? The recipes varied in whether they called for shortening, butter, or margarine (yes, one called for margarine specifically); in the proportion of white to brown sugar; and in the use of oats and / or nuts. I used top-quality Gheradelli chocolate chips for all the cookies. They’re by far the best chocolate chips I know of — I did my own taste test for chips first.

We actually had a tie between a pretty ordinary cookie with one interesting twist and a very unusual cookie. Just in case you’re interested in trying out some fantastic chocolate cookies, here are the winners!

1) Lindsay’s Chocolate Cafe Cookies

These are from an article I saw someplace that featured them as The Best in the World. I don’t remember where I saw the article, but I googled Lindsay’s Chocolate Cafe, and it turns out it’s in St. Louis, so it may well have been a local newspaper or something. These are basic chocolate chip cookies, but very good. The use of butter rather than shortening and the inclusion of walnuts and grated chocolate are what set these apart. Shortening is used in lots of chocolate chip cookie recipes, including the (quite decent) Tollhouse Cookie recipe. It gives a good texture to the finished cookie, but of course misses the butter taste, which is one reason I think Lindsay’s cookies were one of my winners.

2 1/2 C rolled oats
2 C flour
1 tsp each baking powder and baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 C butter, softened
1 C sugar
1 C brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
12 oz semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 C chopped walnuts
4 oz grated chocolate (easiest to grate cold chocolate in a food processor)

And the standard directions for cookies: Combine the dry ingredients, cream together the butter and sugar, beat in the eggs and vanilla, stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts and grated chocolate, drop on cookie sheets and bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or so.

Yum!

Now, the weirdest recipe, also a winner and my personal favorite! I have no idea where this recipe came from. Some ingredient or combination of ingredients gave these cookies this fantastic chewy texture. If you don’t like graham crackers, try these anyway — the graham cracker taste morphs into something completely different and far superior when used in these cookies.

2) Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookies

1/2 C butter, softened
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 C fine graham cracker crumbs (grind in food processor)
3/4 C flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 C semisweet chocolate chips
1 C English toffee bits

Beat together the butter and condensed milk. Combine the dry ingredients and stir in. Stir in chocolate chips and English toffee bits. Drop on cookie sheets, back at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or so. I always line cookie sheets with parchment paper, and I definitely suggest it here, as I suspect the toffee bits would stick if the sheets were unlined.

Enjoy!

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Finished!

Whew!

424 pp total, don’t remember the word count, but it’d be something like 140,000 words. Too long! At least, too long for this story, quite a lot longer than I want it to wind up. So! First, the clean up, then the first cut, then the final read-through-and-cut, and then I can send my newest baby off to be read by objective, analytical eyes . . . always a trifle nerve-wracking.

However, before that, I think a quart of double-chocolate brownie-chunk ice cream is in order. And what’s the point of really good ice cream unless you have a really good book to go with it? I need to pick up a copy of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent”, which I read the first chapter of a week ago and have been dying to get back to. How ’bout that for a recipe for a rewarding evening?

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Still working . . .

Did I get my manuscript finished by the 6th, as I had planned? No. But mostly! The thing is a hair longer than expected, and the last 70 pages or so were painfully slow, but I should definitely be finishing up this week some time. I finished the climactic scene yesterday; now I’ve got the tie-up-loose-ends scenes, which I always particularly enjoy, so that should go faster.

During the past three weeks and 170 pages, I’ve also accumulated 28 notes about details to fix. I hate stopping to fix things on the run, as it were, so during the last push to finish a book, I just make quick notes: remember this character should have an accent all the way through the story; just gave that one guy an important medallion, so go back and insert it in earlier scenes; our understanding of this Oressa’s father changed in significant ways through the course of the story, so be sure that works; my conception of the personality of her brother changed, so definitely have to go back and re-do his earlier scenes so he’s consistent throughout. Is there a romance subplot between the two pov characters or isn’t there? Time to decide and, if there is, put it in; and if there’s not, make sure there really isn’t. I’ve always known where the real romance is, so the only question is whether there’s another romance around the edges or not, and if so, is it all in one character’s head or in both? Still don’t know.

Then AFTER dealing with all the notes, there’s the first real effort to cut. It’s 405 pp now; I think the final rough length will be about 430. I’ll want to cut that back to 350 pp or so. That’s about a 15% cut, which certainly won’t be too much. Then I’ll reread the whole thing from top to bottom, cutting on a sentence-by-sentence level, but really reading for coherence and flow.

Then I’ll send the ms. to my brother, with a request to please let me know if in fact I fell down somewhere on coherence — of the world, of the characters, of the plot. If any character does anything or plans to do anything (unintentionally) stupid, Craig will tell me and I will fix it. If any aspect of the story doesn’t make sense, ditto.

THEN I will be ready to send the ms. to Caitlin, my agent, who will send me about a three-page (judging from the past) editorial letter about pacing and stuff. That will lead to the final revision — well, final until an actual editor requests revisions, (I hope)! So that’s when it’s over to my agent. Me, I’ll stick the thing on a mental shelf labeled “not my problem, out of my hands” and forget about it. I’ll have taken breaks while I wait for Craig’s comments and then for Caitlin’s, so when I shelve this ms., I’ll probably be ready to start work on something else.

I’m thinking next . . . the story set in an alternate Ottoman Turkey. But not sure! I could change my mind a dozen times between now and then, and probably will. Got a good idea for a main character from one of Elizabeth Moon’s recent books — might see where that idea takes me instead. Or maybe one of the fifty books on my To Be Read pile will spark a great idea. So we’ll see!

But in the meantime, it’s FINISH THIS WEEK OR DIE.

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I know, it’s been a few days —

But I’ve been busy!

The semester ended six days ago, so busy busy busy trying to get things done before the summer session starts on June 7th. Not just writing, though that, too! It’s always great if I’m motivated and ready to go right at the beginning of a break like this, because who wants a project to drag on and on when you can just do it and get it done?

I have two dog shows before the 7th (and one or two more in June, and then there’s the big specialty in July . . .), so around the edges of other stuff, it would be kind of nice to re-teach Dara that it doesn’t hurt to let the judge check her bite. But it’s not crucial, she’s not terrible about it, she doesn’t flail around in panic when the judge goes to touch her head, she just flinches and draws back. No, she’s never been hurt nor, as far as I know, frightened. She just doesn’t like strangers touching her mouth (would you?). All it’ll take is a pocket full of treats and some cooperative strangers. If I get to it. Sigh. I’ve been here before with Dara, but dogs are not robots and you can’t program them once and expect your job to be done.

I prefer the judge to ask me to show the dog’s bite, btw. It’s the judge’s option whether he or she does it or whether you do it, and that’s fine in principle, but besides a possible flinch, it’s really not sanitary to have the same judge touch one dog’s mouth after another all day. My girls are vaccinated against bordatella and the canine flu and everything, but especially when you have a pregnant girl or young puppies at home, the last thing you want to risk is bringing home some nasty show-dog crud because a judge insisted on checking bites personally.

Also, busy gardening! Weeding, weeding, weeding, plus trying to get plants set out between cloudbursts and thunderstorms. More rain all day today, then more expected on Saturday and from then on as far as they can see. Too bad, though very good for writing! I’ll be putting more baby shrubs (my much-cherished Korean evodia seedlings) up in gallon pots tomorrow, since heaven knows when they’ll be able to go in the ground. What a pain!

And, yes, of course, I’ve been writing! Mornings and evenings, every day! My goal was to finish my current WIP by bringing the complete draft in at about 300 pages.

I know, right? Not likely! “Short” is not my natural length, though I keep striving for it.

My REAL goal is to finish my current WIP without letting it go over 400 pages, which is looking possible. It’s at 275 pp as of this afternoon. (The most I ever overshot was for the third Griffin Mage book, which reached a draft length of 499 pages before I started cutting. I cut exactly 100 pages before I sent it to my agent, but my hope is that I will never overshoot that far EVER AGAIN. Especially not while writing under a deadline, like I was for that one!)

Anyway, I spent the morning shuffling the order of the chapters around and studying the effect. I wound up putting the girl protagonist first (chapters 3 and 4 just became chapters 1 and 2) to reflect her increasing tendency to take over the story plus (imho) her out-and-out charm is hard to beat. Added bonus: the story now starts with a fun scene that gets things moving faster. I think it works much better this way, but now that the girl is kind of the primary main character, I can see I’ll be cutting some of the boy’s storyline, especially in chapters 3, 4, and 5. Not worried about cutting just yet, though! We are MOVING FORWARD because this sucker is GOING TO BE FINISHED BY JUNE 7th and I am not kidding.

Which brings us to motivation!

I don’t know how other writers do it, but the single most important thing I do to start working on a new ms, or speed myself up when hit the doldrums, or get myself through a painfully slow scene that I know I will cut later but have to write first, or force a difficult scene that isn’t cooperating — to move ahead rather than bog down, in other words — is simply to keep a daily log of progress. Just the date and the number of pages written and the total page count as of that date.

That’s it.

The first time you note down 2 or 6 or 10 pp written, you sneer at it: Wow, 10 pages. Ooh, impressive.

But you write 10 (or even 2) pages every day and by golly it adds up. Gives you this sense of conquest, rather than mere accomplishment! Looky there, sixty pages in six days, whoa, I am SO COOL, I am a REAL WRITER, look at it go! Whoosh! (It helps if you can sincerely believe that a good part of what you’re writing is really pretty good.)

Plus, I decided I would write an average of 8 pp every day for the 22 days of this break, which (as I trust you instantly realize) would amount to a total of 176 pp. Since I already had 226 pp when the break started, that would bring me to 402 pp, or in other words I expected to be typing THE END in there someplace, which was the whole point, right? And knowing that the finish line is in sight is a big motivator, too.

I actually have written 10 pp every day so far, even though THREE WHOLE DAYS so far have actually been pleasant and sunny and I have also done gardening and stuff. So the page count is adding up faster than I expected, and again, I get this great feeling that I’m getting somewhere, which of course I am. Plus I am avoiding revision, mostly, except for shuffling the chapters around like I said, because revision is a great and good thing, but it is not your friend when you are trying to reach the finish line!

Now, for me, the OTHER great motivator when I have a break like this and can spend a good bit of time with my laptop, is that I can start to live in the story. This is why I try to arrange to write the last part of a book during a break, because for me this is the part that goes fast if it gets a chance. I have actually met writers who say the end is the slow, hard slog for them, but I think that’s pretty rare. Sometimes the beginning is fast, too, but almost always the end.

For me, this is where the plot finishes working itself out — I think of new cool plot twists and bits of dialogue and it suddenly occurs to me that I can swap chapters around or combine two characters or HEY GUESS WHAT, that minor character who has no real role except to be eye candy? He’s not just a good-looking idiot, he’s actually a traitor, and no he’s not working for this one guy like you’d expect, either, but that one, and look, THERE goes the plot, THAT way!

But getting to this point? And keeping it going when I hit a tedious bit that I have to get through before I can write the next cool scene? Just a straight-up day-by-day page count where I can admire the accummulation of pages.

Now, gotta go. I’ve just dropped the good guys into the frying pan and they’re just about to climb out and realize they’re in the fire! Don’t quite know how they’re going to dig their way out of the coals, but it’ll come to me — and way before June 7th.

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End of finals week tomorrow!

Which will give me three weeks off during which I should finish my current WIP. I think!

I have 226 pages done so far, and I want it to come in at about 300 pages long, but I can tell you right now, I am going to overshoot that length. Too bad! I could in theory, if I had the ending solid in my head, and if the weather was cruddy so I was forced to stay inside, and if I didn’t have any dog shows or anything to interrupt me, write eighty pages in less than a week.

But I don’t think I have the ending THAT solid, and I expect to need more than eighty pages anyway. Plus the weather is finally warm and less wet, AND I have two dog show weekends in there, plus I am making ALL the desserts for the party my mother’s having for the choir on the last Sunday of the month . . . it’ll take every bit of those three weeks, I expect. Still! The end will be in sight the minute I sit down with my laptop and open the WIP file.

I will be having a Best-Of-Chocolate-Chip-Cookies bake-off, by the way, in which I will furnish nine kinds of chocolate chip cookies that have all won contests (not for me! I copied them from here and there, and this will be a No-Really-Which-Is-The-Best taste trial. Also, for those who don’t like chocolate chip cookies (I know at least one attendee will fall into this category) I will make a cheesecake and an apple cake and maybe these neat little marzipan-wrapped petit fours-types of mini cakes, if I have time. And maybe something light? Like a trifle? I made an orange trifle for mom on Mother’s Day and that turned out well. I’ll think about it.

A busy second spring break for me!

Then the summer session will start . . . lots of people optimistic enough to sign up for algebra classes in the eight-week summer session. Fun for all!

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Recent reading —

Got stuck in a traffic jam on Saturday. Thirty minutes stop-and-go, and what did I get to show for it? A lousy reserve ribbon. It’s officially “Reserve Winners”, but unofficially “First Loser”.

And the girl that beat my lovely Kenya? Not a tenth as good as she is. The judge goes on my “To Avoid” list, since we apparently have fundamental disagreements about correct type and movement in Cavaliers.

Phooey.

But! Nice weather, for a change! Hot, even! Since this was a nearby show, I was home every afternoon. Planted out the peppers, at last! And the zinnias — at LAST! They weren’t in great shape: too long in small pots under lights. But I started a bunch of ’em, so if half survive, that’ll be enough.

Also read several books, starting with A Princess of Roumania, by Paul Parks.

This book was a World Fantasy Award nominee. I really wanted to love it, and I honestly thought I would, but honestly, I couldn’t get really attached to any of the characters. Yes, I liked the dog. I loved the whole concept of the dog! I loved a lot of the concepts, in this book, but I didn’t love the book.

Also, for me, there was too much time spent in the point of view of the evil Baroness. I mean, she was well-drawn and everything, but I found myself just skimming her chapters.

Overall take on the book: neat concept, neat world, excellent writing, didn’t like it. Too bad!

So then I read Maximum Ride by James Patterson. Again, I thought I would really love it — again, it fell a little flat for me. For totally different reasons. It’s meant to be a YA and I get that, but there were too many suspension-of-disbelief problems for me — regarding the underlying idea and the plot both. We’re superstrong and can punch like mules kick, only we also have light bones! Explain how we don’t shatter our bones when we hit someone?

And the bad guys — sorry, didn’t believe in them much.

Also, the superpowers were a little much of a muchness! We can fly! AND talk to animals! AND breathe underwater! AND read minds! O-Kay.

Anyway, kind of a relief I wasn’t overwhelmed, since there are zillions of books in the series and now I don’t have to buy them. Though I’m tempted to get the one that focuses on Fang. I did like Fang.

THEN I read Ghost Country by Patrick Lee.

Whoa.

That was a thrill ride. Fast paced? You have no idea. I can’t think of anybody who can make you turn the pages faster. Loved this book. Better than the first, even, and I loved that one! I read the whole thing in one swift evening, stayed up late and everything (I never do this!).

Patrick Lee is the very newest addition to my preorder-anything-he-writes list of authors. I’m dying for a sequel to Ghost Country, but hey — anything he writes, I’m right there.

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In the Ring . . . and ringside reading

Yesterday, Dara beat Kenya. There were exactly two Cavaliers entered in the show, both mine, so I was pretty confident that one of my girls would get Winners and Best of Breed — but I thought it would be Kenya.

Here’s Dara — though, granted, this was a win from a month or so ago. I cropped myself out of the photo because it’s an awful picture of me, though Dara’s shown to advantage, which is what matters. The purple ribbon is for Winners — the Best of Breed is purple and gold. It’s nice that Dara has a BoB ribbon for her scrapbook, but actually she got more points with the win shown below than the win yesterday because she beat nine other girls that day rather than just one.

It’s not that Dara isn’t nice — she has an excellent body and great movement — but I asked the judge why he put her over Kenya. “I’ve been thinking of her head as plain,” I said. “Have I been too critical?” Yes, said the judge. He said her nose might be a little long, but Kenya’s is a little short for him. I’m thinking now that really Kenya has a modern more extreme style of head, whereas Dara doesn’t have a bad head, exactly, but a more old-fashioned style of head. I admit I still prefer Kenya’s, but at this rate, Dara will certainly finish her championship faster.

Changing the subject! To a topic of possibly greater general interest!

I like to read books about writing, even though I don’t actually think this is mostly a very useful thing to do. This seems a little strange even to me, but it’s kind of like reading agent’s blogs and Query Shark even though I already have an agent and don’t need to write queries (thank God). Reading about writing is, for me, sometimes reassuring, sometimes worrying, often entertaining.

Plus, like all nonfiction reading, it’s something to do when I really don’t want to get absorbed in a story. For example, for a few minutes here and there at dog shows.

So recently I have been reorganizing my personal library and re-reading, or at least re-glancing-through, a lot of my books on writing. It turns out I have more than I thought:

Armstrong, David. 2003. How (Not) to Write a Novel.

Bishop, Leonard. 1988. Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction.

Block, Lawrence. 1979. Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print.

Bova, Ben. 1994. The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells.

Bradbury, Ray. 1990. Zen in the Art of Writing.

Butler, Robert Olen. 2005. From Where You Dream.

Card, Orson Scott. 1988. Characters and Viewpoint.

Ibid. 1990. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Dillard, Annie. 1989. The Writing Life.

Kessel, John, et al (eds.). 1996. Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology.

King, Steven. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Maass, Donald. 2001. Writing the Breakout Novel.

Ibid. The Career Novelist.

Prose, Francine. 2006. Reading Like a Writer.

Silverberg, Robert. 2001. Science Fiction 101: Where to Start Reading and Writing Science Fiction.

Wilson, Robin (ed.). 1996. Paragons: Twelve Master Science Fiction Writer Ply Their Craft.

Ibid. 1996. Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader.

So, seventeen books on writing.

I wouldn’t necessarily *recommend* most of them, exactly. Armstrong? Too negative a tone. Bishop? Too much like reading a word-a-day calendar. Annie Dillard? Like reading poetry disguised as nonfiction — beautiful, yes. But helpful? Not so much.

And quite a few of these books are aimed at short fiction, and while taking short stories apart can be informative, I fundamentally just am not interested in short stories, don’t much like reading them, and don’t get as much from books oriented towards that form as other people might.

However, okay, yes, there are a few that I actually *do* think could be helpful to anybody who wants to improve as a writer.

First, there’s the free downloadable book by Donald Maass. I mean, why not? It’s free! And it’s by Donald Maass! Actually, I liked both books by Maass and think they could both be helpful — though some of the practical how-to-be-a-writer advice is dated, of course.

Speaking of dated, how about Lawrence Block’s book? 1979! He’s got all these great references to typing and typewriters! But actually, I kind of do recommend this book. Block addresses developing plot, characters, starting, getting through snags and dead ends, etc. Though Block draws on his own experiences, he almost completely avoids the “This is the way I do it, so it’s the right way,” tone.

Francine Prose’s great book will never be dated. It’s about the love of language and the *craft* of writing. She’s got chapters on words, sentences, and paragraphs; on narration, character, and dialogue; on details and gestures. She really takes a close look at the role *attentive* reading plays in learning to write. I loved this book so much I actually started reading classics, which I used to avoid, having been burned in high school by Animal Farm and the Lord of the Flies. (I mean, not exactly cheerful, are they? For years, until I discovered Jane Austin, I thought all classics were depressing.)

And last but not least, I definitely recommend Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint. Really. It’s an excellent, in-depth look at creating believable characters, raising the stakes, character transformations, verb tenses, points of view, and lots more. Very valuable book to read and re-read. A lot of it is valuable, and not just about characterization as such.

I mean, I thought I knew why I don’t like first-person point of view — that is, WHEN first-person narratives are badly done, I HATE them, and they so often seem to be badly done. I’ve said for years that verb tenses are hard to handle right in first-person narratives, and I’m happy to rant about what goes wrong to anybody who will hold still long enough (in a nutshell: clumsy writers fail to switch from past to present tense when they need to).

Well, I stand by that. Definitely! But (among much else) Card lays out the OTHER reasons first-person narratives go wrong: problems with intensity and tone, with an imposed distance between the narrator and the reader (yes, really), with the author’s need to withhold information and then justify withholding it.

Of course, Card also mentions books where first person narratives are handled extremely well, and I’m sure we can all think of lots of others. For example, Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms springs forcefully to mind this year. I won’t be at all surprised if The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sweeps all the awards this year, and it’ll deserve to. But not only is it a fantastic book, it’s also a great book to read over again carefully, especially after reading Card’s book, to see how Jemisin *deals* with the potential problems a first-person narrative raises.

Oh, there are lots of really well done first-person narratives! I totally get that! Let me recommend one more in particular: The Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce, which to me shows a huge step up in sophistication from her earlier books. Notice the author’s note at the end of the first book — which by an amazing coincidence is about the difficulty of writing in the first person. Pierce did a fantastic job, possibly because she realized she’d taken on a challenge and was conciously paying attention to what she was doing.

And that’s an effort Card’s book could help with, for any writer who wanted to do the same.

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Me, read short stories?

I am not a short story kind of person. I don’t generally write ’em, and I don’t ordinarily read ’em. I just don’t.

An anthology now and then, yes. Or very occasionally I’ll track down a short story by a friend or one that was recommended. But basically, I read novels.

But I read quite a few short stories in February and March so I could have a couple to nominate for the WF award. My basic criterion was simple: I read only stories that were available online, and only stories written in 2010 so they’d be eligible to be nominated.

And I found two I loved! Along with a story I LOATHED but have to admit was very effectively written, plus lots that I liked pretty well, but not enough to nominate. Here are the two that I nominated:

Peter Watts’ “The Things”

and

Nikki Alfar’s “Bearing Fruit”

The former is an extremely clever riff on “Who Goes There?”, which is a great novella by John W Campbell that even I had read.

The latter is a delightful fairy-tale kind of story told in this really engaging second-person voice.

I loved them both, and now, hey, I actually care about which 2010 short story wins major awards!

But don’t blame me if you read Ponies and then have nightmares. I’m not kidding.

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