Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Is your writer’s block actually indecision?

From Jane Friedman’s blog: Is Your Writer’s Block Really Writer’s Indecision?

My instant reaction: Absolutely.

I’ve been stuck at 80,000 words or so for a particular SF novel for, I don’t know, it seems like practically forever and is certainly more than a year. Two years, maybe. I’ve written five to ten thousands more words several times, then deleted them. I have … six? … different versions that go in those different ways, all of which are wrong. I know they are wrong because I kept getting stuck. I’m not sure what the heck to do. This is the definition of “indecision.”

I do plan to get unstuck eventually because it’s driving me mad to have this much of a manuscript and then lock up and not finish it. I will most likely try to do that by leaping forward and writing a cool scene or three from the ending and then coming up with anything at all that will let me connect the the ending with the middle, then smoothing it out after I have SOMETHING. This would be easier if I knew what the ending was supposed to be in anything but the very broadest, vaguest terms.

A good many things are opaque to me, unfortunately, including not only the specifics of the ending but also the details of the secret plan of the pov protagonist AND the details of the secret plan of the other protagonist. I do know everybody has a secret plan; that part is quite definitely true.

Wow, am I stuck.

Anyway, let me see what this post says …

Now I am convinced that two things can hold me back (for years on some projects) and they are:

–not knowing the answers to crucial questions, and

–not knowing which questions were which in the first place.

Yep, this is sounding familiar. Lotta crucial questions I need to answer. Pretty sure I know which questions these are in my case. Like: What is he actually trying to achieve, and why? And, What are they trying to achieve, and why? Those are obviously pretty crucial questions.

Unless I can answer this, I can’t make progress. This question is like a wall I can’t get over without a ladder. If you are similarly stuck with your manuscript, attempt to identify these unanswered crucial questions.

Good advice for sure! I totally need to do that!

Okay, back to the linked post. Lots of different kinds of questions are delineated:

Crucial questions — I would say these are the ones that have to do with big motivations and intentions and conflicts.

Questions about consistency — “These questions shouldn’t hold you back because you can sort it out in the revision” — quite true, and that is why I boldface for continuity as I get close to the end of a manuscript. I don’t want to pause and do any checking or fixing; at that point, my whole attention is on finishing the draft as quickly as possible, after which I will scan back through for boldfaced words and phrases and fix this sort of thing.

Decisions disguised as questions — “Should I use Character B’s point of view in this scene? This translates into: I want to write some scenes from Character B’s point of view so I need to look again at my plan with this in mind, but it’s going to take me several days and I’d rather avoid it.”

Oh yeah, I’m very familiar with that one as well. “Should I replace this minor character with this other minor character?” Yes, but it’s going to be a pain and I’d rather avoid it.

Yes, this is very common. I nearly always leave this sort of thing until after the first draft is finished, but sometimes a particular thing I KNOW I need to fix bugs me so much I quit with forward progress and fix it.

Indecision masquerading as decisions — things like, whose viewpoint should this scene be in? Or where should this scene be set? This post says “just decide already.” I think that’s true. If you make a mistake, you can fix it later, but it’s probably better to risk making a mistake than let yourself get bogged down.

Problem questions — she means, how to get the plot to work out the way you want it to work out. I outline for this purpose. “Outline” is probably not the right term. I brainstorm/outline for this purpose. I rapidly type notes about “He does this because of that, and then this other thing, or maybe he does this because of that other reason.” Generally (not always) a couple paragraphs of this will help me sort out a minor plotting question. Big plotting questions are harder.

Sometimes I take the dogs for a walk, barring terrible weather. An hour of walking dogs while thinking about plotting problems usually helps. I worked out how to do the battle near the end of Tuyo while walking the dogs. I remember that because I was quite stuck when I started walking them and then I knew pretty much how to handle that scene by the time I finished walking the last set of dogs. I actually had no idea what any of the twists in that battle scene were going to be until I got there.

A couple other kinds of questions, plus more discussion, at the link. Click through if you’re interested! It’s quite a good post, though I really did pretty much know exactly why I was stuck on that one SF novel already. USUALLY all that big-scale stuff about plans and intentions and motivations is clear to me long before I get to this point. I think the real problem is that everybody’s plans are in fact secret and no one is talking about them, so I could put off figuring that out way, way too successfully.

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Recent reading: The Hands of the Emperor

Okay, so, this one is definitely going on my Top Two for 2020 list. In fact, I should take a stab at compiling a top ten list for 2020, just to see if that is possible. I read so few new-to-me books this year, it might be tricky. If I do a Top Whatever list at all, though, this book will certainly be on it. I read this as a reward for finishing the draft of Tarashana, and I am slowly re-reading it now.

900 pages, wow. And yet, I kept feeling mildly disappointed when the story skipped lightly over a couple years here or there. Definitely not too long. The pacing didn’t even seem slow, although actually I suppose it was.

Things to know about this story:

A) Nothing terrible happens. The story does become intense at times. Almost all the intensity has to do with relationships that are fundamentally becoming more solid over time.

B) The setting is superb. Want a story with a non-European setting? Here you go. Also, Goddard is magnificent with description.

C) No romance. Lots of friendships and lots (and lots) of family. Also, culture clash adds considerable complexity, another feature that is beautifully handled.

D) A fantastic main character. Cliopher is a genuine Great Man, who re-shapes the world over the course of the book. Unassailable integrity, diplomatic genius, vision, empathy, plus enough sheer nerve to invite the Sun-on-Earth to his home for a vacation.

E) A slowly unfolding backstory. A whole lot happened before this story opens. Cliopher is not a young man. We gradually hear more about his earlier life as we move forward in the main story. Goddard works all that backstory in so smoothly that it does not interfere with — in fact, enhances — the main storyline.

Overall conclusion: People, listen you have got to read this book.

Oh, fine, let me see. All right: if you love the Foreigner series, you have to try this. That’s the closest I can come. Except this one has fewer crises where anyone is shooting at anyone else.

Quibbles:

Suspension of disbelief gets a trifle strained here and there. In particular, Cliopher’s immediate family and closest friends remain unaware that he is the second most powerful man in the empire, even after:

  1. The emperor personally says, in their hearing, that Cliopher is the most important figure in the government.
  2. Cliopher’s nephew starts working for him, and knows with total clarity that Cliopher is this important. Even after that, the nephew’s mother, Cliopher’s sister, does not realize this.
  3. Halfway through the book, that sister and Cliopher’s mother and others are visiting and the sister says, in dawning comprehension, “Cliopher! Are you RUNNING THE GOVERNMENT?” And a friend whoops with laughter and says, “Are you just now realizing that?” Yet,
  4. Years later, Cliopher’s best friends back home still don’t have any idea he is important.

At that point, you just have to let this important, central, crucial relationship-building plot point go because there’s no way to believe it. A fig leaf is offered to explain this. That doesn’t make the situation actually believable (at all) but it helps a little.

Despite that quibble, this is definitely a wonderful book. After I finish re-reading it, I will certainly go on with others of Goddard’s books. In fact, I can’t wait.

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Giving Octavia E Butler the covers she deserves

A post at Literary Hub: How to Give Octavia Butler the Covers She Deserves

Then there were challenges specific to Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series. I’ve already mentioned the staggering scope of the series’ content, but there was also the difficulty of positioning. 

And the author of this post then discusses that, but I will sum it up briefly with what I personally think is the accurate description of the difficulty of positioning Butler’s work: she was, at the time of her death, moving from science fiction toward literary. This makes it hard for readers to know quite how to approach her earlier books, which were absolutely science fiction, especially if those readers kind of think literary is “better.”

There are multiple versions of the new covers at the linked post. It’s quite interesting to see how the concepts evolved from version to version. Here are the final versions.

I think these are really quite good! Very literary, yet holding on to something evocative of the stories. I like the cover for Wild Seed the best of these, but actually I think they are all good.

It’s been quite a while since I re-read anything of Butler’s. I know Fledgling kept coming up in posts here not that long ago, so really, I do want to re-read that one of these days. Of these four … hmm. Wild Seed is far and away my favorite. Patternmaster is far an away the weakest — you can really tell Butler wrote it early in her career. My actual favorites of Butler’s are the Oankali series, what is that actually called? The Lilith series? Oh, Lilith’s Brood series. Anyway, amazing books. The short story “Bloodchild” is one I’ve always loved and always remembered, too.

I’ve always been glad I picked up Survivor when it was first published. I know Butler wasn’t happy with it, but I’m glad to have read it and glad I can re-read it and it’s nearly impossible to get anymore. Used copies on Amazon start at well over $200 and go way up from there.

I’m sure you’ve all read all of Butler’s work, right? What was your favorite? Or least favorite?

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Managing multiple points of view

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog: How to Effectively Manage Multiple Narrators in Your Novel

This caught my eye because I generally have multiple point-of-view protagonists, but I don’t really think too much about managing this, it’s just how I (tend to) write. Let me see …

Winter of Ice and Iron has a bunch — more than usual. But actually, the much simpler City in the Lake also had more than two. So does House of Shadows.

Black Dog just has two, I’m pretty sure. After that, I think every Black Dog novel has more than two.

Each of the Griffin Mage novels has two. Or more. Two main pov protagonists, but I believe each of them may in fact have one or two minor pov characters as well.

The Mountain of Kept Memory has just two pov protagonists, I think. I’m pretty sure. The Floating Islands has just two.

What does that leave? I think only three:

  1. The Keeper of the Mist has only one protagonist all the way through. I think.
  2. The White Road of the Moon definitely only has one protagonist.
  3. And, of course, Tuyo only has one protagonist.

That’s it. Three out of however many. My overall default is most definitely to switch from one character to another while building the early chapters and then braid their stories together until I get to the end. Obviously there are big advantages to having multiple pov protagonists. In particular, you can directly show the reader more stuff without having to invent far-seeing magic. I suppose there are disadvantages, in that the reader may not like switching from one character’s head to another or may actively dislike one of the characters, of find one of them boring. But I don’t really think multiple pov protagonists are hard to manage, as such.

Let’s see what the author of this post thinks:

This particular book, you see, was entirely first-person narration (“I did this, I did that, I thought this,” etc.) with a crucial tweak: multiple narrators. … But here’s the thing that kept bugging me: all the narrators sounded pretty identical. They didn’t have enough flavor to distinguish themselves, so I found myself continually flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to ensure I was imagining the right person telling the story in my head. That lack of distinct “voice” caused the multiple narrators to mix together.

Oh! Yes, that is indeed a problem. This can actually be a problem in third-person narratives too, if multiple pov protagonists use the same pronouns. It’s rather rare that someone actually calls someone else by name — actually, if you pay attention, you’ll see that this is surprisingly rare in real life in many normal social interactions, so making it happen in fictional dialogue often sounds strained. But I grant that this is (yet another) reason why first person narratives may present additional challenges.

I’ve read books where I had to flip back in the same way, and yes, I don’t like that either.

This post continues:

Everyone speaks a little differently—use this. For example, I say “ain’t” all the time at home, but not at work. I don’t have a huge vocabulary; I get by on a thesaurus way more than any professional writer should. On the other hand, my wife uses a lot more big words (she read a dictionary for fun once, so she’s got me beat there!). 

Again, this is true for third-person narratives just as much as first-person narratives. Very much so. It’s not just the protagonists who ought to sound distinctive; it’s everybody. Can you imagine a dialogue where you couldn’t tell whether it was Grayson speaking versus Thaddeus, even if there were zero dialogue tags? No. No, you can’t. Their speaking styles are tremendously different.

You know what this is making me think of, though? Not exactly a first-person narrative, but kind of. It’s making me think of Freedom and Necessity by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull. This is an epistolary novel with four different narrators, and the speaking (writing, whatever) style of each character is quite distinctive. I’d say this is a good example of do this. Also, it’s a really great book in a lot of ways, if you want a whole lot of historical context and a tiny, tiny bit of fantasy.

Okay, the post continues:

As if planning out chapters wasn’t hard enough to begin with! Now, you have to make an even more crucial decision: who tells this part of the story? A single mistake here can come back to bite you during revisions, potentially throwing off the entire novel! So what do you do?

And that made me laugh a bit, because what you do is: write the chapter. And then, every now and then, rewrite it from someone else’s pov. And then, hopefully even less often, sometimes rewrite it again in yet another character’s pov. Wow, can that get tiresome. I think I swapped one scene in Copper Mountain four times, which may be a record, but there were several pov characters present in that scene, so it could go one way or another.

This post finishes up in a way I appreciate: with five examples of novels that do a great job handling different voices. This is the one that I particularly noticed:

The Shadows Alex North switches between third and first-person narration at crucial points. While it may feel jarring at first, this is becoming a more commonly accepted form of narration, so it’s worth studying from the best.

I noticed that because I’ve started a big, complex, fantasy novel in which I do this, and I’m glad to hear that this is becoming more accepted, because I was pretty tentative about trying it. I hope I will have time to pick up this particular project in the coming year.

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Belief in Santa Claus

At Crime Reads, this post:

On December 20th, 1935, the sixty-one-year old novelist and big-time Catholic G.K. Chesterton published an open letter in The Commonweal, an English liberal Catholic magazine. His article, which ran for just two columns, was entitled “Santa Claus and Science.” It begins with a lament, a ruing that many young children fall into disillusionment following the discovery of the non-existence of Santa Claus, and it works its way to a surprising thesis statement, that Chesterton himself did veritably believe in Santa Claus.

The natural belief that children readily possess should not be snuffed out, he posits, but encouraged and developed. He concluded his essay with the following demand: “Cannot the child pass from a child’s natural fancy to a man’s normal faith in Holy Nicholas of the Children, without enduring that bitter break and abrupt disappointment which no wmarks [sic] the passage of a child from a land of make-believe to a world of no belief?”

Here’s a link to Chesterton’s full article, and Merry Christmas!

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Favorite Christmas dessert by state

Here is one of those fun posts that surveys people in different states and gives each state a favorite whatever. In this case, it’s the favorite Christmas dessert or other sweet.

Some I simply do not believe, but wait for it. First:

The overall favorite, taking first place at a whopping nine states: cheesecake. Very sensible! Very appropriate! Cheesecake is not really a Christmas thing for me. It’s an all-occasion thing. I made a cheesecake for my mother’s birthday earlier this month, with a brownie base, a cheesecake layer, and a raspberry topping. Luckily I guessed exactly right about baking times and both the brownie part and the cheesecake part were perfect. I was pretty much making up the recipe, so that was a relief.

Meanwhile, second place, red velvet cake, in three southern states.

I do have some quibbles:

Worst phrasing for an entry: “pudding.” I mean, really, “pudding?” Do they mean chocolate pudding or bread pudding or what? “Pudding” should not be poured together in one amorphous category like this. Shame on the people who put this survey together.

Also, some very inappropriate choices that absolutely do not belong on this kind of survey: hot chocolate, eggnog. It doesn’t matter what people like or how seasonal a drink may be, if you drink it out of a mug, it is not a dessert. The survey does say “treats,” but I still feel it is just wrong to put drinks on a map that is really more for desserts.

Now: The Entry I Do Not Believe —

Missouri: Vegan Christmas Cookies.

COME ON. YOU MUST BE JOKING. THERE IS NO WAY.

Who exactly filled out this survey in Missouri? There are zero states where this would make sense. I wouldn’t believe this of California, far less Missouri.

I don’t believe Washington State either. That’s not a Christmas treat at all! Take a minute to guess what this might be. Then click through and take a look. You will be wrong. Not a single person in the universe would ever guess this item, even though from reading this paragraph you will already know it is not a Christmas-related dessert.

Now, if your family makes special sweets or desserts for Christmas, what are your favorites?

Mine: super fancy cookies I spend a month making.

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Finished!

Finally!

I finished the draft of Tarashana last night. Then I looked at it this morning, fiddled a lot with the last bit and the parts that lead up to the last bit, and called it good.

Will the ending evolve a little further? Probably. Will it basically stay as it is? Probably — hopefully!

Lots of revision before anyone sees it. But whew! Completing a draft is a huge big deal, even the draft of a much shorter work, and this one is ridiculously long.

The only question is: revise at once or work on something else first? Not sure. I guess I will find out as early as this afternoon.

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So bad it’s good

Or at least, so bad it turns into a cult classic: One-star wonders: how to make a film that’s so bad it’s good

Anyone can make a bad movie. But … it takes something special to make a turkey that stands the test of time.

I’ve seen Attack of the Killer Tomatoes a couple of times. Also Plan Nine from Outer Space. That may be it for the so-bad-they’re-good movies I’ve seen.

Happy 30th birthday to cult favourite Troll 2, a film that famously features no trolls. Speaking of birthdays, 2020 also saw Showgirls turn 25. Once deemed so-bad-it’s-good, it has now been enthusiastically reclaimed as a work of misunderstood genius. Xanadu, the calamitous roller-disco extravaganza that paired Olivia Newton-John on skates with the Electric Light Orchestra, turns 40 this year, and has not yet been reclaimed as anything other than a nightmare. But there’s still time.

Ha ha ha! I don’t remember ever hearing about Troll 2. Did Troll 1 feature trolls? Let me see, Wikipedia says: Troll’s plot has no relation to the film Troll 2 or the two Troll 3 films, which are intended to be more horror than fantasy. Its first “sequel“, Troll 2, produced under the title Goblins, is considered one of the worst films of all time,[8] and was retitled Troll 2 to cash in on the success of the original. Over time, it has developed a cult following.

One of the worst movies of all time! Maybe I should rent it sometime.

Here’s what the linked post says about the new-ish Cats movie, which really, after reading this post, I am reminded I really did kind of want to see it:

There are many reasons Cats turned out the way that it did – most of them not wildly flattering to anyone involved – but you cannot accuse it of attempting to secure a kind of hollow cult status through a deliberate bid for badness. … This is a film that was attempting to secure Academy Awards; a film that was hoping Jennifer Hudson’s tremulous, ugly-crying version of Memory would potentially hit the same spot with Oscar voters as Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream in Les Misérables.

Instead, from the moment that the first trailer dropped, audiences responded with shock. The whole thing shimmered with uncanny energy. The cats had fur, but were shaped like humans, with human hands, but cat ears and tails. There was a sense of dancers gliding past the floor rather than being located in an actual physical space, like the whole thing was taking place in a kind of DayGlo limbo, and quite clearly none of its extraordinary oddness was part of the plan. It was meant to be a festive treat for the family. The marketing insisted, with a dollop of impressive Stockholm syndrome energy: “This Christmas, you will believe.”

Has anyone seen this movie adaptation? What did you think? Sounds like it hit dead center in the uncanny valley.

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Posting will be lightish

Merry Christmas!

Photo by Chris Maddon on Unsplash

I will say that again later, but for me, Christmas Break start tomorrow, so posting will be light for the next month. I have some posts scheduled and I will be checking in via my phone and perhaps doing some very short posts that way. But mainly, I will be a hermit, tucked away with many spaniels and possibly some hot chocolate, plus my laptop.

Lots to work on! And I guess there’s a holiday embedded in this break somewhere as well, which I will probably notice when it arrives.

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Self-publishing survey

An interesting survey from Written Word Media, which is the organization that runs Freebooksy. This is the best book promotion site I have personally discovered so far, other than Book Bub. Promoting a book through Freebooksy is also the most expensive way to buy a promotion that I know of, other than Book Bub. Given the good results of the Halloween promotion of Black Dog, effects some of which lasted right through November, I will certainly use Freebooksy again. But at the moment I just want to pull out a detail from their survey.

Here is how we have defined our author stages.

Stage One: $0-$249 per month

Stage Two: $250-$999 per month

Stage Three: $1,000-$4,999 per month

Stage Four: $5,000-$9,999 per month

Stage Five: Over $10,000 per month

Yes, those seem like pretty reasonable categories. The survey does not give the number of authors in each category, unfortunately. I think all the authors participating in this survey have purchased a Freebooksy promotion, but I’m not actually sure whether they said that or whether it was something I just assumed.

Now, the survey offers various comments regarding the methods by which authors advertise their books — that’s their specific interest, after all — and average amounts spent on cover art and design and so on and so forth. Click through and read the whole thing if you’re interested. I just want to note a single detail: average number of books out for authors in each category.

Here is how we have defined our author stages.

Stage One: $0-$249 per month — average number of books out, six

Stage Two: $250-$999 per month — average number of books out, seventeen

Stage Three: $1,000-$4,999 per month — average number of books out, twenty-nine

Stage Four: $5,000-$9,999 per month — average number of books out, thirty-six

Stage Five: Over $10,000 per month — average number of books out, forty-two

So, that is one heck of a difference in numbers of books published, isn’t it?

  1. Category one: 6 books
  2. Category two: 3x as many, by far the biggest jump.
  3. Category three: 1.7x as many again
  4. Category four: 1.4x as many again
  5. Category five: 1.2x as many again, and also, 7x as many as the average for category one.

Given that, does anything else matter?

It turns out that the answer there is yes. The difference in royalties per month per book is not as great, but larger than my initial impression, which was pretty much: Wow, forty-two books, no wonder they earn a lot more in royalties.

Let’s take the high end of each royalty category. If you have six books out and make $250 per month total, that is an average of $42 per month per book. If you have 42 books out and make $10,000 per month, that is $238 per book, five and a half times the income per book, so the other stuff you’re doing is probably making a difference. This could be cover art or advertising or a combination of these and other things, but part of it is probably that you may be writing pretty decent books, if you’ve been at it long enough to write forty-two of them.

Naturally I can’t help but immediately assess how this might apply to me.

I have eleven books out, depending on how you count. Some are not very important in generating income. Door Into Light is, of course, the second book in a duology, and since I don’t have the rights to the first book, it’s unlikely to ever generate a lot of income for me. I can’t run sales on House of Shadows, though certainly I can point out periodically that House of Shadows is $1.99 for the ebook on Amazon, which, by the way, it is. In fact, H of S is also $1.99 right now for the Nook version at Barnes and Noble. Hachette seems to be leaving my ebooks priced very low a lot of the time at major distributers, for which I’m quite grateful. I hope they keep that up, especially as the paper copy of the Griffin Mage omnibus is astronomically expensive, comparatively.

Beyond the Dreams We Know, is, as a collection, never going to sell a lot of copies. It just isn’t. I knew that perfectly well when I wrote those stories and brought out the collection.

The Black Dog collections aren’t ever going to do all that much either, though I like them (many of those stories, I like a lot). I’m glad I wrote all those stories and I’ll be bringing out a fourth collection next year, I expect. I have one novella written for that.

If you take out those books, then I have six (self-published) books available: four Black Dog novels and two Tuyo novels. Next year that number should jump to at least ten as I add the Tenai trilogy and the third Tuyo book. (Also the fourth Black Dog story collection, but I’m not really counting that because first, it’s a collection, and second, it’s not finished.)

There is a pretty good possibility I will have another novel, possibly even two, ready by fall of next year. That will not be the fifth Black Dog novel. That is not only not finished, it’s not started. I’m sure I’ll be working on it in 2021, but I am very (very) unlikely to have it ready by the end of the year. But there are a couple of other things that might be ready much sooner.

So … I’m pretty pleased, overall, with how fast I can bring up my number of self-published titles now that I have really decided to do that; and I’m cautiously optimistic about the income stream that may generate for me. I don’t really want to quit my day job. But I do want that to be a viable option by 2022. Among other things, I could take the dogs for long walks more often.

And, yes, I could also write more.

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