Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Voice

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog: Doublespeak: A Look at Voice

The post begins this way:

I recall reading my first book by a best-selling author. A male character discovered a young girl, about 5 years old, who had been left to die in the woods. He brings her to his cabin and finds she cannot or will not speak. I was impressed with the way the character spoke to the child—it seemed exactly how someone should deal with that situation. However, as more characters entered the story, I discovered that he spoke that way to all of them. Not only that, almost every character in the book spoke with that same “Talking to a Child” voice. Obviously, it doesn’t bother the millions who buy her books, but it bugged the heck out of me. And it’s consistent with all her books in that series. It wasn’t just a one-time deal.

This made me pause, because it reminds me so strongly of a specific very popular author. I read a lot of his books a long time ago. Eventually it dawned on me that all his protagonists, male or female, any age, any species, all sounded exactly alike. They phrased things the same way and also looked at things the same way, with the same reactions and the same values. Once I noticed it, this bugged the heck out of me. I gave away all the books I owned by this author and never looked at another book he wrote.

Anybody got a guess about who that is? This is someone who started writing in the late sixties and was still bringing out new books as recently as a couple of years ago. One extremely long series plus a whooooole lot of other work. Fantasy and SF.

Anyway, that’s not quite what the linked post is about. That post is actually about making sure characters sound different from each other within one story, and on the phenomenon of recognizing an author’s work via their consistent stylistic choices. Both of those are interesting, but still, now I’m interested in the above phenomenon of an author who gives all their characters or all their protagonists the same voice. Have any of you noticed that? Did it bug you when you did?

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Unreliable narrators

From Reedsy Blog: What is an Unreliable Narrator: Definition and Examples

Fiction that makes us question our own perceptions can be powerful. An unreliable narrator can create a lot of grey areas and blur the lines of reality, allowing us to come to our own conclusions.

Fallible storytellers can also create tension by keeping readers on their toes — wondering if there’s more under the surface, and reading between the lines to decipher what that is. Unreliable narrators can make for intriguing, complex characters: depending on the narrator’s motivation for clouding the truth, readers may also feel more compelled to keep reading to figure out why the narrator is hiding things.

The linked post pulls out three basic types of unreliable narrators:

–Deliberately deceptive

–Deceptive because unable or unwilling to face the truth and therefore providing a slanted version of the story

–The narrator is just wrong about what is going on

I’m willing to accept those categories. Let me see. A handful of novels leap to mind when I think of unreliable narrators:

Chime by Franny Billingsley. The link goes to a review that I think is good, in the sense that I felt pretty much the same way about the book: I admired many things about it, but did not actually like it. I didn’t like the narrator — self-loathing is not my favorite characteristic in a narrator, and I thought it was SO clear that the stepmother was evil that I couldn’t help feeling that Briony ought to have figured that out well before she did. I realize that is not quite fair to Briony, but there it is. This would fit the second category.

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind them All by Laura Ruby features a wonderfully unreliable ghost narrator. This also fits the second category, but, not sure why, I liked the book a good deal better. I was certainly shocked to find out the truth about certain things, even though Ruby totally played fair and after the fact I thought I should have caught on much faster than I did. Anyway, this story is rather grim, but not actually tragic.

A lot of books by Dorothy Dunnett have highly unreliable narrators, either because the first-person narrator is not mentioning something very, very important about herself (Dolly and the Singing Bird and Dolly and the Bird of Paradise) or because the third-person pov protagonists are just completely wrong about the opaque protagonist (Lymond series, Niccolo series). So the Dolly books feature the first type of unreliable narrator and the historicals feature the third type.

Elizabeth Wein brilliantly pulls of an unusual twist on the unreliable narrator in Code Name Verity. The link goes to Jacqueline Carey’s review of this book. Again, this is an example of the narrator being deliberately (very) deceptive.

What springs to mind for you when it comes to unreliable narrators?

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Progress report: Progress!

So, today I should be finalizing the formatting for Tarashana in Kindle and (much, much more annoying) KDP.

There are always these weird random things that come up with formatting the paperback version. Two blank pages for no possible reason, so that you wind up having to take out the page break there and then poof! There is a correct page break and no extra blank page. No, there is no extra page break or section break or anything in the file. KDP just thinks there is.

Also, page numbers stopped at page 420, for unclear reasons, so again, have to first notice that and then go back to the manuscript and tell it, no, really, continue page numbers. No idea why that happened.

Once more flipping through every page to look for any remaining widows and orphans. Also other places page numbers might have vanished, since evidently that is a thing.

Did I remember to put in page numbers for the table of contents? (Yes.)

Did I remember to update the acknowledgment section? (I think so, but if you notice I left our your name, oops, I’m sorry, let me know and I will add your name!)

So, I should finish that this morning. As soon as the cover is finalized, I will put this book up for preorder. Probably for release on the 15th. I asked the cover artist to try one more minor change just so I can see how it looks and then it will be ready.

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Writer survey

At Writer Unboxed, this: That Thing You Do: Results of a Survey on Process

This post describes the results of a non-rigorous poll about highly productive vs less productive writers. The first question began like this: On average over the last five years, how many pages have you written per year? (Generated, not polished and published)

The categories were:

  1. produce about 1/4 of a novel per year;
  2. 1/4-1/2 of a novel per year;
  3. 1 novel per year;
  4. more than 1 novel per year.

Number of words would be better, as “a novel” can cover a lot of ground. However, whatever, no matter how you measure productivity, I’m in the last category nearly all the time. Some years have been exceptions. In fact, I think the year before I wrote Tuyo, I wrote very little and felt generally stuck on everything. One more reason I particularly love Tuyo is possibly that it broke me out of that stuckness.

Anyway, what I expected was something like: less productive writers tend to have more family obligations; eg, if you have three-year-old triplets, I bet you don’t get as much writing done as a hermit like me. The writers I know personally who are mothers of young children definitely do not get as many words written per day or year as I do, and how could they? But it’s not what this survey focused on. This survey was more about habits of thought, as so:

  1. High producers were much more likely to muse about creative work when doing other daily things.
  2. High producers were much more likely to purposefully think about creative work, in a consciously thoughtful way, when they are away from their desks.
  3. High producers were much more likely to jot notes when away from their desk about their creative work.
  4. High producers were much more likely to have figured out situations most conducive to being hit by a great idea and create them, actively.
  5. High producers were much more likely to report having moments in their creative work when they hit a kind of “flow” and were less aware of their surroundings, sometimes even the passage of time, because they were lost in the work.
  6. High producers were much more likely to work on multiple large-scale projects at once.

Okay, I totally muse about the WIP (ideally) or other works that are in theory not currently in progress (less helpful) when doing other daily things. This is something I bet is much harder for, say, parents of three-year-old triplets. Parents with young children surely have a lot of daily tasks where they absolutely cannot focus on their WIP, so I expect things like this overlap with my initial thought about the direction this survey might take.

For me, the daily tasks that are most helpful in this regard are walking dogs and driving. Sometimes I listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but a lot of the time I listen to music with the volume turned down pretty low and write a scene in my head. I totally figured out the battle scene in Tuyo by getting stuck on it, quitting, taking the dogs out for a long walk, and figuring it out. Before the walk, no idea. After the walk, all the basic elements of that battle were clear. (That was a particularly productive walk, which is why I remember it).

That counts as #2 as well, as I certainly closed down my computer in order to purposefully think about that scene. Oh, it also counts as #4. I know perfectly well that taking the dogs for a walk is a good time to sort out a challenging scene. I think #2 and #4 are very similar.

Now, #3, not so much. I jot down notes rather seldom. Largely that happens when I’m near the ending of a book and things about the climax and denouement are occurring to me all the time. Can’t turn around without something occurring to me. At that point, I need a little notebook. Other than that, I seldom write a physical note to myself.

Flow is great when it happens. Love that. Can’t count on it. A book I really enjoy produces a lot of moments of flow. Or put that the other way around: a book that produces a lot of flow is highly enjoyable to work on.

That was, among others, almost all of Tuyo, a lot of Tarashana, the middle of Shadow Twin, some of Miguel’s scenes in Copper Mountain, quite a bit of Winter of Ice and Iron, and the last 250 pages Death’s Lady. Come to think of it, the end of the Death’s Lady trilogy is the only other thing I’ve ever written at the same speed as Tuyo, by the way. I wrote the last 240 pages in 19 days, as I recall. I hit 30 pages a day a couple of days, which is (very) unusual for me. I think I have hit that number of pages per day exactly four times in my life, twice for Death’s Lady and twice for Tuyo.

But I have written entire books without ever hitting flow, just grinding through a minimum wordcount every day. Not very often. Maybe twice. Those books do not wind up as my personal favorites; the memory of the grinding effort is too clear when I think about them. But readers don’t seem to be able to tell.

Now, #6. I didn’t used to do that, but right now that’s very true. I would say, though, that I prefer to settle down and live in one WIP at a time. If my attention gets pulled in too many directions at once, it can be hard to complete one relatively brief project because a different project is distracting.

Case in point: This morning, did I work on that chapter I need to finish for the Death’s Lady trilogy? Nope. I figured out the Black Dog novella that will feature Tommy, Amira, and Nicholas and that distracted me too much. On the plus side, I now really expect there will be a novella about those kids because now I know what happens in the story, which I didn’t yesterday. So there’s that.

One more tidbit from the survey particularly tickled me:

Though the internet posed problems for both groups, the less productive group reported it was much more of an issue.

Ha, yes, well, this is a big reason I have not pursued getting better internet from my home. This is a lot less of a distraction than it could be.

Lots more at the linked post. Let me see. Oh, look at this:

  1. High producers were much more likely to report they have a chip on their shoulders — perhaps an insecurity from deep in childhood — that drives them. (Yes, I asked this question)
  2. High producers were more likely to report that they are hypochondriacs and fear they might die abruptly and/or will become senile and this pushes them to write.
  3. High producers were much less likely to believe in innate talent and more likely to state firmly that they need to write.
  4. Both groups reported that they clearly remember stories from their own past and stories that people have told them, just as both groups seemed to equally report that if someone were to name an object or type of event, they would have a series of stories that would naturally pop up into their minds.
  5. Both groups generally affirmed that they feel healthier mentally when they’ve written, though the higher producers were more emphatic.

That’s really interesting because none of that applies to me. Absolutely none. I don’t even think I particularly clearly remember stories, though that is less false than the others. This “need to write” thing in particular has never made sense to me. I don’t feel that way at all. It’s got to tie into the “healthier mentally thing.” I bet everybody answers one way or the other on both those. Nope, I don’t feel that at all. That may be why I sometimes take a break of two months to four months or longer and don’t touch the laptop at all for that whole time. If a break goes on too long, I may feel guilty for not writing, but I sure as heck don’t feel mentally less healthy or like I have to write. Never.

Moving on:

Two things about lifestyle. 

  1. High producers were much more likely to purposefully keep their lives simple so that their creative life takes hold.
  2. High producers were much more likely to eat while writing or take breaks to eat.

I very specifically and deliberately keep my life simple. That is absolutely true.

The other point there seems trivial. If you spend more time writing, you will naturally intersect mealtimes more often, yes? I will add that if you are experiencing flow, you don’t want to stop, so you are probably more likely to bring food to the laptop rather than shutting the laptop down.

When it came to criticism:

  1. High producers were more likely to report that they have gotten more immune/numb/less affected by rejection/criticism over the years.
  2. High producers were much more likely to seek out criticism and to continue to work while waiting for others to respond to their work.

I don’t take rejections from acquiring editors personally — I never have. More importantly, I don’t expect anybody to like every single book I ever write. I don’t think that’s numbness. That’s just reality. I don’t like every single thing anybody else writes (generally speaking), so why expect anybody else to love every single thing I write.

And of course I work on other things while waiting for any beta reader or proofreader to get back to me. I mean, hello, what, just stop? Who does that? I guess that would sure drop a writer’s productivity all right. That never occurred to me.

Okay! More at the linked post, if you’re interested.

The survey questions are given. I like that! That’s important particularly with surveys, when a poorly written question can give an odd result or where the provided choices can skew the results. I do notice this one:

I believe in the importance of innate talent.

  1. Never 2. Rarely 3. Occasionally 4. Often 5. Very Often

Oh, come on. Change the answers to fit the questions, please! You mean:

  1. Not at all 2. A bit 3. Somewhat 4. Strongly 5. Very strongly

Honestly, if you’re writing survey questions, either write each and every question so that it does in fact fit the choices, or change the choices to fit the questions you are asking.

Nevertheless, interesting post, if you like surveys about writing!

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Clerics in fantasy

Here’s a post by Paul Weimer at tor.com: Priestess of a Lesser Goddess: H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke

The basic four archetypes for a D&D-like party are the Fighter, the Rogue, the Wizard and the Cleric. In secondary world fantasy novels, the first three are very well represented, to the point of many variations and subclasses and versions of same. But the Cleric is far rarer. It’s not that there are none, mind you, but they are far, far less common as protagonists….

Okay, first, this review makes the novel sound interesting and good. Paul says: “Hall of Smoke is then a story of redemption, of growth, of discovery, of questioning one’s beliefs and trying to come to find what one does believe in, and acting on those beliefs.”

Good reviews on Amazon, too. It’s a little hard to tell if this book has the sort of ending I would appreciate. It’s especially hard to tell because I prefer not to have many spoilers for a book and therefore hesitate to read through too many reviews because honestly, someone is bound to say something I would rather not know. It’s a debut novel, so there’s no way to trust the author based on her previous work.

Well, I’ll pick up a sample, and if any of you happen to read this book, let me know what you think! A basic thumbs up or thumbs down would be perfect.

Now, moving on: It’s obviously true that in fantasy novels, priests, priestesses, and clerics aren’t nearly as common as thieves and fighters. Paul has a theory about why that is, which he mentioned in the linked post, but I’m not sure I’m persuaded. Never mind, though; the thing is, that makes me want to point out some fantasy novels where a priest or priestess or cleric is the protagonist. A few do come to mind! In no order:

1) Pasksenarrion. At the beginning a foot soldier, by the ending a paladin of Gird, the original trilogy still stands out as one of Elizabeth Moon’s best works.

2) Extremely different in every way except that it’d still be shelved in the fantasy section: From All False Doctrine, one of my favorite books last year.

3) The Five Gods novels and novellas, obviously.

4) Not the same, but in The Tombs of Atuan, my favorite LeGuin novel. True, the god is not one anybody decent would want to worship. True, by the end Tenar opposes the god. Still, at the beginning she’s a child-priestess, though the story is one of her movement away from that role.

5) Oh, should have thought of these earlier, but the Deryni series has lots of important characters, including pov protagonists, who are priests. I don’t find these books have held up as well as various others and perhaps should give my copies away. In particular, Camber is really not an admirable character, something I’m not sure Kurtz realizes, and that makes it hard to enjoy the later books set in this world.

6) The Wheel of the Infinite. In contrast, Maskelle is one of my favorite protagonists of all time, never mind one of my favorite priestesses.

7) The Killing Moon/The Shadowed Sun features an important assassin-priest. I should re-read this duology, which I liked a lot.

8. Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow and Children of God are really good … in some ways … and feature a priest as a major protagonist. I doubt I’ll ever be able to nerve myself up enough to re-read these, though. Oh, plus, now that I think of it, they’re SF rather than fantasy.

Well, that’s eight! I’m running low. What other fantasy (or, I guess, SF) novels feature priests, priestesses, paladins, or clerics of whatever sort as protagonists?

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Progress Report

I look back wistfully on the day, not so long ago, where I thought I could JUST edit out typos in the Tenai trilogy and it’d be good to go. Sigh.

First, I’ve done a lot more line editing than I expected (or wanted) to do.

Then, this morning I went through the whole of the long third book, redid the chapters — there were 17 chapters per 440 pages and now there are 28 chapters — then rearranged these shorter chapters to alternate the viewpoint most of the time, then cut about half a chapter and added a placeholder chapter that at the moment consists of a two-line summary of what needs to happen in that chapter.

Elaine, it was your advice that made me do all the above. Kim, thanks for pointing out a good place to break books two and three. I hadn’t realized that Jenna didn’t take any pov chapters until quite late in the main story, so that breaking the two books right before her first pov section would make sense. That’s how the story is now arranged. So now:

  1. The Year’s Midnight (plus an interlude) — 200 pp
  2. Of Absence, Darkness — 300 pp
  3. As Shadow, a Light — 440 pp (or so).

Well, that’s okay, I think. Especially since in ebook format, it’s hard to tell how long a book is anyway.

Anyway, goal for this week: write that missing chapter — I trust it will be short — and skim through the whole of the third book to check flow and make sure I didn’t accidentally delete a chapter while rearranging the manuscript. Then go through and correct typos for the second book and make a proof copy.

So, yeah, Tarashana is very definitely going to come out before the Death’s Lady trilogy. No question. I’ve seen a first draft cover for Tarashana and it was good, so I’m expecting to finalize that pretty soon. I suggested either a golden eagle or — because the most important eagle appears in the land of the shades and is white — a white bird of prey; ie, a gyrfalcon. White gyrfalcons look extremely dramatic:

Photo from Pixabay: GYRFALCON

Also, I have to say, doesn’t “gyrfalcon” look like a fantasy word? Hard to believe a bird with that name actually exists. This is pretty much exactly how the white eagle is described in the book, except of course a real gyrfalcon is somewhat less otherworldly. So, at the moment, the cover of Tarashana features a gyrfalcon and that is probably how it will stay.

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Short fiction

From Writer Unboxed: Focus on Short Fiction

Just glancing at the linked post, this bit caught my eye:

Bad Reasons to Write Short Stories

Short stories are great for your career, they say. Start with short fiction, they say, to

  • Build your publication credits
  • Help new audiences find you
  • Let editors know you’re serious
  • Raise your profile by winning contests
  • Keep your novel fans happy in between books

And I thought, whoa, that last one looks weird to me. That looks like a GOOD reason to write shorter works. Admittedly, I’m biased, as I’m basically certain I won’t have time this year to write the still-untitled-but-surely-soon-this-will-be-settled 5th Black Dog novel. I mean, I will start it, and I may make considerable headway, I don’t know, but I’m positive I won’t have time to write it and revise it and get feedback and revise it again and so on. No. Too many other things I also want to work on, and October starts to look right around the corner when I think of trying to fit all that work into the months in between March 1 and October 31. So in that case, it sure looks to me like it’s better to bring out a collection of Black Dog stories than nothing. Right? That would be true even if it weren’t time for another collection, which it is.

Now, I grant that many (most? nearly all?) readers who prefer novels don’t much care for short stories. So what I’m thinking of is an exception: shorter work related to the novels in a series. Probably it’s not a totally fair think to think of that particular category of short story in this context.

The rest of the linked post is fine — it’s largely about the difference between novels and short work, and advice for novelists trying to write short work, and for short story writers to move into longer forms. This is all fine and sure, it’s a good post. But now I’m thinking about my own shorter works. I suspect that a majority of readers who like the Black Dog novels do read the Black Dog story collections — and I suspect that relatively few of those readers ever take a look at the stories in Beyond the Dreams We Know. So I do think it’s true that relatively few readers who prefer novels will look at a shorter work unless:

a) It’s a longish novella by an author they particularly like; eg, the Murderbot novellas;

b) It’s a story that takes place in the world of a novel they already like.

Let me see. Hmm. Okay, Beyond the Dreams has sold 28% as many copies as Black Dog Short Stories I. Actually, 28% is better than I would have expected. That’s not too far under a third as many. That’s not bad for stories unconnected to a specific series. Especially since the BD story collection has been out longer.

Somewhat oddly, I don’t see a straightforward list of Good Reasons to Write Short Fiction at the linked post. Obviously the best reason is:

Good Reasons to Write Short Stories
  • The story you feel like writing turns out to be short
  • Writing a short story lets you focus on secondary characters in a connected world
  • Writing a short story lets you write something in a world you enjoy without having to commit to writing a whole novel.
  • Some readers will indeed discover your work through reading the stories in a collection.
  • A story or collection of stories helps keeps fans of your novels happy in between novels.

See? That last one is a good reason to write short stories and novellas, not a bad reason.

Raise your hand if you particularly like one or a couple of the Black Dog shorter works compared to the novels. Anybody? I’m betting it’s actually everybody. My own hand is definitely up.

Personally, I particularly like the stories that let Ezekiel get to be a pov character.

Also the ones that give Ethan the pov. I only wrote “Bank Job” because I thought Ethan was getting a raw deal, always being shown as nothing but Grayson’s jerk nephew, and I wanted to let him be seen in a more positive way. I had no idea he and Thaddeus were going to be a great team for the rest of the series, but here we are. The novella already written for the next collection is an Ethan pov story.

Keziah’s story was extremely difficult to write, but I think it came out well. Carissa’s story with Keziah was also difficult, but I really like that one too. They may wind up working together on a regular basis, who knows?

If you’ve got a favorite Black Dog story, which one is it?


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Black Dog #5 Title, part three

You’re all sure doing the heavy lifting.

You know what I like right now — a variant on one of your suggestions, Jeanine —

Blue Mandala.

There is absolutely no blue mandala right now, but hey, there could be. Sandstone is right that there is almost a color thing going right now. So how does that sound, to those of you who are commenting about clunky rhythm? I’m not hearing clunkiness with “mandala” myself, but since several of you are, how about it when the word comes second?

Now, I do agree “Silver” has potential. After all, we already know silver is a supernaturally potent metal, so that’s good. Plus “silver” has a lot of fantasy connotations just in general. I’m not particularly a fan of “spiral” in these titles, but Silver Circle … hmm.

“Moon” has potential too. “White Moon Rising” sounds good to me, but is three words, so that’s really not appropriate for the series.

Natividad has always called the shape she draws a pentagram, not a pentacle. That’s a bit unfortunate because I can’t get “pentagram” to sound good in a title.

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Black Dog Book 5 Title

Okay, you were all extremely helpful a few days ago in getting me to think about this title in a different way.

I want to say that up front, because the titles that have occurred to me now don’t use any of your suggestions directly. Nevertheless, thinking about “light” and “moon” and so on gave me a different direction.

I wrote down all your suggestions and related two-word titles that occurred to me, about a dozen total, and gazed at them. I started with Blood Witch — my first idea — and added False Witch and Witch Moon and Moon Bound (too cliched, I know!) and Moon Rising and so on. Also Light Rising and Binding Light and things like that.

Then I gazed at the current titles: Black Dog, Pure Magic, Shadow Twin, Copper Mountain. All of those have either adjective-noun or noun-noun, so I decided I had better make the second word a noun. The first word seemed to allow more flexibility. So I tried titles involving Light, including Dawn Light and Rising Dawn and Rising Light

Then I thought about the number of syllables. One-one, one-one, two-one, two-two. So there isn’t a really rigid requirement for number of syllables, just number of words.

THEN I thought abut stuff that is important all the way through the series and can be assumed to be important for Book 5 as well, or if necessary made to be important — at least important enough to justify inclusion in the title. Not only things like demons, but things like — mandalas, pentagrams, spirals, circles.

So now I am thinking of this for the fifth book:

MANDALA DAWN

Or some other two-word title with mandala in it.

There, that is a LOT less evocative of horror. Whatever happens in Book 5, I expect mandalas will be drawn. What do you all think?

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