Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Top Ten Romances That Are NOT Love at First Sight

So, I happened across Brandy’s post on Best First Encounters this morning.

Very appropriate for Valentine’s Day, which I’m sure was not a coincidence when The Broke and the Bookish chose their weekly theme.

Brandy’s post is, as it says, Favorite First Encounters. Some of these I recognize and they are so charming, especially Matt and Layla from Once Upon a Rose. What a warm, snuggly romance that is.

But I started thinking about the literary romances I’ve encountered, where I most appreciated the actual start of the romance … and you know what? The further away that moment gets from Love At First Sight, the better I seem to like it. Every first encounter that sprang to mind for me was so very far removed from the LAFS trope. Absolutely zero Instant Hotness in my picks! Here are some of my favorites, pretty much in the order I thought of them:

1. The Touchstone trilogy, in which Cassandra hardly notices Kaoren the first time she sees him. It takes ages and ages before he really pings her radar. I love how their relationship has to develop from a base of zero attraction.

2. The Goblin Emperor, in which first the marriage is politically arranged without regard for the feelings of the participants, and then Csethiro initially thinks he’s too stupid to bother getting to know him … there’s one relationship that has to actually start with negative attraction between the two people involved!

3. The Beacon at Alexandria, in which Athanaric actually believes Charis is a eunuch for ages before discovering she is a woman. That’s quite an obstacle for their relationship!

4. Shards of Honor, which is much more a classic romance in that the reader would have to be pretty dense not to see the romance coming from practically the first meeting, even though one would hardly call it a “meet cute.” The whole story is a romance, of course, in the fairly standard enemies-fall-in-love subgenre, but developed so, so well and with not even a faint nod toward the love-at-first-sight thing.

5. In Troubled Waters, Zoe hardly pays any attention to Darien for a long time — she’s grieving for her father and not interested in romance at all. I love how this relationship develops so slowly and almost in the background of the story.

6. Attachments. Lincoln reading Beth’s private emails: what a weird and stalkery way to develop a relationship. Rowell manages to bring this off. There’s actually a love-at-first-sight kind of reveal at the end which … I can see why Rowell put it in, she did it to justify Beth ever talking to Lincoln after finding out about the email, but I wish she’d come up with a different means of handling this. But a love-at-first sight thing doesn’t bother me as much, apparently, if it’s veeeeery thoroughly hidden from the reader.

7. In Powers, Albert and Melissa el Hajj are in a unique situation. This looks like one kind of story and then goes off in a different direction. The slow development of the relationship is one among many elements that Burton pulls off perfectly.

8. Ooookay, I admit, this is a love-at-first-sight moment, but one that actually worked for me: Island of Ghosts. Ariantes falls for Pervica the moment he sees her, but (a) he is waking up after nearly dying, and (b) suddenly discovering he is glad to be alive, and (c) Pervica is not presented as super-hot or anything. Bradshaw shows the power of the moment in a way that made it completely work for me.

9. Fine, I didn’t think of this until reading over Brandy’s list, but I too really loved the relationship between Sandra Foster and Bennet O’Reilly in Bellwether. There’s one I’ve only read once, but should re-read soon.

10. I have to admit, this is one of my favorites in the not-love-at-first-sight genre of fantasy:

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Small children in SFF

This post by Liz Bourke at tor.com caught my eye: Sleeps With Monsters: Where Are the SFF Stories About Pregnancy and Child-rearing?

Liz says at the end of her post: “I don’t particularly want to read an entire novel about the economics of child-rearing. But I’d like to see more books, more SFF stories, that consider its place in the world and how that affects people in their societies.”

I prefer a story to a philosophical treatise, but sure, this is something that’s great to see in fantasy and science fiction. Pregnancy is in general pretty rare in SFF, isn’t it? And small children even rarer. Except perhaps in epilogues right at the end of stories.

Given that rarity, a handful of SFF stories do rather spring to mind when I try to think of stories involving pregnancy and small children. The first three I think of are all by Lois McMaster Bujold.

1. Barrayar, which is the cover Liz Bourke uses for her post, is an obvious story where pregnancy and alternatives to ordinary pregnancy are front and central. In the Vorkosigan universe, we do indeed get to see how Barrayaran society is affected by changing modes of reproduction. Child rearing is also important; remember how startled Cordelia is when male aristocrats don’t seem to realize that having her involved in Gregor’s care when he’s little is going to have big effects on the man Gregor grows into.

2. Ethan of Athos, obviously, which again is mentioned in the post. Once more reproduction is absolutely central.

3. The Sharing Knife series. Pregnancy and customs revolving around pregnancy get the whole story started; and then of course the series winds up with Fawn pregnant through the last book and taking care of her infant daughter in the last scenes.

And then once you look away from Bujold, what else? How about these:

4. CJC’s Cuckoo’s Egg, which is *all about* child-rearing — and about what it means to be human. Wonderful story, one of my favorites.

5. Oh, hey, while we’re on CJC, how about Cyteen? Again *all about* childrearing, though certainly in a profoundly disturbing way. Young Ari is such a wonderful child protagonist, one of the very best, and we really get to focus on her while she grows up; and on all her young friends.

6. Come to think of it, Cajeiri in the Foreigner series gives us a really good view into childrearing among the atevi. At least among the aristocratic atevi.

7. The Raven’s Shadow / Raven’s Strike duology by Patricia Briggs. The children are pretty young in that story, so it might count as bringing childrearing to the forefront.

8. Dogland by Will Shetterly, which masterfully handles childrearing in Florida in the what, fifties — from the point of view of a quite young child. The reader is going to understand so much more than the child protagonist. Really brilliant book.

9. Eric Flint’s Mother of Demons is one of perhaps a recognizable subgenre — where a lot of children and just a few adults are stranded on an alien world. We don’t see much of the children when they’re little, so perhaps this story doesn’t count. Let me try again:

9b) The stories of the People by Zenna Henderson sometimes involve quite young children. I think they definitely count.

10. Bloodchild by Octavia Butler. One of the few shorter works which has really stuck in my head for decades. What a powerful story. Obviously something of a departure … all right, a complete departure … from ordinary human reproduction.

11. And speaking of Butler, the entire Oankali series, what is that called, oh right the Xenogenesis trilogy. Lots of emphasis on reproduction and young children there, plus the place of reproduction in society and, whoa, it sure gets complicated.

12 … … …

Okay! It is actually quite difficult to come up with a twelfth title, so I must concede that Liz Bourke is right: there don’t seem to be many SFF stories that focus on pregnant women or small children. Possibly more where pregnancy and childrearing are important, but mostly off-stage. What’s an SFF book I’ve missed that centrally features a pregnant woman and/or young children?

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Top Ten Peeves of a Creative Writing Teacher

Here’s an interesting and amusing post by Melodie Campbell at Anne R. Allen’s blog: Top Ten Peeves of Creative Writing Teachers

Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one. I’m definitely on the kind side of the equation. The last thing I want is to be a Dream Killer. But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated. So when Anne suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted. (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

Here they are, briefly — more expansive comments on each point at the link. From her comments, Campbell is plainly aiming her class at would-be professional writers; she’s not teaching a class for students who just need an English elective and might just as well have taken Modern American Lit or whatever.

Ten Pet Peeves:

1. I don’t need no stinkin’ genre. I can imagine just what Campbell means — though it’s a bit hard to imagine many people using the phrase “selling out” in this day and age. Although as far as I’m concerned, “literary” IS a genre and I would present it that way if I were teaching the class.

2. The memoir disguised as fiction. Another good one.

3. My editor will fix it. Even I have encountered this and I don’t teach creative writing. But people SAY this. I hear it not just now and then, but pretty often. I’d make this my number one pet peeve if I were teaching a class. If you’re a writer, then the English language is your tool for telling stories (presuming you’re writing in English). You don’t get to declare that you’re no good with grammar but your story will work anyway. Why would you think that could possibly be okay?

Campbell agrees, btw, so I’m not sure why she didn’t make it her #1 point.

4. The Hunger Games Clone. All right, now listen, I can see where Campbell is coming from. But if it’s well done, *I* am not tired of Hunger Games clones and I bet many other readers aren’t tired of them either. Mind you, “well done” means not a clone-clone. But no big trope is so overused it can’t be done really well yet again, imo.

Also, here Campbell adds, “There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing. For me, it’s the ‘harvesting organs’ plot. Almost every class I’ve taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs. It’s been done, I tell them. I can’t think of a new angle that hasn’t already been done, and done well. Enough, already. Write something else. Please. Leave the poor organs where they are!”

This instantly makes me want to think of brand-new twists for organ harvesting stories. I’m not well read in this sub-sub-sub genre, but let’s see:

a) Eating someone’s heart really does give you their courage and strength, like eating an animal’s heart was supposed to do in some cultures.

b) Eating even a small portion of a mathematician’s brain means you just know algebra yourself.

Didn’t mean to go on a cannibalism kick there. I told one of our high-level math tutors that if you teach a flatworm a very simple maze and then feed it to other flatworms, they know the maze as well. This old experiment is not flawless, I realize, so don’t bother pointing that out; however, the conversation went in predictable directions from there. We basically agreed that it’s just as well algebra students can’t learn algebra from eating a bit of pureed brain or we’d be in trouble.

Moving on:

c) Some people have a special organ that lets them (i) cast spells, (ii) teleport, (iii) be telepathic, (iv) live forever. Instant market in organs, coming right up.

d) Old people can live practically forever by rejiggering their bodies with young, healthy organs. That sounds a tiny bit familiar. Has anybody done that one already?

How about it? You think Campbell’s seen those kinds of twists on organ harvesting? I bet not. I bet she’s thinking about contemporary stories that deal with economics, not about fun SF plots. How about it, is the trope so common all these options have already been done?

Okay, moving on:

5. The Preacher Who Wants To Teach A Lesson. I myself have seen this several times and I’m not a creative writing teacher. This impulse just seems to be really, really common.

6. Literary Snowflakes: students who ignore publisher guidelines. Yes, as a creative writing teacher I’m not sure I would care. I would just be all, Sure, maybe your debut novel will sell to a big-five publisher even though it’s 250,000 words long. If that doesn’t work out for you, maybe try writing something that fits their actual guidelines?

7. Students Who Set out to Break the Rules. Uh huh. Someone got me to look at their self-published book a few years ago, and it was like a cross between a novel and stage directions for a play. No description, no transition scenes, no dialogue markers such as quote marks. It was more like

JANICE: Why, look, we’ve walked through a portal into another world!

RICHARD stares around in amazement.

I have absolutely no memory of the plot, just the format, but it was fantasy of some kind. I had no idea what to say, except that readers generally know what a novel is and this wasn’t one, so how could that work?

8. Students who don’t write.

Oh, now. I get where Campbell is coming from, but let’s not make this into a pet peeve. Sometimes someone’s hobby is thinking about writing, not writing, and that’s pretty much okay, though it’s a shame they’re paying tuition. But not infrequently a student signs up for a class and then their life gets totally insane and they can’t keep up. A Creative Writing class is an elective and just not important compared to, say, Algebra. Cut ’em some slack, is what I say.

9. Other creative writing teachers who steal our material for their own classes.

This one seems like a stretch. (a) It can’t be common enough to be a pet peeve. (b) Who cares? What difference does it make if some other teacher wants to see how you approach your class and maybe use some of your methods? That sounds fine to me, though it might be more efficient to invite you out for lunch and talk shop.

10. Students who don’t read. Oooookay. This one totally deserves to be a major pet peeve. I didn’t even see it coming, though I’ve heard of the phenomenon — would-be writers who don’t read. I don’t understand it (I don’t understand ANYONE who doesn’t read), but I gather it’s not super-rare.

I guess I wouldn’t let it bother me? I would just be like, Well, this isn’t a bit likely to work out for you, but hey, feel free to try. And then I wouldn’t spend a lot of time critiquing their work because just why?

Click through to read the whole post if you’ve got a minute — Campbell’s got more to say about each point.

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Beyond the Dreams We Know

So, you all remember the original cover I commissioned for Mountain of Kept Memory? It looked like this:

Nice, eh?

Of course then Mountain got picked up by Saga Press and revised, eventually coming out with this quite different but beautiful cover:

Lovely! But it did leave me with extra cover art sitting around, art which I liked quite a bit and was sorry not to use.

Also, as you may recall my mentioning, the revision of Mountain led to the complete removal of one protagonist, a boy named Erest. He wasn’t related to Oressa or Gulien at all, but rather from the family that lives in the shadow of the Kieba’s mountain. Giving his role to Gulien did produce a tighter story, as sometimes (always?) happens when you combine characters. So Gulien got Erest’s role; a revised role, of course, but fundamentally his part in the story initially belonged to this completely different and much younger boy. Remember that Mountain was also being revised from YA to adult, so it made sense to hand Erest’s role to an older character anyway.

But all this revision meant that along with leftover cover art, I had a leftover character on my hands.

This was the exact reason I thought of writing a set of novellas set in worlds I’d previously created: because it gave me a chance to use both the character and the cover.

Erest’s story in Dreams is based on his initial scenes from the first draft of Mountain. Of course his story has been revised to stand alone. Rather than taking place before the events of Mountain, it’s now set a couple generations previously, shortly after his family first settled at the foot of the Kieba’s mountain.

I hope everyone will enjoy revisiting this world in Beyond the Dreams We Know.

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Good writing vs talented writing

Here’s an interesting post contrasting the concepts of “good” writing vs “talented” writing.

This post quotes extensively from Samuel Delany, thus:

If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story. It will still not be a good one. The major fault of eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull….Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.

I like this distinction. Good writing is clear. That’s the level we would like to see all our English Comp students reach. It’s impossible to over-exaggerate how far from some student writing can be, and how impossible it is for a student to improve his or her writing if the student can’t see that the sentences don’t make sense.

But talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind. Aren’t there stories you read where you have a powerful reaction to them, but you aren’t sure what happened? Or the story does not make sense, but you find it effective anyway?

I’m thinking here of a lot of Karen Joy Fowler’s stories, which I read last fall. For example, “Pelican Bar” — here is an online version if you’re curious. This is a fine example of a story that is effective even though it is utterly implausible. If you read it and think it *is* plausible, I think that’s because it was effective in causing things to happen in your mind. Step back and think about the story again and most likely you’ll see why I call it utterly implausible.

KJF’s work often struck me as being poetry in the form of prose, because this is how poetry works for me — by being effective without necessarily making sense.

How about these comments from other authors:

Virginia Woolf knew subtlety was the key to craftsmanship when she counseled that “we have to allow the sunken meanings to remain sunken, suggested, not stated.”

“All bad writers are in love with the epic,” Hemingway admonished.

I would personally argue that plenty of good writers also like epics, but fine, I get that we could take that to mean that a story doesn’t have to be linear or simple in order to be effective, which is clearly true. I have never (should I admit this?) read anything by Virginia Woolf, but I like the idea of leaving sunken meanings sunken. It reminds me of Emily Dickenson’s line “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

Anybody got a great example of beautiful, effective SFF writing that is not clear? As far as I’m concerned, Patricia McKillip often falls into this category, where generally the ending (but sometimes a scene in the middle) of one of her books is just baffling. Beautiful, but baffling.

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What Marriage Is, and Was

Here’s a great post by Marie Brennan at Book View Cafe: New Worlds: Marriage

At its core, marriage is a form of alliance. These days it’s first and foremost an alliance between the spouses, and usually for reasons of personal happiness, but that’s a product of the general focus on individualism that dominates our society right now. It used to be an alliance between larger groups than that. Families, or lineages, or businesses, or estates, or even entire kingdoms: the people directly involved were representatives of those groups, rather than acting solely for themselves. … the counterpart to alliance is inheritance; you often need or at least want offspring who will inherit the business, the land, the connections to the parent families.

I’ve been very pleased overall with how readers have responded to the politically motivated marriage of Innisth and Kehera in WINTER OF ICE AND IRON. Of course this relationship doesn’t work for everyone. Still, it’s the most unromantic sort of situation, which was historically certainly not rare for important people. Though I hope most readers appreciate the perhaps somewhat subtle romance that appears and grows within the political arrangement.

Anyway, Brennan then goes on to briefly mention odd marriage customs one might use in writing SFF. This instantly made me think of my very favorite odd marriage custom, seen for example here:

I have tried reading the book, btw, and kind of lost interest part way through. Setting and description: wonderful. Ghost bride plot element: wonderful. Protagonist: kind of a twit. I would like to go back and finish this story, though.

I just love the idea of the ghost bride. You could do all kinds of twists on that if you were developing a secondary world fantasy.

Even more interesting is the custom of marrying a tree, seen sometimes in India because it puts the astrological bad luck carried by the bride on the tree instead of her actual husband. This idea could be spun off into all kinds of interesting customs in a secondary world culture, tied into all kinds of deeper traditions and beliefs.

One very practical custom in Japan was, and is, the idea of adopting an adult male as the heir of a family, marrying him to a daughter of the family, and thus continuing the family line or establishing a younger son as the “first-born” son of a different family. Wikipedia has this to say about the custom:

The centuries-old practice was developed as a mechanism for families to extend their family name, estate and ancestry without an unwieldy reliance on blood lines. … From the point of view of the adopted son, it was not so much an increase of class position, but rather a way to receive an independent life by becoming a first-born son. This does not mean that there were no vertical jumps in the social stratum by less wealthy individuals, but it was significantly less common. By being adopted, second-born sons were able to take over as the heads of households, and become the leader of the family business as well as a leader within the community itself.

This sure goes right back to Brennan’s point about marriage (and other family structures) being used as a way to arrange family or business matters. It’s hard to think of customs very different from the ones you grew up with, which is why people who write fiction ought to pay attention to nonfiction for background and ideas that depart from the familiar. Brennan’s is an interesting post that serves as a jumping-off point for countless worldbuilding possibilities!

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More than 60,000 hidden Maya ruins found in Guatemala

Wow: Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle

[T]he survey has yielded surprising insights into settlement patterns, inter-urban connectivity, and militarization in the Maya Lowlands. At its peak in the Maya classic period (approximately A.D. 250–900), the civilization covered an area about twice the size of medieval England, but it was far more densely populated.

“Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million,” said Estrada-Belli, who directs a multi-disciplinary archaeological project at Holmul, Guatemala. “With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.”

Virtually all the Mayan cities were connected by causeways wide enough to suggest that they were heavily trafficked and used for trade and other forms of regional interaction. These highways were elevated to allow easy passage even during rainy seasons. In a part of the world where there is usually too much or too little precipitation, the flow of water was meticulously planned and controlled via canals, dikes, and reservoirs.

Among the most surprising findings was the ubiquity of defensive walls, ramparts, terraces, and fortresses. “Warfare wasn’t only happening toward the end of the civilization,” said Garrison. “It was large-scale and systematic, and it endured over many years.”

Very cool findings. I’d seen a couple brief notices about this, but I look forward to finding out more as archaeologists collect more data.

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I’m playing around with back cover copy —

Back cover copy is hard to write. I’ve been trying to come up with something for the back cover description of my collection of shorter works — the non-Black Dog stories, you know, the collection I have tentatively titled Beyond the Dreams We Know.

Here’s the back cover copy I came up with just now:

In the world of City in the Lake, entering the great forest may lead you to your heart’s desire . . . but the one certainty is that the forest always has its own desires, and might very well tilt anyone’s quest to its own ends.


In the whole history of the Floating Islands, no girl has ever put on wings and taken flight. Now a special audition has just been announced, and despite her responsibilities, Nescana isn’t sure she can resist at least trying to make a new life for herself among the kajuraihi.


The Lord of the Delta is a busy man. But every now and then, Bertaud manages to take a day away from his duties. Just one day for himself. What could possibly go wrong?


Erest’s family knew they might risk unknown dangers when they first chose to build their home in the shadow of the Kieba’s mountain, but she hasn’t seemed offended by their presumption . . . yet. When disaster strikes, could Erest dare turn to the Kieba for help?


In a world much like our own, no one expects mysterious, beautiful dragons to begin emerging from earth and stone. But even when mystery and magic isn’t concerned with us at all, it can change our lives . . .


Rediscover four worlds and explore a new one in Neumeier’s first collection of short fiction.

What do you think? I know it’s not technically my first collection. But first Non Black Dog Collection seems so clunky. Not sure what to say to tie up the back cover description, if anything.

Not actually 100% sure what’s happening in Bertaud’s story, btw. I’ve barely started that one yet.

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