Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The Pursuit of the Pankera

Via a post at File 770:

In March, a new Heinlein novel came out, assembled from fragments found in his papers. The Pursuit of the Pankera contains no interpolations to link the fragments together; when placed in their correct order, they form a complete novel.

I don’t remember hearing about that before. How interesting. I used to like Heinlein a lot … not JOB, that one left me utterly cold. Hmm. I guess I liked some of his juveniles the best? Looking back, I might pick Door Into Summer as my probable favorite. That wasn’t the case when I was a kid, but I think it’s the one that stands out now. I do remember thinking his last few books in particular were perhaps not as well put-together as some of his earlier work.

Anyway, whatever, this is still an interesting find.

Here’s this particular reviewer’s reaction:

I awaited it with some trepidation, as pre-publication announcements stated this was, as its subtitle stated, “A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes,” and the novel it paralleled was, alas, The Number of the Beast. …

Despite my fondness for alternate-history tales, I found long ago that Number was easily Heinlein’s worst book. Pursuit turned out to be somewhat better, but it still has serious flaws. Something the editor did, as a service to the reader, was to place a discreet marker in the margin, near the top of page 152, where the two novels diverge—the first thirty percent is virtually identical to the original.

Yes, indeed, that is interesting. I thought the last, I don’t know, the last third or so of Number of the Beast was pretty awful. I did like the beginning, which is the part that’s essentially unchanged in Pankera.

Wow, it sounds like the two books diverge utterly on the way to Mars. If you’ve read Number, you remember the Mars scenes, I’m sure. In Pankera, this is actually Barsoom.

Okay, and it sounds like Lazarus Long vanishes from the pages of Pankera. Good. He was not an asset in Number. The reviewer didn’t like the new ending, but I hardly see how it could be less appealing than the Lazarus Long ending. I really did not appreciate having all the universes stirred together that way.

All right, the reviewer’s main problem is the protagonists’ genocidal campaign against the Pankera:

Late in the tale, they survey many alternate Earths, and find ten of them to be “infested.” The worst case is our own world—it’s easy enough to figure this out from the clues Heinlein gives. Their solution to this problem is unethical in the extreme: extermination. If it proves impossible to root out all the Pankera from a particular Earth, the entire planet is to be burnt off.

Yikes. Wow. That does sound a bit extreme.

Have any of you actually read this? What did you think?

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Recent Reading: From All False Doctrine by Alice Degan

There are times when I really do not know how to write a review about a particular book. This is one of those times. From All False Doctrine is just really hard to describe.

So I’ll start by saying: Ten out of ten. Alice Degan absolutely knocked it out of the park when she wrote this one. Which was her debut, so wow. If it doesn’t wind up right at the top of my list for the year, I’ll be astonished.

At times it’s useful to do comparisons, right? So, sure, let me try to do that. From All False Doctrine is like … it’s kind of like … okay, it’s sort of like a cross between a Wodehouse novel and In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. But with demonology.

You may be familiar with the technical distinction between a “novel” and a “romance,” where a novel is a story that is really about the protagonist’s interior journey, while a romance is any story in any genre that emphasizes the external adventure. If you wanted to use those categories here, I think you’d conclude that From All False Doctrine is a novel, with romance. If you’d prefer to stick to ordinary genre categories and use “romance” in that sense, then From All False Doctrine is a historical fantasy novel, with romance. If you wanted to pull out its defining characteristics, you might say it’s a story about personal growth wrapped in a comedy of manners, with romance. Oh, and demonology.

There are two primary protagonists and two important secondary characters. We meet them all in the opening scene, which takes place on a hot August afternoon on a beach in the Toronto area. I don’t recall quite when, but between the two wars, in there somewhere, so call it 1920 or thereabouts. You may recall that recent discussion about opening with a burst of action or more quietly? Well, this one opens quietly, with dialogue, and nothing at all important happens except that Elsa and Harriet meet Kit and Peachy. (Yes, calling a character “Peachy” did bother me a bit. I have very low tolerance for silly character names no matter how good the book is.)

Elsa and Harriet are students, attending the university. Elsa is a few years the elder. Raised by a revival-style preacher in a farm family, Elsa is a rationalist, a materialist, and an atheist. She is studying Classical languages. Harriet is much the wealthier and decidedly more conventional. She is studying economics. They are very good friends.

Kit, the natural child of a university professor and an unconventional woman, is an Anglican priest. Peachy, from a wealthier and more conventional family, is a dilettante songwriter who has never settled to anything. They are very good friends.

So on this day on that beach, these four people meet. The reader does not need to be astute to realize that these four characters are going to become two couples; that happens at once. However, if the reader does happen to be astute, they may at this point guess that dialogue is going to be central to this novel because practically nothing happens during this opening scene other than casual conversation between these people. We do hear about the central problem, but we only hear about it and it’s not introduced as a problem. In fact, it’s going to be some time before anything “happens” in the ordinary sense. The dialogue is extremely well done, and I fell in love with this novel right here.

During this meeting on the beach, the four characters happen to chat about a manuscript Elsa wants to work with for her Master’s degree. This is a manuscript that was found in Egypt and contains details about a cult based on the Orpheus myth. The beliefs described in this manuscript have to do with descending to a metaphysical plane and remaking the self through the pure power of the mind. Spoiler: there is more to this than any of the main characters suspect. Extra-spoiler: the metaphysics that are actually true in the book are perhaps not what the reader initially suspects either, given the Orpheus cult. Keep in mind that the story strongly reminded me of In This House of Brede. The actual heart of the story – I don’t think I’m giving too much away, I think this is pretty clear to the reader from early on – is Elsa’s internal movement from atheism to faith.

I think that’s all I want to say about that. Except I kinda fell in love with Kit too.

Let me see, other things to mention. All right:

Pace: Slow in general, but there are certainly moments.

Reading speed: I read this book very, very slowly, a few chapters a day. That’s almost never how I read books, but first, the writing was so good I wanted to savor it, and second, I kept wanting to take my time thinking about things that had just happened in the story and where I thought it might be going.

Shocking reveals: At least two.

Daring rescues: In general, characters do a pretty good job rescuing themselves. But there are moments.

Tension: Astonishingly high at times, considering anybody can see the story is moving toward a happy ending.

Flaws: It’s possible Kit might strike some readers as a little too good to be true. Also, right at the beginning Elsa was somewhat unbelievably ready to talk openly about herself with a young man she’d just met, though, granted, Kit was being very easy to talk to. Plus, Peachy, really?

Who should read this book: Anybody who rolls their eyes at the typical facile or incorrect presentation of religion in genre novels should absolutely try this book. I’m not an expert in theology or anything, but I don’t think those readers would be disappointed. Also, anybody who likes both Wodehouse and modern fantasy should absolutely try this book.

Sequels: Yes, there’s one sequel. I picked it up immediately after finishing the first book, but it may be a while before I read it. I’m going to want something lighter before I read another book with as much, how should I put this, as much deep reverberation, as From All False Doctrine.

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The proper use of semicolons

I have absolutely no idea how often I’ve explained to a student how to use semicolons. Normally that conversation actually goes like this: “This is a comma splice. You can fix it in these four ways. Here’s why you might want to use a semicolon in this context …”

We actually do have faculty here who don’t allow their students to use semicolons. I think this is SUCH an ABYSMAL copout. So students often use semicolons wrong? Well, who could have seen that coming? Maybe you should teach them to use semicolons correctly?

And in that effort, this post might well be quite useful:

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

Hysterical!

You know, I love semicolons! But not as much as I used to. You know what I do now? I do a search through the manuscript and look at every single semicolon and colon and dash and decide whether I want to keep it or change it. This takes HOURS and is VERY BORING, but I think it’s worth it. I still do use a lot of semicolons and dashes, yes, I am sure you have noticed that.

Also, every now and then? Even though the linked post about semicolons is correct and all, even so, sometimes you may want to break a semicolon rule and that is fine!

Just from time to time, I use both a semicolon and an “and” at the same time. It just gives the exact right “feel” for the sentence — a sort of catch-and-drag. I guess I do this about once per two books, so not very often. Just every now and then.

I used to let copy editors talk me out of doing ” . . . ; and . . . ” constructions before. Then I noticed that Robin McKinley and CJ Cherryh both do this on occasion. Now I use those constructions if I really prefer the feel it gives the sentence.

I do wonder whether the occasional grammar whiz is bothered by it, though. Well, I don’t wonder, exactly; I’m sure it does. Breaking this rule means you’re betting that most readers will feel the drag in the sentence without noticing what you did to cause it, and that most of the rest will tolerate the occasional breaking of a rule.

It’s the same with other rules, of course. You can use a comma splice, especially in dialogue, to create a rushed, breathless feeling. I’ve done this, lots of writers have done this, not only am I doing it here right this minute but Gilman uses this technique in her wonderful Mrs Pollifax mysteries . Oh, and I noticed a lot of comma splices in the Murderbot novel, Network Effect. (Did anybody else notice this? Did it bother you?) (By the way, another Murderbot novel / novella is in the works, because it’s listed in the series with a release date next year. Title is Fugitive Telemetry.)

Anyway, comma splices in a published novel drive some readers NUTS and more than once my very own mother has MARKED THESE AS WRONG IN THE BOOK. IN PEN. That drives me nuts. But at least it keeps me aware that some people are very very very bothered if you break a grammatical rule and totally do not think that the “feel” of the sentence or the “breathless” voice of the pov character justifies it.

And that is useful because it makes me think twice and three times before breaking a rule.

But I am still going to do it now and then. I would prefer that you do not mark up my book in pen if I do.

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Bringing back this old post, which is still a good one

I’m going to be busy / have less internet access for a couple of weeks. I will keep an eye out for good things to link to, but also, I’m going to pull some (very) old posts that went up here years ago and schedule them to post again over the next couple of weeks. I’ll probably revise them as they schedule them, but if you have a faint feeling that you might have seen some of these posts before, you’re probably right.\

So:

Here’s an excellent article at npr.com by Linda Holms. It is still excellent.

Surrender, Holms says, is what you do when you realize that you will never, ever be able to read more than a tiny fraction of the books you would love, and you accept this fact.

Culling is what you do when you declare that all romances / westerns / fantasies / vampire novels are trash and therefore you’re not missing anything when you ignore them. Culling is a psychological trick that protects you from having to acknowledge how much you’re inevitably going to miss.

And Holms says she kind of wonders whether these days there might be a strengthening tendency toward culling:

“What I’ve observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you’d otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, “All genre fiction is trash.” You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you’ve thrown out so much at once.”

Of course you can’t read everything, or even a significant minority of everything, and naturally it’s helpful to narrow your attention down to those specific chunks of everything in which you’re more likely to find things you really do love . . . but there’s no question that every single time you declare a genre or subgenre not-of-interest and ignore it, you’re setting yourself up to miss those parts of it you really would love.

I do think that this is the exact problem — the problem of finding things you’d love when they’re in genres you’re not focused on — that online book review sites serve. We so desperately need reviewers whose taste more or less matches ours in order to winnow through the enormous ocean of books that come out and find at least some of the ones we are really going to love. Of course finding the time to actually read even those may be another question.

At the time I first wrote this post, I read hardly any romances. I read a whole lot more romances now, with a slight emphasis on Regencies, but a fair number of contemporary romances too. So, yeah, my ocean of potential-books-I-might-love got bigger. Despite this, I’m glad to have read them, so culling the “romance” genre would have had significant costs.

So put me down on the side of just surrendering to the knowledge that it’s impossible to read everything I’d love. I won’t even try, it’s so completely hopeless! What can I say, at least it’s better than having to fear I might run out someday!

I will add, this is the kind of realization that led me to swear never to read anything I don’t actually enjoy.

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Traditional publishing in the social distance era

Here’s a post at Pub Rants that caught my eye. I’ve been wondering a bit about what’s going on with NY-based publishers.

Among other things:

Sales 

  • Publishers are reporting ebook sales are up by 40%. This is helping to keep the publishing picture stable for now.
  • Print sales initially did a sharp drop (down by 25%), but they rebounded last week, and we have word that sales at Target and Walmart are especially healthy.

Well, that’s good to hear, although … it would be nice to seem a book or two of mine at Walmart, but that particular share of the market does seem entirely irrelevant to me personally. Oh well.

Anyway, if you too have been wondering about the world of publishing, this is a pretty good recent sketch.

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Redemption

Here’s a neat little analysis of what a redemption arc is and how it works.

This is a post by RJ Anderson, who wrote Knife and Swift and a good handful of other MG novels. I’ve only read Knife so far, but I really liked it — click through to read my comments about it — and I’ve certainly heard that everything she’s written is excellent.

Also, I agree with her: redemption arcs are one of my favorite things too. Here’s what she says about that:

First, the character destined for a redemption arc must knowingly and deliberately have done something wicked. This may sound like a silly place to start, because you’d think that’s a given, but since I’ve seen people claim that Finn had a “redemption arc” in The Force Awakens, I guess it’s not as obvious as it might seem. But Finn was a brainwashed child soldier who had no idea he was on the wrong side until he was dropped into his very first real battle and given a reprehensible order – which he refused to carry out. Then he promptly defected to the good guys. So Finn never did anything that required him to go through a redemption arc, because he’d never done anything he knew for certain was bad.

The post then goes on from there, drawing on The Force Awakens, which I haven’t seen, but probably all of you have, so I expect you know all this about Finn. Obviously, given the above synopsis, Anderson is right. You can’t have a redemption arc unless you’ve done something requiring redemption.

Here are the other features of a successful redemption arc:

2. the second ingredient in a true redemption arc is that the character undergoing it must have a sensitive conscience.

3.  it’s a classic facet of redemption arcs for the character to double down on their villainy in an effort to deny the increasing weight of guilt that they feel. 

4. this can go on for quite some time before the villain’s resistance finally shatters and they face up to being wrong.

And here Anderson adds:

Interestingly enough, this last point is where a lot of so-called redemption arcs fail. There are lots of attractive, charismatic villains in books, TV and movies who do terrible things and maybe even show a few signs of being aware that they’re terrible, but in the end, the story wimps out by romanticizing them and handwaving their crimes as not being their fault – or even not actually being crimes at all. 

I can’t speak to any tv shows that have aired in the past 10 years, but this was true back when I watched tv and I expect it’s still true. I imagine the tv show “Dexter” would be a perfect example, but I’m not sure; I’m aware of the premise but didn’t watch it. I would have, but it aired after my no-longer-watching-tv-at-all period started. Oh, how about “Breaking Bad” — my understanding is that one also probably falls into this pattern. Anyway, let’s see where Anderson goes next with her outline of a redemption plot …

5. the agony of repentance – that is, coming to sincerely loathe and regret his past evil behaviour and wanting to turn away from it. 

6. transformation — a pivotal moment where we see the villain break down. He stops trying to justify himself, he admits his wrongdoing without making excuses for it, he despises himself and repents … and then he chooses to behave differently from that point on, even if it means losing.

7. our redeemed character demonstrate[s] his sincerity by trying to make amends. 

8. And then, ideally, we should see the redeemed character receiving some kind of reward for making the right choice.

Anderson does emphasize that this reward does not necessary mean the redeemed character gets a happy ending, as such, or even survives. Nevertheless, she asserts, and I agre, that ideally there should be a reward of some sort.

You should definitely click through and read the whole thing. This is a great topic and an excellent post. RJ Anderson ends by picking out only two examples of fully successful redemption arcs. (Kylo Ren is not one of them.)

While I wouldn’t want to declare that this are FULLY successful, I guess, I can think of one recent redemption arc that I was pretty suspicious about, but that wound up working rather well: Hugh d’Ambray from the Kate Daniels series:

And in fact, not just the above title, but also the last Kate Daniels novel, showed part of, or I should say shows a reinforcement of, Hugh’s redemption arc. There’s a certain degree of handwaving and saying Oh no, Hugh’s crimes weren’t his fault, but first, the necessary handwaving is handled in a really quite persuasive way, and second, Hugh absolutely does go through the repentance and making amends parts of the arc.

If you’ve got a suggestion for a successful SFF redemption arc, by all means drop it in the comments.

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Notes on typos

I am no longer surprised by the variation in this sort of thing, but it’s still interesting to note the following:

Four people read TUYO for typos (thank you all!)

Proofreader 1 caught 32 potential typos, only one of which I left as it was.

Proofreader 2 caught 9; of those 5 were unique to him rather than overlapping with Proofreader 1’s typos.

Proofreader 3 caught something on the close order of 25 typos and awkward word choices, NONE of which overlapped with Proofreader 1 or 2. The complete lack of overlap was surprising.

Proofreader 4 queried a whole bunch of commas and things (thanks! I like to pause to think again about potentially nonstandard punctuation.) and a handful of typos and awkward word choices, including several that had not been caught by anyone else. I’m particularly impressed that this person caught a mistake when I had Geras speak with a phrase more suitable for Esau.

All of you together helped me catch and correct something on the close order of 50 typos and various other problems AND two errors of continuity. I’m very grateful, particularly when a typo is the stupid kind that makes me look marginally literate.

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Hamilton/Star Wars

Oooookay. Via a post at File 770: I Am Going To Mouse My Shot: Hamilton Flick Comes to Disney+ on July 3

I happened across these:

and this one:

There are others at the link — and probably plenty more File 770 didn’t happen to drop into this post.

On of my favorite songs in Hamilton — I know this is probably a minority pick — is Aaron Burr’s “Wait for It”. It probably hasn’t drawn the same kind of attention as Hamilton’s introductory song, but if anybody happens to know of a good parody of that one, by all means let me know.

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Ghostwriting

This is just so interesting to me, from several different perspectives: Confessions of a Ghost Writer: the Good, the Bad & the Lovely

This is a post by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff at Book View Cafe, who has written occasional posts on this topic in the past.

I have been a full time writer since 2005. During that time, I’ve penned eight original or shared-world novels, had five of them published and am working sporadically on a tenth book (well, and an eleventh and a twelfth . . . you get the picture.)

That activity not withstanding, at least half of my income in a given year comes from [ghostwriting].

But most of what flows from my invisible pen has been fiction. This revelation inevitably leads to the question (delivered in a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding tone of voice): Who hires a ghostwriter for fiction?

Isn’t that interesting? Who would want to hire a ghostwriter to write a novel so they could put their own name on it? This just seems so odd to me. I mean, you could pick up the finished book and hold it in your hand and it would have your name on the cover, but . . . you didn’t write it. How could that possibly be satisfying in any way?

Here is what Maya Bohnhoff says about that:

In my fifteen years of being a full time freelancer, my fiction clients have run the gamut from people who thought of themselves as writers, but who didn’t have the time to write, people who knew they weren’t writers but had an idea they wanted to see realized, people who knew how to write a screenplay but had no idea what to do with 300 blank pages of a book, people who had natural talent and wanted someone to write them through the process of crafting a novel so they could learn how it was done.

And some of that makes sense, I guess? Although that last category sounds less like hiring someone to write a book and more like hiring someone to teach you, exhaustively, how to write a book. I wonder if that ever actually works as a way of learning how to do it yourself?

The idea of “thinking of yourself as a writer” after hiring a ghostwriter to do the actual writing just looks . . . well, frankly, it looks delusional.

Anyway, it’s an interesting column — click through and read it the whole thing if you have a minute.

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I detested The Lord of the Flies

Just as I hated most classics that were assigned in school, I detested Lord of the Flies. This was not JUST because it was unpleasant to read about boys descending into a state of barbarity; it was also because I just did not believe anything like this would happen. The end of innocence! The darkness in the human heart! Give me a break!

Or at least, that’s perhaps a reconstruction of high-school-me’s reaction based on an adult perspective, but I certainly don’t believe it now. I liked, and still like, castaway stories where that kind of slide into savagery doesn’t occur, like Heinlein’s . . . what was it . . . oh, right, Tunnel in the Sky. I didn’t like the ending of that one, but the basic plot was much more appealing. If I pick up a postapocalyptic novel, that’s what I want — you may have savages who think the end of the rule of law is a great chance to pillage, sure, but your protagonists had better pull together and rebuild civilization or I’m not interested. More, I’m not persuaded. I just don’t believe you can start with decent people, drop them on an island, and wham! The darkness in the human heart emerges.

Well, this article just caught my eye: The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months

I will quote some relevant tidbits:

Thus began my quest for a real-life Lord of the Flies. After trawling the web for a while, I came across an obscure blog that told an arresting story: “One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip … Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.”

The story concerned six boys who had been found three weeks earlier on a rocky islet south of Tonga, an island group in the Pacific Ocean. The boys had been rescued by an Australian sea captain after being marooned on the island of ‘Ata for more than a year. …

These days, ‘Ata is considered uninhabitable. But “by the time we arrived,” Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, “the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.” While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.

While the boys of ‘Ata have been consigned to obscurity, Golding’s book is still widely read. …

It’s time we told a different kind of story. The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other. After my wife took Peter’s [captain who rescued the boys] picture, he turned to a cabinet and rummaged around for a bit, then drew out a heavy stack of papers that he laid in my hands. His memoirs, he explained, written for his children and grandchildren. I looked down at the first page. “Life has taught me a great deal,” it began, “including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people.”

I’m impressed by the series of lucky chances and the persistence that led to Rutger Bregman tracking down this whole story, which utterly disappeared from memory. Whether or not you personally enjoyed Lord of the Flies, by all means click through and read the whole article.

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