Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Don’t ever imitate anybody?

Here’s an interesting post by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings: Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

This caught my eye because I’ve read most of Oliver Sacks’ books. They are always interesting and thought-provoking and sometimes horrifying (Hallucinations).

Anyway, here is how this post begins:

“And don’t ever imitate anybody,” Hemingway cautioned in his advice to aspiring writers. But in this particular sentiment, the otherwise insightful Nobel laureate seems to have been blind to his own admonition against the dangers of ego, for only the ego can blind an artist to the recognition that all creative work begins with imitation before fermenting into originality under the dual forces of time and consecrating effort.

I was cheering, because I so vehemently agree — not that all creative work necessarily begins with imitation, but that a whole lot of it does. Thus we get all the literature that is an homage to some older work, in conversation with some older body of literature, or influenced by some particular older author, and so on.

Imitation, besides being the seedbed of empathy … is also … the seedbed of creativity — not only a poetic truth but a cognitive fact, as the late, great neurologist and poet of science Oliver Sacks argues in a spectacular essay titled “The Creative Self,” published in the posthumous treasure The River of Consciousness

Well, I haven’t read that, but I guess I will now. Here is Popova’s summary:

[W]e learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation.

I like it. I think this one sentence captures a major truth about the creative development of a writer’s career.

If you have a moment, click through and read the whole thing.

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Costumes at WindyCon

So, at WindyCon this weekend, the costuming guest of honor was Tawny Letts. It says here: Tawny is a creator of large-scale puppetry, impressionistic creatures, pop-culture costumes, SF/Fantasy armor, and historically accurate costume reproductions.

Well, I thought you would enjoy seeing some of the costumes — or large-scale puppets — on display this weekend. They are well worth a moment of your time.

Wonderful, aren’t they?

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Recent Reading: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Okay, after unfortunately finishing Station Eleven at the hotel, before I even got to the airport for the flight home, I needed something else for airport/airplane reading. It needed to be something more than ordinarily good because: airport, airplane. I actually do like flying, but I hate waiting in airports and even when you’re in the air, eventually looking out the window gets boring. This one also seemed suitable because it has a literary tone and after Station Eleven I was in the mood for that.

What I needed was a book that had received rave reviews from people whose taste matches mine. Thus, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.

Jo, the firstborn, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the only thing the Hamilton girls have in place of a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their father’s townhouse to await the cabs that will take them to the speakeasy. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until the day he decides to marry them all off…

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club isn’t SFF at all; it’s a historical with fairytale echoes (Twelve Dancing Princesses, one of my favorites). It’s set in New York during the 1930s or thereabouts; the time of Prohibition and speakeasies, of feathered caps and unironic exclamations of “Swell!” This is by no means my favorite era for a historical. I greatly prefer venues much farther removed in time and space, such as Classical Greece or Rome. On the other hand, this story is so well told that I would have loved it no matter its setting.

By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess.

“Hey, Princess, dance off your shoes? It’s the Charleston!”

The men would have called them anything they wanted to be called, Dollface or Queenie or Beloved, just to get one girl on the dance floor for a song. But in that flurry of short dresses and spangles and ribbon-tied shoes, Princess was the name that suited. It seemed magical enough, like maybe it was true.

Twelve sisters, from Jo, the eldest, through Lou, Doris, Ella, Araminta, Mattie and Hattie, Rebecca, Sophie, Rose and Lily, and Violet. I may have a few of the sisters a bit out of order, but it doesn’t matter much as some of them are nearly cyphers, there to fill out the count, with only slight nods toward individuality. The narrative moves back and forth through time a bit, but in the present-day story, Jo is twenty-seven and Violet is fourteen.

The thing is, twelve daughters aside, their father only ever wanted a son. He is angry and ashamed he’s only had daughters instead, so he keeps them imprisoned in the upstairs rooms of his house and pretty much ignores them. They’ve never had much to do with their mother – one of the younger sisters comments at one point that she only saw their mother four times before the mother’s death. They have even less to do with their father. Jo is occasionally summoned to his study, when he’s issuing orders to do with her sisters, but, get this, some of the younger ones have literally never seen him. Not that they want to. He’s pretty awful.

As a child, as a way of coping with her own bitter frustration and helping her sisters cope with theirs, Jo learns to dance and then almost at once teaches her sisters to dance. Then, to prevent her sisters from bolting from their tightly constrained life while they’re too young and helpless to possibly make their own way in the city, Jo organizes secret missions where they all sneak out of the house at night and go dancing at various clubs around New York. At every minute, they’re at risk of discovery. It’s hard to guess what awful thing their father would do if he found out.

That’s the basic scenario. You can see how the story must unfold. The sisters are friends and allies, but they aren’t Jo’s friends; they’re her responsibility. Jo is under a great deal of pressure; she holds her sisters under tight discipline, desperate to keep them safe. Lou, angry and bitter and always a hairsbreadth from disastrous rebellion, is her ally but also the most difficult sister. Ella has taken over the mothering role, the twins Hattie and Mattie are wild and mostly absorbed by their own twin relationship; Araminta is beautiful; most of the others I didn’t really keep track of.

Jo keeps track of all her sisters. All the time. Except in the end, when everything suddenly goes wrong. At that point, it’s Jo who gets them out, sends them scattering to the four winds, and finally loses track of them for the first time in her life. Talk about terror: for quite some time she has no idea what’s become of any of them. I will add here that the narration is omniscient and so the reader sometimes knows a good deal more than Jo, though not everything. I was a bit worried about the younger set of twins for a little while there.

I wasn’t worried about Lou, though. I was pretty certain that she would come out all right. I was pretty sure everyone one would come out all right, really. Spoiler: They do. There is plenty of tension in this story, but it doesn’t arise from a lot of doubt about the final outcome, or it didn’t for me.

There’s a little bit of romance, but primarily this is a story about family – a father gone terribly wrong, a helpless and absent mother, and most of all sisters who are each other’s friends and defenders. It’s a beautiful story, and once again I found myself amazed that Genevieve Valentne can write such claustrophobic stories and make them work for me. I’m definitely up for anything she’s written at this point. If you like historical novels where family bonds are far more central than romance, or beautiful writing, or stories that carry a strong fairytale echo, the you should definitely give this one a try.

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Crazy Speculation Tuesday

I thought you all might enjoy this:

What Would Happen If You Became Dark Matter?

The human body consists of somewhere around 1028 particles, all bound together. The typical human has a mass of somewhere between 50 and 100 kilograms, and is largely confined to the surface of the Earth. Yet dark matter behaves very differently. It doesn’t interact with the nuclear or electromagnetic forces. It doesn’t collide with other particles or with itself. It only experiences a gravitational force, and as far as we can tell, that’s the only force it exerts. So what would happen to you, a human being, if instantaneously, all the particles in your body were converted into dark matter particles?…What if, instead of being made out of Standard Model particles, which experience the full suite of all the fundamental forces, we transitioned to being made out of particles which, to the best of our knowledge, interact only gravitationally?

This sounds like something from XKCD What If, but actually it’s by someone named Ethan Siegel at Forbes.

Click through and read the whole thing to find out what Siegel thinks would happen if you were suddenly turned into a Dark Matter Person.

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Recent Reading: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

I surprised myself by choosing this one to read in the hotel during those long convention mornings when all normal people are still asleep. It was a good choice! Station Eleven turned out to be a really compelling story, so those mornings whooshed by.

Here is part of the description of this book from Goodreads:

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time — from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains — this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

What I feared: Golly gee whiz, a post-apocalyptic novel with an Evil Prophet as the Big Bad. Wow, never seen a Evil Pseudo-Religious Dude in a post-apocalyptic novel before, except, you know, for practically every post-apocalyptic novel ever written.

Why I tried the book anyway: Rave reviews from every direction, including from people whose taste I trust.

What I found: The Prophet exists, but his role in the book is surprisingly minor and his religious cult is neither large nor influential nor actually very important. Except on a small scale; if the Prophet’s goons kill you, you’re dead, and it’s probably not much comfort that his overall effect on the world looks like it’s going to be completely insignificant and ephemeral. Nevertheless, insignificant and ephemeral is just what his cult looks like. I expect twenty years further on from the ending of this novel, the Prophet will be remembered as just one more crazy cult leader, one of a zillion and a half minor lunatics who made random trouble here and there before someone dealt with him.

This was quite a relief.

What else I found: Station Eleven is a story drawn in beautiful circles – circles of time woven through with viewpoints that merge and separate and merge again. It’s literary but compelling, with plenty of sympathetic characters and a fundamentally hopeful ending.

A lot of the narrative takes place before the fall of civilization, even more of the narrative takes place twenty years later, and honestly very little during the fall itself. In that sense this is a thoroughly unusual post-apocalyptic novel. Those are nearly all adventure novels set during and immediately after catastrophe, whereas this story shows almost nothing of that. Here’s what it does show:

As indicated by the description, Arthur is a famous actor whom we glimpse, briefly, in his role as King Lear. He dies of a heart attack in the first moments of the book, just before the Georgia flu destroys civilization. But because the narrative swings backward and forward in time, his death does not preclude him from being an important viewpoint character. Now, imo, Arthur is not very likable; in fact he is certainly the least likable viewpoint character; but he is interesting and not actually unpleasant to spend time with. He’s the main viewpoint we have for the part of the story that takes part in the past, before the end of the world.

Kirsten, a child actor we meet in the first scenes and then later a member of the Traveling Symphony, is much more likable, even more important, and our main viewpoint for the part of the story that takes place twenty years after the end of the world.

Jeevan, who used to be an entertainment journalist and then began a career shift to be a paramedic, is also present in the initial scene. He helps link the past to the future. He is likable, once he quits being a journalist, and his viewpoint offers the reader a relatively small glimpse of the actual flu and the period of the fall. Clark, who eventually becomes curator of the Museum of Civilization, gives us another viewpoint of that time and also offers the reader a glimpse of the connection between Arthur and the Prophet. Miranda, Arthur’s first wife, was the artist who drew the graphic novel Station Eleven, which spins another thread among important characters and between the past and present narratives.

The viewpoints of these five characters create the braided narrative from which the story is woven. It’s a story that is complicated and multilayered but nevertheless easy to follow; it’s beautifully written and compelling from beginning to end; and I suspect it’s the kind of novel that will reward a second and third reading. Anybody who doesn’t much care for the disaster and competence porn of your more typical post-apocalyptic adventure story may well love this slower-paced more internal novel with its narratives that spiral around one another and circle through time. I enjoy the former, but I loved this one too.

I see that Emily St John Mandel has also written three other books: Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and the Lola Quartet. I don’t know that any of those sound exactly like my cup of tea; they all seem to be straight up literary novels; but I don’t know. After Station Eleven, maybe I’m willing to give one of them a try.

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Back from WFC, now comes WindyCon

Okay, I actually did take notes from some of the panels at World Fantasy so I could write posts about them. Then I lost the notes. So…yeah. No posts about panels I attended, I guess. Perhaps shortly a post about the one panel I was on as a panelist.

The theme for World Fantasy this year was Alternate History / Secret History / Forgotten History and so there were a good many panels about related topics. From time to time a panel seemed to let those terms elide, so that elements of forgotten history — real world things people tend to forget about, such as the contributions of women to literature — would get confused with elements of secret history — fictional explanations for visible historical events, such as Hitler’s secret attempt to create a zombie army or whatever. This is regrettable, as it’s better to stick more or less to the official topic of the panel, since that is the panel people came to see.

Still, it’s a great theme, regardless of such details. So much one can do with all of those types of real and non-real history. Alan Smale was there, but I didn’t happen to go to any panel he was on — too bad, as I love what he’s done with his alternate history in his Clash of Eagles trilogy.

Favorite Alternate History: At the moment at least, my pick is indeed Smale’s trilogy.

Favorite Secret History: I must admit, I am pretty fond of the secret history embedded in the Black Dog world.

Favorite Forgotten History: I am having fun dipping into the Rejected Princesses site, though I have to say, the name seems less than great to me. I would prefer Forgotten to Rejected, since really that is what the site emphasizes. Also, some word other than Princesses, since almost none of the women in question is actually a princess.

Still a great site, though.

Okay, I will add: the Riverwalk in San Antonio is just beautiful. I loved walking along the river after breakfast every morning. Here’s a picture of a tiny amphitheater on the Riverwalk.

Tiers of grass-covered stone seating occupied space on the other side of the river, for the audience. I would love to watch some performance there sometime. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. That would be a perfect performance for that setting.

Also, lots of great Tex-Mex restaurants. Acenar was very good. So was Iron Cactus. You must order guacamole if you visit either place. They make it right there at the table; it’s great. If I lived in that area, I would so have avocado trees in my backyard.

It was great hanging out with people I know, including Sharon Shinn, and great being able to do that at excellent restaurants. Plus I had a good conversation with my agent and think (hope) I have a better idea of which projects might be best to work on over Christmas Break. Which is coming up, after all, so that’s something to think about at this point.

Okay, what else? … All right, you know the bag of free books you get at WFC? Here are the ones I mailed to myself at the end of the convention:

That one by Mari Ness is poetry. I love her posts at tor.com, so it caught my eye. Heartstone — I was quite pleased to pick that one up, because the sample from Amazon is dreadful. You get hardly any text; it’s all preliminary material. Lots of the others look intriguing. I bet it takes a while — years — for me to read them all, though.

Also, this pendant, which was far from free but which I like a lot:

Nice, eh? I am wearing it now with a black turtleneck.

This coming weekend: WindyCon!

I will be on four panels, moderating two —

Friday at 5:00 PM — Young Adult SFF — Why are so many of today’s popular stories and movies centered around teens and tweens?

Saturday at 10:00 AM — Overlooked Writers — Even with Google, you may not have heard of these writers or books.

Saturday at 2:00 PM — Dystopian Childhood — When did dystopia invade children’s literature and why is it so popular?

Saturday at 10:00 PM — Sex Sells — Do you really have to put sex into everything to make it sell?

Nice variety of panels; I’m moderating the last two so I better come up with questions about those topics. I’ve already started generating questions, of course. You should feel free to chime in:

What is one reason so many of today’s movies aimed at teens and tweens? — I have a reason in mind that does not flatter Hollywood.

What is one book / author you would like to add to the “most overlooked” list? — I definitely have several in mind.

What is one reason dystopia so popular with younger readers? — I suspect *one* reason is that various books are being called dystopia when they really aren’t.

What is one really popular SFF series that does not include explicit sex? — I can think of any number and I bet you can as well, but what I really want is urban fantasy series that do not include explicit sex. Not Jim Butcher’s series; I already have that one in mind. Extra gold-plated bonus points if you can think of a paranormal romance series that does not grade into erotica. I have one in mind, but it does include occasional explicit sex. I’d love to have a popular, best selling example in mind that does not ever do that.

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Friday Puppy Post

I’m at WFC, not at home to take pictures or post them, but I took these a few days ago, when the puppies were approximately four weeks old. Check them out — the babies are starting to really look like cute little puppies!

Boy 1

Boy 2

Girl 1

Girl 2

They are getting bouncy, but action shots tend to be very blurry, so here they are either crashed or just about to crash. Well, sleeeeeepy puppies have their charms too.

This is the age where puppies kind of notice you exist and start to deliberately interact with you. You can seem them try to focus on your face when you pick them up. I don’t know that they actually can look at a person very easily; we’re so big and they’re so very tiny. The biggest puppy (Boy 2) is 2 lbs 4 oz. The smallest — the girls are actually neck and neck — is just under 1 lb 14 oz.

It’s remarkable when you think about it, how easily tiny puppies learn to trust huge people. Cavalier mothers usually don’t mind a bit if you pick up their newborn puppies, which is a whole ‘nother level of trust. A few do, but certainly none of mine object. It’s really quite something.

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Does language shape how we think?

I don’t believe much in this article is especially new or provocative, which makes sense as I see it was published back in 2010. Still, it’s interesting and well-written, so let’s revisit it now: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Thus, French or German require us to specify the gender of someone such as a neighbor or visitor or a tourist or whomever, whereas English obviously does not. So if you grow up speaking a gendered language, you’re compelled to think about the gender of all these people whenever you refer to them. This is a familiar example, but this next one I didn’t know:

[In English] I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

The article then goes back to gendered languages and the way a masculine noun for “violin” makes people talk about the strength of the instrument, whereas a feminine noun inclines people to consider violins elegant and slender.

Also this:

Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.”

And naturally this means people who grow up speaking languages with geographic coordinates have a constantly running compass in their heads. Wouldn’t that be handy! I know I wouldn’t have been lost on a few uncomfortable occasions if English used geographic instead of egocentric coordinates.

Fun stuff! My actual favorite would be the languages that make you specify how sure you are about things and why — on the fly, as you speak. I do wonder how much more clear we’d all be in our thoughts, if we had to be this clear in our speech.

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Resolved: book piracy badly hurts at least some authors

Here is a post from Maggie Stiefvater, author of the excellent Raven Boys quadrilogy and the even better Scorpio Races:

I’ve decided to tell you guys a story about piracy.

You should click through and read the whole thing, but here’s the summary: After seeing oddly poor ebook sales for the 3rd Raven Boys novel, she asked the publisher to not put out an e-ARC for the 4th and last. Then she flooded piracy sites with bogus ebook copies, which were badly screwed up.

Instantly all kinds of posts appeared by people who, to their dismay, had downloaded a pirated copy, found it was all screwed up, and had thus been forced (the horror!) to actually buy a copy from Amazon.

The persuasive conclusion: piracy crushed ebook sales of the third book so badly that the publisher cut the print run of the last book; the publisher thought that piracy was not the cause of reduced sales, but they were wrong; piracy was Very Bad News for Steifvater’s sales and seriously damaged her sales for the series, and would have done a lot more harm if she hadn’t pulled off this anti-piracy scam.


I imagine this is a bigger problem for more famous bestselling authors. But yeah. I got this link via The Passive Voice, where the Passive Guy has both comments and suggestions. I have to say, flooding piracy sites with tons of bogus copies does seem like a more useful strategy than trying to eliminate pirated copies. And I must admit, embedding viruses in the bogus copies has its attractions as well…

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Interestingly Spooky News Tuesday

Happy Halloween! I’m seeing some great costumes on facebook, but I must admit, all I do is wear an orange t-shirt that says I Don’t Do Costumes. I don’t dress up the dogs either. Or even buy a pumpkin to carve. Out where I live, no trick-or-treaters will come by, and since I don’t have kids myself, I just don’t bother. I hope those of you who DO have kids are enjoying the holiday and doing stuff for it!

As a nod toward Halloween, I will post this one picture I just saw on Facebook. My cousin Janet posted it — it’s her bus driver, who I’m sure would be pleased to have this costume as widely admired as possible:

Pretty amazing, eh? If I went to this much trouble, I’d also do the masquerade at whatever conventions were near Halloween, cause this is too cool not to show off as many times as possible.

Here is something peculiar and potentially spooky:

How Far Away Are Active Invisibility Cloaks?

According to University of Texas researcher Andrea Alù, a battery-powered (or active) cloak composed of metamaterials might prevent a broadband radio signal from scattering off a target, an important step towards making objects undetectable to the human eye.

Metamaterials are man-made materials that can manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum in weird ways. The science of building them and tapping their emergent properties is still in its infancy. Alù and his team, for example, are working only with nonvisible wavelengths. But even at this early stage, metamaterials lend themselves to interesting military applications, such as better anti-radar stealth and antennas that don’t interfere with each other.

“Our group was the first to theoretically show that metamaterials could provide a realistic route towards invisibility and cloaking,” he says. “We are now working to experimentally prove broadband cloaks”—those with coverage for a wide spread of frequencies—”for radio waves and cloaked antennas. These possibilities are in reach within the coming months.”

Not necessarily the technological achievement I most want to see in actual production! But certainly interesting, and very science fiction-y.

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