Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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How to write horses in fantasy

At tor.com, Judith Tarr writes: This is how you write a horse: Dun Lady’s Jess.

There’s plenty of nice chewy genre stuff going on in the book. It’s a portal fantasy with parallel worlds. There are wizard wars and breakneck chases and nasty politics. There’s interesting worldbuilding: a world in which magic takes the place of technology, with spells for everything from cooking food to healing broken bones to waging war. The good guys have complex lives and motivations, and the bad guys are not evil Just Because. They have reasons, mostly having to do with money and power.

But when it all comes down to it, I’m there for the horses. One horse in particular, the dun mare of the title. … In Dun Lady’s Jess, Durgin gives us a real horse, as real as human observation can make her—and then, through the side effect of an untested magical spell, transforms her into a human woman.

Yep. As it happens, this is one of my favorite fantasy horses as well. Jess (the woman) and Lady (the horse) switch back and forth, and the heart of the story is about Jess/Lady dealing with this.

Jess has a lot to process. She doesn’t think like a human, but the longer she lives as one, the less like a horse she becomes. When she’s forced back into her equine body and brain, she’s thrown into shock. The greater strength and stamina, the keener senses, are more than welcome, but the reduced mental processing power frustrates her to the point of breaking. Horses have extremely good memories, which means she can remember everything about her life as Jess, but much of it escapes her understanding.

Tarr’s horse-centric review is good, and Durgin’s trilogy about Jess is a lot of fun. Quite a few viewpoint characters, more than I might like, but most of the viewpoint characters work well for me and throughout, the focus is mainly on Jess. Plus who doesn’t like a good portal fantasy? And this is a good one. Have any of you read that too?

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From Quora just now

This one caught my eye because it is in the running for most incoherent question ever. 

If the second part of humanity was heralded via the end of cultures competing on who can enslave people more civilly, when dies the second evolution happen?

Assuming the questioner meant “does” rather than “dies,” what could this mean? I think this could be used as a starting point for all kinds of interesting SF stories.

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Ode to Gray

I just found this a delightful essay.

I’m drawn to gray, as to a dream, but not to any old gray. Not storm-cloud gray or corporate monolith. I prefer tranquil gray: the undyed wool of sheep in rain, the mood inside a Gerhard Richter painting, the mottle of an ancient cairn. I don’t mean any one gray either but the entire underrainbow of the world, the faded rose and sage and caesious. Liard, lovat, perse. The human eye perceives five hundred—not a mere fifty—shades of gray. Paul Klee called it the richest color, “the one that makes all the others speak.”

I would absolutely vote for storm-cloud gray. Nevertheless, it’s a great paragraph. The underrainbow of the world! 

Gray in the wild opens and spills. Put two grays together and you’ll see the color each one hides within, the “endless variations” noted by Van Gogh. I think of the handful of river pebbles I once snuck into my pockets on a day trip to a waterfall: they were dusty gray when I got home, but underwater, each concealed a secret separate life as green or red or blue. So many things that seem gray on the surface have a treasure to unlock—myself, I hope, included.

Click through and read the whole poetic essay, if you have a moment.

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Erdemen Honor by CJ Brightley

So, I mentioned this series the other day, not by name. Let me mention it by name now. 

The first book is The King’s Sword. I read that late last year and liked it quite a bit. It was part of the Noblebright bundle, which is the only story bundle I’ve tried where I liked more than half the novels included. I have made more than one good discovery via bundles which otherwise I would have missed, though, so maybe I should try some more bundles.

Here’s my review.

So I went on with the sequel, which is A Cold Wind, and then the third book, which was Honor’s Heir.

Now, I remember clearly saying at some point that I would enjoy slice-of-life fantasy where not much exciting really happens. It turns out this is sometimes true (In Arcadia) but sometimes not so true.  In A Cold Wind, I sometimes felt that not enough was happening. Also, many times during the veeeery show development of Kemen’s relationship with Ria, I wanted to shake Kemen and shout, JUST PROPOSE ALREADY. I liked the book okay; it was a pleasant reading experience; but I did not rush out super fast to buy the third book.

On the other hand, I did buy the third book, and I wound up liking it quite a bit. Kemen’s got his life with Ria in order at last, thank heaven. What we have now is a secondary character from the second book, brought front-and-center as a point-of-view protagonist. This is Elathlo, a boy of the Tarvil people, who were raiding and generally being a nuisance in the first couple of books. Now Elathlo’s grandfather has given him to Kemen to train as an apprentice and basically to “teach him to be a man.” 

It turns out I liked this set up a lot. I liked Elathlo, I liked Kemen, I liked the training-the-apprentice scenes (I generally do like those kinds of scenes), I liked the development of Elathlo’s character and the implicit promise that he would eventually grow into the sort of leader his benighted people need.

I particularly liked how Elathlo was so certain Kemen would eventually loose patience and kill him. That conviction should probably have worn off a bit faster, as evidence piled up and up and up that Kemen would never do anything like that. But in some ways Elathlo is a rather young fourteen-year-old, and his own people are pretty brutal. 

So this book turned out to be my favorite of the trilogy, plus it’s the story that sparked the basic idea that led to my just writing 108 pages in nine days. Things I kept: the basic idea of a young(ish) character from one society thrown abruptly into another society, completely at the mercy of a much more powerful character from that society. What I also kept, because of course I did: both characters are fundamentally decent people. What I changed: absolutely everything else.

Oh, wait, the protagonist is also from a cold country. And I’m telling my story in first person, which is the same as the Erdemen books. That’s a departure for me, but I’ve been trying out first person from time to time recently, you just haven’t seen the results of those experiments yet. 

Other than that, yeah, everything else got changed. 

Nevertheless, Honor’s Heir would not have given me a push to write this other thing of my own if it hadn’t been quite catchy and stayed in my head after I finished it and given me things I wanted to play with.

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Punctuation marks we should be using … maybe

My official response to the new punctuation marks that have been proposed recently, such as the “sarc mark” and others:

This is the doubt point. It is used “to end a statement with a note of skepticism.” What do you think? I don’t dislike it. Hey, I’m good with ending many sentences on a note of skepticism. It’s like saying, “Uh huh” or “I’m sure” in a sarcastic tone of voice, only with punctuation. 

I just heard about the “sarc mark” yesterday on a podcast, which is why I looked up weird punctuation marks this morning. Obviously the sarc mark is meant to signal sarcasm. Here it is:

Some guy who invented this also copyrighted it, so I guess you can’t use it without permission. That sure seems like a great way to get your new punctuation mark into widespread use [sarc].

I would assume that none of these would ever be successful in breaking into the wider world of real punctuation, except that the podcast mentioned that the interrobang — looks like this —

— was actually included on typewriter keyboards in the seventies. Of course, it’s not on keyboards now, which suggests that getting a new punctuation mark accepted is definitely an uphill struggle. If you are interested, here is the Wikipedia entry on the interrobang.

I like the Calibri version the best, but I never actually use Calibri, so I guess I won’t be inclined to use the interrobang either. Also, I don’t think I have ever seen anybody use it ever. I truly dislike the ?! or !?! type of punctuation — except on social media, it’s perfectly okay there — but who knows, I might feel differently about the interrobang if people actually started using it.

Which I don’t think they will.

On the other hand, practically everyone uses smileys now. So maybe I’m overly doubtful. 

How about it? Do you think you’d use sarc marks and doubt marks and the rest if those keys were right there on your keyboard? I might — on social media only. I think it would drive me nuts to see those marks in a novel. Except maybe a near-future SF novel. In that case, new punctuation marks might be fun.

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Three Billy Goats Gruff

As you might instantly guess, this is a new Mari Ness post at tor.com. I always love her posts about fairy tales, so, let’s check it out:

The tale reads very well out loud if you have a proper grownup willing to do different voices for all of the goats and the troll, and a proper grownup willing to make the proper clip clop noises as the goats go over the bridge. (Yes, that’s crucial. Those noises are written into the tale!) If you don’t have a proper grownup—well, it’s still a pretty good story, really. It helps, too, that absolutely everyone, goats and the troll, has the same, immediately sympathetic motivation: they’re hungry. It’s something all three- and four-year-olds immediately understand.

I suspect this is why the story has become so popular as a picture book. After four pages of results, I stopped looking, but can confirm that Amazon currently offers multiple versions from multiple authors and illustrators. True, a few are cartoons, and a few are from the viewpoint of the very hungry troll, but the rest appear to tell retell the story in a straightforward manner—letting creativity go wild with the illustrations.

My own sympathy tends to lie with the many recent authors who have chosen to tell us the troll’s point of view. After all, even in the original tale, in some ways the troll is the most ethical character—in that he isn’t offering up his fellow trolls as fatter, tenderer foods for goats. And in many ways the most sympathetic one: not only does he die at the end of the story, making him the true victim here, but he never gets to eat anything.

Oh, are their modern authors who take the troll’s pov? I didn’t know that.

What do you think of this initial assertion — that the troll is the most sympathetic character? I don’t think I buy that. For me the troll is the monster and the goats are perfectly justified in tricking him. Of course Ness may be a writing with her tongue over toward her cheek here. She adds:

Fortunately, the goats do offer us another moral lesson—that eating a lot and getting fat is the best way to celebrate conquering a troll—something I feel we can all agree with.

Since this is Mari Ness, there is a good deal of historical context and discussion in this post. Click through and read the whole thing if you have a minute.

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Originality is overrated

Here’s a good post at Terrible Minds: Originality is Overrated.

And the worry comes that you’ve nothing to add to the canon of ideas, that whatever story you’re going to tell isn’t particularly original. Surely someone has told a story like this.

You’re right. They probably have.

In the history of storytelling, it’s very, very hard to have an entirely original take on something. When you’re pitching a book to an agent, or when your agent is pitching a book to editors, you might be asked what the “comp” titles are — meaning, what books are like it already. And in Hollywoodland, pitching a story is often you trying to feign originality by smashing up two pre-existing properties — “It’s like Terminator meets Gilmore Girls! It’s Pinnocchio, but set on the Titanic — in space!

That last bit made me laugh. Pinnocchio, but set on the Titanic — in space! Ha ha ha!

Full confession: I have never worried about this. Probably because I often get ideas by stealing them from someone else’s book, a phenomenon I am quite aware of and make no effort to resist. This is a great character! I think. But the author isn’t doing nearly enough with him. Hmmm… 

This is a great world … a great moment … a great scene, but OMG, why didn’t the author end it this great way instead of that terrible way?

I can’t believe the author did this to that character.

Why didn’t the author linger on this scene the way it so clearly deserved? It’s good but it could have been so much more.

Remember that scene in CJC’s Fortress in the Eye of Time, when Cefwin’s father dies, and right at the end rejects Cefwin one more time? Remember how crushing that was? I’m telling you, that is brutal. At least I thought so. I felt terrible for Cefwin, as I’m sure CJC intended.

That moment stuck in my head, and when I wrote The City in the Lake, I redeemed that exact moment by ending the similar scene between Neill and his father in a different way. Do you remember? You might. It is, judging by the comments from my beta readers and editor and the copy editor and various readers, a memorable couple of sentences.

To, uh, relax, after finishing my big WIP, I kind of started a different book.

This is not always how I respond to finishing a first draft. More often I turn off my laptop and don’t even look at it for a month. This time I’ve whipped through 54 pages of a new story in five days, which is incredibly fast. I figure I’ll do another little bit, maybe get it closer to 100 pages or so, and then probably send it to my agent to see what she thinks while I start editing the actual official WIP.  The new one may be too YA-ish. (YA is a tough sell right now, I hear.)

And the reason it may be too YA-ish is that I stole the character and the basic situation from a book I read earlier this year, and that character was a very YA sort of character.

I liked the this book quite a bit in some ways and not so much in others. Obviously I found the basic scenario quite compelling. That’s why I wanted to pick it up and play with it myself.

To play with the same kind of situation, I made my protagonist about five years older and changed his personality, and also changed the personality of the most important secondary character and began building a different cast around the two of them. I also altered the situation quite a lot and redesigned the world (drawing on but not copying my favorite worldbuilding detail from Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy: the sky that changes depending on what polity you’re in). I also changed both societies the main characters belong to to make one less grim and the other less nice.

I would say I’ve changed the plot entirely as well except heaven knows what the plot will end up being. I don’t have a plot yet. I have a faint intention of something I may possibly want to happen way later in the story, maybe.

The question of whether my story is original didn’t really occur to me at any point. It will be original enough when it’s done. It was inspired by this other book, but it is obviously not remotely a copy of that story. It was also inspired by other things, like the Eternal Sky trilogy, and probably other things I don’t remember specifically. 

In his post, Wendig goes on:

I consider there to be very few Actual Truths in writing, in storytelling, in making cool shit — but this, I think, comes as close to Actual Truth as I can muster.

Every story has one original thing about it.

And that original thing is

You.

Yep. Various stories may capture the same eternal truth, either explicitly — remember when LMB had Ekaterin say, “Adulthood is not a good conduct prize you get for being a good child” in A Civil Campaign?

I expect any number of other stories have made the same point, either just as explicitly or (more likely) implicitly. That is the sort of Actual Truth a story can capture. But everyone is going to capture it differently.

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Modern headline of the week

Sex pigs halt traffic after laser attack on Pokémon teens

I bet that made you blink.

Question: is that a great headline because it made you sit up and possibly click through?

Did you click through?

Or is that a terrible headline because you have no clue what it could possibly mean?

Here is the story:

Tiny Insjön in central Sweden isn’t known for pig mask-wearing couples shooting lasers at Pokémon hunters before having sex by a waterwheel. But that could be about to change.

So now you know.

I’m trying to remember to collect weird and funny headlines this year. Mostly I probably let them slip by me. But this one kind of stood out.

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The books most commonly left unfinished

From Book Riot: THE 15 MOST COMMON DNFED BOOKS, ACCORDING TO GOODREADS USERS

Deciding not to finish a book can be a freeing experience. Our time as readers is limited and there are SO MANY good books out there. Choosing to DNF isn’t an indictment of the book itself—usually—but a necessary aspect of the reader’s life nowadays. Some books, though, get DNFed more often than others….

Well, that’s nice to say, but pretty often hitting the DNF button is totally an indictment of the book itself. Not always, I grant you. But often. Let’s see which of the fifteen on this list seem to possibly fall into the not-for-me-but-not-bad category and which might more likely toggle the switch to it’s-not-me-it’s-you.

Also, this sensible disclaimer:

This list also skews towards very popular books, so while these books are commonly DNFed, they’re also very, very commonly read. Likely, they weren’t finished because they were so widely advertised and attracted readers who weren’t the best readers for these books to begin with.

That hypothesis sounds very plausible.

Moving on to the actual list. Without peeking, do you have any predictions? I bet Fifty Shades is on there somewhere.

So …

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Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1,240 total nopes)

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (1,100)

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (1,012)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (956)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (928)

American Gods by Neil Gaiman (907)

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare (862)

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (838)

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater (805)

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (766)

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (731)

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (729)

Allegiant by Veronica Roth (723)

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Mass (705)

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (701)

————————

Hah, I was right! Number two! Well, that did seem likely. Allllll the hype, but badly written porn? Plus it sold soooo many copies, one would think just statistically it would rack up lots of DNF votes along with lots (I presume) of rave reviews.

Have you personally not finished any of these books?

I started but did not finish: Outlander, The Book Thief, and Shiver.

The ones I have not tried are Fifty Shades, Casual Vacancy, Night Circus, City of Bones, Red Queen, Discovery of Witches (I’ve never heard of that one), Allegiant, Throne of Glass, and The Magicians.

The ones I have read are American Gods (which I did not like), Song of Ice and Fire (I DNF the series, but I did read the first three or so), and Miss Peregrine’s Home. That one was just okay for me.

The ones I would like to try eventually are Night Circus and The Magicians.

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