Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


First Page Sins

From Jane Friedman’s blog, this: The Deadliest First Page Sin—Plus a Critique of Two Novel Openings

While there are seven deadly first-page sins I commonly encounter (which I detail at length in my book Your First Page), there is one that’s most deadly of all: default omniscience.

A story or a novel is as much about how it’s told—by means of what structure, through what voice or voices, from which viewpoint(s)—as about what happens. In fiction, means and ends are inseparable: method is substance. You may have all the ingredients—a plot, characters, dialogue, description, setting, conflict—but if they aren’t bound by a specific, consistent, and rigorously controlled viewpoint, you have nothing.

In workshops I’ve been known to write across the whiteboard:


I’m not talking minor gaffes and glitches. I mean errors so deep-rooted no line-editing can set them right, blunders that call into question not only the author’s grasp of a particular moment or scene in a story, but fiction’s primary purpose: to render experiences.

Fiction’s stock in trade is human experience, and experience is subjective: things don’t just happen; they happen insofar as characters feel and react to them.

Good point! There’s a lot more at the link, including this example:

Hank could have passed for Lila’s grandfather. His white mustache added to his years, yet he kept himself trim and thought himself as t as the younger fathers. He was nuts about Lila, who still loved him, though lately she’d grown distant. She was no longer his little girl; in fact, she secretly wished that he would act his age. She especially hated it when he pretended to pull coins and other things out of her ears. Why was he so goofy? But all adolescent girls pass through a phase where they hold their fathers in mild contempt.

At first glance, nothing seems wrong with this paragraph. But on closer inspection problems arise. While the first sentence (“Hank could have passed for Lila’s grandfather”) is neutral-objective, the second sentence (“thought himself…fit”) shifts us into Hank’s personal, subjective viewpoint. Though the third sentence seems to dip into Lila’s feelings about him, the thought expressed by it could still be from Hank’s viewpoint. However, unless we assume that Lila’s secret is not a secret, the fourth, fifth, and sixth sentences plunge us fully into Lila’s consciousness. With the final sentence we get yet another shift in perspective, to an omniscient, generalized view of all adolescent girls’ relationships with their fathers.

I have a mild disagreement here, because I think the paragraph does in fact feel all wrong from the very first glance. That point of view stuff is really pretty egregious.

It’s interesting to me that Friedman feels this is a very common problem with workshop entries. I’m not sure I’ve noticed it, at least not anything nearly as extreme as the above example. I would have said that failure to set the scene, sometimes going as far as a “white room” setting, is the single most common issue. But she has probably seen a lot more workshop entries than I have.

Interestingly, I would say that the first of the two 1st-page critiques offered at the link does not show failures with pov, but does in fact fail to set the scene. The second, which both Friedman and I like, does a vastly better job of setting the scene and placing the protagonist in it. Neither has a problem with pov.

So . . . pov. It’s probably true that unless viewpoint is effectively established, most reader can’t connect emotionally with the story. A couple of authors always spring to my mind when point of view comes up:

Clever use of omniscient or rapid switches from one viewpoint to another: no one does it better than Judith Riley in her Margaret of Ashbury series.

Amazing use of pov to avoid ever showing us the viewpoint of the actual protagonist: Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series.

Excellent use of a character’s specific and personal “voice” to draw the reader into the story: too many authors to mention, but The Hunger Games was a breakout sensation for a reason.

Extremely tight focus on one character’s viewpoint: CJC, for example with Bren Cameron and also with Cajeiri in Emergence, the latest Foreigner novel. Cherryh switches back and forth, with (for the first time, for me) Cajeiri’s viewpoint being way more fun. What a good idea it was to make him such an important pov character.

What are you all reading right now, and who is your favorite character?

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Blog / Real Food / The Best Cookies In The World

Baking Special Treats for No Reason

Wow, was this past Sunday a big cooking day for me. I mean, among other things. I worked on my WIP in the morning, then made this interesting filled shortbread, then took some of the dogs to the park, then made khachapuri breads. There was no particular reason to make a lot of wonderful, interesting treats this weekend; it just worked out that way.

Both these recipes were good and impressive and rather easy, so let me share them with you in case you have a particular reason to want to bake specialty breads (or no actual reason, but you just want to).

So, first —

Lemon-Curd Filled Shortbread

This recipe is from this blog post, which I found because I googled “recipes using lemon curd.” Every so often my mother’s Meyer lemon tree ripens a fruit despite suffering from a terrible sunlight deficiency during the winter, and so I make Meyer lemon curd and then look around for stuff to do with it. Aside from just layering the lemon curd with whipped cream in little glass dishes, which by the way is hard to beat, but the following recipe only uses ½ C of lemon curd, so there was plenty for both uses.

I found the lemon actually rather subtle in this recipe, so I may try it again with raspberry jam, an alternative suggested by the original post. It was quite easy and the shortbread practically melts in your mouth, so it’s definitely worth making again.

Here’s what you need —

8 oz butter, softened
4 oz sugar
¼ tsp salt
10 oz cake flour (I used all-purpose)
½ C lemon curd
1 egg, for egg wash (I didn’t do this)
1 Tbsp sugar to sprinkle over top (or this)

Cream the butter, sugar, and salt. Add the flour. You can of course use cake flour, which will make the shortbread more tender and crumbly. I have to say, it was PLENTY tender and crumbly even using all-purpose flour, so my official position on this issue is: Do not make a special trip to the store for cake flour.

Whatever kind of flour you use, divide the dough into two portions. You can chill or freeze the dough at this point, but I went straight on.

Roll one portion of the dough out to a 12” round . . . mine was more like 10”. The original recipe says to roll it out and then transfer it to parchment paper and I was like, why would you make life hard for yourself? So I rolled it out actually ON the parchment paper. My widest baking sheet is just about 11”, so that’s how wide I rolled out the circle of dough. Yes, this is a very tender, soft dough. Just be gentle and use a tiny bit of extra flour on the top surface so the rolling pin doesn’t rip it up too much. It wasn’t that hard to roll out.

The way you keep the parchment paper from sliding all over the countertop while you roll out the dough, by the way, is to overlap the paper a bit over the edge of the counter and lean your body against the paper to pin it in place. It’s quite simple, a lot simpler, probably, than trying to transfer a delicate round of dough to parchment after you roll it out.

Move that round out of the way and roll out the second portion of dough to match, on a second piece of parchment paper.

Spread the lemon curd over one round of dough, leaving about ½ inch border. Use the parchment paper to lift the second round and invert it over the first. I realize this step has some potential for catastrophe, but in fact the dough stuck to the paper just well enough to make it pretty easy to line up the circles as I inverted the top one. The paper then cooperatively peeled off, so I definitely recommend this method.

Now, trim the edges to make a reasonably smooth circle – I was not obsessive about this – and crimp the border all around with a fork. Prick the top all over. Here’s where you could brush the round with a beaten egg and sprinkle it with sugar, but I forgot. I just dusted the whole thing with powdered sugar after it was out of the over and that worked fine as a finishing touch.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until lightly golden.

Incidentally, you can throw away the trimmed scraps of dough, but you can also make four or so thumbprint cookies and fill them with lemon curd. They got overbaked when I did this, so maybe put them on a separate sheet and bake for, I don’t know, 18 minutes maybe.

Cool before cutting into wedges and serving. Really tasty, especially if you don’t cool the shortbread quite all the way to room temp so that you get to eat a wedge while it’s still a little bit warm. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many pieces I ate in one day, but I will just mention I’m giving the rest to my mother, who loves shortbread and unlike me actually needs to gain weight.

So that was treat number one, and very pleasing it was!

Okay, later in the day I made these spinach khachapuri. After Christmas I always get myself a few cookbooks as for some reason everyone else seems to feel I have enough. Anyway, this year I picked up Samarkand, by Eden and Ford, and needed to use up some spinach, so I made these khachapuri boats. For the third time. They’re really good! I have never made them quite according to the recipe, but every variation I’m made has been great.

Spinach Khachapuri

1¼ C bread flour – I have been using a high-protein white whole wheat flour
1 tsp yeast
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp sugar – the recipe says superfine, but honestly, it’s just ¼ tsp, so what difference can it possibly make?
1/3 C plain yogurt – I used full-fat Greek yogurt, which I generally have on hand.
2 Tbsp warm water – I used at least 6 by the time I was done, possibly because Greek yogurt doesn’t have as much water in it as regular.

2½ C chopped spinach leaves. I have used fresh (which I zapped briefly in the microwave to cook just a little) and frozen (which I squeezed out) and I will say that I used too much spinach when I used frozen because I wasn’t sure how to much would equal 2½ C chopped fresh. Maybe more like 1 C frozen. Use your own judgment.

1 C grated mozzarella
½ C feta, crumbled
¼ C ricotta. I happen to dislike ricotta, so I used a pretty generous amount of cream cheese, which I like much better.
2 scallions, chopped
1 Tbsp minced parsley. I didn’t have any, so I left it out.
I Tbsp minced cilantro. Ditto.
1 tsp minced dill. I used dried.
3 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

Make the bread dough. I used my stand mixer. Let rise two hours, it says. I let it rise a little less than one hour in a warm oven.

Combine the filling ingredients through the herbs. You can add one egg to the filling, but somehow I just never seem to. I think I didn’t have enough eggs the first time I made this and it worked fine without. Probably adding the egg would make the filling lighter and puffier. I should actually add it next time and see.

Divide the dough in half. Or thirds. Or fourths. I favor making these smaller, though the original recipe just makes two bigger khachapuri. I find even three a bit on the big side and will probably make four next time.

Roll each portion into a longish oval. Spoon over a matching portion of the filling and spread it out over the dough. Pinch the ends shut over the filling and make a boat shape, so your finished breads will look like this:

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees and put a pizza stone in the oven to get really hot. Slide the khachapuri onto the hot stone. Or use a plain baking sheet. Either way, bake for 10 minutes. Take out of the oven, push the filling aside in the middle of the boats, and break in an egg. Return to the oven for 5 minutes or until the egg is just set.

Now, I have had trouble getting the eggs to set. I don’t mind a liquidy yolk, but a liquidy white – ugh. So twice I have put the khachapuri under the broiler for a minute to finish the eggs. This time I just let them bake a little longer. Either way, the bread gets really brown, so what I actually suggest is, bake for just 6-7 minutes first, then break the eggs into the middle, then bake another 7 minutes or so, until the eggs are set to your taste.

Cool enough so you won’t burn your mouth and there you go. The original recipe says “Serve with a slice of cool butter on top” which you can certainly try if that appeals to you, but it seems completely unnecessary to me. Definitely an excellent brunch idea if you’re having company.

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Everything has gotten so dark…

… Cover art, at least.

Check out these covers, all pulled off various Most Anticipated SFF of 2018 lists:

I am not familiar with these books, by the way. I just happened to glance at some Most Anticipated lists and this really strong tendency toward DARKNESS leaped out at me. Now that I posed a bunch of covers in a row, I’m seeing there is also a GIANT FULL MOON theme, though not as consistently as just DARK DARK DARK. This is by no means a complete set of all the dark covers I saw; I just got tired of copying them.

It’s not that I think these are bad covers. Anything cartoonish or too stylized usually turns me off, so I am not attracted at all to that Scalzi cover. The super-simple Clair North cover does sort of grab me. The cover with the dragon, well, I am pretty much willing to look at covers that feature dragons. I like that Touch of Iron cover. The Giant Full Moon trope appeals to me, apparently — I like every cover up there with a full moon.

But mostly I find myself longing for a splash of color and light. I think these, also off Most Anticipated lists, are going to stand out from the crowd this year:

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Not really an award

Here’s something kind of fun:

Announcing the 2018 Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards!

Well, actually… it’s just a bit of fun that a group of scifi and fantasy readers, including me, have decided to indulge into by looking at the 2017 published scifi and fantasy stories and trying to pick up our favourite.

From a blog called The Middle Shelf, these … not really awards. I like the lack of seriousness, actually. Beth of Bethan May Books says, “Not really an award. There is no prize. Or a ceremony. I will be drinking though.”

I like the categories:

– Best scifi novel;
– Best fantasy novel;
– Best story that blurs the boundaries;
– Best novella (either scifi or fantasy);
– Best series (either scifi or fantasy).

I like that “blurring the boundaries” category. Here’s the shortlist for that category:

A. Caldecott, Rotherweird.
N. Drayden, The Prey of Gods.
R. Emrys, The Winter Tide.
N. Harkaway, Gnomon.
F. Lee, Jade City.
M. M. Smith, Hannah Green and her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence.
J. Williams, The Ninth Rain.

I am curious to see what each of those books looks like and why it has been included in this category. I will say, I have only tried one of these (The Prey of Gods) and I did not get very far in it. It had too gritty a tone for me. I think it is SF? But maybe it intergrades somehow with fantasy or horror or something, and that is why it’s in this category?

I’ve seen plenty of references to Jade City, but I haven’t looked at it yet.

I think Hannah Green and her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence is a fun title.

Gnomon has the most intriguing cover.

I’m going to try to remember to follow along a bit and see how this “non-award” develops.

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Who needs writing skill? There’s an app for that.

At Quartz, this: Don’t like the way you write? An artificial intelligence app promises to polish your prose

Which is an annoying use of the term “artificial intelligence,” to start with, and sounds pretty iffy in general. Polish your prose, eh? Let’s just see how this is supposed to work:

The Hemingway App … promises to do just that. “Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear,” the site claims, so that “your reader will focus on your message, not your prose.” If you listen to the app’s advice, it will rid your writing of run-on sentences, needless adverbs, passive voice, and opaque words. There’s no guarantee you’ll crank out the next Farewell to Arms — but the goal is to get you closer to Ernest Hemingway’s clear, minimalist style.

Ah! It will rid your writing of the passive voice! How useful! That way instead of writing something like, “Worst morning ever! My poor dog was hit by a car! She ran away crying and limping and it took me four hours to catch her. Thank God she was all right.”

Now you can write: “I had the worst morning ever! Someone hit my dog with their car! I mean, his or her car. Anyway, my poor dog ran away …”

And for all I know, the Hemingway app would also be offended by your exclamation points.

I see it costs $20 to get the app, and I don’t see a way to try it out for free, so the above sentences are just guesses about what the app might do. This is just an example of passive voice that shows how perfectly appropriate it can be when you actually do want to emphasize the object rather than the subject. Who cares about the car or the driver? The dog is obviously the important thing in the sentence. Passive voice allows that to be expressed.

Anyway, it turns out this app is not brand new. Here is an article from The New Yorker, written in 2014: Hemingway Takes the Hemingway Test

Take this description of Romero, the bullfighter, in “The Sun Also Rises”:

Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time.

This breaks several of the Hemingway rules. The passive voice loses points, as do the two adverbs at the end. But “quietly” and “calmly,” are, of course, essential to the point. Bullfighters, masterly or not, avoid the horns most of the time. Only the artists like Romero manage it quietly and calmly. And that word, “quietly,” which is not quite literal, is a little surprise. Regarding the passive voice, it injects emotional uncertainty into the scene. “All that was faked turned bad,” scans like a melody, and in its passivity and slightly odd tense, feels like an elegy. It is not exactly clear. But it’s bold.

Amusing example! Also, an apt observation: I think we can assume that any app that zealously applies rigorous rules is going to produce text that lacks poetry.

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Fun with statistics: If I Didn’t Have You

So, have you seen this YouTube video of Tim Minchin’s version of “If I Didn’t Have You”?

It has lyrics like this:

So I trust it would go without saying
That I would feel really very sad
If tomorrow you were to fall off something high
Or catch something bad
But I’m just saying
I don’t think you’re special
I-I mean, I think you’re special
But you fall within a bell curve
I mean, I’m just saying I
(Really think that I would)
(Have somebody else)

Also, it reminds me of this analysis of “soul mates” from xkcd. Which I see now actually refers to the Minchin song, so how about that. I had forgotten about that.

From xkcd:

The odds of running into your soul mate are incredibly small. The number of strangers we make eye contact with each day is hard to estimate. It can vary from almost none (shut-ins or people in small towns) to many thousands (a police officer in Times Square). Let’s suppose you lock eyes with an average of a few dozen new strangers each day. (I’m pretty introverted, so for me that’s definitely a generous estimate.) If 10% of them are close to your age, that’s around 50,000 people in a lifetime. Given that you have 500,000,000 potential soul mates, it means you’ll only find true love in one lifetime out of ten thousand….

Anyway, fun song! If you’re at all math geeky, you should click over and watch the video.

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Not sure why anyone is surprised: Colorful dinosaurs

This article recently caught my eye: Chinese ‘rainbow dinosaur’ had iridescent feathers like hummingbirds

Scientists on Monday announced the discovery of a crow-sized, bird-like dinosaur with colorful feathers from northeastern China that lived 161 million years ago during the Jurassic Period.

They named it Caihong, the Mandarin word for rainbow. Microscopic structures in the exquisitely preserved, nearly complete fossil unearthed in Hebei Province indicated that it boasted iridescent feathers, particularly on its head, neck and chest, with colors that shimmered and shifted in the light, like those of hummingbirds…

Look, I get that most mammals don’t see color all that well, and thus mammals are by and large rather boringly colored. But this is because mammals are descended from nocturnal ancestors that had secondarily lost color vision, not because color vision is unusual. We are use to thinking (I guess?) that humans are special because of our pretty decent color vision. But practically all vertebrates see lots of colors just fine.

Birds see lots of colors, including colors we humans can’t see.

Lizards can see colors, many of them better than humans.

Fish can see plenty of colors, including some we can’t.

And you know what fish, lizards, and birds all have in common? Yes, they are often VERY COLORFUL.

Of course the default assumption should be that dinosaurs could see color. Why wouldn’t they? That’s true of most vertebrates. Camouflage is all very well and good, but display is also fundamental and very often the need for display completely overwhelms the need to stay out of sight — peacock’s tails come to mind here.

All those drab reconstructions of dinosaurs were always implausible, and obviously so.

It Must Have Been Colored Like an Elephant Because it Was Really Big

Even when authors and artists try to do better, they keep getting hung up on the idea that Big Animals Should Look Like Mammals, and thus be boringly colored.

This one is better, but still shows a limited palette.

While no doubt many dinosaurs, like many of today’s birds, WERE drab, there were surely plenty that were VERY BRIGHTLY COLORED. If I were an artist and called upon to envision realistic dinosaurs, while I’d pattern and color some like, oh, killdeer (I have always been very fond of killdeer), I would also base many colors and patterns on tanagers, trogons, hummingbirds, rollers, parrots, pheasants, kingfishers, and so on and so forth.

Maybe this “rainbow dinosaur” with its obvious pigmentation will start to urge artists in that direction…

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We live in a science fiction world

Here’s something that isn’t as cool as the title makes it seem, but still possesses a high Wow Quotient:

Woman receives bionic hand with sense of touch

Almerina Mascarello, who lost her left hand nearly 25 years ago, said: “It’s almost like it’s back again.”

The BBC reports that an international team that includes engineers, neuroscientists, surgeons, electronics and robotics specialists developed the bionic hand in 2014 — but the sensory and computer equipment it was linked to was too large to leave the laboratory.

However, the technology is now small enough to fit inside a backpack, making it portable.

The prosthetic hand has sensors that detect information about whether an object is soft or hard. Those messages are linked to the backpack computer that converts them into a language the brain can comprehend.

The information then gets relayed to Mascarello’s brain via tiny electrodes implanted in nerves of her upper arm.

One can see the day coming when the technology will be small enough to fit inside the hand itself. And perceive more than “hard” vs “soft.”

But it’s pretty amazing already.

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Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium

Here’s a delightful article by Maria Popova I stumbled across: Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Forgotten Treasure at the Intersection of Science and Poetry

Long before she began writing poems, Dickinson undertook a rather different yet unexpectedly parallel art of contemplation and composition — the gathering, growing, classification, and pressing of flowers, which she saw as manifestations of the Muse not that dissimilar to poems.

I had no idea.

Although the original herbarium survives in the Emily Dickinson Room at Harvard’s Houghton Rare Book Library, it is so fragile that even scholars are prohibited from examining it and the out-of-print facsimile book is so prohibitively expensive that this miraculous masterpiece at the intersection of poetry and science has practically vanished from the popular imagination. But in a heartening testament to the digital humanities as a force of cultural stewardship, Harvard has digitized Dickinson’s herbarium in its totality…

There are many pictures at the link, including this one, which makes me think of spring:

This poem also makes me think of spring:

Whose are the little beds, I asked
Whose are the little beds, I asked
Which in the valleys lie?
Some shook their heads, and others smiled—
And no one made reply.

Perhaps they did not hear, I said,
I will inquire again—
Whose are the beds—the tiny beds
So thick upon the plain?

‘Tis Daisy, in the shortest—
A little further on—
Nearest the door—to wake the Ist—
Little Leontoden.

‘Tis Iris, Sir, and Aster—
Anemone, and Bell—
Bartsia, in the blanket red—
And chubby Daffodil.

Meanwhile, at many cradles
Her busy foot she plied—
Humming the quaintest lullaby
That ever rocked a child.

Hush! Epigea wakens!
The Crocus stirs her lids—
Rhodora’s cheek is crimson,
She’s dreaming of the woods!

Then turning from them reverent—
Their bedtime ’tis, she said—
The Bumble bees will wake them
When April woods are red.

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