Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


The art of the critique

At Kill Zone Blog, this, from PJ Parrish:

The Fine Art Of Giving Out Criticism

It took me a long time to learn that doling out criticism is a learned skill. All writers need honesty but it has to come with a healthy side order of kindness. …

Parrish then lists these seven considerations:

  • Resist the urge to fix the problem. 
  • Watch your tone. 
  • Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. 
  • Don’t boost your own ego. 
  • Let the person react. 
  • Be empathetic. 
  • Don’t focus on the person.

With, of course, plenty of comments under each point. Now, as far as I’m concerned, (2), (3), and (6) are all pretty much the same thing. “Watch your tone,” and “Don’t take out your frustrations” and “Be empathetic” are all basically versions of “be nice.” Come to think of it, maybe “Let the person react” falls into this same category as well.

Besides that, “Don’t boost yourself” and “Don’t focus on the person” both could be subsumed into “Keep your focus on the work.”

So really, three rules:

a) Resist the urge to fix the problem.

b) Be nice.

c) Keep your focus on the specific work at hand.

This short list seems pretty good to me. From time to time I have, very cautiously, suggested possible solutions, but I agree this is fraught. Generally it is probably better to say, “I feel that this section slows down too much” rather than suggest ways to speed it up; or “It seems to me that this story opens in a ‘white room;’ I have no real sense of place here” rather than suggesting ways to establish the setting.

I like participating in workshops, from time to time, but I do think they’re hard. I’m not likely to ever join a critique group because I put way more time into reading and re-reading a workshop entry, and working up a critique, than I would ever want to put into a regular activity.

How about you all? Has anybody participated regularly in a critique group, and if so, how did it work out?

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Nonfiction that takes you to space

Over at tor.com, a column by Becky Chambers: 5 Non-Fiction Books That Will Put You in an Astronaut’s Boots

I actually am not all that keen on putting myself into an astronaut’s boots. That’s not a fantasy of mine and never has been. If I went into space, I’d want it to be via really mature technology, with artificial gravity underfoot, preferably surrounded by complete ecosystems within a station fairly well indistinguishable from a world.

However, I do find the fourth book on the list interesting:

Ice Station, by Ruth Slavid and James Morris

This book’s not about space at all, but bear with me. Sometimes, the sort of astronauts you want to think about are the kind that set up shop on other worlds for extended periods of time, and that’s not something we’ve done yet (a few quick camping trips in an Apollo Lunar Module notwithstanding). But if you want to imagine what it’s like for humans to live and work in environmentally-hostile isolation, you don’t have to leave our planet at all. Ice Station is a fascinating book about the creation of Halley VI, a research facility in the Antarctic. This slim read is packed with goodies tailor-made for design nerds. Blueprints! Sketches! Considerations about what paint colors are most psychologically soothing! Spending a hundred and six days a year in total darkness never looked so cushy.

That sounds like something I’d enjoy. Even though I would never, ever contemplate even for a second participating in any research that takes place in such an inhospitable environment. Despite not actually wanting to occupy arctic explorer’s boots, this does sound interesting.

For those of you who like the idea of astronaut’s boots better than arctic-explorer’s boots, click through and check out the other suggestions.

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Archon schedule

I know most of you live (much) too far away to consider attending Archon, the small just-outside-St-Louis convention coming up in early October. I always go because it’s an hour and a half away and thus easy to attend.

Actually, my schedule right now constitutes a mad scramble, it’s just that most of that revolves around dogs, not SF conventions, so I don’t mention it here (much). In case you’re interested, this year it goes like this:

September 7, 8 — showing Leda at a local-ish show (an hour and a half drive) because though that show won’t offer a major, Leda can use single points. (She got reserve, so not even a single point, alas.)

September 15 — ditto

September 21, 22 — ditto

September 27, 28, 29 — showing Leda and Conner at an Arkansas show, where I hope there will be a major (and especially hope that Conner will get Winners Dog at least once and thus finish his championship) (and it would be nice if Leda picked up another major win as well).

October 4, 5, 6 — Archon

October 25, 26, 27 — a show in TN, which I will enter if and only if Conner still needs a major

November 15, 16, 17 — WindyCon (Chicago)

So, even if I don’t add any other dog shows in there, you can see that it’s a mad rush till after Archon. So I better prepare for Archon right now, since I’m on six panels and moderating four of them!

Here’s my Archon schedule:

Friday 3:00 PM Writing With a Deadline

Some people thrive on time pressures, others find it stifling or even disabling. Some of our professionals discuss how they deal with it.

It’s fine that I’m not writing to a deadline and have been moderately stuck on everything for months now, right?

Actually, it is fine. I’ve done plenty of writing to a deadline previously, so I have stuff to say here. Plus I’m moderating, so my job is mostly to get everyone else to say relevant things and stick to the topic.

Friday 5:00 PM Animal Traits Straight Out of Science Fiction

Find out about traits that some animals have evolved that are so crazy they seem to come from a science fiction story!

What to choose, what to choose …. so many great possibilities that no one will ever, ever have heard about. I’m inclined to focus personally on unexpected behavior, but again, moderator, so once again I’ll be drawing out the other panelists. And sticking to the topic, but that will not be difficult, I expect.

I anticipate categories: physically weird, metabolically weird, behaviorally weird … other? What other categories suggest themselves?

Saturday 12:00 noon Dragons!

A look at these awesome mythological creatures, and their origins in the East and West.

That seems very straightforward. Probably it would be okay to take a few minutes of the panel from the history of dragons to just mention a handful of the Best Dragons Ever In SFF Fiction and explain why they’re the best?

Saturday 1:00 PM, Young Adult Books: Not Just For Teens Anymore (or Ever?)

You’ve walked past the teen section so many times, and you see book titles that you’re almost interested in. But are you too old to enjoy such fantasies? Lets talk about how you’re never too old to read these titles.

This is fine, though in fact it might be nice to have a teen literature category driven primarily or solely by the tastes and preferences of actual teenagers. But that is mostly a different discussion.

Saturday 4:00 PM As You Know, Bob…

What are some creative ways to fill the reader or viewer in on background to the story?

I am currently reading Lake Silence by Anne Bishop. It is fine, I like it, it’s fun to read, but Anne Bishop sometimes provides pretty good examples of how not to work background into your novel. In some books in The Others series she gives background to the reader in huge chunks during some kind of prologue. She didn’t do that in this book, but the first person narrator does pause to explain things to the reader in a way that is pretty overt.

I think Barbara Hambly does a particularly good job of working in background and worldbuilding without overtly pausing to tell the reader about the background. Marta Randall does this beautifully in The River South. Martha Wells is another. I’d say I do it well myself. Who else occurs to you as being particularly good at sliding background into the story?

Sunday 10:00 AM Lesser Known or Forgotten Gems

What authors or stories are wonderful, but no one seems to know about them?

This panel is always effortless. Everyone has a thousand examples of lesser-known gems they would love to suggest. One and a half minutes of looking at my shelves will certainly provide ample books I’d love to press on everyone whose tastes are at all similar to mine.

But sure! What ONE lesser known or forgotten gem would YOU especially love to put in everyone’s hands? I’ll do my best to pass all those suggests on to the panel attendees at Archon. I can say, this year I’ll certainly remember to mention Mapping Winter and The River South.

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Recent Reading: The River South by Marta Randall

You know I said a few days ago, before reading this book, “Oh, look, different protagonist, I wonder if Kieve is going to appear?”

The answer is, if you pay attention to the description, you can see that “Inet Kievesdaughter” is of course Kieve’s daughter. I didn’t look at the name, just registered it as “longish” and skimmed the rest of the description.

This by itself does not answer the question of whether Kieve appears. So:

a) No.

b) Yes, in a sense. Kieve herself does not appear, but she is nevertheless a strong presence in this book, through the letters she left for her daughter and through the perceptions and memories of older characters who remember her clearly.

Inet, the primary focal protagonist of this story, is thirteen when the novel opens and fifteen or thereabouts when it closes. She never knew her mother, or her father for that matter. She has been raised in a condition of reasonably benign neglect by the rider’s guild. I liked her a lot, and in fact she would be a good example to use when people are debating “likeability” and whether a character needs to be “likeable.”

My answer there is: Yes, absolutely, but “likeable” is not the same as “nice.”

Kieve wasn’t particularly nice, but I liked her. Inet is probably nicer than her mother, though still prickly and with a significant temper. She’s rather immature at the beginning (thirteen!), but Randall managed to write a fairly self-centered, occasionally impulsive thirteen-year-old protagonist who didn’t turn me off, which is quite a trick. Protagonists who fit that description are normally unbearable, but Inet is not that impulsive. Plus she feels a great deal more rounded and complex and complete than a lot of young MG characters. This is a significantly slower-paced story than any MG novel and that gives plenty of scope and time for the protagonist to develop.

Not just the protagonist either. Lots of interesting, complex, not necessarily likeable secondary characters as well, especially Kyst. The relationship between Kyst and Daenit went off in a completely unexpected direction, after which Daenit himself developed in unexpected ways.


a) Beautiful description. Really lovely.

b) A nuanced, complicated protagonist you can really get behind.

c) Complicated characters who feel completely real; complex human relationships that definitely do not follow expected pathways. Ten out of ten on this aspect. Extremely well done.

d) Enough overlap with the characters from the previous book that you feel thoroughly grounded in this world right from the beginning. More overlap as the story progresses, which I liked.

e) Great horses.

f) Clever use of absent characters, like Kieve, via letters and memories.


a) Ouch, painful character death(s). This is not, however, thrown in there as a gratuitous tearjerker. My impression is that Randall is setting up a situation with a different character that should echo into the third book.

b) The traveling medicine show thing may appeal to some readers. I hate that kind of thing. Ugh. I was so glad when that particular plot element was left behind.

c) Some truly inexplicable hints of magic that really don’t seem exactly integrated into the world, which is otherwise magic-free. This gives us a feeling of resolution that’s important during one scene at the end, but still, it does not seem to fit the world.

I’m sure there will be a third book; or at least, I’m sure a third book has been set up. I’ll be delighted when it’s released. However, the second book has enough of a resolution that there’s no reason to feel hesitant about reading it now.

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Lists, lists, lists

From Kill Zone Blog, this:

Good Lists Make Great Stories

Okay, fine, I’m mildly interested. I do kind of like lists in daily life. Here’s how the post begins:

On a recent drive to a workshop event, I was listening to Jodi Picoult’s novel, SMALL GREAT THINGS. Near the beginning, Ruth, a Labor and Delivery nurse, describes all the things that need to be observed during a newborn’s physical assessment. It’s a long list of  over a dozen items, including measuring the circumference of the infant’s head, its sucking reflex, the relative softness of its belly, the location of the urethra, etc.

I got very excited when I recognized the list as a list because I was planning an exercise about using lists in fiction during the workshop.

Now, this was interesting to me. You know how I assess a newborn puppy? I weigh it, but “good” puppies can weigh anything from less than five ounces to twelve ounces. My current two puppies, both singletons, one five and a half ounces and one ten and a half ounces.

Anyway, I basically just think: Looks fine. Or, Does not look fine.

A “looks fine” puppy should feel firm, not limp; should be warm, not cool; should try to nurse within six hours or so (earlier is nice); should twitch when asleep (activated sleep); and should not cry continually, at least not once you get it home. Five things, but basically it’s a gestalt impression: the puppy is fine.

The bigger puppy cried continually at the vet, tired herself out, and did not try to nurse for an hour or two after she was at home. She was too tired to nurse. I tube-fed her a little formula one time just to get her started and that was it. I was not worried about her. (Later, after she aspirated milk into her lung, was a different story.)

The little puppy did not cry much, was not so tired, and started nursing immediately. I tube-fed her a few times a day for three days or so, but I was never worried about her even though she lost weight at first and did not start to gain until the third day. It’s true that with zero support from me, she might have faded. But with only very basic support, she thrived.

Measure the circumference of the infant’s head. Huh. Do we not expect a lot of size variance in babies? Five ounce puppy, ten ounce puppy, that is a HUGE difference, but it doesn’t matter, both can be perfectly vigorous and healthy puppies. Sure, it’s nice to have the puppies on the big side, but it’s not important. I wonder how tiny a baby’s head has to be before it ticks off a “be worried” box on the nurse’s chart. And I wonder whether experienced nurses learn to shrug and say, “Well, this one is small, but she seems fine to me.”

Well, moving on. Once we drag our minds back to the subject of lists, what is this post actually about? How would we use lists in writing?

Ah, here we have several examples of lists used to establish character. Sometimes lists used stylistically. I like this one:

Mary Oliver

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

― Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

I want, I want, I want…Imagine playing with the form of your short story (it would be too long for a novel), beginning every line with a word or phrase. A list of wants, shaped into a story.

That would be an interesting technique for a story … I guess … provided both author and reader were having fun with style and perhaps less interested in the story as a story. But it reminds me of Naomi Kritzer’s “cooking blog” apocalypse story, “So Much Cooking.”

In a sense, that was a story that emphasized lists, as recipes are certainly lists. Or certainly include lists, anyway.

The author of the post adds,

…Think of your own lists: grocery lists, wishlists, self-improvement lists, lists of goals, bucket lists. There are as many lists as people in the world.

Think about what kinds of lists your characters might make. If your character is a serial killer, imagine her Home Depot shopping list. Imagine the prescriptions her elderly victims take.

I have to agree, that kind of thing might be entertaining. Think about the kind of equipment a … dragon slayer, say … might need. Remember Aerin in The Hero and the Crown gathering the things she needed to fight the dragon; the fire-repellent goop was, of course, a fairly important plot point and also a means of developing Aerin’s character. All that super-patient, super-persistent experimentation to find the recipe that worked!

The main character of (one of) my current WIP, though, starts off with an anti-list — he arrives at the opening of the story with almost nothing at all, for very good reasons.

Whatever your to-do list for this weekend might include, I hope you find time to read a good book! I will be reading Mapping Winter, as well as showing Leda in a local-ish show.

Since I opened and closed this post with Puppies, here’s a couple current pictures of my babies:

A puppy and her father
A black-and-tan puppy practices being super cute

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Did you find the Gelflings hit the “uncanny valley”?

A review of the new Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Netflix miniseries. Spoiler: this reviewer did not think much of it:

Real talk: Gelfling are … bad. Boring. Lifeless. Dull.

On their own, they’d be generic enough — a first-pass attempt at your garden-variety Tolkien-adjacent high-fantasy race. But as soon as you place them — as do both the original 1982 The Dark Crystal film and Netflix’s new, 10-episode prequel series — at the center of a world as gorgeously wrought, breathtakingly detailed and astonishingly elaborate as that of The Dark Crystal, they become something even worse: They’re basic.

And so on. I wasn’t planning to watch the miniseries because I seldom watch anything, but I do remember The Dark Crystal, and I found this tidbit from the review interesting:

But Gelfling? They’ve got disturbingly human-like faces, and we know how those work. And even though the art of Gelfling-animatronics has evolved in the 37 years since the film — eyebrows now knit, cheeks now dimple — Gelfling as a race remain permanent residents of the darkest depths of the uncanny valley.

And I thought, Really?

Here are Gelflings.

Honestly, do they trigger the Uncanny Valley thing for you?

Wikipedia says: The concept of the uncanny valley suggests that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers.

And I’m not seeing it. I don’t experience either eeriness or revulsion in response to the Gelflings, and I don’t recall having any response like that when I first say the Dark Crystal, either.

The reviewer does refer to their fixed eyes and unmoving faces, but I honestly don’t remember having a particular problem with that. They’re puppets. I get that they’re puppets. I had problems with the Sudden Wing Syndrome, a startlingly common phenomenon in not-very-great fantasy, but I don’t recall having trouble because of the limitations of the puppetry.

How about it? Anybody recall finding the Gelflings revolting (or eerie) when they first saw the movie?

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Out now: The River South by Marta Randall

If you got interested in the re-written and re-published Sword of Winter / Mapping Winter by Marta Randall, then you’ll want to be aware the sequel has become available.

South? I expected Our Heroes to go north!

Oh, wait, we are changing protagonists completely, or at least that’s implied. Here’s the description from Amazon:

Iset Kievesdaughter has no idea why somebody wants to kidnap her, but somebody does, and the attempts are growing ever more deadly.

Rescued from the Riders Guildhall by the Lord of Kyst, and taken aboard his sailing barge, Iset begins to piece together clues as to her enemy’s identity. But when she struggles to confront the mysterious talent developing within herself, she and Kyst’s Rider are banished from the craft.

As Iset strives to understand what and who she is, the two companions must journey through a perilous world in search of a refuge that may not exist.

“The Lord of Kyst” is ringing faint bells, but … yep, pretty faint. Was that a character from the first book? If so, who? I may do a search of my Kindle ebook and see, or I may just start reading The River South and find out that way. I wonder if Kieve will appear at all?

This is most likely going to be next up on the “actually read” stack this year. Right now I’m reading a new release from Ilona Andrews, but right after that.

Also, were you all aware of the new Penric novella? It came out in July, but I only realized that this past weekend. It’s a good one — I liked it a lot. I must admit, I especially enjoyed it when Penric finally got fed up and let Desdemona loose.

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All the Little Women

Via Passive Voice blog, trailers from many of the Little Women movies.

I hadn’t realized there were so many. Let’s see … Passive Guy showcases the ones from 1933, 1949, 1978 (with William Shatner! Who knew?), 1994, and now 2019. The newest one is due to be released this coming Christmas, I see.

Here’s a post about the new Little Women movie. Apparently it is going to focus more on the lives of the four sisters when they are young adults. Or three sisters, perhaps, depending on whether main focus is before or after Beth’s death. The film won’t be straight chronological, but shift back and forth from childhood to adulthood.

Here’s another post. Of course Jo is the main protagonist. I see that the new movie is probably going to modern-ify her attitudes. Well, fine, but I actually like Jo as she is in the original novel: a product of her era, like all her sisters.

How interesting it would be to watch each version in full, in chronological order. I think I’ve only ever seen the 1994 version. If you’ve seen other versions, which was your favorite?

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I learned a new word today

I don’t learn a new word all that often, so I always enjoy it as much as possible when it happens.

Medical and other jargon excluded, of course. I mean regular words. Today’s word:


It’s clear where it comes from, or at least I immediately see parallels between this and words like “perchlorate,” in which the “per-” is essentially short for “hyper-” and is therefore an intensifying prefix that means “more.”

So if “fervid” means “intensely passionate about something,” I guess “perfervid” must mean “excessively over-the-top passionate about something.” Which is indeed the case.

It’s not that attractive a word, though. That “per-fer-” repeats the -er- sound, which is not aesthetically pleasing. This is a word I’m actually more likely to drop into casual conversation for the fun of it, rather than using in a novel. If I did use it in a novel, it’d be SF, not high fantasy. The word sounds all wrong for high fantasy, though “fervid” is fine.

Did you all know the word “perfervid” already?

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Sports in SFF


As it happens, when it comes to sports, I am among the most entirely disinterested people you’ll ever meet. I barely know (or care) whether the Super Bowl is a football thing or a baseball thing.

Nevertheless, the title of that post did catch my eye. It made me think immediately of the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliot, where a particular type of handball sport was very important. I believe the reader encounters this aspect of the plot in the second book, but regardless, it’s definitely front and center for some part of the trilogy.

And obviously there’s quidditch.

Still, it’s true that we don’t see that many teams playing sports in SFF worlds (do we?). The author of the post says:

Because this is something that’s always been a mystery to me: how is that these elaborate SFF worlds come with their own ecology and political landscape and four fictional languages with five dialects each, but so rarely feature their own sporting events?

Which, okay, I grant, that’s a fair point. The author goes on to note a few instances where sports appear in SFF novels, and I have to admit, I totally missed the gladiatorial combat with sharks in Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamorra series (How did I miss that? It sounds pretty impressive.).

She then goes on to suggest reasons sports might not be a thing SFF authors include in worldbuilding. In my case, I guess it’s #1 (not a sports fan in real life) and #4 (not an expected feature, so I don’t think about it).

However, I do feel like I’ve skimmed across descriptions of sports here and there in SFF novels. Anybody got an example they can think of?

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