Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Thursday, May 26, 2011
No, really, I do (only for myself, though). If there's one thing I hate in life, it's not knowing stuff. It slays me. It drives me nuts. And I will go out of my way, frequently, often, to find out the endings of things. Yep, I'm talking movies I haven't seen yet, TV series that are episodes (or seasons) behind on Australian TV, birthday presents that are being kept secret, the gender of my daughter at 20 weeks gestation (there was no WAY I was waiting for that one), anything. You don't even want to know what I did to my poor husband when he was about to propose and took a little too long getting around to it...
You may (nay, no doubt will) call me a huge spoilsport for this. In fact, I'm sure many of you are sitting there open-mouthed trying to comprehend what I mean.
Let me elaborate:
If there's a movie I want to see that sounds great, before I go see it, you know what I'll do? I'll go dig up the Wikipedia or IMDB page and read all about it. If I'm watching one on TV and it starts getting a bit suspenseful, out comes Google. There have even been times where I've been enjoying a book so much (yes, it's really coming- it really is...) that I've flipped to the back and read the last page.
I'll give you a sec to stop spluttering.
Family and friends have rolled eyes, told me I'm nuts, and lamented the fact that I'm ruining all my own fun more times than I can count, but I'm a happy camper. It's just my way. I just like to know, and knowing the ending doesn't disappoint me in any way- it brings me an even greater appreciation of the journey to get there.
When it comes to writing, are you at all surprised to hear that I'm an obsessively detailed outliner? For many, the idea of knowing the ending of the story before you start it is slightly horrifying. For others who might start the story with the end in mind, the idea of planning out every event is just ruining the fun of step-by-step discovery. But for me, it's what inspires me, drives my enthusiasm, and keeps me going, and it's necessary for a bigger reason that that.
I've just started a new WIP this week, and I'm in that first flush of love phase. This is the best book idea EVAH. Oh man, what will they put on the cover? Who'll play the main character in the movie? Never mind it hasn't got a title yet and it's all of 2000 words long, it's... yeah, it's love, all right.
At this point, just like a new romance, many writers like to take it slow and steady. Get to know these people and places page by page, and feel out where they're heading. There's anticipation in the unknown, and joy in exploring that dark road one street-lamp at a time.
For me, the first step is to work out everything that's going to happen in the story, and get it down in a huge outline. You could say I'm the kind of writer who goes all the way on the first date (grin). The biggest reason for this, beyond the absolute truckload of excitement and enthusiasm I get from it, is that I'm not good at navigating by street lamp. If I have to follow a story step by step without knowing where I'm going and exactly what landmarks I'll pass on my way, I'll either end up hopelessly lost, somewhere that does me no good at all, or crashed through someone's front fence.
I need to know where I'm going and how to get there, or I'm guaranteed disappointment.
No amount of horrified looks will make me change, because I'm happy, and it works.
But one thing I have realised recently is that I need to approach my fiction the way I do my real-life spoilers. When it comes to all the other endings I have to find out for myself, I would never in a million years ruin them for someone else. And yet when it comes to my own story, I have on occasion been a bit obsessed with telling my crit partners all about it, seeking their thoughts on things I haven't written yet, particularly the ending.
It occurred to me recently that part of what I enjoy about knowing the ending to various things is being able to anticipate and watch the reactions of others to that. But by revealing all to my beta readers before the fact, I take away both their surprise, and my own version of anticipation. I do, in fact, reduce the enjoyment for myself.
I've been told many times that it's best not to tell other people your endings, but I'm really clicking with that now.
So, no spoilers from me on the new story. I'll keep my cards close to my chest on this one- though I already know the order of the whole pack.
Do you love the anticipation of the unknown? Or are you impatient about endings- your own and others- too?
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
I'm sitting here typing my post for Wednesday on Tuesday night. Very organised of me, isn't it? Well, not really. It's only possible because of my husband.
I’ve been a little, shall we say, testy these last few weeks, trying like the dickens to get this draft of my novel done in the dribs and drabs of time that appear between all the other things in my life. Husband, sensing said testiness (would’ve needed to be blind and deaf not too, and I bet the poor man wishes he was at times) and being a bloody good bloke to boot, got himself out of work early today to take over the afternoon shift for me - transporting one child home from school debating practise, supervising the homework, cooking dinner for five, making school lunches for three, throwing on a load of washing so the kids will wear uniforms to school tomorrow instead of their pyjamas, throwing food in the cats’ bowls, enduring the torture that is washing Miss Six’s hair. All in aid of giving me a little bit more time to write.
Legend, he is.
And it’s what we all need as writers – support. Now, you might not have a partner to lean on – and if you do have a partner, he or she might even resent the fact that you write – but still, there’s support out there to be had.
Backspace, Compuserve’s Books & Writers Community, Absolute Write, writing-focused blogs (check out our side bar for some of our favourites) these are the places to frequent on the web for this support. And in real life (why do we call it that? The web is my life!) there are writing groups galore, or even book clubs, where you can find people of a similar mind set to you, people who you can vent to, share your work and your fears and aspirations with. We ladies at ATWOP have recently re-instated our weekly snip-sharing fiesta after a bit of a hiatus – just for fun, no critiquing required - and it’s done wonders for our inspiration and enthusiasm.
Because let’s face it, writing can be a lonely gig. Just you, your keyboard and your imagination. Heavenly, most of the time, but even I, your classic introverted thinker who craves - CRAVES - solitude, can go stir crazy and start thinking all kinds of unhealthy and dark thoughts without the encouragement of others to spur me on.
So screw up that courage and go put yourself out there. Comment on a writer’s blog, ask a question on a writing board, turn up at that writing group with your manuscript in hand. For no matter how bad you think your writing is, no matter your nerves, if you find support for your passion, your writing can only get better … and this can only be a Very Good Thing.
Monday, May 23, 2011
By putting your character right into the fire, as it were, you discover how they act, and react, and you get a feel for the way a character thinks and feels.
Because I write romance, a love scene, be it a heated exchange, kissing, or the whole deal, helps me understand how these two people interact with each other. It gives me a sense of their chemistry, something I might not totally feel were I to start at their first meeting. And I need that knowledge, because I need to be excited by these characters and their relationship. The readers need to feel this excitement too, even on page one. But they aren't if the writer doesn't feel it first. I don't know why that is, but an author's level of involvement is a palpable thing. Jumping right to the meat of your character's emotional connection can be a great way for the writer to find that excitement.
It might seem like a backward approach to some, but don't knock it until you try it.
So go ahead, let 'em have sex! Throw them into danger. See what happens. :)
Here is the original post. What is interesting to me is that the sample I used is so far from how it appears in my upcoming book that it's almost unrecognizable. Which is fine. Novel writing isn't a static thing. We shape and reshape. Some will add, like building a house from frame up, and others will subtract. My editor likes to tell me that I'm carving away the stone to find the gem underneath. Love that idea.
Let Them Have Sex, Nov. 3, 2009
A lot of writers like to prepare their characters by creating a sort of dossier for them. Knowing their likes and dislikes helps the writer attain greater character depth. Unfortunately, for me, such lists feel like a false front. I can’t just say he likes this and that, because there has to be a motivation behind why a person is the way they are. It is too easy to make the character perfect, with perfect flaws, like playing in a build-a-bear workshop. The result being a cardboard character as opposed to one what grows before me, revealing themselves bit by bit. In short, I would rather the character tell me what makes them tic as opposed to me telling them who they ought to be.
Logic would prompt me to start the story at point A then work my way to Z –the result being a fully fleshed character by the end of the book. Problem being, you want a fully fleshed out character at the beginning of the book –you just don’t want your reader to know the whole of him at that point. So how to proceed? Oddly, I’ve found that writing a love scene (anything from a kiss to the whole shebang ) is a great way to develop your character.
It’s been said that a good love scene is about emotion. That is true. Sex is emotion –including lack thereof. It is communication of the highest form. Our senses are heightened during sex. But more than anything the way we give and receive, lead up to it, during, and after, reveals a huge amount about who we are as people. Now what better situation are you going to have in which your character’s true nature will come forth?
Perhaps you are a linear writer and object to writing a chunk out of order from the rest of the story. Or perhaps you find there is no reason for your characters to kiss, much less make love. That’s fine; you needn’t even keep the scene, think of it as an exercise (‘Cause it is!).
If love scenes are about emotion, then something visceral must occur to set the moment into action. I’d go one further here to say that a good love scene is equally about the reader’s emotion. If the reader doesn’t achieve a visceral response, then it isn’t worth writing. In the greater picture, the whole of the book is about engaging a reader’s emotion. In essence, we (the writers) are emotional manipulators.* Therefore, a love scene is much like a microcosm of the whole book. (Yes, I _may_ be over analyzing things here, but hopefully you get my meaning.)
Back to trying out a love scene. When starting, West Club Moon, the following little exchange popped into my mind fairly early on and went something like this: [note: this whole bit went through some changes and the current version is quite different. Also, excuse any typos as I used very rough first draft snips here.]
“I desire…” The leather of his glove stretched and groaned as his hand curled into a fist. The fist came crashing down, hurling backgammon pieces in all directions. “I shall come to your rooms tonight and exercise my marital rights!”
The desperate shout hit me like a slap. I was out of my chair and running breathlessly toward the door before true thought entered my mind.
He was quicker, slamming the door shut and trapping me before it. I skidded to a halt and stood with my breath quick and light, my stays stabbing my sides. Archer leaned against the door, not facing me. His shoulders lifted and fell as he breathed just as rapidly as I. His black gloved fist pressed against the door jam. “It is my right.”
I stared at the sharp line of his profile, made sharper by the black silken mask and the white of the door beyond him.
“I-I did not think…” my voice failed. But, I had thought it, hadn’t I? [This bit of italics came later as I came to better understand the situation.]
He angled his head slightly and I caught the gleam of his strange grey eyes. “In point, the contract of marriage is not valid until I do. Nor is our agreement and all that accompanies it.”
My mouth dried. I had known that much to be true. He remained unmoving, half turned, neither looking at me or beyond me.
Why was I dithering? Daisy had gone to her marriage bed with a man more than twice her age. And had done so without complaint. I had seen the barely concealed lust within her groom’s rheumy eyes.
I shuddered and Archer went rigid. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I shall not harm you…”
My eyes went from the door to him. Archer was not old and withered. His form was lithe and powerful. He moved with grace. Despite the mask, I saw the outlines of true masculine beauty. Further, he was gentle and kind to me.
That was it. So okay, so what was that all about? Why did she bolt from her chair? And what set of circumstances made Archer shout out his desire in such a way? Is he a brute that takes what he wants? He can’t be; his last words are out of concern for Miri’s feelings. Already, thinking about a love scene has got me thinking of how these characters will interact both with each other and, more importantly, when faced with a challenge. So I came to this (which happens just before the scene above):
I looked up from the game board to find his eyes upon me once more.
“You’re staring,” I murmured and moved my piece along the board.
The husky statement warmed my cheeks. I raised a brow and the corner of his lips curled. “You look beautiful.”
The heat in my cheeks traveled across my breast. I could only be thankful for the mellowing glow of candlelight to hide it. “You told me you cared not for beauty.”
Archer leaned slightly forward in his chair, his silver eyes fixed on mine. “I am an ass, Miri,” he said thickly. “You well know it. A boorish, unpardonable ass.”
I had to smile. “Just as long as you know it.” My voice did not work properly. The words came out thick like honey and just as slow. I handed him the cup and dice but he did not take them.
He moved forward an inch and his large frame enveloped the small gaming table.
“I know that your beauty renders me senseless.” Archer’s well formed mouth broke into a smile. “I look upon you and pure stupidity flies from my mouth. The sight of you in that golden dress makes my toes numb. I want to send Monsieur Falle [dressmaker] roses, I’m so grateful.”
I laughed and he did too, a rich unguarded laugh that made my insides flip. “You see?” he said through his laughter. “Pure, unmitigated stupidity.”
The corners of his grey eyes crinkled in mirth and I laughed again. “Then I shall save you from yourself,” I said, still laughing. “I am appeased. Speak no more of my beauty and spare yourself further humiliation.”
I touched his hand lightly. The smile on his lips wavered and fell. His eyes went to my hand on his and a shuddering sigh passed over his long frame. I drew back as though burned, but he paid no notice. He continued to blink down at his hand resting upon the game board.
“I fear I must humiliate myself further,” he whispered suddenly as though the words were forced from him. He swallowed hard and attempted to meet my eyes. The endeavor failed and he looked off into the fire. “Miri…I want…”
More clues. These two obviously are friends. They are comfortable bantering with each other so I know they’ve been in each other’s company for some time, so I know this scene will occur later on in the story. They interact well yet it is clear pride and fear of rejection (In Archer’s mind, especially) makes them tentative.
Before I even started WCM, I knew that Archer hides behind a half-mask, part of him is, as he states, ‘deformed’ and society has shunned him. So it is understandable for him to fear rejection. But the way in which Archer speaks shows me that he isn’t a tentative creature. His choice of words and confident humor belie that fact. Thus he must have some reason to hope and ask for a night with Miri. And there is Miri to consider. Her notice of him focuses here on the physical for the most part, his eyes, lips, and the size of him –all markers of physical attraction. So why does she bolt from her chair? Which led me to this:
Everything shall change,” I heard myself whisper.
Archer exhaled through his nose. “Change must come,” he said slowly. “I can only bear so much. I-I want this, Miri…”
The desolation in his voice cut me. I wanted it too. The realization stunned me. But I wanted Archer’s companionship more.
“Yet you will not reveal yourself to me,” I said.
“No,” I repeated. He flinched and averted his eyes.
At this point I don’t have to know what his secret is but the information gleaned from this exercise is enough for me to proceed with confidence when writing other scenes, because I now understand their main motivation. Had I not tried a love scene, I’m not sure it would have been as clear so early on in the process.
Additionally, I know that Archer and Miri’s relationship is about shells, masks, hiding their true feelings behind false fronts. Making love for them will be about peeling away these false fronts. All this helps immensely when I tackle the actual love scene. More importantly, I’ve discovered a huge theme that will run throughout the story, and I can approach each scene with this new knowledge. Because as a writer, we do slant scenes/the story in a certain direction.
So my challenge to all of you is: write a kissing scene, or analyze one that you already have. You’ll learn a lot about your characters in doing so; I guarantee it! And if you feel so inclined, post them up here, give us your analysis. I’m always up for a good kissing/love scene. (g)
Friday, May 20, 2011
My very ordinary days are lived on a canvas of amazing grandness. The scale of my surroundings leaves me breathless. I sometimes forget to look up, to see the beauty around me and then, when I do, I’m humbled.
Living here, deep in this valley, has taught me to observe the seasons in new ways. I don’t count the days the same way as I once did . Now, the seasons are defined not by the calendar, but by the movement of the sun. It rises at the head of my valley, above the glaciers that feed the river flowing below my house. In the winter, the sun is low to the earth, so far south that it doesn’t rise above the rugged peaks beyond the river. In the summer, it hardly sets before it rises again and we work and play in endless daylight.
I also count the passing seasons by the river, by the way the water is black and nearly still in the early spring, before the glaciers begin to melt and move and give up their cement-colored silt. In the summer the river is an opaque gray, deadly with its frigid temperature and rapid movement. The sandbars are littered with the tracks of bear, coyote, snowshoe hare, and a host of small birds. In winter, it is silent. A frozen pathway in the forest for wolves and the occasional snow machine.
The moose pond is another testament to the changing seasons. In summer, we can count on seeing moose there, standing in the shallow water feasting on the plants. In early spring there is a pair of trumpeter swans who stop for a few days on their way north and again on their way south - a sort of flyway motel, I suppose. I’ve come to expect the swans and I’m delighted every time they arrive.
In my daily life, I experience the power of place. It not only leaves me awed, it has become part of the rhythm of my life and I am richer for it.
Fiction, too, is richer for having the power of place. Of the three main elements of fiction - plot, character, and place - it’s often the one that gets short-changed. It’s a mistake to let that happen, since the setting is the stage on which all else takes place. A serious writer realizes that setting is another tool to be employed in the skillful building of their novel.
Setting, by definition, includes the location of the plot, but also includes the forces influencing the characters such as weather, the time of the day, the season, the exteriors and interiors of the places your character goes. Setting and pacing can suggest the movement of time or lack of it. It sets the mood or the atmosphere of the scene. It can even become a metaphor or a symbol.
Readers rely on the power of place to ground them in the story, to put them in the pages with your characters. Done skillfully, setting becomes an authentic place and convinces readers that the story really happened. Author Jessica Page Morrell writes in Between the Lines, “If you’ve created an environment that a reader can see, hear, and experience, he’ll believe in the actions that happen in a story… events are believable because the reader is anchored in the story world.”
Story world. What’s your world like? Have you built it from the ground up? Or is it still a nebulous thing? There are instances in my own writing where the world of my character nearly drowns in exposition. Not quite a travelogue, but picturesque and now I know, completely unnecessary. Those places are being trimmed and integrated into the scene so that readers see it through the eyes of the character. Setting is vital, but it takes skill to use it effectively.
I’ve been blessed with a life lived in many lovely locales, from the rolling green vineyards of the Napa Valley, to the golden foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, to the warm sandy beaches of Florida. In each place I found uniqueness and beauty that inspire me. Perhaps it’s the places I’ve been that have made me who I am - an observant person, one who revels in the power of place. Or perhaps I would be that way no matter where I lived.
I hope that my writing reflects the power of place that I’ve come to appreciate in life. I see my characters against the canvas of my story, not separate from it, not acting in a void. My challenge, however, is to let readers into that story world to experience it too.
It’s also my challenge to you. What do you want your readers to see? If you’re willing, post a short “power of place” snip for us.
Impressions tumbled about in his head in untidy chunks, like a child’s colorful building blocks scattered on the floor. He recalled daylight, brilliant and painful, and the deep purple stillness of night, and a kaleidoscope of feverish images.
A certain, dogging fear struck at his core as only a man missing memories can know. It gnawed at him until he knew he must ask someone. And the very asking would be to admit things he wanted to deny.
The pale, undefined light of dawn grew bolder, filling the small room, giving it form and substance and dispelling the feverish illusions of the night. All was ordinary here. His uniform still hung on the door of the armoire. His things were still in the place he’d left them — except for his wallet, which lay open on the dresser. Someone had been through it.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
I was sitting at the train station tonight waiting to pick my husband up from work, as I do every night, and as I sat there tapping my fingers in time to the song on the radio, I slowly became conscious that I was doing the same thing I always do- watching the stream of people pouring out of the gates and into the carpark, craning my neck for that first glance of him.
Before he gets close enough for me to see him, even when he's still a distant figure crossing the pedestrian bridge, walking above a stream of head-lit evening traffic, I recognise him. More than that, I see a dozen other men who fit his description- tall, wearing a suit, dark-haired- and I know at first glance that none of them are the person I seek.
It's not just me who can spot him from afar. Our toddler daughter can see him coming from a mile off, too.
So, how is it that we can identify him amidst a crowd full of others who look very similar?
I realised tonight that it's a combination of things I'm looking for- the way he carries himself, straight-backed; the way he walks, not needing to rush because the length of his legs takes him far with every step; the particular quirk of his haircut, the way the front stands up a little after a long day at work. It's also all the things other people do that he doesn't- one man tonight who was an otherwise close match kept reaching up to scratch his head as he hurried along. Another pushed between fellow travellers in his effort to reach the front of the pack fastest.
In short, I know him from afar because of everything he is, and everything he's not.
You know I'm getting to the relevant part of this soon, right? Because this is an important lesson for writers of fiction, too. Not that you'll necessarily have loads of opportunities to show your main character in a crowd, from a distance, but you'll need to make them stand out on the page nonetheless.
What small quirks make your characters recognisable to your readers, and different enough that they're memorable? And more importantly, have you made sure those quirks part and parcel of their personality? Do they mean something? It's not the uniqueness of the trait that makes it stand out- it's making sure that it's all part of a complex and complete character.
An example from above- my husband is 6'4", and his long legs can be hard to keep up with since they set a good pace. But that's not the only reason he doesn't need to rush when he's getting off the train- it's also in his personality to be measured and careful, and he's very rarely flustered or hurried. If he were a character in a novel, that whole bundle of physical and personality traits would speak volumes about him.
Do your characters walk or stand in certain ways? Do they rub a hand through their hair when they're under stress, or bite a thumbnail? Do they laugh out loud at random thoughts throughout their day, or frown unconsciously as they go about serious business? Do they squint up at rainclouds, check their watch habitually, tuck a stray hair behind their ear, fix their lipstick in the rear-view mirror?
These are all things that can be overused by writers, but if you get it just right- like salt, a pinch, not a tablespoon- you'll add a distinctive flavour that will allow your readers to feel like they know your characters personally, so well that they could pick them from a crowd.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Yeah. Stupid. I know.
I realised what I was doing this week, when every scene I wrote came out so clunky it was as if they'd been written by someone for whom English was their third language, at best, and with as much freshness and life as a ten day dead corpse.
Because for me, trying to aim for absolute perfection in first draft writing means I concentrate, consciously and ridiculously hard, on craft - have I used this dialogue tag before? Is the pacing in that second paragraph off? Have I really shown that character's turmoil, or have I been lazy and resorted to telling? - and I forget to concentrate on the thing most important to first drafts of any persuasion – JUST TELL THE STORY.
I need to feel what my characters are feeling, immerse myself in their lives and their troubles and let the new words I write grow from there. Sure, craft does play a part in this early stage of creation, but I need to remember to have faith that what I can do will be good enough, for a first draft. And to remember that deliberate, purposeful, heavy duty crafting is for later, when there’s a half decent idea on the page to massage into shape.
So. I need to slow down. I need to remember that first and foremost, writers are story tellers. And need to tattoo on the back of my hands, where I’ll see them as I write, the words of Ernest Hemmingway :-
"The first draft of anything is shit."
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
I wish I had something to report on the writing front, but I've barely had time to check my email. There were actually a couple of weeks in there when I didn't so much as power up my computer. Sad, I know...but what can you do? When I can, I've been brainstorming about my book and catching a few minutes of reading. It hasn't been much. A few pages here and there, but despite that, I've managed to finish a couple of books. They haven't been the greatest, but I always say you can learn a lot from bad writing.
So, as always, I like to bring these things here to poke a little fun at. :)
1. The fastest way to get from point A to Z is to NOT stop at point B, C, D, E...etc etc.
The current book I'm reading. *shakes head* I'm not sure why, but for some reason the author likes to stage direct her characters... TO DEATH.
For example... (And this is randomly made up to illustrate my point)... she'll have her character make a cup of tea. The character will open the cupboard, pull out a box of tea, lift the lid, pull out a tea bag, detach the little lipton square from the bag, grip the square firmly between her thumb and forefinger, and then dunk it into a cup of hot water.
Let me tell you... after 100 pages of reading this kind of play by play I wanted to grip the book in my hand, raise my arm, take a pitcher's stance, and hurl said book at the wall.
That said, it's a great reminder that readers Are. Not. Stupid. Trust them to fill in a few of those blanks.
2. Pick your details. Another author I've been reading REALLY likes to describe random people and things...in detail. I'm sorry, but the fact that your character is standing in line behind a girl at the grocery store might be interesting if the girl happens to play some part in your story. If that were the case, it might be important to explain in vivid detail just what shade of red her skirt is, how her eyes match the summer sky, how her voice is like a wind chime moving on a soft breeze. Maybe. But if this woman is simply in line in front of your character? Not so much.
This author is seriously attempting to give a full technicolor picture of EVERYTHING around her characters. The story itself started to get lost in all.
Pick your details.
3. Dialogue. Dialogue. Dialogue. When's the last time you heard modern teenagers use the word besotted in a conversation? Yeah, 'nuff said. Be realistic with your dialogue. Most people speak in contractions, most people use slang. Keep it real.
These are just a couple of things that are being reinforced for me. It's a good thing to be reminded of things you should try to avoid. So while I may not be actively writing at the moment, I'm still learning and growing. And I know the next time I sit down to write, I'll have these things in the back of my mind. :) So yeah, I'm having some down time, but it's not exactly a waste.
Hope all is well with everyone... hopefully I'll have some more WIP related news soon.
Monday, May 16, 2011
I turned 30 yesterday. Not a horrifying age for anyone who's already reached and exceeded it, but it's caused me quite a bit of uncomfortable squirming in recent weeks.
You see, I *loved* my twenties. I looked forward to them while I was a teenager, and they turned out to be everything I hoped for and more. I travelled the world, I finished studying, I started work, I got married, I had a child, I bought a house, and overall I really I grew into *me*. Man, that was a hell of a decade.
While I'm quite sure there are equally wonderful milestones awaiting me in my thirties, I'm also having to farewell some perceptions that come with rolling into my fourth decade of life. One of the biggest is the idea of being a "young novelist".
Not my definition, I hasten to add. It used to be that a "young" novelist was anyone under 40, but these days the definition has largely shrunk back to 35 (see here and here for examples). Which, yes- gives me another five years to get published, and I do certainly intend for that to happen within the time period, but my expectations have changed somewhat.
I started writing in earnest when I was about 14, and at the time I had some grand ideas about what I was going to achieve. I was quite determined that I was going to be one of those ridiculous young achievers- a Tim Winton, a Markus Zusak- and that by the time I turned 30, I'd not only be published, but would have a whole slew of acclaimed novels under my belt, plus a Booker prize or two. Maybe a really enormous mansion bought with the proceeds of all my best-selling stories.
Ha. Oh, how we live and learn.
At times over the last decade I've found myself getting a little cranky at how life seems to be getting in the way of all this writing potential. I mean, really? All that time spent working, travelling, studying, getting through the day-to-day stuff associated with having a family and a house- maybe I could have spent more of my time writing over the last ten years. Maybe I didn't have my priorities right.
I'm sure you're shaking your head out there, but it's okay, I know. It's pretty simple, really. Everything I've done in the last ten years, I've done just right.
Yes, it's taking me longer to write my novel than I expected a decade ago. But I'm a considerably different person to the person I was back then, and every life experience I've had in the meantime, from the mundane to the fantastic, is elevating my writing to something it could not have been before. In fact, without those life experiences, there is just no way I could write like I can now. Sure, I might have had the basic ability to put words on paper and string together a story, but the layers and layers of complexity of human emotion and behaviour- no, I've learned just about everything I know about those through the school of life in recent years.
There's another aspect to how much my writing has improved over the last ten years, and that's the hundreds of thousands, probably millions of words I've written. Only through reading and writing do you actually improve your ability to create characters, plots and words that will move other people. There will always be prodigies out there who are naturally brilliant with words and characters, but for the rest of us, it takes time to write the number of words it takes to become really good. Patience, as they say, is a virtue.
There's a third thing that time has given me, and it's this- a bit of perspective and a bit of humility. These days, I'm well aware of how much I have left to learn, and my aims are a bit different. I'm no longer aiming for a critically acclaimed best-seller and a mansion in the Caymans- though don't get me wrong, I'll be delighted with any of those. No, these days I'm far more aware of why I write, and it's not to gain praise from others, which back in the day seemed the pinnacle of writing. It's to tell a story that means something to me, and to do it as well as I can. And that takes experience, understanding, and words and words and words- all the things you can only gain with age.
So, here's to another decade of words on the page, and of living and learning every single day. If I consider how much life has taught me in the last ten years, I feel quite sure that on this day ten years from now as I'm adjusting to my forties, I'll be shaking my head in wonder all over again in amazement at all the things I don't know now, but will by then.
Friday, May 13, 2011
The skinny on it is, Blogger had a bit of a snafu during routine maintenance a couple of nights ago, and for a period there made the whole system "read only", not allowing new posts or new comments. After that, they deleted all posts and apparently all comments made after May 11, including my last one.
Several people have now noted this- don't worry, we're aware of it. Blogger says they'll be restoring those posts and comments, but I've had previous tangles with the system and know to save a backup before I post, so even if they don't, I'll be able to put my missing post back up. I'll give them to the end of Sunday night, then I'll repost.
If you want updates on the situation as it relates to your own blog, visit Blogger's status site here, or Twitter feed here.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that writers of historical fiction are all liars.
Some engage in only minor bendings of the truth. Others drop clangers that are found out straight away. Most of us fall somewhere between these two spectrums, for no matter how fully we delve into our subjects – the clothing and politics and language and social history of our chosen eras – the data inevitably, at some point, dries up, and we end up having to make stuff up. Knowing when, how much, and what to lie about is the holy grail of the historical fiction writer, and the key to not alienating your reader.
Hilary Mantel is a master of this fine balance. The author of the 2009 Man Booker Prize winning "Wolf Hall" spent five years researching the life of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII's Britain. Apparently, she even had an index card system to make sure her version of events matched the historical records. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she explained, “You really need to know, where is the Duke of Suffolk at the moment? You can’t have him in London if he’s supposed to be somewhere else.” Still, even she engaged in a smidge of invention, and did so consummately well, when it came to writing the early years of Cromwell’s life. Very little is known of his childhood - it is virtually a blank page - and as such, she was free to use what little information was available, and then make the rest up.
These lies we writers tell take many forms. Lying by omission, is one. For example, in the setting of my novel, nineteenth century Paris, hired carriages were known as fiacres. I have to ask myself - do I use this somewhat uncommon term? Or do I omit it, and go with the more widely known English version, hackney? If I use hackney, more readers will be less confused ... but I will be lying.
Do author's notes go some way to absolving the writer of these fictions? Yes – and no. Good author's notes, and a story that has not strayed too far from the historical record, make it easier for us to forgive embellishments and slight manipulations of fact. But even so, author's notes will not save the writer of historical fiction, whose inventions are too far from the truth, from the dissatisfaction of their readers. "The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon’s Bird of Paradise", by Carolly Erickson, is an example that springs to my mind. I bought this book after reading good things about it in a review. And it is a good book. I thoroughly enjoyed the gorgeous rendering of the life of Napoleon’s Josephine, of whom I knew not much more than Napoleon’s infamous protest, “not tonight, Josephine!" When I finished the book, I felt I knew a little more of the real Josephine and her life. Until I read the author's notes.
They begin with:-
“… The Secret Life of Josephine is a historical entertainment, not a historical novel … The historical Josephine never went to Russia, never had a lover named Donovan, never (so far as is recorded) delivered a baby in the midst of a slave rebellion.”
And end with:-
“Having written many biographies and histories, and several pseudonymous novels, I have turned very happily to historical entertainment as a way of blending fact and whimsy. Many thanks to my kind readers who have responded to this somewhat frothy mix with enthusiasm.”
Now, kudos to Erickson for fessing up to the fact that certain important events in her re-telling of Josephine’s life are products of her imagination. I’m sure there are some authors who would have kept quiet, committing the sin of letting their readers believe that what they had read was an accurate portrayal of the historical record. But even still, I was left feeling a little miffed, and as though I had been, well, had. There was nothing on the cover, and nothing inside the book (until the author's notes, that is) to alert me to the fact that I was reading “historical entertainment”, not historical fiction, and I know that a little forewarning would have prevented the lingering dissatisfaction I felt when I closed the book’s cover. But maybe that’s just me …
At the end of the day, lying - in the shape of creative invention and the stretching and massaging of facts - is a necessary part of writing historical fiction. How much is too much? It is all a matter of degree … but I would argue that the best barometer is the annoyance level of your reader. :-)
So tell me - how much – and what type – of creative license do you accept, as a reader or writer of historical fiction?
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
And with this intriguing, tension-filled opening, Elizabeth Loupas propels us straight to the heart of her March 2011 debut novel, a work that is both a literary mystery and an historical novel, THE SECOND DUCHESS.
Set in Renaissance Italy, THE SECOND DUCHESS is the story of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, and his new duchess, Barbara of Austria, whom he takes as his bride upon the death of his young first wife, the willful and sensual Lucrezia de’ Medici. When Barbara finds the Ferrarese court awash with whispers and rumours about her duke and the dead Lucrezia – and when it seems her own life may be in jeopardy - we are soon plunged into a gorgeously lush tale of intrigue, murder and mystery, as the duke’s second duchess sets out to discover whether her enigmatic husband did, indeed, take the life of his first wife.
Based on the real-life historical figures of Barbara of Austria, Alfonso d’Este and Lucrezia de’ Medici, and inspired by Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess,” THE SECOND DUCHESS has been received with much acclaim:
“Utterly mesmerizing, captivating from the first page. Thick with shadowy court intrigues and lush period detail, The Second Duchess is a Renaissance masterpiece come to life,” writes author Deanna Raybourn. But I think it is C.S. Harris, author of the Sebastian St Cyr Mystery series who sums it up best:
"Rich in historical detail and all the dangerous grandeur of court life in Renaisssance Italy. Think The Other Boleyn Girl meets Rebecca.”
Having devoured the book myself in less than two days, I can safely report that the praise for this richly embroidered tapestry of Renaissance court life, murder, and mystery, is entirely deserved.
With that, I welcome Elizabeth Loupas, who has so graciously agreed to play Twenty Questions with us today ...
1. You have been a radio network vice president, a reference librarian, a magazine editor, and a tutor in English literature. Clearly, words and books are as vital to you as oxygen. What inspired your love of books and words, and writing in particular?
My mother used to tell a funny story about my older brother—she said that when his teachers started teaching him to read in first grade, he came home and taught me (then three years old), backing me into a corner with a book and saying, “Now, this is ‘A.’” It must have worked because I can’t remember not being able to read, and reading has always been my joy and my delight. I started making up stories as a wee girl playing paper dolls, and writing the stories down was a natural next step.
2. Was writing a novel always in your plans? And why did you choose to write historical fiction? Or did the genre choose you?
I thought, “I want to write a novel” for a long time, and finally realized it wasn’t going to write itself. Historical fiction has always been my favorite sort of fiction to read and I never thought twice about wanting to write it.
3. As well as being a work of historical fiction, THE SECOND DUCHESS is also a mystery. Was it a deliberate decision to structure the story of Alfonso, Barbara and Lucrezia as a mystery? Or did you always see their tale being told in this way?
Yes, I deliberately set out to make the story a mystery. What happened to the duke’s first wife? Why does the duke want to keep it a secret? Why does Barbara set out to solve the mystery instead of sensibly keeping her head down (and Barbara is a very sensible woman) and enjoying her life as duchess?
4. Alfonso, Barbara and Lucrezia are complex characters, and so vividly drawn. Did they come easily to you, or were any of the trio easier to see and hear than the others?
Barbara was the first one to come to life for me—she was always my primary voice character. She read a book as a young girl and dreamed romantic dreams—which one of us can’t relate to that? There’s more written about the historical Alfonso, but even so he was harder for me to understand. I think part of it was because many of the attributes of a Renaissance prince are so terribly politically incorrect today. It would have been wrong to make him a modern-day man sent back in time, but I wondered—would people understand him as he really was? He was arrogant, vainglorious, ambitious, cruel—and at the same time a great patron of music and art, a trained soldier, an athlete, an aesthete. No, Alfonso did not come easily. Lucrezia is one of the ghosts of history—she really existed but almost nothing is written about her personally. I gave her older sister Isabella a considerable amount of influence over her, which formed her character in my mind. There’s a wonderful non-fiction book on Isabella, called Murder of a Medici Princess by Caroline Murphy. It gives a glimpse of the sort of court Lucrezia grew up in, and how her character might have been formed.
5. Lucrezia, although dead, is a character in her own right, and such a very memorable one at that! She exists in your book as a spectral, ghost-like presence, an “immobila”. Are immobili your own invention? And why did you choose to give Lucrezia her voice in this manner, as opposed to telling her story through flash backs or some other manner?
I made up the immobili. I wanted a special kind of ghost that could only observe, and could not interact with the living in any way—“immobili” means “still ones.” There is an element of the Greek Chorus in the immobili, too.
Originally Lucrezia wasn’t going to be in the story at all—she pretty much forced her way in. I considered flashbacks, but if I had done that, Lucrezia could not have observed and commented on the novel’s present and on Barbara’s relationship with Alfonso, and that is so much of what I love about Lucrezia. It also worked out well to have a different viewpoint to tell the parts of the story that Barbara herself couldn’t tell, particularly at the end.
On research and inspiration
6. Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess” is a major source of inspiration for your book. Could you tell us how your book grew from the poem, and why it is that “My Last Duchess” strikes such a chord with you?
I’ve always loved “My Last Duchess” because of the Renaissance setting and the hopelessly romantic and mysterious storyline of the beautiful, doomed young duchess and the duke, all cool hauteur on the outside and apparently a seething cauldron of jealousy and madness on the inside. There are hints, though, if you read carefully, that the duchess wasn’t the paragon of sweet innocence she seems. I’d read the poem hundreds of times, and one day, reading it again, the whole story just popped into my mind.
7. Are you like most writers of historical fiction – hopelessly addicted to the research? :-) If so, how to you manage the addiction so it doesn’t spiral out of control, to the detriment of getting words on the page?
I love research, and sometimes it does take over my life. There are so many fascinating bits and pieces that never make it into the book! I’ve learned to (mostly) separate the writing and the research. When I’m writing and I need to know something, I type something like look up 16th century silverworking techniques and highlight it in yellow, then go on with the story. Later when I’m ready for a research orgy, I go through and fill in all the yellow bits with appropriate details.
8. What research did you turn up that you wished you could have included in THE SECOND DUCHESS, but did not?
Oh, heavens, it could be a whole other book! There were the state visits—Barbara’s brother Ferdinand in January—I left that out entirely. So much about music and dancing and art. Details of hunting and of Alfonso’s incredible masques. He was famous throughout Europe for his lavishly produced “festivals”—the only possible modern-day analogue, I think, would be a circus or a Las Vegas show. I had to cut back on a lot of my description of Ferrara itself. Alfonso has a fascinating backstory—his mother, who had Calvinist leanings, was accused of heresy by his father and forced by the Inquisition to recant. Alfonso was present in Paris at the joust in which the French King Henri II (his cousin) was fatally wounded (as famously predicted by Nostradamus), and was one of the first to run to the fallen king. Oh, and Nostradamus corresponded with Alfonso and made a private prediction to him, but it was so sad I left it out.
ATWOP - now, who doesn't want to know what that prediction was?! Intriguing ...
On craft and process
9. I’ve read that you have a background in acting –and that you just might act out your stories as you write them. Is this something you consciously do, or is it just how writing works for you?
Well, kind of both—I started out doing it unconsciously, and when I realized how well it worked I continued doing it deliberately. My husband and the dogs are alternately amused and rather concerned, I think, to hear me emoting away, all by myself, sometimes in multiple voices! I would like to add that my acting background is not professional—just high school and college productions and community theatre.
10. Do you fall into the camp of writers who outline their novels before starting to write, or are you more of a “seat of the pants” novelist?
I am a total outliner. In fact, I write a very detailed outline, which to some extent acts as my “script” when I act out my stories. The outline is pretty much all action—“Barbara goes here, Alfonso does this.” From that I imagine all the setting and emotion and sense-detail and dialogue.
11. Virginia Woolf lamented the lack of a “room of one’s own” for female writers. Do you have a room of your own? And, for the literary voyeurs amongst us, could you describe it?
I do have a room of my own. It’s a small back bedroom with a closet for storing supplies and big south-facing windows. I have four bookcases, a couple of filing cabinets, my desk and chair, a bunch of plants, two dog beds, and my grandmother’s beautiful solid cedar hope chest—I figure as a writer I need lots of hope!
12. When writing THE SECOND DUCHESS, did you have any special inkling that what you were typing on the screen would be published?
Not really. I knew from the beginning I was going to submit it, but other than that all I had was hope (see above). I was fortunate, I think, that historical fiction was just coming back into vogue as I was writing the book. Thank you, Philippa Gregory. :)
13. Securing an agent, and then selling your manuscript, are the pinnacles of many a writer’s career, and the news of such success is often broken via the phone. What was your reaction when you received “the call”?
You know, in these days of email, there’s so much correspondence leading up to the call that the excitement is kind of spread out over time. My agent and I emailed back and forth about the book and about revisions several times before we actually talked on the phone, and I think we talked a couple of times before she formally offered to represent me. It was the same with my editor at NAL. We talked on the phone—again, just talking about the book and what else I might have planned—before there was any actual call about an offer. So there wasn’t one particular call, but several calls—although of course I was thrilled after every one.
14. To give some insight into the journey to publication, you and your agent, Diana Fox of Fox Literary, have very generously made available on the Fox Literary blog your query letter to Diana, Diana’s subsequent submission letter to editors, and the final copy for the book (go forth, here, and read this, people. So very instructive!) “Road to publication” stories are devoured around here (especially the successful ones!) - what were the highlights, and any lowlights, of yours?
Well, let’s see. I sent my first query on April 14, 2008, and got a pass back the same day. I was crushed. But I persevered. I didn’t send out lots of queries at once—I doled them out two or three at a time, and revised my query letter little by little as I went along. My query to Diana was about the middle of the process, on August 11, 2008. In total I sent nineteen queries. Of those I had four requests for the full manuscript, one request for a partial that never went anywhere, eight passes, and six non-responders.
Diana asked me to do revisions before she offered to sign me, and I liked her suggestions so I did them willingly. (I think she also wrote a long post about the whole revisions-before-signing issue on her blog.) After that things moved pretty quickly. I signed with Fox Literary, did more revisions, the book went out on submission around the beginning of May, and we got the offer from NAL in the middle of July.
ATWOP - Wonderful story! It goes to show that there usually is a home for most well-written books. And yes, Elizabeth is right, Diana did do such a post - here.
15. You have a new book due for release in April 2012, THE FLOWER READER. Can you tell us a little about this story, and any other projects waiting in the wings?
Here’s a sneak peek at some of the back-cover copy of THE FLOWER READER:
“With her dying breath, the queen regent of Scotland entrusts a silver casket to seventeen-year-old Rinette Leslie of Granmuir, half-Scots, half-French, with the ancient gift of divining the future in flowers. Inside the casket, and meant for the young Mary Queen of Scots alone, are the darkest secrets of every Scottish lord, and explosive private prophecies prepared by Nostradamus himself. Rinette risks her life to keep the casket safe, but she makes one fatal mistake: she shows it to her beloved young husband. On the very day the young queen comes home, Rinette’s husband is brutally assassinated. Devastated, Rinette demands justice from the queen before she will surrender the casket...”
After that, I have half a dozen different projects on my desktop.
ATWOP - oh, I seriously cannot wait for this book! Mark April 2012 in your diaries, people.
And the less writerly questions
16. I see from your blog pictures that you are owned by two beagles. J I suspect they were the inspiration for the scene in THE SECOND DUCHESS in which Barbara and Alfonso are presented with two such puppies as wedding gifts from Elizabeth I. Are your beagles your faithful writing buddies? Or are they gorgeous distractions? And will they feature in any more of your books?
My beagles are both writing buddies and distractions. Mostly they just sleep under my desk or on their doggie beds behind me. (See writing room above.) They are also my personal trainers, in that they take me for a good brisk walk every day. Now Queen Elizabeth’s beagles—there’s another thing I have a lot of research on that never made it into the book!
I suspect there will be at least one hound in every book I write. In THE FLOWER READER, Rinette rescues a terrified hound puppy from a group of witches and names it Seilie, “lucky” in Scottish. Seilie is her faithful companion through the rest of the story.
17. Apart from all the other hats you wear, you also describe yourself as a star gazer. What is your favourite constellation? And what astronomical events should we be marking in our diaries (and setting our alarm clocks for – oi!) to view next?
I can’t possible pick a favorite constellation—I love them all. I love the mythology behind them. Events—well, through the month of May, if you want to get up early, you’ll be able to see four planets—Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury—clustered low in the east just before dawn. This is quite unusual!
18. Given the chance – and a time machine! - which historical figures would you invite to dinner? And why?
I think I would want someone from the ancient world, just because it would have been so different from our world today and I would want to know more about it. A Babylonian or Sumerian queen—perhaps the one who wore this crown!
Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic. One of my favorite writers.
Barbara of Austria, Duchess of Ferrara, of course.
Mary Queen of Scots—and I would ply her with wine until she told me just what did happen to Lord Darnley.
Amelia Earhart, so I could find out what really happened.
ATWOP - that crown is beautiful. And mind if I crash this dinner party, too? :-P
19. Who is your best-loved hero or heroine of fiction?
Again, so hard to choose.
Francis Crawford of Lymond from Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, of course. Froniga Haslewood from Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch. Emmeline Lucas of E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels.
20. And finally … what do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m not sure it’s exactly an achievement, but what I value most in the world is my family and our loving relationships.
Thank you, Elizabeth! It was a pleasure to have you on our blog, and we wish you every success, now, and in the future. :-)
And one lucky reader will win a copy of THE SECOND DUCHESS courtesy of All The World’s Our Page! Just leave a comment on this post, and we’ll draw the random winner Wednesday, next week. Go get commenting!