Saturday, January 18, 2014

On Patience

It's been a very long time since I added to my blog.  Back in late August I handed the revised version of Isabelle over to my agent, and the waiting began.  When I hadn't heard anything by Thanksgiving, I dropped her a line.  I heard back from her last week, and it looks like we're still in the game.  She said "a few" editors were willing to look at the revised MS, so I'm remaining optimistic.  These things do take time, however.  It can take anywhere from two to five months or more for editors to make a decision, according to the wisdom of the Web.  It took ten years to write the silly thing--surely I can wait a while long for it actually see the light of day.  Fingers crossed!

In the meantime, I've been continuing work on my current project, which is a fictionalized retelling of my grandfather's experiences as a medic during WWI.  It's been great fun, and I'm learning a lot.  The researching skills I gained while writing Isabelle have come in handy, as well as the discovery of Google Books.  I'm currently reading War Bugs, a first-person account of the Rainbow Division's experience in France at the same time.  Thanks to the King County Library System, I was able to borrow it from (I think) somewhere in New Mexico.  It's not directly applicable since Granddad wasn't in the trenches, but good background information overall.  Prior to War Bugs, I was reading Dr. Harvey Cushing's journal.  He was a doctor with the BEF from the early days of the war, and kept an incredibly detailed and fascinating multi-volume journal of his adventures.  An edited version was published in the '30s, and I was able to find a copy of it online.  It was very exciting to find four separate mentions of Granddad's unit in the journal.  I was able to get a lot added to the story over midwinter break, and I hope the momentum will continue.

Since my goal is to write (and not write about my writing) I won't be here every day, but I do plan to check in now and again.  After all, as Louis L'amour said: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”    

Sunday, August 25, 2013

On Editing: A Summary

I think it's safe to say the editing process is complete, at least from my side of the keyboard.  I came up with an idea for an epilogue a couple of days ago, and I wrote the first version of it this morning.  So it's time for a (mostly) final accounting.

Over the past thirty-six days I've:
  • cut 29,000 words and 111 pages (remember, 20 pages of that was endnotes)
  • got rid of the whole "found manuscript" premise, the confession format, and everything to do with Marie-Agn├Ęs at the convent
  • went through and streamlined the narrative.  What DID I have against contractions??
  • replaced the confessional letters with longer chapters
  • wrote a prologue and an epilogue
  • restructured the first chapter
  • minimized the role of certain minor characters
  • chopped an entire chapter because it didn't advance Isabelle's story (at least 20 pages in one fell swoop)
  • came up with a new title
all in an effort to bring Isabelle's story to the forefront.  The epilogue still needs some work.  It doesn't do exactly what I want it to do, but it's getting there.  I'm going to let it cool off for a bit, then I'll look at it again.

I think I've done good work here.  I want the story to be the best that it can, and it's very nearly there, which is good, because I'm back to work tomorrow.  There are a few publishers who said they'd be willing to look at the manuscript again.  Let's hope they like it!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Incredible Shrinking Manuscript

Since Tuesday, I've been going through my manuscript, looking for dead wood to prune.  So far I've made three passes and I've managed to lop about ten thousand words, not counting the TWENTY PAGES of endnotes I also cut.  I'm confident that my readers will be smart enough to figure out what's going on without help from me (although sure was fun adding all that history and culture!)  Right now I'm printing out a fresh hard copy because I find it much easier to edit on paper rather than onscreen.  I still need to add chapters, smooth out a few rough spots, and add a prologue and epilogue.

At the suggestion of a friend who writes, I picked up one of Donald Maass's books on writing the breakout novel.  I'm hoping it'll give me some ideas for the prologue/epilogue.  I have some thoughts of my own, but I figured it couldn't hurt.

The hard part will be seeing if I can cut the novel down further.  As Professor Strunk says, "Omit needless words." (Rule 17, Elements of Style)   I did try to be as concise as possible the first time through, but that doesn't mean I can't trim more, especially given my penchant for rambling on about historical bits I find fascinating but which aren't central to the story.  Sixty pages gone is nothing to sneeze at, however, and I do hope the finished project will be acceptable.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Picking up my red pen.

After some time mulling over the feedback provided by several publishers via my agent the other day, I've realized that they're right.  In creating a milieu for my story, I buried it in several layers of narrative that were unnecessary and distancing for the reader.  Isabelle's Confession has a prologue and an epilogue, a letter/confessional format, and a convent setting, all of which are really extraneous to the story itself.  As an inexperienced writer some ten years ago I felt I had to give the story a reason for existing, but in thinking about beginning my second book last fall I realized that was an unnecessary conceit.  Although I thought the found manuscript idea that linked the story to my real-life doctoral dissertation very cool, I wasn't thinking of potential readers who would want to open the book or turn on the Kindle and dive right in to a different world, and so it all needed to go.

There was no way I could just abandon this book to a dusty drawer without trying to make it better, so yesterday afternoon I sat down with the hard copy of the manuscript and started cutting.  In a couple of hours I got through 152 pages and have already eliminated at least 10.  I had to resist the temptation to dig into the file on the computer, but for now I think it's better to stick with the hard copy because the story will need a new introduction.  Once upon a time that would have been a very scary proposition, but no longer.  I have a couple of ideas rolling around, and I'm sure the right thing will be excavated in due time.  In eliminating the letters I also hope to make the story less episodic, with better narrative flow.  I don't know if I'll have chapters or books or both, but that's not too worrying.  I'll have to decide about the end notes.  I think most readers would probably also find them intrusive, so they may also fall prey to the red pen.  It bears remembering, as our English teachers have told us, that writing is a process and editing never killed anyone.  In his early writing days Stephen King was advised by an anonymous editor that the final draft equals the first draft minus ten percent.  I have a strong suspicion I'll be cutting a lot more than that.  It'll be interesting to see how many words I have in the end.  I'll let you know!


Monday, July 15, 2013

Got Feedback...

I just got off the phone with my agent, and now I have a conundrum.  While publishers universally praised my research, saying it was rich and vibrant, they said the human story didn't shine as much as the history.  The novel lacks narrative push, and is overlong and episodic.  A few, however, are willing to look at the manuscript again if I rework it.

Which brings me to the conundrum:  how, exactly, should I rework it?  Tudor England is supposed to be the hot topic in historical fiction right now, which I can't do anything about.  How can I go about making my story the page-turner I know it can be?  This will require some thought, and perhaps I'll have to actually read some historical fiction, which I'm willing to do if they're not thinly-veiled romance novels.

I admit that I'm an inexperienced writer.  I'm kind of amazed that I actually got this far, but I also don't want to bail on the story just because I've come up against an obstacle.  Writing is a process, after all, and I want readers to see Isabelle for the fascinating person I think she is.  Now if I can figure out how to do that...I'll keep ya'll posted.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Neglected 14th Century

First, my apologies for having been away so long.  I've been otherwise engaged in the annual academic spasm known as The End Of The School Year.  Graduation was Monday night; yesterday and today my colleagues and I have been tidying up random bits and pieces.  Tomorrow summer officially begins, and with it, writing season.  I received a wonderful history of the Army Nurse Corps in the mail on Monday that I bought on Ebay for my current project, and I look forward to delving into more WWI research.

A few weeks ago The Historical Novel Society posted this article on Facebook: http://historicalnovelsociety.org/orphan-century-that-salutary-neglect-of-the-1300s-in-historical-fiction/.  I found it interesting, especially since Isabelle's Confession falls right into that period and the author never mentions her or any of the Edwards.  Mr. Ostryzniuk attributes author neglect of the Middle Ages to "prevailing attitudes in the industry, poor awareness of the period and concomitant difficulties in research, absence of ‘household names’, and pedigree."  As I mentioned in my last post, the amount of research involved in writing about the medieval period likely puts some people off, but it is for that very reason that I found Isabelle's story so compelling.  It was foreign yet familiar, and I wanted readers to understand that we share more similarities than differences with 14th century Europeans.  People are people, after all, and human nature hasn't changed--only the milieu has, and I find that fascinating.  The fact that the history is less well-known just means there are more opportunities to find characters and stories to bring to readers.

In researching Isabelle's life I found a few books had already been written about her.  The She-Wolf of France by Maurice Druon is likely the earliest example, but this blog post from 2010 http://www.susanhigginbotham.com/edfict.html lists nearly two dozen more that I've never seen.  Based on their covers and summaries they seem to be more of the bodice-ripper type than my Isabelle, but I chose a different path that was more purely historical and certainly not of the romance novel genre.  I suppose those who like romance will find Isabelle's Confession almost puritanical in its approach to her marriage and her relationship with Mortimer; as I was writing I found the character growing and evolving in a way that focused more on the rational and less on the emotional.  In that regard I suppose she's more like myself, just as all characters are a reflection of their creators.  I remember being very annoyed with Scarlett O'Hara when I re-read Gone With The Wind as a young adult.  At the time I found her behavior irrational, verging on the hysterical.  I was more sympathetic to her, however, when I read it again a few years ago.  I attribute this to the depth of characterization Mitchell created as well as to my own changing perceptions and experiences.  Isn't that what phenomenology is all about?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reference Books

For the historical novelist, reference books are usually a necessity.  I was lucky enough to have studied the period I was writing about in graduate school, although I quickly learned that what I knew wasn't necessarily useful to me.  I knew a lot about the basic history, major players, and literature, but I needed to know details about fourteenth century food, clothing, armor, weaponry, and so forth.  I used my library extensively (thank you, King County Library System!) but I did buy a few books, especially if I had seen them at the library and knew they'd be useful.

For Edward & Isabelle's life, I relied heavily upon The Three Edwards by Thomas Costain, Edward II by Harold Hutchinson, and my unpublished thesis.  As a general introduction to daily living in the medieval period I read The Age of Faith by Will Durant.  I know, it's old and it has some errors, but for an encyclopedic view of the time you can't beat it.  Joseph and Frances Gies's series on medieval life was also extremely useful, especially Life in a Medieval CastleThe Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Medieval Europe by Sherrilyn Kenyon was a great find; they have an entire series on various time periods.  I read a lot of books on fourteenth century armor and weapons.   I also bought The Knight and Chivalry by Richard Barber and Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages by Michael Prestwich.  I also took out a lot of books on castles and royal houses in England.  A friend came back from England with The Tower of London: A 2000-year history by Lapper and Parnell.  Prince Edward of Wessex has a beautifully illustrated book that helped a great deal.   I spent so much time in the 941 section of my local library that I still find myself drawn to it even today.  The complete list would take a long time to compile and would probably make for pretty dull reading, but you get the gist.  It's a good thing I like libraries.