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.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How Teaching Makes A Better Writer

One of the greatest challenges facing a writer is the creation of real, fully-fleshed characters.  I remember thinking when I was in the early stages of writing Isabelle's Confession that I didn't want my characters to sound like Ivanhoe.  Not that I'm disparaging Sir Walter Scott's opus, but it does make for slow going when reading it.  I also remember thinking about all the criticism leveled against the film "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" because the actors didn't speak with British accents.  Members of the English nobility were still speaking French at the time the historical Robin probably lived, so the argument is flawed.  In any event, I decided early on that I wanted my characters to be as real and as human as I could make them.  To that end, I wrote dialogue for them that sounds like people speaking today on the theory that everyone's language sounds modern to them, no matter when they lived.

This is where teaching comes in.  I'm a high school French teacher, and I've been teaching various levels of French off and on since 1983, when I was an "apprentice teacher" at Alma College.  It occurs to me that I find writing dialogue easier and faster than writing narrative because it's what I do all day: I talk, and I listen.  Being a world language teacher means I know how to listen particularly carefully (having played in an orchestra for many years can't have hurt, either).  I probably should've been a playwright or a writer of screenplays, but I digress.  I listen to my classes talk all day long, not just about learning French but about their likes, dislikes, hopes, aspirations, frustrations, and so on.  Life is lived in dialogue, and my ears are filled with it all day long, so when I want to put words in my characters' mouths I simply channel my students and other people I've listened to.  Life is lived in dialogue, after all.

I think my writing also benefits from the innumerable experiences I've had over the past fifty years.  I've lived in the Midwest, on the East Coast, in the Deep South, and in the Pacific Northwest.  I lived for six months in Paris.  I've traveled all over the US, to Canada & Mexico, and across Europe.  I took a motorcycle trip with my dad from Michigan across Canada to Maine and back.  I've also had a lot of different kinds of jobs, from a Wells Fargo security guard in college to a camp counselor to retail to fast food to radio sales to teaching.  I also know how to do a lot of different things.  I sew, crochet, and have done needlepoint.  I can ride a horse and train a dog.  I have a black belt in Taekwondo and a blue belt in Hapkido.  I can tow a trailer.  I'm pretty handy with most home repair and maintenance jobs, although I draw the line at electrical work.  I'm a good cook, and have made everything from empanadas to homemade bagels to hollandaise sauce.  And that just scratches the surface, but you see what I mean.  It all adds up to innumerable experiences--mental, physical, and sensory--that I can bring to my writing.  I'm not simply the result of all the books I've read, but also all the people I've met, the songs I've heard, and the things I've done.  I've felt a lot and thought a lot, and I believe it helps in bringing real people to the page.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Library Card and Me.

When I was a kid, I read voraciously and continuously.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, our hometown library was a favorite haunt of mine throughout my growing-up years.  We had a lot of books in the house, too, from The Jungle Book to Black Beauty to The Book of Knowledge.  Yeah, I read the encyclopedia!  I also loved coming into my elementary school classroom to see the stacks of paperbacks on the teacher's desk with the little order slips dangling from them, because it meant that the Scholastic book order had arrived!

As I got older, I progressed from animal stories to science fiction.  I think I read The Hobbit for the first time in junior high, and I slogged through Dune early in my high school years.  In fact, our common taste in books was one of the things that attracted me to Patient Husband when we were in college.  I also made a point of reading books from the canon as it was perceived at the time.  It became my habit to read for a bit before going to sleep at night.  I have no idea how many times my parents came in to take off my glasses and turn off the light because I had fallen asleep over my current read, but Mom says it happened a lot. 

When I started college I continued to read some science fiction and fantasy as well as more classic works required for my classes.  I had a great class in "The Continental Novel" that introduced me to Knut Hamsun, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann and Dostoevsky, among others.  I finally read a lot of Shakespeare, and I began reading French literature.  One outcome of my studies was I became a lot pickier about what I read for fun.  After having read Camus, Sartre, Proust, Duras, Colette, Hugo and poets from Francois Villon on, I had a lot less patience for dreck.  These days I read very little fiction.  I'll stop reading a book that doesn't hold my attention rather than read it through to the end.  I much prefer reading memoirs, nonfiction, and biographies, although I often re-read novels I've read and loved in years past.  I've read Sho-gun at least three or four times, and I've read James Herriot's books enough that I have whole passages memorized.  If I had to pick an author that has influenced me more than any other, I'd have to say it's Mr. Herriot, with James Clavell and perhaps James Michener bringing up the rear.  Herriot's style, pacing, and characterization feel very natural to me, so although my first novel takes place in the 14th century I have to acknowledge my debt to the Yorkshire vet.

I try to read books that will benefit my writing, on the "garbage in--garbage out" principle.  When I was writing Isabelle's Confession I often began by reading a few classic poems from a little pasteboard book that my grandmother had received as a Christmas gift from her sister in 1931.  I found that it got me in the right frame of mind to compose the kind of fiction I wanted.  I haven't had to do that with my current project, although I may try it if I get stuck.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Write?

Patient Husband once asked my why I write.  Is it because I love it?  I had to say no; writing is a slow, hard slog for me.  Stephen King says he typically cranks out 2 000 words a day.  I'm lucky if I can accomplish that in a week--when I'm not up to my eyeballs in schoolwork.

But the question remains: why write?  My hobby used to be refinishing old furniture.  I love to strip off old finishes, sand, and varnish wood, bringing it back to life and usefulness.  At some point I realized that I liked it because I got a lot of pleasure from the simple act of accomplishing something concrete.  Teaching is a fairly emphemeral task, and some days can be an exercise in frustration.  I often compare it to tossing pebbles into a pond; it's difficult to see results beyond the ripples you've created, so it's nice to be able to point to something and say, "I did that."

Writing has taken the place of furniture refinishing.  I like researching and gathering notes, learning about my chosen time period, and then working out what the characters do and say.  Sketching out a scene, then polishing the draft gives me a similar feeling of accomplishment, and learning something new is fun as well.  I have yet to realize the thrill that comes with publication, but I look forward to the day when I can point to a book on a shelf and say, "I wrote that."

Monday, April 22, 2013

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you might find you get what you need." Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed (heck, I got a D in Geometry in back in high school because I was lousy at proofs) but one thing I do have going for me is  a vast store of perseverence.  Before I started working on Isabelle's Confession, for example, I finished my Ph.D. thesis while caring for our newborn daughter.  Some days I didn't get much done at all, but I just kept plugging away, and eventually I did get my degree and graduate.

As an aspiring writer I think it's easy to be led astray by those who profess to know much more than we do about the craft.  There are classes, conferences, webinars, books, podcasts, and websites galore, all promising to give you exactly what you need to know to write the Great American Novel, the Next Great Play, or The Perfect Screenplay.  There's so much stuff that you can easily spend all your time learning about writing while not actually putting pen or pixels to paper.  It's easy to doubt your own abilities while running around in search of more and better advice.  As I said in my first post, I'm definitely an Old School girl.  I never went to the Web for advice on writing.  I came across Stephen King's book On Writing in a second-hand bookshop in 2001 or 2002, before I even started writing, and I bought it because I like memoirs.  The second half of the book wherein he describes what he thinks are important skills for a writer to have I skimmed over.  It wasn't until I actually began working on my novel that I went back to it for guidance, and it was all I ever used outside of my own abilities as a researcher and an editor that I had honed in grad school.

Ultimately, I think it's important to trust in your own abilities and imagination.  Nobody read my work until I was done with it (one of Stephen's tips), which meant I had to be in it for the long haul.  It's hard to be thoughtful and purposeful these days with so much clamoring for our attention, which is why patience and perseverence really matter in writing.  With your head down and your nose to the grindstone you'll eventually finish, and then you can go looking for an audience.  Not that the road to publication is easy or short...

Friday, April 12, 2013

In Praise of Paper.

I can't compose at the keyboard.  I admire anyone who can, but I've found that if I try I either sit staring at the cursor blinking at me or I change one word for another that I've already rejected over and over again.  For whatever reason, I do much better when I have paper and pen in hand.  Heck, even this blog post started as notes scribbled in one of my many spiral pads.

In my notebooks I feel free to write whatever and however it occurs to me.  Sometimes, when the synapses are firing nicely, the words tumble out in nearly final form, requiring only a bit of polish before adding them to the rest of the work.  Sometimes I write the scene as it appears to me, sketched out in a fairly omniscient third person perspective (so far both novels are written in first person).  And sometimes I talk to myself, making suggestions, proposing scenes, making corrections, and notes for further research.

I suppose I could do all of this electronically.  I've used the review function in Word with my students, but if I had to wait for a computer to boot up every time a snippet of dialogue popped into my head in the middle of the night I'd forget what I wanted to say and it would be lost.

Looking at my notebooks, it's easy to see that writing is a process as our English teachers told us.  There are additions, subtractions, word changes, rewrites of all sorts.  I use highlighters to indicate which word or phrase I ultimately decide to use.  When it's as perfect as I can make it, I finally type it into my computer, where I print out the file from time to time and edit it again. 

I think the moral of the story is, use what works for you.  Respect your process, no matter how hopelessly archaic it may seem to anyone else.  After all, people have been writing on papyrus, parchment, and paper far longer than they have in pixels.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"There's no time for us..." Queen

A publishing consultant once told me that only five percent of all writers make a living from their work.  That means the vast majority of all writers, aspiring or already published, need a day job to keep a roof over their head and their bellies full.  This leads to one of the great conflicts in a writer's life: trying to find time to work.

When I began writing Isabelle's Confession I was working as a substitute teacher, which meant I had time to write nearly every day, but when I went back to teaching full-time lesson plans, grading, and my students' needs had to come first.  Writing got pushed to the end of a very long "to-do" list, which meant that sometimes weeks would pass before I could find time to get serious work done.  I also had to develop some strategies to help keep my writing in the forefront.  I began carrying little spiral notebooks in my purse, in my jacket, and in my jogging coat.  I exercise in the morning before going to work, which means most of the year it's dark.  With nothing much to see by streetlight, I find I can focus on a scene and think about where it needs to go without distraction and I can put it in my notebook, which I then transfer to my main notebook to be incorporated into the book.  I also got a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones to help me focus on my writing when Patient Husband is home.  Reading over what I've already read usually helps me pick up the thread of what I was working on and allows me to move the story along, as does research, although I have to be careful not to get lost in the stacks of research for its own sake.  I also had to learn not to get overly frustrated by my often glacial writing pace.  The muse speaks when she's ready, and if you're doing all you can to create a comfortable place for her you just can't force things.  Thinking about your writing is work, as is editing, and both constitute progress as much as new words on the page do.  And, ultimately, as Stephen King said in his book On Writing:  Life isn't a support-system for art.  It's the other way around.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

From my earliest childhood, our town library was one of my favorite haunts.  I spent many happy hours there, reading everything from Walter Farley's novels to Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man.  As I got older and began working on my degrees, I continued my love affair with libraries.  Some folks may have found the dim aisles of the stacks oppressive and lonely, but to me it was home.

When I began writing Isabelle's Confession, I soon realized that more research was in order.  Luckily for me, King County has a fantastic library system.  What they didn't own personally, they'd happily get for me through interlibrary loan, which was good because I needed detailed information on fourteenth century English weapons, clothing, food, housing, holidays, pastimes--innumerable details that make a historical novel fascinating and its characters more real.  I bought a few books, but most I borrowed from the library.  For the most part I avoided the Web, not trusting its reliability. 

I also had to be careful not to commit anachronisms.  I often turned to my big dictionary (both French and English) to see when words came into use.  I had a tough time deciding whether or not to use "explode," for example.  Words like "second" or "minute" were easier to avoid once I got into the mindset, although I did find a few had slipped in when doing a final read-through.  I was recently reading The Robe, and was annoyed to see that the author had left in a reference to alligators in his first-century story--a New World animal not known by Europeans at the time.  It may be nit-picky of me, but it interferes with my suspension of disbelief.  I suppose that's why I don't read much historical fiction.  I prefer to read biographies and books on history because I know their authors have done their homework (usually).  If I get into a book and find it doesn't meet my expectations I stop reading it.  Life's too short to read junk.

Next up: trying to find time enough and tranquility to write.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

All Beginnings are hard. . . . And sometimes I add what I have learned on my own: "Especially a beginning that you make for yourself. That's the hardest beginning of all." Chaim Potok

Once I had decided to write a novel I ran into the first great challenge:  format.  What point of view should I choose?  First person, third person?  How many characters? How on earth did I create character?  And narration?  I had already written the introduction--it had pretty much written itself one afternoon while we were camping at Mount Rainier--but I spent an inordinate amount of time simply thinking about what I wanted to do and where I thought the story should go because I was essentially learning on the job.  I didn't consider myself a writer by any stretch of the imagination.  Sure, I had written a few short stories and some poetry--I had even had a poem or two published in Seventeen magazine when I was in high school--but it had been literally decades since I had written anything other than lit analysis type papers for grad school, and fiction is an entirely different animal.

As it turned out, I had the solution in the introduction.  I would use the premise of editing a medieval manuscript (something I already knew a lot about from my dissertation) and write in first person, from Isabelle's point of view.  After all, the big question for me was, what happened in Isabelle's life to make her veer so far off medieval society's prescribed course for a woman?  I knew the facts, sketchy as they were, of her life, but surely there was more to the story than that.  I got into a pattern of looking at the facts, then thinking about what the characters would have done or said either to create that situation or in reaction to it.  On my best days, the characters took shape and wandered around my mind, talking and acting as if in a dream or a movie.  Many times I would try and work out a scene before bed only to have the characters pop up and run the scene in my head without any conscious thought or effort from me.  All I had to do was be their scribe.  I scrawled many pages by the light of the moon so as not to awaken Patient Husband.

The next stumbling block occurred about forty pages in, when I had a major scene occur within the context of a joust.  Luckily for me, I knew just what I needed to do.  I picked up my library card.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Another Luddite joins the Digital Age

My husband-the-programmer-and-perennial-gadget-lover has called me a Luddite for a long time.  For the non-historian, Luddite refers to the textile workers who were thrown out of work by the invention of machine-driven looms and other devices who violently protested this type of "progress."  Yes, I use a computer all day for work and play, but I don't have a smart phone, my iPod lives on its speaker in my office, and, until today, I never thought about blogging. 

But here we are.  As suggested by my blog's title, I plan to talk about my writing.  I currently have a finished novel that is being shopped around in search of an agent.  It's historical fiction, set in 14th century England during the reign of Edward II.  Isabelle's Confession is the story of his wife.  I first came across her story while I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation, which was an edition and translation of the Anglo-Norman Prose 'Brut,' which is a 14th century manuscript history of England.  At the time I remember thinking, "Hm, that's different," but with a new baby and a thesis to finish she dropped off my radar until Patient Husband and I went to see Braveheart.  Isabelle plays a major (and entirely fictional) role in that film.  When I sketched out the reality to him, PH agreed that truth was stranger and more interesting than fiction, and the spark was struck.

For a long time I wanted to write a scholarly biography of Isabelle, but lacking the time and financial means to travel to Europe to research primary sources I began thinking of how to tell her story in a fictional framework.  I began writing and researching in 2002.  Eight years (yeah, yeah...I work full time) and 177,000 words later, I finished it.  Hopefully soon Isabelle will see the light of day to delight many readers who are aficionados of history, the medieval period, and strong female characters.  She really is one of a kind.