Thoughts on the writing life
Many thanks to the lovely and uber-talented Libi Astaire for inviting me to join her on this blog tour. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, please visit her website and take a peek at her wonderful Regency Era mysteries. They are utterly delightful!
My assignment for this blog tour is to answer the four questions below, and then to choose two or three other authors with whom I am proud to be acquainted. There’s a reward for your participation, too! All you have to do is comment on my blog post and one other of the authors I’ve selected and your name will be entered to win a signed copy of my short story collection, Sixteen Seasons. Ready?
1) What am I working on now?
My third full length novel is entitled Gods and Monsters. The culture and social atmosphere of bygone eras often inspires me to examine our own. I’m constantly amazed by how little—despite technology and ever evolving fashions—things have changed. And yet there are some things which have changed entirely. Thank heaven!
Take the disparagement in practical education between the sexes in the Victorian era. A woman was raised to be naive and innocent, knowing little if anything about the seedier sides of life, while men were encouraged to display their virility and masculine power. Thus they often had experiences which far outdid those of their fairer counterparts. Such was all well and good as long he was discreet and no inconvenient consequences resulted.
But what of those consequences? Certainly there would be consequences of one type or another. What might happen were a “gentleman” of considerable worldly experience to find that his past has inextricably entangled him with a woman he might love—who might inspire him to a better and greater purpose—had he not a past to answer to that must prevent her from trusting or even respecting him? And how does he explain such a past to satisfaction? If he means to do it honestly, such might prove his destruction. But sometimes our destruction is also our salvation.
My chiefest complaint with modern Historical Fiction is that it isn’t historical enough. Things seem to be getting better as readers demand more attention to research and historical detail, but for a long time historical novels—even bestselling ones—were really modern stories set against a backdrop of lavish costume and stilted manners (and sometimes dialog). My aim is not only to paint a story that is painstakingly accurate in historical detail, but to give it life and atmosphere and flavor as well. I want my readers’ experience to be that of walking into history, rich with the sites and sounds and smells of it all.
I’ve also found that there is a lot of misunderstanding about how these people really lived. We have our hackneyed and cliched ideas of what etiquette did and did not allow for. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been surprised to find that their lives were not quite as tightly laced as one might think. Naughty parlor games, cyphered want adds for marriage and dating and help when one has found themselves in the family way, herbal and natural remedies, and the bearing of various body parts without the threat of impending matrimony are all addressed in Gods and Monsters with what some might find dubious accuracy. But it’s all true, I assure you! *snickers wickedly*
To be honest I don’t like to answer this question. I guess I fear people are less likely to read my work if they know I have an agenda. But then, for each of my books the answer is slightly different.
In my first novel, Of Moths and Butterflies, I felt a need to explore some of my own past experiences, and to come to terms with them if I could. My hope was that my journey would help others. But I also wanted to show what the long-lasting effects of abuse are, and how, despite our desire to overcome, or our impatience with loved ones whom we feel ought to just “get over it” sometimes healing takes a very, very long time. It will and can happen, however. And in Moths, I wished to show what happiness can come by leaving the past behind and having the courage to love and trust again.
In Cry of the Peacock—which was actually the first book I wrote—my purpose was somewhat different. I really only wanted to see if I could actually write a book. I wanted to attempt to recreate a classic, if I could. I’m not sure I quite accomplished that, and while it does deal with honesty and secrets and lies and pride…it is not meant to have a strong didactic theme to it.
Gods is different. As I’ve found some considerable success in my writing, I’ve felt compelled to use my talent to try, if I could, to better the world. I want to use Gods not only to show how much things have changed—for both good and bad—but also to point out the chaos we create in society and in our relationships when we do not treat those relationships—sexual relationships in particular—with the sanctity they deserve. It is meant to show the consequences of unwise actions. But it’s also meant to show that wrongs can be righted, that hearts can be changed, that forgiveness can be found and honor recovered. My purpose is never to lecture, only to inspire and uplift—and to give hope, as those writing and performing with similar purpose have done for me.
I try to write every day, but it doesn’t always happen. We’re remodeling a Victorian house at the moment, and it’s lately been taking all the spare time I have. Ordinarily I devote four hours a day to my writing. I typically start a work with a theme I want to address and a few key characters, then I outline. Then I research. And then I write. I may not outline the entire thing before I begin, but I’ll have a general idea of where I need to start and end, and what it’s going to take to fill in the dots to get me there. Each day I read what I wrote the day before, and so long as everything continues to gel, then that usually primes me to write on from there. If, however, things aren’t working, if I can’t come up with the words, then I know I have to go back and figure out what I’ve done wrong. And that can sometimes take weeks! Which I really hate. I do have an amazing editor who helps me through it all. From beginning to end she ‘s there to support me and help me and guide me. I think she’s really more of a personal writing trainer than just an editor. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t hire the kind of service and support she provides for me.
And that’s me explained in a nutshell! Or my writing life, at least. Now it’s time to pass the baton over to three wonderful and amazing authors whose work I would love for you to become more familiar with. Remember, comment on my post and on one of the other two, and I’ll enter you to win a copy of my recently published short story collection, Sixteen Seasons! It’s a perfect sampling of what I do and where my writing might yet take me. (hint, hint, and wink) Don’t like short stories? Well, then. Think of them as sixteen tiny novels. (They really are very good.)
Jenny Baxter was born and raised in a small town in western Washington, where she now resides with her husband and four kids. She is a substitute teacher at her local high school, and somehow manages to write around all the work, children, and laundry. She is the author of the Chronicles of Nequam series and a wonderful blog on the art and craft of writing.
Gev Sweeney lives with her guinea pig, Auden Baby-Boar, in a tiny cottage in an old Methodist Camp Meeting town at the Jersey Shore. She holds an M.A. in communication from Monmouth University and an M.A. in the history and theory of music from Rutgers University. Once upon a time, she traded her master’s thesis about the Berlioz opera les Troyens for tickets to a sold-out performance of Candide at New York City Opera. Her first book, a historical (The Scattered Proud), was followed by a contemporary (Mount Can’t) followed by a Regency (Acquaintance) followed by a paranormal (Salutaris). Not one to stick to any particular genre, Gev writes about schemers and denialists, the loved lost and the detested found–characters shaped by fear, freed by obsession, and carved by the quest to understand people and worlds that defy analysis. She also maintains a blog, where she highlights her work as well as the work of other authors.
It’s a simple question, really. And I remember, in the early days of my writing career, when I was asked the question, I would immediately jump onto the defensive, as if he who had asked it were trying to cast doubt upon my abilities.
Do you have what it takes?
I’ve asked the question of myself a hundred times. And answered it. If I were completely honest, I would tell you that I answered it knowing that I didn’t understand the full breadth and scope of the six seemingly benign words.
Do. You. Have. What. It. Takes?
To answer the question in it’s simplest form, replying to that which I understood and ignoring the margins, well, yes. Yes, I do. I know a lot of words. A LOT of words. And I can string them together to make sentences both concise and complex. I can form a plot, make a scene work. All things I’ve had to learn over time. I write cracking dialogue. Once my greatest weakness, it is now probably my greatest strength. I have learned. I have more yet to learn. But yes, to answer the question in it’s most basic context—or perhaps, as I, in my basic understanding, understood it…. Yes. Yes, I do have what it takes.
Or do I?
Because what I did not understand until fairly recently, is that when you have talent, people suddenly see you as a threat. To what, I’m not sure. It’s not a concept I’ve ever been able to quite fully grasp. But I do know that there are a great many people out there who consider themselves the masters of their art. Funny, really, when you think of it, since I know very few forms of art with only one master at the helm. And yet people do, for whatever reason, feel the need to ‘own’ their talent, as if they have some kind of stake and claim to it that others do not deserve. As if there’s some prize to be had for gaining a monopoly. There isn’t.
I’ve made my own mistakes. I confess it. I’ve behaved out of pride (and usually called out for it). As posted in a recent article, I’ve also behaved out of vanity (and am still paying some of those consequences.) But it’s a habit of mine, in dealing with people, to pull the rug out from under my own feet. I want people to like me, so much so, that I will sometimes sabotage myself, so that the other person feels they have the greater power. To avoid, if I can, any sense of threat or competition. I do not like to offend, even if it’s to let someone know they have caused offense.
This is something, if I want to succeed, that I must quit doing.
Another part of this question I had not realised before, or did, but did not grasp the breadth of, was the fact that I am extremely introverted. All these guest posts, and reviews, interviews, newspaper articles, readings, signings and other appearances, whether live or in virtual reality really frighten me. And I don’t mean at the time they are given or posted, but always. The more I put myself out there, the more vulnerable I become. I find myself, in the wake of increased sales, becoming depressed, having a hard time getting out of bed. I’m tetchy, emotional. I don’t want to leave my house.
So do I? Do I have what it takes? Can I make the appearances? Can I do the readings without stumbling over my own words, without my knees literally knocking so hard I can barely stand? I don’t know. All I can do is try. It is, after all, too late to go back.
Can I keep writing? Keep publishing? The answer, really, is I must! Because there are two books waiting in the wings, done for all intents and purposes, though there are several rounds of revisions ahead. There are half written stories, too. There are files full of ideas. There are half a dozen short stories waiting for a purpose. There is more I want to say.
Do I have what it takes to meet the deadlines? To get up each and every day and sit in front of the computer screen when I’d rather be outside, or keeping up with the housework? Do I have what it takes to persist when the umpteenth final, FINAL revision is due? When the reviews come in, some good, some bad? When the people you thought were your friends write scathing reviews, and condemning blog posts full of professional criticism and unprofessional fury? Do I have what it takes to help promote the authors in my writing groups whose talent deserves to be appreciated, even when I know they personally despise me for reasons I have no control over? Can I do it gracefully? Even when it hurts? Even when it’s personal? Even when it’s not? Do I have what it takes?
I consider the question carefully.
Damn straight, I do!
My illustrator, my friend and a source of constant support and encouragement…B. Lloyd. This is a woman to whom I owe a great deal. She is not only an amazing artist, but also a writer herself, and I’m anxiously looking forward to the publication of her novel, Greenwood Tree. (Date yet to be announced.)
I’d also include a link to her newest short story, which I thought rather superb, especially as it features Greenwood Tree‘s own Julia.
Reading before you write . . .
After trawling for months through writings, both published and non, by present day authors, I begin to find stagnation setting in; from the very snazzy to the very humdrum, there is a common thread running through, a streak of sameness, which makes me wonder how much publishing and publishers actually influence modern writers by their perceived ‘demands’ or lists of do’s & don’t’s.
I pick up a Sheridan le Fanu, one I haven’t yet read, The Haunted Baronet, and am transported :– yes, it is another world, the past, yes, it is another universe, the paranormal – but so are many books written now. Yet his voice struck me as fresh and vital in a way that all those others writing now do not, or cannot. His imagery, however contrary to the guidelines (rules for some) laid out, down, upon us by would-be guru scribes, flashed images across my tired brain that the present day ones could not. He was not writing outside of his own contemporaries ; he was not resorting to gimmicks or games – he was writing well. And no, he is not staccato, Hemmingway-like, nor vague and missing punctuation, Joyce-like (and many other examples, but this is not intended as a catalogue).
Reading a classic author from the past (from at least a hundred years ago, that is) gives us the opportunity to time travel. We get to see speech patterns, social customs, mores, attitudes, highs and lows, problems and solutions of the period in the flesh, so to speak. Any writer of historical fiction wants to read them, partly to get the vocabulary right (hardly anyone has ever really said gadzooks anywhere, it transpires) and surely to get the background, atmosphere and general feeling right. Any writer wanting to write sensational fiction will surely want to read Wilkie Collins as well as Bram Stoker, most writers wanting to bring in social commentary, both Dostoyevsky and Dickens, and so on – and not necessarily only the top classics; even the very mediocre ones can teach us something , if only on how not to write it.
Where I felt so many of the texts I had been looking at were failing to make the mark lay perhaps in the authors trying so hard to avoid clichés that they often end up sounding exactly alike one another, sans ton, sans voix, sans anything very much – rather the literary equivalent of walking around a stage, trying desperately not to bump into the furniture. If writers don’t read (and I mean read books printed more than thirty or forty years ago . . .) and in great quantity and variety, how can they develop a voice that is not inevitably resonant with comic book speech, and so called ‘pithy’ language (because they think swearing gives them street cred), the inevitable drone of the uninventive, the uninspired and the uncreative ? How many more are there going to be, pounding out on keyboards simply because they can, enforcing the idea in the minds of new generations of readers that there is only one way of expressing oneself, when in fact there are many ?
B’s original post, as well as her lively and informative blog, can be found here.
I had, in my two years’ sojourn on Harper Collins’ Authonomy.com, convinced myself, or allowed myself to be convinced (I’m not sure which), that my books are, in fact, Historical Fiction rather than Historical Romance. The reasons for this were never made perfectly clear to me. For one thing, there is a difference between category Romance and single title or mainstream Romance. I’d be a fool if I tried to convince anyone that mine are not love stories. In fact, to experience love, to examine it, in all its strange and quixotic manifestations, was the chief reason why I wrote these stories to begin with. But on the same token, they are not, exactly, about love…in and of itself. Of Moths and Butterflies, for instance, is about the struggle to overcome the affects of abuse. It’s also about the disparity between men and women with regards to the power they wield. (A subject I feel worth examining today.) In the end, I suppose, the book is really about the healing properties of a love well earned.
I think my biggest problem with the Romance moniker, is that Romance does not have a well established reputation of historical accuracy. That’s something I really aim for. Not just as window dressing, but as the foundation of the story. Of course, there is always room for debate in such matters, dependent upon the author’s commitment, their understanding, which is always subject to interpretation, and the readers’ understanding as well. Having said that, there have been times when I’ve taken slight license with strict law and custom to prove a point to a modern reader. I don’t think anyone could accuse me of writing a book with a practical, or even probable plot line. They are all, I assure you, possible. My goal is, however, to make it believable. Nearly all of my plot devices are taken from other works. But the laws, customs, social and moral codes, are thoroughly researched. Often with surprising results.
Do I digress, if I take a moment to mention, that while I admire the Victorians for their commitment to live a moral ideal, they consistently fell short of it? Perhaps it’s what I admire most about them, after all. I think they were the closest to getting it right of any civilization before or since. They aimed at the ideal. The fell short in their harsh judgments and their intolerances, but their intentions were well meant. And they stuck to them, too, until the Great War. Pride… Oh that lofty perch of pride, and the treacherous precipice!
But I digress once more.
So are my books, or are they not Romance? I suppose they are in a way. Are they Historical Fiction? Most certainly. I hope they are literary, too, in that they are fashioned after the literature of the age, not that they are particularly forward in their approach. Quite the reverse, in all probability. But, considering that the collapse of the legacy publishing standards have meant a collapse in old norms, in the strict adherence to genre boundaries, is it not possible they are both?
It wasn’t a compliment, but I thanked her anyway.
Later, at the reception, examining the fare offered by the refreshment table, I spotted Amber and joined her. I hesitated a moment, chose for myself a piece of angel food cake with a more than usually scrumptious looking strawberry on it. Perhaps that was my mistake. I blame the strawberries.
Amber, of course, was not alone. She was never alone at a party. There were several in company, discussing the wedding, and how beautiful was the bride, and how adorably happy looked the groom. The dress could have fit better, could have been less frilly, more refined, she noted. Compliments were difficult for Amber to give, which was why I felt I owed her something now. I should have known better. Well, I did, but believing in the innate goodness in all people, especially family (yes, I’m really that naive) I let it go.
“Your wrap is gorgeous,” Anna observed. It was a compliment. She meant it quite sincerely.
“I bought it at an import shop,” I answered too honestly. “They were selling it as a tree skirt.” This is true. They were. But it’s not a tree skirt. For one thing, it’s beige cutout velvet. For another, it’s square. And if these two things aren’t proof enough, it has buttons. Yes. A dozen buttons going up the front. It’s a wrap. And it IS gorgeous. But my honesty, as I have yet to learn (will I ever?) is what sunk the ship. As usual.
“I’d wear it,” Amber said. And then, turning away with a snort, “Just kidding.” And she smiled kindly, sympathetically. Poor me. I really should know better.
The thing is, because she IS family, I know she is deeply insecure. And so these backhanded compliments, these public jibes, they make her feel better. I’m perfectly comfortable with myself and so I just ignore it.
That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt. It does. That episode happened about ten years ago. I still think of it. But it’s not a grudge I carry, it’s an observation. And one I’ve witnessed more times than I’d like to count. What is it that makes people judge each other so harshly? There must be some kind of comfort to be found in it? I’ve never found it so, but for as often as it occurs, one would think it was profoundly self assuring.
My brother died two weeks ago. It’s a difficult thing to deal with. I don’t think I’ll ever really get over it. I’ll just learn how to go about my life, and each day, perhaps through perseverance, perhaps simply out of the comfort and mindless routine that habit provides, I’ll remember how to get out of bed in the morning, to get the kids dressed and ready for school. At some point I’ll be able to go home and be ok with the knowledge that I will not see him again in this life. Can anyone imagine anything more painful than losing a sibling? Perhaps losing a child. I pray I never have to experience that. I don’t think I would survive it. But then I’m sure most parents think the same. And yet they do. They must.
I have a cousin. She is a very good, Christian woman. She means well. I know few people with kinder intent. My sister received a phone call just days after my brother’s passing. My cousin felt it her Christian duty to inform us that he will go to Hell. Why doesn’t matter. I think it’s for the simple fact that he did not belong to the First Presbyterian Church of God in Christ of the Saints of Forest Heights. And because he did not pay his weekly contribution into a congregation of 100 regular attendees of this particular church in a suburb of a largish city on the West coast of….. well, it doesn’t matter where. The point is, for this reason, and perhaps others more practical, I do not know (and cannot imagine) he cannot be saved. Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s more complicated. I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. Because, true or not, it is a deplorably unfeeling thing to say to someone in bitter anguish over the early and unexpected death of a loved one.
Perhaps it made my cousin feel better somehow.
I was trying to think of a way to reply, to let her know how hurtful her words were. And it suddenly came to me. No words will suffice.
Literally…. “No words. This will suffice.” Because it isn’t about me. It’s about them. These behaviors tell far more of the people who commit them than they who are made to suffer them.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately worrying about how I will handle poor reviews, and people I somehow crossed on my path to publication who may feel the need to strike back at me once my book is released to the public. The fact is, such WILL happen, and there is nothing I can do about it. I never needed to explain to anyone that my cousin’s words were hurtful, pointless, and self-serving. I never needed to explain to anyone that Amber was insecure. Her own actions spoke for her. And by smiling and letting it roll off, though it hurt, though it felt degrading, was really the most powerful thing I could have done. And will do.
We live, and we learn. As C.S. Lewis said. “It hurts, but, by God, we learn.”