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THIS TIME by Joan Szechtman

Joan Szechtman is one of those novelists who has such a good idea, that you wish you’d had it yourself. The idea of Richard III being wrenched from a near-death experience and deposited in 21st-century Portland, Oregon is mind-blowing in all its implications. What is Richard really like? How will he get on in a democracy? What will he think of the 21st century? And in light of what he learns, what sense is he going to make of the life he left behind, and some of the truly awful things he did?

But the novel didn’t really answer these questions, at least not in a deeply resonant way. Why?

The major problem as I see it is the quality of the writing. What the author needed to do was to plunge the reader into Richard’s skin, and make his experiences viscerally real. That would have involved many more sensory descriptions, as well as much more interior monologue.

I think the reason why the novel didn’t work is because so much of what happens to Richard is presented as a summary, almost as if we were reading a newspaper account. But newspaper reportage is not the best way of gripping the reader’s attention. Nor is summary.

Although Ms Szechtman made a few nods to the need to capture what Richard’s bewilderment at being in the 21st century must have been like, it wasn’t enough to be realistic. The storyline wasn’t believable. It just didn’t make sense that Richard, of all people, should learn to trust 21st-century strangers so completely that he married one of them and because CEO of a company in the space of one year! I know this book is meant to be a fantasy, but each book has its own internal logic. In the case of THIS TIME, the author violated that logic.

One way to have dealt with these problems would have been to make Richard far less active in the 21st century, to give him more time to speak about his past, in particular to paint a vivid picture of the crisis of the spring of 1483, when his brother King Edward IV suddenly died, and of the events leading up to the disappearance of his nephews. That would have been fascinating.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear. FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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THE WHITE QUEEN by Philippa Gregory

THE WHITE QUEEN is the story of Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492), Queen of Edward IV, mother of the Little Princes in the Tower, and also of Elizabeth of York, who married Henry Tudor after he defeated Richard III at Bosworth, and founded the Tudor dynasty.

The novel starts in 1464, when Elizabeth is sent by her family to beg the King for his favor. There has been a war. Her family was on the losing side. She has nothing to give her two sons because their dead father’s estates have been confiscated. She is chosen to go before the King, because she is a beauty and the young monarch is known to appreciate pretty women.

The rest, as they say, is history. Edward IV secretly weds Elizabeth on May 1, 1464. Even more remarkably, he keeps his promises to her by publicly declaring their union in September of that year, horrifying his counselors, his friends, his family, and most of all, his mother Cecylee, Duchess of York, who does all that she can to disturb the marriage.

Philippa Gregory is such a talented writer and this novel is an easy and enjoyable read. Like others, I did not feel that the extended references to Melusina helped the story. A few details here and there, slipped into the text, would have suited me better.

But the real problem with this novel is the ending. It ends in April 1485, before Elizabeth’s nemesis and brother-in-law Richard III is defeated at Bosworth, before her eldest daughter marries the victor and becomes Queen of England, and before Elizabeth’s own disgrace and exile in 1487, and her subsequent death at Bermondsey Abbey in 1492. Philippa Gregory has created such a compelling character, I was sorry to see her abandon the novel so early, depriving us all of the pleasure of hearing what Elizabeth would have said about these events.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear. HE MUST BE SOMEONE is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Dan Poynter’s SELF-PUBLISHING MANUAL

I was going to write about something else today, but I’ve just finished reading Dan Poynter’s THE SELF-PUBLISHING MANUAL, and I think this is such an important book for an aspiring writer, that I’ve decided to share my observations.

The history of publishing in the last 100 years, has been one of increasing difficulty for writers. (And I’m not even talking about the insultingly low royalties that writers are expected to put up with! ) Up to the 1980s, it was not unreasonable to hope that an editor might take you on, even though you were an aspiring writer with a flawed first manuscript. Then editors got too busy to do that, so agents took over that role, and found publishing houses whose job it was to sell your books.

As many of you know, the new reality of publishing is that traditional publishers no longer see it as their job to sell your book, unless they think it is going to be a blockbuster. Too many authors have assumed that publishers will market their books, only to find out too late that very little effort was expended in that direction.

This is why Dan Poynter’s book is so valuable, both for those who choose to publish with a traditional publisher and those who choose to self publish. Why? Because I have never met an author who was so thorough and conscientious at explaining all the ins and outs of something.

You want a marketing plan for selling your novel? Buy this book, and flip through it. The chapter outlines will tell you exactly what to do. If you’re still unsure, Appendix 1 gives you a calendar of what to do, while Appendix 2 gives an exhaustive list of resources. Need more help? Go to his website, www.parapublishing.com, and you will find more articles, some free, some for a modest price.

If you do nothing else, buy this book. No-one else is going to care as much about selling your novel as you are.

I know. You would much rather be writing than selling, and thinking about selling gives you indigestion. But if you want people to read your books, you are going to have to do something to make them more visible.

Best of luck, and feel free to share your experiences by commenting below.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear. HE MUST BE SOMEONE is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.


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THE RED QUEEN by Philippa Gregory

THE RED QUEEN is the story of Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), mother of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (1457-1509), who defeated Richard III at Bosworth and reigned as King Henry VII from 1485 until his death in 1509. (Margaret herself died two months after her son.)

The novel begins in 1453, when Margaret is about to go to court for the first time to formally dissent from her pre-contracted marriage to the son of a disgraced nobleman, so that she becomes available to make a better match. The hour is late, but nine-year-old Lady Margaret is on her knees at prayer, having a vision of herself as her heroine Joan of Arc. When everything is spoiled by her mother’s maid coming in and insisting that she go to bed, for they have to rise early on the morrow.

Philippa Gregory is such a talented writer, whose historical novels are easy and entertaining to read. But she has surpassed herself in this novel, for the voice of Lady Margaret is truly remarkable: determined, shrewd, strong, certain and unconsciously funny:

It cannot be right that the York princess is a favorite at the court, the darling of her uncle, the sweetheart of her people, and I thrown down. God cannot really want these women to lead peaceful, happy lives, while my son is in exile.

The whole novel is infused with that voice, and it makes fascinating reading. If you have not read this novel and you love the period of the Wars of the Roses, then you are in for a treat.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS by Sherry Thomas

Romance is not usually a genre I read, because I tend to find it too formulaic. I am a reader of historical novels, because I love thinking about the past, and love the way that historicals allow the author so much scope. (It’s not surprising that I’ve become a historical novelist myself.)

Therefore, I stepped out of my comfort zone to read PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS by Sherry Thomas. Set in late nineteenth-century England, this romance explores the “courteous marriage” of Lord and Lady Tremaine, courteous because he lives in New York, while she lives in London. But when her solicitors contact his lawyers and demand an end to the marriage, he decides to extract a condition from her. She has to give him an heir before he will allow the marriage to end.

Of course this is outrageous, and for those of you who may be wondering why she would agree to such a thing, you have to understand that husbands ruled their wives even late into the nineteenth century, and thus he was demanding only what many would say is his “right”. She is a fiercely determined woman, who in the great Victorian tradition of martyrdom, sacrifices herself to what we would now call spousal rape for the sake of her love of a much younger man whom she hopes to marry.

As I said, I do not normally ready romances. But Ms. Thomas kept me glued to the pages of her debut novel. I think it was because the characters of Lord and Lady Tremaine vibrated with energy, so that they literally jumped off the pages of the novel. Quirky, opinionated, and not always kind to each other, they were nevertheless completely mesmerizing.

Why was this novel so successful? The author had taken the time and trouble to master her craft. The plot was taut and well-constructed. The rising tension was managed well, and the writing was gorgeous. The best recommendation for this novel that I can give is that I stayed up until 1pm reading it.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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THE KING’S GRACE by Anne Easter Smith

Joseph II’s admonition to Mozart – “too many notes, my dear Mozart” – could be applied to Anne Easter Smith’s third novel THE KING’S GRACE, where there are too many words.

How can a novel have too many words? Isn’t a novel made out of words? The answer is that a novel can have too many words if the words get in the way of the reader’s attempts to get through the story.

Most writers want readers to love their books. They want their readers to find it hard to put down their novels. But to do that, we all have to follow certain rules. One rule has to do with adjectives and adverbs: Do not stuff your sentences with them, because they make your writing weaker. You might think that writing that someone does something with “unabashed glee” is stylistically valid. After all, don’t those words convey exactly how someone does something? Maybe. But as in all things, it is a question of balance. You can use adverbs and adjectives, but sparingly. You cannot do this in every sentence   – as Ms. Smith has a tendency to do – otherwise you leave your readers feeling that they are fighting their way through a thicket of words.

The situation is even worse for historical novelists, particularly those who are writing about real people. What to do with all that research? Especially if you have put the time and effort into doing the research that Ms. Smith has.

The sad truth is that you have to get rid of most of it. Most readers don’t want to be told that the name ‘Mons’ means a city on a hill. They don’t want the names of minor characters thrust upon them, because they’re going to find their names hard to remember, and because the mass of Richards Cecilys Annes and Neds is confusing when you’re trying to work out who these people are. Most of all, readers hate information dumps because they slow the story down.

I understand that agents won’t accept manuscripts that start with prologues on the grounds that too many authors use them as information dumps. Unfortunately, Ms. Smith’s Prologue to THE KING’S GRACE illustrates these concerns. Apart from the head-hopping between young Jehan and his patroness Margaret of York, what strikes this reader is the density of the information that is being presented. It is too much to take in. Most agents advise authors to ditch the prologue in favor of slipping the information into the text in small doses, so that readers can absorb it without noticing how much they’re learning.

There are some good things about this novel. The character of Grace is well-drawn, and her development from a shy young girl to a strong woman convincingly told. I loved the scenes with Princesses Cecily and Bess, whose sisterly squabbles were very true to life. The men were less successful, being consistently handsome, glamorous and kind-hearted, whose formal addresses and hand-kisses always made the protagonist go weak at the knees. They didn’t feel alive to me.

As I’ve said elsewhere, Ms. Smith’s research is impeccable. I don’t know how she does it, but I gather (from what she says in her interviews), that she has a team of people to help her. Being a talented researcher doesn’t translate into being a great storyteller, the sort that keeps the reader glued to the page. This is Ms. Smith’s third novel, and I think her record as a storyteller is uneven. I thought her first novel – also about a humble girl who rises high – quite wonderful. I was less enthusiastic about her second novel, because I found the story of the supposed love-affair between Margaret of York and Anthony Woodville less interesting. This novel is not as good as Ms. Smith’s first, even though it is a similar kind of story about an innocent young cipher who reports on the goings-on of more famous folk. It should have been as good as A ROSE FOR THE CROWN. Instead, THE KING’S GRACE sank under the weight of its own research.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Publisher’s Marketplace

If you are seriously interested in publishing your novel, you should join Publisher’s Marketplace. For only $20 a month, you get daily listings of deals that agents make to sell forthcoming novels, as well as industry news and useful links.  You can use their website to track book sales, find agents, and read reviews. You can find reviewers, bookstores and bestsellers. (And, if you are an agent, you can use their recently unveiled Nielsen BookScan to track book sales.)

But for the unpublished author, the real benefit is that Publisher’s Marketplace opens the door into the publishing industry. And these days, it pays – literally – for writers to be savvy about book sales.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

Next: How to freelance for magazines.

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Book Review: DAUGHTER OF YORK by Anne Easter Smith

Writing historical fiction is not easy, especially if you are writing about a real person. You cannot assume that your readers are going to understand how hard it is, or the difficult choices you have to make.

DAUGHTER OF YORK is the story of Margaret of York (1446-1503), sister to Edward IV and wife to Charles, Duke of Burgundy. In Ms. Smith’s telling of this story, the narrative arc is hung almost entirely on the romantic attraction between Margaret, and Sir Anthony Woodville, brother to Edward’s Queen. So it is unfortunate that Ms. Easter Smith chose to focus on the fictional aspects of the love-story between Margaret of York and Anthony Woodville in her Author’s Note, because some of her readers in their Amazon Reviews said that they felt cheated. What they don’t understand is the paucity of documentation from the Middle Ages that tells you anything about people’s emotions, or psychological states. It turns out that Ms. Smith did have some evidence for thinking that there might actually have been a romantic relationship, the fact that Margaret did stay with Anthony at his estate in Kent during her visit to England in 1480. If I had been Ms. Smith, I would have re-written that paragraph in the Author’s Note to bring that fact forward.

So what about the novel itself? It opens very well, with beautifully rendered descriptions of the London skyline circa 1461, the music that was played during court ceremonies, and the clothes worn. I also found Anthony Woodville’s dialogue to be quite wonderful: “I commend your choice, Lady Margaret. Mine is Lancelot du Lac, for his gentleness, courtesy and courage. If I may be so forward as to tell you, my aim is to model myself upon him. You do know he was also the greatest fighters of all Arthur’s knights, do you not?”

Now I loved that snippet of dialogue, because I think that Ms. Smith has artfully created the illusion of Sir Anthony actually speaking to us from the fifteenth century. But I am British, and I was made to read Shakespeare when I was twelve. Most American readers are going to find that kind of language too turgid, and the lack of contractions too awkward to read. One of the reasons why Phillippa Gregory is so successful is because her fifteenth-century characters talk in language that is considerably more modern and slangy. Which means that there are far fewer bumps for today’s readers.

This is a long novel, at 557 pages, longer than most. It must be clear to readers that Ms. Smith has done an enormous amount of work on researching this novel. But telling a wonderful story that will grip readers and carry them along demands a very different set of skills. Ms. Smith tells us that she went to great lengths to whittle down the research and make it more palatable for her readers.  But I honestly think that this novel would have benefitted from even more whittling down, because it sags in places.

Despite its flaws, I think that anyone interested in this period should give it a try, if for no other reason than that the research is impeccable.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Book Review: A ROSE FOR THE CROWN by Anne Easter Smith

The best way of telling a well-worn story is to freshen it up by introducing a new point of view. Phillippa Gregory did this brilliantly with the OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, the Anne Boleyn story told from the point of view of her sister Mary. In her debut novel A ROSE FOR THE CROWN, Anne Easter Smith has told the Richard III story from the point of view of his sweetheart Kate Haute, who was also the mother of his illegitimate children.

Ms. Smith does a wonderful job of drawing the reader in by portraying her humble heroine as an outspoken and lively girl who tries the patience of her parents, and has no idea how lovely she is. We follow Kate Bywood from her humble home in Kent, to her adoption by the Hautes of Igtham Mote, through two unhappy marriages, to her meeting with the teenaged Richard, Duke of Gloucester (who later becomes King Richard III), to the three children she bore him, to the end of their affair when he married Anne Neville in 1472.

The best recommendation I can make for this book is that it is hard to put down. Ms. Smith has done meticulous research, but by focusing on humble folk, has worn her learning lightly. I also want to commend Joanna Maslowska Maher, who did the cover design for Simon & Schuster/Touchstone. It is one of the most beautiful covers I’ve seen, and sets the stage for the treat that is within.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Book Review: THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Mary Ann Shaffer’s THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY is a wonderful quirky book, that by turns is funny and tragic.

Juliet Ashton has survived the second world war. To cheer people up, she wrote a column under a pen-name. Now she wants to do something different. One day, a letter arrives from Guernsey, from someone asking for a small favor. Kind-hearted Juliet complies, and sends a note back in response. From such small beginnings, Ms. Shaffer spins a wonderful tale of wartime hardship, post-war optimism and the shadows left behind.

This is not to say that the book is completely faultless. Some readers will be put off by the fact that this novel is actually a collection of letters, and may wonder why the author chose to cast her story in this fashion. Telling a story like that is a wonderful way of dealing with POV problems. Every character has a chance to become the narrator of his or her own story, and it can be easier to bring out voice and personality when writing in first person, rather than limited 3rd.

Casting novels in letter-format also has a distinguished history. All those eighteenth century novels like PAMELA, CLARISSA, EVELINA and CECILIA were written in this way. In fact the novel got started because Samuel Richardson was publishing a book of how-to letters for the nouveau riches. Letter number 7 or 8 of this compendium was how to tell your parents that the squire is making unwanted advances. And so PAMELA was born.

Perhaps the other biggest problem with the novel is the revelation of the death of the main character, which occurs halfway through the book. Putting this revelation later would have enabled the author to use it to heighten tension. On the other hand, this character takes up a lot of psychic space, and so getting rid of her allows other characters to flourish.

But such objections are minor. If you allow yourself not to be put off by all the letters, I think you will find this novel a surprising treat.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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