Tag Archives: Fiction

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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Watch out for those subtle POV mistakes

In an earlier post, I mentioned that subtle ‘tells’ can show up, ruining your prose style, and pulling your reader out of her fictive dream. Today, I’m going to talk about subtle problems with point of view (POV).

We have all been told never to change POV in the middle of a scene, or head-hop. This mistake is easy to avoid, because you just have to remember to stick to one POV per chapter (at least).

Like unwanted ‘tells’ that show up in your prose style, unwanted POV problems can surface as well. These mistakes can be avoided by writing in first person POV. But if you need to write in limited third, then you really need to keep an eye on these problems.

In the following example, I am going to highlight the POV mistakes, by putting them in ALL CAPS:

She flinched. “How can you say that to me?”

“Very easily,” snarled Rossi.  “I can say that to a woman who has no regard for her own reputation, or her daughters’. Puttana! Slut!” he spat.

Angelina recoiled and WENT WHITE. Memories flooded back. Something terrible had happened the last time she’d heard that word. Unbidden tears came to her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, fumbling for a handkerchief.

She stiffened. The last thing she wanted was his pity. She waved away his handkerchief and continued walking with him down the street, arm in arm, as if they’d just had a lover’s tiff. A sudden thought occurred to her: “You’re Italian aren’t you?”

“I speak four languages,” he replied.  “Italian, German, French, and English.  How do you think I got into Georgetown?”

“You told me you were born in this country,” she remarked, her cheeks GOING PINK. “But no non-native speaker pronounces that word the way you do, with the correct intonation.”

Now, I’m going to rewrite the passage, taking care of these mistakes. I’ll highlight the correction in ALL CAPS:

She flinched. “How can you say that to me?”

“Very easily,” snarled Rossi.  “I can say that to a woman who has no regard for her own reputation, or her daughters’. Puttana! Slut!” he spat.

Angelina recoiled and HER BLOOD WENT COLD. Memories flooded back. Something terrible had happened the last time she’d heard that word. Unbidden tears came to her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, fumbling for a handkerchief.

She stiffened. The last thing she wanted was his pity. She waved away his handkerchief and continued walking with him down the street, arm in arm, as if they’d just had a lover’s tiff. A sudden thought occurred to her: “You’re Italian aren’t you?”

“I speak four languages,” he replied.  “Italian, German, French, and English.  How do you think I got into Georgetown?”

“You told me you were born in this country,” she remarked, her cheeks GROWING WARM. “But no non-native speaker pronounces that word the way you do, with the correct intonation.”

Next: I get scooped.

Image: Houses in Georgetown, Washington DC. Personal collection. HE MUST BE SOMEONE is set there.

–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: AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld’s AMERICAN WIFE is the fictionalized story of Laura Bush. It is entertaining, funny and tragic, and shows off Ms. Sittenfeld’s pitch perfect voice for both Charlie Blackwell (the George Bush character) and Alice Lindgren (the Laura Bush character).

The novel is in four parts.

  1. 1272 Amity Lane, takes us from 1954, when Alice is eight years old to 1963, when she is seventeen and has a tragic accident that changes her forever. This part of the novel is a gripping read, because Ms. Sittenfeld does such a wonderful job of setting up Alice and her family in their ordinary everyday lives, making the tragedy that follows more shocking.
  2. 3859 Sproule Street is the story of how Alice and Charlie fell in love in the summer of 1977, and married in the Fall of that year. Here, Ms. Sttenfeld’s ear for speech is deployed  brilliantly in conveying the Charlie Blackwell character. There is a lot of graphic sex, and even a description of a male body part.
  3. 402 Maronee Drive is about the problems that occur in Alice and Charlie’s marriage, especially over the issue of Charlie’s alcoholism. Set in 1988, it tells how Charlie finally comes to grips with his demons when he discovers religion, after Alice threatens to leave him.
  4. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue deals with the threat to expose a secret from Alice’s past if she will not intervene in a Supreme Court Justice nomination. It is set in 2007, during President Blackwell’s second term, and conveys very well the issues and turbulence of that time when the US was fighting a war on two fronts.

I don’t think that there is much doubt that Parts 1 and 2 of the novel are stronger than parts 3 and 4, mainly because the tension in the first part of the novel is better handled.

In Part 3, the dramatic tension comes from Alice’s threat to leave Charlie, so the reader wants to know who is going to bend first, Alice or Charlie. However, Ms. Sittenfeld does not highlight that tension, she merely presents a narrative that tells what happened. Perhaps this could have been remedied by changing point of view, with Charlie telling the story rather than Alice. That way, the reader would have been closer to Charlie’s  struggles, and would have understood why he was so fearful of Alice leaving him, and why he became religious.

In Part 4, the tension has to do with whether a figure from Alice’s past is going to expose her before the press. For some reason, Ms. Sittenfeld did not milk this for tension, and the denouement was too abrupt.

These faults should not prevent you from reading this novel. The first half of it shows a huge emotional range, which makes me hope that Curtis Sittenfeld will write something like it again.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Watch out for those ‘tells’ in your prose style

“Show, don’t tell,” is a common thing that you hear writing instructors say to their students during workshops on craft. And there are obvious things you can do to heed that advice, such as putting all of the emotional high points of a novel into scenes, rather than summarizing them.

But there are subtle ways in which tells show up in prose style, that also need to be watched. Today, I am going to share what some of those problems are, something I didn’t realize about my own style until it was pointed out to me in the Self-Editing and Revision course I’m taking from Writers Digest.

Here is an example of what I mean. I have put the ‘tells’ in block caps:

Dominick Rossi had fought in the Great War from April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, until April 1919, when he’d finally returned home to Chicago. His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away  unpleasant thoughts, TELLING himself that he must  help free the world of the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around, NOTING that dusk was beginning to fall, and REMINDED HIMSELF that he was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Here is how I re-wrote the excerpt, getting rid of the ‘tells’:

His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away such unpleasant thoughts. He must help to free the world from the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around. Dusk was beginning to fall. He was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Why would you want to do this? The problem with too many ‘tells’ is that it has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters. If the point of the craft you deploy is to make your novel un-put-downable, you don’t want to do that. This is why you look over your writing and eliminate these mistakes.

I am very grateful to the instructor for pointing out these subtle errors in my prose style.

Next: I participate in a self-publishing webinar.

Image: The elegant spire of Healy Hall, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Dominick Rossi is staring at that tower in the scene I excerpted.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Book Review: INHERITANCE by Lan Samantha Chang

Lan Samantha Chang is a well-regarded writer who is also the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop.  Her first novel INHERITANCE is the story of one family’s journey as they navigate the vicissitudes of 20th-century china, from the rule of the Emperors, through the first republic, to the second world war, to exile and communism.

The story centers around two sisters, one fierce and strong who represents China, and the other quiet and fey, who represents Taiwan. As the story goes along, it gradually becomes clear that the quiet sister (Yinan) is having an affair with her sister’s husband Li Ang.

The story’s strength lies in its resonant descriptions. Ms. Chang begins her novel with a powerfully-described prologue that shows the sister’s mother just before her death visiting a temple to ask for help. The descriptions of the ruined pagoda, the mysterious, slightly sinister nun, and the stillness of the lake convey the spirit of quiet hopelessness that suffuses the attitudes and expectations of the sisters’ mother Chanyi.

Given that Ms. Chang is such a good writer, it follows that I should have remained engaged with her main characters. But that is not true. I don’t think this is simply because the story is written in limited 3rd rather than 1st person. I think it is because Ms. Chang’s writing style incorporates too many “tells” that have a distancing effect. To give one example:

“Junan found herself unable to speak. She opened her mouth and closed it. Despite her preparations, the news had taken her by surprise. Finally, she thought of a question: “When will the wedding be?” (Page 71, paperback edition.)

This is beautifully written, but it leaves me cold. Chang is describing the moment when Junan learns that her fey younger sister has actually landed a suitor.  Perhaps it could have been re-written this way:

“Junan couldn’t speak. She opened her mouth and closed it. Had Yinan actually acquired a suitor? It seemed impossible. The thought gave her a strange sensation in the pit of her stomach. Aloud she said: “When will the wedding be?”

I am not claiming that I write better than Lan Samantha Chang (!), but I am saying that we live in a sea of sensations, and that we have to convey that when writing about our characters as a way of drawing the reader into our stories.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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I get a free critique of the first 3 pages of SOMEONE

One of the benefits of signing up for a Writers Digest Webinar, is that you get a bonus after it has ended. The first webinar I took allowed us to send in either a query letter of the first 300 words of our manuscripts. This webinar, titled  HOW TO HOOK AN AGENT, offered to send the agent leading the webinar the first three pages of your novel-in-progress. Accordingly, I sent in the first 3 pages of my second novel, titled HE MUST BE SOMEONE.

Set in 1922, it is a coming-of-age story about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. When Dominick Rossi arrives at Georgetown University to study at the School for Foreign Services, he dreams of meeting his aunt and three half-sisters. But Rossi’s actions lead to an unexpected death, and a forced separation from the woman he loves.

To my great surprise, I received a reply from the agent about a day after I sent in my pages. She liked them, but she also told me something useful. She said that my style of writing led me to do too much telling, which had the effect of distancing the reader.  This helped me to understand what it was about my writing that the other agent “didn’t love”.

Next: I enter the Amazon novel context

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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I get rejected by an agent and participate in another webinar

As I said in a recent post, I was awaiting a verdict from yet another agent on ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, who promised me she’d get back to me after holidays. I finally heard from her January 8. She passed. She told me that it wasn’t right for her because “she didn’t love the writing.”

If you are an unpublished novelist, you know how frustrating this is. There you are, working so hard on your art, faced with an agent who is demanding an exclusive. You give it to them, and honorably keep your side of the bargain so that no other agent sees it, while they take their sweet time. Then you get dismissed with a one-liner.

What did I do? I swallowed my bile, wrote to the agent, and thanked her. Then I signed up for another webinar given by Writers Digest. These webinars are not cheap (they cost $89), enough so that I nearly didn’t sign up. But I was very pleased with the quality of the first one, so I decided to sign up for this one, entitled HOW TO HOOK AN AGENT WITH YOUR FIRST PAGES. The speaker was a newish agent who was actively seeking new work. Here are 4 tips that I thought were important:

  1. Be careful with the quality of writing in your query letter, because the agent will take it as an accurate representation of the quality of writing in your novel.
  2. Prologues are a real turnoff, so don’t do one unless you have a very good reason for it.
  3. Readers hate data dumps, so when introducing your characters, go lightly on descriptions. Instead, focus on their thoughts and actions.
  4. Perhaps the most important, if you’re having trouble getting your novel off the ground, write down what the inciting incident is and start over. What is an inciting incident? In ONE SEED it’s Cecily’s betrothal to Richard, Duke of York. In SOMEONE it is Mr. Rossi’s moving to Georgetown to study at Georgetown University. In THE HEIR it is when Count von Lietzow hears that Grace has moved back to Berlin. You get the idea.

To find out more about Writers Digest webinars, click here.

Next: I get a free critique of the first 3 pages of SOMEONE.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Book Review: SIGNORA DA VINCI by Robin Maxwell

SIGNORA DA VINCI is the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother Caterina. Hardly anything is known about her, only that her name was Caterina and that Leonardo was taken from her arms shortly after he was born.

Out of that lack of evidence, Robin Maxwell has spun a remarkable tale that vividly portrays life in northern Italy during the Renaissance. But the novel is uneven. It begins very well, with Caterina as the young daughter of an apothecary, who falls in love with a young nobleman (Piero da Vinci), bears his illegitimate child, and then has that child snatched from her.  All of that was beautifully rendered.

The book lost me when we got to Florence and Caterina dresses as a man in order to be able to save her son, has an affair with Lorenzo Il Magnifico, and gets involved in Italian politics and heresy.  There were many reasons for this:

  1. The second part of the novel deteriorated into a data dump of Florentine politics, with not enough attention paid to character and motivation.
  2. I never quite got why Caterina needed to dress as a man to save her son.  After all, he was 16 nearly 17 when she showed up in Florence as an apothecary named ‘Cato’. In that day and age, he would have been considered an adult. And what 17 year old wants his mother hanging around, especially one who is cross-dressing?
  3. The love-affair with Lorenzo seemed contrived. If any of you have looked at his portrait (he’s the guy with the broken nose), you get a strong sense that this is someone you don’t mess with. So his characterization as a gentle, sweet soul didn’t ring true to me.

I hated the ending where Caterina sails off into the sunset on a boat headed for ‘India”, (really America), because it just seemed so corny. I would have preferred something more down-to-earth.

However, the ending shouldn’t stop you from trying this book. It is vivid, it is beautifully rendered (at least in the beginning), and if you like reading about Italian politics circa 1490, and don’t mind suspending disbelief, this is the book for you.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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I get a FREE critique of the first 300 words of ONE SEED

As I said in my last post, I recently participated in a webinar given by a well-known agent, who has a reputation for looking after her authors. As part of the fee we paid, we were eligible to have this agent critique the first 300 words of our novels. So I sent in the very beginning of ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED.

To my delight, the agent responded within 2 days. Her response was that she wasn’t sure that my protagonist (Cecily Neville) was enough of a name to be able to sell books. On the other hand, she did have some interest as the mother of Richard III. What would make a difference for this agent was how good the writing was.

I would like this agent to represent my novel, but I’m taking her warning about the quality of the writing to heart. I’ve decided to explore some other avenues first before I submit it to her. Stay tuned.

Next: I get rejected by an agent and participate in another webinar.

Image: Castle Raby, near Durham England, where Cecily Neville spent part of her girlhood.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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I participate in a webinar

As you know, I am seeking representation for my novel ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED. I’ve been sending it to agents, and haven’t had much luck, when I noticed that Writers Digest was giving a webinar about how to attract an agent, given by a widely-respected agent who has a reputation for looking after her authors.

So I decided to participate in this webinar to see if there was anything I could learn from it.  There were several things that the agent advised us all to do:

  1. Be yourself. Don’t do a hard sell, because unless you are very good at doing it, it will come across as a hard sell.
  2. Don’t talk about all the writing you did in a corporation, or as an academic, because that isn’t relevant. In your query letter you really want to focus on writing you have done that is relevant to the novel you are trying to pitch.
  3. It sounds obvious, but DON’T pitch an agent a novel that is exactly the same as one they have sold, because it will be competition for that novel. Instead, find an agent who has sold something that is similar, but that won’t compete.
  4. Try to get a feel of where your novel will sit on a bookshelf in a bookshop.
  5. Lastly, be prepared to do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes time to sell your novel. You may have to hire a publicist. You definitely want to have a following. Agents will be asking you these questions, so if you are not comfortable marketing yourself, then find someone to help you.

Next: I get a free critique of my first 300 words.

Image: peaceatwork.org

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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