Tag Archives: historical novels

I get scooped

There are two kinds of historical novels, those which are about a real person from the past, and those which are about fictional characters set into an historical context.  Although agents prefer novels written about real people, the risk you take in writing such a novel is that someone else may have the exact same idea, and beat you to publication.

This has happened to me.

As you know, I have been trying to sell my novel ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, which is about Cecily Neville, Richard III’s mother. On Wednesday, I learned that Anne Easter Smith is to come out with a novel about Cecily titled QUEEN BY RIGHT.

Needless to say, I was very upset. Right now, I am a complete unknown who has failed to get the attentions of an agent, even though I have been trying to do so for a year. How I would have loved it if I had been first!

But this is the difference between being published and unpublished. Ms. Smith has three novels under her belt, which have sold moderately well. She has an agent. She has an editor. She has a publishing house. All she has to do is write, and I have to say she has worked with commendable efficiency to get a 500-page historical out in 18 months.

So what am I going to do about this?

I am going to wait.

I am going to stop promoting ONE SEED.

I am going to start promoting another novel I’ve completed, HE MUST BE SOMEONE, set in 1921 in Georgetown Washington DC, and Berlin Germany, which is a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets that takes us into the life of a gifted violinist.

I am going to buy QUEEN BY RIGHT when it comes out on May 3rd, and read it. I will probably write a book review to post on this blog. And I will hope that her novel does well, because if it does then I will have an audience eager to read another novel about Cecily.  Stay tuned.

Image: A photo of the model Heather Hayes posing as Cecily Neville. Photographer: Whitney Arostegui.

–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.

2 Comments

Filed under About Cynthia, How to Publish Your Novel, News & Notes

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Book Review

I enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

After receiving numerous rejections from agents who’ve passed on ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the story of Richard III’s mother Cecily Neville, I decided that the time had come to try something different. Last Sunday, I stayed up until just past Midnight, so that I could submit ONE SEED for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The judges wanted not only the complete MSS, but also an author bio, a synopsis, an excerpt of between 3,000 to 5,000 words and a 300-word pitch.

I spent all day Sunday working away on that pitch, asking friends and family for their help, because that 300 words is all they read to start with, and is crucial to getting you into the second round. If you get there, then they’ll read your excerpt. My excerpt was exactly 5,000 words long and comprises the first two chapters of ONE SEED. Chapter One shows Cecily being sold into a marriage she doesn’t want at the tender age of nine. Chapter Two shows Cecily with her mother and other female relations, chatting, sewing and reading Chaucer. The point of that chapter is to ground the reader in who Cecily is and the influences that molded her before she became famous.

I hope they like reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. If they like the excerpt, you get into the quarter-final round, where they read the whole excerpt. I’m crossing my fingers that I get into the quarter-final round.  Stay tuned.

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

Next: What I’m learning in an online course in Self-Editing and Revision.

Leave a Comment

Filed under About Cynthia, How to Publish Your Novel, News & Notes

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Book Review

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under About Cynthia, Agents, How to Publish Your Novel

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.

2 Comments

Filed under About Cynthia, Agents, How to Publish Your Novel

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Book Review

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under About Cynthia, Agents, How to Publish Your Novel

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under About Cynthia, Agents, How to Publish Your Novel, Promoting Yourself

I sign up for Unicorn Writers’ Conference

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my goal at the end of 2010 was to try and find an agent for my first novel ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED. While I had received some expressions of interest, by December 2010, no agent had signed a contract with me. I decided that my goal for 2011 would be to try and get my second novel HE MUST BE SOMEONE to an agent, while continuing to send ONE SEED around.

HE MUST BE SOMEONE is a very different novel from ONE SEED. While ONE SEED is set during the period of the Wars of the Roses, and is the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother, SOMEONE is set in 1922, and is the story of a young woman who goes to Berlin to study violin (based upon the true story of my violin teacher).

When stylish widow, Angelina Pagano Miller, invites a potential suitor to supper one  evening, things don’t go as planned. To Angelina’s chagrin, the mysterious dark-eyed stranger finds her seventeen-year-old daughter Grace more appealing.  Angelina seeks revenge by trying to find out who her daughter’s suitor is, but her efforts are derailed by her sudden death.

Grace and her sister Violet are hustled out of town, and finally wind up in Berlin, where Grace, a gifted violinist, is accepted as a student by one of the foremost violin teacher of the day. Grace dreams of having a career as a soloist, but inadvertently acquires two other suitors. What should she do? Should she pursue a career as a violinist, or should she marry? And if she does marry, which one will it be?  It is hard for Grace to decide, as she feels drawn to each of her suitors in turn. Finally, she shocks her family (and creates a minor international incident) by disappearing on the eve of her marriage to her aristocratic suitor, Count von Lietzow.  Where is Grace, and why did she flee?

I needed to get some feedback on this MSS, and so I looked around for various writing conferences that occur during the spring, so that I would just have time to fix up the MSS to send off to Squaw Valley, which occurs in August. I stumbled upon The Unicorn Writer’s Conference, which is going to take place in a castle in Portland CT. What I liked about this conference is the fact not only do they have interesting sessions to attend, but for a little bit extra you can sign up for a one-on-one with a speaker, an agent and an editor.  I lost no time in signing up!  The conference takes place on Saturday April 9. Stay tuned.

Next:  Why writing conferences are important.

Image: triobrioso.com

–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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under About Cynthia, Conferences, How to Publish Your Novel, Promoting Yourself