Tag Archives: novels

THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield

I looked forward to reading Diane Setterfield’s novel THE THIRTEENTH TALE with some anticipation, because it sounded so intriguing. A reclusive author with a penchant for embroidering the truth, now read to tell all, bending the ear of a young woman with a tale of fascinating strangeness? It sounded wonderful.

So what caused me to put the novel down without finishing it, a thing I rarely do? In one sentence, I had trouble connecting with the characters. Why?

It is a tricky thing to write a novel about tales, because it makes the whole problem of engaging the reader much harder. The problem is with a shifting cast of characters that populate each story, meaning that the reader has less time to spend with then, and the author has less time to make them fully rounded personalities. Add to that the problem of narrative, in the sense of the stories being told by someone as opposed to being experienced directly, you run the risk of further distancing the reader.

To get around this problem, you either need quirky characters to tell your tales, as in Geoffrey Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES, or you need to write with a style so gorgeous, that the reader enjoys wallowing in a string of words, picked out with a poet’s flair and finesse.

Ms. Setterfield is a good stylist who writes readable prose, but it does not quite come up to the level of being gorgeous. And the character of Vida Winter, the narrator of these tales, while quirky enough to satisfy the most discriminating taste, did not have the voice to carry it off. Her narratives were curiously elegant and flat, lacking much of the personality we were told she had. And they left me cold.

So that is why I put the novel down. Which is a pity.

–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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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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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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Indie Presses

For those of you who would like to have the pleasure of hefting your novel in your hand as a codex of weight, extension and form, but don’t want to get sucked into the clanking machinery of big publishing conglomerates, Indies presses are the way to go. You might be surprised by how many of them there are. Because of the nature of the business, Indie presses tend to be niche enterprises. Some only publish poetry. Some want short stories or novellas. But there are some that do novels.

If you have written a novel that is set in a particular geographic region, you might want to consider contacting an Indie press in that region, because Indie presses like to cultivate local authors. For example, when I mentioned that my second novel HE MUST BE SOMEONE is set in Georgetown, Washington D. C., Ed Perlman, the owner of Entasis Press which is based in Washington D. C., visibly brightened.

You might wonder what is going to happen to Indie presses in light of recent turmoil in the publishing industry. I mean, aren’t books going the way of the dodo? And doesn’t that mean that their days are numbered? Not according to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) whose annual conference I attended at the beginning of February. Several small presses showed interest in digital apps such as Ampersand that display poetry on digital readers with the correct line breaks.

To read more, click here.

–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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How to survive pub board

If you have acquired an agent, sold your book to a publisher, and gained the attentions of its editor, you could be forgiven for thinking that all you need do is put your feet up, and have a chocolate truffle (or several).

Unfortunately not.

Your book could still be denied publication.

How can that be? you ask. After all, I have an agent and editor behind me now. So how can my novel fail to get published?

In two words: pub board.

What is pub board?  This is the meeting at which your editor presents your novel to the people at sales and marketing. Your editor has to convince sales that your book is actually going to sell. Your editor has to educate the people at marketing, so that they know what your book is about, in order to promote it.

And this is where your novel can fall down.

Is there anything you can do about this, as a writer?

  1. Know your market. Who is going to enjoy reading your book? Which genre does it belong to? Which novels does it compare with? Where does it fit on that bookshelf.
  2. Have a platform, because yes, in these days of chaos in the publishing industry, you will be required to help sell your book. Do you have a website? A blog? Are you an active participant on Facebook and Twitter?
  3. Take the sales people at your publishing house out to lunch or coffee, or find some way of visiting with them so that you can talk about your novel and answer any questions they may have. The more they know, the better job they will do at selling your book.

If you have any stories you would like to share about your own publishing ventures, please feel free to comment in the comment box.

–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: Publisher’s Marketplace

Image: www.touchstone-books.net

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I join a book club

Finally, I have joined a book club. I have been meaning to do so for years, but sometimes it is hard to get into established ones, who don’t necessarily want new members. And then I’ve been going to writing clubs rather than book clubs, because I’ve been trying hard to learn the craft of writing,

Joining a book club illustrates the notion that sometimes the best way to get what you want is not to go directly for it, but to meander off onto a side path. I joined writing clubs to get advice on my manuscripts, but have become more and more disappointed as my writing has gotten better. You see, most people who join writing clubs have half of a first manuscript they want to share. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But for a writer who has passed the beginning stage, what is actually needed is advice from a professional. And the only way to get that is to pay to take craft courses, not to rely on well-meaning amateurs.

I’ve recently discovered that book clubs can be a blessing for those interested in practicing the craft of writing. Since you can talk about anything as long as it is related to the book under discussion, there is no reason why you can’t slip in a few craft questions about character, story arc or anything else. And the best part of it is that the people you are asking are your potential readers. These people don’t necessarily know much about craft. But they do know if they like the book, and can often articulate why this is so in great detail.

If you are a writer who feels frustrated with your writing group, my advice is to consider joining a book club. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Next: How what you don’t know about publishing can kill your book.

–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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