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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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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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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.

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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 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 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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Writers Conferences

Writing conferences are important, not only because you have a chance to network and meet people, but also because you may learn interesting things. When I think about going to a conference, I first check the faculty or the list of speakers.  What is each person’s bio, what have they written, would they be the kind of writer who might understand my WIP? Then I look at the sessions. Is there anything that I particularly need to learn, or do I know it already? Is there going to be time to talk to the speaker? Are there special sessions where you can meet an agent or an editor? Lastly, I look at practical things like travel, accommodation and date.

Where can you find out about writing conferences?  Check out the Shaw Guide to Writers Conferences, Poets and Writers, and Writers Digest.

If you have been to any interesting conferences, feel free to comment below.

Image: aliceosborn.com

Next: I participate in my first webinar

–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 do a photo-shoot

After getting that feedback from an agent, I decided to celebrate by doing a photo-shoot of Cecylee to make my novel seem more real. The plan was to shoot some photos that I would like to see as the book cover for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED.

I found Heather Hayes, a talented model who doesn’t just stand there with a blank stare. This lady has control over the expressions on her face. I thought she would be perfect for Cecylee. She found a friend, Whitney Arostegui, a photographer in New York. I found a gown and a wig, and we set off one glorious fall day to photograph in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York.

I was thrilled with the images I received a week later. My goal is to make the cover of the novel look so sumptuous that people will want to pick it up. I hope you agree.

Next: I register for the Unicorn Writers Conference

–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: WOLF HALL

Hilary Mantel’s ninth novel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. WOLF HALL is most of the Anne Boleyn story told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister in 1530s England.

I didn’t say that it was the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, because Mantel doesn’t really tell us much about his transformation from street urchin to statesman. Apart from the famous opening scene where we meet him at the age of fifteen being given a brutal beating by his father, we hear very little about the protagonist until the year 1529, when his mentor Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, is being stripped from power.

That’s twenty-nine years that encompass his flight from England, his roaming around the continent of Europe, his marriage to Liz Wykys, the birth of his children, not to mention how he met Wolsey and was mentored by him.

Admittedly, the historical record is probably sparse. But if an author is interested in building up character, especially the motivations of the protagonist, it might have been worth while to sketch in these years, if only to show more clearly who Thomas Cromwell was.

There are some good things about this novel. Mantel has a ear for casual speech, and an eye for memorable detail. Her portrait of 16th-century England is grittily real, and I am sure these qualities impressed the Man Booker committee.

But there are some odd things about this novel, odd because Mantel is a experienced writer who had written eight novels before she started this one.

  1. Why did she write in limited third rather than first person? Why the confusing “he” that so many reviewers mention, the “he” that means that Thomas Cromwell is speaking, that could have been rendered much more clearly if it had been changed to “I”. I have never read a novel, where I have had to re-read so many of the sentences because I was so confused about who was talking. This was an easy-to-fix issue, and I am surprised that Mantel left the reader hanging in this fashion.
  2. Where is the narrative arc? This story is rife with tension, yet there is very little drama in this novel. The tone is quiet, matter-of-fact. Perhaps that is what Mantel intended, but the novel would have been much more readable if the drama had actually been dramatized.

Despite all the positive reviews, my experience was not positive. Although there were patches in the novel that were tremendously interesting (descriptions of Queen Katherine, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn stick in my mind) the whole work seemed impressionistic and grey, rather than vibrant and full of tension.

For these reasons, I would not recommend this novel.

–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) 2010. All rights reserved.

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