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Friday’s Internet Goodies: Books Like Breathing

InternetGoodiesGrace is  25 years old and lives in NYC. She has a Bachelor’s in History and Women and Gender Studies from Pace University and a Master’s in Information and Library Science from Pratt Institute. She describes herself as a “fairly voracious” reader, and hopes eventually to find a job in the publishing industry as an editor or a publicist. Here is the rest of what she has to say about herself:

Most of my “fun” classes in undergrad were English Literature classes. I will read just about anything but I lean more towards romance (all forms…regencies, contemporary, highlander, paranormal, anything…) and YA. I tend to avoid science fiction and mysteries unless it is a very unique book or of particular interest to me. My favorite author of all time is Jane Austen. Her books are my salvation. I read them over and over again. I also love Jane Austen sequels. I have over 100 in my bookshelves and they will all be reviewed here eventually.

Grace accepts  review requests of both print and e-books:

I do accept a very limited number of self-published titles mainly of the romance persuasion. Preference is always given to books in my preferred genres. as well as to authors and publishers I love and have worked with before.
BooksLikeBreathingGrace’s preferred genres are: Romance, especially
  • Historical (esp. Regencies, Highlander, Victorian, Irish, Pirate…anything really)
  • Contemporary
  • Western
  • Paranormal
  • Romantic Suspense
  • Steampunk-Just read my first one and…so good.
  • I have a particular love for romances with particularly bad rakes and rogues. The badder the better.

She also likes:

  • Young Adult (mainly paranormal romance)
  • Historical Fiction (limited)
  • Contemporary Fiction
  • Horror(limited)
  • Memoirs/Biography (limited)
  • Chick Lit
  • Cookbooks especially about desserts—I am a baker and will bake and review a recipe from the book with photos.

Grace doesn’t accept:

  • Science fiction
  • Self-help
  • Any type of religious or political book
  • Mysteries or Thrillers
  • Straight fantasy
  • anything “mob” related. It’s just not my schtick and quite frankly, as an Italian-American, I find most of it offensive.

BooksLikeBreathingThe most striking thing about her very detailed policy on books she reviews came in the form of a special note about self-published and Indie authors. Here is what she says:

Note about Self-Published and Indie Authors– I used to review these books as often as traditionally published books but now, given the rather hostile climate, I will accept a very VERY limited amount of self-published books for review because I am not ready to close that door completely…yet. I will accept books within my genres of preference only–there are no exceptions to this. I will also be more cautious about the authors I do accept. The books I currently have will be reviewed. I am just not willing to take the risk of being attacked if I don’t like a book or don’t get to it quick enough. This is a hobby and it should be a fun one but some authors seem to forget that.

It’s too bad that some self-published and indie authors have soiled the nest for the rest of us who are struggling to promote our own books. People who write books should always remember that their work is for public consumption, and be prepared for a certain number of people who are just not going to like what we write. That is life. We all have to accept it, be polite about it, and move on.
To find Grace’s site, point your browser to: http://bookslikebreathing.blogspot.co.uk/

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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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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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Websites for workshopping your manuscripts

It is so hard to get quality feedback these days. Editors and agents are too busy to give it to you, and so you are forced to rely on the good nature of friends or relatives, or the people you happen to run into when attending a writing group.

My experience with writing groups has been mixed. In the beginning, when i was a brand-new writer, I found them enormously helpful, because I had so much to learn. Now that I have 2 novel-length MSS under my belt, I find them less helpful, because most of the people who show up are typically beginners with an incomplete first draft that needs some TLC. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you are a more advanced writer, you need more help than that kind of person is typically able to give you.

I’ve written before about joining book clubs, and how helpful that can be. I now want to mention a couple of sites that are designed to help writers workshop MSS.

The first one is Critters, which is for “serious writers of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror” to quote their website. To read more, click here.

The second one is Historical-Fiction-Writers-Critique-Group, which is a Yahoo! group. To belong to this group, you have to be extremely dedicated, because you are required to critique 3 MSS a month. This is a group I would love to belong to, but don’t because I can’t make this commitment. However, if you are in a position to do this, and you have a completed MSS that is ready for feedback that is a historical, you should definitely check it out. Click here to find out more.

Image: WordPress.com

–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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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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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.


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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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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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