Monday, April 7, 2014

Writing Process: A Blog Hop

Christopher M. Cevasco invited me to a fun bloghop where I answer four questions about my writing process and tag another author to do the same. Christopher has had stories published in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, A Field Guide to Surreal Botany, Shades of Blue and Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War, and Zombies: Shambling Through the Ages. He's seeking representation for a historical thriller about Lady Godiva (so cool).

Without further ado, here are the questions:

What are you working on?

VOODOO QUEEN, a novel of Marie Laveau. She was the greatest voodoo priestess who ever lived and ruled New Orleans through her power and reputation for most of the 19th century. Although she is shrouded in legend and mystery, more research has been done about her than most people realize. I plan on writing a thorough and accurate account of her life (with a generous serving of magic, of course), which has never been done before.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

I have an intense interest in world religions and spirituality. My favorite books include Pope Joan, Mother of the Believers, and Peony in Love, for instance. I like to tell stories not how I think they happened, but how believers say they happened. There's no doubt or skepticism in my books. This makes them both magical and meaningful.

Why do you write what you do?

My work has to have a deeper meaning for me. I write what I find interesting, and therefore most of my books run on a theme (mysticism and spirituality). I believe most authors follow a pattern whether they try to or not. 

I do have another pen name - Catherine Swift - and she writes romances with a twist. I don't know why I write that stuff. Her books are less serious because they're less meaningful, so they might not go anywhere. 


How does your writing process work?

I wish I could give you a straight answer! It completely depends on the book. I once wrote a coherent rough draft in 18 days, and it's my best work. VOODOO QUEEN, on the other hand, has caused me a lot of grief and I was stuck on it for almost a year. I don't see myself finishing it any time soon.

There's only one thing all my books have in common: OUTLINES. The better my outline, the better the book. I write dozens of pages of notes on plot, themes, and characters before I even sit down to write. 

I like to get as much research done before I even start my book. Once my rough draft is over, I do most of my research over again because it isn't until that point that I fully understand how much research the book needs. I try not to do any research while working on the first draft, however, because it's easy to drown myself in it and not get any writing done.

And now to tag the brilliant author who agreed to participate in this blog hop:

Kris Waldherr is an author, illustrator, and designer whose art has been exhibited in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is the acclaimed author of DOOMED QUEENS, THE LOVER’S PATH, and THE BOOK OF GODDESSES, and best-selling creator of The Goddess Tarot. Her upcoming publications include her debut novel THE LILY MAID. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, anthropologist Thomas Ross Miller, and their young daughter.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What Will You Read This Year?

I didn't used to be selective about what I read, but I also didn't used to be a mom. Now my time is much more precious and I want to make sure my year is spent reading good quality stuff. 

To keep focused and to avoid junk, I made a list on Goodreads of what I plan on reading this year. It was hard to narrow the list down, but I was able to keep it to 28 books. Hopefully I'll read more, but I think twenty-eight is a reasonable goal.

Which leads me to ask: What books do you plan on reading this year?

Here are the books I decided on. Let me know if you've read any of them and if you liked them or hated them.


The Last Queen of India

Becoming Josephine: A Novel

Friday, December 27, 2013

Why I Don't Hate the Market, Even After it Ruined My Dreams

I'm not going to pretend that my shelved book SACRED FIRE is flawless. However, the reason it didn't take off wasn't due to a flaw. Agents and betas all told me the same thing; the writing is strong, but the market isn't buying Ancient Rome.

On the one hand, it's totally unfair. You would think that every quality book should have the chance to be successful. If it's well written, people will read it, right?

On the other hand, I can't blame the market for not reading Ancient Rome. I don't read Ancient Rome either. Part of the reason I wrote Sacred Fire was that I wanted to do something from that time period that was fresh and original, something that focused on religion instead of war and politics. I've read books in that time period I really liked, but it's exhausting to read about a culture so different from our own, so I can only read so many of them.

I can't be mad at the market for not reading books I don't read, I can't be mad at editors for not publishing books that don't get read, and I can't be mad at agents for not taking on books that don't interest editors.

(Of course, if there were more Ancient Roman books I like such as Stephanie Dray and Kate Quinn, I'd probably read that time period more. Now we're getting into a chicken-or-the-egg argument.)

A friend of mine had to shelve a book that I thought was fantastic for the same reason; it was Dystopian, and people have lost interest in dystopian stories. She was able to get her next book published because it was sci-fi. 

At first I was irritated that people have lost interest in such a fascinating genre so quickly. Then I realized, I've lost interest too. I took a Utopian/Dystopian literature class in college, I read Hunger Games, and I read Matched. I might read Divergent because everyone says it's great, but for the most part, I'm not likely to pick up another Dystopian book unless it's extremely original and popular.

To sum up, it certainly sucks for writers that they need to keep up with a mass of ever-changing tastes. It takes years to write and publish a novel and much less time for a fad to go out of style. Shouldn't art speak for itself? Shouldn't quality be the only thing that matters? Isn't it cruel to turn your nose up at a good book?

But you can't force readers to buy something they don't want to read, and I can't be mad at readers for not buying something I probably wouldn't read either.

It is what it is.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

When to Give Up on Your First Book


It's time for me to shelve Sacred Fire and move on. This was an impossibly hard decision to make, and one I've been battling for years. I just can't keep pushing for this book. I got 85 rejections on this round of querying (that's not including the rejections I got from other rounds), and I had a total of six agents look at the book and say no.

My decision has nothing to do with the numbers, though. The truth is, I'm not going to pursue this book any further because I don't want to. I have zero desire to rewrite any of it. Other projects are more appealing to me. In the end, that's all that really matters.

At the last Historical Novel Society Conference, an agent said something that's been burned in my memory. I told her about my book, and I could tell right away she was unimpressed. Then she asked me how long I've been working on it. I told her six years. She gave me this look like I was the biggest fool on the planet. "Why?" she asked.

The question caught me completely by surprise. Because of the American Dream, I wanted to say. Because you can do anything you set your mind to. Because you should never give up. Because if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?

Once I read a blog article where the author talked about when to shelve your first book and move on to the second. She said many of her friends regretted how much time they spent trying to make their first manuscript work, but none of them regretted putting it away to start a new novel. 

For a long time, I've asked myself if I would eventually regret putting so much work into Sacred Fire. I'm not sure if I have any regrets. All I know for sure is I won't regret moving on to my second.

Maybe I'll pick it up again someday, perhaps when the market wants Ancient Rome or after I've made a name for myself with a different novel. Until then, up on the shelf it goes.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting Past the Dreaded First Chapter

In my last post, I talked about how I was stuck on my book Voodoo Queen for ages. The first reason was I couldn't decide on a narrator. The second was I couldn't decide on a first chapter. 

The first chapter isn't super important... at first. Once you start revising, it's kind of a super huge deal.

I took the classic advice and wrote everything else I could until the first chapter just came to me. This is good for getting past a hurdle that could prevent you from starting your book. But if you're like me and you wrote 80,000 words and still don't know your first chapter... well, that's a problem.

What's the big deal? Sure, I had a lot of content, but without at least knowing where my novel started, I couldn't build a narrative flow. My hero needs a call to action, plot twists, goals, challenges, etc., and all these things need to happen at the right time and in the right order. If I don't know whether to start the book when my MC is a child, an adult, on her death bed, etc., then I can't properly plan how the book will develop.

Two years ago I wrote a blog post on the secret to knowing where to start your book and where to end it. I compared the story to a rolling rock, and every plot twist changes the direction of the rock. You start your book as late as you can in the story and end it as soon as you can while still making sense (don't write when you know which direction the rock will go). This didn't help me, unfortunately, because I didn't have enough of a foundation to make the rock roll in the first place.

Then I saw this video where an author says to start your book on the day everything changes. It was a light bulb moment for me. The first chapter shouldn't be for the sole purpose of setting the scene, introducing your characters, or showing an example of your MC's everyday life. Don't begin with a character waking up in the morning, brushing his teeth, and driving to work. The first chapter should be the first plot twist.

All I had to do was decide my character's call to action. In order to know that, I had to know 1. the character's main goal, and 2. what inspires that character to attain that goal or what first hinders that goal. Once I figured that out, deciding how to write my first chapter was easy.

Friday, October 18, 2013

How to Choose the Right Narrator

I've been stuck on my novel VOODOO QUEEN for longer than I care to admit. Now, I am officially unstuck. Light the fireworks and open the sparkling cider, this is a cause for celebration!

My biggest challenge was finding the right narrator. It seemed like there were a million options and none of them fit just right.

Donald Maas says in his brilliant book Writing the Breakout Novel that the narrator should be the person who changes the most. Orson Scott Card says it should be the person who hurts the most. Problem is, all my characters do a lot of changing and hurting, so their advice isn't really helpful for me personally.

A friend of mine said I should flip a coin. By that time I was so fed up with my dilemma that I decided leaving it to chance was the only option.

I got a hat and wrote the options on pieces of paper. Right as I was about to pick one out, I looked through my notes one last time to see if I could glean any last-minute inspiration. I happened upon the Conflict/Tension section. 

This is what I read:


Main Conflict: Can Marie make a difference for good?
-          Mini-goals: help others
o   physically, emotionally, and spiritually
-          This entails:
o   Raising children
o   Caring for the sick
o   Bringing people to the Catholic Church
o   Being a voodoo leader/practitioner
o   Giving advice
Issues:
-          Her children keep dying
-          She loses confidence because of her lost children and failed marriage
-          Racial and religious persecution (laws, treatment)
-          People fear and hate her
-          Her own mortality (needs to leave a queen in her place)
-          She’s fighting against death itself and doesn’t always win
-          Charlatans are hurting people with their false claims.

Public Stakes: Depict New Orleans African American culture at its most beautiful and ask, can Marie save all of this?

Notice anything interesting? All the conflict revolves around one person. Every other character has struggles, but they'll all subplots, and the conflict in those subplots all affect my main character: Marie Laveau.

It didn't make any sense for the narrator to be one of Marie's daughters, or her grandmother, or even for her to share the spotlight with any of those people. VOODOO QUEEN is her story, and no one else ought to tell it.

When Maass says the narrator should change the most and Card says the narrator should hurt the most, they're both saying the same thing in different ways; the action should revolve around your main character. He/she should be in the center or not just the story, but the purpose of the story. 

In the end, I chose my narrator by asking myself two questions:

  1. What is this story trying to accomplish?
  2. Which character can best accomplish this?
I had wanted to do something unprecedented with my book, but in the end, that wasn't the best way to tell it. Plain old third-person single POV will be the best thing for my story, and that's what I'm going to do.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Authors Who Don't Understand Their Characters


One of the greatest challenges to writing historical fiction is understanding your characters. People who lived in a different time and place had completely different morals, concerns, challenges, and goals. 

Many authors think they can read a list of facts, plug them in to an already designed plot, and that's all it takes to make an accurate story. It's not enough. We have to get down to the heart of why our characters did what they did and why they cared about the things they cared about.

This topic is on my mind because of a fictional book I'm reading about Marie Laveau, the main character of my WIP. (I won't name names.) It's clear the author did her research into 19th century New Orleans, Marie, and voodoo.

However, she doesn't seem to have an understanding of voodoo as a religion. Since voodoo was Marie's life, this means she does not have an understanding of her main character, and therefore couldn't write an accurate story.

For instance, there's a scene in the book when, during a ceremony, a priest rips a live chicken apart and Marie eats the heart raw, wiping the blood off her mouth afterwards. (Gross.)

I can see why she put that in the book. Voodoo ceremonies usually include blood sacrifices, and chickens are used in many of their rituals. Reports of ceremonies in 19th century New Orleans include details about the gruesome deaths of chickens. But there's a reason behind these actions, and if the author doesn't understand them, it seems that Marie and her followers are disgusting and barbaric.

First off, you can't trust anything written about voodoo during Marie's lifetime. Racial and religious persecution was so rife that you have to take everything they say with a grain of salt... or perhaps a cup of salt.

Here's what the author doesn't understand:

Voodoos use chickens as spiritual sponges. They're meant to soak up impurities. I saw a video from Africa of women rubbing chickens along an initiate's body to cleanse her as preparation to becoming a priestess. Afterwards, they break the neck of the chicken and then dispose of it; since the chicken is full of negative spiritual energy, it's considered unsafe to eat.

These chickens shouldn't be confused with blood sacrifices. Voodoos believe the spirits they worship need to be fed, and since blood is the source of life, it is the most nourishing of offerings. They might kill an animal such as a goat, drain the blood, and ceremoniously offer the blood to the spirits. Afterwards, they cook the animal and eat it. 

In another video I watched, a priestess explained that everyone drains blood from animals before they eat them. Most people just throw it away; voodoos offer it to altars. Why do people make such a big deal out of it?

Non-believers in 19th century New Orleans saw what seemed to them a violent, bloody ceremony and judged it to be barbaric and evil. The author I described earlier, who didn't want to depict her main character as barbaric, wrote that she hated the ceremony and even went so far as to say she hated most voodoo worship. You can't become the most renowned leader of a world-wide religion by hating your own belief system. 

Instead of writing how the author would have felt in Marie's situation, she should have dug deeper to find out how Marie would have felt. It's like the old saying; you can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes.

We cannot walk in our characters' shoes, unfortunately (how cool would that be?). We can only keep an open mind and do enough research to get past the who, what, when, and where, and come to understand the why.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I Hate How Writers Treat Babies

I've been AFK for a long while now, but for a good reason. I had a baby! Here's a picture of me with my beautiful girl, Bella Rose, who was born August 24th and is now 5 weeks old.


It's true what they say; once you have a child, your life is never the same again.

This seems like an opportune time to discuss a huge pet peeve of mine. I hate how most writers treat babies in their books. They depict them as objects, a job for the FMC that she may or may not enjoy, or perhaps as a complication to the plot. Few make babies into characters with influence and personality. Writers usually don't even describe what the baby looks like (they do NOT all look the same).

No character should be dead weight, especially not one as integral to your character's life as a child.

It may seem difficult to make a baby more than an object -- after all, how much personality can a baby have? -- but you'd be surprised. Any mother will tell you that every baby is different. Some of them are beautiful bundles of joy, some of them make your life a living hell, and each one has its own characteristics.

Take my daughter, for instance. (It still feels weird to say "my daughter"!) She has the fiercest scowl I've ever seen. We even have a picture of her scowling in her ultrasound. But if you smooth out the wrinkles on her forehead, she often breaks out into an enormous, heart-warming grin. She was lifting her head at two weeks, and every time she does it, she has the most determined look on her face. When Bella eats, she gulps, growls, sighs, and grunts so loudly, you can hear her in the other room.

All these attributes make Bella unique. There is no human being on the planet exactly like her.

You could take a moment to describe a baby or child and then move on with your story, but I suggest you take it a step further. What if the children and babies in our novels were integral parts of our books, just like they are in our lives? They can influence our characters to make decisions, or even make decisions of their own that change the plot. 

It's a challenge, especially for those of you who aren't parents or haven't spent much time around young children, but I promise you, it will be worth the effort.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Never Plan, Never Procrastinate

I'm a planner. Big time. I like making long outlines before starting on my rough drafts. I like making goals for my day, my month, my year. After 27 years of this, I'm starting to wonder if planning can be a very bad thing.

When I first found out I was pregnant, I was still in the throes of the rough draft to Voodoo Queen. Being the planner I am, I made a rigorous schedule that would guarantee that the rough draft would be finished (including research) before the baby was born.

Little did I know that I would 1. Be too sick to write for a month and a half, and 2. Get so stuck on my book that I wouldn't know how to proceed. I look at my plan now and laugh, though it's a humorless laugh.

That's not to say it's impossible for my to finish by my goal. I'll never forget writing the rough draft of Fierce in 18 days. I still don't know how that happened. It was like some superhuman power came over me, a power I couldn't have predicted or planned for.

The point is, you can't make plans. Life will hit you with all kinds of obstacles, and in the meantime, you can never predict how well your muse will cooperate with you. 

When I truly understood the futility of planning, another lesson settled upon me: Never procrastinate. Anything can happen tomorrow, and since life is so unpredictable, it's important to milk today for all it's worth.

Don't plan for tomorrow; you don't know what tomorrow will be. Just make today as awesome as you can.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How to Truly Understand Your Historical Characters

Last night, I had a terrible dream. I was at the HNS Conference and found out I had to present a panel that I had completely forgotten about. Frantically I tried to come up with something worth talking about, but by the time I had put it all together, my time was over and everyone left in disgust. Marci Jefferson, one of the nicest people I know, agreed to stay and miss dinner so I could at least present to someone.

I woke up and realized the dream panel I had put together wasn't half bad, so now I'm turning it into a blog article. 

How to Truly Understand Your Historical Characters

When you write history, you can't take anything for granted. All your characters' attributes have to be genuine to the time period; otherwise you end up with a modern hero in an old setting.

Below is a list of what I consider to be fundamentally important in understanding your character. You'll notice I didn't include certain things you might expect, like fashion, hobbies, and entertainment. I feel that while those things are important for establishing a setting, they don't affect the core of a person's being. My clothes tell you a lot about who I am, but I could completely change my wardrobe and still be the same person.

Art

I never liked my history classes in school, but I loved my art history class. Instead of rehearsing dates and who did what when, art history is all about the why. Why did so many people choose the same subject at a certain time? Why did it matter to them?

If you can understand the art of your time period (even if your character doesn't like art), you can understand what was important to people back then. For instance, today we care mostly about the ambience of a room. If you go into a home decor store, you'll find pictures of simple, unassuming things like flowers, trees, landscapes, animals, nonsense colors -- anything that looks pretty but doesn't make a statement.

In ancient Rome where my novel SACRED FIRE takes place, art was abundant and much more meaningful. Statues were just about everywhere you looked. Every wall was covered in a mural, every floor designed in a mosaic, and all of it told a story, mostly of gods, legends, or historical giants. Even their dishes were decorated with stories. Those stories tells me a lot about how the Romans thought and what they cared about.

History

Obviously, we need to understand a character's history if we're going to write a historical fiction. But! Our understanding of history will always be different from our characters'. We have the gift of hindsight. 

We know who the bad guys turn out to be, which brilliant ideas go terribly wrong, who wins and who loses. We don't have the same hope, despair, and innocence that our characters have. For instance, someone living post WWI will have a very different view of Germany than someone living post WWII. SACRED FIRE takes place during the Second Punic War, and even though I know Rome triumphs in the end, the people living at the time all thought they were going to die.

You can't just understand the history surrounding your character; you have to understand how history appears at that exact moment in time.

Current Events

World events affect me, even though I might not think of them. If someone were to write a biography about me they probably wouldn't dedicate a chapter to 9-11 even though it was a big event in my history, but my biographer ought to know I'm worried about terrorists, shootings, health care, abductions, etc. 

In The Heretic's Wife, a novel about the Salem Witch Trials, one of the main characters is terrified of Native Americans invading her home. It might not be important to the story, but it's important to who she is and how she lives her life. 

Code of Conduct

We all have ideas of what we can and can't do around other people, and these ideas differ widely throughout history. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is burdened by so many ridiculous restrictions that she can't be happy. She can't eat too much in public, she has to wear black for years after her husband dies, she can't let people see her when she's pregnant, she even discovers Rhett Butler is sleeping with prostitutes but can't confront him about it because she wouldn't dare admit to knowing prostitutes exist.

We might think our time period is liberated from such restrictions of etiquette, but even if we're more flexible, our restrictions exist. My mother-in-law, for instance, wouldn't dream of returning an item of clothing in any bag besides what it came in, especially if the bag is from a cheaper store. She'll tear the house apart looking for a Nordstrom's bag rather than take clothes back in a Walmart bag. My parents argued constantly over proper codes of conduct because my mom was always coming up with ideas of what just "isn't done" that my dad disagreed with.

What do people expect of your character? What does your character expect of others? What happens in your time period when people do the unexpected?

Religion

You can't fully understand someone without understanding that person's spiritual beliefs. A person's religion is about much more than how he spends his Sunday afternoons; religion determines a person's perspective on the purpose of life and the value of human beings. It is the motivation behind many of our actions.

Buddhists, for example, have a very pessimistic view of life. They believe existence is about suffering and that true joy comes from attaining a state of almost non-existence called Enlightenment. Mormons, on the other hand, believe the purpose of being on the earth is to find joy in this life and that God is intimately aware of and willing to help with even the simplest of struggles. A Buddhist's motivation is very different from a Mormon's.

Language

I didn't understand how rich with meaning language can be until I studied Shakespeare in college. As much as I love Shakespeare, he's frustrating; you have to study for a lifetime to even understand what he's talking about. His work is full of figures of speech, political jokes, historical references, old vocabulary, and even household items we've never heard of. Even if you have a phD in Elizabethan history, you can never understand Shakespeare as well as his original audience did.

That's one thing I hate about historical fiction; the language can never be as rich as regular fiction. You can't spend years researching exactly how people spoke because your readers haven't done the research so they wouldn't understand it anyway. Your characters have to talk like us, but not seem like they're talking like us.

It's a dilemma, but an important one to resolve. Language isn't just about accents and unusual grammar; it's about what your character finds important, how he expresses himself, how he makes sense of the world. You can never be perfectly accurate with language because it will make the text unpalatable, but you can use language to understand your character.

Moral Code

This is perhaps the most important, and the most often overlooked. Your characters do not have the same moral code that you and I do. They might be racist, intolerant of other religions, unsympathetic to slaves, and yet somehow still be good people.

In Lonesome Dove, for instance, all the cowboys saw prostitutes on a regular basis. They had no reason not to. In The Queen's Vow, Isabella of Castille had a moral code I know for a fact the author disagreed with (including homophobia and anti-semitism), yet she's the heroine of the novel. These authors decided to be accurate instead of comfortable, and it adds great richness to the text.

The sad truth is most of us believe what society tells us. We may have differing opinions, but all the same, our point of view is built up from an intricate system of experiences. People very rarely have revolutionary ideas of morality that go outside of their experience. If your character is pre Civil War Southern and she refuses to own slaves, you better have a good reason for her to feel that way.

What tools do you use to help you understand your characters?
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