Thursday, December 27, 2012

Winners of the Historical Holiday Blog Hop Giveaway

It's high time I announced the winners of the Historical Holiday Blog Hop Giveaway hosted by Passages to the Past. The winners are....

Terry for The Summer Garden

Vera for The Piano Teacher

Janet for Queen by Right

If you see in this post that you won a book but did not get an email from me, first check you spam mail, then contact me at teralynpilgrim at yahoo dot com.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Am I Wasting My Time?

Every now and then I look at my old life and my new life and wonder which is better. 

Last year, I worked at a frustrating job where I had to fit in as much writing time as I could in my windows of spare time. All I could think about was how nice it would be to write all day with no distractions. 

Now I write from home full time, and oddly, some of the writing "spark" is gone. I remember being so on fire at work that when my lunch hour was over, I'd close my Word document feeling angry and resentful that I had to stop. I haven't been on fire like that since I quit.

It's baffled me for six months why my writing career feels less like a passion and more like a chore. Finally, I decided I must be falling prey to the most debilitating question a writer can ask:

Am I wasting my time?

When I was at a job where there was hardly any work, all I did was waste time until I could go home. Instead of doing things that were the most worthwhile, I did things that were the most fulfilling. Writing was what got me through the day.

At home, I ask myself every single minute if what I'm doing is worth giving up that job. If the answer is no, I find it next to impossible to do it. Sometimes the answer is always no and I find myself doing nothing at all.

The problem is I'm working on a rough draft. When I revise Sacred Fire (a novel I've worked on for five years), it's easy to spend hours on it because it's a semi-finished product. It's polished and beautiful, so I know the work I put into it is worthwhile. 

Voodoo Queen, on the other hand, is a horrid mess. I wouldn't show it to someone even under torture. It's hard to put so much faith into such an ugly little thing.

One thing has saved me: my Work Diary. I've kept one for the past two years, and I read it over every now and then to remind myself how unhappy I was before I quit working. By keeping track of my progress every day, I know that even if I'm upset with myself for not being more productive, I'm still getting much more done than before.

John Lennon once said, "The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time." I need to post that in big letters on my desk. No more pressure and guilt; I need to give myself permission to waste time writing. 

It sounds contradictory, but it's not. When I write a scene, instead of constantly asking myself, "Am I just going to cut this scene later?" I should say, "I enjoy writing this scene." When I'm blogging, instead of asking, "Does anyone even read this?" I should say, "I enjoy blogging" and go for it.

It's something I'm still working on.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Digital Publishing: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas?

Please welcome our guest Tony Viardo, the CEO of Astor + Blue Editions. I was thrilled by his offer to post this article because it addresses a lot of concerns I have with digital publishing (and there are many). 

When all is said and done it's the writing that's important, not the way people read it, but none of us want to lose our libraries, book stores, and the smell of a new paperback. Mr. Viardo explains that embracing books-on-a-screen doesn't mean printed books will go the way of the scroll.

By the way, Astor + Blue Editions has put its entire first season's lift of e-book titles on a holiday promotional sale for $0.99 - $1.99. The sale will continue through January 7, 2013. Feel free to check it out!

Digital Publishing: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas?

How many articles have we read about E-books and Digital Publishing this year? For anyone who generally follows the book world (rabid booklover, book-blogger, industry pro, or casual reader), we’re literally inundated with the amazing numbers—“E-book sales up 125% (again) over the 175% they were up from last year’s 225% increase!”—and equally amazing technological announcements—“Next Fall, the new ZimWittyZoomDitty tablet not only updates your Facebook and Goodreads friends whenever you snort in disgust … it cooks dinner for you at the same time!”

This leads many to take at least casual stock of what’s going on/going to happen to the “Publishing World” as we know it.  And if your friends are like my friends (hardcore print book consumers), that stock is usually pretty morbid (sharp Greenwich Village angst not included): “Print books are doomed, so are brick-and-mortar stores.  Goodbye literary quality. Oh and some pajama-wearing techie living in a basement with a laptop is going to be the new Sulzburger; we’ll all have to bow down!”

If you (or that good friend of yours) fall into the mortified category, my take (for what it’s worth) may come as positive news:  E-books are not, and will not be, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas; in this case, the “Print World’s” bacon. Now, as the owner of a “Digital First” publishing house (Astor + Blue Editions, my opinions may easily be written off as self-serving and invalid.  But bear with me for a minute… these are fact-based observations and I might just make sense (Someone tell my mom and dad).

As someone who earns a living from publishing, I have to follow numbers and industry trends as closely as possible.  And while some see doom and gloom for Print, I see exciting developments for both Print and E-book formats.  What do the numbers show?  Digital book revenue is skyrocketing, print revenue is declining.  Natural conclusion?  E-books are killing print books. But not so fast.  Historically, Print revenue has always seemed to be declining (even before E-books were invented), but that doesn’t mean the book market is dying or shrinking.

We have to remember that in fact the book market is growing. Readership always grows because population always grows.  Every year, new readers enter the vast pool of the club that is “adult readership,” (despite Dancing with the Stars). And every year more readers are being born and theoretically being inspired by Ms. Crabtree’s elementary reading class.  **So why the decline?  Readership grows gradually, but the sheer number of books and book vendors grow exponentially, showing an investment loss almost every year. (Basic statistics: the widening universe makes it look like a shrinking pie when it isn’t).

So what does this mean?  If you look at the numbers (historically), revenue for print books may have declined, yes, but not more than “normal,” and not significantly more than it did when there were no E-books around. (This is arguable of course, but the long term numbers do not show a precipitous drop-off). The yearly revenue decline, if there is one, can just as easily be written off to economic conditions as to E-book competition.  Bottom line:  Any drop in print revenue that may be caused by E-books are not significantly sharp enough to declare that E-books are destroying print book sales.  (Hence no Grinch).

What may be happening, and what I believe is happening is that a whole new market for E-books is developing, while the print book market growth, like Publishing as a whole, is still growing at a historically gradual pace. (Boringly flat).  Come up with your pet anecdote here, but I believe that more new readers are entering the market (who otherwise wouldn’t have) because of E-readers; existing readers are consuming more books (both print and e-book) than they did before; and while it would seem that a certain print title is losing a sale whenever readers buy it in E-book format, this is offset, at least somewhat, by the fact that more print titles are being bought (that otherwise wouldn’t) because of the extra marketing buzz and added awareness produced by the E-book’s cyber presence.  All of it evens out in the end, and I believe, ultimately fosters growth industry-wide.

So take heart Print fans, E-books are not the dark villain you think they are.  And here, I should correct my earlier analogy—that E-books are not the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  They may actually be the Grinch…in as much as, at the end of the story, the pear-shaped green guy ended up not only giving all the presents back to the singing Who-villers, he created a flash mob and started a big party as well.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Best Books About Marie Laveau

If you're interested in reading about Marie Laveau, there are three books to choose from. I recommend reading all three, but if you don't have the time, I've compared them in this article to help you choose.

This was the easiest and most interesting read. Ward paints a vivid and fascinating picture of New Orleans and voodoo. It was the first book I read about Marie, and it inspired me to write my novel.

Despite its creativity, the book was not well received by scholars. Ward hardly cites any of her sources. She describes people being in places they never were and feeling ways we have no idea whether or not they felt. 

TO SUM UP: If you're a scholar, you can skip this book. It doesn't present any information that isn't in other works, and Ward takes too many creative liberties. If you just want to be entertained while learning about a fantastic woman, I'd recommend this.

There are so many lies about Marie Laveau, it's hard to know what's real and what's not. Carolyn Long is an archivist and she searched through records to verify every fact she presents with primary sources. She explains where every rumor originated. 

While this was my favorite of the three biographies, it's not meant for entertainment. Since it's a string of facts, one might find her work a little dry. Also, since she doesn't include anything that isn't a hard fact, it left me with a lot of questions, such as why Marie might have become famous in the first place.

TO SUM UP: This was my favorite of the three books, and I use it the most in my novel. Without theories and what-ifs, however, your knowledge of Marie Laveau will be incomplete. If you're serious about studying this topic, reading Fandrich's book in conjunction with Long's is essential.

Good luck finding a copy of this. It's a college thesis and if it isn't in your university's library, it'll cost you $130. Next year, it will be available as an ebook, thank goodness.

While Long's book presents the facts, Fandrich delivers the context. She gets into African culture, the voodoo religion, and the status of free women of color in New Orleans to help you understand who Marie might have been.

TO SUM UP: Since this book includes both fact and conjecture, is the most comprehensive of the three biographies.

I didn't bother including Robert Tallant's book. His work is bigoted, racist, and inaccurate. He actually made up a few interviews! Experts place a lot of blame on him for the negative stereotype given to voodoo. 

Interestingly, Tallant died a sudden and mysterious death. Coincidence?

The Finer Things Book Club: The Yellow Wallpaper and The Phantom of the Opera

My book group decided not to meet this month because of the holidays. (Does anyone else hate how the holidays consume everyone's lives? I have to put everything on hold because people around me let themselves get overrun with planning.)

So for my blog readers, I decided to post about two book groups I've done in the past. They're not as good as the meeting for The Night Circus because I get better at this as I go along, but they were still fun.

The Yellow Wallpaper is fantastic for book groups because it's only 64 pages long, but it has so much depth that there's plenty to discuss. 

It's about a 19th century woman who feels so confined by her husband and society that she loses her mind. Her bedroom is covered in hideous yellow wallpaper, and she starts to hallucinate about a woman who is trapped in the wallpaper and is trying to get out. The woman is obviously a reflection of herself.

I didn't keep the discussion questions, unfortunately, but I think I got them from Spark Notes.

To enrich our reading, I printed off a bunch of optical illusions and taped them to the wall. I especially used the kind where your eyes go out of focus and you see a 3D image because it's the most similar to what the main character saw.

This website has a lot of fun illusions. I had this one running on my computer: it's of a girl spinning, but you can't tell whether she's spinning clockwise or counterclockwise.

The Phantom of the Opera was more of a Halloween party than a book group, mostly because I didn't spur a discussion very well. For most of the night, we decorated masks.

I like having activities like this for when your book group wants to socialize instead of discuss the reading. It helps them stay focused, it enriches the reading, and this way people who read the book don't feel like they've wasted their time.

I had the music to the Broadway show playing in the back ground. If we wanted, we could have watched the movie afterwards, or better yet the black-and-white version, for people who had enough time to stay later.

Most people in the group didn't know the opera house was a real place, so I talked to them about the building's history and architecture. On my laptop, I had a slide-show running of pictures of the opera house.

I learned a valuable lesson on this night; never host for your favorite book. I've loved The Phantom of the Opera story since I was eight, which is why I wanted to share it. But not everyone liked it as much as I did. When they bashed it I got frustrated and defensive, which is a big reason the discussion didn't take off as well as it should have.

If you liked this post and want to see more, tell me in the comments any books you would like to see us do. The club members get the final say, but we're very open to suggestions.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Historical Holiday Blog Hop: Book Giveaways

Passages to the Past is hosting an epic historical fiction giveaway, and I'm thrilled to participate! Not only is Amy Bruno giving away dozens of books on her blog, but other involved bloggers are giving away books as well.

For my blog, I'm offering the winner a choice between one of three books: The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee, Queen by Right by Anne Easter Smith, or The Summer Garden by Paullina Simons.

All you have to do is post your email in the comments along with which book you would like to win. If you're a follower of my blog or my twitter account @teralynpilgrim, you get an extra entry.

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee

In the sweeping tradition of The English Patient, Janice Y.K. Lee's debut novel is a tale of love and betrayal set in war-torn Hong Kong. In 1942, Englishman Will Truesdale falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong to work as a piano teacher and also begins a fateful affair. As the threads of this spellbinding novel intertwine, impossible choices emerge-between love and safety, courage and survival, the present, and above all, the past. 

Queen by Right by Anne Easter Smith

History remembers Cecily of York standing on the steps of the Market Cross at Ludlow, facing an attacking army while holding the hands of her two young sons. Queen by Right reveals how she came to step into her destiny, beginning with her marriage to Richard, duke of York, whom she meets when she is nine and he is thirteen. Raised together in her father’s household, they become a true love match and together face personal tragedies, pivotal events of history, and deadly political intrigue. All of England knows that Richard has a clear claim to the throne, and when King Henry VI becomes unfit to rule, Cecily must put aside her hopes and fears and help her husband decide what is right for their family and their country. Queen by Right marks Anne Easter Smith’s greatest achievement, a book that every fan of sweeping, exquisitely detailed historical fiction will devour.

The Summer Garden by Paullina Simons

Through years of war and devastation, Tatiana and Alexander suffered the worst the twentieth century had to offer. Miraculously reunited in America, they now have a beautiful son, Anthony, the gift of a love strong enough to survive the most terrible upheavals. Though they are still young, the ordeals they endured have changed them—and after living apart in a world laid waste, they must now find a way to live together in postwar America.
With the Cold War rising, dark forces at work in their adopted country threaten their lives, their family, and their hard-won peace. To regain the happiness they once knew, to wash away the lingering pain of the past, two lovers grown distant must somehow forge a new life . . .or watch the ghosts of their yesterdays destroy their firstborn son.

I Don't Want to Talk About Publishing Ever Again

I love meeting other writers in-person. It's a fun way to make new friends, and there's something about the group mentality that can't be replaced by computers.

There's one thing about in-person writers I hate. Hate is a strong word... which is why I used it. They're obsessed with publishing!

I suppose this is an odd complaint; since I quit my day-job to write, I'm also "obsessed with publishing." What bothers me is I can't get in a discussion about writing without hearing everyone's thirst for validation. If we talk about writing and publishing doesn't come up, it's as if the whole conversation is wasted.

Let me back up a little; talking about publishing isn't inherently annoying. Goodness knows, I discuss getting agents with people online all the time. It's just that all the publishing discussions I've gotten into with writers face-to-face are unproductive.

First off, everyone has a different opinion of what "published" means. We use that one word to define nearly ten different things.

I remember being told someone was published and gazing at that person in awe, only to discover the person paid to print 500 copies of a book and hasn't sold any of them. There isn't anything wrong with that! I think printing your book is fantastic. But it's not what I thought the person meant. When I was disappointed, the person was hurt.

You have to define what "published" means to the people you're speaking with before you can discuss it. This can create many disagreements and bruised egos.

Second off, it becomes the blind leading the blind. Everyone thinks they know everything about publishing and they want to grace others with their expertise. 

The leader of my last writer's group always told others what they needed to do in order to get published, even though he had been looking for an agent for years and had no idea himself. "This will never get published" became a phrase he used almost daily.

Every time he told us something we wrote could never be published, I wanted to scream at him, "What do you expect us to do? Tear it up and throw it away because it has no value? Can we please write nonpunishable crap without you policing us?!?"

I wish more people would write for writing's sake. Even if publishing is our primary goal in life, we can enjoy the journey without the pressure of accomplishment.

Since too many people know too little about publishing, it opens itself up to too many arguments. With a different group, someone thought it was ridiculous that ebooks cost as much as printed books. I was about to explain that ebooks cost just as much to make (the material of a printed book only cost $1, and you still have to pay for the author, agent, editor, format, cover, distributor, etc.). But as soon as I said "They cost the same to make," someone sitting next to me said, "That's not true."

Oooooo, it makes mad when people do that. I wanted to turn to him and say, "You caught me; I just made it up off the top of my head. I do that sometimes, say random untrue things for no reason."

I cooled down when I realized that again, we were talking about completely different forms of publishing. He was a professor who was about to print a textbook when he realized it would be cheaper to create an ebook. He launched into a rant about how ebook sellers are trying to steal our money, ignoring what I had to say.

This rant is getting long, but I've gained momentum and now I can't stop.

Another thing that gets under my skin is the idea that everyone has to have the same goal. After Nano I asked a friend of mine if she was going to do Camp Nano in the summer. She looked sad as she said, "I have to revise my last book first."

I said, "You don't have to do any revisions." She looked confused, so I went on. "You don't have to do anything. If you want to put your book on a shelf and move on to something else, then you should do it. Who says we have to edit everything we write?"

The biggest reason I hate talking about publishing is this: it's cruel.

Most of the writers you meet will never be published. There's nothing wrong with that. We can all live happy, fulfilling lives writing, revising, printing, self-publishing, or whatever strikes our fancies. That's okay.

Instead of sending out the message that whatever you do is worth doing, we send the message of "You can be famous! Climb that mountain! Reach for the sky! Follow the American Dream!" Then when they get to the end of their lives and they're still unpublished, they end up an unbearably cynical old man.

Getting published is important to me. But I'm tired of the confusion, pressure, hurt feelings, bad advice, egotism, and all the negative feelings when we discuss it. When I meet writers in person, I want to talk about writing.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Books I Read Recently

Shockingly, I only read two books for fun since July! My goal to read 45 books this year was a dismal failure. I need to put away my research every now and then and pick up some novels.

Roots by Alex Haley

Alex Haley, an African American, compiled his genealogy all the way back to Africa and based his novel on his ancestors. The novel starts with the life of Kunta Kinte, who was captured and sold into America, and ends with Alex himself.

Roots took the world by storm for a good reason. It's a wonderful, comprehensive view of African American history. It felt a little textbook at times and I wish he had spent more time on the decedents of Kunta Kinte instead of spending so much time in Africa, but nevertheless, it was a fantastic read. I'm glad this book exists.

Matched by Ally Condie

Cassia has always trusted the Society to dictate her career, husband, activities, and even when she will die, until the Society makes a mistake that leads her to Ky, a boy she's not supposed to love.

This book is advertised as a cure for your Hunger Games withdrawal. The two series are very similar; YA, dystopia, love triangle, sacrificing everything to "take the Society down." Personally, I felt they were too similar for me to enjoy both of them.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Day My Brother was a God

Cool photo, huh? No one ever believes me when I say he's built like Wolverine until I show them proof.
My brother has an unusual way of looking at the world. As an adult he's a lot like Dwight from The Office (which is just as entertaining as it sounds). As a kid, he was a clown who always kept you on your toes.

For example, once when he was maybe four we were at a family reunion and he told Mom he really had to pee. We were just about to bless the food, so Mom asked if he could hold it until the prayer was over. He said no, but she didn't believe him.

During the blessing, he noticed everyone's eyes were closed. The reunion was outside. He put these two facts together and decided it would be a good idea to pee while we were praying.

He didn't take into account that everyone could hear him. When we all opened our eyes, he turned away and looked as mortified as I've ever seen him. But he couldn't stop. We had to wait for him to finish before we could return to the prayer.

One day when he was a few years older, he and Dad were walking through the woods. (Well, Dad was walking; my brother always had a parkour way of getting around.) At one point he leaped onto a fallen log, which crumbled underneath him.

The log squished a hive of bees.

The bees swarmed around him. They went in a spiral from his feet to his head, around and around in big circles.

My brother didn't run away. He raised his arms dramatically and yelled, 
"Dad, look! They worship me!"

Inevitably, his next words were: "Ouch! Ouch!" Dad scooped him up and ran away from the bee attack, too pumped with adrenaline to laugh. 

We'll tease my brother about that til his dying day.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Types of Beta Critiques: It's Important to Know the Difference

While I've had some amazing beta readers help me with Sacred Fire, I've also been disappointed on occasion with how things worked out. I discovered a big part of that was due to poor communication. They didn't always understand what I wanted.

At Write on Con - an amazing online writer's conference - I read an article called "Tips for Choosing Readers."  It opened my eyes to a lot of things I was doing wrong.

For instance, the most helpful advice was knowing the difference between three types of critiques. I usually just hand my book over to readers and say, "Here, fix it." The results would be much better if I told them which of these I wanted: 

The I’m Stuck Read: You know there are problems with a major element of the story (the big battle scene, the love interest, the overall structure, etc.), but you don’t know how to resolve them.
The Big Picture Read: You’ve written a complete first draft. You need your readers to focus on Logic (Did the story makes sense? Was the reader ever confused); Pacing (Were there places where the story lagged or the reader was bored?); Emotional Resonance (Did the reader feel invested in the character and the story’s outcome? Did any of the emotional beats fall flat or feel unearned?)
The Line Edit: You’re done with the story and don’t intend to make fundamental changes. You want your reader to identify typos, grammatical errors, awkward language, word repetition.

How do you go about communicating to your beta readers?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My (Unusual?) Writing Process


Nano is only ten short days away from being over, and I've been neck-and-neck with the required word count all month.  

I was initially nervous about writing this novel so quickly, but there's something about hitting the 35K mark that boosts my confidence. If I can get this far, there's no reason I can't finish!

I've always been fascinated by the writing process of other authors. What initially sparked their ideas? Which chapter did they write first? What major changes did they make?

After doing Nano three times and experimenting with different techniques, I've figured out my own writing process. I'm curious as to how many people do it the same way.

First, I make as thorough of an outline as I can. This hopefully includes a chapter-by-chapter summary. Next, I write the first chapter and try to continue chronologically. 

This almost never works.

Why? Because a novel is rarely complete in my head when I first start writing it. (Last year was a glorious exception.) There are always a few holes here and there that I want to skip over.

At the same time, there are certain scenes that jump out at me. They're vivid, insistent, and want to be written right now. So I might be stuck on chapter five while chapter thirty is begging for my attention.

I don't want to leave gaping plot holes in my novel by bouncing back and forth. What do I do?

I realized it's okay to have holes in my novel because I don't have holes in my outline. As long as I follow the outline (while at the same time giving myself freedom to change it), I can write whichever chapter I want.

Every morning I open my outline and skim through it until something jumps out at me. Once something does, I write it down as quickly as I can before the plot bunny goes away. Then I go back to the outline and do it again. 

This way, my novel emerges somewhat like a puzzle. You don't start at one end of a puzzle and work your way to the other; you put together the easiest pieces first. It's sporadic, but you have the cover of the box to guide you, and it all comes together in the end.

What is your writing process?

Monday, November 19, 2012

My 6 Hour Writing Marathon

The people at National Novel Writing Month host a huge 6 hour writing marathon every year in San Francisco. Obviously I can't fly from Mississippi for that. However, some local chapters like to do the same event on their own, and my group in Hattiesburg decided to do the same thing.

I was pretty nervous about this event. Last year I was so on fire that not only did I write all six hours, but I hit 50,000 words and finished the book. This year, my book is much more challenging and I've struggled to keep my word count where it should be. Could I really keep writing from 6:00 pm to midnight?

Last year, five of us met at a late-night cafe and wrote there. Hattiesburg doesn't have a venue like that, but by a huge stroke of luck, one of our Wrimos worked at a hotel and was able to get us a conference room for free.

We made it a potluck and brought a ton of food. This was great because it offered sustenance the whole night. About a dozen people showed up, which was a better turn-out than I had hoped for.

Write-ins are amusing because people always have different ideas about how much talking you can do. One of us wanted complete silence while another one of us wanted to spend ten minutes discussing how "Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo" is a complete sentence.

Personally, I like a little bit of talking because a brief distraction refreshes my mind.

Getting started was difficult. At about 8:00 pm I remember looking at the clock and wondering how I was going to make it another four hours. I decided going home early in shame would be too embarrassing, so I would stare at the screen if I had to.

Whenever I got stuck, I went to the food table to get an extra snack. I eventually got so full I only ate hummus and vegetables because it's lighter. At one point someone thought my frequent trips to the food table was ridiculous and told me I couldn't get another snack until I wrote 2,000 words.

"How about 500 words?" I asked, knowing I would want more hummus before then.

"Nope," he said. "2,000."

Five hundred words later I went back for more hummus and he asked me if I had written 2,000.

"Yup," I said. Then out of guilt, "No, these are forbidden vegetables."

When he left early, I celebrated by treating myself to guilt-free hummus.

At the end of the night, I asked everyone who wrote the most words.

"I wrote 3,000," said someone.

"4,000 for me," said another.

The guy who left early had written 6,000, so I think he won.

"How about you?" someone asked me.

"It looks like I wrote..." I looked at my Nano stats screen. "7,000 words. Wait, that can't be right. I spent the whole night talking and eating hummus."

I was so surprised that I even recounted the words. Sure enough, I had written 7,000!

The moral of the story: if you think you're stuck and can only stare at the computer screen, push through anyway. You might do something amazing.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Finer Things Book Club: The Night Circus

Some friends and I decided to start a book club, and from now on I'm going to post what we do to inspire your own reading groups. I named it after the book club in The Office because they focus on a broad range of art and culture, and I try to encourage my club members to get creative.

This month, we discussed THE NIGHT CIRCUS. (That book is awesome beyond words, by the way.)

I asked everyone in the book group to come wearing black and white with one item of red clothing. The circus had a fan club called the rêveurs who would dress that way.

On Erin Morgenstern's website, she posted a playlist of music that inspired her while writing the book, so I had that playing in the background. I also showed them a fun game online based on the book. 

All the food was in black and white: a white cake decorated with black frosting, white chocolate covered pretzels, and black-and-white cookies. In the future I'm going to ask other people to bring food as well so it's not too much work for the host.

The cake turned out more horrible than I could have imagined. I thought I'd be clever and use a shake-and-squeeze can similar to Cheese Whiz, but it gave me zero control. The frosting came out in large, sporadic chunks. I had to smooth all the lines with my fingers.

Well, you live and learn.

I think it's important for the host to thoroughly research the book; history, the author, details about how the book was written. I was able to tell the guests about how Erin Morgenstern is also a painter and that's why her books are so visual, that it started out as a Nanowrimo book, stuff like that.

We watched the book trailer on Youtube and then watched an interview with the author. Some authors will do Skype for book groups so you can talk to them in person, but Erin is too famous to have time for that.

The discussion questions (which I've pasted below) sparked one of the greatest discussions I've had with a book group. I printed them out for the group so they could read through them, put some thought into them, and look at them while we discussed each one. The club members answered a lot of questions I had and enriched the book for me.

One of my favorite topics was whether or not it was feasible for the rêveurs to be so obsessed with the circus that they'd define their lives by it. We came up with real-life groups of people who are the same: Trekies, Groupies, Whovians.

When it was over we had extra treats, so I sent them home with each person in a bag.

I loved hosting this group and I can't wait to see what we do in January!

If you liked this post and want to see more, tell me in the comments any books you would like to see us do. The club members get the final say, but we're very open to suggestions.

Click below for the discussion questions.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I'm Going to be a Speaker at the Historical Novel Society Conference

I have some pretty super big and incredible news: at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Florida next year, guess who's going to present a panel on Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction? Me!

When I went to the conference in 2011, it changed my career and probably my life. At the time I didn't know much about who I was as a writer or what I wanted to do with my career. I was working on a novel about the Vestal Virgins (which I'm querying right now), but it wasn't until I went to the conference that I realized historical fiction was my genre.

I also realized at the conference that all the books I wanted to write focused on religion or spirituality of some sort: SACRED FIRE is about ancient Roman priestesses, VOODOO QUEEN is about Marie Laveau, JOAN is about Joan of Arc (it's a working title). All my favorite books are spiritual too: Pope Joan, Mother of the Believers, Peony in Love.

It was like a light bulb went on. I thought to myself, Yay, I know who I am now!

I was hesitant to put together the proposal for this panel at first. After all, most of the speakers are fabulous and famous, whereas I haven't published a thing. But I believed in the idea and in my ability to discuss it. 

When I mentioned a panel on religion on the conference's Facebook page, so many people got excited about the idea that I decided to go for it. In the end, I figured if the other speakers were awesome enough and my proposal polished enough, people would gloss over my as-yet-not-awesome status.

The other speakers are Mary Sharratt, author of Illuminations, Kamran Pasha, author of Mother of the Believers, and Stephanie Dray, author of Lily of the Nile.

Needless to say, I'm pretty excited!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Critique Groups are Best When They're in Your Genre

I was on Stephanie Dray's blog the other day (she's the author of Song of the Nile) and read her article If You're Serious About Historical Fiction. She talks about how important it is to have members of your critique group who are familiar with your genre. It got me thinking about my unfortunate experience with cross-genre relationships.

When I was in college, I took a class that was basically a critique group for credit. The students wrote all kinds of things: short stories, YA, sci-fi. It was exciting to learn from such a diverse group of writers. None of them read historical fiction, but I didn't see that as a problem.

Little did I know that when people don't like history, quality writing will not change their minds. My critique group felt swamped by facts and wanted me to slow down and explain everything. I added several unnecessary chapters just to clarify things which I eventually got rid of because they served no purpose.

(I wrote about being upset because I had to cut the first two chapters out of Sacred Fire. They weren't there originally; this group convinced me to add them.)

After I took the time to thoroughly describe everything, they complained about the book being too long and wordy. 

Then the professor kept trying to fact check my work when she know nothing about Roman history. Once she told me to change the high priest's name because it didn't sound Roman, and his character was based on a real person.

It didn't take long for me to get frustrated.

I'm not saying these people were too stupid to like history by any means. Their advice on the writing craft itself was very helpful. However, they were criticizing my genre instead of my book, and because they didn't like my genre, their critiques would always be negative and unhelpful.

When I started to work with other historical fiction writers, their advice changed everything.  Not only did they recognize when something wasn't working; they knew why it wasn't working and how to fix it, and then they gave me examples from other historical fictions they had read.

Granted, I've worked with a few fantastic beta readers outside me genre. I think it's good when your book is more polished to have different kinds of writers read your work to make sure it's accessible to a greater population. Yet my book would not be what it is today (such as it is) without the help I received from hist-fic writers.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How to Pitch Like a Rockstar Contest

Heather Webb at Between the Sheets is hosting a pitch contest on her blog today. Writers give advice on other people's pitches and then submit them on November 7-20. The prize: a ten-page critique by Michelle Brower, agent at Folio Literary Management. That's too good to pass up!

I had to pull myself out of the Nano trenches to write this, but hopefully it turned out okay. This is for my novel SACRED FIRE:

Tuccia’s life as a Vestal Virgin is upended when the goddess she serves doesn't rescue her best friend from being wrongly executed. When she finds herself in the same situation, she must perform a miracle to prove she’s favored of the gods. Despite her long-held hurt toward Vesta, she will do anything to save her life, even if it means taking a leap of faith.

Critique away!

Friday, November 2, 2012

My Halloween at a Voodoo House

As many of you know, my WIP VOODOO QUEEN is about Marie Laveau, the most famous priestess of voodoo who ever lived. When I heard there would be a voodoo festival on Halloween - the day before Nano when I would start writing the novel - it seemed fitting that I should go. 
Reserved for the ghost

Luckily, the professor I met at the University of Southern Mississippi was game to go with me. He used to live there, so he was a fountain of knowledge. He also knew the best restaurants. We had lunch at Muriel's where I tried turtle soup for the first time, which was surprisingly tasty.

New Orleans is overrun with ghosts and this restaurant has a ghost of its own. They keep a table and chair reserved for him and his guest every day, along with two full glasses of wine. It was my first legit haunted house!

The place holding the festival is called Voodoo Authentica. Everything in the store serves a spiritual purpose, so much so that you can't buy a simple knick-knick or gag gift to take home. They cater to believers, not tourists. 

In the walls are several nooks with altars to the various spirits containing statues, candles, fruit, incense, coins. All the worshipers in the house (aka the employees) wore white dresses and white head wraps. The soul resides mostly in the head and white is the color of purity, so the wraps them spiritually clean.

Mama Lola
The person I wanted to meet more than anyone was Mama Lola, one of the most famous voodoo priestesses in the world. I first saw this aged Creole woman sitting in the back of the shop, looking about a hundred and scowling at nothing. 

The worshipers of the house - her "godchildren" - grasped each of her arms and hefted her to her feet so they could guide her outside. She spoke to them in her thick accent with a mix of adoration and amusing harshness, complete with many kisses on the lips.

To start the festival, Mama Lola opened with a song dedicated to Elegba. A godson placated the spirits by shaking a sacred instrument (its name escapes me right now) and spraying mouthfuls of rum on the doorway. A spectator mumbled something about sanitation. 

When we were all seated to get ready for the first speaker, Mama Lola decided she didn't like where she was placed. "I want to be with my friends," she demanded, pointing to the people she wanted to sit with. There was much to-do as a goddaughter tried to reorganize all the chairs without getting tangled in the chords to the speakers. 

The goddaughter finally said, "That should do it..."

By this time, Mama Lola was tired of the fuss the woman was making. "Thank you, but now you shut up." She affectionately held the woman's face in her hands. "You shut up now."

I thought about getting a reading from Mama Lola. I wasn't sure how I felt about it because I'm not supposed to associate with other religions, but journalist Rod Davis says it's a great way to break the ice and get your foot in the door. Sadly, she was all booked up for the day.

It's just as well. With that accent, I could hardly understand a word she said.

I asked Mama Lola how you can tell if you've been "called by the spirits." She launched into a long story about her spiritual journey and I couldn't follow any of it. I had to ask the professor to retell the it for me, and it went something like this:

She was seven years old when one day, she went missing. The whole town was involved in the search. Her grandfather told the sheriff that if they didn't find her, he would kill everyone. Finally, they found her in a dumpster filled with spit eating cabbage. (We decided "spit" and "cabbage" must be terms for "garbage.") Her mother told her when she was only seven that she had the power and she would be a great priestess someday.

When he saw my bewildered expression, he explained that she was very old.

The second person I most wanted to see was Ina Fandrich. She wrote what is considered one of the best books about Marie Laveau and I was dying to ask her questions. 

Throughout the event, the professor and I tried to figure out which of the spectators she was. One woman looked like she fit the bill - she had a tasteful suit, perfectly groomed hair, and the professional demeanor of a scholar. He guessed it was another woman with an artistic scarf taking copious notes.

When it was Ina's turn to speak, the woman who stood up was the last we would have expected.

"No freakin' way," whispered the professor.

She wore a purple-and-black dress and a huge head wrap tied with a large bow on the side. I couldn't tell if she was a practitioner or if she was wearing a Halloween costume. We discovered she was a believer who could heal and give readings, and she was a member of Mama Lola's house.

I told her about my novel and she said what every scholar I've spoken to has said: that Francine Prose already wrote about Marie Laveau. I've discovered that in the academic world, if someone's already done it you don't pursue it. In the historical fiction world you can tell the same story for as long as it makes money, and when a book goes out of print like Prose's it might as well not exist anymore.

I asked Ina how Marie would have learned her craft: would it have been from a family member since the "power" is inherited, would she have been self-taught because she did what the spirits inspired her to do, or would she have been trained in a voodoo house by a mambo and houngan like in Haiti?

"Yes, yes, and yes," she said. "Actually, we don't really know."

We discussed different styles of voodoo - santeria, Yoruba, hoodoo - and the professor asked what Marie would have practiced. "Neither," she answered. "All Marie's ways are gone now. Her style of voodoo died with her."

"Fantastic," I grumbled. More than anything, Ina showed me how complicated this book will be to write.

I got the chance to talk to two of the godchildren and ask them about the head wraps, the white clothes, the symbols of their jewelry. One of the girls was going to "kanzo" in Haiti, which is how you become an official priestess. Most spirits reside in Haiti, so it's the best place to get initiated.

"Do people treat you differently because you follow voodoo?" I asked.

Their response wasn't what I expected; people recognize they follow voodoo when they wear white head wraps or symbolic necklaces, and instead of being rude or judgmental, they more often ask for spiritual favors!

"How does your family feel about your religion?" I asked them.

"Oh, we're totally going to hell," one of them said with a chuckle.

The festival ended with singing, drumming, and dancing. If I were by myself I would have been up there dancing with them, but I felt self-conscious with the professor nearby and settled with tapping my foot.

I was hoping to see a possession, though I didn't expect to. The voodoos believe that when you worship, a spirit can enter into you and give you a divine experience. (I wish they'd come up with a term less frightening; it's not all that different from the Pentecostal speaking in tongues.) 

You can tell a person is possessed when they seem to lose control and act in ways they wouldn't normally. In fact, you can supposedly tell which spirit has entered into a person by the way they behave. The professor and I were trying to guess if anyone was possessed when we saw one of the spectators dancing by herself in front of the drums. He guessed what was coming and pulled out his video recorder.

The drumming stopped and the woman almost collapsed. Ina ran to wrap her arms around her. The voodoos helped the woman to a chair and started fanning her, putting wet rags on her forehead, and rubbing rum on her face. The woman was shaking and mumbling incoherently. I'd never seen anything like it before. 

The professor and I were confused. Possession is supposed to be a celebratory experience - the highest level of worship - and her situation looked the opposite of pleasant.  

They guided her inside and I asked one of the goddaughters if she was okay.

"Of course," she answered, as if this were the most natural thing in the world.

Ten minutes later the woman came out no longer possessed, looking exhausted and wearing a white head wrap the shop gave her. A man standing next to me shook his head, confused.

"That's my wife," he told me.

"Is she alright? She looked pretty shaken up," I said.

"You should have seen her inside when they were trying to get whatever that was out of her. It was like The Exorcist in there."

This offended a believer close by, who scoffed in disgust and walked away.

"Has this ever happened before?" I asked.

"Never!" He shook his head again. "We aren't even from here. We're visiting from the Bahamas!"

Considering that they were just tourists, I thought he was being a pretty good sport.  If I got possessed, my husband would have reacted very differently.

I still had questions, so I asked Ina if the woman had been possessed by an evil spirit.

"There are no evil spirits. The dichotomy of evil and good is a Christian concept," she explained. "Pagans understand that any spirit can do good things, but any spirit can also get angry."

When it ended and the professor and I got in the car, he said, "Well, I learned a lot."

"Yes," I agreed. "So did I."

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