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?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Working from Home: My Expectations versus the Reality

My year of writing from home hasn't been what I expected. It's not better or worse, just different, with completely unexpected pros and cons.


Unexpected Cons

It was easy to foresee most of the challenges I would go through. I knew it would be hard to wake up in the mornings at first and that I'd have to resist Netflix, naps, and other forms of procrastination. 

I didn't realize I would actually be less productive than when I was sitting in an office with nothing else to do. I'm so glad I didn't wait until conditions were "perfect" before working on my books, because my best work happened when conditions were horribly imperfect.

Part of that is because of the want-what-you-can't-have mentality. When it was hard to fit writing into my day, finding time was an exciting challenge. Now I can write anytime, and "later" always seems as good a time as any.

But those things are nothing compared to the greatest disadvantage of all, the one I expected the least and am struggling with the most:

The lack of recognition.

It might sound stupid, but the fact that I'm working just for myself is really wearing me down. When my husband tells me about praise he receives at work (and he seems to get a lot of it), I think about my book no one has read and feel jealous. Even when I was underappreciated at my old jobs, at least I was paid. Now if finish my book or I don't finish it, who will care?

It makes me chuckle to think that in four weeks, I'll have a new job -- being a mother -- which is supposedly the second most thankless job in the world (the first being unpublished author, of course).

At least when I'm busy with the baby, "later" won't be a crutch for me anymore.

Unexpected Pros

I love the fact that I'm always doing something. Rarely have I ever had a job where I kept busy. I had a custodial job that gave me four hours to clean a building that only took one, a call center job that wouldn't get a call for a good 45 minutes at a time, an office job that was full-time but only took up two hours of my day, and I even had a job writing a user manual for a computer program that wasn't finished. My boss told me just to come into work everyday and I would start writing once the program was completed. (It never was.)

Now, I never have to twiddle my thumbs or pretend to be busy ever again. If I'm bored, I just need to find a creative way to fill my time. You have no idea how exhilarating that feels!

I also love having the time to cook meals and clean the house, instead of coming home at six too tired to do anything. I'm sure some of that will fall by the wayside once the baby is born, but being here makes my apartment feel much more like a home.

What I Can Take Away From This

When working for myself, I have to always, always enjoy what I'm doing. If I ever pour on guilt or too much pressure, or if my passion isn't in the writing, I might stop and ask myself, "What am I even doing this for, anyway?" When I write just because I love the work, that's when the work gets done.

So, after my year of writing from home, I've discovered the secret to being a productive writer: 

Love what you do.


Monday, July 29, 2013

Books I Read in April and May

Claude and Camille: a novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell

This is a romantic story about the famous nineteenth-century painter, Claude Monet, and the love of his life.

I enjoy reading novels about artists and their struggles, both with their work and with building a name for themselves. The romance added a wonderful layer to this novel. If you enjoy Susan Vreeland, you'll probably enjoy Claude and Camille.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Screwtape is a devil who writes letters of instruction and encouragement to his nephew, Wormwood, who is trying to condemn a man's soul.

C.S. Lewis is a genius. He has a way of explaining his ideas of what makes a good Christian that is solid and resonating. It really made me think about who I am and I recommend it to anyone interested in self-improvement.

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

Luis de Santangel is a conversos -- a Jew who converted to Christianity -- which is a dangerous enough position to be in during the Spanish Inquisition. When he becomes drawn to the religion he abandoned and then falls in love with a Jewish woman, he puts his very life at risk.

I've always been fascinated by dystopian literature, and what I found most striking about this book is that it had so many similarities to dystopian worlds, except the events actually happened. Not only is this book fascinating and, frankly, horrifying, but it raises some interesting questions. Definitely a good read.

Mama Lola, a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown

I met Mama Lola in New Orleans during the Halloween Voodoo Festival. (She was the one who told me she was called of the spirits when her mom found her eating trash in a dumpster. The book retells the story in a way that makes a lot more sense.) While this book is structured somewhat haphazardly, which makes it difficult to use as research, it gives an in-depth view into voodoo that I haven't seen before and answered a lot of questions I had about this mysterious religion. Everyone researching voodoo should include this book on their to-read list.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Infinite Importance of Keeping a Notebook

I have so much to say about the importance of keeping a daily notebook that I don't know where to start. If I had to choose one thing that has contributed the most to my current state as a writer -- taking into account school, parental encouragement, and even my computer -- I'd choose my notebook.

(For ideas on how to effectively use a notebook, scroll down.)

It all started when I watched the movie PHENOMENON with John Travolta. That movie changed my life. Up to that point I had kept journals: records of my life experiences. Such journals are important, but the main character in this movie did something different. He was bursting with so many ideas that to keep from going crazy, he wrote them all down in notebooks.

My eyes opened to new possibilities. What if instead of keeping a book solely for recording my experiences, I kept a book meant for every thought I have? It wouldn't be weird for me to write a poem, an idea for a recipe, or a knitting pattern in the same notebook. There would be no limits. 

My experience with notebooks continued when I took a Think Like da Vinci class in school. The teacher had us keep a notebook of such thoughts and ideas. (We were of course encouraged to write in it backwards, just like da Vinci.) There were no requirements except one: every day, we had to write down a question. It had to be a question no one could answer, such as how big is the universe, how do animals express sorrow, why is 42 the meaning of life, etc.

That class helped me use my notebook to stretch my mind, to train myself to think abstractly and constructively. It became not just a receptacle for thoughts, but a way to create thoughts that might be useful later on.

My third experience with notebooks happened only a few months ago. I had stopped keeping a notebook when I went to college and for some reason never picked it up again. As I struggled through my most recent bout of writer's block, a friend recommended I read THE ARTIST'S WAY by Julia Cameron. 

In THE ARTIST'S WAY, Julia Cameron suggested writing "Morning Pages" every day before doing anything else. This applies to everyone, not just writers. Your morning pages can be anything you want. They can be profound, or crappy. It doesn't matter. The point is to use them as a focal point before starting your day.

I can't begin to tell you how helpful my Morning Pages have been for me! Since I write from home, it's very easy to get distracted. When I write in my Morning Pages, my entire day becomes much more focused and productive. It's something you have to see to believe, so rather than try and convince you, I highly suggest you give it a try and see how it can effect your life.

Perhaps you see the value of keeping a notebook, but you don't know how to start. Here's a list of things you can write in a notebook:


  1. Goals. Include your plan for reaching those goals, your progress, and any challenges you encounter.
  2. Observations, about your surroundings, people, life in general, or yourself.
  3. Ideas. They can be career-related, but they can also be ways to improve your hobbies, your surroundings, or even economics and politics.
  4. Questions. Try stretching your mind by asking thought-provoking questions that aren't easy to answer.
  5. Thoughts. Your journal isn't the only place to write about yourself and your life.
  6. Intense Emotions. Sometimes I need to dump how I feel onto a piece of paper, but I don't want the emotions to clutter up my journal. A notebook is a great way to clear my head.
  7. Opinions. Whenever you get fired up about something, whether it be political, social, economical, religious, or whatever you feel passionate about, you can make your argument in your notebook.
  8. Lists. I love keeping lists of all sorts of stuff: things I'm grateful for, songs I'm going to sing to my kids, places in the world I want to go, my favorite books, pet peeves, etc. 
  9. Plan for the day, including how you feel about that plan (excited, overwhelmed, anxious). This is a great way to focus before starting the day.
  10. Poems, snippets from your novel, plot outlines, or anything writing related that's too raw to go into the computer just yet.
  11. Quotes you hear or read that inspire you.
  12. Writing exercises. 
  13. Garbage. You don't have to create anything worthwhile in your notebook; you just have to create.
Do you keep a notebook? What do you write in it? How has it helped you?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Audio of the Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction Panel


I'm excited to share with you the audio to the panel I moderated at the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference on Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction, recorded by VW Tapes Conference and Seminar Recording.

In this video, we discuss the authors' works, how to make a religion authentic when you can never fully understand it, when it's appropriate to criticize other religions, how to keep from offending readers, and much more. The author's speaking on this panel are:

Kamran Pasha, author of Mother of the Believers and Shadow of the Swords.
Mary Sharratt, author of Illuminations and Daughters of the Witching Hill
Stephanie Dray, author of Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile.

Since I'm an unpublished writer-in-the-making, participating in this panel is probably the coolest thing I've ever done. No matter how many panels or signings or book readings I will (hopefully) do in the future, I will always be the most proud of this.

If you would like to listen to more panels at this conference, you can purchase them here

Enjoy!


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Video of the HNS Conference Costume Contest!

I am soooooo excited that someone recorded this and posted it on YouTube! Being a pregnant Vestal Virgin in a historical costume contest was a major highlight of my trip to Florida.

Sadly, the video won't upload to this post for some reason, but you can follow the link to it by clicking here.

The entire event was fun and definitely worth watching -- Gillian Bagwell was a hilarious MC and I especially loved the deaf medieval princess and the Frieda impersonator. My part starts about two minutes in. 

You'll notice I didn't expect the entire skit to be funny. Whenever I mentioned "modesty" and "chastity," everyone got a big kick out of it. I'm not sure why they liked it when I said my shoes were made from the skin of sacrificed animals, but maybe weeks from now I'll suddenly understand the joke and feel dumb for not getting it sooner.

Enjoy!



Monday, July 1, 2013

It's Not About the Money, and This is Why


I love to knit. I learned how when I was a kid and I was so bored in church that the only thing I could do to entertain myself was watch a woman next to me knitting. She offered to give me lessons, and I've been doing it ever since.

For Christmas last year, I made my husband a blanket that is easily my best work. He had made me a fleece BYU blanket when I graduated but couldn't find a fleece MSU pattern he liked for when he graduated, so I made a blanket myself. 

As I painstakingly stitched every MSU signia into the knitting (watching Doctor Who and Downton Abbey the whole time), I thought to myself, "If Andrew ever doubts how much I love him, he can just look at all the work I put into this blanket."

When he unwrapped his gift Christmas morning, everyone in his family ooed and ahhed over it. I swelled with pride. Then they all gave me the same suggestion:

"You should sell these!"

To which I replied emphatically, "NO!"

Considering how much time I put into that blanket, if I charged as much as it was worth, no one could afford it. The fun part was designing something new; if I made the same project over again, it would feel less like an art and more like a craft. Most importantly, I made it because I love my husband, not because I love a customer.

If you take away the artistic expression and the love attached to that blanket, it isn't worth making. Not even for money.

It's the same way with writing novels. Someone once said novelists should never calculate how much money they make per hour because it's too depressing. Sure, we all would like to make money eventually, but most of us work tirelessly on our novels with no surety of a reward.

I used to think I could write for other people if my noveling career didn't pan out. Perhaps I'd be a freelancer, a ghostwriter, or a journalist. But writing for other people would never make me happy. It's not about the career, and it's not about the money. It's about the thrill of artistic expression.

And it's about the love.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

My Incredible HNS Conference Experience

In costume as a pregnant Vestal Virgin
I know it's been days since I got back from the Historical Novel Society Conference in Tampa, but I hadn't posted about it until now because I'm hard at work editing Sacred Fire. I was lucky enough to get several agent requests, and I don't want to keep those agents waiting!

Conferences are so much fun that I wish I could go to one every month. The best part about them is the friendships. Making friends might seem like a frivolous pleasure compared to everything else you can accomplish at a conference, but in any business endeavor your success is based off of who you know. In writing where word of mouth determines how many books you will sell, having friends is essential.

But there's more to it than that. Being around so many intelligent, like-minded people is soothing and regenerating at the same time. When I first got to conference I was feeling down about my book because it's taken longer than I'd hoped to find an agent. Every person I spoke to was supportive, encouraging, and helpful. For instance, Kate Quinn told me I should sell my book as women's fiction. That will make a huge difference in communicating to agents what to expect from it. Thanks, Kate!

I was stupid this year and didn't take copious notes on every panel. The Brooklyn Scribbler is posting multiple articles like I did last year, so if you're interested in learning more, I recommend visiting that blog. Also, someone "storified" all the related Twitter posts and it's a treasure trove of wise quotes from speakers and panelists. You can check it out by clicking here

On Saturday morning, I moderated a panel on Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction. It went perfectly! There's nothing more satisfying than looking back on an endeavor and deciding you wouldn't change a thing about it. The speakers were knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and they happily took on some challenging questions.



I highly recommend their books, if you haven't checked them out already:
I have a voice recording of the session, which I will post... as soon as I figure out how.

To think, I almost didn't submit the idea for the panel because I didn't think they'd be interested in an unpublished author such as myself. I'm so glad I went for it anyway! The fact of the matter is I had a good idea, and good ideas are more valuable than talent and experience. If you ever have a good idea, go for it!

The panel was my favorite part of the conference, but the Costume Contest was easily my second favorite. I went dressed up as a Vestal Virgin... who was seven months pregnant. Gillian Bagwell, who was in character as Lady Rivers, interviewed me on stage as if I were walking down a red carpet. She was a hoot! Acting with her was a real pleasure.

Hopefully I'll be able to post a video of the contest later, but the basic jist of it was this: she'd ask me about my clothes, and every time I said something represented virginity or modesty, everyone laughed. Finally Lady Rivers asked me how I could be a Vestal "Virgin" if I was with child, to which I responded, "How dare you! I've just gained weight!" The audience roared with applause.

I won the contest, and for the rest of the event, people wished me luck on my "weight loss."

Last year, I practiced the pitch I would give agents until I could do it in my sleep. This year, I said "To heck with it," and just talked, saying whatever came to mind. I was more comfortable and my passion showed through more easily. I guess the agents liked it, too.

It was a successful weekend, but not everything went perfectly according to plan. I met with one agent who straight-up hated my book. It was okay because I already knew she wasn't the right agent for me, and in her defense I did egg her on asking her to tell me exactly what she thought, but it was still tough to hear. 

The sad thing is, she was one of the first people I spoke to at the event and I was already feeling a lack of confidence in my book, so my weekend started on a negative note. But between the encouragement from my friends and the interest from other agents, I was able to take her helpful-though-saddening advice with renewed confidence.

Only two years before the next HNS Conference in America. I'm already counting down the days.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Thoughts Before the Historical Novel Society Conference

As the incredible Historical Novel Society Conference draws near, I find myself comparing the upcoming trip to the last time I went in 2011. A lot has changed... but perhaps too much is the same.

The conference was a huge turning point in my career and my life. Two years ago I was at a dead-end job, I had been working on the same novel for four years, my spirit was broken, and my dreams of being an author seemed an eternity away. I didn't read much historical fiction so I knew little about the genre. The thought of speaking to a real author made me giddy and nervous.

By the time I came back from the conference, everything was different. It was like I had glimpsed the life I always wanted -- a life where I speak to agents face-to-face and socialize with brilliant, talented authors -- and suddenly I didn't feel stuck anymore. My dreams felt possible again.

I learned from that experience that your situation doesn't affect your happiness nearly as much as your attitude. (Sure, I had heard that a million times, but it's completely different to  learn it first-hand.) With a renewed sense of purpose, I tackled the edits on my novel, read as much historical fiction as I could, joined my local roller derby team, and joined a writers' group. Things immediately started looking up.

This time when I go to the conference, I won't be an uneasy novice. I'll be a panelist! It's still hard to believe I'll be on the other side of the microphone. I'm going to be in the costume contest as a Vestal Virgin. Instead of being star-struck, I'll meet up with tons of friends I made last year and online since then. Best of all, instead of escaping from a job that I hate, I'll go as a happy stay-at-home writer with a huge pregnant belly. Life couldn't be better.

But.

Despite all my progress, there's one thing weighing me down: 

I'm going to pitch the same book I pitched two years ago. When people ask me what my novel is about, instead of excitedly chirping "It's a retelling of a Roman legend about a Vestal Virgin," I'll reluctantly mumble, "Oh, it's the same as last year."

It's frustrating when things happen so much slower than you want them to. But I guess that's the way writing goes. Heck, that's the way life goes. If there's one thing I've learned from this pregnancy, it's that timing is everything. Often the absolute perfect time for something to happen is years later than you think it should be, but when it finally happens, you're glad it didn't come a moment sooner. Hopefully, the perfect time for me to meet my agent is now.

If not...

Well, that's life.

Monday, June 17, 2013

My Recreation of a Vestal Virgin Uniform

The Historical Novel Society Conference is just three days away and I am finally done with my Vestal Virgin costume for the contest. I am perhaps the worst seamstress in the world, but all-in-all, I think the costume turned out really well.



 I asked a friend of mine to model the costume to match different Vestal Virgin statues. She did a great job! I would have done the modeling myself, but I'm seven months pregnant, so I would look significantly different from the statues. It'll be amusing for the conference, but not quite what I envisioned for the pictures.



 These pictures show a close-up view of the infula, a red head-band the vestals always wore. If you ever see a Roman statue with this headband on, you know you're looking at a Vestal Virgin.

The infula was probably the hardest thing to make. I couldn't figure out what to do for them so I asked Janet Stephens, the historical hairdresser extraordinaire, how she made them in her video Recreating the Vestal Virgin Hairstyle. She sewed together cotton filler cord and dyed it red. Brilliant!   



The first two statues you see in this post are in museums, but the ones above and below are still in the Vestal Virgin house, which is still standing (more or less) in the Roman forum.


Making this costume gave me excellent insight into the characters in my novel -- so much so that I wish I had made it when I first started working on the book. From now on, I will always try to recreate my characters' clothes so I can have an idea of what it was like to wear them.



I hope you had fun looking at my pictures! Feel free to ask me any questions you might have about the Vestal Virgin uniform in the comments; I'll be happy to discuss them with you.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Meal RoationSystem: Curry

This is Day 13 of the Meal Rotation System: a pattern of meal planning where you go down a list of meal groups each month, picking one from the group for each day, and rotate through the list when you're finished. Read more about how the Meal Rotation System works.


I get sick of foods easily. Curry is one of the few things I could probably eat every single day without complaint. It is sooooooo good. And, while it takes a little time to prepare, it doesn't take much effort.

Pretty much every grocery store sells at least a couple kinds of curry. If you go to an Asian market, you can get the good stuff: Mae Ploy. I recommend getting the Massaman Curry at first because it's mild and a little sweet, so everyone likes it. If you go to any Thai restaurant, the waiter will tell you Massaman is their bestseller.

I have a recipe for the kind of curry I make below, but there are tons of different stuff you can put in it: chicken, pork, beef, lamb, shrimp, carrots, potatoes, onions, bell peppers, celery, zucchini, broccoli, mushrooms, pineapple, apples, cilantro, peanuts, chickpeas... the list goes on. Just choose whichever sounds the best and experiment until you find the perfect recipe for you. You can also add more coconut milk to make a soup, or you can eat it with noodles instead of rice.

Curry

1 can coconut milk
Curry paste
1/2 lb chicken, cubed
1/2 lb carrots, diced
1/2 lb potatoes, cubed
1 onion, sliced
Cooked rice


  1. Pour coconut milk into large saucepan. Add curry paste (see directions on box for amount).
  2. Add chicken, carrots, potatoes, and onion.
  3. Boil until meat is cooked and vegetables are tender.
  4. Add salt, pepper, and additional curry flavoring to taste.
  5. Serve over rice.
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