Thursday, January 31, 2013

My Querying Experience Thus Far

My search for an agent hasn't been as stellar as I had hoped. 

Part of that is my fault. I haven't sent out very many queries. When I sent a mass email to a hundred agents two years ago and got rejected by every single one of them, I became overly cautious. I need to just buck up and be more aggressive.

Don't misunderstand me, it's not that I haven't seen any interest at all. In fact, here's an interesting tidbit;

I've always wondered if queries are really as big a deal as everyone makes them out to be. Well, one agent who had rejected me two years ago actually requested the manuscript this time around. She eventually said no, but for her an improved query made all the difference.

It's far from time to through in the towel, but it sucks that the story of my "writer's journey" isn't going the way I envisioned it. I blame a friend of mine. She sent a partial of an incomplete work to five agents and had three of them clamoring for her within the week. Granted, she's been published before so it's ridiculous to compare myself to her, but still, I wanted my story to be like that.

While I'm on the topic of agents, I would like to send a thank you into the universe directed at the agents who are specific in their rejections. I would love to get emails that say, "I'm too busy to take on a new client," or "I don't even represent your genre, stupid," so I know it's not because my book sucks.

One agent sent me a rejection that said my writing was lovely, but her agency has had trouble selling books in my time period. It's true, there aren't many Ancient Roman books out right now. 

That rejection was incredibly helpful. I always thought if I didn't get an agent I'd just sell my book for 99 cents on Amazon and move on to my next book, but if the biggest reason my novel isn't taking off is that Rome isn't popular right now, it would make more sense to shelve the book until readers come back to the Ancient world. The Tudor fad can't last forever, right?

I just really hope I get an agent before the HNS Conference. I don't know why, but I want to include it in my writer's bio very much bad. (Speaking of which, you can see my writer's bio here. Pretty neat, huh?)

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Amazing, Incredible News

My news isn't that I have an agent. I figured I should clarify that right away. Actually, my news is a million times better than that.

I'm pregnant!

The baby is due August 20, and I can't tell you how excited I am. I've wanted a baby for a while, but it took time for the stars to align just right before my husband and I felt like we were ready to start trying. Now it's finally happening, and I feel like I'm right where I'm supposed to be at the exact moment I'm supposed to be here.

It's actually a convenient time to be stuck on my novel, because I've been too sick to write much anyway!

There are a handful of things I need to have the perfect life I imagined for myself as a child, and so far, I'm able to check quite a few things off my list. Husband: Check. Quit my day job and write from home: Check. Become a stay-at-home mom: Check. Now I just need my writing career to kick off and I'll be good to go!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I'm Officially Stuck

It's official; 60,000 words into Voodoo Queen and I am completely stuck. I've been stuck for a while and it's finally time to admit it.

The problems I'm having with this book are numerous and unavoidable. First off, I know my plot, characters, and a good deal of my research, but I haven't decided a narrator yet. I'm not exactly sure what structure I want the book to follow. (I'll write about this in greater detail at the end of this post.) I figured I'd just write until a voice popped out of me, but it never did.

Since I'm a control freak, it's frustrating to wait for my subconscious to make creative decisions. I tried making a pros and cons list to make an educated decision on how this book should go, but that didn't work. Every time I just "picked" something, it didn't feel right. 

I hate to admit it, but ideas need time to develop on their own. There's a lot of truth to the whole I-need-to-wait-until-my-muse-speaks-to-me theory. So even though all I want to do it finish this masterpiece that's inside my head, I think I need to put it down for a while. It's time to respect the creative process.

The thing that sucks the most about this is that I write from home, so now that I'm stuck, I don't have much to do. I think I'll get back to one of my old Nano books, like Hunger or Fierce. 

Readers, what do you do when you get stuck?


The Problem 
(for anyone interested in offering much needed advice)

Here's a breakdown of the problem: ever since I had the idea five years ago, I planned on this book alternating from two first-person POV's: Marie Laveau and her daughter, the Second Marie Laveau. The two of them are talking like they're having a conversation, and at the end you realize the mother has already passed on and she's speaking to her daughter from beyond the grave. (Just like Mama Day.)

Problem is, I found out there was no Second Marie Laveau and the daughter died 20 years before the mother. Also, I decided the story will include five generations of Marie's family instead of just two. Not to mention that voice just didn't work for me once I got started. 

Now I have the following options:

1. Make it an epic family saga that's third-person limited, but the narrator changes from one generation to the other. It would be like Roots. Problem: Sometimes I want to be inside multiple heads and I don't think I could limit myself to one narrator at a time.

2. Third person omniscient. This will give me all the freedom I want to go into anyone's head at any time. Problem: It makes the book impersonal and less interesting, and it's difficult to do. Few authors use third person omniscient because few readers like it.

3. Have Marie's daughter tell the whole story as if she's recounting her family history. This will give her enough insight into all the characters that I can get inside multiple people's heads. It would be like the Red Tent, which starts out third person omniscient and then switches to first person once the main character is born. I like this option the best. Problem: The daughter dies 20 years before the novel is over. She would have to continue telling the story as a ghost. It would be just like The Lovely Bones. This might be too complicated for me to pull off. Plus, the daughter's character hasn't developed much in my head yet.

4. Have Marie Laveau be the narrator. This makes the most sense, since she's the main character and the book ends with her death. I don't like it, though, because I don't feel like parent's have enough insights into their children's lives to tell their stories. Her daughter would not be as well developed as I would like because I couldn't get inside her head; I would only see her life through the eyes of her mother.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Recreation of the Vestal Virgin Hairstyle

I found an amazing video where hairstylist Janet Stephens recreates the hairstyle of the Vestal Virgins. She recreates a lot of historical hairstyles, which you can see at her YouTube channel here. They're fantastic!


Her research shows that vestals did their hair completely differently from what I thought. I had read ancient texts that weren't incredibly thorough, whereas she analyzed statues. I have never seen a statue of a vestal in person, and no one ever takes photographs of the back of a statue's head, so I was at a distinct disadvantage.

I guess I'll have to go back and change a few things!

It's great that people are still making new discoveries about the Vestal Virgins. I just hope they stop after my book gets published. Perhaps that's not a very noble wish.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Historical Fiction: I Have an Idea, Now What?


I've lived in both Oregon and Utah. The climates of these two places are as different as can be; one is a lush green (and wet) forest, whereas the other is a rocky, brown desert.  I used to joke that when settlers came to Utah they had to plant trees, whereas when they moved to Oregon, they had to chop them down.

Writing fiction is much like settling in Utah. You start out with nothing and have to build everything - story, characters, setting - from the ground up. 

Writing historical fiction, on the other hand, is like settling in Oregon. You have a mass of facts, events, and names at your disposal and you have to weed out what you want to use and what you don't.

Take Cleopatra's daughter Selene, for example. Michelle Moran's version of Selene's story starts with her parent's deaths and ends with her marriage. Stephanie Dray, on the other hand, extends Selene's story into a series of books. Michelle Moran decided to weed out more information than Stephanie Dray did.

Sometimes when I read about an event, the story forms in my mind instantly. Other times I know I want to use an event, but I have no idea how I want to tell it. This is a problem for me with Voodoo Queen. I know I want it to be about Marie Laveau, but do I want it to start with her grandmother and end with her daughters, do I want the POV to switch between her and her daughter, or her and both daughters, do I want it to be a spiritual fantasy or do I want to focus on the facts...

There are so many possibilities!

When you're ready to get to work on a historical fiction, here's a list of things to decide before you start writing:

Questions to Get You Started

  1. Who's my main character(s)?
  2. What do the history books say about my characters' personalities? Am I going to depict them the way history dictates, or present my own theories?
  3. If there's controversy over the characters or events, what stance will I take?
  4. First person, second person, third person limited, or third person omniscient?
  5. What is the main plot? (It can be hard to focus when so much happens in a person's life. You cannot tell the whole story.)
  6. Which events will I use and which will I not use?
  7. How many characters will I include?
  8. Will the story start with the MC's birth and end with her death, or will I focus on one area of the MC's life?
  9. Will I go heavy on the research, or focus more on the story?
Once you figure all this out, your proverbial forest should be clear enough to prepare you for writing the first draft. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Memoirs are Better than Journals


When I went to this year’s Oxford Conference for the Book, I attended a panel about writing biographies. Two of the panelists got into a discussion on writing about living people vs. people who have passed on. 

John Aloysius Farrell – White House correspondent and reporter for the Boston Globe and Denver Post – said history is most accurate when it’s recorded right away. The sooner a biography is written, the better.

Jon Meacham – Pulitzer Prize- winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House – disagreed. He said we can’t fully understand events as they happen. For a President of the United States, for example, he said it takes about 30 years to understand the impact he made.

I agree completely with Meacham. I feel you cannot write history accurately when the events are still happening.

When I was a freshman in college, my roommates and I threw a party. It was probably the best party I went to in college. When I got back to my apartment, I got out my journal and started to write all about it – the people who came, the games we played, the jokes we told. I didn’t get very far before I had to do something else. When I came back, I decided not to finish that entry. A decade from then, would I really want to read about a party I went to? I was having a horrible day at the time, which I decided it was more important, so I wrote about my bad mood instead.

Little did I know, I had met my future husband at that party.

At the time, I did not understand the full import of what I was doing. Now I’m stuck with an entry about a bad day I had, which I care nothing about, instead of one of the most important events in my life.

If I wrote about that party now, the writing would be completely different. I know what to include and what to leave out. I can add facts that meant nothing to me at the time but have a lot of meaning now. I understand the effects of the actions. Most importantly, I can add my husband’s point-of-view. The account I write now would be more accurate than the one I started when I was in college.

That’s not to say the things happening to us now shouldn’t be recorded. Facts become fuzzy and can be forgotten. However, I don’t think recording current events counts as writing a history. It's more like taking notes, which you’ll need to write a history later.

When we sit down to write in our journals we always describe what’s happening to us right then, which is important, but I also like to write about things that happened in my past. For example, I might write something like, “I just remembered the craziest thing my brother did when we were kids,” or, “Today I was thinking about a game I used to play with my friends.”

Eventually, I’d like to turn it all into one complete piece. My kids and grandkids (if they feel any desire to read my journal) won’t want to sift through years of bad days and meaningless activities to get to the jewels of what mattered. I’ll gather those jewels myself using the impressions I had at the time, my memory, and the wonderful gift of hindsight.

That’s the best way to write history.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My Interview with A Famous Voodoo Priestess

During my study of voodoo for my novel about Marie Laveau, I've often been frustrated by the lack of information online and in books.  At a certain point, you have to hear things from the horse's mouth. I contacted a famous priestess in New Orleans and asked for a short interview. Thankfully, she was happy to discuss my questions over the phone.

I would like to post her name and the entire interview, but I chickened out before I could ask her permission. She probably wouldn't have minded, but there's always the fear a person will say no and then not be as open. I regret it now, but at least I can post some of the highlights.

My first question: There are several branches of voodoo belief in Africa, Haiti, Cuba, and New Orleans. During the recent resurgence of voodoo in America, most practitioners are training in Haiti instead of here. I asked her why.

In the eighteenth century the slaves in Haiti staged a successful revolt that was inspired by voodoo leaders, and the priestess said this process made voodoo acceptable in their society. In America, however, the religion had trouble taking hold. While voodoo flourished in New Orleans for the first half of the 19th century, after the Civil War it was so heavily repressed that it went underground. Now it's become fragmented and turned into mere magic tricks (which is referred to as hoodoo). People go to Haiti for a mystical community experience.

Veve: a drawing on the floor that calls spirits to ceremonies
A big problem I'm having with voodoo is that it's an unorganized religion. As a Christian, I'm used to a stringent structure. Anything goes in voodoo, and it's hard for me to understand how such a system could function.

The priestess explained that practicing voodoo is an art form. Suddenly, the concept clicked for me. Artists don't have to produce the exact same work to communicate the same idea. Even if an artist doesn't create a piece the same way you would, the piece can still "work" for you.

Marie Laveau was so famous in the 19th century that people still honor her today by holding ceremonies, building altars, and making sacrifices to her. The priestess even told me she's seen Marie possess people. ("Possession" in voodoo is a process where a spirit enters a person's body and controls their actions. I saw one happen in New Orleans.)

I personally don't know what to think about possession. The people aren't just making it up to put on a show and I don't believe it's Satanic. I think God will give a spiritual experience to anyone who asks for one, but I don't see why he would use that method. Since I feel it's rude to question other people's spiritual experiences, I'll leave it at that.

When she said Marie's spirit is possessing people today, I got excited because I saw the potential for further insight into Marie's character. When a person is possessed, you can tell which spirit has "mounted" the person by their behavior. I asked how Marie behaves.

The priestess said Marie is mesmerizing and spellbinding. She's very nice to people, and she has a dramatic magical flair. You don't have to be possessed by her to feel her influence, though; she is powerful enough that you can feel her just by going to her tomb.

Almost all the believers in voodoo I've seen are white, which was confusing to me because voodoo is traditionally African. She said the religion was attacked so heavily that a great cultural theft happened. African Americans were taught that voodoo was embarrassing, superstitious, and only for old people. Most of them converted to Christianity and rejected voodoo. Those who didn't avoid performing ceremonies in public (which is why all the ones I see are white) because they don't want to be seen. There's too much racial damage.

One aspect of voodoo that fascinates me is the process of "being called by the spirits." You can't become a practitioner or priest without the spirits requesting it of you. Just having a desire to serve is not enough. I asked her what it's like to be called of the spirits.

In her experience, she believes most people who consider themselves called only wish they were. Those who are truly called often try fervently not to be. Being called is not necessarily a blessing. It's inconvenient  isolating, makes living a normal life difficult, and people go through a period where they feel like they're going crazy. 

They can't avoid the call, however, because avoiding their destiny will disrupt their lives, even make them sick. Most of them reluctantly come to voodoo kicking and screaming. But that's a process she says everyone goes through when they discover who they really are.

I asked about her own experience being called. She said for her, she was born seeing things. In her earliest memories she had an awareness of invisible things that were more real to her than what was on the surface. It took her a long time to realize not everyone saw things the way she did. This spurred on a fascination with all things spiritual, and it wasn't until her thirties or forties that she found her place in voodoo.

I can't believe I got so much information in only twenty minutes. Hopefully I can go back to New Orleans soon and meet her in person!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Come Join the Hub City Writers' Group in Hattiesburg, Mississippi

If you live in the Hattiesburg area and you're interested in joining a writing group, come visit the Hub City Writers!

WHO WE ARE: Most of us are novelists, but we gladly welcome poets and short-story writers. Some of us are hobbyists and some of us aspire to become professionals.

WHERE WE MEET: The Art Gallery in the USM library. As soon as you walk through the front doors, go through the door on the right. If you get to Starbucks, you've gone too far. Parking anywhere is free on campus during the weekend.

WHEN WE MEET: Every second and fourth Saturday at 10:00 am

WHAT WE DO: Mostly we critique each others' work. We also discuss writing in general, recommend books, share resources, and participate in events such as local conferences.

HOW YOU CAN LEARN MORE: Our website is hubcitywriters.weebly.com and our Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/groups/1408282349464586/. Visit either site to hear about schedule changes and events. You can also contact us via the contact page or by leaving a comment on this blog post.

I hope to see you there!
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