The C, C, & C Revision Plan

Let me start off by saying that I have been plagued by writer’s block lately. This is my fault. To be honest, it is almost a self-imposed form of writer’s block. I am not the sort of writer who is able to write in short snatches of time. Nope. I need long stretches of time, uninterrupted thoughts, and quiet. Right now I am painfully aware that if I begin to write, I will be interrupted. My boys are home on spring break, my husband is in and out of the house, I am distracted by the approaching release of Every Day After and all the nerve-wracking things (trade reviews, promotion efforts, etc.) that come along with that.

This is me right now: I am sitting in front of the computer filled utterly to the brim with a cursed block, knowing I must write a somewhat rational post for this my favorite historical blog. I’m absolutely sure I have nothing worthy to say. Absolutely sure. I am rhythmically tapping my fingers on the keyboard, filtering ideas through my mind at a rapid pace, and tossing them aside one by one. I decide to pull up the actual blog for inspiration. I stare at the title banner at the top of the screen. I think. I ponder. Then, like a bolt of lightning: Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks! Ha! The very name of this blog is my saving grace. Here these words are used to conjure images of historical items. But each of these could also be used as a metaphor for different parts of the revision process. You need the functionality of these items to carry out a successful revision.

I actually think I might have something to say about this! I hope to be in the revision process on a new manuscript by, oh, I don’t know…by Doomdsday. So bear with me, and my writer’s block, as I dive in to this highly metaphorical blog post that may or may not be rational.

corset

Corset: a woman’s tightly fitting undergarment worn to shape the figure

The first draft of any story is bound to be uneven and/or shapeless, much like me. One goal during revisions is to shape the structure of your story. Well, apply an imaginary corset to your manuscript by creating an outline, then tighten and adjust the laces by moving around events and even entire chapters (you may cut some, add others) until you achieve the most pleasing shape. Eventually you will tie the corset laces, stand back, and admire the final result—a story boasting a drool-worthy shape, unlike me.

 

cutlass

Cutlass: a short sword with a slightly curved blade, formerly used by sailors

Once you have achieved a sturdy structure, draw your cutlass (aka the delete key) and begin to slice and shave off extraneous bits of fat from your prose. Excess fat typically takes the form of unnecessary adverbs, unneeded heavy description, or events that don’t enhance the plot. You may kill a few darlings in the process, but it is all for the best. When you have completed your battle against the bugle, your manuscript will be sleek and polished to perfection.

  

candlestick

Candlestick: a support or holder for one or more candles, typically tall and thin

Whatever you do, don’t forget a source of light to work by. I have terrible eyesight. I’m blind as a bat. I don’t relish the thought of working in the dark. In Revisionland this equates to not having a clue about what your story is genuinely about or where it is heading. To illuminate the situation, I always keep my trusty candlestick close by when I’m revising—my candlestick being my story’s throughline. Identify the throughline before you begin revisions, and never let it go. What exactly is a throughline? It is the backbone of your story, the main plot propelling your protagonist forward on their journey from beginning to end, the ultimate story goal and the path to achieving it. Find it. It will supply brilliant light on even the darkest days of revision.

So that’s it, folks. We’ve reached the end of my Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks themed revision plan. I am still absolutely sure that I had nothing worthy to say. But I did manage to overcome writer’s block, temporarily anyway. Hey, celebrate every success, right? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a nine-year-old tugging on my arm, a husband pacing around my office, and a second manuscript to draft…hopefully before Doomsday.

Laura photoLaura Golden is the author of EVERY DAY AFTER, a middle grade novel about a young girl learning to let go and find her own way amidst the trials of the Great Depression. It will release from Delacorte Press/RHCB on June 11. You can learn more about Laura and EVERY DAY AFTER by visiting her website or following her on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Advertisements

Which Came First? The History or the Story?

When I first conceived the idea of GILT, I wasn’t sure if I could write an entire book on Catherine Howard.  Then, through interlibrary loan, I got a fabulous, 40-year-old biography of Henry’s fifth queen that had been sitting quietly in a sister library in the sleepy little town of Colusa, California.  It still contained an old-fashioned check-out stamp card with stamps from the 70s on it.  How the book got to Colusa, I don’t know.  But I’m glad it did.  And I’m very thankful for interlibrary loan.  (The book, by Lacey Baldwin Smith, has just been revised and reprinted, and I now own a copy, but I read the one from Colusa twice.)

So does that mean I thought of the story first?  Before the research?

No.  And yes.  I’d been reading historical biography for years.  There are some incredible historians out there writing about Henry VIII, his Court and his wives.  Not just Lacey Baldwin Smith, but also David Starkey, Alison Weir, Antonia Fraser, Robert Hutchinson, Julia Fox.  I have read dozens of books –cover to cover, as well as footnotes and endnotes – and every time I discover something new and enticing.  Plus, some of them are a rollicking good read.  I “knew” a lot about my subject already.

So the research came first.

Yes.  And no.  I knew I wanted to write for teens.  I knew that Catherine Howard was the only one of Henry’s wives who was (probably) a teenager when he married her.  It seemed natural for me to put them together.  I’d done the research—or some of it—but I hadn’t really researched until I decided to write the story.

It was the same thing with TARNISH.  I knew a lot about Anne Boleyn.  I’d been to her house (Hever Castle).  I’d seen her handwriting.  But when I decided to write about her, I realized I didn’t nearly know enough.

I searched the journal archives of my alma mater’s library for articles about her birth.  I trawled through pages and hours of primary sources that have been paraphrased and published online.  I bought books and read dozens—maybe hundreds—or articles on the Anne Boleyn Files website.  I revisited Hever and Windsor and the Tower of London.  I made sure I knew which stories about her are fact (or as close as we can establish them to be) and which are fiction (probably—I don’t believe she had six fingers on either of her hands).  I research all of this—and more—because it is the detail and the historical record that gives me the ideas for my characters, and how I can have them grow throughout the novel.

But when I sit down to write the story, I have to forget all that research.  I have to trust that I know enough to write a first draft.  And I have to create a believable story against that backdrop.

Because the history is not the story.  And all the research in the world won’t make it so.

With GILT, I wanted to write a story about a girl in an abusive friendship—and her eventual escape.  I just happened to have the friend be Catherine Howard.  With TARNISH, I wanted to write the story of a girl who has to choose between love and her dreams.  She just happens to be Anne Boleyn.

I don’t need the research to write the story.  But I need it to write my books because of where I set them and who I write them about.  So it doesn’t matter which comes first, because I can’t have one without the other.

My Teenage Love for Those Moody Men of the Moors

When I was in high school, I fell in love with Gothic historical fiction. And Gothic historical men. I can’t remember which tempestuous hero of the English moors first sparked this literary infatuation, but I was smitten.

Here’s a short tribute to the brooding Byronic males who won my heart when I was a teen reader.

Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, you moody wild child, I didn’t care that you clashed with Catherine and embraced your dark side far too often. You had unruly hair and an undying love: that’s what mattered most to teenaged me (who also happened to be named Catherine).

JaneEyre

Mr. Rochester, you lonely, haunted master of Thornfield Hall, when you fell in love with plain Jane Eyre, you gave this quiet, studious girl hope that romance could happen to just about anyone. I didn’t care what or whom you were hiding in your house.

Rebecca

Maxim de Winter, you charming, troubled widower from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, I think I loved you most of all, although looking back, I see you were far too old for me…and you had one of the creepiest housekeepers in literature. Yet you inspired me to write my own Rebecca-style novel, The Days of Devonshire, which I lovingly wrote by hand in three spiral notebooks…and which will never see the light of day, if I can help it.

Dracula

Even you, Count Dracula, caught my young fancy. That neck-biting move with the ladies was awfully alluring, and you were always such a nice dresser.

Now that I’m a grown, married adult, I realize these troubled literary heroes would all make terrible real-life boyfriends and husbands. Undying love is a beautiful thing…as long as you don’t have to deal with daily mood swings and troublesome first wives who don’t completely go away.

Still, there’s an eternal soft spot for these gentlemen in my heart, and I suppose, looking at some of the male characters in my own Gothic historical novel, I can see that my love for troubled heartthrobs haunts my writing to this day.

_____________________________________________________________
Cat Winters is the author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a WWI-era ghost tale coming April 2, 2013, from Amulet Books/ABRAMS. Visit her online at www.catwinters.com, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.

Childhood Historical Fiction Favorites

When I was a child, like many novelists I know, I was an avid reader.  A trip to the library was exciting to me as an outing to an amusement park.  Adventure awaited me between the covers of those books. I couldn’t wait for the Scholastic book fair at school.  I can still remember the slick feel of the newspaper print order form, the sweet smell of the ink, the thrill I felt when I discovered a new book that appealed to me.  My mother always let me choose two books, and I couldn’t wait until the day the teacher opened the cardboard box and called us up, one by one, to collect our new books.

Inevitably, my choices at the library or the book fair always included a historical novel.  A historical novel was a peek into the past, a mysterious world where girls wore hoops skirts, poke bonnets, or animal skins. Where they helped build a sod house, yearned for Papa to return safe from India, and learned to make a spear.

Image

I can remember exactly where I was when I cried over ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O’Dell.  The book is based on the real life story of Juana Maria, a Nicoleño Indian who was the only occupant of a California coastal island in the 19th century.  In O’Dell’s fictionalized account, the main character Karana and her brother, Ramo, live alone on the island after a tragedy causes the natives to leave. When Ramo is killed by feral dogs, a grieving Karana has to find the strength to take on the man’s role. I was a fourth grader, and it was the first time I had ever wept while reading a book.  I was staying the night at my friend Gina’s, and while she was doing her chores, I took out the book while I waited.  I remember sitting cross-legged on Gina’s purple shag pile rug next to her enviable canopy bed, and trying desperately to stop crying.  It was also the first time I’d ever cried over someone else’s plight other than my own. My heart broke along with Karana’s.

Image

Perhaps my favorite historical children’s book of all time is A LITTLE PRINCESS, the 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  My mother bought me the book on a trip, along with another favorite historical children’s book, HEIDI, by Johanna Spyri.  In A LITTLE PRINCESS, seven-year-old Sara Crew’s wealthy father brings her to Miss Minchin’s boarding school in London and returns to India. Sara makes many friends, including the babyish Lottie and unpopular Ermengarde, and Becky the school’s benighted scullery maid.  When Sara’s papa dies, she falls on hard times and is forced to become a maid in the school.  But through it all she remains a “little princess,” continuing to be kind to those more unfortunate. Sara is saved when her father’s old friend comes looking for her.  It is a magical tale, and even when I read it to this day I’m swept back to my childhood, to the very day I first opened the book and was introduced to Sara’s amazing doll Emily.

Image

HEIDI tells the story of a young orphan sent to live with her grandfather, known as the Alm Uncle, in the Swiss Alps.  Her sweet nature turns the grumpy grandfather into a kindly man, and Heidi charms all who meet her.  What I loved most about HEIDI were the goats, Swanli and Barli.  I wanted those goats to be mine so much, and I’d read and re-read the chapter where the goats go up to their mountain pasture, and in a way I felt they were mine.  When grandfather served their milk and cheese to Heidi, I swear I could taste it myself, even though I had never tried goat’s milk before. I never doubted that Clara grew stronger because of their milk.  Today I have four goats of my own, one is named Barley, in honor of Heidi’s Barli.

Image
My Barley, less than a day old.

And of course, my list of childhood favorites wouldn’t be complete without Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.  I went along with Laura on every step of her journey as her father, Charles Ingalls, took his family from Wisconsin to Indian Territory in Kansas.  With Laura I experienced the harvest, a Christmas where striped peppermint sticks and an orange were pure luxury, a pig slaughter, a bout of malaria, and a visit from Indians. My father bought a gingham poke bonnet for me at a gift shop while I was in my LITTLE HOUSE phase and I wore it everywhere.  It looked great with a t-shirt and jeans!

Image

I still have these books on my shelves, the same well-thumbed pages I turned as a child.  All I need to do to go back in time is to open the cover, sit on the floor, and I’m there.

What are some of your favorites?

Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, an Edwardian-era novel about a young artist finding her own way during the time of militant suffragettes (Viking/Penguin, Winter 2014). You can find her at www.sharonbiggswaller.com or on Twitter @sbiggswaller.

Why I fired my writing process (and why you might, too)

“Real artists ship.” — Steve Jobs

I’ve been writing for a long time–both as an aspiring (and now debut) author, and as a marketing communications expert. I’ve written fiction and non fiction, and all manner of business copy from websites to speeches to training manuals to press releases… you name it, I’ve probably put it on paper.

donewayFor most of my writing career, writing fiction was a distinctly different process from writing for business. Writing fiction was an art, a craft; a mystical, magical foray into the arcane world of plot and setting, dialog and characterization. Writing for business, on the other hand, was all about clarity, persuasiveness, brevity, and calls to action. You couldn’t set a deadline on art, but when it came to business, it was all deadlines, all the time. I even made up fake deadlines in my work with both clients and employers, just because I really didn’t consider a job “real” unless it had a deliverable date.

Writing historical fiction was an even weightier undertaking. There was so much research to be done! There was always another article to find, date to double check, political treatise to decipher. Whereas in business, if you had time to do research at all, it was expected you somehow manufactured that time in another dimension, where you could go and read to your heart’s content without actually taking any extra hours to get the job done. You had to get the best product together in a timely and effective manner, and then get it out the door.

After ten years, countless award wins and several manuscripts under my belt, I still hadn’t sold my first book. I’d worked and reworked a couple of them, polishing them to utter perfection–but none of them quite made the grade.

In that same time period, however, I’d written literally hundreds of thousands of words to sell products and promote people and ideas. I’d moved up the corporate ladder in multiple businesses, quit and joined a successful start-up, risen to the level of vice president of a multi-national company, and had finally been able to leave corporate altogether and become a freelancer.

So there I was, in the Fall of 2010. After a flash of inspiration, I’d rewritten a historical novel almost entirely in the space of a few months, then set out to prepare for the lonnnng revision process to make it perfect, prior to sending it out.

And it hit me.

I wasn’t conducting myself as a professional writer, artist, or anything else. I was being decidedly UNprofessional, in fact. I wasn’t getting my work out on a timely basis. I was editing the life out of it. I was missing out on pitching and querying calls because “I needed to make it perfect.”

And I wasn’t selling.

At that point, I developed a new writing motto: Professional, not Perfect. I would do everything I could do (which was a lot… I can be a workaholic when need be) to make the manuscript the best it could possibly be within a reasonable amount of time… and then I would send it out. I would get professional feedback from agents on my marketing hook (my query) and my product (my book), I would see if I was differentiated enough from my competition, and I would take that feedback and make my story better. I would not sit in my office at my computer and polish an unpublishable manuscript until it gleamed. I would ship my work.

So I did.

In a little over six weeks from that decisioning point, I sent my manuscript out. Agents responded, and I eventually chose an amazing professional partner and advocate. I revised the manuscript again, and we sent it out on submission. About six weeks after that, I was blessed to receive an offer from a publishing house. Then another. And finally, I was delighted to be able to say my book was going to be published by Simon & Schuster.

From the decision point to final sale? Approximately six months.

Time I’d spent writing up to that point, off an on, here and there, learning and developing but not pushing my fiction career like I was my business career? Approximately ten years.

So, yeah. I fired my writing process.

And opened up a world of opportunities.

What about you? What writing practices did you used to have that no longer fit you now?

——————————

MaidofSecretsJennifer McGowan’s Maid of Secrets debuts May 7, 2013, from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. She is currently ready to ship book 2 in the series, Maid of Deception.

You can visit her online at http://www.jennifermcgowan.com, on facebook, or via Twitter at @Jenn_McGowan