The writing rollercoaster

Early coasterI’ve been deep in a first draft of a new novel, also set in early 20th century New York, and I observed something little, but telling at least for me. Writing a first draft is like riding a rollercoaster. I’m not talking about the ups and downs, the places where it goes fast and where you get stuck. I’m talking about how hard it is in the beginning, how you chug and chug up and up until you finally get to the point where you can “see” the whole landscape of your novel, and then whoosh! Things start to move really fast in the drafting process. That’s where the little ups and downs, the unexpected twists and turns occur.

For me, the chugging lasts until about 30,000 words…

Death and Facebook

facebook-256This isn’t a post about killing time, just want to get that out of the way right at the start.

Every morning, before I get out of bed, I turn on my iPhone and check my FitBit app to see how well I slept (I don’t know how accurate it is, but it interests me to see if my own perceptions of a restful or not night’s sleep have any basis in the physical), then check my email quickly, then go on Facebook and scroll through new stories that came in overnight. This morning, I saw a post from the son of one of my Facebook acquaintances, someone I knew very little about but whose posts I occasionally commented on. Her son was thanking everyone on Facebook for the support his mother received from us all in her final days. She had passed away the day before.

This was not an old woman, and the last thing I read from her haunts me. She said she was on oxygen, the fast-moving sarcoma was relentless, and that she probably had only days. And then, “Is this really all there is?”

It was a glimpse into dying that I have never had, that I avoid, that disturbs and terrifies me. Her question hung in the air, despite the hundreds of comments from concerned friends and acquaintances like me, saying meaningless things like “Courage!” “I’ll pray for you!” “You’re in my thoughts!”

But apparently they weren’t really meaningless. I imagine facing death is the loneliest thing in life. Most people, at best, have family around them. All too frequently I imagine people die alone. My mother did. But it was sudden, or I or my father at least would have tried to be there. That this woman could reach out to hundreds of people and ask for their thoughts and support when she was about to expire is nothing short of miraculous in its way. I doubt very much that Mark Zuckerberg thought about this consequence of what was initially a hookup app when he developed it.

A few of my other friends shared the sudden loss of their spouses on Facebook. Their pain and sadness, the love and concern that poured out from all their friends, some known to me, many not, touched me deeply.

Others have shared journeys through horrible illness that have so far had happier outcomes. A woman who had a heart transplant and is now going through rehab and all manner of other setbacks and steps forward is incredible. And although there are many who would think that these things are deeply personal and shouldn’t be shared with a wide public, many of whom are only known through what we choose to reveal of ourselves on Facebook, I can’t help seeing it as a great positive. A way we can connect across time zones and oceans, across generations and life choices.

I’m not saying that the dreaded FB isn’t, in fact, a time suck, a place where thoughtless memes are taken as fact and spread like the measles, where I go for my daily dose of adorable baby animal videos to take me away from whatever work I have to do. I’m just saying that it’s taken me to some very deep, personal places through bearing witness to the lives—and deaths—of others.

Finding the Story

Finding the storyI’m betwixt and between right now. My critique group is making its way through my recently finished novel and offering up some great observations—don’t underestimate the importance of beta readers: if they’re good, they keep you honest, and point out flaws you knew were there but didn’t have the strength or the will to fix before.

But that’s not really the point of this post. Or actually, it sort of is. This particular book, the one that takes place in 1910 New York (it’s called White Poison), took me a while to find, I mean, get to the real story. I had one character almost from the outset, Rose. A college-educated upper-class young woman who wants to do more with her life than be merely decorative. But finding the other characters that would bring the story to life took several agonizing tries. I wrote three complete drafts of three different stories, then revised the whole thing about six or seven times. Having other people respond to the characters and their relationships to each other really helped me focus on who was essential to the emerging story, and the best way to tell it.

At one point, I had a flighty, lost socialite, a school friend of my main character. She had some great scenes, including one going to the outdoor circus in Coney Island. But I mercilessly cut her and all her scenes out after the first draft. She was interesting, but not central to the point.

I also slashed a fascinating historical figure (whom I’d love to return to in another novel): Ann Morgan, daughter of the infamous J.P. Morgan, who refused to marry and may have been a lesbian, taking up causes that were in direct opposition to her father’s business interests. She, too, was superfluous. I knew I needed two college-educated females to carry out the main plot, which is based on something that really happened. Morgan simply didn’t suit, and fitting her in was a distraction.

When I finally created Emma, an Irish immigrant who works in a department store and whose life gets turned upside down in part due to an encounter with Rose, everything started to click into place. There’s nothing like that feeling when the story drags you along with it, when what has to happen seems inevitable, instead of a desperate struggle to write something your readers will believe, something that is true.

It wasn’t until I found my characters and then was able to flesh them out, give them conflicts and flaws and hopes and fears, that the actual story revealed itself. I always knew what had to happen, but what happens in a novel is different from its story. Plot vs. theme, I suppose.

Now I’m starting at the beginning again. I’m researching events, timelines, historical characters, in hopes that a story will start to emerge and I can put the first tentative lines down on paper—rather, on screen. Undoubtedly the process will drive me near to insane, but I can no more not undertake this crazy task than not get out of bed in the morning.

I’ll let you know when I pin down that elusive next story.

Working differently


I tend to neglect this blog when I’m on a roll with my writing–which I suppose is understandable. The good news is that I have been writing a lot and I’m close to getting another draft of my WIP done. I’m getting to the hardest part: making it all come together without having everything seem predictable or trite, writing an action scene that has to feel real, from several different  points of view, several of which may not make the final cut.

But at this crucial point, where I hoped to get to that “the end” moment so that I can roll up my sleeves and get into editing, with the knowledge of what happens at the end and what has to be in place earlier on to make it all believable, at this pivotal juncture, my laptop decided to freak out and is in for repair. The good news is that it can be fixed and won’t cost me anything, despite being 4 years old and technically obsolete in Apple’s view. It’s part of a recall.

Of course, I woke up in the middle of the night with an epiphany about how the opening needed to be written. And what I need to do with all my characters to round them out. So what was I to do? Hope I remember until I get my laptop back? Or find another way to work?

Everything is further complicated by the fact that I use Scrivener for Mac, so I couldn’t even hook into my external backup drive and fish out the document to work on.

The pressing need to write won the battle. I’ve been using my Kindle fire to write separate scenes, trying to reconstruct what’s there. It’s been an interesting exercise. Perhaps you purists wonder why I don’t simply handwrite. I have the worst penmanship, and it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t be able to read my work afterwards. And then I’d have to key it in anyway. These haltingly typed scenes (the keyboard is not fabulous) can at least be emailed to myself and copied and pasted, if I decide I want to use any of them.

But that’s not really relevant to the whole exercise of working differently. One thing I sometimes do if I’m having a problem with a scene is copy and paste it into an email. The different font, the different formatting, makes me see things I didn’t notice  before.

I’m a fairly linear writer. I need to tell a story from beginning to end, let my characters take control occasionally and let things unfold. Without being able to see these few scenes in context I am forced to think differently. I allow myself to isolate something, perhaps look at it more closely with a pickier lens. I permit myself to step outside the tyranny of a timeline, spending more energy on the moment. What is she really feeling right now? What are the external conditions, and how do they affect her?

I’m not entirely certain that the results will be useful, but maybe this forced hiatus from my laptop will refresh my writing.

If nothing else, I’ll really appreciate having a normal keyboard!

1910: Newspapers, Nickelodeons, and Nickel Weeklies

thumbnailOne of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a historical novel is getting glimpses of how ordinary people led their lives in times gone by. Standard biographies of famous people, traditional accounts of history—these rarely include such information, so if you want to discover more, you sometimes have to get inventive with your research techniques.

For my current WIP, I needed to know what people knew about what was going on in their city and the world, how they got their information, what they read on a daily basis and what they read for entertainment. Because I’m working in the early 20th century, information like this is a great deal easier to find out than it would be in, say, the 17th century—partly because of the wealth of searchable newspaper archives online, and plenty of period photographs.

Here’s a little of what I discovered:

New York had several well-established daily papers by 1910. Some of the more famous include The New York Tribune (founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Horace Greeley), The New York World, The New York Sun, The New York Times, and The New York Journal (Hearst’s paper). All of them published morning and evening YellowKideditions they sold for a penny, making them affordable to all but the poorest residents. The World and the Journal engaged in a circulation war, writing sensationalist headlines and even sometimes fictionalizing their news reports, in the late 19th century. This was the origin of what was called Yellow Journalism.

Investigative journalism was also born during this period At the time, politicians and others who found themselves the target of this practice called it muckraking. A particularly famous example is the investigation into Standard Oil’s practices under John D. Rockefeller by the progressive woman journalist, Ida Tarbell.

Ida Tarbell
Ida Tarbell

When it came to more entertaining options, New Yorkers enjoyed the Nickelodeon. These were store-front moving picture theaters that cost a nickel to enter, and where viewers could watch a series of ten-minute or so films in a wide variety of genres—comedy, drama, documentary, and more. Their heyday in New York was from 1905 to 1907, but they remained very popular in the poorer neighborhoods for several more years.
New Yorkers also bought Nickel Weeklies,the precursors of the Dime Novel, in the thousands. These heavily-illustrated publications served up serialized fiction and adventure stories to many different age groups. Readers came back week after week to get the next installment of their favorite tales. Their colorful—almost lurid covers are now highly collectible.

Secret_Service_COLORAs with all research, knowing what to leave out is just as important as what you put in. My characters won’t sample all these forms of news and entertainment on the page. But I’ll know all these things are a part of their lives off the page.

Would you like some help with your novel?

manuscript-300x201Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I enjoy writing about the process and the craft of writing. Over the years, I have helped aspiring writers with their work, editing and commenting. Several have gone on to be published by major publishers. Others have self-published.

I’ve decided that I’d like to do more of this, so I’ve taken the plunge, and made a page on this site that describes some of my services, and where interested writers can purchase either an assessment of 20 pages of your manuscript, or a full manuscript review.

I am also available to do line editing and work on a one-on-one basis with writers. Anyone interested in those services should email me.

A page from George Orwell's 1984 with some pretty serious editing going on!
A page from George Orwell’s 1984 with some pretty serious editing going on!

Of course, it’s very awkward to sell oneself  (although I’ve spent a chunk of my life writing copy to sell all manner of other products), but I got a very sweet note on my Writing Coach Facebook Page from someone I worked with a few years ago, the wonderful Janet Butler Taylor:

Susanne was the very first person I turned to when I first started my writing journey. Without her help and guidance I would never have come as far as I have. She is an amazing writing coach, and I will be forever grateful to her. Thank you so, so much, Susanne!!


So if you are looking for some practical, real-world help polishing your novel, please think of me!

Frozen in Time

w031230a077I’m not sure why I decided to do it, but after my chores were done today I sat down and watched the Disney movie, Frozen. I’d seen it before with my grandchildren, and was as much focused on them and their reactions as I was on the movie itself at that time. Watching it concentratedly, by myself, taught me a few things about storytelling, and about why these musical fairy tales capture the imagination of children and adults alike.

First, I’ll mention the gorilla in the room: music. And not just background music, but songs that are an integral part of the story. I grew up loving musicals. But let’s face it: there’s quite a stretch of the imagination to be made when watching a film musical with live actors. It just isn’t natural to burst into song to express feelings in the midst of a movie. The vast majority of live-action movie musicals got their beginnings on Broadway or London’s West End. The construct of theater is openly artificial, and so somehow having musical numbers performed by characters on the stage is OK. As theatergoers, we’ve already suspended our disbelief at the door. The movies that were original musicals usually wove the idea of music into the characters themselves (think Singing in the Rain).

But live-action movies are so relentlessly real—even when they’re science fiction or fantasy—that to have a character suddenly start singing actually jars us out of the moment instead of flowing seamlessly through an already altered reality. Yet music is elemental; we need songs in our lives, and songs have the ability to capture emotion in ways that words can’t always.

Enter the animated movie musical. Like a stage play, we have to accept the essential unreality of the story right from the outset. When animated characters—even ones who are made to look hyper-real—start singing, it feels natural and heightens the emotion.

snow_flake_01A book is not a musical, of course. But it has to have moments of heightened emotion, moments where the fictional time slows to allow a character or characters to blossom.

This is essentially the epiphany I had while watching Frozen. The simple manipulation of time at the service of storytelling and character delineation is masterful.

Take the parallel openings: first, we are introduced to Kristoff as a young boy with his reindeer pet/friend Sven, set against a classic work song. Then we go to the two young sisters playing, starting out very innocent, but the one with the magic accidentally mortally wounds her younger sister, creating the necessity for erasing her memory of the magic, and for the older sister to be hidden away so that she won’t be a danger to others.

Enter the first character song. The song serves to express Anna’s loneliness, and also facilitates the passage of time, racing us forward to their parents’ tragic voyage, Elsa’s coming of age, her coronation, the ball where Anna falls in love, accepts a proposal of marriage, angers her sister, and causes her to bring perpetual winter down on the land as she runs away and hides herself in her ice castle on the north mountain. This is the moment for another song, the most famous of the movie.

I didn’t look at how much time elapsed, but this all happens very quickly. Four big plot points in about 20 minutes. A huge amount of action in what is basically backstory. Because the central drama is Anna’s quest to find her sister and bring her back to Arandelle. There’s a cute set-piece for Olof the snowman, but otherwise we’ve heard all the songs by this point in the movie, and themes circle back like leitmotifs to foreshadow or underpin.

w031230a113With the exception of Olof’s song, nothing in the movie doesn’t advance the plot. The crescendo toward the moment when Anna performs her act of true love—not the expected kiss from Kristoff, but the act of sacrificing herself for her sister—is unrelenting, and the denouement  swift and satisfying, with all main characters having grown and learned from the experience.

This all seems like obvious storytelling 101. So what did I learn from it?

1. Don’t let your characters wait around for something to happen. Push them relentlessly forward on the path of the plot.

2. Look for those moments where you need to suspend the pace, where a song would go, and use it to add contrast to the action.

3. Don’t go for the obvious ending, the one you were probably thinking of when you started out. Let your characters surprise you, and discover that the real theme of your story isn’t the “first kiss,” but the act of sisterly love.

All this is much easier said than done, of course. But it did make me realize that my current WIP isn’t surprising enough, doesn’t have the pace and momentum it needs. I’ve been frozen in the story, and I need a little magic to make it sing.

What’s different about writing historical fiction?

fig26I love my writing critique group. Smart writers, talented, and we are honest in our criticism. None of us are in it for adulation and reassurance. We’re in it to face the firing line, get real reader reactions to what we’ve written, show ourselves as vulnerable on the way to crafting a finished product.

So when I get a similar response from several members of the group about a weakness in what they’ve read of mine, I pay attention to it. (I also pay attention to the individual responses, but they can be more matters of taste and preference.) And this past week, several group members found that I was too wordy, too explaining, adding too much detail in the scenes, that what I’d written would gain in strength by heavy use of the blue pencil.

I’m sure they’re right, and I’ll go in and doubtless find many instances where less is definitely more that I was blind to when I first drafted those pages. That’s so often true, it almost goes without saying.

But one of the members raised the question as to whether the additional detail, or over-elaboration, is something that is expected/necessary because it’s historical fiction (which he doesn’t normally read), and that made me think too.

Basically, historical fiction has to obey all the same rules as any kind of fiction. And yet, we are creating worlds that are unfamiliar to our readers. We want them to be able to picture what we picture, to be in the period.

For instance, a novel set in modern times can assume a lot more than one set in the past (and I suspect that fantasy and science-fiction also share some of this). You can say “She got dressed and went to work,” and we’ll all have a pretty good image of what that would entail. But what about in a past where, in some social milieus, one didn’t dress oneself, where it was impossible, in fact, to do so because of all the fastenings at the back, completely out of reach?

That’s an oversimplified example, but I think it’s a little to the point. I think the same group member questioned why I would specify that my heroine was driven somewhere in her father’s new Pierce-Arrow motorcar, instead of just saying she was driven. I didn’t have a ready answer, but on thinking about it, I felt that automobiles are still so new in 1910 that anyone who had one or rode in one might be hyper-aware of the novelty, and automatically think in those terms.

Of course, the real trick is to convey all that detail, all that evocation of a period and place, and not make the text feel overburdened with words. And then, you have to make sure that you don’t lose the reader for the opposite reason, because she lacks the period vocabulary to paint that mental picture. A crespine, for instance, mentioned as an item of clothing, needs to somehow be put in context as something that goes on the head. In a modern context, there’s no need to explain what you do with a hat.

I think this need of historical fiction, of drawing the reader into a world she’s completely unfamiliar with, is partly why people will read multiple books set in the same time period, or concerning the same people. Over time, they’ve built up a “vocabulary” of images that put them in that place and era, and they don’t have to work quite as hard to find their way back as they had to work to get there in the first place.

The Ladies’ Mile

6thavenueearlyI’ve been dipping in and out of this work-in-progress and have lately gotten back into it. I did a lot of research to start off with, but in my experience, the research never stops throughout the writing process.

The novel is about two young women in 1910 New York, one an Irish immigrant who suffers some reversals and ends up getting into terrible danger, the other a member of the wealthy class who’s just come home from four years of college, and is dealing with the competing demands of her mother’s ambition to marry her well, and her own desire to make a difference in the world. Their two stories intersect in the shadowy underworld of white slavery.

The writing is going well now, but I have started over from the beginning three times now. I began in the first person, then realized that there are so many complicated sides to what was happening that multiple third would serve me better. I also changed the timing of the beginning, and many of the events.

All this meant that yesterday, I found myself researching the department stores in New York in 1910. It was already a commercially thriving city by that time, with big department stores like Macy’s, B. Altman, and Lord & Taylor opening their flagship stores in what was known as The Ladies’ Mile.

The area, now a historic district, stretches from around 15th street up to 24th (extending to 34th when Macy’s store there opened), east to what is now Park Avenue South and west to the other side of Sixth Avenue.

200px-ONeillBuilding-NYC-LadiesMileMapThanks to the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission, most of the buildings are still there, although many have been repurposed into smaller retailers and offices.

Of course, the most iconic of them all is the Flatiron Building, but Gimbel’s and B. Altman had pretty impressive buildings themselves.

These establishments employed armies of shop girls and porters, and supplied the wealthy and the growing middle class with ready-to-wear clothes, fashion accessories, and household goods.

If you’ve been watching The Paradise or Mr. Selfridge, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what retail was like around the turn of the 20th century. Here’s a slideshow with some vintage images to enjoy!

What do readers want?

reading-glasses-on-a-bookThis may seem like a rather foolish question. Readers want to read, OF COURSE!

But what I’m talking about is what is arguably on the mind of every agent and editor at every publishing house: what kind of books will capture the most readers, which translates into: what’s going to be the next big thing in publishing and how can I either find a writer who has already produced it, or get one of the writers I already know to write it?

The funny thing about writing is that you have to really love what you’re writing about. You have to get behind it and be willing to spend a sizeable chunk of your life and energy on it, warts and all, until you produce something you actually think is worth reading.

And then, it’s quite possible that not very many people will want to read it once it’s all done and dusted. At least, that’s what we’re told by mainstream publishers.

I had one of those, “It’s not what editors are looking for,” moments recently. A very kind and thoughtful agent took the time to read something I’ve been working on for about eight years, and although she liked it very much (at least that’s what she said), pointed out that editors are not buying books about the period I was writing in, which happened to be the mid-thirteenth century. Undoubtedly that is true.

As a historical novelist, I absolutely delight in digging into research, discovering things about the period of whatever book I’m working on and gaining a deeper understanding of history because of it. Yet historical novels are already a thin slice of the entire fiction market, albeit one with a devoted readership. I looked up Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, and Phillippa Gregory’s The White Queen on Amazon (those being the three titles I could think of that might be the most popular in historical fiction), just to look at their rankings. None of them were below the 2,000 mark in Kindle books, and even higher in paperback. And that despite the fact that two of them had won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in recent years.

Periods in history, historical subjects, come and go in popularity. Right now, there seems to be a plethora of Tudor era novels. It’s a wonderful period, rich in subject matter, so it doesn’t surprise me. But unless someone has written a really remarkable book (like Hilary Mantel’s novels about Cromwell), or put a new spin on it (like C. W. Gortner’s Tudor mystery series) I’m kind of over the period.

But are “readers?” At least, are enough of them?

At what point do editors—who are under an awful lot of pressure themselves to make the numbers—decide to take a chance on a period that isn’t “popular,” or on a historical novel on a subject that most potential readers aren’t familiar with? And should they?

I try to put myself in their shoes. I believe that I would champion a novel that I thought was really excellent. But then I’d have to sell it to the marketing folks, whose first observation would be, “No one’s heard of that (person/place/time period/event). Hell, they can’t even pronounce it!”

This focus on selling has been decried as a dumbing-down of the literary world. Yet publishing is a business, and a business must make money. Works of true literary merit do still manage to get published by mainstream houses. Here’s a very illuminating quote from The Guardian about the effect of the Booker Prize on book sales:

The Booker effect is most noticeable for less well-known authors – sales of Tan Twan Eng‘s The Garden of Evening Mists leapt from 174 to 950 during shortlist week in September; Jeet Thayil‘s Narcopolis from 100 to 727; and sales of Alison Moore‘s The Lighthouse rose from 283 to 1,392

Book sales in the hundreds—no publisher could make money on that. I don’t have access to the industry figures, but Alison Moore’s critically acclaimed novel is now at about 145,000 on the Amazon Kindle list. I know from experience just how few sales that might represent.

With all this, it’s no wonder that so many authors have turned to self- or indie publishing, as it’s euphemistically called these days. I’m sure there are many wonderful books written that cannot find a publisher willing to take a chance on them. But does that solve the problem? The overwhelming majority of self-published authors don’t sell very many books, either as e-books or print on demand. They can’t get shelf space in bookstores, and there’s very little apparatus for getting the important pre-release reviews that help sell a book.

Self-publishing may be a way to get your book “out there,” but it isn’t necessarily a way to get it into people’s hands.

So are we, as authors historical fiction, destined to hope our passion becomes popular, or that we stumble into a subject that for some reason first capture’s an agent’s, then an editor’s, then the marketing department’s, then the designer’s, then finally the reader’s imagination, and becomes that “breakout book?”

All I know is that I can’t set about to write for the market. I simply have to keep writing what I love, and hope that—eventually—the market finds me.