Friday, February 17, 2017

Publishing Too Soon

Writing is a tough business, especially novel writing. Almost by definition, it takes place in a virtual cave—one would-be author alone against the onslaught of the imagination. Characters talking in your head, moving pictures of setting and plot: isn’t this most people’s definition of insanity? Sure, the writer knows at some level that these are his or her creations, but tell that to a character who has decided that, come hell or high water, she is not embarking on that terribly convenient (for the author) mission that doesn’t happen to fit with her way of looking at the world.

In addition to the intense solitude of fiction writing as an exercise, budding novelists encounter another problem. To be able to write, you must first have learned to read. The vast majority of us learn to read at an early age, and those of us who become writers have often been reading for several decades before we produce finished work as adults. Since we are such accomplished and passionate readers, we tend to assume that we have what it takes as writers, and since we are writing alone, there is often no one to correct that misapprehension.

The third problem magnifies the first two: finishing a story feels fabulous. At the moment of typing “THE END,” almost every author knows this draft represents the greatest work in world literature, a piece of perfection equal to the classics. Every one of the nine hundred pages, now so laboriously completed, shines like the proverbial sun. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first book or the twenty-first, in that instant of completion the thought of withholding this gift from its unwitting but eager readership seems cruel. And so the first draft gets pushed out into print before it’s ready.

In the olden days, by which I mean a decade ago, that last step was not possible. Vanity presses existed, but few people read the books they published. To reach a market, writers sent out typed, then e-mailed, queries to literary agents who, drat their uncaring souls, failed to recognize the genius. The agents did not reply or, if they did reply, sent standard responses. Writers had to work their way up to requests for full manuscripts, detailed critiques, and personalized rejection letters before they finally secured a contract. In the process, they did a lot of rewriting. And slowly, slowly, authors learned that, however necessary in terms of preparation and training, the mere fact of being avid readers did not mean that they had mastered the craft of novel writing.

Believe me, I know. I’ve been there and done that, as they say. Twenty-plus years ago, I sent queries to agents for novels that these days I can’t bear even to look at. I think of those queries and cringe. What must those agents have thought? But I know the answer: they had seen thousands of submissions just like mine, and within three pages, if not three paragraphs, they thought “here’s someone else who doesn’t know what she’s doing,” tossed my query aside, and sent the standard letter—or nothing.

At the time, I was disappointed, not to say devastated. But now I consider myself fortunate to have had that experience. It took me fifteen years to write a publishable novel, reading craft books and working with more accomplished fellow writers all the way, and in those fifteen years publishing changed. In many ways, it changed for the better, because a highly consolidated market rejected good books as well as those that still needed much more work. But in one respect, authors lost from the change. As I have discovered from hosting New Books in Historical Fiction and from co-founding Five Directions Press, it has become easy to publish a book too soon.

Not only beginners or self-published authors make this mistake. Even mature writers sometimes put out books at a point when they could use another round of editing or error checking, when the plot is still sketchy, when the main characters’ motivations remain cloudy or inconsistent and their developmental arcs unclear. In these cases, the writers are usually seeking to make money with additional titles or have signed a contract they must meet. Sometimes the writer has become such a big name that no one in publishing wants to criticize his/her books. But for whatever reason it happens, the person hurt in the end is the author. The established author at least has his or her early works for readers to enjoy. The new author may never recover from those slow beginnings, inept dialogue, clich├ęd emotions, and trite descriptions. At Five Directions Press, that’s one of the things we do for one another: we decide as a group when each of us can safely release her book.

So do yourself a favor. Put the first draft away, toast your achievement in champagne, and pat yourself on the back. You’ve earned every drop and chortle. You finished a novel, and that’s amazing. But don’t send the file out (or upload it for publication) just yet. Go back in a week—better, a month—take out the blue pencil, and revise. Read the dialogue aloud and listen to whether it sounds clunky. Show the manuscript to a writer friend you trust. Show it to a few more. Collect their comments and repeat. Get recommendations for books on writing and read them, or if you can, take a course. Hire an editor who specializes in your genre of fiction, who can point out where your specific story goes off the rails or needs further development. Join a critique group and learn while doing. Find a way that works for you. But whatever you do, don’t publish the first draft or even the third. One day, you’ll be glad you waited.

Image from, no. 20413568

Friday, February 10, 2017

Welcome to Claudia Long

As a founding member of Five Directions Press, I was delighted to hear last week that Claudia H. Long had decided to join us. A San Francisco lawyer and, in her own words, “mother of two, wife, and cook,” Claudia is also a talented writer of historical fiction. Her first book, Josefina’s Sin, came out with Atria Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, in 2011. Set in colonial Mexico at the end of the seventeenth century, it tells the story of a young wife whose path to maturity includes a love affair with a bishop that leaves her pregnant.

The Harlot’s Pen, Claudia’s second novel, came out three years later. Its heroine, Violetta, works as a journalist in the tradition-breaking, steamy world of 1920s San Francisco. Extra steamy, in Violetta’s case: her book on working women takes her to a brothel frequented by some of the city’s most powerful men, and the federal agents set on suppressing the trade in vice (and keeping workers in their place) have no use for a Flapper with an attitude. Denise Steele selected it as her “Books We Loved” pick in May 2016.

But it’s The Duel for Consuelo and its impending sequel that brought Claudia to us. Consuelo also came out in 2014, with the now-defunct Booktrope Editions, and it needs a new home. Since our mission at Five Directions Press is to focus on “literary journeys less traveled,” a book set in early eighteenth-century Mexico is a perfect fit for us. So we look forward to republishing Consuelo and, by the end of this year, bringing out Claudia’s next Mexican novel. Currently titled “Chains of Silver,” this new book will be the third in the series that began with Josefina’s Sin. Where The Duel for Consuelo features Josefina’s son, now an adult, and introduces a young woman who must choose between love and her hidden Jewish faith, “Chains of Silver” extends this conflict to a new generation, in the person of a determined fourteen-year-old who must learn to balance the needs of self and family, including her religion.

The addition of Claudia as our eighth member means, among other things, that our cooperative is now about as large as it can get and continue to function effectively. We also have a lovely combination of writers with business, legal, marketing, media, developmental and line editing, artistic, and typesetting expertise. So despite the wisdom of “never say never,” we will not be looking to add anyone else for a while. But stop by our site to see what the eight of us have planned and to sign up for our newsletter (quarterly issues and book announcements only), and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram for quotations and images from our books as well as general news.

And don’t forget to like Claudia’s page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also check her website, linked above, to find out more about her and her books.

Welcome, Claudia! We can’t wait to start working on your books!

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Roaring Twenties

As I mentioned in one of last year’s posts, “The Fog of War,” there seems to be a renewed interest in fictional exploration of the early twentieth century—perhaps because of the ongoing centennial of World War I. I had intended at the time to give a fuller treatment of one title I mentioned in that post, Beatriz Williams’ A Certain Age, a book I absolutely loved, including a Q&A interview with the author. The interview never came off, but Williams has just published another book set in Jazz Age Manhattan, The Wicked City. She has a third, Cocoa Beach—still in the 1920s but set in Florida—due for release in July, at which point I am scheduled to interview her about all three for New Books in Historical Fiction.

Part of the fun of Williams’ novels is discovering characters and settings that have cropped up before. The hero in A Certain Age, Captain Octavian Rofrano, also made an appearance in Fall of Poppies, an anthology of stories commemorating World War I that I featured in “Remembering the Great War.” The heroine’s youngest son, Billy Marshall, plays a role in The Wicked City, which opens in a Greenwich Village apartment building that once housed a speakeasy called the Christopher Club, also featured in A Certain Age. The modern-day heroine of The Wicked City lives in the same building—I think in the same apartment—once occupied by Geneva (Gin) Kelly, who anchors the 1924 portion of the book. And so it goes, in intertwining patterns.

So, what is The Wicked City about? In 1998, Ella leaves her husband after discovering he’s cheated on her. She takes refuge in a tiny apartment on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, only to discover that her building is filled with tenants who defy the laws of New York apartment living by taking a strong interest in their fellow residents. Attempting to do laundry at the crack of dawn, she runs into Hector, who lives on the top floor and gives her a crash course in the apartment culture of 11 Christopher while she drinks him in with her eyes. He also warns her about the basement, with its ghostly noises and vibrating walls.

Naturally, Ella has to investigate, and we dive into the other half of the story. The noises and vibrations come from the speakeasy that occupied half the site in 1924. There Gin Kelly, who lives in the apartment next door, spends many an evening drinking and dancing with young Billy Marshall—Princeton man, heir to uptown wealth, and smitten. Until she runs into a revenue agent named Anson who wants her to help him bust up the illegal liquor business run by her stepfather, the very man Gin came to New York to escape.

The two stories take place side by side through a series of five acts: “We Meet,” “We Come to an Understanding,” etc. The writing sparkles, and the vocabulary, the descriptions, and even the reactions of the characters clearly differentiate past from present. More even than in A Certain Age, which combined a story set in 1922 with the solution to a mystery that took place a decade or so earlier, Williams adroitly balances developing romances with darker and more compelling plot lines, and her characters are appealing even when—perhaps especially when—they behave far from admirably. I can hardly wait for the next installment.

P. S. A Certain Age has one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve seen. Bravo to the designers!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Bookshelf, January 2017

It’s been a while since I ran my last  Bookshelf post, so with another lovely writing week taking up much of my time, this seems a good moment for one. Several of these books will eventually become the basis of podcast interviews at New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF); others relate to the recently renamed (Mostly) Dead Writers’ Society (DWS) on GoodReads or to the developing catalogue at Five Directions Press. Most are by less well-known writers—some traditionally published, others not. Because isn’t that the fun part of reading: discovering a new writer, preferably one who has produced lots of books? So here we go, more or less in order.


Anchee Min, Empress Orchid (Mariner Books, 2005)
Just finished this account of the early years that Cixi, the last empress of China, spent in the Forbidden City, between her selection as the fourth concubine of Emperor Xianfeng to his death and her ascension to the role of joint regent for their son. We watch her grow from a naive sixteen-year-old left to her own devices in the imperial palace to the emperor’s favorite companion and adviser to a capable woman who, even in her mid-twenties, defends her own and her son’s interests within a court that insists on underrating her intelligence and her talents. I read this as part of the DWS’s 2017 exploration of revolutions, starting with the Boxer Rebellion, and enjoyed it very much. The Boxer Rebellion doesn’t actually appear until the sequel, The Last Empress, but the earlier Taiping Rebellion forms part of the backdrop here. The same author's Becoming Madame Mao is also a favorite of mine.


Bren McClain, One Good Mama Bone (University of South Carolina Press, 2017)
Sarah Creamer, dirt-poor and widowed by an alcoholic who leaves her with a son he had with her best friend, struggles to pay the mortgage on her farm and raise a boy that’s not hers despite her own mother’s scornful comment: “You ain’t got one good mama bone in you, girl.” Salvation appears in the form of a young steer, destined to compete in a 1952 cattle show. But when Sarah discovers what may happen to her steer if he wins the prize, her developing instincts as a mother force her to reconsider where her true loyalties lie. My February interview for NBHF.



Beatriz Williams, The Wicked City (William Morrow, 2017)
A dual-time novel alternating between a modern-day New Yorker warned to stay out of a haunted basement in modern-day Greenwich Village and a flapper who loves to party in the same building in 1924, when it hosted one of the city’s most notorious speakeasies. By the author of A Certain Age, another Jazz Age story that I loved, this book was sent to me for an NBHF interview, but I was already booked; I plan to interview the author in July, when she will have another new novel, Cocoa Beach.



Lissa Evans, Their Finest (Harper Perennial, 2017)
This novel, originally published in the UK, has already become a major motion picture. Set in London in 1940, it follows the career of Catrin Cole, who works on propaganda films for the Ministry of Information and ends up producing a largely manufactured “true” story about two sisters at Dunkirk. In the current political climate, and especially as a specialist in Russian history, how could I resist? Another potential NBHF interview that I received too late to fit into my schedule.

Denise Allan Steele, Rewind (Five Directions Press, 2017)
A delightful, hilarious novel set in 1970s/80s Scotland and modern-day California. Karen Anderson at seventeen lives for ABBA, the Hustle, and the attentions of her school's bad boy, until he breaks her heart by taking up with the local tramp. Karen escapes to university, where she meets and falls in love with Jack, a cool guitar-playing student who hates Margaret Thatcher as much as she does. Thirty years later, married to Jack and living in California with two teenagers who barely give her the time of day, Karen falls into the middle-aged trap of wondering about the road not taken. Can you rewind the book of love, and if you can, should you? With a legion of Scots relatives to my name, I find this story irresistible. It’s like a journey home, with laughs.


Ronald E. Yates, Finding Billy Battles and The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles (Xlibris, 2013 and 2016)
These first two books in a planned trilogy weave tales of the author’s family into a semi-fictional account of a nineteenth-century Kansan who travels the world, as rediscovered by his great-grandson a hundred years later. The author’s years of writing and teaching journalism give him an ear for dialogue, a knack for description, and an instinct for the telling anecdote that together make for sharp observations and a compelling style. The books read like a combination of travelogue and diary, with a good deal of history seamlessly tossed into the mix. My March NBHF interview.


Tiffany Reisz, The Night Mark (MIRA Books, 2017)
Another dual-time story, but this one involves time travel, like the Outlander series. Faye Barlow, reeling from the death of her beloved husband, takes a job photographing the South Carolina coast. Pulled toward the Bride Island lighthouse during one assignment, she keeps returning, drawn by the legend of a keeper’s daughter who drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1921. One night, a rogue wave drags Faye into the past, where she becomes caught up in a love story that is not her own. As a historian, I often fantasize about visiting the period I study, in reality or through fiction (as in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel), so I leaped at the chance to interview this author when her book comes out in April.


Michelle Cox, A Girl Like You and A Ring of Truth (She Writes Press, 2016 and 2017)
Two mystery novels set in 1930s Chicago, starring Henrietta Von Harmon and Inspector Clive Howard. Henrietta, despite her aristocratic-sounding name, has sole responsibility for her nasty mother and seven siblings since her father committed suicide after the great crash of 1929. She has just established herself in a job at a local dance hall when the floor matron turns up dead. When Inspector Cox recruits her help in solving the crime, love enters the picture. In book 2, buried family secrets threaten Henrietta’s and Clive’s prospects for happiness, even as another crime casts a shadow on their budding romance. What can I say? I love 1930s mystery stories of the Agatha Christie/Dorothy Sayers type, and these two books appear to be in that mode. My May NBHF interview, scheduled for right after the second book’s appearance in April.

Ariadne Apostolou, West End Quartet (Five Directions Press, 2017)
Four young women living in 1980s Manhattan join together to form an urban commune called Group, dedicated to feminist politics, anti-nuclear protests, and various other radical causes. When the Reagan years end, Mallory, Jasmina, Gwen, and Kleio travel along different paths, never quite losing contact but no longer close. Through separate novellas we trace crucial events in the lives of the first three (Kleio has her own book, Seeking Sophia, released in 2013), ending with their reunion in Greece just as Kleio is facing a big decision of her own. A richly realized and often poignant character study of four women who set out to change the world, only to discover that more often the world changes us.


That should keep me busy for a while. Check back every so often as the individual posts go up to find out more about what I thought of each individual book.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Writing All the Time

There’s an inverse ratio, I find, between working on a new draft of a novel and blogging. With the happy coincidence of Martin Luther King Day this Monday and my source of income being located in DC, where the university decided it was easier to close than deal with the insanity of requiring staff to navigate past inaugural events and protests, plus a relatively quiet week, I have focused every spare moment on The Vermilion Bird.

The good news is that I have thirteen solid chapters, eight of which have already survived the scrutiny of my invaluable critique group. A fourteenth is slowly unrolling under my typing fingers; with luck, I can finish it and get a sketchy form of chapter 15 out of the way by Monday, when work again returns full force. If I hadn’t needed to research the layout, appearance, and lifestyle characteristic of the early sixteenth-century Kremlin (on which, see “Fortress City”), not to mention the position of Tatars within and immediately outside the city, I could have made even more progress, perhaps to two-thirds of a novel instead of one-half.

The “bad” news—although it’s not really that bad—is that I can concentrate on the dialogue and actions of my imaginary people or detour to write a blog post. So this week I decided to settle on a quick progress report and save the good stuff for next time.

Happy reading, and—if you write—happy writing. Rest assured that I will return just as soon as I stop, in the words of my standard auto-response message, “chasing phoenixes in sixteenth-century Moscow.” In the meantime, you may want to check out the monthly “Books We Loved” post at Five Directions Press. Because you can never have too many books to read …

And if you missed last week’s interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, give that a listen, too. Three million viewers tuned in for the first episode of the Masterpiece Theater miniseries Victoria, and here’s your chance to find out about the history behind the program as well as a bit about life behind the scenes. All loads of fun, and it’s free!

Image: Ivan Bilibin's illustration of Prince Ivan catching the firebird, in the public domain because it was published before 1923, via Wikimedia Commons.