Monday, June 23, 2014

Exhibit: "Miracles in Miniature: The Art of the Master of Claude de France"

The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City is hosting an exhibit of particular interest. "Miracles in Miniature: The Art of the Master of Claude de France" runs through Septermber 14, 2014, and features works by the favored artist of Claude de France, François I's first wife. The show focuses on the 2 3/4-by-2-inch illuminated prayer book the artist created for the queen, who bore seven children by the age of 24. You can read more about the exhibit here and browse every page of the prayer book online here. Of course, it would be even more amazing to see the book and accompanying works in person at the museum.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book-a-Day Challenge: Week 3 Recap

June 15. Favorite fictional father: The unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD. With complete devotion, this man struggles to protect his son from starvation, attack, and exposure as they travel through a post-apocalyptic world. The ailing father's fear for his son's future is palpable and gut-wrenching.

June 16. Can't believe more people haven't read: KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER by Sigrid Undsett. This trilogy, set in medieval Norway, won Undsett the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. Kristin, a willful nobleman's daughter, suffers a life of hardship and remorse after marrying an impetuous and wasteful ne'er-do-well after a passionate illicit romance. Read all three volumes to experience the full cycle of Kristin's sin, remorse, and redemption. A powerful and accurately detailed evocation of medieval life.

June 17. Future classic: THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker. This amazing blend of Jewish and Syrian folklore, set in the immigrant neighborhoods of 1890's New York City, examines the nature of love and what it means to be human. A rich, multilayered novel with just the right touch of the supernatural, THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI is sure to feature on future reading lists. This New York Times book review gives a good overview of the novel's delicious complexity.

June 18. Bought on a recommendation: THE ORPHAN MASTER by Jean Zimmerman. Author Susan Spann (CLAWS OF THE CAT) recommended this one to me last summer. I did thoroughly enjoy it, although it was a bit gruesome for my taste at times. As a serial killer stalks orphaned children in 17th century Manhattan, a young Dutchwoman's romance with a dashing Englishman becomes subject to horrible accusations. I love stories set in the early days of New York City, and Zimmerman's evocation of Dutch Manhattan is richly detailed and convincing.

June 19. Still can't stop talking about it: SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME by Lawrence Hill. I always suggest this novel to people asking for recommendations. It recounts the life of a girl captured in West Africa in 1745 and sold into slavery. She survives a harrowing existence on an indigo plantation in South Carolina and eventually arrives in New York City, where the British promise freedom to slaves who fight alongside the redcoats in the War for Independence. This gripping and convincing tale offers insights into less familiar colonial-era slavery and dramatizes the British attempt to resettle freed/escaped slaves in Nova Scotia after the war. Publishers Weekly called the book "stunning, wrenching, inspiring," and I heartily agree.

June 20. Favorite cover: THE SEAMSTRESS by Frances de Pontes Peebles. I prefer covers without people on them, and the colors and composition of this one appeals to me. Haven't yet finished reading the book, but the story of two sisters whose skills with the needle lead them to vastly divergent fates in the lawless backcountry of Brazil has been intriguing. A good book to read during the World Cup!

June 21. Summer read: ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. I'm really looking forward to reading this book about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France. Readers claim they can't put it down yet never want it to end...a perfect read for the endless days of summer!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

#Luckyseven--Book Excerpt

I've been tagged by SHADOW OF THE CROWN author Pat Bracewell to play Lucky 7, an online game for writers. The rules are as follows:

-- Go to page 7 or 77 of your current manuscript.
-- Go to line 7.
-- Copy and post the next 7 lines or sentences, as they are.
-- Tag 7 other people to do the same.

Here is an excerpt from my new novel. In this scene François, the King of France, held captive by Charles Quint, the Holy Roman Emperor, contemplates committing perjury in order to win his freedom:

Never would he forgive the outrage of this unchivalrous captivity; never would he forget. It would lie between them forever, a jagged, ugly sword-slash festering beneath a livid scar, polluting the body and belching pus at the slightest poke. He would hide the wound well, cushion it with gauze, tame its fevered delirium with soothing potions and distracting words. 

Until the day Milan was his. 

François could hold out no longer. It was no surprise Charles failed to treat him like a king, when he feared to act like one.

Thanks, Pat, for the chance to share! Now I'm tagging Heather Webb, Janet Butler Taylor, Liza Perrat, Marci Jefferson, Maryanne O'Hara, Erika Mailman and Lisa Janice Cohen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Festina lente, or Hurry up and Finish already!

I promised to share some of the things I learned while completing what I hope will be the final revision of my manuscript before it goes out on submission to publishers. Although I'd heard many of these things before from other writers, it wasn't until I experienced them for myself that I realized how true they were. Here is what the intense, exhilarating and oftentimes harrowing experience of revising a four hundred page novel taught me:

1) It can always be better.

Never be satisfied -- that's my new motto. Passages that in the past I'd thought polished and perfected revealed flaws when viewed through the filters of time and distance. Sure, a manuscript can be good, even quite good, but would a little more effort make it really sparkle? Eventually, you reach the point where you have to stop revising either due to time constraints or the need to preserve your sanity, but until then, every word, every sentence should be subjected to careful and considered review.

2) Less really is more.

Cut, cut, cut. Words. Scenes. Characters. Extraneous dialogue. I was amazed at how much I managed to shave off a manuscript I'd already edited several times. Whittling away at the excess verbiage not only makes the words that remain shine like polished gems, but frees up space for deepening character and motivation and fine-tuning the plot. Scenes become all the more powerful when every word, every image, pulls its weight and contributes to the overall effect. 

3) Don't avoid the difficult scenes.

When my agent read an unfinished version of the manuscript last summer along with an outline of the chapters still to be written, she said, "You are going to include a scene where Characters X and Y confront each other and the balance of power shifts, right?" It wasn't a question. I knew such a scene was necessary but I'd left it out, hoping to write around it because it was going to be, well, so hard to write. Frankly, it scared the bejeebers out of me. At the time, I still lacked the plot element upon which the shift depended; moreover, I feared my writing skills weren't adequate to the task. But I couldn't deny it: having such a vital confrontation occur off-stage robbed the conclusion of emotional heft and eviscerated Character X's moral victory. Taking my agent's advice, I forced myself to write the scene. It definitely was hard going, but transformed the last quarter of the book. I can't imagine the ending having the impact it now does without it.

During this final rewrite, I realized that a similar show-down between two different characters, a show-down I had again purposely avoided writing, was necessary to explain and justify one of the character's later actions. Having learned that it is possible to ignore those niggling voices of inadequacy and plunge headfirst into a heated emotional conflict one would run screaming from in real life, I wrote the scene. It's now one of my favorites and adds a healthy bit of emotional complexity to the dénouement.

Moral of the story: don't take the easy way out. Stretch yourself, technically and emotionally, by writing those scenes that challenge you in the deepest ways possible. Both your manuscript and you as a writer will be all the better for it.

4) Trust your gut and give rein to your subconscious.

If your instincts tell you that a scene doesn't work, or a character's actions fail to convince, or the plot has sprung more leaks than a colander, listen. Better to wrestle with such issues in early drafts than to ignore them and have to contort or rewrite large chunks of the story later in order to correct the flaws. But as you work to rectify the problem, don't force things; allow your subconscious mind time to assess the true nature of the problem and sort through possible solutions. Given the number of times I've abandoned a scene in despair, only to come back to it later with the perfect solution in hand, I'm convinced that my mind continues to work on the problem when I'm not consciously thinking about it. In fact, I often come up with stronger, more creative ideas when I'm not actively trying to produce them. It's your story--trust your mind and heart to find the most effective way to tell it.

5) Keep the momentum going, but don't rush.

You need to have the story fresh in your mind to make proper connections between chapters and to layer in additional emotional or thematic depth; working in fits and starts makes such shading and fine-tuning all the more difficult. I found it a great help to reread the entire manuscript start to finish before I began revising in order to have the shape of it fresh in my mind. Once I started to revise, I did as much as possible every day and tried not to let more than a day go by without working.

However, revising a large project like this has a rhythm of its own that must be respected. At the beginning, excited and eager, I moved along at a steady clip. Things slowed down towards the middle, and at times I thought I would never finish. Once over the hump, I began to get antsy and just wanted to be done. Knowing that I might get less discerning the closer I got to the end, I decided to edit the last quarter of the book out of sequence. I jumped ahead to revise the last section before returning to polish the third. This way, I wasn't tempted to let things slide in the all-important concluding chapters in a rush to finish. I am so thankful I chose this path and credit to it the energy I still had to recast and rewrite the ending of the novel.

When I was a child, I embroidered a picture of a tortoise surrounded by the motto "Slow but steady wins the race." Little did I know that forty years later this would become my writing mantra. If publication is the prize, I still haven't won it, but I'm getting all the closer, one step/page/manuscript at a time.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Book-a-Day Challenge: Week 2 Recap

Here are my Book-a-Day Challenge responses for the week of June 8.

June 8. Have more than one copy: Clément Marot's OEUVRES COMPLETES. Marot was court poet to François I and penned the "Canticle to the Emperor" that figures in the welcoming pageant scene of my current manuscript. It's not surprising that I own several copies of Marot's works, as I wrote my dissertation about him. Here is the beautiful edition annotated by my dissertation advisor, renowned Renaissance scholar François Rigolot.

June 9. Film or movie tie-in: QUEEN MARGOT by Alexandre Dumas. Published by Dumas in 1845, the book follows the court intrigues of Marguerite de Valois, daughter of King Henri II of France and Catherine de Medici. In an attempt to calm religious turmoil, Catholic Marguerite wed the Protestant king Henri of Navarre; four days later, thousands of Protestants died in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. The 1994 film, directed by Pierre Chéreau and starring Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil, won five Césars and an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Gripping novel/movie, if a bit creative with actual historical fact.

June 10. Reminds me of someone I love: KILLING LINCOLN by Bill O'Reilly. Two years ago this month, my father lay in a nursing home, extremely ill, his mind clouded by an aggressive form of dementia. Talking was difficult for him, and often he didn't recognize me. One day, desperate to find something to soothe him, I asked if he'd like me to read to him, and he eagerly responded yes. The only book at hand was KILLING LINCOLN, which one of my brothers had given him for Father's Day. Over the next two weeks, I read all 295 pages aloud to him. It amazed me how he followed the narrative and always remembered where we were and what had happened when I'd last stopped reading. When my father died, I asked my mom if I could have the book. It sits on my desk as a reminder of those special hours I spent with Dad. It consoles me to think that my reading aloud helped keep some of his pain and confusion at bay. My father always told me that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to. I am sad that he did not live to see my publish a book of my own, but I know he will be cheering me on from heaven when I do. Because I will, and it will be dedicated to him.

June 11. Secondhand bookshop gem: LES PETITES CARDINAL by Ludovic Halévy. Picked up this novel, published in Paris in 1899, at the library book sale for about $5. In the late 1870's Halévy, a French librettist and novelist, hosted a salon that welcomed the likes of Degas, Manet, Maupassant and Paul Bourget. He created the Cardinal family as a symbol of the pompous and pedantic petite bourgeoisie.

June 12. Pretend to have read: DON QUIXOTE by Miguel de Cervantes. As a Renaissance scholar, I really ought to have read DON QUIXOTE by now, but I haven't. I remain suspiciously quiet whenever discussion veers towards this early novel, which even my husband the physicist has read. He assures me it is quite good and very funny. Maybe I'll tackle it this summer on the beach.

June 13. Makes me laugh: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE BED by James Howe. This is the first volume of a spin-off from the classic children's story BUNNICULA. In this series, Howie, the younger of the original story's dogs, wants to become an author. Written from Howie's perspective, the books provide a hilarious meta-commentary on the writing life. If you're a writer who reads aloud to kids, try these books on 7 to 9 year old listeners. You'll be laughing out loud, even if the kids don't get the writing jokes.

June 14. An old favorite: GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell. I must have read this book five or six times during my teens and twenties. Our eighth grade English teacher assigned it for summer reading and instructed us to write a summary of the book. My chapter-by-chapter précis turned out to be almost as long as the novel itself. I doubt poor Sister Anne managed to get through it!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Book-a-Day Challenge: Week 1 Recap

June is the month of the Book-a-Day challenge. Thank goodness one is not required to read a book a day, but to name a book that corresponds to that day's prompt. I've been doing the challenge on Facebook. You can find the month's list of prompts here. Following is a recap of my answers for the first week.

June 1: Favorite book from childhood. LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fascinated by the whole notion of being a pioneer and living out on the frontier, I gobbled up Wilder's books. I still remember many scenes and details: Laura receiving an orange for Christmas, Pa fiddling, maple tree sap hardening on the snow. My love for historical fiction started with these books and has only strengthened through the years. I'd love to write a pioneer book one day like Ann Weisgarber's THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE or Willa Cather's MY ANTONIA.

June 2: Best bargain. All the books I've gotten from our local library book sale. Residents donate used books to raise money for library purchases and improvements; twice a year, the library hosts a 3-day sale. Hardbacks go $1, trade paperbacks for $0.50. Each sale I come with at least 15 books. You would not believe the titles you can find, both recent releases and old favorites! I still can't imagine buying a $30 hardback and donating it as soon as I'd read it, but I'm glad people do. As an author, I feel a bit guilty buying used books, but the money is used to support the library and strong libraries help all authors by promoting reading. Plus, if I really like a book, I will request that the library buy that author's latest work. Favorite books I've snagged from the sale are THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE by Salman Rushdie and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden.

June 3: One with a blue cover. I couldn't narrow this one down...three of my favorite books have blue covers: THE PROMISE by Ann Weisgarber (British edition), THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI Helene Wecker, and COLD MOUNTAIN by Charles Frazier. All three wonderful, compelling stories!

June 4: Least favorite book by favorite author. GAME OF KINGS (LYMOND CHRONICLES #1) by Dorothy Dunnett. I had a very hard time getting through this first volume of the series. I found the language difficult, the history obscure, and the plot hard to follow. I'm glad I didn't give up, though, because by the end of the book something clicked and I devoured the next five volumes and Dunnett's Niccolò series as well. I adore her work, but even when I went back and tried to read GOK a second time, I still had trouble with it. I wonder how many readers give up on this book and then miss out on the rest of the immensely intriguing and well-written series. Maybe it's best to start with the Niccolò books, which are much easier to get into, and then go for GOK.

June 5: Doesn't belong to me. My father-in-law is a booklover, so I often raid his shelves. In fact, we usually give him books as birthday and holiday gifts, and I've been known to give him books that I myself would like to read (ahem). Two I've borrowed recently are EIFFEL'S TOWER by Jill Jonnes and MAYFLOWER by Nathaniel Philbrick.

June 6: The one I always give as a gift. I don't have a stand-by gift book; I usually try to find a book that corresponds to the recipient's interests. I love wandering around the bookstore trying to find the perfect match! If I'm not certain, or don't have enough time, I buy bookstore gift cards, especially for children. Two books I've recently given as gifts were WIND, SAND AND STARS by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and THE NAME OF THIS BOOK IS SECRET by Pseudonymous Bosch.

June 7: Forgot I owned it. I went through my bookshelves the other day looking for an answer for a previous prompt and found MANY books I'd forgotten I owned! Among them are UNDERWORLD by Don DeLillo and THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen. Need to read them soon.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

I'm Back!

To my faithful readers:

No, I have not been abducted by aliens. I have not succumbed to beriberi or bubonic plague or even a common cold. I have not fled civilization for life on a deserted isle. I have not entered a cloistered convent, become an undercover spy, or fallen into a coma.

I revised my novel.

That feat occasioned -- necessitated -- my absence here. I realized that if I ever hoped to finish that monster, I needed to ignore everything else and attack it with all my heart, all my mind, and all my attention.

It was a bloody battle, but last week I planted my pennant in the beast's breast. I won.

At least I think (I hope ) I have.

Vittore Carpaccio (1502)

I thought I'd finished before. In December, after four years of work and numerous revisions, I sent what I considered the final version of the manuscript to my agent. I was ready to go out on submission the very next day.

Unfortunately, said agent was not as impressed with my opus as I was. She and her assistant had several suggestions: some tightening here, some developing there, better management of the suspense throughout...

After two weeks of despair -- I mean, if it would have been better some other way, I would have done it that way from the beginning, right? -- I set aside my disappointment and got back to work. Maybe they had a point. Maybe their suggestions would make a good manuscript even better. Maybe I'd been so happy to "finish" that I'd overlooked some inherent weaknesses I knew were there but suspected might be too difficult to fix.

I set to work.

Once I started changing things, I realized they WERE right. It was a big job (I still suspect I might have changed more than even they intended), but once I started fiddling, the cascade effect set in. Change this, you have to change that. Enlarge this character's role, you have to adjust the role of this other one. To increase the tension here, you need to tighten the strings way back there.

I can't tell you how many times I was ready to give up. I wrote myself down blind alleys, only realizing they were blind after writing dozens of painstakingly crafted pages. I rearranged events in new combinations, thinking I'd solved one problem, only to find I'd created a different one somewhere else. I focused so much on creating suspense that the novel started to stray from its original identity and turn into a murder who-done-it, something I'd never intended it to be.

I wallowed in the mess, seemingly stymied at every turn. I thought I would never, ever finish. I started to wonder what I'd done that merited such excruciating expiation.

But somehow it happened. I panted on, pushing myself to the end, my brain hurting worse than my lungs, and I finished. I'D WRITTEN AND REVISED A SECOND NOVEL, one I could be proud of. I hit "send" at 2 am Pacific time, thrilled that the finished product would pop up on my agent's screen as soon as she logged in that morning.

Will this publishing story have a happy ending? That remains to be seen. For now I'm biting my nails, waiting to hear back, wondering whether the manuscript is finally be ready to go out on submission. If not, more tweaking awaits. If it is, then I face the torment of submission.

But at least now I'm satisfied that the story can't be told any other way. I've given it my best effort all around. I am so glad my agent encouraged me to keep working on it, because not only did the manuscript turn out better in the end, but I learned so much in the process, things that will help me write an even better novel next time.

I'll share some of these things soon.

But in the meantime, I want to thank you for not abandoning my poor neglected blog. I have exciting things planned for the coming weeks, now that I'll have the time to post again regularly.

And I hope that in the not-too-distant-future I will have good news to share.

A happy ending.