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Historical Novel Society Conference 2017, Portland, Oregon

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IMG_1286No question: I’m exhausted. I’ve spent the last three days at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland, Oregon. I’ve been encouraged and discouraged; invigorated and inebriated; enthused and confused; and bolstered by a wealth of like-minded, amazing human beings. At every turn, this band of normally introverted writers and readers broke from their shells to share. Not much small talk, thank goodness, aside from “Where are you from?” (which included Australia, New York, Shanghai, and Hawaii). We got “write” to the point.

My self-assigned task, to distil everything I’ve learned into a post or maybe two, has proved too daunting. So, I’ve decided to hit the highlights with a series of quotes.

Thursday, June 22nd: A Day with Kate Forsyth

“I’ve never written a book without throwing up my hands and say ‘What made you think you could write a book?’”

“Characters travel on a journey of transformation but so does the writer.”

Then there is my distillation of her big don’ts.

  1. Don’t say panster (as in seat-of-the-pants writer) or plotter (as in hyper outliner) rather say analytic or intuitive. And know you are a little of both
  2. Don’t say show don’t tell. “Think ‘When do I show and when do I tell?’ and tell well.”
  3. Don’t be obvious or prescriptive with narrative. “If everyone writes like everyone else, there is no surprise. I hate the three act structure. I don’t teach The Heroes Journey, even though I love it. Any system that narrows the creative process is a poor choice.”

There was so much more in her session, from the nitty-gritty stuff writers need to be reminded of (check out her old-school whiteboard) to the inspirational like:

“When we get blocked it’s usually because of fear of failure or ridicule. But it isn’t about you, it’s about the story. So tell the story you are being asked to tell.”

Check her out here. http://www.kateforsyth.com.au

Friday, June 23rd: A Dose of Reality and Distilled Liquor

Session 1: Breaking In, Breaking Out, and Staying On Top with agent Irene Goodman and editor, Lucia Macro

“Don’t get too emotionally attached.” “Most people want encouragement and support, but sometimes it’s an A- book.”

Session 2: Things that Go “Bang!” in the Night with Gordon Frye

 “Where they fire, there’s smoke.”

Here’s his blog. http://historypundit.blogspot.com

Session 3: Buttons and Points and Pins, Oh My with Isobel Carr

Again, you’ve got to get those details right, and before buttons and zippers, they used a LOT of pins. She is authoritative. Find her here. http://www.isobelcarr.com

Lunch with Geraldine Brooks (I love, love, love her.)

I was mesmerized. Did I take a single note? No! But this I remember: She quoted one of my favorite Leonard Cohen poems.

“There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.”

Session 4: Modern Tools to Tell Historical Fiction with Stephanie Dray

My big take away? While I’m still on the fence about Scribner (any thoughts anyone?), I am purchasing Aeon Timeline ASAP. A link here. http://www.stephaniedray.com

Then I did a pitch of my most recent book, The Forging of Frost, and went to a cold read—Debbie Downer. At the pitch I got

“It’s just not grabbing me, Where’s your female protagonist?”

At the cold read, while they didn’t read my two-page offering, the authors who were read were informed, quite tersely, “I didn’t know where or when the story is taking place or where it is going.” For those out there who heard those words, I heard some good writing. (See day three for support.)

Luckily, or unluckily, I went to the infamous “Hooch” event. Isobel Carr moderated—hilarious—while participants partook of six (yep, six) different examples of alcohol through the ages. While my head complained on the day following, the lubrication did create some great bonding. We commiserated over the death of the male protagonist, shared our triumphs and our emails.

Fast Forward to Saturday, June 24th: The Final Day

Session 1: State of the State of Historical Fiction: with a panel of agents and editors

They provided the same dire prognosis as the previous day, i.e. it’s a woman audience, 1850 forward with a woman protagonist sells better, the novel biography is dead, and

“Dusty, dark, grey clothes just aren’t that sexy.”

But the light snuck in through the cracks,

“All that said, in the end, we are looking for an extremely compelling story that is well-written.”

So—easy-peasy.

Session 2: New Sources for Researching the Historical Novel with Mary Malloy

Great information for one new to the research world. My background in genealogy prepared me well. She agrees—maps, maps, maps and writing from the period. http://www.marymalloy.net

Session 3: Two for One: Weaving the Twin-Stranded Storyline with Susanna Kearsley

Her presentation was professional, elegant, useful. I want to read her. Could it be that she writes twin-stranded stories just like me? Do check her out here. http://www.susannakearsley.com

Lunch with David Ebershoff (author of The Danish Girl, a wonderful book. I consider his 19th Wife a work of genius, but it’s a tome so be prepared.)

He was eloquent, and I again did not take notes, but he left me and many others with tear-rimmed eyes and all of us with his wisdom. To paraphrase:

“All any one of us wants is to be seen, as an individual, for who we really are.”

Lifted by his words, I decided to go to my next pitch. (I’d been vacillating.) I got:

“Send me a chapter and a synopsis.”

Then at the cold read? Some positive comments and some good suggestions. They were kind, supportive.

“I’m not that fond of Cold Reads. We don’t have any background on the story. That said, thank you for being so courageous.”

Did I say I was exhausted? I took refuge in a corner, waiting for the finally—the big banquet—and again found a comrade in the world of words.

Because, in the end, all we really want is to be seen for who we really are. It’s how the light gets in.

Preparing for Portland

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Preparing for the Historical Novel Society Conference @HNS-ConfUSA  so…a Thursday Throwback reminder: You are not the judgment you receive.  A discussion with an aspiring writer reminded me of this post. I thank him.

kyujutsu14With arms out, your heart exposed, you reveal yourself or your work to human scrutiny. Don Miguel Ruiz, Jr. calls it “standing in the target zone.” It’s not easy. You go for that interview; you take that test; you offer up your love; you ask for feedback on a draft of a book. And you get a response.

Sometimes the balloons fall, confetti rains down, and they place bouquets of flowering praise into your hands. You step right into the target zone; you win—the job, the A, the love, the accolades. You feel valued.

Other times they throw eggs: hard-boiled, rotten, or fresh and usable. Spritely and alert, you dodge them, and evaluate their worth. They aren’t about you; they are about what’s between you and the words. So you toss the rotten criticism, digest the hard-boiled truths, and set aside the freshest critiques for later. You step out of the target zone soiled but ready to move on.

But other times—wow—other times you step into arrows, sharp and fast. Some are aimed at the target. You’ll deal with those later. But your guard is down; maybe you were expecting balloons. Suddenly, before you can grab your shield, one heads right at you. You take it personally, in the chest. You think, “You weren’t good enough for the job; you’re stupid; no one loves you; you are not okay, or talented, or worthy.”

If you’re quick, you can pull loose the arrow, stave the wound, and recover. You remind yourself that the barb isn’t about you; it’s theirs—their perspective, their point of view, their wounds, their opinions. You can take the arrow, clean it off, and learn what you can from it.

Sometimes, though, the wound festers, especially if, while you were pulling out the first arrow, two more hit their mark, one in your Achilles’s heel. This poison courses through your body. It hollows out your gut, robs you of your voice, and leaves you weakened, with a vise grip on your head and heart. You want to quit. You know better. You should have been vigilant, should have stepped out of the target zone, should have thrown up your shield and protected yourself. Now what?

You heal. It isn’t quick, but you heal. You step back, take stock, and you forgive. Forgive the archers for their aim and yourself for being human, for assuming balloons and making it personal—the job, the test, the lover, the book. You did your best, and you will begin again.

We live in a world of the instant critique. Want a hotel, a dinner, a book? Search the internet and the opinionated masses provided listings of one to five-star judgments from which we can choose. Find an agreeable viewpoint on a website and we post it on our Facebook page, or just “like” what appeals to us as we scroll the home feed. Suddenly, Facebook (or Twitter, or the website we light on) reads our preferences and presents us with more of what we want or need or agree with. We get filtered faceless bursts. Not so, when we’re standing in the target zone.

Here is what I learned from the arrows. (And after some reflection, my attachment to the balloons.)

  • If I ask for feedback, if I put myself in the target zone, I need to be specific about what I want…and if I only want a bouquet, I’m not ready to put myself there.
  • If I think I am ready, I will request the information in small doses, step back when I sense my guard is down, and even walk away.
  • I will try to remember that I am not the judgment I receive.
  • I will listen, digest what I hear, and give myself time to evaluate
  • I will refrain from explaining myself, making excuses, or, if I am wounded, retaliating.
  • I will move on, make my choices, and enjoy where they take me.

And I will be judicious in my judgment. We are fragile souls. We want approval, love, and the kind attention of others. We want to be okay.

  • I will not give feedback unless it is requested (and believe me, I asked for it!).
  • I will offer my opinions up with genuine praise (and if I can’t find it, I’m not looking closely enough).
  • I will make all my comments specific and avoid advice, respecting the recipient’s ability to move forward in his or her own way.

It is called being constructive. It isn’t easy, but a bouquet opens the heart, a boiled egg nourishes the body and provides for growth—and an arrow can wound. My words are my words—I can’t guarantee how they’ll land, but if asked, I can shoot for the target, not the soul.

What? An author page at Facebook @croywright & Twitter account @CroyWright—Really!

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An Author Page and Twitter await me…aargh!

In preparation for the debut of my American Historical Fiction novel, The Scattering of Stones, Dan, my publisher, asked me the question. The one I dreaded, “Donna, do you have a Twitter account? Instagram?”

I told him I was on Facebook.

He smiled, “Is it an author page.”

I stared. “How do you do that?” I asked.

Mind you, I’ve written a blog for six years now, and I post regularly. I can wrangle that little world quite well, but I’ve avoided the rest. Why? Me? Really? Social? I’m a history and genealogy buff. I write historical fiction. I’m not good at small talk. I wake at five o’clock and go to bed at eight. My husband and I tease that we were meant for another time, two hundred, two hundred fifty years ago maybe. I often click my heels three times wishing for a past without the rumble of machines and the distraction of technology. Though I admit I think twice due to the lack of medical advancements or indoor plumbing, and some excruciating women’s undergarments.

The above thoughts whirled through my brain while I continue to stare blank-faced at my publisher. Then I confronted the inevitable. My book—my investment in research, time, and the characters I love—their story deserved an audience. I would wade in, but not plunge. Dan introduced me to Audra, social media specialist. We made an appointment.

Then I went home and told my son Cedar Wright. But more on Cedar. He is a walking whirlwind. A professional athlete and filmmaker, if he isn’t adventuring in this universe, he’s whizzing around the technological one. Often, it happens simultaneously.

“Could you answer a few questions for me?” I asked.

Did I say he was a whirlwind?

“Mom…” The word held out with loving exasperation. “It’s easy. Where’s your laptop?”

“I just want to understand it better. I have an appointment.”

“Where’s your laptop?”

Whirlwind turns to hurricane, and in ten minutes, I have a Facebook author page and Twitter account. I have no idea what happened. As with the passing of any hurricane, I came out stunned, thankful to survive, and determined to step up, moving bravely forward.

So, you are invited. Follow my author page at Facebook @croywright. Any posts here will deal specifically with my life as writer: what I write, what I love to read, what I’m learning (or not), and what inspires. Follow me (that sounds so egocentric) on Twitter, @CroyWright, where I’ll…tweet? And share in 140 characters or less.

At the very least, wish me luck. Meanwhile, maybe outdoor plumbing isn’t that bad. But corsets? Not so much.

The Critique: Standing in the Target Zone

kyujutsu14With arms out, your heart exposed, you reveal yourself or your work to human scrutiny. Don Miguel Ruiz, Jr. calls it “standing in the target zone.” It’s not easy. You go for that interview; you take that test; you offer up your love; or in my case you ask for feedback on a draft of a book. And you get a response.

Sometimes the balloons fall, confetti rains down, and they place bouquets of flowering praise into your hands. You step right into the target zone; you win—the job, the A, the love, the accolades. You feel valued.

Other times they throw eggs: hard-boiled, rotten, or fresh and usable. Spritely and alert, you dodge them, and evaluate their worth. They aren’t about you; they are about what’s between you and the words. So you toss the rotten criticism, digest the hard-boiled truths, and set aside the freshest critiques for later. You step out of the target zone soiled but ready to move on.

But other times—wow—other times you step into arrows, sharp and fast. Some are aimed at the target. You’ll deal with those later. But your guard is down; maybe you were expecting balloons. Suddenly, before you can grab your shield, one heads right at you. You take it personally, in the chest. You think, “You weren’t good enough for the job; you’re stupid; no one loves you; you are not okay, or talented, or worthy.”

If you’re quick, you can pull loose the arrow, stave the wound, and recover. You remind yourself that the barb isn’t about you; it’s theirs—their perspective, their point of view, their wounds, their opinions. You can take the arrow, clean it off, and learn what you can from it.

Sometimes, though, the wound festers, especially if, while you were pulling out the first arrow, two more hit their mark, one in your Achilles’s heel. This poison courses through your body. It hollows out your gut, robs you of your voice, and leaves you weakened, with a vise grip on your head and heart. You want to quit. You know better. You should have been vigilant, should have stepped out of the target zone, should have thrown up your shield and protected yourself. Now what?

You heal. It isn’t quick, but you heal. You step back, take stock, and you forgive. Forgive the archers for their aim and yourself for being human, for assuming balloons and making it personal—the job, the test, the lover, the book. You did your best, and you will begin again.

We live in a world of the instant critique. Want a hotel, a dinner, a book? Search the internet and the opinionated masses provided listings of one to five star judgments from which we can choose. Find an agreeable viewpoint on a web site and we post it on our Facebook page, or just “like” what appeals to us as we scroll the home feed. Suddenly, Facebook (or Twitter, or the website we light on) reads our preferences and presents us with more of what we want or need or agree with. We get filtered, faceless bursts. Not so, when we’re standing in the target zone.

Here is what I learned from the arrows. (And after some reflection, my attachment to the balloons.)

  • If I ask for feedback, if I put myself in the target zone, I need to be specific about what I want…and if I only want a bouquet, I’m not ready to put myself there.
  • If I think I am ready, I will request the information in small doses, step back when I sense my guard is down, and even walk away.
  • I will try to remember that I am not the judgment I receive.
  • I will listen, digest what I hear, and give myself time to evaluate
  • I will refrain from explaining myself, making excuses, or, if I am wounded, retaliating.
  • I will move on, make my choices, and enjoy where they take me.

And I will be judicious in my judgment. We are fragile souls. We want approval, love, and the kind attention of others. We want to be okay.

  • I will not give feedback unless it is requested (and believe me, I asked for it!).
  • I will offer my opinions up with genuine praise (and if I can’t find it, I’m not looking closely enough).
  • I will make all my comments specific and avoid advice, respecting the recipient’s ability to move forward in his or her own way.

It is called being constructive. It isn’t easy, but a bouquet opens the heart, a boiled egg nourishes the body and provides for growth—and an arrow can wound. My words are my words—I can’t guarantee how they’ll land, but if asked, I can shoot for the target, not the soul.

Setting and Story: Up Close and Personal

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posterPlace matters. In story, it is called setting. In family history, it’s where they lived. In now time, it’s where YOU live. A place impacts a story through weather, topography, physical landmarks, and as an amalgamation of all those things, through its personality. This week circumstances burnt this reality into my soul—literally.

Fire came to Black Mountain. Years of drought, and the naturally dry, heated days of August set the stage. Two weeks of triple-digit scorchers didn’t help. California weather, especially inland, produces annual grasses, chaparral, buckeye, and oaks that go dormant or retreat to survival mode as summer progresses. The vegetation is volatile. In some places, weather brings flood or tornado or hurricane or crime. In the Sierras it brings fire.

No one knows the culprit, not yet, but the blaze started on a Friday afternoon on the west corner of Black Mountain. From my vantage point, near the base of the mountain’s long northern side, I saw nothing, but I smelled it immediately; wind carried the ashes raining down on our deck. The wind came out of the west and carried the flames east up the steep, brush-covered western slope. Topography creates barriers or cocoons, it directs movement and prevents it, and it provides perspective. Black Mountain is a single large, looming mountain, dominant in the foothills and nearly detached from the body of mountains expanding up into the Sierra-Nevadas. There are homes on all four sides. Depending on where you stand, you may look at the mountain from north, south, east, or west. We looked south. Those looking east and northeast saw a firestorm eating away the ready, dry fuel. It swallowed the mountain, moving upslope and rounding to the south. The sirens sounded, and soon spotter planes and helicopters cruised the sky.

By nightfall, from our vantage point looking south, flames licked at the top ridge of the mountain. Firefighters from across the state organized at the high school, and first responders began evacuations. Now the details of this place became important. Firefighters rolled into endangered areas asking questions. How do we get here? What is the best vantage point for protection? The vocabulary of place dotted our conversation: the high school rock, the towers, the four-lanes, the park-n-ride, conservancy house, access roads, and the names of ranches and valleys (from Dimon to Loper). Every place has its landmarks, signposts for communicating. We communicated through ours, about the where and who of the evacuations, about the loss of homes and outbuildings, and about the moving destruction as the fire headed downhill along the northern slope, past the high school rock, and toward us. By then the sky roared with helicopters carrying water and planes dropping fire retardant.

Well before our evacuation, our community was at work. The people here match their landscape. They aren’t big joiners; they are private and self-sufficient. And they know how to roll up their sleeves and get to work, or if needed, give you the shirts off their backs. They transported animals, took in friends—were ready with what ever was needed. They opened gates and tore down fences, anything to help first responders. And when containment was near, they voiced their thanks. Expressions of gratitude peppered billboards, school signage, and Facebook. Homemade signs sprung up everywhere. Some places express their personality with an ethnic flare, an urban hip, a small town calm, or an historic charm. Ours is blue collar tough.

Does it matter? Back in my home, as the smoke settled, I drove west on Lodge Road, which runs along the north side of Black Mountain. I passed hundreds of trucks and thousands of personnel occupying Sierra High School (the staging ground for fire containment). I pulled into the park-n-ride to pick up a friend. We were going to lunch at a local restaurant down the road. A firefighter had gotten out of his truck. He was taking a picture of a child’s homemade sign of trees and flames and Thank You written in neat block letters. Our place, it seemed, mattered to him.

 

Editing Your Writing–Six Tips

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edit writing

I prefer marking up a print copy for steps 3 and 4. Transferring the corrections to my computer adds another layer of scrutiny.

Whether you’re writing a family history, a journal essay, a cookbook, or the Great American Novel, editing looms as perhaps the most essential and difficult part of the process. I’m in the midst of editing two manuscripts. I don’t recommend it. On the other hand, it spurred some reflection regarding the task. I’ve edited grants and documents (in my previous life as an educator), personal family stories, genealogies for extended family, my blog, and two fiction novels. I’ve tackled each with varying degrees of intensity and understanding, and I’m getting better. Here are my thoughts so far, built on trial and a lot of error.

  1. Plan your work. Oh no, it’s the old debate about whether to write seat of your pants or from an outlined. Of course, some free spirited innovation, some inspiration from the ethers, is essential. But, while you might not want a hyper-detailed outline of your impending project, do block out the task just a Detours occur, but your work will appreciate the planning.
  2. Edit as you go. However you divide your writing task (by scene, section, generation, recipe), take time to read it through out loud. If you are lucky enough, like me, to have a small group of like-minded souls with whom you feel safe, read it to them. Take everything they say home with you, reflect on their input, and edit your work (or not, but get humble or you’ll toss out feedback when you shouldn’t.)
  3. When you finish the project, reread the whole thing for continuity, consistency, accuracy, rhythm and flow. For a longer piece, you might want to do this at the halfway mark or some other point along the way. You may opt to read it more than once and concentrate on one or two items at a time.
    1. Continuity–Does the piece move naturally from one point, scene, conclusion, plot point to the next? Does it make sense? Are descriptions or scenes with multiple people, places, or actions confusing? Are the pronouns clearly pointing to the right person, place or thing? Are there holes in the story or research?
    2. Consistency­– Is the narration in each scene consistently present or past tense? Is each scene from a single point of view, with no head hopping? Is it the best point of view? Are all dates, people, places consistent? (For example: Is it Andy or Andrew or both? Is his hair always brown? Is the date 1 May 1850 or May 1, 1850? Do you turn right to the hospital one moment and left the next.)
    3. Accuracy–If it is a research paper, can you reference every claim? If writing a cookbook, then is it a teaspoon or a tablespoon? It makes a big difference in a recipe; trust me. In fiction, is the world you create accurate? (For example: Is the moon rising at the right time of night, or day, for its phase? Does the plant you reference bloom at that time of year?)
    4. Rhythm and flow–Does each sentence sound sweet to the ear. Could a change in word choice improve the flow, sweeten the alliteration, or emphasize the mood? Could combining or separating out sentences vary pace? Writing is like music. It should have a cadence appropriate to the task. And the most essential part, the point of your sentence, paragraph, or piece, should crescendo. Does your sentence culminate in the key phrase? Does your paragraph conclude with the key point? Does your last paragraph (or chapter) reiterate your main idea, your theme?
  4. Read it again, focusing on details, not content. Even during your first edit, you will find errors unrelated to your focus. Fix the problem and write it down. Chances are if you fixed it once, you missed it five times over. Every writer has their personal flaws, writing traps they fall into with regularity. Mine is the over use of “…ing” words. Add your own writing traps to this list.
    1. Punctuation consistency– Commas in a series, commas in dialogue, commas in general…ugh! Have a good reference in reach, and good luck.
    2. Word repetition or overuse– Fix some of it as you go, especially if you see “smile” three times in the same paragraph–a flow problem. But along the way, you might sense an overuse of “eat.” Write the word down. Now is the time to use the “find” feature on your writing program and go on a word hunt. (Hint: If the find feature is pulling up the word inside words, put a space before and after the search word. Problem eliminated.)
    3. Weak word choice Do you use wishy-washy words? These, among others: sort of, really, almost, might. Be direct without losing your voice. Look for them; send them packing. (Not: You might look for them and maybe send them packing.)
    4. Homophones–You would think it a no brainer, but when I go on a writing terror, just trying to get the words on the page, I slip­–often. No one is immune too it. (That was a joke.) Same thing with “can not” or “cannot” and possessives.
  5. Now you are ready to hand your treasure to your Beta-readers. Choose two or three people to trust with your fragile ego. (Face it; it’s fragile.) Give up your work to them; ask them to give input, to expose your flaws. Be open, be humble, and be ready. When they’re done, wait a while, nurse your wounds, then return to step 3, and go at it again. This time make sure you read it out loud. (Hint: Use the “Bookmark” feature to keep track of where you are in your editing.)
  6. Know when to say when. If you feel like you rearranged the furniture, and then just put it back again, stop. You are done. Perfect isn’t realistic, is it? Hum…I might just take THAT advise to heart.

What are your “traps,” and how do you handle your editing? Let me know. I’m dying too here from you.

Book Contract Signed!

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best book contract

Me signing…so fast the pen blurs.

It’s official. Today I signed a contract with HBE Publishing for my first novel. I’m very excited to begin my collaboration with Dan Dunlee, the publisher, on what is tentatively titled Mary’s Mountains.

In the story Maggie, an amateur family historian (who lives with her husband in the Sierra foothills–sound familiar?), investigates not just the birth and death dates of people but makes soul deep connections across time. In a single document Maggie discovers a woman, name as yet unknown, living on the Pennsylvania frontier in late 1770, and that mysterious woman draws Maggie in. Parallel to her search, the “real” story of Mary Hutton and her husband, Jacob Carter, unfolds.

But that’s all for now because, well, these things take time, and publication is a long way off…maybe a year and a half. Until then, I’ll enjoy the process. For now–back to editing my second novel, which is also a Maggie Chronicle.

Am I excited? You bet. So, this is no Throwback Thursday; it is future focused. Forward Friday? Fabulous.