02/1/18

Introducing Elizabeth LaBan: Not Perfect

Photo credit: Andrea Cipriani Mecchi

I’m thrilled to post this interview with Elizabeth LaBan, whose new novel Not Perfect releases today from Lake Union Publishing.  Elizabeth and I are represented by the same literary agency, TriadaUS, and I’ve been a fan of hers ever since I read her YA novel The Tragedy Paper. I’ve been looking forward to reading Not Perfect because it’s a domestic mystery, my favorite kind of contemporary fiction, and it does not disappoint!

When I asked Elizabeth to describe Not Perfect, she said, “Tabitha Brewer wakes up one morning in her fancy apartment to find her husband gone and a note he left that says ‘I’ll tell them what you did.’ That scares her enough to pretend all is well, even though she has no money and can barely feed and take care of her two kids. Throughout the book the reader learns what she did, if she did it, and why her husband left. Along the way Tabitha is surprised by the extreme kindness of a stranger and the possibility of new love.”

One of my favorite things about Not Perfect is the way I came to care about and sympathize with Tabitha, despite her privileged life and sometimes puzzling choices. She’s a three-dimensional character readers can relate to, and by the end of the novel she felt like a friend. I asked Elizabeth which character in the novel is her favorite, and she said, “I think it is Rabbi Rosen – even though of course I love Tabitha. The reason I pick him, though, is because he is so calming and seems to magically make everything better just by being there. Who wouldn’t love a character like that? Tabitha thinks that whenever he is around, and I felt it when I was writing the scenes with him in it.”

The whole cast of characters in Not Perfect is memorable: I was moved by the scenes with Rabbi Rosen and Tabitha’s children, fascinated by the expertly-planted clues regarding Tabitha’s husband’s disappearance, and howling with laughter during a hilarious Chinese restaurant scene!

Elizabeth and I also talked about her writing process. When I asked what her favorite part of the  process is, she said, “Digging in to the second draft after the world has been created and the characters feel like real people.” And the most challenging part of the process? “The beginning – creating the basic world and story – it is my least favorite part. I find it to be lonely before I really know the characters.”

I agree completely. I recently told someone that writing the first draft of a novel feels like I’m at a party where I don’t know anybody and I have to prove I’m good enough to be friends with these people so they’ll tell me their stories! The second or third draft, after I’ve gained their trust and know them better, is much more fun.

Elizabeth and I also have similar approaches to writer’s block. She told me, “I once heard another author say that he didn’t really believe in writer’s block, but that it is possible you took a wrong turn in the book and need to back up a little and then go another way to move forward. Maybe the plot choice you just made leads you to a dead end – what a pain to erase it! But if you go back a little, just retrace your steps down that hall and make another choice, it might help move forward. Also, I have a lot of plot and character breakthroughs while I am taking walks.” This is great advice for any writer who feels stuck.

You can buy a copy of Not Perfect here:

You can also connect with Elizabeth online:
Website: www.elizabethlaban.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TragedyPaper/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ElizabethLaBan
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36004055-not-perfect?from_choice=false&from_home_module=false

If you’d like to meet Elizabeth in person, she’ll be speaking at Upper Dublin Library in Pennsylvania this evening. She’ll also be appearing with me and Amanda Stauffer on February 20 at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn. If you’re in the area, please drop by and say hello!

01/23/18

Introducing Amanda Stauffer: Match Made in Manhattan

Today I’m departing from my usual focus on historical fiction to introduce my friend Amanda Stauffer and her new novel (released today by Skyhorse), Match Made in Manhattan. We met through Authors18, an online group of writers whose first novels are being published this year. Match Made in Manhattan is the story of the online dating trials and tribulations of Alison, a New Yorker in her late twenties who decides to join Match.com after a long-term relationship fizzles out. When I read this novel I quickly became invested in Alison’s dates due to the charm of her narrative voice, which is chatty, personal, and genuine. I was transported back to my 20’s and felt like I was commiserating with a friend about our strange dates. Each chapter features a new man Alison meets online. In a rom-com style, with strong sub-themes of friendship and independence, Amanda’s novel offers probing reflections on relationships and the individual choices we make.

On what inspired her to write the novel, Amanda explains, “My book began as a list of men’s names scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin. I was at drinks with friends, relating the details of my latest Match.com dates. I’d been dumped before the first kiss, donned full HAZMAT gear on a third date, and, been set up with another date’s mom. And somehow I’d wound up with a dating history that—mapped out on that fateful napkin—formed a quirky yet gripping romantic narrative. So, names got changed, several men became ‘composite’ characters, and my story became ‘Alison’s.’”

Amanda and I share a fascination with exploring the same situations and relationships from different characters’ points of view. That fascination is why she says Younger Luke is her favorite character in Match Made in Manhattan. Amanda says, “I’m enchanted by the notion that different people can draw out different sides of us, and also that two people sitting on opposite sides of the table can experience the same conversation or date totally differently. I think [Younger Luke is] the embodiment of these two ideas . . . and also, what a charmer.”

Personally, my favorite character in Amanda’s novel is John the Secret Agent. You’ll have to read her book to find out why. 😉

I was interested to know what Amanda removed from the novel during the editing process. She answered, “Many many men. The manuscript I submitted to Skyhorse was 450 pages long. Very little description or transitions were cut (in fact, my editor actually had me add in more description and internal monologue); mostly we extracted entire chapters, which in this case meant complete male characters.”

I also wanted to know what surprised her most during the publishing process, and she had this to say: “My sister, a voiceover actress, is the narrator on the audiobook version of Match Made in Manhattan (!!!) It’s a much longer story, filled with a tremendous amount of serendipity and perfect timing—and having nothing to do with me or any authorly input—but her agent submitted her to audition, and she landed the role. If you listen to the first 10 seconds you’ll hear her say, ‘Match Made in Manhattan, written by Amanda Stauffer. Performed by Elenna Stauffer.’ And getting to hear those 10 seconds was even more exciting than getting to hold my first paperback copy.”

If you’re not already itching to get your hands on a copy of Amanda’s book, consider this glowing endorsement by Amy Cohen, New York Times bestselling author of The Late Bloomer’s Revolution:

Match Made in Manhattan works on so many levels.  There are the great, juicy dating parts (I wish I could sit in on all the book clubs as they enjoy trading their dating stories.) But there’s also a depth to this book that is such a welcome surprise.  Amanda’s writing pulls you in and takes you on the most satisfying journey.”

You can buy Amanda’s novel from these online retailers:

Barnes & Noble

Amazon.com

Amazon.ca

If you’d like to meet Amanda in person, she’ll be at The Strand Bookstore in New York City tomorrow (!), and she’ll also be speaking on a panel with me and Elizabeth LaBan on February 20 at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn. (I’ll be featuring Elizabeth in my next blog post.)

You can also connect with Amanda online:

Website: https://amandastauffer.wordpress.com/

Twitter: @aspark7

Instagram: @aspark711

Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/book/show/34138510-match-made-in-manhattan

01/14/18

The Launch of IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS

Since January 2 when Impossible Saints was published, my life has been a whirlwind. I want to take a few minutes now to savor and document what’s been happening, and these photos taken by my friend Jannay are a great start! The first couple of photos give you an idea of the great turnout at Indigo North London, where the Canadian launch was held.

 

 

This was a highly successful event, helped in large part by the wonderful team of women who are organizing A Century for Women, a local group celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage in Canada with a community-wide series of events this year. My research focuses on British women’s suffrage, so it was great to have the Canadian story told by my colleagues from A Century for Women.

Jean Hewitt introduced A Century for Women and was followed by Joanne Johns, (aka Nellie McClung), who gave the audience a dramatic monologue from the perspective of the well-known Canadian women’s suffrage leader. The costumes Jean, Joanne, and their colleagues wore created a great visual impact!

 

I then gave a talk and read a few passages from Impossible Saints. I spoke about what inspired me to write the novel, the difference between historical authenticity and historical accuracy in fiction, a brief history of women’s rights and the suffragettes in England, and finally, the symbolism of clothing and spaces in Impossible Saints. In the first photo below I seem to be trying to levitate, and I’m very curious about what I was saying at that point!

 

After the talk, I had a Q and A session with the audience, and then we moved on to what I considered the best part, signing books and talking one-on-one with friends and other audience members. I think you can see from the first photo how happy I am. It’s still hard to believe that my dream of being published has come true!

I had very little time to let this experience sink in because the next day my husband and I flew to Chicago for another book event, this time a joint event with my friend and bestselling historical novelist Jessica Brockmole, author of Letters from Skye, At the Edge of Summer, and Woman Enters Left. We had fun planning our conversation and interviewing each other, and although our audience was small, the bookstore staff made up for it with their energy and enthusiasm. One staff member took a video of the event that she live-streamed on Facebook. You can watch it here:

https://www.facebook.com/AndersonsBookshopNaperville/videos/10159768202670023/

At Anderson’s, I also saw my book on display in a store window for the first time.  Notice the very good company Impossible Saints is keeping!

I’ll be doing more events in Canada and the US this spring, some of which haven’t been confirmed yet. You can see the full list of confirmed events under Author Appearances. If you’re not in any of the physical locations I’ll be going to, consider joining me and nine other debut authors for a Facebook Launch Party this coming Wednesday, January 17, from 8 to 10:30 pm EST.  There will be prizes! Here’s the link if you’d like more information:

https://www.facebook.com/events/763330847196012/

Finally, some stores have already sold out of Impossible Saints (YAY!), but it’s easily available online through the retailers listed under the book cover photo on my home page. (If you order from Chapters Indigo online, you can have the book shipped to a store near you and avoid the delivery charge.) People are telling me that the book is being delivered within 2-4 days of ordering online, so I’m happy about that!

11/27/17

Past Imperfect

The release date for Impossible Saints is a mere 5 weeks away, and I’ve been caught up in the excitement of preparing for the launch and other book-related events. I’ve also been answering interview questions for blogs and periodicals, and those questions have made me think  a lot about historical authenticity in fiction. People who don’t usually read historical fiction are often surprised to find out how much research goes into a historical novel. Yes, novelists use their imaginations to flesh out the details, but we also do extensive research to make the setting of our novels feel authentic to the reader.

All good novels incorporate sensory details, but it’s especially difficult to know how people in bygone eras experienced their world through sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. An original text from the 1800s might describe the sweet taste of a custard, for example, but does modern custard taste the same, and would we describe it similarly? To further complicate the historical novelist’s relentless desire to recreate the past, we often forget that at any given moment, people live in multiple eras. In other words, they experience the past simultaneously with the present.

My parents’ LP of South Pacific with the original 1949 Broadway cast

For example, a relaxing day in my life in 2017 might look like this: I’m re-reading Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, published in 1857, while listening to my parents’ LP record of the musical South Pacific, recorded in 1949. When I need a break from reading, I go into the kitchen and bake cookies from my grandmother’s recipe, first created in the 1930’s. Then I go to the piano and play a Beethoven sonata composed in 1798. After that I might do some housecleaning while playing my Ultimate Dance Party 1997 CD. This CD has no discernable musical value, but it has the charm of nostalgia because I played it repeatedly and loudly in my car to keep myself awake when I drove across the country with my cat and all my worldly possessions. That experience was pretty traumatic at the time (especially for my cat), but I’m still proud of myself for doing it, and Dance Party ’97 will always be the soundtrack for that big move.

Shouldn’t an authentic historical novel include a multiplicity of eras, too? How often does such a blend of past and present appear in historical fiction, especially a blend of old and new technologies? As both an academic and a novelist, my research has focused primarily on the late Victorian period, but I had to move Impossible Saints into the first decade of the 20th century to accommodate Lilia, my relentlessly modern suffragette. I wrote this blog post about what I learned from moving the novel’s setting ten years later than it originally was.

The typical way of including past and present in fiction is to make the older characters cling to outdated ways of life and resist new ideas that the younger people embrace (think of the Dowager Countess’s opinion of electric light in Downton Abbey!). But this isn’t always the case. Think of the millennial who is an old soul, who loves history and wears vintage clothing. Or the octogenarian who uses Snapchat and Instagram to document her life. In every family and social circle there is someone who is obsessed with the latest technology and someone else who refuses to use it. And they’re not always the people you might expect.

John Henry Newman, my protagonist Paul’s very Victorian hero!

Perhaps it’s impossible to express such a multiplicity of viewpoints in historical fiction when the lines between generations (and decades) are so difficult to draw. Even from my vantage point in 2017, I can’t always tell the difference between clothes that were trendy in the 1990s vs. the first decade of the 21st century. Maybe that says more about my impaired fashion sense than anything else, but I can certainly recognize the differences in clothing between the 1970s and 1980s, my formative years. How much more difficult for the modern writer (or reader) to recognize the fine distinctions between the 1870s and 1880s!

When I moved the setting of Impossible Saints into the 20th century, I knew Lilia would thrive there, but I was worried about Paul, my other protagonist, an Anglican priest and a true Victorian in his interests and concerns. He’s an old-fashioned young man who loves tradition and history. His nemesis Thomas Cross even calls him a “medieval relic” at one point! But the more I thought about how to bring him into the 20th century, the more I realized he didn’t need to change. There were certainly people like him, as there always have been, who are more strongly drawn to the past rather than the present or the future. I am one of those people, and that’s why I love history and historical fiction!

I’ll end with a beautiful passage about viewing history from different vantage points from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1857 novel in verse, Aurora Leigh:

[E]very age,
Heroic in proportions, double-faced,
Looks backward and before, expects a morn
And claims an epos.

Ay, but every age
Appears to souls who live in ’t (ask Carlyle)
Most unheroic. Ours, for instance, ours:
The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound
Who scorn to touch it with a finger-tip:
A pewter age,—mixed metal, silver-washed;
An age of scum, spooned off the richer past,
An age of patches for old gaberdines,
An age of mere transition, meaning nought
Except that what succeeds must shame it quite
If God please. That’s wrong thinking, to my mind,
And wrong thoughts make poor poems.

Every age,
Through being beheld too close, is ill-discerned
By those who have not lived past it.

10/16/17

My Top Ten Must-Read Historical Novels

I rather foolishly offered to come up with a top ten must-read list of historical novels for Authors 18 (a group of debut authors with novels coming out in 2018). Trying to whittle down a list of books in my favourite genre to only ten was definitely not easy, and if you ask me in a month (or even a week) what my top ten are, they’ll probably be different! But for now, here they are, with thanks to Jennifer Klepper for the lovely graphic and for promoting my list on social media.

I thought I’d add a justification for my choices, since some of them might be unfamiliar or controversial to other readers. I tried to choose a variety of time periods and subgenres, but for the most part I chose books that changed me and stayed in my mind for months or even years after I read them.

  1. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is the urtext for Christian feminists. I’m not sure this one needs any justification, but if so, I’ll just repeat a line from The Boston Globe‘s review: “The Red Tent is what the Bible would be like if it had been written by women, but only Diamant could have given it such sweep and grace.”
  2. Atonement by Ian McEwan is for the English professor in me, but it’s also just a brilliantly-crafted story about childish mistakes, lies, forgiveness, and the power of storytelling.
  3. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt is definitely not for children. A rich, disturbing family saga that begins in the late-Victorian period and ends after WWI, this book defies description. Byatt’s books are dangerous because I always finish them thinking, “I can never hope to match this as a writer, so I shouldn’t even try.” Read at your own risk!
  4. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. This book has everything I look for in any novel: fairy tales, fascinating
    characters, history, a complex plot, a vivid sense of place. Morton is above all a consummate storyteller.
  5. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. A haunting gothic tale with an intricate plot. I was so immersed in this book I don’t think I ate, slept, or talked to anyone until I finished it.
  6. Abigale Hall by Lauren Forry. Another suspenseful gothic tale and the newest novel on this list. This one made me scream out loud while reading it, but it might be too gruesome for some readers. Read my full review here.
  7. Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder. The best Canadian historical novel I’ve ever read. Beautiful language, fascinating characters, and a story that fully drew me in even though I have no interest in running or any sport that involves running! Read my full review here.
  8. Amy Snow by Tracy Rees. This is the novel Dickens should have written. It recreates an authentic Victorian world whose characters I was sad to leave when the book ended. There’s some mystery too, but I loved it mainly because it felt like my favourite Victorian classics.
  9. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Waters is the master of plot twists. I want to take her books apart and learn from them how to write a story that keeps the reader gasping and on the edge of her seat. Brilliant.
  10. Middlemarch by George Eliot. The astute reader may ask why I included this actual Victorian novel on a list of the top ten historical novels. It doesn’t fit the typical definition of historical fiction, which is fiction that’s set at least 50 years in the past. Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) set the novel in the early 1830s, only 40 years before it was published. My best answer is that this novel should be on the top ten list of any novels of any genre. Don’t let the literary status or the length of Middlemarch fool you: it’s a great big perfectly-constructed soap opera, and once you’ve read it, it will colour everything you see forever. In a good way.

What do you think of my list? What would you change? Have you read any of these novels, and if so, do you think they’re worthy of being on a top ten list?

09/15/17

Cover Reveal Take 2 (and other exciting news)

Here’s a surprise for readers: my book cover has changed! Here’s the new one:

A good friend of mine described her first impression of the new cover this way: There’s a woman in a serviceable coat and hat, looking across the river at the misty seat of power from which she is excluded by her sex. I think this description is very apt, considering the theme of the novel.

To remind you what it’s about, here’s some of the jacket copy:

Escaping the constraints of life as a village schoolmistress, Lilia Brooke bursts into London and into Paul Harris’s orderly life, shattering his belief that women are gentle creatures who need protection. Lilia wants to change women’s lives by advocating for the vote, free unions, and contraception. Paul, an Anglican priest, has a big ambition of his own: to become the youngest dean of St. John’s Cathedral. Lilia doesn’t believe in God, but she’s attracted to Paul’s intellect, ethics, and dazzling smile.

As Lilia finds her calling in the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, Paul is increasingly driven to rise in the church. They can’t deny their attraction, but they know they don’t belong in each other’s worlds. Paul and Lilia must reach their breaking points before they can decide whether their love is worth fighting for.

You can pre-order Impossible Saints at any of the online retailers on my home page.

I have two more bits of exciting news: first, Goodreads is giving away 3 free advance review copies of Impossible Saints. You can enter to win a copy here!

And finally, here is an early review of Impossible Saints that made me cry with joy. I can’t describe the thrill of finding out that my book is connecting with readers, particularly the kind of readers I wrote it for!

07/17/17

How many query letters does it take to find an agent?

The answer, in my case, is 160. (No, this is not a joke!)

I wrote this post in April about my path to publication. Last month I gave a talk on the same subject at the London Writers Society general meeting. Audience members told me they found the statistics I gave them regarding my agent search both sobering and inspiring, so I’m going to share those details here.

This is the spreadsheet I used when I started querying agents. I’ve removed the names of the specific agents and literary agencies, but their responses are recorded in the right-hand column. I changed the line from “sent” to “rejected” when I received the rejection letters, but if I received no response, the line remains “sent.”

Here are the statistics for each novel I queried between 2008 and 2014:

Novel 1 (2008-09)
Query letters sent: 54
Requests: 3 (partial manuscript)

Novel 2 (2010-12)
Query letters sent: 30
Requests: 1 (partial manuscript)

Novel 3 (2013-14)
Query letters sent: 76
Requests: 13 (full manuscript)

Laura Crockett of TriadaUS Literary Agency offered representation and became my agent in Fall 2014. Interestingly, I signed with Laura for Novel 3, but Novel 1 (Impossible Saints) is actually being published first. If you’re wondering what happened between receiving Laura’s offer of representation and receiving the offer of publication for Impossible Saints from Pegasus Books, you can read Laura’s excellent blog post about that journey.

Yes, it took 6 years, 3 novels, and 160 queries for me to find an agent. It probably didn’t need to take that long. In hindsight, I think I started searching for an agent too soon, before my novel was ready.

I did some things right: I researched specific agents who represented historical fiction and was careful to give them what they asked for (e.g. Just a query letter? A letter and the first ten pages of the manuscript?). AgentQuery.com was the main resource I used to find agents who represented novels in my genre, and I highly recommend it.

The main thing I did wrong and the way in which my novel wasn’t ready was that it was ridiculously long, around 180,000 words (the recommended range for most novels is 80,000 to 100,000 words). I knew my novel was longer than most guidelines suggested, but I had plenty of reasons why it needed to be that long (it covered a large span of time, there were lots of characters, etc). Besides, every word was precious and I needed them all, or so I thought. The real truth was that I was afraid of revision and didn’t want to take the whole thing apart in case I might not be able to put it back together again! But I wish I had listened to the advice from people in the publishing industry and not given agents a reason to reject my manuscript right out of the gate.

I knew quite early in the process with the third novel that I was getting closer to an offer of representation because I was getting more requests for the manuscript, and instead of form rejections, I received personalized rejection letters. If you’re not a writer, you have no idea how exciting that first personalized rejection letter is!

If I could say one thing to aspiring authors, it would be this: don’t give up! (And be willing to revise your work so many times that you lose count.)

If you’d like to participate in a Twitter chat on the subject of successful queries and pitches this evening with a group of debut authors whose books will be published in 2018, see the information below. I’m happy to answer your questions!

 

06/9/17

Book Cover Announcement for IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS

I’m thrilled to reveal the cover for Impossible Saints, to be published by Pegasus in January 2018!

To give you some context, here’s a bit of the jacket cover copy: “Escaping the constraints of life as a village schoolmistress, Lilia Brooke bursts into London and into Paul Harris’s orderly life, shattering his belief that women are gentle creatures who need protection. Lilia wants to change women’s lives by advocating for the vote, free unions, and contraception. Paul, an Anglican priest, has a big ambition of his own: to become the youngest dean of St. John’s Cathedral. Lilia doesn’t believe in God, but she’s attracted to Paul’s intellect, ethics, and dazzling smile.”

The design team at Pegasus did an amazing job of weaving the central themes of the book into the cover. The woman in the centre perfectly represents Lilia and her fighting spirit. I also love the way the designers incorporated the WSPU colours (purple, white, and green) into the design. The Women’s Social and Political Union, the best-known group of militant suffragettes in the early 20th century, chose purple for dignity, white for purity, and green for hope.

Although Paul doesn’t appear on the cover, his work as a cathedral clergyman is cleverly depicted in the stained-glass motif. His beloved church tradition and history, also cleverly represented with the scroll at the top, contrast with Lilia’s more modern feminist concerns.

I love the questions raised by this design. Does it represent a clash of two worlds, or do those worlds complement each other? Does the stained glass surround Lilia like a trap, reflecting her fears about all things religious? Or is she pushing past the borders to take centre stage? And what about that halo around her head? Is it ironic, given that Lilia is hardly a saint? Or does it suggest that she (and perhaps Paul too) is a different kind of icon?

What do you think?

In a month or so, I’ll post links to online retailers and Goodreads so you can add the book to your TBR list. I’m very excited that Impossible Saints is one step closer to being out in the world!

04/3/17

The Impossible Novel that became IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS

 

 

 

I’m thrilled to share my book deal announcement (above) from Publisher’s Marketplace! Because book deal announcements don’t show the long and rocky road to publication, I’m going to share some of that journey here.

I am both surprised and not surprised that IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS is the first of my novels to be published. I’m surprised because I gave up on it so many times. I’m not surprised because, as corny as it sounds, this is the book of my heart that wouldn’t give up on me!

This is a tale of several novels, so I’m going to give them numbers for easy identification. Novel #1 was the first novel I wrote in my twenties. It was terrible. Some novels are meant never to see the light of day, and Novel #1 was one of them. I have no desire to ever revisit or publish that first novel, but I’m grateful for its existence because it sparked the creation of Paul and Lilia, the protagonists of Novel #2 (IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS). I was imagining what the children of my Novel #1 characters would be like, and Paul and Lilia popped into my head.

In my head they stayed for another ten years or so. I was too busy finishing my PhD and trying to start an academic career to even think about writing another novel for a long time, but these two characters stayed in the back of my mind, plotting a future for themselves without my conscious knowledge.

I began writing Novel #2 about ten years ago, when Paul and Lilia’s voices became too loud to ignore. Unfortunately, I mistook the rush of excitement while I wrote it for good writing. That rush of excitement said nothing about the quality of my writing but more about allowing myself to do what I’d denied myself for years. Like many a new writer, I fell in love with my own words and didn’t think the novel needed serious revision.

My biggest mistake was thinking that because I had a PhD in English Literature and taught academic writing, I would automatically be good at writing novels. Pride, in other words, didn’t let me learn from my first critique group when they pointed out (sometimes none too gently) where I’d gone wrong. I remember one well-intentioned fellow writer struggling to explain what was wrong with my scene, then dropping head in hands and saying, “I find your characters unattractive.”

Unattractive? I had no idea what my colleague meant, besides which, how dare this person insult my babies? Other, more specific criticisms followed from other critique partners, and I’m embarrassed to admit that more than once I went home after critique meetings and wept in my dark living room, vowing never again to show anyone what I’d written! (If there’s a way to grow a thick skin, I haven’t found it yet.)

In hindsight I can see that I was far too close to Novel #2 to see it clearly enough to revise it. I invested too much of myself in it, but that’s also why it was such a joy to write. It was everything a first draft should be: too long, repetitive, self-indulgent, and confusing. In other words, what was an utter delight to write was a complete nightmare to read. I couldn’t understand why others didn’t love my characters the way I did.

I tried to find an agent with this early version of Novel #2, only to receive nearly one hundred form rejection letters. It appeared that this was one of those “trunked” novels that every novelist has in her past. A practice novel, something that needed to be written but would never be published.

I moved on to Novel #3, which I wasn’t as emotionally invested in. I’d been burned and didn’t want to give my heart away again. But there are many kinds of love (!), and my relationship with these new characters was more like a successful arranged marriage: I came to love them as I spent more time with them. Even better, I became willing to learn how to write a story that people actually wanted to read. This involved massive revision. Not what I used to call revision, which was really just rearranging sentences or changing a word here and there. I came to understand that no writer is so good at writing that she doesn’t need to revise. And that means deleting and rewriting entire subplots, scenes, and characters. It means the final draft of a novel might be unrecognizable compared to the first draft.

I started querying agents for Novel #3, and I again received some form rejections. But there were other responses too. Agents started to send me personalized rejection letters (if you’re not a writer you have no idea how exciting a personalized rejection is after getting hundreds of form ones!). These letters mentioned my characters by name and suggested revisions that would make the book better. I was flattered that agents would take the time to read my book so carefully and write such long, encouraging letters. Some of them even asked me to send them my next novel. This was the turning point.

Some months later, Novel #3 caught the eye of the person who became my agent, the amazing Laura Crockett at TriadaUS! And in case you think that’s the end of the story, it’s not. Laura has described our journey together in this lovely blog post. Signing with an agent usually involves signing up for a whole new level of rejection, this time from editors at publishing houses. This time the sting of rejection was softened by Laura’s encouragement, but it was still rejection. We decided to set Novel #3 aside for a while. By this time I had written Novel #4, and I was polishing it to get it ready for Laura to pitch to editors.

But Paul and Lilia from Novel #2 still poked me in the back from time to time, reminding me of their existence, so one day I dug out their story again. Setting it aside for several years had given me the distance I needed: I was excited by its potential and able to see clearly what needed fixing. I also gave it to a few beta readers whose excellent suggestions helped me cut, slap, and beat Novel #2 into shape. Then I showed it to Laura, whose excitement buoyed me up during the months of waiting that followed. Then Katie at Pegasus Books sent Laura an offer and made me one very happy author!

There will be more edits before IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS is published, but after almost twenty years from idea to final draft, it’s a wonderful feeling to know that Paul and Lilia’s story will finally be out in the world and available to readers in early 2018!

03/7/17

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Take a look at this photo. The people in it are high school students on their way to make professional presentations at a business competition. Do you notice anything unusual?

Young men and women stances

 

Perhaps you see nothing unusual about the photo because it’s common to see men and women in these types of stances. But the differences between genders are painfully clear. The men stand confidently, legs apart, one hand clasping the other wrist. In contrast, the young women look awkward and unstable, teetering on high heels, knees knocking together. The woman on the left seems to be fidgeting with her clothes. It’s hard to believe this is still happening in 2017.

Even before “Pantsuit Nation,” I knew there was something wrong with typical business clothing for women. Even today, trousers are often considered inappropriate for businesswomen. What is acceptable, or even required, in most workplaces? Skirts, pantyhose, and high heels, despite the fact that this clothing forces a woman to be off balance, keep her legs tightly together, and have her middle restricted as effectively as if she were wearing a 19th-century corset. As toddlers, we see our mothers dressing up, whether for parties or business meetings, and learn that this pinching-in and crippling of our natural bodies is expected of us too when we grow up to become women.

It’s second nature to me when I’m in meetings or even just in public to make myself smaller, to close in on myself, whether by crossing my legs or keeping my elbows pinned to my sides. I see other women doing the same. Sometimes I take a more expansive, confident posture, but to do that I must be deliberate and concentrate on how I arrange my body.

I was fifteen years old the day I learned that I was a woman, and I don’t mean biologically. My family lived in a rural area and had driven into the nearest city for the day. My parents had dropped off my younger brother and I at the public library while they did errands. We left the library to go to the spot where our parents were picking us up. We had to cross the street to get to the family car, and as we were waiting for the walk signal at the street corner, a couple of men in a pickup truck pulled up to the traffic light. They were no more than ten feet away from where my brother and I stood.

It was a warm spring day, and the men had rolled down their windows.

“Hey, I really like red shoes,” I heard one of them say.

I was wearing red shoes. I looked around furtively to see if there was anyone else wearing red shoes. My brother and I were the only pedestrians in sight, and he was not wearing red shoes (it was a slow day on the prairies).

“Ooh, I really like white pants,” the other man said.

I was wearing white pants.

Well, this was awkward. The men were laughing, and my eleven-year-old brother started to chuckle too, not sure what to do.

I don’t remember what I did. I know I didn’t speak to the men or even look at them directly.

I do remember how I felt: Confused. They were laughing, and what they said could be taken as a compliment, but the way they were saying it was weird, almost like an insult. I couldn’t figure out if they were mocking me, insulting me, or trying to make me feel good.

I didn’t feel good. The truck was obstructing my view of my parents’ car. I was afraid the men would get out of the truck and approach me. Would they try to kidnap or attack me?

The light changed and they drove away. My brother and I hurried to my parents’ car and got in. I don’t remember if either of us told them about the incident.

Every woman at some point in her life realizes that the majority of men view her as an object. They might sugar-coat this objectification by saying, “but it was a compliment” or “why do you dress like that if you don’t want us to speak to/look at/touch you?” It doesn’t occur to them that women sometimes like to look nice, even sexy, just for themselves, and that their clothes don’t represent an open invitation for sex. Witness the recent firestorm of controversy about Emma Watson’s revealing photo. I’m baffled by the people who think her decision to pose for this photo negates her feminist views.

It’s because of the photo of the high school students at the beginning of this post, because I remember being that confused fifteen year-old, and because my students still begin sentences with the words “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” that I am participating in A Day Without a Woman tomorrow, which is also International Women’s Day. I will go on strike along with many others around the world by doing three things:

  1. I will take the day off work
  2. I will not shop.
  3. I will wear red (but not red shoes!).

Will you consider doing the same?