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.


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?


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!


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!



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!


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!


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?



My Week of (Attempted) Reading Deprivation

no-booksI first heard about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992) in a writers’ workshop a few years ago. It sounded intriguing, so I bought it. It sat on my bookshelf unopened for another year or so. Then I read it, but parts of it scared me, and I wasn’t ready to commit wholeheartedly to the 12-week program. Instead, I took bits and pieces of it that I was ready to try, such as the Morning Pages. (If you haven’t tried this specialized kind of journaling, it’s an amazing head-clearing tool and I highly recommend it!)

About a month ago I decided to commit to the whole program. The main reason I didn’t commit to it earlier is because some of the tasks seemed silly and unproductive. But as Cameron suggests, what you most resist is often what you most need. Last week’s task was the craziest and most terrifying of all: stop reading for seven days.

This is Cameron’s rationale for the week of reading deprivation:

For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers. We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our systems. Too much of it and we feel, yes, fried. It is a paradox that by emptying our lives of distractions we are actually filling the well.

Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence, a space some of us begin to immediately fill with new words—long, gossipy conversations, television bingeing, the radio as a constant, chatty companion. We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration, above the static.

Our reward [for reading deprivation] will be a new outflow. Our own art, our own thoughts and feelings, will begin to nudge aside the sludge of blockage, to loosen it and move it upward and outward until once again our well is running freely.

Although I’d read The Artist’s Way before, I had forgotten about the reading deprivation, and I reacted the same way Cameron says her students commonly do, with shock and anger. My reactions followed the typical five stages of grief (with apologies to people who are grieving the loss of more important things and people):

  1. Denial: You want me to do what? Not read? Reading is my life! You don’t really mean that. I’ll pretend I didn’t see that.
  2. Anger: Who do you think you are, telling me not to read? I have to read for work. If I don’t read I’ll lose my mind/job/friends/Twitter followers. Only a moron would tell me not to read.
  3. Bargaining: Ok, I won’t read novels, but I will read online articles. Surely that’s acceptable. Nobody avoids online reading. They do? Ok, I won’t read articles but I’ll still read my e-mail. I have to read e-mail, right? No? Fine. I’ll just read work e-mails.
  4. Depression: I’m not reading. All I want to do is read. How will I survive this week without reading? Nothing matters. I want to die.
  5. Acceptance: I never actually reached this stage because I cheated (more on that below). I did manage to avoid reading novels, though, which was a feat in itself.

The first day of reading deprivation was the hardest. It was January 1, a holiday. No stores or businesses were open, so I couldn’t mask the horror of reading deprivation by doing errands or going shopping. I was also expecting a shipment of new books that I’d planned to start reading that week, so the timing was particularly bad.

As the week went on, I began to cheat, first in little ways, then big ones. Working out at the gym without listening to an audio book was so horrible that I’ll never repeat that experience again. Then I found myself “needing” to Google certain things. I began to check Twitter “just for five minutes” to see if anyone was saying anything interesting. I felt the need to re-read parts of my writing craft books.

Then the new books I’d ordered started to arrive. I left them in their original packaging for a couple of days because I knew if I opened them, the temptation to read would be too great. Then I opened them (this was day 4) and petted the covers. By day 5 I was sneaking a peek inside and reading prologues and first chapters. (Yes, Tara Sim, I’m talking about YOUR new book!)

Here’s what I learned from my attempt at reading deprivation: that good things can get in the way of better things. That when I actually do deprive myself of all reading, including the internet, I have time to sit and stare out the window or have long, interesting conversations with my husband. I can also see that reading even the most soul-nourishing books can fill up up my head and prevent my own words from flowing. It can also help me avoid difficult people or problems that I don’t want to think about.

Reading deprivation is a kind of silence. I’ve never thought about myself as someone who’s afraid of silence. In fact, I’ve been made fun of for my love of silence. My husband sometimes grumbles that our house is like a tomb because he likes to have background music on while he works, but I usually ask him to use headphones so I don’t have to hear it. I love music and am a musician myself, but if I’m listening to music, I focus on that and don’t do anything else.

Although I’m used to silence in the literal sense (aside from cats purring, the best sound in the world!), I’m not used to silence in my brain, an absence of mental noise. And as much as I love reading, I’ve started to understand what Cameron means by the sort of mental noise reading can create.

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions anymore, at least not ones like “lose weight” or “get more exercise,” but I do sometimes have a theme word or phrase for the year. 2017 will be the year in which I cultivate more mental silence. That includes another stab at reading deprivation when I’m feeling braver and more prepared. But right now I’m going to enjoy the new books that are waiting for me!


Confessions of a NaNoWriMo Loser

nano-keep-calmI woke up this morning knowing I am a loser. November is over, and with it, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Every November, people all over the world try to write a novel. The goal is to write 50,000 new words in that month, and anyone who meets that goal is declared a winner.

I’ve known about NaNoWriMo for years, but this was my first time participating. I’ve never been tempted to try it before, mainly because the timing wasn’t right (I wasn’t working on a first draft) and because I’ve always been a slow writer and knew I probably couldn’t keep up with the 1,666-word-per-day pace. My normal daily word count is 500-600 words.

The way I usually begin a writing session is to read what I wrote the previous day and edit it. But NaNo rules prohibit editing. It’s all about vomiting the words onto the page, not worrying about grammar, punctuation, or style. It’s a first draft, so the words are supposed to be rubbish. You’ll fix them in later drafts (and if you don’t, you’ll make agents and editors everywhere very unhappy!).

Anyone who knows me will know these rules offend my slow, careful, grammar-nerd self. But I decided I’d try NaNo this year anyway. The timing was perfect: I’ve been struggling with the first draft of my new novel for an embarrassingly long time, and I needed a fresh start. I looked forward to silencing my inner editor for a month and churning out those words.

The official NaNoWriMo website has forums for writers to discuss their progress or lack thereof, but when I perused the forums in early November, I was surprised to see how young many of the other writers were. Eighteen year-olds considered themselves old pros as they advised thirteen year-olds. When I complained to my husband that these writers made me feel ancient, he quipped, “You should start a new forum called NaNoWrimOld.”

I didn’t start that forum, but I did begin NaNo with mixed feelings: excitement, trepidation, curiosity. I had several writing buddies, two of whom I texted almost daily so we could keep one another accountable. I really enjoyed the community support. Even just the knowledge that so many other people were writing at the same time helped spur me on.

I was thrilled with my output the first few days: I managed 1,600 words every day. From then on, I gradually slowed down, ending November with a word count of just over 20,000. That’s 20,000 words more than I had a month ago, so even though I “lost” NaNo, I’m pleased with my progress. I also learned some valuable lessons:

1. It’s very freeing not having to worry about grammar, style, or even keeping a character’s motivations or eye colour consistent. I can fix all of those things later.
2. That famous statement attributed to William Stafford is true: “There is no such thing as writer’s block for those whose standards are low enough.” I lowered my standards and just put one word after the other, repeating the same ones sometimes just to get them out.
3. Since I allowed myself to jump from one scene to another, sometimes out of chronological order, I discovered some great new ideas for the plot that I don’t think I would have come up with otherwise.

I don’t like the winner/loser language of NaNo. Although the word “loser” isn’t used on the NaNo website, that’s what you are if you’re not a winner, right? But there’s nothing wrong with failing to meet one’s goal. I often think of an interview I saw with Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx and the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. She was raised by a father who asked her every day, “what did you fail at today?” He was disappointed if the answer was “nothing.” That man gave his daughter a precious gift. When I see my students devastated by a less-than-perfect mark, friends paralyzed by failing to meet their bosses’ expectations, or my own worry that the novel I’m writing won’t be as good as the ideal version of it in my head, I realize that we all need to fail at something regularly.

What have you failed at lately? Can you celebrate the fact that you tried?


Wessex Wanderings

Max Gate (Hardy's house) from the back garden

Max Gate (Hardy’s house) from the back garden

In August I spent two weeks in the UK with my friend Jennifer, mainly doing research at the British Library in London and attending the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford. In the middle of the trip, I took off alone for what I’d originally planned as a day trip to Dorset, but it turned into a one-night, then a two-night stay because I couldn’t tear myself away.

I’ve always wanted to go to Dorset because it’s Thomas Hardy country. When I tell people I’m a Hardy fan, I tend to get either blank looks or a pained grimace. Quite a few people have had bad experiences with Hardy’s novels and either dislike his tragic, pessimistic outlook on life or his sometimes ponderous prose. One year when I taught Jude the Obscure, a student came to my office and told me I should have warned the class about the dead baby scene (don’t worry, I’ll say no more about that). She said she was on the bus when she read it, and she immediately started crying. She considered me personally responsible for her public embarrassment.

Why do I love Hardy’s novels so much? Because of his larger-than-life characters who are nevertheless deeply human and sympathetic, the landscape that functions as a character itself, the operatic quality of the scenes, and yes, the tragedy. I love tragedy and find it as cathartic as Aristotle argued it should be.

Back to Dorset (also known as Wessex, the name Hardy used for it in his novels). When I disembarked from the train at Dorchester, Dorset’s county town, and stood on the  platform smiling at all the possibilities in front of me, an older gentleman approached me and (no doubt noticing the enormous Canada stickers on my suitcase) asked me what brought me to Dorchester.

“Thomas Hardy,” I proclaimed proudly.

“I’ve written about Hardy in my book,” he replied, and we were instant friends. He showed me around for a bit, then we parted with a plan to get together the next morning for coffee.

Here's Dr. John with Thomas Hardy at The Horse with the Red Umbrella

Dr. John with Thomas Hardy

The next day I plunged into literary tourist mode. After meeting my new friend Dr. John at a delightful café called The Horse with the Red Umbrella, I walked to Max Gate, the house Hardy designed and lived in until his death. I plopped myself down on a sofa in the parlour and had a wonderful talk with Judy #1, museum guide and fellow Hardy fan, about Hardy’s life and work. If you can’t find a Hardy fan in Hardy’s own house, where can you find one? Eventually I went upstairs and met Judy #2, with whom I had another nice chat. Apparently you can’t work at Hardy’s house unless your name is Judy!

The house was fascinating in its own right, but what interested me most was the attic where Hardy’s first wife, Emma, decided to move about twenty years into their marriage. I knew Hardy had been married twice but I knew very little about his wives. At Max Gate, I became fascinated by Emma, who had literary ambitions of her own, loved animals, and in later life supported women’s suffrage. What had made her move out of the marital bedroom into the tiny two-room attic? Judy #1 assured me this was no “madwoman in the attic” scenario. It was Emma’s choice to move into the attic, and her faculties were intact.

The dark little attic seemed sad, even after Judy #2 explained that in Emma’s time it was painted white and was more cheerful-looking. Apparently Emma came downstairs sometimes, mainly when Hardy had literary friends over. She loved to talk to other writers. But what a disastrous marriage!

Judy #2 told me a story about the day Emma died. She was still living in the attic, and her maid ran down to Hardy’s study and begged him to come upstairs because her mistress was seriously ill. Before going upstairs, he ordered the maid to straighten her collar (clearly not one of his finer moments). When he went up and saw how sick Emma really was, he was guilt-stricken, and he stayed that way for some time after her death. Most of the better-known poems he wrote about Emma were written during this wave of guilt and grief after she died. Inconveniently, he continued to write these poems while married to his second wife, Florence.

Joyce and David, with whom I got lost

Joyce and David, with whom I got lost

Pondering Hardy’s marital problems, I left Max Gate and took a path that the tourist map promised would lead me on a pleasant 90-minute walk on a public path through meadows, woods, and fields to another Hardy landmark, the cottage where he was born. I proceeded to get thoroughly lost.

Fortunately, I soon came across a man and woman intently perusing a large map. It turned out that they, too, were trying to find Hardy’s cottage. I asked if I could tag along, and that’s how David, Joyce and I became friends while unknowingly walking in large circles in the Dorset countryside. Instead of a pleasant 90-minute walk, it became an arduous three-and-a-half-hour adventure. At the end of it, we calculated that we had walked at least 15 miles that day (including the walking we had done before we met).


This is typical of the few maps we saw. Nothing marked "You are Here" or any indication of what A, B, or C might represent

There is no label indicating “You are Here,” or any indication of what A, B, or C might represent

Why didn’t we ask for directions, you say? We did. Some people told us to take the right-hand path, others told us to take the left. We had 3 or 4 tourist/hiking maps among us, and all had different directions. The path was not marked. The few maps or signs we did see were like this one in the photo.

After we finally reached our destination and I had a chance to rest and think about everything I’d learned that day, I found myself pondering the problem of confusing an author’s writings with his life, as well as what’s called in literary studies the “intentional fallacy.” We English professors constantly tell our students not to speculate about an author’s intentions when they interpret a text. Part of the legacy of postmodernism is that the reader has become more important than the author, and the text means more than its author intended. Trying to figure out the author’s intentions takes the focus off the text and can lead to a narrow biographical focus. Not every character an author creates corresponds to real people in his life. But students often resist being directed away from the author’s intentions and life.

As a properly-trained English major, I have no trouble ignoring the author’s life and intentions when studying and interpreting a literary text. As a result of this training, I actually knew much less about Hardy’s life than I did about his work and was surprised by what I learned in Dorset. My view of his love poems, so many of which were written after Emma’s death, completely changed. I’m still not sure whether the change is for better or for worse (no marital pun intended!).

I’ve always suspected that of the many authors whose writing I enjoy, I wouldn’t like most of them as people. Enid Blyton comes to mind immediately, but she’s an extreme example. I probably couldn’t stay in the same room for ten minutes with most of the male Victorians. I almost certainly wouldn’t like Thomas Hardy. But does this matter? Can’t we enjoy authors’ work without liking their personal traits or preferences?

I’ve heard more than one person say that if someone is a good writer, they must surely be a good person, yet people never talk about whether a visual artist or musician is a good person. Why, then, the preoccupation with a writer’s morality? I don’t have an answer. Do you?