Category Archives: Novel

No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” on Writing – Part I

“It is not that things should be published. But I believe now that it is important that they exist.”

Ah, and that quotation wasn’t even Hemingway; it was his friend Evan Shipman. But I figured it made a good segue from my previous post about “When Not Being Published Doesn’t Feel Too  Shabby,” no? Who was Evan Shipman? Alas, perhaps if he hadn’t held the views on publishing he did, his name would be as household as Ernest Hemingway’s by now.

Evan Shipman, who was a very fine poet and who truly did not care if his poems were ever published, felt that it should remain a mystery.

“We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem,” he once said to me. “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”
~ from “An Agent of Evil”

Ah, sustenance. Indeed. Well, it doesn’t seem  even the published can necessarily count on that anymore. But this is how F. Scott Fitzgerald did:

He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoreing. He said it was whoreing but that he had to do it as he made his money from the magazines to have money ahead to write decent books. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best they could write without destroying their talent. He said he had learned to write the stories for the Post so that they did him no harm at all. He wrote the real story first, he said, and the destruction and changing did him no harm. I could not believe this and I wanted to argue him out of it but I needed a novel to back up my faith and to show him and convince him, and I had not yet written any such novel.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

[After Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby:]

I was trying to get him to write his stories as well as he could and not trick them to conform to any formula, as he had explained that he did.

“You’ve written a fine novel now,” I told him. “And you mustn’t write slop.”

“The novel isn’t selling,” he said. “I must write stories and they have to be stories that will sell.”

“Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

“I”m going to.” he said.
from “Hawks Do Not Share”

Hm, and did he? Was Scott a sell-out? Or was he just doing what he needed to do to make a livelihood of his craft? It raises the question that hits me time and again—to what extent do writers need to write to the market if they ever want to be published? Just at the start of their careers to get a foot in the door? Throughout their careers to keep earning a living? Is there a happy medium? And could writing to the market harm your writing if it’s any less than your best? Questions I don’t feel the need to answer at this time. (But see my post “To Market, To Market” if you want to further chew on it.)

Moving on, the bits that I’m quoting here are from one of my latest reads, Hemingway’s posthumously published book, A Moveable Feast. The title, though chosen by his wife after his death, bears Hemingway’s stamp, taking liberties as he did with spelling and punctuation out of an innate grammatical logic of his own—in this case, the “ea” in “Moveable.” In any case, I used to read so much Hemingway in my teens and twenties and had neglected him for a while until recently reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife about his days in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife Hadley. This led to reading A Moveable Feast, his own accounts of what transpired in those ol’ Paris days, and then re-reading The Sun Also Rises, which is essentially autobiographical of a group trip at that time to Pamplona, Spain. It’s funny how we readers bring so much to a story’s meaning depending on our evolving frame of reference, because first reading that novel a decade or two ago was a different experience for me than reading it now as a fellow American expat in Europe—especially different after attending a bull fight in Madrid last year (and sobbing like an infant, I might add. I’m not going to run out and join PETA or anything, but I’ll say this: Never. Again.)

Anyway, that’s the side of literature I’ve been embracing again: being a reader. Nonetheless, as I won’t be entirely foregoing the trials and tribulations of being a writer (as implied in my last post), I thought I’d share some insights on writing Hemingway gave throughout his Paris memoirs—Paris being where he was still cutting his teeth on his pencil. I’ll break it up into separate posts as this is already getting long, but before I close up shop today, I’ll share this from Seán Hemingway’s introduction to the book. Regarding how A Moveable Feast was originally going to be titled The Early Eye and The Ear:

The eye, a term usually used in the connoisseurship of fine art, draws an interesting comparison between writing and painting […] Hemingway first developed his eye, his ability to discern the gold from the dross and turn his observations into prose, in Paris in the twenties. The ear, which we think of as more pertinent to musical composition, is clearly important to creative writing. Hemingway’s writing typically reads well when spoken aloud. When complete, his writing is so tight that every word is integral, like notes in a musical composition.

Hemingway’s writing isn’t for everyone. I, too, fluctuate in my response to it sometimes. But I’ll never question my overall love for his storytelling if only for For Whom the Bell Tolls. He brought something different to the table, and even if it isn’t the style other writers or readers want to embrace, the discipline and the principles he abided by were universally sound. Until next time, when we’ll hear more of what Ernest has to say!

PART II

PART III


When Not Being Published Doesn’t Feel Too Shabby…

First of all, I’ve got nothing to whinge about because 15 submissions in over a year is hardly attacking the publishing world with my A-game. God-willing that I can light the fire under my arse by this summer. I have to laugh, though, because right on the heels of my earlier post about the ever-so-lovely rejection letters I’d received from a couple small publishers (I mean it; they were nice!), I got this one from an agent:

“Thanks for sending your manuscript. Sorry it’s taken so long for me to get back to you. Unfortunately, I’m going to pass. It’s just not for me.”
*

And then soon after that, I received the same ol’, same ol’ form letter rejection from another small publisher. Not very phased, although I’ll admit I felt the brevity of that first one in my gut a bit, as it followed reading my manuscript in its entirety. I appreciate that this agent gave the time to doing that, honestly; I know these people are outrageously busy, and I truly hate to sound ungrateful, but I can never help but wonder…if you’ve surely articulated the thought in your own head as to why a manuscript’s “not for you,” wouldn’t typing even one sentence’s worth of specific feedback only take another few seconds? Or how about just a bulleted phrase or two (e.g., “pace too slow,” “main character not developed”) and we’ll call it a day?But whatever. I’ve also been reflecting on what happens once one is published. I just attended the London Book Fair last week, sitting in on sessions aimed at assorted industry folk across the board. Interestingly enough, the bulk of the author-focused ones were about self-publishing; it’s like they bypassed the actual creative process of writing a novel to just cut to the chase with live infomercials on e-books and how to sell yourself. Disappointing. Hats off, nonetheless, to Acorn Independent Press, which offers a self-publishing platform that’s seems almost as good as being traditionally published if you’ve got the dough to shell out—if not as good if they deem your manuscript good enough for their highest-end services. There’s a range of packages, but all provide professional copy editing/proofreading, cover design, distribution, and marketing to an extent; if you qualify for their elite imprint, they’ll roll out an entire publicity campaign on your behalf. It’s really a brilliant model run by well-connected professionals from the industry who were frustrated at seeing only a handful of books a year being chosen from hundreds of manuscripts submitted per week. And yet in giving other manuscripts a chance, they want to ensure it’s a high quality product hitting the market.

So that’s nice they give a helping hand at promotion, but it all just got me thinking about the tremendous burden of marketing placed on authors these days. Session after session at LBF, agents, publishers, and authors admitted that when you’re not the crème de la crème publishers know they’ll bank serious money on, mid-market authors just don’t get the support from traditional publishers like they might have back in the day; the budgets allocated to them sounds piss-poor. And of course self-publishing leaves you on your own unless you enlist professional help. Which leaves writers to hoof it even though we’re not necessarily equipped with the marketing savvy and resources we need.

And do I want to be? Book-signings/readings and other in-person events actually sound like a lot of fun, but from a social media perspective, working full-time tweeting and Facebook-updating and blogging and commenting on others’ blogs hoping they’ll comment on mine and obsessing over Amazon rankings and otherwise Me-Me-Me-ing all over the internet just doesn’t entice me at all. To be frank, I believe in my writing, but I can’t stomach the self-promotion it takes to get others to read it. So maybe I’m not cut out to be a published author. Maybe I don’t want to be. Maybe I’m only meant to write as an outlet of personal pleasure as well as means of honing the skill and insight I can offer as an editor. Maybe it’s enough helping others see their work in print.

Because I’ll tell ya, not being published myself certainly doesn’t feel too shabby when I receive an email like this (yesterday) from someone who is:

“I absolutely LOVE working with you. ❤ I have learned so much from you, not only about editing and the technical aspect of it, but about my own writing. The editing process is so much fun for me because of that; I try to learn and retain what you’ve fixed and how I might implement that in my next manuscript.”

Or others I’ve received:

“If I haven’t said so, I wanted to let you know how wonderful I think you are! Your points are always excellent and I’m amazed at how much you can catch each time you go through the book. That trait of being able to see beyond the story is amazing.”

“I don’t know if I told you, but after one of my critique partners finished reading [my novel] she made it a point to tell me she loved all the changes and how the final version turned out. The finished novel being what it is today has a lot to do with your incredible editing skills. So thanks!”

“I really feel that you did such a wonderful job with the editing. As I’ve been reading the finished version, it’s so polished and reads so well. I couldn’t be happier with the work that you and [the managing editor] have done.”

Hey, so maybe I’m not so bad at this self-promotion thing after all! Hardy-har… Well, after undergoing the incredibly humbling process that is writing and querying—as all you other writers well know—I do need to toot my own horn now and then, gol’ damn it. 😉

So I don’t know. There are a lot of us in this together, so I hope my sentiments here haven’t put anyone off who has been working so very hard to promote themselves. If you’ve got your work out there, you gotta do what you gotta do—hey, my commissions hinge on my authors peddling their books, so God speed! I’m only judging myself here, feeling out if I’m expending energy toward something that might not, in the end, suit me. It’s a personal matter, and yet I ask you:

Can you relate to what I’m talking about? Any similar frustrations or advice for overcoming such that you can share?


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part IV

Alas, today we shall conclude our long walks on the beach with our gal Daphne. If you joined me for Parts III, and III of this series, I hope it’s been worth your while and that you’ll indulge me for one last post full of odds-n-ends on du Maurier’s corner of Cornwall. We’ve covered some key real-life settings of her novels Rebecca, The King’s General, The House on the Strand, and My Cousin Rachel, as well her novella The Birds, and today a few more tales have a chance to make their appearance, along with other sites significant to the area’s notable inhabitants.

To start, if we backtrack a bit from Menabilly and Gribbin Head to look out on St. Austell Bay, we’re amidst the stretch of coast where Daphne du Maurier walked her dogs daily:

This last one I have to throw in as my beloved “Goonies shot.” Tell me it doesn’t totally look like the end of the movie! Sing it, Cyndi: “Good enough…for me, it’s…good enough…for you…it’s good, good enough…”

The views over the bay from these cliffs are described in The House on the Strand and Rule Britannia.

Retracing our steps along the coastal path toward Polridmouth beach and beyond, we wind our way through more farmland (and might have to dodge some horned cattle like it’s Pamplona) until the town of Polruan comes into view on the hilltop as we approach the Fowey estuary. Before descending all the way into Fowey, though, let’s cut over to where St. Catherine’s Castle keeps watch over the sea:

This fortress was commissioned by King Henry VIII as part of his south coast defenses, and it was utilized yet again during Victorian times and WWII. It is here that Janet Coombe frequently climbs in du Maurier’s debut novel, The Loving Spirit, to look out to sea, watching the ships and seeking freedom—for it’s here that she feels “Nearer to something for which there was no name, escaping from the world and losing herself, mingling with things that have no reckoning of time, where there is no today and no tomorrow“…

*sigh* I confess that I myself tucked into a hidden, grassy spot here to sit and rest my weary feet as I, too, felt the freedom of seeing nothing but the water’s expanse, hearing nothing but the wind and waves. Ahhh…but it’s time to hit the trail again, so join me as I return to the path and descend into Fowey. At this point, it leads us right into Readymoney Cove—from the looks of the homes here, you might assume the name has something to do with the seeming affluence of this joint. But, actually, “readymoney” derives from a Cornish word meaning “pebbly ford”:

The cove was historically a landing place for goods shipped to Fowey and is where Lady Dona flees in Frenchman’s Creek. Directly inland from the cove is the Readymoney cottage where du Maurier lived with her children in the early 1940s prior to moving into the Rashleigh family’s Menabilly estate:

Isn’t it so cute? It was here that du Maurier wrote Hungry Hill. And if we venture into Fowey along the Esplanade that begins here, we’ll ultimately pass the lovely Fowey Hotel (a favorite of du Maurier’s with a stunning view from its tea garden) with the house of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (a Cambridge professor of English Literature known as “Q”) just across the street:

It was here that du Maurier established a good friendship with Q after Sunday tea, and, when Q passed away in 1944 having left his novel Castle Dor unfinished, his daughter asked du Maurier to complete it. The real Castle Dor is also located in this area around the River Fowey.

Before I conclude this literary journey of Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall, I would be remiss not acknowledge, with the utmost of reverence, two special sites also to be found in the vicinity of the coastal path we’ve followed. The first is located not too far from where we’re standing in Fowey—if you’ll kindly backtrack with me to Readymoney cove, up the hill toward St. Catherine’s Castle, and just up a little further, I’ll show you a little, easily-overlooked trail heading steeply uphill into the thick of the trees and brush here…bringing us to the quiet, rather hidden resting place of the Rashleigh family who once owned all this land and each house that du Maurier occupied here:

And if we walk further back along the coastal path, it’s not too far inland from the inlet of Polkerris (which we explored in Part II) where, behind a rusted gate and along a short wooded trail, we’ll chance upon Tregaminion Church. This was the Rashleigh family chapel (originally part of the Menabilly estate) and where Daphne du Maurier’s family held a private memorial to mark her passing in 1989:

As seems so fitting in light of how much we’ve seen this area meant to the author and her life’s work, du Maurier’s ashes were scattered on the cliffs near her Kilmarth home.

If you’re a writer, I hope that this series has inspired you to look around your own stomping grounds more closely in case you’ve taken them for granted as a valid setting for your stories. Your local environment has perhaps not struck you as enthralling or inspiring, but try digging into its history more deeply, looking at it through a different lens as you evaluate what about it makes it home in your heart (or what could make it a heaven or hell for someone else). You never know what story-worlds could be built upon the foundations of your real one.

Or, at the very least, hopefully I’ve inspired you to visit Cornwall. 😉

I owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to Encounter Cornwall for providing the self-guided walking tour that led me not only through this fascinating Cornish terrain, but the dynamic landscape of Daphne du Maurier’s imagination.

PART I

PART II

PART III


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part III

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Ah, the famous first line that lured me into the Hitchcock film, then to the novel it originally came from and had me dreaming of going to Manderley…

Well, I got pretty darn close.

As you may already know from Part I and Part II of this series, I’m playing unofficial-cyber-tour guide through Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall this week. Yesterday, we hiked through the old marshland and priory of du Maurier’s novel The House on the Strand. Today, we’ll venture uphill and onward into Rebecca and The King’s General territory.

Our tour picks up from where we left off in Tywardreath. Hoist that backpack and make sure you have plenty of drinking water and something healthy to snack on as we climb this hill to venture into those in the distance…

Once we make it out there and follow the coastal path a ways, we’ll again pass beneath du Maurier’s Kilmarth home, from which all this gorgeous rolling farmland dips down into the sea.

For a while it appears it’ll just be the grass, dirt, livestock, sweet air, and sea keeping you company, until eventually you round a bend and lo and behold: Polkerris.

Polkerris goes by “Kerrith” in Rebecca and makes for a lovely little beach spot (and bathroom break because this is your last chance for a while…). The Rashleigh Inn there is named for the family that owned all this surrounding land as of the 16th century and who had originally utilized Polkerris to house old pilchard cellars and the fishing fleet. In The King’s General, this is the site of Richard Grenville’s escape to France on a boat, only to return ashore to be with Honor Harris.

Continuing south on the coastal path, some ups and downs and twists and turns will bring the Gribbin Head tower into site (built in 1832 for the safety of mariners). Standing below it, if you turn your back on the sea, you can take in the vast expanse of land surrounding Menabilly:

Now, what’s the big deal about Menabilly that I strained my eyes close to popping trying to find that large Elizabethan manor hiding in the trees? To start, Menabilly is the main Rashleigh family estate where du Maurier lived for about 25 years. She adored the home and raised her children there, but, alas, had only been able to lease the property, as the Rashleigh descendants never put it up for sale. I believe it wasn’t too long after du Maurier’s husband passed away that she likewise received the heart-breaking news she had to vacate Menabilly so the Rashleighs could reclaim it. It was then, in 1969, that du Maurier moved to nearby Kilmarth.

Walking from the Gribbin Head tower toward Menabilly and Polridmouth beach.

These fields and valleys between Gribbin Head and Menabilly feature in du Maurier’s Rebecca, The King’s General, and My Cousin Rachel. The farmland to the left is where du Maurier was inspired to write The Birds when she saw a flock of birds swarming around a farmer on his tractor. Menabilly itself inspired and featured in The King’s General as a Royalist stronghold during the 17th-century English Civil War. It was centuries later in 1824 that renovations commissioned by then-owner William Rashleigh uncovered a skeleton in Cavalier clothing of the Civil War period; it was the remains of a young man who had evidently been in hiding in a chamber at the base of a buttress. This is the skeleton I mentioned yesterday that’s buried in the Tywardreath churchyard (where there’s also a memorial to the real-life Honor Harris) and gave du Maurier the idea for her novel’s dramatic ending.

But also…Menabilly is Rebecca’s “Manderley“! And it’s back there somewhere in that cluster of trees, but I’ll be damned if I could find it; it’s just as concealed as Manderley is described in the book, though not nearly as large and extravagant as depicted in Hitchcock’s film:

What I could get right up close to, however, was further along the coastal path, which leads down to Polridmouth beach. It was at the boathouse here that the infamous Rebecca of the novel of same name carried on her infidelities and ultimately met her death (not a total spoiler there—you know she’s dead from the beginning). The shipwreck where Rebecca’s body was found was also in this bay:

Polridmouth beach (left) and Rebecca’s boathouse (right).

View of the bay from Polridmouth, with Gribbon Head in the distance.

An actual shipwreck that can be seen at Polridmouth at low tide.

Polridmouth is also the beach at which the Roundhead foot soldiers amass and await rescue in The King’s General. Alas, they are left at the mercy of locals, including those from the Cornish town of Fowey, where we’ll travel onward to in my next post.

In the meantime, sit for a spell at the beach, perhaps fix yourself a lovely picnic, forget the darkness of our dear Daphne’s tales, and just enjoy the breezes and waves. Ahhh…

PART I

PART II

PART IV


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part II

If you were so kind as to join me yesterday for Part I of this “My Date with Daphne” series, lace up those hiking boots for a literal and literary journey through Daphne du Maurier’s old stomping grounds in Cornwall. Today we’re hitting the trail for her novel The House on the Strand.

Our tour begins in Tywardreath. Tywardreath—pronounced tower-dreth—derives from a Celtic word that originally meant “house on the sand”:

The Benedictine Priory of St. Andrew was founded in Tywardreath in the 12th century, and the parish church (pictured below) was dedicated in the 14th century. The church/priory accounts for much of The House on the Strand’s early description and is the stopping point for one of protagonist Dick Young’s drug-induced travels in time. While his consciousness is exploring the old priory back in the 14th century, his body is physically wandering the 20th-century churchyard, where the Vicar taps Dick on the shoulder and wakes him to the present.

This church also figures into du Maurier’s novel The King’s General—in the book, its graveyard serves as a cache for weapons during the Cornish revolt against Parliament, and it’s the actual burial site of a skeleton discovered in du Maurier’s Menabilly home, which in turn inspired The King’s General’s ending.

For those of you who haven’t read The House on the Strand, its main character Dick and his friend Professor Lane frequently take an experimental drug that causes the mind to time-travel, if not the body. It consistently takes the men about 600 years back in time, and their 14th-century wanderings lead them into awkward if not dangerous circumstances in 20th-century places. In addition to the churchyard, below are a couple more such locations:

The house on Polpey Lane where Dick (soaking wet from wandering through the marshes in his drug-induced state) awakes to a very confused modern-day postman.

Treesmill Farm, where Dick frequently returns trying to find the lovely 14th-century Isolda where she lives in the House on the Strand. Once an old ford when the original southern Cornish coastline extended much further inland, Dick crosses the water only to wake up in the middle of a modern-day road, where he’s almost hit by a car.

The train tracks just down the road from Treesmill where Professor Lane’s “time traveling” inadvertently leads him into the path of an approaching train.

The changing coastline and landscape over the centuries was a fascination for du Maurier, so The House on the Strand gave her ideal opportunity to research this and play up the contrast as her main character travels between two time periods. The locations below are examples of areas that were once underwater:

The old marshland has left behind a residual creek, which you cross when following the Saint’s Way path north out of Tywardreath.

Following the creek-side trail west toward Par leads you to the vicinity of the 14th-century shoreline where Dick Young witnesses Oliver Carminowe’s ambush and murder of Otto, Isolda’s love interest.

Par Beach, located just below Tywardreath and which was once part of a broad estuary. It since clogged up with silt from mining waste to create this barrier against the sea that helped reclaim much land from the seabed.

From Par Beach, we continue south along the coastal path to pass below Kilmarth, where Daphne du Maurier and her character Dick Young lived at the top of the hill. Dating back to the 14th century, the house’s original owner (Roger Kylmerth) and the occupant just prior to du Maurier (a scientist, who left behind a basement full of odd jars containing things like embryos) provided key inspiration for The House on the Strand. Roger is fictionalized as Dick’s “guide” through the past, and Professor Lane is the fictional present-day owner of house who allows his friend Dick to holiday there and whose experiments in the basement include the time-travel drug in question.

Kilmarth, as viewed from the road high above the coastal path.

Time to depart The House on the Strand and continue along the coastal path to the real-life influences of Daphne du Maurier’s other works…if you’ve stuck with me this far and are keen for more, see ya tomorrow!

PART I

PART III

PART IV


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part I

Young Daphne du Maurier (about 1930) Русский: ...

Daphne du Maurier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, it’s April, and the Monkey has climbed back up its tree. The branches up here are budding, and I’m likewise hoping to turn a new leaf and make this spring a productive one of blogging and creative writing. Until now, travels, hosting, and craploads of editing have derailed me; I recently finished my first freelance edit and am presently juggling two simultaneous manuscripts for the publisher. Having to donate my eyes and brain to others’ work makes it difficult to write my own stuff, but it’s always a learning process and always satisfying to at least be working on something that’s getting published.

In any case, last August when I’d found myself in a similar predicament, I’d whisked myself away to Cornwall for a solitary writer’s retreat (“A Cage of One’s Own“). I found myself doing more hiking there than writing, but even that activity was steeped with literary inspiration. I was walking in the footsteps of British author Daphne du Maurier and her characters, you see, and learning a great deal about how a writer’s environment can effectively influence the settings of his/her stories. I’d promised way-back-when to blog about this and totally flaked out, but now I really have no excuse considering I just returned from an Easter holiday weekend spent at the very same location in the very same room-with-a-view! I brought my husband this time so he could also hike the trails and find much-needed respite after completing one hell of an intense graduate program. Thus, ’twas a time of needed togetherness, not for me to go all reclusive-artsy-fartsy and climb into my turret to write.

Yet the breezes off that dynamic coastal landscape still carried the sweet inspiration of Daphne, so, starting this week, I’ll finally share with you my summer photo-journey of the real-life settings featuring in so much of her work. du Maurier lived in three homes between Par and Fowey (Menabilly, Kilmarth, and Readymoney) that were not only the places where she wrote, but also where she wrote about. Menabilly and Kilmarth housed her characters as well, which I find really validating considering my own two manuscripts are set in actual apartments I’ve lived in. I at first viewed that as a rookie comfort-zone, writing-what-you-know in the extreme, but the fact is, my stories are set in these places because these places—their distinctive features and histories—are what initially inspired my stories. So, why not? Daphne did it.

I’ve admittedly only read three of du Maurier’s novels, but her writing resonates with me. Weaving dark tales with beautifully crafted language, she managed to write commercially appealing plots with literary merit—which, in my opinion, is the ideal to aim for. Of the novels I’ve read, my hands-down favorite is Rebecca, which I first experienced through Alfred Hitchcock’s faithful screen adaptation of same name (du Maurier’s novella The Birds was likewise adapted into another not-as-faithful Hitchcock film of same name). A few years ago, a random stroll through Daunt Books in London resulted in leaving with Jamaica Inn in my hands (which takes place at the actual inn in England’s Bodmin Moor), and my return to Daunt soon after for The House on the Strand is what ultimately led me to choose the wee village of Tywardreath (the book’s setting) for my Cornish holiday.

And Tywardreath is where we’ll begin tomorrow as we travel a bit of southern Cornwall to view the inspiration behind du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. Dress warm, pack light, and wear some comfortable walking shoes. 🙂

PART II

PART III

PART IV


Keep Calm and Query On

KEEP CALM - CARRY ON

KEEP CALM - CARRY ON (Photo credit: atomicShed)

And at the snap of the fingers, the Primate goes from pensive to proactive…

Last week may have been my time to stop and take stock, but this week I’ve no choice, really, but to throw myself into working / writing / revising / job-searching. I’m leaving for the States next week, you see, for a couple weeks to visit Chicago and New York, and then I’m hosting my lovely sister and niece in London immediately thereafter. With March thus swallowed, my husband and I are also already making travel plans for April. So was I just worrying about finding full-time work? Who has time for full-time work??! 😉

But seriously, before I soon venture where technology goes to die (a.k.a. Mom and Dad’s), it’s full-on git ‘er done mode right now. I nonetheless thought I’d pause from that to share what have been my first non-form-letter rejections! Woo-hoo! Okay, the exclamation points may seem like either sarcasm or extremely unwarranted enthusiasm, but, honestly, after about a dozen standard manuscript rejections, it’s so very nice to receive personalized feedback. Both of these came in recently from small publishers. The first is in response to a re-submission, and, admittedly, shame on me for trying to wedge my octagon-shaped cross-genre manuscript into the square hole of genre fiction:

The changes that you made to the story were great! It flowed much more smoothly. […] Unfortunately, I think that it still won’t work for us. I think that it is a great “paranormal” story but there just isn’t the romantic element that [the publisher] is known for. I do think that you should really seek publication for this though. I think that it is a great story and a publisher that doesn’t specialize in romance would take it.

Fair enough. I knew that mere romantic elements does not a romance make, but it was worth a try. Moving on, I received this at the end of last week:

While your story was very interesting, and at times suspenseful, we have to be very selective due to a high volume of submissions received each week.

The beginning gripped me, and the end had my spine tingling. However, I felt that after the first chapter, the pace slowed quite dramatically. I kept wanting something more to happen, and though it did, it felt like it took a long time to happen (not until toward the later half). Again though, your story as a whole is wonderful, I just feel that another company would be able to offer better representation at this time.

We sincerely thank you once more for thinking of us, and wish you the very best in your journey to publication. We have no doubt that you will find representation with another publisher.

Those are both very gracious, no? It certainly softens the sting and encourages me to keep on truckin’ and strengthen that story. As of now, in the meantime, I have a query outstanding with another small publisher and the full manuscript with an agent. My upcoming travel schedule is probably an aptly-timed excuse to step back from all this for a bit, eagerly await those responses, refresh, and come back swinging in spring—hopefully with a second manuscript to query on behalf. 🙂


The Red Pen: Stating the Obvious that Obviously Needs Stating

I’ve been wearing my editor hat again the last couple weeks, working with someone’s raw manuscript that is pending rewrite for resubmission. For confidentiality reasons, I apologize that I can’t be more specific than I am. What follows below are merely some overarching concerns that a rookie can easily overlook (hey, I’m one, too!) and sometimes get the Monkey’s head beating against the trunk of its tree:

1. Research – They say, “Write what you know,” but one doesn’t have to live in a place or serve in a certain profession, for example, to be able to research authentic details relating to such. Writing fiction doesn’t give the liberty to entirely fabricate a place or occupation if it’s one that actually exists. The internet is a beautiful place for research, as are books, site visits, and interviews with people in the applicable locations/fields. Be knowledgeable of your story’s setting and subjects and use common sense to discern what claims need to be fact-checked, then verify them accordingly. (see also “Settingcategory)

2. Narrative – Do NOT “tell” versus “show”! That is Writing 101. Your story shouldn’t read like an extended synopsis that lists events rather than describes them in such a way that immerses the reader. Don’t say that your character is making a facial expression that looks angry, show that his brows are furrowed and lips screwed into a menacing sneer. Don’t say that the room is filled with expensive-looking furniture, show that it’s cluttered with ornately carved oak chairs upholstered in embroidered silk astride side-tables trimmed in gold leaf (I don’t know if that’s “expensive” or just tacky…). And don’t say something in dialogue that you then paraphrase in narrative—communicate the info/insight one way or the other; to do both is redundant.

Also, avoid an abundance of character introspection. Readers really don’t need to know every single thought and motivation of your character. Make them privy, yes, if it’s from a certain character’s POV, but it’s also more interesting and vivid to visualize if you concisely show their body language and actions and let the reader reasonably infer some of what they’re thinking or feeling. Telling all on characters and the labyrinth of questioning they’re wondering their way through is tedious and doesn’t let readers form questions of their own that’ll make them keep reading in search of answers. Leaving something to the imagination not only indulges one of the joys of reading but can heighten a story’s sense of conflict and climax when the reader isn’t already in the know of everything. (see alsoDescriptive LanguageandSensory Detailscategories)

3. Dialogue. In keeping with the above, character conversation can come across as unnatural when too much information is shared by this means. Be subtle when doling out back-story or insight via dialogue, otherwise it’s blunt and awkward: your manipulations of story become too transparent, and the characters don’t sound like real people. (see alsoDialoguecategory)

4. Characterization. The above narration/dialogue factors are just as important to building a strong sense of character. Do your characters sound believable? Are you showing enough description of features, mannerisms, and personality such that your reader can visualize your characters (yet not so much that you’re telling readers everything about them and leaving nothing to the imagination)? And are you giving your reader reason to remotely care about them and whether or not they reach their goals? Without any of this, characters aren’t even two dimensional; they’re stick-straight lines. Boring. Flesh ’em out and make them more interesting with flaws if they seem too goodie-goodie or benign—or with redeeming qualities if they’re otherwise the Devil incarnate. No one likes a purely good hero or a purely evil villain. (see alsoCharactercategory)

5. Story Arc. Tensions need to rise as the story progresses. Not overly telling and giving everything away (as discussed above) will help contribute to this as readers speculate character motivations and future actions and reactions; scan and replace lengthy sections of introspection with concise, external descriptions of character body language/expression and leave readers to their own interpretations. Add complexity by interweaving relevant back-story and subplot(s). Foreshadowing is also a useful device for enhancing curiosity along the way as readers form predictions, but it will blow up in your face if the seeds you plant are too obvious! Don’t lead up to your big reveal only for your reader to go, “Uh, derr!” That reeks of anticlimax.

It’s not to say everything should be a surprise for the reader—it can be just as suspenseful when the reader already knows something the character doesn’t (like in horror movies when you know the killer is lurking right around the corner from the innocent victim), but only when it’s deliberately played to this effect. There’s a craft in pulling that off, so don’t think simply telling your reader everything and leaving your character in the dark is an easy shortcut—be discerning in what you share and withhold.

Your big revelations can likewise be a let-down if your characters’ own responses fall flat. Think about what you’re wanting your readers to anticipate, to get excited about, and make sure you deliver it in a commensurately enthusiastic fashion. If there’s a big secret out there that your reader knows and is dying for your character to find out, is the character finding out in an exciting and unexpected way? Or is, for instance, another character just explaining it in a straight-forward conversation, garnering a reaction as enthralling as, “Oh.” (see alsoStory Arccategory and, more specifically, Pacing Your Pages” Parts I & II)

6. Other: Plot Elements (in general). Map out all the major and minor elements of your plot and subplot(s) alike and make sure every piece of them flows/connects logically. Ensure not a single important question they could raise is left unanswered if it’s vital to understanding and believing in the story. Loose ends that leave something to the imagination or tease for a sequel are one thing, but overlooking major gaps in how a character got from Point A to Point B (just because you want them to get there for the sake of driving the story forward in other ways) undermines a story’s entire credibility. Don’t just say something happened if it’s not entirely logical for it to have happened and assume your readers won’t notice, that they’ll just take your word for it. If something is complicated whether you like it or not, do the work to figure it out; stop writing and start reasoning through it (via outline or time-line, perhaps). Do more research if it’s necessary. And if it’s not working, accept it and change it to something that will.

Readers’ disbelief can only be suspended so far; you have to earn their trust if they’re going to follow the journey you want to take them on. Even the most fantastical of story-worlds need plausibility (working within the rules/parameters the author so designs for those worlds if it’s not the one we actually live in), so the reader must understand how plot events feasibly come to happen and tie together for the story to be realistic and identifiable.

Speaking of “Uh, durr!” and “Oh,” that’s probably your reader-response to all of the above. But you’d be surprised what we writers can’t see in our own writing that we so clearly do in others. As the author, the mental full-picture we see tends to automatically fill the gaps of the written story that our readers otherwise trip into. With that in mind, never underestimate a pair of fresh eyes; it really does pay to have others read your work. So toughen that skin and git ‘er done! Constructive criticism has groomed the Monkey’s own fur into a nice thick and glossy coat. 🙂


The Bookish Baboon

Cover of "The Book Thief"

While I feature the books I’m currently reading in the right margin of this blog, I don’t often comment on them. But as I have book club tonight, I’m in the spirit to do so.

First off, I was never one to join a book club before. My to-read list has always been infinite, and to have someone else choose what I read and dictate the time I read it within always seemed too constrictive. Why I joined this one, however, was a no-brainer: it’s a group of my friends who I’d want to hang out with anyway and who share my love of wine and low-key attitude. There’s no sense of penalty if you haven’t read more than 5 pages of the book, there’s no set list of questions we must answer, and the time-frame has been pretty wide open—so far, a couple months, which leaves me enough time to read something else of my own choosing in between.

Tonight is only our second meeting, and the book is The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I am lazy, so allow me to just copy the notes I already jotted in my book journal:

Liked it. Took a while to get into it (one-third of the way through), largely because of language and structure/style—its very unique descriptive and figurative language is striking, but perhaps would prefer such in a short story vs. novel-length. Unexpected similes for sake of originality sometimes barred actual envisioning (e.g., “Her wrinkles were like slander.”), which opposes the aim of that literary device. A lot of characters introduced right away, too, so took time to feel acquainted with main ones, but ultimately did connect and sympathize. Interesting perspective of non-Jewish German suffering, and I did appreciate the dehumanizing effect achieved by repeatedly describing people as inanimate objects and inanimate objects as living beings (anthropomorphism)—e.g., “There were shocked pyjamas and torn faces.”

Overall, I give it 4 out of 5 stars. In the end, I was moved.

Our first book choice, on the other hand, was sheer disaster. It came highly recommended as a bestseller, and I have zero idea why. Here’s what I had to say in my little journal about Victoria Hislop’s The Island:

Boo! Premise was interesting (history of the leper colony on Greek island of Spinalonga), but story was poorly written and developed. Over-described, redundant, simplistic, 2D characterization, ridiculous head-hopping (three times in one paragraph at one point!), and spent too much time away from present-day story-line to give a crap about its main character. Secondary plot surrounding sister in the past story thread was absurd (her affair was drawn out too long to believe in its continued passion, and the way it comes to an end is very unoriginal melodrama). Climax was too abrupt with little resolution of interest. Nothing of literary merit to discuss.

Overall, I gave it 2 out of 5 stars per Goodread’s rubric (“It was okay”). I’m tempted to change that to a 1 because I hate it more with every recollection, if not for the fact that I did find the history interesting. A shame it couldn’t have been conveyed more powerfully.

And to round this out as a literary trifecta, the book I just completed out of non-book-club-related pleasure was The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. I just dropped 5 out of 5 stars on that baby despite understandable limitations as cited by other readers. One Goodreads reviewer says, “The Night Circus will be a 5-star book for a certain reader. This reader likes a lot of descriptions, doesn’t mind a very slow story and has a soft spot for circuses. I am not that reader.” Fair enough. It all the more reinforces how there’s a reader out there for every book (plenty of folks just loooved The Island, after all), so those of us who write and aspire to have readers of our books one day need to keep the faith.

Because—with the exception of the “soft spot for circuses,” as they generally creep me out—I am that reader described above. I hated the amount of description in The Island because it was redundant; I loved the amount of description in The Night Circus because, for me, it was immersive. Yes, plot was rather thin, I expected there to be more action-oriented warring of the magician’s magic, and even at the end I didn’t grasp the point of the whole magic competition and why its stakes had to be so high. But this book in itself had a magical quality that made it an exception for me; the whimsical, decadent, candlelit, and velvety descriptions are abundant but so lovely. More so than a story, the book was an experience, a stroll through the black and white tents of a circus echoing the surreal artistry of Cirque du Soleil. For that reason alone, it’s a 5 for me, and I’m seriously contemplating reading it again from the start as I already miss the warmth, illumination, and caramel scent to be had inside those tent flaps.


NaNoWriMonkey – Follow-up Reflections (Finally!)

Just over a month of recovery has transpired since my NaNoWriMo burnout. Like a Roman candle, the concentrated spew of writing was glorious, dazzling my eyes with a populated computer screen after a long stretch of spark-less procrastination. And then November ended and fffffzzztt. So did the writing. For the most part. Just like legs need a rest after a marathon, I needed to retrieve my eyeballs and fingers from where they’d fallen off onto the keyboard and step away from that project for a bit.

In the meantime, I’ve been tweaking my first manuscript and rewriting query letters over and over again to get ready for a much-delayed round of submission. I also headed Stateside for another two weeks for Christmas, which was crazy-busy but magical, just like the Disney trip before that. 🙂 Anyway, I’d promised to follow up on my NaNoWriMo experience, so let’s get on with it.

Writing 50,000 words in one month is a concept that makes folks wary, and understandably—for years I assumed it could only generate pure and utter crap; good writing is not to be rushed. But now having gone through it, there’s no question it was a useful exercise that I highly recommend, and here are some reasons why:

1. NaNoWriMo was like a writing enema. I’d been stopped up for a while in that respect, sitting on a story outline I’d completed in spring only to sputter out one chapter in summer and jack until November. It was shit-or-get-off-the-pot time, and NaNoWriMo was precisely the initiative I needed. So, to run with my disgusting metaphor, even if a lot of my massive brain-dump was crap, it was purifying to get it out of me. I did have an outline to keep me focused, but I think if you’re still in novel-brainstorming mode, it’s a perfect way to write your way into a storyline to run with beyond NaNoWriMo.

2. NaNoWriMo gave me discipline. For as much as I’ve preached on this blog that writing is a discipline, I still tend to fall in with the “I write when I feel like it” crowd. It’s incredibly difficult for me to establish routine in my writing, so having that NaNoWriMo goal was such a motivating force. Not only did my profile stats continually calculate how many words I had to average per day based on my actual pace, but punching in my new word counts and watching those bars climb on the chart was immensely satisfying. It pushed me each day to stick to a daily word goal and punch out a few more sentences just when I thought I had no words left in me. Contrary to such doubt, there’s always more waiting in the folds of our grey matter.

3. NaNoWriMo pushed me out of my comfort zone. There’s obviously no hard-and-fast “right” way to write. Some writers vomit out their stories first and revise later, and others revise as they write. I trend toward the latter category. It has merit, but I found it worthwhile to try a new approach, and the result broke some bad habits I’d naturally fallen into. One of the major flaws of my first manuscript was that its early drafts were overwritten. I pored way too much over every word and sentence and stopped writing new material in favor of revising finished chapters to death first. The writing needed to relax, and, what’s more, I hadn’t mapped out that entire story yet. To so painstakingly revise early chapters when I still had no idea where the later chapters were going was just stupid. It was only when I’d finished drafting the entire story that I realized what needed to change at the beginning to improve consistency. So, not only did I outline my second manuscript beforehand this time around, but NaNoWriMo forced me to keep driving this story forward and not complicate phrasing through over-thinking it—there simply wasn’t the time to. It’s not as though I had no opportunity for some thoughtful wordsmithing, logically thinking through plotting, or researching to enrich descriptive detail and authenticity. I simply mean that, overall, I had to write more off-the-cuff and to-the-point than I’m used to, a risk my writing in particular really needed to take.

4. NaNoWriMo powerfully immersed me in my storyworld. Curling up with a single story for so many hours of the day every day was the deepest sea-diving into my imagination I’d ever done. I was truly married to my characters, setting, and situations at that point; the level of commitment was tremendous when I promised to come back to them every day, and the short gaps between bouts of writing ensured I never really loved ’em and left ’em. It’s essential to at some point step away from a story and come back to it with fresher eyes (as I’m doing right now), but the benefits of sticking with it for better or worse in November included seeing my storyworld more vividly and improving its continuity—I remembered details more clearly and strung them together more efficiently since they were written only a matter of hours/days apart from each other.

5. NaNoWriMo was P90X for my brain. In view of all the aforementioned, my mind clearly got warmed up and broke a sweat trying to keep pace with my required daily average word count (~2,700/day thanks to my late start). The mind is a muscle, after all, and it needs to be flexed in order to grow. Pushing yourself to go as far as you can one day will strengthen you to do the same if not more the next. And haven’t you found that the more you exercise, the more you want to? In the same way, NaNoWriMo energized me to the point where I wasn’t writing because I had to. I wanted to. I honestly woke up every morning excited to get back to my computer to research and write.

Granted, there’s no way I could’ve sustained the intensity of NaNoWriMo beyond that month, but I do think the lessons it taught can be applied in realistic doses going forward on my project. I went into it with 10,000 words, came out with 60,000, and estimate I have about 15,000-20,000 more words to go until my first draft is finished. There’s no question I’ll have to revise the hell out of it, but I definitely don’t discount the earnest progress I initially made on it in a very, very concentrated amount of time—I think (*hope*) going into NaNoWriMo with an advance, focused vision of my story optimized how many of those 50,000 words actually have a shot at remaining in the final draft…the major ideas at the very least.  I tried my best to work smarter, not harder, so we’ll see one day what I have to show for it. 🙂


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