Tag Archives: Audrey Niffenegger

Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 1


I’d mentioned ages ago that I would share the feedback I received at the Festival of Writing, so today I’m finally getting around to it. Along the lines of my post last week, the 10-minute one-on-one sessions were geared toward discussing the marketability of my story based on its first chapter (which the agent/author read in advance). I met with UK literary agent Juliet Pickering of AP Watt and author Emma Darwin (yes, she’s related to Charles), and this is what they wrote on the standard session form…

Market Appeal:  Is the concept of your MS well-designed for the market?

JP – “Literary fiction – female readership? Any authors you could reference in intro?”

ED – “Always room for well-written high-end commercial women’s fiction, but it still needs to be strong in narrative drive, and the history-plot needs to have an effect on the story of the modern strand.”

Me: Juliet had a harder time discerning who my market would be exactly, so she recommended being more specific in my query letter. I’m still not exactly sure what authors I would list…My inspirations for story came from Rumer Godden’s A Fugue in Time, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to an extent, but I kinda modeled my approach (*wishful thinking*) after more modern books by Audrey Niffenegger and Gregory Maguire (Lost, not his fairy tale retellings). I haven’t aimed to copy anyone’s style nor do I want to, but I guess I’d aspire to Kate Morton if I did.

In any case, during our session, Juliet did say she thought the ghost-story element of my manuscript is marketable at this time. I have two threads of narrative running through the manuscript of different time periods, so Juliet had also echoed what Emma later said about one narrative needing to have an impact on the other. Rest assured, they do relate, though the interaction only gradually becomes clearer by the second half, and I leave the reason for this relationship open to speculation until close to the end. Right or wrong, I’m relying on the mystery of that to keep the reader going and give the ending its ta-da!, so hopefully it’s okay that the connection isn’t readily obvious from the start.

Prose Style:  Is your prose style strong enough to sustain an agent’s interest?

JP – “Yes”

ED – “Potentially rich, and very evocative at its best, but it is over-written: too many elaborate words getting in each others’ way. Also I think it’s blinding you to where you’re using words loosely or wrongly, or a sentence doesn’t actually make sense.”

Me: Juliet’s commentary during the session was short-in-sweet on this point, too. Emma, however, was invaluable in calling me out on what I do get criticized on time and again. I had a professor in grad school who told me, “You’re a very good writer. You could be great if you relaxed it more.” The indie publisher who previously offered me a rewrite opportunity likewise said that my writing at the outset of my story was “very ‘erudite’ sounding with lots of metaphors and description, lots of almost ‘purple prose'” and needed to be “simplified a bit to make it more accessible so as to meet with the expectations of our typical readers.” So let’s just say I know this about myself and have for quite some time. I was also reading A.S. Byatt and stuff like Of Human Bondage and Victorian Gothic fiction at the time I started, which made a lot of old-school formality creep in. I’m working on it.

Interestingly enough, that publisher found my language to evolve over the course of the book, which no doubt has to do with practice making, well, closer to the elusive “perfect.” The act of writing itself is the way to become a better writer, and, not having tackled such a lengthy project before, I know that I fell into a more natural groove as the story progressed and had been applying other lessons learned along the way. So I’ve been concentrating lately on these opening chapters to make the writing more consistent. And when Emma says, “using words loosely or wrongly,” ha! Ouch! She’d noted specific instances in my first chapter, and they were definitely parts where I let myself drift into a bit of prose poetry without considering whether I’d let myself get too experimental/abstract. I’m hoping my writing prompts or Eda vignettes will be my outlets for that sort of thing and help get it out of my system for longer prose that should be more straightforward. 🙂

There are a couple other items on the list that I’ll leave for Part 2. In the meantime, happy writing-to-write-better, everyone! And please do tell what feedback YOU’VE received on the two questions above. How did you respond?


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Marveling over the Macabre

The Monkey is feeling the author-love today…

…first of all, through the recent shout-outs on newly-published novelist Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian blog and published authors Wendy Robertson, Avril Joy, and Gillian Wales’s Room to Write website (they’re hosting another Durham conference in November!).

…second of all, as I sit cradling my copies of Her Fearful Symmetry and Falling Angels freshly signed by their respective authors, Audrey Niffenegger and Tracy Chevalier!!  Imagine my delight during a dull workday afternoon when I received the phone call that my wait-listed arse had scored a last-minute opening for last night’s lecture.  Located in the 19th-century chapel of London’s Highgate Cemetery, the event began with a cocktail-half-hour of wine and milling about the gateway to Highgate’s West Cemetery (where poet Christina Rossetti and her brother, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti are buried, among other notable deceased–Karl Marx is buried in the East counterpart).  Filing into the intimate confines of the chapel, we were treated to readings from each author’s novel as well as explanations as to how they came to chance upon Highgate Cemetery and become inspired to build their literary projects around its historic, overgrown, and elegantly morose splendor.

Both American women had merely visited as tourists that first time, but the impression upon both was immediate, and they subsequently became volunteer tour guides as a means of interacting with this enchanting garden of flora and headstones as well as unearthing more of its history than any texts could reveal (Niffenegger continues to conduct tours here, and Chevalier lives just down the hill from the site).  Following their brief “lectures” (which were structured as interviews between the two authors themselves), the floor was opened to a Q&A session with the audience.

Chevalier had originally written a manuscript divided between modern-day and a period backdrop, yet ultimately felt the graveyard and its history lent itself best to historical fiction, so her novel, Falling Angels, takes place during Edwardian England.  She was most interested in how this once pristinely trimmed and pruned site came to fall into such decay and neglect following the Victorian Era, yet wanted to capture the local culture prior to the changes wrought by World War I, when many had lost their faith in God.  The tale depicts two feuding families that ironically share neighboring burial plots in Highgate Cemetery.

Niffenegger had likewise begun her novel along a different path than the one ultimately taken, centering on a different character and a different graveyard (Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery—woo-hoo to my sweet home, Chicago!).  She had realized that if a cemetery was to play such an integral role in her book, she would need to ensure that it was one of the ultimate ones.  Just like Chevalier had visited the cemetery several years before actually writing about it, Niffenegger cited memories of a 1990s visit to Highgate Cemetery during which she spent half the time looking at it through a camera lens and fiddling with said contraption (her words to the wise are to visit the cemetery without your camera on your first visit, which I gratefully did just two weeks ago…I wrestle with the ethics of graveyard photo-opping anyway).  She, however, essentially said her mind does not wrap around historical fiction naturally, so she maintained her novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, during the present day and incorporates an American element, given that her two main characters are American twins who come to inherit their aunt’s London flat that overlooks the cemetery.

I was captivated by everything each woman said in its entirety, yet my pea-brain is unable to reproduce an accurate transcript of everything wonderful and insightful about it.  A couple other comments that do linger in my mind, though, were their reflections on after a novel is written.  Chevalier said that she continues to “collect” ideas from the places that inspire her, whereas Audrey felt that her characters and their story lines eventually go “quiet” in her mind, and thus she moves on.

I wonder which will ultimately happen to me…Ironically, I found great inspiration to write at another Victorian cemetery just a block from my flat and which I’ve been visiting ever since the day after I moved here two years ago, so I had more affinity for this particular lecture than merely the fact that I did love reading the authors’ other books, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Girl With a Pearl Earring.  And, like Niffenegger, I do sense my protagonist’s voice and immediacy fading from my consciousness lately, which signals to me that it’s time to bring her story to rest.  May it requiescat in pace for her, then, yet stay alive in my imagination and those who will humor me and read it some day 🙂

*** For more coverage of this event, please do also see author/illustrator Sarah McIntyre‘s blog post, audrey niffenegger & tracy chevalier at highgate cemetery” —this is a comprehensive trove of observations, sketches, photos, and video! ***


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