Writerly Wednesday: When Novellas Attack

This one is a cross-post with my main author’s website, http://www.elizabethhuhn.com.

Go ahead, follow this link, if you dare, and find out what happens . . . when novellas attack. It’s the frightening tale of a novella that turned into a novel.

In the meantime, here’s a pretty picture to tide you over:


Writerly Wednesday–Point of View Take 2

How many points of view is too many?

The answer is: there is no answer. Like a lot of things with writing, it all depends on the execution. In some genres there are norms. Fantasy novels often have a host of characters, each of which get some face-time (you know, some scenes from their point of view [POV]). Think Game of Thrones. In romance, it’s common to have two POVs, the guy’s and the girl’s. In other genres, it’s a little more up in the air.

In my opinion, it’s always best to restrict the number of POV characters. When you present a new character, you’re asking the reader to learn about and identify with that character. If you ask them to do that a dozen times, you’re asking a lot. And you can lose the story in the characters. First, every time you use a new POV, you have to spend time introducing the character and setting up where they are and what they’re doing and why. That racks up the word count and slows down the story. Second, with a host of potential characters, it’s hard to have a main character. Without a main character, your reader has no one in particular to root for. (This has been my problem with GoT.) Third, the POV switching becomes a kind of crutch, I think, especially for newer writers, who often feel the need to “write into” a scene–that is, start way too soon and spend several hundred words getting comfortable with the characters, setting, and situation. Introducing a new character ends up being a convenient way of writing into a scene instead of just writing the scene. You can camouflage it as just starting a new POV, but it’s still just settling into a scene instead of starting it where it needs to start.

Finally, you’ll hear writers say that they have to have this character as a POV character. Character X is the only one who could have seen Event Y, and we have to see that event because of Reasons. But that’s assuming a couple things: that we have to learn about an event first-hand, that we have to learn it about it as it happens, and that it has to be presented as an Event (instead of as Backstory or Offstage Stuff).

If we really must learn about Event Y, then 1) have Character X show up and tell our POV character about it; 2) have your POV character learn about it through the known-on effects the Event has on the world/people around him/her (and we the reader learn about it at the same time as the POV character); 3) or allude to it but keep the details mysterious.

You only need a POV character if they have something important to add that can’t be added any other way. Ideally, they’ll have an arc of their own that ties into the larger story-arc. It’s a bit like weaving with multiple threads. Each switch has to be deliberate and part of the whole.

There are many ways to get information across, and many reasons why “necessary” information isn’t always so necessary. Don’t default to adding a new POV just because it’s convenient.

All that being said, multiple POVs can work. Sometimes, the best option IS to add another POV, or many POVs. The aim may be a more intricate, varied plot. Sometimes, there really is no other way to get across a certain bit of plot.

Let me give some more concrete examples here from my own writing. Channing has two POVs: Everett’s and Caroline’s. We start with Caroline’s, then switch back and forth for a while. Then we stay with Caroline, then begin switching back-and-forth. We start with her so that we can meet Everett and his cousin Harry through her eyes and so that we don’t know certain things about Everett and Harry until later (for example, we don’t learn until later that Harry and Everett are cousins). Later, we stay with Caroline because I want readers to be surprised when Everett pops back up. Then, when everything starts heating up, we jump back and forth as their interactions become more intertwined. Everett and Caroline each have their arcs: Everett learns to be happy in the moment instead of giving up everything for his antislavery crusade, and Caroline grows up and figures out her feelings about slavery and life in general. But this is all part of an overall arc: girl meets boy, girl and boy are pulled apart, boy and girl come back together.

[Full disclaimer: I added four chapters, two each from the POV of Harry and Augustine, not to get across information per se but because I wanted to write from their perspectives. It gives a little more insight into them as characters.]

Another example: I wrote a prequel to Channing about the characters’ parents. So, from the beginning, it was natural to me that there were four POVs, as it was two couples (three if you count the brothers as a “couple”) who come together and then fall apart. I leaned heavily on Archie, since he was a common thread between the other three characters–lover, brother, and master. The overall arc is fairly simple: brothers start a feud, brothers try to destroy each other, one of them succeeds (actually, they both succeed in a way). Each of the four characters has an arc of his/her own: Archie loses his faith in his brother and loses everything, Emily’s dreams are crushed but she dusts herself off, Charles ruthlessly attacks his brother but realizes too late that there’s no joy in it, and Betty goes from naivety to taking charge of her destiny.

Of course, choosing who will act as POV character and when can be tricky. Don’t think that the above all came naturally. Especially with Channing, it took a lot of trial and error before I figured out how to approach the story. But taking the time to work it out was worth the effort.

A Literary Announcement

Anyone who has read this blog is aware that it has two distinct threads: there’s the history thread (which began with a focus on ancien régime France but shifted to 19th century America) and there’s the writing thread. I’ve blogged a bit about my writing process and given sporadic updates on where I stand in the querying game.

I am pleased to announce that I have signed as a client with Erin Niumata at Folio Literary. I am now one that rare bread of exotic and elegantly plumed birds: an agented author.

The work that snagged me representation by the wonderful Erin Niumata is a historical novel, Channing. It’s set in the Antebellum south and is about a young woman who ends up married to the owner of a large Georgia plantation, and a Quaker who ends up in Georgia for very different reasons.

Now, before I go any further, an explanation of what getting an agent does and does not mean: It means that I have cleared that first, crucial hurdle in the pursuit of becoming a real-live published author. Agents are the primary gatekeepers, and they get (electronic) piles of queries. For a writer, querying agents is a monumental, soul-sucking effort. It’s hard just to get a response, no less an offer of representation from (more on the numbers below). Suffice it to say, it’s kind of a big deal to get an agent. It is, however, just the first step. It means I get to pass on to the second round of gatekeepers: the editors at the publishing houses. They will decide whether to buy the book and publish it. Getting an agent means that I’m a step along a very long road. It could take years before the book is in bookstores near you. And no, there is almost no chance I will get rich (that seems to be something that people think who aren’t familiar with how publishing works). First-time authors generally don’t make enough to live on, so I’m not going to be the next J.K. Rowling.

Alright, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Channing.

Channing began in 2010. I was studying abroad in England, getting my Master’s degree in Publishing. I had recently finished my most recent project, Grove of Venus, about ancien régime France and had been querying agents. I was getting good responses but needed to start on something new (I can’t not write). For some reason, I hit on the idea of a duel. That was the spark of an idea that became Channing.

(For the record, Grove of Venus wasn’t my first manuscript. I wrote a 120k word novel set in Roman Britain, but that one is permanently trunked. As for Grove of Venus, it is on the back burner but definitely not forgotten. My response rate for that novel was pretty good, better at least than for Channing. It was, I think, the name “Marie-Antoinette” that attracted attention.)

At first, Channing (which of course wasn’t called that at the time) was going to be set in Georgian England. Mostly, I think that was because there is a limited number of times and places where dueling—of the kind I was picturing—actually happened. I chose England in the late 18th century because, well, I was living in England and dueling was a Thing there in the 18th century. My original idea was something like: girl falls in love with guy, girls and guy are secretly engaged, guy is killed in a duel right before they’re married, and—well, that was as far as I got, really.

Two things changed my mind: a book titled Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln by Janis Cooke Newman, and a memoir by an English actress named Fanny Kemble who ended up married to the owner of a large Georgian plantation. As it happened, Fanny Kemble’s memoir, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation had a much greater influence on me and, consequently, on Channing (by the way, the title is the name of a plantation, not a person, and has no special significance). The memoir inspired me to place my duel not in Georgian England but in the state of Georgia before the Civil War. It was April 2010 when I started thinking about placing the story in Georgia. In July of that year, I returned to the United States. It’s also the first time I labelled a file as “Channing”.

After I returned to the U.S., I lived with my brother in the old house where I grew up. I’ve always loved that house, and I think it influence me deeply as I started forming an actual plot around my idea of a duel. During that year back home, while I was trying to get a “real” job, I read Gone With the Wind. It was a very different vision of slavery than what was represented in Fanny Kemble’s Journal and from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I’d read while in England. I enjoyed the romance and escapism of Gone with the Wind, and I liked Scarlett’s pluck. But I also loved Fanny Kemble’s clear moral stance and her sympathy with the slaves. I wanted to meld these influences into something that was not quite any of them.

It took time to sort it all out. I have files named things like Greenlynch and populated with odd, nebulous characters that barely resemble any of the characters who ended up in Channing. Some names remain, though the characters have changed entirely.

Everett, the male main character, started out as a real Rhett Butler type and became a Quaker (ha!). Augustine was once the surly slave owner (that role was taken over with gusto by Harry, who was once a mild-mannered suitor). Caroline, the female main character, remained for the most part unchanged: she was always a young woman who hadn’t taken sides yet and who found herself pressured into doing so.

Over the next two years or so, I wrote, rewrote, edited, agonized, refined, and agonized some more. Meanwhile, I queried Grove of Venus on and off. And in August of 2011, I got a full-time job and moved to the Washington, D.C., area. Previously, the early parts of the novel had been set in Baltimore. In fact, for several months after I moved to D.C., I continued to research antebellum Baltimore. Yet, as I wrote these early scenes, something just didn’t click. Finally, it hit me: why not set the early bits in Washington City (known as Washington, D.C. today) instead of Baltimore?

Once I made that switch, everything seemed to fall into place. I still had some issues with structure (chronological? flashbacks? alternating chapters?), but I had my story, and it began with a duel. I think my structure problems actually were down to a slight mental block: I wanted the duel to begin the novel because it was the spark of the entire novel (it also is the crucial point of no return, and it also mirrors nicely with the show-down at the end). But in any case, by June 2012 I felt confident enough in what I had to send it to beta readers—that is, to other writers who could comment on the writing and the story. I took feedback, revised, rinsed, and repeated for about a year before I started sending our queries.

And what a daunting experience that can be! I had a relatively poor response rate. For those who don’t know, it’s not unusual to never get a response from agents. I got quite a lot of silence. I ended up with several requests, though the reception was hardly overwhelming. For the record, here are the numbers:

75 queries sent

2 partial requests, rejected

1 full, rejected

1 partial that turned into a full, rejected

1 partial that turned into a full, that turned into a revise-and-resubmit, that turned into another revise-and-resubmit, that turned into an offer of representation

So, that last one obviously is the most important one. In February 2014, I received a request from Erin Niumata for the first several chapters of Channing (that’s what a “partial” is). She liked it enough to request the full manuscript. In April, I received a note from Erin declining the manuscript, but providing some extremely valuable (and spot-on) feedback. I felt I could address all of it, so I asked whether she’d consider a revision. She said yes, so I set to work. I sent the revised manuscript back, and Erin had some more input (again, it was great stuff). So I got to work on another revision. I sent it to her, and. . . . waited. Now, publishing is slow, but I started getting anxious and discouraged only after several months. Then a feeling of foreboding started to set in. Was this her way of declining the revised manuscript? Were my revisions that bad?

I sent a few follow-up emails but got no response. Eek. I was getting that familiar, sinking feeling that this whole trying-to-get-an-agent thing was just an endless game of trying, trying, trying, and never succeeding. I’d been trying for a long time, and hadn’t succeeded yet, so the feeling of dejection was somewhat familiar. On something of a hunch, though, I sent an email from a different email address. And lo and behold, I got a response. I was so incredibly relieved. It so happens that my emails had been trapped by Erin’s junk email folder. She’d been wondering what had happened to me! She asked me to resent the latest revision, so of course I sent it asap.

That was in February of this year. At the very end of March, I got an email from Erin saying she wanted to call to talk about offering representation. I cannot say how ecstatic I was. It has been five years since the story first began to grow in my mind. It had been two and half years since I first asked for beta-reader input. I had been querying for over a year and a half. And I had been writing all my life, querying various projects, always trying to get to this point, always knowing I had it in me somewhere. And finally, there it was: that rare prize, an agent. Validation, a sign I wasn’t crazy, someone who cared about my writing.

Now, by some strange cosmic irony, I had planned a trip to go to Georgia and see the Sea Islands at the end of March. The previous spring, an airline had screwed up my flight, and I got a travel voucher to make up for it. I’d determined to use it to see the setting of Channing. I didn’t know at that point whether I would get an offer of representation from Erin or anyone else, but I didn’t care. I wanted to go to Savannah, and not only because of Channing. I also wanted to see Butler Island, the place where Fanny Kemble stayed while in Georgia, and I wanted to experience the beauty of Savannah. My trip had been booked for months. Then, just a few weeks before the trip, the offer of representation came. I received the paperwork (electronically) while I was in Georgia. It’s eerie, how the timing worked out. I was heading on an exciting trip to see the setting for Channing just as I was signing a contract with an agent for the manuscript . . .

You might wonder why I’ve kept all this under wraps for so long. After all, it’s now August. Well, there are a lot of reasons, but partly it’s because I haven’t gotten around to it, and partly it’s because there wasn’t much happening yet. There were two more rounds of revision after I signed the contract, and we haven’t yet sent the manuscript out to publishers. Why now, then? Partly because I got around to it, and partly because it looks like we’ll be sending the manuscript out on submission next month.

To be clear, not a lot is likely to happen soon. Publishing works at a glacial pace, so it could be several months or longer before a publisher makes an offer (if that happens—sometimes it doesn’t). It could then be a year or so until the book was actually published. But I now have an agent and we’re almost ready to send it out into the world. So . . . buckle your seatbelts!

I’ll leave you with the first sentence of Channing:

Not long after the robins returned that year, Caroline Hanleigh received an invitation from her dearest friend Ellen McIntyre to a house party.

Writerly Wednesdays–Titles

What’s in a name, right? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Of course, that’s nonsense. When someone is named Ethel or Bertha (sorry to all the Ethels and Berthas out there), it simply is going to color how people look at you. Words have power–not absolute power, but power nonetheless. Every writer knows that there’s a difference between the right words and the almost-right word (it’s the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug, as Mark Twain said).

Another cliche: don’t judge a book by its cover. Which is also nonsense, at least if you take it literally. Of course you should judge a book by its cover. That’s what it’s there for: to inform you of the genre (lady in a period costume with her head cropped off: historical!), intended reader (subtle clues like color and font can say “this is for ladies!” or “this is20140618_205049 for men!” or “this is for kids!”), and even the tone of the book (“ooh, a dark, abstract cover; must be a dark, abstract story!”). And you can get all that just from the cover art, without looking at the words.

Naturally, splashed across the front of the book is the title. That’s the most telling part of all. What has the author chosen to name his or her book?

[As an aside the author might not be the sole source of the title. A writer may come to an agent or publisher with a title, but then the agent or publisher doesn’t like it, and it’s changed. This can be for marketing purposes–the title isn’t appealing to the “right” audience–or just the sound of it–maybe the author’s title is just bad.]

For readers, probably, the origin of titles is mysterious. They probably think it just kind of appears (as do all the other words within the covers; it’s magic!), but that isn’t the case. Just like writing a novel, coming up with a title isn’t as easy as it seems. Titles influence how readers approach a book and whether they approach it all. Titles may change the meaning of the entire novel by prompting an interpretation of themes/events that might not otherwise be obvious. They set the tone. Titles give us basic information about what’s inside (Jane Eyre is about, well, Jane Eyre). Yeah, titles are important. And since they don’t come magically, where do they come from?

Writers come in all varieties. Some begin with a title in mind, some don’t. For some, the entire story grows up around the title, for other the title doesn’t come until well after the story is already written. Some just can’t get into a project until it has a title, some aren’t bothered about it. But one thing is for sure: once you start writing, you have to save the file as something on your computer, so it has to have some kind of designation.

Most titles are one of a few things: the name of a character, place, or event (Oliver Twist or Wide Sargasso Sea or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time [okay, I know it’s not exactly an event]); an object that abstractly or concretely is central to the plot or themes of the book (The Book of Life); a bit of striking narration or dialogue from the story (The Catcher in the Rye); an allusion (What Dreams May Come or The Grapes of Wrath  or King Hereafter); or an abstraction (A Tale of Two Cities).

For me as a writer, titles aren’t crucial. The story needs a title at some point, but the story doesn’t flow from the title.

The novel I wrote on the Affair of the Diamond Necklace was originally titled Soleil, which is the main character’s nickname. However, it’s a French word that not everyone is familiar with. I completed the novel under the working title “Soleil”, then switched it to “Grove of Venus” when I began querying agents. The Grove of Venus was a place in the gardens of Versailles where Jeanne de La Motte-Valois staged an audacious little play for a Cardinal: she hired a prostitute to pretend to be Marie-Antoinette. In any case, that scene and that place are the lynchpin of the story. I’m still not entirely satisfied with the title, since it kind of makes the novel sound like a tawdry romance, which it isn’t; but it’s better than Soleil.

My next completed project came with a title more or less attached. As soon as I had the basic outlines of the story framed, I knew the title would be Channing. Channing is the name of the plantation that the main character becomes mistress of. It’s where a great deal of the action takes place, and its the source of all the evils that sour the main characters’ lives. Easy. (Where did the name for Channing come from? I don’t know, actually. Maybe there is a little bit of magic–aka, inspiration–involved in picking names and titles.)

When I chose to write a prequel, coming up with a title for it was a bit harder. I was writing about the same place, but with a different set of characters (these were the parents of the characters from “Channing”). Without a working title, I plowed right into the story and saved the file as “Charles and Archibald Daniels” (they’re the brothers at the center of the story). About two-thirds of the way through, I got an idea. The brothers repeatedly refer to their feud as a war, and at one point Archie says, “Cotton. Cotton until Kingdom Come.” And it occurred to me that this was a “war” over cotton (or cotton profits, specifically). So . . . “The Cotton Wars”.

I also wrote a novella set during the Civil War. I forged ahead on this project, too, without solidifying a title. I named the file after the main character–Hamilton Gray–and kept on writing until I was done. It still doesn’t have a title, though I may just end up calling it “Hamilton Gray” or something like “The Madness of Hamilton Gray.”

Although I’ve only ever done it on one project, some writers title their chapters. The project in question is a historical novel that has long since been trunked. It has merits, and I think the chapter titles are both clever and appropriate, but I don’t think the manuscript is really going to go anywhere. Most of the titles were based off of bits of dialogue or narration (“The Half-Soul Gift”, for instance). It was actually great fun coming up with cool titles for each chapter. Most of them came without too much effort–I found that a few words I’d written really captured the tone of the chapter, and bam!, there was the title. Chapter titles can be a bit more creative and fun than a book title. After all, book title have a LOT of work to do and a LOT of weight to carry. Chapter titles–well, a lot of readers probably won’t even read them!

Although titles are important, I don’t worry about them too much. They aren’t nearly as important as writing a darn good story, because no one will care what the title is if the story stinks. And what good is a title without a completed novel/novella/short story to go with it? Every writer is different, but as always the the most important thing is to just write.

Writerly Wednesdays–Letting Go Is Hard to Do.

At the end of the movie Titanic, Rose says, “I’ll never let go, Jack.” Of course, she then promptly lets go, and his frozen body sinks into the icy depths.

i'll never let go

Which just goes to show that letting go it hard to do (unless you’re Rose).

Writers, myself included, sometimes find it difficult to say goodbye to our characters when the story is over. It’s hard–almost impossible–to write 102,000 words–and twice that amount in discarded material–without getting attached to the (fictional) people you’ve been sharing head space with. I’ve been writing about my current characters for about two years now. I dreamed them up from nowhere, molded them, listened to their voices in my head, reshaped them, fit the story to them and them to the story . . . and along the way I really fell in love with them.

So what’s a girl to do? The story was written, the arc was complete. Some characters were dead, others were off to something like a happily-ever-after. We started here; we ended there. It took us over a hundred thousand words to get there. The story proper was done. Finito.

And yet . . .

There they still were, popping into my head when I was brushing my teeth or taking a shower or sitting on the bus. All of a sudden, a new situation would appear in my head–what if this happened? How would Caroline, Everett, or Harry handle it? What would Augustine say? Although I loved all my characters, it was almost always Everett and Harry who appeared there with something to say.

So I decided to keep writing, even though the story was over. I had an idea–a silly idea, really. It’s filled with various cliches. But I thought it was fitting. It’s a death scene, a quiet death scene. A character (I don’t want to spoil anything, even though there’s not much chance anyone reading this will ever read Channing, or even that it’ll ever be in print) is old and sick. It’s forty years after the end of Channing, and he’s sitting alone in the dark. Suddenly, a ghost from his past appears. They talk for a bit, then the old man is escorted away to his death by the ghost.

See? That would seem exceptionally silly tacked on to the end of a novel. It might be silly all by itself–though I like to think I wrote it well. The point is, I had this image in my head of exactly what those two would say to each other, forty years later, one of them dead and one of them shriveled with age. I had to keep writing. Sometimes, the bug bites really hard, and it doesn’t matter if it’s useful for anything. It just needs to be written down.

And just the other day, another vivid image came to my mind as I was thinking about the years directly after the end of Channing, the years of the Civil War. Perhaps ironically, the image was a funny one (a wife daring her husband to go down to breakfast naked in the morning, and him doing it). And I thought to myself, it’s a moment of laughter in the face of great tragedy. So I wrote another scene, another little epilogue that will never be part of a published book but just is.

If I ever am lucky enough to get Channing published, and if I ever am lucky enough to have people who care to read them, I’ll make these scenes available. But until then, I guess I just have to content myself with creating these little epilogues for my own enjoyment. Eventually, I’m sure, I’ll get this story and these characters out of my system. Until then, I guess they’ll just continue carrying on their conversations in the corners of my mind. Maybe I don’t want them to stop. Maybe letting them go really is hard to do.