Cause and Effect is Your Friend

I have been working with authors for a while now.  One of my favorite things to do is a manuscript review.  Lots of coaches don’t like doing them, but I love getting the complete picture of the work so we can take it apart and figure out how to put it together in revision that will make it a wonderful novel.

One of the most common issues authors have is a break down in the cause and effect chain of their novel.  It becomes a series of events.  This happens and then this happens, and then this happens. Once you  have a draft and you are looking at it, think about how your main character will move through the story and experience character growth.  Each action/decision needs to CAUSE what will happen next. If you take this down even further, in each scene, there should also be a cause and effect chain.  Something happens in a scene that causes something else, that leads to conflict, then resolution.  It happens over and over again in a novel, both on a micro and a macro level.  

One of the quickest ways to check yourself on this is to write your novel synopsis.  If you can write a synopsis in which each plot point logically leads to what happens next, you probably have a pretty good chain of cause and effect.  If you can’t or if it falls apart after the first 10% of the book, it may be time to have a rethink.

Reach out if you think a Manuscript Review might be just the thing you need to get your novel on track this year. You can sign up to chat with me about your book.

Book Review: Trust by Hernan Diaz

This book is fantastic.  It is historical fiction that is also literary and it contains so much fodder for great discussions.  I hope you and some friends will read it and discuss it.  It will be featured in an upcoming episode of the Read Like a Writer Book Club podcast, so stay tuned!

The structure is challenging, but stick with it.  The novel is written in four sections, of which the first one is a novel within a novel.  Even this novel within doesn’t follow the “rules” of genre fiction.  There is no inciting incident, no escalation, etc.  There is a plot, but it is an interior plot with exterior consequences. The second section is a partially completed memoir by the supposedly real person that the novel was about.  The third section is the story of a woman who, as it turns out, knows the whole truth, or as near to it as anyone in this book can.  The fourth section is the missing journal of the wife of the person whose memoir is in section 2.  Don’t worry, it all makes sense when you read it. 

Trust has been on tons of best of lists and it totally deserves it.  The writing is beautiful, but the message is also clear and vital and relevant.  Just to give you an idea, here is a quotation.  This comes from the third section, when Ida becomes the secretary for Andrew Bevel, the ostensible main character, though I would argue Ida is the main character of the novel.  She is taking dictation from him as he wants to write a memoir about his life to rebut what he thinks is a slanderous novel written about him and his wife (the first part of the novel).  She is reading over the pages and editing them.

“But reading these pages, it seems that more than vindicating Mildred [his wife] he wanted to turn her into a completely unremarkable, safe character—just like the wives in the autobiographies of the Great Men I read during that time to come up with Bevel’s voice. Put her in her place.”  page 300.

Isn’t this what has happened to women, and others, all throughout history? The men, usually men, usually white, usually rich, get to decide what gets told. Wait until you read the last section of this book, you will love it as much as I did.

Here are some discussion questions for your book club:

  1. What did you think about the structure of this novel?  Do you think it would have been as effective written another way?  Why or why not?
  2. Who do you think the main character is?  What evidence would you use to make your case?
  3. What similarities and differences do you see between Helen and Mildred?  Between Rask and Bevel?  Why do we feel compelled to name the men by their surnames and the women by their first names?
  4. What about Jack?  What was his purpose in the story?
  5. If you were casting a movie, who would you cast as each of the main characters and why?

You’re reading a fancy book, why not have a fancy cookie with your tea?

Recipe:  Fig and Cherry Cookie Pies 

Adapted from the NY Times

Pastry:  

3 cups/408 grams all-purpose flour, 

¾ cup/92 grams confectioners’ sugar

¾ teaspoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons/256 grams cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

3 large egg yolks

5 tablespoons/75 grams heavy cream, plus more as needed

Filling:

½ cup/82 grams loosely packed chopped dried figs, hard stems removed (about 6 dried figs)

½ cup/80 grams dried sweetened sour cherries or cranberries, chopped

¼ cup/38 grams raw or roasted almonds

3 tablespoons/41 grams dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons Kirsch or other cherry liqueur

1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest (from 1 orange)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)

Glaze:

1 cup/123 grams confectioners’ sugar, sifted

½ teaspoon almond extract

3 to 4 tablespoons heavy cream

Instructions

Pastry:

Combine the flour, confectioners’ sugar and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and rub with your fingers until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the egg yolks and cream, and stir with a fork just until the dough starts to come together. Add more cream if necessary, but stop before the dough is too wet. Form it into two disks and wrap each half in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 2 hours.

Filling:

Combine the figs, cherries and 1¼ cups water In a small bowl and microwave for 1 minute.  Stir well and let sit while the dough is chilling. Transfer to a blender and add the almonds, brown sugar, rum, orange zest, cinnamon and salt, and pulse until you have a relatively smooth paste.  You may use a hand blender.  It will be very thick, don’t let that scare you.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with 1 ball at a time, roll the dough out to ⅛-inch thickness on a very lightly floured surface. Use a 2¼-inch cookie cutter or a glass to cut out circles. Transfer the circles to the prepared baking sheet. Scoop about a scant 2 teaspoons of filling onto half of the dough circles. Brush the edges of the filled circles with a bit of cream and fold over making a half circle, gently pressing the edges with a fork to seal. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. (If the dough becomes too soft, pop it into the fridge to firm up before continuing.) You can reroll and cut the dough scraps one time.

Chill the pies for at least 30 minutes. While the cookies chill, heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Brush the top of each cookie with cream. Bake until they’re golden and crisp, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool completely.

Glaze:

 In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, almond extract and 3 tablespoons cream. The icing should be spreadable. Spread a bit of the glaze on each cookie Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days or freeze for a month. These keep wonderfully at room temperature.

Mystery and Thriller Round up for 2022

It is time for year end lists!  Here’s my list of favorite mysteries and thrillers I read in  2022.  NOTE—I read these in 2022, some of them were published earlier…

Each of these are a great mini-masterclass for mystery writers, too. Each does a wonderful job of keeping the reader curious, building suspense, but without frustrating the reader. Several of them are also playing with form, like epistolary or traditional historical.  If you want to write a great mystery or just get lost in one for a while, these are all excellent choices. All of these titles are in our Bookshop.org shop in the footer.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

An excellent use of the epistolary form, and just a fun mystery with a load of crazy characters who will keep you guessing.  Definitely recommended for Cozy fans…

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Domestic Thriller by the current Queen of the Genre in my opinion.  So many family secrets…but somehow all loose ends are explained and tied up at the end.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Need a book that will make you stay up until 2 AM?  Look no further.  This apartment building is creepy and so are the people who live there…

The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman

You’ll laugh, you’ll tear up, you’ll love every moment you spend with the gang. One of the most fun things about Osman is the observations he makes about the world through the eyes of his characters.  Surrender to it and you won’t be sorry.

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church by Indrek Hargla

English translation by Adam Cullen, English version published by Peter Owen

A finely plotted traditional medieval whodunit.  If you’ve been wishing for a new Father Cædful, try Apothecary Melchior…

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Gritty, alternative history mystery set in the Berlin of a partially victorious Third Reich.  The Cold War looks a little different and the Americans under President Joe Kennedy (mobster father of John, Ted, and Robert) is cozying up to the fascists. The book is simply fantastic and also a little frightening because of the way Harris understands human nature.

The Layer Cake Method of Revising a Novel

You have a draft and it is exciting!  Put it away for at least a couple of weeks or a month (even 2) while you plan another project or do something else.  Now, take it out again and let’s start thinking about revision in layers.

You may have seen my earlier post about the Layer Cake Method for Drafting.  I would like to continue using the layer cake metaphor for revising.  There are a ton of methods for revising, so I will not pretend that this is the only one, or that it will absolutely work the best for you , or make you any other false promises of easy revising.  Revising, like drafting or assembling a beautiful layer cake, is no easy task.  And as noted in the previous post about drafting, it cannot be all about looks, there has to be flavor;  in other words, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your sentences are or how perfect your word choice is, if there is not a compelling story in your novel.

Lots of revision advice centers around a specific number of drafts.  I prefer not to do that.  You may need two drafts to work out all the structural changes, or you may need three, or you may need one.  I prefer to work in layers, with writers taking all the drafts they want or need to get through the requirements of the layer.  Think of it as making sure your flavors are just right and the position of each layer is perfect, and that you’ve gotten the shape and structure to hold the next layer, so that your cake, er novel, will stand on its own and be a wonder to behold.

These are the layers I would recommend going through to get your novel in shape, no matter how many drafts you use to work your way through each layer:

  1. Structure:  It is easy to get bogged down in copy editing your work and not notice the larger structural changes and character development that will make it shine. Kind of like when Paul Hollywood says it looks great, but your flavors are all wrong… This layer requires writers to put on their editor hats and analyze the structure they are using, including things like POV and make decisions about which structures and POV choices will serve their story best.  
  2. Intention:  Sometimes during the initial drafting phase, we like to make things happen in the novel.  We like to pop in with a lot of surprises, reveals, and gotchas, which are not really logical.  You may have used coincidences to help your MC out of trouble.  During revision is the time to take a look at the Cause: Effect chain in your novel and make sure it works.  Does each scene in the novel need to be there and logically lead to the next one?  If you are writing a dual timeline/POV, you will have to do this analysis on both timelines/POVs.  Make the Intention of each scene clear to the reader, and make sure that there is story logic. This is when you try to be too clever and combine too many different flavors that don’t go well together. Simplify for a classic cake and novel.
  3. Character:  Are your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts clear?  So the stakes rise as the story builds? Are there [real] consequences when your characters make choices? Are characters revealed through actions?  Do characters, the main ones, have an arc of change? Do your characters have differentiated voices in dialogue sections? Have you made good choices in the types of cake, fillings, and frostings you are using?  If you’ve decided on a soft cake, then don’t try to make it a tower.  If you are using ganache, remember to temper the chocolate. Your characters will have goals, motivations, and conflicts that determine the decisions they make, which in turn leads to paths not taken, just like when you choose ganache over fondant or buttercream over mirror glaze.  Each choice your characters make in some part determines the other choices they will make.
  4. Seed Planting:  Now that you have the story structure, POV, Cause and effect, and characters sorted, it is time to go back through the narrative and look for places to make readers curious.  What is revealed and when?  Can you plant the seeds of what is to come so that the reader will anticipate and be curious?  The goal for this layer is that the reader will say when they get to the end both, “Well, of course that is what happened” AND “What a surprise!”  Think of this layer as the hidden flavor in the cake.  It is the subtle one that delights you when you realize it is there, just beneath the hero flavor…
  5. Details:  Now and only now is it time to attend to line and copy editing.  Polishing it before you reach layer five is like trying to pipe roses on a cake that is falling apart or too hot to hold the buttercream. Sure, you can, but it won’t hide the steaming mess underneath. Now you work on making it beautiful.

Revision is a treacherous business with many twists and turns, kind of  like creating a layer cake that is both flavorful and lovely to look at. Just as you have to build the cake from the bottom up, you must revise your novel starting with big picture items and moving through the layers until you get to the buttercream details which make it sparkle and shine.

Want to know more?  Contact me or attend the History Quill Virtual Conference, where I will be presenting on revision.  Attendees will get a copy of the Readerly Revision Checklist.  

A Virtual Conference just for Historical Fiction Writers coming in February! You can attend one day or all the days.

NaNoNowWhat?

Hello Friends!  It’s November, so we all must be writing…

To help you figure out what to do with your NaNo draft, a bunch of Book Coach friends and I put together a giveaway of revising resources, just in time for the end of the month.  The Giveaway page includes introductions to each of our superpowers, links to our websites, and free resources related to revising your manuscript.  You can check it out at http://www.nanonowwhat.com 

Writing is not always a solo activity and support can make the difference between starting and finishing.  Please reach out to me readerlybooks[at]gmail.com, if I can be a resource to you.  

That time I ran the Tallinn Half Marathon without finishing my training schedule…

In September, I had been on a training plan to complete a half marathon in October.  I signed up for a 10k here in Tallinn as part of that training.  However, I also made a date with a friend to go to the symphony on the same day.  I didn’t think it mattered, since races all start in the morning, right?  Wrong!  

The 10k was supposed to start at 5 PM and the symphony started at 7 PM.  I am a slow runner, so the only way I would make both is to go to the symphony in my sweaty running clothes, which was a nonstarter.  The half marathon started at 9 AM, though, which was totally doable.  The only problem?  The longest run I had done so far in my training was about 6 miles.  I figured I could finish, but I would probably have to walk a lot of the second half.

Here’s the thing, though.  Once you start, there is a lot of positive pressure to keep going.  Even if you are near the end of the group of runners, the first aid people and all the volunteers at the water stations are cheering, so you don’t want to let them down.  The result?  I finished the race, I ran most of it, and my time was only a little off my usual time for a half marathon.  Full disclosure:  I walk and ride my bike almost everywhere here, so running isn’t all the training I had been doing. My bet is that you’ve been doing some writing training like character sketches and outlines, too.

What does this have to do with writing?  Well, sometimes we start a program, like NaNo or a writing group or something and the momentum helps, even if we haven’t put all the work into the preparation that we would like to have.  That can be a good thing!  Having a draft is the first step to having a book.  I wasn’t ready to set a personal record at this half marathon, but I enjoyed the run—it was a beautiful day, the course was lined with lovely people and views and I did finish.

Maybe you don’t have a completed outline for your NaNo manuscript.  Maybe, like me, you are going to need to walk a little, which means you won’t get 50,000 words in one month.  That’s okay!  Set a goal to finish and use the motivation you gain from the positive pressure to power your drafting.  You may not actually finish the draft until a few months later.  By the time I finished the race, the awards were all given out and the crowds at the finish were pretty thin, but I still got a medal and the chance to keep working on my running. If you finish the manuscript in January, you will still have a draft to revise.

Just in case you need help figuring out what a realistic writing goal is, I made something for you.  It is a Choose Your Own Writing Adventure Goal Calculator.  Figure out how many words or scenes you need to produce for each writing session to hit a finished draft in a specified amount of time.

Guest Post from Debra Borchert, author of Her Own Legacy

I am honored to have Debra Borchert as a guest writer this month!  She and I have worked together on the third book in her series, which is still in revision.  Her books are sweeping sagas of the French Revolution.  Debra’s love and knowledge of French culture and history are evident all the way through. She made the choice to self-publish and it is going well.  Authors interested in self publishing may enjoy her insights about how to make it work.  Like anything in publishing, it is not easy, but it is possible.  

The first book in the series, Her Own Legacy  is out, and you can find it at links later on in this post, and at Readerly’s Bookshop.org page in the footer.  🙂

When do you think you will be teeing up the next books in the series?  

I plan to launch Her Own Revolution, Book 2 of the Château de Verzat series, on Bastille Day, July 14, 2023. I hope to launch Her Own Honor, Book 3, on December 2, 2023 which was the date in 1802 when Napoleon crowned himself emperor.

As soups play a big part in the series and I include recipes in the books, I’m also planning to launch the Château de Verzat cookbook in January, 2024, national soup month.

Would you tell us a little about your publication journey?  What decisions did you make about the route you chose and why did you choose that path?

I worked on Her Own Legacy for ten years during which time I traveled four times to France to conduct research for all three books. I received many rejections on the first book, but kept writing, workshopping, and editing. I began to query the second book, and despite agent requests, I received three rejections. At that point, I decided to let readers decide if they wanted to read my books and stop querying all together.

I received a few offers from small publishers to print Her Own Legacy, but because I have an advertising and acting background, I thought I might enjoy the self-publication journey and having control over all aspects, including quality, working with professionals I chose, and marketing. I established my own publishing company, Le Vin Press.

I am thrilled with the three women I worked with: Lynn Andreozzi created the cover, Colleen Sheehan designed the interior, and Elena Saygo created my website. I learned to trust these women and each one of them patiently explained things I could not have known without their valuable insights. I was honored to work with them. And I am thrilled with the results of their skills and talents.

I have been overwhelmed by the positive publication reviews and readers’ reviews.

What would you most like readers to know about your book?

Her Own Legacy explores the moral conundrum of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, a paradox we all face at some point in our lives.

What advice would you give to writers that you wish you had gotten earlier?

I wish I had not been so persistent in querying. At a writers’ conference, an agent advised not giving up until you had queried four-hundred agents. I laughed at that. I had queried ninety-four. I wish I had stopped at fifty. I am grateful those rejections didn’t stop me or undermine my confidence. Now I use my persistence in marketing my book, something all writers need to do even if they have agents and publishers. I’ve been reading a newsletter about France, written by British author Janine March, since before I began researching and writing. I inquired about a book review, which now appears on the site. Janine also asked me to write an article about researching in France for The Good Life France, her online publication with more than 280,000 Francophile subscribers. That article is available here: : https://thegoodlifefrance.com/researching-hidden-history-in-france/

What is some advice that writers should ignore?

If someone offers a critique that does not resound within you, do a reality check with other writers and teachers you trust. A beta reader once told me my grammar needed work but provided no specific examples. This puzzled me, and so I asked two editors I had worked with.  They immediately disagreed with the beta reader’s critique. The editors worked with hundreds of authors, and so I trusted their opinions and ignored the beta reader’s advice.

Where can readers find out about you and your next project?

Readers can learn about the Château de Verzat series on my website: https://debraborchert.com/ 

I also face a problem for which I need some insights. Readers have been raving about how much they love the characters in Her Own Legacy. My second book, Her Own Revolution, is told from a different point of view. I wonder if readers will be disappointed about that, even though they will still learn about Joliette and Henri through Henri’s letters sent to the protagonist in the second book. So, I invite readers to let me know their thoughts on the Contact Debra form on the website.

More About Debra:

Debra’s debut novel, Her Own Legacy, is the first in a series that follows headstrong and independent women and the four-hundred loyal families who protect a Loire Valley château and vineyard, and its legacy of producing the finest wines in France during the French Revolution.

Her work has appeared in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The ChristianScience Monitor, and The Writer, among others. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and independently.  A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, she incorporates her knowledge of textiles and clothing design in writing historical French fiction. She brings her passions for France, wine, and cooking to all her work. The proud owner of ten crockpots, she is renowned for her annual Soup Parties at which she serves soups from different cultures. She includes recipes in her books, on her website and in her newsletters.