Is your luggage too full? What about your novel?

Readers of the Readerly Tea Break will know that my husband and I recently came to Estonia with the intention of staying long term.  One of the decisions we made was to economize by only bringing two checked bags each—at the last minute through the kind offices of a friend group, we were gifted an additional bag, for a total of five.  

Think about this for just a second.  You need to pack everything you might need for a year into 2.5 bags.  Obviously, we will purchase some things and apartments in Estonia are largely furnished, so we aren’t bringing household items, though I did manage to pack my French Press and some of my favorite teas…  But everything you will wear or want from home must go into 2.5 bags.  And there is a weight limit of 23 kilos (about 50ish pounds).  What do you put into the bags?  What is important enough to go and what has to stay?

Writers are faced with a similar dilemma when they revise.  You must sort through that first draft and make decisions about what is working and what is not.  You may not be stepping onto a literal scale to weigh your baggage as we did, but you will make difficult choices.  If the French Press stays, what gets left behind?  If you add the family photos, what do you remove from your bag?  If you leave the inciting incident the way it is, is the reaction of your protagonist believable?  Is the incident enough to kick off the story?  What about the consequences of your characters’ decisions?  Are the stakes high enough?  Do you need to add something and take away something else?  Most likely all of the above!

Just as we had to edit our bags, you will have to edit your story; and there will be pain.  I love shoes and to be honest, I have many more pairs of shoes than I need.  I had to leave more than half of them behind.  I had to be very careful about the ones I did pack—would they hold up to all the walking, would they work for a rainy climate, were they comfortable enough?  Most importantly, were they cute?  Only some of my shoes made the cut.  They had to be comfortable, durable and cute enough to go with lots of outfits.

When you revise, you will edit your story in just such a way.  You will start with more words than you need.  You will check to see whether the scenes you have written serve the story you are telling.  WIll they move the story?  Will they reveal character?  Will they keep the reader engaged?  If not, they may end up in your “cuts” folder, the way some of my shoes ended up in storage.  It’s okay!  You may use some of those cuts in other books or you may not.  I may wear some of those shoes again, but it may also happen that by the time I see them again, I don’t need them. Less can actually be more, it’s true. 

New Stump the Chump Video and more…

Do you have a research question for your novel?

In preparation for the FREE session on 23 July I am recording shorts of me answering writers’ research questions.

Catch the latest installment of Stump the Chump to see what it’s all about: 

The research question being considered is “could a hot air balloon go from Estes Park to Pagoda Springs, Colorado?  How long would it take?

The next meeting of the Read Like a Writer Book Club will be 19 July at 7 PM CST and we will be discussing Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty.  Would you be interested in joining us? Drop me a line to robin [at] readerly [dot] net to have the details delivered to you.  🙂

Throwback Thursday: Germinal by Emile Zola

Originally reviewed June 2015

First a little background:  Emile Zola was a French novelist during the late nineteenth century and is credited with founding the naturalist school of fiction writing.  His contemporaries, and indeed friends, included Flaubert, Balzac, and Stendhal.  Zola attempted to apply the methods of natural science to fiction writing to make it more realistic.  As a result, he was sometimes censured for his somewhat graphic depictions of sex and some of his plotlines contain characters who are less than savory.  I would not recommend Zola to young students for these reasons as well as the mature themes and generally depressing tone that pervades some of his work.  

Having gotten the disclaimer out of the way, a little about Germinal.  There are passages in this book that rival Flaubert for beauty.  When Zola describes the mine as an organic being that is chewing up the lives of the miners, it is not cheesy and the reader wants to reread it again—this one did anyway.  The main character Etienne is on the road, having lost his job.  He approaches the mining town of Monstsou, where he meets various members of the downtrodden proletariat and proceeds to become a Socialist, leading the miners on an ill-fated strike, in which there are no winners—only losers.  The descriptions of the starving workers, especially children are not for the faint of heart, but the value here is the beauty of some of the writing and the realistic depiction of the working classes, warts and all.  Zola has been called the Dickens of France, and having read this novel, I can see why.  The suffering of the miners and the families is beyond understanding, but Zola makes us understand.  There is also a possible discussion of Etienne’s socialist “conversion” and what it really means to him.  He wants to help the workers, but Zola is honest about what Etienne is gaining—popular acclaim, respect, even money are his through his association with the socialists.  At the end, when the miners are back down in the mine having gained nothing for their efforts, Etienne is on his way to become a part of the socialist machinery—his lot in life has actually improved.

Read this if you are looking for something to balance th4e beach-fare of the summer.  It clocks in at just about 600 pages and it fairly heavy going, but worth it!

Writing Retreats: Give Yourself the Gift of Time

There is no shortage of writing advice in the world.  Use an outline, don’t use an outline.  Write every day.  Write when you can. Write for the market. Write the book of your heart. On and on it goes.

One thing is  true.  You can’t revise and query or indie publish a novel if you never finish a draft.

Finishing a first draft is a step on the long journey from beginning to finished book.

What Would Help You do That?
  • What if you could give yourself the gift of  twelve hours, four of them dedicated to writing, over two days?
  • What if this twelve hours included sessions about getting organized for starting or revising, writer self-care, and time management?
  • What if this twelve hours came with tools and follow up and a built in writer’s group with professional support? 
Could You finish That Draft?

The Gift of a Writing Retreat is for you if:

  • You know that writing is hard, but feel a calling to do it anyway.
  • You who want to connect with other writers and a coach so you can make forward progress on your work.
  • You are done making excuses and ready to write NOW, not someday.

The Gift of a Writing Retreat is not for you if:

  • You want to write a novel “someday.”
  • You want to talk about writing, but never actually do it.
  • You think writing a novel is easy, if only you had the time.
Are you ready to give yourself the gift of time to write and support in your writing?

Using an Outline to Revise: How Writing is Like Baking

In thinking about topics for revision, my thoughts went to baking.  Stay with me, I promise we’ll get there.

My husband and I used to own a Bed and Breakfast in a Historic House in the Texas Hill Country, and it was so much fun!  One of my favorite things about it was that I got to try all kinds of baking without having to eat it all myself.  I baked so many new things and old favorites with the assurance of knowing that none of it would go to waste.  I was brave!  I tried new things, even a laminated dough…

That’s great, you’re thinking, but what does this have to do with writing?  A lot.  The first time I try a recipe, I stick pretty close to it.  I want to understand what the bread, pie, cake, cookie is supposed to be like.  What the texture is, what the color is, what the taste is.  After that, though, I am free to experiment.  I understand the basics of the thing, and I want to make it mine. I want to make it special.  I want to make it unique. If you are not sure what I mean about creativity in Baking, just watch a season or 2 of the Great British Bake-off. Those people are artists.  But the thing they are baking, still has to fit into the expectations of whatever it is.  A snap, a scone, a cake still has to be a snap, a scone, or a cake.

You can do the same thing with your writing.  If you are using an outline form like Save the Cat, The Heroine’s Journey, The Hero’s Journey or something else, you may decide to stick pretty close to it on the first draft, especially if you are a novice writer. But when you get ready to revise, that is when you can experiment.  Play with the textures, the tastes, the conventions, just like I do when I bake.  If you are writing a historical mystery, it can’t suddenly become a sci-fi thriller.  You still need to meet the expectations of readers and the conventions of the genre (until you become a NYT Bestseller and then all bets are off), but within those conventions, you can make the novel yours.  Make it special.  Make it unique.   Try different points of view.  Try different structures.  Try moving things around.  Experiment with voice.  Use your Outline the way I use a recipe.  It is a great starting point, but it is not a checklist, and it certainly isn’t written in stone.

Write like a Baker.

(Yes, I baked that bread and made the jam in the photo. )

Throwback Thursday: The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango

Originally reviewed 2015

Finally, something edgy, clever, and not the least bit condescending. The unreliable narrator will keep you guessing until long after you close the book. When we meet Henry, he is in the midst of a crisis. His mistress is pregnant, but he likes being married to his wife, who incidentally, is the author of all the books that have made him a famous author. What’s a fellow to do? Read the book and find out. You might be confused, but you won’t be disappointed.

Austenalia: The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray

Those of you who are regular readers will know that I was looking forward to reading this novel.  It is an Austen fan fiction cozy mystery written by an author that I first became acquainted with through her Young Adult novels.  

Here’s the set up:  it’s a house party starring the Darcys, the Knightleys, the Wentworths, the Brandons and the Edmund Bertrams.  Also included are the young Mr. Darcy and a daughter of Catherine Tilney (Juliet) who are the sleuths of the piece.  The party takes place at Donwell Abbey and as you may have surmised from the title, the man we love to hate, Charles Wickham is murdered after arriving uninvited.  It seems he has been swindling people, including dear Frederick and John Knightly (George’s brother, in case you need a refresher).

Here’s the problem.  The murderer, by necessity is a character from Austen that most Janeites love.  It has to be a member of the house party, because that’s the kind of novel it is.  No spoilers here, but this weakens the novel, since a most beloved character is going to have done the deed.

The novel isn’t bad.  It has moments of real fun, and casting Jonathan Darcy as possibly mildly autistic adds a layer to the story and gives depth to his character. However, I am going to have to be honest and say I thought it was just okay.  Partly for the reason I have already given, but partly because it was a little formulaic in the sense that all the couples had some issue during the novel that was related to the murder or Mr. Wickham and then, of course they worked it out by the end.  There is one other thing and it is only going to matter to people who are Austen superfans.  She plays around with the timeline.  Marianne and Brandon have just married while Lizzie and Darcy have been married for 20 years.  I know that the timing is correct for Catherine’s daughter, but why the disparity between S&S and P&P? In the author’s note she says that this is just cheating a little, because there are only “suggestions” that S&S should come earlier.  I cry foul.  JASNA has pretty good evidence that it should most definitely come earlier, but I digress.  It will become clear to the reader in time why this was necessary.

One last howler, that I just can’t let go…tea time.  [sigh]  As in she keeps acting like Regency people had tea time in the afternoon.  They didn’t, which you can read more about here and here.

If you are the sort of reader who reads all Austen fan fiction no matter what, then this will likely appeal to you.  If you need a fun vacation read, it will work for that, too.  If you are expecting Carrie Bebris, you will be disappointed.  

Outlines and how to make one…

Have you noticed that there are LOADS of ways to make an outline for your novel?  There’s Save the Cat, the Story Grid, The Hero’s Journey, The Heroine’s Journey, Romancing the Beat, and the beat goes on.  It seems that everyone who has ever written a book has their own method, and they are quick to offer it as the answer for you.

I will let you in on a secret…most of these systems are pretty much the same.  What they do is figure out the main “beats” of the story, based on successful books and movies, and then repackage them.  This isn’t to say that the ideas are not useful, they are. But the truth is that there is no one way that works for every writer or every book.  The trick is to find the one that works for the book you are writing; it might not always be the same one.  It might be a combination of more than one. You might need to get creative.  One book might work as an example of more than one outlining style.  

Even after you have identified the “tent pole” scenes, you still have to make each one work—it needs an arc, it has to have tension, the plot has to move forward, there is so much to think about!  So what’s a writer to do?  Decide what kind of story you are telling and make the best outline you can.  Identify the important scenes and work them over first, making sure there is a cause and effect chain to tie it all together.  

Then, when you revise, do it all again!

What is your favorite outlining method?

Read Like a Writer Book Club Recap: The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Hello dear readers! This is the recap of our second meeting. Our next meeting will be July 19, 2022. If you would like an invite, please contact me at readerlybooks[at]gmail[dot]com.

Happy Reading!

Background

Published in 1888, Novella, later edited by James and reissued.

Genre:  Realistic Fiction at the time; today it would be classic or literary

Setting is Venice and the story is based on a real life incident involving Claire Clairmont, the mistress of Lord Byron, according to Britannica:  https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Aspern-Papers  

There is an opera based on the book.  

Here is a recorded scene from it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HLbDgogBTA 

In 2019, Julien Lansais adapted it for film, thought the reviews were mostly like this one in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/14/the-unwise-candor-of-the-aspern-papers  

Theme:  James is examining the cult of celebrity which got its start during the Regency, but especially in literary circles is in full flower by the 1880s.  One Example of this is the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries of the late 1790s

(https://www.christies.com/features/5-minutes-with-the-ireland-shakespeare-forgeries-10219-1.aspx?sc_lang=en#fid-10219

During the 1870s and beyond literary tourism evolves into a booming practice.  https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230369498_3  

James places our narrator as an editor who is at once a voyeur and a scholar.  It is unsettling, to say the least. 

Things we thought James did well as a writer that we would like to emulate:

  • Setting:  James excels at evoking a place and time.  
    • Venice
      • Gondolas, Marble, Canals
      • Venice is frequently portrayed during the time that James writes as a place to hide, to have a secret life, to have more freedom. It is kind of like the Vegas of the Edwardians.  Part of the reason for this is the Carnival atmosphere and masks; part of it is the ease of clandestine travel and backdoors due to the canals
      • “The gondola stopped, the old palace was there; it was a house of the class which in Venice carries even in extreme dilapidation the dignified name. “How charming! It’s gray and pink!” my companion exclaimed; and that is the most comprehensive description of it. It was not particularly old, only two or three centuries; and it had an air not so much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its career”(4).

James, Henry. The Aspern Papers (p. 4). Kindle Edition. 

  • P. 52 gondola, previous pages the discussion of the elder Bordereaux about Venice.
  • Cultural References–serve to ground the reader in time
    • Queen Caroline (d. 1821)
    • Sarah Siddons (d. 1831)
    • Lady Hamilton (d. 1815)
    • Baedeker p. 35
  • Use of language
    • “Well, you’re a precious pair! (8)
    • The maid wears pattens and then patters… (8-9)
    • “I had not struck the note that translated my purpose, and I need not reproduce the whole of the tune I played. I ended by making my interlocutress believe that I was an honorable person, though of course I did not even attempt to persuade her that I was not an eccentric one” (12).
    • Beginning of Ch. IV (page 27) He gives a summary of what has happened in 6 weeks, so the reader knows where she is in time.  The summary is telling, but done so well, just as telling ought to be!  Metaphor of the war is carried all the way through.
    • “I had never encountered such a violent parti pris of seclusion; it was more than keeping quiet—it was like hunted creatures feigning death. The two ladies appeared to have no visitors whatever and no sort of contact with the world.”

James, Henry. The Aspern Papers (p. 28). Kindle Edition. 

  • Foreshadowing
    • P. 39 He wonders whether it is a trap; in earlier pages he has remarked how dull she is and stupid.  Is it purposeful on her part?  
    • P. 48, she looked like she would burn the papers…
    • P. 56 he thinks she knows he is asking her to turn against her aunt in exchange for attention…but he wonders  (again from a point in the future looking back) whether it isn’t strange that she doesn’t resent it.
  • Maintaining tension throughout the story
    • The reader knows what the editor does not about the women, about himself, about his situation.
    • There is always the question of will she or won’t she?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Where does the narrator stand in time?  Why do you think James chose this way of telling the story?
  2. Why do you think the narrator decides from the beginning to use a pretext in his investigation into the papers?  Why doesn’t he just ask? (5)
  3. Why does he fix on the garden as his entree? (11)
  4. Do you think he overplayed his hand by agreeing to the high rent so quickly? Why or why not?
  5. On page 34, James writes this, ostensibly about Apsern, “His own country after all had had most of his life, and his muse, as they said at that time, was essentially American. That was originally what I had loved him for: that at a period when our native land was nude and crude and provincial, when the famous “atmosphere” it is supposed to lack was not even missed, when literature was lonely there and art and form almost impossible, he had found means to live and write like one of the first; to be free and general and not at all afraid; to feel, understand, and express everything.”  Do you think he is speaking in any way about himself?  He was a longtime expat in Britain and Europe.
  6. When did you decide that Tita/Tina was playing him? Why does the narrator underestimate her so?
  7. Why does he pretend not to know who the portrait is of, when he specifically asked Tita/Tina about one?
  8. Why was he unwilling to marry her after all the rest?  
  9. What do you think of the resolution?
  10. How did James maintain the tension all the way through?

Something to think on:

Writing books, unless one be a great genius—and even then!—is the last road to fortune. I think there is no more money to be made by literature.”

James, Henry. The Aspern Papers (p. 62). Kindle Edition. 

Page count/structure

Act I:  p. 1-20 inciting incident  He decides to ask about lodging and goes to visit the house

Break into 2–he gets the rooms

Acti II  He stays but makes no progress, then midpoint conversation with Tita, and also Juliana where hope is reignited

Act III: p 70 the portrait scene.  

Denouement p. 80 the secretary

20% Act I, 60% Act II, 20% Act II