The 7 Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
This is a good novel, which won’t surprise anybody who read the author’s Daisy Jones and the Six (also amazing). It’s about an aging Hollywood actress, formerly a huge star and now a recluse, who stuns everyone when she insists an unknown magazine reporter write her life story. It’s well-written, interesting, and certainly kept my attention. It also packs a wallop of an ending and that’s all I’ll say about that. I highly recommend this novel.
About the Author, by John Colapinto
What a book! I read late into the night with this one because I had to see what happened next. The novel is written as though it’s an autobiographical story by Cal Cunningham, who appropriates his roommate Stewart’s novel manuscript after Stewart is killed in a bicycle accident. Cal sends it out as his own, it gets published, and suddenly Cal is being celebrated as an amazing novelist – but then he learns that, just before he died, Stewart sent a copy of the manuscript to his girlfriend. Cal manages to retrieve that copy, still unread, but then the next complication ensues. It just goes on and on and gets worse and worse. It’s captivating, though, which means it’s written well. It really kept my interest. What a book!
Forever, Interrupted, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
I’ve been on a TJR bender. She’s so good. I listened to this as an audiobook from Chirp and liked it a lot. She’s one of those writers that makes it all look so easy, like the story just flowed out of her fingers, she blew on it for luck, and then it was published. We all know, though, that it takes a lot of work to write such a seamless novel. This earlier TJR novel is about a 20-something girl who finds the love of her life. They quickly marry but then tragedy ensues. It tells an interesting story of her meeting her mother-in-law, who hadn’t known about the marriage, and how their relationship evolves. She also makes friends with an elderly man at the library where she works who is preparing for the death of his wife. Life and death. This one, too, is set in L.A. Clearly Taylor Jenkins Reid is an L.A. girl, and she portrays it perfectly. I enjoyed the listen. Good book.
Maybe in Another Life, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
I also listened to this one as an audiobook from Chirp. It’s told in two threads – first what happened when the protagonist was hit by a car and how her life unfolded afterward, and alternately what happened when she wasn’t. So interesting to see two versions of the different decisions she made, people she married, and the twists the story took. It falls together well, it’s all interesting, and it feels real. At the end, there’s a discussion of multiverses by one of her friends—the theory that there are endless numbers of us living lives “out there” with every possible choice being followed. I enjoyed this book.
Mercury and Me, by Jim Hutton
An audiobook (from Chirp) by Freddie Mercury’s long-time partner Jim Hutton, who lived until 2010. I have long been a big fan of and fascinated by Freddie Mercury. His drive to succeed fascinates me, and also, of course, his music – wow. I’ve watched the movie Bohemian Rhapsody a couple times and found it interesting that this book tells a very different story than the movie. For instance, I came out of the movie liking his best friend Mary, but you get a completely different picture of her as seen through Jim’s perspective. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. The memoir is not about the band or the music at all, but about Freddie Mercury as a person and as Jim Hutton’s partner. It’s a good listen for anyone who’s a Freddie Mercury fan.
During those first couple weeks of the global Covid-19 pandemic, I couldn’t read and I’ve heard so many others say the same. It was sudden and scary, and nobody knew how things would play out. This Roz Chast cartoon in The New Yorker summed up those first few days pretty well.
We still don’t know how it will all “end,” but here in Hawaii we have been fortunate to have only a small number of cases so far. So as we settled into being at home and figured out how to get groceries safely, it got easier to concentrate. And without all the normal outside engagements, it turns out there’s a lot of time to read!
I read some good books in May. I think it’s wild that three of the seven books have a title starting with “The Book of Lo….” I didn’t plan that.
This book, by Lisa Wingate, has two timelines. It follows three women in 1875 Louisiana—a white woman who is heir to a plantation, her half-Creole sister, and a woman who had been a slave but was recently freed—as well as a schoolteacher in 1987 Louisiana, who learns about their story and how it impacts her students. The author was inspired to write this book after learning about the very moving Lost Friends ads that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, in which newly freed slaves advertised to find loved ones that had been sold away from them. Really interesting novel.
I wanted to read this after hearing about it on a books podcast. It’s a light read that asks, “What if America had a royal family?” The author, Katharine McGee, wrote about an alternate history in which George Washington was named the king of America, instead of president. The novel follows his present day descendants, Princesses Beatrice and Samantha and Prince Jefferson. Beatrice is next in line to be queen. This book, definitely a beach book, follows the three young royals, as well as the woman determined to win Jeff’s heart, and is a fast and fun read. A sequel is coming out in September. This American Royals trailer gives a flavor of the novel (the text messages fly).
This historical fiction novel is a good read that Jane Austen fans should enjoy. In addition to bringing together a rather disparate group of people seeking to establish a Jane Austen museum in a cottage she once lived in, it delves into some of Austen’s characters and stories themselves. I found it interesting how, and why, the characters in this novel had different interpretations of Austen’s works. I enjoyed the gentle English village setting, the characters, and how their stories came together. It’s well worth a read if this is your cup of tea. Here’s a short video message the author, Natalie Jenner, posted on her publication date.
I read this book as an advanced reader copy, which I only tell you because it isn’t coming out until July 21st. Go ahead and pre-order or pre-request this one. This book grabbed me and I couldn’t put it down. It’s based on a true story of a woman who saved thousands of Jewish children during WWII. The novel opens when, as an older woman in the U.S., she happens to see a newspaper article that leads to her returning to Europe where she gets some closure on the whole incredible experience. I’ll let you learn more about that yourself when you read it. You should. It’s truly an amazing novel, well-written and compelling. I was so moved by this story. Fun aside: there’s going to be a Zoom conversation with the author, Kristen Harmel, on July 24, 2020, through the Delaware Libraries.
I loved this book, which will stay with me for a very long time. This one was my highlight of the month, no question. In this book of intricately researched historical fiction, Sue Monk Kidd imagines the “missing” years of Jesus’s life. Not much is known of him between the ages of about 12 and 33, and she notes (in the very interesting afterword) that history erases women and that he very well, for the time and custom, may have married. So she gave him a wife, Ana. She tells the story through Ana’s eyes, and it is SO well-written and interesting. I kept clutching my hand to my heart at the language, the imagery, the metaphors. It’s an amazing book. I read it in two sittings. When I finished it, I turned to the front and read the beginning again. If you only read one novel this year, I recommend this one. Also, here’s a peek into Sue Monk Kidd‘s technique while writing the book, and her office. Cool.
I got to thinking about Stephen King’s old novel The Stand because it’s about a pandemic, one that is way deadlier than ours by the way, holy cow, and I hadn’t read it for decades. I started it but didn’t finish it this time. I read all his books when I was younger, but nowadays it’s not really my genre. If you need a good Stephen King book, though, I highly recommend his 11/22/63. That one is a very different type of book and it’s great. In preparation for it, he read everything there is about the Kennedy assassination (he says he now knows as much about it as anyone living). Then he used that research in his book, which is about someone who travels in time to try to go back and stop the assassination. It’s an excellent book, and also a great audiobook. I highly recommend 11/22/63.
I also heard about this book on a podcast. The podcaster talked about how it was set in Cornwall, England, a place I have a special fondness for, and that it was a wonderful novel about an eccentric and dysfunctional family living in a 700-year-old family castle (with four miles of corridors) that was crumbling around them. That was enough for me, and I ordered it. What a fun book. I read this one in two sittings and thoroughly enjoyed it. Here’s a fun review of the book, which is by Hannah Rothschild, from The Irish Times.
Are you a book geek like me? All I want to do is read books, and I’ve always been that way.
When I think about the books I read as a child I can remember, almost physically, how some of them made me feel.
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, for example. Eleven-year-old Harriet, who lives in New York City, keeps brown notebooks where she writes down everything that’s going on around her. At least I think they were brown; the ones she inspired me to keep were. I wanted to be just like Harriet. I even ate tomato sandwiches like she did.
She and her friend Sport played a game called “Town,” where you make up a town and what’s in it and where. I can remember lying in bed and using the creases of the bedcovers to create my own Harriet the Spy-inspired town. It’s because of Harriet, I think, that I grew up to become a writer.
After I went to bed as a kid, I’d stand on my bed and rest the book on my high windowsill. If there was a moon there was usually enough light to read by.
I would quickly sink back into the bed if I heard my parents coming down the hall.
My grandmother told me I used to set my alarm clock for an hour before I needed to get up for school so I could read. I don’t remember that, and it surprises me now because it turns out I’m not such a morning person.
But I believe it because I do love my books.
What people remember
Decades after moved away from my hometown, I reconnected on Facebook with someone I’d gone to school with. He said, “You always sat against the building at recess and read a book. Now my daughter is exactly like that, and I love it.” I didn’t remember that I used to do that at recess, either, but it doesn’t surprise me. It was fun to hear. Also, I bet I’d like his book geek daughter.
One day a few years back, waiting in line at the bank, I had earbuds in and was listening to an audiobook. When it was my turn, I walked up to the teller while taking out the earbuds. She asked me if I was listening to something good.
“Yes,” I said. I told her I was listening to an audiobook.
“Gone With the Wind,” I said.
She looked confused. “What’s that?” It threw me because I could tell her question was sincere.
“You know, the book. Gone With the Wind.” She looked blank.
“Scarlett O’Hara?” I added. Nothing.
The teller was perhaps 30 years old, and she had never heard of Gone With the Wind.
I still have trouble wrapping my mind around how different our lives must be. Where would I be without books?
I was 13 the first time I read Gone With the Wind. Our neighbors across the street had a huge wall of bookshelves (maybe it wasn’t as big as I remember, but anyway it was great). When Mrs. Huber saw me eyeing them one day, she told me to borrow books anytime I wanted. I did, and I can remember how wonderful it was to take my time reading through the titles. Gone With the Wind was one of the books I borrowed and I spent the summer reading it. I loved it.
So when my daughter was born, I was excited to introduce her to books, too. Books have been a huge part of her life, too.
I’m going to write regularly about my past and present experiences with reading and books here. Here’s a recent post I wrote about books I’ve read lately. If you are a fellow book geek, are looking for something to read, have a child who interested in books (or need ideas for getting them excited about reading), or have any other interest in books, stay tuned.
What have you read lately? Here are the books, podcasts, and movies I read, listened to, and watched in January. The stars indicate the ones I especially recommend.
✪ The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson (audiobook). This book was interesting. It’s about a single woman who owns and runs a bookstore with her best friend. But when she sleeps, she starts dreaming a whole other, very different life, one in which she has a terrific husband, great kids, and a lovely home. They are detailed dreams that pick up again each night. It’s intriguing. I thought I had it figured out and came up with a great explanation for what was going on – and I was wrong! If you read this book, talk to me afterward because I would love to discuss my theory, which I thought was sort of brilliant. I liked this book a lot.
✪ Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman (paperback). I’m glad I read this. It’s such an interesting premise – a collection of (fictional) dreams Einstein had in 1905 when he worked in a patent office in Switzerland. Each very short chapter portrays a world in which time operates differently. In the opening chapter, for instance, time is circular, and although we don’t know it, the same actions just keep going around and around again. Another chapter is interesting for its take on people getting “stuck” in time. “A life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.” I find time fascinating.
Although I haven’t picked it up yet, I also recently read about Wyl Menmuir’s book The Many, and it’s on my list. The Guardian describes it as being set in “a remote unidentified village on the north Cornwall coast, out of season, and disturbingly out of time.” I love that: “Out of time.”
✪ Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro. Yes yes yes. This one is right up my alley (I’m all about genealogy and DNA). When Shapiro took an Ancestry DNA test, she learned her beloved dad was not her biological father, and that the Jewish heritage she thought they shared was not her heritage. Both her parents had passed away, so she underwent a full-on investigation to figure it all out. No spoilers here, but I will say that it’s a fascinating topic and she is a wonderful, introspective writer who did it beautifully. What a book. You should read it.
✪ Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, by Stephanie Land. While we’re talking about amazing memoirs, both written by women I’ve vaguely known in online writers’ groups for years, I also read Maid. “My baby took her first steps in a homeless shelter,” the book opens. Stephanie Land was about to start college when she unexpectedly became pregnant. Her boyfriend became abusive, so she left, and with little family support and a baby to care for she struggled. Although she worked very, very hard, and accepted government help, she still barely survived. Earning more one month, even just $50, meant she no longer qualified for the childcare she needed to try to get back on her feet. It’s a good work of journalism about cleaning up after other people, how hard it is to escape poverty even with the strongest determination and work ethic, and resilience. Really well done. What a great book.
The Master Quilter, by Jennifer Chiaverini. I read a lot in January about how novels are structured, and someone mentioned that this book tells the same story in each chapter but from a different person’s point of view in each. That intrigued me, and I wanted to see how it turned out. This type of book isn’t really my style, and I don’t especially recommend it, but it was an interesting writing technique.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck (audiobook). I tried to listen to this audiobook but had to skip over parts. Forty minutes into it I decided that everything I’d heard so far could comprise one paragraph. I didn’t need all that explanation. Although, really, what it is is that I don’t especially care for self-help books. I liked her general idea, though. She talks about people having either a growth mindset or a fixed one: “People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed. Mindset reveals how great parents, teachers, managers, and athletes can put this idea to use to foster outstanding accomplishment.” That’s really about all I needed to hear about it right there. You might love it though.
Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty. I read the hardcover book, which my mom gave me for Christmas (she knows that books are my favorite gifts ever). But I also kept hearing an ad for the audiobook in which the announcer was pronouncing the author’s name “Leon.” Exactly as you would say the boy’s name. Does Liane pronounce her name Leon? That seems very odd to me, but maybe I’m the one who is wrong. The book is about nine guests, all at difficult junctures of their life, who gather at a health spa and find more than they expected. The characters were interesting, and the book had an unexpected twist.
✪ Dispatches to a Friend (podcast). After I listened to the latest episode, I went back and binge-listened to them all. It’s the most charming thing ever, a podcast by two good friends in Australia who write each other letters. They describe it as “A podcast for lovers of food, books, gardening, travel, and, above all, friendship.” They read their letters aloud on the podcast, and it’s like 19th-century friends corresponding about 21st-century topics. Anabelle lives on a pecan farm and is a photographer and writer. Gillian travels the world making really epic wedding cakes “with stories of their own” for people. They are such interesting people and their letters and discussions—about books, travels, enjoying the small things, deeper thoughts—are charming. I don’t know how to explain how lovely they are. I appreciate people like those two, doing interesting work that they love, noticing the small good things, and telling their stories. Truly I cannot recommend this podcast enough.
✪ Edwardian Farm, an older BBC documentary series I eventually hunted down on YouTube. I am researching Devon and Cornwall for a novel I’m writing, and someone recommended this series to me. I am so glad they did. So far I have just watched Episode 5, which talks about tin mining in Devon, but I plan to watch them all. Here’s what it is: Two archaeologists and a historian lived on a rural farm in Devon’s Morwellham Quay for a year. They lived as though they were in the Edwardian period (1901-1910) and boy do I love things like that. Throughout the 12 episodes, they raise livestock and plow the fields for crops without modern-day tractors. They also learn about fishing, mining, market gardening and the industrial advances of the Edwardian age. I cannot wait to watch the rest. It’s great for learning about old Devon.
✪ Green Book (movie). What a good movie. Mahershala Ali is a world-class Black pianist. He hires the tough Italian-American bouncer Viggo Mortenson to drive him on a concert tour of the South in 1962. They couldn’t be more different but they form a real bond. It’s an interesting, funny, good movie based on a true story. The notes at the end say the two unlikely friends remained close until they died. I’m so glad I saw this movie.
Okay, that’s it for January. And now I have to go read.
I sat down at the computer this morning to check my to-do list. But instead, I became delightfully lost in mid- to late-19th century Devon, England. Literary Devon beckoned to me. The poet John Keats, who lived and wrote in the Devon town of Teignmouth, once called the place a “splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county.”
I’m researching what it was like in that southwestern county of England in the Victorian era because I’m writing a book that dips into that place and time. Although research wasn’t on my calendar for this morning, I can’t stop. I wish I could time-travel back and spend a few days then and there.
This morning, I ended up focusing on the many books and movies set in Devon. They let one see, feel, experience what older Devon might have been like. As a result, I want to order them all, put on the kettle, and binge-read and -watch until I’m done. If only life allowed that kind of time!
What I learned
Agatha Christie used to roller skate with her friends in the seaside, South Devon town of Torquay, where she was born in 1890. That’s also where you’ll find the International Agatha Christie Festival every year (the next one is in September 2019). Many of Christie’s books take place in Devon, and how fun to reread/rewatch and check out the settings. Miss Marple lived in Devon, and in The ABC Murders, Hercules Poirot lives in Churston, Devon. ITV’s crime drama Agatha Christie’s Poirot filmed its episode “Dead Man’s Folly” in Devon, as well.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, used the Devon town of Dartmoor as his setting. Doyle’s story may be based on the legend of the squire Richard Cabell of Buckfastleigh: When Cabell died in the 1670s, black dogs raced across Dartmoor, howling and breathing fire. Yikes. You can imagine what the sheep would have thought of that.
Stepping into the movies
My tumble down the old Devon rabbit hole inspires me to rewatch the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant. Director Ang Lee’s set many of the scenes in Devon, including those at “Barton House,” where the girls lived. Mr. Willoughby’s estate was actually Devon’s Compton Castle, which also appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Barry Lyndon.
Similarly, literary Devon points to the book and movie War Horse, based on Iddesleigh.
The BBC1 also set its series The Coroner in several South Devon towns, as well, including Totnes, Dartmouth, Hope Cove, and Brixham.
Literary Devon in Other Great Books
Many other books show us what the county was like. Lorna Doone, by R.D. Blackmore, and many of Thomas Hardy’s novels, including Tess of the D’Urbervilles, are set in Devon.
Also, The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert (which was written in 2006 and dramatized by the BBC in 2012), is set in the fictional village of Hollow Bay, based on Lynmouth in Exmoor National Park in Devon.
Have you read the nature story Tarka The Otter, written by Henry Williamson in 1927? It hasn’t gone out of print since then and now I really want to check it out. The story takes place on the Taw and Torridge Rivers of North Devon.
Charles Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho! takes place in Devon. Now there’s a real village with this name, named after Kingsley’s book, which took place in nearby Bideford, Devon. Several places in the village are also named for similar places in the novel.
Ted Hughes, Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1984 until he died in 1998, is often called one of the greatest writers of the 20th century as well as other much less kind things. He was born in Yorkshire but most people associate him with Devon. And some of his poems describe parts of the county in great detail.
Devon is irresistible, the sort of place you imagine retiring to, in good health, with a little capital, and the prospect of writing that book you always meant to write, and perhaps establishing an English country garden. (The great Irish novelist William Trevor has done exactly that: wisely moving to Devon in the 1950s, he has since produced works of genius and an English country garden.) Having won the Booker prize for Wolf Hall in 2009, Hilary Mantel was finally able to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition: to live in Budleigh Salterton.
Maybe you have no idea how to write a novel, but decide to write one anyway.
But – hopefully – in an informed way. You don’t want to write a BAD novel.
Maybe you’re even a professional writer already, like me. But not of novels. Perhaps it’s crystal clear to you that you have no idea how to sit down and structure a novel, even though you’ve been reading them forever.
You really want to figure that out. You want to teach yourself how to write a decent novel. So, first thing is you read many many books about writing.
Straight off my bookshelves
Here are some really good books on craft and inspiration that I’ve read over the years.
On craft and inspiration:
This one is “the classic guide to writing nonfiction,” but the 30th Anniversary edition I have has an extra chapter about writing family history and memoir, which I love, and I think the whole book is excellent.
Because maybe learning how to read literature well helps you write it well.
Subtitle: fiction workshops and thoughts on the writing life.
The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing has interviews and articles by all sorts of interesting novelists, including Margaret Atwood on “As a Writer, You Must Do What Beckons You;” Sue Grafton’s, “The Use of the Journal in Writing a Novel,” John Updike’s, “Whatever Works, Works: Kurt Vonnegut on Flouting the Rules of Fiction,” and more.
Really have no idea how to write a novel? Read these
Learn about some of the basics from the Writers Digest “Write Great Fiction” series:
And read the kind of books that tell a (real or fictionalized) account of family history or historical fiction or whatever type of story you are writing. Here are some of the family history-style books that have inspired and taught me, although there are a lot more, too.
But then, after you skim/read/listen/take notes/overdose on all those books other people have written, it’s time to get busy.
That’s the key, of course. Getting to work. You can read about how to write a novel forever, but there is a point where you need to stop and become that person who actually does it.
You check out the right tools. For me, so far, it’s Scrivener,
a great journal,
and some nice pens.
Just do it
It’s time to, finally, to take action. You lounge in a comfy chair with your journal. Or you sit at a bench in the park on your lunch break with your yellow pad. Or you open your Scrivener program at your desk and start a new fiction document. (I do all of these things.)
And you begin making notes. Novels don’t generally come to mind fully formed, although I guess once in a while that happens (I’m looking at you on the delayed Manchester to London train, J.K. Rowling). More often you start with a kernel of an idea and then think about some of the important scenes that will appear. Then carefully, strategically, you consider which scene will lead to what happening next, and why. The birthing of a novel is not magical. It means sitting down and doing organized, painstaking, structural work.
You start taking notes about your characters and seeing each one in your head and on paper. What are they like, and why? What motivates them, both internally and externally? What are they trying to achieve, and what keeps them from it? How do they overcome those obstacles?
You figure out your settings in a similar way. What does it look like, smell like, feel like? How does your setting emphasize your story’s theme? How does it drive the conflict?
And then you (okay, I) go over and over and over your outline until it works. Really works. (This is where I’m at right now.) It’s rough and brief and leaves lots of room to discover how the story will unfold. But the broad outline keeps you (me) going, I think. It gets you from A to B to C to End.
Because the most important thing is getting to the end. Even if it’s not great yet, you have to write the thing before you can make it better and better. You cannot work on improving your novel until there is a novel. So much of writing is revising. I know that part, already.
Now to follow my words above and get myself through and to the end.
Getting started on writing a novel, it turns out, can be hard.
Step 1 of my goal to write a novel in 2019 was to “choose the path.” I was trying to decide between two ideas, and I chose the one I am more excited about; the one I’ve already been researching in my spare time for years.
Next, I started writing about my ideas in a notebook. What it is, the main characters, their story lines, what it all means, and more. Writing this stuff down is so concrete and good. It means grabbing a hold of the ideas that flit into your mind, seem interesting, but then flit out again. It makes a big difference.
Writer Shaunta Grimes happened to write today about the writer Jack London and what he said about keeping a notebook, and I feel exactly the same way:
“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up in your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.“ – Jack London
I find a notebook really useful.
But I can’t just write about it in my notebook all year. Now it’s time to move and do the real work. I need to start writing the novel itself.
Writing a Novel
Writing is not a sudden whim of mine, and I’m not starting from zero. I’ve worked professionally as a writer for 20 years now, and wrote for years before that, too. I have a degree in journalism. I was even editor of my high school newspaper. I’ve always been a writer.
But I don’t have experience as a novelist. Mostly I write nonfiction, which is very different. A novel has its structure and rules that I know of from reading about novel writing (and from reading novels themselves), but I don’t yet know in my bones how to create that structure, the way I understand structure in nonfiction writing.
When it comes to, say, an article, I completely understand why it works or doesn’t work. I can glance at something I, or someone else, has written and tell you about how many words it is, how it holds together or doesn’t, and what it’s missing. That comes from having worked as a nonfiction writer for so long, and it’s a great feeling to be at this point in my career.
But I’m not at that point yet with novels, although I hope I can get there. It will take practice and some hard work to figure out how exactly one structures a novel that holds together and is, hopefully, well-written. I’m excited about it, and at the same time it feels a little daunting. (Mostly, I’m excited about it.)
Opening Up Scrivener
I use a physical notebook for ideas, but for writing projects themselves, I use the inexpensive yet incomparable app Scrivener. A writer created it for his own projects, which is probably why it makes so much sense to me. You write each scene as a separate section, and they are easy to view and rearrange. When you are ready to print, you “compile” your manuscript into a Word document or similar. It even formats text for publication as an ebook.
When I have pieces of research for my story – a block of text, a link, a photo, an MP3, or something else – I can store it right there where I am working on the story. I can use the split screen function to look at the piece of research right alongside my blank document as I write. There are so many other features, too. It’s an amazing piece of software. I wouldn’t dream of starting a big project like this without it.
So, Step 2: I’m off to create a new project in Scrivener, and then folders for each chapter, and character and setting profiles. I’ll also start loading some of the research I’ve already done into the program.
I find this exciting! Once my novel has a structure that shows its chapters, right there on the page, it’s just a matter of filling each one in, right?
How’s that for optimism? It might be a bit more work than I just made it sound, but I can’t wait to see how it goes.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll know I’ve been trying to decide between two fiction writing projects to devote my head and spare time to this year. And – ta-da! – I have chosen the new novel idea, which is historical fiction. I chose this over working on the children’s novel that I have already drafted. (I’ll get back to that another time.)
In 2019, I’ve decided, I’m going to write a novel based on a true story from the past that’s been swirling around in my head forever. I’ve been thinking about this and writing bits and pieces of this story for years and years. It is, I am realizing, a historical fiction project. Historical fiction can be defined as a fictional story set in the past that uses some true characteristics of the period.
It never dawned on me that I could turn this into a novel until recently, although now it seems obvious to me. I’m excited about this project.
Avoiding the Rookie Move
In life, of course, a real story doesn’t go the way a novel needs to play out. This one sure doesn’t. And I know it’s a rookie move to try to write a novel based on a true story unless you take steps to “novelize” it. You need to turn the fact into fiction and carefully create (and discard) characters. You let the story move forward without requiring yourself to stay true to the facts, which might not work in novel form.
At writepractice.com, author and story coach David Safford says there are four things you must do to write a book based on a true story:
Remove yourself from the story
Exaggerate (or invent) motivations
Edit a true story into a great story
I plan to take the gist of this true-life tale that fascinates me and fictionalize it. I’ll have to do research about the parts I don’t know or that don’t fit the story I want to tell. I’ll need to create characters who are fleshed out, so to speak, “real people” that a reader will care about. Then there’s the importance of settings, and adding conflict in the right places, all that.
In the end, it will no longer be the real story at all. But I will have worked through this true story that fascinates me and made it my own. I suppose that’s historical fiction.
This article from The Writer is about writing historical short stories, but its tips are good and apply to novels as well. Chuck Sambuchino‘s Writers Digest article discussed whether it’s possible to be completely accurate historically and still tell a great story. (He says he doesn’t think you can do both — and that maybe it’s not even necessary.)
Historical Fiction Novels
As I figure out how to write historical fiction, I realize it’s my favorite genre. Here is an eclectic list of such novels that I have especially enjoyed, in no particular order. I gathered them here merely to remind myself to aim high (not because I expect to be able to pull off a first novel written at this level, holy cow!).
Or in case you, too, like historical fiction novels and would enjoy some recommendations. You can click on any of these titles to read more. They are all great.
(When I find lists of novels that are especially interesting to me, I always imagine ordering them all at once. In my fantasy, a box arrives filled with all these wonderful books I am completely interested in. I carry it in off the doorstep, make a cup of coffee and then stretch out and read all day, every day, for weeks. This is not the life I live, at all, but it’s one I dream about!)
Now that I’ve thought about each of these books as I copied code into this post, I want to reiterate something: I have no illusions I am going to write the next Gone With The Wind this year. There are some amazing historical fiction novels out there. Sheesh. I love all the books above, but revisiting them while talking about my own novel is a little overwhelming. I will just figure out how to write historical fiction and then do the best job I can.
Doing Some Pre-Work. (Which is Still Work.)
I haven’t quite started writing yet—soon—but I’ve been thinking a lot about this new novel. That has been helpful. I’ve sat with a notebook and figured out why I want to write this particular story and it’s taken me deep. Part of the answer? I’ve been researching and thinking about this story for years, trying to fill in the holes. If I didn’t have to earn a living it’s what I would be working on anyway right now.
And I’ve been trying to come up with one sentence that describes this book I want to write. All of these questions are themselves writing projects that require a lot of passes. I’m still working on them. Each gets to aspects a little deeper and more interesting than the last.
These questions I’ve been answering are the some of the first exercises from Author Accelerator’s 7-Day Writing Challenge, which is great. One is to zero in on what I want to get across with this story. It’s like a road map, I think, that will keep me on track throughout the writing. I like the idea of thinking about this ahead of time. It seems like if I know where I am heading, I’m more likely to get there.
I’m sure things will change along the way. Although I work as a professional writer, I’m new to writing novels and I don’t have structure and other technique figured out yet. I will have to learn that as I go.
But I like the idea of having a plan as I work, so there’s something concrete I am working toward. That should make it easier to actually finish. If my story’s direction changes while I’m writing it, I can go back and rework my overview to match. It means, I think, being aware that it is changing, and thinking it through intellectually and knowing why you are going in a particular direction. Making sure, as much as you can when you’re a new writer, that it all makes sense and still holds together.
That’s the plan, anyway. Hold on—I’m getting started! I’ll be back soon to let you know how it’s going.
It’s one week into 2019, the year in which I proclaimed I’m going to write (and actually finish) a novel, and I thought I knew my plan.
Suddenly, though, I have two projects to choose between. I need to make a decision.
Let me tell you about the first project, A few years ago, during NaNoWriMo, I wrote a full draft of a children’s book. It’s a middle grade novel, to be more specific.
When I finished, I sketched out two more books in the series and wrote their first drafts. And then I mostly just left it all alone.
Last year, I showed the first couple chapters of the first book to a literary agent at the ASJA conference and she gave me some good feedback. She suggested changing an aspect of the plot, which she said was a little too dark for that age reader. It made sense. She said after I did that, she’d like to read it again.
I reread the trilogy a few months ago and realized that while it needs a lot of work, I still like the story. I should get back to this, I thought.
Then the other day I realized that another idea, the story I have been trying to write for half my life, is actually a novel. Suddenly I am really excited about writing that novel and cannot get it out of my mind.
I went to the first meeting and felt my body relax into an, “Ah!” While I have many writer friends, most live outside of Hawaii. It can be lonely writing on a rural island in the middle of the Pacific. When I looked around that meeting, I wondered if maybe some of these children’s book writers and illustrators could be on-the-ground writer buddies.
We met in downtown Hilo’s former Koehnen’s building, an elegant 1910 building that takes up a whole city block. It’s a lovely, gracious, and well-maintained Renaissance Revival style building with koa walls, ‘ōhi‘a floors, and a grand koa staircase. Originally it was the Hackfeld Company, then Koehnen’s, both retail enterprises.
Now, it’s the National Oceanographic Institute’s Mokupāpapa Discovery Center, which interprets the natural science, culture, and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and their surrounding marine environment.
We gathered upstairs, under the very tall, open-beam ceiling and next to huge, unscreened windows that let in the breeze. In the distance, beyond coconut trees, I saw two canoes full of paddlers glide slowly across the gentle, gray ocean.
There was a reminder of the building’s current marine science focus in the corner—a large, papier mâché “rock” sporting orange, gold, and green coral.
Listening to Richard Peck
Among other things, we watched a Master Class interview with children’s author Richard Peck. Decades ago, when he and I were both much younger, I once heard him speak in person at Henderson Library in Torrance, California.
I was already a big reader and fan then, and he was already a successful novelist. He went on to write an astonishing 41 books for young people before he passed away last summer.
Here’s some of what he said in the video that interested me:
• In a children’s book, the young person has to solve his/her own problem and find his or her own way.
• Their parents must be kept in check—supportive, but in the background.
• You should write from observation, he said, not from experience.
• He said he always sits behind young people on the bus, and hangs out in malls. That’s how he gets the dialog right.
• Take yourself out of the story by always writing in first person. Then it’s a child’s diction.
• He said he was born listening. “I grew up under tables and behind doors, listening.”
• He loved to listen to the old people and now, he said, the grandparents and great-grandparents were coming out in his writing.
I really liked hearing that last bit. I am all about the family stories, the generations, and the connections across time. They come out in my writing, too—my children’s book trilogy has all of that. So does my other novel idea, actually.
After the SCBWI meeting, a couple of writers talked about starting up a critique group, something I’ve been thinking about lately. It had me thinking seriously about choosing to work on my very rough children’s novel for this 2019 project.
What to do, what to do.
In my next blog post, I’ll tell you about the other possibility. And I’ll make a decision already!
Why make it a goal to finish writing a novel? The quote below explains why Wyl Menmuir and I are into the whole novel-finishing thing.
Q:What made you decide to start a novel?
Wyl: I read somewhere that action tends to happen when the fear of not doing something overtakes the fear of doing it. That was true for me – I’ve wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember and I’d reached a point where I realised if I didn’t just sit down and do it, I’d end up as a frustrated would-be novelist rather than someone who had at least given it a good shot. The other side of it was about knowing I had the right story to tell.
Yes! EXACTLY THAT.
Menmuir is an English writer whose debut novel The Many was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. He achieved his goal, and he’s on the other side now.
I’m a professional writer (of nonfiction) with a Big Goal for 2019: I will craft a novel from some ideas that have been swirling around in my head for years and years and years.
By the way, I don’t know Menmuir. I just read his quote, and it was like a cartoon anvil swung into my head.
I also liked reading his article How to Finish a Novel, where he talks about the tools he used to write, and finish, his novel. He was very strategic. He used software that blocked his social media access; a word tracking app; set daily goals, and more. It worked for him.
Ninja Writer Shaunta Grimes also recently wrote something interesting about why you should finish writing a novel, if that’s your thing. She wrote, “A finished manuscript, whether that’s a novel or a blog post or a social media post for a client, is pretty much the only hard MUST. We all know of writers who make boatloads of money off of poorly written crap—but all of those writers finished writing the thing.”
Of course, she’s right. Whether it’s an, um, “valiant effort” or a brilliant masterpiece, you have to finish it or there’s zero chance of publication or boatloads of money.
I don’t know that I can write a novel that’s brilliant (or even valiant), but at the least, I will have succeeded in completing my “practice novel.”
I also admit to being slightly fascinated with an idea I got from Gretchen Rubin, who does the podcast Happier. It made me realize why I have been finding it so difficult to finish a personal writing project.
Rubin says people fall into one of four personality types regarding how they respond to the idea of a rule, whether it’s internal or external. She calls these personality types the “four tendencies.”
Knowing which one you (or the people around you) are helps you answer the question, “How do I get people—including myself—to do what I want?” She wrote a whole book about this and it’s interesting.
I’m not one to follow every pop-psych trend, but what she was saying made sense to me, and so I took her online quiz. I learned I am an obliger.
Obligers meet outer expectations but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.
Obligers meet outer expectations just fine (give me an assignment and a deadline, and I will meet it), but resist inner ones (even when I very much want to finish writing and revising a novel, I don’t).
The answer for us obligers, says Rubin, is to create systems of external accountability.
It makes so much sense. It was the cartoon anvil to the head again. It’s why, for instance, I take regular walks every week. Though I like walking by the ocean, I only go because my friend Angie is waiting for me.
To finish writing a novel, I need external accountability. That’s why I’m going to keep writing about my 2019 writing goals and how I’m doing with them. Because it makes me feel accountable.
I feel like I have people expecting me to achieve these goals now. And I meet external expectations.