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New! My own bookstore.
Print this chart!
One of the tasks associated with having a new book coming out is updating the contact cards one gives out to readers. (A book begins and ends with stationary.)
This time I decided to go with Moo cards. What’s special about Moo is that you can have a different image on the back of every card.
Here you see one card and a few of the images on the back, plus the Moo mini-cards (which I adore).
Amazing! It’s very reasonable and the quality is high.
I created the faux images using THE SHADOW QUEEN and other books covers and the free Photofunia app. Below are three of the seventeen images I used. (I posted all of them to Flickr—should you wish to see what Photofunia can do.)
Needless to say, I got carried away. Photofunia is so much … well: fun.
And, on a final note, I had to go to Grammarist.com to see if I should wile away a few hours, or while them away. What’s your guess?
It turns out that “while” is historically correct, but that “wile,” although technically incorrect, is the more common usage now and has been accepted. See the explanation here.
(Don’t you love how you can ask the Net anything?)
A year ago, my California family had a big Thanksgiving: my dad and all his progeny were there. Richard and I flew up from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Our daughter and her family flew in from Toronto, and our son flew in from New York.
It was a huge gathering: four generations! You can imagine how wonderful it was.
Dad, soon to turn 95, was always chipper but increasingly frail. Even so, it came a shock when he died a little over two months later.
I’m so grateful that we had this family gathering.
Here’s a beautiful poem my friend Jenifer McVaugh sent me this morning: “Thanks,” by W. S. Merwin:
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
I have a lot to be grateful for, and one gratitude at the core of my being is that I have the very good fortune to be a writer … and with that, hand-in-hand, is my heartfelt gratitude for readers. I thank you so much.
Yesterday afternoon I told my husband I was thinking of giving up Skype meets with book clubs. So many times, the connection has been terrible. I had a Skype meet scheduled that night, and I felt uneasy, expecting the worst.
Then of course, when I opened my Skype application, it crashed. And then again. And then again.
This did not bode well!
Very last minute, I had to download the application anew. But lo and behold, once launched, my connection with the book club in Hamilton, Ontario, was absolutely perfect.
But more importantly, this was a dynamite club, and we had a wonderful talk. I came away uplifted. No way am I going to give up book club meets!
The life of a writer is solitary, and contact with readers is hugely sustaining. I wish I knew your name, Hamilton book club—for if I did, I would sing your praise here. Thank you.
I’m so pleased. I’ve just printed out the contract for Romanian rights to THE SHADOW QUEEN. I’ll sign and send them off today.
Romania is a country I’ve not yet been published in. Here’s the list so far:
Canada (two publishers: both English and Quebec French editions)
Spain (two publishers: both Spanish and Catalan editions)
The Czech Republic
When I started writing decades ago, I assumed I would never be published, so this does make me smile.
I pride myself on never getting sick, but I’m sick now with a nasty cold. After a lovely bowl of chicken soup my husband Richard made (<3), I’ve retired to bed with my computer, watching YouTube videos on writing.
Long ago, my daughter Carrie and I went to a Maeve Binchy talk at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. The enormous theatre was packed, people sitting on the stairs. She was enchanting!
Later, I listened to an audio version of one of her novels while I was undergoing rather strenuous dental surgery, and I went though it like a breeze. Needless to say, I’m a Maeve Binchy fan.
Here are two Maave Binchy YouTube videos on writing I discovered tonight, and I found them both delightful.
My apologies to the subscribers to this blog for the mysterious “sss” “sss” “sss” blog post you were sent recently.
I make most of the changes to my website myself, and in this case I rather messed up!
But some things have changed, and for the better. Note that now ”Blogs” is a tab. It’s no longer, as my son pointed out, “a treasure hunt” to find my blogs. Yay!
There are, nonetheless, still quite a few glitches to be fixed. As well, in the months ahead—in anticipation of the April 8 launch of THE SHADOW QUEEN—some design changes to be made. These I will wisely put in the hands of professionals.
I adore fiddling with my website, but it’s keeping me from what I should be doing this morning: editing YA1 (shorthand for what I’m now calling HORTENSE: THE GAME OF HOPE).
And so, to work…
Today is my last day in “the bunker”—my lovely basement office in our Ontario home. I have another lovely office awaiting in Mexico, but this one is my favourite, and I always feel a little sad leaving.
It’s said that “home is where your books are,” and that makes this place home: we’ve books everywhere here.
As soon as I finish this post, I will close the door on this office until next spring. I’ve tidied it well this year.
On the 1st of November, a little jet-lagged and travel weary, I will unpack my lovely office in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
As soon as I have my printer up and running, I will print out THE GAME OF HOPE (working title of The Next Novel). I’ve been thinking about it a lot and am ready to plunge into the next draft.
Other things going on:
But the main thing is the quality: the course is fantastic. I’m learning and loving it.
Check out all the other Coursera offerings: are they not amazing? I want to drop out and go to school! I want to work toward that long-ago impossible dream of getting a PhD in Comparative Lit!
Maybe when I’m 80 …
I’ve enrolled in “Plagues, Witches, and War”—a free on-line Coursera class on historical fiction. It’s awesome! I’m busy right now preparing for our move south, but I always have time for reading. You can see the course reading list here.
I read two of the “core” articles yesterday, both of them excellent, ones I would recommend to anyone interested in historical fiction.
Here’s from the excellent article by Ian Mortimer (who is both an academic, and writer of historical fiction under the name James Forrester), on “Why Historians should Write Fiction“:
“It teaches you how little you really know about the minutiae of the past, and destroys professional complacency. It humbles even the most experienced researcher. It demands that you think deeply about human character, and how it is formed, and how people integrate. But most of all it shows you that there is a different sort of truth beyond the measurements of facts and dates: truths about human nature which are timeless, or, at least, very slow-moving. And it leaves you thinking that these truths, although they are unproveable, are probably the most important historical conclusions of all, for they reflect what we are, and what we can be, both as individuals and as a society.”
The other article is a New Yorker profile of Hilary Mantel: “The Dead are Real.” It moved me profoundly.
Mantel on character development
Right now, between drafts, I’m often simply thinking and making notes about Hortense and her world, exploring character. A technique Mantel sometimes uses for getting to know her characters interests me:
“When she’s starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions.”
(A technique which dovetails nicely with another “course” I’m taking, on learning to meditate.)
Mantel on making changes to the historical record
The following passage reverberated for me especially because I recently had to sort out quite a tangle in THE SHADOW QUEEN because I had tightened the narrative timeline for dramatic purposes.
“She couldn’t always be sure that a character was in the place she said he was in at the time she put him there, but she spent endless hours making sure that he wasn’t definitely somewhere else. “Once you play around with history, it trips a whole load of consequences,” she says.”
Mantel on a certain type of writer’s block
This passage expresses a fear I often have, and most writer have as well:
“I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, What if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper—you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”
Fortunately, I’m not a writer of phrases that fizz, but there is a certain passion and energy that one brings to a story and I do worry about fatigue. The cure for that, for me, is invariably research and inspiring reading. I’ve chosen to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens for the class: such a passionate writer!
Today is Thanksgiving in Canada. It’s not on a day (as in the US), but on the Monday of a long weekend. Because people often have to travel that Monday to be back at work on Tuesday, people most often meet and eat at other times. It’s really a Thanksgiving weekend!
We had 22 for (sit-down!) dinner last night, plus 1-year-old Kiki. It’s an annual event, bringing together our extended community family: our friends and their kids and the kids’ kids. It’s my favourite festivity of the year and last night was one of the best. May you all be so lucky!
I took this photo of our driveway a few weeks ago, when the tress were at their glory. Now the forest is in transition from golden to grey: I love it when the ground is covered with bright leaves and the contours of the hills become slowly visible.
On-line classes have such wonderful potential: there are 15,000 enrolled in this one from all around the world. Imagine!
I recently read a review of the iSteve movie in the July 2013 issue of MacWorld. I quote:
Despite the movie’s liberties–and it takes a lot of them–it adopts at times a surprising fidelity to historical events. In the end, you might best describe the film as “truth-adjacent.”
I like the term “truth-adjacent” and may adopt it. Another description that seems to be used in the UK but not in North America is “biographical fiction,” which describes my work exactly. “Fact-based fiction” is a term commonly used here, but I dislike it: it has a medicinal flavour.
How would you describe fiction that is based on fact?
When I was asked by Penguin US if I would be interested in reading Salley Vickers’ new novel, The Cleaner of Chartres, of course I said yes. I’d read Miss Garnet’s Angel by her, and enjoyed it very much.
The Cleaner of Chartres is more unusual, more challenging in structure, but has something of the same charmingly old-fashioned feel to it. (I kept thinking Balzac.) I both loved this novel and struggled with it, and in the end I adored it.
The novel unfolds in the present (in Chartres, France), and in various other French cities in the past (Evreux, Rouen, Le Mans), revealing by stages the life of one woman, Agnes, the cleaner of the title.
Agnes is an able if mysterious young woman with a talent for sorting and cleaning, a vocation that pulls her into the messy lives of a number of people—and, in the process, complicates her own.
There are mysteries throughout: I won’t spoil it for you by revealing what these are, but suffice it to say that in coming to Chartres, Agnes is trying to escape a troubling past.
This is a gentle novel, peopled with charming eccentrics. Vickers is a polished writer with a charming sense of humour: I love the texture of her prose. My one reservation (and the cause of the struggle mentioned above) is that since there are a number of different characters in each city, I had to keep notes on who was where. A cast of characters would have helped, and a map would have been a pleasant addition as well.
I was especially delighted with the Afterword, where Vickers explains what happened to some of her fictional characters. As if—and yes, I do believe it so—they all went on living. A lovely touch.
“Realism with a subtle fairytale quality,” said the Publishers Weekly reviewer, and that captures it perfectly. Vickers is a wonderful novelist.
Life update: I’m preparing for Canadian Thanksgiving—a big event here!—and for heading to our winter home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, not long after. (See my last blog post on what that entails.)
The last draft of the Hortense Young Adult is tucked away until early November. In the meantime, in the early creative hours, I’m giving some thought to the premise, tag and log lines, using the guidelines from a worthwhile 3-session on-line course on “Rapid Story Development,” using, among other things, Enneagrams, a method for analyzing character.
Enneagrams are complex, but intriguing: I do love learning systems. Simply framing a premise with the help of the class guidelines has helped me see how the story needs to be changed.
Another thing I’m studying right now is the Lenormand method of foretelling the future—a type of Tarot which is surprisingly popular.
Madame Lenormand was a contemporary of Josephine Bonaparte; in fact, she lived close to Josephine’s delightfully eccentric aunt Fanny. Lenormand was famous for her accurate predictions; she exploited and enhanced her fame by becoming a prodigious writer and publisher on matters occult, as well of a faux memoir of Josephine (a “memoir” that has always intrigued me).
Madame Lenormand is unlikely to be a character in my Hortense novels, but her card-fortunetelling method might well be. In any case, I’m enjoying exploring the cards.
At some point, “playing” the cards was called The Game of Hope, my current working title—and one I rather like.
Every spring and every fall my husband and I make the journey to our “other” home: north to Ontario in the spring, and south to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in the fall.
It’s not an easy move for a historical novelist, not easy wrapping up an office and trying to anticipate what reference books I will need in the months ahead.
This fall my move is additionally complicated by having two works-in-progress in two different eras: THE SHADOW QUEEN (set in the 17th century court of the Sun King) and my first Young Adult novel about Hortense (set in the Napoleonic era).
I don’t like returning to an office still in chaos, so I make an effort to sort things out before I leave. This usually means taking care of things I’ve been putting off, and the big “No, not yet” chore I hadn’t faced this summer was sorting out my books.
The shelves of my little office have been filled to capacity with books on the Court of the Sun King and 17th century life for almost a decade. I needed to find room for my stacks of books on Hortense and her world (other than on the floor), and so all day yesterday I hauled books from one place to another. The ping-pong table room is now well stocked with biographies on Sun Court characters, another basement room cleared of the remnants of my Napoleonic book collection, and the floors of my office are almost clear. (Wow.)
Here are my shelves devoted to Hortense:
And here are the books I’ve yet to find a place for:
(Sigh. Back to work.)
Are you a fan of Ira Glass’s THIS AMERICAN LIFE podcast? I am.
He’s great on story-telling and creativity. Here’s one. He kind of says it all!
I’ve known Caroline Leavitt for almost as long as the Net has existed (i.e. rather a long time now), but I’ve only met her once or twice. I first knew her on-line through a wonderful Readerville.com writers’ chat group. (Oh, those days!) I read her blog, follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and read her essays and novels.
She has been a persevering literary writer, and with that went the word struggling, so it has been particularly pleasing to see how her last two novels—Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow—have been such huge hits. And for three reasons, IMO: 1) she’s a fantastic writer, 2) she’s a pro, ready to step up to the plate, and 3) she’s now with Algonquin, a great publisher.
I just read and loved her latest novel, Is This Tomorrow. Caroline has a flawless way of creating real characters and building dramatic tension. This was a novel I didn’t want to put down, that I thought about when I was away from it. As a writer, I longed to know about her process: how does she do it? I’m thrilled that she’s here to answer my questions!
Your novels are compellingly plotted and beautifully developed. How do you do it? What’s your process?
Oh, thank you! John Truby Story structure. I was always one of those writers who followed my muse and I ended up with 800 pages that I had to wade through to find the story. I hated most structure classes. The 3-act deal was like a prison. The rest seemed moronic. But then a UCLA student of mine told me about Truby, how he’s a Yale PhD who studied stories and came up with a kind of system for what all the best ones have–moral choices, reversals, reveals, self-revelations. It made sense to me. It seemed to create a deeper, more nuanced story, and the first time I “trubyized” a novel, I had a NYT bestseller! The first time I trubyized a script, I made the finals at Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
So I map things out in detail right from the start, and end up with a 30-40 page synopsis. Of course it changes as I write, because of discoveries, changes, etc. But the basic spine is the same. It gives you tremendous creativity for discovery, too!
I’ve become an intense plotter, as well, and I’m excited by the process. I recall that you introduced me to your relative’s hypnosis tapes, which I loved. Now I see that you’re experimenting with binaural beats, which sounds similar. Is this part of your writing process? Tell me more!
It is, actually. Binaural beats supposedly recreate the neuron firing of the brain and help you concentrate, get creative, even relieve tinnitus. Do they work or do I just think they work? I don’t know, but does it matter if there are results? I keep one on for creativity and it seems to work. But it might be the placebo effect. (And again, who cares?!)
I’ll be trying that! I was pleased to see mention of several Readervillians in your acknowledgements. Do you use reader/editors, and, if so, at what point in the writing process?
Oh, I absolutely do. I change a lot of them with each book, but right now I am totally dependent on three people. One I show my structural stuff to and he is a great help because that’s what he does–structure work. And I have two writer friends who read the novel chapter by chapter. And I miss Readerville!
I was interested to also note that you used researchers for this novel. (I recall a blog you wrote some time ago of a youth who volunteered.) This is something I’ve considered. How does that work?
I had to hire someone because I was spending whole weeks trying to find out what 1950s cops used instead of crime tape (sawhorses and rope!) So I hired two high school interns who were adorable, but not as helpful as I needed. Not their fault. They were learning. I next hired a pro, a librarian, who was amazing. Not only did she find me exactly what I needed, including a rare journal for male nursing in the 1960s, but she would add in things that she thought might be interesting for me–and they always were!
The best research tool? Facebook. I posted that I needed to talk to someone who had been a cop in the 1950s, or a male nurse, or a pie baker–and I was flooded with people. I called them up and I got the most amazing personal stories! Plus, it was so much fun. I’m doing that now for my next novel, Cruel Beautiful World (out in 2015 from Algonquin Books), which is set in the 1970s.
Another beautiful title. Your stories seem perfect for film-adaptation, and I know you have a film background. Are they under option? Development? I know, too, that you’re a Truby fan (as I am). What wisdoms from the film-realm have you brought to novel writing?
Oh Hollywood, it breaks my heart into shards. I’ve had lots of options. Meeting Rozzy Halfway was optioned by Paramount and dropped in a strike. Into Thin Air was optioned by two producers and Madonna was interested in making it her directorial debut for three days until she went on tour. Then one producer fell in love with the other and it all fell apart. Living Other Lives was optioned by this guy who did all of Stephen King’s early films. It had a script by Obie winner Tina Howe. And then suddenly, everyone vanished! I had a deal at Sundance for Pictures of You, and then the actress who wanted to direct and star got an offer from HBO for a series and that was that. I currently have an option for an essay I wrote in New York magazine and there’s lots of interest for Is This Tomorrow, but lots of interest doesn’t mean I am sewing sequins on my dress for the Oscars any time soon.
I so wanted to take control, I learned how to write script and got that Sundance finalist shot, but again, that doesn’t really mean anything. So much is luck and timing. I’m very superstitious and I lay out tarot card spells to make this happen!
I love that! You blog often, publish an excellent novel every few years (you have another one scheduled for 2015!), are active on social media and have a life. How do you do it?
I am obsessive compulsive, and that isn’t a good thing, actually. I am always doing fifty things at once, and I have this keen sense that time is limited (maybe because I was critically ill in the 90s for a year and not expected to survive, but I did!) and I have to make things happen as fast as I can. I wish I could relax!
What one thing would you say is key to (surviving) a writing life?
I have more than one!
Never. Ever. Ever. Give. Up.
Support other writers. It’s good karma.
Write every day.
Don’t write to the market because it will kill your art. Write the book you need to read.
Thank you for these amazing questions!
Thank you so much, Caroline! ???