Sunday, 23 June 2019

Writers’ Questions: How / When / Why should I get feedback on my writing?


I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own novel, based on the lives of the Brontes, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process so, over the next year, I’m using this series, Writers’ Questions, to share some thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process. Today, we talk feedback—when should you get it and how do you ensure it’s useful?

The setting for my group's latest Writing Retreat
Writers are a disparate bunch but there are two broad groups I see them fall into when it comes to feedback. Unfortunately both face problems!

First, there are those who seek feedback too early and too often. The issue here is that showing your work too soon can lead to you losing the storytelling impulse (why write your ending if you’ve already rhapsodised about it at length when drinking with your friends?) and negative feedback too early (even if it’s constructive) can leave you feeling disheartened and/or unmotivated when you should be in a generative and creative ‘honeymoon period’ with your novel.

Those in the second group don’t seek feedback at all and merrily send their manuscripts off to agents and publishers (or publish them in e-book form if self-publishing) without ever gauging how readers are responding. This is a bad idea. However intelligent or talented you are, writing is about connecting with those who are reading. Do you want your first feedback to be in the form of a rejection email or a 1-star Amazon review? I didn’t think so.

So, if these are the pitfalls, how can feedback be done well? I’ll share some ideas based on my own experiences.
Writing Groups
Writing groups can be an amazing (free) resource for getting feedback on your novel, but you need to give as much as you hope to get, and offer your fellow writers support. I’m a member of two groups (one general, one historical fiction specific). In each case we share chapters of our works-in-progress a week before our fortnightly (or, for Americans, biweekly) meetings and come to the group ready to share our comments and discuss our overall notes.

Some writers use writing groups to motivate them to write more as it creates a regular deadline. I prefer to have a little more emotional distance and share chapters I’ve written weeks or months rather than days before.

People often ask about how to find writing groups. If you’re in a big city it’s definitely an advantage (I found one group via the Meetup app, the other through the Center for Fiction in New York City), but smaller towns may well have groups too. Search online, visit your local library to ask for advice, and, if you have literary minded friends or acquaintances, consider forming your own.


Critique Partners
Another idea, especially if you’re struggling to find a local group, is to buddy up with another writer, even if they’re in a different location, to act as your critique partner. I’ve typically exchanged longer sections of my manuscripts via email with remote critique partners (especially the first 50 pages as this is what most literary agents and editors will ask to see first). Visit writing forums (such as r/Writing on Reddit) or genre-specific Facebook groups to try to find a good candidate.

A word of caution about the feedback you’ll receive and give either from/as CPs or in writing groups: as writers it’s very tempting to try to rewrite others’ books and tell people how you would have written it. Try not to do this yourself and, if the feedback you’re receiving is too directive, ask writers about the problems they’re seeing which are leading them to this conclusion vs. their proposed solutions.

Beta Readers
Beta readers are those who read your completed, self-edited, manuscript imaginary cover-to-imaginary cover, mimicking the experience of a real consumer. Don’t send your book to betas too soon, only when the manuscript is as good as you can make it alone.

My criteria for beta readers is as follows: they should be 1) reliable (i.e. they’ll meet the deadline I set for completion), 2) honest (this isn’t an exercise in flattery), 3) readers of fiction (I try to avoid having too many writers as beta readers, for the reasons mentioned above).

I use a discussion guide/questionnaire to garner consistent feedback from beta readers (which I’ll share in a future post) and I treat them to a drink or dinner to show them my appreciation for their hard work.

There is some disagreement in the writing community about how well you should know your beta readers. You can try to source strangers online, by frequenting some of the forums mentioned above and other services. But I find a mix of friends and acquaintances works well. Again, honesty is key. This means, it’s ok to have your parent or your partner act as one of your beta readers (if you think your relationship can take it), but they shouldn’t be your only beta reader.

Paid Services
If you’re going the traditional publishing route (i.e. trying to get a literary agent and then selling your manuscript to a major publishing house), you don’t need to hire editors of any kind to review and/or correct your manuscript, prior to querying. I have never done this and didn’t spend a penny on editorial to secure a deal. But, if you’re stuck, you’ve exhausted free feedback and you have the money, there are reputable services out there that can help. Just be clear in your mind about the kind of feedback you need. Are you looking for someone to help with structure? Then search for developmental editors. Does your grammar and spelling need to be checked? That’s copyediting. Do you just want someone else to read it and tell you what they think? Look into paid beta reading services.

So, any feedback on my thoughts on feedback? I’d love to answer any questions you have and hear about your experiences. If you have comments or questions, or ideas for future posts, comment below, contact me on Facebook or tweet @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Review: The Bronte Project, Jennifer Vandever (2006)


Most of the novels I review for this blog are set during the nineteenth century—Jennifer’s Vandever’s 2006 The Bronte Project is not.


Her protagonist, Sara Frost, is a struggling academic in twenty-first-century New York City, who’s on a quest to discover lost letters to shine more light on Charlotte Bronte’s unrequited passion for her Belgian schoolteacher. But Charlotte’s love life isn’t the only one on the rocks. At 28, Sara is left reeling when her fiancé abandons her to live down and out in Paris, imitating his hero, George Orwell. ‘Moving on’ is hard when you’re still safeguarding an ex’s beloved first editions and when the other men in your orbit are an alcoholic Hollywood producer who wants you to sex up the Brontes and a Frenchman with a penchant for breaking into your apartment and calling people poems who might or might not be sleeping with his half-sister.

The Bronte Project, as you may be gathering, is pretty silly stuff, but what’s fun about it is how the novel defies expectations about the trajectory of women’s fiction. Without giving away the ending, neither Sara’s romantic journey nor her work on the Bronte siblings concludes as I imagined in the opening pages, which felt like the first twenty minutes of a predictable rom com. As long as you don’t go into this expecting a heart-warming romance, you’re sure to be entertained.

Jennifer Vandever (1968- )
Vandever is strongest as a satirist, turning a critical eye on New York vs. LA culture and the trappings of modern academia. One of her best-realised characters is Claire Vigee, a rising star at the university who’s pioneering the field of ‘Diana Studies’, centred on the life of the late princess. In fact Princess Diana, at times, seems to take over the novel as its central reference point, rather than the Brontes. For a Victorianist, it’s disappointing that, aside from the inclusion of quotes from Charlotte at the opening of each chapter and a few extended passages to educate readers on the siblings’ lives, the engagement with Bronte trivia is pretty superficial.

Overall, The Bronte Project is a light and funny read, with original quirks and good prose. If you want to bring the Brontes with you to the beach this summer, it could be worth picking up.

Do you know of any other contemporary novels with a nineteenth century twist you think the Secret Victorianist should read next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Writers’ Questions: What writing software should I use?


I’ve been blogging about books written or set in the nineteenth century for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own historical novel will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process so in my series, Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process. Today I tackle a common question from beginners: where should a writer, well, write?



Pen and Paper

Pros: Going old school provides some advantages. A notebook is cheap, light and portable and scribbling in one will make you look at least ten times more interesting. What’s more, this is a good way to avoid the distractions that may come when working on an internet-connected device. For writers who are constantly editing and reediting and so struggle to create forward momentum, a notebook can also work wonders. There’s only so many times you can edit on a physical page.

Cons: Danger! Your work won’t be backed up. And, if your handwriting is anywhere near as bad as mine, you won’t be able to read it. Also, whether you’re planning to self-publish or go traditional, you’ll have to type up your manuscript eventually.


Microsoft Word (or other word processor)

Pros: While Word costs money, you probably have it on your computer already. And, when it comes time to publish and/or find a literary agent, you’ll need it anyway as it’s most common to send a .doc or .docx file. Microsoft Word is easy to use, and has all the necessary built-in features.

Cons: You might not notice this until your manuscript grows to over 100 pages but massive Word files often lag, making them hard to work in when you’re skipping around a manuscript. Consider keeping separate chapter files before combining later or using the bookmarks feature for a built-in guide. Ultimately, Word is a versatile program, designed for all sorts of writing (just look at the available templates), so you’re not going to find features useful to fiction writers as the default.


Google Docs

Pros: Free with real-time backups and anywhere access, there’s a lot to love about Google Docs. They can also be useful for getting feedback or for collaborative writing if that’s your jam.

Cons: You’ll have to export as another format when it comes time to submit. And a lot of my criticisms of Word hold true here—expect lagging on huge files and a lack of fiction-specific features. Working in Google Docs while connected to the internet could also lead to distraction, so close your other tabs to focus.


Scrivener

Pros: Scrivener is the Holy Grail for novelists, designed with our specific needs in mind. Set word count targets, reorder or navigate between chapters with ease, and create character profiles, setting documents, outlining notecards and more. There’s also an automatic way to backup to the cloud. As a historical novelist I especially love using Scrivener as a central research depository, so I can jump between notes, images and my manuscript itself in seconds.

Cons: There’s a one-time price tag (around $50) and a learning curve as you discover how Scrivener can work best for you. As with Google Docs, you will have to export to another format eventually. And, while Scrivener is the best software I’ve used for dealing with lengthy manuscripts, it can get slow if you’re including images. I would also caution against Scrivener if you have symptoms of ‘World Builder disease’—if you’re penning character profiles and drawing fantasy maps when you should be writing chapters this will only add to your problem.


My Process

So what do I use? I’ve found that composing in Scrivener before switching to Word when it comes time to share with critique partners and beta readers is the way to go. But ultimately writing is writing wherever you do it. Sometimes I’ve sent emails to myself, often I’ve written a few lines of dialogue in the ‘Notes’ section of my phone, and at times I’ve strayed onto the back of receipts or lightly used napkins. Whatever inspires you to write the most is the right program for you.

Laptop? Notebook? Typewriter? I’d love to hear where you’re bringing your stories to life. Let me know—below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And stay tuned for more posts in my Writers’ Questions series!

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill (2013)


I’ve reviewed 32 books so far as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, dedicated to novels set in the nineteenth, but written in the twenty-first, century. But Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars (2013) was a breath of fresh air as it dealt with a setting and community I hadn’t read about before.

The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill (2013)
Brill’s novel is the tale of Hannah Gardner Price, a fictional Quaker ‘lady astronomer’ in mid-1800s Nantucket. When we meet her, Hannah is as dedicated to sweeping the stars in search of a new comet as she is to the Discipline demanded by her religion. She works in the town library, misses her twin brother, who has joined the scores of local men on offshore whaling expeditions, struggles to keep up with the domestic chores in the home she shares with her father and judges the young women in her community who don’t have a scientific or intellectual calling as she does.

There are powerful, gravitational, and even fatalistic forces at work though when Hannah crosses paths with Isaac Martin, the second mate on a docked whaling ship. Originally from the Azores, Isaac is looking to elevate his station by learning navigation. But he’s black and so Hannah faces censure from her community when she takes him on as a pupil and the two grow closer.

Hannah is a well-realised protagonist, Brill’s prose is beautiful and her subject matter fascinating. Nantucket came alive in the pages of her novel, being at once idiosyncratic for its natural features, Quaker heritage and role in the whale oil industry and a microcosm of the huge social, scientific and technological advances occurring nationally and internationally in the mid-nineteenth century. While the astronomical explanations eluded me at times, I found myself racing to the end, partly to find out what would happen to the characters, and partly to read the Author’s Note and discover what plotlines had a basis in reality.

Amy Brill
No serious spoilers here, but, while Brill’s romance plot is fictitious, Hannah is modelled on a real Nantucketian astronomer, Maria Mitchell. It delighted me to find that a life like Hannah’s for a woman scientist in the period wasn’t implausible, even if it was improbable.

Overall, The Movement of Stars was human, compelling and well written. It’s not flawless—Hannah, Isaac and Mary Coffey are certainly the most believable characters, with the wider cast not getting the same level of development, and it will be hard to please everyone with the ending. But it achieves one of the main goals of historical fiction, transporting readers through time and space.

Which novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.