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.

Sunday 5 May 2019

Writers’ Questions: How long should my novel be?

I’ve been blogging about books written or set in the nineteenth century for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own novel, set in the 1840s, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process so, over the next year, I’ll use my new series, Writers’ Questions, to share some thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process. Today I tackle one of the top questions I hear from aspiring writers: how long should a novel be?

If you’re new to novel writing, there’s one big adjustment you need to make upfront. Readers think and talk in pages, while writers obsess over word count. Why? Formatting and content make a huge difference when it comes to determining how many pages a finished book will be. Larger fonts and margins will lead to more pages, and dialogue-heavy scenes will take up a lot of paper too, especially if you have a pithy back and forth between characters. Word count is thus the industry standard.

If you want some readerly reference points though, you can find the word counts of many famous books online and compare these to the editions you own. Google tells me for instance that Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) is just shy of 88,000 words. The copy I own from Oxford World Classics clocks in at around 200 pages.

Ok, so we’re now thinking in word count. How many words then should a novel be? First, you need to determine who you’re writing for. I’ll be going into more detail about the differences between fiction written for middle grade, young adult and adult audiences in a future post, but, simply put, children and teenage readers have shorter attention spans and tend to read shorter novels. Middle grade novels can vary massively in terms of length, depending on content, but aiming for around 50,000 words is a good place to start. For YA you’ll find lots of popular outliers on the longer end, but around 70,000 words is safe.

I write for adults, so have a little more personal experience here. The organisation behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which happens each November, defines a novel as having a minimum of 50,000 words, but this is pretty misleading for the adult market. Most sources online cite 80,000-100,000 words as the sweet spot for adult fiction, with a couple of important genre exceptions. Romance novels, for example, can be closer in length to young adult fiction, while fantasy (especially high fantasy) writers have more leeway to move into six-figure word counts.

In all of this, I’m speaking about averages. There are of course plenty of exceptions to these guidelines. The later Harry Potter books grew to word counts that would be highly unusual for a debut young adult writer. Tolstoy didn’t pump the breaks and shorten War and Peace (1865-7), which is an incredible 590,000 words.

But if your word count is at either end of the bell curve you might want to consider the following questions:

1. Very long books take up more paper and are more expensive to print but readers resent paying more for them. Do you want to put off agents and potential publishers (or eat into your profits if you choose to self-publish)? Conversely, how much do you think readers would be prepared to pay for a super slim book?

2. Has your desire to write ‘The End’ led you to rush to the finish line and come up short?

3. Does your word count reveal features of your writing? For example, I tend to ‘underwrite’ my first drafts. Through the revision/editing process I have to add more—more description, more details, sometimes additional scenes. Maybe you do too? Other writers have the opposite tendency. They over-explain and repeat themselves. Is it time to get out the proverbial or actual red pen and make some cuts?

4. Did you start your novel in the right place? If it takes three chapters for anything to happen or for us to even meet your main character you may have started too early and increased your word count. Backstory is important for you to know, but readers want to start at the ‘interesting bits’.

5. Should you add a sub-plot? If you’re under word count one possibility is that your story is too simple. Adding another narrative arc could grow it to novel proportions.

6. Is your idea really a novel? If you’re struggling to get anywhere near novel length maybe your idea is best suited to a short story format. And that’s totally fine. You might also have heard of novellas (stories of around 20,000 to 40,000 words). There are many respected and loved novellas but tread carefully here, especially if you wish to be traditionally published. It is very hard for an unknown writer to have a novella acquired.

I’d love to hear about your personal experiences with novel word counts. And if you have any topics you’d love me to cover as part of my Writers’ Questions series then please let me know. You can always reach me here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Wednesday 1 May 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: Longbourn, Jo Baker (2013)

There are two reasons we love retellings of our favourite novels, and they often act in opposition. First, we delight in discovering a new perspective on a familiar story. Second, we wish to recapture the feeling a beloved book gave us on our first reading.

Jo Baker’s 2013 Longbourn, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) from the Bennets’ servants’ viewpoints, falls firmly in the former camp. The usual cast of characters is there—Jane, Lizzie, et al., Darcy and Bingley, the tedious Mr Collins—but they aren’t in the foreground. Instead we follow the inner lives of Sarah, a housemaid, and her fellow servants. For these characters too there is romance, reversal and villainy, but with a hefty dose of realistic drudgery.

Reading Longbourn can make you feel guilty about the questions you didn’t consider before. What will the effects of the house’s entail be on the servants who live and work there? Who must get the mud out of Lizzie’s petticoats? Or the blood out of the sisters’ menstrual rags? There are also darker questions about the source of the Bingleys’ wealth (slave-worked sugar plantations) or Lydia’s relative privilege compared to ‘ruined’ girls without Darcy-level financial backing.

Baker writes great prose. She moves between her point-of-view characters masterfully, giving us access to their emotions with equal doses of empathy and irony. I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of Hertfordshire and the beauty she finds in the mundane, e.g. laundry and dishwashing. Throughout, she’s respectful of her source material, keeping consistent with the events and characterisations in Pride and Prejudice, even where she adds extra colour.

Jo Baker
But if you’re looking to feel as you do when reading Pride and Prejudice, this novel might not satisfy. Longbourn hits some of the notes of the marriage plot on a structural level but, overall, the melody and mood is sadder. Baker’s book isn’t about Austenian wit and charm. It’s an answer to the sanitised escapism of some contemporary historical fiction and much of the Jane Austen fandom. Her ‘hero’, for example, is a former soldier, but not one of the swashbuckling redcoats we know from Meryton. In a section dedicated to him we confront the harsh realities of military combat, a world away from gowns and bonnets and shoe roses.

Longbourn is the best Austen-inspired novel I’ve reviewed in my Neo-Victorian Voices series (see, for instance, my review of Katherine J. Chen’s Mary B). Read it if you’re ready for something new. But if you’re just looking to indulge in nostalgia, reread Pride and Prejudice itself, or curl up in front of the BBC box set.

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.