Saturday 23 November 2019

My Novel Has a Cover!

I’m very excited to unveil the cover of my forthcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress:

Bronte's Mistress, Finola Austin (2020)
If you want updates about its publication in 2020 then make sure you sign up for email alerts using the form below.

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Neo-Victorian Voices: The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal (2019)

My Neo-Victorian Voices series is dedicated to books written in the twenty-first century, but set in the nineteenth. Last time, I reviewed Marley, Jon Clinch’s 2019 novel about Scrooge’s business partner from Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol. This time I’m writing about Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, The Doll Factory, which is set in 1850s London.

The Doll Factory (2019)
The Doll Factory is the story of Iris, who spends her days painting dolls for a laudanum-addicted shop owner, and working alongside her disfigured twin sister. Her life changes forever after meeting two men—Louis Frost, fictional member of the real-life group of artists known as the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), and Silas, a lonely taxidermist and curator of curiosities. Iris has artistic aspirations of her own and so agrees to model for Louis, despite her parents’ and sister’s opposition and concern for her virtue. Meanwhile, Silas grows increasingly obsessed with her, fantasising about adding her to his morbid collection.

The novel is dark and certainly not for the squeamish, but there are moments of levity too. The PRB’s dinner and pub conversation is well wrought and believable, and their quirks add colour and interest. Macneal includes anecdotes both real and apocryphal about William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti et al., from imperilling their models by posing them in bathtubs to killing an unfortunate wombat that ate a box of their cigars.

I also found a secondary point of view character, Albie, particularly compelling. He’s a single-toothed street urchin who brings Silas dead animals and dreams of one day earning enough money to buy a set of fake gnashers (that or saving his sister from prostitution). The conclusion to his story was one of the best paragraphs of a beautifully written book.

Elizabeth Macneal (1988- )
But the heart of the novel is how well Macneal paints Silas, with his delusions, fixations and obsessions. If you enjoy getting into the heads of creepy and amoral characters, this novel is a wonderful exercise in understanding a disturbed mind. If you’d prefer to stick with the heroes, this won’t be for you. In this regard, the novel reminded me of Catherine Chidgey’s 2005 The Transformation, which I also reviewed for this series and very much enjoyed. The denouement of The Doll Factory, which brings Silas and Iris together, keeps you guessing and is hard to put down. Warning: you might miss your subway stop.

There’s just enough time and space dedicated to the technicalities of painting for readers with a particular interest in the art. And the Great Exhibition provides a wonderful historical backdrop to the vents of the novel. If I had to quibble, I’d say the love story isn’t as successful as the rest of the book, but this may be a question of personal taste. No spoilers here, but I was longing to see Iris choose for herself vs. being chosen and yearned for an even greater contrast between Louis and Silas’s desire to own her, especially towards the end. Overall, The Doll Factory is more than worthy of the attention it’s received. If you love the Gothic and Victoriana that’s more macabre than Christmassy, this one’s for you!

Do you have recommendations for which novel I should review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

And if you want email updates about my own forthcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which tells the story of Lydia Robinson, the older woman who had an affair with Branwell Bronte, sign up for my mailing list below.

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Thursday 14 November 2019

Writers’ Questions: How do I find a literary agent?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in August 2020, my own debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, will be released by Atria Books (more on this here). In this series, Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some advice about the writing and publication process to help fellow writers. Last time, I wrote about ‘thought verbs’ and how filtering language might be harming your novel. This time we’re talking the first step towards being traditionally published—finding a literary agent.

For most genres, being represented by an agent is crucial for landing a deal with a large publishing house. But how do you go about finding the agent(s) who are best for you? Below, I lay out some avenues to explore.

Browne & Miller Literary Associates - the agency I signed with
The Acknowledgments of novels you like
At the back of almost all novels, writers thank the people in their lives who made writing and publishing their books possible. Unsurprisingly, agents are often at the top of these lists. You’re already reading widely in your genre (aren’t you?), so make sure you read the Acknowledgments of recent novels that seem similar to yours and research the agents mentioned there.

This website is a huge database of literary agents, which you can search (e.g. by genre and location). What’s more, there’s extensive crowd-sourced data about agents’ response rates and times, which you’ll love if, like me, you get a little obsessed while in the query trenches. Submit your own rejections and requests to keep track and share info with fellow writers.
The Poets & Writers website also houses a (shorter) list of agents, detailing their preferred genres, some existing clients and query format preferences.

Agent Query
A third database is Agent Query. I still found this site helpful, although the user interface isn’t as easy as Querytracker or PW to navigate.

Manuscript Wish List
The Manuscript Wish List website is a wonderful resource for those seeking representation. Here, agents and editors list not just genres but more specific details of about the books on their submissions ‘wish lists’. Use specific search terms (e.g. I looked for terms including “Bronte” and “Victorian”) to find agents who might be your perfect match. You can also search “#MSWL” on Twitter to surface agent tweets about what they’re looking for. Double up search terms e.g. “#MSWL historical” to get the lay of the land for what agents are seeking in a genre.

Writers' & Artists’ Yearbook
My agent, like me, is based in the US. But when I was querying I researched both American and British agencies. If you’re in or linked to the UK, the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook should be your bible. This book comes out annually and gives you an overview of all British literary agencies and their submission preferences.

Interviews on writerly websites and podcasts
Writing-related publications often profile agents, especially those earlier on in their careers who are actively looking to grow their client list. Writer’s Digest is a great place to start to find these interviews but read/listen widely to find other relevant content.

Writing conferences
Many writing conferences give you the chance to pitch live to agents (for a fee). Conferences are an expensive option but may be worth it depending on the attendees and agenda. Do your research to find the conferences that are relevant and achievable for you. I’ve personally attended and enjoyed the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and the Historical Novel Society Conference but found both more useful for connecting with other writers than those in the publishing industry.

Another paid option is entering contests for unpublished writers that boast a literary agent judge. Just do your due diligence about the contest organisers and format. You don’t want to be scammed or to sign away the rights to your hard work by not reading the small print.

So there you have it—a variety of ways you can go about finding your agent. As part of this series, I’m also planning posts on why literary agents are so necessary and the querying process, so let me know if you have other questions you’d love me to answer on agents. As ever, you can connect with me here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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Monday 4 November 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: Marley, Jon Clinch (2019)

The latest novel I’m reviewing as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series of novels set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first, was a delight. Jon Clinch’s Marley breathes life into Ebenezer Scrooge’s deceased business partner, who returns to haunt him in Charles Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol (1843).

How did Scrooge and Marley meet? How exactly did they make their money? And what turned Scrooge into the decidedly un-festive miser we meet at the start of Dickens’s novella? Clinch answers all these questions and more in his assured double portrait of the two characters and their combative partnership.

Marley (2019)
Products of a brutal boys’ boarding school, Marley makes the money, while Scrooge keeps the accounts and asks no questions, until the latter’s sweetheart demands their firm exit the slave trade. Scrooge is soon following the thread to unravel the lies Marley has been spinning for him throughout their acquaintance and learning that his partner goes by more than one name.

This is one of the greatest joys of the novel—how Clinch creates cameos for other Dickensian characters in Marley’s many aliases. We don’t just learn the backstories of clerk Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. We see a whole new side to Bleak House (1852-1853)’s Inspector Bucket, who may just be acting on the wrong side of the law. Indeed, Marley/Clinch’s fictional characters and companies are so well named that it’s hard to identify which are the Dickensian and which the faux-Dickensian.

Jon Clinch
But this isn’t just a great imitation. Clinch’s tale of greed and fraud reads as relevant and modern. His cityscape is darker than Dickens’s and his ending can afford to be brutal. This is in part because readers can choose to imagine the familiar conclusion of Scrooge’s tale in A Christmas Carol if they want to escape the bleakness.

Dickens tells us, “Marley was dead: to begin with.” But Clinch creates a new beginning that brings even more pathos and drama to a Christmas classic.

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

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