Wednesday 29 September 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles (2020)

What makes the main character of a novel likable? Two key strategies are to establish early something/someone your protagonist loves and something that they want. In Paulette Jiles’s 2020 novel, Simon the Fiddler (the latest book I’m reviewing as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series), she gives us both. 

We meet Simon in Texas in 1865. He’s a talented musician, seeking to avoid conscription into the Confederate Army. Soon though his luck runs out and he finds himself embroiled in the final days of the American Civil War. The majority of the novel is set following the South’s surrender as Simon navigates the complex, and often dangerous, world of the Reconstruction period. 

What does Simon love? Music. His fiddle is the talisman for his skill but also for his emotional connection with the art form, and Jiles puts the instrument in peril from early in the book to cement our connection with her main character.

What does Simon want? Stability. He yearns to be a landowner with a wife and children, and to create the family he, as an illegitimate orphan, never had. In short, this is an American Dream story. The modesty of Simon’s wants makes him instantly relatable, and how he hard he has to work to achieve them gives us the meat of this by turns dramatic and violent, and melancholy and sensitive novel. 

Simon and the band of fellow musicians he falls in with have to grapple with the natural landscape of Texas, their lack of money and the logistical challenges of making more. They wear shirts riddled with bullet holes, wrestle with an alligator, and engage in regular drink-fueled brawls. We’re told: they always go for the fiddler. 

Despite these regular moments of high drama, I’d say the book is a slow burn, with the most plot-driven chapters clustered towards the end, as Simon seeks to rescue Irish immigrant governess Doris from her unscrupulous employer (an officer in the Union Army).

I’d recommend the book to all readers of historical fiction. There’s enough Civil War commentary here to engage readers of military historicals, but this is a novel that moves seamlessly between the battlefield, the drawing room, the tavern, and the great outdoors. I found myself rooting for Simon from the first few pages to the very end—a testament to Jiles’s prowess as a writer. 

What nineteenth-century set, twenty-first century written novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my nineteenth-century set novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available wherever books are sold, in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook. For regular updates from this blog and on my writing, subscribe to my email newsletter below.

Get updates on my writing

* indicates required

Sunday 19 September 2021

Writers’ Questions: What Mistakes Do Beginner Writers Make When Working on a Novel?

Since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’ve been answering aspiring authors’ burning questions about writing and publishing as part of my Writers’ Questions series.

Today I’m tackling the biggest mistakes newbies make and the traps they can fall into when penning that first book (trust me, I’ve been there). This list isn’t exhaustive and it’s more focused on process than craft. Check out the rest of the series for more sentence-level insight and introductions to technical topics.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the mistakes…

Jumping the gun

You got there! You typed “The End” and the novel that’s taken you months, or even years, to write is finished. This is definitely a moment to celebrate. So treat yourself, pop a champagne cork, call up a friend. But, whatever you do, don’t immediately hit “send” and shop your manuscript to every agent and editor in the business. If you haven’t edited the novel, through several rounds of revisions, it’s not ready. If no one else (or only your parent or partner) has read it, it’s not ready. If you haven’t read it imaginary cover to imaginary cover again and again until you could almost recite the entire novel, it’s not ready. Sorry! You’ve achieved a lot, but there’s still work to be done.

Talking about your book too much

Writing doesn’t have to be a dirty secret. Plenty of authors now document their full drafting journeys via social media, and if that motivates you, I say, go for it! However, in my experience, talking in detail about the plot points of my work in progress even to just one friend is usually counterproductive. It deadens some of the urgency I feel to “tell” a story, making it harder to stay motivated, and it leaves me vulnerable to receiving feedback when I’m in a creative vs. an editing mode (i.e. not ready to hear it).

Getting stuck on just one thing

Vague, I know. But the biggest “things” I see early career writers getting stuck on include research (especially in historical fiction), world building (especially in science fiction and fantasy), and first chapters (this can happen to any of us). Are research and world building key parts of the writing process? Yes. Is it a problem when you’re so lost in them you’re not writing? Also, yes. At some point, you need to draw a line in the sand and start writing. You can “fix” details later. The same thing goes for first chapters. They’re really important, but if rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is prohibiting you from working on Chapters 2-29, you have a problem.

Being too ritualistic about writing

Drinking a glass of lemon water, meditating for 20 minutes, and doing a yoga session to unlock my creative flow, before sitting down at an antique writing desk with a mug of tea to my right and a cat on my lap, sounds lovely, but this isn’t how books get written. Books get written by writers deciding to write whenever and however they can, even if that means in less than ideal circumstances. If you’re envisioning the author profile a journalist will write about your perfect writing nook but you haven’t passed 10k words, it might be time to reassess…

Being impatient

With yourself and with the industry. If writing a book was easy, everyone would do it. You have to put in the time to hone your skills and make your novel as good as it can be. There will be many hours of work, and, once you’re ready to try to find a publisher, there will be many more hours of waiting. If you know patience isn’t your strong suit (it’s definitely not mine!), experiment with the powers of distraction. Hint: the best form of distraction is always writing another book.

So that’s what I’ve got for you today—five big mistakes to avoid when starting out on your writing journey. I hope the blog post has been helpful and that you’ll consider reading my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, if you haven’t already. I’m always open to topic ideas for my Writers’ Questions series, so please contact me via Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. And make sure you sign up to my monthly email newsletter below. 

Get updates on my writing

* indicates required