Saturday, 30 April 2022

Writers’ Questions: How Do I Read Like a Writer?

If you’re an aspiring author who’s read any writerly advice online, you’ve probably come across the adage that good writers should read…a lot. But what are the key differences when reading as a writer rather than as a regular reader? Today, in the latest blog post in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m giving you some pointers for getting the maximum value out of your reading time.

Read in the Genre You’re Writing In

Inputs (i.e. your reading material) will impact outputs (i.e. your writing), so read deeply in the genre(s) you’re hoping to the publish in. While you don’t need to exclusively read the sort of material you want to write, picking books of the same genre and age category, published in the last few (~5) years, will allow you to a) hone your craft, and b) conduct market research simultaneously. 

Read the Acknowledgments

Books are usually written by one person, but they’re produced by many. The best way to understand this is to read the Acknowledgments section that ends most books published today. This is where you’ll find the name of your favorite writers’ agents and editors, helping you identify the people who might, on day, be your agent and editor too!

Read the Author Bio

There are many different paths to becoming an author. I have a day job in digital marketing and, while I have two degrees, neither is in Creative Writing. Other writers have pursued MFA programs or made a name for themselves writing short stories before publishing a novel. Reading author biographies is a great way to chart the career paths of the writers you admire and hope to emulate.

Note the Publisher and Imprint

Look at the spine or the copyright page of any published book and discover which publisher/imprint published it. Then turn to Google and do some research. This is an easy way to teach yourself about the industry (who publishes what you write?, which imprints are part of the Big Five?, is there a small independent publisher which could be your perfect fit?). 

Support Writer Friends

Are you in a writers’ group with someone who got published? Are you doing a public reading with a group of other authors? Who are you sharing a table with at the convention center? Spread the love and support fellow writers by reading their books (even if they are outside your usual genre). Being there for others will usually be paid back to your tenfold, as those you’ve supported will be much more likely to blurb your book, do an event with you, add reviews to Goodreads, or boost your presence on social media. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.

Read Reviews

Speaking of Goodreads… Maybe you’re a writer who chooses never to read your own reviews. And that’s more than okay, if you find that best for your mental health. But reading other authors’ reviews can be a great way to understand the public’s tastes and comprehend opinions that differ from your own. I love reading one-star reviews of my favorite reads, and, conversely, delving into five-star raves of books which for me were a “meh.”

Analyze What’s (Not) Working

And what about when reading the book itself? The biggest difference when reading as a writer is that, rather than being swept away by the story, you should pause and analyze why you’re responding the way you are. If a scene is exciting, try to figure out how the writer generated a feeling of excitement. If you’re rolling your eyes? Maybe you’re identifying a trope that’s bordering on cliché territory. Some writers might read a book twice—once for fun and again to unpack why it was fun in the first place.


What topics would you like me to cover next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1877): An Analysis

 Glory be to God for dappled things –

   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

      And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                                Praise him.

It’s been some time since I did a close reading of a nineteenth-century poem on my blog, so today I thought I’d write about “Pied Beauty,” a short and, I think, wonderful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which was written in 1877.

The Argument of the Poem: Hopkins calls on the reader to praise God, who he says created many things in nature that are awe-inspiring for their irregularity, variety, and changeability. These include natural wonders (the sky, which changes color, and chestnuts, which reveal their insides like coals in a fire when they fall and break), animals (cows, trout, finches), and instances of humankind’s impact on the world around us (agriculture, sectioning off the landscape into fields, and other trades, which interact with nature). He closes the poem by contrasting these “dappled things” with God, whose beauty is unchanging and permanent. 

Similarity and Difference: Hopkins uses various literary techniques to meditate on his themes of similarity vs. variety. He employs alliteration (the use of the same starting letter) and internal rhyme, to create a series of pairs throughout the poem (couple-colour; fresh-firecoal; plotted and pierced; fickle, freckled; fathers-forth), giving us a sense of the intelligent design he sees behind the randomness of nature. And he also uses the same technique to pair words with opposite meanings (swift, slow; sweet, sour), which helps downplay their difference and attributes them all to the same higher power. The rhyme scheme of the poem’s lines also plays into this, encouraging us to link the cow to the plough, things to wings, strange to change, and so on. 

Rhetoric: Hopkins was a lover of rhythm, who invented his own schematic for marking emphasis in poetry. And we can see that this is a poem that almost demands to be read aloud. In addition to the repetitions, alliterations, and rhymes mentioned above, the poem starts with a familiar invocation to prayer ("Glory be to God") and ends with one too ("Praise him"). There is also a rhetorical question ("who knows how?") in the middle, which suggests however much we meditate on nature and glorify God, his actions will still remain mysterious. 

Pairing the High with the Low: One thing I love about this poem is how it soars to lofty heights, but then pulls us back to earth, giving us the impression of a poet who is humble and a God for whom all things and creatures matter—great and small. Hopkins compares multicolored sunsets to the hide of a cow. He rhymes his final word, "him," which references God, with the usually not so flattering word “dim.” And he pairs a word that’s strongly associated with beauty, “rose,” with the decided less elegant “moles” to show how he finds beauty in all things. In short, again and again, he delivers on the promise made by the title of the poem—this is about “Pied Beauty,” which doesn’t have to be a contradiction.

What Victorian poem would you like to read me write about next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. In the mood for more poetry? Check out my blog posts on Tennyson (“The Lady of Shallot,” “Ulysses,” “The Kraken,” “To Virgil,” and “The Epic”), Swinburne, Longfellow, Barrett Browning, and Mew.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Libertie, Kaitlyn Greenidge (2021)

Most of the twenty-first century written, nineteenth century set novels I’ve read, which are centered on the Black experience in the United States, have focused on the horrors of slavery (see for example, my reviews of Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench, and Valerie Martin’s Property). Freedom was presented as a goal, a dream, and a destination for the characters in many of these books, with little page space given over to what freedom looked like, or even could look like, for African Americans during and after the Civil War. 

As the title of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s 2021 novel, Libertie, suggests, this is a book all about freedom. Our title character is a freeborn, Black girl in nineteenth-century Brooklyn. As a child, she witnesses her mother’s role in the Underground Railroad, smuggling enslaved people to the North in coffins. And as she grows and matures, Libertie grapples more and more with what freedom means to her. Is true liberty possible in a country so divided along race lines? Could real freedom mean starting over in the Black-led nation of Haiti? And can she shake free of the life her mother, a white-passing, Black, woman doctor, planned for her? 

This all sounds very lofty, and the novel does deal with complex history and difficult themes, but at the core of Libertie is this quieter story about the fraught, but loving, relationship between mother and daughter. At times I was frustrated with Libertie’s perspective, especially in her teenage years, but Greenidge’s depictions of the misunderstandings between the protagonist and her mother have a sharply observed psychological realism. Libertie has other important relationships too—with the grieving escapee she sees her mother “raise from the dead” at the book’s opening, with a pair of singing, Black, women college students, who she eventually realizes are romantically linked to each other, and with the Haitian man whom she marries—but it is the mother/daughter bond that makes this a compelling character-driven read.

Those who enjoy the intersection of historical fact and fiction may also want to learn more about the inspiration for the character of Libertie’s mother in the novel—Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, who was the third Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. 

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

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

Writers’ Questions: Do I need to be on social media to get published?

Welcome/Welcome back! Since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in 2019, I’ve been writing blog posts answering fellow authors’ burning questions about the writing and publication process. 

I’ve touched on the topic of social media before, in my post on the best writing hashtags to follow on Twitter and Instagram, but today I’m back answering one of the questions I’m asked most frequently: is a social media presence necessary in order to get traditionally published? 

The short answer = no. 

If you write fiction, your social media presence will have little to no impact on whether you’re offered a publishing contract, with a couple of important exceptions. If you’re a celebrity or an influencer who’s amassed a huge (I’m talking six figure or higher) following, this bodes well for the marketability of your book and will open doors for you in the industry. And, if you’re writing under your real name and have a penchant for posting highly controversial statements on social media, your online activities may hurt your chances should an editor or agent Google your name. But trust me, these rare scenarios aside, there’s no need to sweat over whether you have 200 or 2000 followers.

Case in point: my acquiring editor only reviewed the biography passage of the Bronte’s Mistress submission package after she’d read and become interested in the manuscript. It didn’t matter that my day job is in social media, that I’d been writing this blog for six years, or that I’d been building my presence on all major platforms. So, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t enjoy digital self-promotion, please know that you’re probably not damaging your hopes of achieving your writerly dreams.

What then is the value of engaging in the writing community online prior to selling your first book? In my view, the biggest benefit social media offers early career writers is the opportunity to learn from published writers/publishing professionals and to connect with each other. This is a low-pressure way to dip your toe into the writing community online. If you don’t know how to get started, you can always check out the writing hashtags I suggested previously. The other benefit, of course, is that when your book does sell, you won’t be building up your online presence from zero, but we’ll save marketing via social for another blog post…

Let me know which questions you’d like to see me answer next in my Writers’ Questions series. You can comment below, contact me on Instagram or Facebook, or tweet me @SVictorianist. Haven’t read Bronte’s Mistress yet? My debut novel is available in hardcover, paperback, e-book and audiobook now!

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Review: Walking the Invisible, Michael Stewart (2021)

I was working at digital media company Refinery29 when I first encountered Michael Stewart. The ARC (advance reader copy) of his 2018 novel, Ill Will, was up for grabs on the freebies table. Mixed in with other books, as well as lipsticks and leggings, sent to our editorial team, Ill Will caught my eye. It was the subtitle which captured my attention: The Untold Story of Heathcliff. Not only was I a Brontëphile, with a Master’s in nineteenth-century literature, but I was also in the midst of writing my own Brontë-inspired novel—the book that would become Brontë’s Mistress (2020). 

By the time I read Stewart’s novel in January 2019 (and reviewed it for this blog of course!), I had an agent, but no book deal. By 2020, my novel was being released in the midst of a global pandemic. One silver lining was that the uptick in virtual book events meant writers could now straddle the Atlantic. Soon, Michael and I were appearing at multiple events together, along with other Brontë-related writers. We helped raise money for the Brontë Parsonage Museum by speaking at the Brontë 2020 conference. We spoke together at the Historical Novel Society North America’s conference too. And in 2021, Michael chatted to me on Instagram Live, while trespassing somewhere in the English countryside. It was very on brand. 

Of course, then (although Michael and I are yet to meet in real life!), I was excited to read his latest (non-fiction) book, Walking the Invisible, which was published last year. Part memoir, part history book, part hiking guide, Walking the Invisible is hard to categorize. It’s a book born out of Stewart’s love of nature and the Brontës, and as much about our century as it is about the nineteenth. He doesn’t shy away from talking about the social challenges and changes facing many of the towns, big and small, the Brontës lived in, and moves between education, political commentary, and personal anecdote seamlessly.

The book makes you want to walk in Stewart’s (and the Brontës’!) footsteps and I can’t wait to visit Yorkshire again with the volume in hand. I especially loved reading about the genesis of the Brontë Stones project—a group of stones with poems honoring the sisters, which walkers can visit in the Thornton/Haworth area—and about the wide range of personalities whom Stewart has encountered due to their voracious love of the Brontës. He doesn’t offer a definitive answer as to why so many of us continue to be fascinated by one of literature’s most famous families, but his book will be a valuable artifact speaking to the early twenty-first-century version of the Brontë Myth (one which owes more to Kate Bush than to academia).

My only (small!) gripe was with Stewart’s reference to Edmund Robinson (husband to Lydia Robinson—the mistress of my novel’s title). He includes an often repeated but false rumor that Lydia Robinson’s husband was old and decrepit, encouraging her to take solace in Branwell Brontë’s arms. In fact, Edmund was a year Lydia’s junior. 

Overall, I highly recommend Walking the Invisible. It would make a great gift for Brontë fans, and I can see this one flying off the shelves at the parsonage bookstore for years to come.

What book(s) would you like to see me review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And if you haven’t already, check out my novel Brontë’s Mistress, for more Brontë scandal.

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

The Siren of Sussex: Belles of London (Book 1), Mimi Matthews (2022)—Part of The Siren of Sussex Virtual Book Tour

Last July, I was happy to be asked to be part of the virtual book tour for Mimi Matthews’s 2021 John Eyre (a gender swapped retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—er, yes please!). And today, I’m back as part of another virtual book tour for a Mimi Matthews book—historical romance, The Siren of Sussex, which was released this month. Mimi, I’m in awe of your writerly productivity!

The Siren of Sussex is a Victorian set romance. Our heroine is Evelyn Maltravers, a young woman more at home on horseback than in a ballroom. But Evelyn knows the way to help her family is to secure a husband during her first season, even if that will be difficult following her older sister’s scandalous disgrace. 

In London, Evelyn’s plot to take society by storm using her skills as an equestrienne brings her to the door of Ahmad Malik, a half Indian, half English tailor, who fashions the most eye-catching riding habits. She doesn’t expect the powerful mutual attraction that blossoms between them or how their goals—finding Evelyn a husband and making Ahmad the most sought after tailor in the city—will make them strategic partners, not just tradesman and client.

As much as I’d enjoyed Matthews’s writing previously, I was a little wary about whether The Siren of Sussex would be a book for me. I read more historical fiction than historical romance and the beautiful cover, featuring a woman on horseback, made me think this novel might be better suited to people who enjoy riding (readers: horses make me sneeze!). However, I was soon swept up in the delightful and engaging story. Evelyn and Ahmad were unusual and likable leads, whose compatibility and chemistry was obvious, and the obstacles facing them, due to differences in race and social station, were difficult to overcome. 

The details about horseback riding weren’t technical or overwhelming and added unexpected elements to the novel, as did Ahmad’s passion for ladies’ fashion and Evelyn’s uncle’s interest in spiritualism. There were also tantalizing hints about the rest of the series to come, with a strong supporting cast of side characters and just enough references to Evelyn’s younger sisters, who all have their own quirks and aspirations!

I’d highly recommend the book to lovers of historical romance and those looking for a feel good read this January, with good historical details and highly readable prose. What’s more, Mimi Matthews is giving readers of my blog a chance to win a copy of The Siren of Sussex! Check out all the details below...

Click here to enter between January 4th and February 7th 2022.

Terms & Conditions

Giveaway hosted by Mimi Matthews. No Purchase Necessary. Entrants must be 18 years or older. Open to US residents only. Void where prohibited.

The Giveaway Package:

1 winner (selected at random by Rafflecopter) receives the following:

  • Signed print copy of The Siren of Sussex
  • Horse scarf
  • Pewter sidesaddle brooch (made in Sussex, England!)
  • The Siren of Sussex tote bag
  • Three candles in scents: Fresh Hay, New Saddle, and Winter Ride
  • Box of Ahmad Tea (60 count, assorted flavors)
  • The Siren of Sussex bookmark

The giveaway is open from 12:01am Pacific time 1/4/22 until 11:59pm Pacific time on 2/7/22.

The winner will be announced on Mimi's blog—mimimatthews.com—at 8:00pm Pacific time on 2/8/22.

Friday, 14 January 2022

2021: My Year in Reading—A Retrospect

Around this time a year ago, I published a retrospect on my 2020 reading. Now I’m back, a year on, with a similar post, looking back on the 60 books (10 more than the year before!) I read in 2021. 

In 2021, I read 45 novels and 15 works of non-fiction. I favored books by women writers, reading 49 books penned by women, 10 by men, and one mixed anthology. Ten of the books I read were by writers of color. And, unsurprisingly for a writer of historical fiction, “hist fic” remained my favorite genre, making up nearly half (26 books) of what I read this year.

Favorites

Just like last year, I’m chickening out and not crowning a favorite read of the year, but in no particular (okay alphabetical) order, here are my top five fiction recommendations:

Milkman, Anna Burns (2018)

An original, lyrical, Booker Prize-winning novel set in Northern Ireland (where I grew up)? Of course, I was going to love this book! Be warned: Milkman isn’t an easy read, but it’s a rewarding one.

The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue (2020)

We’re living through one pandemic, so do we really want to read about another? The answer is yes, but only if that book is Emma Donoghue’s story of the Spanish Flu, set in Dublin in 1918. A gritty insight into a nurse battling on a maternity ward as Europe is ravaged by war and disease, coupled with a queer love story, this novel is a winner for historical fiction fans. 

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

I also read Ishiguro’s newest release, Klara and the Sun (2021), this year. I enjoyed it too, but his 2005 novel of an English boarding school that isn’t quite what it seems wins my vote.

Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

Everyone was raving about this novel about Shakespeare’s wife in 2020. I didn’t get to it until 2021, but believe the hype—this is one beautiful book!

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters (2009)

I love a Gothic ghost story with a stylish historical background and a great twist. Above all, Sarah Waters is a great storyteller—expect to fly through this one. 

Feeling Arty?

One theme I noticed in my reading in 2021, was that I was very drawn to books that deal with other art forms beyond the literary. Here are some recommendations if you’re into…

Visual Arts:

Novels—Leonora in the Morning Light, Michaela Carter (2021); What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt (2002); The Improbability of Love, Hannah Rothschild (2015)

Non-Fiction—Old Mistresses, Rozsika Parker & Griselda Pollock (1982)

Dance:

Novel—The True Memoirs of Little K, Adrienne Sharp (2010)

Non-Fiction—Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans (2010)

Music:

Novels— Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles (2020) (review here); Along the Infinite Sea, Beatriz Williams (2015)

Memoir—Sounds Like Titanic, Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman (2020)

Or Want to Feel Scared?

Another theme was books that deal with the strange, the spooky, and the downright frightening. In addition to The Little Stranger, which I wrote about above, I also read Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Mimi Matthews's gender-swapped retelling of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre with a vampiric twist, John Eyre (2021) (review here), and Ghostly Tales: Spine-Chilling Stories of the Victorian Age (2017), an anthology of nineteenth-century ghost stories. 

For a survey of the horror genre, also check out Stephen King’s non-fiction book, Danse Macabre (1981). As someone who loves both The Sound of Music and horror movies, I couldn’t get behind everything King writes here, but his overview is well worth reading.

Discover Fascinating Lives

Finally, the biographies I read in 2021 are reflective of my interest in lesser spoken about historical figures, who I think led lives worth remembering. 

Join me by taking an interest in…

Denis Diderot, French philosopher, art critic and writer (1713-1784): I read Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, Andrew S. Curran (2019).

Danish father of fairytales, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875): I read Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, Jackie Wullschlager (2001).

French poet Theophile Gautier (1811-1872): I read Joanna Richardson’s 1959 biography, Theophile Gautier—Hist Life and Times.

His daughter, Judith Gautier (1845-1917), a poet, writer, and lover of Chinese culture: I read Joanna Richardson’s 1987 biography, Judith Gautier.

I’ll be back at the end of this year or the start of next with a summary of what I read in 2022. In the meantime, let me know if you have any reading recommendations for me. I’d love to know what books are on your nightstand. If you’re looking for a book to read, check out my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress (2020). And, remember, you can always contact me, here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Happy reading!