Breaking Writing Rules

As I’ve spent the last year or so discovering the various rules for writing fiction, I can now say which ones I’ll break.

1. Start with a hook

I did try this. Well, not for my first novel, but for the Victorian mystery and its sequel. The hooks sit there, dangling themselves to interest the reader. They’re not brilliant, I don’t think they’re necessary, and if I were the reader I’d want to skip them.

2. Just write — don’t edit as you go

I recently read this advice in a writers’ group, and I’ve seen it before in a number of books. Just let it flow, they say. Turn on your writer brain and turn off your editor brain.

Trouble is, after a few pages of writing, my sensible brain says I’d better go back and take a look and make sure it’s not crap. Or I need to go back and say where the door is located in the room. Or I need to go back and mention her hair is red. I gotta do it now or I’ll forget. Once I do, I can move forward writing again.

It’s said that you can’t write with a (self) critic looking over your shoulder. But I need mine. She’s good at it and I like to keep her close. Plus, when I’m really too tired to write, we can go back a few scenes and do editing instead.

3. Keep your reader in mind

Who is my reader? The Amazon customer who needs $1 more in his cart to get free shipping? The reader of 425 Victorian murder mysteries who wants a fix? I have no delusions that Simon and Schuster will call to say they want to publish my work, and are bringing over those wealthy educated readers who’ll pay $34.95 for the hardback.

Really, there are two problems with keeping the reader in mind. One is that every reader is different. This is why writing groups are so fascinating and so frustrating. Everyone has a different idea of what should be changed, improved, kept. The other is that I am the reader.  If I have to engage in Brown-like and Grisham-like formulaic writing, I’ll stop writing all together. (The one bit of advice I will follow is that you should write the book you want to read.)

4. Use the pattern of rising action, climax, denouement

In my first mystery, the dead body refused to make its appearance until the end of chapter three. I do sort of have a rising action, as people work around trying to figure out whodunnit. And I did manage to contrive a threatening scene to expose the murderer.

But in the sequel, the body falls in somewhere around chapter five, and I keep adding stuff before it. Then after that body, a couple of other things happen, including an attack in a park. And the police are on a different track than our detective, who doesn’t even know she’s the detective yet although I’m over half-way through the book. The murder, rather than being central to the story, seems to be only one of several factors contributing to the overall story. Which causes the problem of. . .

5. Write in one genre

I can say my first novel is literary fiction, but it doesn’t really fit that genre because the prose is not celestial by any means. While it is not impossible to describe the story, there is neither a typical plot nor a traditional character arc for the protagonist. The Victorian mystery should be easier — it’s a mystery. Well, a historical mystery. Except the sequel, as noted above, seems to be more like an historical novel with a mysterious element.

The other problem I have with genre is that I don’t like crime novels. I only read historical mysteries, and my historical era has contracted until it’s just the Victorian. And just England. Should I join the Mystery Writers of America? Facebook groups of crime writers? I tried that and I now receive countless posts promoting crime books I’d never, ever read (I’m really rather squeamish about violence, and I cannot tolerate cruelty). I am not even interested in modern-day cozies anymore (I have read all the Rita Mae Browns, but that was a long time ago). You shouldn’t join groups whose work you don’t want to read. That’s . . . anti-social networking.

6. Plot out mysteries carefully

As I’ve indicated, I tried very hard to do become a plotter. I mapped out the sequel to my Victorian mystery in the assignments for the mystery writing class I took. Yes, it was a fine plot. But as I started writing, I resisted it. Now I have quite the mess to write my way out of, trusting the process instead.

Is it wrong to plot? Not at all. But if I do it, it becomes like an outline for an academic paper. I feel like I have to fill it in. I’m writing fiction to get away from that.

7. Make sure the main character experiences a threatening challenge to which s/he responds by overcoming an embedded weakness

My literary novel features a decidedly more passive MC (main character) than some might like. That is part of her personality, and it is important that the other central character moves more and faster than she does. My MC’s threatening challenge is only mildly apparent until the end, when it overcomes her. The other character’s weakness is only apparent in retrospect, if at all.

But surely in mysteries this should be easier? Nope. My Victorian mysteries feature an inspector who loves books and a female illustrator as the “detectives”. Neither has much of a weakness, and certainly not a fatal flaw like alcoholism or the pain of a spouse’s unsolved death (a seemingly popular motif these days). Readers tell me they like them anyway. And even more importantly, I like them.

8. Don’t use too much dialogue

Last year I realized I had trouble writing dialogue, so I worked on it. Now I write too much. Most of the scenes I write are dialogue-based. I have read that this is wrong, so I tried to change it. But then I happened to start reading Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, which contains many pages of continuous dialogue. If it’s good enough for Hardy, it’s good enough for me. While I will add more descriptions to such scenes, the conversations will remain central.

9. Have good “comps”

This is the idea that your query to agents and publishers must compare your book to others which are known. I have tried this with my literary novel (“kind of like Rachel Cusk”) and my Victorian mystery (“such as Anne Perry”). But lately I have been thinking it is more important to note what I am not doing. I am not, like other authors I could name, simply using the era as a setting in which characters do their thing. That seems to be a trend now. Pick an era (the American West, medieval Germany), do a bit of research so you have the clothes and vehicles right, then write a tale that could take place absolutely anywhere and be exactly the same. I’m a historian. Universal stories are all very well, but historical fiction should not only be embedded in its time, but should give us some insight into the period.

Another issue about “comps” is that although I consider myself “well-read”, I don’t read much contemporary fiction. I do read Cusk, Sarah Perry, Alexander McCall Smith, and Kate Morton. But I don’t read a lot of the super-popular formulaic stuff. So when I see an author’s posting saying “my book is the next x“, most of the time I have no idea what x is. And I can’t go around saying my comps are Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and H. G. Wells because they aren’t.

10. Engage professional services

Assuming you don’t need actual paid help learning to write, or get picked up by one of the “big five” publishing houses, then we’re talking $875 to publish with a bit of help from a hybrid publisher. Plus $600 for a developmental editor. $300 for a book cover designer. And this is after that $50 class in how to write a query and get an agent. Then you need a line editor, a publicity person, a proofreader, beta readers. Not happening, say I.

Combine these with the rest:

  • always write mysteries as a series
  • spend three times as much time editing as you did writing
  • slash and burn pages when your editor tells you to
  • “kill your darlings” (Stephen King) because if they mean that much to you they’re personal and won’t sell
  • be aware of the market
  • write what you know
  • novels are 70,000 words

and we may have good advice, but not necessarily for my work. I could renege on my rebellion tomorrow and do what I’ve learned I should do, but I doubt I will.



Two Characters in Search of their Teaching Author

“Excuse me,” said Jo, from inside the computer. “Lisa? I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m afraid we need some attention here.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” I said. “But I have a lot of grading to do.”

“You always do,” said Jo. “And we understand. But you’ve left us hanging around here in Chapter 3 for almost six weeks.”

“Yes, yes,” I said, trying not to sound exasperated. “But we are in a pandemic, you know, and I’ve had a death in the family, and I’m behind on my teaching work.”

“But we’re losing the thread here,” said Jo, “and I’m afraid Rossetti is getting impatient.”

“Hmmm,” I said, trying to grade just one more set of student lecture notes.

“Lisa?” This was Rossetti now. “Trouble is, I’m an actual historical character.”

“Unlike me,” added Jo.

“Unlike Jo,” agreed Rossetti, “And I’m known for my impetuous nature.”

“And your charm,” said Jo.

“And my charm,” conceded Rossetti, “And my brilliance and talent and vivacity. You can’t leave us sitting here in the chapter like this. We must shine.”

“We need to know where things are going,” said Jo.

“Well,” I said, “You know where things are going. There’s the outline.”

Jo laughed. “You said you weren’t going to use the outline. Right after you took that Mystery Writing class. I can’t do all this planning, you said, and bought a book about writing in the dark, or something about the seat of your pants.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “But you can use the outline to know what’s going to happen.”

“But I don’t know,” said Jo. “We’ve only just discovered the body of Mr Pratchett. I’m supposed to be the lady detective this time, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are. The Inspector did all the work in the first mystery, but this time it’s you.”

“I cannot detect without having something to detect with. A plot or a clue or something. If I don’t have it, I can’t share it with Rossetti.”

“And we’re becoming such good friends,” added Rossetti.

“Yes, we’re becoming such good friends,” said Jo.

“Which you hadn’t planned,” added Rossetti.

“Which I hadn’t planned,” I said, “because Rossetti was a rather famous lover of women, and you, Jo, are a lesbian.”

“She’s a lesbian?” asked Rossetti.

“Yes,” said Jo, “Didn’t you know about my lover Nan, the one who died?”

“No,” said Rossetti quietly.

“She was in the first book.”

“I didn’t read the first book,” said Rossetti, “I wasn’t in the first book. Why would I read a book I’m not in?”

“Oh,” said Jo.

“Look, you two,” I said, “Maybe you’ll become close friends because there’s no sexual tension. Or maybe you’ll both just get excited about the case and enjoy joining forces. You’ve already joined forces really. You’ve already taken Jo to see the wombats.”

“I did,” said Rossetti proudly, “and she’s to be my very dear friend. If you write it that way.” There was a pause. “Are you going to write it that way?”

“I think so,” I said, “But it’s been awhile. I was having trouble with the plot.”

“Well,” said Jo, “you need to write us more, give us more things to do. We can’t just sit here waiting for you to finish your grading. It’ll be all term. We won’t move till winter break at this rate. And all the time, the killer is getting away.”

“How can he be getting away, if I haven’t written about him either?” I asked, reasonably.

“Maybe he’s planning another murder. Maybe the head of the National Gallery is involved. Maybe he’ll start killing artists!” She sounded afraid.

“Or Bridget,” said Rossetti, “He might kill Bridget. Bridget is Mr Pratchett’s assistant, isn’t she?”

“And a very dear friend of mine,” said Jo.

“And a very dear friend of yours. What if she’s in danger? How would we know?”

“She’s already been locked in the darkroom once. And somewhere back here,” Jo paused. She must be searching the previous chapters, I thought. “Somewhere back here there’s a Millicent somebody, who comes to the photographer’s studio.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Rossetti.

“I haven’t been written to tell you yet,” said Jo, “but maybe she’s involved? She’s in the same philanthropy group as I am.”

I shook my head, “I’m not sure what to do with her yet. I thought someone could blackmail her about her hair color. Or a forgery of a painting she owns.”

“Yes! Forgery!” said Jo, “You were going to do something with forgery. And that character, the Italian who knows all about art. He could identify the forger.”

“Besides,” said Rossetti, grumbling, “You’re leaving us here in 1863, while you sit comfortably in 2020.”

“I’m not comfortable,” I said, “Did you hear what I said about a pandemic?”

“More time to write,” said Rossetti. “The fact is, a story about me should be an inspiration, should override all need for mundane work. I want to inspire you! I want to be your muse!”

“It’s not a story about you,” I said, “I am fascinated by you, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But the story is about Jo solving the murder. You’re a side character. You’re her foil.”

“Oh,” said Rossetti, quiet again. “I thought you cared. At one point you had a scene with all of us, with Christina and mother. And Mr Dodgson.”

“I did have,” I said, “I wasn’t sure what to do with it.”

“And now it’s in a file marked ‘not used’,” said Rossetti, sadly. “My family. Not used.”

“Really, Rossetti,” said Jo, “You’re being too sensitive.”

“Am I?” cried Rossetti, “Am I? What if she starts slaughtering the Pre-Raphaelites? What if I’m the next victim? What if poor Lizzie didn’t kill herself, if this murderer gave her an overdose of laudanum? We need this thing written. I deserve to know where I stand!” He was getting very upset.

“Please don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t kill off the Pre-Raphaelites, and you and Jo won’t be harmed.”

“Bridget?” said Jo nervously, “You won’t kill off Bridget?”

“I hadn’t planned to,” I said. “But I really don’t have time to get back to this right now.”

“Hah! You always say that time is made, not found,” said Jo. “So make some time for us and get us to where we can find the forgery and do some detecting.”

“Yes, dear,” I said, and sighed. “I honestly had no idea you characters were so demanding.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jo.

“I am too,” said Rossetti, “but please don’t abandon us.”

“I won’t,” I said. “But do let me grade another set of lecture notes.”



What about Ann Little Ingram?

While I will again emphasize that I am not a women’s historian, or a feminist historian, I must say that tracking down a historic woman has again proven extraordinarily difficult.

This time the story revolves around the Illustrated London News, a highly popular periodical in Victorian England. While not the only newspaper to use illustrations, the ILN was known for the quality and quantity of its images. This is why the character in my novel, Jo Harris, wants to be an artist for the ILN.

Knowing this was unlikely for a young-ish woman with no connections, I had her doing odd illustrating jobs in the first novel, for lesser periodicals like the Penny Illustrated Paper. But in the sequel, she has become more skilled, and is ready for the big time.

Wanting to create another character based on an actual person (I did this throughout the first mystery), I looked up who the proprietor was of the ILN in 1863.

Ann Ingram. Prounouns would be she/her, as they say. I confess I didn’t expect that. But apparently her husband, Herbert Ingram, founded the Illustrated London News, with a loan from Anne’s brother, who would also be publisher. But in 1860, Herbert took a holiday with his teenage eldest son, and they died in a massive boating accident on Lake Michigan aboard the cursed steamer Lady Elgin. So Ann took over the paper.

She is mentioned briefly in several sources, who essentially say she took over as editor only until her sons became old enough to do it. I think this is unlikely, since she was proprietor for eleven years from 1860-1871. The Waterloo Directory (the bible of Victorian periodical research) fails to list her name as editor. A Google Search, with either spelling of Ann or Anne, is unprofitable.  So I posted on the Facebook group for the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, and the venerable Patrick Leary responded that she has indeed been neglected. He mentioned her in this history of the ILN written for Gale, and called her “a woman of considerable business acumen”.

What a possibly fascinating person. Leary has suggested that Isabel Bailey, who wrote a book on Herbert, might know something, having accessed their unpublished papers. If only I could find her.

But the point is, I shouldn’t have to. How can a woman who managed a paper which sold 250,000 copies for its special issues, not be more well-known? He certainly was — he became an MP, and there is a statue of him in the marketplace in old Boston. His life is chronicled. His picture is right here. –>

She bore him ten children, then ran his business, and her name isn’t even on his Wikipedia page. Was she photographed or engraved? Did she keep a diary? Was she written about in other people’s letters?

I sense yet another rabbit hole, dark with the story of another ignored woman.

The Formula, or What I Learned in Mystery-Writing Class

I just completed a class in writing mysteries. I took it because I wanted a bit of training, having completed my first Victorian mystery and started a second. The first one I wrote as a “pantser”, working an hour at midnight every night, just writing. I had no idea where the story was going until I wrote it. My characters developed as I went along. This, I had learned, was wrong. Particularly with mysteries, one must plot and outline. I purchased two books on how to plot fiction, and signed up for the class.

My second mystery would not be so slipshod. I would plan it out in this class, and it would be even better than the first. Ready, steady, go!

Problem 1: the protagonist’s flaw

We were taught that all mysteries must have a protagonist who has a flaw. This flaw must block the protagonist from solving the crime right away. There should also be an antagonist whose flaw is fatal, and will be exploited by the protagonist once s/he has an epiphany and realizes their own flaw is preventing their progress.

I am a fan of Agatha Christie and Anne Perry. If you know Agatha Christie, you know Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple. I could not find a flaw in either one that was so big it carried across their stories. Certainly Poirot has peculiarities, like fastidiousness. Miss Marple is somewhat cloistered in her village. In Anne Perry’s Pitt mysteries, the Inspector is rumpled and has pockets full of stuff. These are simply traits, not deep flaws. But the instructor didn’t like Agatha Christie, saying her protagonists are too perfect.

My protagonist in the first book was an Inspector whose only flaw is a penchant for buying and reading books. In the second, my protagonist is an artist for the magazines. So I created her flaw, a difficulty with her not seeing below the surface to understand people’s duplicity. Naïvete, if you like. I didn’t really want her to have a flaw. She’s forthright and talented and smart. I kind of wanted her to solve the mystery by being forthright and talented and smart. But I’m a good student. I then made up an antagonist. I didn’t want her to be the murderer, though. But she also had to have a flaw. OK, cynicism. Or maybe pride. How do I know? I haven’t met her yet.

Problem 2: The Hook

The mystery must start with a hook, something to pull the reader in and make them want to read on. I hadn’t devised one of these. There wasn’t one in my first mystery either, which I was trying to get an agent to read. So I added one to each story: a body! in a mysterious place! what could it mean?

Yeah, ok. But why do readers need a hook? I don’t need a hook. Just give me an interesting character and/or setting in Chapter 1. I’m in. I’ll trust the author until they prove unworthy of trust. We had been encouraged to look at examples from mysteries we love. I looked. The hooks, such as they were, were too long to qualify or not exciting. The ones I liked best start slowly, with character and setting. Ugh, I thought. If you don’t want to read my book, then don’t read it. I want to start with the Inspector coming home after a lecture. Sigh.

Problem 3: The Map

This all-important Hook is followed by Backstory and Trigger for Act I. Crisis, Struggle, and Epiphany are Act II. Plan, Climax, and Ending are Act III. We had to map those out. Before writing.

I did it.

Hook: A body is found at the Exhibition.
Backstory: Jo is an artist whose flaw is that she assumes that people are as they appear to be. Several scenes take place which establish the main characters, especially the protagonist: their goals, activities, location in the city, connections to each other.
Trigger: Jo’s best friend Bridget, a photographer’s assistant, is kidnapped.

Crisis: Jo is unsure how to find the kidnapped Bridget, police aren’t helpful, and she can’t think of what to do.
Struggle: Using deduction, Jo finds Bridget safe, but then Mr Pratchett is found dead, and Jo has to untangle the mystery with witnesses who all seem nice and personable.
Epiphany: Jo realizes she’s been naive to assume that people are, like her, what they appear to be. As with art, she needs to think in terms of creativity, imagination, and duplicity to devise a plan to find the perpetrator of both crimes.

Plan: Jo devises a plan that involves a disguise, to pretend to be in the market for a forged painting.
Climax: She discovers that Cecil is the forger, and that his father is the killer.
Ending: James Robson is arrested for the murder and kidnapping.

In the first book, my backstory was the entire first third of the book. Very bad, that. As I wrote out these elements, my phrases got shorter and shorter. I had no place to put Rossetti, and I wanted Rossetti. Why hadn’t he showed up? I started to realize I’d stopped actually writing in my midnight sessions. Instead I was plotting. I thought it would be like non-fiction, that I’d have a great outline I just had to fill in. Yet I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything.

Problem 4: The Scenes

Then we worked on scene structure. Another formula: Goal, Conflict, Disaster, followed by Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action.

I like my scenes. They wrap. They have a beginning, middle, and end. They either move the plot (events) or the story (character) along. I didn’t want to do Goal, Conflict, Disaster, followed by Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action.

I had just written a scene. If all scenes are like this, as I was taught, I should be able to take any scene from my book, and if I was doing it right, it would work. I broke down the scene to show these elements. It didn’t work because it had two points of view.

Problem 5: Points of View

Apparently, most mysteries should be in the first person. I didn’t want mine in the first person. Pros and cons were presented for each point of view.

Third person has both limited and omniscient. This was helpful. Omniscient you don’t use much because that would tell the reader everything as it happens, which you never do in a mystery. So I chose limited. But my scene had two characters walking together, and I showed what each of them was thinking. Not ok. Too confusing; it should be one point of view per scene. So I showed the scene to a couple of friends. Not confusing at all, they said. It’s kind of cute to know that both characters secretly like each other.

But at least I know I’m writing in first person limited. Next step would be to plan out which characters would have their thoughts revealed, and which didn’t. Sounds like a lot of work.


As the course went on, I lost interest in writing my story. I felt like I already knew the ending, like I peeked at the last page, so why bother? The characters weren’t developed as I went, so I didn’t even know them, and here I was at the end, knowing whodunnit. The topic of forgery got stuck on like a plaster rather then evolving organically within the plot. I didn’t even want to read this, much less write it.

This is not to say that the class was bad. It was great. Beautifully organized, very clear, the instructor always on hand to answer questions. He was very helpful and funny and wise. And I’d read some of his work before I signed up, and he’s a good writer.

But before this class, I wrote in the dark, with no outline, looking up research as I went. It was always exciting. I never knew exactly what was going to happen. My characters did all the work, and even though I was writing I was also just watching as they did their thing. And you know, I’m not writing to feed my family. I don’t need to pump out six formulaic best-sellers a year. I’m writing for the joy of writing, the thrill of historical discovery, the transportation away from our current “challenging times”.

That’s it then. I’ve put the books on plotting in the garage and bought one on being a brilliant pantser. I am going to embrace this rather than trying to change it.

That decided, it’s hard to put aside the plot I already developed. Maybe it’s just one possible way the story could go?

So late last night, Bridget was locked in the dark-room by an unseen intruder, rather than kidnapped. She was only trapped for one day, because she was missed at dinner and Jo went to find her and rescued her. She’d had to pee in the developing pan. I had no idea that would happen. . .





A story published

I’ve had my first short story published, in The Secret Attic. Entries were competitive, so it’s real, but I’ve had to pay £7.99 plus shipping to America to see it in print. They didn’t tell me my story got in — I had to return to the website to see if I won the contest or got published or neither. An interesting process, publishing, but I’m grateful for the opportunity.

I read the submission rules, and copyright is mine with right to publish elsewhere. No one else will publish it, of course, but it does mean I can publish it here. Enjoy.

The Online Death of Gerald Thorne
by Lisa M. Lane

Notes on Publishing

Today was Day 4 of the San Diego Writers Conference, but instead of detailing the sessions, I will instead relay what I learned about publishing. (Warning: if you are considering publishing your well-written but ordinary novel, you may find this depressing.)

As I understand it, there are three tiers of publishing: Traditional, Hybrid, and Self (or Indie).

Traditional means one must get an agent, who peddles your book to a major publisher, costing the agent’s commission on each sale of your book. Finding an agent is an entire industry in itself — instead of agents seeking writers, writers these days seek agents, begging them to read even a query letter much less an entire manuscript. Advisors make money helping people write good query letters to try to grab an agent’s attention. It seems backward to me. The agent’s commission (usually 15-20%) comes from the author’s work, but the author needs the agent to get the attention of a publisher. Many publishers won’t accept “unagented” submissions.

Hybrid publishing means one submits to a company that might help prepare the work a bit, but their main role is to professionally publish and distribute it. I learned about author-led (the writer controls the cover design, for example) and publisher-led (the company takes care of everything) models. I learned that these companies charge about $6500-7500 per book for their services. I have a friend who went this route. She’s happy with her decision, and I hope she’s sold at least $7500 worth of books. I can’t even conceive of doing that.

Another speaker said that really, you should be ready to spend $20,000 to publish a book, what with editing and production costs. But if I had $20,000, I would go back and get my PhD, not spend it on someone publishing my book. (I found it interesting that my automatic translation of cost was how much education it would get me.)

The third tier used to be called self-publishing, but is now called “indie” (independent) publishing because no one really does it by him/herself, I was told. It was pointed out that one still would pay for beta readers, editing services, design help for pages and cover, etc. So these are all professional services that cost money. But, of course, one doesn’t have to use them. You can just throw crap up on Amazon and see if anyone buys it.

This was all very disheartening. I did manage to obtain a pitch session with an agent (7 minutes, and I had to grab the slot right when the window opened a week ago — they filled all slots in the first 13 minutes). She was interested and asked me to send a query and two chapters, which I have. We’ll see what happens.

But I realized that the middle fell out of my plans. I had thought I’d try awhile to get an agent, if I could do so without spending money. But it was advised in many places to join sites like Publishers Marketplace ($25/month) to find an agent. I even found writing groups that cost money to join. There are also entire (paid) courses one can take, at varying prices, to learn the tricks. My thought was if no agent were interested, I could do hybrid publishing, then if that didn’t work, self-publish. But clearly hybrid publishing is beyond my reach financially.

Luckily I have two or three wonderful friends who read my work, give me feedback, and have even done editing. So it may be better to consider submitting directly to small presses as the middle option. I have done so to one press, but never heard back. (At the conference one speaker noted that not all agents or publishers write you back, or even acknowledge your submission. Or they have form letters of rejection. I’ve gotten a few of those already from agents for my first novel, so instead I’ve been shopping for an agent for the second.)

The plague was not a factor when I began writing fiction, but it is now. Everyone who isn’t baking bread (and some who are) is writing their first novel. And publishers are under pressure to sign “diverse” authors (I was at one time considered diverse, but am not now with current trends). My timing is unfortunate. And, speaking of timing, a traditional publishing timeline can be anywhere from a year to five years. Not great for those of us autumn chickens.

So I’ve learned that the path from writer to author is quite expensive. Perhaps this will be a dream deferred (and we know what happens to those), or perhaps it will work out somehow. But it’s an enormous distraction from writing. I can’t imagine how Hemingway managed it.

Well, yes, I can. But I have no idea how to roast a pigeon.



Notes on writing: San Diego Writers’ Festival

I recently enjoyed Day 2 of the San Diego Writers’ Festival. I have never attended a writing conference of any kind before, and it was interesting to do so when it’s on Facebook rather than in person. I live and work quite a ways north of the city, so I’ve never really connected with anyone there although I’m in the same county.

Although I’ve recently completed writing my second novel, and have spent years writing articles and lectures, I still have some reluctance considering myself a writer. This is despite the fact that I do it all the time, and am now just doing it for fiction. So I was there strictly to learn. I’m recording here the best parts, just as I do when I go to a history conference.

Writing the Page Turning Novel

This was a panel moderated by Rich Farrell, and including Tammy Greenwood, Neal Griffin, Joe Ide, and R.D. Kardon. They’re all novelists and at least two teach writing. Good writing, they said, has to come from something that haunts you, something that just won’t leave you alone, the “hot embers”. The story is sustained by the characters and the world that you build for them.

In each session there would be one writer who definitely spoke to my methods of working. For this one, it was Tammy Greenwood. The start of each chapter should be like the start of a book, for one thing. But it isn’t necessary for the writer to know everything, or to even have an outline. In fact, if you know too much, then the writing is just reverse engineering. This viewpoint made me feel a lot better, since on both books I have been a “pantser”, writing by the seat of my pants (although the conference speakers also used the term “Blank Page writer”). It’s authentic to just write, and to be surprised by what we write — it gives us a reason to keep writing.

Another useful point was that writing a book was about writing, not publishing. The only important thing, said Joe Ide, is to write a good book. And the advice from several was to just keep writing — don’t stop.

Interactive Workshop: John Vorhaus

This speaker was a revelation, with a presentation on what I can only call Writer Psychology. It was the sort of session where everyone taps their feet and comes out dancing.

Vorhaus gave four aspects of writing, but really they could be for anything:

  • Passion: what you love
  • Purpose: the reason you do what you do
  • Path: the process of development and self awareness as you combine Passion and Purpose
  • Practice: what you do, using your capability and skills

If you’re doing what you love, and you’re doing it for a purpose, then the path you’re on is right and being in your practice is all you have to do.

He had each of the attendees list several passions, so we didn’t get hung up on the idea there had to be just one. Then we listed several purposes, then determined where our passions and purposes intersect.

He also talked about fear, the fear of failure, and said it comes from having expectations that are too high. High expectations leads to stress and thus poorer performance. Lower expectations leads to less angst and therefore better performance. One is not afraid to fail, because being in your practice is what you’re supposed to be doing; indeed, it is all you need to do. Forget about the outcomes. Growth comes from continual practice and reflection.

People asked, but how do I know if my work is good? When you decide it’s good, set it aside and move on, and begin to trust that you know when it’s good. Someone asked if rewards were a good idea (like I write 10 pages and I get a cup of coffee), and Vorhaus pointed out that if you’re combining your passion and purpose, rewards are unnecessary. You only need a reward for doing something you don’t like doing. You want a reward if the creative act is painful, and it’s only painful if you’re afraid of failing.

Feeling like you’re not worthy is for those dependent on external validation. None of us are really worthy, but we’ve been given gifts and purpose, and we’re using them. Needing others to tell you that you’re doing it well is a trap.

The last thing he said that I really liked was that you should find a level of success you’re comfortable with. That took the pressure off me to get on the best-seller list or try to become famous. Those goals fit neither my passion nor my purpose.

Unwinding the Mystery of Writing Mysteries

Since I’m starting my second mystery, this was the session I really wanted to learn from, and I wasn’t disappointed. Moderated by Matt Coyle, the panel included Lisa Brackman, Kathy Krevat, David Putnam, and Carl Vonderau. Several write crime novels, and Krevat writes cozies. Each had a completely different approach to writing.

The necessary ingredients for a good mystery included interesting characters, something to hold attention, a story that makes sense. Each character has to want something, and the protagonist must be motivated by something in order the justify the book itself (one example here was Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, who is always motivated by a member of her family being in trouble).

Each author had patterns they liked. Putnam uses conflict-complication-crisis-conclusion, and said his writing improved when he made the conflict more brief. Krevat said the hero, villian, and victim always create a triangle. Vondereau focuses on the premise, then characters and their family. Each also shared their stories of how long it took them to get published, and for most it was many books and many years. But there was also serendipity. Vondereau shared how he had just learned at a conference how to create an “elevator pitch” for his book, and at the same conference was asked by an agent, delivered his pitch, and got the agent. I’ll work on my pitch!

I asked about reintroducing characters in a sequel, since that’s what I’m working on, and was advised to do it briefly, in a sentence or two rather than an information dump. Considering each book as stand-alone meant treating the reintroduction like the introduction of any other character.

Another question was about clues, how to seed them without ruining the big reveal. The suggestions were wonderfully specific. Have something exciting or funny happen right after you reveal a clue, as a distraction. Put the clue in a list of things that aren’t clues. Make the clue seem to apply to just one character, when it will really apply to more. But again, there was also serendipity — several authors had the experience of not realizing they had clues in what they’d already written, and later discovered them. More support for my pantsing!

So I learned a lot, and gained confidence that my work methods are not completely bizarre. I’m starting a mystery writing class, because I need to learn more. But I don’t want to get too organized!

On Victorian female painters

I have been notoriously lax in my advancement of the feminist cause. I just assume that women were far more active historically than they have been portrayed. Those who control the media control the message. But at the same time I do notice when women have important public roles to play, and in writing fiction I have made sure that my Victorian females have a great deal of agency.

That’s not wishful thinking. It’s simply that the ordinary academic practice of history tends to believe its sources, without looking at all of them. That’s human. So I just want to say up front, it takes quite a bit to get my feminist hackles up. I’m a humanist.

But as I look into the Pre-Raphaelites, I have found myself getting annoyed with the focus on the men. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Millais — there are women who took their names, but they are seen as muses alone. No one says “Rossetti” and means Christina, Dante Gabriel’s highly published and respected poet sister. No one says Millais and means Lady Millais, or “Burne-Jones” and means Georgina, an accomplished artist, or “Morris” and means Jane, a talented embroiderer. Why, when most of them published or exhibited their own work? I’m not even sure the men themselves saw them as sidelines — there is much evidence of respect and collaboration. And yet in most of the books, the men’s work is emphasized, and the women’s downgraded. Most of the explorations of the women’s work are recent, like Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, or the National Portrait Gallery exhibit.

For inspiration and pandemic-driven amusement, I’ve been looking at the portrayal of the Pre-Raphaelites in cinema and television, so I’m watching Desperate Romantics. It was made in 2009, not exactly a bad time for feminism. But even there, little mention is made of anything the women themselves created or exhibited. I realize it’s set early (1850s), but the writer didn’t even imbue them with any ambition.

Jane Morris embroidery

by Georgiana Burne-Jones

Clerk Saunders, by Elizabeth Siddall

I thought perhaps I’d look into their lives a bit, see whether they would make good characters in my book, or whether the tale I’ll tell could be through their eyes, instead of the men’s. I don’t know much about the art history of this period, so I’m investigating. My book is set in 1863, so I thought I’d see what the Royal Academy of Arts was doing then. I found The Royal Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, a great resource that for 1863 discussed several of the key works including Millais, comparing his dark work in The Eve of St Anges to the lightness of a painting by Edward Matthew Ward. And then I saw in the Context section:

For some critics, Henrietta Ward’s picture of Mary Queen of Scots surpassed her husband’s efforts, and the Mutrie sisters were described as “still supreme among flower-painters”.

Who’s Henrietta Ward? I tried to search her by name and “Mary Queen of Scots”. I found an engraving from the Illustrated London News of it, but not the painting. So then I found the Royal Academy of Arts catalogue for that exhibition on HathiTrust. I wondered whether she’d be listed like the male painters, as “H. Ward”. I found the work, and her name as “Mrs. E. M. Ward”, and she had half a dozen works in the exhibition. I looked her up at the NPG, but there’s not a lot there. I found a review in the Athaeneum, which said:

They used “Mrs.” but referred to the artist as a male. How strange.

I thought I’d pick at random another female, since they are so clever indicated with “Miss” and “Mrs.” Item 571, Always welcome, by Mrs. J. F. Pasmore. Started searching on Google. “Mrs. J. F. Passmore painting 1863”. Very frustrating. I had spelled the name wrong. Then I stumbled on this at an antiques dealer site:

And here’s the description:

Middle initial and last name spelling confusion aside, she “also exhibited paintings”? Hers is in the Royal Academy exhibition, but I can’t find a copy of Always welcome online (there are plenty of paintings around by John F., mostly for sale). And this website attributes the above painting to him anyway, not her. So now I don’t know what to think. Maybe this is just a picture of her.

I don’t like to class everyone together: all women, all men. Some women had extraordinary power, both in the home and out of it. Others were taken advantage of. This sort of problem makes one wonder whether it’s the sources or the perception. Looking at the sources, I find more and more evidence of women’s agency. But finding those sources seems inordinately difficult.



Writing novels

I read a great quotation today: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” It’s by Ray Bradbury, so of course I had to find out from which book and order it.

Way back in November, which feels like a lifetime ago now, I was feeling stuck in my research. I had applied for a grant for my collection of H. G. Wells’ writings, so it felt like I had no reason to work on it until I knew whether I got it (I didn’t, third time running). The other book on Wells was in the process of being written through a series of scholarly papers presented at conferences, but since I teach full-time plus, and can only present once a year, this was going slowly. I tried reworking the papers into publishable articles, but they didn’t seem to fit what journals were looking for.

So although I was still fascinated by my topic, output was lagging. Nothing felt completable. So on a gloomy November day, I haphazardly began writing a novel based on a character like me, in the process of doing research on H. G. Wells. Over the next four months, I wrote every night between midnight and 1 a.m., until it was done. The writing flowed. I downloaded Scrivener to have a place to write it, and ultimately paid for that program (and I rarely pay for anything). The book seemed to write itself. I edited as I went along, going back to the previous chapters nightly, rearranging and fixing. It was a strange process, since I have long thought of myself as having no imagination. But what came out was pretty good.

I wanted to get it published, so I began reading up on how to do that. I have a former student who’s now an author and writing coach, and subscribed to her advice. I thought I should join writing groups on Facebook, so I found a few and followed them. I searched out information on writing and writers conferences, novel construction, how to make a good plot. I discovered that I’m a “pantser” (writing by the seat of my pants, with no plan) rather than a plotter.

This conclusion annoyed me. I have for many years prided myself on my organization and planning skills. I had read that it is a good idea to start work on a second novel, while waiting for the zillion rejections on the first. The first book was in the genre “literary fiction”, I discovered, but I had been wanting for some time to write a Victorian mystery, so I started that. My many blog posts on the year 1862 attest to the fun I’ve been having doing it. The pundits said no, you should write in the same genre for several books. Oh well.

Unlike the first book, this one should have been planned out rather than “pantsed”. Mysteries are complex, and my memory is not good (few historians have good memories). I tried mind-mapping, and ended up with Scapple, from the same people as Scrivener, to map the plot. This didn’t work well. I tried to plan, but ended up putting things that I had already written on the map instead, a reverse process of tracking rather than planning.

And I kept looking for groups to join, because I’m entering a new world so I felt I should. Writers, they say, should hang out with writers, as a community, for support. I am not a joiner. I don’t like groups. And I’ve become annoyed with the process of looking for an agent, which everyone says takes huge amounts of time and lots of rejections. I expected rejections from publishers, but agents? The whole publishing thing has been frustrating and mystifying. The advice, the formulas, the sample letters, the filling out of forms that each have their own format, just to get someone to represent you whose fee will ultimately be paid through book sales. I have decided on one plan, anyway: write agents some, send directly to publishers if I can’t find an agent, and self-publish if I can’t get an agent or a publisher.

I do not, like some authors, seek fame or fortune. But I would like some people to read and enjoy my work. If the writing itself adds joy to my life, the seeking of agents and publishers seems to suck it back out. My book(s) are good, I think, but I have learned rather quickly that quality doesn’t matter that much in the publishing world. I’ve learned why Dan Brown and John Grisham sell, and beautfully written works do not.

The pandemic now has millions of would-be novelists putting fingers to keyboards. I have been joined by mobs. Am I novelist, without a published novel, just because I’m up at night writing novels? Does this graphomania have anything to do with my job? Why am I doing this?

And yet I continue to do it all wrong. I have read that my protagonist must have a horrible flaw, an Achilles heel that causes conflict. Mine merely has a penchant for buying too many books and taking his time thinking things out. The action is supposed to rise, with a status quo brutally disturbed, truths revealed, and a startling conclusion. Mine has likeable characters that mosey along finding things out. There are supposed to be twists, where I’ve led my reader to think one thing and then — shock! — it’s something else. I have some pinkish herrings, but I don’t think I have a single twist. It’s more like a churro than a pretzel. Is it a cozy? Apparently not, because there’s some plot-based sexuality and the person solving the mystery is a professional. But it seems like a cozy to me.

And now, I’m a bit stuck, with most of the mystery written, and no idea how it’s going to end. But when I allow the characters to just mosey along, talking and discovering and living their lives, the world of today utterly disappears. I am in 1862, caught up in the pushing and shoving of the audience at the Surrey Theatre, sensing the activity of overcrowded London, wondering whether it’s worth the trip to travel to the Exhibition in Kensington when the omnibus doesn’t go all the way there. When I let the characters take over, the plot just goes along fine, so I’ve decided to leave it to them. They know what they’re doing. They’ll figure it out.

Maybe when ones characters become so real they write the story, one really is a novelist. So I’ll stay drunk on writing.