“A painting undermined my father. And, as you will see by the end of my story, a painting nearly destroyed me. Art is dangerous like that, an unruly thing. I used to consider it as superfluous as those who dedicated their lives to creating it. I no longer do—I’ve learned this lesson, along with so many others, over the past months. During this period my life has become as foreign to me as another land….”
As I mentioned in Friday’s post, I’ll be reading tomorrow night at Litwrap’s Works-in-Progress summer reading. I’m planning to read from the first chapter of the Novel Formerly Known as THE LILY MAID (above) and a short excerpt from the Next Novel.
When: Tuesday, July 29th, 7 – 9PM
Where: Upstairs at 61 Local, 61 Bergen Street (corner of Smith Street), Brooklyn
The reading is supported in part by a grant from Poets & Writers. I’ll be joined by an awesome lineup of local writers: Brian Erickson, Ilana Kramer, Sarah Seltzer, Rachel Lyon, Max Bean, Mary Lannon, and Gerard Cabrera. If all this isn’t enough enticement, I’ll be spilling the new titles for THE LILY MAID and the Next Novel, which thus far only my literary agent and a few close friends know.
So, hope to see you there!
Photographed recently in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Kind of how I feel when I contemplate first lines.
I’ve been tagged in yet another writer’s meme* making its way about Facebook. This one is all about opening lines for chapters, which seems especially timely as I forge my way through the first draft of the Next Novel.
Here are the rules for the First Lines meme: Post the first sentence of the first three chapters in your WIP to your wall. Tag others to participate.
Here’s mine from the very rough first draft of the Next Novel, which takes place in 1851 London amid poets and photographers:
1. The young woman laid as if asleep, her hands cupped against her breast like she was cradling a dove.
2. It is not an average day when a gentleman is called to photograph his dying father.
3. “I must warn,” Bertram Fitzgordon began, his breath shallow and fetid, “that you may find this story disturbing considering your unfortunate circumstances.”
Related note: this meme reminded me of a post I wrote nearly four years ago about first lines when I was drafting THE LILY MAID. (Yikes, that’s a long time!) Back then, my first sentence for THE LILY MAID was:
“I was surprised when the invitation arrived that June morning from St. John Dulac.”
At that time, I predicted the sentence would probably change. And I was right. My first sentence of the novel is now:
“A painting undermined my father.”
Whether this first line will change again, only time will tell.
* Thanks to the lovely Teralyn Pilgrim for tagging me. Teralyn’s recently expanded and updated her long established blog to include more than only writing-related posts. Check it out here.
I’m thrilled to announce that my author friend Susan Spann has a new novel out, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI. Here’s the juicy description:
June, 1565: When a killer murders the shogun’s cousin, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are summoned to the shogun’s palace and ordered to find the killer. The evidence implicates Hiro’s friend and fellow shinobi, Kazu, who was working undercover at the shogunate; however, the victim’s wife, a suspicious maid, and even the shogun’s stable master also had reasons to want the victim dead. The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the shogun and depose the ruling Ashikaga clan. With enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time . . . or die in his place.
To help Susan celebrate, I’m reposting the wonderful interview we did last year for her critically acclaimed first novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT. In it, we discuss creative process, East versus West, the history behind her story, and her amazing Twitter feed, which is a font of generous publishing advice. Enjoy!
Kris Waldherr: What was your initial inspiration for CLAWS OF THE CAT? Can you describe the moment that made you say, “I must write this”?
Susan Span: It happened in spring of 2011. I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, getting ready for work, when a voice in my head said, “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” I’d never written a mystery before, but I knew immediately I would have to write this one.
The plot and the setup took several months longer, but from the moment Hiro popped into my head I had no choice but to write about him.
KW: When I first met you at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2011, you had written a more traditional “marquee” historical about Joan of Arc. CLAWS OF THE CAT is quite a departure—a mystery set in sixteenth century Japan. How did you jump from one to the other, in terms of research and writing? Was a radical mind shift necessary?
SS: Until that morning in front of the mirror, I’d always considered myself a historical novelist. I love history—Asian history in particular—and also the challenge of weaving historical fact into fast-paced, compelling fiction.
I’m a lifelong fan of mysteries and thrillers, but always thought the challenge of writing one beyond me. Imagine my surprise when I tried it and discovered that my talents actually work better for writing mysteries than traditional historical story arcs. Mystery allows me to set the multi-faceted gems of history within a more puzzling and less straightforward framework, and I love the challenge that presents.
It also lets me kill my imaginary friends. What’s better than that?
KW: Your dual protagonists of CLAWS OF THE CAT are Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit, and Hiro, a master ninja with a shady past. I can tell that you had a lot of fun writing about their interdependent relationship! Did you base them on anyone from history or literature?
SS: Yes, but not intentionally!
Hiro is a fictitious cousin of famous historical ninja Hattori Hanzo (aka “Devil Hanzo”) who ruled the Iga Ryu during the time in which I set the Shinobi series. Hattori Hanzo was such a famous shinobi, and so important to ninja history, that I wanted to include him in the books. It didn’t work historically to make him the sleuth, however, so I invented a fictitious (and somewhat rebellious) cousin: Hattori Hiro.
I had a similar issue with Hiro’s sidekick, the Portuguese Jesuit, Father Mateo. The Jesuits documented their missionary efforts in detail, and I wanted to respect the history in my Shinobi novels. As a result, I felt it best to create a fictitious priest who could act in accordance with history without being bound by calendar details.
Then, while doing some secondary detail research for the later drafts of CLAWS OF THE CAT, I discovered a Jesuit record that mentioned an unnamed priest who arrived in Kyoto in autumn of 1563 – precisely the time my fictitious Father Mateo arrived in Japan. That Jesuit apparently reported to Father Gaspar Vilela, then the senior Jesuit in Kyoto, and then “disappeared” to conduct missionary activities in Japan.
My Jesuit, Father Mateo, lives and works separately from the other Jesuits (for reasons I explain in detail in the book), and if he had been real, the historical record about him would have read in precisely this way.
I set out to create an entirely fictitious priest, but it seems there’s an analog in the history after all. I found that pretty cool.
And no, I haven’t researched the phantom Father any farther—in the end, I like keeping Father Mateo fictitious, despite his hint of verisimilitude.
KW: In my book DOOMED QUEENS, I enumerated the various ways nobility can be ritually dispatched from life: guillotine, poison, burning, and beyond. In CLAWS OF THE CAT, you mention seppuku, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. As fascinated as I am with the macabre, seppuku is something that, for me as a Westerner, it’s very difficult to contemplate—the suicide is performed in a very ceremonial, artistic way. To my mind, it epitomizes how very foreign the Japanese culture can appear to outsiders, and reiterates the “East versus West” theme you have running through your novel. Can you offer other examples from your novel, good or bad, of cultural phenomenon we would never, ever find in American society? Are there any you wish we’d adopt as a culture?
SS: Great question!
I, too, find the seppuku ritual strangely fascinating. An early word for the process translates as “self-determination” – the idea that sometimes a person may find more honor in ending his life than continuing it.
Another strange dichotomy I explore in this novel (and will return to in others) is that involving the “proper” roles of women in medieval Japan. On the one hand, a wife was expected to serve her husband and care for his household, but women in the “floating world” [KW note: also known as ukiyo] of the entertainment district were permitted near-complete independence. Some women of the samurai class even shed their wifely roles and trained as warriors—such women were more rare than female artisans, but did exist, and I feature one in the book.
A positive aspect of Japanese culture involves the warrior’s attitude toward honor and family. To samurai, honor and family transcend all other values; they are the cornerstones upon which a samurai—male or female—builds a life. In modern times, we often bypass character in favor of wealth or “success.” I’m drawn to the samurai dedication to living an honorable life, though I’m not as keen on the samurai penalties for failure.
KW: Besides being a novelist, you’re also an attorney specializing in intellectual property and publishing law—your Twitter feed is a marvel of generous and helpful legal advice. How does your professional background as a lawyer feed into your creative work as a writer? Is it helpful to writing mysteries?
SS: First, thank you! I love authors and writing, and I love being able to use Twitter, and the #PubLaw hashtag, to help spread information that hopefully helps authors protect themselves and their work.
Some would probably tell you lawyers know all about lies from personal experience. That’s not entirely wrong. Unless, of course, I’m lying … because I’m a lawyer!
More seriously, I think the complexities of document drafting probably help me juggle the mystery plots and subplots better. The biggest benefit, though, is probably all of the time spent typing. I type over 100 words per minute, which really helps with hitting the daily goal in a shorter time!
KW: Can you tell us a little about your creative process for your writing? Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”? Do you have any special tools, writing programs, or rituals?
SS: I’m a plantser! I write two outlines for every book, one of which details the “onstage” action and the other tracks where my characters actually were when they weren’t onstage. Characters in a mystery novel rarely tell the truth when a lie will do, so I need to track their movements to be sure I really know what’s going on behind the scenes.
Once I start writing, however, the outline becomes a guideline and the characters do more or less whatever they please.
As far as the writing itself, I always write first drafts on an Alphasmart Neo, a fabulous little device with a four-line display and no Internet connection. It keeps me moving forward until “The End” – at which point I transfer the file to my laptop and start editing!
KW: Now that you’re officially published, what advice would you give to writers starting on the path? What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
SS: The best advice I can give is “whatever you do, keep writing.” It took me nine years and 5 complete (and polished) manuscripts—500,000 words—to find an agent and get a publishing deal.
I’d like to say I wish I’d known sooner that I was writing in the wrong genre—historical fiction vs. historical mystery—but the reality is that I needed to write those unpublished novels. I couldn’t have done the mysteries justice until I had put in the hours and honed my skills.
Thank you, Susan, for a wonderful interview! To learn more about Susan Spann’s writing, publishing law, and BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, visit her website here.
It’s been a while since I’ve done a Publishing Monday post. Time to amend this! Over at the Debutante Ball, a site showcasing debut novelists, novelist Heather Webb asked several writers what they found the most challenging aspect of being a published author to be.
My succinct reply:
“Dealing with publishing house changes, with editors coming and going and imprints being rearranged.”
With so many years in the biz, I’ve been orphaned (industry speak for losing your editor before your book is published) more times than I can recall. Sometimes editors left because they’d found greener pastures. Other times, publishing imprints get shifted about, with editors moved to other divisions, or even (shudder) laid off.
If you’re lucky, the switch-a-roo works out well: you end up in a better situation than you were in before. Other times … not so much. The editor-author relationship can be an intense one, fueled by mutual regard and affection. Losing that editor mid-book can feel like having a limb amputated, especially if you end up matched with an editor who doesn’t care for your book much. In this case, the editor-author relationship is akin to a temporary arranged marriage: both parties do their best To Be Professional and Get The Job Done before moving on.
So, that’s my answer to what I find most challenging about being a published author. Other authors weighing in: Kate Quinn, Christy English, Anne Girand, and other luminaries. Read the entire post here.
Notes for my “novel bible” for the Next Novel. More below about this.
True confession time: besides being an occasional blogger, I’m also a procrastinator when it comes to fulfilling blog tour requests. So, way back in April, when my lovely critique partner Teralyn Pilgrim tagged me in a writing process blog tour, I intended to partipate promptly. Truly. Really.
*Hangs head in shame.*
In retrospect, I had several reasons for not doing so. First off, I was in the throes of finishing up several work deadlines and was plain overwhelmed and overscheduled. In other words, business as usual. Secondly, I simply wasn’t ready to share much about the Next Novel. Though I’d been incubating the manuscript for nearly a year in starts and spurts, it still felt too fresh, too precious. I didn’t want to jinx my creative process.
Without further ado, here the questions and my answers.
1. What am I currently working on?
The Next Novel. (Yes, I’m being coy about the title.) Here’s my log line: In 1851 England, a widowed photographer is thwarted in fulfilling his dying father’s last request by a mysterious woman whose tragic past curiously mirrors his own. Other elements in the mix: post-mortem photography, a missing poet, and a forbidden love affair. In other words, the fun stuff. Because the structure of the Next Novel involves a nested story— a story within a story—I’ve been comparing it in some ways to THE THIRTEEN TALE. Though, of course, my book is completely different.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The main difference between the historical novels I write and those of my colleagues is that all of my characters are fictional. I’m not writing about Catherine de Medici, Josephine Bonaparte, or world-changing events that occurred in history. I’m drawn to using historical settings for color, rather than narrative structure. (Does this make sense?)
3. Why do I write what I write?
I know it’s a cliché, but I do believe the subject chooses you. Every book I’ve created, from my picture books to DOOMED QUEENS to THE LILY MAID, arrived in a flash of inspiration that only made sense at a later date. For example, THE LILY MAID was written during the aftermath of my mother-in-law’s unexpected death; a major plot thread explored my protagonist’s mourning her recently deceased father.
That written, I’ve noticed some commonalities with my books: they usually explore feminine archetypes, and they often reference fairy tales, history, or mythology.
4. How does my individual writing process work?
When it comes to writing fiction, I’ve reluctantly accepted that I am an intuitive, non-linear thinker. Ie, a pantser of a sort. I don’t sit down and decide, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write a book where my protagonist does x, y, and z? And it works out this way at the end?” Instead, my novels start with a scene that comes in a flash. For THE LILY MAID, it was a dream in which a young woman was escaping on a river barge, like the Lady of Shalott; the Next Novel, a young woman arguing with a man in a small room lit only by a fireplace. From there, the deluge begins: over days, weeks, and months, I’ll see snippets of scenes, hear exchanges of dialogue, and imagine characters, all of which I immediately write down before I forget. It’s like a flood from the subconscious. Or, as I prefer to think of them, visits from the muses.
(In my family, my daughter has another term for these sudden inspirations that must be recorded before they flit away: art attacks. She’ll say, “Oh, I’m having an art attack. Where’s my notebook?” whenever she has an inspiration for a story or a song. That’s my cue to stop whatever we’re doing until she writes it all down.)
Finally, once these brainstormed snippets reach critical mass, I print them out (see above) and try to arrange the notes into some semblance of a story. These are cut and pasted and placed into a giant novel bible. And then the fun begins in earnest. It can take a while before my notes make sense, and the narrative takes form. For the Next Novel, I had over 25,000 words of accumulated notes and 35,000 words of manuscript drafted before I figured how it was all going to come together. It was like a giant puzzle.
Oh, and I do a lot of research: books, art, music, poetry, history. I especially love traveling for research purposes. For example, for THE LILY MAID, I visited a former Victorian asylum. For the Next Novel, I’m planning to travel to the George Eastman House to take a workshop in nineteenth century photography techniques.
Lisa Hunt, author and illustrator extraordinaire, is tagged in turn. Also, if you’d like to share your creative process, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to post in the comments below!