A favorite Sarah Waters* quote:
“Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”
This advice seems expecially important to remember as I continue to outline, outline, and outline the Next Novel: I’m carefully planning my route. Oh, and here’s a photograph of my just-about-completed novel bible, whose process I described in a recent post.
*Semi-related to above: I can’t wait to read Waters’ soon-to-be-published novel THE PAYING GUESTS! She is a literary goddess.
This lovely rose opened up overnight in my garden—the first of the season! I’m so pleased. I’d wondered if it had made it through the winter intact.
In non-garden news, I spent last Friday afternoon perusing the Metropolitan Museum’s wonderful new exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites, which focuses on the applied arts “second wave” of the movement: Burne-Jones, Morris, and Rossetti. Between this and the recent big Tate retrospective, it seems as though the Pre-Raphaelites are experiencing a new surge of attention. Last week, a New Yorker article even posited the intriguing question of whether the Pre-Raphaelites were a Victorian version of today’s artisinal hipsters.
From The New Yorker article:
We can start with Morris’s near obsession with the idea of craft. Like the ever-growing number of twenty-first-century tastemakers and designers who value traditional methods and materials, Morris strove to bring the mark of authenticity to everything he made…. Any maker, D.I.Y.-er, or producer of craft beer, craft pickles, or craft anything owes a debt to his design firm, Morris & Co., where he and his collaborators emphasized the slow-to-emerge beauty of the handmade object….
This made me laugh because I live in Brooklyn, aka Artisinal Hipster Central. (Perhaps that’s what drew me to Morris and Friends so many years ago?)
All this makes me especially pleased to announce that my guest on my blog Friday will be author and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Kirsty Stonell Walker (right). Her new novel, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, is based on the life of Alexa Wilding, one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s more reclusive muses. I was fortunate to have beta read Kirsty’s manuscript, and found it a deeply immersive experience. Short version: if you’re as obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites as I am, you’ll love A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL.
In my interview with Kirsty, we’ll talk about Rossetti’s models, writing nonfiction versus fiction, and more. So I hope you’ll check back!
Creativity Friday: The Little Library that Could (Or, How to Transform a Community One Book at a Time)
I love to take long walks—I consider them part of my daily creative “work”, if you will. Besides serving as exercise, these several mile long walks clear my mind of clutter so I can better concentrate on whatever I’m working on. I first became enamored of long daily walks during the year I lived on the moors of Devon. While Ditmas Park (aka my corner of Brooklyn) may not be as overtly scenic as Dartmoor, it nevertheless possesses numerous charms.
Such as this.
Which I found planted oh-so-matter-of-factly several blocks from my house during my daily walk.
Yes, the box is what it looks to be: a free lending library placed smack-dab in the middle of Brooklyn. It’s hosted by my neighbor Jennifer Wilenta and her family.
Upon closer examination, I discovered the library box contained mostly picture books for children and several novels. Once I returned home, I followed the url listed on the box, which lead me to this. Turns out that Little Free Library is an organization that sponsors community-based libraries to bring literature to the streets. Best of all, their website offers instructions on how to steward a free lending library of your own: everything from building plans to registration materials. Here’s a New York Times article about them.
While I love my local public library, I adore the grassroots intimacy of this. A little library box is something an individual would easily do on their own without dealing with large organizations or bureaucracies. All it would take is a weekend and some books to share.
Imagine if there was a library box on every block, each filled with their owner’s personal book favorites and recommendations. What a way to transform a community one book at a time!
Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a bit (ahem) obsessed with AMC’s Mad Men. When a Mad Men season is underway, I’ll gladly spend hours deconstructing character motivation, plot points, whether Don Draper is a sociopath*, and the delights of a well-placed Roger Sterling bon mot with my husband and friends. Beyond the obvious pleasures of well-written dialogue and fully developed characters, I also adore the gorgeous 1960s clothes that seem to tell a story of their own.
Fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo agree: their Mad Style recaps are wonders of semiotic insight. Generously annotated with screen captures from each week’s episode, each Mad Style post takes Mad Men viewing to a sublimely detailed level. TLo, as their fans call them, claim that Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant deploys clothing in the same way a literary novelist consciously uses symbolism, subtext, and foreshadowing. Nothing is by accident.
Sound crazy? Spend some time reading Mad Style and you’ll agree. Three of TLo’s particularly brilliant observations:
- Joan often wears rose-patterned clothing to signify her fluxuating romantic state.
- Don associates the color red as a call back to his troubled childhood in a whorehouse.
- Peggy is often outfitted in Peter Pan collars and plaids, revealing her Catholic upbringing and lack of fashion acumen.
After mulling Mad Style for some time, I realized I used clothing in a similar manner in THE LILY MAID. Which makes sense—after all, my novel is set during Victorian England’s Aesthetic movement, an era when the rational dress movement faced off against the padded pleasures of the bustle.
For example, my protagonist Elizabeth becomes uneasy when she’s confronted with the costume she’s to wear while modeling:
Dulac handed me a long gown sewn of a softly mottled cream-colored linen with pale green ribbons along the shoulders and waist.
I said, “So the Lady of Shalott’s dress was white after all.”
“As far as I could tell. This will do until a better idea comes along.”
… Before I could get too involved with my examination, Mrs. Dulac led me to a windowless antechamber tucked into a corner. She shut the door behind me. “Let me know if you need help with the lacing, Miss Sirini. I fear you’ll need to remove your stays for the gown to drape properly.”
I had not expected this—I’d worn some form of corset since I was twelve. Somehow the costume seemed emblematic of the Dulacs and their easy, bohemian ways. But I refused to be caught short. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be fine, Mrs. Dulac.”
Beyond fashion signifying class, I also used color: Elizabeth wears grey half-mourning throughout the book until a crucial turning point. Another character dresses in green, the color of absinthe, to signify his decadence. And so on. Though I’m not nearly accomplished a wardrobe stylist as Janie Bryant, I do have one advantage: since I’m writing fiction, my clothing budget is unlimited.
*After last week’s disturbing Fifty Shades of Grey Flannel episode, I think he is. Don Draper: dark, handsome, and eminently messed up.
Here in the studio, I’m preoccupied with finishing up the third draft of THE LILY MAID. Since I started revising about a month ago, I’ve worked my way through the first 320 pages. Now it’s onto the rest. Alas, this is the part of my novel which requires the most amount of revising—I’m deleting a subplot, two characters, and streamlining for narrative urgency. But I’ve tools for it.
Surprised that a writer has tools? I was too. Before I jumped into writing fiction, I thought all a writer needed was a computer, a word processing program, and a notebook. I believed their work set up to be far simpler than an artist’s, where having the right brush, paints, and papers can make or break.
As a writer, I tend to be more of a pantser than a plotter when it comes to drafting. (See here for a detailed description what these are.) My first draft for THE LILY MAID was written during National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, in 2009. (As a side note, I think NaNoWriMo is a powerful creativity tool for writers!) My NaNoWriMo was definitely a pantser experience—I decided to participate two days before it began on November 1st as a dare to myself. When I started writing, all I possessed was a germ of an idea: a revisionist retelling of the Lady of Shalott. Initially I thought the novel would be Arthurian; as my draft progressed I decided to set it in Victorian England amid the Arts and Crafts movement.
I wrote my first draft in Quark Xpress of all programs—as a designer, I was far more accustomed to page layout programs than word processing. Believe it or not, my completed NaNoWriMo draft was entitled APPLELAND, a nod to Avalon; soon after I changed it to THE LILY MAID, after the line in the Tennyson poem. How far I have come since that impulsive NaNoWriMo! Since then, my writer’s toolbox has gotten more complex.
Soon after I won NaNoWriMo, I transitioned from writing in Quark Xpress to Word. As bloated and fussy as it may be, Word is the industry standard for word processing. (Yes, Mac users have Pages, but even so….) But more importantly, I downloaded Scrivener ($45, Literature and Latte), a much more powerful and intuitive word processing program for creative writing.
Never heard of Scrivener? If you’re a writer, it will revolutionize how you write. Scrivener is a powerful content generation tool for writers that can be used for (besides writing) gathering research, restructuring existing book drafts, outlining, brainstorming, and just anything else you can think of. I mainly use it, though, for revising my drafts and organizing my notes. Scrivener is fantastic for working out scene pacing, plot points, moving chapters, et al. THE LILY MAID is such a behemoth of a manuscript—140,000 words or 470 pages—that it’s far easier for me to do this in Scrivener than scrolling through a massive Word file. This written, Scrivener is also useful for first drafting—you can start out sketching out scenes using the corkboard (see above), and then flesh out as needed.
Another tool I like is Aeon Timeline ($40, Scribblecode); it was brought to my attention by novelist Stephanie Dray. Aeon enables you to easily create a detailed timeline for your novel using any sort of time system you’d like—minutes to centuries. As you can see above, it’s very full-featured: you can indicate which characters are involved in a scene, plot arcs, settings, and much more. You can also import your timeline into Scrivener, though I’ve never used this tool.
Aeon was especially helpful since THE LILY MAID has a rather convoluted timeline; the novel jumps back and forth in time over the period of three years. Some scenes are even presented twice from different point of view characters a la Rashomon. Though I’d already created a timeline as a text document before I discovered this program, I had a far easier time viewing how everything was working in Aeon. I was even able to pick up a few errors. For example, in one scene, I had an important character in two places at the same time—now she is firmly grounded in time and place, much to my relief.
Though I’ve only covered computer programs here, there are lots of other great creativity tools for writers. I haven’t even gotten into my favorite notebooks, pens, the necessity of critique partners, or most helpful books and writing workshops—but perhaps that is the subject for another post.
How about you? What are your favorite tools for writing? Please feel free to share in the comments!