CLICK HERE for the Amazon link. In a few days I’ll post links to order from other places, including NEW DOMINION BOOKSHOP in Charlottesville, Va., where I’ll be reading on February 21st with Jeffrey Thomson at 7:00pm. Message me and I will be happy to mail you a signed bookplate.
CLICK on highlighted text for links.
If you Google the term “cover up” and click on Google Images, you will see a wide array of mumu-like garments, ranging from gauzy to heaviest terrycloth, to wear over a bathing suit, or for lounging.
If you look for a definition of “cover up” you will see this from Merriam-Webster: a planned effort to hide a dishonest, immoral, or illegal act or situation. : an action or a way of behaving that is meant to prevent people from knowing about something.
There is a hella lot in the news lately about coverups …but let’s not go there on my blog, okeydokey? When I talk cover, I mean BOOK COVER or BOOK JACKET or whatever you choose to call them. My own has been on my mind for the last several months, perhaps obsessively.
About six weeks ago, as soon as the copy edits of my novel were complete, my publisher, Blackstone, paired me with a very talented graphic designer and artist, Alenka Linaschke. I was asked to send Alenka images of covers I like and concepts for the cover art for my forthcoming novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS.
The designer looked at my Pinterest page for this novel, and asked about typefaces I like (the pros call them typefaces, not fonts, just FYI). I thought the typeface should be something Art Deco. Then I went on, expressing further design ideas I had. I had quite a lot to say about the design. I mean, a lot. Like, probably a terrifically annoying amount.
It’s really, really important to me that the cover of my book expresses what the novel is. And guess what? Since I have always worked in design in one way or another, and I am set in my ways, I have very definite opinions about what I like. So it was a very good thing that my agent, Mark Gottlieb, had asked that my publishing contract allow me to collaborate on the cover design. You know, sometimes if you ask nicely for what you want, you get it. I am learning, as I mature, to ask for more. But there I go, digressing again…
A lot of recent historical novels feature figures of women in historical settings with appropriate-era clothing, hair, etc. It’s been a popular trend to show the back of a woman’s head or figure, often partially cut off. This is so that each reader can project their own idea of how the main character(s) look.
Although there are some gorgeous covers that use this concept, I hoped that my cover would not follow that trend. I began to search for images that might suggest a vision of my main character, May Marshall. Or maybe, I thought, we should try am image of 1920s Paris, or a rural American farmhouse, or Jazz-Age New York, or a young woman in one of those settings… Of course, there are any number of possibilities.
I found an English oil portrait of a beautiful young woman the 1930s I thought would be perfect (below). I loved the way she’s turned back to face the artist, as if to say, “I’m about to do something very naughty. Want to come along?” The artist is Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn and the subject is a young artist’s model named Barbara Gibson.
After weeks of searching I found the name of the gallery in London that represents DeGlehn’s estate. Although they do license the use of works by this artist, the painting I wanted to use is, at present, unaccounted for—meaning that they do not know who owns it now nor where it is and they do not possess a high-resolution image of it. I looked through auction records and in museum collections, but found crickets. So I continued to pester the gallery until they stopped responding to my emails. So that was a dead end. I was disappointed.
I also sent some photos of the interior of the Musee Nissim de Camondo in Paris (below), which is a setting for my novel.
The gorgeous staircase is graphically interesting and has graceful lines. But I wanted my cover to have an Art-Deco vibe.
I sent Alenka some images of book covers and some Art-Deco style fonts I like. One of those covers was from Amor Towles’s fabulous bestseller, which I talked about in my last blog post, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW. I loved the photograph, which captures and holds my interest, and the clean design.
I Googled and searched Pinterest for period images, then traced the holder of the copyright, if there is one. Then, in one of my own books I found some lovely antique photographs from the 1920s and 1930s by the French photographic innovator (he invented his own color film), Jacques-Henri Lartigue. I had stumbled upon a book of Lartigue’s photographs in The Strand bookstore in New York, back in my grad school days in the early 1980s, before I worked for Ralph Lauren. I remember taking it to work and that Ralph loved Lartigue’s images.
This sent me on a Google search for more of Lartigue’s work from the twenties and thirties. There is a gorgeous Instagram Page featuring his work. It turns out that in 2000, a trove of hundreds of images by Lartigue were sold by the family of his iconic muse and model, Renée Perle, following her death in 1977. Here is a really interesting article about the relationship between muse and photographer, from LONE WOLF MAGAZINE. The photo of Renée, below, is circa 1929-31, which were the years that the two were lovers. I thought it had a similar vibe to the de Glehn portrait I liked.
The blog Vintage Everyday says in a post devoted to her, “Born in Romania, Renée Perle, a Romanian-Jewish girl who moved to Paris, is famous as the first muse of the famous French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986), who is considered one of the leading photographers of the 20th century.”
The article in Lone Wolf says of Renée, “While Lartigue may have been the era’s finest documentarian, Perle remains its most alluring ambassador. It was her wide-brimmed hats, daringly modern t-shirts, seductive spirit and ease before the camera that inspired the most definitive work of his career. Renée Perle’s images are more powerful and more enduring than Lartigue’s racecars, family portraits or any of his wives. Renée continues to inspire fashion editorials and designer collections, and is widely regarded as a style icon.“
So I sent Alenka a photo of Renée that has a gorgeous, moody, Art-Deco vibe.
About two weeks after I sent all this stuff I got an email from Alenka, with three proposed cover designs. She had really done her homework, because she offered up three very different concepts. There was a lot to work with. One of her concepts used a vintage photo closeup of a young girl’s face from the 1920s. I liked the idea, and told her I’d like to try something similar with the image of Renée. Here’s the tricky bit. Photos we see on book covers are usually used by license. Many come from services like Getty Images or archives, like Conde Nast, and some come from the archives of individual photographers. For instance, the archive of the great portrait photographer of the British Royal family, Cecil Beaton, is controlled by Sotheby’s in London. I had researched Lartigue’s archive and found the foundation in France that holds the copyrights to his work. Also, there are different forms of licensing usage, and I was quoted a price for the use of the photo in only one country. I learned from my designer, however, that the publisher needed to secure the world rights to the image.
I forwarded the contact information for the Lartigue Foundation, but weeks passed and we heard nothing, and so could not move forward with the use of the image. Alenka and I both searched for something else, but since I’m obsessive I wouldn’t let it go. I sent messages to the Foundation through email, the website, their Facebook Page, their Instagram page. I was a pest. Of course, we were on a deadline and the holidays were happening and BTW, I was about to leave on a cruise for three weeks. So, a few days ago, from my hotel in Argentina, I called the Foundation and BOOM! everything fell into place. Alenka put together a fabulous design and just yesterday I had word that it was approved and I am now able to share it with you.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll sign up for my newsletter (which I have yet to send), and follow along as I move toward August 18, and my publication date.
In which Liza grapples with choosing a title.
Click on bold text for links.
I had to think for a while to come up with a title for this blog post, which is about…choosing titles. For a while I’ve wanted to change the title of my forthcoming historical novel (my publisher agreed) and for the past several months I’ve been trying to come up with a new one. So before I get started, let me go ahead and (ta-da!) announce the new title:
ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS
The source comes from several references in the story to Emily Post’s premier guide to manners: Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, which was published in 1922. My main character would have owned a copy.
The book will be published in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook on August 18, 2020, by Blackstone Publishing. The pub date happens to be my mother’s birthday! Most auspicious, I think. I wish she could have been here to see this happening.
I’m grateful for the input of the FABULOUS team at Blackstone, as well as to my WONDERFUL agent, Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group and to the editor Blackstone paired me with, the upbeat and sharp-eyed Jennifer Pooley. Also, to my daughter Annabel who said that a different possible title sounded like Sabrina the Teenaged Witch. So, no to that one ( and no, I won’t say what it was).
I liked my first title, but it proved, alas, to be problematic. It was a British idiom I first read in Nancy Mitford’s fabulous 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love. As proclaimed by her character Uncle Matthew Radlett, “the thin end of the wedge” denotes a seemingly insignificant event or action certain to lead to catastrophe and ruin. So, being that the phrase was British and somewhat antiquated, most Americans had never heard it. So it had to be explained, which involved describing not only the meaning of the idiom but also the source. This became tedious. People’s eyes glazed over before I even got to start describing my plot.
Then, adding on to that, there was an ongoing issue of the title being repeated with the wrong wording. The title was THE THIN END OF THE WEDGE. People kept saying “The Thin EDGE of the Wedge.” I got tired of correcting, then going on to explain the meaning, source, etc. as eyes glazed over. Plus, a good friend flat-out told me it was a terrible title (thanks Ann). So there was that…
Anyway, I read a lot of blog posts and essays on what makes a good title. There are a bunch of theories on this. I made a list of some of my favorite titles and tried (in vain) to dissect what made them successful. Here are some of my personal faves:
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Flaming Youth by Samuel Hopkins Adams
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles
And, from Goodreads, here is a partial Listopia of the best novel titles (not sure how they decided on these):
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
To Kill a Mockingbird (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Here’s what I found in my research:
I decided that I liked vaguely antiquated words- homeward, beloved, gentleman, tread, foresee, seldom, misfortunes, contrary, troubled, glorious, wicked, farewell.
Most great titles contain an evocative or provocative adjective or noun- Crawdads, Mockingbird, Poisonwood, Ironweed, Southernmost, Flaming, Paradise, Blood, Secret, Apocalypse, Curious, Unbearable.
Since my book is written in third person, I decided that there should be no first-person phrasing.
Then I decided that I’d like to avoid some recently-popular trends. I read somewhere, maybe in LitHub Daily, that titles and covers nowadays are being designed so that they can be easily read from a thumbnail photo on one’s phone. I also hope that my cover does not feature an illustration of a woman’s back with her head partially cut off. This is another popular trend, because, supposedly, it allows the reader to envision the protagonist without subjective visual cues. I have no problem with visual cues.
I heard Silas House speak at the Savannah Book Festival in February about his most fabulous recent novel, SOUTHERNMOST. He is incredibly charming. I loved this book, and I loved hearing Silas speak about it. I also love the title. I think it’s perfect for that novel. But Silas told a story, that he had originally titled the book LITTLE FIRES, and he loved that title. He thought it was perfect. Everybody liked it. And then along came Celeste Ng, with LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, and Silas was trumped. It happens. So every time I’ve come up with a good possibility the first thing I do is check Amazon to see if it’s already claimed.
My search continued. I looked at quotations, bible verses and song lyrics, hoping for that aha! revelation. I decided I could probably make good money developing titles for bodice-rippers. But my novel is not that. After months of making long lists of words on scraps of paper and in four different notebooks, I ended up with three possibilities that I thought were strong. I sent the list to my agent for his opinion, and as always, he was very helpful. I sent the list to my editor and she suggested I keep trying.
Then, just a few days ago, for input, I sent the list to Blackstone’s marketing and publicity team and my agent. Yesterday we had a “launch call”, which is an introductory phone conference between the author, agent, publicity, marketing, and publication folks to talk about all of those subjects.
A title means so much. Those words are the very first offered to the reader and along with the cover, a title is what makes a potential reader pick up a book in the store or click on the image. I usually choose books by their covers first, then titles. For instance, Amor Towles’s A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW (left) has a fabulous black and white photo cover. Sucked me right in, and combined with a killer title, I knew I wanted to read that book. It did not disappoint (though, to be honest, I liked his first novel, RULES OF CIVILITY, better).
So, I looked at all of the variables.
ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS
(Yes, I’m putting it right there in your face, again). The title has the ring of two of my faves, Water for Elephants and Rules of Civility. I could not be more thrilled.
I fear that I’m ending my post without adequately answering my own question: What makes a title great? If I figure it out, maybe I’ll write a book about it titled, Titles for Dummies, or similar. Here’s what I do know: good tiles are evocative and intriguing. Many of them challenge us to puzzle out their meaning—what the hell is a clockwork orange? What was the curious incident/ the something wicked? What are the perks? Those phrases would entice me to pick up the book and have a closer look, and maybe read the cover copy. And I always look at the author photo. Don’t even get me started on that process. Maybe I’ll do a post on author photos, and call it…?
|Thanks for reading, as always. Please follow along on my journey toward publication and maybe check out my Instagram page @lizanashtaylor. Please leave a comment if you like. I’d love to hear from you.|
On Facebook, I see a lot of people feeling “blessed,” This, I have noticed, often precedes a humble-brag about their gifted children or new vacation house, so I use the word with some reservation. But I am feeling that word these days.
On Wednesday, I send off revisions for ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS to my editor. I have, for the first time, included the dedication (top secret), author’s note, and acknowledgements. Today, I sent off a check to pay for the rights to use the lyrics of an Irving Berlin song I feature in my pages ($100, for those who wonder). I sent a list of possible new titles to my agent and a writer friend whose own books have great titles (thanks, Sue William Silverman). Now this, one might argue, is the normal progression of things. These extra bits get added, pre-publication, duh. Here’s the thing, though. All of a sudden, my story is a real manuscript. Now, I’ll wait to hear the next round of suggested pre-publication edits. More on that in my next post. For now, I need to get back to reading every-damned-word-aloud to myself. It’s amazing how many awkward phrasings and overused words can be caught this way. Twelve chapters down, 35 to go.
So, backing up a bit to August 21, here is the start of this post, with recent events in my journey:
Soooo. Last week I received my publishing contract. This is a huge milestone and it marks the progress of my first novel being introduced to the world in August 2020. I am feeling really grateful. It was funny though, because receiving final version of the contract was oddly anticlimactic. It came in DocuSign format, meaning I virtually signed it with a robo-script of my signature and then clicked on a rectangle and it disappeared into the ether. I actually had to ask my agent if I had done it properly. And that was that. I had a half-glass of flat Prosecco that was in the fridge and took the obligatory selfie, only I was holding my laptop instead of a paper contract. My family has been hearing about all this for so long that I didn’t even make an announcement or anything. I sort of mentioned it as an aside.
Also, last week my dear friend Colleen Baz was visiting. She’s a very talented photographer and has worked professionally with CrossFit and doing portraits. She also has done work with terminally ill kids and most recently with Colorado teens in search of adoptive families. Here is an article about what she’s doing. I told her I had to have a new headshot done, b/c, you know, my hair is no. longer. brown. She took some snaps in about a half-hour. It was so nice and I wasn’t all that self-conscious.
I got back home three days ago and immediately went into a frenzy of cleaning and weeding and yard work. I realized today that this is nesting, as I did right before I had my daughter. I mean, it is a rare thing for me to get on my knees and clean the dog door. I’m getting ready to receive my editor’s first round of comments on my manuscript. Then I’ll have about a month to do revisions before sending it back for round two. I suppose I’ve been getting things ready to hunker down and work. I bought a few weeks worth of groceries, made all absolutely necessary appointments, returned calls and emails, took the ancient bulldog to the vet and committed to giving her twice-weekly anti-fungal baths at home (don’t ask), and generally made it possible to not leave the house for the next four weeks.
Anyway. I did some major revisions on this manuscript before I found that the best way, for me, to make big changes is total immersion. Now, since I wrote this book, which I began in 2015, I have gone through an MFA program and one agent and found another and written a second novel and started a third. So, when I re-read this manuscript last week I had not had my eyeballs on it in its entirety for an entire year. It was almost like reading someone else’s work.
JUMP ahead two weeks to August 29. I’ve been virtually introduced to my editor and received her first round of suggested edits. It is a vital part of the writing/publishing process to go through revisions and edits. First, writers do their own honing and paring and re-working. Then there might be workshop, advisor, or writing group comments. Then, if a piece is selected for publication, there are editor’s comments. Writers need to be open to feedback and be able to filter out what they believe will make their work better. Only the writer knows the essence of the work. But I tell you what, reading pages of constructive criticism is hard. My first, instinctive reaction is always defensiveness. Someone thinks my baby has big ears? But the way to process this, for me, is to sleep on it. Give it time to marinate. My immediate defensive reactions are always emotional, I feel hurt and my impostor syndrome kicks in. In a day or so, that will fade, and I’m better able to absorb the feedback as what it is—valuable, objective criticism.
June has been a busy month. I attended the 8th Annual Nantucket Book Festival, which was terrific. There were many authors I really admire, especially Susan Orlean (THE LIBRARY BOOK), Esi Edugyan (WASHINGTON BLACK), and Madeline Miller (CIRCE).
Some authors were approachable and delighted to be fangirled. Some were less so. Here are some of the highlights:
Fangirl don’t care.
WASHINGTON BLACK was named One of the TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR by the New York Times Book Review
AND One of the Best Books of the Year
The Boston Globe ● The Washington Post ● Time ● Entertainment Weekly ● San Francisco Chronicle ● Financial Times ● Minneapolis Star Tribune ● NPR ● The Economist ● Bustle ● The Dallas Morning News ● Slate ● Kirkus Reviews. Ms. Edugyan was delightful. I loved hearing her speak about her book. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, an audience member asks a question at the end that was a total plot spoiler. Actually, that happened twice, and Esi was very gracious.
AUTHOR, by Beowulf Sheehan. Mr. Sheehan was self-effacing, gracious, and fascinating. “Perhaps the foremost literary portrait photographer working today, Sheehan is known for the beauty, nuance, and insight of his haunting compositions. His first book presents two hundred of his finest portraits of prominent writers, playwrights, historians, journalists, and poets such as Roxane Gay, Patti Smith, Masha Gessen, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and J.K. Rowling. These rich black-and-white images were taken in a variety of settings—the photographer’s studio, the subject’s home, concert halls, public spaces—and all bring out new facets of writers we’ve grown to know and love through their words. Sheehan introduces the volume with an essay recalling some of his most memorable moments with the amazing people he’s photographed.” Blurb from Politics & Prose Bookstore.
Madeline Miller, speaking about her amazing novel, CIRCE, which Ann Patchett very accurately describes as: “An epic spanning thousands of years that’s also a keep-you-up-all-night page turner.” –
Tim Ehrenberg, who writes the NEED TO READ column in Nantucket Magazine wrote a great preview of the Festival books. His interview with Rebecca Makkai, about her new book, THE GREAT BELIEVERS, was a real highlight for me. He says about the book:
“I’m a great believer in the power of fiction to tell the truth. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Rebecca Makkai’s novel left me stunned by its ability to tell the truth about a time so rarely spoken, written or read about. As a gay man in 2019, I have lived a much different life than the gay characters in 1980s Chicago, but this book resonated with me in a personal way. The Great Believers is a dazzling story of friendship and redemption in the face of the AIDS tragedy and this extreme loss set in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris. “
So, then I went home for two days before the start of the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference.
THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY is made up of authors and readers worldwide and has chapters in the UK , Australia, and US. The annual conference is held alternately in the UK and US. This year, it was in Oxon Hill, Maryland, just across the river from Washington, DC. The society is run by volunteers, as is most of the conference.
Members receive the quarterly Society magazine and may be listed in the Society directory, which allows visitors to view members’ profiles, their latest website/blog posts, and links to their Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads accounts. Writers can join critique groups and both readers and writers can contribute reviews to the magazine. The society also runs international novel and short story competitions. Meetings with agents and editors are available at the conference, as well as page critiques.
This was my first time at the conference. The theme was “Revolution”. When the call for proposals for presentations came out, I wanted to apply. I bandied some ideas about, and settled on “revolution in fashion” but my hubby thought that was too restrictive, so I changed it to “Evolution and Revolution in Women’s Fashion: 1850-1970”. I chose those years so I could begin with Bloomers and end with the mini-skirt. I was delighted to hear that they were interested in featuring my topic.
I’m not a fashion historian by trade, I’m a novelist. I did, however, attend a graduate program at The Fashion Institute of Technology, after college. Before the year-long program finished, though, I was hired to work for Ralph Lauren, where I was on the design staff. It was my absolute dream job, and during those three years I learned a lot about style and fashion and even more about life. My anxiety dreams are still about being called into a design meeting I had forgotten about and facing Ralph and Tasha unprepared. We all have a version of this, right? Only instead of not having any clothes on, I would have on the WRONG clothes—like Donna Karan or Calvin Klein instead of full Ralph regalia or something vintage and original, and inspiring.
I’ve always been fascinated with fashion history, and for my novels I put together an inspiration board of photos, maps, and sketches. I found more eye candy than I could use and had to pare down my 200 slides for my PowerPoint presentation for my lecture. Then, I practiced.
For two weeks before the conference I read my talk aloud to my dogs once a day. Driving in the car I timed myself reciting from memory, and quizzed myself on dates. They couldn’t possibly expect me to know how to hook up my laptop to the projector.
But maybe they would. Better check on that. It was fine, though.
From all of the hundreds of fashion designers I could think of, I narrowed my talk down by time (1850-1970). Then I added some innovations: the zipper, pantyhose, aniline dyes.
There was a costume contest, where attendees knocked themselves out with historically accurate outfits. Marie Antoinette got my vote. There were workshops on swordplay and historical dancing. My fave (duh) was called “Hooch Through History,” which was an entertaining hopscotch through six historical revolutions, and really just an excuse to drink six cocktails. Lots of fun. It was also great to sit down with four fellow historical fiction authors who share the same agent. (photo above).
Now it’s July, and I’m home with the dogs and hubby until later in the month. Whew.
Here’s a link to another writer’s blog post about the HNSC by Sarah Johnson.
UPDATE, August 12, 2019. *SQUEE!* I just signed my contract.
Last week I got sidetracked in my enthusiasm for Delia Owens and her novel, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. Delia is my hero, publishing her first novel at sixty-eight. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing about my path to publishing my debut novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS, and the waiting and anxiety that are involved. So I’ll pick up where I stopped, with my first manuscript going out on submission to publishers. This was in March of 2018.
I felt lucky, in a way, that my breakup with my first agent happened before any publishing editors saw my manuscript. As I understand it, it is a no-no to send the same manuscript out twice, unless it has been significantly re-worked and maybe has a new title.
My new agent made no editorial changes. We discussed where he might send it and he patiently listened to my requests. I asked that he not submit to digital-only publishers. It was important to me that my book come out in a hard-cover version. Call me old-school, but there is nothing like a hardcover. I wanted to be able to walk into bookstores and hold my baby in my hands. He asked me to give him a list of current (published within the past five years) comp titles and I gave him a list of editors of books I felt were similar to mine.
Weeks passed. Over in Scotland, with very little internet connectivity, I was a wreck. I think that modern technology has conditioned us to experience adrenaline surges in response to the stimulus of an email notification. Ding! Your story is shortlisted for a contest! Ding! You’re waitlisted for a prestigious writer’s conference! Ding! Your proposal for a presentation has been accepted! And these are only positive examples. So, secluded in the Castle, I was jonesing for news. For DINGS.
My research told me that four months was the usual window for a manuscript to elicit interest. I sought commiseration from my fellow writers in the castle and did my best to immerse myself in revising my second novel, IN ALL GOOD FAITH. On those cold Scottish spring evenings the five fellows read each other’s work or our own work, or read the playwright’s scenes in parts. In out sequestered days, minus the constant distraction of internet and household duties, I managed to make some real progress on GOOD FAITH. I think, in retrospect, that I was trying to attach myself more deeply to the second story, because I might have to face the prospect of the first one not selling. I began to feel distance–physically and emotionally–from that first manuscript.
We can come up with many defenses when we anticipate rejection. Be it personal or professional, rejection hurts. I was usually the type to break up first in dating, because if one does, one controls the outcome to some degree.
Professionally, thought, we have to wait. We have to allow our work to be critiqued and edited by others and, if it is accepted, allow a price to be negotiated for our babies. There are a lot of variables and many things can go wrong, or go sideways. While we wait, we must battle insecurity and, in my case, obsessive tendencies. I speak only for myself here, from my own experience, so take this all with a grain of salt. Although this all sounds dire and it wasn’t always a smooth ride, make no mistake about it: this was something I wanted as much as I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.
I felt SO grateful to have found an agent to represent my work, and to have my manuscript under consideration. I felt grateful that I had another novel in process, that I was inspired to write, and that I had the time and freedom to do so.
When, in late March, I asked my agent what he had heard from submissions, he began to forward responses. While on a walk in the woods on castle grounds, five forwards came in in rapid succession. Ding! No, because they had something similar in the works; Ding! No, because they weren’t looking for Historical Fiction at that time; Ding! No, because the editor just didn’t connect with my characters. I stopped reading then asked my agent to stop sending them. I realized that I could easily fall into an unhealthy spiraling obsession, waiting for each response and attempting to decipher if there were some hidden message, or something being withheld. I realized that I was taking these rejections to heart to an unhealthy degree.
At this point I had something of a self-reckoning. I had to wrestle with the fact that might book might not sell. I had to admit to myself that I had, over time, allowed this whole process to take over my life. First, I had wanted to learn to write, then to finish a novel, then to make it as good a book as I was capable of, then to find an agent, and then to see it published. All through the process I sought validation. I still do. I realized that my thinking was that if this book did not sell I was invalidated. A fraud. An impostor. (see previous post).
I decided I only wanted to hear good news.
So, for the rest of my time in Scotland, I revised my second manuscript, telling myself that if the first one was declared dead, I would be able to offer up my second born so that my agent wouldn’t lose interest in me. This was, in part, a defense mechanism. I also came up, finally, with the ending of the story.
As with my first novel, the ending of this novel did not reveal itself to me until I was well into the story. In both cases, I have written along knowing where the plot is leading, but not what the destination would be. That, it seems for me, is a leap of faith, believing that all will be revealed in time. Sometimes our characters surprise us.
More months passed in waiting, and by July I felt like my second novel manuscript was complete. I sent it to my agent but he told me he didn’t want to send it out while my first novel was still in play. He comforted me, saying that first novels often take a bit longer to sell.
On a trip to see my daughter in New York in mid-August, I arranged to meet my agent, Mark, in person at his office. Although it was beastly hot I was determined to look professional and, hopefully, stylish. I wore a pair of kitten-heeled mules that look fabulous but are extremely hard to walk in.
I teetered around behind Mark on the office tour, hoping I wouldn’t wipe out. In his office I admired the view and the books he’d represented. We discussed both of my novels and I had a chance to tell him about my research for the second and the historical events that figure into the plot. When I have a willing listener I tend to start gesticulating and bouncing in my seat with enthusiasm. He seemed intrigued, but said he did not want to send it out yet. He believed that something good would happen with the first novel. I left the meeting feeling buoyed somewhat about my prospects, and I careened back through reception and onto the elevator and outside onto Madison Avenue, where I leaned against the building and exhaled before changing into the flip-flops I had stuffed in my purse. I felt exhausted, but also exhilarated.
The next day, I boarded the train for the seven-hour trip home to Virginia. Around Philadelphia, I had a glass of wine (okay, two) since it was cocktail time. Then I fell asleep. I woke to the ringing of my phone.
Disoriented and fuzzy-headed, I noticed it was a New York number. It was Mark. He said he had an offer on my book.
I sat up, trying to clear my head.
This seemed so sudden. I had just met with with him the previous day. As the news began to sink in he told me he would negotiate terms and get back to me. I thanked him and we hung up. I looked around the train car, smiling broadly, but everyone seemed to carry on as before.
I wanted to stand up and shout, or burst into song—like they do in musicals—high kicking my way down the aisle as my fellow passengers performed choreographed moves with briefcases and laptops and boater hats, rising to harmonize on the chorus: “JUST LOOK AT HER! SHE HAS AN OFFER! AN OFFER ON HER MAN-U-SCRIPT!”
I wanted to shout, but I just kept it to myself, jiggling my crossed leg and staring out the window and smiling and smiling. It felt good.
A couple of days later, if memory serves me, Mark called to tell me that he had told the prospective publisher that I had a second finished manuscript that was a stand-alone sequel to ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS. The publisher asked to see it.
Three days passed. Or maybe five. I heard from Mark that the publisher wanted to buy both of my manuscripts. Negotiations began. My agent did a great job for me. I got everything I asked for and a “very nice deal”. I’ve exchanged emails with the acquisitions editor at the publishing house and met the head of publishing. I’ve been given a pub date of August 2020.
So, back to my theme of waiting. I agreed to a book deal on September 4, 2018. Eight months have passed and I’m hoping to see my contract soon. More, next time, about the process. As always, thanks for reading.
Remember, if you will, that my original premise in this (now lengthy) blog post was that writing and publishing is a waiting game, akin to a pregnancy? Well I’m finally circling back to that. So almost a year and a half had passed since I sent out my first query and started this ball rolling. I was 56 years old and not getting any younger. I started my low-residency MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January, 2016. I was one of two members of my cohort who had an agent. I tempered the urge to drop the phrase “my agent” into every conversation.
My head swelled a bit, until I was brought to my knees by the stellar quality of some of the work of my fellow writers, by their workshop comments on my work, and by the readings of faculty and visiting authors. I was a peon again, humbled by how much I did not know. And this is exactly how it should be. An inflated ego is not the friend of a writer. Enough said about that.
Where was I? Oh yes. The Agent Contract. I believed that it was ALL going to happen, and quickly.
NEWS FLASH: An agent contract is just five pieces of paper, really. Yes, it’s important and you should read it very carefully and have a lawyer review it. Of course I signed it, thinking that NOW things would really start to happen.
Not so fast, missie.
More revisions, work on my MFA, longer waits to hear back from my agent, and I began to think some other author had caught her eye. In January, I was going to New York for fun and arranged a meeting, which did not take place at the Agency office. We met in a coffeeshop and she bought me a cup of tea. She was cool. I was nervous. We passed pleasantries and talked about the upcoming Women’s March in Washington. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she asked me why I had made the changes I made in the last revisions. Some of them were off-script.
She did not look happy.
I was flummoxed. Each time she had given me her revisions I had done my best to take her ideas and run with them, with the intention of exceeding her expectations. Apparently, I had overstepped. I left that meeting confused and feeling insecure. Over the next six weeks, as I waited through the (longest yet) interval of her review I figured something out. By now, I had been through the first year of my two-year MFA program. My writing was—I thought—evolving in ways I was happy about. It was different now than it had been a year before. But that meant that I was not the same writer that this agent had found and signed. Over time, I realized that we had grown apart, creatively. It was no one’s fault. We both came to see that we just could not move forward together. I was devastated, and I believe that she was sad about breaking up. I have tremendous respect for her and I’m grateful for the time and effort she put into making my novel better. So in March of 2017, I found myself back at square one. Albeit with a better (I hoped) manuscript.
Did I mention yet that being a writer requires fortitude? That’s one of the main points I mean to get across here, so let me drive that home:
WRITING TAKES FORTITUDE.
Okay. So if you recall, I am a year-and-a-half in. I’ve been agented, I’d suffered a creative breakup, I’d started a second novel. And let me tell you, the self-doubt is real. I’ve heard it described as impostor syndrome.
|Impostor syndrome (also known as impostorphenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or theimpostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his or her accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. (Wikipedia).|
At this point you will tell yourself some version of: WHAT ARE YOU THINKING? Why are you spending all this money on MFA tuition? Why the HELL are you starting a second book when the first one hasn’t gone anywhere?
Despite the self-doubt, I kept going, working on my second novel. At this point, I was fully invested in my MFA program. I loved it. I grew excited about my second manuscript. For several months I licked my wounded ego and let the dust settle, concentrating on the new work and getting short stories published and entering contests.
It’s an interesting phenomenon, or maybe it’s just me, but I found that once I was really entrenched in writing my second book (a stand-alone sequel), I was able to distance myself from the first. It’s sort of like having a second child.
I plodded on, buoyed by the support of my MFA cohort and advisors. I refined my query letter but did not send more out. I had some stories published, won a fiction contest, then a fellowship. I let my novel manuscript sit “in a drawer” (as writers describe it), while I worked on my second novel. After about six months, I began to go back over my first manuscript, changing some things I thought I had put in only because my first agent had wanted them. That, frankly, was tough. Because it is easy to brainwash yourself into believing that you agree with everything your agent suggests. It is easy to make nice and be a good camper. I realized that I had, on some elemental level, lost touch with my own work. That in some places, I didn’t recognize my words. And that, my friends, was scary. Because, as I said before, my style was evolving. In moments of doubt I thought that maybe, just maybe, the first success had been a fluke.
Now I must interject something important. Along with the patience and fortitude, submitting writers—I’ve learned—need to be realistic. This does not mean pessimistic, though. When I say realistic I mean that if ten prospective agents tell you that they felt like they “couldn’t connect” with your main character, then this is a problem you ought to address. Telling yourself, well, they just don’t get me, should only work about—say—five times. Then it’s time to smell the f**ing coffee.
After a few rejections to my second-round queries I began to think, well, you know, Liza, a lot of first books aren’t published, right? I mean, we’ve all read those interviews where a now-famous-and-successful author laughs, confessing that their first book was truly terrible. Well, hell. They can laugh now, now that they’ve got a mini-series coming out and an endorsement from Reese or Oprah. Har, har, har. After several requests for fulls and some kind rejections, I had an email. A young agent from a top agency. A man. I had mainly queried women, thinking my work would resonate more with them. He requested the full. I sent it, feeling cautiously optimistic. By now I had learned to corral my excitement to protect myself from disappointment when the news was not encouraging. Five days passed. He emailed, requesting a call.
As before, I dressed professionally for the call. We talked. I was impressed. He liked my work. He was soft-spoken and persuasive, without being pushy. A few days later I accepted his offer of representation. Then, almost exactly a year after my first agent breakup, things started to happen.
It was early March of 2018 when I began working with my new agent. I sent him a list of recent comparable titles to mine and ten days later I left for a month-long fellowship in Scotland, in a castle where no speaking was allowed between 9:30am and 6:30pm and cell service and internet were spotty at best, with reliable reception a 45-minute walk away. My novel went out on submission to publishers and I was a wreck, waiting to hear.
But again, guess what? Waiting is involved here. Just as agents ask for submissions and can be inundated with queries, editors must also wade through manuscripts, looking for fresh new authors who have great style, or a marketable story, or just some magically charismatic way with words, or maybe all of the above and more. And here, I’m going to wander off again a little bit. Bear with me. Take for instance the meteoric rise of Delia Owens’ WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. Delia had previously published a couple of non-fiction books that had done well. At the age of 68 (GO DELIA! GO DELIA! GO DELIA!) her first novel came out. Reese Witherspoon, who’s an actress but also the face of the wildly popular Reese’s Book Club which boasts ONE MILLION followers on Instagram, chose it as her featured book of the month.
The rest is, truly, publishing history. The book has been sitting pretty at the very tippy-top of the NYT bestseller list for over five months and Reese has her hand in the development of the movie.
See, good things come to those who wait. Just ask Delia. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Owens at the Savannah Book Festival in February. We had a nice conversation, where Delia was very cordial and self-effacing and I was all fangirl squealy-gushy. When I left for a moment to refill Delia’s publicist’s wine, a man stopped me and started chatting me up, asking me about my book. I was thrilled and flattered, until I realized that he thought he was speaking to Delia Owens, and our convo went straight downhill from there.
TO BE CONTINUED. I promise to get back on point in Part III.
If the wait from book deal to physical publishing contract were a pregnancy, I’d have my suitcase packed and waiting at the door by now. My last blog post was over seven months ago. Since then, I’ve been given a pub date of August 2020 for my first historical novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS, and I’m told I’ll be assigned an editor this summer. While I’m excited and grateful to have a deal in the works, I had no idea that this would be such a long process. For the past seven-and-a-half months I’ve been on something of a writing hiatus, which feels weird because for most of the past five years I’ve written every day. While I’ve been waiting I’ve taught a couple of seminars and I’m working on a lecture I’ll give in June.
Getting published is a waiting game, as anyone who’s been through it knows.
It’s also like a carnival ride, in that at all points along the way you never know when your heart will lurch with the unexpected—that glowing skeleton drops in front of you, or you feel like you’re flying, or you know you’re going to be sick. That email announcement goes ding! And then BOOM, there it is: a request for more pages, or a request from an agent for a phone call to talk about our work, or even an offer of representation. Further down the road that BOOM is a publishing offer.
Heady stuff, for sure.
But between these moments, there is an awful lot of waiting. And anxiety. But I get ahead of myself. There’s a lot that goes on before this point, believe me. Publication is not for the faint of heart. And of course, any writer reading this is probably thinking, at this moment, ‘yadda, yadda, yadda, I’ve heard this before.’ Right? Maybe. Let me tell you a little story.
After sending rounds of query letters I had four requests for full manuscripts. For those of you who haven’t been through this process this means that I had sent flawless, artfully crafted, intriguing, (yet humbly self-effacing) one-page letters (with sample pages, if requested) to a carefully researched list of agents. I had included recent comparable titles (“comps”), I had a hook and elevator pitch, a brief bio. Now, this is a whole ‘nother blog post, so I won’t go into more detail. But anyway, what happens is that the agent’s assistant (most likely) reads your letter and, if it’s interesting, your sample pages. Then, said assistant passed them on to the agent, who might read them that day (my fastest request for a full was 6 minutes) or might read them in four months. If the agent is interested, the assistant (or maybe the agent) will email, asking for more pages. And here’s where the waiting bit comes in. I had several agents hold onto my manuscripts for up to four months, even though I let them know that fulls were being considered elsewhere. Somewhere between the third and fourth month of waiting it hit me like the clapper of a gong: they don’t need me or my novel. They have stacks of good stuff to choose from.
Yet, while this is true, somehow agents need to find work that they believe in and want to represent.
Okay, I have totally wandered away from my opening premise. (must edit). Yes, right, well. The waiting. You have finished your manuscript! Edited, copyedited, formatted. You have come up with a killer title, and admit it, you have already decided who should star in the blockbuster movie (though you’ll keep that to yourself.) You feel cautiously optimistic as you craft your query letter. You research agents, personalizing each letter and submission. Onward. Get it all right. Send the letters.
Send requested fulls. Maybe grow out your hair.
Maybe raise a puppy.
Then, things can speed up. I sent a letter and quickly had a request for 50 more pages. Then, like something in a Dickens novel, I came home from Christmas Eve dinner in 2015 to find an email from an agent, enthusiastically asking for the whole manuscript. A month later, I had an email from her assistant, asking for a phone call “to discuss my work”. In the five days intervening I deconstructed the wording of that request dozens of times: She didn’t say “to discuss representation”. Didn’t say anything about a contract. I wondered, should I request that we meet in person, and I’ll come to New York at any time of the day or night at her convenience? Does that look desperate and pathetic? (Yes, it does.)
It’s just a phone call. Don’t overthink it. Repeat. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to focus on the potentially overwhelming fact that THIS WAS THE BIGGEST THING TO EVER HAPPEN in my fairly new writing career.
SO, the call happened. I dressed as if I were going into a meeting. Took care with my makeup and hair. And that actually helped. I decided against having that shot of Jack Daniels. I sat in my living room so that my three dogs would not distract me. I had a notepad, a fresh pen. My senses were on high alert, my palms, super clammy. I mean, super clammy.
The phone rang right on time and I answered, affecting a “hello?” meant to sound like I was just pulling wet laundry from the washing machine—like it was a normal day and this was no big deal and I was an old hand at this sort of thing. The assistant was on the line, and she connected the agent. I was pleasantly surprised by how warm they sounded, how solicitous and kind they were, how complimentary. The call lasted forty-five minutes. I hung up with an offer to “revise and resubmit” my novel, according to the agent’s ideas. I agreed readily. I was thrilled to have caught the notice of someone at this agency. And she was so nice! But here was the kicker: I had to agree that I would not send the manuscript out to anyone else as long as I was editing based on this agent’s ideas for my work. That was fair. I agreed.
Fast forward eleven months. I had completed three exclusive revisions. I did not have a contract for representation. As I ticked off each week between waiting to hear about my revisions and hoping for a contract, I learned to be patient. And let me tell you, it is hard. Every time there was a request for a phone call I thought, she probably hates what I did. She’s going to drop me and I wasted 3/6/9 months.
I had no idea almost a year would pass. But it did. And after those 11 months, my novel was better. I spent all of my time and energy on making this agent happy with my work. Happy enough to sign me. I pushed myself. I applied to an MFA program.
In November we had another call. As I waited for the days to pass I convinced myself that surely she would not want to continue if my work wasn’t there yet. So, same modus operandi for the previous calls: dress well, paper, pen. Only this time I had a box of Kleenex and I did, in fact, have that shot of bourbon, because I truly anticipated bad news. I re-thought taking a tranquilizer because I figured that if I did I would probably ugly cry on the phone when the bad news was delivered.
But after a few pleasantries, here’s what she said: “We need to talk about further revisions.” My heart rose, since this meant she wasn’t dumping me yet, but it quickly fell as I thought, I gave my all to that last round of revisions. I did almost everything she asked, and it’s still not good enough? I can’t do this. I don’t have what it takes.
And then she said, “…but I believe that your work is strong. We’d like to offer you representation.”
TO BE CONTINUED…
In which Liza gets a book deal.
Click on bold type for links.
YES! I have a book deal for both of my completed historical novels! YES, they will appear in hardcover, paperback, e-book and as audiobooks! Yes, I am absolutely pants-wettingly beside myself.
Yes, there is validation, and my pants would be on fire if I didn’t admit that. There’s some money, which is also really sweet, but what I’m feeling the most right now is GRATITUDE.
I’ve had fabulous writing teachers, mentors, and MFA advisors. I had a great cohort (go, Winter, 2018!) in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I first read my work at Connie May Fowler’s fabulous VCFA Novel Retreat. I had a wonderful writing group at WriterHouse, here in Charlottesville, Virginia. My family is supportive and even though they don’t really understand what being a writer is, they support my ambition and dreams. My agent, Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group worked hard to put the deal together and I’m thrilled to be working with the folks at Blackstone Publishing. I’m also grateful for the time I spent at Hawthornden Castle this March and April.
It’s an ongoing journey—okay, sometimes it’s been a slog. Along the way, there have been moments of euphoria and tears of bitter disappointment, chasms of self-doubt, nail-biting anxiety, and many, many hours staring at my laptop screen (or into the refrigerator, when I got stuck). I have to confess that there have, and will be, envy and jealousy of talented (younger, prettier) writers whose gorgeous prose or poetry seems effortless, and friends who already have novels in the world. There’s always someone higher up the ladder, right?
Along the way, I’ve been trying to stay on an even keel.
For me, this requires wine, solitude, wine, long walks, yoga, wine, occasional Ativan, wine, compulsive knitting in ridiculously complex patterns, and often, praying, especially in the dark times, for grace. Because grace, I think, is the most valuable tool available to us humans as we navigate both highs and lows. Grace allows us to accept what feels unfair or unkind. Grace helps us to wait with patience. It asks our higher power of choice not to help us get what we want, but to help us move through the process with self-compassion and acceptance of things that don’t seem to make sense. Sometimes, grace gives us clarity, if not of a specific situation, then of our unique position within that situation. Grace reminds us to pay it forward when we can.
I don’t know what’s ahead in this writing journey. Needless to say, there will probably be more lows and hopefully, more highs. To be sure, there will be a whole lot of shameless self-promotion in my future, and more staring at the laptop screen. I’m just starting a third novel now, set in the early 1950s.
Here’s just a little bit about my two upcoming books, but I don’t want to give away the plots. Note- it’s possible that titles will change before publication.
ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS
This novel began in a Fiction class I took five years ago at Mary Baldwin University. My teacher was Sarah Kennedy, a fine poet and the author of THE CROSS AND CROWN series of historical novels. Sarah told us to start a novel. So I did. Then I enrolled in a program at Queen’s University in Charlotte, N.C., called One Book, where I was lucky enough to be mentored by Barbara Jones of Henry Holt &Co. After that, I kept working on this manuscript in the Novel in a Year class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA., taught by the fabulous novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff.
I set the story in 1924, at the old farmhouse where I live in rural Virginia. The inspiration for the main character, May Marshall, came from this shard of a porcelain doll’s face I found in the dirt outside the house.
I found myself wondering whose doll it might have been and what the little girl’s life had been like here, at Keswick Farm. I tried to imagine what this place was like when that girl was small, and I decided that the 1920s would be an interesting time to write about.
Certainly, the twenties were roaring here in Albemarle County, Virginia. During Prohibition, Franklin County, southwest of Albemarle, was called “the moonshine capital of the world.” Locally, according to John Hammond Moore’s history, Albemarle—Jefferson’s County, 1727-1976, bootlegger Bose Shifflett, operating out of Bacon Hollow, was known as “King of the Blue Ridge.” Now, you can’t make this stuff up, so of course, Bose had to have a cameo.
Photo above from Wikimedia Commons:Orange County Archives [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D
In future posts, I’ll write more about the research and inspiration for this novel.
IN ALL GOOD FAITH
Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Bonus Army marchers encamped in Washington (1932)
In 2017, this manuscript was named a semi-finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition (Novel-in-progress category), was a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards, and it won second place in the Novel Excerpt category of the Seven Hills Literary Contest. An excerpt was published in the Seven Hills Review.
This novel is what’s called in the publishing industry a “stand-alone sequel,” which means that you could read it without having read my first book and it should make sense. However, some of the characters from ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS make another appearance. The plot is a dual narrative, telling parallel stories with themes of living with a disability, questioning faith in times of adversity, and two women’s unlikely success during the Great Depression. I’ll be writing more about this one in later posts, but the plot centers on events of the summer of 1932. In the spring of that year, a grassroots uprising began in Oregon when eight American veterans of World War I started a cross-country protest march to petition Herbert Hoover to pay their war bonuses early (they were slated to be paid in 1945). By the time the men reached Washington D.C. they had picked up support and 17,000 veterans had assembled from all across the country to join the March, many with families in tow. They camped out along the rivers and around the Capitol, in rough shacks and tents and sometimes in partially demolished office buildings. In a terrific publicity fail for Herbert, the term “Hooverville” was coined for the encampments that populated D.C. and continued to spring up in cities across the country throughout the Depression. After the Bonus Bill was defeated in late July, President Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to lead troops in tear gassing the bonus marchers out of the camps.
More later, as we lead up to publication! Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new author Facebook page.
Thanks for stopping by.
Let me say one thing. Well, two things, actually. The first is that I never thought I’d be chosen as a Hawthornden Fellow. But I filled out the application in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, no other applicant could make it in a particular month—January, for instance, or someone might break a leg, or whatever, leaving a spot for me. Then I chickened out and told the nice folks who had offered to write recommendations for me ‘thanks, but I don’t qualify.’ Then, I decided I really, really wanted to try for it, so I did.
The second and far more important thing is this: I am profoundly grateful to the late Mrs. Drue Heinz and her committee, and to Hamish Robinson, the administrator of Hawthornden, for the opportunity to spend a month here. While the initial awe has mellowed over my four weeks here, it will never go away.
For eight months of the year, five or six writers are invited to spend a month at Hawthornden Castle. Novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, poets, etc., from all over the world may apply. The daunting eleven-page application must be requested by mail, from Scotland, and returned, hand-written, to the administrator, also by snail mail.
Aside from a few housekeeping rules, the main thing is that silence be maintained from 9:30am until 6:30pm, every single day. There is no internet available to Fellows and very spotty cell reception. In short, it is a place to write without distraction, while the lovely staff does one’s laundry, fixes one’s meals, and tidies one’s room. For an entire month. In Scotland. No, I’m not making this up.
The chef, Ruth Shannon, provides wonderful traditional Scottish fare for dinner: Comforting fish pie on snowy nights, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and perfectly roasted potatoes on Sunday. And her puddings! Her almond cake, her berry Charlotte, her trifle, and that chocolate soufflé! Her first cookbook is in print and another is in the works.
The writer’s bedrooms are named: Boswell, Evelyn, Herrick, Bronte, Milosz, Drummond, and I was in Jonson. Upon arrival, I unpacked my family photographs and pictures of my three dogs, my yoga mat, hiking shoes, and the three craft books I brought along: Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, and a small volume called “It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences,” by June Casagrande. The first two I read almost daily, as a religious person might study a devotional. Burroway always delivers when I have a writing problem or question. (I understand that the book is being re-issued soon, minus the anthologized stories she uses as examples.) Casagrande’s book I did not get to. I’m hoping it will help with my comma issues, but that’s another post entirely.
Our days here are for work, beginning after breakfast and broken by lunch and perhaps an afternoon walk. Sometimes I’ve done yoga in my room, trying not to knock over furniture and stifling my groans of pain, so as not to disturb my fellows.
Around 12:15 each day the muffled clang of Thermos against Tupperware heralds the arrival of lunch, and there, as if delivered by fairies, sits a lovely small wicker hamper (originally from Fortnum & Mason, in London) outside my bedroom door. When I unbuckle the leather straps, I find inside a Thermos of hot, homemade vegetable soup and a sandwich, neatly fitted into a container and halved, with carrot sticks and hummus in another little compartment. A cute little Babybel cheese completes this picture. Each day, I imagine I feel the delight of a school child, whose mother has lovingly packed my lunch. (This is projection because growing up, we got lunch money; but still…)
In 1982, Mrs. Heinz refurbished Hawthornden Castle and turned it into an international writer’s retreat. Located about 25 minutes south of Edinburgh, it boasts a 15th-century tower and a commanding view of the River Esk and surrounding woods. The Castle was enlarged and partially re-built by the poet and historian William Drummond, in 1638.
In 1842, Queen Victoria visited one of Drummond’s heirs, and the caves below the Castle were, reportedly, lined with velvet for the occasion. When Charles Dickens dropped in, unannounced, it is said that he was turned away by the housekeeper. His rockstar status had no currency at Hawthornden, apparently.
I won’t delve too deeply into the history of the Castle but suffice it to say that there are the obligatory winding stone staircases and low doorways. It would not surprise me in the least to walk in on the staff of Downton Abbey having elevenses in the Hearth Room. The layout remains a mystery, with no rhyme or reason and a window visible from the outside that does not exist inside. In our third week, Hamish led us on a tour of the caves and dungeon beneath the Castle. Photos below;
I asked if there are ghosts and Hamish said no. But one night, when I was having trouble sleeping, I rolled onto my side and pulled the duvet around my shoulders. Behind me, I felt the distinctive footfall of a cat landing on the bed, behind my back. I gasped, and turned over, alarmed, but there was no cat. And yet, I was sure I had felt those four light paws sink into the coverlet as if it had jumped from the empty bed next to mine. Super creepy, I won’t lie. But it didn’t happen again.
My Fellows for the month are three novelists (two American, one Scot) and a young American playwright. ** As the weeks pass, I’m increasingly awed by their talent. In the evenings, we sit by the fire in the drawing room, sipping wine or Scotch, and take turns on alternating nights, reading our work aloud or having it read by the others. I’ve never seen a moment of competitiveness (Bananagrams excepted), or envy, among us. We’ve bonded over how to efficiently operate the antique plumbing and where Wi-Fi is to be found. In our fourth week together, we are as adept at the Victorian plumbing as, well, the Victorians.
We’ve shared stories of children, husbands, lovers and parents, success and self-doubt. Some of us received letters and two of us ordered the same beautiful, wine-colored suede boots.
At the end of our first week, we started playing Bananagrams after dinner. I had never played before, but Sheena insisted this was much more fun than Scrabble, and she was right.
The second week, Sheena taught us Dirty-Made-Up-Bananagrams. For example: VIBROID, CHUND, WEANOLE, BUMFO, PENISTATE, NARTY. You get the idea.
Shortly before I left to come here, my first novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS, went out on submission to publishers. For non-writers, this means that my literary agent has sent out my manuscript to potential editors in hopes that one (or more) might love it, fight over it, and want to publish it, offering a multiple book deal with film, audio, and foreign rights.
It’s nerve-wracking, I won’t lie.
So, while here I’ve been finishing the draft of my second novel. As I pack up to leave it stands at 372 pages and 115,000 words. I can’t say how many words I’ve added or cut, but I have done what I hoped to do, which was to connect the narrative pieces I already had and edit the thing. For instance, I spent an entire day doing a word search for ‘was,’ (1289 appearances to>1125) and another morning on ‘had,’ (990>784) with the intention of eliminating the dreaded passive voice.
When I get back there is still work to do. The manuscript needs copyediting, it needs to be read by beta readers, then I need to read it out loud to myself and, finally, send it to my agent. Although my MFA advisors, workshop members, and writing group have read parts of this, no one, except me, has read the entire thing. So, there’s that to be dealt with.
During my stay here, I’ve had to wrestle with the possibility that my first novel won’t sell. Apparently, this is the case for many writers. I have found myself, on several occasions, wallowing in self-doubt, thinking what am I doing, writing a second book if no one wants my first? Am I an idiot to keep at it? I haven’t had an answer to that yet, but I figured that now is really not the time to have an existential writing crisis.
Today, one of our last, my afternoon walk followed deer trails through the high woods and I crossed a steep waterfall via a fallen log, all the while telling myself that if I fell, no one in the entire world knew where I was and if I screamed it was doubtful that anyone would hear me, except maybe the three horses I passed earlier. But there was no drama, except muddied shoes and some truly ungraceful fence-hopping.
The North Esk runs below the Castle and walking trails wind down to a cottage ruin called “The Maiden Castle,” situated at the spit of land where the river turns back on itself.
On my first trail walk, I was nervous and very cautious, afraid of falling in the thick black mud and afraid, also, of getting lost in the woods or tumbling down the steep banks into the frigid North Esk. (How embarrassing would that be—drowning on my first day?) On subsequent walks, I would venture farther afield and fall in the mud once or twice, though not over a cliff. On my rambles, I found shards of blue and white pottery and tumbled glass along the riverbank. In the newly plowed field adjoining the library, pottery shards flash in the furrows. Today, I gathered a pocketful of colored ones. To me, these are treasures I’ll take home, but to the farmer, I suspect they are no better than gravel.
Now, as I write this, the rain has begun. We’ve had a snow-globe snowstorm and plenty of rain, and lots of sunshine. When we arrived, the snowdrops were blooming and as I prepare to leave there are seas of daffodils and pink wild cyclamen on the banks. I am snug, in my little room with its Laura Ashley fabrics and ruffled lampshade, pine desk, and fireplace. And I am filled with gratitude—not only for the Fellowship, which is so generous—but also for the friends I’ve made, for the time to do what I love, and for the family I left behind, who allow me the freedom to be here.
While I was in residence, out benefactress died, here. I wrote her a note of thanks after I received my acceptance, but I’ll never have the chance to tell her how much the experience has meant. I leave Hawthornden today, feeling full of gratitude. I hope she might have approved of our word games and laughter and cheers of appreciation for each other’s work.
Rest in Peace, Mrs. Heinz.
*Country Life, May 21, 1987, by Clive Aslet