Every week or so I comment on my writing, how it's going, the frequent frustrations, the occasional successes. This is your invitation to watch a writer at work - and sometimes find out what I'm cooking for dinner.
THE WILD QUEEN: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots - Coming in June
CLEOPATRA CONFESSES, paperback due June 2012
Still available in hardcover
Carolyn as Marie-Antoinette
May 14, 2013
HOTLINES Book #1
Almost 25 years ago I was contacted by a book packager wanting to develop a series of books about high school kids who, in the aftermath of the suicide of a friend, decide to form a telephone hotline for kids to call when they want to talk to someone about a problem. The packager had the concept; I was to come up with characters and plots.
I had never done anything remotely like this, but I was willing to give it a shot. Creating four main characters and a slew of minor characters wasn't too difficult, but developing storylines to run through a series of four books, each focusing on one of the main characters, was a big challenge. I had once helped to develop a hotline for survivors of breast cancer, so I knew basically how they worked. But I still had a lot to learn.
I signed up for training at the suicide prevention hotline operated by the local university. The sessions were interesting , but I was in a panic when I had to take my shifts, sitting in a bare office with a desk and a telephone and hoping that nobody in drastic straits would call. I did listen to a lot of serious problems, but none were suicidal, thank God!
I also hung out at a large high school known for the diversity of the student body; I can't remember now the number of languages spoken, but I think it was in the dozens.
Then I was ready to write. There was the usual back-and-forth with editors on each of the four books. I do remember describing Jenny, the main character in BECAUSE OF LISSA, as "skinny" and being told to change it to "slender," because nobody wants to read about an unattractive girl. That book and THE PROBLEM WITH SIDNEY were published in December 1990; GILLLIAN'S CHOICE came out in March 1991, and THE TWO FACES OF ADAM in June 1991. And I went on to write many other books, becoming more interested in historical fiction.
Fast forward to Summer 2012. My writer pals and I were talking about self-publishing ebooks--we'd all read the stories of Amanda Hocking and others who were hitting it big--and one of my friends said to me, "Why don't you resurrect some of your backlist titles and publish them as ebooks?"
Well, why not? I thought the old Hotline series would be a good candidate. Except I didn't have a clue how to proceed. Fortunately, I knew someone who did: my stepdaughter, Vered, is a book designer and has started her own small company. We quickly struck a deal: I would retype the Hotlines, doing minor editing as I went along, and she would design new covers and perform whatever magic tricks were needed to do the electronic conversions and get them sold through Amazon, B&N, and so on.
Did I say "minor editing"? Well, not so minor. It's a different world , and the original Hotline books are quaintly old-fashioned. Clothes, car models, language have changed, as I expected. The biggest change is the ubiquitous presence of cellphones. They have altered behavior and forced me to rethink some of the plot points.
It was a big job, but the books are out there, starting last fall with the last one issued in January. We'll see how they do. And one of these days I might consider resurrecting another one of the oldies. Maybe one that doesn't involve the use of a phone.
May 4, 2013
We were not a family of gourmets. My mother didn't like to cook, and I was a snoopy eater--no strange vegetables, please, and no weird spices. But when I was sixteen, we visited New York City, and my father took us to a French restaurant. Uncharacteristically, I ordered coq au vin (I was taking French in school and translated: chicken with wine). I probably pushed aside the onions and mushrooms, but the chicken was FABULOUS. My dad bought me a little French cookbook with the recipe. There was a problem--we didn't have any red wine. Or mushrooms. It would be a long time before I ate anything that interesting again.
One summer while I was in college I traveled to Europe, and once again I discovered that food was not just about meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and overcooked beans. When I married a year after college, I still couldn't put together a decent meal, but I got another French cookbook. The first thing I tackled was coq au vin. Success! I worked my way through the recipes--even attempting croissants made with puff pastry; nice try, but pretty awful.
The whole time I was trying to learn to cook, I was also trying to learn to write. This, I discovered, was much more difficult, due mostly to a lack of recipes. I had to figure everything out for myself. Nearly everything I "cooked up"--short stories--were dismal failures. My efforts in the kitchen were somewhat better, but not always great hits. Czech dumplings, for instance--years of failure, and then last Christmas, I finally got it right.
Last week I had a surprise phone call from a man who babysat my children fifty years ago, when he was a young teenager. "You used to sit in the basement and write while I played with the little boys," he said.
I no longer have an office in the basement. My little boys are now fathers. I turned out to be a pretty decent cook, still like to try new things. Pretty decent writer, too, and still like to try new things, even if they don't turn out the way I hope.
April 20, 2013
Janey, who was chosen The Most Useful Girl in 9th grade, continued to excel in high school at everything at which I did not excel. Fortunately, there was no such thing as a "Best Dressed Girl Award," or she would have walked--or danced--away with it, and I would have continued to show up in clothes bought for me by my mother, who was more interested in "quality" than she was in "fashion"--at least for her daughter. I'm remembering a particularly hideous green dress with some sort of a bustle arrangement in the rear. I looked terrible in green, and still do. And I didn't need a bustle.
I was beginning to hit my stride in high school. I edited both the school paper and the class yearbook. I got great grades, and I vowed I 'd never take another math course. But Janey continued to outclass me, particularly in the one area where I wanted very badly to succeed: she had a boyfriend, which meant that she always had a date for the big dances, whereas I....well, you can figure it out. The prom was at the end of May, and I started worrying about it in January. I did get the Most Useful Girl Award at the end of my senior year, but I didn't have a date for the dinner dance.
Janey's boyfriend was a smart, fun, sweet guy named Tom. Janey's dad was a doctor; Tom's had a little grocery store. One night her dad caught them making out in the backseat of his Cadillac, and Tom was banished. They weren't allowed to see each other ever again. He was only a grocer's son. Her parents wanted it over.
The odd thing is, I lost track of Janey after that. We went off to college, and I made up my mind I was going to be a writer someday, though I didn't have a clue how to make it happen.
But one year I went to a high school reunion and sat next to Tom. Janey wasn't there, and Tom was relieved. He told me about the Cadillac incident. His heart had been broken, he said. He found someone else and married her. And he became a doctor. Neither of us was quite sure whatever happened to Janey.
April 12, 2013
I first met Janey in kindergarten. She was a beautiful child with a winning smile and pretty curls, and her mother dressed her in nice dresses with big bows in the back. Janey was taking music lessons and learning to tap-dance. At Halloween she appeared costumed as a fairy princess with a sparkly crown and a wand with a star at the end of it. Our teacher, Miss Keller, chose Janey to lead the parade through the parlor and the dining room and back to our schoolroom. I was a shy little girl with thick glasses, buck teeth, and no discernible talents, and my mother had put me in a clown costume. I could bring up the rear, Miss Keller decided.
I didn't see much of Janey until we were both in junior high. By then she was a classic beauty in expensive clothes. She'd become a fine pianist and she could dance to anything. I had progressed to braces, bad perms, and clothes my mother was misguidedly convinced were "smart." Despite such profound differences, Janey and I were friends.
The Awards Assembly was coming up at the end of ninth grade, and I was convinced that I would be chosen The Most Useful Girl. I participated in all kinds of activities, wrote for the newspaper, sang in the chorus, took part in assemblies, and got almost all A's except in gym. When the principal called me to his office a few days before the Awards Assembly, along with Janey and a few other kids, I expected to hear that I'd been picked The Most Useful Girl. Why else would I have been summoned? When I heard that Janey was to get the award, I was crushed, so upset that I almost didn't hear what I WAS to get: the Math Award. I hated math, even though I got A's! Almost as much as I hated gym class! How could this be happening?
Janey got her award, we remained friends, high school life went on. But there's more to the story, and I'll continue it next week.
March 31, 2013
Generally, as everybody knows by now, my days are quite structured, starting with a morning walk and then writing all day and reading in the evenings. But there's more to life than writing and reading, and for the past couple of weekends I've been indulging myself.
Last Friday I went to the opera, "Madama Butterfly"--beautiful music (Puccini), but also a straightforward storyline with themes that interest me. After a Sunday morning concert (performed in a warehouse) with a Mozart string quartet, I saw an exhibit of Japanese Art Deco at the Albuquerque Museum. This Friday, as I was finishing up planting pansies and other green stuff in my balcony gardening at 7 pm, a friend called with a last minute invitation to a modern dance performance; by 8 o'clock I had washed my hands and was in my seat at the symphony hall, watching a visually stunning performance by Momix. Yesterday afternoon I went to a friend's book signing (more stuff to read!). Today's Sunday morning concert in the warehouse began with some really contemporary piano stuff that I don't enjoy at all but am willing to sit through for the second half of the program: Bach's Partita #6 in E Minor. Somewhere there's a camera that projects a view of the keyboard and the pianist's flying fingers. Wonderful!
And now, for the next three hours I'm going to write, and then--I'm going to the ZOO!
March 24, 2013
Most of the novels I've written have been based on a well-known historical figure: Mary Tudor (aka "Bloody Mary") was one of the first, followed by various Tudor relatives and other female European rulers. Because a lot is already known about them, coming up with a plot is not terribly difficult, once I've figured out where to begin (the end is easier; most of my queens end up dead). VICTORIA REBELS was a piece of cake, relatively speaking--all those diaries she kept! The bigger challenges are developing the character and finding her unique voice. Determining the pacing and filling in the details are all in a day's (or month's, or year's) work.
Sometimes, of course, very little is known about my main character, and all the secondary characters, and then the project gets a lot trickier: CLEOPATRA CONFESSES, for example. With only a handful of known facts, I had to invent the rest.
Another approach, and much harder for me, is to work with a particular time period or a certain event and to invent the characters AND the plot to tell the story. WHITE LILACS, written in 1992 (and recently published in Korean!), was set in Texas and based on an actual series of events in the 1920s. It's still one of my favorite books, because it was so difficult, especially the narrator's voice.
BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER: The Story of Helen of Troy and Her Daughter Hermione, coming out in Fall 2013, was another big stretch. It's based on ancient Greek myth, rooted in history that goes back 3000 years. I relied on Homer's Iliad and a number of plays by long-ago Greek playwrights. But challenging as it was, it has made me want to take on another project set in ancient times. We'll see.
Meanwhile, another novel is in the works, set again in the 1920s, nearly all of the characters my own creation. (See my comments above on that kind of challenge.) At the same time I'm back on safer ground, working on a new book on a familiar subject, and struggling to find a different approach to a story that's already well known. More on both later--I'll keep you posted.
March 10, 2013
After I posted a somewhat whiny blog last week about my inability to write best sellers, one of my readers asked, reasonably enough, "You make a decent living, don't you?"
The answer to that is "Yes and no." And you never know which it's going to be. Here's how it works: Once a manuscript, or a viable idea, is accepted by a traditional publisher, negotiations begin, sometimes through an agent (and I have a terrific one). The publisher makes an offer of an advance--money to be paid up front against future earnings, which are anybody's guess, based on a percentage of the cover price, known in the trade as a royalty. (There's nothing ROYAL about it, in my experience. How did they come up with that term?)
Typically, a book might be priced at $17 and the percentage might be 10%; the royalty on each book would be $1.70. The more copies sold, the higher the percentage; sell 10,000 copies and the royalty might go up to 15%, or $2.55 each. The publisher makes a guess on how many copies are likely to sell. Let's say they hope to sell 5000 copies in the first year after publication; in that case, they'll offer an advance of $8500. You (or your agent) try to bargain for more. Maybe somebody will want to make the book into a movie! (Fat chance, but it does occasionally happen.) Eventually the writer and the publisher arrive at a figure, and a contract is signed. Often half the advance arrives a few weeks or months after signing; the second half arrives after the manuscript has been accepted for publication, a process that can take months of revisions and rewrites. You've been working on this book for over a year. The agent, if you have one, takes a percentage--usually around 15%. You put your check in the bank but you can't run out and spend it all, because you'll eventually have to pay income tax on it.
At last the book is in print and in bookstores. Most publishers calculate royalties twice a year, Dec 31 and June 30, and make payment some four or five months later, sending a report to your agent, if you have one. If your book comes out in January, the report covers sales to the end of June, and you get that report sometime in October or November. But guess what! Records show that only 2000 copies have been sold; you've earned $3400, but since you've already collected an $8500, you get no money this time around. Six months later, you learn that another 2000 copies have been sold, but there have been some returns, and the agent had some expenses sending copies to foreign publishers, and your earnings are only around $3000. Still no money due.
Meanwhile, you're working on another book. You're convinced this one will do better. The publisher isn't sure. They hedge their bets. They offer only $7500 this time. They wonder if maybe you shouldn't try something different. (Vampires? Paranormal? Dystopia?)
The good news is that books often stay in print and sell for years. Only a few days ago I got a statement from a major publisher for a book published more than thirty years ago. The royalty statement says "no money due." In fact, it seems that I now owe the publisher 47 cents. But I'm not discouraged. I'll be getting a few more statements in the next month or so. Then I can answer the question, "You make a decent living, don't you?"
March 3, 2013
I'll never write a book like THE HUNGER GAMES, because I don't much care for dystopic fiction, or TWILIGHT, because vampires and werewolves hold no interest for me. I'll never write science fiction or fantasy, because I'm not very good at making up stuff from other worlds.
My family would like to see me try. They think more people want to read such novels than want to read historical fiction, and if I'd just pay attention to what the publishing trends are, settle down and try something different, I might actually become a very popular writer. They think I've got the ability, they know I work hard, and they worry that I'm not famous. I'm sure they'd love it if I actually became rich.
Sorry, kids, it's not going to happen. Not that I'm stuck in the past--just that I really love imagining what the lives of people must have been like long ago, and then writing about them and bringing them to life. And as long as there are at least some readers out there who love it too, I'll keep on doing what I do and leave the vampires to others.
February 16, 2013
I love it when I get a new idea. I'm excited when I do enough research to recognize that it's a good idea, even more excited when an editor says, "Tell me more." I love doing the basic research, enough to start writing, and then more advanced research as the project becomes more complicated. I'm hyped when I see the story unfold, taking off in directions I hadn't expected. I'm happy when I see it all coming together with the end actually in sight. I'm glad when the first draft is done and happy when I see what I need to do in the next draft.
I feel good when I send the ms. to the editor. I feel even better when the word comes back that the editor likes it but sees need for improvement. I'm energized when I jump into that complete rewrite, and I'm even glad when there are more questions, more problems to be solved and I can figure out how to solve them.
I DO NOT LIKE to get the ms. back from the copyeditor (CE)with dozens upon dozens of queries and suggestions for small changes; when the CE disagrees with my research, questions my conclusions, or goes to sources different from the ones I've used. I know that's what CE's do. But I don't like it.
This week BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER arrived, and I've spent the past few days going over all those queries. It's the CE's job to question things. We both want the book to be accurate, the grammar to be correct, the spelling perfect. Today I've struggled with the correct spelling of Pharsalos, a small, remote city in ancient Greece where Hermione spent some very unhappy months. The CE has changed every single reference to Pharsalus--"us," instead of "os"--which is a more modern spelling of the name. The CE is wrong. But now I have to find evidence to prove it.
CE says her sources say it's "Lion Gate;" my sources call it "Lions Gate." We're both right--but I want it my way.
Sometimes, of course, CE catches some bloopers--I've made a few--and for that I'm grateful. But this is the one part of the process of writing and publishing that I definitely do NOT enjoy. Fortunately, it will be finished soon. By the end of this week I'll be doing something I really love--working on a new novel.
February 3, 2013
I have no idea how many book-lovers are out there blogging about the books they enjoy, but there must be a bunch. I decided to do a blog tour to promote VICTORIA REBELS. Some of my writer pals have organized their own, which seems to involve an awful lot of work, just to set it up, and so I opted to enlist the services of a bright and ambitious young woman, Gabrielle Carolina, who has a blog of her own, The Mod Podge Bookshelf. We decided to run it Feb. 18th to Mar. 13th.
I left on Jan. 9th for Paris and Spain, using my iPhone to check my email periodically, and toward the end of the trip (which was wonderful, by the way) the schedule and the interviews began to pop up. By the time I got home a week ago after more than 24 hours without sleep and a heavy cold coming on, all but one of the 18 bloggers who had signed up for the tour had sent their questions. On Monday, surrounded by Kleenex, I began answering.
The ones I enjoyed most were the "character interviews," in which I pretended to be the interviewee and actually made up my own questions or edited the ones submitted, and then I answered them in the character's voice. Most fun was answering in the persona of the villainous Sir John Conroy.
The hardest were the Top Ten lists. What were Queen Victoria's ten favorite things? Well, after her dog and her horse, the color blue and boiled eggs for breakfast, I began to run out of things. Even more difficult, what were MY ten favorite things about the Victorian Era? Hey, I love the hats and the gloves and the gardens! But then what? I struggled most of all with what seems like an innocuous question: My ten favorite or most influential books. I couldn't come up with even ONE that I'd put on such a list, and so I dodged and described the sources I used to write VICTORIA REBELS. Personally, I think that's much more interesting, and I hope the blogger agrees. Meanwhile, I keep thinking about what has really influenced me.
YA Historical Fiction
The future queen of England lives a life of privilege, but privilege comes with a steep price of isolation and loneliness--until she meets Albert.
She leaves Scotland as a child, is sent to France to marry the future king, returns to Scotland as a young woman to rule; a wild queen in a wild country.
First published in 1992, my first historical novel, has been reissued with a new cover.
Cleopatra has been chosen to be the next queen of Egypt, but she faces ruthless competition from her sisters.
(Watch a video of Carolyn on this page)
The dizzying rise and horrific downfall of the last queen of France. Young Royals series
Who would not fall in love with--or at least have a mad crush on--young Will!
Marie van Goethen was a dancer in 19th century Paris and modeled for Degas's famous sculpture.
A fictionalized account of the early life of Charles Darwin, narrated by Charley himself.
Mozart's talented sister, Nannerl, struggles to achieve life she deserves--in music as well as in love.
Four characters, four big issues, four compelling stories:
BECAUSE OF LISSA;
THE PROBLEM WITH SIDNEY;
THE TWO FACES OF ADAM (coming January 2013)
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