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My Writer's Journal

Things I Love, Besides Books

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! Read More 
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Ways to Write A Historical Novel

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.  Read More 
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Speaking of Money...

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?" Read More 
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No Vampires for Me

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. Read More 
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