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Monday, October 29, 2012

Scary Stuff: Amazon Author Rankings and a Move

Amazon is crazy about rankings, and they've always ranked books in a such a way that each author can track her own books, and the top ranked books are clearly visible to anyone who cares to look. Now they've taken to ranking the people behind the books. Take a look.

Of course, I'm not in the top 100. But as I looked through these, I was struck by the fact that I'd only ever read anything by J. K. Rowling out of all the authors in the top 100, and didn't find anyone else I would even consider reading (okay, maybe one or two). I'm probably weird, but an author's popularity doesn't attract me to their books. Does it attract you? Does it attract most readers? Is this author ranking the best thing for readers looking for new authors to read since sliced bread? Please comment and let me know.

In other news, I'm well into the boxes, tape, and cellophane. My husband and I are headed to Illinois to make our home for the foreseeable future.

For those of you keeping track, an appropriate response might be, "She's moving again?" It's my response, too, but we haven't made a go of it in Atlanta, wonderful as it may be, because my husband has been so unhappy at his job. The new move represents a new lease on life even more than the move to Atlanta did. It's a clean break and I can't wait to see what amazing doors open because of it.

Of course, it puts my goal of a complete first draft of my WIP, Seven Noble Knights, by year's end in severe jeopardy. For at least some of November -- NaNo challenge month, which I made such wonderful use of last year -- I'll be packing and unpacking all my notes and plot point scribblings. But I'm still going to do it. Just don't distract me.

I'm not sure when I'll be able to blog again. When I do, I will bring you some amazing historical posts and short, easy to consume bouts of logophilia. In the meantime, it would be a huge help to me if you play around with the carousel of books, below left, and click on them and consider liking them or leaving reviews. I'll thank you when I get back!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Something Red by Douglas Nicholas

I read this book very slowly, partly because of other commitments, but also because it begins as if it were a snail at the races. It's easy to put down in frustration, because the language is difficult, even for someone like me, who has spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the thirteenth century. When the travelers are finally attacked by bandits, the author interrupts the action with the kinds of descriptions we've already read so much of: the mechanism of how to secure the carts so the attackers can't make off with them, what kind of arrow they're using, and how and when they were made.

Tenacious readers will be rewarded with a middle that reads like a horror movie: the characters get caught in a kind of mousetrap, in the snow, with dead bodies at every pass, and despite Molly's ability to deal with anything, it's possible to believe for a few moments that they're all going to die, either frozen or brutally murdered (and then frozen).

Especially tenacious readers will be rewarded with an ending unlike any other part of the book, and yet satisfyingly inevitable and maybe a little wistful. The ending will stay with me for a long time as an example of how to successfully end a complex book.

The book ends up working really well. Somehow, the reader cares about the characters that have come through so many words. Molly, Jack, Hob, and Nemain seem real and strong, and as if they have much more story to tell. The male/female balance of power and Molly's popularity were a pleasure to read about.

There is an obvious poetry to the language, and I enjoyed feeling as if I were actually living in the thirteenth century through the author's conjurings. The fantasy elements weave seamlessly into the history (it's been said before, but there's really no other word for how smoothly the two supposedly opposing elements meld). If you already have a thorough knowledge of the vocabulary of thirteenth-century English and Irish traveling life, or of you don't mind learning, this is the book for you.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Philippa Gregory’s Keynote Address at HNSLondon12

No, you don't have to be from the UK to be a historical novelist, but Philippa Gregory is, and she gave a wonderful talk at the Historical Novel Society Conference this year. Some day I'll go in person!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Imminent Projects

I'm excited about two really big projects I'm currently working on (aside from my WIP, The Seven Noble Knights of Lara, which I think, feel, and breathe at all hours!). Both are related to Spanishness and women's concerns and both are the culmination of years of blood, sweat, and tears.

Tree/House, my stunted little book about personal growth in the face of limitations, imposed by others and by the self, very popular with readers who like a little weird with their literary, will be coming out in Spanish in ebook and paperback very soon! It will be called Un hogar en los árboles (A Home in the Trees) and the final draft is the work of two fine human beings, dedicated to writing in a way that honors the Spanish language, as well as my critical eye. I've always wanted to see a Spanish edition of this book. This is a dream come true for me. Let all your Spanish-reading friends know! It's on eTLC in English.

Lee más acerca de este libro en español aquí.

Si tú lees en español y quieres escribir una reseña -- por muy corta que sea -- dímelo y te regalaré una copia digital. Las reseñas de lectores en Amazon y Goodreads son esenciales para el éxito que todo libro nuevo. ¡Gracias por tu apoyo!

This is a mockup -- the real cover will
be much more attractively designed.
In no particular order, the second project is... another translation... this one, my English version of Lidia Falcón's Camino sin retorno. It will be available from Loose Leaves Publishing in December! Here's the jacket description:

Barcelona, 1986: The dictatorship is over and life is free and easy. But what if you can’t forget the seventies?

Elisa’s troubled past comes back to her in the form of her ex-husband, Arnau, who needs her help to exonerate a former comrade. Elisa relives her Catholic childhood, her marriage to Arnau, her blind loyalty to the communist cause, her experiments in feminism, and her prison time to create a twentieth-century emotional history of the political Left in Spain. The women who faced so much adversity with Elisa weave their own perspectives and testimonies into hers, making this more than a novel: it’s an important contribution to history that gives a voice to the silenced.

Can Elisa ever leave the path history has carved out for her? Is there really no turning back?

“Followers of contemporary Spanish history … will now have the opportunity to understand some of its complex factors … through Falcón’s unswerving critical appraisal of Spanish politics. … No Turning Back guarantees that the memory of clandestine resistance is no longer consigned to the past or to scholars.”

—from the critical introduction by Linda Gould Levine

It took quite a few years to be able to bring this to the market, but I'm glad I waited until the circumstances were right. Tell everyone you know who's interested in recent Spanish history!

By the way, the inimitable Lidia Falcón is currently in the United States. I'm unable to meet with her because of geography, but if you have the opportunity, in Kansas or New York, don't miss it!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Magical Realism Vindicated

Yes, that was the Nobel Prize for literature being given to Mo Yan, an author of magical realism.

I've defined what magical realism means to me here.

Please read this vindication of the genre if you've ever been puzzled or offended by it, or, conversely, if you, like me, have had to explain (and explain, and defend) yourself in workshops and been obliged to listen to long rants about what's "wrong" with your story.

Magical realism, you go!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Columbus Day, Spanish Style

The Pinta replica in Philadelphia.
Around these parts, Spain is admired as a country and an amazing history. So, I'm going to take Columbus Day (today) as the culmination of Hispanic Heritage Month. Columbus was sailing for Spain and wrote in Spanish, and it was the Spanish empire on which the sun never set, a century or two before Britain earned that accolade.

Here is a loose translation of the chapter called "In Praise of Spain" from Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna. "Spain" here is sort of a vague term referring to all of the Iberian Peninsula and the additional territories described.

God honored each land and province in the world, and gave each his gift, but among all the lands, it was Spain in the West that He honored most, for he stocked her with all those things men usually crave. Ever since the Goths went through all the lands from one end to the other, trying them out with battles and wars and conquering many places in the provinces of Asia and Europe (as we mentioned), trying out many living spaces in each place and choosing the most beneficial place amongst them all, they found that Spain was the best of all. They prized her well above all the others, because amongst all the lands of the world, Spain has a higher degree of abundance and goodness than any other land.

It is also closed all around: from one side the Pyrenees go all the way to the sea, and the Ocean Sea is on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. In Spain is also Gothic Gaul, which is the province of Narbonne all together with the cities of Rodez, Albi and Béziers, which belonged to this province in the time of the Goths. Also in Africa it had a province with control over ten cities which was called Tingitana, which was under the sovereignty of the Goths like all these others.

So this Spain we're talking about is like God's Paradise, which is watered with five principal rivers, which are the Ebro, Duero, Tagus, Guadalquivir, and Guadiana. And each of these has between them and the others great mountains and lands, and the valleys and plains are great and wide, and because of the goodness of the land and the humidity of the rivers, they bring forth many fruits and are abundant. The greater part of Spain is irrigated with rivers and fountains, and wells are never lacking in places where they're needed. Spain is abundant in grain fields, delightful with fruits, pleasureful with fish, delicious with milk and all the things made with it, full of deer and game, covered with livestock, healthy with horses, profitable with mules, secure and supplied with castles, fortunate with good wines, comfortable with an abundance of bread, rich in metals: lead, pewter, quicksilver, iron, bronze, silver, and gold; precious stones, all manner of marble, sea salt and salt marshes and salt rocks and many other ores: azure, red ochre, clay, aluminum, and many others that are found in other lands; spirited with silk and everything made with it, sweet with honey and sugar, illuminated with wax, satisfied with oil, fortunate with saffron. Spain is above all others ingenious, daring and vigorous in battle, light with work, loyal to one's lord, avid in study, palatine with words, perfect with all good things. There is no other land in the world that is like her in abundance, and none equals her in fortresses, and there are few in the world as large as she is. Spain is advanced before the others in greatness and valued more than others for loyalty. Oh, Spain! There is no tongue or genius that can tell all your goodness!

Happy Most Controversial Day of the Year!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Crossroads: The Truth in Fiction

I had a writerly weekend at the Crossroads conference in Macon, Georgia. The organizers say they started the whole thing because writing can be lonely, but it doesn't have to be!

One inspiring theme that arose in a lot of the talks was the truth of fiction. As Sarah Domet said, readers sympathize with fictional characters because they recognize something true in them. Fiction speaks to the heart, and therefore condenses truth in a way bare facts can't.

Another important idea I took away came from Chuck Wendig: Although authors want their books -- their babies -- to cure cancer and end war, they can't do those things, at least not in a direct way, because they're only stories, after all. So don't suffocate your children -- your books --, care less about them and they're be all the better for it. Recently I've been reading a lot about how historical novels have to be so true to history and the known facts, and I can't help but like the idea that I should care a bit less, breathe a bit easier, and remember that it's just a story. I'm not sure how much of that I can get away with overall, but it sounds to me like the only way I will ever finish my first draft of The Seven Noble Knights of Lara.

Finally, one of my favorite speakers was Johanna Ingalls of Akashic Books, who confirmed everything I'd hoped was true about small publishers everywhere: constant enthusiasm, appreciative authors, kindred spirits. I do love being an editor and publisher.

See these other takes on the conference:
Chuck Wendig
Delilah Dawson

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

New interview today!

It's all about Rhinoceros Dreams and a bunch of other wacky stuff, and it's here at J. J. Johnsons' blog. Thanks, J. J.!

By the way, Rhinoceros Dreams is finally available at Kobo and Diesel as well as Smashwords and Amazon, all for the lowest price imaginable! Help out those amazing beasts!

More stores coming soon.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Next Big Thing: The Seven Noble Knights of Lara

The latest game for authors in the blogosphere is to tag each other for The Next Big Thing. Kim Rendfeld, who writes early medieval fiction, tagged me. The authors answer a list of questions about their works in progress in anticipation of sharing their work with the world! 

The questions:

What is the working title of your book?
The Seven Noble Knights of Lara. It recently occurred to me that using the medieval title might not satisfy some modern readers, who might expect said seven knights to play an even larger role than they do, but I have no idea what a better title would be.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I read the "historical accounts" of this story in grad school and it has no ceased to haunt me. The historical accounts are based on a lost epic poem, and perhaps it's that lostness that fascinates me.

What genre does your book fall under?
Historical fiction. There are some fantasy elements in the original that I'm explaining with realistic causes.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I would like unknown actors to play the young characters. I'd die of happiness if Mandy Patinkin played one of the older characters -- perhaps the Count of Castile, Muño Salido, or even Ruy Blásquez, the evil man himself. Zaida should be played by someone as beautiful as Aishwarya Rai, but none of my other favorite actresses fit the type my characters need.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Teaser: A medieval epic with strong women, valiant knights and a bloody cucumber.
Synopsis: When a tenth-century noble Spanish woman suffers a gross affront at her own wedding, her blindly loyal husband wreaks a bloody revenge that will devastate the nation with an unstaunched conflict spanning 15 years. (Needs more work.)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I'm deciding between aiming for a small press or trying to get a literary agent. Being a publishing world "insider," I understand my options, but am not sure what will work best for me.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I started in 2007, but that draft was so bad I don't even count it. This true first draft has occupied me constantly since early 2011, and I hope to finish before the turn of 2013.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Within the genre, I think it's most similar to The Cross and the Dragon by Kim Rendfeld, but I hope to be able to read some more medieval fiction and flesh that out a bit. In my "pitch," I compare the revenge dynamics to nothing less than The Godfather and the amazing historical details to María Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World. That's pretty bold for me, but they told me I had to pick something, so...

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
There's love, lust, insanity and loads of rage. A couple of characters I created from scratch to support the main characters have captured by beta readers' hearts. You won't want to miss lovely, downtrodden Justa, handsome Adalberto, and practical, inscrutable Yusuf. Different attitudes about the monetary value of human life and the role of sex will fascinate any curious soul. Readers may also find descriptions of opulent, glittering, medieval Medina Azahara and cataract surgery that's not much less sophisticated than today's to be of interest.

I tag the following Next Big Things:

Tonya Marie Burrows, author of thrilling romantic suspense

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Today I'm at the Crossroads Writers Conference in lovely Macon, Georgia, to shake off some of the isolation inherent in writing and be inspired. The keynote speaker is Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, and if there's one person in the world who can tell me how to finish my novel this year, it must be he!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Have You Peaked or Are You Piqued? More Homophones

Here's a triple homophone for you.

Peak first came into written English in the middle of the sixteenth century. As a noun, the picture above illustrates it well: the highest point of anything, in the literal or figurative sense. The verb is used to describe someone or something reaching its literal or figurative highest point: The quality of printing peaked with the Gutenberg Bible and has been going downhill ever since.

Pique has been a member of English for nearly as long, but still maintains the look of its French origin. As a verb, it means to provoke, often to provoke to irritation: Their bad grammar piqued her to distraction. More commonly, the verb is used in the passive voice: She was piqued to distraction by their bad grammar. It also means to excite, as in the set phrase "to pique one's curiosity." The noun refers to the state of irritation, resentment or wounded pride resulting from having been piqued: The grammar teacher's students sent her into a fit of pique never before seen in the history of the school.

And of course, the last peek has to do with looking at something for a short amount of time. Few seem to have trouble spelling this one, perhaps because of things like peek-a-boo and "sneak peeks."

So as you can see, the three words have little to do with each other, unless someone reaches the peak of his pique as a result of being peeked at.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Medieval Underpants (Review)

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (and Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths by Susanne Alleyn is the single most useful book I've read on the craft of historical fiction. It's presented in a compulsively readable style that made it hard to put down. Riveting and beautifully logical, the book's mantra is never to assume you know something. But don't take my word for it. Let Susanne Alleyn tell you why. I picked this up after I read a highly entertaining excerpt about misconceptions of the Terror of the French Revolution that was also full of good historical research methods. That's her favorite topic, but she's just as passionate about all the other details.

The most fun sections are the examples she takes from real books and movies in order to tear them down. Who can resist laughing at the mistakes of other people? Of course, after you're done laughing, if you're writing historical fiction, you're left with the vertiginous realization that your current draft commits many of the same errors. At least you'll have read this book and learned how to correct such blunders before an editor sees it!

This book is also highly recommended for non-writers who like to read about the tasty morsels of history that don't get covered in straight history books, such as, how women relieved themselves before the advent of public restrooms and why medieval teeth weren't rotten.