Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Help Select a Title for Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy

Dear Followers,

I'd like your feedback on the title for Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy, so I'm interrupting my series on "Birth of a Book" to conduct a survey.

Regards Leonidas, the third book in the trilogy following Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge, and Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer describes the last 12 years of Leonidas' life. It focuses on how Leonidas became king of Sparta, on his reign, the conflict with Persia and, of course, his death at Thermopylae. 

When I originally conceived of the Trilogy, I tentatively titled the last book "A Dispensable King" because I thought this provocative title might arrouse curiousity and so attract readers.  However, I am increasingly uncomfortable with this title. First and foremost, it does not describe Leonidas or his importance to Sparta and History.  Thus while the title might be witty and provocative, it is still inadequate. I've come up with some alternatives and would greatly appreciate you taking the time to vote in my survey.

Feel free to send me your own suggestions as well -- either as a comment or an email. Keep in mind, however, that both "Leonidas" and "Sparta" (or a form there of) must be included in the title and a close parallel to the titles of the first two books in the trilogy is also important.

Thank you!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 5: Editing

This is the fifth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

Most aspiring but unpublished writers I have met believe that editing is something the publisher does. This is a misconception. Publishers employ editors and publishers can do (usually for a fee) some more in-depth editing if necessary, but the bulk of a book’s editing is up to the author. The bottom line in today’s competitive market is: a poorly edited book doesn’t get accepted by an agent or commercial publisher, while if you’re self-publishing, a poorly edited book is simply a disgrace and embarrassment.

In short, every author should expect and plan to take responsibility for editing their book. This can take two forms: you can do it yourself or you can hire a professional to do it for you. I personally find that a combination of these two forms of editing works best.

Because an author – particularly after two or three re-writes – knows exactly what he/she intends to say, it is virtually impossible to see even glaring errors. I can’t say how many times I have turned over a manuscript I think is “perfect” to a reader, only to have them find screaming mistakes on the first page. As soon as these are pointed out to me, I ask myself “how could I miss that?” The mistake, once pointed out, jumps out at me snarling and howling like a vicious dog, but there it is: I had read and re-read and read again that very page and never seen the error -- until someone else pointed it out to me. For this reason I have learned to send my manuscripts to a professional, freelance editor as soon as I feel it is finished in form and structure. This is also a good opportunity to get a little distance and perspective on the project so that when I look at it again, I too have a “fresh” eye.

When the editor returns the manuscript after a first round of cleaning up typos, spelling and grammar, I go through the manuscript again. The objective this time is not to change content but to polish style. This is not about whether the characters are doing and saying the things they need to do to move the story forward, reveal their true nature or convey the themes, but about whether phraseology is awkward or anachronistic, words are used too repetitively, sentence structure is clear and effective and the like. I find this kind of editing can only be done in small doses. It is better to look at the manuscript only one scene at a time and really take time to edit. Efforts to rush this stage usually backfire. When I take time with each scene, however, I am usually amazed by how much the language itself can be tightened and fine-tuned to produce a clearer, crisper image that allows the characters to stand out against a more vivid backdrop while keeping action and suspense alive.

Once I have finished going through each and every scene looking for ways to make the writing more effective, I send the whole manuscript back to the professional editor again. This is both to eliminate the typos, spelling and punctuation errors that have crept into the manuscript as a result of the latest re-write and also to give the editor the opportunity to look at everything again or give a new editor the opportunity to comb the manuscript for errors.

Only now is the manuscript ready for a publisher.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 4: The Re-Write

This is the fourth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

If writing the first draft of a novel is like eating dessert, the re-write is like eating the main-course. The pleasure is less intense and ecstatic, but it is nevertheless satisfying and sustaining.

In my experience, no novel – or scene for that matter – is perfect at its inception. If nothing else, when writing at a fast pace to get the raw idea/inspiration translated into coherent words, it is normal to make typographical if not spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. Such corrections fall more properly under editing which I’ll discuss later. Today I want to focus on something more fundamental.

Even if a novelist writes one brilliant chapter after another, with each scene therein a masterpiece, the novel as whole will probably still need re-writing. This is because a novel evolves during the writing process, particularly if it takes, as it often does, years to write. By the time the last scene of a novel is written, when the ending is final and the author knows this is “it,” there are likely many aspects or parts of the early portions that no longer fit properly. Essentially, because a novelist rarely knows how individual characters will evolve and because in the course of a novel important sub-plots and ancillary themes evolve, the beginning usually needs to be re-examined after the end is certain.

The first re-write is, therefore, a matter of going back to page one and re-reading each scene again with the final form of the novel in mind. This is not merely a matter of removing extraneous or superfluous material, it usually entails adding things as well. For example, if in the latter portion of a novel a particular character or theme have become more important, it may be necessary to provide more information about the character earlier or foreshadow thematic developments. This may require the drafting of completely new scenes or even chapters. In the extreme, it may require a completely new beginning to the novel.

Once the structure of a novel stands, i.e. the beginning and end are set and the episodes of the novel are complete and lined up in the correct order, I personally find it useful to let a novel sit for a year or two. Ideally, I am already at work on the next novel, and set the finished one aside without further thought to concentrate on the new project. Alternatively, if I am anxious to get a book to print, then I like to get the opinion of others while I take a break from the book of at least two months.

During this phase, the rough draft of the novel is sent to several people for candid but constructive feedback. Based on the suggestions of these readers, I undertake a new re-write. Again, this may include cutting or adding entire scenes. More often it entails massaging existing scenes to make them sharper and more effective, or it may entail providing additional background information about characters and developments. This is the stage in which I test how effectively I have communicated my message. I see the re-write as an opportunity to adjust the method of telling the story to make it more successful.

There is no set number of re-writes that a novel must undergo, but experience certainly helps reduce the number. My first novels (such as An Obsolete Honor) underwent at least a dozen re-writes.  More recent novels, like my Leonidas Trilogy, are not taking more than two to three. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 3: First Draft

This is the third part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

In the past I have compared writing the first draft of a novel episode to eating Tiramasu – or any other sweet that one absolutely adores. This is because, at least for me, writing a fictional scene for the very first time always produces a rush of satisfaction similar to a heavy dose of sugar/chocolate.

The most delicious aspect of writing anything for the first time is the excitement of not really knowing what the end product will look like. Even though I always know what I intend to write, I can never be sure where the creative process will actually lead me. A finished first draft is always full of surprises: unexpected developments, witty repartee from my characters or maybe just an unexpectedly vivid image.

Obviously, there are bad days when these unexpected plot changes or a head strong character lead straight to a dead end. I have been known to write a large chunk of novel only to be brought to an abrupt halt by the realization that I am not where I want to be. Curiously, sometimes I have fun writing even these scenes, but usually when I wander too far off course, it is like getting lost -- or eating too much of a particularly heavy desert! --and I end up feeling frustrated or angry with myself.

Fortunately, such misadventures are comparatively rare. It is far more common to find myself on a delightful journey into a new and wonderful place. As the story unfolds, I feel I am as much an observer as a creator. At one level, of course, the novelist is the person recording the story and translating the ideas/images/emotions etc. into a form that can be transmitted to others. On another level, however, the novelist is just a tool of a greater creative force, the servant of the idea that is the novelist’s inspiration.

Thus, when I plunge into writing an episode or scene for the first time, I have the pleasure of anticipation; I know I’m about to experience something new. The writing itself sweeps me up and absorbs me completely. The images and emotions I am describing envelop me. The words flow onto the page with little conscious thought. And then I sit back with a sense of being full and satisfied – just like when one finishes a piece of hot apple pie.