A Wider World by Karen Heenan: A Release Day Review

The best book I’ve read this year, bar none.

Can stories save a life?

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Robin Lewis, once a musician in Henry VIII’s court, now a man of letters and secrets, stands charged with heresy by Mary Tudor. Only a journey of a few days separates him from inevitable execution, but journeys are liminal spaces where anything can happen. Especially when one has a mind as agile and subtle as Robin Lewis’s.

In this second book in the author’s Tudor Court collection, author Karen Heenan has taken the prickly, almost-unlikeable Robin, a supporting character in her first book Songbird, and told his rich story with consummate skill.  Or, rather, Robin tells his own story, because the book is built around his reminiscences. But these aren’t the memories of a man considering his life in the face of mortality: there is a purpose to Robin’s storytelling, a fish to be caught in the net he is weaving.

With prose as close to perfect as it comes, and settings and history thoroughly researched but conveyed with a light touch, A Wider World is not only a different look at Tudor history, but a study of a man whose childhood shaped him into a wary, self-serving boy. Watching – or rather hearing – Robin’s clear-eyed examination of his own life and the experiences that transform him into the educated, introspective, and deeply honourable man he becomes makes Heenan’s book one of the finest character studies I know. Characters from Songbird make brief appearances, enough to tie the books together, but A Wider World stands on its own. It’s the best book I’ve read this year, bar none. Highly recommended.

From First Draft to Finished Book: An Editing Journey (Part 1)

After eight months, the first draft of Empire’s Heir is done. Now what?

Empire’s Heir is my sixth book, and my revision process has evolved along with my writing. I’ve always been an edit-as-you-go writer, but with increasing age comes increasing difficulty to be at the computer for long hours. So I decided this time not to do that, guessing that the revision process would be faster than constant rewrites. So with very few exceptions, I just kept going with the book, making notes if I added a plot thread or changed something that affected earlier scenes. I also planned the scenes more, knowing – usually – what points needed to be made before beginning them, although, as usual, my characters sometimes had different ideas.

So: now I have this 130K manuscript in front of me. One file. What do I do first? Back to that increasing age problem: my eyesight isn’t what it was. Computer screens are difficult after a while. So my first step was to print it, with a very wide margin on one side for notes.

Then I analyzed it paragraph by paragraph: what purpose(s) did each paragraph serve? Did it build character, describe setting, cause conflict, advance the plot? (Preferably more than one of those, in most.) If they don’t, mark as OMIT, or CONDENSE.

In this pass, I also identified the main plots, and the subplots, keeping track in a notebook of the page numbers. Turned out there were 26 plot threads to be woven into the story: four large ones, 22 small conflicts that needed resolving before the end.

Then I divided the book into its three acts, which for this particular book is its defining overall structure, and analysed how much page time each conflict got.

This was interesting, because it showed me some significant gaps in two of the major plot threads.  So I made a list of those.

Then I went back to revise.  First, I fixed the paragraphs marked OMIT or CONDENSE.  Then I took out a few of the 22 minor plot threads that really didn’t add to the story.  After that, I went back to balance the plots better, making sure they contributed to each of the three acts.

You’ll note I haven’t worried about conciseness or cadence, clarity or flow, or anything to do with the quality of the prose at this point. That comes later, after I know the book’s bones are solid, and connected: the skeleton on which the flesh of the story lives. It’s still far from the final version, but it needs now to be seen by other eyes and minds than mine.

So it’s gone to my critique team: three readers who know my world and my characters well, and, equally importantly, won’t be hesitant in telling me what works and what doesn’t; what’s still extraneous; where I’ve missed a plot thread; which character is still two-dimensional; which one needs introducing earlier – that sort of thing. When I have their feedback, I’ll incorporate it.

I’ll write about that, and the next step: pruning it down from 130K – in another post. But not until I’ve done that work!

Featured image: Image by Wokingham Libraries from Pixabay 

Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt: J.C. Salazar on the journey to become a writer.

I published my first book at the age of 61. So what took me so long? Fear and self-doubt.

I want to write. I have always wanted to write. I published my first book at the age of 61. So what took me so long? Fear and self-doubt. I’ll explain later. I am a late bloomer. As such, I came late to writing. My path to the place where I could don the title of writer with full confidence was a long and frustrating one.

I won’t go into the myriad of personal setbacks, though there were many, so I will just give an overview of my journey. I was an immigrant child at the age of nine. I arrived in Houston, along with my family of seven, in 1965. My life seemingly began that summer.

In reality I had been a dreamer of a child, with notions of creativity since infancy in my family’s farm in Mexico. I discovered this, along with a richness of other facts about myself and other family members once I embarked in writing my first book in earnest. I wrote Of Dreams & Thorns much later than 1965. It wasn’t till after my retirement as a college professor and administrator of a federal college program that I was able to clear my head and heart of all negativity regarding my proclamation that I was indeed a writer.

Of course, in reality I had been writing Dreams since my adolescence, at least. It came to me as vague notions of something that ought to be written down and shared. Aspects of it, bits and pieces, phrases, images, characters speaking their mind, shouting out for attention. I kept telling them I wasn’t ready, or I wasn’t the one. I was afraid to let them down if I lacked skill. After all, I had studied the best writers in the world. How could I presume to join their ranks?

I studied writing even as I taught freshman composition. I eventually learned about a pathetic disconnection between academic and creative writing. I studied poetry (last year I published my book of poems, states of unitedness) and I attended a couple of courses in fiction, taught by members of our University of Houston’s award-winning creative writing program. Alas, it seemed the more I studied, formally and independently, the more I knew that the best way to write and finish a book is to just do it, to borrow from Nike. So I began my book in 2017.

Before that, I wrote lots of poetry and ideas that I never threw away. Forty years wasted, it seems like sometimes. But more often than not, I believe that, for me with my history and circumstances, those 40 years were necessary preparation. Of course, I could have cut that time in half had I made a conscious assessment and decision to just get started. By the time of my retirement, and finally embracing my total freedom of choice, it was 2014.

It took a year to get reacquainted with myself and sort out all types of elements that defined me. All that assessment pointed indubitably to my being a writer. I finally had no more excuses not to act on my truest impulses. I wrote the book in six months, but in reality I had been writing it for forty years, at least at some basic level. The writing experience unleashed a pent-up craving to master the novel form. I made myself go beyond most basic writing book advice, and I assumed the mantle of writer in my own right.

With that, it was as if I gave myself permission to never again let self-doubt or fear of criticism slow me down. When you are a Mexican immigrant child, when you see yourself as a poor country peasant, when you doubt if you have mastered the English language enough to use it creatively, it builds up self-doubt and insecurities. Well, I somehow managed to shed all that garbage. I was well accomplished in many other areas, after all; I certainly had the wherewithal to do it.

I wrote, and I studied, and I wrote. I edited, and edited, and edited. I hired professional cover and book interior designers, and I hired two professional editors. I was investing in my book as if I were a minor “traditional” publisher. I learned the business, and it taught me that my route was to be an independent publisher. The aspects of publishing a book and getting it to market, or “in shelves,” end up falling into a category of business that we creative types seem to hate. I certainly do.

I will not expound much on the trials and tribulations of the modern status of publishing as regards novice writers, but I do recommend a thorough study of it if you are planning to embark in a writing career or adventure of your own.

So there it is — My short version of how I became a writer late in life as opposed to the more ideal time of my twenties through forties. I do regret that I started late, but only because with age come health issues and other things that slow me down. I have so many projects I want to complete. I have grown considerably as a writer since first publishing my two books, but that is part of the process.

Of Dreams and Thorns is available on Amazon in Kindle, paperback, and audiobook formats.